'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, September 30, 2016

I am Back...

1. Just before Independence Day, something curious happened in Cochin - a long forgotten (well, not quite forgotten but definitely marginalized) political leader suddenly resurfaced on posters announcing a mass gathering organized by the Congress party with brotherhood and secularism as theme.

At least among the elders, many were impressed. "Its about time someone remembered him!", "can't remember seeing him on any political poster in the last 40 years!" ... I heard them say…

The denouement: the political meeting barely caused a ripple. That the initiative had no immediate effect on the fading fortunes of the Congress is much less of a concern than that its face failed to connect with the so-called NewGen.

2. I recently executed my first ever commercial project – writing English subtitles for a documentary on the pulikkali (literally “tiger dance”) show, famously held in Trichur during every Onam. The film interviewed some of the (several hundred) of potbellied dancers who would paint up as tigers and jump around to the beat of chenda drums and cymbals. Some of them narrated stories about how the dance came into being:

“Two centuries ago, the heart of Trichur was a jungle (a historic fact but not sure if this wooded area was part of any extensive forest belt) and tigers prowled in the area (doubtful); there was this brave (in a rather qualified way, as per History) king called Shaktan Thampuran who cleared up the place (true, mostly) and it is believed he had to fight and kill tigers himself (pure fantasy, almost certainly). Our dance commemorates this thrilling episode”.

Sakthan and co might have faced leopards rather than tigers. The Malayalam word 'puli' is ambiguous about whether it refers to tigers or the considerably smaller and far more widespread leopard. But the present day dancers paint up as striped tigers - very few become spotted leopards.

Malayalam has a more curious word ‘nari’ (the ‘a’ is short) which could mean either a tiger or a fox (or a leopard). Till very recently, villagers in Karnataka would gang up and conduct ritual fox hunts (much to the chagrin of environmentalists). Perhaps something on similar lines used to happen in the thickets in and around Trichur when it was but a village and a ‘narikkali’ (fox dance) might have been occasionally staged - the ambiguity of ‘nari’ might have turned it into a full blown 'tiger dance' over a few generations.

And here is how an Elder recalls Pulikkali of the mid 1950s: “One skinny fellow had put on yellow paint and stripes, there was exactly one chenda player and another chap held up a placard with the name of the sponsor – ‘Bata Shoes’. And the tiger and the placard fellow would carry on a bit of dialog – it used to be in Tamil, since the performers were probably impoverished immigrants from Tam country hired for a meal or a drink - on these lines: “Hey, where you goin?!” – “To get a pair of shoes!” – “O, really? And what brand, may I know?!” – “Bata, only Bata!”. And that was about it!".

2. The dwindling sparrow population is a serious concern among Kerala nature lovers (sparrow means not the glamorous weaver bird but the formerly ubiquitous 'house sparrow'). But all is certainly not lost yet; the other day evening, I saw dozens of these sprightly avians chirpily congregating on a small tree on the Marine Drive waterfront. Curiously, none were to be seen anywhere else in the area.

3. Till recently, I could count only three books of over 1000 pages that I have read cover to cover - Collected Travel Writing of Pottekkat, John Toland's biography of Hitler (not a particularly great work) and 'War and Peace'. I had read them all while at school - and before TV arrived. Now, a generation later, a fourth name has been added - Kathasaritsagaram. More on it later!

4. On a recent visit to Kollam, I saw a roadside shrine with a big hooded cobra on its roof. The serpent was but a guardian figure - and there were more of them at the other corners. But its rather realistic (viewed from a distance) curves made a creepy first impression. Religious kitsch with a spot of creativity...

5. A recent discovery has been Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Pakistani artist. My first encounter with his work was via a print of this painting that hangs (of all places!) in a Kalyana Mandapam near Cochin:

The influence of Abanindranath and Nandalal Bose is visible in Chughtai's style but the dreamlike feel is uniquely his. And his colors are always striking - several examples are online.

It is said that the great Hindustani vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan decided to leave Pakistan when his singing a composition dedicated to Krishna at a concert elicited sharp rebukes from authorities there. Does that also explain the absence of a peacock feather in the turban worn by Chughtai's dark-skinned lover?

Whoever the dream lover is, the swooning girl's complexion perfectly matches a very Keralan metaphor - "Wayanadan manjal arachapole" (just the color of turmeric paste)! And I just heard a grad student exclaim on seeing the painting - "I want that skirt and that pretty blue blouse!"

5. I have had to really struggle to rustle up this post. One fears the problem is more irreversible decline than temporary writer's block but right now is the time to soak in the profound relief of having gotten something done

The pic below, I christen "Vedakkan Selfie"

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Abdul Kalam and 'Anamika'

Mr. Umesh Nair, a very early reader of this blog, had quoted a classical Sanskrit verse as a comment to my very first post – way back in 2005. Its meaning goes approximately thus:

If one were to enumerate the great poets of antiquity on one’s fingers, the name ‘Kalidasa’ has to necessarily take the ‘kanishthika’ (the little finger, where counting begins). And the counting has to end right there, for the standards have been set impossibly high for any other name. The next finger, called ‘anamika’ in Sanskrit, thus truly becomes ‘anamika’ (literal meaning, “nameless”, "bereft of names").

I have seen a modern equivalent of this predicament play out many times. I often ask groups of college students (both undergrads and PGs) this question: “Name some great living Indian scientists”. They invariably start off with a collective “Abdul Kalam!” and that would simply be that - Anamika would invariably stay Anamika.

And of late, since the passing of our most popular President (and most popular motivational speaker and probably, the most popular non-fiction author) ever, the same question has begun to leave such collegians as I get to meet totally devoid of names.


Recently, I witnessed some academics participate in a program aimed at enhancing their ability to stimulate the spirit of enquiry among students. As an assignment, a short presentation on “Role Models” had to be made. And here is a picture they used:

Kalam's face has been rendered very identifiably; but what can one say of his companion? Guess I can make out, thru the mangled letters, the intended name but that face stumps me!

Very recently I saw a book in a Bangalore bookshop named: “Great Scientists”. Its cover had pictures of Newton, Einstein and Kalam (I did take a pic thereof but lost it somewhere).

And it is a safe bet to predict that Kalam's works will continue to be bestsellers for generations to come. I conclude with one of his aphorisms:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Pictures From Tulu Country

Not very long ago, I saw a public appeal on display at Marine Drive, Kochi.

I noted with considerable shock that these little birds, so ubiquitous in my childhood (and even as recently as a decade ago), have all but disappeared from our surroundings. Back home, I read in Induchoodan's masterpiece 'Keralathile Pakshikal'(Birds of Kerala) a very affectionately detailed piece on these 'kuruvis' - how this species of sparrows seems utterly dependent on human presence, how they enliven our markets with their incessant chirping and vigorous aerobatics and also how they seem to be under attack from some mysterious parasite that kills huge numbers of fledglings. A generation after the book was published, has the parasite begun to seriously endanger these birds? Or is it some other factor that has almost wiped them out? I have no idea yet(*).

But last week, while waiting for 'darshan' at the Kollur Mookambika temple, I was thrilled to see nearly a dozen kuruvis chattering happily and flitting around vigorously under a canopy right in front of the inner sanctum. The temple authorities have hung up a network of wires for the birds to perch and hang and generally to have all the fun in the world.

Hopefully, the goddess is watching over them. Not quite a vain hope that; did she not, as this curious (Tibetanish?) picture (it hangs in the Temple enclosure) relates, come to the aid of Sankaracharya as the Master wandered, hopelessly lost, in the nearby Kodachadri forests?


A bright wedding sari being devoured by a sacrificial fire (I sense faint echoes of descriptions of the practice of Sati read long ago!) - part of the Chandika Homam ceremony at the Mukambika temple:

A (very modern) Goddess image incorporating attributes of Vishnu(conch and discus) and Virabhadra (staff/trident and sword) from near the Mookambika temple:

A very Keralan-looking 'Sarpakkavu' (serpent shrine) from near the temple:


Fishing boats on the Murudeswar beach:

An elephant+fowl/peacock composite creature on the spanking new columns supporting the facade of a Matha at Udupi:



The Anantapadmanabha temple is at Ananthapura, just inside Tulunad proper from Kolathunad. In more modern terms, it is in the far north of Kerala - very close to the border with Karnataka. The temple has an 'enthroned Vishnu' (the snake Anantha physically provides both seat and royal parasol) idol, molded in a material called 'kadu sharkara'. Here is a pic:

Ananthapura is where Vishnu first appeared before Vilwamangalathu Swamiyar, Kerala's principal patron saint (some webpages say he was a Tulu speaking brahmin though; and some sources say there were three separate gentlemen, separated by centuries, who went by that same name) in the guise of a mischievous child; as per legend they had a tiff and the lord disappeared and granted his devotee another 'darshan' only much later at the site where the Trivandrum Padmanabha temple now stands. So, the Ananthapura temple is said to be the 'Srimoolasthanam'of the Trivandrum temple.

Let me place on record that I have serious reservations this myth. Despite its name, the Ananthapura idol does not show Vishnu in the Padmanabha form at all - there is no 'navel lotus'. Indeed, as far as I can make out, the rather tenuous Vilwamangalam connection apart, the Vishnu temple here and at Trivandrum, separated by a distance of nearly 600 kilometers have very little in common.

The Poornathrayeesa temple in Tripunithura, Cochin can claim a much stronger connect with Ananthapura in particular and with Tulunad in general. The principal idol in Tripunithura depicts an enthroned Vishnu (its differences with the Ananthapura idol are minor) and is flanked by smaller images of his consorts Bhudevi and Laxmi (just as is the case at Ananthapura). And for several centuries, the Tripunithura temple has been recruiting its priests from Tulunad (the reasons for this practice seem lost in deep antiquity). Further, the local tradition of Tripunithura relates how Vilwamangalam himself visited the temple during the annual festival and saw the lord, in the guise of child Krishna, prancing about among the caparisoned elephants. This 'Krishna child' vision is a lot closer to the original vision the saint is said to have had at Ananthapura than the sleeping Vishnu of Trivandrum. And even geographically, Tripunithura is considerably closer to Ananthapura than Trivandrum.

Legends such as the Vilwamangalam story connecting two far off places usually indicate migrations. While there was a gradual percolation from Tulunad into Kerala of Brahmins starting perhaps a millennium and a half ago(the earlier waves of migrants are believed to have adopted Malayalam as their mother tongue and become Nambuthiris; subsequent waves retained their Tulu identiry and came to be called Embranthiris), Trivandrum, lying in the far south seems to have been almost untouched. So, one suspects that the putative connection between Ananthapura and Trivandrum (and perhaps the Padmanabha name of the deity at the former site and at a stretch, even the place name 'Thiru Ananthapuram') might have been conceived relatively recently. A possible time is the 18th century when the royal family of Travancore is known to have adopted children from noble families hailing from far North Kerala (hailing from Kanyakumari, a heavily Tamil-influenced region, the Travancore royals appear to have slowly migrated north towards Trivandrum and made a conscious effort to forge a more Malayali identity for themselves; these adoptions and accompanying myth-making could be part of this process which played out over the entire 18th century) .

On the other hand, the very founding of the Tripunithura temple as a center of Vishnu worship (an event dating back more than half a millennium; apparently, the site was earlier a sanctuary for Mother Goddess worship) might have been due to Tulu immigrants.


In the heart of Udupi, the principal seat of Brahminism in Tulunad, are several temples built around a Nepal-style Darbar Square-ish plaza.

What is most remarkable about the place is a curious confluence of Saiva and Vaishnava streams of devotion. The Krishna temple is preeminent but there is a Siva (Chandramouleeswara) temple right across and then there is the temple dedicated to Ananteswara, a deity claimed to be both Siva and Vishnu. The inner sanctum of the temple has a Sivalinga but above the doorway is a metal enthroned Vishnu image - sitting on the serpent throne with two of his quartet of arms holding a bow and arrow. The very name Ananteswara is an interesting compound - it could mean "the infinite Iswara" (Siva) or the "lord of (the serpent named) Anantha"(Vishnu).

The Siva-Vishnu bonhomie at Udupi is quite a surprise considering how vitriolic and nasty, doctrinal disputes between followers of Madhva and Sankara used to be - and occasionally still are.

Note: The Krishna temple at Udupi sometimes arranges the idol in the serpent throne form as in this online picture:

Aside: That the sleeping Vishnu image might owe something to the sleeping Buddha is conceivable. But even the snake-throned Vishnu probably had Buddhist precedents.


From Kolathunad, the part of Malabar adjacent to Tulunad: the Subrahmanya temple at Payyannur has fresh-looking laterite walls. A deep perspective from there (going so deep it could be captioned "Payyannoooooor!"):

From Payyannur again, a metal peacock bearing the weight of a lamp pillar (deepastambham). In every other temple I have examined the task falls to a tortoise:

And finally, here is the gopuram of the Taliparamba Rajarajeswara temple - lying unfinished for many hundred years (?):


(*) - The Mal film song translation of a Biblical saying goes: "behold the kuruvis, they neither sow nor reap nor horde in granaries but ...". Going by Induchoodan's observations, the translator should have found a better word for ravens (as per the King James version) than 'kuruvi' - indeed, while the sparrows don't do any of those tasks, they appear totally dependent on us humans carrying them out.

And while on that little bird, I recall the surprise mixed with a touch of horror I felt half a life ago when I saw a bright young Mallu kid from our capital Trivandrum learning his school lesson: "kuruvi means sparrow, kuruvi means sparrow...!" And I remember with great fondness the story of how a smart little kuruvi won a flying contest among birds.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Witten, Again!

1. We get going with a quiz - Who is the subject of this powerful sculpture? Location: Nellaiyappar Siva temple, Tirunelveli. Thanks to Ram Kashyap, an up-and-coming artist, for sending me this pic.

Ans: If you don't know, Reader, then I too am with you!

And while I have no definitive answer, the guess is: Indrajith, Ravana's son, about to shoot the Naga (Serpent) Astra at Rama and his forces ( this warrior, an equal to anyone else in the Ramayana, is seldom depicted in our visual arts - I recall only the fateful duel between him and Laxmana at the Mattancheri Palace and a quite dull Ravi Varma of him making a present to Daddy Dearest of Indra's consort Shachi).

And as most of us know, Rama and the monkeys had no answer to the Serpent missile and were saved only by a guest-appearance of Garuda, Vishnu's Eagle.

Aside: One gets a feeling that if the sculptural figure above were to stride forward (as he looks poised to), he would do so in the manner of the Tramp.

Another thought: The archer might be about to use the serpent not as a warhead but a bowstring. Siva, as Tripurantaka, had used the serpent king Vasuki to string an immense bow he had hewn out of the Mandara mountain. But while our hero is certainly awesome, he doesn't look much Siva - so my vote stays with Indrajith.

And (thanks to Ratish!) here is the centaur Chiron, another being wielding a bow and a serpent.


2. Here is a face sprouting from a palm.

As to whose face it is, once again, my guesses (Stan Laurel; or may be Suppandi) are no better than yours are likely to be!

3. Another quiz:

Wasn't that a thoroughly unremarkable looking scene - three random blokes in random conversation at some random place? But, whoever took this picture (he shall remain unnamed) really knows his photography and this is but one of 3 or 4 pics he took of this very scene. I really don't know what prompted him to shoot them; but here is a strangely kindred vision:

That was Piero della Francesca's 'Flagellation', famous among the cognoscenti for its calm and cool feel and perfectly balanced perspective not to speak of the mysterious air about the three figures in the foreground.

4. And winding off the picture section of this post, here is an arrangement of clay figures. They were all crafted by some young artists I happen to know:

This pic of mine is also a sad requiem for the central Buddha figure - it fell apart while being moved around.

5. And yes, I am getting to Ed Witten, World Number One Mathematical Physicist.

Long ago, when I was a struggling student(I even had a post here on that), a certain desi academic bigwig by (false)name Camillo had paid me an unbearably massive compliment by asking: "Shall I compare you with Witten?" (even the mysterious Earl, when he was compared to a "Summer's Day", might not have felt the emotions that surged thru me then). Well, now let me just say Camillo was quite a prophet for I am actually about to get to some kind of comparability with Ed - an Erdos Number of 4 appears to be coming my way and his is but 3. And whew, isn't that CLOSE?

As to those of you who don't know what an Erdos number is, please visit Wiki!

6. And an update on the 'Kalavara'/'Óottupura' building in Tripunithura as it is about to face its first monsoon after the partial collapse documented here in an earlier post: The Poornathrayeesa temple 'Devaswam' have taken over the building (the long court case - mentioned in my post too - ended in their favour) and are about to wrap it up in tarpaulin and stuff to protect it from the rains; seems one of the decisions arrived at by the court is that the building has to be preserved somehow. But, as to whether it is at all preservable, I have serious reservations. Watch this space!

7. And a glossy BBC volume lists "100(?) things to do before you die". Among them is "exploring Kerala backwaters by (horror!) houseboat".

8. And since this post has referred to the Bard, let us conclude it with a very modern recreation of himself with one of his characters. Guess who!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Marching Forward...

After a longish hiatus, we resume our journey with a spread of images, gathered over the month of March 2016. Plenty has happened since the last post here; while most recent events have been unremarkable or ... unmentionable, there have also been exceptions; here are a few!


A doc film on the Mahadeva temple at Uliyannoor near Aluva, Kerala is in the works; the Optimist within hopes it would be a useful successor to “Poo viriyunnu, Poo kozhiyunnu” (now on Youtube, albeit in a somewhat unfinished form). Here is a picture from the Uliyannoor temple - the inside view of the roof of the ‘Namaskara Mandapam’ – 36 kazhukkols (rafters) radiating from the central ‘aaroodham’ (hub). A neat feat of medieval Keralan structural engineers, it is credited by Legend to the Master of them all, Perunthachan.

But the above aaroodham comes only a distant second to the circular inner sanctum of the temple which has no less than 68 rafters meeting at the central hub (no pictures here). From the outer tips of some of these rafters hang tiny cradles with Barbie dolls – poignant votive offerings made by couples praying/hoping/waiting to become parents…


A curious specimen of modern residential architecture - a composite column with a leafy Corinthian 'neck' and scrolled Ionic capital with a Vijayanagar-style 'stalactite' attached. It is part of the facade of a bungalow in Poonithura, Cochin.

Of course, the above pic was taken in stealth and so is not very good, even by my standards!


A quick visit to Bangalore happened and I checked all the usual boxes – aimless tramping around the IISc campus, pub-hopping (Pecos felt, sadly, rather tired and tepid) and some more tramping among the booksellers around MG Road… The coffee was excellent everywhere and the tea, as served at a joint in Yeshwantpur, even better. And I saw the following remarkable modern temple dedicated to ‘Kanyaka Parameswari’

– the lady looks quite like Laxmi (minus the shower of gold) but is accompanied by a parrot, more associated with Meenakshi. One gathers that this goddess is a noblewoman’s daughter who immolated herself to avoid marriage to a lascivious, middle-aged king, deified; a trajectory shared by so many popular goddesses all over the country.


Here is a dual image – a slightly damaged stone sculpture from Indus valley depicting a mouflon (at least 40 centuries old, now with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and a slightly unfinished stone sculpture by Prof. C S Jayaram showing a bull (less than a generation old, now in Subhash Bose park, Kochi); do they look uncannily alike!


I overheard two young fellows talk while admiring a rich photograph of a glorious sunset sky:

F1 – “Hey, this kind of visual reminds me very strongly of the classic song ‘akale akale neelakasham’ (literal meaning: “far away is the deep blue sky…”)

F2 – “Fiddlesticks! Such a red twilight, and you talk of a BLUE sky!”

My sympathies are firmly with F1. The song does give a feeling of vast space, but, set in ‘Charukesi’, it also has such a powerful synesthetic association with the color of sunset that BLUE ought to be marked as a clear discordant note.


Quiz: Here is a lovely impressionistic ‘Cheenavala’ (Chinese fishing net) by an up-and-coming artist named Justin. Can you spot a serious technical mistake therein?

Answer: The picture shows 4 brasses, which is how things are. But all four corners of the net ought to hang from the tips of the brasses but here only two are shown thus. The other two corners of the net are shown fixed to the kalasanji – an error. And the two brasses which ought to be supporting the rede seem attached to the savayam instead – a bigger error.

It is very likely several of those words sounded very alien; and they indeed are. Most parts of the cheenavala have (Mallufied) Portuguese names. Some historians say the Portuguese learnt this remarkable bit of technology from China and added several of their own innovations while setting them up in our backwaters (Thanks to Gyani who spent a long while searching for cheenavala in Needham's 'Science and Civilization in China'; remarkably, this multivolume work fails to say anything about these nets). While the most glamorous specimens continue to be active at Fort Cochin, cheenavalas are most numerous (to my knowledge) and most photogenic ( in my estimate) in the Periyar delta around Thanthonni Thuruthu – to see them in strength, all one needs is a drive down the Container Road from Cheranalloor to High Court.

The wider picture: In an earlier post, I noted that the Portuguese have a largely negative image in our history (piracy, religious fanaticism, colonialism….) - and that the Dutch have a very different image. Thinking of all Portuguese who came here as uncivilized scum (Vasco Da Gama and some other prominent Parankis certainly were) would be a mistake akin to thinking all Mughals were Jihadi fanatics (as Aurangzeb was when it suited him). The sheer number of Portuguese loan words in Malayalam – apart from the esoteric domain of cheenavala structure and dynamics, they are especially numerous in carpentry - shows how rich and varied our Iberian visitors’ contributions were. More on all that in a future post – and hopefully a future doc film! And let me also note here that Camoens's classic 'Lusiads' has recently received a long overdue translation into Malayalam.


And let me sign off with a picture of bright sunshine and dark shadow in an inextricable mix.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Reworking a Hit

I don't really write stories; but am about to attempt to recast the climax of a story that is fast becoming quite a hit in my part of the world - Kerala. As to why I am about to tweak a very successful narrative, I have no answer.

What follows has the names of all principal characters in the 'base story' changed. It proceeds in synopsis manner up to the climax and then, a film script style takes over.


Johnnie is a regular nice guy. He earns a modest and contented living as a small town photographer. One day, he gets drawn - totally against his intent - into a street scrap and is humiliatingly beaten up by a chap he doesn’t even know. Smarting at the rude assault, Johnnie swears he is going to track down and get even with the bully.

A short while later, he falls in love with a smart young girl named Liz. After a bit of going around, she reveals to him that the fellow against whom Johnnie has sworn revenge is named Dan and he happens to be her own elder brother.

Liz pleads with Johnnie: “my bro is a ruffian. Please don’t get into fistfights with him. Let us simply let things be and be happy together!” Johnnie is far from mollified to hear that – indeed, he appears to be taking her entreaties as an affirmation of his relative physical frailty. Liz understands; she says with resignation: “These Men…, well!”

Long story short, Johnnie accosts Dan at a street corner and says matter of factly: “I am Johnnie, the guy you once thrashed the lights out of. Now I want to return the favor!” and off they go!

The totally rule-free fight soon has the two on the ground, caked with mud and in a terrible tangle. A tight knot of people gather and egg the two men on. Both are now desperate, neither wants to give up. Dan seems to be tightening a vicious hold on Johnnie’s throat and the latter has caught his enemy’s leg in an almighty grip and is twisting it for all he is worth.

The crowd roars in the background, a close up of Johnnie’s face, struggling for a breath of air and yet giving it his all. A briefer close up of Dan's face. He is in unbearable pain and is just about to give up...

Dip to black. It brightens to a vaguely lit hospital ward. Dan laid up with his dislocated leg heavily bandaged. Liz stands by, glumfaced. A smiling Johnnie enters. He has a few scratches on his face but is otherwise fine. He places a bag of fruits and biscuits beside the cot. Dan watches helplessly with great unease.

Johnnie: Look, I am not one for fisticuffs; am no fighter. But I desperately needed to win this one fight. Else I would have basically died... And in case you still don’t know, Liz and I are seeing each other. Hope you are fine with our getting married.

Dan looks at Johnnie, too flabbergasted to reply. Dip to black.

A shot of the fight in its decisive moments thru a forest of legs as the crowd closes in. Close-ups of the faces of both warriors showing extreme strain and pain. Finally, Dan puts up his hand and screams: “I give up. Lemme go! Let me GO!!” The crowd roars joyously and tries to pull them apart. Slowly it dips to black with several voices calling with excitement and then, with increasing despair: “Johnnie! Hey Johnnie! Johnnie!!!”


Acknowledgements: My gratitude to the authors of the base story is massive. The process of reworking their work into a 'twilight zone' climax has renewed long forgotten contacts with two Hemingway masterpieces: "... Francis Macomber" and "Snows of Kilimanjaro". And even more touchingly, I was transported half a lifetime back to the story of ancient Olympic Champion Arrachion that I read in 'Olympics and its Heroes' by Melwille Demello.


Another pattern matching exercise: Michelangelo's visualization of Jonah (Sistine chapel) and the sculptural figure of Spartan hero Leonidas, a detail from the Cavallotti monument in Milan by early 20th century sculptor Bazzaro. To make the similarity more convincing, I have mirror reflected Leonidas.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Khasak - A Serpentine Return

Lets begin with some bits of what Wiki has to say about 'Magical Realism':

1. Magical Realist literature portrays magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment.

2. "MR is what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe."

3. In MR, the author presents the supernatural being as valid as the natural. There is no hierarchy... The ghost of Melquíades in Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or the baby ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved ... are both presented by the narrator as ordinary occurrences; the reader, therefore, accepts the marvelous as normal and common(*).

On to our story: Google with "Khasak Magical Realism" and one is hit by an avalanche of pages. Some merely praise 'Khasakinte Ithihasam' as marking Malayalam's arrival on the stage of MR. Some hint, some others state that the author O.V. Vijayan was 'inspired'by Marquez in general and '100 years of solitude' in particular. Till the end of his days, Vijayan had to face irritating Desi queries on the alleged debt he owed Marquez.

Armed with the Wiki lesson, I spent a whole week reading Khasak from the MR perspective. The conclusion was simple: "There is no Magical Realism whatsoever in Khasak!". Khasak is intensely lyrical; its colors and shades are achingly rich, whether bathed in sunshine or flushed with twilight. And when rugged Chethali looms silhueted in moonlight, its crags shaped like turrets and minarets and the wild eastern wind whistles thru groves of dark palms .... the fantastic, the supernatural never seems far. But, the Beyond of Khasak always floats as a separate numinous realm just above the mundane. It never invades reality, never intrudes into the everyday (recall the novel's image of "the cloud-laden monsoon sky hanging just over the village, holding back its immense power").

"In the dark interior of the ruined mosque, in the swamps beyond, among the branches of the tamarind tree, in the crudely hewn serpent images, in the empty wastes, they dwell, the gods of Khasak. They offered him no answers; neither did Ravi seek answers from them. ... Like the endless palm forest, like a twilight marking neither sunset nor sunrise, his Sin enveloped him in an overpowering embrace. And the Gods, those sad sentinels, were mute witnesses of his pain..."

And my above conclusion is in no way original. I sought the views of a serious scholar (who shall remain unnamed) on this business of MR and Khasak and this was the gist of what I was told:

"Literary criticism in India has been, since 19th century, almost entirely about finding Western parallels to Desi literary works - the intent being to locate 'native' literatures in a Western framework and make the former more 'acceptable' - a very colonial enterprise.

And post Freedom, once English fell out of vogue a bit, we discovered the much more happening Latin America. As a literary joke goes, once someone was asked who was the most important writer in Malayalam. And the answer was "Marquez". The game hasn't changed in a hundred years (no pun that)."

But despite all that, the word 'numinous' (**)led me on a tangential search and to someone from the West who gave telling expression - in real, rich color - to much that one sees in Khasak. The name is Odilon Redon, French symbolist painter.

The intense, flamy coloring of Redon's pastel masterpieces (any number of them are available online) remind me very strongly of the Khasak twilight. Only Chethali is missing. An expert told me: "Redon's paintings have a certain looseness about them - as compositions, they are not well organized." And indeed, neither is Khasak. The novel has no taut log line but several narrative strands which merge and meld into something like a succession of diaphanous partitions that Ravi passes thru (akin to those passed by the Diving Fowl in his own journey towards a beckoning mystery)....

Now, let me show two specific parallels between Vijayan's works and Redon's.

Late in his life, Vijayan wrote 'Ithihasathinte Ithihasam', a very interesting meditation on the making of Khasak (***). Here, among many typically lyrical passages, he talks of his fear of spiders. Indeed, spiders appear all over Vijayan's writings. In Khasak, he likens them to Kartavirya Arjuna, the 1000 armed and mostly villainous king of mythology; and Appu Kili, the beloved son of the village, is first introduced as a 'spider freak'(****). Vijayan also tells us how, within him, this very personal spider-phobia merged with the "lush and rich fear that suddenly grips a child when he first discovers the immensity of the night sky studded with those huge stars..." and gives the following passage which he eventually excised from the final version of Khasak:

"Stars, huge, some blue, some red, like immense spiders of timeless Terror; their intense gaze pierced his troubled sleep; then, wrapping him in restless dreams, they whirled away into the dark depths...."

The reason for cutting out these lines was that "they were too strongly colored". But then, Vijayan recalls wistfully, so was the whole of Khasak. And let me add, so is the typical Redon canvas. And here is Redon's take on spiders, albeit in monochrome.

An ageing Vijayan wrote with great poignancy of Ravi's solitary journey and his final tryst with a fanged apparition.

"Often have I found myself walking with Ravi - soaked to the bone by monsoon shower and smothered by its steady, colorless opacity. The journey brings Fatigue to Ravi and it does the same to me... I now rest my aching bones, stretching my numb feet on to sodden clods of earth and I wait for you and your gift of sleep, oblivion and rebirth. O Vishnu, let me behold you in your benign Serpent form!".

Reader, if you think Vishnu as serpent is non-standard imagery, here are two very standard Redons, 'Green Death' and 'Christ(!) manifest in a serpent'.

Afterthought: IMO, the closest Vijayan got to magical realism was in Gurusagaram, when Kunjunni, during a flight, sees the hanged Naxalite Tapas afloat in the sky just outside his window. But even this is was more a hallucinatory vision (Vijayan does not say that the floating Naxalite had a hard, objective reality)than a proper intrusion of the supernatural. 'Madhuram Gayati' is full of strange things happening but I would categorize it as 'fantasy'. And I have not read the scat-fest of 'Dharmapuranam' which might after all have some proper MR.


(*)In 'Midnight's Children', drops of blood from Adam Aziz's nose harden into rubies and his tears crystallize into diamonds - very naturally.

(**) Let me just mention a phrase encountered online a few days back: "numinous palms". Sadly, indeed scandalously, it was NOT about Khasak!

(***)Some cynics said, it was also a 'Milking of Khasak', with the author trying to exploit the popularity of his masterpiece. But they were dead wrong!

(****)Kili is more of a 'thumbi freak' in the story; but that is another story. And one can't help thinking, "if only Redon had painted dragonflies!"