Category Archives: Art and culture

AKSHARAM AYYAPPAN, A TRIBUTE

AKSHARAM AYYAPPAN, A TRIBUTE

A Ayyappan, picture courtesy, Mathrubhoomi

A Ayyappan, picture courtesy, Mathrubhoomi

Once there was

a little girl,

of an unknown father

an unseen mother.

Someone grasped

her little hand

and took her

to a street.

That street

is today called

The Red Street.

– A Ayyappan, from his book ‘People the Colour of Coal’, published by D C Books. Free translation by blogger.

FRIEND OF ALL I SURVEY

The morning was very cold, depressing and I was in front of my old laptop, prepared to spend a lazy Saturday reading online newspapers over a cup of black tea. When the PDF edition of Mathrubhoomi downloaded it showed a rather pleasant colour picture of poet A Ayyappan on the front page. My heart sank when I read the sub caption. Ayyappan was not with us anymore.

It was during the mid seventies that I first met Ayyappan. Trivandrum’s University Library was next to University College and right across the road was the magnificent Victoria Jubilee Town Hall. I was doing my final year B Sc in Geology and the Library was a favourite haunt. There was a cheap students’ canteen and a primitive gym behind the library. The library, in those days had a clean, well maintained garden. Its lawn after sunset was our favourite meeting place.

The regulars on the library lawn were Prabha, Salim, Jinan, Sreekumar, Laurens and a few more that drifted in and out of the company. Most of them were a bit elder to me and it was a matter of pride that I was accepted when I used to drop in two or three times a week. Aksharam Ayyappan was senior to all of us, but then, he did not belong to any age group in particular. In his late twenties, Ayyappan was a slightly built, pleasant man and already a well known modern poet. He had none of the affectations that came with the young and famous and did not have much money to spare, like the rest of us.

Except for me, the Library friends had already finished their graduation and were looking for jobs. Prabha, who was a couple of years senior to me in the Geology Department had joined for LLb. Laurens had walked out of the College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum declaring that they had nothing to teach him. If I remember correctly, Ayyappan had closed down the literary magazine ‘Aksharam’ that he was editing and publishing. The rest were job hunters and perhaps in no hurry to find one.

Ayyappan almost always wore a long kurta with deep pockets and a white dhoti. Kerala had not banned arrack and 180 ml packets were sold in clear polyethylene sachets for two rupees. On good days, Ayyappan would have a few of these sachets in his kurta’s deep pockets. Arrack, Charminar cigarettes and Dinesh beedis fuelled all discussions, which would last into the wee hours of the next morning. I had a blue BSA bicycle which was very much in demand for getting ‘supplies’ and for dropping the needy home. Thankfully, there were no mobile phones and nothing could intrude our moonlit nights. The old campus watcher was our friend and had a good nap if we were around.

If he was in the mood, Ayyappan would sing in a rustic but haunting voice and we would listen, half present, half lost in many worlds. Cannabis, though frowned upon, was not considered a major evil. Most of us could take the string off a beedi, unfurl it without breaking the brittle wrapping leaf, throw out the tobacco and refill it with the sacred herb and re-roll to perfection in pitch darkness. A fifty paise packet of ‘shiva mooli’ could make half a dozen beedi joints. Harder drugs never found their way into our evenings and most probably it was the reason why we went on to live our lives later.

The gathering would discuss anything under the sun, from cult movies and modern literature to the menu in famous toddy shops. Most of us were familiar with Ayyappan’s poetry. We never had to buy his books; he would always give us a free copy from somewhere. If one had a rupee, the University canteen could sell us a masal dosa and a cup of strong tea. Life had very little needs.

During late seventies Narendra Prasad held rehearsals of his cult dramas in Chalai High School. It was Ayyappan who took us there for the first time one late evening. These crudely lit rehearsals were attended by great stage and film actors like Nedumudi Venu and Leela Panicker. Once, the great John Abraham himself turned up. We would watch silently from the verandas of adjoining buildings, as if it was a solemn duty. I remember Ayyappan telling us that true art could exist without any glitter. We were all served parippu vada and black tea during the breaks. No one asked who we were. We were all Ayyappan’s friends. There was something universal about it. Anyone could be Ayyappan’s friend.

A couple of years went by. In ‘79, I returned to Trivandrum after a brief stint in Calicut. I had found a small job in a bank and had a few tenners to spare during the first half of the month. There was the famous Xavier’s Restaurant near the Great Post Office and its Annexe near the YMCA. Having a job meant that one could have a drink or a meal on credit till the next pay day. A barman becomes something of your best friend, more reliable than your bank manager. There was Ananthan and Mani in Magnet Hotel, Narayanan in Pankaj, Bhaskaran in Xavier’s, Baby in Devas and Jose in May Fair. Many of us are deeply indebted to all of them for holding up our respectability in places where men meet and are ‘judged’. When a barman accepts your creditworthiness, you are a pillar in a ‘floating’ society. I continued to see Ayyappan off and on and perhaps am responsible for a tiny bit of damage done to his frail frame. However, I have never refused Ayyappan a drink at these watering holes.

Then one day, I had the shock of my life. I was living with my parents and was in my room. It was early in the morning and my father knocked on my door. He was a well known lawyer and wanted me to come to his downstairs office and meet a dear friend. It was Ayyappan and he had come home to borrow some money for an urgent journey. Ayyappan did not bat the proverbial eyelid when I was introduced. Honestly, I never knew that Ayyappan was my father’s friend. Probably he never even knew we were son and father before that morning. It was a coincidence that my old friend Prabha, after his LLb, was then working as my father’s junior. I bet Ayyappan did not know that either. Ayyappan never asked anything personal questions about anyone and accepted people as they were. He was the frailest gypsy that ever roamed.

Many of us knew him simply as Aksharam Ayyappan, after the magazine he once edited and published. His real name was A Ayyappan and many think that the ‘A’ stood for Aksharam. He was not known to correct anyone, but the ‘A’ was for Arumughom, his father, a goldsmith who died when Ayyappan was a child.

Later, when my own life made living difficult for me, I have refused  Ayyappan money. Several times, in fact. He never took it to heart. The next time we met he would smile guilelessly ask again, as if he had never done it before. I have always felt a pang when I refused Ayyappan money. It was a little more severe than the guilt I felt when I gave him cash for a drink, knowing that this delicate man with the large heart was drinking himself to death. Before I had a job, Ayyappan had stood me a drink several times. He would happily part with a plastic cover of arrack if he could spare one.

Mathews, the Manager at Current Books at Statue Junction was a personal financier that often helped Ayyappan when he had a very dry throat. He would go in and ask, “Mathews, my books are not all sold out, are they?”

Mathews would smile and say, “No way, we have plenty in stock”.

Ayyappan would then wink at me and tell Mathews, “Then you have plenty of security. Give us twenty rupees”. I loved the way he said ‘us’. His books needed to be sold for ‘us’.

Once I found him scribbling something on a piece of paper beneath the famous mango tree inside University College. I sat near him and lit a beedi, not wanting to disturb him. When he had finished, he looked up and asked me if I cared for a drink. I told him that I could use one, but had no money. Ayyappan giggled and said that he did not have any either. He wanted me to give him a lift on my bicycle. I sat him on my crossbar and pedalled in the hot sun to Kerala Kaumudi office in Pettah. Leaving me outside, he went in and returned ten minutes later with the grand sum of fifty rupees. He had just sold the poem he had scribbled half an hour ago. Those days, a full bottle of Hercules rum cost less than twenty rupees. I asked him about the poem he had written. He said he did not have an opinion about it yet and asked me to look for it in the next issue of the weekly. “Let it be anything, but it has bought this evening for us”.

Ayyappan had thousands of friends and they will have many stories to tell, some true, some false, some exaggerated. Many of his friends do not know each other. If Ayyappan had suddenly won a million rupees in a lottery, no one would have gone to him and asked him to settle an old debt. It was the world that we live in that continues to owe him, for refusing to take his rightful share from life.

Ayyappan must have written hundreds of poems, all of which have bought joy to him and others. Now that he is gone, they will continue to do so, like an old cask of wine that refuses to stop bubbling.

Stop Press:

“Homer alive

begged through

the streets of Greece.

Homer dead

is buried

in seven cities.”

Note: One bad news follows another. I have been trying to reach my friend Prabha, Trivandrum, on his mobile phone since yesterday. I wanted to know if he was attending Ayyappan’s funeral. No one answered. Today, Prabha’s son Vivek called me back enquiring about the missed calls. I was speechless to learn that Prabha had passed away in June following a heart attack. Prabha retired from the Sales Tax Department as Joint Commissioner and was practicing as a tax consultant and lawyer. One more friend is gone.

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OF CORPORALS, CAPTAINS AND GENERALS

OLD HOMETOWN NEWSPAPERS

 During my boyhood in Trivandrum in the sixties, Kerala Kaumudi was the most circulated and widely read newspaper in the capital. The Calicut based Mathrubhoomy, thanks to the formidably highbrow stuff published in its Weekly, was considered a bit too posh. Kottayam’s Malayala Manorama was yet another product from Madras Rubber Factory, a flavour it manages to carry, to this date. In those days of manual typesetting and composing, Kerala Kaumudi had the distinct advantage of having its press and other facilities in the city. Trivandrum, though the capital of Kerala, was not considered a major market by the newspapers from the north. Commercial newspapers need an atmosphere of entrepreneurship and fund backed adventurism in the local markets to thrive. For the Fourth Estate, unfortunately Trivandrum in those pre political-mafia days was very small-time. In simple language, there was little advertisement revenue in the city of ‘Sarkari Babus’*.

One of my clearest Trivandrum memories is that of our King. Every morning, His Highness Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma was chauffeur driven in his Studebaker Commander from his palace at Kowdiar to pray before the family deity at the Padmanabha Swamy temple. I distinctly remember that the registration number of the old straight-six car was KLT 1. Despite the car being American, it was a right hand drive model and His Highness used to sit on the kerbside of the back seat. Though he was a king without a kingdom, he was deeply loved and respected for his humility, austerity and simplicity. His hands were locked together in an eternal and honest Namaste to his Lord and his People, a gesture never sincerely copied by any politician since.

The freshly poisoned communist recruits were the only lot that turned their noses up at the harmless King. As champions of the poor, they masqueraded as the brave warriors who had ousted the King from power. Now, having ruled for about three decades collectively, the Communists have turned his once lovely kingdom into a showpiece of chaos, nepotism and corruption. The top leftist leaders are seriously involved in building an opulent Communist Empire and wear invisible crowns. They even maintain court jesters and courtesans in their proletarian Barnum and Bailey show.

In the 1960s and early 70s, Trivandrum was mostly a city of pompous but very middle class officials, government clerks and a few well grounded socialist intellectuals. The original well-to-do natives were conservative to the extent of being stuffy and aloof.  Those who visited the city briefly and the deeply sarcastic settlers from north Kerala were seldom admitted into the circles of Trivandrum’s upper middleclass and aristocracy. So the only Trivandrumites they ever met were the likes of domestic servants, fisherwomen and market vendors. They had every reason to believe that all Trivandrum folk spoke like Suraj Venjaramood.

Sorry for going off at a tangent, after I started with newspapers. Yes. Those days Kerala Kaumudi was still a free newspaper and was not remote controlled by communal undertones. The style or personality of a newspaper slowly grows on you. Even in the seventies and eighties, when Kerala Kaumudi was widely criticised as the mouthpiece of a particular community, my dad continued loyally with his old paper. Perhaps it had something to do with his deep friendship with K Balakrishnan, the editor of Kaumudi Weekly, which though a namesake, was a different entity. Today, Kerala Kaumudi probably holds the third spot in Trivandrum’s circulation charts. From the remoteness of my small Sussex town, it is still a favoured paper for me since it is the only Malayalam Daily that makes available its full edition as a PDF file online, totally free of cost. Recently it has also made its old editions available online in the archives section. I usually save the pages with interesting articles for a later leisurely read.

 AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN

 

Captain Raju Daniel

Today, with a little spare time on hand, I was going through a saved page dated 15/01/2010. It carries a piece written by Kovalam Sathishkumar about a chat he had with senior Malayalam screen actor, Captain Raju. Raju was indeed a Captain in the Indian Army before he joined the movie scene. Though he usually appears in negative roles, he is known to be one of the few gentlemen in the industry. Many years ago I have had the opportunity to work with his younger brother and I conclude that uprightness runs in the family. Lalu Alex is another known good soul and curiously, he too is a villain.

In the narrative, the Captain speaks about his experience of serving at the lines of conflict along the northern borders. He modestly discloses quite a few ground realities of army life, motivation and patriotism. He also has the wisdom and maturity to acknowledge that the enemies across the border are nothing but ordinary men like us.

What brings me to write this post is a comment which appears towards the end of the article. Here, there is a remark that if he had not left the army to act in the movies, he would have been a Lieutenant General by now. I am not sure if this comment came from the interviewer or from the Captain himself. Whatever be the source, I would like to dispute this little claim, without casting a slur on the good Captain’s name.

Commissioned officers in the Indian army come from two sources. The first lot are officers who join on a Permanent Commission after graduating from the army’s own colleges. The others are graduates who come from the main stream. The latter group is offered a short service commission of about five years or so. Based on their demonstrated capabilities, the army may offer them a permanent commission at the end of their contracted period. A friend of mine, a Colonel with the Artillery, tells me that less than twenty percent of Short Service chaps make it to a permanent commission. Also, the direct Commissioned Officers hold a few advantages over the Short Service chaps. They are usually a bit younger when they get the Commission and are considered more blue eyed, by virtue of their longer association and training with the army.

Most Short Service Commission officers are happy to leave the force at the end of the contracted period. There are many lucrative opportunities for them in the public and private sectors. They are very much in demand as well trained and disciplined recruitment material for top security and administrative jobs. Most of them make more money in their later civilian careers than they would have ever made in the army.

As for the Short Service officers that stay on, very few of them make it to Brigadier level. Usually, the upward climb ends at Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel. It is a known fact in the Indian Army that if you do not make it to full Colonel in your early forties, the real top brass posts are out of reach. In this context, I assume that Captain Raju was allowed to leave after five years of service because he was on a Short Service Commission.

History tells us of a vertically challenged Corporal who went on to become a formidable General and an Emperor. A handful of officers from Short Service cadre have indeed become Lieutenant Generals under exceptional conditions. I have no doubt that Captain Raju was an exceptional officer and always, a perfect gentleman. Cheers.

Notes:

1. ‘Sarkari Babu’ – Hindi for Government Clerk 2. Captain Raju’s picture- courtesy Kerala Kaumudi

THE NOSTALGIA MERCHANTS FROM KERALA

KNOW THE KERALITES

Kathakali Artist

Kathakali Artist

 

Keralites, the Malayalam speaking natives of Kerala, India, are unique as expatriates go. You can find one almost anywhere in the world where skilled or unskilled manpower is hired. Coming from the best educated state in India, Malayalis, as known to their countrymen, are trained to work as doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, teachers, bankers, clerks, cooks, plumbers, electricians; the list is virtually endless. Kerala being a very secular state, a Mallu, as he is known to netizens, can be a Hindu, Christian or Moslem. Christianity and Islam reached Kerala and were well rooted long before they became prevalent in many current strongholds.

 

One will find thousands of Keralites working as doctors or nurses in UK, Ireland, US, Australia or Canada. If all of them, from any imaginable trade, went home one fine morning from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman or any states in the UAE, these countries would grind to an administrative and functional standstill. You find Malayalis sailing the seven seas as captains, engineers, first mates and able bodied seamen. Third or fourth generation Keralites can be found well established in Malaysia and Singapore. The top scientists who recently landed India’s unmanned vehicle on Moon were almost entirely from Kerala.

 

Unlike the regular immigrant or the transplanted asylum seeker, a Keralite never really loses his roots. He sticks on to his language and customs many generations down the line. His heart is ever close to his festivals, harvests and monsoons back home. Seldom cutting his ties with old pals and relatives, if possible, he will always retain a small home somewhere in his homeland and visit often.

 

To have an idea of the expatriate Keralite’s contribution to his state’s economy, do note that 1.85 million non-resident Keralites sent home remittances to the tune of over 6150 million US dollars during 2007.

 

ENTERTAINING THE EXPATRIATE KERALITE

 

While he is living and working away from home, a Keralite yearns for his home, food, songs, dances and festivals. So if there are half a dozen Keralite families living abroad within fifty square miles, there is sure to be a Malayali Association with its get-togethers and cultural functions.

 

When quicker travel and information technology made the world smaller, the tour companies and the entertainment industry in India saw the opportunities in catering to the great Malayali nostalgia, by taking the Keralite culture abroad. It began with reputed artists and organisers staging high quality events at decent venues. Almost always these programmes were held to keen audiences, thanks to the Malayali’s homesickness.

 

I have personally known some honest, genuine organisers of Keralite cultural events. Whenever a purely aesthetic evening is held, with classical dancers and musicians, they just about break even or run at a loss. These losses are often covered at a later stage by subscriptions from generous members. The high cost of venues, payments for top artists, stage equipments, transport, food and boarding leave little towards profits.

 

Now comes the entertainment circus that makes a neat pile of money. The worst case scenario involves shipping a hastily assembled assortment of available singers, dancers, comedians and out of work movie stars to a stage in Dubai, California, Melbourne, Vancouver or any of the dozens of similar venues. A programme chief, (back home, he may be a third assistant to a B grade movie director) will knock together about three hours of skits, stand-up comedy, mimicry, light music and the modern obscenity called cinematic dance. Impressive venues will be booked and high priced tickets will be sold well in advance. The programmes presented subsequently on stage would have had no more than a couple of quick rehearsals to back them. The skits and jokes would be stale. The same out of work actresses will feature in classical dance, burlesque and folkdance. To add to the misery, these ‘Grand Gala Events’ are digitally recorded to be shown later on TV channels as fillers and to be sold cheap to the lower end market back home.

 

A large entourage of hangers-on usually accompany such teams. Many will have little to do with the show itself. Political henchmen, wheeler-dealers and movie extras attach themselves to these monkey troops. You can expect to find specialists for fixing export-import licences, arranging education abroad, visa trading and discreet prostitution. Hustle is the name of the game. Most clips of the Paris Hilton variety featuring both budding and washed out female Malloo artists that are currently doing their rounds on the internet owe their origins to these freak shows. The exploits of these camp following hookers have earned hard working and respectable Kerala girls a bad name abroad, giving out the idea that Malayali women are ‘easy’.

 

On the plus side, if you were ever trapped into sitting through one such show, you have seen them all. On the minus side, the Great Malayali Nostalgia ensures that these charlatans will put up their tents year after year around the world, degrading true Keralite culture and traditions. The average expatriate Malayali will pay a week’s wages to have anything that even vaguely resembles home, however unfortunate the results may be.

 

FOR A CLUE

 

If it is features the likes of K J Yesudas, K S Chithra and a troupe from Kerala Kalamandalam with Mohiniyattom, Kathakali and Panchavadyam it would be a memorable evening. Stay clear, if it is a mimicry team from Kochi with half a dozen slapstick comedians, cinematic dancers and B Grade movie artists ready for ‘anything’.

 

Notes: (1) I apologise to the genuine organisations and artists from Kerala who sometimes succeed in staging an authentic cultural event abroad without the help of the barely legal hustlers. None of the comments here concern the dedicated artists. (2) A Keralite and a Malayali are one and the same. Kerala is the name of the small, green, south Indian state and Malayalam is the region’s spoken language. There is a new trend set by non-Indian writers and tourists to term a Malayali or anything from Kerala as ‘Keralan’, which is resented by the native. It would be as improper and offensive as calling an Englishman ‘Englandian’ or an Italian ‘Italish’. I hope you get the point. (3) Kathakali Artist- Picture courtesy rediff.com