T.D.Ramakrishnan’s Francis Ittycora: Molded in the Popular Fiction Cast

Varsha Basheer July 1, 2011

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ഇട്ടിക്കോര നല്ലൊരു വായനാനുഭവമാണ്. നമുക്കപരിചിതമായ കാനിബാളിസം, ഹൈപേഷ്യ,തുടങ്ങിയ തലങ്ങളിലേക്ക് നയിക്കുകയുണ്ടായി , ഫാന്റസിയും മിത്തും ,ചരിത്രവും ഒക്കെയായി ഒരു ക്രൈംത്രില്ലെര്‍ പോലെ വായിച്ചുപോകാന്‍ കഴിഞ്ഞു. നോവല്‍ സങ്കല്പങ്ങളുടെ മുന്‍വിധികളെ തീര്‍ത്തും വെല്ലുവിളിക്കുന്ന മനോഹരമായ ഒരു ക്രാഫ്റ്റ്. അഭിനന്ദങ്ങള്‍.

{Ittycora is a good reading experience. Leads us to unknown realms of cannibalism and Hypatia; fantasy, myth and history together, giving a crime thriller feel. The book is beautifully crafted, challenging the prejudiced defining lines of a novel. Congratulations}

The quote made above is not from any renowned critic, but a common man; a casual reader who congratulates the author on his ‘entertaining’ creation. When a work becomes ‘popular’, it is enlightening to look at the casual reader’s reaction than that of the literary critic. If we read the blurb on the back cover of Francis Ittycora by the renowned Malayalam critic Asha Menon, who compares the work to O.V.Vijayan’s Dharmapuranam, we won’t be getting any insights as to why the book happens to enjoy unforeseen popularity. T.D.Ramakrishnan’s Francis Ittycora, was first published in serial form in the Madhyamam Weekly and was later brought out in book form by D.C Books in August 2009. According to reports, the book had sold out its fourth edition within sixth months. If these reports are to be believed it is a phenomenal success when analyzed against the background of Malayalam literature.

This article is yet another venture at understanding the novel, but refuses to view, or rather acknowledge the critical acclaim the novel has won on account of its ‘novelness’. The work’s narrative structure, plot ,theme, character sketches everything might definitely be ‘new’ in the Malayalam literary scenario but if we place the text in a broad framework and analyze, we could locate it as a work meticulously shaped on the blue print of the western Best-Sellers, to be more specific, the genre called Popular Fiction. According to Ken Gelder “One of the most productive ways to think of popular fiction is in terms of genre”1, which is mostly classified as the Thrillers, the Science Fiction, the Fantasies, the Horror, the Romance, the Spiritual etc. But Francis Ittycora cannot be easily categorized for the reason that; the work assumes the guise of historical fiction or one that presents an alternate history, but there is enough of suspense to qualify it as a thriller too; at places it also reads like a documentary; moreover, fantasy and myth also finds space in Ittycora. Thus Francis Ittycora defies any watertight compartmentalization but undoubtedly is molded in the Popular Fiction cast. This article is an exploration towards unraveling the Popular Fiction elements in Francis Ittycora.

Francis Ittycora can be called a ‘producerly text’ in keeping with John Fiske’s definition in his Understanding Popular Culture (1989). Fiske coined the term ‘producerly’ to define a popular text, developing the concept from Roland Barthes’ distinction of the ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ text. According to Fiske, the producerly text “has the accessibility of a readerly one, and can theoretically be read in that easy way by those of its readers who are comfortably accommodated within the dominant ideology, but it also has the openness of the writerly”2. Francis Ittycora uses most of the postmodern tropes and props to make the work equally suited for the ‘elite’ as well as the ‘common’ audience. Be it the documentary-like narration at certain parts dealing with mathematics or guerilla warfare, or the constant allusions to great works of art, or the transcript of the Saddam–Rumsfeld conversation, it is not intimidating enough to drive away the ordinary reader. As a matter of fact, enough compensation is made for it in the other parts of the work.

Umberto Eco in his book, The Role of the Reader; Exploration into the Semiotics of Texts (1984), says “the hero equipped with powers superior to those of common man has been a constant of popular imagination” 3. T.D Ramakrishnan succeeds in fashioning such a hero rather well. The central figure of the novel, Francis Ittycora, the 15th century pepper merchant from Kunnamkulam, who was also a part of the elite social circles of Florence and is supposedly the mathematical genius who brought Hypatian theories to Kerala stands as an enchanting figure, not just because of his competence in business and mathematics, but his sexual profligacy too. The author’s creation of a larger than life character, who gets to have his share of girls always, goes even beyond Umberto Eco’s perception of the popular hero. Ittycora’s adventures spans not just geographical expanses, but also extend over centuries. Ittycora is not just a cunning businessman, mathematical genius and inspirer of great works of art, but the reverend God to his clan, the eighteen families! In the covert holy book of the ‘pathinettam koottukar’, Ittycora declares himself as their God and Savior, and lays down dictates for them. In Kerala, where larger than life superheroes brought to life by superstars like Mammootty and Mohanlal become blockbusters, T.D.Ramakrishnan didn’t have to have reservations on the reception of his hero.

Francis Ittycora

John Sutherland in Best Sellers: A Very Short Introduction (2007), defines the popular fiction subgenre of the 1920’s, the sex novel as “typically a light confection combining raciness, urban sophistication, and jazz age flapperdom”4. If analyzed along these lines Francis Ittycora, classifies as a ‘sex novel’ (though not exclusively so) or can also be called the ‘erotic thriller’, which in the concept of Linda Ruth Williams is a blanket term for unchallenging sleaze. In the first page of Francis Ittycora, we are introduced to the young U.S soldier, the great grandson of Francis Itticora, as a rapist who consequently becomes impotent, and is chatting with a high-class clandestine sex-worker from Kerala asking her whether their school could help him regain his lost sexuality. This starting conversation itself promises more, and Ramakrishnan does not fall short of his ‘promises’. The three hundred page novel has almost five to six candid lovemaking scenes including BDSM acts. The detailed description of the ‘the school’ and its functioning has no particular function in the plot of the novel other than attracting a certain kind of readership.

Using the female body to market products has been long prevalent in popular culture, and T.D Ramakrishnan also uses it to the benefit of his work. Rekha, Reshmi and Bindhu who are taking up the task of being sleuths for junior Cora with an eye on his bank balance adds the same kind of glamour and almost plays the same functions of the women in the James Bond movies (though their readiness to take the inherent risks, do not seem plausible enough). In his analysis of the James Bond movies, James Chapman draws our attention to a commentator’s remark which indicates that: the James Bond era has passed; the notion that beautiful women from other countries existed primarily to be seduced, and the phrase ‘sex tourism’ is passé; and that Ian Fleming’s books, if read today would seem silly, snobbish and dated. But Chapman clarifies that such a remark only highlights the gulf between the critical and popular reception of texts. To him the Bond films represent “the continued existence of a ‘cinema of attractions’ based on visual spectacle rather than narrative or characterization.”5 This is the case with Francis Ittycora too. Combing a conspiracy theory narrative, in the DaVinci Code manner, with obsessive juicy descriptions of love making and gory details of cannibalism, T.D Ramakrishnan has succeeded in concocting a novel which has most of the sure-fire elements that guarantee popular reception. Like most typical erotic thrillers, Francis Ittycora manages to have it both ways; providing legitimate literary narrative, while at the same time offering images of soft-core porn. What surprises one is the fact that, though Ramakrishnan inserts pornographic depiction of the sexual body and its vicissitudes into mainstream Malayalam literature, many critical reviews validates the work by presenting it as a metaphor for a period of sexual promiscuity, thus endorsing acceptability.

The plot of the story unravels in bits and pieces from different sources in different locations. We have Junior Ittycora, or Francis Xavior Ittycora who is in search of his roots. Through him we get to know of the concentration camps in Falluja, the strange rituals of the Peruvian Inka tribes, and the ‘Thupak’ guerrilla operations which are recorded in documentary style, but the writer discards such blandness when it comes to the Cannibal club and its functioning. Secret societies and strange rituals have been a constant in popular fictions of the West (also in films) but are new in Malayalam literature and add to the charm of this ‘novel’ work. The rituals of the Secret society formulated by Francis Ittycora, the ‘pathinettam kootukkar’ is also given ample print space, especially descriptions of the rituals like ‘Corakku kodukkal’, with all the steamy details. Thus it can be noted that Ramakrishnan’s narrative style is not uniform throughout. Were there is not much to sensationalize, Ramakrishnan adopts the documentary style, but reverts to detailed and minute descriptions when it is otherwise.

The deliberate re-reading, or rather reworking of history through fictional imagination is the thematic backbone of this work. T.D Ramakrishnan is able to make the reader consider such variations in history, and succeeds in raising the curiosity of the reader on some points. Foremost is the question, isn’t the claim that Vasco Da’gama was the first to find a sea route to Kerala from the west, a colonial construct? Next he raises questions on the history in place regarding the Kerala School of Mathematics; third he gives a different rendering to the history behind the creation of the great works of art like Pieta; and finally, the possibility of a secret divergent group among the Christians, called the ‘pathinettam koottukar’, make the thematic crux of the novel interesting. But Ramakrishnan falls short on some respects. One instance is his failure in portraying the true brilliance of Hypatia. He sacrifices her veracity and rebellious spirit, to create the image of a lascivious woman with heady sexual desires, whose physical attributes gets detailed, but intellectual abilities ignored. An imaginative graphic picturisation of the gory details of her mutilation and subsequent death is included in the novel, but he fails to list out her contributions to mathematics, though it is one of the strong threads in taking the novel towards the setting of secret Hypatian schools by Francis Ittycora in different parts of the world.

In the choice of language too, Francis Ittycora confirms to the popular fiction mode, as language used is plainer and closer to everyday spoken language. T.D Ramakrishnan’s careful use of conversational Malayalam, rather than ‘literary’ Malayalam is another feature that makes his work easily readable. Even the documentary like narration at certain parts, though tiresome is comprehensible. It is plain Malayalam with out any flourishes, which guarantees that a casual reader would not be put off. He is also generous in his use of dialogue. In Francis Ittycora there is one amusing aspect though; at times some bits of conversation appear in English where the writer tries to portray a certain kind of snobbishness, on other instances even though the story demands the use of English, it is avoided.

The preface added to the novel by the renowned Malayalam critic Asha Menon, is the one element that stands apart in stark contrast to the reading made here. The preface details the inherent connotations of certain threads added by the author in the story. The preface is written with literary flourish and grave seriousness. According to Asha Menon, Francis Ittycora is a social lesson, of a ‘strange’ kind, which the critic feels, will appall readers, and keep them from falling into the fathomless bottom of such immorality as portrayed in the novel. This article views this strategic inclusion of a seriously worded preface as an attempt on the part of the author to create some semblance of ‘high brow’ literariness, and thus ensure a readership of the ‘elite’ class, while in the body of the work making unwanted twists and turns to add color to the otherwise sober readability. T.D Ramakrishnan thus manages to overlap his second fictional venture Francis Ittycora, across the boundaries of the ‘literary’ and the ‘popular’. But as Jacques Derrida puts it “every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genre-less text; … yet such participation never amounts to belonging.”6


Varsha Basheer is at present full time Research Scholar under the University Of Kerala, at the Department of English, Sree Narayana College, Kollam. Her research interests include Popular Culture, Popular Fiction, Gender Studies, English Language Teaching and Media Studies.

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Additional Reading

വിക്കി വിക്കി ഒരു ഇട്ടിക്കോര - പ്രമോദ് കെ.എം

  • 1. Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of A Literary Field. New York: Routledge.2004.
  • 2. Fiske, John. Popular Culture, in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas Mclaughlin (Eds), Critical Terms For Literary Study, 2nd edn, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • 3. Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. I984.
  • 4. Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.2007.
  • 5. Chapman, James. ‘A License to Thrill’ in Christoph Lindner (ed). The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. Manchester, Manchester University Press. (2003).
  • 6. Derrida, Jacques. The Law of Genre .Trans. Avital Ronell .Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, On Narrative (Autumn, 1980). The University of Chicago Press.
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Varsha You said it!!. I have

Varsha

You said it!!. I have been wondering why a novel so mediocre is celebrated around!! After reading Itticora, I felt disappointed and uneasy. Some strange depictions of cannibalism lingered on.... triggering vomits. If all the paraphernalia of history , mathematics is removed, this novel does not qualify to find itself amongst greater works in Malayalam. As you pointed out, it is a very clever attempt by Ramakrishnan to rope in readers of all genre by compromising soul and 'nanma' of a so called literary endeavour. Thanks for writing this.. Vijai

The apt name for the book is

The apt name for the book is VIKKIkora and not Ittikora