Bhavana Murali discusses one of his favourite short stories

‘The wart’ by O.V. Vijayan was first published in English by Viking and D.C. Books in 1998, in an anthology of selected fiction by the author. The short story is classified under the section ‘Allegories of power’ and as the author notes in his introduction to the stories, they “are concerned with the power and terror, occasioned by India’s brief experience of the emergency” (Vijayan, p.457). In the story, a grotesque sentient wart consumes and destroys the unnamed protagonist and those around him, till it finally transforms into an elephant. In this essay I will attempt to examine and identify the events in the story as various stages in the corrupting cycle of power, more specifically, power of the political kind.

In the first stage, the protagonist comes across the wart and is immediately drawn to its magnetism, which evolves into an obsession. He even finds it attractive and a “sign of luck”, which he says seemed to excite his wife Suma when they made love (Vijayan, p.460). Suma in turn displays her displeasure at the presence of the wart in several ways, including this instance: “One night, while making love, I found Suma reluctant and her orgasm impersonal” (Vijayan, p.461). This directly contradicts his assumption that she was excited by the presence of the wart. Throughout the story we see many instances of the protagonist trying to attribute his personal fantasies to other characters in the story. The lead character refuses to seek external help from his near and dear ones, to break the spell of the growth on his face. He deludes himself by suggesting that “the dense herbal beds” and medicaments made utilising “the principles of the sage Dhanavantari” would be a better alternative to removing it either by himself or with the assistance of a doctor (Vijayan, p.461). Even when his son is struck by fever, he uses his personal prejudice against western medicine to suggest “children do catch these colds. A little soup of pepper should make him all right” (Vijayan, p.463). When Suma insists, he reluctantly goes to get Aechchu Menon, the doctor.  It is evident that he does not want to draw the attention of the doctor to the wart itself, lest he should offer to remove it. The protagonist, who is now completely obsessed with the mysterious wart, displays animosity towards the world and feels misunderstood.

“My kinsman here,” he said, bantering,” believes in remedies of rain and dew.”

‘Words rose within me only to ebb away; what could I say about the gentle realm of leaf and root, of the secret covenant between father and son who listen to the gongs of Shiva and watch the water-fowl streak through the dusking water?”

(Vijayan, p.464)

In the second stage, the wart utilises its host’s obsession to isolate and imprison him. He gets anxious as it starts to grow larger and more painful, and uses the “rarest of roots” to cure his condition (Vijayan, p.465).  But he soon realises that “the wart seemed to suck in the very medicament, to feed and grow” (Vijayan, p.465). Even his pleas to his ancestors to rescue him from the predicament seem to be in vain. In the following passage we also get the sense that the protagonist had underestimated the all-pervading power of the wart.

My fathers, I said, these riversides and mountain slopes had borne witness to your freedom, and yet what has befallen me, your son? You bequeathed to me the precious palm leaf with its arcana of healing, and yet why have these leaves and roots failed to prevail over this invading spore? In the aged panelling, in the walls of our sprawling home, they awoke and listened and answered me with a great tide of sadness.

(Vijayan, p.466)

His thoughts starts leaning towards self-harm as he realises that his situation was desperate and proceeds to excise the wart using his uncle Koppunni’s knife.

The wildness of the knife roused me, and I went to the shelf in the panelling and picked it up. I did not know what followed; perhaps the knife compelled me. The suicidal violence of my great uncle welled up within me along with the futile resistance of the pious, and in that great mingling I held the wart with my left hand and with the right drew the knife along its stem.

(Vijayan, p.467)

His imprisonment in the attic is complete when Suma and his son abandon him to the care of Chattan, his loyal serf. He lies there in pain and inconsolable grief, as the wart, which is now the size of a coconut, twitches with life.

In the third stage, the wart forces him to commit atrocities against his loyal serfs, thereby severing the last ties he had to humanity. Naani, the aboriginal woman is almost coerced into attending to the protagonist.

“Naani.”

“Yes, master?”

“Will you come?”

She did not reply.

“Naani.”

“Yes, master?”

“Naani”, I asked again, “Will you come to work?”

Quietly she said, “I shall.”

(Vijayan, p.470)

The wart then influences the man to prey on her emotionally and seduce her to satisfy its vile need to feed.

I was crying. She pressed my face against her belly, and in my sorrow and dependence I began disrobing her. She pressed me harder against her body’s deep honey-hued translucence.

(Vijayan, p.471)

The murder of Naani and Chathan the serf and his wife and the act of necrophilia with Naani’s rotting corpse is committed involuntarily by the protagonist; he is merely a vassal for the wishes of the wart. He acknowledges this and laments about his state of helplessness.

When the protagonist questions the wart about the wretched treatment meted out to him, it tortures him and tells him – “Memory is a crime against history” (Vijayan, p.474). The author makes a strong statement here against the vicious cycle of power and its abuse, The memory of past transgressions recorded in the collective memory and history of the past generations should have warned the protagonist and us against the follies of being apathetic. But we choose to forget and fall prey to the same avatars intoxicated by the manna of ruthless, uninhibited power.

The wart informs the protagonist that he must be henceforth referred to as “brother” to signify his “willing servitude” (Vijayan, p.474).  The salutation of “brother” is insisted upon to signify the absolute resignation of one’s freedom of thought and will to act. It is also a veiled attack on the nature of political bodies/institutions that promote camaraderie among its cadres, to instil in them a sense of belonging and to unify them under the umbrella of an ideology and their love for freedom. Ironically this very fellowship is manipulated to suit the ambitions of those corrupted by power and their objectives become the antithesis of freedom.

In the final stage, the wart abandons the protagonist. It grows so large that the transformation effects a role reversal, in that the man becomes the wart and a burden to its very existence. The wart studies the palm leaf treatises that belonged to the man and prepares a medicament to detach the man from its enormous body. Power knows no master and it abandons its wielder no sooner does he start to believe in its permanence.

It disengages from him and transforms into an elephant, which is venerated by the villagers and assigned to the temple, where it presumably engages in another cycle of power and its corruption. The protagonist, who is now reduced to the size of a grub, is relieved: “The wart had given me my freedom, the freedom of the castaway” (Vijayan, p.477). He laments his erring ways and praises God, the creator of all things. He regrets looking inwards and not towards the glory of the almighty, which might have provided him salvation sooner.

“The wart” is a powerful tale about the corruption that power wreaks on an individual. It snares him with its lustful promises, isolates him from his spirit and human bonds, imprisons him in a web of deceit, and possesses him to commit atrocities against mankind. It then abandons him and leaves him in a vulnerable state to face the consequences of his actions. “The wart” uses pastoral settings and characters to effectively convey a horrifying historical truth in a lyrical language that accesses the collective history of our forefathers and the moral dilemmas of our times. The story is a morality tale and a warning to future generations about the dangers of indifference and spiritual surrender to the unbridled power of states/political institutions.

 

Works Cited:

O.V. Vijayan. Selected Fiction. New Delhi: Penguin, 1998.

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