Categories
Stories

         Oliver’s Soul

Paul Mirabile weaves yarn of murder and madness in Madrid of the 1970s         

                            

Madrid: Courtesy: Creative Commons

I am jotting this down while it is still fresh in my mind, hoping that the police will not jump to hasty conclusions and accuse me falsely of the killing. The murderess, after relating the incident to me, left that very evening ; that is to say, the evening I found her at home standing over the corpse of my dear friend Oliver. Since her departure, the entire affair has shaken me up, given the terrible fact that I am the only person available, and I shall add, sound of mind, to offer an explanation. Here let me give you an account of what actually took place before anything injudicious happens to me.

She was a religious fanatic, the murderess, that I am certain, and although I had these impressions of her, I could never pin-point the source of material she utilised in her indefatigable tirades apropos the necessity of man to humiliate himself before God, who, as she insisted, created man in order that he may serve Him, and suffer the cross as He did. Apparently she was well read in mediaeval Christian dogma, and especially in the works of Fray Luis de Granada, Saint Thomas of Aquinas and Abelard. She had been a student of theology and philosophy, albeit a poor one, but did have an entertaining command of the subtle teachings and techniques of Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme.

Our conversations were weighty, yet erratic. The evening of the murder, for example, she picked up a book and tossed it out of the window. We had been talking about the physical attributes of the soul, and it seemed I had upset her over something. I asked her why she loved Oliver instead of me, and without a word she promptly threw out three more, one of which one was the Bible ! I heard them sailing through the still, night air and land on the small plaza below with a soft thump. Her eyes wandered off to stare at the empty space just below the low-ceiling of her flat. A crooked smile stretched on her bloodless lips. A fly had sailed in on the waves of the interminable Madrilenian heat from the open window, buzzing annoyingly about the wrought iron chandelier. She seemed to enjoy that buzzing.

When she had snapped out of her mesmerised state, she placed her hands upon my head and drew me towards her. She kissed me full on the lips. It was the first time we had kissed in many months. In the same distracted vein, she whispered that a sickness had befriended her, and a revelation had swollen her eyes with vivid scenes of lurid pleasure. At first she laughed, or rather giggled. A short time later, she said Oliver was coming to kill her, and that we must protect ourselves from him. I sat up staring at her in disbelief. She remained calm, disclosing her love for him, but added, that alas pure love could not be a defence against external, mundane effects. Love, she felt, could be overcome and defeated when the hour arrived for his meditated act. She continued saying that his soul could not forfeit this unleashed wave of energy, for he lacked in guided spiritual strength. I listened to her, not believing that Oliver was what she said he was. She continued to whisper in fey tones, her cold, blanched lips sometimes touching mine, whilst the wretched heat and that irritating buzzing were driving me insane.

The evening passed without any other incident, although her tone and breathing touched strange chords in my heart. She was obviously ill, but I refrained from asking her if she needed anything, or if I could be of any help. No, I take that back, I am lying to you : the thought never occurred to ask her ! Instead, my thoughts reached out in search of Oliver’s face. She made some more tea, we chatted a while then I left without a kiss.

The following morning, the air was less oppressive when I visited her; perhaps I had regrets about leaving so abruptly. She wasn’t in, but on the broken tiles, slipped halfway under the door was a note. It was Oliver’s handwriting, who apparently in great haste, had scrawled something about coming over that evening at around seven. Slipping the note back in its place, I elected that it would be better if I divulged to Oliver the scope of his lover’s uncanny behaviour and affected revelations. Rescinding the idea however, I walked the streets until nightfall.

The torrid dampness of late autumn in Madrid painted a dismal picture at that empty hour. The baroqueness of the city took on a ponderous, eerie, melancholic aura. I felt plunged in some Edgar Poe intrigue, sensed the triviality of my gestures and acts. My nerves were on edge: could hours be so onerous ? I continued my dreary pacing without pangs of hunger or weariness of stride. Suddenly, I found myself at the small plaza just below my sick friend’s flat, and where, from her window, she had a full view of the statue at the centre of the square, a commemorative homage to a fallen hero whose name I no longer recall. He held a huge white cross in his clenched fists, his eyes gaping feverishly ahead of him. Checking my watch, I read two. Looking up at her window, I saw the lights flash. Her head popped out, and I asked myself if she had, for some enigmatic reason, sensed my presence. What an absurd thought! I, nevertheless, slipped behind the statue, and kept perfectly still.

Thank heavens the hour was late and no one was in the street. Otherwise, some sober or insomniac portero[1] would have certainly run to the police. I must have cut a ridiculous figure, skulking behind that wild-eyed, cross-bearing zealot. I chanced another glance at her window. She had vanished. Recalling our conversation last evening, and Oliver’s note in the morning, I debated whether it were wise to go straight up or call the police. I decided to go up. In any case, the police would have thought me drunk, and perhaps would even have thrown me in jail.

I darted across the plaza into the shadows of the adjacent building. I can assure you that I felt like a thief sneaking through those bleak, heated hours of the night. A hussy with brazen bangles clinking in sad obscurity happened to discover me in the shadows of the doorway. Throwing up her arms, she let out a shriek and ran off across the plaza, her high-heels rapping, tapping and clacking a monotonous dirge upon the crooked stones. I speedily entered the building of Oliver’s lover. Happily the portero was either asleep or decidedly drunk. The stairway lay quiet.

My imagination was racing. Would she actually kill him ? How could she have ever conjured up such an extravagant idea ? Was she turning her destructive forces against Oliver because he had so oftentimes agreed to our platonic triad as the very proof of her incapacity to love just one man … or love any man ? Or was it her untamed inner drive set against society’s cruel hypocrisy of condemning a human being’s marginal existence as it played out in the complexity of an ever-shifting triangle ? It is true, however, that within the spheres of every man’s mind, dark moments instigate arrogance and envy to chase out reason and replace it with the urge to turn to crime and passion. I made haste, almost tripping on the last carpeted step.

I was startled to find her door ajar. I hesitated before I entered, apprehending what the consequences could be if my intrusion proved untimely … In one way or another. Oliver mustn’t know I suspected foul play. As for his lover, at this point I could not care a fig. It was merely a friendly visit. At two in the morning?

I strode boldly into the nondescript sitting room, stealing a glance at her. She stood there, gaping at me in bewilderment. Then a silly grin played across those thin, ghastly lips. She pointed to the mahogany table where the bloodstained corpse of Oliver lay, a kitchen knife thrust deep within his breast. I quickly shut the door then raced back to Oliver’s still warm body. She remained standing with that same plastic grin spread over a face of grotesque scorn.

Oliver was stone dead, his heavy body losing blood fast. A huge crimson pool formed under the mahogany table. Not a word passed between us. She scrutinised me, though, with a sort of curious air. Finally I stood, took hold of her shoulders, and signalled with a nod of my head to Oliver’s corpse. She pushed me away roughly, asked me to put aside my air of feigned mystery, then turned to make some coffee. I couldn’t believe the whole scene. Oliver lay murdered in the most despicable fashion and she sails off to the kitchen to make coffee! And that same damned fly kept buzzing about above me, flustering further my already knotted thoughts. I suddenly realised that I had walked into a terrible predicament. For all I knew she could have called the police, pinning the crime on me. Had I touched the knife ? No, thank God …

I glanced down at Oliver, my last thoughts finding their way into his, into our close, confidential past. We had so much in common, so much had been shared, and … and then she entered our manly nobleness, disrupting our toilsomely constructed dialectics. Had we not planned a long voyage to the East to spend a few years studying Eastern philosophy? The murderess returned with the utmost aplomb and placed the silver tray on the mahogany table round which the odour of thick, oozing blood wavered in wisps of despair.

I observed her carefully. She didn’t seem to be waiting for the police. Yet, she held her cup of coffee so delicately, as if that were the very cup with which she would scoop up Oliver’s blood and drink with it! I shuddered at this ridiculous image, again glancing at the Oliver’s frozen-white face. It was a mask of incomprehension … of unabashed innocence ! She asked me to sit, and soon began her morbid tale :

Oliver came as expected, carrying with him his usual pile of books. I interrupted to ask her which ones but she gritted her teeth and told me to keep my mouth shut. She didn’t like his books, they were foul, blasphemous and degrading to a pleading soul. But she loved him dearly, and that was enough for her to disregard these heinous felonies. This was the very reason for his death, she panted, her breath odious, nostrils wide. She loved him so much, but his books were soiling his pure, inborn thoughts. Those books were the external elements hacking away at his candid soul, squeezing him dry of his instinctive, natural energies derived from the inner depths, a gift from the Almighty. His poor, poor soul was incapable of overcoming these assailing evil elements from without. Oliver was a coward ! He dared not face extremities in fear of direct confrontation. She understood his dilemma, pitied him, sought to salvage him. He came to her explicitly for redemption. Oliver’s soul had to be soothed, then redeemed. She read it on his face, not in his vile books. His eyes had gone wild, the world blotting out his innate goodness. Weakening from these destructive powers, she tried to save him with her tenderness and love. This he took as mockery, throwing her savagely to the floor. She fully understood now that he had been ensnared by his own constructed cage of bookish death-traps.

She asked him if he wanted to die. The cage of death imprisoned him. He couldn’t break the iron bars, preferring to grapple with his gnomic books, boding his own plunge into the pits of slime and filth. He went berserk — tearing out her books from their shelves, stamping on them like some lunatic. And while he did so, she went ever so quietly into the kitchen to retrieve the salutary knife. He stopped, and eyed her funnily; what was the need of a knife? In that instant she went up to him, holding the life-saving helve firmly in hand. Oliver put out both hands but the blade was already deep inside his chest. She sighed as his big body slumped peacefully at her feet. He had been finally liberated from ignominy. Nothing again would ever harm him …

I listened in awe, and during those minutes (hours?) of madness a cold sensation slithered up my spine: she could kill me, too! The deadly killer was not strong, but her terrible tale left me hollow, defenceless. Her eyes searched mine, studying me, reading me. Are not the eyes the windows of the soul ? She walked towards the corpse, then burst into peels of harrowing laughter. I jumped up. She wrenched the knife out of Oliver’s chest and brandished it high overhead.

Dashing to the door, I heard footsteps and great gasps of breath right behind me. They resounded eerily as they followed mine down the stairway, my gait diminishing at each footfall downward. Into the street I charged, and hied to the statue. Only once had I gained the statue, I chanced a glance behind me. There was no one …

At home I resolved to run to the police, though, I couldn’t summon the nerve to make the move, much less the strength to descend back into the streets. I was frightened of the ill-lit, lonely lanes of cobblestone. And that insufferable heat and mugginess … Perhaps she was looking for me. She did have my address, I was sure of that. Unable to sleep, I sat at the window, scanning the narrow lanes below. The night was calm, not a soul passed, not a sound to disturb the hollow darkness. A light drizzle began to fall, the tiny drops flickering like silvery tinsel under the sallow, mournful street lamps.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, mooning confusedly in my flat, and before going to the police, I resolved to make a bee-line to her place to see if anything might have happened to her after my flight. With the new day, albeit a sunless one, all my feelings of insecurity had left me, and I felt strong enough to climb those wooden stairs and knock at her door. She didn’t answered … I turned the knob. Her door had been left unlocked.

Stealthily I inched my way into the sitting room, she apparently had gone out. But that infernal fly still hovered round the chandelier as if it had been sent by some Higher Spirit to hound me, to testify and vouch to the gruesome events of the evening before. And the loathing stench of blood ? And Oliver’s corpse ? Then I espied a note on the mahogany table, set beside the silver tray and empty coffee cups. In her customary scribble, the murderess had written that she would take the night train to an unspecified destination.

I looked around in a panic. Where had she hidden the body? I shuddered at the idea that my fingerprints were smudged on almost every item of that flat. She had completely gone mad, and I … yes I … what could I do ? Her friends (for I’m sure she must have had some lady friends) would definitely visit her, and when they found her gone, would believe something was amiss and go to the police station. Mine and Oliver’s names would be noted in all her address and notebooks, and there is no doubt that she had often spoke of us to those lady friends of hers. I could very well be suspected, even accused. Oliver and I were so close, so intimate. One need not be a Sherlock Holmes to put two and two together. And what did I care if she loved Oliver more than me ? Could the police possibly think that I would have murdered him for such a silly motive ? If so, then why hadn’t I murdered her ?

I dragged my feet out of the building and back to my dismal dwellings, where I am presently finishing this deposition for the police. I expect them very shortly now, I think it has been three days since the murder. At the same time, I feel as if I’m writing out a confession, or a death warrant for her, who, perhaps with very good reason, has put much distance between the scene of the crime and myself. As to Oliver, well, his soul now must lie somewhere far beyond the uncertainty of love, hatred and zealous misfortune … Did it not comprehend that our earthly existence was but a fleeting souvenir of timeless Eternity ?


[1] porter

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Slices from Life

Getting My Nemesis

By Erwin Coombs

You might be wondering how on earth Dusty, the cat, played such a huge role in my downfall. I suppose I should use the defence that the title of this piece is nothing more than literary license because for one thing, I have never had a downfall. Oh, I’ve had many falls and stumbles, but no major catastrophic tragedy that cast me into the pits of despair. I suppose rather than the pits of despair, I have just visited the suburbs of despair. And having lived in the suburbs, I don’t mind equating these two. That is one of the many wonderful things about life, that we can fall, but invariably we rise again, as it is said in a part of the Bible I can never remember, though I fall I shall rise. Confucius said it as well: that our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. The title of this book is misleading, to an extent. I never fell, absolutely, and Dusty had nothing to do with my stumbles. In fact, she was a factor in helping me to get up again and again. A cat? Yes, one might be amazed at the soothing companionship that pets offer generally. I don’t mean all pets. I can’t imagine a turtle, for example, offering solace at the end of a rotten day at work or after your partner has just told you that you are now a lone wolf and good luck with your future. But let me get back to when I finally decided to get a cat.

I was on my own and had rented a bachelor apartment. I was determined to have a pet, particularly a cat, as cats had been a big part of my life since I found the stray Dickens twenty years ago. It was the first of the month, moving day, and as I had not a lot to move for reasons to long to go into, I thought I wouldn’t go a day without company, so I asked my daughters to come with me to the Humane Society to pick one out. My eldest daughter was a little hesitant as she and her boyfriend had adopted a dog few months earlier and had to return it, for reasons once again too long to go into. As a result, she felt that she was blacklisted and that her picture was up on screens and walls and would somehow be subject to abuse at the hands of the workers there. I tried to explain that these people were very well intentioned and likely not wanting to seek revenge for the return of an animal. I mean, I asked her, what could they possibly do? Shame her in front of the other caged animals? Sick a wild pack of rabid pooches on her? But she was nervous enough that she left the choosing of my cat to me and Josie.

My other daughter and I went cruising through the rooms looking at the imprisoned beasts. Any visit to one of these places can be sad. They really do look like prisoners as they pace their small spaces and when you pass by a cage, they seem to do their best to be alluring, realizing on some level, that this stranger might just be their ticket out of Sing-Sing. They rub up against the bars and look at you with these pleading eyes that seem to say, “Please like me, take me home.” It’s every meathead’s dream of what a single’s bar should be like but isn’t for meatheads. My daughter finally found one that she connected with and told me to come over and have a look. It was an American Shorthair, grey and with lovely kind, green eyes. The assistant opened the cage for me and let me put my hand in to have a pet. It was a lovely meeting until the blood was drawn. Mine, I mean, not hers. She lashed out not too fiercely at my hand and I pulled back too late. Josie looked up at me and said,

“Dad, you moved too quickly!”

My argument was that the quick move was the result of having been assaulted and not the cause, but she was intent that this was the one for me and so, naturally, I agreed, as I held my hand up to prevent my life’s blood from escaping.

“There not used to being touched, poor things.” said the worker.

I looked at my gash and wondered if there would be any pity for me, or only another condemnation at having been doing jazz hands in a cat’s cage, but there was none. Nevertheless, I agreed to take this one home and started the paperwork. The woman across the desk took my particulars and my cheque and told me, quite casually.

“And we won’t charge you for the cream.”

“Cream?” I asked, “What cream?”

For a moment I thought that they were going to offer an antibacterial tube for my hand given that one of their inmates had attempted murder on me. But not even close.

“The cream for her backside” came the “as if you didn’t know” response.

“Why would I need cream for her backside?” I asked bracing myself for an answer I knew wouldn’t be pleasant. I mean, any conversation around creams and cat’s backsides is not going to work out well, and this one didn’t.

“As you probably noticed, the kitty is a little bit bigger than she should be.”

A little bit? This was one fat cat. Cats as a rule are about as sedentary a creature as you’ll find so being a little bit chunky is par for the course, but this one was two pars for the course. I didn’t mind as I thought I’ll get her slimmed down with a gym membership and controlled diet.

“And the cream on her anus will help her lose weight?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh no, it’s just that she is so big she can’t really reach her anus to clean it, so she has a wee bit of an infection. The cream will help clear it up. Twice a day, but I suggest you wear a glove as you do it.”

If there was one thing I didn’t need a suggestion about as to when to wear a glove it was that. I didn’t relish the idea with a glove anyway. We took her back to my sparsely furnished new apartment and put her down on the floor while I set up the all-important pooh box and, more important to her, the food and water bowl. She was still a nameless cat, so I asked the girls as I was busying myself rushing about, as much as one can in a bachelor apartment, setting up for my new roommate,

“Well girls, what should we name her?”

“Dusty.” Came the immediate response from Josie. And it made sense as she was a gray furred kitty with lovely white bits as well.

“Because she’s gray?” I called out from the bathroom as I scooped kitty litter into the target box.

“No.” said Josie. “Because she’s eating a fluff of dust.”

And that is my cat, Dusty. As if being so obese that you can’t clean your own backside wasn’t evidence enough, she has an eating compulsion that will not stop, even at dust. But we forged strong bonds and became good friends. As a matter of fact, there is a gay theatre in Toronto called Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Company, and they are quite good. So, from day one I would refer to Dusty and I as just that, buddies in bad times. Of course, the times weren’t bad exactly, but they were certainly getting better.

Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

Categories
Musings

An Existential Dilemma

By G Venkatesh

Thermodynamics’ – the word itself evokes images of entropy and chaos (heat and disorderly motion). However, it is a science which looks for the elusive order in the chaos its name evokes. There is classical thermodynamics – the macroscopic sister to statistical thermodynamics which is the bottom-up approach to understanding the behaviour of systems (studying the parts with the expectation of understanding the whole). While the classical is a mere approximation (better than not able to describe at all), the statistical is a mere prediction (something close, but not exactly).

During a period of intense and painful introspection in a coffee shop in Karlstad, Sweden, an idea perhaps floating around in the realm above the astral, settled on yours sincerely.

Picture a closed cylinder filled with ‘ideal’ gas. Students of thermodynamics often befriend the ‘ideal’ gas ideally, even though this friend is just an illusion. The gas is composed of numerous molecules, which are moving around at random, colliding with each other and with the walls of the cylinder. Indeed, over any period of time, all the molecules do not suffer the same number of collisions with others, or for that matter, do not ‘bang’ into the inner wall of the cylinder to be ricocheted back into the pack, at identical frequencies.

If the cylinder is opened for a short period of time, and then closed, some gas would leak out. Of course, while all molecules may look alike, what they experience within the cylinder is never the same for all of them. Some molecules would leak out into ‘freedom’. That seamlessly brings us to our analogy with souls on Earth.

Now, replace the small cylinder with our planet Earth. And the gas molecules with individual human souls. Pause for a minute and you would perhaps be able to visualise. Souls trapped in human bodies wander about on Earth, interacting with others (analogous to the collisions among molecules), supposedly reaping the rewards of their  karma, repeatedly. Let us assume that the law of action and reaction holds good, indisputably, the reaction in this case being from the universe or God. Just as one defines the quality of energy as ‘exergy’, if one conceives a property which represents the qualities (degrees) of good deeds, bad deeds, rewards and punishments, and labels the same as ‘exergy’ then, it must follow that:

  1. Exergy (Good deeds) = Exergy (Rewards)
  2. Exergy (Bad deeds) = Exergy (Punishments).

In other words, the higher the quality of a good deed, the better the reward, and the graver the bad deed, the more serious the punishment. Now, does this apply to every individual soul during its sojourn on earth in a specific bodily envelope? Does one find a perfect correlation? Definitely not. After all, the equations used to understand the state and behaviour of gases, do not apply to every single molecule, do they? We tend to easily tide over this impasse, just as we do in thermodynamics, by theorising that:

3. Σ Exergy (Good deeds) = Σ Exergy (Rewards)

4. Σ Exergy (Bad deeds) = Σ Exergy (Punishments)

If someone wishes to know the time period over which these summations apply, one will say that this would be the entire length of time humankind will walk on Terra Firma, and for all the reincarnations of all the souls.

Indeed, I or you will not be able to test this in any way, just as we would never be able to summarily and conclusively prove that there is life after death, while we are walking around on Earth. Further, how does one define the quality factor of good deeds and rewards, punishments and bad deeds? Who decides? So, that is that! We then turn to the Bible or the Gita or the Koran or the Zend Avesta or the Guru Granth Sahib or the Torah or any other religious text just as we refer to textbooks of thermodynamics for those equations.

For generalisations. To simplify and pretend that we understand everything, or to be humble enough to admit that we do not. To calm our minds and believe that our turn would come. We would never know where we are placed in the queue to receive rewards or accept punishments. After all, like those molecules inside the cylinder, we are tossed about here and there, and find ourselves at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong set of ‘molecules’ around us. ‘My turn would come’, implies being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. They give this a name – divine timing. Is it random? I do not know. Neither do you.

Which souls (molecules) would ‘leave deceitful knaves for the higher and better society of gods and goddesses’ (from a play referred to by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay called  ‘Heroism’ in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and when, none knows. Surely, the equations (1) and (2) will never hold true for you when the time comes for you to ascend to the astral realm. You may either have been very fortunate or extremely unfortunate; may have got a fair-enough deal, or may have been scapegoated ever and anon. You would need to return to help equations (3) and (4) to manifest themselves at the fag end of the human race – perhaps at the Big Crunch or much before that….again, just as the gas molecules which are ‘freed’ may be brought down by rain again to the terrestrial hydrosphere, to cycle back and forth.   

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Bhaskar's Corner

Fakir Mohan: A Tribute

By Bhaskar Parichha

Fakir Mohan Senapati. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The 19th century Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati was a most oblique writer — he hardly said or meant anything in a straightforward manner. Much of his work is ironical and satirical, and of course irony and satire work through indirection, by way of the meaningful glance rather than the plainspoken word. Yet irony, while aiming to surprise, can sometimes be applied too predictably, and then it becomes as unsubtle as the more homespun narrative mode it disdains. Thankfully, this is not the case with Senapati: he worked with a very light and delicate hand.

-Chandrahas Choudhury (Author of ‘My Country is Literature–Adventures in the Reading Life’)

Father of modern Odia literature, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s birth anniversary is around the festival of Makar Sankranti (mid-January) every year. There are a bevy of festivals by various names celebrated across India during this period.

As a novelist, short story writer, poet, philosopher, social reformer and forerunner of Odia nationalism, Senapati (1843-1918) played a foremost role in establishing the distinct Odia identity. But for his sweat over a lifetime, Odia — which is today India’s sixth Classical language — wouldn’t have survived the onslaught by adjoining vernaculars. The life of Fakir Mohan is undeniably the story of the “resurgence” in Odia literature. He protected the Odia language from near extinction.  

Mallikashpur village of Balasore district neighbouring West Bengal is where Senapati began his formal education — when he was nine years old. Since he could not pay for his tutoring, he is said to have even worked at his teacher’s house to pay the fee. Balasore’s Mission School was his Alma Mater, and he went to become a teacher where he served until 1871. Still later, he rose to become the headteacher. Around this time, he started teaching Odia to the Balasore Collector John Beames. 

Fakir Mohan learnt English all by himself with the help of a dictionary. He readto read several famous classics — Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, the English Bible, and Bengal Peasant Life by Lal Behari De — he started learning English at twenty-three. Fakir Mohan’s instinctive wisdom was recognised even by foreigners. 

The early life of Fakir Mohan was one of courage and dexterity.  His accomplishments were amazing. A multi-tasker, Fakir Mohan, even worked as a labourer in a port. He ventured into the wood and paper business having worked in a press only to become an editor. Besides being a teacher, Fakir Mohan became a dewan of Athagarh and later of Tekkali in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.

In the second phase of his life, Fakir Mohan worked as administrator in the princely states of Nilgiri, Dampada, Dhenkanal, Daspalla, Pallahara and Keonjhar. As a manager, Fakir Mohan was very efficient and successful. During Keonjhar Praja Meli (people’s agitation against the feudal lord), he escaped cleverly writing a symbolic letter to the king. 

Mayadhar Mansingh, another celebrated, Odia called Fakir Mohan the ‘Thomas Hardy of Odisha’. He had the ability and expertise in whatever arena he laid his hand on. These prodigious abilities were reflected in his later-day writings as well. Although Senapati translated from Sanskrit, wrote poetry, and tried numerous forms of literature, he is known primarily as the father of modern Odia fiction. His four novels, written between 1897 and 1915, mirror the socio-cultural conditions of Odisha during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

The time in which Fakir Mohan lived was the darkest period in the history of modern Odisha. The infamous ‘Naanka’ Famine of 1866 — which one third of the region’s population — hurt the economic and social condition of Odisha beyond recovery. The deprivation during this period has been documented in many of his stories and novels. In course of time, he emerged as a novelist of rare caliber not only in Odia but also in a pan-Indian setting.

Senapati’s Rebati (1898) – recently translated into thirty-six Indian and foreign languages — is widely recognised as the first Odia short story. It is the tale of a young innocent girl ‘Rebati’ whose desire for education in the context of a backward conservative society went beyond the ordinary. The village where the protagonist lived was hit by the killer epidemic, cholera. Rebati’s grandmother – the last survivor — believed that it was the craving for education that brought misfortune to the family. In fact, ‘Rebati’ was one of the earliest stories in the realm of world pandemic literature.

‘Randipua Ananta’ is a story of a very notorious, errant youth who in the end transforms himself. While the flood water entered the village through a hole of the river-embankment, Ananta pulled the wooden door of his house and covered the hole standing as the supporting pillar and asked villagers to pile soil onto it. Gradually, his body heaped-up up and at last he was buried. Ananta dedicated his life to the welfare of the village and was a rare character in the Odia short story genre. 

Dak Munshi (The PostMaster), ‘Sabhya Zamindar‘ (The Educated Feudal Lord), ‘Patent Medicine’, ‘Adharma Bitta‘ (The Ill-gotten Money) are the other famous stories for which Senapati is known far and wide. But, it is the   three novels — Chha Mana Atha Guntha  (Six and a third Acres,1902), Mamu (Maternal Uncle, 1913)and Prayaschita (Penance, 1915) — which have made  Senapati immortal because they explored the realities of community life in its manifold dimensions.

Chha Mana Atha Guntha is the first Indian novel to deal with the exploitation of landless peasantry by the feudal system. The importance of this novel is that it was written much before the October revolution and even before the emergence of Marxist ideas in India. Set in Orissa in the 1830s, it is about village politics, caste oppression, social malpractices, and land-grabbing under the zamindari system in colonial Odisha. Both a literary work and a historical document this novel provided a unique ‘view from below’ of Indian village life under colonial rule. Ten years after this novel came Mamu.

Prayaschita was the last of Fakir Mohan Senapati’s  ‘trilogy of crime and justice’ novels — to use the epithet coined by the eminent Senapati scholar John Boulton. It was published just three years before the death of Fakir Mohan. The novel is unique because it sheds light on Senapati’s increasingly dark and tragic perception of colonialism. The novel was a defender of the traditional values and the Hindu way of life which the writer saw was gravely threatened by an alien value system of the British which had made huge inroads into Indian society.

Lachhama is another novel by Senapati dealing with the anarchic conditions of Odisha in the wake of Maratha invasions during the eighteenth century. It narrates the historical romance of Rajput lady Lachhama and her husband Badal Singh, in the backdrop of the political disturbances between the Mughals and Marathas to gain supremacy in Odisha. The story is set in a period of early advent of the British in India during which Nawab Alivardi Khan was Governor of Bengal. The depiction of love, honor, courage and revenge of the woman protagonist Lachamma is significant.

Fakir Mohan also wrote the first-ever autobiography in Odia – Atma Jeevan Charita. It gives a socio-cultural account of Odisha along with the novelist’s own life spanning over half a century and makes for prodigious reading.

Senapati wrote a long poem, Utkal Bhramanam, in 1892. Literally meaning Tour of Odisha, this poem is not a travelogue but a commentary on the state of affairs of that time, written satirically. He has also translated the Mahabharata, the Gita, the Ramayana and Boudhavatar Kavya into simple Odia verse.

Fakir Mohan’s innovative technique, ineradicable characters, humour, imaginativeness, and the insights into the rural milieu had few parallels. His contribution to Odia language and its revival was immense.  

Senapati was a great genius, a versatile personality and an ardent literary artist who breathed his last on June 14, 1918, when Odisha hadn’t become a separate province for which Senapati fought relentlessly. He is unsurpassed and commands great respect among the authors. In the words of Dr. J.V. Boulton, Fakir Mohan is the Gorky of Odisha. The  Dhammapada estate conferred on him the enviable title Saraswati. He was also endowed with the title of Katha Samrat (Emperor of Fiction) and is rightly called Vyasakavi

His fiction and short stories reflected the theme of social realism, societal reform, and preservation of cultural values. Fakir Mohan dedicated his whole life to the development of the native language in the late 19th and changed the course of Odia literature.

Fakir Mohan is to Odia what Prem Chand is to Hindi and Rabindranath Tagore is to Bengali literature.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
The Observant Immigrant

Is Sensitivity a Strength or a Weakness?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Rodin’s The Thinker. Courtesy: Creative Commons
“I may be a dreamer, 
 But I’m not the only one.” 
 -- John Lennon (Imagine). 

As a child I remember understanding on a very basic level the concept of cruelty. I recall vaguely thinking in the simple way children think; “Why is that person so mean?” It wasn’t because I wasn’t getting what I wanted and stomping my foot, it was more observing a cruelty and trying to make sense of it. Bottom line, children understand these things pretty early on and it forms what becomes their moral compass.

We can and do change over time but those early lessons tend to stick around. My early lesson was that I recognised that I cared. I observed that some other people did care too and some other people did not. I think ever since then I have wondered why some people are cruel.

More recently there has been a debate of sorts over the ‘value’ of being sensitive. Can you be too sensitive? Is there value in being sensitive? The issue is split. Some believe sensitivity is a weakness. Others recognise it makes life harder. Some think sensitivity is related to mental illness, whilst some believe we need more sensitivity in this world.

As a therapist I am often asked this question. I have also asked it of myself. I tend to berate myself when I am ‘too’ sensitive, but this is a learned behavior, based on being shamed for being sensitive in the past. The truth is I think you can literally speaking be too sensitive (for your own good, because it’s you who is hurt most by it) but most people who are told ‘you are too sensitive’ are being gaslighted or manipulated.

Through my life I have been told so a few times. Predictably, I felt ashamed because society perceives sensitivity as weakness. I consider myself a strong person, a resilient person, but I know the way I’m perceived by those who know I’m (also) sensitive, is weaker. This has never been truer than since moving to America, where the ‘bad ass’ mentality rules and women over-compensate by being emotionless and ‘strong’ as a rebuke against sensitivity.

Sensitivity is out of fashion; it has been for a long time. Maybe, by rejecting sensitivity, people believe they are automatically stronger (and perceived by others to be) we hold up role-models of impossibly strong people who are not depicted as sensitive. None of us seem to revere sensitive, kind people. On the contrary, we usually suspect them. We admire the person who is sarcastic, quick-witted, a little ruthless, and undefeatable. Therefore, I will seem like a sensitive person trying to justify sensitivity by writing this. And you wouldn’t be wrong. I think sensitivity has a bad rap and I’m personally tired of how insensitive people are. I don’t think this is commendable, cooler or something to aspire to, but sometimes I feel I’m in the minority.

Most recently I had two conversations within a day of each other, where I was told ‘maybe you’re being too sensitive’ and shortly after that I talked to a good friend of mine about this. Her answer got me thinking about the way sensitivity is perceived and how wrong-headed we are. She said ‘well maybe more people should be sensitive’ and those simple words were a bombshell. Exactly! We wouldn’t have to go around covered in armor if people were more sensitive! We wouldn’t have to be ‘bad ass’ if others were kind and thoughtful!

When did we become a people who worshipped coldness over warmth and compassion?

I might sound like a spiritual evangelist writing this, and ironically, I don’t believe in God, but many of my concepts are in keeping with those you might see in the Bible. Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Be compassionate and kind to those who need it. Those are not concepts we enact, instead we admire the person who is rude, emotionless, ruthless even. What happened to make this happen?

When I left university the first time, armed with my degrees I thought (naively) I could go out into the world and get a good job. Why shouldn’t I have thought that? I had worked hard I deserved it, didn’t I? When I recall how I thought back then, I was really a naïve person (though I thought I knew everything) with no comprehension of how hard the world could be. Not only was the job-market seemingly impenetrable, but nobody was impressed with anything I had to offer, and I felt utterly deflated within a short period of time.

Some would say bringing down a peg or two is a rite most young people go through when they get into the real world. But I still recall that time as being one of deep despair and sadness, to imagine a world that wasn’t fair or kind. I had genuinely thought it could be! The struggle to establish myself financially was uphill and took a long time. During which I experienced repeated knocks to my confidence and was told over and over that I was nothing/nobody. It seemed like colleagues, bosses, etc. thrived on putting down the young people who got on the first rung of the ladder.

I have never forgotten that. I ask people even now if they had the same experience(s); Some say yes, some say no. Initially I took it personally because it felt personal, but I came to realise it was a rite of passage, where young people were put down and put in their place by those who had come before them. It remains a horrible practice with no real value, after all, we need to believe in ourselves, not be trashed and put down. For some, it may be easier to get over than others. I was in the latter camp. I had grown up being put down, so the last thing I needed was for it to happen again.

This is when the idea of grin and bear it, muscle through, take it or leave it, man up, comes into play. This is but one of many times in life where the emphasis is on being ‘strong enough to endure it’ and to put aside one’s true feelings about a situation (outrage, hurt, confusion) in favor of ‘sucking it up.’ Given that I had not joined the military, I found the urge to react this way very strange. I wanted instead to ask why it had to be this way, why people let it be this way?

This relates back to my earliest understanding that some people are cruel. But our response to some people being cruel is weird. Instead of calling them out and doing something collectively about it so that they do not continue to have the power to be cruel, we seem to want to join them? The shaming of those who are sensitive seems a way to a line with those who would be cruel, even as logically all those who a line with the cruel, might once have been sensitive.

Why do we think being sensitive is such a weakness when it is far weaker to be a hard-nosed uncaring person who doesn’t give to anyone, than to be a caring person who wants to treat others as they would wish to be treated? I can’t say I understand it now any better than I did years ago. When my clients ask me, I remain as perplexed at people’s cruelty as I ever have. There simply seems no good justification for it. And moreover, why people glorify cruelty and think kindness is ‘suspect’ ‘insincere’ or ‘weak’ baffles me.

Sensitivity means you notice when someone is upset and you care. Insensitivity means you don’t care to notice what happens to anyone and you don’t give a damn. When you put that bluntly, I find it hard to understand why someone would wish to be the latter, other than it’s easier, and might be less work. But what about conscience and morality? For many of us, we have that prickling of conscience if we have mistreated someone, we want to be a good person. We try to help others, so how could we ever want to align ourselves with someone who didn’t give a damn?

Yet how often, from the schooldays onward, do we see the popular kid is the mean kid, or the most liked child is the one who does nothing for others, but is considered ‘cool’ or the boss who is mean but somehow respected, or the adult who has lots of friends though they never do a thing to help others? It’s not always the kind, sensitive person who is popular, in fact their motivations are often suspected, and they might be considered weak and cloying.

Moving to America I struggled with this considerably. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, if I like someone, I do go out of my way to be a good friend to them. I think that’s how it should be. But my good intentions were often suspected, people would even say to me (as an insult) “you’re so NICE” (meaning: Boring) or they wouldn’t believe my kindness was genuine. As to being sensitive, I was told I was ‘too’ sensitive if I stepped over the formality people had with each other, where people didn’t really ask how someone was doing, or follow up and care enough to get closer.

In fact, I didn’t understand how people got close, because everything was so superficial and formal. I began to see that many friendships were just that, convenience based. Those who had children hung out with others who had children, and car pooled. Those who went to the gym talked to others who worked out a lot and maybe met on weekends to work out, etc. But the moment you no longer had that in common, you rarely kept in touch. The deep friendships I had sustained back home, seemed rarer.

I was told this was because you made those kinds of friendships in childhood and once you were an adult you didn’t make friends like that. I wondered why not? All the rules of friendship baffled me and the difficulty of getting meaningfully close to people seemed incredibly hard all of a sudden. With colleagues a work — those I had known for years and whom I worked with closely — I wrongly assumed we were also friends. But they saw me only as a tool for the job I did. They invested no more in me as a person as they would in someone they had just met, even if we worked side-by-side for years.

To this day that strikes me as strange. I’m not standing on a moral high horse saying that I can’t fathom these things, I think I’m just stating a fact. I find it difficult to understand why someone would be cruel. Why someone would make someone else feel bad (deliberately) or why someone would put someone else down for being ‘weak’ just because they’re sensitive and care. Since when were those ever-bad attributes? Could it be in our rejection of older morals, we have adopted ones that cut our nose off to spite our face?

Having been told people do not trust ‘nice’ people I began to understand what that meant. Sometimes socially when you meet someone who is initially really friendly, they turn out to be less than you imagined, whereas someone else, who was perhaps initially aloof, can turn out to be a great person. I have learned friendliness doesn’t always equate to good people. Sometimes it is a front or an act. However, if you are a genuine person and sensitive to others, this is more than just initial friendliness and yet, you might be suspected because of people’s previous experience with ‘kind or friendly’ people.

When did it become rare to be kind and when did we begin to be suspicious of kindness? Intellectually I understand it but emotionally it’s so strange. I have had conversations about related subjects such as why women don’t like other women (they think they are backstabbers) or why women aren’t feminists (their experience has been women are often worse to them than men, so why would they be a feminist?) and I think they’re all related themes.

When we can’t trust the motivations of others, we might suspect the worst if that is our prior experience. Nowadays we’re more liable to mistrust a kind person than someone who is aloof or sarcastic. We’ve got things around the wrong way. And all because some of us are cruel and delight in hurting others, which includes warping the truth. Because the truth hasn’t changed. Being sensitive means caring about others, and this should never be something to ridicule or deride. Nor is it weak.

If after reading this you conclude I’m writing this to justify my own sensitivity, then you wouldn’t be wrong. I hope you see it’s leading to a much bigger picture too. I also hope you know I am not justifying sensitivity emotionally but defending it based on reason and fact. After all, sensitivity isn’t all emotional. We have often mistaken sensitivity for some kind of mental illness but it’s nothing of the kind. True, some mentally ill people may be sensitive, but that’s all. Sensitivity, unless it’s pathological in its extremity, is a natural human response. But still those who wear their heart on their sleeve are humiliated by those who are still in the school yard.

I would love a world that embraced the idea you can be sensitive and strong, because I truly believe you can. I also like the idea of a world where people’s past experiences wouldn’t close them to trusting someone’s kindness, or suspecting kindness of motivation. Do we really want a world where we’re all so removed from each other we no longer care? Is that the world you want to live in? It’s not the world I want to live in. I want my boss to care if I’m struggling, I think on a logical, emotional and realistic level this will improve our relationship. I don’t think humans are robots or unconnected. I think caring is how we connect and I want to. Living in a disconnected world where nobody cares what happens to anyone else, seems a dystopian nightmare. As we grow in numbers this is logistically more likely to occur. Let’s at least let those who are sensitive, flourish rather than shut them down and shame them.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Editorial

The Caged Birds Sing

...Don't you know
They're talkin''bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper...
-- Tracy Chapman,'Talkin 'Bout a Revolution
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
— Bible 

We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?

Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?

That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.

“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”

Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’.  Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?

 Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.

In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices?  We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.

We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.

Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!

While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?

Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares, and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.

We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.

Have a beautiful month!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Musings

What Ramayan taught me about my parents

By Smitha R

Who knew a repeat telecast of a mythological series based on the life of a man/God would set me on the road to new discovery about my own parents. When Ramayan began to be re-telecast on the national television, I had no intention of being glued to it. I am not a big fan of men who abandon their wives, even if they are the Supreme Being/Leader. So, it was a surprise that I ended up watching a whole episode of the series with my family.

Now, you need to understand that the drawing room, where we have our TV, is the war room of my home. It is where all the wars in the family are fought so as to ensure those passing by our house know every minute details of the bombs being dropped. A stranger can walk into our house and determine how the hierarchy works by looking at who has the remote.

It is also the place everyone in my family rushes to while talking loudly on their mobile. They then proceed to glare at the occupants until the television is meekly muted. It is where we have our breakfast, lunch and dinner and where we perform acrobatics sitting on the sofa to avoid getting up when the maid comes to clean the room. It is where my mother finds it necessary to place a chair bang in front of the television so that 80% of the occupants get to watch her back and not what is on the screen.

Since my parents won’t let us have a slice of television time, I have, like a true scavenger, taken to stealing bits and pieces of their fun time. I do it by pestering my parents with intelligent queries about the dumb soap operas that they like to watch.

So, when I sat down together to watch Ramayan, after losing yet another remote war to my parents, I had every intention of ruining their fun. The over- the-top acting, the poor production and the almost hilarious expressions the actors had in the name of emotions gave me enough ammunition. I began a running commentary that could rival that of Navjot Sidhu, the cricket player turned commentator. But my mom was not pleased and she soon sent me to shell some peas. Yes, my mother, the innovator that she is, has over the years devised better punishment-cum-chores for her adult children when they outgrew their ‘face the wall’ disciplining.

As I sat with the peas, I could not but help notice the delight with which my mom watched the series. Her face mirrored every expression that the characters had. I felt bad for trying to ruin it for her and could not help but ask, “Why are you so excited about watching the re-run of a series you watched three decades ago?”

“I never watched it. We did not have a TV at home then,” she replied, still glued to the television.

“What, then how do I remember watching it?” I asked.

“You kids would go with your dad to the neighbour’s house to watch it on a Sunday. I had to cook for everyone, so I never came,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

 Suddenly it occurred to me that watching Ramayan on television was not the only thing my mother had given up. I remember going on trips with my dad on his scooter leaving my mom behind as the vehicle could not ferry all five of us. Everytime we went to do all the fun things, my mom voluntarily stayed back because a taxi was a luxury we could hardly afford. Three decades of living with my mom and there were chapters of her life I was never privy to. I decided to shut up and vowed to ask her more about her life as a young career woman with three kids once the episode came to an end.

Since multi-tasking was never my strength, I ended up ignoring the peas and actually watched Ramayan with my parents. While my parents seemed to follow the series, I felt like I had skipped several important chapters in the story.

So, when the episode came to an end, I had several queries. What forced King Dashrath to grant a boon to his third wife Kayekayi? What is Parsuram’s background? How come two avatars of Vishnu happened to inhabit the earth at the same time during Ramayan?

My dad seemed to know the answer to all the questions I had and that is when I discovered what an amazing story teller he is. As a kid, I don’t remember him ever reading us a bedtime story. A voracious reader himself, he bought us a lot of books but never read to us, maybe because he preferred Malyalam and we deviated towards English. I think it was also because both my parents were caught in the struggle to provide the three of us a decent living and at the end of the day, they did not have much energy to do anything other than order us to go to sleep, bedtime stories be damned.

I soon found out that he had extensive knowledge of Indian mythology and could weave a story that could put the best bards to shame. He had read the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible and could quote couplets from them with ease. When had he learned this? How is it that living in the same house I had missed so much about my own father? Why is it that despite having no pressure, I had not taken out the time to interact with my own parents? How had I taken them for granted to such an extent that so many aspects of their life had remained hidden from me?

As I interacted more with my parents over Ramayan I realised that they had earned the right to hog the remote. It was their attempt at ‘having fun’ at an age where their health limited the avenues for entertainment. For them, it was not mindless television watching. It was their way of relaxing after a life spent giving up on things. The way they saw it, it was time for the kids to return the favour.

Smitha R is a former journalist with a passion for travel that often fails to take into consideration her poor financial health. When she is not whipping up a disaster in the kitchen, she is busy distributing ‘an honest opinion’, unmindful of the perils..