Khasak - A Serpentine Return
1. Magical Realist literature portrays magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment.
2. "MR is what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe."
3. In MR, the author presents the supernatural being as valid as the natural. There is no hierarchy... The ghost of Melquíades in Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or the baby ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved ... are both presented by the narrator as ordinary occurrences; the reader, therefore, accepts the marvelous as normal and common(*).
On to our story: Google with "Khasak Magical Realism" and one is hit by an avalanche of pages. Some merely praise 'Khasakinte Ithihasam' as marking Malayalam's arrival on the stage of MR. Some hint, some others state that the author O.V. Vijayan was 'inspired'by Marquez in general and '100 years of solitude' in particular. Till the end of his days, Vijayan had to face irritating Desi queries on the alleged debt he owed Marquez.
Armed with the Wiki lesson, I spent a whole week reading Khasak from the MR perspective. The conclusion was simple: "There is no Magical Realism whatsoever in Khasak!". Khasak is intensely lyrical; its colors and shades are achingly rich, whether bathed in sunshine or flushed with twilight. And when rugged Chethali looms silhueted in moonlight, its crags shaped like turrets and minarets and the wild eastern wind whistles thru groves of dark palms .... the fantastic, the supernatural never seems too far. But, the Beyond of Khasak always floats as a separate numinous realm just above the mundane. It never invades reality, never intrudes into the everyday (recall the novel's image of "the cloud-laden monsoon sky hanging just over the village, holding back its immense power").
"In the dark interior of the ruined mosque, in the swamps beyond, among the branches of the tamarind tree, in the crudely hewn serpent images, in the empty wastes, they dwell, the gods of Khasak. They offered him no answers; neither did Ravi seek answers from them. ... Like the endless palm forest, like a twilight marking neither sunset nor sunrise, his Sin enveloped him in its overpowering embrace. And the Gods, those sad sentinels, were mute witnesses of his pain..."
And my above conclusion is in no way original. I sought the views of a serious scholar (who shall remain unnamed) on this business of MR and Khasak and this was the gist of what I was told:
"Literary criticism in India has been, since 19th century, almost entirely about finding Western parallels to Desi literary works - the intent being to locate 'native' literatures in a Western framework and make the former more 'acceptable' - a very colonial enterprise.
And post Freedom, once English fell out of vogue a bit, we discovered the much more happening Latin America. As a literary joke goes, once someone was asked who was the most important writer in Malayalam. And the answer was "Marquez". The game hasn't changed in a hundred years (no pun that)."
But despite all that, the word 'numinous' (**)led me on a tangential search and to someone from the West who gave telling expression - in real, rich color - to much that one sees in Khasak. The name is Odilon Redon, French symbolist painter.
The intense, flamy coloring of Redon's pastel masterpieces (any number of them are available online) remind me very strongly of the Khasak twilight. Only Chethali is missing. An expert told me: "Redon's paintings have a certain looseness about them - as compositions, they are not well organized." And indeed, neither is Khasak. The novel has no taut log line but several narrative strands which merge and meld into something like a succession of diaphanous partitions that Ravi passes thru (akin to those passed by the Diving Fowl in his own journey towards a beckoning mystery)....
Now, let me show two specific parallels between Vijayan's works and Redon's.
Late in his life, Vijayan wrote 'Ithihasathinte Ithihasam', a very interesting meditation on the making of Khasak (***). Here, among many typically lyrical passages, he talks of his fear of spiders. Indeed, spiders appear all over Vijayan's writings. In Khasak, he likens them to Kartavirya Arjuna, the 1000 armed and mostly villainous king of mythology; and Appu Kili, the beloved son of the village, is first introduced as a 'spider freak'(****). Vijayan also tells us how, within him, this very personal spider-phobia merged with the "lush and rich fear that suddenly grips a child when he first discovers the immensity of the night sky studded with those huge stars..." and gives the following passage which he eventually excised from the final version of Khasak:
"Stars, huge, some blue, some red, like immense spiders of timeless Terror; their intense gaze pierced his troubled sleep; then, wrapping him in restless dreams, they whirled away into the dark depths...."
The reason for cutting out these lines was that "they were too strongly colored". But then, Vijayan recalls wistfully, so was the whole of Khasak. And let me add, so is the typical Redon canvas. And here is Redon's take on spiders, albeit in monochrome.
An ageing Vijayan wrote with great poignancy of Ravi's solitary journey and his final tryst with a fanged apparition.
"Often have I found myself walking with Ravi - soaked to the bone by monsoon shower and smothered by its steady, colorless opacity. The journey brings Fatigue to Ravi and it does the same to me... I now rest my aching bones, stretching my numb feet on to sodden clods of earth and I wait for you and your gift of sleep, oblivion and rebirth. O Vishnu, let me behold you in your benign Serpent form!".
Reader, if you think Vishnu as serpent is non-standard imagery, here are two very standard Redons, 'Green Death' and 'Christ(!) manifest in a serpent'.
Afterthought: IMO, the closest Vijayan got to magical realism was in Gurusagaram, when Kunjunni, during a flight, sees the hanged Naxalite Tapas afloat in the sky just outside his window. But even this is was more a hallucinatory vision (Vijayan does not say that the floating Naxalite had a hard, objective reality)than a proper intrusion of the supernatural. 'Madhuram Gayati' is full of strange things happening but I would categorize it as 'fantasy'. And I have not read the scat-fest of 'Dharmapuranam' which might after all have some proper MR.
(*)In 'Midnight's Children', drops of blood from Adam Aziz's nose harden into rubies and his tears crystallize into diamonds - very naturally.
(**) Let me just mention a phrase encountered online a few days back: "numinous palms". Sadly, indeed scandalously, it was NOT about Khasak!
(***)Some cynics said, it was also a 'Milking of Khasak', with the author trying to exploit the popularity of his masterpiece. But they were dead wrong!
(****)Kili is more of a 'thumbi freak' in the story; but that is another story. And one can't help thinking, "if only Redon had painted dragonflies!"