Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sepulchral Winter in Delhi

Its been cold, and the skies so grey, one feels afraid to look at it. The planes stopped flying for a couple of days, and it seems like twilight all day long. I have never felt so cold, but then every winter seems colder than the last, and every summer very very hot. One morning  I woke up, and read the newspapers to find that a friend's husband had fallen to his death. My neighbours and I rushed there, and found her grieving and puzzled. Later, the story unfolded with tragic twists and turns. His death had been the result of kangaroo courts publicly devoured on tv. My friend's husband had been accused of rape, that he had spiked a guest's drink and then violated her. Battalions of friends turned up at the CPI office courtyard where his body was taken from the morgue. None of us believed that he could have done this. But it was too late to help him, and his friends who had tried to protect him from this terrible ending, by providing him emotional support during the last months of his life were very distraught.
Many of us know that anyone who takes on  chroniclingpolitical vendettas and writes about perpetrators come to difficulties, or their families do. And in the case of my friend's husband, a professional activist this too came to pass. As his body went into the electric crematorium, the hatchet opening to take him into the flames, the young people who had been trained by him, and cherished him saluted him. The fire was huge, the body small. I saw it by chance, when we had all stepped out, and I looked back. The fire was immense, and the body lay there wrapped in its shroud, immersed in the final flame. Samar's father, Meenakshi's husband, Comrade Khurshid Anwar who had more friends than he had ever imagined in that sorrowful moment when he stepped off the ledge, or was pushed off by rumour and the invective of hate. All of us asked, as he had too before he died, why did the alleged victim, not gone to the police, registered a case, gone to a hospital, submitted herself for  medical examination  and dna testing...why for three months did her friends and her supporters do nothing other than spread rumours, visiting a tv channel to air their story? Rape has become such a common word in Delhi today, that we remind ourselves everyday to breathe and live, to be one with the universe, to hope for tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


It was raining again.And why  not. It was monsoon after all. Let it rain. The land would breathe again when the Asuragod Mahabali returned. He belonged to the people, a simple King rendered a beggar, yes, devoid of land, people, tithes, tributary. The boy looked  up. It was a roof after all. The thatch was made of crumbling palm leaves. Sometimes he saw a spider or bees, or even a bevy of tiny sunbirds resting or playing in the eaves. They had their own life, their own language. He blinked. The spider was swinging down. Sometimes it would draw its length of thread upwards and disappear. He rubbed his eyes. It was time to wake up. The sun was glinting through the rain. The raindrops had begun to form, incandescent in the dim light of the room, as they shimmered at the edges of the slim logs that made up the roof. The roof was not leaking, the drops formed and evaporated on the dusty ledge below it. That was where they kept the large vessels his father had inherited from his mother. No one climbed up there, but the lizards and the cat, and those minstrels from the sky: sunbirds, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies, and that spider swinging on its self made trapeze.
          The rain had stopped. The sky was red, and the sun was rising up, steadily. He said his morning prayers, looking at the lotus filled river, and the hill they called Malayatoor. He sang his morning song.
Many salutations to you O peacock, Salutations to you and the weapons of
Salutations to you o goat, also salutations to you
Oh Rooster, My salutation to you O Sindhu
My salutations to your divine abode on the shore.
My salutations to you O Skanda
Again and Again my salutations to you.

He worshipped equally, he sought no combat. He believed that his own birth was a blessing to ancient parents. He had no concern with the span of his life, his short life would match the remainder of theirs.  They had chosen him, and now no one could change his future. How could it be chosen? It was a shimmering river, with no beginning and no end. It was like the celestial stars, each resembling the raindrops strung like a sequence of diamonds.  The Nestorean merchants sometimes paused on roads outside his house, on their way to the mountain of Thomas. And some of them were gold and diamond merchants paying for pepper and cloves with their carefully carried goods, stitched cautiously into cloth bags. He had seen them in the market places, and occasionally one of them would expose his hoard, the diamonds in sizes too small to have any value, to other merchants, except to a man buying for his wife. The women never came out to look, but sometimes the children did, choosing for their mother a new nose ring or a pair of earrings.
Every morning he blew the conch, and having bathed in the river looked for his mother. She was busy, but he would always go from house to house looking for her. The sound of the conch remained in his mind, a hollow shout, a long dim memory of the wind as it blew through the caves. His father had died long ago, he had very  little memory of him. Words were his anointment: a long life but unbestowed with virtue, dim, unknown, forgotten at his very birth; or a short one, full of virtue. And his devout parents left it to God, not choosing to know his fate. The God with the rice dumpling, the elephant faced one, became his protector, the one who obstructed his Father and was slain and then reborn with all the might of his mother’s desire, and his father’s imagination, and ofcourse, gifted with a heroism and memory. And so the silent one, the boy, the one without spouse, became his very own Isa, the chosen. And so too, the brother Skanda, with the peacock who travelled all over the universe, chose him. To be chosen, or to choose, what was the difference? He sang praises to all. A boy like Dakshinamurty, he used the thumb and forefinger to show the integrity of the world, and the peace within himself.

         The paddy swayed in the breeze, the green shining in the early morning sun. He was hungry. The long night of peaceful sleep was now replaced by the tumult of his hunger. He had nothing to calm it, no shloka  would still his appetite. Their garden grew nothing, the red earth was too stony, not even coconuts grew, and as for yams and tapioca, the rats ate them before they became ready for eating. Hibiscus, red, large, bell like, grew profusely. They filled his eyes, the colour deep, and the stamen golden with pollen.

       The rain started to fall, and he ran back to his house. It had become oddly dark, the clouds raging in the sky, the thunder now repetitive. He was alone in the world. His heart became still. The fig tree were huge, and the roots like snakes billowed in the earth. They were gnarled, independent and many pronged. He passed them saying his prayers, the red earth laughed at him,  and in the gravel that washed away so easily he saw the poetry of his forbears, forever wandering in search of food, offering words as their only currency. The trunks of the trees stood out like sleeping elephants, still, somnolent and huge.

       Elephants, these were the stuff of his dreams. They assembled and trumpeted, chased away demons, carried kings and soldiers and slaves. They were the one reason that he slept so well. His mother would begin her day with prayers to Ganesha. She would beg him too, to protect her son. Sometimes he could not tell the difference between Ganesha and himself. He would when small, lie in her lap, pretending he had the longest nose in the world, the largest ears. He would trumpet and dream and fall asleep.

The very nature of truth is manifold and lives in our mind as the unfolding lotus. His parents, the poor pious people who found that he had given his life to poetry. The words that came from his mouth were fully formed. He lived as if he were indeed one with God. That God, Isa, Brahman, Gauri, the Sons Ganesha and Skanda,Vishnu with his peacocks and great and discerning love - each spoke of the essential way of the world.

The snake that coiled on his head, the keeper of the diamond they all sought for its brilliance, was the one who enthralled him most. He was at first  pleased with the appearance of the snake. He thought he would accept the snake as an ornament. He was afraid, though. It wanted nothing, but to protect him. Yet, as Isa’s son, he would have to keep it calm, asking only that it should not uncoil and breathe venom. The fear of death was his onlycompanion, the beautiful landscape of death and dreams. He had no reason to establish that it was an illusion. The snake uncoiled, unfurled its hood, merged with the spine. It made him feel that he was only part of the natural world, that he was essence of rainbow, and the emptiness of sky. He was the keeper of wisdom, of memory, of touch, of the sorrow that makes people wise. Why give his parents a choice of the fate he had before him? His death was preordained by many things, most of all his need to learn.
He lay down on his bed, hunger making him recite all the mantras he knew, some he made up, most he had learned by rote when very young. He was, ofcourse, expected to recite them. His mother was not harsh, merely expectant and yearning. He was her only son, the one they had prayed for, the one who had been born when the skies were broken.

The snake, more gorgeous then even, appeared as Seshadri. He bowed to it. The snake had six hoods, and so to each he spoke a verse. Let them be united. They were each resplendent, each marked by the peculiar black and ivory typical of  their tribe. Up on the hill, at Malyatoor, the Christians kept a safe distance from snake worship, in fact they killed them on sight. By the cry of Pambu, they sought no differentiation between those which were marked and those which were not, those which were poisonous and those which merely ate the mice which plagued the tapioca patches, and the fish which swam in the rice fields. The Christians were polite, powerful, civil, exchanging nods with Kings and Brahmans, dressed similarly with top knot, the diamond and the sabre. The sword was their right as was the use of the sandalwood paste, the elephant, the fan, the sandals on their feet, the keeping of slaves and the right to trade and  grow things. He himself found their ideas interesting: Isa with the uncombed hair and the flowing  robes, the three godheads united and made one (no rivalry there) and the moment when truth and love became one. They said that Isa had travelled to Sindhu. The Sindhu so beautiful, it had the coldness of wisdom, detached from the mountains, spilling uncontrolled, ready to merge with other rivers, high up in the sky.  He could imagine the snow mountain, the home of the river, passing over their heads, encircling with its many lines the mountains like the passion of snakes.

In the corner of the room he saw the fat white snake with the black blotches, watching him. He was startled by its beauty, its fat concupiscence, by its mottled nature. It stared steadfastly back at him, its small black eyes intelligent and inquiring. The snake too was waiting for its breakfast just as he was. It would not eat him, of that he was certain. If at all he stood in its path, creating an obstacle to its movement, he would indeed be killed. Adi swallowed a little, both phlegm as well as his own hopelessness. By calling him Adi the first, was he expected to be the only child? Ofcourse, his mother was a widow. Sometimes she looked at him the way the snake was gazing at him now: curiosity and a banality of enquiry about his well being. She hid the roots of her agony. The snake too, seemed to be asking “What shall I do with this boy?”
He shuddered, thinking of the blue green waters of the Sindhu which he had never seen, but informed of so frequently by the Nestorean travellers who had no fear of rivers or seas, crossing them at will, with their precious cargo of pepper, cloves, ginger, silks, cotton, diamonds, gold, wool and incense.
O lord I am poor, wretched, defeated, helpless, miserable, tired, depressed and doomed. O Sambhu, why is it that though you are the common inner spirit residing in all the creatures (thus residing in me also) you are indifferent to my sorrows? Oh Lord, please save me.
In the still hollow of his bed he lay down thinking of nothing in particular. The snake was coiled too, and the spider was still. He wandered, thinking of the oath of early death to which he had been sworn at so young an age. His father’s body lay before his eyes, hard cold, and he too became breathless, astounded by the enormity of it all. Could such a thing be, a loving father turned into somethinsg so inanimate, like the large fish he saw in the fishermen’s shops? He shuddered, wept alittle, saw how his own body was stretched out in half sleep, sighed with pleasure and dozed off. When he woke he saw that the black and white snake had gone away, perhaps she was hidden in the house itself, and his mother would find her, while she was sweeping.

  His mother fed him every day at the same time. He would hear her come into the house, and he would jump up and hug her. She was, after his father’s death usually lost in thought.  She would crumble into a heap, knocking her head. She never forgot to cook his meals, and was tender to him. Her age was such that she forgot things and had to walk long miles to retrieve them. Sometimes she scolded him for nothing, and sometimes she hugged him without reason, as he did too. The love they had was the only fire that burned in their house, the kitchen hearth was often cold with dead ash since they ate the previous night’s food, and often, nothing at all. In the morning, however she always cooked, rice thick with pulses from lentil grown in their garden, with a pickle of hot green pepper crushed with coconut, tamarind, and curry leaves. Sometimes his tongue burnt from it, but there was the cooling sour buttermilk. He was so busy in his recitation that the day went by fast enough. His tongue became thick but his mind was clear, thoughts speeding along faster than the words could catch them. He would stop, lie down, sleep deeply. Dreams chased him like flagrant butterflies, each one more beautiful than the last. Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Brahma and Sarasvati visited him and gave him their gifts and blessings. He felt that though his mother old, and Shivguru dead, he carried with him the ultimate grace: the gift of cosmos. Nothing disturned him, he bore no anger or grudge, he was now in a continual state of bliss. Ofcourse there were times when he, or rather his body, remembered. His father was always present, with his love for words, for hot rice, for bananas, for hisbiscus flowers, their poverty never a cause for discomfort.

How simply they had taken each day. Living in the shadow of his own death as if it were a blessing. It was because a son was needed to carry out the mortuary rites, that he had been sheathed in the womb. That first sheath which had enclosed him in the primal waters was indeed his first blessing. When he was born, they had scrubbed him, soaking him in oils and water, till he appeared as golden as the sun. The skin that spoke of his mother’s Pandav roots made others speak of Shiva, but he knew that it was because of the long journeys his ancestors had made. His father was old but had the strength of a bull, and his silences were sufficient to them all. His father was always in awe of the Devi, and spent his life in the calm aspect of meditation, that indeed was his calling. The language of the Gods spilled out of him whenever he came out of the room where he maintained quiet. They only had that one room, the large room, and in that his father made a small corner for himself. Everyone loved his father. He had the peacefulnesss of the anointed, and never, never, unlike his mother, flagellated himself. When he spoke, it was always with a quiet assurance, but usually he kept calm. When his father died, Adi thought he would leave the house and go looking for him. If he had become one with Siva, then he only had to go to Mount Kailash, and there he would find his father.
He had told his mother, after she cremated his father’s body, since he was too young to hold the fire, “Let me go!’

“God knows where you can go. It was for this moment that we had asked for your birth. Old though we were, we thought that you would propitiate the Gods after our death. But it was your death that was, instead. assured to us.”
“So I know the reason for my father’s death. It was from the fear of mine.”
“Then stay behind. Do not go till I am gone. Who knows when that will be.”
“Let me go now. I know where my father sits.”
“His ashes flow in the river at Vercala.”
“I will be there for  you when you are in agony and in your last breath”
“How can I ? What will people say?”
“They will say that a sanyasi has been born.”
“Even your milk teeth have not fallen.”
“Your teeth have not fallen and I am still here. Why give birth to me, if you don’t understand who I am.”
“Siva Siva Siva”
“That is true, and so I am free to go.”
“Stay for a few years here, wandering in the nearby fields, helping me with the feastdays. Now I need you more than ever.”
“Even if I am here, it is only my body. The rest of me is in the snow hills. You cannot travel, so I must go.”

She wept again. He thought to himself that if the Gods have decided, then why would she not permit him to go forwards into the time that was allocated to him. And so the three years had gone by waiting for food, for clothes, for blessings.

Sankara was waiting for the son to rise high, for then his mother would come and cook the first meal of the day. Her hair washed in the river was still black, her face uncreased. She carried the weight of her years well, tall, strong, proud: tiny white stones gleaming in her ears, the fragrance of jasmines surrounding her body, covered in old silk. His mother carried herself as if she walked on air, and he would always think of her as the princess, high born and worldly. Shivguru had called her Aryamba, and had frequently prostrated before her. So what if she was a washerwoman and cook in other people’s houses? For Shankara and his father, she would always be the Devi.

He sat up on his pallet, and started his recitation. Was his voice clear? Was his diction perfect? Would he be understood? He often dreamed of the day, when he would travel far North. Whenever death appeared, Yama: friendly, courteous, inviting, he would be ready to go, putting up no obstacle. After all, to die was to return as seed. The great deluder Shiva made everyone start again, and that too without memory.

The rain had stopped. The sun shone through their neighbour’s cocoanut grove. His body trembled with the shock of morning hunger. The sun streaked through his body and split him in two, cleanly, like an axe through the spine. He trembled a little, and sang to Shiva, his thin reedy boy’s voice wavering. The sunlight was rainbow like, and suddenly, as he sang of Shiva’s jewels enclosing his arms snake like, their eyes emerald, the spasm left him, and the spine became whole again. He spat clear white fluid in his   mother’s spittoon.  One could never hurry her. She had work, and only when it was done, would she return home.

He got up lazily and sitting outside in the damp steaming earth, he started to draw with his forefinger on the wet sand, and then with sudden urgency, he wrote the jewel snake verse, Bhujangapriyakalp, His father had taught him the power of metre, and how words could sound like elephants marching, the very beat echoing the stamping of the heart. Having written them, he sat still. The rain fell and the words were washed into the red earth, the water pounding much like the beating of his ravaged heart. He was now aware that Shiva and he were one.
Fear of death, what cause was there? Darkness, night, loss: these were his legacy, but surely not his future? Himadri appeared often to him, and when his mother lit the lamp at night, and with it the smell of incense, the fragrance of the night from many houses brought him comfort. But now, it was morning, the sun harsh in the newly washed sky. He could hear children playing, and looked for them, but none could be seen, only their voices along with the sudden twitter of birds and the gurgling of the river made him shut his ears. Why were the noises so loud? He watched the progress of the horsefly as it swirled around the room. It was menacing, looking for a wall to build its dwelling, neighbor perhaps to moth and lizard and spider and frog. Let there be no anger among us, he prayed to Shiva. And weeping a little, he said,
Ganesa, Isa, save us from hunger and anger.
His mother had come. Her hair was tied tight, the tendrils escaping. Her beautiful face was creased with oil and sweat. She had been fed in the house she worked in and  had brought for him curds and rice  in a small earthen pot. Mustard seeds floating at the top with green curry leaves, the food looked delicious. He washed his hands and face and sat down, eating quickly, greedily, no food wasted, nothing sloshed.
“What did you do in the morning?”
“Why, nothing?”
“Nothing, and how can a boy do nothing?”
“I breathed in and I breathed out, reciting Shivaya and Om.”
“Did you bathe first?”
“I was afraid of the crocodile.”
“Yes, afraid. I took a dip and came out.”
“All the children are bathed, but you.”
“They went with their mothers to the pond.”
“You should have gone too.”
“I am too small to go alone. I was waiting for you.”
“Then come here, now that you are fed, Krishna.”
“Your love is sufficient for the world, not just for your son.”
“When you speak like that, I am afraid. Tell me what is in your mind.”
“I was thinking when you were gone that I have so many songs I
could sing them in towns, moving from place to place.”
“Let’s see if you can still fit in my lap.”
“No, mother, I am big, big enough to die.”
“Like me, you will live your span of life.”
“What is a span?” He showed her his palm.
“What is a moment?”
“What is a flutter of an eyelash?”

The argument ended, she fed the cow, and cleaned the house, finding a snake skin near her son’s pallet, a little frightened and awed. They lived from day to day, not knowing how they would manage tomorrow. Shivguru’s  death had brought sorrow and unease, his quiescent personality and his his adoration of her had been the greatest boon. Now the promise of a short creative life, seemed to be the reason that her son wanted to travel, travel endlessly describing to her how travellers went from Kaladi to Indraprastha via Magadh, and yes, sharply moving to the opposite direction to Dwarka, through Kasi and then upto Badri.
If you are told you will die, then how do you manage your days? Adi laughed. He watched centipedes crawling on leaves, and becoming white blanketed pupae, and then flying away with damp wings to follow their fate. He waited to see where ants carried their food, counted them as they increased in number and marched like soldiers to their garrison. There were the fireflies at nigh, echoing the mystery of the meteors. His mother was staring at him, her washed hair now tumbling below her coccyx, her eyes a little protuberant. He hoped she would not have a visitation. When that happened, her perpetually sad eyes would flow over, and the ash covered brow would crease, her feet would stamp the ground, and with cries of Ammae, she would flail and fall. He always stood at a distance, and then when she had stopped beating the earth, with her perspiring body, he would feed her water and the pounded areca nut, which she chewed slowly, her heart, calming down. When she had spat, and washed her moth, she would lie down and sleep the whole afternoon. The sun would  dazzle her, so he covered her with a cloth, and if it rained, he ran and sat at the window, hoping that Isa would have mercy on them and not flood them out.
The food lay heavy in his stomach. It was dangerous to sleep. He would snore, his breath would catch in his throat, he would dream, and  in dreaming die. His mother was sitting in the corner of the room, his father’s place, and she was staring at him. No delirium this time, he could see she was merely revisiting the prophecy of his birth. When he asked her how he was born, she always said,
“From  a seed, a melon seed.”
“Why am I not a melon, then?”
“Siva knows.”

His father’s naked body against his mother’s. He could remember that. In Vercala, the old couple had gone to the temple, and seeing their lust for one another, and the yearning for completeness in mortuary rituals, Shiva had granted them their wish. Why had they thought that in their old age they could look after a boy? Because they were married to each other, and by some inherent practice married to the sacred worlds of Agnilingam. Their mutual  lust was something all Kaladi knew of. Only death now separated them. Shiguru had given her the boy to remind her that once they had lived together and longed for a boy who would be Shiva himself. Should one wish for children? Everyone did. Why were his parents different wanting Shvaroopa? Let it be so, that was his fate. The snake was uncoiling in his spine, moving upward, warming his back. His mother was still staring at him.
“Why are you staring at me, boy!”
“Your eyes are like Bhadrakali.”
“She will look after you when I am gone.”
“And where are you going?”
“To be with your father. I will die before you. No mother should see her son die. Then you will cremate my body and throw my ashes in the Ganga.”
“But I, I will be dead or a Sanyasi.”
She had fallen into a trance,  and her eyes were half closed. He was reminded of the Buddhists who were now everywhere.  With their polished coconut shells they went from street to street, and received alms, both food and money, sometimes jewels. They had monasteries in every corner, and on their way to Jwambadvipa, they left behind large congregations. His mother too, sometimes, gave biksha to monks, but then  she also left cocoanuts and money at Malayatoor, at the Christine shrine, constantly praying for her son’s longevity. Why accept a boon, and not it’s tax? He found it very odd indeed.
He yawned and stretched, his belly full. He noticed that his mother was twitching involuntarily and that a bee was circling her head. He wondered if she had the disease that caused people to rot and die, either of hunger or surfeit. Oh mother, you who carried me, made your body my home for nine months, how will you live without me. He looked at his birthmarks carefully, the blue seals of his God given body: there was the conch and the trident, best of all, the moon. When he was born, they had been amazed. Yet his parents did not doubt that he was theirs, drawing comfort in his glances and his tranquility. They watched him grow, placing him carefully between their conjoined eternally satiated bodies. His mother’s body concave with longing, his father with the protuberant belly and the hairy legs: they locked him in their hot embrace. The thousand petal lotus unfolded, their joy compounded by the tiny child. The woman with  her fair skin, her sharp black eyes and the long hair that she oiled, and combed, even before her face was washed, and kohl underlined her eyes rather rampantly, swearing concupiscence and daring. He had inherited the courage from her, and that was what she most abhorred begging him to stay in her lap. His  father had taught him the verses of appeasement, so that Skanda and Ganesha, those rival brothers became his guardians. Hibiscus were the only things that grew in their  garden, and Shakti puja their greatest worth. So be it. The golden lady Sarasvani would bequeath her words to him. He could see her; rotund, black haired, almond eyed, gorgeous, smelling of sandalwood, her music following him along with the yellow flowers of Brahma’s invention. Sarasvani, who was as exquisite as his mother who had no cause to weep, for even the many years she had spent with Shivguru was a banquet, heavy laden with awesome gifts. His father could make a verse out of air, roll his tongue over the most coagulated of words, unglutinate them with the ease of a maestro. His eyes were large and bright, and his smooth language, the most perfect of spoken and unspoken tongues. He never had to shout, just with a twist of his eyebrows he could make people understand that he was not happy. And when he was angry,  the sparks were like errant ghosts, blue lights that moved about in the air.
He was dead now, their very own household God, Shivguru who made life, gave him birth. Shivguru, his mother’s companion and lover, dead at fifty years, and age thought by all to be ancient indeed, for Kaladi did not boast of circumstances of health and longevity. The river was often straggling and dull, the fishermen’s webs often caked with mud. They themselves had nothing to eat, poor brahmans, for the rice came from other people’s houses. When there was a wedding feast they sat in rows eating till they belched, but Aryaramba and Shivguru ate only that one meal of rice and oily tamarind paste pounded with a scattering of cocoanut and sesame seeds. No festive foods came their way, and once he saw Aryaramba drawing an imageof the emaciated Buddha. Yes, she met the monks as she went from house to house cooking and cleaning. Maybe she had been asked to join a Sangha. He was quite sure someone would have approached his beautiful mother with just such an invitation. The thought pursued him. He would shave his head and give up sandalwood. He approached Ganesha with a jaggery ball of rice, the elephant god, blessed with memory, who shut one eye quite often to the deeds of humans, welcomed him. His mind was now glowing with the memory of the early morning sun, when he had skirted the edges of the water and the paddy fields,  hoping for a glimpse of his mother. At the thought of  the reddish hue of early morning, he ran to the garden and plucked the hibiscus so dear to the Lord. He offered them to his mother, who opened one eye strangely at him.
“What is it?”
“An offering.”
“Abhishekham  Aa,” she said a little gutturally, spit leaking from the side of her mouth.

He was frightened.
“Let me go, mother. Let me renounce the world.”
“Big words from a little fellow like you. And what is there in it for me?”
“I shall be here to light your funeral pyre.”
“That is benediction indeed. A pyre lit by a renouncer son. Being poor is bad, but a boon that gives no peace, that is calamity indeed.”
“Your love for me lights my days, short though my life maybe. May I reach manhood.”
“I shall be your partner in meditation, do not go far.”
“While you say your prayers, I will meditate so should I die I will be born again in a house where meditation is most desired.”
“Oh Arjuna, the sun is high, and the water will be alone, flowing without others present, if you die no one will know.”
“Before it rains again, mother, I will return.”
“The rice is heavy in your belly. Tomorrow I will take you with me so that you do not wake hungry.”
“My work begins early too. I was born when five stars were present in the sky, early in the morning, when the flowers were many and the light was bright.”
His mother was wide awake.
“Yes, Vashista bore you. So they say. Everyone was pleased when you were born, even though to a washerwoman. As I beat the clothes upon the rock, and the crocodiles head bobbing among the reeds, you moved shattering my body.”
“ The old  crocodile. He still waits there for me.”
“No, your time has not come.”
“Saw him in the morning.”
“Where? Was the snake not enough for you?”
“How did you know a snake was here?”
“I saw its skin. And the crocodile? Where? Where???”
“It was laughing at me when I went to bathe in the river.”
“So you did bathe then.”
“ I wanted to tell you, but since I saw Muthachen (old father) I thought you might be afraid.”
“”How did he look?”
“He had laughing eyes.
“And his tongue?”
“It was pink, and the waterbirds were clearing it teeth.”
“Well, then?”
“I ran out of the water. I forgot my cloth. When I returned the sun was high up, and I thought I would finish my bath, when you returned.”
“There is no oil, and the sandal past is finished.”
“I will use mud.”
“Your father crushed leaves of hibiscus, you do the same.”
His mother was sighing again, so he quickly ran out, singing Prakashjjpartaratnaprasoon.

I praise Ganesa the son of Isa, whose brilliant hue resembles the red hibiscus, the tender shoots of plants, the coral and the early morning sun, who has a large belly and a single curved tusk.”
He was always besieging Ganesa, and when his fear grew larger than himself, he spoke to Isa. His mouth was always moving, his curling hair streaked with sweat as he ran to the river, the food inside his stomach rolling a little. His mother had forbidden him to bathe after lunch, but after a hard morning’s work she was too sleepy. He looked up, and saw the clouds were gathering again. There was just enough time to dip in the water, which would now be pleasantly warm. The banana leaves were shining after being washed by rain, and the large ants, both  red and black were marching up in columns to feed on the dripping nectar of their white bloom, encased in the mauve cones. Butterflies thronged the grove, and he forgot about the crocodile. There were days when he was a prisoner of the house, unable to move, his body hurt, and his head throbbed. And there were days like this, when he could run, and observe things, feel the shape of the stones, and rough edges of gravel under his feet. Time seemed like an ocean, vast as the sky, pushing him forwards to his death, and to the early reclamation by the Gods. He was not asking any questions, but even the flutter an eyelash, seemed like eternity.

Small though he was, he could run faster than other children his age. There was Leela, waiting for him. She was taller than him, but always looked to him as if he was smarter. She was older too, but then, when it came to friendship, there were no rules separating them until  she came to the age of menstruation. Then, they would  have to behave as if they were strangers. They had been born in the same year, she before the rains, and he when Karkaddam had set in the same year, endless ravaging rain. It seemed odd that when they grew up, as indeed they did, slowly  and steadily in each other’s company, she should have stretched her bones faster than him. Of course, her father was a trader, and there were three meals a day. She always brought him some food, even persuaded him to eat fish, which he refused. He composed some verses to Ambika, looking at her, thinking that her slim dark beauty, her long hair always oiled and combed, her ear rings hanging in their strands of gold upto her shoulders, her flat chest bare, her waist covered in a white soft linen with  gold edges that came upto her ankles. Everything about her was perfect.

They played together most days in the cocoanut groves, never curious about each other. She always had a clutch of conches, which her father had given to play with. He traded  in them travelling as far as Dwarka and Jagannath Puri to get them. If a few were damaged, for then the priests and housewives would not accept them, he would gift them to his daughter. The two children, Leela and Sankara, blew into them, decorated their garden with flowers and shells, slept in the afternoons with pillows made of dried grass, the shells carefully guarded from each other, and their friends, for they were possessive, very possessive over each one, giving them names and identities. Ofcourse at the end the day, Leela, stone faced as if they were strangers, collected them all in a cotton bag, which she had stitched from an old towel, and she ran home.
The shells were from different seas and while the seas themselves were hidden from vies, cowries and conches were extremely important to local people, who never travelled by the seas, leaving it to fishers and traders. There was after all only the open sky which was not accessible to humans. The Gods traversed them, but for  ordinary humans there were the long roads, through forests and deserts. Pilgrims took them, protected by kings. They went over many different kingdoms, but in each case,  there were ware houses and inns, secured by the king’s soldiers.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Potato Farmer in Sabu Village, Ladakh tells Morup and me about the Flood Year.

  Upto 1974, the weather was severe. It was minus 30 and minus 34. From 1990, there were no more cold winters, it became minus twenty and minus twenty two or minus twenty five for only two or three days. The usual average was minus 19 or minus 20. Earlier there was lots of snowfall. There was one or one and half feet snow in the fields. This would remain until the end of March, after which it would melt. Now, snow fall is five inches, and the next day it melts. Rain falls now. There is normal rainfall, summer time for one or two hours, during July and August, occasionally heavy.

Mild winter, Spring is severe for the last five or six years. February and March get very cold. Spring has become cold and dry. There is snowfall in the hills,  in winter, it freezes.

This was what Morup and I were told by a potato farmer in Sabu village. In the flood year, till 23rd of June, snow didnt melt. Then suddenly it was hot.
And the water melted rapidly. He has a  water tank below ground, which is run with a motor. On the 23rd of June, in the flood year, it was empty. The tank lies 9 feet below ground.

After 23rd of June, the underground water,  9 feet below, suddenly became full, there was excess water. With the help of the motor the water was pumped out.
On 5th August, a thunderbolt never seen, lightening was so bright that a needle dropped on the floor could be found.
The flood came from the Manali road side. At two minutes to midnight- strong wind Khdddddddd loud noise, water falling through the chimney. the farmer came into the garden to collect a container, and was knee deep in water. Behind the house, the resort he was building for tourists was swallowed up in a river of water. The two Nepalis looking after the resort were lost.
In 1969, there was a cloudburst in Nimu, and in 1974 in Piang village.
The Government did not recompense for commercial losses, but they removed the silt, and gave one lakh rupees for repairs to the domestic portion of his home.

Ofcourse, this is climate change, according to the farmer. There is very little ice now. In 1940s and 1950s, the glacier was covered totally. The reasons for the melt down are large green house gas effects, population growth and increasing number of vehicles in Ladakh because of the perennial army presence, tourists, and the increased consumerism among Ladakhis themselves.
The Nallas no longer have clean water, since the local community as well as migrant laborers are careless and pollute the waters. With the flood, Nallas were destroyed, but the Government repaired them. For drinking purposes, the Government has dug hand pumps.
Former president Abdul Kalam had adopted Sabu, but they recieved little or no assistance from that head. Ladakh Autonomous Council in synchrony with the J and K government and the Centre acted very quickly.
March April May are the sowing seasons, and given the shortage of water, there is control of water during this time by the Chorspon method. Four people are chosen, each is sent out to each house, and told on the day the water will come to their field.  It is a very tightly regulated system, where the commons (in this case water) is controlled by representatives.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


I left Delhi with an odd sense of calm. What would I find at 1750 feet that I did not know in the plains? When we left Jammu and Kashmir, we travelled through the Zojilla pass, and the mountains were immensely frightening. Sedimentary alright, speaking geological time, when the shales and loose stones and boulders were covered by water, they stood out against my fear, as brittle as the past, and lost horses in ravines, and bodies floating in ether, as they tried to leave the moraine of the past. It was freezing, last nights rain had dissolved the tar. Ofcourse, the road cleared, and so did the mist, and the tarmac became solid, a bright ribbon of road. The valour of soldiers and roadworkers from Jharkhand, and Tamil Nadu and Bihar, made our swift passage over the mountains possible. I was trying to in a patch work way to imagine the journey of Adi Sankara from Kalladi. It is a journey that I imagine in my mind, and with the help of theological treatise and commentaries, I try to understand why a Malayali would have walked so far. But the Himalayas have always been our legacy, and no Malayali wishes to give it up. We passed the ancient routes, and saw the road to the pilgrim sites with the pilgrims already heading to Amarnath, inspite of the dangers. Religious tourism is very palpable by that one thing called faith, it has no boundaries.
Our first stop, after a long day's journey through what seemed unnerving silence and endless mountains was at Anantpur. We had reached Kashmir. I was visiting it after 40 years, my last visit being in 1974, when I was seventeen. Kashmir seemed dusty, the road building, the incessant search to make things faster, faster faster, makes everything incredibly dusty. The new tunnel route through the mountains from Jammu to Srinagar will cut  travel time to four hours. Anantnag followed, with its fields and orchards, and then we came to Srinagar. It was 6 pm, the light was still there for us to  see this lovely town. The people went about shrouded in their grief, so palpable, it stuck a knife into the heart. It was curfew, a sizable number of people were about though, to pick up their provisions. A handful of shops were open. There were police and army men at every corner. Everyone ignored everyone out of habit. That sullenness, that grief, I shall never forget it. The road to the University was blocked, but we took another one, and went through: my first glimpse of Srinagar campus. Its unutterably beautiful, white buildings, hollyhocks and roses standing tall, the mountains ranging behind. We collected one of our team members, an Englishman, a computer professional who had wanted to know why we were two hours late? We ourselves could not remember...yes, cafe hopping in the mountains, we had stopped for breakfast, tea and rajma, lunch, evening meal...what else can you do with an entourage of young men doing their Phds and a handful of young women?  The participants mainly consisted of doctoral candidates and Assistant Professors who were geographers, sociologists, physicists, glaceologists, political scientists, ecologists, photographers. We had started at 7 am from Jammu University, since the early morning call had been heeded by all at 5 am, all the luggage packed, but since two people were found still sleeping in their beds, everything had to be untied and begun again. So we were late, yes, that's the reason we were late to pick up our soft ware engineer!
We drove into the free falling night towards Sonarmarg. Shepherds, men women and children were hurrying their sheep to Jammu in the night, taking their ancient routes. During the day, it was too traffic ridden.  We spent the night comfortably, in a hotel, where the sheets were clean, and the instant soup I ordered on arrival came courteously hours before dinner, out of a packet. I was so relieved to have it. Then I fell fast asleep, and at five am, we were on the road again. We travelled endlessly through the same landscape, and then finally we were in Leh. It was night, and the streets were like Aladdin's cave. Winter was on its way, and the tourists had mostly gone home. The town is a dusty citadel on a landscape which draws the traveller, welcomes him or her. Its an ambience many have written about. Leh, over  the next ten days unravelled its mysteries to us: the Kashmiri and Tibetan merchants, the Ladakhi men and women who sold their garden produce, the wonderful sense of the hills beyond, continuing in an ancient trail of dust and ambition, the glaciers fast melting, the pattern of rain which was slowly becoming to manifest itself as the South West Monsoon over the last couple of years, the memory of the 2010 landslide which the inhabitants had learnt to live with and ofcourse the hospitality of the local people. The taxi drivers tell us that Television news channels with their constant drumming into us that The Chinese are Coming have put their tourist figures very low for the last two years. "With the majority of the Indian Army stationed here, why would anyone think the Chinese are Coming?" But in Pangong Lake, the rumour is that the Chinese submarine constantly circumlocutions the rim, and the smoke can be seen from the surface.
 Leh has its calm, its silence,  bright hot sunlight, cool breezes, and yes, the noxious smell of petrol ruins the air, because neither the army vehicles nor the taxis control their emissions.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hungry City

I was born in Delhi. It was always beguiling, lots of places to go to, and middle class parents make it a point to introduce the city to their children. The bus to Fvara, the auto to Connaught Place, the long walk to India Gate on Republic Day, sitting on the bench at Okhla and watching the water tumble down, and then there is the straddling slowness of seeing caged animals with the lovely Old Fort in view. Yet, the rapist always lurked. Today, it is much worse. Thirty years ago, when the female foeticide statistics were reported, there was also the bizarre incidents of women being burnt to death in their own homes.
When I shifted to JNU in 1999, with my three daughters, when Shiv began his endless travelling, from which he found himself unable to keep in touch with the family, I found to my horror that I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I had packed up whatever we needed, hired two trucks settled in as Warden of Ganga hostel, and hoped that rearing three daughters on the JNU campus would be easier to do then travelling back in a Contract bus from JNU to Patparganj ( 45 minutes stranded in the South Ex traffic) and the children latch key kids. But from October 1999 to March 2000 JNU had its own resident rapist. He would lurk in the bushes and lunge at passers by, and they would somehow manage to escape and tell their horror story. Imagine my terror, now I was responsible not just for three daughters, I was equally responsible for three hundred women, far from home. All of them ranged from the ages of 20 to 30, had a sense of independence and the strong headedness of being protected at home and in an overprotected campus, where at a stone's throw, you would find a sentry.

The rapist roamed the woods for a long period of time, such that women were told to be in by 9 pm, and the gates were locked too, for their safety. This was most unusual in JNU, where hostel gates are never locked. The step had to be taken, since the rapist had now started to climb the iron pipes, and would knock on the doors of the women residents from the balcony. How ominous. Taking the step to lock the Hostel gates, was a collective decision from Proctor to Dean and Wardens. In Ganga however, the women took a strong position against this, since they were Scientists using their Laboratories in some cases, Humanity and Social Science Scholars using the Library till midnight, just as we had done on the same campus, three decades previously, and ofcourse there were courting couples, and activists engaged in painting banners for the elections who were equally irate.  What a furore there was, and allegations such as "Wardens are regulating our sexuality" and "Wardens are going too far" went to extreme situations. Just as it was getting out of hand, and we were in a terrible dilemma about the safety of women, and their rights to access the places they wished to go to, a  Security officer's wife was nabbed by the Rapist in the woods, and she being a strong Jat woman from Munirka nabbed his wrist in turn, and would not let go. However, he finally escaped from her but it was enough time for her to notice his features and soon, there were posters of the Rapist all over campus.

Today, coming back from my evening walk I saw a man, empty with hunger, poverty, endless drudgery and as we crossed each other, we covertly looked at one another. I moved on, then turned around, and he had stopped to stare at me. It was the emptyness of his face, not hate, not squalor, just the way he looked that reminded me of another episode.

Four of us walking back four years ago, in the Bhimtal hinterland, after a conference outing. My  collaborator, two others, all of us. walking on a narrow ledge of hill. And then a cool enquiring breath on my neck, which made me jump. Luckily, the others did not involuntarily jump with me, since if they had one person atleast would have fallen off the ravine. My collaborator's phone rang, it was her husband enquiring if all was well. The moon was out, we started to walk single file. I insisted it was a leopard. My colleagues from the conference just laughed.

The next day, a black leopard was sighted outside the conference organiser's house. It paced around all morning. The rumour was that a leopard had eaten the arm of  a woman the previous week, and wasn't hungry. I felt that corroborated my story. It had just sniffed at my neck.

So the man I encountered in the woods this evening was the one I feared. Every woman in Delhi has always lived in fear, why debate this? The government does not punish the rapists, because it is presumed that being eaten or violated is a natural fact which women must accept. By calling women Draupadi, they already, like Marx's self fulfilling propecy, send women on a certain path. By calling them Sita, they do the same, restricting their movements to the line drawn by Laxman. And then there is the one, they call Ravan's sister, who involuntarily fell in love,  whose nose they wish to cut off. This modern miasma of using religion to kill or maim or imprison or sexually violate women cannot work for the new generation. Citizen rights is the need of the hour,  for the indoctrination of the susceptible young by an ideology whether Wahabi or from the Mahabharat brings odd consequences in its wake. Why should men and women live continuously in fear, for men revile them for having given birth to them? After the attempted murder and a successful suicide in the School of Languages,  the murderer said before he swallowed rat poison, that he was a "Rajput", in short, a warrior. He kept repeating this caste appellation. Was this justification for bringing an axe in his satchel, and rat poison in his pocket to class? Worse, the lumpen proletariat who find some sort of warped ideological momentum in this, say brazen things like "Siv or Sakthi. Tension math lo. Kitni bar Neelkanth hua hai."
 The Asaram Bapu case is terrible in its connotations. All that we can hope for the City of Delhi, where we live and bring up our children, which we have made our home during our active years, is that it should revive the concern for Human Rights in the country on a mass scale, through public information and media channels. Too many women have been assaulted, raped, murdered, for the gaze is only the first moment of suspended thought, frightening by its very nature. If "under eighteens" are old enough to rape and disembowel, and are indeed being publicly socialised to do so as a matter of ideological warfare, in terms of class or caste or religion or gender,  then let them spend three years in Reformatory, and answer for their crimes in a Higher Court when they have matured.  There is no alternative to this time extended enquiry. or else like the currents of suicide which made the 1990s so dreadful in Delhi, the currents of rape will be with us until justice is rendered in such a way that citizens know that rapists and murderers are answerable for what they did. The Dostoevskyian moment of reprieve must come later, or else we will be subject to every passing fancy as a moment of violation regardless of age and gender.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


So I went nervously to the conference I had been invited to. I am a good traveller, because I like visiting new places, and not surprisingly I work myself into knots when I set out, wondering what I will face, what whale in a tea cup will splash my equilibrium. When I reached the airport where I was to be met by the organisers, I found it was very hot, the light very bright, and it was making me steam like a scalded tomato. I was stunned. I had thought we were going to Darjeeling, and as for Bagdogra, I had never even heard of it. Later, my middle child, Sandhya, told me that the airport had great cutlets at its cafe, and that this was the gateway to the North East. My ignorance is not surprising, because its a big country, and I usually only travel to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I asked the taxi drivers who were hollering away, why people went to Darjeeling if it was so hot, and he said laconically, 'go to the hills, go to the hill'. After a while the organiser representative turned up, looking terribly hot and bothered, since he had not anticipated my plane arrriving twenty minutes early. We went back into the airport with a pass, ostensibly for me to cool down, since I was really stewed up by the heat, but actually to wait for two more participants, one a well known Dalit activist from Kerala, the other a nun who was a scholar and Mother Superior of her order. The police woman who checked our passes on the re entry to the airport was a pretty Malayali girl, who said acerbically but gently that we should not have wasted money on passes if I was a bonafide traveller who had just got off the plane. The Malayalis are to be found everywhere, and they usually give excellent advice, so when the other two scholars came back in, we made them show their tickets on re-entry.

Riding out to Siliguri, the young lanky academic, formerly a JNU student now teaching in Darjeeling, told us sadly that the Gorkhaland agitation was on, so we would not be able to go on to Darjeeling, but we would be accomodated in Siliguri. The driver of the van told me that Siliguri is the second biggest city in Bengal after Calcutta. There were tea shrubs outside the airport, but otherwise the road from Bagdogra to Siliguri seemed very desolate, small town, unremarkable. I was dropped off at a Convent School, which became my home for the next five days. The student nuns scattered on seeing us, and said they had no news of my visit, leave alone stay, and we would have to wait for for Mother Superior to arrive. I was quite distraught, and thought to myself, no wonder I never leave my beaten track, where friends and relatives always await me. However, everything got sorted out very fast, and the other eight women participants also arrived over the course of two days, and we spent a very peaceful five days with the nuns, who were really charming confident women, silent in their interior disposition, but comfortable with our secular selves.
The conference happened in a local college, which was the extension college to the Don Bosco institution in Darjeeling which had hosted the conference on Christianity and Indian Culture, supported by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research. 96 seminarians who had helped plan the event, and organise the details of the publication of the brochure and collected papers  were disappointed at not being present, however, the faculty members who had arrived with a few students went out of the way to make the 45 participants who had travelled from all over India very comfortable and intellectually stimulated. Academics are always looking for cool circumstances in which to read their work and  eat their meals at appointed times.......there were no disappointments. Inspite of the traumatic political conditions, all the papers and  public speeches or addresses were given, and the long hours of work went unnoticed by the participants because of the  nature of the discussion. The cafe in the College provided us with wonderful food, very simple but delicious, and since I have an allergy to most  cooking oils, specifically butter, I had breakfast and dinner with the nuns of the Convent School.
 After two days of lock out in the hills, Siliguri also shut down, so  on the first day of the conference the eight women participants set out in some fear and trembling, but the Salacian Centre for Excellence was only two kms down the road from where we were staying and  though occasionally we saw a man with venomous eyes looking at us, for breaking the Bandh (lock out), we had no trouble. But we did want to buy tea for our families, and on the last day of the Conference we got our opportunity, for there was a window of time, when the bandh was lifted. The issue was that the Bengalis wanted to starve the Gorkhas out, so they locked their city, and no food went to Darjeeling. Meanwhile a woman immolated herself, a man called Chauhan who was a partisan to the Gorkhaland Movement got shot, and independently of all this, the Maoists stranded the train from Delhi by removing the fish plates on the tracks at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, and trains were now coming eight hours late, and leaving seventeen hours off the time table . We started worrying collectively about whether we would ever get home. The Bandh was beginning to strain our nerves, there was an undercurrent of depression, since many of the participants were travelling by train, or going to the airport in Bandh circumstances.
As we went to buy Darjeeling tea, our spirits were quite high, because we were leaving the closed spaces of the conference hall after so many days. However, everybody in Siliguri had the same idea, since they had to collect their supplies, and the traffic jams, the heat, the sweat, the smell of carbon dioxide will forever be inscribed in my memory. As we stood choosing the flavours we wanted from Siliguri's most famous shop, the sweat just dissolved us in pools, and since there were ten of us in the group, two hours outside the tea shop was excruciating. I bought mine in five minutes flat, choosing a fragrance rather than asking about its characteristics. I am very happy with what I brought home, it has a delicate flavour, and it is just amazingly good tea..worth the sweat and the waiting which followed, for the others were packing theirs in small packets with different names and weights and costs, and it took ages. All I took in of the city was the heat, and the look that people had, all coming out in families, not for an outing, but to buy supplies. I would have liked to have bought a cotton sari, but the heat was so enervating, I just stood there in a catatonic trance waiting for my friends to finish choosing their tea. One of the participants has her tea couriered in from Calcutta to Delhi twice a month, so you can imagine what purists I was with! They had been thoroughly disappointed not to have a leisurely outing in Darjeeling, where they could shop and eat out. In Siliguri, there was seriously nothing to do, except hypothetically, given the Bandh, go to a movie, see a tea factory, buy nylon sarees and tacky umbrellas at Hongkong Market, drive to the border of Nepal (Kathmandu 18 hours away!) and purchase more useless Chinese goods such as toys and umbrellas with lead content. The host organiser said " You can go if you wish, we can arrange transport, but please write your wills first."
The Salacian monks were a charming erudite bunch with a tremendous sense of humour, so it was a great conference. They took care of every detail of our stay, risking their own well being for the perfection that they sought, and since it was very much a secular meeting I can say how much I wish that we could all live in peace in India without fearing for our lives and the lives of others. On the way to the airport, we suddenly stopped, because a coffin as large as a  boxbed was being taken in a psuedo military parade by the Gorkhaland supporters. Were there two bodies in it, or one? It was a suddenly humbling moment, the idea that the spruced up white jeeps with the red and black flags on it were carrying  a dead man in a procession around Siliguri. However, inspite of the Bandh called by the Bengalis, and the mortuary ceremonial procession of Gorkhaland supporters, we drove through the pastoral campus of North Bengal University, and went on to the  Bagdogra airport.
In my own university,  while I was away, a boy had attempted to murder a girl (by crushing her head with an axe,) who had been his friend, because she had refused to accept his sexual advances, and then he had eaten poison and died in the  full view of his class mates who were traumatised by the horrific incident, and will carry the brutality of his actions stamped in their minds all their life. In times of normlessness, we try to keep calm, we try to make sense of our lives, and we know that every day is different, but we hope that there will be tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


When I shifted to my  new house,  in JNU, with its upstairs and downstairs arrangement, it seemed that the garden was the most interesting thing about it. The house leaked a lot, and as a result, we lived in some dread for the first year, that our books would get ruined. The loss of books is the most frightening thing for an academic. We are either writing them or reading them. I often think the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr  Hyde was about this dramatic relation between what one may speak about and what one may not. The split personality is the most profound, because in not seeking to synthesise it, the academic who insists on moon lighting is probably the most troubled academic of all. Anyway, gardening is one such pastime. The garden just soaks up the rain, transforms itself. It doesnt mind the grand flooding every Monsoon, and the silt from the Laburnum field which  unequivocally runs into the house and the electricity room, is sucked up by the garden too  in great abandon.
As soon as I shifted into the house  in January of 2010, I went to the local  government store and bought a kg of yams, known as Arabi  and planted them in a straight line. I had no intention of eating them when they bore tubers, because I am not overly fond of roots other than potatos. For my mother's generation, eating tubers was a matter of great nostalgia. That's what they did in 1918, when they were old enough to sharpen their teeth on something. In fact, on her 95th birthday, her brother's son and his wife brought her a variety of tubers for breakfast. They brought it by train ialong with  imported soap and Yardley's powder from the Gulf, the earthy tubers from the village plot happily rubbing shoulders with their inanimate gentrified European objects that the Gulf diaspora so loves to bring back as gifts. We are also pleased to recieve them, let me hasten to add. There is nothing as delightful as Yardley powder on your feet when you come out of your bath. Though Ponds Sandalwood is even better. Anyway, the kappa, kachal, and what not, were duly boiled by my sister, and a hot chilli chutney was made to go with is. For this particular chutney you need to pound onions and green chillies, and then throw in a generous dash of coconut oil to finish it off, without cooking it.

Back to the JNU yams......the leaves grew large and profoundly in a matter of months, giving me a good cover from the main road. They grew like giants, and when I watered the garden, the sound of water raining on yam leaves was reminiscent of the Kerala gardens that I knew so well. And people kept saying, "Why dont you uproot your Arabi and eat them?" and I would look blankly at them. Even my servant maid would try to give me lovely Etah recipes of rolling the leaves, soaking them in ground gram floor (besan) and steaming or frying them, if I didnt want to eat  the Arabi. And I would say "Nothing Doing!'

Then my father's brother's wife came to stay with me for a fortnight. "The leaves have wilted. Let's harvest this one!" So I  obediently pulled it out. Apparently, when the leaves of the yam wilt, its time to eat the tuber. I  had earlierjust let it aggregate, season after season, idly pulling out fading leaves and letting new canopies of large leaves grow. The tuber was huge. It didnt look like an arabi. It looked as the Americans say, humoungous.  I sliced it in two, because it didnt fit in the pressure cooker. Then I made a chilli chutney that I had learnt from Nair friends in Kerala. Fry six  dry red chillies (deseeded) with six  small onions, and grind them in the mixi with a small round of washed tamarind, and a little water and salt and curry leaves.  When the yams were boiled I sent one half to my eldest daughter, with her husband,  who had dropped in to collect some books from their room upstairs,and then my aunt and I sat to eat slices of the other half. As soon as it touched my tongue, the zinging inflamation set in. "Stop! Stop! It itches. Throw it Away." She looked at me, and said "Mine doesnt."
Anyway, she too spat out her piece of yam immediately. Just short of our vocal chords, our mouths became completely inflamed. I quickly called my daughter at her apartment, and told her not to eat it. Then she asked her mother in law for an antidote, and her mother in law  said I should have boiled the yams with alum (whatever that is) or guava leaves, but anyway, if I put some tamarind or pickle on the tongue, then  the inflammation would subside, the acid of the tamarind or the lime picke soothes the burning tongue. Who was to know all this?
Think of it, eating yams was so much part of the past, that no one knew that it came accompanied with rules. Whoever did the cooking just prepared it the correct way. Kaachal, Chenna, Kappa......all things that I eat when I go to Kerala without blinking an eyelid, boiled or mashed with coconut. Here my ignorance just set up a dreadful allergy. It hadnt itched when I peeled it, so I guess, I had thought it was safe to eat. Farmers sell things in the market all the time, growing them is not so easy is it,  or being responsible for storing it, and seliing it, or redistributing it. More power to them for growing things we can eat.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


I was waiting to go for a conference on water in Dehradoon of 19th June, and while watching the news on tv on the 16th June, I saw the houses crumble into the raging river. I cancelled my participation, knowing immediately that the roads would get blocked with people getting away, and that since I have sclerosis I would be a detriment to the others in the taxi with me, if we got jammed somewhere. The hills have absorbed the density of middle class longings for several years now. When I a made a trip to Sattal last year, I noticed the overbuild, and the river had a thin, mangy vicious look to it, as if it had been gutted, and neglected and misused and would be back for the kill. I shuddered and looked away.
My house in JNU gets regularly flooded, so I spent most of June, pushing out the water from the porch. And then the abandoned flowering of hibiscus took over, and the climbing jasmine, as well as the blue flowers that only show up in the rain. My house started looking like a Kerala house, and the grapes I had planted last autumn, started climbing steadily. The vine will create a shade for me from where the sun strikes hardest, all clear and bright after the rain.
Its a new chapter in my life. Meera has finally moved to Married Students' Quarters, it took her two years to really feel that she could write her Phd dissertation anywhere except in her room upstairs. Sandhya has gone back to Bengaluru to continue her studies in Design. Mallika has got admission in JNU at  School of Arts And Aesthetics for an M.A course. In short, they are all now grown up. I was preparing for this period for a long time. Shiv continues working with his colleagues on subjects beyond my ken, what industrialization does to traditional societies, calling himself a Social Science Nomad, like the Scythians and Parthians were still around. I was talking to a young engineering student yesterday, and it occurred to me, that neither Delhi University nor JNU teaches Industrial Sociology. I have always been interested in the survival of traditional agriculture, probably because I spent my summer holidays in Kerala as a child. The slow pace of life in a village was quite delicious, it gave you time to dream, and while our parents as busy professionals helped with household chores and read or chatted, we would be left free to roam and discover the grass growing wild and the beetles with them.
So how will I spend the years of solitude ahead of me? Meditatively, I hope. Teaching in a busy university never allows you to feel that you are alone. When I was seventeen, I would go for long walks on my own, and see the open sky. To me, that always seemed the familiar space of my dreams. So the sky is still there.
On Monday, my youngest daughter went to give an interview, and then when she came out to catch a bus, she got hit by a motorcyclist. So she fell down, and hit her head. She phoned me. I was watching Karan Thapar and K.V Thomas discussing the Food Security Bill. When I heard her whimpering I was aghast. "I've got into an accident." When I asked her where she was, she said Hanuman Mandir Jumna Bazaar. She had come out from Ambedkar University and had decided to catch a bus. The Police immediately took her to Susruth Trauma Centre opposite Metcalfe House. The doctors on duty had stitched her up neatly, and she was sitting with a bandage over her curls, looking woebegone, but well in command of the situation. Given the traffic jams, it had taken me an hour to reach her. And fifteen minutes after I arrived, her father and his colleagues arrived too from Haryana. Meera and her husband Saagar came in a taxi soon after, and the relief, that Malli was alive and well was huge. She was a lucky girl, the police acted immediately and the surgeon who stitched her scalp, and the bridge of her nose which was split open was one of the calmest people  I have met. So in India, we have this, the sense that one belongs, that unknown people are brilliant at their work. Maybe I have middle eastern blood that came down the family line in the early twentieth century, when my grandfather married a sparrow like girl who was a Cananite, (a community of Christians from Baghdad, Cana  and Nineveh, who came to India in the 4th century AD) because her father was a trading partner. But to me it seems that one can never be a foreigner in the country that has been one's home for a decade or for seventeen hundred years. Friends who live in New York say that its home, because it feels like home. Now Delhi feels like home.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


As soon as Kerala receives the rains, and the world maps of the weather announcers shows its raining in various parts of the world and the Southern hemisphere is enjoying its winter, I realise that Delhi at 44 degrees centigrade is my fate. Yes, the Laburnums are out, I remember to say Tarbhuz instead of Kharbhuz to the grocer, the  raw mangos have been distilled into cooling drinks, countless bel have been pulped into sharbat. The leechis have arrived, and the occasional visitor will look for limejuice instead of tea, but what I really remember are doing exams in Delhi University in the month of May. This year the exams are continuing into June.
In 1974, and for the three years that went into a B.A in Sociology in Delhi University, I would write the exams in a room which was open to the summer wind called the Loo. These are the hot dusty winds of May, which often run into June as well. I never survived them. I would go into the exam hall, and my mind would just go blank with the heat. Being good at my subject was not enough, one had to have the will to sit through 40 degrees C and write the answers to  five questions. If you got less than 58 percent, you could not become a lecturer in a University. How hard it was, and I had my first attack of multiple sclerosis, undiagnosed for twenty five years after that, in the exam hall. I couldn't remember a thing. I felt waves of heat, then waves of cold. I ran to Janakiamma, the principal of Miranda House, who arranged a writer. My hands had lost their function.  After the exams were over, my mother took me to Irwin Hospital and the physician said " I cannot find anything wrong with her, see she takes Vitamin B".
 I shifted to JNU because I dreaded the idea of doing 8 papers in one year cumulatively, since DU in the year 1979  had become a terror story of cumulative exams. JNU was very charming, and the teaching was intense, the teachers had interests in the Nation State, of which I had not much idea, since in MH there was no Union, and we were a rag tag bunch interested in  Woodstock and Bertolt Brecht, the extremities of the Emergency being muffled by the Establishment. JNU was a new world, but the heat remained the same, much worse, because at that time there were no trees, we were on a moon landscape, which suddenly came alive in the monsoon with wild flowers. I have never been so happy as I was in those two years, alone, with my books and a steady guy who came to see me twice a week whom I married when I finished my M.A. The summer however remained abrasive. Exams however got over by 5th of May. Unlike Delhi University students who started to pale and wilt in the ongoing density of written exams, we were all home for the summers.

After my first child was born, I got a job at Hindu College in Delhi University, teaching Sociology. I was twenty seven years old, and writing a thesis, as well as looking after the baby. And yes, along with teaching duties, was twenty seven hours of invigilation. Again, the students were writing an exam in a room with open windows, no desert coolers, sometimes the electricity went off, the water man with tepid water from dysfunctional coolers would come around and the young scholars would write away for three hours loyal to the world of ideas.
I understand that Delhi University which has all my loyalty even now, though I returned to my beloved alma mater JNU, still has its exams without facilitating young people to survive the terrible summer. Four years for a BA in the new system, will mean one more year of battling that summer heat for no known reason other than some people have been to America for a BA and are nostalgic for their experiences in a Western country. For people like myself, an opportunity to study abroad was never possible, and having a degree from India was what made us proud to be Indians. As soon as we left the exam hall, we got ourselves something cold to drink, and ate cholae kulcha from the vendor, Immunities were good. The bhel puri man outside Miranda House set up his stall the year I joined in 1974, and was still there decades later. Summer has me in its grip, I think I'll take another trip.