Monday, August 29, 2011
Just About to fall in Love: To My Children Series 21
There are a few things that I could not avoid mentioning when it comes to my life in Trivandrum; one, Fine Arts College, Trivandrum, two, my restless journeys into literature and art accompanied by some very special friends, some stinging memories of insults from unknown people and a love affair that drove me to the places that I had never thought of at that time. One good thing about college days is that you tend to remember more than you forget. Your senses are very sharp and you absorb things around you like a sponge does with water. You carry those memories in your mind and when you squeeze yourself in those moments of contemplation and recounting they come back to you with crystal like clarity. When I look back, I could even see the colours of the dresses that my friends used to wear, the way the trees bloomed, the way people walked, the things that we discussed; everything is clear. If anybody asks me, are my writings meant anything more than an escape route to nostalgia, I would say, besides being that it is one way of understanding the rotundity of life and the meaning of it. Perhaps, when you escape to a past that no longer belongs to you in a palpable way, you really understand your present and it helps you to live it fully, the way you lived your past full and tight.
In the previous chapters I had explained how I was introduced to fine arts and how my relationship with Shibu Natesan had helped me to understand art in an academic way. Shibu brought me books and when I went to study in Trivandrum, he took me to the Fine Arts College, where he was studying and introduced me to his friends and the library. I started spending more time in the Fine Arts College library than in my own college. It was interesting to be with a bunch of rebels who did not care about the diktats of the teachers or the institution. All the fine arts students looked grown up people to me as they always discussed serious things and wore a serious look on their faces. I was a jovial person though existential angst used to hunt me down once in a while. But I could not have shown my jovial side to these very serious fine arts college students who always talked about Tarkovsky’s movies, Van Gogh’s paintings and Ayyappan’s poems. Above all most of them lived in the University Boys’ Hostel near Palayam and they were free to do anything that they wanted. As I was a day scholar in my college and it was instructed that I should reach home before eight o clock at night, I could not partake in their nightly revelries often. Still I enjoyed their company and always listened to their serious discussions.
If you listen to the tones of people speaking in Malayalam, you could say from which part of Kerala he or she comes from. Each region has a different tone. We belonged to the Southern part of Kerala and we had a tone that most of the people from the northern Kerala found very funny. So we used to feel ashamed of exposing our regional tones and most of us in the south developed a standardized Malayalam only to prove that we are neutral in our intonations. However, we all secretly admired the way the people from northern part of Kerala spoke Malayalam. The most admirable intonation was by the people from Trissur or a region that could be generally called Valluvanadu. People spoke Malayalam in a different way here. And the popular narratives including novels and cinema promoted this tone as the most acceptable and admirable of all tones. Hence, most of the girls who came from well off families, even if they were born and brought up in Trivandrum, spoke in a hybrid tone/accent that was obviously derived from the Trissur accent. It was considered to be fashionable at that time to speak in an accent and tone that was not yours.
Most of the fine arts students came from other districts in Kerala and they stayed in the hostels. As they came from other parts they spoke in their own accent and tone. Thanks to this Trivandrum fine arts college developed a Malayalam of its own. It was a tone that had all the intonations mixed together though the Trissur, Kannur and Calicut accents held the upper hand. I should also admit that we from the Trivandrum district also tried our best to catch up with this accent and enrolled ourselves into this peculiar linguistic system of Trivandrum Fine Arts College. During those days I did not know that the fine arts college students wore more or less the same clothes everyday because they did not have too many clothes to change. They often smoked beedis because they did not have enough money to buy cigarettes. They borrowed money from people, drank cheap liquor and always carried some books along with a serious face. All these were the traits developed out of circumstantial necessities thanks to financial deprivation. However, for people like me those were the worth-emulating characteristics. Hence, people like me who could afford to buy cigarettes also smoked beedis, drank cheap liquor and wore a serious face.
In fact I had to wear several faces on a single day. When I reached my college or class room, I had to be jovial because I had a lot of friends in my class who asked me to recite poems or tell them things that were real and imagined. I used to entertain my classmates by singing and telling stories. Also I was a good listener. I used to listen to other friends and their stories. They told me about their love affairs. Whenever an affair broke, between the library racks I gave them a shoulder to cry on. And by afternoon I reached the fine arts college and there I wore another face, a very serious one. By evening we all went to the public library canteen where all the anarchists of the time gathered for sharing their nothingness with each other, and then I wore another face. When I went with a friend for the evening walks I wore another face that showed the best nature of a literature student. At night, I spent endless hours to jot down everything in my diary. Perhaps, I wore my true self only at night in those days. I was changing my make-up and masks at every other moment. I had to survive.
Vijayan Nair was one of our teachers and he taught us the best of English essays. One day he was teaching us an essay in which there was a reference to cheese. Most of the students came from the rural background and none knew what cheese was. Vijayan Nair looked at our faces and for him they all looked blank at the mention of the word cheese. We were not familiar with Jerry, who always ate cheese cubes. Nor did we know about cheese sandwiches and other edibles made out of cheese. Vijayan Nair felt a great sympathy for us. He took us to the nearest super market of that time; Spencer’s. There he bought us cheese cubes. We tasted it; some said it tasted like soap, some said it was like rotten curd, some said something else. Each of us measured and assessed the taste of cheese as per the associations that we could find in our memories of taste. That was a great lesson for us. And whenever I buy cheese I remember Vijayan Nair and my classmates; we were really living in a pre-globalization land of limited choices and limited tastes.
To commute between home and the college I often chose a bicycle. Once in a while I went by a state transport bus. The city buses were yellow and red in colour. The particular one in which I preferred to travel in those days was driven by an ex-military man with a nick name. People called him ‘Peppatti’, means ‘Mad Dog’ because he drove the old bus with all his might and power. He was always angry; we did not know whether he was angry with all those college kids got into the bus and made a lot of noise or he was angry with the bus itself, which did not respond to his driving skills thanks to its old age. Unlike these days, girls did not believe in dry hairs in those days. They all got into the bus with their wet hairs and fresh flowers on them. It was a fantastic feeling to stand closer to them and inhale all those fragrance and the vapours of the dreams that they had dreamt on the previous night and refused to leave them by lingering on their long eyelashes. Sometimes I had to throw a coin to decide whether I should take my cycle or go by the bus. Whenever I wanted to know the worlds beyond my eyes, I preferred to travel by bus. I gazed at those worlds that each girl held closer to her chests along with the books and umbrella.
There was a reason why I did not want to use the public transport system quite often; we used to get concession tickets. To get the concession cards you had to go to the transport office, stand in a queue, show your identity card to get the concession card against a payment. This card was like a magical board game full of columns. The bus conductor knew where to strike his pen and mark that allotted trip done. Though it was a very cost effective way of travelling to college, thanks to the tediousness of obtaining these cards, I often chose to go by my cycle. It was a red BSA cycle. I liked it very much. There were around seven kilometres between the college and my home in Trivandrum. I went to college before it was quite hot and waited from my friends to come in. Using cycle was a good way to reach so many places easily. I could go to fine arts college and public library whenever I wanted. Besides, my friend John Jyothi Raj also used an old BSA cycle whose colour was difficult to discern. And we used to ride together to the college.
I hated bus trips to college despite the dream world that the packed buses could offer. There was an incident that made me hate bus trips. I was in the second year BA. One day I was going to the college by the bus driven by Mad Dog. The bus was packed. When the bus reached near the Pallimukku Junction where the Pettah Police Station was located, someone wanted to get down. To let the people to get down, a few boys including myself came out first and before we could climb back to the bus the conductor rang the bell. We were hanging at the footboard and before the bus moved a few yards, it was waved down by the policemen in front of the police station. Seven of us were arrested for travelling by footboard. It was a serious offence.
We were taken inside the police station. It was my first experience with the police station. I had never seen the inside of a police station. And I knew about the horrible torturing methods that the policemen implemented on the hapless victims who got into their nests. In India or in Kerala for sure, at that time third degree torture was a pastime for the police. Whatever be the offence, once you are in custody you were tortured. No formalities that a decent democracy should follow, were considered in a police station in Kerala. I was shit scared and I was sure that they were going to torture me. We, a few boys had planned to go to Bangalore on the next day for a fun trip. Ajay Raj was the master planner of the trip. I knew that I was not going to make it. The police was going to kill me. My eyes welled up for fear and shame.
One young police man came up to one of the guys standing in a row. He asked one of us to remove the clothes. I went week on my knees. I was almost fainting. The boy removed his clothes. Now he was standing there wearing his underwear only. One by one the policemen made the boys to remove their dress. An elderly police constable came near to me. He looked at my face. He asked me what I was doing. I said I was a college student and I showed him my identity card. He asked me why I travelled on footboard. I told him that I did not do that. I explained him why I got down and then before I could climb back the conductor rang the bell. He smiled at me. And with some sort of strange expression he told me: “You seem to be coming from a good family. Why you tease girls?” I told him that I was not an eve teaser and then only it dawned to me that the eve teasers generally travelled by footboard. Then he told me to remove my clothes and start exercising.
I looked around. The other boys had already started doing exercise. They seemed to be familiar with Police Station etiquettes. By exercise what they meant was doing some kind of absurd physical activities like sitting on an imaginary chair, getting up from it, walking a bit and sitting back on the invisible chair, push ups, squatting and so on. I was about to cry. I did not want to do all these things. Then I heard that the Circle Inspector was on his way. I knew the name of the Circle Inspector on Pettah Police Station. I knew him because he was from my village. He was my father’s friend’s son. But he was famous for his ruthlessness and his tough ways with the offenders. He was on his way to see us from his room. I was sure that he was going to kill all of us.
He came out. And looked all of us one by one in a very dramatic way. A police constable pushed a file before him and even without looking at the contents of that file he signed it. Then he threw his cap down on the table and walked towards us with his tightened fists. I could see several faces at the windows. Guys with no jobs other than poking nose into somebody’s affairs were all waiting outside for knowing what was going to happen to the ‘eve teasers’. The Circle Inspector looked at me from a distance and asked the elderly police man why I was wearing clothes. He murmured something into the CI’s ears. Without heeding much to what the elderly constable told him, the CI hit right at the chest of one of those hapless boys. The boy bent into two and collapsed on the floor. Now I was crying. I knew that I would not survive this shame. I had done no offence and now I was going to be punished for no reason. The CI came to me and shouted a few abusive words at me and pulled me by my collar. Fighting my tears I told him that I was Mr.Lakshmana’s son and I was from Vakkom. He fist loosened. He screamed at me. Now with a smile I could remember his words: “What do you think, Vakkom guys got more than one Penis?”
I was lucky. He did not hit me. He went out of the room in a huff. After a few minutes a policeman came and told me that the CI wanted to meet me in his room. I went to his room and he asked me why I travelled by the footboard of a bus. I explained him the situation and told him that I rarely traveled by bus and I used my cycle. He smiled at me and told me that he could not treat me differently. Either he had to book me along with other boys or let everyone free. I told him that I would prefer to be free without any legal booking. Now he laughed and warned me that I should never ever travel by footboard. With a strong pat on my back he sent me out and ordered his subordinates to release all of us. I came out with my head hanging down. I could not forget the insult. The face saver was the CI’s kind behaviour after that. But I could not sleep for many days.
I was once again at the hands of some hooligans from the Kerala Police Department. I had a woman friend who was several years senior to me. She was staying alone as her husband was away in some other place doing his works. She was working in a government office as a senior officer. I used to visit her on weekends. As a person who was interested in reading and writing she used to share books and music with me. During the working days, once in a while we met at the coffee house or the museum ground or at a beautiful hill behind the Kanakakkunnu Palace. One evening we were sitting there discussing many things. She had brought me some cassettes. I still remember those were the music of Veena Sahasrabuddha. As we were sitting there in silence, two hefty men appeared before us from nowhere. They were reeking in liquor smell. They came and started abusing me.
I was shell shocked and I got up from the floor. The lady who was with me too got up. Then the men started showering abusive words at her. I told them to stop abusing her. Also I tried to explain them that we were just friends and we were not here for any anti-social activities. Then I asked them what right they got to abuse us. They fished out their identity cards and pushed it to my face. They were from the Police Department. They were policemen in mufti. I tried to reason with them and they were not ready to let us go. They wanted to take both of us to the museum police station. I told them that we would not budge from the place where we were standing and if they wanted they could use force. I was sure that they would not use force as it could attract the public attention. They were in an inebriated state and also they were not in uniform. So they demanded my identity card. I showed it to them. They snatched it from me and told me that I could collect it from the museum police station on the next morning. They took my identity card and let us go. I never went back to collect my identity card. It was one of the most insulting incidents in my life. The lady and myself remained friends for a few more years.
My graduation was incident free. I was an existential wreck by the third year. I was contemplating committing suicide. I was in a very bad shape. I wanted to drop out of college and do some job. My mother was very worried and she asked her young friend, Subramani to counsel me. Subramani and I became friends very fast. We spent endless hours in discussing literature as he was a scholar in Malayalam and Sanskrit literature. He introduced me to the world of Kuttikrishna Marar, who had interpreted most of Kalidasa in Malayalam. Shibu Natesan had already gone to Baroda to pursue his higher studies in painting, though he did MFA in printmaking there. Somehow I wanted to leave Kerala and go elsewhere. I did not know the real reason for my depression and angst. I was going through some torturous memories and feelings. I just wanted to get out and go to a place where none looked out for me, none cared for me and none remembered me. But it was impossible. I had to give examinations and I graduated with moderate marks.
I cannot just pinpoint whether it was my interest in writing or interest for wayward life took my focus away from studies and filled me with existential angst. I had already started smoking weeds and consuming cheap liquor. I was watching a lot of good movies with friends in film clubs. I was spending more and more time with the fine arts college friends. I was having sexual fantasies like any other guy would have had at that time. I was desperately trying to have sex with someone. I did not dare to do it with a girl who was my student though occasionally we exchanged kisses. Sex was not new to me. I had already experience several sessions of it with an elderly woman when I was hardly twelve years old. But it was torturing me. A sense of guilt had covered my life. I was carrying the dead body of my own self on my shoulders. I wanted to be alone but I was finding myself in the company of people who liked me. I found myself a misfit everywhere. But I had to wear masks and I had to teach to earn some pocket money. Together they contributed to my moderate success in graduation.
A few months later, in July 1990, I decided to do my masters in English Literature in Kerala itself. My mother told me that she could send me to Baroda only after finishing the MA in Literature. A sort of agreement had to be drawn between myself and my mother. Though I decided to do my post graduation in English literature I did not want to continue in the University College. I wanted a change. It was then I heard about the Institute of English run directly by the University of Kerala and functioned from within the university office campus. It was next to the University College. So I decided to join there. I did not have any clue about the ways in which they taught English literature. Dr.Ayyappa Panicker was the head of the department. He was a very famous poet and literary critic of our times. Dr.V.Rajakrishnan and Dr.Jancy James both well known writers and critics, were the other teachers. I thought I was a good idea to study under them.
I was not sure whether I would get through the entrance examination or not. But I did. But when I joined there I realized that I was not in the right place. First of all, my major difficulty came in the form of my image. As I told you before, I was completely a poet and a person ridden with existential angst. I had a long beard and I wore a pair of jeans and very loose fitting shirts. I wore dirty shoes and always walked with my head bent. My classmates were all university toppers in different subjects. Most of them were girls and they wore thick spectacles. They spoke in English and they seemed to have nothing much to do with me. There were two boys who took interest in me. Also two girls. The boys came from Dubai or some foreign countries. Though they were Malayalis they were born and brought up there. In me they found a specimen of life that they missed in their college days there. They liked my poems. They took me around in their cars and took me to the expensive restaurants. The more they loved me the more I became depressed.
Sreedevi and Chippy were the girls. They liked me in some way but obviously not for my poems or for me being a specimen of existential angst. They liked me because they thought I was good at heart though bad in appearance. They patiently read through my poems. Chippy was a bit reserved. Sreedevi was very serious. My major problem was this that I was good at writing and very bad at speaking. Even today I find it very difficult to make one to one talk. I could speak in Malayalam as well as in English. But I was not a confident speaker. I just could not speak to people. This worried me further. The future IAS aspirants in my class thought I was a weirdo. One day, Dr.Rajakrishnan gave us a writing assignment. I wrote an essay. After a couple of days he called me to his room and asked me whether I was going through some kind of social oppression. I told him that I was obviously oppressed and depressed but I did not know what the reason was behind my depression. He tried his best to help me out. But the institute of English was not helping me out as a whole.
Once again down in the dumps, I sought my former friends out for help. I approached my former teachers in the University College to ask whether I could get admission in post graduation. The time was up and the seats were full. But somehow my teachers liked me. They told me that they would discuss the matter with the head of the department and get back to me. And when they called me to give an interview for the re-admission my joy knew no bounds. I got my relieving certificate and Transfer certificates from the Institute of English and once again I went back to my Alma Mater, University College, Trivandrum. I was really happy to be back with my friends. I could find a few new students in the class. I was living in an illusion. Now I had found my friends again. I was a happy man.
A selection from Indian English writings was a text book for the First Year MA and it was introduced only in that year. None of us had that text book in our hands. Our teacher brought a few copies and distributed amongst the students. And I did not get one so I asked a girl who was sitting just in front of me and was looking at the contents of the book. I did not know whether it was my attempt to speak to her or it was my genuine wish to have that text book in hands. Without completely turning her neck she passed the book to me. From her profile I could see she was really beautiful. Later on I looked at her face. She had a pair big eyes. Her smile was beautiful and one of her teeth was broken and was replaced with a pearl or something. She was of medium size. Instantly I liked her but I had not gathered enough courage to speak to her or anyone.
There were two Sunithas in my class. One Sunitha lived in Sasthamangalam and the other one came from a nearby village. One of the well known dancers, Neena Prasad was my friend. Ally, Girija, Thara, Leju, Karthika, Letha Jacob, Bessy and so on were other girls in the class. This particular girl had an attitude as she knew she was good looking. Some of the guys were already seeking out for her attention. I was also prepared for the game. I started writing poems about her and I did not show them to her. It was the first step towards falling in love; you start writing poems.
One day we all went for a fun trip. The trip was to Kallar; a waterfall in a forest located a few kilometres away from Trivandrum city. We were all singing and having fun. At some juncture this girl came and sat near me. My heart started beating fast. I wanted to tell her that I was head over heels in love with her. But I could not as another guy was taking all her attention away from me. He was showering her with praises and she seemed to be enjoying all those praises. It hurt me a bit but then I had no other way than enjoying the trip with other friends.
At the waterfall we all took bath. The girls took bath in a different side with a lot of trees giving them enough privacy. We had a lot of fun on the rocks and we had our lunch there. While roaming around alone in the forest I found a tree with full of beautiful flowers. They were like white feathers stuck up on a stem. I picked a few of them strewn all over the place. I touched them with care and tenderness. They returned the same feeling to me. They were very rare flowers. I did not know their name. I took a couple of them with me and put them in my pocket. While coming back, inside the bus, I gave one of the flowers to this girl. She took it from me with a smile.
We reached the college by 7 o clock in the evening. It was already dark. Her father had come to pick her up in his Fiat car. I watched her from a distance. She was busy saying good bye to everyone. I was happy when I saw her holding the flower in her right hand. When she talked she touched her cheeks with that flower. I was seeing things in slow motion. I stood by the side of the bus. Then suddenly I saw the other guy coming in the frame from nowhere. He held her hands and shook it with some kind of manliness. Then with an easy but studied movement he extracted that flower from her hands and threw it own the floor. I saw his shoes stepping on it and crushing the petals into dust.
On the next Sunday, in the Sunday Supplement of Kerala Kaumudi newspaper, one of my small poems appeared. It said: “When I remove my face/ from the pimples/ I realize that/I am in love.”