There are so many anthologies, but never too many. Or at least that’s the only conclusion you can gather from the number of them that every publisher keeps nudging into the market, prodigy children on a conveyor belt, only for each to be a failproof commercial success. You can’t blame them for this abundance, especially when even Forbes tells you to work on an anthology.

AJ Thomas’s The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told is the latest addition to the Aleph Book Company’s “Greatest Stories Ever Told” series. A sizeable number of reviews of the books in this series try to unspool what the “greatest” in this title means: Are they the best in the language? What does it mean to be the “best”? So, when I met Thomas at the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode, I inevitably asked him about the title.

In this interview, you’ll notice that he answered this question by initially sidestepping it, focusing on answering with an overview of the history and evolution of Malayalam short stories from the 19th century to the present day. This long and persistent history, it seems like, justifies the title, even if it was an unavoidable one owing to the publisher’s series.

Thomas spoke to Scroll about various influences, literary movements, and socio-political contexts that shaped Malayalam short story writing over time, acknowledging an ecosystem responsible for what it is now: indigenous oral storytelling forms, political landscape, international and local literature, magazines, publishing cooperatives, and translation, of course. In short, any conversation about the Malayalam short story necessitates recognising the popular culture that promotes these stories – many of which huddle in Thomas' anthology – and manifest the persistent cultural stature of writers in Kerala.

Excerpts from the conversation:

There’s a lot of conversation about the title. Many reviewers of even previous editions of this series by Aleph Book Company, keep talking about it.
The title – I don’t have much to contribute to it, honestly. Yeah, it's a series title chosen by the Aleph team. It’s perhaps an allusion to the Hollywood classic, The Greatest Story Ever Told – about Jesus and his life, the blockbuster of all time. A Hollywood classic for the old-timers, at least. Even those in their middle age might remember it. You know, it’s perhaps echoing that. It’s a little hyperbole, just playing on that. By describing these stories as “the greatest,” the editor and translator is somehow bound to select the best."

How did that affect your selection of the stories?
The Malayalam short story genre is now 133 years old. But it took on its present form, that of short stories elsewhere in the world, around the mid-1930s. Until then, we Keralites had a longstanding tradition of storytelling through traditional narrative forms like Prabhandhakoothu, a popular variant of Koodiyattam, a 2,000-year-old classical drama form that serves as the great-grandfather of Kathakali. Koothu, where the sutradhar-like single narrator delivers oral narratives in a humorous, satirical vein, accompanied by select mudras, contributed to the emergence of storytelling in prose in Malayalam. Many other old narratives from different traditions used to prevail in Kerala, such as Vikramaditya Tales and Jataka Tales, along with the Arabian Nights in their Tamil and later, Malayalam versions, and the great exploits of the Frankish King Charlemagne and his knights, circulated widely along the coastal regions where the Portuguese-influenced Chavittunaadakam is still performed.

All these different strands of traditions contributed to a mode of Keralite storytelling that marked the inception of the first Malayalam short story in 1891. This trend continued until about the mid-1930s, in the form of predominantly long narrative stretches. The true modern form emerged during the period known as Jeeval Saahityam, or Living Literature, just before the progressive era. This movement, like all the progressive movements in literatures across India, culminated in figures like Sajjad Zaheer, Munshi Premchand and others officially launching the Progressive Writers Movement in 1936.

Around that time in Malayalam, this story form also acquired a kind of perfect structure. From then on, it has continued to develop taking in timely changes. Firstly, realism in short fiction emerged in many shades: Lalithambika Antharjanam’s realism, Basheer’s realism, Ponkunnam Varkey’s realism, Karorr’s realism, Thakazhi’s realism, Keshavadev's realism, each offering different nuances. This progression continued with purposeful writing aimed at social uplift and reform, which became integral to the soul of literature. Later, great writers like Basheer, K Saraswati Amma, who was one of the pioneering feminist voices, and Kamala Das – known as Madhavikutty in Kerala – emerged as unique exponents of the short story in Malayalam. Alongside them were figures like SK Pottekkatt, Uroob and MT Vasudevan Nair. These narratives took shape between 1936 to 1956, into the early 1960s, marking the era of realistic storytelling. So the greatness of these stories is unquestionable, I do not doubt that.

About that time, the left-leaning humanist intellectuals grew truly disillusioned with the idea of the Soviet Paradise. They were all aware of the vast death and devastation caused by the Second World War. The continuing atrocities under the Stalinist regime post-WWII led to a loss of faith in the Soviet system. Though Stalin had died in 1953, the deep state of the Soviet Empire continued relentlessly. Imre Nagy, a Hungarian communist leader, had led the dissidents, starting off the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which was crushed by Soviet tanks. Amidst these fiascos, those writers who were excited camp followers of the leftist cause found themselves immersed in deep ambivalence.

Alongside all of this, in 1957, right after the birth of the State in 1956, Kerala, elected a communist government through the parliamentary democratic process. Many communists were ideologically opposed to gaining power through the “bourgeois” parliamentary system, but the more practical-minded comrades prevailed. However, within two years, Indira Gandhi, then the Congress President, managed to align communal forces of Nairs, Syrian Christians, and the Muslim community against the leftist government and in 1959, toppled the first democratically elected communist government in the world.

OV Vijayan was the first notable Malayalam writer directly influenced by these disillusionments. His first novel, Khasakkinte Itihasam is the best example of the expression of this mood. He began writing it in 1956, immediately after experiencing a loss of faith in the communist movement prompted by the Imre Nagy incident and took 12 years to complete it. Then it began to be serialised in Mathrubhumi in 1968. In the meanwhile, Jawaharlal Nehru, the beacon that the common people looked up to, had died in May 1963, and political instability had set in in the country. Philosophical themes of existential angst and the meaninglessness of life began to permeate Kerala’s literary sensibility, especially fiction, despite the impoverished material conditions of the state. Common people had been struggling to make ends meet, having relied heavily on rice as the staple food grain, which often arrived late from Andhra. Wheat, bulgur and milk powder from USAID had sustained the population during periods of scarcity, such as during the 1960s, especially after the war with Pakistan in1965. The 1960s became the decade of deprivations.

This was also the decade when modernism struck root in Malayalam literature. It was predominantly cantered around allegorical and philosophical constructs that were borrowed somewhat from the West, drawing inspiration from French literary figures like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist and absurdist writers who had greatly impacted leading fiction writers such as M Mukundan, Kakkanadan and a few others. Mukundan, for instance, worked at the French Embassy. This allowed him to delve into French literature in its original form. This exposure facilitated his exposure to the expression of angst and the exploration of the sense of meaninglessness of existence, themes that burgeoned in Europe after the Second World War. Camus and Sartre grappled with the idea of defining the meaning of existence itself, with Camus asserting its futility while Sartre espoused the individual's ability to choose to assign meaning to it – existentialism in a nutshell.

After the era of early modernism, subsequent “isms” like high-modernism, after-modernism etc., followed, almost a decade each apart. However, there was a cataclysmic shift in between.

The Emergency brought about a sea change. Suddenly, youths dared to challenge the status quo, prompting widespread reaction. Not everyone supported this upheaval, of course. Many were startled by the events unfolding. The Emergency also led to a wave of repressions in Kerala, marked by the brutality of the police under the then Home Minister K Karunakaran, who implemented Mrs Gandhi’s draconian measures.

It was a dark period in Kerala’s intellectual life, with dissenting voices jailed and persecuted. Afterwards, things were never quite the same again. Just as the story or the novel changed after the Second World War, the Malayalam story underwent a transformation after the Emergency.

And then came the Gulf boom – in the early 1970s. This marked a significant turning point. Industries, small businesses, all underwent profound changes in Kerala. Improvements in the human development index, education, and various other aspects were directly influenced by the flow of cash from the Gulf. Even as far back as the late 1950s, people had ventured to the Gulf countries using local crafts, albeit illegally. Dubai, at the time, was merely a cluster of islands and barren land, undergoing rapid development. Malayali workers, including engineers, played a pivotal role in shaping Dubai into the city it is today. The influx of money from the Gulf transformed everything, fundamentally altering the landscape of Kerala.

Remittances were made not only from the Gulf but also continued to flow from earlier sources such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore, and from the US, UK, Germany, Australia etc., where mainly professionals had migrated.

In literature, from at least the mid-80s to the early 90s, there has been a noticeable shift. The old mould of stories based on philosophical certainties during the modernist period had given way to literary devices like the allegory, symbolism, allusions etc, particularly during Emergency, although this necessity to hide diminished when it was no longer essential to conceal one's intentions. Then, story writers began to explore other advanced forms – of direct narration of the “everyday” happenings, bringing out the immanent behind them. Paul Zacharia stands out as a leading figure in the short story genre, from this time on. Since then, the short story has been regarded as the most accomplished genre of Malayalam fictional literature, on par with the best in the world. But no one can be aware of this unless someone translates them into English, you know.

You mentioned how all these writers are influenced by a lot of Western literature.
The Western influence primarily ceases with the early progressives, realists and early modernists. Following these periods, while existential themes may have persisted, what emerged were slices of life portrayed through techniques that were contemporary and cutting-edge. It’s not imitation but rather a kind of derivation through language and inspiration. These writers are not simply mimicking Western styles but are instead bringing in innovations within their own cultural context.

What do you mean when you say that the stories are still “Keralite,” despite these possible influences?
Because, you know, it reflects life in Kerala as it is now. It's not an amorphous Indian portrayal. It is distinctly Kerala. You know, the smells and tastes, the wind, the sun, and the sea – it's all very unique to Kerala. It’s not like Tamil Nadu, it’s not like West Bengal, it's not like up there (the North). Maybe you’ll get a similar feel in Mangalapuram or Karwar, you know. But from Goa onwards, it's something else altogether.

Even with the stories where the characters are somewhere else, it’s still depictive of Kerala.
Yes, because the Malayaliness will come out of the character because he or she is a Malayali. This characteristic is evident in many stories, although exceptions exist, like Lalithambika’s story about a Bengali woman. But even in such instances, elements like astuteness and resoluteness can be discerned, reflecting the author’s autobiographical expressions. Lalithambika Antharjanam was a Namboodiri Brahmin woman who was a rebel in her community and portrayed a formidable spirit in her writings, showcasing a firmness of purpose and fearlessness that resonated with the ethos of Malayali culture.

What were the relevant literary publications during the post-independence era when these short stories were published?
We had Bhashaposhini (since 1892. The magazine was first published fortnightly, then became monthly, went defunct for some time, and was later revived), Mathrubhumi, the weekly which began publication in 1932 and still going strong, Manorama Weekly since 1937, Malayala Raajyam (the 1930s to 1960s), Deshabhimani (since 1942), Janayugam (since 1947), Kaumudi Weekly, which was edited by K Balakrishnan (closed down in1970), Kalakaumudi (from 1975), Malayalanadu (1969-1983), Chandrika (since 1932), Kumkumam (since 1965), and a few others. These were the leading magazines, not entirely literary but also covering cultural, social, and political aspects.

Unlike the Gujarati, Bengali, Odiya, or Telugu Deepavali specials, we had regular weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly features of stories, poetry, and literary criticism in these magazines. The literary component was a must in all of them. There was a strong culture of story-publishing, with at least two or three stories in one issue of Mathrubhumi, for instance. Under an editor like MT Vasudevan Nair, the quality of short stories in Mathrubhumi remained high. He is a single literary figure comparable to Sunil Gangopadhyay in Bengal. He was known for fostering talents like Paul Zacharia, Sara Joseph and numerous others. Such editorial presences in literary and cultural magazines were noteworthy during that time. These periodicals continue to exist even now.

During the period from the 1970s to the 2000s, the presence of little magazines was also very important. Little magazines were entirely literary in nature; the prominent ones were Sankramanam, Samathaalam, Jwaala, Niyogam, Paathabhedam, etc. Sankramanam, for instance, was launched by Ayyappa Panikar, and Jwala by Satchidanandan. The presence of these little magazines during the high modern and later times had a significant and lasting influence. Many prominent writers, like Satchidanandan, used to publish their works in both little magazines and regular publications simultaneously.

So, during that time, being literary was in vogue – it was fashionable. Reading and writing literature were not just the prerogative or preserve of a select few. Everywhere you looked in Kerala, you would find numerous poets, much like in Bengal. Taking pride in being a writer or poet is common in Kerala. In some other societies, being a poet might be looked down upon, with people urging you to go and earn some money first. In Kerala, there is a unique cultural appreciation for literary pursuits. That’s very important.

By and large, people in Kerala are imaginative and self-reflective by nature. I believe this tendency is influenced by Kerala’s climate as well. Although it's getting a bit hotter than it used to be, Kerala still experiences regular rains and generally has a pleasant, Mediterranean-like climate. In such an environment, people either grow lazy or become imaginative and creative. There’s a tendency to dream, but alongside that, there’s also a lot of disillusionment, drinking, and the like. These aspects often accompany the creative and reflective nature of life in Kerala.

Kerala is also the first place where a writer’s cooperative society was formed to publish their works. Veteran writers like Karoor Neelakanta Pillai, Basheer, and others, took the initiative to establish a writers’ cooperative, Sahithya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham. DC Kizhakkemuri, the father of Ravi DC, the chief facilitator of KLF was the first Secretary of the Cooperative, who set up the Society as an efficient, working model. That was indeed a significant step. While privately owned publishing houses existed, this initiative brought about a notable change. Through the writers’s cooperative, both members and non-members could submit their manuscripts and have them published. SPCS is the biggest publisher in Malayalam [More than 8,500 titles have been published from this cooperative, and over 80 per cent of Kerala’s writers as active members of the society].

In the beginning, SPCS was received with a lot of enthusiasm by great writers like Thakazhi, Keshava Dev, Basaheer and others. After retiring from his position as the Secretary, when his tenure was over, DC Kizhakkemuri established DC Books, at Kottayam. DC Books is one of the biggest publishers in the whole of India. Then you have Mathrubhumi Books, Malayala Manorama Books, Current Books, Green Books etc. Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi are the oldest publishing houses of newspapers in Kerala, with a history of more than a hundred years. Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi Books are particularly well-conceived, well-designed, and well-marketed.

If you consider it, the big five Indian English publishers arrived in India only after Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize win, long after all these publishing companies were established.
Yes. Translation, especially of fiction, into English, in a very big way began after Rushdie’s Booker Prize win in 1982. But, Malayalam fiction assumed a significant sweep and volume in English translation, after Arundhati Roy’s Booker win in 1997. Malayalam fiction, set in Arundhati Roy’s fictional land of The God of Small Things, would have held a mesmeric sway over the readers. In the 21st century, Malayalam novels in translation keep on getting the biggest awards in the land like the JCB Prize, Crossword Award etc.

And how do Kerala’s writers fare in popular culture?
In Kerala, writing and writers have always been honoured, and even now, they hold significant sway in cultural matters. They are cultural icons, and their words carry weight; when they speak, they often become headlines. That kind of influence of literary figures persists even today.

You draw a distinction between the Western conceptualisation of postmodernism and how it is perceived in Malayalam literature.
Not only in Malayalam but in all Indian modernities, it is not exactly the same as in the West. The Western experience, especially after the Second World War and the age of the flower children, was entirely different. For example, consider the nuclear threat experienced by America and the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, where everything could potentially go up in smoke in no time. Both America and the Soviet Union were poised with the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. But, for people like us who lived in India, that fear was not immediate. Those living in the West were truly in the shadow of nuclear war; it could happen at any moment. This existential threat deeply influenced their perception of life.

So, the hippies emerged. Some with their so-called long hair and all that went about. They were part of a counter-culture movement, aiming to subvert the materialistic values of capitalist culture. This sentiment culminated in events like Woodstock in 1969. Everything that is associated with the West, particularly the US, unfolded in this manner. The Vietnam War further fuelled the discontent among the younger generation, particularly in the US.

We have our own modernities, albeit in a different setup. The Nehruvian dream, followed by the short stint of political instability followed by Indira Gandhi’s leadership and the imposition of Emergency, as well as the emergence of figures like Jayaprakash Narayan, shaped the political, cultural, and social landscape here. While the driving forces such as protest and loss of belief in idealism may be similar, the way they manifested and developed here is different.

As I mentioned earlier, the hippies or the existential angst that arose in the West against materialism and its excesses, was a rebellion against capitalism. They were not fascinated by the accumulation of wealth. The youth discarded societal norms. The Beatles were among the pioneers of this movement. It’s entirely different from what happened here. A youth movement like that never occurred in India. However, our intellectuals and artists reacted against similar issues, such as the Emergency, practical politics, caste dynamics, and the plight of marginalised communities like Dalits, OBCs, and tribals. These are all facets of our modernities. What occurred with the Black movement and African American experience in America happened differently. This is an ethnic or racial difference in their case. In our case, it’s a very strangely built system over the millennia, the caste system. Nowhere else in the world will you find something similar. So, these are our realities. And those are their realities. So, that way, it’s different. As Rudyard Kipling said, “Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” There are no direct equivalences between the two.

There’s a notion that the short story is a dying medium.
The same goes for poetry. Everyone says that. It never happens, you know, because everyone wants to read a story, hear a story, tell a story. It’s like one person’s story seamlessly transitioning into another's. But those with a good sense of humour, who are adept at self-reflection, they not only include you but also subject themselves to ridicule and humour. All these are just threads of small narratives, endless stories.

Take poetry, for instance. It’s considered as something expressed in a different sort of language. Look at those leaves there [points to a green canopy made of tarp] – that’s a green canopy. But those leaves, you know, you could say they are a green canopy too. It’s a direct metaphor for a green canopy. So, poetry is already there. Poetry and storytelling intertwine seamlessly. What’s financially viable, what sells – that’s the market’s concern. And this book (The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told) is thriving, doing exceptionally well. Its success speaks for itself.

Yes, the anthology genre itself is a popular form for readers and publishers around the world.
It has its advantages, like showcasing. From a market perspective, it’s displaying the goods – these are the goodies, enticing you to go for them. It creates an impact. It offers a collection of the best. It’s a kind of arrangement where all artefacts are beautifully displayed. That’s one aspect. Secondly, it serves as a saleable product. Imagine putting together these excellent pieces of art – nothing beats that.

Secondly, there's the aspect of presentation. It’s not feasible for every reader to explore every writer for a complete Malayali literary experience. Outsiders can’t be expected to delve into all these works and figure them out. So, you do the curation and presentation for them.

It’s like building an archive.
Yes, it’s an archive in a sense, but not entirely. You’re only keeping samples. Archives exist, of course, in original languages. But this is crucial. You’re showcasing it to the world. By translating them into English, you’re opening them up to a global audience. These are specimens for anyone with an interest in the form of the short story, such as the Malayalam short story, for example.

See that lady over there? [points at a woman] She’s Christina, a literary translator from Germany. She sought me out because word has spread about this book. This anthology will attract like-minded people, maybe ten to a hundred, though they won’t necessarily contact me directly. They'll connect with relevant parties like the publisher or engage in literary discussions. It will foster connections by leaps and bounds because it's not the work of a single person; it’s a collection, an anthology, bringing together different voices.

That’s the difference. A single collection of short stories by one author is commendable, but an anthology is even better. From an editor’s perspective, you’re utilizing your time more effectively, presenting a diverse range of voices.

Translators generally have the opportunity to communicate with the writers of the source text as they translate. You obviously did not have that option with many of the writers in the anthology. How did you navigate that?
You know, it’s quite an intriguing question you’re posing because, well, even the living ones, when I consider it, haven’t requested a draft for review. Not a single one. About fifteen or so are deceased, perhaps more. But the remaining thirty-five? They haven’t made any requests either. That should give you an idea. I suppose when I seek permission from them, they have implicit trust that I’ll handle it well. Secondly, perhaps many of them aren’t in a position to review, comprehend, and compare the translations themselves.

They also have no other option but to trust me. That kind of dynamic exists. However, ideally, as in the case of Mukundan’s novel that I translated – which won me the Crossword award, Keshavan's Lamentations – we had the privilege of being in the same place, Delhi. We sat together for over 22 meetings. Similarly, with Satchidanandan’s poetry or Paul Zacharia’s stories, I had direct access to the original authors. So, I had the opportunity to sit down with these writers and exchange notes.

Not much had changed. Of course, ONV Kurup gave me blanket permission to translate his poetry as I liked. But he knew English well, you know, like a true English writer, even though he didn’t write in English. He used to write his papers in English, he had an excellent grasp of the language. But he would never interfere with my translation. He might suggest, “Thomas, don’t you think if you use that word, it will have another kind of resonance?” And indeed it would, so I’d incorporate his suggestion. Then he’d step back. He was a profoundly lyrical poet rooted in the local milieu. His poetry reverberated with the sights and sounds of Kerala so deeply. It's practically impossible to translate him literally. He once told me, “There's no point in translating me faithfully. Just carry over what can be read as poetry in English from my work to the non-Malayali reader.” He was very pragmatic about it. However, many of my younger poet-friends would insist, “That comma should be there. No, it should be here.” Because these later generation poets engage in literally mining their words, or even minting them afresh. They are so accomplished!

It’s also a valuable experience to compare notes with great writers like Paul Zacharia, who writes in English as well. Comparing notes with him is a learning experience for me. As a writer in English, he has a distinct perspective on the Malayalam he writes. P Sachidanandan, known as Anand, understands English too, but he rarely makes such suggestions. Mukundan, on the other hand, is incredibly humble. Despite being one of our greatest novelists, along with MT Vasudevan Nair, he doesn’t assert or impose himself. He simply smiles and suggests, “Perhaps in our Malabar, this local term means that.” It’s a privilege to be working with them, exchanging notes with these writers.

As for their great work, you have the best examples here, the masterful, timeless stories. There’s nothing obscure about their use of language. That’s one reason why they’re still considered masterworks – every Malayali can read and understand them. So, I’ve done my best not to overstep my limits. That’s been my approach. It's been quite an experience.

I noticed that certain words or expressions exist in Malayalam with no direct equivalent in English … “Touchings” (bar snacks), for instance. How did you approach translating these culturally embedded terms?
There’s absolutely no necessity at all to look for equivalence. Because these words are all accepted into Malayalam. Words like “touchings,” they’ll just go like that, as in the case of other English words absorbed into the language. But there are other problems faced in translation, like when an English sentence used in a Malayalam short story is to be negotiated. How does one translate that? I’ll just say, “he said that in English,” “he replied in English,” or something like that, as an aside in my translated text. Or if you look at some stories in which the character speaks in Tamil or Hindi or Bengali, you have to translate that into English and comment that the original was in such and such a language.

You’ve left the original at this point.
Yes. I take that liberty. That is the only way to do that.

You also mentioned that towards the 20th century, short stories became less about explaining and more about revealing. It’s as if the reader gained more agency. I wanted to understand why there was that shift in the voice at that time.
Yes, because, as I mentioned, over time, with the emergence of theories like the Reader Response Theory, there has been a shift towards leaving stories more open-ended, hinting rather than explicating. This evolution has occurred naturally, not deliberately. Additionally, cinematic techniques such as camera angles and collage, along with local narrative techniques like those found in Kadhaaprasangam etc, have been increasingly utilised in writing fiction. These stylised elements serve to convey mood and context without the writer explicitly introducing them to the reader. This allows for a more nuanced interpretation of the story’s themes and motifs.

In essence, the changing forms of the short story are responding to global literary trends and evolving theories. Western literary theories have expanded, branching into numerous pockets of analysis. This development reflects the ever-changing landscape of literature and the continuous evolution of human intellect and imagination.