The Wind from the Hills


It was thirty years ago that I set out on a journey through the mindscape of Devi, the central
character of my novel Pandavapuram.  It was a lonely journey, a journey that was very
demanding, and yet one that was capable of taking me to a stage of manic excitement.  Devi
had a lot of questions to ask me, questions which troubled me then and continue to trouble me
still.  A number of questions to which I lack the answer even now.
In my attempt to follow the mindset of women who are isolated by circumstances, Devi"s quest
often became my quest.  To escape from the tangles that a male-centric society created
around her, she created a world for herself, in which myth and reality mingled, and sought
refuge there.  Later, readers and critics joined me in this solitary journey.  And my journey
became a continuous exploration, an attempt to plumb the depths of the restless minds of
women.  I realised that a novel that was different in narrative style from the usual would yield
to different types of reading and that a writer could thus enjoy a creative partnership with his
When, after ten years, I wrote Niyogam, my relationship with Kamalakshi Amma, the central
character of the novel, was of a different kind.  She is an average housewife in a small village
with limited education and even less knowledge of the world.  She has to face countless
questions, countless problems.  A rural society with a thousand eyes and even more tongues.  
A midwife who is fated to bear witness to all the births in that village.  The wind from the hills
that blows powerfully through the village, spreading the seeds of unknown mysteries.  Her
husband, Damodaran Master, who throws barbed questions at her.  Even the birth of children
long after time takes on the shape of a riddle.  When women are made to bear the burden of
all the false notes in their relationships with men, it becomes their responsibility to find the
answers to the pointed questions that arise, and to convince the whole world about the truth of
the answers.  For Kamalakshi Amma, the search for answers takes her to the world of myths
and legends which had been familiar to her since childhood.  When the mind is primed to a
state in which it can believe anything, real incidents, too, take on the blurred contours.  In the
quest by a disturbed mind for solutions, the thin line of demarcation between the real and the
imaginary fade away.  New truths arise from a mixture of truth and imagination.
One of the characters who have attracted me most in the epics is that of Kuntidevi.  She is an
extraordinary person who has to face all the conflicts and doubts which haunt the life of
women, and she does it  with strength and grace.  When I think of Kunti, the question that
rises in my mind first is, why did she choose the Sun first to address the first mantra which
would give her a worthy son?  Surely, what should have risen in the mind of a young and
beautiful princess must the picture of a handsome god?  So, why did she invoke  the all-
powerful Sun who radiates scorching heat and blazing light, without any kind of tenderness a
girl would expect ?  Surely, what happens here is the union of mother Earth and the
omnipotent male nature?  Isn’t it the strong presence of nature that is present in the
imagination of Vedavyasa?
When I started writing Niyogam, the image that was most vivid in my mind was this.  That of a
middle aged village woman, who had prayed for a child for years and years, who had
undertaken penances, visited all the temples, who knew anxiety and the angst of
hopelessness as time passed and she grew older, who could now turn only to the all-forgiving
and omnipotent nature herself.  Thus, it is the nature that fills this novel with her mighty
presence.  As a force that intervenes in all the important junctures of human existence,
appearing as the wind from the hills, as rain, as a flow of heat that inflames the body and
mind, as the great deluge that flows in … nature is an important presence in this narration.
A second theme is the one that gave the novel its name in Malayalam. At the simplest level,
the word ‘Niyogam’ means ‘a mission that fate compels one to undertake’.  But the word is
connected with a ritual that was prevalent in ancient times. The puranas say that a human
being has to pay off four debts during his life time – the debt to gods, to the sages, to the
ancestors and to other human beings.  The debt to one’s ancestors can be redeemed only by
giving life to a son who will perform the periodic rites meant for propitiating the ancestors.  The
agony of a man who is unable to have a son is immeasurable. Niyogam is a method that
elders prescribed for men who were in this quandary.  That is, that those who did not have a
successor could persuade their wives to beget a child from a distinguished person from the
same lineage. In olden days, when for a king to die without  an heir was a diaster, this practice
had great importance.  In the Mahabharata, even Vedavyasa is forced to take up such a
mission, much against his own wishes, resulting in the births of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and
A third strand that came into the book is the story of Nachiketa which is narrated in the
Kathopanishad.  Nachiketa who goes to Yama, the god of Death, in his mission to unravel the
mystery of what happens after life ends,  is a character who has always fascinated me.  Any
quest for the meaning of human existence cannot succeed without acknowledging Nachiketa.  
The midwife Karthu Amma, who tries to explore the secret of birth, and the boy Santhan, who
seeks the truth about death, are the two complementary ends of this quest.  Similarly Viswam
and Santhan see life from two diametrically opposite points of view.  When extreme lust for life
froths in one, the other’s searches take him to the lonely spiritual planes.
A question might arise about the relevance of such myths and legends and the queer beliefs
that cling to them in this cyber age when science has advanced so much, explained so much.  
The only answer to that question is that these are the stuff of what a great civilization has
garnered.  Though each of them in itself might look rather strange in the present context, our
history and tradition and heritage are incomplete without such myths and legends, which play
a very important role in evolving the common civilization of a people over the ages.  
The background to the story is one of the villages of Kerala which I know intimately.  The
peculiarities of life in such a village are so familiar.  That flood at the end of the novel was one
of the regular occurrences in my own village.  Once in two or three years, at the end of the
monsoon rains, the waters would flow in from the hills.  This is one of the vivid memories of my
I have felt that my stories are often incomplete and that they are completed only in the mind of
the reader.  I also believe that an original work of literature yields different meanings when
subjected to reading and rereading by the same reader and even more when read by different
people.  The gaps in the narrative may offer immense possibilities to a discerning reader, who
tries to fill them up in his own way, thereby starting a creative partnership in his own mind,
perhaps unknown to himself.  And the same work of fiction serves up diverse experiences to
the reader, different awakenings, different completions and different kinds of fulfilment. I wish
that ‘The Wind from the Hills’ paves the way for as many such readings as  Niyogam did


                                                    TRANSLATOR'S NOTE

Why does anyone spend time conveying what an author has said in one language, to another
language, to a new audience ? In other words, why do I translate? The simplest answer is that
I enjoy doing it. I like languages and the challenge of matching word to word and idea to idea
is exhilarating.
That is only the first reason. The second reason is that I'm sure that this small lanuage of
mine, which hides in a corder of India, contains riches that any language would be glad to
own. Since the language I am fluent in, other than my mother-tongue, is English, I translate
Malayalam books into English. I am often asked whether I can convey the full flavour and
beauty of the original language and story in English. I can only answer that I try. And going by
my own reaction, I would rather read a fairly well-translated version of a text from another
language than not read it at all.
The books I choose for translation are those that speak to me, those that I expect will speak to
others who do not know the language as well. Sethu's Pandavapuram was a book that
brought a new reading experience when it was published in the early 1970s. It was literally a
new reading experience to the Malayali reader. Before the term "magical realism" had entered
the common parlance, here was a book in which reality and fantasy mingled effortlessly,
where the reader, with the protagonist, found it difficult to separate the two. The epic story in
the background did not distract one from the tragedy of the deserted woman in the present.
Translating Pandavapuram was pure pleasure and the lyricism of the original prose does
linger in English as well. Sethu has this trick of adding dimensions to an ordinary situation, by
a couple of words, a short question, by a name. It might be the name of an imaginary place, a
careless question by a character about the scandal-mongering tongue of a washerman, the
title of the book. It is a challenge to convey this across another language and culture.
Niyogam was even more difficult to translate because it is so firmly rooted in rural Kerala. It is
centred round a society in which everyone has his or her place, where every movement is
noted and commented upon. A lot is left unsaid in each conversation. To invite a reader
unfamiliar with that world, with its closed society, without explaining too much, without being
too visibile, was a difficult task, but one which I enjoyed. I hope the result brings pleasure to
the reader too.