Spectral Speech from Below:
The Subversive Short Fiction of C Ayyappan
C Ayyappan (1949–2011) is an outstanding voice in the contemporary short fiction in Malayalam. He is a critical insider who radically sabotaged the aesthetic equilibrium and the nostalgic narratives in Malayalam that reiterated the elitist worldview with a few dexterous strokes of his pen. He has literally split the genre into fragments through his radical intervention in the story telling tradition of his language and culture. His short fiction is marked by a keen sense of cultural reality, social inequality and caste. The history and present of dalit life struggles for survival and human dignity are sensitively represented by his fiction in subtle and strategically political ways. The subversive and critical power of his fictional narration is ingenious and unprecedented in Malayalam. Social criticism, sarcasm, satire, irony, pathos and black humor make his texts complex, polyphonic and intricately nuanced in terms of plural signification.
His short stories are imaginative retelling of the lived experiences in the margins of Kerala society. Through a range of narrative techniques and imaginative tropes he has illuminated the readers about the invisible realities and often ignored vital issues at the bottom of things in Kerala. His works have prompted us to revisit and rethink the omissions, silences and lacunae of Kerala modernity and the lasting legacy of Kerala renaissance. He has enlightened us about our sanctioned ignorance and critical myopias regarding the fundamental issues of human rights and survival within Kerala. C Ayyappan was a Professor of Malayalam in Govt Colleges in Kerala. Prof. C Ayyappan’s major anthologies of short fiction include; Uchayurakathile Swapnangal (1986), Jnandukal (2003) and C Ayyappante Kathakal (2008).
His stories like “Spectral Speech,” “Madness” (translated into English by Prof. V C Harris) and “Niravathukayyani” are precarious fictional articulations of subaltern speech in an increasingly hegemonic world. Works like”Smarakam” has allegorically represented the crisis of Gandhian Nationalism and the emergence of new radical alternatives from below. His short fiction is also noted for its remarkable visual and cinematic potentials that conjure up specters, demons and invisible spirits that speak about the violence of the past and becomes ethical agents in the present. In stories like “Elumpan Kochathan” resembling phenomenal fiction authors like Toni Morrison he has revitalized the memories of slavery and provided critical perspectives on hegemonic elite culture in the limited canvas of his short fiction. In this respect he could be situated in the resistance legacy of grass root level dalit critique in Kerala initiated by early reformers and authors like Poykayil Appachan in the early 20th century.
According to mainstream critics he has narrativized the schisms and fissures in the modernist tradition of narration that evaded questions of caste and gender in Malayalam and reinvigorated the genre through a serious and engaging exchange that refocused the ethical consciousness of creative writing on the key and burning issues of the social milieu, its culture and history. He is also seen as the most vibrant and creative voice within the dalit literary tradition of Malayalam. His short fiction offers unlimited possibilities for critical, contextual and textual interpretations and inter semiotic translations in various languages, media and contexts. His body of work though slight in volume is a real challenge to translation with its specific cultural complexities and minor sub cultural differences. His demise amidst obliteration and erasure that are often used against authors who raise the caste issue in a hegemonic society is an irretrievable loss to the literary culture and the cultural politics of dissent and difference in Kerala today. Let me pay my homage to this doyen of Malayalam letters and politics through my translation of his shortest short story “Smarakam.”
Short Story by C Ayyappan titled “Smarakam” translated from Malayalam by Ajay Sekher
We could not control our laughter and ire on remembering that incident even today. It was one of those political frauds that are often staged in our country. The Gandhi statue at our junction where the three roads met was the central cause of that fraud. In reality it was not the statue but a group of crows that actually caused the problem. The crows without any sense of nationalism ‘bombarded’ the bald head of Gandhiji, that is, they defecated on his very head! This is the problem proper.
We split into two opposing factions on this issue. The first faction said; a new agitation must be launched immediately to appoint one to protect the head of the Father of the Nation from crow shit. According to the second faction the Gandhi statue must be pulled down, crushed to fine powder and must be scattered in the holy rivers. The idol must be in our minds. The crows will not shit in the mind, will they?
While we were debating over this a few youth who came from the east carrying the sun confronted us. We laughed aloud at their talk. Some of us said: “Here come the real politicians!” Do you know what absurdity they said to woo both factions? I will tell you. They delivered it like this:
The Gandhi statue must be allowed to stand like this for one more century. The dropping crows must not be chased away as well. The past too must be allowed to have its revenge. As we know the crows are the souls of the dead.
(Translated by Ajay Sekher from C Ayyappante Kathakal. Kotttayam: Penguin & Manorama, 2008. 116)