A sunbeam

Something glittered in the semi-darkness-
it was a sunbeam.
It danced on the walls of my room.
A golden glow- now here, now there.
My sleepy eyes couldn’t tell
if this was fact or fantasy,
if I was awake or dreaming.
Fact or fantasy,
dream or reality,
this little beam of gold
lit up my heart,
flooding it with a warmth
I had not known for ages.
In it was the warmth
of a long-forgotten world-
the bliss of my childhood…
the tenderness of my first love…
the radiance of my youth…
the nostalgia of an old melody.
In it was the warmth of life-
Life that had once graced this planet,
but could no longer be found
in the cold, lonely hearts
that walk this planet today.
Life that perhaps hid
behind the sealed doors
of a mad man’s mind-
the key to which lay fallen
in the paths we had walked,
trampled upon and buried in the dust,
never to be found again.

Advertisements

Nombarathi Poovu (The sorrowful flower)

P. Padmarajan (23 May 1945- 24 January 1991)

I often find it hard to choose between a Lohithadas movie and a Padmarajan movie when it comes to Malayalam movies that have dug into the human mind, using behavior as a tool. I suppose one cannot really draw a comparison between the two. While Lohithadas focused more on characters that portrayed self-actualization, Padmarajan’s focus was on the interface between sanity and insanity. The exploration of both these domains- the mind in health, and the mind in unrest, is equally complex.

The feeling that I will never be the same again. That something deep within me has been shaken and uprooted. Perhaps a belief, a perspective. Perhaps the very pedestal on which I had stood until then and viewed the world.

If a book or a movie can do that to me, then I regard that as a true work of art. On multiple occasions, literature has done that to me. The experience of literature, on these occasions, becomes the experience of life…

For I have transformed. Travelled. Evolved.

Nombarathi Poovu was one such movie. Directed by Padmarajan, it had Madhavi play the lead role. Madhavi, with her melancholic eyes, and a persona that comes across as vulnerable and resilient, was perhaps the perfect fit for the character of a woman who had lived through the tragic death of her children in an accident. However, Baby Soniya was just as convincing in a complex role. She delivered a compelling performance as a child with special needs. Her responses and reactions in the movie were subtle and sublime- so much so that the distinction between fact and fiction, between actor and character, blurred. Her body language, her vacant stare, her portrayal of a fragile and perceptive mind, her limited speech, her easy anguish- Padmarajan did not leave any room for the slightest suggestion of artificiality in his character.

Subtle and sublime.

That was Padmarajan’s signature. He would narrate his stories from a pedestal that bordered between simplicity and complexity, between life and art. He captured in his narrative the subtle nuances of human behavior- the sublime shades and tones that breathe life into a character.

A woman sits by a fire and dispenses into it a child’s clothes. As the clothes catch fire, she is lost in some deep thought. There is a palpable sense of loss about her, about the way the flames eat up the clothes, about the red tint of fabric that glows before being reduced to ashes.

The title song (bgm) unfolds on a haunting note- a Johnson score that embodies the melancholic nature of the movie, and instantly draws you into it. A strange sadness. That is what one is made to feel. A sadness that is one’s own, buried in some forbidden recess of the mind. A sadness reminiscent of the loss of something precious. Something that can no longer be verbalized, but only felt.

Madhavi as Padmini in Nombarathi Poovu

Padmarajan was truly a gatekeeper of losses. In his movies, we would discover our personal losses, connecting us to a precious part of ourselves that we lost to time.

Padmarajan had an affinity for solitude. In the places that he chose for the backdrop of his movies, there was a palpable solitude. Places where one could feel and hear the sounds of nature. The day receding. Night creeping into the woods. The chorus of crickets. The sound of leaves rustling. Of waves crashing. The open skies. A peripheral rim of human existence embracing this solitude.

Moonam Pakkam, Innale, Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal, Nombarathi Poovu, Njan Gandharvan. All these movies were set against the backdrop of a solitude- a remote village with a small population of closely knit people. People who had somehow moved away from the hustle bustle and chaos of man-made cities. People who had found the courage to embrace the melancholic solitude of such places- to find comfort in its silence. This was perhaps an important ingredient of his movies because the unfolding of human emotions against this backdrop of solitude imparted an intensity to the experience of the movie that was otherwise not possible.

The palpable solitude created a strange awareness of how lonely, how fragile our lives are.

The movie unfolds with the introduction of Gigi (Baby Soniya), shrouded in mystery. Gigi’s behavioral problems are apparent from the start.

We see a disheveled child seated in a bus, unaccompanied by an adult, unsure of her destination. She appears lost, and is oblivious to her surroundings. She refuses to get off the bus until the conductor drives her out with sharp tones. She wanders, not knowing where to go, oblivious to the risks and dangers that surround her.

Baby Soniya as the mysterious Gigi

To her good fortune, a vendor helps her locate the address she holds out on a crumpled piece of paper. Gigi finds herself at the house of Padmini (Madhavi) who receives her with much warmth and affection. Padmini shares the house with Anita (Shaari) and the viewer is made to wonder as to what circumstances have caused these two young women to rent a house and live on their own.

Padmini settles effortlessly into the role of a mother to Gigi, and the viewer is made to ponder on the deep connection between the two. Who in truth, is Gigi? What is the trauma that has somehow connected Gigi to Padmini? One eagerly waits for these answers.

Gigi throws up convulsions that night, and Padmini is worried. Padmini and Anita notice that the child demonstrates a lack of personal grooming and hygiene. Though she has learned to read and write, she does not seem to recognize all the alphabets. She is also unable to spell out colors.

Padmini helps Gigi identify and spell out the primary colors

Padmini consults a neurologist who prescribes strong sedatives. She is devastated by the outcome as Gigi is drowsy most of the time. Also, she gets a taste of Gigi’s fragility. Gigi breaks at the slightest trauma; a mere change in demeanor disturbs her and causes her to leave the house and wander. Perhaps, a child’s natural reaction to negativity is to run away from it- physically as much as mentally. Padmini is anxious that the child may put herself in danger. When Padmini expresses her concern to the doctor, she refers Gigi to Dr Padmanabhan (Mammootty), a psychotherapist who runs an institution for mentally retarded children.

Padmini takes Gigi to Dr Padmanabhan’s institution. However, he initially refuses to accommodate Gigi as he assumes that Padmini is Gigi’s own mother and that she is here to merely relieve herself of the burden of a child with a behavioral disorder. At this point, the movie takes us to the twist of fate that has brought Padmini and Gigi together. Padmini narrates her story.

Padmini is a college lecturer and leads a happy life with her husband Sethu (Lalu Alex) and their two daughters. Sethu is a loving husband, and she has nothing to complain about. He is an automobile engineer and has a passion for riding. Despite her protests, he finds great pleasure in riding recklessly through the streets. On that fateful day, he meets with an accident and though he survives, both the children are killed. A shocked Padmini catches a glimpse of her children- two lifeless bundles of white cloth on the cold table of the mortuary.

Padmini is unable to come to terms with this loss. She is unable to forgive Sethu and her mind holds him responsible for the death of her children. They separate, although not legally.

Padmini’s short-lived happiness

This separation brings out an important aspect of human relationships. Of motherhood. In the void created by the loss of her children, Padmini is unable to find consolation in the companionship of her spouse. The mother in her is so traumatized that this void is the only emotion she feels. In her mind, her husband is now the murderer of their children. This perception negates the truth in the companionship that they have built over the years. The loss of her children enables her to give up her relationship with her spouse while he becomes more needy of it. This separation compels us to dwell upon the deep truth in the emotion that is motherhood. A mother’s ability to love. As opposed to every other relationship.

Padmini subsequently meets Gigi in the setting of an accident. As she is returning from her hometown after the summer vacation, the bus skids into a gorge and a few passengers are killed while some are injured. Padmini wakes up in a hospital and discovers Gigi in the bed next to hers. Gigi and her mother have also suffered serious injuries and while Gigi is unconscious, her mother shows signs of life. However, on the third day, the mother dies while Gigi survives and comes out of coma. Padmini feels a grave concern for this child who is unaware of the tragedy that has befallen her- the loss of her mother. The first few days, this news of her mother’s death is not broken to Gigi. However, as she recovers, Gigi starts to wander in the wards, looking frantically for her mother. An attender breaks the news to her; his lack of sensitivity and satire towards the child’s predicament make one realize how cruel and cold the world can be. The child cries, and one cannot help thinking of how traumatic it must be for a young child to carry the burden of such a deep tragedy on her head. The child is too young to rationalize these emotions, to think logically through the circumstances.

Gigi receives with confusion and shock the news of her mother’s death

Padmini befriends the child. The void left behind in her life by the loss of her children is filled in a strange way by the orphaned Gigi. Padmini discovers that Gigi has nobody to go to, nowhere to go to, and has very little memory of her past that might have helped in finding her a home.

Padmarajan leads us to an important sequence in the movie. Padmini and Gigi play hide and seek in the hospital. This sequence is accompanied by a BGM- meant to draw the viewer’s attention to this sequence. This little game of hide and seek connects to the climax of the movie in a manner that bypasses the language of words and powerfully communicates to the viewer the vulnerability of the human mind, of its need to love and be loved. We see Gigi chase Padmini through the corridors while Padmini cleverly manages to keep out of sight. She calls out “Olliche!” (I have hidden!) as she moves from one hiding place to another, and eventually reveals herself.

This sequence is metaphorically representative of a mother who has gone into hiding after the loss of her children, and is discovered by an orphaned child.

“Olliche!”

 

Padmini and Gigi build an inseparable bond

Padmini is shortly discharged, and as she bids goodbye to Gigi who has nowhere to go to when discharged, she writes down her address on a piece of paper and hands it out to Gigi. It is this crumpled piece of paper that helps Gigi locate Padmini.

Dr Padmanabhan is moved by the story of this woman who has embraced this child with special needs as her own. He agrees to enroll her in his institution as a day scholar so that Gigi is taken care of when Padmini is working and Gigi is all alone at home.

His compassionate approach to Gigi helps her trust him. He gifts her a toy dog that moves its limbs and makes sounds at the press of a button. He playfully assures her that the dog will protect her and take care of her. Gigi, being intensely perceptive, treasures the gift, holding on to his words, and is very possessive about it. In a strange way, the dog symbolizes an emotional security to the child. ‘Pangi‘, the dog, comes alive in Gigi’s mind, and is capable of providing her protection and security.

Gigi is drawn to “Pangi”

When Anita reunites with her husband and moves out of the house, Gigi feels a longing for the security of a home- a home that rests on the pillar of a family. She expresses her desire to integrate into the “home” that Padmini had once built with her family. She begins to see her life with Padmini as incomplete, and yearns for a sense of belonging in a more grounded sense. The thought of a house that was once inhabited by a happy family, the thought of a return to the fulfilling life that Padmini had walked away from, grows in her.

Gigi’s dream materializes. Gigi bridges the gap between Padmini and Sethu , and with a little push from Dr Padmanabhan, they move in as a family into Sethu’s new house. However, the initial calm and happiness fades away as Sethu demonstrates his inability to love and accept Gigi for who she is. He makes occasional efforts, but they do not last because to him, Gigi is only a means to reach out to his wife who had shut him out after the tragedy surrounding their lives. Sethu is not concerned about Gigi’s feelings or her future; he makes no attempt to know her or understand her. He fails to see the fragility of her mind.

As the turbulence in their relationship builds up, Gigi is deeply disturbed. Her initial progress wherein she has overcome her mental anguish and made it to a normal school, is arrested abruptly. The child finds herself in conflict again as she realizes that she cannot belong in Padmini’s world, despite Padmini’s deep love for her. This unmasks the insecurity that the child has battled ever since her mother’s death, and she begins to feel that she is yet again losing the security of the world she had temporarily experienced.

The climax is moving. Haunting. An unsuspecting Padmini reassures Gigi that everything is going to be alright. As she leads the child to the car, Gigi breaks free and takes to the woods. She hides and calls out- “Olliche!Padmini assumes that this is a sequel to the hide and seek game in the hospital and she plays along. Gigi runs deeper into the woods. Padmini runs frantically after her. Gigi refuses to stop. It is then that Padmini suspects that the child is running away for ever. She runs desperately to keep pace, but Gigi disappears from sight, leaving behind Pangi who makes the last sound, the last move, before going quiet. Padmini picks up Pangi, looking no further for Gigi, for she has a strange intuition that Gigi has gone forever. In this game of hide and seek, it is Gigi who hides, and Padmini is unable to find her. This time, the hide and seek game culminates in the loss of the child, leaving behind an “orphaned” mother.

“Pangi” lies abandoned on the ground

A search team discovers Gigi’s lifeless body deep in the jungle, and only an autopsy can shed light on the cause of her death. But Padmini does not want to know. She does not want to see Gigi’s body. She can see Gigi clearly, running. Running far away from the insensitivity and cruelty of a world that is unable to accommodate the fragility of Gigi’s beautiful mind.

Gigi breaks free and finds her freedom from an insensitive and cruel world

On this note, the movie ends. And we find ourselves glued to our chairs, wondering.

Wondering what might have caused Gigi’s death. Did she just wander deep into the jungle and fall prey to some wild animal? Or did she commit suicide? Did she plan to run away even as she initiated the game of hide and seek? How would Padmini cope with this second loss? What would be her reaction to Sethu– the man who led to the death of her own children, and now, Gigi’s death? The man who snatched away her motherhood?

We wonder. We wonder…and realize that Padmarajan has shaken the very pedestal on which we stood until that point and viewed life…

In the darkness

At that dark hour,

long past midnight,

when the world is in deep slumber,

I sit up in bed,

and cry.

It is then that I see the loneliness that haunts this world,

loneliness as dark as this night.

The dark alleys of this world,

its unsafe streets.

The millions of lonely souls,

shivering in the cold,

with nowhere to go,

and no one to hug.

Those fragile hearts,

shattered by a brutal world,

broken irreparably.

Innocent and ignorant children,

wandering the streets,

unaware of the perils that lurk in the shadows.

Trusting and loving animals,

unsuspecting of the cruelty that fills the hearts

of the species that claims itself to be the most intellectually evolved.

I see them all in this darkness-

the retarded and the insane,

the oppressed and the abused,

the abandoned and the unloved.

In this darkness, the fear leaves me,

only to be replaced by a deep sadness.

I suddenly realize that it is naked life I am staring at, in this darkness…

Life, that is otherwise blurred by the radiance of daylight.

I inhale this darkness,

knowing that the courage it imparts is precious…

Knowing that I have lived through the hours of this night.

Destined to meet?

We don’t meet people by accident. They are meant to cross our path for a reason.

When I was in college, I picked up this hobby of meeting new people. People outside the realms of family or the social institutions I was a part of. The internet had just made an entry into our lives and that was a good place to meet interesting people. People who were successful in their domains. People who read ardently. People who did music or photography. People who could inspire me in some way, and help me rise above the small world that surrounded me. This contradicted with my conventional upbringing. It also contradicted with my self-conscious nature. But I suppose when I met new people- people who knew nothing about the nuances of the life I led, I felt a confidence I did not feel with the people in my small world. With new people, I had no worry of being judged. That I had the freedom to walk out if I was not comfortable, made me feel relaxed in their company. I realized that I was more myself in such company. I realized that I was different from what I had imagined myself to be until that point in time. I was discovering newer aspects of my personality that I never knew existed, and I was slowly beginning to like myself. My world expanded and as I met more and more people from different walks of life, I realized that each individual brought with them a wealth of experience. Enough to inspire, enough to make me fall in love with the world. Above all, fall in love with the human mind.

If you give people a willing ear- a chance to talk about things they are passionate about, they will let you into their minds. And this journey into their minds is the most fascinating part of my interactions with people. A random stranger sitting next to you in the bus may perhaps share the dark stories of his life- stories that he has perhaps never shared with most people. A shy or introverted kid may let you into their secretive world and take you through a landscape of fantasy and imagination that you never expected to find beneath their introversion! People strip off their masks, and when they do that, they are all beautiful beneath.

After 8 years, I ran into AR, an old friend of mine. AR had studied with me at one point in time and I remember him as this kid who did not fit into the mold. He was a little lost, and yet, he was so full of novel thoughts. However, the distance between the novelty he was chasing and the conventional scheme of examinations was infinite. I also remember his ease with words- the words were carved from a need to express, and there was life in them. But as is the case with most extraordinary minds, they are perceived as eccentric by conventional society. Everybody regarded AR as a failure, and he proved it right for them by dropping out.

However, as he took me through his life after that phase- the hardships he endured as he hit rock bottom, and the uphill journey thereafter, surviving against all odds, my heart went out to him. Here was a boy who had carved his life from the experience of suffering. He spoke about it matter-of-fact, and I could sense the acceptance in his mellow tones. He did not for a minute seem to believe that he was a champion, and that was the beauty of his personality. But he was aware of the richness of the experiences that had carved him, and I could see that he was more conscious of something larger than himself. I celebrated every moment I spent with him and I was so glad he had come out a survivor.

I was grateful to him because he suddenly put my life in perspective. He connected me to the wide universe that the city seemed to have blurred out for me. He connected me to the self I had lost ten years ago. The wanderlust me.

Some of us are wanderers. When trapped in physical space, we wander mentally. From story to story, fantasy to fantasy. We travel in the alleys of the mind. Between perceptions, thoughts, dreams. The thin line that separates fact and fiction, fades away. Did I just define madness? Or did I define genius?

Lessons from a legend

Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did...”

One of my favorite hobbies is to look up articles or interviews pertaining to the extraordinary souls who inspired me. I like to gather every little detail about them- about how they lived their lives, about what made them extraordinary, about their perspectives on life. I like to know the little things, and the big things. I like to read about their work. Silently, I celebrate them in my mind.

Over the years, this hobby has been at the least, educative. Unconsciously, I have absorbed so many aspects of these perspectives that I almost feel I was witness to their lives, to the processes within their phenomenal minds. To the point that sometimes I begin to feel that I am one with them. That I live a different chapter of their lives.

It was this hobby that recently led me to an interview with Sindhu Lohithadas, wife of the master storyteller, Lohithadas. Lohithadas passed away on the 28th of June, 2009. It has been almost ten years since, but it wasn’t a grieving, melancholic widow that I saw in this interview. I saw a happy and lively woman who spoke of Lohithadas as if he existed somewhere, unseen to the rest of the world…as if he had just gone off to sleep…or perhaps taken a retirement from the world. I was intrigued by the strength of her spirit. What was it that prevented her from breaking, from losing herself, despite the loss of a companion who was irreplaceable?

Lohithadas left at the peak of his career, and not when he was fading away from the world of cinema. He left when the void created by his loss was most palpable to the world. The flame of a burning lamp is best put out while there is oil in the lamp. We do not wait for the oil to be consumed, for the wick to dry.

I found this thought beautiful. We all want to live as long as there is life within us- life that makes us significant, worthy and useful to the world. Once we are a burden to the world, the desire to live ceases.

Lohithadas may not have survived the transformation in cinema. The stories changed, the story-telling changed, the direction changed. Technology transformed cinema as a whole. The sensibility and the taste of the audience changed. Would his movies be relevant to such an audience? I suppose not. That would have affected him, upset him. It is good he didn’t have to live through that.

I couldn’t agree more. I am not sure how many young people in this generation would have the emotional sensibility or aesthetic sense to embrace and enjoy his films- his stories, his characters, his deep insights into the human psyche. The genius of his films would have been lost upon them. I am glad he is no more. And I am glad I belong to a generation that grew up in an era when malayalam cinema was at its best. When cinema was an experience beyond entertainment. When cinema set standards for life and fed the soul.

Solitude. That is the only wealth I have earned for myself in this life. It is a wealth worth accumulating. In solitude, there is no sense of loss. Time stops and everything is in eternal bloom- people, perceptions, memories. Like the flowers that bloom in the garden here. The world is as it has always been. The way I have always liked it to be. Lohithadas is very much alive in these perceptions.

It suddenly struck me that over the years, I too had fallen in love with solitude. My mind had awakened to its potential. To its richness, its strength.

I have always been weak and vulnerable in the company of people. It was in solitude that I found my strength. In fact, I have realized that solitude is the deepest form of companionship- an intimate companionship with the self. Nature facilitates this companionship. Once we have developed this companionship with our own selves, we realize that everything that we thought was lost, can be found within us. Within a memory, a perception, an internal dialogue. A dialogue that is as much with the self as with nature, with God, with people dead, with people lost to time.

Being someone who was never comfortable with the loss of people, it was this internal dialogue that rescued me from the fear of loss. Sindhu’s words strengthened this realization for me.

This write-up is an answer to a question I often ask myself- how will I handle the loss of someone very near and dear to me?

Isn’t it a miracle that the strongest, most courageous individuals are often the ones with the most fragile minds?

Life versus lifestyle

The conversation at the table was about cosmetic brands. Men and women were both discussing brands. The choice of brands was being discussed with a seriousness that one would normally attribute to important choices in life. As people discussed prices and wishlists, the conversation turned to money.

“I wish I was richer!”

(Richer so as to be able to afford the brands)

The conversation then drifted to marrying into rich families, wealthy in-laws, and well, the art of making money. It was the common dream, the only dream.

I was sorry for them. They were so empty within that their lives revolved around a lifestyle. Many young people I meet these days, seem to lead very empty lives. Their inner world is so empty that all their motivation comes from a lifestyle. The only dream is to earn lots of money so that they can afford a lifestyle. Consumerism is the dream. How much more shallow can human life get?

These are young people who have nothing meaningful to talk about, to think about. Beyond the confines of their plush apartments, the comfort of the cabs they ride or the flights they board, is a world they have never seen. They have never really stepped out of their material worlds to see the struggle and suffering that constitutes human life. These are people who have never known what it is to be alive. They have never had to build their lives; they have never been responsible for another life. They have never known what it is to struggle for the most basic necessities; they have never known the pain of not being wanted, of being insignificant to the world. They do not know that the real horrors of life are quite unlike the horror movies they have watched. They do not know what courage it takes to confront raw, naked life.

Somewhere in the course of our development as a society, we mixed up success as having something to do with social status, with material accomplishments. Our workplaces and educational institutions that once used to be beautiful, happy places, transformed into the ugliest places. Where people once brought with them emotions and experiences to share, people are now bringing in lifestyles and insecurities.

The most extraordinary people I have met are seldom successful. And that doesn’t stop them from being happy. Because they are living their lives to the fullest.

I remember a friend of mine who was truly extraordinary. But not many people were aware of it. There was so much he had achieved in terms of touching lives, winning hearts, creating art. However, he had never really captured those moments, those accomplishments. He had nothing to show the world. He liked it that way. His anonymity. His private world. His infinite accomplishments, not known to the world. His biggest dream and retirement plan was to volunteer in a National Park in Africa.

The world was busy celebrating those focused individuals who could find the whole meaning of their life in a job. The ones capable of reducing their life to little more than a job. But then they had designations and titles, awards and medals, money and power. They had been interviewed, they had been written about. All in the context of the success mantra.

But the world did not see the contentment, the sublime happiness in my friend’s heart. Instead, it idolized the “success symbol”. It was what everyone ought to be. If you didn’t succeed, you were a loser.

Where are we headed? Perhaps the day we learn to replace lifestyle with life all over again, we will find our way back to happiness, to humanity.

Mother

Frail and thin, the muscles wasted away. A body, worn out from caring- from fuelling the lives that had always mattered much more than her own life.

I saw the flutter of veins on her neck, beneath the skin that was now papery thin. That flutter was life. The life from which I was born. The first life I had known. Before even coming out into the world.

For a moment, I thought about life without her. I couldn’t imagine a life without her. It was then I realized I could not think of her life as distinct from mine. Despite the cord having been severed, I could never think of my life as anything but an extension of hers.

Mother. She will be the one truth in our lives. The biggest truth. And yet, we will have to part with her. That too, is a truth.

Mother. Frail and thin, but infinitely larger than all the words I could find in this mortal life.