Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Love has a cupid and a devil playing in its vicinities. When cupid takes the upper hand love happens. But to let the cupid play a role in your life, you need to let the devil also play his role somewhere. Cupid’s effect is felt only when the devil in you becomes so determinant to make you forget things so far happened in your life. The devil was always there in me, lingering in and around my eyes, my lips and my finger tips. He made me remember the insults and he forced me to explore the velvety darkness of wet dreams. He was ruthless enough to make you one in his own resemblance. His power was so much on me that I could just forget the girl who was giving me all her love, her innocence, her smiles, her tears and her youthful intelligence. I could just walk over her shadow and sit next to a person who had just happened to my life on that fateful day of our fun trip to Kallar.
The one whom I pushed into the gutters of oblivion was one of my students who came to my home to study English. She was studying in one of the best convent schools in Trivandrum. She was fun loving. Adolescence is a phase in life that either puts everything into the zone of triviality or joviality. You live on the edge during that phase. Even the fluttering of a leaf could send you into ecstasy. A whimper of a baby could make you cry for the whole night. Wherever you look at you find only beauty. I am not talking about those hapless children who have been made destitute by fate and circumstances. I am talking about those kids who are blessed with protective families and caring people around. My student was from one of those families.
The relationship between her and me was more than that between a student and teacher. She came to me for classes one hour before her school bus came. She always came in her school uniform. She wore a light blue skirt, a cream colour shirt, a blue tie, plaited hairs tied with white ribbon, white socks and black shoes. Girls have a special fragrance. I have always tried to discern what it could be. I check out the smell of all the available talcum powders and body sprays. But when the girls pass by your side, from their presence there emanates a sort of fragrance that is unique to each of them. It is quite surprising that even in a park or in a gym where generally people sweat it out, girls have a fragrance. They smell good always.
She came with such fragrance that made the poet in me intoxicated with imaginations. I taught her lessons and her friend who also came to study with her gave us full support through her covert glances and pinches on her thighs under the table. Girls are like that too. I am talking about a time when it was a taboo for a girl to be over friendly with a boy. During those days, girls conveyed their feelings and messages between and amongst them through covert glances, pursing of their lips, pinches and giggles. I have always observed that girls could speak eloquently through their eyes. With a single glance they could comprehend a whole world. Often I have observed girls crossing men in the streets. From a distance they look as if they were looking directly at you, scanning your face and so on but the moment they come closer to you, however you try to make an eye contact, they just look through you. But today I think things are a bit different, with desire machines overworking in the public domains, girls and grown up women have learnt to look at strangers straight into their eyes.
This girl was in love with me. I was in love with her. But there was no definition to that love. We were not thinking of the future. Any simple mention of the future from my side would make her giggle endlessly. In certain occasions, she used to become very serious. And when she became serious and when she spoke at length about our future, I also laughed it off because I knew that we were not prepared to take up any of those grand ideas at that time. But the popular films that all of us watched in those days made us think in a different way. At times I also thought of eloping with this girl and setting up a family elsewhere and live a life of hardship and struggle. The imagination was quite sentimental and naive. I thought we would elope. Then we will go to a place and live in a shack. I will go find some work in a local workshop of somewhere. Then by evening I would come back with grease all over my shirt and pants. She would be waiting for me with love and food.
That part was not so palatable. We were not prepared to live either in a shack or work in a workshop. So we continued with your respective lives as students and a couple of years went off like that. Now she was a pre-degree student in the Women’s College, Trivandrum. We were not meeting that often during those days. So we planned to meet at my college. She was planning to wear a saree only to appear before me as a grown up woman. But things were happening in a different way. A day after I had asked her to meet me in my college, I had this tryst with destiny in a bus on the day of our fun trip. When the girl in her saree came to meet me with a couple of friends in tow, I was sitting with my new found love at the threshold of one of the classrooms in my college. From a distance, my student could understand what was actually going on. She just passed us as if nothing had happened. She had come there just for me and I was sitting with another girl and from the way we sat she could read everything. I told you, girls could speak to you through their eyes. There was an ocean on pain in her eyes. The devil in me prompted to forget everything. It was time to explore a new paradise.
I did not know whether I was going to explore a paradise or a hell. But for the time being it looked like I was at the threshold of a paradise. I pushed that girl out of my mind. I chose to avoid the places where I could bump into her. I stopped going to the alley where her home was located. Something different was happening in my life. To describe the story further I need to find out a name because the girl who fell in love with me on that day at the threshold of a classroom is still alive. She leads a married life in some part of the world and interestingly, after eighteen years we happened to meet each other in facebook. All these years I have been waiting for that one meeting. And that happened. You may ask how was it like. Before I go into those details let me get on with the story.
Let’s call her ‘Kalpana’. Kalpana in Malayalam means ‘Dream’. Today, with a smile I could say Kalpana made me an art critic. Had our love affair been a success story and had she become my wife, my life would have been different. I often think what would have happened if I had married her and settled in Kerala. Definitely, I would not have taken up a government job. When I was desperately wanting to marry her by the end of my Post-graduation, to prepare myself for the life ahead I had already started teaching in a few parallel colleges in a nearby town named Attingal. For one hour of Shakespeare I was paid Rs.20/- I knew it was not going to work. If at all I wanted to make it work I had to spend all my life in these parallel colleges. In the meanwhile I got a job as a temporary lecturer in a Senior Secondary School. I was grappling with so many things at that time.
When things became really serious I placed a few options before me. I was learning the lessons of practical economics and I felt the urgent need to make some money. Some of my friends were in the gulf countries. I thought of going there and making some money before I could come back and marry Kalpana. But then my friends told me that I should have some job skills. What job skill I had? I knew typewriting. I knew teaching. But there was no surety that I would get an office job in Dubai. Also there were no parallel colleges in the gulf countries. So I needed some job skills. Which was the skill that I could gain in a month’s time? Someone told me that one could learn ‘gas welding’ within a month. In my village there was a welding workshop run by a person I knew. So I approached him and placed my demand. Are you serious, he asked me. He could not have imagined that a person with a post graduation in English literature would do gas welding for a living. He asked me to sit and watch his work. I did and within a couple of hours I realized that I was not cut for gas welding.
Today you may find this very funny. I also feel the same today. But then the feeling was different. I was going through the thick of it. There was not a single night that I spent without shedding tears. My mother was threatening me with dire consequences. My sister was crying because I was desperate to get married at the age of 21. There was a Eureka moment in every one’s life. I found it one of those days. I used to be an actor in school level dramas and also had worked with some professional drama actors in some amateur dramas. Television serials were catching up with the people in general. I thought of becoming a full time actor. Then my mother asked me a question: Suppose, your character needs to drive a car, what are you going to do? It was then it dawned upon me that I should know a few basics. So I went and joined a driving school and in a few weeks time I obtained a driving licence. Deep in my mind I thought if it was not becoming handy in acting, at least I could become a taxi driver somewhere.
I wanted to hone my skills in all the departments of acting. May be, yes may be my television career would launch me to the real cinema. Then I should have been prepared for that. I was already doing Karate in a local dojo under the training of Sensai Siva who was the first black belt holder from our village. Sensai Siva ran the dojo for a few years and one fine morning he had a revelation; he needed to find his Guru. Leaving everything behind, Sensai Siva wandered all over India, searching for his Guru. Each time he sought the chosen one, he was shown the way to elsewhere. Finally he found his Guru in an old man in a village near Kollam district. He went through several years of penance and yoga and came back to our village. Then he made a house on a tree and lived in the tree for a year or so. In 2009, I was sitting in the lounge of the Trivandrum Airport and an old man with a strong presence came to me and asked me whether I was JohnyML. To my surprise I found it was Sensai Siva. Now he looked like a saint with all those closely cropped white hairs and beard. He appreciated me after making an overall look at my body. “You look fit,” he said. I told him it was all thanks to his training. He smiled at me and gave me a copy of his book which detailed his journey from being a Sensai to a Yogi. He was on his way to Dubai where he is settled now. From there he runs a yogic life centre.
Sensai Siva trained me well. He did not know that I was preparing to become a ‘star’. I knew that things would not happen just like that even if preparation was on. So I decided to start my own ‘institute’ to earn for my married life. Marrying Kalpana was the sole aim of my life at that time. ‘JohnyML’s Institute of English’- a sign board saying that came up in one corner of the plot where my home was located. People started looking at the board and wondering what I was up to. It was purely an one man show. I went to Sobhana Press, a rotary press that printed bills and notices and got a notice done. I went around the village by a cycle and distributed the notice that announced the inauguration of my institute. On the opening day most of my neighbours came to attend the function. I called all of them ‘Chechis’ (elder sisters). The class was run from a small one room and one veranda house built specially for brining Kalpana as my bride because I thought that my mother would not allow me to live in the main house.
Most of the time I lived in that small shack and taught students in two shifts; morning and evening. It was a summer vacation time and the parents in my village wanted their children learn English from a fresh post graduate. They all were supporting me with a lot of love and care. But they did not know the hidden plans I had in starting this institute. I knew that people would be shocked when they come to know that I got married in a few month’s time. Again, within a few days after commencing my institute I realized that it was not going to happen the way I wanted. Though I was ready to marry Kalpana and bring her to this shack I was not cut for a limited life. That was just a temporary arrangement. I wanted to make it bit in life. Marriage was the first step towards that though later on I realized that marriage could be as helpful and detrimental at once to your growth in life and career.
My nights were painful because I knew that Kalpana was under house arrest and I was not allowed to meet her. I was trying to reach out to her through some friends. Kalpana’s parents were negotiating with some of my family members through some of the important people including an MLA in the Kerala Assembly. They all wanted to tell me to go back from my decision to marry Kalpana. But I was adamant. I wanted to disprove them by proving my worth in some way. So I decided to appear for the IAS Examinations. Brilliant Tutorials, Chennai was one of the most acclaimed coaching centres for the IAS aspirants. I joined the Brilliant Tutorials, got all their notes and started spending days and nights in mugging them. I was like a possessed person. Somehow I wanted to get Kalpana in my life. I was ready to even become an IAS officer for that. But things were not happening the way I wanted. Man proposes and God disposes. One fine morning, without telling anyone, I left everything behind and went to Baroda. Was I running away from a reality that was too bitter and heavy?
Kalpana smiled at the stains of the flower petals that the other guy had crushed under his shoes on the previous day. She told me that the whole night she was thinking about me. I found it really encouraging. And I told her that the moment I met her in the class room I knew that I was in love. We sat at the threshold of a classroom just opposite to the place where the bus had left us on the previous night. I was looking intently into the big eyes of Kalpana. It was when the girl in saree walked into the campus. Kalpana did not take any particular interest in the people who were just passing by. So she did not notice this girl either. But she had seen everything. The girl in saree gave me a look that had all the sadness in this world. But she was so good that she left without a huff. I saw her walking away with her friends as if nothing had happened. Did she curse me at that moment?
They days went by. My relationship with Kalpana grew in leaps and bounds. One day I asked her to come with me for a movie. In those days, going for a movie with a boy or a girl, that too without the consent of the parents was a one of the biggest crimes that the college going students could do. It could even mar the marriage proposals of a girl had she been seen by someone. It could have given rise to major scandals and so on. So we went to the movie hall after taking a lot of preparations. We entered the hall just before the movie started. Throughout the movie I was making all the efforts to be normal and decent. I did not want to give her a hint that I was a lecher or I wanted to make use of the opportunity to touch her or caress her or kiss her. So I kept myself away from her even if my hand graced against her hand accidently I profusely said sorry. I was playing a perfect gentleman’s role. After the movie like two thieves escaping a place after pilfering nothing but with a sense of terror and inexplicable guilt, we left for our respective homes.
Next morning I went to the college with a strong sense of pride surging in my heart. It was in late September. The sultriness in the air was rather less with the cool breeze wafting through the layers of greenery around our class rooms. I had this habit of reaching the college early and standing on the platform from where the teachers lectured us, singing poems loudly till other students came in and became my audience. They like me reciting poems. And they asked me to recite certain poems by certain poets who were very popular in those days. Balachandran Chullikkadu was very famous amongst the college students. His poems ridden by existential angst recited in his gruff voice enthralled our generation. His cassettes were huge hits of the time. Then came O.N.V.Kurup, the lyricist and poet, whose poems were rich in romantic allusions and lyrical quality. He recited them in his cut glass voice and I was a great fan of his poems too. Then we had Madhusudhanan Nair, whose ‘Naranathu Bhranthan’ had become a rage of the time. Nair not only recited his own poems but also recited the poems by other modernist poets of Kerala.
My tape recorder was a very old one. To listen to all those poems in their crystal clarity I had to go to my cousins’ place who had amplifiers and stereo boxes in their rooms. I spent endless hours in their home. They were kind enough to let me listen to the poems to my heart’s content. In fact the boys in that house liked me a lot and they encouraged me in whatever I did. Listening to these poems used to take me to a different world. I could levitate there and wander amongst the clouds as Wordsworth did above his Lake District. I had only the Chakka Canal to hover above. And it was on the shores of this canal, my friend John Jyothi Raj was living. He also liked poems. The interest in reciting poems reached its crescendo when I got an opportunity to recite my own poems in the Trivandrum Dooradarshan. The poem was titled ‘Avivahitante Nisaa Smaranakal’ (Night Thoughts of a Bachelor).
Doordarshan was the only television channel in those days. So on the day of telecasting my program, I called up a few people and told them to watch the program. I was wearing a red striped shirt and a grey pants during the recording. With shivering limbs and a racing heart I sat before the Keltron Television set (Kerala Electronics, a Government of Kerala Undertaking. And this company, always running in loses provides the traffic signalling technology all over India. You may notice the logo of Keltron in Delhi traffic signal lights also) with my mother, sister and a few neighbours. The program started. The set was designed as if I was sitting in a park bench. I sounded good and I was very happy. Next morning, my cousins told me that I should wear the same shirt and pants when I went to college so that people would identify me in bus and streets. I did not know they were joking or were serious. Anyway I repeated the dress code and as far as I remember none was turning their necks to see me for second time.
This appearance in Doordarshan’s poetry section and the publication of poems in magazines and local journals gave me an added confidence. Besides, I became friendly with poets like Dr.Ayyappa Panicker, D.Vinayachandran, Kureeppuzha Sreekumar, Anvar Ali, Madhusudhanan Nair and so on. Thanks to these connections I started getting offers to go to villages and recite poems in the Kaviyarangu (poetry sessions). I remember travelling with D.Vinayachandran and Anvar Ali to some obscure village near Trivandrum for a poetry session. We were served with baked tapioca and black tea. But I found a problem when I was sitting along with these famous poets. I was not able to remember none of my own poems. I tried my best but in vain. Then I asked Anvar Ali whether I could recite a poem by Balachandran Chullikkadu. Then he told me that it was always advisable to recite one’s own poems. Finally, with my brain malfunctioning on that crucial evening, I recited a poem by Balachandran Chullikkadu.
I was a fan of Balachandran Chullikkadu’s poems. I could recite most of his poems from my memory. Chullikkadu was the ideal of the 1980s. He was a wanderer. He acted in Aravindan’s movie ‘Pokkuveyil’. The character that Chullikkadu represented in that movie became an ideal for most of the rebelling youth of the 1980s and early 90s. They all copied his walk with his drooping shoulders, long loose shirt and white mundu and rubber chappals. When Chullikkadu was in the peak of his poetic career, he was invited by the University Union and he came to recite his poems at the University Students Union Hall near PMG Junction. I was one amongst the audience. I think Chullikkadu was drunk on that day. While reciting he forgot a few lines and he was fumbling a bit. Then from the audience I got up and recited those lines. The moment he got the cue he continued with his recitation. After the function I thronged at the door to catch a closer glimpse of the young and famous poet of our times. I pushed myself through the crowd and went and shook hands with him. He did not smile. He just looked at me and walked off with the university union leaders. Years later in 2000, when I was working as a special correspondent with Tehelka.com, I had the opportunity to interview Balachandran Chullikkadu at his residence in Eranakulam (Kochi).
Balachandran Chullikkadu, in mid 1990s, through a magazine article expressed his decision to withdraw from the intellectual circle of Kerala by stopping writing poems. He said that he was no longer interested in poems as a vehicle of expression and he preferred acting in television serials and films. We all were shocked. I was in living in Delhi and the news was scandalous. Though Chullikkadu had acted in Pokkuveyil, we never thought that he would become a full time actor that too in the soap dramas and tear jerkers in television. But his stance was clear and he said that as a human being he wanted a dignified life and poetry was not helping him to meet his ends. I thought I understood Chullikkadu well as I too was struggling in Delhi to make my ends meet. However, when I see Chullikkadu today acting as father or caretaker of senior actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal, somewhere something stings. Chullikkadu has a different image in our minds; that remains strong till today irrespective of his forgettable roles in tele serials and movies. It is heartening to listen that he started writing again in magazines and started publishing books.
The craze for poetry amongst the general Malayali public was so maddening during early 1990s. We had a modernist tradition of reciting poems and it was made popular by Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, Dr.Ayyappa Panicker, Sugatha Kumari, D.Vinayachandran, Kureeppuzha Sreekumar, Kilimanoor Ramakanthan, Prof.M.P.Appan, Pazhavila Ramesan and so on. Inspired by them even school teachers used to recite poems written by themselves in the school functions. Any literary program was incomplete without poetry sessions. Kadammanitta, D.Vinayachdran and Kureepphuzha Sreekumar had star status amongst the poets. Then the cassettes of Balachandran Chullikkadu became the rage of the youngsters. It was carried forward by O.N.V.Kurup and Madhusudhanan Nair. There occurred a situation in Kerala that even in the marriage halls and public functions, people started playing these poems through loud speakers. Kattakkada Murukan gave a new edge to poetry recital after Balachandran Chullikkadu. Today, thanks to several television channels (in Malayalam) and youtube, young poets recite their poems and poems are once again getting public attention in Kerala.
My interest in poetry recitation comes as I grew up in this modernist milieu of poetry recitation. My village was next to a place called Kayikkara where the famous modern poet, Kumaran Asan was born. He was born on 14th April and every year there used to be grand celebrations for almost a week at the make shift pandals erected at the sea shore of Kayikkara. I used to be a regular fix of these celebrations. My mother helped me to join the poetry writing competitions and recitation competitions. Generally I used to be the winner in both the sections. My mother used to take me to the literary meetings held in those pandals. All the famous poets came there to recite their poems. And some of the poets were dead drunk. Some rebellious guys in the village even joined the recitation competition only to express their anger at these poets by mimicking them in public. I also remember, in this small village, a Senegalese Poet Dr.Sedar Sengor had come to receive the first Asan World Prize for literature. People, like my father, small people like school teachers, government servants and small scale business men were thinking about bringing internationally acclaimed poets to a small village like Kayikkara. Today, that glory and grace of the place have gone into oblivion. Every year on 14th April just for the sake of it, they celebrate a Kumaran Asan’s birth anniversary by lighting a lamp and having some cultural programs.
Class rooms used to give a good sound effect through echo. So it was always good to recite poems and listen to the textural and tonal qualities of your own voice through the echoing sound. I was madly in love with my own voice and also my classmates encouraged me to recite more and more poems for them. And it became imperative that I wrote a poem every day and practiced it in the class. I was on the platform and was reciting some poem. It was then Kalpana came inside the classroom. I stopped reciting the poem and I looked at her. She, though the movement of her eyes asked me to stop the recitation and follow her. I did so promptly. And we went to the corridor and sat there at the threshold in silence. I wanted to ask her whether she enjoyed watching a movie with me. She did not say anything. Then to ease the tension in the atmosphere I told her how gentle I was in my behaviour in the movie hall. “I did not even touch you once,” I told her proudly. Hearing this she just exploded. “I was waiting all those two and half hours for your touch. You are a stupid,” she said. It was then it dawned on me that girls also cherished similar emotional responses. Since then I was a different man.
Slowly my classmates also knew that there was something going on between Kalpana and me. Soon it became an accepted relationship in the college. Even the ferocious union leaders did not interfere in our affair. Lecturers and professors also thought that it was something quite natural. Then we, the people in the class decided to make some changes in the seating arrangements. We broke the age old norm of girls on the right side of the class and boys on the left. We started sitting intermingled. It was one of the ways devised by the loving pairs like Kalpana and myself to sit together throughout the day. I brought my tiffin from home and she became so demanding that I had to feed her everyday with my hand. It was seriously embarrassing for me in the beginning and slowly it became a habit.
There is always a villain in any love story. The villain in my love story made his grand entry in the form of our own professor. He was a good friend of Kalpana’s father, who was a leading advocate in Trivandrum. Our professor conveyed the message to her father and soon her movements were restricted. Initially, her family acted as if nothing had happened. Then, her father started coming to college to drop her at the gate just before the college hours started. I used to wait for her, singing poems and entertaining other friends in the class. Once she came in we went to our world.
Before things got really complicated, once I fell ill. Though there was a phone connection in her home, I was barred from calling her. So writing letters was the only way of communication. Even when we were meeting every day I used to write to her every day. The ritual was like that I brought the letter to the class and then read it out for her. She took it home read it several times and replied once in a while with similar intensity. As I was a compulsive writer and addicted to writing, I could finish several pages in a night with the words of wonderment and praise for her. So I sent a letter to her through one of my friends and she decided to come and visit an ailing boy friend.
She came and nobody was at home except this ailing young man. The moment I saw Kalpana my fever flew miles away. I was a different person. I looked into her eyes as if I were launching my boat into the unchartered waters that stayed calm in the depths of her eyes. I held her shoulders with both of my hands. I drew her to my chest and I could feel her softness against my body. Something moved. The eternal serpent that waits to raise its hood at any given time. I took her to my bed. The Keltron television set and the National Panasonic stereo tape recorder stood in silence watching me doing things that they had not seen me doing before.
Kalpana closed her eyes. I kissed on her eye lids. My lips started exploring the landscape of her body. I remembered Kalidasa explaining Parvati in Kumarasambhavam. The rain drop falling on the forehead of Parvati. It rolls down to her nose tip, then to her lips and to her chin, then into the spongy route between the breasts and splashing into her navel like a whirlwind only to become a watery feeling in the valley. I was just turning into a drop of rain; a big big drop of water. And I travelled the same route shown by Kalidasa and under me a forest sprang up into spring. My fingers plucked the flowers and the canopies were obstructing the easy movement of my fingers. With a twist of her hands she removed them and threw it on the floor. Now like a portrait painted by Modigliani she reclined before me.
“No, you should not,” she told me. If you are not a rapist, a woman can stop you with a glance. She can send you into the depths of shame with a single word. She could unnerve you and send the serpent back to its hiding with a single twisting of her head. I could not go further and she got up and dressed herself up. Crestfallen I too got into my role as a sick boy. Kalpana stood before me as if nothing had happened between us before a few minutes back. She made tea for me. This was repeated in a couple of days more and a normal fever cannot be extended to eternity so I had to go back to college after a couple of days putting an end to the unexpected but interrupted entry into a secret.
When young boys used to discuss their existential pangs with their confidents, they open up several things, which would shock the listener. One day a friend of mine told me how his father, in a fit of rage explained how women were all over the world. “They all stink,” his father said. My friend was very sad because his father said it to his mother. I did not understand why his father said it either. In my observation, each woman has a different fragrance. They don’t stink. But all the women have the same taste. If you taste, you get this slippery salty feel. Then you may wonder why you did it. There is no explanation for it. I think this slippery salty flavour drives the world. But knowing this is one way of demystifying the relationship between a man and a woman. Kalpana also tasted slippery salty.
The river life never runs smoothly, so is the river of love. The more you are into it the more you are troubled by it. Then your flow is obstructed by a huge dam. This time the dam was built by her father. Kalpana was put into house arrest. She tried to send me messages through some friends. It was almost the end of the second year and we were all going to be post graduates with small and big ambitions. As I told you, my one point agenda was to marry Kalpana. Now she was in house arrest. Then one day she reappeared in the college. She was wearing a white churidar with red flower prints. She did not look particularly sad, but she was silent. She walked into the class like an apparition and I was not expecting her on that day. I was in an emotional turmoil. I just walked out of the class while the professor on the platform looked at this drama with some sort of confusion. Now when I review this particular scene, I feel a bit funny despite the remembrance of the pains that I had gone through in those days.
I spoke to Kalpana and she told me that she was going to give examinations and will be put back in house arrest in his uncle’s house. I was depressed. The exams were over and we were communicating through letters sent across through the Indian postal service. Every day at noon 12.30 I waited for the post man to come and deliver her letter. I could not send replies to her as it was censored by her uncle. But she had taken one of her cousins into confidence. She was doing the courier work for Kalpana. It was during I did all those things mentioned at the beginning of this chapter; including learning gas welding, teaching, driving, karate and preparing for the IAS examinations.
The pressure on my family and me was tremendous. I was called to Kalpana’s uncle’s house. When I went to meet him, I could see Kalpana’s face through a window. She was locked up in that room and she was anxiously looking at me. Even in that critical moment she was complementing my new pair of shoes with her glances. Her uncle spoke to me at length; mainly about the pros and cons of a life like that. And he put a condition- I could marry her. And that should happen in a couple of days. It will be a register marriage and I should leave my family and live with Kalpana at her uncle’s house. I was not ready to listen something like that.
I looked at him and told him I was not ready to agree with both the conditions. Then he told me that then they had to think differently. I told him that if she really loved me she would wait for me- all those usual stuff that takes place in such situations. I left Kalpana alone in her confinement and came back to my home. My nights and days were becoming intolerable. Meanwhile, her people were mounting pressures on me and my mother. I remember my relatives were of no use in this matter. Politicians, advocates and other socially important people were sent to me as envoys. All of them were asking me to back out from this relationship. Some people threatened me and some people used soft words those were more threatening than the actual threat itself. Finally her father decided to meet me.
I was called to Kalpana’s father’s private office in Trivandrum. He was very calm and silent. He looked at me for a long time; then he asked me to drink tea. I sat before him. He did not speak anything about my relationship with Kalpana. Instead he spoke to be how as a father he felt. He said I was free to marry her but things would not work out the way I expected. Somehow I felt that this man was telling me the right things. He was winning me over. He was calling me son. I knew it that he was aiming big and he finally shot. “You can marry her but tomorrow itself and leave your family.” I got up to walk out. But he made me to sit.
Something was exploding in my head. I told him that I was ready to walk out of this relationship than yielding to their pressure tactics. He was waiting for this moment. He won the round. The he pulled his table drawer out and took out a bundle of letters. Suddenly, I felt like laughing because I could recognize them. They were all written by me. He handed over them and told me that it was now of no use. I took them back and carefully put them into my bag. “You should destroy all these letters,” her father told me softly. I smile at him. “And you should return all those letters given to you by Kalpana,” he said firmly. This time I was really laughing through my tears. “Sir,” I called him, perhaps it was the first time I addressed him, “Sir, all these could be destroyed and her letters could be returned but what about me? I would be alive. If you are thinking that these letters will be used against her at some point, I will destroy them. But I will be the biggest threat, right? How are you going to deal with me then?” He looked at me and he said calmly, “Sorry son..I should not have asked you this. Go in peace. I am happy that you are out of it.”
Within three days I found myself sitting in a train to Baroda. I left everything behind. My students, my IAS notes, my aspirations and ambitions. It was the beginning of my exile. In Baroda I was received by Shibu Natesan. It was summer vacation in Baroda. I was a lonely man. I moved around with another lonely man like me. One day Shibu Natesan brought a letter from Kalpana. I had given my address to her through a friend. The letter said that she wanted to meet me just to know whether I walked out on her or not. She wanted to meet me urgently. Without thinking for a second, I took the first train to Mumbai.
Mumbai, Pune, buses, Ferries, boats and finally I reached Kannur. My friend from Kannur was travelling with me. He was the one who suggested a travel by road. From Kannur I got into a train and reached Trivandrum. In the letter, Kalpana had explained the place and date of our meeting. She would come to give a competitive examination for some job. The examination centre was a school in Trivandrum. She would meet me there immediately after the examination.
I went to that school well in advance. Mingling with the people and candidates I learnt more about the exams and seat divisions and seating arrangements. From the candidate list on the board I found out her hall number. And I went into a class room which was not used for the examination and hid myself there. I positioned myself under a desk from where I could see the main gate of the building. The first floor was a vantage point for me. Just before the exam bells were rung, I saw a familiar Fiat car coming and stopping in front of the school building. Kalpana came out of it and walked into the compound. I waited under the desk for three hours. Just before the last bell she came out and walked along the corridor. I came out from behind the door where I was standing to snatch her in and pulled her inside the class.
Kalpana looked into my eyes. I was heaving like an animal after a race. I leaned against the wall. “So it is over, right?” she asked me furiously. I said, yes. She slapped me left and right. I stood there taking her wrath all over me. She scratched me with her long nails. I could feel skin peeling off from my stomach, neck and cheeks. She slapped me again and left the class room. I stood there with my eyes closed. I was crying. I sat there till I became calm.
In a month’s time I was again in Baroda. This time I was a different man. I had already made up my mind to join the Faculty of Fine Arts to pursue a post graduation in Art History and Criticism. I got a room in MA Hall in the Boy’s Hostel campus. One evening Shibu Natesan brought me one letter written in an inland. It was raining outside.
I took the letter from Shibu’s hands. With a single glance I could make out that it was sent by Kalpana. With the letter I walked to the window. The rain was pouring with shrieking sounds. The wind was howling through the branches of the trees in the campus.
I tore that letter into pieces and threw it down through the window. I could see them whirling in the flow of water and disappearing from my vision. I did not know what she had written to me in that. Still I don’t know what she was trying to tell me in that letter.
Monday, August 29, 2011
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.”
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Had Ram Kinkar Baij been alive could he have got an assignment to do a monumental sculpture at the Terminal 3 in the Indira Gandhi International Airport? I ask this question myself and I don’t want to ask this to K.S.Radhakrishnan, who has been devoting all his time for the last three years in researching ‘Ram Kinkar Baij’ for the retrospective that he is curating at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi in January 2012. In fact, I don’t dare to ask this question to KSR (though most of the people in the Indian art scene address K.S.Radhakrishnan as ‘Radha’ or ‘Radha Da’ I prefer to address him ‘Radhakrishnan’ in our personal communications and when I write I use ‘KSR’ for K.S.Radhakrishnan) because the kind of sculptures and paintings that we see in the new T3 of the IGIA have already been discussed between us. Still, my roving mind itches to imagine things. Could there have been another ‘Yaksha- Yakshi’ as we see at the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India? Could there have been another ‘Santal Family’? Another ‘Mill Call’? Or, had Ram Kinkar been allowed, with his genuine witticism and humour could he have imagined a ‘Corporate Family’ or a ‘Call Centre Call’ instead?
I don’t know. But a second thought tells me that, had he been invited by the authorities to make one sculpture at the T3, Ram Kinkar Baij could have summarily rejected the offer, while sipping from his liquor bottle and fondling the cat purring around him. Ram Kinkar Baij did not care for name or fame. He was not seeking commission works. KSR tells me an anecdote: During the waning years of Ram Kinkar Baij, that is by the 1970s, he came to the class with a liquor bottle. For a puritan Santiniketanite it was a pure case of blasphemy. But none dared to ask him to go out of the campus. He just did not care because he had nothing to lose. He was a Khepa Baul; a free soul.’
In Santiniketan, at KSR’s new home ‘Mimeer Baadi’ (Mimi’s House named after KSR’s writer-painter wife Mimi) art historian, scholar, pedagogue and an expert of Bengal School, R.Sivakumar adds another anecdote: Most of the people know the image of an uncouth, anarchic Ram Kinkar Baij but that was not the ‘complete image’. Ram Kinkar was a very sensitive human being. He used to drink a lot but he was never drunk. He never abused anyone but he was amused by everyone. He had a tremendous sense of etiquette and decorum. But that was different from the colonial sense of etiquette. After the Yaksha Yakshi experience in Delhi, he was a bit down. He had several bitter experiences while executing the monumental sculptures of Yaksha Yakshi at the Reserve Bank in New Delhi. The experience had in a way shattered him. He dipped his despair in drinks. But he was never abusive.”
There is something cyclical about history; what goes around comes around, at times as blessings and at other times as curse. Now, at the T3 Delhi, in the American Express lounge, KSR remembers how he and Sivakumar, as two young students assisted Ritwik Ghatak and his crew members while they were shooting Ram Kinkar Baij in 1975. Two men, two highly charged spirits moved around the campus where his works were displayed and spoke at length. They shot for four days. Today, KSR is on the way to make a documentary on Ram Kinkar Baij. After thirty six years, the boy assistant is going to direct a documentary on his master and my role is that of an assistant; in script and production. “Ram Kinkar did not care,” KSR remembers. ‘Ghatak and Baij went to the villages around Santiniketan. At some point, Ghatak was so drunk that he slept on one of the narrow alleys with Ram Kinkar for company. Even the cycle rickshaw people did not dare to wake them up. So they took another route and let the filmmaker and sculptor enjoyed their sleep.”
In the Ritwik Ghatak film, ‘Ram Kinkar Baij- A personality Study’ (now available in Youtube), Ram Kinkar Baij speaks about the problems that he faces in his life. He speaks about how he has shielded his dripping roof with his oil paintings. An astonished Ghatak asks him what he is going to do for the show that is coming soon. To this question Ram Kinkar Baij answers genuinely: “As the paintings are made by oil on canvas water will not do any damage to them. I can pull them out for the show. But my worry is what I will replace them with to stop the rainwater. It costs hundred rupees to buy grass for thatching. It is very expensive.’ He did care for his ‘home’ and it did not mean that he did not care for his paintings or sculptures. His logic was different from the logic of the artists today. He was not creating works thinking that one day they would reach the auction houses or museums. He was an inspired soul and making works was like breathing for him.
Thirty one years after Ram Kinkar’s death, rain is a still a problem for him. Strewn across the sylvan campus of Santiniketan, Ram Kinkar Baij’s sculptures suffer from monsoon rains. ‘Harvester’ (Thresher) is a sculpture that most of the people see in its various bronze casts rather than the original. Even if someone visits Santiniketan, they would fail to notice the original as it stands today covered by weeds and thickets. But they do see the bronze version of it at the Uttarayan Complex next to the Tagore Museum in Santiniketan. In a modestly large plot , Uttarayan complex has the bronze casts of Sujata, Santal Family and Harvester.
The premises have a moderately big bungalow of Rabindranath Tagore as its focus. And there are several small houses spread around where Tagore lived at different ‘seasons’. “This was the last house where Tagore lived and when he fell sick he was taken to Calcutta in a Royal Saloon specially arranged by the Railways,” says Sivakumar. “He was a disturbed person throughout his life. He did not like staying in one place. These small houses with different kinds and sizes of windows, roof height and terraces, were specially made under Tagore’s instructions so that they would facilitate him to live in different ‘levels’ and experience life and nature.” Tagore’s car is preserved here as a museum piece and the mud house, ‘Shyamali’ is currently covered by plastic sheets as the Archaeological Survey of India has been doing the renovation of this building for some time. It is on the walls of this mud house, Ram Kinkar had initially tried some ‘tribal’ figures in relief forms whose resonances later we could hark in the monumental ‘Yaksha-Yakshi’ at the Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi.
Monsoon showers threaten the original sculptures of Ram Kinkar Baij, mostly done with iron armature supported concrete and latterite stones and gravel. Years back, recognizing how the rains are affecting these sculptures, Viswabharati University authorities had erected canopies over the original ‘Santal Family’ and ‘Mill Call’. These canopies, majestic with their iron pillars and asbestos roof now looks pathetic as the rains, uprooted trees and so on have damaged them considerably. The authorities are periodically informed of the situation with no result. Hierarchy in bureaucracy is one major problem that aggravates the decay of Ram Kinkar Baij’s outdoor sculptures. “We in Kalabhavana have been writing to authorities for a long time,” says Sivakumar who is also the head of the Art History Department of Kalabhavana. “Everything happens as per the hierarchy. When the paper moves from one section to the other and finally reaches to the engineers several monsoons must be over.”
Sivakumar feels that the monumental sculptures of Ram Kinkar Baij that have become the milestones in the modern Indian art in general and sculptures in particular, in due course of time will lose their structural qualities and eventually fall from their art historical status to mere ruins. “If you compare the bronze cast of the Santal Family there in the Uttarayan Complex and the original here in Kalabhavan campus you could differentiate between the structural and formal qualities. As the bronze was cast long back, the ‘surface quality’ of the original could be seen there. But the original, thanks to the onslaught of rains and winds, has been losing its textures. It has become brittle. Wasps make their nests and now thanks to the burning of these nests there are dark patches and holes in these sculptures. Someone has to take immediate action to save these sculptures.” “There has been a demand to make Santiniketan a Heritage Site. But we need to leave something to be preserved and protected,” says KSR. “This is a living museum and we need to respect each and every part of it,” he observes.
Ram Kinkar Baij, Ramanad Sagar and Lord Ram have one thing in common; their name Ram. But Ram Kinkar Baij had never imagined that Ramayana could do something wrong to his works. During 1980s when the Ramayana series was telecasted on Sundays in Doordarshan, a restorer was called to repair a damaged at the flowing tip of the Mill Call. The engineer and the restorer came. It was a Sunday and on Doordarshan Ramayana was ‘happening’. Which household had a television set then were literally worshipping that box during those two hours of telecasting. The restorer was an avid follower of the serial, Ramayana. As he was called to do his official duties on a Sunday with Ramayana blessing rest of the people in the country, our restorer decided to take revenge against the authorities. He just added some cement mixture at the broken part and giving a complete finish, leaving all those textural dimensions to sink in the polished layer of the cement!
“Ram Kinkar Baij is like an ocean,” KSR tells me. “If I work on him for another two years more materials will come out. More works will come out. I have been working on it for the last three years and all these while I have been getting newer works, suspected works, unpublished interviews, literature about Ram Kinkar and so on. Somewhere I need to create a logical end but with a possible and multiple openings for further research,” KSR continues. From the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose international airport to KSR’s apartment near the Birla Akademy there is a forty minutes drive. It could increase depending on the road conditions. Monsoon is still active in Kolkata. It drizzles. KSR asks the driver to roll down the window glasses and switch off air-conditioner. Rain drops touch our face. Oh Kolkata. Mamta Banerjee’s Kolkata!
Raajer Haat to Kolkata is what Gurgaon is to Delhi. Raajer Haat, which could be translated as ‘King’s Market’ and the vast plane land that lie on either side of the broad bypass road has been acquired by all the major companies and individuals in India. “Huge institutions are going to come here,” KSR tells me. He points out the housing complexes that are taking shape at the horizon line. People are going to come to this side soon. Kolkata will be old Kolkata in a few years time,” KSR observes. JCBs gnaw earth and put it on the waiting trucks. Clearing is happening very fast. Digging for the foundations has already been on. Destiny is playing a game of JCBs with the fate of Kolkata. At a distance on my right side KSR shows me a huge billboard that says ‘KMOMA’ (Kolkata Museum of Modern Art). Behind the billboard there is darkness and silence. Suddenly a host of glow worms fly across it. After a few years there will be standing India’s biggest museum of art here.
KSR’s apartment in Kolkata is a three bedroom flat. Rain sings outside. To ventilate the occasionally used apartment I open the widows. Darkness tinged with raindrops falls on my face. A few dogs barked at the lit windows of the flat as they are not familiar with light and human presence in this building.
Suvendu Chatterjee runs a group called ‘DRIK India’ in Kolkata. He is into producing audio-visual content for many agencies. Also DRIK India’ works with many non-governmental organizations for social causes. Sumeru would like to go by his first name. He is a writer, painter, publisher and above all a movie cameraman. He is tall, plump and all of thirty six years. He has curly hairs and he prefers to wear a very small straw hat on his head while shooting. He also publishes a little magazine called ‘Roop Chandi’. Shubho also is a young man with a small ponytail. He is a commerce graduate but does anything outside commerce. He is a production controller, editor, script writer, concept maker, project writer and so on. Joshi Joseph has been living in Kolkata for the last twelve years. He is the director of the Films Division India (Kolkata). Joshi is a writer, filmmaker and social activist. His four short films have won National Awards. Joshi supports Iron Sharmila’s fasting and has done a seventeen minutes film on her. His magnum opus still under production is the ‘Life and Works of Mahasweta Devi’. If Joshi believes in God, the form of that god is Mahashweta Devi. He travels with her quite often and has so far collected 300 hours of footage.
So here is our team. KSR and I have already created a shooting script. We discuss the script with the team and they are all inspired. Next morning, at the Howra Station we meet again. Looking at the crowd, KSR remembers Penn railway station in the US. People rush like animals when the train is announced. People behave in the same way at the railway stations, all over the world, KSR opines. At platform number 12 the Santiniketan Express has already arrived. We have our reservations in the A/C Chair car. Rabindranath Tagore smiles at me from the portraits stuck on the panels of the railway coach. I remember my journey to Santiniketan four years back in another train. A young boy displays his magical skills and vanishes into thin air. Later comes a young Baul singer. He sings beautifully. As he leaves the coach becomes silent again with the occasional rupturing of it with the dialogues of a young man sitting just behind me with his artificial accent. While the train pushes the landscapes behind out there, I settle down with a book.
Bolpur has become crowded. Santiniketan has become more of a tourist centre. Within four years things have changed drastically, I feel. KSR tells me that now to see Santiniketan you need to go to the inner villages. The corporate are buying out lands now. I remember reading Joshi’s interview with Mahasweta Devi. She had kicked a kuccha brick pillar down in a construction site as a protest against the illegal constructions happening in Santiniketan, for the benefit of the corporate houses. Later while sitting at the shores of the Kopai river, KSR says, “One day Kopai River will become the dividing line between Old and New Santiniketan. Old Santiniketan is in the process of becoming a ‘new’ township. The original feel of Santiniketan could now be seen only after crossing the Kopai river,” he says with sadness in his eyes. Then he looks at the pack of dogs standing around us and asks, “Do you know why dogs lick their balls?” I had heard its answer once from KSR himself. So I tell him, ‘That’s the way they think.” “No,” KSR objects in his hallmark style. I wonder how I had gone wrong in my answer as it was provided by him only a few years back. “Because they can do that,” KSR says. Against the setting sun there blooms the wild flowers of laughter along the Kopai shore.
We start our work on the very afternoon of our arrival (23rd August 2011). The light is not conducive to shoot the vertical sculpture titled ‘Lamp Stand’ before the main Santiniketan Building. So we move to the Tagore museum where the bronze cast of ‘Sujata’ is located. R.Sivakumar and his son, Siddharth join us. Siddharth has grown up into a smart and handsome young man. At the age of eighteen he is already a printer-publisher of a Magazine mainly publishing film studies articles. Tagore museum is under renovation. Then we proceed to the Uttarayan Complex and shoot Santal Family bronze and Harvester bronze. Sivakumar’s sound bytes recorded. In the same campus, along with Ram Kinkar Baij’s works, we could see the works of his two beloved disciples; A.Ramachandran and KSR. Rain clouds gather around. Sumeru is a happy man. He shoots the rain while it shoots us back to shelters. Standing at the veranda of Tagore’s house, with KSR and Sivakumar, I feel a time that was not mine but still lives in me as an integral part of my making.
On 24th August we are at the Prayer Hall of the Brahmos (Brahma Samajis), the glass house Tagore had built for prayers, at 6 am. Tuesday and Wednesday are holidays in Santiniketan. I ask KSR why? “Perhaps, Tagore wanted to break the norms of the world,” KSR tells me. Later I ask Sivakumar, who has been living in Santiniketan for the last thirty six years about this. “Hasn’t it created a problem to you?” “Obviously. It is a kind of jet lag when you even go to Kolkata by train,” Sivakumar says. “You reach a place different from Santiniketan on a Tuesday or Wednesday and you find everything going crazy around you as for them they are working days,” Sivakumar smiles. This is a Wednesday and we are lucky to have the prayer day falling on the same day. People come in their Wednesday best, which is mostly white in colour. Young boys come in white pyjama-kurta. Young girls come in white cotton sarees. They all look so innocent to my eyes. Aneesh who does his MA in Painting at Kalabhavana tells me, “Today they look like flowers. On working days, when they get together under the mango trees in their yellow uniform, they all look like bunches of ripe jackfruit just ripped out of the rough pod.” I want to give a kiss to Aneesh for that simile.
Sharmila Pomot, one of the prominent Rabeendra Sangeet singers joins us after the prayer for a shoot. When Ram Kinkar Baij was alive, he used to ask Sharmila to sing certain songs for him. A young Sharmila used to oblige. KSR decides to shoot her singing under the same trees where Ram KInkar had sit with Sharmila and the same songs, which he had asked her to sing. Sharmila sings it soulfully. She has been doing singing Rabeendra Sangeet for almost four decades now. She lives in Paris and Peter Brooke when he did Mahabharata, chose Sharmila Pomot to sing the opening song. Later I saw her buying vegetables for the day from a local shop. Every person has an ordinary and fantastic life; perhaps life is something that has both these elements rolled together.
After the music performance documentation, we proceed to document all the site specific works inside the Kalabhavana campus. Mill Call, Santal Family, Buddha and Sujata. Sumeru has a tough time in climbing on the scaffolding to get the details. We are afraid that the scaffolding would crumple under the weight of a heavy Sumeru. Buddha, thanks to its location near to girls’ hostel has left no room for a three dimensional shoot. From whichever angle you see it, this monumental Buddha looks two dimensional. Sumeru has some ideas for artificially lighting it but KSR does not want to give any special effect to this sculpture. He wants it to be as raw as the sculpture’s surface and its present condition.
One of the final works of Ram Kinkar Baij is right inside the campus of the Girls’ hostel. The hostels are named ‘Goenkalaya’, ‘Birlalaya’ and so on as per the name of the donors. The boulevard is so fascinating. On the onside you have these hostels and on the other, the university stadium. “By night nine o clock, this pathway becomes like a railway platform,” says Aneesh with a cunning smile on his face, “with several young boys seeing off their girlfriends to their respective hostels. They look anxious like those relatives of the young passengers who leave home for the first time.” KSR walks into the premises of the hostel followed by me, with the security guard on our trail. We wait for the matron to give us permission to shoot and she looks at us carefully and nods her head in agreement. I have noticed one thing, none could outtalk KSR.
The image of this sculpture is a combined form of two buffaloes in a lotus pond. Their tails move like two fishes. This is a combination of two beings: buffalo and fish. They intertwine to create a vertical movement and also are interspersed with a lotus like forms. Together this work is created as a fountain. Ram Kinkar, when asked by Ghatak, why he combined these two elements together answered that he had once seen a buffalo lying in a pond with its tail splashing the water. It looked like two disjointed elements acting together; a buffalo and a fish. It was simply a tail but Ram Kinkar found it the possibility of morphing these elements together.
By evening we go to visit the Gopalpada village nearby. The village people know KSR. They greet him with reverence. We enter into a cluster of huts and see the cleanliness with which they have maintained the place. I get a de javu feeling. I have been here once, I think. But I am not able to locate exactly when. Then I remember riding bicycle with Reji Arakkal and Swapna Biswas all over these places. We had gone to several places, we had seen so many people and we had seen so many trees and animals. I had seen a spring embracing a forest and earth covering her breasts in shame. I tell this to KSR and he smiles. We drive down to the Kopai River. There we have tea at the river bed.
On 25th August 2011 morning, we let the crew to go on their own to shoot the villages for stock shots. By 8 am KSR comes to pick me up from Monorama Hotel where I stay. We sit at Kalabhavana canteen and drink tea. Time stands still here in Santiniketan. Some foreigners amble in. They look at all of us and I feel that they look at us as if we too were from Tagore’s time and we are eternal display objects in a site specific museum. Behind us there are two buildings; one covered with the black and white mural of K.G.Subramanyan. And the other one is ‘master moshai’ Nandlal Bose’s studio. The walls of this studio are exposed to the elements and are prone to decay. Luckily, the exterior of this studio will be now protected by a mural by K.G.Subramanyan made up of mosaic tiles. This will be a double tribute to the master moshai; on the one hand his most celebrated student, K.G.Subramanyan would do a mural on this building and on the other, the walls will be protected by the mosaic tiles mural.
Some students want to show their works to me. I have time to visit their studios as the crew would take a couple of hours to come back to resume shooting at Ram Kinkar’s studio (now MFA Sculpture Studio) with his small works picked up from the Kalabhavana museum collection. I visit their studios, see their works and say some comments. The studios are just inadequate. The painting studios are just less than ten feet by ten feet squares. I go to the boys’ hostel to see some works and then pay a visit to the washroom there. The students live in absolute filth and stench. Hygiene is the last thing the authorities care for here, it seems.
Santiniketan takes a great pride in Tagore’s legacy. With CPM accepting Tagore and now Mamta Banerjee skilfully using Tagore legacy for political mileage, Bengal need to take a relook at the affairs of Santiniketan, especially Kalabhavana. While preserving Kalabhavana and the premises around it as envisioned by Tagore and conserving the whole of it as a site specific museum, new facilities for students should be established elsewhere in Santiniketan itself. New architecture that does not disturb the philosophy and policy of Santiniketan could be developed for studios, class rooms and hostels. Could someone imagine that Kalabhavana students do not have access to internet facilities in the campus?
Before we leave, KSR takes us to one place that he considers very important in his life. This is the house of the noted sculptor, Sarbari Roy Choudhury. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, Sarbari Roy Choudhury is now home bound. KSR and Roy Choudhury used to share a very special relationship between them. “When I went to Santiniketan, Sarbari Da was a teacher there. He liked me a lot and we used to be together most of them time. If he is riding a cycle, I will be there at the pillion. People even thought that we have some kind of gay relationship,” KSR laughs. “But for me my master was Ram Kinkar Baij. I thought, when Sarbari Daa knew that I am more into the Ram Kinkar Baij School, he would be hurt. But he was not. He was very encouraging. When I wrote ‘To my Guru, Ram Kinkar Baij’ in the opening page of dissertation, I thought Sarbari Da would be hurt. But he was not. He is a great human being. Sivakumar and myself used to spend endless hours at his house as he had a tremendous collection of music. May be he is one of the biggest music collectors in India. We used to joke that Sarbari Da even looked into anybody’s pocket just to know whether he has a cassette with him or not,” KSR remembers.
Sarbari Roy Choudhury holds KSR’s hands. He wants to speak a lot. He is now hard at hearing. KSR has to lean each time to tell things into his right year. Like a child Sarbari Da calls ‘Radhooo’. We all felt something held up in our throats. Our eyes moisten. He runs his shivering fingers through KSR’s long beard and calls, ‘Radhooo’. Through gestures and limited words he tells KSR that he would like to do a portrait sculpture of KSR. KSR also chokes for a moment. He takes up Sarbari Roy Choudhury’s right hand in his hands. He caresses it. A very touching moment that I would never forget in my life.
The shooting continues with Ram Kinkar Baij’s small sculptures taken out from the Kalabhavana museum. By 2 pm we wrap up the shoot and get ready to travel back to Kolkata. While travelling back, KSR and I have this satisfaction of completing things as per our shooting schedule. While negotiating the bumpy roads from the back seat of a new Tata Indigo car, the question of Santiniketan’s present situation bounces back to my mind. Frozen in time, Santiniketan gives a picture perfect impression. Rickshaw pullers who double up as tourist guides mis-guide visitors by filling up them with concocted stories around Ram Kinkar’s works. At least the Rickshaw pullers care for stories and they reinvent them every day. Do the authorities care to re-invent Santiniketan for good?
(All photographs except the ones featuring JohnyML are taken by JohnyML)