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the Complete Review
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The Legends of Khasak


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To purchase The Legends of Khasak

Title: The Legends of Khasak
Author: O.V.Vijayan
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 208 pages
Original in: Malayalam
Availability: The Legends of Khasak - US
The Legends of Khasak - UK
The Legends of Khasak - Canada
The Legends of Khasak - India
ഖസാക്കിന്റെ ഇതിഹാസം - India (Malayalam)
Les Légendes de Khasak - France
Die Legenden von Khasak - Deutschland
  • Malayalam title: ഖസാക്കിന്റെ ഇതിഹാസം
  • Translated and with an Afterword by the author

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Our Assessment:

A- : evocative, well-told tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 9/8/2005 Claudia Wenner
The Week A 24/5/1998 Lukose Mathew

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vijayan gelingt es eindrücklich, Symbole und Bilder zu finden, die in Bewegung geraten, indem sie immer neue Verbindungen zwischen verschiedenen Zeit- und Wirklichkeitsebenen eingehen." - Claudia Wenner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The Legends of Khasak stands out in the collection for its originality and depth. In this book Vijayan succeeded in universalising his personal experience which is the hallmark of great works of art." - Lukose Mathew, The Week

  • "Critics point out that there are plenty of established literary giants whose works have been reasonably well translated. Foremost among them is O.V. Vijayan, whose Malayalam-language masterpiece, The Legends of Khasak, arguably ranks alongside Rushdie's own output. The story line may not leap across continents and ages, as Rushdie's works do. But the book contains the same magical realism that has made Rushdie an international celebrity. " - Tarun J. Tejpal, Asia Week (27/5/1997)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Legends of Khasak is set in the backwaters of southern India, in the middle of the twentieth century. The District Board has established a single teacher school in remote Khasak, in a an effort to give the local children access to basic education, and Ravi is to be the first teacher there.
       Ravi is the outsider in this place, but he easily fits in the scheme of things here. Contrasts abound in the book -- modern world intruding upon tradition, strangers mixing with locals -- but Vijayan doesn't make it a book about these contrasts. It is this remarkable village-world -- which takes everyone, including Ravi, into its embrace (and just as readily lets them slip free, if need be) -- that is the centrepiece of this richly populated work.
       Khasak is both wondrous and faulty. It is no real-life Eden (one of the things holding it together is "a shared indigence"), but Vijayan adeptly presents it as a sympathetic and lightly magical place. There's a fine touch to his writing. Without being too obvious about it, Vijayan convincingly offers a picture of small-town wisdom and values. Especially striking is how readily readers can identify with the characters, despite the fact that their poverty, lack of education, lifestyle, and beliefs differ markedly from those of any Western reader.
       Ravi is not a dominant central figure, he almost merely one among many, the short chapters shifting focus among a large cast of characters. Ravi's reasons for coming to the this distant spot are only gradually revealed. His background, once it is revealed (midway through the novel), seem an extremely unlikely one, and yet even that can be accepted. Here, as elsewhere, Vijayan also doesn't dwell on details (or allow for too much soul-searching). In this sense much of the book remains sketchy, but what he presents is evocative enough to satisfy, leaving much to the reader's own imagination -- a balance he, for the most part, gets right.
       Typical of the details is the eager to please man who provides the space for the new school. To the rooms: "he had added a personal touch -- framed and colourful pictures of Gandhi, Hitler and the monkey god, Hanuman." Vijayan doesn't bother to explain or elaborate, and while it might appear to be a jarring choice to a Western reader given the time (mid-century) and place it is perfectly understandable one, exactly what one might expect (and without quite the same undertones as it has to contemporary Western readers)
       Religions co-exist in Khasak too, and the new school is seen as something of a threat. Initially, it appears that the clash between the traditional schools -- "the madrassa where the mullah taught the Koran, and the ezhutthu palli, literally the house of writing, run by a family of hereditary Hindu astrologers" -- and the new one will dominate the book. An early chapter closes with one girl, Kunhamina, tearfully swearing to the mullah (yes, girls attend the madrassa here) that she won't go to the new school:

     'By Mariyama,' the girl chanted, again adding gratuitous divinities to her oath. 'By the goddess on the tamarind branch, by the snake-gods -- I will not go to the kafir's school !'
       The mixing of deities, a girl attending the madrassa: that is the sort of place Khasak is. And, needless to say, on the first day of the new school, Kunhamina is sitting in the front row of Ravi's class. But school is only one part of life in Khasak: Vijayan builds up to that first school-day, but then allows school-life to blend in equally with other parts of daily village life. Similarly, later, a school inspector's visit is much anticipated -- only again to prove less significant than feared. Khasak is a place full of anti-climax.
       Conflicts abound and personal and professional relationships constantly change. Solutions are provincial but effective, such as when the town idiot, the lovable Parrot, Appu-Kili, is converted to Islam:
The Parrot was to be allowed the freedom of both religions. For certain days of the week he could be Muslim. For the rest he could be a Hindu. If necessary, Hindu, Muslim and Parrot all at the same time.
       Ravi, in particular, is suspect, as both outsider and as bearer of modernity -- yet he also enjoys the protection and assistance of the locals in times of need.
       There are major and minor crises, and several personal tragedies. Nothing is wallowed in, acceptance ultimately always prevailing. From the easily circumvented imposition of (alcohol) prohibition to the spread of lice to a more serious smallpox epidemic the locals oppose, suffer, and endure together. Ravi is among those who catch smallpox; while many of the locals had gotten themselves vaccinated the supposedly modern Ravi hadn't. "I wanted to experience death" is the explanation he offers -- a rare open display of weakness (though here at least one that can be excused by his delirium).
       Particularly appealing are also the smaller stories and individual fates, scenes from the lives of these common people who come alive and seem marvelously uncommon on these pages. There is also a mix of the supernatural -- spirits and haunted locales -- but it is woven in naturally, beliefs and superstitions that make sense in this small world but aren't too deeply analysed.
       It is Ravi who learns the most over the course of the book, though Vijayan carefully avoids presenting the book too closely as an educational journey. Effectively, in many of the episodes Ravi is, at best, a peripheral presence. There does come the point where Ravi has to admit to his students: "I don't have the answer" -- and naturally his students do, regaling him with the legends of Khasak (and all the lessons these offer).
       The end -- the death of the mullah, a crisis that rallies the locals around Ravi, and Ravi confronting his own past -- is also well-done, and the book closes artfully with Ravi's fate.
       Disarmingly charming, Vijayan's novel is also surprisingly evocative for such a short book: it feels much fuller, as Vijayan has brought a great deal to life in these pages. Both the characters and the setting -- the natural (and even supernatural) surroundings -- are vividly presented. An impressive work.

       A brief, useful afterword explains how the story came about, as well as some biographical notes of interest about Vijayan. And it's nice to read that the book, now some three decades old, continues to have a strong following and a lingering influence.

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The Legends of Khasak: Reviews: O.V.Vijayan: Other books by O.V.Vijayan under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of literature from and about India

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About the Author:

       Indian author Oottupulackal Velukkutty Vijayan (ഒ.വി.വിജയന്‍, 1930-2005) was a leading Malayalam writer and a prominent cartoonist.

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© 2003-2011 the complete review

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