Saturday, December 18, 2010
The Leader and the Accused- To My Children 6
Two different pictures: In the first one, I see myself sitting on the shoulders of a few young men, with garlands around my neck. Students and white dhoti-shirt clad men shout slogans, ‘KSU Zindabad, JohnyML Zindabad.’ The second picture also has a procession in progress, though this time I am not seen in the picture. It is a protest rally and it comes to the gate of my house. They render slogans in the air and it sounds like, ‘Vakkom Lakshmanan Murdabad, JohnyML Murdabad.’ I look for myself and finally I see him there standing behind the doors and looking at the protestors. Both these incidents happened when I was a student in the Vakkom Government High School where I studied between 1978 and1984.
Unlike the primary school years, my high school days were eventful. My father, after a few years of political silence had joined the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. He had a great disillusionment with his Revolutionary colleagues. My father never tried for any positions in the party nor did he try to contest in any elections. Even today I don’t have any clue about his political disillusionment. He used to be a reader of history of India. He read all the works of Marx and Engels. He also had the works of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in his collection. During the years of estrangement with the RSP, he was negotiating with the ideologies of different parties. Somehow he could not come to terms with the left ideologies. He was critical of the Congress party but eventually as a political being he had to publicly pronounce his alignment with a political establishment and it was the Indian National Congress.
Even before my father officially became a Congress member, he wore Khadi clothes and he was very particular about washing his own clothes. To whiten the Khadi dhoti and shirt, he used a mixture of Tino Pal and Robin Blue, two brands that have gone out of the constellation of our consumerist desires. In the place of Robin blue, a fine blue pigment, there came Ujala, a brand that produced liquid blue. And it was mandatory to have some worn out parts in these Khadi clothes. These torn off portions of the Khadi were symbolic of a life spent in penury, struggle, idealism and humility. My father’s Khadi dresses also had this kind of holes here and there and he flaunted them with a certain amount of flourish. As you know, a true Quixotian he was, he did not find any problem to wear a pair of dark goggles to cover his eyes. Perhaps, he liked the Dravidian politics of the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu where MGR ruled the roost for several years. As my father was balding by the time he got married to my mother, he started even wearing a cap like MGR. With the black glasses and cap, he resembled a DMK leader than a Congress leader. But when he officially joined the Congress party, he left the habit of wearing the cap.
One day father took me to the near by town Attingal to see Indira Gandhi, who had come to campaign for one of the elections in the state. Political Emergency was over and it was her come back trail and Indira Gandhi was traveling all over India in order to gain the confidence of the people and to campaign against the Janata Government. I never wondered, why my father, a former socialist and revolutionary party member, decided to join the Congress party. The answer was clear; he never wanted to go the extremes. During the Emergency days, I remember seeing the major newspapers and magazines coming out with censored news items. The local weeklies were campaigning strongly against the Emergency. Interestingly, my father used to get all the journals that opposed the Emergency. I could see all those radical cartoons and writings by O.V.Vijayan in the local magazines that my father used to bring home.
During the Emergency period most of the intellectuals in Kerala were under political surveillance. Many of them went underground and those who were working in open were caught and tortured by the Police. There was a strange combination of political force working at that time in Kerala. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was in alliance with the Congress then. K.Karunakaran, who later became the Chief Minister of Kerala, was the Home Minister during those black days of Emergency. The state police hunted down young people who were influenced by the political radicalism. One engineering student, Rajan, fell victim to the police atrocities. There were several temporary torture camps in Kerala at that time. There were several custodial deaths. Rajan was one of the several young victims. Rajan’s death became one of the pivotal incidents that created real turbulence in the modern history of Kerala politics. In his award winning movie, Piravi (Birth), film maker Shaji N Karun treated the Rajan Case in a very sensitive way. Without directly referring to the murder of Rajan, Shaji portrayed the waiting of an old father whose son was disappeared in mysterious political circumstances.
Had I given a chance to judge my father’s move or an opportunity to tell him about his decision, I would have definitely opposed him joining a party that had just implemented political emergency in the country, committed a series of politico-cultural atrocities and just got routed in a public election. But what a six or seven year old boy could do that time? He never explained why he left the RSP. He did not explain why he joined the Indian National Congress either. Except for one Panchayat Election, I don’t remember him contesting any elections as a Congress person. And he was a member of several trusts and societies in the village and there used to be fierce campaigning and contests for the positions. But those were not on political lines. It had a lot to do with lobbying rather than politics. Politics, in that sense played a very minor role in a village like Vakkom. People were united for social causes and they expressed their opinion through vote when it came to politics. Politics and religion were not major issues in our village. Practical issues ruled the life there.
To tell you about the practical sense of our village that went beyond political and religious affinities I could recount a very interesting story for you. There is a bend in the main road near to our home. This road that came from the town Attingal ended at a small jetty in the backwaters a few minutes walk from our home. One day my father, in his own Quixotian way found out that there could be some accidents if the bend in the road is not straightened. He spoke to the authorities and they told him that the Public Works Department should have taken the responsibility. At that time there were only three or four buses that came to our village. One Kerala State Transport Corporation’s Benz model ordinary bus that came around 10 O’ clock at night from Trivandrum city and halted near the jetty and left the village at 6 O’clock in the morning was the main source of conveyance between the outer world and the village. This bus was mainly meant for patients who went to the Trivandrum Medical College for treatment. The bus used to take almost two and half hours to reach Trivandrum. Today the same distance could be covered within one hour by bus. And two other private buses came to the village in fixed times and the bus workers and the villagers knew each other very well. So there was no scope of having road rages.
Still my father thought futuristically! He thought there could be accidents because of that small bend in the road. Hardly cars came to our village. There were two or three Mark two Ambassador taxis in the junction. People called taxis in three occasions; when someone fell ill or broken a leg or something, when someone got married or died and someone went to gulf countries to do some menial jobs. So they were also not life threatening. Most of the time the taxis stayed idle, so were their drivers. They killed time by playing cards and gossiping, and they ogled at the women went to the market to buy fish and vegetables. But there were some cycles in the village. At that time very few people like school teachers and shop owners owned a cycle. Rest of the people rented a cycle. There were certain shops from where you could hire a cycle against for twenty five paise per half an hour. There was no distance in the village which couldn’t have covered in half an hour. Most of the people walked all the time. Youngsters hired cycles mainly to go behind their love interests or to see girls loitering in their courtyards by evening. None in the village was like a superman who could ride a cycle in forty kilometers per hour. So cycles were also not life threatening.
My father spent some sleepless nights thinking about rectifying the defect of the road. I don’t know he was being selfish at that time. We and our friends were the kids in the area and unlike the children of these days we were always careful while crossing the roads, jumping across boundary walls, venturing into thickets, climbing trees and so on. Was my father trying to protect his children from a possible accident that could have caused by the bend in the road? Whatever may be the reason, eventually he got a few youngsters, who believed my father in socio-political and cultural matters, as volunteers and they started making bump across the road. The logic was simple the vehicles coming and going would slow down at this place as the speed breaker was made. The volunteers worked throughout the night. The neighbors and well wishers came around to lend a supporting hand. Women brought in tea and snacks, we children hovered around them and cheered ourselves.
Next morning, the speed breaker was formally inaugurated by my father himself and the youngsters who built it came to applaud him in his feat. Generally speaking, people were convinced of the sudden appearance of this speed breaker. But everyone was not equally amused. Amongst them, there were hand cart pullers and bullock cart drivers. Trucks and pick up vans were things of rarity at that time. Trucks came only when there used to be some construction or road work. Pick up vans came when someone brought some furniture. But that was very rare. People got their furniture made in the village itself. But the hand cart pullers and bullock cart people used the road for bringing materials in and out. Mainly they brought provisions for the government run ration shops that sold rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene for affordable rates.
The speed breaker became a big issue for these people. The bullocks found it very difficult to pull the cart across the bump. So were the hand cart pullers. They struggled a lot when they came in front of the house. Slowly, they lost their patience and they started saying bad words about my father. They spoke so loudly that we could listen even while sitting inside home. Finally, they decided to remove this speed breaker. One of them, who was living across the road brought his shovel and pick axe and started digging the bump. He was muttering to himself and soon people gathered around him. He explained his problem to them and soon the very same people who helped my father in making the speed breaker joined forced with the hand cart puller and removed the bump in no time. They were convinced of his logic also. Practical issues were more important than cosmetic futurism, they thought.
Before I go into the details of the two pictures that I introduced in the beginning of this episode, I should tell you a little about my father’s entrepreneurship. I told you how the young boys used cycles to move around in the village. More and more boys were coming of age and they were having this perennial need to see girls every evening. In a conventional society, only side glances and occasional smiles or a chance meeting in one of those edavazhis (alleys) were the ways through which the youngsters satisfied their rising Eros. My father realized that there needed more cycles for hiring. He had one cycle already and he bought one new cycle (Hercules company cycle. In those days cycles were produced by Hercules and Atlas, or we knew only about these two brands as we knew only about Ambassadors and Premier Padminis in the four wheel sector) and an old cycle. So there were three cycles owned by him. He made an agreement with a small tea shop owner across the road. He would rent out the cycles and the income would be handed over to my father every evening. A small commission would go to the tea shop owner.
My father believed in DIY, Do it Yourself. He took out one cardboard sheet and pasted a white paper on it. Then, using his ball point pen, he made an outline of the following letters: New Cycle for Hire. Then he thickened the words with a set of ball point pens. Once the board was ready he went and hung it before the tea shop and strictly instructed the man that he should not give the cycle to anyone who wanted to carry heavy loads on it or wanted to go out of the village. The business was going on smoothly and one evening the new cycle did not come back. My father was agitated and he asked the tea shop owner for explanation. He told my father that the cycle was hired by a person known to him and he would definitely come back. For three days the man did not come.
Friends came around and my father discussed the issue with them. They thought of giving a complaint to the police. But a government servant running a business for profit was a punishable offence. So they did not think in those lines. Instead they decided to wait for some more time. And on the third day, surprising everyone the person who hired the cycle came back to the shop, of course with the cycle. He had gone to a village near Trivandrum city, with a calf in a bamboo basket tied to its carrier. Both the rules set up my father were broken. He was made to give double charge as a punishment. But that was the end of my father’s cycle on rent business.
So I grew up as my father’s son but I was not interested in his Do It Yourself attitude. My father used to paint boards for his social activism. He and his friends set up a new establishment for reforming the village. They rented out a room and an office started running from there. They intervened the issues in the village and solved it through both official and personal ways. They did not have much funds to work like that so when the question of making a signboard for the organization my father volunteered to paint one. He got one tin sheet board made. He bought paints and cut stencil forms of letters from newspapers and pasted them on the board. Then he painted them over and could make a decent sign board. And his membership in the Congress Party made him busier than before. Now he had political matters to attend besides his usual village reformation activities.
A Congress man’s son could not have become a Communist ideologue or activist at the age of ten or eleven. So when I went to the high school I was made a member of the Kerala Students Union (KSU), the student wing of Indian National Congress. So I started off as a Congress student politician at the age of eleven without knowing a thing about real politics. Whenever there is a student agitation elsewhere, the local Congress leaders came near the school, called me and other senior members of the student union out of the campus and explained us the need for disrupting classes on that particular day. They explained things to us but we did not know why we were agitating. I led strikes and shouted slogans like KSU Zindabad.
At the age of twelve I was elected as the speaker of the School Parliament. I was a good debater and orator, I should add that I was good considering the village standards. I was a member of the Boys Scout and I enjoyed wearing the Scout Uniform and even imagined one day I would become a police or army officer. But I was always drawn to the libraries and girls. I craved for the presence of books and girls. As I was a student leader, I got the chance to speak to girls. Girls had a different wing in the school and only the leaders could go to that wing that freely. The non-leaders, I mean the followers could watch girls standing down at the assembly ground. I used to participate in most of the competitions including story writing, poetry writing, recitation, elocution, mono-act, light music, drama and so on. I used to be a jack of all and master of none. But I had some mastery over words. I could move students through my speeches.
I had a convincing victory over my opponents who came from the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPM. Prime Minister post went to a girl who was in the tenth standard. The school elections were miniature forms of the public elections. People from all political beliefs gathered around the school and waited for the headmaster to announce the names of the winners. When the names were announced the villagers rejoiced as per their political leaning. During those days the high school at Vakkom was the hub of village activities. When there was a function in the school, the whole village considered it as their own function.
In the first picture what you see is my picture after being elected to the school parliament. I was taken around the village on the shoulders of party activists. My father did not come to the scene. He might have shed the tears of happiness sitting at home. After the circumambulating the village, I was taken to my home and the people came behind me, shouting slogans and cheering me up. JohnyML Zindabad. JohnyML Future’s Promise. Whoever got a chance to shout these things through the loudspeaker did not waste the opportunity. As you think, as a school parliament speaker do not have too many responsibilities. Whenever school parliament is on session that was once in a month, I was supposed to chair the proceedings, which I did very well. I debated different issues mostly related to education than politics. And in the daily assembly gathering, the speaker and prime minister took turn to recite the national pledge, ‘India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters…’ Next year I was defeated by the SFI students. And on the next day of my defeat I wore my first Bell Bottom pants. And I remained a KSU leader throughout my school years and by the time I left school I had come out of the thought of being a politician. I had started seeing my life differently.
In the second picture, I am not there. But you see a procession coming to my home, shouting slogans against me and my father. The year was 1982. The Government High School, Vakkom was celebrating its Platinum Jubilee. A committee was formed to celebrate the event and most of the social activists from the village became members in the committee. My father took up charge as the editor of 75th Year Souvenir. The same year I had won a prize in the State School Youth Festival for poetry writing. These youth festivals were large scale affairs with selected participants from all the high schools in Kerala contesting in different art forms. That year I was selected from the Attingal Education District for poetry writing and theatre. While I won the poetry competition, after two stages, the theatre team led by me lost a chance to go for the final. The play was ‘Makudi’ (The Snake Charmer’s Flute) and I acted as the Snake Charmer. The play was heavily symbolic. Written by Balachandran, this play had all the characteristics of the School of Drama experiments of 1970s. To become the snake charmer, I had to do paint my complete body in pitch black. I was already dark in complexion but the director of the drama insisted that I should be painted over. The black grease paint stayed there for almost a week after each stage.
I used to get this ‘best actor’ award in the high school. Every year, for the annual function, the teachers and students jointly rehearsed some professional drama script and presented the play in a very professional way. We all worked for these dramas even if we knew that this would not last more than one stage. We hired sets, light and sound systems from the professional troupes and whole village came to see these dramas. I grew up watching my seniors getting all praises for their theatre activities. It was quite natural that a young boy with a lot of imagination falling for the charm of theatre. I still remember an incident when I was on stage as a doctor whose one arm had broken in accident. My hand was in a cast and I was supposed to get a cigarette lit by my wife. This role was enacted by a girl whose mother sold vegetables in the local market. Everyone in the village knew this girl as she also sat with her mother during the holidays. But she was not a good actress. She could not deliver a dialogue in normal pitch. For her dialogue delivery meant a sort of screaming. So whenever she opened her mouth to deliver a dialogue, the mischief makers in the village, hiding behind the back rows called out the names of the vegetables and it was extremely difficult for us to control our laughter. In that particular scene she came close to me and lit my cigarette and from the back rows I could hear some one screaming, Johny, your father is waiting here with a chooral (cane).
I should say I was forced into acting because of one incident happened during one of the summer vacations. I was in the sixth standard and during the vacation we went to Trivandrum where most of our relatives lived. One of the cousin brothers of my father lived in Madras and in the family circles he was known as a film produced. He had produced one movie with Prem Nazir as the hero. The film did not do well and he never made another film. However, he lived the life of a film producer. He always wore silk kurtas, white dhotis and black leather shoes. During those days, the movies with family themes always had two chubby children, Master Raghu and Baby Sumathi, to add sentimental value to the movie. Any chubby children of that time wanted to become a Master Raghu or Baby Sumathi and I was chubby too. This film producer uncle saw me in Trivandrum at some family gathering and he asked me whether I was interested in acting in films. I don’t know whether he was serious or not he even told my father that he would look out for a role for me. My father was elated and when we came back to the village I told a few close friends about my impending stardom as a child actor. Soon it became a talk of the village. Everyone started asking me when I was going to act in a movie. The queries became almost regular that it was difficult to give evading answers and finally the news that started off as a very ‘serious’ one turned into a joke. I had a very difficult time in saving my skin from the poking of people. Both the children and the grown ups derived some strange pleasure by asking about my film career. And in a small village everyone knew each other and most of them had a lot of time to put their fingers in other’s matters.
Slowly, I was recovering from the insults and injuries caused by that one lucrative offer made by my uncle who never kept his word other than presenting me a silk kurta and a pair of Kolhapuri chappals that I had demanded from him after seeing him in such attires. But I was already bitten by the acting bug. So I decided to write a play of my own and present it in the school anniversary. It was a family drama and in the family drama an ailing old man and an unmarried daughter were a must. The brother should be an educated drunkard. There is a mandatory scene in which the villain is shot down by a police inspector. This was to show our skills in making an egg filled with red ink and hide it under the shirt and break it when you were shot at. The brother decides to take care of the sister when the father dies in their presence. The school provided make up men for all those theatre aspirants. As the key role was that of the old man, I chose to act that part. My friend Suresh became the unmarried daughter. After the death of the villain and so on I was supposed to fall on a bench, which was supposed to be a cot and die. I fell, but along with me the bench also fell down. So I got up, straightened the bench and died once again to the ultimate merriment of the audience.
These track records of mine as a student union leader, actor, writer and a hopelessly aspiring all rounder made my father think that I was a genius and I deserved all attention from the public. During the same period I had won a state merit scholarship and my photograph had come in the local editions of some newspaper. My father was really inspired by all these and it was his paternal desire to feature me in detail in the souvenir that he was editing as a part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of my high school. All the commotion broke out when the souvenir was released as my photograph was published in two places in the same souvenir. Besides, in the section of literature he published my prize winning poem. In the editorial section, along with the other members in the committee my father published his photograph also.
If you look at the issue in an objective manner, my father had not done anything wrong in doing all these. My photograph was published for the right reasons along with the photographs of many other students. My poem had won a state prize so it naturally deserved a space too. My father was the editor of the magazine so his picture with his team members was inevitable. My sister was the topper in her standard and along with all the toppers her picture was also published in it. The protesters interpreted this as my father’s highhandedness and they said he should have published his wife’s picture also. Looking back, I feel that he could have exercised his editorial discretion in order to reduce the presence of his family members from the souvenir. But in a way it was impossible to do injustice to his own kids who deserved such acclamation along with other kids.
The protest march came to our doorstep and they were demanding an explanation from my father. And they wanted the souvenir to be reprinted with necessary changes. They shouted slogans and I found many of my friends, classmates and acquaintances from the village in the crowd. The issue was fizzled out in due course of time thanks to the intervention of other social activists in the village. Once again, the protestors became our friends and people stopped talking about that issue altogether. But the picture of the protestors shouting slogans against me and my father is still vivid in my mind. Whenever I go back to my village home, I pick up that souvenir from the shelf and flip through its pages to see what had gone wrong there. This is one souvenir that has contains the real meaning of a souvenir for me.