Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Journey Starts: Going to Thiruvannamalai

(Picture for illustrative purpose only- source internet)

When the faithless sets off for his journey, not too many people find it interesting. When the faithful packs up even for a small trip outside his home town, it is generally seen as a pilgrimage. The ones who believe in pilgrimages and the ones who believe in the divinities in those places naturally attract the attention of the people who have not crossed the thresholds of their own houses for a real pilgrimage. The believer who goes out to holy places carries a part of holiness in him/her. When he goes out, it is an expectation of the others that makes his trip so important and when he comes back he brings back a bit of divinity that he himself has witnessed. Our land is full of such moving holy people who in their daily lives really do not claim to have such divinities. They are just ordinary people indulging in ordinary things. But something makes them different. They have so many stories to tell and some miracles to perform. At the same time our country is filled with faithless people who are also in their own pilgrimage. Perhaps, their trips are not called pilgrimages. They are wanderers in the lonely terrains of negation and restlessness. As they go on, they too imbibe a bit of divinity without their own knowledge, though others do not acknowledge it. There are instances when believers go for pilgrimage and come back as non-believers and there are non-believers who go for pilgrimages and come back as faithful people.

(Shirdi Sai Baba Mandir)

I think I have gone through both these facets of belief. When I went to Shirdi, the seat of Sai Baba, I did not have any particular belief in me. My friend had wished for my sake that he would take me to the feet of Sai Baba. I liked my friend more than any other divine personality at that point of time so I decided to go along with him. He took me there in his car after a long drive from Goa where we all had gone for spending one year ending and for witnessing the beginning of a new year. I was ready to believe in the power of the place but the moment I came to know that ten thousand rupees that one of us was carrying in the bag was picked at the sanctum sanctorum of the Shirdi Temple by organized pickpockets operating from within the temple premises. We went to the police station and there were a few like us who got stolen during the temple visit. Policemen took it so lightly and they said it was a usual occurrence. If it was a usual occurrence, I thought there must be beneficiaries within the police force and temple authorities. Someone suggested that the money lost must be taken as an offering to the Baba as the Baba had wished so. What was that kind of a demand from a holy man from a person who was taking a family comprising of two small kids to ‘see’ him? And even if it was a forced offering there, then I should have been benefitted from that incident in the coming days. Contrary to my belief, I lost a series of jobs though gained a big project only to lose it forever after conducting it successfully. We all, including my friend chose not to talk about it ever since.

(Artist Gayatri Gamuz)

This time, however, when I decided to travel to Thiruvannamalai with Shibu Natesan, I had a different feel about it in my mind. I took it as an experiment. Friends who had gone there before me told me different stories about their visit, sojourn or stay. Shibu has been visiting Thiruvannamalai for the last ten years and if given a chance he is ready to buy a house and settle there, a move that according to him would solve his issues regarding the ‘right’ place to live and work the way he wants. I have been hearing good things about Thiruvannamalai for a long time not only from Shibu but also from a few other people. When I say good things, I do not make a judgment about the place or the people who tell me these stories. For me, good things mean, stories about peaceful and affordable life that they lead there. Anand and Gayatri Gamus, an environmental activist and poet and his Spanish wife who became Gayatri long back, have been living there for a long time. They live in hutments created by them in their own farm. Anand does farming, writes poetry and involve in environmental activism in his own style. Gayatri Gamus paints in her studio there and exhibits in different parts of India. Three years before Abul Kalam Azad, a noted photography artist (former photo journalist) moved there and set up his studio. Now with the help of Tulsi Suvarnalakshmi and many other friends he became successful in setting up Kalai Illam, House of Art and Ekalokam Trust for Photography. ETP is now involved in a huge year long project where a set of selected artists document Thiruvannamalai throughout the year. Anil Dayanand, another artist also has moved to Thiruvannamalai.

 (Abul Kalam Azad- Photography artist)

Azad has been inviting me to Kalai Illam at Thiruvannamalai for a long time. Each time I received his invitation I declined it as I was not feeling the true calling had yet come. An unwilling traveler as always I have been , postponing a trip is a joyous thing for me. It does not have anything to do with people or place; I simply do not want to travel. I do not even want move out of the room where I sit. But things are like that I travel quite often, mostly for work. But I like to wander around in the small alleys and sit silently in temples where people do not frequent that often. Destiny is a different thing altogether, you believe in it or not. I always feel that you undertake a journey when the time is ripe and you are mentally prepared. That’s why when Shibu called me and offered me a trip to Thiruvannamalai, which he said would change my life completely. I smiled at the offer though I did not reject it completely. Slowly I started thinking that it was time for me to go. With severed ties with many in life, I started believing that it was time to undertake a trip to Thiruvannamalai. And I was happy that it was with Shibu who always have a lot of things to tell me. He talks sense except when he is not pulling my leg. So instantly I agreed to travel with him. My happiness was also due to the fact that I could meet Azad and other friends in Thiruvannamalai without feeling the guilt of rejecting their invitations earlier. Shibu was supposed to inaugurate a show of his old friend Chrigen Ulhmann at Kalai Illam. The time was perfect as I too had a good reason to visit Kalai Illam with Shibu.

(Kazhakkoottam, entry to Trivandrum City)

It is a reunion sort of thing for Shibu Natesan and myself. He is a declared spiritualist but I am a declared materialist. But the materialist does not have money to purchase a travel bag that could accommodate a couple of dresses and the basic things for a weeklong trip. So Shibu offers me one of his shoulder bags which I think should not be returned in the near future. Hence, I go to his palatial house in Attingal with a few clothes packed up in a small polythene cover and transfer them into the bag that he gives me. I am happy to have a new bag on my back though it has to go back to its owner in the near future. I write this with the hope that out of shame he will not insist that I should return the bag. We are dropped at Kazhakkoottam from where we are supposed to get into the Volvo bus that would take us to Villupuram. From where we have to take another bus to Thiruvannamalai. At sharp six in the evening the bus comes and we get in. We instantly strike friendship with the bus driver and the attendant. They promise that they would take care of us during the rest of the trip including dropping us safely at Villupuram. The bus heads for Chennai which is another four hours drive from there.

(Film star Vikram)

Shibu, as we all know by now, is a very famous landscape painter also. That makes him the natural claimant for the window seat. His argument is simple; he is a landscape artist so he needs to see a lot of landscape. I take an avuncular position and let him take the window seat. It is good to see him enjoying the passing landscape. As we cross Trivandrum and enter Tamil Nadu, which is made conspicuous by change of language from Malayalam to Tamil in the hoardings and posters, also by changing the faces of the actors and actresses in those posters, the bus attendant switches the LED television screen on and plays a movie called ‘Dhool’. It is a film with Vikram in lead. Vikram is one of the success stories in Tamil film industry. With none to back him up, he started off his career as a struggling small time artist to find his way to the top rungs of the Tollywood industry. He found his success when he crossed the age of forty. His Annyan, which is dubbed as ‘Aparichit’ in Hindi made him a national success also. I decide to watch the movie and let Shibu indulge in his romance with nature which has been growing darker by time. Though I like Vikram, I feel Dhool is a very boring movie. The same old story of a simpleton moving to the city is repeated with the same masala ingredients. At some point I could almost tell what would come next. The bus is in a rush to take us to Villupuram and many others to different destinations, therefore the attendant tells us that there was no ‘formal’ stop for having dinner. They give us five minutes in Nagercoil to freshen up ourselves and have a tea and a bite from the available array of snacks. Men rush to one of the dark corners at the edge of the bus station and liberally ease themselves. Hapless woman scramble here and there in group and finally they find a proper paid loo just outside the bus station.

(Shibu Natesan)

Back inside the bus the air condition has been stepped up. It is one ploy to make the passengers sleep as early as possible so that the driver could step on the accelerator without letting the passengers know of the horrifying speed of the bus in the highway. They provide us with a blanket and we have comfortable push back seats. A graphic rendering of the people sleeping in such bus would show a series of strangers sleeping on the lap of the ones who sit just behind them. I look at Shibu and he is not in a mood to sleep. He just wants to look outside and lap in everything that he sees. But after sometime he too grows tired of watching outside and prepares himself to sleep. We say something to comfort ourselves and crack some jokes in hushed up tones. Slowly, with the steady rocking of the bus on the smooth highway, we fall into a deep slumber. We are woken up by the benevolent bus attendant who has been giving company to the driver throughout the night. We pick up our bag and get down at Villupuram. Once we are out of the bus we still have a steady rock feeling. Dazed and amazed at the scenes of a sleeping town we look around us in three sixty degree. From the lights seen at one side of the road we recognize the bus stand. There are no people on the road to ask for directions. But we trust our instinct and walk towards the light. We pass two arches and mark them as landmarks when we come back to take the bus for Trivandrum. At Villupuram Bus Stand, suddenly the world looks different. People have parked themselves on the floor and even on the platforms. Stalls selling flowers, tea and plastic toys are very much alive. I recognize the consumers; women want to wear flowers even if they are not washed and cleaned there at the bus stop. Children bawl for toys and toys are immediately bought and peace is maintained amongst the squatting families waiting for their buses to places unknown to us. Men want to drink tea, standing and women do the same sitting on the floor. We also feel like having a cup of tea from there. But people with regular habits often find it difficult to have a cup of early morning syrup like tea rich with milk. The moment you consume it, your bowels are ready and you need to ease yourself. We ask ourselves how much time would it take us to reach Thiruvannamalai. It is hardly two hours, says a bus conductor who stands in front of a bus ready to depart for Thiruvannamali sharp at five in the morning. We have a few minutes left for having a cup of tea. But both of us are skeptical about it. The conductor assures us that there will be a tea break in between. We reach a silent agreement on skipping the morning to saving ourselves from some undeclared embarrassment by our own bodies. We get into the bus and we thus start our journey to Thiruvannamalai.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

People Who Leave Things Behind for Greater Freedom and Happiness: Some Un-Celebrated Stories

(Anton Chekhov)

You all may know that famous story by Anton Chekhov, in which he tells the story of a young barrister who gets into a bet of entering into self imposed solitary confinement for  fifteen years. Titled ‘The Bet’, finally sees the young lawyer who argues solitary confinement is better than capital punishment, after his prolonged confinement in a sealed room where one could give him food and books through a small window that shows only the hands of the giver, leaving the room unnoticed by anyone before the formal ending of his tenure in confinement, even eschewing the bet money of two million rubles. Dawning of wisdom has prompted his fleeing. He realizes the flimsiness of human life and the futility of money.  He does not feel that he was making a great sacrifice. He could not have done otherwise. He is destined to be ‘free’ after those fifteen years of asking the pivotal questions: Who am I? What money would do to me? You may also remember ‘The Walls’, a story by Vaikom Muhammed Basheer where by the end of his jail term the freed protagonist asks, Who wants freedom? He is in love within the walls of the jail, with a woman in the women’s ward, whom he ‘sees’ only by her voice heard from the other side.

(The Bet in an artist's imagination)

Not in everyone’s life such wisdom makes its appearance. None realizes the fact that life cannot be replaced with life and freedom or love with ‘freedom’ at all. One could find freedom in confinement and once they are freed, they no longer want the freedom that the materialistic world offers to them. They have found it elsewhere; mostly in themselves. It is surprising to know that even today there are people, often unsung and recognized, who leave their vocations and careers for ‘freedom’ after realizing the triviality of the pursuit behind the so called happiness that comes only with the accumulation of material wealth. They, after a prolonged self questioning, one fine morning decide to leave everything behind and become something else. They recognize their real calling at some point in their lives and decide to quit what they have been doing so far. If you read the book ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish’ by Rashmi Bansal you would come across many such people who have left their colorful and rich careers for something down to earth and more humane. Rashmi Bansal shows the examples of a few sharp brains, who after graduating from  cream institutes like IIT and IIMs, and also after pursuing a career that gives them hefty pay packets, doing something totally different and finding their freedom, satisfaction and of course success. However, even in this book success is something that is related to their wealth generation, if not for themselves but for a larger community. But the fact is that we cannot outrun material wealth or negate it altogether for total deliverance and liberation. Then, success and freedom should be seen in context; maximum happiness to maximum people, perhaps unto the last, through the ways one is capable of.

(Cover page of Stay Hungry Stay Foolish by Rashmi Bansal)

‘Stay Hungry Stay Foolish’ could be another way of telling you how you could also become ‘successful’.  Their success is measured by what they have achieved after their transformation. But there are people in small little corners of our country (as seen elsewhere), totally unassuming and doing something absolutely different from what they are ‘cut out’ for through their education. They may not make ‘good’ copies or worth following examples as they do not make too much of the alternative market they have either created or entered after their sojourn in the mainstream market. They are happy in their small little rented rooms and are also happy in doing what they are doing. It is a way of finding freedom and happiness. I happened to meet one such person one of these days as one of my young friends decided to take me to a person who he thinks that I should have met even earlier. This young man, Amritjude Vijayan, a Siddha doctor came to know about me through his mother who was my high school teacher. He started following me in facebook and blogs and became an ardent admirer. He admires me, in his own admittance, for the way I take things without getting too excited. Our friendship developed through facebook conversations about the history of our village.

(Shantakumari Teacher, her husband and grandchild)

Amritjude comes home sharp at three in the afternoon. I sit ready as I know that as a doctor he would keep his time. He picks me up from my home and we go to pick up his four year old son from his school and reach their home within fifteen minutes time. I meet Shanthakumari teacher, who looks a little bit aged but keeping her enthusiasm like a very strict teacher that she always has been. She is an ardent learner and speaks a very dignified Malayalam. Amritjude’s father is also there and he knows me only from ‘stories’ he has heard about me. I recount the stories of my school days and remind her how strict a teacher she was. She gives me a benevolent smile and tells me that she had taken a policy to keep the boys under total ‘control’ by terrorizing them. “If boys are under control then teaching becomes very smooth,” she tells with a smile. I look at her.  Years have made some changes on her face, but I think she remains the same teacher, who used to wear round gold frame reading glasses. May be today, the frame of her spectacles is different in shape and color but I see her as she used to be in those days. We all look at the school building that is seen from the sitting room of their house and for a moment all we go silent. Years come landing silently between us and take off in another moment giving a fleeting sense of those good old days. I humbly mention about my attempt to do a PhD and she is so happy to hear it. Then she tells me that at the age of fifty four, at least five years before, she took one more MA in Sociology. This time it is my turn to feel proud of my teacher and I note it down in my mind that next time, perhaps, she would tell me that she has already enrolled for another MA or even for a PhD.

(Dr.Amritjude Vijayan and Dr.Divya Amritjude)

Receiving her blessings with all humility, I get into Amritjude’s car and he is eloquent on Siddha as a discipline. He tells me how he uses his knowledge of Siddha to create a holistic life style for his patients. His wife too is a Siddha doctor and both of them live a simple life, by doing right from cleaning their hospital to giving physiotherapy to the patients all by themselves. Amritjude also records medicinal plants with his video recorder, edits and gives a voice over as if the plant itself is speaking and posts them in youtube. Besides, he writes a blog and posts in his website titled . He and his wife do free consultation online for patients who approach them through their website or facebook. Amritjude recognized his calling almost ten years back, when he was an Information Technology professional. He left a lucrative career behind to study Siddha medicine and now he tells me that he has found his calling. With the help of a few like-minded people he conducts workshops about holistic living with no ‘religious’ hangover attached to it. He believes in a kind of spiritualism that comes from the primary belief that body is a temple. If the body is treated like a temple then the spiritual pursuit becomes much easier. As he drives on, he tells me more about Siddha medicine not as a doctor but more like a budding philosopher. He tells me that when he finishes shooting a medicinal plant with his video camera, by the time he finishes with it, he feels that he is touched by a gentle breeze and he completely believes that this is the way the plant speaking to him. I tend to believe it because I can believe in it.

(Sreekanda Kumar Pillai)

Amritjude tells me that he wants me to meet Sreekanda Kumar Pillai. The name sounds a bit long and I imagine that I am going to meet an ‘old man’. But in Kazhakkoottam, a small town near Trivandrum, near a temple, there is a row of buildings and on the first floor of one of them in a small room but complete with an air-conditioner and two desk top computers when I meet Sreekanda Kumar, suddenly I feel that he is very young and he is really young. Hailing from a not so rich family he did his schooling in a village in Karette, near Attingal. Good in studies and inclined to technology, he obtained admission for computer engineering in the Regional Engineering College, Trivandrum and once finished with his degree soon he found himself in the US working for Infosys. Ten long years he spent there in the US and came back without picking up an ‘accent’. He did not want to be leashed by the covetable name tag of a techie. He did not want to eat too many burgers and also did not want to spell names in the US way. He came back to Kerala and he knew that he could start his own ‘business’ in a small way by writing a technical blog that offered solutions for software issues. It was not holding his mind for long. He was yearning for something else. He wanted to become much simpler. So he became a web designer; many rungs lower than a computer engineer would like to stand even without a decent job. As he was doing web designing, as he was/is inclined to Indian spiritual literature and traditional literature, he found that not that much ancient wisdom was available online that too in Malayalam language.

Sreekanda Kumar Pillai, whom his close friends call ‘Sree’, realized that collecting ancient and spiritual literature and making them available online in Malayalam language was his life’s mission. He started doing it in a small way, initially with the help of a friend and later with occasional volunteers like Amritjude, and later all by himself. He titled it Today, you could read a treasure trove of spiritual literature in Malayalam online free in this website. It offers biographies in pdf, in word format, and also homes a lot of enlightening articles, essays and scholarly studies. A section is particularly devoted for recorded spiritual and literary discourses in mp3 and videos. Anybody who even searches in such topics in English and happen to be a Malayali could reach this site as it is designed for other language crawlers too. Now he single handedly runs a foundation called Sreyas Foundation in order to popularize ancient and spiritual literature in Malayalam. He finds funds for his activities from his web designing job and also from the money that he gets by doing some consultancy job. Sreekanda Kumar is just another young man in the street, one may find if one happens to see him in the street. But he works relentlessly and with all diligence. I think he is happy and his happiness is reflected in his smile and demeanor. Importantly, in our short but meaningful meeting we never talked a word about money!

Haven’t you seen such people in your village too, who have not be celebrated so far? Yes, but they do not do any of their activities to become celebrities. I think I have found two young friends who want to give what they could gather to the world rather than taking too much from it. Their taking is in a different sense; they take from what we do not often heed; from plants to palm leaves scriptures. And I sit silently as Amritjude drives back home under a thick rain and a cover of darkness that is dispelled by a pair of strong headlights.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Art and Healing: An Unknown Artist who Dares Cancer

On the fourth platform of Eranakulam South Railway Station, the superfast train that runs between New Delhi and Trivandrum which is popularly known as ‘Kerala Express’ has already arrived. At the entrance of the railway station a huge crowd stands in waiting for someone important to come. A white banner hung casually across the tasteless concrete window that conspicuously stands in contrast with the impeccable white uniforms of the officials gathered there announces the arrival of the central Railway Minister. For the time being the railway station and the authorities seem to be less concerned with the passengers as they expectantly wait for the mighty one to alight from one of the trains that would chug in a few minutes’ time at the platform number one. Policemen and security personnel stand alert but their facial expressions betray their weariness. I imagine the minister as a responsible authority and an earnest passenger who has boarded the train two days before from New Delhi and travels all the way to Eranakulam in order to get a firsthand experience of the plight of the ordinary passengers who have to make up with dirty loos and substandard food in the rundown rail bogies. However, commonsense tells me that the minister must have flown in from Delhi and after landing at the Nedumbasseri Airport, he must have taken a train from the nearest railway station, which is Aluva.

Usually I reach railway stations and airports well ahead of time to avoid last minute confusion and above all to keep my blood pressure under control. But today I arrive late, leaving several conversations with scholarly friends half way, saying that those would be continued when we meet in Trivandrum again after two days. A benevolent auto driver takes me to the railway station and he does not overcharge me. At the ticket counter, the booking clerk, a black Mamma, takes her sweet time to punch in a ticket. At the enquiry counter, a young lady whose voice turns into the sound of an android when it passes through a speaker tells me that my train has already come at the platform number four. Steps on the flyover literally fly past under my scurrying feet and I reach a compartment next to the pantry car. Fragrance of various food items waft in the air. The pantry attendants are now relaxed as Eranakulam is the last major junction where a majority of the passengers get down after a forty eight hours long trip. I get a comfortable seat and I try to focus on myself before focusing on other people in the compartment. Last two days were really hectic with animated and spirited conversations till midnight. I try to gather myself and my thoughts, and then try to kill the thoughts one by one till I become vacant. That is a difficult task. But I feel peace and slowly I go into a deep, no not meditation but sleep.

Seated opposite to me there is a young man and a woman whose age I cannot determine vis-a-vis the age of the young man. When I wake up from my comforting slumber, I see this young man and woman. From the paraphernalia that they are carrying along with them I understand they are headed to a hospital for the large envelops are typical to medical reports and X-rays. For a moment I feel that both of them are healthy and their purpose of travel must be different. However, when the young man gets up to go to the washroom, I see him slightly labouring himself to control his body. He gets up and straightens his body with considered efforts. I imagine that he is the ill one. But the lady looks extremely silent though her face shows some kind of tiredness that is not a result of either travel or fatigue. It is the kind of silence and tiredness that we see on the faces of those people who undergo some sort of deep sorrow. She is neither young nor old. Some white hair along the hairline that borders her forehead slightly betray her age. The young man comes back from the washroom and whispers something to her and she promptly takes out the large envelope and pulls out a transparent file. I see a bunch of papers and receipts and to my shock I read the print on one of the papers: ‘Regional Cancer Centre’.  

(The Book Cover of Ram Kinker and His Works by K.G.Subramnyan)

I feel a sharp sense of anxiety cutting though my innards, for no reason. I recognize that this young man is suffering from cancer. I still do not know what this woman is to him, mother or sister? She looks too young to be his mother and too old to be his sister. I study their profiles and facial features; they look alike. Now I am sure about their relationship; they must be brother and sister. He picks up a couple of papers from the file and takes out a ball point pen and sets to work. The woman gives him a popular weekly which she was seen reading when I entered the compartment. He starts something on the paper with serious concentration. I watch him working on it. Now I know that he is sketching something. I get this eerie feeling that he wants to sketch me. But he does not look at me. He keeps drawing and covertly I glance at the movements of his right hand. Initially I think that he is drawing a woman sitting at the window. But he does not look at her either. Then I think that he is drawing an imaginary girl who is wearing a skirt and blouse. As he draws the legs, I immediately get this feeling that he has lost it. Soon he finishes his sketching and starts giving some highlighting touches here and there. I cannot hold my curiosity any longer. I ogle at his drawing and find that it is the picture of a Roman soldier, may be a sci-fi character; a sort of memory drawing. He hands over the drawing papers and pen to the woman, she takes it in her hands and looks at it without any change in her facial expression. Then she keeps the papers back inside the file and keeps it inside the large envelope.

Once again the young man gets up laboriously and goes to the washroom. I feel like asking the woman about him but resist myself and wait for the young man to come back. Soon he comes back and the silent conversation between them takes place. As he settles down, I prepare myself to ask my question. I ask him whether he has studied art formally. And he replies in affirmative. I ask for the school’s name. He says the name of a private art institution in North Paraur near Eranakulam. I have not heard about it.  He asks whether I am a painter myself or not. My answer is in negative. But I tell him that I am an art writer ( I did not want to confuse him with the titles like art critic or art historian) and explain it further saying that I write about art and artists. Why I do not paint or draw is his next question. I tell him that I do not know how to paint or draw. He tells me that he took out pen and paper to sketch me as he thought that I looked like an arty person. He also says that he recognizes arty people by looking at their hands. I think here he has gone wrong. My hands look more like those of a worker than that of an artist. I remember someone commenting at the Baroda station ticket counter as I was standing in a queue for my ticket and was speaking to a friend in English, saying that these days even the working class people speak in English. With my chosen Spartan looks of all time worst during the student days, there was no surprise that stranger took me for a labourer.

As he speaks on about art, his liking and disliking, I ask him why he did not choose to study art. The woman leans backward and moves her lips in order to tell me that ‘he is unwell’ and I tell her in the same way that I understand. I come to know that she is his mother and he is thirty years old. His father is a tailor working in North Paraur and his brother works in some gulf country. He left his studies by the time he finished his schooling (tenth pass) and did not try for admission in art schools as he did not have the required basic qualification. But since then he has been practicing art and been working as a graphic artist and animator. He has contributed his artistic skills as an animator in one of the recently released movies in Malayalam, he tells me. Soon he moves to the technical matters about art; how to know more about colour mixing, is there any book of tips on line drawing available in Malayalam language etc. I search in my memory for information and I fail miserably. May be there are no technical books in Malayalam about learning how to paint or draw. I ask him why he needs to go through those books at all. He says that he wants to ‘learn’ more about techniques. I tell him technique is perfected as he goes on sketching, drawing and painting. He goes silent for a moment. Then I speak of him about artists who have gone beyond techniques and suddenly I remember that I have a couple of copies of ‘Ram Kinkar and His Art’, a book by K.G.Subramanyan which I have translated into Malayalam. It was released a couple of days back in Kochi by the cultural minister of Kerala.

(The title page of the translated 'Ram Kinkar and His works)

I offer him a copy of the book. He takes it in his hand and looks at me some kind of disbelief in his eyes. I tell him that the copy is for him. He, with a great enthusiasm goes through the pages and I sense that he has been hooked by the images of Ram Kinkar Baij’s works. I tell him more about Ram Kinkar Baij and how he worked without heeding much to technique as he was a master craftsman by nature and by practice. This young man has too many questions and I answer them patiently. I ask him whether he keeps his drawings and sketching for future reference. This time the answer comes from his mother. She tells me how he destroys his drawings periodically after studied review of his own works. I tell him about the need for preserving his works. He says that his main ambition was to make a bust of Lord Shiva in cement and concrete. Not so big, but still big enough, he adds. Then he goes into silence. His mother tells me that it was then he was detected with cancer; he is affected at the lower end of his spine. Doctors have advised an operation. But they have not given any assurance, says the mother. He could even go paralysed from waist, if the operation fails, she adds in a matter of fact way. I do not know what to tell her. Soon he changes his tone; once again he becomes enthusiastic about his opinion on art. Interestingly, he even talks about art market and the kinds of money that art could make. Then he asks me the crucial question; is it necessary to conduct exhibitions to become a great artist? The question is naive, I know. But I tell him that exhibitions are perhaps not necessary but having a body of work is important.

Superfast Kerala Express has been running like a local passenger train and it is already a couple of hours late from the scheduled time. I realize that my station is approaching. I take the book from his hand and scribble down on the title page the following lines: Art heals the body, art heals the mind, art is the ultimate medicine that heals the deadliest of diseases. I write in Malayalam and sign under it. He takes the book back and reads it. His mother too reads it and her expression remains unchanged. I get up to walk towards the door. I hold his long fingered palm with my worker’s hand and tell him: You will go back healed. And you will make your Shiva.

I want to believe that my words come true, though I am an ordinary mortal with no divine powers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

C.Krishna Vilasom Library- A Photo Feature

(C.Krishna Vilasom Library, Vakkom)

(A closer look at C.Krishna Vilasom Library)

(C.Krishna Vilasom Library needs maintenance)

(In the old location of the library now there is a thicket of hibiscus plants)

(Level Cross- Thoppikka Vilakom)

(Vakkom now has a male beauty parlor near Thoppikka Vilakom. It is time to beautify the face of our culture too)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Story of a Village Library

(A village library- Strictly for illustrative purpose only)

Wikipedia has killed small libraries, they say. You no longer rush to the nearest library to clear a doubt in history lessons, to read the latest story by your favorite short story writer or even to spend a few minutes with like-minded people (the village bookworms). Do you remember the last time when you visited an old scholar in your village to discuss some issue that you thought needed erudite clarification or elaboration? Today, Wikipedia does everything for everyone; knowledge at your fingertips. Say, information at your fingertips, someone corrects. Do not pass one for the other, they are different, another one interjects. There are times when you want to know about what has happened to the good old library in your village. What do you do then? Either you go there in person to see what the present status of it is or, yes, here it comes, or you enter the name of that library in Wiki search or Google search. Alas, most often you don’t get any information about it. Nostalgia mongers amongst the Non Resident Villagers (NRVs) litter their social networking site pages with images and information about their villages that they have left behind long back. But you do not find a picture of the village library. None seems to be interested.

At Vakkom, a small village where I was born, in Trivandrum District in Kerala, there is a library called ‘C.Krishna Vilasom Library’. Before I go into the real story, let me digress a little bit. Vakkom is a beautiful village and it is rich in money and greenery. It has a very interesting history that runs back to our independence struggle, Communist Movement and so on. I do not want to get into that history in this short piece of writing. But, of late I have found out that this village is more beautiful than the beach paradise, Goa. Vakkom has backwaters and a few paces away from it a long beach, which is still used by fishermen. At the northern end, Panayil Kadavu has a small resort called Kayaloram (Shore of Backwaters) and a huge four star hotel called ‘Vakkom Palazzo’, both remain underused and under advertised. You cross the backwaters at Kaikkara by ferry or by road at Panayilkadavu, you reach the famous Varkala Beach, which is the second important destination of the tourists who visit South Kerala, after the illustrious Kovalam Beach. There are hardworking as well as lazy people in this village. Many young people are in the gulf countries and they have helped making Vakkom an extremely rich village. It is interesting to see at least twenty per cent of the youngsters who are employed in the gulf countries, is on leave at any given time and could be seen in the village riding huge motor bikes or luxury cars. But none goes to C.Krishna Vilasom Library.

(Vakkom has a houseboat too-in Panayil Kadavu)

My tryst with C.Krishna Vilasom Library was sometime in 1978, when I was nine years old. Many a youth who did not have any other ways to pass time found their way to this library. It was located near the first level cross of our village and along the meter gauge rails steam engines passed four or five times in a day. Watching those huge steam engines pulling the rickety bogies was an interesting pastime for us. A dilapidated reading room adjacent to the one room library was open throughout the day and people kept reading a few newspapers and weeklies sitting at a three and half legged table. In the evening a jobless young man came to man the issuing counter of the library which was a dark hole filled with books and only that young man could pick up the books that we used to ask for. My father was one of the committee members of the library and it helped me to get a membership in the library though I was underage. I remember reading almost all the books available in that library and started testing my skills in writing in due course of time. We all used to call it ‘Sree Krishna Viasom Library’ though its original name was ‘C.Krishna Vilasom Library.’

Today I visited the library again after almost three decades. Now this small library functions from a tiny two storied concrete building near the government high school at Vakkom where I did my schooling. This library was shifted to the present location in 1988, after four years I left the school. Talking to a pious old man, Sisupalan sir, who volunteers to conduct the day to day affairs of the library, I came to remember that the small plot of land where the library building is situated now was bought by my father and he had asked my mother to hand over the property to the library committee before his untimely demise. Immediately after my father’s death, my mother promptly handed over the plot to the library. With the help of a benevolent donor from the village and a few contributions raised from people by the committee, the library got a permanent building in 1988. By that time I had left Vakkom for higher studies and had found better and bigger libraries elsewhere. Somehow, I missed visiting this library till I could do it today. Sisupalan sir showed me a few books written or translated by me, which made me really happy. Last year, I had contributed around three hundred books from my collection to this library though I was not personally present when the books were handed over to the library committee. Today, I was curious to know the history of this library and Sisupalan sir was willing to share the history of it with me.

It all started with a Reformation Campaign conducted by a Malabar based barrister in 1930 in conjunction with the Temple Entry movement in 1930. The procession led by this barrister, C.Krishnan, came from Kollam, then Quilon, via Varkala and crossed the Kaikkara backwaters and culminated at the Putthan Nada Shiva Temple premises with a huge public meeting. It is said that when the procession came, the people in Vakkom felled several coconut trees in order to make a floating bridge across the backwaters for the procession to cross it without interruption. C.Krishnan made a speech at the temple grounds and a few youngsters named Malayali Madhavan, Padmanabhan, Sreedharan and so on got so inspired by the speech of C.Krishnan who had asked the village youth to wake up and educate people through reading and writing that they decided to start a library. Padmanabahan was a landlord and had a shop that sold Ayurvedic medicines. He had a couple of rooms left vacant in the same property where he and his friends set up the library. Though C.Krishnan was alive, as a tribute to his name and fame, they decided to call it ‘C.Krishna Vilasom Library’ which literally means a ‘Library in the Address of C.Krishnan’. My father was one of the early members who carried the flame of those pioneers further and he was a member of the governing committee of this library till his death. Sisupalan Sir also remembers the contributions done by Mr.Sumedan who has been coming up with material and moral support whenever the library faces problems of survival.

Though the library was started in 1930, it got its official recognition in 1936 as its name was included as a member library in the Grandhasala Soochi (Library Index). The issue registers since 1936 are still preserved here in this library. As Sisupalan Sir told me about it, I happily reminded him that in a few of those registers my name and signature also would be there. Today, C.Krishna Vilasom has a few patrons from in and around the village. Though it is right in front of the government high school, Sisupalan sir says that not a single student from the school has enrolled as a member in the library. So strange, I think. I see one of my students whom I had taught almost twenty five years back. He is here to pick up some books and that makes me so happy. He is a government servant now but he finds time to read books of his interest (organic agriculture). A girl lends her service as an untrained librarian two hours a day in the evening and rest of the time she works in a textile shop as a sales girl. She has to find an additional job because the government gives a grant of Rs.1000/- per month as a salary to the ‘librarian’; that too comes as a lump sum once in six months. Books are purchased with an annual purchasing grant provided by the government, which is Rs.20000/- (Twenty thousand). As anybody else out there, I am also sure that it is absolutely an inadequate amount for purchasing books. This library has got a computer which has been lying there unused and now out of order for a long time. Sisupalan sir tells me that no trained person is there to catalogue the books or keep an online register. He also tells me that the committee does not have any fund to employ a full time trained librarian.

This article is an appeal to all my friends who are born and brought up at Vakkom and now have decent jobs and fat pay packets both in India and elsewhere. If you really lend a helping hand, C.Krishna Vilasom Library could gather sufficient capital for employing a full time librarian and also for purchasing good books. Also a part of the amount could be used for branding it and spreading the word around. To my surprise, I found out that neither the Member of Parliament nor the Member of the Legislative Assembly has ever supported this library despite repeated pleas. Hence, some political pressure also could be put on the concerned authorities if politically influential people volunteer to initiate the MPs and MLAs about the plight of this library. And I am sure in each village in our country, there must be a story similar to this. We cannot go around and do it for all the libraries in our country. So let us start with our own Village, Vakkom and its own C.Krishna Vilasom Library.

As an end note; before writing this piece, I went to Wikipedia to look for some information about this library. I also searched for images in Google. I came out empty handed.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Looking for HMT Watches

Children search for things everywhere, just like monkeys and dogs do. They are on an eternal hunt for some treasure hidden somewhere by someone.  Peeping into the old cupboards where parents hide their secrets, looking under the cots, searching for flowers, fruits and roots in the wayside thickets keep them engaged with the mysteries of mother earth. As they grow up, they lose interest in those mysteries and they start believe in the apparent and palpable. That’s how they become law abiding citizens in a controlled society. Trees, birds, animals, rivers, winds, rains and sea waves stop talking to them. The silent but curious conversations with the animate and inanimate slowly fade away leaving them to become passive consumers of newspapers and television channels. Each time, they remember their childhood they tend to think of those good old days of incessant searching. Then they feel the ultimate fear of discovering something for themselves; they may even chance upon their own souls. So they come back to the mundane realities as fast as they could and stay calm or they pretend to be so. Our story of HMT watches start from one such search undertaken by myself when I was a child of eight or nine, along with other kids of same age.

I do not remember who had told us that secret; it was simple but exciting. If you collected the cigarette packets of Scissors brand and searched for the letters ‘H M T’ at the pasted edges of the unfolded packet and sent them to the company you would get an HMT watch. In those days kids of my age never had a chance to wear a real watch. We satisfied our desire to have a wrist watch by making one out of the dexterously folded coconut tree leaves. We could make many things out of these fronds; square-balls, snakes, whistles and wrist watches. That was quite an organic origami. Plastic watches came with frozen needles stuck up in shapeless dials. Balloon men brought them to the festival grounds and parents living under the pressure of controlled economy hesitated to buy even those plastic watches. Real watches came to kids when they passed the school final examinations with considerable marks or grades that assured them admission in decent pre-degree colleges. Someone wearing a watch after the results were announced heralded his/her success to the world with that lone shiny ticking symbol at his wrist.

Finding the packets of Scissors brand cigarette was not a difficult thing as my village had enough smokers who could afford Scissors cigarette. We used cigarette packets to create various things. If you cut the packets into small pieces and folded them together you could create a long chain. You could make lamp shades out of thrown away cigarette packets. You could even create your own ‘video game’ with some interesting additions to a packet. However, finding the letters H M T in these packet was a different ball game altogether. Disappointment came with the realization that not any single packet carried all three letters. Some had ‘H’, some had ‘M’ and some people claimed that they got ‘T’ also. None got three packets with all those three magical letters. If you got two, the third one was perpetually missing. Those who claimed that they got the missing letter, were not ready to exchange it for the one extra we had. After almost a year long desperate search for those three letters, we all gave up the idea.  Soon we came to know that it was all a hoax. The cigarette company did not offer any watch to anyone even though they painstakingly collected all three letters and sent to the company.

In childhood you are susceptible to all such weird ideas. You may not be interested to finish your homework but without any complaint you would write some mantra for hundred times, or copy a pamphlet that praised some gods, ten times in order to gain good marks in the examination or to receive some sort of blessings from the invisible gods. It was the time that a child imagined traveling to school on a pony or riding a cycle fitted with some kind of an engine. It was a time when each child envied a man or woman wearing a wrist watch. I got my first wrist watch when I passed my school final examinations and needless to say, it was an HMT watch. I flaunted my watch which had a golden yellow dial and a steel chain, with lot of pride. It was not a cell-powered one or a quartz watch. I had to wind it every morning and it was a fulfilling exercise. I wore it for a long time till it became a part of my body and felt like attaching no special qualities to it. When Gulf money brought more and more fashionable watches of international brands like Citizen, Seiko, Rado and so on, HMT watches went out of fashion. Even claiming to have an HMT watch became a thing of shame at that time. In due course of time, my first HMT watch went into the drawer of my writing table and stayed there ‘dead’ for a long time.

(Shibu Natesan and Anil Janardanan in Trivandrum, mid 1980s)

Winding watches or mechanical wrist watches had always attracted Shibu Natesan. He got his first watch when he went to Trivandrum Fine Arts College in mid 1980s. It was not a gift or something like that. As an artist, the child in him had not grown up so he was always searching for something that excited his imagination. In one of those search trips undertaken by him, he came across an old wrist watch in someone’s hand. That person was ready to part with it for a small amount. It had a faded golden sheen to it. Shibu managed some money and got the watch for himself. When he wore it, the watch looked quite trendy and I coveted one for myself too because I thought my HMT watch was not so ‘cool’ in front of his trendy old watch. The Trivandrum Fine Arts College aura was so powerful that whatever the students in that college wore looked naturally attractive. I still remember the jeans and cotton trousers that Shibu had bought from different markets. He would go to any length to get something that he had fancied. And I think that character trait has become only stronger by the passage of time. A few years back he became an avid collector of HMT watches that ran on winding. He does not fancy the cell-powered watches produced by the HMT Company. The story of Shibu’s HMT craze is fascinating.

I should start with a small anecdote. It happened to be just a couple of days before we started our journey to Thiruvannamalai. Shibu has this tendency of getting into any watch shop, however small or big it is, and asking for the ‘mechanical HMT watches’. Often the shop owners give him an emphatic NO. Due to the flooding of ‘time’ market with affordable and very expensive wrist watches from national and international brands, most of the shop owners as well as customers naturally believe that HMT watches no longer exist. Even if they exist, shop owners say, they are ‘left over’ old pieces. They do not mind selling them in the ‘old’ price. The fact is that they just want to get rid of their remaining stock of the HMT watches. Interestingly, the shop owners have even forgotten that once upon a time all the watches were mechanical. They blindly believe that HMT has stopped producing watches. Some even think that the company has already been locked out as it is a public sector company.

(Shibu Natesan in one of his sketching trips)

We were on the way to book our bus ticket to Thiruvannamalai. It was drizzling and we were rushing to the nearest shop where they booked the tickets for buses and trains. Soon a small watch shop came in our view. Shibu did not hesitate a moment to get into that shop and demand a mechanical HMT watch. They looked at Shibu and then to me as if they were seeing two aliens suddenly materialized before them. The shop owner gave out a cynical laughter when he heard Shibu’s question. Without hesitating for a second, the shop owner said that HMT no longer produced wrist watches. Shibu raised his left hand at him and showed a mechanical HMT watch that he had bought a few days before from Thumkur in Karnataka, the third factory established by the Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) company for producing watches exclusively. The shop owner was not pleased. He stuck to his argument saying that he had been running the shop for the last twenty years and if Shibu could prove that the watch at his wrist was ‘original’ he would shut the shop forever. Shibu laughed at his arrogance and gave his watch to the shop assistant. He used a magnifying glass to check the seal and make and sheepishly told the shop owner that it ‘looked’ original. The man was not ready to listen. He was saying that if Shibu could prove it, he would stop his business. Shibu told him calmly that he was not a representative from the HMT Company and his intention was just to tell him that the mechanical HMT watches were still available in the market.

While walking back, Shibu was repeatedly asking me whether we should go back and show him the company receipt that he had obtained while buying the watch from the original showroom of HMT in Thumkur. I was not in a mood to make someone go pale with shame and embarrassment. So I advised against that. Nor was Shibu in any mood to stop that poor man’s business. As we walked on, enjoying the droplets of rain falling on our faces, he told me about how he was initiated to the world of the mechanical HMT watches. It was almost a decade back. Shibu was visiting Thiruvannamalai with his British wife, Kate Bowes, and he happened to see a watch shop that sold an interesting array of watches. While browsing through the watches, Shibu found a mechanical HMT wrist watch. The make was simple but it was beautiful, especially when seen against all those glittering sleek watches and heavily decorated large dial watches. The price was phenomenally low and Shibu was hooked not only by the beauty of it but also by the price. When he bought that watch he did not know that he was going to collect more than twenty mechanical HMT wrist watches, which were released under different sub-names.

We do not know whether our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru considered the maximum ‘time is money’ too seriously or not. However, we know for sure that Nehru wanted to take India to the next level of modernity by establishing several industries. Hindustan Machine Tools was one such industry that was meant to produce tractors, machine parts and other mechanical tools. In 1961, in collaboration with the Japanese watch producer, Citizen Co., HMT started producing wrist watches and Nehru released the first batch of the mechanical wrist watches in the same year. The company went into expansion mode till mid 1980s and became one of the biggest watch producers in the country. But due to various reasons including the lack of enthusiasm to compete with the other watch makers, HMT watches became less cool. But during the first three decades of its inception, HMT had produced a lot of interesting hand wound wrist watches under different brand names. Janata is one of the most famous brands of HMT watches and I wear one such watch gifted by Shibu last year. Shibu travels any length to find out whether any small watch shop still keeps the hand wound HMT watches. Some days he rides his green Enfield Bullet more than hundred kilometers combing each and every street in several southern districts for HMT watches. Sometimes his search has taken him across the state borders within one day. After collecting almost all the hand wound brands of HMT watches, now he is on a hunt for a brand called ‘Jawhar’.

Shibu’s interest in HMT watches does not end up with collecting several watches from the same company. He has more or less studied the whole history of the HMT Company and also has made connections with the major show rooms in India. He is also familiar with the facebook groups that promote old and cool watches. To my surprise he told me that most of the HMT watch collectors were young IT men and they were very active in the social networking groups for promoting and collecting HMT watches. His incessant combing operations have brought him many friends who are equally interested in watches not only as sellers but also as mechanics and collectors. Interestingly, Shibu has found out that the HMT Company has outlets even in the major post offices in India from where even you could send HMT watches as gifts to people!

(A view of Thiruvannamalai town, with the Arunachala temple in the middle. It is where we hunted for more HMT watches)

In Thiruvannamalai, our walking expeditions are punctuated by the visits to every watch shop. Shibu asks the same question in every shop; Do you have mechanical HMT wrist watches? Some of them show us the cell-powered HMT watches, which are obviously designed to give a competition to other watch makers. But we are not looking for those new and trendy watches. Shibu wants this particular ‘Jawahar’ watch and none has it. One of them tells him to come back after a couple of days and without fail we reach that small shop on the stipulated day only to find the man who has promised the watch missing indefinitely. Someone gives us a wrong address to find out an exclusive watch shop and we end up walking at least two kilometers without find it and finally we come back to the same spot from we set off for that shop only to find out that the shop stands right there a few paces away to our right. But that exclusive shop also fails to satisfy Shibu’s hunger for a particular HMT watch. He promises me that he would continue his search till he finds out the Jawahar brand and feels his mechanical wrist watch collection complete.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Travelers in a Storyland

(Shibu Natesan sketching a Lambadi tribe girl)

Stories of travelers, especially when recounted by travelers themselves, evoke a lot of curiosity, respect and admiration amongst the listeners. Travel worn people gather around food or anything that make them warm, and share their experiences; often these stories retold amongst the peer group of travelers are often taken in silence. If there is a fool in the tavern or inn who is just there to entertain people, at some stage even he would turn silent for he too knows for sure that even the best of his histrionic abilities would not match up with the hardship undergone by these travelers. When heard by a young woman, from behind the curtain of her father’s house, even the moor’s complexion turns fair and lovely too. With each word that he utters, her heart skips a beat, in anxiety she shivers, in a passion she burns and obviously she would fall in love with him as she comes to understand the scars on his body as experiences of life. There are people who come to the taverns in order to tell the story, in order to make others tell it. He may not be a shrink who helps others to shed their inhibitions by recalling their dreadful pasts. But by revealing his own sad stories, he makes them cry and crying is infectious; it makes the witness to cry. Tears and laughter possess people like the fragrance of Arabian scents. They toss people like ships caught in storms. May be the end of each journey also would bring tears without words. I ask why I shed silent tears when I was about to leave the Old (prayer) Hall in Ramanashram in Thirivannamalai? Did I listen to the stories that Ramana Maharshi was telling me on those days of my sojourn there with my beloved friend, Shibu Natesan?

By now at least a few of you might have recognized the references that I have just used in the first paragraph. Andrei Rublov of Tarkovsky, Othello of Shakespeare and Zahir of Paulo Coelho. I could have said a title and then said ‘by’ so and so. I avoid using ‘by’ here because I want to make the characters referred here belong to the authors who had created them. Characters are free once they are rendered on paper and they don’t belong to the author anymore once his purpose of narration is over. But somehow I want to make the characters, incidents, pictures and everything, belong to somebody; an author. It is easy to declare the death of an author. It is easy to say that the sign and signified are different. It is easy to say that meaning changes according to the reader. But at times, I think the author need to be alive and be attached with his character. I think it is the time to revive the dead author. An author should live even if the Romeos must die. Theoretical facilities have helped us in coordinating revolutions both in speech and deed, and in class room and in the market place, yet sing and signified are tied together in an invisible relationship. They are like a couple about to be divorced or divorced for long, but still thinking about wrecking revenge on each other. Hence, I want to recount the story of my journey with Shibu to the places that I had never been before, keeping the authorial voice intact. I do not want to be invisible; I want to be present and gradually fade. Initially the author speaks for the work of art and years later, works of art speak for the author. It is the fate of the author to belong to the work of art that he has created once for all. Remember one could sire an emperor as well as a pauper.

(Myself at Shibu's Studio. pic by Shibu Natesan)

This trip has been over due; the trip to Thiruvannamalai. Each time I was invited to visit the place by friends who have already settled there, I thought the time was not right. Nothing was preventing me from going there. Friends have inviting, their hospitality has been legendary and attractive stories about the place have been abundant. It was almost a decade back that I came to know about Thiruvannamalai from Shibu. May be I knew about the place and I knew about Ramana Maharshi. Shibu had said that he gave thousands of rupees to the mendicants who frilled the roads of Thiruvannamalai with saffron clothes, dreadlocks and pleas for alms. I thought that was obscene; spending thousands of rupees on beggars was a bit too much for me. Then the times were different. People in the art scene had a lot of money and when there is a lot of hard cash in your hand, it is imperative to find avenues to send them adequately. You do not feel like giving it away on charity back at home or elsewhere because you always feel that they do not deserve that charity and even you are afraid that the charity spent back at home could be taken for arrogance. So it is always good to spend on beggars who really need it as they do not do much of work other than saying an occasional ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ with folded hands. Beggars and dogs remember people very well. As I walk along the streets of Thiruvannamalai with him, I experience his popularity amongst the beggars, first hand. They have matured and he too has matured. Today he does not flow money to their hands; he is discreet. But he is very caring when he talks to the mendicants. They know him. And some of them, he says, are not seen anymore there. They have vanished; they may be dead or gone to the better places for begging.

Charity could have been the last thing to goad to me to Thiruvannamalai. I thought the calling had not yet come. So the postponement was natural. Besides, I am not a born-traveler. I do not ‘enjoy’ my trips to the lands hitherto unknown to me. I do not get excited by new experiences. Therefore the idea of travelling is a bit tiresome for me. However, this time the call came, with full force. I had no other way than going to the place, that too with the person who told me first time about it and had promised once that we would travel together when time and opportunity came. The call initially came from EtP, Ekalokam Trust for Photography, led by noted photography artist, Abul Kalam Azad. But somehow, it did not work out though it was a temporary postponement. Then came the call of Shibu, and this time it was hard to resist. When I reached Trivandrum, Shibu was already on trip to North Kerala and Karnataka with the noted novelist and essayist, P.Surendran. They visited Shravanabelagola in Karantaka and the surrounding areas in the Bellari District where Shibu extensively sketched the people from the Lambardi tribe. Shibu had driven his Gypsy car all the way and was pretty much tired when he came back home. When I visited him at his home, Chithralayam (House of Painting/s) at Attingal, he was not in a mood to drive again. Hence we decided to travel by bus. The original plan was to drive together but considering the nature of travel and the chosen destination, we decided to take a Volvo bus to Thiruvannamalai.

(Novelist P.Surendran in a Karnataka village, pic by Shibu Natesan)

We needed some warming up exercises before we undertook the journey.  Between us warming up could happen at any time with simple conversations which often go for hours. May be we are two people who could talk to each other for hours without feeling the need to stop. Generally we talk about art, art related events, people and little bit of gossip. We discuss grave topics at times and without any effort switch to things really mundane and comical. We have this penchant for pulling each other’s legs for no reason and it saves us from bitching about others. When we feel the urge to bitch we bitch against each other. We make comical gestures of physical fighting, but from safe distances and go into silence without any warning. He takes up a sketch pad and sketch at times, when I pick up a book and read. Sometimes, we watch rains lashing at the trees and plants and at other times he gets up to make some tea, exotic tea bags dipped in hot water. We sit and sip tea and ruminate about our destinies aloud. Sometimes he feels that he has a huge studio and now he does not want such a huge studio as he enjoys more working in the open, drawing, sketching and painting people and places, objects and things or taking photographs just for the heck of it. Shibu’s photographs are aesthetically perfect and they show a painter’s touch. Upon a query, he told someone that he never would like to be known as a photography artist. May be this statement of his could console so many souls that exclusively subsist on photography. When he talks about the size of the studio, I think of my whole possession in the world; a bag of clothes and a lap top. We, two friends, rather brothers, stand at two opposite poles in our material circumstances. It must be one of the reasons why we have always been drawn to each other.  We are similar in many ways and dissimilar in too many other ways.

Our journey was supposed to start on 7th August 2014. We had three days in hand before that. So we decided to explore the nearby places. Though it was not a scheduled and chartered exploratory trip and there was no timeline created for such extempore expressions of our corporeal bodies, time was one important factor for us. This time, however time manifested in form of HMT watches. Anybody who enjoyed their first watch in the pre-liberal India would remember this brand name, HMT. There are a few stories that connect Shibu and myself with HMT watches. Yes, today, I wear an HMT watch gifted to me by Shibu himself almost a year before. But that alone does not suffice the story. I think our story of HMT watches demand a full chapter. You may wait for it in the next chapter. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Journey to the Unknown

I was a believer. Then I became a non-believer. When you believe too much in anything, it is natural that you start doubting it at some stage. When you disbelieve in something for a long time, you tend to believe in it. Love starts like that; from a sort of aversion it becomes something that cannot be separated. Extremes are there always in life. There are people who always cherish a midway. They are safe; they are there to win. They are there to go a long way. There was time when people who believed in extremes were adulated. Today, the wheel has turned. If you are extreme in anything, you are despised, avoided and ostracized. You may not be called an extremist. But your extremism would bring you no friends. Ironically, even the so called extremists make friends today. That is called international networking. Without networking, extremism cannot flourish. A thing that used to flourish without networking was love. Today love also needs networking to flourish. People want to stay connected. People want to be in touch. People do not want to talk, converse and even remain silent in the presence of each other. People just want to be in touch. What’s up?

My mind is not calm. I do not believe in anything. I believe in love and I suffer. They say, people move from one thing to another, one destination to another, one song to another, one art form to another, one person to another, one way of meditating to another in search of peace and happiness. Who actually wants happiness? None wants happiness. We all need a little bit of sorrow in order to understand the value of life. But we need peace. It is the only way to understand and indentify both happiness and sorrow. I need peace. I do not want to give it a chance. Like any other ordinary human being I want peace to be my permanent state of mind. If one is searching for that, I am sure you are not going to get it. You have to go through this; this disturbance and sorrow in order to realize calmness and happiness. It is a process; without one the other does not exist. To acknowledge the other is the best to way to recognize one’s own self. And I do not want to get into that bullshitting of Indian spirituality and its clich├ęd jargon.

Despite all disturbances in me, despite all skepticism in me and despite all that turmoil that I am going through today, I am going to a place where they say one could transform. They do not assure me calmness. They do not assure me happiness. But they assure me that if you are receptive enough you could change because this place is the place of change. They say, it is a dhyana bhoomi, a place to meditate. Oh, I do not like the word meditation. Let me say, it is a place to concentrate, focus and be silent. Good. They say again, it is not a karma bhoomi. It is not a place to do things. It is not a place of action. It is not a war filed. It is a landscape filled with vibrations of purity. Purity? That does not mean that you need to act like a pious being. Pious beings also err and they err in the most ridiculous fashion and they regret their acts in the rest of their lives. So you need not be pious. You just need to be open and see. You just need to be there, inhaling and exhaling, the way you do otherwise. You could go to this place like the way you go to a market, a mall, or a film theatre, or a library. You could change even in these places.

For me, the best place is of contemplation is graveyards. I love to be in graveyards. Romantic poets used to spend their time in graveyards, contemplating on the meaning of life and also the meaningfulness of death. I am not a romantic poet; but there is a romantic in me who wants to be away from the din of daily life. Hence, I am attracted to graveyards, just the way some people are attracted to cliffs, from where they feel like taking a plunge to the unknown, without any flying aid. It is suicidal. But life itself is a suicidal act. So I am going to a place where I think there would be graveyards that would make me calm. I want to be inert. I want to listen and I want to recount. I want to write to my beloved from there about the scenes I would see, the songs I would hear and the visions, I hope, I would have. I have my beloved’s heart and mind with me. I have my beloved’s eternal body with me. I have the goddess with me. So this journey is with my goddess. My another journey to the unknown. 

(pic by Anil Nellivila)