Thursday, September 20, 2012 12 reflections

Vinka's New Friend

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived a little boy named Vinka. The place Vinka lived in was full of tall green trees that held the juiciest of fruits and huge velvety mountains that were home to the friendliest of birds and animals. Every morning the sun would rise slowly from behind those mountains and spread soft sunlight all around. Tree by tree, fruit by fruit, bird by bird and animal by animal, everyone would be soaked in its cozy warmth. The animals would come to the water front to get a quick drink while the birds would fly from tree to tree and sing many happy tunes. Soon the entire place would be drenched in golden curtains and butterflies would come out to dance. The place was truly a paradise.

But despite being surrounded by such beauty Vinka was a sad boy.

He was an only child to his parents so they showered him with all their attention. They constantly pampered him with all kinds of sweets and other delicacies. They took him to various fun places like the large park where jugglers came and showed off their tricks and magicians arrived grandly on sparkly flying sticks. They took little Vinka on various nature trails where they showed him birds that had wings but could not fly and monkeys that flew from tree to tree without any wings at all! They would show him flowers that were huge but lived on really short plants and fruits that were so tiny yet grew on the tallest trees!

But nothing, it appeared, could make little Vinka genuinely happy.

You see, Vinka was born with nose and ears that weren’t like the rest of the kids he knew. His nose was a bit longer than the ones he had seen and drooped a little towards his mouth. This made his nose look a little like an elephant’s trunk! His ears weren’t tiny and soft like the rest either. They were slightly large, a little rough to touch and stuck out from the sides of his head. The other kids would endlessly tease poor Vinka with the notorious chant “Vinka Vinka never sneeze! Your ears are banana leaves!” every time he made an attempt to befriend them.

All this hurt little Vinka very much and so he would run to his mother erupting into tears. He would hug her tight and ask her “Why ma? Why am I so ugly? Why am I not like the others? Why shouldn’t I ever sneeze? Why are my ears like banana leaves?”

His mother would comfort him with every pleasant word she knew. She would sing him his favorite songs, cook him his favorite dishes and tell him that everything would be alright. But deep down Vinka was convinced – nothing would be alright. He was somehow different and ugly and nothing could be done to fix that. He would have to stay unhappy for the rest of his life. His tears were the only friends he had. They were the only friends he could afford.

With things looking like this, one sunny day Vinka’s grand uncle, Uncle Dwaipa, stopped by.

Now, if there was one person in the whole wide world who could make little unhappy Vinka laugh and dance in joy, even if it was for just a little while, it was Uncle Dwaipa. He would bring along various curious items such as the wooden bear that could sing and dance at the same time! Or the mechanical clock that would tell Vinka the time of the day along with his name! Once, Uncle Dwaipa even brought Vinka a large colorful blanket. He called it the “Secret Mask of Happiness”. It had strange shaped holes and odd looking patterns in it. Whenever Vinka wrapped himself in it the world outside would look strange and odd too! Trees would look upside down. Birds would appear as if they were flying in the ocean. Why, even the kids who tormented little Vinka would appear with no heads or legs! Just floating torsos! His little spot of joy in a life filled with disappointments was Uncle Dwaipa’s blanket. He would wrap himself with it every time he wanted to have a little laugh at the world that was laughing at him.

But that day when Uncle Dwaipa visited, Vinka was in a terrible mood. The moment Uncle Dwaipa walked into the house he knew something was very wrong. Sure, he had walked in before when Vinka would be weeping or some other commotion would be taking place. But never before had there been such a deafening silence in the house. Uncle Dwaipa immediately rushed to Vinka’s room to find him sitting in the corner covered head to toe with the “Secret Mask of Happiness”.

“He has been like this for a few days now!” Vinka’s helpless parents complained to Uncle Dwaipa. “He eats very little, doesn’t want to go out. He even doesn’t sleep properly! He just sits there like that most of the time...” his poor mother said breaking off into sobs. “Please help him!” his father added with sad eyes. “We have tried everything. We have no one else to turn to…” “Let me have a moment with him” said Uncle Dwaipa in his deep baritone after a brief pause. Vinka’s parents left the room slowly. Uncle Dwaipa walked up to Vinka and sat on a large wooden stool right next to him.

“Hello Vinka!” he said and tried to remove the blanket.

“No!” Vinka shouted struggling back. “I don’t want to talk to you! Go away!”

This was very serious matter indeed, Uncle Dwaipa observed. Never before had Vinka reacted like this. All the distractions that he had devised for little Vinka now seemed to have served their purpose. No more mechanical toys, no more magic blankets, no more mind boggling tricks would do. Uncle Dwaipa knew exactly what he had to do next. It was time.

“Very well” he said untying his large bag. “Then I guess you do not want to meet your new friend.”

Vinka’s curiosity was tickled just a wee bit but he shook his head vigorously from within the blanket.

“Ah alright then” Uncle Dwaipa continued. “I guess I will play with your new friend myself. It is such a pity you will never know how brilliant your new friend is!”

Saying thus, Uncle Dwaipa began humming a cheery tune and pulled out something from his bag that seemed quite heavy. Vinka did not react. He continued blinking in the dark of his magic blanket.

“Ah let us see here then” Uncle Dwaipa said placing Vinka’s new friend on the lap.

No sooner had the new friend been produced than Vinka’s nose picked up an unfamiliar fragrance. It wasn’t anything like he had ever smelt before. It was like a mixed concoction of old trees, young leaves and fresh honey. Or was it like the mixture of roots, barks and mud? The sounds it made too were nothing like Vinka had ever heard before. They were like a mix of dry leaves, coarse sand and gentle breeze. Or was it like the mix of shifting feet, water ripples and rain?

Vinka couldn’t tell!

His slightly oversized nose and ears were now starting to itch. He had to find out what it was Uncle Dwaipa had brought.

“Ohoho! This is a good one. Yes it is indeed” Uncle Dwaipa guffawed. “Just look at his big crooked teeth! And he is trying to eat this little man! How stupid! The man has a sword hidden in his shirt!” roared Uncle Dwaipa slapping his thigh and letting out a storm of laughter.

Outside the room Vinka’a parents looked at each other with questioning eyes.

“O no! Don’t do that you silly ape!” Uncle Dwaipa continued, the rustling sound accompanying his monolog. “That blind crocodile will eat you because it is not really blind! It is all a drama you clueless beast!”

From the corner of his eye Uncle Dwaipa could notice a blanket wrapped figure stirring in increasing curiosity. He could sense the rising levels of impatience emanating from that blanket. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Five and five isn’t eight you silly bird! Did you not learn mathematics? How much is five and five? Everyone knows that! Even our Vinka does! Don’t you?” asked Uncle Dwaipa now turning towards Vinka.

“It is ten!” screamed the little boy finally flinging off the blanket and jumping onto Uncle Dwaipa’s side.

What he saw next was the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes upon his whole life. Uncle Dwaipa held in his lap a large box like object which contained hundreds of rectangle-shaped, smooth-surfaced, thin slices of bark. The top edge of all these slices had tiny holes in them through which slim strands of threads ran and held them all together. This mechanism made it possible to turn the slices back and forth! And on each of those smooth barks he saw such colorful illustrations! There was the blue of the sky, the red of the berries, the green of the grasshopper, the yellow of the flowers – it was like a rainbow of shapes. It was, Vinka thought at first glance, even better than the magic blanket. This new friend did not change his vision of things that weren’t different in reality. On the contrary it remained as it was and allowed Vinka to choose what he wanted to see. This was better than magic!

As Uncle Dwaipa slowly turned over each slice of bark more colors and more drawings became visible. Vinka now saw creatures in them that he had never seen before. A boy with three heads and four arms! A girl with large angry eyes, her red tongue sticking out in thirst and ten arms! A creature that had the head of a horse and the body of a man! Another creature had no body at all! Just a flying head that could look around and spit out fire whenever it yawned!

Vinka quickly elbowed out the large frame of Uncle Dwaipa and buried his face into the barks. His slightly long nose and slightly large ears were alert now. He would giggle when a large bellied king was chased by a very short man holding an even smaller wooden umbrella in his hand. He would cackle when a boar-faced beast with two long white horns was shown running away with the entire earth in its hands! He couldn’t stop laughing when he saw hundreds of tiny sweaty men trying to wake up an incredibly large and extremely sleepy giant!

“Who are these people Uncle Dwaipa?” Vinka asked amid bouts of laughter.

“They? O, why they are all part of a very long and the most adventurous story!” said Uncle Dwaipa taking the little boy in his arms.

“Which story Uncle Dwaipa? Tell me tell me! Please tell me!” implored an impatient Vinka.

“Not today my dear child” said Uncle Dwaipa in an assuring tone. “Today I want you to play with this new friend of yours. Look at these people, these creatures and see how different and odd and crazy they are. How strange yet how interesting they look! The next time I come you should be ready to tell me one story using them. But remember you can only tell me one story so make sure it is a good one! Can you do that?”

Vinka thought about it for a minute. This was an interesting challenge. All these days his mother would tell him stories. But he would never be able to change them the way he wanted to. Now he was being given a chance to make up his own using such a wide range of absolutely hilarious characters! He liked the idea immensely.

“Yes! Yes!” he screamed. Despite his small stature Vinka grabbed the collection of barks from Uncle Dwaipa and keenly began looking at the drawings one by one, clapping to himself in pure joy. Uncle Dwaipa got up and walked out of the room leaving Vinka with his new friend. Outside the room his parents stood waiting with eager and puzzled eyes.

“Do not worry” Uncle Dwaipa told them. “Vinka may no longer want to go out and play. He may no longer wish to see magicians perform tricks. He may no longer want to befriend other kids. But that is alright. I have introduced him to the only friend he will ever need. But know this - from this point forward Vinka will never be sad again.”

Vinka’s parents looked a little relieved but questions still remained. Just as they were about to ask something they heard Vinka’s echoing laughter from the room. They had never heard Vinka laugh with such pleasure. They realized Uncle Dwaipa had created some magic, as always. So they didn’t say a word. They just looked at each other and smiled, happy that Vinka had finally found what he was looking for.

Uncle Dwaipa continued to visit little Vinka for several years after that day. Each time he would bring along a new better looking friend of the same kind. With each visit he would sit and listen patiently to the fascinating stories Vinka had made up using his imagination. He had given the creatures he had seen various names and added some amazingly interesting incidents to each one of them. He would stand and enact various scenes from his stories as Uncle Dwaipa and the parents would sit and watch their little boy with tears of joy.

Then one day, many years later, Vinka got another visit from his grand uncle. This time Uncle Dwaipa didn’t bring along any new friends. Instead he brought with him several blank slices of smooth-surfaced bark, a few big bottles of black ink and several beautifully carved sandalwood pens.

This time Uncle Dwaipa wanted Vinka to write something.

PS:Given that Ganesha Chaturthi celebrations are agog all around I wanted to use the premise of Ganesha being the scribe for the Indian epic Mahabharata at the behest of the sage Veda Vyasa (or Krishna Dwaipayana, as he was originally called). This piece is based on that idea where Vyasa (Uncle Dwaipa here) essentially trains Ganesha (Vinka here) for such a gigantic project by first introducing him to his own imagination.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 1 reflections

Eega : Some thoughts

Teasers for Indian movies have always been quite revealing. In fact there are some movies that have such explicit teasers that they contain almost all of the best scenes the movie has to offer. Bitter experiences ensue later when the same movies are watched on the large screen and it is realized that the sequences from the teaser were perhaps the only tolerable portions of the entire thing. SS Rajamouli’s ‘Eega’ (‘Naan Ee’ in its Tamil avatar) is no exception in that department as the teaser pretty much captures the basic plot while also brazenly giving away hints about the predictability of the whole affair (a brave move for someone who is investing everything on a story based on a CGI character). Hence, to save us all time I shall focus on some elements that were not covered in the teaser.

The opening credits run with a background track of a child pestering his father for a bedtime story. With great reluctance the father begins telling the child the story of a housefly. This is an important sequence for two reasons: One, with just that the director sets up the premise for the entire film – it is a bedtime story. And two, because it is a bedtime story the idea that whatever is to follow, however fantastical and unrealistic it may be, will seek respite in that setting.

So the plot is as old as time itself. A young couple is head over heels in love with each other albeit they are yet to confess the same to one another. The fact that they are neighbors only allows the hero to apply some reflection based physics to impress the girl next door. Things seem a little too sweet to be true. All is color and song in slow motion amid flying autumn leaves.

Enter: the much needed antagonist. A playboy millionaire with a flair for money and women – in no particular order. As the teaser already reveals he manages to eliminate the competition by killing off the boy. As if to drive home the point of a harmless housefly being the real focal point of the plot the director makes the villain literally squash the hero with his bare feet – like an insignificant bug.

The girl is devastated by the news (of course she isn’t clued in on who did it…yet) as the villain swoops in to claim his prize. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods, the soul of the deceased young man has found home in an insect. Before you know it (and before the movie marker hits 25 minutes) you are introduced to the central character of the film – the buzzing housefly Eega.

As is evident from the teaser the rest of the movie is about how the housefly, generally deemed harmless by humans, can take on such an impossible task of plotting and killing one of us. What struck me as interesting was how the film maker here is so convinced of his vision that he leaves no stone unturned in getting us to look at the plot from the housefly’s perspective. We see the extremely-larger-than-life sequences of the visions the housefly has of the world around it. We are shown the titanic nature of seemingly trivial things like a water droplet falling to the ground when seen from the eyes of so small a being. We are led into a world of such small proportions that our existence as human beings fascinates us. The smallest of things we do so spontaneously are shown to have such catastrophic consequences in the worlds of beings smaller, much smaller, than us. These are sequences that act as gentle reminders to us about the fact that we, as a species, are not alone. We are not the only ones who matter in the big scheme of things.

The scenes that show how the housefly goes about bothering the villain are creatively done. If buzzing around and biting is the only annoying thing we thought a mosquito can do then seeing some of the outrageous things a harmless seeming housefly is capable of took me by surprise! There are scenes with just one human protagonist in them but the way Rajamouli utilizes the furniture, the carpets, the walls, almost all the props available in the frame to act as catalysts for the housefly to do it’s deed is remarkable. Everything from a glass of iced lemon tea to a bed sheet is used as a potential ‘actor’ in the scene. This is an achievement that the director deserves a pat on the back for. The ability to understand the importance of inanimate objects in a frame.

What is also curious is how much emotion is added to a rather dull creature like a housefly. Without the anatomy to give it expressive eyes the creative team of the movie still manages to get it to display anger, grief, shock and best of all – happiness – quite effectively. Since the context is completely Indian (and given our insatiable appetite for the whimsical) the antics the housefly indulges in are entertaining to watch. Once the villain has the plot figured out (that the housefly is the re-incarnated version of the young man he brutally murdered earlier…) his reactions aimed to kill the fly make up for the perfect clash: human vs fly, both wanting the other dead.

There is rarely a dull moment in the film after the first half an hour. It is perhaps for this reason that a lot of the plot holes can be ignored. One can tell that the director just couldn’t wait to start animating the fly and get the antagonist (Sudeep in what is arguably one of his most memorable roles thus far) to make his lethal moves in response. The CGI is well done, as mentioned earlier, and despite the predictable nature of the plot it makes for an engaging watch. Attention to detail, especially from the fly’s perspective, is remarkably accurate.

Performances belong largely to Sudeep (although the leading lady lights up the screen with her graceful presence quite often) and the CGI generated housefly. The two display remarkable chemistry despite the barrier of existence that separates them. Sudeep is extremely expressive throughout the film fully aware that it is through his act of rage and despair that his opponent gains life and worth on screen. And so he breathes hard, and often, to make both of them glow. What shows up as a result of this is a product of much honest hard work and dedication that is hard to ignore. The bottom line I took away from the movie was that of courage. Not just from the story’s perspective where a classic David vs Goliath method is used to deliver but also from a film making point of view where the director’s conviction with the story is so clear. For a director, known for his widely acclaimed commercial attempts over the years, to get his hands dirty with something so ‘out of tradition’ is worth appreciation. It shows his courage not just with the potency of the plot but also in the trust he has with the audience. An acknowledgement all film makers can take a leaf out of. Such an effort to ensure a bedtime story for a child is done justice on the screen needs to be lauded.

With ‘Eega’ what Rajamouli has done is created a benchmark where the protagonist of the story need not be a human. This opens up new ways to tell a traditional story. It offers room for stories that have the human element in them without the visible presence of them. It creates space for the much needed aspect of human existence – empathy. One can only hope both Rajamouli and the nation’s film fraternity continue to find new stories that hinge on this much needed human attribute. Even if they appear only in bed time stories.

Monday, September 17, 2012 0 reflections

Naked & Clothed - A poem

Naked & Clothed

On the naked wooden table lay pages clothed in words,
On the naked skin of each letter stood a clothed meaning.
On the clothed wrinkled bed sat a naked emotion,
On his wrinkle clothed face sat a naked tear shivering.

The naked breeze outside came clothed with the scent of a tree,
The naked flower by the window stood clothed in that glee,
It clothed the room with fragrance and its naked glory,
It clothed his walls with remembrance, with naked memory.

The naked pages fluttered slowly now clothed with his sighs,
Its naked essence dripped onto well clothed denials,
Clothed in a momentary respite the naked breeze brought along,
He clothed his sorrow further with a newfound naked song.

Yet the naked truth pierced into his well clothed heart within,
Sending many naked shocks into his regret clothed skin,
With the clothed words of venom his naked love had sent him,
His past now stood clothed with naked facts sans whim.

The naked wooden table now stood clothed with perspective,
As the naked words clothed him slowly, made him introspective,
Clothed now warmly with the naked sunlight of reality,
Clothed windows went asunder, his naked heart could finally see.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 1 reflections

Ramayan 2.0 : Some thoughts

RAMAYAN 2.0 : Some thoughts

Two triggers got me interested in Vijayendra Mohanty's (@Vimoh) free e-book 'Ramayan 2.0'. The first was it's size. It is 30 pages long. My instant reaction to it was that of cynicism laced surprise. What kind of a Ramayana book can be this small when even the shortest episodes of such epics tend to run into hundreds of pages? The second trigger, which in some ways counteracted the cynical aspect from before, was the preface by the author and the names given to the chapters. Titles like 'Dashrath and Democracy', 'The vanar who flew', 'V for Valmiki' invited my attention. It was after I had started reading the second chapter, 'Kurup and Ramarajya' that I began seeing the general idea of the entire piece. The big picture was emerging.

For starters Ramayan 2.0 is fortunately not just another retelling. The structure of the tales which the author calls fables follows an A-B-A-B pattern. Here, A is an actual episode from the Ramayana (where Vimoh carefully chooses which events to document) and B is a narrative told from the perspective of animals and birds as if in response to (or as a consequence of) the story narrated in A. I found this approach most refreshing primarily because of the coherence it offered not only to the A-story but also in the metaphors used in the B-story that followed it. The bonding of these pair-stories, if you will, was good reading.

In the preface Vimoh writes that he intended to juxtapose some of Ramayana's stories to events in the present day context. True to this introduction he captures the questions about democracy in the very first chapter where Dasharatha is asked if the next king of Ayodhya could be someone not belonging to the royal clan. A question that has the king stumped but gives root to the idea of democracy that the author is trying to capture. This episode is immediately followed by the tale of a cow which is given the raw end of a democratic society where anyone can say anything about someone and get away with it. By combining these two facets of democracy Vimoh fleshes out a vital aspect of the concept of 'Ramarajya' – a sense of perfection but with a price. The remaining set of fables follow the same pattern with each episode dissecting the true meaning of words like brotherhood and humanity in the midst of serious turmoil. Questions arising from true power and self doubt are thrown at us. Is power merely an illusion? Or is it a secret locked up in every human mind and is merely awaiting the right context to unleash itself? Questions that rise up slowly like soft molehills on the sandy ground of the mind and await the rebellious snake of hard truths to take over.

Vimoh ends the series with the reiteration of the basic idea that Ramayana, like it's counterpart Mahabharata, is all about what lessons one takes away from them. Each retelling ends up, invariably, polishing it further to fit the needs of the civilization in play. Over the centuries such modifications have been put in place to guide the wisdom of the masses so that all these words – democracy, power, humanity, brotherhood – can go beyond just the epics and find a place in the actions of citizens around the world.

'Ramayan 2.0' was a memorable read. I look forward to more such attempts by Vimoh where old objects when seen under new light ignite tiny sparks of introspection and where the marriage of old teaching and new learning finds air to breathe and fly.

Download and read 'Ramayan 2.0' as a PDF at the link here

Friday, May 04, 2012 17 reflections


§ trividha §

A short fiction by ShaKri, Urmi and Reema.
(A Twitter friends collaborative literary piece)

Dusk had started its greedy journey of claiming real estate across the lands. Like a witch’s sinewy hands shadows grew, consuming a chunk of grass here, some trees there. Soon the land would be flooded with darkness. A darkness that perhaps no new sun would be able to erase again completely. The skies bore a hint of melancholy as she waited, patiently, for their arrival. But within her, behind the veils of reasons, a storm awaited.

The air was thick with incense. An everyday ritual in the palace, whenever the sun took a graceful exit. But that particular day she felt as if the smoke would snake across the gleaming floors, crawl up around her like an innocent creeper and choke the remaining life out of her. Such had been the impact of the news she had received. She could no longer see the poetry of the colours that had always been her one resort of solace. No more would the fragrance of flowers bring her peace. Not that day would the arrival of her heart’s beloved master and emperor, Arjuna, make her rush to the threshold to greet him into her arms. Everything was whirlpooling into a blank. A void. And she had started to ask questions that she feared she already knew the answers to.

He mused at the lightness and heaviness of the air. The breeze brushed past his arm as playfully as ever, fragrant like the new bride by his side, yet it was laced with a gloom, a cold, that he knew the palatial air would be like. He absently placed his arms around that warm nubile body as they walked, his steps light with anticipation, and heavy with guilt. Subhadra, that beautiful creature made of misty mornings, seemed to be floating alongside him. So different she was from Draupadi - that woman of flaming beauty. Yet how similar they were in their love for him. He sighed, his broad shoulders drooping under the weight of what was to be. “I should learn to live with paradoxes now,” he thought to himself. Even as a gale began to rise from the pit of his stomach, he wondered what was going through Subhadra’s mind, and let the chariot soar.

She repeated her name in her own head, over and over. Subhadra, Subhadra. Auspicious. Blessed. Her whole life had brought her to this one juncture where she was on the brink of questioning why she was here. What was she learning? She felt Arjuna’s body radiating guilt and a measure of worry as they swooped towards Indraprastha in the air-borne chariot. She was reminded of a child that had to go home after a day of rule-breaking to a waiting mother, ready to be chastised. It almost made her smile. Auspicious? Who could ever tell what Krishna had planned for her, for Arjuna, for Draupadi? But she had learnt one thing from all her time with this flute-player that everybody seemed to adore; everything you perceive is the tip of the iceberg. As they stepped out of the chariot and walked up the palace stairway, she remembered that it was she who had ridden the chariot. She had made Arjuna elope with her, albeit on Krishna’s instructions. She knew she could shield Arjuna. She also knew she would never have to do that until Krishna called for it.

The chambermaid came in and announced that the valiant Pandava had arrived with his new bride. Without batting an eyelid, Draupadi nodded her head in acknowledgement. It was so mechanical and instant that it was almost as if she had heard the maid’s voice inside her head. “Here he comes now” she told herself and began walking towards the main door. “How do I make him see what burns inside me?” she wondered, as her legs, unwillingly, dragged her towards him. “What misses the great Gandiva-bearing Pandava’s eyes? Nothing.” she reminded herself and approached the giant gold embroidered doors that somehow seemed taller than usual. Heavier and more merciless than what she had of them in memory. Every inch of her body was aflame with feelings that had been so alien to her. But she was no stranger to fire. It was her home, after all. So she awaited the pristine moment that would convert this raging wildfire inside her into a placid lamp.

The first thing she spotted was just Arjuna. For a fleeting moment all the rage within her disappeared. Could it be true? Was it really just him who stood there outside the door? Had he abandoned the idea of crushing her tender heart and decided to smother it with more love instead? A droplet of happiness pushed itself out of her eyes as these thoughts made home within her. But as she blinked in anticipation, the mist grew thin. And her smile, shaped like the beautiful Gandiva, was cruelly broken. Standing next to her Arjuna was the new girl. Krishna’s sister and the new stakeholder of her beloved’s heart. Subhadra. The tears in her eyes froze from the heat that now surged through her, turning them from transparent pearls to translucent sparks. Red with reason. Red like the tongue of a flame.

Arjuna froze too. Draupadi’s eyes locked into his, a million images flashed through his head. He remembered the Swayamwara, and Draupadi’s eyes when she first saw him there - she had smiled a bashful yet knowing smile. She knew that no one but him could win the contest. It was designed for the archer supreme. He remembered her victorious eyes again, when he stood before her, neck bent to wear the varmala, past all his contenders. Her eyes full of dreams when they walked together towards the Pandavas’ kutir in the forest. Her confused eyes when Kunti and Yudhishtir discussed dividing her into five parts. Her hurt, angry eyes, when they made the biggest decision of her life. Nobody had asked her then. Nobody had asked her now. She had acquiesced then to not giving all of herself to Arjuna. But would she agree now to not having Arjuna all to herself? Would she agree to a painful splitting again? He couldn’t tell.

All Arjuna saw were proud, angry tears, that streaked Draupadi’s fiery beauty. The tears singed him. How would he ever explain why Subhadra was here at her door, claiming to be another wife to him? How would he explain that his love for Draupadi hadn’t died, but a new love for Subhadra had been born? He summoned his voice with great difficulty. Words came forth from his throat like arrows, hurting his mouth, his head, his entire being. “I come to ask of you again today, to share what you hold dear. Would you, my love, give up a little of me?” His sigh melted into Subhadra’s - two united breaths. The first words had been uttered. Whether it would annihilate them or embrace them, at least the floodgates had been opened.

The wind from Arjuna’s and Subhadra’s sighs amplified the already roaring firestorm inside Draupadi. She collected herself, inhaled deep, and looking at Subhadra’s downcast eyes, said in a clear distinct voice “Greetings, O great son of Pandu. Would you be so kind as to also tell me why this is being asked of me?”

Subhadra put a restraining arm on Arjuna. She had sensed his lips part, ready with a reply but she had also seen Draupadi’s eyes boring into hers. She knew it was a question thrown at her. She could see that Draupadi, this glorious, powerful creature literally born of fire, had faced betrayal before from Arjuna. She hardly expected an answer from him. But a woman, a woman just like her in so many ways, how could she do this to her? There were a thousand questions in Draupadi’s fiery glare but Subhadra was protected. She looked into those red eyes, gently tilted her head and noticed something. She was home. There was Krishna everywhere. There were his symbols strewn across Indraprastha and in this moment, when those should be least of her concerns, Subhadra’s heart leapt in joy.

Peacocks strolled languorously in the sweeping gardens surrounding Indraprastha. She heard the gentle note of a flute playing somewhere far away. Draupadi was exactly how Krishna had described. In that one moment, she knew she was meeting a part of her own soul; a lover of Krishna, no different from who she was. Arjuna’s first queen, no different from who she was. “You don’t have to,” she whispered, glancing at Draupadi’s red-lined feet. “Krishna sends me.” A tear drop rolled down her eye as she uttered her only truth.

For a brief moment Draupadi’s fury seemed to find a sense of calm. Such a magical concoction lay in Krishna’s mere mention. In Subhadra’s words she could almost hear Krishna’s melodious voice. She relented, briefly. And in that brief instance she realised how tender Subhadra really was. Krishna’s name in the conversation had started to kill the fires. But it wasn’t comforting. The sting of desperation resumed with renewed energies when her gaze shifted to Arjuna, standing like a rock, next to the new girl.

“Did Krishna just send this new gift to Indraprastha? Or did he also send some arrow-tipped words with the great Arjuna? Why do I not see that quiver strapped to his person? What words will you choose, O famous Pandu putra, to explain this truth to me?” Draupadi said, without mincing her words, aiming them straight at Arjuna’s bosom.

“How do I say this, Panchali?” Arjuna began. “ How do I begin to mirror what churns beneath my skin? How do I explain the motivations of Keshava, which my actions have fructified?”

“He, who is sarathi to me, sakha to you, and bhrata to Subhadra has brought us together, like three flowers bound with one string. While it was Madhava who prompted me, Subhadra who whisked me away, it was I who has chosen to love and be loved back. Yet, dear Draupadi, I love you no less. While it was in the soil of your heart that my love first took root, I cannot now thrive without the water of Subhadra’s affections. And the sunlight of Dwarkadhish’s blessing is indispensible for all of us. You have been, and remain, my first love. In the name of that love, I implore you, in the name of our rashtra, I implore you to accept Subhadra. Accept her because it is Krishna’s will, accept her because it is my doing, accept her because it will make our state stronger. Accept her as you will partake in all of my karmas as my ardhangini. Accept her as your sister. All Subhadra seeks is a little place by your side, our side,” he said, turning towards his new bride.

Draupadi looked away. Krishna, it occurred to her, had indeed sent well-sharpened arrows with Arjuna. Each one of them made their mark on her hurting heart. With each new pierce the grief and rage in the pit of her stomach only worsened. Her mind was filled with memories.

“Acceptance...,”she said slowly. “You have chosen your words wisely, O valiant one. Many moons ago, was it not this same request for acceptance that gave me more than the man I had chosen at my Swayamwara? Was it not the same venom of acceptance I had been made to forcefully consume in the name of dharma, in the name of rashtra, in the name of the betterment of all humanity? What guile had been used against me back then to accept five husbands instead of one? How strategically was I implored, time and again, to consume within me the flames of someone else’s decisions? A land that was supposed to be your empire, a haven that would flourish with your monarchy, a golden oasis of nectar that would extinguish the flames of my barren life, had to accept the hands of four more men to rule it. Yes, I accepted. I accepted relinquishing you for four years at end. I accepted standing equally with your shadow wherever you went. I accepted the tiny piece of attention I got from your war riddled lifetime. I accepted them all Partha. But the only gushing waterfall in the dense rainforest of my little heart. That one small stone of pleasure on which I sit today along with you in my arms....”

She turned now to face Subhadra.

“ being taken away from me. That singular tree I sit under. Krishna’s truth, I must admit...” Draupadi continued as the ghosts from her days bygone began choking her voice. “ not cutting down that tree Gandeevi. It is killing that tree’s only existent, life-giving, pleasant shadow. And what is a tree without a shadow? That, I cannot accept, O Dhananjaya...” she said looking expectantly into her beloved’s quizzical eyes.

“Do not accept it, then. You are well within your rights to send me back. You are my king’s first queen. He first found love in your eyes, in your embrace. The love of an equal, the love of a woman, he found it first in your words and your silences. And I? I am but a pawn in this story of life. While I have loved your Arjuna more than I have ever loved any man, I harbour no illusions about what position I hold in his life, and in your life with him. I know why Krishna chose to name me Subhadra. I know I am being used. But that also tells me that I am useful. I do not know what Madhava plans. I am blessed with only human eyes and a human intellect and it is not for me to show you what lies beyond the horizon. I can only tell you that I place my unflinching faith in Govinda, in his plans, no matter how dark the clouds loom over the horizon.

“So send me back. But know this, Panchali, that the responsibility of refuting Krishna’s word rests heavy on your already-laden shoulders. Know this, O Krishnaa, that you make Krishna who he is. To refute his word is to go against your own grain. Remember. And I shall go in peace.”

Arjuna looked distraught. Tearing in the middle, fraught with pain. He looked at Subhadra, in awe of her stand. Yes, she was a woman who could steer destinies as well as she could steer chariots. She was, after all, Parthasarathi’s sister. Then he looked at Draupadi, a woman cast in embers, flaming with a passion of love and defiance, teetering on the edge of a decision.

Draupadi smiled. Not at what had been said by the new love in Arjuna’s life but at the familiarity of the situation. She recalled the words of her father, the great king Drupada, back when she was just a child. On an evening not too unlike the one that day, the aged king had made little Draupadi sit on his lap and told her the magical story of her birth. He had spoken of sacred fires, as tall as mount Meru itself, that had roared relentlessly for several days as many renowned sages had prayed to the heavens to grant the king a gift. “The gift,” Drupada had whispered in the little girl’s anxious ears “was wrapped in gold, yellow and red. It was made of fire. It was as if Lord Agni himself had walked into my humble home holding this beautiful little bundle of unbridled bliss. A little girl born of fire. A little soul that had the command of turning empires to dust with its fury and also the gentleness of giving warmth to shivering mortals.” The girl, amused at this comparison to fire, had laughed out loud. “Yes..” the king had added. “In time, you will see my little fire flower, that there will gather skies above your head that will need you to choose. What kind of fire will you unleash? Will you burn down castles of ambitions? Or will you set afire a million hopes?”

A tear rolled down Draupadi’s cheek. Much like the one Subhadra had let out a few moments ago while releasing her truth. This was Draupadi’s truth now. Her lifetime of truths wrapped in various boxes of acceptance from different corners of the universe. Her dark exterior had, much like the shadows cast by the Parijata tree, absorbed all the heat the world gifted her with. She recalled Arjuna’s look of surprise and admiration back at the Swayamwara at having spotted her singular beauty. But she wondered if he knew how many rabid energies had penetrated her to make her glow from the inside. Today, under the skies as dark as her, Draupadi was being asked the same question her father had asked her. What will she be? The generous flame that consumes everything it is presented with? Or the uncontrollable hurricane of anger that spares no one, vaporizes anything that comes its way?

“Krishnaa exists because of Krishna...” she finally managed to mouth. “Had it not been for the immortal hands of Keshava, the many mortals who have ruled Draupadi’s heart would have extinguished her long ago.”

She looked at Subhadra. It was true what she had heard of her. Just like her brother, she had been born with the gift of words. But how different she was from him too. Unlike him, who chose his words to show the way ahead, her words seemed aimed to herald the truth of today. This moment. This heartbeat.

Subhadra stepped carefully over the threshold and approached Draupadi. Draupadi stood, barely balancing herself on her two feet, almost in a daze. Subhadra covered the last few steps towards Draupadi in a run and clasped her arms around her. “I know. I stoke no fire. I am not water. I will never put you out. I am Krishna too. And I will hold this earth beneath your feet. Forever and beyond,” she whispered. Words that passed only between her and Panchali. Draupadi felt frail in that one moment, like embers about to die out and Subhadra knew it was her job to fan them to keep them going. There was a long journey ahead. This life had hardly begun.

Draupadi’s fury came out as tears. Much like the waterfall in her mind’s forest, this was generous too. Much like the shadow of her singular tree, this was greedy too. Greedy not just for claiming Arjuna’s sole rights to her heart, but greedy for this new vision of Krishna to, hopefully, make the forest fire in her become a lamp that would brighten the dark days strewn like fallen flowers ahead. She held on to Subhadra.

Subhadra held one hand out behind her. They would never be complete without Arjuna. Arjuna held it fast.

In that one moment a confluence was created. The life forces of three strong streams merging into one. The barriers breaking between the elements of fire, water and earth and forming one divine. Arjuna saw Draupadi melt, forging a bond between her and Subhadra, forming one Prakriti with two faces, to accompany him, the Purusha, into the future. “Paradoxes,” he mused, “exist only as long as we fail to perceive the larger, divine picture.”

By accepting duality, we understand the presence of the One. It is this One that may sometimes play life’s sweet music on the banks of the Yamuna, and sometimes send life’s toughest choices in the way He sent a Draupadi, a Subhadra, an Arjuna, a Draupadi and a Subhadra, an Arjuna.

Thursday, April 19, 2012 3 reflections

Ramayana captured in Moghul art

Dear reader,

In an earlier post I had documented the existence of Razmnama, a Persian translation of the Mahabharata that was undertaken under Akbar's regime. This post is about 'Freer Ramayana' which, from what I have been able to gather, is an illustrated manuscript of the Indian epic Ramayana which was painted for a Moghul nobleman. There is no accurate information on who this nobleman was but the style of artwork it uses is quite similar to the ones found in Akbar's aforementioned work. So it could be that Akbar was the Moghul who had sanctioned this project too. Any further information on this would of course be appreciated.

Given below are some of the pages I could gather.  What is curious about it is the consistent usage of horns (as seen in depictions of Satan/Shaitaan) to depict evil characters in them while the Kings have the symbol headdress commonly seen in Islamic and Christian art. What is also interesting is the use of predominantly red and black to depict the evil characters in the epic while the heroes are shaded in human form.

Angada kills Devantaka

Angada kills Narantaka

Bharata sets out to find Rama

Dasharatha in Ayodhya

Dasharatha and sons return to Ayodhya

Hanuman and Ravana

Hanuman beheads Trisiras

Hanuman looking for Sanjeevani herb

Indra prevents Trishanku from entering heaven

Kumbhakarna getting up

Kumbhakarna in battle

Hanuman carries a mountain back 

Rama kills Maharaksha
Rama kills Viradha

Rama Lakshama Sita Hanuman

Rama leaves for heavens

Rama slays Shambuka

Rama slays Ravana

Rama with the Vanaras

Ravana abducts Sita

Ravana loots Kuvera

Rysasrunga travels to Ayodhya

Sugreeva in battle

Sugreeva attacks Kumbhakarna

Valmiki getting the tone of Ramayana from a dying bird

Garuda and Vsnu

Dasharatha being cremated

Shatrughna killing Lavanasura and conquering Mathura

Monday, April 16, 2012 0 reflections

Poem : Eka's gift

Dear reader, 

Have been reading a lot about the Nishada prince Ekalavya lately. And it occurred to me how similar, in some ways, his life is with Krsna's. Both had extremely humble beginnings and yet, with time, went on to become important names in our ancient epics. Both went on to work with important people of the times and are marked in our legends for their several heroics. If Ekalavya, despite his thumb being taken by Drona Acharya by trickery, went on to be King Jarasandha's confidant and an important member of his team, then Krsna, the son of a cowherd went on to become the king of Dwarka. Perhaps it is poetically apt that Ekalavya finally meets his end at the hands of Krsna. This short poem is, hence, a tribute to that warrior who had the gift of giving. An attribute which earns him a higher pedestal as a warrior than the rest.

 ~ Eka's gift ~

Droplets of bliss, hued deep red,
Fell like helpless comets, earth bound,
Sketching tiny dust craters, they hastily sped,
To their invisible destiny. On visible ground.
His chapped lips bore not a hint,
Not an inkling of the waters of disdain,
Eyes, steady, bejeweled with gems distinct,
Knew no resident from the lands of pain.
A jaggedly sawed stub, fresh and oozing,
Sent snaking streams in joint celebration,
He, head bowed for the official offering,
Regaled in company of such magnification.
Like the ancient king Satyavrata, or Manu,
Who once held a tiny fish, it had been said,
Eka's palms, washed clean with bliss anew,
Cradled lines of fate, etched in blood instead.
The aged ascetic looked on, unperturbed,
Anxious faces around him watched, amazed,
Their princely feet moved not, stayed undisturbed,
As audience to Eka – the intruder, the unfazed.
The master's hands, with much unbridled pride,
Plucked and picked up the gift of the hour,
Muttering words incoherent from every side,
Placed in Eka's red palms, a golden flower.
In the lad, the master had seen divinity,

In his humility lay the true gift he would bring,
After the conch had been blown on all humanity,
His name would stand for giving. And forgiving.
Eka vanished into the woods, head bowed,
A trail of little red tears clinging to him,
Drawing the dotted line, that would never erode,
From rust of time, in winds placid or grim.
Oily clouds shifted hazily in heavens above,
Connecting disconnecting residue of emotions,
Guiding Eka forever on the path of love,
Taking him to guide clans, build nations.
Moons later, in a grand battle far far away,
A king from Dwarka spotted Eka's smiling face,
Not a tussle of a divine and a mortal, that day,
One great leader, had celebrated another, with grace.

Poem : Dvarka
Poem : Eldest Kaunteya

Thursday, April 12, 2012 12 reflections

"Nanna Tamma Shankara" : A summary

In July last year I came across a Kannada book called 'Nanna tamma Shankara' (My brother Shankara) written by Anant Nag, brother of the late film maker and actor Shankar Nag. I grew up on a strong diet of Shankar's 'Malgudi Days' and was witness to the Nag brothers in the 80s via their many Kannada and Hindi movies. It was only over the last few years that I have had the chance to properly process the impact of Shankar's untimely demise not only on Kannada cinema but also on Karnataka. Over this time period I have read a lot about Shankar's off screen life, his passionate associations with theater, his immersion in literature of Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez among others and his highly ambitious visions for both Bengaluru and the rest of the state. In all of this his elder brother Anant Nag's thoughts on Shankar's life and demise somehow never seemed to surface. Given how low profile that family remains to this day 'Nanna tamma Shankara' seemed like a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the man behind the actor/filmmaker/celebrity.

Hence, here are some of the highlights of what I gathered from the book.

Bonds of brotherhood

I always knew how close the brothers were but it wasn't until I began reading the book that I was able to understand the true nature of the bond they shared. I also got a sense of the painful pinch of irreplaceable loss Anant Nag must be (is) going through with each passing day. My perspective on him as a talented performer amplified some more after recalling that he did some amazing comedies like 'Ganeshana maduve', 'Gauri Ganesha', 'HendatigelbeDi' and 'Yaarigu Helabedi' after Shankar's death. I cannot comprehend how this man was able to overcome such a horrific loss and yet manage to pull himself together for these performances. I came across a book called 'Off the record' written by veteran cinema journalist Ganesh Kasargod recently where he mentions that Anant Nag in fact had traveled to Hyderabad in grave depression after Shankar's death to end his own life. It was after long and hard conversations with his wife Gayatri that he eventually decided not to go through with it.

The book essentially begins with Shankar's birth in Honnavara, North Canara. Anant Nag, six years his senior, talks about the immense pampering Shankar received for being the youngest in the family. He also writes how his father would never miss an opportunity to smack him behind the head but always ensured Shankar was left unharmed. I also learnt that Anant Nag has a elder sister who, not surprisingly, also did her best to pamper little Shankar. He goes on to speak of how unafraid the boy was without forgetting to mention how extremely close he was to Anant. Being six years younger it was no surprise to learn that Shankar looked up to Anant as a father figure in many ways. Right up to the point where the two began formal education shuttling between Honnavara and Mumbai, due to their parents' circumstances, Shankar is shown to have been Anant's shadow in almost everything.

Life in Mumbai and entering cinema

It isn't until Shankar moves to Mumbai that he gets a chance to finally start doing things his own way. His love for stage takes him to the Marathi theater scene and thus begin his associations with the fine arts. Anant documents in good detail the way Shankar immersed himself into the various activities there and came in close contact with likes of Amol Palekar, Smita Patil, Girish Karnad among many others. It is also during this time that Shankar started acting in movies, his first feature being a Karnad directed venture called 'Ondanondu Kaaladalli' which went on to win various awards when it was released. The book then talks of the way the two brothers got together and started to think of starting their own production house. It was here that the movie 'Janmajanumada Anubandha' was released with Shankar donning the director's cap for the first time with Anant and himself in the lead roles. The film, Anant says, was a pretty bad disappointment probably because of the often used reincarnation theme in the plot. The book at this stage includes various conversations between the two about everything from personal life to political scenarios in the country. Anant also documents the successes of the later films they made like 'Minchina Ota' and 'Accident' that continued to register Shankar as a better film maker than an actor. In one particular sequence Anant writes about how the climax for the movie 'Accident' was changed at the last moment. A climax scene that shows the protagonist kill the minister in frustration had to be changed to a non violent one since, coincidentally, it was the same time that the then Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi had been gunned down. The censors clearly raised objections about it because of which Shankar is said to have screamed at Anant and asked him to sit down when he got up to pay respect during the television forecast of her funeral. 'Shankar' he writes 'had taken his first political decision.' Anant also reflects, with slight melancholy, that for a long time Shankar wasn't accepted as a local Kannadiga due to his roots predominantly coming from the Marathi scene. But he also acknowledges the effort Shankar put into ensuring that his name became synonymous with Kannada.

Malgudi Days

This part of the book was perhaps the most interesting one for me. Having been a major aficionado of both the RK Narayan book and the television series, it was refreshing to learn the beginnings of it. Anant writes of his associations with the series producer TN Narsimhan who had expressed interest in bringing Malgudi to life. It was with much reluctance that Shankar is said to have accepted the project primarily due to his commitments to both cinema and the theater. In fact it was Anant Nag who recommended to Shankar that Agumbe in Karnataka was perhaps the ideal spot to recreate Malgudi. It was then that Shankar spent months reading and re-reading Malgudi Days to ensure that he did complete justice to the adaptation. Anant speaks of how, once the project got underway, their lives became all about Malgudi Days for a good three to four years. Every conversation they had at the time would invariably be about thinking of the best possible way to shoot the mini series by hiring the most suitable actors to play the role. Anant writes of how their extended circle of friends came forward to help Shankar launch himself on the national scene by volunteering to play many of the roles. This list included great names like Girish Karnad, Vishnuvardhan, various people from the Marathi and Hindi cinema and of course Shankar's constant friend-philosopher-guide Anant Nag. All of Agumbe had become a shooting set with literally every home in the area used at some point to cook food for the cast and crew members. In fact, I heard Kashinath (one of Shankar's closest friends) speak in an interview recently that as one of the assistant directors he would always keep a guy handy during the shoot of Malgudi Days to ensure the walls of homes Shankar had broken to get the camera angles just right would be constructed back. Shankar wanted no compromise to the vision of Malgudi he wanted to portray. An attribute becoming quite rare in the field of cinema today. Anant then documents the way in which the two brothers traveled to Canada to market their product and to get people overseas also invested in spreading the word. As I read these stories in the book I also looked up interviews of Arundati Nag (Shankar's wife) and others who spoke on similar lines of just how energetic Shankar was during the shoot of Malgudi Days. Despite the non stop stress of working with a limited budget Shankar went to extreme lengths in ensuring that RK Narayan's work did not get jeopardized on screen after the debacle called 'Guide' by Dev Anand many years before that. History, as we have seen, is proof that Malgudi Days did in fact find the best maker in Shankar Nag.

Visions of a better tomorrow

One of the prominent portions of the second half of the book documents Shankar's affection to new and exciting ideas. The way he observed things in foreign countries and then asked himself 'Why can't we have that in India?' In that long list of projects that Shankar wanted to implement are – the much talked about metro train service in Bengaluru (which is now a reality after more than two decades and more than two hundred crores), the Nandi hills ropeway project, house building scheme for the poor using German construction mechanism, looking at alternatives to health care for the middle and lower middle class and of course, the country club – a project that involved creating an exclusive place for people to come and relax. Today we look around and find such places on every street but for a man to see this vision for a sleepy city like Bengaluru back in the 80s is nothing less than a marvel. Apart from these projects Shankar's love for the theater is consistently documented as his 'Nagamandala' based on Karnad's play by the same name went on to run to packed houses for several weeks. It was to realize this dream of his that Arundati Nag, after his untimely demise, went to hell and back to build 'Ranga Shankara' in Bengaluru. After reading all this it occurred to me that what Karnataka really lost wasn't just a brilliant film maker with an eye for detail but also a much needed visionary who would have perhaps created magic with the technology now available. A 'what if' scenario that will haunt his admirers forever.

Untimely death and final statements

The last few pages of the book are full of anticipation. That agonizing wait for the inevitable to occur. It was during the shooting of a film Shankar had managed to get sponsorship for called 'Jokumara Swamy' that his car met with a gruesome accident in the wee hours of September 30, 1990. His wife Arundati and daughter Kavya were with him at the time. Anant writes of the unimaginable waves of shock that passed through him when a stranger called him up that fateful morning and delivered the awful news to him. When he broke the news to his mother she is reported to have said – 'He was supposed to die many years ago as a child in Mumbai when he almost got hit by the truck. The time he got until now since then was his gift. A second birth.'

Anant documents the support he and his family members got from the huge gathering of friends and innumerable fans of Shankar after that. The nonstop incoming of well wishers from the most unexpected corners of the globe. He writes that it was then that he truly realized just how beloved his brother Shankara had been. He ends the book with the lines...

'Shankara is unforgettable to me. Not just as a brother but as an individual – as a complete individual. It is impossible to document the millions of memories I have of him. I don't think it suffices to say 'I think of him a lot'. He is in my thoughts every day, every passing moment, tormenting me.'

Some photographs from the book

Anant Nag, Shankar Nag with their father

During the shooting of Malgudi Days in Agumbe

During the shooting of 'The Green Jacket' episode

During the shooting of 'The vendor of sweets' with brother Anant Nag

Thursday, March 01, 2012 2 reflections

Online Comic Collection

My Online Comic Collection

featuring Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, Archies, Mandrake, Phantom and many many others!

Collection 1 (88 Comics : ACK, Tinkle, Jughead and Archie Comics)

Collection 2 (24 Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle Comics, Ongoing Collection)

Collection 3(30 Archie's Double Digests | Ongoing Collection)

For Chandamama Fans: Browse their archives for editions in several Indian languages all the way back to the 1940s!

Comic finds bookmarked (Comics from all over the world)

More Archies Comic Finds