The Legends of Khasak

O.V. Vijayan

translated from the Malayalam
Penguin 1994 [1969]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
Ravi comes to the village of Khasak in Kerala's Palghat region to be the teacher in its first ever school, only to find that he has as much to learn as to teach. But Ravi's is just the central story in O.V. Vijayan's The Legends of Khasak (Khasakkinte Itihasam, 1969), which offers many tales of village life, with an extensive and diverse range of characters.

There's the village idiot Appu-Killi, who ends up being a Muslim on some days of the week and a Hindu on others. There's the mullah, who looks like being cast as a villain in the beginning but turns into a tragic figure, his death the climax of the novel. There's the proud toddy-tapper Kuppu-Acchan who, deprived of his occupation by a temperance law, has become a malicious village gossip. And there are many more, though some of them are just brief sketches.

"Gopalu Panikker, the village astrologer and teacher of the alphabet, was an incongruous presence in a liquor den, and more so as he sat listening to an unlettered mendicant. However, Gopalu had time on his hands now, since the astrologer's teaching method found fewer takers with each passing day. The method belonged to the classical world; the children wrote out the letters on spreads of sand and chanted them in a dirge. They wrote with their forefingers on which they wore a dried gourd for protection. Eight long years of this unhurried ordeal, after which nothing short of decapitation could permit the scholar to regress on his phonemes. But the new school of the District Board made the child literate in a matter of months. Gopalu lamented in bleak prophecy, 'What learning is this? Our country is ruined?'"

Khasak is a religiously diverse community, with an array of local shrines and gods and different forms of Islam and Hinduism all coexisting. Nor are there hard boundaries between the religious and the secular, represented by Ravi himself, the school inspectors who visit him periodically, and links to nearby towns and the world of factories and labor disputes. When people fall sick, some ride to town to fetch antibiotics and others offer prayers and invocations. The only people depicted as incompatible are some communists who turn up with plans to remake the village — as he explains in an afterword, Vijayan was himself a communist until disillusioned in 1956.

There is much in Khasak that is ugly: it has its share of death and disease and ignorance and cruelty and grinding poverty. Without in any way sentimentalising village life, however, Vijayan makes us view it positively and compels us, despite its distance and its strangeness, to accept it as normal. The Legends of Khasak is a powerful depiction of the numinous permeating ordinary life — and an entrancing web of stories.

February 2005

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%T The Legends of Khasak
%A Vijayan, O.V.
%M Malayalam
%I Penguin
%D 1994 [1969]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 014015647X
%P 208pp