Neeraja

This is a story that one of my students wrote. Through a simple narrative, she takes us through an internal journey of the character Neeraja, who makes us reflect on the imperfections and eccentricities we see in people and choose to be so judgemental about. If only we were to look deep into those imperfections, we would see our own imperfections, our deficiencies.The story teaches us to be sensitive to people and accepting of the diversity of human behaviour. It teaches us to read into the silent stories that people carry within them.

The quest for perfection is an endless journey that we embark on, right from our childhood. We live in a world where most of us are aware of our imperfections, and yet expect perfection from others. Is it okay to be imperfect?

Neeraja enrolled into my school when we were in 4th grade. She had long hair that was straight, thick eyebrows, glowing eyes, and a bindi adorning her forehead. Her bindis changed colour every day- from red, pink and green to mustard, yellow and turquoise. She stood out in her school uniform, especially on Wednesdays, when her white uniform appeared blue from too much Ujala. I remember the boys in my class sing the Ujala ad song that was popular at the time, and make fun of her. But that didn’t seem to wash away the smile on her face.

My class teacher made her sit next to me. At first, I hesitated talking to her as I was shy to initiate a conversation. But that didn’t seem to bother her. She was one hell of a talkative girl. Where she started and where she was headed, she herself didn’t seem to know. My responses to her rattling were limited to monosyllabic expressions of hmmm and oh! I hardly bothered to pay much attention to the content of her conversation. But this lack of interest never deterred or disappointed her. She kept at it. But how long could I go on as a passive listener? So I started talking too, and we became good friends.

Eventually, I came to know that her mother had passed away a few years ago in an accident. I never confronted her on this, but I could now see the pain behind the glow in her eyes. I could now relate to her enthusiastic tasting of the dishes my mother sent in my tiffin. “Did your mother make this?”, she would ask every day. I realized that in truth, her life lacked the colours that her bindis abounded in.

We were in touch even after school. An year ago, we decided to meet up. That was the first time she talked about her mother.

“You know what? Growing up without a mother is not easy. On many nights, I would cry myself to sleep. At an age when I needed a mother, I was playing mother to my younger sister- making ponytails that were always imperfect, packing a lunch of bread and butter into our lunch boxes, and the millions of other errands that needed a mother’s skilled hands- her perfection. Life seemed to demand so much from me. How could I be perfect? However, those imperfect attempts made me strong. Now, I can cater to the needs of a whole family, all by myself. Can you do that?”

She raised her eyebrows with a very serious expression and then broke into laughter. I laughed with her. Then, she continued.

“You know why Lord Krishna is loved over all other deities?”

“Why?”, I asked.

“He was blue in color. He was playful and stole butter. He encouraged Yudhishtira to lie- to say that Ashwathama was dead, in order to upset Drona. He even encouraged the hesitant Arjuna to slay Karna in his moment of weakness- when he had no arms to fight and no chariot to help him escape. Of course, these acts were for a greater good.”

She paused and then continued.

“Krishna was perfectly imperfect. Despite lacking in qualities that describe the perfection of the other Gods, he is loved like no other. That definitely proves that deep down, we all have our insecurities- our imperfections.”

Being a strong Krishna devotee, I found myself nodding in full agreement.

Whenever I see children wearing coloured bindis, whenever I realize there is too much ‘blue’ on my white coat, Neeraja and the wisdom in her words come back to me. The world is never perfect. It never has been. It never will be. And so it is with each one of us. We are all a little injured, a little jealous, a little selfish, a little broken…but a lot more loveable, on account of these imperfections within. We have all made our mistakes and regretted it in retrospect. And so, in this world of imperfections, it is perfectly okay to be imperfect.

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A Man who had no Eyes: Critical Analysis

Did you find the story good/average/poor? Why?

I first read this story when I was in school. I remember feeling stunned by the climax. I have read it many times thereafter. Each time, the story creates in me an impact, despite the fact that the climax is no longer a suspense.

I have always loved stories that bring out the invisible aspects of human nature to surface and compel us to reflect on the intricacies of the human mind.  Especially stories that bring out the strength of a character against the backdrop of adversity, and therefore teach us life.

I rate this story as brilliant because:

  • It portrays realism. Both the characters here are samples of real-life characters we encounter in our day-to-day lives. If we were to closely scrutinize the people in our lives, we would discover many ‘Mr Parsons’ and ‘Markwardts’.
  • The story brings out the strength of Mr Parsons’ character by contrasting it with the weakness of Markwardt’s character.
  • The story pays attention to detail. The description of the characters makes them come alive in our minds; it is almost as if you can see them and sense the contrast in their appearance, in their accents, in their socioeconomic status. The environment and setting of the plot is also given due consideration. And yet, the progress of the plot is not hampered by this attention to detail.
  • The author introduces deliberate pauses in the plot, in order to create an impact. For instance, when Markwardt narrates his story and concludes with ‘That’s my story, Guv’nor’, the author breaks the plot momentarily before Mr Parker responds. ‘The spring wind shrilled past them, damp and quivering’, writes the author. This pause builds an expectant air- a space for the reader to anticipate and expect as to what might be coming next. ‘Not quite’, says Mr Parker. The reader is hooked by now.
  • The climax is brilliant. A powerful climax makes the story linger in the minds of the reader because the story ends, but leaves the reader with a lost of unsettled questions and thoughts. The reader’s attention is drawn to the untold parts of the story. Mr Parsons lingers in the reader’s mind. The reader dwells on what it might have taken Mr Parsons to come out of the tragedy. The reader imagines Mr Parsons’ life after the tragedy- of what his immediate reaction might have been to the event and to the deceit in particular, of how he must have come to terms with the tragedy and with the handicap it left him with, of the long journey to become all that he had become. There is endless scope for reflection on this untold part of the story.

What do you think of Mr Parson’s character? Did it inspire you? What trait in his personality inspired you the most?

Mr Parson’s character is full of internal strength and richness. The story illuminates the extraordinary potential of his mind- of how he is able to outlive a tragedy by tapping into his internal resources, and transform the ultimate outcome of the tragedy into a positive ending.

Mr Parsons comes across as a composed and mature character who does not believe in dramatizing the unfairness of life. He believes in problem-solving, without self-pity.

Mr Parsons appears to be in acceptance of the unfairness of life; he does not harbour revenge, spite or hatred. It is this acceptance that enables him to become successful despite the handicap. It is this acceptance that enables him to stay composed despite the coincidental encounter with the man who ruined his life. Mr Parsons is at peace with both the incident and the act of deceit. He has not let either defeat him.

Mr Parsons sells insurance. This reflects the impact of the accident on his mind. Instead of dwelling on his personal trauma, Mr Parsons dwells on the larger picture of such accidents- of how unsuspecting people can become victims of such accidents. He decides to do something about that and ends up in the insurance business. Possibly, his success might have come from the genuine motivation behind taking up such a profession. This was the part I liked best about Mr Parsons’ personality- of how he refused to look at his handicap/deficits and focused on his strength. Of how he allowed the tragedy of his life to move him towards a greater cause.

Despite being blind, Mr Parsons retains his sensitivity to the world. He is delighted at the fragrances of the season- they evoke in him memories of spring, and he is content with these memories. He chooses not to be sad about the fact that he can no longer see spring in all its splendour. This reflects the immense potential of the human mind- of how if we choose, we can experience everything within our minds, and derive joy from our perceptions.

What do you think of Markwardt’s character? Did you feel hatred towards him at the end of the story or pity for him?

Markwardt’s character is manipulative. This manipulative behaviour in response to adversity could stem from multiple factors. It could be related to his early experiences as a child (particularly the attitude of the parental figures in his life), his limited cognition and poor problem-solving skills, the fault in his moral judgment. When people adopt manipulative behaviour from an early age in order to get away from negative feelings, it can become a habit, operating at an unconscious level. It can get registered in their minds as the means of confronting problems. This is the case with Markwardt. His behaviour in the setting of the gas explosion at Westbury, reflects his dire selfishness. But given the nature of the situation, one can overlook this behaviour in the light of man’s survival instinct. In the setting of a life-threatening event, a human being might only think of his life. However, following the incident, Markwardt has no guilt. Instead, he manipulates the incident and distorts the facts to earn sympathy. He lives off this sympathy.

With regard to the ultimate outcome, Markwardt is defeated by life. I initially felt repelled by his meanness, but eventually, as I analyzed the whole picture, I felt sorry for him- for his lack of insight.

By presenting these two characters, what is the ultimate message of the story?

The story is woven around a common tragedy and it explores how two different personalities take different paths in response to the same tragedy. The story teaches us to rise above denial and self-pity, to internalize and accept the trauma, and most importantly, to focus on one’s strengths than one’s weaknesses and tap into this strength. The story teaches us as to how our sorrows can move us enough to drive us to create a better world- not just for us, but for society as a whole. We must transform our tragedies into such stories that cause us to look at ourselves with pride.

Have you ever gone through a similar experience where somebody manipulated facts and deceived you? What did you feel then? How did you handle it?

The highest instance of manipulative behaviour I have seen is in Kerala. A good many people accept this as the norm here. They feel it is of survival value. Perhaps that is what their experience has taught them in a conservative society like Kerala that sets very high ideals to live up to (humanly not possible), and people find the easy way around it. In my initial years in this society, I was perpetually the victim of this behaviour. I was in denial for a long time and I hated the people here. Over time, when I realized I had no escape, I started to reflect on why they were so. When I analyzed them against the social climate here, I found it easier to forgive them. I feel acceptance has transformed my attitude to them and to my own issues here. I now feel only pity for them, and I feel motivated to take up initiatives that would change the social climate here. Today, I look back at the Kerala chapter as valuable lessons learned in life.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to deceive somebody?

Yes. Though I like to think of myself as a conscientious individual, there have surely been incidents where I have felt it is alright to deceive since it isn’t causing great harm. However, the guilt would eat me up for days.

Let us learn to read into the people we come across- into their untold stories. Let us enrich our own lives with their stories.

 

 

 

Cabuliwallah – A Masterpiece from Tagore

Revisiting Kabuliwala….

Perceptions

Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel prize for li... Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel prize for literature. It is the first Nobel prize won by Asia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cabuliwallah 

~ Rabindranath Tagore 

Note: I am sure most of us would have read this, at some point in life, but a second reading after we have understood parenthood, is really worth it. Hope you agree after reading this work from the great Tagore of yore….. This post is for my global readers, who may have missed reading this….Sunith

The Cabuliwallah in Rabindranath Tagore’s unmistakable style.

My five-year-old daughter Mini cannot live without chattering. I really believe that in all her life she has not wasted a minute in silence. Her mother is often vexed at this, and would like to stop her prattle, but I would not. For Mini to be quiet is unnatural, and I cannot bear it long. And so my own talk with her is…

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The Lost Child

The Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand was arguably the greatest exponent of Indian writing in English, whose literary output was infused with a political commitment that conveyed the lives of India’s poor in a realistic and sympathetic manner. Anand was pivotal to internationalising the experience of Indian writers to the outside world and he helped to bring an international dimension to the progressive writers’ movement in India. He is brilliant at satirising the bigotries and orthodoxies of his times, but his novels also celebrate the spirit of human rebellion which embodies all his central characters. His works were inspired and informed by the lives of real people in unglamorous situations. In addition his writings demonstrate a keen desire for political change and social transformation that remained with him throughout his life.

Perceptions

A good one from a great author – Mulk Raj Anand

The Lost Child  (Mulk Raj Anand)
It was the festival of spring. From the wintry shades of narrow lanes and alleys emerged a gaily clad humanity. Some walked, some rode on horses, others sat, being carried in bamboo and bullock carts. One little boy ran between his father’s legs, brimming over with life and laughter. “Come, child, come,” called his parents, as he lagged behind, fascinated by the toys in the shops that lined the way.

He hurried towards his parents, his feet obedient to their call, his eyes still lingering on the receding toys. As he came to where they had stopped to wait for him, he could not suppress the desire of his heart, even though he well knew the old, cold stare of refusal in their eyes. “I want that toy,” he pleaded. His father looked…

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An unequal trade

With the onset of summer, there was a general change in the character of this place. I particularly looked forward to the immigration of banjaras into the state. Banjara camps cropped up at various places in proximity to rivers and streams, and they endowed color and activity to the dry terrain.

These camps were an attractive sight. There were tents crafted from bright colored fabric, held in place by means of wooden poles. Cloth bundles were stacked into one corner; metal pots and pans were stacked into yet another corner. Fishing nets and round basket boats stood in proud display. There were also cows draped in bright colored shawls and adorned with flower garlands.

These camps woke up to an early morning. Men, women and children could be seen on their way to morning ablutions. They bathed in the river, choosing concealed spots- beneath a bridge, or portions of the river hidden by the density of the vegetation.

Little did they realize that these were the most luxurious baths on this planet; no shower cubicle or bathtub could match the joy of this experience!

 

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One evening, as I drove past their camp, I decided to take some pictures of the camp. As I switched off the engine of my car, a banjara girl, about 12 years of age, walked up to me, and asked me if I would offer her a ride in my car. When I hesitated, she reframed her question and asked me if I would at least drive her to a pole that stood a few feet away. I scanned her face- she had the innocence and eagerness of a child, and I was tempted to offer her a ride. However, I was inhibited by the tales I had heard of banjaras, and I feared the potential danger of being duped or tricked. So I decided against it and refused, stating that I was in a hurry to return. The girl didn’t persist with her plea; instead she asked me if I had coins to lend. I didn’t, so I shook my head. As an afterthought, I promised to return the next day with coins. She smiled.

Next morning, I happened to pass by their camp, and I caught sight of the girl. She was in a basket boat in the stream, rowing merrily. There were two other children with her, each about 5 years of age.

The stream echoed with the laughter of the trio. It was obvious that they were lost to a world of their own.

 

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That evening, I stopped at their camp. The girl walked up to me in silent anticipation. I asked her where she came from. She told me that they belonged to Maharashtra. Every summer, they migrated to Kerala, where water was never a scarcity. They camped by the river and thrived on fishing. They had been coming for years now, and she had picked the native tongue. With the rains, they moved back to Maharashtra.

 

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I glanced at their camp- crows were feeding on bits of fish that littered the ground. I spotted the basket boats, and I asked her if she would offer me a ride in the boat. She beamed as she answered in the affirmative.

I thrust some coins into her hand and walked back to my car, guilty and envious. The girl was perplexed.

To me, it was clear that the joys of nomadic life could never be traded. Even if I offered her all the materialistic comforts of my world, it wouldn’t give her a moment’s joy of her nomadic life, and the freedom that came with it.

 

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