In Search Of Lost Time.-.-.-

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(‘Silent Night‘-  Acrylic painting, done four years back on canvas, of the temple pond and ‘paalamaram’)

This one is an acrylic painting done by me four years back. I painted it from my memory, from the indelible scorches and scalds left behind from years back. Thus, it is a story, a fine thread parsed from the mesh of memories, a revisit to the past, as much as a painting I cherish. I love the somber, dull hues, the darks, Greys, pewters, and earth tones than the bright, visual flamboyance in paintings. At that time, almost all the paintings that I did were somber ones that I liked to hoard. I remember my husband and my foremost art critic, disapproving of my aloofness and choice of somber shades. Still, he is well aware of the narrative details of this painting just as my mother does. And she was prompting me to write down the experience. When I reflect back now, I wonder how events and stories impact the minds of children and how ignorant adults are about what is brewing inside the mind of a child.

Some of the elements of the anecdote, I could relate to young Marcel anxious of sleeping alone in Proust’s ‘Swans Way‘, the first volume of ‘ In Search of Lost Times‘. Proust’s masterpiece rings a bell when I try to read it, a challenging read given the profoundness and immensity of the volumes. I own the first one of the seven volumes, ‘Swans Way’  a dog-eared paperback that I had surprisingly found in a used-book store at LMS junction during one of my routines, visiting new and used book stores with my mother during the vacation time. When at his low ebb he feels that time and past has been lost forever, he starts out searching for the lost time, racing against death, writing seven volumes of his own life, exposing them to the reader and proving the eternity and beauty of the past.- ‘Swans way’ was inspired by the memories that flooded him as he dipped Madeleine in hot tea. He describes his fear of going to bed at night and his nervousness of sleeping alone at night.

We don’t need to be anyone like the great Proust for trying to tread the path back into the past. For us, the ordinary conflicted creatures, letting go of the mists and steams of the past serve to release the gratuitous, vicious, and the obscene, thus balancing the pressure within, a sort of studied revisit coupled with blissful ignorance of past. Yet, some are more conflicted than others, with the mist imprinting joyful colors and heat of the steam scalding the insides leaving lasting immutable shades and scars.

I am a ‘creature of the past‘, as my son addresses me, boring to the hilt, morose and taciturn, nose buried in books and paintings, moody like a dark sepia painting with gloomy pewter-grey clouds hanging overhead, about to pelt down and strike and soak everything on its path. Revisiting the past, to me, is in one way letting go of somethings that incline to cling on tenaciously, at the same time taking in the fragrance of a forgotten and lost spring. It is the same sort of fond, poignant or vague remembrance, seeing the tranquil Bosphorus, Blue Mosque or the labyrinth of colored, covered markets in Istanbul or the specters of innocent lives taken by the Grim Reaper in the concentration camps,  things that had flashed clearly through the fine prints years back. Thus this painting is a remembrance, restoration, and reclaim of the past.

Our present links itself to the past through the conduit of the senses. Of all, the olfactory one is potent. We follow our nose down the memory lane and stumble upon the deep-rooted stumps strewn on the path. For me, the long walk back in time, where I had met the ethereal and terrestrial, heard the truths as well as myths, whiffed the angels and fiends, is ushered by the sweet-smelling devil, ‘palamaram‘, or the Indian Devil Tree. Call it science, the brain chemistry of olfaction which opens up the floodgates to the past or the mystery that reminds us of the origin of our identity guiding us back in time through the bygone path or sheer happenstance, the tangy, heady, celestial aroma takes me along the drifts of wan childhood memories.

Palamaram‘ had been part and parcel of the storybooks of fantasy and mythological tales in Malayalam that my mother would bring home in heaps. As much as the storybooks, our lives were entwined in the atmosphere of the ancient temple nearby, one where my mother’s family had been worshipping, with its consecrated idols of peaceful ‘Devi‘ and irate ‘Bhadrakaali‘, a historical place in the city. My mother had been a devout believer, so we children used to take part in all the religious festivities and activities of the temple without fail.

And anyone who had been lucky enough to spend time in the company of grandparents would never forget the rich and vivid experience in their lifetime. My maternal grandmother was a cache of mythological tales about ‘Yakshi‘, ‘Maadan‘, ‘Gandharvan and so forth. As in many Hindu homes with such an atmosphere, all these experiences played their own roles in molding and finessing the obscure inside me. Every child is different, so the way such things impact each other is different too. Both I and my brother grew up in the same environment, still, I don’t think he had any kind of bleak effect from any of these, as opposed to me. He was into science and sports like all the other boys of his age. But, it was an altogether different one for me.

My first ever encounter with Yakshi had been a mix of awe, dread, and allure, in a children’s version of ‘Aithihyamala’( Garland Of Legends) by the Malayalam author, Kottarathil Shankunni, that had one story which went by the name ‘ Yakshiyum Namboodiriyum‘(The Yakshi and the Namboodiri). The book, which I still recollect vividly, a hardbound one with a white cover, the front-cover picture of a super-pretty, voluptuous ‘Yakshi’ in an iridescent white flowy saree, her sable hair flowing like waves on the ground, jet black kohled eyes sparkling in fury, petaline lips like scarlet berries and a ‘namboodiri’ in a dhoti, a tuft of ‘kuduma’ on his pate, a sacred thread across his chest, eyeballs ballooned up in fear, and the chill of a shiver visible along his somewhat bent spine, in a broad backdrop of heavily bloomed ‘paalamaram’. That was one of my first picks among the Malayalam and English books, which my parents used to select for us.

Coming to the story of ‘Yakshiyum Namboodiriyum‘, what bits and pieces I can recall now is not much more than a generalization of an encounter between evil and good, the vile intents of the evil Yakshi being forestalled by the sagacious ‘namboodiri’, who gets the better of the evil spirit by literally nailing her into the ‘paalamaram’, where she languished for decades and centuries. The storyteller might only have had the intention to imbue this moral into a child’s mind. But, as a kid,  rote learning and pushed to buy into the variety store of moral story ragbag, from CBSE moral science textbooks since the time I had set foot in the kindergarten premises, the moral side of the ‘namboodiri’ story was relegated to the back burner of my mind. And I was obsessed with the fantasy of the bedazzling Yakshi, her magnetic individuality that draws in everyone to her, unobtrusive existence, the ability for intricate polymorphism and camouflage, but above all the dexterity to inhabit the branches of ‘paalamaram’ without incident. I painted her, dreamed about her, felt her presence. I believed to the core that she did exist.

There were many ‘Yakshi Paalas’ near the ‘Sarpa Kaavu . My visits there increased in frequency to catch a glimpse of the ‘paala’  bloom and the live Yakshi emerging from the ‘paala’ tree. Months of waiting to catch sight of that VIP in my life turned out to be futile, but all the same, she appeared as a diaphanous apparition in my dreams. That was when I had learned that these nocturnal citizens of the world existed in two forms, a venerated benevolent one and a dreaded malevolent fiendish one.

The most macabre elements of my memories, that I would wish to stow away in the hidden repositories deep inside the attic of mind and brain are those resurrecting from the temple pond, down our house built on the same site where my maternal ancestral home had stood. The pond is basically, a step tank system with stairs of stone all around and four ghats on the four sides of the structure, it is not unlike the other sacred tanks, on the face of it. A circular pathway surrounding it led on one side, directly to our house through a flight of ancient stairs carved from huge monolithic stones.

The distinct advantage of the perch offered an uninterrupted view of the pond that appeared placid except for the local people bathing or swimming and the annual festivities of the diety conducted on a special ghat. But, that was just one brighter side of a bucolic abode, atop a pond with its own mind and heart. Legend had it that the pond never dried up even during the harshest of droughts that had struck the area. It also had an ambiguous nature, at the same time offering the elixir of life and luring the oblivious, unwitting souls to the death trap in its bosom. Swimming away from its edges towards the middle was a sure path into death well, so a large circumscribed area around the center was off-limits even to adroit swimmers and divers.

Nevertheless, nothing could have stopped the daredevils and the reckless from calling into question the laws of nature and dousing the flame of life in its waters, before it was even kindled. There was another group, that was dead set on snuffing it, overburdened by worries, who came from even far away places, offering self and sometimes their little ones to the pond with a ravenous craving for souls. Such was the grisly truth that we were not allowed to step inside the bounds of the pond even once, in the decades that we had spent in that perch.

I had been a mute witness untold times, to the pond’s morbid craving for life that had been sucked into its abyss, leaving the fallen angels to rise up to the surface after one whole day. As a six or seven-year-old, the death knell sounded by the pond never registered in my heart or reverberated in my head. I was oblivious to the form and substance of the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. Again, as young children, we were forbidden by our parents from watching the happenings around, who kept us inside closed doors during that period, under their aegis, until everything had cleared outside. This exercise of household quarantine had only served to accentuate my curiosity.

I am not sure exactly when I had caught a fleeting glimpse of a floating body, belly up like a veined, dry autumnal leaf. Throngs of spectators were elbowing each other and nudging their way through the assorted congregation around the low walls of the pond, to have a look at the lifeless body. Once again, the edge offered by the perch enabled me to have an unhindered view ( I still remember it vividly).  According to the oral lore and the stories from my grandmother, the pond had a discreet path underneath that bore down to the other end of the earth, a mystical maelstrom carried anything that came on its way, down through the obscure path to the inferno( as it were, another realm). And the malevolent ‘Yakshis‘ were supposed to be the ones taking the soul underneath.

My unwitting Angel might not have meant to scare the hell out of me, but that was exactly what happened ultimately. I had a cold fever with scary chills that same night and I missed school for a few consecutive days. From then on, every time I peeked into the pond at night I would conjure up the ferocious, blood-thirsty fiends hovering over, like a pall of suspended white cloud and ample nightly adrenaline shots was prescribed by the wary brain, the dose increasing gradually on a daily basis.

There was no other option, but to shiver under the bedspread, wide awake till wee morning hours watching over the silent, dreary, wakeful nights, on my bed, worrying about the ill-fated soul that was about to be dragged into the pond and enduring the yawningly indifferent mornings in the classroom that delivered incalculable dose of arithmetics. With the same religious fervor that I had exhibited in invoking the benevolent ones previously, I went all out to shrug off the vicious ones that manifested ever readily without any need at all of invoking them. It didn’t take me that much time to come out of that transient dread.

I did come out of that, by a regular rational infusion. I still remember the many medical exhibitions at Trivandrum Medical College, where I had been taken by my father, since the sixth or seventh grade. There, for the first time, I made acquaintance with lifeless cadavers, just a stone’s throw from me, that reinforced my discriminating power by dispelling the spectral mirages. Those educational trips transpired as covert desensitization therapies for my credulous self, like, see for yourself, hear for yourself, feel for yourself training sessions.

Months and years into the medical course reinforced an empirical, evidence-based approach to life. Clinical postings, apart from case studies and an obligatory shock therapy of having to watch postmortem in Forensics, were rigged-up theaters where the spectral enactment of birth to death could be closely watched. Lives reaped by the scythe and those brought back from the brink were studied up close. And the omnipresent devil tree was nowhere to be seen in medical college premises or the premises where we took up residences later on.

My parents sold the property and bought an apartment in another part of the city, later. To this day, I make sure to take the tour through my past, the temple, the pond, the site where our old house had been,  the used-book stores, the place where she had worked, holding my mother’s hand, every time I visit my parents during vacation. The way I would feel at the time of the trip is hard to describe. I watch the springs and winters of the past roll by before me.  And I wouldn’t trade this trip with my mother for anything else in the whole world.

I love to watch the ghost movies in all languages, something that my husband and son dismisses as a stupid waste of time. I tell them, I don’t believe in ghosts anymore, but these phantasms were a part of my past, a sort of lived experience of a fantasy I could never erase. In the place where I stay now in the suburbs of Mangalore, on a forested hillside on the banks of the silent Netravathy, guarded by the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, the people rever trees considered sacred. There are ancient temples and dilapidated palaces, dotting the area. Almost a year back, during one of our walks, I and my son wandered inside a somewhat thickly-forested part of the hillside to find a sacred grove with plenty of ‘paala’ trees. During the October- November months, the air here effuses with the musky, heady aroma of the ‘paala’ bloom, felt from our apartment surrounded by the trees, the roadside blanketed by its buttery flowers. I always feel, whoever had associated the tree to the devil must experience the peaceful, relaxed ambiance underneath it.

Even now, myths never fail to amaze me, but they stay just as reminders of the many childhood folktales I had come across in the storybooks and by word of mouth, the sweet and sour experiences that I have had as a child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brief vignette of a wakeful mind

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                                 And nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep,
                                       dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion!”

                                                                        [D.H Lawrence, ‘Sleep And Waking‘]

                         If just skipping through these immortal lines make me yawn wide and deep, I consider myself one of the few lucky Sapiens roaming the earth, walking on air. Don’t get me wrong, I slide off to slumberland, not for the reason that these lines are tedious. But, for the reality that these timeless words read like a lullaby to me. D.H Lawrence, for all his fame and creativity, had not been as lucky. He happened to be the chronic insomniac wandering on the sea of wakefulness, the shore of sleep sailing afar from him. It seems ironical that those same lines, written by him on one of the many sleepless nights, rock me to sleep as I read them.

                       I grew up reading Dickens’s classics and studying Wordsworth’s poems during the course of my school years. I should never say that I had been rote learning those poems for the exam, I was literally dreaming about them, ‘wandering like a lonely cloud among the golden Daffodils‘(‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud’ by William Wordsworth). I met with those clouds and Daffodils while tripping into the deep abyss of sleep. Little did I know then, that these two literary maestros were connected by a ‘common chord’. Both of them were intractable insomniacs.

                      Many of us might have sailed through the rough sea of wakefulness at some point or phase in our lives. Those journeys almost strike me as sailing on tides high and low, twisting in the wind, solitary, disconnected, languishing as outcasts banished from the kingdom of slumberland, yet, they never drag on for long. Soon I catch sight of the sleepy shore, sneak around for some time and moors the restive, swinging mind to the secure wharves, piers, and docks. In short, that sort of sleeplessness simply means our body is responding to the vagaries of life and it autocorrects itself by some tweaks and twists, lulling us into a stupor.

                     In ‘Night Walks’, a collection of essays, Charles Dickens describes his nightly walks that extended for hours through the London streets, reaching back home by sunrise. His literary prowess and insomnia were intertwined, in a way. The same should be true for other night owls like Wordsworth. Those creative minds were melting pots of dazzling ideas and hyperactive brains were a maze of fired up neurons. Some of the famously insomniac creative class brought out their respective magnum opuses during one or the other of the sleepless nights. It seems, this sort of insomnia, known as ‘creative insomnia’ is an efficacious exasperation, offered free, gratis, and for nothing along with the creative genius.

                   But, cerebral and creative minds do not automatically equate with insomnia, beyond question, and without doubt. While there is some direct and observable correlation between creativity and insomnia, there are no studies that substantiate definitively that sleeplessness contributes to creativity or all mental giants are insomniacs or stretching the point even further, that all insomniacs harbor giftedness, talents, intellect or skills of some sort, by all means. In fact, a good night’s sleep could enhance the creative skills per se and long term insomnia is definitely detrimental to creativity and health. To be specific, an assortment of medical reasons, thyroid issues, for example, should be ruled out and never should one seek to self-medicate.

                   As a physician, I have had occasions of getting reminded about the ‘lucky me’ in full control of this intangible asset, something I had taken for granted. Or, sometimes encounters of mind-bending synergistic interaction with patients, while I keep my ears open, mouth shut, eyes of the mind receptive, sailing near the reveries of the wakeful drifter who goes over again like the haunting refrains of a discordant dirge. In short, I could appraise the ‘sensible experience’ after those interactions and a few up-close-and-personal ones with my near and dear. Yet, one could never get to the bottom of it unless one experiences it. There is an adage in my local language that translates like ‘you could never understand what fire is unless you feels it’. I would say I had only been near to the fire or I could only see the burning ember. Its a dream I dare not feel.

                 Let me add the finishing stroke by dedicating this article to one of my colleagues, a friend who happened to be a chronic insomniac. That was, back in time by 11 years in the Middle-East where I had been working in a multi-specialty hospital. The place had been sort of a microcosm of the globe, a world city, cosmopolitan, tolerant, secular and above all welcoming. My friend, an Arab, was a blend of all these qualities, an archetypal lady from the East, and I could easily glimpse in her a commonality of views, interests, and traditions of an Eastern culture that I was accustomed to. More than anything else, she stood out from the crowd in the country of my origin, only in her appearance by virtue of her azure blue eyes.

                The truth was that I had seen those eyes only on the pages of novelists like Charlotte and Emily Bronte. They seemed exactly like the novelistic material from those pages, like the deep, calm ultra-marine sea on a cloudless day. Or, from an exclusively Eastern perspective, like the turquoise blue lapis lazuli on the incisive eye of a khamsa.

                 Coming back to her insomnia, a few of our friends once tried to extend our solidarity just to lighten her up from a melancholic reverie. She peppered it figuratively, poured in color, kneaded that into an easy to mold texture, molded it into a simple form with a subtle shape. We were able to discern the form with vivid colors from the abstractness and vapidness of the term. It should have been something like this if I would express her thoughts in verse 

                     

                   ‘ When you glide away into the dark abyss of slumber,

                              My soul goes astray in the vast expanse.

                       

                      I clamber onto the thorny track uphill,

                               To seek my alter ego who is awake,

                     But to find her deep asleep on the tattered, tawny shroud,

                               With all her dreams spangled,

                      Like diamonds on the ink black hair.

                       

                     Catching on to the tip of a low hanging dream,

                             Wading through the murky bank on the shore of sleep,

                     I stumble on the deep spreading roots of thought,

                             Watching the fog of consciousness drown the land.

                     I pine for the knight in shining armor,

                              To take me to the no man’s land,

                      Beyond the curtain of the eyes,

                              Where the thespians perform the vivid showpiece.

                      I close my eyes tight, beseeching to reach the shore,

                              Before they exit the stage in the rage of light,

                       But all I see, through the faraway curtain,

                              Is dancing dandelions and a flashing spectrum.

                      I keep my eyes closed,

                            Still, all I do is chase my rambling muse,

                      Now, I see the chink of light,

                             Sneaking through the worn out facade.

                     I see Him with the palette and brush,

                            Blending the black and white,

                    On the dull ashen monochrome sky,

                           Pasty as my pallid face.

                   I watch him paint the dome of the sky,

                         Dipping the brush in the vibrant sun,

                   Strokes of lemon yellow, warm orange and flaming red,

                         Dappled on a cool opalescent cerulean blue.

                  The kaleidoscopic dance from the strokes so flawless,

                        Smooth and flowing and vertical and circular,

                  Nothing but a banal reflection,

                         Yet never do the hues reflect in my mind’s eye.

                 All I possess is a drop of azure sea,

                       In the deep well of my eyes,

                 For you all to see,

                       And dreams of a dreamery,

                  Buried deeper beneath.

              Oh dear sleep, it’s not you whom I miss,

                      I miss those wistful dreams of yore,

              Woven from the web of mirage,

                      Dancing to the tune of light,

              Dreams that escape the dreamcatcher’s grip……

                       

                            I am sure I might not have been able to get to the bottom of her thoughts completely, yet, at the very least I was able to look behind the curtain of her beautiful blue eyes and dredge up those obscure layers from the deep well of her eyes. The salient thing for me was that I could see other sleepless souls through her eyes, from thenceforth.

                                                                                                                Copyright © deepanairrp

( Photo credit:  Seth Macey on Unsplash)