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 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?
‘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.

For more about the essay, see notes.

Drona and Ekalavya – A Reimagining

(written ca. 2012-2013)

Complexity and ambiguity lie at the heart of the Mahabharata, the latter of the two great Hindu itihasas (~ epics).
       Krishna as both the supreme-being (Vishwaroopa) and the mendacious, scheming man; Duryodhana as both the greedy, vengeful cousin and the loyal friend to Karna; Kunti as both the devoted, long-suffering matriarch of the Pāndavas and the stricken mother willing to sacrifice her first-born Karna; Yudhisthira as both the apostle of truth and the crazed gambler who stakes his wife at dice; Bhishma as both the wise grandsire and the unscrupulous kidnapper of Amba, Ambika, and Ambālika – these are the poles (of behaviour) within whose bounds flash the characters’ all-too-human sparks.
       The character of Dronacharya is another example of such complexity. The churn of his birth, his upbringing, and his deep hurt at Drupada’s abandonment (having grown up together like brothers in Drupada’s father’s court, Drupada refuses as king to even acknowledge a now-impoverished Drona) are all responsible for creating the Drona who meets Ekalavya in the forest.
       Justly reviled for his treatment of Ekalavya during their meeting, I try in this reimagining to understand Drona’s motivations.

Drona and Ekalavya A Reimagining

A cold fear gripped Drona’s heart. He wasn’t prepared for this. He thought he had banished all feeling years ago. Since that humiliating day in Drupada’s court, he had taught himself to believe that men’s hearts carried no goodness or kindness; that they throbbed only to the beat of selfish desires. Engaged as the princes’ tutor, he had focussed on instructing them precisely, remaining grave and aloof at all times; so that the princes had come to think of the least word of praise from him as the highest honour. Arjuna may have thought he was Drona’s favourite, but he would have been disappointed to know that Drona felt nothing like love or affection for him. He went so far as to respect Arjuna without going further. Proud, single-minded and acutely sensitive, Drona had never recovered from his last meeting with Drupada: he looked now upon Arjuna as the best means to avenge his hurt and mortification.
       But now, before him stood this wonderfully dark tribal boy who had just displayed marksmanship that Drona himself had never believed possible. And who should he call his teacher but Drona himself! Drona was more touched than he had been in years — but he could see the light of envy in Arjuna’s eyes and he knew what he had to do. It was the only way to achieve his goal. He had not striven ascetically for years to be moved by the beauty and skill and candour of a tribal boy! He was Drona, brahmin, and foremost among archers; and he himself had trained Arjuna. He could not afford to be sentimental now, or all his years of unceasing labour would go to waste. Arjuna would lose heart, and then who would defeat Drupada?
       And so concealing the storm within his heart, Drona said coldly: “If you truly think that I am your Guru, boy, then I am entitled to a Guru-Dakshina, am I not?”
       “Indeed you are, sir,” replied the Nishāda boy eagerly, “Nothing would give me more pleasure than giving you a large Guru-Dakshina. All I have I owe to you. But I’m only a poor hunter’s son.”
       From behind him, to his right, Drona could feel Arjuna’s eyes burning into him, and it was all he could do to keep from shouting at Arjuna; from telling him that this dark-skinned boy was the greater archer.
       “I do not want any riches, boy, I have everything I need already. However, there is one thing…”
       “Yes, sir, please tell me what it is. What can I give you?”
       Drona’s breath caught in his throat. He felt awash with shame — shame at what he had to say and shame at the memory of what Drupada had done to him. Silently the two struggled, but the memory was too strong, too vivid and his bitterness won through. He felt as selfish and arrogant as Drupada.
       “So be it, boy,” he said. “Give me your thumb then — your left thumb.”
       He looked around as he said this and felt sickened to see a flame of elation leap in Arjuna’s vivid eyes. Here was one as cruel as himself, he thought. Here was one who was willing to sacrifice an innocent boy to his selfish desire. He had not misread human nature! All was depravity and greed! Heartened, Drona turned again towards the boy — and nearly cried out at what he saw. The boy held his bloodied left thumb in the palm of his hand, as the chopped-off stump gushed a dark-red blood. In his right hand was a crude hunting knife. He was smiling.
       “Here you are, sir,” he said. “I hope you will accept this with my humble gratitude.” He hesitated: “And if you don’t mind, sir, would you please bless me before you leave, for I do not know if we shall ever meet again.”
       Struck dumb, but retaining a trembling command of himself, Drona took the proffered thumb before silently laying his hand over the smiling boy’s head. ‘God bless you, my child,” he murmured and then even more softly — so that no one but he could hear it — “and forgive me.”
       He then turned abruptly and strode away, that none might see the tears that glistened like raindrops in his eyes. Through the haze, he seemed to hear Arjuna’s protestations of gratitude, but his mind was fixed upon Ekalavya’s dark-eyed smile.

Glossary:

1. Guru-Dakshina (lit. preceptor-gift): In ancient India, a student in the Gurukula (preceptor’s āshrama) usually acknowledged his debt to his Guru through a gift. Not necessarily monetary, the dakshina could take the form of a milch cow or a task that the guru wanted done or some such thing.

2. Nishāda: A hunter-tribe mentioned in the Mahabharata, described as dark-skinned and generally considered lowly.