Thursday, June 29, 2006


I am in this house, walking the corridors Dev Mama walked, sitting in his chair, writing at his table. Everything seems so much smaller than I remember it. We used to crouch around that chair while Dev Mama’s voice, characteristically serious and deep, floated out above our heads, droning on in long complicated sentences. We were very little then, and had to concentrate hard to understand the stories he was trying to tell us. We would have long discussions in the verandah later, when our parents were gossiping in the bedrooms and Dev Mama was napping in his study. We would try and sort out the stories, picking at the details in our childish voices, but it was never any use. It was many years before I revised the fantastically melded stories of my childhood, and learnt to accept the correct and much more boringly simple versions.

This was the first arrow: “Dear Devrat”, he writes, “This matter is of such moment to me that I cannot spend time on the customary pleasantries. I come straight to the point. It is tremendously difficult for me, so much your junior, to bring such a delicate subject up, but the situation I find myself in leaves me no peace till I apply to you for any plausible justification you can give me for your conduct. I have not wished to give offence, but the offence you have given all of us is beyond bearing…” The ‘all of us’ was the second barb.

My father was always Dev Mama’s favourite, and some of that light shown down on me. Dev Mama was a sort of frater familias, the bachelor Elder Brother of a large family of siblings and cousins. He was the axis, firmly secured in the Blue House, from which radiated the rest of the family, revolving around him, and staying connected through him. At least, that was how it was when I was growing up. The summer would bring all of us down to Neel Niwas, running around wildly in the gardens while the grown ups sat around, Dev Mama at the heart of the group, catching up with each other. There was much laughing and a lot of talk in those days. The older cousins among us would bring us snippets of the adults’ conversation, but this was usually to tell us who the current favourite of the uncles was, and whose marks were being discussed. That is how I first heard about Amba Aunty.

“…Some of us are of the firm opinion that you need immediate psychiatric attention. It will give you some idea of the gravity with which we view your condition that I have already made enquiries and have located an eminent doctor who specializes in cases such as yours. I respectfully submit that you consider the sentiments of the family…” The arrows were coming thick and fast, now. This is a letter written coldly, from a distance, from a pedestal. The familial “We” has already been reconstructed to exclude Dev Mama. This is not a letter from an affectionate favourite to his revered mentor, this is the Family Spokesperson sounding ultimatums to the Shamed One.

The concept of suicide was novel to most of us at the time. Of the dim memory I have of Amba aunty, I remember a tall, handsome woman, liable to snap at you for no comprehensible reason. “Her husband left her and so she killed herself”. This left a lot of questions unanswered. Why did her husband leave her and where did he go? And why did she get so upset that he left? Didn’t he tell her when he was coming back? Why did she have to kill herself for it? The older ones didn’t bother to explain anything to us kids. “Methods of Killing yourself” was an exciting area of investigation that gave us many afternoons of morbid fun. Those afternoons were the only reason I remembered her name, when it came up again after all those years.

“…This has also sadly resurrected the rumours of you and Amba. Already at the time many in the family were wondering why you undertook to shelter a woman without a husband and a grown child born out of wedlock. Now to find that very child embroiled in this scandal is too dreadful to speak of. You must forgive the strong language, but you must see that it is warranted. My intention is not to pain you. However, since I feel I do have the right to speak openly to you and do not wish to see you shunned by the family, I offer these facts as argument that you acquiesce to the suggestion we offer of psychiatric treatment…” The intention to give pain is there, all the same. My father was probably just passing on words that had been said to him. That was how the brothers worked, in those days, collective decision and collective action. Any qualms my father would have had in writing thus, would have been drowned out in collective censorship. But it is my father’s hand shooting the arrows. I find it difficult to allot collective responsibility for that.

Today my hands tremble as I open each letter and read it. I become one with Dev Mama in my head. I feel what he must have felt, I react as he might have. We share a common brotherhood, Dev Mama and I, across the generations. So I wasn’t surprised that I caught my breath when Shikhandi’s photograph fell out of a sheaf of dusty letters. The only word that can definitively describe that face was beautiful. He was at Neel Niwas the last summer we visited Dev Mama. He was nice enough to us, though our parents’ expressions warned us not to have anything to do with him. Many took an instinctive dislike to him, and I was always a little scared of him.

“…Shikhandi can be dealt with. Luckily he has a character that is easily bought, and we attach no small price to your respectability. After all, you have done much for all of us, and we are ashamed to find ourselves in the strange position of chastising you who have been our teacher and mentor in more ways than one…” They never finally dealt with him, for he disappeared into thin air. It is as though Dev Mama’s Nemesis had come with this single task in hand, and had no reason to remain on the scene once his part in the plot was played out.

It was also my hands that were Dev Mama’s undoing. I had dragged my father to his study that afternoon, wanting to show him a drawing of mine that Dev Mama had promptly pinned up above his table. “I’ll come see it later, beta. Dev must be resting now.” “No Papa, see it now!” Don’t blame me, I was only seven. I put my hands on the door and pushed it open. Why hadn’t they latched it! I understand now that they were coming up from a kiss, but all I thought I saw then was a hug. My father’s brows knit, then he turned around. Dev Mama’s face was ashen. I hate the memory of that expression. I want to root it out of my head. “Arjun!” he called out, running out behind my father. I was alone in the room with Shikhandi as he put his shirt on. Why did he smile then? Why did he pat my head on his way out?

“…My respectability is my responsibility, and I reserve the right to preserve it the only way I know: with dignity. I will not have that right stripped from me, even if, as you say, I am shunned by all of you. I choose to die with honour and at peace with my conscience, and if it must be at the cost of isolation from the family I love so dearly, then so be it…” Dev Mama’s last stand was a letter that was never sent, for it is still sitting here in his box of correspondence. As he wrote these words, he was already on the bed of arrows. I was allowed to visit him once, in those days when none of the brothers would have anything to do with him. It took many tantrums and a day of refusing all food, but it was worth it to run into Dev Mama’s arms. Those arms were already tired by then, it seems to me now that he could barely lift them to say goodbye to me when I left. Dev Mama chose his hour of death 18 months later. It means more to me than you could ever realize, Mama, that you were at peace with yourself at that hour.


Bhishma lay on the bed of arrows that Arjuna shot at him.
He had given up when faced with Shikhandi.
Shikhandi was Amba, who was reborn as a man (after horrible penance and self-immolation) to avenge herself upon him.
He had refused to marry her because of his vow of celibacy.
Before he took that terrible vow (bhishma), he was known as Devrata.
He remembered these things as he waited to give up his life.
He lay on the bed of arrows till the end of the Mahabharata war and then decided to die.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006



Ahalya's husband is Gautama not Kashyapa

pride goeth before a fall.

lesson to me: check your sources.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


It was a strange feeling to her now, this warm glow. How long it had been since she had felt that quickening of the muscles around her heart, how long since her hand had fluttered so in handing someone a cup of tea. She had been a child, barely out of her adolescence, when she last remembered hoping that someone’s fingers would brush hers, so lightly, and yet so purposefully, as she handed them that cup of tea. It was alien to her now, and it nearly scared her out of her wits. This warming of the blood at a most inappropriate time of life would be positively obscene in somebody else, the sort of thing her sisters would have loved discussing in sibilant whispers filled with delicious malice. But it was true; she was alive now; alive when she had been frozen and dead. She mopped up the tea she had dropped, and apologized, “I’ll get you another cup. I’m so sorry about that…”

He smiled. Oh! That smile! “That’s okay, Ahalya, I really must leave now. I have a couple of things to do before I return home. I need to pick up some food for the night, I’m having a couple of friends over. I just dropped in to pick up the book for Vish.” It was a very disarming habit of his, calling her by her first name. All the other young men called women her age Aunty. She flushed; she had known he would come, Vish had called to inform her. “Wait a bit, I made some halwa this morning, so that will take care of dessert for your friends. I don’t know what came over me, one minute I was looking at carrots in the market, the other minute I was stirring gajar halwa” She giggled, then stopped herself. Giggling was one step too far. He began to demur, saying he couldn’t possibly take it, but she had already reached the kitchen. “How many friends are you calling?” “There’ll be three of us.” “Good, I have just enough then.” she said, coming out with a plastic box in her hand. He smiled again “ That’s not dessert, that is an entire dinner!” “Don’t be silly! Three strong young men, it will be gone before you know it. Now, enjoy yourself and think of me when you have the Gajar halwa.” Flirting! She was flirting with him! But he didn’t seem to notice, “Of course, Ahalya, thanks, you really didn’t have to…”

Dr. Kashyap was a name that oozed respectability, a name that stood strong and silent, a name with principles and high moral values. “Mrs. Ahalya Kashyap” had made her feel like her feet were finally planted on terra firma. She had said yes in the proper way, shyly and after much hesitation. In reality, she was raring to go, waiting to quickly shed all that she had been, the hateful memories of college, the stifling evenings at home, the secret meetings with Inder. No more of all that for her. She would now run a home of her own, have children of her own, and be invited for dinners where she would discuss the colour of her silk saree and the cut of her diamonds with other doctor’s wives. She had been so happy on the day of her wedding that it went past in a pink haze of smiles. And then she had run a home of her own; she had discussed silks and diamonds. She had done these things well and she had been content. And Kashyap had lived up to the sound of his name, right down to the last resounding syllable. What was the use, going over these old memories, they were long past. She was alive again now, she should consign them to the deepest fires of hell and take joy in seeing them burn till nothing was left of those years.

“I got the book; Ram dropped it off today, with some of the gajar halwa you gave him. I didn’t know you were capable of cooking, much less achieving this halwa.” Vish, the sly dog, was on the phone, teasing her as usual. “He actually likes coming to your place. He admitted to me that you were one of the most intelligent women he has met. Are you blushing yet?” He had introduced Ram to her. Knowing Vish, he had probably calculated for the exact effect the meeting produced. For twenty years she had lived alone, even when she was living with family or friends. Always alone, even in a crowd. Then she had met Vish. They had picked up the threads of a childhood friendship, like the thirty years in between had never gone by. She was still alone, but at least she was no longer lonely.

Dr. Kashyap: it all came around to him. To him and his morality. For five years they had been married, for five years she had slept with him. But she had the unfortunate habit of quoting from a letter when she replied to it. He had the annoying habit of blowing things out of proportion. Inder had the habit of clinging onto the past and of putting his happiness above anybody else’s. They were all set in their ways, the ways that had killed her. Inder wrote to her. She wrote back. Inder was no longer at the address and the letter returned to sender. Kashyap received it, read it and blew it out of proportion. He slapped her and something inside her died. Died forever, she had thought, but how wrong she had been. She was alive again now, and all those things belonged to a past aeon. Now she had a song on her lips and the wind in her hair. The lips were no longer young, and the hair was no longer completely black, but those were irrelevant details.

His smile had breezed in through her door one wintry morning. Vish had probably walked in first, but all she could remember seeing was that smile. She had hardly heard the introduction Vish made: he was a friend’s son, passing through town. He had laughed and talked, completely confident and at ease. He looked up to Vish as sort of mentor. And Vish had brought him to meet her, to her house which hadn’t heard a guest laughing in a million years. Later that evening, try as she might, she couldn’t remember all the details that suddenly became so important to her: what he was doing here, how long he was staying, how old he was. He was just young, achingly so. Young and Smiling, Intelligent and Gentle, Caring. She hadn’t believed she was capable of such hopeless sentimentality. She hadn’t believed she was capable of such depth of feeling. She hadn’t believed she would ever be able to feel everything again. But just one smile, one touch, melted the edifice she had spent twenty years constructing.

She built the first wall on the Day of the Slap. She added another one for every one of the twenty nights that Dr. Kashyap raped her. It was without her consent: Rape. The nomenclature was the pinnacle of her building, the steeple that she erected over the tomb of her heart. Twenty nights spread over the four coldest months of her life. The ice that followed was a tropical afternoon compared to those four months. He railed at her from the moral high ground that he never descended from, even as he was raping her. He called her unfeeling, unresponsive, frigid; a stone. She had taken that stone and tied it around every pleasure in her life, then drowned them all. He left after the divorce but she remained, living in the same rooms, staring at the same walls, closing the same doors. It was only when someone suggested it to her that she even realized that the memories should have made the house unbearable to her. It was then she knew that she would never again find anything painful or pleasurable. So she stopped her heart in its place, denied her body and sat down. Till Ram had her heart running veritable marathons.

He was sitting next to her, in her living room. She had just told a joke, and he was laughing again. She laughed with him, till Vish’s knowing smile from across the room stopped her short. It was an awkward moment, Ram had seen the look and had stopped laughing. She stared straight ahead, feeling inexplicably exposed. Vish sauntered out of the room mumbling something about a glass of water. Her heart was beating hard and her eyes had begun to smart. Then Ram put his arm around her shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze. It was something he might have done for his mother, a supporting squeeze that seemed to say he understood. She held that squeeze in her head till after he had left the room, calling out for Vish. Then it was gone, but the warmth remained, and she continued to bask in it, sunning herself like a contented fat cat.

Inder had called on her one afternoon, after all those years. There was a part of her that had hoped she would be able to feel like the old Ahalya around him. But she had found she couldn’t. She was not the Ahalya he knew, and he wasn’t the Inder of old. The old Inder had been gallant and strong. This Inder seemed to have only one thing on his mind. He grew increasingly candid as the evening wore on, and she heard stories of what seemed like a thousand girlfriends that he had had. His eyes had become shifty, now looking here, now darting there. He stared like he wanted to be able to see everything all at once. Like he was the demon from the greek myths, with a thousand eyes that never rested. Yes, he wasn’t the Inder of old. He had become a nymphomaniac. And she had become stone.

“My train leaves in an hour, so I had better be leaving.” “Yes, I think you’d better start, the traffic’s pretty bad. Thanks for coming to say bye.” He smiled, “You think I wouldn’t have come?” She wasn’t unprepared for the parting. Vish had begun a countdown a week back. And she had used that week well: an invitation to lunch or to dinner everyday. He was in and out of her house, sometimes three or four times a day. Every minute took her to an exhilarating new high. And now he was going. She followed his tall frame as he walked down to the gate, and counted her heartbeat under her breath. Then she turned and walked into her home. She sat down at the window with a cup of coffee, watching the people on the road walk past. “Thanks” was an ineffectual word that barely started to cover what she felt. He was gone, but she wasn’t. A smile put crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes, and the breeze was playing with her wispy graying hair. She was alive again.


Friday, June 23, 2006


In the Ramayana, The sage Vishwamitra comes to Dasharathas court and demands that the brothers Rama and Lakshmana are sent with him to help annihilate the monsters plaguing his ashram. After the customary parental loathness at sending such young boys for such a task, Dasharatha agrees.

The trio set out from Ayodhya, and after having killed a couple of raksasas en route, arrive at the deserted ashrama of the great sage Kashyapa. Intrigued by the ashrama and the large rock in front of it, the brothers ask their mentor to tell them the history of the place. Vishwamitra obliges:

One fateful day, the king of the gods, Indra set eyes upon the beautiful wife of Kashyapa, Ahalya. Being terrified of the Sage's prowess, he bided his time, and waited until dawn, when the sage left the ashrama for his morning ablutions.

Indra took on the form of the Sage, wet from the river. He entered the ashrama and declared to Ahalaya that he could not take his mind off her, and wanted to have sex with her and be done with it, so he could get on with life. Ahalya was probably used to such demands from her idiosyncratic old hubbie, and meekly acquiesed. Halfway through the act she realised that this couldnt possibly be Kashyapa, but she probably was having too good a time. Adultery committed, Indra was sneaking out, when who should come up the path, but the cuckolded Kashyapa.

It is customary in such situations for curses to follow, but Kashyapa's curses were backed by thousands of years of meditation. Indra was covered with a Thousand Vaginas, for having lusted after Ahalya. Ahalya was turned to stone, so she would never again respond to a man's embrace.

The gods pleaded with Kashyapa to modify the curse, for they couldnt very well have a king who looked like that! His anger had cooled by now, and he remembered that Ahalya, barring the one incident, had been faithful to him.

He modified Indra's curse so the vaginas became eyes. To the stone Ahalya he said, "When Vishnu comes down on earth as a mortal, and the dust of his feet falls on you, you will awake, and attain salvation."


In the hall of mirrors that is introspection, you can never be sure where you stand or if the million reflections you see, some fattened, some stretched, others distorted and torn apart, disembodied and floating, are indeed you. The images circling in on themselves, spiraling to imminent disaster, pair up to form infinite reflections of each other, making the atmosphere crackle with the polarities they force together. There is neither an exit nor indeed an entry in the true sense; only a frantic and seemingly focused search for the most elusive of goals.