Sickness reveals the limits of language. Even great writers are forced to look beyond the commonplace to express the spiritual change that illness brings in the individual. Thus, illness becomes a metaphor for many things: Moral decay, political turmoil, the insignificance of human beings or a moment of enlightenment.
Among the drawbacks of illness as a matter for literature is that there is the poverty of language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache, wrote Virginia Woof in her treatise On Being Ill.
Diseases, especially epidemics and lifethreatening ones, have informed a variety of literature. But there is no uniformity in dealing with the critical human situation. Illness has meant different experiences for Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Susan Sontag, Changampuzha Krishna Pillai or O V Vijayan.
Malayalam critics V Rajakrishnan and K P Appan have ventured to study the relationship between morbidity and creative imagination. In his book Rogavum Sahithya Bhavanayum (Illness and Creative Imagination) Appan relates a particular disease with each literary era.
In Appans view, leprosy dominates the classical imagination. Leprosy was the tool to create an outcast in ancient literature and puranas. Here the disease is the punishment from God, Appan wrote. He says that tuberculosis is the disease of the romantic era, syphilis of the realistic era and cancer of the modern age. AIDS in the disease of the postmodern age, he wrote in the study. AIDS is a disease that leaves no hope for survival, he added.
Appan also analyses the language M T Vasudevan Nair, Kakkanadan and O V Vijayan used in dealing with epidemics in their novels. The fear ignited by the outbreak of cholera in Koodallur is vividly captured by MT in the novel Asuravithu by making the language as neutral as that of a pathological study.
A writing style in the novel is such that the short sentences resemble and evoke the comma bacillus that causes cholera, says Appan. The angst the epidemic created in society, where dead bodies are piled up, is vividly recaptured through an evocative language in Asuravithu and Kakkandans Vasoori.
In Khasakkinte Ithihasam, the outbreak of smallpox becomes an aesthetic experience. Vijayan sees the fluid-filled bumps of the disease as the blooming of marigold flowers and goes on to describe Khasak as a huge garden, Appan says.
Not all writers saw diseases from a metaphorical angle and there are many who presented it in a realistic way. The first one that comes to my memory is the play Mariyamma by Polachirackkal Kocheeppan Tharakan that was published in 1903. It has graphic details of how smallpox spreads in society, says critic P K Rajasekharan.
In the writing of Thakazhi and Kesava Dev, diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy are social evils and the victims are always the marginalised in society who are deprived of proper sanitation or health care, Rajasekharan explains.
Epidemics also assume the level of a political allegory where the decay of human body denotes the degeneration of ideology. The political and ideological implication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns Cancer Ward are too pronounced to be ignored. Satchidanandans poem Pani (fever) is a creative reaction to the oppressive days of Emergency in the country.
There is yet another group of writers for whom disease is not exactly a horrifying experience. For Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon illness is not a doomed experience because it also leaves the possibility of recovery, which is expressed in a number of poems like Kaviyum Kushtarogiyum, Asupatriyil andVellilavalli, says Sajay K V, a prominent NewGen critic.
As in many of Vyloppillis works, these poems have their own dose of pessimism and cynicism, but the poet overcomes the negativity with hope. The poem Vellilavalli narrates how a near-decayed plant is regenerated and restored to normalcy, Sajay points out.
In Kaviyum Kushtarogiyum, the poet destroys a letter written by a leprosy patient for fear of spreading the disease but in the end, sends a copy of his book to the patient. These poems can be juxtaposed with Balachandran Chullikkads works where morbidity itself is celebrated. Chullikkads imagery draws its strength from morbid imagination. The poet himself had confessed that there is an element of Changampuzha in him who revelled in masochism. On the contrary, Vyloppillis stress is on recovery and regeneration, Sajay explains.
They are writers who converted the trauma they passed through during the days of intense pain to an edifying and enlightening experience. N N Kakkad, who suffered from cancer, was one among such writers who narrated the dark days of his isolation in poems such as Saphalamee Yathra, Intensive Care and Maranathe Kurichu Oru Amoortha Padanam.
The experience of illness lifts the poet to a higher spiritual level from where he can look upon the world with compassion and love and confront impending death with a smile.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.
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