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.

 

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 have kept a few cultural words – for which I’ve provided a glossary 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 cuccoon 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?
‘O they are, kaṇo, they are, extremely so.’
What about him? Did he believe in such tradition 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 shake off boldly 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 region.
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 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 and just as natural 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 so far 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, 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 a 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.)

Da Ra Bendre in English hits 10,000!

Screenshot (17)_LI

I began the blog-website (www.darabendreinenglish.com) some three-and-a-half years ago on the advice of a couple of well-wishers who, appreciating what I was trying to do, suggested I move my work from the ephemeral illusion that is Facebook to the less-ephemeral reality of a blog. Since then, I have used this blog-website as a bit of a laboratory; that is to say, as a place to experiment with different ways to present and publicize (to the world at large) the English avatara-s of the remarkable Kannada poetry of Da Ra Bendre. What began in a flurry of enthusiasm (and posts) continues now, in calmer fashion, as a project of enjoyable creative labour and professionalism.

10,000! The last time I had something to do with this number was when I was being paid to find different ways to introduce it to students in Grade 4. (I think I prefer the number in its present context.) Unlike then, the number has arrived with unexpected speed. I remember the last time I took a screenshot of the stats of the website was when the number of hits was 4444. I meant to take the next screenshot when the number reached 5555, but I missed it by a whisker: when I got there, it showed 5556 hits. In any case, the way the traffic on this website has grown since that last screenshot has been extremely and pleasantly surprising. After being hit a record 465 times in June, the website was at the end of 824 hits in July. And when it rains it pours. Beginning August, the website has received at least a thousand hits every month! It is this consistency that has allowed it to reach the 10,000 mark even earlier than I’d reckoned. That these 10,000 hits have come from 4384 “unique” people living in 47 different countries is really quite gratifying.

If I may, I’d now like to say a little bit about Bendre and myself. The truth is that I began translating his poetry on a whim. I seem to recall that my first attempt happened sometime in the middle of 2015. At the time, I was reading a good deal more
about Bendre (than Bendre himself) in Kannada while enjoying my most productive year as a writer in English. Looking back to that time, I believe my interaction with Bendre, his life and his Kannada poetry catalyzed – in some strange, wondrous way – the English poetry I had been waiting for for years.

Maybe it was this feeling that made me take a stab at translating a poem of his. (I had only ever translated a couple of short folktales previously.) Perhaps it was because I had been reading so much about Bendre and about his ways and his poetry and excerpts from his poems that I decided to go straight to the source. Because what had happened through my reading was that I had begun to revere Bendre in the same way I’d come to revere Gauss and Euler and Newton after reading about them and their work (as related by E.T. Bell mostly) and I think maybe I didn’t want that to happen with Bendre too. So where I didn’t pursue those mathematicians’s original work, I did Bendre’s – down previously unknown, unfamiliar paths.

The first poem I took up was “ನಾನು (I)“. It is not one of his “famous” poems, but it has the distinction of being the only poem whose recitation (by Bendre himself) was videographed. With this video to look at and a recitation to inform the rhythm of the translation (more accurately a transcreation), I went to work and came up with a translation that I considered reasonable. This translation (with a couple of tweaks) would go on to become the inaugural post on the website. But what really got me going was the success I made of transcreating what is perhaps Bendre’s most famous poem — “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ (The Descent of the Ganga)”. Begun rather impulsively, it was only with the help of Sunaath Kaka’s wonderful Kannada explication that I was was able to pull through — with the transcreation of some parts happening in a manner I myself found difficult to believe. (I’m referring here, particularly, to the portion of the poem that begins “Beloved into whose waters fell…”.) But that done, things just took off: I had properly begun my “creative engagement” with the poetry of Da Ra Bendre — Kannada’s ವರಕವಿ (varakavi: ~ heaven-touched poet), one of the world’s greatest lyric poets, and a ನ ಭೂತೋ ನ ಭವಿಷ್ಯತಿ (never before never again) phenomenon. Almost four years into this engagement, I am more or less convinced that it was destiny or fate or ಹಣೆಬರಹ (haṇebaraha: ~ writing-on-the-forehead) that brought Bendre and me together.

I’d like to conclude with a vote of thanks to the various people whose support and encouragement has vitalized this venture and given me reason to continue it. Yes, it is silly to use the number of “likes” and “hearts” and “comments” on Facebook to measure a work’s worth. But, at a time when I was just starting out and knew barely anybody capable of assessing this sort of work, it was these little taps of appreciation by friends (and the occasional stranger) that buoyed me, that helped my work, that made me keep at my translation and its publishing. (I can only imagine how pleased Bendre would have been to know that the English translations of his poetry had its own group of “ರಸಿಕ-ಸಹೃದಯ“s.)

So – my heartfelt thanks to all of you: the first readers of my work; the Facebook friends with their emoticon gestures of support; the people kind enough to write a comment telling me what they thought; the strangers from all over the world who “hit” this page and left without a trace; the sahrudaya-s generous enough to share a transcreation or two and spread the word; the very small number of bilingual Bendre-enthusiasts who’ve expressed their appreciation; the strangers-turned-acquantainces who’ve warmed my heart with their emails or messages; the recently-formed group of Bendre aficianados in Bangalore who have shown me such gracious affection; the friends and family who took the time to come to listen my talk at NIAS; the reader yet to come. Thank you.

To end, I would, at the cost of being accused of “partiality”, like to name some people whose support – each for a different reason almost – has meant more than they may ever know.

Amma, Appa, Zain, Danny L, Aruna, Jenny, Roshan, Babyshek, Rashmi, Sethappa, Roshan, Rajata, Anagha, Raakhul, Pratibha S, Sindhura, Lipi, Anjana, Vima Viveka, Sagaré, Acchu, Jyothi, Shubha awaré, Rajanna uncle, Sharada aunty, Sudhakar uncle, Vasudha awaré, Arvind uncle, Hema aunty, Gayathri chikkamma, Addy, Sandhya aunty, Ritu, Kiccha, Vidya ma’am, Tds, Amaaan, Sunaath Kaka, K Nithesh, Arch, Manisha, Vasant S, Rukmini ma’am, Latha ma’am, Jayashree ma’am, Harisha, Sangamesha, Mounesha, Suma awaré, Surabhi awaré, Raju NS, Gorky, Vyasa, Abhijeet K, Mangala N, Malini, Hamsa aunty, Himan, Rekha M, Nivi, HSR uncle, Tirumalesh uncle — my thanks again to each of you for being the ಸಹೃದಯ (sahrudaya) you’ve been.

On the Banks of the Sindhu

The first bit’s an introduction to the essay below it. The essay itself from 2008. The introduction from 2016.

*****

In the summer of 2008, I was part of a group that travelled to North India on a tour of the “Himalayas,” as it were. After unforeseen circumstances turned the itinerary on its head, we spent four days in Leh by the banks of the Sindhu river. Our residence was an open field (bayalau: ಬಯಲು), with some ruminating cows and a group of donkeys for companions. Food was limited to dāl and chapāti, and sweet tea served the purpose of a snack. On one side of this field were mountains dry with the dust of summer; on the other the Sindhu river, beyond which stretched a vast, soundless, empty plain. On the banks of the river were some four stūpas, put up by the Vajpayee goverment. Besides venturing out to a nearby palace and to the nearest village for provisions, the group spent most of its time by the river—ruminating, chatting, reading, and playing some games of football at a height of 13,000 ft. above sea level. The darkness of the night was wholly unlike a city’s; a single oil-lamp oversaw dinner before it extinguished itself into the darkness around. While some of us went straight to our tents after dinner, some of us (I among them) went up to the stūpas on the riverbank, not saying much but listening to the darkness and the flowing river.

*****

On The Banks Of The Sindhu

There is something very restful about the gentle rhythmic sound of waves lapping along a river bank on a quiet night. It may be that the body, tired after the day’s toil and eagerly seeking a draught of “nature’s sweet restorative,” is charitably captive to the soporific lull of the lightly flowing river; or it may just be that the rushing river of the afternoon has bowed—like all else of nature’s creation—to the sanctity of the night; and shed its apparent urgency of the afternoon to rest under nature’s welcoming nightgown.

What is unmistakeable, however, is the tranquility of the occasion; the gently stretching soundless calm of the darkening night—a calm that induces contemplation and drowsiness in equal measure, each tempering the other just enough to leave one in a pleasant state of limbo between the two.

Sindhu, Sinnn-dhhu; the word enunciated slowly captures some of the intangible beauty of the Sanskrit language—its melodic rhythm that rolls so gracefully off the practised tongue the consequence of over three millennia of faithful oral transmission. Adding to the word’s fineness is the subtle impression of grandeur that is hid in its cadences—its sense as “the ocean”; “the great river” endowing it a fitting felicity.

To stand, therefore, on the banks of the flowing Sindhu seems to carry an importance; a consequence that lends the action a certain dignity. While perhaps not as revered as the Ganga and the Yamuna—and accordingly, not as dirty—it possesses a rich history that is unmatched by even the Ganga: for what it might lack in holiness, it makes up for through the grandeur of its presence.

For it is not only its place as one of our oldest rivers—old and vast and majestic enough to have lent its name to this land—that gives it an ineffable gracefulness; nor is it just its largely unsullied waters—immortal quivering remnants of some magnificent Himalayan glacier—that is its distinguishing feature. It is its quiet stateliness that is its hallmark.

Not for it the trifling sins of a hundred million Hindus; not for it a historic confluence with the hallowed river pair of the Ganga and the Saraswati. Wending and meandering its way down the imposing ridges of the higher Himalayas, past the evergreen valleys of Ladakh and through the Sindh province, it abides timelessly in its solitude; as transcendent in spirit as an ascetic who has seen the light.