'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

'Naskyathiram' to 'Zirconium'

The term "Orientalism" refers to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies and to a tendency to essentialize these societies as static and undeveloped. In (Edward) Said's analysis, (essential to Orientalism) is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior. - from Wikipedia.

European orientalist fashion had a scholarly aspect - cultures being characterized as undeveloped were also subjected to serious study and exploration, sometimes with conquest on the agenda, sometimes as part of a paternalistic, 'civilizing' mission. Orientalism took some other forms as well; the subject cultures were sometimes summarily ignored as insignificant or misdirected; sometimes even their existence as cultures was denied with self-bestowed authority.


"Children, you would think of the sky as this big blue thing hanging up above us. But know what, it is not a very neat and proper thing; there are tiny, tiny holes all over - the angels poked them. You could see those little holes only at night, shining away - each of them is a naskyathiram (a corruption of 'nakshatram' = star)!"

Thus began a geography lesson by Madrasa instructor Moidu Musaliyar, an unforgettable character from the now seldom-remembered Malayalam Children's classic of the 1970s : "Kunhayante kusrithikal" by V.P. Muhammed.

And here is a newspaper headline that appeared just the other day(free-translated from Malayalam) "Naslim -a brilliant new neela nakshatram (blue star)!". An online story on the discovery of the amazing 'zirconium star' is here: . Naslim, one of the star's discoverers, is a promising lady graduate student of astrophysics, doing research at Armagh Observatory in Ireland. She hails from the same geographical and ethnic milieu as Moidu Musaliyar - the Mappila Muslim heartland of North and North-Central Kerala.

The above two bits of celestial information - one fictional of course - bookend my own slow discovery of the 'creative presence' of the Mappila Muslim community - a community that constitutes almost a fifth of Kerala's population.

I resume what is goint to be a fairly lengthy and episodic narrative with another early example: Back in Primary school, we studied a biography of explorer-humanitarian David Livingstone. The story develops as narrated by an unnamed 'Uncle' to a group of curious children. A short extract:

Uncle: "Livingstone was deeply pained by the pathetic living conditions of Africa's indegenous people. He raised a strong protest against the rampant trade in 'adimas'(slaves)"

At this point Hassankutti (the only Muslim among the children) has a doubt, which he articulates in the Mappila dialect: "What is this 'adima - trade'? My Kochchatha (father's younger brother) is called Adima. And he runs a shop. Why would that White Saheb object to that?"

A wee bit of explanation is needed here: the word 'Adima', meaning slave in Malayalam, is also a proper Muslim name in Kerala - a literal desi translation of 'Ghulam'.

Everyone laughs aloud and Uncle proceeds with the Livingstone saga without explaining 'adima'. I remember thinking "That was not fair!".

In children's magazine stories of my younger days, Muslim characters always spoke the an extravagant Mappila dialect (although Mallu Muslims one met in real life seldom did, at least to non-Mappilas). They were all Hassankutti-clones - usually religious, usually kind-hearted but most importantly, naive, utterly so. Strangely, some of those stories were written by Muslims themselves. I recall a serial 'Kochu Panikkar' on the adventures of a bright but impoverished young Hindu hero, Panikkar - the author of the series was a certain Abdul Kader. In one episode, Panikkar catches a servant who steals from a wealthy Muslim landlord. The landlord is everything that Akbar is in all those Birbal stories popularized by Amar Chitra Katha - kind-hearted, trusting and a little light upstairs - and speaks a very Mappila dialect; in stark contrast, Panikkar speaks polished, literary Malayalam.

(Note: The Hindu nationalists of the North had a solid reason to fabricate a Birbal as the only smart guy among a horde of martial Muslims - it was an obvious way to make up for their ancestors' inabiility to beat off Muslim invaders and rulers. But Kerala has had no history of sustained Muslim rule and dominance so such subaltern narratives are irrelevant here. And why would a Mallu Muslim writer himself pander to such attitudes?).

Punnoose Pullolikkal is a teacher who has written at least a few really good Popular Mathematics books for school-children. Some of his works (1970s) are structured as dialogs between a certain 'Gopi Sir' and groups of smart students. Punnoose always lists the students' names. I remember checking and confirming that the names were always evenly split between Hindu and Christian (btw, Punnoose himself is Christian and Gopi is a very Hindu name); not a single Mathemacially curious Muslim schooler inhabits Punnoose's world.

Prof. S. Sivadas is an equally successful and far more prolific science popularizer. In all his books (most are again, dialogic) dating from the 1970s and 80s, the characters had mostly Hindu names with a sprinkling of Christian ones. Again, no Muslims.

(In defence of both Punnoose and Sivadas, it may be argued that both hail from a part of Kerala where the population is mostly Hindu-Christian)(*).

In such a setting, V. P. Muhammad's 'Kunhayan' was a revolution. On the face of it, Kunhayan is a Mappila Birbal from medieval Kerala(from the BBC perspective, which often shows 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' as antonyms, he would be 'anti-Birbal'!) - a bright young lad who wins his way into the courts and hearts of the Hindu rulers of Malabar with his ready wit and street-smart cleverness. But unlike ACK's Akbar, the Mallu Hindus in the story are not dull; they are normal folk. Kunhayan is only an epsilon smarter than them. Indeed, this very well-written novel makes a noble pitch for communal harmony. 'Kunhayan' also goes far beyond Birbal in that it also incorporates serious social commentary - the story is also a critique of the superstitions, lack of education and other evils plaguing Keralan society in general and the hero's Mappila society in particular. Moidu Musaliyar is a searing caricature of the devious, reactionary (and ill-educated) religious guru. A hard-hitting episode in the novel points out how the Ossans (barbers) were looked down upon by 'high-caste' Mappilas. Elsewhere Kunhayan tellingly calls the bluff of a Hindu 'Velichappad' (oracle).

There is one little aspect of the novel that I did not quite approve of. Both Kunhayan and and his learned Ustad (Guru), Maqdoom of Ponnani, always speak an ethnicity-neutral, bookish Malayalam - as if abandonment of the Mappila dialect is the hallmark of learning and culture. (**)

For nearly 15 years at school and college, Malayalam language was one my subjects. The Muslim-themed stories, chapters, poems, etc. that I met with in our syllabus during this entire time-span, could be collectively counted with the fingers of one hand. We had to work thru dozens of specimens of long-gone genres of Malayalam poetry (champus, mani-pravalas, sandeshas etc.) including many written in archaic dialects with strong Tamil and Sanskrit admixture - every single one of them was Hindu in theme - but we saw not one line from the very substantial corpus of Mappila Malayalam literature. I first heard the name 'Moinkutty Vaidyar' long after I graduated! And now, in middle-age, I have just made an acquaintance with this most eminent of Mappila poets thru a few fragments from his 'Husnul Jamal' and 'Badr pattu'. (First impression: Vaidyar's diction is hard to follow - apart from the expected Arabic loan-words, there is the stunning surprise of a substantial Tamil vocabulary - surprising because in the Mappila country, Tamil has virtually zilch presence as a spoken language. Well, after a bit of reflection, I recall that the lyrics of a wistful loved-and-lost song from Uroob's famous novel 'Ummachu' were also laced with Tamil ... let me leave all talk about Tamil influence on Mappila culture for a future discussion!)

Things do seem to be changing and so are drafters of Malayalam language lessons. Hopefully, future students of Malayalam would know Moinkutty Vaidyar at least as well as they know, say, Ramapurathu Warrier. Of course, a lot of these syallabus changes have been driven by the increasingly assertive Muslim League politicians and their vote-bank politics. The confident assertiveness of the Leaguers has also led to allegations of overkill - for example, that they have challenged even the traditional practice of giving the name 'Rama' to the typical Everyman. IMO, such demands for a share of name-space and theme-space are perfectly legitimate but they had better not get tied *exclusively* to demographic presence and sheer numbers. Rabindranath Tagore wrote his acclaimed 'Sahaj Path' language lessons for Bengali, a language with Muslim majority speakers. Tagore's set of stories and poems hardly have Muslim characters but that does not make them any less marvelously effective - and it is an effectiveness I can vouch for ( I dunno how 'Sahaj Path' is viewed in the mostly Muslim Bangladesh; I want to believe it is a treasured classic there too).

Whatever, in recent years, Sivadas has (consciously?) broadened the religious spread of his child characters by introducing a Kochumuhammed and a Jameelabeevi among his usual set of children, Deepu, Appu, Mini... I have not checked Punnoose's recent works. But these are really not significant details; far more significant is the fact that substantial numbers of gifted Mappila youth have begun to rise to eminence in domains of creativity not associated with ethnicity and religion. Naslim is but one example.


(*) I am quite wary of focussing too much on the relative representation of various religious communities in any given character set. Let me recall the late Vaikom Mohammed Basheer's comments when the Soviets took the first Indian to Space: "Hey guys, it is not fair! The two Indians in the final selection, Ravish Malhotra and Rakesh Sharma are both Hindus. For God's sake, where are the minoriies?! Now I can only hope and pray that Malishev and Strekalov, the two Russians on the same space mission are a Muslim and Christian respectively; only that can correct the communal balance!"

(**) Wiki has revealed that the character of Kunhayan is partly based on eminent 18th century Mappila writer Kunhayin Musaliyar. At the conclusion of the novel, Kunhayan faces an enigmatic question from Ustad Maqdoom: "Are you making a ship of a man?". Pondering it intensely, he experiences a sudden epiphany and composes a mystic poem on the perilous voyage of a ship sailing uncharted seas as an allegory for human existence. His 18th century namesake is credited with the poem 'Kappappattu', which has the same theme.


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