Thursday, September 1, 2011

Payyan and Chathan: Two Protagonists of VKN.

VKN- three letters are enough to bring a smile to the lips of any well read malayalee. Vadakke Koottala Narayanankutty Nair, is one of the best writers of satire ever born in Kerala. It is a tall praise when we consider Malayalees as a community that enjoys humor, especially satire more than any other. We have not one but two ancient dance forms that are satirical takes on epics and legends- Thullal and Koothu. From the time of the birth of Malayalam language, there were a long array of humorists giving strong doses of satirical blows to society and establishment- from Kunjan Nambiar of mediviel times to Sanjayan, E V and Chemmanam Chacko of recent times. At present, Malayalees crowd for watching comedy movies more than any other genre and the art form that attracts common man is Mimicry, especially skits imitating politicians.

So why VKN isa step above all of them? The one quality is his prose. It is very imaginative, multilayered and precise with lot of quirky word plays enough to give P G Wodehouse a complex. VKN style is a slang word used among academics. Each and every sentence that he wrote is convoluted to such an extent that it does not have just the face meaning. You need to ponder deep to understand the crux. His writing is rich with references from various sources- ancient and modern literature, art, current affairs, local slang from different parts of the state, politics... He has written several long, short, mini and micro stories. I will take two of his most famous characters to illustrate the point.

Payyan is a character who appears repeatedly in several VKN stories, the important ones being in the collection called Payyan Kathakal. He is also the protagonist in several of his novels. Though in most stories Payyan, whose name can be loosely translated in English as 'the kid', appears as a journalist working in New Delhi, there are stories with different backgrounds too. May be those were stories from his early days. Payyan, who refused to join IAS, even after getting selected, decides to freelance as a journalist and make use of his intelligence and wit to mingle with the people inhabiting the power corridors of Indian capital. This he achieves mostly by being in the good books of society ladies, sleeping around with them and using them as sources for exclusive scoops. Though shown as a resourceful man with good hold on the top of political hierarchy, many humorous occasions arise due to his poverty. The stories may seem outright politically incorrect- sexist, immoral and racist. But behind the veil of subtle humor, it is possible to identify the writer's contempt of a society that is boastful, intellectually shallow and on the verge of a breakdown.

Another of VKN's protagonist, Chathan is German (VKN language for Cheruman, a scheduled caste. This is a sampling of his unique style. Such wordplay intertwining many languages and cultures is seen liberally in his stories. Another example is his claim in one of his stories that famous thinker Nom Chomsky is a Nambuthiri- Malayalee Brahmin, because Nom is a first person pronoun used boastfully by them). Chathan stories follow the land reforms introduced in Kerala to disastrous effects. He is illiterate but street smart and highly influential, albeit poor like Payyan. He uses his wit and intelligence fearlessly to create havoc in the turbulent farming scenario of inland Kerala to hilarious effects.

My only regret is for the readers outside Kerala who can never enjoy the unique VKN humor as no translation can do justice to its very local nature.

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