Chemmeen by Thakazi Sivasankara Pillai

I kept putting it off for a very long time. Perhaps it was best that it happened this way. The idea lay in my mind germinating. On and off these days, it occurs to me that if I had let the thought lie for a longer while, it would have ripened and burgeoned further...
For many days, T had talked at length about it. At times, the novel Chemmeen that I was planning to write sounded almost like a threat. Many of my friends assumed that it would deal with the lives of fishermen;

that it would be about the • coalition of fisher folk, and would stir up unrest and revolution in their minds. This included Mundasseri Master who was like a venerable older brother to me. it was quite natural for anyone who had observed my literary growth until then to think on those lines. It wasn’t that all that I had written until then had to do with only the workers’ union and unification of their forces; but that thread of thought was what bound them together. My friends, no matter how close they were to me, couldn't comprehend either the company 1 kept when not with them or my state of mind; neither did they have a proper understanding of the physical realities of the world we lived in, I presume.

It was a time when progressive literature was grappling with the Gordian knot of maintaining structural sanctity. No matter what Dev and I wrote, we were hemmed in by catcalls and howls of outrage. We couldn’t even whisper a protest. Dev was unable to even sleep in his house in Pudupally. They wouldn’t let him. In an insidious way and almost without his own knowledge, a land dispute had slowly led to his becoming part of the Congress party. Could there be any peace thereafter? Naturally, it put Dev’s back up too. He claimed that the people of Pudupally disliked the fact that he had become a landowner.

At Thakazhi, I didn’t have to endure the serious dislike that Dev had to suffer in Pudupally. The people of Thakazhi didn’t form mobs to yell their displeasure. There were no raucous cries or declarations of disgust. No study classes were organized against me. It makes me want to laugh thinking of those days. The arguments in favour and against what I wrote ran a peculiar course. And there were enough protest groups who expressed their antipathy towards me.

It was a chaotic literary environment. However I continued to write. I couldn’t but write. I remember a story from K. Balakrishnan’s Kaumudi, ‘Chendakotu’ (The drum beat). Yes, writing like the drum beat has a purpose — to disrupt everyone.

The Thakazhi of then isn’t the Thakazhi of now.

The Thiruvalla—Ambalapuzha road runs in front of my house. This is an important road. There is the constant whine of traffic. In those days, this road was a narrow canal. I kept two boats locked to the pier there. I brought the stone, lime, timber and gravel required to build my house in these boats. The gate that you see now was the pier from which I accessed the canal for my daily swim and bath. In those days what was unique and convenient about my house was its proximity to the canal. The land was 28 cents in all. Kaatha, our children and I lived in a two-roomed house with a lean-to. It was built of laterite stone with bamboo rafters and a coconut palm leaf thatch. Kaatha and I dreamt day and night of making this into a more solid and secure structure. Though I had written over seven novels and several stories, I was unable to build this dream house. Some of those novels had even been successful. Suddenly, I had two sources of inspiration: one, to provide a fitting retort to the drum beat of speculation around me; two, to roof our house with wood and tiles and make it into a light and airy home.

My intimacy with the seaside began when I was nine years old. I knew .ill the faces and moods of the sea goddess. My mind was flooded with thoughts of the sea goddess and the chakara. One morning, 1 stuffed a few shirts and mundus into a bag and walked to Ambalapuzha. I was on my way to Kottayam. In those days, to reach Kottayam, one had to go to Ambalapuzha and then catch a boat from there. If I set out from Thakazhi in the morning, by the time I had caught the connecting bus and boat, it would be 2.00 in the afternoon when I reached Kottayam. This wasn’t the Kottayam as we know it now. But that’s another story.

In what is today’s private bus stand, there used to be a two- storeyed building with seven or eight rooms. A lodge. It was managed by one Mr Mathai. Mr Mathai ran a strictly vegetarian restaurant on the east road. The food there was cooked to very exacting standards and in the utmost of hygienic conditions. I don’t mean to ridicule but the people of Kottayam referred to Mr Mathai as Mr Mathai Pottey.

The lodge that Mr Mathai ran was owned by the Karapuzha Arakkal family. In those days, DC, who was the sales manager of SPCS, handed me over to Mathai’s care.

‘That father of mine talks of buying a boat and nets...’ I began writing. It was the dialect of the seaside that I had heard sincc I was nine.

Of the many people who visited the lodge every evening or the Boat House Lodge as it was called, oik person deserves a special mention. C.J. Thomas. CJ’s visits had a purpose. To read what I had written that day. He wouldn’t speak a word; he would read and then leave. And so C.J. Thomas became the first person to read Chemmeen. In those days, CJ was a cover designer at Sahithya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham. D.C. Kizhakkemuri was plso one of my regular visitors. And thus by the eighth day, the story of Chemmeen fell in place. Only then did Mathai Pottey let me drink some beer.

It wasn’t difficult thereafter to renovate our home in Sankaramangalam. Chemmeen sold very well. We made rafters of timber and laid tiles on it. We added a few more rooms. But how we added to the 28 cents land is yet another story. Chemmeen was the first Malayalam novel to receive the then just announced Sahitya Akademi award. I received it from Jawaharlal Nehru. Radhakrishnan looked on and applauded. With that money, I bought 60 para of paddy fields at Kolathadi padam. Chemmeen was translated into many languages. It was first translated into Czech. Kamil Zelabil was the translator. He was a Tamil scholar who later studied Malayalam. When he came to Madras, he heard about this Malayalam novel Chemmeen. And, he didn’t think he would have trouble understanding or translating it. He also translated Rand Edangazhi (Two Measures) into Czech. Later, under the auspices of UNESCO, Chemmeen was translated into all European languages. In between, after me Czech translation, the Russian translation appeared. Among the Asian languages, Chemmeen was translated into Arab, Japanese, Vietnamese, Sinhala and Chinese.

Who would have thought the drum beat would have helped accomplish as much? Was it an act of triumph? It would be presumptuous of me to claim that. For only time will tell.

In Peggy Mohan’s novel, Jahajin, I stumble upon a phrase: un coup de foudre. An attack of madness. She describes it as a swarming melee of manic energy seeking a focus’. Chemmeen — the translation — was born of one such coup de foudre. I was between novels. The writing of Mistress had filled my life so absolutely that suddenly I had a huge empty space when the novel as written. What was I going to do with myself?

And then came a thought: Unayi Warrier’s Nalacharitham. I had fallen in love with KathakaJi all over again on reading Nalacharitham. Surely the rest of the world ought to be able to draw pleasure from it as I had. Find the solace it offered in moments of abject darkness. It became a dream project that grew in my mind until one day I mentioned this grand obsession to Karthika at HarperCollins. As all good editors and as all good friends, she counselled that I cut my translation teeth on something not as ambitious but just as magnificent.

Like what? I asked Chemmeen? she suggested. From somewhere the strains of a song wafted in my head. The desolate Pareekutty singing his heart out on a moon-drenched seashore. Hie restless Karuthamma standing with her bosom heaving, wanting to escape everything and run to Pareekutty’s side. The gleam in Chemankunju’s eye when he spots Palani for the first time. Scenes from the film Chemmeen played out in my head.

Was chitchat turning into something of consequence? Was rhat how i( happened? Was that how I took on Chemmeen>. Un coup dc fnudre. What else?

I had no formal education in Malayalam. What I did have was an ability to understand and comprehend the nuances of the language. I was already enchanted by its wondrous innate lyricism where a butterfly has the magical wings of a ‘chitrashalabam’ and a weevil is a ‘nikrishtanaya puzhu.

During the writing of Mistress I had worked in a few translations of Kathakali attakathas into the narrative. But this wasn’t going to be enough. A translation would require me to walk the way of another writer and see his landscape and characters through his eyes. Would I have the restraint to bridle the desire to tweak a thought here, add a dimension there? I am a writer of fiction first and it was going to be hard to keep myself out of Thakazhi’s Chemmeen. To bring forth the beauty of a book without succumbing to the need to edit. To let the grammar of the region prevail without making it seem like an idiomatic translation ... In contrast, the author has it easy. Write as your heart leads you and damn everything else...

And there was one other thing. I was going to have to summon great stamina. Each time a word flustered me, I would have to dive into a Malayalam Nigandu. (Dictionary is too sanitized and limited a word unlike the bottomless abyss of the Nigandu.) I would have to find my way through, inch by inch, word and word. The very first line of the book had me in knots. Chemmeen i.\ written in fishermen’s dialect. This was unfamiliar territory and 1 put the pen down. What was I going to do?

From somewhere the mysterious voice of the God of translation spoke to me: Dialect — Ear — Hear it — and that became the1 key to this translation.

Over the course of the next fortnight, I roped in my secretary Mini Kuruvilla, a Malayali, to read out the book to me. 1 heard the novel read rather than read it myself. A certain familiarity with the cadence grew into a natural ease. I heard it read again and then one day I was ready.

Thakazhi wrote his Chemmeen in eight days. It took me two years and at least four rewrites before I was satisfied to let it go. Over the two years it took to complete the translation, words and phrases that weren’t in Nigandu had to be deciphered. Help came from a friend in Trivandrum — V.S. Rajesh of Kerala Kaumudi. And then it was done.

It is ironic but most of the books that we consider to be tile finest examples of contemporary writing are translations. Whether it is Marquez or Kundera, Grasse or Xingjian, what we have had access to are the translations of their works. Here is one more. A classic novel that no matter how many times you read it nudges your soul.

Chemmeen is a novel about forbidden love. It is also a novel that bares the seams of the mind of a fisherman who goes out into the sea. What brings him back to the shore? What causes him to lose his way? Chemmeen is about hopes and hopeless love. It is a story that lives long after the book is read. And reverberates in the mind just as the waves dash on the shore. Again and again.

The noble patriarch once said, ‘That there is a language called Malayalam and that it has a literary tradition is universally known. It was with Chemmeen though that a Malayalam hovel first found its place among many other languages of the world. In fact, Chemmeen can certainly claim that honour. However, nobody need assume it is because of this that I consider Chemmeen to be the best novel written in Malayalam. It was one of those strange and happy quirks ot destiny! Chemmeen changed my financial position for the better. Instead of that ramshackle hovel, the house came in its place. And I acquired some paddy fields.’

Chemmeen — the novel that brought Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai international acclaim and changed his life for good — was also the reason lor much anguish, in his later years. Like the end of that love story that was tainted by grief, the storyteller of Kuttanad who became the storyteller of the seashore too was haunted by sorrow.

‘That father of mine talks of buying a boat and nets.’

Chemmeen began thus. Having forsaken Pareekutry and their love, Karuthamma marries Palani. And then when a completely devastated Pareekutty’s cry of anguish echoes on the shore, Palani’s wife, Karuthamma, goes seeking Pareekutty. The dead bodies of Pareekutry and Karuthamma locked in an embrace are found on the shore. The transgression of a fisherwoman invoked the wrath of the sea mother. The husband who went out into the sea to fish was taken away by the sea mother.

From a lodge organized by D.C. Kizhakkemuri in Kottayam, Thakazhi finished writing the novel in seven days, and in two weeks the first print run had been sold out. When it received the Central Sahitya Akademi award in 1958, Chemmeen became known nationally. It was thereafter translated into several languages including English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Czech, Slav, Dutch, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Japanese, Sinhala...

When Chemmeen was made into a film, it took Thakazhi and Malayalam into world limelight. Kanmani Babu optioned and acquired the film rights for Chemmeen through a Bombay production house. ‘I don’t remember precisely how much I was paid. Rs.25,000/- I think! It’s with that money I bought ten acres of coconut grove in Thakazhi. Later I sold that,’ Thakazi said.

In time, the financial benefits of Chemmeen dwindled. But the antagonism towards the premise of the novel continued. From his student days till the time he worked as a lawyer in Ambalapuzha, Thakazhi had come to understand the life on the Alapuzha shore stretching from Purakkad to Thykall. His love for that life and its tradition manifested as Chemmeen, but along with the novel came several protests. Some leaders of the fishermen community accused him of presenting their life and language in an ungainly fashion. And some progressives attacked what they claimed was a blatant build-up of superstition, namely the myth that the sea , goddess would take away the husband of any fisherwoman who transgressed. The accusation and Thakazhi’s routine explanations continued much after the novel was written and published.

Three years ago, Babykuttan adapted Chemmeen into a play for Kollam Thulika. Thakazhi had blessed this endeavour. When the play reached the stage, the protesters woke up once again. Thakazhi, incapacitated by old age, was threatened and tormented by them on the phone.

One other thing that caused him much grief was the idea of a sequel to the film Chemmeen. When the subject was broached, Kanmani Babu protested that there shouldn’t be a sequel. Caught amidst this tussle, Thakazhi watched helplessly. Apart from a dakshina offered by the actor Suresh Gopi, he received nothing more, Thakazhi later said.

The film that later came out as Thirakalkkappuram was not even a patch on Chemmeen. In fact, the pointlessness of making a sequel to Chemmeen was pointed out by the screenplay writer of Chemmeen, S.L. Puram Sadanandan.

More recently when Ismail Merchant of the famous Merchant Ivory film-making duo was in Kochi, he expressed a desire to turn Chemmeen into a film. This was the final heartache that Chemmeen bestowed upon Thakazhi. Thakazhi, who read about Ismail Merchant’s desire in the newspapers, waited eagerly for Merchant’s arrival at Sankaramangalam.

It was an abject desire of that elderly mind to see his story that in his own words ‘encompassed sorrow, pleasure, anxiety, love, anger, all in its purest form’ make its presence on the international film arena. So he waited with much delight and expectation.

But when Kanmani Babu staked a claim that the right to make the film in any language was his alone, Thakazhi’s hopes were once again dashed.

‘Prom the day I wrote that first line, “That father of mine talks of buying a boat and nets,” 1 haw hail to riuluu mtu h incrimination. Nothing has changed even now. When it conies to condemnation it’s all reserved for me; as for the cash, that’s all for someone else.’ A quivering voice, moist eyes encapsulated this tedious and demoralizing situation.

Then he spoke of Karuthamma. ‘If I go to the seashore of Neerkunnath, Purakkad and Ambalapuzha and call for my Karuthamma, she will heed my call. They will all emerge radiating love and devotion. Pareekutty, Palani, Chembankunju, Chakki, Panchami — all of them.’

It seemed that if the thought of all that Chemmeen brought his way lit up that wrinkled visage, it also cast its shadows by the grief it thrust on him.

On Adapting Chemmeen: Myth as Melod Meena Pillai. Chemmeen the novel anticipates a film as no other novel in Malayalam has ever done. The novel taps into cultural dimensions that arc precisely the foundations of cinema as a mode of mass entertainment. Human drama as populist spectacle underlies the spirit of the novel as the film. The mise- en-scene of the film bears very close resemblances to the imaginary frames of the novel and this proves interesting in view of the fact that in nearly half a century of its history many Malayalis might have seen the movie first and then read the novel, raising interesting conjectures about the possibilities of the superimposition of subsequently accumulated star value of actors such as Sathyan, Sheela, Macihu and Kottarakkara on to the characters of the novel they portray and the ways in which it could affect both the interpretation and aura of the original.

Before the prolific appearance of new media or visual modes of mass diffusion, Chemmeen was a narrative pregnant with the cinematic, dexterously negotiating the Malayali’s iconophobia and logophilia or the deep cultural prejudice against and stigmatization of the visual arts and media, probably also stemming from an over-valorization of the written word. What is often called the ‘essentially pornographic’ filmic image offers itself in the novel, demanding our scopic gaze both literally and figuratively. In the novel, for example, Karuthamma chastises Kochumuthali, begging him not to ‘look’ at her in ‘that’ manner. The ‘look’ and the ensuing ‘bashful realization’ of her breasts and single piece loincloth embody her in a fleshly materiality that is characteristic of the visceral pleasures of cinema. Conversely, one can find in the film the thematic and narrative persistence of the novel with an added novelty offered by the material variations due to the cinematic apparatus. The very first shot of Karuthamma in the film marks the meaning she bears — her body is constructed as the object of the male gaze. Thus the cinematic apparatus, always already compromised in the ideology of vision and sexual difference cannot but construct Karuthamma as image, spectacle, and the object of gaze. The taut body of Sheela’s Karuthamma marks the transformation of the central female subject of a coastal community drama into an objectified erotic figure created on demand to the visual and erotic desires of Malayali audiences. Even the big dark mole on the breast in the movie serves to accentuate active scopophilia. That both the novel and the film are fetishistic is beyond doubt.

Nevertheless, the success of the film, its huge popular appeal is probably owing to the fact that it is able to tap much more into this fetishistic gratification using the image of ‘chemmeen’, or the catch from the sea, as a fetish for the woman, the ‘catch’ from the land. The film creates a narrative enigma which is not as prominent or pronounced in the novel. The question of whether Karuthamma loves Palani or Pareekutry, whether she does not forget or forgets Pareekutty creates a strategy of exchange and equivalence in the film. Often the fish or the ‘catch’, creating an ‘insistent impression of display in the misc en scene, marks out a process of fetishistic substitution’ (Cowie 276). It is Karuthamma who becomes fetishized in this process of substitution. Throughout the film, Karuthamma and the fish catch are in a ‘circulation of substitution and exchange’ where one can decipher ‘the palpable over-investment in or excessive value on the visual within the image’ (Cowie 268). Marcus Bartley’s camera captures the fishing boats coming in again and again to create multiple connotations of objects circulated and exchanged.

For Thakazhi the writing of the novel was impelled by an acute monetary need — to make money for building a house for his wife and children. This act of consumption, so embedded in notions of the popular, gets translated into the lives of his characters like Chembankunju and Palani. The adaptation too can be seen as another massive investment, fiscal, emotional and psychic, accommodating and replicating this act of consumption within the representational form of cinema. Chemmeen, the catch from the sea, as the title suggests can also be thus seen as a palimpsest for the numerous acts of consumption that mark the trajectory of the novel from its writing to its popularity, its numerous translations into different languages; as also its immensely successful screen adaptation and the awards, accolades and the popular cult status of both novel and film.

The novel’s realism is a visually pliable one that happily yields to the film’s realist tradition of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The novel’s rather superfluous realism, which is in contrast to Thakazhi’s earlier social realist mode of writing, offers itself to the regiming of representational realism that the film seeks to achieve. It is the brilliance of Ramu Kariat’s direction and the lucidity of S.L. Puram Sadanandan’s screenplay that create the aura of social realism and humanism in the film. Thus it has to be emphasized that what is fabricated by the narratives of both film and fiction as the real, authentic lilc of tlie Araya community is actually a logbook of the ideologies and ideological contradictions of the Kerala society coming to terms with the idea of the conjugal family and attempting to contain the subversive potential of that social unit. Both Chembankunju and Palani, at the heart of the bourgeois family, face social and emotional isolation signifying the crisis of masculinity trapped in a domestic interiority and struggling with new cultural codes appropriate to the male providers of the new family ideal. It is noteworthy that the split between th'e public space ot production and the private, domestic, emotional space of reproduction is much more cutting in the film. The iconography of the film, its editing, and its visual vocabulary emphasize this divide very powerfully with the waves which act as a metaphor for the dichotomization of the interior and exterior, private and public, sea and shore. Yet the film latches on to only those conventions which register as ‘realistic’ with the Malayali viewing subject. Therefore Sheela as Karuthamma, though most unlike in physical features to real fisherwomen (generating innumerable ‘academic’ critiques on Sheela as ‘Veluthamma’ referring to her fair skin), caters to popular audience expectations on how the heroine of a melodrama can plausibly be constructed on celluloid according the aesthetic conventions of cinema, in the process becoming popularly accepted as realistic. As Colin Crisp points out: ‘Emphasis on plausibility and credibility can lead even the most extreme fantasy texts being deemed realistic if they conform to existing social conventions of representation and/or to the operative generic conventions of representation’ (242). It is the film’s conformity to the conventions of representation and its reproduction of dominant ideological perceptions of the audience that makes it realistic in effect, for these again erase the materiality of the processes of its representation.

The film’s construction of the private space of marriage and its attempts to map conjugal happiness on to this space is at slight variance from the novel. Karuthamma in the film is more preoccupied with the ‘idea’ of a home and fashions herself in the aesthetics of this imagination. However, it is interesting that the novel apparently tries to critique the politics of this self-fashioning, given the gendered compromise of modernity it affects in the climatic episodes of the story.

A significant point is that in the 1950s when the public sphere in Kerala was registering a more popular and wider support for liberal, socialist, egalitarian values as a result of the social reforms and the communist movements, helping more women to step out into the paid labour force, the novel seeks to entice women back home through the domestic ideal. One has to remember the Araya socio-political activist Velukutty Arayan’s polemic pamphlet critiquing Thakazhi’s myth of Kadalamma as investing dangerous ideological dimensions, especially compromising the liberty of Araya women, on what he calls mere poetic speech and figurative language of the community. It is indeed important to analyse how both fiction and film set the practice of imagining the modern family sans attempts to modernize gender relations. Thus the casting of chastity as the defining virtue of women and materially grounding this in the women of the Araya community, where large numbers of women work in the public sphere, selling, curing or processing fish, illustrates the gender blindness of modernity in Kerala. ‘An informed reading of the history of social reforms in the state from a feminist perspective suggests that while all social reformers have emphasized the importance of literacy, the proposed “emancipation” of women has invariably been looked upon as an instrument that is to be used for the benefits of the family and society, not for the benefit of the woman as an individual in her own right.

Literacy may even have been an instrument facilitating the process of internalization of that message. The message has clearly gone very deep in Kerala society, for in terms of gender-related issues in public life, Malayalee society continues to be very conservative’ (Mukhopadhyay 15). The novel even goes to the extent of portraying Karuthamma’s feeling of ‘conjugal bliss’ when forbidden by Palani to venture out of her home to sell fish. Moreover, it validates Palani’s reiterated demand for Karuthamma’s chastity in return for the economic and social security he provides her with as a husband, with Karuthamma herself calling this demand if not a woman’s ‘need’, her right as a wife’ and a tangible proof of the husband’s love. It is the marked absence of the discourse of social reform which so clearly marks the social history of Kerala in the mid twentieth century that makes Chemmeen so much more of a moral fable or myth. If the novel attempts at creating a mystique around the conjugal imaginary that would nevertheless provide obstacles in the path of real Malayali women to access education and employment, the film is much more curt and ends the issue with a cryptic, matter-of-fact order from Palani forbidding Karuthamma’s work forays into the public sphere which seems most natural in the circumstances. Yet one can read into the text and recognize the beginning of the process of shaping the hegemonic masculine that would become the hallmark of popular Malayalam cinema at a later period in history.

Cinematography by the Anglo-Indian Marcus Bartley, music by the Bengali Salil Choudhary, another Bengali Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s editing and Manna Dey singing the famous ‘Mcinasu maine varu — one sees how a pan-Indian imagination strengthens the sign of the ‘modern’ in the film. Thus the film’s crew re- the regional from a renewed sense of the national where parochial/caste identities have to be refashioned in the new moulds of a national ‘secular’ self, the transition from die traditional to the modern is best effected through (he imagining of the modern family and reallocation of new roles and models especially for women to emulate within the confines of this ideal. It is significant in this context to note how both the novel and the film valorize women’s social/national importance as keepers of eternal transcendental values. Both the novel and the film, as discourses of modernity, capitulate to the project of constantly pondering over the woman question and in (lie process n.n’iil female sexuality.

It is also significant that the film is more discreet over, the issue of caste, conveniently doing away with Karuthamma’s more protracted agonizing over Pareekutty’s Muslim identity in the novel, the film apparently offering a safer habitus of secular modernity untainted in any significant or alarming manner by caste. In tune to the popular paradigm the film displays a delicately poised ambivalence in affirming either traditional or modern assumptions of caste, erasing the unease and eml >ai i .l'.sim iM of caste by what Vivek Dhareshwar calls ‘freezing 11 as a soc:al institution, by ‘disavowing it publicly and politically’ (116).

The novel as a popular bestseller and the film as a popular classic, fall in the representational genre of melodrama, typical of mass and popular cultural entertainment, focusing on intensely emotional moments in a family drama and seeking to evoke similar powerful emotions in the audience. The movie adds on to the novel’s melodramatic narrative by using melodramatic techniques like lighting, colour and music (one of the first colour movies in Malayalam) which gave a startling effect to the cinematic mise- en-scene and contributed to its box-office success. The intense i emotionality as well as the interpellation of the audience as subjects of popular sentimental and moral codes — replicating the hegemonic and thus involving the viewer in the material and moral dilemmas of the protagonists in a highly dramatic fashion — imbue the film with its hugely successful melodramatic sensibility. From the earlier social realist mode Chemmeen marks a shift in Malayalam cinema to the melodramatic, consolidating its characteristic features as a focus on the family as a microcosmic site reflecting larger social crises, anxieties over the idejl of femininity and the endless deferral of modernity especially with regard to gender. As Karen Gabriel points out, ‘It cannot be stressed enough that a melodramatic displacement of narratives of the social is not merely onto the familial and the domestic, but more crucially into the more nebulous realms of gender and sexuality’ (70). However, it is to be credited that one significant difference between Chemmeen and the classic Indian melodrama 4 is that it radically topples the trope of the ‘sacrificing mother, offering a moment of subversion when Karuthamma’s sexuality and desire triumphs over her motherhood. Yet in the last run this theme is made complicit with the dominant ideology, marking her desire as transgressive and traumatic.

That the melodramatic sensibility of Malayali audiences and readers had to be imbued in an ‘air’ of social realism provides interesting insights into the socio-cultural contexts of reception in Kerala. Thus Thakzahi’s Chemmeen while laying claims to the t social realist oeuvre of the writer undermines it in favour of the metaphysical dimensions of the ethical, moral and sexual anxieties of the protagonists as well as the heightened emotional ‘effect’ that could be drawn out of this conflict, while the film melds all these into a spectacle. The film more than the novel, borrows che melodramatic genre’s characteristic ambiguity towards marriage, simultaneously representing it as liberatory and repressive.

The movie owes a large part of its popularity to its songs which formed its best advertising and marketing material too. The song and dance in popular cinemas in India, unlike that in Hollywood musicals where it cleared a representational space in which both characters and audience could indulge in flights of fancy, were and are used as ‘natural and logical articulations of situations and feelings emanating from the dynamics of day to day life’ (Dissanayake 209). In Chemmeen the spectacle of the songs appear as obvious and natural, punctuating the emotional statements in the story and inhabiting almost the same continuous narrative space. Thus the song interludes signify neither fantasies nor memories, neither pretending to access an inner psyche nor creating temporal or spatial ellipsis. What they do most powerfully, both visually and verbally, is to eroticize the sea and the quests/journeys on the sea in a manner as never before or after in popular Indian narrative language.

The ambiguity of the quest, the metaphorical implications that a journey on the sea has, would be best epitomized in the ‘Gulf Boom’ of the 1970s in Kerala, a moment chat the narrative of the song 'Kadalinakkare ponore kana ponninu ponore, poyi varumbol enthu konduvururn (O you who travel across the seas, what will you bring on your journey back?) presupposes. The sea ‘imagined’ in the songs becomes an archetype of the innumerable journeys that would mark the social, cultural and economic history of Kerala in the years to follow. Thus the journey into the outer sea captured in frame after frame in the songs signify a foundational aspect of the Malayali imaginary and functions as a popular trope that would equip the Malayali to reckon with the experience of migration, within and outside the state as also beyond the nation, in both its personal and collective significance. It is the sea that maps the Malayali self and becomes a central metaphor in all modern attempts at cartographing this self on to national as well as global narratives. I he huge popularity of the songs even in the subsequent decades alter the release of the movie is partly due to this rather popular hermeneutics of the sea as a metaphor for Malayali migrations.

One must also take into consideration the interrelated tropesol kana/xiunu (hidden gold), ponvala (golden nets) and chakara that oflci paradigms of the rarest of rare catches and treasures the migrant would bring back home, interpellating both actual and aspiring non-resident Malayalis as subjects in discourses of desire and home. Thus the narrative of the songs while simultaneously drawing on pre-modern atavistic associations and spiritual connections with the sea also attempt to construct it as a modern epic imaginary of contemporary struggles for labour, survival and subsistence, lliese songs have also played a crucial role as ‘migration narratives’ of Malayalis, buttressing claims for female chastity as men sail away to far-off shores to amass economic resources for the family. Three of the choric songs track back and forth to the constant setting out and movement of boats into the outer sea, symbolically linking Kerala to the commodity chains of a global trade in human resources that would become the hallmark of its economy.

All the songs in the film are diegetic, directly invoking the sea which adds to the power of its mythopoeia. It is interesting that the novel keeps on referring to the songs, both Parekutty’s mellifluous rendering of his love as well as the folk songs sung on the shores of Neerkunnam, which we actually get to hear only in the movie, lire novel’s understanding of the inseparableness of music from Malayali narrative traditions and the way it grounds itself on a clear notion of the semiotic function of music in this tradition contribute significantly to the film’s use of music as an integral narrative agent, contributing to the creation of not only its mood or emotion but to its very mythopoesis. That the novel can foresee and invest in the mythical unconscious of the filmic audience speaks volumes about the folk base of die popular in India and the vast repertoire of oral traditions from which both novel and film draw their sustenance. Music thus having the ‘expressive equivalence to speech’ (Vasudevan 9), Indian audiences do not feel the artificial break’ which might be felt by audiences in the West when an actor bursts into song (Beeman 83). Borrowing from the folk tradition it is interesting to note how singing is constructed as paj;t of the daily life of the fishing community where instead of the protagonists, it is the ordinary, apparently sidelined characters who are fore-grounded and singing, whete die sing along nature of the songs constitutes a community and instills the film with its folk motif. The mesmerizing allure of the lyrics of Vayalar Ramavarma, by far the most popular lyricist poet in Malayalam, rests on the imagination of a mythic land of moonlight where nisagandhi blooms and mermaids frolic on the waves of the ocean of milk (palazhi), a land where beautiful women with shapely eyes like the pearlspot fish (karimeen kannat) take vows of chastity to ensure the safe passage back of their men from the turbulent *cav The folk idiom is set to pan-Indian folk tunes by the magic of Salil Choudhary, thus literally making the songs acceptable to mass audiences as folk songs in tone, theme and tenor. The only song that stands out at a more individual level in contrast to the songs of the community is 'Manasa maine varu , but even there one can see the pervasive aura of the mythic seascape where the incessant waves become tropes of the untrammeled desires of the human heart.

But the evergreen popularity and appeal of Chemmeen, the film as also the novel, is in construction of a ‘Keralan’ mythology, using indigenous symbols from this coastal strip of a state to imagine a ‘Malayaliness’ that finds an echo in the hearts of Malayali readers/ audiences. The golden beaches, the swaying green palms, and in the background the rich and poignant beauty of the enigmatic ocean offering a symbolically lush landscape to the agonies and ecstasies of the romantic hearts on shore. In a land which according to popular myth arose from the sea, the sea is also mythologized as ‘Kadalamma. Kadalamma is not only a benevolent goddess but also the terrifying mother who threatens symbolically to devour the fishermen if female chastity is not ensured at home, posing the threat of physical and psychic annihilation. Karuthamma like Kadalamma is linked to the primal fear of obliteration and loss of identity, of being swallowed up by the feminine. One of the shots in the film that cannot be found in the novel is the morning after the wedding night when a fisherman asks whether Karuthamma has swallowed Palani — a prophetic statement of what is to follow. Palani is devoured by Kadalamma in death as he is devoured by Karuthamma in life. Once again one can see here the anxieties of a society shifting from matrilineal to a patrifocal residency, the exigencies of strengthening the notion of the conjugal family and the fine tuning of the nature of relationship between the husband and wife hinging on notions of ‘security’ from man and ‘chastity’ from the woman. In the context of this shift it was considered a hu miliating practice for a man to stay on in his wife’s natal home which is why Palani’s refusal to stay in Karuthamma’s house is considered natural in the circumstances. The logic of the patrifocal nucleated family can be found in the motives for writing the novel. Thakazhi in a prefatory note titled ‘The Story of My Chemmeen in the twentieth edition of the novel states that he wrote the novel at a time when he was living in a thatched makeshift house with Katha and his children. Day and night Katha and he dreamt of transforming the house into a ‘strong’, ‘solid’ one. Though he had written quite a few novels and stories by then, he had been unable to build a house. Therefore, the writing of Chemmeen had two causative factors ‘a reply to the drumbeats of criticism raging around him; as also an airy, bright-lit house built with wooden rafters and tiled roof’. Towards the end of the note he says he wrote the novel in eight days and with its publication he had no difficulty in building the house ‘SankaramangaianV.

‘Chemmeen was in high demand. Rafters were made with wood. The home had a tiled roof and three or four additional rooms were also attached.’ In imagining and consolidating this relatively new social unit of the modern family, tradition and myth had to be necessarily invoked especially for mapping the dynamics of gender and representing/containing sexualities.

However, Karuthamma is not entirely without agency and in the novel is bold enough to contemplate even conversion to Islam (the discourse on dress in this context is highly significant), silently critiquing the chastity myth and seeking to validate female desire as normal and ubiquitous, both temporally and spatially. She pesters Chakki to steal from Chembankunju, and mother and daughter try to pay back Pareekutty’s debt partly and covertly. These female-action oriented scenes are entirely absent in the movie which represents her as more detached, her self- conscious ambivalence towards patriarchal mores poignantly brought out by Sheela in a supreme performance. The complete disdain towards the system is brought out in the utter contempt with which she finally acknowledges her love for Pareekutry to Palani. This is so contrary to her reactions and body language in the rest of the movie that a feminist interpreter would not be able to resist attributing an extra-auteristic impulse (given the commodified representations of the feminine in Kariat’s oeuvre), the manodharma of the actor as per Indian performance traditions, a free play of imagination which helps her to triumph as ‘woman’ ovci the aesthetic and ideological perspective of the director. However, her answer (that she loves Pareekutty) in the present tense .is opposed to the past tense in the novel, inscribing the bold continuity of her love, asserts an apotheosis of the more gendered and revisionist readings of the novel in the nine years following its publication and before its adaptation.

Thus while both the novel and the film exhibit a ‘non- synthronism’ characterized by disjunctures in the temporal and psychic, where the mythic might cohabit with the rational and the pre-modern with the modern, it is much more pronounced in the ending of the film where Karuthamma suddenly awakens from her mythic maidenhood to a ‘modern’, ‘individualistic’, ‘feminist’ sensibility. Palani’s raised hands to strike his wife is lowered as his \/ gaze shifts to his child but the question is reiterated in another ^ form as ‘Is this child his?’ This anxiety over paternity is a modern anxiety in contrast to Palani’s own uncertainty of legitimate lineage. This question has to be contextualized in the relative flexibility of conjugality in Kerala in an earlier matrilineal tradition which was in a sense compromised for the fixity of the patriarchal institution of the modern family in the twentieth century. Thus the rights of the father started being privileged over that of the mother with a patrilineal shift in ownership of property, presupposing an over investment in conjugal fidelity and chastity and leading to a new centering of the father with the marginalizing and sentimentalizing of the mothers and daughters.

This question of anxiety over paternity is significantly absent in the novel and pushes the argument of the non-synchronic nature of the film farther as we see in it the fuelling of ‘older’ anxieties by the more ‘modern’ impulses of womens emancipation and sexual liberation, which have to be contained in the interests of the modern conjugal family and the transfer of paternal property to ‘legitimate’ children. It has been fairly proven that leftist development initiatives and social reforms have in effect augmented female seclusion in the state. Gender difference was at the very heart of modern caste identities in Kerala, a legacy of the early-twentieth-century social reform movements which projected patrifocal marriage as the natural and pre-eminent site of material relations in the private realm (Eapen and Kodoth, 2003). Conjugality as the predominant marker of a woman’s identity is fraught with change from Chakki to Karuthamma as also from novel to film, as a further and further shrinking of the private space of women. This shift from the 1950s to the 1960s in Kerala’s social fabric could probably be accounted for by the further transitions in the structure of the family from a bro;id- based production unit to an intensely private domestic unit imarily of consumption and reproduction (Kodoth 2005).

The novel can also be read as a Nehruvian national allegory where State ‘Planning’ and economy had to ideally take stock of and preserve spiritual traditions embedded in the more private spheres of social life. It also embodies the rise of new economic individualism and private enterprise in a post-independence India which are at odds with the older ideals of democratic socialism with its ‘central’ planning, solidarity economy and social cohesion. Thus the private libidinal dynamics of Pareekutry, Karuthamma, Chembankunju and Palani might ‘necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory’ where ‘the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society’ (Jameson 69). Such a reading would also pose numerous questions as far as the translations of Chemmeen are concerned, critiquing the notion of an unproblematic accessing of the ‘national’, always already complicated by caste, gender and class as also their regional ramifications. Thus one cannot read either novel or its adaptation without taking into consideration the national and historic contexts, the linguistic constitution of the regional and the necessities of imagining that sub-national identity, the anxieties over what was the nascent state of Kerala, the crisis of agrarian and indigenous modes of livelihood facing the modernization project of the nation, the persistence of feudal and neo-colonial forces in a postcolonial history, as also the dichotomization of the private and public and the processes of gendering the nation, all begging for more nuanced political readings instead of overly psychological ones.

It is popular history parading as populist myth that one encounters in both novel and film. Yet from all the other elements in the novel it is the myth and the mystification of Women through this mythogenesis that is at the core of the filmic adaptation, offering a heady cocktail of visual and narrative pleasure combining the popular, the mythical and the musical in a mise-en-scene that is heavily coded and throbbing with severely repressed passions, and in the last run hybridizing these with the market and mass culture. That the first Sahitya Akademy Award for Malayalam novel and the first National Award for Malayalam cinema came at the cost of re-presenting many Karuthammas of Kerala as compromised signs- in the gendered commodified systems of exchange that popular ‘canonical’ literature and popular cinema often become, gives us important clues to reading the popular.

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  1. Why do chembankunju and palani face social and emotional isolation in the novel chemmen?