REMEMBERING MANJERI S. ISVARAN

 

V. SIVARAMAKRISHNAN

 

On a cold December morning in Delhi in 1966, death laid its icy hands on Manjeri S. Isvaran. It may be a common sign of human infirmity to believe in a kind of deathlessness for the hero as a writer. But there it was, and to many of his admirers, Isvaran’s sudden end came as a shock.

 

Isvaran had in his day in the ’Forties and the ’Fifties few equals as a short-story writer in English. He wielded what is commonly known as the foreign medium with rare power, precision and skill, as if to the manner born. He had a passion for English literature which formal collegiate learning only helped to streng­then. He could transmit something of that passion to others through his writings. And in this he was unique among Indo-­Anglian writers.

 

Isvaran wrote the bulk of his poems and stories initially for his own journal Short-story, then for Triveni, of which he was an Assistant Editor, and later for Swatantra to which he contri­buted first as a friend of Khasa Subba Rau and later as its Literary Editor. Isvaran, Khasa and N. R. (“Vighneswara”) formed the trio who made Swatantra the predecessor of Swarajya the force it was in the days after freedom.

 

Isvaran stood his ground, so long as he could, as an indepen­dent writer and ceased to be one when he was overpowered in the battle of life. He wrote precious little of literary value during the last decade of his life after he got employed as the Secretary of the National Book Trust. The bread-winner snuffed out the creative genius.

 

Isvaran was essentially a poet and had the gifts of poesy. He wrote numerous poems but, as the late K. S. Venkataramani put it, the temper and urges of renascent India made him a story­teller. The poet turning a story-teller was a fortunate change and had only happy results. Said Venkataramani: “When a poet becomes a story-teller, the chances are that poetic gifts lie in the story like nuggets of gold in river sand, untouched by the craftsmanship of the story-teller. Generally, the gifts of the poet and the stray-teller lie apart. At best it is only a sweet embrace. But in Mr. Isvaran’s art, there is a fusion of the gifts and the result is integral.

 

Isvaran was nothing if not a conscientious craftsman. His stories were never produced on tap. The choice diction, which marked all his writings, revealed the careful gem-setter at work. Isvaran of Naked Shingles (his first collection of stories) was, no doubt, the craftsman in the making; in No Anklet Bells for her and Painted Tigers (other two collections). the writer had come into his own. When he wrote “Immersion” in “Swatantra Annual” (1950), Isvaran was at the height of his powers, he had touched the peaks. The “Snowy Tops” were then, perhaps, unbearable; the sliding to the pit of literary obscurity was rather quick.

 

A characteristic feature of Isvaran’s stories is their Indian­ness or South Indianness, as Maupassant’s are of the French. And Isvaran’s works bear unmistakable marks of the influence of the French master of the        Conte. Isvaran had keen observation and an eye for detail. His descriptive passages combined the merits of a photographic reproduction and the artistic beauty of a painting. Isvaran did not merely transmit but transformed what he observed. “Mango Lane” contains many word-pictures and the following one of Kathayi, who had “a bosom like the cow-catcher of a locomotive engine and a fat behind to balance it”, baking “appams” in a Madras lane, is typical:

 

“The fire burnt at an even temperature under the trim earthen oven before her, screened off from view by a tin sheet; the slightest sign of smoke and she would raise the glow by blowing through a foot-length of gleaming brass pipe A quick wiping with the oil-soaked rag of the inside of the dish warming over the fire, a ladleful of white, fluid rice-flour poured briskly into it, a swift rotation of the dish by holding its edge, covering its mouth with a similar dish, opening it and turning over the appam with a spatula of steel, to be put at the next instant into the receiving pan by her side Kathayi’s dextrous hands went through these manipulations with amazing speed and precision. Moon bright and soft as newborn flowers in their middle, the appams spread out crispy, lacy and brown as the wing of a roach to their circumference. Only three copper pies for one of these marvels with the tastiest bit of curry served on top!”

 

Isvaran’s descriptions of animals and birds, of men and women, of gods and goddesses, in different postures, in circumstances tragic and comic, in moods grave and gay, have to be read to be enjoyed. The fusion of the gifts of the poet and the story-teller is seen to advantage in “Immersion.” Here is a description of the cartman whose passion is aroused: “The magic and miracle of youth! Throwing the rainbow woof of yearnings over the warp of romance. To it a moment waiting for love is an eternity and with love on its hand eternity a moment. He was in such a fine frenzy of bliss that he wanted to catch the stars in the loop of his whipstring, pull them from the sky and set them as jewels on rings for his fingers and the fingers of his beloved.”

 

It is difficult to pigeon-hole Isvaran and affix on him the label of this or that school of writing. He stood for himself and wrote as fancy suggested and the mood of the hour prompted. His themes were varied and colourful, ranging from the simple, plain, homely tale as in “Saturday is Saturday” or “Decision” to the complex, subtle, psychological study as in “Immersion.” Sex he handled with sensitivity and delicacy. Nature he portrayed with beauty in the manner of the great Sanskrit poets he had read and admired. And the commonplace he invested with a queer beauty and significance.

 

The question whether the fictional content of a story is more relevant than the literary quality of the language used is a matter of controversy. Isvaran satisfied one on both the counts.

 

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