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Finding John: Malayalam poet PM John’s journey captured in a play

Annie George recreates the life and times of her grandfather, PM John, in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Updated: August 3, 2014 1:00:37 am
john-main For old times’ sake Annie George rehearses for her new play The Bridge. In the background is a portrait of her grandfather PM John

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 is to know your own history and the best source of that are your relatives.

I wish I’d done this project a long time ago, when there were more of my relatives around who knew about the people and events in the play,” says George. It is when John begins to speak in the play that George finds a voice for literature and scholarship. “He was a man acutely aware of his environment but his chief concern was literature and writing. He speaks of the power of the pen — how once you commit words to paper, they live on even after you,” she says.

Most of George’s research comes not from the written word but the spoken one, as few records of John remain with his family. “I deduce John’s life largely from conversations with my grandmother, who could speak English and with whom I was close, though I have read up to get a sense of the place,” says George, adding that she isn’t calling The Bridge a biography. “When you have few records to refer to, you are at the mercy of a narrator. When my half-Scottish children watch the play, they will consider it the truth about their roots. That is the nature of storytelling; a story changes with every telling and every change becomes the truth,” says George.

Stories of different cultures have fascinated George ever since she took to the Edinburgh stage. Her productions have taken foreign audiences into the lives of Asians and Indians living in the UK. “England is made up of many cultures. My aim is to extract stories of the diaspora and put these out there so that these stories are not lost,” she says. Nighthawks, a play written by her, about family secrets and the diverse customers who frequent a rundown Edinburgh café, was performed at the Scottish Parliament in 2011.

Another short play, Coast (2007), is about two estranged Asian half brothers on a road trip, discovering the truth about their past. Her short film Curry and Irn-Bru, on young Pakistani boys living in Glasgow and their experiences of work, education and racism won the Real to Reel Award, Glasgow Short Film Festival, and was nominated for the Satyajit Ray Foundation Short Film Award in 2005. “Is there something in our genes, heritage or environment to make us choose to do what we do?” asks George. She has turned to her grandfather for an answer.

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