ghosts for the haunting and the Prologue(2)

How beautiful it is to look at, never have I seen or heard anything like it- Nalacharitam, Unnayi Warrier

 

krishna gopikas

***

Nila looks her best at  night. She is resplendent in the rains, full and flowing. The lazy river is antithetical to the typical Keralite who wakes up at the crack of dawn and shuts shop at sunset.  Nila belongs to the night, ripples of moonlight gleaming on her silvery waters. Nila likes being not merely the protagonist, but the solitary character to her own story. It is from her story that we borrow the beginnings to the story of Kathakali. It is on her banks that Kerala Kalamandalam, the premier institution of Kathakali was founded almost a century ago. It is on her banks that my father bought his first house in Kerala.

Painkulam is a small village in Shornur, the house we bought is part of someone’s ancestral house. It is ever so slightly odd to live in someone’s ancestral house, there’s no telling how many generations have grown up here. The newly painted walls, the tiled floors, the Usha ceiling fan, all hide layers of musty old stories. It’s usually in the still of the night or during a power cut in the monsoon that my little box-like room becomes claustrophobic with someone else’s ghosts. My father tells me that it is the ancestral house of a kathakali artist. A chutti artist, a glorified version of the regular makeup-artist. The man currently lives in America. As most stories are, his was also a love story. He fell in love with an American woman who came to learn Kathakali and went back with her to the U.S. Today he’s exported the Kathakali makeup tradition to the U.S and given it new forms and a new name and seems to be doing pretty well with some highly acclaimed art exhibitions. My father claims that it is the ghosts he’s left behind that have pushed me into kathakali. Perhaps it’s just that. The proximity to the Kalamandalam, an old veshakaran’s ghost, or simply a renewed interest in theatre. But a little more digging into why kathakali came back into my life, reveals more.

As a child I must have been terrified of Poothana. In full costume, she was even more of a demoness than I had imagined when I read the stories. That image of Poothana trying to kill the baby, the god I worshipped, stuck in my mind as the all-encompassing figure of evil. Years later when I started researching Hindu mythology and its many manifestations in India, Poothana came back to me. She had haunted me as a demoness when I was a child, but now she haunted me in her vesham as the noble woman. I read the story again, and this time as a Kathakali padam. I went back and looked for the demons and the gods in Kathakali, in an effort to find the heroes and villains of my own story. I was no longer a child who believed in the good of the gods, but I was more importantly not the child who believed in the evil of the demons. Kathakali became a synecdoche for the various understandings and manifestations of caste in Kerala.

excerpt from Vidooshakan- the Harlequin.

Find part(1) here

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Nari’s transistor radio

The only celebration for me was the leaf itself, I’m sure Paru would agree. Ummoos had used the long ladder to twist, coax, cajole the large leaves from the tree only that morning. It was the first thing I would see every birthday morning while I brushed my teeth under that very tree, a mixture of Colgate and saliva that made the tree grow too tall for Ummoos to pull down its branches.

I loved her passionately, my saviour and friend. Ummoos was brought from Tirur five years ago to look after Ammamma. Achan had insisted she get some help after her arthritis got so bad that she had a nasty fall from the mango tree. No, really. Ammamma always climbed the mango trees in summer, in full mundu and veshti, completely unabashed. She fought with Achan about it for months until Ummoos made the perfect sour mango curry and then her religion was forgiven. Now ammamma and I couldn’t imagine our ripe mango and plantain leaf plucking summers without Ummoos. When mangoes were at stake, ammamma always found a way to make peace with her gods.

The leaf was bright green in colour, dotted with white, yellow, red, black and a lighter green. I started moving around the rice to form the chutti first, thick and white lining the boundaries of the face. I let the green of the leaf pour in, before drawing the black of the eyebrows with Ummoos special ginger-tamarind chutney. The eyebrows rose in a perfect arc. I stared at the half formed veshakaran. “Stop playing with your food, kutti!” Ummoos never called me by my name, just kutti. I looked up at the roof leaking more songs. “ Should I go upstairs and call him amma?” Ummoos asked tentatively. No one spoke about Nari in the house except us kids and ours was more with the transistor radio than Nari himself. The thing had to die, and it was our yearly mission to provide it the best possible death. “ I’ll go, I’ll go. I’m done anyway, I’ll take the food to Nari and come back for my payasam.”Appukuttan regularly punctured holes into Nari’s long, song-filled afternoons.

I pleaded silently with amamma  to let Appukuttan leave. There was an evil gleam in his eye when he wished me a happy birthday in the morning, I knew the familiar “Nannaku vechitundu di” look. Appukuttan firmly believed that ammamma was partial to me because I was from ‘outside’ and he sought revenge for every extra teaspoon of Horlicks and special hot water baths. My birthdays were always occasion for an elaborate prank. Usually involving a good degree of public humiliation, terrible frights or just some physical pain when in an uncreative mood. But amamma asked him to sit back down and eat his payasam off the leaf, “ And don’t let me hear you call him Nari again, he is your uncle. Show some respect child! Have you taken bath today?” Ammamma always asked him that question when he got into trouble, one that inevitably landed him in more trouble. “ The water was cold.”

I quickly folded my leaf and slipped out before Appukuttan caught my eyes, baths were a sensitive topic with him. Ammamma took a bath once at 3:30 in the morning and once at 5:30 in the evening. She took bath silently and in complete darkness, as if in secret. I discovered ammamma’s secret one achingly embarrassing night two years ago. I could never get used to having a toilet outside the house and the dark dingy little hole into which unspeakable things went into was impossibly worse at night. On that particular night, the urge was tremendous and all dingy holes and darkness was to be suffered, if suffer I must. On my right there was Appukuttan, to my left Unni and above, Nari’s transistor radio bleating steadily into the night. In the darkness, the radio sounded like a wailing banshee stuck behind the walls. I paused for a few seconds in complete fright, willing the urge to go back the way it came. But it was one of those nights. I made a sudden dash from one door end to the other.  Now if there was no moon that night, the darkness would have been so complete that I wouldn’t have seen her. But in the narrow gleam of the moonlight, a frail shrivelled up figure with a bright halo covered in white had a stunning effect on me. Again, the effect was so stunning that I could have remained silent, but in between two creaks of Nari’s wretched radio the figure looked up straight at me. I managed a scream of the likes that overcame all singing and all sleeping in the house. My urge found a way out and by the time the entire house had found its way to the ghost, ammamma had slapped me twice and whisked me away to get cleaned up complaining about having to take another bath. By the end of that summer my ears had turned a permanent burning red.

Ummoos and I went to feed Paru our leaves, “ Look at her, she can both shit and eat at the same time. Who does she think will clean this up for the third time today!” From what seemed like right behind us, a ringing shriek and a thud sent Paru mooing into Ummoos’ midriff.

k1

There are two reasons why you’d find a crowd in front of a shop in Kerala. One, it’s pouring: aunties with their big black umbrellas, hold up their sarees as the roads turn into rivulets; men with their well-oiled hair and their lungis tucked above their knees, won’t risk riding their bikes in this rain. The only other reason is that there is a strike/ a hartal, and there’s a queue of men outside an unassuming looking rickety old shop, with a small board in yellow that reads TODDY. Today it’s both. In the peak of the monsoon season, Kerala rid of its tourists and its sweltering heat takes a break and watches the rains. Life comes to a standstill. Nothing here works when there’s a strike and no one moves when it rains. In a country that celebrates religious holidays every other week, communist Kerala depends on the rains and hartals for a celebratory glass of toddy and fish fry.

Kerala, a small coastal state in the south of India is a place of indescribable beauty, and describable cliches. There’s green everywhere, in every possible shade- the green of the paddy fields, the green of the mango too raw, in the peacocks, in the hills, in the moss on the streets, in the ponds and the luridly painted houses. It’s an artist’s muse. But that is the tourist’s Kerala. The Kerala that is my native place and feel forced to visit every year is that of pettiness, party politics, overbearing relatives and houses that reek of fish and wetness. A place that rings of familiarity while still being completely alien to me. My romance with Kerala, comes from a nostalgia that doesn’t exist. Nostalgia for a past I created through stories.

My father is a brilliant storyteller. His stories of growing up in his hometown were coloured with the idea of growing up in a large ancestral home- a joint family household that owned most of the land in the village. He had 5 brothers and two sisters and numerous cousins for company, they played in mangroves, had little interest in school, and had servants to cater to every need. He also spoke of times of strife, of experiencing poverty as the landlord system changed after Independence, the caste system being abolished, the family separating. Having grown up in a big city and never having seen his ancestral home, this was the Kerala I dreamt of. The reality only disappointed me year after year. I wanted an elephant in my courtyard, a temple in my backyard, and to walk down streets my family owned. We merely retained the name, as new houses were built on old land and old servants became the new elite— nouveau riche, if you will. It was class over caste.

excerpt from Vidooshakan- the Harlequin

Let’s begin, shall we?

Raise one eyebrow. 
That’s easy enough, it’s genetic.
Now, the other.
Ah,now there’s a difficulty. How can I raise the other? I contort my face. I try again. Both go up. They furrow. I try again. Both go up, comically raised in atbutham.
Again.
I try again, press my palm down on one and force the other up. I try 100,000 times. I raise one. Now, the other. There you go, now?
Do you look like one?
I look into the mirror, long and hard. Long hair, kohl-lined eyes, earrings dangling from both eyes.I raise one eyebrow, then the other. I do it rhythmically, increasing my speed to the beat of the chenda. 
Stop.
At most, a clown’s instruments to play the Fool. A veshakaran? No.
Then be that.
What?
The Fool. The Harlequin.