She sits behind a semi-circular wooden table that almost encloses her. A black sari is draped around her diminutive 5-feet frame, its pallu covering her hair tied in a loose knot. She does not wear any jewellery except for a few black prayer beads tied around her right wrist. She smiles at the group of youngsters who have trooped into the one-room, ramshackle building on a small patch of overgrown shrubs at Mukkam in Kozhikode. Shruti RV, an 18-year-old who is studying for her bachelor’s degree in psychology, has come from Kannur, about 100 km away, just to meet her. “I have not seen anyone like her. In all my textbooks, I have not encountered such a person. I didn’t know anyone could love the way she has,” says Shruti. “Is she for real?”
“She” is 75-year-old Kottangal Kanchanamala, who has become the talisman for true love in Kerala. Malayalis have fallen for this real-life heroine who gave almost 60 years of her life for her beloved, BP Moideen. She waited 30 years to be with him, determinedly living for the one great passion in her life. But one June morning in 1982, Moideen drowned in the river Iruvazhinji when the boat he was travelling in capsized. She spent the next 30 years as the widow of a man she never married, determinedly serving the world around her in his name.
Every day for the past one month, since the movie Ennu Ninte Moideen (Yours Truly, Moideen), based on her early life and star-crossed love, began running to packed cinema halls in Kerala, hundreds of people have been streaming to this rundown shed with a rusting board, BP Moideen Seva Mandir, as though it is a shrine to a love that they long for, but can’t aspire to. Ramees Abdulrahiman, 19, says, “I have watched the movie four times already,” before he asks Kanchanamala, better known as Kanchana, to pose for a selfie with him.
The river Iruvazhinji has been central to her love story. “I have to go and see the river. I want to drink its water,” says a 45-year-old businessman who has come with his family to see Kanchana. The river has seen her love ebb and flow. Now its bank has become an unlikely pilgrimage spot. “I have been telling you. You should bottle the Iruvazhinji water and sell it for 100 bucks each,” jokes someone to Kanchana. It is an extreme, extraordinary celebration of a woman who has suffered and sacrificed for love. It also makes you wonder if the society, which now hails her tragic love story, would have still adored this Hindu woman if she had indeed dared this very society to marry and live with the Muslim man she loved and lost. Perhaps not.
It is a very old love story — as old as the notebook she splays before her. It is now carefully bound with bits of black tape. On page after page, written in blue ink that has now paled to ash with time, are the love letters Moideen wrote to Kanchana. These are written in a strange script that was devised by a young Kanchana to escape the prying eyes of her Hindu family and his Muslim parents, a script only Moideen and Kanchana could read. She still knows that script better than any other language. When a young girl asks Kanchana to write a few words in a diary, she lapses into that old language of love. Only this time, she does not write about amour. Instead, she writes about service: “You should serve your society.” “Has your love been about that?” I ask her. “Yes, my love has been about sacrifice and service,” she says.
The love stories of a certain period are circumscribed by a few square kilometres. The Moideen-Kanchanamala romance was rooted in Mukkam, with the river and the rain as the background. Mukkam is now like any other small town in Kerala, bustling with shops: Royal Furniture and Gulf Mobiles and Jolly Stores, stocked high with melamine plates and steel utensils. It is streaked with posters and flags for the local body polls in November.
About 60 years ago, it was a village clinched by a river. It was a young, secular India where the rich Muslim in that region, Unnimoyi, could become great friends with Achuthan from a privileged Hindu Thiyya family. It was also an old conservative land where Unnimoyi’s son Moideen could not even think of marrying Achuthan’s daughter Kanchana. “I want her to be a doctor,” Achuthan used to say of Kanchana in the 1950s Kerala.
“It was always raining — when the good and the terrible happened to me,” recalls Kanchana, even as someone’s mobile phone, as though on cue, plays a song from Ennu Ninte Moideen, a film that is equally drenched in rain: “Ennile ellinal padacha penne/ Mukkathil mannilaayi piranna penne (The girl made from my rib/ The girl born to Mukkam).” Kanchana pauses for a while as she listens to the song about her and smiles: “The music is so good.”
It began as young love one rainy day when her car broke down and she took the green bus of the Calicut-Wayanad Motor Service to reach her school. “In the mirror before me, I saw his brown eyes, his wide smile. Moideen and I were childhood friends, but that day something changed between us.” As the bus was ferried across the river, Moideen, who was three years older than her, came up to her and talked. He sent her love poems of the celebrated Malayalam poet Changampuzha. “I fell in love with him. I was only in Class IX,” she says.
One day, in 1957, Mukkam woke up to the news that Moideen had been turned out of his house. He had confessed that he was in love with Kanchana. His father pointed his gun at him; he turned around and walked away. Kanchana was withdrawn from college where she was studying for BSc and kept at home. “We didn’t meet even once for the next 10 years. We just communicated through letters, written in our code language,” she says. They met briefly on November 23, 1967. “I remember that day so well. We met at the ferry. As I was leaving, I saw Moideen take a fistful of earth,” she says. “What was that?” Kanchanamala asked him in a letter, “What were you taking from the ground?” “Just the earth you walked on,” he wrote back. They were consumed both by despair and idealism.
In the next 15 years, they met occasionally, briefly, clandestinely. “It was religion that kept us apart,” she says, “and the misplaced belief that girls have to uphold the dignity of their families. If I had married Moideen, it would have been hard for my five sisters to find a match.” She waited till all her sisters got married, even as she and Moideen grew older. “Four times, we thought of running away. But it was not destined to happen. Every time, events turned against us. Once, my brother died, the second time my father had a heart attack, the third time my pregnant sister-in-law pleaded with me not to bring disrepute to the family and then Moideen’s vappa (father) passed away. What could we have done?”
Moideen’s father Unnimoyi never forgave his son for his transgression. On July 11, 1964, he drew the knife from his belt and stabbed Moideen. Every year on that day, Kanchana and Moideen would write to each other: “We will never be apart. I will not live with anyone else.” On July 11, 1982, she drew blood and wrote with it that old promise. Theirs was a passion marked by dramatic gestures and yet great restraint. On July 15, as she left the house, she took that letter to be posted. That evening, as she was on her way home, in a bus, she heard that Moideen had gone missing in the Iruvazhinchi river. He was 45.
Love stories that begin in school and end in heartbreak may run to a few hundred every square kilometre. Then why are we suddenly celebrating Kanchana and Moideen? Why are Malayalis looking up Love in the Time of Cholera to find some approximation to the endless wait of Kanchana? Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Florentino Ariza waited for 51 years, nine months and four days to be with Fermina Daza. For Kanchana, it has been 61 years. She does not wait passively, nor is she resigned to a hopeless life. Hers is an active engagement with the world, a pursuit to make the lives of people in and around Mukkam better. “My life is best lived like this,” she says.
Every day, without fail, Kanchana comes to the BP Moideen Seva Mandir, a charitable organisation that she heads. The building, this temple of love that Malayalis have just discovered, is decrepit. Made of bare laterite stones and wire mesh, its roof is covered with asbestos and a sheet of tarpaulin. It also doubles as the BP Moideen Library. Inside the room, in over 10 huge cupboards, are more than 10,000 books, including The Challenges to Islam.
“We had a short-stay home for destitute women until two-and-a half years ago,” says Kanchana. But a property dispute with Moideen’s half-brother saw the two-storey house they were functioning in being taken away from her. She retreated to this small space that has been turned into a museum of Moideen. There is a big cutout of him, in yellow football jersey, looming near her. There are old black-and-white photographs of him on the wall, yellowing pages torn from a magazine where his friend Mukkam Bhasi remembers him.
She wants a bigger building for the projects that have been disrupted for want of space: a safe house for women, AIDS awareness programme, aid for the old and the destitute, including visits to the elderly at their homes to ensure that they are looked after properly and an old-age home if necessary; a bigger library and reading room, a children’s club, pre-primary teacher’s course, free polytechnic classes, counselling centre for families. This has been her life ever since the river washed Moideen away 33 years ago. On her agenda is also a three-storey building that costs Rs 1 crore. Construction is set to beginning and the foundation stone for it will be laid on November 15. “We only have about Rs 3 lakh,” says Kanchana. People are coming forward to help, like Malayalam actor Dileep, who has promised to revive the trust’s activities.
In the Kanchana-Moideen story, only one half is about love. The other half is about Kanchana’s social service. It is about a woman’s journey from the confines of her home, where she was detained for about 25 years, into the wider world. “That is what Moideen would have wanted. He was a man who helped people on the streets: he would wash, feed and take care of them. He drowned, helping to save the people in the capsized boat. He was a good swimmer but he chose to help others rather than swim to safety,” says Kanchana.
Their love story broke the boundaries of Mukkam in 2007, on the 25th anniversary of Moideen’s death. It was then that the outside world got to know of this extraordinary woman and her undying love. Two years later, RS Vimal, who directed Ennu Ninte Moideen, made a documentary on Kanchana: Jalamkondu Murivettaval (Wounded by Water). Yet, it took an almost three-hour-long feature film, starring Prithviraj and Parvathy, to anoint this love story as one of the greatest ever for a generation of Malayalis.
Does she wish that her life had turned out differently? “All that I wanted was to be with Moideen. But that was not to be. I thought of killing myself after his death. I starved myself for 13 days,” she says. Finally, she said she wanted a draught of the Iruvazhinji river, the same water that Moideen drank for the last time. Someone came with a bottle of the muddied river water. She took two sips of that. “I thought I would end my life with that. Then another woman brought me back to life,” she says. Moideen’s mother Fathima asked her to come and live in his home. “She told me: ‘You can’t die. We have many things to do. We have to continue the work Moideen began.’ And that is what I have been doing ever since.”
Can there be only one true love in a lifetime? “Yes, of course. It has to be like that,” says Kanchana. “If you have given your word to someone, you have to keep it. Because word, you see, is truth.”
Charmy Harikrishnan is a freelance journalist based out of Thiruvananthapuram
The story was originally published under the headline ‘PS:I’