Shadow and Light

In Kerala folk versions of Mahabharata, there is one which has the story of ” shadow kill” or Nizhalkutthu. Duryodhan hires a hunter who  dabbles with black magic  and asks him to kill off the Pandavas by performing Nizhalkutthu. Literally, it means, stabbing the shadows dead- leading to the death of the living bodies. Something like a shadowy voodoo ritual. The hunter returns home victorious, with many gifts from the King,  telling his wife that he killed off five fledglings of a bird using black magic. She  understands that the Pandavas are dead; and is outraged by his evil. Then, to show him what it really means to lose an off spring,  she kills their son in front of him.

The famed film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan made a movie by the same name, Nizhalkutthu, based on the story of the last hangman of Travancore. The symbolic meaning of the original story, was carried on in the film, about meaningless killings- whether done as part of duty or to teach a lesson.

In the original Nizhalkutthu Attakatha, based on which Kathakali is performed, Lord Krishna gives life to the dead Pandavas and also to the dead son of the hunter. All is well, and of course, innocents do not die in a meaningless manner. The viewer is happy and hopefully has reflected on the way,  human talents are wasted in unethical ways for the sake of earning the King’s favours. Perhaps, he or she also reflected on the impulsiveness of human nature and how ‘an eye for an eye ‘ philosophy of the huntress, left everyone blind.

In Sundarakanda of  Sri Ramcharitmanas by Goswami Tulsidasji,  is the description of the Shadow-Catcher! She is a demon, who lives in the oceans and catches the shadows of everything that flies in the sky. She pulls the shadows that are reflected on the water .  All which  once flew in the sky, fall down into her clutches. She proceeds to eat them. Well, she meets her match in Hanumanji, whose shadow she catches.He sees through her evil, kills her and proceeds to Lanka.

” Nisichary ek sindhu mahu rahai/ Kari maya nabhu ke kha gahaye

Jeevi janthu je  gaganchar udahy/ Jal biloki tinh hai parichahy

Gahai chah sak soh na udai/Ehi bidhi Saha gaganchar khayi

Soyi chal Hanuman kah kinha/ Tasu kapadu kapi turanthuhu chinha”

I am intrigued by the  similiar tale from  Mahabharatha of  the South and  Ramayana of  the North. Shadow Catchers and Shadow Stabbers are so common in society. They specialise in destroying high spirited beings through manipulation and games behind their backs. Gossip, petty talk, conspiracy, plain evil lead to many deaths- symbolic and real.

Did the great writers, want us to ruminate on Soul Catchers and Soul Stabbers of the mortal kind? After all, to destroy one’s spirit is an equal form of murder.

Like Lord Krishna who gave life back to the innocent victims, it is time perhaps to wonder on whether we contribute to killing off spirits of people who are near us or whether we give life and energy to others through our words and efforts. And whether we have the spirit to call a shadow catcher in the sea/ rye/ nearby -by the name and stop his or her nefarious functioning like Hanumanji himself.


A Rebel Seeks The Truth


The scholar stared at the lines, again and again. It did not make sense to him- at least , not in the context of the presentation.

Here was Sage Markendeya, laughing and speaking, “Nese Balasyethy Chareda Dharmam,” to a set of bewildered Pandavas, languishing in the forests of self created oblivion.

The typical Sanskrit reading was, “Balasya Ise Ithy Adharmam na Charel,” which said, ” Even when you have strength in your side, do not do Adharma”.

But the examples Markendeya quoted, of an elephant listening to his mahout forgetting his own prowess, of the great Ram banished to the forests, of the seven Rishis shining as stars in the sky,of Bhagiratha who fought fates to bring Ganga to the earth…did not resonate with the conventional putting together of words. Besides, the Sage was laughing when he said it. Anything which is accompanied by laughter has to have a deeper secret within.

The night lamp burnt as Kutti Krishna Marar stared at the words again.

Can it not be interpreted as, “Accepting one’s fate like a weakling is against the Dharma. The fighting of fate with all of one’s strength is Dharma?’ Yudhistir had lost the kingdom to  his human weakness of gambling.

Could it not be read as, “Whatever is your justification,you have no sense of your own power and worth, and hence whatever you have done is not Dharma.”

There was Sage Markendeya himself, who rebelled against his destined death at the age of sixteen and won back life! Would he laugh and advise, a submissive living?

Did not Bhishma advise Yudhistir, “Adharmo hi mridu raja kshmavaniva kunjarah?”

(A soft king is as useless as a patient elephant?)

Have not people, across countries and ages, quoted something equivalent to “Nese balasyety chareda dharmam”, (” Oh I am so weak and helpless to fight the fates” )and moved back from doing their real work in the world, hesitated in taking the reins of their own destiny in their hands and justified it to a hundred stupid reasons?

Sage Markendeya’s laughter spreads over all such self imposed frailties, weaknesses, self proclaimed helplessness that does not recognise self worth and the power of one’s own effort!

Has not Vivekananda written about Yudhistir as someone who justified in the name of dharma and goodness, a lot of evil deeds triggered by a helpless approach to life? Someone who chose not to act, in the name of Dharma, at the time when action was most necessary?

The scholar went to his friend who was ecstatic at the interpretation..”Yes, whatever you do with a sense of helplessness, saying to yourself that you are powerless, is Adharma.”

“This is a call for action, for taking control of one’s own destiny, not a justification to bow down before the fates.”

The scholar started writing…a new chapter called, ‘Nese Balsyety Chareda Dharmam,’ in his book, ‘Bharata Paryadana,’ . A Sojourn through Mahabharata- a compilation of incisively brilliant essays.

The interpretation created waves of protest, with special meetings to debate on the play of words and context, but his head remained high. He elaborated the chapter more with the next edition of his classic.


The poem “Invictus” of Henley, epitomises the shloka in Mahabharatha. Every human endeavour, to excel, to create, to design one’s own destiny is an act of Dharma. When we bow down, meek and helpless, and then justify our defeated lives with quotes and interpretations, Sage Markendeya laughs from somewhere…Nese Balsyety….


With gratitude to my brother, who let me borrow his beloved Bharata Paryadana. The sketch of Krishna, exhorting Arjuna to act, is out of context, yet well within the spirit.I loved copying it from one the illustrations by my favourite artist Namboodiry, dotted across enchantingly, in this little treasure trove of a book.

Beauty Rising…

Picture 054

The most inspiring people I have ever known, have been very simple and focused souls. There was that nun in a off-brownish sari; who got into the first train to an extremely cold border area. It had been rocked by a devastating earthquake.

” So, I was stepping into the train and someone asked me whether I had packed a sweater and a proper pair of shoes. I had not! It did not matter to me,” she said,” I just wanted to reach there and help.”

And help, she did. Trekking across the hilly terrains, she and her colleagues discovered many injured and dead, and literally heaved off heavy broken pieces of wood and iron to pull out people from beneath.

” And in one of the huts, was a cry from a baby- in the last moment, seeing the roof collapse, the mother had instinctively turned her body over the baby’s- protecting him. She was dead and he was alive , beneath her. I will never forget that scene,” she told me, eyes wet with tears.

I could just catch hold of her hands in awe!

Then there is the young woman who runs a beauty parlour. She is a single mother of two sons and also works as an anganwadi worker.

” I wake up at five every morning. House work done, kids sent off to school, I attend to my work at the anganwadi taking care of my duties. On returning, there is the parlour work where I also train girls at a discounted fee , art and craft classes that I give, jewellery making and instrumental music classes. I do not have a minute to waste,” she laughed, ” I sleep like a log.”

I looked at the award that she received the previous month, for exemplary work.

A  vernacular story from a retelling of the Mahabharatha, which I had read some time ago, rekindled in my mind.

Bhima and Duryodhana, in a never ending competition about their individual strength wanted to know who was the strongest! They were advised to ask a woman who was walking at a great stride ahead of them.

She had a basket of food balanced on her head, a small baby on her hips, another clinging to her sari and she carried some vessels too.

Her pace was so fast that the princes struggled to keep up with her.

They only managed to gasp, and could not find the energy to raise their doubt.

By that time, she had reached the farmlands where her partner was toiling in the hot sun with the bullocks and plough. After she had served food, she cut grass for the bullocks, fed the kids, cleaned the vessels and started back for home to prepare for the evening chores.

The princes who were watching, again followed her.

When they , albeit shamefacedly this time, asked her for a solution to their question, the woman replied thus:

” I will carry you in my arms since I have not a minute to waste and I will answer your questions as I walk. What was the question about?”

End of story.

I will end by quoting Dr.Clarissa Pinkola Estes on the spirit of such wonderful souls.

” She is ideas, feelings, urges, and memory. She has been lost and half forgotten for a long, long time. She is the source, the light, the night, the dark, and day break. She is the smell of good mud and the back leg of a fox. The birds which tell us secrets belong to her. She is the voice that says, ‘this way, this way’…”