LIFE IS LIKE THAT

Writings of Anupama Krishnakumar

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Essays

The Joy of Telling Tales

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Posted on October 21, 2016

One fine day, more than a decade ago, as a journalism student, I stumbled upon the magical world of blogging. Fascinated by the idea of having a dedicated online space to record one’s writing experiments, I embarked on a journey that I had no clue would lead me to where I am today – a writer, a writer of stories. I must say that while I stepped into the world of blogging with excitement, I had no expectations from it. I still hadn’t understood that blogging was not just about recording your written work and storing it out there somewhere. It was much more than that. What it also meant was that people from across the world could discover your writing by a process called ‘blog hopping’ or by doing something as basic as a Google search that would lead them to the little nest that you have been building painstakingly with words.

The limitless space and freedom that blogging gave me to experiment, at one point, led me to try my hand at writing stories. I began posting one story after another. And with every story I wrote, I tried to find and define my own writing style.

The process of arriving at your signature style of writing takes years. This style is what defines your writing, what makes you feel comfortable as a writer, what makes readers instantly connect with you and again what makes you connect most perfectly with your audience.

Soon, I had my own little audience reading the tales that I wrote – readers who left thoughtful comments on what they liked about my stories. Some would even take the time to send long emails elaborating on what reading my work meant to them. Some of the feedback I received have moved me deeply because of their honesty in stating how the world of my stories have helped them forget their worries for a while or how they could relate to the characters in my stories and the situations they lived in.

Such feedback showed me that beyond the personal satisfaction your writing gives you, there’s this unique happiness that comes from knowing that you have made a difference to somebody’s day in your own little way through your words. The knowledge that people who you haven’t even met, chose to tell you something about your writing and how they could connect to it, is in itself a priceless reward. This encouraged me to take up writing fiction seriously and passionately.

Over the years, I have figured that I like to keep my writing simple, direct and honest. I have also realised that for me, writing is a constant process of demystifying what life is all about. Therefore, whatever I write, including stories, focus on celebrating the ordinary things that define our lives. In my tales, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

My stories are not as much about twists and turns as they are about making you see yourself or someone that you know through words. And letting you know that you are not alone in this world in dealing with unsettling situations in life. They are about our fears, our hopes, our strengths and our weaknesses.

I choose to focus on the ordinary things that make life what it is. I strive to make readers feel a connect through my characters and what they go through. Therefore, my stories are about memories, pleasant and unpleasant, relationships, ways of life, daily physical and emotional problems that we deal with as we make our ways through the journey called life.

My second book, “Ways Around Grief & Other Stories” published by Authorspress, is a short-story collection that silently captures the flavour of my storytelling the way it has evolved over the years. The stories in this collection will point out to you that you are not alone in dealing with testing situations in life. They will show you that each of us have our own ways of dealing with what our lives have to offer.

This book is a representation of something I am very passionate about – creating stories. It’s a work of labour and love and when I hold it in my hand, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is something very precious.

I hope you will share my joy by picking up a copy if you still haven’t. And if you do, I hope you enjoy the read. 🙂

The book is available on Amazon @ http://www.amazon.in/Ways-Around-Grief-Other-Stories/dp/9352073673/

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Poetry

On the Way Back From School

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Posted on October 21, 2016

“So, what’s the news today?” is the first question
I would ask him every evening, when I pick him up
from school. And he, my son, on some days, would
say, “Nothing special, just the usual things.”
On certain days, though, he would have a faint smile
on his lips and he would respond, “I’ll tell you in the car.”
“Ok…” I would say, my heart racing, the excitement
climbing to my head in a dizzying swirl.

He knows how to keep an interesting little surprise
on hold and unwrap it like a delicate present within
the comforting confines of the car. And then, he would
lift the veil on the suspense: a star, a certificate, an all-
correct assessment, or a nice remark from a teacher.
A wide smile and a hug, and a kiss of joy and pride
would be my gift. Soon, we would move on to other matters.
Ma, you know, this happened today and that. And music.

Snaking our way through nerve-wrecking traffic, our next stop
would be daughter’s school. We would invariably find her
in the sand-pit, engrossed, making cupcakes and castles with her
little friends. They are heart-stealers, each one of them, full of
innocent laughter and delight. Later, when we’d have settled
inside the car, she would pull out her lunch box. “Ma, I finished,”
she would exclaim. On certain days, when she doesn’t, she would
have ingenious reasons. The workings of a three-year-old’s mind!

The Daughter is definitely Miss Funny Bones. She would
turn the car into one entertainment box. And the Son
is the type who finds all her antics amusing.
“I wrote letter D,” she would announce with an air
of pride. And then suddenly burst into a song. All that
the Son would need to screech and giggle. And that,
would be fuel for more entertainment. She would
pull his ear and say, “I’ll tell you a secret, Brother!”

Tickled, he would laugh. She would, too, and throw
more stuff our way. “I coloured today, I climbed the slide.
What did you do?” “Well, serious stuff,” he would respond.
She would look thoughtful and ask, “Are you good or bad?”
A moment of silence and a burst of infectious laughter…
We would laugh and laugh till our stomachs hurt.
Till our eyes grew watery with joy.
Such are our evenings on the way back from school.

Valladolid, 10/1/2016. Bindu Subramaniam en el Centro Cultural Miguel delibes. Foto Ricardo Otazo.
Valladolid, 10/1/2016. Bindu Subramaniam en el Centro Cultural Miguel delibes. Foto Ricardo Otazo.

Interviews

Teaching Music the SaPa Way : In Conversation With Bindu & Ambi Subramaniam

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Posted on September 10, 2016

Nestled amidst houses in one of the quiet streets of Sanjay Nagar, Bangalore, is a building with a modest board that hangs on its façade and reads “Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SaPa)”. As you enter the premises on a warm Saturday afternoon, you hear mellifluous voices singing strings of swaras. You hear a series of notes being played repeatedly on violins by deft hands, demonstrating strenuous practice. There’s also a surprising dose of piano music that emerges gently in the background. Little kids and older children parade up and down the stairs, with their SaPa courseware and water bottles in hand while some bounce along with their violin cases strapped to their backs. There’s so much music in the air and before you realise, the musical mood catches on to you too.

Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts, whose acronym, SaPa, interestingly, is a combination of the two notes Sa and Pa, known as the prakriti swaras, was established in 2007 by renowned violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam and singer Kavita Krishnamurti Subramaniam. While the music school’s primary focus is teaching south Indian classical music, or Carnatic music, as it’s popularly known, they also teach western classical music.

Anupama Krishnakumar interviews singer, songwriter and Dean of SaPa, Bindu Subramaniam, and violinist and Associate Dean of SaPa, Ambi Subramaniam, about SaPa’s approach to teaching music, its vision, its curriculum and SaPa’s flagship program, SaPa In Schools (SiS). Excerpts from the interview.

What is the state of Carnatic music education in India?  What is SaPa seeking to contribute in this space?

Bindu: Very simply, we want to make great music fun. There are many great gurus out there, and a lot of traditional teaching methodology. We want to take forward the technique of our grandfather and the vision of our father, and engage with very young children and people who come from non-musical backgrounds. Both these groups don’t fit within the traditional structure very easily. We want to create an experience where a young child without a music pedigree can come and be provided all the tools he needs to be a great musician.

Ambi: Our aim at SaPa is to make professional musicians who learn Carnatic music in a global context. Like Bindu said, there are a number of fantastic gurus of Carnatic music out there who are taking our music forward, but sometimes we come across some wonderful young Carnatic musicians who are not aware of how to adapt their music to different audiences. We hope to teach kids in a way that they are equally comfortable performing in a sabha in the heart of Malleswaram, as well as at a world music festival in France. We try to have regular workshops at SaPa, where kids can meet both wonderful Carnatic artists (such as a workshop on percussion we recently held) and fantastic global artists (such as an Irish violin workshop). Although most of them wouldn’t become Irish violinists, the hope is that they take away even one idea from the workshop that will make them better musicians.

How have your teaching methodology and curriculum evolved since your inception?  What were the driving factors behind these changes?

Bindu: I’m very inspired by the kids – the SaPa Babies. I learn so much by just watching them, and try to incorporate what I see into the methodology and syllabus. We start with a syllabus that we think will be effective based on our experience, but are open minded enough to keep tweaking it as more and more students go through it. It took me almost a year to bring out SaPa Baby Book 1 after we had a final draft of it, because I would try and get rough copies of the book into as many small hands as possible, just to see how children would react.

We wanted a design that would appeal to them and excite them, something with enough information so that they would learn a lot but at the same time, not so much that nothing would stick, and fun trivia that would make it conversational for them. Kids love saying “You know what?” and then sharing some new factoid that they’ve picked up somewhere. We wanted a book that could fit into the hands of a three-year-old and wasn’t too big or heavy but the pages should be thick enough not to tear with some rough use. In less than two years, we’ve gone through about ten thousand copies and three editions. There’s always something that we’d like to do better with each version.

Our methodology has also developed over time, as we deal with younger and younger children.  I greatly enjoy watching children in diapers passionately sing nottuswarams. When children are very little, they learn in a very special way. It’s always a delicate balance to keep classical music traditional and serious enough, but still approachable enough for a small child. Music is fun, but it’s not a joke.

“I greatly enjoy watching children in diapers passionately sing nottuswarams.” – Bindu Subramaniam

For very young children, small things make a BIG difference. Making eye contact, giving a child a high-five, being encouraging, being open to all questions – these things are important. When you teach a child, you have a chance to change that child’s whole world. And in that sense, it’s important to look at yourself as a potential role model for that child. I think one thing that is different about SaPa is that we pay a lot of attention to the little things (and little people!)

Ambi: Bindu always like to talk about the babies, while I like to talk about the older ones! We’ve tried to create a syllabus that makes well-rounded performers. In many cases, when a musician goes on stage and starts performing, most of the audience may not be aware of the subtle nuances of the raga or tala that they are trying to do. The two most important things that audiences pick up is whether the music is aesthetic – beautiful tone, pitch and sense of rhythm, and whether the musicians are enjoying themselves. These are the most important things that musicians (of any age) have to keep in mind in my opinion. We try to put a strong focus on how you play and not what you play. I, as a listener, would much rather hear a simple kriti played beautifully than something very hard that sounds hard.

Another focus of ours is multi-discipline. It’s important that a violinist doesn’t just study the violin in isolation from everything else. In order to be a performing musician, you must be equipped with a variety of things. Both Bindu and I have greatly benefitted from learning different things. Learning Carnatic violin, western violin, Carnatic vocal and piano gave me different perspectives when looking at or hearing the same piece of music.  It’s heartening to see a number of our kids at SaPa learning say Carnatic violin and western theory, or vocal, violin and piano. At that age, when they learn to apply the raga concept into their western piano playing, or try to figure out harmonic structures for Carnatic pieces they learn, it’s fascinating to see!

How does your curriculum encourage very young children to sustain interest in learning music?

Bindu: Very honestly, we think our primary job is to get kids to love music. If they love music, they will stick with it. Everything from our baby rooms, to the characters in the SaPa Baby Books like Baby Dikshitar and Baby Thyagaraja, to the murals on the wall and our (soft toy) baby tamburas are designed to make children love music. We have performance pieces from book 1, and we give children performance opportunities in no stress settings. For very young children, enjoying music is more important than being perfect – and the best part is, if children enjoy music, they themselves will focus more and drive themselves towards perfection. We’ve seen that with so many of our kids.

Bindu Subramaniam in a vocal session with young children.

Bindu Subramaniam in a vocal session with young children.

You have periodic evaluations and certification for students.  At what stage/age do these begin and what is unique about this system of evaluation?

Bindu: At SaPa, we focus on creating professional musicians. When a three-year-old toddles in, we look at her as the next MS Subbulakshmi, and treat her accordingly. Students in the program have assessments at the end of each book or level, which on average can be about once a year. So children can be as young as 4 or 5 when they take their first examination. When our babies take exams, they aren’t frightened, they are excited – we try to make sure that even our certifications are fun, at least in the early stages. Exams are important because they give kids (and parents) goals, and an understanding of what is going on and where they are in the larger scheme of things. Children feel a sense of accomplishment when they finish a level and get a certificate. We want students to emerge as confident performers.

Ambi: The exams aim to test a student’s complete skills – it has technical exercises, theory, a rhythm component and performance pieces. The theory component is examined orally for very small kids while the older ones have a written exam. For exams at advanced levels, we also have presentations on Carnatic concepts. For a performer, a very important skill to have is to be able to explain and present your art form. Very often (especially when you travel abroad) musicians are asked to give workshops – some targeted to uninitiated audiences and some to professional musicians.

Tell us a bit about SaPa in Schools (SiS). What led you to start a program like this? What are the goals that you have in mind for this flagship program?

Bindu: There are so many ways that music benefits children. In most countries, music is a compulsory part of school curriculum, and even in India, on paper music education is encouraged by all school boards. However, the real situation is a bit different. Very few schools are actually able to provide quality music education to their students, for a number of reasons.

SaPa in Schools started very organically. Although we have a very limited intake at SaPa, we wanted to be able to reach out to more children, and share the knowledge we have gained. The first year, we ran a pilot with 1000 children, and now in the third year, we are rapidly approaching ten times that. The amount of support we have received for the idea has allowed SiS to become a movement.

In every school we work with, we create a SaPa Room or music environment, and students have one compulsory music period a week, which is taught by our trained facilitators. Students follow our textbooks and sit for exams at the end of the year. We provide two workshops or interactive sessions with professional musicians, so students get a chance to see musicians in action. Our syllabus is a mix of Indian music and global music. We use Indian music as a reference point for global music too. We also use global music as a way to start a conversation on different cultures, and how it’s important to understand and respect everyone. The SaPa Method uses a lot of activities and consciously shies away from using too much technology. We have collaborations with the Norwegian Concert Institute and the NMH – the main music conservatory of Norway, which have been very helpful.

Students during a music class as part of the SaPa in Schools program.

Students during a music class as part of the SaPa in Schools program.

We are grateful that with support we are able to provide this program free to almost 2000 children.

Our dream is to be the Akshaya Patra of music – to be able to provide high quality music education to every school going child in India, whether or not they can afford it. Through SiS, we hope to be able to give all students an idea of Indian and global music in order to ultimately make them good global citizens and tolerant humans.

How does the SiS program compare with the regular SaPa courses in terms of teaching methods and curriculum?

Bindu: We look at SaPa as a place that creates professional musicians, and SaPa in Schools as a music appreciation movement. At SaPa, the syllabus is much more rigorous and our standards are much higher. We expect a lot more from students at SaPa.

SaPa in Schools starts with a similar syllabus in level 1, but the curriculum doesn’t progress at the same pace, because the format is different. There are many more children in a class at SaPa in Schools, and it’s one period a week for children at all interest levels. We want music to be a positive force in the lives of all students, a break from everyday pressures, and an outlet for their creative instincts. We also want music to be a lens through which they view other cultures. We use music as a starting point for them to have a dialogue on social, economic, political aspects of music. We take an interdisciplinary approach and use a lot of activities to make it more suited in a prescriptive classroom environment. SaPa in Schools is a lot of fun.

We are lucky to have a passionate, dedicated set of about 25 teachers who go into schools every day and inspire thousands of children. Surprisingly, many of our teachers are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and counsellors – people who are trained in various professions, but teach music because they are passionate about it. And their conviction is a very powerful motivator for children.  Our students in the SaPa in Schools program love their teachers!

Ambi: The global component in SaPa in Schools has had interesting results. We’ve had kids who have come up to us and asked us if a particular Katy Perry song was in Adi Tala!

“We’ve had kids who have come up to us and asked us if a particular Katy Perry song was in Adi Tala!” – Ambi Subramaniam

We are delighted to be working with NMH Music Conservatory from Norway – that has more than 50 years of experience teaching music to school children in Norway. They summed it up nicely – in a school of five hundred, maybe five of them will become musicians, and the rest of them will become good audiences that love music.

Through all these years of establishing, strengthening and running SaPa, what are some of the important lessons you have learnt along the way? Have any of these been incorporated in your methodology/curriculum?

Bindu: Working with so many different institutions and children has given me a broader perspective. I used to just assume that everyone knew what a djembe was, because that was within my scope of ‘normal’. We now consciously try to include things just to open up the minds of students. It could be a global music workshop, or the political context of a song. Anything that could inspire what Maslow referred to as a “peak experience”.

We’ve also learnt that so many musicians are kind and supportive and very willing to share knowledge with us and with our kids. We can all benefit from collective wisdom.

Running SaPa and SaPa in Schools has taught me to be organised and it’s added a lot of value and meaning to my life. Any day I walk into SaPa and see kids light up at the prospect of making music, I feel so grateful that I am able to play a part in it.

Ambi: The more fun it is, the more kids are going to enjoy it! Over the years, we’ve tried to make music learning more fun, while maintaining the same strive for excellence. If they don’t like what they are doing, we can never get sustained results.

Another thing we try to focus on is to enjoy performance. The classroom and practice time at home is when we sweat the small stuff. If something is not ok, we try to work a number of times to improve that, and it’s important that students start paying attention to the minor details. But come performance time, when they are on stage, it’s time to ignore all that and just go and try to have some fun!

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Fiction

Equations

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Posted on August 21, 2016

Whenever Vijaya heard songs from the Tamil film, “Panneer Pushpangal”, she was reminded of everything associated with her life in the one-bedroom house that they had lived in on rent, in Luz. The house, Vijaya remembered, was located at the dead-end of a small street lined with huge trees on either side. The place used to give her a feeling that they were living in a little heaven tucked away in an inconspicuous corner of the big and vibrant city of Madras.

“Panneer Pushpangal” songs also grimly reminded Vijaya of Sarasa, the young girl who had worked as a maid in her house for nearly five years till Vijaya and her family moved out of the place. When Sarasa began working at their house, the year was 1981, and Vijaya had been barely thirteen then and Sarasa, a year older than her.

What Vijaya distinctly remembered about Sarasa were her long hair that she would plait earnestly every day, her tall and slender frame and her dark skin. Sarasa never went to school ever. She didn’t know to read or write a word and didn’t understand or speak any language other than Tamil. The pity was, Vijaya thought, the irony that was stamped on her name. Sarasa’s full name was Saraswati – the Goddess of learning and knowledge.

Initially, it was Sarasa’s mother who had been working at their house. She would come twice a day, wearing a torn and tattered sari and a sullen expression that indicated perpetual tiredness about everything to do with her life. She would clean the vessels, wash and mop the floor in the morning and would come in the evening to clean vessels again. Sarasa would tag along occasionally, as the lady went to not just one or two, but five houses doing the same work that she did in Vijaya’s house.

Vijaya could still vividly recount the chilling accounts of torture that Sarasa’s mother was subject to by her drunkard husband. The lady with a battered body and a tortured soul would weep and sniff into the pallu of her sari as she sat and spoke with tear-filled eyes to Vijaya’s mother about how the man had beaten her up the previous night in front of her two daughters. On other days, she would tell about how he threw the meagre gruel that she had cooked for all of them into the gutter because it lacked salt and spice. Sometimes she would say how he had stolen the little money she had saved up for an emergency.

Vijaya’s mother was a kind lady. She would give her maid a freshly-cooked meal and a tumbler of hot coffee and watch with pity as the woman gobbled up the food and drained the coffee to the last drop down her throat. Sarasa, the older of her daughters, would be fed too, and over years, the girl turned out to be the recipient of Vijaya’s hand-me-downs, particularly clothes and slippers.

Yet, Sarasa had her eyes and mind on something she never had access to – the books and notebooks that Vijaya kept in her school bag. She would gaze longingly at Vijaya and her bag, as the lucky girl walked out the door in the mornings, heading for school – a place that Sarasa had no clue how it looked or worked. Fate had decidedly written other plans for Sarasa. When Vijaya was thirteen, Sarasa’s mother took ill, owing to all the torture she had subjected her body to and the torture that her husband had inflicted on her frail frame. She withered and shrunk like a dry leaf overworking herself, eating hardly anything and getting beaten.

So who else but Sarasa could pick things up from where her mother left. At fifteen, five years since her mother started working at Vijaya’s house, Sarasa embarked on the seemingly endless road of drudgery. To begin with, Vijaya had found Sarasa’s presence in her new avatar quite unsettling, embarrassing and strange. For instance, on a weekday, when Vijaya would be packing her school bag, checking her uniform in the mirror or putting her lunch box and water bottle into her lunch basket, Sarasa would come around, broom in hand, meticulously trying to reach corners beyond reach, pulling out balls of dust, while throwing secret glances at Vijaya – a girl almost her age but blessed with a much better life than hers. Sarasa’s glances were not obvious, but Vijaya felt them on her back, like ants slowly crawling up her skin, making her utterly uncomfortable. So much so that Vijaya’s equation with Sarasa had been one of silence and distance. Until “Panneer Pushpangal” happened.

As a teenager, watching “Panneer Pushpangal” in a theatre threw Vijaya off her balance. She pestered her father to get her the gramophone record and when he did, she would tirelessly listen to the songs every day. One day as Sarasa went about her usual chore of sweeping and mopping, Vijaya had sat on a chair, humming, “Ananda Ragam”. “You sing so well,” Sarasa had remarked. Vijaya stopped, struck by the sudden comment, an honest one at that. “Thank you,” she had mumbled and for the first time, smiled back. That had been the ice-breaker moment.

The equation had changed from then on. Vijaya realised the ambition that lay nestled within the confines of the young girl’s heart. She came to know of her dreams, her fears, her likes and dislikes and realised how unconsciously condescending she had been about Sarasa’s life, her beliefs and aspirations. Vijaya began to enjoy the bonding they shared over ten-minute conversations that featured a whole variety of topics and interests that girls of their age were interested in. Vijaya would sometimes show her books and notebooks to Sarasa who would look at them with wide-eyed wonder.

When Vijaya turned eighteen, Sarasa announced that her parents had decided to get her married off to a distant relative who worked as a construction coolie in another part of the city. “Amma, I don’t think I can come for work anymore,” she told Vijaya’s mother, matter-of-factly. Vijaya couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Here was a girl, a year older than her, and she was getting married! That day, Sarasa wept bitterly to Vijaya and said just this: “I am done. For good.”

On her last day of work at Vijaya’s place, Sarasa told Vijaya, “I am going to miss you.” Vijaya had just smiled sadly in response. Later during the day, Vijaya’s mother wondered how she was going to find a replacement for a good maid like Sarasa. Someone who was trustworthy and was good at her job as well. Vijaya remembered thinking about the equation that an Indian household shared with a maid. How indispensable she was to the running of the house!

Over the years, through her time at her mother’s house as well as in hers, after she got married, maids walked in and out of her life – Selvi, Ratna, Geeta, Kaveri, Rani…. the list was long. Each came with her own foibles and goodness – each came with her own personal history. And each one of them just reinforced their indisputable presence in the functioning of the South-Indian middle-class family.

Thirty-five years later, the equation still persisted. Now, she had Lakshmi, her maid, who somewhere in between, also ended up doubling as a cook in the 16 years that she had been working in Vijaya’s house in Bangalore. “You are a blessing in disguise for me,” Vijaya often told Lakshmi gratefully. She couldn’t have achieved all that she had professionally achieved without Lakshmi’s tireless support filled with gratitude. Theirs had been a mutually supportive and beneficial relationship with Vijaya offering her maid-cum-cook of 16 years, financial assistance and moral support whenever Lakshmi had needed it.

The dynamics of her equation with Lakshmi was a lot different from what, say her mother or her aunt, had shared with their maids. Vijaya, over the years, had understood the need to give a trustworthy maid a free rein rather than bossing around on every aspect of work assigned to them. She decidedly did away with the “don’t enter the kitchen and rest of the house during those three days” belief that her mother had firmly followed with her maids. Lakshmi and Vijaya, given the fact that they were almost of the same age, chatted away comfortably about the people around them, the ones that they met as they went about their work and their relatives and friends. They discussed films, societal perceptions of women, parenting and shared moments of personal exhilaration and remained quiet when they discovered as to how certain things – rights and roles – had not changed much for the poor in India, particularly women, in spite of the many advancements that the country had made.

Today, Vijaya was in a particularly nostalgic mood and the fact that it was a Sunday lent her the space and time to dwell on people from her past. Looking at Lakshmi who was putting out the mopping stick to dry, Vijaya was suddenly reminded of Sarasa after many years. Where would she be now? How would she be now? She wondered. Would she have become a grandmother now? And the most chilling thought…would she even be alive now? She sighed at the mere futility of these questions that would never find their answers.

“What happened, Akka?” Lakshmi asked as she made her way to the door, preparing to leave.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Lakshmi,” Vijaya sighed and shook her head distractedly, and as the gentle morning light fell on Lakshmi’s face, Vijaya thought she saw Sarasa’s face transpose over Lakshmi’s for a split second. And then it was gone.

Painting by S.Ilayaraja, courtesy fineartandyou.com

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Fiction

Insignificance

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Posted on July 14, 2016

Lakshmanan sat on his wooden armchair near the window of his bedroom, peering absent-mindedly into the street. There was nothing momentous about the day, the world was going about its business, just like it had been doing all these years, after having relegated Lakshmanan, the great Tamil movie star of the 80s to oblivion.

Lakshmanan now lived in a decent-looking bungalow in Pudukottai, his native place, from where he had made humble beginnings as a young theatre artist whose heart was filled with dreams of going to Madras and making it big in the Tamil film industry. “Why do you want to get into the koothu business?” his strict father, a retired Tamil teacher, had repeatedly admonished him but to no avail. Nothing could uproot the young man’s desire to become a film actor. The quest had permeated every cell in Lakshmanan’s body.

Lakshmanan’s desire and ambition was not baseless. He excelled in the art and was a natural. He could move his audience to tears, he could awaken powerful emotions in his viewers, and he could make people see the purpose of the character he was playing. Every single time that he acted in a play, he would live and breathe the character, transform and become one with it, that it became impossible to distinguish Lakshmanan from the character he was impersonating. Viewers, entranced, would flock to watch a play that featured Lakshmanan. His popularity in and around Pudukottai grew steadily in the 70s, much to the irritation of his father who detested the idea of his only son stepping into what he believed was an illusory world that was nothing but a curse to those who became a part of it.

But who was he to stop destiny from taking Lakshmanan to where he was meant to go? As word spread about Lakshmanan’s acting prowess, an upcoming director from Madras who was working on his first film visited Pudukottai to watch Lakshmanan in action. Spellbound by what he saw, the man knocked on Lakshmanan’s door the very next day, only to be turned down hastily by Lakshmanan’s father.

Lakshmanan begged and pleaded with his father.

“Appa, please,” he said in a deep voice that people had come to love, “please let me go. Opportunities don’t come by so often.”

“Are you out of your mind?” his father shouted back, “I don’t want you to drown in that dirty world.”

“Appa, trust me,” he cried, “Just let me make this start and you’ll see where it will take me, where it will take all of us. I will do you proud in every possible way. I will make you live the life of a king,” he begged.

His mother too, in a very rare display of courage, tried to speak to her husband, for her son.

“Why are you chasing away an opportunity knocking at our door? Look at Laksha’s face, can’t you see the earnestness that’s written all over it?” she said, breaking down.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Lakshmanan’s father stood his ground.

Lakshmanan resigned to his fate, believing that a very big chance had slipped away, just like that, out of his hands. This is what’s written on my head, he told himself, carrying on with his job at the Pudukottai municipal office while also acting in local plays, once in a while.

Two months later, his father took ill. Lakshmanan was distraught looking at the way his stern father was crumbling, succumbing to an illness that nobody could have control over. He sat by his Appa whenever he could, trying to reassure the sinking old man that everything would be alright. Soon.

One evening, as he sat next to his father, the old man said, “You know, Lakshmana… sometimes, certain realisations come very late in life. Only when one’s end approaches, do we tend to look back at our lives and see our acts and the decisions that we took in a new light,” he paused for breath, “I was perhaps being too harsh in not letting you chase your dreams. Lakshmana, I want you go to Madras and do what you love to do. Will you?” he asked.

“Appa, this isn’t the time for talking all this,” Lakshmanan said, pressing his father’s hand. “Your health is more important.”

His father let out a feeble laugh and said, “Do what I say.”

And a week later, he died.

Eight months since the director visited Lakshmanan’s house, the aspiring actor set foot on the land of his dreams, Madras. Destiny took its course and luck stood by Lakshmanan’s side as the director, who had by then delivered his first hit, welcomed him warmly. The man ignored the tussle from eight months back, only because he was spellbound by Lakshmanan’s acting prowess.

The rest, as they say, is history. Lakshmanan became Lakshman, the star, who delivered hit after hit. Offers poured, his stardom soared, and the awards rushed to embrace the man who, the land of Tamil cinema believed, was the epitome of acting talent. The media was in awe of Lakshman, the star, and chased him for interviews. Fans thronged him at shooting spots and other public places to catch a glimpse of their matinee idol. They fervently sought his prized autographs. Lakshmanan literally felt on top of the world when he thought about how he had made his mark in an industry that boasted of legendary actors. Life couldn’t get better than this, he mused. Through all those years of his stardom, Lakshmanan wished his father had been alive to see what he had been able to achieve. His mother lived on to see her son reach the pinnacle of success and revel in the joy of seeing him marry a woman that she chose for him. Later, she too dissolved into the folds of time, carrying with her the only regret she ever had in her heart – her son didn’t have any children.

As the years rolled by, somewhere, life changed course. Nobody, not even Lakshmanan, could pinpoint exactly how and why it happened but preferences changed. The offers to act as a hero soon turned to offers where he had to essay other “less important yet productive” roles. Lakshmanan found it hard to accept this turn in his acting career, yet, with some introspection, accepted it as part of an actor’s life and chose to move on. And then, those offers too reduced to a trickle and then one fine day, the industry decided to leave him behind and move forward. Just like that. Without any regrets.

After having stayed on in Madras for a few years, trying to see if something came by his way, Lakshmanan finally decided to return to his roots and went back to Pudukottai with his wife, making up his mind to live a modest life. The feeling of insignificance hovered about him like a dull, grey cloud, that Lakshmanan battled every day to chase away. He had drunk too much of glory to accept this insignificance that haunted him. He would often stand in front of the innumerable statuettes that he had received as awards at various award functions and would particularly gaze with pride at the National Award he had won in 1985. He would often look at newspaper clippings of various interviews that he had given during his prime years as an actor.

On certain days, he would just sit by the window, like he was doing now, lost in thought.

As Lakshmanan sat, looking dreamily at the street, he heard his wife’s voice.

“Listen,” she said, “Your mobile phone has been ringing. Didn’t you hear it?”

Lakshmanan turned around, slightly startled.

“Looks like Gopu is trying to reach you urgently. There are four missed calls from him already. Maybe it’s something important,” she said.

Gopu, Lakshmanan’s manager from his acting years and a good friend, had been one of the very few people that he was still in touch with. He picked up his phone and called back Gopu.

“What’s it, Gopu?” he asked, “something wrong?”

Gopu laughed slightly on the other side.

“Lakshman anna,” he said, “I have some good news for you.”

Lakshmanan’s heart raced. He literally felt like the parched earth that rejoiced the first drops of rain after years of drought. Yet, he composed himself and asked in a normal tone, “What’s it, Gopu?”

Anna, the organisers of the CineGold Awards called me this morning. They wanted to know whether I could get in touch with you,” Gopu said, taking a deep breath.

“Me?” asked Lakshmanan, unable to contain his curiosity. “What for?”

“Well, ask anni to keep some sweet ready, anna. Here’s the great news. They have decided to give the Lifetime Achievement Award to you this year!” he screeched in joy.

Lakshmanan fell silent for a moment and wondered what would have prompted the organisers to recall this long-forgotten actor suddenly.

“Hello? Hello? Anna, are you there?” Gopu spoke nervously on the phone.

“Yes, yes, Gopu,” replied Lakshmanan, “Thank you for letting me know.”

The phone conversation lasted a few more minutes and after much coaxing, Lakshmanan asked Gopu go to ahead and give his number to the organisers.

Lakshmanan’s wife noticed the faint smile on her husband’s lips as he put the phone down. Even though he shared the news with an air of nonchalance, she knew how much this award meant to him and rushed to the kitchen to make his favourite badam halwa.

Suddenly, Lakshmanan’s life gained a purpose. He grew more cheerful, more participative, all the while pretending to downplay his happiness about the whole episode. His wife silently watched the spectacle unravel as he spent hours drafting and rehearsing his acceptance speech and choosing his best kurta and dhoti for the occasion.

Few weeks later, he received a call from a popular magazine and then from a channel for interviews. Even though his mind warned him constantly not to get carried away, his heart wouldn’t listen. Lakshmanan decided to bask in this little phase of glory before insignificance returned to take charge of his life again and before the world would forget him yet again.

On the night of the awards ceremony, as Lakshmanan received his Lifetime Achievement Award amid thunderous applause and a standing ovation, he had tears in his eyes and goose-bumps all over. He absorbed every moment of the glorious episode into his soul and let it compensate all those years of insignificance that he had painfully lived through. As he left the stage, he wondered if the next time the world would remember him again would be on the eve of his death. Whatever it was, Lakshmanan knew one thing – this time he was definitely better prepared to deal with the impending insignificance.

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Essays

Cleaning Up, Making Space and Letting Go

by

Posted on June 19, 2016

This Sunday, pushed by a burst of guilt-driven energy, I threw open a couple of cupboards in my house and embarked on a long overdue clean-up session. I had reached a stage where I had to confront reality. I had to make space, however mind-boggling that sounded, to accommodate all things that have gained high importance in the lives of my fast-growing, school-going children.

As kids grow up, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience to realign one’s home to accept and accommodate their “things”. It begins with clothes, toys and baby cots upon their arrival and as they grow older, it’s time to make space for study tables, books and school stuff. Our home is precisely at this point now. We have a burgeoning pile of books from Nursery Rhymes to Know your “ABCs, Numbers, Fruits, Vegetables, Animals, Vehicles” books to Mythology to Mystery to Classics to Workbooks catering to the reading interests and requirements of a three-year-old and an eight-year-old. Add to this pile, boxes of crayons, colour pencils, pencils & erasers, paints, craft material, charts and every imaginable piece of kids’ stationery. Plus of course, school textbooks and notebooks. Pretty choked, in a nutshell.

Well, yes, I admit to having procrastinated this ritual of tidying up for quite a while. Call it laziness or indifference or whatever, I just about managed to squeeze my kids’ books and related stuff here and there for a couple of years. But ever since their vacation began in April, I have been swallowing the guilt crawling up my throat, every time my eyes fell upon their books and stationery. Those poor things appeared like they were really struggling for breath, jostling for space as they stuck their heads out in utter discomfort, from various places, just like humans crammed together miserably without much choice inside a crowded Bombay local.

Guilt plus the need for immediate action eventually pushed me to sit down in front of the cupboards in our study room. I began digging deep into the shelves, after having steeled myself for the tidying up business that, simply put, terrified me. Quite a few things that we had been hoarding inside our cupboards for years had to go. That was it.

When I dug out one of the lower shelves, I pulled out a whole variety of material, mostly paper-based – some that I remembered well (Oh, this, right!), some vaguely (Hmm…yeah) and some not at all (Now, what’s this?). All of them carefully preserved in folders and fancy-looking plastic covers, nonetheless, and everything belonging to me.

Out came bits and pieces of my life, from a decade or more ago, standing as proof to the person I was – from a different time living under circumstances that I am no longer a part of. I ran into project reports from my Engineering days that made me wonder about what all I had pursued and tried to shine at as a 20-year-old, without any idea about the turn my life would take a few years later. There were test papers and assignments from when I was a student pursuing a course in Journalism, including a small write-up on why I wanted to be a journalist. Then there was this resume of mine, a writer ambitiously seeking “challenging work opportunities”. I also found a colourful notebook full of notes from some press conferences that I had attended, flaunting my ID card and business cards with the pride only brand new journos can sport. This notebook also had many questions I had written down to ask people in order to write feature stories.

So there I was sitting and humming a song that reminded me of times long gone as I sifted through copies of The Hindu Literary Review that my father had carefully preserved and handed over to me. I also chanced upon copies of my wedding invitation, printouts of Personal Finance features that I had written and a big bundle of greeting cards I had received from friends and relatives right from when I turned 13. Another prized discovery was a small receipt that was tucked away in a corner and brought a smile to my face. Do you remember this, I asked, showing it to my husband. The receipt is an important piece of our personal histories. It marked the beginning of our life-long association. It was of our first-ever outing, a visit to a popular bookstore. I realised how much I had accumulated things (and still do!) for the sake of preserving memories.

I carefully put the receipt back inside. The sorting exercise was eventually about answering two questions – Which of these things do I wish to hold on to? Which ones should I let go? Cleaning up is a tough act because it’s hard to stay detached when you go through the process. There were some easy decisions and some truly tough ones. As my children ran about me, I sorted my belongings, my memories. In the end, the mission was accomplished. I cleared up space and let newer experiences and the present dwell alongside treasured memories. But what stayed on, long after the job was done, was this suspended feeling which leaves you wondering if the current moment is real. Thankfully, routine stepped in to heal, pushing one to get on with life. But only till the next clean-up act I suspect, whenever that would be.