Thursday, February 8, 2024

Sights and Seasons of Paradise: Of Cherry Blossoms and Tea Gardens


Kerala landscape is a shade-card of green hues. When I look around, I find the deep green of hibiscus bush, the dappled green of jackfruit tree, the jade green of paddy fields, fern green of overgrowth on the roadsides, sea-green backwaters, bluish-green Malabar parrots and the velvety moss green on the walls after rains. But my favourite green is the glowing green of tea gardens. It is a saturated, neutral, mature green with a slight undertone of golden. It makes my heart jump every time I see it. I had two back-to-back visits to Munnar on weekends in last two months and was fortunate to feast my eyes on this tea-green of Munnar hills. But the recent  February visit was a double bonanza as along-with tea-garden green, the valley was also decorated with cherry blossom pink. 

Munnar lies in the idyllic western ghats of Kerala as a picturesque hill station, full of tea plantations and flowers. But to watch the delicate pink and white cherry blossoms in the background of tea gardens, harmoniously blending with  the lush greenery is a sensory pleasure of another level.

The delicate flowers of cherry tree hold a special place in my heart. They have inspired artists and poets for centuries in eastern cultures and even have festivals organized around them in Japan and Korea. I have drooled over them in Washington, Copenhagen and Nanjing and I dream of visit Japan someday during Sakura season. It, however, came as a surprise to me to find cherry blossoms in the hills of Munnar. The place where I was staying had 4-5 trees and back in December 2023, while zooming my camera to click a sunbird, I suddenly noticed a single pale pink flower at the end of the branch. It was then that I realized that I was looking at a cherry tree. By my February visit, the trees were full of flowers in that guest house and everywhere else.

What a strange thing!

to be alive

beneath cherry blossoms.

--Kobayashi Issa

Cherry blossoms hold elevated status in China, signifying love and the female mystique but nowhere in the world are these elusive flowers more cherished than in Japan. The floral imagery permeates Japanese paintings, films, and poetry.Much like my other favourite flower of waterlilies, Cherry blossoms also have a very significant place in Buddhist philosophy of east.  They are often tied to the themes of mortality, mindfulness and living in the present, and are used as a timeless metaphor for human existence. Their blooming season is powerful, glorious and intoxicating, but tragically short-lived — a reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting.

 Finding bulbuls, finches and shrikes enjoying these beautiful flowers in the mornings made my heart filled with joy.

While cherry blossom and the birds nibbling at these flowers was my top attraction of Munnar visit, there was much more to explore and see in this beautiful landscape. The hills, the mist, the valleys, the streams, the waterfalls, tea plantations, rare flora and fauna, Munnar is definitely mother nature’s favorite land. 

I was told that, Munnar got its name from its strategic location at the confluence of three rivers – Kannimalai, Nallathanni and Kundala Rivers. 'Moonu' means 'three' and 'Aru' means 'river'. Today the place is bustling with tourists, honeymooners and hikers and is full of charming sights and places to enchant them.

It is however funny that this gem of a place was not so famous till 150 years back. It is believed that John Daniel Munro, the British Resident of Travancore kingdom introduced the world to Munnar in the 1870s when he visited the place to solve a border dispute between Travancore and its neighbour Madras. Munro convinced the royal family to lease the land to him and started transforming the area by forming the North Travancore Land Planting & Agricultural Society in 1879. The cultivation of crops, including coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal in various parts of the region started soon afterwards. But within years, tea plantation arrived at the scene with AH Sharp who planted tea in around 50 acres of land at Parvathy, which is now part of the Seven Mallay estate. Tea replaced all other crops in these sloping hills soon. In 1895, Finlay Muir & Company (James Finlay and Company Limited) entered the scene and bought 33 independent estates. The Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was formed in 1897 to manage these estates. Today most of the states are either owned by Tata or by Kannan Devan Plantations.

I have come to believe that one cannot visit any part of Kerala without encountering some legend or story from the Ramayana or Mahabharata.  The moment you step out of Trivandrum to Kottayam, you find Jatayu rock, where the legendary bird Jatayu stopped Ravana during abduction of Seeta. Close to Munnar, in the most beautiful surroundings of Devikulam reserve forest is a hidden lake called- Seetha Mata Lake where Seeta supposedly took bath. The magnificent yet secret lake lies amidst the majestic woods in Devikulam at a distance of 13 km from Munnar. Many believe in the therapeutic powers of the water. I cannot vouch for the legend and authenticity of it but the lake was a as pristine as it can be. Though I happen to see the place on a rainy day, it is not hard to imagine the beauty of the place on a clear sunny day.
On my way back from Munnar, travelling through the serene tea estates on sloping roads,  I was again reminded of the philosophy inspired by nature. How in all world cultures, humans pray to the forces of nature, rejoice the change of seasons, and find consolation in the natural transitions of beauty. Cherry blossoms, for example, have long represented the impermanence of beauty and how despite their short life, they have a lasting impact on our minds. The first novelist Murasaki Shikibu of Tale of Genji, expressed the similar sentiment when she wrote- “Yes, the cherry trees put this truth very plainly: none of the glory of blossoms and autumn leaves lasts long in this fleeting world.”

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Sights and Seasons of Paradise: Deities, Temples and the truth about religion

As a Hindu I follow a faith that offers a veritable smorgasbord of options to the worshipper of divinities to adore and to pray to, of rituals to observe (or not), of customs and practices to honour (or not), of fasts to keep (or not). As a Hindu I subscribe to a creed that is free of the restrictive dogmas of holy writ, one that refuses to be shackled to the limitations of a single volume of holy revelation.

-Shashi Tharoor

It is said that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true. The same can also be said about Hinduism. Shashi Tharoor in the initial chapters of his book ‘Why I am a Hindu’ lists out how Hinduism is different from other religions  and what aspects of it appeal to him personally. Many of these like absence of dogma, no declaration of being the ONLY-truth, a fair amount of flexibility in practices and the deep philosophical traditions – are my reasons too for appreciating the religion I was born into. I consider myself a believer. Though I do not follow any specific ritual or sect, I acknowledge the presence of a superior power and I do bow to Her pretty often. I express gratitude when good things happen to me, I pray when things go tough. That said, my religion is a very personal and private matter. As taught by my parents, both of whom were against any pomp or show of religion, I don’t believe in showing my faith in the way I dress, decorate my house etc. Much like most other Hindus of liberal upbringing , I have no problem in accepting other beliefs, visiting churches, dargah, mosques or other religious shrines. Neither I face any problem in visiting various kinds of temples that exist in India. I was born in a family that professed Arya Samaj hence there was no specific significance for any idols for me. Yet I face no dilemma in appreciating a work of art in a Ganesha statue and I have a whirling dervish next to a Buddha figurine in my drawing room. I do not relate that to religion as such.

But occasionally I wonder if the kind of liberal intellectual “fit” of religion which I inherited in my family, is now a thing of past. We are passing through a time when in India a temple has become a socio-cultural, political and even legal issue. It is a time when the lines between my truth and your truth have been blurred and there is a frenzied search or rather declaration of ‘the’ truth. I find myself unable to agree with the violence, self-glorification of football-hooliganism and a very male -chauvinistic interpretation of rules of Hinduism.

That brings me to my problem with temples in south India and why I am always torn in visiting them. South Indian temples are far more exquisite than the northern temples and are architectural marvels. Many of them have huge historical significance as well and are associated with many stories of past. But these temples today are a strange amalgamation of faith, culture, business, and society around them. In many ways, they are materialistic enough to have a separate VIP darshan line (where you pay more to cut the crowd) and in some cases they are extremely misogynistic taking shelter of tradition or modesty.

Kerala temples have been in news for many wrong reasons. When I started this series of posts, I mentioned that I am in the city of Padmanabh Swamy. The city not only derives its name from the reigning deity of the temple- but it is also in many ways, still a temple town. A town which despite being a seat of political power, very stubbornly shies away from the look of a big city. It is as if, the city is very content, even takes pride in its image of a temple town. I am very curious about the temple in more than one ways, but I am still postponing my visit.

The thing is the temples in south India do not allow you to have a worship of the deity on your own terms. Entire event is closely regulated and controlled by temple administrators (all men).

As per my Hinduism, there should not be any restriction for non-Hindus in entering Hindu shrines. History provides ample evidence when Hindu temples welcomed believers of other faiths and even felicitated them. But  today, in some of these temples there are ban on entry of non-Hindus. The ban is quite ironical as many temple group take great pride that they also have an affiliated temple in US or Australia. The hypocrisy of such restrictions has come to light in many cases. There is a famous case of legendary singer K.J.Yesudas, a Catholic by birth. His devotional songs are played in many of these temples where he was refused entry many times. Finally in 2017, at the insistence of a Ex-Royal trustee, the temple board of Padmanabh Swamy temple did an exception for him.

 Furthermore, there are dress-codes and even within dress-codes there are restrictions for women. At times some parts or even some temples are kept out of bound from women. These aspects make me uncomfortable. Though I am a saree clad person on all workdays, I find it difficult to accept a dress-code for visiting the deity. While men cannot wear shirts and have to be in traditional mundu / dhoti , women cannot visit unless they are in saree or covered till toe. In 2016, after a court case, temple authorities allowed salwar suit or churidar for women – though I am told that in practice, it is still not adhered to.

Modesty or decency in clothes is an ever-changing societal yardstick. There is nothing traditional or religious about it.  For women specially, it emanates from a regressive patriarchal thinking that some men sitting in temple authorities need to dictate what women should wear. In the same temple, few decades back women were not allowed to come wearing blouses. The ongoing “tradition” being – 3 unstitched clothes for men and 4 unstitched clothes for women. That was changed with time – then it was decided that saree with blouse is decent but not other Indian or western dresses. Now Salwar and churidar are accepted but not pants and shirts or other dresses. End of the day, the rules that dictate what women can wear or not, the changes in those rules and the decisions on those changes, is an exclusive male domain. It is some men sitting in positions of power who decide and dictate terms on modesty and decency. I find this unpalatable. Specially so in a state where till few decades back women did not have a right to cover their upper body. The right was granted and now temples take a 180 degree turn to impose covered dresses in the name of religion and tradition. Same holds true for mensurating women. The dress-code, the restriction on the entry of women and an option of VIP darshan- takes away all spirituality out of a temple visit for me.

Let us not forget, this is the land that gave eighth century Vedic philosopher and the high-priest of Hindu Sanatan dharma Adi Shaankaracharya. Shankaracharya’s philosophy, his travels across the country and his deep philosophical treatise is a treasure trove of knowledge of this most fascinating ancient faith. But for me one event of Shankara’s life stands out as a defining moment of Hinduism. It is his meeting with the Chandala or an ‘outcaste’- the man who works at crematorium, lowliest of lowly caste of people.  The event it is believed happened in the narrow alleyways of the embankment of Ganga in Varanasi.  Shankara was going for holy dip in the river when he came upon the chandala. True to the prevalent belief of  those days that Brahmins would to be 'defiled' by the very shadow of those of this caste,  the disciples of Shankara asked the 'outcaste' to move out of the way. However, the chandala retorted by asking the question:  

अन्नमायादन्नमयमथवा चैतन्यमेव चैतन्यात्

यतिवर दूरीकर्तुं वाञ्छसि किं ब्रूहि गच्छगच्छेति

 To move matter from matter, or to separate spirit from Spirit? O best among the twice-born, which of these two do you wish to achieve by saying, “Move away, move away”?

(That is how will you become impure by touching me? How do you differentiate between a Brahmin & a Chandala,  because both our bodies are made of the same elements: earth, water, fire, air and space, even though we look different. Our aatman (Brahman) is the same and is absolute. This one aatman is expressed in all living beings. So tell me, when we are made of same elements and same aatman, how can you ask me to move away and not touch you?)

That is when Shri Adi Shankaracharya realised the Chandala was teaching him his own philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and prostrated before Chandala and composed Manisha Panchaka.

I consider this anecdote,  a defining moment for Hinduism as it demonstrates how the religious truth often clashes with the societal norms and how a true sage of faith needs the rationality to go beyond the ever-changing rules of society to accept the manifestation of divinity in all forms and ways and in all creatures of God – even if they do not profess your own faith.

 When I read in history books about Vaikom Satyagraha in 1920s when people had to agitate to get their right to access to public spaces in this land of Shankara, I found it strange. Stranger perhaps is the insistence a century later in 2020s to keep the temples closed and rigid , in the name of tradition to fit the understanding of few men. But then, strange things happen in the name of religion all the time. People fighting, killing and spreading hate in the name of religion often forget what Hindi writer Sardar Pooran Singh wrote in his famous essay ‘Aachraan ki Sabhyata’ ( The Civility of conduct ) सच्चा साधु धर्म को गौरव देता है, धर्म किसी को गौरवान्वित नहीं करता।"A true saint gives glory to religion, religion does not glorify anyone .

I feel distraught at the pomp, show and politicization of my faith because in this process we are not only discarding the deep spiritual legacy of Hinduism but we are, in many ways acting just like the people of other religions professing their truth as the only truth.   With  eclecticism  as its core competency , my faith does not believe in  rejection of other forms of worship and other ways of seeking the truth. Stopping other forms of worship, objecting to a dress or a food – for me is not the way of my religion.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Choice of Adjectives- Remembering Empress Sisi

"I am a seagull, of no land, I call no shore my home, I am bound to no place, I fly from wave to wave.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

If you have been to Vienna, it is difficult to miss Empress Elisabeth or Sisi, as she is often called. From chocolate boxes to posters and from museum tickets to souvenir shops – she is everywhere. A true popstar of her time, the biggest icon of Austrian Royal family, compared with Lady Di by biographers, subject of novels and movies- she is presented as a glamourous but depressed queen.  The Hofberg palace has a full museum dedicated to her – displaying her personal articles, her chamber, her letters, and her famous dresses. It was first in this museum that I read her poetry. It is sad that with so much emphasis on her doll like persona of a fairytale princess, her other remarkable characteristics of being a poet, an avid traveller, reader and an intellectual – a woman very aware of her socio-political situation, are never highlighted. Her concern for women suffering in lunatic asylums of Europe of her time, is often ridiculed and so is her free spirit and constant demand for privacy even as an Empress of Europe’s biggest empire of that time. Her media avatars are either of innocent young girl trapped in court politics or of a cold-hearted vain woman obsessed with physical beauty. In fact, her insistence for physical exercise by installing a gym in every palace she lived in, is also depicted as her unreal desire to be ageless. In today’s vocabulary, she would be a health enthusiast, a fitness icon even.

 I was suddenly reminded of this as I was watching a DW documentary - Sisi’s Legacy 

 this morning and I noticed something. In this documentary as well as in numerous articles written about Sisi or the TV series or movies based on her, the choice of adjectives is very problematic. The documentary calls her eccentric, narcissistic, obsessed with ageless beauty, a mother who neglected her children, a woman who refused to stay on with her husband and finally someone who was reckless enough to get assassinated. She is also guardedly blamed for taking her first daughter on travel with her causing her death. The commentary is quite easy to the fact that she was fifteen when she was made empress, sixteen when she was a mother and that she was unaccustomed to the ways of the most proper and stifling court of whole of Europe.

Oh swallow, give me your quick wings

And take me with you to distant countries.

I'll be happy to break the chains that hold me

And to break the bars of my prison ...

If I could fly with you

Through the blue eternity of heaven

How I would make thank you with all my being

The Goddess that men call freedom!

-                                                                                                                                                --  Empress Elisabeth (1856)


Last year another movie titled ‘Corsage’ came in European theatres. Once again , Sisi is the unhappy Royal who is hysterical and irresponsible. Forcing modern feminist sensibilities on her is hardly doing any justice. Most of her biographers are sympathetic towards the shy, young girl, miserable at court, but then they start to chide Sisi for her selfishness in disregarding her husband's concerns, neglecting her duties, feigning illness etc. While there may be some truth in all these – the contemporary portrayals for her husband and son are not this harsh despite their very questionable personal and public conduct.Neither there is any probe in why an Empress had to feign illness or avoid public scrutiny ? Even in this documentary, there is no judgement of Franz Joseph for subjecting his son for very cruel “physical and psychological hardening” (which eventually was put to stop by ‘irresponsible’ mother Sisi) but Sisi is repeatedly judged for leaving her children behind for her travels (‘on State Expense’) or for not staying in the court. Her son Rudolf, similarly,  is painted as a man ahead of his time in his views- while underplaying the fact that he neglected his wife and daughter, had series of affairs , got a STD due to his visits to brothels  and killed his mistress before committing suicide. Sisi, however is judged even for smoking, wearing black after the death of her son or refusing to get photographed.  

My friend Zehra recently wrote on Facebook how women are accused of not knowing their mind, though the reality is that most of the times, they do know exactly what they want. The problem comes in acceptance from community and family on ‘what’ women want. Our family and society are yet to mainstream the true wishes of women and are very quick in judging them for their conduct and desires with wrong set of adjectives. Even in popular media, for every portrayal of a woman who speaks her mind there are ten where the stereotypical loving wife, mother and the sacrificing woman image is reinforced. It is often the fear of being judged, labelled as ‘difficult’ that makes women hesitant and unclear in expressing their mind.  When I see women politicians and actresses being shut down from serious discussions and being judged so unfairly and blatantly on their appearances, accessories, and private lives, I wonder how we blame women in families to be shy in expressing their true wishes and opinions? It is a bane of our times that at times in ordinary houses people are willing to take steps in the right directions yet our system, our organisations and even our courts paint it the other way. It is still rare in communities and public forums to allow women space to express themselves freely. to shake off the stereotype and not being  subjected to scrutiny and judgment. From Empress Sisi to Mahua Moitra and  from mythical Draupadi to Sunny Leone – it is a continued stream of judgement  and use of negative adjectives that colour the narrative of what women want.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Captivating Calicut - Vasco-da-Gama, Mangroves and Uru Boats of Kerala

History and life often do not agree on importance of events and things. Both also suffer from lack of true perspective- some very important stuff may at times look like insignificant and vice verse. It is quite an humbling experience to find how with time, the so called "game changing" moments are not even remembered by the communities and places affected by them. I was fortunate to witness one such moment of collective amnesia in Kozhikode recently.  

 I love my work when it takes me to new places and helps me discover the magic in them. The visit to Kozhikode (Calicut) was for purely office work, till it was not. Kozhikode, the capital city of historical Malabar was the seat of Zamorin. It was also the place from where Portuguese finally entered India. In fact near the golden beach of Kappad , there is still a board declaring that Vasco Da Gama came to India in 1498 AD  and landed at that beach. Interestingly, except for this hardly noticed plaque there was nothing much to link the place with such a significant moment of history. 

Kappad beach was magnificent and surprisingly secluded and pristine. Except for a small portion where one could spot tourists and local children- it only had birds and crabs as visitors. The golden sand glistened with the waves and the egrets and storks jumped with joy. Even on the part with human presence, the children merrily played, and the fishermen haggled cost of fresh catch straight from sea. It was as tranquil as a poem. I wonder how this gem of a place has stayed away from the touristy gaze and I thanked God for that.

The city beach of Kozhikode was a stark contrast with this. It was full of noise, human activity, and plastic. There was Kerala Book Fest going on and it was difficult to find an empty spot. Stalls of vendors and groups of students had taken up all the space. Even on a hot and humid afternoon, the extent of cacophony of human activities was too much to bear.

 The magic of Malabar was yet to show another act. Early morning at sunrise, I reached Kadalundi, some 20 Km away from Calicut city. Kadalundi–Vallikkunnu Community Reserve is an estuary and India’s first riverfront community reserve in Malabar Coast. There is a Bird Sanctuary and beautiful mangrove swamps – providing home to varied native and migratory birds and insects. It was quite an experience to enter the mangroves in a boat and witness the ecosystem with such close quarters. A big colony of seagulls was merrily chatting and nesting on an island and the damp soil was full of seashells and corals. It was by far my best encounter with social forestry and what wonders it can bring to the lives of people.

We started back from the dense mangroves of Kadalundi to Beypore later that day. The shores of Beypore, carry a secret that is only known to them. Uru or dhow was the traditional Arabian trading vessel, associated with the ship building culture of Kerala. And the art and science of making these ships are still only known to the craftsmen of Beypore. On the face of it, this looks like just some ship building yards, located near a port  but once you look behind the obivious, it is a mesmerizing tale of India’s  centuries old  maritime trade relations and skilled craftsmanship.

Since the early days of India's maritime trade relations with Mesopotamia, on the southwestern coast of the subcontinent, skilled workers have been building handcrafted wooden boats called Uru or Fat boats. Today these are world's largest handcrafted boats and you may still spot them on the Dhaw at Dubai and other Arab countries. Now they are no longer trade vessels and are usually taken as luxury yachts in Gulf countries. Traditionally made with teakwood of Nilambur forest, islands dotting the Chaliyar river near Beypore port have continued the tradition for over a millennium. 

These boats present a unique architecture expertise of a specially skilled group of people from Malabar. There are no plans, sketches, drawings, or blueprints that the makers refer to. In the traditional methods, no iron nails were used either to prevent rusting and consequent leakage in sea. Instead of using nails, the planks of a boat were "sewn" together with rope and then sealed. From conception to completion, it is all in the mind of the master builder or maistry (same as maestro) of a yard - and it works like magic - every single time.

 Associated with this, is the seafaring tradition of Mappila Khalasis dating back to hundreds of years. There is a saying in Malayalam ‘Othupidichal Malayum Porum’. This translates as ‘team work can move mountains’. Anyone who has seen the Khalasis of Malabar region in action will feel the ring of truth in this saying. Watching the Khalasis at work is an amazing experience. The heavy objects they handle could be a ship to be launched or a huge girder weighing tonnes. They use common sense, experience and ancient wisdom passed down over the generations. Their techniques are not found in text books on Engineering. They work with enthusiasm chanting their traditional songs. The group work of Khalasis need unity of mind, spirit and body. Visualize a giant size Uru, weighing hundreds of tons being drawn smoothly to and from the sea, not with the latest hydraulics machines but simply with some ropes, wooden logs, pulleys and an unmatched physical effort of a dedicated group of khalasis. It was fascinating to see these boats in making at a construction yard near Beypore. It is difficult to comprehend the massive size of these boats- well, unless you climb onto one like I did !

The post will be incomplete unless I mention the cuisine and spices of Malabar. After all , Kozhikode(Calicut) is the mecca for the spice trade. Best quality peppers and other spices are grown in this area, bringing much prosperity to the region for centuries. The cuisine and hospitality that comes with it was equally enchanting. The legendary restaurant of Paragon – the Malabar parotta and its sexier cousin the Nool parotta was quite an experience , even for a staunch vegetarian like me.

On my return journey from the train, I again spotted the mangrove swamps and to my surprise, this time the entire landscape evoked a deep sense of nostalgia and a sudden realization hit me hard that I am far away from the places I stayed my life till now.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Sights and Seasons of Paradise : 2. The Backwaters and the Changing Indian Families

 Let me start with a fun question- What is found commonly on every nook and corner of Kerala, every mall and every scenic ‘view-point’ and is neither a coconut tree nor a jewellery shop?

 Well, if you have lived few days in Kerala, you cannot miss the Gen Z and their digital content creation.  At every public (and not so public) place you have a youngster posing for a selfie, making a reel,vlog or insta-story or a professional photographer making young couples do weird poses for pre or post wedding shoots. Numerous shops of wedding photographers are found in every market and there are any number of viral posts of couples in most impossible poses doing round (As I write this an image of young couple wearing white sheets posing in Munnar tea Gardens strikes to my mind). But not everything about these photo-shoots is funny. To an outsider like me, the reels of most unknown places are a good way to get to know of hidden treasures of the state and I am thankful to these good Samaritans for telling me about the unknown water-streams, hiking routes and a wetland attracting migratory birds. It was in one of such viral pre-wedding shoots , during covid years, that  I first time saw the pink waterlilies ((Nymphaea Stellata or ambal in local parlance) of Malarickal. 


The awe-inspiring photos of dark pink waterlilies for miles and a boat with the young bride coyly playing with them, was quite a pretty sight. I told my friend Archana back then that I will visit the place one day to click picture of  waterlilies. The day finally came in October this year.

When life throws you in muddy water, bloom like a waterlily- Follow the light, rise above the dirt and smile at the world

As my blog design shows,waterlilies and lotus flowers fascinate me. I think it is a cultural thing.  Our classical literature and arts are full of them. While visiting southeast Asia, I saw these flowers everywhere from posh resorts to deserted waysides. But surprisingly, in north and west India, you do not much of these flowers  unless some crazy gardeners like me grow them in their gardens. So when actually landed up in this part of the world, I remembered the fields of Malarickal with breathtaking shades of pink water lilies (Nymphaea Stellata or ambal in local parlance) and decided to visit Kumarakom to see waterlilies. Much to my disappointment, I was warned that ambal season was just over and there were just few waterlilies left. But when I reached the serene backwaters of Kumarakom, I did actually manage to see some waterlilies – nothing like the pictures,but still very pretty. I do hope next season I will get lucky to witness the sea of flowers as I imagined.

However, waterlilies were just one of the reasons to visit the enchanting backwaters of Kumarakom. On the shores of Vembanad Lake, this quiet, rustic town of Kumarakom is a haven just outside the humming market town of Kottayam, deep in Central Kerala’s wealthy and lush belt of rubber plantations.A bird sanctuary for native and migratory birds, a lake giving heavenly view of sunsets and sunrises, an intricate web of backwaters, small villages lined with paddy fields – the place is as picturesque as it can be.

 The place confirmed my belief that “God’s own Country” is not just a tourism slogan. If I was God, I would have liked living in a place as pretty as this was. It is interesting how most of us imagine paradise and what traits we put in that imagination. My imagination, even as a child, always had lush green landscape with waterbodies and birds and flowers. All these elements and much more greeted me in Kumarakom. There were rain-soaked evenings and shy golden mornings, the drizzling during the day gave me a lot of time to treat my senses with the landscape of Vembanad lake with beaeaters and kingfishers doing their rounds. I even get to spot two Black-hooded Orioles chasing each other. 

Stay at Kumarakom was quite enlightening for an unusual reason. It confirmed my belief in changing Indian families.  A typical holidaying group in India, is either  married couples with children or families- parents, uncles-aunts and cousins. I was pleasantly surprised  to find a place which was offering a package exclusively for ‘solo female travellers’. It was interesting to even know that this category of tourists exists and is big enough for  a commercial outfits to notice and cater to. But there was more in store for me .In the dining room of my resort I got into conversation with a graceful lady. In her sixties she  was staying with a friend of hers. The two ladies worked together for 3 decades , knew each other for now 40 years and were settled in different cities post-retirement. They were travelling without any husbands, kids or families. Just the two of them- chatting away most of the days  happily. The lady smiled at my astonishment and said that they tried meeting in each others’ houses but as it happens for women- household duties never let them have free mental space to enjoy. Sometimes grandkids are coming or husbands want  their attention . “So I told my family” she said,” Now I am going on for vacation with my friend, away from this daily list of chores”.  Her story made me felt bit ashamed, how many times in our families, we fail to give this space to our elderly women. They are suppose to be in the background always ready to be useful to us with a hot snack or a comforting word. Even the most woke of us do not bother for the me-time of our moms and grandmoms and somehow view their lives only for “duties” for others. Perhaps much change is still needed in the way , we look at lives and joys of our elderly , specially women. 

There were other guests too in the resort. There was a group of friends from Bengal  – all male, planning a hike somewhere, two families of friends travelling with kids  and a father daughter duo. The last one was again an interesting pair. The daughter had got into a university abroad and was due to join there in two months. Father took leave from work to have a road trip with her alone. “She may decide not to come back once she is there” the father said, “I would like both of us to have some memories and some conversations which are often not possible at home.” I found this very heartening that those days of distant fathers only meant for providing money and occasional scolding, are becoming a thing of the past. Fathers today are much more invested in upbringing of kids. While my own father was way ahead of his generation in this regard, I find every such small gesture from young fathers, even in my office, very heartwarming.

It is not just a coincidence that all such modern expressions of relationships and families find expression in this land. Kerala is very safe  and despite its own struggles of alcoholism and even crimes, a solo female traveller or a young couple posing for photoshoot are less likely to get unwanted attention than elsewhere in the country.

I am aware that this is not whole truth and for every expression of liberal relationships within family there are ten re-emphasising the stereotype. But then, that’s the thing about revolution within families- it happens one tiny step at a time.

A revolution is also brewing in Kerala about themes and portrayal of cinema stories. Many of these revolving around stories of changing dynamics of families and issues of gender. But more on that in a separate post.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Sights and Seasons of Paradise: The Beginning

 Sometimes you have to let go of the picture that you have thought it would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are actually living.

-        Rachel Marie Martin       

Life, as John Lennon said, is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans. My plans got unsettled in a very poetic way this year. I was gazing at Cleopatra’s pool at Pamukkale, Turkiye on 12th September and the alignment of stars changed somewhere for me.

Cut to scene two. It was mid-October, and I was in “God’s own country”. Thousands of miles away in a part of the country where I have not been for last twenty years and language and ways of which I was blissfully ignorant of. Well, the common wisdom says that mortals have no control on the invitation from Gods. It is supposed to be sudden and so it was. But again, can a mere mortal resist the invite- I could not and so here I was- in the city of Padmanabh Swami. A city which has seen an amazing milieu of history. A city where at different points of time – artists, traders and intellectuals took refuge and got settled. Also a city, where you come and leave only with the divine will.

It did not take me long to get lured by the sights spread out before me. The colourful floral tributes outside temples for Navratri puja, tall trees of jackfruit, coconut and more, the heritage buildings with their wooden roof and ex-royal emblem – they were all very inviting and I gaped like a tourist. It rained every now and then and the weather was warm. The entire scene was so unlike north that on some nights I got up just pining for the familiar sounds, tastes and sights.

My welcome was amazing and the gestures for help- a plenty. Yet it took me time to push back the fear of unknown from my mind. Once in routine, my mind wandered on what I would like to fill my days with. Luckily, it was just then the state festival started. Criticized by some and attended by all, it was a crash course of state culture and mindset for me. I was floored with the variety of events and exhibitions, discussions, and debates. But first impressions barely give you the full picture. The depth of the issue often hits you much later. My introduction to Kathakali masks, for example, came in the most unusual way.

Building of Fine Arts College, Trivandrum

It was just an art exhibition at the Fine Arts College. I went there just for curiosity and to admire the college building. I saw some strange exhibits (as usual) and some good ones. But what I found most creative was a re-creation of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with Kathakali artists. 

I marveled at the art and creativity of the photographer (Vivek Vilasini), took and shared pictures of it with friends. It was only the day after, when a learned acquaintance pointed this out that I realized what these masks actually represented! The photograph was not only creative, but it was also provocative as Jesus and his apostles were wearing masks meant for negative characters. It was an interesting first introduction to city’s love for breaching the line of social sensibilities and rules in all aspects of life. Well, I guess, that is how they are a city of thinking people. Where classical arts and radical Marxism thrive side by side. Where, as a colleague pointed out to me – even Christian and Muslim communities have a Vidyarambha ceremony and the child is supposed to write” Om shree ganapataye namah”, where all communities happily enjoy dishes made out of beef (while rest of the country can’t dream of that) and where Virgin Mary in some village churches merrily dons traditional Kerala cream saree with golden border.

Arattu Procession on the Runway

But then, I should not be surprised about the contradictions and incredibility of things in this state. Certainly not after I came to know of Arattu procession, which happened just days after my coming here. The day when international airport suspended services to give way to a temple procession. Well, I have seen enough number of Mazars and temples inside public institutions, but this was a first for an international airport. As it turned out, twice every year, the beloved deities of Padmanabha temple of Trivandrum, take their ritual bath or Arattu . The idols are taken from temple to the Shangumugham beach for this purpose, following an ancient path. This is going on for last few centuries as per record. Now in 1932, when the airport was to be constructed and the runway design fell on the traditional route of this procession. The land belonged to the temple through the Royal Family of Travancore. Temple happily gave the land ( you see, Indian Gods are never in the way of progress and modern ways) but the condition was -  twice every year, planes will halt to give way to the Gods. Even now this continues. This, for me was very symbolic of the soul of this city and this land of Gods. Always open to progress and new ways and yet deeply rooted in the traditions of history.

So that is how it began, I in the divine land. Much like the fabled ships of King Solomon landed in a port called Ophir (now Poovar) in Thiruvananthapuram in 1036 BCE, my ship has landed here. The thought of chronicling the experience came couple of days back while enjoying a golden sunrise surrounded by lush green tea gardens of Munnar- but more on that in a separate post. Hopefully I will try to capture the sights and seasons of this amazing place regularly for a year.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Old New Tale


“...the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic.
                                                      ― Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Like any other reader, I too have my favourites tales which I like to read and re-read. Characters who are as real as my real life friends and some more. Places which I have visited only in these tales and yet they are so much my own. The quote above resonates in more than one ways. Familiarity with a favourite story adds to its charm. I always find difficult to deal with sequels and prequels written as fan-literature. I read many of them as they bring back to life, some of the favourite characters and sometimes add to the stories known till then. But at the same time, the new twists and new plots sometimes disappoint even enrage me. Fan literature of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a good example of that. There have been numerous searches into the finer points of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s characters. Some sequels make monsters out of them others try to find modern sensibilities in their tale. I am not sure I like either.

But retelling of stories is not limited to modern classics. Fairy tales have been written and re-written with numerous versions over the years. From Victorian purists to BBC and Disney’s adaptations, several changes have been attempted in the tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and even Aladdin. Many of these tales originated in China, found their way to middle east and then reappeared in Europe. At each appearance, they changed colours and subtle nuances of the tale. Back in India, traditionally, there have been infinite versions of stories of Ram and Krishna. Many add local flavours, others omit some unsavoury detail or end with very charming twists in the tale. In modern times, stories of Ramayan and Mahabharata have been written from the point of view of several different characters including women characters. Some of these retellings appeal to me. e.g. when they make women characters more independent, strong and significant or when the fairy tale princess is not only a blonde with blue eyes. (Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brilliantly sums up the sentiment of the danger of a single story here. )

But I thought of writing this post due to two attempts of retelling of myths/ stories, which I came to know in last few days. First was Luciano Garbati’s sculpture “Medusa with the Head of Perseus” which was unveiled on 13th October 2020 in Lower Manhattan.

 I do not think the sculptor has feminism or #metoo movement in mind when he inversed the sculpture. He stated that he was inspired by a 16th-century bronze: Benvenuto Cellini’s “Perseus with the Head of Medusa.( Perseo con la testa di Medusa)”  which stands in Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence In that work, a nude Perseus holds up Medusa’s head by her snaky mane. Mr. Garbati then thought of a sculpture that could reverse that story, imagining it from Medusa’s perspective and revealing the woman behind the monster.

Well, undoubtedly, like many other myths whether Indian, Egyptian or Greek - the original Greek myth of Medusa offers plenty to be angry about. The monstrous being with snakes for hair starts out as a human woman, who Poseidon rapes in Athena’s temple. The goddess then punishes Medusa, the rape victim, by turning her into a Gorgon and exiling her. Perseus is later sent on an errand to bring Medusa’s head to King Polydectes. Equipped with a mirrored shield, winged sandals, and a special sack for her head, Perseus creeps up on Medusa while she lies sleeping, cuts off her head, and then uses it as a weapon for turning enemies into stone. No wonder, the retelling of inverted story by Garbati today provides a powerful symbol of women’s rage against violence and injustice.  While I do admire the symbolism of placing the Garbati sculpture in front of the court where many cases of crime against women including rape come for hearing. The timing too could not be better. World over the anger is coming to surface against ongoing injustices and most violent crimes against women. Except for the fact that I would have liked Medusa to hold heads of not only Perseus but also Poseidon, the man who raped her and even Athena, who punished the victim, I find the sculpture very powerful. It is a retelling of a tale we need in the world today.
The second provocation for this post came from much closer home. I am an avid reader and collector of Amar Chitra Katha Comics. I always adored their titles and have written about my love for ACK in this blog also. Of late, I do not like the new titles as much as I like the old ones. the charm of hand drawn illustrations and the level of research has gone down over the years. Just by chance I came to an ACK title Shakti – the tales of Goddess, and while I can find many details either missing or incorrect in it, I loved this book. The book is very sensitive to the classic tales of mother goddess and also to modern sensibilities. Surprisingly, it was a good read.

These two retellings, made me think, why it is important for us to add new details in the old stories or to change the end of familiar tales. Is it our obligation to the next generation to tell them that the stories can have alternative endings too? or is it because the alternative stories were always in our minds and they just came out now? I think I agree with Mark turner who said - 

“Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining.” 

I am sure with each new reader, a story adds another name to its owners who have every right to add their own narrative, their own experience, their unique prediction of future to it. Some of that may feature in other retelling and thus continues the tale. After all, after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.