“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Angst of Existence

How do I describe myself?

Is it my biodata, my curriculum vitae

Or the sum of the scraps

These verses and stories I write about myself?

Do you, reader, see me in lines like these?

The corpus of my writings

Friend, do you, in this corpus before you?

I ask you, woman of my life

This man, who shared your bed and love

Pray, tell me who I am.

I am looking askance at my son

My dogs, my fish, birds of the air

Tell me what I am, lay me at rest.

Am I just a grain of sand

Born of nothing


Destined for nothing?

As I turn my back

To you, to the world

What would you say who I were –

Would you just shrug and smirk?

It is not what you think I am

That bothers me

But not knowing who I am

Not knowing my place, if at all

I have any, not knowing if I exist?

While you collect your thoughts

Allow me to sit here

Collecting, picking, sniffing at words.

********* Balachandran V, Trivandrum 31.10.2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Scheme of Things

At the traffic signal, I crawl up

Next to my friend's Mercedes

My thirty-three year old scooter

Hardly one-fourth its length.

My friend, his business worth crores

Puts down his Blackberry on the table

Beside my five-year old Nokia,

Scratched, scarred, and shoddy.

He hugs me, his cologne- laced shirt

Wrinkles its nose

At my faded cotton -

It tries to hide the button-less hole.

He said how, one day

He had this vision of a huge Banyan-like tree

Ants marching, monkeys jumping

Birds singing

Children playing, plucking fruits.

He talks about his mission

About the five thousand acre arid land

Turning it green, growing organic cotton.

He talks about his company

Employees more than five thousand

About his effluent treatment plant

Where, even the sludge, bacteria-treated

Lets onions bloom beneath the soil.

My friend's arm thrown over my shoulder

I remember how I once saved his life

From drowning in the river.

Osho says do not compare

Accept the you you are.

I guess I have to accept

That Giant Redwoods

And coarse grass as well

Have their own places in the grand scheme of things.

************* Balachandran, Trivandrum 22.10.2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gandhi Jayanthi

In the evening, I am back home from office; Parvati from College, K from school. The evening snacks session is a regular feature at ours; Tommy and Sancho look forward to that more than the three of us. That’s when the large steel vessel containing the goodies is brought down on the dining table and opened ceremoniously with a clang and bang – biscuits, cakes, groundnuts, Son Pappadi, Halwa – the list varies, but the dogs salivate in anticipation and there is a lot tail-wagging and excited growls. It is also the time when we tell each other about the day we had.

Gandhi Jayanthi is a public holiday. In the schools and colleges and some offices across the state, the day after Gandhi Jayanthi is also the day of cleaning and tidying up. In P's college too, teachers and students enjoy this break from studies. She was telling us about her day and how unforgettable it was.

P was working with a couple of girls; freshers in the undergraduate course in Botany. As the Head of the department, P makes sure that she knows the background of each and every student in her classes. She asked Archana about her family. “What's your father, Archana?” Archana looked up and said solemnly - “He is no more, teacher.” “Oh, I am sorry to hear that, what happened?” Archana was silent for a while. Then she said slowly - “He committed suicide, teacher. He just couldn't pay up his debts.”

Even after nearly 28 years of teaching and involvement with students, P is yet to harden up. “Then who else is in your family? Who takes care of you?” “My brother drives a pick-up auto. Mother does part-time help in some houses. Grandma is ill and bed-ridden”. P notices Archana's thin, anaemic body; faded and old-fashioned are her clothes. P had already given new notebooks to Archana and other students from financially poor background by raising a fund. P says gently to her - “Archana, would you mind if I offer you something? A friend of mine gave me some nice dresses she doesn't wear anymore. You may have to size them down a little bit, but they would suit you. Would you like to have them?”

Trivandrum is a city. Maybe not as big as the metros or many other state capitals, but still big. We too have our young, hep crowd, what with the Technopark Software people and professional colleges etc. Pretty young girls drive their Marutis and Hyundais nonchalantly through our crowded streets.

Archana gives a grateful, shy smile. “Oh, teacher, that’s nice. But I have enough; I am happy with it.” She pauses. “Teacher, can I ask you something? Jayashree-” Archana points to the other girl who was picking up garbage a little away - “Jayashree's situation is much worse. She is an orphan and has only old grandparents. She is actually staying in a hostel for poor students. Other than whatever concessions she gets, she manages by taking tuition. Not much, but a little something, you know.” P and Archana are silent for a while, watching Jayashree. “I sometimes share my dresses with her. Do you think you can give a few to her? She is fair and pretty. She would look nice in good clothes”.

Parvati has a reputation for a tough, no-nonsense teacher. She is also a much loved teacher, that I know. She has that fierce commitment to her work, to her students. Many are the instances when she has fought to protect the students in her college, where rioting and clashes are quite common. I have seen the sparkle in the eyes of her students, the way they run up to her, the way they crowd around her and babble. I am proud of her. I am privileged to say I am Parvati Teacher's husband.

I pat P. You are a good girl, I tell her. K looks at us and grins happily. We silently munch our cake.

I am nobody to talk in length about Mahatma Gandhi. But, like I told Sujata, the only reason I would call myself an Indian is that Gandhiji too was one. And then – there are many others like Archana too. Sometimes one cannot help feeling good about life.

************** Balachandran, Trivandrum 05.10.2009.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Reunion

If you ask me if I remember Thankamoni, I would say yes, because she is there sitting on the ground among other children in our Class group photo of 4th standard, in 1966. I see those soulful eyes, looking solemnly at the camera. In the next year,during the summer vacation of 1967, Thankamoni died. I remember vaguely that she died falling into the waters of the canal, in an epileptic fit. I left Palakkad sometime in July 1968, while in the 6th standard.

Years later, my old classmate, Induchoodan, joined me in Class 10. He told me of Krishnadas, that handsome boy, who died a couple of years back. He had bone cancer. In 1974, on the first day of college at Mavelikkara for my B.Sc., I met Pradeep, classmate at Palakkad. We have been close friends since then; as K says, 'Achan's OLDEST friend'.

Pradeep, now a successful businessman at Palakkad, organised a reunion of the old chums. Couple of months back, I went to Palakkad once again, to be part of the reunion - of the classmates who studied in 4th standard at Railway Primary School in 1965-66. There were 24 of us, now in our mid-50s, many seeing each other after 40-odd years. I had the old school group photo, but it was difficult to recognise many of them - those little boys had grey, bald heads, paunches and pouches beneath their eyes. A big man comes up, with a sad expression; I whisper a question to a friend - 'Who is that?' He asks - 'Don't you recognise your old tail, that's Balu!' I am shocked. My friend tells Balu - 'Hey, Balu, Balachandran here didn't recognise you!' Balu slowly turns his head, comes to me and holds me in a Bear grip. 'Da, you forgot me?'. In the resort beside the big dam, we sat around, drinking Chivas Regal that Abe brought from the US. Abe was one of the naughtiest boys in our class; he is a doctor in the States for the past 30 years, having migrated with his family sometime in the early 70s.

Many of the 24 gathered had studied together till the 10th standard. They have much more memories to share among themselves than I have with them. I listen to their bawdy jokes, their crushes on girls, their adventures in the school. Suddenly, I felt sad and left out. I had moved on, from school to school, doing my 10 years of schooling in 6 different schools, flung far and wide across Kerala. I didn't have much to share with these guys, who had not only studied together, but lived close by, in the Railways Housing Colony; their fathers or mothers were employees of the Railway Divisional Office. They had a childhood, a boyhood together. I was an outsider, from the Forest Colony, son of the Divisional Forest Officer and lived in a big Bunglow which had a large garden of Rose plants.

In the evening, a bonfire was lit. We sat around the fire, sipping whisky. Somebody sang, somebody shouted, schoolboy smut was flung around amidst bursts of raucous laughter. These were not middle-aged men, some of whom had married daughters. These were adolescent boys having fun. A few have done quite well - doctors, engineers, successful business men, managers - some others were modestly employed in the Railways or as school teachers.

Balu comes and sits beside me. Balu is a maths teacher in a nearby High School and due to become a Head Master soon. Balu has a tumbler-full whisky with him. He throws his right arm around my shoulders and hugs me. 'Do you remember the wildlife documentaries your father used to show? That was some treat! And those dogs and forest squirrel and wildfowl you had! It was a proper zoo, your house!' Balu chuckles reminescensing. We are quiet for sometime. I think of those days – Balu and Venu, the two Brahmin boys, Cherian and Saji Zacharia – we were together most of the time, playing Ball Badminton or Football.

I ask him about his family. Balu is silent. He sips his whisky. He looks at me. 'You don't know?'. I am shocked at his expression. There is such agony in his face. ' I had two boys. Now, only the younger one. I killed the other'.

'He was good in his studies, you know. Wanted to become an engineer. After Plus Two, he got into an engineering college at Coimbatore. He wasn't quite healthy and he just couldn't take all that ragging. I forced him back to the place again and again and he would come back everytime saying he can't bear it any more. Then I put him in another college. There too, I don't know why, he was unable to adjust. Finally, he came and said he didn't want to study anymore.' Balu is silent for a while. I said nothing, my heart heavy. 'Friends said that I was torturing my boy. I wanted him to get on in life, be successful, not desiccate like me, a poor teacher in a school. Then he wanted to join the Navy. Fine, I said. And he started jogging everyday. I used to wake him up early in the morning. One day he said he didn't feel like jogging. I said nothing doing, lazy fellow, go go run. He went. 15 minutes later he collapsed on the road and died before anybody could help him.'

'Maybe what I did was wrong, pushing my son. Maybe my wife and friends blame me. I have to live with it, this unbearable pain that tears me apart'. I hug Balu, his head is on my chest, and we cry. What we were, what became of us, what is in store for us?

In the two days we spent there, I listen to my friends, to their woes and joys, how lives have flown through these past decades. We peer at the old group photographs. ' He is dead, an alcoholic he was'. 'Oh, him! Went up high in his career, but now suspended from service for corruption'. We tease each other about the boyhood crushes we had on our girl classmates – 'Aye, you should see R now, so fat! She is a bloody grandma!'

I sit apart and look at them. We may meet again next year when Abe comes home from US. Maybe we may not. Maybe somebody wouldn't be there. Like old, yellowing leaves, one by one, we would be taken away by the winds of time.

************* Balachandran, 03.10.2009, Trivandrum

Friday, October 2, 2009

Mian Ki Malhar

Last week my friend Sreekumar gifted me with an album of Hindustani classical instrumental music. The single folder has 16 CDs – 'SAAZ'. 2 CDs each of Tabla, Sarod, Flute, Santoor, Sitar, Sarangi, Violin and Shehnai. Masters such as Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Amjad Ali Khan, Shivkumar Sharma, Satish Vyas, Chaurasia, Renu Majumdar, Sabri Khan, Vilayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, L Subramanimam, N Rajam, Bismillah Khan – to name a few.

I am listening to Ravi Shankar playing Mian Ki Malhar. It is 1830. Darkness has fallen early today, sky is clouded and rain-laden.

Ravi Shankarji is plucking the strings of his Sitar. I feel as if I am standing before an unplucked bunch of Jasmine and every touch of his fingers on the strings makes me feel that I am touching the Jasmine, flower by flower, as its gentle scent ascends the crevices of my mind.

Death is all around here. A few days back, a former colleague of mine passed away. He had respiratory problems since long. I was working in the bank when I heard about him. Died the previous night, cremation already over that morning, far away in a village near Trichur.

Couple of days back there was this terrible tragedy at Thekkady. A boat capsized and 41 tourists were drowned to death. People from Bengal, New Delhi, Punjab, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and other places. The Malayalam news channels had a field day. Gruesome scenes, heartbreaking scenes, speculations about the cause of the accident, human angle stories, husbands and wives and fathers and mothers grieving.

Thousands, it is reported, are dead in the Indonesian earthquake. Hundreds in a Sunami somewhere in the South Pacific. Obituary columns threaten to overflow the single sheet of the newspaper. Then there are the death anniversaries. People dead, dying.

Sandra Hoynacki is my friend. She lives in the US. Her mother has Alzheimer's. She wrote to me yesterday that her mother is hospitalized due to renal failure. I replied that I hoped Sandy would have the strength to bear such pain and sorrow.

Mian ki Malhar is now at the fast rapid Kaal. Ravi Shankar's fingers are flying over the strings. The Tabla accompaniment is like the rocks in the riverbed over which the stream of sitar flow, joyously, and then it rises to a cresendo and then - gently enters the wide lake of my still mind. There is silence.

There is such peace. I think of the young widowed man crying over his wife. I see the half-opened eyes of a little girl, dead. I see the face of my colleague, asking after my family and smiling. I see the face of the weeping Indonesian woman, waiting at the remains of her daughter's school, hoping she would come out alive from the ruins.

It has started to rain again. Mian Tansen must be singing his Malhar up in the heavens.

You see, there is no need to believe in anything. All you need to do is to listen. To look. To smell. To be aware. To be there, wherever you are. And when sun sets and darkness falls, drop off to the soft earth gently like the Jasmine flowers. Tomorrow, when day breaks, we would be there, hugging Mother Earth.

********* Balachandran, Trivandrum 02.02.2009

(Photo by Victor George)