Tuesday, July 3, 2007

When virtues pour down...

It was Malayalam's favorite writer MT Vasudevan Nair who compared the rains of Midhunam- Karkitakam (June-July, approximately) to Mother. You go out seeing a clear sky, when it darkens all of a sudden and starts to pour. Anyone who has a short-tempered mother (which I guess, is universal), and has been in Kerala during this time of the year would certainly appreciate the appositeness of the comparison.

It's not surprising that the monsoon rains have become the identity of this land. No other place can claim the significance that Kerala has on the Monsoon map of India. This is the place where the monsoon first hits the Indian subcontinent. The meteorological laboratory at Thiruvananthapuram has been bestowed the sacred right to report the onset of monsoon. Alexander Frater had come down to this south Indian city to start his "Chasing the Monsoon", a sojourn which took him across India. No wonder, Anita Nair while compiling the writings about Kerala for Penguin had little doubt in christening the book "Where the Rain is born".

It's amazing to see the way the surroundings change at the onset of the rains- The earth tired by the hot sun of April- May slips into her lush green coat with a sigh of relief. Puddles are formed here and there. The entire atmosphere turns damp. One can't help appreciating the freshness in the atmosphere and the Wodehousian laziness it imparts. Kerala has a tradition of making this month a season of revival- for both body and mind.

Ayurveda finds the monsoon a good time for purification of the body. There are packages for cleansing the whole body and imparting new strength. It ranges from the detailed and sophisticated "sukha chikitsa" (rejuvenation therapy) to the plain and simple "karkitaka kanji" (medicinal rice porridge). While Ayurvedic therapy has always been a buzz-word in tourism circles, in the past few years more and more pharma companies are bringing out 'medicinal kanji' in attractive packages thus trying to make their hay while it rains.

I think the most unique characteristic of Kerala's monsoon 'celebration' is the recital of Thunjathu Ezhuthachhan's 'Adhyatma Ramayanam'. The tradition must have started as a way of pleasing the Gods during the tough times. I don't think there is a similar tradition anywhere else. Nor can you find a single book determining the cultural development of a whole region. 'Adhyatma Ramayanam' written centuries ago with a large majority of Sanskrit and complex Malayalam words is certainly not an easy read. Yet you can see people, may be of the last generation or the one before, knowing most of it by heart. Many of the lines have achieved the status of proverbs and one seldom realizes they are originally from Ramayana.

Ramayana as a literary work has always fascinated me. Written by Valmiki, it is considered to be the first book of verse in India – ‘Aadikaavyam'. If you look at it now, you will find all ingredients of a modern-day masala movie in it - A hero who is the embodiment of all virtues, a villain who is mighty in every sense, love, separation, tears, lots of family drama, the clash of Good and Evil and triumph of the former. Add to this, locations spread across India and abroad, not to mention the scope for extreme makeup and special effects. Though lifestyles have undergone a sea change since, still when we look for a benchmark to compare a contemporary work, we stumble upon this. Lord Brahma told Valmiki, about the Ramayana, "As long as the Himalayas and the great rivers in it exist, your work will remain here." Prophecy or blessing - it has happened. Expressions like 'Timeless Classic' become meaningless here.

One will be amazed at the extent 'Ramayana' has influenced our literature, arts and value system. I choose to ignore the 'Rama- Ayodhya' effect on Indian politics, because I find it so 'un- Ramayana'. Across India, there are art forms with just Ramayana as their theme. A segment of the Soorya festival held annually in Thiruvananthapuram has each 'kaanda' (chapter) of the epic presented through a different art form. It's difficult to assess how much the Ramayana has crept into literary works across Indian languages over the past millenniums. There have been inspirations, adaptations, interpretations, symbolic references - everything...

If there is some other work which has this impact, it is the other Indian epic, Mahabharatha. Here again, Ramayana deserves to be appreciated more as it is so simple and linear as opposed to Mahabharatha's huge canvas and numerous subplots. Just imagine a novelist (Ashok Banker) retelling the old story in its original form and bringing out a series, in the 21st century- surely something unparalleled. (Yeah, Valmiki's copyrights have expired long ago). Also think of this sacred text having a 21st century Hollywood adaptation with such an interesting star- cast including Keanu Reeves, Kevin Costner and our very own Shilpa Shetty. There is also news of the making of 'Hanuman II' which hopes to recreate the whopping success of its first part.

The above examples may be too superficial to explain the impact of 'Ramayana' in Indian art and literature. Recently, I found something quite striking in this regard. It was in 'Omkara', Vishal Bharadwaj's Bollywood adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Othello'. There is a situation where Desdemona (Dolly in Hindi) asks Othello (Omkara) to forgive Cassio (Keshu). The challenge was how to make Omkara yield to this almost impossible request. Vishal did it with the help of a lovely song by Gulzar- 'Jag Ja Re'. In the song, the hero gives the heroine his word and claims it to be as strong as 'Dasrath ka waada'. The phrase got me thinking. Omkara has made a promise which he can't renege at any cost. I wonder whether any character in literature across the world has made a stronger promise than this. This is a luxury an Indian writer gets - one reference to the epics saves pages of explanation!!!

Coming back to Kerala, Karkitakam and 'Adhyatma Ramayanam', as mentioned earlier, the cultural impact is immense. Even before Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaans and Raashtreya Saksharatha Missions, this book used to be a carrier of literacy across the land. It leveled the differences of religion, caste and wealth and connected a whole multitude with a single thread. It reasserts the fact that religion is not a barrier to get access of goodness. 'Ramayana- effect' in Malayalam literature is so pronounced. There is hardly a poet or writer who hasn't been influenced by it. Each line in it has been a treasure trove of new words, emotions and experiences for generations. One direct proof of this is the abundance of works having Ramayana as theme.

What is 'Adhyathma Ramayanam' to me? Certainly I won't like to attach to it solely a religious aspect, though I consider it sacred in many ways. It reminds of me how rich our culture and language is. May be it's the literary beauty that attracts me more- the genius of Ezhuthachhan that combines different words to get the most apt one; the images he creates that are incomparable to those by any artist or film maker; the way he maintains the rhyme and meter within different chapters. It is a true classic, the way we find the story interesting even though we know it completely. As Arundhati Roy said, "You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't... you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again." This 'mystery and magic' gets more charming in the 'Ramayana'. Here the characters themselves know what is going to happen next in the story, but act as if they are totally unaware of it. They switch between their 'know-all' immortal and 'ignorant' mortal identities. A portion that makes me smile each time I read it is when Sita pleads with Rama to take her to the forest. Rama keeps giving excuses. At last, Sita ends the argument saying, "I have heard numerous Ramayanas from poets. In which of them has Rama gone to the forest without Sita? So take me with you."

Once when the people whom we elected to rule us were talking about 'Ramajanmabhoomi' and trying to reoccupy the land which claimed 'the presence of Rama', I used to remember the verses where Rama asks Valmiki where he should stay. Valmiki replies that he should live in the minds of virtuous devotees. It was much later I heard Javed Akhtar's lyrics for "Swades" telling the same thing- "Ram resides in your mind once you have expelled the Ravan from there". I wish to believe the poet hasn't borrowed the idea directly from the verses of Ramayana. I would like to see it as a natural thought that comes to every Indian- the things we inherit irrespective of our religion and education, what links us to a century old civilization.

After many years, this monsoon I spent quite a few days at my native place. I started the 'Ramayana month' with my grandmother. As I stood securely on the neatly tiled floor listening to the muted pitter- patter of rain on the concrete roof, I remembered the days when the rain used to drum down noisily on the PVC sheet roof. We used to keep a lot of small vessels to collect the rain from the leaking roof. All of us children would gather together playing and chatting. I found that though lot of things have changed, some have resisted change- the smell of the soil on first rain; the sour, yet comforting taste of the medicinal kanji; the rhythmic recital of Ramayanam.

A great Malayalam poet has written a verse in praise of 'Adhyathma Ramayanam' which can roughly be translated as:

"The verse so lyrical;
Telling the story of Raghava;
Authored by the wizard at `Thunjathu' (Ezhuthachhan);
Rendered in such a devotional tone-
What else do you need to attain bliss?"

I would add to the list, the rain in Kerala. I see a strange similarity between the monsoons and Ramayana- both of them sweep over the whole of India across barriers.

[Thoolika- July 2007]