That Ghost In The Cupboard

 

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Yet another suicide by a brilliant young man studying at a premier institute. I will no longer ask, why. Life has taught me enough to write the answer to that one. Because we are human. No animal would commit suicide.

At so many stages in life, at so many points of decision making, the dream of escaping it all easily appears: like a tantalizing mirage. If only, if only…It is that precise moment which one has to survive. Perhaps the faces of your loved ones will appear to caution against the decision. Or it could be a determined voice from within which stubbornly says: “I will not give up.” The survival instinct will definitely kick in, and one reaches for a way out. The instinct to destroy is unfortunately strong too; and it will resist that friend or help that is a call away.

One of the most ignored areas, at least in our country, is mental health. Depression, nervous disorders, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies- all are whitewashed into one heading: Needs Rest.

Some deny it actively, some mock at it aggressively, some escape into parties and alcohol, some become detached and cocooned, some pretend it is a ghost in the cupboard and occasionally face it in their privacy, and some kill themselves.

**

If there is anything which has helped me face different apparitions of intolerable pain (which sits within me and mocks that  I am better off dead at times), it has been a fierce determination to crawl out of darkness every time. I reach out for my quotes of Vivekananda and try to fill my mind with thoughts of power and service. Typically I visit Missionary sisters and try to talk to the poor and disabled that they serve so selflessly. When I see a five year old orphan child suffering from HIV, and who cheers up on getting a chocolate, I feel that my troubles are so pitiful and meaningless. Truly has Vivekananda said that the way out of your own troubles is to serve someone who suffers more than you. When “I ” become too much for me, I visit a hospital. By the time I return, the ” I ” is usually replaced by a sense of immense gratitude for the good health that I take for granted.

My mother often tells me that tears are a way to getting closer to Him. It shakes you out of whatever ennui and makes you go down on your knees, seeking help. And help has always, always, always come.

If I could tell something to the bright student sitting in some top institute, depressed and angry at himself and the world, it is this:

Stop thinking of yourself for the next half an hour. Get out as fast as you can from your room.  Go to the nearest hospital, or any place of pain and tears and helplessness. Please help by volunteering there: buy someone medicine, help a mother carry her sick child, read a prescription to an old man.  Visit an orphanage. By the time you return, my dear friend, you would have so much power within you that you will live for another day. Whether you choose to live that day well, will be a blessed option left to you.

The way out of your own apparently interminable darkness is the light you will be kindling in another unfortunate’s life. I do not know why it works every time, but it always works for me. Maybe by giving another a bit of your life energy, you have shooed off the ghost in the cupboard for yet another day. For the time being, it is a battle worth having won.

***

This Lovely Herbarium

‘Herbarium’ by Sonia Rafeeq, is a debut novel which has won the DC Literature Award in 2016. It depicts the relation between life and nature- like the amniotic fluid of a mother’s womb- through the story of a little boy who suddenly loses his mother. The child has grown up in Dubai and his mother, who loved the earth and mud, trees and insects, has always struggled to create an island of green on her Dubai flat’s balcony. Tipu’s Ummadu, is an earth woman: the one who breathes in and out the simplicity and depths of Mother Earth herself. But she is lost one day.

The child comes to his maternal home and discovers what is nature. From a life of playing with tablets and video games, he gets into  a world where a ‘chicken’ in KFC is actually a haughty rooster who pecks around worms in the sand. There is a grand Peepul tree- splendid in its canopy and width- reigning gracefully within a snake grove. And the child sees through wonder struck eyes a wriggling white worm which emerges from within a mango seed, as the ripe flesh is cut into pieces. Apparently, it has eaten up all the food meant for a baby mango sapling, in its greedy feasting adventures!

I am at page 63 of a 231 page novel. And it has been simply delicious till now! I could not resist writing a paen!

Extraordinary observations connecting human emotions with nature!

We have a phrase in Malayalam: Tottavady pole- like a Touch-Me- Not plant! It is used to describe very sensitive nature in human beings. Men and Women and Children, who cannot withstand any unexpected disturbances in life. It is a phrase which cautions – not to be like the touch me not plant which folds and shrinks up in terror when touched at random!

Tipu happens to glimpse a school senior- a teenager- jump to his death  from the flat because he has lost top marks in two subjects at school. He sees his mother- enraged and upset- to see that wasted life.

She mutters: ‘Why do children turn into Touch Me Not plants ?’

***

Trying to translate a stunning paragraph.

The notes left behind by Fatima, turned her into a stranger to Asif. He could not fathom her: he had not known her. Inside her had been an island which he could never reach. It was inaccessible by ships or aeroplanes. He was in a sojourn to reach that island by deciphering her notes….

One of Fatima’s Notes:

This cot too had been part of a tree at some point of time. A tree that was green and vital: its roots sunk deep into earth. Ah… trees, such enchanting symbols! They lay dead- in multiple formations- in our bed rooms and sitting rooms, carrying their own biers. If  one casts a glance at the kitchen, one can notice a bigger cemetery. If you open the refrigerator, you can see solid evidences of ruthless killing obscenely gloating at you: in the form of fish and goat and rooster. Then the dead seeds stocked in the bottles of the kitchen racks might shock- beans, mustard, pulses. There are more dead bodies in crushed forms too. A real graveyard. And I am the keeper of the graves.

****

Strong recommendation to pick up this green book. The author is a postgraduate in plant pathology and worked as an Agricultural Officer before shifting to Dubai.

Her dedication reads ( In translation)

To the earth that no longer emits fragrance,

To the dead trees,

To the rivers which have sunk deep,

And to children:

Who carry the gift of God’s imagination

To rebuild, re-create everything.

***

 

ChumaduTangi: Burden Bearer ( Poem Translation from Malayalam)

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Chumadutangi by Lakshmi Devi

( Translation from Malayalam)

The Burden Bearer:

Here, in front of the inn

Meant for wayfarers-

On this  Burden Bearer Stone,

Let me heave the bundle carried

By my weakening body till

Now.

The shoulder bone has

The greatest capacity to bear

Burden, it seems;

And Destiny again shoves

Unbearable weight onto

That today.

For a moment, I ponder

What it is that I carry, stumbling

Struggling onward,

Wrapped within the bundle.

Old sins, virtues

Or both equally divided?

Unknown it remains,

The Fate has filled up my bundle

For me to bear unquestiongly.

There is a bright lamp within,

The fragrance of camphor

As my dreams get enflamed,

The pains unabated, stirred deep

Leaving an oily drop beneath

The forbidden is inside, and the

Whiplashes for those mistakes

Committed unwittingly

The drops of tears which flowed

The red of a fresh wound

A Sun of a baby smile

The chirp of a bird, the breeze

In a shade so green…

I can no longer keep

My load on the stone

It is getting late.

Closing the inn’s door

The watchman too has

Hastened away.

The lonely road that stretches

Long, calls me quietly-

Walk on, until

You fall, losing

Your footing.

Darkness all around me-

Yet  I can listen  to those

Who are ahead of me:

‘ Move without fear!

Beyond the sooty darkness

Of this tunnel,

There might yet be light.’

***

In the olden days, Kings used to construct inns for wayfarers and also stones for bearing burdens. Without anyone’s help, the  heavy load on the villager’s shoulder could be heaved onto the heft of these stones.

Today, I watched again a classic  Malayalam movie called, Amritangamaya.

It is a line from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad…From death to eternal life ( Mrityoma Amritamgamaya).

In the movie,  one character was reiterating that the human shoulder bone is the strongest- designed to carry the Holy Cross of one’s life burden.

Flipping casually through an old vernacular magazine, I ended up opening the poem page where the sentence was repeated for me.

And then, I picked up a crayon, and a pen. These help in shouldering responsibilities with grace. Truly Burden bearers.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lord Loves Us Fools

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Some books create themselves. One just acts as a medium. It happened with Sundar Kanda. My publisher sent me a beautiful draft of the book today. It is an English interpretation of Tulsidasji’s Sundar Kanda.

I was trying to understand the beautiful lines of  Sundar Kanda- a much loved canto in Sree Ramcharit Manas of Goswami Tulsidasji. Every one of my colleagues seemed to know it by heart. My friend, a great Hanuman bhakt, typically started all her training sessions with Hanuman Chalisa- a forty line devotional eulogy by Tuslidasji . And one day, another friend told me that he found it difficult to understand the various nuances of Sundar Kanda, when his aged mother recited it during pujas.

I had no difficulties with the stories of Ramayana. I had grown up with them. The only question was, whether SreeRamcharit Manas would be accessible to my understanding. The Lord, I believe, has a great liking for fools like me. We rush in where angels fear to tread.

I remembered, a vernacular line on Krishna’s preference, often quoted by mother : Melpathoorinte vibhaktiye kaliha, Poonthanathin bhaktiyanennikishtam!( I prefer Poonthanam’s bhakti to Melpathoor’s vibhakti). 

The story is about Melpathoor Bhattathiry, who wrote the sanskrit classic Narayaneeyam during his prayer-penance for curing his rheumatism. He was staying at Guruvayoor temple in Kerala, acclaimed as the Mathura of the South. He was cured of his disease and praised by all for his exemplary mastery of the language.

Poonthanam Namboodiri, was a poor Krishna Bhakt, who wrote a vernacular paean to Lord Krishna called, ‘Jnanapana.’   So Poonthanam decided to get his text corrected by a scholar. He respectfully approached the learned Melpathoor. The sanskrit scholar condescended to speak to the poor amateur writer of vernacular. But there he stopped. He sniffed that he did not have the time to waste on vernacular writings.  Poor Poonthanam was heart broken at the contemptuous treatment of his labour of love.

That night, Melpathoor’s rheumatism returned with a vengeance. As he groaned in desperate pain, a laughing Krishna, cute and sweet in his Bal avatar, appeared in his dream and told him amidst much home truths : Melpathoorinte vibkatiye kaliha Poonthanathin bhaktiyanennikishtam. ‘Hey, Melpathoor- compared to your Sanskritic grammar and vibhakti pratyayam, I prefer Poonthanam’s devotion to me.’

( Note : I have often wondered whether this anecdote was the satirical rebuttal of the vernacular writer towards their condescending brethren who wrote in upper-class Sanskrit language! While there were poets who wrote in pure Sanskrit, taking pains with the severe rules of structure and syntax, they were also those who – like stringing  beads of mani and pravala in a string-combined words of malayalam and sanskrit like pearls and rubies, to create a mixed language of creation. Then there were those like Poonthanam who wrote in the simplest of Malayalam language.)

Melpathoor sent a word to Poonthanam (He could not move!) and apologised profusely. He corrected the draft and Poonthanam was gratified. Melpathoor’s rheumatism disappeared as subtly as it came-having laughed at the human pettiness of considering one language superior to another.

Anyway, fools like me gain confidence due to such anecdotes. Hanumanji was going to help me in this journey across the word-sea. He knew what a dunce I was when it came to Hindi grammar. How I mix up my ka and ki in every sentence.I guess, Hanumanji, that great bhakt of Sree Ramji- Lord Narayana himself- took pity on me. In fifty days, he helped me sail across Sundar Kanda and blessed me with a sudden official tour to Chitrakoot, where Tulsidasji wrote his master piece.

My relation with God is very personal. He is friend and philosopher and possesses an  irrepressible sense of humour. He does not scare me. He is my best friend. Also, I prefer that He remains He. Though I love Him being Her too. Somehow, growing up with a mother who would say, ‘ My Krishna’ while she bowed before Devi herself, set the basic infrastructure of my devotional growth. It is very fluid, my family’s version of bhakti. You just call. He answers.

I do not have a dedication page for this book. But in my heart, it is for that divinity who exists beyond any narrow human perspective of language or culture, colour or religon, creed or country. The One who just loves us.

Blessed Be! Jai Hanuman Ji!

***

Vatsala’s Brilliant Preface:Her Favourite Stories…continued

 

img_1830Preface…….continued

**

‘The stitching machine’ is  a story about my own stitching machine. It is not just a source: the whole narrative is about the different experiences that it has gifted me. I still use one. The predecessor was taken away by a trader last year. He forced the new one onto me. No woman can let go easily of an appliance that she has been using for a while. The fate of both a spoon with its  edge broken off or a dilapidated stitching machine is the same. The grief of the woman is very genuine in both the cases. It can be seen as the holy remnant of an old culture. It is not applicable to today’s throw away culture- because, nothing is allowed to reach the satiation point at all. Hence there will not be a story related to a modern day consumer good- of having touched a human heart.

There is a special episode behind the writing of ‘ Vidyadharan.’ Once DC Kizhekkemury had told me that the dirtiest place in the world was Kashi. The stain stayed in my mind till I reached there. Once I saw Kashi, my whole life perspective changed. On one evening, having seen enough of other sights, we rented a boat and went along with MahaGanga’s flow. Gangaji was resplendent : a sea which removed all the dirt of the world.The flow swallowed all the agonies and kept the river eternally pure. A school of fish played alongside the boat merrily; like toddlers in a playpen. They raced back and forth touching our boat. Then, as if that was not enough, came the floating corpse. It would have terrified me had I seen it so in my home state.

Here, it was different. First I thought that a trunk of aloewood -chopped down by someone- with four branches on its sides, was floating on the waters. Soon it came near and travelled along the boat, occasionally caressing it. The fishes played hide and seek through the ruptures on the face. They emerged as a procession at times. ‘Who was this faceless one in his just concluded birth?’From this thought came the story,  Vidyadharan.’

From that day, I  have been able to look at death with equanimity. It is a miracle. My first encounter with death had been at twenty six, when my grand mother passed away. That was a serene experience: granny’s ending was like the  natural snuffing out of a lighted lamp. Probably this incident was a part of the treasury of experiences that I relied upon while writing this story.

What we see by the light of the sun need not be the real sight. The insight gleaned by the experience of the inner eye- that would be the truth. I recognised that. That is all. Here, I am stopping.

Vatsala, 2007

 

Her Favourite Stories: (Translation of Vatsalaji’s Preface)

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Ente Priyappetta Kathakal: Preface to her favourite stories

Translated From Malayalam

***

When I admit that certain stories of mine are dear to me, it is akin to admitting that I love one child much more than the others -among my  own children. Among stories, each differs from the other in terms of ‘craft’.

Every story is the preface to the life experience it holds within. That is because the space inside a story is restrictive. That which is unsaid is more than what is said. Consequently, some readers query – whether the story actually ended with the end of narrative. The truth is that every story ends in the mind of the reader.

The writer is a creator only when the story is being told. It is similar to human life. The poor fellow moves forward with certain aims: but what happens finally is beyond his control. Neither his desires nor his wishes have much role to play in it. I believe in ‘reaping what one sows.’

My beloved stories are those which were written when the mind was at its creative peak. Certain coincidences were the deciding factors of such experiences.

Let me elucidate on the process of conception of certain stories. ‘Panguru’ is a flower. It is seen at the Karnataka border of Tirunelli.I have never seen it with my eyes. Yet, I know a forest-healer, who made me feel its living presence. He is a vaidyan ( healer ) by tradition. When I met him, he used to disappear into the forests- not simply to gather medicinal herbs, but because he had nothing better to do.

He arrived at my cottage by the forest side, after such a wild sojourn. Just to see me. One cannot expect such gestures of affection in today’s city life. That is why I banish myself into the forests occasionally.

The young healer had the gift of narrating tales. Typically they were about his facing the wild tuskers. All fancies. Randomly there would be a gleam of truth. Once he narrated about climbing the Panguru creeper- while escaping from an elephant. His story would usually stretch into a series of stories. The cost would be around two hours of my time.

The Panguru blooms in spring. The creeper- thick as a human hand- climbs the most magnificent of the trees around. It will ascend to the very top on its quest to touch the sun. There it will burst into blossoms. It resembles the flowers of a palmyra tree. In our culture, the palmyra tree flowers are symbolic of a yakshi’s tresses. ( yakshi: a gorgeous and lethal female spirit). From this spark , my story was born. From a phantasmagoric seed sprouted a phantasmagorical story. Many years later- while reading a Kannada story- I found out that the flower in my story was actually real.

**( To be continued)

The Meat Of The Moon : Madhavi Kutty ( Story Translation From Malayalam)

Chandrante Irrachi ( The Meat of the Moon): Madhavi Kutty,1969

**

Her lover continued to sleep even when it turned eleven in the night. She felt no inclination to wake him up and send him to his home. Whenever he removed his glasses, the natural intensity of his face seemed to diminish. As he slept, she noticed the loneliness of a little boy on his face. A lost soul- no, a soul who had forgotten the way-a lonely little boy, was  tied inside the forest of mortality in that  aging body. She knew that she was deeply in love with him: the one who had witnessed his father’s death, the one who used to go to school in a bullock cart- wearing a sailor’s costume.

Outside that house- situated on the outskirts of the town- the rain was pouring down heavily. Through the ventilators, a breeze from yonder- crossing  the thorny plants and trees on a hillside-entered the room, moaning like a wounded creature.

‘Beloved,’ she called bending low, ‘ It is past eleven- should you  not be getting up?’

He woke up startled: with a wide eyed gaze. ‘ Eleven? Why didn’t you wake me up earlier?’

‘Don’t go tonight. Stay with me,’ she said.

He got up and wearily sat down at the edge of the cot.

‘I am so groggy. How will I drive all that distance?’

Gazing at his body- gleaming like a flame in the light- she gently closed her eyes. Her heart sang: ‘Your body has reached my pyre- no, bed-carrying its secret destiny…I cannot escape now, Your body is like a golden harvest of  ripe grains. It has been created from the meat of the full moon…’

‘Now it will be past midnight when I reach home. What excuse shall I give today?’ He asked her.

‘Why don’t you stay the night with me? Won’t you give me one night?’ She asked him.

‘You know very well that it is impossible. I cannot act so irresponsibly.’ He said.

Seated on the stool before the mirror, he wore his socks. Tied  the laces of his shoes. His hair- a mix of steel and black  curls- reflected on the mirror.

‘Don’t you feel any obligation toward me?’ She asked.’ I am your kept woman, your slave: do you feel no obligation towards this unfortunate woman?’

‘I love you,’ he said mechanically, ‘ I love you even when you tell me about your colleague. I will love you even if you marry him. You know that very well.’

‘What is the cost of such a love?’ She asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied.

‘Shall I marry him? Shall I become his wife with your permission? Tell me, do you have no objection at all?’

‘Why should I stop it?’ He asked,’I am a man who is aging fast. A married man. He is young and handsome.Your colleague. I do not think that you will stop even if I were to object.’

He moved towards the door, while she lay on the bed.

She called out to him: ‘ I will give him an answer tomorrow itself. I am greatly relieved that you have no issues with it.I will have to stop seeing you. But eventually I shall forget that pain. My dear, you are so compassionate.’

‘I will see you next week. Call me tomorrow afternoon,’ he said.

At the  sound of  the door banging  shut, she felt that she had been shattered to bits. She was a woman, she was a fragile piece of  glass. She felt that every tiny shard of glass wanted to hurt her, make her bleed..

She picked up the phone from the table, and woke up the young man who was in love with her. ‘Hello’, he said: ‘ Hello!’

‘Hello’

‘Who is it? Mini, you?’ He asked.’ How come you are awake at this time?’

‘ Today, you asked me if I wanted to be your wife. I thought I will give you an answer now. That is all.’

‘What is the answer?’

‘ It is not possible.’ Putting the phone back into its cradle, she snuggled under the covers and closed her eyes.

She was convinced that for her- who was accustomed to the arms of a man who was successful in all aspects of life-there was no satisfaction  to be gained from  marrying  an ordinary man.

**

Note: For the sheer power of the narrative from the other woman’s perspective: not a whiny, complaining tone, mind you- but  that of a woman in control of her destiny- I found this gem of a short story written by Madhavi Kutty in 1969, an iconic piece of feminist writing.

It was when I read Telugu writer Volga’s interview ( She won the  Kendra Sahitya Academy award in 2016 for her book Vimukta:  Translated as The Liberation of Sita, Harper Collins )that I realised  again that the mind’s freedom to question  everything was the greatest gift of existence.

She mentioned about a classic Telugu short story by a famous writer in early 1920s when Sita jumped into Ravan’s pyre instead of stepping into the Agni Pareeksha.  She was speaking of how intolerance has increased in society nowadays, since Vimukta- a series of stories showcasing Sita’s bonding with Mandodari, Soorpanakha, Ahalya et al..was pilloried by some.

Inexplicably, another memory came: Of reading that great short story , ‘Sunstroke’ by Ivan Bunin. Perhaps it was the nonchalance of the women in both  stories which bemused me.

And then, I could not resist translating this gem!

😁