When artist Rejeesh Sarovar left for Jaipur in early July this year in a huff, he had forgotten to pick up a novel that he wanted to read during the long train journey. It was the book that had been haunting him for long, and he was planning to paint the scenes from the same. Rejeesh felt exactly what the protagonist in the novel experienced in the opening scene: a sort of embarrassment mixed with a deeper sense of guilt and angst. “When he got down from the bus at Koomankavu, Ravi didn’t feel the place was unfamiliar.” The opening sentence remained in the minds of the literary Malayalees for long. It still remains. The author, O.V.Vijayan, is gone more than a decade ago, but his debut novel, ‘Khasakkinte Ithihasam’ (the Legend of Khasak) published in 1969 in book form (in the previous year it was serialised in the Mathrubhoomi Weekly) is immortal.
Even those young people who were born in the new millennium hold the novel closer to their hearts. Autobiographical in many ways, in the legendary village Khasak, Ravi takes a re-birth and finally he dies there, bitten by a snake. Readers felt -- and still feel -- that Vijayan was telling their story, their pilgrimage to a place where they found and lost innocence, love and faith.
Thirty-year-old Rejeesh too was waiting for the right opportunity to put his ‘Khasak’ on his canvases. A call from Cartist Art Residency in Jaipur turned out to be a providential one, as the residency program was expecting artists to work on their favourite pieces of literature. In 20 days, Rejeesh finished nine small canvases in oil with nine pivotal scenes from the novel, which according to him define the book for him. “I was reading and re-reading the novel and was all prepared to do the works. But the day I left for Jaipur, somehow I forgot to put the book in my bag,” says Rejeesh. “But I used my memory and experience to start the paintings, and by that time, I got a copy of the novel via online.”
The courage of a young artist to paint the scenes from Khasak without referring to the actual incidents narrated in the pages proves how the novel has achieved a mythical stature. During the last one year, Khasak has been on a comeback trail thanks to the efforts of theatre artist, Deepan Sivaraman, who has reinterpreted the novel making the village Khasak as the protagonist. Deepan believes firmly it wasn’t Ravi but Khasak that Vijayan had conceived as the novel’s central character. Traditionalists and hard-core Vijayan fans might’ve got miffed a little, yet the theatrical translation of the novel into a visual experience didn’t put them off as it proved to be one of the best theatre productions that Kerala has seen in recent years. The performances that took place in Kozhikode and Kodungalloor became a rage in the social media with Khasak enthusiasts liberally posting pictures and notes.
Rejeesh, however, isn’t the only one who has been affected by the moving force of the novel. When Deepan’s production was about to take place in Kodungalloor, artists from all over Kerala volunteered to paint murals in the town, celebrating not only the scenes from the novel Khasak but also the creator of it, Vijayan. This has to be taken as a case of contemporary cultural studies in Kerala because not a single writer from our modernist period has got this celebratory reception many decades after the publication of his masterpiece. In Kerala, contemporary murals and graffiti are only reserved for political leaders, film stars, gods and goddesses, religious reformers, sports personalities, and most importantly, the reggae superstar Bob Marley. When an author finds his way to murals and graffiti, we should understand that either the frenzy has reached that level about the author, or that the artists finally found a way to express their views on the novel and its author, in an unconventional medium.
Vijayan was not just a novelist; he was a rebel and moved against many traditions and conventions, and had surprised his contemporaries as well as the reading public with his transition from a card holding Communist to a sceptic, a satirist and then to a seeker of inner truths. In Dharmapuranam (Saga of Dharmapuri) Vijayan critiqued the growing fascist tendencies of Indian politics. Vijayan, the cartoonist, dissected all forms of authoritarianism in his refreshingly expressionist lines. He celebrated sexual aberrations (Asanthi: Rathiyude Kadhakal/Erotic Stories), embarked on a journey of non-academic historical re-interpretations (Ente Charithraanveshana Pareekshanangal/Stories of My Experiments with History), noted down his personal fears on both Communism and Capitalism (Kurippukal/Notes, Oru Sindoorappottinte Ormmaykku/Remembering a Red Bindi) only to take a spiritual re-birth like Ravi in his later works titled Gurusagaram and Pravachakante Vazhi (Guru, the Ocean, The Path of the Prophet) and become a complete environmentalist (Madhuram Gayathi/In Praise of Sweetness). Like any novelist of international stature, Vijayan did his swansong in Thalamurakal (Generations), digging the routes/roots of Theodor Vel Vagner from Berlin to Palakkad.
If Vijayan is re-invented by a young generation of Malayalees, it has to be the dark times they are living in. Vijayan comes back as a prophet of apocalypse, which means revelation (not destruction as commonly believed,) and the rebellious artists in Kerala have sensed his coming back on the white horses of Khaliyar, a character in Khasak. These white horses interestingly feature in the canvases of Rejeesh. However, Vijayan as a legend in himself has always been an enigma for those creative people who’ve tried to translate him into another medium. The film makers who have attempted to make films out of Vijayan’s short stories (Arimpara/Wart, Kadaltheeratthu/On the Seashore), have failed to receive popular acclaim due to the basic dissatisfaction the viewers had with the screen adaptations. They all say that originals (stories) are more experiential than their visual translations, despite the counter arguments of the film makers that they never visually translate the stories but recreate them.
“For me Khasak is a memory of something which I had never lived. May be that makes the memories so precious and haunting. I just don’t want to get rid of them,” says Rejeesh, whose works are now in a private collection in Jaipur, which would be shown in an exhibition during the next edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (2017). Rejeesh feels that he hasn’t yet finished his Khasak project. “I am planning a solo exhibition on Khasak, which I will take a couple of years to finish,” he says. The real creators are like that: they come back as silver lines of hope when dark clouds fill in the socio-political firmament of a country.