Scene One: Seated on the cool, polished steps leading to the main entrance of Kairali Theatre in Trivandrum, a small man with a melodious voice was singing with his eyes closed – to the visible appreciation of a group of young men and women come from different parts of Kerala for the ongoing international film festival. The singer was dressed in a clean half-sleeved shirt and a clean mundu. There was one or two days’ neglected vegetation on his chin and cheeks.

Scene Two: The same man stood up to ask a question at a discussion on contemporary Malayalam cinema. The audience broke out in infectious twitters before he had uttered his first word. After the laughter died down, the questioner spoke in a unique, colloquial style which went down famously with the audience. Everyone appeared to know him on first-name terms, some more closely than others.

Scene Three: Statue Junction, Trivandrum, one December morning. I was making my way to the DC Books showroom when who should I see walking up the gradient towards the statue but the singer-questioner with two young men in tow, one on either side of him. They seemed to be in a jolly good mood even at that early hour. Our eyes met, he gave an impish smile of recognition, and took my hands in his. He introduced me to his friends and still holding my hand, took me to a nearby shop where he displayed his ‘Bengali friend’ as some prize object to the salespeople suddenly come alive. Such an experience of spontaneous camaraderie is impossible to forget. To have known the man was to have known Adam; the untutored, unspoilt aborigine; the original inhabitant whose strength was in his knowledge that man was born free to die free, and that anything that came in the way of freedom was an irritant to be simply shooed away.

Many such scenes centering round the man-about-town who wrote poetry, sang, drank, gossiped and played the fool with whoever was on the same wave length as his, can be recalled; each more curious, more funny, more revelatory about the essence of the creative human spirit, than the next. But three should be enough to tell the tale of the man’s profound engagement with life, flawed but beautiful and waiting to be redeemed.

Ten years ago, on an October day which I would give anything to be able to erase from the calendar of my memory, a student of mine brought me the news that Ayyappan the poet had gone out of business, the business of living. After having walked and walked miles without end and never rested till his lungs ordered him to in the tone of an ultimatum, the Ultimate Nowhere Man perhaps thought that he had had enough of life’s horseplay; the play should end and the horse put to rest.

What a mythic life this child of Kerala’s marshes, mountains and metaphors lived! I may be situated a thousand miles away from the Laurie Baker–designed coffee house, with a touch of the Qutab Minar, near the bustling Trivandrum bus depot, but there is no way that I can control my imagination rushing ahead at full throttle once I hear or see or read something related to the hammer-sized, Aristotelian walking-machine. Sadly, he will no longer be there in person to inspire, incite, instigate the misfits and dropouts of Malayali society to great deeds of outrageous conduct, because he is no longer there. But memories have strange, unpredictable habits – perhaps memories about the maverick will continue to do the disturbing act.

If Ayyappan had lived in ancient Athens, the cradle of countless idiosyncrisies, creativities and perversities, perhaps they would have condemned him as a subversive – a plotter and a corrupter; made life miserable for him in many ways; but in the end erected a memorial in exquisite marble for the world to adore. In Trivandrum of circa 2010, many men and women – mainly subaltern, proletarian, humane, seemingly lumpen – must have shed a heartfelt tear at the passing away of the peripatetic poet. But I also suspect that not a few heaved a big sigh of relief. To put it mildly, Ayyappan was an embarrassment that the bourgeois, the moral policemen and the social climbers, could do without; a curse on the brow of settled, ordered society. He was that “out damn spot” that a murderous, conscience-stricken woman kept telling herself till she went mad. Ayyappan came not to go out, but to stay put for at least some more time to come, to give the gatekeepers to society’s mansion and its seven-star inmates a real hard time.

The news of Ayyappan’s disappearance (death is such a weak, almost frivolous word  to use to denote the fact that we will never see the riotous, quietly rebellious one in person again) was brought to me one day after class by a final semester M.A. student named Aby Abraham. Aby, who belongs to Adoor, the same place that has produced the well-known film director who represents in his meticulously-measured persona everything that Ayyappan wasn’t, held in his sheepish hands a piece of paper that I soon recognised to be the Trivandrum journalist Gouridasan Nair’s tribute to the memory and example of Ayyappan.

I have a confession to make to the reader who is my understanding priest. Much of what I know about Ayyappan I have gathered down the years from others. True, I knew him, met him many times, but the spoken language barrier stood in the way of greater communication. But, come to think of it, judging by the kind of man that Ayyappan was, the kind of free spirit that he was, and the kind of ideas that he effortlessly conveyed by means of his earthy, uncultivated, elemental behavior, one did not need the direct spoken word to reach him. Perhaps, the best way to reach the core of his being was to rely on hearsay, on bazaar gossip, on speculation and conjecture, and on the attempts by the mean-spirited to put him down by erecting a façade of indifference whenever his name came up in public discussion or private conversation. If in life, Ayyappan was an unintended threat to the designs of entrepreneurs trying to pass for artists and intellectuals, I hope that in death, sorry, disappearance, he will be Banquo’s ghost ceaselessly haunting and tormenting and driving to crazy the remorseless Macbeths. A more telling denouement to the saga of the innocent fallen among the wolves would be difficult to ask for.

***

Ayyappan and John Abraham, the plebeian charmer of a filmmaker, were close chums. Many were the escapades in which they joined along with others of their kind – all prophets and madmen seeking in separate and united ways a way out of the gloom and sterility of timeless social behavior. At the core of their vision was the question – How to transcend the ‘ethics’ of an unethical social order that determinedly refused to listen to the wails of the anguished many.

Today, when there is no John Abraham to persuade people to listen to the sound of heavy boots descending the Odessa steps, it might seem that the consciousness he spawned in many youthful hearts is a thing of the past, but the reality is a bit different. Abraham’s (and by extension Ayyappan’s) legacy lives on in at least some unknown men and women who refuse to allow the essence of the radical embers to die out. They do not aspire to be heroes or saints, but neither are they to be counted as freaks or non-descript on account of their angularities and unconventional behavior.

My long years of intercourse with Kerala have made me believe that in Malayali life, as in Malayalam cinema, alcohol acts at least in some well-chosen cases as an instrument of defiance against hypocrisies and self-serving instincts of polite society. One way of looking at Ayyappan is that he deliberately and consciously opted out of the elaborate charades that many of his literary fellows are given to playing as a pathological habit. If this sounds like romantic nonsense to some, it can’t really be helped. As I see it, the ideas and ideals that made for the radical movement in the Kerala cityscape and countryside alike once upon a time, were there in the composite persona of Ayyappan till the very end. That sentiment called love without which Che Guevara said no revolutionary movement or change was possible, was present in ample measure in Ayyappan all the time. I like to believe that Ayyappan wrote some of his most beautiful lines under the spell of that which can kill even as it ennobles, combined with that thing called love which far exceeds compassion when it comes to going out of the way to be one with the people.

Was it the nomad in him or the visionary or a combination of the two that made Ayyappan walk for miles without a moment’s rest? Was he just another barefoot alcoholic, Kerala style, or a rare poet of principles moved to creativity by the beauty of his land co-existing with the wretchedness of undeserved tears? Was he a mirage, a fistful of memories, a horrific nocturnal dream, or the first light of dawn? Ayyappan, the tireless participant in little mischiefs that make life somewhat endurable, was a delight and a nightmare. A delight to children – and a few adults who have grown in years but refuse to part wholly with their childhood; a nightmare to the numerous constituents of genteel, middle-class society with their predictable agenda of loyal spouse, one or two well-scrubbed children, a roof of one’s own, and a nine-to-five job.

Honestly, if too many disruptive elements like Ayyappan were to start stalking the boulevards and by lanes of Kerala, pray, what would be the fate of the Malayali ‘gentleman’? But the fellow of nine-to-five credentials, his head reeling and his body profusely perspiring all over whenever he imagines that existentialist threat, needn’t really lose his sleep. For, in a forever changed world there are not too many Ayyappans left to poke fun at the typical householder’s allegiance to form and decorum.

Sathyan and Ayyappan were shadows of each other. It was a common sight to see them together during the week-long international film festival of Kerala every December. Some years ago, Sathyan gave me his video film on Ayyappan called Ethrayum Yatha Bhagam (The Journey So Far, 45 minutes, colour, English subtitles), which I found to be an engaging portrait of the poet for much of its duration; in other words, for as long as Ayyappan is shown in his natural habitat, that is Kerala. It is when Sathyan, as if gripped by a sudden fit of madness, proceeds to take his subject on a wholly unnecessary trip to Delhi towards the end of the film that it falters. In any case, a comradely hug was Sathyan’s due for showing the courage, the energy and the imagination to bring such a precious one as Ayyappan to the fore. After all, it is inconceivable that any of Kerala’s several directors who have made it on the international circuit, would find Ayyappan a subject worthy of commemoration. Obviously, what is meat to someone is poison to someone else.

On hindsight, one of the principal reasons for the failure of the radical movement to attain its objective of wresting control of the levers of political power is that when they ought to have spoken up for the dreams of the dreaming youths and against State repression, the middle-classes and their best-known representatives either chose to look the other way or actively assisted the powers-that-be in their reign of terror. What was and is true of Kerala, holds good for Bengal as well.

No one would contest the statement that alcohol and poetry were the overriding passions in Ayyappan’s life. Legions of stories have sprouted around his love of the bottle and the written/recited word. Many of the stories are said to be true; the others are meant to uphold the true ones. One of the truer stories is that it was usual for Ayyappan to plunge his hands into the shirt pockets of his friends and acquaintances, and walk off to the nearest bar with whatever was to be gleaned from those loving, amused, hapless souls. Perhaps the logic in this piquant transfer of wealth was that, after all, this world has a moral responsibility to keep the creative artist in a permanent state of spirited creativity! Speaking from personal experience, I know how my purse was lightened a few times by never more than a hundred rupee note by the adorable Ayyappan, who, thanks to an uncanny intelligence, knew very well whom to approach and to what extent.

Yet, the same man could intrigue many with his disinterest in money when it came to a question of conscience. Friends have told me that years ago the poet used to publish a little magazine call Aksharam (Alphabet). Old and young, men and women, collegians and office-goers – many were those who read the magazine with enthusiasm; its editor soon came to be called ‘Aksharam Ayyappan’. A Malayali friend, who has been living in Calcutta for more than two decades now, tells me how he had once sent his subscription to Aksharam, only to have the money returned by its editor with the information that the magazine had ceased publication. A man who could do with every extra rupee, if not for rice and sambhar then certainly for the elixir of life, saw no reason why he shouldn’t return the subscription money since the purpose for which it had been sent had ceased to exist.

One wants to believe that here was a holy relic of the radical past who was unable to tear himself away wholly from the memories of friends with whom he had once made promises to struggle for a better day. Reneging on their past, on their promises, may have become a way of life with the established Communist parties, but there is enough evidence still to suggest that there are Communists and Communists. If one looks closely and for long, perhaps one would discover a beaten shopkeeper or college lecturer, a working housewife or a seemingly aimless poet still clinging to the belief that they will overcome some day. A paradise for fools must have a little space for kinsmen like dreamers and madmen as well.

The same Calcutta Malayali friend told me that once, along with a host of writers, poets, painters, musicians and filmmakers, Ayyappan was asked by a leading Malayalam weekly to write on the subject of ‘Home and Family’. One artist wrote about his village home, another on his memories of childhood, yet another on some other allied aspect, and so it went. When it came to Ayyappan, he chose to dwell on what he knew best – the world of his wanderings as home and the inhabitants of that uncertain world as family. In the absence of a fixed address or of ‘near and dear ones’ as understood in the conventional sense, what else could he have written about?

Ayyappan lived alone for years with assorted dreams and thwarted desires for company; or with strangers in unknown places. At times, Goutama Buddha would visit him and weave his thoughts into the tapestry of his poems. At other times, his dead mother would materialize before his bleary eyes. She had been dead ages and was only a faint memory. She was a strong-willed woman and a beauty. In his film, Sathyan makes us listen to all this, and more, from Ayyappan’s lips. The director also shows us the block of stone commonly known as ‘Ayyappan’s Stone’ in front of the College of Arts and Crafts in Trivandrum on which the poet had been known to sleep some nights or take rest during the day. The municipal elders once took it into their head to have the stone removed, but withdrew when the idea met with stiff public resistance.

One has heard of Neruda’s poems being sung and danced by nameless thousands on the streets of Chilean town and cities; he was a rare cultured gentleman who made common cause with the poor and the exploited. But here was one without shoes, without a shred of formal education, without any of the familiar qualifications that make for a ‘gentleman’ who passed into Kerala folklore in his lifetime. It was nothing short of the magical that Ayyappan and his poetry, his real and his mythic selves, his negotiations with truth and his tomfooleries, everything effortlessly entered the hearts and minds of so many common people spread across several generations.

But there were deliberate detractors too. A writer-filmmaker of distinction said some time ago that he had once approaches the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi with a proposal with a proposal to make a film on Ayyappan. He was taken aback when his proposal was rejected on the stated ground that Ayyappan had been writing just one poem – the same poem – again and again for years together. The filmmaker was so disgusted with the Akademi’s pompous worthies that he didn’t even try to point out to the that that was precisely the point – every great artist does the same thing all his life, adding a little here, taking away something from there, redefining and re-inventing himself incessantly along the way without abandoning the essentials of his credo or his craft. Ayyappan was and is important because he never felt the need to keep jumping from subject to subject in a bid to appear topical, or from one style to another in keeping with fads and fashions or the dictates of readers. Both the mystery and the clarity that was Ayyappan is to be attributed to the overwhelming fact that he was always his own man, never asking for anything more than the wonderfully limited “intellectual” tools given to him to work with by an enormously wealthy destiny.

Ayyappan’s life-journey and his poetry were one; an occasional detour or short-cut might have been there out of some felt need, but the goal was one that remained fixed. His life was one long poem that had no use for dilettantism; for experimentation for experimentation’s sake; for praise from elements so coarse or so contrived or so corrupted by worldly success, that any form of appreciation or acceptance from them would have amounted to spiritual death.

The Brazilian poet Anotonio Machado’s words come to mind as one watches Sathyan’s film, watches Ayyappan walk alone across fields and forests, cross streams or climb hillocks, in search of that elusive quantity that only poets and philosophers and the elevated insane can recognize when they chance upon it. Machado wrote: “Walker, there are no roads / Roads are made by walking”. One fondly cherishes the thought that even as Ayyappan walked across both familiar and strange territory, he helped make roads that in time would, hopefully, come to be of use to other wandering souls in search of self and society, truth and beauty, and freedom from the chains of sterile conformity.

***

Hindu mythology has it that the Sun-God rides across the heavens and perhaps elsewhere as well, on an enormous shining chariot drawn by seven resplendent horses which are always competing among themselves for attention. Now that Ayyappan is no longer of the earth and has, presumably, risen to the region of the ether, it could well be that he has chosen to be the eighth horse of the Sun without whom as we all know, no life is possible. Only this eighth horse cannot be reined in by any force invented by man or the gods. Ayyappan never was for taming; he wrote his own horoscope and lived it. In my mind’s eye, I see him magically transformed – covered all over in a lustrous patina of sweat, mane wildly raised, tail swishing this way and that, nostrils flaring, hooves deeply dug in, gently furious eyes waiting for his own orders to rush like light across the seven heavens; a soothing light, the light of enlightenment without effort. Ayyappan lost is Ayyappan regained.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.


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