It has been more than three months since I last posted anything out here. A lot has happened since that post. I have lived a lifetime and died a million deaths.
Over the last few months, I had shared glimpses of my daughter’s and our journey as she fought a rare and aggressive sarcoma called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumour (DSRCT). The prognosis for this type of cancer is rather dismal yet buoyed by her initial response to treatment and her gung-ho, sassy spirit, we had believed that she, and we, could beat it.
We were wrong. The cancer spread to her cerebro spinal fluid (a cancer that spreads to the CSF is called leptomeningial disease and is basically untreatable.) The damage it wreaks on a human being is cruel, and in the last three months of her life, my child lost her ability to walk independently, lost 90+% of her vision and in the last two weeks, most of her hearing.
On 6th July this year, at 1am, my beautiful girl slipped into a deep coma after a cardiac arrest, and at 3.36pm passed away. Random date. Random time. Random fate. The first Code Blue on the Paediatric-Oncology Ward at Mediclinic City Hospital.
None of what happened to her makes sense and we are working on trying to put our lives back together after the very centre and soul and glue that held it together was yanked away so cruelly. She loved life and had larger than life plans, and we are heartbroken and enraged that she was not given a chance to live and try to accomplish those. At the same time, we are aware that had she lived even a few days longer, she would have lost her ability to talk and eat and we are glad that she was spared that torture and humiliation at the least.
Cancer is a fucking bitch, and when it happens to children, nothing makes sense anymore.
I am unsure how the writing will proceed. I know I had started a series on my Himalayan road trip – the drafts for the next few posts lie in a laptop folder, but working on it right now is not a possibility. All I want to do is talk and write about my glorious girl. Keep her alive at some level.
I also want to share her story. We had resisted sharing her story on any social platform, for the last couple of years, because we had hoped and planned to do it after she beat the cancer. That is how she had wanted it – not to be seen as a victim, but a victor. While she did lose the battle to cancer, anyone who knows her would tell you that till the very end, she fought like a warrior, like one of those Marvel superheroes that she loved, and in a strange way she did win.
She won everyone’s hearts. The doctors, nurses, even the catering and housekeeping staff at the hospital, other patients and their parents on the paediatric-onco ward, her school mates and family and friends – every person she encountered walked away feeling more positive and stronger for having met her.
The people who were fortunate enough to know her and her story have walked away inspired by her kindness, courage, and attitude to life. She inspires my husband and me to carry on and to do things that would keep her legacy and memory alive – be it creating more awareness about childhood cancers, sarcoma, or DSRCT in particular, or creating an endowment fund or plan in her name.
I will be using this platform, besides FB and Insta, to share her story with a clear intent to raise awareness and hopefully, inspire others to stay strong. However, the writing will not commence right away – maybe a month or two down the line. I am focusing on healing and getting some of the above mentioned projects started.
Thank you for patiently reading till the end. If there is any way you can help me in sharing Sakshi’s story, and help create awareness, please do let me know.
Walking had become a pleasure again. The sun was gentler, and the breeze cooler. My hip did not feel tight anymore and I could swing my right leg without that twinge and ache in my bones. It also took less effort each morning to talk myself into getting ready to head out for the walk, mentally preparing myself for the exercise, and the fear.
The last few weeks as I had walked my usual stretch in the park, I had had to fight multiple demons – pain, weariness, and the gut clenching dread that had been my constant companion these last few months. Initially, after my recovery from the surgery, it had taken more energy and will power than I had thought I’d need to complete my walk. But it had got easier with each passing day.
I could have walked around the city blocks instead of the park, but I like trees. And the stubborn mulish part in me is not yet defeated. I believe that if I stop walking in the park, if the few of us who still venture out there for our dose of exercise and fresh air, were to quit, then we’d lose the park completely. It will no longer be ours… but his.
The first few times, after my return to the park, it was not muscle weakness and tightness or pain, but the thought of that statue lurking ahead, unseen, that had terrorised me. Waiting in the gloam with the left half of its head and shoulder missing, as though someone had taken a go at it with a sledgehammer, bits of rusty wire mesh sticking out of the jagged edges of concrete, the statue of the young boy did not cut a very impressive figure. It stood on a concrete pedestal, raised a foot and a half above the ground and was about four feet tall from the soles of its shoes to the top of its disfigured head. It may not have been remotely imposing, yet it had radiated an strange eerie almost mocking power. So out of place, I had thought the first time I saw it, not sure exactly what was out of place – the statue or the malevolence it exuded.
˷ ˷ ˷ ˷
I had been overjoyed to discover this park in my new neighbourhood. It helped me get over the concrete jungle blues that assailed me after I moved to the city from my small town. Every morning, I would be at the park by 5ish. The sun still a blush on the horizon, I loved this time of the day, with its reverential silence in the air, broken only by the nattering birds. But in the park, even the birds were quieter. And then there was the added advantage of avoiding my fellow park and fitness enthusiasts, who descended on the park by 6, by when the sun would be out, no longer shy.
It was a nameless park. My kind of park, overgrown with trees and shrubs that bordered the outer walls and the inner paths that criss-crossed the park. There was a banyan tree that held pride of place as being the oldest, with its widespread canopy, housing a mini universe of its own. Then there were the peepals, sals and the gulmohars. All of them lush, richly green, somehow more tropical than the world outside the park’s single, high, rusty, wrought iron gate. Even on the hottest summer day, at mid-noon, the sun only peaked in through the protective green canopy. I fell in love with the park at first sight.
My first day at the park, I arrived around 6, and seeing the handful of others already there laying claim to different jogging paths and patches of sunlight, I promised myself that I would arrive at 5 the next day onwards. I looked around and decided to stroll down along the only path stretching long and empty ahead of me. It was a beautiful one – trees arching overhead creating a lovely tunnel effect, with the sun sneaking in here and there.
As I walked down the path, I realised that this path, stretching five kilometres, offered the only complete circuit around the park and would lead me right back to the gate, the only gate into the park, that I had entered from. Strange it should be so deserted then, I thought. Or maybe, people don’t opt for the complete circuit in the mornings because it takes longer to complete, and everyone has to rush back to whatever work awaits them. Maybe there are more people in the evening, because come to think of it, I had seen only four others when I came in. Why can’t I hear the birds at all out here?
Questions and thoughts flowed through my head as I walked on. Before I knew it, I had reached the three-quarter mark. The last stretch extended dark with the trees completely blocking the light over the path. I stopped and took a deep swig of water from my bottle. And then for reasons I did not fully understand, turned around and walked back down the stretch I had already covered towards the gate.The first week I only walked three quarters of the circuit before returning, as the last stretch extended gloomily ahead with the trees arching over the path.
Retracing my steps meant it took me longer to reach the gate than if I had just walked on. But I could not explain why I did not walk on. Was it that the complete absence of another soul had finally got to me or the fact that the birds had fallen completely silent in that stretch. All that week and the next, I would walk down the path, reach the three-quarters mark, and then turn back. I rarely saw anyone else venture into that section. With each passing day of that first week, my reluctance to complete the circuit increased.
Every single day, I would tell myself, today I am going to complete the circuit. And every single day, I would return home irritated with myself but unable to take a step beyond the self-set barrier. This inability to complete the circuit became a secret shameful burden. I could imagine the peepal and the sal bending their leaves towards each other and laughing at my weakness. Even the friendly gulmohar had stopped acknowledging me. Her fiery red flowers would have nothing to do with a coward like me, she seemed to say. I began to fancy that if I completed the circuit the birds on the trees along that path may start to sing again.
The third week, I decided to confront the irrational fear growing in me that had cast its shadow over my morning walk and my life in general. When I reached the three-quarters point, I stopped, and then taking a deep breath and ignoring the panicked alarm bells ringing in my head I stepped forward, and took another step. Just one step and I wished heartily that I hadn’t. Just one step, and I was in a different world. I wished I had worn a jacket, which was silly, because it was a balmy summer morning. It was darker. I turned to look back down the path I had already covered. It too was bordered by trees arching over the path; however, it was somehow lighter… less feral there. Don’t be silly.
I carried on, fighting the desire to turn back, and run. Each step was an effort as I pushed against an invisible wall of hostility. Walking on would mean that I would be able to reach the gate in a mere 10 minutes instead of the 40 it would take me to if I retraced my steps. Walking on would mean, I would be able to set aside this shameful fear for ever.
As I walked on, trying to tamp down this strange sense of unease rising from my stomach to my heart and compressing my chest, I came across the boy’s statue for the first time. Disfigured and lonely, it stood out starkly against the dense foliage. A broken young boy, dominating the surrounding wildness despite his smashed head and shoulder.
As I kept walking, I realized that I had unconsciously crossed to the other side of the path, away from the boy. Coward. But I could see the gate ahead. And then the warning bells jangled loud again. Don’t look back. Don’t. Look. Back. I don’t know why that thought came into my head, but I knew, just knew that it was a matter of life and death that I did not turn back. I could feel his stare at the back of my neck willing me to turn. I half-walked, half-jogged the last few metres to the gate. As I neared the gate, the air cleared, and I could breathe easily again. My t-shirt stuck to me as though I had walked through a downpour.
As I blindly walked to my apartment, I promised myself that I would never walk through that stretch ever again. But half an hour later as I showered, I began to feel silly. I remembered reading somewhere about paintings where the eyes of the subject seemed to follow you, no matter which part of the room you were in. Perhaps this could happen with statues too. That would explain what had happened in the park. Inanimate eyes following one in a gloomy part of a park can freak anyone out.
By afternoon as I sat with my new friends at work enjoying a break from our project, I was ready to laugh at my over-active imagination. If my brothers back home heard about this, they would rag me about it for the rest of my life. This is why we never took you along, you shrimp, I could hear them jeer. You are always scared of every damn thing.
The next morning, I was back at the park gate, armed with renewed courage… courage that seeped out of me with each step. By the time I reached the three-quarters mark, my heart was trying to jump out of my body. What if I had not imagined it? What am I trying to prove? Don’t be a fucking wimp. You can do this. Three steps in, I knew I had not imagined it. It was darker, wilder and somehow bitterly malevolent here. The air hung damp and evil over this place. But I kept on. Second guessing my instincts, praying to every god that ever existed, I walked on. Just before I reached the statue… the boy, I crossed to the other side. And I looked ahead. I promised myself that no matter what, no bloody matter what, I was not going to turn back. By the time I reached the gate, I was drenched in sweat and my heart was pounding as though I had run a marathon.
That day I did not feel like laughing at my imagination. I was beginning to think that it was not my imagination that was the problem, after all. Perhaps I was suffering from some strange form of mental illness. I was subdued the whole day, feeling as though I had been touched by evil.
The next day I was at the park again. I knew I had to return. If I did not confront whatever it was that was challenging me on that stretch of the path, I would forever be afraid. The first three-quarters of the way was covered in the blink of an eye, even though I tried to linger. At the three-quarters mark, I stopped and re-tied my shoelaces as I looked ahead into the murky shadows. The trees and the breeze waited for my decision. Maybe I should just turn back and go home. Even as I thought it, I knew that I had to go on. There was no other way. I could not live like this. I stood up, took a deep breathe and took a step forward.
Again, the vileness of the place filled the air around me. The place knew. He knew. He knew I was challenging him. I tried to control my galloping fear, but my thoughts sped ahead direction-less giving shape to vague ideas and terrors. I forced myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s all in my head. It’s all in my imagination. I kept walking. You can do this. Suddenly I breathed a sigh of relief. I could see someone else running down the path from where the gate was towards me. See, all in your head, you silly goose.
That was the last sane thought I had for a while, for even as I thought it, I noticed that the pedestal on which the boy stood was empty. Even as this fact began to impress itself on me, I realised that half of the jogger’s head was missing. The other man was no man. He… it was the boy, and he was headed straight towards me with a malicious glint in its one eyes. I think I screamed.
˷ ˷ ˷ ˷
When I came to, I was in the hospital surrounded by my family, and my right leg in a cast. It had been broken clean as though someone had hit my leg with a hammer – the orthopaedics’ words. The cops asked me who did it, and I said, I can’t recall his face and that all I remembered was that he was jogging in from the gate. How could I tell the cops and my family that the person who had come running towards me was the statue with half its face and shoulder missing!
As though he sensed my thoughts, my brother mentioned that after my surgery to fix my leg, I had kept muttering something about a statue.
I blanched. What else did I say?
Maybe someone was hiding near a statue in the park, the other brother offered.
The constable shook his head and said, “It’s a strange place. No one goes to that side of the park.”
The other cop nodded.
I had to know. “Whose statue is that there?”
“Who knows? I have never been to that part of the park,” the man admitted.
“I have heard that a man went mad there about 20 years ago and took a hammer to a statue there. But I don’t know. No one really goes there.”
It was months before I built up the strength and the courage to return to the park. I can now walk without too much discomfort, the pain in my leg hardly there. But not even for a million dollars will I ever walk even a step beyond the three-quarter mark. At that point, I stop, turn back and retrace my steps back to the gate. That broken boy can keep his vile part of the park.
Silly of me to address you guys as my dear readers given that I have not posted anything out here for anyone to read for a while. I have used the break to complete the first draft of my very first novel, A River’s Love Song. I am now working on the second draft.
Now that the story is more or less in place, I have started asking myself how to get my story into the hands and onto the screens of potential readers. I did not think beyond traditional publishing initially, but revisited my initial ideas of how to go about getting my story out there as I heard more and more horror stories from newly ‘traditionally’ published authors. Call it serendipity, around the same time, I came across the article You Won’t Make a Living as a Fiction Author by Elle Griffin. If you are a writer or an aspiring writer, do give it a look.
It got me thinking. What is my end goal? To be traditionally published or to be read? The answer, I realized is that I want to be read and make money off it at some point. This has led me to Substack and my newsletter Paper Dreams. My hope for Paper Dreams is that it become a landing pad for readers who want to read stories that deal with the beauty in the ordinary, with the joy, horror, ugliness and heroism hiding right under our noses. And it will have the occassional poem thrown in.
To tie in my work on the two platforms together, I am renaming my WordPress page Paper Dreams too. I want to thank you guys for sticking by me over the years. I now ask you to extend your love and support on to my Substack Newsletter. Please head over to my newsletter Paper Dreams and click the subscribe button and my stories and poems will land in your inbox once every week. The archive of my work to-date and all new work will continue to be available here at www.binusivan.com.
It has been a while since I have blogged. I told myself that I am going to stay away from social media and any distractions of the online kind until I was done with my final draft. A year or so down the line, I have learnt that the final draft is never the final draft, especially when working on one’s first ‘proper’ novel. Suffice it to say tears of blood have been shed. I am now working on what I sincerely hope is the penultimate final draft. Laugh away you Gods of fate.
Staying away from social media has been the easy part. After the first few days of twitchy fingers, I have not once felt the need to get back on the social media bandwagon. That is until December 2019.
A sense of unease with the Indian government’s silence on many issues and the standard response of resorting to divisive religious talk had been building up over the years. The amendment to the CAA was the last straw for me. As an NRI, and one of the privileged folks, who is not impacted by the CAA, I move in circles that seemed disassociated with the harsh reality of life on the ground in India. I needed to talk to like-minded people, and for some reason unbeknownst to me, I chose Twitter – maybe because it is the one platform that I rarely used except for the direct upload of blog links from my WordPress account. I knew I did not want to be pulled back into posting on a regular basis, so Twitter seemed apt.
It has been a learning – I have had a speed course in brief on Indian history (of which I knew a bit more than what our schools teach us), Kashmiri history (of which I knew next to nothing), political and legal implications of many laws, and above all, it has been an introduction into the world of online activism – an impassioned world fraught with hope, sincerity, righteousness, anger, sarcasm and biting wit. I had no clue that there were so many committed, passionate, politically aware people in our country, especially among the millennials. I sound like, no scratch that, am such a neophyte in this regard. But it is true – the trolling and ugly aspect of Twitter aside, it is really a great place to get a toe-hold into understanding pretty much any topic.
Three months down the line, I have begun to read Indian history in greater detail (not just the easily available official line), have begun to read more about what is happening in Kashmiri from various sources, and am reading up about socialism. It is overwhelming. My head hurts with all the information. It has also meant that my writing has taken a back seat.
Now as I sit here in the safety of my middle-class life in the Middle East, my heart still broken about what happened in NE Delhi, I know that I cannot do much except contribute to some funds, tweet my anger, hurt and affront. But what I can do is what I genuinely believe is my only true skill – write.
As always, when I stumble at my writing, I turn to my blog. It is the place where I work my writing muscles and tease the knots that tie me up open. However, there are many thoughts that I need to pen down that are more political in nature. I hope that setting the words down will free my mind to get back to my business of working on my novel in a more focused manner.
So please bear with me if my blog posts end up being political in nature more often than not. Even my poems are angry. I have realised that I cannot turn my back on politics. I am a woman living in deeply trying times. Existence, I have come to realise, is political. There is no escaping it.
This is a longish post, especially given that I have posted zilch here in so long. Thank you for sticking around.
(Click on name link for all the poems written by me that Dubai Poetics has kindly featured.)
A half-remembered tune melts into me
I rise up trying to meet it… grab it
make it fully mine.
But the very acting of reaching
rips the melody out of my mind.
Just the ghost of it stays behind
to tease me with its unformed lines.
Haunted by a feeling, almost physical,
I hang on to sanity by slender threads.
There is a foreboding in my chest
vague in detail, yet precise in visceral sentiments.
Like waking from a nightmare,
heart pounding, drenched in sweat,
half-remembering the details.
But the very act of waking,
pulls the veils over the specifics
as they brush by teasing… warning
all in the same heartbeat.
If only I could capture the wretched poignancy,
the bleak terrain of my mind
and put it on paper.
Songs seem to be able to do it.
Other poets do it with ease. But I struggle.
The very act of putting pen to paper
robs the emotion of its very feeling.
‘It’s alright,’ I tell myself.
All I need is a good night’s sleep.
Not too long to sunrise, now.
I will bid the dark goodbye.
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.
If you have grown up in Kerala or spent your summer vacation in Kerala like I used to, you will know that monsoons are serious business there. It’s the norm for the locals to crib about a poor monsoon, even as you tried to hang on to that umbrella that was being buffeted by gale force wind and rain. My grandfather was no exception. He’d look out at the sheet of water falling from the skies and mutter about how we need more rain. He had no clue that we kids were praying to the rain gods to make the rain go away as we desperately wanted to play in the yard.
Due to the rain, quite often afternoons were spent indoors reading one of those old James Hardly Chase novels that my grandfather had stored (hidden?) in the big chest, or snoozing. One such afternoon, I remember a cacophony of bird noises waking me up. The birds were definitely sounding distressed. My grandparents, cousin brother and I went out to the veranda abutting the kitchen. The noise was coming from the trees near the shed where the wood (veraggu) for our old-fashioned stove was kept. The birds were gathered on one of the lowest branches of the tree and they were screeching away at something on the ground. My grandfather was the first one to spot it. An adult viper happily feasting on a fallen egg.
In itself the event, while a part of the natural world, was disturbing enough. But I was even more frazzled by it because Velliachan (my grandfather), my cousin and I were headed to my grandfather’s maternal family shrine – The Pambattu – the next day. This is akin to the kula devatha (family deity) of North India. For those not familiar with Malayalam or Tamil – Pambu means snake, and our family deity was a snake goddess. I have mixed feelings about snakes. Given that most Hindus are taught to revere nature and all creatures associated with our Gods, I could not bring myself to outright hate them. Yet they were not on my favourite animals list. Partly because they don’t look cute and cuddly, or regal and beautiful, but mainly because of the venom angle. I was, and still am, petrified of snakes. However, it was that time of the year and I had to go and pay my respects. That night it rained.
Early next morning, the three of us stepped out. We soon left the cluster of homes (mostly, in the 70s and 80s, peopled by relatives near and far) and started walking through paddy fields. I think they were paddy fields. I am not an expert. All I know is that it was green, the grass grew tall (almost to one’s knees), and the earth was wet and slushy. My young mind (I am not sure how old I was but I must have been 13 or 14 I think), was stuck on the word – ewwwwww…. ew ew ew. It was at this point that my younger cousin brother kindly decided to enlighten me. He said, “Chechi (elder sister), sometimes they have spotted snakes in these thodis (fields)”
I could have killed him then and there, but every minute spent murdering him would be a minute longer for all those snakes hiding in the field to take a shot at me. So I speed walked as fast as I could out of that slushy field even as hot tears trickled down my cheeks.
Once we cleared the fields, we were in a lush area where the oldest houses of the Karuthodiyil Tharavadu (my grandfather’s tharavadu (clan)) were. One look at them and you will begin to believe in ghosts. My grandfather and pesky cousin caught up with me. He was looking slightly chastened.
Velliachan then told me about the house I was staring at. He said it was over 100 years old. It looked it. We walked a little bit down the road, but now it was just lush greenery around us. Then we stopped. To our right stood an entrance. No gate. Just a wall of black rocks covered by the undergrowth. Inside stood the temple. It felt and looked ancient. These temples or kaavu (abode) are not the tall, decorated and colourful creations of Tamil Nadu. There were three small wooden structures of the same blackish stone standing in a clearing surrounded by trees and shrubs. The largest one stood just a little bit taller than me. To enter it you would have to stoop. Everything, including the stone oil lamps and tiny sculptures of what looked like chubby snakes, had turned black with time and oil. These three structures were devoted to Siva, Ganapathy and Mahalakshmi.
Apparently, during the festival season, this place is bursting at the seams with worshippers. But on that particular day, even the priest was missing. Opposite the main temple, there was a natural arch made by the drooping branches of the trees. The branches of the trees blocked what little sunlight could filter in through the monsoon clouds. To my overactive and totally stressed out imagination, every branch and leaf and creeper looked like a snake. We had to walk through that arch to reach the inner kaavu – the sarpa kaavu – where the prayers and offerings to the snake gods and goddesses are made… no surprises there. The way my day was turning out to be, I wouldn’t be surprised if a snake came up to me and said hi. The short tree arched path led to a stone platform, also darkened by age and all those oil lamps. An array of snake sculptures rested on the platform. We prayed to them. I mostly begged to be spared.
Due to the missing priest, we didn’t have to hang around for long in the kaavu and we were soon out of the temple. Walking back, Velliachan decided to drop in at the ‘ghost’ house and pay his respects to an elderly relative. She too looked ancient. But her mind was tuned into young kids. Within 5 minutes, my cousin and I were tucking into banana chips and red squares of halwa. She walked us around the backyard – the view over the green hills of Malappuram with coconut trees swaying tall over green woods and fields was stunning. From the backyard, we could see the entrance of the kaavu.
When she heard that we had just been there, Muthashi* shook her head sadly and said, “In our days, the kaavu never looked this deserted. It was always lit by oil lamps and shone like a jewel.” My cousin and I looked at the dark stones, and maybe our disbelief showed on our face. “There is a reason why it was always lit,” Muthashi continued.
Long ago, Muthashi said, the woods surrounding the temple were denser. There were fewer people and more snakes – both venomous and otherwise. The jyotsan (astrologer) was a man of great standing in the community – someone to whom even the tharavadu heads would pay attention to. People turned to the jyotsan for advice on everything from planting the next crop to fixing a marriage or figuring out why something went wrong. What he said was considered the ultimate truth and no one questioned his knowledge or authority. When one of Muthashi’s forefather noticed that there were more frequent sightings of snakes in the area, he had asked the jyotsan for advice. The astrologer was convinced that the sightings were divine and the tharavadu head should build a temple in the area to honour the snake goddess.
Back in those days, poojas were held regularly, pambattam (snake dance performances) were held often, and neivedyam (sweet prasad and milk) was offered to the snakes every year. People could witness the snakes drinking the milk! Worshippers would often come to the kaavu to pray for the fulfillment of their wishes and would donate nilavilakku (tall lamps) or make special offerings to show their gratitude.
The kaavu was in those days an integral part of the tharavadu’s daily life and worshippers came on a daily basis. But after many decades, during Muthashi’s grandparent’s time, things fell into disrepair. The celebrations and rituals had got diluted over the generations. While still a part of everybody’s life, it was no longer the center of the community. The man who was the head of the tharavadu at that time was for some reason not very particular about following all the rituals. He was warned by the elders, jyotsans and the priests. But the warnings fell on deaf ears. Soon the temple was being neglected. Poojas became rare.
Then in the middle of the wet season, on a dark, stormy night (but of course!), the temple caught fire. No one could explain it. How could a stone structure catch fire during the rainy season! But there it was. A fire that gutted the temple and the trees surrounding the kaavu. Many tried to douse the fire, but it could not be put out. The fire engulfed and destroyed most of what was in the compound except for the small structures honouring the gods and goddesses. Finally, it died down on its own.
However, it was not the fire that scared the people and the tharavadu head out of their wits. It was the lady, who looked beautiful and strangely powerful who was spotted leaning by the main temple structure even as everything else around it went up in flames, who scared the living daylights out of them. According to some, she looked angry and according to others, she had a mocking expression on her face. Some saw her during the fire itself, others claimed to see her leaning on the temple after the fire died out.
The people were worried and consulted the jyotsan, who wasted no time in frightening the people further by saying that the gods were angry, and the only way to appease them was to return the temple to its old glory. Whatever it be, since then the tharavadu has continued to uphold the old traditions and rituals like before. No one wanted to risk upsetting the goddess again; because while no one could agree on the other details, everybody was certain of one thing – that beautiful woman was no human.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.