Last week, Kerala Sahithya Academy announced its annual awards. In the category of autobiography, TJ Joseph’s ‘A Thousand Cuts’ shared the honors with the outspoken writer M Kunjaman — who later declined it as he believes awards are a way of the establishment co-opting dissent.
At the time of the announcements, I was in Cochin, and I looked up the shops for A Thousand Cuts (translated into English from the Malayalam original by Nandakumar K and published by Penguin Random) but could not find it on the shelves. So I bought the Malayalam version, Attupokatha Ormakal (Unsevered Memories), published by DC Books, and found the book so cold and sharp, like a sword, pulled out of hoarfrost. A chilling account of what we have become as a society.
Professor Joseph taught Malayalam at Newman College in Thodupuzha (South Kerala), run by a Roman Catholic management, which is another way of saying its management principles were private and shaped by the requirements of the church, but financially aided by the state government. There are hundreds of such minority-run colleges in Kerala.
On March 10, 2010, Joseph had set a question paper for one of his batches in second year BA, taking an optional course in Malayalam Literature. The particular question was about the use of punctuations in a dialogue. Joseph took a few rather dramatic lines from a book (formally recognized by the university authorities), changed the name of one of the characters to Muhammad (a common name in the Muslim community), and an unfortunate abbreviation of the author of the book, PT Kunju Muhammad, got it printed, distributed the question paper and, in two months, had his right palm chopped off, left hand hacked to shreds, nearly severed his left leg thigh downward.
All of it happened in the middle of a road, in the early morning of July 10, as Joseph and his wife Salome, his sister, and his college-going daughter and son watched. The six people who carried out the ‘fatwa’ were from an organization called Popular Front of India (PFI), whose contact address on the Wikipedia profile interestingly is G-66, 2nd Floor, Shaheen Bagh, Kalindikunj, Noida Road, New Delhi – 110025.
The actual violence of the hacking of his body takes up just three or four pages in the middle of the book. The lead-up to it and what happened afterward form the substance of the memoir. Joseph survives after a manner of speaking, his right palm, found by a neighbor a little way off from the scene of the crime, was stitched back, and after many other complicated operations, he begins to pick up the threads of his life, just as his wife, thrown into a massive depression and fits of fears, commits suicide.
How he faces up to his losses and how his brave children come up in life afterward is all written with a certain detachment. It is this detachment, often couched in humor, which enables him to narrate the massive traumas of his life. Traumas are set off by a passage meant to teach students punctuations right, which in Joseph’s real life translates into a series of terrifying question marks, exclamations, semi-colons and, finally, a blood-dripping full stop thrust into his body with a dagger.
The book scores are not just in the depiction of the ordeals of an ordinary man. Joseph, like Kafka’s Joseph K in The Trial, finds himself in an absurd situation. And it begins in a classroom; the beginning indeed of Joseph’s real schooling. The news of the question paper travels fast. A TV channel broadcasts the act of blasphemy. Soon, what began as an academic exercise assumes horrific overtones not just because an aggrieved communal organization — permanently seeing itself victimized by the world around it — took to knives and bombs. It is more. It is a series of denials, of acts of fairness and mercy by the same majoritarian world; the same world that a minority feels victimized by; and the same world trying to compensate for the offenses they may be perceived to have committed historically and in the instant. It is this guilt and appeasement that push Joseph and his family into despair and death.
It is remarkable how the Joseph incident represents almost all our cultural, social, and political tropes. The Newman College went to court against Joseph’s reinstatement as they thought they should not be seen as offending the sensibility of the Muslim minority. They were evading guilt by adjacency. Of course, institutions will always sacrifice the individual for their survival; in times of peace, modern human sacrifice tends to be vicarious.
In Joseph’s case, the college relented to make some adjustments on paper only after Joseph’s wife committed suicide — prompted by financial insecurity among other terrors — and the public opinion changed. It was too late, though. Nearly until that moment, the media and Kerala society at large held Joseph guilty of provoking his own fate; and his social and even existential cancellation a just punishment.
That most of the debate at the time was ignorant of the real context — no one bothered to read the passage or from where it came, what the reason was, or why a common Muslim pronoun was supposed to refer only to the Prophet — and the substance of the passage or its source is so typical of the lynch mob justice of our compulsive social media arbitrations. I am refraining from quoting the passage because I believe I must be more sensible than Joseph.
Often, the epileptic acts of revenge of the minority and the indulgence of the majority result in the same violent result. In an interview given to journalist and documentary filmmaker KA Shaji in February 2020, soon after the release of his book in Malayalam, Joseph said he was a ‘living martyr of Christian fanaticism’. Not Islamic, please note. Shaji adds: ‘…the 63-year-old accused the church of making him a scapegoat to avoid a direct confrontation with Muslim groups that attacked him’.
The majoritarian community of Kerala is rather evenly divided between the Marxist party and the Congress. They initially did their best not to take a stand in favor of the individualist Joseph. Increasingly, then, Joseph found that he was not in trouble with just one minority. He was up against two minority communities (Muslims and Roman Catholics). And because these are great lobbies of influence and votes, the larger political and social groups by default found it not fit to offer Joseph — a minority of one — support, until it was too late.
In his book, Joseph talks at length about the brutalization and corruption of the police force and about how his family was subject to the vagaries of those in uniform. He had gone underground for a few days in the second week of March 2010. His family, especially his son, was subject to psychological and physical abuse. The kind of things the police in India indulge in as a matter of course. As a writer, it is when Joseph is talking about the suffering of others that he falls short of words. In such passages, Joseph’s emotions get the better of him.
Punctuations, god, pronouns, minority appeasement, an all too easy liberal licentiousness, misinterpretation of motive and context, literal reductionism, and intolerance! All that is wrong with our society has been operative in the situation that Joseph precipitated on a hot day in March in an exam hall.
That it should have happened in Kerala is perhaps accidental. The irony though is epic. For all the progress that the state has made in life values, deep-state Kerala is radically different from its outward appearance. Political murders (around 100 at least in the last ten years), dowry deaths, greed for gold, police and trade union thuggery, moral policing, and organized trolling, all speak of the deeply split personality of the place.
Joseph’s book is about himself. But as happens in good biographies, it is also about a place, a people, and a time. All of these find a nexus in our hero, come from a lower middle-class agricultural family into academics, who by an act of naiveté calls a character by the now almost unutterable name, and finds the price for freedom is paid by pounds of his flesh. The Kerala Sahithya Academy award is only partially for the book Joseph wrote. It is mostly for the life we have now conferred on him — and on us. One in which a comma out of place could lead to a chopped hand to loud applause.
(CP Surendran is a poet, novelist, screenplay writer, and columnist. He lives in Delhi.)
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Do visit www.newindian.in for exclusive video stories from hinterlands of India.