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The master narrative in Thakazhi's Kayar
After K. Ayyappa Paniker's monograph with a few chronological landmarks

K. Ayyappa Paniker, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai [Monograph], Trivandrum, University of Kerala, 1989.

K. Ayyappa Paniker (1930-2006), the well-known poet, was a Nayar from Kuttanad and a scion of the Chalayil family. His forefather Chalayil Iravi Kesava Pillai was the first to reclaim land from the backwaters of the Vembanad Lake about 1885. The historical family name is mentioned in Kayar, and the master narrative includes the early history of land reclamation, while the Chalayils are romanticized under the name of the Mangalasseri family.

Kayar, the saga of Thakazhi, first published in 1978, is but one of many novels creating a new literary genre, which blends still lifes (tableaus of traditional village life) and the contemporary saga of freedom fighters and communist militants who created modern Kerala. The narrative starts in the mid-1880s when dams are constructed over the backwaters, to reclaim paddy lands. It is the beginning of capitalism, of peasant insurgencies, and of a dialectic between the stillness of traditional village life and the advent of political and social history. This dialectic between stillness tropes and historical narratives is to be studied both from the point of view of stylistics in an emergent literature and from the point of view of social anthropology.


The narrative begins [1885] with the arrival to the village of Thakazhi, in Kuttanad, of the classifier of lands who will allocate landholdings to the proper farmers and assess the corresponding taxes. Kochu Pillai and his wife are received with reverence, provided with the best accommodation available in the village, and presented with goods and gold, as farmers are eager to get the best lands. Some of them start reclaiming kari lands, the peaty soil [tourbières] bordering backwaters. Kochu Pillai, who is extremely handsome and attractive, is able to beget two illegitimate children through two different women. The only female heir of the respectable Kodanthra family, Kunjamma, is made pregnant by Kochu Pillai, but her uncle manages to get her quickly married to Seshayyan, a Brahmin boy from Trivandrum procured through the classifier's help, to protect the honor of the family. The other woman to have a child by Kochu Pillai is Kalyani Amma of Seelanthippillil, whose husband had left her long ago. She is the village midwife and an accomplished copyist of literary classical texts on palm-leaves. Another officer comes from Trivandrum to measure the lands. Paruthikkat Outha, a Christian menial working at a hand-drawn oil mill, becomes close to him, manages to get bribes on various dealings, and eventually takes to farming. This is the beginning of the rise to wealth and prominence of the Christian community in the village.

Within this master narrative are interwoven a number of legends as well as past or present histories of several families. The elaborate account of the quarrel between Eravi and Mathu, the two uncles of the Mangalasseri tarawad, is one of this kind, that illustrates tensions and potential splits in a matrilineal family of the 1890s. The description of the kettukalyanam, the traditional ceremony of the symbolic wedding of young girls, brings out the fervour with which the battle of the aunts is fought. Local affairs and the temple properties are managed by half a dozen worthies belonging to the dominant Nair families. The story of Kalyani Amma's uncle, Paramu Asan of Seelanthippillil, the traditional home teacher, illustrates the custom of leaving home for ever on one's way to Varanasi.

The starting of the first school, the arrival of Tamil Brahmins as moneylenders to the neighboring village of Monkompu, the endless disputes about the management of temple affairs, the rise of Christians along the line shown by Paruthikkat Outha, and the introduction of modern technology into the village in the form of a pumping engine to drain the waters of the paddy-fields, are all developments that change the pace of life in the village. The Christians start missionary work to convert the landless laborers.

Chennattu Kunchu Nayar, one of the most colorful characters, now appears on the scene. His habit of reading aloud from the purana-s (Hindu traditional texts) at night, his youth, his marriage with Kunjumalu Amma of Koyipram, his active participation in the affairs of the temple, are described elaborately. The visit of Bhavathranan Nambudiripad and his daughter Thothrakutti one night to Kunchu Nayar's house surprises everybody; they bring the news of the Mapilla Rebellion in Malabar [1920-1921], of their own forced conversion to Islam and their narrow escape. Kunchu Nayar's father-in-law dies, and he is forced to go into litigation in order to protect the interests of his wife and children. It is the time of social reforms taking place all over the country. Boys of the lower castes begin to enrol themselves in the local school. The coming of an Ezhava or ilavan (lower-caste Hindu) as a teacher in the school creates a sensation. The air is filled with the message of the Vaikom Satyagraha [1924-1925], demanding the right to walk in the streets for the lower caste people. There is a grand reception for Vedippurackal Kunjan Nayar, the champion of social reforms, when he returns from Vaikom as a hero or martyr. He will later set up a Gandhi Ashram in his house. The passing of the Nayar Act [1925], legalizing the partition of properties of matrilineal families among the individual members and dissolving the joint family system, completes the series of changes. In several families, this leads to total disintegration: Kunchu Nayar is ruined.

Kunchu Nayar's son Manikantan begins his schooling (Chap. 82), and later joins the school at Ambalapuzha. After completing the school finals, he cannot find any job. Kunchu Nayar decides to send him to college at Trivandrum, although he can hardly find the money for that. In the late thirties, many people go to Malaysia to get rich quickly. The Christian farmers organize, turn against the Brahmin moneylenders of Monkompu, and start litigation. Manikantan now is a student in Trivandrum. At this point, the chronology of the novel is ambiguous, as it conflates the early thirties (Manikantan, who personifies Thakazhi himself, is 19 and a college student at Trivandrum in 1931) and events that took place in 1939 (60th anniversary of C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar) and 1947 (assassination attempt on C. P.). Viswanathan, who is now studying at the same college as Manikantan, is a student leader, and he is trying to prod Manikantan also to be more active in politics. Kunchu Nayar writes a long letter to his son Manikantan, asking him not to get involved with politics. Manikantan is deeply moved by the letter, and it draws him into profound meditations on life. He begins to develop an inertia which will stay with him for the rest of his life. Viswanathan breaks up the Dewan's statue; he becomes a hero, and is wanted by the police.

World War II is on, and many young people join the army. The postman visits the village regularly, bringing money orders from abroad, and telegrams announcing casualties. Cheeratta Gopalan with some Christian friends start the new business of selling boiled rice; they make a lot of profit. The peasants of Kuttanad begin to organize themselves. The village gets rocked first in the wave of the Quit India movement against the British, and then in a communist uprising similar to those of Punnapra and Vayalar. The Dewan steps down, Independance is proclaimed and followed by elections. The pattern of the election campaign in the village is described in detail. Following an organized strike of the peasants, Surendran, their leader, wins and becomes the president of the Panchayat (the municipality). In Trivandrum, the Communists come to power. The last chapters of the novel recount the political fluctuations of the sixties. The taste of power brings the Communists closer to the rich people. The Land Reforms Act is passed [and comes into force on 1st January 1970]; a ceiling is put on all holdings, but enterprising newcomers take the lead and subvert the reform from the bottom up through industrialisation. Surendran is now trying to start a factory that will change the face of the village. The paddy-fields themselves have been industrialized, when [1971] the novel comes to an end (Chap. 139).

That year [1971] the rainy season lasted long. There were three successive floods that crushed the red hillsides in the mountains and rushed the red fluid-paste to the sea. But that rich water did not enter the fields in Kuttanad, which had stone bunds which could resist any flood. The system of culivating the fields in alternate years had given way to the double-crop system. Vattathra Gregory sat on the veranda of his bungalow and felt unhappy at all that natural fertilizer from the hill washed down to the sea. Gregory thought that if that muddy water had been led inside the bund, the crop would have been better by at least another ten paRa-s of paddy per acre. (*) If the rain had stopped for some time, he could have made a breach in the bund. The other cultivators did not know the benefits of the mountain flood. If it flowed through their field during the rains it would have wrought wonders.

(*) Weights and measures – 1 para or paRa of paddy grains = 10 liters. One acre (4 050 square meters) was the sawing area of 10 paras of paddy. The average yield per acre of fair land was 200 paras (ie., twenty times the quantity sawn). The quantity of rice was reckoned at one half that of the paddy produced.