I once prided my hometown of Lucknow as the world centre for satire, wit and an elegant inter-communal irreverence
The film, Agraharathil Kazhutai, or Donkey in a Brahmin Village, was a surprise gift from a friend in Kerala to keep away the corona blues.
The film is listed as one of the masterly satires by the late John Abraham though on an embarrassing shoe string budget.
A baby donkey strays onto the doorstep of a tall, lanky Professor of Philosophy in a local college. The donkey in the bachelor professor’s house leads to amusement, gossip, graffiti until the principal, a stern looking Pastor, informs the Professor that his hospitality towards the donkey was affecting the college’s reputation.
The Professor carts the donkey by bus and bullock cart to the Agraharam or the Brahmin village where his parents live. A deaf and mute maidservant looks after the donkey.
The maid has an affair with the village washerman, delivers a stillborn male child which is left outside the temple. The Chief Priest declares it the most dreadful omen, unanimously attributed by the elders to the donkey’s presence in the village. The animal is beaten to death.
A series of unfortunate events follow, which the Agraharam, on second thoughts, blames on the fact that the donkey was killed in haste. A monument to the beast is planned. A wild fire dance burns much of the village leaving the Professor and the maid contemplating the scene for its deeper significance.
The reason for my focus on the film is not “cinema”, but the fact that someone with a name like John Abraham could satirise the Brahmin Agraharam with such outrageous audacity.
I once prided my hometown of Lucknow as the world centre for satire, wit and an elegant inter-communal irreverence. Over the years I bade goodbye to those values in my hometown.
But I rejoice that they thrive in places like Kerala indeed the South and the East. A day’s visit to the Agraharam in Palghat was memorable.
The neighbourhood was stately in its austerity. I saw no car on the street nor, in the middle of the day, was there any movement outside, dogs, cats, cattle, nothing. There is a lovely view of river Kalpathy below, like the Agraharam’s private pond for a holy dip.
Away from the road, on the stone seat were occasional bare bodied men, sporting the fattest janyeus I have seen. The visitor’s room in a house I has a mural size painting of Palghat Mani Iyer, the great mridangam player and a local icon.
The wall space in the main hall is covered with gods and goddesses. The master of the house, a retired civil servant, man of wit and music, had worn a shirt to appear hospitable. With amusement in his eyes, he showed us where he slept: on a narrow bed in the passage. And his wife? “On the floor right below me.”
He puts his head back and guffaws. But it is not quite so unequal. “She qualifies for the bed when she is unwell.”
I found it quaint, as an uncritical bird of passage would. But the Agraharam, like Peyton Place, would expose its darker side to a son of the soil, a few mohallas removed, like Abraham. His Christian name did not matter. That is what Lucknow once was.
The film is refreshingly, informal across faiths. The other Kerala movie in this corona season was equally cerebral.
The most popular political prisoner in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s The Wall is Basheer, pining for Narayani on the other side of the wall and whom he has not seen. Adoor is quite unselfconscious about the fact that the protagonists belong to different faiths.
Both these films took me to my earliest romance with “God’s own country”. It goes back to the late 70s-80s when I was editor of The Indian Express in the south.
But my attitude to Kerala has changed: earlier I admired Kerala, indeed much of the South and Bengal (on which more later). Now I have begun to envy places beyond my bleak environment.
India was always one’s country, but the basic affiliation was with Awadh of which Lucknow was the markaz or centre. Mir Taqi Mir talked of Delhi’s destruction:
“Dill jo ek shaher tha alam mein intekhab
rehte thay muntakhib hi jahan rozgar ke
Usko falak ne loot ke barbaad kar diya
Hum rehne waley haen usi ujre dayar ke.”
(Delhi which was once the world’s pride, where only those with good manners lived,Fortune turned upon the city, destroyed and looted it.In that desolate city I did once live.)
Replace Delhi with Awadh/Lucknow and you have an idea of where I am coming from.
Lucknow, indeed Awadh, was generosity personified. Ram Advani from Sindh was embraced as Lucknow’s very own.
His bookshop was an incomparable cultural landmark. The Lucknavi was the exact opposite of parochial. The intellectual life of Lucknow University was dominated for long stretches by Radha Kumud and Radha Kamal Mukherjee. Little wonder, when Satyajit Ray, soaked in Bengaliness, ventured out of Bengal, it was towards Lucknow he deviated with his superb Shatranj ke Khiladi.
Lucknow was in decline for years but my romance began to fade 30 years ago when the BJP and the Congress began to compete for the Hindu vote. The Congress read the 1984 landslide not as an emotional vote following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, but as Hindu consolidation against minority communalism, in this case the Sikh agitation.
It says something of the Congress mind, that Sikh communalism, in its perception, seamlessly became Muslim communalism. Congress chose to play both sides of the street.
Once, V.P. Singh tossed the Mandal Commission into the simmering cauldron, the Hindutva brigade ran away with the platform of brazen anti-Muslim Hindu consolidation.
The Congress, between two stools, had its spine broken. In the subsequent political churning, I lost Lucknow. But the gift of the Abraham film reassures me that my country now thrives outside the cow belt.