A Preface To Man: Manushyanu Oru Amukham, Subhash Chandran

I am at Page 155 of a 407 page best seller in Malayalam called ‘ Manushyanu Oru Amukham’ . This book has won the Kendra Sahitya Academy award along with scores of other awards. It has been translated into English by Dr E V Fatima and published by Harper Collins, India as ‘ A Preface To Man’.

The story of a few generations of a family, along with those of related social and cultural milieu, and sharp political observations: this narrative structure has been used by many brilliant writers across the world. Marquez and his One hundred years of solitude is often a favourite reference point in such a case.  How the Kerala cultural ethos changed- influenced by stalwarts in  political, intellectual and spiritual arenas-along with the clear repercussions in the lives of the many members of the Ayyattimbilly household, of the Thachannakara village, forms the binding thread of this grand novel.

The thoughts that had powered the best men and women to become  great human beings and responsible citizens, are revealed in different pages. We meet Kuttipuzha KrishnaPillai, the communist leader and poet, as a warm and unassuming guest in a chapter, who with piercing wit handles the venomous prejudice of a petty mind. The reader is forced to reflect on how various forms of prejudice continue as eternal monsters in society. They might change shapes and hues, but the underlying devils are the same. Intolerance and ignorance. Closed eyes and closed mind. Arrogance and Self centerdness. Lack of compassion and greed for power. And a way of encouraging life styles which give birth to many living dead.

In the first few chapters, we find that the protagonist Jitendran is dead. It is through snippets of his letters ( when he was a young man who thought for himself) to his loved woman, that the chapters unveil themselves. One striking paragraph which I liked earlier on went like this ( my translation:)

‘The first half of his life was one in which he ardently believed in something within: that would impart light to those coexisting with him in the world. That belief had been nurtured by certain assumptions built in his childhood about human greatness. However, unable to find a  conducive medium for that light to express itself, his inner self had been set aflame in that period.

The second half was rather simpler in nature. The job he had habitually done-in  utter disregard for misspending one’s human life- with the facade of an inappropriate severity, a marriage and marital relationship which started with debts and continued in debts, the shifting of a few houses with household materials stuffed into a mini lorry, the partitions of  anscestral property which caused much  mutual hatred between brethren and made God laugh, a few extramarital affairs  he indulged in -which had nothing to do with physical pleasure- for the exclusive and ineffable thrill of  committing a secret sin, a few bursts of hearty laughter hither and tither, a few pains extended in the form of gifts by friends and relatives, a few accusations and wrong doings-neither of  which had  any circumstantial excuses, the tonnes of medicines he swallowed for curing those diseases which would have healed by themselves, the boring scenes which occurred twice or thrice in a life time when it became imperative to  pretend that one was acting responsibly…’

**

I am at the chapter which says – ( in translation) ‘A petty man never lets go of an opportunity to showcase his inherent pettiness.’

‘Chetta’ in Malayalam has many connotations: a small hut,  a person of obnoxious meanness, a man or woman possessing aggravating pettiness….

I laughed out loud on realising the absolute truth of that statement. Oh Lord, how many times, how many times….one has witnessed that!!!

However, the author suddenly pulls the mat from under your feet. He makes you reflect on the etymology of the word and whom you are  actually rendering unworthy in the process of thoughtlessly using such words.

Beautiful book. I am so happy to have another 250 odd pages to relish!

**

Panchagni: ( Scenes 8-9)

 

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Scene 8:

Jail exit- the gate.

The height is very low, one has to bend down to enter it.

Indira exits, wearing a very old sari and a faded blouse.

She starts her journey.

The Titles of the movie begin.

Indira walking.

Indira sitting in a bus.

Indira deep in thought as the scenery flashes past her, when the bus moves.

The Family House ( Tharavadu)- Exterior.

Evening.

A village desperate to turn into a town.

Indira outside an almost decrepit family house.

The entrance to the house, the covering over the steps at the threshold( Padippura), is in shambles.

She steps inside the compound. The house is wrapped in the dim darkness of the twilight time.

As she moves into the verandah, a girl, 14-15, comes out with a lighted lamp.

She is startled to see Indira, standing silent as a shadow in the darkness.

From Indira’s face, it is clear that she is not familiar with the young girl either.

Then, Sekharettan(60yrs) comes out from the house.

A torn shirt of khadi, a dhoti of khadi.

He recognises her and then wonderingly:

Oh My God! I never really believed that you could come…Even when I reassured your mother that you would be coming….I did not have any confidence!

As Indira enters the house, accompanied by Sekharettan, the  young girl looks on in bewilderment.

Scene 9:

The family home.

Mother’s room.

There is a dim light from a bulb.

Mother is asleep on her bed.

Although enervated by disease, there are traces of dignified elegance on her face.

Indira enters and then stands by the cot, towards her mother’s feet.

Sekharettan: When the pain gets insufferable, there is a pill…Then she dozes for a while. I will wake her.

As he moves forward, Indira raises her hand, negating it. He stops.

Indira gazes at her sleeping mother. Slowly, her gaze travels over the room. On the wall, dusty pictures: Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore,Rajendra Prasad.

In one picture, her Amma, wearing a Gandhi cap of the volunteers.

From the background comes the rhythmic sound of marching:

Bharat Mata Ki Jai!

A group photograph of volunteers.

Marching. At the end of marching,  long police whistle.

CHARR..GE

Indira’s eyes on another picture. On a stage from which the Tricolour Flag flies, a few leaders are seated.

Her Amma is giving a speech. She wears a big badge.

‘My mother…my beloved mother land,  hellishly suffering in slavery, despite giving birth to crores of brave children!..Bharat Mata Ki Jai!’

Thundering applause.

Another photograph.

Amma standing with a baby on her hip. She is in the middle of a reception function. Many garlands around her neck. Loud applause.

Indira’s eyes move back to her mother’s face. Amma opens her eyes slowly.

Her gaze falls on Indira, standing slightly away, near her feet. Expressions change from astonishment…to happiness…then her eyes fill as many emotions battle within.

Sekharan( moves near): The petitions were fruitful! Indira has come. Are you crying now? That is not done!

Amma smiles through her tears.

( Scene continues…)

*

 

 

 

Panchagni: The Five Fires(Scenes 4-7)

Panchagni screenplay continued:

Scene 4:

Day

The Jail Superintendent’s room

The room is in the first floor of the office block in the Jail Complex.

The Superintendent is past fifty years of age. When he raises his head, after signing some papers,  the Matron, a forty five year old woman, salutes him.

Matron: Indira refuses to have food. It is the fourth day today.

Assistant Jailor and the Jail Doctor at the door.

Asst.Jailor salutes.

The Doctor pays respect in the normal way.

The Supdt is pondering deeply.

Asst.Jailor: Sir, we can charge under Section 45…

The Supdt motions with his head, negating the suggestion.

Doctor: She is very weak

Matron: If we manage to hold her for you, can you not give her glucose or some stuff?

Supdt: No, we can’t do it.

Asst.Jailor: Is her mother’s condition truly serious,  Sir? Has the verification report arrived?

The Supdt nods.

‘I have referred the matter to the IG. Let the decision be from there.’

An orderly arrives,( dressed in the Jail inmate’s dress), with tea for them on a tray

While serving, he comments sycophantically: ‘Too much freedom in the Jail nowadays! This is the result of that!  It was totally wrong to banish whipping.’

The phone rings. The Supdt picks it up,  says, ‘Yes’ , and then his face expression changes to obsequiousness.

‘Superintendent here, Sir! Yes, yes..but Sir! Yes, yes..the Doctor is observing her Sir! Ok Sir!’

He keeps the phone down.

‘The IG has referred the matter to the minister. But  it seems that some journalist has reported about the fasting incident in the Jail ! Hell!’

Scene 5

Jail. Indira’s Cell

The mercury rises in the BP apparatus.

The Doctor examines her as she lies on a bed.

The Matron and a nurse along side.

Scene 5A

Office of the IG Prisons

The IG throws a file to the police official standing in front of him.

‘Refer the matter to the Parole Board.’

Scene 6

Day

The courtyard of the Jail

Women inmates working.

A female inmate: If you get out on parole, do you have to report to the police station daily?

An ‘Expert’:

Hey, no! When I went, it was a good guy- as Inspector! He asked me to come just once a week.

The woman who had spoken on attacking her husband:

When I went on parole, I was  only apprehensive on whether I would end up before that son of a bitch!  I might have grabbed the cleaver again, forgetting  that the punishment could  get doubled  !

The Expert: No doubling ! All that is nonsense. It is not  there in the law.

A long whistle. The women stop work and return to their Cells.

Scene 7

The office of the Jail Supdt

The Supdt takes a typed sheet of  Official paper and pushes it forward

Indira stands in front of him, dressed in the convict’s uniform.

She is totally exhausted.

She signs on the paper.

Supdt: Fourteen days. Please read it.

She looks at him.

The Supdt checks the accounts and the voucher placed in front of him by a clerk.

‘You have some money as savings. You can take that. Also get your dress.’

He rings the bell.

He looks at Indira- she stands silent, emotionless. He thinks for a moment and then with great soberness:

‘ If you start acting as if the revolution has reached the next street…! Hmm..The Government can cancel the parole any time. Up to you’

It is a warning, also an advice.

*

Short and Spicy

I have been watching a lot of short films recently. Tisca Chopra’s Chutney,  for example, was absolutely delicious!

(I think  there was an inspiration: Saki’s short story – The open window – yet the adaptation was wholly Indian.Vera the tale spinner par excellence transformed her looks into a native Ghaziabadwali! ‘How does your garden grow’- a Hercule Poirot short story of Christie is also supposedly another inspiration. Lots in the audience have caught these nuances too.)

Watching a slew of Malayalam short films,  I particularly liked ( based  on The right kind of house -Alfred Hitchcock  Presents in 1958 ), the short film Grace Villa, that had Parvathy T and Rajesh Hebbar  enacting rather effortlessly.

I was left wondering on the veritable treasure house of adaptable short stories- covering everything from horror to ghosts to adventure.

‘Lamb to the slaughter’ by Roald Dahl, is one such story! Of course, it has been adapted into visual forms by Masters of the Art. Yet, we might have an Indian version of it yet! I will leave it to the reader to explore the story and then imagine the possible short film in an Indian context.

‘Witness for the Prosecution’ is another classic by Agatha Christie. I wait for the day an Indian short film creates a court scene, capturing that stunner!

We are often treated to trite stuff,  tripe,  or plain terrible fare as audience. Short films offer a welcome change.

Short film genre is pretty good opportunity for writers and adapters to showcase some of the classy works of world literature. Only request is that, they acknowledge the original with due humility. In the era of google and rather wise audience, one click can reveal the true inspiration. Better to accept gracefully than shout of originality, is it not?

*

Mastering the Fates

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How about a film marathon? Watching movies based on the flaming human spirit that pursues excellence against all odds? In a coincidence that bordered on the mystical, I was recently afforded an opportunity to watch a few of such soulful ones: On Pele, on Jesse Owens, on Mandela, on Alan Turing.

‘The Imitation Game’ makes you weep- with overwhelming empathy for a tortured genius. Alan Turing the brilliant mathematician who was driven to suicide at 41, has been beautifully portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.  The enigmatic Turing pieces together the world’s first thinking machine amidst mind numbing pressures, battles deep human prejudices and yearns for life assuring friendships.  All the while, he is quietly saving millions of lives.The film makes us aware of how deeply flawed we are, as a human race. We are the most cruel of all living beings. I felt touched by an Angel after watching this beauty of a movie.

‘Invictus’, is named after William Ernest Henley’s poem that was Nelson Mandela’s favourite. It depicts the elegant Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, emerging from prison in 1994 after 27 years. He is faced with a divisive nation where mutual hatred and suspicions reign. The Rugby World Cup of 1995  is used as an opportunity by the great leader to  inspire a unifying sense of nationhood in the South Africans. One sees leadership in action, greatness in front of the eyes, making us dazzled with the purity of the undying human spirit and the enthralling power of sports.( I loved the Maori war dance, the Haka, before the finals.)

‘ Out of the darkness that covers me/Black as the pit from pole to pole/ I thank whatever Gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul…’

‘Race’- the movie on Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics under Hitler’s very eye, is  both informative and inspiring.We see that the White House  did not acknowledge Owens’ victory and that he was forced to enter his own victory party  at the Waldorf Astoria through the entrance meant for servants. Jesse Owens the quietly confident star, his encounter with German competitor Luz  Long that carries a beautiful story in its  own strength, the manipulations of power- all make for  a mesmerising watching. I  was stunned by the actor who enacted Joseph Goebbels with finesse- Barnaby Metschurat- for the sensitively portrayed body language, the look in his eyes, the palpable touch of evil power. The nexus between politics, business and sports was again high lighted through the story of Avery Brundage. Someone should study that character further for a management course in Power and Politics.

Pele-the birth of a legend, the biographical film, with music by A.R.Rehman, should not be missed by football fans. I wished that my father was watching it with me- when  I watched Pele’s father teaching him the Ginga style (inspired by the Capoeira martial arts )of playing football , using a mango fruit. The mind numbing poverty and the amazingly talented  Brazilian children playing football with cloth balls were eye openers in a literal sense too. Here too, was the human spirit at work, aiming for excellence amidst all odds. The beautiful game is showcased in a wonderful way.

‘ It matters not how strait the gate

How charged with punishment the scroll

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.’

***

 

Who is Laughing Out There?

jane eyre

When my little daughter groaned about the sadness of Jane Eyre, not finding it enjoyable as Pride and Prejudice, I asked her to watch a movie version with me. She started with much huffing and puffing, protests and sniffs.
By the time I stopped the episode at a critical spot, especially when Jane starts suspecting Grace Poole, little girl was most annoyed.
“Who was laughing?If not Grace Poole, then who?”
“Read the book,” I said, heartlessly.
She scowled at me. Much later,closing the last page of the abridged version, she declared: “I want to see Bertha.”

I remembered a summer vacation when Jeremey Brett started haunting us all in TV- during Sundays, as Sherlock Holmes. My most intense prayer every day would be that the electricity stayed put for the precious one hour or less next Sunday, as the episode played out,part by part. I was hooked from the very first episode: “The speckled band”.
There was no Sherlock Holmes collection at home. My mother gave in finally, on the promise of doing all summer homework on the first week itself, and daily ‘deposited’ me enroute work- in the “Reference Section” of the Trivandrum Public Library. The original works were compiled there- with the beautiful illustrations from Strand magazine- golden edged, red-velvet bound -one  helluva joy of a book! Soon, I became the expert on Holmes in my family. The best part of that summer holidays was the discovery of enjoying both the book and the visual depictions: the permutations and combinations offered to the intellect were amazing!

“Sure,” I  replied,  “let us watch the mad woman in the attic.”

***
Post script: Little girl decided that Joan Fontaine was the most beautiful Jane among all versions. I told her that most probably, the casting director had not read the novel- Ms. Fontaine is neither small nor obscure or plain! (By the way,Elizabeth Taylor starred as Helen Burns in the same 1943 version! )

***

Beneath the Veil

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The  wise and wonderful typically grace my life through words and images. It has been  both a fortuitous  and propitious fairy god mother till date.

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, had come to me in three forms: because Lizzie Bennet sang it in Pride and Prejudice, and because it was the song played by Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, and of course,  from the movie Amadeus. ( My daughters remind me that there is a Tom and Jerry special on Figaro too! Oh, yesss!)

There is something intriguingly interconnected herein- music and words and images.

Octavo Paz in his essay on Baudelaire as art critic, speaks on Analogy as the highest form of imagination, since it fuses analysis and synthesis, translation and creation..’It transforms communication into creation: what painting says without telling, turns into what music paints without painting, and what- without ever expressly mentioning it- the poetic word enunciates..’

He goes to explain what Baudelaire felt on listening to Wagner, specifically to the overture to Lohengrin. “.. Released from the fetters of gravity…in a solitude with an  immense horizon and a diffuse light; immensity with no integrity other than itself….then I conceived clearly the idea of a soul moving in a luminous atmosphere, an ecstasy composed of voluptuousness and knowledge.”

***

I get to explore two classic screenplays: Chinatown by Robert Towne and Kurt Luedtke’s Out of Africa. The latter  also gives me Mozart back.

‘ A woman can veil her face with a smile,’ is a quote attributed to Khalil Gibran.I imagine  the beautiful and tragic Evelyn  Cross in Chinatown and the luminous  and indomitable Baroness Blixen in Out of Africa . How very true in both the women.

What is it that Paz wrote? “The painter translates the word into visual images; the critic is a poet who translates lines and colours into words. The artist is the universal translator. True, that translation is transmutation…”

The dots get interconnected. I am awed by the Grace.

***

Dreaming in Words and Images

panchagni

I love movies. Especially if the movie has been made from a known story. The eyes perceive what the mind once imagined freely. The process of remembering the beloved lines of the book , as the story unfolds on the screen, is a very enjoyable one.  Sometimes, one finds that the artistic liberty of the director has changed the story line altogether-  for example, any one who has read ‘Chocolat’ the novel by Joanne Harris, and watched the movie,would appreciate the point above. But surprise, surprise, one finds that both the versions are great and delectable.

The vagaries of directorial interpretations have directed me to a new past time- reading screen plays. And then you realise that the movie is yet a third version, forget the story and the screen play! In Sanskrit theatre and in Kerala Kathakali there is something nuanced known as ‘Manodharma’- what the actor on the stage can come up with-on the spot. Improvise, I believe,is what the normal people would call it. But Manodharma can often take genius tinted leaps of imagination! It can be in a whole new laugh, the twist of the mouth, the swagger that came in, the look that smoulders, the tilting of the head..When a singer improvises, like Mohammed Rafi  using his Manodharma during certain songs featuring Shammi Kapoor, the voice can undulate and elongate to suit the actor’s artistic eccentricities.

When I grew up, beautiful novels in Malayalam were regular features of vernacular magazines that were voraciously consumed in my household. I used to have free access as a child, thanks to quite understanding aunts and uncles around, to Malayalam novels written for much mature audience. Now, in You Tube era, I happily discover that many of those novels, whose characters and lines I still remember,  can be watched  in movies uploaded therein! The happiness is ineffable- like a child who suddenly discovered a treasure trove of old comics inside a dusty trunk in the attic! I have enjoyed movies based on my favourite novels of writers like Mallika Yunis, Shyamala,Chandra Kala S Kammath, Ajayaghosh and a host of others.( Ente Upasana, Sandhyakku virinja poovu, Rugma, Snehamulla Simham etc…yeah even cult classic Kalika which was written by the formidably brilliant and erudite IFS officer Mohanachandran,serialised in Kumkumam…My mother was a wonderfully liberal mother,haha! Or in other words, it shocked the hell out of readers- and would certainly be banned today. The movie is a far censored version, I should say! Ah, that leads to the screenplay of Nirmalyam…let me not start digressing!)

Certain movies were entirely different- based on pertinent political events of the times- nothing to do with novels.How lovely to watch some of them-strong and dignified characters.”Do not be enslaved by anyone or any thing,” says Indira, the brilliant revolutionary in M.T.Vasudevan Nair’s classic ‘Panchagni’ to her brother who is a drug addict.Quoting an incident about Fidel Castro, the hero ( actually she is the only hero of that movie unless you count her mother, the fiery freedom fighter) tries to get her attention! I love their dresses, their elegance, the sense of self-worth. I find many women in the eighties’ movies depicted as  doctors, advocates, writers , journalists  -who holds fort along with the men. They are remarkable in their dialogues, in their wisdom and in their body language.

We live in a world now where “Bechdel test” is needed in movies to check whether women are actually given any importance whatsoever! ( Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) the movie scene has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.)

At least Kerala movies of 1980s would have stunned Alison Bechdel!

*********

Rooted In Words

devi

When we went inside the bookshop, my father announced to the bill clerk, ” Whatever she buys, I am paying.” The bespectacled young man looked up for a moment and then went back to his job; apparently he was used to such specimens who wandered around , making irrelevant comments, squealing with delight at an unexpected find, shaking heads when not finding what they were after.

When we staggered back into the car, my father was almost regretting his impulsive promise. He had forgotten that I was starved for both my Mother’s fish and Malayalam literature; after a forced diet bereft of both, in distant  lands-away from sea smells.

To the tune of the monsoon incessantly pummelling my window panes, Priya A.S, Sithara S, Santhosh Echikanam, Vatsala, Sarah Joseph, Basheer,  M.T., Adoor, Benyamin, N.Mohanan, EV Sree Raman  et al walked past- a troop of brilliant writers, belonging to many genres, keeping me awake late into the night, revealing to me the sheer magic of my sweet mother tongue.

For a moment, I remembered listening with awe as Sastry Sir read out a travel memoir of KuttiKrishna Marar back in tenth standard ,”…so the writer’s train crossed over the Northern plains and he started thinking of Balram toiling in the fields with his great plough and drinking his evening delight, that reflected Revathy’s beautiful eyes..”

The boys had tittered at the reference to Balram’s weakness for his drink, and all the girls had sighed deeply at the beloved’s eyes reflected in his drink..what an imagery!

Later, when Sir taught us the description of Krishna as ParthaSarathy, we recited along with him, as Sanjaya described the ineffable Lord to the Blind King.

“Madumozhimaril valarnna ragavum, chapalanmarodu kalarnna hasavum…”

(He, full of growing passion for honey tongued lasses, full of mocking laughter at the petty men around..)

This time the boys sighed over the honeyed women, we tittered at the petty men.

Sastry Sir, had managed to turn many of us into life long devotees of our vernacular literature.

When I had the choice of turning to either Malayalam or Hindi for my second language for Pre-Degree, I embraced Malayalam with no inhibitions. The Professors at Maharajah’s College for Women lighted up many more lamps in that wonderful journey. College was worth attending for the Language classes alone!

” Ha Pushpame, adhika tunga padathillethra, sobhichirinnithoru rajni kanakkaye nee.. Sree bhuvilasthiram asamshayam innu ninte yabhuthyingu puniringu kidappithorthal”… (Ah, how you had shone like a queen atop that plant, hey fallen one! Prosperity in this world is so tenuous, if one sees  the depths to which your beauty has fallen  in time..) and then the learned Lady Professor would interpret an innocuous sounding word “Aye” for one hour!

”  Kumaran Asan, the poet with the magical touch, has captured the respect, reverence, pity, compassion, regret   for the fallen woman/ flower in just one word..Aye..it is not just a word..look into the deeper connotation, the shadow within..,” she said, transforming a rather decrepit classroom, in a dark afternoon into a repository of light and sound.

For some time,I entertained the wistful thought of ditching Maths and Science for Malayalam Literature, like Prof Leelavathy and Co. But fate had other plans.

I probably read  N.S. Madhavan’s Higuita  to get over the bitterness of Engineering Mathematics. The former classic short story, I swear, has served my life better than all the Maths in the world. When I face  trouble, I think of the kick of Higuita and grin to myself.  And then I go for the goal!

***

I try to teach my little girl Malayalam.

A, for Amma.

Aa for Aana..

She looks at me with wise eyes.

” I know both- you and elephant. Besides, I know to write too-Ma, Haathy.”

I give up. May she learn to love and enjoy  Hindi literature , I pray.

I am sure that the sparkles of the stars fill all the human languages of the world with equal light.

May my kids learn tolerance,compassion and humility by reading the same great human story, in as many languages as possible.

As for me, it is time to re-read Mathilukal (The Walls), as Adoor Gopalakrishnan beautifully crafts his screenplay from Basheer’s great, lovely writing.

Narayani’s voice (From the other side of the Jail Wall): Will you remember me?

Basheer:Narayani, your mark is present all over this world!

Her voice: All over this world? Why do you tease so flippantly?

Basheer: Not at all. The absolute truth. Walls! Walls!Look, these walls travel all over the world!

Her voice: Shall I please cry out loud for some time?

Basheer: Not now. Maybe in the night, remembering…