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 realism.

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 primary education.

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 into movies.

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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