Stories, Narrative and History
in a Malayalam modern epic
My approach is both ethnographic and linguistic. Kayar, published in 1978, is a saga (both a novel and a modern epic), composed between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s in Malayalam by one of the most celebrated Malayalam writers, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (1912-1999), consciously modelled on the Mahābhārata and at the same time on Tolstoy's War and Peace, which retells in 1,000 densely printed pages the social, political and cultural history of Kuttanad, a district of North Travancore famous both for its polders reclaimed from the backwaters for rice cultivation and for its being the birthplace of communism in South India.
The voices of hundreds of characters over four generations, in this novel, bring back to life an axial period (1885-1971) during which feudalism, matriliny and bonded labor gave place to conjugal life, everyone's access to a piece of land, decolonization and the industrial revolution of the 1960s. The fact that the master narrative of this axial period was told in Malayalam by a Nāyar or Nair (the land-owning caste) who turned communist, and a writer who made a living as a modern lawyer (perfectly at ease with English) but who had been trained in classical Kathakaḷi (music-dance-drama) and other genres of verbal art, is indeed part of the story. That's why linguistic anthropology, here, is a key to ethnohistory and anthropology at large.
I am purposely using the words stories (hundreds of short-stories interwoven into the flow of collective history), narrative (one master narrative, the advent of Independence and communism), and epic (a literary genre called upakhyāna in Sanskrit, "stories in the story," which is consciously modelled by Thakazhi on the Mahābhārata).
Kayar is "coir" in English: the fibers of the coconut. The title image is that of hundreds of life histories interwoven into the thread of History.