Ernesto Che Guevara
and his Motorcycle Diaries to the left. A P J Abdul Kalam and
his Wings of Fire to the right. Maniyanpillai chuckles: “Not
bad company for a thief and his story, right?” Then he stops, and asks with the
conviction of a man who knows he belongs: “And why not? They had their stories,
I have mine; what does it matter that they are legends while I’m a petty
Indeed, what does it matter?
Not at all, if the rip-roaring success if Maniyanpillai’s, Thaskaran: Maniyanpillayude Aathmakatha (Thief: The Autobiography of Maniyanpillai), published by DC Books, is an indicator. At a time when conventional genres of literature—novel, poetry and short story—have got short shrift from the reading public of Kerala, the thief’s story is a bestseller with more than 10,000 copies already sold.
But numbers, redoubtable as they are, don’t tell the full story of its impact. A more instructive pointer can be found in the way it connected with readers attuned to different frequencies of the literary spectrum.
From a construction labourer to an academic scholar, from a casual reader on the train to a fanatic bookworm, the book, as the comments below attest, provides everyone with a reason to fall in love with it.
“The book has the rawness of life in it. Though the story is extraordinary, I can still connect to it because it is told by an ordinary man like me.”
—Santhosh Mani, a construction labourer by day and avid reader by night.
“The book offers rare and critical insights into the construction of marginalised subjectivities. Essentially, it is a sharp and deeply affecting critique of our society.”
—George Sebastian, PHD scholar at the School of Letters, MG University.
“You can read the book like a racy thriller. But unlike most thrillers, it has some sort of enduring quality to it.”
—Ramachandran Das, a bank employee who spends his 90-minute morning train journey from Kottayam to Ernakulam in the company of books, usually by Sidney Sheldon and Robin Cook.
“The book haunts. I can’t say that about too many Malayalam books that have come out in the last ten years.”
—Nisha Alex, a copywriter who says she can’t live without books.
Maniyanpillai responds with a monastic equanimity to such unreserved acceptance and acclaim. An existence of notoriety for years in society’s darker shadows failed to disorient him, and nor has the present lionisation by the mainstream affected him to much.
“It feels nice”, he says. “But the money I’ve made from the book is more valuable than all the praise. It means that I don’t have to play the thief anymore.’’
Those who were present at the book launch will remember that this was what he had hoped for then, too.
But the money I’ve made from the book is more valuable than all the praise. It means that I don’t have to play the thief anymore.
During a memorable speech on the occasion, he had, in an endearing display of candour that would make purveyors of highbrow literature shudder in distaste, told the audience why he wanted them to buy and read his book: “If you buy my book I will get money and if I get money I don’t have to be a thief anymore.”
the word autobiography appears on the title page, the genre to which it belongs
is not autobiography. DC Books, in its catalogue, lists the book under the
heading “Aathmakathanam/Geevithamezhuth”—Life Writing.
A variation on the theme of autobiography, life writing has, in the last ten years, supplanted fiction as the most influential and marketable genre in Malayalam literature.
While an autobiography has the author and the protagonist as the same person—usually an individual of repute and eminence—life writing has an author transcribing the story of the protagonist, usually an unknown person who has led an atypical life suffused with colourful episodes.
Though a biography, too, follows the same scheme—an author telling the story of the protagonist—what differentiates life writing from biography is the absence of an author’s perspective. The protagonist in life writing, unlike that of a biography, is not a product of the author’s interpretation. The author claims to have no perspective and merely chronicles the protagonist’s life, with the voice of the book being the voice of the first person.
Beyond such technical distinctions, there is a subtle but vital facet that distinguishes life writing from autobiography and biography. AV Sreekumar, publication manager of DC Books says: “From a publisher’s point of view, what is important is how readers perceive a particular genre. With an autobiography or a biography, the intentions of the book are always under a cloud of doubt. People cannot be faulted for thinking that what they are reading is a hagiography or a work of brazen image management; after all, most biographies and autobiographies are just that.
“But with life writing, nobody suspects dubious motives. People perceive that what they are reading is a candid and honest narrative because they do not think that a sex worker or a thief has an image to safeguard. As a result, the bond between a book of life writing and a reader is more intimate.’’
G R Indugopan, prominent novelist and Maniyanpillai’s chronicler, too, thinks “honesty is the operative word’’. Having grown up in the same coastal village in Thiruvanthapuram as Maniyanpillai, Indugopan was always fascinated by the local legend of a small-time thief who almost became a minister in Karnataka. When he first met Maniyanpillai, his objective was centred on a feature for a weekly. But two hours into their first meeting, he became convinced that it was a book that he had to write. Not only was Maniyanpillai forthcoming to the degree of ingenuousness, he appealed to Indugopan as a man endowed with remarkable storytelling instincts.
“There was no reticence about sharing his past. Transgressions and wrongdoings were never disavowed. It was as if he knew the story of his life was tailor-made for a wonderful reading experience. He did not think his past made him a villain, nor did he consider himself as some kind of a hero of the dark side of our world.
“He portrayed himself as he really was, warts and all. What was important to him was narrating the events in exactly the same way as he had lived through them. The honesty was striking, and I think that is the secret of the book’s success. You see, readers are smart, though writers and intellectuals underestimate them.’’
Numerous sessions followed after that initial meeting. From the giant mass of Maniyanpillai’s memories which to Indugopan’s surprise were not mangled in the least, a form and structure gradually started to emerge. A diary in which Maniyanpillai had jotted comments about the various people he had encountered and the nature of life he had seen as a thief proved to be of significant assistance.
“I don’t know why I started making diary notes,’’ Maniyanpillai says, “but there was something rewarding about the process.’’ For Indugopan, the book evolved from the story of Maniyanpillai to an account of the world as seen through a petty thief’s eyes. The richness of the content he was dealing with meant that there was no need to indulge in fancy literary gimmickry to catch the attention of the readers.
“The only challenge I had was to structure Maniyanpillai’s memories. The style of writing had to be direct in just the same way as Maniyanpillai’s speech was. In fact, that truthfulness is what gives the book its compulsive page turning quality. It is the book’s USP. There was no way that I was going to water that down.’’
In the process, Indugopan’s own beliefs on literature and the act of writing underwent a transmutation. “In a way, it forced me to take a fresh look at the way I approach fiction. It gave me a firsthand experience of the sheer force of life and the overwhelming impact a force of that nature has on a reader. After all, I had read Maniyanpillai’s book even before it was written.’’
From the outset, Indugopan was convinced that the book would go on to become a massive hit. “I had no doubt that the book would be celebrated by readers.’’
His conviction was based on the idea that there lives a Maniyanpillai in all of us; a creature that cares little for the laws and norms prescribed by mainstream society to ensure a sheltered existence for its subjects; a creature that lives with a thousand untold memories and a thousand underground fantasies; a creature that hankers after a world that would lend a sympathetic ear to the confession it has to make.
“The book strikes a chord with both the negative and the tender sides of the readers. They prefer those kind of books’’, says Sreekumar.
With a character and a story so riveting, one wonders if Indugopan, a novelist himself, ever considered chiselling out a novel from Maniyanpillai’s life.
“No, such a thought never crossed my mind. Maniyanpillai was a little too real to be made into a novel. And in any case, I knew that a novel would not have worked. Right from the start, I was convinced that the genre for Maniyanpillai had to be life writing.’’ In fact, it was not an isolated case of a book choosing its genre; people of all sorts were walking with their stories into books of life writing while readers flocked around like moths to a flame.
The emergence of life
writing as a distinct genre is less a phenomenon of literature than it is of
journalism. That is no surprise, given that Malayalam never had an independent
book publishing culture, just as it never had an independent television
culture. If television evolved as a spin-off from cinema, books were
by-products of magazines.
For a long time,
publishing houses never bothered to identify new trends or discover new voices;
the onus of setting the agenda was placed on magazine
So the writers and works picked up by publishers had already found a way to magazines—both mainstream magazines and little magazines that were immensely popular in the Seventies and early Eighties. If the magazine was an examination, the book was a certificate for those who had passed.
Near the end of the last millennium, magazines began to shift the focus from highbrow literature to profiles of ordinary, unknown people and political discourses woven around them. The trend was the result of a decline in the popularity of literature and the rise of left liberal identity politics. People were stories and people were politics at once.
N P Sajeesh, noted critic and part of the editorial team of Madhyamam, a prominent Malayalam weekly, says: “Readers had started defecting from literature as it was hopelessly out of sync with life. When magazines published profiles of people in their own voices, readers took an instant liking. They found something that had flesh and soul. Publishers soon recognised the potential of the genre, and began to produce books out of these profiles.’’
Kerala’s changing political landscape was also a decisive factor in the evolution of life writing. If previously the lexicon of political and cultural resistance was fashioned out of classical Marxism, towards the end of the Nineties, a new form of political struggle emerged. It rejected Marxism’s class-based approach and instead looked at the concept of identity. Life writing was a vital cultural proof of this phenomenon as it democratised the literary space, with the marginalised finding for self expression a platform that hitherto was non-existent.
“Essentially, life writing was a frontal assault on the elitism of mainstream literature. The writer was no longer a creature that strutted around with an aura. In that sense, it is a political event,’’ says Sajeesh.
In fact, two of the
earliest books of life writing were, to all intents and purposes, explicit,
hard-hitting political profiles. Janu, transcribed by
Bhaskaran, chronicled the life of C K Janu, the woman who had emerged as the
bona fide voice of the Adivasi uprising in Wayanad and taken the political
sphere of Kerala by storm.
The second was Kandalkkadukalkkidayil Ente Geevitham (My Life Among The Mangroves). Transcribed by Thaha Madai, it told the story of Kallen Pokkudan, a Dalit environmental activist from Kannur.
Janu, written in the Adivasi tongue spoken by Janu, was a seminal work. The political weight it carried was not just a product of the views and perspectives its protagonist endorsed, but also of the aesthetic framework it employed.
The book gave a new dimension to political writing in Malayalam. It veered sharply off the track charted by writers of the much-heralded and romanticised red Seventies whose oeuvre, despite claims of political commitment, reeked of ingrained feudal tendencies.
If their “politically charged” writing seemed patronising, it was because the language and the content were not always on the same political page; slushy diatribes and existentialist ruminations that often bordered on cerebral debauchery, hardly doing justice to the lives they sought to portray.
R Ramadas, senior associate editor of DC Books, says: “The relevance of Janu lies in the fact that its language lent great authenticity to its content. The politics of the book was not an intellectual exercise. Instead, it was intimate.’’
Following Janu and My Life Among The Mangroves, a slew of life writing books featuring an assortment of protagonists came out. If Oru Hijadayude Aathmakatha (The Autobiography of a Hijada) was a narrative of the struggles Jerina, a transgender, goes through, Nalini Jameela’s Njan Laingikathozhilali (Me a Sex Worker) was an account of the world as seen and experienced by a sex worker.
Dupe, one of the most popular in the genre, tells the story of how Surayya Banu, who had come to Kodambakkam with aspirations of becoming a star, ended up earning her livelihood as a body double for Shakeela, the undisputed queen of the soft porn wave that ruled Mollywood in the early part of the last decade. Shakeela’s own story, first published in the 2011 annual edition of Mathrubhumi weekly, is all set to come out as a book, published by Olive Books.
Other prominent examples include Nagnajeevithangal (Naked Lives), an anthology of strange unknown people of streets; Amen, the story of Sister Jesmi, a nun who decided to leave her convent after a valiant battle against the might of the Christian Church and its chauvinistic power centres; Gramaphone, a highly spiced description of the anarchic life of Eranjoli Moosa, one of the finest living Mappila Paatu singers; Kallan Baaki Ezhuthumbol (The Thief Writes What Happened After), the story of Maniyanpillai after his first book was published, and Ediye (O Dear!), the memories of Fabi Basheer, wife of the legendary writer Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer.
Along with these books on the personal histories of its protagonists, books that explored regional and cultural histories through the life of a famous individual, usually people associated with celluloid, theatre and literature, also became popular. Noted works of this sub-genre include Katha Thudarum (The Story Will Continue), the story of KPAC Lalitha, an iconic theatre and film actress, and Mamukkoya, on the cultural history of Kozhikode through the life of Mamukkoya, a renowned character actor.
According to Thaha Madai, the most prolific “life–teller” going around in Malayalam, the choice of focus is the prerogative of the life-teller. Gramaphone, Thaha’s chronicle ofEranjoli Moosa, met with trenchant criticism for placing too much emphasis on the singer’s sexual adventures, thus letting slip the opportunity of examining the history of Mappila Paatu through the life of one of its prime exponents.
Reacting to those criticisms, Thaha says: “It is for the life-teller to decide what kind of history, personal or cultural, makes the book appealing. For instance, from a book on Eranjoli Moosa, who is to Mappila Paatu what K J Yesudas is to film music in Kerala, readers would not normally expect a description of a rebellious life. Cultural icons are expected to be stainless individuals and perfect ambassadors of social norms. So I decided to use Moosa’s personal history to debunk this myth.
“But when it came to a book like Mamukkoya, I wanted to deploy Mamukkoya’s memories to recount tales about Kozhikode which certified history has not yet recorded and is unlikely to record in the future as well. It was an attempt at alternative city history.”
Not everyone cares for life writing. It has particularly drawn the wrath of the legion of devotees of conservative literature. Special ire is reserved for books that explicitly discuss sexuality. So Me a Sex Worker and Dupe have been pilloried for defacing the glorious towers of culture and sullying literature. An angry T Padmanabhan, a stalwart of the Malayalam short story, once quipped: “Before we used to read Nalini (one of the masterpieces of the great Malayalam poet, Kumaranasan), now we read the story of Nalini Jameela, a sex worker.”
Incensed custodians of the shrines of (Catholic/Upper Caste) morality have accused life writing of smuggling in smut and sleaze on the pretext of literature.
But this tide of moral indignation from purist quarters can be ignored because they are inevitable—you don’t expect priests to sing Hosannas to thieves and sex workers. But the genre has also been panned by more balanced cultural observers.
Shanavas M A, part of the editorial team of Madhyamam whose issues over the years have carried plenty of life stories, says: “While it’s incontestable that life writing has made the reading environment of Malayalam more pluralistic, it’s prone to manipulation. Often, these stories pander to readers’ voyeuristic inclinations, in the process spicing up the memories of its subjects.”
Prasanth Kalathil, an avid follower of life writing, says: “It’s one thing to be politically correct and quite another to be paying no heed to the critical engagement a text asks of a reader. So sometimes these books are subjected to a process of glorification because if you condemn them or even offer constructive criticism, you’re almost certain to earn the tag ‘politically incorrect’.”
Blind veneration irrespective of the merit of the work is thus a real danger.
Good or bad, there’s one point that remains at the core, and that is the “authenticity controversy” first associated with Me a Sex Worker. The book was first transcribed by I Gopinath, a human rights activist, and published by DC Books with the title Oru Laingikathozhilaliyude Aathmakatha (Autobiography of a Sex Worker).
The impact of Janu and My Life among the Mangroves was confined to a circle of people who followed literature and politics keenly. The Autobiography of a Sex Worker was the real game changer. Its popularity cut across the entire spectrum of readers. Previously, the sex worker featured prominently in highbrow literature, but only as an ersatz version romanticised as the “Veshya” (prostitute).
The jargon employed to delineate the existence of the prostitute, portrayed either as a creature of mystique or an ill-fated victim, was a product of the ethos that governed the erogenous zones of masculine spirituality. Sex Worker was a momentous breakaway from this tradition. It dispelled the myth of the prostitute: sex was an act of labour, and the sex worker a member of the working class.
But despite instant cult status and producing a new paradigm shift the book ran into controversies with Nalini Jameela disowning it, and accusing I Gopinath of manoeuvring her memories to advance his political interests.
In an interview given to India Today, she claimed that she had never made the controversial remarks that appeared in the book on prominent feminists like K Ajitha, Maithreyan and Jayashree. Those comments were inserted on Gopinath’s own accord.
Gopinath says: “I felt betrayed. She read the book before it went to press and verified everything. I even asked if there was any need to take on K Ajitha, Maithreyan and Jayashree, as it was likely to be counter-productive. It was on Nalini Jameela’s insistence that I decided to keep it because, according to her, the fact that those people were important feminists meant their views on the life of a sex worker had an added dimension.”
After both parties traded punches, DC Books took the book from the market and came out with a new version transcribed by N Baiju. According to AV Sreekumar, publication manager of DC Books, they were left with no other choice.
“A book of life writing narrates the life of its subject. So when the subject disowns that book, the publishing house has to follow her version, otherwise it puts us in an embarrassing position.”
The introduction to the new version, Njan Laingikathozhilali, (Me a Sex Worker), has Nalini Jameela saying authentic version was needed because the first version didn’t reflect her language. She also claimed that though she wanted her story to chart the trajectory of her evolution as a political activist, Gopinath’s version had failed to achieve that.
Gopinath dismisses the claim. “It was not I who manoeuvred her memories for political motives, but the group associated with the second version. Being a human rights activist myself, my focus was on presenting her life, her struggles, and the battles she was waging. But for the group associated with the second version, mostly academicians, the focus was on using Nalini Jameela as a poster-girl for their theoretical positions. She walked straight into the trap.”
Bizarrely, the English translation of the second version came out with the title Autobiography of a Sex Worker, a word-for-word translation of the title of the first version.
The controversy has raised questions about the genre’s credibility and raises the worry that the subjects of such books run the risk of being exploited as front operators of political groups—gullible pawns in a wicked game of chess.
Further ammunition for this thesis came when Kallen Pokkudan disowned Kandalkkadukalkkidayil Ente Geevitham (My Life among the Mangroves). Thaha Madai, the chronicler, was accused of diluting the political aspects of the Dalit environmental activist’s life. To allegations that it paid little to no attention to Pokkudan’s Dalit identity and concomitant political implications, Thaha Madai retorts that the intention from the start was to focus on Pokkudan’s struggles as a local environmental activist, not his caste identity. After a controversy similar to the one linked with Nalini Jameela’s book, DC decided on Pokkudan’s version and came out with a more comprehensive and more authentic version, titled Ente Geevitham (My Life), transcribed by his son Sreejith.
Then there’s the story of Idam Thedi (In Search of a Space), about Nandu and Sheela, a lesbian couple who openly proclaimed their sexuality. It’s a rarity and a statement of mutiny in morally conservative Kerala. But the publisher decided that parts of the book were products of gossip and fabrication not supported by fact. The book was taken off by DC Books after certain remarks made in it were found slanderous in nature.
conventional literature often spend a lifetime in pursuit of that authentic,
and usually elusive, masterpiece. For the subjects of life writing, though, the
book of a lifetime has a totally different import. There is only one book they
have to offer the world, their life itself. But there is a hefty price for it.
Nalini Jameela, for instance, says that after Sex Worker was
published, she lost many clients as they feared an association with her would
mean they may end up as characters in a future book.
Maniyanpillai was arrested while his book was being serialised in Madhyamam, for an alleged act of theft he claims he never committed.
“Writing my life was the crime I committed.”
He later came out with Kallan Baaki Ezhuthumbol (The Thief Writes What Happened After), in which he describes the incident thus: “A high ranking official asked: “Who do you think you are to write an autobiography? A freedom fighter? ... Many from the media came. Even English television channels from north India. Maniyanpillai had become a skeleton, but even when he was caught, the glamour was not lost. Another festival for the newspapers. Because the one who has been arrested is a thief who is writing a book. Itmakes for a good headline.”
Surayya Banu, the protagonist of Dupe, says her husband does not have the slightest inkling about her past as a body double for a soft porn actress. In the agreement Surayya Banu, who now lives in Tamil Nadu as a school teacher with her husband, made with DC Books, she had asked for a clause that the book would not be translated into Tamil.
On the sunnier side, the books propel them into a limelight they would never have imagined before.
In economic terms, the returns are not enormous. Usually the royalty of 10 per cent is split between the life-teller and the protagonist. In Malayalam where the print order ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 even in the case of bestsellers—any book whose two editions are sold out is a genuine bestseller—that does not translate into big money. (Maniyanpillai’s case is an exception to the practice of splitting the royalty as Indugopan had asked for only one-third of the royalty.)
The enormous popularity of life writing places serious question marks on the future of conventional literature, especially fiction, in Malayalam. There is an overwhelming sentiment that the rise of life writing is a natural consequence of fiction being in a state of terminal stasis.
In fact, that life has
the last word even in fiction is underscored by the success of Benyamin’s Aadugeevitham (The
Goat Life) and T P Rajeevan’s Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathira
Kolapathakathinte Katha (Paleri Manikyam: The Story of a Midnight
Murder), the two most popular novels in Malayalam in the last
Both novels were fictionalised accounts of real life stories, with The Goat Life telling the story of the epic trials and tribulations of Najeeb, a young man who had gone to the Gulf in search of a job, and Paleri Manikyam telling about the murder of Manikyam in Paleri, the first murder case to be registered in Kerala.
The message is loud and clear: Get back to reality, for there is no place anymore for delusions of grandeur.
Thus, in the fifty seventh year of my life, at the doorstep of old age, in the middle of writing the story of my life, I am being arrested. There had been no charges against me since I was arrested for theft as a young man of thirty-eight or thirty-nine. Now, the tag of a thief again after eighteen years.
2007, November 29. My daughter-in-law came and told me: “Two men have come asking for you, Daddy.” When I came out, I recognized instantly. Death may come in any disguise, but he who is in deathbed instinctively understands. It’s the same with a cop and a thief; they recognise each other at first sight. I understood that the men were mufti police.
......Everything is collapsing. My book where I had written I had bid goodbye to lies...Those who had trusted me...Everything...In the end, the thief is becoming just a thief. Everything is setting...Everything.
The police allowed me to call my son. I told him: “Son, your Daddy is under arrest.”
“What’s the matter, daddy?”
He was startled. Then I heard his painful cry.
“Why did you do this Daddy? How will I face the villagers? What will I tell my wife? What will I tell my son? Why did you do this?”
It was me who was shattered then. The terrible fate of a thief. There is nothing beyond this. It’s my son who is asking why I had done this. When you are tagged a thief, everyone disbelieves you. The woman who lives with you, your son, the whole world. I did not say anything after that. I am dying once again. The most painful death.
A high ranking official asked: “Who do you think you are to write an autobiography? A freedom fighter?”
When they started beating me, I told them: “You are not going to get anything fromme by beating me up. I will tell you what I know. But first I need a cigarette.”
They got me the cigarette. And along with that registered nine cases too”
“These are the cases. Thefts at the Mamam temple, Kanthakarnan temple...”
“Sir, these are all child’s play. I don’t have anything to do with it...”
“Shut up! Obey what you are told.”
“When you opened a car, there was fifty rupees in it. You stole that. There was a rosary on a scooter. You stole that. When you entered a church...”
“So be it.”
“Isn’t everything correct?”
“I am under your custody now. So everything is correct.”
I realised that they are going to present me before the media and celebrate the event. Maniyanpillai had become a skeleton, but even when he was caught, the glamour was not lost. Another festival for the newspapers. Because the one who has been arrested is a thief who is writing a book. It makes for a good headline.
(Translated from Malyalam by Suresh P Thomas, excerpts courtesy DC Books.)