Certain books call out to you. They have your destiny entwined in their pages. Back in 2017, when I read ‘Purappadinte Pustakam’, something in its sparkling originality touched my heart. I reached out to the author and offered to translate it to English. I felt that the world deserved to meet the wonderful characters; laugh and cry along with them. The author, V.J.James, always affable and humble, erudite and kind, responded encouragingly. The journey began there. As the famous quote from Dao De Jing goes, ‘ A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’
Today, we have translated six books together. Three novels : Anti-Clock, Nireeswaran and Dattapaharam have been released by Penguin Random House India. Next year, we hope to see ‘Purappadinte Pustakam’ or ‘ The Book of Exodus’ published. James had to struggle for more than a decade to see his debut novel in print. It evolved over the years, stained with sweat and tears.
Ironically, though it was the first book we completed together in the year 2018, the book took its own time to come to fruition. It has made me believe again in the subtle magic of words. We control nothing; only the effort is our portion. And when the results arrive, we have to humbly bow before the occurrence.
In an interview, long back, James was asked:
‘When do you think your books will get to a global audience?’
‘I believe in Akshara Shakti : the power of words.’
That makes me pause. And I reflect on the somber truth behind it all.
For words to grace us, we have to deserve their benedictions. To read and write more, to make the receiving vessel sparkle and shine, that choice alone is left to us. When and how the blessings pour, that is still under veils.
Every day gives us an opportunity to ready ourselves for the unseen grace. Though the mood is dark and apprehensive, or cheerful and sunny, or stoic and serene, we have to focus on the work at hand. The toil itself is the canticle. When raised to the heavens, by singing with a pure heart, the answer surely comes.
May the Lord guide us all into more and more fruitful endeavors; while staying detached and committed.
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.
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.
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.
Those who tell stories, and those who write them are the ones cursed by life. It was Ramaniyamma who planted the root of that great truth in my mind. The ghostly spirit, part of Lord Shiva’s entourage, called Pushpadantan (Kadha sarit sagara), doomed to be born as a human because he dared to narrate stories; ‘Vetal’ (Betaal) who hung upside down to watch stories unfolding, and Dostoevsky who hurled his own life into the burning wild fire of experiences for discovering the great secret of being a human being; all of them came into my life lessons later. Much before that, Ramaniyamma had taught me that gibbous truth and reduced herself into the silence of memory.
She makes her appearance in my recollections as a plaintive cry. From her little hovel- constructed from mud and earth, with floors plastered with cow dung-Ramaniyamma’s primitive wails would intrude into my sleep. It was not exactly a mourning, rather a humungous humming, burning with sighs. I was a small child then. The cats which slept with their heads resting against the courtyard ridge would not heed my presence. I was familiar with the long hoots of Narayanettan as he ploughed the fields with the bullocks.
The folk songs which reverberated while the rice saplings were planted, used to silence the prevailing cries around.
When darkness descended, and silence spread its net wide, Ramaniyamma would start weeping desperately. The dreadful insects of fear would start crawling on my body then. I would suffocate, unable to choke out a cry.
As I started walking, and started speaking words, Ramaniyamma’s crying abated but did not end. The intensity of her melancholy increased during the rainy season. The monsoons are the season of depression in villages. As the Kannachi river and the farms became inundated with water, the landslide and water burst of memories overwhelmed the houses too. In my mind I can see the wavering image of Ramaniyamma: seated near the hurricane lamp, staring at the rain, her legs stretched, her chin cupped by a thoughtful hand. Unable to endure the inauspicious past, she would rage, ‘ Oww…damned rain of death, why doesn’t it stop?’
In my first memory, Ramayaniyamma was around sixty five, dressed in a lungi and blouse. A smattering of hair on her upper lip, curly, iron grey hair, round face, and red paan stained lips gave her the sheen of beauty. Neither the flow of time, disaster or extreme drudgery could exhaust her.
I came to know the answer to her wild cries much later. After boozing herself with local arrack at Umbichiyetty’s house, when she returned, Ramaniyamma rolled around in agony telling about Radha’s- her only daughter’s, untimely demise. She had been married off to Muzhakoth. She died within a month of her marriage. The husband’s household insisted that it was a suicide. There was also talk of murder. Those were old times, and lots of money exchanged hands…the investigation ended prematurely. Her daughter’s death became a flood for the mother. She started wailing on top of her voice during those days, trying to control the earthquake within her mind.
She raced towards death many a time. Ramaniyamma attired herself in black. She wandered about in pitch darkness. She promised many offerings to the deities. But nothing filled up the emptiness inside her, even after decades. Like an overcouded sky, the woman held onto the blackness of utter despair.
Ramaniyamma was my grandmother’s sister. Their house was next to ours. When I say ‘their’, I mean Umbichi the black cow and Ramaniyamma. She would speak to the animal very loudly. Passersby would stop awhile, wondering whether the woman was addressing them. When she bathed the cow, plucked pests from its skin, gave it water, when she milked the creature, tied it up in the shed and fed it with fresh grass, Ramaniyamma would chatter at the top of her voice. Umbichi would sharpen her ears, lower her eyes and listen intently.
Umbichi was the clock controlling Ramaniyamma’s days. The animal which shook its horns at everybody else and was bold to a fault became meek and submissive before Ramaniyamma’s affection. Even before light ensconced our village, Ramaniyamma would have tied her freshly bathed cow in either the harvested field, on the Meethele hillside, or in Sukumaran sir’s coconut planation.
Before feeding Umbichi the cow, Ramaniyamma would pay a visit to Umbichiyetti, the village woman. After filling her tummy with a glass or two of arrack, she would return to shovel grass to her cow and then visit our house. Then she would stay till sleep arrived.
My grandmother (Valiyamma) and Ramaniyamma would enter into a secret discourse. Escaping my mother’s sharp eyes, Valiyamma would slip away to Ramaniyamma’s home. In a bottle of Ayurvedic medicine-Dasamularishtam- Ramaniyamma would have smuggled some arrack for her older sister. My amma would see red if she caught them. That is why my blind grandmother would pretend to fetch wood for the cooking and stumble her way to her younger sister’s place. There, on the ridge of the earthern cooking stones, the ‘ayurvedic’ remedy would be hidden.
When Ramaniyamma went home at night, my older brother would accompany her. He was her lone companion after she lost her daughter. I too wished heartily that I could go with them. There were two main reasons for that: Ramaniyamma’s curries and her stories!
Ramaniyamma was a gifted cook…her dishes were delicious to a fault. She could cook up a feast with very few items. Even now I can recollect the’chammanthi’ she made with the last bits of coconut which stubbornly stuck to the shell. She made the yummy ‘Enaru’ curry: complete with sardine heads, enaru, white rice and turmeric…if I recollect that my stomach flares with greed! You can float a ship in my mouth, to use the local saying. She would toast the roasted cashews into a curry and I can remember it like yesterday’s rain.
The good fortune extended further…Ramaniyamma would tell stories. Stories which were never heard before, never read before even in an Amar chitra kadha. This illiterate woman had a stock of such stories with her. She would tell these tales with the ease of singing a song. The good fortunes which graced my brother made me pensive.
And sometimes, the nights filled with stories, came searching for me too. When our father was admitted in Mangalapuram or Kanjagadu hospital for his frequent illness, my brother would stay the nights with him. I would be Ramaniyamma’s companion during such occasions. Shining the ‘Eveready’ battery torch, she would show the way. When she finished her dinner, and returned after smoking a bidi, I would be lying down on the mattress handwoven by Karichiyamma. I would snuggle close to the wall, next to the windows.
‘Have you slept, da?’
She would call me in her mournful voice.
I would raise my head.
‘Please tell me a story…can’t seem to sleep.’
I would crunch my nails against the palm frond mattress.
‘Which story? Have told them all.’
A silence would descend on Ramaniyamma.
‘Anything will do…cannot sleep.’
Spitting her paan juice into a coconut shell, the woman would again become silent. I knew…she was digging up a story from her great treasure trove.
She would clear her throat harshly and start…I would turn towards her and listen with alacrity. The cockroaches would stop protesting. Fireflies would flit around the room like the characters of the stories. Bats would swoop inside the room through the window and then go searching for some unknown fruits. Umbichi the cow would stop chewing the cud, stop her constantly flailing tail and lay down her head quietly. The cries of the night emerging from the farms would cease. The breeze would drop in to listen to the tales….’Once upon a time, an old man and woman- Thondan and Thondi- felt hungry during the rains….’
Just an excerpt from an exceptionally gifted writer’s memoirs (Translated from Malayalam)
All fathers were once kids : P.V.Shaji Kumar ( A chapter translated from his memoirs written in Malayalam).
In an evening darkened by the rain, when I was returning home after playing Kabbadi in Kalichampothy’s cemented open theatre; my knees bloodied in an interesting hammer, sickle, star design, Muraliettan ( we respectfully address older people as ettan/chettan/elder brother) called me from inside the village library on whose walls the picture of the communist leader Azhikodan Raghavan was affixed :
‘ Eda, how come you are not picking up books to read anymore?’
His voice was softer than the wind’s murmur, and I found myself shutting my umbrella, trying in vain to scrape off the mud on my shins and stepping inside the library. My trousers, bereft of any button, was on the verge of slipping down and I tightened the knot above my belly-button. My tummy ballooned into a sky skewed sidewards.
Books are the souls of those who are doomed to wander even after death. In solitariness, one can listen to the peeves and mumbles of what they were denied when alive. It is a thought which congealed within my mind at an odd hour. From the lower wooden rack, covered by cobwebs, Muraliettan pulled out a book for me. A book devoid of a cover, yellowing due to age, and of great girth due to the extraordinary texture of the paper. ‘Read this…slightly old, but you will like it.’
Like the water snake gulping down the nedumchoori fish, darkness had wolfed down down the light. There was no one in sight to accompany me. The dead Choyiyetti would be searching for lice in her hair, shaking her dangling old breasts shaped like cucumber; seated inside the desolate house on top of Palankikunnu. As I go past , she will call out from the window, ‘ Da…you brat, come and give me something to drink…’ As if a red hot iron had been pressed against it, my chest burned in fear.
Without checking the book, I wrote my name in English as neatly as I could in the register and stepped out into the rain. Chandrettan who was returning from a dip in Kannachira canal, humming a cinema song and wearing his under wear as a head gear, encountered me on the way. ‘ Da, Thangetty has sent some rice to the mill…pick it up…don’t forget to take the bran too!’ I became the proverbial dog which was waiting to howl in despair; when, to add to its woes, a coconut too fell on its head. If I did not pick up the rice and bran, Thangamani- my mother, will surely give me hell. (Especially the bran for the cows. Amma loved the cows better than her own kids.) If I wait around the mill, Choyiyetti would move out from the house and sit beneath the tree by the street.
I gathered my courage and walked to the mill.
Instead of Shashiyettan, who was commonly seen, it was Kannettan who was working there today. Nobody knew when Kannettan would turn crazy. He was nearly fifty years old. He resembled a bear in both looks and attitude. When he turned nuts, he would crouch in a place and start hooting like an owl. For some unknown reason, the man loathed me.
Ah, such lay the matters ahead.
Clutching my umbrella and the book, I gingerly edged forward. There was a crowd inside. My classmate Manjusha and her mother Savitriyetti were there. From the door, I peeped hopefully at Kanettan. As he shifted the rice grains to the platform, Kanettan stared at me harshly. His deep seated eyes reddened… “Go stand aside. Let the others finish first. I shall give you the rice only afterwards!”
I felt as if I was evaporating into smoke. As if my trousers slipped all the way down in front of all. Manjusha’s round eyes sent forth an arrow edged with mockery towards me. (You round eyed girl! Tomorrow you will come seeking my help during arithmetic. I will show you then.)
I snucked away to the corner of the rice mill where coconut shells, burned bran, and an old cycle were dumped. The rain was like the wailing of the darkness. The rustling of the leaves. The humming of the mill. Shame, fear and pain came together to enwrap me. I clambered atop the cycle, and pressed down heavily on the pedals bereft of chains.
Leaning against the wooden pillar, seated atop the cycle, I opened the book which Muraliyettan had offered me. The book’s title (in Malayalam translation) was ‘Father’s childhood’. When his little daughter Sasha was suffering from ear-pain, Sasha’s father Raskin narrates an interesting story from his own childhood to soothe her. Soon afterwards, whenever her ear ached Sasha would plead …’ Daddy, my ear is hurting! Please tell me another story when you were a little boy!’ Raskin tells her more stories of his boyhood days.
Daddy is the hero of this book. His follies, sorrows, desires fill the book. I played with Sasha’s daddy to the tune of the pouring rain. When Daddy’s precious possession, the ball which he never shared with anyone else, something more beautiful than the sun itself, burst into bits when he threw it in front of a car, I grieved along with him as his pride died. Believing what the lion-tamer said about taming any wild animal by staring at its eyes, little Daddy emulates it in front of a dog in the park. As he stares at the poor creature with his big, round eyes covered by soda-lens glasses, the annoyed dog bites him in the tummy. My grief soon turned into a laugh. As the rain drops splattered on my face, I could see Manjusha hurrying to my side to tell me she was leaving; and I royally ignored her. The pictures drawn in shades of green and black tempted me to walk along with little Daddy, with my arms around his shoulder.
Little Daddy, on a reading spree, makes his aunt cry in front of her bridegroom by writing a poetic line, ‘Who could have expected, Aunt Liza to get selected!’ The story told me about few classics like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.
Little Daddy who bit the dentist, this boy who drank vodka thinking it was water, always pouting at anything, who left his brother- tiny uncle Vic- all by himself…he took an avatar as myself and my father. It was as if my own self played a Theyyam ( when humans don the garb of deities in festival rites in Kerala) in front of me. The friends who teased little Daddy by saying it was a ‘ wedding’ when he played with his friend Masha, reminded me of my own friends. Indeed, very recently, for our merciless teasing of Shibu for playing with Mini, Yours Truly and his coterie had received a good caning from Bhaskaran sir!
When little Daddy refuses to eat his bread, the old Nanny tells him about how her little brother died due to hunger. Little Daddy stood in front of me, drenched in rain, upset, ashamed and wordless. After changing many ships of ambition of what he wanted to be, when he grew up : night watchman, ice cream seller, sailor, Daddy decides he would rather be a dog! He barks, scoots around on all fours, and tries to approach dogs so he can train himself to scratch behind the ears with his foot! A military officer, walking on the street, who gets annoyed at his pranks, advices him to ‘become a person.’ Though little Daddy could not decipher the depths of the words at first, he absorbs it slowly, and the next time he is asked what he wishes to become, answers firmly, ‘become a person!’ By the time my mind could understand his answer, someone kicked at the cycle viciously. I fell into the heap of burnt and dried bran nearby, head first. ‘Get out with the rice. I have to lock up!’
Behind me was Kannettan, panting heavier than the rain. At the first glance I could make out that the madness had begun and his clock had sprung ten minutes behind. Soon, Kannettan sat on his haunches in the foyer. He turned his face to the rain. His hands wrapped around his neck. He turned into an owl and started hooting.
I retrieved daddy’s childhood; and collected the milled rice and bran; tying the sacks together. Fearing that it would get wet in the rain, I inserted the book inside the bran. ‘Kannetta, would you please help?’ I felt fearless on requesting the old man to heave the sacks on my head. He scratched his thighs forcefully and came near. Having hefted the sacks on my head, Kanettan returned to the owl posture once more.
As I moved in the rain and darkness, I remembered my father. He was admitted in Mangalapuram hospital then. How was his childhood? Strikes, penury, isolation…I too became lonely in the rain . The wind wriggled inside my shirt.
It was after I reached home that it struck me: Choyiyetti had not beckoned me from the hills! I could not believe that I had crossed the Palankikunnu without an inkling of fear! At home, only my grandmother-whom I called Valiyamma- was present. As soon as she saw me, Valiyamma croaked, ‘Where were you till now? Narayani’s daughter Radha threw kerosene on herself… played with death. Everybody has gone to see her.’ A tremor took hold of me. I knew the woman. An enflamed human form shuddering to death silently, became visible to my eyes. I put down the sack of rice in the kitchen and went to the verandah. The rain had abated. The enigmatic silence of the dark. After feeding grass to the cows, grandmother returned and lay down to sleep on her mattress. The house and I were left to ourselves.. The chirping of the crickets and the frogs rose together in a crescendo.
I retrieved daddy’s childhood from the bran. Laying on my stomach, I opened the book. Hiding my mind’s trepidations, I went walking with little Daddy. Snow clad white mountains could be seen. Daddy had started school wearing his coat. Due to his love of sleep-the paradise on earth- Daddy reaches late to school and becomes a laughing stock. I started loving little Daddy who withered at the least of recriminations; and who was wont to shed much tears. Daddy who could not even manage to say a fib; the one who was easily tripped up by his friends…There is a depiction of Daddy, who wished to read his poetry through telephone, to the great Russian poet Valdimir Mayakovsky (who committed suicide eventually.) Daddy’s words would dry up like a desert whenever Mayakovsky picked up the phone! The picture of Daddy’s unceasing efforts for a week, which end in failure, jumped out from the book.
I laid on my back, having finished the book, my eyes on the shadows hanging onto the attic. When Amma, my aunt, and my brother returned and narrated the story of death, I did not panic as usual.
Today, after many decades, when I opened the book, that night rains in me again. I had no idea in my childhood that it was published during the time of the Soviet Union, by Progress Publishers and that a great man called Gopalakrishnan had directly translated it from the original Russian language. Only Daddy was in my mind, just little Daddy.
Now I feel that my conclusion, that death and madness are a big child’s play, became pellucid due to that night and this great book . Probably due to the incidents which occurred parallel to reading Daddy’s childhood, the book haunts me more than any other, even today. Not probably, let me say, for sure.
This is a book to be read by fathers more than their children. ‘When Daddy was a little boy’ by Alexander Raskin, forges a third eye which will not only force anyone to re-enter one’s own childhood but also to dive deeper into their kids’ own.
Alexander Raskin in his ‘Word to the children’ concludes thus: ‘There’s more to this book! Each one of you can discover the rest for yourself, for your own daddy can tell you about things that happened to him when he was a little boy. And so can your mommy. I would love to hear their stories, too.’
Maybe every reader feels the same. The book does not end here.
Note: In the English translation, it was not a military officer who advices little Daddy. It was just a man , passing by, who asks, ‘What kind of a boy are you, if you can’t even be a dog? That’s not what a person should be.’ When little Daddy asks, ‘What should I be?’ The man replies, ‘You think about it yourself’, and walks away. Little Daddy decides to become a person…a good person.
For those who wish to read this gem for themselves or for their kids…
The phantasmagoric imagery was striking and intriguing. Could not help translating for other language speakers.)
By the time I had finished playing kabbadi and started back home, darkness had fallen. The birds which had returned to roost, announced to the world, that they were about to sleep. As I descended the hill, Karichiyamma, who was gathering fallen cashews beneath the Parangimanga tree *, caught sight of me.
‘Come home with me…made chakkakkoottan ( jackfruit curry) today.’
My stomach growled in response. Well, Karichiyamma had invited me…it was chakkakoottan too…might as well indulge!
As I slouched behind her, she asked me something or the other. I responded. I asked her something or the other. She responded too.
Inside the kitchen, a young girl was gobbling down the jack fruit curry ; seated near the smouldering embers. Who was she? I had never seen her before in the house. The girl smiled at me. Before I could smile back, Karichiyamma served me the chakkakkoottan. Gnawing hunger, the deepening darkness; ignoring everybody, I started wolfing down the food.
As I got ready to leave, after washing my hands, Karichiyamma extended some jackfruit curry, wrapped tight in leaves, towards me….’Give it to Thangam’. (My mother’s name is Thangam).
I received it.
‘Could you recognise the girl?’
I shook my head to negate the query. Typically, I feel very embarassed while speaking to girls of my age.
‘ She is your grandmother’s sister.’
Karichiyamma nodded in affirmation.
Grandmother’s sister would be aged, wouldn’t she? But this girl seems younger than me! Karichiyamma must have lost her marbles…
Maybe she is making fun of me.
The girl stepped out.
‘I had visited your home that day …on the feast of the dead.’
She grinned at me.
‘Weren’t you the one to apportion food to the ancestors?’
‘But I didn’t see you anywhere’, I said.
She smiled instead of replying.
Karichiyamma bent down to whisper to my ears.
‘She died at your age.. a cobra bit her when she was carrying the rice stalks .’
A lightning struck me down.
She…no, what do I call her, was still smiling at me.
I remembered my mother commenting that Karichiyamma went loony in Karkitakam: the month of the crab. Karichiyamma said that the dead visited her then. I had overheard her narrating to my mother about how she chatted with them and fed them.
So that meant, she was not loony…was it for real?
‘If you invite me, I will accompany you home. We can play together’, the girl said.
I could not bring myself to look at her.
My mind advised sagely, ‘Listen, it is your grandmother’s sister, she has come from the land of the dead, and you can see her because of love…invite her home.’ But terror drowned all voices.
‘I am leaving‘.
I thought I would scream in fright. Remembering my mother telling that men don’t cry, I controlled myself and started walking away fast, without a backward glance.
Both of them said nothing.
The leaves rustled in the wind.
I thought the dead were following me; and that the heavy panting was not of the rain.
I shut my eyes tight and took flight….
Late at night, covered from head to toe with a sheet, as I lay, I remembered the girl.
I did not feel afraid then.
I should have brought her along.
Grandmother would have been so happy.
I could have played match-boxes with her…
I felt miserable.
The rain, which was hiding, started pouring again.
( Literally: Mango tree brought by Parangis or the Portuguese. The Cashewnut tree)
A chapter from a simple book of memoirs, of growing up, by P.V. Shaji Kumar.
Book Title: Itha Innu muthal Itha Innale vare ( Here, from today ; Here, until yesterday)
Side Note: Tongue-in-cheek nostalgic take on an iconic movie title
The Wind Blows As Yet
The wind which comes harrumphing like an intoxicated elephant raises its trunk when I recollect my MCA days in LBS College of Engineering.
The wind was everywhere: in the classrooms, canteen, boulders, side paths…It never abated in its fury. Like a lover driven mad due to a tragic affair, it wandered incessantly, unable to sit still.
When I arrived at the campus, I was like a leaf caught in the wind. My mind struggled free from my grasp and went flying. I had never been a regular student even during my pre-degree days. The proclivity to skip classes increased during my degree days. And when MCA started, the tendency went overboard. On the rare occasions when I did sit inside the class room, the wind would rip in, seize the windows and bang them against the walls. Almost as if the wind took offence at my presence inside the classroom.
Within a few days of joining the class, I came to realize that computer science was not the path meant for me. My mind resolved many a time to drop out and study some other subject. But it was all in vain. The wind took away three years. I would start from my home in the morning; spent some time inside the campus, before catching a bus to Kasargode.
I was lost amongst the mountains of self-contempt. ‘Why am I so worthless?’ I would constantly recriminate myself. While my classmates studied whatever they could, I would remain alone inside the circle of zero.
That was how Jayashankar and Rauf came to befriend me. Jayashankar, who hailed from Palakkad and studied in Coimbatore, and Rauf, who was educated at Sulli, knew the fundamentals of computers. Jayashankar was least interested in continuing his studies. He would repeatedly tell us that he would not be completing the MCA course and would take up a job in some IT company. Rauf was eager to agree; but the anxiety about procuring a job made him attend classes. I became a companion to Jayashankar who avoided going to the classroom. The tender-hearted Rauf could not resist the pleasures of our vagabond style and soon joined our tribe. Both of us affirmed that we would be taking up jobs without completing the masters course too. I had no clue about bagging an assignment since the A, B, C, D of computers remained unknown to me.
Jayashankar got a job when the first semester came to an end. I can recollect, as if yesterday, the horror with which Rauf and I stared at the examination schedule. I cannot remember what I scribbled on the answer sheets.
It was with my friends that I watched the first adult film of my life. Inside Kanyaka Talkies ( Virgin Talkies). Terrified of being espied by the locals, pretending not to be natives, we sat hidden at the very back of the theatre. It was an English movie. After watching it, when Jayashankar asked, ‘How was it?’ I replied, ‘The music was good.’ Really, it was a harmonious melody!
After many years, when I wrote the story 18+, the Kanyaka Talkies, the audience and the movies played inside my mind. The story evolved from the thought that the church and theatre were similar in looks. Afterall, men lay down their sins in both the places. The name of the theatre in my story was ‘Kanyaka Talkies.’ The theme was how a theatre, which played adult movies, transforms into a church and the hallucinations of the newly arrived priest.
The story was made into a movie called ‘Kanyaka Talkies’ later.
If I had not studied in LBS College, the story would not have been written; neither would the movie be made.
My LBS days were chaotic, to say the least. As I meandered within the rebellious chaos, the cowardly me, proclaimed himself to be brave and strong. That increased the inherent anxiety and insecurity. During the examination on ‘Pentium’ during the third semester, I sat there unable to write a word. Everything vanished from my mind. Dread swelled within like a sea at high tide. I stared through the window at the sun scalding the rocks. When depression encircled me in its entirety, without further thought, hardly five minutes after the examination began, I left the hall and walked out. I would have collapsed at a mere touch.
My shirt, which had space for two more humans, became wings in the wind. As I boarded the bus to the railway station, I could hear the hungry, greedy beckoning of death.
My mind kept whispering, ‘Death while being run over by a train is so quick…’
‘This damned world will end with death!’ Some voices rained furiously from inside.
As I stepped down determined that there was no answer but death, a rain came holding the fingers of the wind, stamping down the sun. As the other passengers took shelter in nearby places, I stood in the rain, getting drenched. It was raining within and without.
The rain danced in the wind.
‘Death is easy, it is tougher to live.’
The rain within spoke up.
‘Live…miracles are waiting for you somewhere…do not let go of your mind…let whatever happen, happen.’
I found myself jumping inside the bus to Kanjagadu.
There was no death inside me then.
Somehow, I passed the MCA course.
I am still playing football with life.
The wind blows as yet.
Like a leaf torn away from the branch, I am still flowing in the wind.
Dare one say, ‘Your Honour, we beg to differ!’ It is a blessed month when Nireeswaran’s grace will alight on us.
To the Lord beyond any form, name, shape, definition: the incarnation of love, kindness and tolerance; the One who exists in words and music, fragrance and beauty, everything and everyone…thank you for April.
The front cover and back cover of the new translation of V. J. James’ book Nireeswaran, to be released in April.
Excerpt from the Translation of Sonia Rafeeq’s novel : Pennkkuttikalude Veedu, 2021
‘The House of Girls’
Maybe if my mother were alive, I would not have been so intimate with Rukhiyami. When I was twelve, one night, I asked my aunt whether my Ummi too narrated stories. ‘Not all mothers are alike. There are mothers different from yours and mine’, she replied. And followed it up with yet another story.
Although it was with the preface that the story was based on an Algerian folktale, I gravely suspect that it was of her own making! The very script flowed in such a way.
Once upon a time, there was a woman. Whenever the twilight set in, she would stand on her terrace and ask the moon : ‘ Hey moon, is there anyone prettier than me?’ The moon would retort : ‘You are pretty, I am pretty. No one prettier than you though!’
Meanwhile the woman became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. She named her Lalla. The next day, she came to the terrace and repeated her question : ‘Hey moon, is there anyone prettier than me?’ The moon replied, ‘I am pretty, you are pretty. No one prettier than Lalla though!’
The woman blazed with jealousy. ‘Prettier than me? Shall I kill her then?’ The moon responded calmy, ‘Sure, but after she stops breast feeding.’ Thus one year passed. The woman repeated her query : ‘Shall I kill her then?’ The moon said, ‘Not yet. Let her learn to walk and run.’ After few years, the woman started pestering the moon again. The moon replied, ‘ Let her learn to cook first.’ After few years, the reply was , ‘Let her learn to sew clothes.’
Lalla grew into a beautiful woman. Now , when the woman asked the moon the question, it replied, ‘ Lalla is of marriageable age now, and you can kill her if you wish.’ The woman sent Lalla to the forests with a butcher after gifting him with money and ornaments. She ordered that Lalla’s blood be brought back to her in a bottle as proof of her muder. The butcher could not bring himself to kill the lovely girl. He left her inside the forest and returned to the woman with a bottle full of goat’s blood. The woman drank it and expressed her satisfaction.
Lalla, meanwhile became devastated at the loneliness, hunger and thirst which surrounded her and sought refuge in a tunnel. When she woke up, she heard seven demons howling over the prey they had killed. She hid herself in terror. After the feats, the youngest demon said, ‘I can smell human blood near.’ His brothers reprimanded him, ‘You are a fool. There’s nobody near.’ When everybody slept, Lalla sneaked in and retrieved a bit of food and water for herself. When the youngest demon woke up the next morning, he started hollering : ‘ Told you, didn’t I? A man has stolen our food and drink!’ They searched everywhere but Lalla stay hidden and safe.
‘Rukhiyami, this is the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.’
‘Can’t there be any other Snow Whites in the rest of the world? This the Snow White from Algeria. Shut up and listen. No questions in the middle of a story!’
‘The demons started howling…’If anyone is hiding , come out immediately!’ When Lalla stepped out in fear, her astounding beauty floored them. They swore that they would treat her like a younger sister. She cooked for them , made clothes, cleaned the house, looked after them…
Lalla’s wicked mother stepped out to the terrace and asked the moon : ‘So tell me, who is the prettiest of them all?’ The moon laughed, ‘I am pretty, you are pretty. But Lalla is the prettiest of them all. She lives in the forest with seven brothers.’
The woman could not bear the shock of that revelation and died then and there.
In course of time, all the seven brothers fell in love with Lalla. ‘ I will marry her; I am the eldest!’ said one. ‘No way, I will be her husband, I am the youngest,’ retorted another. Lalla found a way out of the conundrum. ‘The one whose hands reddens most with the henna paste shall become my husband.’ She slathered the henna paste on all their hands but none had red hands at dawn. Lalla had cleverly made a paste of other herbs and not of henna.
One day, all seven brothers went away hunting but did not return at eventide. When Lalla got tired waiting for them, she started eating some boiled beans. Then a cat wandered into her room. ‘ You have eaten my beans, ’it meowed accusingly at Lalla. Lalla was outraged and emptied a whole sack of beans in front of the creature. ‘ I want to eat my beans!’ It purred angrily.
‘I have eaten your beans!’ Lalla lashed out spitefully. The enraged cat pissed into the smouldering embers. Now Lalla had no fire to cook food or keep cold at bay. Lalla stepped into the forest searching for fire.
Seeing the glow of fire afar, she went closer. It was the hut of a demoness. She gave Lalla some embers in a pot. It was almost reduced to ashes. Cinders fell wherever Lalla trailed. The demoness followed that trail and reached Lalla’s home. She pummeled seven long nails into Lalla’s head. Lalla became motionless as if she had died.
When the brothers returned, they mistook Lalla to be dead and started wailing in despair. They did not wish to bury her and so tied her up on a mare and let the creature free in the forest. The mare reached in front of a palace and the crown prince ushered it inside. The King asked, ‘Why, this is a corpse!’ They entrusted the body to a woman for readying it for customary death rites. When the woman removed the seven nails during the course of readying her, Lalla regained her life. The prince insisted on marrying the pretty girl. Finally, the King obliged.
Lalla gave birth to a son. Once, when he was playing with the children of ministers, a squabble broke out amidst them. ‘Your mother is a wastrel with no clan or home!’ The young boy came crying to Lalla. She was agonized and spoke : ‘Tell your father that your mother wishes to see her seven brothers.’ After a few days’ searching the soldiers found the seven demons with bowed heads, cast down with the pain of loss. They were invited for a feast inside the palace. After the repast, the son asked Lalla to narrate a story. Lalla started speaking about her life.
The seven brothers embraced her happily at the end of the tale. They went to the house of the wicked demoness and killed her. The demoness had seven beautiful daughters. Lalla got them married to her seven brothers.’
‘Married them to demonesses?’ I protested vociferously and Rukhiyami snapped, ‘Not possible to marry off demons to human women, right?’ I felt that one’s own mother thirsting for her daughter’s blood was a bit too much of an imaginative twist. Perhaps, stepmother stories hadn’t picked up pace by then. That was something the Brothers Grimm brought into vogue later. Whenever she narrated stories, Rukhiyami’s face became rosy, her eyes sparkled and widened; the drape over her head slipping away due to the excitement.
The gifted artist has again created a beautiful cover design. We are humbled and awestruck! What was once a dream, now stands fulfilled as a book. Truly, when we had started the journey, the challenge of the assignment, translating 320 pages of a gem which had been awarded multiple times, had seemed very formidable.
Shall we be able to walk the thousand miles? Should one dare to put that first step forward?
I usually start by taking a determined, deep breath and typing out the title of the book, the author’s name and confidently writing the (sacred) words …Translated from the Malayalam by Yours Truly. When I look at that, I see the glimmer of a prayer/dream turning into a reality, word by word.
Then I type the first chapter title and the first word. That calls for celebration! One pauses and congratulates oneself. Indeed, the translator transmutes into Frodo with his mysterious ring, unknowing of the dangers ahead in the magnificent quest; fraught with impending help and threats in multiple guises, and desperately hopes to reach the destination. Nay, one does not flip through the thick, 320 pages yet. It is one page, one paragraph, one sentence right now. Enough unto the day, the words thereof!
But when the dream stands transformed as a reality, one goes down on the knees and prays again to the divine source of all words. It is also the source of all love, kindness and beauty.
Thank you. Keep thou my feet. I do not ask to see the distant scene. One step enough for me….
I wish to raise a toast to the author and the universe…we have achieved another milestone today. The first draft of a beautiful book stands completed. It has existed for seven years in the world and now stands with a twin in another language.
Sometimes, books translate themselves. All we are left with are aching limbs. And a big smile.
Why do I choose to celebrate?
Because, we don’t say thank you enough.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…dear higher power of love.
For choosing me as a medium for transforming another gem.
I pray that it sparkles as brightly in the new language as it did in the mothertongue.
Only time will tell.
May more words grace my way.
‘There are moments, when whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.’ Victor Hugo.