20 August 2012, Monday

Hahaha...Look at the title I’ve given to my diary: “Diary of a Malayali Madman”. Hahaha... Only a Malayali madman can write his diary in Malayalam, and only a Malayali can read it. Obviously, one can learn a new language, read and write in it. I was only talking about the normal state of affairs. You understand, don’t you? Let that be.

Have you heard of a writer named Gogol? It is unlikely, if you are below the age of thirty. People below thirty are generally ignorant. They may have a degree or two, but when it comes to general knowledge they have none. There’s no way they would have heard of Gogol. In actual fact, Gogol is a great literary figure.

Here, in Kerala, most people say they like Dostoevsky, or perhaps Tolstoy. Me, I like this fellow Gogol. Anyway, my intention is not to get into a literary discussion. The reason I thought of Gogol just now is because he has written a story called “Diary of a Madman”. It is this work of his that inspired me to write this diary.

But there is one important difference. Gogol’s hero does not think of himself as mad. Even when he imagines things that other people would consider completely insane, he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with his state of mind.

My situation is different – I am a little bit mad, and I am quite aware of this without having to be told. Given that I have this much self- awareness, you may also consider me quite sane. That’s all up to you.

This is intended to be a diary, but I’ve started writing it as if it were a story. So let’s continue in that vein for a while. I don’t need to specify that I am the hero of this story. The heroines are several, and I will tell you about them as and when the context demands.

First, let me introduce myself properly. I have a polytechnic diploma in mechanical engineering. After completing this course, I went to Bangalore and drifted around for a while. Nothing good came out of it. So I went to Mumbai. I have an uncle who, having returned home filthy rich after spending forty-odd years in Mumbai, goes around pretending that he is a community leader because he is the president of the local temple committee. Through one of his acquaintances, he got me a job in Mumbai as an apprentice in a scooter company, complete with rent-free accommodation.

Listening to him go on about it, you’d think I had won the lottery. I didn’t know how much I’d be paid, and when I came to know, I couldn’t believe it! How was one to survive in that megacity on such a low salary? I had no idea, and I said as much to my uncle.

“You have to train for one year. Is it right to demand a one- lakh-rupee salary as soon as you get there? I did roadwork for one rupee when I first went to Mumbai. Put up with it if you can. If not, come back home and squander away your life getting drunk and what not.”

I didn’t listen to his advice and promptly left the job. Let me not go into the difficulties I faced afterwards. Eventually, I found a well-run workshop with a decent owner. Weekly wages, okay salary, and he seemed to really like me. There was a tiny, cage-like room behind the workshop. I cooked, ate and slept in it for six years, sharing the space with a Bengali lad.

Then my relatives and people back home started saying that I should get married. I tried to look for girls with good jobs, but didn’t find anyone I liked. So I decided to select one from a well-to-do family and found a suitable girl with an ordinary BA degree. Her degree was in sociology, but she was completely ignorant of social sciences, history or geography. Ask her where China is, and she’d say it is near Nigeria!

Nevertheless, she put on terrible airs. She’d studied in English-medium schools and could speak good enough English – definitely better than me. Still, no basic knowledge and, on top of that, she had a habit of saying something foolish and then going on and on about it.

One night, on our honeymoon – on the fourth day after our wedding – she started arguing with me saying that Leonardo da Vinci was born after CV Raman. That argument ended in a divorce. In the heat of the argument, I said some things that should not have been said, some bad, no, outright obscene words. That became an issue. Oh, I started writing a diary entry and now seem to be writing my autobiography. No, that’s not what this is about.

Jayasree Kalathil, translator | Photo credit: Mark Bell-Gam Hambleton
Jayasree Kalathil, translator | Photo credit: Mark Bell-Gam Hambleton

21 August, Tuesday

I felt lethargic from the moment I got up this morning and had planned to just stay at home today. But, at ten in the morning, my sister and brother-in-law dropped in. My brother-in-law gave me a good telling off for squandering away my time, not taking up a job, and hanging around political activists. He showed no consideration for the fact that I am a forty-something man. My sister also joined in and said a few things. Let them – let everyone say whatever they want. It doesn’t concern me. I have my path; they have theirs.

In fact, my brother-in-law is mistaken in his opinion that I hang around political activists. Actually, they don’t pay any attention to me and I don’t take them seriously. I go to their meetings sometimes, just for fun. As a listener, that’s all. I like those leaders who have a certain oratory style and speak gesticulating wildly with their hands and feet. I don’t care what their political affiliations are or which factions they belong to. I get goosebumps when I listen to them speak.

The other day, at the Congress Party meeting in Kottayi bazaar, I stopped one of the leaders on his way to the stage and said, “Brother, rock it.” And he rocked it. I think he may have been under the influence. Having worked himself up with his own enthusiasm, he began to have a go at an opponent he had within his own party: “I’ll gut him if he takes issue with me,” he said. “I will squeeze out his liver, add it to lemonade and drink it.”

This was greeted with thunderous applause from the audience. I also applauded.

There is another thing. In my part of the world, unlike in the olden days, there is no great rivalry between politicians from different parties. They’re all businessmen. Come election time, they pretend to be arch-rivals like snakes and mongooses. Behind the scenes, though, there are many “adjustments”. Let that be. There’s no point in wishing that these things should not happen. So let them carry on, isn’t that better?

There was an incident the other day. It was around ten or eleven in the morning, and I was sitting in the chai shop near the jetty. Some young politicians walked in – city folk, by the look of it – representing parties on both the left and the right. None of them knew me, except perhaps vaguely recognising my face from somewhere. There’s been some controversy around the sale of a ten-acre property belonging to Dubai Avullakka, and these looked like mediators who’d come to find a solution. In situations such as these, the mediators receive a set percentage of the sale price as commission. They seemed quite beside themselves with the excitement of it all.

“Yes, send twelve to the District Committee. Hand it to Dingan, he knows where and how to give it. Eh? That guy’s case? Call the Mumbai-wallah and tell him. He’ll take care of it. Avullakka’s problem? That’s why we’re here first thing in the morning, isn’t it, to get it solved.” A khaddar-clad youngster, clean, wholesome, and full of youthful enthusiasm and energy, talked with great self-importance into a mobile phone as big as a diary. There was no one else in the shop except me, and Chandrettan who made the tea. As he hung up, one of his friends asked me with a sour smile on his face:

“Brother, do you mind if we hung around here for a while and had some brandy?”

It was quite clear that he was having me on – his voice and overall demeanour reflected the heavy weight of sarcasm.

“What do you reckon?” I asked him. “This shop belongs to Kocha Nanuvettan. Some tosspot politicians like you beat him up and broke his left leg when he went to picket a brandy shop during the prohibition campaign. You think you can come into his shop and ask such vulgar questions?”

Baduvathi the Cat was lying asleep under the bench. She woke up just then, and came out and said to them, “Better clear off quickly. My husband Kandan Kannan will soon be here, and if he catches sight of you, he’ll cut off your cockles. He hates alcohol.” As soon as they heard her, they fled. I couldn’t stop laughing, seeing them panic and scramble. But my laughter seems to have annoyed Chandrettan.

“Why are you laughing, Aagi?” he asked.

“I was laughing at what the Cat said, and the way those politicians ran away.”

“What cat? What politicians? What the heck are you going on about, Aagi?”

So Chandrettan was not aware of anything that had happened there.

This is the problem with our country, as far as I can figure out. No one sees anything. No one hears anything.

Ah, and one more thing. Chandrettan called me “Aagi”. I am sure you’d be keen to know my name.

My name is Aagney, which means son of Agni, the fire god. My father was a teacher and a Sanskrit scholar. My mother was a nurse. I’ve heard it said that the biggest mistake my father made was to marry my mother. My mother does not know Sanskrit. She is always angry. It must have been all the hard work at the hospital, anger has become her default position.

Nurses have really hard jobs – it’s not without reason that they are always on strike. My mother was a nurse in a government hospital, so she had a good salary. Now she has a very good pension. That is why I can afford to walk around in these ironed shirts and trousers.

So today got over like that. Well, not quite. Because Chandrettan said to me, “Aagi, why don’t you go home and take your medicine?”

I got pissed off so I shouted at him, “What medicine? Whose medicine? Ask your woman to take her medicine.”

To be fair, that last bit was uncalled for. So what happened? Chandrettan rushed at me and slapped my face. I slapped him right back. He didn’t give in. So we stopped with the slapping and started fighting in earnest. Some people came running and pulled us apart, so both of us got out of it without much damage.

But I think I’ve sprained my neck, and my left arm is in some pain too. I’ll have to get it massaged by Kumaran Vaidyar tomorrow. Yet another expense to worry about.

Excerpted with permission from Diary Of A Malayali Madman, N Prabhakaran, Translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperPerennial.