Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Silence as Critique and Mirror as Introspection: Manjunath Kamath in his Studio

“Indian Contemporary art is a branch of Western Art”. A long strip of paper printed with these words adorns one part of the studio wall where once stood a huge painting which was later on shown in his solo show, ‘Collective Nouns’ at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai on 1st April 2011. Yes, I am talking about Manjunath Kamath.

Those who know the artist this statement does not provide any surprise. Famous for his quirky takes on art, artists, people, events and anything under the sun, Manjunath has been watching the turn of events in our art scene with his critical eyes. The statement on his studio wall was made by a foreign scholar. “Many thought that this statement was full of praise for Indian contemporary art. None saw the implied meaning; the meaning of seeing Indian contemporary as a franchise of the western art.”

Manjunath tells me that he decided to put this statement up in order to hurt himself every day. It is almost like those Christian priests who put themselves into pain just not to deviate from the path of the Lord, Jesus Christ. The re-enactment of stigmata in a metaphorical way works well with the temperament of the artist, who is critical about things but at times cannot escape from the snares that he tends to criticize.

I too have been going through a silent hiatus; avoiding most of the social contacts. It is a necessity; this recluse in silence, silent introspection. Hence I understand the self inflicting of pain and criticism on his virtual body, consciousness and conscience by Manjunath. He conducts me through the wall, which is vacant except for a six by six paper that has been given a tea wash.

There are several words written on the walls with inconspicuous pencil marks. `Exile’, ‘meditation’, ‘silence’, ‘greed’ and so on. “I treat this studio like a cave now. I walk along the walls and try to see what are all inscribed there. I forget that these are written by me. I try to see them as words randomly written by someone else, like the words written on the walls of the monuments. And these words take me to a different plane. Today I realize that the words and images could soothe a person with their sheer poetry. In poetry you need not look for logic,” says Manjunath.

Then he tells me about an incident. A friend came unannounced. He looked at the wall and asked the artist to add his comment just down that strip of paper where the western scholar’s statement was printed. “He was asking for the externalization of my internal feelings. He was asking for logic whereas I was thinking about poetry through isolation and pain.”

Citing a Kannada text, Manjunath says that people are of two types; one group wants to argue and defeat and they don’t believe in conversation or silence. The other group takes in anything without testing it against one's own experience, knowledge and awareness. You could see such people thronging around quick and quack healers. “There is only one way to deal with both these types. Surrender. Just surrender and then tell them that now you could tell me anything. You become a listener.”

It is important to know that people know what they want. Some people want logic and they live by that and some people prefer poetry. The advantage of the latter is that the poetic logic is more enduring than the argumentative modes of the former. Sandor Marai, the Hungarian novelist in his moving work titled ‘Embers’ observes: “People don’t need machines to learn what is important to them.”

Away inside the virgin forest swamps in Singapore, one day in 1917 four thousand coolies stopped their work and came out to the streets. They didn’t have any radio, telephone or newspaper in the forest. Still they stopped their works and demanded better wages, more rest and better working conditions. They instinctively knew a man called Lenin had gone to Russia taking Bolshevism along with him.

That’s the poetry of revolution. You don’t need mobile phones and internet to know the changes in the world. You just need to be aware.

Manjunath becomes an important artist because he knows what is the good medium and the ways to express his creativity. He has the freedom to not to prove anything to anybody. In his creative journey, he is alone, telling stories that would amuse people. “Intellectuals came to my solo show and said my works were poetic. I still don’t understand it is a dig or praise.”

One good thing about Manjunath’s paintings and other creative expressions in various mediums is that they are not conclusive. It is true about several artists who use their genuine skills to create art. Most of the contemporary art works (especially those behave like franchises of the western enterprises) are conclusive and argumentative. They want to prove a point. Yamuna water is polluted. They will say it in hundred different ways and even use Agamben and Zizek to prove that Yamuna water is polluted.

Yamuna water is polluted. It needs urgent cleaning. What good would it do, if some photographs of Yamuna are shown in California? And argue that Yamuna water is polluted?

I am just using a metaphor of Yamuna. Bihar ki aatta (The dough of Bihar) casted in bronze and shown in the west and they say it has autobiographical connections of the artist. This unconnected-ness, this disinterestedness of work, purpose, its internal logic and poetry become conclusive and professional. Something is created, something is explained and something is understood and something is dealt with.

Artists have ceased to become producers of culture. They have become the retailers of culture in foreign shores.

And the new tendency is to call the artist who does work with hands, who uses his genuine skills to formulate his art ‘artisans or crafts people’. If there is no craft there is no art. Craft is what called tradition that passes through the present and becomes contemporary. Craft is past, present and future.

I am not talking about the mass produced craft. I am talking about individual talent that challenges branding by creating its own brand.

Craft is poetry. Unacknowledged craft is spectacular contemporary art.

Today what goes on is the silent war between two continents; the continents of poetry and logic.

To negotiate this confusion, whoever claims to be an artist should see his or her face in the mirror everyday and see the landscapes, city scapes and river scapes seen reflected there. You could see the most beautiful face in there. You could see God there. You could sense the quantum consciousness. You could see the logic of life; beauty.

That’s why when I enter in Manjunath’s studio I see a round framed mirror. “I want anybody comes in first should confront himself before seeing anything else,” he says.

Unconsciously, Manjunath has absorbed the philosophy of Sree Narayana Guru, who consecrated a mirror in a village called Kalavankodam in 1927.

It is a pleasure to see artists in their studios; not with computer screens full of auction results and pornography, but with some music playing in the stereo and all the time in the world with them.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

‘Ceangal= Connection’- An Artists Residency with a Possible Future

‘Ceangal= Connection’ is an initiative by Lynn Bennett Mackenzie, a woman artist based in Scotland. Like the new ‘connections’ that we everyday create over social networking sites like Facebook, such artists’ initiatives develop new linkages and relationships amongst people all over the world irrespective of their affiliations (needless to say socio-political, cultural, religious, so on and so forth).

Curious as usual I was, when Lynn requested me to go through her artistic initiative, which is expected to create residencies for artists from all over the world who could visit Scotland first, do site specific as well as studio specific works, then later facilitate similar residencies in their own respective places by the visiting artists, thereby developing a series of workshops and residencies, guided by a common philosophy but executed variedly as per the demands and the complexion of the locations, almost in the same line of the Doctors without frontiers.

Great idea it sounds though it is not the first one to envision, present and aspire to promote such initiatives. My curiosity took me to search for the meaning of Ceangal and from the beloved world wide web I found out that the word in Irish meant ‘connection, linkages, bond etc.’.

However, what I noticed was one of the meanings that had not been implied in the creation of this artists’ residency program- ‘Commitment.’ Perhaps, this word is what makes most of the residencies and artists groupings successful despite their volatile and experimental nature.

While wishing all the best to this initiative, I would like to briefly touch upon the history the creation of such artists’ residencies and groupings in India.

(Rabindranath Tagore)

If you ask me who is the father of Indian art residency programs I would say, it is Rabindranath Tagore. By devising a plan to have a creative and cultural platform, which could take the form of a pedagogic establishment, in Santiniketan in early 20th century (1913), Rabindranath Tagore sowed the seeds of a grand artists’ residency. It was truly international in nature as the galaxy of stalwarts there included scholars and artists like Anand Koomaraswamy, Okakura Kakuzo, Stella Krasmrisch and Nandlal Bose.

Tagore world vision was later reduced into a nationalistic view by the artists of India during the independence struggle and later on. Most of the artists’ groupings happened during those decades of struggle and turbulence were mostly meant of, by and for the Indian artists who were looking for avenues to create, show and survive. Interestingly, the urban-centric art practices and such groupings were often promoted and supported by the expatriate European or British Nationals then living in India.

Whether it be the case of the Bombay Progressives, Delhi Shilpi Chakra, Calcutta Progressives or Group 1890, things were the same. They were not strictly artists’ residencies. They were groups with political adherence to certain ideologies.

(KCS Panicker)

Artists’ Residencies in the sense that we know today originated in 1960s (exactly 1966) under the leadership of K.C.S.Panicker in Cholamandalam. It was developed as an artists’ co-operative with a pragmatic vision of helping artists to come together, live together and work together to produce both craft and creative works. The pragmatic view of Panicker helped the artists to build their own houses or cottages in the same premise, sell their crafts (as there were very few patrons for their creative works) and satisfy their creative urge through painting and sculpting.

In every decade since 1960s we have seen the birth and death of artists’ grouping in all the parts of India though most of them were short lived. Indian Print Makers Guild was the first modern experiment in terms of Artists’ Residencies, though it did not have its own physical set up. This facilitated the production and exhibition of the print makers in India in a big way.

(Pooja Sood of Khoj)

Taking cue from the Indian Print Makers Guild (and its ensuing inside problems), the first International Artists’ Residency was formed in 1997 in Delhi. Later, with an able leadership of Pooja Sood, Khoj could expand its scope as a creditable and accountable artists’ platform to engage alternative art practices not only in India but also in the whole of South East Asian region with sufficient collaborations and contributions from other agencies all over the world.

Later on Khoj proliferated its activities by helping other artists’ residencies through collaboration and co-optation. It now operates from Delhi and from different metros and other centers in India through successful collaborations.

(Chintan Upadhyay of Sandarbh)

Sandarbh is another commendable rural residency program started in 2005 by Chintan Upadhyaya, an artist based in Mumbai. He successfully incorporated the international artistic experience with the regional, provincial and the national ones through the annual residency programs at Partapur in Rajasthan.

(Suresh Jayaram of 1Shanti Road)

Bangalore is another city in India where I always say, ‘there is a BAR in every residency program and a residency program in every BAR.’. Led by Suresh Jayaram, an artist and historian living in the city runs a successful residency called ‘1 Shanti Road’. Samooha was another residency project, which came to an end last year thanks to financial constrains. BAR 1 is one another initiative working actively in Bangalore. Similar efforts are done by Jaaga and Somberikatte as discursive platforms.

(Samooha Suresh)

In Mumbai ‘Open Circle’ used to operate as a residency platform. Shilpa Padhyam in Kerala is one such residencies for sculpture in Kerala by noted artist, Valsan Koorma Kolleri. Currently, India Foundation for Arts and other agencies like Asia Art Archives, Pro Helvetia have started funding independent residencies and projects from their coffers. It is a welcoming change.

All these residency programs have been successful in creating linkages and connections internationally. Through these platforms and residencies artists are able to further their careers primarily and creative ideas.

I am a staunch supporter of small acts. Though many residencies have become too huge and taken the shape of corporate institutions, I am convinced of the fact that all of them started in very moderate ways with larger ambitions and clear visions. Small acts, like small acts of love and passion, would yield ever lasting results.

I wish ‘Ceangal= Connection’ would be a platform/residency to proliferate small acts all over the world.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Death by Air: To Amrita, Sumeet and to All the Poets and Logicians

An air ambulance carrying a patient from Patna, Bihar crashed near Faridabad, Haryana killing seven people including the two crew members on board and three women on the ground. The total toll was ten.

Faridabad, that’s exactly where I live. But this happened a few kilometers from my home. And I was watching my television programs with my family and evening drinks. After a long day’s haul, unless you are a hardcore event catcher, you don’t watch much of news channels.

Hence, most of the people who live away from homes come to know about the calamities around their places through phone calls from concerned friends and relatives who often think that the accidents, irrespective of the location, always happen to people who live away from their birth places. A bomb blast in Delhi can send a host of people worrying in Kerala.

Often we come to know about the low intensity earthquakes when such phone calls alert us from almost five thousand kilometers away from the site.

But I did feel earth shaking on 26th January 2001. I was on phone (landline) with a friend and I saw the ceiling fan moving violently. A fan does not move during the winter days. This time it was shaking, trembling and shivering before I heard a severe shrieking at the other end of the phone. My friend too was feeling the tremors.

And in Rajpath, India was showing its military as well as cultural might.

Away in Saurashtra, Gujarat, things were different. Bhuj was completely razed to the ground.

My editor called up and asked me to go to Bhuj as a part of the reporting team. I refused. I had already planned to resign from the job. Journalism was killing my spirit.

I have digressed enough.

A worried text message came from a friend. And this piece of writing is dedicated to her. She was worried because she knew that I lived in Faridabad. I could not text her back. Sorry.

From my balcony I could see several flights, especially during the nights, circling at a great height, either flying up from the Indira Gandhi International Airport or waiting for signal to land.

When my daughter refuses to eat, I take her on my lap, show her the flights one by one and whisper into her ears that all those are her flights and she has a lot of places to visit. Tricked into the magic of lights moving in the sky, she eats her food that I push into her small mouth opened in wonder.

At times, we sit in the balcony enjoying the cool breeze coming from the Aravali hills, cooling down senses, anger and the general scorching of the North Indian summer.

After the air ambulance crash I started wondering, many must have thought in the same lines, had it been on this terrace?

The three women perished in the mishap were sitting on a rooftop, chatting up before preparing for sleep. They did not know death would visit them in the form of a crashing plane. They might not have even traveled once in a flight in their life time. But death by plane crash.

An air ambulance carrying a boy in coma. A cousin accompanying him to Delhi. Two doctors and a nurse. Two pilots, who were more than willing to fly a patient even in turbulent weather.

A divine mission. A humanitarian mission. None involved was there in bad faith.

But still the plane crashed.

Indian newspapers and television channels could not have resisted themselves from using the words – fate and destiny.

How else would we explain this game of death? The pilot’s father is a bus driver. All the bus drivers’ sons don’t become pilots.

Sheer logic could say the following things: The small planes cannot handle a particular kind of air turbulence. The flight could not maintain the height that the air traffic control system suggested.

Accusation: ATC could have given permission for a priority landing.

Everything accepted. But……

Any tragedy, after it dances to its satisfaction leaves out a possibility of saying; it could have been averted, had it been…..


Even in this absurdity of inexplicable orgy of death by a plane crash, there lies the logic of destiny and fate.

May be this is an Indian way of thinking.

Human subjection by any force cannot be taken as destiny or fate. Rebellions are meant for dislodging such falsified destinies and fates.

But in the face of death or in the great scenario written by death, fate plays a pivotal role… if not please explain this plane crash in logical terms.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trivandrum: God’s Own City, Mine Too: To My Children 16

(Kowdiar Palace, Trivandrum)

The city of Trivandrum has played a great role in my growth as a sensible and sensitive human being. After my father shifted our family back to the village in Vakkom, going to Trivandrum was a dream for me throughout the years. Most of my relatives were living there and once in a while my mother took us to their homes. The biggest attraction of Trivandrum ever was the Museum- Zoo complex. I craved to go to the Museum gardens and visit the zoo to see the animals. An elder sister of my mother was living near the museum and whenever we visited Trivandrum, she took us to the garden along with her children who were easy with the ways of the city. Today, when I look at the people who try to negotiate a moving escalator in a mall or places like that and I compare my toddlers’ easy ways of negotiating such places with these visitors’ awkwardness, I remember my childhood days. I was from a village and city of Trivandrum was like a magical land for me. I needed help to negotiate the place.

However, visiting Trivandrum, which was later re-christened as ‘Thiruvananthapuram’, was always fun. It was originally Thiruvananthapuram and the British colonial rule made it Trivandrum as they could not pronounce the complicated stream of vowels and consonants in the original name. Slowly it got stuck and those people who are English educated still call it Trivandrum and the people with a lot of nationalist, regionalist and indigenous sensibilities, and also those people go by the government diktats of name changing, call it Thiruvanathapuram. I don’t have any qualms in calling this beloved city by both the names. I don’t feel any particular aversion of the English name nor do I feel a strong attraction for the indigenous name. In fact, the name Thiruvananathapurmam could be explained in the following terms: Thiru- Sree (a word that qualifies the respectful status of the addressee. Also it connotes the linguistic mixture of Tamil and Malayalam), ‘Anantha’ means the great serpent on which Lord Vishnu lies in his Yogic sleep, and Puram means City. So Thiruvananthapuram means the City of Lord Mahavishnu (here the Anantha is equated with the Lord Vishnu himself).

As an interesting twist in the history of Kerala, or the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, in order to curb the political rebellion of the local chieftains, King Marthanda Varma relegated his kingdom to Lord Vishnu and promised that he would rule the kingdom in the name of Lord Vishnu in 1750. Since then the Travancore kings are known as Padmanabha Daasanmaar (The Servants of Padmanabha, Lord Vishnu). This was very diplomatic move by the king to get the consent of the people, religious establishment and the political establishment. He could control the economy of the country by making the people to pay tax in the name of God and the king and the royal family was not just taking any money from the people, instead they were receiving it on behalf of God. It was very difficult to rebel against God within the given context of Hinduism in Thiruvanathapuram in those days. These historical facts have been vividly described and analyzed by E.M.Sankaran Namaboothirippadu, the first Communist Chief Minister of Kerala and the Communist ideologue in his landmark work titled, ‘Keralam: Malayalalikalude Mathrubhoomi’ (Keralam- The Motherland of Malayalis)

(Old Benz Bus- for representational purpose only)

My mother used to take us to Trivandrum in a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus that came to our village at night around 10 O’ clock and rested near the backwaters. The driver and conductor slept either in the bus or in some friend’s place. Early morning at 6 O’ clock this bus again left for Thiruvananthapuram. This bus a Benz model with the famous Benz logo on its face belonged to the Attingal Depot, which was the main bus station in our part of the world. This Benz bus ran between Vakkom and Trivandrum Medical College. Actually, this bus was started by the government for helping the people to go to Trivandrum Medical College. It started off at 6 am and reached the Medical College by 8 am. People could do their medical check ups and sight seeing and so on and return by the same bus that left the Medical College at around 8 at night. It reached our village at 10 pm.

Unlike these days, the people in the service sector, for example like the driver, conductor, postman, electricity board worker and so on knew the purpose of their job and the purpose of their life. They were friendly to people and most of the villagers knew them by name. We, children called them uncles. In our childhood, 6 am was really early morning. Our preparations to go to Trivandrum would start at least a few days before the stipulated date. We would go to the market, buy some knick knacks for our cousins. My mother would collect things to share with her sisters. Invariably, my sister would buy a bottle of nail polish (we called it cutex that smelled like petrol and it was very cold when applied on the nails and often came in the revolutionary red color) and a roll of ribbons. We would wash our rubber sandals crystal clean and wonder at the layers of dirt coming off of our beloved co-travelers.

To go to the bus stop, we need to get up at 4 am, which was an unearthly time for the kids of any place. But the dream of going to an interesting city would make us alert and almost sleepless so we used to get up well before time and without much fuss we dressed up for the journey. Mother took us to the bus stop and waited for the Benz bus to make its appearance from the backwater side. It came royally, like Poseidon coming with his trident from the sea. It had a pair of brooding eyes in the form of its head lights. KSRTC buses were all red in color. If it is an ordinary bus (ordinary fare) a single yellow line would run around its body. If it is a fast passenger, the yellow line would expand at the middle of the body and drape it like a half sari. If it is an Express bus, the color would turn into a green while the yellow half sari remains the same. Later on the shape and size of the buses changed. The age rarity has given way to the age of abundance. Today buses don’t hold much interest in terms their shapes and design. Benz buses were a thing of beauty.

The interior of the buses were painted light green with seats upholstered with dark colored green material that had the famous KSRTC logo etched on them. There were no window shutters or shades, instead there used to be a pair of tarpaulin clothes hanging from either side along the length of the bus. These tarpaulin sheets could be raised like a curtain and fixed on a loop made with the same cloth. When it rained we unhooked these sheets and the bus looked like a moving caravan with full of brooding people. As our journeys used to be in the early mornings, I could not have missed the lights. All the lights were round in shape and all of them were painted half red so that the light inside the bus was always dim. Just behind the driver’s seat and along the curve of the roof there used to be the following slogans: “Don’t put your head and hands outside”, “Don’t Smoke” and “Two or Three Children Enough” (later on it became ‘We Two Our Two’). The bus started with a lot of sound like an old man wakes up from his bed with his chest full of cough. The conductor pulled at a rope that was connected to a bell on the left hand side of the driver. One bell signaled a stop and two bells signaled a start. Conductor had a wooden rack fitted with differently colored tickets with various denominations. I used to collect these tickets, especially after I started traveling frequently in buses. I had a few bundles of Government bus tickets and a private bus tickets. Those bundles were with me till I left for Baroda in 1992.

When we did not take the bus, the same domestic rituals were repeated to reach the nearest railway station in Kadakkavoor that was our neighboring village, almost a kilometer away from our home. We walked all the way to the railway station along the railway lines. In my childhood it was meter gauge and later it was converted into broad gauge. We had to cross two level crosses; the first one was called Toppikka Vilakam and the second one was called Randaam Gate (the second gate). From the gate keepers we could make out how late the train was. We called trains ‘Thee Vandi’ (Fire Cart) because they ran on fire and water. Each engine had a distinct face. They looked fiercely at the people and by puffing smoke and spangles of coal in the air they passed through the village, shaking up everything along the railway lines. These two gates opened towards either side of the road (and recently a friend of mine told me that the old style gates were called ‘women’ gates) and now they are replaced by another mechanized device that could be raised to the air (and this is called the male gate). We had to cross two signal posts and we called it ‘Kai’ (Hand). Through some devices that we could see along the railway tracts, the signal raised its hand when the train was about to come and when no trains were passing it stood in a horizontal position.

Kadakkavoor was a small station and people who preferred to travel cheap reached there early morning because only an ordinary train that shuttled between two cities (Kollam (Quilon) and Thiruvananthapuram) stopped at Kadakkavoor. Rest of the trains, the so called expressed trains ignored our own station and pompously went to Trivandrum. There was even a smaller station near Kadakkavoor called Akathumuri, which was later on leased out to a private operator as there were no passengers from that station. From Kadakkavoor we got into the box like compartments of the shuttle train, which used to be always a rusty brown in color and watched the passing landscapes full of rice fields, ponds, coir making fields and temples.

(Padmanabha Swami Temple, Trivandrum)

In Trivandrum, we all reached the Padmanabha Swami Temple first. It is where Lord Vishnu resides. This area where the temple was built in the later 15th and early 16th century is called East Fort. Most of the Brahmins who came to the Travancore kingdom as temple priests and King’s courtiers stayed in the vicinity of the temple. Right in front of the temple there is a huge pond which is called ‘Padma Theertha Kulam’ (Lotus Pond). Just opposite to it there is a long and spacious theatre kind of building and it was where the temple art forms were performed for the entertainment of the royal family members. On the outer wall of this building there is a wall clock called ‘Methan Mani’ (Muslim Clock). This clock had the face of a fierce looking demon and on either side of this face there were two goat like forms. When the hours were to be rung, the demon opened his mouth and the goats from either sides hit on the cheeks and the bell rang. It was a curiosity for the temple visitors and people used to wait for some hour so that they could see the Methan hit by the goats.

Along the streets vendors sold temple utensils, toys, flowers and some eatables. The whole area used to be very clean and it was not a major tourist attraction then. Now things have changed considerably, the temple too has become a tourist attraction. We went inside the temple. Men had to take the shirt off from their shoulders and nobody could wear pants or trousers. Women should wear saris. During those days jeans, pants or churidars were not in fashion so it was not a big issue to enter the temple. Today, men have to hire lungis and the women have to hire two piece clothes if they are wearing pants or churidars. Inside the temple one could see seven granite pillars and the priest would tell you that these pillars could create Saptasvara (the seven musical notes) if you tap on them delicately. The idol is of a reclining Vishnu and one could not see the idol completely as the idol is horizontally carved and is seen through three different doors. Only on special days the three doors are opened at the same time. Otherwise, depending on the time of pooja (ritualistic worshiping) one could catch a glimpse of the Lord’s head or belly or feet.

(East Fort)

Just opposite East Fort (Kizhakke Kotta) where the city bus stand is located now, was a moderate field, which was called Putharikkandam Maithan (New Rice Field). This is used to be a paddy field where the farmers made rice for the exclusive use of the royal family. Later during the post independence era this field was converted into a ground where political meetings were held. We used to think about Putharikkandam maidanam as a very huge field. But today, when you look at it, it is a very moderate ground, cramped and congested. Recently, when the left parties came to power, they converted this field once again into a paddy field. Just behind this field is one of the biggest markets in Trivandrum, Chalai Kambolam. Chalai must be a derivate of Shalai (Godown or storage). You could get anything from this market. People from all over South Kerala came here to busy special things for their festivals and domestic rituals. As a kid I loved going with my mother. Even today, I don’t fail to make a visit to this market when I am in Trivandrum.


A few minutes walk would take you to Over Bridge and the MG Road passing over it. On your right you see the central railway station of Trivandrum, which is locally called ‘Thampaanoor’ (Thampan – Thampuran= God, Oor- ooru- City), City of God. From the over bridge you could get a good view of the railway station. And just opposite to it is the central bus stand. It was a pleasure to be in this place as you could see a lot of buses and a lot of trains at once. At that time we did not have too many distractions and anything that was new to the eyes of the village kids like us was a real distraction. We drank these new scenes like thirsty kids. Just next to the Bus stand there is a twin theatre complex; Sree Kumar and Sree Vishakh. The up class people in Trivandrum watched their movies in these movie halls as they were the only theatres in Trivandrum during those days that showed English and Hindi movies. I too had my first glimpses of Wild West movies and Hindi films in these theatres.

From the East Fort, if you take a bus or an auto rickshaw and go along the MG Road, you would reach a main junction called ‘Pulimoodu Junction or Ayudveda College Junction’, where naturally the Ayurveda College is situated. And a few paces further up you would reach the Old Secretariat building of Kerala. This building was done during the reign of Ayilyam Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore. It was completed in 1869. It has a mixture of Roman and Dutch architecture. The construction of the building was undertaken and supervised by the then Divan of the state T.Madhava Rao and his statue could be seen in the middle of the road, opposite to the old secretariat building. Hence this place is also called, ‘Statue’. The people who visit Trivandrum for the first time, often would have the chance of seeing the same secretariat building a couple of times if they are traveling by an autorickshaw. There is a joke prevalent in Trivandrum that they auto drivers make the people believe that there are more than one secretariat building. To extort money from the fresh visitors they take different routes around the secretariat showing them the building a few times before leaving them to their lodgings which must be a few paces away from where they in fact hired the rickshaw.

On your left you see the famous DC Books and the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham (the Writers Co-operative), two places I used to haunt as a young boy. And next to it there was this famous Marikkar Motors where I could see brand new ambassador cars and Enfield Bullet motor bikes. I had spent several hours looking at those fresh vehicles with lust and longing in my eyes. Along the same line one could see YWCA, the famous Coffee House (the old coffee house) and the Spencer’s Building. Everything has changed now. I am talking about the days in which I haunted this place. The landscape looks absolutely different today. Spencer’s Building was the only super market of that time and only the rich people could go in there as the ordinary mortals did not know what they would do with the stuff they sold in there. The coffee house used to be the haunt of most of the intellectuals and film makers and later students like us.

(VJT Hall, Trivandrum)

Next to the Spencer junction, on your left and right you could see the famous Maharajas College of Trivandrum, which is better known as the University College. The left part was the main building from where the major departments were functioned and on the right the Malayalam, Hindi and Sanskrit Departments functioned. Right through the middle of the college, MG Road passed as the main artery of the city, dividing the college campus into two different islands; almost in the linguistic lines. My future was to be shaped in these two islands. Just ahead of it there is the famous Victoria Jubilee Memorial Town Hall. This exquisite building was built in 1869 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the coronation of Queen Victoria. This used to be the hub of most of the theatre and literary activities of Trivandrum.

On the left side of the VJT hall, we have our University Library. Huge and vast, this library is one of the major land marks in my life as well as the life of so many people who studied in Trivandrum. Right across the road, you could see the MLA Quarters where the legislative assembly members lived when they came to Trivandrum during the assembly was in session. Right next to that in the circle, poet Kumaran Asan stands as a bronze statue and just behind him is the famous Kerala University Building. It shows all the might and weight of an institutional building. The future of many students in Kerala is decided here. And from inside the same campus a few elite departments also functioned during our times. A few paces down the lane, you would reach the famous AKG Centre, the Head Quarters of CPM in Kerala.

(University College, Trivandrum)

Coming back to the MG road, you take right to the VJT Hall and proceed you would reach the famous Connimara Market. It was really famous and still is. But I did not know its existence till I fell in love with a girl when I was doing my post-graduation and one day she took me to buy a packet of sanitary napkins to a shop in this market. It was in 1990. Right next to this market you see the famous religious combination of Trivandrum. The Ganapathi temple (Temple of Lord Ganesh), famous Palayam Mosque and the famous Payalam Christian Church are located in the same vicinity and right in the middle of the three structures there stands a memorial structure, which is called the ‘Rakta Saakshi Mandapam’ (Martyrs’ Tomb). I don’t say that Kerala is a society which shows the supreme example of religious tolerance. Ridden by religious fanaticism and caste barriers Kerala has developed a degenerated society by now. However, till date Trivandrum has not faced any problem regarding religious line though these three places of worship stand in the same place, even when the other parts of the city at times face religious vandalisms.

Opposite to this composite space of religious tolerance and co-habitation of different ideologies, one could see the well known Chadrasekharan Nair Stadium, which used to be the hub of football players and today most often this stadium is used by the television channels for erecting mega stages for their annual functions and other programs. Just a few paces ahead of this stadium you could see the new secretariat which was not a part of my life as it was not there during my college days. And next to it you see the Hanuman Temple where most of the young people in the city and the permanent dwellers in the city went (go) on Thursdays. Even before the politicization of Hindu, people used to go there and wear saffron tilak on their foreheads on their foreheads. During those days, it did not have direct connotations with the RSS affiliations or pro-Hindutva stance. And opposite to this Hanuman temple is the famous University Stadium where once synthetic tracks were laid for some national games. Once when it was selected as the venue of an one day cricket match, the teams were heaping runs as the balls were bouncing at the boundaries on the synthetic tracks and were showering the teams with runs. In the same area you could see the famous Mascot Hotel and the Post Master General office and the Science and Technology Museum.

(Palayam Junction)

Coming back to the Chandrasekharan Nair stadium, we travel along the MG road and see the Trivandrum Fine Arts College on our right. This was the college that shaped up my ideas about art though I was not a student there. I spent a lot of days there with the artists and art students. I could use the library of this college and I would go in those details later. Next to this building is the Public Library building where we literally lived our life. There used to be a canteen in the same campus and we sat on a granite block day in and day out, often talking or smoking if not just idling our time away. Next to the public library is the University Boys Hostel. Famous for the permanent dwellers there, this hostel had very dark rooms and very dark corridors. I rarely went there as all of my friends were day scholars and I met night scholars outside their hostel rooms. However, I even feel this hostel as a surrealist space with fluid shadows lurking behind the iron gates and it reminds me often a madhouse than a college hostel.

Next to the boys hostel you could see the Corporation Building of Trivandrum and the MG Roads end at the Rama Rao Lamp, a lamp erected in the name of Divan Rama Rao. Just behind is the LMS Church and after a cross road you reach the Zoo- Museum complex. Building during the mid-19th century by the Travancore Maharaja, this zoo is one of the oldest zoos in India. With its sprawling gardens and forest rich enclosures make it very attractive to the children. The museum building is Gothic in style with its minarets and natural air cooling systems and attracts a lot of people ever since its establishment in 1880. It was named after Lord Napier, the then Governor of the Madras Province. The same complex also houses Shri Chitra Art Gallery, the Roerich Collection, a reptile house and a modern museum for the works of K.C.S Panicker.

(Napier Museum Trivandrum)

As a student I used to spend a lot of time in the museum complex as it could provide me a suitable hide out and calmness that I wished for that time. Many couples who were in love haunted this place and the Museum police were very strict on the anti-social activities and they included love and pecking also under the category of anti-social activities. So the situation was very bad for the loving couple, yet they stole some private moments right under the eyes of the Museum Police. I went there mostly to smoke weeds or to contemplate. There used to be a time that you feel like being alone and away from everything and everyone. Museum campus gave me the refuge I sought for at that time.

Next to the museum building was/is the Kanakakkunnu Palace. Located on a hill next to the museum campus, this was the summer palace of the Travancore royal family. The slopes and forest land around this palace made this very attractive to the loving couple and the joggers. One could see the places around Trivandrum from this hill. But drunken police in mufti moved around in this campus too looking for couple making it out under the trees and behind the bushes. But innocent people who just came to be free from the world and be in the company of the right kind of people also were caught and harassed by these policemen.

From Kanakakkunnu Palace, you could walk down to the Water Works and the Jawahar Balabhavan, both attracted me as a child, where I could see the workings of the water pumps and the whole water distribution systems through miniature working units. I could check out the interiors of a fighter plane erected at the Bala Bhavan building. Then the roads winds up to Kowdiar Palace, Gold Links, Vellayambalam, Sasthamangalam and to other village around the city, which did not have too much of a role to play in my life though some of these villages or suburbs were a part of the general script of my life that I spent in Trivandrum.

And it is in this city that I spent my five precious and intense years.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The First Kiss: To My Children 15

(The Archway to Trivandrum Medical College)

I got second group for my pre-degree course. One needed a lot of marks to get the coveted first and second groups. I was bad at mathematics and becoming an engineer had been already ruled out. And a child from a good family should become a doctor, if not an engineer, hence taking up second group for pre-degree was a must for me.

You may think that I also wanted to become a doctor at that age, especially after spending a few months with my father in two different hospitals and going through all those experiences of disease, suffering and death. At that tender age one should have thought ideally and idealistically about becoming a doctor. After seeing my father’s doctor, the nephrology specialist taking bribe without any qualms, I should have thought of becoming a doctor who would never accept bribe and would work for people.

But somehow, it did not work in this way in my case. There were a few reasons for me developing an aversion for a doctor’s career. First of all, I had decided to become a writer ( I still remember the scene of me telling my father that I would become a journalist one day). I did not know what kind of life a journalist would lead. But it was fascinating to be a journalist. I could see my name printed in newspapers and I could write on behalf of people and even I could become the voice of the people. You may think that I am boasting and may wonder how a child could think in those lines at that tender age. I would explain how it happened and how times were different.

During my childhood there was a program in All India Radio called ‘Balalokam’. It could be roughly translated into the ‘Children’s World’. There used to be a voice that pretended as the ‘uncle’ of children all over the world. Today I look back and analyze that sound as the voice of the state that had decided to indoctrinate the children of that time with ideas in order to become confirming citizens. This voice used to tell us how to be good. The Uncle in the Radio had a very fascinatingly clear voice. Perhaps that was one reason why I wanted to become a radio broadcaster at some stage and got almost selected to the All India Radio. Though I could not get the coveted job as a new caster at that time, later I became a news reader in All India Radio, Delhi. I would tell you that story when the appropriate time comes.

The Radio Uncle told us everything about good living, having good behavior, being compassionate and so on. He talked to us in snippets, anecdotes and maxims. This voice had a great influence on us as children. The other thing that influenced us and initiated us into the world of philanthropy and social service was the membership to a club called ‘Balajana Sakhyam’ (The Friendship of Children). Initiated by the famous Malayala Manorama Group, these Friends Clubs were all over Kerala. When I was a primary school student, it came to our village too. Soon we were all part of that Friends Club. Another uncle deputed by the newspaper establishment visited the children’s gathering from the neighborhood during Sundays and spoke to us about life, science, social service, reading, writing and so on.

Years later I realized the politics behind such organizations and clubs. Malayala Manorama was/is owned by a Christian group. In our village, as there were no Christians (in our neighboring village had a dominance of Christians) we all read either Mathrubhoomi or Kerala Kaumudi. At that time, as children we did not know how these newspapers operated amongst the communities. During the independence struggle itself, these newspapers had become partisan papers for the communities that they were standing for. Nationalism was the only agenda that these papers voiced together. Otherwise, most of the newspapers worked for the sub-nationalisms, religious and caste interests. Mathrubhoomi represented the Nair sentiments and was very popular in the northern part of Kerala. Kerala Koumudi represented another predominant caste, Ezhava and it was very popular in South Kerala.

We read Kerala Koumudi and Mathrubhoomi. Balajana Sakhyam came to our village as a ploy to spread the circulation of Malayala Manorama amongst the people in the village. Children have always been the soft targets of organizations. Any marketing would be successful if it approaches families through children because children are the nastiest but the most successful negotiators in the world. With their innocent smiles and horrible shrieking they could even win wars (I am wrong here. Innumerable number of children have been sacrificed all over the world every since the history of the human kind, in the name of wars and conquests).

Malayala Manoram found soft targets amongst us and it came to teach us the need for good life and good thinking through these Friends Club. So it was natural for any child at that time to think about becoming a catalyst for social service whether it could be in the form of a doctor or engineer or a journalist. My choice was to become a journalist.

But when my father was first admitted to the hospital I had toyed the idea of becoming a doctor. Then experiences taught me to forget it altogether. As I said in the last chapter, I used to go to the doctor’s house and give him bribe twice in a week. My mother used to give me very fresh notes in a very fresh envelop and instruct me to give it to doctor’s hand without crumpling it. I used to wait at the portico of the doctor’s house along with several ill fated people with their own or their relatives’ kidneys damaged. When the doctor came and when my turn came I went inside the room and handed over the envelop. He, then would pick up my father’s case sheet and cursorily glance over it. Then he could smile at me and say that he would see everything going fine with my father.

This became a disgusting experience for me. Week after week I went to the doctor’s house and handed over the money filled envelop. At the age of fourteen, I realized that becoming a doctor was one means of amassing wealth. If you became a doctor, you could buy houses in the city, you can drive an ambassador car. Your children could study in good schools and you could lead a very sanitized lives. I used to think that doctors are extremely hygiene conscious. In their fresh white overcoats and stethoscope, they looked like saviors of the world. But from the close quarters I realized that things were different in a doctor’s life.

Trivandrum Medical College where they taught the future doctors was in the same premises of the Medical College Hospital. Once in a while I used to loiter around this campus, go and sit at their canteen and watch the behavior of the future doctors. I did not find anything special. I did not find them awe inspiring. Most of them looked in fact very ordinary. What made them different from others was their white over coats. You become distinguish with your uniform. This is one kind of arrogance that they used to flaunt. Only thing I noticed amongst the girl students was that they all wore sarees and wore spectacles. Several of them had braces on their teeth. Most of them looked impoverished and skinny (they must have been health conscious and dieting). They all looked studious while the male students looked lewd and vulgar on their Jawa and Yezdi motor bikes. Many of the girls students came by the college bus, which was painted with pale yellow color with the symbol of a pair of copulating snakes on either side of it belly.

One day would I also go by this bus, I used to wonder. But I never wanted to do so. The yellow buildings of the Medical College were not attractive at all. All the institutional buildings have that kind of coldness and detachment, I realized many years later. Institutional buildings are designed to be unfriendly. They look like those gloomy people who keep a lot of secrets with them.

During the summer days, yellow flowers from the trees covered the pathways to the medical college. I used to walk along these paths as a lonely young boy, hating everything related to the profession of medicine.

The last nail in the coffin of my medical thoughts came in the form of a lady doctor who was an assistant to the nephrologist. She had buck teeth and always wore a brace and thick reading glasses. Fair skin was her only asset and rest of the things were not palatable to look at. She knew that despite her successful career as a nephrologist, she was an ugly duckling. The people, especially women who know that they are not good looking develop a special arrogance, which would bring attention to them, which otherwise they are unable to command.

This lady doctor knew that only being arrogant and aloof would bring attention to her. So she behaved as if she were someone directly from Venus. She came to the wards very rarely and mostly spent her time in college rooms and dialysis centre. I saw her only when I went to the dialysis centre with my father. For some reason, she hated me. I don’t know why. She shooed me away when she saw me standing at the door of the dialysis room. She screamed at me whenever I asked how my father was doing inside the dialysis room.

I couldn’t figure out why she was angry on me. Perhaps, she was angry with the whole world. Or she was not getting enough bribe as her senior used to get. When she was not around the assistants in the dialysis room used to let me go in and see my father lying on bed with tubes going in and coming out of his body. He used to be almost unconscious at that time. A couple of times he used to develop fits and it was a very difficult to scene to watch.

When it came his face muscles stretched to the sides, his eyes went blank and his legs and hands shivered like as if he were getting electrocuted. Doctors told me that fits came because of the chemical changes in the body that send electric like signals to the brain. On one occasion, when my father was writhing, I looked at the drip stand, holding his hands tightly and found the drip was going very fast. As I had heard that the fits were caused by chemical changes in the body I presumed that it must be the speed of the drip causing fits in my father’s body. I was asking about this to the nurse there and suddenly the lady doctor came in side the room. She gave me a dirty look. I mustered up all my courage and asked her whether it was the drip causing fits to my father. She looked at me through her thick glasses. Her eyes were two burning holes.

One of the doctors in the gynecology department in the medical college was my mother’s classmate. This lady doctor knew that my mother was in touch with her. So straight away she went to my mother’s friend and screamed at her. How dare a young boy like him advice a doctor, was her complaint. My mother was informed of the situation and I was barred from going anywhere near the dialysis department. My mother advised me to avoid crossing paths with the lady doctor.

I hated the medical profession. Then why did I pick up second group as my subject for pre-degree course? Looking back, I could say only that I was just sixteen years when I joined pre-degree and like any other boy of that time, I too was vain and believed that taking up third or fourth group would put me into shame. Otherwise I did not have any faint intention to give medical entrance after pre-degree and become a doctor, as the family members wished or believed.

(SN College, Varkala)

Sree Narayana College, Sivagiri, Varkala was the college where I joined as a pre-degree student. This college was established by the SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham) Trust as a part of spreading higher education amongst the Ezhava caste. Sree Narayana Guru was a social reformer, religious scholar, philosopher and poet who lived during the later part of the 19th century in Kerala. Sree Narayana Guru was one of few philosopher revered both by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

In one of his daring acts, Narayana Guru consecrated the idol of Lord Shiva at Aruvippuram in 1888. The Brahmins were agitated. They questioned him for defying the Hindu cannons. Calmly Guru gave them the answer, “I consecrated an Ezhava Shiva.” Sree Narayana Guru was one of the greatest influences in the intellectual and social life of any Malayali.

Sree Narayana Guru breathed his last at Sivagiri, Varkala, a hill which he had chosen to build his Ashram, in 1928. The college too was established in the vicinity of Sivagiri Hill.

(Sree Narayana Guru)

Alighting at the Varkala town, we had to walk almost four kilometers to reach the college. Private buses used to ferry students to college but often they were over crowded. Most of the teachers came from Trivandrum and they came by a tempo traveler. The students got concession tickets to travel in private buses and at times the buses refused to go to the college citing various reasons. There used to be regular students strikes and breaking window screens of the buses to retaliate the bus owners’ arrogance.

Hence, most of us preferred to walk. We walked in groups and at times alone. Girls walked only in groups and most of us carried lunch boxes. Boys never used to carry bags because they found it a shame to carry anything in the shape of a bag. So they all carried their books and a lunch box over it. Lucky students did not bring their lunch along. As they got sufficient amount of pocket money they ate from the college canteen. Boys behaved strangely as they thought that bringing lunch boxes to the class room was a shame. So they brought it till the college gate and kept it in a bakery near by. The owner of the bakery allowed the boys to keep their lunch boxes there because once in a while these boys ate a cake or drank a soft drink from there.

On the way to the college we used to cross the Varkala Thurappu (Tunnel), which was the main water way of Kerala. It was lying disused then. On our right we could see Sivagiri Sarada Math (which was established by Sree Narayana Guru) and at the top of the hill the great Samadhi of Guru himself. We crossed a few fields and reached the main road to the college. On our right again we could see the Gurukulam (established by Nataraja Guru, the illustrious disciple of Sree Narayana Guru) and on our left we could see the Sivagiri High School, where incidentally, Shibu Natesan completed his schooling.

(Varkala Thurappu- Tunnel)

If we came through the hills and a few hamlets we reached the college from behind and we had to cross the large football ground of the high school. You could always see students hanging out in groups in these ways. Girls wore long skirts and blouses. Most of the senior students wore half sari, which means a long skirt, a blouse and a piece of clothe that runs around the body to cover the bosom. Bachelors final year students wore sarees. Churidaar was rare and if some girl wore churidaar, she would remember that day for her life. Boys gathered around her to boo her.

Whenever I think about such scenes I remember a historical incident that happened in Kerala. Till the early part of the twentieth century, in Kerala women never used to cover their breasts. As it was a general culture nobody took it as an offence or obscenity. But the social reformers thought that (must be after the British rule following the Victorian morality and Puritanism) they should make the women aware of their own rights to cover their bosoms. So there was a huge campaign to make the women aware of wearing blouses. A few progressive women came forward to wear blouses. And to spread the word many women wore blouses and came out in a procession. It is reported that the men were looking at their covered breasts so intently that the women felt so ashamed of the blouses, they removed them and tucked them under their arm pits and walked easily without blouses!

When I joined Sree Narayana College in Varkala in 1985, something else was happening in the educational sector in Kerala. The then Congress government forwarded the idea of separating pre-degree from the colleges and by creating a separate pre-degree board for conducting examinations. Previously, the pre-degree examinations were conducted by the University itself. It was adding burden to the universities, which were meant for higher education. After separating the pre-degree course from the colleges, the government thought, these courses could be taken back to schools though the examinations could be done under a different board.

This created one of the greatest stirs in the educational sector in Kerala. The left parties opposed it vehemently and the students’ unions led by the left parties held out strikes every other day. There used to sporadic strikes in those days. Generally, the parties or unions announced the strike days through newspapers so we avoided going to college. But most of the days, the strike happened just like that. By the second period the classes were forcefully disbanded by the student leaders. And we all walked back to the town, got into buses and went back homes. The smarter ones got into the movie halls and watched movies, which were pepped up by the reels of blue films.

For me these strikes were a blessing in disguise as I was getting phenomenally bored by the subjects that I was studying. The zoology teacher taught zoology by reading straight out of book. It needed special efforts to keep the eyes open during the afternoon classes of botany and zoology. Physics and chemistry were equally boring. I liked only the language classes. My first language was English and the second language was Malayalam. We had the option to take French or Sanskrit as the second language and I had opted for Malayalam.

As I had genuine interest in the languages I had finished the text books by the beginning of the year itself. My Malayalam teacher came and recited the poems and explained it. In the meanwhile, as I had already covered the lessons, I teased my classmates by poking at them. I became a real nuisance for that particular teacher and one she made me go out of the classroom. But before that she asked me a few questions from the lesson that she was teaching on that day. I gave her prompt and right answers which baffled her a bit. Though she was challenged by my arrogance (which I think was totally unwarranted), she dismissed me from the class and cursed me by saying that you will never survive with language. May be she really did not mean by that curse. Whenever I sit to write anything, I remember that teacher with a lot of fondness.

I did not have too many friends in the college. There was one Jayaprakash he was very good at cracking jokes. There was Sabin, who was a good cricketer and was extremely sophisticated. There was Sri Sabin who used to stay in the Gurukulam and used to sing pretty well. I could recall a few faces but most of them remain vague now.

(Sarada Matham- Sivagiri)

When the classes were disbanded during the strike days, I walked alone and went to the Gurukulam compound, sat there and read. When Gurukulam was not that appealing, I went to the Sarada Math at the Sivagiri Hills and sat under the cool shade of a huge mango tree. I always had library books with me. I sat there and read. Sometimes I climbed the hill to go near the Guru Samadhi. I sat there and contemplated; mostly about women.

(Sree Naryayana Guru Samadhi- Sivagiri, Varkala)

I wanted a girl friend. I fell in love with a few girls. One of them was immediately married off. It was scandalous for all of us as he was in the first pre-degree and she got married. Her parents should have been arrested for the charge of child marriage. We never met her afterwards. There was another girl who was my classmate and she used to talk to me with some kind of fondness. Like any other boy of that age I too mistook for love and wrote a very bold love letter and gave to her. That was the last day she spoke to me. She never looked at me after that incident.

My days during the first year went off almost eventless apart from my intellectual training under Shibu Natesan. Reading was the mainstay. During the second year, one of the strike days I was walking back to the town through the hamlets. A group of senior girls were walking just ahead of us; we were two. One girl in saree, dark and tall and held her books with both hands almost near her waist particularly caught my attention. I walked with quick steps and overtook her from the right side. Then I turned back and asked her name. She gave me a defiant look. And they were laughing. As you know it is the most insulting thing in the world; you express something to a girl and she mocks at you by indulging in a group giggling with her friends. It was exactly what she did to me. Crestfallen I withdrew from the scene and started walking with my friend. After ten minutes or so, I saw the same gang of girls standing near a well and drawing water from it and drinking. Once again I approached her and asked for some water. This time, she was much compassionate. She gave me water and a smile too.

Later I came to know her name. She started liking me. She addressed me with respect despite the fact that she was three years senior to me. She was in love with me. I went near to her class and stood with her. Standing with her was a fulfilling experience. Those days love means standing together in the corridors of the college. Some guys from her class did not like me standing with her. They threatened me with dire consequences. But when you are in love you dare even the worst.

The days were running out. She was in final year B.Sc Chemistry. Both of us had to do a lot of class works. I spent my days in laboring on making science records, which was mandatory for the science course. I always wanted to stand with her. One day, that beautiful day she came in lavender color saree. She had long cascading hairs that covered her waist. She held her books in the peculiar way that gave her a special charm. I saw her walking into the college with friends. Her eyes were looking for me and I was waiting to see her looking for me.

We met and we knew that it was our last meeting day. The college was closing for study leave. She stood near to me. I could smell her fragrance. She told me that her family came to know about our love affair. I told her to wait for me till I finish my education. I did not know the impossibility of my words.

She lowered her face and stood before me. Her big eyes were wet with tears. I touched her chin and raised her face up to mine and on her forehead I sealed my promise of love with my lips. That was the first kiss of my life.

Not on the lips. But on her forehead.

In silence she walked away from me. I still could see her gait and the grace of it.

I got a few letters from her after that and later on I came to know that she was married off in the very next year itself.

She is the one perhaps I want to meet once again in my life.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Being and Becoming a Writer

My friend from London asked me in the chat box, “Why do you write?” I told him, “May be I am like an artist who does drawings every day.”

Yes, it is like drawing for me. I write because there is an urge to express myself, to communicate with people. And in the context of facebook, let me tell you that many of my readers don’t know me as a person. Apart from the profile pictures that make everyone a celebrity in facebook, rarely people know about me.

So connecting with a lot of people who are perfect strangers but brothers and sisters in a different way through writings is one of the happiest things that a writer does in his life. If you apply pure logic, a writer could resist himself or herself from writing and do something else.

But what is that something else?

(E.M.Sankaran Namboothirippadu)

When I look at the tomes like the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, E.M.Sankaran Namboothirippadu (EMS) or the modern writers like Philip Roth or Orhan Pamuk, or the historians like Ramachandra Guha ( I refer the ‘Makers of Modern India’ and ‘India after Mahatma Gandhi) or columnists like Khushwant Singh, I wonder why these people have written so much.

Apart from being writers, they have/had different roles in their lives. But the writer in them was/is always vigilant to communicate with the people around them.

Writing is the revelation of an inner world that the writer wants to realize in the quotidian world. In that sense, like musicians and painters, writers too are conjurers of dream worlds. They have a mission; other wise why a musician takes pain to write a symphony on changing seasons? Why should a painter portray a man who stands alone on a hilltop on a cold morning?

(Wanderer Among the sea of Fog by Casper David Frederich)

They could have done installations with brick and cotton threads? Installations have become illustrations. If not they have become reasons for someone to talk about it while they had all the possibility of making it aesthetically appealing and communicable.

You may question me about the depth of writing. Depth comes when the thought is deep and the scope of the intended writing is expected to go beyond the temporality of time. When a writer attempts at piece, though fictional, with historical time as its setting and backdrop, a fair amount of research is done and implemented in the writing.

Writing demands a lot from the author. And an author is like a landscape artist or an epic painter. He needs to set the stage, paint the characters and write the dialogues and should be aware of an imaginary reader (a counter writer perhaps).

(Orhan Pamuk)

I would cite Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, a book of collected lectures that Pamuk gave in Harvard University in 2009, at this stage. He says, “Here is one of my strongest opinions: novels are essentially visual literary fictions. A novel exerts its influence on us mostly by addressing our visual intelligence -- our ability to see things in our mind's eye and to turn words into mental pictures.”

When one writes, one writes to create pictures. One has to be an artist primarily to become a writer. Writing is painting with words. And one has to constantly pursue this practice in order to develop the craft.

According to Pamuk, going by Schiller, a naïve writer is one who writes spontaneously as if the act were dictated by God himself (remember what Wordsworth said, Moving hands writes and writes on- As if God has taken the pen out of his hand and written for him) and a sentimental writer is one who contemplates a lot before writing.

Today, we have misinterpreted the words of Schiller. For us naïve means one who does not have any depth in/of notions and concepts. Being sentimental means the one who could write tear jerkers.

Orhan Pamuk says that to be a good novelist means ‘being a naïve and sentimental’ at the same time.

I, even before reading Pamuk’s collected essays, have been naïve and sentimental throughout my life; but in the sense of Schiller.

That’s why the question of depth is always sidestepped when I am asked to face such a question.

At times I think, I am like Celal Salik of Orhan Pamuk’s novel ‘Black Book’. Celal Salik is a famous columnist in a Turkish newspaper ‘Milliyet’ and he has been writing columns for almost forty years. One day he goes missing. And his half brother Galip’s wife Ruya also goes missing along. The novel traces the acts of Galip who searches for his brother and wife. And one day, he becomes Celal Salik!

Celal Salik writes about Istambul only about Istambul. And he writes about the faces of the people. And he reads letters out of the faces. He reads histories.

While translating this book in Malayalam for DC Books (soon to be released in the presence of Orhan Pamuk himself who would visit Kochi, Kerala during the World Book Fair by the year end or new year), I had several bouts of depression and anxiety. I felt I too would turn into Celal Salik.

I realized how compelling an act the writing is.

I am a writer and a reader of faces.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Memoire of a 25 Paisa Coin

The Reserve Bank of India has decided to withdraw 25 paisa from currency. For the last eight years this apex bank has not been minting 25 paisa coins. It had earlier withdrawn ten paisa and five paisa coins.

In metros like Delhi, years back itself people had stopped exchanging coins including fifty paisa. If you give a fifty paisa coin to a beggar, he may give you an ugly look, a curse and if he has the habit of exchanging graces that he expects from charitable people, he would even give you a one rupee coin in return.

These are the days even beggars walk around with card swiping machines. Beggars amassing coins and becoming super rich is a pet theme of popular movies; at times as a side story.

(Still from Naan Kadvaul)

In a recent movie in Tamil, Naan Kadavul (I am the God or Aham Brahmasmi), director Bala has treated begging as an organized crime sector. You cannot forget temples like Tiruppathi Balaji Temple, Sabarimal Ayyappa Temple, Shirdi Sai Temple where coins are collected in quintals and tons.

I like to digress. Hence, the news of withdrawing coins takes me to those good old days when we used to get coins from our courtyard. It was like this. A group of children play in the courtyard. One boy finds a five paisa coin and the rest start searching and they all get coins of small denominations.

It always happened during the monsoon days. Rain washes away the outer layer of sand. Coins that had escaped the pockets of the grown ups and had found their rest under the sand were suddenly revealed by the touch of rain drops.

Grown ups never claimed those coins back. Those coins belonged to the children. Small coins that brought them candies, pickled gooseberries, lozenges, marbles, balloons, ice sticks and a sense of richness.

Once in a while grand parents opened their chests and small boxes and before the curious eyes of the young kids there opened a sepia toned world or old smells and memories. They took out the coins which had enriched their childhood days.

For children like us, those were just coins that had gone out of currency. For the grandparents those were the museum holdings of memories, love and tears.

Coins tell the history of times that had gone by. Illiterate grandparents tell you about the value of those coins minted by the treasury of the king. Those small little bronze medallions had the profile of the king embossed on them.

That’s why even after independence, people revered government jobs and called the salary as ‘the coin of the king’. Memories refuse to die in their eyes paled by cataract.

Those were the days when I used to wonder why Shri Aurobindo Ghose looked like a creature with two fins and a long neck, and why young Indira Gandhi always sat in a tirbhanga posture (body twisted in three angles).

Years later I realized the truth behind my misgivings. The text books were printed in poor quality government presses. When they took the blocks of these pictures and transferred them into black and white they gained the quality of a Photostat rather than a photograph.

Hence, when the white shirt of Shri Aurobindo Ghose merged with the white of the page, the contours were not defined. Only the black areas were highlighted. So his flowing hairs looked like fins and the long beard look like the sharpened lower body of that creature.

This picture of Indira Gandhi came from the famous photograph where she sits on a cot in which Mahatma Gandhi was lying. The text book illustrator extracts young Indira Gandhi’s image out of this picture and prints in the same way as I mentioned before. So Indira Gandhi sits like a contortionist.

With the coins, these pictures also have gone into the dust covered tomes of memory.

One day piggy banks will become irrelevant.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Poetry of God and Stephen Hawkins

Stephen Hawkins, the world renowned British scientist, during one of his speeches last week said, there was nothing called heaven. ‘There is no life after death. Heaven is something conjured up by the people who are afraid of darkness.’

I read this yesterday in a newspaper. According to Stephen Hawkins, human brain is like a computer. Once it is damaged beyond repair, then it ceases to be a computer. Dead computers don’t have an after life.

In fact, Stephen Hawkins had invited the ire of the religious establishment when he argued that there was no God. He had abandoned the religious logic of Genesis.

Religious logic is poetic logic, I believe.

Organized religious logic is crime, I believe that too.

I go to temples, which are small and peaceful. I can stand in front of a lamp, fold my hands and focus on the vibrations in the air. It calms me down.

In organized corporate temples, you are pushed, pulled, pickpocket-ed and left crushed up by the pressing human bodies.

I love Paulo Coelho’s literature because all of them tell me about the lonely paths taken by individuals and the lonely pilgrimages of lonely pilgrims.

When Stephen Hawkins says that there is no God and no heaven (therefore no hell too), he asserts the scientific logic of cause and effect.

There is no poetry in it.

But there is poetry in Stephen Hawkins’ life. He is 69 years old and has been bound to a customized electronic and computerized wheel chair for the last forty two years.

The image of Stephen Hawkins sitting on his chair with his head twisted to his right, is as popular as the image of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

I should say his image is as popular as William Shakespeare, Oscar Wild and T.S.Eliot.

Poets are the makers of God, heaven and hell. Poets are sinners who have sinned against sinning.

Stephen Hawkins too has done that. Why?

Doctors had told Stephen Hawkins when he was just 21 years old that he would not survive more than a few years.

One of the brilliant brains in the world could have been confined to a grave had there been no miracle.

Is it right, at least poetically to say that it was God who was taking Stephen Hawkins along all these years? From the day of diagnosis to now, forty two years have passed. This man has traveled all over the world.

And he has seen the heavens in life and hells too. He imagined a universe, several galaxies and many other things that I never would understand. Hasn’t he been writing poetry all these years?

I remember this story which I read several years back in an office room at Nehru Place, New Delhi where I had gone to meet someone. Many of you may know this story that I am going to recount.

“All the while there have been four foot prints. And he believed that God has been walking with him.

When the days of struggle came, he could see only two foot prints on the sand.

He started complaining when he met God face to face.

When I was happy, you were with me but when I was going through trouble, you left me alone. Look, there are only two foot prints on the earth and they are only mine.

God smiled at the man and said, “Son, you see only two foot prints because I was carrying you on my shoulders when you were in trouble.”