Interview: Humour is in my blood, says Kerala Sahitya Akademi award-winning satirist Jayanth Kamicheril

This non-resident Keralite from exotic Kumarakom sees humour in everything pleasant and sad, and passes the laugher on to his readers with elan.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 16, 2023 | 10:31 PMUpdatedOct 18, 2023 | 11:07 PM

Jayanth Kamicheril Kerala Sahitya Akademi award

Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy served a generous slice of the exotic beauty of Kumarakom — 10 km from Aymanam, the village at the heart of her novel, The God of Small Things.

The verdant coconut tree-lined paddy fields swaying to the wind, the dark greenery of mangroves, and the shimmering backwaters of Kumarakom under the azure sky, provide an out-of-the-world experience, which prompted The New York Times (NYT) to include it in its list of 52 places to visit in 2023.

Another literary work has once again brought Kumarakom to public notice, this time evoking laughter as the writer sheds light on the funny side of the land, located below mean sea level.

Jayanath Kamicheril

Jayanth Kamicheril in Kumarakom. (Photo: Yakub Kamicheril)

Jayanth Kamicheril, who was born in East Africa, has lived in the United States for a long period. However, he prefers to be identified as a Kumarakomkaran — or Kumarakomite. Currently employed with a US-based food-processing company, Kamicheril still speaks Malayalam in a Kumarakom dialect and employs it to interpret events that have caught his attention.

He has an uncanny ability to find humour even while facing adverse situations, as exemplified in his Oru Kumarakom Karante Kuruthamketta Likhithangal, a collection of articles based on his experience with individuals across the world.

The title, loosely translated as “The Disorderly Musings of a Kumarakom Native”, won the coveted Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for the Best Original Humorous Work. Now a bestseller in Malayalam, it provides insights into coping with personal traumas with humour.

Kamicheril, incidentally, belongs to the minuscule, strictly endogamous Knanaya community in Kerala that is known for its caustic — some might say hurtful — sense of humour, but not so much for literary achievements. He is the first from the community to win a Sahitya Akademi award. Though, having married an “outsider”, it is not clear whether he remains a Kananite.

During a recent short visit to Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, Kamicheril sat down with South First for a quick conversation about his writing and philosophy. Edited excerpts:

Q. You were born in East Africa and spent the majority of your life in the United States, leaving you with limited opportunity to experience Kumarakom. Still, you have chronicled Kumarakom with humorous takes. How difficult was it?

A. Despite being born to parents who immigrated from Kumarakom to East Africa, I attended school in Kumarakom from 1963 to 1970. I spent my formative years in the verdant, soggy region, seeing the development of its social and cultural life. I listened to local folklore as well as storytelling, focusing on remarkable personalities and surprising turns of events, both within my extended family and outside.

I credit my sense of humour to the location and the individuals I associated with as a child. I travelled to numerous Indian towns after finishing school, including Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Chennai, and Baroda, where I stayed until 1997. I spent the majority of my formative years in India before moving to the United States when I was 40.

My mind is stuck in the 1970s and 1980s of Kerala as I sit in the United States, making it easy to write about that period. And I wish to identify as a Kumarakom native wherever I go. It’s both my home and my passion. It shaped me into the person I am today. It’s my feeling.

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Q. From Sanjayan to EV Krishna Pillai, Malayalam has a long list of satirists. Where is your position on that list? How do your notes stand since they were penned by both a Kumarakom native and an outsider?

A. I feel I am closer to Sanjayan’s narration of personal events in a hilarious style.

Jayanth Kamicheril Kerala Sahitya Akademi award

Jayanth Kamicheril at his home in Pennsylvania in the US. (Photo: Aloka Miriam George)

However, I believe that VKN (Vadakkke Koottala Narayanankutty Nair), Malayalam’s finest satirist, has had a huge influence on my writing. I spent seven years of my life, from the age of 8 to 15, in Kumarakom, absorbing information and storing it in mental folders for later use.

As a result, most of my writings are recollections from Kumarakom. My other books are Kumarakathu Oru Pesaha (A Maundy Thursday in Kumarakom) and Vembanadan Buana. They also include memories of discovering my ancestors in Kumarakom, a thriving place with a diverse ecosystem centered on the Vembanad lake.

Childhood memories will remain alive for all of us. Kumarakom remained a potent metaphor for me even as I moved throughout the world. It often reminded me that there would be no way out. I returned to Kumarakom whenever possible.

I freely mixed with people of all ages and adopted their sense of humour. And comedy is the most effective and efficient way to reach out to the befuddled and troubled.

Q. The Kerala Sahitya Academy has now recognised your satirical flair. What are your thoughts on this honour?

A. It’s a thrilling recognition. It made me realise that my writing isn’t that bad, especially since I’m still in my infancy when it comes to the Malayalam language. This is my second book. The honour comes as a complete surprise.

When it arrived, I was overjoyed. The book has been republished by the prestigious Mathrubhumi Books, and it is finding new readers even among the younger generation of Malayalis residing around the world. People who have been translocated away from their roots may find my words to be comparable to what they are going through. The human situation is the same everywhere. And the sorrows.

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Q. Every joke has a dark underbelly. You once told me that you started writing satire to cope with a personal tragedy — the inadvertent death of your kid. How agonising was it?

A. G Sankara Kurup is my favourite Malayalam poet. He once remarked that discovering and pushing the boundaries of imagination might alleviate silent suffering. He desired to numb the sorrow by immersing the heart in the limitless possibilities of creativity. Writing can be a kind of therapy. I suppose it is catharsis. In my case, it was reliving my favourite period of my life, the carefree youthful days. For me, it was a quest to reclaim my true self. I discovered my content by combining creativity and memory. A fresh hope, a new peace.

Q. As an outsider, you have a better perspective about Kerala than anyone who lives here. What are your thoughts on the state’s tolerance level? When it comes to intolerance, humour is often a victim. Do you consider Kerala society to be tolerant?

A. Tolerance was evident in Kerala, and I used to brag about it whenever I visited Gujarat or Bombay (Mumbai). But that’s all in the past, and I feel the shift towards intolerance is global. I see it here as well, as if the pendulum is swinging the other way.

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Q. Arundhati Roy made Kumarakom famous, and it is now a tourism hub. Could you recall some of Kumarakom’s amusing anecdotes?

A. I remember vividly the traditional annual temple festivals in Kumarakom. Kadhaprasangam, a Malayalam theatrical art that incorporates speeches, acting, and singing to narrate a story, was essential to festival occasions back then.

I recall the famed Kadhaprasangam artist V Sambasivan performing in my village, introducing us to classics from world literature. Kathakali, theatre, and other stage performances were also among my childhood interests. The now-famous Kumarakom traditional snake-boat race, occasional film shoots, paddy cultivation, and trips to Kottayam to attend performances by eminent theatre personality NN Pillai remain vivid in my mind.

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Q. Prema Jayakumar mentions your Malayalitham (a quality, on or of Malayalam) in the book’s prologue. How did you maintain a good command over your mother tongue while travelling across continents and being surrounded by different ethnic and linguistic groups?

A. Reading and speaking Malayalam helps. Local journals in New York and Chicago used to contact me for articles and stories, and so did Ernakulam-based Samakalika Malayalam Vaarika, when S Jayachandran Nair was its editor. LANA (Literary Association of North America — a collective of writers from Kerala in that continent) in the United States also assisted. The frequent interaction with the language and medium helped.

Q. You spent a significant amount of time working with FACT, the country’s largest public-sector fertiliser and chemical plant. Could you share your experience with the PSU?

A. The most interesting folks I’ve met at work were all in FACT. We were all equally happy or miserable because we were all denied promotions, resulting in an unusual camaraderie. We had lots of free time to tell stories, both true and made-up, and all of them were hilarious. I heard a lot about MKK Nair’s brilliance from those who worked under him.

Q. You’ve been through several life events. Instead of getting disappointed, you found humour in them. How did you get such an ability?

A. My ammachan (uncle) Kunjunchayan was a role model for us because he was the only literary member of our family and he shared many insightful anecdotes, scientific facts, and Hollywood trivia with us. Listening to him in conversation with my parents whenever he came on vacation from Delhi or Bombay was a joy. He and my mother were both incredibly calm people with an extraordinary capacity to find humour in any situation. I consider myself fortunate to have inherited that quality.

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Q. Do you share anecdotes about Kerala with your friends and contacts outside? 

A. I work in sales, and all my customers (and coworkers) appreciate hearing stories about exotic Kerala, especially if they’ve read Arundhati Roy or the recent The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. They are mostly intrigued by the concept of arranged marriage. How does it work, they keep wondering.

Q. What is your next work?

A. I am attempting to weave one with intriguing people’s stories, such as those of asadharnakkars (extraordinary individuals) in the award-winning book.

Q. You have quoted poet Kumaran Asan in the book — “There is no better teacher than grief.” Is it possible that something other than pain has contributed to your success as a satirist?

A. As I have already said, humour is in my blood. It comes naturally to me. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse mightily impressed me as a child. It ingrained in me a Buddhist perspective that we are mere choiceless observers in life.

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Q. Do you have any advice for those who want to try humour in Malayalam or any other language?

A. Take chances with your perspective, but avoid slapstick comedy at all costs. Experiment with words as freely as Arundhati Roy and VKN.

Q. You are a person who utilised humour to cope with personal adversity. Have you ever utilised it to get away from something in your life?

A. I use humour to bring normalcy back into awkward or embarrassing circumstances, both official and personal. It can assist you in escaping tight situations.