Archive for January 27th, 2008

Tribute to Sultan of story

January 27, 2008

In the latest issue of Frontline, K Satchidanandan pays his (birth centenary) tributes to Vaikom Mohammed Basheer; the photos that accompany the piece (Punaloor Rajan) are a feast too. Here is a sample from the piece:

Of the many stories Basheer told, his own, as told in his autobiography, Ormayude Arakal (The Chambers of Memory), is perhaps the most exciting. Trained in Arabic at home by a musaliyar, he learnt his Koran by the age of eight. Then he studied Malayalam and English, and read his first storybooks from a friend, one Potti, which might have stirred in him the desire to tell stories. The names of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom struggle excited the young boy. Basheer has given an account of him literally touching Gandhiji during the Mahatma’s visit to his land for the historic Vaikom Satyagraha in March 1924 demanding, for the so-called lower castes, the right of entry into the temple.

The call of freedom took Basheer to Malabar, the centre of the nationalist activities in Kerala. He joined the Al-Amin newspaper run by the patriot, Muhammad Abdu Rahman. Basheer participated in the Salt Satyagraha on the Kozhikode beach that landed him in jail. Now he began to feel that Gandhi’s peaceful ways would not earn freedom for India; he was fascinated by Bhagat Singh and his comrades and moved over to Ujjeevanam (Rejuvenation), which had now turned from a Congress journal into the mouthpiece of the armed struggle against the colonisers. Basheer had to go underground to evade arrest. That was the beginning of seven years of wanderings in a variety of disguises: as a Hindu mendicant, a palmist, a magician’s assistant, an astrologer, a private tutor, a tea shop owner.

He also went to meet the film-maker V. Shantaram in an outlandish outfit hoping to join the film industry. Shantaram asked him to learn Marathi and come back. Before he could learn Marathi, a certain Gajanan, impressed by his language skills, employed him as a tutor. He was asked to teach mathematics, and Basheer had no choice but to leave the job and move to Bombay (Mumbai) where he became a physician’s assistant in Kamatipura, the haunt of sex workers, transgender persons and thieves. Next he ran a night school in Bhindi Bazaar, teaching basic English. It was then the sea called him and he found himself sailing as a khalasi on SS Rizvani carrying Haj pilgrims to Jeddah via the Red Sea. On the way back he landed in what are now parts of Pakistan. He served in a hotel in Karachi and then as a proofreader’s copyholder in the Civil and Military Gazette.

That is just the beginning of Basheer’s fascinating journey of life, and there is more where it came from. Take a look!