An Author Ahead of his Time

People travelling ahead of time is not something that we get to come across daily. Well, maybe we do, but we just don’t know because they are ahead of their time, and are probably considered outrageous or maybe just stupid by us today.

One such person who was WAY ahead of his time was Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. Basheer was born in Thalayolaparambu near Vaikom in the Kottayam distrect of Kerala in 1908. He was a freedom fighter, writer, novelist, and short story writer. He has also written screenplays and dialogues for movies. He is well known for his down-to-earth and unconventional style of writing.

Basheer was also a follower of Gandhian ideologies, after he was introduced to them during the Vaikom Sathyagraha during which Mahatma Gandhi had visited Vaikom. This incident and the ideologies that formed afterwards became the content and inspiration behind a lot of Basheer’s works.

Basheer wrote his first works in his early 30s, and in order to sell those, he himself carried those in trains, sold them to interested people, waited till they finished reading it (which was possible because most novels by Basheer are pretty small, around 70-90 pages), and got it back to sell to the next customer.

Basheer’s writings cover an entire spectrum of genres, from comedy and satire to poignant stories, and love stories. But one common feature seen in the works of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer are the underlying social commentary. Basheer was very vocal in his criticisms of various religious and social aspects. He was never one to shy away from controversial topics. He believed what he wrote was his point of view, and no one else had a say in his beliefs. In fact, he was so vocal that he has even been sent to jail for the content he wrote.

Even though the social commentary can be seen in most of Basheer’s works, the one that stood out, among critics and avid readers is the 1947 novel Shabdangal (The Voices), in which he talked about orphanhood, war, hunger, disease and prostitution. The entire novel is set up as a conversation between a soldier who fought in the Second World War, and the author. The soldier was left at a four way junction as soon as he was born. He had never known the taste of breast milk, or the warmth of a mother’s hands. All he had done in life was kill people for other people. Once, he had to kill his friend, at the request of the same friend because he was injured during the war, and had no chance of survival. Basheer cleverly states the symptoms of PTSD, without citing the actual disease. The soldier cannot bear the sight of blood, and he is afraid to bathe as he considers water to be the blood of the earth. He is disgusted at the sight of “those dyed pieces of cloths” referring to flags. He claims that all flags do is create a divide among humans.

Upon returning from the war, he is curious about sex, and the female body, which leads him to his first sexual encounter, which turns out to be with a male prostitute dressed as a female. Following this he contracts gonorrhea and syphilis and becomes a homeless wanderer.  The insanity of the world and the futility of life pushed the soldier to attempt suicide. But he failed. He wished to confess about his life, which brought him to the doorstep of the author.

Mathilukal is just one of the many novels in which Basheer talks about the hypocrisy of mankind, and the divisive nature of the ones who govern the people. His protagonists were usually thieves, prostitutes, pickpockets, gamblers, etc. whom he portrayed to be naïve, pure, and to be victims of the system. The thoughts that Basheer exhibited in the novels weren’t welcome back in the day when it was written, but soon around 20 years after they were wriiten, people started seeing how it was a true masterpiece. Basheer wrote down thoughts in a manner that even the lowest sects of the society could understand them. Basheer had the rare talent to leave a long lasting impression in the mind of the readers, something that we don’t get to see daily!

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