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

Monday, October 31, 2016

Khasak and Tahiti

This post (mostly) is an extract from a somewhat bigger and recently written article exploring affinities between Vijayan's Khasak and Symbolist art. Note: The article grew from an earlier post here titled 'A Serpentine Return'.


In his first and most acclaimed novel ‘Khasakinte Ithihasam’ (‘Khasak’ hereafter), O V Vijayan invests the remote Malabar village of Khasak with an intensely lyrical landscape, drenched in achingly rich colors (he repeatedly asserts the redness of the twilights). The rugged mountain Chethali, occasionally darkened by cloud shadows, looms like a sentinel, its granite peaks rising like domes and minarets and the wild eastern wind whistles thru groves of dark palms. Given the savage physical beauty of the setting and the myths woven about and into this setting by generations of vivid folk imagination (the novel also incorporates these myths in several brilliantly written passages), the supernatural never feels too far. But, equally, the Beyond always floats as a separate numinous realm just above the mundane, never intruding into the everyday (recall the novel's image of "the cloud-laden monsoon sky hanging just over the Khasak, holding back its immense power"). The gods and spirits of Khasak are mute spectators following the protagonist Ravi’s progress and the larger human drama that plays out in the village ….


The parallels of Khasak with Tahiti, the remote and stunningly beautiful Pacific island to which the angst-ridden - and very carnal- French artist Paul Gauguin escaped to and proceeded to paint over and over in overflowing colours - are hard to miss. This passage by Charles Baudelaire, one of the originators of the literary Symbolist movement (lines from the poem ‘Exotic Perfume’) would apply perfectly to the Tahiti of Gauguin – and with the slightest of modifications to Khasak.

”…A languorous island, where Nature abounds With exotic trees and luscious fruit; And with men whose bodies are slim and astute, And with women whose frankness delights and astounds…”

As a specific illustrative example of Gauguin’s arresting vision of Tahiti’s little world of wild colours and unfettered passion, watched over by the ever-present Incorporeal, we look at the haunting painting ‘Spirits of the Dead, Watching’. It shows Gauguin's young Tahitian wife, who one night, according to Gauguin, was lying in fear when he arrived home late: " ... Motionless, belly down on the bed: she stared up at me, her eyes wide with fear, '... Perhaps she took me, with my anguished face, for one of those legendary demons or specters, the Tupapaus that filled the sleepless nights of her people."¬¬¬¬

Vijayan’s narrative of a childhood experience with a dragonfly (narrated in his ‘Ithihasathinte Ithihasam’ (written in 1989, twenty years after Khasak came out) which we shall refer to in what follows as simply ‘Ithihasam’) has an eerily similar feel:

“After several days of chasing, I managed to catch a rare brown dragonfly. I held it up and looked closely at its face – its features were very different from those of its green-eyed and common cousin. I ran home and put it in a wooden box…. I could sense dreamy visions beginning to pop up and melt into one another within my brain. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was alone in a dark room; in a corner stood the box. Another presence throbbed therein; I could almost hear a mysterious spectral being gasping for breath. Pure terror gripped me.”

In Vijayan’s depiction of a vicious epidemic of smallpox - Nallamma, the presiding deity of the disease holds dominion over Khasak - one sees the same preoccupation with Death and Sex that Gauguin expresses in glowing colours and an intensely personal reworking of native myths and imagery in paintings such as ‘Where did we come from? Where are we? Where are we headed?’

“The Khasakians lay strewn about, like a big garden. Pus burst forth like so many bright golden yellow flowers. The villagers frolicked among fields of these flowers and gathered in bowers overgrown with creepers laden with them. They wore the blooms proudly in their hair and faces and limbs. And they beheld, bedecked in the same flowers, Nallamma dancing in wild abandon. In their dreams, she became a ravishing seductress; in delirious trances, they yielded to her, lost themselves in her. And in that rapturous ecstasy, they died….”

Vijayan writes in ‘Ithihasam’ on the Khasakian character Maimuna, seen by most readers and critics as the classic femme fatale:

“The acme of experiencing the Female is not the culmination of a carnal act; it is the very essence of meditation. Maimuna had no flesh-and-blood prototype; she was a perfect spirit who emerged from my deepest reveries. In those very meditations, I coupled with her in a totally incorporeal and utterly perfect consummation… “.

For all the abstraction the author – belatedly and in hindsight, from twenty years into the future - forces into the above passage, his original portrayal and characterization of ‘the Beauty of Khasak’ bears a strong affinity to how Gauguin envisioned (much more confidently and one would say, more honestly) his essential Woman in all her dangerous beauty, smouldering sexuality and overarching mystery. For instance, consider his striking portrait of his Javan mistress Annah; looking at it, one could recall the passage in ‘Khasak’ where Maimuna ‘rose naked from the darkness and damp of the interior of the ruined mosque’ and casually refers to the body of her father, Mollakka being taken for burial as ‘savam’ – the corpse.

We may also observe here that Baudelaire viewed - and described in words - his own mulatto mistress Jeanne Duval (the ‘Black Venus’) in very ( similar terms to Gauguin’s.

Note: The elemental attraction fuelled by the exotic ethnic origins of Jeanne and Annah is echoed in Khasak by Maimuna’s Tamil Muslim identity. In an intriguing episode in the novel (just as intriguingly left out by the author when he prepared an English translation), the protagonist Ravi, a Hindu by birth, gets into a vicious fistfight with her Muslim lover ‘Khaliyar’ Nizam Ali and the two men proceed to make up - for no obvious reason - drinking from the same bottle of hooch.


In earlier post here, I had mentioned an apparent correspondences between Khasak and the work of Odilon Redon (a Symbolist master who was friends to Gauguin). Here is his "Death, my irony surpasses everything!"; the 'sarpasundari' therein - a sinuous and mysterious female figure emerging from the coils of a serpent - looks quite similar to what I recall of the 'rising Maimuna' (mentioned above) as drawn by skilled illustrator AS when Khasak was first serialized. And come to think of it, the Malampuzha Yakshi (sculpted in 1969, coincidentally, the year that saw the publication of Khasak) too expresses essentially the same vision.


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