A Marco Polo.
Whoever had chosen the excerpt from Pottekatt's book Balidweep (Bali island) could not have selected a better representative piece of his writing. I enjoyed reading it several times, because I felt the writer was describing a temple festival in my own village in Kerala.
My love for the lesson prompted me to borrow the book from the Panchayat library. What a marvelous piece of writing it was! It was about his visit to the Bali Island, a Hindu-majority area in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population.
When I read the book I felt I was reading a novel, rather than a travelogue. It opened my eyes to the world outside of Kerala. My transformation as an avid reader of Pottekatt was instant. I began reading his books one by one till I finished all that existed in the library.
One of the most fascinating novels I read was Vishakanyaka (The Poisonous Virgin). It was about the travails of those who migrated to Malabar in the north, administered directly by the British, mostly from mid-Travancore in today's Kerala. The migration continued till the late-sixties of the 20th century.
When one of my relatives, who had eight children, sold all his property and left for Malabar in search of greener pastures, I had a clear idea of the difficulties he would encounter there. Alas, he could not cope with the situation and returned to the village within a month. Had he readVishakanyaka, the weak-hearted that he was, he would not have made that move.
The settlers were mostly Christians and the keen observer that Pottekatt was, he was able to portray their life with all its idiosyncrasies intact. Death due to pestilence or accidents while driving away wild boars stared the settlers in the face. Only the brave could survive.
Decades later when I visited those areas during the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, I found Malabar one of the most prosperous areas in Kerala. Vishakanyaka is the mythical maiden who saps the energy of the man who falls for her and it was an apt description of the land where countless men and women fell ill or died fighting the vagaries of nature.
It was Pottekatt's Oru Deshathinte Katha (The Story of a Locale) that won him the Jnanpith in 1980. In the autobiographical novel, he sketches the men and women of Athiranippadam, drawing the history of the country while detailing the micro-history of the place. Ammukutty is a character who appears only once in the novel.
The protagonist of the novel -- a budding poet -- finds the teenaged Ammukutty holding an umbrella, which is broken and twisted. Like a knight in shining armour, he offers his own umbrella to her and promises to get hers repaired. Months later, Ammukutty's brother gives him a letter she had addressed to the "poet of Athiranippadam". He also gets the chilling news that she is no more!
Thirty-five years later he returns to the village where he encounters a Jeans-wearing, Coca-Cola-sipping youth who looks askance at the visitor. Yes, Athiranippadam had changed beyond recognition. Pottekatt's characters, as he mentions in a note to another of his book Oru Theruvinte Katha (The Story of a Street) "were people in blood and flesh".
The novel is in many respects like Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu's Maila Anchal, populated by living characters with fictitious names. Most of his short stories have a dramatic twist, a la O. Henry as in Vesyavriti (Prostitution).
A poor man learns that his wife has an affair with the moneylender. He rushes to the moneylender's house to kill him but finds his wife in a lip-lock with her servant. He drops all his ideas of revenge and returns to his wife. After all, his wife slept with the moneylender only because of compulsion!
However, it is as a travel writer that Pottekatt will always be remembered. Travel writing is as old as Malayalam prose. Varthamanapustakam, written by Paremakkal Thoma Kathanar, in 1778, about his visit to Rome is the first in the genre. There were many travelogues in Malayalam, written in verse form, mostly about visits to religious places like Kashi and Gangotri.
Parumala Thirumeni's Oorslem Yatra Vivaranam in 1895 about his visit to Jerusalem is considered the first ideal travelogue. In the 1930s K. Kalyanikutti Amma's Njan Kanda Europe(The Europe I saw) was the first travelogue by a woman writer. It is a different matter that Sanjayan (M.R. Nair) wryly commented that the book should have been titled "I who saw Europe"! Travel-writing reached its apogee with the advent of Pottekatt. He gave up his job, which he got after considerable waiting, to take up writing as a full-time profession.
If the world came to know about the conditions of ancient India through the writings of Chinese writers Fa-Hien, Huen-Tsang and I-Tsing, it was Marco Polo, who threw light on the Silk Road that led to China and Mongolia. For the Malayalee, Pottekattt was his Marco Polo and the Chinese travellers rolled into one.
Now travel has become easy. In less than a day one can reach any country in the world. On the Youtube, one can access any number of videos on the places one wants to visit. Information about people and places is just a click away on your computer.
But that was not the case when Pottekatt travelled in Africa in 1949, when it was known as the "Dark Continent". His Kppirikalude Nttil (In the land of the Negroes) provides a pen-portrait of the continent, which is home to thousands of tribes with their own distinct cultural practices. The tribes are as divergent as the Malayali and the Manipuri.
Pottekatt spent nine months in Africa and travelled 11,000 miles to write that book. No, Pottekatt was not rich. His sole earnings were from his writings, which he would first serialize in a magazine before publishing them in a book form.
He travelled on a shoestring budget, opting for the cheapest mode of transport. He never travelled by air, preferring always the cheap decks of passenger ships. He befriended people on the way and generously accepted their hospitality like a good hitchhiker. He travelled in third class, only because there was no fourth class in trains.
On a visit to Jalandhar a few years ago, I saw a documentary film on the Saringetti National Park at Pushpa Gujral Science City. The acoustics were excellent and the visuals superb. I would have enjoyed it more if I had not read Pottekatt's description of the same Park in his Simhabhoomi(The land of the Lion).
Let me translate a few lines from the book: "If the Masai children had not warned us, we would have encountered the wild elephants at the next curve on the small path. We remained in the car and waited.
"Fifteeen minutes later, the two elephants appeared 50 feet away from us. "Don't worry, the wind is in our favour", said the Masai children recognizing our fright. We remained closed in the car. I conveniently took a picture of the elephants. Those children also posed for me with their cattle forming the backdrop".
Pottekatt was also a good photographer. Small wonder that his books were profusely illustrated. Unlike most people who travel for sheer pleasure, he travelled for knowledge. He encountered many difficulties during his journeys. As he once explained, "It is not the comforts of travel that make good writing but the discomforts of it".
Yes, he had too many discomforts to describe. As one who has dabbled in travel writing, I know how difficult it is to write a travelogue. In a travelogue, the writer is constantly present in the work. There are two types of travel writing.
One is about the place the writer has visited and the other is about the person who has visited the place. Pottekatt's travelogues belonged to the first category and he never used his pen to eulogize himself. Narcissism was simply alien to him. One thing that can be said about him is that he wrote for the Malayali, using similes, idioms and phrases that are comfortable to him.
Like V.S. Naipaul -- another great Indian travel writer -- he was very observant. Prof Chandrashekharan Nair of IGNOU remembered an episode where Pottekatt lost his way in a forest. What helped him find the way back was the memory of a careless person throwing away a beedi stub that caused a small fire, leaving some fallen leaves burnt.
Pottekatt would certainly have read about Marco Polo's advice to travellers to be constantly wary of spirits that lure them away from the path to which they will never be able to return. Fortunately, he always came back hale and hearty to write accounts that opened a window to the world.
From Africa he went to Naples in Italy via Alexandria. In two chapters, he describes the wondrous scenes in Rome in the Jubilee Year of 1950. The railway station, which had been destroyed during the War, was under construction and the city was full of pilgrims from all over the world. The Indians were mostly from the south.
Special announcements were being made for the Indian pilgrims in Hindustani, little knowing that the Malayalees and the Tamils were more comfortable in Latin than in Hindustani. "Among the great cities of the world it is Rome alone which has withstood the vicissitudes of time," writes Pottekatt.
Re-reading the chapter on the Vatican in his Europiloode (Through Europe), I am able to relive my own experience when I visited the Pope's abode in the Jubilee Year of 2000. He is wonderstruck by the architectural and artistic grandeur of the churches in the Vatican that came into being as the world's smallest sovereign state on February 11, 1929. But that does not prevent him from making some caustic comments on the pomp and the Pope.
Titles of his books helped solve riddles. Which is the land of the night sun? Anyone who has read Pottekatt's Pthirasuryante Nttil (In the land of the night sun) would easily answer the question as Norway. Again, anyone who has read his travelogue Cleopatrayude Nttil will know that the great beauty was an Egyptian.
The Keralites have a general disdain for writers and actors dabbling in politics. They made an exception in the case of Pottekatt, who contested for the Lok Sabha as an independent from Thalassery in 1957. He lost by a small margin of 1000 votes. In the next election in 1962, the Congress fielded another writer Sukumar Azhikkode against him but Pottekatt won by a huge margin.
It is the Malayali's loss that Pottekatt could not visit China and the Americas, not to mention Australia. As Mannodi Ravindran mentioned, the tragic death of one of his sons had a debilitating effect on him like the misleading news of the death of Aswatthma had on Guru Dronacharya. His wife's death in 1980 was another blow and he died on August 6, 1982.
Love was a great motif for Pottekatt, whose first novel was Ndan Premam (Local Love). Written in 1941, it is as lyrical as it is poignant. However, it was his love for the unknown, the unexplored that took him to the far corners of the world to give his readers a peep into their cultures and diversities.
Pottekatt's travelogues are read even in these days of instant communication. Prof Chandrashekharan Nair would advise anyone who wants to know the greatness of Pottekkat to read his short story Pullimn (The spotted dear). My advice would be to read his collected works.
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