Saturday, October 27, 2018

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Tennessee Williams Named John Paul

When Tennessee Williams wrote the story for the 1982 Bharathan movie, Paalangal (Railway Tracks), World War II had already been fought, won and lost but not forgotten, India was on the verge of becoming a free state and the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, a Hollywood starlet who would later inspire many stories and movies under the name, Black Dahlia, had been found at a lonely Los Angeles courtyard. A Street Car Named Desire, a Pulitzer Prize winner play, originally written for Broadway before the close of the decade, had already been conceptualized on stage by Elia Kazan; it would take another four years for Kazan to bring out the silver screen version. It was in 1951, when Margaret Roberts, later day Margaret Thatcher, was preparing to lose her first election contest, the movie was released in the USA.

The story line was simple. A young woman, Blanche, takes a streetcar named "Desire" to arrive at a shanty American town to stay with her sister, Stella, who is married to Stanley, a street character with many rough edges. Stanley is not amused by the arrival of his sister in law and starts bullying her at the slightest of provocations, which, at one time, ends in a rape. Mitch, a friend of Stanley, is enamored by Blanche, and in due course, proposes to her. Stanley intervenes, sabotages the marriage and digs up Blanche's past to find out that she is not mentally stable. The film ends with Blanche taken to the mental asylum where she was once a patient.

A Street Car Named Desire opened to critical acclaim, offering a new experience to the viewer. The main character of Blanche was played by Vivien Leigh, and not Jessica Tandy (we fell in love with her in Driving Miss Daisy) who acted the part in the Broadway play as the producers believed Leigh bested Tandy in appeal. Leigh had handled the part for the 1949 London production by Laurence Olivier and was an instant hit there. Kazan carried on with his stage experiments with method acting, a new genre of acting style propounded by Constantin Stanislavski, popularized by Lee Strasberg and followed later by some of the notable Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Daniel Day Lewis. Kazan's message was best grasped by Marlon Brando, establishing his Hollywood presence with the movie (his debut was with Men, a Fred Zimmermann film released a year earlier) whose portrayal of Stanley, a down to earth character with negative shades, human frailties and masculine good looks in a custom-made T shirt, was a novel experience for the viewers. Karl Malden (Mitch) and  Kim Hunter (Stella) excelled in their roles while Vivien Leigh, with her fragile beauty, appealed to the viewers and won their sympathy; Leigh is said to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder towards the end of her life and used to mistake herself for Blanche on many occasions. The three won Oscars too, and, quite surprisingly, the one who missed the boat was Brando. The film still holds the record for maximum number of major acting Oscar honours for a film.

The film had an opening sequence where Leigh alighting a train and slowly appearing from amidst the steam emitting from the engine but the connection the film had with train and railway and tracks ends there. However, this beautiful opening seems to have influenced John Paul and Bharathan to place their offering near a railway station, Shornur Junction to be precise. Passing years transformed the original story and when John Paul modified it for Paalangal three decades later, he left out certain elements alien to Malayali psyche but retained the four major characters and their interactions with each other. The film was shot at and in the periphery of the railway junction, barely moving out elsewhere, and gives us a relatively true depiction of the lives of railway workers. Gopi, another method actor, did not lag far behind Brando in terms of performance quality and the duo of KPAC Lalitha and Adoor Bhavani fulfilled their parts well. Bharathan who did magic in making Zarina Wahab, an average looking actress with unconventional looks, appear beautiful in Chaamaram a couple of years before, repeated the trick here, succeeding to a considerable measure. The let down came from the normally reliable Nedumudi Venu whose Ramankutty was more the other gender than male, and was almost a caricature of the role carried well by Karl Malden years ago.

Bharathan arrived the Malayalam film scene at a time when the industry was undergoing a radical transformation from the melodramas of the 60s, with Swayamvaram of Adoor Gopalakrishnan inaugurating the movement. The so called Art Film movement was taking root, causing enough enthusiasm state wide, tempting even a movie manufacturing personality like Kunchacko to venture into making one, Neela Ponman, a cinematic blunder of Himalayan proportions. Prayaanam, Bharathan's debut movie promised to carry the trend forward but his subsequent films, Aaravam and Thakara progressively witnessed a breach of promise and an eagerness to join the mainstream bandwagon. Yet, it is to his credit that he stayed with a set of filmmakers who tried to tread a middle path, thus cementing his position in Malayalam film history.

An attempt to compare the films of Elia Kazan and Bharathan is a futile one; the Hollyood classic, rated as one of the 100 greatest Hollywood movies of all time on a number of movie portals which it may or may not be, was a trendsetter in more ways than one while the Malayalam flick, a critical and commercial failure. Still, both the movies were a fair reflection of the cinematic cultures they represented and paraded some of the most exciting acting talents of their times. The turn out is that while the Kazan movie is more than the sum total of its components, the Malayalam version taught us it need not be the case always.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sculpting Life

One

The crowded bar was noisy.

On the far corner, where the sparse light of the hall faded even further, she sat crosslegged on the table, her listeners sitting around the table, trying to give her as much attention as their wavering foci would allow them to. But she went on talking, disinterested in the loyalty of the listeners, her mind at times wandering to the tea estates of Assam where the patriarch who owned vast expanses of them, her father, Dhirendra Roy Chaudhary, waited in vain for her return.

The girl was one of a kind. She was born in a highland mansion in the Northeast Indian state of Assam where tea plants carpeted the slopes of the undulating land and, occasionally woke up from their slumber to murmur to the silvery white clouds descended from heaven for a friendly chat. She forsook her affluent life in the mountains for the Friday races of Calcutta, abandoned her horses for the skies British Airways flew through, lost the fatter purse the European airline offered for a wider horizon and sparser returns Air India promised her, gave up the carefree abandon of the airlines job for the job as full time wife to Bhim, vacated the royal palaces of Jaipur and Tripura for the streets of Delhi. Winning a beauty pageant, scrubbing floors at the destitute homes of Mother Teresa, gambling a fortune at Calcutta racecourse, begging all and sundry for money to run Ila Trust, the NGO she founded, all came easy to her. She shared her birthday with Amitabh Bachchan and shared her whiskey with Khushwant Singh. At the race course, she wore a waist coat and a pair of trousers, sported a derby hat and wielded a cane but the masculine make over never succeeded in camouflaging her stunning beauty. At Missionaries of Charity, she offloaded all the money she won at the previous Friday races and merrily spent the day with the homeless. During a time when rich ladies travelled in chauffeur driven cars, she drove a Maruti Gypsy only to sell it off to fund the construction of a hospice for the Aids and TB patients in Guwahati.

Her friendship with Satyajit Ray made her do a cameo in Seemabaddha. David Bailey and Anthony Snowdon trained their lenses on her many a times. Elton John opened his purse to fund some of her charitable projects. At the end of the frenzied journey, she reached the streets of New Delhi and started running an ambulance and mobile clinic network, dispensing medical service, free of cost, to the slum dwellers of the capital city. While her husband, Bhim, took multiple trips a day down the streets of Khan Market area in New Delhi feeding stray cats, she scurried around gathering money to foster her free medical service. These days, the automobile hosted clinics travel around the city and the financially compromised inhabitants of the city wait for their arrival, with disease ravaged bodies but minds lit up by hope.

Reeta Devi Varma, nee Reeta Roy, one of the My Fair Ladies of Khushwant Singh, remains a quintessential maverick, though mellowed down a bit by the affection showered on her by the thousands of poor people who have smelled the whiff of her universal love.

Two

A car accident paralyzed half his body, a heart which functioned at 17 percent made him go for a pacemaker, an attack of cancer butchered his larynx forcing him to use a voice box. But all those setbacks did not stop Sharad Kumar Dixit, or Sharad Kumar Dicksheet as he later came to be known, from becoming the quickest plastic surgeon the world has seen, the one who would complete a cleft lip correction, with his left hand, in under 20 minutes, while his right hand hung wasted, refusing to listen to his biddings.

On November 14th, 2011, when the children of India slept tired after celebrating the Indian version of Children's Day, six days prior to the day United Nations prescribed for the observance, the man who brought back smiles on many of them was bidding farewell to the world which picked him for its choicest atrocities. A fatigued Sharad Kumar breathed his laborious last, lying on a ragged bed in a run down Ocean Parkway apartment in Brooklyn; the man the ''World of Children'' organization called an unsung hero had had enough of this unjust world. His long hair, which looked like a cheap wig bought from the corner store, spread in disarray; he had long since stopped going to the barber.

The exhausting journey started in the wretched house of a local post master in a small hamlet in Maharashtra, in 1930, the year the Indian National Congress declared India as an independent state. That was the start of an extraordinary journey which carried the boy through the science classes of Nizam College, the ophthalmology lecture halls of Nagpur Medical College and the plastic surgery rooms of Fairbanks Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital and the New York Methodist Hospital. Life was looking up and rosy with his energies divided between his professional duties in the US and his humanitarian efforts in India, launched under the banner, "The India Project" in 1968, till a 1978 Alaska tour intervened in the scheme of things in the form of a car accident to spoil the plans. The accident left Sharad with his body paralyzed on the right side and would later play havoc with his married life. Four years later, before he could get used to the limitations imposed by the misfortune, he was diagnosed with cancer of larynx which took away his voice, he spoke for the rest of his life with the aid of a voice box. Still he plodded on, working intensively for six months in North America and taking a winter hiatus to move to India where he repaired cleft lips, ptoses and squints, free of charge, associating with several NGOs and local hospitals. The effort seemed to take its toll on the healer, he was having difficulty, at times, in breathing and experienced constant palpitations. The diagnosis came a decade later, his heart was functioning only seventeen percent. A cardiac surgery followed and a pacemaker was installed.

Sharad Kumar carried on his selfless service for another seventeen years and the exhausting labour ended on a Childrens Day, an apt day for a children's doctor to call it a day.

Three


Endless miseries, ravaging terrors, cultural ruins, inequalities in wealth, health and emotions all would have made the world a lesser place to live in but for some of these people who sculpted their lives, ever so arduously, like a weaver bird builds its nest, fiber by fiber, twig by little twig. They are mindless of the struggles, ignore the hardships, neglect the tyrannies and push forward. Like Phoolbasan Bai Yadav, born in a poor family in Chhattisgarh, with only primary level education, who braved her husband's torture to set up "Maan Bamleshwari Janhit Kare Samiti", a poor man's movement, which grew over the years into a mass movement holding 12,000 self groups and 200,000 members. Like Reema Nanavati, an IAS officer born amidst riches, who abandoned the comforts and social status of the hallowed bureaucracy to venture into the dusty villages of Gujarat and worked with the famished women of "Self Employed Women's Association of India" (SEWA) of Ela Bhatt, shared food with them, worked for the rehabilitation of the victims of two earthquakes in Gujarat in 2001 and 2002, gathered 40,000 families, convinced them to produce goods which she sold, for them, in upscale towns, went to Bhutan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka to bring comfort to the victims of civil war in those desolate lands.
Reeta, Dicksheet, Phoolbasan and Reema were all honoured by the Government of India, at one time or another, with the civilian honour of  Padma Shri. That was the least a nation could do.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Street Dies On The Poet


 
21 October 2010
It was dark but crowded at Thampanoor. People scurrying to and from the Bus stand and the railway station did not notice the man lying on the pavement, among a few used cartons.
 
The man lay there watching his soul preparing to leave him, but could not muster enough strength to prevent it. The inebriants he had consumed that evening revolted with his innards and managed to escape through his mouth, though only partially. A faint stench of yellow vomit pervaded everywhere.
 
His face and hands had wounds, seemingly endured from a minor road accident. Blood had not yet clotted; the man unwittingly spread it while wiping his face. He thought about the Asan Prize award ceremony in Chennai in two days and could not decide on which poem to recite there. May be he would recite his latest work which he had started that day on a piece of paper now kept inside the folds of his shirt sleeves. He could see the arrow that would pierce his soul and, in pain, he closed his eyes.
 
Soon passers-by crowded around the weary man, who watched them, with closed eyes and unconscious mind,  lifting him up and placing in a cab that sped towards the General Hospital. The muddy old man with unkempt hair lay patiently on the hospital bed till the Doctor arrived to pronounce him dead. The people who brought the man to the hospital started to disperse leaving the medical staff to complete their duties. The dead man was not in a hurry. He was waiting for his dead friends with a calmness not ever seen while he was alive, not even thinking about his daughter Meena and Mariam Beevi, the unfortunate woman who carried his daughter in her womb for 9 months.
A sunny morning in the year 1971
The young man was waiting for his girl, wearing a smile which concealed the agonies of a troubled childhood; despite that, anxieties of a first love showed on his face. His mind was searching for the precise words for opening a conversation which he hoped would kick off a relationship lasting a life time.
 
The girl slowly walked towards him, carefully trudging on the fallen leaves on the campus of University College; she was nervous. With a half smile, she sat beside the youth to hear him singing, “Oh autumn, my beloved…” The baritone voice of the singer reverberated through the sleepy leaves of the elderly trees that canopied the lovers.
 
As the young man finished singing and drew a breath, the girl leaned over to him and kissed him on the cheeks.
30 May 1987
They were quarelling on the street, as usual, two shabby men. One of them, a noted film maker, in his customary rags, was talking about his forthcoming works which drew scant attention from the other, a man in his late thirties. He made fun of the film maker who rarely delivered on his promise which angered the director even more. Knowing he would not receive a listening ear, the film maker started to leave, with a promise that he would return, a promise he would never fulfill. He took a loan of Rs 100 from his mate to cover the expenses of his evening drinks and walked away to a building under construction where he, a few hours later, would fly down from the parapet, like a dove, towards his destiny. Enduring the negigence of the hospital staff all through the night who failed to recognise him, John Abraham died a pauper’s death a day later.
 
The man in the thirties would imitate his friend 23 years later.
A dark evening in 1950
A group of men brought Arumugham Achari home.
 
Muthammal, his wife, carrying a little boy, watched them with a dead face. A girl held on to the woman’s hand, rather perplexed at what was going on. The men carefully placed Arumugham on the verandah.
 
It was drizzling; the thin threads of rain enveloped the house and the courtyard. As she watched the inert face of the gold smith, Muthammal’s mind was wet, too. A murder and a suicide and the incidents in between rained misery on her mind. Unable to bear the onslaught of the excruciating thoughts, she hugged the little boy closer; the boy had already gone sleeping by then.
 
 
A humid day in 2007
The poet was unusually silent during the journey. He was feeling uncomfortable in the peaceful cool interiors of a luxury car and missed the humid turbulence of the pavements. He answered the questions of his companion in monosyllables or in a few words at the most. He wanted the vehicle to arrive at the destination fast where his mind had already reached.
 
Wind started to blow as the poet and the interviewer sat in the courtyard waiting for Jenny and Sathyan to appear. The poet’s face lit up when he saw his love emerged from the house along with her husband. He became animated seeing his chokki.
 
The interviewer’s questions were mainly directed at Jenny and occassionally at Sathyan. All through the meeting, the poet regularly bothered jenny with his antics and cracked miserable jokes to no one’s laughter. He was noticeably elated to be with his love and laughed when Sathyan narrated the hardships during the shooting of a documentary on the poet and how Jenny banished him and the poet from the house. Though the poet was visibly active, his soul was elsewhere.
 
The poet was living his poems with Jenny in his dreams.
 
 
October 27, 1949
Arumugham Achari waited impatiently.
 
Muthammal was in labour. He prayed for her health and he prayed for a son; his first born was a girl. As bad thoughts started clouding the nervous gold smith’s mind, he heard the cries of a baby and smiled.
 
Ayyappan Acahari was commencing his torturous journey which would last 61 agonising years.
A. Ayyappan
October 27, 1949 - October 21, 2010

Monday, February 24, 2014

Remembering Kochi - Part Four

Kochi of the sixties permitted no beginnings, no ends.

Bulk of the commerce in the city was transacted within a rectangular piece of land bordered by M.G. Road on the east, Banerji Road on the north, Shanmugham Road on the west and Durbar Hall road on the south. This block of land accommodated the Central Market, principal shopping centres and commodity business houses along Cloth Bazar Road, Jews Street, Market Road and several smaller roads where traders of different faiths offered commodities and services of all sorts to the buyers.


No one kew where Jews Street started; at Pullepady junction or at Padma junction or at Flower junction but the street ended no where. The westward stretch from Flower junction, however, was crowded with dirty puddles all along and hardware vendors on both sides. Steel traders from outside the State set up their offices there; one of them, a steel manufacturer from Mahadevapura in Bangalore, had its office on the first floor of a shabby building. A wooden staircase in poor state of repairs led to their office.
In the seventies, a young lad from Thrissur joined the steel company, immediately after his graduation from Kerala Varma College, as office manager. The diligent  young man steadily broadened the business and positioned his company as a strong competitor to the established steel traders. Soon the shrewd man realised he had opportunities to make a fast buck by making the most of his status as the depot manager and, with the help of a few friends, embarked on a tour of embezzlement.  He opened many bogus companies and brought truck loads of steel to sell in the local market evading central sales tax. Every evening, his office desk would be filled with cash as he was unable to use normal banking services due to the grey nature of his business.

Sivaraman, one of his acquaintences on whose name he opened a bogus company, knew about the cash stored in office. One evening, Sivaraman visited the office in company of an accomplice, slashed the manager with a country sword and escaped with lakhs of rupees stored there. Anil Kumar survived the attack though, but with serious injuries.
A few shops away from the steel company’s office was a hardware store. Lawrence, a young hardware merchant,  hailed from a wealthy business family in Kunnamkulam which owned many hardware shops in central and north Kerala. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the youth had extravagent tastes. Soon he fell in love with a penniless counter girl at a travel agency which shocked his orthodox family. They disowned the prodigal son and banished him from home and the family businesses. With no resources to fall back on, the young man turned to fraudulent deals to be eventually caught by law, turned pauper and ended up in jail.


Travelling north from Shenoy’s cinema, one entered a small junction which hosted a famous tailoring shop, Byblos, owned by Antony, Antho to his friends, a favorite place for most of the youngsters, particularly girls. Antho started his career in Bahrain and returned to Kochi in the seventies to work in his brother’s tailoring shop, Thara Tailors, where he paraded his couture skills, first on himself and later on his young customers whose number grew by the day. Later, gathering a small capital together, Antho started his first own venture, Fila Tailors, near Kacheripady. The ambitious young man soon moved his business to a larger place, renamed his business as Byblos and opened a branch in Palarivattom, bringing in a partner to his business. The first setback of his career was waiting for him there. A few unintelligent business decisions and a break up with his partner saw the man in heavy debt, forcing him to move to Al Ain in the U.A.E., looking for greener pastures and ways to pay off the debts that seemed to pile up with time.
A few years of hard work in Al Ain and his innate enterprise helped him to save enough money to clear the debts. Antony, the ever smiling handsome dude, is now happy managing his new fashion business, a few steps away from his old shop, Byblos.

In 1947, as India was gathering itself to embrace freedom from colonial rule, a young man was planning his future. He opened a small textile shop in Cloth Bazar Road, specialising in silk sarees. The shop was so small that there were no pieces of furniture, the sales girls sat on floor mats and the buyers stood on the pavement selecting the goods of their choice. Exclusivity of their stocks and the smiling countenance of the owner attracted the upper class women by hoards to the store and business soared. Jayalakshmi Silks, the textile major with many huge outlets all over Kerala, had its humble beginnings at that narrow selling space.

Years have transformed Kochi into an aspiring metropolitan city but denuded it of the grace it once had. The frenetic pace of professed progress has made life complex and difficult. The trees that hovered as a canopy over the wild celebrations of a Santhosh Trophy victory have been shaved off to accommodate the metro rail project, wiping off the memories of a generation along with it. Escalation in the number of buildings, a lot more than the frail roads could handle, has clogged the city’s arteries. The stench of excrements at Kaloor junction is now replaced with the disgusting odour of gasoline, polllutant of a higher order. Open lands where boys played games of varied sorts have disappeared, ugly structures have taken roots in their places. Omnipresence of garbage, but, remains.

We have lost the Kochi of Antony and Lawrence and Anil Kumar the way we lost the multiplication tables to the calculators, the way the fragrance of the flowers leaves the man whose nose has been put under the surgical knife; Kochi has been shorn of its purity.
Life is not pure or simple any longer.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Remebering Kochi - Part Three


Kochi of the sixties permitted no beginnings, no ends.
Sir Albion Rajkumar Banerji’s life was eventful. Born in the U.K. to Bengali parents, he did his undergraduate studies in Calcutta, secured his Master’s degree from Oxford, served as Diwan in Kochi and Mysore and as Prime Minister in Kashmir and precipitated a fight with the King of Kashmir to resign the post on moral grounds. However, Banerji Road, unlike the civil servant whose name it borrowed, did not boast of any credentials except that it was the gateway to the city and offered little competition to the more glamorous Shanmugham Road and M.G. Road. The road started from nowhere but stretched to end precisely touching Shanmugham Road.

On September 1st, 1886, a grandson was born to the Maharajah of Palakkadu. The little boy grew to become one of the most revered idealists Kerala had ever given birth to. K.P. Kesava Menon, a freedom fighter and Indian National Congress leader, gathered a few of his likeminded friends and, in the year 1922, started a daily in Kozhikode. Mathrubhumi, over the years developed into a reliable Malayalam daily, preferred by the intellectuals. In 1962, the Kochi edition was started which was a revolution in the history of Malayalam dailies. With the new edition, Mathrubhumi overtook Malayala Manorama as the most popular daily in Kerala, though the status remained only for a short time.

Kochi edition of Mathrubhumi was located in Kaloor, a few meters east to the junction. This was the first building of noticeable size as one entered Kochi from the north. It housed a state of the art printing press and the offices of the Daily. M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Jnanpith award winner, was a regular caller to this office during his stint as the Managing Editor of Mathrubhumi Azhchapathippu (weekly). One evening, on my way back from Sahrudaya Library which was a few blocks away, I saw an inebriated V.K.N., the patriarch of Malayalam comedy, scolding the invisible enemies assembled all around him, trying their mite to subdue him for reasons known to none.
On March 2007, a death occurred at a private hospital in Thrissur. The man was 92 when he succumbed to heart ailments that had troubled him for a while. Gloom fell on many business houses all over India for the man who passed away was their founder, who started his business in 1939, opening a miserable laundry shop with a capital of Rs. 150. Compensating his lack of education with a shrewd business sense, the 24 year old young man slowly started building his empire, brick by brick, shop by shop. When Kuttukkaran Porinchu Paul died, the business group was valued in hundreds of crores with interests in automobiles, spares, tools, hardware and many more and the name Popular carried tremendous good will. Popular Automobiles, his shop selling automobile spares was the first such enterprise in Ernakulam.

The shop, standing where Market Road met Banerji Road, was a large retail outlet, covering the entire ground floor of a building. People from all over the State visited the shop for their auto spare needs. In the seventies, Popular consolidated their presence in Ernakulam with a second shop, Popular Mill Stores, a walk away from the District Town Hall, with scores of staff moving like bees inside. One of the bees was a girl from Melur. She, over a course of time, fell for the charms of an emaciated young man and married him. Her name was Shobha. The young man had not yet established his notable career which, later, fetched him the National Film Award for best screenplay and several State Television Awards. P.F. Mathews was an upstart journalist then.

A squint-eyed young man, with a few books tucked under his armpit, once roamed the corridors, the library and the canteen of St. Albert’s College. He was a pleasing presence, always ready to share a few thoughts with anyone he found on his path. Like George Eden before him, he was a popular student, with many friends and very few enemies. Simon Britto, after his graduate studies, joined Law College where he continued his political work. On a depressing evening, he heard the news of a street fight near Maharaja’s College and rushed to the scene. A peace loving man he was, he intervened to stop the fight when the sharp knife of one the youths pierced his lumbar spine. With a lower body that refuses to listen to his wishes, Britto is still active in politics.
Punnakkal Narayana Menon was a regular commuter through Banerji Road, on his way to Cochin Port Trust where he worked as the Deputy Secretary. On one of his regular bus trips, his heart failed him. The dead man arrived at the destination and refused to alight from the bus to the bewilderment of his fellow passengers. Rajasekhara Menon, the youngest son of Narayana Menon, was my close friend and classmate in St. Albert’s College. He dreamt of becoming a writer, strayed from the path somewhere in between and is now, aping his father, a Deputy Secretary at Advocate General’s Office in Ernakulam.

Kaloor was not Kaloor at that time; it was more known as “the Land of Excrements”. Hundreds of Municipality labourers, every morning, collected human waste from the innumerable homes in the city to dump them into a garbage land located behind Kaloor bus stand. The unbearable stench from the dump yard enveloped the small ramshackle shed that was the bus stand, sticking to its floor, pillars and the leaking asbestos roof. Still, people braved the stench for hours at the bus stand waiting for the buses that rarely turned up at the appointed hours.
The road that went southward from Kaloor led to Kathrikkadavu. The junction hosted a few shops, and was a regular meeting place for the local inhabitants. Masdoor CafĂ©, a modest tea shop with tile roofing, stood right at the corner with its name painted on an asbestos sheet, placed on the edge of the slanting roof. One day, Alex, a local youth, jumped 7 feet and smashed the board, following a bet with the owner of the shop.

Alex, the merchant navy sailor who spent months on vacation every year, was a hero of the locality. He would enthrall the young boys with his acrobatic skills by clipping with his foot, a ball held high over his head by Vavachan, the tallest man in the neighbourhood. People would wait for the return of Alex from one of his voyages anticipating the fun and the promised brawls. On a silent Saturday, Alex and his friends visited Mayfair bar where he had a run in with a burly dark man. As expected, the man stood no chance against the athletic dexterity of the sailor and was beaten thoroughly. With no physical answer to offer, Minnal revealed he was the Sub Inspector at the local police station and threatened to take the sailor out soon. It dawned on Alex that a tussle with the police always ended in misery and he eloped the same day to join his fellow sailors in Mumbai.
Months went by when a policeman, on duty at St. Antony’s Church on Banerji Road, identified Alex as he was travelling on a bicycle and informed the police station. A few weeks later, Alex died at the General Hospital, succumbing to the injuries sustained during the inhuman treatment meted out to him at the police station where his fabled physical strength, for once, betrayed him.

Dr. C.V. George was the first physician from Latin Catholic community and the first skin specialist in Kerala. After completing his studies from Madras Medical College, he joined the services of Maharaja of Kochi as Palace Doctor, de facto the health Minister, where he established the first leprosy foundation in the State. Midway from Kaloor and Kathrikkadavu, one would find a small lane which was named after the amiable healer. Every morning, a frail looking small boy would reluctantly pass this road on his way to the church, a dictate from his father he could not afford to disobey. During the regular morning journeys, the boy would dream a thousand stories where evil battled unfortunate men and always won. Njayarazhcha Mazha Peyyukayayirunnu (It was raining on Sunday), his first anthology, presented some of his old dreams which came out more powerfully in his first novel, Chaavunilam (The land of death). After many stories and awards, P.F. Mathews still wears the cloak of the beadle in his dreams and fights a losing battle against the demons.

St. Albert’s School looked over the college from the other side of the road. Two large gothic structures of the School concealed a playground and numerous small buildings from Banerji Road. One of those small buildings accommodated a few priests; a dark complexioned cleric, Fr. Augustine Konnully, the first person to get doctorate degree from Kerala University in Mathematics and the fourth Principal of St. Albert’s College lived there.

In the early sixties, a young lawyer, getting sick of the world of crime, deserted his career as a lawyer in Mumbai, returned home and joined the school as English teacher. His habitual references to his life in Mumbai earned him the nickname, Bombay wallah but his encyclopaedic knowledge of the language and novel methods of teaching endeared him to the students. Later, he taught the language at Teacher’s Training College and conducted several training courses for English language teachers all over Kerala. He instilled the love of English language in me. T.P. Antony, a reluctant lawyer and an enthusiastic teacher, is my father.
Every day, thousands of visitors entered the city through Banerji Road and the city sold them dreams in abundance. A few of the visitors lost their bearings along the way, lured by the magnetic wiles of the city.

Still, life was pure and simple.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Remembering Kochi - Part Two


Robert Bristow, the father of Willingdon Island, had many dreams.

When M.G. Road was planned in early twenties as a seventy feet wide road, many were skeptic about the need of such a wide road in Kochi. It was the Londoner’s insistence which finally influenced the decision. When the road was opened to public in 1925, it was a spectacle. Soon shops mushroomed on either side of the road transforming it into a linear shopping mall, around 4 kilometers long.
Madhava Pharmacy was the head of M.G. Road. Poruthiyil Narayanan Vaidyar, an able ayurvedic physician known for his diagnostic skills, started his practice in 1939 from his home which grew into Madhava Pharmacy and later PNVM hospital. It was the most trusted ayurvedic treatment centre in Ernakulam till Kottakkal Ayurveda Sala opened its branch in the southern part of M.G. Road. Further south, somewhere near Cochin Shipyard, the road ended without an ending.

M.G. Road had to wait till the sixties to get its first cinema, Padma. The movie house became so famous that the road was mentioned on the city buses as “via Padma”. This was the second venture of the Shenoy’s Group, after Laxman, and was an instant hit.
Orient Saloon was a barber shop, adjacent to Padma cinema. The owner of the shop was an immigrant from Ramapuram, a small hamlet in Idukki district. The small shop he started in early sixties grew bigger, providing a decent income to the amiable owner and helped him to buy a plot of land in Kaloor and build a house. While life was flourishing, misfortune struck him; his wife fell ill. The loving husband stayed at the hospital bed of his frail wife for over six months, handing over the charge of his shop to his assistant, returning only to find his business in tatters; the assistant had opened a new shop a few steps away. It was a heavy blow to the poor barber who soon took to drinking disrupting the happy environment of his home where his five daughters and the only son used to live a blissful life. Many decades later, the son, Suresh, whose pet name was Ponnunni, had a major stroke, rendering him an invalid, but still retains his old memories when we used to go for movies almost every day. He was the closest friend I had in my childhood days.

In 1955, a young bank clerk resigned from his job to start a small book shop, by taking agencies of a few English magazines and dailies. As luck would have it, the currency exchange rate against the dollar went up suddenly bringing a windfall to the young man. He started expanding his business which now comprises of books, magazines, gift articles, toys, computers/spares and printing. S.V. Pai died during early nineties but Paico group had already carved a niche for themselves as the most reliable source for English language books. Paico Books, the flagship showroom of the group, stood a few shops away from Padma cinema.

Babu Ismail Sait, son of a north Indian trader, was a fair, handsome man, fond of movies and glamour. With the immense wealth at his command, at the age of 22, he set out to live his dreams. Chemmeen, the first Malayalam movie to get the President’s Gold Medal was his initial attempt. The film was a star-studded extravaganza, bringing in several personalities from the north such as Salil Chowdary, Hrishikesh Mukerjee, Marcus Bartley and Manna De and bestowed on its producer the moniker, Chemmeen Babu. When Babu Sait decided to get into film exhibition, he wanted to bring out a movie house which was as inimitable as the movie he made. Thus Kavitha Movie House was born which, in the seventies, was the preferred cinema of Ernakulam moviegoer. However, as time went by, it suffered decline, following the path of its owner who lost his wealth, health and peace to die a forsaken death on a quiet November afternoon in 2005.

A few steps from Kavitha, was a home appliances shop, owned by the son in law of a prominent trader from Thrissur. The carefree lad had extravagant tastes and it was only a matter of time before the business went into debt running into several lakhs, a huge sum at those times. The patriarch from Thrissur intervened and called up all the lenders. He, within a few hours, negotiated with them to settle the dues for a quarter of the total debt and paid up the agreed amounts, setting his son in law free. The traders of Kunnamkulam were known for their business acumen and astute negotiating skills.
Kavitha Movie House, at the time of its opening, was the numero uno cinema in Kerala, supplanting Sridhar Cinema. This galvanized Shenoy’s Group into action and the result was the first Vistarama screen in Asia, Shenoy’s Cinema. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Robert Wagner played out a love triangle on the opening day and the movie “Winning” was a new experience for the viewers. The circular shape of the building, step-less staircase, bright red carpets, huge screen and scented interiors bowled the audience over. Standing in the queue at Kavitha cinema for watching the Malayalam movie “Rest House”, I saw my father, an invitee for the inaugural ceremony, slowly walking towards Shenoy’s, wearing one of his trousers, the attire he always reserved for important functions.


Shenoy’s had a smaller screen, too, Little Shenoy’s. The cute little place was a favored meeting place for the young men as it showed mostly English movies. On the entrance to the cinema, on a humid Sunday morning, Raman, my friend, called me a hypocrite for not footing the bill for his ticket.
A stone’s throw from Shenoy’s was an expansive play ground. It belonged to Maharaja’s College but was a popular spot for all sports enthusiasts. It was here, Inder Singh, the football wizard of Leaders Club, Punjab, mesmerized the crowd with his ball skills during the annual Nehru Trophy football tournament. When Kerala won the Santhosh Trophy for the first time in 1973 defeating Railways 3-2 on this ground, the whole city erupted in joy; I remember watching the merriment from the stands and later, on the streets.

One of the young men who were there with us on that Sunday evening, was a mason by name Anto, a silent youth, with active interests in football and caroms. While the State was still celebrating the success, Anto boarded a bus to Arthungal, offered prayers at the famous church there and disappeared into the sea. His bloated body was found three days later.

As the road reached further south, a tailor sat behind his sewing machine in a small tailoring shop, weaving dreams of making it big in business. Within a few years, the tailor and his brothers nurtured their trade to put together the largest textile business in Kerala. The building which lodged “Jos Brothers” was an iconic building, five stories high, a true landmark. The shop soon lent its name to the junction it stood on.

As the darkness of the night set in, sales girls from various small and big textile shops on the road would gather themselves and run to the boat jetty to catch one of the last boats heading towards the neighbouring islands. These islands, apart from country liquor, provided manpower to the various shops on the road, to the city in general.
Life was pure and simple.