Monday, December 29, 2008

Rip Van Winkle in Kochi

This is a magic land. People here look as if they were coming straight out of some magical realist novel.

On Sunday morning I am at Gallery OED, Kochi, using its office facilities to finish some of the works for the latest upload of that I edit. The gallery is closed on Sundays. Before leaving me at the office, Dilip Narayanan, my friend and director of the OED Gallery warns me about the gallery visitors who could disturb my work.

“People will come and ask you to open the gallery for them. Just tell them that the keys are not with you,” Dilip tells me and I nod in agreement.

Morning half goes fine and I am left alone to do my work. In the afternoon I hear the footsteps of someone climbing the stairs. I wait with some kind of curiosity. Perhaps, I want some human presence around to validate my existence. This is something awful; you prefer to be alone and suddenly you feel this sudden urge to meet people. At times you hate people coming around you and at other times, when they are not around, you crave for them to knock on your door.

I see this man coming and standing before the closed door of the gallery. He looks at me and I look at him. I don’t want to get up and greet him. I remember Dilip’s words. So I ignore the visitor.

But suddenly I realize that every human being has a magnetic field around him. However you try to avoid the presence of another person in your vicinity, his presence suddenly changes the ambience of the atmosphere.

I could feel that change. I look at the visitor. In his white cotton dhoti and shirt with rolled up sleeves, he could be easily passed for a Youth Congress activist; an aspiring politician in his nationally accepted uniform. He looks young, though his hair line shows considerable receding. I could almost judge his age, late thirties.

“Can I go inside?” he asks me.

“Today is a holiday,” I tell him.

“But I am here to see the show,” he insists with a smile.

I am interested now. In my writings, I have mentioned several times why the galleries should work on holidays. A common man who wants to see an exhibition might take out some time on a holiday to visit the gallery. So the galleries should work on Sundays too. Here I am, the same person, asking someone to go back from the door of a gallery. I feel a strange guilt. I get up, pick up the key and open the doors. Inside the gallery it is dark. I go inside first, train my eyes to find out the switches.

Now the gallery is lit. He comes inside and shakes hands with me.

“I am Mukunda Kumar,” he tells me. I get the smell of his breath. He is drunk. But he is not inebriated.

“Your good name please…” holding my hands, he asks me. Malayalis (people of Kerala) are like that. They can drink at any time. They find out a reason to drink. Once they are drunk, they speak only in English.

There is a sociological reason why Malayalis speak in English once they are drunk. The Malayali society considers English speaking people are well educated. People here learn English and Hindi at a very early age itself. But they are never asked to use it on a daily basis. So, they understand English and Hindi, but when asked to speak in these languages they fumble. They are too conscious about the grammatical mistakes that they would make. This society loves grammatical rules and they are afraid of grammatical mistakes. And this society loves breaking grammatical rules in surreptitious ways. For that they need to get out of their inhibitions. Once you are drunk, your inhibitions vanish. Then you start speaking in English. You just don’t care about grammar. English gives you an authority; an authority on any subject that you speak of at that given point of time. Liquor dispels your inhibitions and English dispels your fear for the social authorities. And the most hilarious but magical scene in the world is two Malayalis speaking in English after considerable amount of liquor intake.

Mukunda Kumar speaks to me in English. “Your good name please,”

“Johny,” I don’t add my surname to it for keeping my anonymity intact. My name used to be one of the very familiar bylines amongst the reading public in Kerala during the late 1990s. I think, this man might recognize me if I tell him I am JohnyML.

“So Mr.Johny, don’t forget my name. I am Mukunda Kumar,” he smiles and looks around to see the works on display.

“Are you an artist?” I ask him.

“Me no artist. But a kind of artist. Half time artist,” he turns around and tells me.

“And half time actor, I believe,” I add to it with a tinge of sarcasm.

“You know why I am drunk in this hot afternoon?” he asks. “I went to see the Chitram Art Gallery in MG Road. I asked many people where it has vanished. None knows about it. We all know the galleries in Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai, London and America. But we don’t know where is Chitram Gallery. Malayalis are bullshit.”

Chitram Gallery was the only commercial gallery in Kochi. A few years back it was closed down.

“Then I called a couple of people and they told me Chitram Gallery is closed down. I could not stand that news. So I went straight to the next BAR and drank a few pegs to drown my sadness.”

“Where do you live, abroad? You did not know Chitram is closed down?” I ask him.

“I live here, right here, in this city only. But I live in underground,” he smiles sheepishly.


“Don’t ask me….” He continues. “I went to this bar and just above my table I saw a print of Starry Nights by Vincent Van Gogh, framed and hung. It was covered with cobweb and dust. I picked up some paper napkins, climbed on a chair and cleaned up the picture with a lot of reverence. The waiters came around me and asked what I was doing there. I told them I was cleaning it. They asked me why. I asked them, who kept the picture there. They told me, the owner of the bar put it there. I told them that the original of this picture was auctioned for phenomenal price that their owner could not even imagine. I also told them that it was painted by the great painter Vincent Van Gogh. They asked me to leave the bar. But I ordered for one more drink, had it silently and walked out.”

This guy has studied art, I think.

“No…your good name please…..ah…Mr.Johny….yes…I have not studied art…But I belong to an artisan’s family. Art inborn and art made are different…you see.. I am an artist in my own terms. I used to do cartoons. I published a few cartoons in one of the Malayalam journals but the management found that my cartoons were going against their editorial policy. So I stopped cartooning also. I live underground…”

“But how do you know the artists and art?” I insist.

“My interest…I know artists…You know what I studied. I studied Sanskrit in Maharajas College. Then I joined Ship Wireless Communication. When I finished this course, Satellite Communication system replaced the wireless system. So I never got a job…” he smiles again.

I remember one of my friends who left Art History and went on to study film cutting. When he finished film cutting course, digital editing technology replaced manual film cutting.

I want to know what this guy does in his life.

“Your good name please…oh..yes ..Mr.Johny..I am a framer. No, I used to be a framer. I used to frame the pictures of all those artists here in Kochi. Now I don’t have a workshop or shop. I stopped everything a few years back. Now I live underground….”

I want to know more about this man; a man who lives in underground, whatever he means by that and a man who does not know the changes happened in the art scene in the last few years. I note down his phone number and promise him to call sometime.

“My name is Mukund Kumar….don’t forget…Your good name please…oh..yes….Mr.Johny. We should meet. Call me….if I am available we will meet…..”

He looks at me, smiles and walks off.

I stand there, with a half finished article in my computer screen, and look at his mobile number. May be I will never call him. I am afraid, if I call him and meet him over a drink, the spell that he has casted on me would break.

I want to know him forever like this: “I am Mukunda Kumar. I live an underground life. Your good name please….oh..ah…yes…Mr.Johny.”

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