On learning Tamil, polarized societies and the pursuit of truth and beauty.

Sometime last week, I happened to watch the Neeya Naana episode from 15.4.18. I often watch the show because I’m interested in observing and understanding its narrative — it’s also not a bad way to understand the pulse of the people. This episode did not disappoint. It was a discussion about mother tongue learning, with one group speaking for actively teaching their children the mother tongue (Tamil) and its literature, and the other group not so keen on it. Most of the people who were not too keen on their children learning Tamil in school were thinking from the perspective of what ‘value’ it would add to their child’s life. Learning Hindi, or a foreign language, their argument went, would help them if they needed it for their careers later in life; knowing to read and write Tamil guaranteed no such advantage. It was also not a ‘scoring subject’, and therefore unpopular among ambitious parents.

The show’s narrative, on the other hand, centred around positioning Tamil not just as a language, but a medium inducting its learners into a 2000-year-old way of life and ethos. தமிழர் வாழ்வியல் முறையை தெரிந்துகொள்ள தமிழ் படி was their refrain. Their narrative talked about having pride in the unbroken chainlink of a classical language, that has come to us down the ages. Cutting ourselves adrift from the language would distance us from our roots, they said. These are arguments not dissimilar to those I made in this essay recently. However, hearing this particular hour-long discussion, I realised something else, something important, something I realised about my own journey reading and writing in Tamil, that I will share in the interest of completeness, and because I feel it is precisely what needs to be said right now.

And that is this idea, the idea that both the parents who participated in the show, and the narrative Neeya Naana built, missed completely. Building in a young person pride centred around an external identity, whether it is religion, ideology, nation, or language, and more importantly, making the said pride, the focal point of their identity, almost never ends well. Learning Tamil, being Tamil, because it is your identity, because it is the identity of your ancestors, because you are Tamil, and because you need to take pride in your ethos — these are not invalid reasons to learn the language, but I shudder at each repetition of identity, identity, identity — at how fragile our sense of identity is, in the existential sense, and how we need to keep finding external anchors for it all the time. And then I think of the middle-class parents in cities and small towns, whose only ambition for their children is to score well, get a degree that gets a job that pays well, buy all the right things, and settle down, and I wonder where their sense of existential, let alone cosmic, identity will come from when the question inevitably starts gnawing at their soul.

And this is true not just of the Tamil identity, but any identity built around anyidentifier. There are similar arguments made over Sanskrit. A few years ago, when I was living in Pittsburgh, I met a family who spoke only Sanskrit at home. Their eight-year-old was a pro. What is the point of this NRI family speaking Sanskrit for their daily transactions, making up words for fridge and computer and wifi, I wondered — a language, which, in my understanding, was never a spoken language of the common people in the first place. Modern Sanskrit speakers, are too, in a sense, aspiring to a lost ethos, a particular way of life.

A three-day shibhiram organized by Samskrita Bharati includes an immersive experience speaking in and listening only to Sanskrit for three full days, and the company of talented, motivated and earnest youngsters, but also includes a morning yoga session, a sattvic lunch and bhajan satsangs in the afternoon. While this is not on the same level as claiming fantastically that the internet existed in the time of the Mahabharatha, or that the Kumari Kandam was the cradle of civilization, I feel they stem from the same impulse of insecurity, differing only in the type and degree of expression. Most talk of Tamil nationalism is fundamentally not different from Hindu nationalism in this essential sense — this narrative of pride in the ‘oldest’, ‘biggest’, ‘wisest’ and ‘best’ seems to be simply insecurity trying unsuccessfully to cover itself with the thin cloak of grandiosity.

We, the constructors and consumers of capitalism, its minions, its narcissistic handmaidens, are adrift. Our modern thoughts have made us question, and not without reason, the rigid, unyielding social models of our ancestors, but in the process, we have are also been cut off from their value systems. In its absence, our generation has found itself distanced from the natural support systems of extended family networks, clans and communities, as well as its values that served to provide meaning for their lives in the past. Instead, we seek fulfillment and meaning in the things we buy for ourselves (‘self-care!’ we say), we turn to entertainment to fill our time that gapes vacuously at us, and then buy more time with money because we can. Our arts are full of pessimism about humanity and human potential: humans are trash, we say brashly, indifferently, for who has the time or patience to engage with the said humans? And we huddle into corners, doubting, suspicious of the other, coming to rally in bubbles around some common thread of relief — the shared belief in the same God, the shared belief that the other group is made of sub-humans, the shared belief that speakers of the other language are out to make fools of us, and civil discourse is no longer possible with such morons. And what does that give us, but this deeply polarized world that we are in? One person says she fears potential rape in a cab because it carried a Rudra Hanuman poster, another person retaliates by namecalling all Muslims, jihadis, and all this hate is amplified a million times through our online and offline social networks.

I fear this climate of polarization, where furrows deepen with every Whatsapp forward whistling its way through networks of people who believe, with their whole heart, that they are right, their way is just, that they are dispossessed, pitiable victims who must rally back, or else. But more than fear, it is a deep distress that wells up in me — how insecure we are, and how unhappy, and how unsure. How alone, and how abandoned. How adrift. I do not know how to set this right, how to talk about this and make everyone else see what I see, that we are like people trapped in a ghostly castle, except that the horror of the situation is that there may be no ghost in this castle after all, and that we fear each other and have fallen to killing and raping anyone in sight. We are suspicious of the country, its systems and our fellow beings, certain in our that no one will step forward to help us in a time of crisis, and the only alternative is to band together in tribes, not around a shared set of positive values, but by making a shared front against something. This is the reason that any manufactured tribalism centred on pride makes me tremendously uncomfortable.

To return, in my case, I realize now that the reason I started reading Tamil was the same reason I attended the Samskrita Bharati meetings. It had nothing to do with pride, or even the need to find my identity in my roots. It had everything to do with my own love for wisdom and my pursuit of the truth, and my own desire to joust with this sense of fear of the fellow being that has overtaken our public consciousness, that of course, I am also not immune to.

My mother language, Tamil, and her sister tongue, Sanskrit, with all their complicated histories and are vessels, carriers of truth, beauty and wisdom. The languages themselves, their hoary origins, or an identity I can derive from associating with it, none of this matters to me. Languages are idea-vessels, where the form is the substance — the language itself, its words, its poetic devices and symbols, carries its particular insight and wisdom in it. I don’t look up to Tamil in awe because it is a 2500-year-old old lady, full of finger-wagging wise saws. I don’t derive my identity from being born in the ancient house of that old lady. Quite the contrary, the collected wisdom and beauty of all those years is available for me here and now. I can be a woman of the free world, of my time and age, thinking and reading new ideas in different languages, and still find as my contemporaries Valluvar and Ilango and Kamban and Bharathi. It is the pursuit of truth that, quite naturally, brought me back to my grandmother tongue (and what a sweet, yet upright and decisive tongue she has!) and not pride that she is my grandmother. This might have been the case even if I was not born in a Tamil-speaking family — how else would the Russian Tolstoy adopt the Kural for himself? Besides, I have ridden down the shaky raft of worldly existence with Kaniyan Poongundran, and I know better than to tie my ephemeral identity to something as simple as the language I was born with.

So, if I have children, I know I would not want to make an agenda out of teaching them Tamil, or teaching them Sanskrit, or anything else for that matter. I would, however very much like to teach them, if it’s possible, to discover their inner sense of truth, beauty and goodness. To love wisdom, uncompromising, impartial truth, with all their heart, and to have their actions guided by that sense. If they discover that, that alone, I believe, will be sufficient to guide them to all the sources and bosoms of wisdom, to each eternal spring that still waits patiently for men and women to discover it. I believe that journey will naturally lead them to Tamil, for its language and literature brims with truth and beauty and wisdom, and by that very process, it would wean them naturally away from developing any false sense of superiority and victimhood.

My own personal ideal, the reason I read and write and think and be, is truth, beauty, wisdom, and the sense of good and bad, right and wrong it unequivocally inspires. My loyalty is only to my pursuit of truth and beauty and goodness. Tribal senses of identity and modern ideological identities are tools, sometimes very useful tools, but if I fashion myself a hammer-wielder, then I am tempted to see every problem as a nail. And these are limited tools — a tribal sense of identity or an ideology cannot answer the grand questions of life, nor lead one on to truth, beauty or goodness.

Short story – Just a Dream

The best part was that I knew it was a dream, through and through. The car ride. The mountain. The mounds of sand. I was even able to remember details, strange for a dream. I was able to recall the strong smell of the diesel in the car, the heat shimmering from the sand. I was able to taste the bile in my mouth. I was able to feel the sweat breaking out on my forehead.

It started in a room. A room with whitewashed walls. Red files neatly stacked in a shelf near where we sat. It was ‘we’, I knew so much. At least in that room. The flat tube-light with its stark white light and faintly pink edges.

The car now. We are in the car. Who is ‘we’? I can sense that a woman with bobbed hair is driving the car. She is ‘Mother’. That is what I call her. Not mine, but ‘Mother’ nevertheless. The red Wagon R moves slowly between the arches created by the leafless branches of the birch trees. Down the path, the leafless path. It is threatening to pour with rain any moment. Mother talks, volubly, like never before. He answers her. I chip in occasionally, monosyllabically. My mind is elsewhere. I have to go, I know, even if it is just a dream. But where?

I am driving now. Alone. That old white Fiat we had, once upon a time. MCZ 4129. Forty-one twenty-nine. The car I learnt to drive in. I am driving and there is a mountain visible in the distance. If I cross the mountain, everything will be OK. But will I cross it? Will I? There is sand on all sides. I drive. Like a maniac, I drive through the sand. The oppressive heat gets to me. Bright sun. Hot. Hot.

A stone. My windshield has a beautiful crack on it. Like a spider web. Another one. The third is a sharp one, ripping the front tire. Car skids to a halt. I know I have to get out, yet I stay in. I am shaking. Like a peepal leaf, I am shaking. The next stone finds the window next to where I am sitting. I open the door, shaking. “It is just a dream” I tell myself. “Just a dream.” My words of reason do not stop me from trembling.

The man who I knew was waiting outside is still half buried in the sand. I take tottering steps towards him. His matted hair hangs in strands around his bloodshot eyes and he white hair on his bare body is mixed with the wet sand. How can he be like this in this place, I wonder. I know I am afraid. Fear makes my tongue go dry, my eyes pop out.

However, the most frightening thing about his appearance is the vague familiarity of his face. I cannot place him, yet I know that I know him. The hot afternoon sun rains upon this strange scene. As I walk towards him, he pushes himself out of the sand and looks at me. There is an ironic smile on his face. He shakes the sand out of his air. I can read the promise in his eyes, and it scares me out of my wits. “Just a dream,” I tell myself. “Just a dream.” I close my eyes to the brightness.

I wipe the bead of sweat from my brow. I open my eyes with a start. Darkness. Finally, thankfully, darkness. I’m shaking so much that I almost can’t feel the hand holding mine and the other hand stroking my head. “That was just a dream. Just a dream.” The voice is thankfully familiar, thankfully soothing. Holding on to a finger from the hands, just one, I blink back the sleepy tears and go to sleep.

In the morning, I wake up when the sun pierces through the chinks in the closed curtains. Another day. I fold the blanket, my blanket, and move into the bathroom. I reach out for the toothbrush in the rack overhead, brush my teeth and place the brush back it the empty stand. I open the curtains to allow light into my room, my room with the long bed, the solitary table, the chair that goes with it. I open the closet, filled with clothes, mine, to pick out something to wear for the day. I walk into the kitchen. I make a single mug of coffee, and get the day’s newspaper. Sitting alone in my balcony, reading the news, sipping the coffee, I tell myself, “Just a dream.”

Fiction: The Kurukshetra Premier League

1

Lord Vinayaka, the elephant-headed god, the destroyer of evil, was reclining comfortably on his sofa on Mount Kailash after a heavy afternoon meal. After all, people insisted on treating him every single day with everything from coconuts to kozhukattais. No wonder, he mused, that Dr. Dhanvantri kept telling him to get more exercise on the treadmill. “But each to their own…no one will recognize me if I develop six pack abs” Vinayaka could not help laughing out loud at the imagined sight. He did ride a mouse for all his bulk, but somehow he could not imagine mice running down his arms as he flexed them!

Veda Vyasa was huffing and puffing as he approached Vinayaka. “O pot-bellied one, I bow to thee,” said Vyasa, starting with the customary greeting. Vinayaka smothered a grin, and patting his belly contentedly with the end of his trunk, bade Vyasa to sit down. “Tsk tsk. Vyasa, you are always out of breath. You need some regular exercise. Now, the treadmill…” he said impishly.

Vyasa did not hear him. “My lord, there is a small cause for concern,” started Vyasa without preamble. “You remember the time you out wrote out the Mahabharata for me?”

How can I forget?” muttered Vinayaka. “Tongue twisting poetry, almost broke my fingers, and my last instalment of pay never really reached me…yes, sire, I do remember it. What about it now?”

“The thing is, those humans have unearthed some recent archeological evidence that actually goes to prove that the war at Kurukshetra never really happened.”

“What? So do you mean to say you made the whole story up?”

“No, no, my lord, back then those were facts.  But now, in the light of the new evidence, something to do with Secularization of  Historical Facts or some such thing we have to write it out again to pull in the new facts. Yesterday’s facts are today’s mythology, you know. Our old version gets support only from the VHP, and a half-hearted nod from the BJP.  But now in the light of the election results, it looks like they need a new secular epic now, to accommodate the fresh, ah, evidence. I really don’t understand modern Indian politics or history. It looks like historical evidence can now be conveniently arranged for, just like votes. The bottomline is that we have to make a revision of the epic. Soon.”

“So?”

“Well, I was wondering if you could be my scribe again. We have a really good rapport. And with my beautiful poetry and distinctive phraseology and deep metaphorical allusions and character delineation, and with your…aah…tusk, we made up a good team the last time around.”

“All right, cut the crap and tell me what you would be paying this time around. I am not a mere copywriter any more, and I use my broken tusk only to decorate my hallway. I use a computer, complete with pirated Microsoft software, and I hope your dictation is as fast as my typing speed. And you would have to correct the typographical errors. I don’t do that anymore.”

 “Sure, sure, whatever, your terms. We have to get this done. We will receive funding from the Department of Religious Endowments and also from the Department of Correction of Historical Inaccuracies. And think of the fame…once we are done writing we can have a proper book release, with an evening tea, complete with those tiny biscuits with topping on them and champagne. All the Page Three glitterati would be there, and you might actually get a picture of yourself in the next morning’s Mites of India surrounded by beautiful ladies. I can almost see the headline … ‘The Elephant God’s Animal Magnetism.’ And the media watchdogs…they’d love the buzz you would create…remember the hype over the time you supposedly drank milk in some temple?  You’ll have all these ‘Breaking News’ updates just to yourself. Think, think of all that,” Vyasa was at the edge of his seat now. He could see that Vinayaka was almost sold.

“Welllllll….” drawled Vinayaka. “I’ll do it. But mind you, I want half the pay upfront and the rest before I give you the final version.”  

“Alright, fine. Like I have any other option. So let’s get this rolling right away, what say?”

“Alright, give me the one-liner. How is this going?”

“Well, the basics are pretty much the same. The Pandavas, the Kauravas, rival gangs, hate each other… anyway, the Pandavas are at Indraprastha when the Kauravas invite them over for a game of poker.”

“Poker?”

 “Yeah, the recent evidence shows that the ancient Indians invented poker.”

“Eh? You’re not kidding? Well, I’m just the scribe. Ok, game of poker. And?”

“Well, Yudhishtira as we know is one preachy face; he cannot play the game, and he cannot say ‘no’ either. So he plays, pledges every damn thing he owns, or thinks he owns, and loses.”

“OK, and they go to the forest next?”

“Yeah, the thirteen year banishment.”

“So what next? The war, right?”

“That’s where there’s a change. Now listen closely. We Indians are supposed to be a peaceful race. Having a war that killed so many innocent people as a part of our mythology supposedly gives us this bad image on the world scale. Well anyway, they have unearthed new evidence now. What actually happened is this.”

Vyasa paused.

“Because of the huge casualties involved in war, Krishna and Bhishma chalked out a plan. They decided to replace war… with a game of cricket. A really short one at that. Only 20 overs. The team that wins the game gets the empire. The team that loses has to retire ignominiously into the forest, loses all right to hold a credit card, claim insurance and appear on reality TV shows. End of all civilized life!”

Vinayaka’s trunk dropped.

“Well?” asked Vyasa, pleased with the effect he had created.

“Well, what? First poker, now cricket? Mahabharata was in the post-Vedic Age. Cricket was invented by the Englishmen in the 12th century AD. And besides, if we release this book, Ashutosh Gowarikar is going to sue us.”

“No, no, no…that’s where you are wrong. Cricket was not invented by the British, it was invented by the Indians in the Vedic period. Later, it was carried to Europe by the nomads along the Silk Route. That’s what the new evidence says. ”

“Isn’t this, well … too much to swallow?”

“That’s where we come in, my lord. We have to convince them with our story,” Vyasa pumped his fist into the air. “Yeah!”

Vinayaka rolled his beady eyes. “Why do I ever let myself get talked into these things?” His large ears twitched.

2

Vinayaka opened his laptop, and started reading a few pages from his newly written manuscript to Vyasa.

Draupadi sat on the window sill, her hair hanging around her shoulders, chin cupped in her hands, staring out of the window. There was a peculiar expression of irritation on her face; the reader might imagine the physiognomy of Impedimenta in the Asterix comics as an approximation.

Yudhishtira, not really unlike Vitastatistix , walked to her, and asked her, “Is that brother of yours here yet?”

“If he were here, we would know, wouldn’t we? What kind of a question is that?” she snapped back irritably.

“Alright, alright, alright, I know you are still angry about what happened…but now that there’s the cricket match coming up, we will clobber them for good.”

“That’s exactly what you said when you were putting your last stake on the table. Fool that you are, you could not see a straight flush when it stares up at you in your face”

“Er…oh, here he is. Hel-lo Drishtadymna!”

Drishtadyumna came in, impeccably dressed in a conservative blue suit with a striped tie, laptop bag in one hand.”

“Hey, brother, howdy. I have the perfect strategy devised to clobber the Kauravas for good.”

“Humph!” said Draupadi, turning away. “Men!”

“Hey, hey, sis, your big brother is a management consultant. Straight out of IIM Ahmedabad!”

He winked, and Yudhishtra rolled his eyes. How many times did he have to be reminded? “Don’t you worry, we will chalk out the most perfect plan to wreck revenge on those evil cousins of yours.”

Yudhishtira said, “Fine, let’s get started. They want a cricket match now?”

“20-20.” said Drishtadyumna with smug satisfaction. “It’s called Kurukshetra Premier League. KPL for short.”

“Us against them, huh?”

“Yes and no. We are supposed to make up a team of eleven comprising players from all our allies, give it a name, find a brand ambassador, arrange for cheerleaders, advertise our team, appear in as many branded ads as possible, appear on TV and be interviewed by that hot newscaster on TenDTV, slander some member of the other team, if possible, slap him before the match, and in general, be as popular as possible. It matters, the ratings.”

“And…play the match?”

“Yeah. That too. Eventually. But what’s more important is the pre-match strategizing. You are lucky to have a management consultant, don’t you? Straight out of…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that bit. So what is the Kaurava team calling itself?” 

“Well, they are called Hastinapur Headhunters.”

“Hastinapur…Headhunters? That’s… not really a name now, is it?”

“It is, and apparently it is supposed to instill fear into our hearts.”

“Right. I’m trembling in my shoes. So, what are we calling ourselves?”

“Indraprastha Indefagitables”

“Eh??? You out of your mind? What kind of a name is that? Indefagitables? What next? Vegetables? Card tables? No, no, no,  Draupadi dear, I’m not saying anything about playing cards now…that was just an expression…” after an apologetic nod to his wife who was looking daggers at him, he hissed to Drishtadyumna “How did you come up with a name like that?”

“Well, sire, according to KPL protocol the names of the teams must alliterate; it does not help matters that Veda Vyasa who designed the protocol is a poet. We cannot call ourselves Indraprastha Super Kings even if we are real super-duper kings. And, I flicked through the dictionary for a suitable adjective.” Drishtadyumna shrugged his shoulders. “If you would rather have it Indraprastha Incorrigibles or Indraprastha Inebriated, I don’t have a problem.”

“Humph! Technically we don’t own Indraprastha or any bit of land for that matter. We belong to Nowhere.”

“Well, if you want we can call ourselves the Nowhere Nondescripts or the Nowhere Nutcrackers…”

“I’ll crack yours if you give me any more of those dumb names…well, with a name like Drishtadyumna you would want revenge, but don’t wreck it on my team.” Yudhishtira was incensed. This is the last time I am hiring a management consultant, and this is the absolute last time that I am hiring a brother-in-law. “Seeing that we are nearly penniless, who is sponsoring us?”

“Lord Indra. I got all the papers drawn up, all that is required is for the two of you to sign. Just a small issue…” Drishtadyumna paused. “Being Arjuna’s father, he wants Arjuna to captain the team.”

Before Yudhishtra could say a word, Draupadi chimed in with “Finally! Someone sane at the helm!”

Yudhishtra gave her a glare, and said “Well…so long as we get our funding straight. And who is funding the Kauravas? The…ah…Headhunters?”

“They approached Lord Kubera first. But he wanted the team to call themselves the Queenfishers after his…um…distilled foods plant.”

“Queen-fishers?”

“Why not? If one can fish for kings, why not queens? He’s a feminist, you know.”

“So what happened to the deal with Kubera?”

“It’s off. Some issue about the selection of players. You know how bull headed Duryodhana can get.”

“So who’s their ambassador now?”

“Varuna Deva, the god of water and rain. Nobody else was remotely interested.”

“Hmm… whatever. So when’s the match?”

“In a couple of weeks from now. At the Kurukshetra stadium. But we need to get all the publicity shots in before then.”

“Is our team line up decided?”

“Oh yes.” Drishtadyumna booted up his laptop to open a powerpoint presentation. “Arjuna is captaining, opening batsmen are Arjuna and myself. You can have a look for yourself. Bhima’s our principal bowling attack, with Ghatotkacha supporting. Abhimanyu in the middle order. You are the wicket keeper.”

“Let’s hope he keeps at least that well” muttered Draupadi.

“Hang on.” said Yudhishtira, looking at a slide showing eleven people lined up like Ceaser’s army. “What do these slides show? Who are those people?”

“Why, it is yourself and your revered brothers, sire.”

“And why is it that we cannot recognize ourselves?”

“You have been given a virtual makeover. That is how you are going to play. Once you okay this, we are going to get the make-up artistes from the sets of Dasavatharam to get it rolling.”

“What else?” asked Yudhishtira sarcastically.

“Well, I have booked four interviews, and we need to get the hoardings done. Plus the meeting with the cheerleaders. Arjuna’s getting a lot of offers for modelling, but we have to be selective and exclusive, haven’t we?”

“Right. So when do we practice?”

“Practice? Um…my schedule does not really have any provision for it, but I am sure we can fit it in somewhere in between.”

Yudhishtra raised his head to the heavens. “With friends like this, who needs the Kauravas?”

3

Vinayaka paused reading and said, “That’s how far I have got. How’s it?”

“Not bad at all” said Vyasa, effusively. “That modern Indian newspaper reader will love it.”

“So, tell me, what happens next? I’m looking forward to being a sports writer!”

“Oh, that’s bad. You see, the match did not take place.”

“Eh? But why?”

“Called off due to incessant rain. A couple of days before the match, Indra and Varuna got into a spat over a drink. Something about an ad that Arjuna was modeling for; Varuna made a rather unparliamentary comment about it, but Arjuna did model for a fairness cream for men”

“And?”

“There was a huge fight. Indra and Varuna trying to outdo the other. Varuna rained so hard that the Ganga and Krishna and Kaveri flowed together; the entire land was inundated. Indra responded with such fierce thunderbolts that the entire armory…er…playing equipments of both teams were destroyed. Even the bloodthirsty Kauravas were horrified at the extent of damage these two, alone, caused. So, they decided to call the match off.”

“And what about the partitioning of the land?”

“What land? It was completely a water mass. Took centuries to drain. Nobody wanted it any more.”

“So what are the Pandavas doing now?’

“Arjuna is a professional cricketer now, highest bid-for player on the IPL, the modern version of KPL. Bhima is a top notch star at the WWE, only he calls himself Mincemeat Pulpsquisher. Nakula, with his impeccable good looks, made a career for himself in Bollywood. He’s even got his own blog now where he clarifies points about his racy-pacey past. Sahadeva, the intelligent one, went to engineering school and management school, but quit his job to become a writer of alternative mythology. He’s a best-selling author now. Draupadi has a personalized fashion line; she writes 15,000-word posts on her Instagram saree page about how buying her sarees will make you a feminist.

“And Yudhishtra?”

“Well, he’s the one commissioning the writing of this book. He’s the Prime Minister of the country.”

Lines on the back of a peepal leaf

It was under the blue sky, yes, the same blue sky that roofs yourself and myself, the blue sky under which we have spent so many happy hours unmindful of its very existence, it was right under the blue sky that I got your message written on the peepal leaf scroll.

I was in the brown walled courtyard opening up to the sky, and I found your scroll when the wind put it into my arms. What I was doing there, why I was given the scroll, how I knew it was from you, I cannot say. I am describing a dream, you know. Like it is the way with all the dreams and the nightmares, the details are tweezed out with almost a cruel perfection, leaving only a blur at the edges. And the blur is perhaps the only reason that the essence is embossed upon the memory, and haunts the living daylights out of one. Which is why I attempt to capture the essence in the poorly shaped container of words…like trying to trap a gas in a liquid.

The peepal leaves I held in my hand were brown, fading, but almost perfect in its state of preservation. As if they had been curled and born on the bark and died and withered and windswept into your arms, just to bear this message you had to write to me. Stitched on one end, the broad upper curves. Stitched neatly too. You never told me you could stitch? But then there is so much more that you never told me. Not that I ever asked, of course. It was an original idea, I agree, making scrolls out of peepal leaves. You know I like leaves and trees and earth and soil and such abstractions. Was it why you had chosen to write that last message of farewell on leaves and give it to me? So that when the leaves fade, my memory of you would fade too? Or when the leaves wither into the everything-ness (as opposed to nothingness) of the earth as we know it, my memory of you would also move, expand and fill the earth with itself? So that there would be no memories left with me, I would bequeath them to everything and everywhere?

Don’t make me laugh, please, I am trying hard to cry over you. When the Sun torments the Earth, it is best that the Rain comes in to quench the pain. For whatever I may say about the nature of things being such and such, it is the Sun’s nature to burn merrily, and the Earth’s to bear with patience and fortitude, that there is peace in that, I am afraid that we may be taking things too far. Even the sharp reality of the dream only succeeded in making my heart, yes, Heart, heavy, heavier than I have ever known, but I could not weep and grieve, either for you or for me. Your calm denouncement of your Death, the suicide of our ‘I’, my sense of having ‘lost’ you, only gives me a profound sense of Destiny, of heavy rivers swelling and taking their course, bypassing the long roots from the wayside trees dipping into it, drinking from it. Not a thought does the river spare for the bystanders!

But then why does your water sweep the leaves off my arms and take them downstream to show them the salty oceans and the sunsets there? Is it on one of these leaves that you write your message of farewell and send them over, from wherever it is that you are? So that it is a double punch…one message of eternal farewell with the words in the letter, and another in the leaf, my leaf that bears the message, now returned to me? So that I cannot even deceive myself any further with illusions of you having them as a keepsake? 

You know me. You know that I cannot dream of denying you the right to your Life, the right to a lack of it, if only you wish it. You also know that you cannot deny me a right to mine. Whatever interaction we have had, whatever relationship we share, whatever prompted you to write a message of ‘farewell’ to me because you have gone away, forever, is all based on this unspoken fundamental. With such an understanding, what is the meaning of the lines you write to me, on the back of a peepal leaf? What farewell are you referring to? I know that you always fare me well, but must you underscore that in red ink on the back of a peepal leaf and let it flutter across the courtyard, under our blue sky, just because your Life as you know it is lost to you? Are you telling me, trying to tell me, that is, that you are forever lost to me and I to you, just because you are dead? Don’t I still have you, here, with me, now and forever, whether you live or die or hang between heaven and earth?

I do. And now, now, I realize what the farewell was all about. Maybe it was not that you were bidding farewell to me at all. You are just taking leave of that part of you that you have left behind in me. And when I let this peepal leaf flutter back with the wind, telling Him to take it where it wills, I am saying goodbye too, another goodbye, to the part of me that shall forever be yours. We are characterized by the losses we have suffered, only my loss is not you, it is myself. And with that loss, that goodbye, I welcome a new Me in me. The Me with the permanent citizen, You. Welcome, friend.

Venerations

[1]

It was a moonlit night. I swayed from side to side as the boat that carried me floated down the blackness of the river. The river was not still; he was turbulent. He gurgled and bubbled and foamed at his mouth as he dashed against the rocks, which held him not captive, against the wind, who only wanted to aid him, against the earth, who rested back, and was allowing the wanton child his pleasure. Yet the river surged, restless. Where did he want to go? What did he want to go away from? And why was I allowing my boat to be carried by his fancies? Was I his, or was he mine? Was I, with my lazy oar, trying to egg him, encourage him push him on his journey from nowhere to nowhere? Was he, with his spirit of rebellion, trying to take me with him to the lands where all waters flow? From my boat, I leaned over, and in the foamy waters, my hands sunk, bringing forth a sparkling liquid diamond that I wetted my lips with. And as his restlessness ran through me, rousing my consciousness, I became one with him, and plunged into the river, streaking my way across him, along with him. When I was long gone, to be away from nowhere, leaving my lonely, faithful boat behind, the brook still babbled, the night bird screeched, and the winds hushed them silently, hurrying through the crevices of the leaves and fronds. And she looked on with a beatific smile.

[2]

Do you remember the day when we played with the dolls? We decked them, decorated them frilled them, paraded them, promenaded them. Do you remember how empty their eyes looked? I remember how bright yours were! There was a vapid smile on their faces, a smile bereft of all emotion, a smile that tried to express too many emotions all at once. They moved their limp arms and legs as we wanted them to move. They nodded and shook their spineless necks with such vigor of purpose! And you, and I, you and I who played with them, laughed and cried and smiled and frowned and pretended anger and faked sorrow. Tell me, what were we trying to do? Did we try to impersonate the dolls? Did we try to make our fatuous friends take on the hue and color of our minds? Was this attempt just? Justified? Honest? I do not know. All I know is that you tickled the rubber belly of the doll, and I…I burst into squeals of laughter.

[3]

I am on the swing, and my feet brush against the earth on every subsequent rise and fall of my fluctuating fortunes. It is with a resounding kick that I push myself up, up, up…against the air, along with it. You stand there. I see you, but not with my eyes. You stand, your arms folded, with a smile on your face. I do not question your meanings and motives. But the lure of the sky, who beckons me with his enticing wares of white cotton candy and vastness and eternal solitude, is too much for me. As simply as a child needs its mother, a man his sleep, an addict his source, the river its sea, and the moon the sun, I needed the sky. I exhorted you. “Push me up. Higher. I want to touch the sky.” You obliged. Higher and higher and higher I went, crashing to the earth, moving back with equal momentum, when you pushed me higher up. “Higher!” I demanded. “I want it! Make me touch the sky!” When I came down to meet the earth this time, I folded my feet under me lest the friction skin my soles raw. I was elated, honored, exalted, by my sway over you…did I not make you do my bidding? Yet, I own, I was afraid, more than a ‘little’ afraid, of thee. And confusion overtook me, for why should I fear that which came from me, that which is me? Thy enormous power pushed me higher and higher and higher…till my hands scratched the blueness. My fingers turned blue, the blueness wrapped itself around the clamminess of my lonely heart. I was one with the blueness. My soft brown eyes turned a hard, blazing blue, as the sky was born in them. With a piece of the sky held in my palms, as the only offering to thee who made me possible, I, I returned to the earth. The clouds broke where I had grabbed them, and the water from them fell to the earth. As I finally turned to meet thine eyes, I found that I was not able to do so. Whether it was because I was afraid the newly found power in mine could hurt yours, or because I was afraid the gentleness in thine would put mine to shame, or whether I was afraid of the combined strength of that which was ‘ours’, I do not know. My eyes, blue, sought the countenance of the stolid brown earth, she who gave me, me, and me, thee. The trees surrounding us in the Glade of the Swing had already made their offering, white flowers dotted the surface of the earth. The flowers on the trees, followed suit, they sought the comfort of their mother, and drooped downward, looking at the earth. The rain flowed into the deepest crevices of the earth, taking the earth’s brown for its own, imparting its own characteristic moisture to the hard dry cakes of soil. And in that moment, that infinite moment, when I saw the earth and thee, me, when I silently held out my offering, mine, to thee, thine, when my gaze followed that of the white flowers, when their redolence awakened long sleeping sensations which were born with the birth of the universe, I saw thee, I saw thy eyes, I saw everything that makes thee, thee, in me. And in that infinite moment of hesitation, I was thee.

[4]

I accost my friend, the darkness. I seek the comfort of his presence. I beseech him to share with me, the primordial essence of eternity, that darkness which exists in every light that strives to be one with that awesome, all encompassing, compassionate darkness. I am but a crude picture of perfection. My lines are not as fine as the hand of perfection demands. My waves lack the form of stiff white foam that gives shape to the blue clouds of water. My song lacks not in tone nor timbre nor rhythm, but it cannot equal the silence of the winds before the storm at daybreak. My darkness is not untainted with light. Yet, I hasten to invite him into my bosom. I remove the shrouds and veils that have had me ensconced in them from ever since I can remember. No stray glimmer of light should set their velvety sheen aflame. I strip myself bare of my wristlets and anklets and diamonds in my ears and about my neck which might throw my face into relief and shadows. I try to bring out the darkness in me. Yet, try as I might, I am not able to rob these eyes of mine of their glint of Gubraithian fire. My hair is one with its luster, and my skin is one with its luminescent glow. My own fire burns with such great exothermicity that the heat glows and grows and feeds upon itself, making the blackness I have strived to create, red, the red of mountainous earth, the red of vermilion and henna, the red threads of blood, the red rings on the cheeks of the sun at twilight as she blushes when the arms of the earth and sky embrace her, the Red the communist tries to find in vain. I soldier on, trying to integrate these silent ruddy coals with the blackness that is, and was, theirs. The last vestiges of light, I try to wipe away from my consciousness. In this darkness, the pictures on my wall come alive. The words that I have written, with the ink still freshly wet on the surface, shine in the blackness and beckon to that in me which gave birth to them. Thy face recedes into a memory. Instead comes to my vision, thee, that smile of yours I did not see, I have never seen. As I walk on and on towards the waiting arms of darkness, the walls seem to crumble and become one with the earth that bore it. There is only the hard blackness of the earth below, the starless perfection of the sky overhead, and with darkness for the only companion, I wait. I await thee.

[5]

One night, with thee for my companion, I paced the corridors, up, down, up, down. Thy restlessness, thy gentleness, thy integrity, thy spirit, I tried to analyze. Thy only reply was a smile. In that moment of turbulence, I espied the instrument I play. She was swathed in cloth and dust sheets and wrappers, and she was propped up on pillows and cushions, like the febrile humans who passed past her without even a look. Her fever, I knew immediately, was born out of neglect, despair and indifference. I stopped my conversation with thee, mid sentence, and hastened to free my instrument of all its bonds and ties. I tore her clothes and covers and sheets and pillows off her slimness, and she stood, modest, demure, before me. She was made of wood, wood from long dead trees, wood that had fed itself on the milk of my mother, the earth… wood that came alive in my fingers. Her wood was augmented with earth, the finest soil her mother could give out of herself, earth, shaped, fueled, soul-ed… by me. Her wood was cut, hewn, into precise constructs…designed, by me. My mother’s veins and nerves, the streaks of ore in her stone, has been refined, amalgamated, made into strings, stretched across the wood, the wood that came from the Earth who bore me, the wood I cut and planed and constructed, the wood laid across the bosom of the Earth, drawing from within her fundamental resonance for me to play with. As I held her, as my bones and skin cradled her wood, as my fingers plucked her strings and held them in proper tension, as the air in the pores of her earth forced themselves out in perfect unison with my intention, with my force, with my thought, with my action, as the unyielding wood forced the melody out…oh! The earth in me spoke with the earth in her, my force with her string, my bone with her wood. We had never been apart, not one second. For before her birth, before my conception, we had always been together in the depths of the earth, and it was that eternal togetherness that spoke in the sweet sad lilting tunes thou forces upon her. And then, it was not me and her, it was we, it was us, it was I. And when I looked back at thee, listening, the same unchanged smile on thy face, my face broke into a smile too, a smile born out of the very music I played, a smile for thee, her, us, I.

[6]

Often, when I am by myself, I think of this: “I am sitting on the sand, and in front of me, the restless sea plays ‘kabaddi’ with the earth, trying to roll itself out, trying to play with his earth-mother. Foam dribbles at his drooling mouth and crests his handsome waves, and the child prances on, no knowledge of his own might, his own strength. The endless cycle continues, and I am but the modest spectator of his antics. The coconut fronds far, far away wave their arms in the sea-wind. The smell of the salt rises its head and freely wanders all around me. The kite flyers fly their kites, and the sea rears its head to watch the wind and paper fight it out in the blue, blue, sky, who is already in him. I watch all these things, and the wind blows my hair about my face. My hands clasp my knees, and without a care in the world, I watch them. And thou? Thou sits beside me, thou sees, with thine eyes, everything that I see. Thou dost not talk, and I do not break the silence. We, are one, in the silence, with the silence, that silent silence, that soundless silence, that sweetest music of all tones and timbres, that we created. And, I see thee, in the sea, in the sky, in the kites, in the fleecy clouds and fronded palms, in the eternal conversations of silence, in my own reflection in the things I see.”

[7]

I clutch thy hand with the trusting instinct of the child who knows no better companion in the world. The crowds fascinate me. The acrobats jump over the walls of flame and walk over taut ropes. The fire eaters drink, with apparent enjoyment, that fearsome yellow monster thou hath told me would ‘burn’. The dancers dance, and their dance radiate a mindless joy that I strive to find the meaning of. Their steps waken the heart beat of the Earth, her feeble beats which speak of her life, amplified a million times in their rhythm. Their song crawls into the very roots of my hair. The parrots screech and cackle. The men and women, they hold baskets of flowers aloft, they move to give their god their gifts. I watch, open mouthed. Green, green leaves of betel turn blood red as the mouths chew them and spit the blood out. Huge mounds of sweets piled all over. Laughing young women, hiding wide white grins in cunning smiles, flummoxing their ardent pursuers. A fortune teller promises to tell me my future. A doctor with strange roots promises to cure me of my stranger, non existent ailments. He, yonder, displays a seven eyed fish. I have long let go of thy hand, and I have walked long and deep into the fascinating crowd of heads. Wherever I turn, my sight is filled with wonderful delights, new in its very novelty. I have almost forgotten the existence of thee. And finally, when I encounter the temple square, with its rearing monster of a head, the gentle giants in attendance, when the people all around look down at the child, me, as their ‘God’, and rush towards me, whether to hold me up in their arms and cherish me and pet me and exalt me, or to do away with me for once and for all by making me a sacrificial offering, my fear, my fear I had no inkling that even existed inside me, came out in a single breathed scream. I ran back down the road that I had so ardently admired just a few moments back, ran back to thee, where you sat patiently, awaiting my return, knowing that I would return to thee. As I rushed back into thy arms, my scream of terror culminates in one of absolute relief, as I say that word aloud: “Father!”

[23.11.2007]

Necker cube

Once upon a time – don’t ask me why all stories have to have taken place at some definite time in the past – my story is timeless, I think. Still, for the sake of tradition, I say ‘once upon a time’. To resume, once upon a time, there was a woman, not unlike a certain person who refers to someone she knows as a ‘certain person’ while writing her little stories. I cannot tell you what she was like, for I don’t know it myself, and do we ever really know? But I know one small titbit from the history that her life was, and that is what I am going to recount to you.

This woman, one evening, was in conversation with her brothers. In the course of their exchanges, the girl happened to ask her brothers how long they would be around for her. The wise men knew, if not the exact answer, what answer they should not give, what hopes they should not stoke, what facts they could not hide. They spoke the truth, in a matter of fact voice, like they always did.

The woman heard the answer spoken, and asked her next natural question. She wanted to know whether there would be anyone with her till she was.

Her brothers knew the answer, because they had heard men who knew speak about it. They tried telling their sister what they knew, but she refused to believe it, because she saw that the voices of her brothers lacked conviction, and thought if their words were so flimsy that they could not believe it themselves, then why she should do it.

The brothers wanted to prove to the sister the truth of their words, and the sister wanted to know the truth. So they decided to approach a man who was known to know a lot of answers. They would take their question to him, they thought, and see whether he had the answer in his bag-of-answers.

It would be difficult to approach this man, though. He was and exceedingly busy man. His schedule was completely packed for most of the day, and he was constantly meeting people, mostly new ones, every single day. His mind would be filled with the details of all these people, and the bits of information they chose to bring to him, and all that he chose to take in. No, our people were not sure if they would get an appointment. For the appointment of a recluse, is the most difficult appointment to obtain.

Nevertheless, they managed to get five minutes of his time, and the woman put forth her question to him.

“Is there anyone on earth who will be with me forever?”

The great man thought for a moment, and replied, almost instantaneously: “No”

“But I am afraid to go on with so much uncertainty. When there is no definite end to anything, then why should I do what I do? Nothing matters anyway, not me, nor you. And this kind of apathy scares me. Can you please tell me why?”

“It was never meant to be that way. We were born alone and we go alone. It is a law of nature. What is there to fear?”

“The fact that everything seems so important, but nothing really is. Then, why should we do anything? What is the need, what is the desire, what is the will? There is a huge ‘why’ that looms above me. And that ‘why’ seems pointless.”

The great man then said, “It looks like you have not yet learnt to live with detachment. Your fear is but a consequence of that. I’ll give you a proposition. You be my secretary for the next month, live with me, and see what I do. I am sure you will get your answers by the end of the month.”

And so, the brothers left their sister with the man, secretly relieved.

The woman began her internship with her mentor. Her work involved making his schedule for each day, a week in advance, and making sure he stuck to his schedule. Added to this, she had to make sure that he took his meals at regularly spaced times every day, was on time for his insulin shots and was not disturbed when spoke with his wife for fifteen minutes, every morning, the only time of the day he spoke to her. For all this, she was paid in his time; she got an hour to talk to him at the end of every day. However, she hardly made use of this time for actually talking, and let him use his leisure hour as he usually used it.

No, her lessons were from observation. She saw the enormous number of people who spoke to this man every day. She made memorandums of their lives, as they told it to her, to be passed on to him. She got down names and addresses and other ways and means to contact all these people. She saw her mentor engrossed in the affairs of these people, twenty four by seven, learning about everyday horrors, yet eating his food with relish at the end of the day as if he had been born for the sole purpose of finishing that single meal.

She saw him address an old woman he had never set his eyes on before, and his eldest son, with the same warmth, the same equanimity. She saw him impervious to the circumstances of birth and death, of the vagaries of bonds and estrangement.

That night (it was almost three weeks since she had first come there) she addressed him during the one hour he had given to her: “How are you able to be that way? Don’t you feel pride when those people greet you and wish you and adore you? Don’t you feel joy when you speak to your wife and son? Don’t you feel dread when you know that all this is fleeting, and will soon be gone? Don’t you think of what you will do then, how you will sit and think back and feel everything all over again, only it will all be a memory, a have-been? How are you able to create all this, knowing well that it has to definitely go someday?”

The man replied: “Why is it that you have not spoken a word to me, about what you seek me about, all this time, but do so now?”

“I was biding my time. I was observing. There is more sense in silent observation and then talking than in empty talk.”

“Ah! That is exactly what I am doing. I am observing as well, except on a much grander scale.”

The woman said nothing, but looked back, waiting.

“You ask me,” resumed the man. “You ask me about joys and sorrows which are momentary and elusive. But then, is anything not elusive? No, as I told you on the first day you were here. You ask me what sense there is in creating something that is going to go. I ask you, when you know everything, everything, is going to go, what is there to lose?  There is equal chance for everything to go on the rocks, which seems to be their ultimate fate. So why not have it and enjoy it while it lasts?”

He paused.

“To me, everything I see is like an experiment. I have to account for the results, only to myself. So, I observe. I see what happens, I see what does not happen. It’s a poor hobby maybe, but it answers, for me, the questions that you ask.”

“But what about people? Why are they there? Is there any sense in allowing them to be there when you know that they will not be there always? Why this deception?”

The man laughed.

“People? All your people are all you. What you see of your people are what you see, nothing more, nothing less. So, does it not figure that so long as you are around they will be too?”

He continued: “You may wonder at the fact that I spend so little time with my family, that I am continually obsessed with the random lives of random people, including yours. Does this mean I don’t like them, that they mean nothing to me? Of course not. But don’t you realise, it’s all to do with me? Does it matter where they are, what they do and what they think, so long as I have their image with me?”

The woman said, “You care, don’t you?”

“Who said I don’t care? I perhaps care more than anyone else, and that is the reason why I am able to speak this way.”

“So nobody is definitely going to be around for me, for me, till I am here, except myself?”

“Nobody. Or everybody. Depends on how you see it.”

“A perfect Necker cube.” She laughed.

“Exactly.”

*

The woman’s internship was over, and she packed her bags to return, if not with all the answers, at least with the means to find them. Which was good enough.

She thanked her mentor for his help, and set out to leave.

After she had gone, the man sat back down.

He thought about the past month, the silent efficiency of the woman, her keen observatory powers that he had observed, and her persistence in fulfilling the goal with which she had come to him. His schedules had been run smoothly for the past month. He had enjoyed having her around.

And now she was gone.

He gave a short laugh, and returned to his work.