Categories
Slices from Life

The Death of a Doctor

By Ravi Shankar

Zhi-Khro mandala, a part of the Bardo Thodol’s collection, a text known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which comprises part of a group of bardo teachings which originated with guru Padmasambhava in the 8th Century. Courtesy: Creative Commons

My friend, Dr Ramesh Kumaran first shared the shocking news with me on WhatsApp. Along with a recent photo, the caption mentioned ‘Mourning the sudden and untimely of our dear Joseph Francis (6th batch). May his soul rest in peace. 6th October 2022.’ I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. This was the first mortality among our MBBS batch mates. One of our friends died when he was studying for MBBS, but he had left the course and was suffering from a prolonged illness. Some of our batch mates had close encounters with death during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.   

I was reminded of my own mortality and the fact that we often forget that our time on earth is limited. None of us know when exactly or how we will die. This I believe is a good thing. Movies have explored the sad state of people who knew or supposed they knew when and how they would die. Humans stride through life assuming their immortality. We kill fellow humans indiscriminately. We learn to hate each other. We pursue wealth and power. When we leave our material existence on Earth, we can take none of the accumulated wealth and power with us. The ancient Egyptians believed otherwise and buried their Pharaohs with all they would need in the afterlife. Ordinary people had no such privileges. We do not know much about the afterlife. Here science ends and we enter the realm of religion.

I facilitated a module on Death and Dying for medical and other students and our ignorance about death is profound. Modern medicine has the motto of preserving life regardless of its quality. We have not been trained to let go and make a person’s remaining time on Earth worthwhile. This is slowly changing but change is slow. We do not live life assuming that any moment can be our last on Earth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) tells us to live each moment in a spiritually fulfilling manner and mentions that we all have the potential to break free from the cycle of reincarnation and become spiritually enlightened beings.

I first met Joseph when I joined the Men’s hostel and the undergraduate medical (MBBS) course at Thrissur, Kerala, India. Our seniors were prowling around our floor abusing us and one of my friends was crying as he had just been forced to take off his moustache. Ragging still exists in India and students who were abused by their seniors wait for the new intake to take revenge. You are not able to take revenge on the powerful, so you take out your anger on the powerless. We see this all around in the modern world.   

Joseph stayed in a room near mine, and we became friends though not extremely close. One of the things I still remember about him is that he used to write with a fountain pen and used black ink. Even in those days when writing was still common most of us used ballpoint pens. He had impeccable handwriting. Joseph was always a perfect gentleman and willing to help others. I believe we did a few of our internship postings together. We collaborated on skits and other presentations during the college day celebrations. I still remember our college trip to Trivandrum Medical College for the Intermedicos festival and we stayed and slept in the badminton court inside the Men’s hostel. Life was simpler in those days. We were beginning to see the end of the MBBS doctor and specialisation, and super specialisation was becoming common. I feel this is a sad development and an MBBS doctor is competent to treat most illnesses. In fact, evidence shows that most illnesses can be handled by a trained paramedic. In most European countries, care is mostly delivered by general physicians while in the United States care is mostly provided by specialists. The amount spent and the health status of these countries/regions tell their own story.  

During those days, failure in MBBS examinations was common. Anatomy at the end of the first MBBS and Medicine at the end of the Final MBBS had the maximum casualties. Grading was arbitrary and there were no clear rubrics to guide the scoring. I was lucky to have squeaked through the anatomy dissection and the medicine courses. Joseph was unlucky and mentioned this often as due to his failures, he could not appear for the entrance exam of PGIMER[1], Chandigarh, one of the top postgraduate institutes in the country. One could not appear for the entrance exams failing the MBBS. A lot of effort has gone globally into changing the assessment system in MBBS and making it fairer and more objective.

Joseph used to join us for an occasional game of basketball. I next met him at Ollur, near Thrissur, when I was doing my post-graduation. St Vincent de Paul hospital was a multi-specialty hospital. I had come down to Kerala for a few days and stayed with Job and Joseph, both medical officers with who I shared a large apartment.

Over the years I lost touch with Joseph, and I next interacted with him in 2018 when I joined a WhatsApp group of my classmates. Joseph was very active in the group and was working as an anaesthesiologist in the United Kingdom. Many of my batchmates were working in National Health Service (NHS) and they often would mention how the NHS is being steadily starved of funds. The COVID pandemic hit the medical community hard. Doctors in practice seem to be especially vulnerable. We discussed this and postulated that it could be because they are exposed to repeated doses of the virus in high concentrations from multiple patients. Many doctors had lost their lives; many others I know were in the Intensive Care Unit for prolonged periods of time. Two of my classmates in the UK had serious illnesses requiring hospitalisation and prolonged intensive care.       

I next interacted with Joseph when I was unable to make a bank transfer to the UK to pay for membership fees of a professional organisation. The transfer was not going through and eventually, I asked Joseph if he could do the transfer from his account in the UK, and I would deposit the money in his account in India. He readily agreed. Joseph was always very helpful. During the last two years, I have lost several friends. Two academic collaborators, one in Malaysia and the other in Yemen passed away. Colleagues I knew in Nepal died due to COVID complications.

Death can be a celebration of a person’s life. An Irish wake is one last party to honour the deceased. Unknown diseases plagued the Irish countryside causing a person to appear dead. Hence a person would be waked in the deceased’s home for at least one night. I had the exact fear while certifying death. What if the person then woke up and disputed my certification? I was very careful and meticulous while writing out a death certificate.     

These deaths have underscored my own mortality. As someone once said, death and taxes are inevitable. Accepting one’s own mortality and coming to terms with our eventual demise makes you aware of the folly of chasing power and glory and can contribute toward a gentler, more decent world. Climate change is a testament to human greed and folly. We are still uncertain how liveable Earth will be during the next hundred years. As Mahatma Gandhi said, we can satisfy human needs, but we cannot satisfy human greed!  

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[1] Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Categories
Essay

Epaar Bangla, Opaar Bangla:  Bengals of the Mind

Asad Latif

By Asad Latif 

If nations are imagined (but not therefore imaginary) communities, Bengal is a nation. The reality of nationhood rests on the quality of the imagination that goes into it. 

Calcutta, where I was born in 1957, provided me with a cartographic point of entry into the imagined geography of Bengal. My Bengal began with West Bengal, within which lay a rough face-to-face society rich in visual and oral provenance. The everyday homeliness of rural thatched mud huts were reflected in the high gabled roofs which contoured the spiritual skyline of Dakshineswar. Minstrel bauls walked through the soul, half-starved on their way to seeking salvation for everyone. The very soil of Bengal broke out in bhatiali song. The chau dancers of Purulia dramatised Hindu epics in a language emotively accessible to all. The energy of santhali dances invoked the performative agency of a tribal culture that refused to let pre-industrial and pre-state time lapse into contemporary irrelevance.   

Agricultural West Bengal encompassed the legacy of a land whose grasp was much longer and larger than the social circumference of middle-class life in Calcutta. In my own ancestral village in Hooghly district, a short train journey from Howrah station, boys my age could climb trees and run barefoot and naked across scorching soil, outpacing the shy urbanite in me. Young women, taught to avoid the roving gaze of male strangers, lowered their eyes to the ground in modest contemplation when men passed by. Farmers could bend unbearingly long to till the land, standing upright for only a few minutes before they resumed their toil. No one spoke English. No one needed to. No one needed me. I needed them.

To the west of West Bengal lay the rest of India. The “rest of the Indians” were decipherable. In Bihar and Odisha, once a part of Bengal Presidency, rump Bengal lived on in the linguistic and cultural traces of the colonial past. Farther west, West Bengal vanished into an eclectic Indian nationalism. I must say, though, that on a long train journey from Calcutta to Cochin in Kerala as a teenager, I thought (rightly or wrongly) that the particular shade of green found in the vegetation of West Bengal was lost till it was found in Kerala again. The renewed connection between Calcutta and Cochin made it possible for me to extend my Bengali-ness vicariously all the way to Kerala, making me quite a pan-Indian Bengali, I suppose. The connective nationalism of Indian Railways (like that of the State Bank of India) plays no small part in protecting the unitary reality of contemporary India. 

Farther to the west of the rest of India lay the lands of Islam. They began with forbidden territory: Pakistan. Pakistan embodied the Partition of India, the departure of space from Indian time. For me, West Pakistan was unknown terrain: No one I loved or hated lived there. But if, indeed, there was an “Islamic world”, then I certainly inhabited it subliminally. I was (and am) a Muslim. I belonged to the global efflorescence of a great faith that had spread into my birth and self-recognition. West Pakistan had nothing to do with it. My mother was a practising Muslim (after a fashion), my father was a practising atheist. As a five-day-old, I had been “adopted” by a childless Hindu couple who lived in the same block of flats as my parents. Nilima Kurup (née Bose) took me to temples, and Parameshwara Raghava Kurup, well-versed in the Vedas, stayed away from the Puranas. But no one made me anything but a Bengali indebted forever to the Islamic religiosity of South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. Certainly, I belonged to the lands of Islam. There was nothing vicarious about this. It is just that West Pakistan had nothing to do with my identity. I respected its existence even as it stayed indifferent to mine (since it had no idea that I existed). That was all.   

East Pakistan was different. I had relatives there on both my mother’s side and my father’s. I remember a childhood visit to my paternal uncle’s home in Narayanganj. It was raining. Unlike West Bengal (where rain falls on people), the people of East Bengal fall on the rain. A female cousin, all of six years old, made an excuse of going to the bathroom: instead, she took a bath in a roomful of rain as wide as the skies outside, within sight of the elders, dancing with the abandon of the water that flowed through her tresses, kissed her eyes, drenched her frock, and caused an uproar that led her to be dragged back to lunch, laughing unrepentantly. Meanwhile, her elder brother wanted to go to the “bathroom” as well. He was held back by his hair and resisted violently, raining cries of recrimination on everyone. Watching my wild bangal (native East Bengali) cousins in righteous ghoti (native West Bengali) awe, I decided that East Pakistan was too Bengali for me. 

But it was not to be. 

Bangladesh

Baker-ul Haque came to live next door to our flat in Nasiruddin Road, Park Circus, Calcutta, in 1971. A year younger, he caught up with me in historical time with vivid stories of how he and his family had escaped Bogra, trudging through forests as the Pakistani air force strafed fleeing civilians, people fell dead on the left and the right, his mother held on his elder sister’s hand, he grasped his younger siblings firmly, his father led on, and all of them made their way — to me. I doubted specific details of his heroic journey, but not his visceral courage. I witnessed it when my pet dog chased him to the fourth-storey terrace, he climbed on to the parapet and kept walking on it calmly, I held the dog back, and I implored Baker to climb down. He smiled at me insouciantly. It was only when he saw tears in my eyes that he relented. Once he was safely down, I wanted to give him a hearty kick, but settled for a rib-shattering hug instead. Epaar Bangla[1]wins when Opaar Bangla[2]is safe. 

Baker and his family lived next door, in the third-storey flat which the writer Syed Mujtaba Ali had occupied briefly earlier. Given his literary reputation, I stayed away from him, but he was rather fond of me, and I invaded his rooms whenever I found the door ajar. The family which stayed with my own family was that of Lutfar Rahman, an Awami League Member of the National Assembly from Khulna. Chachaji[3] smiled a lot but was fierce, chachiamma[4] was benign to a fault, their elder son Ornob took after his mother and their younger son Tulu (his pet-name) took after his father. Both brothers, who were much younger than I was, became mini companions on laughing excursions to the same terrace on which Baker had reduced me to tears.         

The liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971 (which happily and sadly soon saw Baker’s and Lutfar Chacha’s families returning to Bogra and Khulna) was my rebirth as a Bengali. I had been born into the bifurcated mythos of Bengal, which was first partitioned administratively in 1905 in an act rescinded in 1911, and then partitioned along national lines in 1947 to produce Pakistan. The partition of that Pakistan in 1971 produced an independent Bengali nation called Bangladesh. It is only in the years to come that I would understand the reasons for the ontological security of Bangladesh: it is a sated or satisfied nation because its borders guarantee the two conditions of its existence — that it be Bengali and Muslim in co-determinate measure — with provision being made for the rights of non-Bengalis and non-Muslims within its borders. Indeed, so successful has Bangladeshi nationalism been that its majority population finds it unnecessary to seek links with West Bengal to achieve cultural completion. That attitude is reciprocated in West Bengal, whose incorporation into the Indian ethos makes Bangladesh its closest neighbour, but a neighbour nevertheless. 

Yet, to look across the border within Bengal, to see its integrity, is to un-see its divisions. Bengal is named ground: To walk on it, even vicariously, is to recover the insights of Walter Benjamin [5]on his visit to Moscow. Benjamin’s delineation of Russia as named ground (in his Reflections) leads him to proclaim that “you can only see if you have already decided… Only he who, by decision, has made his dialectical peace with the world can grasp the concrete. But someone who wishes to decide ‘on the basis of facts’ will find no basis in the facts”. The facts are always too many. The facts are contested. The facts might not even be facts. But Bengal is decidedly one — not because of its successes but because of its vulnerabilities. 

The Refugee Within

The fragile figure of the refugee straddles the two Bengals. Achintya Kumar Sengupta’s[6] poem, Udvastu[7], rendered unforgettably in the recitation by Kazi Sabyasachi[8], is a part of an aural tradition without which it is impossible to re-imagine the Bengal that existed once. What makes the refugee central to the idea of Bengal as a state of mind is that she embodies the land’s biological unity and integrity in the very act of losing her place in its stolen geography. Bearing the scars of uprooting, dispossession and exile, the refugee socialises the pain which lasts long after the immediate displacement of enforced migration has passed. To seek refuge is to pass from basha to bariBasha is a temporary place of residence, no matter how long that temporarity lasts. Bari is an inherited abode which is both ancestrally personal and nationally interchangeable with desh, the native land. The udvastu or vastuhara[9] from East Bengal seeking refuge in West Bengal since 1947 had to contend with what Nilanjana Chatterjee calls “epistemological denial in India”, wherein those who had crossed the border were treated as an economic burden. 

The epilogue to the story of the refugees of 1947 was written in 1971, when it was the turn of Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan to join Bengali Hindus in seeking refuge in West Bengal. While the vast majority of refugees spent months in harrowing conditions, professional and other middle-class families were often hosted by middle-class families in West Bengal who could afford to do so. It was not unknown for the family of a Bengali Hindu, who himself had come from East Bengal in 1947, to share its basha with a Bengali Muslim family. The Bengali Muslim knew that he would return home if Bangladesh won the war. His Hindu host kept dreaming of a bari relegated forever to the nostalgic lay of a lost land. 

My family was more lucky. Our first trip to Bangladesh was to Lutfar Chacha‘s home in Khulna across the land crossing in Benapole. Of course, I enjoyed the royal spreads at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. But what filled my eyes was the sight of Ornob, Tulu and their little sister (by then), strutting about their home as if it was theirs. It was theirs. Bangladesh restored in me my extended sense of myself, my identity as a resident of Epaar Bangla who sought completion in the autonomy of Opaar Bangla. Soon after, I visited Baker in Bogra. At one dinner, his mother sat down just the two of us together. Naturally, I got the larger piece of fish in a bowl. I cooked up an excuse for Baker to go and look for something. I exchanged the bowls. He returned to eat. When we began with the vegetables, he exchanged the bowls. That insouciant smile again. I hate him. He has outwitted me always inspite of being a year younger.     

The refugee is the first citizen of imagined Bengal. She will also be the last. That is, without Bangladesh and West Bengal being the ultimate refuge of the transitional Bengali self, there will be no Bengal.  

There will be no me.

Birth matters. No one can be born in two places.

In his essay, “Englands of the Mind”, Seamus Heaney[10] registers the birthing role of place in the “interlacing and trellising of natural life and mythical life”; what a land does is to afford a man “nurture that he receives by living among his own”. Bengal forms a similar geography of the mind. It received me among my own. Life was material, which is to say that it veered from the banal to the brutal, but it was redeemed by the furtive companionship of the imagination.  The trellising which Heaney notes does not have to be idyllic. It rarely is. Australian writer Dorothea Mackellar’s[11] poem, “My Country“, written while she was homesick in Britain, captures the native lore of a land that her ancestors supposedly discovered for her. She writes: “I love a sunburnt country,/ A land of sweeping plains,/ Of ragged mountain ranges,/Of drought and flooding rains.” Australia is nothing without its enervating drought and its equally uncaring rain. Mackellar dismisses the pastoral epiphanies of a promised expatriate land, particularly “When sick at heart, around us/ We see the cattle die”. Natural disasters provoke her to reclaim art from nature. She redeems a wayward landscape by offering it refuge in her lines.

I am no Heaney or Mackellar. Bengal has no need to find refuge in my words. May these English words of mine find refuge in the lap of Bengal from which I sprung into life.  


[1] Epaar Bangla: This side of Bengal (West Bengal)

[2] Opaar Bangla: That side of Bengal (East Bengal or Bangladesh)

[3] Father’s younger brother is chacha and ji is an honorific in chachaji

[4] Father’s younger brother’s wife

[5] Walter Benjamin, German-Jewish man of letters and aesthetician (1892-1940)

[6] Achintya Kumar Sengupta (1903-1976), writer and editor in Bengali language

[7] Refugee in Bengali

[8] Kazi Sabyasachi (died 1979), a Bengali Elocutionist, Nazrul’s son

[9] Dispossessed in Bengali

[10] Seamus Heany, 1939-2013, Irish writer

[11]  Dorothea Mackellar, 1885-1962

 Asad Latif is a Singapore-based journalist. He can be contacted at badiarghat@borderlesssg1

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Categories
Slices from Life

King Lear & Kathakali?

By P.G.Thomas

With guttural grunts as from an alpha male on a testosterone high, King Lear in the opening scene strutted and swaggered as the drums and cymbals emphasised his every gesture and expression, in an act of supreme braggadocio.  His fool’s theatrical gestures of servility only enhanced King Lear’s demonstration of his character and of his mindset, which wonderfully set the stage for his actions and eventual downfall.

This was long ago in another time, in 2018 when the performance finally came home to India. It was being staged in Trivandrum, Kerala, finally.  Interesting and controversial, this opera had done its rounds in Europe, including the Globe Theatre in the 1970s, and had now come home to the land that had given birth to the dance form. 

I was watching an unusual intercultural presentation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, choreographed by French dancer Annette Leday and adapted for the occasion by Australian playwright David McRuvie.  It was being presented through the medium of Kathakali, the classical dance of Kerala.  The production seemed to have run the gauntlet of risks such intercultural attempts are prone to.  Besides much appreciation, the word ‘baffling’ had been used to describe it in the UK, and it was reported that informed Kathakali enthusiasts were left unmoved, for it seemed to be neither here nor there.  But for me it was a worthwhile experience, and I feel that if a viewer were to approach this opera without preconceived expectations, his would enjoy it better. 

Annette Leday, a Kathakali dancer herself, has choreographed this opera with aplomb.  David McRuvie has made the play suitable for Kathakali by drastically thinning the text and retaining only the story of King Lear and his daughters.  Much would have been lost here, but its suitability for this performance cannot be denied.  The role of King Lear is performed well by the Kathakali exponent Peesappilly Rajiv and the endearing fool brilliantly portrayed by Manoj Kumar.            

 A young tradition in comparison to other Kerala dance forms, Kathakali has retained a greater degree of innovation and improvisation, and this malleability has been tapped well by Annette.  Kathakali performances traditionally draw their subject from Hindu mythology, and portray archetypal characters and situations.  And King Lear’s story of kingship, inheritance, family disputes and dowry are all themes that an Indian audience would understand.

The elaborate costumes and face makeup are typical to characters portrayed.  And thus Goneril and Regan are presented with the black faces of demons, the radiant goodness of Cordelia is conveyed through minukku (shining) face makeup, and King Lear wears the garb of the anti hero.  But it is when the opera starts that one realises Kathakali’s gift for sheer theatre.  As the rippling drums and cymbals enliven the dance, the chanting tells the story, emotions flow from structured facial expressions and demonstrative gestures, and meaning flows from hand gestures called mudras.  It is a very structured art form, but with a wonderful ability to convey — through lively choreography and vibrant rhythmic percussion music — archetypal human situations and emotions.

Whatever the purists may say, this performance was hugely enjoyable and made unique with the intermingling of different cultural lores.

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P.G.Thomas, hailing from Kerala, India; has been intrigued by the changing phases of his land, its people and their way of life.  He draws on a lifetime of actual experience to write about it.   

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Stories

   A Riverine Healing         

By P.G.Thomas.             

                              

It all came back to Pappan in spurts; the rasp of his own laboured breathing, the sound of the runners’ bare feet slapping the wet mud pathway, and the choking sensation of fear welling up within him.  The flaming torches had streamed acrid smoke and sparks, and had lit their way through their flight that night.  They threw distorted shadows of the runners along the dense foliage rimming the pathway.  It had been in the late 1940s, and Pappan and his communist comrades had fled the sure retribution for their uprising in Kerala. 

Pappan wished he could suppress the memories of the shrieks of the landlord he had hamstrung that night.  It had all gone terribly wrong, and they had fled the scene as the wails of the women of the landlord’s household reverberated into the night. The wails had stubbornly clung to him throughout his life, and had lost none of their horror. 

 Pappan looked up from his reverie to the visitors who sat outside his home on a wooden bench.  They had come from the local communist party office to invite this old legend of a comrade to participate in the golden jubilee celebrations of the communist uprising.  Pappan’s reluctance had baffled his visitors.

The group leader persisted, “Comrade Pappan, we so need your presence at the golden jubilee celebrations.  You were the foundation on which this movement was built in this area.”

Pappan demurred, “All that was a very long time back.  I have not been involved for some time now.”

“Many will be disappointed by your absence.”

Pappan grunted an understanding of the matter; but said nothing more.  From the wooden stool he sat on, he glanced at his daughter who squatted on the riverside.  With a soot-blackened clay pot next to her, she was gutting and cleaning fish for the next meal.  The unwanted parts of the fish that she tossed into the flowing river were snapped up by schools of river fish.  Cawing crows circled overhead and attempted to pick up the floating offal with their beaks, only to be outdone by the fish eagles gliding in to precisely grapple it up with their talons from the river’s surface.  This frenzied feeding was a daily ritual, and the wheeling birds and their aerobatics never failed to hold Pappan’s attention.  He wished a man’s sins could as easily be discarded as his daughter did the fish offal.  His grandson played around his mother, a cat skulked nearby in the tall grass as his daughter cleaned the fish.  She looked over her shoulders at her father, with eyes that understood his dilemma. 

Over seventy years ago; in the very same hut, his mother had delivered him on a reed mat spread across the mud floor.  His inheritance had been grinding poverty and caste discrimination.  He was flung into a life of wildness and petty theft that finally drove him from home at the age of twelve.  Thereafter, he had begged, pilfered and done menial work with a bunch of similar youngsters on the streets of the nearby town.  The communist movement had found in these urchins the ideal storm troopers.  When he turned twenty, Pappan had returned to his native hamlet; his earlier rebelliousness and acrimony now nicely shaped and directed to achieving the goals of the communist party.  Pappan had come home to transform his own little world!

He had visited his parent’s hut on returning.  His father’s unease with his grown son was evident.  His mother smothered her mouth with her work gnarled hands, and her tears flowed freely down her wrinkled cheeks.  Pappan murmured, ‘Amma,’ and then squeezed into her hands some grubby notes and coins.  Nothing more was said, and Pappan after a long look at the Meenachil river flowing near the hut, had walked away.

And then subtly things began to change in the sleepy hamlet.  Polite but incessant demands for higher wages came to the ears of the landlords.  The customary deference to their betters suddenly seemed to be given with reluctance. And then it had all come boiling out at the time of the rice harvest, carefully crafted by the communist party to stun the landlords. 

A dry wind had been blowing and it had turned the rice fields a golden brown. The paddy had bent over, heavy with ripe rice ears, and there was expectancy in the air.  It was the morning of the harvest.  Mathai, the landlord, had walked the short distance to his fields along with his supervisors.  They were greeted by the sight of their workers lolling on the grassy banks of the field.  None rose in respect, nor showed any inclination to begin harvest work.  A supervisor whispered into the ear of the landlord, “There seems to be a problem!”

The demands for increased wages and a larger share of the harvested rice were made by the workers.  Mathai wasn’t sure what upset him more; the unreasonableness of the demands or the sheer effrontery of the stipulations being made at the nick of harvest time.  But he bit down on his irritation and merely said, “There are time-honoured ways of dealing with such matters.  This approach is unacceptable.”  He was met by a deadening silence from the workers.  He turned back towards his home, and the workers quietly disbursed.  No harvesting was done that day.

Two days later, Pappan was disturbed at his morning ablutions on the banks of the river with the hushed words; “Mathai has brought in outsiders and begun harvesting his rice.” Pappan and his comrades had walked into Mathai’s rice fields and its welcoming committee.  They were outnumbered and they retreated.  That night someone broke the dykes along Mathai’s fields; and the river poured in to submerge the yet to be harvested portion of the paddy.  The class war was out in the open.  Threats and posturing soon degenerated into brawls.  The communist cadres disrupted work where they could, and strike breakers began resisting and meting out punishment clandestinely.   The countryside waited with bated breath, disoriented by this strange movement that had upended long established customs.

An expedition to Mathai’s to scare and demoralise him had gone horribly wrong.  The converging of flaming torches in the night had roused the landlord’s household.  But to Pappan’s discomfiture, he met not a cowed downed Mathai, but one brimming with righteous indignation and contempt for Pappan.  Something snapped inside Pappan; and in moment he had swung his curved razor sharp sickle to hamstring the landlord.  Screams rend the air and blood squirted.  The other comrades froze, stunned by Pappan’s impulsive action.  Someone grabbed Pappan’s bloody hands, “Enough, enough! Let’s go.” And they left Mathai writhing on the ground and his household wailing into the night.

They ran, they hid and they scrambled from safe haven to safe haven until they reached the forest.  Weeks went by.  The local magistrate had issued a warrant for Pappan’s arrest.  Helped by informers, they were arrested quietly by the police as they slept in their forest dwelling.  Pappan disappeared into the labyrinth of the Central Prison; a place staffed with policemen drawn invariably from the upper castes and landowning classes.  They needed little instruction on how to deal with communist prisoners. 

Years went by, and the communists won the elections and came to power in Kerala; and with that a policy change in dealing with political prisoners would see them released from prison.  Following this, a bedraggled, sick and broken Pappan had walked into his hamlet.  He quietly made his way to his now dead parents’ dilapidated hut by the river.  He was soon joined by a woman and a girl child.  No one knew where the two had met.  They repaired the hut and Pappan began the long journey to mend his body and mind, both broken by methods of torture carefully nurtured and finessed over generations by the police fraternity. 

His wife took jobs where she could find them.  The seasons changed. The rains came and the flooded river spread its rich loam over their small patch of land.  The bananas and vegetables planted by his wife sprouted and began to grow, and Pappan began to mend too.

His wife’s people once visited and the idea to buy a boat was broached, and some money given for it.  It would give Pappan a living; for there was always work for a boat and boatman on the Meenachil River.  Somehow the idea trickled out to the other villagers, and their community spirit was tickled.  It began to be mentioned at the tea shops, at the bathing ghats on the riverbank and even under the Peepul tree in the temple compound.

“Did you hear that a canoe is to be built for Pappan?”

“Haha!  And turn a revolutionary into a boatman?”

Someone slapped his thigh and cackled, “Aiyo!! What a fate for an old communist!”

“Come on. Give a man a chance to live.” And so went the prattle in the village.  But the idea of the boat took off.  An old, discarded tin, with a cloth stretched over the top and a slit for coins in it began to do the rounds. The tin started to fill.  Someone in a fit of impertinence carried it to Mathai the landlord’s house; to buy a boat for the man who had hamstrung him years back.  They came back abashed by Mathai’s generosity.  It had been the largest donation yet received.

A slipshod committee that argued much, and agreed on little was formed, and the tin with its rattle and clinking was finally carried to Pappan’s house to his embarrassment and to the delight of his wife.  Opinions were gathered on how to proceed. 

“We need to find a mature Anjillee tree (Wild Jack) to make the canoe from,” quipped someone.  A haphazard and desultory search began.  Such a tree was soon found.  The owner was paid and the tree felled.  An elephant was hired to carry the tree trunk to Pappan’s house.  And this communal project soon became the most exciting happening in the village in years.

A slightly rowdy crowd, along with the elephant carrying the tree trunk wound its way across the countryside.  Someone brought a battered drum and the whole began to take on the look of a procession.  Women and children gathered along the way and giggled at the funny procession, and as it passed the village toddy shop, part of the procession melted away for a drink.  But they were soon replaced by some from within the toddy shop; tipsy and more suited to the occasion.

By late afternoon they reached Pappan’s house.  The mahout shouted and prodded the elephant into dropping the Anjillee tree trunk at an appropriate place to be worked on.  Pappan’s wife with folded hands thanked the jubilant crowd, and gave the elephant a parting gift of ripe bananas. 

The axe thudded, the wood chips flew and loafers congregated at the site to offer unsolicited advice to the canoe builders.  The yellow Anjillee log was hollowed out, and it began to take on the shape of a sleek canoe, and hope began to course through the veins of Pappan and his family.  The summer months dried out the canoe wood, and it was finished with layers of stinking fish oil to waterproof it.

And on an auspicious day, when the river flowed low, a crowd gathered to witness the launch of the canoe.  A collective holding of breaths accompanied the canoe, as it slid through the mud into the river.  Built with no modern measuring instruments, but only on the principles of Thatchu Sastra, the traditional craft of carpentry, the canoe wobbled into the water and then paused; to float perfectly, with no tilt whatsoever.  A cheer went up, and even Pappan’s normally stony lips quivered into a smile.  Someone slung a marigold garland on the bow of the canoe, and Pappan’s transformation from a revolutionary to a Meenachil river boatman was sanctified. 

Pappan often left with the rising sun glinting off the river surface.  He paddled swiftly to pick up his boat load.  It varied from pilgrims during temple festivals, to bags of rice, hay or mounds of freshly harvested coconut at other times.  He rarely argued about the fare; but his quiet demeanour somehow ensured a fair settlement of his dues.

He grew familiar with the changing seasons and moods of the river.  His boatman’s skills were often tested by a rapidly flowing flooded Meenachil river, where the swirling waters inundated its mud banks or its silt built up banks anew.  The colour of the foliage along the banks changed from lush green during the monsoons, to duller shades of green and yellow during the simmering summer months.  He watched the migrating birds visit and disappear; to come calling again as nature’s invisible wand directed them.  He too grew sinewy and grizzled, but a sense of purpose and belonging imbued his life.

Work done, he would paddle home in the late hours, through the buzz of night insects and the occasional splash of a fish breaking the river surface.  His riverine path was lit by moonlight or starlight, until he reached his bit of the river front. The last bit would be guided in by a lit lantern unfailingly left at the landing by his wife or at other times, by the soft singing of evening prayers by his wife and child in their hut.  

Pappan remembered, but his visitors stirred impatiently at Pappan’s inscrutable silence.  His grandchild sensing the tension in the air sidled up to Pappan and climbed into his lap.  The oldest of the visitors rose and walked deliberately to Pappan’s daughter by the river.  He earnestly appealed to her to persuade her father to come to the 50th celebration of the communist uprising.  She remained silent for a moment, and then turning to him said: “Has he not done enough for the movement?  Please let him be.  He’s old and carries a heavy burden.”

The visitor reasoned, “Yes, things were done during the uprising.  But it was for a cause, and comrade Pappan need not feel so burdened about those things.”

She sighed and said, “Would that not be for the man carrying the burden to decide?”

The crestfallen communist visitors slowly trooped out.  They paused at the gate and looked back at Pappan.  He had not stirred.  He sat there quietly with his grandchild in his lap, gazing into the dusk that slowly enveloped the river.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

P.G.Thomas, hailing from Kerala, India; has been intrigued by the changing phases of his land, its people and their way of life.  He draws on a lifetime of actual experience to write about it.   

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Categories
Poetry

Products of War

By Mini Babu

PRODUCTS OF WAR

We walked to 
the other land,
holding unseen baggages,
lost in one country,
to the unwarm
edges of the other.

We held the
soil of memories,
inadequate to nourish
till 
homeland 
turns to
a distant tear.

Many of us
were born on the move.
Our women gave birth,
picked themselves up,
nurtured the children
in their arms
and walked on.
There was no leisure
for pain and labour.

What place will  
those born
during the move
claim as their 
homeland?

We are the products of war.
You find us everywhere.

Mini Babu is working as Associate Professor of English with the Dept. of Collegiate Education,Govt. of Kerala. Her poems have been featured in anthologies, journals and magazines. Her collections of poems are Kaleidoscope (2020), Shorelines (2021) and Memory Cells (2022).

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Categories
Poetry

Yellow Dahlias

By Anjali V Raj

Photo Courtesy: Anjali V Raj
YELLOW DAHLIAS

The dauntless rain is pouring outside
Like a clingy outstaying guest, reluctant to leave
Ignoring all the complaints, curses and abhorrence.
I can feel the decaying wetness in the weather
And it’s beginning to dig deep into my veins
I can feel the lethargy and disgust spreading
Looking through my window into the gloomy exterior
I spot something yellow within the shameless greedy weeds
Yes, I see bright yellow dahlias fighting for space
Reminded me of a florist’s words “only Dahlias grow in heavy rains”
I never planted them, but the Dahlias found their way somehow
Challenging the torrential rain with a radiant smile
I wish to be a yellow Dahlia, at least once in my lifetime.

Anjali V Raj is a natural science researcher from Kerala, India. She has recently published a few of her works on online platforms like Down to Earth, Café Dissensus Everyday, Borderless Journal and Times of India Reader’s Blog. Most of her poems are published on her WordPress blog (Outburst of Thoughts).

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Categories
Poetry

Murrel

By Syam Sudhakar

Murrel fish and its spawn. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Murrel

A monsoon afternoon.
I was coming back home
shouldering hunger and my bag.

Beside the road
the sun glimmered 
in the open drain 
and there bloomed a dream
in a flash of lightning. 
Unfazed by the rain or sun
with head high
a slick arrow, alone 
in its trajectory
darted with its tail
against the current.

Never had I seen
such frenzied motions
to claim a mate.
No shooting star could 
outshine its charm.
No warship could boast 
such feral grace.
Swift and agile,
gills throbbing with lust,
a finger of the night
dropped into the heart of noon,
the rhythm of water, an ecstasy.

I never encountered
anyone like him, ever again.

But after the rains,
in the field I saw
with a constellation of 
a thousand spawns
a radiant she-murrel.

Syam Sudhakar is an award- winning and widely  published young academician and bilingual poet from Kerala, writing both in native Malayalam and English. His poems are rich in native imagery and a sound pattern.

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Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

A Tale of Two Houses

By P Ravi Shankar

I was extremely upset and howling my head off. My mother struggled to keep me quiet. My parents had just got down at the bus stop and it was raining. It was a short walk to Laksmi Nivas. My mother was dragging me along and I was trying my best to turn around and run back to my paternal grandmother. The bus journey to the village had been miserable. The bus had ploughed through heavy rains and waterlogged roads. There were occasional claps of thunder and the tarpaulin sheets covering the bus windows offered scant protection against the rain. The bus was crowded and leaking. Puddles were forming on the floor.

My maternal grandfather’s house was a two-story mansion located in Thiruvazhiad (turn-away-goat could be a literal English translation) village, Palakkad district, Kerala. He had built it in the 1960s and had named it after my grandmother. The house was a combination of living space and granary. There were long passages which were used to store the rice harvest. Wood was prominently used in the construction. The house sat in a huge plot of land. There was a front yard and a huge backyard. The house was large, but the number of rooms were limited. There were only three bedrooms on the ground floor, and they were all dark and scary. There was a traditional dining room and a wood burning kitchen. A well and a huge bathroom completed the amenities.

There were three bedrooms on the top floor and a small attic above that. The rooms on the top floor were small with wooden windows and had excellent views across the backyard to the hills beyond. The rooms opened on to a common corridor in front. This offered excellent views of the road to Nemmara, the main town in that part. Traffic was sparse and our attention was captured by the buses to Palakkad town which ran at hourly intervals during the hot, lazy afternoons and at half-hourly intervals during the morning and evening. The village was situated in a cul de sac, away from the main hustle and bustle.

During the seventies, my grandmother had three to four helpers working in the house. Traditional stones were used to grind dough for idlis and dosas and we had a smaller stone to grind masalas or spices. There was a huge mortar and pestle used to pound grain. Physical labour and strength were important. I do not remember my grandfather (mother’s father) much as he had passed away when I was very young. My grandmother was a religious lady who used to read the Hindu religious epics daily. Later (late seventies and eighties) she was mostly confined to bed and suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

I enjoyed climbing the wooden staircase to the first floor with its curved wooden banister. I believed the darkness of the house and the rooms scared me and contributed to my aversion. As I grew older I grew more adapted to this house. The house was dark but stayed cool during the hot summers. The red tiles on the roof were charming. The windows had no glass panes and once closed they let in very little light. The long corridors encircled the rooms on the ground floor letting in very little light into the inner rooms. The furniture was mostly wooden, locally made, solid and heavy. My grandma’s room had a massive valve radio. Evenings were spent listening to the news and other programs on the radio. Old houses had dark storerooms which both fascinated and scared me.

My father’s house was located inside East Yakkara near to Palakkad town and the holy Manapullikavu temple was nearby. It is believed Brahmins performed yagnas (prayers) on the holy riverbed and the place was named yaga-kara (do yagnas) and eventually came to be known as Yakkara. In the seventies, this was a peaceful place with traditional houses. The narrow winding lanes and the paddy fields lend a rustic charm to the place. My father’s mother had purchased a house after they moved back to India from Malaysia where my grandfather had worked as an estate manager. My grandfather had died when my father was young. The house was renovated and, to my childish eyes, was charming. There were windows with coloured glass panes in the drawing room. The floor was coated with a red oxide powder which had to be reapplied regularly. Pink bougainvillea grew over the welcome arch and the bright yellow front door welcomed visitors.   

The best part of the house were the two rooms in the wing adjoining the kitchen. The house had doors and windows which could be opened only half. This I felt was an ingenious arrangement. Both my mother’s and father’s houses had doorsteps which were massive, and I used to trip on these often. I was not used to them. There was a dark room that did not open to the outside. My cousin would study there. Wood was still the cooking material, took time to catch fire and burn. It was like an astringent to the eyes. I still remember the hot summer afternoons. We had lunch in the hot dining room and by the time we finished I would be soaked in sweat. The rice was hot, the fish curry spicy, the fish fry crispy, and the pickles incendiary. The roof had a few glass tiles to let in the light and I watched fascinated the path of the light beams being made visible by the kitchen smoke.

The rains were my favourite time of the year. In those days it used to pour in Kerala. The rains continued throughout the day, and I enjoyed creating and sending out flotillas of paper boats in the rapidly flowing streams of rainwater. The weather was cool, and the smell of the Earth (petrichor) was mesmerising. I also remember the smell of fresh paint as the windows and doors often would have a fresh coat of paint just before our visits. Now with the national highway (NH47) passing behind the house, the area has changed totally. So many new houses have sprouted. And there are two large apartment complexes.

These two houses had character and solidity. I regret not having the opportunity to interact with my grandfathers (the patriarchs). The houses reflected in many ways the matriarchs living in them. With their illness, being bed ridden and their eventual passing, an era came to an end. These houses no longer hold the same level of fascination they once exerted on my young mind!

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Categories
Stories

Dawn in Calicut

By Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan

The call for fajr from the local mosque
Pierces the stillness of early morning,
The sruthi box in the puja room stirs awake.

It is dawn in Calicut. The house is quiet, except for the muffled sound of water from the washroom, where my aunt does her ablutions before prayer. She shuffles her way into the puja room and hurriedly shuts the door, careful not to let even a slice of light escape the room and disturb the rest of us. For the next hour, she will be in deep meditation.

Across my bed, I see Amaama. Wisps of white hair framing her toothless mouth, she seems peaceful. Sleep didn’t come to me easy the previous night. A long journey back home and the sudden shock of seeing my grandma succumb to inevitable illness, leaving both her mind and body fragile, have rattled me. I watch her, drifting away in the land of nod.

As the sun peeks out reluctantly from the rain clouds, she wakes up. She looks at me, a question mark on her face. “Do you remember me, Amaama?” I ask. She nods, but when I ask her to tell me my name, she mumbles. I realise that I have become unrecognisable to her. Even after watching her struggle with her memory for the past two years, this upsets me.

My aunt makes idlies for breakfast. I offer to feed Amaama idlies and sugar. It is the food of infants, but it seems like she is a helpless child all over again. After an hour, she quips in a plaintive tone, “I haven’t eaten anything.” We make her a cup of Horlicks and she smacks her lips appreciatively while sipping on the sweetness of the malt.

I spend the day sitting near her bed, reading, in an effort to forget the maze of memories that cloud my mind. I also feel vaguely guilty, though I can’t really tell why. Should I have called her more often when I was away? Should I have been more affectionate to her when she could remember? Could I have been a better grandchild? The regrets pile on, one after the other, and then I understand that the root cause of my guilt is the startling realisation that I never got to know Amaama as a person. All my life, she has been Amaama. What was she like as a child? What was she like as a young woman? What made her happy? Did she have any regrets? I will be in Calicut for the next two weeks and I determine to make use of that time to understand more. I speak to my aunts, pore through old photographs, try talking to Amaama herself.

                                               *

A little girl in pigtails and pinafore
Finds the greatest joy
In knitting needles and yarn.

My grandmother, Saraswathi Menon, was born in 1932. Her ancestral house is in a village called Kalapatti, in the district of Palakkad, in the foothills of the Western Ghats of southern India. Sarasu, as she is known to her family, was the fifth of seven children. Her father was an inspector in the public works department of the Indian Railways. The family moved between Tuticorin and Sucheendram, two towns on the tip of the Bay of Bengal, and Sarasu grew up in relative affluence. The first brush with hardship must have come at the age of eight, when she lost her mother, who at that time was hardly thirty-three.

Sarasu’s paternal aunt helped raise her, and she moved back to her hometown in Kerala with her younger siblings. As a teenager, she developed a lifelong interest in embroidery and knitting, spending all her time with her knitting needles and balls of yarn. She did not pursue studies after her high school matriculation exams; she did not pass the English examination and did not want to place a burden on the family’s dwindling finances by making another effort.

A memory of Amaama urging me to study flashes across my mind. At that point, she had self-deprecatingly joked that she had no buddhi and that’s why she didn’t study further. I think back and often marvel at how Amaama still aced the many challenges that life presented her, despite this lack of formal higher education. To think of the person she could have become with the right opportunities…

Barely out of her teens, Sarasu returned to Tamil Nadu, as a newly married bride. This time, she found herself in Trichy. I look at Amaama sitting in her bed, propped up by pillows, listening to a version of the Ramayana rendered by Kavalam Sreekumar. I try to jog her memory, and surprisingly, she offers a story of her Trichy days. Her eyes well up as she mentions hopping onto rickety buses that took her to the Rockfort temple and the Sriranganathan temple on an island in river Cauvery. She smiles as she remembers an old lady who taught her how to make murukku and other delectable goodies that she treated her daughters to after a long day at school. She remembers getting married to my Thatha, and accompanying him to the various towns that his job as a sales engineer demanded.

I try to ask more questions, but Sarasu’s spark has disappeared now, and Amaama cannot remember anything else. She can remember events that occurred more than thirty years ago, but she cannot remember what she ate this morning — how treacherous is this mind!

As Kavalam Sreekumar sings in the background, my aunt quietly tells me of Sarasu’s first born child — it was not my aunt, as I had always thought. Sarasu’s first born was a boy; they named him Ravi but they lost him to smallpox at the age of two. This news startles me again — how had Amaama coped with the loss of her only son all those years ago? He would have been the brother my mother never had. How little do we really know of those close to us!

Life blessed Amaama and Thatha with four other children, all of them girls. My aunt talks about the ridicule and pity heaped on her parents, Amaama in particular – “Four girls! No sons! How will you raise four girls?” They raised them with love, making numerous sacrifices, instilling in them courage, confidence, compassion, and a sense of fierce dignity, a determinedness to be independent. It is a testament to Amaama’s sacrifices that all her daughters, and by extension, us — my cousins and I — have reached so far.

                                                        *

Coffee stains on the table
A jumbled-up algebra problem
Anger turns into a ghost of regret.

The day has come to an end. I have learnt new things about Amaama’s life, and I can now see a glimpse of Sarasu, behind the shadow of Amaama. My mother lights the lamp and takes it to the entrance of the house, chanting “Deepam, Deepam!” It is auspicious to keep a lit lamp at the door front at twilight. The air is alive with the buzz of mosquitoes. Amaama is awake. I venture to sing an old bhajan which she used to love. She smiles, she seems to recognise the song, but she still cannot recognise me. Memories spring up from the cobwebs of my mind.

It is supposed to be a holiday for Amaama. Two months in Dubai with her youngest daughter, my mother. I am in grade 10, at the peak of schoolgirl rebellion. A few weeks before the all-important board examinations begin, we have study leave. With my parents away at work, I find myself alone with Amaama.

One morning, I am working on algebra, timing myself to see how quickly I could finish a sum. I hear a cup of coffee being knocked over in the kitchen, but I pretend not to hear. Amaama calls out for me, but I ignore her. When she calls me a third time, I can no longer ignore her, so I stomp into the kitchen, sulking. Not saying a word, I mop up the coffee stains, and slam the microwave to warm another cup of coffee from the flask.

Amaama has not spoken a word about my unreasonable behaviour. I know I have reacted badly, behaving like a spoilt child, but a false sense of pride keeps me from apologising. I hand her a second cup of coffee and try to study for the rest of the day. It is a completely useless day; my anger has now turned to regret and guilt.

When my parents return from work, I observe Amaama speak with them. Will she snitch on me, complain about the brat they raised? She remains quiet, does not say a word about me; instead, she asks them about their day and tells them about gifts she wants to take back from Dubai. I feel uncomfortable. I would have felt better if she had reprimanded me instead.

That night, I toss and turn in bed. Amaama and I share a room, and I hear her sob quietly into her pillow. Guilt engulfs me. I reach out to hug her and I begin to cry too. Amaama turns over and asks what is upsetting me. Exams, I mumble, not wanting to apologise. She hugs me tight and says “What is there to worry? You’re such a midukki kutty. God is always with you!” I sob into the softness of her sari and she says, “I was wondering why my midukki kutty doesn’t like me anymore!” I reply in my garbled Malayalam that I would always love her, but I still did not apologise.

Forgiveness has always been Amaama’s best friend.

                                                        *

Barefoot pilgrims walk to Pandharpur
Saffron flags fluttering in the wind
“Vitthal! Vitthal!” The palkhi bearers chant.

It is pilgrimage season in Maharashtra. Visiting my aunts in Mumbai after ages, we arrange for a trip to Shirdi. A road trip will take us at least six hours. Amaama cannot sit in a car for that long. We decide that the Shirdi trip can wait, but Amaama insists that we do not cancel on account of her. “I’ll stay alone. Will keep myself busy with TV and my books. And anyway, Padma will come for a few hours in the afternoon, so I won’t be lonely”, she says. I wonder what sort of conversation our Marathi speaking helper will have with Amaama whose vocabulary in Hindi (leave alone Marathi) does not extend beyond Kaise Ho! I tell my parents and aunts to go ahead, and I offer to stay with Amaama. “Nothing doing, you have to go see the Baba at Shirdi!” Amaama insists. I slowly understand where my mother gets her stubbornness from.

We set out at dawn the next day and reach Shirdi a little ahead of noon. We spend the next few hours in the temple town, offering our prayers, and soaking in the meditative stillness of the masjid where Baba lived — it is a salve to a weary heart. Before dusk sets, we leave Shirdi. We whizz past fields of sugarcane and cotton, growing in abundance, on the rich black soil of these lands, stopping for a quick cup of tea at Igatpuri. There is a thick shroud of mist, and my mind keeps wandering back to Amaama. What could she be doing, all alone in that flat?

We reach home an hour before midnight. The Matunga neighbourhood is quiet. Amaama is in her chair by the puja room, reading Narayaneeyam. “Did you get scared, Amaama?”, I ask. She shrugs away the question and asks me back, “What is there to get scared of when I have God by my side?” Faith has always been Amaama’s best friend.

*

The Nilambur river quietly chugs along
Through hills and fields and forests
And merges into nothingness at Beypore.
                                                    

It has now been three years since Amaama finally succumbed. Watching her struggle through ill health, losing control of her mind and memory, has been an excruciating journey for all of us. Ironically, death seemed to free her, release her from the terrible pain she endured for a few years. When I miss her a little too much, I turn to my phone which had faithfully captured a Boomerang video of her making a dosa when she was in better health. It reminds me of better days in the past when she would make bite sized unniappams, as dainty as the dimples on a toddler’s fist. Sometimes the grief of losing her is too much to bear. I think of a story I read as a child — something about a magic pot which kept cooking porridge for a hungry family. The family gobbled up the porridge, but the pot simply would not stop. It kept cooking porridge, till the porridge overflowed and flooded the entire city! Sometimes, my grief is like that. But then, I look at the photo of Amaama by my bookshelf. A sparkle in her eyes, and a half smile on her lips, she looks the picture of equanimity.

Many dawns have now passed by in that house in Calicut. Sometimes, during the monsoon season, I gaze at the grove of coconut trees outside. The wind rustles the coconut palms and the foliage sways, like dervishes drunk on divine nectar. Sometimes, a bubble of calm quietens an intense battle in my head. Sometimes, instead of holding onto an angry thought, I just let go, like the Nilambur river. In those times, I feel as if Amaama is watching me, from somewhere, where she is reunited with her beloved Krishna, where she can forever listen to the lilting melody from his flute, where she can watch him play by the Yamuna river. In those times, I feel as if her prayers and love have formed a protective shield, an invisible amulet protecting me from all perils. Love has always been Amaama’s best friend.

Glossary

Fajr – The first of five Islamic prayers, also known as the dawn prayer

Sruthi box – An instrument used in Indian classical singing to help tune the voice

Puja room – A shrine room for worship, religious rituals, prayers, and meditation in a Hindu household

Amaama – Malayalam word for grandmother

Idlies – Steamed rice dumplings, traditionally eaten as a breakfast dish in south India

Buddhi – Malayalam word for intelligence

Murukku – Savoury crunchy snack made from rice flour and lentils

Thatha – Tamil word for grandfather

Deeepam, deepam – The word “deepam” means lamp in Malayalam. In Kerala, at dusk, women carry lit lamps to the entrance of the house, chanting “deepam, deepam” in order to invite light and auspiciousness into their homes.

Midukki kutty – Malayalam term for smart girl

Vitthal – Form of the Hindu god Vishnu or Krishna, as he is known in the state of Maharashtra

Palkhi – Marathi word for palanquin. In this context, the verse refers to a yearly pilgrimage where devotees carry the sandals or padukas of the saint Dnyaneshwar from his shrine at Aalandi to the famous Vitthal temple at Pandharpur. The barefoot pilgrims carry the padukas in a wooden palkhi and the journey takes around 21 days by foot.

Shirdi – A town in Maharashtra, which is the home of Shirdi Sai Baba, a revered fakir or saint

Kaise ho! – Hindi phrase for “How are you?”

Narayaneeyam – An epic poem, comprising of 1,035 verses, narrating the life of Lord Krishna. The poem was composed in the 16th century by Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri, a renowned Sanskrit poet hailing from Kerala.

Unniappam – Sweet dumplings made with rice, banana, jaggery and coconut


Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan is a chartered accountant by profession and is passionate about  books, writing, travel, and celebrating diversities, not in any particular order. She firmly believes that human beings should not strive to “fit in” when they are designed to “stand out”. She reads on a variety of subjects and genres and hopes to publish a novel someday.

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Categories
Essay

Here, There, Nowhere, Everywhere

Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January.

Everything shifted last year. Priorities. Energies. Focus. 

Well, actually, there wasn’t much focus for me last year. For much of 2020, I felt unfocused, scattered, reactive. I was not achieving peak performance or being proactive going forward, if we were to use business language. I doubt if I was being the best version of myself either. I definitely needed to ‘pivot’, whatever that meant. 

What was initially a short holiday ‘back home’ to catch up with family and friends turned into something without a clear ending, as it dawned on me maybe I wouldn’t be travelling again for years perhaps, why, even ever. 

Usually, by May, I would be like the snowbird and migrate to warmer climes. I would head to my base in Bali’s Ubud, and then later in the year to southwest China and Myanmar, the three locations in Asia where I have caches of cotton shirts, swimming goggles, cycle shorts, hot water kettles, tea strainers and rice cookers. 

By November, I would surely be back in the country termed ‘the land of mystery, mysticism, mythology, miracles, multiculturalism and mightiness’ — India. 

When I left Kerala’s Varkala Beach near Thiruvananthapuram in February last year, after my last dip in the warm breaking waves, I always thought I would be back for chai at one of the cliff top cafes overlooking the gleaming ocean, the lunchtime Rs.90(US$1.25) thali at True Thomas and falling asleep to the whirl of the fan and the shushing of the Arabian Sea. 

But it didn’t happen last Indian winter, and I doubt if it will happen this year or even next. The seasons turn, the tides come and go, the waves roll onto the main Papanasham beach and the less-visited Black Sand beach. True Thomas is ‘temporarily closed’ according to Google. In fact, the Kerala beach destination was already impacted by Covid-19 in March 2020, when an Italian tourist visiting for a fortnight tested positive for the virus. The English boss of Coffee Temple Cafe had got in trouble with authorities for his blackboard offering of ‘Anti-Coronavirus juice’ (150 Rs) made from ginger, lemon, gooseberry. 

I wonder how the Tibetan and Nepalese who work in eateries during the season, November to May, are surviving. 

Mid-2020 I found myself unable to continue my digital semi-nomadic existence of following mild weather and hopping on AirAsia flights I’d booked up to a year earlier. Instead, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, and my own wish to stay safe, I was lock-downed in my hometown in New Zealand, cohabiting with my parents in the house I’d lived in since aged eight years old.

A friend on Facebook sent me a message saying she couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle, with a photo of an aeroplane aisle. Another sent an image showing the perfect Covid-19 sport which requires masks, gloves and 2m distance: fencing. 

In the post from China, I received a couple of full-face snorkelling masks. In between the time of ordering and the arrival of the goods, on YouTube, there was a video on how to convert to meet the N95 respirator standards, or how to modify for use as an emergency interface with a ventilator. Researchers even had a paper in Nature about using Decathalon snorkelling masks. I wouldn’t believe much else on Youtube. What a shame that many do. 

From Bali last year, there were claims that it was one of the safest places in the world as the recovery rate was high, and mortality rate low, compared to other places. This was attributed to a mix of sunshine, high temperatures, and a better (superior) immune system. 

Sound familiar, my friends in India? Later someone posted a graph showing exponential growth, with the caption ‘Bali, what happened?’ 

New Zealand, as it turns out, has been largely protected from the ravages of Covid-19, thanks to closing the borders, a short lockdown, and citizens acting together as a ‘Team of 5 Million’.

This time last year I went on lots of walks, I gazed at cloud formations, and watched sunsets. I cut down scraggly trees, sorted through books, and gave away many of my parent’s possessions as part of downsizing. Of the bounty of childhood books I distributed, one was the beguiling ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, penned 150 years ago, which my father would read to us when we were young:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …

I even sold the family silver. 

My parents didn’t get Covid, and just last week, got the first of two Pfizer pricks in the upper arm (so far, only 10% of the population in New Zealand have received their first shot). 

What changed dramatically was their circumstances. An operation in hospital for my 85-year-old father to reverse a previous insertion of a stoma didn’t work out as expected, and in late June last year the one night back home after his surgery proved to be his last night in the house they bought in 1976. He left in the back of an ambulance. He is now in hospital-level care in a rest home, and his wife, my mother, lives nearby in a retirement village. 

Before his surgery, they considered selling the house and moving to the retirement village together, but undetected earthquake damage from 2010-2011 was discovered by the real estate agent, and I had to initiate a claim to have the damage repaired. 

Being back home, many things were familiar, some things had changed, a few things were strange. I had become the parent of my parents. My days revolved around sorting out their problems. Instead of my independent existence and free lifestyle, I found myself taking on family responsibilities. Yet I was glad that in a time of need, I had been there to do the things they couldn’t do easily. 

The year 2020 was unprecedented (and UnPresidented), with so many unknowns, so many surprises. Sharing a birth date with a friend from journalism school, we went for dinner with her family. Little did I anticipate it was the last time I saw her husband, a blood doctor, who died suddenly during a video consult with a patient. 

My side hustle — a small travel agency working with ethnic minorities in southwest China — got its first inquiries in June last year. Several guides urged me to keep it open, as it was their main source of income. Before that, I hadn’t received any inquiries for the first part of 2020.

Several of the publications I usually write for have gone into hibernation, and some projects are on hold indefinitely. Before a job interview last week, I had to reflect on what I have been doing with my life. Or at least, the last 15 years. 

But what do I do these days? I swim most days, some days join a friend at the gym who wants to improve his heart. I drink one cup of coffee a day, recently, made from green coffee beans I’ve roasted in a popcorn machine. At least once I week I go out to have an Indian meal. This week it was a Kerala thali of a dozen delicious parts. Last week my friends ordered a family dosa, which had to be carried to the table by two waiters. 

My parent’s house is now my house, and each day I attend to its restoration and renovation, learning new skills of skim-coating, tiling, and concreting. Each month I get an email reminder that most of my AirAsia BIG Loyalty points are expiring soon.

Spending time with those I love is more important for me these days. We speak more frankly about what really matters. I’ve even started attending Death Cafe events, where anyone can share about their fear of death. 

Through it all, I feel like I am becoming a better friend to myself. I am my own guru. I am my own Jedi Master — it was just that I didn’t realise it before. I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: “Named must be your fear before banish it you can”.

All I have to do is breathe. Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat. 

Last year, just a week after traditionally the coldest day of the year (one month after the shortest day), I saw my first golden daffodils, the yellow trumpets signalling that the winter had been mild, and that the warmer days of spring were not far away. 

Today on my way to the swimming pool, weeks before the solstice, I spied a row of daffodils in a neighbour’s garden and had to smile. I don’t know what the future holds, and I acknowledge that things will not return to normal like before. Yet I walk on, carrying in my heart hope, not so much as wishful thinking or expecting a positive outcome, but knowing that whatever the rest of 2021 and beyond throw up, no matter how disruptive, that the only way out is through it. 

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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