TEACH HER A LESSON

 

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From hero to villain.

 

I am trying to get my head around what is unfolding in Kerala. To boil it down to its bare essentials.

A leading actress and actor had a fallout. There are many theories, reasons and notions floating around. Some say that she had rejected his advances and he was miffed. Others say that it has something to do with some real estate dealings. Yet others say that she had revealed his philandering ways to his first wife, resulting in them getting divorced. A rift in the perfect façade – the ideal marriage, in which he was the provider and she had to sit at home taking care of the child, as per his  wishes. The charade was over! Was the charade over? No. The charade was just beginning. The year was 2013.

The charade was over! Was the charade over? No. The charade was just beginning. The year was 2013.

In the intervening four years, the actress loses one acting offer after another. The industry buzz says that he is responsible but nobody comes right out to point a finger at him. The divorced wife, herself an acclaimed actress never speaks about the divorce. She, however, returns to acting with a bang. He initially denies his relationship with yet another actress, but eventually, marries her. He states that he decided to marry her, because he wanted to protect the besmirched name of the woman who was linked to him by the gossip rags. Oh, the patriarchy! He has everything going for him. His daughter opts to stay with him. His career climbs even greater heights. He is newly remarried.

Yet his mind and heart are still stuck in 2013. He had it all. Public sympathy and a new love. Yet deep in the crevasses of his mind the darkness spread. He is consumed and burning with a rage and hatred that dominates every other emotion, accomplishment and joy in his life. For four fucking long years. He plots with a conman driver on how to get back at the woman who was, in his mind, solely responsible for the break-up of his first marriage.

I know. I know. You are thinking… ‘But dude, he is the one who cheated! And, didn’t it all work out well for him? He is after all now married to the woman he loves!’ But what chance do common sense and logic have, when anger, ego, arrogance and power have set roots in our heart and mind.

We have all committed some stupid act or the other; said something regrettable in the heat of the moment at some point in time in our lives. People have even committed murder in the heat of the moment. But when you are plotting for four long years to teach a woman a lesson… to teach her exactly what her place in the world is, then that is not an act committed in the heat of the moment. It is a planned act of depravity.

Teach that bitch a lesson. Haven’t we all heard variations of that sentence in our own lives? Addressed to ourselves or to another woman in our presence. Aukad mein rah. Know thy place woman.

How dare you tell the world that I am a cheat? How dare you reveal my feet of clay? How dare you believe that you can make a career in the same industry as me without my say so? How dare you think you can continue to live your own life, get married, and hopefully be happy in and with it, after crossing swords with me? How dare you?

Teach her a lesson. Silence her. Shut her up. Oh, you don’t need a gag for that. She will bind herself in knots and ties, and maybe even hang herself with the same rope. Shame is the greatest silencer… the strongest gag.

Hurt her.  Molest her. Harm her. Click. Click. Click. Add fear. We will show your shame… your body… your tears to the world. Talk and we will hurt you again… and again… and again. Know this. Know this well. This is a contract. We are here to hurt you.

This is a story that has been written and re-written for so many years. The characters are different, the details are different. But the ending is always the same. Silence. The silence of shame. Or the silence of death. How is this man any different from the animals who threw acid at the women who rejected them? How is he any different from the men who stabbed the women who turned them down or antagonised them in some way or the other.

But not this time. He may not be any different from those animals. But she was different from the popular, widely accepted image of the female victim that our ‘traditional culture’ is comfortable with. She spoke. She stood tall and spoke. About the abduction. About the molestation. About the photographs. She spoke. She refused to own the shame that was not hers. She refused to own a fear that had been our cross to bear for centuries, our yoke to shoulder forever. And then, most wonderfully, she continued with her life.

Four fucking long years! He plotted and waited!  The hero reduced to ashes. Even the villains shine brighter. The tables have turned. The mighty have fallen. And I wonder. Why?

When a man had it all – fame, name, love and wealth. Why did he throw it all away? Why did he toss it all away? For a grudge that should have In reality meant nothing at all! Did his sense of entitlement blow everything else out of his mind? Did the power fed to him over the years blunt his sense of right and wrong?

I know why.

He didn’t expect to be caught. He didn’t expect her to speak. As simple as that.

 

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Black Dog

This is another post that was written a few years back. Finally, ready to share. Depression, not the clinical variety that needs medical treatment, but the kind that most human beings encounter at one time or the other, catches most of us unawares, mid-step as we go about our chores. The warnings would have been there for a few days, weeks or sometimes even months, but we don’t pay attention. The usual litany of excuses – too busy, not me, it’s just exhaustion.

For most of us, the depression stays like an unwelcome guest for a few days and goes away. And we celebrate. Only to realize down the road that it has returned. It is a part of life. If it is really bad, we should get proper medical help. If not, daily walks, and a talk or two or ten with a friend, and a steady dose of kindness to your own self should usually work. Ugly sobbing alone in the bathroom also helps.

I tend to get the blues and blahs once in a while… usually as I near my birthday and I realize that JK Rowling, Hugh Jackman and Clint Eastwood still don’t know who I am.

Some years back, I wrote this piece. An exercise in studying my own self. There is a more detailed entry in my journal of my feelings, but honestly, it is bloody boring. This is the edited version.

As usual – thanks for reading.

 

2010

And the slide begins.

It is not that I am unawares. I can first sense it and then almost see it. The abyss. But it doesn’t scare me… yet. Instead, it woos me, like something thick, gooey and sweet that will engulf me and obliterate everything else. And I look forward to that… to that wiping out of all that is beautiful and messy in my life. To the pinpoint focus on the darkness that will spread.

Maybe this time I will emerge with a clean slate, a clear head, a heart that feels joy without wondering why. An unquestioned happiness, a fully enjoyed moment. Maybe on the other side, these await me. But first I need to embrace my dark love.

The blues, I can scoop it up with a spoon. I don’t want to burden anyone else with this pain. It’s so light that it sets my heart fluttering. Yet, it’s so heavy that it weighs me down. I am unable to fight gravity. Even getting out of the bed is a Herculean effort.

I tell myself – get up. You have things to do. That book to write. The child to be reared. The clothes to be folded. I load the washing machine. It takes all my will to not let the Ariel box slip from my fingers to the ground. I debate with myself – do I have the energy to pour the softener? Once I begin, I find that I don’t have the energy to stop.

My dark black dog is actually a wolf. Dogs can be tamed. The beast that conquers me is feral, wild, invincible, and invisible.

I can beat it. I can. I have before. Many times. And yet it doesn’t go away… doesn’t accept defeat. I fight on. But there are days when I am flagging. Too tired to fight. I want to curl up and give up. I tell myself – stop being a drama queen. Don’t indulge in self-pitying scenes. Get up. Shake it off. Get up. Move on.

I know I will survive this. I am a survivor. I don’t look it, but I am. Tomorrow the sun will shine again. But today… overworked, unfulfilled, jobless, dying dreams – the trees that dot my landscape are unappetizing.

A Sita For Today’s Women – A Book Review

Note: I usually don’t review books or  movies. But this book really got me thinking. I had to put my thoughts (at least some of them that I could pluck out of a rather stormy sea of muddled questions, ideas, thoughts and hopefully, learning) down on paper, so that I could move on to my next book.

  • Title: The Liberation of Sita
  • Author: Volga
  • Translated by T.Vijay Kumar and C.Vijayasree
  • Published by Harper Perennial
  • Winner of Sahitya Akademi Winner, 2015
  • Available on Amazon and Flipkart

I first read about Sita in Amar Chitra Katha. She was alright. I didn’t really think much about her. I was crushing on Lakshmana. They drew him real handsome in ACK. Then I got introduced to the Mahabharata in ACK and like millions of others, I fell in love. With the intricate story, the drama, the flawed characters, and, above all, Draupadi. When she swears that she will not tie her hair up again until she has washed it with the blood of the Kuru princes, I cheered.

Ramanand Sagar’s sterilised Ramayan did not help. My grandma got it. I did not. Sita still sucked. I did not get her. I found her to be a bit of a doormat and martyr. Ugh! Give me my Draupadi. Chopra’s Mahabharat did a better job. And Peter Brook’s awesome version of the same sealed my love for it. Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni was the icing on the cake. Draupadi was my kind of woman. Flawed yet feisty. Until now.

Volga (real name – Popuri Lalitha Kumari) who writes under her late sister’s name, has changed forever the way I think about Sita.

indexIn The Liberation of Sita, she re-envisions the popular myth. A slim volume of 5 chapters, the book charts the journey of a Sita you and I may not be familiar with. Volga’s Sita is frighteningly like you and me. Young, naïve, unquestioning, and full of hope and dreams. Not-so-young, disillusioned, angry yet desperately hanging on to some of those hopes and dreams. Older, wiser, at peace, and finally finding her own self.

Sita is an unlikely feminist heroine, but in The Liberation of Sita, she doesn’t just exist to be the cause for the hero’s bravery and to highlight his love. She is constantly questioning the events that unfold, the diktats that are handed down and the way her life plays out.

This journey is captured through her meetings and interaction with Shurpanaka, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila. You may need to brush up on your mythology to recall some of these characters. Shurpanaka is the most well-known – Ravana’s sister, whose nose and ears are mutilated because she lusted after Lakshmana and Rama. Why is that even a crime? Volga submits that the women, then as now, were just pawns. Rama’s ultimate goal always had been to engage Ravana in a war to establish Arya Dharma across the length and breadth of the country. We meet Shurpanaka who may be disfigured but has found peace and contentment in the creation of a garden of unsurpassed beauty.

Ahalya, Maharishi Gautam’s wife, who is cursed for the crime of sleeping with Lord Indra, who had disguised himself as Maharishi Gautam, is another woman whose words first repel and then guide Sita. Ahalya questions her husband and society’s right to question her. She tells Sita that the very act of inquiry by anyone or being asked to prove one’s innocence or chastity ‘for the sake of the society’, reflects distrust. If you trust someone you don’t need proof. These words would later haunt Sita as she endures society’s petty suspicions, which are upheld by her Dharma-loving husband.

Seeds of independent thinking is also planted in Sita’s mind by Renuka. Sage Parasuram’s mother, she suffers terrible betrayal, when her son nearly kills her at his father’s Saptarishi Jamadagni’s behest (in the original epic she is killed and then brought back to life). It makes Renuka question the need for familiar familial bonds, which she ultimately sheds. A journey that is mirrored in Sita’s life too. While these three women meet Sita during her stay in the forest, be it during her exile with her husband or her exile with her sons, the meeting that prepares Sita to learn the lessons of her life is the one she has with her younger sister Urmila. Lakshman’s wife, who is left behind for 14 long years, battles anger, rage, loneliness and pain to arrive at a deep peace and understanding.

We also get to see the chains binding Rama, as the duty and responsibility foisted on him, means that he can never act as a man in love, but only as an emperor. For a change, the reader feels bad for him and rejoices for Sita, as she frees herself of society’s expectations.

Volga revisits the popular myth and recasts popular characters in a mold that today’s women can identify with. Still struggling to shed various chains, most of us have asked ourselves the questions that these women ask themselves. The situations are different (No Rama fighting Ravana for me!) but the loving chains, the subtle controls, the enraged questions – they still exist. The Sitas of today still need to be liberated.

Why Being the Champion of our Dreams Doesn’t Make us Bitches!

“I want to live in the Himalayan foothills.” When I declared my long-cherished dream and plan for the future (after our daughter’s schooling), my city and plains-loving husband, to his credit, did not dissuade me. Maybe he thinks it is a phase. However, it has been a while and my dream has become stronger and I am taking small steps towards accomplishing it. It may happen or it may not. But definitely not for lack of trying.

However, I was taken aback by the joke it became among our friends. With a few exceptions, no one took me seriously! How can I want to, and plan to live in the mountains, when my husband is from Bangalore and wants to retire there? I should be settling down there. When I respond that it can be done in the same way that I uprooted myself and moved to a desert nation 14 years ago despite hating sand, I am met with uncomprehending looks. I have become the hard-to-understand, mad woman with plans of my own that don’t fit in with anyone else’s.

Growing up, the plan is simple. “I’ll become big and do what I want to do.”

Some years down the line and you end up standing in front of the mirror looking at a stranger’s reflection. In the intervening years we have done every single one of those things we promised ourselves we will not. We have compromised, adjusted, settled down, downsized our goals, and given up. Given up on our dreams and ourselves. We have transferred our energies from chasing our dreams to being champions of our spouse’s and our children’s dreams.

We live in a time when most girls have access to education and the dreams they engender. We also live in a time when most of us are still taught to be ‘sweet and nice’ girls. From a very young age girls are taught to adjust, be nice, sit properly, talk softly, don’t back-answer (parent code for ‘don’t disagree with us’), sacrifice and be the nurturer, and worst of all to settle for things. If our dreams match the dreams and plans of our parents and society at large then we are set for a smooth ride.

However, if our dreams (be it to go on hikes alone or fly a plane or become an entrepreneur or archaeologist or return to university) put us on a crash course with the rest of the world, chances are, as a girl / woman, we will ‘adjust’. Worse, no one will even have to tell us to do so! We will hang our dreams silently and dutifully.

Girls were never taught and are still not taught to be the champion of their dreams.

I have friends who have not been ‘allowed’ to get a degree of their choosing because it was not considered ideal for a woman. I know women who second guess every single decision they make, despite being highly qualified, because a lifetime of not being taken seriously has resulted in them not valuing their own intelligence. We all know women who give up a lucrative transfer or promotion for the sake of the family, while happily sacrificing their own jobs to follow the husband on his transfers.

Yet I would not place the responsibility for this current situation at the doorstep of men. What we make of our lives is at the end of the day solely our responsibility. Most times no one ‘asks’ us to make these sacrifices.

The reasons – real, and sometimes, imagined – are aplenty. We don’t want to upset the status quo and inconvenience anyone. We fear not living up to the expectations of being the ideal wife and mother. We fear the hurt we will cause our loved ones with our choices. We feel guilt for taking time and energy away to do our own thing. Many of us suffer from a misplaced sense of duty. A lifetime’s or even centuries of conditioning makes it easy for us to slip into and stay in the martyr’s mode. We refuse to spend time analysing ourselves and our life goals. We are crippled by fear, which manifests in our lives as procrastination, diffidence, distractions and laziness. We are afraid that our dreams will be laughed at. Sometimes, we suffer from a genuine lack of family support and have responsibilities like small kids, a terminally ill family member or financial commitments that force us to shelve our dreams (for the time being).

In our rush to keep everyone happy, we end up disappointing ourselves, developing a lifelong acquaintanceship with regret and frustration. Haunted by the feeling that there has to be more, we live diminished lives underpinned by a great silent sorrow caused by the knowledge that we have let ourselves down.

But it really doesn’t need to be this way. No life can exist on a sustained high, but every life deserves its share of deep joy and sense of accomplishment. What can one do?

To begin with, we have to own our dreams and become comfortable with the fact that not everyone in our lives is going to be supportive. We may be labelled mean, selfish and a bitch. But it doesn’t make us one. As long as we are not harming another (kindly note that I am not talking about inconveniencing someone else or making them uncomfortable) with our actions, we need to be fierce. Fiercely protective of our dreams. Nourishing them and taking care of them like they are our babies. And you know what? Our dreams are our babies.

We need to stop apologising for wanting things that make sense only to us. We need to stop using our family and our circumstances as our excuse. We have to teach ourselves to be brave despite a lifetime of learning to be afraid.

The day we decide that we are no longer going to place ourselves last on our list of priorities, there will be a seismic shift in our relationships. It will inconvenience our families. It may make some of the people in our lives uncomfortable. However, things will eventually settle down. We will have to be willing to ride the emotional roller coaster at home. And, we will have to take tough decisions – continue to chase our dreams, keep it alive with one tiny action at a time, or give up on it. Quite often, we will find that most of our imagined fears were just that – imaginings. We may even be taken aback by the support we receive from our family and friends.

The path will not be a smooth linear path – family commitments, responsibilities and sometimes wrong paths taken, and explored, will delay us. Yet, it is vital that we hang in there, because, amidst the upheaval – we are teaching our girls to be strong women. We are teaching our sons that women too have the right to dreams and plans. We are teaching our children that keeping that dream alive over the years, championing it, and working towards achieving it doesn’t make a woman an aggressive bitch but a worthy owner of that dream.

Odiyan

I am still working on the Pambattu piece. So in the meantime, here is something else from Kerala. This story (in fact there are two stories – I really should learn to write shorter posts!) too was handed down through the generations, with a few embellishments added along the way. I have also noted the cultural and social references to the best of my ability to give you a more well-rounded view of the history behind the myth.

In Kerala in the olden days, most tharavadu (family/clan) homes were spread over many acres and stretched across hills, forested land and fields. The area was dotted with traditional homes of the family and the extended family. Each home would be situated in splendid isolation, surrounded by vast tracts of wild land. Family members co-existed happily with domestic animals like cows, goats, and hens. It was a safe environment. As long as one stayed close to the homestead and farms, and did not venture out after dark. This was drummed into every child’s head. You ventured out after dark at your own risk… because, then you could meet a wild animal or worse, a paranormal one, like the yakshi or the odiyan.

Malayalee folklore is replete with dark elements that can make your blood run cold. The yakshi, chattan, kuttichattan, gandharvan, and marutha have featured prominently in our grandparent’s tales. The most popular of these characters, in my opinion, was the odiyan.

Odiyan was the word used to describe people who practiced odi vidya (a form of black magic) that allowed them to change form. The odiyans, known for their physical prowess, were the product of a vicious caste system, black magic and thirst for power. The members of the Panan, Parayan, Pulayan, and Velan communities were the ones often accused of becoming odiyans. Poor, uneducated and downtrodden, they made ends meet by making chool (brooms), paya (mats), kuda (umbrellas) and morams (dustpans) with dried coconut fronds and selling it to the wealthier upper caste folks in the community.

Odi vidya was usually practiced by the upper caste men and they used a potion and black magic to turn a man from one of the above downtrodden communities into an odiyan. A magical hired gun who would do their bidding, which usually involved the murder of a rival tharavadu or family member.

The legend goes that the method of preparing the potion (marrunnu) was a secret held by the upper caste folks. An appalling yet important ingredient in the making of the odiyan marinnu, according to the stories handed down, is an unborn foetus. Pregnant women were lured from their homes and their foetus stolen. The woman would then make her way back home. The next morning, she would be found lying peacefully in her bed without any injuries – but stone cold dead. As a result of these fears and beliefs, pregnant women were not allowed to travel alone and forbidden to step out after sunset (as the odiyan only attacked when one was alone and usually in the dark).

In odi vidya, after the performance of some rituals, a pouch containing the marrunnu was placed behind the ear of the chosen man. This enabled the man to turn into an animal like an ox, buffalo, fox, dog or wolf, or trees or even an inanimate object like a wicker gate. These animals or things would however have an imperfection – like a missing tail or limb or eye. At the conclusion of the puja, the odiyan would break a little stick which represented the intended victim’s spine. The rituals were meant to literally break someone’s spirit. Most of the victims died of sheer fright.

The odiyan, who was usually out only during the dark could see clearly in the night. He also had the powers to become invisible and change his form as per his choice – as long as the marrunnu pouch was behind his ears. The upper caste men would however never place the marrunnu behind their own ears, as it was believed that the man who became an odiyan would die soon.

Some believe that the odiyan could revert back to his human form only when the upper caste man or his helper would knock the marrunnu pouch off, with a stick, from behind the odiyan’s ears.

Rationalists believe that the legend of the odiyan was created by thieves and murderers to scare away people and to ensure their own safety. They argue that in the past when Kerala did not have access to electricity, stepping out in the dark was a frightening proposition because even a harmless plantain leaf hanging oddly could resemble a Yakshi or the shadow of a strange animal. As regards the pregnant women who were found dead in their beds, female mortality rates were high especially in the case of pregnant women, and these stories were a way of coping with and controlling something that was beyond the understanding of the people in those days.

In Kerala, in the late 19th century, my maternal great-great-granduncle was the karanawar (head) of the Adikarakunnath tharavadu. He was highly respected by one and all in the community. People from near and far came to him for guidance and even to settle fights and disputes. His word was considered final and no one ever went against his decision.

He was also unique in that he was not afraid of the odiyans. He was in the habit of walking through his property and its thodi (front and backyard) at any time that he pleased – day or night. It was a habit with him to walk in the thodi, and even in the woods surrounding his home, after dinner. He would often sleep outside on a charpoy (wooden cot). The people in the community believed that he too possessed certain magical powers.

One day some men came to him and asked him for some food and veraggu. Usually, a generous man, on that particular day, the karanawar was in a foul mood. He shouted at them and asked them to get out of his compound.

The men were enraged and decided to teach him a lesson. That night after everyone had gone to bed, four of them entered the compound. They had used their magical powers to take on the shapes of a wolf, a fox and two huge dogs. When they saw him fast asleep on the cot, they smiled at their luck. Silently, the walked to the cot in the dead of the night and then moving as one, lifted the cot with the karanawar still sleeping on it. The odiyans then headed to the woods nearby. Once in the woods, they planned to wake him and scare him with their appearance.

When the odiyans reached a thickly forested part of the wood, they decided to put the cot down. But they couldn’t put the cot down! They thought it may be because the area is too thickly wooded and they didn’t have space to manoeuvre the cot around. So they walked on to a place with a little bit of clearing and tried to put the cot down. To their surprise, they found that they could not put the cot down. They tried to put the cot down several times, but they could not.

For the rest of the night, the four odiyans carried the karanawar on his cot, trying to put the cot down every now and then, but unable to. Their arms and legs were hurting and they felt that their muscles were on fire. But no matter what they did they could not lower the cot on to the ground. They even tried to shake their hands and fling the cot down, but they could not even remove their hands from the cot’s legs. It was as if the cot was stuck to their hands!

The sun was about to rise. Tired and scared they were near tears, as the karanawar woke up. It was not yet light and the odiyans were still in their animal forms. The odiyans had by now realized that they had crossed paths with someone who had even more powerful magic in him than them. They cried and begged for his forgiveness.

He then ordered them to take him and his cot back to the place from where they had picked him up. The odiyans carried him back to his front yard. And this time when they tried to place the cot on the ground they succeeded. The odiyans fell to the ground in sheer exhaustion. The karanawar sat up on his cot and with a stick lying nearby knocked off the marinnu pouch tucked behind the ears of the odiyans. The odiyans reverted to their human forms.

The karanawar then made the odiyans promise him that, henceforth, no odiyan would ever trouble or scare any member of the his tharavadu. Feeling that the odiyans had learned their lesson, the karanawar then ordered his servants to give the odiyans rice, vegetable and clothes and then sent them off.

Another oodiyan story that was handed down to us involved my paternal grandfather, achachan. The story goes that he was returning home from work and had stopped at a wayside shop (shaap if you want to sound like an authentic Malayalee J) for a bite. As he stepped out, he was stopped by a poor man who said, “Thamburane (lord) what about me?” Achachan initially snapped at him, but on realising that the man was hungry, asked him to come home and get something to eat.

Achachan then walked home (again at quite a distance) and on reaching, sat down on his favourite chair near the thinna (flat wooden veranda railing where one can sit and even lie down – almost like a window seat). His second eldest daughter, Bhargavi, came out to give him water and she exclaimed, “Acha! There is a huge black dog behind you!” He turned around and indeed there was a huge dog in the thodi on the other side of the thinna. Achachan loved dogs, but this one looked wild. So he took a stick lying nearby and shooed the dog away. The dog was quite stubborn and reluctant to move but finally, he was chased out of the property.

The next day as my grandfather was returning from work, he saw the poor man again and asked him why he had not come to the house to get some food. The man looked affronted and said, “Thamburane, I had come. But you chased me away!”

Go figure!

While the stories relating to the odiyans are fascinating, they expose the ugly underbelly of the caste system that was even more prevalent in those days in India. These were men and women who were branded untouchables. They suffered a lot at the hands of the society’s rich and powerful. They had no access to education and had no money whatsoever. They made ends meet by making household goods with dried coconut fronds and selling it to the upper caste folks. Since they were untouchables, they were not allowed to enter the homes of the upper-caste people. They would stand at least 50 meters away from the house. From there they would call out to the residents of the house and the servant would step out and give them some rice or vegetables as payment for the chool or paya. The odiyans also use to help clear the animals that had died on the homestead. Some say that they would eat the meat of the dead animals and save the skin and make things out of it.  Some of them would use these skins to disguise themselves while committing petty thefts thus lending to the mythology of the odiyan.

Today, surrounded by electricity and information, it is hard to believe that people could believe in yakshis and odiyans. But even as recently as the mid-to-late 20th century people were extremely superstitious and scared of anything and everything that they didn’t understand. Education and development have helped in the emancipation of communities like the Panan, Parayan, Pulayan, and Velan. The practice of odi vidya has died a slow death with few or no takers for this practice. But even today, when you are in Kerala and you step out into the thodi or the street and see the looming trees and the weird shaped shadows they throw, a tiny part of you can’t help but feel the cold finger of fear and wonder – does the odiyan really exist?

What Lies Beneath…

I love holidays and I love traveling during holidays. Usually, I manage to write right through my travels. However, this year a combination of poor to no wi-fi connection in places as far flung as Mussoorie and Palghat, and an itinerary that included covering 6 states in 5 weeks, meant that my writing took a backseat. I am now back to my routine.

Recently I got commissioned by a friend, to put down on paper a story that a grandparent told me growing up. It got me thinking. My grandfather (whom I called Velliachan – big father) was full of stories. It should have been easy but it took me a while to think of a few stories that he did tell me. You see, what he really loved to tell me were stories about our home, the incidents and events that shaped our family ties and bonds, and the tharavad (family) history. As I mine my mind to remember particular details of the more traditional stories that he told me, my mind is also busy remembering all the other not-so ‘traditional’ stories he told my cousins, my brother and me.

Velliachan was like any other grandfather in the world – totally unique.  He did not have any pet names for us and believed in talking to us six grandchildren as adults. His favourite method of bonding with us, when he was not playing the fool with us kids, was to take us for a ramble amongst the trees in our family home in Malappuram, Kerala.

I loved those walks. He would patiently tell me the local names of the plants and trees over and over again, year after year. We would check if the hedges needed trimming and if the mangoes and jackfruits were ripe enough to be eaten, and the coconuts ready to be felled. My grandfather was a man who was very good at creating atmosphere. His stories brought the past alive for me.

As we walked down to the front gate, I would ask him to tell me about the well that we no longer use. This well, could be seen from the side porch of the house – the porch that ran along a bedroom wall and connected to the kitchen. Along the open porch, there was a tap and this was where my brother, cousins and I liked to brush our teeth – in the open looking at the greenery around and enjoying the early morning sounds of the birds mingling with the sounds from the kitchen where my grandmother, mother and aunts would be cooking. At least once during this early morning ritual, my eyes would run over the well (Actually the part of the grounds where I knew it was. One could no longer see the well itself) and I would feel a frisson of fear.

The house that my grandparents stayed in was built in the 1960s. The original family home, in which my grandmother grew up, was a few meters downhill. Her aunt and family were still staying in that house. During one particular summer, (I think it was while I was still an infant), my grandparents, parents (who were visiting) and uncles heard a commotion from the old home. They rushed to the old house and heard cries of ‘pambu pambu’ as they neared it. Snakes are a pretty common sight in Malappuram, Kerala, especially during the monsoon.

Entering the house, they came across an ashen female relative who somehow managed to tell them that as she had opened an old almirah (cupboard) she had seen a huge python curled up in its recesses. She had run out screaming.

All the men rushed upstairs to the room where the said almirah was. One of the men pulled the door open as the others raised the thick wooden sticks they were carrying. The almirah was empty. The fear spread thick and fast amongst those in the room. There was a python in the house and no one knew where it was hidden. This meant that no one could rest in peace until it was found. There had been quite a few incidents in the district where the pythons had feasted on goats and calves.Would it eat a human being? My grandmother’s aunt was tiny enough.

The men spread out around the house, carrying the sticks and carefully searching for the snake. But search as they might, there was no trace of the snake on the first floor where it had been originally spotted. They extended the search to the ground floor of the old house. Every single room in the house was searched. So were the cupboards and all the nooks and corners of the old house. And there were many. By then it was nearly two hours since the first cry of ‘pambu pambu’ was heard.

Defeated the men gathered together in the main living room downstairs. At the foot of the stairs leading upstairs to the bedroom, there was a very old wooden trunk. It was so heavy that when it was built, they had just decided to leave it on the ground floor instead of lugging it upstairs! Someone asked if anyone had searched the trunk. Another man laughed and said, “There’s no way in hell the python could have got in there!”

But the snake was not to be found anywhere else in the house. So, my grandfather, father, uncle and a few other men stood around the trunk. They were hoping that it was there and the search could wind down, and yet praying that it was not there as no one wants to deal with a scared and disturbed python that was strong and clever enough to get into that trunk. One of them gingerly raised the lid of the huge wooden trunk. And there it was! Coiled comfortably at the bottom of the case. My grandfather says that it was big and dark.

I don’t like snakes, but I can’t help but feel for the snake that must have had a pretty rude awakening as the men beat it to its death. They say that even three grown men staggered as they carried that snake out. It was getting dark and they were wondering how to get rid of the dead snake. There was an unused well in the land. I think it was unused, because it tended to run dry in the summer months, and the family had dug another well in the backyard. The old well lay neglected and run over by wild shrubs and weeds. I am still not sure as to why they decided to give the python a burial in the well. But there you go! Since then, no one has ever used the water from that well, even though there is water in it.

As we walk to or from that gate, we can barely see the well, hidden as it is behind shrubs and trees. The whole area has an eerie feel. In my mind’s eye, I can still see a python lying curled up in its water, waiting for some poor sucker to draw water from that well. The house and the grounds on which the well stood have now been sold, and I wonder if the new owners have been told about the well.

In the next post, I will tell you about Pambattu Kaavu (the family shrine dedicated to… you guessed it – the snake God.)

“Do you believe in true love?”

Do we exist in a landfill of relationship debris or is there some magic left?

Binu SivanThis last weekend, I met a young friend – someone who had got engaged a month or so back. This is the sensible generation or maybe they are just scared. They are looking at a longish engagement. I asked her, “Why?”

She said, “We need to be sure.” I almost laughed out. You are never sure. Nearly 14 years after getting married, I am still not sure. It doesn’t matter how long you are engaged. Your husband or wife will turn out to be a different person to the one you were engaged to.

As I mulled over her answer, she asked – “Do you believe in true love?”

Now, why the hell would she ask me that!

The first unthinking words almost out of my mouth were – No! I don’t. I think it is all a lie. There is no such thing as true love. Just look at the disillusionment that you find in almost all the relationships around you! We are surrounded by a landfill of relationship debris.

Even as I thought these words I knew I was missing the point; because despite the disillusionment and the neglect there was something else.

Despite my desire to be untouchable in matters of the heart (a direct result of believing that I am as cool as Clint Eastwood in his cowboy avatar), the fact of the matter is that I do believe in love. Not the Valentine’s Day shit with its cards, candlelight dinners, and roses. I don’t even believe in the we-will-grow-old-together kind of romance. Tomorrow and old age are not guaranteed.

I thought about how in today’s world a growing cobweb of disillusionment and neglect anchor and hold up the photo frames of our relationships. Relationships and marriages, in particular, seem to be made up of what is missing – small acts and gestures that we forget to, or are too lazy or angry to do for each other.

Every expert on relationships has been crying himself or herself hoarse trying to tell us that we got to work at love. ‘Falling in love’ does not guarantee ‘staying in love’. You got to work at it to keep it alive. There is no happily ever after. At best you have a “we like each other enough to want to grow old together” ever after.

So is that all there is to love?

I am not an ace at this. I never was. Time, drudgery, disillusionment, neglect, taking and being taken for granted have taken their toll. Yet I am not just a victim. I am a killer too. Love doesn’t die at the hands of infidelity and violence alone. Its butchers are many.

Like pretty much most young women who get married, I believed in true love or rather the mirage of true love as spoon fed to us by our film industry. My ever after. My one and only. A few heartbreaks and disappointments later (both parties at fault) I revisited my notions of love.

Was love the intense feeling that swept over me as they placed my new-born daughter on my chest and I knew in my bones that I’d kill for this little one’s safety? I have never felt anything close to that for anyone else.

I am married to a guy who is in finance. He loves math. I love words. He watches Bloomberg and cricket for entertainment. I watch travel shows on NG and Discovery and love to read. More than a decade of marriage hasn’t blurred these differences in our case. In fact, we can still only manage a polite curiosity in the other’s interest.

In the initial years of our marriage, he got me watches (expensive, branded ones) for three of my birthdays. The third time I got a watch, I sat him down, showed him my watch-less wrist and told him in clear terms, “I don’t like to wear watches!”

To his credit, he has been learning and has stopped getting me watches.

We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A combination of health issues and sheer frustration at juggling a highly demanding job and a growing child made me walk away from regular employment. Now I am a stay-at-home-mom and a freelance writer working on my first novel. A move I could not have made unless my watch-buying, math, and cricket-loving husband had not agreed to finance our lives.

So is this love?

Love.  In my mind, it is a gentle, soothing breeze… something that underlies and supports, and is supported and nurtured in turn by consideration, kindness, generosity and passion. A breeze that wipes away our tiredness and soothes our tired eyes and heart. A breeze that brings with it anew a slow bubbling hope. A breeze that needs a soul to brush against, slowly raising its shrouds… awakening it to the joy, peace, angst and pain that is the accompaniment to love.

A breeze that blows against a rock face or wall will not raise any shrouds. It will just be a weak wind that falters and fades away. Love is like that. One day you are the breeze, the next day… hopefully, your partner. But if you, or he or she, are the rock all the time, then eventually the breeze will die.

When young, due to my movie and Mills and Boons fueled notions of love and romance, I believed true love can be achieved only with one person. Now I know better. You can fall in love deeply many times over. You can be in love with more than one person at the same time. Love can evolve into like, hate and indifference. You can fall out of love with a person and yet love that person.

The magic of love can touch you at any time, across the labyrinth of space, age, societal mores, and even reality. You can be in love in your mind and the world would have no inkling. You can even be in love with an imaginary personification of all that you desire. This love of the imaginary person (that you are yet to meet or may never meet) is like an underground spring that waters your soul and keeps you alive.

You could be in love with a woman’s never-say-die spirit, a man’s kindness, that woman’s smile, that stranger’s eyes… you know that nothing will ever come out of it. For a few weeks or maybe just for a few days, they will add an extra spring to your step, a smile to your lips, an ache to your heart, and a song to your heart. You are not going to disrupt the status quo of your life for this smile or eyes. But just for that magical little while, love and romance brush by you again and you are alive. Just an intense crush, but for those few hours, days and weeks, this imaginary love-story in your mind is stronger than any relationship that actually exists in your ‘real’ life.

And then one day you wake up, freed from the bondages of this crush… you are out of love.

So what the hell is love? To be honest I still don’t know. I am constantly redefining it.

Do I believe in true love? I don’t even know what the hell true love is! But I can tell you this – I am a romantic.

The word romance conjures up different images for most of us – usually dictated by our age and experiences. In our teen years, it is a red heart-shaped balloon and a misspelt love note. In our 20s a public declaration of everlasting love on Facebook and Instagram. In our 30s, a partner who is willing to wake up to take care of that baby who is hell bent on driving you to an early grave.

But now I am in my 40s, and for me romance has broken the limiting walls of relationships. Let me explain…

I had always liked to think of myself as a realist – someone who sees the world for what it is and accepts it. But the truth of the matter is that I am not a realist. I don’t see the world for what it is. For me the world we see is an opaque veil, that conceals the truths that I instinctively believe in, and even know to exist. Even my personal religion and concept of God is based on this.

I believe without proof. Yet I also believe in the theory of evolution and have a deep respect for science and the fantastic mind-bending journey it, and we are on. Maybe because of this respect (and not despite it) I also believe in things I cannot see.

So how can I not be a romantic!?

Not just a believer in romance in its most commonly understood sense… but also the romance of life itself. When I smile instinctively at another person during my walks and they smile back at me, when my daughter walks into my room early in the morning and cuddles up with me, when I watch two young lovers trying to maintain decorum and distance as they walk together, jostling against each other with every step… I am more in love than I have ever been. Not with another person. But just in love.

When I read the wistful, elegiac words of poets like Rumi, Parveen Shakir, Keats, and Ghalib, I cannot help but wonder… How can this feeling, this aching yearning for another even arise in our hearts, if there was no romance!? How can it exist if there was no quest for that one love? How can someone write words that reach out across centuries and lands and grab my heart with such intensity and force? Am I not falling in love all over again when I read them?

Then there are things in this world that make me believe in a love that feels deeper and truer. When I am walking along a deserted beach, when I am watching a full moon shine brightly on snow-capped mountains at 2am, I sense something rare and fragile to my touch, just out of my reach… brushing delicately against my fingertips. It teases me into being more aware. An almost ephemeral awareness, it is by its very nature of being elusive that much more valuable and worthy of being pursued.

Right now, as I learn to live consciously and intentionally, taking steps towards certain dreams, instead of just waiting for them, my notions of love and romance are abstract.

I believe in the romance of the moment. It is a fleeting moment – sometimes submerged in the minutiae of life, buried amidst the debris of our busyness and distractedness. But that one fleeting moment can keep that flame of magic and life burning. And it is not necessarily a moment with your partner or spouse. It is the kind of romance where you are in a moment, either with your spouse or a friend (whatever be their gender) or your pet or a stranger, and you are with that person fully. It is the kind of romance that inspires you even when you are alone.

Right now, love is this very moment.

My newly engaged friend stared dazed at me as I went through my disjointed spiel. “So does this mean you believe in true love?”

“Yeah, yeah I believe in true love.” She will have to figure this out in her own way and time anyway.