The price of idealism

Manu Dash | Updated on January 17, 2018

A contemporary stalwart: KR Meera weaves history, politics and romance into her complex narratives

The Gospel of YudasKR Meera, Rajesh Rajamohan (tr.)Penguin FictionRs 399

KR Meera’s new novel, set against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement, tells a stirring tale of romance amidst rebellion and political intrigue

One of the powerful voices in contemporary Malayalam writing, KR Meera is also the first writer from Kerala to write a novel set in Bengal. In her works, history, politics and romance are deftly woven into complex narratives. After the huge success of the novel Hangwoman, her latest work of fiction-in-translation is The Gospel of Yudas, a short novel about the politics of allegiance and the price of idealism.

In the following conversation with BLink, Meera talks about setting a novel in Bengal and how gruesome pictures from the Emergency came to her mind.

Have you ever lived in Kolkata? Your descriptions of Kolkata localities are so accurately and intimately written.

My first visit to Kolkata was in 1999 when I was selected for the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) Human Rights award for journalism. The award was presented in a meeting at Jamshedpur and since I had never been to north India, it was decided to extend the trip to Kolkata and Delhi too. I hadn’t liked Kolkata then. I found the city unsafe and unclean. Maybe this was because I was a different person then. I was only a journalist who had no plan to become a fiction writer at all.

It was when I went with a view of writing a novel that I saw Kolkata clearly. I went there twice while writing the novel and once after finishing it.

All the trips counted together will be still less than a month. I could describe the city intimately, may be because I was writing from my heart. The descriptions were accurate because of my training as a journalist.

Is Phanibhushan Grddha Mullick (from Hangwoman) derived from Nata Mullick, the hangman in Kolkata?

Friends who know me from childhood say that while reading Hangwoman, they felt that it was I who was talking through Chetana. Mullick, the father in my novel, is the representative of crude and ruthless patriarchy. He was derived from the many men I have seen, heard, observed and read about. So it will be unjust and incorrect to say that the character was derived from a particular person.

What drove you to write a novel set in Kolkata?

Kolkata is not alien to the Malayalis. My translator J Devika remarks in her translator’s note: “(...) many Bengali authors are familiar to us as our own writers. But it is KR Meera alone who could craft Malayalam’s ultimate gift of love to Bengal”. We all grew up reading Bengali novels in Malayalam. Since both Kerala and Bengal share the Communist legacy, we grew up hearing about sweet, beautiful Bengal. But I was not aware how much I was obsessed with Kolkata and Bengal from the beginning of my writing career till some readers pointed it out. For example, the novel Netronmeelanam which I wrote in 2005, too has death by hanging and a Bengali character. For Hangwoman, I selected Kolkata as the backdrop for specific reasons. One was that the last hanging till then had happened in Kolkata. Had Ajmal Kasab’s hanging happened before I started writing, I would have shifted the location to Mumbai and Maharashtra. Because the most important requirement was the credibility of the plot. I wanted to recreate a true incident as the broad setting to make readers believe that a woman can really be appointed as a hangwoman in India. Second reason was that I could retell Indian history through Kolkata’s history. The third reason has been stated already: Kolkata is a dream land for many Malayalis.

How did you conceive the idea behind The Gospel of Yudas?

Please understand that the novel was not written in the normal way of starting with an idea and then developing a plot. There was no time for all that. It was written in semi-consciousness, in a delirium-like state in 2007. I wrote the novel in spite of chikungunya fever, because I had promised to give a long story to the Onam special issue of a major daily. With my head reeling and bones splitting, I sat up to write just to keep my word. I felt blank but when I looked on to the screen, flashes of colour due to the fever reminded me of the lake in my village where I was born. I was also reminded of my childhood wish to fall in love with a Naxalite. News reports, anecdotes, memories, fantasies and fears came rushing and Yudas was born. When I read it in the finished form, I was wondering how I conceived many of those sentences and ideas. While writing it, I had no idea that it would be translated into English.

Manu Dash writes in Odia and English. He is the editor of The Dhauli Review

Published on August 19, 2016

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