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Vaikom Muhammad Basheer was the master of disguise. Writer to revolutionary, he did it all

From a Hindu mendicant and a palmist to a magician's assistant and a private tutor, Basheer perfected the art of disguise. It reflected in his work.

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Even nearly three decades since his demise, the “Sultan of Beypore” still remains a popular figure, with over 3,50,000 people looking up for him on the Internet. Throughout his life, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer donned many hats — from that of an underground freedom fighter wandering from Ajmer to Arabia, to being a writer credited with the birth of Modernism in Malayalam literature.

According to Wikipedia stats, even amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, between January and July 2020, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, fondly remembered as “Sultan of Beypore” owing to his love for the ancient port town in Kerala, was the fourth most searched item (in Malayalam) on the Internet with his Wikipedia page viewed over 3,50,000 times in India, following Coronavirus (Hindi), Shivaji Maharaj (Marathi) and Bangladesh (Bangla).


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Basheer, the freedom fighter

Born on 21 January 1908 to a devout Muslim family in Vaikom in Kerala’s Travancore region, Basheer lived with his five younger siblings and was trained in Arabic at home by a musaliyar (Malayali Islamic scholar). His family lived a modest life, as much as his father’s timber business could provide for. But Basheer’s fate was not tied to his upbringing. As an eight-year-old, who had learnt the entire Quran, he showed sparks of what was to come.

While studying at an English-medium school in Vaikom, the princely state of Travancore back then, Basheer had a chance encounter with M.K. Gandhi who was there to lead what later came to be known as the Vaikom Satyagraha. It was a regional movement against the ‘ban’ on oppressed castes from entering Hindu temples. In Amma, one of his stories from the collection Ormakkurippu, the protagonist, said to be based on Basheer himself, boasts to his mother about touching Gandhi: “Umma, I touched Gandhi.” The meeting had a profound impact on the young student who started wearing Khadi and practising Gandhian principles.

Basheer was in 10th standard when he quit school and decided to join the national freedom movement. Not only did he begin protesting against the colonial regime, the young revolutionary also expressed his disapproval against the tyrannical regime of C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, the Diwan of the Travancore princely state, against whose policies he later wrote a collection of politically charged essays titled Dharmarajyam. The book, Basheer’s first, was published in 1938 but was banned by the British government that same year.

His quest to join the struggle for Independence took him to the then-Malabar district, where he was imprisoned for participating in the 1930 salt satyagraha led by K. Kelappan, the ‘Kerala Gandhi.’ At the Kannur jail, he was subject to a number of atrocities: “Two violent blows fell on my neck! Then he caught me by the shoulders and made me bend down. He began beating me. It sounded as if he were beating a copper pot. I counted up to seventeen, or perhaps it was twenty-seven. After this, I stopped counting. Why keep count?” Basheer wrote.

Following this episode, he set a goal “to kill Constable No. 270”, who had mercilessly beaten him, but his anger was extinguished by an older man who questioned his integrity as a “satyagrahi”, explaining how policemen were just “mere instruments” of the British government.

The scars of violence unleashed on him during his incarceration led him to abandon the Gandhian doctrine of ahimsa. He saw that the path of non-violence would not earn India independence. As such, he made freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev his role models.

After he was released from prison, Basheer is said to have “organised a terrorist movement and edited a revolutionary journal, Ujjivanam (‘uprising’)”.

The British administration issued an arrest warrant in response to Basheer’s post-prison antics. The revolutionary soon went underground and spent seven years wandering from Kashmir to Kolkata and even as far as the shores of Arabia, among Haj pilgrims en route to Jeddah. From a Hindu mendicant and a palmist to a magician’s assistant and a private tutor, Basheer opted for a variety of disguises to avoid recognition. He took to doing menial jobs to keep himself from starving. During this time, Basheer, in his true secular spirit, lived and breathed among people from across religions and sects in India. This was later reflected in his short story ‘Anal Haq’ from the collection Anarghanimisham where he pointed to the universality of religions.

Upon his return to Kerala in the mid-1930s, however, Basheer found his family had gone bankrupt with his father’s timber business taking a hit. To make things worse, he also lost his job as an agent of a sports company in Sialkot after he met with an accident.


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Basheer, the writer

The hunt for a job landed him in writing short stories for a paper called Jayakesari. He soon launched his own weekly called ‘Pauranadam’ (The Citizens’ Voice) in an attempt to carry on his criticism against the state and colonial powers. To avoid getting arrested, he again went underground and this time he built rapport with other renowned writers like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, S.K. Pottekkat, Uroob, Joseph Mundassery and Changampuzha Krishna Pillai and even befriended communist leader K.C. George.

Basheer finally surrendered and was locked up in Kollam prison cell where he wrote two books: Premalekhanam (Love-letter), where an “upper-caste” man writes a love letter to a Christian girl, asking for her hand in marriage; and Mathilukal (The Walls), which tells the story of a prisoner falling in love with a convict woman who is serving a life sentence, with the two separated by a wall. Both underlie the theme of an intense love and desire.

He later wrote Balyakalasakhi, a story about childhood friends falling for each other in their adolescence. This one even earned Basheer praise from critics like M.P. Paul. His other notable works include Shabdangal, Pathummayude Aadu, Ntuppuppakkoranendarnnu, Janmadinam, and Anargha Nimisham. Translations of his works into other languages have earned him worldwide acclaim, particularly for Mathilukal and Premalekhanam.

In addition to assuming the dimensions of “parody” and “mocking history”, Basheer also went beyond the rigidities of “social realities”, wrote poet and critic K. Satchidanandan in a paper titled Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Indian Literature, adding: “One can very well trace the beginnings of Modernism in Malayalam literature to Basheer and also see elements of what has come to be called the ‘post-Modern’ in his narrative strategies, especially the meta-narrative mode and the parodie approach to history that one may find in a Samuel Beckett, Robbe-Grillet or Salman Rushdie.”

Basheer was 48 when he married Fathima, who was 20 years old at the time, and settled in Beypore in Kozhikode. He was awarded the fourth highest civilian honour — the Padma Shri, in 1982 and the government of India also honoured him by issuing a postage stamp on him. He was also a recipient of the Sahitya Academy Fellowship, Kerala Sahitya Academy Fellowship, and the Kerala State Film Award for Best Story.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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