T r e a d Softly... YOU MIGHT TRIP ON TEXT

Saturday, December 12, 2015

yesterday on the terrace as night fed small but sparkling stars,
a mighty cloud formation of lush lips parted in a sigh;
but even as i looked they transformed, mutated,
the upper lip became an eagle with spreading wings,
the lower, a struggling tiger clutched in its talons.
i watched in wonder, believing my eyes this time
only because, after the floods last week, i know

these clouds are capable of anything.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


lovers threw passion to the winds
and artists snatched colours from the seine
drowning unhurried lives in love and fame;
remember then those stories you weaved
rise, paris, and regain what you lived for then...

Friday, July 17, 2015

and this post. 
last week's literary review for the sunday herald (deccan herald):

Parisian war saga


Lead review

Modiano has been called the poet of the Occupation. Both these novellas (part of an Occupation trilogy) are set during the Second World War when Paris was occupied and life was on the edge — a dizzy whirl of danger, booze, languor and apathetic sex; and teetering on the middle rungs of a dubious social ladder the characters are trying to climb, not always with an idea of where they’re going or in what condition they’ll reach. The line of the law is thin and ambiguous. Prostitution, gun-running, drugs and sordid power games are the norm.

Now that he’s Nobel Laureate 2014, Modiano is accessible enough to show the world why he should be viewed as a voice to be heard beyond French literature. Aptly translated, the books could do with another stint of proofreading.

Originally published in 1969, The Night Watch is about a man who steps nimbly on both sides of the divide — the Resistance as well as the French Gestapo. Until he sort of oversteps. He is the enfant terrible of the Resistance hunted by the police, and in a Modiano overturn, is set to become his own hunter.

The book begins with a typical (now that I’ve read both the books) Modiano scene of putrid decadence, men with sunken cheeks and “puff bloated” bags under the eyes, women whose make-up “begins to crack”. Members of the police are planning a crackdown on the Resistance even as the garishly dressed bitterati around them drink, dance and flirt with vapid disenchantment.

And pathetically talk of trying to palm off their black market wares. Outside their walls, everything is scarce and expensive, life is a struggle. Listening to them, we know why. Our protagonist is already on the crest of his double game. As these men and women drag on with their sticky enjoyments, corrupt members of the Gestapo are seeking crucial names from him. Brutality meets bored promiscuity. Everything happens in the same place, the bizarre is woven into Modiano’s poetry of loss and memory. 

The narrator has sent his mother to safety in Lausanne, there’s no saying what awaits him. He plans to join her for a better life, though changing tracks at this stage doesn’t look likely. He talks of protecting two people, a red-haired giant and a “tiny little slip of a girl” (who could also be an old lady). He imagines leaving them on their own, betraying their trust. “But nothing compares to the infinite relief you feel as the body goes limp and slowly sinks. This is as true of water torture as it is of the kind of betrayal that involves abandoning someone in the night when you have promised to return.”

What’s the point of such a life? You’re neither here nor there, belong to no one, follow a relentless path of inevitability that gives you no joy at all. The true depth of existential angst! “...you have gained nothing in this life but the whirlwind you let yourself be caught up in.” He doesn’t really know the truth of people around him. Or of himself either. Is he double agent? Triple agent? There’s a trick of presenting images, facts and memories that blow away like bubbles or fade out to reappear elsewhere in barely recognisable form. The final drive through Paris is departure in many ways.

In a sense the second book, Ring Roads, balances out the overall rootlessness of the first. Here, the protagonist searches for and finds his father among a group of (once again decadent) people surviving on the ills of society, steeped in anti-Semitism, people who make use of his father, abuse him openly and would like to see him ultimately destroyed.

The son doesn’t disclose his identity but follows him like a shadow, watching as his father gets closer to people who want him destroyed. (“I cannot remember a single word we said…A father and son probably have little to say to each other.”) And this is the same father who once tried (or didn’t) to push him under a speeding train!

Nevertheless, the son is prepared to give up his life for him. When the man is beaten up, he rushes forward, disclosing his identity when he could have quietly walked away. This steadfastness is probably a given in both protagonists, though one emerges as a hero to our jaded reader’s eye because of his stated filial goal, and the other falls because of the amoral place he inhabits. 

The straightforward descriptions are sometimes more surreal than images that have you blinking through the mist. This is Modiano. He works like an illusionist only to bring you an abstract truth, to give you the essence of time, character. Morality surfaces in the most immoral soil. Happiness is never where you think it is. Vivid descriptions turn out to be the woodwork of an impermanent structure. All that you think is simple narrative in Modiano is thus grist for your imagination long after you’ve set aside the books.

The Night Watch, Ring Roads
Patrick Modiano
2015, pp 130, 146, Rs 299 each

friday children's story for young world, the hindu, july 17, 2015

Holiday with witch No. 16

It was dark when they reached the traveller’s bungalow. Hamsini’s mother looked glum. Hamsini had grumbled throughout the drive that her butter biscuits were missing. And her father kept complaining because she hadn’t packed his favourite green T-shirt.
 “We only go for a holiday once a year,” her mother pleaded, “at least let’s be happy now.”
The traveller’s bungalow was old and falling to pieces. There was nothing else for miles around. Hamsini and her father complained in chorus. The caretaker was equally old.
Time to unwind
“Nice to see human beings in this place,” he said. He switched on the lights. “It’s as bright as sunlight!” said her mother happily.
Later, Hamsini sat reading her favourite book, The Day The Painting Came Alive. Suddenly she felt the lights getting even brighter!
Curiously, she got up and examined the switchboard. All the plug-holes had plugs that went nowhere at all.
“Strange!” she said. As she was about to pull out a plug, the old caretaker appeared from nowhere at all. “Please don’t do that! Never pull a plug in this house!”
That made Hamsini even more determined. When he’d left, she started pulling at it. The plug was stuck hard. She began to sweat. Finally, it came out in her hand. There was a terrific Whoosh! Thick blue smoke rushed from the plug-hole. Hamsini moved back in horror. The smoke curled and twisted itself into weird shapes. It became thicker and thicker until finally a large blue woman, old, bent and dried-up, stood before her. Her nose was half the size of her face. Hamsini stifled a scream.
She took a huge breath and said, “Who-who-who are you-you-you---”
The old blue woman said, “I’m the lady from Witchboard No. 16.” Her voice sounded exactly like the wind that whistled through the window blinds in her father’s study.
“You can call me Witch No. 16.”
Hamsini stared at her in a daze.
The old woman said urgently, “Let’s go out for a while. I want to feel the fresh air! I’ve only half an hour before getting back.”
The little girl and the old woman slipped out through the front door. There was a happy cackle.
“I’m free! I’m free!” Witch No. 16 jumped and gamboled like a young lamb.
“You don’t look so old now,” said Hamsini.
“Because I’m fully charged!” the witch screeched.
She said there were 130 witches in the house, all living in plug-holes. “This house is the Witchboard Headquarters,” she explained. “It’s lonely and far away from TV satellite dishes and mobile phone towers, so we are left undisturbed by all those foul things in our air-waves. Every time someone visits, the caretaker allows one witch at a time to come out and taste the fresh air.”
Hamsini said, “But the old man said not to pull the plugs!”
“And did you listen?” chortled the witch. “He knows little girls!”
After a while, Hamsini said, “I’m feeling cold. I want to go back inside.”
“Aww, please! I come out only once a year. Don’t spoil it for me!”
“You sound just like my mother,” grumbled Hamsini. “She too keeps saying that.”
“Then you should probably listen to her,” said Witch No. 16. “Some people work hard for other people. But when they want to have a good time, everyone shuts them up. Is your mother like that?”
“This is her holiday,” said Hamsini. She suddenly felt sorry for her mother. “We—my father and I—we keep grumbling.”
“See?” said Witch No. 16 sternly. “She does everything for you. And when she wants to enjoy herself, you grumble-grumble-grumble! Let this be a lesson to you. From an old blue witch who knows what it is to be shut up for a year.” Hamsini had tears in her eyes. She nodded silently.
In half an hour the witch had finished her fun and her energy as well. She looked tired and was almost turning into blue smoke once again. “My charge is gone, let’s go back,” she said weakly. “It’s time for the plug-hole.”
The morning after
Next morning they got up early and were ready to go.
As they drove away from the traveller’s bungalow, Hamsini said, “I had the best time in the world. Thanks, Mom!”
Her father said, “I like that! I do all the work and you thank her!”
Hamsini replied, “Have you heard of Witch No. 16 from the plug-hole?”
“Are you crazy?” asked her father.
“No, I’m not. But you should really get to know her. Then you’ll understand.”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

this is a piece written for a "little book"
called Serendipity brought out by artist Anuradha Nalapat
a couple of years ago

Writing events to life

we had a guru in the family during my middle school days. His legacy was a sense of preparedness. It left me aware of and open to the fact that everything is possible in life. Armed with the spirituality and wonder of life that he exposed us to I soon realized most of us live as partial human beings. We undermine ourselves. We either ignore or reject our potential. Actually, nothing is impossible. We just have to learn to connect with the universe we’re part of.
Years later, sitting at home with my family during power failures, I entranced my children by making them count to three and, lo! There’d be light. It soon became an accepted fact that I could do this, and
I was wise enough to attempt the feat only when I felt ‘sure,’ rather than make it a habitual display. I had a vague idea that it was this connectedness with the universe that made such things possible. You think of a person and he calls or lands up at your door. You meet someone who’s been out of your life for years, and then keep bumping into him again and again as if by design. A niece of mine dreamed every night for an entire week in vivid detail, and every single one of her dreams came true the following day! A serial dreamer, okay. But projecting your dreams into life? Well...
Sensitivity and a sense of self does strange things to you sometimes. You are aware that you- this being on two legs, seeing the world through two small pin- holes in your face-are living an entire life,
making things happen and impinging on other people’s lives. One day, you’ll close those eyes forever, and life as you know it will end. You look around and see the grand memorials, sky-scrapers, beautiful gardens and massive business empires and admire the sheer guts of people who could envisage and make such things happen during their lifetimes.

Is there a Grand Plan? Are you an invaluable part of that plan?

When I wrote my first novel, Lament of Mohini (Penguin,2000), there was a scene where
a member of a royal family goes into a Namboodiri home (or illam) and makes love to a beautiful married woman there. On the face of it, this is impossible. Namboodiri women (during the times I was talking of) entered a house as a bride and left it as a corpse. If ever they went out, they were
hidden by yards of cloth and an ubiquitous umbrella. So how would my hero meet my heroine? There was no way a stranger could meet a woman in an illam, much less make love to her! I thought about it and hatched a plan. There would be a Kathakali performance in the illam and the royal family members would be invited.

During the performance, my protagonist would have a headache and return to his room in the guest- house. There’d be a storm that night. Our man would fall sleep, get up after some time, venture out into the night to catch the rest of the performance, and lose his way. He’d wander into a bath-house where the woman was enjoying a wild, nocturnal swim. And they meet!

Months after the book was launched, I watched a travel programme on a Malayalam channel and they were talking of a true-life encounter between a woman in an illam and an outsider. The venue was a bath-house! Even the name of the woman was the same as my heroine’s. It left me stunned. I had never entered an illam before I wrote the book. I based my descriptions on a four-volume memoir of my wife’s great-uncle. When I actually visited an illam after the book was in the press, I found that my descriptions were eerily accurate, down to the last detail.

In the same book, there’s a scene of someone break- ing into a temple at night and making away with an idol. A couple of months later, in two separate incidents, temples were broken into and the idols stolen. One was in the temple in my father’s ancestral home, and the other in my wife’s family temple, both models for my fictional landscape!

After Lament of Mohini, I started writing Maria’s Room, though it was published (by Harper Collins) almost a decade later. There’s an incident in the police station in Goa where my protagonist had travelled on a writing holiday. He finds the corpse of his beloved among the grave-stones in an old
cemetery and rushes to the station to convince a sceptical inspector to accompany him there.

Two days later, I found myself sitting in a police station talking to an inspector about the body of my young niece who had drowned in the sea near their house. It was as if a momentary darkness from the book had seeped inexorably into my own life.

My wife says that I get so involved in my writing that I reflect every emotion I write about. She’s wary about my subjects and gets jittery when I write dark events. Invariably, some of it seeps into real life. My third play, Platform, lay waiting for some months before a director picked it up. The play was appreciated and drew some brilliant performances. During the cast party at the director’s house one rainy afternoon, the male lead (who’s now gone on to do feature films) took me aside. He said, “I’ve been wanting to tell you this for some time. It’s amazing, there’s such a marked resemblance between my life and that of the character you wrote for me. No one knows that part of me, but you’ve been so accurate!”

I patiently explained to him that I hadn’t written the character for him. I hadn’t even known who was go- ing to direct the play, much less who was going to act in it!

I have now got used to the fact that my writing may precipitate or reflect events without any help from me. I’ve come across people who’ve lived the lives and moments that I’ve described while sitting in the privacy of my room. I think creativity is a link between ourselves and the universe. What awakens in us might have gone to sleep in some part of the universe, or vice-versa.

Shreekumar Varma
Author, playwright, columnist and poet

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Mendicant- Avatar 3

this is a story i wrote in the 80s for Chandamama's The Heritage. noted Oriya writer Manoj Das was the editor. those days i would go and sit in the Chandamama office to edit a Rotary magazine. i met many great and interesting people in the office of Chandamama's editor and dear friend Viswanatha Reddi, Nagi Reddi's son. that also being the site of cinema's greatest triumphs, Vijaya-Vauhini studios and the breath of creativity still coating the air, it was a magical time. i wrote a couple of articles and one more story for The Heritage.

the mendicant got so many positive responses that when The Hindu and The Madras Players announced an all-India competition for plays, i wrote a play based on this old story of mine. it won first prize and got me seriously interested in writing for theatre. the play was Bow of Rama. it was directed by Noshir Ratnagar, a noble, wonderful director who passed away recently.

third time unlucky, though! when Manu Dash, editor of the Dhauli Review asked me to send him a story for its 5th edition, i sent him this one with a note about its previous avatars. he wrote back saying he has preserved all copies of The Heritage and he remembers reading this story: "30 years back. Old memories."
so i sent him an unpublished story, In The Name Of The Father.

this is the mendicant, avatar 3 as blog:

The Mendicant

A mendicant appeared in our temple one day.

He was dark and emaciated, and looked substantial only because of his long matted hair and beard. He held a trident in one hand and a begging bowl in the other. He wore a loin-cloth and his face and body were covered with ash.

I was reclining in the rickshaw waiting for the children to come out from school. It was a bright afternoon and I could hear the scream of the train passing four kilometers away. A hot breeze blew dust and bits of paper along the road. I sighed and wiped the sweat off my face. The entire village was sitting and waiting for rain.

People were commenting on the sadhu. “Now where has he come from? All sorts of people walk into our village nowadays!”

“He must be a holy man with powers. You remember that one who came two years ago?”
“All fraud! Come to fill his belly at the expense of our gullible fellows.”
“Great-uncle says he’s an avatar of Shiva.”

“Your great-uncle is like that. He thinks everyone is an avatar. That day he was showing me some large footprints behind his house saying they’re Shiva’s. Tell me, does Shiva have nowhere else to go? Does he think Shiva is a giant? I told him it’s only Kandan, that wrestler from Pandi, but will he listen?”

I lay back lazily listening to all this talk. I could hear the children playing and shouting beyond the school wall. Those two would soon be here. If they hadn’t been regulars I would have arranged another rickshaw for them. Chandran the fat one was all ready and waiting for anyone he could get. But it was a question of my daily bread.

I took out a bidi from behind my ear and lit it. My mouth was dry and the smoke felt sharp and bitter. Before I could finish the bidi there was a roar and the children were rushing out. I threw it away and sat up. Finally they came up holding their school-bags, Arun the plump little boy and his elder sister Baby who was in the fourth.

They seemed shy and slow in the midst of the noisy battalion. I helped the boy up and then we were off.

Their father Panikkar lived in a large ancestral house half a mile away. His wife’s family had lived in the village for hundreds of years and now Panikkar looked after their landed property and wealth. He was also the managing trustee of the school. As the children jumped off, their mother Revathy Amma appeared in the nalukettu. 

“Come, Chellappan, stop by and have some buttermilk,” she said and called out to a servant.

I dismounted, untied the towel from my head and wiped my arms and face. Revathy Amma disappeared inside with her children. She was a quiet gentle woman unlike her husband who had a nasty temper and a lot of power. Nobody in the village dared to cross him. His brother was the District Collector and lived fifteen miles away in Kottayam. Panikkar’s favourite threat was: “I’ll send word to my brother and then you’ve had it.” 

As a result of this the entire village looked upon the Collector as some sort of demon who could be unleashed at a word from Panikkar. Only a few had ever seen the Collector, but there grew a legend around him. “He’s six feet tall and bald-headed. His arms are like columns of iron.” Someone else said, “He has a one-foot moustache that sticks out like wings. His eyes are terrible. One look, and you’re paralysed.”

But there was one man in the village who had more contempt than fear for Panikkar. That was the timberman. I don’t know his real name, but everybody called him Mudalali, the Boss. He had a saw mill and a couple of lorries and was believed to be one of the wealthiest men in the area. The saw mill was the noisiest thing in our village and sometimes the high-pitched whine continued late into the night. Some people tried to get him to shift the site, but the only effect this had was the appearance of yet another shed next to it equipped with a similar machine.

Mudalali and Panikkar were always at loggerheads. There must have been some previous enmity. I have heard that they were actually brothers, Panikkar being the legitimate son, but I can’t say if this is true. Another story had it that Mudalali had been in love with Revathy Amma from the time they were children and he resented this man from outside who came and took her away. Anyway, the village was divided into three: Panikkar’s supporters, Mudalali’s supporters and those who remained neutral like me. I drove Panikkar’s children to school and back every day, and every week when the theatre on the road to Mankavu village changed shows, I took Mudalali’s wife and her sister and their children for the evening show. I suppose no-one felt I was important enough to be exclusively won over.

Seethakutty came down with the buttermilk. She laughed and said, “How’re you keeping, Chellappan?” as if she were my grandmother. Seethakutty was only fourteen and always laughing.

It was a large glass. I took my time and then handed it back to her. As I turned to go, she frowned and shook her head and said gravely, “Terrible things are going to happen here.”

“And what would they be, Madam?” I bowed my head in mock servility.
She jerked her head towards the house. “He and Mudalali are fighting in the school committee. Mudalali is also standing this year. God knows what will happen.”
“What will happen? One of them will win, that’s all.”
“Yes, but there’ll be a fight before that. Both are strong. No-one has ever opposed him before. Raghu chettan of Thekke Muttam says there’ll be a war. I’m really scared.”
“Nothing for you to be scared about. They won’t come after little girls like you! And just what are you up to with Raghu of Thekke Muttam?”

Seethakutty blushed and ran. But there was some truth in her prediction. Each side was sharpening its knives and discussing strategies and looking very important. When two members of the rival groups met, they snorted and spat contemptuously on the ground and walked away, or called each other names which, of course, was a prelude to a fight. 

Over the next two weeks tension mounted though there were no serious fights as far as I know. I didn’t bother too much about these rivalries because I like to keep sane as much as possible. There was no question of justice or rights involved here, just the whims and fancies of two stubborn men.

Two days later, I was sitting in the rickshaw waiting for the Kottayam bus to come when Chandran the fat one said, “That swami in the temple is no ordinary one, you know. He doesn’t speak or eat.”
“Doesn’t eat? Then how does he live?”
“I don’t know. Some of these holy men are like that. They come down from the Himalayas and they don’t eat at all.”
“I don’t believe it. Who told you?”
“Everybody’s talking about him. He stays in the temple all day and night.”

The swami was indeed turning out to be a mystery. As days passed, no one could get a word out of him and he would touch nothing that was offered to him. If anyone persisted in questioning him, his eyeballs vanished upwards and he made deep sounds in his throat. “He’s burping,” a young man said. “He must be filling his stomach after nightfall.”
“No, no,” said another. “He’s chanting Om, Om, Om. He’s taken a vow to say nothing else.”

I posted myself inconspicuously at the temple to test these theories. After about three hours I was thoroughly bored. He sat immobile and I heard him utter nothing more than those rumbling indecipherable sounds. I thought, perhaps these Himalayan swamis are different from our local ones.

Nothing seemed to affect him. In the evening, quite a few of the devotees who came to pray at the temple gathered around him and sang bhajans and chanted the Lord’s name. Several elderly people and women poured out their problems to him. He remained silent, staring unblinkingly at them. A retired schoolmaster said, “He doesn’t say a word, but there’s something strong and impressive about his posture.”

A sharp-tongued old lady circumambulating the sanctum caught sight of him and cried out: “It’s disgraceful, you can’t allow people to come naked into the temple!”

And in the afternoon, a crowd of young unemployed men whiled away their time making fun of him. But our sadhu might as well have been deaf. He sat like a stone statue, paying no heed to them. Only once did he falter. A young man said, “Show me your snake and the poison in your throat. Where is Ganga? Loosen your hair and let’s see! They say you’re Shiva.”

“Oh, he’s quarrelled with Ganga. That’s why he’s come down here.”
“Better be careful of him. Could be a cannibal. That’s why he refuses fruit and rice. No-one’s safe with him around!”

At that instant I noticed a pained look in his eyes, of a creature tormented beyond tolerance. Does he understand Malayalam, I thought-- or perhaps, there’s nothing he doesn’t understand.

As I said, two weeks passed in this way, with minor quarrels which were for the most part verbal, and the swami attracted a larger crowd every day. On the day of the election more than half the village gathered in front of the school. Baby and Arun sat on one side of the verandah dispassionately licking ice-creams while Revathy Amma hid herself in a corner. On the other side sat Mudalali’s family looking triumphant and confident of a win. I heard that some of the supporters had even sought the blessings of the swami.

A six-year old boy with a cloth bag ran nimbly through the crowd selling peanuts. A stall had sprung up selling lime-juice. It was a terrible day to be locked up in a crowd. Everyone was sweating. Many were fanning themselves with sheets of paper. I hoped the heat wouldn’t trigger off anyone’s temper. An important looking man with glasses walked around peering intently at people’s faces. “That’s a reporter from Kottayam,” Chandran told me. This challenge to the long-held post in the school committee was attracting a lot of outside attention as well.

Suddenly someone shouted, “The Collector’s coming!” There was a hush and then the cry was taken up. And sure enough, a jeep tumbled down the stony path followed by an Ambassador. A uniformed policeman jumped out of the jeep and ran to open the door of the car. Everyone waited impatiently to see this man of legend, the Collector, the brother of Panikkar.

A small harmless looking man in a cotton jubba and dark glasses came out of the car and waded through the crowd without looking at anyone. The policeman followed, shaking his stick at the curious onlookers pressing in. A schoolboy’s voice rang out loudly in the silence: “This is not the Collector. They’ve sent someone else by mistake.” The crowd murmured agreement, equally disappointed, then burst into laughter to let out their tension. The Collector walked straight into the school building, nodded briefly at his sister-in-law and rushed inside. The policeman followed, shutting the door behind him.

It was a long wait for the results though there were only ten or twelve people on the committee. By five, half the crowd had melted away. I found a cool spot under a tree and spread my towel and sat down with Chandran. At 5.30, one of Panikkar’s men burst open the door and shouted, “He has won! Long live Panikkar saar!” A section of the crowd cheered robustly while others began to boo and jeer.

In the melee that followed one of Mudalali’s men approached me. “You have to take Amma and the children home. Quickly.” Mudalali’s wife, a fat lady with a grim expression, and her children were standing behind him. I hurried away to get the rickshaw.

The ride to Mudalali’s house was in utter silence. Only once did I hear a small voice: “Why did Father lose, Ammey?” This was followed by a pregnant pause and then the small voice began to whimper. I pedalled on diligently. When I got back to the school it was completely dark. The sky was growling ominously and there were flashes of lightning. There were a few people still standing around. I found Chandran. “Any trouble?”

“No, but there will be. Now they say Panikkar brought a man from somewhere to cast a spell on Mudalali. That’s why he lost. And not only that, Mudalali’s son is ill because of his evil influence.”
I laughed. “He lost because he couldn’t bribe the members as much as Panikkar did. And the boy has a running stomach because he was stuffing himself with jackfruit yesterday. I know, I saw him.”
“That’s what they say.”
“They mean the mendicant in the temple?”
“Yes, I think so,” Chandran said.
“I must see if he’s all right.” I got back into the rickshaw. I don’t think I’ve driven the rickshaw so fast in my entire life.

The rain began as I rushed into the temple. The pooja was over and the people coming out scattered for shelter. The sadhu was nowhere to be found. Even the priest couldn’t tell me anything.

Finally, after searching for nearly forty-five minutes, I came upon him under a tree not far from the school wall. He was bleeding into a puddle of water and lay as if dead. I shook him and called out. His eyes opened and from his throat there came that familiar rumbling sound, emerging from the pit of his stomach. Turning my face away from the beating rain I pulled him up and said, “Please come with me.” But he could hardly walk. I propped him up and half-dragged, half-carried him to the rickshaw. For a skinny man he weighed a lot. I took him home.

For three days and three nights he lay in a stupor. When he regained consciousness I tried to talk to him, but there was no indication that he’d ever been initiated into human conversation. I disregarded his Himalayan habits and fed him rice gruel and tapioca.

On the fifth day, as I lifted his head on to my lap and fed him steaming gruel, uttering soothing words when he moaned in pain, he suddenly looked up at me and smiled. The smile shone through all that dirty unkempt hair and lit up his eyes. It was his sole expression of gratitude and then it vanished.

But that evening when I returned home I found him gone. I never saw him again.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

In my opinion...

Oct 19, 2014 :
On the Blindside

Dh Illustration

There’s a war out there, a war of words, where everyone feels they have to voicean opinion about an opinion. Innocuous statements being misconstrued is commonplace now. Seems like if there’s one right that we all love to exercise,it is the right to take offence, writes SHREEKUMAR VARMA.

There was a time people resettling or moving to Kerala did it on the sly. You’d arrive at night and quietly get your own people to unload your furniture and arrange it in the house. For there was always a zealous group of loaders waiting to get their hands on your things, whether you wanted their help or not. And they’d have to be paid, whether they actually loaded or not. They belonged to associations, and acted as if it was their right to load other people’s things for them. And if they weren’t allowed this right, they had the right to take offence and retaliate.

Sadly, despite your quietest moves, they still found you out!

Some of their ilk still lurk around.

Today, it’s the same when you want to voice an opinion. Not just in Kerala, but in the whole country. Not just in this country, but throughout the world. Perhaps the social media is to blame. Like in most cases. Everyone feels they have to voice an opinion about your opinion. It’s no more a question of counting the number of likes you secured for a Facebook post. You have to contend with hate, sarcasm and blistering personal prejudice along with the approval. You have to face that unbearable tightness of being when a casual passerby peers into your personal jottings and feels he’ll burst if he doesn’t unburden himself of a pompous, witty or wounded comment. You find yourself suddenly raised from an ordinary social media junkie to the purveyor of “that” opinion, the guy who posted “that”. 

The Isms are strong and always ready to go.

The Airtel ad which had the husband’s boss cooking his meal and waiting for him to return home let loose a storm of protest. The cloak of patriarchy is back, they chorused in horrified contentment. It reminded me of a British Council seminar years ago. I’d just read out my take on Raja Rao’s Kanthapura. Most of the other delegates were women. In fact, let me see, I was the only male. One of the things I mentioned in my paper was about the “stridency” of today’s feminists. “Strident? Strident! Strident!??!!” I went pale as an army of offended women fell upon me with claws-out cacophony. My wife watched helplessly in the audience. The uproar lasted until another woman, stronger and louder, drowned out their voices, saying, “So what? 

That’s his opinion, why should he take it back?”

This necessity to take offence is upon us like an angry red rash, an epidemic that will spread if not contained.

What’s new is the availability of a forum when we want to express ourselves. A forum that will allow us to share our ideas and whims, to get responses, to see where we stand and to, admittedly, give us our moment of fame. There are hundreds of thoughts and responses running around in our heads all the time. In the old days, we simply let them be. Or spilled them out on the pages of a diary. Or confided in those who were close to us. Today when we find ready options like Facebook, Twitter and message boards before us, we express them without thought, just as our forefathers would spit out their paan juice into readily available spittoons or on walls. And just as the red stain stayed on those walls, once we’ve expressed ourselves it’s there, often inerasably, for the world to see. Whether we like it or not.

Which leads to the next step: the offended response. 

Waiting to be heard

There’s a pithy description in Malayalam. It pinpoints the circumstance of an offended person as “a coconut falling on the head of a dog waiting to howl”. It’s like a coterie of otherwise unemployed persons watching for an unfortunate comment from an unsuspecting offender. Take the instance of singer Jesudas speaking out against women in jeans. At the most, it reflects the type of person he is. Or the state of mind he was in when he made the comment. Or it was a contextual comment to be read with other things. Whatever it was, it was his opinion, like everyone else has their opinion. There’s no reason to condemn the singer’s entire career or appear to be kind by saying, “He’s a great singer, but talks shit.” Which is the sort of thing you now hear. As if people with poised fingers are dying to click hate.

If everyone has an opinion but cannot voice it, what is freedom and democracy for?

 Like the wise man says: Your freedom ends where my nose begins. So, if someone says something that doesn’t actually hurt you, then what’s all the hullabaloo about?

 The reply (for instance): He’s a celebrated singer. People with such clout should make responsible statements. So, if you are influential (even unknowingly), then you’re supposed to mask your feelings and march with the majority or the delicately correct political opinion?

Because someone will be offended? 

Because there are groups of finely gradated philosophical, political or ethnic distinctions, and they’ll all be waiting to see whose opinion can be pounced upon?

So, if you have a brand to sell, you tell your agency to fashion the blandest advertisement that no one could possibly take offence to?

If you are offended by so-and-so’s opinion, you do have a saner remedy. Put out your own opinion. Not grapple the poor so-and-so to the ground and trample all over him. If you are offended, hang out your own version for the “offender” to see, but don’t weaken him and yourself by turning personal and aiming for the gut. It’s when reason fails you that you flail out.

Look around you. Lurking beyond the shadows is a bitter voice. It will slither out the moment you make your opinion public. Twitter, Facebook, opinion polls, TV get-togethers. It’s all there, red carpeted for you to voice your opinion. But it’s like a spider’s trap. Do it, and the barrage will be upon you. Like that dog with the waiting howl. And since there are different groups on the prowl, you can never be completely right or wrong. Technology has made it possible for our nasty side to be nudged into view. Technology that encourages you to let it all hang out and then pounces on you for doing so!

Which is why most people stick to harmless comments and posts: Today I got up feeling good with the world. Today my bowel movements were pretty average. Today is hot and therefore it must rain. Today I love chocolate. Or they post pictures of half-eaten meals. Or repost stock statements of goodwill with standard cheerful pictures or mildly shocking declarations that will evaporate as soon as they’re seen. Things that can’t go wrong, you see. Because opinions are dangerous.

Finally, individuality will count for nothing. There’ll just be the politically correct, middle-path, smiley statement. And you’ll have to hold on to that, come what may, believe it or not.

When Sankaracharya found Hinduism being subdued beneath other popular religions like Jainism and Buddhism, he didn’t hire a gladiator to chop off the heads of rivals. He travelled through the land, using argument, debate and philosophical acumen till Hinduism regained its lost glory. And that was the measure of his success. That he could do so without sword or fire. He believed everyone was entitled to his own opinion, and he’d have his say too if they gave him a chance. When you get the better of people through debate, where’s the question of offending anyone?

(It was rather different in the case of the Kauravas who were laughed at by Draupadi, took offence and sowed the seeds of the Mahabharata war. Because offence can also burgeon in silence, then rise up and destroy.)Let’s now turn the coin to look at the other side.

On Facebook, there’s a slightly different take on taking offence. Some people feel the closer they are to you, the more critical, candid and crude they can be. And if you react with a grimace, they say Ha-Ha-Ha, and fiddle with your feelings even further. So, here we’re on the other side, as offence-takers. In my case, I grin and bear it till I feel I don’t need to any more. Then I un-friend the person. I think that’s the best of three choices: the other two being to tolerate him forever or take an eye for an eye, repaying crude with crass. When you un-friend such people, it’s only the cyber equivalent of switching channels, where you gracefully glide away from a brash channel by pressing the Next button. (Okay, maybe slightly more drastic than that.) I’ve had experiences where the unfriended friend was escorted back and we bonded better than before!

It’s a small world

It’s a delicate path to tread, and it’s probably happening because the world has become smaller and distances get destroyed through daily interaction between you, your family and friends. Strangers are welcomed into your close-knit group till they too feel they have a right over your life. A merry little interactive group. Until things start getting out of hand.

So we find there are two sides to taking offence. Our side and their side.

I remember some decades ago when this paper published a Sunday short story and all hell broke loose. Vandals poured in and did every damage they could. The funny thing about it was that the story was an English translation of a story that had already been carried in a magazine in another state without much ado. No one had bothered about its nuances (if there were any), and it was quietly read and appreciated. The same story, when translated, caused reverberations.

What is it about these people? Is it the politics or some inherent stridency?

Today, Feminism, Secularism, Ecology, Animal Welfare, Human Rights are all subjects of explosive delicacy. Holding inherent merit in themselves, they are mutated into esoteric concepts that will burn you wherever you touch them. They become hurlable weapons in the hands of battle-scarred activists. Whatever you do or say flouts some provision in their tattered rule book. They are like bullies perched on the fence, preventing you from climbing over, taunting you for every difference between you and them.

There are three types of offence-takers: the individual, the group and the compulsive victim. In the first, the individual may be sensitive, touchy or genuinely hurt. There’s a lot to be said for getting off your high horse and investigating the damage you may have caused, to check if it’s a real grievance. In the second case, the issue may be valid but the priority is an ulterior dividend, generally political. An offended protest is orchestrated and ruthlessly pursued. This can turn deadly with the vagaries of mob psychology and the possibility of violence hanging in the air, persuasion ending in shove and push. In the third case, the “victim” is like a dog on the street barking randomly at the odd passer-by. It’s the pleasure of barking that rules here.

Three years ago, when I was in north Kerala, my cousin who was then HOD in a women’s college said the staff and the local police were concerned about students being lured away by radical elements, forsaking home and college. That was the first time I heard the term “Love Jihad”. It was then a law and order problem in the academic world, a problem that needed to be delicately handled. Today, the term has resurfaced. A general sense of hurt and offence has been created with politics edging out the socio-legal and human aspect. Politics has that Midas-like ability to turn sensitive issues into mould.

Everyone takes offence. It’s the way it’s expressed that matters.

The Internet makes for impulsive expression and instant regret. Politics has armies waiting like wary watchdogs ready to pounce on the opposite view. People in positions of power (whether politicians, policemen, teachers, judges or actors) often remain in states of self-deluded divinity, defensive and aggressive to protect their power. You and I are pedestrians who get caught in the crossfire.

So I’ll now quietly leave you with these thoughts. Who knows who’s waiting out there to take offence.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

India's saving grace

Aug 31, 2014 :
We Indians save. And it’s not just for our immediate pleasure. We feel gravely responsible for ourchildren and their lives. We tend to store for the next couple of generations if we can. In fact,saving money — or indeed, saving anything at all — has been written into our DNAs, writes SHREEKUMAR VARMA.

We have a designated spending timetable, we Indians. Right from birth until the time we stop remembering the dead, we spend. Our rituals are sacrosanct. Everything has been written down.

And we can’t cock a snook at The Written without being termed rebellious and so edged out of the society that we belong to and are comfortable with. Along with the highway, we also have bylanes and cut-paths and overnight detours. Which means to say, we have The Written, and then we have guidelines in every community, sub-sect and stratum. Not to mention individual eccentricities.

So, when the guidelines become rules and the rules become unavoidable, we find ourselves straitjacketed by habit and ritual. Which is a madness that turns deadly if not attended to sensitively.

Rituals cost money.

Especially when we have to keep up with the Boses. Before a birth, we celebrate its coming. Then we celebrate the birth itself. We bring up our child better than our poor neighbours brought up theirs. We send them to a better school, a better college and try to bribe them into better jobs. We marry off the child with money-drenched celebrations even if we don’t have the money for it. If it’s a girl child, we huff and we puff and conjure up a suitable dowry. Death has its own grim ceremonies. If it’s a conscientious or cautious offspring we’re talking about, then the parent’s death surfaces in his diary every year afterwards, ceremonies, ceremonies, ceremonies.

And there are the social and religious festivals and celebrations.

All this costs money.

Another important commandment in The Written is: Thou shalt be Home.

From a society that sprang up from a typical joint family ambience when everyone lived together — and like my father used to say, “there were some children and there were some parents, they just ran into a home whenever they were hungry, hurt or happy, and were tended with equal affection or indifference” — it was traumatic to go nuclear. In the early shake-up years following Independence, Indians trawled the country looking for jobs.

When the dust settled, we were going the other way.

From joint family to living for oneself is a rough journey (of Me, by Me, for Me). So then we need a house. Even though we have our ancestral home in ten acres of land in the back of nowhere and we have servants, supervisors and labourers to keep it going, we do need that flat in the city. Even though we are dirt-poor in the village and relocated to the city only to improve our life, we must get that flat and that needs money, so we have to forego other things to afford the flat and, finally, here we are, living as wretchedly as before (except for that nice little flat of our own) and slaving our noses off to afford the flat. Since we don’t have money to buy/ rent it, we borrow.

We don’t have no money, so we’ll blow it all away.

That ought to have been our anthem!

Besides respecting the old, we also amass the new. So whatever comes out in the market, be it electronics, household wonders, private transport, holiday offers, eating outings — well, we have to have them too. The best TV, the best mobile phone, the best laptop, the best dinner in town. As long as there’s money with us — present or future money, that is — we buy NOW.

It’s all about ritual. Either esoteric, traditional things we’re afraid to dispense with. Or merry, material things we feel will give clear, beautiful meaning to our otherwise, well, esoteric lives.

Frankly, there are too many of us.

And we are always scrambling to be the first to pick up things. Watch that traffic. Find an inch of space and you’ve nudged your vehicle in; or squeezed yourself through it. You are like that airline passenger instructed to look after himself before tending to others. You have to stand up and be counted in the crowd. The crowd will drag on, stolid, stubborn and self-centred. If you’re not in the first queue, your chance will disappear.

We need money. All the time. Not just to live and breathe, or to enjoy and holiday. We need money to follow The Written. To look after our people and our perceived needs. To hold up a wad of notes and say, ‘See? This is me!’

Put these two together — the concern for survival and the perceived shortage of money — and you have the first simple reason why Indians save. And it’s not just for our immediate pleasure. We feel gravely responsible for our children and their lives. We tend to store for the next couple of generations if we can.

So then we made a virtue of saving. We inculcated it as a principle our children could follow.

There was a popular article, replete with charts, tables and anxious projections, on the Internet a couple of years ago. It said America spent, while the rest of the world saved to keep America spending. The charts showed the alarming fall the US would take if every country were to withdraw its funds and sought some degree of economic independence. Imagine a new scenario where the dollar is no longer dada.

It’s probably a reflection on the respective psyches. Cautious Asia, Aggressive America. One built up actuals and then worked on them. The other spent notional amounts and then worked to earn them. Was it surprising then that an entire economy grew up based on the Future: trading, buying, spending, saving, all in the future! You looked at “trends” and predicted what would happen, and then spent your money to reap a harvest from that future. I remember spending almost an entire night with my friend, his consultant and a computer, trying to grasp the elements of futures trading. That was nearly 15 years ago. Now, the groping has yielded assurances (and in some cases, bad spills).

And yet. This is India!

Borrowed glory
I also remember when the credit card was introduced in our country. It was so difficult to dig into a treasure that wasn’t ours. Happy advertisements showing families splurging spectacularly on borrowed funds spread the fallacy that a piece of plastic meant disposable income. The magic card was a boon to those who had no relatives abroad or expandable incomes. The magic card was magic until the spending grew alarmingly and unconsciously and you were, for the first time, introduced to a species called the collection agent. Slightly boated, frightfully couldn’t-care-less, they were rumoured to treat defaulters the way a cat treated a rat. And that was that.

Indians were a different breed. We were both protected and bled by the Government. We were conservative, and believed in doing the done thing. We slaved and we saved. Our calendar is full of rainy days, both expected and unexpected. We have to be able to rise up to the occasion. Whatever the occasion.

Saving is not just an item on our personal economy list.

It’s an item on our Soul & Spiritual list as well. Those who take the most basic bites at our spiritual legacy (or believe the western interpretation of Karma is the right one) look at life and action as a savings bank where you deposit good deeds and withdraw a bonanza later. Or sow your bad seeds and reap a horrible harvest. Also, frugality is always seen as virtue. So when you earn well, you save for the future, yours and the next generation’s.The tradition is safe and trusted: You earn well by working hard. You live frugally, without pride or pomp. You keep something by so that you can give to charity or be hospitable to guests, both known and unknown. And you save what you don’t immediately need. Your children will not only inherit the money you saved, but also the good habits you demonstrated so diligently.

Tradition. That’s what the good guys are supposed to follow.

But today’s turned topsy-turvy.

You are bombarded with greed images, of wickedly magnificent ways to live with things you don’t need. There is a counterpoint, indeed stark contrast, to that old frugality pitch at every second step. And it’s called Advertising. That’s the old sexy siren, the devil in silken garb, the temptation for the road less taken.Advertising is the new temptress!

Counting chickens before they’re hatched
There’s the story of an old Brahmin couple who expected riches from the king. To cut a long story short, the wife disregarded her husband’s caution to wait for his return before pinning her hopes on a new future. She first made a bonfire of all her clothes, including the ones she was wearing. And then, consumed by joyous expectation, she burnt her husband’s clothes as well. Well, to cut it even shorter, things didn’t go all that well at the palace, and the old Brahmin returned home with nothing at all.

His wife wouldn’t open the door. “Come on!” pleaded the husband. “I’m tired and hungry.” And she replied: “I can’t! Just throw out one of the silk sarees from the palace and I’ll open the door and walk out in style.” But there was nothing to throw. The poor old man had just one set of clothing left, and his wife had not even that!

It’s a simple story to demonstrate the true face of greed. Otherwise, if you’re a good man on a good day, you don’t expect anything from others, and rely on yourself and your honesty. That will not only carry you through to the next level of spiritual living, it will secure your children’s future, raise you high in the eyes of your guests and extend your fame for the benefit of an even better future.

Saving money — or indeed, saving anything at all — has been written into our DNAs. When the old head of the house dies and the children come home from abroad to clean up and, perhaps, sell the house, they are confronted by a mountain of undisposed things.

 From old photographs to a rusty screw from the first radiogram, they are all there. We don’t like to throw away things. The old Brahmin lady from that story was perhaps an exception, or a victim of psychotic expectation. Having “money in hand” is worth everything else.

But it also, of course, depends on the sort of person you are.

Life’s little surprises

Take the beggar (or beggars, because you keep reading this all the time) in your morning newspaper who was found as a corpse on the street and turned out to have bank deposits worth millions of rupees. The wretched  lifestyle may not have suited his riches, but it certainly did support it. Even a beggar’s life is an earning one like everyone else’s. And even he must save for a rainy day. We don’t know if he went out on secret holidays to the Bahamas or had a hidey-hole to hoard his hedonistic habits away from the sympathetic eyes of his poor patrons, but money in hand must have fuelled his dreams of the future.And then take Ayyappan.

Ayyappan A is a much-feted poet of Kerala. Most of the feting took place, however, after he was found unconscious on the road near the Trivandrum Central Railway Station and died soon after in hospital. At 61, he was addicted to drink, drugs and poetry. In two days’ time, he was to have been in Chennai to receive the prestigious Asan Award. I was the chief guest at a memorial event soon after, and prepared for it by reading him, about him, and watching several YouTube clips featuring him.
 It was clear this wasn’t a man who’d save anything. Not even his poetry, perhaps. His body wasted away, pain his constant companion, and he wouldn’t say salaam to fame even if it begged him to.

Ayyappan could have been a child of celebrity, cuddled in the lap of mass adulation. Ayyappan could have amassed money. He could have become influential. All that happens in Kerala. Artists have a way of getting into committees and deciding the fate of other artists. The videos I watched showed he was of different design. He scoffed, but he was compassionate. He needed appreciation, but he wouldn’t clown, smile or bend for it. He’d rather sleep on the street or in some slum-dweller’s hut than rise to someone else’s idea of a Poet.

So, when he died, all he had in his pocket, and thus his world, was a scrap of paper with a scrap of poetry, and Rs 375 in cash!