Splendid isolation: “Thirike Njaan Varumenna”
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
"I am the tortoise who was trapped in a pit of excrement for two whole markets, but when helpers came to haul him out on the eighth day he cried, 'Quick, quick, I cannot stand the stench.'"
– Ezeulu on leaving prison, in Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God
As I write this, the coronavirus pandemic has indefinitely halted the world in its tracks, much like the pause button on a particularly recalcitrant remote control. Almost every physical location, including educational institutions, is shut. Like most of my species, I now stay indoors because I have to, not because I want to.
Ever since rumours of a global lockdown began a month ago, one song has been on my mind:
"Thirike Njaan Varumenna" ("News of My Return") is the heartbeat of Lal Jose’s Arabikkatha (An Arabian Tale, Malayalam/India, 2007), one of the few films that depict the lives of Malayalis working in the Middle East (around two and a half million: my mother always says if they all returned to India the state of Kerala would disappear underwater). Ever since their first entry into the 'Gulf' fifty years ago, these people have been portrayed in Malayalam cinema either as figures of ridicule or, less often, as unable to reorient themselves at home – Sathyan Anthikad’s Varavelppu (Welcome, 1989) might be the best of the latter – but only a handful have shown what most of them really go through abroad. (I say this as a former 'Gulfkaaran'; my parents and I lived in Dubai for six years, and my father has since returned there to fund my education in Boston.)
Arabikkatha is a satirical coming-of-age story: when he is forced to leave Kerala and work in Dubai, diehard communist 'Cuba' Mukundan finds that his ideology means little to his fellow Malayalis abroad. Most of them (like him) work menial jobs to send the little they earn to their families in India: they can seldom afford to travel back home, unless it is for good. It is this saudade, if you will, that composer Bijibal and poet Anil Panachooran captured in what would be the first film of their long and fruitful careers – even if “Thirike” was the only thing they ever did, their place in Indian film history would be assured.
"Thirike" is set to Kāpi, one of the most versatile ragas and one particularly suited to evoking nostalgia; the opening figure that moves up and then down a fourth (B-E-B-F#) recurs throughout the film. While the interludes alternate between the two musical traditions (the song opens with a snatch of Al Ayyala, a folk dance native to the United Arab Emirates), the arrangement remains resolutely Indian for the rest of the song: in fact, the refrain is a folk rhythm chanted to the sound of Malayali percussion (such as the thudi, which is mentioned in the song). It is also suprisingly sparse: this is the only Indian film song I know of that features fretless bass harmonics. Malayalam song lyrics are often highly imagistic and tend to be lost in translation; "Thirike" has some of the best, turning it into the antithesis of Steely Dan’s “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”. To me, this song has transcended its source: it seems to speak for anyone who wants to be wherever they aren’t, but can’t.
“Thirike Njaan Varumenna” Thathinthaka-thaithom (3) Hear the rhythm of the soil in the heart The village always yearns to hear news of my return I, too, always yearn to come closer to the shore In my memory, I see the path where frogs routinely croak I also see the shade little girls look for in the sun When the distant moon, With a basketful of flowers,
Pushes the Thiruvonam boat My native land, washed by the waves, is calling me back,
As a dream as sweet as coconut water In the boat that has lost its oar, With a breaking heart, I, too, beat the thudi In the song of this heart, I hear the wheatear’s throbbing wings Music by Bijibal Words by Anil Panachooran Performed by K.J. Yesudas (in the film) and Manjari (on the album) From the original soundtrack of Arabikkatha (2007) Transciption by Shwetant Kumar
Translation by Shwetant Kumar and his father Vijay Kumar