Monday, August 30, 2010

Carriers of Oral Tradition

This topic suggested itself to me yesterday when I came across a reference to Chanson de Rolland. The very mention of the epic and I found myself in the midst of a royal banquet in honour of Charlemagne emprior (Malayalam corruption for emperor . Tho’ chakravarthy is the word, this is the term my story teller used). A little hungry boy runs into the hall and snatches the hors d’oeuvre from the emperor’s table and dashes out. The emperor orders the boy to be brought in and soon discovers it is none other than his nephew Rolland, whose mother had been banished from the kingdom. The exploits of Rolland then came to me in snatches. I remembered the sense of horror that gripped me at the image of Oliver with his body full of cuts and scratches from the battle being dropped into the well of salt. The Saracens were the villains, I remember, and Charlemagne’s army that Rolland joined was God’s favourite. I remember the final scene of the epic where Rolland, knowing he is about to die, breaks his sword to smithereens, knocking it again and again on a rock. He did not want anyone else to use his precious sword!

The above details may not be accurate for many reasons. It is recaptured from memory of the story I heard as a child from Cicily thathi (thathi is a word for sister among a certain community of Kerala Christians), the seamstress who’d been around in my house ever since I remember. I must have been around 5 or 6 when my brothers and I, with our mouths hanging open at the sheer power of her story telling , sat in front of Cicily thathi as she embroidered delicate flowers on the bed sheets or pillow covers or table cloth or sarees.

Thathi told us a lot of other stories too. Of those, I was fascinated by the story of Pulomaja, the virtuous princess who guarded her chastity fiercely.

The source of her Charlemagne stories was the verses of chavittu nadakom, a Christian art form popular in rural kerala in those days. She was a voracious reader who read novels, magazines, newspapers. She had studied only up to the 4th standard, but was a huge repository of stories, which she gathered not only from what she read, but also from what she heard from her elders.

This set me thinking. Who were the story tellers that shaped my imagination as a child? My mother? No. Not really. She didn’t tell me stories when I was a kid. She did when I grew up and had children of my own. But when I was a school going kid in the lower primary, I used to tell her stories and episodes from school and she used them as illustrations to impart to me practical and spiritual wisdom. But amma was not a storyteller.

Most of the stories I heard were from the domestic helps we had in the house – and we had quite a number . Those were difficult days and amma used to look for the slightest excuse to engage these helps so that they’d get at least 2 square meals a day. Thus it was that there was Cicily thathi who told us literary stories, Rosa cheduthy (term of respect for elder sister) and Maria cheduthy who told us stories handed down by word of mouth.

The cheduthys were not literate and so their stories had a different quality. Besides, they were not discreet enough to know that certain details should not be shared with the children of a very prudish Syrian Catholic family. Their stories sent us into peals of laughter. They were rich in physical description. The women who were the face for vices were invariably shrivelled versions of once well endowed wanton ladies. Mariacheduthy took immense pleasure in graphically describing the now pathetic condition of these sinful women. I once shared the details with amma who was furious and admonished the two cheduthys.

But Maria cheduthy could not be stopped. She resorted to blackmail. She said she wouldn’t tell us any story if we shared them with amma. My brothers, who preferred outdoor games, were not affected by the threat. But I loved Mariacheduthy’s stories with the sleaze she injected into the story of saints and virtuous people and her demo in the form of dance (this almost seventy year old lady showed me how Salome danced to seduce Herod!) and mimicry (she could imitate the emperor’s gait as well as the old wicked half naked witch, bent double on a dirty stick with her shaky grating voice).

Looking back, I realise that a whole new world opened out to me during the time I spent in the company of these cheduthys. Many looked askance at amma for allowing me to spend so much time in the company of ‘those’ people. But I loved them and their stories. The values imbedded in their stories were the same that were taught by amma and my catechism teachers. In the stories told by the cheduthys and lessons taught by the nuns I learnt the same thing – the greatest sins were those against love and chastity. I learnt that there was no sin on earth that God wouldn’t forgive; so there should be nothing on earth that i too can’t forgive. Only, the cheduthy’s had a way of making the value system appear more attractive.

Sometimes, these stories acquired a class colour. I remember Veroni cheduthy, who came into my world when i was a little older, telling me that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to go to heaven. I laughed out loud ‘cos i knew what she was getting at (she was taken to task by amma for playing truant for a week) and also ‘cos i was taught in my catechism class damage control strategies for being economically better off than her. She became furious at my reaction, and came close to me, stuck her face close to mine and said, wagging a her furious forefinger at me: “You wait and see. When you are roasting in hell, i’ll be reclining against the chest of father Abraham up there in heaven. And when you ask for a drop of water to quench your thirst, i will not give you”. She then did a right about turn and walked off from me, throwing a couple of backward glances to see how the idea appealed to me. Her face, however, was beatific, probably at the thought of amma and me roasting in hell!

I wonder if we have that category of people anymore in Kerala. Highly improbable. Universal literacy dealt the first deathblow to them by giving access to all potential carriers of oral tradition to newspapers, ma magazines and serious magazines. And now with the onslaught of the visual media, who has the time or inclination to be carriers or recipients of oral tradition?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Truth has set me free – the English language and me. In a rambling mode - -

I think every human being is an artist. Every child, unrestricted by the dos and don’ts and fatwas that shape our minds in straitjacket moulds, is an artist. Its unfettered mind sees the world through the prism of unconditioned imagination. As it grows up, there are two ways in which it can develop. It can cling tenaciously to the perspective innocent of life’s schooling, thereby develop double vision as its thinking gets regulated into stereotyped notions. Or it can discipline its life within the rules and regulations of society and wean itself out of the inherent artistic mode of thinking. The first is an artist, in the grip of divine madness. The second, the sane human being – that predictable creature that we all prefer to deal with.

Not my original, as you’d have guessed. “Remember Wordsworth’s “Trailing cloud of glory do we come?”

Well, I think I belonged to the first category despite the cast iron strait jacket mould that I was yanked into by the extreme conservatism of my Syrian Christian community. But I’d have struggled to set myself free from it into the world of creativity had I the word , the signifier.

I lost my word power when I got estranged from my mother tongue. With switching over, in the 5h standard, from Malayalam to French as my second language, my severance from literary Malayalam was complete. Then followed a long period of shallow existence in the world and culture of the English language. The fascinating space around me created by the English nursery rhymes, children’s books, comics, classics, bestsellers sucked me into the vortex of a world I had not lived except in my imagination, while physically inhabiting a Syrian Christian home in the small town of Cochin.

Feelings and emotions - intense and overpowering- struggled within me, seeking an outlet I could not provide –for I was caught between two worlds, one created by an alien language, the other, the flesh and blood world i physically and emotionally existed in but whose language i was alienated from. The latter, the real world I was rooted in, afforded exposure to a number of varieties of Malayalam – the refined language of my parents and relatives, the language of siblings and cousins with whom I had fun times during vacation, the vibrant language of the helpers at home, those potent carriers of oral tradition, pulsating with the confrontational experience of the rough life of the fifties and sixties. Yes, that was my language. That was the language in which I felt and thought; that was the language that coursed through my blood stream.

Tragically, when I reached that age when one gets into the grip of that urge to pen down one’s thoughts, words failed me. The English language did not have the resources to express my thoughts and feeling. I didn’t have sufficient mastery over it. After all, how much of it can one have over an alien language? In utter dismay I looked at the huge chasm between the innermost ME and English, the only language in which I could express myself in writing. My sensibilities could not find corresponding utterances in the alien tongue. I was not Tess or Grand Sophy, but Kochuthresiamma alias Molly, the last but one in a large Syrian catholic family, thrown into the rough sea which first the girl child, then the adolescent and finally the woman had to navigate with considerable difficulty in order not to lose her individuality and power of independent thinking.

Despite its extreme patriarchal culture and hypocrisy, the real world that I inhabited was a rich and beautiful one with a lot of love, gentleness, benevolence, benign human values, and customs & practices steeped in secular traditions evolved from 2000 years of give and take, learn and teach interaction with diverse religions. At the dining table, my father spoke about the story of the evolution of Kerala culture. Being a history person he discourses had the accuracy of history and the authenticity of lived experiences. My mother spoke about it all the time, hoping to perpetuate through me the tradition which she was handed down. The seamstress Cicily thathi and Rosa cheduthy in whose company i found myself very often, filled my mind with stories of local origin, folk lore and myths handed down orally. I had it all in my blood. But i couldn’t speak or sing.

I was a broken muse.

I partly blame the way i was taught the English language. AS a child, I was made to believe that it was the most sacrosanct thing on earth. This, unfortunately, happens in convents. This happens at home too. My people were proud about my comfort in the language. As far as they were concerned, my incompetence in the mother tongue was well mad up for. Sister Kevin who taught Wren and Martin grammar made it appear that any violation of rules warranted severe disciplinary action, something equivalent to a firing squad! The English Language became to me a potent deity, an inflexible tool that would not bend in the hands of a Malayalee Nazrani girl who wanted to tell her tale. So i never wrote.


After research –when i was well into thirties. My area of research included the damaging impact of colonisation on the Indian mind. My perception of the English language underwent a sea change in a matter of three years. When i looked back ,i wanted to kick myself for having allowed ridiculous, intimidating notions to stifle my muse. It’s not as though i didn’t know all along that
· This angrezi language was nonexistent before 600 AD or
· It is the most illogical language on earth, the reasons for which i knew only too well
· That the language was considered barbaric by the refined cultures of Europe
· That the grammar and rules appeared only in 18th century, till which time it was a free for all
· And some of these rules were most laughable as they were modelled on Latin from which English did not descend causing them to stick out like sore thumb, and which therefore tended to get flouted by native users, the only faithful followers being the educated colonised!(Colonised in body, mind and soul, UGH!)
· That English achieved this status only in the colonial world.
· That it is a utility language which the world respected grudgingly ‘cos there was a time that the sun never set on the British Empire.

These and many more factors could have exposed to me the clay feet of this language which was given more than its due in the subcontinent. The History of English language which i was superficially familiar with from my early twenties should have broken the oppressive hold this language had on me much earlier. But for some reason it didn’t. It took me three years of intense reading during my research to break free from the inhibiting chains with which the English language kept me a prisoner.

So, now my attitude is
· What the heck. Whatever you want to say, say it. If your grip over the language isn’t good enough, to hell with it. Say it in whatever way you can. Forget the impropriety of the usage. You loyalty is to yourself, your story, not to the language (though i must confess i won’t go as far as ‘nose poking nenjamma’).
· It is usage that determines the precepts, not the other way round.
· When the British colonised the world and then left behind their language, they lost all proprietorship over it. Each region cannot but inevitably manipulate it to suit its requirements. These are not mistakes but differences, which if officialised will acquire the respectable status of a ‘variety of English’.
· The Queens English born in east midland region on the banks of river Thames close to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, is a misfit in the little state of Kerala and becomes effete in the hands of the non native users in this distant geographical location with its very different climate, culture and whatnot, unless the user is able to relate to the language without the colonial slavishness.

These auto suggestions did help, but sadly, i was long past the age of creativity when the film fell from my eyes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When old order changes - - -

“He loved me unconditionally”, sobbed my son when he was informed of the death of his grandfather, my father-in-law.

My children were his favourite, others said. That might have been true – I ‘m not sure. But the reason is not definitely because they were the son’s children. It is commonly believed that all Nazrani men have preference for the son’s children which definitely was not true in the case of Achchan, as we all called my father in law. My children grew up with him while the other grandchildren grew up abroad. So naturally, there was a mutual closeness between my children and their grandfather. I refuse to believe that there is that patriarchal preference for the offspring of the male.

My son came to visit achachan two weeks before the latter got a cerebral stroke. He was on the brink of 95, healthy, cheerful, humorous - and ecstatic ‘cos his grandson had come down for 5 days only to spend some time with him. As I look back at those five days, I get a strange feeling that achachan had been holding out only to see Mathew whose scheduled visits had sent him to the seventh heaven. He was a transformed man after Mathew came. He waited for Mathew to get up in the morning and followed him like a shadow, which my son too enjoyed. They would talk and laugh like old friends meeting after a long time. What they talked about, i have no idea, but they were talking and laughing and appeared to be conspiring all the time. My father in law who was not senile despite his age would pretend to be that just to annoy my mother-in-law and me, and thereby afford amusement to his grandson. Then he’s say, “Mathacha, these women are all old. Both of us are the only young ones here” and Mathew would agree whole heartedly with him.

Mathew wanted me to make homemade ice-cream for old time sake. After one round, I left the half full dish in the freezer. One afternoon after my siesta, I came out into the dining room to find the grandfather and grandson with tablespoons, helping themselves to the ice-cream from the dish straight from the freezer! They were at the last scoop, and laughed uproariously when i came with a small dish to take my share.

On the day before he left, Mathew took us out to dinner at the Mascot Hotel. Achachan had readily agreed to come. Of late, he had been disinclined to go out of the house ‘cos he found it very tiring. Achachan enjoyed the dinner, tried out all his favourite dishes, taking my mind back to his healthier younger days.

A week after Mathew left, achachan asked me, “Will Mathew get a job in Kerala?
“Why should he come to Kerala? He is in the academic field and Kerala is not the right place for that”, i replied.
“I want to see him always”, said achachan.
“When is Renukuttan coming?”, he asked after a moment.
“it’s hardly eight months since she came to see you. How can she come down so often from America?”

The next day, achachan got the stroke.

My daughter came down again to see him but he was in the hospital, in critical condition. It made me feel very sad. Her last memories of achachan too should have been what Mathew carries with him. Achachan tried talking to her as much as he could on the day she spent at the hospital.

During his funeral, I kept updating my children. Soon after I informed them that he was buried, Renu, my daughter sent me this text message: I MISS HIM

Friday, August 06, 2010

Wishful Thinking!


It took a call to the Central finance minister for the telecom minister to swing into action to issue orders against unsolicited marketing through cell phone.

I hope when Sonia Gandhi comes to Kerala next, the AC of her car breaks down and she is forced to drive down from the airport thru stinking streets. Perhaps a couple of nauseous attack too would be ideal. I close my eyes and see the Congress chief first holding her handkercief to her nose, then the mundani of her saree, looking angrily at the people in the car, removing the nose protection for a moment to yell at them and then throwing up - - - - - - -Oh Lovely!

I hope a day will come when ministers from all parties will get stranded on the roads for a whole day with no toilet facility whatsoever on a lightening demonstration day in Kerala. Better still, stones should accidentally crash in through the glass of the AC cars and mildly graze the forehead, just missing the eye, of a youth party leader accompanying the minister. Gosh, how wonderful it’d be if a minister’s offspring’s wedding had to be cancelled on a hartal day. Now, my next wishful thinking is a little too cruel of me I know, but – would you forgive me if I wish that on a hartal day, the near and dear ones of a few party leaders and ministers get waylaid on the way to the hospital causing immense anxiety to these shakers and movers of political stunts? But of course, I do not wish any serious damage to be done to the sick ones. Only moments of anxiety for their relatives who are political goons.

It gives me immense pleasure to visualise a scene where a meeting hosted in a gigantic air conditioned hall by the Cochin Corporation at 7 pm, with Sreemathy teacher and Electricity minister and KSEB MD as the chief guests. The electricity fails. The KSEB Chief speaks into the telephone and is told that a tree fell here and a transformer got burnt there and no chance of restoring the electricity for 24 hours. The generators swing into action but soon each develops problems. Candles and hurricane lamps appear. The hall gets hot. The windows have to be opened. AND THEN - - - - an invasion of mosquitoes – those carriers of Fileria, Chicugunya, Dengue - - . I can see the ministers and high officials scratching away to glory, some of them as comical as the actor Innocent in Chronic Bachelor trying to get a cockroach out of his shirt; and finally the distinguished guests running out of the hall with swarms of mosquitoes chasing each of them.

Sorry, got really carried away there.

Believe it or not, I’ve always thought of myself as a gentle soul, never wishing to anyone any harm. Am a little rattled that I have this streak of sadism in me.

That guy Freud knew what he was talking about!

Monday, August 02, 2010

Nightmarish Vision

Sometimes I wish aliens would attack our planet. Redemption for mankind breaking up into fragments by narrow political religious, racial, ideological walls seems to lie only in such an invasion. I have learnt in history classes that a common enemy can unite a divided country. So an ET invasion might unite this fractured world. Not that mankind does not have common enemies. What else are poverty, disease, natural disasters? Unfortunately, these enemies are no longer seen as enemies but as issue that befriend those who thrive on divisive politics.

And hence this desire for an alien invasion. But I’m not sure that this will unite all the nations. That happens only in movies I think. If Martians come with superior military technology, the chances are that the big players in the world power politics will vie with each other to ally themselves with the alien invaders to do in the rest of the world.

Can’t help being this cynical. We live in a world where developed countries connive with MNCs whose sole goal is to enlarge their yield. Commercial morality and humanitarian concerns are laughable notions for these MNCs. Giant corporates set up factories without proper safety measures in far away underdeveloped lands, in areas where the poor and the helpless and the voiceless live. Should there be an accident like, for example, the toxic gas leak in Bhopal which claimed tens of thousands of lives besides creating havoc on the unborn generations, the poor countries can be bought off to save the neck of the officials whose negligence lead to human disaster of such terrible magnitude. We saw this happen in the case of the Bhopal gas tragedy, where the powers that be in India shamefully waived every rule in the country to help escape that rogue official whose refusal to pay heed to the warnings of safety audits was responsible for the terrible human tragedy. While the debate rages on in India on the identities of the individuals responsible for helping Anderson to get away to the safe haven of his own country out of reach of the hands of justice of the land of the victims, Anderson enjoys the full protection of the US, the chronic Big Bully in the global power politics. Instead of treating him like a criminal and mass murderer, his country has made it convenient for this brutal merchant of death to live in the plush comfort of his Madison square apartment, in the lap of obscene luxury. Apparently, in the Big Bully’s scheme of things, the life of one of its citizen is worth more than the lives of the tens of thousands of the wretched of the earth from the poorest regions in the Third World.

WE live in a world where human worth is measured in terms of the part of the world to which human beings belong, their race and their utility to the corporates.

We live in a world where there is much talk of justice, but none in practice, where there is much talk of egalitarianism, but none in practice. Giant corporates rule the roost. They manipulate governments across the world and sell their values through media and their suave agents. Wolves in lambs’ clothing rule the world. They have a way of networking with those of their own ilk in all the countries across the world.

When the aliens invade, the world would still be divided – but on different parametres, I guess. Big bully and its power-mongering coterie comprising the corporate world drawn from every country will gang up with the aliens to make the world safe for their nefarious activities.