Reading the Bard( For Home truths)

Literature is truly healing. There is something for everything you might feel or want to say!

Referring to Julius Caesar:) Selected Excerpts for Self Inspiration…

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CASSIUS
Brutus, this sober form of yours hides wrongs.
And when you do them-

BRUTUS
Cassius, be content.
Speak your griefs softly. I do know you well.
Before the eyes of both our armies here,
Which should perceive nothing but love from us,
Let us not wrangle. Bid them move away.
Then in my tent, Cassius, enlarge your griefs,
And I will give you audience

BRUTUS
Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself
Are much condemned to have an itching palm,
To sell and mart your offices for gold
To undeservers.

Hear me, for I will speak.
Must I give way and room to your rash choler?
Shall I be frighted when a madman stares?
You have done that you should be sorry for.
There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats,
For I am armed so strong in honesty
That they pass by me as the idle wind…

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Ah, the wisdom of the Bard!

Parallel Worlds

pride-prejudice-title-page

My elder one smirks when Mr Bennet comments on how Elizabeth Bennet will risk losing one parent whether she chose to marry or deny Mr.Collins, and  she shakes her head disbelievingly when Darcy declares that he had chosen Elizabeth against his better judgement (Really, as in really?) I grin to myself : that feeling of having a sensitive companion is ineffable. Considering that till a month before she thought “Pride and Prejudice” was “amma material”, it was a welcome change!

“Not bad, eh?” she comments after we watch all possible versions of Jane Austen’s classic as available in you-tube. Only the little girl is annoyed at why we laugh at certain places, because she does not find anything funny. I tell her that though many of her unwittingly rendered remarks are ironic by nature, her brain is  technically not developed enough to appreciate subtle irony. She snorts in response. Even Lydia could not have rendered the expression better.

“I thought you knew only boring stuff…” my daughter says, as I grin. “Try watching Jane Eyre now and revisit the book,” I opine.

Ahh, if you start me on classics my girl, we will show you that marvels exist not only in cosmos but on dear old Earth. “Sometimes it is necessary to read stuff totally unconnected with your major area of interest,” I suggest quietly.

“Yeah, amma, you try reading Roger Penrose for a change. You read too many short stories.”

I search for Anatole France’s classic short story, “The Procurator of Judea” and read the ending aloud: Pontius Pilate contracted his brows, and his hand rose to his forehead in the attitude of one who probes the deeps of memory. Then after a silence of some seconds: “Jesus?” he murmured, “Jesus—of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.”

My daughter raises a quizzical eyebrow. Then she says, ‘Wow!Cool!’

Indeed. And about time too. And she has not even started Faulkner.

“There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt  of in your philosophy

Old amma scores this time.

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Because he loved a flower without any reason… (Prabha Verma, Translation From Malayalam)

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The poem in my mother tongue had an acknowledgement:

“This poem has been inspired by  the feelings evoked on seeing the painting by Henry Siemiradzki ; in which he depicts an incident from the life of  Emperor Alexander.”

What a joy! The poem and the search for the origin of the gorgeous painting! From various sources available freely online, I ended up discovering that Alexander the Great had caught a severe fever during an expedition in Cilicia, in 333 B.C.,by bathing in the river Cydnus. Philip of Acarnania was his royal physician, who prepared a medicinal draught for him. Alexander’s  Macedonian General, Parmenion sent a missive that Darius III had bribed Philip and that the medicine might be deadly poison!

Alexander the Great trusted his physician and drank the medicine. Philip had not betrayed his emperor and Alexander recovered.

The scene by the great Polish artist, shows Alexander drinking the medicine, while fixing his gaze on the face of the physician to whom he handed over the note.

The poet Prabha Verma,  took some liberty with the story -he imagines Alexander handing over the empty cup to Parmenion and the note to Philip. Also, he tries to surmise Alexander’s thoughts on why he would trust his physician and risk his life in spite of his faithful  General’s warning!

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Interestingly in the historical interpretations that I ended up reading,  Alexander did not go by emotion but by hard steel logic: if he did not take the medicine, he would die anyway! If he did die, the physician would follow suit- no betrayer would survive after the emperor’s death. In fact  a decade later, another physician Glaucias  would be killed in 324 B.C., when Alexander was unhappy- Hephaestion had died in spite of the physician’s efforts.

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Translation : Because he loved a flower without any reason (Onninumallathoru poovine snehichavan…)

Prabha Verma , Malayala Manorama Annual Issue, Onam Special 2015.pg 181-182

The medicine of life in his right hand

The missive that it is poison , in his left hand

Both reach him at the same instant

The great emperor: what will he choose?

The life draught is sure to be sour, in its vessel

Forbidding it, the letter from the General himself

Which to accept, which to reject,

The world conqueror drinks the medicine!

Death’s poisonous mixture, and life saving nectar

Are both these the same in this emperor’s eyes?

He extends the empty cup to his General and the note

Burning in intensity, to his physician!

The royal doctor stands terrified, sure of death

To his truth, to his own self.

The General’s body shivers, he is sure

He has failed to save the King.

If only he had pushed off the cup

Instead of passing on the message!

His sword has not warned, and failed

No answers to anything at all !

His chest burns with the smouldering

Doubt; the emperor does not trust me

He has not accepted the truth as seen

By the eyes of spies.

And then he concludes for a moment

Perhaps the way to cut this Gordian knot

And let go off, as a light breeze

This path of poison, the King has chosen!

Like a still flame, stands the royal physician

His eyes at a distance

Caressing his beard slowly,

Sure of his death, his destiny.

How many more moments for the King?

Those many for the doctor too

The General felt his silver touched sword head

Glittering as if in deadly thirst!

He stands staring at his King

The expressions, are they changing?

The heart beats- are they slowing, ceasing?

Are those eye lids falling, down and down?

The change is visible-

Like sun light the eyes glitter!

The face radiant with life,the emperor rises

Holding on to his physician’s finger tip!

Deadly poison, just a bit and death would come

The spy groups had said!

They are trust worthy, then how is it

The truth is different?

The doctor has been a child hood friend

Yet recently he has been seen

With the enemy,

Or so said the message.

Never has the spy words been wrong

Now life itself has proved it so

The King walks with renewed strength

In the path shown by his physician friend.

The General feels that the sword

Is looking at him,he feels a quiver within

Could it be that I invited death trying to stop

The medicine of life?

A hand on his shoulder;

The King leaves a petal touch of understanding

The General forgets himself, asks

“Why did you drink it knowing it is poison?

Because you know him from childhood?

Because you had reached detachment?

Because he had healed your pain many times?

Because the pain and agony were too much?”

“None of these,” said the King.

“Even those from childhood can betray!

Even while healing your pain,

Can kill silently indeed.

I saw him different because of

Some truths that will never change across ages!

The truth that the Universe has taught,

The eternal truth of Nature herself!

He smiles on seeing a flower,

Cries while staring at a heavy cloud’s pain

Patiently listens in the night to the wind’s music

That comes through the leaves and trees!

He loves the moonlight, flowers,the butterflies

Right from our childhood, with a compassionate heart

He stands here as my physician

All the documents I need to trust him are these:

Because he loved a flower without any reason

He will never kill a human being for any reward!

Because he has hummed a tune in his heart, without any reason

He will never destroy anyone’s life breath, ever!”

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I finish translating.

A voice in me quotes,

“Antonius!

Let me have men about me that are fat,

Sleek headed men and such as sleep o’ nights

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look

He thinks too much, such men are dangerous…

He reads much;

He is a great observer and sees quite through the deeds of men

He loves no plays, Antony like thou dost

He hears no music

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit

That could be moved to smile at anything…”

Ahhhh! Another great emperor! Julius Ceasar reading men and their motives !

Cassius does not smile from his heart, he does not watch plays, he hears no music…he cannot be trusted!!!

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I acknowledge all the mistakes of my translation as totally my own! But perhaps this Malayalam poem, inspired by a great Polish artist’s depiction of a Macedonian Emperor- making a case for loving nature, tolerance, and insight- this is the sort of conversation people should be having world over….We will smile over the irony that the Great Emperor’s sword itself had not been that merciful!

The Cauldron Boils Over

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For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?

Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves,

and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters. (Khalil Gibran, The Prophet, On Good and Evil)

I have been forced to brood on the nature of evil and cruelty after a series of news paper reports came out recently.

Airhostess abuses maid servant.

Qualified doctor, public representative’s wife, brutally murders maid servant.

 Clubbed with other stories of heinous evil, these provoked shuddering reflections on the nature of evil that I had encountered in my own journey so far.

I thank God for the kind hand that has kept me safe and sane and able to jot these down.

When I heard about an ancestor who specialised in banging his daughter’s head on the sharp edge of a grain box, because she had not prepared his dinner in time; I thought it was a made up story.

” How can someone tolerate that evil?” I remember asking, until the narrator, turned her eyes and looked at the woman sitting by her side.

In a shock of realisation, I understood and asked the lady, ” You? You were the daughter? My God!”

Later, in class, when the  teacher waxed eloquent on a great poet ,my best friend and my namesake whispered to me about his cruelties to his family.

” He forsake his wife and children and would wander about seeking inspiration. Great poet he might have been, but good husband and father, he never was. Once when he returned from his six month sojourn, he saw his seven year old son sitting in his favourite easy chair. He pulled him out and thrashed him so badly that he started bleeding. I read a memoir by the son- on the great poet of whom he was terrified all his life…”

Evil, I understood then, can also have the face of genius.

The stories of Nazi Holocaust, or the evils of the Pol Pot regime, the slavery stories, the brutal war games or the murderous riots when human beings turn beasts- all are very real.

The veneer of sophistication that covers the human face often covers a venal expression. The greatest of tests come when power is given to human beings to lord it over others.A handsome Smeagol can turn  into a despicable Gollum, if the Deadly Ring of Power, happens to become His Precious.

In a famous scientific study called the Milgram Experiment conducted by Prof Stanley Milgram of Yale University, the tendency of  “normal people ” to obey authority figures and abuse hapless innocents was showcased. Once a person perceived that he/she was just an ” instrument”, obeying a higher authority, he/she tended to shift blame from their own selves.

This study can be read along with the Dementors and Death Eaters of many mythical series, the ganglords of evil who obey a “Higher Power” to whom they owe allegiance.

But as we see in daily life, it does not take a Voldemort or Sauron to inspire evil.

The person who suffers deeply often perpetrates deep suffering on others. It is almost a cycle of evil. The person is herself abused, feels no control over his /her life, feels an exaggerated sense of inferiority and of being slighted by significant others, and so waits for an opportunity to wreak all that aggression on a hapless victim. Explanations of brutal rapes, beatings, child abuse, marital abuse, subordinate abuse have often included this logic.

As the witches of Macbeth chanted,

 Double, double toil and trouble; 

Fire burn, and caldron bubble. 

On reflection, I have found that in my most helpless conditions, I have been most angry with my beloved ones. “Displacement “, psychology calls it wisely. One tends to make scapegoats of others since one cannot handle the real issue on its face.So the abused subordinate will abuse his wife, she will abuse the maid servant, the maid servant will abuse the cat and so on and so forth..It reminds one of the nursery rhyme “The Farmer in the dell”.

I am pretty sure that the best of goodness and worst of evil is very much within every human soul. It just depends on the environmental triggers as to which comes out. It also depends a lot on what is considered “acceptable” and “unacceptable behaviour.”

Besides, if a poor maid servant from Manipur or West Bengal gets abused within the four confines of her Delhi home, which neighbour would care  to take a peep?

So the perceived danger associated with continuing a loathsome behaviour also plays a role in perpetuating evil.

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Lessons in psychology have taught me much about parental drivers, conditioning, reinforcement, prejudices, negative self-talk, internalisations, insecurities and all such jargon.Lessons in life have taught me some pungent truths.

Cruelty happens subtly, invidiously. Children can be the most vulnerable victims. If you tell a child that she/he is not good enough/beautiful enough/smart enough, it can be a mad ram inside the head for ages to come. Until, one day, with good souls around, one truly looks at the mirror and realises that the perpetrator had been a liar. One is good enough, beautiful enough, smart enough. Enough unto the day, the beauty thereof.

It is extremely important to protect children from negative insinuations and degrading talk. Perhaps they do not hear it from the close family, but we should protect them enough  so that others’ evil attempts to poke a hole into that fragile self confidence, is never successful.

Almost as a serendipitous event, I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye recently. This book, about the systematic destruction of a child’s psyche, told in the context of racial/feminine/power equations/sixties America, brought tears to my eyes. There was so much one could empathise with- some experiences are universal.

Morrison writes about how she was shocked into writing that novel, when a school mate wanted ” blue eyes ” , in the hope that it would get her acceptance, by making her beautiful. The prose is fire, scalding one’s fingers as one reads, and I again realised how good literature redeems; by making one go deep into one’s own experiences and cleanse the dirty remnants of one’s own prejudices.

Beauty is not equivalent to virtue, the author writes. She adds that it has taken 25 years for her novel to get truly accepted. It had been trivialised when it was originally published.

Cruelty and evil can have very handsome faces. Even pretty ones for that matter.  Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds , as Shakespeare so wisely wrote.So we need not fall in for the designer brand versions of Ugliness being equated to Badness. If something inside you still resists, read Conan Doyle’s ” The Yellow Face.” All that is not pleasing to the eye, need not be that of evil.  And in a like manner, there is nothing more pervasive than the myth, that all that is beautiful is good.

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As human beings, I guess being aware of our own propensities to abusive behaviour, is the first step towards the magic of protection.  We tend to be evil when we thoughtlessly speak, brag, disregard, turn a blind eye to suffering, and smooth a clean white sheet over the bloodied mess of our inner lives. And spray a perfume over the noxious fumes rising from within. “All the perfumes of Arabia…”

I have reached a stage in my life where I have started being very aware of abusive behaviour, the start of the first rung of evil in a relationship- between friends, siblings, parents, work place relations.

Instinct and experience warns a person of what to watch out for within herself/others.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Tell me why evil is always on call?

The Law of Return  much quoted in many books of spirituality, speaks of ” What you sow, that you reap.”

May we sow good thoughts, good imagination, kind behaviour, empowering words and noble deeds in our daily lives.

Our world, both inner and outer, can do with  lot more of decent, good human beings who are respectful, tolerant and kind. We can do with far more introspection on whether our life patterns hold a lesson for us and less on envying the great lives that others apparently seem to have.

And yes, I think I have had enough of newspapers for a while.

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The Night of the Grand Mothers…. and Other Ramblings

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M.T. Vasudevan Nair or M.T. as we know him, call him, love him is a great figure of Malayalam Literature. His memoirs in the series of Kashu, Kanji, Kuppayam, Kallu, Kamam ( Money, Rice gruel, Shirt, Drink, Lust ) is being serially published- with one chapter coming out every  year in August-September during Thiru Onam in Kerala!

Being a Non-Resident Keralite, I have been depending upon the assiduousness of my father’s book packing and the punctuality of the Trans India Kerala Express, to deliver me my annual nirvana aka his memoir, for the last three years. The fourth year has not disappointed me either.

In this chapter on Drinks, M.T dwells with childish glee upon the strong, self dependent Nair  women and its matriarchal culture – a group of old grannies who relish Chicken curry and local Arrack/toddy/drink during the Puja rites to appease the Family Goddess!

In deft lines, he portrays the women- the hassled mother who has to coordinate the whole goddess business, the cantankerous old women who arrive in threes and fours with their pet peeves and desires; the all-efficient aunts who manage puking children, deceptive local men, catch and cook aggressive roosters, narrate stories of haughty Goddesses who pick fight with one another…the home becomes a hub of activity, the narrator falls ill, grannies share stories, and enjoy a good meat and toddy break, the goddess is hopefully appeased.

Incidentally, all happened because ill timed things started happening in the family- basically the cow being discovered upside down in a small pond and it obviously being the “push” of someone thirsty for appeasement!

Magical Realism might have been introduced to the Kerala reader via translations of Marquez! Remedios the Beautiful ascending to the heavens with white sheets ( For those who want to know how Marquez struck inspiration after suffering from writers’ block on that one, please read the book :  The Fragrance of Guava- Conversations with Marquez in the Faber Caribbean series) but a series of incidents like the above, aided by a rooster killing, the dance of the grand mothers in the dark night into which three other mysterious dark figures join in from the night..M.T. took me right back to a rainy night in Macondo!

Artist Namboodiri has delighted Malayalis with his blessed sketches for years now. His sketches (of which I have tried to copy one!) of the women especially- flawless, fluid, spirited, beautiful, adds a special beauty to M.T’s charming reminiscences.

I have to wait another year for the last episode, (and I do get vexed with the publisher who decided to pen a five year agreement with the genius!) but hopefully the Kerala Express will chug its way to my heart again, next August.

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After a long time, I had cried on seeing a movie. I was late to see it, and a flight saw me fiddle around with the choices. Between a re watch of  Casablanca and a first look at Celluloid I meandered; and then my mother tongue won out.

I was treated to an excellent movie by Kamal. It was based on the making of the first silent movie in Malayalam “Vigatha Kumaran” by a great soul called J.C. Daniel – and the travails and agonies an insensitive world subjected him to! The passionate young man sells his acres of ancestral land, his beloved wife’s jewellery to make the first movie. He tries to get a female actress from Bombay but it ends in wastage of money. Finally, a woman from a lower caste (the movie is a pointer on the atrocities of the caste system too) enacts the role of the heroine. The film triggers disastrous responses from a prejudiced, narrow minded society which chases the woman away and destroys the visionary’s dreams.

The fall of J.C.Daniel, and the insensitivity he faces from bureaucracy, the film world, his own close circle, the struggle with penury and later…the much wonted recognition which arrives after his death is the theme of this beautiful movie.

I ended up reading a series of criticisms and letters to the editor on the whats and whys and why nots and who’s and whose and blame games which were enacted out after the movie was appreciated by ordinary viewers.

The movie made me think of pioneers in every front of this world- who battled deep seated prejudices and oppression- from Galileo to Alan Turing to Caroline Herschel, because  the society in general just cannot tolerate dreamers! We are after their fault-lines, their perceived defects, their imperfections and ignore their great capacity to advance the cause of human excellence.

As Brutus ranted, ” As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition.” (Julius Caesar, Shakespeare)

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Or maybe the answer to the conundrum is in Jospeh Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers

( Jospeh Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1988; Chapter: “The Hero’s Adventure, pg187)

” That each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.”

That summarises what I felt after meandering through M.T, smiling about Marquez, brooding over J.C.Daniel and wondering on the golden thread of it all…

More power to creativity!

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