Cloaked In Words, This New Year…

I have been fortunate to translate the works of three brilliant writers over the past few years. Three books of V.J.James have been published by Penguin Random House : Anti-Clock, Nireeswaran and Dattapaharam. We are hoping to see ‘The Book of Exodus’ published this new year. Sheela Tomy’s book, ‘Do not ask the river her name’, will be out this year too. And I sincerely hope that Sonia Rafeek’s two beautiful books, ‘Herbarium’ and ‘House of Girls’ will find suitable homes soon. Perhaps, V.J.James’s Laika and One Legged Crow will grace the bookshelves of readers without much delay too.

From my own writer’s kitty, I am looking forward to seeing ‘Lanka Kanda’ published and a book of cartoons/graphics with pithy reflections , titled, ‘Wisdom@ 50’: what I have garnered during my life journey till now.

Time to say gratitude to the Lord. And it is time to thank all the men and women, whose words have made my life more meaningful, the past year.

Bless you all.


Laika and One-Legged Crow : V.J.James

Two novellas by V.J.James : Laika and One-Legged Crow.

Few excerpts from these stunning novellas…(in translation). Hope they spread their sweetness across the world.

Laika…

When the year 1957-58 was declared as the International Geophysical Year, both Russia and America, without each other’s knowledge, had started working on artificial satellites. Both parties spared no effort in spying on each other too. Yet, Russian space successes were always one step ahead of the game. It caused a grave injury to American pride that we succeeded in launching Sputnik, while US failed in putting in space a satellite weighing 2 kilograms. It was this defeat of the hitherto frontliner which motivated USA to establish NASA in 1958.

In the next decade, both the countries together contributed in sending almost 5000 artificial satellites to circle the earth. The credit of the first human in space in 1961 went to Russia while America conquered the moon in 1969- all a direct result of the invisible space race.  It was during the early stages of the space feud, which extended for years on end, that Laika the pup arrived; with the historic assignment of being the first link in the space journey, and I ended up narrating her tale to Priyanka.

Though named Laika, the nomenclature was not referring a lone canine. Laika was the common name for the breed of hunting dogs in Northern forests of Russia and Scandinavian countries. Alsatian, Pomeranian, Daschund…like these divisions, we too named the pup after a specific breed. From among the mongrels caught from Moscow’s streets, after ‘interviewing’ many, did we choose Laika as the space traveller. Her kind was adept in hunting down small creatures and birds like squirrels and partridges.  Howling wildly to indicate the presence of bigger animals, they were great enthusiasts in chasing and tiring out the preys, along with the owners. Though petite in appearance, their capacity to bark fiercely was legendary. That was why the breed got the name of ‘the one who barks’. They were very faithful and loving by nature. Besides, fitting her in the payload compartment was easy, considering her small size.

We Russians have a great liking for dogs. Most citizens consider owning high pedigree canines as a status symbol. The dogs are granted prominent positions within a household. Not only inside homes, but dogs have been companions in Russia’s scientific experiments also. It was because its blood circulatory system and respiratory mechanism were similar to that of a human being, that a dog was chosen as the first space traveler.  Although, considering the resilience and fortitude to overcome extreme cold and hunger, many street dogs were trapped and some canines were purchased from owners, the cast lots was in favour of Laika, due to her light weight, obedience and her non-ambivalence towards the special space food.

Irrespective of all the tricks up their sleeves, four adroit dog catchers could not snare this super smart little pup. She eluded their ruses many times. The catchers became provoked and determined to snag her in their nets by all means. By the time she was caught by the shore of a frozen lake, the dog trappers were perspiring even in the chill. That was the artificial lake we visited often in Moscow. Made by the arduous efforts of hundreds of political prisoners over a matter of years, that lake had a major influence in Russia’s ecology.

On hearing the finer details, Priyanka shot an array of questions.

‘What food do you give her? Mutton, fish?’

‘No dear,’ I replied, ‘a dog going to space cannot take fish or meat along. We give her a special gelatinized form of food.’

‘Where does she sleep, Papa?’

‘Inside a canister! She is very smart. So smart that she does not create a ruckus or get agitated like other dogs. Do you know what we tried last week? We made her don a space suit and conducted experiments inside a plane flying at high altitudes. There are so many more experiments pending trial…’

Priyanka, adept in the world of imagination, went on visualizing a space-suit clad dog. Insisting on seeing a picture, she made me sketch the scene.

‘Huh! What’s this? A mouse?’

Since I was poor in drawing, the dog I depicted was pathetically resembling a mouse!

Even Engineering Drawing had always been scary for me.

‘Today happens to be Sunday, right?’ To save face, I attempted a ploy. ‘See, if one sketches a dog on a Sunday, it will look like a mouse!’

‘Good that nobody sketched your picture today, Papa. Wonder which creature it would have resembled!’

When the guile, tried to deceive the innocence of childhood, was returned with its edge broken, I was rendered answerless. Yet, Priyanka did not abandon my dog belonging to the mouse species.

That night the child slept after listening to many more stories related to Laika.

***

One Legged-Crow

At the very bottom of the letter, there was an underlined reminder to Amma about feeding the One-legged Crow.

Though Amma fed all the crows, she had a special care for the one-legged one. Especially because Simon and his father had nurtured it until the little fledgling could spread its wings. It could neither land in places where other crows frequented nor maneuver itself and snatch a morsel of food. The leftovers were its sole hope. But chances for such crumbs were very small in a village. And so, Amma would always put aside something for the One-legged Crow. The bird too was aware of the routine. Without being the part of the raucous crowd, it would wait patiently in the anointed place, for its turn.

Apart from the crow, there was a squirrel too in the yard, that Amma fed regularly. There was a story behind the squirrel becoming a frequent guest. Once as it was relishing the rice drying on the palm-frond mattress, a cat had pounced on it. It was a smart aleck of a feline! If any dog wandered into the yard when it had given birth to its litter, the cat would unleash a terrible assault on the invader. It would scratch, hiss and yowl terribly. Due to the unexpected and ferocious nature of the attack, any mighty dog would lose its equanimity and flee for its life! The squirrel had been caught in the jaws of that canny cat!

Amma had somehow managed to salvage the squirrel from the fangs of the feline. The squirrel had bitten Amma desperately as it thrashed around for its life. A squirrel’s bite caused an intense, stinging pain. In spite of the agony, Amma was adamant on her life saving mission. The squirrel was on the verge of death, its neck mangled and bleeding. Ensuring water for the wretched creature, applying butter on the wounds, she murmured prayers while it lay on her palm and caressed it tenderly. Like a dead person resurrecting, the squirrel regained its life.

For a fortnight, the squirrel stayed close to Amma. On being able to climb trees, it scampered back but returned every day to eat cooked rice directly from Amma’s hands. One would be wonderstruck at the intimacy between animals and humans observing such interactions. Amma looked after the One-legged Crow and squirrel with the same dedication with which she cared for Simon. The pristine goodness of the village did not envisage distances between humans, animals or trees.

After writing the letter to his mother, Simon wrote in his daily diary with his black pen. It was a habit instilled in him from the ‘moral studies’ class at school. Then he scrawled a crow’s picture on the diary page too. There were many pictures scattered across the diary. Unconsciously, each picture would encapsulate the day’s poignancy. The last picture he sketched depicted the pang of separation in a dry, desolate background. His moral studies teacher at school had intoned that regular habits of writing and drawing helped to overcome inhibitions and even gain a mastery over both. Simon had used his golden pen for diary writing until now.

Now that Simon had to use the black pen, he was vexed at the start, but slowly the heavy burden seemed to move away. The humungous fears turned to be deceptive. It was easy to write with the black pen. There was an allure and elegance about the alphabets it crafted. Simon decided to use the pen for his immediate requirements until he visited home.

Simon’s hostel room was in the third floor. Intermittently, the resounding boom marking time from the tall tower could be heard. Especially during the nights, when all other sounds died down and nature stilled, the chime of the clock rang out louder and clearer. Since Simon was in the floor whose window opened out to the clock-tower, it was probably he who heard the time ring out first, feeling it most powerfully. Every time the clock tolled the time, Simon stared at it through the window. He saw the divine form standing with the hands spread over time.

Simon imagined sprouting two wings and taking a single flight from the hostel and landing at the zenith of the monument. In a way, it was predestined that he lived in such close proximity with the structure. The tower lured him to the days he spent with his Appan. It brought to mind Mesthiri, Outha and the village. Ruminating that Outha will be watching the same tower, which he watched at close distance, through his binoculars back in the village, Simon felt the distance between him and his home dwindling fast to become nullified. He visualized a hanging bridge connecting the acme of the clock-tower to the porch of his village home.


Dattapaharam: Call of the Forest by V.J.James

And here is the book, published by Penguin Random House India. Every dream begins with a hope of fruition. Though it takes sweat and perseverance to climb the mountain. But the happiness is worth all that struggle!


മണ്ണിൽ പലപല കുഴിയുണ്ടാക്കി…

അല്പത്തം അഥവാ അല്പത്തരം അഥവാ നീചം അഥവാ വിലകുറഞ്ഞ പ്രവൃത്തി അഥവാ petty /demeaning എന്നിങ്ങനെ മനുഷ്യന്റെ പല സംസാരങ്ങളേയും , പ്രവൃത്തികളേയും ദൈനം ദിന ജീവിതത്തിൽ കാണാൻ സാധിക്കുന്നു.
സോപ്പിട്ടു നില്കാത്തവർക്കാണ് സാധാരണ ഗതിയിൽ ഇത്തരം വാക്-വൃത്തികൾ നേരിടേണ്ടി വരുന്നത്.

‘അമ്പട ഞാനേ!’ എന്ന് വിചാരിക്കുന്ന, വിശ്വസിക്കുന്ന, അല്പരുടെ ആധിക്യമാണ് ഭൂമിയിൽ.

അവരില്ലെങ്കിൽ ഭൂമി അച്ചു തണ്ടിൽ നിന്നും താഴെ വീഴും, സുനാമികൾ ഉയരും, സൂര്യൻ ആകാശത്തിൽ നിന്നും മായും! അതവർ ആത്മാർഥമായി വിശ്വസിക്കുന്നു. അവർക്കു മരണമില്ല, ആരോഗ്യ പ്രശ്ങ്ങൾ ഒരിക്കലും ഉണ്ടാവുകയില്ല, അവർ ഭൂമിയിൽ നിന്നും ഒരടിപ്പൊക്കത്തിൽ സഞ്ചരിക്കുന്ന മഹത്തുക്കളത്രെ!

അങ്ങനെയുള്ള ആ മഹത്‌വ്യക്തികളെ നിങ്ങൾ വേണ്ട പൂർവം, ഉപചാരപൂർവ്വം മാനിക്കുന്നില്ലെങ്കിൽ, നിഴൽക്കുത്ത്‌, നേരിട്ടുള്ള ആക്രമണം, പിന്നിൽ നിന്നുളള അപവാദ പ്രചാരണം, പാർട്ടികളിൽ നിങ്ങളുടെ പേര് പറഞ്ഞുള്ള അട്ടഹാസവും പൊട്ടിച്ചിരിയും…അങ്ങനെ പല പല വിഭവങ്ങൾ സദ്യയിൽ വിളമ്പും.

പണ്ട് ‘അയ്യോ, നാട്ടുകാരെന്തോന്നു പറയും!’ എന്ന് ഉപദേശിച്ച ഒരു സത്‌സ്വഭാവിയോടു അച്ഛൻ ചിരിച്ചോണ്ട് പറഞ്ഞത് എനിക്ക് നല്ല ഓർമ്മ.
‘ചത്ത് പോയാൽ , ആരും വന്നില്ലെങ്കിലും, കോർപ്പറേഷൻ കുഴിച്ചിട്ടോളും. നിങ്ങൾ പാട് നോക്കി പോ!’

(വേറൊരു ആളുടെ അഭിപ്രായത്തെ പേടിച്ചു ജീവിക്കുന്നതിനേക്കാൾ ഭീകരമായ അവസ്ഥയുണ്ടോ? താലിബാനും അത് തന്നെയല്ലേ ചെയ്യുന്നത്? പെൺകുട്ടികൾ പഠിക്കരുത്!)

എന്തായാലും ചുറ്റും കേൾക്കാറുണ്ട് ധാരാളം : ‘ എല്ലാവരെയും ബഹുമാനിച്ചു വേണം കഴിയാൻ…പദവിയിൽ ഇരിക്കുന്നവരോട് എന്തിനാ വെറുതെ പോർവിളി?’
ബഹുമാനം അർഹിക്കുന്നത് പദവിയിൽ ഇരിക്കുന്നത് കൊണ്ടല്ല, മറിച്ചു ഒരാളുടെ വാക്കുകളും പ്രവൃത്തികളും കൊണ്ടാണ്.
എന്റെ കൂടെ ജോലി ചെയുന്ന പ്യൂൺ മുപ്പതു കൊല്ലമായി സേവനത്തിൽ. എത്രയോ കമ്മീഷണറുമാരെ ആ സാധു കണ്ടിട്ടുണ്ട്. എന്നെ ‘സർ’ എന്നാണ് സംബോധന ചെയ്യുന്നത്., ആ ആത്മാർഥത, അതെന്നെ സന്തോഷിപ്പിക്കുന്നു. ആ സമർപ്പണ മനോഭാവം, ജോലിയോടുള്ള commitment അതെന്നെ വിനയാന്വിതയാക്കുന്നു. ആ മനുഷ്യനെ ഞാൻ ബഹുമാനിക്കുന്നു. കൊടും തണുപ്പിൽ, രാവിലെ പത്തിരുപതു കിലോമീറ്റർ സൈക്കിൾ ചവിട്ടി എന്റെ ഓഫീസിൽ എത്തുമ്പോൾ ഞാൻ പറയും, ‘രാംസഹായി, ഹംകൊ ആപ് സെ കാഫി പ്രേരണ മിൽത്തെ ഹൈ’.

സമൂഹത്തിന്റെ മറ്റേക്കൊമ്പിൽ ഇരുന്നു പരദൂഷണം പറയുന്ന, വീമ്പടിക്കുന്ന, മറ്റുള്ളവരെ ഇകഴ്ത്തുന്ന, ആൾക്കാരെ കാണുമ്പോൾ ഞാൻ പണ്ട് അച്ഛൻ പറഞ്ഞതോർക്കും, രാംസഹായിയെ ഓർക്കും, പിന്നെ മിണ്ടാതെ എന്റെ പണി ചെയ്യാൻ തുടങ്ങും. അവർ അവരുടെ നേരമ്പോക്ക് നടത്തട്ടെ, നമുക്ക് ചെയ്യാൻ എന്തൊക്കെ നല്ല പ്രവൃത്തികൾ കിടക്കുന്നു.

ശുഭ നവവർഷം !


And Nature Beckons…

Here is the first look at the forthcoming translation- V.J.James’ brilliant book Dattapaharam: Call of the forest.

The novel is published by Penguin Random House.

Out in February 2023.

Do read. It is a book which cleanses the soul.


Ashita’s Ramayana for Children

Ashita’s Ramayana for Children has always been a favourite in my home.

In 84 simple chapters, the brilliant writer has captured the essence of Ramayana for our children. Indeed, this book is meant for all.

Since to narrate the Lord’s story in any form is also a form of worship, I am attempting to do my part.

Kindly forgive my mistakes.

Link:

https://hubhopper.com/episode/episode-1-ashitas-ramayana-for-children-introduction-1665236476


Of Two Forest Journeys

The whole universe is a magical place. What happens to us is decided by our thoughts/words/actions melding with the Universal Mind. How the sequence plays out is the beautiful magic.

Aranya Kanda : The canto of the forest , from Tulsidasji’s Shri Ramcharitmanas has gone into publication. The Lord explores the forests and blesses many a sage in this lovely portion. Mata Sita gets abducted by Ravan and Jatayu is granted salvation by Lord Ram. The poet describes the forests, the trees, animals and birds with much affection in the original Awadhi; and my adventure in understanding and interpreting was truly blessed by His Grace.

Simultaneously, I was translating Dattapaharam- a stunning novel about the forests and its great role in human lives; by V.J.James. The author is one of the most erudite and humble people I have known in my life. Truly has the Ramayana spoken of ‘fruit laden trees bending low’: great souls are utterly simple, so unassuming and kind. They also laugh a lot.

The fact that both the books are going into print together brings me much hope and cheer. They say when coincidences happen in a miraculous manner, when serendipity graces us, the divine plan is meeting our life plan.

May the Lord help us to follow the divine path always. And empower us to do our work with humility.

**

Few hymns to the magic:

While I was poring over the edits of Aranyakanda and reached the portion of Mareech getting killed by the Lord, I casually clicked on songs in my mobile with nothing particular in my mind.

The song enveloped my senses, enchanting me.

I gazed at the mobile screen.

There He was: My Lord Ram, so beautiful and glorious, with Sita, and she was staring at the golden deer!

Tumhi mere Ram, tumhi Ghanshyam!

How could that happen?

I called my friend in utter delight and she asked me to bow my head lower.

I did.

He watches over every speck of dust, does he not?

**

I was struggling with translating a sentence which spoke of ‘sighting that which lay beyond the visible.’ Indeed, the portion referred to seeing what usually remains unseen by going inwards…a deep, spiritually heavy sentence. Typical of the author’s style, super simple, and oh-so-heavy with meaning!

I tried many a combination and permutation. The zing of satisfaction did not come.

My phone pinged. Another dear friend had forwarded a Sufi song…Tu Jhoom sung by the inimitable Abida Parveen.

Ah, Lord! Just what I needed!

The sentence translated itself in matter of moments.

He watches over every green blade , does he not?
**

So both the forest journeys, soon to be in book forms, are hereby dedicated to the Lord.

He, who is love

He, who is kindness

He, who is mine

And yours


Unknown Depths

When she went to walk in the small park that evening, Geeta did cast a careful glance around for the young woman in blue. She had been there for the first four days of the week, dot on time, and always, always, sat unmoving on the grey bench near the Gulmohar tree. Since the last three days, the slim, dusky woman, with the brooding look on her face, was missing.

 The black Skechers her son had gifted her was comfortable and Geeta enjoyed her daily rounds  in the park. Well, at six in the evening, the crowd was not very suffocative; and there was much to observe and learn.

Though Mrs Kripa Bannerjee lambasted them in the ladies’ club meetings, calling them, ‘ a pesky menace’, Geeta found that she was more amused than irritated by the lovey-dovey youngsters at every nook and corner; behaving as if they were the first since Adam and Eve to discover sex. The fact of the matter was that every couple in love, since the time of the devil, had thought so too; and made a fool of themselves in public generally. But if you had taught hormonally driven high schoolers for more than three decades, you sort of shrug away these human peccadilloes.

Geeta’s eyes tended to be attracted by the oddities in the crowd than the obvious. And that was how she had been drawn to the young woman on the bench, who sat staring at the blood red Gulmohar blossoms that lay crushed and splattered around; the hurried steps of many walkers crunching them as they heavily trudged past.

Just the day before, after making her laborious rounds, counting among many occurrences, the brown squirrels, the wispy white petals of the moon flower by the pathway, and the premature guava fruits which had been chewed by sharp teeth of hungry rodents, Geeta had sat down perspiring by the side of the woman.

The young woman seemed to be oblivious of her surroundings. She was staring at the crimson buds and flowers that lay scattered on the earth. Geeta noticed that there was a strained quality about the woman; though young she looked aged beyond her years- as if life had burdened her with a cross which she was struggling to cope with.

 The young woman was dressed in a blue kurta and jeans; but the dress looked soiled and sweaty. Her hair was luster-less, and the features seemed pinched by some gnawing misery. Though her son, wise to his mother’s inquisitive nature often warned her against making conversations with strangers, Geeta had tried to initiate one.

But her observations on the evening being nice and cool had been met with a resolute silence and the young woman had raised a pair of penetrating black eyes at her which sent a shiver down Geeta’s spine. There was something calculated about the gaze; as if some caged animal was watching her, expecting an attack any moment.

‘Good evening,’ Geeta had croaked.

The young woman did not respond. She had simply pulled out a mobile from her jeans pocket and started fiddling with it. To add to the eeriness of the situation, it had rung then.

‘Yes, am coming back.’

The voice had been terse, bitter, laden with emotions.

This was no ordinary woman who had come to enjoy an evening in the park.

‘Has she woken up? Fine.’

Even as Geeta watched, the woman had got up and walked away. Long strides, determined, but she had slouched. And Geeta was again reminded about some unknown load weighing her down.

**

‘Hello Mrs.Menon, how are you?’

It was the eternally cheerful, Retired Lt. Colonel Kapoor, yearning to chat and share the umpteen tidbits of information which he had stored up the whole day. From Putin’s latest military strategies to the imminent retirement of international tennis players, the old military man was bursting at the seams with gossip. Had he been a woman, he would have been the natural choice for the Ladies Club’s most talkative old member. Fortunately for the women, he was a man, and they had no competition from his end.

‘Heard about the goings on in Kothari’s flat?’ The Colonel asked, smiling away.

Geeta smiled noncommittedly. She really did not want to clutter her mind with whatever was cooking up a storm in the Kothari household.

‘Old Mr.Kothari was caught messing with the maid. She has been banished to the forests for fourteen years! Mr.Kothari has not died due to a broken heart as yet,’ The Colonel chortled gleefully. If he were a cat, he would have been licking his whiskers with pleasurable mewing noises now.

‘Unknown depths, people have… eh, Mrs Menon? One does not know with whom one is dealing with, half the time.’

Geeta’s mind raced back to the absent woman. No, one did not know what was going on in people’s minds at all.

‘Ah, yes there was another piece of news. A child went missing. Apparently, some gypsies stole her while she was in the railway station. My nephew knows the father.’

Geeta’s skin prickled in forewarning.

‘What happened?’

‘Well, the parents are both doctors. Love marriage you see. But the girl child was born with Down’s syndrome. Also, deaf and mute. The mother has been looking after her for four years now. Poor thing, had to stop her career too. Of course, nobody can take care of a child like one’s own mother…Anyway, they went to see off someone and the child was lost.’

‘Do they stay nearby? Do I know them?’

‘Maybe, you have seen the mother around…a slim young woman.’ Mr. Kothari could not have been more helpful.

‘Have they notified the police? How dreadful for the child. Mentally retarded, cannot speak or hear…I am horrified about what can happen to her.’

‘Yes, all alerts have been given. With all these cctv cameras in the railway stations, they will surely find her soon.’

**

It was three days later that Geeta read a small column in the local newspaper.

‘Child recovered from train. Missing daughter of Dr.Kailash Raghupathy,  aged four, was safely found in a train headed to Bombay. The child had gone missing from the railway station when the parents had gone to see off a relative. The Commissioner of Police has announced appreciation letters and cash award for the officers who traced the missing four-year-old within 24 hours. The child has been restored to her grieving parents. She was discovered seated in a compartment by passengers who had informed the railway police who coordinated with their colleagues in the local administration.

It had been six days since the woman visited the park.

A hammering began in Geeta’s head: a dread, slow and terrible started haunting her. Patterns, patterns…everything was in the pattern.

When Geeta was twelve, a little boy had gone missing from her neighbourhood. His mother had been raising hell all over the place when someone brought him back. A trader had been accused of kidnapping him. When the local police gave a good hiding to the man, he had revealed the story. It was the mother herself who had asked him to take away the child. He had bouts of fits and was always sickly. There were five more mouths to feed. Some money had exchanged hands.

‘Hello Colonel, it is me, Mrs.Geeta Menon.’

‘Yes, how are you?’

‘Fine! You see, I read something in the newspaper.’

‘What?’

‘Did they find the missing child? The one who went missing in the train?’

‘Oh, that child…Well, great stroke of luck, I would say. She is back. Her father was in school with the Commissioner of Police. But they say it is very strange…about how she made her way inside a Bombay bound train. Anyway, the parents are relieved.’

‘Er, can I have the number of the family. I hope I don’t sound too pushy.’

‘Of course not! Obviously, you are concerned and want to express your wishes. I shall share it with you. Ragupathy’s number, let me see…’

**

Dr.Kailash Raghupathy looked distraught and anxious. He stared at the middle-aged woman who had come visiting, out of the blue. It was a busy day in the hospital.

‘Yes, Mrs.Menon…Lt Colonel said that you wanted to speak to me on something important?’

Geeta did not know where to start her conversation.

‘See, doctor. Do not think I am presumptuous or want to create trouble…’

The man sat up straight. The strain and tension of the past few days was showing on his face.

‘I am nobody to advise you but…’Geeta stammered.

‘My dear madam! What are we talking about? I do not understand anything at all.’

‘Has there been mood swings? Does she behave affectionately with the child?’

‘What?’ The man looked outraged.

‘You see, I think your wife needs a break.  Is there anyone to take care of your child other than her?’

Lord, it was all going horribly. Geeta knew she sounded paranoid even as she uttered those words.

‘You are wasting my time. See madam, I have much work to do today. And I know you are here to show your sympathy. Frankly, we are fine.’

When a whirlpool was looming ahead with its deadly snare, lying silently in wait for the unsuspecting wayfarer, would it help to shout a warning? Some were destined to be swallowed by its hideous depths, sucked into the waiting pits of watery hell, much like quicksand. Words were futile when there was no trust to begin with.

‘I am a teacher…I mean I spent my whole life teaching. I have seen…excuse me, it sounds weird. But can I meet your wife?’

‘She does not meet anyone. Shilpa prefers to be with our daughter. Rarely does she go out.’

‘And that is where the trouble begins…’ Geeta interjected. ‘She needs to breathe, doctor. I heard that you both studied medicine together. Don’t you understand? There will be tragedy if you do not…’

Dr.Kailash Raghupathy stood up. In an icy cold voice, he said, ‘I think you need to leave now madam. Thank you for being so concerned with people like us, whom you hardly know.’

Cringing inwardly, but feeling a great rage welling up within her, Geeta shambled out of the doctor’s room.

‘Please, please listen to me. Do not leave the child alone with your wife at least the next few days…I mean…’

Geeta had never seen eyes more baleful than his, as he stared at her. Well, there was nothing more to be said.

**

Lt Colonel Kapoor met her as she walked in the park the next evening.

‘What did you tell the boy? My nephew said that he complained about my lady friend talking some nonsense about his wife? Do you know the woman?’

Geeta was ruminating. Would it help to divulge her doubts to a gossipmonger like Mr.Kapoor?

But what if it could avert a tragedy?

‘ Colonel, you must be familiar with the term postpartum depression?’

‘Yes, yes, where the woman says she hates the face of the baby but adores it too!’

‘ It is not as frivolous as you make it sound…there are different aspects to that state of mind…,’ Geeta snapped.

Then realizing that emotions were not of any help, she regained her poise.

‘ This wife of the doctor…she is a doctor too, right? I think she needs help.’

‘What are you talking about Mrs Menon? Are you keeping well?’ Lt Colonel Kapoor spluttered in confusion.

‘You see, when someone feels trapped, helpless and all life grinds to a halt…then he or she tries to find a reason to blame. It ends up in unspeakable tragedy at times,’ Geeta said softly.

‘ Are you saying that Dr.Raghupathy’s wife is sick? I thought she was feeling blessed that the child was recovered safely! Are you familiar with the woman?’

‘ No, that is the worst part. I have no idea of what is going on…one can only guess and I feel very afraid, Colonel. Somebody should intervene urgently or else…’

‘My dear Mrs Menon, tell you what, you are watching too many K Dramas in OTT platforms! Time to participate in some kitty parties, I say!’ The Colonel guffawed; albeit nervously.

**

Geeta Menon did her best to find out about what went inside the Raghupathy household. She befriended her maid’s friend who was a part-time help there.

‘ Is your madam keeping good health? I hardly see her walking nowadays,’ Geeta pretended to be a casual acquaintance.

‘Ah, madam is always with the girl. Never lets her out of her sight. She has stopped me from giving her a bath too. Everything, she does herself.’ The girl, whose name was Maya, seemed listless when she spoke.

‘Is there nobody else who stays with them?’

‘Oh, the doctor’s old father is there. The cook comes twice a day. Apart from me, the boy who comes to clean the washrooms and do mopping and sweeping…the driver…that’s about it.’

‘Maya, can you do me a favour?’

‘Yes, auntyji.’

‘Keep a watch over the child.’

Maya looked askance at the worried face of the woman. ‘Must be nuts’, she thought to herself. ‘All these oldies’, the teenager mused wryly, ‘they are going loony like that doctor madam. The way she sits silently for hours, watching the poor, wretched child.’

**

Three days passed. It was around nine at night. Her phone rang.

‘Mrs Menon, something terrible has happened!’ It was Lt.Colonel Kapoor and he sounded extremely agitated.

‘What?’ Something curdled her blood to chilling coldness.

‘ The child’s body was discovered on the ground. She had apparently fallen down from the balcony! The police are with the parents now!’

Geeta sat down, her hand on her heart.

‘Amma, there is a news of an arrest in a nearby flat. The cctv cameras has caught a mother…’

Geeta did not listen to the rest of what her son said.

The blood red Gulmohar flowers flashed in her mind. They lay splattered, broken, pathetic, crimson on the pathway.

(Truth is stranger than fiction. Based on a news item.)


IRIKKAPINDAM: Translation from Malayalam

IRIKKAPINDAM : C.V.Sreeraman

 Literally translated as ‘ Rites for the dead while person is alive’, this story is such a masterpiece of subtlety , erudition and psychological insight. It was adapted by the brilliant director K.R.Mohanan into a national award winning movie called, ‘Purushartham’ in 1987 starring Adoor Bhasi, Sujata Mehta et al.

*

As we ascended the steps, Akhilesh Kumar Sinha remarked, ‘Vishnupada temple is the oldest temple in Bharat Varsha. It was here that Prince Siddhartha sought refuge after relinquishing everything…’

‘He walked along this riverside for a long distance. Eventually under the Bodhi tree…’ This was the observation made by someone behind us.

‘Haran, I was searching for you,’ Sinha looked at him.

‘Meet Haran Panda’, he introduced us and then said,’ See, this is my friend who has come from a far off place. He wants to do the rites for the dead. Do whatever is needed. Mind you, do not take a single paisa extra from him.’

Panda agreed to all the conditions.

‘ Try and come home before you leave Gaya’, Sinha spoke. He departed.

‘Please come,’ said Panda who led the way. ‘Do you know Hindi?’

‘Yes.’

When we reached the threshold of the temple, Panda said, ‘You can leave the footwear here. They will take care of it for some meagre amount.’

‘I am not wearing any.’

Panda looked at my naked feet beneath the saffron coloured pajamas.

We stepped inside. A babel of voices, bodies covered in variegated dresses, laying down their desires, grievances, in their own words…

‘Don’t you want to pray?’

‘After the rites.’

We walked through the temple premises, crossed another gate and reached the ghat.

‘Which is this river? Ganga?’

‘No, but it is a sacred river too. Bhalgu, a tributary of Ganga.’

A dry riverbed. Lifeless, dark-hued. Though it was only eight in the morning, the afternoon sunlight seemed to spill over the center of the dried sandbank.

‘And what is on the opposite side?’

‘ Those are temples too. Nandigram, Ramgaya. Sitakund…Ram and Lakshman conducted their father Raja Dasrath’s rites of death over there. Sita used mud for the rituals…’

We sat on the cement bench by the ghat.

‘And what is this?’

‘Shamshan ghat.’

Before the words ceased, few people arrived carrying a corpse on the bier.

‘Haribol, Haribol…’

Having deposited the bier carefully on the ground, they started collecting wood for cremation.

Though Panda was young, he had dark circles around his eyes. His face and eyes had a yellow pallor too. Anxiety, malady or penury?

‘Babu, forgive me, did you come to Gaya just for this rite?’

‘Just for this.’

‘Babu, how far is your home from here?’

‘Almost two thousand kilometres…’

‘Gadhadharai, Hari, Pundareekaksha,’ Panda muttered to himself, ‘It was here that Prince Siddhartha arrived, searching for wisdom, for enlightenment, seeking answers to a thousand questions within.’

And after a while, he continued:

‘Babu, how many religions were established in this Magadha region…not even a single one took roots. Our religion…’

‘Aye Panda, idhar aavo!’ Someone hailed from a distance.

‘Coming!’

Panda took off in the blink of an eye.

Like the crows rushing to peck at the ball of rice during the death rites, a flock of Pandas aggregated. It was Haran Panda who reached first. A little boy with a camera around his neck; almost like carrying a flower basket. He was around seven or eight years old. Behind him was a young woman. Very fair. Clear eyes and a broad forehead.  She had slightly thinning hair. Ignoring that, the woman was sharp featured and possessed a perfect figure, almost sculpted. She walked with her head held high; and there was something masculine about her gait.

The scarf wrapped around her head was now fluttering loose around her neck. Probably because she must have tied the scarf scout-style tightly earlier, there were reddish marks on her forehead and cheeks. Accompanying her was a very tall young man. He was dressed in trousers, shirt and tie. Only his legs were shorn of footwear. Must have entrusted his shoes to the caretakers outside the temple. His well combed hair, on which hair cream or Vaseline had been applied, gleamed in the sunlight. They approached the ghat. There was a bevy of Pandas and child beggars teeming around them.

‘They are in a hurry. Will finish their business fast and return to you,’ Panda approached me and said apologetically; before going back to the trio.

‘We are coming from Cuttack,’ the woman spoke.

Panda started blabbering something.

‘Don’t destroy the Oriya language. Kindly speak in Hindi.’

 Her English was excellent. Probably studied in some Public School. Or perhaps abroad. Now she turned to the young man with her.

‘Mr. Ninan, tell him you are from Kottayam. This Panda will immediately speak a few words in your language!’

Afterwards, she addressed the Panda again.

‘See, we have to reach Calcutta at least by five in the evening. I have a company meeting. We have to conduct the rites of this child’s father. What is the minimum time required?’

‘One hour?’

‘No way, reduce it further.’

‘Half an hour?’

‘No, lesser.’

‘Fifteen minutes?’

‘Ten minutes.’

Panda agreed readily.

‘Ma, is this your son?’

‘Yes, why?’

‘He resembles you.’

Resemblance? I was stunned. Dusky complexion. A small face. Narrow forehead, deep set eyes. Why did the Panda say that the child looked like his mother?

‘Hmm…yes,’ the woman replied.

‘Ma, did the child’s father have an  avaghat mrityu…unnatural death?’

Her face lost its sheen. Then she blanched. She lifted her eyes towards the man.

‘Why are you asking all that?’ When she spoke, even her lips were pale.

‘The child is very small…that’s why I asked.’ Panda squirmed.

‘ For conducting the rites, how does it matter..avaghat mrityu or not?’ The woman was getting incensed.

‘If it happens to be an avaghat mrityu, we should do the rites on the preta-shila (rock for the spirits) situated in front of the railway station…that is ideal.’ Panda elaborated.

‘Mrs. Panigrahi, what all falls under apaghat mrityu?’ The man asked in English.

The woman gazed at the Panda.

‘What sort of deaths?’

‘Accident’.

‘Then?’

‘Murder.’

‘Then?’

‘Suicide.’

She did not ask ‘Then?’ Neither did Panda add anything more. Brooding over something, she said:

‘Mister Ninan, these folk always end up confusing others.’

After standing with her head bowed for a while, she raised her face and said firmly:

‘Conduct the rites here. Who wants to climb the hill anyway?’

Haran Panda called the child near. The boy removed his camera from around the neck and handed it over to the man.

‘Ninan Uncle, when I finish the rites, click a roll of photos…complete one roll, okay?’ His English was impeccable too. Must be studying in some Public School.

‘What caste?’

‘Brahmins.’

‘What do you eat? Rice or wheat?’

‘Rice.’

‘So we will do the rites with rice?’

‘Yes,’ it was the woman who answered.

‘Rice takes time to cook…whether we can finish the rituals within the time given…?’

‘Then use wheat!” The woman delivered her order.

Panda spoke to the boy again.

‘Name?’

‘Chittaranjan Panigrahi.’

‘Please take a bath and come back.’

‘Where?’

‘In this river water. Sacred river. Phalgu.’

At the bottom step, there was water. Sand had been excavated.

‘In this filthy, algae ridden water?’

The woman glared at Haran Panda.

‘Leave it…at least go and sprinkle few drops on your head.’

The child rolled up his jeans and descended the steps.

‘Be careful. Just a few drops. You will catch cold!’ The woman warned the boy loudly.

The child sprinkled two drops on his forehead. Then he skipped across two steps and stopped.

‘What do you say, Ninan Uncle?’

Ninan Uncle applauded. ‘Up, up!’ He encouraged the child. Again the boy skipped two steps at a time. The beggar children emulated him. Ninan Uncle kept on clapping enthusiastically. The woman smilingly watched how the muscles of the man’s arms flexed as he clapped his hands.

Panda kneaded the wheat flour.

‘Sit.’

The boy sat opposite to him.

‘Wear the ring..show me the finger.’ Panda made the child wear the ring made of darbha: couch grass.

‘Now make balls out of the flour as I instruct you.’

‘Ninan Uncle, one snap please!’

‘Yes, Mister Ninan…Go!’ The woman cheered him too.

He took a photograph. Then he spread the Amrit Bazaar Patrika on the step and sat down. She sat down too, brushing against him. It looked as if they had been living intimately since aeons. Still, whenever he glanced at her, she blushed. With shyness and embarrassment, she was struggling to wean her eyes off him…as if they were yet acquaintances!

‘Terrible heat! Not a leaf’s shadow where we parked the car. Wonder what will happen to the bottles of beer inside…boiling hot, I suppose!’ The man muttered.

‘Mr.Ninan, will we reach  Calcutta by six o’ clock at least? The Director Board is at seven…’

‘What if we don’t reach? Both of us are here. Mr.Sohan Pradhan is in the hospital…Without the quorum..?’

‘Quorum? Nonsense! That’s not what I am worried about. When they all get together, what will be their topic of discussion? About us…’

Panda was reciting. The child was giggling and repeating after him.

‘Gaya Yam.’

‘Gaya Yam.’

‘Gaya Sirai’

‘Gaya Sirai.’

‘Kolahal Parvate.’

‘Kolahal Parvat.’

‘Magadha Deshe’

‘Magadha Deshe.’

The woman was looking at the dried up river. She sat wordless for some time. Then she spoke, as if to no one in particular.

‘In this life, there is only one question which I shall not be able to answer. Cuttack Medical College was just thirty miles away. There were two cars in the garage. So why the local dispensary…’ She stopped abruptly.

‘Of late, well, there is gossip that you were not in the house that night.’ The man said.

‘Oh God! What else left to hear now.’

‘Before that, the connection between us…only once.’

‘No, twice.’ The woman argued.

‘No, I am sure, only once.’

‘I can bet…twice!’

‘Then tell me…when was the second time?’

‘I will tell you,’ The woman bit into the strand of couch grass someone had thrown away. They were in their self-created universe, oblivious to the surroundings.

‘Your wife was admitted to the mental hospital on a morning. You said you were shivering…We woke up the steward of the Gymkhana Club. Without even brushing your teeth, you boozed on lots of country liquor…’

‘Ah, now I recollect…On the stage of the Gymkhana Club..in between two curtains..’

‘On the dust ridden floor…you spread my Bhagalpuri sari…’ Her face reddened. Words were not forthcoming. She stopped.

The man retrieved the strand of couch grass from her hands and started tracing a figure on her wrist.

‘Oh girl…the memories are still so raw!’

‘Eight or nine years before.’

‘No,’ he protested, ‘ It has been eight years since I returned from States….and about seven years when I joined your Coal Mines Group.’

After pausing a while, he continued.

‘I came there with such ambitions…Your company made dynamic progress…But personally, I am…’

‘Don’t be silly! After all, tomorrow is ours! Exclusively…’ The woman pulled playfully at his tie.

‘Pretanam.’

‘Pretanam’

‘Mughavasanardham’

‘Mughavasanardham’

The child’s voice broke. His voice was unsteady. It stopped intermittently. Now a sudden wail emerged from him.

‘Chitto!’ The startled woman turned to gaze at the child. She got up and went near him.

‘Chitto…’ She asked him something in Oriya.

The boy opened his eyes, A tear drop split into two and glistened from his eye lids. Then it splattered on his cheek. Now there was a stream of tears running over his face.

‘Panda, stop. The child is weeping. Let him stop.’

The boy stared at her with red hued eyes.

‘You go away!’ The child screamed.

The woman stared unblinkingly at her son. As if she was gazing into an unfamiliar face. Or was it like looking at a face she had grown tired of?

The man approached them now.

‘Don’t weep…Ninan Uncle will take your photograph. Smile please!’

‘Panda, what did you tell him? Why is he upset?’ The woman asked Panda very politely, though I thought she would start railing at him.

‘Thakur Ma, I said nothing! Yes, I said this much: your father’s soul has come to these steps and it is hungry and thirsty…that was all.’

Panda seemed subdued.

‘These steps?’ The woman repeated and then moved a bit backwards.

‘Please smile!’ Ninan Uncle stooped low with his camera.

‘You go away!’ The child blazed. He hurled the wheat ball in his fist at the man. He had not expected it and could not dodge it. There was a smear of wheat flour on the man’s face.

The man did not get angry. Instead a dread filled his face. He went back to his original seating place.

‘Continue!’ The boy spoke to the Panda. His voice had an authoritative ring.

‘Pretanam’ (Of the ghost)

‘Pretanam’

‘Mughavasanardham’ (For the purpose of feeding it)

‘Mughavasanardham’.

‘Tambulam’ (The betal leaves)

‘Tambulam’

‘Aham’ (Me)

‘Aham’

‘Diyate’ (Am offering)

‘Diyate”.

‘Upabhishtata’

‘Upabhsihtata’.

The Panda’s voice was strained. The child’s voice was hoarse, as he repeated the words.

The woman walked towards the man. But when she tried to sit, she seemed to be in shock. Her knees were not bending. Now she moved further towards the fig tree near the temple and stood there watching all the unfolding events.

A body was going up in flames in the shamshan ghat. The people around seemed impatient to return.

‘Andhatanivaranardham’ ( To remove the blindness)

‘Andhatanivaranardham’

Panda was making the child recite.

‘Deepam’ ( lighted lamp)

‘Deepam’.

‘Aham diyate’ (I am giving)

‘Aham diyate.’

The woman was looking utterly flustered. A rite of death was happening against her dictum. She looked on helplessly. It was her irikkapindam that was happening.

Panda got up.

The child stood up too.

They made a circumambulation.

Panda climbed down the steps. The child followed. Now they floated the pindam (the symbol of having completed the rites) in Phalgu. The boy burst into tears as if he had lost something forever. Now he collapsed into Panda’s arms. Panda wiped away the boy’s tears with his soiled, sweaty upper cloth.

The woman opened her bag and handed over Panda’s dakshina. Probably the fees was more than he expected. He smiled gratefully. Bowed reverently. Did not argue.

‘Thakur Ma…the dead was Brahmin by birth, wasn’t he? It will be good to have three brahmins reciting the Vishnu Sahasranamah  (thousand names of the Lord )at the spot where we conducted the rites.’

‘I don’t have time.’

‘Thakur Ma, you can leave. If you give them some dakshina, I shall ensure that they do the recitation.’

‘Ok, call them.’

Panda clapped his hands once.

Three men came racing. An old man with filaria; a middle-aged man with squint eyes and pock marks; and a youth with sandal wood streaks near his ears.

‘You will have to sit here and recite the Vishnu Sahasranamah thrice. How much will you charge?’ Her question was ruthless.

‘Five rupees to each.’

‘I will give three each.’

 She opened her vanity bag. Took out a wad of notes. Now she pulled out a steel hairpin from her hair and wrestled with the wire covering the money. With a nail cutter from her bag, she twisted the wire to a side. Yanking  few notes, she counted them again and again. Then she distributed three rupees to each of the brahmins.

‘I am asking you in front of this sacred temple…You promise to recite the Sahasranamah thrice?’

‘Yes.’

‘We are brahmins. You should keep your word.’

‘Yes. Bhagwan kasam.’ (In the name of the Lord, yes, we promise.)

The child had stopped sobbing. But his face was still troubled. He was hiccupping sporadically. They started walking. The child was ahead. The woman followed. The man was behind her. Soon, they disappeared from the sight; vanishing inside the boundary walls of the Vishnupada temple.

The brahmins spread their upper clothes on the ground.

‘Om Namo bhagawathe vasudevayah…On vishwam vishnurvashtakaro bhutabhavya bhagavth prabhau , bhuta krit, bhuta bhrit bhavo bhutatma bhuta bhavana…’

Lacking melody, with raw, improper enunciation, and swallowing many a word, they continued to recite.

‘Avyaya purusha sakshi…’

The old man yawned. He lit a beedi.

‘Saali, kya sochi? Hum ullaba?’ ( Cuss word, what the heck did she think? That we are idiots?)

The others went on with the prayer. The squint eyed one tossed a bit of tobacco in his mouth. His recitation was rankling; with the tobacco getting mixed with saliva.

‘Brahmanyo brahmakrit brahma brahma…’ He sneezed, coughed and then stopped.

The young man’s eyes were closed in meditation. His voice was just maturing. He had forgotten everything around. In a clear, ringing voice, forgetting the precincts, he recited aloud:

‘Aparajita sarvasaho

Niyanta niyamo yamah

Satvavan satwika satya

Satya dharma parayana’

That voice did not stop at the steps of Gaya….it extended longer…Till the end of the Kalpa. Incessant, steady, palpable with the thirst of knowledge…

**


CHIDAMBARAM: Translation from Malayalam

Chidambaram : Story by C.V.Sreeraman

This iconic story was adapted by G.Aravindan , one of the greatest film directors of Malayalam cinema into a multiple award winning movie starring Bharat Gopi, Smita Patil, Sreenivasan et al  in the year 1985

**

As he stepped inside through the front gate of the temple’s entrance, the man recollected the lines of Ayappa Dixitar :

Chidambaramitam pradhamithameva punyasthalam

This is Chidambaram, primarily, a sacred place.

His eyes forayed the surroundings. The sheer size was awe inspiring. There were four  gopurams – ornamental towers- kissing the skies. Though similar in appearance, the stone sculptures were unique in themselves. The innumerable corridors and vaults interconnecting the towers seemed like the simulacrum of a fort; more intimidating than the temple.

He walked through the stone-paved pathway outside the inner temple. The sunlight was still not ceding defeat. It had just started abating. The man walked over the green grass thriving along the edges. As prickly thorns pierced the inner soles, he remembered the slippers which he had left behind… Another thought troubled him. Though there were four tower entrances, why had he chosen the southern gopuram? Would his mind have been enslaved with misgivings had he entered through any of the others?

Had the uncertainties started at the entrance of the southern gopuram? No.

In the journey from Kadaloor, this bizarre distraction had begun when he had crossed the village of Manaloor.

When he had seen the signboard of the village on the roadside, inadvertently his mouth had enunciated:

Sarpannan Shengodan Konar

Chunnabukar Theru

Post Manaloor, Via Chidambaram

In those days, he would write down that address on the inland letters which Akhilandammal would bring.

Deep in thoughts, he walked on. He reached the temple pond. The vast pond lay within the temple boundary walls, with sharp, clean steps descending to the waters. The man sat on the ledge. There were two sanyasis nearby. One picked up the container of ash which had slipped down from the fish shaped kavadi leaning against the wall and refixed it to the contraption. The man cast a careful look at them. How sturdy and healthy they looked. There was a patina of contentment on their mien. What would have instigated them to seek sanyasa?

The man was forced to think about himself then.

‘Well, if you listen to me, you might survive for some years.’

That was not spouted by any scholar of Vedanta but by his doctor.

After many months, when the doctor had seen him again, he had tersely remarked, ‘ You are still going strong with your habits. Any idea about the condition of your liver? Really alarming…’

Then the doctor had elucidated further, ‘ See, I am a heart patient. I also had some vices. Though not as acute as yours, I still managed to control those. I became more and more religious. Whenever temptations came my way, I would read the Bible. You should become religious…read religious texts.’

That day, he had wearily faced the luscious advertisements; and walked to the bookstore he had never entered before. When he eyed the books on the racks, he found that most authors were unfamiliar. When he read books by Roman Rolland and Lokmanya Tilak, the misery only increased. There was nothing he had not known before; but he felt envious about their power of articulation. He went on reading. At that time, he had developed swelling on his feet. He had gone to the doctor again.

‘You need to move away from this atmosphere. Take a trip somewhere…preferably religious places.’

That was how he began his journey.

Now, on watching the radiant good health of the man who was explaining Vedanta to the listener; legs crossed and his matsya-kavadi leaning against the wall, the man started contemplating:

Was physical rigour the beginning of sanyasa?

Was sanyasa the refuge of the anguished?

Or was it an adventure wrought by an overwhelming greed for survival?

The man’s mind refused to be contained by these musings. The ruminations which had pestered him when he entered through the southern tower entrance refused to leave his mind.

The more he tried to forget those, the chakravyuha of thoughts were assaulting him from all sides.

In the lacerated mind, the picture of Durgaprasad’s building  at Haddo took shape. It had wooden walls and an iron sheet for roof. Port Blair town tapered away until it ended at Haddo. The hills of Haddo played a hide and seek game with the sea…The days and nights spent staring at the sea…How the sea’s cheeks flushed ripe when the tide rose and how it paled during the ebbing…how the bones of the sea showed up in the craggy rocks on the beach…

Vechhapuri and his wife had come to live in a corner of that building. The wife’s name was Akhilandammal. Her face displayed the droopiness of a sapling which had been transplanted onto strange soil. Except for a lush head of hair, there was nothing alluring about the woman. It was better to refer to her as a grown up girl than as a young woman.

She too, like him, would sit staring at the sea forever. Once she had asked, ‘Why is the sea so dark in colour over here?’ He had replied, ‘That is why we call it the Kalapani in Hindustani.’ Kalapani also meant an exile from the mainland.

It was the loneliness which had brought them close. Depression seemed to be dripping around in that absolute solitude. The woman was alone the whole day. She could often be seen sobbing…caught in the memories of a village which lay somewhere on the opposite shore of the great sea. At other times, she would write letters to her father. He would jot down the address for her.

It did not take much time for them to become intimate, soon trespassing all ethical boundaries. Initially he called her, ‘Akhilandammal.’ Then it became ‘Akhilammal’. When she insisted, it turned into ‘Pappa’,  and when her lips moved over his cheek, he could not help whimpering, ‘My Pappa’…

At one time their relationship had come to a point of ending. Vecchapuri got a room in the neighbouring labour camp and he shifted his residence. But on a midnight, out of the blue, the woman had come searching for him. As he stood blanching, she murmured, ‘Vecchapuri has night duty.’ He yearned to ask, ‘But why did you come at this odd hour?’ She had replied to the question which never left his lips. ‘ I felt like seeing you and so I came.’

Soon, whenever Vechhapuri had night duty, she would appear in his room without any forewarning.

But when had he visited the labour barrack for the first time? He could hardly remember. But he would never forget about the last departure from the place. One could gaze at the lights of the government saw mill at Chittam island through the cracks  of the wooden walls of the labour barrack. The man used to keep checking the lights intermittently.

That night the lights had shut down suddenly. The man had stepped out. He was waiting for the lights to flare up again. But the sharp stink of sweat and sawdust had filled the surroundings suddenly. He was shellshocked. The shadow in front gathered strength. Vechhapuri. He had started walking briskly and turned to cast a backward glance. Vechhapuri was following him. By the time he scrambled up the weed ridden ridge and entered the main road, the man had started running. Without wasting time to look back, alert to the horse hoofs of death in the sounds closing on him. On seeing the lighted attic of the Malayali hotel at Haddo, he had rushed inside. He was acquainted with the inmates. The men were busy playing cards by candle light.

His fear had not ceased even after sitting next to his friends; and often he peeped to watch the surroundings. Vechhapuri stood there, waiting.

When the dawn broke, and the workers from the powerhouse arrived, the reason behind the sudden load shedding was revealed. There had been a blast at the powerhouse. Engineer Swami and two laborers had been electrocuted. By the time it was morning, another news spread, making the former snippet insignificant. Vecchapuri had hacked his wife to pieces. Then he had run away to the Corbin’s cove. By mid day, another update came. Vechhapuri had hanged himself in the mangrove forests at the shore.

That day the man had felt just one emotion: a pale, icy cold, eternally following terror.

Two days later, when had gone to his senior to get signature on some legal documents for revenue collection, the man had given him a very compassionate look. The boss did not mention that he was privy to all the salacious tales doing the rounds, but his glance had contained everything.  Then his senior said:

‘I will transfer you to the most remote area. There is a colonization going on in Atlanta Bay. A group is leaving tomorrow. Join them.’

The benevolent boss, who had always come to his aid in any adverse circumstance, had yet again helped him. The next day when he moved to various places bidding farewell, he suddenly asked the truck driver to stop. He walked to the female ward of the hospital. There was a group of Tamil women silently surrounding a cot. A body wrapped in bandages…it looked like a bale of cotton. Death was flirting lazily. Yama’s lasso refused to loop around that cotton bundle.

After many months, he got to know -even the deepest wound around Pappa’s neck had healed. Two fingers had been totally hacked away. Tamil acquaintances collected some money for her voyage. Pappa had left for her village.

Today, seated on the steps of the temple pond of Chidambaram, he was remembering all of it. Now, he was reminded of furiously moving, evanescent autumn clouds as he reminisced Atlanta Bay’s settlement and Port Blair.

The man stood up. The sanyasis were still enthralled by some story from the puranas.

He walked.

Few dwarfish stone pillars inscribed with lines in Tamil. He regretted that he could not read the language. He knew how to write his name and also Pappa in Tamil. She had taught him. He reached a dark corridor. A foreigner, with the hair do and markings of a Vaishnavaite, was negotiating with a temple lackey. Money exchanged hands. Was it a bribe for a darshan before due time or an advance for some illicit deal involving idols?

He moved through that corridor and stopped before the gigantic, shut door.

The man imagined Lord Shambhu as Nataraja.

He wondered, when the sanctum sanctorum opens and when the statue of Nataraja becomes resplendent before him, what shall he plead for? To remove his liver disease or to grant him peace of mind? Or to help him attain moksha: salvation?

He felt like laughing. Liver disease.

Now he laughed.

It was a sickness he had intentionally cultivated over the years, by obdurately ignoring his body.

Peace of mind? Again, he laughed.

While expediently flexing his thoughts to suit his desires, his mind had been nowhere in the picture!

Moksha?

Has he ever prayed for the moksha of a person who willingly came to share his sin?

He made haste to move out of the corridor of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple. In the broad daylight, when his eyes fell on his saffron long shirt and loose pajamas, he felt self-condemnation more than mortification.

The man recited:

 kamyanam karmanam nyasam
sannyasam kavayo viduh

 ( Bhagwad Gita  part of verse 18.2 …Giving up actions motivated by desire is what the wise understand as sanyasa)

With great difficulty, he kept on murmuring the lines and walked forward. Then he retrieved from the pocket the token meant for the safekeeping of his slippers. Pay ten paisa, give back the token and claim his footwear.

He went searching for the woman who had talked to him with great ease while giving him the token and whose tone and tenor had reminded him of Pappa. She was sitting at the edge of the decrepit old well; her hands folded against her chest. There was a black muffler wrapped around her throat. The man gazed at her intently. Was she hiding his Pappa somewhere inside those grey strands of hair and engorged cheeks full of folds and lines?

As he wore his slippers the man asked: ‘Amma, are you from this place?’

‘No, the village where I was born is slightly far off.’

He asked her name instead of the name of the village.

‘My name?’ The woman became provoked, ‘Hey swami, clad in saffron and seeking moksha, what will you gain by knowing my name? Better go away!’

The man walked away, his feet clad in slippers, without a backward glance.

**