Book Reviews

The Man Who Learnt to Fly But Could Not Land | Thachom Poyil Rajeevan | Book Review

  • Author: Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, P.J. Mathew (translator)
  • Publisher: Hachette India (25 August 2020)
  • Language: English
  • Paperback: 336 pages

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‘We cannot call works that do not enhance the critical faculty of the people, raise their intellectual curiosity, nurture their convictions and hold them up to the stark realities of life as literature…’

The Man Who Learnt to Fly But Could Not Land, written originally in Malayalam by Thachom Poyil Rajeevan and translated into English by P.J. Mathew, is essentially a poignant account of a writer and activist, KTN Kottoor, hailing from the Malabar region in pre-Independence years. The book traces KTN’s life and how his dream ‘to fly’ propels him to fight for freedom, a fairly unpopular word in Kottoor. His only weapon being language he uses adeptly to write about existing unfairness in society, political upheaval, and socialist movement leading to the formation of Independent India.

KTN or Narayanan is born in an affluent family of Kottoor which is well respected by the villagers. He loses his mother early on in life and is brought up by his widowed aunt. Interestingly, he is breastfed by an untouchable woman Kunjali whose son Nakulan remains a close friend of KTN till the end. Narayanan is inclined towards writing but it is only when he loses his father, who was an active participant in the rising socialist movement, that he is driven towards understanding how writing could bring freedom. After he moves to his Uncle’s place, he comes across the printing press that used to print all the material of the Congress Socialist Party in Malabar.

13-year-old Narayanan takes the responsibility of proofreading a monthly political magazine. In no time, he begins writing pieces anonymously for the same. His early exposure to intellectuals and their writings inspire the writer in him who begins using language as a social tool to express his ideas and ideals. In a society teeming with patriotic fervour and brimming with an urge to achieve freedom, Narayanan’s articles critical of Gandhi, essays on society and morals, village life, deep philosophical musings leave a deep mark.

While the story is fictional, it never seems that things happening inside the book are not real. At once deeply personal, The Man who learnt to fly but could not land mirrors the developing times of political uproar in the Malabar region. Throughout the book, we get a closer peek into KTN’s life that brings out social evils such as untouchability, sexuality, love, lust, and a craving for freedom.

The writing is pure delight for it pulls you right in and you cannot stop but keep flipping the pages. The narration does move places but never brings in puzzlement. The excerpts from Narayanan’s writing – poems, essays, musings – adorn the pages of this story. The narrator makes sure to put the names of the ‘sources’ of these excerpts. The fictional tale of a man navigating the struggles of coming to terms with himself as a writer and as an individual is spellbinding and amusing.

Originally from North India and being born and brought up in Central India, reading about political and social conditions in South India was an eye-opening event for me. The prevalent customs, cultures, ideologies, spiked my interest to read more about the region and what it was like during the pre-independence era. Narayanan’s story of employing language and literature as a tool to bring about social change has been the highlight for me. The way I could not keep myself from annotating the book was proof.

No wonder the book won Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and the brilliant translation allowed me to read it.

Purchase your copy here

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