After reading several pretentious and boring short stories written by new generation Malayalam writers during 2001-2005 time frame, I had decided to stay away from Malayalam fiction for a while. Paleri Manikyam was a Malayalam novel which I read after a long time, and I liked it. Encouraged by that, this week I read TD Ramakrishnan's novel Francis Ittykkora, and it also was a good reading experience. Francis Ittykkora shows a new face of Malayalam literature, and with its innovative narrative structure and imaginative theme spanning to multiple centuries and continents, I think this novel would be a landmark in modern Malayalam literature.
The novel starts with an Internet chat transcript. Itty Cora, a US citizen and an "Iraq War Veteran", chats with a Malayalee girl named Rekha. Through a series of chat sessions and emails, Cora narrates his life story and the current problems he faces. His experiences are bizarre and disturbing, to say the least (Critic Asha Menon, in the back cover of the book, compares the book with Dharma Puranam in this aspect), and Rekha learns that Cora has recently converted himself to a cannibal(!), hoping to find a remedy for his problems, and also tried various violent black magic techniques at Peru. Cora says that his mother was an Italian, and an ancestor of hers was a 15th century pepper merchant from Kunnamkulam, Kerala, who had settled in Florence, Italy. His name was Francis Ittykkora, and Cora wants Rekha to find information about this person.
Rekha, with some of her close colleagues and clients, tries to find information about Ittykkora from various elderly people in Kunnamkulam. Soon, they come to know that there exists a set of 18 families spread over all continents of the world who are direct descendants of Ittykkora, and some of them still live in Kunnamkulam. All of them have certain strange customs and rituals which they follow secretly, and they have certain ancient books and manuscripts with them which are not seen by anyone outside the family. Meanwhile, Cora meets a mathematics researcher named Morigami in Peru, who had obtained some information about Ittykkora from various sources, and wants to get one of those secret family books continue her research. Through the adventures of Cora and Rekha and her friends, the blog entries of Morigami, and a few remaining pages of a moth-eaten old book about Ittykkora which someone had written during early 20th century (the author of the book was murdered), there emerges a larger-than-life picture of Francis Ittykkora, who was a multidimensional personality.
I have not read The Da Vinci Code yet, and I haven't watched the movie either; I know about its theme only from a high level, so I would refrain from commenting in detail about the thematically similarity Francis Ittykkora is having with this book. TD Ramakrishnan mentions in the book that his novel is not history and is just an attempt to create a story by weaving historical incidents and fiction. It can be considered as an achievement by the author that after reading this novel, we would feel that a person called Ittykkora really existed and that his name was purposefully removed from all our "fabricated" history books. This is an ironical and dangerous situation, since the novel itself is a collection of fabricated incidents, and so probably it makes us wonder how thin a line is present between history and fiction. To make things more complex, there are many biographies and historical incidents narrated in detail in the book (which match with the Wikipedia web pages on these subjects), in which fictitious incidents and characters have been inserted. Direct and indirect comments have been made about the private lives of historic characters starting from Hypatia of Alexandria to Alexander Grothendieck (who presently is said to be living in reclusion). There is a chapter in the book where a group of people discuss about Ittykkora the mathematician and the influence of Ittykkora and the "Hypatian school" on the 15th century Mathematicians of Kerala, where we see people supporting and opposing the status-quo of present written history. This part is cleverly narrated in a sort of journalistic style, by reading which the reader develops the impression of standing along with the author as a third-party observer, and then forming his own opinions on the subject. All this brings out various questions regarding the level of artistic freedom that an author can use while dealing with history.
The lifestyle of characters seen in the novel is very unusual for a Malayalam novel, I think. Even though the reader may get familiar with it after a few chapters, frequent blows are cast through digressions, like the detailed descriptions of a "cannibal feast". After all this is said, TD Ramakrishnan has indeed succeeded in creating an intriguing story - there is no doubt about that. Francis Ittykkora is a book that would tempt us to continue reading it till its very end in one sitting. And the way the author has skillfully assembled various real incidents and people into this story to give it a socio-political perspective, and the extensive study and research that might have possibly gone behind that, all has to be highly appreciated.