Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Marthandan Gets Ready to go to School

It was a Wednesday. Father told Marthandan that it was 1st June too. And it was the day when schools re-opened after the two months long summer vacation. Sky had gone suddenly dark. It was eight in the morning but darkness was still lingering around.

Neeli mooed from the stable as Kesavan, the milkman finished milking her. She had given birth to a beautiful calf a month ago. Marthandan was really happy to see this calf. It was golden brown in colour and had a beautiful white patch right in the middle of its forehead. Mother suggested a name for him, ‘Manikyan’. But somehow Marthandan did not like that name too much. He thought of calling him, ‘Neelandan.’ After many consultations the name was accepted by all. Marthandan was very happy.

Marthandan was now entering third standard. He looked at his new uniform; Khakhi half pants and white half sleeved shirt. He fondled the new dress for sometime as he sat at the threshold of the veranda and looked at the darkening sky. Mother called out from the kitchen. She wanted him to go and take bath immediately. Jimmy and Tommy came and sat near him. He touched their ears and they wagged their tails. Kuttappan, Karumban and Sundari were not seen anywhere. The hens and the rainbow chicks were also missing. Somehow the uncouth crows were even silent.

It is going to rain, Marthandan thought. The very thought of getting wet in the rain thrilled him. He pretended that he did not listen to the exhortations of his mother from the kitchen. He ogled at his father. He was reading his newspaper. He had just finished his second cup of tea and had lit a Panama cigarette. As if goaded by mother’s voice from kitchen, he raised his head from the newspaper and called out to Marthandan, “Go and take bath before it rains.”

He knew that father was not always soft-spoken like that. Today was a new day in Marthandan’s life. He was entering in a new class and his father must be proud of that. He had even promised to drop him to school by cycle. Marthandan did not have any other option than move himself towards the well. He got up from the threshold, looked at once again at the dark sky, mumbled a prayer for a quick rain, upon failing in getting results he walked to the other side of the house where is a shack mother had spread his towel.

With irritation he tugged at the towel. Something moved at the floor. Marthandan jumped back in fright. It was Sundari who was lying curled up in a heap of ash. She looked at him, mewed and climbed on the half wall and disappeared from the sight. Marthandan put his fingers into a coconut shell container and took out a pinch of burnt husk and put it on his left palm. It was spiked with a bit of dusted rock salt. Mother refilled it routinely whenever the shell container went empty.

Marthandan started brushing his teeth with the burnt husk. He tried his best to make the process slower. But the rain was not yet falling. It was not even drizzling. The dark and loaded clouds stood there in the sky with a forgotten purpose. The brushing of teeth was followed by cleaning of his tongue. Marthandan walked up to a small coconut plant and extracted a bristle from its leaf. Then he split it up into two equal halves. He dipped them in the bucket full of water. Then he took out one half, made a bow out of it, inserted into his mouth and started sliding it down on the tongue. He liked the feeling. He filled water into his mouth and gargled loudly. Some crows that were sitting still till then moved there in the trees. Marthandan felt a sense of normalcy.

One bucket after another he filled from the well and emptied it on cement tank made near the well. Once the tank was full, Marthandan got ready to take bath. With studied movements he removed his knickers down and shirt up and both of them landed at the edge of the shack like volleyball. Marthandan did not feel anything odd in taking bath in complete nude. Jimmy and Tommy came around to see him taking bath. Patiently they sat through this ritual.

By the time Marthandan wore his new uniform it was already nine in the morning. It was not raining. What a suspense, Marthandan thought. Mother served him with hot wafer thin dosas and red coconut chutney. He ate three and demanded three more. Mother obliged. It was his first day in third standard, which both the parties knew; while the former made use of the chance, the latter did not want to deny him his happiness.

Father took his umbrella with a curved grip and put it across the cycle’s handle bar. Then he started polishing and cleaning his cycle. Father was obsessed with cleaning his cycle. Whenever he was not sleeping, he was seen reading newspaper; whenever he was not reading newspaper he was cleaning cycle; whenever he was not cleaning cycle, he was talking to people. He was always busy. Marthandan never understood why his father was so busy all the time.

Marthandan said bye to his mother, went to the Tulsi tree, took a round with folded hands and came running to father’s side. He had already fixed Marthandan’s school bag at the clip of the cycle carrier.

During the last two months, thought Marthandan while sitting at the front bar of the cycle, nothing much had changed along the way. The electric posts were still there; the one which was leaning menacingly towards the road was now straightened up. Telephone poles made out of hollow iron pipes were also still there. Janu Checchi’s pickle and toffee shop was intact and she was talking to someone animatedly. Pushpangadan, the flower man was making another garland just the way he was doing two months back. Marthandan felt reassured.

As the cycle rolled along, scenery went past and a buzzing sound came closer. It was the buzz of the school. Marthandan felt a secret thrill growing inside him and at the same time he felt some kind of panic.

At the portico father alighted from the cycle and helped Marthandan to get down. He greeted the headmaster and handed over Marthandan to him. Headmaster patted on his shoulder and asked him to go to III A which was next II A, his class till two months before. Marthandan walked towards III A and waved bye to father. He got onto his cycle and peddled away.

The moment Marthandan stepped inside the classroom, there was a deafening sound. He shivered. It was the first thunder and lightning of the season. Then it poured. Marthandan knew that his father was now enjoying a ride in the rain.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Series for my Daughter: Marthandan and His Wolrd

Marthandan’s Day Begins

(Marthandan could be some child like this )

Marthandan gets up very early in the morning. With him a few others in the household also get up. But none of them walked on two legs except Marthandan. Marthandan’s friends who get up early with him regularly are two cocks, five hens, thirteen chicks, three cats, two dogs, six pigeons and innumerable crows that live on the coconut trees and other trees around.

They all had names: the bigger cock was called Angavaalan and the smaller one was called Poovaalan. Hens were Pennamma, Rosy, Ammini, Whitely and Sundari. Thirteen chicks didn’t have names but they had colours. In fact there were fourteen chicks. Mother told Marthandan as he came back from school one evening that one of his chikkoos had been taken away by an eagle.

“Eagle?” Marthandan had never seen an eagle before. He had seen smaller versions of Kites hanging out at the edges of the coconut leaves. But an eagle. “Really?!!”

Chicks became colourful after that incident. Someone told Marthandan’s father that if he dipped the chicks in colours it would scare away predating birds. Since then Marthandan could see a rainbow of thirteen colours converging and diverging like iron filings around the hens as if they were magnetic poles.

Kuttappan, Karumban and Sundari were the names of the cats. As one of the hens also got the name Sundari, whenever mother called out the name both of them reached the kitchen door expecting something to eat. Jimmy and Tommy were the dogs and they were not in good terms with the cats. But they kept mutual respect for each other mostly keeping themselves off from their respective territories. Pigeons did not have names. But they responded to Marthandan’s whistling. Crows...ah what a menace. Marthandan just did not like them. But they were there everywhere.

Once out of bed, he goes to the well, draws a bucket of water, after washing his face and mouth Marthandan drinks a mouthful of freshwater from the bucket and then goes to the stable where Neeli, the cow is waiting for him. He takes out hay from the stack and spreads it before her. Neeli chews them slowly and chases the flies away with her wagging tail.

Marthandan now goes to the field to check whether there are some mangoes or coconut or areca nut fallen by night’s winds. Jimmy and Tommy follow Marthandan helping him in finding out a rolled away coconut or in scaring away a field mouse.

On a lucky day Marthandan got four to five mangoes and two to three coconuts. Mother’s rule was that anything he got more than three from the field one belonged to him. While he ate mangoes on the way to school or before he carried the coconut and beetle nuts to a corner shop to sell them. He got fifty paise for a coconut and twenty five paise for five beetle nuts. It was very difficult to have one single rupee in hand. Marthandan often bartered such home produces for a comic book or toffees or golli soda which he had taken a secret fancy for.

Marthandan was all seven years old. And he was studying in third standard in a local primary school in Ekalokam village. Things were very smooth till he reached the third standard. But now as he is already in the third standard, life was never the same. Life became a living hell for him.

And what was the reason for his pain and misery? Didn’t he study well? Was he lazy? Didn’t he finish homework? No. None of this was the reason but his name. His name, Marthandan was the ‘thing’ that put him in such inexplicable pain. He had to do something to do away with this trouble. But how?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Chickenpox, Art and Love

(a painting by Ernst Neizvestny)

Illness is like a flower. You can see it blooming petal by petal, if you have keen eyes. You may even hear the music of it, provided you are listening hard enough. Standing in front of a mirror, counting the boils on my body I suddenly become aware of the fact that a healthy person, however he is in love with himself, does not know his body the way he knows it when it is afflicted by an illness. I see a man in the Metro rail, impeccably dressed in his cheap clothes, complete with a tucked in shirt, ironed polyester trousers and clean shoes. He holds a small bag in hands and curiously I find a plastic bag with a tube attached to it hanging from his hip. Dark yellow fluid inside the transparent plastic bag plays see-saw as the man walks further, alighting carefully from the escalator. Like the Russian painter, Ernst Niezvestny’s paintings he is a man turned inside out. I could see his tired kidneys struggling to filter fluids and catheter that juts out from his private parts pushing out the left over fluids in a process called dialysis. Or is he like the paintings of Francis Bacon, totally vandalized by illness and lost clearly contoured face? But I am sure that man knows his anatomy than any of those people with powdered faces, toned bodies and shapely ears glued to mobile phones or headphones.

(Vitruvian Man by Da Vinci)

I lie on my bed like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, hands and legs splayed. I could feel my back painting and the pain creeping up to my neck then blooming into small boils inside the thicket of my mop. I move like Muybridge’s man as if I were recording the movements of my irritated limbs frame after frame in a camera. Then I lay still like a Modigliani nude. Then I become a Christ rendered by Gauguin. I look at the unmoving fan which had gone dead after a major power breakdown in the neighbourhood. The locality is silent as televisions are not rending out the sorrows of bedecked housewives and newscasters disappear into a vague nothingness. I hear the tired and harassed women taking from balcony to balcony exchanging similar stories of deprivation suddenly caused by the power breakdown. Each sound is underlined with fluorescent lines as if they were the notations from a musical score that a weary child tries to rote.

(Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin)

I could hear the viruses moving in my body, mocking my immune powers that I thought were there intact for the last few days. Viruses can play havoc in the most unexpected days and unexpected ways. The Starbuck coffee that I had drunk yesterday evening with a friend at the Nehru Place metro station which dons the characteristics of a mall than a railway station looks absolutely remote. His voice echoes in my ears along with the mocking sounds of viruses, resulting into a buzz of intolerance. I drink water and water tastes like medicine because doctor had told me to drink a lot of water. When doctor advises any mundane thing could turn into a medicine. I look at my body like a tired Lucien Freud character would have done and find out the boils. It is chickenpox. The viruses cause heat and they bloom into boils, turning your body into a garden of boils. You can just wander alone there looking for surprises, a ruptured lesion and a ripe pimple and the innumerable ones that grow up here and there like a crescendo in an orchestra.

(Orhan Pamuk)

I don’t remember bedridden days. I must have, during my childhood days. But when you are child and you are ill, you take that too as fun. If the illness is not terminal and it still gives you mobility and it does not render you completely weak, even illness could be your friend. You pick up your old toys and dolls, you find out those picture narratives and story books which had been tucked into shelves and you play or read. When friends come you invite them to join in your charade. If you do not have a contagious disease evenings are pleasant. But nights, perhaps in nights you go away to those places of toy lands and magic lands as seen in the picture books. Illness in childhood is the first lesson to focus and concentrate on things. For the first time a child gets a chance to be alone and focus on things around him. He registers things and they would never fade from the memory. I remember a character in Orhan Pamuk’s Black Book. This young boy is dumb and deaf. He keeps looking at the golden fishes in his private aquarium. In the evening when his cousins come he plays with them and paste pictures and news in a scrap book. Rest of the time, he looks at the streets of Istanbul, Bosphorous River, trams and busy people walking along the streets, Alladin’s shop etc from his window. He grows old and dies in that room, never telling the world what he had learnt from his observations.

 (Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

There was a time when every youth in this country wanted some kind of terminal illness that rendered them silent. They were the days of pre-gloablization and the days of nationalist economy. Options were limited for the people to choose from. Illness and muteness was something that attracted love. They hid their illness and even rejected their love interests only to gain all sympathy at the moment of farewell. They sang songs in popular narratives and they became the most beautiful popular songs ever. If aggression did not bring you the desired love illness did. So most of the heroes in popular movies found their love when they were either beaten up or bedridden. Interestingly, these movies never spoke of those women who were prone to illness. Like their feelings and emotions, their illness too was a castaway subject.

(Vincent Van Gogh)

Growing up in those romantic days, whenever I felt illness (I was never bed-ridden in the conventional sense) I thought of all those ill heroes in art, film and literature. Didn’t I feel like coughing out all those blood surrogates and falling dead at my beloved’s lap as Kamalhaasan did in his movies? Didn’t I feel like looking at that last leaf painted on a wall? Didn’t I feel like Van Gogh who had given his ear as a gift to his love interest? Didn’t I feel like the Pope who was about to die and dies in fact after seeing a young sister’s vagina in a European movie? Didn’t I feel like becoming a Jack Nicholson or Mohanlal who were ill in the movies? Illness has a lot of romance. It takes you to the micro worlds of existence. It opens up the worlds of spirits and gnomes.

But I wait for the day when I could defeat the rioting viruses in my venal streets by water cannons or by medicinal interventions. I want to bring peace to my body. I want to see my body singing once again to the tunes of love and love making. I want to make my body strong as a fortress where I could keep my kids protected from invaders. I want to make my body a theatre of emotions so that it could write itself in words that even I do not know existed before. I want to come back to you, hale and hearty. I want to hold your hands and walk along the streets, to the work place and to the dream lands. I want to become healthy again and my body spotless and soul pristine so that vile old women will not entice me with their tearful eyes. I want to run around in joy behind my son and daughter and all the kids in the world. And I want to hold the hands of all those old people who lived a creative life, a meaningful life and now needs a touch of God. Let me wake up to that great day sooner than later.