Monday, March 25, 2013

The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen

Amit Chaudhuri is wrong when he says, The Skinning Tree, which won The Tibor Jones South Asian Prize for 2012, is ‘About Calcutta in the 40s’. Indeed, the story is placed in that period, but is not the whole story. Further, the book publisher, Picador India uses Chaudhuri’s brief one-liner to market it, by placing the statement at the back of the book. But the content of the book goes way beyond these narrow confines, to make a compelling read.

I am sure everyone who is a sports buff, would have heard of Srikumar Sen? If not, then, both the Award and his book, The Skinning Tree, have placed him firmly on Top of the reader’s mind.

 Written about the historical period in India, mainly Calcutta and Gaddi, The Skinning Tree revives memories of the past, 1940s. It showcases the life of educated, affluent Bengali families, who were closely associated with the British. It tells you about, how, these families needed to keep up with the Jones by ensuring their children went to schools run by the British, although they ensured their own children went to schools, exclusively meant for them. And most importantly, it opens up, perhaps for the first time, the Pandora’s Box, on what went on in these all-boys boarding schools where Indians from affluent backgrounds sent their boys and how they coped with it.

Nine year old Sabby, is sent away to boarding school in Gaddi, because, his parents fear that the Japanese are going to occupy Calcutta. Established Journalists of those times, the wining and dining that keep the couple busy by day and night, are happy their only son, Sabby is at home with his grandmother and joyously going to his Elementary School. Propelled by their fear, though, they decide to send Sabby away to the boarding school, so he is safe. But this measure is ill received by Sabby who hates his new school and dreams his parents will come as promised during the Easter holidays and take him back, from the harshness of school. Run by the Catholic Fathers, they are strict disciplinarians, who do not spare the rod. His heart breaks when a letter arrives from home saying that his parents, caught up with their lives, now that his grandmother has suddenly died too, would not be able to come to see him after all! This undoubtedly dashes his hope of escape the school. Thanatos takes over the young boy as he runs on top of the high wall that shuts off the world outside from the isolated school, from which, if he fell, there would be only death, the final escape from this hell. Caught by his friend, he has been saved from dying but not from the disciplinarian whip, of the Father, who lashes out on him, for breaking the rules.

At this juncture, Eros, takes over Thanatos, and young Sabby makes another escape from the hell within, by giving himself to the new life he is living in boarding school, altering his perception of it and taking it on, whole heartedly. His home in Calcutta and his dear ones are forgotten / replaced by friends in school. The pages of the book become testimony to what is true friendship among boys, put away in boarding schools. He begins to learn and use the language spoken by the boys, quintessentially punctuated with words, only familiar to them. He begins to participate in acts that indicate how the boys at school have learned to cope with the administration - the rigorous, often, violent disciplinarian actions, teach them to release the anger and violence received from the authorities by giving it back in equal measure, if not more, to things, persons, animals, birds and bees, anything that is vulnerable and cannot retaliate back. Killing and skinning snakes, squirrels and birds, only to dump the dead on The Skinning Tree, which becomes the emblem of destruction. The helpless tree standing just outside the boundary wall, bares the pain and the strife, the misery and the misplaced hatred, from the boys. Finally, though, one day, as if in connivance with young Sabby, she changes her stance from a silent victim to retaliate, by giving way when moments after, Sabby fearing  strict disciplinary action for breaking rules, fails to heed a plea for help, and the skinning tree unable to bear the burden of giving support, gives way.  Consequently, a lesson from life is doled out to a figure of authority - what goes round, comes around. Violence is met with violence, alright!

The book is autobiographical and bears testimony to an act that remained to trouble the psyche of the writer and while putting the book down, the reader hopes that, by writing it, the guilt so long held close in the crevices of the mind, or the remorse, might have found its peace. Although, it is quite possible to see that Sabby could not have been blamed for his last minute refusal to help, for had he cared to listen to his heart, that evening, the dreadful whip would not have spared him at all.

Throughout the book, the reader is witness to the struggle of life and death, of Eros and Thanatos, at many levels, with many people, but no matter what, victory is always Eros’.

Although it is death that has the proverbial, last laugh.

My observation, not only related with this book, but of late being discussed in many circles, is, it appears to be that most debut novels are autobiographical in nature. So, in a way, the audience is made to read books that are essentially a confession. This is both an advantage as well as a disadvantage. At one level, the author has decided to take pains to externalize events in their lives to make a compelling read for an audience out there. On the other hand, it is quite something to be able to lay one’s life in the hands of readers to be constantly analyzed, critiqued or applauded for.

The life within is like a mirror, which one can hold to see one’s own reflection. At the same time, it is also like a shadow, one can never really get away from, and which stays with the author, like a devoted partner. And if that is shared with many, it is for the reader to judge, what h/she wants to take, or wants to leave out.

I prefer a story that shows me, survival, at its best. The power of the human mind to transform an adversity to an opportunity is for me the most profound moment in a human life. The poignancy of each word that make it the story, well written, is life changing and unforgettable. The Skinning Tree certainly deserved the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize for 2012, and to become a part of your personal library.

Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2012

Publisher: Picador India
Author: Srikumar Sen
Price: Rs 499
Hardcover, 222 pages

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Altered body; altered mind


Psychologists have said that parallel thinking is perhaps the most lasting therapy for survivors of abuse. What this means is that, in order to overcome the trauma of abuse and look at one’s self in a new light, it is best to reconstruct one’s identity, change the way one looks and behaves, indeed, change the ideas in the mind and get into a brand new body of thoughts which finally affect the person, inwardly, and outwardly. Thus, the guilt and shame carried in the mind of the abused, which were in any case, the burden carried forward from the mind of the abuser, is laid to rest in the back burner. And the survivor of abuse lives happily ever after.

Or so it seems.

In another instance, especially in India, one can see hoards of men and women who leave their homes to join a spiritual path, leaving behind their families, cities, village or whatever, to start a life of penance with the hope of ultimate salvation and breaking the cycle of birth and death. The mendicant leaves behind and never revisits his/her home, village, or even talks about the past. Ask a sadhu, about the past, the answer is met with silence.

Here is another instance of putting aside an ‘inheritance’ by birth, to alter the past and accept a new mind and body, shaven of hair and over indulgence of the body, by care, to focus on altering the mind with severe and austere spiritual practice. Whether the goal is met, is only known to the person itself, but having once spoken to a Naga sadhu long ago, it seems it is.

“Where do you come from? Where are your parents?” I had asked, green behind my ear, for I learned later that, that is not a question one ever asks a sadhu.

“I am from a village in Bengal,” he volunteered kindly, ‘but, neither I remember my parents and they too may have forgotten me, for it was so long ago, when I was a boy, I ran away from home.’

His altered body, with jata, his scanty clothing exposing a chocolate dark athletic body, tanned by the sun, was not the body he had earlier I am sure. But, I do remember, wondering about his obsession with the chillum he smoked almost at half an hour to forty five minutes causing me to believe, that it served two purposes, one, to forget his past, or manage the guilt, if any, for suddenly disappearing from home, and of course, as a Shiva bhakth, a life lived in imitation in pursuance of his goal, single minded concentration and focus, which is the end of all spiritual practice.

In my recent conversation with renowned film director Rituparno Ghosh (see Atelier India, March 2013 issue), talking of his latest film, Chitrangada he believes that the alteration of the body, is a constant, otherwise, Beauty Parlours would not exist.

“We are all working toward sculpting our own gender identity; women alter their bodies at Beauty Parlours, men get six packs. No transformation is actually over, it is a process; it is fluid.”

The question therefore is: does an altered body, mean an altered mind? Does the external change of the body induce an inward change of the mind? Can one really change one’s identity and settle for a new, or induce one to become a reality, so that one can believe that this new identity is the new self? Going back to what psychologists say, parallel therapy has met with success, is it possible to be and live an altered self?

The recent release of the book by Dr Kanchana Natarajan, (see ) brings to light, for the first time in English, the life of a woman saint, in 17th Century, Tamil Nadu, India, the fact that it is possible to leave one’s painful, Brahminical widowhood, to pursue the path of salvation. Would she ever face the same question I am posing today, does an altered body make for an altered mind?

Does not the past lie in waiting, in the subconscious mind, waiting to raise its head at any given moment? If not, then why the tautness of the body, which speaks for itself, hiding its struggle to release itself from the demons of the past?

Would sitting silently, doing nothing, but allowing the thoughts to rise and pass, developing the habit of not holding on to those thoughts, or allowing them to take hold of one’s mind, not silence the thoughts in time, thus, not having to alter bodies, but remaining in the same? Does the mind hold the body or is it vice versa, or both? Is effort really necessary?

Even sitting silently, doing nothing is an effort. But, submitting, resigning to acceptance is not.

What is the answer then? What is the real face of truth – an altered body results in an altered mind? Or an altered state of mind causes the nullification of the body? And everything attached to it, good and bad experiences?

Or as Bertrand Russell once said, no matter, never mind! 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Book release: Transgressing Boundaries by Kanchana Natarajan

Transgressing Boundaries: The songs of Shenkottai Avudai Akkal

Shengottai Sri Avudai Akkal, a remarkable eighteenth-century woman saint from Tamil Nadu, was a self-realised advaitin who sang passionately about the spiritual union with the Absolute.
A desolate and stigmatized Brahmin child-widow, she was initiated into Vedanta by the great Master Tiruvisainallur Shridhara Venkatesa Ayyawal. Her songs, a radical elision of the metaphysical sublime and personal devotion, are narrated through existential tropes sourced from daily life, and also offer a powerful critique of the oppressive orthodox socio-religious practices of the period.
Composed in simple, colloquial Tamil, and bringing hope and solace to women in general and widows in particular for almost three centuries, these songs by Avudai Akkal were preserved within the oral tradition by Brahmin women of Tirunellveli District of Tamil Nadu, who sang them on all occasions. The songs were documented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and have appeared in many Tamil publications. However, they appear in English translation for the first time in this book. Each song is accompanied by annotations and themed essays.
The book, dedicated to all the anonymous widows and other women of Tirunelveli and Madurai districts who sang and still sing Akka’s songs, preserving and sharing a sublime spiritual treasure, has been handled with some excellent editing by Smriti Vorha. The book will be available on bookstores in India, by March end.

To book your copy(s), you may also write to the publishers of the book.

Author: Dr Kanchana Natarajan
Publisher: Zubaan
an imprint of Kali for Women
128 B, Shahpur Jat, 1st floor
New Delhi 110 049
Price: INR 695
About the author: Dr Kanchana Natarajan teaches Indian Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi, India.

Also read:
Avidai Akkal, the 18th Century woman Vedantin saint in Tamil Nadu, short review in 2010

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Dil, really jalta hai!

I have never been fond of the renowned singer, Saigal, with his nasal voice which reminded me of a man struggling with his ablutions! More so, after I was told and then heard with my own ears, my dear father’s voice which was just like him.

The man sat with his harmonium in the company of his friends, all playing different musical instruments. The saga started with the musicians first, tuning up and then setting forth with a medley mix of sounds that blended into each other, to make some musical sounds, until my father let out a sound emanating from somewhere deep, which probably was his large intestine and allowed it to find relief in the vocal exhalations, punctuated by a few ups and downs, like the choir singers at the Vatican.

This practice made me ponder on the meaning of deep itself, as to the physiological origin of the word, in a man’s biology. Arising out of this contemplation, came the realization that in so far as anything is concerned, which has to do with my father, my efforts would match his voice, to produce what I termed as the ‘Saigal Effect’. This meant that I would have to let out a similar pained sound out of my gut, or wherever, every time, I dealt with anything to do with him.

Now, I am not exaggerating I can assure you. Most of the people who know me, are aware of the strained relationship between my late father and mother and how there was no taalmil, compatibility between the two which resulted in one writing her own story and the other singing his own song! I stood on the periphery watching the tamasha, circus, as most children do in such cases and decided to take to my mother’s passion, which was words of poetry and story, precisely why I am here now to tell you the story of the latest version of the ‘Saigal Effect’ which  took over my life, only recently.

On my way to visit his place to sell a plot of land, which he so kindly left behind for me, only in his death, I was told at the eleventh hour, that the sale was not going to happen after all, because, the buyer, a man of the soil, who had been working on many other acres of my father’s land, when he was alive, did not have the money ready. But had he not told me, only in the morning and many times over in the last two months that the money was ready? Yes, of course, he had, but who can ever escape the long term adverse results of the ‘Saigal Effect’? Plans must be foiled; the family must do its bit to protect the land from going out to people who were merely labourers on my father’s land; how could they become owners; I who grew up with other pursuits of life must learn the hard way, that the zamindari system, the private ownership of land, is here to stay, as much as the caste system is, and that all efforts to sell the land, will meet with negation. And I must pay with time and money for being challenged enough not to understand that even my inheritance from my father, is necessarily, not mine, but belongs to my paternal house and all or a few male members of the family.

Yes, at these times, the ‘Saigal Effect’ does hit me hard and I know, where the frustrated, constipated sound came from – not from the gut, nor the intestine, nor what one might have held sacred as to cause anal retention, but way, way beyond that. The ‘Saigal Effect’ has its origin in a lost battle with sense and sensibility, fought by me and my mother, our whole life, with our counterpart, that being my father and his family.

Dil, really jalta hai! The heart really burns!