He won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1972 and 1977 and the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998. He was also a recipient of the Kerala state government's highest literary honour Ezhuthachan Puraskaram in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Malayalam literature. He had been a Fellow of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi since 1997 and Sahitya Akademi since 2005.
Kovilan was born in Kandanassery in Guruvayur, Thrissur to Vattomparambil Shanku Velappan and Kotakkattil Kunjandi Kali. He did his early education at the Kandanisseri Excelsior School and Nenmini Higher Elementary School. He then joined the Sahitya Deepika Sanskrit College at Pavaratty at the age of 13. He had the good fortune to attend classes by the scholars like K. P. Narayana Pisharody, P. C. Vasudevan Elayathu, M. P. Sankunni Nair, Cherukadu and Srikrishna Sharma. Even as a student, he had shown interest in writing poems and stories. As a budding writer, poetry was Kovilan's primary passion. But life and time of his adolescence – the oppressive colonial and feudal rule, the casteist social milieu, widespread rural poverty that climaxed in stark famine during the war years, the agony of fracturing familial and social bonds and the inner urge to rebel maturing into politically conscious militancy – compelled him to switch over to fiction as a wider arena of self-expression.
A staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi, Kovilan left the Sanskrit College to participate in the Quit India Movement. That marked the end of his formal academic education. By the time he quit, he had written at least three novels.
He joined the Royal Indian Navy in 1943 and was trained in Anti-submarine Detecting Operations. He served in Bengal sea, Burma and Singapore. He quit following the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 and returned home. While back in Kerala, Kovilan maintained a close friendship with Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Joseph Mundassery and C. J. Thomas. He also took part in the trade union movements. In 1948 he passed SSLC and worked for a while as a stenographer for Joseph Mundassery. In 1948, he joined the Indian Army Corps of Signals as Radio Mechanic. He also specialised in electronics. For five years he lived in the Himalayas. While in army, he came in contact with soldier-turned-writers Parappurath and Nandanar. He also worked as National Cadet Corps training officer at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He retired from the Indian Army in 1968 as Havildar Major and settled down at Pullanikunnu at Kandanassery.
Kovilan died on 2 June 2010 in Kunnamkulam, aged 86. He was suffering from some respiratory problems. His wife Sarada predeceased him in 1999. They had three children: Vijaya, Ajithan and Amitha. His grand daughters are Dr. Arya Ajith Vattamparambil who works at Amrita Medical College, Ernakulam and Pournima Jayaprakash who is practising law in Attingal.
Kovilan, who led a simple life, is considered as one of the most prolific writers of contemporary Indian literature. His works stand apart by originality in their themes, sharp characterisation and style. In all, he had authored 11 novels, 10 collections of short stories, three essays and a play.
Kovilan has written 4 novels—A Minus B (1958), Ezhamedangal (Army Wives, 1965), Thazhvarakal (The Valleys, 1969) and Himalayam—with military experiences as their background. A Minus B was originally published in a weekly. However, not satisfied with the output, Kovilan dismantled and rewrote the novel. A Minus B brought Malayalam novel to new heights. This was the first Malayalam novel with characters from every part of India. In its portrayal of life in a military barrack, it doesn't have a central character or a conventional beginning or end. The novel was translated into English by N. Kunji and was published by Kerala Sahitya Akademi, Thrissur. Ezhamedangal, Thazhvarakal and Himalayam can be considered as a trilogy. Set against the impending Sino-Indian War the characters in these novels encounter the ontological questions of life and death in their own way with an apocalyptic urgency. The archetypal image of dancing Siva, synchronised in line and space with the deluging war, is invoked in Himalayam through a complex architecture and a distilled poetic diction. The cosmic dimensions of this trilogy still elude the literary pundits.
Thottangal (Incantations, 1970), the first post-service novel of the writer, narrates the delirious memories of an old woman in the night of her death whose life was shipwrecked turning the dreams of her childhood into nightmares. Bharathan, the protagonist in Bharathan, published during the prevalence of the Emergency, is a historical metaphor that incises the sociopolitical realities of post-independent India. Bharathan is implicated, persecuted an tried in a mock court of establishment and sentenced to the destined death. The novelist cruelly reveals that the wages of innocence in our pseudo society is nothing lesser than its elimination.
His most popular novel was Thattakam (The Terrain, 1995). A grand narrative of epic dimension it is the saga of a land and its people, its mythical genesis and long sojourn into a civil society. The novel unfolds itself through umpteen anecdotes sprouting from legends, oracles, revelations, fantasies and historical events themselves. The narrative invents its own time and space that allows free passage of countless generations across the past, the present and the future. The novel won him national recognition with the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998. It was described in the fellowship citation as "a saga of a land and its people, its mythical genesis and long sojourn to reach a civil society. The novel unfolds itself through innumerable anecdotes sprouting from legends, oracles, revelations, fantasies and historical events. Its structure closely follows the magic of loosely connected episodes being integrated into a meta-narrative, reminiscent of the great Indian epics. The narrative invents its own time and space that allows free passage of countless generations across the past, the present and the future. In this mission, Kovilan develops a linguistic symphony that blends the dialects and language of myriad social strata. Thattakam will certainly leave its reader spellbound to muse over the super-human imagination and artistic stamina that its author is endowed with."
Kovilan's first collection of short stories was Oru Palam Manayola (A Measure of Red Arsenic). This book was published in the year 1957. The story Tharavadu (Ancestral Home) is included in this collection. Kovilan's other collections of short stories include Ee Jeevitham Ananthamanu (1957), Orikkal Manushyanayirunnu (1960), Oru Kashanam Asthi (1961), Vendam Kadi (1969), Thervazhchakal (1971), Pitham (1971), Shakunam (1974), Adyathe Kathakal (1978), Sujatha (1979), Theranjedutha Kathakal (1980) and Kovilante Kathakal (1985). A tele-serial based on his novel Thottangal was beamed on Doordarshan. Some of his short stories also have been adapted for tele-screen.
Ever since Kovilan's stories started getting published in the periodicals of the 1950s, critics have marked him as 'unique and original' not only for the power of language and deftness for characterisation but also for choice of themes and intense experiences they sought to convey. Right from his debutant novel Thakarnna Hridayangal written at the age of 19 he was obsessively vigilant nit to emulate any models, set not only by others but by himself also. While many established Malayalam writers often betrayed their limitations because they hardly had any experience of living outside their immediate environs, Kovilan had hands-on experiences on riddles and dilemmas of human life as much of his youth in military camps as a radio mechanic, far away from home and hearth. Kovilan's characters depicted, subtly, how human dignity and freedom are hallowed out through regimentation, by powers that be in independent India also just as in the colonial regime. They, however, do not accept their destiny, unquestioned. Kovilan keeps this element of resistance and rebellion in his characters burning. Kovilan's stories that shed light on the lives in and out of military barracks marked a remarkable change in the way stories had been told in Malayalam literature. Kovilan has written four novels—A Minus B, Ezhamedangal, Thazhvarakal and Himalayam—with military experiences as their background. Apart from the pan-Indian lives and terrains that he introduced, through writings, he restructured the narrative concepts, hitherto familiar to Malayalam fiction. Kovilan jettisoned the idea of linear narrative woven around a protagonist. He experimented with the new technique of so many characters revealing themselves at so many junctures simultaneously in a cobweb-like narrative pattern.
Kovilan's visions are reflected in his works, right from the choice of the subject to the use of the language and imagery. Even when he shared the concerns of the progressive writers movement of the state, his sensibilities were radically different. When many of his peers were passionately experimenting with modernist trends in fiction writing, drawing inspiration from popular English and European writers, Kovilan sought his roots and soul, the traditions, culture and language of the common people, the soulful tales and tunes of the community that he lived in, and the countless characters that he encountered in his speckled life. Poverty and hunger had been the primary concerns of the writer. His quest for human dignity and art of telling complex stories in a stunningly simple language were remarkable. Writer and social critic Sukumar Azhikode once said that the gap between life and literature was very little in Kovilan's works.
Kovilan was a staunch votary of the labour class during his lifetime. Kovilan was always in the forefront in opposing tendencies against democracy. He was as one of the early leaders of the progressive literary movement. Kovilan was a storyteller who embraced leftist humanism and possessed an impressively high degree of social perspective. Kovilan's works had immensely contributed to transforming a community bogged down by conservatism to one that was progressive and socialist in outlook.
In a 1977 article titled Modernism in the Novel, Kovilan talked about one of his most important concerns as a writer: "To put a live human being on the post-mortem table in his fundamental state, without his clothes or make-up, to open him up like a frog in the zoology lab, with his chest and abdomen nailed flat, and his heart pounding still, even after the studies – we have not had many such instances in our novels, to show the beats of human character in the raw like this... Hunger is a human being's primary craving... And the war pangs of hunger are the true nature of human beings. The ruckus that happens here in the pretext of ‘modernism' is enough to drown these pangs of hunger. This is not literature, but literary vulgarity." In another article written nearly a decade later, he said: "Dialogues will never become literature. A writer cannot realise the vagaries of human life merely through dialogues. But, human being! It is never a single being. More masquerades than a chameleon. Never-ending masks. As the masks fall off one by one, the story touches you more and more deeply."
Poet and critic K. Satchidanandan notes:1971: Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award (Novel) for Thottangal
1977: Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award (Story) for Sakunam
1995: Muttathu Varkey Award
1997: Kerala Sahitya Akademi Fellowship
1997: A. P. Kulakkad Award for Thattakam
1998: Kendra Sahitya Academy Award for Thattakam
1998: Kerala Sahitya Parishath Award for Thattakam
1999: Vayalar Award for Thattakam
1999: N. V. Prize for Thattakam
2004: Sahitya Akademi Fellowship
2006: Ezhuthachan Award
2008: Mathrubhumi Literary Award