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April 26, 2018 Thursday 12:10:16 PM IST


Guest Column

It was a little over two decades ago. One morning, Kamala Das, aka Madhavikutty, called me. It was, of course, much later that Kamala Das would become Kamala Suraiya.


“Varma, please come, I have a great idea. Let’s discuss it and develop it…”


I did not waste any time speculating about what her idea could be. We had already written Amavasi, a collaborative novel, if you will, the first and perhaps the only one of its kind in Malayalam, a creative literary work by two writers from the opposite sex. By most accounts, it was fairly well-received by our readers.


I had known her very well, so I was sure she was toying with some utopian idea. I assumed it was quite likely the dream of a five-year-old, which only a writer of her calibre could have visualised in her sixties. She would often ‘reveal’ such dreams to me for what she thought was a solid reason. So, she would tell me that not even one among the scores of human male species she had come across in Kerala had even fifty percent of her IQ! Of course, I disagreed, but after much intellectual tête-à-tête and with great reluctance she gave me an upper spot at about ninety percent! Such was her spunk.


So, whenever she had a new ‘dream’, she’d call me.


I went to her house in Gandhi Nagar. For some reason she did not start off with the usual appetisers, which was always a large dose of the latest in delicious PD or para-dooshanam in Malayalam, meaning ‘gossip’, and in this case, about all our friends and foes alike. So, without any prefatorial gossip, she launched into the main course.


“Varma, let us start an institute for advanced training in novel writing in Kochi. This is the best time. Only English novels.”


We had, in fact, started a Writers Workshop in Kochi for creative writers, and so she told me we could put to use our talents and experience there to guide budding writers. And with a cunning smile, she lowered her voice and added, “we can become really rich”.


I could see the big picture. It was only a few weeks earlier that Arundhati Roy, with her first novel The God of Small Things, had almost overnight changed the mindset of the young Malayali and, indeed, the middle-class parent of Kerala. India had opened up. Education as a business sector was booming. Parents were frantic. Dollar jobs were outsmarting priorities and the system. Technology had arrived. Humanities were first-round losers. Even the IAS, once the most coveted job in India, had failed to get past the quarter finals.


It was money. Art and literature were OK. But not for a career. As a pastime, they were attractive. The fame was OK but there was no money in it, buddy!


But in fell stroke, Arundhati Roy had torpedoed Kerala. The news about the Rs.3-crore advance (roughly $600,000 in 1997 when the book was published) for a novel by a Kerala girl was like a bolt of lightning. My God! And the superstardom!


Almost every young Malayali parent knew what it meant.


So, we could that morning, twenty years ago, read the phantoms running riot in the Malayali parents’ minds: ‘My child can tell stories. Does parodies about Johnny Johnny… Yes Papa. She is only in KG, you know. CBSE. She speaks better in English… We will also talk to her in English at home. Three crores! And that’s only the advance! My God! Even a Rs. 100,000 per month salary multiplied by 12 over two years will fetch only Rs. 2.5 million. My child can easily write one novel every year and earn… My God! And the fame!’


Madhavikutty said, “Varma, I am receiving many calls from young parents every day. Know what, let us stop writing and start teaching. We can collect a capitation fee of say Rs. 2 million per child. So, we won’t have a problem about capital. What do you say? Only English. No Malayalam. Game?”


Of course, we were only dreamers. Pipe-dreamers.


Madhavikutty wrote a few more English poems and I wrote an English children’s science fiction novel Nicki and the Computer Virus.




The mindset of Kerala’s middleclass parent has changed. Now in 2018, at a rough estimate over 30 new books are released every month at various events in Kochi. More than half of them are English novels or poems written by Malayalis in Kochi and almost all from the younger generation and funded lavishly by parents.


Is it a good trend? To me it appears fine.


Art and literature lend colour and beauty to our life.


As a writer I can vouch for the happiness I get when I struggle for days on end to finally create a work or a story in a world where I am supreme, the King of all that I survey. That happiness is immeasurable and I cannot put a price to it. No other physical or mental activity gives me such an experience.


I think our children have a right to such happiness and we should not come in between.


Question is how?


In the nineteenth century, the Written Word was sovereign. In the twentieth century, cinema took over the mantle. So, it was to do with visuals, sounds, and colours. Who or what will take over the twenty-first century?


But parents are upset. They want the best for their children. What to choose? How to choose? School is OK. Teachers and educationists have formulated certain equations and parents just got to be the ‘assistants’.


But what do you do during the vacations?


Children are exposed to the world in a manner undreamt of, with the advent of the internet. Throw in their talents and you have an explosive mix. And their perspectives change.


I remember. I used to tell stories to the wind and a little squirrel friend when I was three and perched on my favourite spot on a mango tree. And come to think of the things I did later in life! Studied languages, the sciences, the arts, commerce, wrote many exams, excelled in most of them, held down many jobs, and was accepted by society as a fairly successful young man. But it took me another 27 years to discover who and what I was…


I am a story teller and nothing more. Nothing less.


My luck was that my parents gave me enough freedom to experiment on my own. So, there was no need for me to cheat them behind their backs. Or, for that matter for them to police me.


Actually, vacations give parents enough opportunity to ‘discover’ their children. The regime of schooling drives children into shells. You can now get them out. Give them the freedom of mind and body. Show them different pathways. Don’t drag them to it. Surely, they will find their destiny on their own.


This vacation is the time for it. For parents and children alike. Go ahead and try. Parents can also become children and share their dreams with their children. And, who knows, some of the parents just might get an opportunity to find out what/who they are themselves!

K . L. Mohana Varma

Kochi-based novelist, short story writer and columnist.
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