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Vaikom Muhammad Basheer


Vaikom Muhammad Basheer (b. at Thalayolaparambu in Vaikom, 21 January 1908; d. at Beypore in Calicut, 5 July 1994) was a Malayalam fiction writer. He was a humanist, freedom fighter, novelist and short story writer. The Indian government recognized his contributions by awarding him the prestigious Padma Sri in 1982.

Basheer, born in the village of Thalayolapparampu in northern Travancore, was the eldest child of devout Muslim parents. His father was in the timber business as a contractor, but the business did not do well enough for his large family to live in anything approaching luxury. After beginning his education at the local Malayalam medium school, he was sent to the English medium school in Vaikom, five miles away. While at school he fell under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi. He started wearing Khadar, inspired by the swadesi ideals. When Gandhi came to Vaikom to participate in the Vaikom Satyagraham (1924) Basheer went to see him. He managed to climb on to the car in which Gandhi travelled and touch his hand, a fond memory Basheer mentioned in many of his writings. He used to visit Gandhi's satyagrahashramam at Vaikom daily. He got punished for going late to school for this.

Basheer is known for his unconventional style of language. He did not differentiate between literary language and the language spoken by the commons and did not care about the grammatical correctness of his sentences. Initially, even his publishers were unappreciative of the beauty of this language; they edited out or modified conversations. Basheer was outraged to find his original writings transcripted into "standardized" Malayalam, devoid of freshness and natural flow, and he forced them to publish the original one instead of the edited one. A famous poet once said: "Aakhyas and aakhyathas (related with malayalam grammar) ran behind basheer, crying. He hold them up, and wiped their tears." This points out to the writing style of basheer, without taking care of any grammar, but only in his own village language. Basheer's contempt for grammatical correctness is exemplified by his statement Ninte Lodukkoos Aakhyaadam! ("Your 'silly stupid' grammar!") to his brother, who sermonizes him about the importance of grammar (Paaththummaayude aadu).


Almost all of Basheer's writing can be seen as falling under the heading of prose fiction - short stories and novels, though there is also a one-act play and volumes of essays and reminiscences. Basheer's fiction is very varied and full of contrasts. There are poignant situations as well as merrier ones - and commonly both in the same narrative. There are among his output realistic stories and tales of the supernatural. There are purely narrative pieces and others which have the quality of poems in prose. In all, a superficially simple style conceals a great subtlety of expression.

His literary career started off with the novel Premalekhanam, a humorous love story between Keshavan Nair - a young bank employee and an upper caste Hindu (Nair) - and Saramma - an unemployed Christian woman. Hidden underneath the hilarious dialogues we can see a sharp criticism of religious conservatism, dowry and similar conventions existing in society. This was followed by the novel Baalyakaalasakhi - a tragic love story between Majeed and Suhra - which is among the most important novels in Malayalam literature in spite of its relatively small size (75 pages), and is commonly agreed upon as his magnum opus work. In his foreword to Baalyakaalasakhi, Jeevithathil Ninnum Oru Aedu (A Page From Life), M. P. Paul brings out the beauty of this novel, and how it is different from run-of-the-mill love stories.

The autobiographical Janmadinam ("Birthday", 1945) is about a writer struggling to feed himself on his birthday. While many of the stories present situations to which the average reader can easily relate, the darker, seamier side of human existence also finds a major place, as in the novel Shabdangal ("Voices", 1947), which faced heavy criticism for violence and vulgarity.

Ntuppuppaakkoraanaendaarnnu ("Me Gran'dad 'ad an Elephant", 1951) is a fierce attack on the superstitious practices that existed among Muslims. Its protagonist is Kunjupathumma, a naive, innocent and illiterate village belle. She falls in love with an educated, progressive, city-bred man, Nisaar Ahamed. Illiteracy is fertile soil for superstitions, and the novel is about education enlightening people and making them shed age-old conventions. Velichathinentoru velicham (a crude translation can be 'brightness is very bright!') one of the most quoted Basheer phrases occurs in Ntuppuppaakkoraanaendaarnnu. People boast of the glory of days past, their "grandfather's elephants", but that is just a ploy to hide their shortcomings.

Mathilukal ("Walls") deals with prison life in the pre-independence days. It is a novel of sad irony set against a turbulent political backdrop. The novelist falls in love with a woman sentenced for life who is separated from him by insurmountable walls. They exchange love-promises standing on two sides of a wall, only to be separated without even being able to say good-bye. Before he "met" Naraayani, the loneliness and freedomlessness of prison life was killing Basheer; but when the orders for his release arrive he loudly protests, "Who needs freedom? Outside is an even bigger jail." The novel was later made into a film (MATHILUKAL, 1989) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan with Mammootty playing Basheer.

Sthalaththe Pradhaana Divyan, Aanavaariyum Ponkurishum, Muccheettukalikkarante makal and Ettukaali Mammoonju featured the life of real life characters in his native village of Thalayolaparambu (regarded as Sthalam in these works).

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