On the mantelpiece of the universe

I looked up from the monitor. Through the long windows at the end of the cabin, I could see the branches of the trees swaying chaotically. It was stormy and windy. I tightened the stole around my shoulders; I could now feel the cold. 

I gazed across the cabin. A canvas of people- talking, working, laughing, contemplating. I suddenly felt distant from the scene. Alienated from it in a strange way. Temporally, what did this scene amount to? Nothing. Just nothing on the temporal map of this universe. That passing smile, that passing conversation, that passing anxiety- they were just blobs that faded away in the temporal account of the universe.

That I was hurt. That I was sad. That I was in love. Nothing of these emotions eventually remained. They didn’t move the world. They didn’t change the story of the universe. They just got buried. 

I. He. She. We all just got buried. Without a trace.

I thought back to the article I was reading. About Stanzin Dorjai. About the documentaries he made. About how they shook the world. About how an ordinary shepherd grew up to be a film maker. As I read about him, I could see the mountains- listen to the wind echoing through the mountains. Somehow, as I thought of this man, I felt time had stopped briefly. There was just him, and his life. A life that seemed to stretch out eternally.

What a fortunate man. Blessed with a life like that! A life for which time stood still. A life that shook the world. A life that would eventually be showcased in the story of the universe. 

Sangita Iyer. Jane Goodall. Steve Jobs. Michael Jackson. Johanna Spyri. Vincent van Gogh.

The list goes on….


From the world of stars-II

“There is a book launch today. Jayakumar sir is inaugurating the function. Do you want to come?”, Babu Ettan asked me over the phone.

Babu Ettan knew my weakness for Jayakumar sir. 

“Jayakumar sir? Oh yes! I would love to come. But it may not be possible to speak to him, I guess. He may not have much time to spare”, I mused aloud.

“Come a little early. Perhaps you can catch him then”, Babu Ettan suggested.

“I doubt. All the same, I shall come”, I replied.

I like book launches. It is a place where you get to meet interesting people. People who have somehow preserved their ability to appreciate the gift of life. However, that wasn’t the case when I had attended book launches of English books in Kannur. The crowd is superfluous and elite; the discussion and interaction lacks passion and warmth; the conversations are centered around achievements and publicity. There is an air of superiority that most people carry, and they flaunt their literacy. The book launch of Malayalam books, in stark contrast, is a simple affair. I love the simplicity, modesty and warmth that characterizes these events. It is an intellectual environment where people discuss thoughts and ideas, rather than facts. People are more receptive. I feel at home; there is an Indian flavour to it. Perhaps it is the lack of the artificial formality that accounts for the Indian feel.There is mutual regard and respect, but there is no formality or prejudice. Everybody is treated equal, and the focus is on exchange of thoughts and ideas, sharing of experience, and learning. It is actually hard to leave because the discussions are so stimulating. 

I was right about Jayakumar sir. He arrived just on time and I only had time to greet him as he walked to the dais. The speakers were listed on the invitation card. I noticed that one of them was film director M.A.Venu. The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t place it. I scanned the faces on the dais for any familiarity, but there was none, apart from Jayakumar sir. I wondered which of them was M.A.Venu.

Jayakumar sir’s speech was a show stealer, as always. This time, he spoke about why it was more difficult to write a short story than a novel. Writing a novel may be laborious, but to bring the vast canvas of life into the confines of a story, demanded a certain sensibility. He reflected on Guy de Maupassant’s story ‘The Necklace’, one of my personal favorites. He took us through the plot of the story in brief, emphasising on the climax that held the essence of the story. The story ended there, but refused to end in the mind of the reader. The story compels the reader to dwell upon the untold chapters in the central character’s life. And there lay its strength. Many unanswered questions linger in the mind. ‘What if….’

My mind wandered to films that ended on a similar note. While there are many films that end with a haunting climax, two films that instantly came to my mind were Meghamalhar and Chakoram. 

Meghamalhar is the story of two childhood friends who rediscover each other by a strange coincidence of fate, but are compelled to go separate ways on account of their circumstances. The film raises many questions. What if they had resumed the friendship? If so, would it have complicated their lives? Why did they run into each other when they had to eventually separate? The film raises a scenario of conflict between the nature of worldly relationships and the philosophical nature of relationships that exist in our minds. Which is real? The film blurs the thin line between fact and fantasy.

Chakoram takes us through the fragile, but resilient character of a woman who has learned to don the masks that enable her to survive in an opportunistic world. Into her life walks the eccentric ‘Mukundan Menon’ who sees through her masks and melts away her defenses. Just as she dreams of giving a fresh start to her life in the comforting shade of his companionship, fate intervenes and Mukundan Menon is killed in an accident. The viewer is left pondering. Why did fate play such a cruel game on her? Why did fate tempt her at a juncture when she had learned to fight her battles alone? Why did fate take away her dreams before they could even blossom? 

Little did I know that the man who had directed Chakoram was in that very hall…

When you are made of stardust-I

I had felt a wall come between me and the world.

That was exactly how I felt. I watched with envy and sadness people talking, laughing and making merry. How fortunate they were, to be surrounded by people! They always had somebody to lend a hand- drive them around, take them shopping, take them to the hospital, take the burden off their shoulders. They could comfortably break down and crash because everything would automatically be taken care of. And here I was, running errands until the day before my surgery. I was my own chauffeur, my own maid, my own parent, my own friend. Not that there was nobody to help, but since the people who were willing to help were not familiar with my world, I would have to help them first- orient them and settle them into the role. There was nobody who was familiar enough to just take over without having to be told anything.

I played parent and child. The rational part of me was the parent. The frightened part of me was the child. The rational part of me did all there was to be done- the routine chores from which there was no escape, the hospital visits and the tests, the planning and organization that went into the surgery, and everything else. I remember how two days before the surgery, I had been out in the sun all day long, and returned to the car, only to find that the car keys had disappeared. I had finally given up the search and returned home for spare keys. If I had stayed longer, I would certainly have collapsed from a sun stroke. I remember feeling miserable that day.

The rational part of me also tried to keep my fears at bay. I worked part time until a week before the surgery, just to keep myself pleasantly distracted. I took myself out on nature walks. During those walks, I would hunt for lonely snakes and reptiles that were shunned and abhorred by the world, and feel this desire to hold them close. I would treat myself. I bought myself two chairs- a rocking chair and a recliner. I thought of the days after surgery when I would comfortably sit on these and read or write or just be. The child in me was pacified.  I remember how I had done dishes, washed clothes, swept, mopped and watered the plants until the last day. My neighbours had seen me at these chores and they were shocked when finally, on the day of the surgery, I told them that I was off to the hospital for a surgery. It was only then that they had known. People in these parts are different from city dwellers. They are very selfish and calculative. Every act must be justified in their minds in terms of potential benefits and losses. They will never do anything out of humanity. They shut themselves out all the more when they stand the risk of being approached for help. And so, I found it sensible to only tell them as we were leaving for the hospital.

In the weeks preceding the surgery, I also picked up something to obsess over. I felt the obsession was necessary to drown my misery. I needed something that would keep me glued enough to mop up all the misery until I was back to myself. In this, God helped me. I had been playing a lot of music. One Sunday, I listened to the golden voice of Michael Jackson singing ‘Heal the World’. There was something about that voice that cut through the frozen ice of misery in my heart and made me feel so overcome that I cried. I felt touched by something I couldn’t define or describe. My mother felt it too.

That was what triggered it- this obsession. I realized I was muddled about the events surrounding his death. I went back to a chapter I had opened a long time ago in 2009 when he passed away, but hadn’t done justice to. I looked at him as a child- the chubby little kid who was part of the Jackson 5, singing ABC. I was mesmerized. I watched his interview with Oprah Winfrey. The more I read about him, the more I listened to him speak, the more I felt that invisible force that was trying to say something to me- across time, across space. About him, and therefore, about myself. I realized I had the clue to my personality in his life. I also realized how grossly misunderstood he was. But then, it has always been like that…

The most beautiful souls have always been the most misunderstood. For they are made up of stardust, and not of the matter that ordinary people are made up of.

Towards my surgery, Michael became a living presence in my life. His views of the world, his love for the planet and for children and animals, his love for ballads, his self-conscious and shy nature, his oneness with music, the honesty and truth about his persona- they mirrored my internal world. I can talk to you about Michael as I talk about my own self. The night before the surgery, I remember looking up at the sky and asking, “Michael, Are you there?” In the rustling of the wind that blew through the trees, in the stars that shone in the sky, in the life that flowed in my veins, he was there…

He, and millions of others who have walked these paths before me. The Masters. The ones who belong to the tree of life, of which I am a part too. 



Part II: What should a doctor dream about?


Dr. Gangadharan  is a distinguished Oncologist who combines high professional skill with compassion, and hence is a source of hope for cancer patients generally steeped in despondency‘, reads a profile on the website of Caritas Hospital, Kottayam.

Dr V.P.Gangadharan is a name that is familiar to every Malayalee. A name that cuts through all barriers of caste, creed, religion, wealth or social status- just as the disease he treats….

A disease that does not distinguish between its victims…

A disease where all the illusions of the material world crumble, exposing the vulnerable and terrified human being within.

To his patients, Dr Gangadharan is God himself. But the doctor brushes off the ‘larger than life’ image that his patients confer on him and maintains that he is just a human being who is committed to his role as a doctor.

In an era where there is a palpable lack of role models and references, there is much that Dr Gangadharan’s life speaks for itself. For a young doctor, there is much to learn from his life.

In an interview at J.B.Junction in 2014, the doctor illuminates those forgotten aspects that once defined the medical profession, by sharing experiences from his own journey as a doctor, rekindling the dormant spirit of young doctors, awakening the seeds of humanity in them, and planting dreams in a career that has transformed from what was once regarded as humanitarian service of the highest order to what is now a commercial industry.



At the start of the interview, the doctor makes an important observation:

A doctor represents a cross section of society. Now, if society has changed, it is quite natural that the doctor would also change. The change that we see in doctors today, is a reflection of the change that has afflicted society as a whole. And so, the greatest challenge that a doctor faces today is- Is it possible to remain committed to one’s ideals and principles, in the setting of such change?

This is the question that young doctors must ask of themselves. What needs to be understood is that the practice of Medicine is an art. The real doctor is an artist, not a scientist. And so, he must possess the quality that defines an artist- perseverance. A true artist must demonstrate perseverance. Only then can he remain committed to his art. It is this perseverance that will eventually enable him to carve out a space for himself…that will make him distinct and irreplaceable. Dr Gangadharan’s life is a living example of such perseverance.

In this context, Dr Gangadharan discusses the joy of the doctor-patient relationship. He believes that once a young doctor has experienced the joy of this relationship, it is impossible to choose materialism over this joy. He insists that teachers and doctors are the most fortunate, for their professions bring them ample love. This love that comes from their students or patients is the secret of their undying zeal and energy. He regards his patients as people, and not as cases. He feels they have much to offer him as human beings who have traveled their own paths in life and whose souls are enlightened by the suffering they have experienced. The doctor emphasizes on the need to communicate and converse with patients and breathe life into these interactions.

Love is the fundamental principle of ‘Medicine’

This message resonates with the previous post on Dr Rosamma who enjoyed her interactions with patients. Her interactions were unhurried and had the feel of a heart-to-heart conversation between two human beings, rather than the mechanical exchange of words that characterize a doctor-patient interaction today.

Yet again, this point illuminates the difference between a dream and an aspiration. As young doctors aspire for degrees, awards and materialistic rewards, they lose sight of what they have to live with every day, for the rest of their lives. They fail to see the daily routine of their lives that revolves around their interaction with patients. Unless one can transform these interactions into moments of joy, the degrees and all other achievements lose their significance. 

Dr Gangadharan describes the role of an oncologist thus:

There is this narrow bridge between life and death. I carry my patient on my shoulders and walk across this narrow bridge. On one side is disease, with all its horrors. On the other side is treatment, with all its horrors. I carry my patients through these horrors, and that is the magnitude of challenge that an oncologist must confront!

Dr Gangadharan reflects on how a doctor is a student for much of his life. He recounts the numerous instances where his patients opened his eyes to numerous aspects of his profession that one cannot learn from text books.

I asked the patient to lie down. But I was called away for something, and I left abruptly. It was only when the patient said to me that it does not befit a doctor to make their patient lie down in order to be examined, and then leave abruptly, leaving the patient in the dark, that I realized the lack of sensitivity I had displayed.

He emphasizes on how the greatest lessons are always learnt from life. Formal education can only be a preparation for the lessons that one must learn from life.

Upon receiving an MBBS degree, the doctor is only formally qualified. But in effect, he remains a student who has much to learn from his encounter with his patients‘, he concludes.

In his book ‘Jeevithamenna albhutham‘ (The miracle that is life), Dr Gangadharan talks about the powerlessness and fragility of human life as he recounts his helpless moments as a doctor in the context of disease- the heart attack that killed an individual who survived cancer, the relapse of cancer in a patient who had been cured of it, and so much more. Perhaps the greatest tales of resilience are also found in these cancer wards where one witnesses individuals who manage to smile and keep up their spirits, despite their poverty, deprivation and the dreadful illness they fight.


Actors Sreenivasan, Innocent; artist and cancer survivor Eby N Joseph; and noted oncologist Dr V.P.Gangadharan, share a lighter moment at the inauguration of Eby’s exhibition at Durbar Hall Art Gallery in Kochi. Photo re-posted from ‘The Hindu’.

It might be worthwhile compiling such inspiring stories into documentaries that could be screened in medical colleges. A lack of inspiration haunts our medical education system today and the medical curriculum must incorporate activities that inspire and motivate. Also, it must introduce sessions that focus on goal-devoid doctor-patient interactions. Students could be made to visit the community or palliative care units or hospices, talk to patients, and write about their experience. It is then that they engage with life and with the human being and discover the joy in these interactions!

Read: http://2609-11340.el-alt.com/ShowArticle.aspx?ID=37437&SECTION=31

An ode to the lotus

I woke up to the same dilemma. A whole day lay ahead of me.

There was the endless drudgery of household chores. I didn’t want to think about it. Perhaps, I could steal a little time, all the same?

There were friends I had to call back. I already knew the conversation that would unfold. The stories of their turbulent lives. Individuals who had lost touch with themselves in the modern world. Individuals who had long forgotten the paths to a life of meaning. Individuals who had been bought over by the firms they worked for, in exchange for a ‘lifestyle’ that successfully numbed their deeper instincts, blurring the future to which they were now headed. And thus they were fed on a life of instant gratification, their time and their senses skilfully taken over.

Slavery, under the banner of freedom.


Until they finally woke up when the complications had accumulated to the point that they could no longer be ignored. But who was to remind them of the forgotten paths? Even now, they were looking for instant solutions.
Perhaps a counsellor or a psychiatrist…
A course of antidepressants maybe…
Some alcohol…some drugs…
Some travel ( again a quick getaway to some exotic land where the same alcohol and drugs kept them company in the loneliness of a posh hotel room) and some shopping…
Pictures included.

At some moment of hopeless despair, when a danger alarm went off in some deep recess of their minds, they called up friends. These conversations were substitutes for tranquilizers that temporarily soothed them. These were moments of hopelessness for me for I could see that it was impossible for them to summon the will to look for anything that was not likely to be instant. And that calls for the urgent need for a social transformation. For prevention is certainly better than cure. No, I didn’t want to repeat those futile conversations today.

Books stared at me from the shelf. Books I have compiled over the last couple of years. I was tempted to pick up a book and allow myself a journey through the landscape of fantasy.
And then there were the movies that I had collected over the years. I was equally tempted to sit down to a movie, allowing myself a journey through the experience of some beautiful soul.

Through the window, I could see the clear blue skies, the coconut palms that swayed with the wind and the branches of the old mango tree. I was tempted to venture out and sit right at the heart of nature, where I could feel the tranquility that only nature is capable of. To have endless conversations with the trees and birds and skies in that silent language that speaks more powerfully than the language of words.

Right in front of me, I could see paper and pen. I was tempted to write…to put to paper the thoughts that have been throbbing within me all my life.

I felt indecisive. I picked up the pen. What should I write? Perhaps a mail to the few friends I write to. But then, a distant memory tugged at my mind, steering me towards snippets of autobiography.

And then I heard a deep sigh somewhere in the bowels of my mind…a sigh that seemed to echo the deep pain that is at the core of human life…all life.

In that sigh, I could feel the pangs of suffering of my beloved cat as it breathed its last. I could hear the silent cry of the numerous souls who go about the business of their lives, longing to break free from their mortal entrapments. In that sigh, I could hear the voice of poverty, separation, death, illness, humiliation, loneliness, lovelessness and everything else that speaks of the wounds of the human soul.
At the end of the day, we are all victims of our lives…of the numerous assaults that life has thrust on us. We find our drive in using our mental faculties to escape from this victimized state. We carry the burden of our battered souls, finding our liberation in achievements, violence, defensiveness, art, nature, love, religion, spirituality and philosophy.

ONV Kurup’s words come to my mind:

Everything that happens around is a poet’s concern. We sleep with a nightmare hovering above us every night. The felling of a tree or a bomb explosion or a rape, be it of a woman or of Mother Earth, causes a commotion, an upheaval in my mind. Remember that each tragedy carries within it the seeds of another, more fearful one. One tragedy breeds another; it multiplies. If a whole city is consumed by the flames of communal hatred, that too will affect poetry and literature. As I see it, my job is to build a bridge that would link this shore of pain, strife and thralldom to that other one of freedom…. If my song can create some ripple, somewhere, I will feel proud, honoured and privileged. This is my outlook on poetry.


Malayalam poet and lyricist, ONV Kurup

Within each one of us lies that happiness…that promised land of ideals that we dream of. But the slush that we accumulate from the world in which we live, casts a blanket on this happiness.

It was ONV who taught me the art of melancholic reflection. Melancholy that quietly celebrates the stories of our survival in the setting of adversity. Melancholy that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit…our ability to preserve the music of our souls despite the assaults on it.

N.V. Krishna Warrier’s analysis of melancholy in ONV’s ‘Broken bangles’:
The pulverised dreams have left behind only ‘a few broken glass bangles’. Yet those too are precious. The melancholy that characterizes human life, in the final analysis, which is discerned only by those who are philosophical by nature, keeps them organically united. This melancholy is not to be given over to music, but to silence. And quite naturally, an ‘anthill of silence’ grows around the poet. The poet who is in deep meditation within it, observes the filigree thread-bridge of imagination that extends by itself like a divine blessing, from the condensed grief within his heart towards the inner truth of life.

Says the poet:

“In the sorrow of the setting sun, I discovered a flower.”

Writing, to me, is that flower…
A lotus that bloomed in the stagnant waters of my mind, taking me by surprise.

Indeevaram‘, said my friend. That is such a beautiful word. Where had I heard this before? I got my answer today. As News channels aired the news of ONV Kurup’s death, I remembered the letter I had once written to him, and never posted. ‘Indeevaram‘ was his residence. Befits a poet’s residence.

This morning, a lotus bloomed in the little pond in my garden. I waited all of last year for it to bloom, but not a single bud sprung up from the plant. We cleaned up the pond, got rid of the extra slush, put in some manure, but to no avail. I waited all through spring and summer and winter, but the flower just refused to bloom. And here it was, this morning, its petals drinking in the sunshine.


To this lotus, I read out my letter…

Indeevaram, the poet’s residence…

The petals closed slowly as the sun commenced its descent. And my mind grazes on those lyrics that are reminiscent of a poet that every Malayali guards in the temple of his mind….

Oru vattam koodiyen ormakall meyunna
thirumuttathu etthuvan moham…..

To those who shall carry the burden of my coffin

Thanks to a dear friend, I discovered this beautiful piece by poet A. Ayyappan. Perhaps we all aspire to make the transition from life to death through a soul that has been touched by the deep philosophy of love- a flower whose essence is immortal.

The poem:

To those who shall carry the burden of my coffin,
I reveal a secret not mentioned in my will….
There shall be a flower in the place of my heart-
The deep philosophy of love gifted to me by her
in those days of curiosity….
Before you bury my body,
Pluck this flower from my heart….
Cover my face with its petals….
Place a petal on my pale hands bare of their lines…
I wish to return through this flower!
It may be impossible to bare this truth
At the hour of death….
Through the cold water you sprinkle on my body…
The flower may be washed off into my death….
If not, leave my coffin undraped….
For now my friends are the corpses…..

Padmarajan: Malayalam cinema’s eternal loss

For me, it has been a week of Padmarajan movies. I have pushed aside all my preoccupations to escape into the magical sensory experience of his movies- Thoovanathumbikal (butterflies of the rain), Deshadanakkili karayarilla (the migratory bird does not cry), Moonam pakkam (the third day), Innale (Yesterday) and Njan gandharvan (Me- the celestial lover).

Padmarajan, to me, is the mentor I have never met. My mentor with respect to life as well as art. My dedication to him is an obsession.

To watch his movies is to truly liberate oneself from all entrapments in the real world. It is a trance- you unknowingly bare yourself of the burden of the conscious, entering effortlessly into the domain of the subconscious. And then you feel within you a cascade of emotions in their purest form- devoid of the corruption by the conscious…devoid of the burden of the conscious. Love, desire, affection, bonding, passion, angst- they all come alive within you in their most vivid forms. ‘You’ have ceased to exist- ‘you’ are now the character unfolding in the movie. When the movie ends, it is a spell that breaks. Your mind still holds on to it…it longs to linger to ask questions and to seek answers…it refuses to come back to ‘you’. You come out richer for the journey of the character in the movie has become a part of your own journey of life. That was the power of his movies.

His movies provided me with the courage I needed in order to liberate my sensitive self from the emotional entrapments of the real world and create a world of my own in the domains of my mind- a world that was free of barriers and convention. A world that is entirely the property of the subconscious…a world erected on emotions and instincts…a world ungoverned by social norms and stereotyped systems…a world with tremendous potential for beauty. It was the journey from vulnerability to strength…from the dependence I most dreaded in me to the fierce independence I see in me today. The existence of this world in my mind nullifies my dependency on people. Much as I continue to love people and bond with them, it is possible for me to detach at any point in the relationship…for there is a world that waits for me…a world to come back home to. And thus, I became incapable of being hurt in the real world. It is this freedom I cherish the most- the freedom within my mind and the freedom of being inaccessible to hurt. Sorrow can no longer generate hurt in me; it can only contribute to the beauty of the world within my mind.

To watch his movies was to see my own emotions coming alive in visible form. He defined for me themes such as love, family, relationships, woman, beauty and so on. My commitment is to my emotions- it is far more important for me to be able to experience my emotions in totality than to commit to real world relationships that corrupt the sanctity of these emotions. In that sense, these themes are more alive in my mind than in the world around me. In the real world, I experience bits and pieces of these emotions from different quarters- but it is in my mind that I put them together to reconstitute the whole emotion.

His movies taught me the art of inconspicuously entering the delicate and fragile minds of sensitive and ordinary people and gently making them aware of the beauty of their own minds. His movies taught me to fall in love with the ‘peripheral elements’ of society- the ones who are born from the negativity of their circumstances…the ones who have truly experienced the currents of life. His movies provided me with a deep understanding of the inner flights of the mind, often unknown to our conscious. His character sketches provided me with the range and depth I needed in order to understand human behaviour and its inner drives. His movies increased my understanding of the internal journey of my own mind and paved the way for my future. I have my career interests in psychology and I would say that his movies form the bible of my understanding of psychology- much more than all the texts I have read. To watch his movies was to watch life.

I am indebted to Padmarajan in more than one ways for having shaped the journey of my life…for having transformed it into a persistent and beautiful sensory experience…for having multiplied the passion for life. Padmarajan’s death is a personal loss that I mourn. Ironically, even his death seemed to carry the aura of his movies. His movies leave me overwhelmed- overwhelmed at the power of his creation…and then I burst into tears. My obsession to Padmarajan and his movies is a madness I cherish. Oh, the power of creation!