A search for Sahrudayopaharam, an anthology of Malayalam poetry, in the bookstores of Kerala can prove both arduous and futile. In the pages of this 1934 book, one can find established names of pre-Independence Kerala and — of interest to connoisseurs — the early works of several poets before they became eminent. Critics of the era had hailed the anthology, and the state government had introduced its smaller volume, Mandara Manjari, in schools. Public attention had turned towards its author — a young poet called Paduthottu Mathen John, who lived in the small village of Keezhuvaipur, near Mallapally, around 70 km south of Cochin. John was a tireless reader, writer and scholar but he died before he could publish any other work of similar importance.
Like Sahrudayopaharam and the shrunken Mandara Manjari, John’s name now exists in the cherished collections of poetry lovers, the reference sections of libraries and the shelves of old Malayalam literature. Now, a play on his life is being performed as part of Glasgow 2014 cultural programme, which accompanies the ongoing Commonwealth Games. Titled The Bridge, it has been written and enacted by John’s granddaughter, award-winning performer Annie George, and had its first staging at the Just Festival of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month.
“Most of PM John’s works, from his poetry and writings to his correspondences with family, friends and poets were destroyed in a fire at his home a couple of years after he died. Not even a photograph exists with the family. As a child, I knew there was one grandfather missing in my family. A part of the play is about my going on a search to get back John’s poetry,” says George, 49, who was born in Kerala and moved to London when she was four and is now a writer and director based in Scotland for over two decades.
A solo piece, The Bridge begins with George telling the audience why she is going on a quest to find her late grandfather. The introduction segues into interviews with four characters — her mother, her father, her grandmother and John himself. “Each character speaks in monologue as if from the era they belonged to. They talk to me about defying conventions and poverty and the strength needed to recover from a series of tragedies and shape one’s own fortunes,” she says.
As they speak, pre-Independence India emerges as a society in a flux, both politically due to the momentum of the freedom struggle and socially, where George’s grandmother could get a government job as a midwife at a time when it was rare for women to have jobs. “There is also a resonance with Scotland today, which is about to have a referendum on whether to become an independent nation or not. From the project, I’ve learned how important it continued…