Anil Emage discusses his interests in Russian literature and his inspiration for setting up a library of Russian books, detailing how most of the books in his collection were cheaply available in Kerala during the Cold War years, and how influential Russian literature was in Kerala’s literary culture.
20 December 2019
Kunhi: Shall we begin by looking into your early interest in Russian literature?
Anil: I was a very introverted child. As we know, our personality affects our approaches to life. For me, more than playing with kids or roaming with friends, reading was the main form of entertainment. I loved books more than social relationships. When I was a student in the fifth standard, I saw a large number of Russian books in a house. Those were colourful books with so many pictures. The colours and pictures easily brought my attention to those pages. The most important feature of Soviet books was that they included plenty of artwork. The publishers employed the best artists for creating such works. These books were generally printed on thick paper. It was also an important factor that shaped readers’ interest in these books. These books were completely different from our Malayalam language children’s literature like Poombatta and Balarama.
Beginning from Russian literature, my attention gradually moved to other translated works. I became a fan of authors like Dickens and Emile Zola. I read the Malayalam translation of Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood and The Mother while I was a school student.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about your family background?
Anil: We are originally from Vadakara. My father was an employee in the government service. He got transferred to Wayanad. Therefore, we shifted to Wayanad. I was born after they settled here, in 1972. Ours was a middle-class family. I have one elder brother and a younger sister. My brother is a journalist in an English language newspaper. My siblings were good at their studies. I lived within the trap of literature, especially Russian literature. It is a different world. The concept of equality in Russian literature greatly influenced my worldview. More than political ideology, I found the view of life in Russian literature more interesting. The books of authors like Maxim Gorky was available in Kerala for a very cheap price. I collected several translated Russian books while I was a school student. They were Gopalakrishnan’s Malayalam translations published in Russia. Through these translations, Gorky’s literature shaped my world views. Even today I’m guided by Gorky’s view that humans are not essentially bad, they do bad things when their living environment is bad.
Kunhi: So, we can say it was authors like Gorky who created your interest in Russian literature. Right?
Anil: Yes. They helped the formation of my character. Translated literature from other languages also played an important role in my life. However, Russian literature became exceptional because of its cheap availability. It was affordable to a student like, with my very minimal amount of pocket money. Even in this small town, we had street vendors selling cheap Russian books. I believe that these kinds of Russian literature greatly helped the communist movement in Kerala. Russia hosted writers from different parts of the world, including a Malayali, Gopalakrishnan. They taught these writers the Russian language and trained them to translate and publish works of well-known Russian authors. It was part of their ideology. They believed they could plant communist ideology in people’s minds through this literature. In my view, Russia used its literature as a tool for spreading communism. Soviet literature was definitely an instrument that could change the worldviews of the people. If people like us are working even today to save that literature, it is only because of the power of their quality.
Kunhi: Along with these books, several Russian magazines, maybe Soviet-sponsored magazines, were also available in Kerala. What do you know about it?
Anil: I have some of them in my collection. I have a collection of Soviet land, Misha, Sputnik, and Soviet Women. These magazines were widely available, though I was not interested in such magazines when I was a kid. We often used such magazines to make binding for our school books. But now I can see its value.
Kunhi: Was there any Russian-sponsored Malayalam language magazine?
Anil: I don’t have a copy of that. But there were Malayalam magazines like Soviet Naadu (Soviet Land). They published books and magazines in every genre, like sports, science etc. These publications tried to popularise not just Russian novels, stories and ideologies but a form of ideal communist life. If these publications were famous even in a remote town like Kalpetta, we can assume that it was part of their grand strategy. Though it was part of their propaganda, I see it as a value-based effort. This literature made me a better person and a better teacher. Therefore, I cannot see it as a mere propaganda campaign.
Kunhi: Did China play any similar role during that period?
Anil: They were also active, but not on a similar scale. In the beginning, Moscow started the Foreign Language Publishing House. It is through this publishing house, most of these books arrived. I have a collection of FLPH’s early publications. Later they started Progress Publishers and Raduka. While Progress was more focused on political matters, Raduka published other kinds of literature, primarily fiction. Progress publishers released many science books.
Similar to this, many books arrived from China too. But they did not become as famous as the Soviet books. China also had Foreign Language Publishing House. They published some Chinese magazines and fiction. I have a collection of some of those books.
Kunhi: Did these books anyhow influence your political ideology?
Anil: More than politics, these books influenced my life. I could have become a communist. But I took those values into my life. I didn’t follow any political ideology. I took the concepts like ‘all are equal’ to my institution. I’m running an educational institute. All the teachers in my institute follow this principle.
The fundamental purpose of events like the October Revolution was to provide a good life for all those oppressed people. Make everyone equal. I learned the value of freedom, equality and universal culture through this literature. We need freedom of expression. There should be a system that provides equal opportunity for everyone. And we need a universal culture, more than a rigid local one based on some conservative system. We are all human beings, beyond the lines of borders and nations. We live in a highly connected world. It is Russian books that helped me to have this kind of value system. I could say that I learned all these values from Gorky’s books.
Kunhi: Ok. Did you somehow experience the dispute between China and the Soviet Union through Russian literature?
Anil: I did not focus much on China. I did not pay much attention to politics. What I learned from Russian literature is the reality and values of life. When it comes to politics, I don’t think countries like China operate in terms of the ideal form of communism presented by the likes of Lenin. I see China as a capitalist country. Since I’m aware of Russia, and the real version of communism, I can understand the nature of communism in other countries, including China.
Kunhi: Do you believe Russia was an ideal communist country?
Anil: Russia was right in certain matters. For example, in adopting the concept of equality. But I cannot accept all their policies. For example, the disappearance of the Aral Sea. It is a large lake in the middle of Uzbekistan and Kazakistan. The unscientific promotion of the cotton industry in the region ultimately killed the Aral Sea. When they focused more on the competition with the United States and technological development, they ignored the environmental issues. It was a matter of discussion in their publications. They published articles titled Man vs Climate. These studies considered man as something that could be separated from nature. I think it was a problem of ideology. If their industrial revolution could make even a sea disappear, there is a serious problem with their policy. However, we cannot ignore the fact Russia’s challenge on the other side was greater. They wanted to prioritize economic security as they were building a new system. But in the long term strategy, they missed the issue of environmental protection. With this example, I cannot say the Russian model was absolutely correct.
Kunhi: Since you are highly influenced by Russia and Russian literature, what was and is your approach towards Indian communist parties?
Anil: I’m attracted to communist parties. But not a supporter.
Kunhi: Which communist party you are more attracted to? We have many communist parties here. The pro-Soviet Union Communist Party of India, the pro-China Communist Party of India (Marxist), the pro-Mao parties like the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Can you specify your interests and views about these parties?
Anil: I’m attracted to a pro-Russia communist party. If I say I’m a supporter, that will make me one of their representatives. I’m not one. I’m not a supporter either. As I said, I’m not a politics-oriented person. I’m a more life-oriented person. I’m one of those who stay away from politics and see life through a different prism. As I said, I cannot accept Russian politics completely. We saw Russia turning an authoritarian by the time of Stalin. I don’t see everything the Soviet Union did as correct. I’m concerned about only those things which they did to improve the dignity of human life. I believe in their new learning which aimed to give a helping hand to oppressed people. When it comes to India, we see the reflections of Soviet ideas like freedom and equality in the Communist Party of India. Therefore, naturally, I’m attracted to that party. But I see certain values in other parties too. For example, Aravind Kejriwal's Aam Admi Party or Rahul Gandhi’s approach towards people. I see the importance in all these things. Just because I’m interested in Russian literature and the Russian way of life, I cannot limit my interests towards a particular political ideology in India. I cannot ignore the importance of other values. Mother Theresa was not a Russian, Martin Luther King was not Russian, and Albert Einstein was not a Russian.
Kunhi: Wayanad is a place that experienced radical communist violence, the Naxalite movement. What is your approach to those issues?
Anil: I was a journalist for some period in the past. During that time, I visited Naxal violence-affected areas like Chekad. We are aware of the problems in our place. But we cannot accept violence. We need a method of protest appropriate to our time. I don’t think we needed the violent method of the Naxalite movement, as we have a way to solve these issues in a democratic way. Perhaps, Naxal model politics is required in some other parts of India where people struggle because of feudal exploitation. But not in a place like Kerala. The situation is different in some of the other states. In general, I have concerns about the need for guerilla warfare in India. We live in a place where we have freedom of expression. We can solve problems without violence.
Kunhi: In the Wayanad area, people were highly afraid of Naxalites. Do you know anything about this issue?
Anil: That was in the past when I was a kid, before being aware of such issues. Therefore, I did not have such an experience. Moreover, we live in this town. Such violence did not affect town areas. I had a peaceful life of a middle-class family.
Kunhi: How was your feeling when the Soviet Union disintegrated?
Anil: Naturally, I felt really bad. It was a great loss for India, considering India-Soviet relations. For me, it was mainly a personal reason. It put an end to the arrival of Soviet books. It was the failure of an ideology that I liked. As I grew, that feeling intensified. When I became more mature, I became more aware of the loss the collapse of the Soviet Union had created in our life. Many people share this view.
Kunhi: Ok. Do you have regular visitors here with the need for Russian books?
Anil: I welcomed many visitors recently. They came to know about our effort through media reports. People from some readers clubs also visited. The institution is becoming more and more popular. Social media also helped its publicity. Many people approach us through social media to buy books. My effort is based on three goals, sharing, saving, and selling. It is an effort to save world heritage literature. Also, it is an effort to save former Russian literature. I use the revenue from the sale of these books for other educational purposes. It helps me to address a social cause.
Kunhi: Ok. Thank you.