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.

***

 

Standing And Wondering

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None of us are perfect. In fact, we are so full of faults that earthquakes can map their fault-lines through our avaricious hearts and minds. The hollowness in our lives, at times, are attractive for vagrant thoughts and desires. It is there that a book makes its mark- by filling the void with its beauty.

I loved reading Subhash Chandran’s book, ” Manushyanu Oru Amukham.” I wished that he had not ended it at all. I wanted to read more about all the great souls who had walked on my mother land: with their ideals, humane vision, lofty thoughts, unselfish hearts, loving selves , with light shining brightly within them. The character I liked most was Govindan, the quiet and erudite son of the obnoxious Narapillai. In every sentence that describes him, the author has used his most lovely colours : pleasing, charming, enchanting. Brush strokes of simplicity, wisdom, selflessness, love of learning, kindness, and vision.

When Govindan Master gently rebukes his nephew Jiten on his monkey like mimicry of other human beings- by pointing out that certain past times weaken the human soul, I stopped breathing. Like Jiten, I too wondered on what the purpose of human life was : if a human being just lived to be born, eat, excrete, mate, procreate and die-like the lice in one’s hair, or the dog on the street or a leech on the cow. Of course, doing it all with more pettiness, more arrogance, more show, more evil, more vanity! Do we have the dream in us to leave a light for the world somewhere in our limited journeys?

Like Jiten, I too stared aghast at the shocking sentence written on the blackboard :  (my translation) “Man is the only living creature that dies before reaching his full growth.”

I wish more people would read this gorgeous book. This quintessential bildungsroman is available in both Malayalam and English.( A preface to man, published by Harper Collins, India). It will jolt you awake of your stupor. It will charm you with its raw energy. It will humble you with its beauty.

The author, in his post script, writes about the incident which led him to rewrite the scene of Narapillai’s drowned body being recovered. He had never witnessed the dredging of a corpse from beneath a deep lake ever. In a rural setting, he had no idea of what tools would be used for such a horrendous task. Even as the publication date approached for that chapter, he found himself on a serendipitous journey near a river to meet old pals. The bespectacled young man who pointed out his gang waiting for him by the side of the river, seemed unassuming. In a matter of minutes, the author and his friends found themselves being approached by a panicked friend of the path-shower. The young man had  gone in for a swim and had not emerged. He had drowned. They jumped into the water and searched relentlessly for his body. They were unsuccessful. And then they witnessed how a dead body caught in the clayey soil of the unforgiving river gets retrieved. A veteran diver and corpse retriever arrived- and using a pole used for rowing, he brought up the dead body. The toes were frozen-bleached white. Subhash Chandran writes that he was dazed in pain: to have met the young man just to get the  answer from the river- how do you describe the dredging of a corpse?

None of us are strangers to serendipity. Except those of us who are blind from within. If you refuse to acknowledge what you see, the scene passes on with a vacant smile. If you stand and stare, like Keats’ naughty boy, you have lots to wonder at. For a very long time. Whether you stand in your shoes or barefoot.

Inspite of all the petty Narapillais of the world who hold on to their prejudices and evils, who will mock you for being true to your own inner light, the need is to persist on your own path. Who knows, someone might feel their darkness removed by a small flicker from the lamp of your existence.

***

Walking By The Village On A Rainy Day…P.V.Shaji Kumar’s Memoirs

This book- Itha Innu Muthal, Itha Innale Vare- was thrust into my hand by the manager of the bookstall. ‘You will enjoy it Madam. It is written very well,’ He said.  My reading habits are erratic like the monsoons of my birth land. Sometimes, it is furious in its intensity. Sometimes, it is serene as a twilight rain which will smile at one and disappear. Most times, it is just there. I encountered this book in the furious reading phase.

If the hall mark of a good writer is that he or she forces a reader to sit and read, this book is a winner. The writer P.V. Shaji Kumar is a software engineer by training and a lover of literature and movies by passion; and he  writes extremely well. In fact, I felt no wonder that he has already won a series of the most coveted awards in  Malayalam literature at this young age.

Many memories are related to  the writer’s childhood in Kasargode. The language has the vibrancy and authenticity of a true native. There are palpable memories about being a  rather ignored goalie  in his childhood  and from a light mood, a sudden turn into sobriety with an analysis of the Nazi atrocities on footballers in their concentration camps. There are reflections on phantasmagoric imageries of his childhood where he saw a dead girl enjoying a savoury dish of jackfruit curry in a dream sequence, on trains and the melancholy of journeys in those, on his story teller grand aunt who  spun the most magnificent horror stories and ended up killing herself in depression, on reading the Russian children’s classic in  Malayalam translation : When Daddy Was   A Little Boy by Alexander Raskin and on getting to know of Mayakovsky, Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe from that little gem,  and love notes on his own  land Kalichampothy…

I related best to the frustration of doing computers when the heart was elsewhere. The writer narrates a suicidal point when the worthlessness he felt on facing an examination for which he had no natural aptitude drove him to the brink of ending it all. It was a sudden rain which danced around him that inspired him to live another day.I was left wondering on the young man who came back from death multiple times. Once, after losing his friend, he  had tried to jump down from a  moving train . As if his deceased best friend stopped his death,  he found himself narrowly escaping  the train wheels.

The language, the ethos, the words,  and the memories are so original and refreshing. In my next round of greedy reading, which is  usually abetted by a visit to my own state, I will surely be picking up more of his works.

****

‘ He chatted with me until the darkness around  felt sleepy. There was a pathway into him, which was accessible to any human. This man will exist forever because of his love and care, I found myself thinking…’ ( Who will complete the story of a Man who failed in his life?)

‘The wind was everywhere- in the classrooms, in the canteen, on the rocks, on the paths…it never abated. Like a frustrated lover, it could not sit still and wandered around. When I reached the campus, I was like a leaf in the wind. ‘( The Wind Blows Still)

A bald head rose up from the shrubs, taking the photograph of the sun… He touched my arm. It made a bracelet of water on mine.

( The Frog)

Kalichampothy refers to the land of Kalichan trees. The leaves are huge, and it shivers around like an intoxicated person, this lonesome tree. ( Kalichampothy)

In her eyes sad clouds started camping. Her memories  pierced into a silent darkness….It was known to the villagers that when you have nothing to do, memories start hunting you like a fox  emerging out of his den.( Enaru)

**

The small public libraries ( called vayanasalas- literally reading rooms) that were found in every nook and corner of Kerala villages  had world classics in innumerable languages translated into Malayalam. That luscious reading culture in India’s most literate state  has created many writers and readers.  There isn’t a  vernacular writer who has not enjoyed Marquez’s Macondo and its rain in  his or her mother tongue.The return of the native- in all writing glory- is a tale worth Thomas Hardy himself.

**

The title is replete with puns which only a true born Malayali gets to enjoy! Now the translator stands stunned as to resolve the conundrum. Perhaps a footnote cannot do justice! It puns on a cult movie title, with wordplay on the present and past. (Perhaps it  also hints at a funny scene in yet another movie my brain snarkily comments.)

‘Here, From Today; Here, Till Yesterday’ seems too weak a translation. Yet here it is😁