AND TIMES OF P.KESAVA DEV.
PORTRAIT OF A REBEL.
P.Kesava Dev was born in the year 1904 and he died in 1983. He lived
approximately eighty years of which almost half was pre-independent
and the latter half was post-independent period. This period in the
history of Kerala was one of great significance as far as the socio-economic
life of the state was concerned, for reasons well known.
It was a time when the caste system was practiced rigorously. The Namboodiri's
emerged as a dominant caste and the ownership of land largely vested
with them. The social system proved decadent with the Namboodiri's leading
a life of ease and comfort and their womenfolk relegated to remain a
frustrated lot. A number of retrograde customs and taboos were prevalent.
The matrilineal system of inheritance known as Marumakkathayam was
in practice. This system ensured that the family property remained in
tact and the 'Karanavar' enjoyed the benefits as the ruler or manager
of the family. All the members of the matriarchal family had the right
of maintenance from the property but were not entitled to ownership.
The joint family system was the order of the day and as a rule there
was no peace or harmony among the members who lived under the same roof.
Polyandry was practiced extensively leading to a decline of moral standards.
The feudal system was the order of the day with Janmis holding the
title to landed properties. The condition of the toiling section of
the community was precarious.
The caste system with the 'Savarna' and 'Avarna' classification among
the Hindus remained an impediment in the way of the advancement of the
backward classes. The Avarna's were denied the right to enter temples,
study in schools and even to walk along public roads. Strange as it
may seem today; during those days Nair's prevented Ezhava's entering
their temples and Ezhava's in turn prevented the Harijan's from entering
the temples owned by them.
Kesava Pillai was born at a time of transition. He was exposed to all
the maladies that were prevalent in the society in general and in the
institution of joint family in particular. He was also a witness to
the wind of change that swept across the length and breadth of the country.
His childhood and youth were punctuated by the changes that occurred
around him and during the rest of his life he was part and parcel of
a new era. Kesava Pillai was influenced by the men and society around
him. His speeches and writings expressed his anguish against social
injustice and a relentless attempt to rebel against the establishment.
Hence the life and work of Kesava Dev should be examined and assessed
bearing in mind the social scenario that prevailed during his lifetime.
Kesava Pillai was born on August 1904 as the sixth child of Appu Pillai
and Karthyayani Amma. He was born in the 'Nalledathu Tharavad' at Kedamangalam
near North Parur. Nalledathu was a joint family and Padmanabha Pillai
was the Karanavar. At the time Kesavan was born, the family had over
eighteen members living together. Kesavan's mother being the eldest
managed the household, not without any displeasure from the senior members.
Kesavan was sent to the local school when he was six years old. He
was not a disciplined student. His elder brother Narayana pillai was
a Malayalam teacher and through him Kesavan acquainted himself with
epics like Ramayana and Mahabharatha. It was at this time that the First
World War broke out. There was generally a situation of famine. Rice,
the stapple food became a rare commodity. The family could hardly survive
with the allotment granted by the Karanavar. The poor living condition
led to a general demand for partition. Though this demand was initially
resisted by the Karanavar Padmanabha Pillai, he finally yielded. Partition
only made things worst for Kesavan's immediate family. They had to leave
the large family house to a hutment.
Kesavan did not study beyond the middle school. He hated the prescribed
textbooks and the vagaries of the teachers. But the one good quality
and perhaps the only one that he acquired in those days was the habit
of reading. At a time when newspapers and periodicals were rare, Kesavan
had to really struggle to obtain reading materials. He read whatever
he could get and that instilled in him a tendency to revolt against
oppression the less privileged class were subjected to.
Kesavan left home in search of a job when he was barely fourteen. He
tried many odd jobs but did not stick on to any of them. But he never
missed an opportunity to read a new book that he came across. He read
C.V.Raman Pillai, O.Chandu Menon and Swamy Vivekananda.
One day he attended a meeting of the Aryasamaj. The ideals of Aryasamaj
were against caste systems and the several superstitions that prevailed
at the time. Kesava Pillai enrolled as a member of Aryasamaj and changed
his name to Kesava Dev. He also participated in the riot at Palghat,
organized by the Aryasamaj and was nabbed by the police. Kesava Dev
could not fully endorse the ideals of the Aryasamaj. He soon severed
his connection and went to Trivandrum, where he met Kesari Balakrishna
Pillai, Bhodeswaran and A.K.Pillai. Travancore at that time was agitating
against the rule of the Regency. Kesava Dev had good intellectual company
at Trivandrum and that helped him to mould his own strategy to tackle
the vexing problems of the society. He has also involved in the freedom
struggle, in his own way. He started writing articles and short stories
in various periodicals like Sahodaran, Mahila Mandiram, Swarad, Swadesabhimani
and Mathrubhumi. He also worked as a journalist in Malayalarajyam and
Bhaje Bharatham. Kesava Dev never ceased reading. He had by now read
Bernad Shaw, Romain roland, Victor Hugo, Knut Hamsun, Maxim Gorkey,
Leo Tolstoy and a number of others.
The wealth of knowledge acquired through extensive reading and the
wisdom he gained through his interaction with the leaders in various
fields helped him to excel not only as a writer but also as an orator.
Dev never used to refuse an invitation to address a gathering. He travelled
far and wide addressing meetings often out of his own money. It was
during this time that Dev read about the Russian Revolution. He thought
that he has received the answer for all the problems that the country
faced. He even hoped that the second socialist revolution should take
place in India. He declared himself a communist long before
the party itself had any footing in Kerala. He prepared a booklet on
Russian Revolution named "Agniyum Spulingavum" (Fire and Spark)
printed it and distributed personally. He took upon himself the responsibility
of organising the coir workers in Alleppy into a Trade Union. He thus
became the first person to initiate trade union movement in the State.
But Kesava Dev would not stick to anything permanently. He could not
digest the post-revolutionary changes in Russia. He not only ceased
to be a communist but also began working against it. And for the same
reason he vehemently opposed adoption of a politically coloured manifesto
at the Progressive Literary Conference held at Trichur. Many tried to
explain away Dev's attitude saying that he had a weakness to rebel against
everything. But the fact remained that Dev rebelled because he had the
courage of conviction to do so.
For a few years Kesava Dev turned to Drama as a field of expression.
He turned a critic of the pernecious tendencies that existed in Drama
Troops at that time. His political satires namely "Njanippo Communistavum",
"Mazhayangum Kudayingum" became very popular. The themes and
plots of "Orumuri thenga", "Ona blouse", "Kollanum
Kollathiyumm Onnu" were drawn from day-to-day life. Powerful dialogue
and skillful characterization made these plays popular. Though Kesava
Dev cannot be rated high as a play-writer, in the history of Drama in
the Malayalam literature, he is considered as an exponent of romantic
His association with Drama and stage earned him enough for his living.
He married Gomathy and they settled down at Puthupally near Kayamkulam.
Dev stopped wandering about. Everybody expected that he has now had
the proper environment to settle down and bring out the best of fiction
he is yet to write. But the couple did not get along well with each
other, there was hardly any peace at home. Dev reverted back to his
usual life-style and the relationship broke off in due course.
Kesava Dev earned name and fame through his short-stories and novels.
Dev has written about one hundred short stories, which are, published
in three athologies. Dev has experienced the miseries of two world wars,
and had participated in the struggle for Indian Independence. What he
wrote and spoke were not different from the life he lived. Farmers,
peasants, low-class civil servants and prostitutes, became hero's and
heroines in fiction. He said his writings were meant to serve a purpose.
The purpose was to bring out the humanism in human beings and to curtail
their beastly instincts. He revolted against the norms and techniques
prescribed by certain critics, and he was in full blast when it came
to defending his stand.
Of his short stories "Deenamma", "Bhavi varan",
Bus Yatra", "Prathijna", "Ayalkari", "Gusthi"
are the most popular ones.
His first novel "Odayil Ninnu" (1944), is considered by many
as his best and the most popular one. Pappu the Rikshawallah is the
hero. "Bhrandalayam" (1949), "Rowdy" (1958), "Kannadi"
(1961), "Swapnam" (1967), "Ayalkar" (1963) were
his important novels. Dev had his own concept about the craft of the
novel. In a series of lectures delivered at the invitation of the University
of Kerala, Kesava Dev detailed his concept of Novel. A rare honour conferred
by the highest seat of learning on a person who has not gone beyond
A number of his novels have been translated to other Indian languages
and also to foreign languages. Five of his novels 'Odayil Ninnu', 'Swapnam',
Oru Sundariyude Athmakatha', Adyathe Katha', and 'Rowdy' have been made
Kesava Dev settled down in Trivandrum during the 50s, living alone
in a rented house with a servant. One of his important work "Bhrandalayam"
was published and it was well acclaimed. Dev regained his creative spirit,
which had suffered a set back from his marriage with Gomathy. Dev was
also appointed as producer of Drama in 'Akasavani' (All India Radio).
Dev was now financially secure and his creativity was at its peak. Dev
again made history by marrying Seethalakshmi, a school girl more than
thirty tears younger to him. He rebelled against the public opinion
condemning the marriage. Police arrested the couple but released them
as they have become man and wife on November 18th 1957. Dev lost his
job in Akasavani. He fought against all odds bravely. A person who rebelled
against inequality and injustice, a person who revolted against petty
parochialism, suddenly found the hero worshippers around him turn puritans.
As was usual with his nature, Dev had only contempt for them and did
not keep a secret of that. The marriage with Seethalakshmi brought about
a lot of changes in Dev's usual self. He put up a new and spacious house
at Trivandrum and lived there with his young wife. The ten years between
1955 and 1965 were the most productive period as a writer. As many as
ten novels were published during this period including "Ayalkar"(1963)
which won him the coveted Kendra Sahitya Academy Award.
His first novel 'Odayil Ninnu' was prescribed as a text book, more
than once. Kesava Dev was appointed President of Sahithya Pravarthaka
Sahakarana Sangham (1966-68). He was also appointed as the President
of Kerala Sahithya Academy (1974-77). Kesava Dev was conferred with
Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1970. The Kerala Sahithya Academy also honoured
him by granting him the Fellowship. The Freedom Fighters Award was also
conferred upon him in recognition of his participation in the Freedom
Struggle of the country.
While writing about the life and work of Kesava Dev we cannot ignore
his autobiography aptly named as "Ethirppu"(revolt), published
in two volumes. There is also his "Ormakalude Lokathil". The
autobiographies are not complete, but they reflect the life around him.
It presents a true account of the socio-economic situation that prevailed
during the time and its influence on Kesava Dev, which turned him into
a rebel. The most striking feature of his biography is the truthfulness.
Kesava Dev could have presented a sugar coated autobiography but he
willfully remained truthful. That is the most distinguishing characteristic
of Dev as a writer and as a man. The intellectual honesty of Kesava
Dev was something even his staunch critics could not disapprove.
After his marriage with Seethalakshmy in 1957 for about twenty years
Kesava Dev remained a prominent entity in the literary scenario along
with Thakazhy and Basheer. Dev's residence became a meeting place of
writers, journalists and politicians Seethalakshmy's loving care, provided
Dev with a better environment. He derived a good deal of joy. Seethalakshmy
gave birth to a baby boy on January 14, 1967. An heir was born to the
rebel! Kesava Dev named his son Jothy Dev. Dev proved to be a very loving
father and as his son Dr Jothy Dev, reminisces, "I wonder how my
father became a rebel. There was no trace of a rebel in his love for
me. He used to dance to my tune. If I were late by a few minutes from
school he used to loose his temper. When I was home he always wanted
me near him".
Kesava Dev's health was declining. He became a severe diabetic. He
wouldn't listen to his doctors who prescribed him a strict routine.
He could not give up smoking. He lost his physical strength to sit up
and write. He hated to dictate to someone to take down what he had to
write. Mounting expenses for medical treatment brought considerable
financial strain. He suffered long durations of hospitalization. His
family made much sacrifice. But Dev insisted that his son gets the best
of education. His son was always at his bedside when he was in the hospital.
Probably it was then that this child of hardly thirteen decided to become
a doctor. Kesava Dev after a prolonged illness passed away on the first
of July, 1983.
The credit of being the exponent of progressive Malayalam literature,
is owned by Kesava Dev alone. He was the first writer to bring the Malayalam
literature from the elite to the lower class. For the first time in
our literature rikshaw-pullers, rowdies, peasants, factory workers and
other less privileged class of people became Heros and heroines in his
novels and short-stories. Dev wrote their language with all its inherent
power in a style that was unknown till then. As Kesava Dev had himself
admitted, he was a writer with social commitment, especially to the
downtrodden. Dev was a prolific writer producing thirty-one novels,
over one hundred short-stories, over forty Dramas and one Act plays,
a number of Essays and an autobiography. Dev was a rebel in life against
social injustice and in literature against customs and conventions.
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