A Review of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The above poem by Maya Angelou (not from this book, by the way) encapsulates in a few lines why the voices of protest are the loudest, and the literature the most powerful when it is forcefully suppressed. Because the only thing the caged bird can do is sing, he will keep on doing it, lest he go mad. Poetry will keep on flowing out of the decapitated head of Orpheus.

I understand that this book has been banned multiple times. Not surprising, considering that the words of the poet have more power than swords or bullets, as proved time and again by history.

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Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when their parents’ marriage fell apart. It was the early thirties, and the North and the South of USA were poles apart as far as coloured people were concerned; in the North, they were part of the society (albeit an insular one) while in the South, they were the despised ‘niggers’.

Maya spent most of the formative part of her childhood down south. Her grandmother (‘Momma’) was a singularly resourceful woman who owned a store: they managed to live in relative comfort even during the Depression era. However, this material comfort was offset by the fact that they were always the hated ‘other’ – the ‘whitefolk’ who lived apart (almost a mythical race, in Maya’s young mind) were powerful and whimsical gods who could visit death and destruction any time on any black man or woman. Even the ‘powhitetrash’, the drifters and squatters who had the fortune to be born into the Anglo-Saxon race, could insult even the propertied black people with impunity.

When she was eight years old, Maya’s father took her brother and herself to their mother, Vivian Baxter, in St. Louis. Here the incident which was to become the turning point of her life happened. The eight-year old girl was raped by her mother’s current boyfriend, Mr. Freeman: he managed to wiggle out of jail only to be murdered, presumably by Maya’s maternal uncles who were also the town toughs. As a result of this, she became a virtual mute for almost five years.

Sent back to Stamps, Maya continued her zombie-like existence until she was brought back into the world of the living by Bertha Flowers, a teacher and family friend – she did this by the expedient of introducing the girl to books. Maya found refuge in the world of imagination, and slowly came back to normal.

She again went to live with her mother in California when she was 15. During this sojourn, she visited her father in Southern California where another traumatic event in her life took place. After a frightening journey across the border into Mexico along with her father (when she was forced to drive a car back to the US in the night with him passed out in the back – even though she was not a qualified driver!), Maya was attacked and stabbed by her father’s girlfriend. She quit home and lived for a month in a junkyard, with similar social drop-outs, before returning to her mother.

A month of living in the rough had emboldened the shy and withdrawn girl. Maya decided to get a job as a streetcar conductor, even though the occupation was closed to blacks, and succeeded: the activist and rebel were just emerging. The first installment of this extended autobiography ends with the picture of Maya as a teen mother, of a child conceived out of a casual sexual encounter which she had just to satisfy that she was ‘normal’ (that is, heterosexual)!

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Maya writes with a disarming honesty and a genuine sense of humour. Even the most distressing events are discussed casually – the child’s eye view is done really well. The book is eminently readable. Still, is this a great book? I would not say so. Good, yes: genuinely great, no.

The causal tone, for me, took away most of the poignancy. Even the extremely distressing rape incident – though described in gory detail – fails to really make an impact. My personal feeling is that this is the author’s way of coping with personal trauma: you take the emotion out of it. However, it might come across to people that her mother never cared much (I have found this view expressed on one or two of the one-star reviews for this book on this site).

However, I salute Maya’s courage in writing this explicit memoir. Being a black woman, she feels disadvantaged thrice, as she says:

The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

So maybe, the best defence is to attack. Throw the hypocrisy of society back in its face. Say: “This is I. Accept me for what I am, whether you like what you see or not!”

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The Magic of the Written Word

Library

Old houses tend to collect books, especially if the inhabitants are educated and cultured. My ancestral home in India is no exception: it is more than a hundred years old and is literally a refugee camp for books. You can see anything from the latest glossy paperback to a mildewed pamphlet from pre-Independence days; you can find bound volumes of Walt Disney comics sitting cheek-by-jowl with hardbacks of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. And they pop up in the most unlikely places, including the bathroom cupboard.

I still remember when I first discovered Wodehouse. I was in my second year of engineering. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there was nothing read – for me, an intolerable situation. So I prowled around, searching for anything at all, and came upon a moth-eaten hardbound book, its dust jacket long gone: the cover showed a man in butler’s attire chasing a portly boy. The title was The Inimitable Jeeves. I opened the book, scanned the first page, and sat down to read – and got up when the sun was setting. Plum had obtained another diehard fan.

I was reminded of this incident when I read the following sentence from the Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill:

A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.

Yes indeed.
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Susan hill went on a search to locate a particular book – Howard’s End by E. M. Forester, which was ultimately discovered on the landing – but that search took her across her own library, and through countless read and unread books. So she took a decision to stop buying new books, stay away from the internet, and revisit her old favourites.

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition.

The result is this wonderful tome, a memoir and a book of literary criticism rolled into one. It is a delightful enterprise to accompany this accomplished novelist on her wanderings around the house, meeting your own favourites and new authors along the way.

There was my childhood favourite, Enid Blyton;

Enid Blyton’s books did for my generation, and several generations since, what J.K. Rowling’s have done recently– broke that invisible barrier between children who are natural-born readers and children who are not.

I lived with those boys and girls, who were around my own age but lived far more interesting lives, with nicer houses, more fun parents, greater freedom to gallop about the countryside on horses, take out boats and bikes, and go hiking and mountain climbing. There were villains, there was danger, they got into scrapes, yet their world was essentially serene and safe and for the duration of the story I, like many thousands of other readers between the ages of seven and twelve or so, was wholly absorbed in it. These were my friends and companions, I was one of the Five and the Seven, I went to the Mountain of Adventure and Spooky Cottage, I was in the Fifth at Malory Towers.

The inimitable Charles Dickens;

A perfect, flawless Dickens would somehow be a shrunken, impoverished one. Yes, he is sentimental, yes, he has purple passages, yes, his plots sometimes have dropped stitches, yes, some of his characters are quite tiresome. But his literary imagination was the greatest ever, his world of teeming life is as real as has ever been invented, his conscience, his passion for the underdog, the poor, the cheated, the humiliated are godlike. He created an array of varied, vibrant, living, breathing men and women and children that is breathtaking in its scope.

Susan Hill has the same problem with Joyce that I have, and the same opinion!

Nor can I read Ulysses, though Stephen Fry, cleverer and better read than anyone I know, swears by it. He told me that it was just a question of diving in and swimming fast. Not for me it wasn’t, I drowned. But I will go to the gallows to uphold the right of Ulysses to be called a classic.

And this observation about one of my favourite authors was so spot on that I almost whooped in delight.

Dahl was one of those geniuses who happen along only very rarely in the world of children’s literature, someone who was totally in tune with the child’s way of thinking, and view of life, and with exactly what children needed from their stories. His language, like his characters, like his plots, is sometimes anarchic, a firework display of inventiveness. He gave permission to children to be true to their real selves, not the selves grown-ups were trying to turn them into, let alone those their parents fondly imagine them to be. That is why children respond to his books and probably always will. His stories are timeless in their appeal because the quality of insight is recognised by each new generation.


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Ms. Hill makes a lot of insightful observations about how literature works. The fact that these are expressed in simple words does not take anything away from the profundity of the insight.

Novelist’s stories sometimes wear a slight air of pointlessness, as if they were made out of leftovers – either that or the novelist has never quite found the short-story voice.

***

Love is the most difficult thing to write about successfully. It is the litmus test of greatness in a novelist if a love story moves and convinces and never once makes the reader grimace, smirk or feel embarrassed. Modern novelists are bad at writing about love because they feel that it has to mean writing explicitly about sex.

***

Slow reading is deeply satisfying. I read two or three chapters of To the Lighthouse, or Little Dorrit, or The Age of Innocence or Midnight’s Children, and stop, go back, look at how the sentences and paragraphs are put together, how the narrative works, how a character is brought to life. But I want to think about what I have read before I move on for only in this way will I appreciate the whole as being both the sum of, and more than the sum of, its parts.

Susan Hill is by no means a literary snob. She is a reader, first and foremost, who takes pleasure in the written word. Which is why she can say

However great a writer is – Proust, say, or James Joyce the fact that so very many wiling and intelligent readers find them difficult, even impenetrable, is surely a mark, albeit in pencil, against them.

and

But if the lives of children in Elizabethan England, or a magical country called Narnia, and stories about creatures called Moomins are a means of escape from the often dull and tiresome everyday world, as well as being good books, what is the argument against that? Computer games are escapist, going to football matches or the cinema, or watching soaps or costume drama on television, are al forms of escapism. We need some.

Reading, all said and done, is an escape: from a reality that would drive us mad if we look at it squarely in the face. It is a drug, but one with no after-effects. It is an addiction that one does not want to cure.

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As I climbed to the top of the house I came upon a book here on a stair, another book there on a window ledge, a small pile of books on the step outside a bedroom door, and saw that half of the books here lead a peripatetic life, never knowing where they will be expected to lay their heads next, while the rest sleep soundly for years in the same position, quite undisturbed. But as in the fairy tales, sooner or later someone wakes you, even from a sleep of a hundred years, and so I have woken books and taken them out, shaken them and slapped them on the back, opened them to the light and fresh air, sneezing as the dust has puffed up from their pages. It must have been a shock for them. Or perhaps it was a wonderful liberation, as they were brought back to life and fresh purpose like Lazarus, for a book which is closed and unread is not alive, it is only packed, like a foetus, with potential.

Was it a shock or a liberation for Jeeves as he was woken up from a decades-long sleep on a sleepy summer afternoon by a bored Indian teenager? Whatever it must have been, I am sure he would have raised the corner of his lip one-sixteenth of an inch and said: “I am glad to have given satisfaction, sir.”

This is a wonderful read.

Movie Nostalgia

Going to the movies in the late sixties and early seventies was a vastly different experience from the sanitised one nowadays. Living in the suburbs (which was practically meant village in those days in India), our options were severely limited. My home town of Tripunithura in Kerala had exactly three theatres: none of them air-conditioned and only one provided with a balcony. You sat on cushioned chairs only if you had a balcony ticket. The first and second class had wooden or cane chairs (in one theatre, the second class was benches with backrest): after that there was the “bench” (without the backrest) then the infamous തറ (thara, “the floor”), where you squatted or sat cross-legged on the floor (even now, calling somebody തറ is derogatory in Kerala).

You paid the lordly sum of two rupees for a balcony ticket. First class was Rs. 1.50, second class one rupee, benches fifty paise and “thara”, 25 paise. As you moved down and down the hierarchy of classes, you moved nearer and nearer to the screen – with the consequence that the images got bigger and less clear (becoming virtual patterns of light for those at the very front), and you got a crick in the neck by the time the movie ended, as a consequence of staring upward.

The theatre would be usually filled with cigarette smoke. At the beginning of the show, the mandatory warning would be flashed on the screen: “Smoking inside the theatre is punishable under law.” This was the signal for all and sundry to light up. Soon, you could see the smoke swirling in the beam from the projector, creating interesting shapes (I used to amuse myself watching these if the movie was boring). The smell of the cigarettes would be mixed with the faint smell of ammonia from the urinals outside: even now, my recollection of old movies is invariably tied up with this smell.

The seats, especially the cane chairs, were breeding grounds for bed-bugs. They would start feasting on you the moment you sat down. Twisting, squirming and scratching your bottom was all part of the movie experience. After some time, you learned to take it in your stride, and the bugs never bothered you. (Once, I was even attacked by an army of really savage ants!)

The screen used to have lot of stains on it: it would be patched up in many places, and sometimes, there would even be holes. Thus, the drama played out on it would creatively enhanced by a sudden patch appearing on the leading lady’s nose, or the hero’s eyes disappearing into a hole.

But in spite of all these difficulties (which were never perceived as such in those days), movie-going was an adventure. In a world devoid of TV, computer and social media, it was the main source of entertainment for the community. It was a weekly ritual akin to a visit to the temple.

***

In the days before TV, we got to know about movies through (1) newspaper advertisements (2) posters plastered on walls and (3) cinema notices. The last page of all our local dailies was reserved for films, where each Friday the new releases enticed us to the theatres. Much before that, posters would start appearing on the walls; smiling heroes, frowning villains and pouting vamps – with the tantalising caption “coming soon!” (This culture is still alive and kicking today.) But the most exciting was the cinema notice, distributed from cars fitted with loudspeakers, blaring announcements about the film in-between song bits. The notice would contain half the story, and leave it hanging at a crucial point with the statement “watch the remaining tense scenes on the silver screen”.

There would usually be three shows initially: the matinee at 3:00 P.M., the first show at 6:30 P.M. and the second show at 9.30 P.M. As kids, we were allowed to go alone only for the matinees. The first shows were for the family. The second shows were to be abhorred, only for bachelors as the theatres were likely to be populated by drunkards, women of loose morals and similar denizens of the night.

The shows were announced by music through the loudspeakers at the theatre, usually ninety minutes before the show – these would be switched off, and the music played only inside the movie hall, exactly half an hour before the start (this was the signal for stragglers to get to the theatre).

goti-soda-300x211

“Goti Soda” (Image courtesy: Mumbaimag)

On opening days of popular films, there would be a mad rush for tickets: queues were at the best rudimentary, and the strong muscled in from anywhere and everywhere. (One of the theatres in Thripunithura was owned by a relative, and a family friend operated the ticket booth in the other, so I did not face much of a problem in obtaining entrance.) Even when the available tickets were sold out, the theatre owners often obliged by pushing in extra chairs in the vacant spaces, and I have even seen people standing and watching the movie once! Many a time, the show started late while these arrangements were in progress. People didn’t mind much, in those days.

There were some pre-show rituals – vendors would circulate selling roasted peanuts in conical newspaper packets, the iconic “goli soda” (the soda bottle stoppered with a glass marble) and the പാട്ടുപുസ്തകം (“pattupusthakam”, song book): a small booklet containing all the songs from the movie. (I had a big collection of these books. I used to learn the songs by heart and sing them – mostly off-key – in the bathroom). These vendors made their rounds again during the interval (the mandatory 10-minute break for all Indian movies).

Before the movie started, there would be ad films and then, the news reel. In the pre-TV era, this was our only exposure to news via the visual media. Sometimes, small documentaries created by the Films Division of the Indian Government would also be screened before the movie proper (some of these documentaries were excellent).

Then after all these preliminaries were done, the film proper would start – sometimes welcomed by claps from the audience.

 

***

Our film-going experience was not without its hardships. Many a time, the power would fail, and the movie projector would be powered by a diesel generator. This would entail switching off all the fans in the theatre, making it swelteringly hot in the summer. The film sometimes got cut: then we had to wait till it was spliced together. Once, I remember the projector striking work in the middle and the show was cancelled – audience were given tickets to see it at a later date.

But we did not care about these. In a life largely devoid of luxuries as we know it today, these were all minor irritants in the magic ritual of “going to the movies”. Hardships were naturally to be endured when one awaited the favour of such a magnificent deity – the Goddess of the Silver Screen.

A Subaltern Narrative

When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience. ” At age ten I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.

The above paragraph appears on the very second page of Mary Crow Dog’s memoir, Lakota Woman. In a sense, it encapsulates the whole tale.

I do not know when I came across the term ‘subaltern’: most probably it was in the eighties, in a book dealing with Dalit issues in India. This term, popularised by the Subaltern Studies Group of South Asian scholars, is derived from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Wikipedia says “In critical theory and postcolonialism, subaltern refers the populations that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.” In simple terms, they are people on the margins of the book which describes great colonial epic of civilisation.

We have many such people scattered all over the world: people who have been choked by a much more powerful occupier, pushed along to the fringes of society, and forced to eke out a meagre existence. The American Indians (or Native Americans, as they are called now) are such a people. Until fairly recently, the world as a whole did not know much about them, other than as bloodthirsty savages who rode about with painted faces, let out bloodcurdling shrieks, kidnapped and raped women and tortured men to death – a fiction perpetrated by Western movies and novels. They were the demons – the ‘Injuns’ – whom the ‘brave’ cowboys killed.

I awoke from this myth engendered by the Spaghetti Westerns once I started reading history, and learnt reality was the opposite of what was shown in the movies – the red man was brave, honourable and peaceful; the white man was cowardly, cunning and rapacious. The creation of America was actually a tragedy of gargantuan proportions for the original inhabitants of the continent. For them, the so-called ‘American Dream’ is a never-ending nightmare.

***

Mary Crow Dog was born piss-poor on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As with many Indian families, her father was a wastrel who did not take care of his family: she was raised by her grandparents. Mary grew up experiencing racism in its every form. The Indians were openly despised by the white people, and in those days, they did not need to hide it. Their traditional style of living destroyed, their men caught in the vicious circle of drink and despondency, and their women open to exploitation of all forms, the original inhabitants of the land were on a fast downward spiral to oblivion.

The ‘civilising’ forces were at work on all fronts. Denied land and justice, Indians were supplied with the one thing that the white man had in abundance – religion. The traditional religions were all but outlawed, and Christianity was being forced down the throats of the natives. Mary too was born a Catholic; she had the ‘fortune’ to attend a boarding school run by nuns, whose motto was “civilise them with a stick”.

It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like…

…The kids were taken away from their villages and pueblos, in their blankets and moccasins, kept completely isolated from their families-sometimes for as long as ten years-suddenly coming back, their short hair slick with pomade, their necks raw from stiff, high collars, their thick jackets always short in the sleeves and pinching under the arms, their tight patent leather shoes giving them corns, the girls in starched white blouses and clumsy, high-buttoned boots-caricatures of white people. When they found out-and they found out quickly-that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives.

In the school, the Indian children were submerged into a world dominated by guilt and sin. They were made to feel guilty about their bodies and bodily cravings – everything was viewed through the red lens of sin (maybe because the sisters were so steeped in it, to hear it the way Mary tells it) and even the smallest digressions invited severe chastisements.

The kids tried to run away, frequently: they were almost always immediately caught and brought back to the school, and subjected to corporeal punishment. The nuns thought nothing of bending teenaged girls over chairs, lifting their skirts, and whipping them mercilessly with straps – the same treatment was meted out to boys by the male teachers.

Spirited Mary (and many others like her, including her sister Barbara) rebelled. Mary left without completing her course, after punching a priest in the face. Like countless times in history, the desire of the authorities to enforce discipline without justice had created a revolutionary.

***

People talk about the “Indian drinking problem, ” but we say that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and sell it to us. They make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink in the first place.

A dropout from school with no aim in life, Mary started drinking and hanging out with similar shiftless youths. A lot of her time was spent in fighting: because, according to her, drinking does not help one forget; rather one remembers “all the old insults and hatreds, real and imagined”. So the next thing to do is pick a fight – and there are always white rednecks who oblige. And the fights are often violent.

I have often thought that given an extreme situation, I’d have it in me to kill, if that was the only way. I think if one gets into an “either me or you” situation, that feeling is instinctive. The average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not.

Mary recounts various crimes against Indians, often repeatedly, in her memoir. Her aunt, the powerful ‘turtle woman’, who was found beaten to death in her home, face down with weeds in her hair; Annie Mae Aquash, an activist who was raped and murdered and whose death was reported as natural, from exposure; Indian men were killed and women were raped by white men with impunity, while even the smallest protest by an Indian resulted in arrest and incarceration. The system thus succeeded in criminalising a peaceful people; then prosecuting them for their criminal activities.

The thing to keep in mind is that laws are framed by those who happen to be in power and for the purpose of keeping them in power. That goes for the U. S. A. as well as for Russia or any other country in the world .

Ultimately, the alleged criminality of Indians became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mistreated by a monstrous system whom they could not confront head on, Native American youth became spit-and-run warriors: a spot of vandalism here, an incident of shoplifting there… Mary says that they did not consider pilferage from shops as theft, because they were only re-appropriating what is theirs by right. And so it would have gone on, unless she had discovered AIM (the American Indian Movement) and literally found an aim in life.

***

The major part of this memoir is structured around a specific event in the history of Native American awakening – the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee town by a group of AIM members, and their subsequent standoff with the FBI and US Marshalls. This is significant to Mary for two reasons, one political and the other personal – this was the first Indian movement which received massive media coverage and broadcast the condition of the Native American population to the world: and this was where Mary met her husband, Leonard Crow Dog, and gave birth to her first child among the flying bullets.

Wounded Knee, to the American Indian, is a sacred place. It holds the same place of awed reverence that Jallianwala Bagh holds in the mind of Indians. It was here that the U. S. Cavalry massacred over 200 people including children, Lakota Indians who had gathered there to perform the “Ghost Dance” that the government had outlawed. Here’s one telling image from the massacre, as told to Mary by her grandfather:

It was only two miles or so from where Grandfather Fool Bull stood that almost three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered. Later grandpa saw the bodies of the slain, all frozen in ghostly attitudes , thrown into a ditch like dogs. And he saw a tiny baby sucking at his dead mother’s breast.

Woundedknee1891
The second time around, however, the activists who occupied Wounded Knee were not so many lambs to the slaughter – they were a people who were slowly awakening to their essential mythic roots.

“Our most sacred altar is this hemisphere, this earth we’re standing on, this land we’re defending. It is our holy place, our green carpet. Our night light is the moon and our director, our Great Spirit, is the sun.”

The words above are from a prayer by Leonard Crow Dog, and pretty much sums up what motivated the Indians.

The Wounded Knee incident had its beginnings during the “Trail of Broken Treaties protests in the autumn of 1972, when Native Americans from all over the U.S. A converged on Washington to protest against injustices done to their community. But President Nixon refused to talk; as Mary says sarcastically, maybe he had more important things to do like planning Watergate. So what in effect was planned as a peaceful protest became a full-fledged uprising, and the Indians occupied the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). There was standoff with government forces, forcing a negotiated settlement which was subsequently ignored – predictably. But it was huge moral victory for the Indians. And it indirectly led to the more acrimonious one at Wounded Knee.

Since 1934, Native Americans were governed by titular “tribal” governments – who were virtual lackeys of the bureaucrats at the BIA. This system lead to the creation of tribal presidents who were corrupt and tyrannical, and who staffed their governments with friends and lackeys. According to Mary, President Dicky Wilson of Pine Ridge was one of the worst.

Following the explosive situation created after the killing of an Indian by a white man in Rapid City, AIM teamed up with OSCRO (Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization). One of the AIM leaders, Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, was the political enemy of President Wilson, who once had him severely beaten up. AIM members from all over America travelled to Pine Ridge to help OSCRO against Wilson’s goons, and after a time, all of them wound up at Wounded Knee. It was time for the Great Symbolic Act.

“Finally, on February 27 , 1973 , we stood on the hill where the fate of the old Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s nation, had been decided, and where we, ourselves, came face to face with our fate. We stood silently, some of uswrapped in our blankets, separated by our personal thoughts and feelings, and yet united, shivering a little with excitement and the chill of a fading winter. You could almost hear our heartbeats.

…Altogether we had twenty-six firearms-not much compared to what the other side would bring up against us. None of us had any illusions that we could take over Wounded Knee unopposed. Our message to the government was: “Come and discuss our demands or kill us!” Somebody called someone on the outside from a telephone inside the trading post. I could hear him yelling proudly again and again, “We hold the Knee!”

The siege went on for seventy-one days, and left behind two dead Indians. Nothing much again was achieved in concrete terms: but what it achieved in metaphorical terms was enormous. The wide media coverage turned the spotlight on Native American issues; more importantly, it allowed the Indian to look inside, and see himself for what he really was.

Mary says, “I was then white outside and red inside, just the opposite of an apple.” This was the case with most Indians. The Wounded Knee incident brought the redness out. Leonard Crow Dog was not a political leader, but a spiritual one: for this reason, he was feared more by the authorities, and persecuted.

He could not understand why the government was after him. He did not consider himself a radical. He was not interested in politics. He never carried a gun. He thought himself strictly a religious leader, a medicine man. But that was exactly why he was dangerous. The young city Indians talking about revolution and waving guns find no echo among the full-bloods in the back country. But they will listen to a medicine man, telling them in their own language: “Don’t sell your land, don’t sell Grandmother Earth to the strip-mining outfits and the uranium companies. Don’t sell your water.” That kind of advice is a threat to the system and gets you into the penitentiary.

This was the reason why the British Raj feared Gandhi and the South African apartheid establishment feared Mandela.

***

In the memoir, the most effective part is where Mary describes her awakening into her religion. The smoking of the peyote, a hallucinogenic plant which is an integral part of Native American Rituals; the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce themselves but feel no pain; the music which is derived from nature, which the Indian is almost part of… these are described in words which are almost poetry.

The words we put into our songs are an echo of the sacred root, the voices of the little pebbles inside the gourd rattle, the voices of the magpie and scissortail feathers which make up the peyote fan, the voice from inside the water drum, the cry of the water bird. Peyote will give you a voice, a song of understanding, a prayer for good health or for your people’s survival.

The peyote staff is a man. It is alive. It is, as my husband says, a “hot line” to the Great Spirit. Thoughts travel up the staff, and messages travel down. The gourd is a brain, a skull, a spirit voice. The water drum is the water of life. It is the Indians’ heartbeat. Its skin is our skin. It talks in two voices-one high and clear, the other deep and reverberating. The drum is round like the sacred hoop which has no beginning and no end. The cedar’s smoke is the breath of all green, living things, and it purifies, making everything it touches holy. The fire, too, is alive and eternal. It is the flame passed from one generation to the next. The feather fan is a war bonnet. It catches songs out of the air.

And it is in a Peyote dream that the past comes alive for Mary.

In my dream I had been going back into another life. I saw tipis and Indians camping, huddling around a fire, smiling and cooking buffalo meat, and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real, much more real than a movie sights and sounds and smells: sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear, but had to all the same. And the only thing I could do was cry. There was an old woman in my dream. She had a pack on her back-I could see that it was heavy. She was singing an ancient song. It sounded so sad, it seemed to have another dimension to it, beautiful but not of this earth, and she was moaning while she was singing it. And the soldiers came up and killed her. Her blood was soaked up by the grass which was turning red. All the Indians lay dead on the ground and the soldiers left. I could hear the wind and the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ horses, and the voices of the spirits of the dead trying to tell me something. I must have dreamed for hours. I do not know why I dreamed this but I think that the knowledge will come to me some day. I truly believe that this dream came to me through the spiritual power of peyote.

This awakening is dangerous: because it cannot be lulled back to sleep with the promise of material comforts. No intoxication provided by alcohol will match the intoxication of the spirit connected to its origin across space and time. For the Native American religion is live: its myth is forever being re-enacted on the temporal as well as spiritual plane.

The hostility of the Christian churches to the Sun Dance was not very logical. After all, they worship Christ because he suffered for the people, and a similar religious concept lies behind the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce their flesh with skewers to help someone dear to them. The main difference, as Lame Deer used to say, is that Christians are content to let Jesus do all the suffering for them whereas Indians give of their own flesh, year after year, to help others. The missionaries never saw this side of the picture, or maybe they saw it only too well and fought the Sun Dance because it competed with their own Sun Dance pole-the Cross.

The Church is afraid with good reason, it seems.

Mary Crow Dog, who symbolically gave birth on the battlefield of Wounded Knee and married the medicine man behind that uprising is no longer with us here on earth. However, I do not think people like her will ever die, as long as the magpie cries in the forest or the brook runs, with her gentle laughter, over the plains.

Ghost_Dance_at_Pine_Ridge

I pierced too, together with many other women. One of Leonard’s sisters pierced from two spots above her collarbone. Leonard and Rod Skenandore pierced me with two pins through my arms. I did not feel any pain because I was in the power. I was looking into the clouds, into the sun. Brightness filled my mind. The sun seemed to speak: “I am the Eye of Life. I am the Soul of the Eye. I am the Life Giver! ” In the almost unbearable brightness, in the clouds, I saw people. I could see those who had died. I could see Pedro Bissonette standing by the arbor and, above me, the face of Buddy Lamont, killed at Wounded Knee, looking at me with ghostly eyes. I saw the face of my friend Annie Mae Aquash, smiling at me. I could hear the spirits speaking to me through the eagle-bone whistles. I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white educated half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness. I heard a cry coming from my lips:

Ho Uway Tinkte.
A Voice I will send .
Throughout the Universe,
Maka Sitomniye,
My Voice you shall hear:
I will live!

Nostalgia and the Malayali

It seems that as I grow old, nostalgia becomes more and more of a permanent companion, a sort of chronic condition which is not debilitating. It is the province of the Malayali: mostly forced to live as an expatriate, he pines for a time and a place unattainable. It may not be coincidental that the usually the term for homesickness is used for nostalgia too in Malayalam (“gruhaturatvam”). For the Malayali, separation across time and space from loved surroundings is the grim reality in life.

Many of the beloved songs of popular Malayalam cinema are about nostalgia and homesickness:

“Maamalakalkkappurathu Marathakappattuduthu

Malayalamennoru Naadundu…”

 

(Across the mountain ranges, wearing a dress of emerald green

Is the land called “Malayalam”…)

 

“Naalikerathinte Naattilenikkoru

Nazhiyidangazhi Mannundu…

Athil Narayanakkili Koodupolulloru

Naalukaalolappurayundu…”

 

(In the land of the coconut palm,

I have a handful of earth in my name…

On that, like a sparrow’s nest

There is a ramshackle thatched house…)

 

“Oru vattam koodiyen Ormakal meyunna

Thirumuttathethuvaan Moham…”

 

(Once again, I wish to go back to that

Sacred courtyard where memories graze…)

 

The last song, by our beloved poet Prof. O. N. V. Kurup, was the defining song of my generation. It came out in the Eighties. In simple terms, it talks about a pastoral childhood which was becoming a distant memory even then: what children used to do when VCD players, computers and play station were not available. Eating bitter gooseberries, drinking cool well-water immediately afterwards to convert that bitterness to sweetness, having a cooing match with the koel… but what really packed the punch was the last line:

“Verutheyee Mohangal Ennariyumbozhum

Veruthe Mohikkuvaan Moham…”

 

(Even though I know that all these wishes are futile,

I wish to wish, just for the sake of wishing…)

 

Thus the song defines two things – a pastoral life which is fast disappearing and a futile wish to go back to it, knowing fully well it is impossible. It is about thirty-four years since O. N. V penned that song, but the sentiment has not altered.

It must be noted that diaspora is hardly unique to the Malayali. The most famous one historically is that of the Jews (“By the rivers of Babylon…”): it has culminated ultimately in them obtaining a country of their own and creating another diaspora – that of the Palestinians – in the process. It seems that displacement and the longing to return is part of our humanity, and it shall remain. What makes the Keralite different from others is that his separation is voluntary.

Keralites are proud of their small state: unlike the majority of India, it is green and clean. Mother Nature has been kind to Kerala. The tourist brochures call it “God’s Own Country”, and even though this is boasting at its zenith, many tourists may agree. Even at the height of urbanisation – there is hardly a “village” worthy of the definition in Kerala any more – the state still manages to maintain its green image. I have posted below a random sample from my “vacation” photographs to illustrate the point (one gets to appreciate all the more, gazing on concrete and desert sand for eleven months of the year).




However, the state has very few avenues for making a living for its highly educated population: there are very few industries and very little infrastructure. For making a living, most Malayalis are forced to go out. The separation is thus not entirely a matter of choice. Also, the rapid pace of urbanisation – even though heartily embraced by the people – does not prevent them from remembering a past when everything was blissful.

This futile longing for a lost golden age and paradise – a sort of Atlantis of memory – defines much of Malayalam popular art, literature and culture. It is doubtful whether it ever existed: it may be as mythical as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But that is not relevant. In the realm of the spirit, mythical truth is more powerful than mundane reality.

Our most famous festival, Onam, is in the memory of a golden era when Kerala was ruled by the mythical king Mahabali (this could only be a later interpolation – because according to another myth, Kerala came out of the sea when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Gokarna in the north to Kanyakumari in the south – and Bali predates Parasurama in mythical chronology). In the actual myth, Mahabali was an Asura king who has defeated all the Devas, and was tricked by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a dwarf Brahmin (“Vamana”) into giving up his kingdom. However, because Bali was just and devout, Vishnu set him up as the ruler of a region called Sutala.

In the Kerala version of the myth, Mahabali (or “Maveli”, as we Malayalis call him) was the ruler of Kerala. He was the quintessential perfect monarch: popular ballads sing about his reign when all people were equal, there were no deceit and trickery, and people never told lies. Vishnu as Vamana kicked this kind ruler down to the netherworld (“Patalam”) where he lives now: however, the god granted him one boon. Every year he could return to visit his people on Onam day. So to keep the monarch happy, the people of Kerala make a great show of prosperity with splendour and feasting (even if one is living in abject poverty), so that Maveli goes back satisfied that all is well.

Maveli is the original expatriate from Kerala, pining eternally for a homeland he can never come back to.

We celebrate Onam with great gusto wherever in the world we are. In the Middle East, this has become the festival of the Great Nostalgia: in effect, we all share part of King Maveli’s angst.

O.N.V was right – even if the longing is futile, we will still do it.

It is such a sweet pain.

The Realm of Faerie

And you love take my right hand,

Come join the faery folks’ last dance;

Then we’ll sleep and dream of Elfland,

Her wizardry and wild romance.

Wheldrake,

The Elvish Rune,

1877

 

I am currently going through the Harry Potter series (yes, I know I’m terribly late!) and I have been marvelling at J. K. Rowling’s mastery in the mixing of the traditional British school story and Celtic fairy-lore. For kids of my generation who grew up on Enid Blyton, fairy-folk like pixies and brownies were childhood playmates; there was something fascinating about the enchanted woods just over the hedge, populated by these fascinating creatures. Blyton purposefully avoided the disturbing and frightening aspects of these creatures, and they were transformed into something like mischievous little children with magical powers. The illustrations also helped.

Running in parallel to these stories were narratives of a different kind of woodland beings. These inhabited not the calm and peaceful copses of temperate England, but the shadowy forests of tropical Kerala. Consequently I think, they were more frightening and violent. The Yakshi who enticed you in the form of a beautiful lady, only to eat you up; the Gandharvan who bewitched young ladies with beautiful music; the Thendan who followed you on dark, deserted paths and hit you if you looked back… What separated these stories from Enid Blyton’s tales were the fact that they were real, in the here and the now. These beings inhabited your backyard.

As I grew up, these magical beings were relegated to the attic of my mind; stowed away, but never discarded and never entirely forgotten. I had more pressing concerns now like studies and the angst of growing up (partial differential equations were more terrifying than any Yakshi). However, my yearning for magical lands and fantastic beings survived in the form of a deep love of fantasy and science fiction, and a growing interest in mythology. And when I discovered Joseph Campbell, it was as though a kindred spirit was calling to me across the ages. I understood that mythology is not just beautiful stories: it is an integral part of our psyche.

The faerie folk lives within us.

***

I found this entry on “fairy” in The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan.

Once they were divine; the TUATHA DE DANANN, the children or the people of the goddess DANU. According to the mythological history of Ireland, the BOOK OF INVASIONS, the Tuatha De were the penultimate invaders of the island, wresting control from the sturdy dark FIR BOLG and the fierce FOMORIANS. When the final invaders came, the Tuatha De went the way of their enemies, being defeated in the great battle of TAILTIU by the Sons of Mil or MILESIANS.

The Milesians did not evict the defeated race from Ireland; instead, a deal was made that the Tuatha De would take the underside of the world while the Milesians ruled the surface. Through this curious treaty the ancient race remained within the hills, under the bogs, and in other liminal areas of Ireland, where they transformed into fairy people. Sometimes the story of their fall from power was connected to the Christian story of the angels’ fall from heaven, and the fairies were thus described as fallen angels.

One can immediately see the similarity to theory that the Asuras and Rakshasas of Indian myth were actually earlier inhabitants of India, vanquished by the invading Aryans. Similarly, the Devil is nothing but a fallen angel. So it seems that the protagonists of myth are always the beings of light who dwell on the surface; the antagonists, the beings of darkness beneath. Traditionally, according to the historical analysis of myth, the winners are thought to have written history with themselves as the gods and the conquered race as demons.

In my opinion, even though there may be some historical background to these legends, the roots run much deeper – all the way down into our subconscious.

Note that in ancient myths, even though the gods win, the demons are never fully vanquished. They only retreat temporarily, to come back with renewed vigour. In the same vein, the fairies have retreated to the “underside” – they dwell there in an uneasy truce with the ordinary beings “on the surface”. However, one has to be very careful never to cross into the no-man’s land, the twilight zone between the worlds. There are bloodcurdling tales.

Kidnappings by fairies are quite common: they steal the souls of brides, who waste away in real life, while the soul is made to spend its time continuously dancing in the fairy kingdom (a legend used to great effect by Susanna Clarke in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel). There is also the terrifying story of the changeling, the fairy child swapped with a human child – a common trope in many fantasy and horror stories. There is the irritating goblin who can turn outright malevolent on occasion. There are also helpful fairies like the brownies and mischievous spirits like the pixies – the so-called little people – who also may turn nasty if not properly treated.

Back home in Kerala, the legends are even more blood-curdling. The Yakshi waylays unsuspecting males in the guise of a nubile young girl and entices them up the palm tree where she lives; for the unfortunate soul, it seems like he is entering a palatial mansion. As soon as the light goes off, the ogress changes back into her terrifying form and eats the would-be Romeo up. The Thendan follows you on deserted pathways; if you turn to look at him, he gives you such a slap that you fall down unconscious. If you are lucky, you will wake up with a fever. The Gandharvan is handsome and sings beautifully so that girls are easy meat for him – however, once a girl is in a Gandharvan‘s clutches, woe betide any male who goes near her.

Sarpakkavu (image courtesy: http://www.karmakerala.com)

Many of the houses in rural Kerala used to have what is called a Sarpakkavu (“Snake Grove”). This is a wooded area on the grounds which is set aside for the divine snakes, who partakes of offerings and drinks milk left for them. They are the protectors of the family; but if you cross them, the whole dynasty will be cursed, especially the children.

Most our temples in Kerala still have “gods” who cannot be accommodated inside, as their character is not wholly beyond reproach. They are accommodated outside under the banyan tree (which is a standard fixture for any temple) or at the back of the temple. The Thendan I mentioned earlier sits under the banyan tree of our local temple – I can still remember the twinge of fear as I used to pass its idol in the night. (By the way, my wife’s family house had four gods in the backyard until recently – so the concept is still not dated!)

The feeling one gets from these legends are of a world in an uneasy balance. Unlike Christian mythology, where God is unconditionally good and the Devil incorrigibly Evil, the faerie folk are somewhere in-between – like us humans. They have been pushed “beneath”, but they can come up any time and drag us down if we are not careful.

***

Humanity started out in the jungles: the race memories of a dark and frightening past hide inside the collective unconscious and still haunt us. These are what Joe Campbell calls the “Inherited Image” – like the image of the hawk that the chickens will run away from, even when they have never seen a hawk in life. These are the symbols which lie deep inside the psyche and provide fodder for much of our art, literature and myth.

And the prevalence of the faerie folk inside the enchanted forests all over the globe assures us that underneath we are all the same.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part IV)

My reading started with comic books.

There were not many available in those days in India. The most popular publishing houses were Gold Key, Indrajal Comics, Harvey Comics and the Classics Illustrated Junior series: and later on, Amar Chitra Katha. Gold Key published all the American favourites: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear et al. Indrajal comics brought us Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. Amar Chitra Katha was Anant Pai/ Mohandas team’s answer to Western comics, to teach Indian children their own heritage through a familiar medium, dealing mostly with Indian history, mythology and legends: even though the art and narration sucked in the beginning, it soon became much more professional.

The very first book I remember reading (and I still own it!) is a Donald Duck story where “Unca” Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie go in search of the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, sent on the mission by Donald’s billionaire uncle Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge’s arch nemesis, the witch Magica De Spell is also after the booty which complicates matters.

From the first read onwards, I was a confirmed fan of the bad-tempered, cowardly, boastful Donald – on hindsight, I guess there’s something inherently endearing in his flawed personality which is not present in Mickey Mouse, who is a hero all through. I was never a great fan of Mickey – though I liked Goofy. Donald fails by pretending to be something he is not, while Goofy accepts his idiocy and always falls on his feet somehow.

But the one which takes the cake from the entire Disney pantheon is Uncle Scrooge, in my opinion: the miserly billionaire without a single saving grace, but one can’t help admire his financial acumen. The biggest disappointment of Scrooge McDuck’s life is his “idiot nephew” who refuses to change his wastrel nature. The most enjoyable stories are where Donald, Scrooge and Donald’s super-clever nephews all star – their contrasting personalities always guarantee great stories.

I loved all of Walt Disney’s creations – Donald, Mickey, Goofy, Scrooge, Pluto, Daisy, Minnie, Grandma Duck, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, the Beagle Boys, Chip n’ Dale, Scamp… the list is nearly endless. I used to get them at the old Pai & Company bookstore at Broadway in Ernakulam, and the Higginbotham’s stalls at railway stations – the books were cheap, even by the standards of those days (each costing a rupee or less). I can still recall the smell and feel the glossy covers, with the “Gold Key” emblem (the publisher) in the corner – oh, the sweet smell of nostalgia!

Apart from Disney, Gold Key published many other famous cartoons. Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, the Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety & Sylvester et al and the numerous cartoons by the prolific Hanna-Barbera team: Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Beep Beep the Roadrunner, Magilla Gorilla… I liked them all, even though not as much as the Disney favourites.




Of these, Tom & Jerry in book form were nowhere near as funny as the animated series. Woody was a pale reflection of Donald. I liked the Warner Brothers team better, especially Bugs and Elmer Fudd. Also, I remember Yogi fondly; and the Flintstones had an interesting premise, a Stone Age community living like a modern-day neighbourhood of America: with everything including the TV and the car built out of stones and with a dinosaur for a pet. The Road Runner stories had much more meat in comic book form than the animated shorts, with the birds given more personality – but Wile E. Coyote was still the villainous star.

The “Classics Illustrated Junior” published fairy tales. This was where I first encountered all the favourites from Grimm Brothers and Hans Andersen. Now I realise that many of the tales had been doctored to remove parts considered “unsuitable” for children (like the evil queen in Snow White being forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes); however, it opened up a whole new world to me, and must have triggered my lifelong interest in myth, legend and fairy stories.


Harvey Comics was totally different. Most of its stories centred around the denizens of Enchanted Forest: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spooky, the “tuff” ghost who is not so friendly; Wendy, the good little witch and her three horrible aunts; the little devil Hot Stuff et al. Moving away from the woods, there were also the perennial favourites Richie Rich and Sad Sack, and Baby Huey the baby giant. Harvey’s stories were much wilder and full of magical elements than the Gold Key favourites, and surprisingly contained very few animal protagonists. The stories were also much longer.


From these, I “graduated” to the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon, published by India’s own publishing house, “Indrajal Comics”. The paper was of a lower quality (mostly newsprint) and the colours were duller than the foreign item, but these stories were really adult! For the first time, I knew what hero worship was as the Phantom bashed up the baddies and left the skull imprint on their jaws, and Mandrake “gestured hypnotically” and knives turned into bananas! (For a long time, I thought mass hypnotism was possible.) Also, these stories featured violence and death, and skirted playfully around sex –which was exciting for an adolescent. Diana Palmer and Princess Narda were my first crushes.


Last but not least, there were the Amar Chitra Katha books, which introduced me to Indian history. The mythology they published was rather well known to me – however, later on, I came to appreciate the minute details and unknown stories they unearthed from our culture. The language was very ponderous, though!


I still have many of these books – about 20+ bound volumes, very much treasured. And I still read them once in a while, on lazy afternoons… when the years slip away, and once again I am in that ageless garden of childhood.

[Image courtesy: www.mycomicshop.com and www.comicvine.com ]

Enid Blyton (Childhood Memories of Reading, Part III)

I still cannot remember exactly when I discovered Enid Blyton.  My recollections starts with those wonderful stories of pixies, brownies, goblins, gnomes, trolls and fairies; sometimes living in a world of their own, sometimes co-inhabiting an idyllic English countryside alongside nice and naughty boys and girls.

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Also, long before Toy Story, there were her toy stories where Teddy Bears and Golliwogs regularly came to life at night and had exciting adventures in the nursery.

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Noddy was a perennial favourite (though I did not read much of his stories).  Also, there was a character called a Golliwog in almost all the tales.  I could not understand what this strange being was supposed to be, but I was fascinated by him (this negative racial stereotype of an African has long since disappeared from children’s books and toy shelves, but I still miss him).

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The book I first remember in its entirety, however, is The Book of Brownies.  The old hard-bound copy I got from the Thrissur public library was almost falling apart: yet the yellowed pages had the magical musty smell of old books, and the old-fashioned illustrations inside were fascinating, of the brownies with their conical caps and long ears and noses.  It also helped that I had read this story in Malayalam as a serialised children’s novel in Mathrubhoomi Weekly – the brownies had been changed to children in that version.

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This is a full length novel of three brownies (Hop, Skip and Jump) who become unwitting accomplices of a witch’s plot to steal the Princess.  The King does not believe they are innocent, however; they are banished until they can locate and bring back their ‘goodness’ (since they exclaimed “Oh my goodness!” when the Princess was spirited away – and according to the King, they don’t have any, only badness!).  The brownies know that this is next to impossible, so they begin their journey with the idea of rescuing the Princess.  What follows is the story of their quest, told in episodic format.

And what a quest!  The parts I remember well are the magic cottage without a door; the land of very clever people where you have to speak only in rhyme; the witch (or ogress? – I don’t remember) who can be killed only by speaking a very long word without pause – and the ‘goodness’ bottles, representing the goodness in one.  How Hop, Skip and Jump win and lose, and win by losing, make up a fascinating children’s tale.  No wonder it is a classic.

Then I started buying books – the library was not enough to supplement my voracious appetite.  Most of the money I got for my birthday, for Vishu and Onam (I had started requesting people to give me Onappudava as cash by then, so I could buy books with it, rather than dresses!) went for books, most of them authored by Enid Blyton.  Those days, the cheap ‘Armada’ editions of most of her novels cost twenty to twenty-five pence each.  One penny was equivalent to twenty paise then, which meant a novel cost 4 – 5 rupees.  Since my stash usually amounted to twenty-five rupees, this meant 5 – 6 books at least.

The books had very bad binding, and most of the pages were falling out soon; but they were a treasured possession.  I still have them, and I have used the same covers as the copies I have in this article.  It was a great pleasure to see my son reading the same books, after a gap of nearly forty years!

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I think the first books I purchased were the “Secret” series, the “Adventure” series and the “Mystery” series.  Of these, the first two were more or less of the same mould – a group of children, two boys and two girls having fantastic adventures in outlandish places.  The “Mystery” series with the “Five Find-Outers and Buster the Dog” were somewhat different in the sense that they were traditional mysteries with a surprise at the end.  I had a special soft corner for this series because of lead protagonist, Fatty, was a fat uncouth youngster like me.  Many of those mysteries, in hindsight, were awfully easy to see through; however, they were mystifying enough for a pre-teen.

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These followed the so-called “Barney Mysteries” (I came to know the name only now), the gang of children slightly different by the addition of the delightfully infuriating orphan “Snubby” and the gypsy boy Barney and his monkey Miranda.  Then of course, came The Secret Seven and The Famous Five.

The composition of Blyton’s children’s gang is remarkably standardised: of the two boys, one will be slightly more of a “he-man” type than the other; one of the girls will be a wilting flower, a real “girly-girl” type, the other more bold (the extreme case being Georgina – “George” – in The Famous Five).  Sometimes, there will a gypsy child and last but not the least, a pet of some kind – most often a dog.  These pets stole the show, actually Jack’s parrot Kiki in the Valley series and Timmy the dog in Famous Five.

There were also the family stories, which I read later.  Looking back, I see these to be cloyingly sentimental, like a seventies movie and full of dated middle-class values – but I loved them.  Some of them, like The Six Bad Boys, The Family at Red Roofs and House-at-the-Corner still bring a lump to my throat in remembrance of the emotions they aroused in me at the time.

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Probably the last set of Blyton novels which I read before I outgrew her were the “Circus” series.  These were different from the other stories.  They were centred around the circus run by Mr. Galliano, and narrated the tale of Jimmy and Lotta and the circus animals.  Needless to say, now I understand that the lives of circus members are not so idyllic, especially the animals!

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Recently, Enid Blyton has come under a lot of fire for her racist statements and portrayals and for the supposedly “middle-class” values she perperates.  In England, a nation which celebrates their authors, I found her conspicuous by her absence (except for the odd “Noddy” statue here and there). Also, her second daughter has written a book which portrays her as not a very benevolent mother or a good wife – see the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enid_Blyton).  I also understand that her books are being removed from school libraries or “sanitised” to make them suitable for our politically correct society.  However, I read Blyton in the simple ages before such concerns were very important – and I am thankful that I could enjoy her books for what they were: thumping good tales for children.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part II)

Well… those detective novels.

The first name that comes to my mind is Neelakantan Paramara, since I discovered Kottayam Pushpanath much later.  Paramara was a popular author even during my mother’s childhood: unlike other famous detective novels of the time, which as I said earlier were plagiarised from English novels, he wrote original novels.  His popular detective was Bhaskar, who used walk about the Ernakulam streets in a “bush coat” and “felt hat”, smoking a cigarette!  (Can you imagine this happening in the seventies?)  The immediate image that comes to my mind, when I visualise Detective Bhaskar, is this:

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Yes, good ol’ Prem Nazir in detective guise.

This “international uniform of the C.I.Ds” (quoting Sreenivasan from Pattana Pravesam) is derived from the hard-boiled private-eye movies of Hollywood: what is normal there becomes laughably comic while transplanted to Kerala soil.  However, I found nothing strange in this and for quite a long time, thought this was how detectives dressed.

Paramara’s novels had fantastic names (“Pathalagruhathile Dhoomakethu” – The Comet from the Nether Dwelling; “Manthrakkinattile Sundari” – The Beauty from the Enchanted Well; etc.) and even more fantastic premises (in one story, the criminal gang used corpses animated by batteries to kidnap girls!).  I remember there was always a secret gang, located in some inaccessible place (again, a staple of Malayalam movie thrillers), and the gang leader would be totally unsuspected till the end of the novel in true whodunit tradition.  Paramara also had an obsession with sex, which I can analyse with hindsight: there were always girls with “thighs like slabs of butter” in the gang hideaway, and the villains would always be “fondling the girls around the waist”… yes, yes, I know, there was much less censorship of what kids read in those days.

Kottayam Pushpanath, whom I discovered in middle school, was more ambitious and international in his approach.  He had two detectives, one national and one international: Detective Pushparaj and Marxin.  Pushparaj tussled with baddies in Kerala and the rest of India, while Marxin’s arena was mostly in the Carpathian mountains – and he used to meet Dracula quite frequently.  For the famous vampire came to life again and again in Pushpanath’s novels, till one had a doubt whether he was borrowing from Bram Stoker or vice versa!

(I still remember one of Pushpanath’s novels [Hotel Seiko] set in Cochin, where people who took rooms in the hotel just disappeared.  Ultimately it works out that the manager is feeding them a secret poison which makes them shrink into nothing!  The clue which sets the detective on the correct path is a brassiere, left by a young woman, with the hooks still fastened which proves that she disappeared while wearing it!  Talk about science fiction scenarios.)

I think all these detectives borrowed equal parts from the classic English sleuth and James Bond.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part I)

I have been reading ever since I can remember – books were the main pleasure of my life.  In a childhood spent in the absence of TV, video and computers, books and the occasional movie were the “time pass” for a non-athletic boy severely lacking in physical intelligence and the social graces.  Thankfully, I had an educated and liberal family filled with readers.  Books were available without restriction.  The literary journal Mathrubhoomi, filled with articles, stories and poems by the great writers of Malayalam, arrived weekly on the doorstep.  It had a children’s section edited by “Kuttettan” (the poet Kunjunni), aimed at budding readers and writers, which was eagerly consumed by myself the moment I got the magazine in hand.  I also used to stare at the beautiful illustrations by the famous artist Nampoothiri, drawn for the serialised novels – now I realise that most of those novels were later award-winners (Khasakkinte Ithihaasam, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, etc.)

But the real treat came during the summer vacations spent in my ancestral home at Thrissur.  This is a huge house (still very much existing!) filled with cavernous rooms exuding the musty and mysterious smell of old dwellings.  Apart from the vacation pleasures of the Vishu festival, the famous “Thrissur Pooram” and the attendant festivities, it meant to me two months uninterrupted reading, unspoilt by the need to mug up boring text books.  I would spend the major part of the day reading – in my bed; in the drawing room after dinner when the family was chatting, oblivious to them all; even up a tree!  It was absolute bliss.

There is an “Exhibition” in connection with the Pooram festival: several visits to this event was a must.  In those days, the Soviet Union was very much a live entity, and the exhibition invariably had a stall for “Prabhat Book House”, the authorised publishers of Soviet books in India.  This stall was virtually a treasure trove for me: one used to get beautiful illustrated books of Russian fairy tales, printed on glossy paper in beautiful colours, for throwaway prices.  This was my first introduction to the magical world of fairy stories – I still remember them, along with the taste of popcorn I used to buy from another stall alongside.

Another memory is of the “detective novels” (as we used to call mysteries, in Malayalam) I graduated to from the picture books.  There used to be an old unused building in our compound where a lot of this category of old books, leftovers from my grandmother’s, mother’s and aunts’ childhoods, were kept.  These were kept in a dark room, and there was the weekly ritual of going to collect books to read (an adult always accompanied me).  I still remember the thrill of anticipation as the room was opened and the musty smell of old books hit me – the feeling was almost religious, that of entering the sanctum sanctorum of a temple.  The novels were stacked on the floor.  Most of them were very old so that the pages tore at the slightest hint of rough use; there was also the scourge of old buildings – termites – so that many pages were eaten away, and piecing together the story was itself the job for a detective!  Still I loved these pulp novels, many of them plagiarised English mysteries (Sherlock Holmes changed to “Swarloka Hamsan” – you get the picture!) and some of them original though with highly improbable plot lines.  The authors were extremely popular writers of that era (Kottayam Pushpanath, Neelakantan Paramara etc.), to a populace that was still largely ignorant of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.

The library is also another fond memory.  The Public Library of Thrissur is housed in the Town Hall, an old building with vaulted ceilings and huge bay windows.  The walls are fitted with shelves, thickly lined with old books bound in paper and leather.  The afternoons spent there were heavenly – dreaming with a book open in my lap, looking at the dust motes dancing in the late afternoon sunlight slanting in through the windows.  I made my first acquaintance of Enid Blyton there, an acquaintance which was to stay with me right through to my early teens until I discovered Agatha Christie and the Hardy Boys.

(To be continued…)