Editor's Note

When an author’s reputation grows to mountainous proportions, their stories get weighed down with the responsibility to justify that reputation. I recall a workshop participant confiding to me that he was surprised by the “overt exposition” in Flaubert’s Madam Bovary. Happily, this story will pass such exacting retrospective scrutiny.  It remains as modern as it was when first written. O. V. Vijayan’s story starts off in a deceptively simple manner and then takes a strange and unexpected turn.  It is the kind of story that reveals the inadequacies of our primitive tools of literary analysis: character, plot, theme, setting, genre, conflict. Perhaps the needed language may be the one invented to discuss  abstract art– composition, symmetries, texture, arrangement of masses, stroke and gesture.

I do not wish to add to the story’s burdens with apophatic pronouncements. The story moved me, though why or how it should have have done so remains a puzzle. Literature, said Barthes, is the question minus the answer. Here, then, is such a question.

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Translator's Note

‘Rocks’ is an iconic modernist story by O.V. Vijayan (some describe it as a postmodernist, or a magical realist story – it is open to different interpretations), written in the late 1960s, visualizing a nuclear holocaust in our  country and its neighbourhood possibly. For its time, it was prophetic.

Translation of culture-specific items in the story was indeed difficult, as Vijayan uses a rural Palakkad setting, as the story opens. Mrigaanga Mohan, the protagonist, reminisces about his childhood, in the backdrop of a countryside, where ‘Birds flew away like paral fish, the fingerlings. There was odour of cow dung in the powdery mud that hung in the air. Also, the fragrance of Tulasi.’ Here his atheist father is reluctant to take him to the village Devi temple. The father is dismissive of the deity installed in the sanctum as ‘a piece of rock.’

Mrigaanga remembers the warm rocks of his village homeland that he felt under his feet. The dialogue here is in pure Palakkad patois. The rest of the story proceeds, as Mrigaanga and his antagonist, a seemingly Chinese woman Tanwan, the last of the two remaining combatants, treading the warm rocks, ready with their nuclear weapons. From here on, the language is neutral, posing no real hindrance to translation.

— A. J. Thomas

Mrigangamohan thought about many things: When he walked, putting his feet on the rocks touched with the light warmth of the sunset, he could see the Devi temple beyond the valley. Gripping harder on Achchan’s little finger, Mrigangamohan asked: ‘Achcha, may I go over to that temple?’

‘What for?’ Achchan queried.

Mrigangamohan walked behind his father for some time without saying anything. Birds flew away like paral fish. The odour of cow dung now and then in the powdery mud that hung in the air. The fragrance of Tulasi.

‘Mrigangā!’ Achchan said. ‘You haven’t given me a reply.’

‘I…’ Mrigangamohan sobbed. ‘I want to see Devi.’

‘That’s a figurine hewn from a stone,’ Achchan said. ‘Why should you walk so much to see a piece of rock?’

It was not possible to explain it all to his father and convince him. Besides, he imagined his father’s face darkening making Mrigangamohan flinch. He felt unprotected. He gripped his father’s small finger once again for succour. What he had to tell his father, yet not to be articulated for some reason, formed in his mind like unclear desires. Every evening when they went out together for walks, he remembered his dead mother.

‘I’ll go along with Sunanda of the neighbouring house,’ Mrigangamohan said again.

‘No. Don’t go with anyone.’

The father and son did not say anything more. Lukewarm, the rocks throbbed under the soles of the boy’s feet. Through his feet, the touch of the rocks filled his entire body. If he could get out of the house alone at the noon hour, Mrigangamohan used to wander about in the mango groves, and open spaces surrounding the house. Caressing the sarpasilas which were installed under the Mandāram trees and the bael trees, he would ask: ‘Will you bite me?’

‘Handsome one!’ they would say, ‘Aren’t you the darling son of ours?’

‘Will you let me join you in play and frolic, O Nagattanmare?”

‘Come, Unni! Aren’t these storehouses just for you?’

Although they have invited, it’s he who hasn’t gone yet. If he had so much as he climbed down the stairs of the water-lily pond, it was the valley of the sacred serpents. There were storehouses that were used for the safekeeping of the rubies on the coronets of the serpents and brooks where blue fishes swarm about. There were stone-beds from where the soft warmth of the setting suns never faded, for him to lie down and sleep when he was tired, playing.


He had remembered that childhood perforce once again. Once again, he felt the soft warmth of the rocks beneath the soles of his feet. Afar, the forests had all burnt down. Beyond that the sea where poisons comingled and surged; above the sea, clouds that changed colours, the wind that swirled around with billions and billions of dead voices. Mrigangamohan took out his telescope and began to scan the charcoal blocks that once was a forest. Finally he spotted her. She was prowling among the charcoal blocks. Mrigangamohan laid down his weapon on the rock. At that time his palm was imprinted on the rock. He discerned the touch of the rocks, like in his childhood.

‘Unni!’ the rocks were filled with consternation. ‘Why did you take up the weapon in your hands?’

Mrigangamohan was filled with remorse. He yearned to once again turn into a child. He remembered the granite idol of the Devi temple. His innocent childhood had been lost, without him being able to touch and caress its stone breasts and its thighs stained by loving abhishekas. Would that hill-slope, that kaavu and the self-same dusks be still there? No. All that would have been pulverized in the deadly nuclear radiation. Devi, Mother! Mrigangamohan said. I should have come over to your temple in those days along with Sunanda. During noontimes, when Achchan would have been taking his siesta, or when he wandered in the shrubs hunting small game, I should have stolen away to you, along with Sunanda.

Mrigangamohan woke up. Now, he didn’t have that deep experience of the rocks. Breaking off a burnt-out tree-branch, tying on it a white piece of cloth that he had torn away from what he had wound around his loins, he descended into the valley hugging it. There were the black corpses of the forest, the unmoving imprints of charcoal. Standing on its fringe, Mrigangamohan held the white flag aloft. He shouted: ‘I have come unarmed. Can you see my white flag?’

It was only a little while later that a faint voice gave him a reply: ‘I’m coming. Wait for me there.’

She came out. Mrigangamohan said unthinkingly, ‘Ayyo! Your entire body is burnt!’

She laughed.

‘Why should you feel troubled on account of me?’ She asked him. ‘Aren’t I the enemy that you have?’

Mrigangamohan became aware of his father’s hard reasoning overpowering him too. His logic told him that she was his enemy. She came near.

‘These are not burn-marks.’ She said, laughing. ‘I simply took out the charcoal and smeared it all over my body.’

She stroked away the charcoal from her body. The pale complexion of the Yellow People came out once again. She wore only an undergarment that hung from her lower abdomen. Mrigangamohan stood close to her.

‘Tanwan,” he said. “May I call you Sunanda?’

‘Why? My name “Tanwan” is a beautiful name. Do you know its meaning in our language?’

‘I don’t know the meaning of anything of yours; if I do, my nation’s fathers would feel troubled.’

Watching contentedly at the change of colours in the clouds, Tanwan said, ‘Look there! See our national fathers! Look at how their colours are changing and transforming. That riot of colours is the festival of their disappearance.’

She pointed her finger. That point-finger rolled the horizons back. The horizons burned down. Till the burning out horizons, like the luminous dust on the wings of the butterfly, soft and golden, the pollen of death filled the entire space.

‘You and I,’ she said. ‘Are what’s left of two grand armies. The only two enemies left.’ Then, suddenly, with a light-filled face, she said: ‘The last male and female.’

Tanwan took out her undergarment and hurled it away. The wind flew it away into the ocean of radiation. She stood before him naked, yellow.

‘You are beautiful,’ he said.

Tanwan looked at her own body. Below her breasts, below her navel.

‘Blood oozes from there,’ he said.

‘It’s the tears of my womb,’ she said.

The weeping of the womb spread away through the wasteland of pollens. Unable to hear that, meditating on the spreading of the pollen, Mrigangamohan moved towards her.

‘Look at the dissolution of my son,’ she said. ‘Somewhere in the infinity of this golden dust, Mriganga, it was your arrow that killed him. As the radiation engulfed and blazed over his tiny hands and legs, my little Chen said, “Mother, it hurts!”’

Memories flowed inundating the banks. She stood for a little while more without stopping him. ‘My son stretched his hand towards me, stretched one finger towards me like on one of the restful evenings. I did not touch it. My country forbade me, enjoining me not to touch it. I am the last soldier of my country. I should not let that radiation transmit into my body. Chen, who never went anywhere without clinging on to my small finger, thus set out on his journey all alone.’

Mrigangamohan was calculating something. He asked with a measure of enthusiasm: ‘If you die while I live, your country will be defeated, won’t it?’

With a smile full of compassion and sorrow, she once again pointed to the clouds. Where were the nations? Where were history and the creations that populated its limitless out-backs? The great festival of disappearance projected on to her face mixed colours.

‘Mriganga,’ she said. ‘On the earth, nothing moves now except the two of us.’

He too took out the piece of cloth wound around his loins. He too became naked like her. Even the last rag of humanity, burnt out and dissolved in the ocean of fire. They entwined their fingers in nudity. Then, winding their hands around each other’s waist, they walked over the rocks. All around, primordial emptiness. Above the dust of plants and living beings, the sunset blackened.

‘Tanwan,’ Mrigangamohan suddenly said. ‘My daughter was three years old. She would sleep only if she lay beside me at night. If she detected me having moved away in sleep to one side of the bed before dawn, she would roll towards me in half-sleep. Then, partially opening one eye, she would embolden herself that I am still there. She would smile in her half-sleep in the pride of her discovery. Her name was Sita. Once the daughter of one of our neighbours asked her: “Isn’t your name, Gita, kid?” My daughter’s lips pursed up. She began to weep. Her neighbour had called her “Gita”! I scooped Sita up in my arms. Seeing her weeping, I laughed and was contented. Later on I thought about the incident, laughed and found it peculiarly interesting. But, even before she dissolved in this radiation, she wept, pursing her lips in the same manner.’

‘The sun has set,’ Tanwan said.

The sky blackened as one looked on. Under the black sky, lakes of lava loomed. Pollens also floated up.

‘When the dusk darkened, he would become afraid,’ she said. ‘He would come running and cling to my little finger. Still, that day I didn’t touch him.’

She turned her face away.

‘Tanwan,’ Mrigangamohan couldn’t help asking her. ‘Are you weeping?’

He had said that in an unthinking moment. In another unthinking moment, he pulled her to his chest. She pressed her wet cheeks on his shoulder. And she pressed her wet lips on his chest.

He said, ‘I like your breasts.’

‘My breasts are small,’ she turned apologetic.

He brushed away the remnants of charcoal from her breasts. Then he filled his palms with them.

‘I have seen your women and the female deities in your temples,’ she said. ‘I wished that I had big breasts like theirs.’

‘What if…’ he forbade her.

In a sweet lethargy, she said: ‘If I had, I would have been able to give you more pleasure.’

They walked over softly warm rocks.

‘Mriganga,’ she said. ‘Now, I am drawn by the weeping of my womb.’

‘Maithili,’ he called her.

‘My lover,’ she said. ‘May I kneel before you?’

Tanwan knelt before him. Watching the buxomness of that obeisance, Mrigangamohan stood high above her. Like the kings of the epics, he was steeped in sorrow.

The remaining machines mutually moved. Exchanged data without any anxiety. A spaceship, which went astray from its orientation at some point, came back to port with the corpse of the captain inside….

They reached a grassy meadow. Tanwan’s eyes widened.

‘There is no radiation here,’ she said.

‘Grass grows here,’ he said.

‘Mrigāngā,’ she said. ‘The grass shoot up.’

They lay on the soft bed of the grass.Look, the stars,’ she said.

Like the grassy meadow free of radiation, above them, where the clouds parted, the pure sky came out. She too had a spate of memories rushing into her: childhood, evening prayers, the love and peace of the sky. In an instant, those memories were spent. With a recognition loaded with sorrow, she looked at the stars once again.

‘Look, Mriganga,’ she said. ‘Like the seeds of man wasted in the infertile spaces of the night, each hapless seed is fleeing through emptiness. This flight is also from its own emptiness that’s within. Inside the mind of the child– who makes victims of its moss-covered ancestors, stretches out his hands and weeps craving love, too– is the same flight. Atom cruelly pursues atom. Mriganga, inside the core of everything that is created, it’s only emptiness through and through.’

Grasses rose around them like curly incense smoke and aroused them. He began to fondle her. He kissed her thighs, breasts and tiny eyes. He kissed her below her navel, on her bleeding.


They woke. In a deep lethargy of satiation, they lay awake.

Then Tanwan got up. She walked towards the forest.

‘Tanwan,’ Mrigangamohan called out. ‘Where are you going?’

‘To pick up my weapon.’

‘What for? It’s not yet time for the war to resume. The day has not yet dawned.’

She didn’t respond. She kept walking. He didn’t attempt to stop her. Coming back, she laid her weapon on the grass, pointed towards him.

‘Mriganga,’ she said. ‘If you so desire, I will again accept your seeds. I shall wait for them to germinate. This grassy meadow will be filled with them. They will multiply into populaces and nations. What do you want?’

Mrigangamohan was steeped in meditation for a little while. Then he said: ‘Let this grassy meadow burn down.’

Once again, Tanwan’s face was filled with light. She touched the grass and the flowers with her weapon. They caught fire and began to burn.

‘Love me,’ Mrigangamohan said.

After their last coitus, she wept disconsolately for a long time.

She said: ‘Wars end within us.’

She raised her weapon in infinite compassion. On his body where her tears had fallen, she touched with the weapon. Then she handed over the weapon to him. As if straining to avoid causing her pain, he touched the weapon to her nipples. Radiation began to blaze through both their bodies. Colours rose all around them. It turned into a grand festival, as colours began to burst and bloom. The colours burnt and went out.

‘Peace, my lover!’

‘Bon voyage, Maithili.’

The colours swirled into vortices and burnt out. When they had settled down, that great disappearance was reduced to a fistful of golden pollens.


The wind blew over the rocks. A primordial memory rose in the rocks: the ancestor Sun, the sunlight that burned through the Manus, below that, the breakers of brine that beat their heads on the rocks. In that brimming unease, tender shoots of life germinated like a mistake, then underwent evolution, dying and killing. The mistake had been corrected.

The rocks became aware of that. Their sorrow departed.

The rocks were once again steeped in samadhi.


Image credits:  Silent Valley National Park, Palakkad district. View is that of Shola forest. Image via WikiCommons.

OV Vijayan’s story is set, as AJ Thomas points out, in a rural Palakkad village in Kerala. This immediately evokes eerily quiet temple pools, canopies of green and perhaps an elephant or two. But the story has a very different mood: ruin and violence and the weariness of starting over. Of rocks. Not people, rocks. Hence.

Author | O. V. VIJAYAN

Ottupulackal Velukkuty Vijayan (2 July 1930 – 30 March 2005), commonly known as O. V. Vijayan, was an Indian author and cartoonist, who was an important figure in modern Malayalam language literature. Best known for his first novel Khasakkinte Itihasam (1969), Vijayan was the author of six novels, nine short-story collections, and nine collections of essays, memories and reflections.

A few of his works has been translated to English of which Infinity of Grace and The Legends of Khasak need special mention.

Vijayan authored many volumes of short stories, which range from the comic to the philosophical and show a diversity of situations, tones and styles. Vijayan translated most of his own works from Malayalam to English. He was also an editorial cartoonist and political observer and worked for news publications including The Statesman and The Hindu. [sourced and quoted from: Naveena Samskarika Kala Kendram]

Translator | A. J. THOMAS

AJ Thomas is a poet, fiction writer, translator and editor who writes in English and has more than 25 books to his credit. He was Editor of Indian Literature, and is its Guest Editor now. He taught English in Benghazi University, Ajdabiya Campus, Libya from 2008 to 2014.  He was also a Senior Consultant at IGNOU. He is a recipient of the Katha Award, the AKMG Prize, which enabled him to tour USA, UK and Europe in 1997 and the Vodafone Crossword Award in 2007. He won a Senior Fellowship,  from the Department of Culture, Govt. of India and was an Honorary Fellow, Department of Culture, Government of South Korea. He has been invited as a Guest Speaker in writers’ conferences and readings in South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Nepal. [courtesy, Jaipur Literature Festival].

Scroll To Top