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10 April 2008

Love and Insanity: The Dividing Line

Malayatoor Ramakrishnan

Yakshi is one of my perennial favourites, and so when Penguin brought out the English translation of Malayatoor's psychological drama, I had to buy it, if only so I could introduce my husband to a novel that dealt with the gradual disintegration of a traumatised mind.

No one can deny the details of the subconscious mind that psychology has laid bare. By doing so, you limit knowledge. To posit that all knowledge, all wisdom should bow down to our understanding of the laws of nature is the biggest superstition. There can be another world. And that world can have its own laws, its own truths. After all, we have corrected so many of our concepts of space and time. In the alternative, occult world, anything can happen. And it usually does.

Malayattor's Yakshi deals with experiences in an alternate reality, and its repercussions in the real world as we know it. At the end, the reader is left in a twilight world, suspended between belief and disbelief - Is Sreeni's story true? Or have his traumatic experiences left him hovering on the brink of insanity? Did he murder his wife? Or was she really a yakshi, who disappeared in a wisp of smoke? Hovering between the rational and irrational, Yakshi is the story of a man who has lost everything he held dear. He finds love and life is worth living once more, only to find that his life is nothing but a mirage.

Chemistry lecturer Sreenivasan was the envy of his junior colleagues and the target of female adulation. After preaching morality to one of his students, Vanaja, who propositions him while on a college excursion, Sreenivasan makes the mistake of falling in love with the beautiful Vijaya, yet another of his students. The budding love story does not have a happy ending - a freak accident in the Chemistry lab disfigures Sreenivasan for life. His lady love turns away from his disfigured face in disgust, and Sreenivasan is sure that no woman will ever look at him with affection again. Turning inwards for solace, his work becomes an obsession. To keep himself occupied after college hours, Sreeni picks up the threads of an old diversion. He begins to research the occult - the practice of black magic in Kerala. As his research material piles up, he begins to believe in the supernatural.

One day, as if out of nowhere, the ethereally beautiful Ragini walks into his wife. The next few meetings are too regular to be coincidental. Her beauty and sympathy are a balm to his bruised soul. Falling in love with her, he is ecstatic when she reciprocates. Hesitant, yet strangely unquestioning, he marries her, and for a while his shattered world is made whole again.

His research into the supernatural continues uninterrupted. Soon he begins to notice strange things about his wife - their neighbour's dog will never come near Ragini. She cringes barking, when Ragini tries to pet her. Days later, the dog dies. Unsettling events follow in quick succession. A pala tree, traditionally associated with yakshis and gandharvas, bursts into bloom, after years of barrenness. Sreeni is awakened by the haunting plaints of a lover's song. Waking, he sees Ragini gazing wistfully from the window. An unearthly light surrounds the Pala tree.
Or, is this all a dream?

Before he has time to mull over his newfound 'knowledge' , the neighbour's wife conceives after the age of menopause. Sreeni is terrified. His research tells him that yakshis are notorious for their love of human foetuses. Troubled by dreams in which his wife appears with bloodied lips, he is sure that the neighbour's wife will never give birth. Sure enough, she miscarries. And coincidentally, Ragini is with her when the mishap occurs. Sreeni is convinced that his wife is a yakshi.

Adding to his troubles, he is impotent. Desperate to prove himself a man, he visits a prostitute, only to be ridiculed for his failure to perform. His impotence is now justified by his terrified mind as a protection against Ragini's wiles. If he were to make love to her, she was sure to kill him.

As each sequence unfolds its terror, Sreeni increasingly loses his mental balance. Each of Ragini's actions is looked upon with suspicion. As he continues his research into the occult, he learns that the only way to protect himself from a yakshi is to sacrifice ants in fire. His condition has deteriorated to such an extent that the scientist in him turns away from rational thought. To his semi-crazed mind, the pala tree has become synonymous with Ragini. In a fit of terror, he cuts it down. What his neighbour, Ananthan, sees is something entirely different. It is Ragini who is chopped down mercilessly. But Sreeni is no longer responsible for his actions. The thin line dividing sanity and insanity has dissolved.

Malayatoor is famous for other introspective novels such as Yantram, Verukal, etc. In Yakshi, he explores the chilling reality of an alternate world. Translated into English by Prema Jayakumar, the story retains the ethnic flavour of the Malayalam original. She has remained faithful to the ethos, not changing the essential local colour that characterises the author's works. Her failure, perhaps, in making the translation every bit as powerful as the original, lies in her efforts to provide rational overtones to what is essentially a story about the suspension of belief.

The appalled disbelief that you are left with after reading the Malayalam original, is simply missing in the English translation. Malayatoor's writing leaves you with a sense of sympathy towards a scientist whose personal experiences make him veer towards the existence of a yakshi. At the end of the novel, you are willing to believe that things may have happened just as Sreeni he says it did. The translation, however tends to be somewhat pedantic, and most of the horror inherent in the original is absent. Prema Jayakumar's translation leaves you with a sense of something incomplete.

Copyright: Anuradha Warrier
The Sunday Observer 1991


  1. Well, we now have a new Malayalam movie named 'Akam' based on 'Yakshi' directed by newcomer Shalini Usha Nair and starring Fazil's son in the lead role. It is being screened in IFFK 2011, so this maybe something to watch out for!



  2. Pradeep, that sounds interesting, though I'm keeping my expectations low. :( I mean, it's a hard act to follow - KS Sethumadhavan's direction, Sathyan and Sharada as the leads... The original is a classic; sometimes, I hate it when people tamper with them, modernising the tale or 'adapting' it, whatever that means (usually, it means they are going to make a hash of it!). I'm a purist. I'll wait and watch. With circumspection.

  3. Pradeep, just watched the trailer. Two initial reactions: the dialogue (Faasil's) is very stilted. 2) The whole basic premise of Yakshi is lost when they changed Sreeni into an architect. The original dealt with a scientist - whose dabbling into the occult crosses the line between science and superstition. That was so much more effective - to see a scientist in that plight where all his education and his reasoning leaves him. As I said: I'll wait and watch.

  4. Understand the low expectations, especially with the new trend of remaking the classics because of lack of ideas but the initial vibes from back home have been decent and hoping that a movie that enters IFFK may be good. Also, from what I gather, this is an 'loose adaptation' of the book and not necessarily the movie, so it's not an attempt to modernize the plot. Finally, a woman director in Malayalam is indeed rare and for a story like this, maybe a fresh perspective! Fingers crossed!!!

  5. Anu, since it is a loose adaptation of the novel, we will have to see how it works out - an architect's vision vis-a-vis a scientist's rationale! Have seen Fahad in 'Chaappa Kurishu' (a low budget must watch) this year and he made an impact but is still relatively new. It's a challenging role and he is probably too raw for it but let' see...

  6. Chhapa kurishu released last summer when I was leaving Kerala. It had good advance reports but my brother said it was 'good' (my brother has high standards, LOL) but definitely did not live up to the hype. I haven't seen it yet, so I'll reserve comment. It's on my must-watch list, though. As for Akam, the fact that it is a debut director, female, with no known ties to the film industry *and* screening at the IFFK means I'll definitely give it a chance.


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