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.

***

 

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A Preface To Man: Manushyanu Oru Amukham, Subhash Chandran

I am at Page 155 of a 407 page best seller in Malayalam called ‘ Manushyanu Oru Amukham’ . This book has won the Kendra Sahitya Academy award along with scores of other awards. It has been translated into English by Dr E V Fatima and published by Harper Collins, India as ‘ A Preface To Man’.

The story of a few generations of a family, along with those of related social and cultural milieu, and sharp political observations: this narrative structure has been used by many brilliant writers across the world. Marquez and his One hundred years of solitude is often a favourite reference point in such a case.  How the Kerala cultural ethos changed- influenced by stalwarts in  political, intellectual and spiritual arenas-along with the clear repercussions in the lives of the many members of the Ayyattimbilly household, of the Thachannakara village, forms the binding thread of this grand novel.

The thoughts that had powered the best men and women to become  great human beings and responsible citizens, are revealed in different pages. We meet Kuttipuzha KrishnaPillai, the communist leader and poet, as a warm and unassuming guest in a chapter, who with piercing wit handles the venomous prejudice of a petty mind. The reader is forced to reflect on how various forms of prejudice continue as eternal monsters in society. They might change shapes and hues, but the underlying devils are the same. Intolerance and ignorance. Closed eyes and closed mind. Arrogance and Self centerdness. Lack of compassion and greed for power. And a way of encouraging life styles which give birth to many living dead.

In the first few chapters, we find that the protagonist Jitendran is dead. It is through snippets of his letters ( when he was a young man who thought for himself) to his loved woman, that the chapters unveil themselves. One striking paragraph which I liked earlier on went like this ( my translation:)

‘The first half of his life was one in which he ardently believed in something within: that would impart light to those coexisting with him in the world. That belief had been nurtured by certain assumptions built in his childhood about human greatness. However, unable to find a  conducive medium for that light to express itself, his inner self had been set aflame in that period.

The second half was rather simpler in nature. The job he had habitually done-in  utter disregard for misspending one’s human life- with the facade of an inappropriate severity, a marriage and marital relationship which started with debts and continued in debts, the shifting of a few houses with household materials stuffed into a mini lorry, the partitions of  anscestral property which caused much  mutual hatred between brethren and made God laugh, a few extramarital affairs  he indulged in -which had nothing to do with physical pleasure- for the exclusive and ineffable thrill of  committing a secret sin, a few bursts of hearty laughter hither and tither, a few pains extended in the form of gifts by friends and relatives, a few accusations and wrong doings-neither of  which had  any circumstantial excuses, the tonnes of medicines he swallowed for curing those diseases which would have healed by themselves, the boring scenes which occurred twice or thrice in a life time when it became imperative to  pretend that one was acting responsibly…’

**

I am at the chapter which says – ( in translation) ‘A petty man never lets go of an opportunity to showcase his inherent pettiness.’

‘Chetta’ in Malayalam has many connotations: a small hut,  a person of obnoxious meanness, a man or woman possessing aggravating pettiness….

I laughed out loud on realising the absolute truth of that statement. Oh Lord, how many times, how many times….one has witnessed that!!!

However, the author suddenly pulls the mat from under your feet. He makes you reflect on the etymology of the word and whom you are  actually rendering unworthy in the process of thoughtlessly using such words.

Beautiful book. I am so happy to have another 250 odd pages to relish!

**

Searching For A Shore: Tat Ki Khoj By HariShankar Parsayi

Tat Ki Khoj-(Searching For A Shore) is a slim novel by Hindi’s renowned writer and satirist Harishankar Parsayi. Written originally in 1998, it has been reprinted many times.  The theme it explores, of a woman’s place in society, is as relevant today as it was in 1998.

Sheela is a brilliant, motherless college student. Her poor, honest government pensioner father is distraught at his lack of wealth which makes it impossible for him to give dowry for his daughter’s wedding- which consequently becomes an unfulfilled dream. Meanwhile a supposedly progressive young lecturer called Mahendranath makes his interest known to Sheela. But a strange quirk of fate exposes his inherent cowardice before a hypocritical society- the one which considers a woman’s virtue to be a  fragile glass plate that can shatter at the mere presence of a man. Shocked by the turn of events, Sheela finds  that her god has clay feet.

The latter half of the story is  about the temporary  emotional shelter the innocent girl obtains from her friend Vimala and her brother Manoharlal. The arrows of prejudice against an orphan girl whose chastity has once been questioned, prove too bitter  a venom for the rest of  Manohar’s family. Finally, Sheela leaves in search of a dignified life- where she wants to be her own person, without being dependent on any other.

The story line by itself is simple: but the  sly sentences that the satirist par excellence weaves in his narrative can excoriate the false ego and hypocrisy of every one of us.

What is the status of a ‘tainted woman?’ Even if she is totally innocent, why do we revictimise a victim? Why is it always her fault? How come the man gets away scot free? Is wealth the only solution  for removing a woman’s agonies- by purchasing  a husband, by buying the comforts of a respectable life, by buying silence from a rabid society?  Why is the girl objectified and paraded before prospective grooms who get to balance her on the scales of their greed? Why do values, which people write about and shout about heroically, become very hard to practise when the time demands it? When a woman decides not to commit suicide  in utter desperation and instead chooses to live with dignity, should we not be applauding her?

Let me translate a few striking observations of Parsayiji.

“Ve sab log haath mein taraju liye the, jiske ek palve par bete ko rakhe the/ Mucche, mere samast vidya,buddhi aur saundarya ke saath doosre palve par rakhkar dekhte,to har baar mera hi palva halka pathe/”

All those people had in their hands a balance: on one of the scales they would  have their son seated  and on the other- me with with all my education, intelligence and beauty. However, every time my scale would be the  one lighter in weight.

“Main jaanti thi Ki yeh photo maal Ke namune Ki tarah kisi vyapari Ke paas beji javegy/parantu doosry or se kabhi chitra nahi aaya, kyonki kharidar hi maal Ki parakh karta hain; maal kharidgar ko nahin dekhta/streepurushon ke sambadom mein yehi darsan sab jagah charitarth hota hai”

I knew that this photograph ( of mine) would be sent to some buyer like the sample of a good on sale.But never did any photograph come from the boy’s side- after all it is always the buyer who gets to see the good, not the other way round. In every place, this view about male and female relationships remains in vogue.

“Kabhi kabhi prem ki apeksha khrina ka sambandh adhik majboot hota hai…lagta hain, khrina aur prem mein koyi visesh andar nahin hai”

Sometimes, compared to relationships based on love, those based on hatred seemed stronger…I feel that there is not much difference between hatred and love…

“Kyonki purush ko yeh sochkar bada garv hota hai ki naari ne uske prem mein atmahatya kar li…”

Because a man feels great pride in the fact that a woman committed suicide because of her love for him….

***

I can only shake my head in wonder at this iconoclastic writer’s penetrating observations and  their scorching truth.

Maybe I will conclude by translating the author’s foreword for the latest edition.

Foreword: By Harishankar Parsayi

I still find it hard to understand about how I ended up writing ‘Tat Ki Khoj’, all those years before. This is a story which can be called a novella. My poet pal had narrated the original story to me. He was extremely emotional. My age was also that of being drenched in emotions. I was also a romantic. Logic was not my strength then. At that time I had been asked to contribute  something for the Deepawali special of ‘ Amrit Prabhat’. I was in a hurry. The incident that my friend had shared with me was still troubling my mind. My sensitivities were aligned to the girl in that story. I stayed up for two nights consecutively and finished writing this story.

After writing it, I felt regret. When it was published, I regretted more. Now that it is getting republished by Vani Prakashan, I am still regretting it. I can no longer face this creation of mine. One third of my creations are such that I find myself petrified on facing them. Anyway, I am giving the go ahead for the republication of ‘ Tat Ki Khoj.’

****

Netronmeelanam by K .R. Meera : A Note

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“Netronmeelanam,” is a tough title for even those who understand Malayalam well. Poetic, having imageries of both eyes and a sort of merging,  the word with probable Sanskritic etymology, means the art of drawing eyes, in an environment of soulfulness, onto  murals, paintings or sculptures. Every artist worth her pencil would know that it is  a sacred act – the eyes will be the one to be drawn at  the very last. If they see well, you have caught the spirit truly.

Verily it is said in the Holy Bible: ” The eye is the lamp of the body. So then, if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light that is in you is darkness, how great the darkness..”

K.R. Meera’s novel, ” Netronmeelanam”, is like a black and white movie. It plays with blindness and sight, perspective and lack of it, losing eye sight literally, metaphorically, regaining an outlook, changing a way of looking. The novel , if you draw an analogy to a human being, looks deep inside, outside, sideways, closes its eyes and opens them wide.

The writer plays with light in almost all sentences, including the names of her characters:Deepti, Jyoti, Rajani, Prakashan, Shyaman, Abha, Suraj,  Suprabha, Chandramohan, Shivsubramaniya Rao ( I imagined the third eye  of Shiva and the birth of Kartikeya)- there is a smattering of light and dark every where.

The love story is  as complex as an Orhan Pamuk story of obsession; for what is lost forever. This museum of innocence is filled with images of a pregnant Deepti who vanishes inexplicably one night. Everywhere you turn, you encounter her light; ironically not unlike  that of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca- that sinister presence all across Manderlay. Rejany, dark with long plait that resembles a snake, is the living , breathing, passionate woman who falls in love with the blind hero. Unfortunately, he does not have the inner eye to see her light. Some people, Prakashan epitomising that characteristic, are always doomed to thirst for what is lost and will not value those who are present in flesh and blood. The father’s story, the brilliant wordplay notwithstanding, seemed slightly contrived to me. Still, Meera’s love affair with Bengal shows the spark from within this work too.

There were too many jumps onto poetic imagination. Shyaman finding love serendipitously, the story of Jyoti’s Netronmeelanam, the mad woman in the redemption saga, hmmm, I was left a little dissatisfied. Two stories flashed in my mind, in between: somewhere in the past I had read Mukundan’s tale about a corporate top shot,abnegating it all, and choosing to toil as a farmer in some hinterlands. Jyoti’s life and its exaggerated loving simplicity, reminded me of that one. And disturbingly came the memory of that classic  vernacular short story, ( I forget the title )of a father and son returning to the paternal home after the mother committed suicide. What was the name? It tantalises me with its unreachability. Maybe it was Chandramohan’s story that triggered that particular brooding.

Meera’s incomparable  gift  for wordplay and imageries shocks and delights equally:

” The woman tasted of rust.”pg.20

” Beyond the skyscrapers, an ugly cloud afraid of the night, got ready to commit suicide on the branch of the sunset.” Pg 28

“Along the pathway by the side of the canal, to deceive the sightless, the jasmine flower clad night, lay down, her hair loose.” Pg 34

” They found each other like bats, using sound..” Pg 41

” He could see the image of the tree, covered in a black gown, hanging on the sky..”pg 65

I admire the deeply intelligent writing as much as her scintillating prose.

Yes, more of her works are coming my way this week, hopefully.

Let me sketch a face now. I have  to try that sacred ritual- Netronmeelanam…

******