Friday, February 28, 2014

Writing Life and Life Writing

(pic from net. For representational purpose only)

I did not know where to go, where to turn and where to look. It was 2005. But inside me I knew that the place where I found myself was not the place where I was supposed to be forever. I also knew that there were some turns out of which one would help me to hit the right path. Ironically, I knew it for sure that there were places and people to look up to. But something was there that prevented me from taking the right and appropriate turn. Like many people of my age at that time, I was afraid of a disastrous future. The false sense of security, in whatever way it was seen and felt at that time, was extremely important or I felt so. Breaking free was difficult. Coming out of the system that had given me this sense of security looked like a remote chance yet it was so alluring that I could not have avoided looking at its face, even from a distance, at every other moment. It beckoned me from far, sometimes from very near. I could feel it’s breath on my face; it was that close. At other times it was like a mirage. The more I ran up to it with all my desire and force, the more it moved away, dazzling me with its possibilities. The pursuit was all the more frustrating. But I kept my momentum on, hoping against hope that one day I would catch it and free myself into it.

This feeling of uncertainty however, was not new. I had experienced it before; at every juncture of my life. Any human being, anywhere in the world, at some point faces this uncertainty, this helplessness and this inability to take a decision. Some of them come out of it sooner than later and some remain there. Yet another group of people keep going in and out of this feeling of uncertainty throughout their lives. They are some kind of epic characters, destined to fail and end their lives in tragedy. Perhaps, their lives look successful for others but in reality they know intimately and painfully that their life is a tragedy beyond definition. If they could talk about the tragedy, it would have alleviated them from the pain of living it. If they could arrive at a decision whenever such decisions were demanded they would have lived a peaceful life. But something perpetually haunts them and hunts them down. Most of the people prefer to find their paths by the age of thirty and even if they don’t, whatever path available is taken for a chosen one. It could be a routine one, still they make peace with it and move on. I have seen a lot of my friends doing it. One of them could have been a wonderful poet; but he became an advocate. One of them could have become an actor but he became a shop owner. One of them was really good at martial arts. But he became a contractor. Whenever I see them, I do not find any conflict in them. They have taken their paths quite naturally. But people like me are like Hamlet; characters caught between desire and duty, and determination and doubts. End of the day, such people lead a very painful life. But those lives, provided they register it for the posterity, might impart some experiences, if not lessons.

An artist is such an epic character with very few provisions to vivify himself or herself other than the chosen mediums that they have. Even if they have chosen their mediums, we cannot say that they have hit the right path or taken the right turn. At some point they feel that they are in the right path and soon they realize that the path that they have taken is not enough. A search for perpetual renewal is bound to happen then. Who is going to help them in finding the right path? They may be fifty years old or even seventy. But still they face the same issue. Have they been right all these while, despite all the success, fame and glory? A true artist is worried about his present stance because he is still sceptical about his creativity. He and his works may look quite resolved but still he is in throes which nobody could understand. The silent pain that such creative people undergo makes them ever fresh and meaningful, and their works reflect such freshness. Their immense experience could guide you but they would warn you that they have not yet found their right path. They will not warn you with words or works. They will warn you with a sort of kindness as well as indifference. If you don’t understand the artistic indifference of an apparently resolved creative person, you just don’t understand him or his works. I have seen many women, who look so resolved but still searching for the right path to come in front of them. Women artists could make wonderful art but they do not do it generally because they are afraid of hitting the right path even when it manifests right in front of them. I am not being judgemental here.

In 2005, when I was looking for the right direction or waiting for something to happen to me, the only medium through which I could free myself from the fear of insecurity was writing. Writing was a way of abandoning everything that I had; job, money and family security. When you write and write like a warrior you cannot be within a defined system. You have to get out there and write. When you are war with yourself and the system that has made you a slave, there cannot be any kindness, primarily not even unto yourself. You have to be utterly unkind and do things as if you were doing it for the first and last time in your life. When you do it for the first time you do not know what exactly or how exactly you are doing it. When you are doing it the last time and you know it that it is the last time and there is no final chance again, then you do it with finesse. So your writings have the freshness of beginner and the skill of a seasoned writer. I liberated myself, as I had done many times before that by just writing about my life. I wrote continuously for a few days and finished ninety pages. Once I finished those pages I thought how little my life had. When I read those pages I felt I was utterly insignificant. Knowing that insignificance was the only way to free myself forever, and I was sure that I would come to the same dead end again and again in future too. Then I just took the autobiography of a sex worker written in Malayalam and started translating it into English. Nobody asked me to do it. But that was the way I found for myself to free myself from routine and fear. Once I finished that translation, I heard that a major publication brought out the translation of the same book exactly after a week I finished my translation. I smiled at myself. But that was just a beginning. I was setting myself free before I became a slave several times later on. In the coming sections I will write about all those experiences of freeing myself through writing, translating and living a life in freedom at least in an inner zone where nobody binds me with any rules or regulations or conditions. Very few people could enter that space inside me, only if they could love me unconditionally, with love, care and respect. I invite only those people to read the following chapters.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

When Restoring Order Fails a Movie of its Purpose: Reading Kunjanathante Kada

(Poster of Kunjanathan's Shop)

Mainstream films could be social critiques. But only problem with them is that they give quick fix solutions to any socio-political and even cultural issues within two hours. Often solutions (for whatever kind of problems) are given by/through the intervention of the superhuman male hero. He pits himself against either a group of villainous people or the state, and fights not only for his rights but also for the rights of the society. By the time we reach the final frame of the movie, after some blood spilling as well as chilling fights, the hero brings back social order for everybody’s happiness. We leave the theatre reassured thinking that everything is fine with our lives and an ideal system, which has been temporarily shaken by the ill deeds of the villains or the powerful, is restored. By such solutions, in fact the mainstream movies defer our ability to act and interact, lulling our creative and critical faculties through the transference of it to a super hero and his projected sense of righteousness and the superhuman abilities to fight for it single handed. Subtexts are so abundant in mainstream films that we cannot call them completely aimless. But instead of flagging out the issues and suggesting possibilities of feasible solutions and demanding realistic methods of resistance, they let the people to take away a false sense of comfort and satisfaction, which in turn assures the returning of the same audience when another issue is debated and packed solutions are handed out by the last reel. A Malayalam film, ‘Kunjanathante Kada’ (Kunjananthan’s Shop, 2013) directed by Salim Ahmad could have been a very powerful film had it not ended up in giving away quick fix solutions.

The issue that drives the ‘action’ of this movie is ‘development’. Vattippara is small village in North Kerala. Kunjanathan is one of the five shop keepers in the market junction there. Though they run these shops, technically and factually these small buildings do not belong to them. Nambiar, who is the owner of Kunjanathan’s shop, wants it to be sold but Kunjanathan does not budge as he has inherited the shop from his father. For him the shop is not just a means of income but it is what something that gives meaning to his existence. Kunjanathan cherishes fond memories about his father who used to run the same shop. Sitting on the same chair where his father used to sit gives him a sense of protection from all kinds of pressures of life including the once created by limited financial means and a nagging wife. Kunjanathan, after closing his shop at night before leaving for home, which is close by, pastes a few messages on a notice board and on some public walls. He believes that he is supposed to live in that village and die there without making any noise. And he finds some sort of happiness when he pastes these messages on the notice board. One day, officials from land acquisition department come to Vattippara and give eviction notice to the shop keepers. The land is acquired for making a four line road. Kunjanathan makes all efforts to stop this. He meets the heartless officers in vain. As a final effort he even starts a Hindu Temple in order to avert the arrival of development. But he faces a catastrophe when his son falls from a tree and the undeveloped road becomes an obstacle in taking the child to the hospital in town. He realizes his folly and breaks the building himself letting the four line road to happen in the village.

‘Kunjanathan’s Shop’ begins with a particular narrative style which is familiar to the audience. We have seen so many movies in late 1980s and early 1990s when films spoke the ambitions, aspirations and resistance of ordinary middle class and lower middle class people, who did not pick up guns from air and shot the villains and restored social order. The pre-globalized Indian audience identified immensely with these characters and the slow but jovial narrative pace of these movies as they thought they reflected their own lives. These movies, which were qualified as parallel movies dealt with so many issues and never suggested a quick solution to any of them, instead they focused on the weakness of the human beings and their efforts to gain strength at the face of adversities. The latest glimpses of such narratives were seen in Billu Barber (Kadha Parayumbol, Malayalam Original) and Peepli Live. Kunjanathante Kada also progresses in the same line often making the audience wonder whether this film was written by and for Srinivasan, who is an accomplished film maker and actor capable of sharp social criticism through films. Though Mammootty, a mellowed mega star of South without any star halo around him this time, looks like a miscast in the beginning soon finds his foothold in the earth of Vattippara. But the problem of the movie is not in its star cast or in its technical crew which has star technicians like Madhu Ambat (cinematographer) and Rasool Pookkutty (sound designer). The problem of the movie lies in the story line itself. The director starts off with the grand idea of making human resistance as the central theme of the movie but towards the end he accepts the idea of so called ‘development’ as suggested by the World Bank (for World Bank is supposed to fund this four line road) and makes the protagonists resistance so far a foolish act even unto himself and causes a change of mind.

Kunjananthan’s shop is the hub of the village life. Postman leaves letters for people there. Poor farmers take their provisions on credit from there. Kunjanathan is a means through which the village reaches out to farther lands as he has a public telephone in his shop. His married life faces problems due to disparity between his and his wife’s world views. She wants him to be a government servant but he is happy with his shop. Though they have two kids their sexual life has reached a dead end as they sleep in two different corners of the same room. She perpetually nags and finds her solace in chatting with ‘fake ids’ in Facebook. Kunjanathan however finds his happiness in speaking to himself at night or to a rat that lives in his shop. The director deals with several layers of social problems including the difference of opinion amongst people regarding the broadening of the road. Kunjanathan is not against development as he suggests a different route for bringing the same four line road in Vattippara. Kunjananthan’s voice is the voice of so many people who have been displaced by development assisted by the loans from World Bank. They all resist such incursions though most of them fail and some still find energy to withstand the pressures. Personal catastrophes do not prod them to yield their larger causes of resistance. In the film, however, Kunjanathan’s idea of resistance move from the realm of public need to the limited zone of selfish interest. When the film ends, people still speak of Kunjanathan’s shop and its relevance as the hub of the village life is reiterated but the audience are not privileged to see the new location of his shop. However, we are allowed to see the new four lane road and the increased and ‘easy’ flow of traffic.

The film maker somehow seems to believe that development is all about four lane roads and connectivity between places. That should be read as increased encroachment on village lands, farm lands and increased pace of real estate business and related industries. Four lane road also means displacement of people from their own lands, occupations and careers without feasible plans of rehabilitations. From the text of the film we could read out that Kunjanathan must have got a shop (obviously in a new concrete building) somewhere near the newly formed junction. At the same time, a major fallacy of the film’s text is that the real catastrophe that makes the protagonist to change his mind from resistance to selfishness is not addressed at all. Why was Kunjanathan forced to take his injured son to the nearest town for treatment? His injury, as the text suggests, is not that grave. It needs either first aid or a few stitches. But Vattippara does not have a hospital and that’s why they had to rush to a town and had to face a few road blocks on the way. Hence, the film, had it been a critique of development, should have addressed development as basic necessities for the village. When the land acquisition happens for developing a four lane road, not a single character, including Kunjanathan speaks a word against it nor do they highlight the need for a hospital. The film becomes retrogressive in this aspect and falls into the regular rut of quick solutions; here development in terms of road is necessary. And the order is restored by the imagined rehabilitation of the protagonist. Perhaps film festival circuits will laud this movie. But for a critical viewer, this film is a pretentious one and any Srinivasan film would have done a better job with the same theme.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What I tell them, when Old Gods Come begging for Justice

(pic courtesy The Hindu)

Your eyes do not see things narrow
Though they are not like mine
Your skin reflects the yellow of ripe rice fields
Your sighs speak the words of forests and hills
You come to me as a stranger’s smile
You linger on like the vision of a spirit
I see you there in the streets, in railway stations
Shopping malls, cinema halls and tea stalls
Music comes naturally to you and your gait
Straight jacketed guys can’t imitate
The spikes of your hair challenge
The arrogance of mainland, silently
And you, like a peacock dances
Under the clouds of hatred, in love
I call you names and you call me by my name
Defeating my ego with your polite knowledge
I can’t distinguish you from many
As you belong to the same dream
That we have failed to dream
Your sturdy legs have climbed hills
Your strong arms have embraced
The passions of rivers and forests
In your misty eyes I see mountain peaks
In your rhythmic voice I hear angels speak
Still when you are around I recoil with fear
Of my own lacks; the procession of my own ills
So I raise my fists at your face
Confront you with ugly words
Sometimes I rape you and sometimes I abuse
At times I leave a few scars on your body
And once in a while I just leave you dead
But how can you die, when your death
Speaks the history of my own meaninglessness?
The more I live the more you live too
You are the river that flows from south to north
From west to east, defying all logics
And then spread out all over from North East
I can see, in your anger and in your protest
The old tribal chiefs and gods manifest
One day, yes one day you are going to rule the world
Once again as in the days when trees walked
Snakes talked and stones menstruated
Let me promise, then I will be with you

Accept me, if not as your friend, at least as your servant.