Thursday, April 13, 2023

 Politics of Memorials

What is to be done with what is left of Sugathakumari’s house is the current topic of discussion in Thiruvananathapuram. A small outhouse has been razed to the ground. Her fans and friends want the government to acquire the main house for a befitting memorial. In response to the campaign, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has asked Culture Minister Saji Cheriyan to ascertain what best can be done. 

Simultaneously, there is a running discussion on who should have what kind of memorial and how the government should associate itself with the project. Like industrial policy, farm policy, health policy, culture policy and what have you, there is scope for a comprehensive memorial policy. Comprehensive because death will, for all we know, remain eternal and memorial plans permanent. Politics and economics of memorials need constant study.

The importance of being Sugathakumari is more than that she was a poet. Poetically she created her own kind of Radha who pined for Krishna’s company but didn’t want him to see or hear her. Even when she bemoaned that all her poetry had dried up, she liked reciting her compositions, not particularly musically, but indeed soulfully. I remember her singing her famous love song, “What is the colour of love?,” when she joined us to take a mentally ill psychiatrist  to a psychiatrist. 

Sugathakumari picked up a movement Mother Teresa had touched off in one massive move to deliver justice to mentally ill people. She was a friend of destitute women. Inevitably, as a poet, she was a nature enthusiast. She was editing a journal for kids, a Lions Club project, when I got to know her. She had a raw deal from her benefactors and we made a song and dance about it, inviting leonine wrath. They threatened to take us to the court but tactfully spared her. What can be a memorial for a half-century of poetry, peace, sanity and concern for every living thing, trees among them? Maybe you took a different view but you liked to know what she thought of every emerging issue. Who would build a memorial for her?

That poser is apt to bounce back without an answer. A striking feature of democracy is that every orphan issue is consigned to the sarkari web. Whatever no one else may not or cannot perform is assigned to public exchequer. This is not to say that  the government can do  it well and fairly even if it can marshal money to lavish on memorials of sundry shapes and sounds. For every man, that includes woman, who croaks would like to have a memorial for himself or herself.  The government machinery will find it difficult to decide who must be installed where in the burgeoning gallery of honour. 

Anyone may be pushed up the gallery of fame, given a committed  cautery that will work with unstinted enthusiasm to immortalize the dead dignitary. Which is why it is said one needs more friends and fans when one is gone than when one is still around. Epaulletes and badges and golden shawls do not fall down like manna. Someone somewhere has to work for it, pulling the right wires, as the indigenized idiom goes. Take, for instance, a man of letters like Sooranad Kunjan Pillai. I was talking about him with his son, neurologist Rajasekharan Nair. There was a low note of pique when he said two chief ministers had shown interest in building a memorial four quintessential lexicographer but half a dozen chief ministers had come and gone after them leaving it all but a comedy of amnesia. There was no effective campaign to make E MS Namboodiripad’s austere house in Shanti Nagar, Thiruvananthapuram, an EMS Archive.

Ideally memorials should be instituted by voluntary bodies, fan clubs of the deceased. They will not be hamstrung by any sense of fairness or objectivity. Their singular obsession will be with the posthumous image of their heroes and heroines. Clever guys in the fan fiefdom can often  put the memory of the lost hero to petty personal use. A familiar antic is to institute a prize in the name of the departed panjandrum, and amass funds for its presentation even if no one seriously thinks of finding a genuine recipient. 

If not a prize or a statue, it may be a souvenir or even a bulky book, unlike one brought out by the Union government’s publications division in honour of Vallabhai Patel. Patel Memorial Lectures were a great intellectual event when they were in vogue, great minds addressing great contemporary problems. The publications division, in a wave of serendipity, stitched all of them together so unimaginatively that pages would come off loose even before a reader opened it. All India Radio, in its wisdom, stopped that memorial service. British Broadcasting Corporation is going ahead with applause for its four annual lectures in memory of its first legendary general manager, John Reith.

There are easier ways to ensure immortality. The easiest way is to name a road or its destination after the dead dignitary. Depending on the reach or relevance of the celebrity, it can be a panchayat bus stop or a university laboratory or a  marriage hall. Time was when people were named after places; places must now be lucky to be known by a dead resident’s name. Let it be noted with no irreverence that two Gandhis have lent their names to places and palaces in India more than all others--Mohan Das and Indira. In Kerala, Narayana Guru adorns, more than anyone else, memorials with his busts or road signs or community halls. P K Balakrishnan, whose Guru biography remains a magisterial work, used to say snide remarks about unaesthetically executed clumsy statues bringing bad nicknames to that savant of our times. 

Memorial politics is not a new episode in our human drama. It dates back to ancient Egypt, a succession of pharaohs building gigantic pyramids to house their tombs. After an excursion to the Nile, my grandson was overwhelmed by the great river and the memorials of pharaohs. He seemed mentally flying back to the lands and the times of Khufu and Tutankhaman. When he lectured on the bygone glory of Egypt, I argued that those ancient West Asian seekers of immortality had not only carried with them articles of their personal use but their servants also. They wanted nothing of theirs to be left behind after they were gone. Our widow-burning tradition was a medieval extension of that ancient atrocity. 

Looking at our tradition, one nice thing about it is that it is not tainted by the elemental urge for immortality. I grew up, with a vague trepidation, seeing tombstones in cemeteries adjoining churches and mosques. Those were times when imposing memorials had not come up in the rural hinterland. Hindu tradition provided for no permanent memorial. Where the body is buried or burnt, a banana is planted. In a year, the dead person is subsumed in the earth, in fulfillment of the saying,  “from dust you come, to dust you return.” Those whose concept of time  is longer, a coconut tree takes the place of the short-lived banana.

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and modern memorial builders may never overtake Mughal emperor Shah Jahan who had his wife’s mausoleum built on the banks of Yamuna. Ustad Ahmad Lahori’s grandiose design took 22 years and 20000 workers to be executed. No love has been so immortalized; no memorial such as Taj Mahal may ever be built again. For all its splendour, Sahir Ludhianvi had a contrary view of Taj. “In a fit of love, aided by wealth, an emperor has teased our poverty!”





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