Musings on a Lazy Sunday – 6 Oct 2019

8 Oct

In the year 2001, I got one of my most prestigious assignments with the Asian Development Bank (TA 3485-IND) named, “Participatory Poverty Assessment for all 14 districts of Kerala”. I got a life-time opportunity to travel to the farthest corners of my home state, in search of poor communities. I carried a letter of introduction from the Secretary, State Planning Board, the Kerala Government department to which I was attached. I had six months to travel, interview communities, eat local food, find an excuse to buy an expensive camera with extra lenses and make plans for writing a novel on poverty and a violent reaction to it.

In the midst of my regular field work, I was constantly on the lookout for sources of the undying spirit and pride of hardworking Malayalees all over the world.

One of my visits took me to Kumaranelloor, about 50 kms north of Thrissur and 15 kms south of Kuttipuram, which lies on the northern bank of Bharathapuzha.

Just as the river Periyar dominates the culture of Travancore & Cochin, the Bharathapuzha [river] dominates the culture of the Malabar. These two are Kerala’s longest rivers (Periyar 244 kms and Bharathapuzha 209 kms).

A professional colleague insisted I should accompany him to the home of his wife’s parents and have a traditional meal. I joyfully agreed and was delighted to meet Prof. K.Vijayakumar who at that time was Head of the Department of History at the Government Sanskrit College in Pattambi.

He was sufficiently impressed with my curiosity about the culture of Malabar to give me a copy of his book, “Kalaripayatt – The Power and Beauty of Keralam”. Vijayakumar is a specialist in “Medieval Warfare in Kerala”.

This book is a treatise on Kalaripayatt, the martial art of Kerala. Although my Malayalam is just good enough to pass Kerala’s literacy test, I manfully read the whole book and made detailed notes.

I made references to this book in both my novels, “The Nawab’s Tears” (2018) and the “Return of the Yakshi” (2019).

The sandy banks of the Bharathapuzha river was traditionally the stage for the Mamankam festival which was held once in twelve years. The popular belief was that on the first day of the Mamankam, Goddess Ganga descended into Bharathapuzha and hallowed the river waters.

The Mamankam celebrations were held under the oversight of the Thirunavaya Temple which is on the northern bank of the Bharathapuzha. The contests included debates, intellectual contests, cultural activities, rituals and martial art performances.

The Thirunavaya temple is one of the 108 Tiruppathis (Most Holy Temples) in the country. Eleven of these are in Kerala and Thirunavaya is one of them.

The Mamankam celebrations were discontinued towards the end of the Eighteenth century. The memories of feudal Malabar still exist and contribute to the pride and glory of the Malabar region.

My college friend P.K.Moideenkutty loved to boast that the waters of the Bharathapuzha flowed in his veins.

One of the assertions in K. Vijayakumar’s book that made an impression on me concerned the difference between the concepts of Deception (Adavu) and Treachery (Chathi). Deception is an important item in the bag of techniques of the Kalari exponent. Treachery, including taking advantage of a fallen or wounded opponent is against the Code of the Warrior. The cult of “Chaver Pada” or suicide fighters was developed among the Kalari-trained soldiers. Their honour would never allow them to turn around and retreat. They would fight to the last breath.

After a lifetime of living with the certainty that deception is mistruth, the Way of the Warrior presented a challenge to my basic values.

We have here a basic conflict between two opposing philosophical views.

On the one hand, we have the moral position that we must live by principles, and our actions should not be judged by the results but by whether or not they were in conformance with the performance of our duty.

An opposing, utilitarian view holds that our actions are right if they benefit the majority of people as a result of our telling the truth or lying.

With a national motto like सत्यमेव जयते (Satyam-eva jayate) Truth alone triumphs”, we can hardly push “truth” out of sight as inconvenient! This motto is a part of a mantra from the ancient Indian scripture Mundaka Upanishad.

Quid est veritas?” (What is the truth?) is Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus after which he declares to the Jews gathered there, “I find in him no fault [at all] (John 18:37-38, KJV).”

That brought me to the subject of writing fiction, which raises relevant questions about truth and mistruth.

Frequently when reading a novel, which has been declared to be ‘fiction’ with the statutory disclaimer that the characters, situations and events are all fictitious, I wonder how it is possible to write something so completely fictitious…

An interesting quote suggests, “I know that every word of the conversations between the men, every action, is invented, made up, to be precise, lies. And yet after finishing the story I was emailing fellow writers saying buy this book, read this story, it oozes with ‘it’, it resonates, it lingers, it makes you feel, it makes you sense a fundamental truth, let’s you see.” (Alex Keegan, The Art of Telling Lies).

Thomas Babington Macaulay observed, somewhat cynically, I think, that “The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion”.

We are all familiar with the power of oratory and how it can sway herds of sheep who dont worry about truth or logic or reasoning. Do we worry that influential orators may be telling lies to the masses?

Historical fiction presents its own challenges because it requires hop-step-and-jump between known ‘facts’ (with all their inherent prejudices and propagandistic content) and creative sub-plots. Fictitious characters and conversations may not be essential for creating dramatic effects or for racking up the tension; but may nevertheless be important to make the story sound authentic and help the reader to understand the environment within which the story unravels.

This element of story telling, known as ‘exposition’ is essential for explaining situations and providing the building blocks that will be used to lay a strong foundation, and for the desired superstructure of the story. Sometimes a flashback is used to add depth to a character or a situation. Readers understand that a character is the product of his or her history and flashbacks help to build the cause-effect connection.

A fiction writer can use his creative license to cook up up the perfect glue to hold the story together. Apart from descriptions of visuals, sounds, smells, and natural phenomena, description of what a character feels can help build a strong connect with the reader.

Exposition should not become a distraction and break the continuity of the story plot. This is where zooming into the past and getting back to the present time becomes an art of superfast time travel, saying a lot with a few words.

Fiction helps authors to exhume the truth about ‘facts’ (“true facts”???) and their feelings with regard to them. In daily life we tend to cover up facts to avoid confronting the pain of our failure, our hurt or our betrayal. Story telling can bring out the bare facts forcing us to stand up to the truth. This means that stories help us re-write our life’s stories through our characters and examine a “what-if?” situation. In this sense, fiction writing brings us face to face with the truth as only we can present it.

On Friday, 2 December 2016, I wrote a love story titled “Lal Salaam, Captain Shree” which told the story of a romantically involved extremist couple who came under police fire. The couple had to part ways and years later the man got an unexpected communication from Captain Shree. This story was published on FaceBook.

That evening, I got a message from a very lively lady friend to ask, “So why didnt you marry Captain Shree?”

I was disoriented for a few seconds until I realised that my friend thought that my FB story was true and about me. I had a hard time convincing her that it was pure fiction.

I admitted to her that like Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses said:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.”

Fiction writing helps to reshape humdrum stories by creatively ‘touching them up’ with a gripping process and a dramatic climax. Banish boredom, welcome to the world of mesmerising plots and surprise endings.

You can create villains based on people whom you have observed being cruel and brutal to others. You can transform a plain looking housewife into a beautiful princess. That is the power of creative story telling.

I am sure Ian Fleming came across a real-life Korean bodyguard who inspired the silent but menacing character of “Odd-Job” in the James Bond novel, GOLDFINGER.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his famous character Sherlock Holmes based on Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. “Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing broad conclusions from minute observations.”

Where does the truth end and where does deception begin?

In this age of “Alternate Facts” and “Fake News” do we cling to the “truth” or go along with the masses and accept what they believe as the truth?

2 Responses to “Musings on a Lazy Sunday – 6 Oct 2019”

  1. Geoff Fowler October 8, 2019 at 12:10 pm #

    I enjoyed that read Ajit but I would have loved to have known the old names of the villages you visited. The names mentioned did not ring a bell. Good luck and God Bless.

    • Ajit Mani October 8, 2019 at 1:09 pm #

      Sorry about that, Geoff, all the names I mentioned are the old names… Kumaranellur is a small village and you may not have heard of it!

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