One of the most important voices of contemporary Malayalam fiction, V. M. Devadas’ novels and short stories are noted for stylistic wizardry and their tendency to work on themes that revolve around both the political and philosophical dimensions of crime in the modern world. Unlike most of his contemporaries who focus on regional narratives, his works are keen to explore various aspects of nationalism and how they influence the day-to-day lives of his characters. He is the author of three short story collections and three novels Dildo: A pulp fiction textbook on six deaths, Panni Vetta (Boar Hunt), and Cheppum Panthum (Cup and Ball).   

How do you track your literary journey to this point?

I come from a small village called Vadakkancherry, near Thrissur. If you take away the Puranas and the epics that every Hindu child grows up with, and the stories and novels you encounter in your Malayalam textbooks in school, I hardly had any connection with literature in its conventional sense. Since my mother was a classical dancer and a dance teacher, I too was trained as one till my late teens. It was only after high school that I started going to libraries. Even then, my reading was confined mostly to Malayalam since I was schooled in Malayalam. Introduction to English literature would come only much later.

Even writing, I started pretty late, after 25 and being somewhat settled down with a job. It was the time when blogs were becoming popular and the rigidity of mainstream print literature was slowly but surely being challenged by the language of Internet. I began publishing anecdotal notes based on what I had seen and experienced till then. There were also a few poems, but it was only much later that I started writing short stories and novels; only after I had gained sufficient confidence from the encouragement my friends on the social media gave me.

You have always been pretty active on social media and have written many posts on what it means to be a writer in the social media age.

Why do I write?

Why do I write?

Why do I write?

I have read somewhere that one must start writing only after finding convincing answers for these three questions. Is this a topic I can handle? Why am I compelled to think about a theme like this? Is it only through literature that I can respond to this subject? I must tick these boxes before I get to work. One of the advantages of being a writer in the social media age is that you are not confined to literature as the only mode of response. I am not talking only about political issues. Even deeply personal matters have outlets in social media, and as a writer I find that extremely liberating. A thought that bothers you deeply; sharp sarcasm; a distressed state of mind; strong political opinions; social media can help a writer address all these issues using that platform so that when it comes to literature the writer needs to work only on those subjects that cannot be expressed in a different medium.

You work as a software professional, and have often mentioned the dilemmas involved in being a writer in Malayalam from the IT industry.

Malayalam is one language where there are hardly any full-time writers. I work in IT, and maybe it is a case of the grass being greener on the other side, but I have always felt it is easy for people in academics or media to be closer to literature than it is for someone like me, where the workplace is always tense and tedious. You always have to update yourself with new technologies; you have to work in odd time zones and that never really allows you to settle down into a rhythm; and you have to always keep deadlines… So the time to spare for writing is limited and this definitely has an impact on the standard of writing. You won’t have time to ponder over a topic for a sufficient duration; so you have to get on with the business in the time at your disposal. For me, the only way to get through this is by being always in conversation with myself; with the various characters and plot details of an idea I am working on. Otherwise it is easy to lose track.

What was the impulse behind opting for a unique narrative craft in your first novel—Dildo: A pulp fiction textbook on six deaths?

One of the things I decided much before starting on my first novel was that, regardless of the theme, I should devise a narrative structure that does not conform to conventional norms. I had an idea about a fictional trilogy based on markets and crimes related to markets. Dildo, in fact, was not the first of this trilogy. I had earlier worked on a novel based on how measurements and measuring instruments influence the human condition. For various reasons, I had to abandon it. It was then that I started thinking about a theme on sex toys and the mechanisms of various underground markets that peddle such toys. I knew it was a thriller I wanted to write, but because I was keen on avoiding the usual of the genre, I devised a narrative structure in which the novel is presented as a school/ college textbook with chapters, pictures, questionnaires and study exercises.

Unlike most novels about Kochi which focuses on Latin Catholics and their cultural life, Panni Vetta has at its core a wide range of characters cutting across various demographic sections…

Panni Vetta was the second of the trilogy. The idea came after Dildo, when one day I watched the entire Godfather trilogy in one stretch. The next day, a plot that revolved around a man trapped in the underworld occurred to me. Most of the characters are based on stories of real-life petty gangsters and their gangs in Thrissur and Kochi. But instead of faithfully re-telling those stories, I wanted a narrative that embellished them with fantasies, even melodrama. Criminality is a state of mind as primal as hunger and sexuality, and my attempt was to extrapolate its various universal features on to the lives and histories of people I knew and had heard about.

Often, Kochi appears in Malayalam fiction as a space populated by one particular community. I wanted to move away from that norm. Migrant Tamil labourers, those who fled ethnic violence in the northeast, the few Jews left in the city, real estate brokers; I wanted all of them to have a space in my novel. Even the structure—each chapter as a profile of a criminal—was born of this desire to portray the city and its varied demography.

Kochi is probably the only city in Kerala that exhibits the characteristics of a metropolis. It is industrially and commercially more advanced than other parts of the state and is probably the one location where the impact of globalisation can be most acutely seen: that history goes back centuries to the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English. Like any other city, its margins are populated by the dispossessed. A culture of local and international trade with the port as its anchor, massive real estate deals; all of that gave the city its backdrop of crime. So when I wanted to work on a novel that had the crime history of Kerala from 1970 to 2010 as its theme, I had no choice but to make Kochi its location. And what I found in the process of writing was that crime in Kochi does not necessarily originate in Kochi. It spreads from various parts around it and accumulates in the city.

Your third novel, Cheppum Panthum (Cup and Ball), is set in Chennai, and you have chosen a mellowed down narrative compared to the first two novels. But as with The Boar Hunt, even while choosing a city as a character, and realism as a narrative perspective, you build the narrative here too in a way that climaxes to an act of magic.

I wrote Cheppum Panthum after a long break—almost six years. In that time my life changed and that is obviously reflected in the novel. Even the original plot and its details changed a lot. The ball and the cup are two objects entirely unrelated to each other, but in the hands of a magician, they transform into components of one of the oldest magic tricks in the world. I wanted to take that as the basic idea and work on two unrelated stories which are connected in the physical sense by a building the protagonists of the two stories share and in a thematic sense by the phenomenon of disappearing without trace from a city.

The time span extends from the early Sixties to the present. So both the old Madras and the new Chennai are characters. If you are from a village like me, and if you take a house from that village, it wouldn’t be difficult to get the details of that house and build a story around it. But in a city, you have not much idea about who built the building you stay in, who all might have stayed before you; even your neighbourhood changes so fast. I was fascinated by this floating nature of the city and the way it impacts a character’s psyche. For me, this whole idea of a city and its floating nature with people coming in and going out and disappearing and appearing somewhere else in a different form, all of that seemed straight out of a very primordial human instinct which manifests as a fascination for magic shows.

Even when I work on cities, I make it a point to have the various facets of their reality narrated in the backdrop of a hyper-real thematic element. So a story on the gangsters of Kochi ends with a Russian roulette while almost the entire second part of the novel on Chennai is a description of a magic show.

At a time when Malayalam literature is focusing more on its regional histories, you seem to address the nation and various aspects of nationalism in your works. You are also keen, especially in your short stories, to use local myths and re-tell them from a subaltern perspective. This leads to an interesting narrative style…

The idea of desham is a very real entity, no matter how strong the impact of globalisation. The classification of people according to caste, religion and class is very real. Geopolitical divisions are real, too. Add to that local myth and a culture of labour defined by tradition and custom.  There is a unique sensibility associated with such a cultural sphere. So it is only natural that a work of fiction tries to explore all of that.

On a personal note, I really enjoy myths and their aesthetics: the various rituals associated with them; avenues of art and entertainment that exist as part of those rituals… The problem, however, is when these myths are intertwined with science and history and used to create a religion-centred nationalism. That is exactly what is happening in the country right now. So when it comes to my literature, I try to separate myth from nostalgia and religion-driven interpretations, and instead use them as a device to present the conundrum we call progress and development.

How do you then view the idea of nation? What does it mean for a globalised Indian citizen working in a regional language?

The interpretations of what a nation is have undergone massive changes in this millennium. I am someone who left his village at 22 and his state a year later. From then, I have worked in various cities across India, living and interacting with people from various parts of the country. So that influence is bound to be part of my literature.

As a citizen of this country, I have always been deeply influenced by the polyphonic nature of the federal republic of India. For that reason alone, I have made it a point to work on themes related to Indian nationalism.

For instance, the failure of the Indian National Army, the complexities and impact of a leader like Jawaharlal Nehru, the tyranny of the 1975 emergency, migration to India from Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet, the cultural differences between various states of this country; all of this has had considerable influence on me. When you are describing a place or a region, I strongly feel that you need accurate sampling methods. I don’t subscribe to a narrative aesthetic that restricts itself to one particular community, or one particular region, when you are focusing on describing a period or a certain group of people. If life is polyphonic, the narrative has to be polyphonic too.

When you think like that, there is no way one can stay away from themes of nationalism even if you are a regional writer. More importantly, in our times when the nation and nationalism is claimed by a bunch of hooligans who absolutely deny our country’s polyphonic cultural ethos, it is imperative that we address this in our literature.

I am from the generation that had to deal firsthand with both the positives and negatives of globalisation. Till that point the idea of desham was built around the idea of life of the people who inhabit a particular region and the sensibility they develop around this idea. With globalisation, these sensibilities and the definitions of desham based on its linguistic and ritualistic characteristics were invalidated. Instead, there was a process of unifying one’s experiential world across different regions. And media accelerated this process. Whatever you saw, whatever you read, whatever you wore, whatever you ate, globalisation, on the pretext of introducing diversity, served to set in motion a culture that sold this diversity under an overarching ideology of consumerism. My personal experience is that, living in globalised cities helps you, or forces you depending on how you look at it, to forego feelings of nostalgia for your desham. And now when I go back to my village, I find this culture has moved from metro cities to small towns and even villages. From the perspective of a post-globalised citizen, the idea of a nation is a situational possibility that is constantly expanding, and as a consequence hybrid in its nature. As a writer, my goal is to find and write stories of this hybrid desham.

The politics and aesthetics of your writing?

I am of the firm belief that as a writer, the most important impulse must be deeply personal—something that affects you at a gut level, that makes you really curious and forces you to go after it… Of course, when one does that, there are also certain deliberate and conscious decisions to take in the process. One can, for instance, choose a unique narrative craft even when dealing with a theme that is conservative. Even then, even when you have a strong aesthetic and political orientation, once you start writing, I do feel you are bound by the theme you choose and the narrative choices that come with that theme.

As for politics, I go by the old adage: a writer cannot create a character more intelligent than him. The best he can do is, maybe he can hide his own prejudices while working on a subject. But to be honest, I feel such trickery will not withstand the scrutiny of close reading. And that’s why there is always this conflict between the politics that needs to be written and the politics that is actually written. One must also accept that a human being’s political orientation won’t remain constant; with changes in circumstances, one’s understanding and approach to the politics of their society also changes. That will reflect in the literature, too. The best I can strive to do as a writer is stay away from what are obvious anti-social, anti-women and anti-subaltern perspectives. 

But there is also a point of view that suggests that using Hindu myths to deconstruct the workings of contemporary politics only serves to reinforce the cultural project of Hindutva.

It’s a complex, double-edged subject. I think if I have to speak on this I will have to speak from both a political and a personal point of view. Let me first talk about the personal. By the time I was 25 and was starting to work seriously on literature, I had left my religion and its practices. From that point on I have been living as an atheist to the extent that it is possible for me. But in my childhood and my teens, the only books I had to read were the epics and the Puranas. Beyond the religious dimensions, the style of narrating the story has had a deep impact on me. The appeal of those dimensions of fiction, and more importantly, the dimensions of meta fiction in them, have stayed with me. Take for instance the Mahabharata. Forget the epic story, and the ideas of god and divinity it propounds… But look at Vyasa, the writer. He himself becomes a character… He creates offspring when the genealogy he narrates the story of meets a dead end… He curses his own characters… When you look at it that way, the epic is immensely rich with structural brilliance from a fictional point of view. And this facet is not just related to the Puranas and the epics. Take a work like the Vikramaditya stories. It is a work that startles, and continues to startle me, with its elements of narrative recursion, repetition and its extremely complex nested structure.

The other thing is, in mainstream imagination, the characters of these epics and ancient books are etched in black and white, while in their original textual form they exhibit far more complex behavioural patterns and make difficult and intricate ethical choices. Even their politics is complex and not as simplistic as they are now being portrayed. So when you look at them now from a perspective that is not based on religion, these same texts can provide you with very interesting political perspectives. I think that’s what people like D. D. Kosambi and Romila Thapar do.

The story-series that I am working on is based on interpreting myths from a subaltern perspective, has characters like Sambhukumaran, Shoorpanakha’s son who was killed by Lakshmana; Barbeerakan, Khadolkhacha’s son who was martyred at the Pandava camp; Sidhabhogar who made the idol of Pazhani Muruka… I am well aware of the criticism directed at the attempt to look at contemporary politics through these characters. There are people who say that even such deconstructive attempts are part of the larger Hindutva project. I do take those views seriously. But all I can say is that I am pretty clear where I am coming from. We live in a time and age when anyone who is willing to critique these epics and books are encountered physically, even with death.

And let’s not forget, it was the same Ambedkar who throughout his life tore apart Brahmanical Hinduism who said: “The Hindus wanted the Veda, and they sent for Vyasa who was not a caste Hindu. The Hindus wanted an epic, and they sent for Valmiki, who was an untouchable. The Hindus wanted a constitution, and they have sent for me.”  

You are also an avid reader, especially of contemporary fiction. How do you view Indian writing in English and its political framework? Can Indians who say their first language is English write an Indian novel?

My reading experience is that, Indian English writing is a genre that does not have any predominant defining traits. From Mulkraj Anand to Arundhati Roy, the subjects they address and the styles they employ are too diverse for it to be brought under a single analytical umbrella. Probably, it’s this same diversity that maintains its attraction for the readers.

As for whether someone who says their first language is English can write an Indian novel, I honestly don’t have an answer to that. It is a very complex issue, and I would like to hear the answer to that from an Indian English writer. What is an Indian novel? How can one define that? What are the factors which makes a novel Indian and un-Indian?

As someone who writes both novels and short stories, how do you come to the conclusion that a certain theme or an idea has to be written as a novel, and a certain other theme or idea as a short story?

I would like to think of the novel as the translation of a state of mind and the short story as a form that tries to describe a precise event or a situation. A novel may take years to complete. But a short story is much more lenient in terms of the demands of time it makes. So for someone like me who is not a full-time writer, it is not always possible to work on a novel. Of course, the process of determining whether an idea is the base for a novel or a short story, is the most difficult choice in the beginning if you are practitioner of both the genres. Most of the times I go by instinct, which of course is a consequence of the notions of time required for the process of writing.

So there have been many ideas that I have written down as short stories purely based on the amount of time required for writing. If I were to set them aside as plots for novels to be written later, I would be feeling very disturbed, and it’s not really a nice feeling to carry along. One of the good things about Malayalam literature is that we have a culture of magazines—both mainstream and parallel—that provide an active market for short story as a genre. There have been great writers who have never written a novel throughout their lives. 

This story is from the November 2017 issue