Death Walk close to the bone
“John’s voice and singing style are ideal for communicating the migrant workers’ pain, anger and despair,” Ali said.
Chavu Nada Pattu is part song, part rhythmic narrative. Ali calls it something “in between a song and a poem”.
The video had received 20,000 views at 3pm on Monday, less than 48 hours after its launch.
“Since we can’t count the views on WhatsApp, we have to go by YouTube. I think it has been accepted by the people, which is obviously one of the reasons we write,” Ali said.
Mainly a poet, Ali has only lately started writing songs, mostly for films.
“Although I have been in the field of poetry for about 30 years, I have generally been away from public art. So this poem is one of the results of my getting into the public art space like film songs,” he said.
Ali had earlier worked with John and Vincent for the title track of the blockbuster Malayalam film Kammatipaadam, which portrayed how the wealthy exploit the poor and create an underclass of hired killers whom they conveniently discard past their use-by date.
Malayalam writer K.R. Meera lauded the effort by Ali and his team.
“This is a clear example of how art becomes political,” she told this newspaper, adding that Indian society had failed the migrant workers.
Apart from being a poet translated into several languages, Ali is also a translator and documentary filmmaker. The Thiruvananthapuram native lives in Thrissur.
Having trudged the endless roads
Where the pandemic kept raining on them
They had slept a little while
On the night rails emptied of hustle
The lines above need no explanation: Malayalam poet and songwriter Anvar Ali is anguished by the plight of the migrant workers walking hundreds of miles home during the lockdown.
A few lines on, the mood and the imagery have changed.
A bone thrust out, an eye that bulged
A burnt piece of dry roti
Rotting feet that had waded the sewer of history....
If the lyrics (translated from Malayalam) jar, it’s because they are meant to shock and arouse a nation’s conscience.
Weeks before he had penned Chavu Nada Pattu (Death Walk Song), launched as a video on Saturday, Ali, 54, was already being tormented by the scenes of old and young jobless migrants trudging home.
Then, on May 8, a goods train ran over 16 tired migrant workers as they slept on the tracks while walking home to Madhya Pradesh from their workplace in Maharashtra.
The lyrics try to capture the “horrifying incident” in Aurangabad for the “middle class” he represents, Ali told The Telegraph on Monday.
The thrust-out bone and bulged eye represent the way Ali pictured the victims’ mangled bodies. The single burnt roti on the tracks is an actual photograph he saw in the newspapers. The photo is part of the video’s visuals, as are a sea of tired, desperate faces walking on the highways.
For Ali, though, Aurangabad was not just a gruesome accident but a symbol of the callousness with which a nation had abandoned during a crisis the people whose toil helped build it.
“I visualised the incident as citizens getting run over on the tracks of the Indian Railways that has for long been our icon of nationalism,” Ali said.
“What we got to see after the lockdown was the real face of the administrative apathy that left the poor workers stranded far away from their homes,” Ali said.
They were the eateries that fed us, the kilns that burned for us/ They were the donkeys who carried the city’s waste/ But when the lockdown came, they were the unwanted/ Mere woodcutters and water carriers.
“I think it’s quite like what (revolutionary Telugu poet) Gaddar wrote, quite like the songs from the Naxalite movement. They really hit you hard,” Ali suggested.
In penning the lyrics, Ali was inspired by a cartoon by R. Prasad of The Economic Times that said: “India lives in its villages, works in its cities and dies somewhere in between.”
“You can see the inspiration in my lines,” Ali said.
His opening lines say:
Had grown up in the villages
Had survived by reaching the city
Between the two at some unknown place
Was ground to death under a train.
Help from a few friends made the video possible. Composers Dawn Vincent and Subramanian set the song to tune. Guitarist and singer John P. Varkey, a former member of the progressive Malayalam rock band Avial, lent his voice.
The video was directed by Prem Shankar and produced by the Kochi-based artists’ group Collective Phase One in association with Uru Art Harbour, Mattanchery.