Malayalee’s Dostoevsky

by Dr Karthika SB

The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our statement can be read here.


“There is no such thing about love. It’s love that love looks for.

And not beauty, wealth or rank. That’s what I think.”

Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevskaya (Excerpt from Like a Psalm)

In 2014, Iyyobinte Pusthakam, the Malayalam silver screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, hit the cinemas of Kerala. The sons of the patriarch in the movie were named Aloshy, Ivan and Dimitri. This adaptation speaks to the notable presence of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky in the Malayali (the speakers of the Malayalam language) subconscious. South India has always shown much affection towards global literature, especially Russian literature and the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

The Malayali couple, Omana (1936–2003) and K Gopalakrishnan Nair (1930–2011), popularly known as Moscow Gopalakrishan, who were previous employees of the Soviet Information Center (now the Russian Centre of Science and Culture) and who have to their credit more than 190 Malayalam translations of Russian literary texts, are a testament to the South Indian interest in Russian cultural production. Their impressive output was primarily enabled by their engagement with Progress Publishers, where they were invited in 1966 to set up a Malayalam division. Malayalees still relish the times when Russian classics published by Progress Publishers, Moscow reached their bookshelves. From 1966 to 1991, the couple made their contribution towards the translations of Russian classics, including “White Nights,” which Velutha Rathrikal later adapted into a film directed by Razi Mohammed of the same name (2015).

Malayali’s passion for Fyodor Dostoevsky, has its beginnings in the attempts made by two seminal figures- Edappally Karunakara Menon (1905-1965) and NK Damodaran (1909-1996). The first Malayalam Dostoevsky was that of Crime and Punishment, published as Kuttavum Shiskshayum (trans. 1935) by Edappally Karunakara Menon.  He then went on to translate The Idiot which was printed only in 2013. N K Damodaran can be considered the   best among Malayalee ‘Fyodorians’. He has translated six works of the master writer– The Insulted and Injured (1861/1957), The Brothers Karamazov (1880/1960), The House of the Dead (1861/1968), The Village of Stepanchikovo / The Friend of the Family (1859/1979), The Possessed/ The Demons (1872/1989). He has also attempted a loose translation of An Unpleasant Predicament/ A Nasty Story (1862/1963)

In 1993, the literary world of Kerala witnessed a landmark production: Oru Sankeertanam Pole, a novel by the writer Perumbadavan Sreedharan (1938-present). The novel is a unique treatment of the relationship between Anna Dostoevskaya and Fyodor Mikhailovich. The novelist himself is a fanboy of Dostoevsky, whom he adores for his meticulous literary rendition and the depth and clarity of his thoughts on life. The Malayalee psyche, its obsession with familial relations, and its warmth finds its reflection in the works of Dostoevsky and in Oru Sankeerthanam Pole. It was from the memoirs and diaries of Anna Dostoevskaya that the novelist discovered the core of the novel. The novel was translated to English in 2017 by Professor A J Thomas, the distinguished Indian English poet, under the title Like a Psalm. In the Introduction to the book, writer Paul Zacharia comments:

Oru Sankeertanam Pole has run into 80 editions and selling more than 25,000 copies to date since its publication 24 years ago. Especially when seen in the context of a small language in India like Malayalam, this is an extraordinary feat for a work of a literary fiction.” (v)

This novel is a remarkable Kunstlerroman which narrates the life of Dostoevsky and the genesis of the novel The Gambler, and is also a remarkable work of a meta-fiction. The novel, in addition to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Dostoevskaya, features Fedosya, Stellovsky, Gregory Yakov, Anna’s mother, Alonkin and Olkhin. It depicts the struggles (physical, mental and spiritual) that the author experiences while submerged in the act of artistic creation. It meditates on how an artist finds art in love, betrayal, and complex relationships. The novel does not limit itself to eulogizing the artistic endeavors of the protagonist. Sreedharan also takes the reader into the darker valleys of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s mind, which struggles with tragic love, the world of gambling and the shadows of epilepsy. In the novel, Dostoevsky is tormented by the misdeeds of Stellovsky, who persuades him to finish The Gambler within a stipulated period of time. In the case that he fails to do so, his future novels would all have the ill fate of being published by Stellovsky without royalties. This is when Anna steps in as the stenographer to Fyodor, assisting him in finishing the novel on time. Perhaps the most beautiful line in the novel is the following:“Anna remembered her father saying that Dostoevsky had God’s signature upon his heart.” (15)

Perumbadavam magically weaves each event from Anna’s and Dostoevsky’s life into the pages of Oru Sankeertanam Pole (Like a Psalm, in English translation). Dostoevsky’s tormented self finds a resting place in Anna’s spiritual presence after an era of uncertainties. Anna remembers Dostoevsky in her prayers:

“O my God! That man! That great man! Enough of testing that soul with your torturous visitations. What more are you going to instruct the world through his hardships? Are you trying to teach the world-which has not learned enough even after witnessing you giving your only begotten Son over to the Cross-further by making such a delicate life undergo still more sufferings.” (100)

The novel further moves into Dostoevsky, the master-writer’s mind:

“Didn’t you say you have heard about me? What did you hear? A destitute, insignificant, despicable, debt-ridden, gambler; one who falls in love with any woman he chances to meet. Immoral to the core. This is what you have heard, right?” (89)

Though Sreedharan fictionally narrates the birth of the novel The Gambler in this, references about Crime and Punishment and Poor Folk can be also be discerned. The novel also explores the significant influences on Dostoevsky, including the Bible and the works of Alexander Pushkin. Like a Psalm ends with the detailing of the unconditional love which Anna showers upon Fyodor and how it ‘saved’ him. The novel ultimately brings the reader closer to the soul of the master craftsman of fiction. A Soul that has God’s signature upon it.

Based on Like a Psalm, in 2016, Shiny Benjamin directed the docudrama In Return: Just a Book. This excellent production is available for viewing on YouTube.


References:

Śr̲īdharan Perumpaṭavaṃ, and A. J. Thomas. Like a Psalm … LiFi Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2017.

Zacharia, Paul. IN RETURN, JUST A BOOK. In Return, Just a Book, MovieRaga, 24 June 2021. Accessed 25 Aug. 2021.


Dr Karthika SB is Assistant Professor  of English at Fatima Mata National College , University of Kerala, India. She is Post doctoral Fellow at School of Letters, Mahatma Gandhi University..

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