We met Jo six months ago on a trip to the UK. She was our host in Teign Valley, Devon. Today, when I got on Airbnb again to plan another trip, I suddenly remembered Jo and Lorenzo and their lovely cat Frodo. And felt a surge of shame at how I had never bothered to stay in touch.
I typed out a long, long email with abject apologies and a recipe for pulao that I had promised to share after spying some spices and long grained rice in her kitchen. After the message was sent, I made a startling discovery: that listing no longer exists.
I furiously googled ‘The Old Barn, Dry Lane, Teign Valley’ and came up with this Stags listing. The house had been put up for sale some time ago and for all I know, is already sold by now. That means Jo’s quaint, lovely barn-home is not just not on Airbnb, but is also no longer hers.
I remember the day we drove up Dry Lane, counting the houses after the Post Office and turning at the Church. It was late evening and the shadows were deepening. As we parked in the shared driveway, Jo came out of the house to welcome us in. She seemed a little apologetic about how small the house was and somewhat anxious about how we would react to it.
But to us, everything seemed delightful–the low roof held up by wooden beams, the narrow stairs we thumped up to our room on the first floor, the teeny, yet utterly cosy bedroom, the shelves and shelves of books Jo had lined up against the walls, and the lovely cats: Frodo the Golden and the shy tabby whose name I forget.
We seemed to hit it off really well and sat in her kitchen talking late into the night, swapping stories about everything from food fads in India and England to contract teaching in England, her years in South America, the problems faced by working mothers, and the twisted logic of picking up (biodegradable!) dog poop in plastic bags in the name of eco-sensitivity. Together, we pored over a map of Dartmoor National Park and Jo marked out for us the best route to take and the key zones to explore, given our limited time in the area.
There was a teary moment that night for me when Jo’s eight-year-old son Lorenzo brought out his piggybank of savings and offered it to us “for the elephants in India”.
“Come to India,” I told him, “The elephants would love to have you feed them the bananas!” And his face lit up at the prospect. I could see the pride in Jo’s face as she hugged him and later, she told us Lorenzo’s father was half-Pakistani and he was thus one-quarter Asian.
That night, I borrowed The Wind In The Willows from Jo’s shelf and read it through the night. I acquainted myself with Rat and Mole and Mr. Toad, their adventures on the River all the more real and delightful because I’d just walked by the Thames in Oxford a few days ago, along the very paths and under the same trees that they had lived out their fabled lives in.
The following day, our foray into Dartmoor, culminating with a hike up to Bellever Tor, was sheer delight, mainly because of the tips Jo had shared. We came home exhausted, yet exhilarated, only to find that things were in a bit of a tizzy. Lorenzo had had another nosebleed and Jo had gotten her mother to pick him up from school and she had an interview the following day for a teaching role that could be more permanent. “I hope I get it,” she said and we saw a flash of anxiety flit across her face.
To cheer her up, we made instant noodles out of the packets we’d brought with us from India and got her to taste some of it, while Lorenzo rested on the couch with tissues to mop up his nosebleeds. That was our last evening together. By the time we came downstairs the next day, she had left for her interview leaving behind a cheery little note. We made breakfast as Frodo looked on with interest, cleaned things up, and left her our card with our contact details on the dining table.
As we lugged our bags down the stairs, the driveway, and into the car, the cats followed us, as though to say goodbye, and I felt a little pang. “We’ll come back again,” SR said cheerfully, “We should explore Dartmoor so much more!”
Afterwards, she left us a review on our Airbnb profile:
It was an absolute pleasure to host Sreeram and Gowri. They were a delight to have around and two of the most considerate guests we’ve had to date. We enjoyed great conversation and a taster session of Indian (fast) food! I can’t recommend them highly enough, and only wish they could have stayed longer 🙂
Today, as I sit here writing this, I am not even sure if Jo will see my Airbnb message. She is still registered as a host, so I hope she gets my message. But if she is no longer active, she may not see it at all. And with that, I would lose someone who could have been a friend.
We read so much about how travel expands our horizons and lets us meet new people and experience new things. But Jo was one of the few people I’ve met during our travels who wasn’t a caricature. She was real–vulnerable, yet strong, an amazingly interesting person, and a very, very kind host.
I mentioned this in my message to her, the one I don’t know if she will ever see, and I will say it again: she and Lorenzo and Frodo will forever remain in our hearts and our prayers. I hope wherever she goes, she finds happiness.
It’s Saturday morning and we’ve all woken up uncharacteristically early.
It’s all SR’s fault. He has woken up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and wants the entire household to follow suit. He takes first S and then B for a walk. He gives them their breakfast and gets them settled down. Then he finishes some stuff for work. And then starts sorting out a drawer full of old bills.
All before I’ve even finished my morning coffee.
I want to feel useful myself. So I look around for something easy to do. Clean the fans? But we have no step ladder. Laundry? Already done. Take the clothes for ironing? It’s too hot to get out – I can do that in the evening. Prep for lunch? I don’t even have an excuse for this one.
So I drift into the bedroom and pull open my accessories drawer. I’ve been meaning to sort things out here for ages. Now is as good a time as any.
One of my prized possessions is my earring box. It’s an old plastic Ferrero Rocher tray that I have repurposed to keep my earrings sorted into pairs. But over time, they’ve gotten all mixed up. I empty everything out on the bed and start sifting through. B jumps up at once–he loves everything shiny–and S follows suit. I tell B sternly not to put anything in his mouth and then cave and give him an old cloth purse to chew on. S, the angel child he is, needs no such sop. He watches with interest for a couple of minutes, then lies down on his side and drifts off happily. No doubt dreaming of chicken legs.
I set the earrings out in pairs and and all of a sudden, it’s like sifting through a box of old memories.
There are the long, glassy green drops with gold accents that ammai bought for me from someone at the bank. Turquoise blue raindrop-loops a friend got me from Amsterdam. A pair of flat, jimikki-shaped earrings with white stones–the first of many pairs that amma has gifted me over the years. Violet twine hoops that I bought from Brigade Road to replace a similar pair I’d lost on a flight back from Singapore. Every piece seems to trigger a memory, a reminder of happy times.
There are even four mismatched presses that hold the earrings in place. I keep them aside as backups, in case I lose the originals.
I’m nearly done putting everything in place, when I come across them. A pair of pink and silver studs that I have worn perhaps thrice in my life. It’s the very first present SR bought for me, over 9 years ago. It’s not the prettiest of earrings and I remember him telling me he’d bought them from a Coimbatore street-side vendor for thirty rupees when he went to write the CAT exam. They’ve been with me all these years, but I’ve seldom worn them because I have prettier, bigger, longer pink earrings. Multiple pairs, in fact.
They’re slightly dusty and I wipe them with a soft cloth. As I hold them in my palm, I realize they look just as good as new. The stones haven’t fallen off. The silver hasn’t blackened. I’m suddenly reminded of all the good memories from our years together. The houses we’ve moved. The journeys we’ve taken. The food we’ve shared.
Like every other couple, we too have our share of ups and downs, disagreements and frustrations. But somehow, in the face of this little token from a long time ago, those seem small and unimportant.
I put them on, wondering if SR would notice or remember. I know it’s highly unlikely that he would–but I’ll still wear them through the day. As a reminder to be grateful for what we have, something precious not in value, but for what it stands for.
Long corridors with pale yellow walls, down which dry leaves come hurtling by.
Desks with chalk marks, blackboards now greyish white.
The faint sounds of laughter and conversation.
Snatches of Shakespeare. Discussions on Dickinson.
Just behind walls, faces that could have mattered to me.
In another life, another time.
If I had chosen to push open these gates.
Instead, I have chased yellow butterflies across three states.
I have eaten creamy pasta and touched a napkin to my lips.
Past glass-fronted cafes, I have walked,
surreptitiously checking my reflection and adjusting my stole.
I have spent hours in cold storage, surrounded by others in similar boxes.
All of us being conveyed at a funereal pace to larger, colder storage boxes.
We don’t age. We don’t wrinkle. We don’t feel the wind in our hair.
We don’t speak our native tongues. The words live and die inside our throats.
Sometimes, on evenings such as these, I look through the glassed-up windows
(Oh, why is there so much glass? Glass, glass everywhere.
Showing you what you are missing. But offering no reprieve.)
I see, unseeing, the thousands of twinkling lights.
The dark, shadowy outlines of building tops.
(No canopies here, swaying in the breeze).
I smell the smell of rain on the earth.
I close my eyes and bite into a banana chip.
If I keep them shut, I tell myself, I can go anywhere.
Pretend worlds of green and brown spring forth around me.
Now I am walking down corridors paved by slanting rays of sun.
My hands drag across the wall, the peeling paint rough under my palm.
I slip into a room, where they are talking.
Five men and women on two shaky benches.
I slip in, unseen, unheard.
An engineer’s ghost in a literature class.
Soaking up greedily the words and their sounds.
Here, no bells will ring. No peon will come in, shuffling papers.
I can stay for as long as I like.
Perhaps even, forever.
- Will you not tell me your pain?
An empty hall. My stroke-stricken grandmother sleeping in the other room, with her home nurse dozing by her bedside. Neelu had come home crying, limping, her leg bandaged from knee to ankle. She’d had a bad fall, and my uncle and aunt had dropped her off here for a while. I didn’t know what to do to cheer her up. So, I sang this song instead, accompanied by a ridiculous dance routine.
“Manikyaveenayumayen manassinte thamara poovilunarnnavale, paadukille, veena meettukille, ninte vedana ennodu chollukille?”
You who took form in the lotus of my heart with your magical veena, will you not sing? Will you not play the veena? Will you not tell me your pain?
Dressed in nothing but a petticoat and with my hair standing on end, I would have presented an absurd little figure. She sat on the window seat, laughing so hard that tears rolled down her cheeks. Every time I sang “Will you not tell me your pain?”, she would take swipes at me from her seat, shouting “Yes, come here, I will tell you!” and I would dance out of her reach…
I can still hear the laughter.
“Ormathan vaasantha nandana thoppil…”
In the garden of memory, only one flower remains.
It was Achan’s cassette. He used to play these songs on Sunday mornings on our old, fat two-in-one that sat on the bench in the terrace outside our bedroom, while he shaved, and Amma oiled our hair. Daisy sounded like a happy song to me. I used to sing along, shouting “Daisy… Daisy…” along with the chorus.
Years later, Amma, Nandu and I lay in the dark, night after night, listening to this cassette. Somewhere along the way, I stopped wondering who Daisy was and listened to the lyrics instead. It was a song of love and loss. Funny how I’d never noticed.
To this day, I cannot listen to the happiest song in Daisy without feeling disturbed.
3. The fragrance of memory
“Ormakalkkendu sugandham… en atmavin nashta sugandham…”
Oh, the fragrance of memory! The scent of my soul’s loss!
Something was choking up my nose and throat, pricking my eyes, threatening to spill out. Thankfully, I was squatting on the floor with my back turned away from everyone. I stared blindly at the screen, scenes flashing through my head. I wanted to whimper, but I didn’t. I just sat unmoving, my hands clenching my knees…
And then abruptly, the song changed. The jingle of an advertisement for soap or biscuits came on. When I eventually turned around, I saw Amma disappear behind her paper, her cheeks wet too.
4. Gold, not mud
“Chandrakantham kondu naalu kettu, athil chandanappadiyulla ponnoonjal!”
A naalukettu (house) built of moonbeams, in it a swing of gold with a sandalwood seat…
I was sitting on the Hero Honda, in front of Achan, a trophy clutched in my hand. We were returning triumphantly from a painting competition conducted by Nirmithi Kendra. I had won the third prize.
As a filler during the prize distribution ceremony, they had played this song and it was stuck in Achan’s head. On the way back home, he kept humming it.
“Chandrakantham kondu naalu kettu, athil chandanappadiyulla mannoonjal!”
I interrupted him, laughing, “Acha, mannoonjal alla, ponnoonjal!” (The swing is made of gold, not mud) He shrugged it off, smiling.
Nearly fifteen years later, SR and I were listening to this song. And as SR hummed “mannoonjal” instead of “ponnoonjal”, I burst into tears.
It was a shock to hear about Kalpana’s untimely demise yesterday. I was struck by the thought that we have lost yet another artist from the golden age of Malayalam cinema that our generation grew up watching.
First went Philomina (1997). Then Sukumari (2013). And now, Kalpana. With her passing, an era of effortless female comedy has come to an end.
Surprisingly, when I tried to think of my favourite Kalpana movies, I had to wrack my brains. But once I recalled the first few, the others came tumbling after, and try as I might, I could not think of another comedienne who who could have pulled off these roles with such ease and elan. Here’s my list.
- Sathi Leelavathi (1995)
As the titular heroine in this Tamil comedy, Kalpana put up a brilliant show as the naive, loving, well meaning wife of Arun (Ramesh Arvind), who finds out to her horror that her husband has a mistress whom he is unwilling to give up. Initially devastated, Leela pulls the rags of courage around her and with the help of her husband’s old friend Dr.Sakthivel Gounder (Kamal Hasan), fights to win her husband back.
Some of my favourite scenes from the movie include fun ones like Leela getting How To Hold On To Your Man advice from the mami next door and more serious ones like the scene in which she confronts Arun about his affair. Watch the movie here
2. Bangalore Days (2014)
After many years, Kalpana makes a terrific comeback as Shantha, the mother of Kuttan in Bangalore Days. How she sees her husband’s departure as a means to escape from a life of drudgery and how she manages to get away step by step is portrayed beautifully. My favourite dialogue from this movie is where she pulls a harassed face from the midst of her card playing cronies at the tired and hungry Kuttan and says”Ente mone, innu ividunnu onnu anangan polum pattiyittilla… nee oru pisaa (pizza) order cheyyu, avaru pettennu kondu tharumallo!”
3. Pidakkozhi Koovunna Noottandu (1994)
Ponnamma, the feisty, man hating post office employee, is an evergreen character. Subjected to neglect as a child by her parents because she was a girl, Ponnamma grows up hating all men. This movie, a laugh riot, but with a solid story, is one of my favourites, and some of the best scenes here belong to Kalpana and Jagathy. Watch the movie here:
4. Kudumbakodathi (1996)
“Nenu Guntur Parvathi…”
So starts the fiery Telugu monologue of Kalpana, who appears in a bold, chest thumping, ball busting mother-in-law avatar in this movie. Again, a role that I can imagine nobody except Sukumari managing to pull off.
5. CID Unnikrishnan, BA, BEd (1994)
Another excellent pairing with Jagathy’s Oommen Koshy, Clara the cook with her beehive hair and nose-in-the-air affectations is another quirky, memorable character.
5. Kouthuka Varthakal (1990)
Kamalu is one of Kalpana’s more serious roles. An innocent young woman married to a much older man, she is wooed and duped by a trickster played by Mukesh. Though the rest of the movie has a happy ending, this particular subplot does not. It is Kalpana’s wide-eyed, trusting performance as Kamalu that makes you feel for the character.
6. Alibabayum Ararakallanmarum (1998)
It’s impossible to forget the scene where Jagathy, Kalpana and their son pretend to be impoverished Bengali farmers to gain access to houses they can rob later. Their accent, the way they sing Vaishnava Janatho, and their expression when the householder asks them to shut up, are just hilarious! Watch the scene here:
During summer vacations when I was in school, I used to spend most of my time indoors. My brother would be out playing cricket with his buddies. But I didn’t have any friends in the locality and used to just curl up with a book. I also used to watch one B&W movie a day with Pappu thatha, my paternal grandfather -these were classics from the 60s and 70s and used to be aired every morning at around 11AM on DD Malayalam (if my memory serves me right.) Some of the most memorable ones include Aswamedham, Pareeksha, School Master, Kavyamela, and Murappennu.
I suspect my love for Malayalam cinema stems from these matinee experiences I had as a child. Even today, after a tough day at work, my favourite way of relaxing is to watch an old Malayalam movie (the period depends on my mood for the day) – sometimes I skip through the songs to the parts I love most; sometimes, I read up trivia about the movie or its actors or crew. For those few hours, I am transported back to those days – the Keralam of those times. And it is truly an escape.
In this post, I am compiling some of the most poignant scenes from Malayalam movies, in which there is some fine, nuanced moments of acting. These scenes have moved me – sometimes to tears, sometimes not – but they are powerful, and make you forget for those few moments that it is acting that you are seeing. That Maya and Siddharthan and Ammukkutty are not real people, but simply, characters brought to life by very talented actors.
So, here goes.
1. Oru Yatramozhi (A Final Goodbye) – 1997
Think about this movie, and the names that come to mind are those of stalwarts Sivaji Ganesan and Mohanlal. No doubt they have done a brilliant job of portraying Periyavar and Govindan Kutty. And they have received enough and more praise for their acting. But for me, the truly tragic figure in this movie is the character Appu Mama played by Nedumudi Venu. Here is a man whose life has been spent pining away for a woman who will never love him back. He hates himself for this weakness, but still, he cannot keep away from her. Knowing that till the very end, her heart belongs to someone else, being mocked and ostracized by his own relatives, knowing that she is using him for her own selfish needs time and again, Appu is unable to tear himself away.
In this scene, in which Gowri asks Appu to meet Periyavar and tell him to leave the village, you see all these emotions flit across Appu’s face: shock, angst, anger, and self-loathing. Because as much as he protests, “Should I be the one to do this too?”, he knows he will do it again – for her.
Watch the scene here:
Oru Yatra Mozhi – Nedumudi, Bharathi
2. Ente Sooryaputhrikku (To My Unacknowledged Daughter) – 1991
Every time I watch this movie, SR has a wry grin on his face. He really doesn’t get why I would want to watch such a tragic movie. What captivates me really is Maya Vinodini, the character played by Amala. She is like a wounded animal – hurt and vulnerable because she doesn’t know who her parents are. Then again, she is a typical college girl, wanting to have fun, play pranks, and dally in a little romance. In the hands of a poorer script writer or actress, Maya Vinodini could have become a melodramatic and shallow caricature. But scripted by Fazil and acted out to perfection by Amala, she is in safe hands.
One of my favourite scenes in this movie is the one in which Maya comes to meet her mother, Vasundhara Devi, played by the beautiful Srividya. The soul stirring background score of this scene – punctuated by a harsh discordant note that embodies Vasundhara Devi’s shock – is simply brilliant. At first, it looks like Maya has the upper hand – she walks in as cool as a cucumber, and her mother is shaken. She gives out a false name – thereby, letting her mother know that she knows. But a little while after she leaves the room, she turns into this little girl who desperately wants her mother to acknowledge her. When Maya makes that call from the booth, her trembling fingers and the downturned corners of her mouth betray her desperate hopefulness, which dissolves into frustrated tears and anger as she is rejected again.
Watch this scene here:
3. Dasharatham (The Fate Of Dasharatha) – 1989
This is not one of my favourite movies, and I have watched it in its entirety perhaps only once. But what remains etched in my mind is the very last scene. Rajiv asks his maid Maggie, “Do all mothers love their children as much as Annie loves her son?” The disturbed Maggie replies in the affirmative. Then, unexpectedly, Rajiv asks her, “Can you love me, Maggie?” Maggie is shocked.
In the few seconds after asking this question, Mohanlal shows just how brilliant an actor he is. Various emotions flit through his face – a bit of a laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, his deep sadness, a ‘squaring up his shoulders’ and getting ready to move on decision… So much that is said in a span of 3-4 seconds.
Watch the scene here:
4. Devasuram (Of Gods & Demons) – 1993
This movie has a larger-than-life hero, songs, action, romance, and a happy ending. By all definitions, it is a wholesome entertainer. But definitely not shallow or superficial. There is not even a modicum of melodrama: the dramatic element in this movie is tuned to that fine heightened pitch where it is most appealing. A trifle more: an extra word in the dialogue, an additional gesture or expression on an actor’s face, a different background score – could have ruined the scene. But Devasuram triumphs on every count.
My favourite scene in this movie is the one in which Oduvil Unnikrishnan comes to meet his fallen hero and friend. He refuses to step into the courtyard, confessing that he does not have the courage to see the fallen Mangalassery Neelakantan. He would rather hold on to the image he has been carrying about in his mind.
Before leaving, he recites a six line poem that is a poignant elegy to Krishna who is lying wounded by a hunter’s treacherous arrow. Sung in MG Radhakrishnan’s voice, this is the poem.
Vande mukunda hare, jaya shaure,
Sandapa hari murare!
Greetings, O Mukunda, brave warrior, destroyer of all sorrows!
Dwapara chandrika charchithamaam ninte
Dwaraka puri evide?
Where is your kingdom Dwaraka, where the moon of the Dwapara Yuga used to rise?
Peeli thilakkavum, kolakkuzhal paattum,
Ambadi paikkalum evide?
Where is the sheen of peacock feathers, the song of your flute, and the grazing cattle of Ambadi?
Kroora nishadha sharam kondu neerumee
Nenjil en aatma pranam
I bow to your heart that is bleeding from the cruel arrow of the nishada
Prema swaroopanam sneha sateerthyante
Kaalkalen kanneer pranamam
I bow, tearfully, at the feet of my dear friend, who is the very embodiment of love
Watch the scene here:
5. Aalkoottathil Thaniye (Alone In A Crowd) – 1984
My father had a book of the collected scripts of MT Vasudevan Nair, and I have spent many hot summer days lying on my stomach in the upstairs bedroom, reading Kuttyedathi, Perunthachan, and Nirmalyam. Funnily enough, I still have not watched any of these movies – yet, the characters and the dialogues and the scenes are imprinted in my mind.
Aalkoottathil Thaniye is an MT movie that is neither an outright entertainer (like Pazhassi Raja or Oru Vadakkan Veera Gadha) nor a tragic drama (like Nirmalyam or Kuttyedathi). It doesn’t have a particularly detailed story – everything revolves around the anticipated death of Balan K Nair – nor memorable songs. In fact, it actually has a reasonably happy ending. But the one character that remains in your mind long after the movie ends is that of Ammukkutty, played by Seema. We see her evolve from an innocent and playful lover, to a mature and supportive woman, and finally, a tragic figure who proudly refuses to let you point out the tragedy of her life or pity her.
In this scene, Vinod (an old friend of Rajan, the character played by Mammootty) comes to meet him, and mistakes Ammukkutty for Rajan’s wife. She manages to correct his presumption, and cautiously, he asks Ammukkuty, “So, then you…?” Ammukkutty replies, “Me? I… I live here by myself…”
She says so much by saying so little, and Vinod’s sense of disbelief and pity is palpable. He goes away, disillusioned, no longer keen on meeting Rajan.
Watch the scene here:
6. Paithrukam (Heritage or Legacy) – 1993
This is a movie in which the story and script outshine the perfectly adequate acting. The scene I have chosen here is also similar – more than the acting, it is the dialogue and the direction that take centrestage.
The radical atheist Somadathan (Suresh Gopi) has learned that he has just had a son. He tells his father, the priest Chemmathirippadu (Narendra Prasad) that he doesn’t want his son to be brought up according to Vedic beliefs, because he himself doesn’t believe in any of them.
“My son must grow up according to my wishes – I want my son to be like me!!” he declares arrogantly. To which the Chemmathirippadu replies sadly, almost paintively, “But I did not insist thus about my own son!”
The stricken Somadathan turns away, speechless.
Watch the scene here: