The Short Stories

6 R K Narayan: The M. C. C.

6.1 V M Basheer: The Card Sharper’s Daughter

V M Basheer: The Card Sharper’s Daughter

An Analysis

           The Author and his Milieu

Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, who did not publish much in his literary career spanning three decades, managed to revolutionize the Malayalam literary scene, especially the art of story telling, by bringing in radical themes and subjects and also by rejecting Sanskritised Malayalam in favour of the colloquial and the vernacular. His literary vocabulary consisted of words drawn from the daily life of common people and the same was absolutely necessary if he wanted to make his stories work and give them the flavour of pulsating reality. His characters were the poor and the marginalized and in his view their experiences were as worthy of literary treatment as were the experiences of kings and queens.He saw no difference in the language that articulated their experiences and the so-called literary language or the language of literature.

Basheer was born probably on January 20, 1908 at a small village in Vaikom in Kerala. He was the eldest of six children of Kayi Abdu Rahiman, a prosperous timber merchant, and Kunchachumma. Born in a God-fearing Muslim family, Basheer had already completed his study of the Quran by the age of eight He attended a primary Malayalam School in his village for some time but because his parents were slightly progressive in their attitude, he was sent next to the Vaikom English School, though he continued to learn Arabic from a Muslim tutor at home.

Basheer was at an impressionable age when Mahatma Gandhi came to visit Vaikom in March 1924 as part of the Satyagrah movement Already drawn towards the freedom struggle and towards leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and others, Gandhi’s visit proved a watershed for Basheer’s nationalist leanings. He ran away from home to participate in the freedom struggle and reached Calicut which was the hub of nationalist activities in Kerala. Here he joined the Al-Amin newspaper and took part in the Salt Satyagrah on the Calicut beaches. His arrest was inevitable and along with the other freedom fighters he too was incarcerated and sent to the Cannanore Central Jail.

Basheer’s experiences at the jail were painful and tortuous. He was subjected to a number of atrocities which in turn wrought a dramatic change in him. From one extreme he went to another. Abandoning the Gandhian doctrines of Ahimsa he turned towards terrorism and saw in it an answer to curb foreign domination. Now he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sardar Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev. From Al-Amin he moved to Ujjevanam (The Revival) newspaper which catered to the spread of the terrorist movement. Needless to say, once again the police came into action. The paper was banned, all subversive material was confiscated and Basheer, along with his other mates, had to go under-ground in order to evade arrest.

From then on it was a constant struggle for Basheer, to somehow dodge the hawk eyes of the law enforcers and this in turn set him on his extensive travels. For the next seven years he travelled all over India, reaching as far as the shores of Arabia. In all his years of wandering he had to resort to the use of various disguises in order to avoid recognition. At times he posed as a beggar, at other times as a palmist, an astrologer. He worked as a magician’s assistant, as a private tutor, and also at a tea shop In addition to these few he took up many other odd jobs during his various sojourns. At one point in time he even tried to join the Bombay film industry but failed because he did not know Marathi. While posing as an Astrologer, Basheer met a Beedi merchant named Gajanan, who was immensely impressed by his fluency in three languages, namely Malayalam, English and Hindustani. He engaged Basheer as a private tutor for his children to teach them English. So far so good, but when Gajanan wanted him to teach them arithmetic as well, Basheer left the job and moved to Bombay. .

In Bombay too Basheer encashed his ability to speak fluent English and ran a night school in Bhindi Bazaar, teaching the basics of the English language to his students. He stayed for some time in Kamattipura which was a notorious haunt of prostitutes, eunuchs and thieves. He came in close contact with these people while living there and learnt of the rhythms of the lives of these marginalized beings. After some time had passed the desire to travel struck once again and Basheer joined as a Khalasi on the ship S.S. Rizvani which was taking Haj pilgrims from Bombay to Jeddah. Rather than reaching Jeddah, however, Basheer reached Pakistan. To make a living, he worked first at a hotel in Karachi and later got a job at the Civil and Military Gazette as the proof reader’s copy-holder. He spent some time in Hyderabad (Sindh), Lahore and Peshawar too and always spoke nostalgically of the time before India was partitioned and held the British totally responsible for it. But the wanderlust overtook him once again and he set out on his travels yet again and this time he reached Delhi. He travelled extensively in the Northern part of India and visited almost all the sacred pilgrimages of Hindus, Muslims as well as Christians. At Ajmer he stayed in a Dharamshala, posing as a Hindu. For three and a half years he lived as a Sanyasi with other Sanyasis and he then went on to spend as much time with the Sufis. For Basheer there was no conflict between the Hindu belief “Aham Brahmasmi” and the Sufi notion “Anal Huq” both of which carry the same meaning, “I am the truth.” His mind was open to all religions and he found his experiences with the Hindu Sanyasis and the Sufi brothers very fulfilling. Yet asceticism was not the path he could follow for long. Being basically a man of action he chose to return and get involved with the work-a-day world once again. He moved to Peshawar then Kashmir and subsequently to Calcutta. Here he met a manufacturer of sports goods from Sialkot who offered him an agency in Kerala. Basheer accepted his offer and finally returned home.

Back home his father’s business had gone bankrupt and his family was poised on the brink of poverty. Basheer worked hard to run the agency of sports goods but lost the same when he met with an accident and was unable to look after the business. Once again at a loose end Basheer began writing stories for a paper called Jayakesari. His first story ‘Ente Thankam’ (My thankness) was published in this paper sometime between 1937 and 1941. This story had an immediate impact on the Malayalam literary scene as it broke away from the traditional concepts of romantic fiction. Basheer’s heroine was not a slim, fair, beautiful, maiden but a dark complexioned hunchback. He marked his difference from others in this departure from tradition. His later works proved the point further when not only were his subjects and themes different but their treatment too was markedly different from the Malayalam literary conventions.

Meanwhile Basheer came under Police surveillance once again due to his criticism of the Dewan of Travancore. The weeklyPauranadam, which he had launched with a purpose of finding a platform for his satirical writings, was banned and Basheer was once again on the ‘wanted’ list of the Police. For some time he lived in hiding with K.C. George, a Communist leader, but ultimately surrendered to the police and was put in the Kollam Kasba Police Station lock-up. Basheer’s experiences at this prison featured in many of his short stories like ‘Tiger’, ‘Itiyan Panikker’ and ‘Mathilukal’ (Walls). It is said that he even wrote stories on request from the prisoners who were sick of reading the Ramayana and the Bible. A hilarious love story ‘Prerna Lekhanam” was the outcome of such a request.

Basheer’s career as a writer and journalist witnessed a boost when he moved to Madras. He wrote extensively for the weekly Jayakevlam. When he returned to Ernakulam he opened a tiny book store which began as Circle Book House but was later renamed as Basheer’s Book Stall. His columns ‘The True and the False’ appeared regularly in Narmada, a paper run by Raghavan Nair. In Basheer’s literary pursuits, M.P. Paul, a teacher and literary critic, proved to be his guide and mentor. Paul urged him to devote more time to his writing after reviewing his novel Balyakalasakhi (Childhood Friend), which had appeared in 1944.

At a young age Basheer had fallen in love with a Hindu Nair girl and had almost got married to her. The girl’s name was Saraswati Devi and she was all set to face strong opposition from her family and from the conservative Kerala Society too in order to marry Basheer. Inter Community marriages were not approved of in this society and Devi’s parents threatened to take their own lives in case she married a Muslim. When Basheer learned of her parents’ threat he appealed to Devi to forget him and marry someone of her parents’ choice. He could not envisage a love life with the threat of death looming large over it. He decided to let go, yet, this experience of thwarted love took its toll on the mental health of the sensitive Basheer and in later life led to fits of depression and bouts of insanity. Only in his fiftieth year could his friends persuade him to marry Fatima Bi- a girl half his age but who proved to be a stabilizing force in Basheer’s life from the moment she set foot in it. Basheer married her in 1958 and fondly called her Fabi. They moved to Beypore in 1962 and from that day till the day Basheer breathed his last, he lived in Beypore. Vanajan Ravindran records an interesting fact in this context when she informs us that Basheer came to be known as ‘the Beypore Sultan’ from the day he referred to himself as “the Sultan of his two acre land”. (From ‘Introduction,’ Vanajam Ravindran ed., Vaikom Mohammad Basheer: Short Stories, New Delhi: Katha / Rupa, 1996). The last three decades of Basheer’s life were marked by frail health and he did not write. Instead, he spent his time listening to music and talking to his visitors.

It was in early 1930s, that the Progressive Writer’s Movement made its impact on Malayalam Literature. Writers like Karur Nilkanta Pillai (1858--1975), Kesav Dev (1904--j983), Ponkunnam Varki (1908 - ), Lalithambika Antharajanam (1909-1987), Thakazi Sivasankara Pillai (1912- ) S.K. Pottekkat (1913-1982) and P.C. Kuttikrishnan (1915-1979), were contemporaries of Basheer and out of this group of writers it was Thakazi, Dev and Varki who wrote consciously about socialist themes, about poverty, unemployment and hunger. Basheer too wrote on these subjects but drew upon his personal experiences of sordidness and poverty. He had seen it all at first hand yet he chose to be objective rather than sentimental, while recording his experiences. In fact, his ‘picaresque’ life provided him.with ample material for his creative work. As M.N. Vijayan puts it, ‘Politics and prison, asceticism, pick-pocketing, homosexaulity, all were grist to his mill’ (from ‘Introduction’ in Vanajam Ravindran ed. Vaikom Mohammad Basheer: Short Stories). So varied were his experiences that no two stories of his shared any similarities. He forged his own style and his ignorance about literary conventions became a reason for his uniqueness. In his own words ‘agonizing experiences and a pen’ were all the material he had when he ventured into the literary world. The conventions of Sanskritised Malayalam were challenged by his colloquial style and by his unconventional subjects. The rogues, the dimwits, the prostitutes, the eunuchs, the pickpockets and the wicked as well as the innocent all made an appearance in his works and all were treated with the same ironic humour and subjected to the same satirical gaze of the first person narrator called ‘the humble historican’ by Basheer himself. His seminal work ‘Sabdangal’ (Voices), which appeared in 1947 was almost a microcosm of the surrounding world and dealt with issues like poverty, unemployment, death and destruction. His three novellas, BalyakalasakhiN ‘te Uppooppakkoru Anadarnuand Pathummayute Adu, for which he is well known, depicted the life of the Kera1a Muslims. But his writings are not limited to any particular community. In fact, it is the human community which interests him and of particular interest are the issues which are of concern to the present generation. Thus he could sensitively express the despair and anger of a modern man in ‘The Invaluable Moment’ and ‘An Evening Prayer’ as well as express his  concern for the environment in a story like ‘The Rightful Inheritors of The Earth.’

Basheer was the first Malayalam writer to treat writing as any other paid profession and to demand remuneration. In his play (the only play he wrote) Kathabeejum he deals with this issue and draws upon his personal experiences as a writer. An altercation occurs in the play between an impoverished and starving writer and his publisher. When the Writer demands to be paid for his work the editor tells him that he should be satisfied with fame. What does he need money for? At this the writer replies “People spend money on films, the theatre, cigarettes. But when it cames to reading, which is also a form of entertainment, they expect to get it free. The writer needs sustenance and space for writing. I am not talking about myself, but on behalf of writers, men and women like me”. The Editor however, characteristically retorts “I don intend to make the sacred temple of Literature into a whorehouse!” Basheer struggled against such a mindset and such double standards throughout his life. Though his views were pragmatic and he did not believe in art for art’s sake yet, he did believe that “the ultimate end of life and art was ‘Nanma’ (goodness) -- the betterment of the self and humanity.”

Basheer passed away on July 5, 1994, leaving behind his wife Fabi, daughter Shahina and son Anees. He also left behind his works that amazed readers because of the sheer variety contained in them and also the manner in which he ‘transformed the biographical into historical, the transient into the perennial and the trivial into the sublime,’ (M.N. Vijayan). Forging a style-which was the exigency of his subjects and themes, he introduced the Malayalam readers to a new-way of looking at things. His racy humour, pungent satire, tendency to debunk rhetoric rather than be enslaved by it, all was refreshingly different from the convention-ridden works of his contemporaries. Basheer drew upon -his everyday experiences and yet could delineate equally well the sublime and the infernal. As M.N. Vijayan observes ‘whether it be the crook or the nitwit, the wicked or the innocent, the “I” of his tales gazes at “god’s plenty” spread out before him and presents this to us, distilled in the alembic of his rich humour.’ For Basheer, life provided a model for art. Whatever he wrote and whoever he wrote about, compassion and acceptance remained the key to his humour.It was seldom malicious.

           The Sthalam Stories

‘The Card Sharper’s Daughter’ was originally published as Mucheettukalikkarante Makal in the year 1957 and forms a part of a series of stories written by Basheer in the 1950s.What was different in these stories was that they all were centered around a new place and used a new literary device. The new place was the Sthalam, an imaginary village in Kerala and the new literary device on which the stories were modelled was that of historical writing. The first person narrator who narrates all these stories even introduces himself as ‘the humble historian.’ The difference however is that while these stories are consciously written as histories and employ the whole textual apparatus of historical writing, yet the aim is to debunk and undermine this narrativization of histories as well as to undercut the rhetoric that often accompanies it.

On the one hand the Sthalam is a small imaginary village in Kerala and on the other it stands for the political realm in general -- the polity. This polity houses an anti-world. It is a world which is not integrated with rest of the country but exists on its own. In fact, the national state apparatus, always present beyond the fringes of this world, is seen here as the ‘foreign reactionary regime’ and the two-policeman in the Sthalam, become representatives of this regime. Normal standards do not apply to this anti-world of pickpockets and criminals. Yet, Basheer converts this anti-world into a normal world by the sensitiveness and indulgence in his characterization. He never condemns or sits in judgement. Instead, he shows us the humane aspeet of this anti-world where romance doesflourish and generosity appears alongside thefts and misadventures.

As mentioned earlier, while these stories employ the literary device of historical writing and are written as Histories, yet, the aim is not to narrate actual histories but to parody the structuring of these historical narratives. What we find in these stories therefore, is a parodic representation of polity. The same is achieved by the deft use of a few rhetorical devices where the choice of subject and theme along with the tone in which the narrative is presented, which in turn employs the terminology of political discourse -- all together create the desired effect of burlesque at its best. There are basically the following three rhetorical devices at play here:-

  1. First of all, the choice of subject is ingenious, Basheer selects a small event, con cerned with the prosaic, day to day lives of the inhabitants of the Sthalam.It may be a domestic conflict or some wrangle over a petty theft or anything else equally trivial.
  2. Having chosen a banal theme and puny subjects, Basheer then proceeds to narrate the event in a grand inflated tone, using rhetoric drawn from the ‘discourses of national and international politics, particularly the Marxist discourse which was extremely popular at the time in Kerala. So we find words and phrases like ‘reactionary,’ ‘foreign regime,’ ‘comrade-in-arms,’ ‘politically conscious,’ ‘bourgeois’ and so on, liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative.
  3. The third rhetorical device is the conscious attempt at writing. Thus we have the whole parapheranalia of historical writing put to use here and made evident at once in the manner in which the first person narrator introduces himself as “the humble historian” or “the humble chronicler." Not only does he do that but he even proceeds to make it very clear that he is writing this piece of narrative for ‘the benefit of the students of history.’ In keeping with the textual implements of any historical writing “the humble historian” includes foot notes and also cross references to other ‘histories’. He alludes to ‘interviews’ or ‘empirical data’ collected by him. There is also the conversion and updation of information, for example the conversion of annas to paisa. This is exactly how academic historiography works, entering into a process of validation and authentication. This is it how histories are written. The method is fool proof but the irony lies in the fact that this method is being applied to a subject and event which is of no historical interest whatsoever. The whole regalia of historical writing are at once debunked and deflated. The undercutting of the discourse of analysis runs parallel to the debunking of historical writing. When the grand inflated political discourse is applied to insignificant themes and ordinary subjects, it serves to expose the emptiness of political rhetoric rather than just the triviality of the subject and theme. The constant process of inflation and deflation is carried on throughout the narrative and the mock-grandiose tone creates humour because of its burlesque. It also creates satire because of the implied criticism of the rhetoric driven historical and political discourses.

Tbe process of inflation or exaggeration is carried forward into Basheer’s art of characterization as well. In fact the characters who are neither ‘realistic figures’ nor ‘types,’ are presented as ‘stylized exaggerations of representative specimens.’ As Uday Kumar rightly, points out, they appear more like cartoons or animated figures rather than real life figures. This in turn transforms them from being life-size figures to miniatures. There is a reduction in stature which ‘evokes indulgent 1aughter precisely because they appear exaggerated -- but miniaturised -- imitations, of human gestures,’ (Uday Kumar, ‘Basheer’s Humble Historian’ in Sharmishtha Panja ed., Many Indias Many Literatures: New Critical Essays. New Delhi: Woridview Publications, 1999).

Alongside this process of exaggeration and miniaturization there is a dilution of the moral implications of the actions of these characters. Rather than sitting in judgement on them we look at them with indulgence and sympathy, with a smile instead of a frown.

In the context of Basheer’s development as a writer, these Sthalam stories come midway in the three stages of his career according to Uday Kumar. In his early stories e.g. ‘Walls’.or ‘Voices’, the first person narrator presents his view of the world in terms of fragmented images. There is a constant search for meaning in these stories and the tone is that of despair and anger because the narrator is unable to find that meaning. He is himself a victim in many of these early stories.

The Sthalam stories move away from the above stance and the victim figure disappears even though the victimizers do not. The search for meaning is abandoned. Attention is instead drawn towards the ways of living, a celebration of life, of the very energy of life. Every thing in these stories is geared towards ‘performance.’ What is important is not what is true but that which carries the narative forward. There is no explanation and no meaning, only an ‘energetic ethos’ where it is not important for statements to be true or events to be real. Even lies and non-events are seen as a ‘celebration of life and its endless performance.’

The third stage of Basheer’s writing career witnesses a movement away from the fictitious location of the Sthalam stories. His fiction turns inwards and becomes insistently autobiographical for e.g.: ‘Puthumma’s Goat.’ The narrative format does not change and the performance of story telling goes on but the story itself, in terms of a meaningful organization of events with one thing logically leading to another, disappears. Thus it becomes a non-narrative performance which undertakes an exploration into the sources of values and religious sentiments. The Sthalam stories indicate a middle period in Basheer’s work prior to the development of this ‘domestic non-story’.