the coin spins through air
the heart knows what must be but
seeks comfort in fate.
the coin spins through air
the heart knows what must be but
seeks comfort in fate.
baby take it slow
take it in
the figs are fallin
but there’s no point lookin
the sheets are crumpled
the books are in a tumble
but your skin is thirsty
and your eyes are hungry
your body speaks
if only you’ll listen
baby take a breath
take a moment
the figs are fallin
and they’re not slowin
the road’s been long
and the maps are wrong
you’re not here to stay
and your stride is long
but you’ll see the crossroads
if you stop to look around
baby let it go
let it be
the figs are fallin
though you’re tryin
a stranger answers
when your name is called
your glass is dirty
but the bar is full
and you’ll have stories
when you’re leavin
It’s been about five months since I moved out of my parents’ place in Chennai to a small 1BHK in Bangalore. Of late, I’ve been feeling very grateful for having made that decision. Here is why I love living alone.
There is something Shakespearean about Pariyerum Perumaal—the relentless battle of a young man to carve a space for himself in a world that only wants to drive him into the mud; the slow circling of a killer, coiling around his victims like a python; the villainy conducted in the name of family and honour by men driven to prove their masculinity; and at the centre of it all, a cruel death and an ever-present violence.
In one scene, Perumaal (played by a forever-glaring Kathir), the young Dalit protagonist, carves his name into a desk at the law college he’s studying at, staking his right to be there. The next day, he finds that his name has been scratched out. The movie was excruciating to watch for many reasons, but most of all because it made me uncomfortably aware of how much I take for granted—that I can speak English well, question authority freely, and am encouraged to make my own life choices. I am allowed to exist and claim my place in the world, in a way Perumal simply isn’t. It was a reminder of how strange and small one’s world is—shiny and flaky and fragile, a glass bubble that is entirely cut off from the other reality playing out just outside of it. This is a recurrent theme in the movie: how those around him, though well-meaning, completely fail to understand his experience.
Perhaps what I loved best about this movie was it’s treatment of the romantic arc—while for upper-caste Jo (the female lead, played by Anandhi), her experience of her relationship with Perumaal is one of friendship that blossoms into youthful love, which then leads to disappointment, heartbreak, and reconciliation, for Perumaal, romantic feelings don’t even have the space to exist as he’s engaged in a struggle for survival. It’s as though they are passing through the same physical space, but in different dimensions. While I found Jo remarkably ditzy and clueless, her response to every situation simplistic and childish, perhaps her ham-handed handling of the tensions brewing around her is a commentary on the blindness of well-meaning members of the upper castes who very often completely miss the point. As Perumaal repeats many times in the movie, his relationship with Jo is not about love. It represents everything in the world that is good and beautiful that is denied to him because of his caste, including his bond with his beloved dog, Karrupie. What is a love story for one, is a struggle for survival for another.
What truly makes this film so remarkable is the array of supporting characters. The villain in the movie, an upper caste _thaatha_ (played by Lijeesh) who uses his age, gender, and caste privilege to convince those around him that he’s a genial old man while harbouring and enacting great violence, embodies a deep-seated paranoia handed down without fail from all mothers to daughters—trust no man, no matter how benevolent, and especially those who are benevolent for no reason; stop to help no one, no matter how helpless; keep your head down and carry on because everyone is out to get you. The murderer is not some diabolical, flashy mobster, but a person you’d see on a bus or riding a cycle on a street, an everyday person who is nevertheless capable of great evil in the belief that they’re doing it in service of their god.
The murderer does not work in isolation, but is aided and abetted by the families of the young lovers he murders. Jo’s father and cousin brother find themselves drawn into an increasingly worsening spiral of violence as they react to Perumaal’s refusal to back down—the father driven by ideas of lineage and honor, while the brother by ideas of masculinity and pride. They too are complicit, as much as the hand that actually does the deed. The father (played by Marimuthu) particularly makes for an interesting character—driven by his caste pride on one side, and his morality on the other—he constantly vacillates between the two, his refusal to take a stand doing as much harm as good.
Perumaal is not without his allies. Jo, though remarkably dense, is steadfast and never really sees his caste. (However, it is her clueless behaviour that precipitates much of the violence against Perumaal, and not his own actions.) His best friend, Anand (played by a wonderfully warm and funny Yogi Babu), is the voice of common sense in many scenes, constantly counselling Perumaal to keep his head down and blend in. College professors, completely inept in dealing with Perumaal’s anger, are just regular people trying to do their jobs, their anger more bombastic shouting than any real grudge. But in the end, the only people who truly make a difference in Perumaal’s life is the Dalit headmaster, who gives Perumaal the direction and meaning that has been stripped from him, and his family, who’re the only people who can truly understand his experience.
Though the middle section of the movie relentlessly drives home how the odds have been stacked against Perumaal, the movie ends on a hopeful note. Perumaal, the angry young man, is still frustrated with the slow rate of change, his anger simmering just below the surface now, but you can see that change is already taking place—he sits facing his oppressor at the same table, drinking tea from an identical glass.
There’s a very popular narrative regarding achievement I’m seeing pop up across the arts and business fields, particularly in industries with a large self-employed or freelance population. The idea is that happiness is not worth seeking, but rather one should seek meaning through passion, mastery, and achievement. The idea continues: happiness is fleeting, meaning lasts forever. However noble this idea sounds, it can lead rather quickly into a downward spiral. David Burns, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, argues in his book Feeling Good that this belief system stems from capitalism and the Protestant worth ethic, and is designed to make people work harder, accumulate capital, and generally be miserable. In short, “meaning” is an abstract concept and doesn’t add tuppence to your life.
Dear Mr Eliot,
I wish you were here so that then I could burst into tears on your shoulder. I need a shoulder to cry on tonight, and I wish it were you. You, Mr Eliot, because you would understand. You would understand this feeling of never belonging, of never being able to do enough to belong. because if you belonged to any place, any time, any person, you would cease to be who you are. You Mr Eliot, you so caught up in your own diffidence, translating everything you could not say into words. You Mr Eliot, who knew the inadequacy of language from the very beginning, but knew just as surely, that there is no hope for us but in the trying. You Mr Eliot, who buried yourself in books to escape the outside world. Who fled from America to Germany to Britain looking for a tradition that you can surrender to. I wish I had the conviction you found in religion. Tell me Mr Eliot, when you were younger and wracked with fear, did you look at words as your only salvation, your only security on nights like this where there is nothing to do but curl up and deny everything or loose your mind? Did you ever feel that way Mr Eliot? That you were slowly slipping away from yourself, dripping through your own fingers, melting before you could desperately remould yourself? I heard you were a bank clerk. Did you return home casting off one skin, peeling off another, wanting to scream at the universe no no no! Do you understand Mr Eliot, that on night like this the only voice I have to talk to is your words on a page, and I find your voice quiet and reassuring saying the words slowly with those long drawn out vowels of yours, unhurried, as I crash through your lines discovering your rhythm discovering the anger that is more mine than yours. Mr Eliot, do you not see, I am an imperfect version of you. You are everything that I ache to be, just as you ached to be somebody else, and that person ached to be someone else, and that endless circle back to the beginning of time. Except of course, you would tell me, time does not work that way. Why do we hanker to be anywhere but where we are? Why can I submit to time, as you say I should, and in turn escape it, thinking about nothing but this. These words. On this page. Instead Mr Eliot, here I am conjuring you out of the timeless eternity you have escaped into, and here I am holding your hand and weeping, except of course you do not know the right words to say, because you never do. Did you ever think of living your life like a poem? I know that you never did, you were much to practical for that, you paid your bills by working in a bank after all. Have you noticed Mr Eliot, that those people whose lives are poetry are not very poetic? It is those of us who are always on the outside, pressing cold noses to the windowpane, it is we who construct poetry, because we are so good at narrating our lives back to ourselves in retrospect. We live our lives through stories of make-believe, through moments of hesitation atop staircases. Those who live in the timeless moment cannot write about it. Mr Eliot, did you make a deal with the devil, did you agree to always living on the wrong side of the glass, as long as you have the words? Did you promise the devil that he could steal your life, as long as you write it all down from afar? And now Mr Eliot, now that your life is over and done with, now that everything that could be done has been done, now Mr Eliot, do you ever regret? Do you ever regret that first choice you ever made, do you ever regret that you never chose to annihilate yourself?
You, who created Ranakpur,
freed moon-white pillars of flowers and sex
from the coldness of stone,
I salute you.
When I saw your magnum opus,
the pillar to the diagonal left of the southern entrance,
I knew: here was perfection that should not be forgotten.
I stood in front of it, smiled and flashed the peace sign.
As I blinked into the pale shadows, recovering from the overdose of light,
I caught sight of Time puttering around quietly,
absorbed in his own world as all master artisans are,
and I wondered if there had been any friendship between you.
Did you have long conversations with him,
confessing your dreams of immortality,
did you hold his hand and weep?
Did you tell him about that recurrent dream,
where you saw the faces of your great great grandchildren
still with peace, lit by the coolness of marble?
Whatever it was you said,
you will be pleased to know that after all these years
he touches your work with such gentleness,
delicately running his fingertips over your coiled flowers.
You should have seen him, stepping aside,
out of the frame of my friend’s camera,
around the French couple pointing at your marble lovers,
between the Gujarati family on holiday.
The soft of his hands rubs away all the sharp edges you left behind.