Of all the lyricists who began writing for Tamil film music in the recent past, Na. Muthukumar is the one I like most. Not Thamarai, in spite of her spectacular work with GVM. Not Madhan Karky, with his new age tech speak.
Why do we write about someone after their passing? I suppose it is a way for us to remember them, to recall the ways in which our lives might have been shaped by them. Why must we participate in this hollow exercise, I ask myself – this sudden interest in an individual when he is no longer with us, as though rapidly unearthing the facts of his existence will somehow immortalize him, as though the two minutes spent reading about his career actually matter. I started this post at least six times, each time more a bit more uncomfortable writing about Na. Muthukumar. What do I say? I could say his demise was unexpected and unfortunate. But you don’t need me to state the obvious. I could talk about his journey, and how he ended up writing lyrics. I could mention the family he left behind, the little boy who woke up one day and learnt his father wasn’t getting better.
All of it empty.
I shall instead write of my favourite Na. Muthukumar lines. The lines that make me pause for a beat, that let me revel in the beauty of the language, and that will not allow me to forget him. And no, I shall not include his National Award winning songs – they tend to annoy me.
When I was much younger, I read that for someone in love, it feels like all the world’s love songs were written for them. For years, I thought about this. I couldn’t wait to find out if it was true. And one day, I came to the realization that I wasn’t above clichés too. The world’s love songs were indeed written for me, and foremost among them were two songs from a movie called Dum Dum Dum.
In Ragasiyamai, Na. Muthukumar writes of a love that is stealthily making its presence felt. This love takes the man and woman by surprise, they didn’t see it coming.
Punnagaithaal porul ennavo
He wonders what the secret smile means – the shorthand of those in love, the smile that appears without one’s knowledge, as though you are privy to some detail that lets you in on the secrets of the universe.
Mozhi tholainthaal porul ennavo
He then wonders what this sudden and hurried loss of language could mean – the speechlessness when faced with a thing of great beauty, when confronted by a feeling that defies explanation.
Ilai vadivil idhayam irukkum
Malai vadivil adhuvum ganakkum
Here he talks of the heart that has discovered love. He describes it to be as light as a leaf, drunk with a newfound joy; but also as heavy as a mountain, the feeling imparting a delicious weight, making everything unbearable and more bearable all at the same time. How does he know this? Perhaps I whispered to him what I felt as I lay awake at night, an unknown excitement gripping me.
In the other song from the movie, Un Perai Sonnale, he writes of the happiness she derives from saying his name out loud.
Un perai sonnale
Ull naakil thithikkumey
He tells me she savours his name on her tongue, the sweet aftertaste lingering in her mouth. I wish I possessed an ability to articulate it thus. I don’t have to, I almost believed he intercepted my thoughts, the heady sensation I felt.
Occasionally, I think of another song, Aaha Kaadhal, with its procession of Tamil words that make use of different la, na, and ra sounds – the soft, the middle and the deep sounds which are mostly used interchangeably and often mispronounced carelessly. Though this song may not resonate with me as much emotionally, my ears end up performing their own happy dance. The singer is to be credited for this, of course, she sings the song in the manner of someone who intimately knows the language. All the different la sounds perfectly rolling off her tongue, with the right amount of stress on each syllable. She doesn’t float over the sounds, and she doesn’t enunciate them as though she was reading the transliterated version in English.
The woman asks if he’s the one pulling her, or if she fell of her own accord. In these phrases, Na. Muthukumar condenses for us a push-pull dynamic that is one of the dimensions of love.
I do not intend for this to be a comprehensive list of any kind. I’d like to think of it as a starting point instead. Maybe you could share with me the lines that refuse to be erased from your memory, the songs that found a permanent place in your heart. I shall send you virtual hi-fives in return.