'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Jinx

- "Karyakkar and his men were now at the crest of Pulichimala and could see the expanse of Tirunelveli. From such a great elevation, although regions of distinct shades were clearly discernible, it was not easy to make out the precise physical features of the land; wood and water, rock and valley – everything looked flattened out as if on a vast map unfurled."

"As they descended, the details of the vast country below gradually assumed clearer form. Presently, they caught sight of a sunlit stretch of gravelly terrain with a lone rocky hill standing guard over it. And suddenly, from among the cloud shadows scudding across the face of this hill, there emerged, at an equally vigorous gallop, two horsemen; they were fast approaching."

- "The fort of Mallankotta lies half a mile upstream from the Ponnani estuary on a large and elevated island in the Peraar river. The top of the island is a perfectly even tableland and gives an uncanny feeling that in long gone aeons, a colossal force had set to work with inexorable intent to flatten its former rugged features; the edges of this plateau drop down in sheer rocky cliffs into the river. Except for the presence of half a dozen or so ominously tall palms which stood like silent sentinels, this desolate island was barren."

- "The Chenkali river, alternately cutting thru rocky gorges and shooting thru treacherous rapids in the dim depths of the tangled knot of mountains bearing the same name, finally breaks free and leaps off the rim of a cliff in a massive five hundred foot waterfall down into a darkly verdant valley."


These passages were written long before cinemascope was invented and film epics were made. And these are but translations from Malayalam – the source: 'Bhutarayar', a 1932 novel by Appan Thampuran. Though the work won praise for its often vigorous prose, it also copped a lot of flak from some influential critics and never gained popularity among general readers and now, it is largely forgotten. To explain why I took up the exercise of translating the above samples, I need to begin the story (it is going to be long, Reader!) in early 2013.


Last year something unusual happened in Malayalam cinema. A period film of sorts called 'Celluloid' directed by Kamal, achieved the double whammy of box office success and very considerable critical acclaim. This is what this very preachy film tries to convey:

In the first quarter of the 20th century, an idealistic young man named J C Daniel invested the bulk of his wealth in a brave and noble attempt to make the first ever motion picture in Malayalam language (the film reveals no motivation for this adventure). Against heavy odds, he completed the film titled 'Vigathakumaran' (story-wise it was an early example of the lost-and-found potboiler) but was not allowed to screen it by the caste prejudices prevalent in Travaancore. Daniel went broke. Later, in impoverished old-age, he was neglected by the ignorant people of Kerala and its insensitive Government - a prime troublemaker was the rabidly caste-minded IAS officer Malayattoor Ramakrishnan (a Brahmin) who made sure even the small Sarkari pension given to needy former artists was denied to Daniel (Ramakrishnan was very particular that a Christian should not be honored for making the first film in Malayalam). Despite the yeoman efforts of journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan, who labored tirelessly to bring the contributions of the hero to limelight, Daniel died pennyless and broken. God of course, saw the Truth, and as usual, waited ... and waited; a generation later, a repentent Kerala Government instituted an award in his honor and many eminent filmmakers got together at a meeting to offer tributes and to collectively (and publicly) seek the pardon of Daniel's Spirit for how their community had treated the pioneer.

'Celluloid' had decent production values and good music. But plenty about its basic premise struck me as quite shady as well as shaky. For while it is certainly quite conceivable that Daniel's efforts could have been cruelly stymied by the caste-mad people of the then Travancore, his later travails had precious little to do with the Kerala Government or Malayalis as a whole: indeed, as the film indicates (before hurriedly wiping under the carpet), Daniel squandered what remained of his wealth in a lengthy and seemingly dissolute sojourn in Madras in an attempt to make another film, this time perhaps in Tamil; for unspecified reasons, his own children turned their backs on him and at the end, only his steadfast wife was at his side.

Sad business, truly! But it is also amply clear (from the film's loud silence on the matter) that the Malayalam cinema community never bothered about Daniel when it counted. Satyan, who was, for long our number one star, was from the same region and community as Daniel but he did precious little for the old man ('Celluloid' - rather pathetically- makes Daniel say: "Satyan is from my own caste and he often asks people about me!"); Thikkurissi, another stalwart hailing from the same district seems to have done a clean zilch. The noble Prem Nazir, who became a bigger star than Satyan, did likewise (well, did precious little, that is)... Mind you, these were Daniel's younger contemporaries who ought to feel indebted to the man anointed the 'Father of Malayalam cinema'. And if they could not care less, why should the people of Kerala collectively do penance for a sin of the order of parricide, as this 'biopic' would have us believe?

I need to say a bit more on the film's attack on the late Ramakrishnan. A commie fellow traveler and gifted writer (and of course IAS), 'Malayattoor' was known to be progressive and secular in his outlook and social dealings. To accuse him of the basest form of caste prejudice is no sin but would demand the marshalling of some very hard evidence indeed. And this is what director Kamal offered: "I had great regard for Ramakrishnan. But the film is based on a biography of Daniel written by investigative journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan; I needed to be true to what Gopalakrishnan wrote".

That made me quite curious as to what in Gopalakrishnan's work could make Kamal follow his judgements so faithfully. I went and checkout out some samples. Quite a loose cannon, Gopalakrishnan's books abound in intemperate verbal salvoes fired at most (but not all) prominent figures of Mal filmdom. Satyan, Tikkurissi, Nazir,... each one of them receive plenty of bile and vitriol for various acts of alleged omission and commission. I am sure, if Kamal were really particular about being *true to Gopalakrishanan*, 'Celluloid' would have had to say things about especially Satyan which would have got its maker into a very nasty pickle among the filmy community. Another example would show how committed Kamal really is to Truth as revealed by Gopalakrishnan. The latter, in his writings, has praised the generosity of old-time film producer Subramanian Muthalali but Kamal chooses to show him in 'Celluloid' not as a benign overlord but as a peddler of cheap and crappy 'jungle girl' kind of films and a crass feudal reactionary to boot. And of course, showing Muthalali in an unflattering light is a safe bet - his descendendents do not have any serious clout in the industry.

Kamal could of course, merrily attack Malayattoor because Malayattoor is dead, because he was from the numerically insignificant Tamil Brahmin community; and because there is also the average Mallu's jealousy that he very naturally attracts by just being a TamBrahm-IAS. And quite an attack it is. 'Celluloid' has film lyricist and fellow-commie Vayalar say: "(Ramakrishnan) is a very capable guy, mostly good. But what sometimes comes out of his mouth is the the fart of the upper caste overlord!".

Well, Kamal knows which side of his bread is buttered. 'Celluloid' is no 'poem on celluloid' but a faux biopic with competent music and a rotten moral core. Any mediocre melodrama needs a villain. Cinema folk can be as mean and ungrateful as anybody else. And of course, nothing like a raking up a foul controversy to sell a product these days! But, even taken together, these facts hardly merit a post here! Indeed, I am only getting to the main point of this story. Here is another early filmmaking project I happened to read about a few months after 'Celluloid' made its money; and a comparison to Daniel's experience would be interesting:


Around 1938, a few years after Daniel made his ill-fated foray into film making, Appan Thampuran, eminent man of letters, decided to make a film (a talkie) on his own novel 'Bhutarayar'. 'Kairaleevidheyan', a detailed biography of Thampuran written by the late K T Ramavarma devotes a chapter to this project which occupied a couple of years of Thampuran's old age. Having actively worked in theatre as actor-director-playwright, Thampuran seems to have had some clear and original ideas on how to transfer, modify and adapt the lessons learned on stage to the new medium of film. He hired Notani, the director of the first Malayalam talkie 'Balan' to helm 'Bhutarayar' but retained near-total creative control over the proceedings. Artistically gifted, Thampuran anticipated the great Satyajit Ray by preparing sketches for the scenes in the film. A troop of actors - established theatre hands and promising newcomers (among the latter were Tikkurissi and S P Pillai) were handpicked and hired on a full-time basis and rigorous rehearsals were held...

But all efforts came to nothing. Industrialists who had offered to finance the film backed out (or had to back out), some relatives offered help and they too ditched and .... finally, having exhausted his own funds, the frustrated Thampuran called it quits. Just as happened to Daniel, Thampuran's already strained finances took a major hit but, owing to relative good fortune, he did not have to suffer poverty in his last days like Daniel probably had to. Of course, Daniel's very mediocre stab at film-making (even his die-hard champions Gopalakrishnan and Kamal don't seem to attribute any artistic value to 'Vigathakumaran') has, albeit belatedly, thrust upon him a kind of immortality but nobody remembers Thampuran's project which had promised hugely more by way of plain and simple Art(*).

Biographer Ramavarma wistfully signs off: "I often heard from (writer) M T Vasudevan Nair and others that Tikkurissi and S P Pillai used to reminsce about the months spent at the 'Bhutarayar' rehearsal camp and the experiences there. I wrote to both gentlemen several times seeking information. Sadly, despite all the effort from my side, neither replied". Guess I don't need to add any comment of my own on this particular experience with film people. But our story needs to continue...

Ínspired by 'Kairaleevidheyan', I sought out a copy of 'Bhutarayar' and read it. Though set in Kerala of around 1000 AD and packing quite a bit of intrigue and action, the novel is not the usual historical romance. Critics have even classified it as the "first and only impressionist novel in Malayalam", whatever that means. Stylistically, the book offers many pleasant surprises - taut and racy descriptive passages like the ones translated at the top, brilliant caricature-like character sketches (the pen portrait of 'Thurassan' is a marvel). And it has, in Omala, the only known (to me) instance in Malayalam literature of an Eva Braun kind of female lead, a sort of 'gangster's moll', determined to stick with her Evil Beloved to the edge of doom, and if need be, beyond. I did not find the novel uniformly likeable or thrilling but its sui generis quality was not lost on me at all.


And then, a few months back, came a surprise. an up-and-coming film-maker asked me if I had any ideas for a short film. I eagerly mentioned Appan Thampuran and his failed attempt.

"Thampuran's home in Trichur is now a museum" I said quoting from 'Kairaleevidheyan'. "It has preserved the preparatory sketches made for the film and other stuff. Thampuran also was a talented sculptor. Some of his carvings are preserved there. You could make a trip to the place and find out more. Just see how much attention that 'Celluloid' generated. At least from the point of view of art, the failure of Bhutarayar was a much more serious loss than the loss of 'Vigathakumaran'! You could perhaps make a film to highlight this point."

The chap seemed excited. "Please see if you can write your thoughts down. We will work it into a documentary script!" he said.

Shortly thereafter came a second saturday and in a sudden spurt of energy, I made a quick day-trip to Trichur, reaching the place around 11 am. The museum was locked up and there was nobody around. The day's newspaper lay at the entrance. I inspected the exterior of the building and found some granite carvings (done by Appan Thampuran himself as Ramavarma tells us) on the walls of its portico - 'Radha-Krishna', 'Mating cobras',... Sadly, dark brown (!) paint had been very thickly smeared over them and the details were impossible to make out.

The compound was deserted; not even a watchman was in sight. I stepped out and asked around to find out if the place would open at least by the evening. No one in the vicinity had anything to say. I gave up and left.

And the filmmaker, I never heard anything further from him - in hindsight, his asking me, of all people, for a script must have only been an act of desperation prompted by circumstances which must have changed for the better soon thereafter. I guess he is now on to something more fetching than the dissecting the failures of a certain Appan Thampuran ...

And the jinx surrounding 'Bhutarayar' persists....


(*) - A potentially unpopular thought: Consider the case of the Malayalam novel. In any discussion, 'Kundalata' is readily acknowledged as the first of its kind and right thereafter, it is promptly dismissed as a low-quality yarn and 'Indulekha' mentioned as the 'first proper Malayalam novel'; at any rate, there is no talk attributing any paternity (of a literary nature) to Appu Nedungadi, author of 'Kundalata' and no major award or anything commemmorates him. So one can legitimately wonder whether calling Daniel, whose actual position in the history of Malayalam cinema looks considerably less substantial than Nedungadi's vis-a-vis Mal literature (and to me, the argument that a silent film like 'Vigathakumaran' has no well-defined language has some merit as well), the 'father of Malayalam cinema' isn't going a bit overboard. One could even add, the truly unfortunate 'lost heroine' Rosy, who played the female lead in 'Vigatha...' has better credentials to be called the 'Mother of Malayalam Cinema'. Update(December 16th 2014): Just saw a remark by noted film critic Vijayakrishnan quoted by someone else. The gist of the remark goes thus: "'Vigathakumaran'was a flop not only because of the opposition from caste-groups - as a film it was not much good. People in Trivandrum had already seen films made elsewhere (a theatre 'Capitol' was already there) and had some idea of what a film ought to look and feel like. Daniel's rather simpleminded approach to filmmaking mostly was making a set, staging a play in that set and filming it from a fixed camera position; and this left most spectators unimpressed."

Friday, December 05, 2014

Random Pieces

"... You don't belong here, in this World,

Where the laugh of sunflowers serve only to bare their cruel fangs and trecherous claws,

Where dungeons as dark and haartless as the final Judgement await those who love their Land,

Where the bleached bones of the Just lie strewn over the wastes as rainless storms whirl and screech above..."

- a fragment from a Malayalam poem by K. Sachidanandan, in my translation.


"One night, as he prepared his favorite paan, our much-loved lyrical poet P complained: "This patch of moonlight on my plate confuses me; I mistake it for the lime!". Now a time has come when our people crib: "Moonlight, what a waste - can't even dry copra!"

- from a typically pithy and sincere speech I heard yesterday from media person Johny Lukose.


The other day, I saw a drawing of Siva. The lord had the now fashionable Meluha features (square jaw, high cheekbones) and physique (muscular in a very lithe way, six pack and everything). His expression was warlike and agitated, eyes glaring. However, a curious counterpoint was provided by the cobra coiled around his neck. Facing its master, the snake had its hood puffed up and fangs bared but looked to be having a hearty laugh.

Nowhere else have I seen a laughing snake(*) but the drawing suddenly reminded me of a laughing *fish* and a very creepy story read long ago in the children’s magazine ‘Balarama’. It was titled: “The Skull that would kill four people and the Laughing Fish”. I remember being far more frightenened by the fish that keeps appearing at critical points in the story - and it would rapidly slip away laughing a shrill, piercing laugh - than the Death’s head which spelt doom for four people.

I can't find a copy of this story online. But a brief mention is here . The story is apparently of mid-eastern origin and spookiness apart, its core theme is adultery; perfect for a children's magazine I suppose!

Another Fish and laughter come together come together to concoct a disturbing vision in Goya's dark masterpiece: 'Burial of the Sardine' (can be seen at Wiki). A considerably more benign laughing fish features in this allegedly Indian fable .


Watching ‘Interstellar’ and its intriguingly twisted time-tunnel, I was reminded of this story from ‘Yogavasishtha’, as was retold in an interview given to a Malayalam magainze a few years ago by eminent physicist ECG Sudarshan:

"A visitor presented king Lavana with a horse which he claimed was perfect for a hunt. The king promptly mounted the steed to check it out. The beast sped off and rapidly leaving the royal citadel and the surrounding country far behind, lost its way lost his way in a treacherous jungle. There the utterly exhausted and famished king chanced upon a girl cooking some meat. She refused to share her food with the king and said: "We are untouchables. You look rich and high born!".

"What if i marry you and stay here?" the desperate king asked. She said: "ask my dad".

Lavana obtained the old man's consent and stayed put, partaking of the rough jungle food and getting used to the new way of life. Over the years, he fathered two children by the girl. Then came a severe drought and famine; the entire jungle shrivelled up and there was nothing to eat and the children were crying in despair. Lavana lit a fire and told his wife: "When i am done, feed them!" and jumped in ..

The king woke up with a start. The whole experience had been a dream! But he thought further: "it cannot be. It was too real, too bloody detailed. needs some checking." Lavana promptly set out to look for the forest - he saw his memories had an uncanny clarity and accuracy and they guided his search straight to a burnt out looking forest-clearing; there sat a wailing woman and her children. She lamented: "my husband immolated himself two days back!"

Who really was whatever - Lavana, the king who dozed off briefly, the desperately suicidal father or both or neither? I am told Gaudapada (or someone thereabouts) had speculated on our life being a dream played out in somebody's sleep. And Pindar is said to have said: "Man is a shadow's dream!"


Once upon a time, all trains in Kerala were pulled by sooty steam locomotives and all coaches were the color of dirty rust. I distinctly recall the surprise I felt as a five year old on seeing a red and white liveried train headed by a gleaming blue diesel loco at Calicut station. Pop told me: "this is the new Jayanti Janata express; it goes all the way to Delhi. And it gets to Shoranur from here in one hour flat!"

Somehow, Pop's statement stuck and whenever I traveled by any train between these stations, I would check the time; the Holy Grail of one hour never happened; it was always 75-85 minutes for the nearly 90 kilometer distance (Aside: obviously, that was a 'stretcher' from Pop (as Huck Finn would put it; strictly speaking, it was a 'compressor!); not by much, around 20 percent; okay for Pop!)

...until last week when I took the Sampark Kranti express. Between Shoranur and Calicut, its WDM3D loco let it really rip in a sustained blast of diesel power. The train thundered past Tirur and Parappanangadi at full tilt and as it reluctantly slowed to a crawl at 'Kozhikode outer', only 58 minutes had elapsed from its stirring into action at Shoranur.

I reported the whole thing to Pop and he remarked. "Hey, the one hour thing was no fiction. I often took the Mangalore Mail to Shoranur when I was a student and it would reach in one hour!". "No way!", I protested. "You are talking about 1960 and lumbering steam locos; and it was a single track line in those days!" But Pop was adamant: "Hello, I know what I am talking about. One hour flat it used to be!".

Aside: I have had my present cellphone for several years but it was only last month that I figured out it incorporated a stopwatch! It was thrilling to see the Sampark maintain a smashing 105 kmph speed for long stretches, occasionally grazing 110. Flip side: the Kozhikode line is all set to switch to electric traction and the days of such diesel-fuelled thrils are numbered.


I saw a thirtyish woman and her 3/4 year old son step out of a shop on a quiet Ernakulam lane. Pointing at a lone tree standing across the lane, she tells the boy: "Look, a Paala tree with all those lovely flowers, so tiny-tiny and white, don't you see them?!".


(*) One does recall an episode of a snake *possibly* sporting a smug, mocking smile; indeed it is this very cobra. Snugly safe on Siva's neck, he asks his wrathful nemesis, the eagle Garuda: "Hey Garuda, Howd'yedo?" (the cobra spoke Tamil, the translation is mine).

Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Beached Whale

This post will begin with a sad episode and move on, thru more sadness, to what must be one of the funniest entries in Wikipedia. On the way, one discovers when a whale can actually *drown*.

Last week I got a unique assignment – to prepare and conduct a quiz on Computers at a State level meet of Senior UG and Graduate students from leading colleges. "The professors and industry experts guiding the proceedings will also be in attendance. So, do a thorough job!" That was in brief, my brief. I sat up late on 4 straight nights and put together a package of 40 or so questions(*).

However on the D-day, hardly any Graduates turned up and the competition got delayed so even from those who were around, many quit and we were down to just 4 teams, all Undergraduates and a thin audience - even the visiting experts had left. It was too late to chop and change anything so we went thru with the quiz... To those who were put thru it, let me say a sincere "Sorry Guys!"

Today, I was talking to Vishnu on what happened. I heard myself saying: "... for all the heavy preparation, the quiz was from the very beginning, like you know, a beached whale – caught out of its depth, it simply collapsed and gave up the ghost!" A short while later, I realized I had never used such a metaphor before; nor had I thought of anything on such lines in recent years; what I had said was only on the basis of some stuff read aeons ago in some children's magazine on how whales sometimes stray into shallow coastal waters and get mysteriously – and fatally - trapped there.

I went ahead and googled. Here was the first station in the journey - a 'The Hindu' report from 2006 on how a whale that got stranded near Vishakhapatnam Beach was forcibly hauled into safer depths by some large-hearted humans.

Then one sees the Wiki article on the phenomenon of ‘cetacean stranding’. Let me quote:

Cetacean stranding is a phenomenon when whales (and some other other members of that order) strand themselves on land, usually on a beach. Beached whales often die … the body collapsing under its own weight(**), or drowning(!) when high tide covers the blowhole(***). … Many theories, some of them controversial, have been proposed to explain beaching, but the question remains unresolved….

If a whale is beached near an inhabited locality, the rotting carcass can pose a nuisance due to its unpleasant smell, as well as a health risk. Such very large corpses are difficult to move. The whales are often towed back out to sea away from shipping lanes, letting them to decompose naturally, or they are towed out and blown up with explosives….

....“On at least one occasion, humans have blown up a whale carcass on land, with unsatisfactory and dangerous side effects. “.

And here is that story, the 'exploding whale', also from Wiki:

The term 'exploding whale' most often refers to an event at Florence, Oregon in November 1970, when a dead sperm whale was blown up by the Oregon Highway division in attempt to dispose of its rotting carcass. The explosion threw whale flesh over 800 feet (240 m) away. … In Taiwan in 2004, the buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale caused it to explode on its own in a crowded urban area, whilst being transported for a post-mortem. The explosion spattered blood and whale entrails over shops, cars and bystanders but no one was injured.

The Oregon whale story (excerpts):

A 45 foot sperm whale washed up on the Oregon coast…. (the authorities) decided that it would be best to remove the whale the same way as they would to remove a boulder. They thought burying the whale would be ineffective as it would soon be uncovered, and believed dynamite would disintegrate the whale into pieces small enough for scavengers…..half a ton of dynamite was applied to the carcass. The engineer in charge of the operation, George Thornton, stated—on camera, in an interview with Portland newsman Paul Linnman—that he wasn't exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed.

Coincidentally, a military veteran from Springfield with explosives training, Walter Umenhofer, was at the scene scoping a potential manufacturing site for his employer. Umenhofer later told The Springfield News reporter Ben Raymond Lode that he had warned Thornton that the amount of dynamite he was using was very wrong—when he first heard that 20 cases were being used, he was in disbelief. He had known that 20 cases of dynamite was far too much; instead of 20 cases, they needed 20 sticks of dynamite. Umenhofer said Thornton was not interested in the advice. In an odd coincidence, Umenhofer's brand-new Oldsmobile was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber after the blast. He told Lode he had just bought the Ninety-Eight Regency at Dunham Oldsmobile in Eugene, during the "Get a Whale of a Deal" promotion.

The resulting explosion was caught on film by cameraman Doug Brazil for a story reported by news reporter Paul Linmann. In his voice-over, Linnman alliteratively joked that "land-lubber newsmen" became "land-blubber newsmen ... for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds." The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land near buildings and in parking lots some distance away from the beach, one of which caused severe damage to Umenhoefer's parked car(****). Only some of the whale was disintegrated; most of it remained on the beach for the Oregon Highway Division workers to clear away. In his report, Linnman also noted that scavenger birds, who it had been hoped would eat the remains of the carcass after the explosion, were all scared away by the noise.

Ending his story, Linnman noted that "It might be concluded that, should a whale ever be washed ashore in these parts, those in charge will certainly remember what not to do."

Thornton was promoted to the Medford office several months after the incident, and served in that post until his retirement. When Linnman contacted him in the mid-1990s, the newsman said Thornton felt the operation had been an overall success and had been converted into a public-relations disaster by hostile media reports…

Note: Gulliver must have looked like a beached whale in Lilliput. One finds something figuratively similar in 'The Death of a Tall Man' by Ruchir Joshi, a smart and tongue-in-cheek obituary to Satyajit Ray: "(Ray’s) was a long body, six feet and four inches to be exact, and it looked tied down by all the flowers and wreaths. I could not help thinking of Gulliver washed up on the beach with swarms of Lilliputians twittering malevolently around him."

And here is a bit from Andrew Robinson's biogrpahy of Ray: "No artist is today more actively worshipped and studied in Bengal than Tagore. An impish drawing by a Bengali cartoonist shows the prostrate form of Tagore beached like a colossal whale and peopled all over by tiny figures in attitudes similar to a detective or archaeologist, examining different parts of the whole. The Bengali caption means ‘Tagore Worship in Lilliput’".


(*) I had initially thought of adding a few of the questions in THIS footnote but now I think it is better to spare my readers.

(**) Perhaps the whale's skeleton, deprived of support from buoyancy, crumbles under its huge mass, just as... well, our quiz went caput under the heavy-handed questions.

(***)A similarly terrible fate befell Dostoevski’s father – according to one account, “serfs caught him and kept pouring vodka down his throat until he *drowned*”.

(****)A whole neighbourhood getting a coat of stinking blubber is reminscent of an episode from ‘Three Men in a Boat’, quoted by Perelman in ‘Physics for Entertainment’, the offending chemical there being paraffin oil: from a can stored at the stern of a boat, the oil (due to capillarity) seeps into and thru anything and everything and after a while, the boat, the air, the shore, the whole city and the universe begins to reek of it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ravi, Frida and Pilar

As he locked the door and turned away, Ravi shut his eyes tight. He said softly: "Father of Eventide Journeys, Grant me leave as I depart from this little nest of sewn up Mandaram leaves!"

- Khasak

Malayalam filmmaker Ranjit's most critically acclaimed films so far have been 'Paleri Manikyam' and 'Pranchiyettan' (both were big money-spinners as well). However, to me, neither was a masterpiece. Admittedly, 'Paleri' had an absolutely authentic-looking central character played by Mammootty and interesting observations on the Communist movement of north Kerala and but its core story felt like a dumbed-down parody of Karamasov - brothers troubled and haunted by the shared karma of a dead father and his bank of sins - a burden they can only add to. 'Pranchiyettan' too had its moments but was marred by several clumsy episodes ( the advent of 'Padmasree' and the silly yoga-master to name a couple), not to speak of its tasteless swipe at Oscar-winner Rasool Pookkutty.

Now Ranjit has come up with 'Njaan'. It does not seem to have won the same acclaim as either film mentioned above. It certainly did not make much money either. But I found 'Njaan' distinctly more interesting than any of its maker's earlier work.

I confess my judgement is colored by personal experience: the frame story of 'Njaan' is driven by a seemingly successful IT professional who writes a widely-red blog and has decided to write a play, an event eagerly anticipated by some hard-core (and hugely appreciative) theatre buffs. The parallels: I was in IT for long, I certainly blog and I have written a play. The divergences: I never had it very good in IT, my blog has had but a handful of readers and the play I wrote and published several years ago was a non-event.

Now for the real stuff:

Watching 'Njaan', one senses 'Paleri' persisting as a hangover in many of the details - an investigator so omniscient he does not need to investigate anything, a son haunted by his late father's moral transgressions... (and the over-appreciative theatre group, eagerly lapping up everything ladled out by the all-knowing young hero, is a throwback to yet another Ranjit film, 'Thirakkatha'). But, slowly examining the protagonist Narayanan's bond with an illegitimate half-brother born to a free-spirited 'Kurathi' fortune-teller (the latter was also hired from beyond the pale of caste-restrictions as wet-nurse to the legitimate son), the film matures to connect with Khasakian dilemmas of lust and guilt and their oppressive karmic baggage. Also striking were the film's snatches of fantasy (or is it magical realism?) - the increasingly disturbed Narayanan puts up dozens of little mirrors on the walls of his room and they all begin to show the specter of his recently deceased aunt; in another episode, his blind bride 'sees' long-gone ancestors peering beatifically at the couple from a balcony. Towards the close, setting out on his final fateful journey, Narayanan confronts his father's spirit and speaks lines which are almost identical to Ravi's final farewell to his absent father (that the young investigator probing Narayanan's dark secrets is also named Ravi was almost certainly a consious decision).

In a curious coincidence, the day after I saw the film, I heard Artist-Scholar Dr. C S Jayaram speak on 'Ekphrasis'. During the course of his hugely informative and provocative presentation, Prof. Jayaram presented an extended meditation on the painting My Nurse and I by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I was struck by the uncanny parallels between the Native American wet-nurse's shower of milk and the outcaste Kurathi's unfettered generosity.

And just as I was keying in the above lines, thoughts wandered off again towards Latin America and fetched from some dark corner, vague memories of some character from Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Soliutde'. Searching online, I saw this page. Excerpts.

"(In the scheme of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'), Unlike the "proper" women of Macondo's founding generation, Pilar Ternara is a free-wheeling agent, answerable to no one—the complete opposite of proper and sexually repressed characters such as Úrsula and Fernanda del Carpio. She arrives in the Buendía household to help with the domestic tasks and progresses from managing the kitchen chores to sexually initiating the Buendía sons into manhood and fatherhood. ... But sexual attraction is not the only reason this raunchy woman acts like a magnet for the Buendía men. It's her spontaneity, emotional understanding and unconditional devotion that draw them to her. Along with her raucous peals of laughter Pilar dispenses tenderness, compassion, and a joie de vivre that's missing in the Buendía women. ...

Pilar represents a different dimension of female power. In some ways she's traditional, completely loyal and devoted to caring for her men. But Pilar cannot escape her low social status, nor she does not have the seal of approval that comes with marriage. She is not a wife, but a prostitute. Pilar gives birth to the first offspring of the Buendía sons, making it possible for the Buendía lineage to carry on. Despite being a pariah she occupies a privileged space in the novel, right alongside "decent" women. The only Buendía to decipher the gypsy manuscripts goes to Pilar for the advice he needed to continue on. Her powers go beyond the arts of domesticity—she heals the psyche and reads the future in the Tarot....Buendía women like Úrsula, Rebeca, and Meme seek out Pilar and her cards, as do the men, during times of doubt or crisis. Clearly, Pilar, as possessor of the secrets of fertility, memory, eroticism and clairvoyance, occupies a primary and critical space in the novel..."

For long many critics have been trying to discover parallels between Macondo and Khasak (and Vijayan often had to take and parry questions on the alleged debt he owed Marquez). Be that as it may, 'Njaan' has become a very real and interesting bridge between *my personal impressions* of the two masterworks.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Paniyeli Poru - a Prelude

Periyar is Kerala's largest river by far; it is perennial and in a fair monsoon year, a mighty torrent. Near the village of Paniyeli, around 40 km from the heart of Cochin, is Paniyeli Poru, a rock-strewn and turbulent stretch of Periyar. In this context, the Malayalam word 'poru' can only mean 'rapids'. In most other(?) contexts, the word means 'struggle'.

Today afternoon. A pleasant hour and half drive from home takes me to the gateway to Paniyeli Poru. The surroundings are lush green, the weather inviting. A uniformed woman (the place is maintained by the Forest Dept) tells me to cough up thirty rupees for entry; then follows half a kilometer of atrocious mudpaths to a clearing amidst tall trees - the parking area. The monsoon-swollen river could be seen rushing past. I hear from someone the 'poru' proper are a kilometer upstream and a cobbled pathway leads off along the bank. I follow it...

... for two minutes. Two men appeared and told me to halt. One was youngish and in smart khaki, the other, older man was in shabby khaki. Shabby says: "We are closing. So you can't go further."

Self: So soon? But it is only 4.35 pm. 2 hours of daylight left!

Shabby: The place has to cleared by 6 so now Sir (he motions towards Smart) will go in and fetch those holidayers who are in the main Poru area. And that will take time.

Smart: Yes, people just come and wallow in the water and I have to herd them out!

Self: I came from far. And it is not too late. What if I come with you as you go in and walk next to you both ways. I won't cause any delay and won't hinder your work.

Smart: But then, other people will come and ask me to take them in too...

Self: But there isn't anybody else!

Smart: Wait five minutes and more tourists will come!

Self: But we could start straightaway and he (indicating Shabby) is here. So, if you could..

Shabby (to Self): I can't remain on guard here. I need to go home; been here since morning!

Smart: That is right. I have to now go in ... and they keep coming in!

Self: If you could let me in for just 10-15 minutes,....

Smart: No. Rule is rule and it applies to everyone. I can't make an exception for you.

Self: But the rule says 6 pm you said. It is not yet 4.45!

Smart: But if we let you in and something happens to you, we will be in trouble. And ... we need to go home, right?

Shabby: Yes Sir. That is what I said to him upfront (pokes his jaw in my direction).....

I turn and walk back a hundred meters and look back briefly; the two are still there and appear to be chatting. Presently, a bunch of tourists pass me. I don't pause to see what is being done to them.

Near the exit, I see a woman employee.

I ask: What time does this place really close?

She: 6 pm. We stop giving tickets at 5.

Self: I took the ticket at 4.35 and was denied entry to the main Poru area by two men out there. They said I was late. Strange ....

She: You mean... they were Forest staff?

Self: Seems so, two men in khaki. One was a certain ..... (I had read Smart's nameplate)

She: Oh, he is our Sir!

Self: Really?! I thought He was the one who created this river... or at the very least, that he is sole heir to this property! And he is a mere Sir, tsk tsk! Anyways, thanks Chechi! looks like this is a nice place; I shall be back!

Monday, September 22, 2014

To a Little Blue Bird

Let me first own up to a bit of license taken in the title above. The bird we talk about is certainly blue but not particularly 'little'.

1. A lovely Malayalam film song penned by P. Bhaskaran (in my prosaic prose):

"Once, on a balmy summer evening, Lord Krishna of Guruvayur was roaming the country in the guise of a mischievous little urchin(*). He came upon a spreading peepal tree beside a gently flowing river and resting in its cool shade, began to play his flute. Divine happiness spread all around. Goddess Lakshmi herself came down, radiant as Moonlight, and sat beside her beloved. The music charmed the surrounding woods and gradually the entire Earth itself into profound silence; even the twinkling stars above were lulled into blissful sleep...

And in that heavenly dreamtime, the young lord and his lady turned into little blue birds(**) and flew away and were lost in the deep blue sky. And never since have they been seen by anyone - the Earth, its denizens or the distant stars."


2. The essentials of a folktale as retold by Ruskin Bond:

In the wooded hills of western India lives "the idle school boy", a bird who cannot learn a simple tune though he is gifted with one of the most beautiful voices of the forest. He whistles away in various flats and sharps and sometimes, when you think is is really going to produce a melody, he breaks off..."

... the young God Krishna was wandering along the banks of a mountain stream when he came to a small waterfall, shot through with sunbeams. It was a lovely spot, cool and inviting...

Krishna was enchanted. He threw himself down on a bed of moss and ferns and began playing on his flute... a fat yellow lizard nodded its head in time to the music; the birds here hushed; the shy mouse-deer approached silently on their tiny hooves to see who it was who played so beautifully.

Presently, the flute slipped from Krishna's fingers and the beautiful young god fell asleep. But it was not a restful sleep, for his dreams were punctuated by an annoying whistling, as though someone who didn't know music was tinkering with his flute.

Awake now, Krishna was shocked to see a ragged urchin standing ankle-deep in the pool, the sacred flute held to his lips. ...

It was too late, for it is everlastingly decreed that anyone who touches the sacred property of the gods, whether deliberately or in innocence, must be made to suffer throughout his next ten thousand births(***).

Krishna, in his compassion for the little boy, pondered... surely the punishment could be less severe?

Krishna said: "forever, try to copy the song of the gods without success!... and May your rags disappear and only the dark blue colors of Krishna remain!" And lo, the boy was turned into a bird we know as the Malabar Whistling Thrush, with its dark blue body and brilliant blue patches. He continues to live among beautiful, forested valleys... trying unsuccessfully to remember the tune that brought about his strange transformation.

Note: As an earlier post here noted, Italian renaissance man Cardano once said: "The story of Narcissus is an allegory - of a writer who gets so obsessed with his own work that he keeps editing and polishing it to the exclusion of every other study". Maybe the whistling thrush is an allegory of the writer who can only produce scattered blog posts.


3. Excerpts from the travel notes of contemporary Malayalam writer Santhosh Echikanam (my translation):

"Who have we come to meet in this jungle?" I asked with growing impatience.

"The Malabar Whistling thrush!" said Jaison with a lound laugh.... "Yes, a singer, the very Yesudas among birds! The White Saheb called him the 'whistling schoolboy'. But man, he is no idle whistler but a composer of genius; he never gets you bored with the same melody like the cuckoo. .. A life totally dedicated to music - each time he sings, he tries a different raga, sometimes even alters his voice.... and he is a great looker too"

Jaison showed me a snap. I was impressed: "no coincidence, he looks like Ilayaraja" I said.

The whistling thrush is the most disciplined of birds. He wakes with the rising sun, bathes and begins his sadhakam/riyaz. His 'bhoopalam' and 'mohanam' soon calm the woods into meditative stillness; even the wind stays calm lest his sruti be disturbed... As the sun rises above the trees, this Yesudas falls silent. And when dense monsoon clouds gather above, he makes an exception and produces an extra performance on an altogether different key.


4. A bit from Khasak (there is chance the reference is to a different bird altogether):

As Ravi approaches Khasak for the first time:

"the whistling call of a bird rang high from up above. The old porter listened with intent: "Its bound to rain in the evening or maybe tomorrow!" he said, for the whistle of the maanian is the harbinger of rains.


5. Wiki: "The male thrush sings its varied and melodious whistling song from trees during summer. They may sing for a long time around dawn but at other times of the day they often utter sharp single or two note whistles. They were once popular as cage birds, with the ability to learn entire tunes"


6. Over to the Guru of Kerala birdwatchers, the late Professor Induchoodan:

The whistle of the thrush lasts but 8-10 seconds; and it is repeated over and over, aloud. Whatever, its call has a certain electrifying quality.... its high decibel level can be attributed to an effort to be heard over the roar of monsoon-fed jungle streams. And when in form, the thrush gives the impression of a Gandharva, lost in his musical offering to Nature. ...

It has been reported that this bird is easily tamed and it settles comfortably in human households. However, one feels its call, which can overpower even the persistent din of waterfalls, could be sheer torture in a quiet human dwelling. But in the sun-dappled depths of a forest, while singing full-throatedly beside a gurgling stream, this little bird adds a whole dimension of sweetness to the joy of Nature. It is pure music that can turn any birder crazy enough to seek it out into a full-fledged poet. Once a like-minded friend of mine asked: "Can one not liken the roar of the waterfall to the rumble of thunder and the song of the thrush to a bolt of lightning?". Sure, my Friend! And those out there who may harbor doubts could consult Keats's ode to the nightingale or Shelley's to the skylark.

And now for a thimbleful of disappointment: The great Salim Ali has said:

"Personally, I would choose as our most accomplished songster, the Greywinged Blackbird of the Himalayas. A number of its close relations, members of the thrush family including the Malabar Whistling Thrush and the Shama follow close on its heels"


7. A confession: I have never seen this bird. And I can't quite remember ever hearing its call. Those who have seen Ray's 'Pratidwandi' (aside: it should ideally be spelt 'pratidwandwi' in English) would recall its recurring recall of an unseen bird's whistling call. Was it our hero (google with 'pratidwandi bird')? As of now, I have no sure answer. The film too does not tell us if Siddhartha's query to an unseen bystander: "what is that bird called?" elicited any reply.


(*) 'urchin' is a translation of the original 'karumadikkuttan' (the latter is the byname of an ancient black stone Buddha idol, now installed in a small shrine in the backwater villlage of Karumadi in Kerala).

(**) Malayalam poets casually use the words "kuruvi"(sparrow) and "kili" (parrot) to mean any "little bird" - Bhaskaran's choice is 'neelakkuruvi' (blue kuruvi). Blue sparrows do not seem to really exist anywhere on Earth. The exact Malayalam word for 'thrush' appears to be 'pullu' but curiously enough, the Mal name of the hero of this post goes "choolakkaakka"( literally, 'whistling crow'). 'Maanian' appears at best a very local name.

(***) Another episode from our mythology: While celestial sage Narada was on a flight somewhere, a garland of divine flowers slips off his 'veena', drifts down and, blown here and there by a breeze, gently comes to rest on queen Indumati - the unsuspecting lady is killed instantly! And moving abroad, one recalls the fate of Phaethon the Greek, who dared to drive Apollo's chariot.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Chuffed With Kabaddi

I have a complicated equation with cricket. A longstanding reader of cricket writing, I am also quite a hardboiled cynic about most things concerning this game, including the recent Bharat Ratna award to Tendulkar. And after year after year of IPL excesses (and the recent charade of a 5 match test series in England), the kick-start of the Kabaddi league has ... bowled me over.

Almost everything about the new show called pro-Kabaddi is an improvement over IPL. And this improvemt is nowhere more apparent than in the names of teams. 'Jaipur Pink Panthers', 'Puneri Paltan' etc. are absolutely refreshing compared to the IPL banalities. Even 'Youuuu Mumbaaa!' shares some of the real primal appeal of the game of kabaddi itself, a fairly uncomplicated contest of athleticism and teamwork.

An eminent Kerala intellectual had once remarked: "We are still stuck with a feudal mindset. Just look at the names of IPL teams - Royals, Kings Eleven, Super Kings,.... silly anachronisms!"

Sir, you missed the daftest of the lot: 'Kolkata Knight Riders'. What the hell can that phrase possibly mean? An allusion to a long-forgotten American TV serial? Give us a break! To most moderately sensible knowers of English, 'knight riders' makes sense only when applied to damsels, not to male sportsmen - just like 'lady killer' or 'lady-killer' does not really refer to a lady ('Night Rider' too makes a similar kind of effed-up sense, In Racist American slang)!

And just in case someone would counter the above objection by drawing parallels between 'knight rider' and 'knight-errant' or 'knight templar', well, to anyone who knows his basic history, representatives of Kolkata referring or deferring to *anything* to do with knights must be pure anathema - for this is the city of the greatest knighthood-spurner of them all, a certain Rabindranath.

And I am equally chuffed to see ace-spiker Tom Joseph finally land the Arjuna Award. Considering the nonsense done to him last year by Ravi Shastri et al, it is a bit of an atonement for desi cricket that the Committee that decided on the award was headed by Kapil Dev.

Thanks Vishnu - and thanks Bacardi!