Once Upon A Story

Note: There’s a glossary below for those who’d like it.

Once Upon A Story


I remember how I wished to tell
of an old, widowed village woman
as she passed through every season
of the calendar, seasons with Sanskrit
names all vaguely familiar. I hoped
to limn the heat of greeshma with
my pen, and catch in salient words
the earthy whiff of a humid wind
that made the dust swirl lyrically;
before I sketched how sharad’s cold
(that knifed her skin with consummate ease)
was the child of an unfeeling ocean-breeze;
and how even watery varshā’s rains
could hardly help her feel less alone.

But, tell me, what does privilege know
of village and woman, old and widowed?

(written ca. 2015)

Glossary:

1. greeshma (greesh-maah): One of the six seasons of the Hindu lunar calendar. It is (roughly) the equivalent of summer.

2. sharad (shuh-wrudh): Another one of the six seasons. Its closest equivalent is winter.

3. varshā (whurr-shaah): The season of the monsoon or the rains.

 

Myth and the World

There’s a glossary below. Clicking on the asterisk by a word will take you to it.

Did you knów the fragrant flówer
was once the fláme of a fiery stár?
Did you knów a woman’s milk
is but nectar stráined through silk?
Did you knów the Dionýsian* dance
was bórn of a sōma*-induced trance?
Did you knów the human heart
has a place in the Múseum of Cosmic Art?
Did you knów the vaidic* fire
once lit unstáined Baldur’s* pyre?
Did you knów the Arctic sea
was fórmed from the frost of the Yggdrasil* tree?
Did you knów the sweetest fruit
is seéded in wise wisdom’s sight?
Did you knów the bányan tree
fálls to the ground in ecstasy?
Did you knów the sweat of toil
is nectared-ráin to the drought-dry soil?
Did you knów the song for the deaf
spríngs from the kàlpataru’s* leaf?
Did you knów each cloúd above
once carríed water to a thirsty love*?
Did you knów that in the earth
lives a wórld of unheard mirth?
Did you knów that myth and man
are as rávelled as the chaff and grain?


(written ca. mid 2015)

For more about the context of and history behind the poem’s creation, see notes.

1. Dionysius (die-oh-nisi-yus): A figure of Greek mythology, considered the patron god of drink and revelry.

2. sōma (so-maah): A fabulous kind-of-nectar (distilled from a plant) that is supposed to have been drunk by the vaidic priests.

3. vaidic: Relating to the véda-s, the oldest extant Sanskrit literature.

4. Baldur (bald-er): In Norse mythology, the son of Odin and Freya. Killed, as a result of Loki’s machinations, by his own (blind) brother Honir.

5. Yggdrasil (ig-drus-il): The giant tree of Norse mythology that straddles the three worlds.

6. kalpataru (cull-puh-thuh-rue): The wish-tree of Hindu mythology. Located in swarga.

7. thirsty love: a reference to the “Mēghadūta (The Cloud Messenger)”, the famous Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s celebrated work. The premise of the poem is of a deliriously lovelorn yaksha (a demigod-like creature) speaking to a cloud above and telling it the message it should take to his equally lovelorn beloved hundreds of miles away.

To Her Tormentors

What do you mean she’s barren?
Does she not send forth a tide
of blood each month,
that blood you call impure
and quarantine within the dark?
That blood you fear with all your heart,
that blood is the blood of her heaving heart.
(That heart you treat with disregard
and force so brute,
it dries and desiccates the root.)

So listen, you people whose tongues malign!
Do you know what churns within her loins?
Do you know if milk streams through her breast?
Do you know what it is to be childless?
(And if you do, more shame on you.)
Her womb is womb no less than
womb that bore you, her breasts
no less that those you milked;
nor she more cursed
than those of you most blessed.

So don’t waste your breath to simply say
that’s she’s a barren field.
Go back instead and wield
the malice of your tongue
upon your unfortunate child.
Go now, for I stand here as her shield.


(written in 2015)

Afterword:

I wrote this poem in 2015, during the most prolific creative spell I’ve experienced. However, as quick as the poem’s emergence (on the computer’s screen) was, it was really the culmination of thoughts and ideas I had been pondering – and even writing about – for some three years previously. Not a woman myself, I’ve no doubt this poem was influenced by women’s stories; by various things I’d heard and read and been told about and that had permeated my consciousness in ways too intricate to pinpoint.

Childless women among my relatives; an observation by a relative about how her’s uncle’s childless marriage had been unquestioningly attributed to his wife’s infertility (though she thought it more likely that a year-long sickness that left her uncle bedridden was the reason); a woman’s direct, personal perspective who felt having a child helped a woman ‘feel complete’ (she had a child); a true story told by a well-known Kannada writer in Kannada about a woman who, unable to conceive herself, had thrown her ōragitti‘s (ಓರಗಿತ್ತಿ), i.e. co-sister’s newborn down a well; the idea – universal in its scope – of the ‘woman as field‘, who, like a field, could expect nothing less than indifference and disdain if she was ‘unproductive’; stories of the subtle and unsubtle jabs a woman could face from her in-laws for not being able to conceive; the story of a friend – only 25 or so at the time but already married for over a year – who, upon asking her mother what she wanted for her birthday, was told that a ‘grandchild’ would be best possible gift; stories about men choosing (or being told to) make a second marriage because their wife couldn’t conceive; the account by a childless woman – who’d taken years to come to terms with her childlessness – about the impending arrival of her friends’ grandchildren and her helplessness regarding the feeling of loss that (she feared) was bound to return.

Note: The ‘quarantine’ mentioned in the poem is a practice followed to this day in parts of India (and, very likely, in several other places where science is forced to genuflect before tradition). It is the practice of ‘social distancing’, of banishing a menstruating woman (or several menstruating women) to an “outhouse” until they are done bleeding and are no longer considered ‘undefiled’ or ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’. Not surprisingly, the conditions in this “outhouse” are unsanitary and dangerous. Rising female education and awareness campaigns are helping the situation improve, but I remember a newspaper report from about a year or two ago that spoke of the death of one such banished woman. It’s past time such atrocity was stopped.

By the way, I think it worth noting that such vilification and ostracization of women is not in any way peculiar to India. Like I say here, woman has been discriminated against by man – in some way or the other – in every culture around the world. Within the present context, it is illuminating to note the origin of the word hysteria or even the original meaning of the word menstruate. (‘A Brief History of Misogyny’ by Jack Holland offers more detail.)

P.S: This is one of my favourites among the poems I’ve written. It’s also one I’m proud of.

Lines Begun After Sundown

All sadness does not lead to song,
all gloom cànnot make a poem;
there is too much sadness in the world
for that, and too much gloom.

Most misery cannot be told,
most torment cannot shed a tear;
they lie simply in the breast:
wordless, soundless, unremarked.

Let them live there if they must,
do not mine them for a song;
there is sorrow beyond reach —
to speak of it would be wrong.

Sing, instead, some happy song
you listened to when you were young;
let all immured sorrow know —
outside there is delighting.


(written ca. late 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

Amma, Suzanne, and Leonard

I first listened to a Leonard Cohen song at home – when my mother sang ‘Suzanne’. She sang it as she moved around the house, in that soft melodious voice that so wonderfully suits those English songs she first heard when she was young and now sings from memory — and I can still see Amma emerging from the half-darkness of the passageway (that led to the two rooms at the back) into the bright light of the drawing room, singing “and the sun poured down like honey | on our lady of the harbour…” as I sat on one of the sofas in the room, continuing to do what I was doing even as I listened to those lovely words with half an ear.

     Some time later, I would go on to listen to Cohen himself singing ‘Suzanne’, his deep, distinctive, scratchy voice made even scratchier by the dust that had settled in the grooves of the old LP my mother owned. A couple of years later, Cohen would become part of my routine at college — his husky voice now emerging from the laptop on my desk as I drifted off to sleep. Later still, I would travel alone (for want of a like-minded companion) to listen to him sing live in Minneapolis, one of the venues he played as part of his long and final tour, a tour forced on him by his dire financial situation but one he learned to love and embrace as it went on and he witnessed the many rapturous and heartfelt receptions he was given.

     It’s been a number of years now since we moved out of our house on the IISc campus. We live now in our “own house”, which is a lot larger and has both an upstairs and a downstairs. My room is upstairs, and is where I spend most of my time. Amma, on the other hand, spends most of her time downstairs. Things have changed: we now have a cook (who also plays housekeeper and with whom and whose family we’ve formed a bond) and Amma spends most of her time doing the Sudoku and the crossword, reading her Kindle, indulging in the odd game of Mahjong or Solitaire, and playing the piano. She moves about the house less these days – there is no reason to – and while she may occasionally recall an old favourite song, it is very rare to hear her singing like she used to. Very occasionally, my father brings her a thesis that needs to be copyedited, a task she devotes herself to with a conscientious diligence that comes naturally to her. Her evening routine has also changed. She now goes for a walk with her “new” friends, friends from the IISc she has got to know better upon moving here. It is a daily ritual she revels in – and one that gives her the opportunity and luxury to eat the several snacks and sweets she enjoys.
     (To be fair, the singing hasn’t stopped completely, but if she sings nowadays, it is as part of her ‘music class’ – a session where she and some friends spend an hour learning some ‘devi stuti’ or the other and about an hour-and-a-half savouring each other’s cooking and chatting about mundane matters.)
     To tell the truth, I cannot remember the last time Amma sang ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Tambourine Man’ – a most favourite song and one I first heard because Amma sang it – or ‘Five Hundred Miles’, another old favourite and my introduction to the wonderful music of Peter, Paul and Mary. However, I occasionally hear her humming and singing one of her old tunes and once in a while, I sit down on the end of the sofa (her sofa really) whose other end she’s at and play a song on my phone, one I know she’ll enjoy – and am suitably pleased when she responds to the cue, looking up from her crossword or Kindle with a smile and often singing along.
     I know if I asked her why she’s stopped singing or pester her to start again, she would say ‘I’m old, Madhava’; and I would contest the matter and a needless argument might break out. So I won’t. After all, one can sing only when one feels like singing – and perhaps Amma just isn’t inclined to these days. Also, old or not, she is certainly growing older and her enthusiasm has switched gears and moved towards other things – like the piano, an instrument she’d always wanted to learn and first began learning almost twenty years ago; that she gave up (for reasons I don’t remember) after some three or four years; that she returned to some three years ago after a prolonged break; that she got better at again in those three years, even venturing to learn “Für Elise” upon my request; and that she has just recently been forced to stop playing because of a minor dislocation in her thumb, the result of a freak fall.
     In this time of COVID-19, Amma is waiting on two operations. One for her thumb – which isn’t mandatory but that is likely help in the long run – and the second for a cataract in her left eye (the right one already being done), an operation that was to have happened yesterday but has now been postponed indefinitely.
     When during my bath today, I suddenly remembered the essay I wrote after Cohen’s passing in 2016 and thought of sharing it, I hadn’t thought to write all this much. It occurred to me to simply write an introductory line or two and then share that essay. But I began – and this is what came of it. And perhaps it is only fitting, because, really, without Amma there would likely be no Leonard Cohen – nor a concert and a remembrance.

“And she shows you where to look
among the garbage and the flowers…”

*****

Leonard Cohen — A Remembrance

(written on November 13, 2016)

It seems like so long ago, but there was a time in college when I looked forward to doing the laundry so I could come back to my room (on 4th Burton) and listen to my collection of Leonard Cohen’s songs as I folded a couple-of-weeks worth of clothes. In fact, there were times I wouldn’t have to even “turn on” the playlist – for it was to that very playlist that I’d have fallen asleep the last night (and the night before and perhaps the night before that too…).

It was a comforting, pleasant feeling – meticulously folding my clothes in the mellow, yellow light of the lamp by my bed as Cohen’s voice sang his songs in the sequence that had become so familiar. (It’s been years now since I listened to that collection, but I seem to remember that the first song was “Suzanne,” the second “Take This Waltz” and the third “The Stranger Song”; each having played some 400-odd times.)

Cohen was also why I put out my first (and only) public announcement in the NNB (Noon News Bulletin) – where I asked if there was anybody else who’d bought tickets to his Minnesota concert on the 2nd of May, 2009. (Two people responded, but were unfortunate enough to miscalculate the date.) I, however, was lucky enough to go and see him perform. While the experience was a little underwhelming (for one, it would have been nice to have had a fellow-fan; for another, I didn’t care so much for the orchestra-versions of his solo songs), his enthusiasm on stage belied his age; his voice had its famous husk; and his fedora beautifully capped his wise, impish, bejowled face. (I bought a fedora, of sorts, in the markets of Delhi some two years ago. It remains a prized possession.)

I haven’t, in recent years, listened to him like I used to, but I still remember those college days fondly – and the frissons of happiness that I felt sometimes as I sailed on the waves of his music and poetry. He was, with Yeats, one of my first-favourite English-language poets.

So – since it’s hard to pick a Cohen-favourite, I’ll offer two. The first one is “Take This Waltz“, a musical rendering of Cohen’s magnificent “transcreation” of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Spanish poem. The second is “If It Be Your Will“, a genuine masterpiece, a lyrically-charged hymn for the ages.

P.S: For the interested, here is a playlist (that I mean to continue updating) of Cohen’s songs.

 

When The Heart Blooms (or Why Poetry?)

Because –
is it not enough if poetry
can make you happy
and push the borders of the heart
a líttle further apart
so that the joy that grips the soul,
(a joy that cannot be told),
turns the rhythm
of the breath into a hum
ming bird, that shooting like a charge
throughout the blood
both fills and floods
the being with a boundless surge.


(written ca. 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

The Dancer Asks

And let me dánce, Natarāja*
to the rhythm of your drum;
and let me flów, Natarāja,
like Gangé* from your locks;
and let my límbs spread smóothly
and my waíst slide shyly
and my ánklets tinkle
and my brácelets jingle
and my sáree rustle
to the echóes of your drum*.


(written in 2015)

Glossary:

1. naṭarāja — literally, king of dance but perhaps better translated as ‘Lord of Dance’. An appellation of Shiva’s, one of Hinduism’s major gods. His dance – the cosmic tāṇḍava – can be various and can signal both creation and destruction. The joyful form of his dance is the ānanda tāṇḍava.

2. gangé — the way Gangā, Hindu culture’s most sacred river, is written and pronounced in Kannada. Here’s some more detail about the mythology concerning Shiva and Gangé.

3. drum — the ḍamaru is Shiva’s “drum”, one he uses to keep time during his cosmic tāṇḍava. A mythological story tells of how the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are the sounds that emerged from Shiva’s drum as he danced his dance of creation.

Lament

My words of verse are not like ráin
stréaming from a water-burdened cloud;
nor like the blossom on the vine-tip
that fálls and reaches the ground
despite the absence of a wind.
Nor like the green ringlet that peeps
out from the seed-born stem;
nor even like the little bird
whose wings outspread
of their own accórd.
I seek instead for similes,
search nature with deliberate eyes,
(wearing a poet’s disguise),
to find and praise what must
be praised; what does not rust
(with words that I to rhyme entrust).
Yet all the while I wish so much
to write like I were heaven-touched.


(written ca. September 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

A Conversation with a Friend (or The Society of Women)

I wrote this “essay”, as it were, in late 2015. (It is perhaps better considered an extrapolative “musing” that grew out of the conversation I had.) I’ve been considering posting this for a while – and while I don’t care too much for the (commercial) idea of ‘Women’s Day’, I think it a good time to put this out.

Some portions of this were in Kannada (especially the conversation and cultural references), but I’ve translated those parts into English so everybody can read it. However, I’ve kept a few cultural words – and provided a glossary for them at the end of the essay.

*****

I was talking to a friend yesterday when he mentioned his interest in a girl in his office. The girl, he said, was from Mangalore and a complete ingénue — with no idea whatsoever of the world.
‘She’s like a child, man,’ he said, using his hands to cocoon an imaginary child, ‘a real doll.’
I, of course, took the opportunity to rag him a little and ask the customary question of when they were going to get married; a jest he took well and shrugged off with a laugh.
The matter took a turn when I probed him a little more about her. Was she a Kannadiga or was she Tulu? Was she … ?
Tuḷu*,’ he said, ‘she’s a Tulu…a Shetty* from Mangalore.’
His voice turned contemplative as he returned unconsciously to the jest I’d made about marriage — ‘And that’s just it, Madhava…you know how it with us. If she were a brahmin*, it would have been different, but now…not a chance, man. In fact, I myself don’t know that I’d marry outside… ”
Why not, I asked? What was the matter? Surely his parents weren’t that strict?
‘Oh they are, kaṇo, they are, extremely so.’
What about him? Did he believe in such traditional mores too? He hesitated before saying that, no – no, he really didn’t, but what was the use when he couldn’t make his parents understand?
Well then, what about your sister, I asked, referring to his sister who’s only a few years older than him.
Ayyo!’, he exclaimed, ‘she’s the worst of the lot! As maḍi* as can be! At least my father if I pestered him long enough would tell me to go to hell — in other words, to do what I wanted to! But she, no way, not a chance!’
And your mother I asked him, couldn’t you bring her round to seeing things your way, especially in this day and age?
‘My mother…she’s very emotional, kaṇo…’ he replied, without elaborating, for both of us knew what he meant.

The next ten minutes revolved around a discussion of the merits and faults of such traditional ideas. With no stake in the matter, I continued to urge him to boldy shake off the shackles of tradition — blind tradition.‘You can’t go on like this, man, you have to say what you think before it’s too late. Especially when it has to do with you yourself. And all this idea of caste-purity that’s being held on to, no wonder there’s so much hatred shown to the brahmin…this behaviour is essentially untouchability.’
He nodded in agreement, then mumbled that he had told the girl that he couldn’t commit himself at the moment; that they should wait for three months, etc. He seemed abashed about it.
‘At least her family believes,’ he said hopefully, ‘and worship those bhūtas* or whatever…’ Yes, I said, I’d heard about the bhūta worship that happens in the region around Mangalore and the Karavaḷi mountains.

We parted soon after. Our chat had taken a more serious turn than I’d expected. While I am quite certain that my friend is not considering marriage at the moment – he is only 22 – I think that the knowledge of the various tangles associated with the matter have begun to gnaw at him. In this, he is representative of a certain type in society — the savarṇa* middle-class youth whose aspirations are moulded by western culture and whose ideals are shaped by the Hindu values that have been bequeathed him or her. The urban gloss of such lives is obvious — but just as obvious to the keen eye is the thinness of this gloss. Rooted nowhere, yet not entirely deracinated, the phenomenon is that of a trishaṅku*, a creature caught in limbo, less glamorous than it is pathetic.

Reviewing our conversation later on, what struck me was my friend’s assessment of his mother and his sister, the two women closest to him. It served to remind me of my private notion that the continuance of societal mores is much more the responsibility of its womenfolk than its menfolk. In the context of a patriarchal society, the irony of this is poignant.

Just think of it! A woman upholding the absurdly rigid idea of maḍi in rituals that she is not even allowed to participate in; a woman teaching her daughter-in-law to be a dutiful wife and to be sure to bear male children; a woman speaking of the kanyādāna* of her own daughter as though she were simply chattel, just like her mother must have spoken of her. It sounds incredible, masochistic, even unnatural — which in many ways it is. But just as clear is the reason that drives this behaviour — the ineluctable conditioning force of history. It is a force created by man, controlled by man, dominated by man, turned and twisted by man, and finally, driven forward by man.

The metaphor of the woman as a field for the man’s seed is an old one, prevalent I suspect in every culture. Its origin lies in the practice of equating woman to the earth, of equating her ability to bear children to the earth’s ability to transform a seed into plant. Her fertility is essential – just like the earth’s fertility is – but only insofar as to help the seed within her womb germinate. She is absolutely necessary, but at the same time replaceable – barren soil may be discarded for soil that is fertile. She is the receptacle, the nurturer, the caregiver — but only after the seed has been sown and has germinated. Prior to this, she is a passive creature — her motherhood is bestowed upon her by man; it is he who drives creation, who drives the race forward. Woman both receives and gives, but only as a consequence of man’s agency.

It is these sort of ideas that appear to have given rise to the patriarchal system of society the world over — with some exceptions, of course, but none powerful enough to have made any difference to the course of history. Of course, the difference in stature and physical prowess, the primitive existence that made foraging necessary, woman’s congenital mothering nature were all important reasons for society to form as it did.

In the particular case of post-vedic society – or equivalently, contemporary Hindu society – whose mores stretch back a few millenia, its most defining feature is perhaps the varṇa* system practised under the umbrella of patriarchy. When the varṇa system began to be practised is uncertain, nor is it relevant here; but the grouping of woman with the shūdra*, the lowest varṇa of the four is, very likely, not simply the consequence of Manusmriti’s* directive but of society’s opinion of women at the time.

Yet, despite all the surmises made above, it is difficult to say precisely why societies grew as patriarchies rather than as matriarchies. If, as is likely, a child’s upbringing was largely in the woman’s hands, what was a boy taught that allowed him to create a society that privileged a man over a woman; what was a girl taught that allowed her to accept – without opposition – her position as man’s inferior? Was woman – in her position as the child’s first teacher – not able to bring up both son and daughter as equals? Had she, already, been taught that man was her superior? Had she already come to see herself as the chattel of the men in society, whose duty it was to help man continue the race? Had she learnt already that to menstruate was somehow unclean?

And if she had, how had she? For what reason? Was it because she lacked man’s strength? Was it because she had been made by man to submit to him? Was it because she had chosen to play the role she believed she had been assigned — that of nourisher and caregiver? Was it her knowledge of man’s agency in the reproductive process? Was it her nature — that chose motherhood above other things? Was it her sexuality — that drew her to man despite his behaviour? Was it her competitiveness — that made her align herself against her fellow woman rather than with her?

Not being a woman, I do not know the answer to these. Nor do I believe that a woman does — though she may be able to go further towards answering them than me. But why a woman – uneducated perhaps, but capable of thinking for herself – should believe that menstruating women must be quarantined; should believe that she or another woman must not read the scriptures or be priests; should believe that to marry off her daughter is to donate her to her husband’s house, thereby severing ties; should choose to side with the man if another woman questions the authority he gives himself; should tell her daughter-in-law to bear a male child and chastise her if she doesn’t; should choose to think of her son’s children as the grandchildren of her house but her daughter’s as those of her son-in-law’s house; should fuss over rites and ceremonies that she is not even allowed to participate in; should choose to force other women to follow rather than question male injunctions that treat woman as impure — these seem like questions too knotted, too old, too misted by history for even the most able woman to unravel easily.

Glossary
:

1. Tuḷu — one of the five Dravidian languages spoken in South India. The Mangalore region is home to a major portion of the Tulu speaking peoples of India. Here, Tulu refers to the girl being a speaker of the Tulu language.

2. Shetty — a “caste” group historically known for being traders or merchants

3. Brahmin — a member of the highest class in the varṇa hierarchy (that is said to have begun as a way of classifying people by their profession). As the stewards of cultural knowledge, they were deferred to by the remaining classes.

4. maḍi — extremely fussy about cleanliness and ritual purity

5. bhūta — a (usually maligant) spirit

6. savarṇa — a member of any one of the three higher varṇas, viz. a Brahmin, a Kshatriya or a Vaishya

7. trishaṅku — a mythological king of Hindu mythology who is said to exist in limbo between heaven and earth

8. kanyādāna — the dāna (“charitable giving”) of a post-pubescent woman by her father to her husband; or in other words, the transfer through marriage of a woman from her father’s house to her husband’s house

9. shūdra — a member of the lowest of the four varṇas in the hierarchy of post-vedic society

10. Manusmriti — a book supposed to have been written by the law-giver, Manu. It remained mostly inconsequential until resurrected by the British in their misbegotten attempt to create a ‘Hindu Law’. Today, it is reviled among the English-educated classes for its extreme views on varṇa and its misogny. (The rest of society mostly doesn’t know or care.)

Happiness

happiness’s
a gulmòhar flower
cáught in the crosshairs of the sun
guarded by drawn-leaves of green
shaded by the blue of sky
within a wreath of wind;
happiness’s
the rising wave
crested by a froth of white
washing onto watered-shore
mágicked by the purple shell of sea;
happiness’s
the sunset-sky
coloured by the spilling bow of rain
mòving asymptotically;
happiness’s
a wickly-flame
casting shadows of its warmly light
into a halfly dark;
happiness’s
the koeling bird
rousing the pitchness of the night
into the daying light;
happiness’s
the well of words
flowing over heartly kerbs
to flood the paging white


(written on June 9, 2019)