(‘Silent Night’ – Acrylic on canvas)
Acrylic painting by me, evoking the pond and the Devil Tree.
The narration is a bit metaphoric, but the portrayal is a conscious effort in reviving and reliving the olfactory memories of my childhood as I have felt it, with as much precision as exactitude. I would have loved to attach the picture of the sacred grove hereinafter mentioned, a singular sight, but for, the reason that I do respect and obey the beliefs of the local people, irrespective of whether it seems rational to me or not, and not in the least intending to radicalize myself on the long followed social and religious tenets of a belief system, against the deep-rooted norms they adhere to. For those near and dear, who take pleasure from the nature around us, I would be more than happy to show the place from afar without disturbing the natural equilibrium of flora, they regard as sacred here.
I am tagging an acrylic painting done by me a few years back evoking the below-mentioned pond and the devil tree into my mind. I am not sure if my little brother, who is now big enough, recalls most or some of the anecdotes mentioned. I want him with our parents to spare fifteen minutes to walk with me down the memory lane and take in a small sliver of the vast panorama of our little home once again. Each and every one of you can join us on this trek. The path is a bit lengthy, please bear with me.
A path beneath the pond
Memories triggered by smell are more emotive and evocative than memories brought on by other cues. Many a study has substantiated this. The emotive dimension of olfactory memory is so deeply etched in young minds, the etchings memorializing events chronologically. Writers draw on the olfactory sensation, to be woven into nostalgic recollections in their works, creating sublime olfactory fictional and semi-fictional memoirs. Foremost being a novella by the Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Ivan Bunin – ‘Antonov Apples’- in which the fragrance of the apples in his garden takes him back to an autumn morning. The figurative language he had used to describe the Russian rural life is one of the most beautiful semantic exercises in literature. Such is the sway of smell in literature— so much so that classics are born out of it.
Quite ordinary folks, like you and me, are not immune to this phenomenon either, who, following the nose, down the memory lane, stumbles on the deep-rooted memories, mostly sweet, but some sour ones in the midst. 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 esoteric mystery of metaphysics 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, where I get caught up in the headstrong undertow, eventually digging up the buried paths to the shore. As a drifting wayfarer under a turbid night sky, I glimpse faces all too familiar in an epiphanic vision of lightning bolts from the vault of a leaden firmament.
Let me start from the Arabian shore, whence my professional life took root as a physician, after finishing the medical studies in India. The land across the Arabian sea bestowed so many blessings, most of all a sort of blissful ignorance coupled with studied amnesia. But it took me a few years to fathom the depth of what I had left behind in the land of my birth.
The funereal pace of existence, in the years since I had parted with the whole lot that I held dear, cloaked the little fleecy clouds of memories in a hard-shelled facade. Initial years of striving amidst Lego-like concrete leviathans and put-on faces, slowly gave way to a sort of living to fight another day and the daily life wisdom that, everything in the garden might not be rosy without fail.
Unbeknownst to me, the torrid billows of the Arabian summer crept itself into my mind, parching up the green, dewy pastures while the layers of the past became wizened, weather-beaten like leather-hard clay. The wanton rollicking North- Westerly ‘shamals’, rushing pell-mell from the lassitude of quiescent alabaster dunes in far-off deserts whence they rise up, overlaid intricate arabesque scrolls with their prodigious arms, thus masking the engravings of memories, that had been lost by the wayside.
Scorching, enervating summer days murmuringly yielded to cozy, foggy winter mornings without haste, at times with a day or two of skimpy showers evoking the heavenly bliss brought on after decades of incantations, invocations, and magic spells. The cadence of obscure autumn— the vagrant, blustery autumn breeze tearing into the russety tropical teak trees and impregnating the heavens with the woodsy whiff, squeaky cicadas nipping on the fallen leaves of rain tree and catcalling its mate at sundown, the crunchy feel of withered, crumpled leaves, hither and yon, underneath the feet — seemed lost forever in the wilderness of a lank concrete jungle.
Images of fragrant, fecund flowers, dotting the soggy, sun-kissed landscape, rippling in the blissful spring zephyr, flamy copper pods spreading its golden-yellow carpet on the floor, pubescent Gulmohars flamboyant in a scarlet red bloom, toiling menials of striped bumblebees led by the queen hurrying to make a nest, none of which ever conjured up even fleetingly. The cold, clammy fog drift of hoary December mornings, maundered by the window panes, stealing a quick glance at the shriveled, soporific, impassive souls before snuggling up to and dissipating in the juvenile rays of the sun.
The smorgasbord of Arabian encounters was brought to a precipitous halt by a bolt out of the clear blue sky in the form of my lad’s pre-medical entrance exam result. Relocating to India as such was no big deal, but for the uncertain location there. The unalloyed truth, that India is many small countries within a country with their own disparate bunch of everything, bared its teeth wide open, the moment we prodigals set foot on this terra incognita, in a balmy September morning. Re-orienting our compass of life, we set out to plumb the depths of life experience here, making use of our mental and physical faculties at full throttle, contending with the elements, natural and manmade, keeping to ourselves the futile jeremiads.
Daily life seemed not so much insufferable as recalcitrant. Amidst the maddening hubbub of the sapient sea— hawkers peddling their wares in a jingly timbre, buses and heavy goods vehicles in a frenzied zoom with their horns screeching in ear-splitting falsettos, speakers blaring heaven-directed musical entertainment and aligned in conformity with the cardinal and ordinal points of a compass to such navigational precision, stuck-up snobs in SUV’s engaged in shouting matches of road rage with stick-in-the-mud pedestrians— my auditory system revolted to these newfound excesses as never before, with pangs of pain and buzzing and ringing, by dint of a technical glitch in the levers, screws, and wires deep in the echo chambers of the ear canal. My hearing capacity was modestly affected, to the effect that the speech of my fellow beings raced to a gradual crescendo, thus inflating the noise pollution in a cycle of positive- feedback loop.
Whether by accident or design, the untimely auditory infirmity apparently reinforced the remaining senses, rekindling the spirit of old memories from the graveyards of time and invoking the guardian angels and fallen angels from the nebulous grey horizon of amnesia. Apart from occasional snags, life went on willy-nilly.
November announced its arrival by scattered showers cooling the earth and soul. The dust-laden vegetation of the forested hillside around bathed in the soft downpour, the viridescent leaves glittering in the half-light of dusk, like silver spangles on a verdant green flowy gown. Harlequin patches of trees and shrubs in bloom, flanking the shimmering river, evoked an artist’s brilliant brush strokes in sap green, lemon yellow and cadmium red.
It was on one such crisp, reposeful November evening that I got the addictive savor of the infernally rejuvenescent devil tree, all at once musky and heady, devilish and holy. The atmosphere was so thick with the aroma that the next morning I took a detour from my routine trail to track down the place and chanced upon a tranquil forested landscape on a rolling hillside, a surreal mix of fact and fantasy. Dotted with a few lean-tos, the terrain struck me as a sacred grove, with almost every known flora aplenty( including ample devil trees) and overgrown.
Occasional passersby gawked unflinchingly at me with limpid eyes, all agog with curiosity at this pukka indigenous soul taking in the woody landscape as if an exotic one, their nonchalant gaze all too obvious, at a vista, which for them, was as mundane as impassive. Though a bit disconcerted by this nose-poking obsession, with a resolved mind, I went on to be my own person and proceeded towards the old woman wearing a discreet ruby nose stud, who had taken great pains to put down the burlap sack she carried, to stare at this idiosyncratic personality. Her motherly constitution was disarming for me to dispel the stranger anxiety that had been niggling at the back of my mind since a few double-crosses and red herrings from small-time swindlers.
In broken Malayalam language, she unraveled the details of the grove, as a storyful granny parsing the threads crisscrossing a fairytale. From the bits and pieces of the threads, came out a raven black web woven centuries past. It was indeed a sacred place where banyan, peepal, and neem were held sacred, the devil trees venerated and as per their belief, the tree souls should never be disturbed, lest a cataclysm might befall upon them.
In a clearing at the center, I stood in awe in front of a vast ‘Yakshi Paala‘ in full bloom, encircled by talismanic red threads full of dangling amulets and charms, the yellowish-white, buttery flowers carpeting the earth, the psychedelic aroma so bewitching. To transform this singular vision to a digital one, I grabbed my phone from the bag, but was intercepted by the granny who mumbled a thousand bizarre reasons why I should not go for the click, but the only solid one that registered into my rational mind was, that of the land being a private property owned by the distant relatives of an ancestral family.
Decades into the life journey, passing through the threshold of the rites of passage and reaching the age of discretion, never had I come face to face with my childhood memories as this incident, that shoved me to the obscure tunnel to beyond, in a smooth glide down the memory lane.
My first ever encounter with Yakshi had been a melange 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 having been that of a super-pretty, voluptuous ‘Yakshi’, garbed in an iridescent white flowy saree, her sable black 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, the chill of a shiver visible along his somewhat bent spine, in a broad backdrop of heavily bloomed ‘paalamaram’.
That was my first pick among the heaps of Malayalam and English books meant for vacation reading, which my mother used to select for us. I am not sure if she still remembers this particular book, maybe not since, the numbers she had brought home were prolific, her work having been amidst books and the world-wise in a bookery.
Grade five having been done and dusted, the 1985 summer vacation was splurged in books, painting, play-time, a compulsory newspaper reading exercise, digesting the indigestible Reader’s Digest, fighting a duel of honor with mind games and crosswords in Competition Success, and those obstinately hate-filled text-book exercises meant to prepare us for the next year( Of which I used to love only the first three vacation exercises, having had to take the others lying down, sans enough room for maneuver and out of a sheer fear factor and discipline to unyielding paternal authority).
Coming to the story of ‘ Yakshiyum Namboodiriyum‘, what bits and pieces I could 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 story might only have had the intention to imbue this moral into a child’s mind. But, as a ten-year-old kid, rote learning and pushed to buy into the variety store of moral story rag bag, 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 believed to the core that she did exist.
How was I to clear my doubts about her existence? The temperamental nature of my father, who dismissed anything spiritual and goaded on exclusively, veritable academic-related pursuits, held me back from asking him. My earthly-minded mother, though pious and religious, had already dismissed Yakshi’s existence as superstitious ghost stories scaring the daylight out of the birdbrains. And my little brother was least interested in blood-curdling Yakshi tales, busy-busy playing cricket with our compound wall, building and rebuilding things out of the same things. My fantasy land of weathercock of a mind was haunted by Yakshi related doubts about how, when and where to find her.
Refuge came in the form of few of my friends, when school re-opened and the sixth-grade classes commenced, who happened to be in the same shaky boat of fantasy, wobbling in the sea of lore, without reaching the shore of facts. One of them who went by the name, Lucky, a kindred spirit, swore blind, by all the gods that she had occasionally seen a living, breathing Yakshi, that swirled up like scented smoke from the ‘paala’ tree inside her house premises, once a month on each full moon night and floated around hither and thither, effusing the air with her overpowering, musky smell. She cemented another piece of precious information into my head, like a piece of reinforced concrete, that such sightings will only come to fruition in big houses with a flourishing garden inclusive of the ‘paala’ tree.
Lucky was indeed mega-lucky, lived in a palatial two-storied bungalow, wore light muslin party frocks with lacy tulle hem and matching silk half-shoes during school festivities, was dropped to school in a chauffeur-driven apple-red contessa classic, chosen the beauty-queen of our school, had the fine physiognomy and roseate-hued complexion of my dear Yakshi, her ebony-black hair cascaded down her knees in soft curls and she was bestowed with a perfumed sobriquet, ‘crowning glory‘- the name of a famed contemporary bathing soap brand.
I was crestfallen at the state of affairs of my modest milieu and the prospect of never ever glimpsing the Yakshi, for want of a much-needed opulence and the lush surroundings to invoke her and I concurrently felt stinging, festering envy towards Lucky. Watercolor portraits that I sketched of Yakshi towering over ‘paala’ trees failed to garner the figure full of vitality from the cover page of the book. Again, catching a glimpse of her was the only way to bring life into the paintings, but what could I have done without a ray of hope or a hand of help in fetching this much sought after spirit.
That splinter of hope arrived at our house one wintry morning in the form of ‘Ambi chechi’s amma ‘ (mother of Ambi chechi), who came to help my amma with her daily chores. Our guardian angel, that’s what I would like to call this sublime soul, a soft-spoken, gentle old lady, whose maternal affection I have never had experienced from any one person in this whole universe. I could still call to mind the tenderness of her fingers, gentleness of her pace, the warmth of solicitude she blended into the raw batter for our favorite evening tidbits, the sweet, crispy grains of love on which they were rolled over and the euphony of her mellow voice.
She had a broad mind to listen to all my blabbers and a deep well of patience to answer each of my queries. The overcast sky of doubts inside my mind melted down into pitter-pattering raindrops, that washed past the dark caverns of ill-will, jealousy, and animosity. I discovered from her about the ‘Yakshi Paala’ near the ‘Sarpa Kaavu’ ( Abode of venerated snakes) inside the temple. Never once had I taken notice of that ‘paalamaram’ with the consecrated Yakshi idol beneath it, near the snake forests where the Naga Rajas (King of the Snakes) and Naga Devatas( snake deities) crawled in to sip the offerings of milk and turmeric.
Infrequent visits to the temple, that spanned periodic pre-exam entreaties imploring for the divine intercession on my behalf and for wallowing in the merriments during religious festivities, increased in frequency to catch a glimpse of the ‘paala-‘ bloom, and the live Yakshi emerging from the ‘paala’ tree or to collect as many ‘Manjaady‘ seeds (red lucky seeds) as possible before other children got their hands on them. Even I could not see her, the aroma of the ‘paala’ bloom lingered for long inside my lungs and veins. My frock too kept the fragrance inside its pleats and puffs for a long time since.
Whatever be the paradox behind my temple-trotting, I basked in the unwitting praise songs from my parents as a providential boon in disguise. My transmutation into an embodier of piety enraptured my utterly startled mother, who extolled my god-fearing virtues, declaiming that there is a right time for the right thing to happen and I smugly followed my ghost-hunting routine without a soul having known of my true intent.
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. Yet, dreams are short-lived figments of imagination, a play-acting in the inaccessible middle of nowhere, the cravenly thespians fizzling out in panic when the screen of the eyes raise aloft. As before, I relied on my go-to guardian angel, the poor thing might have been peeved at having to bat the obtuse ‘query balls’ around, yet not displaying the slightest of displeasure she commiserated with me and explained that Yakshi could not emerge out of the tree as she had been nailed into it and transfixed into a benevolent form in the idol. 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.
My late-teen years also had the distinct touch of phantasmal creatures of reveries, yet in a rather funny way when I think of it today. The Malayalam movie ‘Njaan Gandharvan‘, was released during my pre-university period, that told the story of a heaven-born Gandharvan( the male counterpart of the ‘yakshi’) getting infatuated by a beautiful girl from the earth and the eerie happenings after the ephemeral romance.
Rational and radical thinking had found its place in my heart and head during those years, and I harbored the least allure for the passionate persona of ‘gandharvan’ or his frequent display of mind-boggling optical illusions meant to enthrall unsuspecting lasses. Still, about to witness the tempestuous storm of exam fever arising on the horizon, I couldn’t help but lose myself in a brown study, about invoking one, if only to purloin those sealed envelopes of university question papers inside the safe-locker in the principal’s cabin. That prospect was promptly dismissed by my apparent wise-ass, argus-eyed, but well-meaning buddies, who stressed the fact that ‘gandharvas’ could only be called upon by ethereal beauty-queens, that are meant to luxuriate in the many-hued woods on earth, with feminine-sounding prefixes as ‘holly’, ‘bolly’, ‘polly’ and ‘kolly’. Yet, the exotic ‘paala’ smell did conjure up these mystical creatures well into my adult years and mysteriously enough, both the high school and pre-university college I attended had so many ‘paala’ trees dispersing their aroma in the cool October-November months.
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 small house. The Temple and the temple pond were believed to have existed since ancient times and many a scripture has mentioned both, by name. Basically, a step tank system with stairs of stone all around and four ghats on the four sides of the rectangular structure, it was 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 which appeared placid except for the local people bathing or swimming and the annual festivities of the diety conducted on a special ghat. Year after year, the festivities illuminated the ghat, the golden idol of the bejeweled diety dazzled our eyes and we would lean on the wall, watching the spectacle, well into wee morning hours, the morning star still shining bright with a steady silvery light.
But, this 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 and if what I could recollect is true, the proscription was engraved on copper sheets in bilingual texts.
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 were dead set on snuffing it, overburdened by worries and overcome by pusillanimity, 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. That hydrophobic streak is well alive and kicking inside me, still, into midlife, taking the fun out of hydro adventures of the other two hydrophilics (my husband and son), by being a spoilsport at every possible moment of our mini-breaks.
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 in an oxymoronic sort of twist.
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 (almost, around thirty-five years on, I still remember it vividly). Horridness aside, I was at a loss to explain myself the reason why the body floated. Since I had easy access to my Guardian Angel, I drifted to her with this question in my mind. At present, I do not have even the faintest idea on what her reply had been, whether that had a scientific basis or not, or whether I had understood anything factually. But, what I do remember still is the fantastical dimension of her reply.
The treasure trove of her myth-haunted mind opened wide, with the pearls, emeralds, diamonds, and rubies of myths scattering all over. Again, I do not recall the whole story, but the gist of the tale is still crystal-clear. According to oral lore, the pond had a discreet path underneath that bore down to the other end of the earth, a mystical maelstrom carried anything that came in its way, down through the obscure path to the inferno( as it were, another realm). And the malevolent Yakshis were the ones taking the soul underneath and pushing up the body to the surface.
My unwitting Angel might not have meant to scare the hell out of me, but that was what exactly 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 having been increased gradually on a daily basis.
The precious maternal proximity was pre-booked by my little brother, leaving me with no other option than to shiver under the bedspread, watching over the silent, dreary, wakeful nights, on my berth, 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 for invoking the benevolent Yakshis, previously, I went all out to shrug off the malevolent 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 fear.
I did come out of that, by a regular rational infusion. Deciphering the enigma of floating of bodies had been one of the many sparks for the prospect of opting the medical field. I can still remember many medical exhibitions in the Medical College, where I had been taken by my father, since the sixth or seventh grade. There, for the first time, I had 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 sensitization 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 conundrums in life. Clinical postings, apart from case studies and an obligatory shock therapy of having to watch postmortem in Forensics, were rigged up theatres 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.
Even now, myths never fail to amaze me, but they stay just as reminders of the many childhood folktales I had come across in storybooks and by word of mouth, experiences that I have had, as the nuggets of the past melted in crucibles of self, that was molded into the person I am.