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Lest I Forget

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Memories from the far end of Bombay riots

I’ve managed to erase most of the memories of the days around December 6, 1992. A few fragments, however, remain stuck to my consciousness like a stain, and wouldn’t go away however much I try to wash them off. I was one of the luckier ones, of course – I was at the far end of the pool, where the ripples came only to subside. Thus the privilege of ‘forgetting’. I’m aware.

I was working in State Bank of India, Churchgate Branch, and less than four months pregnant at the time.

I remember that I was coming back from somewhere, though I’m not sure where. The train I was on was largely empty, but had stopped in the middle of nowhere. No one seemed to know why, though there was a general sense of disquiet in the air that the demolition of a mosque in Ayodha had caused. But at the time it seemed far away. And despite rumours of repercussions closer home, fear had not struck. At least, not me, not yet.

A good half an hour or so later, someone who scrambled up the train said there was dangafasad going on ahead, and that was the reason the train had stopped. After that, the train, with all of us inside it, was eerily silent.

Relief came as a long whistle, and there was a general buzz among us, commuters.  Just as the train was about to move, a heavily pregnant woman struggled up the steps sweating and panting. A few people rushed to help her. She flopped down on a window seat, still sweating profusely and sobbing all the while. She was trying to say something, but was mostly incoherent. The only words we could make out were: “They had swords!”

When she recovered enough to talk, she said that she had run away to escape a mob – they were not coming at her, but. They had bloodied swords and torches, though, and someone told her that a woman, similarly pregnant, had her stomach cut open.

I can’t recall the rest of the trip. Except that the heavy window pane fell on the lady’s hand and she started crying again. 

What I remember of the rest of those days are the random discussions that used to happen.  At work, in the train, among colleagues… On how if you were passing by this road, it is safer to wear a bindi. But if you were taking the other, your bindi could get you killed. About how a Hindu colony protected a Muslim family, or how a Muslim family that kept their Hindu friend and his family safe in their house…

Things like that. 

That was the time I learned that one’s name and surname could become something that saved or destroyed, depending. The first time I became aware of religion, in a way I had never been.

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I was in Bombay on March 12, 1993, as well. And again, what I remember are the most frivolous details of the day. Like the extra-large white and blue dress I was wearing because that was the most comfortable one for my extra-large stomach. And how I was sweating excessively and feeling slightly sick as I walked from Second Road to Chembur Station, but would not take leave. Because it meant one less day at home for my delivery, back in Coimbatore. 

At the station, I began to feel dizzy. Two women from Adelphi – my personal banking customers – held me up and sat me down. They told me it was better that I went back home as I did not look well enough to get through the day. They put me in an autorickshaw and left.

When the call came for me in the afternoon, I thought it was to inquire after my health, or to say that they missed me at lunchtime. But the voice at the other end was hushed. “I’m glad you took leave, Mini. There has been a bomb blast at the Stock Exchange. We felt it in our PB department (which was in the basement).”

It took a while for the news to sink in, as it did for everything that happened afterwards.

I remember the warnings that were being repeatedly heard on railway stations, trains and BEST buses. Please make sure that there is no unclaimed baggage left under your seats or above you. If you do find anything suspicious, inform the authorities immediately. Do not touch or go near it… Announcements to that effect. BEST buses went the extra mile – they started playing old songs, which would be punctuated every so often by such announcements.

To this day, each time I happen to hear the song tum agar saath dene ka wada karo, my heart skips a beat. And my stomach tightens in anticipation of the abrupt pause after main tumhe dekhkar geet gaata rahoon… And I almost wait for the voice that would tell me to check under my seat.

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My scars, however, are thin. Barely visible, considering. I’m aware of that.

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And yet, one has to remember. Always

 

 

*PC: Google images.

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A Letter to A, Post His Mortem

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Dear A,

I have to tell you this. Yesterday, after so many months of your untimely, unexpected death, you occupied my mind space for a good while.

Are you surprised? I am. 

I was trying to send a photograph to someone via WhatsApp, but I couldn’t. Instead, I received a rather grim warning that my storage is full, so I better clean up stuff or else. I had no option but to comply, you see. So I went to Storage and started deleting chats one by one.

Your name came up in my list of contacts, which was quite unexpected. I had forgotten that we used to message occasionally, enough to take up 7.4MB of my old-fashioned iPhone – which is about as spacious as your apartment was, the last time we were there. 

A couple of jokes, good wishes for the now-old 2018, some articles about the state of our country, and something on Bitcoins – that’s what you’d sent. I’ve replied in polite emoticons, mostly. You must know that I’m not big on WhatsApp conversations.

By the way, the last message from you (which I have not replied to), dated March 30, 2018, is a video.  A man in a business suit is speaking in Hindi about why cleansing your ‘system’ is vital for good health. You were huge on health, I remember, what with diet and exercise plans and all that.

Life’s little ironies, right? Your heart didn’t give a damn, ultimately.

We had our comment-reply transactions on Facebook too. A few months before you died, you had taken to making short motivational videos. To be honest, I was ambiguous about them (having never been one to take to motivational speeches), so I kept well away. After I came to know of your death, though, I wished I had watched them, just so I can claim half your niceness reciprocally. 

But then, that’s what you were, right? Unfailing kind, unwaveringly considerate – right from the first time we met at the gate of my hostel in Tilak Nagar. Yes, it has been that long!

You and S, your then-new wife, were waiting at the hostel gate with Shiva, to be introduced to his wife-to-be. Then one day, we came to your house, met your mother, and listened quietly to your collective anxiety at not having an offspring yet.

Later, you and S helped Shiva appease his family with a quick round of astrological manipulation. With the help of an astrologer known to you, my horoscope was changed to match Shiva’s.

See, I’m shaking my head and smiling as I write this.

I don’t know if you are aware of it, but that little lie fell flat – literally at the altar. When the temple priest asked me about my star, I blurted out ‘moolam’, instead of the ‘chothi’ that my new jatakam required of me. But my father-in-law, the gentlest man I had ever had the fortune to meet, just smiled benignly and let it pass. No one from my side of the family had the slightest inkling of that little drama anyway, so that was that.

When I returned to Bombay alone after that hurried wedding to stay with my husband’s aunt, you and S had visited me diligently. I was pregnant, confused and completely unprepared as a mother-to-be. Then, when Shiva came down for a visit, we came to your house. You and S were trying to feed your curly haired, doe-eyed elder son at the time. A year or two later, you guys moved to Qatar.

When was it that we made that boat trip to Elephanta Caves? And which year was it that you all had come to our house in Trivandrum – the one that had nutmeg trees growing in the backyard? For the life of me, I can’t recall the timelines. You would have, I’m sure. Because you were the one that remembered everything including birthdays and anniversaries, and sent your wishes without fail.

You guys were in Sharjah when we moved to Dubai, and you were among the first ones to reach out. But by then, the equations of your own life had changed. Your search for— What was it that you were looking for? Meaning of life? Peace? Whatever it was, it had already begun to appear as cracks on your family wall. I saw the bitterness that had etched harsh lines around S’s smile. But yours was as white as ever, to my surprise.

It wouldn’t hurt you now, would it, if I admit that every time I visited your apartment, I couldn’t wait to get away from it? As much from the clutter of your brown-gold-ochre space, as from the darkness that hung like cobwebs in kitchen conversations. Maybe the darkness in my own head intensified when it came in contact with another. Which is why, like the lotus, I keep seeking sunlight.

After you all left the UAE, these occasional social media messages were our only contact. And then you died, just like that. Your heart gave way – just like your father’s, Shiva said.

Anyway, late as it is, I have something to tell you. It’s about this one enduring image I have of you, the one I have carried with me all these years, regardless of everything that came after. A collage, made of pieces of a memory from back then when Mumbai was still Bombay, and I was a 22-year-old in the big city. At a time when Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Railway Station was just a cleared out patch of land near our hostel. We girls used to walk there after dinner in our housecoats.

I can’t recall why I left my aunt’s flat in Sion so late that Sunday evening, especially since I was alone – I’m usually more prudent than that. In my hurry to get back to the hostel, I hopped on to the first train from Koliwada Station, assuming it would go to Chembur, so I can get down at Tilak Nagar. It was only when the train reached Kurla Station that I knew it terminated there. The only train that would stop at Tilak Nagar after that, they told me, was waiting at a platform at the far end of the station, and would leave in a couple of minutes. I ran in the direction pointed.

It was late, it was crowded, and I was panting with panic and exertion. I stood on the platform, inches away from the train, paralysed by the crowd rushing in. And then I heard your voice, calling out to me from the train that was almost moving. You told me to get into the train quick; there was no other train that day which would stop at Tilak Nagar. I scrambled up, pushed ahead by the crowd.

Did I cry? Or did you sense that I would, any minute? Either way, you stood there, rock solid, making sure I was unharmed. Then you got down with me at my station, and insisted on walking me to my hostel. You kept talking all the way, inane small talk intended to reassure me. Later, I came to know that you were a more compulsive talker than I am. By the time you left me at the gate and walked away in the direction of Chembur, I was almost normal, and grateful. Immensely so. 

Your kindness that night, dear A, has stayed with me all these years. It has survived your death, and I know it will see me to mine. Despite everything that was heard, said and known, that is how I will remember you.

I want you to know that, wherever you are.

Regards,

Mini

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An Old Facebook Post, Revamped!

The original post came up as a two-year-old memory on Facebook. These two years have brought so many things to a head, but the sentiments expressed there remain the same. So do most of the attitudes that provoked this outburst, sadly.

So sharing it again here, with just minor changes. (I’m not prone to writing long posts on the Facebook wall, but the situation calls for it.)
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But before that, here’s something that I’ve been itching to say despite having taken the decision to stay off politics for a couple of months, for the sake of sanity:
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#Metoo is NOT funny. Don’t circulate jokes and memes on it. It is decades and centuries of pain, shame and misplaced guilt coming out in torrents. And if you are a man who asks ‘How do I qualify for #metoo?’ (This is not made up – someone actually did!), don’t worry – you most likely are, and have been for a long time. At least in intent.

And fellow women, please don’t think that taking years to speak up is a sign of weakness. It’s not. To retaliate on the spot does take courage – but so does speaking up after ages. Even more courage because they would need to deal with not just the abuser, the world, but also the likes of you who ask things like ‘Why didn’t you slap him and walk away?’

(I actually saw women sharing a post to the effect that if you are a real woman, a ‘shakti’, you do that! I can only say you, who said that and who share that with the same intent, are supremely privileged. And supremely insensitive.)

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Now, to my original post:
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Women have bodies, just as men do. And our bodies are different from those of men – with good reason. The species has lasted solely because of that.

Some of us are proud of our bodies, and why not?

Skirts fly, saris slip off, blouses open – whether we like it or not. We scratch our backsides, dig our noses and drool while sleeping. I’m sure the rest of the world does these things too.

This might be news to some, but these are very human acts. Every constitution has (or ought to have) these as part of the fundamental rights of its citizens.

Sometimes skin shows, and that’s ok too. It’s skin, not dirty laundry.

So stop taking photos of people in their vulnerable moments and circulating them in your groups. It’s as crass as hiding behind the doors of someone’s bathroom or bedroom and watching them. And infinitely worse for the damage it does.

That woman whose photo you’re sharing, with crude remarks textboxed into it, is a human being, entitled to live her life with dignity, unaffected by filthy camera eyes.

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Remember, so is vulgarity.

Even if you don’t actively promote such posts, stop laughing at them, stop accepting them. Somebody could catch you and me too in the wrong frame.

For, the camera, like the bullet, does not discriminate. Nor does the Internet.
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Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience.

This wasn’t what I wanted to write about!

“What kind of times are these, when 
To talk about trees is almost a crime 
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”

– Bertolt Brecht

 

I started writing this post yesterday. In the notepad of my head, that is.  

I began by writing about my walk around the park, about the nostalgic scent of neem trees in full bloom, about the elderly couple I pass by every morning. I wrote about how the bench under the ‘poovaaka’ tree I was planning to sit on had come apart, and how I then decided to sit on a pink bench under the canopy of pink bougainvilleas that would contrast so nicely with my blue tracksuit. About the neat back-view of the Filipino lady who cycled past me in a snugly fitting grey and purple suit. Things like that.

You know what I mean – the good stuff. I had even taken a bunch of photos to go with the post, including that of a white-with-black-patches catperson who had stretched out languorously on a bench. 

But that was yesterday morning. 

Yesterday morning, much before the shockwaves of the details of eight-year-old Asifa Bano’s rape and murder hit the news. Before the comments from people who justified it, and the tweets that started with what about when— began to rise in yellow, bilious waves from the fault line of my stomach. Yesterday, while I still had the satisfaction of having taken a stand on some of the things that I should have, long ago, basking in the afterglow of having stood up to some well-meaning people. People I am otherwise fond of, who keep trying to convince me about the greatness of Hinduism and the need to protect it from malicious forces. Can’t you see? they keep asking me. 

I can’t. And yesterday I told them that. 

I used to not respond at first, silence being golden and all that. Then one day I decided that this was not the time to remain quiet. So I began to go to great lengths to explain why I disagreed with their sentiments. And shared whatever solid pieces of evidence I came across, to support my argument. See, this is what I’m trying to tell you.

This despite knowing that I would get thrice the number of what I had sent. And you see what we are trying to tell you!

It has taken me a while to register that there are doors to human minds which remain shut to logic and reason.

I was still naive, though. So I decided to out. Let’s not talk religion or politics, ok? I typed. I can never agree with you on these matters. To my pleasant surprise, our decision to agree to disagree was made amicably. I felt damn proud of myself for finally standing up to them. Because you see, for all my opinionatedness, I do have a fear of hurting the sentiments of those I respect. Or is it the residue of a latent fear of authority? Freud would know.

Last night though, I broke the mutually agreed-upon disagreement by bringing their attention to the sheer evil behind the abduction of an eight-year-old girl by some senior guardians of the law and religion who had kept her inside a DEVI TEMPLE (Oh god!) and repeatedly drugged and gang-raped her before wresting her life out in unimaginably barbarous ways. And those waving our national flag in support of the perpetrators.  I didn’t exactly ask, Can’t you see what’s happening? Because I was sure they would.

Now I stand corrected. Stripped of my illusions. 

Because today I am asked why there was no such outrage when Hindu girls were raped.  What about when– I am asked. Why only for this? I reply that I cannot believe that they are saying this, given the circumstances. But we are talking about the—

Stop being one-sided! I am told. 

One-sided. As if there are subtleties to child rape and murder that I am incapable of understanding.

I give up. Even my 3KM morning walk has not given me enough endorphin and serotonin to keep going. Maybe I should have stuck to our agreement and not talked religion or politics.

You should have! Now stop sharing your one-sided sentiments. 

I’m stopping. Here. Now. Maybe there’s nothing quite as impenetrable as those doors that are locked and keys thrown away. Doors to human minds.

***

This was not what I had wanted to write about. Even when I sat at my laptop a while ago, this was not what I had as topic of the day. I had still meant to write about my sanity walk, the sight and sounds thereof, and the high that it all gives to my menopausing self. Really. That was the intention I had started out with.

But how can I get rid of the image of light dying in a smiling pair of large, eight-year-old eyes from my mind? Or the overwhelming sense of defeat I feel in being able to do anything about it – not even convince those close to me.

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Photo courtesy: https://twitter.com/kalkikanmani

 

The Many Moods of a Working Woman

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Wada Koli, Nirona Village – Bhuj                                                            March 23, 2018

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When I asked her if I can click pictures, she gave me a half-smile and a nod, more with  resigned acceptance than enthusiasm. Then she turned away, leaving me – another alien with a camera and some good intentions – to my devices, and continued to watch the day’s proceedings in silence.  If I found her fascinating, so had others before me. More will, after. She knew that. In the meantime, she had so much on her hands. And mind. 

If the deep lines on her twenty-something face continue to haunt me, whose fault is it? 

 

Abandoned

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Maybe my boys are patient listeners. Or maybe they love me enough to listen to countless repetitions of the same old stories of the same old people and places and songs and books.

They do get frustrated at times. Mostly though, they give me a hug – quick or tight, as the occasion warrants – and let me ramble on. For better or for worse, they’ve had the onus of bringing up their mother, you see. She who so often disappears into those deep, dark, alone places full of shadows. Those abandoned houses of a fragmented childhood.

This is for them, my boys Appu and Adu. My poem that appears in RIC Journal.

a door groaned shut
and a lizard, startled
stopped in its tracks

the last anxious voice
faded away
at a distance

…and so on and so forth.

Read it in full here:  https://ricjournal.com/2018/03/17/abandoned-mini-s-menon/ 

I’m thrilled to be featured in RIC Journal! Why? Because it is quirky, generous, and so Red in Corner.

 

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Fish Whisperers of Varanasi

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At Varanasi, they whisper to the fish and set them free in the water. 

I’d come to the Ghats to watch the sunrise, an event that was turning out to be more spectacular than I had imagined. Ahead of me, the sun spilled molten gold onto the calm waters of the Ganga. Majhis (boatmen) were ferrying passengers across in similar-looking rowboats, their silhouettes adding to the drama. A million seagulls circled above the boats, their squawks accompanying the sound of temple bells and the chants of worshippers performing pooja on the stone steps. Men and women were bathing in the holy waters, their faith shielding them from the biting cold of a winter morning. Wash away our sins, mother…

From the high octagonal stone platform I was sitting on, everything seemed surreal.

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A while ago, I had bid goodbye to Pooja, a young engineer from Poona who was sharing the platform with me. She had come to the ghats with her brother and sister-in-law, and was kind enough to click a picture of me for memory. We had found each other on Instagram, and parted with vague promises to keep in touch.  

I sat there alone for a long time afterward, at peace with the world that was bustling around me. 

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As I got up to leave, I saw a couple of Muslim men – father and son, presumably – carrying transparent yellow plastic bags, making their way to where I was sitting.  I noticed that the bags held water, with small, black, live fish in them. I stopped in my tracks.

“Are those fish?” The father ignored me. Talk about stating the obvious. 

The son nodded.

“What are they for?”

“To be released in the Ganga,” he mumbled without looking at me.

“To be…what! Why?”

“Why? Because…He looked at his father, but the old man did not help. Then he turned and met my eyes. “...where else do fish belong except with Ganga Maiyya?”

Where else indeed. 

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I followed them as they went to the edge of the platform, asking their permission to click pictures. The son looked at his father again. Though the old man decidedly turned his back on me, the son did not seem to mind. I decided to take their silence for consent, but maintained an unobtrusive distance. 

They sat down and carefully opened the bags. The older man took each bag separately, brought it close to his face and blew softly into it. Then both the father and the son gently took the fish one by one in their palms and dropped it into the water. That done, they got up and left.

No one gave a second glance. Except me, that is. 

Later, I came to know that this is a sadka, a ritual performed by the members of the weaving community regardless of their faith. Meant to ward off evil, to protect their person and property.

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Protect us, mother, protect our livelihood. You, who are all-accepting, all-forgiving. You who do not distinguish between humans and their faiths.  Guard us against evil, Mother. Within and without…

A prayer or two, breathed into the slim, dark bodies of a dozen fishes. To be carried to the heart of a mighty river brimming with the desperate pleas of generations and lifetimes. Of the living and the dying, the hopeful and the hopeless.

Down there in her womb, these prayers too would feed on human sins and grow. As guardians, protectors. Shielding mortals from themselves… 

Perhaps.

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Of Life and Loss and the Evolution of Grief

It’s that time of the year when something inside you becomes heavier and slows you down.  Not in an unpleasant way, but like your body does after a long, hard evening walk. You look for a bench to relax for a bit, knowing well that you’ll soon get up and get moving. There’s a mild sense of achievement as you sit down, face flushed, still slightly panting, feeling the sweat trickle down your throat and back.

And you look back on the path that took you through yet another year.

You see vistas of sand flanked by concrete buildings, you see cranes sticking out of half-made buildings like skeletal hands reaching out for the skies. Didn’t you hear the earth groan as you passed? You see the workers who were squatting on the ground outside the forbidding fences designed to keep out prying eyes, waiting for un-airconditioned buses to come and pick them up. Exhaustion drawn over them like a blanket, their collective silence punctuated by low conversations and brave attempts at hilarity.  What awaited them at the other end of the journey was no lovers’ meeting – just cramped bedspaces in a camp in some forgotten corner of the city. (Forgotten is not the word perhaps, because, those are the places we head to when we feel the urge to do good deeds.) There they would wait in line to wash their bodies and clothes, pray or not, cook in turns, eat, hold conversations over the din of TV, and fall into exhausted sleep.

You look back on the impatient cars inching their way through the congealed traffic, at the taxis with worried, tired cabbies talking to any willing ear about the prohibitive traffic fines. Madam, my eyes filled up this time when I opened the salary slip – I was hoping to send something home at least this month… My wife has been struggling, really, but–  Past the tired and hopeful faces of those waiting at bus stops, past young couples pushing their babies in prams, past the mosque-goers on their way to Maghrib. Past the tall gates of the park, on the treelined walkway, and around the lake, dodging other walkers, runners, bikers and stray cats,  inhaling the fragrance of marigold mixed with a hint of manure…

You are now thankful for the bench you managed to secure – under the streetlamp, facing the lake. A couple of feet away from the stray cat that is still contemplating the possibilities you hold. Watching the pink and blue and green and white lights of lifetimes lived – yours and others’ – undulating peacefully on the water, as if the chasm beneath did not exist. And you give in to the urge to give in, to wrap yourself in the mild, lingering melancholy of another late December evening. You sit back and sigh.

Really, what do you have to complain about?

I’m grateful for each passing year that has been granted to me. Truly. It’s a gift that so many are deprived of.

For no reason, I’m thinking of my cousin who had passed away when he was much younger than I am today (young being a relative term). He was among the closest I had to a brother, yet we had grown apart. Until that day when, from two ends of a phone line, we promised each other that we’d meet up for sure the next time he came down. Because I am his little sister, and don’t I ever forget that. No matter what differences we might have, we are family.

A few months later, when his body went home in a refrigerated box, I was not there. I mourned for him deeply from inside the walls of the small room in this desert city that I was barely getting used to. But what I mourned for was my loss. I lost a brother, a very very vital part of my childhood, my life. My brother whom I lost before I could–

Grief can be extremely selfish.

Today, years later, I still grieve for him. Not in a guilt-ridden, debilitating way, but as a fleeting, momentary sadness – a small white cloud at the corner of the sky that disappears as quietly as it appears. Today it is for him that I grieve, for what he lost.

My brother, I wish you had lived. Long enough to experience the luxury of growing older. Of watching your hair turn grey (though knowing you, you’d have reached out for the bottle of hair dye at the first glimpse of it). Of discovering that peaceful space within yourself…

We could have sat on the porch of your old house and laughed about our childhood antics. Remember the time when you–? We could shake our heads and smile knowingly as we watch our children walk through life as if it was something infinite, to be taken with utmost seriousness…

I still miss you, you know. At times. 

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I don’t know why I’m thinking of him today, now, in this December morning when the mist outside has all but hidden the buildings across. I did not start out with the intention of writing about him! I was going to take a look at the year that was. I was going to contemplate on my own journey: the books I read, the people I met, the lessons I learned. I was going to talk about my writing – complete and incomplete, the teaching projects I have taken on, my students who are my dopamine.

I was going to talk about my ever-lengthening bucket list…

Instead, here I am, writing about life and loss and the evolution of grief. Maybe it’s time I stopped. I can start again, on another December morning. There’s a weekful of them left anyway.

 

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Atlas of a Master Storyteller

As a child, the high point of my life used to be the storytelling sessions we had during summer vacations. When Preetha, Praveenchettan, Pramod, Rajesh, Dinesh and I gathered around Jagdish (or Jagguettan, as we call him; our eldest cousin on my father’s side), listening in rapt silence to the stories he told us. No one, but no one, told a story like he did.

In a matter of minutes, he could make the walls of the small side room in Krishna Vihar disappear. And I would be standing on an unpaved street in the Wild West, watching Clint Eastwood enter, eyes screwed up against the sun, a cigar dangling from the side of his mouth… I would see his hat and poncho, his black horse, the taunting menNow he is taking out his gun and— Dhishkyaun! My heart would jump to my mouth even as the bad guys lay dead on the ground. Jagguettan could, with the same ease, take me to a studio in the Greenwich Village where Jhonsy would be looking out of the window and counting the leaves on the ivy vine opposite. And when Sue revealed Behrman’s masterpiece, my eyes would sting with tears too embarrassed to flow out.

Jagguettan, with his endless supply of stories, trivia and comic books, used to be my hero.  This, despite the fact that he had once declared me dead, while showing me how to find the pulse point on my wrist. After probing my then-skinny wrist for a good minute, he let go of it with a shake of his head. “No pulse,” he informed. “You’re dead!”

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Growing up deprives you of a lot. For one, it takes you far away from cousins who tell stories. And when life decides its time for you to grow up, it comes at your bubble with a sledgehammer. All you can do is to quietly fold and pack the broken pieces of your childhood and stow them out of sight – in the farthest corner of your heart. Then you turn to books, a small part of you forever seeking your master storyteller between their pages. In hope.

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Then one day, another lifetime or so later, comes a book. “I saw the home of a god at latitude 28º28′ south and longitude 105º21′ west — a deserted rock crowded with seabirds far, far out in the Pacific,”  it begins. Your ears perk up. That voice – you know it! You’ve heard it before, in an almost-forgotten past. You read on, now eager, hopeful. And as the “…wave-battered, treeless, bush-less cliffs devoid of fresh water, grass, flowering plants and moss” unfurl before you, you realise with a thrill that it’s him, your Great Storyteller. You’ve found him again, inside the covers of this magical book titled ‘Atlas of an Anxious Man’.

You are, once again, that wide-eyed child standing at the open gates of wonderland. 

As Christoph Ransmayr begins each story with “I saw…”, I see what he saw. I see people – living, dying and long-dead. I see oceans, islands, rainforests and polar ice caps. Icy peaks, salmon-filled rivers and volcanic lakes. Abandoned graveyards, sunken ships, and remains of ancient civilizations. I hear batwings, birdsongs, and five laughing men. And sometimes, as when I see “an empty park bench, one of three on the market square beside the wrought-iron fence of the adjacent apothecary garden in the village of Lambach in Upper Austria,” my eyes fill up.

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Christoph Ransmayr*

Translated by Simon Pare for Seagull Books, the note in the jacket modestly describes Atlas of an Anxious Man as a ‘unique account that follows (its author) across the globe’. I would rather call it a book of stories. Stories woven out of Ransmayr’s experiences as an involved observer of people, places and events. Stories of love, grief, courage, heartbreak and lasting hope. Narrated as if to a group of close friends gathered around the fireplace on a cold evening.

The text inside the gorgeous jacket designed by Sunandini Banerjee is lyrical. It meanders unhurriedly through the many geographies Ransmayr has visited, pausing every so often to admire a garden or a graveyard, talk to its keeper, or listen to the sound of a sheepdog barking at a distance. The journey that starts from that first barren island 3,200 kilometres off the Chilian coast continues in no particular order across oceans, islands, mountains and continents, across treeless hillsides and tropical rainforests, across countrysides, cities and suburbs, until it reaches its lofty destination. As if the author is opening his atlas at random pages to shows us what he saw there.

“This crater, riven by erosion and tectonics, and half collapsed, resembled a skewed cauldron whose contents – a small house with a corrugated-iron roof, animal sheds, a barn and, above all, bellowing cattle and skin and bone horses on stony, black pastures – were about to be tipped into the sea. The cauldron’s lower rim lay so close to the surf that it was flecked again and again with flakes of spray whereas the upper edge of the crater faded away high above the breakers into scudding patches of fog.”

And I see it all. Every little thing.

Geography, however, is just one facet – albeit an intensely alive one – of this gem. There is also history, anthropology, politics, biology and astronomy. Philosophy too, among other things, woven intricately into the narrative by this master craftsman. Ultimately, Atlas of an Anxious Man is about human beings, as they come.

“I saw the dark, sweaty face of the fisherman Ho Doeun on a stormy November night in Phnom Penh. The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia was celebrating the water festival that night. Ho was kneeling on the bank of the Mekong, under the sparkling bouquets of fireworks whose flaming arches and bridges of light spanned the river for two or three heartbeats before fading away in a thundering spectacle of colour.”

What makes this book so exceptional to me, however, is the silken thread of compassion that runs through the length of its narrative. There is no judgment – none at all. The man who narrates these stories has already made his peace with vagaries, both human and otherwise. He is merely telling us what he saw, heard, felt and remembered.

“…an autumn bird no longer really had to impress anyone very much. It sang, when it sang, more for itself than for or against another bird.”

And if I feel a lingering sense of melancholy after turning the last page, it could be because the afterglow has lit up some forgotten corners of my soul – where the wait for the next Great Storyteller has resumed.

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Khasakkinte Ithihasam: an epic of forgotten dialects

Among the many items I had left behind of my childhood are some dialects. About half a dozen of them, in fact. Very peculiar to the times, micro-geographies and cultures of the places I grew up in. Dialects that smelled of green fields and steaming paddy. Of cow-dung, rain and persistent anxiety. Of palm-trees and claustrophobia of the wide open spaces, and a loneliness that stuck to your clothes like the yellow, gluey mud you scratched off the sides of the lotus pond.

“Enthinaanu thambraatti agiranathu? Namma ippo veettilethoolle?”

At the time I’d not even noticed the peculiarity of the lingo in which almost every vowel sound began and ended with the close-mid sound of ‘ɘ’. It was just a part of the landscape, like the greenness of the field or the blueness of the mountain, like the humid heat or the dark, lean bodies with their stench of sweat.

I’d just nod, not really sure why my eyes had filled up in the first place. Was I missing home or was I anxious about reaching it? I still don’t know.

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice – that of selective memory. Which meant that I let go of a lot of my childhood, including its dialects. I chose my memories in the order of their sunshine, and wove my narrative around them. I carefully picked the vocabulary, tone, and semantics of all the languages and their variations that had flowed past me, and created my own lingo. So now I have a set of streamlined memories that I can look back on and smile, and a language that rarely prods sleeping dogs. Malayalam with a hint of Tamil, which could have originated anywhere between the banks of the Nila and the blue shadows of Western Ghats. Liberally peppered with the English of all those cities I have lived, loved and read in.

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Perhaps that was why rereading Khasakkinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak) was like a punch in the gut.

True. Like any self-respecting Malayali teenager with intellectual aspirations (pretensions?), I too had read O.V. Vijayan’s epic while still in school. But what I had never admitted to anyone was that most of what was in there had flown right past me without leaving a dent. I had understood little, and I remembered even less. When people spoke so highly of it, I would nod in agreement, embarrassed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.

The other day, while browsing through the collection in a tiny DC Books store in Karama, I picked up Khasakkinte Ithihasam again. A burst of enthusiasm triggered as much by the prices, as by the cover illustration. And of course, sheer curiosity.  What is in there that has triggered so much dialogue for so many decades?

Life comes back to where it started – in one way or the other. The world I had eased myself out of enveloped me again like quagmire, oozing out of the 168 pages of the O.V. Vijayan’s classic novel. Only now, with almost half a century of life behind me, there is no way I can escape the vagaries of Khasak.

There is little I can say about the book that has not been said before.

Ravi is familiar – a young, literate, well-read man from a reasonably well-to-do family, in the throes of existential crisis. The quintessential protagonist of Malayalam literature of the time. I have met him in various forms and names between the pages of the many novels I have read. Vijayan, however, does not make any concessions for Ravi, unlike some other ‘heroes’ of that era. He is what he is by choice. Or compulsion – take your pick. But the last thing he needs is your sympathy.

What Vijayan narrates, however, is not Ravi’s story – it is the history of Khasak in all its myriad, yet dark, hues. Madhavan Nair, Appukkili, Mollakka, Nijaamali, Mymoona, Chandumma, Kunjaamina…. the list of Khasak’s children is endless, and each one plays a vital role in taking the narrative forward. Even the ghosts, gods and folklore of Khasak are living, breathing entities in Vijayan’s eerily familiar world, as real as it is imaginary. A world that is raw, primal and open to the elements.

Which, like life, brings me back to where I started – the dialect. It was the Malayalam that Vijayan has chosen for his epic that took me by the scruff of my neck. And it dropped me right in the middle of a world that I had safely stayed away from for decades. A very Khasak-like universe where a third of my memories (because my idea of ‘home’ was split three-ways during my growing up years) are set in.

“Ootareelu Jayettande padau odunundu. Namukku puggua thambraa?”

Pazhanimala would tether the bullocks to the cart and we would go to the theatrein Oottarawith its thatched roof and stained screen to watch Jayan seducing married women with his pecs and biceps. Mutton biriyani from Rahmania Hotel after, and a return journey under the starry, starry sky, with the tinkle of little brass bells lulling me to sleep…

If all was well that is.

A stray memory that drifted in.

There is a Khasak napping inside me, like there is in so many others. And it has now become restless.

Every good prose, I feel, has poetry running through it like a golden thread. It is there in a turn of phrase, a line that you want to utter out loud. Poetry lingers like melancholy in Vijayan’s writing, woven into the harsh overtones of its vernacular, adding to its poignancy, its earthy shadows. Touching you in a way that only poetry can.

If the hallmark of good literature is to disturb the reader, to shake them out of complacency, then it’s little wonder that Khasakkinte Ithihasam continues to revive and thrive, decade after decade.

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