Five ‘madmen’ rip open an enlightened society’s deep-rooted ignorance and indifference in this translation
Georgekutty is 22 years old and, as the others say, mad. He is exhausted and dispirited, but could shortly assume a new state with shaven head, puffy cheeks, overweight body and cheerless eyes. But before his brother and the rest of his family haul him to a mental institution, he manages to escape, to live in a forest with magnificent old trees for company. He slips into slumber there in the weary murmur of bamboo and warm smell of the rocks. The sojourn, however, lasts for only six days.
Award-winning Malayalam writer N Prabahakaran’s short story, Wild Goat, the story of Georgekutty, is part of a five-story collection now translated into English under the title, Diary of a Malayali Madman. Set in northern Kerala, the stories by Prabhakaran are mostly in the form of diary entries. Five men—Georgekutty, Mohanan, Sreekumar, Krishna and Aagney—are eager to tell their stories to the outside world. In a region known for its revolutionary struggles against injustice and inequality, their lives betray the broken order of a society sedated by a set of social and political anomalies.
Wild Goat, the first of the five stories, presents a young man weighed down by the mindless hunger for power and wealth by his own family. In this story, written almost three decades ago, Prabhakaran paints the portrait of the ubiquitous big brother, a major flaw in Kerala’s male-dominated family structure. For this big brother, building the family fortunes, which means his own fortunes, is about destroying those who dare to dream. Tender Coconut, written four years ago, is a more surreal sketch of an ordinary man’s ambitions. A new psychiatric clinic in a small hillside village is teaming with patients from towns far away. One such is Mohanan, a seller of tender coconuts at a
temple known for its ritualistic pattern of worship. The coconut seller’s mind is the matrix of the ideology sweeping society.
The book takes its title, Diary of a Malayali Madman, from the last story of the collection. Aagney, a mechanical engineer, sets out to write a diary. Prabhakaran’s 2013 original Malayalam short story lays bare the faultlines of a society famous for its political awareness and social progress. Branded as a madman, Aagney is accused of trying to steal a goat that in reality opens its mind to him. The realism in the works of Prabhakaran, whose earlier play Pulijanmam used Kerala’s folk traditions like Theyyam to analyse social structures and caste conflicts, is stark in Aagney’s daily travails. His characters like Aagney and Mohanan disrupt the notion of normality to discuss fundamental values. In another story, Pigman, Sreekumar, a young research scholar, finds himself in the middle of a pig farm as its new employee. As Sreekumar counts and weighs the products in the farm, his company is planning to enter new spheres like publishing and fashion.
Prabhakaran’s stories like Invisible Forests, which is part of the collection, challenge the ideas of political philosophy in contemporary Kerala society. There is a ‘suicide village’ in Invisible Forests, a direct reference to the state’s high suicide rate. The vigorous minds of the madmen are a lament to the loss of space for the everyday political discourse that defined the state’s high social indexes. “My fictional ‘madmen’ have come from my thoughts about the contemporary socio-political and cultural situation in Kerala. But within their own individual contexts, their reactions and actions are also quite individual,” says the author in a conversation with his translator that appears at the end of the book.
The author is a freelancer