One day, the editor of a vernacular magazine asked writer Mohana Varma to do an interview with former chief minister K Karunakaran during the Lok Sabha elections of 1998. Karunakaran was standing from the Mala constituency. So Varma attended two rallies. Then at 8 p.m., he had a one-on-one interview with the veteran politician at the Thrissur government guest house.
Varma said, “Many eminent leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong, in their old age were worried that they were unsuccessful. Do you have a similar worry?”
Karunakaran looked at Varma and said, “Nobody has asked me a question like this.”
Varma continued, “I am 100 percent sure you are unhappy. So, tell me what is your major worry?”
Karunakaran said, “My only worry is that India did not have a national leader after [Prime Minister] Jawaharlal Nehru.”
In other words, Karunakaran should have been that leader but did not get the opportunity.
Public intellectual Varma turns 84 on July 8. Asked his philosophy of life, he said, “I try to see the good in people.”
And he recounted an anecdote.
One day, an aunt of Varma, Kunjamai, came to his house for a visit. He was not at home. His wife Radha opened the door. They stared at each other in silence. Then Radha went to the kitchen. When Varma returned home, Kunjamai told him about this incident.
“I can interpret this action of Radha in two ways,” said Kunjamai. “Firstly, she did not like me coming. Secondly, milk is boiling on the gas stove. So, she is hurrying to switch it off. I decided to think it is the second option even if the first may be the correct one.”
Varma said, “Kunjamai selected the positive conclusion. Which is what we all should do. Everybody has good and bad qualities within them. Look for the good ones.”
Varma is one of the well-known writers in Kerala. He has written 75 books, two of which are in English while the rest is in Malayalam. His work comprises novels, short stories, and travelogues. “I am a storyteller,” he said.
He started writing at 31 when he was stationed in Madhya Pradesh (MP). As an auditor in the government of India, he would travel a lot. “I learnt so many things, which otherwise I would not have learnt,” he said. “I understood the psychology of the people of Bihar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, apart from MP.”
Not surprisingly, his first book was called, ‘From Bastar, with love’ (1966). It did well and established Varma’s name. “I was writing something which people did not know about,” he said. What helped was that he had a straightforward style, so readers could understand his prose easily.
However, Varma retired from writing two years ago. His last novel, ‘Sivaramjiyude Diarykurippukal’, was about political changes which happened in the 1920s-30s. And the reason he stopped was that all his readers were above 50 years of age. He realised that young people did not read at all.
Asked why, Varma said, “From literature, we get knowledge and entertainment. But since we can get this from other sources, like Google, mobile, TV and streaming, reading is going down.”
But Varma remains upbeat, a public intellectual, who appears on TV channel discussions most evenings. Not surprisingly, he has friends in all the political parties. “Like everybody, they want power, money, fame and honours,” he said.
As to whether they are corrupt he said, “Even you will be if somebody offers a bribe to you. Because nobody has offered you money, you condemn the politician. The system is corrupt. If you are not, you cannot survive. Corruption is not only monetary but it is also the inefficiency and ignorance of political leaders when they take decisions, which affect the people.”
So, it comes as no surprise when Varma discourages people from entering politics.
“I know of too many people who went into politics and could not bring about any change,” he said. “In our democracy, most of the time, families are ruling. The Congress cannot have a Prime Minister from outside the Gandhi family. The Nationalist Congress Party cannot have somebody in prominence from outside the Sharad Pawar family or their nominees. This is the case in Orissa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Most of the parties in Kerala are family-based.”
Even in the Communist Party, there is no difference. “An unknown person cannot be a member of the Politburo,” he said. “A panchayat president can only become a panchayat president. He cannot go higher than that. But an MLA’s son can become an MLA. To move from zero to 100 is blocked in most professions in India.”
But on the social front, the blocks are weakening. The pervasive presence of caste has gone down, at least when people are interacting with each other in social settings. “But when people go for a job, they will take advantage of their caste, if there is a quota, to get a leg up,” said Varma.
The man-woman relationship has also evolved. When Varma was in college, it was very difficult for a male student to talk to a female classmate. If anyone attempted to do so, everybody would stare at them. But now boys and girls are going out together. There is no difference between the sexes.
Finally, when asked about the qualities needed to succeed, Varma said, “You need to identify the right talent within you. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the people cannot do this correctly. They feel they are good at something but that is not the case. By the time they realise it many years have gone past. My advice is: do not venture into a profession for which you have no skill.”