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Eight books of poetry and many awards later, Pavithran Theekkuni, known for his `poems smelling of scorched lives', continues to hawk fish to make a living.

Photo: K.K. MUSTAFAH

The poet at work: Pavithran Theekkuni.

IT was a monsoon night. The village was soaked in rain. The tiny thatched hut leaked. The kerosene lamp struggled to fight off the wet winds that tried to snuff out its pale light.

Hungry and lying in his grass mattress spread out on the floor, Pavithran listened to the night's wail. His mother rose, and came close. "Child, there's a treasure trove hidden in a bamboo grove a little distance away," she whispered in his ears. "I am going out to get it. Be a nice boy and go to sleep."

Vivid memory

Leaving him alone in the hut, she walked out into the rainy night.

The mother returned by midnight. She had no treasure trove with her; only a wet five-rupee note in her hand. Tears in her eyes, she dried it against the flickering lamp.

More than a quarter century later, Pavithran Theekkuni, the celebrated young Malayalam poet, still vividly remembers that tortured night. It had scorched the innocence of his boyhood.

His mother had gone treasure hunting again on many nights — for, she had to feed two young stomachs, Pavithran's and his sister's. She could never get him the promised treasure trove, but her nocturnal travels left a deep scar on Pavithran's mind. Years later, their burning memories echoed in his poetry. In the widely admired poem "Nidhi" (treasure trove), the poet scoops out the molten lava of that painful experience into his readers' hearts.

For a five-rupee note, Pavithran's father had once "sold" him when he was a little boy. The insane father has lived on the street, almost naked, for the past three decades. All his childhood, Pavithran suffered the ridicule, "madman's son".

Basis of his poetry

"My experiences formed my poetry," Pavithran tells his interviewer. "With my 32 years of life experiences, I can probably keep on writing poetry for the next 10 lifetimes."

Sitting on a rock near his home in Aayancherry, 60 km from Kozhikode, his shirt and hair and hands reek of fish. He is just back from the village market where he makes a living by selling fish. Eight books of poetry and several poetry awards (including a State Sahitya Akademi Award) later, selling fish is his only reliable source of income. Earlier, he used to carry the fish basket on his head and sell door-to-door; now, from a wooden board raised on the road's edge.

"I make upwards of Rs. 150 a day," Pavithran says. Mackerels, sardines and seer fish help feed three stomachs — his wife Shaantha's and two children's — who live with him in a rundown one-room thatched hut that has no electric light.

"There is no poetry on my mind while I sell fish; all I care about is to sell out my ware." That was why he asked the interviewer to wait until sundown.

Hawking fish has helped end his years of wandering across Kerala picking up odd jobs — as restaurant waiter, digger of phone-cable pits, newspaper vendor, coconut plucker, barber, chef, stone-cutter, headload worker and occasionally as beggar. And writing poetry in between. "It was poetry that kept me going during those days of pain and hardship."

Driven by extreme poverty and debt, Pavithran and his family had, at one time, attempted suicide. On the 1999 Onam night, the four-member family laid down across railway tracks near Thrissur awaiting a train to end their worries forever. But, a few minutes before the train arrived, Pavithran's three-year-old daughter got up and cried out for water. At this, the one-year-old son got up too, and both refused to lie down on the tracks again. Then, the family went back to life. That night, as rain poured, they slept in a shed.

While his wife and the son were in hospital, Pavithran, holding his daughter's hand, begged in the streets for days to keep the family alive. But even during those days, he used to scribble poems in his notebook. In one of those poems, Pavithran asks: "Is death harder than starvation?"