Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

O.V. Vijayan : Legends of Khasak

I had some difficulty keeping track of the characters in this short book, but I don't think that makes much difference, since the only character of any importance is the author himself and his ambivalent relationship to his homeland, the southwestern Indian state of Kerala (which he loved, but to which he never returned to live)

Standing in for the author, the main character, Ravi, is a westernized intellectual who is at the cutting edge of a modern science, but who has dropped out and retreated to the countryside to serve as the teacher in a very primitive, one-room schoolhouse.

Why did he drop out? Was it a clash with his teacher or father? A sexual transgression? The reason seemed a bit muddled -- but a lot is muddled in a drop-out's mind.

At any rate, the village where he ends up, Khasak, is a real mess - rife with disease, madness, despair, superstition, poverty, and ignorance.

Lots of people have stories -- and none of them have happy endings.

But the only persistent malevolence seems to come from the world of the supernatural - whether Hindu, Muslim, or other. The people themselves are more like helpless victims, human violence does not play a role, and nobody gets raped or murdered - despite the ethnic and religious diversity.

Which makes the place rather endearing - even if disgusting.

All of which is seen through eyes of an outsider -- and as one outsider myself, it looks to me that what this miserable village needs are a few Christian missionaries to liberate them from bad karma and evil spirits,and bring them medicine, literacy, and a more healthy lifestyle and sense of positive purpose.

And, incredibly enough, it turns out that Kerala (the real Indian state in which Khasak is an imaginary village) has a large Christian population, a 91% literacy rate, and a relatively high standard of living for it's 33 million people (which would make it more populous than any American state other than California)

And given the popularity of this book, it is likely O.V. is not alone in being so thoroughly modernized, that he can still have tender feelings for what is weird and non-modern about his homeland.

But despite it's relative prosperity - it still has a very high mortality rate, a result, perhaps, of contaminated water sources (50% of he population draws water from wells).Perhaps that is the source of this book's fatalism about death and disease.

Kerala is a fascinating area with it's own language and ancient literary and dramatic tradtions. But it doesn't seem to have much in the way of great temple art -- so I'll probably never go there.

A few more notes about the book:

*There have to be hundreds of stories that send a modern, educated person into the bush to fight superstition and improve the lives of backward peoples, while picking up some native wisdom in the bargin. But O.V. has nicely avoided that formula: nobody seems to learn anything in his Khasak schoolhouse - they just get sick and die -- and the "star pupil" is the village idiot.

*There's also a twist in the role of the hide-bound conservative who resists cultural change. In this story, it's a local Mullah who doesn't really change his mind -- but he's so poor that he applies for the job of school janitor.


After a second reading:

It's now obvious that this book needs to be read at least three times.

First -- to get a general introduction to the characters and setting
Second --- to figure out who actually does what
Third --- to tie it all together in reading every scene

Is it worth it?

I'm not sure -- but this is likely to be my only venture into Kerala, so I'm still game.

On my second reading -- I'm more aware of how permeated the novel is with sexuality -- which
was no so apparent in the first reading because it's rarely explicit.

The central character, Ravi, does indeed abandon his career in astrophysics to work out his feelings of guilt for having slept with his stepmother -- and he is summoned back to the academic world by his old professor's daughter (who just can't keep her hands off him)

A shed was converted into a one-room school because that was where the jealous landlord discovered that his wife was meeting her lover.

And the "Khazi" -- the local muslim prophet -- seems to be in bed with every available young woman.

O.V. presents a dangerous, though shallow, world saturated with sexual transgression and hoaky magic, with recurrent scenes of bare breasted young women to incite the one, and omnipresent disease to demand the other.

If that's a fair characterization of traditional India --- thank God for the modern world.