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Takaḻi Śivaśaṅkara Piḷḷai (1912-1999)

The Independent
Obituary: Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai
Kuldip Singh
Monday 26 April 1999

For over 50 years Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, writing in his native Malayalam language, poignantly portrayed the social transformation of society in his home state of Kerala in southern India, empathising with the poor and downtrodden in a caste-bound, feudal society.

Through 40 novels and over 600 short stories Thakazhi chronicled Kerala's evolution and incisively portrayed the drama of unpredictable human relations. His romantic novel Chemeen ("Shrimp" 1956, English tr. 1962) introduced Malayam literature and the magic of Kerala to the outside world, establishing his reputation. It was taken up by Unesco under its project of Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Cultural Values and translated into 19 languages including Vietnamese and Slav. Chemeen is a romantic love story set against the backdrop of a small Kerala fishing village that rises to the heights of a Greek tragedy. It is woven around the coastal myth centred around Kadalamma, the sea goddess who destroys those fishermen whose wives become "unchaste". The seaside romance of the Muslim fisherman Pareekutty and the Hindu Karuthamma caught readers' imagination like no other Malayalam writing had and it was made into a film in some 15 countries. It also won Thakazhi India's highest literary prize, the Sahitya Academy Award, in 1958.

Literary critics, however, regard Kayar ("Coir", published in 1978), encompassing a time-span of over 250 years, as his most significant work. The inspiration for this magnum opus came to him in the 1940s when, as a practising legal pleader in Kerala, he stumbled across ancient land records that held a wealth of fascinating social detail. Kayar has no hero or heroine, but chronicles the impact events like land ownership laws, the joint family system, the breakdown of Kerala's matrilineal society, the two World Wars and the rise of Communism have on a small village over six generations.

His native village of Thakazhi in Kuttanad is at the heart of his works. But if the locale in Thakazhi's novels remains constant, his themes vary. Thottiyude Makan (published in English as The Scavenger's Son, 1993), one of his earlier works, narrates the heart-rending story of a scavenger determined that his son will not take up his wretched profession, who is eventually mortified to see him following in his footsteps. Randidanghazi ("Two Measures of Rice") depicts the landlord-labourer relationship, as a helpless untouchable faces the shame of his upper-caste employer outraging his wife's modesty.

Thakazhi was born in 1912 into a moderately comfortable farming family. He was exposed to literature early by his father who would daily read from the great Indian epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to his family after supper. This left a lasting impression on Thakazhi's mind and there are strains of these epics in both form and structure in his writings. He also devoured the work of Western writers, especially Tolstoy and Maupassant, and in 1934, after several short stories, published Tyagathinu Pratiphalam ("Fruits of sacrifice"), his first novel, which dealt with social and economic equality and attacked hypocritical sexual taboos. After training as a legal pleader at the Law College in the state capital Trivandrum, he set up practice in the small town of Ambalapuzha in 1939. But Pillai's heart was not in the law and after a brief stint in journalism he took to full-time writing. Being the son of a landed farmer in Kerala's water-logged, economically backward area, gave him added insight into the state's social problems. And though he claimed not to have been influenced by the Leftist movement that gave Kerala the world's first elected Communist government in the 1960s, he admitted that Marxism had helped give clearer shape to his social consciousness. But success in no way changed Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's simple life style. Although he travelled extensively he was comfortable only in his simple cottage in Thakazhi and even in his later years he never lost his fire and vibrancy in challenging orthodoxy and the establishment.