Those of you who are elderly gentlemen ( all old men, including me of course, are gentlemen!) would have heard about delirium and dementia, the mild and chronic forms of organic disorders generally found in older people. I have none of these problems, although, at times , I pretend to suffer from them just for fun or occasionally, to harass my wife or call for her attention. Ammalu might not like my discussion on these issues, but she will have no objection to my talking to you about another problem which I am encountering since a year or so: Childhood memories, at times, flush down the mind and I act like a child!
“It is an innocuous old age syndrome”, said psychiatrist Dr. Pan, whom I consulted in the US . “Formidable and irresistible childhood insanities and obstinacies return in the evening of one’s life or one behaves like a child”, Dr. Panicker ( his original name ), continued, “my father too had this problem. One day he was enacting a scene from a kathakali dance before some guests and another day, he tried to climb a coconut tree. He was 80 plus then”.
Thank God, No coconut trees in Baltimore!
I had the first attack, yes I term it as an ‘attack’ and my story which you will be hearing shortly will justify my usage. While returning from the US, where I longed to and failed to see a cow or buffalo on the streets, I was excited to see a herd of buffaloes, wandering with the proverbial laxity, in front of the Begampet airport. The childhood memories of my quadrupedal comradery flooded my mind . We had a good animal stock at our ancestral house and I used to accompany our cow-boy Appukuttan to the Kalpathy river, when he took the cattle for a wash. He used to help me to mount the animal and the unalloyed joy of the ride through the streets of the small town, lingering on me, blossomed at the sight of the animals after a long gap and I developed an unbridled urge to mount one of the dark beauties!
“Go ahead; You will look rakish with your ‘pancha, kudumi and kadukkan, on the black animal”, commended Gopalan Nair my friend, who had come to the airport, along with his wife Ammini Amma to receive me. “Moreover, your complexion and body composition have a made-for-each other alignment with the animal”, he complemented me!
Patting on the back of the lovely animal, I was enjoying its body shape, skin colour and curves of the horns when I smelt the danger. Nair was coming closer, mischievously projecting his digital camera towards me and I could guess what he was up to. The moment he drops me home, he would proudly display the picture of my first adventure on arrival at the native soil ! When I envisioned the reaction of the family, I shivered with fear and reluctantly, took leave of my quadruped queen and boarded Nair’s vehicle.
The moment we reached home, Nair Jumped out of the vehicle and trumpeted a highly exaggerated version of the airport incident and warned my wife, “Pengale, sister , my friend has reached a critical stage in his mental disorder; but don’t worry. I will arrange a Malabar Manthravadi, an expert in occult science, who will remove the evil spirit from his rickety body as easily as the dentist removed the last tooth from his mouth
The kind -hearted Ammini disliked her husband’s cynical approach though she too suspected that things were not all that normal with me. She knew how mercilessly the occult healers beat the patient with a thin bamboo whip and the very idea was repulsive to her.
Ammalu, as usual, was cool and diplomatic, .”I am thankful for your consideration and sympathy”, she told Nair. “I would like to wait and watch him for some time. He is an animal lover by nature and let us assume that what he did at the airport was only the reflection of his unexpected joy in seeing a few quadrupeds for which he was longing for several months”
Nair was dispirited; Ammini was relieved. I glanced my friend through the corner of my eye and whispered ‘cho, cho poor man’.
Nair was not that poor in words. He quipped, ” pengAlae, sister, what will you do if he becomes a bird lover and lift up his legs, thinking they are his wings?”
“I doubt,” Ammalu disagreed. “He is a down- to- earth man. Let us wait and watch”
I was perfectly normal the whole day. Ammalu was convinced that the airport drama was an aberration.
While returning from my usual morning walk the next day, my mind was fully obsessed with the thoughts about my school days and the image of my mother, anxiously awaiting my return, at the façade of our house, created emotional disturbance. I started behaving like a child, picking up tit bits from the road side vendors and chewing mango fruit and sucking its juice while walking on the road.
As in a movie, the scenes were changing fast and the tranquil Osmania University campus transformed to the turbid, noisy Olavakkode market. I was returning from ‘Padathu’ school, my elementary school, fully drenched, water dripping from my school bag, shorts and shirt. I rushed to take refuge in my mother’s arms, spreading my arms wide, but actually landed on the hands of Ammini Amma, who was standing near the entrance of her house, opposite to mine, holding her grand child and a milk- feeding bottle. She was numbed with shock for a moment and looked around to make sure that there were not many, watching my obscene act. Her husband Nair, advanced towards me with a ladle and coffee kettle, to break my small head into big pieces. Though taken back initially, Ammini , recovered her composure soon and assured her husband that she would deal with the situation and he was free to go back to the kitchen. instead of lifting me up hugging or petting me as I longed for, or kicking at my bottom or slapping on my cheek as her husband would have desired, with all the love at the disposal of a mother, holding my hand securely and softly, led me to my house and handed me over to my wife. There was concern and compassion in her eyes; disbelief and dislike in Ammalu’s face. I am yet to know the reason for both.
Nair came to my house after finishing the kitchen assignment and asked an explanation for my misbehavior. “Don’t worry, Nair”. I consoled him.”It was after all an innocuous old-age syndrome”
‘Innocuous!. Are you sure?”. He sought my confirmation.
“Indeed, I am. Unless of course, you imitate my action and move towards my gate, like a brat in dark.”
Nair went back to return in five minutes and repeated the threat to call a Manthravadi.
“I would like to wait and watch”. Ammalu was firm in her decision. “My husband perhaps longs to see his mother and Ammini resembles his mother when she smiles and she smiles often. Nair, how lucky you are to have a wife like Ammini!”
Nair was immensely pleased and returned home smiling all the way.”
” Have you ever seen Nair smiling?” Ammalu asked me.
“He will smile more, when Ammini yells at him for what you said about her”
“What did I say about her?”
“She resembles your mother”
“What should I have said?’
“She resembles our daughter!”
“You don’t need any medication. You are what you were when you left for USA”
The next day morning, I was waiting for the newspaper boy and the moment he threw a sheath of paper at my door, I threw another bunch at his face and quietly sneaked towards the kitchen.
“Why are you blinking like a thief, caught red-handed?” Ammalu enquired. “ Enna thirisaman panninel- What mischief you were up to?”
“Nothing, that paper …” . Before I could complete the sentence, Nair, who was watching my action through his window, opposite to us, rushed in and explained how I was waiting for the paper boy’s arrival right from dawn with a big bundle of paper and how forcefully, I threw it at him. He raised his right hand as if he was about to throw a cricket ball, to dramatise a simple event.
“Pengale, sister! Act before things go out of your control”. He warned her again.
“We should , Nair” Passing on a cup of coffee, Ammalu said. Nair always enjoys her hot coffee.. “We should, we should”, he repeated her words and went home moving his head up and down, several times. When he is overjoyed, his head moves up and down and if sad or disappointed, it moves horizontally, also several times.
After his departure, handing over my cup she asked again, what went wrong in the morning. Ammalu, known for her mental stability even under adverse conditions, seemed to be worried about my early morning action.
The warning of Nair, while departing seemed to cause her concern- ‘instead of a sheath of newspaper, if it were his brass betel nut casket?’
She stared at me silently and retired to attend her chores, turning back and gazing suspiciously many times.
“Lustrous and lavish- and I envy” Ammalu commented on the lush growth over my head, wagging the hair dryer, around my neck, after the night bath. Enjoying her extolment about the outer portion of my head, I was about to go to sleep when her next sentence alerted me.” Our village car festival is just a week away. When shall we start?”
“Oh, that is you plan! Your patting and praising my thick hair was to extract my consent to go to Palakkad so that your Manthravadi can break my brittle bone frame”, I wanted to tell her but I didn’t.
A husband, irrespective of his age, becomes a child, when his wife caresses his hairs and pets him in the solitude. Does he, unknowingly. go back mentally to his childhood days and enjoys the same satisfaction he had on the lap of his mother?
The next day, when we started for our Kerala trip, “Janum varattee?” Nair wanted to come with us..
Ammini also wanted to join.
Ammalu raised her head towards me as if to seek my permission, though she knew that I liked Ammini’s company.
“Why trouble Ammini?”, I asked pretending that her joining hardly mattered to me.
“Nair is of your age and who knows he might not develop IOS, during journey?”, Ammini asked me and added with her usual smile, “moreover, husbands become naughty after sixty, if wives don’t accompany them, in long trips,”, she paused and continued,”all husbands”
“Not mine”, corrected Ammalu,”he was born naughty and continued to be so till his mother handed him over to me”
“Handing over?” Nair intervened, “as he a baby, then?”
“Baby like, then and now” Ammini said.
She was exceeding her limit. Fearing that Ammini was trying to be smart and might say something more about me, I turned my head to look at a different direction, but Ammalu pulled my head towards her and taunted, “look at my face and tell me honestly that you are as innocent as Ammini claims”
I nodded my head to say ‘yes’ and Nair, mocked my action by moving his head up and down, a dozen times.
Visiting the lush green Kerala is always a pleasure.
Kkadugal kanke yullil aayiram paravakal”
‘At the sight of the ValayAr forests, thousand birds fly high in me, breaking their nests’, I started singing aloud, when the train left Podanur.
Ammalu and Nair visually exchanged their anxiety about my mental status while Ammini, my college –mate, continued the poem composed and recited by me during a college festival.
“Paduga padinjarenkatte, enmalanattil
Padathe kkathirukal kaikotti kkalikkumbhol”
‘Oh, western wind! The paddy fields in my land of hillocks are dancing. Why don’t you sing to their movements?”
Every time I crossed the ValayAr forests, I used to be one emotional. That continues even now.
When we alighted at Palakkad junction, the OAS tried to overtake me.
Our ancestral house was close to the railway station. As children we used to go and play at the platform. The station master and other staff were my father’s customers and friendly with us. Those days, potable water was provided to the passengers by two railway staff, Krishnamoorthy Iyengar and Rama iyer, both from Kalpathy. Murthy was short and sober sporting a namam on his forehead whereas Rama iyer was a tall man, always jovial. They were called water carriers who moved on the platform, with a big brass vessel full of water loaded on a push- cart with a long- handled brass ladle in their hand.
Rama Iyer used to laugh too often, for no reason, very loud. As children, we thought he was doing that to entertain us, but later, we were told that he had a problem called Nervous Laughter or Involuntary Emotional Expression Disorder. My grand mother liked both the water carriers and used to say that as they were performing a great task of proving water to the thirsty passengers, they would never undergo the trouble of rebirth. Of the two, she had a special liking for Rama Iyer, whom she used to call an innocent baby.
When my grand mother died most of the men and women’s from the small town came to our house for condolence, but not Rama Iyer. Someone reported that he was sitting in a corner in the railway platform, hugging his large water vessel and weeping inconsolably.
That was the first time, people saw him weeping.
Fire-man Fernandez, a tall Anglo- Indian with well developed muscles, throwing shovel-full of black coal lumps into the burning furnace of the steam engine was my another hero. I also used to admire the posture of Kelu Nair, the train guard, dressed in immaculate white uniform, standing at the threshold of the last carriage, proudly waving his green flag as if the whole world was at his command. I wanted to become like one of them but landed in a scientific organization. In one way, it was good because the jobs of water carrier and fire-man have ceased to exist now.
I was excited to learn, when we reached home, that the Mariamman temple near our house was celebrating the annual festival. After the Kalpathy car festival and Kallaikkulangari kathakali programme lasting for a full week close to Sivarathry, the Mariamman poojai was the most enjoyable festival during our childhood days.
After a quick wash , we went to the temple . I closed my eyes and tried to pray but the mind was already packed with the moving trains and activities on the platform leaving little room for the Goddess .The porter Kuppusami is striking his iron hammer forcefully on the rail piece hanging from a hook in front of the SM’s office, to announce the arrival of the No.2 down Madras Mail. The Station Master in his white uniform and the ticket examiners donning black coats, are coming out of their room to receive the train. Krishnamoorthi and Rama Iyer wearing white dothies and proudly sporting their caste marks on their foreheads are moving forward with their hand carts loaded with big water jars. Servers from Ambi Iyer’s vegetarian restaurant are ready with packed foods and hot coffee vessels. Slowly but majestically the No. 2 down enters the platform, proudly announcing its arrival by prolonged whistling from a distance, unlike the present day trains which come and go unceremoniously.
Chembai Vaidyanatha Bagavather, followed by Mridangam Mani Iyer, is alighting from the first class compartment. Bagavathar mama is twisting my ear affectionately with a query, ”karikkar irukkaroda?’. He used to address my father as Kariakkar or executive, the nick name given by our villagers.
I was now completely under the influence of OAS, despite Ammini’s signaling asking me to be cautious. Suddenly I see Suppu Laughing loudly and every one on the platform including the SM and Bagavathar mama joining him and filling the entire platform with waves of laughter .Usually Chembai mama makes others to laugh by his witty jokes and it is an experience to watch Mama laughing uncontrollably at RamaIyer’s triggering. The nearby Eamoorbagavthy hillocks echo the laughter and the far off Kalpathy river flows re-echo the sound. I laugh and laugh hysterically imitating them.
So far I was under the influence of the OAS and my behavior was due to the impulses in my subconscious mind. Suddenly I started shaking all over, but now I was fully conscious and my action was intentional and with a purpose. A couple of insects had secretly entered into my undergarment making my body to shake from top to bottom! That was the precursor of my woes.
The temple oracle was absent and the devotees whispered that the Goddess had chosen me to play his roll. The priest should know better and alas, he did. He thrust a long sword on my palm which was shivering intermittently due to the uneasiness spreading from the bottom of my body and threw a hand-full of ash on my head. I was to act as the official oracle who picked up a petty quarrel with his wife and absented from the function!.
· I could have cried “stop this non-sense. I am not the Goddess incognito”. and walked away. But I did not have the courage to do that or perhaps had a silly desire to enjoy the divine status for a short while.
I realized that I was in deep waters. The only cutting instrument I had handled in my life was the pen knife to open the bundles of envelopes I used to receive by post, before the advent of emails. Now I am made to handle a sword and shortly, the crowd would expect me to incise my head and bring out blood!
I looked pathetically at the Goddess.[i] She smiled in full glory as if my problem was a non-issue for her. Obviously there were no insects beneath her clothes.
I was tired of flittering and quivering. Despite jumping with all the energy at my disposal, I did not succeed in getting rid of the insects. In fact they were moving upwards and sideways. I was worn out and sat on a stool opposite to the sanctum sanctoram. The devotees were falling at my feet seeking blessings or placing small coins on the blade of my sword as their offerings to the Goddess.
I looked around.
Ammalu was lost in prayers ; Nair was sneaking around counting the coins falling on the sword. With her eyes planted on my face and body movement, Ammini was becoming restless and concerned.
Men and women and children continued to touch my feet and offer their contributions.
“How small I am when compared to these innocent and mostly uneducated devotees around, many of them from the families of petty shop keepers or low paid wage earners!. I woke up, as a baby, from my cradle and went to sleep hearing the Vedic sounds and I have spent almost my entire life practicing rituals and religious practices. Still, why am I far below the level of the spiritual ecstasy and mental elevation of these folks? What purpose does my parrot-like rhythmic recitals of Rudram and Chamakam serve when I am not able to live in God and feel His presence within? Whenever I see women with tearful eyes and palm on their chest, cry from the cavern of their heart, ‘ente Sreekanteswara or ente Guruvayoorappa”, I used to long for such a status for me once, at least once in my life time. They might be praying for their vagabond husbands or handicapped children.
Fully absorbed by such thoughts, I glanced at the Goddess. She smiled in full glory .
The devotees, who had vowed to walk across the sacred fire- field , fresh from a bath in the river, turmeric water dripping from their wet dothies and holding bunches of neem leaves had just arrived . They circumambulated the deity and touched my feet seeking my blessings, since I was representing the GODDESS in flesh and blood.
One of them, suddenly started quivering and screamed ‘Thaye raktham kami-mother show us the blood and lead us through our fire walk”. I came to know later that he is the son of Karuppu cchami chettiar, a shop owner to whom I owed a small amount during my college days but failed to play. Chettiar, before closing his eyes for ever, would have instructed his worthy son to collect the due from me by threat or even by force, if necessary!
A streak of lightning passed through my nerves as more and more devotees joined the chorus, danced and sang and wanted me to lead them on the fire-walk, slicing my forehead althrough and allow it bleed . That was the custom in the temple.
Like the riksha- puller who cries, ‘Ma’ while passing through the frontage of the Calcutta Kali temple, like the women folks who cries ‘ente Sreekanteswara or ‘ente Guruvayoorappa’ in front of the respective temples, I placed my right palm flat on my chest, closed my eyes and cried ’Ente Amme!-My Mother’, completely unaware of what I was doing. At that time, I felt my body as light as a feather; I could feel the flow of the ice-cold water of the Ganges through my nerves and micro cells .
Suddenly I observed a jerk nearby. Spreading her long hairs all over her face, Ammalu jogged to and fro the sanctum sanctoram, grabbed the sword from my hand, moved towards the crowd spreading her arms as if she was going to gather them and swallo and screamed “come on, my children! I am Mahishasuramardhini. I will lead you on your fire-walk”. The crowd moved away; the drum-beats stopped. There was pin-drop silence. Pointing her finger towards me, she then said in a melodious voice.”You too come near me. You are Bala, Leela, Vinodini. There is lotus everywhere around you. Your hands, your legs, your face, your body, your abode everywhere, everywhere there is lotus. You should not burn your lotus feet in fire. You are Padmini”
Along with the devotees who fell on her feet seeking pardon for their clarion call, I too went near her, my lips uttering a couplet from the Devi sthuthy, learnt long ago from my father.‘ Ya Devi sarva bootheshu mathruroopena samsthitha
“To the Goddess who dwells in all beings in the form of mother-salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, salutations to Her”
She embraced me and kept me close to her body for short while, when I felt completely safe and secure, fully protected – the same feeling I had, several years ago, when I rushed to take refuge in my mother’s arms while returning from school, fully drenched, water dripping from my school bag, shorts and shirt.
And I was sure that I was not under the influence of OAS or any other syndrome.
March 24th, 2008
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