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For Mukundan, Delhi's scattered spaces were inspiration

The Malayalam writer, whose ‘Delhi: A Soliloquy’ is shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2021, explains how his novel took shape

M. Mukundan got the impetus for his novel from the dreams and grief of the world around him. 
M. Mukundan got the impetus for his novel from the dreams and grief of the world around him.  (Istockphoto)

I was born and raised in a village called Mayyazhi, also known as Mahé, in Puducherry. To its east lay vast stretches of paddy fields and to its south, the river. The sea was to the west. As a child, I always fancied that the river grew up to become the sea, the same way a kid grew up to become a father or a mother. I was fascinated by the landscape of my birthplace. The fictional space that took shape in me first was that of my first and most famous novel, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil (On The Banks Of The Mayyazhi).

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Until 1954, our little village was ruled by the French. The parallel roads and beautiful bungalows they built entranced my mind. It was after that that the characters began to arrive one by one to take up residence in that space.

The community in Mayyazhi was made up of whites and mixed-race persons. My commitment towards space and community is quite evident in this novel, written at the age of 25. After the white people left, the mixed-race community in Mayyazhi sank into poverty and decay. Their life experiences form the theme of my novel Daivathinte Vikrithikal (God’s Mischief). The environment in which I live is the fount from which my creativity has evolved.

In my youth, I believed life had no meaning. To escape that sense of futility, I used to visit Haridwar from time to time. The innumerable temples, sanyasis and narrow alleyways provided me with the space for a new novel. That led me to write the novel Haridwaril Manikal Muzhangunnu (The Bells Ring In Haridwar). That was half a century ago. When you visit a particular place, stories and characters materialise from that place. Almost all of my work has been born this way. Delhi Gadhakal (Delhi: A Soliloquy, translated by Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K., Eka, 544 pages, 799) was also written in the same manner.

It was in the early 1960s that I went to Delhi in search of a job. Back then, Delhi was not the metropolis that it is today. South Delhi ended at Andrewsganj and Moolchand Hospital. Wheat fields stretched out beyond. I used to walk between those fields. Horse-driven tongas used to ply the roads. The streets were dimly lit, yet it remained a safe city. Anyone could walk alone even at midnight. That Delhi was very dear to me.


M. Mukundan.
M. Mukundan.

Then Delhi started to flourish. Its population grew. Builder mafias encroached on the fields. They knocked down and crushed everything in their path. When enormous buildings started to rise on one side, slums started to spread on the other side. The poor lived in them. Squalor grew in lock-step with poverty. Robberies and murders became commonplace. The writer in me was awakened.

Connaught Place, visited by the well-heeled and beautiful people, can never inspire a writer. My inspiration came from residents of locales such as Govindpuri, and their lives in grinding poverty and wretched decay. A writer like me would be ineffective in a city where everyone lives in comfort and happily. Happiness is the enemy of a writer.

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I have always preferred to side with the destitute masses. I am with those who are denied justice and live in constant hunger. They need a storyteller. They may not get to read what their chronicler writes about them. But a novel can inform the world about their heart-rending tales. I would say that I am doing that duty through this novel on Delhi.

Delhi had many such denizens. The space of this novel suggested itself from the locales occupied by such residents of Delhi. At the point of inception, it was devoid of the protagonist Sahadevan and all the other characters. They sprung up much later. Delhi has a variety of scattered spaces which inspire a novelist. I went in search of them and found out for myself how people lived there. Delhi is a beautiful city. It has greenery, wide roads, the India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament House. And then it has Connaught Place. Those who come from outside Delhi have only seen these places. When I told my friends that I was leaving for Delhi, they said, “Lucky guy! Now you can see Nehru and Indira Gandhi all the time.” But I had no time for them. My heart went out to the starving, penurious cohorts. 

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When the desire to write about hunger burgeoned in me, the first thing that came to my mind was the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger. The French writer Jean Genet, too, has written about hunger. He had stolen bread when he could not stand hunger any more. The German writer Bertolt Brecht said, “Hungry man, reach for the book.” Hamsun’s protagonist turned delusional from hunger. Brecht likened the book to a weapon. In literature, they had already created a space for hunger.

To be honest, when I had decided to write about the marginalised and famished masses of Delhi, I had not thought of the politics of hunger or its creative possibilities. All I felt was the hunger inside me to write a novel. I never hungered for food; I hungered for authoring a book. The sights in Delhi gave a keen edge to that hunger; they aggravated it. Delhi: A Soliloquy took shape in my mind from this hunger.

Delhi of the 1960s and 1970s did not have as many Malayalis as it has now. It had no large industries or malls. But Malayalis were present, the majority of them government employees, pejoratively called babus by one and all. Most of them lived in one-room government quarters like Shreedharanunni in my novel. The industries and commercial firms came later. That led to an influx of Malayalis into Delhi in search of jobs. Like Sahadevan, they survived on low-paying, insignificant jobs. They were dogged by privations and financial insecurity. On top of this, many had to send money to their indigent parents back home.

Delhi also had some Malayalis who reached high stations in their lives, such as the defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, and one of the leaders of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, A.K. Gopalan. Many have asked me why I have not written about them in my novel. They were famous. No one knows the poor and those for whom life is a constant struggle. I was keen to write about those poor, unsung, anonymous people. Which is why sewage workers and the roadside barber who had to cut the hair, shave the beards, and even the armpits of his customers, figure in my novel. They are the “community” in my novel.

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However, this novel is not merely about them. It has wars. It has communal slaughter. It has religious and casteist slurs. It has excesses of power. My novel would be found wanting if I were to confine myself to Malayali lives.

Another question that readers have always asked me was whether the protagonist-cum-chronicler Sahadevan is me. All of us live two lives—an outer and inner life. In my inner life, I have some things in common with Sahadevan; in a way, he is my alter ego. The similarity ended there. Sahadevan was a poor employee in a clearing agency. I was an official in a diplomatic mission and a writer. I have always desired to be a writer with social consciousness. To the extent possible, I should sideline my own anxieties and grievances to write about the dreams and grief of the world around me. That was my impetus.

An extended epoch—throbbing with multiple events and characters. To settle on a narrative style that could encompass all of them was difficult. Since this was a story of ordinary people, I thought an uncomplicated style was warranted. I tried to work on a narrative that flowed like a serene river. My readers should judge if I have succeeded in this.

Much as a novel is an exercise in self-expression, a writer also writes for the enjoyment and delectation of his or her readers. The incidents in this novel are those I have either experienced or witnessed. They were a burden that I had to bear for a long time. Residing in my mind, Sahadevan, Vidya, Devi and others wailed all the time, demanding that they be let out. Eventually, by completing Delhi: A Soliloquy, I set them free. Along with them, I liberated myself too.

(Translated from Malayalam by Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K.)

M. Mukundan is a critically acclaimed writer of several works of fiction in Malayalam. He lived and worked in Delhi for 40 years as a cultural attaché at the French embassy, before retiring in 2004 and returning to Mahé.

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