Stories from silences – An Interview with MT Vasudevan Nair

Ernest Hemingway, they say, peppered his tales with silences – things unsaid that made readers think and seek the soul of the story. India’s literary icon MT Vasudevan Nair explores the silences in life, in the folk tales of forgotten heroes and in the legends of warriors from epics forever retold.
MT, as Vasudevan Nair is more popularly known, makes heroes out of villains and winners out of losers. Yet, in some curious twist to most of his tales, his heroic winners are often but sad, and sometimes villainous, losers. That, simply said, is the melancholic charm of reading MT.
The author is recuperating from a surgery. While his mind continues to weave stories, his fingers haven’t been lending much support. But he will write – within him are stories articulated from and in silences.
MT was in Dubai recently. No social historian or writer from Kerala – the green, monsoon-rich coastal state in India where MT was born and lives – can ignore the lasting influence of “Gulf money.” MT has written about the willful expatriation of Malayalis to the Gulf and elsewhere; he has also written about their eventual homecoming – often as battered souls rich only in money.
Today, MT sees a different ‘Gulf.’ The sheer sense of despair that enveloped expatriate Indians living in labour camps and crammed rooms, he witnesses, is not the total story anymore. The Gulf Malayali demography has an added layer – one comprising affluent youngsters who love to flaunt their new wealth.
He also sees a different Kerala – where people nonchalantly watch a man being killed and a television crew shoots the incident to later air the murder with all the hype that befits a blockbuster film.
Earlier, MT’s catharsis to such internal anguish was through his works. “I brought out my anger through my characters,” he says.
Now, he knows, it is not enough. The writer is already a social activist who didn’t hesitate to protest against the police violence on a tribal population. At 73, when he must be sitting back in contentment, MT continues to be the angry man – the anger that underpinned the individuality of his heroes.
“Contentment is relative,” says MT. “Earlier we didn’t have enough money but even then, I never glorified poverty. It was part of the system – it wasn’t personal. But now a lot of things happen that do not conform to our values. There is a disgruntlement within… that you are helpless in the face of such tragedies. I am disturbed and I speak about it – what more can I do?”
In the face of changing values, Malayalis also lost some of their camaraderie. “We had large circles of friends and we needed that. Thakazhi (Shivasankara Pillai, author) would criticise my writing but he was also genuinely concerned about my welfare as he was about his peers. That is the sort of concern which we no longer have – not for friends, not even for our family members,” says MT.
These observations could be the cornerstones of a new work – a travelogue through the history of his village, Koodallur. “Writing is all about experience,” says MT. “My experiences in Koodallur, where I was born and brought up, are my assets, my storehouse. I have written much from it but some are left. Every one has a geographical area to their lives and what I am planning to write is a travelogue of experiences, of traveling from one side to the other of my village.”
MT is also working on a novel based on the life of a legendary character in his village and tracing his life – and thus placing a mirror on the society – from 1923 to the late 90s.
For now, though, he must finalise the script for an Indo-Japanese film directed by Bharat Bala (who visualised Vande Mataram for music composer AR Rahman and directed the award-winning film Hari Om). The film tracks a Samurai warrior who seeks the roots of martial arts in Kerala, to the sixth-century monk Bodhidharma, referred to as the ‘Blue Prince’ from India who due to his skin colour was alleged to bring misfortune on this people. The boy left his village and eventually reached China and Japan, where after intense meditation, he laid bare the first lessons in martial arts. “Martial arts wasn’t a physical warfare then,” says MT. “It was an ashram (a spiritual hermitage)… it was part of meditation.”
With the film, MT is chasing one of his all-time loves – Japanese literature – and he is writing, for the first time ever, a script in English.
But then, the English are already awed by the master storyteller. Oxford University is publishing a 50-th year edition of his seminal work, Nalukkettu, this year. However, revisiting his novel does not prompt him to make changes to it. “Every book has its existence, entity and you cannot think of changing it. After all, how can you rewrite your life?”
The popularity of the novel – based again on the life he knows and lived – gladdens the writer in him. Nalukkettu has already sold 3 to 400,000 copies in the most conservative of accounts. “It satisfies me (as a writer) that some of my oldest works, the ones that I wrote when I was in my 20s, are still in print,” says MT. “My reprints sustain me and when a book goes into a reprint, it means another generation is reading the book. I am thankful to them and I must satisfy them because they feed me. I have a commitment to them. Even if I go wrong, they may have hope in me as a writer. It is this unseen force that makes you realise your responsibilities as a writer… that is your strength too…”
MT admits that now it is harder to write. “When you are in your 20s and 30s, you write fast. Now you start judging the merit of what you write and feel it is not worth it – that is a problem with all writers,” he says. “Readers have expectations of your writing and if you can’t satisfy them, there is no existence for the writer.”
MT reiterates that he will never write an autobiography. “Many elements from my life have already come into my works in bits and pieces. In fact, I haven’t even camouflaged the identities of some of them. What then is the point in repeating them? Anyway, it is not possible to write an autobiography without being honest and that might hurt some people. We simply cannot write bluntly and fearlessly as, say, Pablo Neruda.”
Good writing is about experience and observation, says MT. “And then, there is the magic of words that come from an obsession for writing.”
The winner of India’s most celebrated literary honour, the Jnanpith Award, says in the long run, awards mean nothing. “More important is your readers, their encouragement, their satisfaction… and there is no greater joy than knowing that your words have touched a few souls.”
The man who sourced stories in silences agrees that his tales will leave behind silences too.
Maybe years later, maybe, another boy who loved words, who sneaked through folded newspapers to read, might step in… but there wouldn’t be a Nila river to inspire him, nor the goodness of a village.
But there would be new experiences, new observations and perhaps a new obsession to recreate the magic that master-writers like MT wove into our psyches.


  1. I have read abt mt and have read his nalukettu. I am marathi and i think knowing marathi and English is not that enough .To know people and the vast expanse you need to know other languages as well .How I wish i could read malyalam !


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