In the days of my early manhood, a south Calcutta theatre called Menoka used to show Malayalam or Tamil films on Sunday mornings. Since the early years of the 20th century, Tamils have been in residence in south Calcutta, usually as office-workers, thereby giving to this area a second name – Chhota Madras (Madras in miniature). Malayalees are more recent arrivals but, true to style, they have adjusted themselves to their new surroundings with admirable confidence. To return to Menoka, one hot Sunday morning I was introduced to Malayalam cinema in the shape of the national award-winning Chemmeen, directed by Ramu Kariat. As Sheela, Sathyan and Madhu played out a ‘coastal’ drama of unrequited love to the music of Salil Chowdhury and the singing of Manna Dey, I watched with avid curiosity another drama that was taking place all around me in the darkness of the theatre – Malayalees of many ages and classes and of course both sexes were weeping and wiping their tears without a care as to who thought what of their sobbing. Speaking for myself, I was mildly touched by the story, the songs and the acting. After the lights came on, I left the theatre quite entertained in a popular sort of way. Little did I know then of the role that Chemmeen was to play for decades among the masses whenever a film discussion would be started by Malayalees. Again, little did I know then that my subsequent life would bring me close to many distinguished figures of New Malayalam Cinema, including directors, directorial assistants, producers, critics and viewers of high intellectual and artistic pedigree.
Since then, much water has flowed down the Hooghly. Now, these days, in my poor man’s calendar I mark out some days in December for my annual trip to Trivandrum. The trip is so that I can see a few meaningful films, but the festival begins even before the train starts for the Kerala capital. I save, I borrow, to make the journey possible. The long, slow train once used to start from the shit-and-pee smelling Howrah station, but since the last few years, from a non-descript terminus called Shalimar, a few miles away from Howrah. Among the passengers are to be found many Malayalees of limited means. Also to be found are Bengali travellers who can be divided into two groups – the sightseers and the bodily- afflicted. About the sightseers, what is there really to say save that most often they are loud in their clothes, their manners, and their spending; carnival of consumption, as if there won’t be a morrow. It is the bodily-afflicted who arrest your imagination from the moment your eyes come to settle on them.
My admittedly bizarre fascination for this train – the Shalimar Thiruvananthapuram Express – has grown out of the fact that it is largely a hospital on wheels. The train is an ambulance loaded with men and women and stories of suffering. People jokingly, I mean those who are not at the receiving end, call it the ‘Patients’ Train’; what they don’t add for want of head or heart or both is that it takes a lot of patience for the patients to put up with the breathtaking slowness of the train. The tale of collective woe, at once fascinating and frustrating, ceases only with the patients limping out or being helped out by others once the train reaches a place called Katpady from where one can take one of many forms of transport to Vellore where Christ is said to wait for his children with open arms and a wide human smile. Folklore has it that more than medicines, Vellore cures those who come to it with its compassion and deep concern for people in pain.
Patients travelling on the train are unanimous about the rapacity or amateurishness or both with which Calcutta doctors and nursing homes mistreat them. In the end when sufferers find that no relief is forthcoming yet the hospital bills keep growing by leaps and bounds, they are literally forced to flee to Vellore, the most popular destination in the southern part of the country to obtain a little succour, if not complete cure. I remember the young man with a simple broken leg who was left untreated for days at a big hospital on the eastern-metropolitan bypass in Calcutta once the hospital administration came to know that his medical expenses would be borne by his employer – ITC, the big Indian multinational. When the family of the young man found that gangrene was about to set in, they hastily took him out of the hospital and booked passage to Katpady. The young man had tears in his eyes as he spoke of the sufferings that he had to endure at the hospital. His widow mother and maternal uncle held his hands or stroked his head as he lay with a wooden splinter fastened to his leg. I still remember his words that the bodily pain he had to put up with was less painful than the indifference of the doctors and nurses who thought nothing of his dignity as a human being.
The train to Trivandrum told me many stories, each as frightening or encouraging as the next depending on how you looked at life and vagaries of fortune. The same train that told me the story of the young man with the broken leg, also spoke of honour, solidarity and other rare blessings. One year on my trip homewards after the film festival, I discovered to my amazement that I was travelling with a sex-worker who was going to Calcutta for an international gathering of sex-workers. Jameela, for that was her name, was travelling in the company of Dr. Jayashree who was like a sister and mentor to her and her colleagues back in Kerala. There was no end to my curiosity about Jameela’s life in an occupation familiar to many members of polite society who, however, have no difficulty in distancing themselves from it once their need is satisfied. On hindsight, I think Jameela was a bit amused, she certainly showed no irritation as she patiently replied in Malayalam which was translated by Dr. Jayashree. We were together on the train for two nights and almost two whole days during which time we joked, shared our food and became good friends.
Jameela is known all over Kerala and beyond by the name of Nalini Jameela. Ever since her memoirs by the name of The Autobiography of a Sex-Worker was published in the early years of this century, she has become a household name all over India. With regard to the book, translated from the original Malayalam by the well-known Trivandrum social-scientist J. Devika, its author is on record thus: “Sex-workers are free in four respects. We don’t have to cook for a husband; we don’t have to wash his dirty clothes; we don’t have to ask for his permission to raise our kids as we deem fit; we don’t have to run after claiming rights to his property.” The book became a bestseller when it was first published in Malayalam. Subsequently, when it was translated into English it was read by even more people across India.
Another year on my journey back to Calcutta I met a delightful young fellow by the name of Ayan Banerjee who boarded the train at Katpady with his father, a development officer with the Life Insurance Corporation of India. Ayan is a fine talker and I found that he made friends easily. Within a short time of finding out each other’s name, a beaming Ayan told us that the Vellore doctors and nurses had cured him of leukaemia, adding that he had however been advised to return once every year for the doctors to decide on the status of his health. At night, as I lay awake in my berth, I told myself that perhaps life is like that – in the end things even out. I was reminded of the young man with the broken leg, there might be others with even more serious afflictions, and here a couple of feet away from me was a bundle of energy sleeping soundly, going back to Burdwan town to his anxiously waiting mother, little brother and his wide collection of stamps and coins, cured of such a deadly visitation as leukaemia. (I have kept up with Ayan. He is now fully cured and doing engineering studies at Jadavpur University.)
My father was a wonderful storyteller who regaled his children and many others besides with all sorts of stories. He had a style that was all his own, he knew the effectiveness of pauses, when to raise his voice a bit or when to lower it. But the most remarkable thing about this storyteller was that he was also a good story-listener. He used to say that Indians in general and Bengalis in particular are so much in love with their own voice and of course their own opinions, that they have hardly any time or any interest in listening to what others are saying. I still remember the twinkle in his eyes as he told us that if you do not collect stories from others, pray, how are you going to get stories to tell others. The stories I collected from fellow-passengers on my long journeys to and from Trivandrum could fill many a fat diary – accounts about the human condition in an endless variety of form and content. In the end, what these stories tell me is that every life is precious and that there can be no valid explanation to taking it lightly. What makes me angriest and saddest is when I read in the papers or hear from someone that some youngster has put his or her life to an end for, of all things on earth, failing in his or her exams. There is no way that any sense can be made out of a senseless waste of an invaluable resource like human life. Ayan makes me want to live at least thirty years more. If that happens, I would be only a hundred.
Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.