Both life and literature were unconventional for Malayalam writer Punathil Kunjabdulla (1940-2017)

History will remember him as one of the great modernist writers from Kerala.

Well-known Malayalam writer Punathil Kunjabdulla, who could weave magic with words, died on Friday, October 27, at the age of 77. Kunjikka, as he was fondly known, was from Karakkad in Vadakara (Calicut). He was a modernist and a contemporary of writers like M Mukundan, Sethu and Paul Zacharia.

Kunjabdulla’s novel Smarakashilakal (Memorial Stones) written in 1976 is widely held to have changed the course of his life and of contemporary Malayalam fiction. Like OV Vijayan’s Khasakhinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak) written seven years earlier, Smarakashilakal came to be known as a pathbreaking work for its beautiful language, effortless storytelling and layered narrative. Smarakashilakal won the Kerala Sahitya Academy award in 1978 and the Kendriya Sahitya academy award for 1980.

Although Kunjabdulla published over 40 books in all, including novels, novellas, short stories, travelogues and an autobiography, none of them surpassed the fame and popularity of Smarakashilakal. Malamukalile Abdulla, a collection of short stories published in 1974, was also awarded the Kerala Sahitya academy award in 1980. Marunnu, a novel that dealt with medical ethics, is highly rated too, along with his autobiography Nashtajeevitham and travelogue Volgayil Manju Peyyumbol.

An unusual life

A humanist and an iconoclast, Kunjabdulla lived a life that often defied the dictates of religion and society him. He was no puritan when it comes to sexuality. Kunjabdulla always described himself as a Hindu by culture, despite being born a Muslim. He disliked being shackled by the tenets of Islam and desired boundless freedom. He liked his alcohol and pork and never hesitated in admitting it publicly.

Like many among his generation of writers, Kunjabdulla was also discovered by the doyen of Malayalam literature, MT Vasudevan Nair, then the associate editor of Mathrubhumi’s illustrated weekly (Azhchappathippu), which has nurtured Malayalam literature over three-quarters of a century now. Kunjabdulla sent his first short story to the weekly while he was still studying in school, hoping to get published in the children’s section. MT chose to publish it in the general category and a writer was born.

While studying at Thalassery Brennen College, Kunjabdulla was persuaded by a professor, MN Vijayan (a prominent literary figure), to take up medicine instead of acquiring a post-graduate degree in Malayalam literature. It was his nine-year-long stay in Aligarh and Delhi while studying medicine at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) that changed the course of his life and shaped his future.

In his autobiography Nashtajathakam, Kunjabdulla recalls that the seeds of his masterpiece Smarakashilakal were sown at a screening of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in Aligarh. His magnum opus was conceived on a large canvas and developed from the images he had formed of his hometown and its people as a child in pre-independent Malabar. Most of the characters in this novel were real-life people he knew from his hometown.

Kunjabdulla spoke often of his admiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and of the influence of Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer and poet P Kunjiraman Nair in his writings, though he had developed a unique style that didn’t correspond to anyone else’s. He also admired the works of Paul Zacharia. Zacharia ranks Smarakashilakal among the top five novels written in Malayalam and he reckons Kunjabdulla is among the most gifted and natural writers from the state.

Politically incorrect

Unlike many other writers from Kerala, Kunjabdulla had an ambivalent relationship with politics. Although the Malayalam writers from an earlier era were closely associated with social reforms and, subsequently, the Communist movement, Kunjabdulla did not link himself closely to politics constantly, often proclaiming that he was a humanist and loved everyone equally.

Among his indiscretions included an impulsive decision to dive into electoral politics by contesting the 2001 assembly election from the Beypore constituency on a BJP ticket – a move he said he regretted in the wake of the Gujarat riots a year later. Kunjabdulla’s exit from politics was as swift as his entry into it, and “this demonstrated he was no intellectual giant despite his impeccable ability and flair as a writer,” notes Zackaria. As a medical practitioner who spent a considerable amount of time attending to his patients, perhaps Kunjabdulla did not have the time to follow politics closely.

In the latter part of his career, Kunjabdulla’s personal life, as colourful as his novels, grabbed more attention than his writing. But the people who accuse him of leading a wanton lifestyle often forget that he was an active medical practitioner for 30 years and wrote 40 books. True, he was no hypocrite and didn’t apply filters when it came to acting on his instincts and proclivities. He probably revelled in provoking people. His readers didn’t judge him for this, or perhaps they accepted him the way he was, so long as the characters he created were fully fleshed out.

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