This too will pass…

Dharmathin vaazhvadhanai soodhu kavvum,
dharmam marubadiyum vellum
marumathai nammaley ulangam karkum,
vazhi thedi vidhi intha seygai seythaan
karumatthai maenmelum kaanbom indru,
kattundom poruthiruppom, kaalam maarum
dharmathai appodhu vella kaanbom,
dhanu undu gaandeevam athan per endran

Yesterday, I came across these words, from Bharathi’s Paanchaali Sabatham. Entirely by co-incidence I must say. It immediately prompted me to update my Facebook status with a cryptic (or not-so-cryptic) message. Too many feelings…too few words…

Loosely translated, these immortal words preach patience. They represent the eternal hope that no matter what happens, tomorrow will be a better day. When I was in college, we would get caught every other day for some silly prank. A class missed, a lie told, a fake permission slip…something. And as is the case with most college students, we were dumb enough to actually get caught. Sometimes, it would get worse than anticipated. We would be pulled up, shouted at and even punished. And again, as is the case with most teenaged girls, I would get upset. So upset that I would refuse to eat, or drink…or even talk. I would be miserable. At such times, Nandini would come up to me and say, “This too will pass.”

Today, she is not there to tell me this any more. But, the message still holds true. Kattundom…let’s be patient…poruthiruppom…let’s wait. Kaalam maarum…times will change! Sounds familiar? To me it strikes a very powerful chord. Nandini’s words in college…this too will pass… Dad’s words at the worst times of my life…kaalam maarum…times will change. Today, I realize that truer words have never been spoken. Times will change. Life will, and must, come a full circle. Today, like no other day in my life, I fully understand what it means to be patient, to wait, to bide my time and hope.

A break-up, a fight, a newly-found friend, parents, friends…even money, house, car…everything! Life definitely comes a full circle. I am perhaps being completely incoherent right now, but I don’t care. Words that were once hurled at me with a hurtful callousness are now being hurled back at those who used them in the first place. And, strangely, I don’t feel good. In fact, I wish things did not have to be this way.

The ridicule, the criticism, the pain, the unhappiness, or even the joy and the euphoria… all of them seem meaningless today. Because life, as they say, catches up with you at some point. Because times change. Because life comes a full circle. Does all this make any sense at all? Or are these just meaningless rants?

Azhagana Thenmadurai…

The Meenakshi Temple, fragrant strands of jasmine, the three Tamil Sangams…these are what you generally associate with the city of Madurai. And of course, the beautiful and lyrical way in which people there speak the Tamil language we, here in Chennai, are so accustomed to massacring.

But, actually arriving in Madurai in August 2009 is a different matter altogether. The city is still relatively small, and retains much of the old world charm. But, one can’t help but notice that ugly hoardings, plastic waste and unmanageable traffic are an integral part of the city. And to me, it signifies a loss of innocence. A loss of all that was good with small-town Tamil Nadu. It’s been a good seven years since I last visited Madurai. A lot of water has flown under the bridge. Or should I say, a lot of silt has accumulated. For, there is no water in the Vaigai any more. Apparently they only open the dam in April for the Kallazhagar temple festival. Otherwise, it’s just a vast expanse of sand and silt. That’s sad, considering that one of the indications that you had arrived in Madurai was crossing that bridge over the Vaigai, with the river gushing furiously below you.

But, all said and done, it feels good. It feels good to enter a city you know is almost 2000 years old. A city that hosted not one, but three Tamil Sangams. The city that nurtured and developed Muthamizh (edit: the three Tamils, referring to Iyal, Isai, Natakam, as pointed out by Santhakumar in the comment). Because, unlike Chennai, Madurai has a history distinct from the white sahibs. Talking to people there, you realise that although things have changed, they haven’t changed so drastically that you don’t realise the difference. The people are still rather more helpful and less abusive than in Chennai.

The Thirumalai Nayakar Palace still holds the same charm it did all those years ago. It’s still as beautiful, and much cleaner. It is heartening to see that the ASI is finally taking an interest in restoring that beautiful structure. And of course, in keeping the place clean. You cannot see a single plastic bag, or bubble gum, or broken bottles any more. The management makes sure of that.

Life in the city still revolves around the famed corridors of the Meenakshi temple. Yes, the temple is rather commercial now, with the management charging 100 rupees for a special darshan. But, you can still enjoy the stroll in the hallowed corridors, appreciate the nuances of the Silver Hall (analogous to the Golden Hall in Chidambaram), and walk around the famed “Pond of the Golden Lotus”. The only problem is that there was no water in the pond. It had been pumped out a few days earlier for cleaning. The Golden Lotus (Potramarai) is clearly visible. It would have looked much more beautiful had the pond been filled.

I spent a long and exciting weekend in the area. What used to seem like a lifetime of drudgery when I was ten suddenly seems much more exciting now. I want to go back. Go back and see more temples, more palaces, more hills, and more of life. I know I will. The only question is…when?

Bring back the Brits?

That’s what one Mr. Aakar Patel wants us to do. Or at least, wishes they hadn’t left India quite so soon. Check out this phenomenally shortsighted article in the Mint. Or must I say, blindingly Anglophile? I really don’t know how to classify this article. It is one thing to point out that there are problems with governance in India. It is quite another to wish an alien government had stayed sixty years longer than it actually did. Before you read on, read this article by the same person in the International News, a Pakistani site. Also, read this rebuttal by Rohit on his NationalInterest blog.

The problem is that Patel really seems to believe what he says: that the British were benevolent rulers, with India’s best interests at heart; that we could have been better off if the British had stayed another sixty years. I do not dispute the fact the British brought a number of good things to India. Think about the railways, the administrative services, the English language, and you will see what I mean. I agree. We owe much of what we see in India today to the fact that we were ruled for over 400 years by a foreign government.

But think about this. The same government threw our people into prison for the crime of questioning their authority over a country and is, arguably, not theirs. The same government skinned our people alive with the imposing burden of taxes, and denied basic human rights to about one-fifth of humanity. Let us not forget that the British government that gave us a decent system of education also founded whites-only clubs and cricket grounds were boards proudly bore the words, “Dogs and Indians not allowed.” Let us also not forget that, by Patel’s own admission millions of people died in several famines across the country during the rule of the British. And, we would also do well to remember that in the last sixty-two years, the country has not faced a single famine.

This is not to eulogise the Indian government and claim it has done its best. No. It simply means that the government listens to the people who brought it to power, not because governments are inherently noble, but because they know they can be thrown out in the next elections by the same people who elected them. It is this kind of control that gives us the right to express ourselves freely. It is precisely this freedom that has today allowed Patel to even publish something as inherently anti-establishment as this article.

The point here is not to rubbish the contribution of the British to infrastructure development or education in India. But, in acknowledging their positive influences, we must not become so blind to their faults that we wish they had stayed longer. That is extremely dangerous. Blind adoration is never good.

Yes, we Indians are corrupt, inefficient and nepotistic. But, however inefficient we may be, we still hold the right to rule ourselves. Don’t judge us because we are imperfect. Let us make our mistakes, pick ourselves up, and continue on our path to discovering the best way to govern ourselves. Don’t assume someone else knows better because they come from the west of the Caucasus. It would do well for us to remember that the British, the French, the Americans and every other developed country has travelled the path we are treading today. They have made their mistakes, learnt from them and are governing themselves reasonably well today. That might take another century in India. But, let us be. We will learn. Sooner or later.

Time stands still…

…as you enter the three centuries-old Dutch fort at Sadras. I won’t describe the fort for you. Sriram has done it well enough. The fort, built in the 17th Century speaks volumes of a past long dead, an era gone by. I enter the fort and wish I were born in those times. I wish I could live there, experience the life of the times, fight all those wars, save the fort from ruin. I know that’s a crazy thought, but hey! One can dream, right?

I take a look at the ancient cemetery inside the fort. Thankfully, today it is open. As we step in, I feel an easy calm. I forget that I am Amrutha, that I am living in 2009, or even that I am with two others. I forget to speak. The ASI employee who takes us around is generous with his time, and gives us plenty of information. But, I am in a completely different world. I take in what he tells us, complete with the dates and events, but somehow, don’t feel like listening at all. He tells us to approach the main office of the ASI in the Secretariat in Chennai for more information. I am still not impressed. I can only wonder what happened here all those years ago. I can only try to relive those moments.

I take a walk around the fort, following the ASI employee and Sriram. Both seem completely self-assured, almost as if they know this place inside out. They probably do. This is my first time here. I get to the place that was once a kitchen. I see a flight of stairs going up and decide to climb. Sriram is right behind me. We take in the view of the sea from there. At this point, I turn, and see red. Right in front of me, on the dome of the centuries-old warehouse, is graffiti. Some random guy called Suresh has declared his love for someone else in ugly scratches all over the dome. What the heck? Can’t we even respect our heritage? I’ll never understand.

Recovering from the blow, we continue walking around for nearly half an hour, shooting pictures at every conceivable angle, forty-four in all. When we finally finished with the fort, all I felt was marvel at what an old, broken building can do to you. It is, after all, not just a building. It’s a piece of history, beautiful in every way.

Wake up! Smell the (filter) coffee!

Picture this…you wake up in the morning, feeling lazy from all-night conversations with the world’s best friends you can have, and wish you could sleep just 5 minutes more. At this point, the aroma of freshly-filtered coffee, hits you…yumm… Can life be any better? Make no mistake; this is one area in which I am unabashedly a South Indian Brahmin. Freshly brewed filter coffee early in the morning (ok…even if it’s at 9) is something I’d kill for.

Food is something that I absolutely love. While I wouldn’t call myself a foodie (it seems to be becoming a bad word), I definitely enjoy food, of any and every kind. As long as it’s edible and doesn’t contain remains of any dead animals or sea creatures, I’ll eat it. Friends fail to see what is so special about freshly brewed filter kaapi.

Yesterday, a colleague said he didn’t see why I was so insistent on filter coffee. “Actually, decaf Nescafe is almost as good.” I nearly screamed in agony at the comparison between something so obviously tasteless as decaffeinated coffee and the wonderful Kumbakonam degree coffee. I mean, how can anyone be so insensitive? And what’s the point in drinking coffeeless coffee? That’s obviously what decaffeinated coffee is all about. Coffee without coffee.

Oh yes. I am puritan when it comes to food. Freshly-brewed (preferably freshly-ground) Kumbakonam filter coffee, dosas made from homemade batter, Thengai Sevai (what people so creatively call rice noodles) made painstakingly using the large bronze sevai naazhi at home. I’d die to have any of this. And yes! How could I forget? Rasam made in an Eeya Sombu (tin vessel) over embers of coal that takes ages to heat (but the taste is fabulous, so who cares?). Sundakkai sambar made in a Kalchetti (stone vessel), eaten with hot rice and potato poriyal made in a mud pot! Ok. I stop here. I am hungry!

The son of Ponni

Yesterday was Adi Perukku. I read not one, but two posts on Ponniyin Selvan. Yes, the novel par excellence by Kalki Krishnamurthy is what first came to my mind when I realized it was the 18th day of the Tamil month of Adi. The thought sent me hurtling back a decade.

I had barely finished by Class 12 exams. My father brought home an armload of Tamil books. The Government of Tamil Nadu had decided to subsidize the works of Kalki Krishnamurthy, to commemorate the birth centenary of the writer. And dad, to his credit, decided to expose me to a world of Tamil literature I was entirely unfamiliar with. I could read Tamil about as well as the current crop of Kollywood heroines can speak it. For those of you who know what that means, it’s like George Bush’s general knowledge, zero!

Dad, being dad, had ambitious plans for me. He laid out the three major works by Kalki in front of me and asked me to choose. Ponniyin Selvan, vigorously recommended by dad, mom, grandmother and a whole army of older relatives occupied the pride of place. Alaiyosai, Kalki’s personal favourite, was somewhere at the bottom of the list. Between these two exalted works lay Sivagamiyin Sabatham. Now, asking me to choose between them was like asking a beginner in English to choose between Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Both are difficult, each more difficult than the other.

I bravely plunged into the world of Ponniyin Selvan, with mom and grandmother’s encouragements. Dad, for his part, was ready to explain the meaning of Tamil words I did not understand. In hindsight, I suspect that he bit off much more than he could chew. He did not bargain to become the official translator of classical Tamil into Madras Baashai for his darling daughter raised on the banks of the Buckingham Canal. Ok. I am exaggerating…but, truly, my knowledge of Tamil was rivaled only by my (in)ability to do math.

Once I began reading the novel, all was forgotten. My walking, talking Madras Baashai interpreter was troubled for exactly three days. The story was engrossing. It was moving forward at a phenomenal speed. I discovered the Pazhuvettaraiyars, the hero Vandhiyathevan, the beautiful Nandini, the shy Madhuranthakan. History came alive in those words. I suddenly wanted to know more about Anirudha Brahmarayar and the Uttiramerur inscriptions. I wanted to know how Kundavai Prattiyar lived, what the Kudandhai astrologer said. I wanted to visit these exotic places. I wanted to study history. I discovered the romance between Vanathi and Arulmozhi Varman. In the process, I developed a crush on the noble Arulmozhi Varman, long dead. Poor man! Wonder how many teenage girls discovered they had a crush on him! A decade later, I wonder if Rajaraja Cholan was really as noble as Kalki’s Arulmozhi Varman. On second thoughts, I’d rather not know.

It took me nearly a month to finish the five-volume three-thousand-page novel. When I was done, I was incorrigibly spoiled. I was in love; in love with history, with the Chola times. I was in love with the art of writing something so breathtakingly beautiful. I had decided. I was going to study history. I haven’t regretted that decision till date. And yes, I am still in love. I still want to see Uttiramerur, Pazhayarai, Uraiyur, Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram. This is a love affair that will probably last all my life.

PS: There is an English translation of Ponniyin Selvan. But, if you can read Tamil even passingly, please read it in the original. I can guarantee the story will take you forward, even if you don’t want to go.

Slim, fair and “homely”

Ever gone through matrimonial ads in the newspapers? All of them ask for brides who are slim, fair and “homely”. Mommy dearest, in her quest for the perfect son-in-law (another post for another time) decided to put in a description of her darling daughter (read ME) the other day over phone to someone. “My daughter is tall, slim and fair”, she proclaimed. Sitting at my computer, engrossed in finishing my reading list on Google Reader, I was barely paying attention to what she was saying until that minute. However, I did a minor double take when I heard her description of me.

Wait a minute. Just when did I become slim? Or fair for that matter? At five feet and nine inches of height, I surely tower over most Indian women, and even some men. But slim? I don’t think I’ve ever written about it, but my desperate attempts at going to the gym, salsa classes and even aerobics met with dismal failure barely one month after the start. I wouldn’t call myself overweight or fat, but I certainly can’t be classified as slim. As in, I do not resemble a lizard, an escape from Somali famines or Kareena Kapoor at size zero. Sorry. Nor is this my idea of beauty. I turned and looked at my mother, with an expression of disbelief. She ignored it. Over the phone, she continued eulogizing her daughter’s perfect proportions.

As if that were not enough, she called me “fair”. Not wheatish, not brown…fair!! Yikes! Me? Fair? Since when is brown skin considered “fair”? Dusky at best, would aptly describe my complexion. But no, mom refused to be convinced. According to her, her daughter is still slim, tall and fair. My arguments failed. Sigh! For the first time, I found myself giving up without a fight. All because of one sentence. She turned around, exasperated at my pointless protests and said, “Kaakkaikku than kunju pon kunju.” Now, who can argue with that?

PS: At least she didn’t call me homely. That would have been the ultimate sacrilege! 😛

Of art and vulgarity

I was following a rather interesting discussion yesterday on television. It concerned two groups of people, one contending that the traditional arts were vulgar and the other contending that vulgarity, or the lack of it depended on one’s perspective.

The one thing I noticed about people who protested vehemently against vulgarity in art, was that there is too much of skin show, too much eroticism and too much sensuality in the traditional art forms. Fair enough, I would say. Except that one of the special guests on the programme was an office-bearer of the BJP. She started by saying that music and dance in temple festivals were ok, as long as the organizers invited classical musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers to it. She went on to state that only these art forms were the truly representative of Indian culture. According to her, the folk arts and other traditional forms were lesser art forms, and did not reflect true Indian culture.

This statement is not only infuriating, but also blatantly and completely false. These self-appointed custodians of Indian culture have no real idea of what Indian culture implies. Some facts need to be clarified at this point.

Myth: The classical arts are the purest form of Indian performing arts.
Reality: The classical arts are heavily influenced by other cultures, and are by no means the purest form of art expression. In fact, both Carnatic Music and Bharatanatyam evolved and crystallized in the late 18th Century, with the musical trinity, Muthuswamy Dikshithar, Shyama Shastri and Thyagaraja. Hindustani classical music draws heavily from Mughal influences, from the 12th Century onwards. (Source)

Myth: Indian culture condemns sex and sensuality. It must stay within the confines of the bedroom, and has no place in art.
Reality: Check out the statues at Khajuraho. Or even in the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai. Many of them portray sexual positions. They celebrate sex as sacred and essential. Much of our reluctance to accept the portrayal of sexuality in public stems from Victorian, and essentially non-Indian influences. In fact the Shiva Linga in itself is a symbol of fertility, along with the feminine Yoni. A refusal to recognize it is simply a refusal to see our religion for what it really is.

Myth: Theru-koothu, karagam, mayilaattam etc. are lower art forms.
Reality: Nothing could be farther from the truth. These folk art forms are the most basic dance forms and are no less than the classical arts. In fact, they form the basis of our performing arts.

Myth: Bharatanatyam is the highest dance form.
Reality: Bharatanatyam was condemned and shunned by the Hindu mainstream until the time of Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra. Until her time, the dance form was confined to the Devadasis (courtesans) and no upper caste, Brahmin woman was allowed to dance. Same goes for Carnatic Music. M S Subbalakshmi and D K Pattammal were among the first to venture out of their homes and perform in public.

On the whole, Indian culture is a much-misunderstood thing. Nobody knows what it really stands for, but everyone does their bit to try and preserve the little bit they consider representative of culture. Why can’t we understand the simple truth that Indian culture was way more progressive and tolerant than most other cultures? Why can’t we learn to respect art for what it is? I wonder if we will ever get answers to these questions.

Edit: On a related note, read this article by Sriram. He has a different perspective on the issue.