In the last few pages of the Ramayana, Rama kills Shambhuka. For meditating. He mediated who had no business meditating. He was transgressing a social line there. Those who meditate must be born and raised to it. Those who till the land must not elevate their eyes to the skies. Shambhuka is an untouchable. Rama is casteist.
School had a great hall of sorts, where people gathered for various things. It was a long, wide, rectangular building made entirely out of hollow-blocks, crowned with a wooden frame on top like an inverted keel of the ship covered with red-oxide roof tiles. The windows were a leafy green and the walls, a slowly-fading-into-dusty-yellow white. Red for passion, white for peace and green for prosperity. The colours of human values.
We gathered in there for every morning for prayer: a prayer a day from a different religion, representative of the country we lived in. We prided ourselves on tolerance. We gathered there at lunch, when it would smell like a multi-cuisine restaurant. And then for concerts and contests and yoga practice and parent-teacher meetings. It was a multipurpose hall, used mostly for communion and community.
It was also there that we learned to segregate. Segregate pure from impure, clean from dirty, proper from improper. We segregated people into these categories. Those sporting dirty shoes from those with clean ones. Those that transgressed school rules by painting their nails a bright colour from those that didn’t. Of course, there were those that sported clear or nude varnish, invisible to the invigilator’s eye. I took the crowded bus to school every day, sporting white, canvass shoes, and had people step on my feet. Keeping the white canvass white was a stressful job. On dirty monsoon days, particularly, I was picked out of the line for their being dirty, and displayed in front of 400 people to be judged. I longed to scream that my shoes weren’t dirty for the lack of cleaning. What rankled was that most of those that were never pulled out for dirty shoes came to school in their cars. The rules only ended up segregating us into haves and have-nots in terms of car ownership. There is subtle violence in segregation.
She showed me how things were done, back when we were little girls. That you didn’t drink water from another’s bottle, especially if they are the kind that put their mouth on it. And of course, you didn’t sip you own either, and in case somebody gets thirty, they needn’t have scruples about drinking from your bottle or be inconvenienced by your stray saliva on the bottle’s rim. I spent most of my childhood watching people hawk-like, when they borrowed my water bottle.
We also spoke of food. We neither of us ate meat. Or eggs. Vegetarianism was the only way forward. We ought to be proud of it. And we ought to be disgusted by the violence of meat. Although, she said, forehead wrinkled, you’re an Iyengar and I know a few Iyengar boys near my house who do eat eggs. Her tone suggested that they had crossed the line into the immoral, the impure. Families like hers, she often said, were strict with their vegetarianism. They stuck unwaveringly to the rules.
Once, I ventured to ask if there was no soul in plants. Are we not killing plants when we pluck them, uproot them? Our existence is violence, I felt, detrimental to the existence of all others. She looked at me, pitying, and said, plants have a karma. Their purpose is to be eaten. The word karma can be daunting when you are eleven years old.
I was enamoured. I had just been laughed at by a whole class for pointing out that paper came from trees. Nobody believed me (I had picked up the information from my elder sister) and I had also begun to think it was an outrageous thing to say. Here was someone else capable of saying outrageous things about plants having karma. I found it intelligent.
Besides, she already knew of the teachings of Adi Shankara. I learned from her that the song Bhaja Govindam, sung soul-wrenchingly beautifully by MS Subbulakshmi was written by Adi Shankara. It was that song that my mother played at home every morning, as the filter coffee percolated and the smell of boiling pacchai arisi pervaded through the house. If MS Subbulakshmi sang Shankara, he must be good enough, I thought. By the following week, I knew the song by heart. My friend one day said that Shankara developed the concept of advaita. Earth gave forth a pot, and the pot was, and then one day diminished back into the earth. Earth and the pot thus are the same. So also, the creator and the created are the same. A better philosophy than visishtadvaita, what you Iyengars follow, she said.
What did Iyengars follow? I went home that day and asked my grandmother what visishtadvaita was. Ramanuja’s concept, she said. Earth gave forth a pot and one day, the pot would diminish into the earth, but in the meanwhile, the earth is the earth and the pot is the pot. The earth manifests as the earth and as the pot, as the mud bund, as the river bank and in a diversity of earthen things connected by a consciousness. So also, for the soul to become divine, it needed that consciousness. It needed to surrender. Fair enough.
My friend didn’t think fair enough. To be inherently god, she said, is better than having to work for it.
But I had now discovered Ramanuja, the breaker of traditions. He was a rebel who climbed an empty temple tower and made a secret prayer for well-being public by screaming it out to the crowded market below. Any means to well-being, he said, should be public, and not be kept uniquely for the uplifting of the already-empowered. Ramanuja was my first peek into socialism.
Appa had skin the colour of tree bark and texture not too far off. A leathern face often lit up by the frankness and openness of his smile. He was a good man. But Appa wasn’t the kind to teach his daughter math at home or discuss poetry, although he did sometimes cite old Tamil movie-song lyrics as fine examples of poems. Written by Kannadasan, he’d proudly say. His existence was a peaceful accommodation of his everyday life, my everyday life, and that of all our family, connected by a world of things. We looked the same television (not the same content) and used sundry, mundane, everyday objects that sat close together on a common shelf. We were all, in fact, sundry, mundane, everyday people inhabiting a common space. And Appa smoked. A lot.
Uncle, my friend’s father, was a somebody. He walked and talked with economy and importance and was hugely invested in my friend’s life. He didn’t smoke. His next door neighbour did and sometimes the smoke billowed into his balcony, disrupting the peacefulness and the calmness of his manner. Swatting at the smoke like a fly, he’d say vehemently that all smokers must be jailed. It hurt my feelings. I found this display of contempt excessive. I saw in it a lack of sensitivity to my feelings and an attempt to make me feel bad about my father’s smoking habits. I couldn’t think lowly of Appa.
Appa’s smoking habit saved a life once. It was years ago, before we moved into this neighbourhood, long before my friend came into my life. He stood smoking after a late dinner under the tamarind tree outside the compound walls of the house we then lived in. And across the road was a row of huts where Senbagam lived with her drunk husband and her daughter Radha. Senbagam was a smiley-faced woman speaking a lilting dialect of Tamil, who helped around our house. She often assisted my four-foot grandmother help all the six feet of my polio-ridden grandfather on to his wheel chair. She painstakingly washed all the colossal bronze vessels taken out for the Rama Navami feast every year. My grandfather used to share his afternoon sugarless coffee with her as she shared details of the then on-going groom-hunting for her sixteen-year-old daughter and her husband’s alcoholism. She once kicked the bathroom door open when I locked myself inside and grew claustrophobic.
That day, Radha had just got married. The row of huts was still celebrating, from what was visible by the light of a few Petromax lamps. Appa was looking at them as he smoked his last cigarette for the day, when he saw a shadowy figure wield an aruval at somebody. An aruval is only normally used to bust open coconut shells. The cigarette spiralled to the ground and in a split second, Appa had crossed the road, his hand coming between the aruval and its target. The alcoholic father of bride had tried to attack his new son-in-law in a bout of drunken madness. Appa’s thumb was split in the middle and for days he was in excruciating pain. He never spoke of it, except once to explain to my horrified mother how it happened.
Uncle, my friend’s father, only saw the smoker in him. And I began to see flaws in my perfect friend.
Doctor Uncle was their family friend, a short, portly man with a ghost of a shaved moustache on his face. He visited whenever my friend was sick. She suffered often from migraines. When I was introduced to him on a warm balmy October evening, he was told that I was like a sister to my friend. He shook my hand, laughed good-naturedly at me, and said I could well be a sister, but for the brownness of my skin. He stretched my hand out and compared the colour with the fairness of my friend’s arm. Brahmin girls are supposed to be fair and lovely, he said laughingly, did your parents pick you off the street? He nicknamed me karuppi, the black one.
On my birthday the following March, I was gifted a dainty vial of Garnier White cream.
Monsoon afternoons on the foothills of the Nilgiris were balmy, full of earthen fragrance. Trees looked varnished, dust free, like they had had some natural make-over. The sprawling Ashoka tree that stood sentinel at the school entrance played host to a group of white cranes. They were silent, though, when we were in the grounds.
Such afternoons saw us carrying our lunches in their colourful woven baskets out to the Lakshmi statue that stood in the middle of the school premises. Napkins that would normally go on our laps to catch spillages would double as mats, to protect the skirts of our pristine beige uniforms, as we sat on the floor by the statue.
The Lakshmi statue was a kindred spirit. She wore a red and green sari and carried a lotus. She had a nice smile on her fair-skinned face. She was familiar. The statue stood on a small artificial pond, where you would see tiny tadpoles jumping in and out. The tadpoles were adorable, as all baby-creatures are.
The girls often congregated there when the light was beautiful, while the boys, those inhalers of food, would already be shooting balls through imaginary goalposts.
Our classmate, Mary, joined us that day, with her tiny, bright blue basket. Everything about Mary always bore a neatness about it. Her long, shiny hair was centre parted and neatly and stylishly fishtail-plaited. She had the most organised cartable in the school. I might even venture to say in all the schools in town. The books were organised according to size and the note books stacked behind them. She never brought to school a metal scale, fearing it would injure somebody. Her flimsy plastic one was hidden among the pages of the tallest notebook. The front zip had all the stationery in the world. And she always carried sketch pens and crayons: she drew well.
We already had our boxes spread open, when Mary opened hers. Beside me, my friend stirred and said, you brought fish! Do you mind if I turned around? The sight makes me nauseated. I am vegetarian, you know. And she swiveled on her napkin, her back to Mary.
I glanced now into Mary’s box. Curd rice and a bit of something encrusted in it. An index-finger length of fish. This was supposed to evoke disgust in me. It didn’t. It looked like a bit of deep-fried aubergine. Mary was visibly hurt from the reaction her lunch box caused in my friend, but I was more bothered by the absence of the same reaction in me. Why was I, bona fide vegetarian that I was, just like my friend, not disgusted by the fish? Is that normal? Would I then, eat it? No, of course I wouldn’t. But why didn’t it disgust me? I remembered my friend’s subtle reproach to the lack of purity in Iyengars and grew afraid that it was true. I looked hurriedly at Mary and said, sorry, Mary, I don’t like fish, and like my friend, turned my back on her, salvaging my vegetarian pride.
Mary boxed her untouched fish and said coldly, enjoy your lunch, girls, my fish is cold, and I don’t want to eat it anyway. She left us without a backward glance.
In the opening lines of the Ramayana, Valmiki asks Narada if there exists a man with the quality of Saushilyam, the ability to love others transcending all barriers of human prejudice. Narada said Rama had that quality: he loved Hanuman, a monkey-servant, Guha, a man who ate fish, Vibhishana, the demon-brother of the demon king who stole his wife, and Sabari, a tribal woman who fed him her half-bitten fruits, like they were his own. Rama, then, was the ideal human.
By Sindhuja Veeraraghavan
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