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  Vol I : issue 5

  Nirmal Verma
  N.S. Madhavan
  Lal Singh Dil
  Betty LaDuke
Arun Kolatkar
  Ashis Nandy

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N.S. Madhavan


Yadevi sarva bhooteshu
Smruti roopena samsthita [1]


Mukundan — at times my husband, at times the father of our two children, at times their guardian, at times my mother-in-law’s darling second son, at times Preman’s childhood friend, at times the same Preman’s rival. At times companion to the newly-found journalist friend Anil Saxena, at times the talented actor who dominated Delhi theatre, at times one who went about with his old Leica-Pentax camera, capturing faces on film; at times a valorous egotist. At times totally indifferent, at times a good boss; at times one who fretted about his country’s politics, at times one who went about searching for antiques in the flea market; at times one who cracked humourless Sardarji jokes, at times one who curled up on the drawing-room sofa reading Asterix comics; at times one who spoke authoritatively on Hitchcock films, at times one who flaunted his looks in a Hathaway shirt and Tommy Hilfiger tie; at times one who sipped single malt whisky that lay between ice cubes with a copper gleam; at times one who collected old gramophone records; at times one who gave me pleasure as he shared my bed, at times one who boisterously acted out his stories for our children — finally did something for all times.

Mukundan died two months ago.

P.K. Mukundan (1954 - 1997)

That dash that lies between the years so casually, its meagreness, the ease of drawing it, the trivialisation of the forty-three years of Mukundan’s life — what upset me more than all these was the sound of that sign. It echoed the uncompromising quality of the last word, the sound of doors slammed shut.

At the beginning of that line one can hear the cry of the Pooradami-born [2] child at Jhansi’s Railway Hospital, a childhood spent in the railway towns where his father was posted; then education in Doon School. In the mid-Seventies, when Kakkanadan’s hero of Yusuf Sarai stopped his charas business and entered the stock market, when the Beatles split up, and as devotees dwindled, cassettes of Ramcharitmanas replaced M. Mukundan’s Bells of Haridwar, Mukundan completed his college education in Delhi. During the Emergency he won a Rhodes scholarship and went to Oxford, from where he wrote pamphlets against Indira Gandhi. In England — how many times had Mukundan narrated this — he used to have beer parties with a haughty Salman Rushdie, then an aspiring writer. Halfway through that line I entered it; till it stopped abruptly two months ago like the sudden ending of a pier.

My memories of the day Mukundan died begin at six-thirty in the evening. The day that had generously spread heat on the road in front of our house slowly waned and a breeze began to blow. Mukundan and I stood on the terrace and watched the sky. An undulating mass of clouds blackened the eastern half; an evening created with computer graphics. The trunk of the Ashoka tree in our garden bent down in a stately movement like the poised right hand of a Kathak dancer. The first thunderclap brought down raindrops and hailstones as big as marbles. I, who was used to the less dramatic rains of Kerala, said: "To see the monsoon, one should come to North India." Mukundan stood silent, watching the slanting sheets of rain. I thought, ‘I am alone now’.

Mukundan walked towards the bedroom with deliberation. On the wall hung a photograph of his; taken when he was six months old, on Choroonu [3] day. It had begun to fade. Mukundan looked at the child lying on it’s maternal uncle’s lap, a silk cloth tucked into the thread around its waist and a kohl spot on its cheek to ward off the evil eye, and said, "Life had presented so many possibilities before this child." Suddenly, I felt like hugging him. I knew what he would do next — walk into the bedroom and stare at his reflection in the mirror as though at a stranger. But upsetting my calculations, he picked up the car keys and went out. I watched the raindrops on the headlights transform into laburnum flowers as the hi-beam was switched on; then the crimson of the rain against the rear lights. That was our last glimpse of Mukundan.

After that departure which ended in an accident we saw him as a cloth bundle. So the customary way that the dead are remembered — dry, darkened lips and a lifeless face — did not occur in Mukundan’s case.

What do my children remember about their occasional father? Ten-year-old Narayanan came of age the moment he heard of Mukundan’s death. He hovered around me, very protective. I felt like whispering in his ear, "Cry loudly". Narayanan was our shared guilt, Mukundan’s and mine. We, a young couple, novices in bringing up children, had gifted a stammer to our eldest-born. Mukundan, who used his throat like an instrument on stage and relished each letter as he uttered it, pretended not to notice when Narayanan stammered, the nerves at his throat going taut, his lips trembling like the fluttering breast of a fledgling. Shamed by Mukundan’s sympathy, Narayanan stammered all the more. For our four-year-old Dori, Mukundan was the doorbell that rang when he returned from long journeys. The door would open, Mukundan would lift her up in his arms; then the usual toys or sweets. The children might have the collective memory of Mukundan acting out his stories for them. Like all writers, Mukundan had only four or five stories. He entertained them in different ways.

Of Mukundan’s last rites, I can now remember just two things clearly. The first, a fair, tall, long-necked girl who spread like vine in a black salwar kameez. She touched the feet of the corpse that had been placed on the crematorium stage, got down and walked between the rows of mourners to the car park outside, weeping without restraint all the while.

The second was my desire, untouched by any guilt, for the rites to conclude as soon as possible. I was restless, like those people who start waving goodbye even before a train begins to move. Memory begins when the corporeal comes to an end. As the conveyor belt bearing the corpse moved towards the furnace Narayanan said, "Goodbye, Achchan!" without a stammer. I understood how much he had practised to say this. I kissed his cheeks, making him blush self-consciously.

That evening, when all those who had come to pay their respects had gone — except Amma who had come to stay — I felt more sleepy than lonely. This mindless sleep of a body, grown tired unknown to the mind, marks the transition to another life. The next morning I woke up after a deep sleep and lay in bed, lazily looking out of the window at the silk-cotton tree where birds were translating the morning breeze into tunes. All of a sudden, I realised that this was the first day that Mukundan was not present, even as a corpse. I closed my eyes tight and lay without crying to take in the feeling fully. It was then that I understood the sovereignty of the living over the dead. The obvious corollary to the saying, ‘the dead don’t talk’, is that the living do… particularly of the dead. Unchallenged, they talk of the dead with frills and exaggerations.

Our dog Bruno, who was lying beside the bed (he had forgotten his occasional master long ago) pricked up his ears and I looked towards the porch door. Narayanan had lifted the door-latch noiselessly and was slipping out with his cricket bat, followed by Dori. They saw me and hesitated, searching for accusation in my glance. I gestured my permission and then started to weep, remembering their occasional father. The weeping spread like contagion to Amma and our maid.

The previous day’s papers had all carried obituaries of Mukundan, the talented actor of the Delhi stage. There were condolence messages from many. One of the papers had misprinted our daughter Dori’s name, Isadora, as Aishwarya.

I had objected when Mukundan said we should name her Isadora. "Isn’t a traditional name like Narayanan better?"

"Narayanan is my father’s name. We Nairs got the concept of father just three or four generations ago. It was out of that sense of novelty that I said we’d give him my father’s name."

"But Isadora?"

"Our daughter should be like Isadora Duncan — free in spirit."

During the next three days Mukundan talked only of Isadora Duncan. Isadora, who danced as though the movements had an existence apart from her body. She broke the rules to dance in a style that she evolved from Greek statues. Isadora, who cared for no one; who kept changing her lovers, all in the staid early years of the century. Isadora… Isadora. . .

Mukundan was like that. He unleashed words like packs of hounds until he got what he wanted.

This was my first memory of Mukundan after his death. Why did I first remember this incident — Dori’s naming — where he had subdued my will? It is through the selection of memories that we write our personal histories. That moment I decided to perform a sacrifice — I’d destroy all unpleasant memories of Mukundan.

My most treasured memory of Mukundan is of a magical May day, two or three years ago. The chill had not quite left the air when I succumbed to chickenpox. As tiny pustules like a boy’s nipples began to spread over my body, the fever began. When May ended its magic and came out in awesome heat, the fever became severe. During the two weeks of my illness Mukundan was constantly at my bedside. He left the house only once, at the start of the fever. He said: "I am going in search of a tree for you." He always called me Kutty, little one.

He returned after some time, his face sunburned. He said, "There are no trees in this place where we live. There are only electric poles in Vasant Kunj. I drove around quite a distance in search of a neem tree."

"Neem tree?"

"You should bathe in water in which neem leaves have been boiled when you have chickenpox."

During the days that followed Mukundan stayed at home. I felt Narayanan’s jealousy as Mukundan sat beside me almost all the time in our room darkened with thick curtains. As the pustules began to dry Mukundan held my hands to prevent me from scratching them. He himself bathed me in water boiled with neem leaves. He would look at my nude body covered with brownish yellow and black boils and scabs, laugh and say: "Leopard!"

My body finally shed the scabs like leaves that fall in October. The day I resumed my role as housewife I saw Mukundan pack his clothes, camera and film rolls in his suitcase. He said, "I’m going. I will return after a week."

"Where to…?"

"I want to drive alone for some days."

"Where to?"

"I thought of going to Jaisalmer."

"You’re going to the desert in this heat?" I asked in wonder.

"The roads will be totally deserted. I’ll drive relishing the solitude; and there are lots of hijras in Jaisalmer. I want to make an album of eunuch faces."

It was the summer vacation. Yet I knew that in not taking me and the children along with him Mukundan was not neglecting us. At times Mukundan saw visions… and visionaries feed on other people’s souls.

A Sunday in March before Mukundan died. He returned home with some old gramophone records that he got from the flea market behind Red Fort. As he wound up the antique gramophone with its funnel-shaped speaker and began to play it I said, "Can you turn down the volume?"

"This doesn’t have a volume control."

"Narayan has an exam tomorrow."

"It’s Abdul Karim Khan," Mukundan said as he stopped the gramophone. "By the way, how is he at his studies?"

"Aren’t you the one who signs his report card?"

"I don’t notice." Mukundan took the car keys and set out on another of his lonely drives. He felt that my wan face required an explanation and said: "Am I not an actor? What is theatre? Theatre is life. Everyday life from which ‘everyday’ things have been cut away."

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning writer of Malayalam. A senior civil servant, he lives in Patna