Readers too woke up to the unprecedented sensibility that Madhavan unleashed. He wrote quite a number of remarkable short stories since then. He was born and spent most of his early life in Kochi. But curiously Kochi never featured in any of his stories. He preserved it for his first fiction.
Madhavan reminisced on the Kochi beneath his times. In it subconsciously he unearthed bits of conversation, faces, friendships, missed schedules and reunions, news of birth and deaths, tapered monsoon rains at night and the rides on bare-boned suburb roads in the city of Kochi. Everything went away in a series of montage and I was slowly beginning to comprehend the pattern of things to come. When you see things this close, judging them would be an utterly wasteful affair.
Reading N.S. Madhavan's "Litanies of Dutch Battery" (in Malayalam: Lanthan Batheriyile Luthiniyakal) leaves you in one such corridor of existence and time. It is a fiction that attempts to weave a short period from the life of Edvina Jessica. She was born and lived as an islander who watched the victories, failures and redemptions of mainland occupants.
Madhavan suggests the make belief constructs of Kochiites history and their idiosyncratic yet disarmingly self-deprecating view of living while sliding in layers of legends, fantasies, myths, facts and images. Latin Catholics in Kochi live by the sea. They derive their biblical identity from carpentry and fishing just like Jesus and Peter were believed to have been doing. Jessica's great grandfather Louis stole the calculus of ship building from a British architect Cornelius Gusler. Her uncle learned the art of making Biriyani from his father who learnt it from a Persian chef from Shiraz. Her neighbor Santiago was on a mission to resurrect the now defunct Christian musical drama known as "Chavittu Natakam" (Tap Dance Musical Drama)1. There are any numbers of keepsakes that sea and wind brought to Kochi.
Native Christians with the advent of Portuguese filled their cultural void by adopting the troubradors songs, European costumes and eastern theatre formats like Kathakali. The long and winding songs were created in pidgin mix of Tamil and Malayalam and orally passed through generations. It carried the ethos of native Christian identity and its ironic disposition of middle age crusades' scrambled history.
Madhavan weaves a shiny yarn of 50s political history of Kerala as it unfurls some of the major events in Kochi - Christian and Nair communities’ struggle for redemption from “regressive” communist government who were in fact democratically elected being the most important. The religious and community leaders organized massive rallies to thwart the education bill intended to disengage the influence of religious institutions on education. The unrest ended with congress party’s federal government dismissing communist state rule. Ironically the communist government in the state is doing a phase II with their current education bill being challenged in the courts all over the country.
Jessica and many others were influenced by Father Vadakkan, padre and influential leader of the struggle and his placement of himself as the true Marxian proponent to counter the ideological warfare. She enacted Father Vadakkan’s fiery speech when she played with her cousins and defecated in the church premise to protest against the punishment meted out to her by the catechism teacher who took exception of her impertinence to question him.
The general deprivation and rebellious nature of Kochiites have had channels to express their self. They have this streak of flaunting their artistic indulgence in music, painting, carpentry, murals, drama, cooking etc. You have the singer Peter inspired by Saigal and his alter ego Mehbub from Mattanchery began Kundan Music club, Santiago egging on the septuagenarians to reinvent Chavittu Nadakam and lament that Communist party lost its innocence that inspired the downtrodden, carpenter Mathaeus cherishing his reputation and sleight of hand in boat building while readapting himself after he was saved from deep sea and taken to Nigeria, Edwin uncle’s measure and feel of recipes, Pushpangadan master’s unrelenting tug at Fermat’s last theorem on prime numbers and then most of all their naïve but endearing acceptance of conflicted identities (Santiago assures Shenoy not to reveal his commie identity while Shenoy himself ruminates on his cultural identity of a south west (Konkan) migrant who is ridiculed and rendered insignificant) and camaraderie would impart a lightness of your being in Kochi and more so at Lanthan Batheri.
There is an interesting school of art in Kochi, called Orthic. The word is derived from the Malayalam equivalent for memory, Orma and glass as the medium to paint. Consequently the artist has to paint in reverse since it’s going to be the reflection of the image he conjured up in his mind. This recollection of artist’s Orma and his stand point on the other side of viewers is unique and reveals a mirthful flamboyance. Jessica remains a non-intrusive observer and let the awareness come to her and reflects back to the reader when it does. Her litanies2 for the necessities of the island and redemption from minor calamities have been chronicled with a microcosmic vision of life and times in Kochi.
The mosaic Madhavan created when he inversed Jessica’s itsy bitsy memories through a glass has been a joy. I have traveled the places he narrated. I have studied in the school where Raghavan and Pushpangadan master taught in the book, I have watched the orange sunsets beyond the slender strip of Vypin behind Lanthan Batheri and I think I have met all the characters in person if I let go on this anachronistic time, really!
1. Chavittu Natakam featured a native reproduction of western European legends of romanticized crusades with peculiar tamil-malayalam equivalent names for characters. The most important drama was known to be “Karalmann Charitham” (Karalmann’s legends) which was nothing but a collage of history and fantasy where Charlemagne’s Basque opponents were replaced by Muslims and his crusades to win the love of his lady. Troubadors created these romanticized legends with historical aberrations to fill in religious undertones where possible.
2. Litanies: A litany is a well-known and much appreciated form of responsive petition, used in public liturgical services, and in private devotions, for common necessities of the Church, or in calamities — to implore god's aid or to appease His just wrath. (from catholic encyclopedia)