Friday, May 6, 2011
Dreaming a Revolution and the Arrival of the State: To My Children 12
Your mind is like a wine cellar when you are young. You feel emotions and passions bottled up, labeled and racked, and pushed to some cellars in the nether grounds of your mind. They mature there, making you pine for something unknown; you search for meaning in everything. You are not like the wine; but you are like the cellar, dark, damp and deep. However fresh you may look, underneath it there must be an ocean with mammoth waves breaking their heads while they lock themselves with their salty, frothy and foaming water tusks. You wander like a homeless destitute. You prepare war machines against anything and everything because you think they are all conspiring against you. You are doomed to live but you want to die. You are destined to become a martyr but you are caught up in your petty emotions. You are supposed to become the savior but you feel you are a coward from inside. You know you want to fly but at the same time you feel the dead weight of custom pinning you down like a hapless creature at the hands of an impudent school boy.
So you think about revolution. During those days, when I thought about revolution, burning several liters of midnight oil, learning about the great feats achieved by the great communist thinkers of the world, I used to feel a strange thrill passing through my spine. Like the invisible fumes coming out of the cellars where the wine mature, I used to feel the fumes coming out of my body. I was just seventeen years old and it did not taste sweet at all. May be, turning sixteen or seventeen was almost like entering a great threshold that would lead you to something really fascinating called manhood. You fume from inside because you have already given yourself the license to smoke and when you smoked you felt like a man. When you felt like a man you thought of changing the world. So you read a lot at night and smoked a lot. You smoke as if you have been waiting all these years to smoke. You smoke as if you were choking all these years and just now you got a tube of fresh air pushed into your nostrils. You smoke to live and you smoke to dream.
Smoking must have a history with the revolutionaries. That’s why most of the revolutionaries smoke. If you look at the people who have revolutionized the world, you would see them with cigars or pipes or cigarettes in their hands or on their lips. I believe, smoking became fashionable amongst the revolutionaries because it added to their manhood. In fact the revolutionaries might have spent a lot of time in the forests and uninhabitable locations where they had to pump up their adrenaline levels through regular intake of nicotine. So they smoked. Then it became a custom and a rule that all the revolutionaries should smoke. Perhaps, Mahatma Gandhi did not smoke though he was a great revolutionary. But in his autobiography he speaks about his experiments with tobacco when he was a young boy. Revolutionaries smoked in Kerala. And those revolutionaries who later adapted themselves to the Parliamentarian politics also encouraged smoking as a part of their frugal life, inclined more towards the working class. Now the communists and the Marxists have become very rich in Kerala. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPM- has more assets than any other corporate houses in Kerala.
Interestingly, when the party was still Spartan and frugal in its approach, it had established a factory that produced beedis (local cigarettes made out of tobacco leaves). The idea was to organize the beedi production sector under the leadership of the communists. So the workers in the beedi factories became communists. The party wanted each beedi worker take time out of his/her work and read out the party newspapers to the other workers who made beedis. The reader amongst the workers got the day’s payment through contribution. And while they made beedis and listened to the news from all over the world, which often said that the communist revolution was there around the corner and the working class was going to rule the world, they smoked and while they smoked they felt empowered. So here we have the history of a communist party promoting the consumption of tobacco in a corporate way and making it look like a revolutionary act. They propagated the idea of Spartan life through the consumption of beedis, black tea and vada made out of thuvar daal (parippu vada). In those days a communist could survive any war if he had been given these three life supporting items: beedi, black tea and parippu vada.
I also grew up imbibing the legends of the beedi smoking revolutionaries. And there was one point of time when I thought that if you smoked beedi, you would naturally become a revolutionary. Also the parallel movies in Malayalam too promoted such an idea. All the heroes in those movies were revolutionaries and all of them smoked. So it was difficult to be a non-smoker in a place where everyone smoked to revolution. I too was dragged to this fascinating myth of revolution at that tender age. I smoked and befriended a few revolutionaries in our village.
As you know, my village was a very closely knit place with people who knew each other and all of them knew the details of every household there. In such a situation, being a revolutionary was a very difficult thing to do. I should add that by the word ‘revolutionary’ what I used to mean was someone who worked against the mainstream society and who always worked towards toppling the existing government. Also it meant that a revolutionary worked from the people’s side though people often shunned them for their anarchic life style and extreme political ideologies. So a revolutionary was a man who lived an underground life while physically living an over ground life.
Growing up in 1980s was a very funny affair. It was the post-Emergency decade. Also it survived a decade that showed the world examples of political extremism in the form of local rebellions. During the 1970s India witnessed the growth of radical left wing ideas amongst the youth and most of them became the followers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or in short CPI (ML) or simply ML. They were the people who refused to join the parliamentary experiment of the Communist Party of India. This faction of young communist workers created a movement in Naxalbari by terrorizing the landowners. Henceforth the extreme left wing radicals were called the Naxalites. Being a Naxalite in 1970s and 1980s was very difficult as the state hunted the workers down by hook or crook.
There were many custodial deaths during the police raj of the Emergency years all over India. Most of the youngsters were picked up from their homes or hostels accusing them of being the members of CPI (ML). Rajan, an engineering student was killed in one of the police camps and it snowballed into a huge political issue that brought sympathy for many radical activists groups. Most of the intellectuals of the 1970s were supportive to the political activism of the radicals. But as they feared the state’s ire, they were passive supporters. In Kerala, the young ML activists formed the Samskaarika Vedi (Cultural Platform), which was by nature a cultural movement but had strong political affiliations with the ML Movement. Being a part of the Saamskaarika Vedi was one of the dreams cherished by the radical youths of our times.
When I was spending my formative years in Vakkom, the ML movement had left its radical political activism in Kerala and had become a platform for politico-cultural and social critique. However, the state kept a close watch on the activities of the ML workers. These activists worked in a humble way. They pasted posters with anti-imperialist slogans in them all over the places. Wherever you traveled along the length and breadth of Kerala in those days, you could see identically written posters on cheaply colored newsprints. The lettering and font size were identical in these posters though they were written in two different places. While looking at those posters quite regularly with revolutionary dreams in my mind I used to think that revolution had only one kind of handwriting!
Villages are the places where you find extreme people; or people with extreme characteristics. Within the context of revolution, I remember this lonely crusader for justice in Comrade Devadethan. Tall, handsome with a thick mop of hair and handle bar moustache that reminded me of the Beatles (which in retrospective I realized as I did not have any clue about the existence of Beatles. The first international rock band I came to know about was ABBA, which came to Kerala as a movie depicting their world tour. One of my cousins was deeply interested in anything western and he took me to watch this movie). Comrade Devadethan appeared in the village quite often with a cycle fitted with an Exide battery, a loudspeaker and a mike. He pushed the cycle along the streets and spoke about imperialism and the anti-imperialist struggle. The ruling party, for him was an agent of imperialist forces.
Comrade Devadethan came from a well off family in Vakkom. He was interested in sports and politics. Immediately after his college education, he got a job as bus conductor in the state transport corporation. Inspired by the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) established by Comrade Shibdas Ghose in 1948, Comrade Devadethan became our village’s own revolutionary. He left his home for an ascetic life and settled in a dingy lodge near a temple. The lodge was an old house with three or four rooms with a well in the courtyard. People who worked in coir factories or people who came to the village for some work lived in those lodges for a meager rent. Comrade Devadethan, by shifting to this accommodation proved his affiliation with the working class. One day, he dreamt that the revolution would come to our village. He might have expected tanks to roll in. But for the time being his lonely collaborator was an old Hercules bicycle.
Comrade Devadethan used to put his cycle on stand at the market junction and used to speak about the impeding revolution without heeding much to the strength of the audience. But in a market junction you would always get a good audience as lot of people including car drivers, head load workers, vegetable vendors, strollers and idlers used to hang out in that place. Comrade Devadethan spoke to them in all his earnestness and the village listened to him with the equal earnestness and they forgot all what he said the moment he pushed his cycle to the next junction. This used to be ritual for a prolonged time till Comrade Devadethan, growing disillusioned about his efforts in converting people to the path of revolution, left his cycle behind and took more of a Gandhian path by walking all over the village, distributing pamphlets that he had written and printed in some cheap printing presses. In his clean white mundu and shirt, I saw his hairs and handle bar moustache turning complete grey and then into white. Then one day I left my village and I did not see him ever since.
It was my first encounter with revolution other than posters. Comrade Devadethan told us that the government could be overthrown and a people's republic could be established. But how, was the question and like in the minds of several teenagers of that time, in my mind too this question became an obsession. This was the time that I started reading Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz through the translations done by the poet K.Satchidanandan. I had not yet started reading the ML literature at that time though I knew about the Naxalite actions in Kerala headed by Ajita and K.Venu. In 1980s, things were slightly different and the hopes of revolution were still around though we did not know how to go about it. Attacking police stations, fighting against the state from the forests, capturing lands from the landowners or attacking the military with crude weapons were failed projects so we could not think about them again. So we decided to bring revolution through cultural activism.
There used to be several street play performances by the ML activists. I used to go and watch some of them. These performances often happened in the village junctions where the activists created their arena by sitting in a circle with lit cycle tyres for light. Anger, frustration and hope shone on their faces, which had turn yellowish red by the embers of the fuming and burning cycle tyres. It was a very fascinating sight. I did not know where these young people came from and where they were going. But they were there right in front of me; that was the reality. I felt very bad when I walked back home after seeing these performances. I knew I was a coward and was caught in the web of different desires, aspirations and frustrations. I wanted to become a writer and a revolutionary. It could have been a revolutionary writer or a writer of revolution. But at the same time I was looking out for venues where I could become popular. I wanted to act in films and serials. At night I was a blasphemer and during evenings I was a believer. I went to the temple and wore sandal paste mark on my forehead. I wanted to be away from women but I was drawn to them like iron filings to a magnet. In short, I was finding myself unworthy of becoming a revolutionary. I was really a confused teenager.
I found solace in pleasuring myself, reading and fighting my own demons of frustration. One day, it was a hot summer day, I was walking back home from a library in the next village, around three kilometers away from my home. I still remember the book that I had in my hand. It was the screenplay of ‘the Cabinet of Dr.Caligari’, the cultic Gernam movie by Robert Wiene. As I always found it later in my life, if you are a seeker the books and directions that you want will come to you quite naturally. During those days I was reading a lot of international literature, film scripts and anything that was suggested by my friends whom I thought were really radical in their lives. I never thought in a village library I would find the screenplay of the Cabinet of Dr.Caligari. But it appeared before me amongst the books as if it was revealing a great secret only to me. While walking back, near the school where I had finished my schooling just a couple of years before, I saw this man who would become my short term guide to revolution.
His name was Sasi and I was seeing him for the first time in my life. He smiled at me and he was smoking a beedi. He was dark complexioned and his cheeks were sunk into his jaws and his eyes were big and they bulged out of their sockets giving his face a Kafkesque look. Hesitantly I smiled back. He took my father’s name and asked whether I was his son. I said yes and added that I had never seen him in the neighborhood. He offered me a beedi and I could not smoke it in the middle of the road. So I suggested that we walked back to the school (which was closed for the summer vacations) and sit in one of the classrooms (some of the sheds from the classrooms functioned did not have doors), smoked and talked. He agreed with my idea and we walked back. Once we settled in one of the dark classrooms with thatched roof and four sides covered with mats made out of bamboo painted black, he took the book from me and flipped through it. He looked at me again and smiled. Now I could say that it is how most of the people get converted.
The moment was intense. He was silent and so was I. I did not know whether he knew a bit of English so that he could read what the book was all about. He did not seem to be educated to me as he was having all the characteristic of a worker/laborer (this I would see described in a very interesting way by John Berger in his Ways of Seeing, years later). I was curious to know why I had not seen him all these years in the village. Then he told me his story. While listening to the story, I was witnessing my life taking a new turn and I was wondering why I did not come to know about this man all these years.
“I was a born to a working class family living near that coir making fields,” he started telling me. As he explained the place where his house was located, I knew it for sure that I had crossed that house several times during my secret expeditions to the coir making fields with Sunil Lal. He could not study beyond high school, that was years back and he became a coir worker. He came from a backward caste and he did not want to mingle with people. One day, he left the village. He got into a train from the nearby railway station and on the next morning he found himself in the railway station of Calicut (now Kozhikode) in North Kerala. He joined the workforce in the town and worked as a hotel boy. He washed vessels in the restaurants and worked day in and day out. While working in the dark damp innards of the hotels he came across people who taught him about revolution. He was inspired and he became a strong ML activist and his mission was to organize the workers in the hotel sector. Years went by and now he had come to visit his village.
“Is it a permanent shift or will you go back?” I asked him. He looked at me, smiled and again lit a beedi and pushed the packet to my face. I took one out and I was in a dilemma whether to light it or not as the first one itself was strong enough to make me dizzy. Bracing myself up to the situation, I lit the beedi, took a deep drag and puffed the smoke into the darkness of that classroom where a few years back I sat in my sorry knickers and shirt and I imagined that the revolution had already started. He said he was not sure of anything. He talked about revolution and he asked me how to organize my life as a revolutionary. He wanted me to become intense in outlook and purpose. He talked a lot of things of which I heard half and left the half to fodder my reverie. Finally he asked whether I had read the collected works of Pablo Neruda. My answer was ‘no’ though I had already read a few poems by Neruda and had read Neruda’s autobiographical writings. He said that my reading was inadequate. He got up and asked me to follow him.
We did not take the main road, instead we struck the alleys those were dark even during the summer days thanks to the huge trees standing on either side of them. I was thinking that I was going through the forests in Bolivia as Che had done. Finally we reached his house which was not better than a shack but had kept neat by his old mother. He took me into his room which was dark with un-plastered laterite walls. He pulled a wooden box out and opened it before my eyes. The box was filled with books and most of them were neatly done with calico binding. He took out a fat book and handed over to me. It was a book of Neruda’s poems translated by Satchidanandan. I asked him to come to my house so that I could show him my collection of books. He politely declined my invitation and told me to meet him by the next week in the same class room in the school building. I nodded in agreement. I could not have done anything else as I was already in the web of revolution.
On the same evening when I came back from the temple ground where I had gone to see my friends and the girls who came to the temple, and also to watch the television news (as a recreation club had set up a television set for the public near the temple), I saw a different atmosphere at home. My mother was crying and my sister was mumbling something to my mother and both of them were looking angrily at me. I asked them the reason for this sudden change in atmosphere and they confronted me with this question: “What are you doing with the Naxalite? What is your connection with the Naxals?” Soon things dawned on me; before I reached home, someone in the village had already reported to her that I was spotted with a ‘Naxalite’. I tried to explain things to my mother saying that I did not know this person as a Naxalite or something, and what transpired between us was just the question of literature. To prove my point I took out the book of Neruda’s poems and showed it to them. They did not look convinced. My mother warned me to stop meeting him and return the book at the earliest. I agreed. That was my problem: I was agreeing to anything and everything.
Anything done surreptitiously has its own charm, and the terror involved in it makes one to work under cover with a feeling of thrill. I was thrilled to work like that. Now I was hiding things from my mother, which I never used to do before and was meeting Sasi in the school building. Like any newly converted would try to convert a few more people into the new faith, I was also trying to get a couple of people into this new fold. Shibu Natesan came visiting one day and I tried to convert him by introducing him to Sasi. Shibu met him and was not impressed. He was studying in Trivandrum and might have been meeting better revolutionaries. He did not come around after that to meet him. Then I caught Mukesh, who was one of the closest friends of my school days, and Abhilash, another friend who thanks to his bulky body and very protected life, had wanted to breach the norms given any chance.
Mukesh was an aspiring poet. His idea of poetry was very romantic. Two major ambitions were there in his life; one to get his poems published in some journal and two, to become a lyricist in the Malayalam movie industry. During the summer vacations, after reading Brecht, I had this idea of writing one act plays. Mukesh was my partner in crime. We wrote some plays together, most of them had only two characters (as if we were Becketians), which was done for the convenience of the writers who could also do the acting part. We wrote plays, rehearsed in the empty school rooms and auditorium and debated amongst us about the possibilities of sending these plays for local and state level competitions. I even tried to compose the poems written by Mukesh into songs. Mukesh was frank enough to tell me always that my tunes always reminded him of popular film tunes. This was true because I did not have any training in music. My music came from practicing film songs while drawing water from the well. And during the pre-degree days I got some training music and playing tabla. With this minimum experience in hand, I tried to do many things. One day someone was desperately looking for a triple drum player for a theatre festival and Mukesh suggested that I could play it for them. He took me to the rehearsal camp where I was presented with the triple drum. It was the first time in my life I touch a triple drum. But I was enthusiastic for two reasons that they promised to pay me Twenty rupees and announce my name in the mike during the program. So I played triple drum for the group and that was the first and last time I played an instrument on stage.
Mukesh was an easy convert as he was ready to do anything that I did. He believed that I was doing the right thing. But Abhilash was a tough nut to crack. He was an entrepreneur from the very beginning. In his courtyard there was a big gooseberry tree which throughout the year yielded a lot of berries. His mother used to pickle them for domestic use. Abhilash stood at the gate that opened to the street where he would show an innocent smile and would beckon people who went to the market or went about with their daily chores. Some would get trapped to his innocent maneuverings. Abhilash would talk to them about the sweet berries in his courtyard and ask them whether they would like to taste the pickled ones. Once they tasted it, he would insist that they should buy it at least for five paise. They would surrender to the pressure of this cherubic young boy and pay up and eat pickled gooseberries even if they did not want to do so. He would give them a glass full of cold water from the well for free.
So when we approached Abhilash with our plans to do revolution in the village, he was not enthused. But finally, the fame that would come upon us during the post-revolution posed something attractive for him. So he joined. Thereupon we started visiting Sasi in the desolated class room in our former school building. We talked and the more we talked the more we became convinced of revolution. And to bring the first wave of it was to inform people about the changes happening in the cultural scenario. Hence it was planned that we should show the controversial movie, ‘Agraharathile Kazhuthai’ (The Donkey of a Brahmin Habitat) by late John Abraham, in our village. This film was banned by the Tamil Nadu government for the controversial content of it. It depicted the life of a Brahmin professor who adopted a baby donkey. Sasi agreed to get the print and projector and we had to divide the responsibility of organizing it amongst us.
Mukesh said he would write slogans with me. Abhilash, with his entrepreneurial spirits intact, said he would prepare glue out of wheat flour. We together managed to get some cheap newsprint on which we wrote the slogans and announcement of the movie. We pasted it on some of the key walls in the village and people started wondering who all were behind these actions. Sasi became the target. We were waiting for the great day to come. We were going to come out of the closet. We were going to declare our revolutionary intentions to the village. But a few days before the screening, Sasi disappeared. He was not seen anywhere. We send some of our collaborators to his house to ask for him and his mother told the boys that he had gone out of the village. This information put us into deep trouble. If he was not there who was going to take up the responsibility of these moves. I looked at Mukesh and Mukesh looked Abhilash and Abhilash looked at some remote corner of the sky with paleness spreading across his face. We too looked at the same direction and we found his eyes fixed at the muddy clouds with a deep red evening sun seen as a streak behind it. Did it remind him of the cap of a policeman (we had at that time the conical caps with a red lace and yellowish base for police constables)? But it did remind me of the state and its brutal force. Suddenly I felt I was not doing the right thing. I was just a coward.
So we went into hiding. In fact, we did not go anywhere. Mukesh went back to his lyrics. I went to back to my readings. Abhilash went to his polytechnic activities. I took special care to remove all the revolutionary literature from my book shelf. Somewhere in my mind I was secretly hoping for that glorious day when a jeep came to a screeching halt at my door step with policemen running out of it to capture me from my hideout. But the very thought of it made a lighting to pass left and right into my brain. I wanted to be a revolutionary but was not ready to pay the price. Lucky I was that on the same day my mother came with a news of her transfer to Trissur (in central Kerala) with a promotion in her job profile. Now the situation was like that we had to shift to our uncle’s place in the next town from where we, my sister and myself, could go to college. We shifted soon and years later, I came to know that the police from the local station made enquiries about me and my friends and the people, who were good to us, told them that we were from good families and were good students that we should be kept out of this case.
That was the end of my on ground revolutionary activism. It doesn’t mean that I stopped my revolutionary thoughts altogether. It was to take other forms in different locations. I was just a lump of clay waiting to be molded at different wheels by different hands.
Perhaps, Sasi was the first potter who threw me at the wheel, though I never met him afterwards.