This Lovely Herbarium

‘Herbarium’ by Sonia Rafeeq, is a debut novel which has won the DC Literature Award in 2016. It depicts the relation between life and nature- like the amniotic fluid of a mother’s womb- through the story of a little boy who suddenly loses his mother. The child has grown up in Dubai and his mother, who loved the earth and mud, trees and insects, has always struggled to create an island of green on her Dubai flat’s balcony. Tipu’s Ummadu, is an earth woman: the one who breathes in and out the simplicity and depths of Mother Earth herself. But she is lost one day.

The child comes to his maternal home and discovers what is nature. From a life of playing with tablets and video games, he gets into  a world where a ‘chicken’ in KFC is actually a haughty rooster who pecks around worms in the sand. There is a grand Peepul tree- splendid in its canopy and width- reigning gracefully within a snake grove. And the child sees through wonder struck eyes a wriggling white worm which emerges from within a mango seed, as the ripe flesh is cut into pieces. Apparently, it has eaten up all the food meant for a baby mango sapling, in its greedy feasting adventures!

I am at page 63 of a 231 page novel. And it has been simply delicious till now! I could not resist writing a paen!

Extraordinary observations connecting human emotions with nature!

We have a phrase in Malayalam: Tottavady pole- like a Touch-Me- Not plant! It is used to describe very sensitive nature in human beings. Men and Women and Children, who cannot withstand any unexpected disturbances in life. It is a phrase which cautions – not to be like the touch me not plant which folds and shrinks up in terror when touched at random!

Tipu happens to glimpse a school senior- a teenager- jump to his death  from the flat because he has lost top marks in two subjects at school. He sees his mother- enraged and upset- to see that wasted life.

She mutters: ‘Why do children turn into Touch Me Not plants ?’


Trying to translate a stunning paragraph.

The notes left behind by Fatima, turned her into a stranger to Asif. He could not fathom her: he had not known her. Inside her had been an island which he could never reach. It was inaccessible by ships or aeroplanes. He was in a sojourn to reach that island by deciphering her notes….

One of Fatima’s Notes:

This cot too had been part of a tree at some point of time. A tree that was green and vital: its roots sunk deep into earth. Ah… trees, such enchanting symbols! They lay dead- in multiple formations- in our bed rooms and sitting rooms, carrying their own biers. If  one casts a glance at the kitchen, one can notice a bigger cemetery. If you open the refrigerator, you can see solid evidences of ruthless killing obscenely gloating at you: in the form of fish and goat and rooster. Then the dead seeds stocked in the bottles of the kitchen racks might shock- beans, mustard, pulses. There are more dead bodies in crushed forms too. A real graveyard. And I am the keeper of the graves.


Strong recommendation to pick up this green book. The author is a postgraduate in plant pathology and worked as an Agricultural Officer before shifting to Dubai.

Her dedication reads ( In translation)

To the earth that no longer emits fragrance,

To the dead trees,

To the rivers which have sunk deep,

And to children:

Who carry the gift of God’s imagination

To rebuild, re-create everything.



Moonnamidam- 3D vision and a film review

Munnamidam aka ‘ The Third Space’, is a short film produced by actor Jayasurya, starring Rachana Narayankutty and RJShaan. It deals with seventeen minutes of an intimate encounter of a married housewife with a 13 year old daughter and a recently divorced  Facebook friend- to put it succinctly. The film is drenched with rain, violin, sindhoor conspicuously spread all over the sensuous lady’s forehead, her desires and her decisions. The movie has been garnering many rare reviews and awards even as I type this note. And it has been uploaded in YouTube.

Few observations:

1. Why is there  a deep necessity even today, in  Indian film making, to justify seemingly ‘ unacceptable/ punishable/ wayward’ behaviour in women  with a root cause ?  Here, the woman’s spouse is openly exploring his third space. Consequently, she is  reaching out too.  See, it is all okay.

Sorry, I do not see. Why on earth give such an explanation, to explore third dimensions? Leave it to your viewer-please do not underestimate our sensitivities.

Ever seen Bridges of Madison County?  A married Meryl Streep romances a passing photographer, lyrical poetry of Yeats accompanying the affair, for less than a week. The need/ justification/ explanation for third space, is left to the viewer. The root, as I could understand, was that both understood Yeats in that desolation. Autumn leaves and Nat King Cole will bring that alive anytime to the viewer.

In  the Om Puri and  Rekha flick ‘Aastha’, the viewer is left with a choice to make his/her own conclusion. Did Rekha succumb to the call of money or was it an innate tendency to walk the fire?

Next time around, leave out the explanation. If  they explore any space, fourth or fifth space included, let your hero or heroine take the responsibility consciously. There is no strength in blaming another’s action for your own choices in life; as I view it.

2. I wonder on the film maker’s psychology of highlighting the’marital symbols’  – a purplish red sindhoor drenching her forehead, so conspicuously, as the lady gets cosy in her obviously  planned encounter with her friend! I saw the mangalsutra dangling too ,  even as she admits to love and desire.In Aastha too, Rekha had copious amounts of sindhoor over her hair parting, even as the haunting ‘ Panaah’ song was being rendered. Both heroines, Rekha in the 80s movie and Rachana in the present age movie, wear traditional sari, with matching jewellery. I do not remember if Rekha wore silver anklets that jingled as she walked.

Symbols have powerful messages within- subtle or obvious.

Somewhere, someone took a conscious decision of getting this heroine ( who uses Facebook, whatsapp and state of art mobiles) to be bedecked in sari, sindhoor and shimmering , jingling anklets. By the way, the sari was coloured red. Like her bindi and sindhoor.

Silvery, jingling anklets  around her ankles bring to mind Savitry – the eponymous heroine who walked behind Yama, seeking her spouse’s life back. At the sound of her delicate footstep, the Lord of Death had to stop.

Lakshman Rekhas were obviously spread  all over the place.

So was the film maker showcasing the story of an innocent, traditional housewife and mother getting seduced by new age calls to sin? Was it trying to show us the victory  of tradition in her sanctimonious refusal to indulge physically, though every other sanctity has been long shattered? That what matters is abstinence, the reining in of the sinning body, and the rest can be brushed under the beautiful carpets above which rocking chairs rock on?

So who was true at the end of it all?

The woman who was having a full fledged affair, who dressed up for her lover, who tries to attend phone calls like a devoted wife, who claims to love her spouse, and who discovers her ‘ strength’ at the last minute?  The one who goes behind her angrily retreating lover, tempting him saying that he should have endured in his persistence for  her love, just for another minute? Who to the tunes of romantic violin and flute, gives advice to her daughter telephonically,soon after,  on what is  her true strength?

( Was there not a movie called Meghamalhar that also expostulated  about sacrifice?)

The man who came  with the clear intention like a cat after midnight, only this was early afternoon,  who could frankly not understand why the lady was acting like the rain – playing both hot and cold. Who tells her while leaving, that in his belief, an indulged moment is better than a wasted one?

The unseen third presence, denounced viciously by both  protagonists in the movie, making his unwanted presence  very vocal, through regularly monitoring phone calls?

Or the next generation child, wondering on her mother’s strength?

I think of Zorba the Greek. Both the wonderful novel and the classic film. Zorba, as alive as the Blue green Aegean Sea!

The honest to earth living and sinning.

The simple truth of being true to one’s own self!

Of how he taught the scared hero to acknowledge his desire for the beautiful forbidden one.

In Madhavi Kutty’s story, an old woman cries aloud on her death bed for a silky green blouse and golden jewellery that she was never allowed to wear! It had been the freedom fighting days, espousing simplicity. The woman inside her, starved of sensual beauty, in the dying mad frenzy, forgets all earthly rebukes and cries out for her birthright! I need my beautiful silk and gold – before I die!!Probably I have never encountered a more brilliant depiction of a woman’s desires strangulated by society!

Among all the  depictions  of Madame Bovarys and Anna Kareninas, flirting tragically with death along with the forbidden third space,  the lessons were clear enough. Certain things will not change in society’s perspective-Russia or Italy or Timbucktoo.

But then, there was the tantalisingly beautiful Chinese film, ” In the mood for love.”  A third space of whispering yearnings , far away from the madding crowd.

Certain truths, like certain lies, are crystal clear to the human eyes of the viewer.

Either you love, or you do not.

Either you face the truth, or you do not.

Dumbing down truth, courage, desires is  definitely not  the manifestation of strength of character.

Something inside me tells, that if the film were to show one shot of  the next day, nothing would have changed.The woman would  continue to  live in  her pretty  Doll’s House, Ibsen would agree, loving another. The unseen master of the house would keep checking periodically, her presence, whenever he gets ‘time ‘ from close encounters of the third kind.  The freewheeling cat  shall roam free, with a probability to return home to roost. And  probably licks his whiskers , happily, after learning the art of persistence.The next generation grows up imbibing some weird moral philosophy of giving up what you truly want, and not having the courage to face your own self.

Apparently the film is based on a real life tale that the writer( also the hero) heard from a friend. Yes, truth can be stranger than fiction. Balachandran Chullikkad had written many such short memoirs in his Chidambaram Smarana compilation.

‘ Above all, to thine own self be true- thou cannot then be false to any one.’

Love is after all a four letter word.


And I get my feedback.

” Her loyalty was towards her daughter. Not towards the two men.She wanted to be a good mother and role model for the child. That is the significance of the daughter’s call. The child is the centre of her life. Others are transient wishes which come and go as far as she is concerned. It is easy to be a lover. But rarely do we have true friendship. Blessed are those who can see the grandeur of the Universe in their beloved.”

I bow to that wisdom. With gratitude and love and humility.