Indulekha by O. Chandu Menon is the book of the month. Published in 1889, it was the first major novel in the Malayalam language. It was a landmark in the history of Malayalam literature and initiated the novel as a new flourishing genre. The novel is about a beautiful, well-educated lady of a Nair tharavad.
The story has the outline of a love story between Madhavan and Indulekha, a young teen couple. As Indulekha lost her father at a young age, Indulekha lived with her mother at her maternal grandfather- Panchumenon’s house. And Madhavan is the son of Panchumenon’s nephew. Indulekha and Madhavan grew together into their teens and were besotted with each other. Everybody in the town is certain that the two of them were bound to be together for eternity. The couple is equally matched in beauty, education, and temperament. Indulekha and Madhavan are amongst the few in the town (and I would say in the country as well, considering the story is set in the 1890s) who have been imparted English education.
The story begins with an altercation between Madhavan and Panchumenon, and after the altercation, Panchumenon vows in his fit of anger that he would never allow Indulekha and Madhavan to get married. Meanwhile, Madhavan leaves for Madras to join the job that he had recently secured after completing college.
And immediately after, Panchumenon announces the search for a suitable groom for Indulekha. In the pursuit of a suitable groom, an invitation is also sent to the wealthy family of the Nambuthiris headed by Surinambuthiripad (Suri). Suri is a man into his late forties and he is well known for his promiscuous behavior and his gaudy display of wealth. A man who likes to be surrounded by sycophants and has the slightest interest in the pursuit of knowledge. He is a person who would mortgage all his valuables for gaining one night’s pleasure. However, no one in his town daresay a word against him. When he gets the proposal for a meeting with Indulekha he is nonplussed to accept the invitation considering the age difference.
Although Indulekha is the protagonist of the story, I feel the book’s elegance comes from the stark contrasts in the characters of Indulekha and Surinambuthiripad (Suri)-whom some might also consider the antagonist. Had there not been a character like Suri it would not have been possible to truly appreciate the character of Indulekha. The most interesting chapters in the book are where Suri interacts with Indulekha. And every time that happens the reader can feel the arrogance and exuberance of a lascivious man like Suri shattering.
It is at this stage that the story introduces us to the character of Cherusseri, the younger brother of Suri. Without Cherusseri the story would have never taken place. Cherusseri is the stark opposite of his elder brother-he is well educated, well mannered, and witty. But like everyone else in the town, Cherusseri dare not speak against his elder brother. But that does not stop him from using his wits to sarcastically praise Suri. Cherusseri is acquainted with Indulekha and Madhavan and knows how enamored the two of them were. Once Cherusseri comes to know of the proposal received from Panchumenon, he could not contain his excitement of the confrontation of Indulekha and Suri. Prescient of the result that Suri would have to return empty-handed, nevertheless he convinces his elder brother to go ahead and visit Indulekha. With his exaltations, Cherusseri makes his brother feel like a demi-god and assures him that any woman who sees Suri lusts for him.
With reassurances from his younger brother, Suri sets out to meet Indulekha with an exuberant display of his wealth and impresses the family of Indulekha (except a few). Every action and every word coming out of Suri is a sheer display of his arrogance and foolishness. And once he finally gets to Indulekha he is stunned by the beauty of the girl and is dumbfounded. Cherusseri had already fueled Suri’s brain with the thought that Indulekha would be bewitched by him once she saw him. So, Suri was presumptuous that Indulekha would be waiting for the man of her dreams. But Indulekha shatters this presumption of Suri when she reveals that she had no idea of who he was and why he had come to meet her. Nevertheless, Suri was obsessed with Indulekha and wanted to possess this beauty.
The desperate pursuit of Suri to possess the most beautiful girl he had ever seen turns out to be the most engaging part of the story. It shows that a man who thinks from his loins is the most deplorable. But Indulekha is not an ordinary girl and comes out triumphant each time she is in the presence of Suri. The base character of Suri is on display when he fails to woo Indulekha and in a desperate attempt to fulfill his lust tries to pursue Indulekha’s mother (who is a beautiful woman in her thirties). And after failing in all his attempts, Suri tries to blame it on the education of Indulekha-that she is not compatible with him.
In a desperate attempt to escape the ignominy of returning without a bride, Suri furtively plans a devious plot, which creates turbulence in both Madhavan and Indulekha’s life.
The book while providing the readers with a very engaging story also provides compelling commentary on education, society, and history. One chapter in the book showcases the conversation between Madhavan and his father (when the book is about to end)- the conversation is a must-read for everyone. The conversation expounds on the various views of religion prevalent around the world and rarely has any other book explained these views in such an elegant manner.
The book becomes a must-read for the women of India, wherein in major parts of the country women have taken a subservient role and are afraid to raise their voice against the orthodoxy of men. It is even a bigger must-read for the men of India who seem to be driven by their orthodox beliefs and need to learn from the example of Surinambuthiripad on how a man should not be.
Lastly, the book is also a must-read not only for the readers interested in a fascinating story but also for the readers interested in sociology and religion.