India and the ‘art’ of public asset maintenance

 

Our indifference to maintenance of public property outwits the very concept of rationality. Indians have scant regard for the proverbial truth, “Do it now and you’ll need one stitch. Do it later and you’ll need 9 stitches!” In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Pirsig says, “ . . . maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” His statement on motorcycle maintenance holds good to ‘maintenance’ in general. He would say, “The motorcycle [maintenance] is primarily a mental phenomenon.” As a corollary, one might deduce that distortion of that mental phenomenon by one’s nature may adversely affect its realization too.  Put otherwise, an apathetic man would either make a mess of maintenance, or simply push the very idea under the carpet of his apathy. And if the man is the specimen of a society, then, he is a citizen of the land of apathy. One might wonder whether Indians’ apathy to the maintenance of their public assets is endemic to their nature!

Now look at the condition of our public roads, toilets, parks, conveyance and waste disposal. Though there has been a bevy of self-criticism in this regard down the years, nothing seems to have transpired. Public funds siphoned off for maintenance disappear through unseen drains. “Indian roads” have become a metaphor for impassable roads to the extent that automobile companies specially design vehicles with the power to endure them. We engage in the travesty of their annual repair only to have their bones bared in the next monsoon. Our parks are amply littered. Our public comfort stations are famed for their ‘aroma’ which their users seem to cherish with no complaints. We are happily used to shaky seats and torn berths in our public buses and railway coaches. Since this a geographically vast country, waste disposal is not an issue at all as long as the public roadsides are available for them. We would scarcely care to throw waste in a dustbin posted for it, just because we think “what is the difference!” We have no worries about our poor children studying under leaking roofs, or relieving themselves behind bushes because of  clogged toilets at the school. After all, aren’t we also known for our stoicism!

Recently, the photograph of a couple of European tourists engaged in picking waste from roadside appeared in the newspapers. It also had in its frame wayfarers taking snaps of this mysterious act. I am sure these clicks had gone viral over social media, scoffing the conspiratorial act of the foreigners. We were always sure that the “white man’s burden” had been an imperialist strategy.

Romila Thapar’s The Public Intellectual in India

Thapar, Romila et al. The Public Intellectual in India. Ed. Chandra Chari and Uma Iyengar. New Delhi: Aleph, 2015. Pp. 170.

“People’s suffering must never be allowed to remain the silent residue of politics,” Foucault said in a press statement in 1981. It was his call to the citizens of the world to  confront governments who, through their deeds, are responsible for the suffering of the people. The people’s suffering are the outcome of human rights violation and exploitation by vested interests. But in what capacity does Foucault and his like keep calling upon societies and governments to rethink their positions and priorities? What gives his statement its ethical authority? The answer is, his being a public intellectual. All the same, upon second thought we may also realize that the concept of a public intellectual  is more taken for granted than closely delved into. India, with its rampant communal sectarianism and corruption-driven politics, is a country where ‘public intellectual’ is little understood and given heed to. Romila Thapar’s book The Public Intellectual in India is an admirable attempt to bridge this lacuna in the public consciousness of the country.

It is a compilation of seven essays on the eponymous theme by seven writers including Thapar, along with her “Introduction” and “Conclusion”. The six essays following Thapar’s are responses to the propositions she makes in hers, and each one is moored on a particular point of view. In the “Introduction” Thapar anguishes about the diminishing space of the public intellectual in present-day India. As a corollary, she also explores the change that has come over the public intellectual’s role because of the changed zeitgeist and attitudes of the power centres. She states, “Initially [the public intellectuals’] concerns were with establishing democratic functioning and respect for citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice, and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below the line of poverty. Today the focus is shifting to questions of religious identity and assertions of those that form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain society” (xiii). The intolerance free thought and expression meet with these days from Hindutva forces is the major cause of her concern. According to her, the basis of the ideology of Hindutva is a by-product of the colonial project. However, this fact has been glossed over by its ideologues. She points to the growing cases of banning books and films in India in recent times. Many public intellectuals have succumbed to such intolerance manifesting in threats, and withdrawn into the silence of self-censorship.

In her essay “To question or not to question? That is the question” Thapar’s objective is to define the concept and function of the public intellectual: “Public intellectuals frequently concern themselves with issues related to human rights and to the functioning of society, such that it ensures the primacy of social justice” (1). A public intellectual would be a person who has a “recognized professional stature” and seeks “explanations for public actions from those in authority” (8). She takes an overview of the European ancestry of public intellectuals and then comes to the Indian referring to people from Socrates to Emile Zola and Buddha to Bulleh Shah of Punjab, till E.V. Ramasami Periyar of the modern times. She elaborates on the issue of intimidation coming from Hindutva groups and the consequent narrowing of the liberal space citing several instances. With reference to the eponymous theme of her essay, she argues that the important task of the public intellectual now is to enlarge the liberal space, non-violently overcoming the repression unleashed by reactionary powers.

Sundar Sarukkai, a Manipal University-based philosopher in his essay “To question and not to question: That is the answer,” explores the philosophical dimensions of Thapar’s poser. He links the faculty of questioning as well as of not questioning to that of the habit of doubting or not doubting. Sarukkai explores the history of doubt in the philosophy of foreign and Indian schools of thought. Methodical questioning is an attitude that is difficult to sustain because of the large amount energy required for it. Therefore, in order to live without having to raise questions on each and every doubt, we take recourse to the intellectual habit of taking for granted certain foundational beliefs in order to reach an understanding of things. Therefore, the public intellectual shall most effectively function in critically probing into such foundational beliefs that enable questioning as well as non-questioning, because such beliefs have the danger of turning into the bases of authority of all sorts.

Dhruv Raina, a JNU Professor of Physics, in an article titled “Science and Democracy,” focuses on the “institutional transformation of science over the last couple of decades”. This has changed the relation between science and the public and also the critical discourse on science and society. Present-day scientific research is dependent on large scale funding and consequently has become subservient to the interests of the funding agencies which are capitalistic. This has shorn science of its erstwhile commitment to democracy and social welfare, and has thus “muted its critical voice”.

“Living between thought and action,” the fourth article in the book by Peter Ronald Desouza, probes into two of Thapar’s criteria for being a public intellectual, viz. her being an ‘autonomous thinker’ and her being an ‘advocate of social justice’. For this professor at CSDS, there exists a creative tension between these two entities. While the former is intellectual in nature the latter is ethical and proactive, and the public intellectual needs to maintain a precarious balance between the two. He examines his proposition in the light of the cases of three persons – Priya Pillai, a Green Peace activist, Yeshyahu Leibovitz, an Israeli professor, and Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi blogger killed recently by religious extremists. These are instances of public intellectuals who were put to severe tests regarding the two callings of a public intellectual referred to by Desouza. However, he laments the dwindling number of such people during these days of fundamentalist revival. There are many potential public intellectuals who have succumbed to its violent intolerance and withdrawn into silence.

Neeladri Bhattacharya, a professor of history at JNU, takes exception of Thapar’s tendency to celebrate the public intellectuals of the past who had been courageous enough to defy authority. In his “Framing a question: Questioning a frame” he argues for a critical reconsideration of the past instead of its celebration leading to a despairing over the ‘dismal present’. The last essay in the book “The Indian intellectual and the Hindu-Muslim trap” by the journalist Javed Naqvi suggests that the public intellectuals of present-day India should come out their trait of the ‘romanticizing of victimhood’. He also points out that because of the Indian dependency on the Hindu/Muslim binary, the graver social issue of the discrimination against the Dalits is sidelined.

The mind is dreaming

sky

 

The mind is dreaming
Poor thing
It only knows that dream
Is the breath of life
The last cord of life
It’s clinging to
Clinging to
As if to a self-eating vice.
The pastures of the earth
Have dried out,
Its wells and springs
Have sunk and parched.
Like a man neck-deep in ice water
Seeking warmth from distant fires
To ward off death
It clings to dream.
It has learnt now to forget
Fears of loss and pains of want.
It has habituated itself
To the deserts of disillusion.
The mind is dreaming now
Poor thing
It only knows that dream
Is its last breath of life.

 

On dying  

I shall regret only one thing;

The books I could have read.

It means the birds I could have flown with,

The planets I could  have landed on,

The chasms I could have fallen in,

The lights I could have seen by.

I shall regret only one thing;

The places I could have visited.

It means the woods I could have slept in,

The cities I could have drunk about,

The faces I could have talked into,

The airs I could have flown through.

I shall regret only one thing;

The words I couldn’t have spoken.

It means the books I could have unwritten,

The truths I could have unbelied,

The thoughts I could have unlearned,

The dreams I could have undisbelieved.

I shall regret only one thing  . . .

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman: How good is it as a novel?

How good is Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan, 2010)) as a novel? Considering the amount of energy spent on the controversy it originated, this question may occur as redundant. Why take heed of a novel, even if to take moral offence of its propositions, if it is not good enough for serious consideration! Underground or substandard literatures abound in severer heresies and blasphemies. But who cares! So, Murugan’s novel’s claim to significance is undisputable, also given that even the learned judges of Madras High Court have attested to its noteworthiness in their eloquent judgement. Its literary merit has been endorsed earlier by the awards it had won during the time before the controversy erupted. That Penguin chose to publish its translation in English itself is enough to authenticate its merit. Therefore the original question might be discussed only on the slippery grounds of critical impressionism, and the bailout would only be the claim that all judgements are primarily cradled on personal impressions.

A critical judgement on a novel’s generic “goodness” would be conditioned by the reader’s aesthetic expectations and also by his/her criterion of its significance. I shall base my judgement here on Murugan’s novel in the light of two criteria, one aesthetic and the other, its significance.  I limit my aesthetic criterion to its unity of impression or effect, and my criterion of significance to the  relevance of its theme.

I believe that One Part Woman is an instance of technical failure. That is, it would have been much palatable aesthetically had the author chosen to weed out its redundant and fortuitous passages. Because of their presence the novel reads as disorganized and insufficiently processed. Its readers would have felt impatient with the digressions he resorts to from the moment Ponna begins her fatal journey to the temple at Chapter 22 till the narration of the ‘climax’ she and the novel reaches at Chapter 32 with her falling head over heels for her god/paramour. This journey is the turning point in her as well as the novel’s life, and the novel has reached this point after convincingly building upon the circumstances that have led her to this juncture of moral compromise. This is when the spectre of logorrhoea possesses Murugan; it seems that his need to increase word count overcomes his sense of narrative economy. This malady grips him at a time when he has pushed the reader to the acme of suspense so much so that his/her yearning for relief from its tension is at its peak. Now, the only thing the reader would want to know is if she actually succumbs to the call to mate with a stranger. But Murugan makes you feel as if having to stand waiting in front of the loo for the insider to get out (and it seems he would never) with your bladder full to the point of bursting. Or was Murugan just yielding his sense of proportions to the market needs of the publisher? I prefer to believe in the latter reason. Thus, the novel falls short of delivering its aesthetic promise because of this avoidable clumsiness of craft. Its translated version cannot be evidenced for the quality of Murugan’s language, though Anirudhan Vasudevan, the translator, needs to be appreciated for encasing it well into the English idiom. Murugan’s eye for the details of agrarian rural life and culture is commendable and happens to be the saving grace of the novel.

Murugan’s motivation to write the novel seems to have been more to cash in on the sensational ritual that had supposedly existed at the Tiruchengode Ardhanareeswara temple  than on representing the existential agonies of childlessness. The latter, though a universal theme and has caused agony of varying kind and degree contingent on its socio-cultural context, is clichéd as a subject for a contemporary novel unless some peculiar effects of its validates its selection for novelistic treatment in the present. Thus, for instance, it may be evoked to consider the problems of asexual surrogacy which is a contemporary reality in the wake of scientific invention. This factual base in reality is necessary for treating a social subject in a novel that makes no claims of being a fantasy like Harry Potter. Therefore, the thematic significance of One Part Woman should be grounded on the historicity of the said orgiastic ritual that licenses Ponna’s deviation into adultery. Murugan had reportedly written a preface to its original version in Tamil claiming that he possessed documentary evidence of the said ritual. (Interestingly, Penguin did not include this preface in the English translation.) However, he failed to produce the evidence at the peace meeting initiated by government officials at Thiruchengode consequent on the agitations against the novel. The judgement of the High Court assumes that Murugan was coerced into making an apology at the meeting by the violence taking place because of him. However, there is no denying the fact that the practice at the temple in which childless women mated with strangers for begetting child had not existed in the modern times. It has been anachronistically thrusted on the fictive events located in the 1940s in the novel. That which provoked the protests is the author’s unsubstantiated claim regarding the practice’s existence in the novelistic time of 1940s. This might be compared to a situation in which a novel claims within a realistic framework that sati (banned in 1861) was being practised in the mid twentieth-century Kerala or Tamil Nadu with public sanction. Only Murugan’s claim is worse considering the slur it castes on women’s morality. It would have been a greater artistic challenge for him to frame the ritual in his novel within  its original historical context. But he chose the easier way by cheating on the reader’s trust in his claims.

 

Reality continues to ruin my life

images

“Reality continues to ruin my life.” The picture of a little girl in a pink frock opening her bulky school-bag had carried this caption. And it felt as if no other caption would have suited the littlun’s plight better than it. The oppressive school-bag loaded with A4-size texts and note books was, no doubt, the nemesis of the girl’s otherwise idyllic life. Without its burden on her tender spine, as she trundled along the dusty road to school, life would have been as good as a sweet dream for her despite the daily grind of the school. But reality will have its way. No avoiding it, even in early childhood. And ruin life it will, not only for the little children, but to the children of all ages. To me, to you and to all the citizens of the world of latent dodgers of reality who carry within them the dream of a peaceful, uterine existence.

Reality is that burden we carry on our backs, destined to carry, on the road of life. Anything that feels as a burden, something we would like to get rid of at the earliest opportunity, may be called reality. Only its form changes, its weighty nature remains. Always in life we have the feeling of having a burden on our back. Burden may materialize as too little wealth or too much of it, or pain, disease, failure, fear, want, dissatisfaction or whatnot. Hence, even if the little girl’s books have been replaced by a little pc tablet, she might still have the burden of examinations, marks and the anxiety of not getting covetable rewards contingent on the outcome of examinations, to carry on her back. Which would be a more critical burden as things stand.

But if everyone were licensed to withdraw into their little homes of burdenless comfort, what will come to the world? Who will till the soil and sow seeds and reap the grains that make our grub? Well, how at all will we grab our share of the means for existence in a world of competition (another reality!) unless we too justify our share by sharing also the burden of toil that takes to make it? So, isn’t the school-bag a symbol of the equipment we all have to carry to till the soil and reap the grains of existence! There seems to be no space for doubt. Man, you have been celestially cursed to live by the sweat of thy brows. No escaping that weight that will wring precious brine out of your scorched bodies.

So what will come to our dreams? Will we never have it except in death? Gloomy thoughts. But no. There is a career in being a hardcore professional dreamer. You will not have to carry any burden (read as work). Actually, your only action will be a public demonstration of your happy, burdenless existence, which may be achieved by performing dances of happiness or meditations or simply not sticking on to anything the way burden-carriers live their lives. And pave the way for poor reality buffs to attain some vicarious weightlessness through their primal propensities to mimic you. That is, be a Buddha or an Osho, or a Krishnamurthy, not to name any living gurus or market-savvy godhumans. Not all will have to die on cross. The only happy challenge for such a one will be to never deviate into a craving for the burden of reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julio Cortazar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”

cortazar

Argentine writer Julio Cortazar’s story “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” evinces his genius for unveiling the hidden order and connections between things. As you go on reading, magical realism would throw little, delightful surprises at you. At the end, you realize that its finely knit embroidery is a shroud spread on a saddening tragedy of life.

The story is a letter the caretaker of a house in Buenos Aires writes to its landlady called Andrea, who is on a sojourn in Paris. He seems to be too guilt-ridden about intruding “on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air” the house exudes. He is too reluctant to change even the position of a tray on the dining table to make it more convenient for his personal use, out of fear of disturbing that order. But soon he reveals that, however, the purpose of the letter is not to share this feeling, but to tell her about “the rabbits.”

The rabbits are not what Andrea (or you the reader) might expect. They are the tiny rabbits the letter-writer is wont to vomit now and again. He had been facing this problem for some time. But he had hitherto kept it as a secret. At his own house he had a set up in the balcony to keep them in flowerpots nourished with cloves, hidden from the eyes of the others.  He would leave them there, one at a time for he vomited a rabbit only once in a month or so, and would go about with his normal life. When the rabbit grew up, he would make a present of it to a certain friend of his, who believed that growing rabbits had been his hobby. But at Andrea’s house the event grew more frequent, and in a short period he had about eleven little rabbits at hand. In order to hide them from Sara, the maid and only other person living at the house, he kept them closed inside a wardrobe in Andrea’s bedroom which he had been using for himself. He fed them with cloves, and let them out in the room only during nights when Sara was asleep in her room. At dawn he put them back in the wardrobe. But, at the time he was writing the letter, the issue had gone out of his hand. The bunnies had by then grown too big to be contained in the wardrobe; they had eaten up or destroyed all the valuable books inside the wardrobe and also the chair-covers, the rugs and whatnot. He ends the ‘fatal’ letter disclosing that he had been now driven to take the ultimate step to get rid of them for good. But that can’t be done without also getting rid of himself, right? Therefore he says that the following morning people at the street below the balcony would be busy removing the body other than those of the rabbits, which too would be lying scattered around but not much noticed.

Yes, the story is a puzzle thrown at your face, however delightful it is. It may not take much time for you to solve it with the most easily available key of a symbolic interpretation – that the bunnies represent the skeleton every man keeps guarded in his cupboard of civilization. But would that suffice? Doesn’t the story point at something that defies interpretation, an ever-evasive déjàvu? Isn’t the tragic feeling at the end evocative of a cruel sneer at the puniness of human existence? Or would it only merit a mischievous chuckle of yours?

 

Peter Matthiessen’s Absent Snow Leopard

snow l

A reading of Peter Matthiessen’s famed travelogue The Snow Leopard  (1978) impresses an overwhelming sense of the absence of the known. His journey through the snowy terrains of the Himalayas seems to have been to see the snow leopard. But, he never encounters a real snow leopard. However, his friend George Schaller, a naturalist and partner in his journey, gets a glimpse of the evasive cat. A glimpse, yes, just in order to attest the reality of this animal in its habitat. Schaller is an acclaimed zoologist, so his identification of the glimpsed animal cannot be erratic. The snow leopard exists after all, but does it for Matthiessen? For him, the eponymous creature is a phenomenon of thought, a ‘thought leopard.’ Like the impending presence of the mythical creature Yeti, the snow leopard too lurks in the unknown waiting for that accidental time when it would make its glorious appearance. But that never happens.

Ergo, what is most remarkable of this book are its thoughts. Thoughts fill the vacuum present. The throbbing silence and snowy vastness of the mountains engulf the narrator as well as the reader. I feel the coldness of the rocks; my hands and feet go numb. The blood faces the horror of coagulating in the cold. The very sky becomes a layered roof of translucent ice. Could physical reality be so utterly motionless! Only the warmth of thoughts can set in a thaw upon the frozen mind. The meditative stillness of the Dolpa region on the Tibetan plateau becomes an ‘objective correlative’ for the cogitative existence of the snow leopard.

And Matthiessen’s thoughts are the true springs of life energy. He has been a Zen Buddhist by choice and had come to Tibet in search of his distant metaphysical home, the places were Buddhism had taken roots and flourished. He is not entirely unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire. He reaches his destination, the Crystal Monastery at Shey Gompa in Dolpa and meets its Lama Tupjuk. But did be actually find his home there? No, because the home he has been searching was, in truth, a home of the mind; an ideal home nowhere to exist but only in the mind. So he contemplates incessantly on his religion, its history and philosophy. Buddha is not out there, but in the chant Om Mani Padme Hum he frequently spells or refers to; the chant itself being the ephemeral self he seeks to find upon the road of his faith.

Throughout the trek, Matthiessen is assailed by the painful thouhts about the tragic end of his wife Deborah Love. She had died recently of cancer, and he had been at her bedside when she breathed her last. The solitude of the altitudes does not free him from the thoughts of his once bitter-sweet love/Love. They used to seek together for highs on drugs; now on the Himalayas, he prods among the frozen bushes for shoots of cannabis. He would drowse his aching memories in a glass of country arrack.

Peter, how lonely you have been over the snow-drenched rocks with Deborah’s specter dogging your steps. She haunted your mind every now and then pushing you into the throny alleys of guilt; your relations had soured towards her last healthy days. Memories of your children and home in distant America overcame you consequently, unleashing your spirit which you wanted to tie down to your spiritual pursuits. Wasn’t it from her spirit that you were fleeing into the folds of the Himalayas? Wasn’t it she you have been searching in your perilous journey across the chasms of the peaks. Wasn’t she your snow leopard, your absent known?

 

 

 

The Child Paintings of C.D. Jain

 

20C.D.Jain seems to be the lone painter in India, perhaps in Asia, who focuses his art exclusively on the subject of childhood. He is also a well known educator who conducts art classes for children and youngsters using his own original methods of instruction. Over the last two decades, as an artist, he has been preoccupied thematically and formally with existence as child. Jain’s awareness of the pan-Indian situation vis-a-vis the girl child seems to be no less instrumental in gluing his attention to the cause of the child. In recent times, the media in India has been rampant with reports on child abuse ranging from sexual, domestic, to sheer victimisation by consumerism and middle-class aspirations. The diverse sufferings of childhood has been volubly discussed by the intelligentsia here. It is natural that the conscientious artist’s attention gets entangled in this elemental problem, but to get steeped in it to the extent of making it the motif of art for long spells takes extraordinary depths of feeling and imagination. Added to this are the impressions Jain garners in his travels exploring the underbelly of urban India. Many of his images of the suffering child owe their existence to the poor children he has encountered in its streets during his travels.

Jain’s is the art of representation. He relays through his paintings a sensitively critical message of protest against the callous exploitation of the child. Jain chooses, mostly, the girl child as the metaphor of tortured existence, and he is justified in it considering the facts – the girl child is in the double bind of class and gender, the two-pronged condition that sets her in a social matrix congenial to inescapable exploitation. She is more prone to be abused sexually, pushed into prostitution and labour, and denied opportunities of education and the simple pleasures of childhood. Through scores of paintings having the girl child as subject, Jain meticulously captures her suppression in its varying faces. Evidently, it is the lower-class girl, the one hailing from a working-class background, that occupies him. She is the one who embodies the universal proportions of  feminine suffering in a patriarchal society; the boy child, even when he is no exception to exploitation and rejection, is less vulnerable, thanks to his gender.

One of Jain’s paintings in“The Joyous Moment” series entitled “Journey through a tempting past” ironically exemplifies how a subtext of gender discrimination is woven into the fabric of a joyful moment of childhood. Here there are three girls and three boys in a playful moment against the background of a house, besides figures of an elephant and a goat in a perspectiveless arrangement. The painting poses a subdued statement of the typically Indian condition of femininity in which the girl child is more domesticated than winged boyhood. The two females, one sitting as if she is nursing the one reclining, are watching the girl who is raising a boy-child  in her arms. Next to her, a boy is given two wings, symbolically suggesting that he is free like a bird in the domestic sphere, while another boy looks on indifferently.  So is “Livelihood,” where a girl is seen carrying a load on her head. Her own sad close-up fills the larger part of the canvas, while a male child sleeps in the background, and another one looks on unconcernedly in the foreground. The gloom that clouds the children’s faces is Jain’s statement of the effect of child persecution.  Perhaps the pithiest representations of suffering childhood in Jain are his portraits of children, which too are predominantly of the girl child. They are of an impressionistic import, with the artist striving to capture the pathos in their countenance. The reduction of the subject’s facial contours to geometric shapes – most of them are heart shaped – helps to transcend individuality,  and embed the universality of experience. In “Ravished,” a girl child is presented in stark nudity, with an eerie suggestion as regards the precariousness of her physical security in a world infested with pedophiles.

What is his philosophy of  humanity? Since Jain has chosen the child as its metaphor, he states his philosophy too through it. He looks on happiness as the essential condition of humanity, and seeks to relocate life in a visionary world that sheds its garbs of modernity and becomes verdant nature.  Jain paints an entire series entitled “Benign Forests,” in which the child radiates joy most naturally when it sits in the lap of bountiful, pristine nature. These are acrylics, where the blue dominates with a mystic and lyrical charm. They make a series of paintings rendered over a period of six years. Here, the children reclaim their original joyfulness upon being nestled in the benignity of forests. They beam with careless abandon amidst the transparent blue of a dawn, forgetful of  harsh reality.  These are idyllic  pictures of life in its elements, and contrast sharply with the grimness of the rest of Jain’s  paintings of childhood. The Benign Forests are microcosmic representations of holistic life; here plants, animals and humans are harmoniously entrenched in a single plain. Jain seems to use the images of the flora and fauna characteristic of Kerala; the paintings abound in meticulously drawn images of deer, monkeys and hornbills among other creatures – familiar sights in the forests of Kerala. Benign Forests are verily Jain’s masterpieces in composition. The mystic blue that permeates them is in itself a marvel in terms of the varying intensity with which it spills over everything, yet not blurring its individuality. Certainly, blue is the colour Jain gives to benignity, the most regenerative of all human feelings. Looking at these paintings, one is drawn into a wish to regress to the uterine solace of benign nature.

 

The joys of unexpected holidays

The school where I studied in the late 70s had this unique practice of closing for the afternoon in the wake of heavy rains. Rains and winds flooding streets and blocking traffic were common during the monsoons, so were such holidays. However, our beloved Headmaster who was averse to letting off classes saw to it that such breaks brought minimum damage. Subsequently, we had an extra period in the forenoon session before the joyful long-bell chimed.  But the acme of pleasure for the boys was when the Big Boss’s voice rained on us announcing these hols. It wove before us the vision of running home wet, splattering muddy water, for an afternoon of indoor fun. Somehow, such unexpected holidays were sweeter than those declared in advance.

Youth seems to be no different in rejoicing in unexpected holidays. Our college-days of the 80s were strewn with many of them, and we were no less welcoming of unforeseen breaks. Most of them were the results of students’ strikes whose frequency was of gargantuan proportions. The long bell reverberated along the corridors of my alma mater soon after the first few “strike calls” of students’ outfits rang from the college ground, since too much delay in letting off classes led to clashes between rival organizations. For us, it meant a morning show followed by a matinee, and a lunch at some town-restaurant in between. Only  later, as a college teacher, did I realize that the teachers were not a notch below the students in greeting unexpected holidays. Which academic wouldn’t want to laze away in gossip intellectual!

Occasionally, sad events too ushered in holidays in the middle of business. They were mostly deaths of luminaries and rarely those of colleagues or mates. One instance is that of Indira Gandhi’s murder of which the news reached the world sometime in the middle of forenoon. The turmoil of the consequent reactions of the public had made that day memorable for those of us who had to traverse a long way back home, with the public-transport coming to a standstill. However, the cruel irony of such unexpected black holidays is that they too are received with a secret happiness sans jubilation.

Holidays, whether declared or contingent, are a gateway to freedom. Those who are its recipients have all justification in celebrating them. Powers that be are inclined these days to put a curb on these fortunes of kismet. Should we allow our red-letter days to become dead-letter days, as good old Charles Lamb lamented? Are the apostles of development already beginning to frown?