We Indians are story-lovers. We were all, at one point or the other, children at our grandmother’s feet, listening wide-eyed to her tales of days long gone. And if we love to hear stories, there are many among us who love to tell them as well. Nowhere is this truer than in the world of Indian languages. India abounds in storytellers who write in their mother tongue.
There are several reasons why such writers are special. The range of their stories is amazing. And they smell very real. It is as if we were back at grandmother’s feet again.
Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s stories take us to that magic world. Basheer wrote short stories, novels, skits and even an occasional play. The really unusual thing about his stories is that they are funny, but in a lingering sad way. Basheer wrote with great sympathy about Christians, Muslims and people of the lower castes in Kerala. His writings were very powerful for upon reading them people changed their opinion of the way various communities, like the Mappila Muslims of Malabar spoke Malayalam. It was earlier thought of as vulgar, but Basheer made it charming.
His style was open and simple. But above all, anyone reading his stories would immediately be able to imagine the picture in their minds. And his stories were full of sharp observation and fine details:
Me Grandad ‘Ad an Elephant (1951) is one of Basheer’s best works. It is the tale of the pretty, pampered Muslim girl Kunjupattumma whose rich granddad owned a big elephant.
Kunjupattumma was always beautifully dressed in silks and jewels, and had proposals of marriage coming to her one after another. She was lucky in all but one respect. She wasn’t allowed to talk to her neighbours’ children…
Basheer’s writing style was such that it inspired an entire generation of visual artists. These artists went on to illustrate storybooks using his style.
Basheer was a tall, bald and lanky man with deep set eyes and a furrowed forehead. He was born on July 10, 1908, to a lower middle class Muslim family in Vaikom, a province in what was then the princely state of Travancore (now Kerala).
He led an interesting life full of events. As a teenager, he ran away from school to Malabar. The reason: he wanted to take part in the Indian freedom movement. He played an active role in the struggle and even went to jail for it.
Basheer was a great wanderer. He lived life as a beggar, porter and errand boy to support himself. Once, he even smuggled into a steamer and visited some Gulf countries. When he returned to his hometown he again jumped into the freedom movement. Prison became home several times again. This part of his life was to help him in his writing later: he described the misery of the prison in many stories.
One of his stories, ‘Walls’, was made into an acclaimed film by well-known Malayalam filmmaker, Adoor Gopalakrishnan some years ago.
After India gained independence in 1947, Basheer immersed himself fully in writing. His creativity was at its peak. But the Malayalam publishing scene was in a sad state. So he often starved. He kept on writing though, and was always encouraged by his numerous friends and admirers.
In 1950, his friends found for him the perfect soulmate in young Fatima Beevi. They married and settled down on the banks of river Beypore, in Kozhikode. They had one son and one daughter.
Basheer, who authored 34 books, died when he was over eighty. Many of his works have been translated into Indian and foreign languages. Translation has helped to spread Basheer’s reputation as the master who raised Malayalam fiction to international standards.
He won many awards in his lifetime. But the greatest reward has been conferred on this great writer by fellow Malayali themselves. His characters and phrases are today a part of everyday Malayali conversation.