To Sir, With A Prayer…

great soul

I met Shri Radha Vinod Raju IPS for the first time during a friend’s wedding almost a decade ago. Being from the same state, I spoke to him delightedly in Malayalam , to which he responded warmly. I was a rookie probationer in the Indian Administrative Services, he was a very respected senior IPS officer whose name was known by anyone familiar with the murder investigation of Shri Rajiv Gandhi. Besides, his brilliant stint as a CBI officer in Kerala had inspired superhit movies in my state, like Oru CBI DiaryKuruppu (From the diary of CBI), and for any aspiring civil servant, he stood as an epitome of   brilliance, dignity, grace and incorruptible integrity and inspiration.

I met him again in Mussoorie during a training stint years later, when he charmed everyone around with his fine articulation (he knew almost six languages) and charismatic personality. He remained etched in my memory as what an officer should aspire to be- a  personality to remember as a role model,  when one gets depressed by cynicism and selfishness all around.

And then came the news of his untimely demise at the age of 62, when he was heading  a prestigious assignment at the NIA. He had passed away due to lung complications as per the news reports. Why do God call the best and finest so fast back to his abode, I remember wondering that day.

Today, I read an article in my mother tongue by a revered oncologist and Vinod Raju Sir’s college mate, Dr. P.V.Gangadharan who treated him, about the humility of this officer who sat waiting outside the doctor’s chamber like umpteen ordinary patients, without ever trying to send in a paper of introduction, even as he headed a top agency of the nation. He writes about the contrast shown by many people who barge their way inside , demanding immediate treatment and consideration. The cancer specialist, famed for his career as a compassionate care giver and leader in his field, reflects on the finer qualities of humanity- that which respects another’s rights as much as those of his own self. Why are we teaching self centred behaviour to our children,  he asks, when such personalities too lived amidst us, showing the way?,-2016#page/22/2

That Unassailable Law


I have been rather an untutored pupil in the practice of the spiritual law- “In giving do we receive”.  But on reading books by many mentors on the subject, it became clear to me, that every one of us are either following it or not, every moment of our lives.

Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, one of the greatest vernacular writers, also known as a Sufi among writers for his humanistic approach to life, once commented that prayer can also be synonymous with giving water to a thirsty creature. Today, in the newspapers I read that a young man was beaten for hours together in a running train, by three passengers because he dared to drink water from one of their bottles, without asking. Evil then can be interpreted as denying a living creature a sip of water and assaulting him for daring to quench his thirst.

Life has taught me that many people find it very hard to give- freely of their love, time, intimacy, affection, kindness, laughter, even money. They are miserly by nature. Stingy with sharing anything significant for their own umpteen reasons. Fear- of loss of control, of intimacy, of being seen for their true selves, whatever it may be…fear prevents them from understanding that great spiritual law. And the harder they hold on to whatever they have in inscrutable negativity, like Ebenezer Scrooge or Marley, the more the chain links are getting forged- preventing them from being free to enjoy a  meaningful and full life.

On days that I have bitterly despised those who have wronged me (my version of course!), complained about lack of whatever I really deserved, looked at my resources with fear of them dwindling away leaving me struggling, my energy level had proportionately tumbled down to the depths. Life did not seem worth living on those days. What difference would that make anyway, the cynical voice would argue from within.

And then, like a ray from heaven, one call would come from somewhere, pushing me out of my own little self,  to do some work which involved another’s welfare. Whether it was attending to someone in distress or arranging help for a child in need, or a matter of creating a policy or action agenda for bettering lives of others… it focused my energy onto something positive, outside my own narrow self. And then, miraculously my energy level would soar sky high, as if an ineffable divine energy  source was buoying me upwards,  and then connections would form, the correct people, the correct information, the perfect help coming in…not just pouring in but cascading in harmony. I would be used as an instrument, to do my little bit in a chain of fortuitous events.

It was then that I learnt the way. On severe painful occasions, all one has to do to start a blessing of happiness would be to willingly and sincerely do an act of service. Giving away from your money, clothes, books, time, even your blood- anything for another less fortunate, would miraculously turn the focus of that divinity towards your own bereft self- replenishing you laughingly, as if whispering, ah, now smartie pie, you have caught on…Vivekananda, I remember,  had spoken about this unassailable law too.

Life  might have placed us all in different battle fields- metaphorical or real. But surely, to know that to drink  a joyful sip of water, one has to be part of giving a joyful sip of life too- is a battle secret worth knowing and practicing.

Happy Giving!

Laughing at your demons



If you know your Potter, you might recollect that the young wizards and witches were taught the  powerful spell of handling boggarts, the beings that assumed the shapes of what you feared the most. The magic spell was- Riddikulus. To laugh at what terrifies you.

Laughing at what tries to scare you, bully you,  has psychological roots. Many books on self help , for example, suggest that you visualise the person who overawes you to dumb silence, in a ridiculous dress  or situation, in order to defuse your mental situation a bit!  More often it is the imaginary power we vest in certain things , alive or dead, that gives them the source of their ability to scare us.

I have been afraid too, of certain types of people and serpents. Strangely, I now can link specific traits of both species of beings- stealthy, sneaking from hidden corners,  ability to harm me, poisonous and spearing venom to devastate and kill, draining me of energy and life, spreading cold and numbing fear at their very sight, flashing fangs etc etc.

Human beings possessing these traits can be more malevolent than the snake. The rod to protect the self , from these creatures,  will have to be dipped in your self confidence and the power of love that surrounds you from those who deeply value you.

Bullies who laugh at us ( for multiple reasons- lack of x, y,z, x plus, y plus, z plus…) bullies who degrade us ( not seeing you makes you invisible and degraded) bullies who indulge in sadistic games ( so you thought you could get away so easily, eh?), bullies who encroach  and push into your sacred zones- you can add onto these liberally. How do we say ‘Riddikulus’ to these?

Following are my suggestions, from tough life lessons:

  1. Make friends with wonderful souls. Their love creates an armour around you, invisible but so very powerful that most negativity stops outside your circle of joy.
  2. Protect  your life’s sacred spaces from unwanted marauders. The Goddess is depicted with weapons for a reason.
  3. Stop visiting the past. Do it if you must- as a part of some legal formula if need be, but invest in your present. The past holds beauty to those who want to live there. Not to those who want to move on.
  4. Challenge those who sneak upon you, laughing-bring it on! You terrify me no more. The moment you master the spell is when you lose your fear. You feel that the imposters are ridiculous.
  5. Keep growing. There is a beautiful world out there. It is far bigger than our little selves.

P.S. Dedicated to my brother, who taught me to laugh at my terrors, all my life.

Seth in style, Carpaccio beckoning…

An Equal Music is a great book. Not only does it make an excellent intellectual fare, but it also serves as a compendium of music and painting- if you have google by your side.

And thus from  Beethoven Opus 104 to Carpaccio’s paintings- one ends up amazed, seeing the comments of all those readers who were led there by Seth himself. From George Herbert to Andrew  Marvell, the cues are many, scattered liberally with a sly wit. I was amused by his protagonist’s comments about a few unfortunate greats including Wordsworth and Shelley who waxed lyrical about larks, apparently not suiting his taste (O Fearless Dude!)- well, it has been a meaningful reading experience.

” A chestnut in noisy leaf”, left me stunned. ..” huge green sand turrets of topiary”, made me investigate assiduously. Then there was a bird cooing fatly somewhere… 477 pages of emollient loveliness. Truly soothing enchantment.

The Rivered Earth was my introduction to this writer unlike the normal route. How great is human potential, I reflect, on closing An Equal Music.

When we  tend to shrink into our own tiny  cubicles of  selfhood, it may be worth  while to explore the magnificence out there. Yes, there can be human beings whose days start and end with a musical instrument. There are those who spent whole lives creating paintings. Those who follow the light of words and sentences into higher vistas of experience. Those who may choose a different music altogether. Extending the metaphor- how many diverse paths of seeking knowledge exist!

Sighing that this reading adventure had ended, from amidst  the unread ones hoarded from an old book fair, I  pick up the autobiography of Joan Bakewell. Ahhh…the sixth paragraph in her prologue- here comes Vittore Carpaccio again. Venice’s great painter  had skipped  gently from An Equal Music into this one. Not a Maltesian dog to look on knowingly  by St.Agustine’s side, but it is The Dream of St Ursula instead.

I can only stare at the blue sky in reverence, at this small magic that has been displayed naughtily, as if to remind me of that Higher Divinity which empowers all our thoughts and dreams and music.

Lead thou me on…


Back to Books

When my little girl reports stoically that she is still at chapter six of the story book, I remember that it had been  chapter five, two weeks before.

“Amma, she is bored. She is plodding her way through. I had to threaten her with dire consequences- like no Hayday for two days, before she finished the previous book,” my elder one supplies her version generously.

In other words, little girl read slow or fast depending on whether she found the book boring or interesting. And since she had a habit of checking the ending first, it took a real smart writer to sustain her interest through multiple chapters. Harry Potter had been consumed at an alarmingly fast  pace,  her style startling me, until she reached the Order of the Phoenix. She  had frowned at about chapter five and then yawned very copiously.

“Don’t you dare, dare tell me  that you are bored!” My elder one had roared in Potteral, cough, visceral fan reaction to the  irreverent treatment to a series she knew almost by heart. My little girl yawned once more. She really knew how to make her argument heard.

Knowing the history, I look at her with eyes narrowed, trying to look intimidating. She pretends very hard to find something interesting in the sixth chapter. Neither of us are very convincing.

“She is mimicking diva behaviour, ma! We have to get her to finish what she starts,” says her sibling. I agree wholeheartedly. However, to get her to read again was my priority- without any coercion.

“There is a book which makes your uncle laugh aloud even now, when we discuss it… this book was also your grand father’s favourite when he was growing up.Would you like to read that?”

By evening she reports that she is at chapter six…of the new book. I grin. It is Swami and Friends by R.K.Narayan. Some books can never go wrong. Time tested through different family temperaments, it stays an eternal favourite. First published in London by Hamish Hamilton in 1935, this one has enchanted many in our family.

My little daughter smiles from behind the dog eared copy. She is reading fast.



Marquez and Butterflies in March…


Like many Malayalis, my introduction to world literature began with the weekly literary magazines in the mother tongue. M.Krishnan Nair’s Sahitya Varabhalam aka ‘Weekly predictions of literature’, a pun on the astrological  weekly chart,  introduced me to names like Umberto Eco, Fuentes, Toni Morrison and Marquez.

In an era when Internet was unknown and the foreign editions of literature in English/ translations cost high, here was an erudite professor, who purchased books and reviewed magazines ( Paris Review and TLS included) and in Malayalam, taught everyone from the fish seller to the auto driver to a school teacher and a college going girl, nuances of World literature through a weekly literary column. His pen was acerbic and acidic- often burning holes into the aspiring careers of budding writers; by comparing their novice like efforts to the effortless grace of an Eli Wiesel or of a brooding Virginia Woolf. “I lost my appetite after going through his short story…” Or something to that taste, would be his pithy take on some unfortunate  amateur writer.

Once in the capital of my home state, I remember standing dumbstruck in admiration, as this tall and charismatic critic in pristine white, slowly made his way to his favourite book seller. My father, one of the greatest readers I have ever seen in my life, commented: “Yes, it is he. Look at his dedication in reading the latest books of the world. But he sets too high a standard for our writers, sometimes…”

Bengali literature, Gujarati literature, Hindi literature- all travelled to Kerala homes through translations in Malayalam. We had many brilliant translators who brought Rajagopalachary , Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and AshaPoornaDebi alive to us, and this tradition started almost a hundred years ago. The first books released in Malayalam, were translations by foreigners, of books in Bengal and English as early as 1850s. The first Malayalam novel  that came out  in 1887, written by Appu Nedungady, called Kundalata was about the daughter of a Kalinga King. The  eponymous heroine of the next novel in Malayalam, Indulekha by Chandu Menon, was learned in both English and Sanskrit.

Anyway, these are asides. The vernacular magazine I spread out before me had an article on Marquez, as his ‘One hundred years of solitude’ reaches fifty years of enriching the world. There are unique photographs of Castro with Marquez,  of Carlos Fuentes with Marquez, of  Mario Vargas Llosa and Marquez with an interesting page dedicated to why Llosa hit Marquez! It is a translation of Paul Elie. It also shows the first cover of the Spanish original with the anecdotes of  the total number of cigars smoked during the writing of the classic. 30,000 , if you may like to believe it.

( Magical realism is coloured yellow like butterflies and cigarettes…)

On a warm March afternoon, leaning against my sofa, I indulge myself in the peccadilloes of Latin American publishing industry.  I read about Carmen Balcells, his Catalonian literary agent and a great woman known as ” La Mama Grande”… I am inspired by that story. As I smile at the photograph of the translator, Gregory Rabassa, the  Professor and translator of Marquez’s Classic, I am drawn again to another great life. How many spirits come together to spread the word of genius!  Apparently Marquez commented that Rabassa’s translation was greater than the Spanish original!!

I thank my parents who packed and sent the magazines in the North bound train along with red rice and papad and pickles. Love is translated as both food and books in my household. And I am the blessed one, undoubtedly. So much in this beautiful world- to learn, to appreciate and to be thankful about. First of all, my mother tongue.