Mouna Ragam: Silent Rhapsody or Silenced Womanhood?

Mouna Ragam: Silent Rhapsody or Silenced Womanhood?

While walking back home last week, I heard a snatch of Nilave vaa playing off someone’s phone and felt an overwhelming urge to watch Mouna Ragam again. This movie has always found a spot on my list of favorite romances (right after Alai Payuthe). For months after I watched it for the first time, I dreamed of marrying someone like Chandrakumar and living in a bright and airy house like his with its Indian boho-chic decor: low lying beds, glassy walls looking out onto patches of green and potted plants dotting every corner.

Watch it I did, after nearly a decade. But this time, it didn’t leave me misty-eyed and mush-hearted. Divya and CK still have their sizzling chemistry. The house in Delhi is still beautiful. But the scales have fallen from my eyes.

In the movie, it is winter and Delhi looks like a quiet, green haven. But like every other city, it has an ugly side: heat and dust, noise and pollution and traffic jams. Just as the camera skillfully ignored these, my eyes and mind had remained blind to everything that is wrong with this movie.

The biggest loss of all.

Revathi’s Divya is a brilliant character: a twenty-something child-woman barely out of college who has had to deal silently and alone with the horrifying loss of a first love. (Notice how not even her friends in college seem to know about Manohar?) And she copes in the only way she knows: by shutting her heart to another round of loving and hurting. “Engitte ethuvume illai” as she screams at CK (“I have nothing left to give!”)

Mouna Ragam is not a story of how a young girl who has tragically lost her first love and shut her heart to it heals, grows up and finds love again. It is the story of a strong, proud woman coerced into one relationship after another by the very people who claim to love her.

Mouna Ragam is less about the loss of a first love and more about the loss of one woman’s free will.

Do one thing for me.

Mani Ratnam has openly shown how Divya’s family emotionally blackmail her into marrying CK in spite of her vehement protests. Nobody pays attention to her when she says she wants to study and her first reaction is what comes naturally to her: stalk off into the night for a walk to clear her head. She comes back with the look of someone who has made up her mind but we never find out what this is, because her father has just had a heart attack. Her brother cold-shoulders her and even her ten-year-old younger sister looks at her reproachfully, blaming her for their father’s condition.

This is followed by a scene that is not alien to Indian families: a mother emotionally backing her daughter into a corner by playing the ‘this is a matter of life and death’ card.  The following morning, Divya’s father asks her, “Did you do this for me?” but when she kneels down next to him crying, he seems quietly satisfied, not concerned.

But Divya is no stranger to emotional blackmail. In fact, she has surrendered to it once already.

Love me, love me not.

Comments on YouTube, where Mouna Ragam is uploaded, gush over what a truly romantic character Manohar is, one that any girl would swoon over. But is Mano anything more than a charming cad? Take a look at how he wins Divya’s affections: he stalks her; embarrasses her in public; storms into her classroom and gets her out using a blatant (and fairly insensitive) lie; challenges her to ‘prove’ that she has no feelings for him by having coffee with him… For all her fieriness and pride, Divya is swept along, easily manipulated by his bold tactics.

The night that Manohar gives up his activism and shows up outside her house, what he gives her is not so much a proposal as an ultimatum. Marry me tomorrow, he says, brushing aside her protests. Show up outside the registrar’s office tomorrow or it will mean you don’t love me. There’s no conversation, no discussion about their future or what she wants, no consideration for her feelings: just a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. And Divya succumbs.

What ensues is certainly a tragedy, but would not living a life of compromise and manipulation with a man as impulsive and stubborn as Mano been a bigger one?

A woman without a man.

Throughout the film, Divya gets advice from friendly, well-meaning women, all of whom supposedly care about her. “If he is handsome, marry him,” says a friend flippantly when Divya worries about going home to face the marriage party. “I am begging you, let me keep my thaali (don’t drive my husband, your father, to his death)says her mother, when Divya tries to explain her feelings to her.

And her own divorce lawyer—an educated, professionally accomplished woman—tells Divya that a woman cannot live by herself. “I am speaking from my own experience,” she says, as if to add credibility to her words. This female character, who seems strong on the surface, turns out to be another cardboard figure and one has to wonder what the writer and director are really telling us.

Bharadwaj Rangan writes that in a conversation with him, Mani Ratnam said that Divya was originally the protagonist of a short story in which a young girl coerced into a marriage ends up being a victim of marital rape on their wedding night. It is ironic that this dark slice of realism evolved into the patronizing, manipulative beauty that Mouna Ragam is.

Idols with cracks.

Chandrakumar (CK) is the epitome of perfection, a gentleman par excellence whom it is difficult to discredit. He is never more radical or liberal or attractive than in the scene in which he starts clearing up the remnants of the house party himself and tells Divya, “I am sorry. I can only imagine what you must be feeling.” In a world where a man who deigns to wash his own plate is applauded, such empathy and quiet sharing of chores cannot be scoffed at. And remember, this movie was made 32 years ago.

But even gods collapse and CK too falters in the end. Things come to a head when Divya, hurt and angry at his outburst, asks CK why he is still ‘keeping her here’. (Another subtle hint at how she is really a prisoner of circumstances even when she isn’t physically restrained?) She has to ask him to book her tickets even though it is revealed later that she has some housekeeping money saved (which she dutifully returns to him).

The biggest tell is when CK calls up the travel agency—he makes it a point to spell out her name: Divya Chandrakumar. The divorce papers have arrived that morning and they are no longer husband and wife, but his is a name she has to carry with hers like a cross all her life.

Destroyed but not defeated.

Throughout the movie, Divya is repeatedly victimized. Even the audience’s sympathy switches to CK halfway through. But she doesn’t allow herself to be a victim. Her innate boldness and strength of character shine through after every crisis. So you cannot help cheering when at the railway station, she tells CK, “If you didn’t love me, I would have understood. But I know you do. It is your ego that prevents you from admitting it. Fine, I will put my ego aside and admit it. I love you. I am in love with you.”

These lines are so many things: an admission of pride, of mistakes made. An assertion of confidence. A bold and open proposal, something unimaginable coming from a woman all those years ago. In this climax scene, Divya is hurt and scared and lonely, but she shows that she has lost none of her spunk. And that really is the saving grace of this movie. That is what makes her a true heroine.


Prufrock and coffee on a New Year morning

Prufrock and coffee on a New Year morning
As another new year is rung in, I wake up thinking of Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. An oft-quoted line from the poem says “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” and I realize that I have done just that.
Three hundred and sixty five times, I have lifted my coffee maker and poured out the decoction into my mug. Three hundred and sixty five times, I have added a splash of milk and shaken the mug–never stirred. Even middle-class married women must have their quirks.
Some mornings, the decoction is dark and strong and scented and my mood lifts instantly. Ideas roll off my tongue with haughty ease. I ace every meeting, breeze through presentations.
On others, it is light and golden and watery. I berate myself for measuring out too little coffee or too much water. I cradle the steaming mug like a lifeline, breathing in the coffee fumes, and will myself to look up and face the day.
“The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.” wrote Ella W. Wilcox.
What a fragile thing life is! Balanced on the knife-edge of sanity and fantasy, moods and madness. Sunlight patterns on my balcony can lift the edges of my mind. A mug of coffee has such power over my life.
I pour and lift and sip and the years roll by.
Wishes dwindle from many to a few. Dreams hover benignly, waiting for me to give them my full attention: there’s no more of the frantic beating of old. My senses are alert and I notice each day, its shape and colours and outline more keenly. My energies, spread over many things over many years, seem to have concentrated themselves onto laser pinpoints.
Inexplicably, I feel younger and older at the same time.
There is not the old excitement for new beginnings, no eager anticipation to see what the year has in store. I simply sit back on my chair, lift my mug to my lips, and take life as it comes.
#happynewyear #2019musings #newbeginnings

‘A certain weariness’ by Pablo Neruda

“I don’t want to be tired alone,

I want you to grow tired along with me.”

I stumbled upon Neruda’s poem ‘A certain weariness’ and caught my breath when I read these opening lines. I read the poem over and over and wanted desperately to do something. Write. Awaken my sleeping husband and read it to him. Run out onto the road and stop people, shake the poem in their faces and ask, “Have you read this? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it the truth we’ve known all along?”

Instead, I did this. Attempted to translate the words and their meanings into Malayalam, my other tongue. Even in my amateur hands, they sound just as beautiful.

ഒരുതരം മടുപ്പ്.

എനിക്ക് ഏകനായി മടുക്കേണ്ട.
നീയും എന്നോടൊപ്പം മടുക്കൂ.
എങ്ങനെ തോന്നാതിരിക്കും മടുപ്പ്?
നഗരങ്ങളെ ശിശിരത്തിൽ വന്നു മൂടുന്ന ഈ ചാരപ്പൊടിയോട്.
മുഴുവനായി എരിയാത്തത്.
കുപ്പായങ്ങളിൽ വന്നടിയുന്നത്.
പതിയെ പതിയെ ഹൃദയത്തെ പൊതിയുന്നത്.
എനിക്ക് മടുപ്പാണ്.
നിർദ്ദയമായ കടലിനെ. നിഗൂഢമായ ഭൂമിയെ.
മടുപ്പാണ് എനിക്ക് കോഴിയെ.
നമുക്കറിയില്ല അവ എന്താണ് ചിന്തിക്കുന്നത് എന്ന്.
ഉണങ്ങിയ കണ്ണുകളോടെ അവ നമ്മെ നോക്കുന്നു,
ആരുമല്ലാത്തവർ ആണെന്ന പോലെ.
ഞാൻ നിന്നെ ക്ഷണിക്കുന്നു.
ഒരു പ്രാവശ്യം ഈ മടുപ്പ് അനുഭവിക്കാൻ.
രുചിയില്ലാത്ത മദ്യത്തോട്. നിലവാരമുള്ള വിദ്യാഭ്യാസത്തോട്.
ഫ്രാൻസിലേക്ക് പോവാൻ സാധിക്കാത്തതിനോട്.
ആഴ്ചയിലെ ഒന്നോ രണ്ടോ ദിവസങ്ങളോട്.
അവയ്ക്കെന്നും ഒരേ പേരാണ്, തീൻ മേശയിലെ വിഭവങ്ങളെ പോലെ.
മടുപ്പ് – രാവിലെ ഉണരുന്നതിനോട്. (അല്ലെങ്കിലും അതെന്തിന് വേണ്ടി?)
മടുപ്പ് – ശ്രേയസ്സില്ലാതെ ജീവിക്കുന്നതിനോട്.
ഒടുവിലിപ്പോൾ നമുക്ക് സത്യം പറയാം –
ഈച്ചയെയോ ഒട്ടകത്തെയോ പോലെയുള്ള
ഈ നാളുകൾ നാം ഒരിക്കലും ആസ്വദിച്ചിരുന്നില്ലെന്ന്.
ചില സ്മാരകങ്ങൾ ഞാൻ കണ്ടിട്ടുണ്ട്.
മഹാന്മാർക്ക് വേണ്ടി പണിതുയർത്തിയത്.
വ്യവസായ കഴുതകൾക്കു വേണ്ടി പണിതുയർത്തിയത്.
അതാ അവർ അവിടെ, നിശ്ചലരായി, കയ്യിൽ വാളുമേന്തി,
മ്ലാനമുഖമുള്ള കുതിരകൾക്കു മുകളിൽ ഇരിക്കുന്നു.
മടുത്തൂ എനിക്കീ ശില്പങ്ങൾ.
മതി, കല്ലുകൊണ്ട് ഉണ്ടാക്കിയതെല്ലാം.
ഈ ലോകം മുഴുവൻ ഇവയെക്കൊണ്ട് നിറച്ചാൽ
ഇവിടെ ജീവനുള്ളവർ എന്തു ചെയ്യും?
ഓർക്കുന്നത് എനിക്ക് മടുത്തു.
പിറന്നു വീണ മനുഷ്യർ, അവർ ശ്വസിക്കട്ടെ
നറുപുഷ്പങ്ങളും, പുതുമണ്ണും, ചുടുതീയും.
മറ്റുള്ളവർ ശ്വസിക്കുന്നത് അവർക്ക് വേണ്ട.
ഈ നവജാതരെ വെറുതെ വിടൂ!
ഇവർക്ക് ജീവിക്കാൻ ഇടം നൽകൂ.
നിങ്ങൾ ഇവർക്കുവേണ്ടി ചിന്തിക്കേണ്ട.
അതെ പുസ്തകങ്ങൾ ഇവരെ കേൾപ്പിക്കേണ്ട.
ഇവർ പുതിയ പുലരികൾ തേടട്ടെ.
ഇവരുടെ ചുംബനങ്ങൾക്കു പേരുകൾ തനിയെ തിരയട്ടെ…
മടുപ്പ്. ഇത് നീ എന്നോടൊപ്പം അനുഭവിക്കൂ.
മടുപ്പ്: നന്നായി ചെയ്തു തീർത്ത പ്രവർത്തികളോട്.
നമ്മളെ ജീർണിപ്പിക്കുന്ന കാര്യങ്ങളോട്.
ഇനിയങ്ങോട്ട് നമ്മളെ കാത്തുനിൽക്കുന്നതിനോട്.
മറ്റുള്ളവരെ മടുപ്പിക്കാൻ.
മടുക്കാം നമുക്ക് കൊല്ലുന്നതിനെ.
മരിക്കാൻ തയാറാകാത്തതിനെ.
I have taken certain liberties with the text. My source for this was itself an English translation of the original Spanish poem, which you can read here.


ഞാൻ ഇന്ന് ചെരുപ്പ് മാറിയിട്ടു.

അമ്പലമുറ്റത്തല്ല അബദ്ധം പറ്റിയത്. ഇവിടെ. നമ്മുടെ വീട്ടിൽ.

നീ കുളിമുറിക്കു പുറത്തു ഇട്ടിട്ടു പോയ ചെരുപ്പിൽ ഒരെണ്ണം ഞാനിട്ടു. മറ്റേ കാലിൽ എന്റെയും. ഞാനും നീയും തമ്മിലുള്ള വ്യത്യാസം എന്റെ ശരീരം മറന്നിരിക്കുന്നു. ഇന്നൊരു ദിവസം മുഴുവൻ ഇതറിയാതെ ഞാൻ നടന്നു.

നീ തിരിച്ചു വരുന്നില്ല എന്ന് വിളിച്ചു പറഞ്ഞപ്പോൾ ഞാൻ വിശ്വസിച്ചില്ല.

“അപ്പോൾ ചെരുപ്പോ?” ആശ്ചര്യത്തോടെ ഞാൻ ചോദിച്ചു.

“ഓ, ചെരുപ്പ്!” നീ ദേഷ്യത്തിൽ പറഞ്ഞു. “അതവിടെ കിടക്കട്ടെ. ഞാൻ വേറെ വാങ്ങിക്കൊള്ളാം.”

നിനക്ക് പുതിയ ചെരുപ്പുകൾ പറ്റുമായിരിക്കും. പക്ഷെ എന്റെ കാൽ ഇനി പഴയ ചെരുപ്പിനെ സ്വീകരിക്കില്ല. ഇനിയുള്ള വഴികളിൽ ഒരു കാലിൽ നിന്നെയും പേറിയാകും എന്റെ യാത്ര.

The scent of loss

  1. 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.

2. Daisy

“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.

Don’t Be Evil!

Don’t Be Evil!

In one of his recent blogs, Seth Godin has talked about making money and understanding its value. As someone who has recently decided to make more money faster, I took his words to heart. A few days later, I came across an opportunity to write content for websites. It was a work-from-home job that would bring in about twenty thousand rupees a month for a couple of hours of work every day. I felt quite enthusiastic about it  – I can write; so why not channel my talents to make some cash on the side?

Then the job poster shared the instructions and the next steps.

I would be given a source article, which I must rewrite in different words, keeping the meaning intact. My language and grammar had to be good. But the content did not have to be great. All the articles would have a common objective – convince people to take loans for various purposes. According to the job description, this was an ‘easy, simple’ writing opportunity. I checked one of the attached sample articles – it urged people to buy a UPS for their homes. Why? Because having power backup is important. And oh, UPS loans are dirt cheap and readily available. There were a few more in the same vein. Buy a washing machine to do your laundry at home. (washing machine loans are dirt cheap and readily available). Buy a second car because you don’t have to depend on your spouse to ferry you around. (car loans are cheap and readily available too).

As I sat at my desk skimming through these articles with growing disbelief, I realized something.

That contrary to my own belief, I am not yet ready to sell my soul.

I didn’t take up the job. But I did mull over it, and realized that I was disturbed by more than just the soul-deadening nature of the work. There is an ethical side to it too.

We all rely greatly on the internet to give us relevant and useful information. We all know how frustrating it is when we come upon crappy web pages and pointless articles. So don’t we also have a moral obligation to contribute something back to this open source? Something valuable and helpful to other netizens. Even if we don’t edit Wikipedia pages or write reviews of products and services we have used, we can at least be responsible and refrain from adding to the mess.

I think that is something web content writers and webpage owners should think about. This will also make business sense in the long run – if you are sharing great content, more people will come to your website on their own. You don’t have to hoodwink them into doing so.

As Google says – Don’t Be Evil.



The Self-absorption of an Artist’s Soul

The Self-absorption of an Artist’s Soul

“No one can make the same album they made 10 years ago with a straight face: one is you change as a person. To be a true artist, I have to be true to who I am now and write that way. And the second is, these are different times.” – Brad Paisley.

There are two kinds of artists: the kind that breathe and thrive on the response they get from their readers, audience or listeners, and the kind that find peace and soul satisfaction just in the process of creation. To me, the question of which of these is right, is very confusing!

I suspect that much of what I write – or think of writing –   would have no appeal to a reader. So should I even write it? It will only become another unread, unliked, uncommented post on my blog. But if I have a topic, or a deadline, or readers, I am more motivated to write. There are plenty of helpful books and resources available for those who want to expand their blog readership base. From what I can see, the underlying principle seems to be ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!” So there are people who regularly read others’ blogs and comment on them, and the authors of these return the favour. At some point, this stops being a favour and becomes a pleasure in itself. You decide which blogs you want to follow – and since most writers are also readers, this does not feel like a task.

I still remember those days in 2006, when a bunch of us would blog everyday and read and comment on each other’s blogs. I was much more regular with writing then, and looked forward to getting ‘feedback’ for my works. Unfortunately, like all social fads, this too died a natural death. I dare say that the quality of my writing has improved since then; but it was the praise and encouragement I got in those days that motivated me to improve my mediocre writing; today, my style and creativity seem to be stagnant. Like an actor who keeps playing the same role week after week. He is doing it well, but keeps hoping for inspiration, for a different role.

I feel a little ashamed about this vulgar craving for an audience – isn’t this ignoble? Perhaps I do not have the soul of a true writer. Or perhaps I am that pathetic tragedy: a cue-giver with the soul of a prima donna.