I didn’t want to leave those comfortable beds, those rooms and the houses to which they belonged. I didn’t want to leave the gardens around and on top, the trees and plants I’d watered and touched and fed compost. But this has been a recurring theme in my life, one I can’t quite kick out, the foul shadow that always falls on the happier parts, destroying the good.
Well, maybe that’s too melodramatic a reading of a not-so-happy situation. But the past twelve months were a good lesson in rediscovering my roots, realising that the soil of home is redder than what memory till now had painted it, that the bad things still remain and will probably never truly go, and that the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses have slowed down in some places while gathering speed in others. Super Fast buses now crawl on the NH between Thrissur and Ernakulam and speed their way through the hill country of Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, swatting two-wheelers like an elephant would swish away flies.
The December wind no longer blows the way it should in Thrissur. My parents look anxiously at mango blossoms and fret about the changing weather and how it will affect the crop in the coming year. My mother still mourns the absence of any fruit on the jackfruit trees. The chrysanthemums which I planted in March finally gave up the ghost and so did the red spinach. The dahlias have found new life. The shy orchids have perked up and found new determination in living.
A beloved chompu tree was struck by lightning in May after bursting with fruit for two months, making it a sight to behold this past summer - green and pink, a psychedelic vision on hot sunny afternoons. As if to compensate, another tree of the same species but a different type, is bursting out now. Bees sit heavily on its fine, hairy petalled flower and the petals fall in a shower on the ground.
I spent two months as a paying guest in Cochin, in an old house at Vytilla where the back garden was filled with snakes, rotting mangoes and flood waters during the monsoon. A bat found its way into the kitchen and we shrieked, me and the caretaker, as its inky wings beat against the single CFL that lit the kitchen.
There were some hard lessons learned - ones that a thirty year old should, you’d think, have learned by now. Don’t trust too many people, everyone eventually disappoints you, and keeping your expectations low is good for your blood pressure and frame of mind.
I keep thinking of one memory that would stay, ten years from now, and I think it would be a battle between these:
The sight of iridescent blue dragonflies in a mating dance-and-swoon during the pouring rain at a traffic jam near the South Bridge in Ernakulam. A vision of nature following its own course in the midst of man-made horrors.
A really quiet morning on my street in Thrissur this past November. A quiet that lasted exactly two minutes when the eruption of maniacal, gobbling laughter that set all the neighbourhood dogs barking in confusion. We traced the sounds and peered over a wall to see the two turkeys my aunt had bought, strutting their stuff, lord and lady of all they surveyed.
BLDBLOG explains the context and the various built structures which appear in the pictures.
The people who extol small-scale farming sometimes want to help the peasant, but actually they only do him harm. With their honeyed words they deceive the peasant in the same way as people are deceived by a lottery. I shall tell you what a lottery is. Let us suppose I have a cow, worth 50 rubles. I want to sell the cow by means of a lottery, so I offer everyone tickets at a ruble each. Everyone has a chance of getting the cow for one ruble! People are tempted and the rubles pour in. When I have collected a hundred rubles I proceed to draw the lottery: the one whose ticket is drawn gets the cow for a ruble, the others get nothing. Was the cow “cheap” for the people? No, it was very dear, because the total money they paid was double the value of the cow, because two persons (the one who ran the lottery and the one who won the cow) gained without doing any work, and gained at the expense of the ninety-nine who lost their money. Thus, those who say that lotteries are advantageous to the people are simply practising deceit on the people.
"Don't you have any work at home? Traveling in trains at night!"
"They don't have any work. They have a lot of time... to travel." Laughter.
"Who's bitching in there? Women just get together and bitch, bitch, bitch. Bitches."
To this last statement, someone calls out from the depths of the compartment, "At least, brother, we don't stink like you."
But drunk, the man staggers on, unable to articulate a reply. He's just spat out verbal venom and passed along, shouting at any figure in a sari or a salwar kameez.
Here, casual misogyny permeates everything. All that talk of not having work, of traveling late at night in trains, are meant to smear, to suggest vice. They are sharp, small, serrated thought-knives that skewer vulnerable minds and being parasitical, lie there.
To pleasanter things:
George Clooney + Italy + good cinematography? What more does a woman want?
And one didn't need another reason to intensify one's crush on Rob Smyth (the best cricket writer out there right now), but his piece on his up-and-down-love-affair with the Pakistan Cricket Team will do just that.
Try to imagine, if you will, Malayalam cinema produced and viewed in the years preceding 1954 and the release of Neelakkuyil.
Cinema audiences in Kerala were treated to stilted film adaptations of epics, the dubbed or remade versions of Tamil and Hindi film hits and the occasional home-grown melodrama. This was a land that had not yet fully earned its statehood in a nation that was still young.
And then came Neelakkuyil. My maternal grandparents were among those who flooded the theatres that year to see a movie that pulled Malayalam cinema out of its high eyrie and down, firmly weighted, to the corrupt earth. They went from their little village in Malappuram, walking by the Bharathapuzha to take the chugging train to Calicut where they sat with more than a hundred others in the Coronation to watch a film that obliterated the memories of every other movie that came before it. The two young men who directed it, P. Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariat, hauled Malayalam cinema into a new age.
The story of Neelakkuyil is simple: a tale of forbidden love and the disastrous consequences of its consummation. Neeli (Miss Kumari), a young field hand from a lower caste, takes shelter in the house of Sreedharan Nair (Satyan), the village schoolmaster, during a summer storm in the beginning of the film. Storms and rain bookend the film and act as metaphors throughout - during the coupling between Sreedharan Nair and Neeli and in the denouement when one man’s appeal for humanity transforms another.
Neeli and Sreedharan Nair carry on their relationship in secret until she discovers she is pregnant and appeals to the schoolmaster to marry her. He refuses - he cannot countenance marrying a woman of a lower caste. Neeli, heartbroken, is thrown out of her home for transgressing caste lines and for her illicit pregnancy. The schoolmaster marries the daughter of the impoverished local Nair family. In one of the ironies that thread their way through the narrative of the film, Sreedharan Nair’s wife is the illegitimate daughter of the temple priest and a Nair woman. The schoolmaster is troubled by his conscience especially when he crosses the fields and encounters Neeli, now homeless, living out in the open where once he and she cavorted. She eventually dies giving birth near a railway track and the child is adopted by the village postman, Sankaran Nair (P. Bhaskaran), and the film’s conscience. Sankaran Nair is upbraided for his transgression in taking the child, born of a lower caste. He, in turn, condemns the inhumanity of the villagers and the cowardice of the man who impregnated Neeli and abandoned her.
The child grows up, becoming a truant who’s taunted by fellow classmates for his illegitimate birth. His desire for maternal love torments him, and his increasing indiscipline and behavioural problems frustrates his foster father, who nevertheless gives the boy unconditional love. Meanwhile, Sridharan Nair, in a childless marriage, is tormented by guilt and his refusal to declare himself as the boy’s true father. He tries to be a father figure to the child but the boy spurns him. It takes another storm - natural, emotional, societal - for the story to conclude.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Neelakkuyil. And I am not talking of the condescending appreciation one might bestow on a work that was produced in another, less technological and less sophisticated era. Its courage in tackling the themes of inter-caste relationships, the psychological effects of the lack of maternal love on a young child, the degradation of the once-powerful upper caste family through alcohol and venality, is portrayed with courage and sympathy. It does not preach to the viewer or beat them about the head with a hammer, demanding that they be better human beings. So much of recent Indian films that touch on social issues (all those issue-specific Madhur Bhandarkar films come to mind here) annoy with their heavy moralistic high-mindedness. Neelakkuyil’s moral consciousness is knitted into its filmic DNA. Much of the credit for the power of the film goes to five men: Kariat and Bhaskaran who directed it, Uroob, the Malayalam novelist who wrote the story, A. Vincent who did the cinematography and K. Raghavan who composed the music. There is still a retrospective thrill to be had in watching the coming together of these nascent talents, all of whom, except Uroob, were still to establish themselves. Vincent would go on to direct such classics as Gandharva Kshetram and Bhargavi Nilayam, Kariat would make another landmark Malayalam movie, Chemmeen, and Bhaskaran would have a long and acclaimed career as an actor, director and lyricist.
Neelakkuyil was made just as the Italian Neorealism film movement was dying out, having inspired filmmakers around the globe to train their cameras on their own societies. From the very first frames - that of rain-laden clouds gathering, the farmers tilling the fields and seeds being planted, it announces its earthiness and concerns with the immediate, the tangible and the perishable. Watching it, one remembers too that it was made just a few years after a Dalit took the leading role in framing the Indian constitution. When the temple priest tells Sankaran Nair that Neeli had the nerve to not get out his way as he waddled around the village, Nair chides him: “You can no longer talk in that manner. Things have changed.”
Talk is one thing, action quite another. In Neelakkuyil it’s not the enlightened schoolmaster who is the hero but the postman, played with unswerving conviction by Bhaskaran. He maybe short-sighted in the physical sense, peering out from behind thick spectacles, but he’s the truest exponent of the ideals espoused by those who fought for an independent nation.
Neelakkuyil’s only faults would probably be its episodic narrative, the slackening and quickening of pace, the jumps in time. But these faults (minor, minor ones) don’t really take away from the magnitude of its achievements.
And then, of course, there are those songs that almost every Malayali hums, some not knowing where they came from or how, but that they just were, playing in crowded halls, on radio stations during late night drives and sung by contestants on TV talent shows. Of all the songs, it is Kayalarikathu..., composed in the Mappila song style, that the state collectively fell for, and used, one imagines, as the soundtrack to all serendipitous loves.
And in our depths of sorrow over the loss of that tree - a pretty, dainty, pink and green thing - the weak cutting we'd ignored was somehow growing stronger. The electricity of the pre-monsoon showers had kindled something in it. It was greening, nodules appeared on the now plump stems. It had come alive. The man who'd come to clean out the weeds showed it to my mother: It's alive, it's growing.
Now, the first fruit are ripening, just a few, not the hundreds that the rose-apple had sprouted before performing its operatic death. As the first fruit purples, my mother and I think we can make preserves out of them some day. And she tells me how, in Muscat, in that house by the Corniche, birds would come and sit on our windowsills, their beaks stained from eating mulberries from a courtyard garden nearby. Stains they'd paint onto our walls and windows as they rubbed their beaks and dripped berry juices. A whole year passed before the purple streaks on our walls and our windows faded. Faded to a dirty brown that reminded us that somewhere, sometime, one of our neighbours had a mulberry bush.
Devi hadn’t read a newspaper since leaving her house after her husband’s death. Her son and his wife had decided that they needed all the rooms and couldn’t spare space for the grieving widow. For two years she roamed, Bedouin-like, from one relative’s kitchen to another. One day, breaking routine, she walked into the living room in a cousin’s house and met Mohammad. He liked her calm manner and asked her to take care of Amina Kutty, his mother, who lived all alone. He promised a good wage, good food and a proper bed.
Taking care of the old woman had meant five long years of staying awake half the night, helping her squat on the toilet, cleaning her stinking spittoon and washing her urine stained clothes. Devi, in this house, had become filthy.
She had also forgotten things. Songs praising the Goddess Mookambika that she’d sung as a child, the names of months and stars. Time was now divided according to the five calls for prayer — Fajr, Zohar, Asar, Maghrib and Isha’a. When the muezzin’s voice came to her from across fields of rice and coconut palms, she went into the small bedroom where Amina Kutty, milky-eyed and wrinkled, lay on the bed. Devi woke her saying, “Umma, it’s time for your prayers.”
Amina Kutty struggled to get up and go to the bathroom to do her ablutions. She accepted Devi’s arm while going in. But when coming out, having cleansed her face, her ears, her hands, and her feet, she refused to let Devi touch her. “I am pure now,” she said, “if you touch me, I’ll become unclean.”
Amina Kutty limped back to her bed, climbed on it, adjusted her veil and started muttering her prayers.
Devi left the room and went into the kitchen garden. Her grey hair glinted beneath the strong March sun as she walked to the mango trees by the outhouse. She knew her quarry was hiding there, the only cool place near the house.
She heard a rustle at the foot of the giant mango tree. She crept up to a shaking pile of leaves. There it was, white as Amina Kutty’s veil and just as soft. She pounced and caught it. There was a hard struggle and Devi remembered when she’d let go of the old woman in the bath. Devi had let her thrash and scream for a few seconds before catching her and saying, “Calm down Umma, you’re not drowning.” Amina Kutty had clawed her arm and whispered, “You infidel bitch.”
Devi felt the quickening heartbeat, the flutter of fear in the warm bundle of flesh and stroked the nervous creature just as she had stroked Amina Kutty’s fragile, brittle neck that day. Their fear melted; they became quiet and submissive.
Impure. Infidel. Filth. She twisted and snapped the long neck.
At lunch that day, Amina Kutty sniffed the delicious smell wafting towards her and asked, “What’s this?”
“Yes. Mohammad bought it last week.”
Devi knew what the old woman was thinking: the duck was not halal. Prayers had not been said when it was slaughtered.
And yet it smelled so good.
Amina Kutty picked a piece of fried duck and put it into her mouth. As she chewed it, her face relaxed and a smile flickered on it.
Outside, the muezzin was calling for afternoon prayers. The two women ate on.
True Blood is my favorite TV show after watching it on HBO a few months back. The new season just debuted and it sounds as though it could be wilder and bloodier than before.
And as for the most deliberate commercial juxtaposition I have seen in the real world: an arms and ammunition store is situated right next to an SBI branch and ATM here in Cochin. Makes sense, that.
Through the summer months in Kerala, I sweated out litres of fluids and wondered if I'd imagined all the memorable monsoons I'd spent here. One in particular stands out - 1994 or '95 when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and it was raining non-stop in the book and it rained non-stop for two weeks outside, in the real world. The pond near our house flooded its banks, our little residential cul-de-sac had fish swimming on the asphalt and between the mango trees in the garden. I remember looking out of the kitchen window and yelling at my mother to NOT GO OUT - we couldn't see where the well was. It was a flood of water everywhere.
So after gasping through three months of unprecedented levels of humidity and heat - cows dropped dead, farmers just downed tools and decided to sleep through it all and beer ran out in the state - we are back in familiar territory.
The bus drivers this morning glowered more than usual and the place I am staying at right now has a garden filled with mushy, rotting mangoes, dead things in various stages of putrefaction, mosquitoes (my god, these Cochin mosquitoes) and frogspawn. And frogspawn means snakes can't be far behind.
Yesterday, at home in Thrissur, I took a walk in the garden and found that mushrooms had sprouted overnight - gloriously skinny, bowler hatted mushrooms in various shades of grey, absorbing and pouring out the colours of the gravel and cement they were growing in.
Yes, we are back to something we know and despite all the grumbling, deeply love.
Of course we all know that the backpack belongs to the little boy and that teddy bear inside is not a ticking time-bomb or powdered with a biological weapon, but would Ryan's character have picked it up had the film been made in this day and age?
But then again, the last Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks-Nora Ephron directed rom-com, set in a story book New York where everyone's moderately wealthy and no one worries about losing their jobs to the vagaries of the stock market was 1998's You've Got Mail. That, if nothing else, should remind one of how much the world has changed.
Then there are the slow burner books. They take a long time to seep into your mind, and when there, refuse to leave.
Bainbridge's According to Queeney is one such book - slow to build, confusing at first, and the lucid. I also finished it within two days. I didn't think about it immediately, but an hour after, it crept up from the inner recesses of my mind and hooked in. And all I could think of was sad Samuel Johnson and the flighty, giddy, jealous and convoluted Mrs. Thrale.
It is when you come across phenomena like this that you wonder: Which came first - the chicken or the egg? Did they choose the name after Joan Collins had Collins-ized the motorcycles or did they say, "Yea, Cheetah, yea powerful name. A prowler, cool like Alexis, take that Blake! Let's totally spottify the machines."
What, after they spread spots across all these motorcycles, did the police think? Definitely not: those look better as loin cloths, don't they - where are the jungle vines?
Timothy Egan’s excellent post about the McMansion suburbs (“slumburbia”) that were abandoned during this great recession brought back memories of this:
A year after moving to
Interesting post about smog, bad weather and football over at More Than Mind Games.
I remember reading this post by Tara Parker-Pope on the NYT's Well blog (published last year and one of the most viewed stories on the site) and counting the foods I regularly eat that appear on the list: five. Not that bad.
Her poetry, especially the Darwin poems, and the extracts she read from her first, yet to be completed novel, were simply transporting.
Jezebel has interviewed my favorite film critic, the NYT's Manohla Dargis about women filmmakers in Hollywood. A must read.
Something more cheerful here.
The African Cup on Nations starts next weekend in Angola and I wish a channel here in India was showing it - but it doesn't look likely. But there are some great perspectives on the tournament and a great year ahead for Africa, football wise, on the Guardian's site. Kanu looks back at his childhood here and Paul Doyle has tipped Ivory Coast to win the ACON.
I read this a few days back and like all of Mantel's writing, it refuses to leave my head days after I've finished reading. A wonderful look at Cinderella's not so great happily ever after.
A tribute to cartoonist David Levine by Steve Bell here.
in association with
The British Council
& the Association of British Scholars
to Ruth Padel’s reading of her poetry and fiction.
Ruth will also be in conversation with poet-novelist Anjum Hasan.
Venue: Crossword Bookstore, ACR Towers, Ground Floor, 32 Residency Road, Bangalore - 1
Date and time: Friday, 8 January 2010 at 7.00 pm
Coffee/tea and refreshments will be served from 6.30 pm onwards
Ruth Padel, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Zoological Society of London, is a prize-winning British poet. Her seventh poetry collection, Darwin - A Life in Poems, is an intimate verse biography of her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, bringing out connections between his personal life and his work. She has written an acclaimed book on tiger conservation, Tigers in Red Weather, for which she explored forests in South East Asia, Sumatra, Russia, China, Bhutan and Nepal as well as India. She is visiting India on a British Council Darwin Now grant, to complete research for her first novel, which will focus on king cobra conservation. She will read from Darwin - A Life in Poems, Tigers in Red Weather, and her forthcoming novel, Where the Serpent Lives. To find out more about Ruth and her work, visit www.ruthpadel.com
Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in my Head (2007), and the book of poems Street on the Hill (2006). Her poems, short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared anthologies, magazines and journals in India and abroad. She is Books Editor, The Caravan.