In medias res



Your waist slender,
swathed in soft vermilion silk,
your breasts heavy
with streaming garlands of pearl
your dark tresses woven
with fragrant jasmine, pursued
by clouds
of maddened bees.

It’s enough
to sit alone
and gaze at you
three-eyed Godess.

Who needs to go meditate?

~ Abhirami Battar, translated from Tamil by Arundhathi Subramaniam | Art by M N Roy

In medias res


Earlier on Radio, I heard a twenty something upcoming actor talk about his newly married wife. He said that they have known each other since school. He had always liked her. And she always took care of him. He thinks she is the most beautiful girl. And she reminded of his mother, whom he loves a lot. He has a busy travel schedule and never has time for her, gets angry sometimes but she always puts up with him patiently. He finds it endearing that she always worried about his health, whether he ate on time, always checking on him. Towards the end he promises that he would spend more time with her this year and protect her at all times. And the RJ who is a woman goes ‘Bravo! what a lovely romantic couple.’

During the entire conversation he did not mention even once, what her aspirations were or how he would support her dreams.

Do young people still think this way? Or is he an exception?

In medias res


I met Dr. Shyamala over a taxi ride on our way to the airport. Dr. Shyamala is an Ashoka Fellow and had just returned from Australia after completing her PHD. She could have been in her early fifties and we got talking about each other’s work and stories. She had started her career as a promising journalist, writing for the Indian Express, Observer and the Guardian. It was 1988 and India had been rudely awakened to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Sex workers who had tested positive were arrested and put behind makeshift jails by the Tamil Nadu government. The Govt had issued an order that people who tested positive would remain locked till a cure to the disease was found. Shyamala wanted to investigate this and had been asked by an international paper to write a story about this.

Shyamala was only 25 years old and was pregnant. She had negotiated her way through the bureaucracy and got permissions to interview the women.

Shyamala and the Police superintendent stood 200 meters away from a dingy, dirty and dilapidated house. A lady standing behind the Police yelled, “hey AIDS, all come out.”

The sex workers around 5 or 6 walked outside the house with their heads down and silently weeping. All of them were in their early twenties.

“This lady wants to meet you. She has lots of money and wants to support you,” the Superintendent announced.

A tall lady, who could have been the youngest from the group, walked towards Shyamala. She looked weak and drained.

She came a feet close to Shyamala and spat on her face and said, “who the hell do you think you are? Are we some animals in a zoo, that you could come, inspect, write about us? You are exploiting us to become famous and rich? I beg you all, please leave us alone.” She started crying profusely and ran back into the house.

Shyamala was shaken to the core and decided that she would quit being a journalist and commit herself to the welfare of HIV+ persons. She and others fought against the forced detention and shortly the Madras High Court issued a landmark judgement that HIV+ persons cannot be arrested and detained.

She founded the organization “South India Aids Action Programme” and worked tirelessly towards the welfare of HIV+ people.

“My junior colleagues lead the organization now. I am happy that my efforts found results within my lifetime. HIV/AIDS is no more the epidemic that it was feared to be,” she signed-off with a smile.

Stories from far and near


“I have no desires in my life. Wish Mahadeva grants Moksha and shows me the way to heaven” said an old sanyasi to the middle aged lady, who was giving away the leftovers of the day. “Don’t you have some lime pickle to spare? Afternoon food becomes a little sour, a pickle does help in such situations”, grinned the old man with his entire teeth exposed. She does not answer but stares at him, and walks back inside her home.

He was a tall man in a slim frame. In his mid sixties, he was a nomad, wandering village after village, searching for food and paying occasional visits to the local Shiva temples. He was a staunch shaivite with utmost contempt for the worshippers of the sleeping god.

He truly believed that if he gave up every desire, he would truly reach heaven. Every time he stole a beedi from the local fruit seller, he would remind himself that all true Shiva bhaktas smoked, and it was admissible for people who had given up all desires. He gave up his dhothi, after visiting Benares and wears only a komanam (loincloth) now. Saves him the time to wash and dry.

It was a hot evening and the sanyasi bumbled across, wandering the streets, offering free advice to whoever gave him food or some copper coins. He was tired, sweaty and dusty. The summer has been very hard last couple of weeks. He took bath, only couple of days in a week, mostly because the process helped him cool off the heat. He found himself closer to the dirt track that led to a small tributary of a river. He remembered to have come to this village for the float festival, a couple of years back. The cool breeze from the water body and coconut trees reminded him of his younger days. He always wanted to be famous, but never worked hard at anything.

Sanyasi did not know how to swim. He found a spot closer to the peepal tree that had its roots inside the river. This gave him room to put his feet inside water. The water was cool and soothing. It was a full moon day and the moon’s reflection on the river glittered like a silver plate. “My father used to eat on a silver plate” he sighed, “I do not know if he is still alive”. He sat there quietly, with reminiscences of his childhood.

It was getting really dark and he decided to get in to the water. The water was colder than before. The current was slightly stronger. Without attracting much attention, he scrubbed himself with some coconut coir that he had picked up on the way. He quickly scanned the neighbourhood, if he could see any women.

“It’s been a couple of days that I took bath, leave alone washing my only possession”, he spoke to himself. He went further inside, till the water reached his chest, scanned the surrounding one more time and carefully removed and rinsed it. His eyes still surveyed, if any child or lady quickly came his way.

“Help help!” the old man screamed, a green water snake swam through the tide in long twisting curves. In all the commotion, he lost his balance and fell back in to the river. He struggled to find ground and caught the root of the Peepal tree to stabilise himself. He huffed and puffed spitting water that he had drunk. When he gained control he quickly realized that his komanam was no more in his hands.

He was very disturbed that he had lost his only possession. “Now how do I get out of this river? What if some women saw me like this? The villagers would tie-me up and stone me to death for being indecent?” worried the sanyasi. He thought if he stayed for a little while, a passerby might help with some cloth, to cover himself.

It was more than an hour and he could not spot even a dog. Mustering up courage, he decided to walk along the bank using the cover of darkness. The old man decided that if he found a way to spend the night, he would request the first man he meets and save himself from more embarrassment. He decided to take a walk along the dirt track and slowly to the middle of the village. The villagers had retired already, with only a lonely dog barking in fear.

“Wish I had been born a dog, least I would not have to worry about a silly komanam”, he sighed.

He had walked towards the end of habitation and he could hear the sounds of horses and the smells of dung. He decided to peep in. It was a stable with two horses, and it was quite spacious. Sanyasi was happy that he found a place to crash for the night.

He found a heap of grass to lie down. Just as he was ready to close his eyes, he heard a faint snore. “Do horses snore?” he wondered. There was a young man maybe nineteen or twenty sleeping, unmindful of his dhothi lying a foot away from him. He could hear more sounds. This time there was some rhythm and jingle. The sound bells grew louder.

“Is it a woman? Oh Mahadeva! What do I do now?” sanyasi was petrified at the predicament.

He quickly hid behind the wall just the size to cover up to his waist. But he ducked in, so that he wouldn’t be visible.

“Are you sleeping, lazy bum?” the lady came dangerously close to the young man, who was sleeping with no clothes. The lady was very beautiful and had a glow, only found among women from the princely class. She had brought some sweets made in ghee. The smell of cardamom, saffron and ghee traveled close to the old man, who became more curious as to what was transpiring.

“Hey, wake up! Wake up you lazy fool! I had escaped the guards to see you and spend some time”, the lady was disappointed now. After a bit of prodding and nudging, the young man woke up.

“Would you like to get moksha and go to heaven sweetheart?” asked the beautiful lady.

“Moksha and heaven?” old man was very curious now. “I have been waiting all my life”.

Sanyasi lifted his head to peep at what was happening. Maybe they had a secret key to heaven.

“Are you able to see heaven?” She asked him again. “Yes I can see,” replied the young man.

The old man was very angry. “I had given up all desires, just for the going to heaven, but these young people seem to see heaven?” Sanyasi was disappointed and had to know more.

“Did you enjoy heaven?” now she asked with a coy smile.

“Wow, what an experience!” replied the man.

Sanyasi couldn’t stand it anymore. He got up and found that they were dressed like him. He wondered, “If they could find heaven, why is it that I could not find it?”

“Hey there, where is heaven? How did you find it?” he asked the couple loudly.

“You will not be able to find it old man!” he said it with a laugh and the lady joined him.

Sanyasi was astounded.

Poor old man, he has still not understood desires, leave alone renouncing them.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Stories from far and near

No strings attached


“You are really stupid and have no culture”, Rani Kunjamma was furious. Raja Kodachayan was wringing his hands with a very troubled face. He knew his wife had a bad temper, but today, she had hit the roof. Raja’s ancestors once controlled over 1000 villages and administered under the Tanjore Nayaks. The rule had crumbled after Raja Kodachayan took over. After 50 years of rule, rather misrule, he controlled less than 18 villages. He was short, stout and with a big paunch. He had absolutely no interest in governance or even the vices of kings. He loved to eat, sleep and play kabbadi with the stable boys. It was Rani Kunjamma who was holding the fort, last couple of years.

Earlier, Rani had invited some pundits, poets and musicians to be state guests for the Tamil New Year celebrations. She believed that their chants, music and poetry would change the kingdom’s misfortunes. However our Raja had other plans. He along with little boys tied chameleons to their kudumi (tuft of hair) while they were sleeping. The learned men were so frightened and angry after the incident that they vowed, never to return to their land.

Raja, his eccentricities aside, still loved and respected his wife immensely; but, he had to find a way to win her trust and make her believe that he was cultured and artsy. He summoned his minister for counsel. “Let us call a famous musician to perform at the sabha, and you would enjoy his music, comment wisely and award him gifts. Rani would then realize that you’ve become cultured”, he ended it with a wicked smile. “I do not know anything about music?” Raja intervened.

“I have a plan. I will find a learned music critic, who would sit behind your throne. A string would be attached to your ‘kudumi’. He would pull the string every time the singer needs to be appreciated. And that’s your cue”. Raja knew that this was a devious plan, but he was used to being puppet.

On the day of the concert, the sabha hall was decorated with flowers, lamps and designer curtains, specially organized by the minister from faraway lands. Rani has always been a champion of the arts, so she hid her differences and agreed to attend. She had also invited her friends from other kingdoms. “I am hoping, you and your king are not playing some funny tricks?” Minister shook his head sideways, while his eyes slowly wandered behind the throne.

The singer was a very famous person and had a large fan following. He brought with him a large entourage of musicians. The minister had to pay a hefty sum to make him agree. The critic was brought from Mysore so that no one would recognize him. He was a short and lean middle-aged man, just the right size to hide behind the throne. The critic gave Raja a list of expressions that he could use, when he pulled the string. The minister made sure all the arrangements were in order. Rani Kunjamma and her friends were seated in a way that they would not be able spot the critic.

After the opening remarks and salutations, Raja raised his hand to signal, that the concert may begin. The singer had a quick chat with his musicians to check the order of songs. Sooner the tampura player began, Raja exclaimed, “Besh besh”. The critic had tightened the string and Raja mistook that as his cue. The singer was confused at the sudden and unexpected appreciation.

“Ninnu kori…”, singer was off to a flying start. There was pin-drop silence in the ‘sabha’. At the right moment the critic pulled the string and Raja was quick with his response, “ada ada”, while swaying his right hand. Everyone in the audience was surprised and delighted at the sudden change in Raja’s demeanor.

Rani Kunjamma, was a little circumspect initially, however felt happy that her husband had changed for the best.

The singer was at his best, and the minister was increasingly becoming confident that his mission would be successful.

After the initial ‘kritis’, the singer started his main piece, ‘Sri Kamalamba’ in Sahana Raaga with gusto. The critic pulled the string, at right intervals and Raja was acting to the script, with the right expressions, hand swaying and head shakes.

The singer was very excited at the response from the Raja that he decided to indulge a bit during the ‘Alaap’. He waited for Raja’s “besh besh” and “ada ada” during various points, but surprisingly Raja remained still and quiet. He grew worried, if he had done anything inauspicious that would have upset the Raja.

In the mean time, the critic was still tightening and pulling the string at the best parts and was also surprised at the lack of response. The minister who seated himself at a strategic location so that he could monitor the critic and Raja was now confident that something had gone wrong.

Raja Kodachayan though looked confident and composed all while, was now shivering. He was getting impatient and worried if the mission would succeed. He was determined to win her acceptance.

Suddenly a honey bee entered the sabha hall and went buzzing around the ears of the council of ministers, the princesses and then came on to the Raja. Raja quickly caught the bee in his right hand. He has always been good at catching insects, lizards and chameleons. A skill, he had learnt from the stable boys. Unmindful of the concert and the sudden excitement of having caught the bee, he stood up to show his capture to the audience. At this moment both the minister and the critic realized that the string had been cut.

The singer still continued singing with a confused expression on his face.

Raja regained his stance and realized that the string had been cut-off. He was afraid that Rani would think of him as culture-less because he had not appreciated the singer for over half hour now. “Vidvan stop stop.” Everyone including the singer was shaken up, as to what has come about.

“Minister why don’t you tie the string again, so that the man behind can continue pulling and I can appreciate?”

While the minister was embarrassed, and Rani was teething with anger, our beloved Raja Kodachayyan was merry looking at the bee through his fingers.

Some people just don’t grow up.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.