Nativity Scenes (BH:D151-D152)

January 2, 2012

I have loved going to Amma's village ever since I can remember. Not only because such trips, by default, meant freedom from school in the form of vacations, but also because the days spent there entailed more freedom and lightly imposed rules under the grandmas, uncles and aunts. So habitually, I was quite excited about a short visit to the native land as the first activity of the new year. 
The explicit purpose in the logbook should read: special ritual at the temple. 

The process of physically getting to the village has undergone, however, to borrow MBA lingo, a paradigm change! 
Amma has aged and I have spoiled my risk ignorance capacity by living in Texas. This horrible combination has made the hour long drive traumatic. 
You see, Amma is an expert driver! 
Her expertise level gives her the confidence to fold up both the side view mirrors and consider the rear-view mirror as just a hanger for the plush teddy bear! 
It is the bad roads and other drivers that gang up against her expertise! 
The trip involved me producing a variety of sound effects ranging from extended humming as we shaved very close to randomly appearing sidewalks, squeals as we shudder over yet another speed breaker and moan as we find ourselves one more time in the wrong lane. 
The FM stations even at their loudest failed to drown my paranoia.

As we finally parked outside a granduncle's house, we realized that we have timed ourselves to intrude into the afternoon naps. 
It was new year's day. It was a Sunday. Naps were customary. 
A German couple driving around on a scooter were blissfully unaware of the custom. Luck for us, the loud booming barks of the dog stirred the folks to the front door. Turns out no one was sleeping. There was a water pipe problem that was being fixed on war footing. But guests are gods, water works pause, tea and salty biscuits. 

Next we proceed to kunjamma's (Amma's younger sister) house. This house, 20 years ago, had to be reached by walking on a stone slab bridge across a clear water channel. The channel has become a tar road now. We drove right to the door. Visiting relatives in the village invariably involves ransacking their backyards. The plunder this time: brinjals and tapioca. 

Amma suggests that we walk to the lake in the hour we have to spare before reporting to the temple. Uncle and cousin join us. What I remembered as paddy fields are now simply fields of unattended undergrowth interrupted by trees, mostly coconut. The 'paddiness' has been squeezed out of them by truck loads of new soil. 

A black cow was being served by a team of white crane beauticians. The lake has been forced back at least half a kilometer. Coir making used to be the main industry of the area, now it is sand extraction. 

Hedges of wild flowers and wild varieties of garden flowers line either side of the narrow road which abruptly ends its tarred form and becomes muddy. 
Uncle and Amma fondly recall childhood stories. They would trade drinking water with the coir manufacturing laborers for the outer membrane of the coconut that was as good as firewood for the kitchen. 
'Punnakka' was collected and sold from the unmonitored properties for a few 'anna's first and 'paise' later. Punnakka oil was cheap and used for oil lamps. 'Karakka' was pickled and served with drinking water for 5 paise. 
4 annas were converted to 25 paise. So Amma would use 25 paise to buy stuff worth 2 annas twice and claim 'Anugundmuttai' (Atombomb candy) for the 1 paise. She was clearly headed towards a career in the Reserve Bank of India. 

There was talk about the coir industry 'muthalalees' (owners) who had the side business of counterfeit currency printing. But they were clever enough to avoid larger denominations. Maximum value of the notes faked were Rs. 2. Nobody double checked such a low value note. Over a decade, the rich owners got fabulously wealthier. 

Amma showed me a wild flower with deep violet petals on the inside. The girls going to school used a pen to transfer that color onto their foreheads to make a 'bindi'. That is all the cosmetic they could afford. 

The local children were thrilled when the duck farmers brought over their thousands of ducks into the ponds cordoned off from the lake for decaying coconut husk. Kids would stalk these ducks and steal eggs. A couple of dozen eggs lost this way never bothered the farmer. Uncle talked about very soft-shelled eggs that young birds laid. "Panjimutta" (cotton egg) they were called. The collected eggs were hard boiled by stuffing them into the large cauldrons in which rice was getting parboiled.

"We used to celebrate all the festivals for days," uncle said, "the kids these days don't have that joy!"
"But you didn't have 'kochu tv', pogo channel and cartoon network," I retorted.

Frequently, the discussion switched from the fond memories of childhood to the expression of disappointment at the granduncles and other ancestors who threw away property. Not so smart moves that smart the younger generation especially when they see that those who claimed the land at throwaway prices have developed it with cows and cash cows. 
These conversations made me aware of the sweeter chatter of mynas and the calls of greater coucals.

Right next to the bovine, divine. A new temple has sprung up right before the narrow single file path towards the lake splits from the lane. A red dish antenna bigger than the idol draws the attention. "Moorthiyekalum valiya shanthiyula kalam" (A era when the priests are bigger than god) 

We queue down the path mindful of the treacherous mud and clandestine ponds on either side. Anjuthengu lakes appears gloriously. For Amma and uncle, it is simply the lake. They never bothered to find out its name. For them it might as well be Vembanadu or Ashtamudi!

Spectacular expanse of dull blue aching towards the sky blue against the coconut green lining. Cousin keeps dropping twigs, dried coconut fronds and stones into the lake to admire its depth. Baby ponds cut off by the ridge we file on, from the mother lake, have received value addition in the form of water lilies. The mother lake fervently beats against the ridge. A sound far deeper and perhaps even ominous than the poet's Innisfree. We manage to disturb a few wild ducks. 

At regular intervals along the shore, more ridges intrude the lake. Signs of 'tourist' activities on many of them in the form of cement and concrete benches and round tables. Where our path ends, left over hot pickles and plastic bags from some irresponsible new year's eve celebration.

More memories during the walk back.

As the priest prepares for our ritual at the temple, a furiously contested football match proceeds in the ground outside. The ritual is simply called "vilakku" (lamp). It involves a special offering of more lamps that usual lit for the goddess. The elephant-headed Ganesh is the other deity inside the temple besides the patron lady. At first, as is the norm, offering is made for him. I light one lamp. The lamp is just wick inside an inverted lemon skin filled with oil.
Fifteen such citrus lamps join 15 brass lamps to complete the lighting arrangement. A bunch of joss sticks lit and stuck into a small earthen pot provide the smoke screen. 
The 'deeparadhana' (lamp worship) happens at the Ganesh idol first. As the priest prepares the idol behind closed doors, patient reverential wait outside. I notice a small aperture has been carved on the door. Breathing space for the gods at night, perhaps. Unlocked round padlock hangs on the bolt. 

After pleasing Ganesh, the bearded young priest, proceeds to the goddess. The wait here lasts over 10 minutes. I notice there is no aperture on the door this time. The godess doesn't tolerate peeping. 
The lemon lamps, bunched together, have their flames wildly swaying in each other's eddies like a coalition government. 
Thick turbulent smoke emanates from the joss stick pot, rapidly dissipating towards the gods in the sky. 
Loud speakers outside fill the village with Nadaswaram's liveliness. 
The uncle standing in front of me momentarily losses patience and checks his wrist watch. 
But he quickly brings his palms back to the folded 'namaste'. 
A variety of 'namastes' in the 20 odd pair of palms waiting for the doors to open. Some have the fingers intertwined. Some have their pinkies in a union breaking away from the rest. Some have cupped the palms waiting to receive. Some are in a frozen applause. Symmetry is a rarity. 

A barely audible bell cue from inside the sanctum alerts the boy gripping the big bell's rope.
The doors open. 
The idol decorated in sandal paste and jewelry. Menorah like lamps in front of her. Hanging lamps on either side. A polished brass framework behind reflects more splendor. 
Bells drown the murmur of prayers. Nadaswaram. Joss sticks. Camphor. Fireworks! A final cracker explosively resonate in the hearts silencing prayers. 
Audio visual delight. 
When it comes to creating a spectacle, Hinduism has the art perfected over centuries. 

Amma brings the 'payasam' and puffed rice offerings while I am outside discussing with my astrologer uncle the irony that a semi-pro like him, who claims to chart how Venus influences people's lives, has never bothered to observe the brilliant Venus that sparkled in the late evening sky. 
Crows return to the giant peepal tree as the bats set out dutifully. 

We spent the night at my older aunt's at Navayikulam. My first night sleeping outside my bedroom after recovery. Soon after midnight, aunt shrieks out under the influence of some nightmare. Uncle and cousin laugh at this apparently regular occurrence these days. She can't remember the bad dream. "Must be about one of those wretched tv shows you watch!" is one of the quick reasons offered. More logical than the 'ghostly' suggestion made by the astrologer uncle as an explanation a few days ago about her nightmares.

Cold morning. 5: 15 am. No fog. We drive back before traffic picks up. Fajr call rises from the local mosque, loud and clear, warming the air. Local FM stations play a mix of religious songs careful not to upset any faith. Only a handful of joggers and walkers on the highway side. Toll booth operator is awake. 
Home by 6:30am.


Cyclonic Ending to A Whirlwind Year (BH:D150)

December 31, 2011

The rain that began as a drizzle around 6pm yesterday rapidly strengthened into the night. And then it rained. And rained and rained. It rained all the way till 10am today. After respite of an hour, it returned strongly and continued till late in the afternoon. Low lying areas of the city have been flooded. 
Five deaths reported so far. 
Two houses completely destroyed. 48 damaged. 
Shutters of the Neyyar dam have been lifted. 

Because of all the plants near our front wall, it is difficult for people on the street to notice if anyone is sitting on our verandah. Achan and I were bemoaning the bad weather, when an umbrella appeared on the street. It proprietor was a tall, hefty young man. 
"He must have lost his way," Achan said. Since we live at the end of the street, people usually miss the last exit out of the housing colony and do a turnaround after our house. So it was a reasonable guess from Achan. 
However, the man did not turn around and hurry away from his mistake. 
The man loitered. 
Umbrella accentuated loitering. 
Rain was drowning all other sounds. Tiny sunbirds were finding shelter inside the thick jasmine brush. 
Stochastic movement by a young man at the end of the street in this scenario naturally raised suspicion. 
Newspapers have been doing a good job reporting dramatically the rising thefts from homes in the city. 
We left the weather for a while and focused on the man. 
Now he did look suspicious. He surely had something to hide. 
That slouching gait, the slow pirouetting, the indecision, the tilts of the head, the repeated glances up the street. The smell of crime rose above the rain. 
And then he acted! 
Moving to the corner of the street where the walls of the last homes meet, he urinated. 
The umbrella, looking askance, aslant on his shoulder, slowly heaved in relief. 
In Singapore, I am told, this is a crime. But I guess, in Singapore, people don't have to walk inside labyrinthine housing colonies when the heavens burst out choking puny human bladders. 
Once he was done, he strode back up the street with confident steps and an inflated chest. Deflated bladder implied. 
The black umbrella proudly twirled.

2011 draws to a close. It's been a whirlwind year for the world. Since pictures tell the story better, here is an outstanding recap:http://www.buzzfeed.com/gavon/30-amazing-photographs-and-the-stories-behind-them

The year has been eventful at a personal level as well. Photo 8 in the above collection reminds me that I stumbled on Paramasiva Iyer's tour de force, The Riks early in 2011. 
I came to India after a gap of 7 years. Our nuclear family was back together in this home after 15 years. My sister got married. As the year ends, I am on my way to becoming an uncle. 

Photo 9 in the set above invokes physical pain in my muscles that still remember the recent hospital stay. I am becoming comfortable with the permanent presence of foreign bodies, meshes and bolts, in me for the rest of my life. Compared to the ideas, delusions, dreams and despairs that have bandaged my mind over the years, they are value additions. 
I owe my healthy future to a wonderful team of doctors. 
2011 reaffirmed that I owe my life to my parents. 
It was good to be reminded after 33 years of life. 

I am away from old friends and mentors, both human and animal. I have managed some new ones. 
I am thankful for those who care and with whom I can share. 
I am thankful for the technology that attempts to make up for a fraction of their actual presence. 

I finished higher education and traveled back from beloved Texas, my home away from home, to lush Kerala only to discover how much I did not know. 
I laughed, LOLed and traded insults.
Injuries and memories trigger the same tears. 
I have spurned and I have yearned.
I have been silenced by gestures beyond words. 

Much more than years past, 2011, gloriously reasserted my simplistic philosophy of life: Don't get used to anything; get used to everything!

Happy New Year!

Bhasa, the Malayalee? (BH:D149)

December 30, 2011

The brooding grey skies that had been in labor since morning finally delivered by 6pm. Ominously cloudy day here as cyclone Thane's danse macabre powered through coastal Tamil Nadu towards Andhra. I am typing this as the weak drizzle attempts to drown urban noises.

Yesterday at the book fair, I picked up Bhasa's play, Karnabharam. Malayalam translation by Prof. Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri. The slim book conveniently has the Sanskrit and Malayalam versions on facing pages. The 10-page play in a single act comes with an outstanding introduction by the translator. 

Prof. Namboothiri has titled the introduction 'Malayalathinte Thala'. It can mean simultaneously Malayalam's head, Malayalam's brain, Malayalam's origin or Malayalam's epitome. The title is perhaps a conscious effort to imitate that glorious variety of the meanings of the play's title. 
Karnabharam, directly, refers to the heavy heart of Karna, the hero, as he prepares for the battle. It could also mean that the story will weigh on our ears (karnam) for it is a tragedy. 
As Prof. Namboothiri notes, Karnabharam and Urubhangam are two outstanding tragedies from ancient India, both by Bhasa, that can match any of the classic Greek tragedies.

The bulk of the introduction is the argument that Bhasa, the most famous and prolific Sanskrit playwright of antiquity, hailed from Kerala (hence 'Malayalathinte thala'). 
Before briefly recapping the main points that are listed in support of the claim, we should consider that the estimates of Bhasa's life period vary from the 5th century BC to the 3rd century AD. It is clear that he existed much before and was treated with nearly religious reverence by the time of Kalidasa who explicitly acknowledges and borrows profusely from Bhasa's works. 
The Sanskrit used by Bhasa is somewhere between the hardcore orthodox Vedic version and the more flowery, imaginative, popular, softer tool that flourished with Kalidasa. 
More importantly, Bhasa shows no awareness of the Natyashastra of Bharatamuni. He breaks too many of Bharatamuni's rules of the theater which have been strictly followed in Sanskrit theater ever since they were established. The existence of tragedies and the depiction of violence on stage by Bhasa clearly predate their tabooing by Bharatamuni.

So, the attempt is to establish the geographical location of a historical personality who lived somewhere within an estimated 800 year period! 
Tough job, indeed! 
But Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri goes about the task passionately and I am naturally rooting for Thiruvananthapuram in this debate!
Though his works have been quoted in several subsequent Sanskrit works spanning more than thousand years, they were not discovered till 1910. That year, T. Ganapati Sastry discovered them on cadjan leaves at the Manalikkara Madom in Thiruvananthapuram. Eight plays of Bhasa were discovered in that compilation. But finding the plays in southern Kerala is obviously no proof that the author was from these parts. A more logical argument is that most of these stories have been enacted respectfully in Koodiyattam form in Kerala for centuries. 

Prof. Namboothiri dismisses the common argument that Bhasa was from Ujjain. He correctly points out that Ujjayini was ancient India's "Greenwich". It was the center of a civilization that ascribed paramount importance to astronomical calculations (yea, the one that got hijacked and degraded into the quack astrology of today). The giant observatory and Mahakala (Great Time) temple still exist in Ujjain. Namboodiri argues that this Mahakala transmuted to Mahakali, the daimon, so to speak, of Kali-dasa. The same diety i.e. Ujjaini's Kali has become the common south Indian goddess, Uchumali Amman. Though the central observatory was in Ujjain, Kanyakumari, the cape of the peninsula, was preferred for observations of sunrises and sunsets and of the southern skies. An observatory existed in Agasthyakoodam peak nearby. When gods themselves can travel from Ujjain to the south and works of Vyasa, Valmiki and Kalidasa can become popular in Kerala, it is not too difficult to concede that Bhasa could have been famous in the north just like Sankaracharya became later on. 

Against the argument that Sanskrit was never a popular language in Kerala in ancient times, Vishnu Narayan Namboodiri lashes out at the so called Indian "scholars" who still digest nonsense like "Indo-European" languages and Aryan/Dravidian divides; outdated ideas that their own originators like Max Mueller abandoned long ago. Some argue that native village singers in central India still sing an 'Udyanakatha' attributed to Bhasa. 
Doesn't that sound a lot like Kerala's favorite martial arts folk hero 'Othenan', the professor asks!

The stronger argument comes in the geographical descriptions given by Bhasa. The land of tall palms, numerous rivers flowing west including Pamba, backwaters and lagoons and the towering Agasthyakoodam mentioned in Kalidasa's Raghuvamsam (based on Ramayana) is borrowed from Bhasa. If that is not southern Kerala that Rama and Sita see on their way back from Lanka, where else is it?! There is also Bhasa's propensity to mention Parashurama, the mythological creator of Kerala, in his works.

The essay moves onto two powerful arguments. 'Urubhangam' glorifies Duryodhana, the despicable,arrogant, selfish, rape-instigating, belligerent villain of the Mahabharatha. It narrates the repentance and pathos in his final moments as he lies immobile with his thighs shattered by Bhima in battle. 
A moving tragedy! 
Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri suggests that the impact of this drama when it was staged and remained popular through centuries of koodiyattam enactment was that its hero achieved not just the sympathy but also divine attribution from the population. Consequently, the only temple in India dedicated to Duryodhana is at Malanada in Thiruvananthapuram. 

To cap off, Namboodiri presence a linguistic oddity from Bhasa's Prathigyogandharayana that was brought to his attention by Dr. Paulose, the Sanskrit scholar and erstwhile principal of Sanskrit college. In that play, the minister and court jester, in disguise, enter into a conversation about the king of the Vatsa kingdom. Not wanting to reveal their identities nor that they are discussing about the king, the conversation proceeds with the double meaning usage of the word 'Vatsan' to refer to the king. Bhasa uses the fact that Vatsan is also the name of a popular sweet dish. However, leaf-wrapped dish is called Vatsan only in southern Kerala.

I spent most of yesterday evening reading Karnabharam. Truly classic! I have been wanting to read it ever since I saw the video of Mohanlal enacting the role of Karna in a staging, in Sanskrit, directed by the venerable Kavalam Narayana Panikkar. 

Since I am encountering a little too much Sanskrit these days, we picked up a small guide to Sanskrit by Dr. Paulose who was mentioned earlier. "A Christian guy wrote a guide on Sanskrit?!" has been the standard reaction of disbelief that I have encountered since yesterday. 
This obsession of the Malayalee with caste and religion is also to be found in the works of Bhasa. That then is the clinching argument for me!! Any author who pays much attention to the caste and religion must have come the land that repelled Swami Vivekananda as 'a madhouse of casteism'!

My grand plan is to use Prof. Paulose's guide with Karnabharam as a workbook to gain some familiarity with Sanskrit. Like the Zen master said, "we'll see!"

Besides C.V. Raman Pillai's Marthanda Varma mentioned in yesterday's note and the two books discussed above, we bought one by EMS Namboodiripad and another collection of essays by Kuttipuzha Krishna Pillai.

Tomorrow, the final day of a rather eventful year, globally and personally! And in another lovely mathematical coincidence, it will be the 150th day of my India stay!

Love Letters (BH:D148)

December 29, 2011

A cyclone is approaching the coast of Tamil Nadu. Across the Western Ghats, it meant a mild, pleasant day. Keeping the morning chills and my phlegm situation in mind, I decided to get a haircut. 

As we ventured outside the house, Achan noticed that the shrubbery and herbery and weedery that displayed survival skills in patches along the street, have disappeared. This reminded me of a momentary Texas flashback that I had yesterday morning. 
Let me recap. 
While I was seated in the verandah reading the Mathrubhumi magazine, I experienced the unavoidable Doppler effect of some whirring machine. At first, I assumed that some wood work was continuing at the neighbors. But as it came nearer, it grew more familiar. 
The unmistakable grunt of a lawn boundary and weed trimmer that was a fortnightly echo back in the US! 
I wouldn't have cared much for this coincidence but there soon appeared the operator of the machine outside the gate. 
Dressed in fluorescent orange lined vest, hard hat and safety goggles, he looked every bit an illegal Mexican immigrant who had tunneled, by mistake, to the other end of the planet! 
The city corporation still hasn't managed to find a solution to the piling, stinking garbage problem but they sure make their street weed exterminators dress Western. 
I am sure several foreign "study tours" by multiple delegations had to be expended by the corporation to come up with the costume and equipment for these workers!

We took an autorickshaw to the barber's. As we turned towards the AKG center from the Kerala University office circle, a cacophony of horns. 
Loud. Urgent. Incessant. Maniacal. 
The rickshaw slowed down to the left lane as did all the other vehicles. 
A pilot jeep. 
A car with number plate 'Kerala State 1'. 
An escort car plated 'Escort-CM'. 
Another jeep. 
This horny set blazed passed us. 

"He must be hurrying to write more love letters," said our rickshaw driver. 
'He' referred to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The 'love letter' sarcasm was about Chandy's multiple letters about Mullaperiyar dam issue that have been spurned by the silence of Tamil Nadu's Jayalalitha. 

In the next half kilometer, before we alighted, it was clear that there was no love lost between the driver and the ruling Congress party in the state. 
He was one of those common ardent Communist/Marxist party supporters who found nothing contradictory about the Ganesha sticker, blessing his windshield, being served with a newly lit fragrant joss sticks or about wearing a thick line of sacred ash on his forehead. 

These folks form the grass roots of the party here. They don't care about the philosophies of Marx or Engels. Their communism begins with the admiration for Achuthanandan or Pinarayi Vijayan and ends with dislike for Oommen Chandy.

Achan had to stop by at the bank. As he was banking inside, I strolled the concreted front parking space of the building. Losing my balance to avoid stepping on a freshly expelled deposit of sputum from some recent client, I grab a nearby parked motorbike. 
A thick, squirming ring of tiny ants were stampeding around this blot of spit with hundreds more rushing towards it in multiple lines from different directions. 
Organized chaos of greed! Stock market trading floors! Pilgrimage centers!

We walked from the bank to the barber shop. Always, while on this road, Achan remembers two deaths. One is his own mother, my grandmother, who passed away at Govindan's Hospital on this road. Second is his friend from university, Simon, who had the roll number right before Surendran. He died in a bike accident soon after graduating.

Today, I noticed that the barbershop (the area under the staircase of a building) has been christened 'Hair Stylist' with the poster of a young Mick Jagger depicted with even more ambivalent sexuality. A customer had already occupied single chair, so we browsed through the magazines. 

I took up Kalakaumudi which I had been wanting to check out. The reunion didn't last very long. The once eminent weekly has collapsed into a party propaganda machine. Pity! 
Browsing through Cinema Mangalam, I find a short interview with the accomplished and hugely talented cinematographer,Madhu Ambat. This year he won his third National Award for 'Adaminte Makan Abu'. He had joined the Pune film institute despite ranking 26th in the IIT-JEE. Good choice in life. 

Madhyamam weekly turned out to be surprise package. I wasn't familiar with this magazine that wikipedia says is a publication from Jamat-i-Islami organization. Madhyam's website gives a very different history. So much for wikipedia! 
P.K. Ramanunni, mentioned in yesterday's note, was the first editor of the magazine. Pretty good quality articles. Rs. 10. 
I was half-way through an article on the Tehri dam when it was my hair's turn. I hope to rediscover online some time and finish it.

The barber has grown plumper than the last time. His cell phone ring tone is a Koel's birdsong. I liked it. When electric trimmers are used around the ears and the back of the neck, I always get goose-bumps!

After the haircut, we revisited the book fair. Before the book stalls, there is a special exhibit of books on and by Sri Narayana Guru, with some rare photographs, housed in a hall of the Sanskrit manuscript library. A nice rendition of some his poetry was playing in the hall. It was soon drowned by Akon's Chamak Chalo blaring from the gigantic speakers installed at the seminar tent.

Distinct stench of uncleared garbage near the eatery stalls. Still no dearth of hungry souls tucking into tapioca and fish curry. Swami Vivekananda once said that when a man walks, his stomach comes first, only then his head, so unless we can fill his stomach, there is little chance of influencing his head. I guess that justifies the eateries positioned before the book stalls. 

Decorative thermocol bats hung from the trees. Entertainment for children. The only bats they get to see these days are on the cricket field.

Primarily, we wanted to check if the stalls that had promised to get us copies of C.V. Raman Pillai's 'Marthanda Varma' kept their word. Since they were in the book business, they did! Since school vacation is in full swing, the fair was rather crowded at the late morning hour. Yellow plastic ropes, absent during our last visit, were now dividing the walkway. 
An impatient husband hurrying through a ritual visit to the fair pulling his wife and daughter along. Several pairs of college girl friends more interested in the buyers than the bought. 
An white-haired grey-bearded old man in a shabby white mundu and sleeves rolled up shirt with top buttons open. Vermillion and white proofs of temple visits streaking across his forehead, horizontally and vertically. He carries a worn out cloth bag. Nearly identical cloth bag on the shoulder of a couple of decades younger man accompanying him. This sports a Bulgan and long black hair. Spectacles, cotton kurta and khaki pants complete his intellectual avatar. 
At the Kerala Sahitya Academy stall, he returns a book to the shelf after browsing, turns to his older friend and gleefully declares, "ithokke free aayittu online vayikkam" (we can read all this free online). 
I used to suffer from that delusion too.

We picked up Marthanda Varma from NBS stall. Achan has been looking for a Malayalam Quran.The one available was in two volumes at a prohibitive price of Rs 1200. 
By the time we finished the round of all the stalls, 5 more books were coming back home.
More about them tomorrow!

Enlightenment (BH:D147)

December 28, 2011

December in Thiruvananthapuram is never anywhere near as cold as it gets in Texas. The temperatures are not even close to those experienced in Bangalore at this time of the year. But that doesn't stop me from having a problematic phlegm build up during the chilly mornings. Judging from the gut-churning expectorant cacophony of coughing and sniffling and spitting that emanates from several homes in the neighborhood, I can safely say I am not alone in possessing a, as Ayurveda would say, 'phlegmatic' body type. 

My own sessions of getting the bad fluid out consists of 5 minutes of gargling with warm salt water. The revelation today was that sufficiently strong coughs are no longer paining my abdomen. So far so good progress.

When I was in school, Mathrubhumi and Kalakaumudi, were the notable Malayalam weeklies. Notable in the sense, they carried worthwhile articles unlike the pulp fiction peddled by Manorama, Mangalam, Manorajyam etc which were lumped together as the 'Ma' magazines. Toward the end of 90s, a new magazine called 'Malayalam' had entered the quality fray and given stiff competition to Mathrubhumi and Kalakaumudi. These magazines carried great analysis, political, social and economical, contained invaluable cultural commentary and had novels from eminent writers in serialised form besides poems. M. Krishnan Nair, a prominent figure in the city, used to handle a column titled 'Sahitya Varaphalam' (Literary Weekly roundup: the title parodying the omnipresent astrology sections that earned him the nickname 'literary astrologer'). Krishnan Nair presented fantastic criticism of works, Indian and foreign, based on his deep literary awareness and immense passion for reading. These magazines used to cost around Rs. 5 then.

After coming back to India, thanks to Amma, I have mostly been encountering women's magazines. Printed on glossy sheets, they are 50% advertisement, 25% recipes and 20% on cinema and TV. The final 5% would be mostly one article, usually a travelogue. 

I was pleasantly surprised when Achan bought the latest issue of Mathrubhumi yesterday from Rema aunty's. Her husband has subscribed to almost all the regional magazines one can think of, including 3 film ones (Vellinakshatram, Nana, Cinemamangalam).

Mathrubhumi weekly is thicker now. 100 pages from cover to cover. Rs 12. The quality of the articles,thankfully, remains the same. And only the flaps and right margins of a few pages contain advertisement. The magazine is thus packed with solid reading material. And 90% of the advertisement are various publishing houses announcing their new books and the rest are matrimonial ads. 

I got time this morning to read through the first three features. The cover story was about the Arab spring and the possibility of it leading to Islamist governments in 'WANA' (West Asia North Africa) region. I thought the author's tone was a little too alarming. 

The second article was a harsh criticism of Manmohan Singh's handling of the recent Foreign Direct Investment in Indian retail sector fiasco. The article began with the mention of free market theory and social Darwinism.
People invoking 'survival of the fittest' without understanding it properly is one of my pet peeves. Herbert Spencer, while coining that phrase, wouldn't have anticipated its hijacking by every tom, dick and harry and Darwin would never have imagined that his wonderful theory would someday be tragically misinterpreted a "might is right"! 

The author interprets the phrase that way and goes on about the need for government oversight in a deeply divided and unequal society like India rather than expecting free market to be the panacea. He would have been better off if he had added to the phrase "survival of the fittest" the words "in any given environment". This environment is key in the correct understanding of the phrase. There is no universal standard of fitness based on which survival is judged. It is always about the fitness of the organism to the environment and by analogy, of the business to the economy. 
It is in setting up the economic environment that politics plays the crucial role. America has already shown the world what kind of fit species of bankers survive when an environment of informational blackouts and utter lack of oversight is set up. The product is a world reeling from credit crunch even as $700 trillion of electronic money has been generated. Amartya Sen, in a recent lecture, draws a comparison of the ancient Indian game of snakes and ladders to the global economy. The governments are responsible for setting up the ladders through which the society can climb up, slowly steadily, or they can rush their nations directly into the mouths of enormous snakes. 

The third feature in the Mathrubhumi magazine was an elaborate interview with writer Ramanunni. He had recently won the Vayalar award for his novel, "Jeevithathinte Pusthakam" (The book of life). It is the story of a bank officer who suffers from memory loss and ends up living in a fishing village. Even after his memory returns, he decides to live with the fisher-folk instead of returning to the mechanical life in the city. Usually, it is memory that forces people to change. Memories of calamities trigger revolutions, memories of bloodshed make people treat peace with respect. But Ramanunni has used the lack of memory to be the resetting trigger for the 'automaton'ic modern urban life. 
I should get hold of the novel soon. 
There has been some criticism about the abundance of sex in the novel. Despite being recommended by the education committee that the book be made available in school libraries, the previous government decided against it because of some complaints. Ramanunni obviously protests. He correctly points out that school children are daily exposed to sex through the dime a dozen sex scandals, molestation and rapes splashed on the front-pages of all newspapers. Add to that the easy availability of porn. This creates a totally unhealthy image of sex as either a crime or a weapon of domination in the young minds. Through novels like his, there is a possibility of reintroducing sex as an integral part of love between two human beings, not a source of entertainment or a channel for violence. Unfortunately the powers-that-be seem to be content with dealing with sex as a taboo or a matter of shame. 
I will get hold of the novel soon. 
Ramanunni has been noticed for the treatment of homosexuality also in his works. One of his famous earlier novel,'Sufi paranja katha' (the story told by the sufi) has been made into a movie. Set a few centuries ago,it is the love story of a Hindu-Nair woman from an upper class family and a Muslim trader. She converts to Islam but later on distances herself from him and the man develops a relationship with a much younger man. "NAMBLA" type relationships have been existing in North Kerala for centuries, says Ramanunni. 
I must get hold of the novel soon. 
Ramanunni uses most of his public appearances these days to spread the message of Sufism. 

The electrician reported for duty promptly by 2:30pm. He is still working, 4 hours and two teas later, while I am typing this through periods of light and darkness as he turns the main switch on and off to test a complicated circuit problem. As soon as he arrived, he made an amazing remark connecting mercury pollution and tube-lights which went way over my head. 
Achan listened to a short lecture on how electronic chokes work. 
After two new tube light frames were banged and screwed into the wall, he moved onto the kitchen. Standing in our kitchen area, it is possible to hear the conversation from the bedroom of the grand old neighbor man. 
His caretaker, Joy, has gone back home for a 5 day Christmas vacation. So the charity has sent a substitute caregiver who himself is past 60 and would like to have some assistance himself. Unlike the teetotaler Joy whose only indulgence is a secretly smoked afternoon beedi, the substitute is a fan of the bottle. So plenty of conversations these days revolve around methods of alcohol production and refinement! 
The electrician used to help out our neighbor but he quit few months ago. "Avaru pavam alle ennu vicharichu njan kurachu joli okke cheythu koduthu," (I helped her thinking she was a poor woman) he said about our neighbor widow, "appo avaru thalayil kayari irunnu order idan thudangi" (but then she started sitting on my head and ordering me around. "Peruchazhiye kuzhichu moodan onnum enne kittulla, njan vittu" (I am not ready to bury dead rats in her yard, so I quit).

He gave us a great marketing spiel for a home inverter. "Saare, power cut okke udane thudangum. Bhayankara narakamayirikum. Ippo ee full veedinu venda inverter verum 19,000 rupaye ullu. state governmentinte product aanu. athinu mathram oru varsham guarantee. batterikku 30 ethraye masam guarantee.... (Saare, power cuts will start soon. It will be hell. Now an inverter for this whole house comes for only Rs. 19,000. It is a government product. Inverter has one year guarantee. Battery has so many months guarantee...)
ethra masam? (how many months?) the quantitative analyst in me obsessed.
"28..alla...randara kollam" (28...no....two and a half years) he didn't like the intrusion into his sales pitch.
"appo 30 masam" (so 30 months)
"njan thanne vannu fit cheythu tharam. ini ippo ee veettil aalu thamasam okke undalo". (I will come myself and install it. From now on, people are going to live in this house, right?) He alluded to our house having been uninhabited for most part of the last decade. 

While the instant heater installation in one of bathrooms was nearing completion, I read the news online and announced, "Anna Hazare called off his fast and cancelled his other agitation. But he will campaign against Congress party in the coming elections!" This triggered a charged up rant from the electrician. 
"Even if he doesn't campaign the congress is going to lose very badly. I hope the BJP comes with majority so that it doesn't have to deal with a coalition government. all those coalition partners are frauds." 
"It is doubtful if they will ever win with absolute majority" Achan interjected
"They won't Saare I know. Yet I vote for them. I have had enough with this pleasing the minorities charade of the congress." 
Achan and I sat in silence as he unleashed a politically way incorrect tirade. Luckily,the lack of feedback, much less, any encouragement from us, calmed him down after a couple of minutes.

As I finish typing this, he is done with the troublesome circuit."Ravanavadham" (killing of Ravana) was how he chose to describe the ordeal! 
Now, new tube-lights are on duty in most of the rooms. Enlightenment!

It is appropriate to end noting that today is the 100th anniversary of the first performance of India's national anthem. It was set to music in the way we know it today by Margaret, the wife of Irish poet James Cousins,when Tagore visited them at the Theosophical College in Madanapally in Andhra. 
Jana Gana Mana....

For Malayalee & Tamilian Friends

December 28, 2011

I am sharing this note because recently I was pained to see that some media fireflies with their self-promotional agendas were using facebook to fan hatred between Tamilians and Malayalees. It is heartening to see Kerala's most popular daily publish columns like the one I have attempted to translate below. I am sure similar sane voices are to be found in the prolific Tamil media as well.

The Translation Of An Excerpt from the Dec 28th volume of Asokan Charuvil's Weekly Column in Malayala Manorama Newspaper

Today's newspaper carried a report from the Valayar border with Tamil Nadu. Palakkad district administration had provided a special welcome to the Ayyappa devotees from Tamil Nadu. There was a photograph of the devotees receiving flowers and sweets. Writers T. D. Ramakrishnan and G.P. Ramachandran were present. Palakkad district collector delivered his speech in Tamil.

My travels through Palakkad during college days used to be with T. V. Kochubava.Our senior friend, K. V. Vincent worked in the Alathoor Taluk office in those days. Malayalam stories at that time resonated with the voice of the wind atop the Palmyra trees. 
Palmyras symbolized their modernism. 
Sketches of A.S. accompanying the stories by Mundur Krishnankutty and Sethumadhavan. 
Stooping ancient mango trees. Slender anemic women with elongated eyes. 
It was a time of Khasak reading. The village of Tasrak (on which O.V. Vijayan's Khasak work is based) hadn't been revealed then. I think it is somewhere near here. Among those running home after the village school, I would wonder who is Kunjamina? who is Kunjinooru? I must have heard Tamil for the first time from Allapicha Mullakka of Khasak. Or may be from Ammulu in Malayatoor's 'Verukal'. That language was never unfamiliar when heard.

The old Madras city resurfaces in my memory. 
The red coated Central railway station, the main roads where sun rains fire. 
Humongous cut-outs of film stars. 
Streets fusing the fragrance of jasmine with the odour of horse dung. 
I remember going with my parents to drink 'sathukudi' juice from a stall on Mount Road. A man squeezed the juice first. Before he handed the glass to me, the woman in the shop took it for examination. She did not like it. She emptied the whole glass after castigating him with a laconic 'Enneda ithu?". Then she herself prepared a glass of juice for me. 
I doubted then: Is she is the 'Rachiyamma' that Urub wrote about?! 
In my trips to Tamil Nadu, I have never stopped searching for C.V. Sriraman's 'Varalakshmi'. 

The Tamilian has always had a special consideration for the Malayalee. The Malayalee deludes himself that the Tamilian is awestruck by the Malayalee physique and culture. 
What culture does the Malayalee have that is not already the Tamilian's?! 
Towards us, theirs is an ancient affection, a relationship bonded over generations.

Once, around 10 years before I reached, that city was the capital of half of Kerala. Not only movies, but all major magazines and books for Malayalam were made there. 
M. Govindan steered Kerala's thought stream sitting there. K.C.S Panikkar embodied Kerala's soul. Our Namboodiri and Devan returned from there after learning drawing. 
As people, how much can a Tamilian and Malayalee stand separate? How much? When Palani Andavan is there and Sabarimala Ayappan is here? How much? Guruvayurappan here and Velankani Lady there? How much? As long as Tamil and Malayalam exist?

I am not writing anything about Mullaperiyar. I lack the scientific expertise. But I understand that what rises above 136 feet is not water but fear. I don't know how children in Idukki manage to sleep at night. Nightmares of drought-stricken farms haunt the Tamilian of Theni. 
The leadership in both states are competing in manufacturing psychosis. 
It is a revelation of the collapse that the label 'leadership' has undergone in the 60 years after independence. 
Those leaders who rose by reading and reflecting and toiling in the sun, those who had marched unwavering towards the prison and the noose, their long line has ended. 
New political outfits spawn in the stinking hotbeds of communalism and linguistic fanaticism. 
Leaders of today are born splashing their smiling faces on flux boards installed at busy intersections. Their vision never reaches beyond their berth.

G. P. Ramachandran telephoned in the evening. In Valayar yesterday, he said, I saw that god whose appearance is not guaranteed even if you climb Sabarimala. 
Faith appears to us usually in the terrible forms of partition, exodus and rivers of blood. 
But sometimes we realize that faith can heal. 
It can mend the wounds. 
It will be good if we can have some faith in the foresight and vision of our political leadership and bureaucracy.