BY SAEED NAQVI
A priceless gift from a friend in Kerala, a Namboodiri to boot, is a film to augment my collection which has sustained my personal film festival to beat the unintelligible lockdown.
The film, Agraharathil Kazhutai, or Donkey in a Brahmin Village, was a pleasant shock not because of the title, but its authorship. The film is listed as one of the masterly satires by the late John Abraham. A baby donkey, whose mother has been beaten to death for reasons unknown, strays onto the doorstep of a tall, lanky professor of Philosophy in a local college. The donkey in the bachelor professor’s house leads to amusement, gossip, graffiti until the principal, a stern looking pastor, informs the professor that his hospitality towards the donkey was affecting the college’s reputation.
The professor carts the donkey by bus and bullock cart to the Agraharam or the Brahmin village where his parents live. A deaf and mute maidservant looks after the donkey.
The maid has an affair with the village washerman, delivers a still-born male child which is left outside the temple. The Chief Priest declares it the most dreadful omen, unanimously attributed by the elders to the donkey’s presence in the village. The animal is beaten to death, followed by a series of unfortunate events which the Agraharam, on second thoughts, blame on the fact that the donkey was killed in haste. A monument to the beast is planned. A wild fire dance burns much of the village leaving the professor and the maid contemplating the scene for its deeper significance.
The reason for my focus on the film is not ‘cinema’, but the fact that someone with a name like John Abraham could satirize the Agraharam with such outrageous audacity. In my limited experience — a day’s visit — the Agraharam was quite stately in its austerity. I saw no car on the street nor, in the middle of the day, was there any movement outside, dogs, cats, cattle, nothing. There is a lovely view of river Kalpathy below, like the Agraharam’s private pond for a holy dip.
Away from the road, on the stone seat were occasional bare bodied men, sporting the fattest janeyus I have seen. The visitor’s room has a mural size painting of Palghat Mani Iyer, the great mridangam player and a local icon. The centre of the main hall is dominated by a swing; every square inch of the wall space is covered with Gods and Goddesses. At the end of the passage is a ‘tulsi’ plant in a decorated pot on a pedestal. The master of the house, a man of wit and music, had worn a shirt to appear hospitable. With amusement in his eyes, he showed us where he slept: on a narrow bed in the passage. And his wife? “On the floor right below me.” He puts his head back and guffaws. But it is not quite so unequal. “She qualifies for the bed when she is unwell.”
I found it quaint, as an uncritical bird of passage would. But the Agraharam, like Peyton Place, would expose its darker side to a son of the soil, a few mohallas removed, like Abraham.
It is all so refreshing this informality across faiths, this ability to tolerate irreverence without ill will. The most popular political prisoner in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s The Wall is Basheer, pining for Narayani on the other side of the wall and whom he has not seen. Adoor is quite unselfconscious about the fact that the protagonists belong to different faiths. My romance with ‘God’s own country’ goes back to the 70s when I was editor of The Indian Express in the south. But a change has come upon me: earlier I admired Kerala, indeed much of the South; now I have begun to envy it.
India was always ones country, but the basic affiliation was with Awadh of which Lucknow was the markaz or centre. Mir Taqi Mir talked of Delhi’s destruction:
“Dill jo ek shaher tha alam mein intekhab
rehte thay muntakhib hi jahan rozgar ke
Usko falak ne loot ke barbaad kar diya
Hum rehne waley haen usi ujre dayar ke.”
(Delhi which was once the world’s pride, where only those with good manners lived,
Fortune turned upon the city, destroyed and looted it.
In that desolate city did I once live)
Replace Delhi with Awadh/Lucknow and you are somewhere near the root of those ogres in the mind.
Lucknow, indeed Awadh, was generosity personified. Ram Advani from Sindh was embraced as Lucknow’s very own. His bookshop was an incomparable cultural landmark. Among the Lucknavi’s several quaint beliefs: to be a lawyer or a doctor, you had to be a Bengali first. For obvious reasons, Western enlightenment had come to Bengal first. Riding this belief, Bengali lawyers and doctors had easy passage in Lucknow. The intellectual life of Lucknow University was dominated for long stretches by Radha Kumud and Radha Kamal Mukherjee. Little wonder, when Satyajit Ray, soaked in Bengaliness, ventured out of Bengal, it was towards Lucknow he deviated with his superb Shatranj ke Khiladi.
The ogres of the mind have been gestating for at least 30 years when the BJP and the Congress began to compete for the Hindu vote. The Congress chose to play both sides of the street. Once, V.P. Singh tossed the Mandal Commission into the simmering cauldron, the Hindutva brigade ran away with the platform of brazen anti Muslim Hindu consolidation, leaving the Congress sleeping by the lamp post with its soft saffron.
There is a certain demoralization in the anti Hindutva ranks at the presumed invincibility of Narendra Modi, despite the country crashing on every count. This may well be a function of shrewd tactics: keep the media focus away from regions where the country still breathes easy. It may not be such a good thing, though, for national cohesion if different parts of the country do not fit into the same frame.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on email@example.com)