Darkness. I think of my childhood and a kind of darkness that sticks on to your fingers like an abominable sap oozing out of some wild plants that you accidentally snap while going into the bushes in search of the secrets that as a child you think are hidden somewhere amongst the plants and creepers growing at the backyards of your house, envelopes me from all the sides. It used to push me to the corners both real and unreal. I thought that the places were created out of corners and children had no escape from those ominous corners. Darkness came out from everything, from the sky, from the courtyard, from the well, from the elders and their gazes and words. Life used to be a perpetual exodus from the dark gaze of the grown ups.
Don’t think that my childhood was all about darkness though I speak about it a lot. It is/was a sort of feeling that you would like to shrug off but refuses to budge. It is like some thorny seeds; it climbs on to your clothes from nowhere and the moment you try to remove it, it sticks stronger and harder till you lose patience and literally tear it off and in the process get hurt yourself. Today, I believe that the all pervading darkness of my childhood was a general state of the childhood experienced by all children. The more they experience the world the more they come to see the light.
As you gain experience, the shadows and dark objects that threaten you from all the sides start getting clear contours. They shed the magic mantle of remoteness and strangeness and appear before you as mundane objects. The shadows in the backyards lose their illusionary grip on you; they let you go. They let you look back. So are the grown up people. As you grow up, they let you look at their faces, into their eyes, into their secrets and into their dreams.
Throughout my childhood, I was struggling to come out of this darkness. I was not confident to stand before the grown up people. Their gaze pinned me down. I fell into the dark depths of their hollow eyes. I struggled to escape from their clutches like a rabbit from the menacing grip of a butcher. Each time I learnt something about the world, I should say about the grown up people and their ways, I realized that a part of my dark world was getting lit up by some ethereal light. Once I understood that the best way to dispel the darkness around me was to learn more and more, I goaded myself into new systems of knowledge and then I did not think that some of them were bad and some of them were good and socially acceptable.
Many years later, as an adolescent boy, I got a chance to watch a movie titled, ‘Tin Drum’. Directed by Volker Schlondorff, this movie was an adaptation of a novel by the same name written by the well known novelist Gunter Grass. In the first scene of the movie, we see Oskar, the protagonist who remains to be a stunted child throughout his life, coming out of his mother’s womb. The camera moves from pitch darkness to the sharp light of a forty watt bulb hanging helplessly above the parted legs of his shrieking mother. And Oskar says that the forty watt bulb was the first vision that he ever had in his life. Oscar also enters into a world of darkness since his first confrontation with a light bulb and the darkness is the growing fascism in
I did not know the political nuances of the movie then, though I was fascinated by the dark scenes depicted in the movie. When Oskar’s father forces his mother to have fried eels taken out of the stomach of a drowned dog, a family friend intervenes and consoles the lonely woman and while pacifying her, he forces her into sexual relationship. Oskar is a witness to all these and he sees his mother visiting her boyfriend in the city. He realizes that he could scream and break the glasses of the buildings. He sees his mother committing suicide and his father seducing the maid servant. At the same time, he too seduces the grown up girl. She delivers a child, who the father thinks is his child and Oskar believes that it is his child.
These dark scenes of the movie made me to go back again and again to my childhood memories. There I witnessed scenes similar to those episodes from Tin Drum. I wanted to forget the movie but the more I tried to push it out of my consciousness, the more it came back to me with a sort of vengeance. Nobody would believe that the German experience in the novel as well as in the movie cannot be possible in a small village in Kerala. But wherever there is human life and wherever one man exercises power over the other people around him, similar incidents could happen. Power and cruelty are intricately connected and compassion and sex are intertwined with all their complexities.
I don’t want to portray a very pessimistic picture of my childhood. However, the dark realities burn you in a different way and bring you out as a very transparent human being. But you need to will it. Generally people say that children growing up in a very bleak context could become very pessimistic, anti-social and bad people. The negative feeding of their childhood could prove detrimental to their proper spiritual growth. I don’t subscribe to this idea. A child growing up in a very good situation could become anti-social when he grows up. A robber’s child need not necessarily become a robber. He could become a police officer. But our society is such that it expects the robber’s son to be a robber, a cobbler’s son to be a cobbler and a doctor’s son to be a doctor. Society, blinded by its age old beliefs, wants to be led by conventions. There couldn’t have been a Malcolm X had he not been baptized by the fires of black experience; there couldn’t have been a Martin Luther King Jr. had he not been tortured by the dark life of his fellow black people. There wouldn’t have been a Gandhiji or Nelson Mandela, had they not been gone through the darkest of experiences in their lives.
Nor do I want to insist that one should have black thoughts and dark experiences to become a good human being. Most of the world renowned writers have gone through the most hellish experiences in their life time. Orhan Pamuk portrays his childhood days in dark colors. Most of the twentieth century writers have gone through hellish experiences in their lives. I would cite M.T.Vasudevan Nair to Jean Genet to Paulo Coelho for proving my point. Even the writers and artists from the bygone centuries have talked about the dark experiences in their lives. Shakespeare was a stable boy. Christopher Marlow was a bawdy character. Charlie Chaplin was the son of a senile actress. Again I am not asking you people to nurture dark thoughts in your mind. Also I am not asking you to go through the hellish experiences to realize your heavens.
Unlike Oscar, I don’t remember anything about my birth. My mother had told me that that I was born in a hospital in
. The first three years of my life were spent in Trivandrum . I had my first accident when I was three years old and interestingly I remember the incident very clearly. My mother was just stepping out of the backdoor of the house. I think she was going to the bathroom located behind the house. In those days even in Trivandrum city bathroom and toilet were not allowed within the houses. Those were built in the backyards. I desperately wanted to go with her as I was afraid of the darkness inside the house. I felt long dark hands coming out of the thick layers of that darkness. They tried to pull me in. I was screaming and my mother, totally unaware of the predicament that I was in just walked off leaving me behind. Trivandrum
I jumped out of the room and I could feel myself getting tossed up in the air like a doll. I came down in a fierce pace and down at the threshold there was a granite block, which had multiple uses. At times it was used as a stepping stone and at other times my mother used it as a plank to peel off the husk of coconuts. When my sister or myself fell ill, we were given hot water bath on this granite block. I was coming down and I could see the granite block approaching me in the same pace. Finally, I landed on my head. A piercing sensation went through my head and blood started oozing out from the deep gash on the left corner of my head. I was not feeling the pain but I was afraid of the hands that were coming behind me. They only caused my fall, I thought. And I wanted my mother to come back and relieve me from those hands.
I saw my mother running towards me and she was screaming like a wounded crane. I could hear her wailing and her shrieking brought the neighbors to our compound. I was taken to a nearby hospital. I remember the doctor as someone who came directly out of the advertisement of Colgate Toothpaste printed in black and white. I did not know that the man in the picture was a dentist and what I was seeing before me was a surgeon. He gave me a benevolent smile. I was holding my mother’s hands like a monkey and my eyes were looking around to see whether those long hands were still following me. I did not see any hands that long. But I did see some long pale fingers handling a lot of steel plates, wads of cotton, lotion bottles, antiseptic creams, a needle with a curve and a satin like thread. It was a nurse. She was not as benevolent as the doctor. She, along with my mother held me tight on the desk, which was covered with a white sheet.
I clearly remember an earthen pot with some nozzles puffing out steam. I remember the something piercing around my wound. The doctor was working on me and the wound was stitched and I was taken back to home and surprisingly when I reached there I did not find any long dark hands coming out from the darkness. Even today I wonder why my father was not around during all these commotions. Only thing I remember about him around this mishap was his anger on my mother’s carelessness. He came home to scold my mother and every one. And when he loved us he loved like a bear. He was beating it hot and cold. May be all the fathers behaved in that way when it came to the family matters. They were all democratic in public places and ruthless dictators in domestic spheres. But as a child I did not care whether he was democratic or dictatorial because my mother gave me all what I wanted; care, love, protection and security from those demons that came from the darkness.
Looking back, I realize that losing my mother to someone was a real fear for me at that time. I always thought my mother was going to go with someone, leaving me behind in darkness. She was a government official. Every morning she left us in a play school nearby and went to the office. And in the evening she picked up us from the school and went home. In her lunch box she brought us some sweets. During the weekends she went to Chalai, which is a huge open bazaar in
and brought us a plant with a lot of green flowers in it. These green flowers could be filled with air from our mouth and when it is broken by force it made a cracking sound. We liked to play with it and the sour taste we got on our tongues when we chewed the edges of this flower to make it like an air valve still remain fresh in my memories. Trivandrum
The play school where I was sent to spend my days was also a dark space. I don’t think it was dark as in night. It was dark like as if it was always under a cloud. There used to be a lot of children. One of the major time pass for us was to keep chair one on the other and climb on the top chair. The nanny of the school helped us to heap the chairs and I thought that it was the tallest structure in the world. And climbing on it was a mammoth task as I was an obese child. I was fatter than everyone else. The teachers in the playschool (they must have been hardly twenty years old) liked me for my baby fat, mischief and the dimples. They touched me all the time and I liked their touch. I wanted them to touch me a lot. Once they finish caressing me, I anxiously waited for my mother to come.
As if in magic the darkness in the playschool used to turn into light (clear sun light) by noon. The light source was an open square in the ceiling. By noon sunlight came through like a miracle and we sat around this light and had our packed lunch and bottled milk. The teachers used to give us plastic tumblers to pour milk. When you pour milk in plastic tumbler and drink you get a strange smell of plastic. Your nostrils refuse to take this smell but it was a daily ritual: drinking plastic smelling milk. Each child took a lot of pride in having a plastic tumbler of his/her own. And also we were proud of our lunch boxes. I still remember the day a crow came directly on the open square at the ceiling and shat right into my lunch box. Nanny threw the food through the window. I saw my rice and potato fries landing in the waste. I cried and cried till my mother returned from office in the evening.
As I told you earlier, the fear of losing my mother was always there and I believe the image of darkness came from this fear of losing my own mother. Now you could explain it away in terms of Oedipus complex and so on employing a lot of Freudian theories. But that time like any other child I was not aware of Freud or Oedipus or his complexes. My world was around my mother and the very thought of losing her to someone or something frustrated me beyond imagination. I didn’t know why I thought so. I did not have any logic at that time. One cannot expect hardcore logic from a three year old.
It was then my father took a very important decision; a decision to relocate the whole family back to his mother’s property, a part of which by then he had inherited from his family. This decision was Quixotic, I still believe. When other parents were dying to migrate to the cities in order to give their children the best education possible (read English medium education which was available only in cities at that time), my father was taking us back to a village which was almost forty kilometers away from the
city where I was born and brought up. Had I got the capacity to argue with my father at that time I would asked him to leave us alone in the city. He could have left for the village. But children were treated like mindless people. They were not allowed to express what they really felt. But if you think in a different way, children never thought differently from their parents. They would go to any hell if their parents are with them. I have read somewhere, when children are forced to face unbearable situations they overcome it by sleeping. Trivandrum
I was sleeping when we were taken to my paternal grandmother’s house. My paternal aunts and uncles were living in and around the same house. The house was always full of people; cousins, visiting relatives, neighbors, father’s friends and many children from the neighborhood. I liked the place instantly though I found a lesser version of darkness residing in all the rooms. I looked at the three photographs on the veranda of that old house and tried to emulate their postures. Later on I came to know that those were the pictures of John F Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Those pictures were there still on that wall when I turned a teenager and till that old house was demolished. I never understood the logic of having a Kennedy picture there though later I was told that it was my father’s decision to have those pictures at home.
My father became a presence and an important figure in my life when we came to live in the village house. My father was a government official and he was a public personality. He was one of the founding members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) in Kerala. Most of the time, he was out there with his friends, discussing political matters. His word was like the first and last word for most of the people in the village. He gave public speeches and his sisters (my aunts) went to the temple grounds to hear him delivering political speeches. My mother never had time for all those meetings. Once she was back from office, either she attended our things, watered the plants or read some books. She was not in tune with the life in her in-laws home though she was also born and brought up in the same village. We did not know that there was something called Mother-in-law – Daughter-in-law conflict. I had heard my mother speaking about hidden sugar bottles, unfed kids, deliberate harassment and so on. But I did not have any clue and the rising confusions were dipped in the din and joy of playing with other kids from around.
There should have been light instead of darkness as the life in the village home was rather going smooth. But no river can flow without hurdles. My grandmother filled in the ears of my father when he came back after his office works and public service and he took out his anger against my mother and his sisters. So when he was around, he was like a dictator. Nobody dared to go near to him, only we, the kids were allowed to approach him. We were like oracles. Mother spoke through us and father in turn spoke through the same medium. My father’s hostile and impatient behavior caused me a lot of pain. The darkness started coming back to my thoughts. And the initial enthusiasm of living in a new place gave way to my primordial fears. I was going to lose my mother, I thought.
Two things tortured me in my thoughts. One, I thought my mother would go away with someone. Two, once my mother was gone I would be left to the long dark hands of monsters. Hence, I started literally searching for darkness because I wanted to tell my mother that we need to put some light there. And I could not find any convincing darkness. They were laughing at me all the time because I refused to from one room to another alone. I refused to go to bathroom alone. I refused to walk alone with in the family land. I was afraid of walking from the gate to the verandah even in the day light. In the south east corner of the property, they told me, there was a grave where my grandfather was buried. There was a huge plant in that corner and it was full of red flowers all the time. I did not even want to look at that corner. Right in the middle of the property there was a small temple where my grandmother worshipped several gods. I thought all the darkness came out from that small temple. And I was running away from darkness and I thought my mother also would leave me to the darkness.
I followed my mother everywhere. One day she fell ill and was taken to a local hospital. I screamed all the way and at the dispensary the doctor asked me to stand outside with my relatives. I made a scene there. I thought my mother would never come out of that room and the doctor would take her away from me. On another occasion, in another hospital again I felt that same. The doctors were conspiring against me. They were planning to take my mother away from me. Or was my mother also a part of this conspiracy which I was not able to understand? Were they planning to fool my father?
You may find several answers to my confusion. You may interpret the incidents and the darkness with your theoretical and practical tools. May be, I can see things very clearly now. I can analyze why I hated darkness and why I saw only darkness in places and things during my childhood. I don’t remember any particular incident that made me think my mother being unfaithful to my father. On the contrary, as I grew up I saw my father keeping parallel relationships in his life, while my mother suffered silently.
Slowly, I adjusted myself with the new life. I tried my best to be normal like any other kids. Still I feared the darkness in the rooms, in the bathroom, in the toilet and in the land. It took many years for me to dispel this darkness through logical and emotional negotiations. I think I could do it because I tried to understand the objects around me. I started recognizing their physical, aesthetical and spiritual qualities. Then I started writing them down one by one, first in my memory, later as I grew enough to ‘write’, in notebooks. Today I can dispel any darkness by projecting a real or imaginary object into the field of darkness. I negotiate a dark zone through love and care. I can speak to the darkness at its face as in Seventh Seal.