The Death of Culture

As a child, I was closer to my mother’s family. My mother’s family was made up of people who were culturally sensitive, and that made all the difference to the moments I spent with them.

It was my great grandmother who shaped my earliest perceptions of the world into which I was born. My mother was her first and favourite grandchild, and so, she came to take care of me when I was born. My mother was working and I was left to her care in the first year of my life. Though I have no conscious memory of that period, she gave me the very first impression of this world and I am certain she presented the world to me as a fascinating, enchanting place. When she left, I was inconsolable. I was just an year old, but she seemed to have created a deep impression in my mind. My mother recollects how I would look at every grey-haired woman thereafter and cry, “Ammamma, Ammamma!”.

My mother grew up with my great grandmother, and she had instilled in my mother a love for culture. She would narrate to my mother many events and experiences from her life, and she always described them in a cultural context. She had traveled a great deal with my great-grandfather who had a transferable job, and she saw each place and its people in the light of their inherent culture. While the other women exchanged pleasantries and gossiped, she was busy absorbing the difference in culture. She refrained from too much judgement; she loved assimilating, learning and absorbing new aspects of culture, particularly those that appealed to the senses. She infected my mother with this sensitivity to culture, and my mother’s memories were therefore rooted deeply in culture.

Bangalore was not a culturally stimulating place. It was a multicultural community where we were exposed to such broad differences that we had learned to accept difference as the norm. It was when I spent my vacations in Kerala that the cultural ingredients came alive and awakened my senses to the profound beauty in life. My mother’s ancestral house was in itself, a key cultural ingredient that shaped my early emotions. It was an old weather beaten house, and it was a miracle that it had survived the storms of centuries. That in itself, made it special for it was a relic from the past. I was fascinated by its wooden half doors that seemed to let the world in, its patio where we all gathered most of the time, its attic where mice could be heard quarreling, its dark kitchen where the hearth was always warm, and the backyard that looked onto pepper creepers coiling around the jackfruit trees. I loved some of the things that we children were asked to do, and that my cousins seemed to hate. For instance, I loved sitting in front of the lamp, reciting prayer verses at dusk. It was something we didn’t do back home in Bangalore. I loved the feel of pebbles and earth on my feet. I loved earthen floors more than I loved tiled floors. I loved taking bath because it meant drawing water from the well. I loved the sight of jasmine flowers that had blossomed overnight. I would pick handfuls of the flowers and smell them. I loved the wooden reclining chair in the patio where my great grandfather used to sit. I loved the high cot in my great grandmother’s room that served the purpose of a store. From its insides, my aunts would fish out cakes, sweets and savories. I loved the women who passed by our house, sometimes with sickles in their hand, in search of tender grass for the cows. They would smile at us fondly and ask a million questions. I loved the old temples we visited. The stone steps and pillars, the sopanam, the fragrance of the incense sticks, the sandal paste, the temple pond and the serpent shrines. I loved the little lamps that glowed in the dim light of dusk, and lit up the shrine. I loved the oracle’s performance though I was also frightened by his demeanour. I loved the graceful movements of the Mohiniattam and I loved the mudras of the Kathakali. I loved weddings where women dressed up the bride and the bride, clad in spotless white, her hair adorned with the most beautiful and fragrant jasmine flowers, reminded me of a swan gliding through a procession. I loved being part of the wedding processions that walked the bride and the groom to the bride’s new house. Though I was raised in the Hindu faith, and loved the cultural elements of this religion, I was equally fascinated by cultural elements of other religions. I was very excited by toothless elderly Muslim women who stopped to talk to my aunts. I was fascinated by the number of gold earrings that adorned their ears and by the zari bordered headdress through which silvery strands of hair broke loose. Their houses were a delight, and so were their weddings. I loved the boatman who ferried us across the river. I loved the fishmonger who hooted in the mornings and passed by on his bicycle, an army of cats following him dutifully.I loved the tea stalls where old men discussed politics amidst glasses of tea and plates of parippu vada. I loved watching women pound rice; I was in awe of their synchrony.

In those days, the men and women seemed to possess so many skills that we no longer have. People could grow their own food, catch fish and crabs from the streams, chop wood and obtain firewood, make a fire, and cook their own food. They could even build their own house. They could climb trees, swim, row a boat, walk for miles, and labour for hours. My mother tells me about how she would accompany my great grandmother to sow seeds, till the soil, and water the saplings. She remembers how during the cucumber harvest, men would erect a pandal in the fields, light a fire, and stand guard, so as to ward away foxes that ransacked the fields at night. Those sleepovers can never match our modern sleepovers.

In retrospect, I realize that culture played an important role in my formation. It defined the aesthetic framework that was necessary to make all my engagements with the world profoundly beautiful. It taught me to see the aesthetic dimension in all my relationships- with nature, with people, with other living beings, with living spaces. It taught me to explore this aesthetic space in my day to day life, in education, in religion, and in every facet of life I engaged with. The more diversity there was, the more was the scope for such aesthetics. Perhaps that was the reason I loved this country the most. It provided for so much cultural diversity. And so, my memories were rooted in these cultural ingredients.

Sometimes, I am aware that my mind is seeking something from the environment. It seeks familiarity. And that familiarity is to do with these cultural ingredients on which I was raised. When it doesn’t find them in the world, it resorts to the books and movies that have immortalized them.

Today, our lives are so empty. The death of culture is palpable. Instead of the soulful cultural ingredients that once defined our lives, there is just a human buzz- a mechanical buzz with no aesthetics in the monotonous scheme of our comfortable lives. In place of a memory, is a big void. Something that science labels as depression.

Culture is a carefully crafted, time-tested art that has ingredients that nourish the soul. I think these cultural ingredients were largely responsible for the sense of fulfillment that characterized the traditional way of life. Culture comprises of those ingredients that teach us to engage deeply and meaningfully with the natural world, and therefore nourish our souls. As we dissociate ourselves from culture, we are also alienating the mind from soulful ingredients that are necessary to anchor the mind to a fundamental framework of factors that govern life. Cultural ingredients awaken the senses to the inherent beauty in life. All memory and learning feeds on such aesthetic awakening. The definitions of all facets of human life- love, relationships, home, marriage, childhood, womanhood are deeply rooted in culture. Human potential is rooted in such sensory awakening. And so, this era of depression, violence and crimes is not surprising.

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Earning my Freedom

prison

Finally, it is the kind of Sunday I have been waiting for.

I quit my job in April. While I haven’t resigned yet on paper, I resigned in my mind a long time ago. I have no plans of stepping back into the monotony of that job. The days since have been full. When I think of the dull routine of that job and the hours I would sit from 9 am to 4 pm, six days a week, trying to find something meaningful or entertaining to do, I feel the days since have been so productive in contrast. Ironical, isn’t it?

I regard the last few months as the most beautiful phase of my life. It was like being at sea on a self-charted voyage, with the exciting possibility of stumbling on new lands and setting foot on new frontiers, but also with the heavy risk of being at the mercy of the weather. I tasted freedom in its true sense and I realized how much courage it takes to truly liberate oneself from all entrapment.

For the first time, I saw life as a broad canvas on which one painted with a free hand. There were no practised strokes, no pictures to take cues from, no preconceived color schemes. There was just the canvas, the brush and the colors. I had to trust my hand. I had to trust my mind. I had to let it flow, anticipating the possibility of smudges and blotches. I had to be willing to take off the smudged canvas and start afresh on a new canvas. It was in these times that I came closest to Paulo Coelho’s words:

And when you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

The hardest part of the journey in these few months was that there was no income coming in. I was spending for all my endeavours, but with nothing coming in. Of course, I didn’t have to worry about it under my current circumstances, but what if I had to? I couldn’t go on like this. There were moments I felt worthless and confused. I had all the education and credentials to earn me a good job where I could be productive, but that wasn’t happening. If a job provided an income, it wasn’t providing anything for the soul. If a job gave me something for the soul, there was no income. How long could I go on like this? I consoled myself that this was a temporary state of affairs. I thought of people who could not have done this, even if they wanted to. At least I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to worry about my materialistic needs being met, despite the absence of an income. So I told myself that I would quit these endeavors only after I had savored their joy to some extent.

My life was like a circus in these months. I was taking on roles at random, depending on the immediate need. I was approaching schools, trying to convince Principals and Managements of the need to provide children something beyond their academic curriculum. This was hard because I had to prove to them that I had something concrete to offer. Sometimes I would take on the role of a communicative language teacher, hoping to connect language to students’ functional needs in terms of expression. Sometimes I would be a motivational speaker, speaking to them about topics such as school, education, or reading, hoping to connect these concepts to their motivation. Sometimes I would be an NIE teacher, using the newspaper as a tool to develop critical thinking ability in students. Sometimes, I would be a counselor and mentor, addressing their individual challenges. It wasn’t that I was trained in any of these. These were not the skill areas in which I was trained. But the drive to make a difference was so high that I just plunged in, trusting my instincts. I suppose the feelings of worthlessness were also a factor. I had to prove to myself that I had quit my job for a good reason. And when I was not doing any of these, I was a student. I sought courses that could upgrade my skills and prove useful to the roles I wished to play. This played its part in keeping my morale high. Learning new skills has always been my greatest high. So this played its part in keeping my feelings of worthlessness at bay. Towards the end, I also decided to tutor medical students on my own, for the pure joy of teaching. What I could not do in my institution, I wanted to do on my own. Teach to educate, rather than teach for a degree. There is an ocean of difference between the two. This has been an uphill task because students have been conditioned to structure their learning to suit exams (that unfortunately have nothing to do with testing of concepts) and therefore demonstrate resistance to true learning.

As I look back at my life, I see it as a circus. A circus, where I took roles at random, depending on the immediate need of the hour. Roles that sometimes demanded skills I had not been trained in. But life doesn’t give you that choice, does it? You just play the part and trust yourself to perform. But in retrospect, these untrained roles taught me the most. I suppose I always saw life as a long movie where I had the freedom to work on the character and the script, as well as act the character. So, in a sense, I enjoyed it. At different phases, I played different characters. I could look at my role objectively, revise the script and the character, and impact the outcome. I had the freedom to enhance the beauty of the character. And so, with each character, I let life pass through me in all its intensity, and I allowed it to transform me. To enrich me as a character. To add depth to it. That is when the true beauty of life dawned on me.

Towards the end of this phase, the clouds seemed to lift off, and some sunshine streamed in. I suddenly had the luxury to pause and look back at these last few months. I feel like a seasoned traveler now, wise from the diversity of the expeditions I have undertaken. Like that moment in ‘The pursuit of happyness’, it is that moment when the test has come to an end. I may soon be taking up a new role in life.

And as the possibility of this new role sets in, long-forgotten doors open and a familiar fragrance floods my senses. The world behind those doors is so precious and sacred that I do not dare to step in yet. For so long, I have been kept away from that world, imprisoned in a cell where I did not dare to dream of freedom. My feeling now is akin to that of a prisoner whose sentence and term in prison is reduced abruptly and the orders for release come, when he least expects it. The impact of the prison is so high that one is fearful of exposing oneself to the joys of the world outside. One is fearful of attaching yet again to that world; fearful of it being snatched away yet again. That is my current state. As I think of all the things that may come back into my life again, I can only sit and cry. I am too scared to be happy. It will take quite some time for this reality to sink in. At the same time, a part of me feels the joy of having earned it. This time, I deserve that world, for I earned it. It wasn’t just given to me for nothing.

Finally, it is the kind of Sunday I have been waiting for.

In case you wanted to know why, this is the first Sunday in months where I haven’t had to worry about the week ahead. There is no planning to do, no uncertainty to deal with. My mind is still. And I feel free to chase the butterflies within my mind- the multicolored emotions that I call butterflies. I hope you have a great Sunday too, chasing your own butterflies!

From the world of stars-I

The years I love the most are the years when there existed a distinct separation between the artist’s private world and his audience. To the audience, the artist was an unreachable star in the sky. We had to be content, looking up at that star, admiring the way it lit up our world. So we read books and watched films for the pure joy of savouring them, never once aspiring to make it to that world of stars. I read, not because I wanted to write. I  watched films, not because I wished to gain access to the internal world of cinema. To me, it appeared as if all these beautiful works of art were created in heaven and then sent to earth for us to savour; the names of the artists never mattered to me. 

When I first started writing, I was too shy to share it with people. I feared they would find it childish. If not for blogging, I might never have shared my ramblings with the world. The blog platform had the advantage of anonymity. Not a soul there knew me personally. Those were the days that I wrote the best. Partly because I wrote exclusively for myself. Those were years when I had lost myself. I was so lost that I resisted nothing, and into that void within me, a universe walked in. I saw through the void in me the abundance in the universe. Every object around me, animate or inanimate, suddenly seemed to acquire immense beauty. The world walked into my mind, draped in the beauty of sunsets, glow worms, monsoon clouds and love songs. It was as if my sorrows had found new expression. I still remember how an old man’s face came floating into my mind- a destitute or a mad man perhaps, with an overflowing, unkempt beard. I remember feeling attracted to something about this picture- I couldn’t point precisely as to what had captivated me about this picture. I couldn’t even point to where I had seen him. “Like weeds that joyously erupted in a long-neglected garden”, I wrote of his beard, not knowing where I found the words. But I was satisfied. No, ecstatic. The analogy seemed to capture what had attracted me to the image. I still hadn’t nailed it, but I had captured the feel of the image; I had captured something of the old man’s spirit, something of his life. It was then that I felt I had gained access into the beautiful world of language- a private world that quietly celebrated the beauty of creation. Like Michael Jackson wrote of his inherent inclination to music, I too had discovered my inner life in this world of language. I wanted to take a walk across this world, explore and savour. Quietly. Without too much noise. It was like walking through a beautiful garden, with no specific goal to chase. I didn’t even want to touch the flowers. I just wanted to sit down perhaps, and blend into the spirit of the garden- lose myself into its soul. I wanted to feel the garden, inside of me. That was all. 

Those were golden years. Especially the year that it rained incessantly. A landscape bathed in rain added character to my writing. Analogies came spontaneously. Never had I written with so much ease. And yet, the spontaneity was something that made me feel it wasn’t me who was writing them. My childhood belief came true. I felt these words had already been created in heaven, and at some moment when the veil between my soul and the soul of the universe was momentarily lifted, I gained access to the soul of the universe. The words were already composed; I had to only deliver it. Such moments were divine. It was then that I awakened to the joy of this gift from heaven.

Over subsequent years, my writing changed significantly. I evolved as a writer. I experienced a natural drift to analytical writing, as opposed to ‘poetry in prose’. However, I regard those early pieces as the finest writing that ever escaped me; their rawness and purity were never replicated in my subsequent writings. 

I am also attached to the first book I wrote. I am not sure if I would write more, but I suppose this book will always have a special place in my heart. When I published this book, I did not know what to expect. I still do not know how the audience perceives this book. The book deals with a complex subject. It is less of literature and more of a ‘film studies’ book. It is a scientific analysis of art. The issue with such books is that they have a highly specific target audience. A mental health practitioner may relate to the theories of personality, but not to the characters of the book unless he is familiar with these films. So the essence of the book would be lost upon him. A movie buff may be familiar with the films, but unless he has significant inclination to psychology, he would not relate to the theories of personality. What I love the most about this book is that through the deep insight concealed in these films, I taught myself how the interaction between personality and circumstances culminates in diverse outcomes, ranging from self-actualization to mental illness. This book was essentially a research study to me. I would categorize this as scientific work, rather than literature. But nevertheless, it is a gray zone. 

On account of its complexity, I felt I had to back it up with campaigns. I felt it was important to arouse interest in the book through campaigns where I could interact with the public and create a foundation that could enable them to understand the contents of the book to some extent.

All along, I had longed to be able to talk about its contents to somebody who could look at it from the same perspective as I did- from that zone of confluence of art and science. If Lohithadas or Bharathan or Padmarajan were alive, they might have understood, I thought to myself. Also, it would have been thrilling to read about one’s own work from this perspective- they would have been thrilled that their films were so true to the ‘science’ of human behaviour, to the extent that they even answered what science is struggling with (and can never answer): What steers some people to creativity of the highest order and others towards mental illness? Where does vulnerability feature in this equation?

Considering that these directors were no more, I came to acceptance that I may never have an audience that might really have the desire to know. I am sure there are many people in the field of Malayalam cinema who would be interested and would also comprehend, but what access did I have to them? Especially since my book was in English.

And then the miracle happened…

A place to die

“Miaow…Miaow!”

The cry seemed to come from the bushes. I moved closer and caught sight of the creature. It was a black cat with white spots. As I took a closer look, I realised that there was something terribly wrong with it! It was emaciated and its coat was dull. Its eyes lacked lustre and its skin had peeled off at places. It was moving, but with effort.

As I looked at it, it threw me a desperate glance.

“Miaow? Miaow?”

Its plea was desperate. It wanted a place to rest- a place where it would not be disturbed. It almost seemed to say,”Please don’t chase me away! I can’t run anymore!” Something told me the animal would not live long. The animal seemed to be in the last leg of its journey. And yet, I was surprised by its mammoth effort at seeking a place where it could breathe its last. 

“What’s the matter with you, little one?”, I asked in gentle tones. The animal understood. It immediately lay down by the side of the pond. The proximity of water was probably comforting to it. We decided to leave it alone so that it could sleep. We checked after a couple of hours to find that it had moved deeper into the shade of the Bougainville. Every few hours, it changed its position, depending on the direction of the sun. In the evening, we couldn’t find it.

But it appeared next morning. I thought it looked more ill. It was quieter today, and probably in some kind of discomfort. We put out a small bowl of milk, but it refused to drink. It moved yet again in response to the heat, seeking cooler places. We put out some water and this time, it took a few sips with great difficulty. It seemed to be exhausted with the effort and lay down yet again. In the evening, we couldn’t find it. 

“Where are you, little one?”, we called out.

“Miaow”, a faint reply came from somewhere.

Eventually, we found it huddled behind a cement slab. It was much cooler here. The animal had however, significantly deteriorated.

That night, it rained. There were loud claps of thunder that made us shudder, despite being indoors. I thought of the cat that lay outdoors, at the mercy of the thunder and lightning, perhaps cold and lonely…and so helpless in its illness. Who was it to complain to? Do guardian angels really make it more comfortable for the dying? I liked to think so. 

How fortunate we humans are. We have houses and cosy beds to sleep in. We have people fussing over us when we are ill. We have pills and injections to make us feel better. I wish we had places where dying animals could be nursed and made comfortable. I wondered if the cat had survived the storm. I wondered if it had died of fear.

Next morning, it was my mother who woke up first and went to the kitchen. There were no sounds from the backyard, and in all possibility, the cat had died. 

“Oh little one! What has happened to you?”, my mother called out. There was no response. My mother sighed. “Well, end to your suffering”, she said aloud.

After some time, there was suddenly a loud Miaow, accompanied by a lot of noise that sounded like an animal rolling about in pain. My mother called out,”Little one, You are there?”  The cat responded to my mother’s call with an agonizing Miaow. To each call, it responded, using the last vestige of its life. A couple of Miaows later, there was silence. My mother found the cat curled up against the cement slab, clutching its edge like how a frightened, helpless child clutches its mother. Its face was now small and the magic of life had gone from its being.

My maid helped us bury it. 

We thought of this little creature that had walked into our garden just two days ago. We didn’t know where the dear creature had come from or what kind of life it had lived until then. We didn’t know how it found our house. God must have sent it. Death is never easy to watch, but I still felt glad the animal had sought us in its last days. Every creature deserves to die with dignity. I cried thinking of its suffering, but I was still glad it had come to us and not gone to a house where it would have been chased away. For a moment, the cruelty and selfishness of human beings dawned upon me. We have seized land that belongs to all creatures. Today, they don’t even have a place to die. I promised the dying animal that I would always treat all life with reverence.

When you are made of stardust-II

god

There was this poem I once read. It is called ‘Footprints in the sand‘. This is how it goes:

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”

When I first read that poem, I was speechless. It was as if through this poem, God was prompting me to look back at my life and dwell upon those dark moments when I had thought I was all alone. I then realized that there had always been something- a clue, a direction, a sign that I couldn’t ascribe to anybody. Something to guide me when I was completely lost. My instinct would prompt me to follow it, and I would see light again. And then, I would learn to trust myself again.

But those were not the miracles. The real miracles were those moments when I would find myself caught up in situations that were beyond my ability. I would always approach such situations with fear for I was well aware of my weaknesses. At such moments, I would plunge into the situation, certain that I wouldn’t survive this phase. I would cry to nobody in particular. And then the miracle would happen. The universe would respond, and take up the burden. The most unexpected things would happen (what I would then label only as wishful thinking until they materialized), the most unexpected people would step into my life, and everything would be taken care of. It was almost as if a well thought out plan or scheme was being followed. But who could have planned it and tailored it so perfectly as to suit my needs? At such moments, this is exactly how I have felt- as if I was being lifted and carried by somebody, and then deposited on the shore, where I was safe once again. I would wonder if I had dreamt it all, and I would be filled with something that I can only describe as gratitude. A gratitude that would fill my heart with the invisible presence of God. I loved this feeling- it was more overpowering than the moments we spend praying formally to God. To me, this was the moment of prayer, for I could feel God flooding my being. In the gratitude I felt, there was God. And this time, my faith in the universe would be restored.

I have often felt that I am a child of the universe. At all the times that I have not trusted my ability to confront a situation and cried to nobody in particular, the universe has always responded- in a way only a mother can respond to her child. And this faith has made me feel loved, cared for, cherished and protected- a feeling that one cannot derive from mortal relationships with fellow human beings. I feel I have a universe to turn to, whenever I really need help. The helpless child in me has to only cry for her to hear me. I have often felt invisible chords connecting my soul to the soul of the universe- to the heart of life. When my soul bleeds, the chords tug at the soul of the universe, and awaken it to my misery. The universe then propels its infinite limbs- people, places, forces, and tends to me. I have also realized that I am also one of the limbs of the universe, and it mobilizes me when there is the need to tend to another suffering soul. Once we learn to recognize this power- the power of the central force of life that comes from the heart of the universe, it is impossible to feel lonely. 

Yesterday, I had been to the hospital for a follow-up. I bought a thank-you card and some chocolates. I met all the doctors and nurses who had taken care of me when I was hospitalized, and thanked all of them. I especially thanked the sister who had stayed up all night in the post operative ward and tended to my needs. They were thrilled by the card. I meant every word of what was written on the card. And they are apparently framing it and putting it up on the display for people to see! Everybody was happy and I love these moments when I can thank people and make them see the worth in the roles they play. I love the happiness of the world, and I promise that until my last breath, I will keep making people happy…as often as I can!

 

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. 

 

 

In search of criticism

Until I had written a book, I did not know how easy it was to get your ‘talent’ showcased in a newspaper. Until then, I lived in the notion that the newspapers somehow found you. I did not know that you had to go to the newspaper.

The first eye opener in this regard was my experience with an organisation I had joined as a volunteer. The members would organise events, and get channels or newspapers to cover the event. The tragedy was that the event would often be designed for this very purpose- something that would catch the attention of the media. But as an insider, I was witness to the fact that the event was the beginning and the end of a so-called social transformation process. The process was never prioritized; the members had got addicted to the transient publicity that the events generated. This was also the reason why I eventually quit the organisation.

I subsequently attended a book launch where I met some authors and journalists. It was here that I realised it was all about the right contacts. I remember coming home and leafing through the pages of the author’s book. Except for the poetic verses that were woven into the plot, I found the book rather mediocre. At the launch, somebody had compared the author to Kamala Das. That was painful. My experience of this book launch was so different from the book launch of a Malayalam author I had attended some months ago. Free of superfluousness and pretence. The speakers were mesmerising. It was there that I had first learned of Doestoevsky’s role in the formulation of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. I had left feeling elated and inspired, and reunited with literature. In contrast, this book launch made me distinctly uncomfortable. I felt an urgent need to leave the place. 

At the time, I had many questions playing in my mind with regard to my own book. What I really needed was some genuine criticism. So though I longed for a hasty exit, I waited until I could hand over copies of my book to some of the people I had befriended, hoping that some of them would be kind enough to at least read the book and offer a genuine feedback. But it turned out that most of them took that opportunity to talk to me about their achievements and the status they enjoyed as authors and journalists. I came back home, feeling rather disappointed. It was only when I visited writer E.M.Hashim the next day and had a long conversation with him that I found myself restored to my optimistic and inspired self.

That night, I wrote a long e mail to my friend VV. I suppose it  strongly reflected my disappointment. I went around, seeking potential critics, unaware that VV had been deeply touched by my mail. My friends only had good words to say, partly because they were my friends, and partly because they were naive with regard to what constituted a good book. The professionals refused to comment. Some just pretended to be busy. Others were really busy. Yet others promised to read and let me know. But every time I met them, they only renewed their promise.

At long last, I stopped this pursuit and reflected on the whole scenario. Why was this book important to me? Because there was a truth in it- a strong message to society. Wasn’t there some way I could get the message across, without worrying about the status of the book or my status as an author? 

That was the turning point for me. I changed the course of my journey. With help from some beautiful souls I met in this journey, I initiated a campaign, targeted largely at college students. 

At some point, VV had called me and put me through to a journalist he knew.

“Call him now and tell him about your book. Be open and honest. He is a no-nonsense person. He will give you an honest opinion. If he likes the sound of your book, he will take it up. If he doesn’t, he will say so.”

By then, my expectations were rock bottom. Nothing to lose, I thought. I suppose he liked the sound of the book when I spoke to him about it. It certainly was a first of its kind. Nobody had looked at these films and these characters from this perspective. So he asked me to mail him the book. I sent him the book the very next day. Then there was no news from him.

By then, my campaign was gathering momentum. I was talking not just about films and mental health, but about fantasies, dreams and fairy tales. I could see that my thoughts had evolved further and I was on an exciting path of growth. So I started focussing more on how I could deliver the essence of my book through this campaign. I had never before had the courage to speak in Malayalam on a dais. But now, I was ready to speak in English, in Malayalam- whatever the audience and the situation demanded. It had become so important for me to deliver this message that I slowly started losing fear.

And then the phone call came.

“Do you remember me, doctor?”

I did. It was the journalist. I guessed that if he was calling me, it would be good news. And it was. So my book finally made it to the newspaper. But what made me happier was his honest criticism:”I didn’t get back to you immediately because when I received your book, it came as a terrible disappointment. The typographical errors, the layout, the structuring, the splitting of paragraphs, the styling, the chapter titles- everything was a mess. It deterred me from reading. So I read rather slowly, but when I completed reading, I was intrigued. By the analysis of these characters- something that hasn’t ever been attempted before. Especially since these are films that are known to every Malayalee. All of us have seen these films. My suggestion is that you republish with a professional publisher, and most importantly, translate it to Malayalam. That will have a wider reach- something the book deserves. What you need is a ruthless editor.”

Following that, he asked me many questions that made up for a delightful conversation because it is only when people ask critical questions that we think of our book from different perspectives. 

What we need the most in life, is a genuine critic. Not somebody who flatters us. Not somebody who demeans us. But somebody who holds up the mirror for us and reflects who we really are. It is this reflection that we must embrace.