If a question arises as to which is the novel written in Malayam that has sold around 3 lakh copies and had crossed the unimaginable limit of 100 editions and still counting, there is only one answer- Oru Sangeerthanam Pole. As the unassuming novelist of this classic turned 80 yesterday, it is time to introspect the role played by Perumbadavam Sreedharan in shaping the reading culture of Malayalis across the world. The ambience he has subtly woven around his characters known for their characteristic loneliness is perhaps an indication of the writer's lonely and unhappy childhood where he found solace in reading and writing poems. He once stated that he used to go to the lush green fields near his home to recite poems loudly perhaps to give solace to the all-embracing loneliness that engulfed him. He soon became friends with great writers who walked before him and beside him thereby forming a bond that became the springboard for his exquisite novels and short stories.
Lalithambika Antharjanam, P Kesavadev, Ponkunnam Varkey and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and many others became his inspiration at a later stage which resulted in kindling the novelist lying dormant under the cover of a poet. Today, Perumbadavam is associated with novels written by him and whose modesty has transcended all barriers that mar the author-reader pact. He has also penned around 12 scripts for films and went on to win the Kerala State Film Award in 1989 for Sooryadaham. Though his earlier novels were well received, the one novel that changed his life forever was undoubtedly Oru Sangeerthanam Pole. The novel published in 1993 deals with the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his beloved Anna went on to win the Vayalar Award in 1996. The poignant, lyrical quality of his narrative immediately struck a chord with readers and immediately catapulted him to the league of great novelists in Malayalam literature.
He enthralled a generation of readers and still continues to weave the magic on young readers of the modern kindle era. The fact that he always loved poetry and poets becomes evident in the use of diction which is often cited as the hallmark of his novels. His poetic sensibilities reach a crescendo in Oru Sangeerthanam Pole. The novel is a kinetic exploration of labyrinths of human psyche as exemplified through the persona of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the litterateur comes alive through the pictorial representation by Perumbadavam. It analyses the solitude, spiritual and mental agony, weakness, suffering and pain of the protagonist who himself was instrumental in portraying these emotions in his novels. Perumbadavam does this with impeccable precision or else the novel would have become yet another biography of a writer, soon banished to oblivion. He resurrects both the writer and the craft that he represents to evoke sentiments of readers who are given a wonderful chance to see the dissected soul of the writer.
The association of Malayalis with Russian literature helped in moulding the cultural sensibilities that was characteristic of an age in which everything Russian was devoured with ecstasy. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent dismantling of the Russian Cultural Centre was something that every child of the 90s remembers even now. I remember going to the Centre to pick up books which were auctioned for throwaway prizes and returning home with a bounty of Russian folk tales and fairy stories. The plethora of translations available for Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin , Maxim Gorky not to mention the wide readership for works by Lenin, Marx and Engels all stand as testimony to the interest taken by Malayalis for Russian works of both fiction and nonfiction. Dostoevsky is another writer much loved in Kerala and his Crime and Punishment still continues to haunt readers who claim that it is the book that changed their attitude towards crime and repentance. It is against this backdrop that Perumbadavam comes up with his rather unique bio-sketch of an author whose life becomes what the English translation of the novel suggests, Like a Psalm.
He represents a slice of his characters who love to contemplate and brood but all these have not affected him in discharging his official duties, which he does with finesse. Perumbadavam chairs Kerala Sahithya Academy. Quite jovial, he let University College degree English students take selfie with him when they visited him. He represents everything that a writer can aspire for. His characters have stepped out of the pages and are now part of history. The writer's genial smile conceals a wellspring of human emotions. The world of letters he weaves is the world every reader loves to inhabit, a landscape that seamlessly melds the narrative, thinning boundaries between readers and the writer. That is what Perumbadavam does to you; he creates a different person from the existing you.
(The author is assistant professor of English, University College)