As the evening sun disappeared through the canopy of overarching coconut groves and the irresistible odour of freshly brewed white frothing toddy — seditiously intertwined with steaming tapioca and sardine curry, with a liberal splatter of coconut paste and kodampuli — wafted through the dreary streets of Kotta, which that afternoon had received the pre-monsoon showers. A forty-five rpm record began to revolve on an ageing, rickety Philips turntable kept in the instrument-stacked projection room of Sreedevi Talkies. Velayudhan. the middle-aged projectionist, brought the stylus to the primeval disc which kept revolving with a vengeance. The vinyl received the stylus as an all too familiar acquaintance, as Velayudhan casually placed it on the track. It took some time for the voice to travel through the long connecting wires to reach the loudspeakers, permanently perched on top of the tallest coconut tree in the Talkies compound leaning precariously towards the rippling backwaters. It is not known which soul dared to climb up to that height with those unwieldy loudspeakers, or whether someone will ever climb it again to bring them down. It seemed as if they sprouted out and grew along with the ancient coconut tree and would eventually die along with it. Neither Velayudhan nor anyone else ever seemed to bother or remember those Ahuja loudspeakers singing themes of nostalgia, love-longings and heroic ballads to the unmindful people of this lugubrious hamlet:
‘Sandhya mayangum neram, gramachanda piriyunna neram
Bendhure….raga Bendhure….Nee Enthinee Vazhy vannu?
Enikkenthu Nalkan vannu?
(As the evening began to envelop the earth and as the village market began to dwindle, maiden, oh melancholic maiden, what made you come along this way? What have you brought for me?)
The resuscitating charm of Yesudas’ song reassured the people of love and loss, hope and bereavement. Like those self-born loudspeakers tied perennially to the coconut tree, like the all too familiar smell of toddy, the unpretentious lives in Kotta had lived so long with the voice of Yesudas that they hardly thought of it as something exotic and distant.
Lonappan casually threw the beedi he had rolled up, tying its tip with a thin blue thread, to the small hill of beedies lying in the corner of a small tray made of the leaves of the Palmyra tree. The beedi traversing the small distance from the hand of its creator to the small hill of beedies, landed smoothly, slid down a little and patiently lay along with his brother beedies waiting to be lit and smoked by those on the way to the devilish invitation of freshly-brewed frothing white toddy-steaming, tapioca-sardine curry with a liberal splatter of coconut milk; or by those on the way to Sreedevi Talkies for the titillating romance of Prem Nazir and the raucous glamour of Sheela with the villainous Sudheer stalking in the dark shadows; or by the people who were not going anywhere in particular.
Lonappan found himself singing along with Yesudas:
Kattutharuvukal Inakale thirayum, kathara mizhikalode…
Kadathuthonikalil ale kayattum, kallothukkukaliloode…
Enikkulla marupadiyano ninte mounam?
(With the lascivious eyes with which wild ducks search for their mates,
On the boarding stone steps where the ferry boats receive the passengers,
The youthfulness that is ushered in,
Is your silence a reply for me?
Through the narrow slit in the wall Velayudhan looked inside the hall. Veluthakunju, the sole ticket collector of Sreedevi Talkies, could be seen walking inside pulling the wooden and steel chairs to their position. The understanding beedi-smoking Lonappan, toddy-drinking Bhaskaran Pillai and other similar patrons, altered and shuffled the scheme and pattern of chairs during every show. Landlord Kuttan Pillai, a die-hard Prem Nazir fan, never liked anyone occupying adjacent seats, and used the one in the front row as a footrest. Nalini, the school teacher always sat in the second row from the back, avoiding the unpleasant chance of meeting with Kuttan Nair.
The yellowing screen looked distant and remote — the airy nothingness of countless romantic flirtings and carnal passions, steadfast loyalties and betrayals, meetings and partings seemed to huddle in its vacant forebodings. Like those self-born Ahuja speakers singing songs of love and loss forever, the yellowing screen had always been there. Not even Velayudhan could recollect the day when it was consecrated there. No one ever bothered or ever went anywhere near it. The faithful patrons of Sreedevi Talkies avoided going anywhere near it lest they intruded on and embarrassed the ritual amorousness of Prem Nazir and Sheela. Like a haunted house they always kept a respectable and safe distance from it. The forever young, forever romantic Prem Nazir, the rustic charms of Adoor Bhasi, the unrelenting villainy of Jose Prakash, the redeeming charms of Sarada, the aphrodisiacal abundance of Jayabharati – all ethereal shadows jostled for a space. The sheer magnitude of these overwhelming illusions resonated within the walls whenever Velayudhan dared to peep into the hall. Its enigmatic and elusive character refused to be exorcised and remained forever haunting. In the indulgent illusion of the Sreedevi Talkies’ mystique, Velayudhan had spent nearly a lifetime flirting surreptitiously with the powdered curvaceousness of the black and white apparitions and lived forever in the surreal charms of those unfailing warriors from the Chekava clan. Under the unbearable burden of unsustainable fantasies, the helpless projectionist in the evening of his life supported himself against the Westrex projector, which had always been there like the Ahuja loudspeakers, like the Lonappan beedies, like the white frothing Bhaskaran Pillai toddy.
An unwarranted grumble of the electric bell instantly shattered and tore down the indulgent illusion. Ghosts vanished that instant from the Talkies’ hall.
Thankappan Nair, the theatre owner had made known his arrival. Famed for his miserly attributes (perhaps the only attribute he possessed), Thankappan Nair walked and talked with the practiced pomposity of a mock-king. The denizens of the village regularly got loans from the Sreedevi Chit Fund and Finances of Thankappan Nair and regularly failed to pay it back. The unforgiving, un-forgetful Nair pounced on those pawned artefacts with the hunger and relish of a mischievous god. A staunch believer in the local goddess Kotta Bhagavati and karma, Nair considered it his dharma to wrench maximum monetary benefits from his unsuspecting victims who got loans from the Chit Fund, and ran the Talkies with minimal staff and amenities. Nair had vowed to never waive the loans or add anything to the perpetual theatre — the choice-less patrons had learnt the art of not complaining.
Normally his first electric bell never signified anything more than that and hardly anyone bothered. At best the bell provided a strange existential certainty for Nair, the existence of himself as well as the Sreedevi Talkies.
Thankappan Nair casually scanned the precincts of the Talkies from his office-cum-ticket counter. He could see some casual labourers admiring the larger than life image of Jayan, the new sensation of Malayalam cinema embracing Jayabharati in his heavy arms, as the heroine’s face, wearing heavy coats of powder and rouge, strained hard to feign at least a figment of romance. Its superficiality and ludicrousness struck Thankappan Nair like the all too familiar monsoon showers.
With some difficulty Velayudhan mounted the film roll into the projector. He knew that the strength had begun to fail him. He put on the lights inside the hall and craned through the slit to reassure himself that the phantoms had vanished. He desperately needed to possess them for himself. Veluthakunju had positioned himself at the door, having brought the hall back into order. The chairs lay in the dimly-lit hall, like soldiers marching to the battlefront.
Velayudhan knew the un-celluloid sound belonged to Appu, the tea-vendor’s assistant.
As Velayudhan drank the hot, strong tea in deep draughts, the boy watched the projector admiringly.
‘Anna, how is it going?’
‘And the next change?’
‘As usual on Friday.’
‘Seems CID Nazir is coming?’
Velayudhan ignored the query. Celluloid illusions and fantasies were not for tea-boys he was convinced.
The boy peeped through the slit into the hall, and Velayudhan was distempered. He quickly finished the tea and hurriedly dismissed the boy with the tea glass. Velayudhan aggressively possessed for himself the private illusions in the dark cinema hall before the patrons came in — the strictly Velayudhan illusions — where he forever played the evergreen hero, dismissing the rouged, powdered Prem Nazir, till the Westrex projector came to life. Velayudhan tirelessly romanced and flirted with cohorts whom no one else had ever seen, not even Prem Nazir and Thankappan Nair. He scripted and wrote dialogues and composed music for those lascivious episodes of fantasy which never had beginning or end, only the perpetual middle.
The second bell from Thankappan Nair’s ticket counter mercilessly shattered the illusion to shreds like the shorn old film posters every Friday.
Velayudhan’s skilled hands brought the film roll through the lens component and fixed it to the lower spinner, opened a fresh box of carbon rods and fixed one into the compartment. With studied precision, he checked everything once again and waited.
Thankappan Nair scanned the theatre premises once again to find that a motley, discursive, apathetic crowd was beginning to gather and hardly anyone was in a hurry to approach the counter. Nair found nothing unusual about it, as the patrons knew well that the show would never get off till Prem Nazir and Nair had succeeded in tempting at least thirty members into the hall.
Velayudhan lit a Dinesh beedi — as a loyal follower of the Communist Party he preferred Dinesh beedies over Kannur to Lonappan beedies — and leaned out of the half-opened door of the projection room and waited patiently for the next Thankappan Nair bell. Over the years, in the small world of Sreedevi Talkies, everything had become jarringly predictable — the number of patrons who frequented the theatre, which never grew or dipped considerably; the worn out LPs, Thankappan Nair took care to see that money was never wasted on new releases, and their all too familiar melodies; the patrons who perennially smelt of Lonappan beedies and Bhaskaran Pillai toddy; young women who smelt of jasmine, Cuticura powder, Lux soap and sweat; farm labourers who smelt of sweat and nothing else; farm owners smelling of betel nut and starched dhotis — it was like a book read over and over again. Even the movies were not different — the evergreen Nazir and Madhu of Pareekkutty fame, in the delectably reassuring role of happy-miserable lover-husband-capitalist-communist; Sheela-Jayabharathi-Sarada, forever as college freshers-deserted beloveds-spoilt rich girls; Govindan Kutty-Jose Prakash-Janardhanan, languishing in their doomed kathivesha, wielding country knives-sporting waxed moustaches-spewing venom and doomsday arrack; jovial Adoor Bhasi and Bahadoor determined to make them laugh or laughing at their own jokes and at themselves. The beedi stub had begun to burn the projectionist’s fingers as he dropped it.
Velayudhan switched off the lights in the hall, the Westrex projector slowly came to life and the compassionate projectionist let the patrons immerse themselves in yet another evening of illusions.
Chacko Mash looked again at his Favre-Leuba watch, which impatiently showed 11:30. It was almost two hours since he was sitting in Kunjappi’s drawing room turned radio repairing shop. Philips Kunjappi, the sole god of this enigmatic Philips mystique had disappeared into the radio, which could be easily mistaken for an antique piece of furniture from almost a century ago, with no sign of coming out.
‘Kunjappi… I have other important things to do’, Chacko Mach reminded the absent-minded technician.
Kunjappi, true to his nature, ignored the client, too engrossed in the radio to pay any heed to the mortal Chacko Mash.
Helpless and cornered, the irate client vacantly looked at the profusion of dilapidated panoply of dead, dying and resuscitating radios and turntables which were stacked up to the cobweb infested ceiling of the room. Chacko Mash wondered whether sunlight had ever entered the room or if at all its occupant had ever seen it. It was obvious that Kunjappi had not left the room for many years and eventually he would die there.
‘A Holland Philips original’, Kunjappi said, elated and ecstatic, as if he had made a great discovery not less than the one made by Christopher Columbus as he reached the shores of America.
‘So should I come back tomorrow?’ Chacko Mash queried.
‘Give me a week Mash. Seems that one of the valves burnt out.’
‘Got so late.’ Chacko Mash had neither time nor patience for the fineries of the Philips mystique and he had already got up, taking the umbrella hanging from the door.
‘Have to get it from Kottayam. May not get it here in Chengannur. Got to be rare. Local valves will not go into this Holland Philips.’
‘Fix it man. I will be back next week.’
Chacko Mash hurriedly walked out of the primeval den of Philips fantasy, fearing that he would be trapped there like Kunjappi, for whom the real world of Kotta with its Bhaskaran Pillai toddy-Lonappan beedies-Prem Nazir-Sheela-Sreedevi Talkies was always distant.
Hardly noticing Chacko’s departure, Kunjappi once again disappeared into the non-functional radio that stood before him. With enormous awe and reverence he began to carouse its dial, which was waiting impatiently to conjure up ghosts of ancient and enigmatic radio stations. Kunjappi lowered his ears to the labyrinthine, fading circuits; his eyes began to gleam with a radiance, rare and ethereal. He was listening to voices that no one had and no one would listen to.
Shy and withdrawn, ever since he was introduced into this world by Eliamma and Pappachan, which in the beginning consisted of a God who, in Kunjappi’s eyes, vastly resembled a PWD contractor; when he was told that with his light and word he completed the creation of the world in the record time of six days, and spent the seventh day sitting in an expensive bar in the city. Little Kunjappi was pulled into the church every Sunday by Eliamma and Pappachan, but he could neither be lured into faith by the sweets offered by the parish priest nor by the terrible possibilities of a waiting hell of permanent power-cuts and perpetual tortures of hell fire. However hard he tried, he could never take interest in the monotonous drone of the priest’s teachings. He was more interested in the sound system and turntable installed in the church. Once late at night, as the whole of Kotta lay asleep, Lucifer appeared to him as another patch of darkness with a wry, understanding smile and with an audacious confidence fished out the temptations from his rucksack and held them dangling before his eyes. Little Kunjappi kept ignoring them with the scorn they deserved. The Prince of Darkness knew that his designer t-shirt and jeans were drenched in sweat even on that December night. He even eyed the ceiling fan surreptitiously subjecting himself to the subcutaneous prospect of hanging himself. In his Service Records, there had been only one such case approximately two thousand years ago. But that time failure had been a worthy and high profile one — the illustrious son of a carpenter from Jerusalem had stood on the other side. But here sat a boy who had not yet come out of primary school. But intuition comes to the aid of the devil at testing times. Lucifer stood lost in thought for a while, silent like those moments in Sreedevi Talkies when the sound track fails, his gaze still fixed on the ceiling fan. Little Kunjappi got up and switched on the fan to make the visitor comfortable. As the fan started to whir, from his over-sized left coat pocket Lucifer brought out something and held it dangling before the mystified eyes of the little boy — a bright, sparkling radio from Philips, Netherlands. Kunjappi wiped away the last traces of God, the wealthy, fat-bellied, bearded PWD contractor and all his creations including tigers, elephants, tortoises, camels, ants and school teachers, from his mind forever. Life was reduced to a single destructive passion, Philips.
When Lucifer left Kotta in the first KSRTC bus he had added to his roll-call one more damned human soul, even as the Kotta Marthoma Church lost one.
He came back that day just before daybreak, before the arrival of the first KSRTC bus. He came before the sun’s first rays fell on the backwaters. He came before the nuptial love makers left the bed to experience the romance-less daylight ennui. He came as they slept lethargically with stained memories of the dark night on their bodies. As the son of Gopala Tiresias made his entry once again, the high beams of his Mercedez Benz illuminated the walls of Kotta where his father Gopala Tiresias used to sit, which he had demolished and which had been rebuilt. With his drowsy eyes Sugathan looked at the Walls and the Walls looked back at him.
Trailing the car came a stream of strange looking machines painted in yellow and a truckful of dark, dull, half-asleep Bengali-Hindi-Marathi speaking labourers. The yellow machines and the colourless labourers were dragged into Kotta as if caught in the inexorable temptation of the Mercedes driving-Rothmans smoking son of Gopala Tiresias. The German beauty stopped by the walls, the side-widow was pulled down letting in the cold, fresh air of pre-morning Kotta. The walls of Kotta rushed into the eyes of the visitor. The Mercedes pushed onward. Sugathan did not resist it. He had begun to take it in greedily.
The monstrous pageant of monster machines stopped before the iron gates of Sugathan’s bungalow. Sugathan walked in like a determined king. It was still dark, as the first KSRTC bus had not yet arrived.
‘Let there be light’, Sugathan said.
And there was light.
The half-asleep, half-awake stared at the dim-lit place where they had reached.
They did not ask where they were.
There was no need.
Those of them who awoke, walked in many directions ignoring the King, their master.
The King disappeared inside the house, leaving the half-awake, half-asleep, dark labourers.
The monsters in yellow were put to rest after the journey that perhaps had lasted the whole night. Their exhaust pipes still let out remnants of smoke, dust and sarcasm.
The first faint rays of the morning sun entered Kotta unenthusiastically throwing out dull silhouettes of men and machines.
The first passengers on their way to Chengannur and Pathanamthitta casually glanced at the yellow machines and the dark men.
The first KSRTC bus to Chengannur had arrived.
About The Author
Karunakaran Shaji teaches English Literature at RIE, Mysore. His other books are ‘Enchanted Aeolian Harps — Readings in English Romanticism’ and ‘Dark Primeval Male in Thomas Hardy’. He is a native of Chengannur, Kerala.