My introduction to the mindscape of Kerala was my introduction to Kozhikode. It was through the lens of cinema. In the late 1970s. Though from near Kodungalloor in Kerala in terms of my roots I had never lived or gone to school in Kerala. Bombay, Calcutta and then Chennai were where I spent my childhood, went to school and college. Kerala was summer vacation destination. I loved every moment of those holiday breaks frolicking in the backwaters near Kodungalloor in my father’s home in Karuppadanna barely four kilometres away. Enough to build a romantic love for and lore about the place. But insufficient to know and experience the essential spirit of the place, to feel its creative and intellectual pulse.

legacyAll that suddenly changed when Chinta Ravindran called me from out of the blue one day in Madras, met me and asked me if I would act in his first Malayalam film ‘Iniyum Marichittillatha Nammal’ . It was to be a didactic discourse in celluloid. To be shot entirely on location in Kozhikode. I agreed on an impulse, little realising what I was getting into. 

What the opportunity opened up for me was a life long camaraderie, a role not only in the film but  in the progressive social discourse that was the kerala of the times, a feel for the creative and intellectual vibrancy of Kozhikode which has metamorphosed over the decades into an abiding passion for this fascinating, multi-cultural, warm and embracing town.

The memories of the shoot of the film merge seamlessly into the lives and passions, political and social concerns, the idealism and frustration that was as much a part the filmic scenarios as of the real and bustling and beckoning city of Kozhikode. Looking back the film was the city and the city was the film. And has remained over the nearly four decades since then. Kozhikode has been my most enduring and undiminished affair with Kerala, the place I love returning to again and again. The heart surges when I land at the airport near Kozhikode or arrive by car or train into the port city.

Some of the those who were for me synonymous with Kozhikode have passed on, including Chinta Ravi. But when I am here I feel their virtual presence, in the arguments we who remain have among ourselves, in our irreverent witticisms, in the distinctive cuisine we partake in, in the hopes we aspire to and exult in - even though the times have changed and it’s really in many respects a stranger place than the Kozhikode cocooned in my mind.

The concept of reclaiming a part of heritage public space from routine hectic motor traffic is a throwback to the elegant cobblestoned city centres and promenades in Europe where people shop, saunter, meet and move around together, window shopping or just idling

The changing topography of the city is not as important as this mindscape in which I have internalised a Kozhikode that  is as unique and distinctive  to me who doesn’t live here as it is to those who live here and have seen and experienced the city metamorphose in their everyday lives.

Of course the physical spaces are important. The then uncrowded and now very crowded beach, the ‘Muttai Therivu’ which now wears a new look, the market waking up to life early mornings which remain more or less the same. But the physical landmarks are signposts for where the mind leads me in the long uninterrupted discourse that is Kozhikode.

The new avatar of ‘Muttai Therivu’ is striking. The concept of reclaiming a part of heritage public space from routine hectic motor traffic is a throwback to the elegant cobblestoned city centres and promenades in Europe where people shop, saunter, meet and move around together, window shopping or just idling. As we go along and as it takes shape functionally, it might become a gathering place too for kerbside artistes and musicians, and myriad expressions of creativity in our own way. This clearly is a space to watch. A space for the other cities in Kerala, to emulate. 

There are distinct memories that overtake me at the oddest moments. There is the unforgettable memory of a band of some of our best and brightest artists, writers and thinkers gathered at the Kozhikode railway station when I was leaving after the shoot of Ravi’s film bursting spontaneously in chorus into Ayyappa Panicker’s poem “Nee thanne jeevitham sandhye, nee thanne maranavum sandhye, nee thanne irulunnu, nee thanne marayunnu, nee thanne nee thanne sandhye...” This as the train was slowly streaming out of the station.

Sashi Kumar framed against the statue of SK, the story-teller of SM Street

There is the memory of the other poet Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan lashing out his fierce verse in his inimitable style to a group of us gathered in a hotel room filled with smoke and hazy even otherwise with liberal intakes of alcohol. There is the memory of the lightness and ease with which we internalised our secularism - all of us irrespective of religions we were born into - making fun of blind beliefs and institutionalised religion as a whole. There were the fierce clashes of left versus ultra left ideologies.

There is the memory of M.T. Vasudevan Nair and his inscrutable visage and ways which don’t let on his genius. There is the amusing memory of an encounter between P. Bhaskaran and Thikkodiyan. I had gone with Bhaskaran mash to Thikkodiyan‘s house during our ‘Asianet’ days. The two of them, close long time friends and colleagues at AIR Calicut, were meeting after a long time.

Sometime into the conversation Thikkodoyan asks Bhaskaran maash whether he was still an atheist or had turned a believer. Bhaskaran maash replies that he had veered away from that kind of atheism of his revolutionary youth, that whenever he saw a church, mosque or temple these days he would send up a silent prayer. He then asked Thikkodiyan whether he continued to be the atheist he used to be. Thikkodiyan replied: “No Bhaskaran, like you I too pray silently when I pass a church, mosque or temple.” Bhaskaran mash responds: “That’s good, respect for all religions.” “Oh no,” deadpans Thikkodiyan, “It’s not that. You see, we can’t run  a risk. We don’t know where this guy is.” And they burst out laughing.

Kozhikode is all this and more. It continues to allure me with the same vigour as it did all those years back. I know in the recesses of my heart that it was Kozhikode that brought me back to Kerala with ‘Asianet’ in the early 1990s.

(Author is a veteran media personality, director-actor and chairperson of Media Development Foundation & Asian College of Journalism)