Book Chat: Binoo K John’s debut novel, Kovalam Literary Festival and some more….

Biju Parameswaran, a much traveled literary and movie enthusiast writes:

You cannot not love Binoo K John‘s debut novel The Last Song of Savio de Souza if you have lived in Thiruvananthapuram. The author who is a senior journalist and founder of the Kovalam Literary Festival is a man of immense wit and wisdom as his earlier three books, all works of non-fiction, attest to. This time he delights us readers with this riot of a novel which is a funny exposition of the exploitative agenda of organized religion. I personally felt a sense of deja vu with the locale and references to my school (St. Joseph’s, where the writer studied too). While Thiruvananthapuram is conveniently shortened to Puram, Holy Mary’s is a clear masquerade for Holy Angels’ Convent, famous for its strict disciplinarian nuns. Wry wit is again behind tantalizingly naming the headmistress of the school Regina. There are not many English novels set in the Kerala capital if I learn right. Instantly coming to mind is the philosopher-novelist Raja Rao’s The Cat and Shakespeare, a slender but not easily digestible work, ridden with metaphysical inner meanings that most readers cannot make sense of. Slow Waltz on Cedar Bend, Robert James Waller‘s dud sequel to his best-selling Bridges of Madison County opens in the main railway station of Thiruvananthapuram. Considering that the city is a prominent character in the present book one could say that Binoo does to it what Arundhati Roy (one of the earlier reviewers of whose celebrated book was Binoo, back in a India Today cover story in the Booker euphoria days of ’97) did to Kottayam or specifically the village of Ayemenem. Therefore the writer deserves to be lauded for many things – good prose, humor even if often raunchy, giving the chequered city a pride of literary place and finally, as he claims, his battle-cry for the return of rational thinking to a state increasingly subservient to blind faith and manipulators of the grave situation that has arisen out of it. Even though Binoo is a lover of Latin American magic realism one is reminded more in this novel of V.S. Naipaul of his early Caribbean novels than Marquez and Llosa if we are looking for influences. To sum up, reading the book is like sipping a Bacardi Breezer, an ambrosia drink the author enlightens us about in his Chirrapunji account Under a Cloud, on a sultry Thiruvananthapuram afternoon.

Aadujeevitham (Goat’s Life) is a Malayalam novel that is slowly gaining the plaudits which it should have won much earlier. Benyamin, a young project manager from Pathanamthitta now based in Bahrain, is the writer. It tells a simple story of youth trapped in a visa racket and apprehended and held in captivity in a prison in the gulf. The story is touching indeed and many a Malayali, whether he has been to the middle east or not, will easily empathize with the protagonist who narrates a first person account. Goat-rearing is our hero’s lot after a while. Initially disgusted, he slowly resigns himself to his fate and even attempts to seek out humour in such a life. This is evident in the names he gives to his goats. The book won a state Sahitya academy award apart from many accolades from gulf organizations. Images from a good movie of last year’s, Kamal’s Gaddama, recurred in my mind as I read the book, especially the scenes involving the suffering Malayali goatherd and the goats. Considering the huge population of our people ensconced in the gulf it is high time more writing centered on that region came out. Aadujeevitham is a wonderful trendsetter in all likelihood.

Humour is generally in short supply in our literature (meaning Malayalam and Indian writing in English) that one yearns for these mirages of light-heartedness in any book. That is where Dr. D Babu Paul appears like an oasis. His perspective on life is remarkable, especially looking back now from beyond a pile of administrative achievements. The writer of the monumental Bible dictionary called Veda Shabda Ratnakaram (a couple of centuries from now people will fete him for his labour of love like we now do Gundert and Arnos Padre) had had a literary mind even as an engineering student. His commitment to work as Project Officer in Idukki fetched him a special prize of an astronomical Rs 10,000 from another sahridaya, Chief Minister Achutha Menon back in ’75. I have loved his essays and memoirs and travelogues. Nilavil Virrinja Kappi Pookkal is particularly poignant. The latest in the list is ‘Pallikkenthinu Pallikkoodam?‘ Given to making funny notes, sometimes in Sanskrit, on official files as a relief from tedium (both for the reader and writer of the notes) he was in his initial IAS days chided by his boss Padma Ramachandran that ‘the Asst Collector may please reserve his comments’! Still from the IAS we have another literature-lover in J. Lalithambika (famous for reciting a poem during the Board interview to the amusement of an approving KPS Menon Senior). A collection of relevant, often domestic front issues we encounter in daily life is ‘Kalliyum Karyavum‘. It is worth a read for all married people. And finally the civil servant (again retired like the other two above) the mention of whose very name should bring a smile to our faces, P.C. Sanal Kumar. We all know that he keeps Narma Kairali alive along with the indefatigable Sukumar. P.C’s parody songs are a rage (youtube them and enjoy). His interesting observations on life which are not to be missed come in collections like ‘Ningal Queue villaann‘ (culled largely from official life) and ‘Oru Clue Tharamo?’ It is only fitting that Lalithambika has written the foreword to the first book.

Tailpiece: The Kovalam Literary festival this year saw many Pakistani writers in action and the darling of the media and the public, for reasons more political and familial than literary, was 29 year old Fatima Bhutto. She inaugurated the event and also delivered a thought-provoking lecture on world peace, replete with relevant data. Like the compere girl described it, Ms Bhutto could have been the queen of Pakistan politics but instead choose to be the princess of prose and poetry. Song of Blood and Tears is her first non-fiction work after a poetry book. Shehan Karunatileke has stormed the literary world with Chinaman, a novel that is a heady combination of cricket and Sri Lanka politics. This earned rave reviews from Kumar Sangakkara, a huge literature buff who accidentally forayed into cricket (and with what results!). Again, kudos to Binoo for the whole KLF idea. Hastening to add that the first edition, held at Taj Green Cove was the best so far. Graced by the likes of Shashi Tharoor (who had not started in politics then), Gulzar (days before the Oscar came his way), William Darlymple (on the side working on the Theyyan dancer’s story for his Nine Lives), Patrick French (along with his Indian girlfriend), Tarun Tejpal and youngsters like Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Tishani Doshi and Namita Devidayal, it kick-started an international interest in Thiruvananthapuram as a venue for literary get-together  (literary tourism similar to Jaipur Litfest to be precise) and that is hopefully here to stay. Last year’s Hay Festival is a pleasant offshoot of this no doubt.

Happy reading!

Biju Parameswaran  (bijupost@yahoo.com)

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