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A book that measures the distance from life to death

Malayalam writer V.J. James, whose novel ‘Anti-Clock’ is shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2021, reflects on the role of place and time in his novels

The Kuttanadu region of Kerala, where James spent his childhood, inadvertently nourished the writer in him
The Kuttanadu region of Kerala, where James spent his childhood, inadvertently nourished the writer in him (iStockphoto)

The literary form of fiction sustains its mystery in the sense of time contained within. The writer creates that sense of time, by travelling backwards and forwards from where he stands, by undertaking time travel. The land and the inhabitants that he creates—not just humans but also birds, animals, seas, mountains, skies and all of nature—come to his aid.

My stories and novels have evolved as the offspring of all the landscapes I have experienced since childhood. Particularly, the Kuttanadu region of Kerala, where I spent my childhood—in a land full of water reservoirs, paddy fields and scintillating natural beauty—has inadvertently nourished the writer in me. Growing up in a remote village, I got to know those who led marginalised lives. Consequently, depicting such characters truthfully, starting with my debut novel Purappadinte Pusthakam (The Book Of Exodus), became my own effort to seek justice.

The milieu of my first book encompassed the life struggles of people living close to nature on an isle far from Cochin (now Kochi). I had visited that isle for the first time as a final-year student at Kerala’s Mar Athanasius College of Engineering, to attend my friend Patris’ sister’s wedding. The isle was waiting for the writer, with a spectrum of characters and its outlandish ambience. I returned to the isle frequently to absorb the customs, dialects, myths, folk songs, and its nameless river, all of which became material for The Book Of Exodus.

The background to my second book, Chorashastram (Chorashastra: The Subtle Science Of Thievery), is the life of a thief, someone perpetually ostracised by society. The story thread is of an eccentric professor who gains access to an ancient manuscript; of how he ensnares a thief and trains him in the science of thievery before unleashing him on society; and the unexpected twists afterwards. When many readers commented that only a master-thief could write such a book, I grinned to myself. A writer is destined to sojourn through the minds of thieves, murderers, prostitutes and angels during the course of writing.

Dattapaharam (Retrieval Of The Offering) became a travel through frontiers of land and time, a story that is starkly different from my other stories. The book is an attempt to make the reader experience the pristine and primordial face of nature in a deep forest. Time manifests as the simple present there. The gigantic trees, flora and fauna, waterfall and rocks embody society. Dattapaharam invites the reader to an awakening that a complete merging with unspoilt nature is true spirituality.

Anti-Clock; Vintage Books. 304 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
Anti-Clock; Vintage Books. 304 pages; 599

It was when I wrote Anti-Clock (translated by Ministhy S.) that the writer in me experienced the presence of time getting stronger, as never before. The backdrop of Anti-Clock is a village called Aadi-Nadu. We have innumerable hillside villages being ruined by the exploitation of nature. The hills, which are being butchered for mining, “react” with floods, landslides and diseases, upturning both societal survival and balance of the ecosystem, rendering mankind helpless. That was how I found Hendri, a representative of the anguished humans. Of course, we can find any number of Satan Loppos in the hierarchy of society, symbolising the imposition of political and societal dictums on the vulnerable.

In Anti-Clock, by using Satan Loppo and the problems that Aadi Nadu faces, I was trying to elaborate on how untrammelled power, aided by money and hubris, can destroy society as well as the individual. It is a reminder that the sharp needle tips of time are aimed at every autocrat who tries to silence opposing voices through brute force.

A lot of research was necessary for Anti-Clock. I had to spend time with coffin-makers and gravediggers to familiarise myself with their lives. It is an ineffable experience to be amidst coffins. Death seems to be staring at you from close quarters. An unwitting melancholy takes over the mind on seeing coffins crafted for children. Similar is the experience when one spends time alone in a cemetery replete with crosses and graves. It is the moment when the insight dawns that the cemetery is a replica of the world outside. Here, too, we find luxurious graves for the rich and dismal abodes for the poor. One can see many unobtrusive, weed-infested “pauper’s graves”, meant for those who kill themselves. It was from these spaces, where life’s aplomb hesitates and forgets to enter, that I found the marginalised characters of Anti-Clock.

Anti-Clock was an endeavour to measure the distance from life to death and from time to timelessness. The message hidden in Anti-Clock is: Make good use of the time that is given, while each hour adds to life. With each pendulum swing, you will be closer to your last resting place.

This essay was translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S. An engineer by profession, V.J. James is a writer of several works of fiction. He lives in Thiruvananthapuram.

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