The stereotypical image of the writer—destitute, harried, neglected—is hardly the norm in today’s Kerala. In the first half of the 20th century, writers hardly held regular jobs. Their income from writing barely met their essential needs. The writers of today are, by and large, part-time authors with full-time jobs. They are anchored in a middle/upper middle-class world with safeguards like a pension. Today, it is possible to make a decent living by writing alone—there are many who do—but it requires high-volume productivity and wide acceptance. There are many economically struggling writers. Their situation has got more to do with their inability, like thousands of other citizens, to win the rat race for livelihood than with their being writers. The individual writer may belong to any of these categories.
The point is that if you look at a broad picture of India’s literature, the Malayalam writer may turn out to be the most pampered and privileged among all, including those writing in English. The Indian English writer is of course a celebrity both abroad and in India, but one wonders if they receive the same warm, household acceptance and instant recognition across the board that the Malayalam writer gets in Kerala and wherever Malayalis are.
Perhaps the Malayalis’ capability to place literature in a prominent place in their society is an interesting cultural benchmark, but not studied as such. Certainly, education and universal literacy play a big part in creating this capability. Equally important perhaps is the fact that language and literature have a strong presence in Kerala’s school syllabi up to Class 10. Once the classroom is behind you, chemistry or commerce may not occupy a pedestal in your mind but literature often does, because it weaves memorable narratives that science or humanities normally do not. And that goes a long way towards keeping writers and literature buoyant in a society where reading is an ingrained habit ever since the advent of commercial printing in 1821 (CMS Press, Kottayam, established by Benjamin Bailey, a British missionary and friend of John Keats).
The roots of the special relationship between Malayalis and their writers go back to the historic event of Kerala’s Renaissance and its powerful social, political and cultural impact. Modern education initiated by Christian missionaries with the support of the local royalty and British colonial rulers had triggered the process of change that was taken forward by personalities like Narayana Guru, the spiritual reformer, and Ayyankali, the Dalit liberator. It was further strengthened by the Independence movement and later given a progressive and revolutionary makeover by communist ideology. The centripetal force of change, fed by an explosion of secular knowledge and an array of cultural and social awakenings that followed it, led to the founding of modern Kerala. And writers were an integral part of it, engraving their names into people’s memories not only with their creative work but also their frontal attack on the feudal social order.
Education and social change together, thus, gave birth to a society of readers of all classes eager to learn about the world they lived in and experience the new-found joys of literature. It was the growth of the literary market—spearheaded by the world’s first writers’ cooperative society, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham (SPCS) of Kottayam in the 1950s—that prompted the media to present well-known writers as celebrities, positioning them with glamour equal to idolised political leaders or film stars. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, O V Vijayan, Kamala Das and the living legend M T Vasudevan Nair are perhaps the earliest of such icons.
The social goodwill for writers is made up of many acts of attention and appreciation, small and big, genuine and not so genuine. Take the little but transparent courtesies that meet you as you go about daily life: a smile, a bow, sometimes a quick word to say ‘nice to see you’ from strangers. The brief pleasantry from the ticket examiner in a crowded train, the ‘how are you?’ from the booking clerk, the unexpected offer of help from a passer-by in a difficult place, followed by ‘you’re so-and-so, aren’t you?’. The policeman’s smiling nod, the autorickshaw driver saying, ‘I’m your reader’, or the sudden encounter with an unexpected reader: A headload worker with a big bag on his back stopping to say how he enjoyed your last piece. And most crucially, the attention you receive in the unreal world of suspended animation of the sarkar office—which, ironically, happens to be one of the places where readers abound.
A remarkable phenomenon is the soft corner for writers displayed by the moral-policing hypocrites of Kerala’s mainstream orthodoxies—of which the media is a prominent entity. In general, they show this tolerance only to writers’ trespasses, apart from their own. The canvass of goodwill is vast: the incredible number of literary awards; the seen-to-be-believed crowds at literary festivals listening to writers in rapt attention; the incessant flow of invitations from the Malayali diaspora all over the world; the constant, often taunting, demand from various sections of society that writers speak their mind on vexing social issues.
The writer never gets to see the final, shameful end of this saga of goodwill: the media obituary that stops at nothing but a shrill crescendo, a mad melee of shallow praise mired in unforgivable cliche, embellished with images of VIP visits, tearful adieus and close-ups of the body in the coffin or the burning pyre. The unkindest cut is delivered by the state government: the sacrilegious and uncivilised gun salute over the poor writer’s body whose record of violence was, in all probability, negligible.
All these are mere details. In the final analysis, the beautiful place the Malayalam writer occupies under Kerala’s God’s own sun is nothing but the generous gift of a unique community of secular, discriminating readers, resourceful publishers, enterprising booksellers and a vibrant network of libraries. But one question seems to have no answer: Are the writers grateful? Who knows.