Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mayank Passes


Mayank had been through countless admission tests.  The worried look on his mother’s face had become a source of guilt for the little boy. 

“I’m sorry, mom,” he consoled his mother.  He didn’t know what else to say.  The way she looked at him with so much pity in her eyes made him feel guilty, guilty of being alive, guilty of having been born.

Mayank was lucky that his father was so busy with his job in the city that he lacked the luxury of the time for worrying about his son.  Otherwise how would he bear to see two dear faces carrying an endless worry named Mayank?  Mother was a teacher in Ananda Vidyashram which belonged to Phenomenananda Baba and faced the threat of extinction.

Mayank was a class 3 student of Ananda Vidyashram.  But when the new session started there were only a handful of students all together in the school.  Phenomenananda Baba was not interested in running the school.  The school was started by his great, great grandfather, Anantananda Baba, as part of his ashram so that wholesome education would be provided free to the children of the locality.  The Babas who succeeded brought about various reforms in the school according to the needs of the times.  The regular rise in the fees, removal of certain facilities and closing down of sections were some such reforms.   Now the school itself faced demolition because Phenomenananda Baba’s increasing number of rich devotees required parking space for their cars.  Mayank’s mother did not want her son to be left in the lurch halfway through the academic session.  So she sought admission for him in any of the reputed public schools in the city.

Mayank failed in every admission test.  Each test seemed to add a new wrinkle on his mother’s forehead.  Each test carried his mother to more and more idols in the temple complex of Phenomenananda Baba’s ashram.  Mother’s purse became lighter; the temple’s donation boxes were the gainers. 

When the letter from the hundredth’s school came, Mother said, “No, we won’t open it here.  We’ll take this letter to the temple and open it in front of the gods.”  Mayank, his head weighed down by the guilt of being such a burden to his mother, accompanied Mother to Phenomenananda Baba’s temple complex.  The myriad gods waited to be appeased. Mother went from one to the other offering prayers and aratis, tears dropping down her cheeks, the smoke of hope rising from the lamp in offertory tray. Mayank followed her with folded arms.

Having appeased all the gods with whatever was in Mother’s hands including the last coin in her purse, Mother opened the letter from the Hundredth Public School.

A ray of light descended on her face.  The gods and goddesses were now pleased with them.  She hugged Mayank.  “Didn’t I say the gods were kind?”

A monstrous bulldozer was droning along through the gate of Ananda Vidyashram.

Monday, March 30, 2015

One Part Woman

Book Review

Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which attracted unnecessary controversy in Tamil Nadu recently, is essentially about the fundamental complementarity of the male and the female components of humanity.  “The male and the female together make the world,” as the priest in the Ardhanareeswara temple tells Kali, the protagonist.  Within each individual too there exists both the male and the female components.  Who destroyed that harmonious balance between the male and the female?

Is it the Brahmin who expediently creates and imposes certain rules and regulations on the people?  The novel raises this question when a Brahmin lawyer gets toddy and arrack banned in the Salem district and thus throws the whole Sanar community out of “their traditional livelihood.” 

But the novel never suggests that the Brahmins have been responsible for the loss of certain traditions.  It does not even suggest that the traditions are sacred or useful in any significant ways.  It even questions the gods and people’s faith in them.  Kali, having performed many religious rituals and sacrifices, wonders when the thirst of the gods will be sated. 

Gods and traditions don’t seem to serve profound functions in the actual practical world of human affairs.  In fact, the former can be bent to suit the needs of the latter.  Thus there is a ritual in Tiruchengode when married childless women can mate with a stranger in order to beget an offspring.

For Kali, his wife Ponna is the other half of his very being. He cannot view her as a person apart.  Kali and Ponna together would form an Ardhanareeswara.  But they do not get a child in spite of all their passionate love-making, in spite of all the religious rituals and sacrifices they perform.  Finally the suggestion comes from their mothers that Ponna should find her divine mate during the religious festival. 

Can the supposed sanctity of a religious ritual heal the rupture caused to the sanctity of the marital relationship?  In other words, how does Ponna who has undergone much torment because of her childlessness view the suggestion of finding her divine mate?  How does her view affect Kali for whom Ponna is really not a distinct individual but is the complementary half of himself?

The novel probes the deep relationship that Kali and Ponna have built up, a relationship which cannot apparently be broken by any force.  It also delves into the problem of childlessness which is often believed to be the result of some curse.  It probes the validity of certain religious practices.

Uncle Nallupayyan is a sharp contrast to the sensitive Kali.  Nallupayyan (which ironically means ‘good boy’) does not see any sanctity in human relations.  “If one can freely get the pleasure of a woman without getting married, who would want to get married?” he asks.  For him life is a series of enjoyments and sex is part of that series.  Traditions and religious rituals make no sense to him.  When the village decides to punish him for cutting off his caste’s trademark hair-knot, his answer is: “If the village’s honour resides in my bloody hair, I will grow it.... I don’t even mind growing a beard and a moustache.  I will grow them and sit around like you all, plucking lice from it. But add another thing to it.  It was only yesterday that I shaved off my pubic hair, because it was itching too much.  Now if your village honour is also dependent on my pubic hair, let me know right away.  I will grow that too.”

Kali and Uncle Nallupayyan are contrasting approaches to absurd religious practices.  Kali is tormented by them, while Nallupayyan is able to cast them off with the ease of a snake that sheds its worn-out scales.  The majority lie in between seeking and finding their gods and goddesses in ways that suit them.

Why the resurgent Right Wing was offended by this novel is beyond my comprehension.  It seems they were offended by the mating ritual mentioned in the novel.  Of course, the author makes it amply clear that the ritual took place in the olden days.  The novel is set in the days of the British Raj.  We had many such practices in the ancient days.  The devadasi system, for instance, had its share of kitsch and twitch.  Will the Sangh Parivar demand the ban of all books on such practices?

One Part Woman is a delightful work of art that takes us through certain labyrinths of an old Tamil Nadu village and its religion.  It shows us the various dimensions of religious beliefs and how they keep life going even at the very basic levels of sexual unions, and how they hinder life at times.  

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Deepika Padukone's Choice

I happened to come across this video by chance.  Loved it for its message, conveyed clearly and powerfully.  Though Ms Padukone is endorsing women empowerment, the message is applicable to all human beings and not just women alone.

Many years ago, another woman, Ayn Rand, made one of her characters say that the savages said, "Hands Up!" while the policy for the civilised world should be "Hands Off!"

"My body, my mind, my choice," says Deepika.  It should be so for everyone.

Why should anyone's mind or body be meddled with by anyone else?

Why should a priest or a fanatic assume that he has the right to impose his truth(s) on others?

Why should a political party decide the course that history should take, let alone the course it already took?

Why should anyone become the guardian of others' morality?

The most courageous act is thinking for yourself.  Aloud.

Do it.

PS. My last short story, The Devil has a Religion, is about how even men (not just women) are denied their choice over their body and mind.

PPS. This post is for adults.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Devil has a Religion


It’s not only the gods but the devils too have specific religions, Maria realised when she saw the devil appearing on her husband’s face fifteen years after she had seen it the last time.

Fifteen years ago, one nondescript autumn afternoon in Shillong, Philip came back from the school where he worked as a mathematics teacher and declared that he had resigned from his job.  Maria was stunned though she had known deep within her all the time that this was coming.  Reverend Father Joseph Potthukandathil, the Headmaster of Saint Joseph’s School where Philip taught, had been rubbing up Philip in the wrong way for a long time, years in fact, assuming that it was every Catholic priest’s canonical burden to bring the lost sheep back to the fold.  Philip not only refused to accept the priest’s gospel but also cocked a snook at it by guzzling peg after peg of brandy sitting in the Marbaniang Bar that stood just a hundred metres away from the church where the priest who dreamt of himself as the Saviour of all the lost sheep in his parish was celebrating the Sunday evening mass.

When Father Joseph did not succeed in his pastoral efforts vis-a-vis Philip-the-black-sheep, he enlisted the support of the entire parish.  He got them to treat Philip with contempt.  ‘Make him realise that the devil has conquered his soul,’ preached Father Joseph to his faithful flock, ‘and treat him like a street dog  so that he will feel the thirst for Our Lord’s grace in his fiendish soul.’

‘Praise the Lord! Alleluia!’ responded the faithful flock.

The more Father Joseph and his faithful sheep tried to induce in Philip the thirst for their Lord’s grace, the more Philip drank brandy slouching in Marbaniang Bar.  The efforts of the priest and his parishioners eventually succeeded and the lost sheep became a street dog before evolving into a devil.  Devil, for Maria.  Not for the people in the parish. 

‘When you lose in the marketplace, you come home and boost your ego by beating your wife.’  Maria whimpered first, sulked later, shrieked in the end.  ‘You are a devil.  Father Joseph is right.  The devil has conquered your soul.’

The drunken Philip staggered near to his shrieking wife and raised his flaccid hand which fell on Maria’s cheek with a force that surprised even Philip.  The new strength sent some blood rushing to his brandy-sodden cheeks.  Maria saw an apparition of Father Joseph’s devil on her husband’s face and ran away in terror. 

Father Joseph’s devil had left Philip’s soul by the time he woke up the next morning.  ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to Maria planting a gentle kiss on the cheek that borne the brunt of his devil the previous evening. 

‘Why do you drink?’ asked Maria with fond longing.  ‘When you don’t drink you’re such a nice person.’

Philip didn’t know what to say.  How do you survive in the world of Potthukandathils without some defence mechanism such as brandy?  He didn’t articulate the thought, however.

In the evening he came home from Saint Joseph’s School and declared, “We’re going to Shimla next week.  Start packing.”

Maria shrieked, sulked and whimpered.

 They had very little possessions.  One thing that the ascetics and the alcoholics have in common is paucity of material possessions.  It was not hard for Maria to pack up the possessions.  What was hard was thinking about the future that lay ahead.  Shillong to Shimla.  What difference will that make?  One hill to another.  The conversion had to take place within, inside the soul, she remembered Father Joseph’s refrain.  Nothing had changed inside Philip.  The faithful flock continued to sing alleluias to the Lord.

An old friend of Philip had arranged a teaching post for Philip in Shimla.  Life carried on.  Not just as usual.  Much better.  Far better, realised Maria.  She did not feel the need to go to any church.  There was peace in their home.  Joy came trickling down in the simple forms of an ordinary life uninterfered by priests and their gods. 

Maria’s contentment received the most brutal shock when Philip came home one day from school reeking of whisky.  He used to drink a peg or two occasionally and Maria had no objection to it.  But this was different.

‘He’s here,’ mumbled Philip when she asked what made him drink like a fool.


‘Potthu-kandathil.’  Father Joseph had been transferred as the parish priest in the church near to the place where Philip and Maria lived.

‘So what?  Why should we bother?’

‘Why bother?’ Philip looked at her.  She saw the fury that was rising to his face from somewhere deep within.  The fury darkened his face.  It replaced the soddenness of the whisky.  ‘Why bother?’ he asked again.  ‘Do you think I have forgotten it all?  The damned priest and his faithful flock running after the lost sheep?’

Maria watched in terror Philip’s face contorting fiendishly with hatred.