Saturday, April 29, 2023

Twin Suns in the Sky

Given my lassitude, it was to be a non-starter, my research on twin suns in the sky, their simultaneous rise. Some friends, more importantly.Shamar Rimpoche among them, were all agog with enthusiasm. As if to commit myself to the esoteric enterprise, we gave it a tantalizing title, Buddha is not Laughing. When indeed was Buddha laughing?

As far as we know, Avalokitesvara was not a self-involved prophet of laughter, at least not so much as a philosopher of sorrow and carnal temptation, that is, an eight-fold path leading out of primordial human misery. The prince of Kapilavastu had lived too long to spare himself life’s essential ennui. Possibly Buddha’s portrait as an amused man came into circulation when someone produced an artifact, a statuette, of a laughing man with a bald pate and christened him accordingly. So incongruity, there. When we had our prestigious nuclear test, we chose for it a three-word announcement, ‘Buddha is laughing!’ 

Buddha never dies, nor is ever born. Gita enthusiasts are apt to bind him with a line from Krishna’s gospel, na jayate mriyate etc, though we are not sure whether the charioteer preceded or succeeded the mendicant. Till his ultimate return to nothingness, Buddha keeps happening. It is a perpetual experience of rebirth, Rinpoche being the honorific of the soul in pursuit. That holds good for everyone, not excluding our most famous contemporary Bodhisatva, Dalai Lama. And, Dalai Lama, who combines spiritual and temporal power in a heady measure, is always the cause or the consequence of one controversy or another.

The current controversy is not over reincarnation or relapse into the ultimate void. For a ridiculously mundane act, like asking a little devotee to suck the blessed tongue, Dalai Lama has been caught napping. A shrewd observer of the ways of the world and beyond, he knew everyone would not take kindly to the egregious ritual, he has apologized for any hurt caused to the boy or his kin. It seems it is no furore that will die down soon. The civilizational order headed by Dalai Lama is itself under severe stress. Nothing may please Beijing more. 

Tenzin Gyatso, which is Dalai Lama's given name, reached where he has by winning friends, influencing the powers-that-be and astutely balancing the wheel of dharma through the past half century and more. No politician or religious power broker has accomplished his kind of acrobatics. He fled his native land, set up home in a different land and won global laurels with other big players in world politics. The government of the country of his adoption, from where he trained his cultural guns with unerring marksmanship against his native land and its communist commissars, had no role to play in his anointment as the quintessential prophet of peace. India could not but watch with dismay or delight Dalai Lama’s rise in the firmament of freedom. That China was not too pleased to see its neighbour harbouring and honouring someone whom it had roundly treated as a fugitive became agonizingly clear in a few years after the Tibetan diaspora had its fateful trans-Himalayan trek in the late fifties.

The communist upsurge in China which swept through the Tibetan Autnomous Region was feared to become a cultural invasion, a clash of civilizations. It was fashionable to debunk the unabashed aggrandizement from Beijing. New Delhi’s foreign office was right from the beginning infatuated with Dalai Lama and his entourage. It held His Holiness in awe and reverence, never summoning courage to tell the spiritual savant that he should avoid taking positions that would embitter Sino-Indian relations. As an aside, we had through the diplomatic grapevine a bit of news that foreign office luminaries insisted on a bullet-proof BMW for His Holiness’s use though India’s prime minister could make do with a fortified Ambassador. 

What was being endangered in Tibet was a life module frozen in time.  Dalai Lama was at the pinnacle of a social order in which a nameless  populace saw in its leader god and man all at once. The system worked so ferociously that it provided scope for total command at the top and absolute obeisance at the bottom. Birth, death and rebirth came to be maladroitly manipulated  for the benefit of the power elite. Reincarnation politics was what has since come to be known as the bane of life and religion in Tibet. 

Tenzin Gyatso, current Dalai Lama, could not have been here now but for certain accidents of life and politics. Another boy had been identified as the new Dalai Lama in the late forties but he died in a road accident preparing the ground for the ascent of a newly chosen cleric. Reincarnation was the principle of succession in three other sects of Tibetan Buddhism as well but that did not unleash a widespread tug of war since they had no temporal authority to invoke in times of stress. If senior monks had perfected their plans to install a teenager as a sect’s head, they would have their way with no questions asked. 

The identification of a reborn Bodhisatva had a time-honoured tradition to follow. In spite of our reincarnation mythology, India has not evolved a system to explore the progress of a dead guru. Fifty years ago, H N Mukherjee, a professor of Parapsychology in Rajasthan University, had toyed with the idea of research on reincarnation and trans-migration of soul. Nothing significant was reported about it later. Tibetan tradition of identification followed the ancient pattern. When a fairly important person was dead, his confidantes would have an inkling of the arrival of the new soul.

If there was rivalry, more Rimpoches than one would be identified, revalidating a hackneyed theory of one becoming two or more. The newborn, as soon as he was able to follow or issue instructions, would identify his prototype, so to say, by recognizing his sandals, clothes, other articles of personal use. When a rebirth takes place, divine signals will ensue. There may be a constant clink in a kitchen vessel, a revelation to a trusted monk through his meditation or, hold your breath, twin suns in the sky.

One becomes two or more depending on the need or for the convenience of those who are in a position to leverage political power with spiritual claims. For instance, my friend Shamar Rimpoche, a high lama of the Karma-Kagyu sect, which claims an antiquity even beyond Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order, had a running feud with another disciple of his guru, the late Karmapa. Through his meditation, Shamarpa identified a boy in Tibet as his venerable guru’s reincarnation, while his rival came up with his counter claims.  So it was that a dead man may well come up as two or three or more. In a few years of tutoring, the young fellow will mature as a perfect guru, handing down homilies and commands. 

Coming back to the obsessive apparition of twin suns in the sky, Shamar Rimpoche and I had extended conversations about signals from the sky and the revelations through meditations. Over a generous glass of Black Label, I argued that one sun could be seen as two or three because of some discrepancy in the cognitive system. Either when one has a brain in trouble or one drink too many, one can be assailed by double visions, not otherwise. Hallucinations are part of a pathology, not any divine epiphany. Heartily guffawing, Shamarpa would dig his teeth into a large chicken leg and observe that he was a meat-eating monk while I was a tame or timid vegetarian tiger.  Before he could follow up his visions or help me to put together our promised volume, Buddha is not Laughing, Shamarpa was gone. 

Such belief systems as those that stultify faith and reason in our times do not contribute to the growth and glory of a sub-Himalayan society. Beijing has long been playing its cards cleverly, bludgeoning Dalai Lama’s hopes for a return to his throne in Potala Palace. It knows its rebirth politics only too well. As and when time is up, Dalai Lama, who is braving his eighties, may well be replaced by a requisitely amiable monk in China. The savant of Dharamsala is not unaware of various possibilities. He has even threatened to close the route of reincarnation, saying, in an after-me-the-deluge tone,  “there would be no more Dalai  Lama.” That does not preclude the possibility of a comradely monk coronated with revolutionary greetings.  



Monday, April 24, 2023

 Mind of Madhavikkutty

A library in my neighbourhood has an interesting practice. It sends round a girl or two from time to time, visiting houses to inflict  books on potential readers as well as chronic enemies of letters. Where she placed me, I am not sure.  Anyway, that comely and committed library assistant asked me this time  to read an old book by Madhavikkutty, My World. “You would like it, sir,” she said presciently. I did. 

My World  is a sequel to Madhavikkutty’s early autobiographical writing, My Story. The  World covers events and ideas, and her fantasies, following the Story. The Story was somewhat of an explosion when it appeared about a half century ago. Like it happens to everything in repetition, the World did not upset anyone’s sleep or set off  a literary revolution.

Madhavikkutty, writing as Kamala Das in English, has, in a sense, demystified literary archetypes. What may seem quotidian becomes a soulful experience in her hands. She turns ordinary things, non-things, if you like, into subjects for study and exploration in mind’s unfathomable labyrinths. Her expression has a certain freshness about it, her ideas have  an unusualness. 

With all that in her capacious portfolio of ideas, she was apt to win the state government’s Ezhuthachan Award sooner or later. When she won the first award, many suspected para-literary considerations had weighed down the official decision. One tour de farce she accomplished in between was to change her religion. I have no problem with someone changing the  faith or going in for reconversion in pursuance of a new enlightenment. 

Even Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had converted to Islam for a while experimentally and then returned to his old spiritual garb. In recent times, a neurosurgeon, Narayanan Namboodiri of a famed Brahman household of Koodallur, had a convulsive faith change. He became a prayer warrior in Christian Medical College, Ludhiana.

If conversion is prompted by less than genuine reasons, like some material inducement or professional ascent, the character in question falls in social estimation. Such sham is necessarily predicated by an instant realization that whatever conviction one had upheld a whole life was grossly inadequate, even patently faulty. What paroxysms Madhavikkutty’s mind went into in the run up to her conversion into Suraiah are anybody’s guess. It is beyond question that Kamala Suraiah hadn’t  revised from top to bottom her  views on life, love, literature and god, or its absence, when she became a Muslim. 

Madhavikkutty being Madhavikkutty, there was bound to be high drama in her change of faith and religion. Unwittingly perhaps, but none too innocently, she said and did things in a manner that would strike headlines. She liked being noticed, as author of her writings or one who lived her life the way she lived it. If that was showiness, Madhavikkutty was showy. She honestly believed she was a woman of destiny. The world had several deficiencies to be set right and she felt being called upon to correct them. That urge for showiness, blended with naivete, and inability to place herself in the matrix of society, was what dawned on her as an epiphany to contest the assembly assembly elections in 1982.

She took herself seriously as a candidate while a band of workers who clung to her as primordial leeches saw around her trappings of buffoonery. They set up an election camp at her home and had a good time for three weeks, holding demonstrations, putting up her cut outs at street corners, plying her vehicles as she drove around setting cardinal election issues in focus. She came one day, accompanied like a shadow by her amiable husband, Madhava Das, to place an advertisement of her candidature in our paper. 

No sensible paper would turn down an ad and she wanted to make it as big as possible. Das left it to her to decide how it should be. On my part, I suggested a token insertion. We struck up some compromise. She was more than crestfallen when the results came. She had polled less than invalid votes. I was sure her literary fan club had not wasted their votes on her. By and by, she must have become sure too. 

My World has a short portrait of the British writer Aubrey Menen, a relative Madhavikkutty, his last name punctiliously spelt as Menen, so as to avoid being mistaken for his better known but equally irascible namesake, V K Krishna Menon. When Madhavikkutty was in Mumbai, Aubrey Menen visited her with a handsome offer of tips on life, death and alcohol. It was a free offer. 

The first piece of advice was that she should keep her home bar well-stocked  with premium brands of brew--which was what he obviously looked around for when he stepped into the apartment. Madhavikkutty heard him in enforced silence as he went on with his bacchanalian obsessions. “Out with all your lassi and lime juice!” That was his curt command, keeping boozers’ interests uppermost in  his mind. For all her famed directness of speech, she stopped short of handing down a judgment on the distant cousin who had his friend always with him as an inseparable shadow.

Make no mistake, Madhavikkutty was no puritan who would shun  any company where liquor was liberally served. I had not heard of her views on Aubrey when she had some of us for dinner at her place inThiruvananthapuram. It was not a liquor crowd. If anything it was a guest gallery that thrived on buttermilk and tender coconut. The glittering guest of the evening was A P Udayabhanu, an octogenarian Congressman, who wore his allergy to alcohol on his kurta’s lapels. 

Probably, her son, M D Nalappat, formerly a shareholder and editor of Mathrubhoomi, had arranged the dinner bash. Nalappat would have expected to use the occasion to get closer to a live wire Karnataka politician, Veerappa Moily, than with a spent force like Udayabhanu. Between them, the old guard of the Congress and the neo-vendor of power in the Kempa Gowda country made it an imposing atmosphere. Even those of us who had liquor on their palette didn’t feel free to gobble it up when offered. 

That was when Madhavikkutty came out with a bottle of White Horse  asking us if anyone would care for a ride. Moily lapsed into an embarrassed silence. Udayabhanu was engrossed in a self-sustaining oration, oblivious to whatever we were imbibing with pronounced gusto. Aubrey Menen would have risen to the occasion if he were around. Retrospectively, I was relieved he was not in  our midst.

I have never met or read Aubrey Menen. For all I know, he was a self-important man, proportionately repugnant. He had descended on Thiruvananthapuram with his ubiquitous companion and let us know that he was available for a few minutes’ chat with newspaper reporters. He thought we were waiting for the wonder call. My colleague, K M Thampi, a young man with a creative way with his words and polite to a fault, was drafted to deal with the doughty writer.

Aubrey Menen’s book, presumptuously titled as The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen, had raised hackles among the votaries of the Maryada Purushothama. As a matter of political rule, it was banned for a while. The twentieth century author who probably hoped to excel the robber-turned poet could not have asked for more. The ban rendered the book a sought after reading. Pitifully, I had not read it. Nor had Thampi. But we could, we knew, always make do with an instant reading of the blurb or a hearsay review. Clever authors know it only too well that a good way to make a book move in the mart is to have it lampooned by a listless  readership or proscribed by an obliging sarkar. 

Thampi could not have been with the twentieth century Valmiki for more than five minutes when he walked out in a huff. We did not know what the author with a bee in his bonnet, as they say, had expected of us. Whatever it was, we were not ready to play the game except on our terms. Yet it was curious that someone with Thampi’s mien, his modesty, had been so rudely provoked. Just as he was returning to the bureau with ill-concealed agitation, Aubrey’s call came from the hotel asking us to depute another reporter. 

Nothing doing, we said. While we were yet to piece together what had happened between Aubrey and our ace and sensitive reporter,  we would have no one else to talk to him. Either the reinvented shadow of the poet of the wilderness talks to Thampi again or he talks to no one else. It was hard persuading our reporter to call on again a man on whom he had walked out. When he finally agreed to meet the man at his hotel again, we were all happy to hope for a good read. We had fortified him with support and suggestions that he keep his cool in the unlikely face of provocations. 

Our ace reporter was back to the bureau almost before he left for the unwelcome interview. It was a fiasco, again, he confirmed in a staccato tone. We did not plumb for details. We left it at that. Our neo-Valmiki did not call again. We adjourned for a celebration of an interview article that had not taken place. I felt good that I stood my ground. 

Aubrey Menen came back alive the other day in the form of a short note on him by Madhavikkutty in her My World.   The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen remains unread because there was no mandatory reason to rush through it. Given a choice, I would first pick up A K Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas. Maybe the library girl would bring it to me one of these days. Thanks.