30 March 2005: O.V. Vijayan, cartoonist and Malayalam writer, died

Ootupulackal Velukkuty Vijayan, a renowned cartoonist and writer, was born on 2 July 1930 in a village in Kerala’s Palakkad district. Vijayan, whose most famous work was the novel Khasakkinte Itihasam (later translated by the writer himself from Malayalam to English as The Legends of Khasak), died on 30 March 2005.

His father, O. Velukkutty, was employed with the Malabar special police in the Madras province of pre-Independence India. After being taught at home, O.V. Vijayan did schooling at Kottakkal (Malabar) and Palakkad. He later finished his Bachelor’s degree from Palakkad’s Victoria College and secured a Masters in English literature from the Presidency College.

After a brief stint as a college teacher, he became a journalist.

Career as cartoonist

In 1958 he went to Delhi and joined Shankar’s Weekly as a cartoonist and satirist. He would go on to work with several publications as a cartoonist, including at the Patriot, The Statesman and The Hindu.  

After his death, the Frontline magazine noted: “Vijayan was easily one of the greatest cartoonists of India. His cartoons were not for the passive spectator who wanted just to be amused or vicariously appeased, but for the thinking, polemical viewer who wanted to be provoked and challenged. His style was economical to the core: simple, terse, geometrical, mercilessly minimal; and his comments always sharp, cerebral, subversive. He stopped cartooning during the dark years of the Emergency; he refused to draw under constraints. Still, the series he drew for the weekly Kalakaumudi during that period, Ithiri Nerampokku, Ithiri Darsanam (A Little Amusement, A Little Philosophy) said all that had to be said in its wordless lines.”

Explaining what it meant to be a cartoonist in a country like India, Vijayan once wrote: “If someone comes forward to enjoy humour in the uncertainties of India, in the genocide of Uganda, in the drought of Ethiopia, it does not broaden the scope for humour, but exhibits sheer sterile cynicism. But cartoon cannot also take the form of a poster. Even though cartoon is not editorial, it certainly is editorial commentary. It is criticism presented in crisp words and in sharp symbolisation of the drawing.” 

A landmark in Indian literature

Vijayan’s first short story was published in 1953.

His major novels include Khasakinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak), Dharmapuranam (The Saga of Dharmapuri), Pravachakante Vazhi (The Way of the Prophet) and Thalamurakal (Generations). His collections of stories include Oru Neenda Rathriyude Ormakkayi, Balabodhini Kattu and Paranja Katha. Besides, he published several collections of articles, satirical essays and cartoons. 

Most critics regard Khasakinte Ithihasam as Vijayan’s greatest novel. In fact, it is considered to be a landmark in Indian literature. Interestingly, some critics claim that the English translation, though done by Vijayan himself, is not as powerful as the original Malayalam novel. 

Reflecting on the unique place Khasakinte Ithihasam occupies in Malyalam and, indeed, Indian literature, C. Gouridasan Nair wrote in The Hindu in March 2005: “The language of Khasakinte... transcended the familiar boundaries of literary articulation and even the sensory boundaries of sights, smells and pain. Critics returned to him again and again with whips of all ideological make but, by then, with a single work Vijayan had created for himself a space in the Indian literary world that few could encroach upon. The mystic charm of Khasakinte...has been such that Thasrak, the village in interior Palakkad where he located the destiny ofRavi, its protagonist, has become a centre of literary pilgrimage.”

In an interview to rediff.com in 1998, Vijayan spoke of the process of writing Khasakinte Ithihasam in terms of the “great joy in the wild spaces of my native Palakkad and the solitude of the countryside”. He said this enchanting natural world influenced the language and the very words he used in the novel. “The sights and sounds were so powerful: the wind whistling through the Palakkad gap in the Western Ghats; the clattering of the black palm trees.”  

A writer who kept pushing the boundaries

Though not as path-breaking as Khasakinte Ithihasam, Vijayan’s other novels caused a stir as well.

For instance, A.J. Thomas has described Dharmapuranam as a “political satire of mind-boggling proportions”. He wrote in the Deccan Herald after Vijayan’s death: [Dharmapuranam’s] scatological references and deft use of allegory woven with metaphors of perverted sex and incest to narrate the decadence of the post-Nehruvian national politics earned it the wrong attribute of ‘obscenity’. Completed just before the Emergency, it proved to be eerily prophetic, as readers found out when it was serialised just after the dark period in our national history, in 1977.”

For the last two decades of his life, Vijayan suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. He died of organ failure in Hyderabad on 30 March 2005. He was 75 years old.  In a tribute to him the award-winning Malayalam writer N.S. Madhavan wrote in Outlook magazine: “In the beginning of his career, Vijayan’s writing brimmed with energy, biting humour. Khasak presented for the first time characters with rich internal lives. As he grew older, his writing became more contemplative. Now that his writing is done, it’s clear: he started an epoch in Malayalam.” 

Also on this day:

1906 — K.S. Thimmaiah, Chief of Army Staff of India, was born 

1908 — Devika Rani, legendary actress and first recipient of Dadasaheb Phalke Award, was born

1962 — Rajiv Pratap Rudy, BJP leader, was born

1967 — Nagesh Kukunoor, Indian film director, was born

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