Remembering M. Sukumaran

Rajiv Vijay Raghavan

In somewhere the nerve centre behind of Thiruvananthapuram Sri city, Padmanabhaswamy Temple — now world renowned for its treasures valued at astronomical figures, amassed through centuries of spice-trade along the Malabar coast — lies a middle-class housing colony called Prasanth Nagar. It is a cluster of three-storeyed concrete buildings, mostly moss-ridden, though not yet fully dilapidated. One of the first projects of Kerala State Housing Board, a Government corporation established for egalitarian gentrification in the 1970s, these structures demand urgent uplift. I had to find my way to that humble apartment system, in search of an enigmatic writer—M. Sukumaran. You will not miss it, Chandra Senan — a boyhood friend of mine from our home town Kottayam, and later, a colleague at Canara Bank, Thiruvananthapuram — had assured me. Senan happened to be the first person I know who claimed to have a close acquaintance with this legendary story-teller of modern Malayalam literature. “He is easily approachable at a personal level, though this genius of an author is also a famously mysterious social figure,” Senan had encouraged me. So, suspending the media myths, I decided to follow the directions of my good old schoolmate.

One autumn evening in 1994, getting down at the busy city-bus hub in East Fort area, leaving behind crowded roads, I entered an ancient street. It was as if I were walking into a period film. The street was lined with ‘Agraharam’ buildings, typical habitat of Tamil Brahmins who were brought here generations ago for temple duties and clerical work by the Maharajas of Travancore. Proceeding further along, past the majestic archway of the West Fort that loamed up in front, I reached my destination, asking around just a couple of times.

No one knew of a writer named M. Sukumaran as their neighbour, even though he had been a resident there for more than a decade. But, that had to be expected. He had become more or less a recluse by then. I couldn’t possibly give a description of his physical attributes or demeanour either. As media-shy or even media-allergic as he was, not even one recent photograph of him got published in any of our circulation-boasting Malayalam newspapers or periodicals. The same bias would surely obviate any interview appearances on Doordarshan. Altogether, not a small feat in the omnivorous press-culture of Kerala!

M. Sukumaran was a famous name in our youth. He had been a constant creative presence in Malayalam periodicals from the mid-nineteen sixties, contributing fine short-stories—a highly regarded literary-genre in our language. His benign prose, narrating epiphany-like moments in our ordinary day-to- day human existence, in simple, fine-tuned, nuanced sentences, had already made him a worthy inheritor of the rich legacy bequeathed by such great story-tellers like Karoor (Neelakanta Pillai), Bashir (Vaikom Muhammed), Takazhi (Sivasankara Pillai), Uroob (P.C. Kuttikrishnan), O.V. Vijayan, Madhavikutty (nom-de-plume of Kamala Das, when she wrote in her mother tongue) and others, just to mention a few who are only in our fond reading memories now.

Along with his trail-blazing literary works, what might have prompted us in our hero-worship phase of teenage to carve a cult figure out of this writer, were stories around M. Sukumaran as a charismatic political activist too.

A native of Chittoor village, Palakkad District on the north-eastern border of Kerala State, which was under the Madras Presidency when he was born in 1943, Sukumaran, as he reached his twenties, moved to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, on its southern tip, and never returned.He came to the capital city to work in the Accountant General’s Office, a Government of India department. Soon he joined the Leftist trade-union there. His inspiring verve in directing its employees’ welfare and recreational activities earned Sukumaran lifelong comradeship among his colleagues. But his increasing involvement in the struggle for the rights of the working class and his ideological influence on the leadership echelons irked his superiors. A routine strike declared by AG’s Office Employees’ Union in 1974, confined to sloganeering relating to their immediate grievances, gradually grew into a major struggle. Labour movement legends have it that drawing

immense support from most other Central and State Government trade bodies, this particular strike attained such a momentum that it brought the entire city-life to a virtual stand-still, for days on end. The authorities leapt at the direst strategy in suppressing trade-union uprisings—terminate the leaders from service and scare the cadre into retreating.

M. Sukumaran was one among the four figure-heads who thus got rolled out from the AG’s Office roster in the aftermath of that working- class unrest. He got summarily dismissed from Government service, that too by the application of a legal clause primarily stipulated to punish anti-national activities—hardly, if not ever before, employed in labour-dispute cases. Appeals went up to the Supreme-Court, but to no avail. In hind-sight, perhaps it was an evil omen forecasting darker years lying ahead for Indian democracy. A State of Internal Emergency was declared on 25 June 1975 throughout India. Already tainted by his rebel-image, M. Sukumaran came under surveillance of the Kerela Police. Accused of supporting extreme Leftist movements with his words and deeds, he was taken into custody several times. The questioning practices followed might have involved brutal psychological — if not physical — torture sessions. But that we will never come to know about: for, M. Sukumaran refused to indulge in autobiographical discourses. But a brief mention of that chapter of M. Sukumaran’s biography rang bells, in our search for his house in Prasanth Nagar. The helpful watchman of the housing colony — who looked like a veteran of no wars retired from the erstwhile Travancore Nair Army — had been stopping senior residents on their way to temples or returning from grocery shopping, thus forming a crowd committee to guide me. They reached consensus and led me to the second floor of an apartment building.

The door was opened by a man in his late fifties, of medium height and weight, wearing a chequered loin cloth (lungi) and an off-white T-shirt. For a moment there was a “who are you” look in his eyes, and then a wide welcoming smile lit his whole, round face. Instantly I realised him as the person I had been searching for.

As he led me inside and invited me to sit down on a cane chair — singly through very warm hand and face gestures, without opening his mouth even once and taking care not to lose his smile — I told him my name. As a reaction to it, he moved his head sideways horizontally, twice, then tilted the eyes a bit upwards — a friendly expression indicating that he knew who I am — before translating it to our mother tongue in one word. His voice was deep and distantly echoing, as I remember now.

But I can’t recollect how exactly we started our communication or the details of those initial conversations. Only the lovely feeling, that I immediately felt at home in his presence, remains. Before long I put forth the purpose of my visit.

After going on a self-imposed exile from literature for a decade, M. Sukumaran had come back, in 1992 with a landmark short-story: “Pitru Ta ¸paµam” (Propitiatory Rites for the Manes).

I wanted to make a film based on that great work, for which I needed his permission.

As I announced my intention, his big, beautiful eyes widened further, irises raised to a meditative look revealing the pale rose layers under the lower lids. His dark brown face seemed to dim darker, even in the evening rays filtering through the window curtains.

Anticipating a sure denial, I broke out into a perplexed presentation of my career credentials, in arguing my case in order to secure the rights of the story to make this film. Highlights of that presentation were the details of my work along with the master auteur G. Aravindan, in all his films from 1981 to 1991—like P÷kkuveyil (Twilight) up to Våstuhåra (The Dispossessed). As my incessant solicitation flowed forth, the clouds over his face cleared and the full-moon shine of that original, open smile re-appeared. But, this time with a faint audio of teasing laughter.

Yes, I know, he repeated. Then unceremoniously announced his unconditional willingness—again with a single verbal expression in Malayalam: Please have it.

Over-excited, I became silent. I could not express my gratitude beyond words. Even if I had tried, there was only a noun for gratitude — “Nandi” — derived from our fore-mother-tongue Tamil which somehow appear too formal-sounding in present-day Malayalam. As unassuming as he had been, it would have embarrassed him anyway, I learnt later. What worried me more was his gloomy pondering, just before granting me permission. Without asking, as if sensing, the writer started reflecting his worries as to how such a film project can be made logistically feasible. It was understandable. None of the four feature films based on M. Sukumaran’s stories had any success at the box-office. Maximum returns on investment were just short of break-even. Of course, some of them had collected laurels in the Kerala State Film Awards competitions—including for the best story. The latest such film, Séœakriya, did not even get the expected critical attention. “I am aware of all these hurdles—still, let us try.” That was my proposal. Before we could start a discussion on that, his wife, Smt. Meenakshi, came from the kitchen with tea and snacks. Behind her appeared their daughter, Rajani Mannadiar — already a published poet and fiction writer — from the single bedroom in one corner of that little flat.

M. Sukumaran introduced me to his family. As he went on describing my brief filmography and parts of biography to his family members, it grew amazingly long. He knew much more about me than our common acquaintance, my boyhood friend, Senan had told or even known. I immediately took note of that generous trait in M. Sukumaran which I had seen only in a few genuine human beings before. Poet G. Kumara Pillai and my master film- maker G. Aravindan possessed that great human quality, which was interestingly pointed out to me by a junior member of that tribe—Dr. S.P. Ramesh. They were fabulous ‘profile collectors’ if we put it in today’s social-media parlance— of course not to target advertisements but just to connect people. And to follow-up and help them in need, in whatever possible way.

Understandably spirited after such a memorable first meeting, as I walked past those ‘Agraharam’ streets, taking the same route back to our rented flat uptown, reverberations of early M. Sukumaran repertoire came clinking along.

Starting with “Radh÷lsavam” (Chariot Festival) — a story of young, unmarried women from poor Tamil-Brahmin neighbourhoods near the writer’s birthplace, waiting to fulfill their year-long fantasies with the village boys who moonlight as potential mates from the big-city clerical-jobs-crowd only during that local temple feast — those reading thrills rolled on. “Tittuµµi” (Sweet Little Boy) — an elegiac tale from that period, narrating the subtlest agonies of an abandoned woman in losing her foster child — also came back to mind.

Once the writer moved to urban lifescapes, his rustic themes with romantic undertones rose to a bravura of human stories from different stages of individual and social history.

Neo-realistic — if generalized in cine-lingo — until then, in later M. Sukumaran, folk, fable, moral, to magical-realist elements of tale-telling techniques concur. These adept admixtures of styles might have veiled the rebellious content in his stories during the Emergency to file past press- censorship. But, they did not escape the vulture eyes of State intelligence. “Jalajðvikalude R÷æanam” (Wailing of Aquatic Creatures) is an excruciating description of torture, based on first or second hand experience of the writer— we will never know.

In the late 1970s, M. Sukumaran focused on the world stage—the dilemma of an ideologist who believed only in the humane aspects of Communism. Clashes between Socialist states worried him deeply and prodded him to write “Ve±±ezhuth” (Myopia), an allegory in the backdrop of the Vietnam–China war. All well-received; but, when the focus sharply shifted back to Kerala, our writer’s story began to change, forever.

In 1981, when Séœakriya (Last Rites) — a novella concerning ideo-tactical confusions of Leftist movements, exacerbated by wayward, power-crazy local leaders — appeared, M. Sukumaran was declared ‘persona non grata’ by the Thiruvananthapuram District Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Political ostracism followed by social alienation from his old comrades might have affected the sensitive writer in M. Sukumaran too in deciding to go underground. After a decade-long spell of silence, his definitive voice surfaced again in 1992 with “Pitru Ta ¸paµam.”

Film adaptation of an important work of a master author will be a great task. The gravity of such a lofty project, involving huge responsibilities, started pulling and pushing me from then on.

“Come on, now it’s not the time to worry yet; first let’s celebrate!” I told myself. I did not wait for the bus; instead I rushed home in an autorickshaw to break the story hot. Many of my life-long comrades in filmmaking had been waiting there, in our occasionally bohemian, commune residence—a two bed-room Housing Board flat at Pattom, Thiruvananthapuram. Toasts to our new venture were raised high; then flowed on my detective thriller: searching for a hiding rebel and finding an amiable monk. Apropos, a famous dialogue in Uttaråyanam’ (Summer Solstice), the debut film of G. Aravindan: “A true revolutionary should have the mindset of a sage,’’ came to our minds. Soon, discussions began: beginning of the brain-storming sessions that would go on beyond the film shoot of Mårgam (The Path) we were making based on M. Sukumaran’s story “Pitru Ta ¸paµam” which happened in the same location — the flat we lived in — albeit another decade later.

Most of our friends present there were keen readers of M. Sukumaran and were excited about his creative reappearance in those days with “Pitru Ta ¸paµam”—the story of Venukumara Menon, a firebrand radical in the 1970’s, now dormant and withdrawn to an urban middle-class family life, which had overt autobiographical references. His ideological despair after the fall of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s — despite being a sharp critic of Soviet imperialism — pushing Menon down to hopeless personal anguish, could be widely associated with many idealist Leftists in Kerala. All these, seen through the eyes of his teenage daughter growing up in a maniacally market-driven society, gave this human story a universal appeal.

“Chiæambaram” (The Nataraja Temple Town of Tamilnadu) and “Våstuhåra” (The Dispossessed), were the only two films based on literary works I had associated with till then. C.V. Sreeraman, author of both these short stories, was a fraternal friend of director G. Aravindan, already at the height of his illustrious creative career. Thus, the film-maker had capacious freedom in his adaptation process. But that was not the case here. So, to read the writers’s mind in this matter, I started a series of meetings with M. Sukumaran.

Always at home with a welcoming smile, M. Sukumaran initiated our communication with pleasantries asking after the well-being of my family,

friends, colleagues and profession—all with genuine interest. Serenely, our chats would branch out to anything under the sun and breeze on. Loner he was but not lonesome; he hardly went out of his abode, yet followed every step of the society around. He also had a particular proclivity in enticing the conversationalist in me and enjoy my jive. Recollections of such jovial evenings in the august audience of G. Aravindan, physically missing since his demise in March 1991, too, might have been drawing me to our future rendezvous.

Kazhakam (Holy Duty), a suave transliteration into celluloid, of ‘Tittuµµy’ (Sweet Little Boy) from early M. Sukumaran saw carbon-light in 1995. Working in that production, as in most cinematic ventures of my senior film-maker- friend M.P. Sukumaran Nair, augmented our professional chords. Further, it gave a rare proximity to M. Sukumaran’s knowledge of cinematic language. His information and reading of films — local as well as international, Commercial vis-a-vis Art — were deeply impressive. So, intrigued as they projected upon our conversations at times, I had to wonder if M. Sukumaran was attending film society screenings and cinema-theatre shows regularly, imaginably though, incognito. In spite, or because of, that, he never minded whenever I took out my hidden agenda and tried to drag our exchanges to the given story for the film project. Provocations to expect huge changes from his original work — as we envisaged would be necessary to make the movie in present-tense sans flash-back or voice-over — were met with solely by his invincible smiles. I had happened to have read a literary-critical adage: End of a short-story is the story. What I wanted was to have the possibility to alter that even. Then only he cared to open his mouth to state something like this: It is your medium. You need not follow my story verbatim, but try to carry the spirit, to whatever extend possible, if you will.

I am yet to see an auteur in any field of art with a lesser ego. Immense responsibility begotten by such unbounded freedom got shared by all who worked in Mårgam. They all willingly bore that responsibility, also thanks to their great regard for M.Sukumaran. Starting with my co-screenplay writers — Dr S.P. Ramesh, himself an author of some melismatic short-stories and poet Anvar Ali — synergy of our committed scripting process flowed on to subsequent filmmaking stages, as well. Only that it took years to reach there.

Ways and means to make Mårgam were tediously slow. Adapting popular literary works to pitch film projects and cajole private producers with potential initial pull did not work in this case-as warned by our cinema- industry-apprehensive author, from the very beginning. Public funding sources were already drying up in changing economic climate. Personal situations that had expatriated me temporarily too might have played gloomy roles.

Becoming aware of such plights through his intuition, M. Sukumaran had often expressed his avuncular concern about my well-being, as I learnt later from M.P. Sukumaran Nair. Quite understandable from a writer who had discribed his creative process as ‘agony’—using that word in English itself. During all these years of vocational collaboration, only once did M. Sukumaran voice an explicit suggestion—that too, with a palpable dissenting nod. That occurred just weeks before the film-shooting phase—where we had eventually arrived thanks to a loan from NFDC. When I voiced my concerns about technical restrictions in filming so many scenes in a cramped flat building, he became introspective. As a probable way out, someone in the production unit had desperately proposed constructing a studio-set. When this idea was beamed, his face dimmed and drew that definite look of disapproval. But he did not leave the matter at that negative note. Soon, proceeding with our usual chats, he suddenly dropped the name of my cinematographer friend, Venu, who seemed to have figured in the profile- collection of our author—not for his luminescent film career alone, but as he was a grandson of the great author Karoor Neelakanta Pillai. Venu having been a high school class mate of Senan — presumably a reliable source for updating the information along with a few old trade union friends, before Sukumaran Nair, myself and later acquaintances like short-story writer C. Anoop joined the fraction — would also have contributed to his attention turning to Venu. What M. Sukumaran implied, of course, was that with such an insightful cameraman, those limitations could be surmounted. And Venu did handle — rather ‘hand-held’ in shot-taking parlance — all the situations superbly, filming in our Image Commune flat at Pattom itself.

Mårgam had its world-premiere at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), 2003. The day before the first screening, I went to M. Sukumaran just to inform him courteously, not to invite. Knowing him as an expected no-show, even at ceremonies honouring him, including award functions of Kerala Sahithya Academy, Sahitiya Akademi, New Delhi, and Kerala State Film Award distribution pageants, I did not dare inviting him. Instead, I gave him a VHS copy with a taunting comment: It is better to view a film on big screen. The response was a faint, apologetic smile, meaning: Sorry I may not.

In that edition of IFFK, our film, Mårgam, received FIPRESCI special mention—a well-regarded recognition from the International Federation of Film Critics. That paved the path of Mårgam to far off lands and peoples. The film had gone to about 25 international film festivals and to many of them, myself and/or our production-crew friends could tag along.

From then on, for two-three years, our confabulations were more about festival experiences. Our author was all ears for those foreign stories.


Anecdotes from Cuba were especially interesting for M. Sukumaran. Humberto Solas, outstanding filmmaker and an erstwhile compañero of the Revolution, seemed to have liked Mårgam when he watched it as the jury- chairman of IFFK 2003. Two years later he included the film in Cine-Pobre Festival at his village Gibara and took the initiative to subtitle the film in Spanish receiving ample assistance from the Indian Embassy at Havana. It was the opening film of the festival and went on to win Special Jury Prize. Nedemudi Venu won the Best Actor Award for the brilliant portrayal of the protagonist, Venu Kumara Menon—in the eyes of some, an extroverted film version of the writer himself.

“Pitru Tarpaµam” starts with the ex-revolutionary father confiding in his daughter his deep disillusionment on the occasion of the anniversary of the October Revolution (which coincides with her birthday according to the Gregorian calendar) as the USSR has already disintegrated. He is distressed that there won’t be any celebrations in the October-land, but, at the same time, completely forgets that it is his daughter’s special day. This scene is there in Mårgam as well, though it is placed towards the middle of the film. It brought out nostalgic giggles from the girl children of the Cuban Revolution, now in their fifties, who had experienced similar reactions from their own fathers in Cuba. Both M. Sukumaran and myself were gratified by this transcontinental consonance of sentiments.

In Durban, South-Africa, veterans of the anti-apartheid struggles and widows of martyrs were amongst the viewers of Mårgam. Most could relate to the story one way or another. It is there that I received the copy of Long Walk to Freedom, autobiography of Nelson Mandela, on behalf of M. Sukumaran, as it was a present for him. He received it with thanks but later revealed his difficulties in reading longish, heavy works—perhaps an extension of his self-described ‘agony’ of writing or signs of deteriorating health.

M. Sukumaran had been dealing with precarious medical conditions for many years. But, congruent with his nature, he would not countenance them at all. Nor was he inclined to share his pain with anyone. Even when I visited him in the hospital, where he had to be admitted quite a few times during the following years, the conversations continued as normal.

But, our reunions became less frequent as my journeys from the Netherlands, where I had kind of settled, to Kerala, got rarer, and sojourns in Thiruvananthapuram briefer. From 2012, my trips were reduced from twice a year to once, and the stay time from three months to five weeks, that too in December-January during the Indian film festival season. However, this very year my visit happened to get extended.

At the end of January 2018, I got the message through friends that M. Sukumaran was admitted in the hospital, quite serious this time. Fortunately,

he somewhat recovered after a few weeks and came home. But as I had been travelling in other parts of India, I could only go and meet him after a month or so.

It was the evening of 13th or 14th March, 2018, about 7.30, when I arrived at his doorstep. I saw that warm welcome smile, as his wife opened the door, but this time from an ersatz hospital bed placed in their living room. Though my intention was only to pass by and check out firsthand how he was, after he waved his hand to come in and sit down, I obliged. His wife chronicled his health situations, upon my request, including the month-long hospitalisation and lying on a ventilator for six days. M. Sukumaran was silent due to a severe chest congestion—but that was the only pronounced ailment. Later, his daughter and grandson came in and wished me, all of us slightly relieved that he may be recovering.

After a while, when the three of them had to leave the room—Smt Meenakshi to lay the last touches to supper and Rajani to tutor her son, I too stood up to take leave. Again, M. Sukumaran gestured to sit down and said with his lips—‘I cannot talk but I can hear,’ followed by a sweet smirk.Bowing to his affectionate insistence I sat down and we continued our communication for another half an hour or so. Circling his index finger supported by thumb, M. Sukumaran concernedly inquired how the script writing of my new film had been progressing. It’s for a film I plan, about Malayali expatriates in Europe based on my own experiences, a topic actually suggested by M. Sukumaran. After a deep vocal and lip movement discussion, he went on to ask about my family, friends and our common acquaintances. When the clock struck nine, I reminded myself of his physical condition and said good night. His wife came to see me off. The door closed on M. Sukumaran, his hand raised in farewell and the full-moon shine of his serene smile still beaming luminously.

March 17th marked Thambu-40—celebrating the 40th anniversary of the great G. Aravindan film Thambu (Circus Tent) at Thirunavaya on the banks of Bharathappuzha in South Malabar. It was organised by Nedumudi Venu and V.K. Sreeraman who started their argent film careers debuting in that Black and White film. Both had acted in Mårgam as well. Since I wanted to attend the function, I had started from Thiruvananthapuram to Thrissur the day before, but somehow felt like breaking the train journey to stay at my home town Kottayam. Late into the night, I got the sudden message that M. Sukumaran had passed away. Instead of going to the function at Thirunavaya, I went back to Thiruvananthapuram. Due to journey delays on the way, I reached just in time to hear the booms of the ceremonial gun salute. M. Sukumaran was accorded a state funeral. “‹ånthi Kavådam,” the City Corporation-owned crematorium compound was crowded with people from all walks of life. “Comrade is not dead, he will live through us. Red Salute,” the slogan reverberated.

Many found it ironic in the case of M. Sukumaran. Here, a quote by V.S. Pritchett on Anton Chekov, “How admirable it is that he accepts all contradictions,” seemed fitting.

All over Kerala, commemorative functions in the literary clubs and film societies were held in honour of M. Sukumaran. In many of them, Mårgam had a re-run. All the screenings were DVD projections, compromising on the image quality. I reminisced about the VHS tape I once presented to him. I don’t know whether he had seen the film from my VHS tape, or perhaps watched one of the many telecasts on Doordarshan or private TV channels. Nevertheless, he seemed to have seen the film, and liked it, but only once did I dare ask him bluntly about it. His facial expression radiated: “Is it something to be asked about? Of course you can take it for granted that I liked it.” I didn’t say it at that time, because he did not like to be praised—but the biggest recognition we received for the film Mårgam was that response from M. Sukumaran, the author.

During recent screenings, I remembered one more festival story I had forgotten to tell. It was at the Batumi International Arthouse Film Festival in Georgia. Batumi is a Black Sea resort where party leaders and commissars used to come for vacation during the Soviet era. This port town was also the place where Stalin became prominent as a trade union leader. The small festival in the capital of the Georgian Republic of Adjara, then undergoing birthing troubles, could screen only a low-quality and interrupted DVD version of Mårgam. Still, many of the local spectators could relate to the story and some of them came forward and commented: “So, after all, there are some good Communists in this world!” ?

 (courtesy : Indian literature )


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