Monday, February 07, 2005

Theerthadanam- The Pilgrimage

I do not know if you have heard of The Malayalam writer- M.T.Vasudevan Nair- (BBG had mentioned abt him in his last blog) – well, he is a very famous writer in Mallu land- has also got plenty of awards- titles- including the Padmashri- for his stories, novels, screenplays (both National and state level)etc…His stories mostly revolve around the matriarchal system of the aristocratic Nair families- the old joint family where the maternal uncle is the decision maker- the numerous aunts and uncles and cousins- the grandmother- sibling rivalry- partiality- all these are depicted beautifully- and those familiar with the mileu can relate to every instance- the dialogue is in the typical dialect spoken in the land of M.T’s place of birth.

He was born into an agricultural, aristocratic family. His stories are mostly based on his personal experiences and the characters he grew around with.

Recently I saw the movie adaptation of his short story- “Theerthadanam” on T.V- Actually I did not find it as brilliant as some of his other works- but then M.T is M.T and there is always a certain aesthetic echelon that is maintained…I had read this story before and feel that full justice has not been accomplished in the adaptation. I am unable to pin point the flaws…and this is not a review….

There is this retired school teacher- Karunakaran…who is leading a reclusive life with his wife…kind of aloof- into his own world of unresolved thoughts and memories. Most of the time he spends reliving the past especially those which revolved around one of his students from years ago. This girl- Vinodini drops in a letter, card once in a while- and always signs as respectfully Vinodini…that she was much more than just another student is shown in intermittent flashes into the past…Both the sir and the student had a special soft corner for each other, but left it unsaid…

When the movie begins, we find the aged teacher reading the latest last from his student, in which she has “carelessly” mentioned that she would be visiting the Mukambika temple when she was coming on a few days leave in the next few days.

The master who is not exactly bubbling with health tells his wife he would like to visit the Mukambika temple in the following days. The wife is worried about his ill health and suggests he take with him the young boy in the neighbourhood- also a relative. The master agrees half heartedly. The master and the boy take leave of his wife and proceed to Mukambika. Here, we see that the master is of a melancholic dispositon, and his relationship with his wife of many years is a bit hollow- in the sense that while they care for eachother, there is really no “soul mate”- thinking alike kind of relationship – just a very functional, mutually beneficial kind of sharing. The master languishes in his own world- as if stuck to the past, while the wife is a practical, down to earth person. It is not mentioned if their early years where different…she reminds him to take his medicines regularly as he leaves…He is in a hurry to reach the station..

The master arrives at the temple- he prays at the sanctum sanctorium, he is doing his perambulations around the temple- while his eyes are searching for someone in the crowd. The boy dutifully reminds the master to take his medicine-and is only too happy to stay back in the hotel room and eat …

The Sauparnika lake – the surroundings are all beautifully picturised - but I am afraid I did not notice the song that was running in the background…The temple precincts, the crowds- distracted me…and I too was eagerly looking out for somebody…almost as eager as the master himself.

On the second day, the master emerges from the temple tank after his bath, he is climbing up the steps…and suddenly he stops- the woman who just passed by…he slowly turns back and she was also just pausing to have a second look- They look at eachother’s eyes…first recognizing the other- both had changed almost beyond recognition- time had caused irreparable ravages on their countenace- first there is disbelief, then there is a unique joy, and finally the shock after having assessed the changes that time had wrought upon the other’s face…we have already seen how different they looked in the flashback clips. Life had been obviously harsh to them and perhaps harsher for Vinodini.

Vinodini says that while she had mentioned that she would be visiting Mukambika, she was hoping that the master would perhaps make a trip too at the same time…she asks him to wait so that they could pray at the temple together. After offering prayers they have breakfast at a nearby hotel. They catch up with incidents of the past- The master notices that Vinu is very finance conscious- that her attire is very simple, her slippers were worn out…it haunts him- he remembers she used to belong to a rather well off family. Vinu expresses her wish to visit Kudajadri- a nearby sacred place which is uphill and difficult to reach- the hotel manager informs them that jeep service was available, but for Vinu, the rates were exorbitant. The master offers that he could make arrangements to go there and she could join him. Vinu is hesitant at first but agrees later.

Again in between we are taken into the past through the master’s and Vinu’s memories-friends of the master and Vinu used to tease them about their obvious affection for eachother…but they do not ever express it to eachother themselves. We get to know how the master gets transferred to another school in another place, how Vinu’s father does not approve of the polite, affectionate letters from the master and finally the master stops writing to his student. Vinu however sends a few lines , a New year card once in a while which the master treasures and keeps reading time and again.

The next day, the master persuades his young companion to stay back at Mukambika, and leaves for Kudajadri with Vinu. During the trip uphill, Vinu talks to the master about her difficulties, she was a teacher working in Chennai, how it was very difficult for her to make ends meet- she had to send money home to her ailing mother. She also says that she would be entitled to a better pay if she could do a course equivalent to B.A but is unable to do so because of financial constraints.

The master asked her why she never got married…she said that there was some “dosham”- flaw in her horoscope and so a suitable alliance never materialized and eventually her father fell ill and died, and the years passed unnoticed in the sheer effort of living a daily life. The master talks about his wife “Ammutty” , children who were living elsewhere. Vinu informs him that she had always updated herself with his news. The master remains silent. They reach Kutajadri by dusk, avail lodgings at a small home in the place- run by a priest and his family and provided shelter and food to pilgrims. The driver guides them along the hilly trek, and thus the two pilgrims make the pilgrimage of their life together for a brief snatch of time-

The master offers prayers in his name and Vinodini’s and she is amazed that he still remembered her birth star. The priest conducts a puja and offers prayers to the deity on their behalf. The hosts have naturally assumed that the two were a couple and the two don’t deny it either. Later at dinner time, the hosts relate the story of their hardships and Vinu tells the master afterwards that her hardships paled in comparison.

After dinner, the two pilgrims sit by the lake nearby ..for some time they share a companionable silence and eventually the master asked Vinu why she had rejected his proposal for her hand in marriage many years ago. Vinu is taken by surprise and she says she never knew he had ever proposed! Then the master explains that a mutual friend had talked to her father many years ago on his behalf seeking Vinu’s hand in marriage. Vinu’s father had rejected the proposal outright and the master had naturally assumed that Vinu knew about it. A shattered Vinu reveals that she never knew about it and she utters vehemently- the only moment when the otherwise softspoken Vinu explodes involuntarily in suppressed fury- “Dushtan”- meaning- “the cruel one” incriminating her dead father. It was now the turn of the master to be shocked…it had never occurred to him that she had no inkling about his proposal. After this startling disclosure, followed a stunned, wistful, forlorn silence…Vinu is unable to suppress her sobs and the master has no words of comfort to offer.

The host soon comes to call them inside to retire for the night. They realize that they have been offered a single room. At first, the two pilgrims are awkward , but eventually they accept the situation, and settle down to sleep on the single mat maintaining a polite distance between them.

Vinu enquires of the master, that wasn’t the puja done in their name- The “Dampathy” ( done as a couple)puja..the master just laughed at the irony…and Vinu says- perhaps it was destiny that they were meant to make this pilgrimage as a couple- may be that was all they were destined to have in this life…she breaks into sobs and the master remains silent. Suddenly the master develops chest pains, and Vinu tries to get help from the hosts but the latter were busy with some rituals. She comes back to the side of the master writhing in agony…she sends up a silent prayer to the deity, and the master in his pain calls out the name of his wife_ “Ammutty”! Vinu starts and we see mute resignation on her face. She gives the master water, and gradually the master recovers. The master looks up at the distraught face of Vinu and there is an apologetic air about him. He goes back to sleep, while Vinu leans against the wall and spends the rest of the night in a sitting posture. That single moment when the master called out his wife’s name while in the throes of agony was a revelation to both of them…

The next morning, the two piligrims return to their respective homes, but before leaving the master asks Vinu if he could help her to secure her B.A degree, that he was willing to sponsor her course fees, but Vinu declines…they go their ways…it was a pilgrimage for the two of them not just in the religious sense- they had to make this pilgrimage to bring a closure to the blanks in their past…to come to terms with the “if only’s” and the “had beens”…

The master was played by the South Indian actor Jayaram and Vinu was played by actress,director, social activist, Suhasini- (also manirathnam’s wife). Jayaram was quite good-effectively underplaying the pathos- however his make up was jarring…Suhasini was tolerable- I usually do not enjoy watching her mannerisms, the way she moves her hands, her crinkly smile, and a tendency to be carefully “natural” …however her voice over did not suit her…my opinion only…

I enjoyed the unspoken silences in the movie…M.T. has this way of making silences speak…he has written another novel _ Randaamoozham_ – meaning the second turn alluding to Bheema’s turn in his marital life with Draupadi, in this novel, M.T. admits to have taken creative liberty to elaborate on certain blanks in the Mahabharatha epic…certain incomplete insinuations- loud silences…and he has achieved that beautifully..the entrie story unfurls from the pov of Bheema…and is very interesting and intriguing..