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!”





Monday, April 10, 2023

 St Antony Pray for Us!

"It is a truth tested by experience that sons dissipate what their fathers gained in the sweat of their brow."

These are not the words of a contemporary commentator on the fluctuating father-son relations as exemplified by senior Congress leader A K Antony and Anil Antony who has gone in search of new political pastures. The son is now an activist of the Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party which the father is sworn to fight till his last breath. Reacting to Anil’s somersault, Antony moaned: “I am deeply hurt.”

The opening quote on the historical course and scope of father-son bonds is from Niccalao Manucci, an Italian writer who worked for a scholarly Mughal prince whom his brother killed for power. Driven by compulsions of power, the killer emperor had dumped his dad in a dungeon overlooking the Yamuna and his wife’s grandiose mausoleum.   

Niccolao Manucci, who worked under Jahangir's grandson, Dara Shikoh, began his discussion of Jahangir by saying: "It is a truth tested by experience that sons dissipate what their fathers gained in the sweat of their brow." Niccalao made this observation  while discussing his benefactor’s grandfather, Jehangir.

If Mughal tradition is broadly accepted as Indian tradition, disaffection between Antony and Anil is quite understandable. There was perhaps only one emperor, dynasty founder Babur, who happily yielded power to his son, even risking his life. Babur traded his robust health with Humayun, who had fallen terminally sick. Such transfer of health or ailment was possible in ancient Bharatavarsha where Prince Puru took over his father Yayati’s senility.  The aging emperor wanted to have some more good time. There were other illustrious, self-effacing sons like Rama of modern Faizabad who not only abdicated his inheritance but went into a long spell of self-exile.

Akbar was, like Antony, a good father. But the Muslim emperor who propounded his own religion of dharma was not always on good terms with his fun-loving son Jehangir. The son had the father’s close consultant, Abul Fazal, murdered.  In a military encounter between the Mughal force and Jehangir’s seditious troops, the latter lost. For the prince to be made the broadminded emperor’s heir, influential women in the harem had to exert pressure on Akbar. To make the transition swift and smooth, it was said, Jahangir had arranged to poison his father. Subsequent inquiries acquitted the son who reigned for two decades and more, leaving the administration to his factotums, himself wallowing in dance, drama, drinks and drugs. 

Saint Atnony of Padua, after whom A K Antony is named, was a man of peace and amity. He was an effective orator and his homilies were lapped up by his devoted followers. True to his cult of convergence and consensus, Antony of Chethala tried to steer clear of confrontation, just as his patron saint of Padua devoted more time to study and meditation than to priestcraft and attendant pettifoggery. Anthony of Padua was canonized soon after his death. So obvious was his mission which really required not many miracles. St Antony, pray for us!

We have not yet heard in detail from Anil Antony why he thinks he is right in deciding to work for the vanguard of Hindutva and his father is wrong in suffering the association with a party tied to the pulverized pillars of an ancient party. The mullahs and the pundits of his new party will use him, his very presence, that is, to embarrass his dad's party. Anil Antony may not garner significant electoral advantage on his own but Congressmen will find themselves ridiculously ham-handed while inventing an eloquent repartee to their familiar diatribes. An important activity in elections is to inspire an ambience of victory. Nothing wins like victory.

Where is the harm if the father and the son take opposite positions? Why should not a son strike a new note in political affiliations, deviating from the path prepared by the father? There are fathers and fathers, just as there are sons and sons. Prahlada was an impossible son who would give no quarter to his father Hiranyakasipu. The son was a preceptor of immanence; the father saw nothing divine, nothing other than himself, inside or around him. That the tempestuous relations between the father and the son had a gory end for the father is, right now, beside the point. Prahlada’s discord with Hiranyakasipu should be seen in that perspective, not as a symbolic equalism of episodes and characters.

Indian tradition of relations and power struggles can be viewed in various angles. Prahlada’s grandson showed the way by abdicating authority  to redeem his word and honour. Though there is no national version of the story, Mahabali’s surrender of power and acceptance of self-exile should serve as a foil to the unvarying tales of treachery and vulgarized father-son relations. Mahabali kept his royal word even when it meant his total dispossession of power. Balamani Amma saw in that gesture a glimpse of divinity stepping on the head.

A blind king’s concern for his son was what brought on us a fratricidal war, annihilating everything on earth, victors and the vanquished, barring a dozen desolate persons. Uninfluenced by that collective memory of carnage, we have, at different stages, worked overtime to fortify the claims and interests of our sons. Like the beleaguered god, we exclaim “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Contemporary history is full of illustrations for that infectious dictum. Antony cannot be faulted for it. Anil Antony ploughing a different furrow must be seen in that light. In fact he will invite much less opprobrium when his son joins another party than when and if he is propped up in his own party.

The Greek ways are comprehensively grotesque, father and son falling for the same woman in a fit of amorous outrage. The son first kills the father. And then he weds a woman who was his mother. There could probably be no more egregious account of human conduct than this story of Oedipus killing his father, Laius, and wedding his mother, Jacosta, and begetting a child in her. Oedipus does it all in ignorance. It is a gruesome story of relations going haywire, being stultified, reducing the character to a tragic hero in a distorted setting of relations.

Oedipus had a sharp limp. From his childhood he had it. That was his mark of identity, a limping leg. In fact oedipus literally means a swollen leg. His relations were so too. Let us check if our legs are swollen!j 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

 Sojourn in Chettinad 

My memory of Chettiars is not as glamorous as their land and dwellings appear in a BBC portrayal. A British travel writer harks back to their halcyon days when fabulous mansions were built in the idyllic setting of Karaikudi  with timber from Myanmar, chandeliers from Belgium and marble from Italy. Ten thousand such mansions, some of them spread over an acre, with far too many rooms to be filled in with residents, are in ruin, bemoans the BBC.

Govinda Chettiar whose grandfather did not inherit the community’s opulence when he left their fanciful homeland  early in life in search of livelihood had no more than a little dark and dingy hut for a house for the best part of his life. He would do any work he could for any wage he was paid. He was full of laughter in spite of life’s drudgery. For my father, Govinda Chettiar was a trusted messenger to deliver some message or money to my mother.

It hurt me to hear this man so full of light and laughter passed into amnesia, my first ever tryst with the deadening experience of dementia. He spoke at home a language with a nasal twang whose origin or decline I could not trace. The origin of their community was better known. G Karthikeyan, a flourishing chartered accountant at Coimbatore, had once taken me home for dinner when his father accosted me along memory lanes, explaining the commonality of tongues, sait, seth, sethi, sreshthi, all representing the diaspora of merchants and money lenders, chettiars, from Karaikudi, since the late seventeenth century. 

Unnikkuttan, Govinda Chettiar’s son, broke the chain of tradition. He revolted against the prospect of doing any unskilled work for a living. He was not driven by any ambition to scale the heights of wealth and power his forebears showed. For him they had left behind a glittering saga of diamond trade in southeast Asia. Not so glittering was the story of itinerary vendors of goodies and cheap textiles, oil makers and carriers, rollers of pappadam, crisp wafers, on a small scale. Unnikkuttan skipped all of them, taking to wood carving and engraving. His son Biju came up with a creative shift. Biju is an acclaimed sculptor, exploring the surreal world of forms, figures and formlessness. It is a style of getting to terms with reality with which the village elite is not familiar.  

What overwhelmed the British travel writer was the enormity of Chettinad’s architectural extravaganza, not so much its creative splendour.  It  was a lavish display of resources.The Muthaiahs, the Chidamabarams, the Ramaswamis, the Murugappas and their hallowed ilk had risen to the peak of their prosperity in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Besides banks and restaurants and industries, the Kings of Karaikudi have left behind a culinary heritage in terms of Chettinad cuisine, probably celebrating its pungency in a non-vegetarian preparation.

It is tempting to believe that Chettinad’s glory is a blessing of the local deity, Karpaga Vinayakar of Pillayarpatti. Vinayakar, Pillayar in perfect Tamil, can be depended upon not only to kick off all  obstacles from a devotee’s path but earn him prosperity in every venture. And, all this for nothing more than a modakam, a sweet ball or two. The mercurial Lord Shiva’s naughty son is easy to please.

Time was when an incredible story was doing the rounds that Pillayars had suddenly started drinking milk offered to them. The deity is made of myriad metals, mud, gold, wood, rubber, diamond, whatever. I remember former Attorney General G Ramaswamy confiding in me that he had by far the biggest collection of Pillayar idols in the world. Ganapathi Ramaswamy felt that was one good way to perpetuate his memory which was quite a turbulent legal exercise. 

When that milk-drinking deity’s story was passed on from ear to ear at an impossible pace, my concern was rather different. I have heard of people facing damnation for looking at the moon on the fourth night of the fortnight. If you want to be a victim of slander for doing or saying anything that earns it, watch the wicked moon on Vinayaka Chathurthi! .But the truant elephant god drinking any amount of milk administered through any hole in the idol did not excite me. There was a breath-taking rhythm with which the tale tapered off after circulating a whole sub-continent.

That Pillayar would bring prosperity to me, as he has done to generations of Chettiars, is reassuring. It was my friend Karthikeyan who gifted me a photo of the idol of Pillayarpatti with a hint that it was their community deity. What came to them by way of wealth could come to me too. A visit to the homeland of Chettiars, Pillayarpatti, could seal the possibility. Full of hope and faith, my wife and I were there to propitiate the easily pleased deity, kshipraprasada, 

We are still waiting to be turned wealthy!