May 29, 2007

Saffron and Stone Down South in Kollur

I’m not sure if Kadavil Appu Kuttan is still alive as I write this. I’m not sure either if I can find out if he is alive, and I doubt if anyone can unless Appu Kuttan has returned home to Kerala to his sister Janaki’s house in Trichur, ‘near Guruvayoor temple’, or maybe to his younger brother Ramkrishna’s place not far from there. Appu Kuttan has no family of his own. He never married. However there’s just a chance that I could get some news of him if I were to return to the Mookambika temple in Kollur and enquire with the other sadhus there who’ve made the place their home and live out their days in the temple complex.

The younger among them go on pilgrimages like Appu Kuttan once did long before he turned 86 in the year I met him. But I’m not sure if I’ll be returning to Kollur anytime soon unless I make an impromptu decision to pack my bags and take off to Murudeshwar like I did that year when I went backpacking down south along India’s West Coast.

But I must tell you his story even if it is over three years old, not that there is much to tell because I was in a hurry to get back to the hotel in Murudeshwar that day since the last bus for Byndoor left Mookambika temple at quarter past seven in the evening. To get to Murudeshwar I had to change the bus at Byndoor for Bhatkal before changing again at Bhatkal for Murudeshwar. So Appu Kuttan and I spoke for barely an hour before I sprinted to the Mookambika bus-stand just in time for the 4.45 PM bus to Byndoor.

Kadavil Appu Kuttan told me nothing earth shaking in that one hour. Actually I had serious difficulty understanding what he was saying for, his native tongue, Malayalam, weighed heavily on his Hindi. Moreover, he was old, all of 86 years, and that added to the problem. But somehow, Appu Kuttan and I managed to talk to each other – an old man and a young backpacker trying to connect in a place that was neither’s home.

Earlier in the day I left for Bhatkal after lunch at the newly opened Kamat's eatery down the street from the Murudeshwar temple the village takes its name from, in the backdrop of the gigantic statue of Lord Shiva rising majestically over a narrow stretch of beach where fishermen set off for deep waters early each morning, and mending fishing nets at other times. Narayan Naik waits tables at the Kamat’s eatery and on learning that I was visiting Murudeshwar he said, “Tourists prefer Surmai and Pomfret fished off the coast around here. They don’t have a taste for Noglaa and Bangda.” Narayan of the ready smile was built thin and came from a nearby village. I finished the vegetarian thali, paid the bill and left the hotel. Outside, fisherwomen sat by the side of a rutted path that led to the temple behind me, selling fish from cane baskets lined with sliced rubber tubes sourced from used truck tyres. Glassy-eyed fish lay still in small pools of water in rubber tubing drawing interested customers.

After changing to a Kundapur bound bus at Bhatkal, passing Gulmohar, Copper pod, Cashew, and Casuarina trees along the route I got off at Byndoor and sat out twenty minutes at a wayside inn before boarding a privately owned bus for Kollur. A short way off Byndoor the bus veered left, off the NH17 that ran on 69 kms. to Udupi, Mangalore lay 60 kms. off Udupi. “Government buses do not ply to Kollur, you’ll get private buses though,” the Inn keeper had told me while we were discussing the Raghavendra Swami Muth, a local landmark. The stretch to Kollur from Byndoor ran 27 kms. through lush green fields, isolated homesteads, and past little or no traffic on the narrow winding road through dense forests in the Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the dreaded King Cobra.

Narrow strips of wood ran diagonally across from opposite sides of windows of houses scattered along the route, forming diamond shaped openings encasing deep pools of black of the rooms. I could only imagine what must lie behind those openings, and of how the light might play out once the Sun came in through the windows. A brooding sky hug overhead, overcast and threatening heavy rain. Mist covered the mountains in the distance as a light drizzle fell outside. Vyavashaya Seva Bank disappeared round the bend as we drove through Yedathare in the hills. In a clearing by an Areca Nut plantation a group of village boys were playing Kabaddi. We passed a school, scattered houses, and a few shops before the jungle swallowed us again.

I had a sadhu for company in the bus. He sat to my left and remained silent the entire journey, never once turning to look at me after I slid into the seat beside him. Leaning my head against the backrest of the seat in front I looked past the sadhu through the window at the vegetation flashing past as the bus rumbled on to Kollur. Somewhere deep in the jungle Agnitirtha and Sauparnika flowed, regenerating life far beyond their banks, and steeped in history they carried downstream echoes from centuries ago.

Kollur lies on the banks of the Sauparnika at the foot of the Kodachadri hills where Adi Sankara, the pioneering Hindu philosopher, is believed to have meditated on his travels across India. It was known as Maharanyapura in the Skanda Purana before changing to Kolapura after Kola rishi, the sage advised by Lord Shiva to worship Shakti, the lingam that is believed to have appeared on its own (swayambhu) in Maharanyapura, promising him that in due course Mahalakshmi would manifest from Shakti. After Vagdevi, the Goddess of Speech, struck the demon Kaumasura dumb or mooka, eventually killing him to end the reign of terror he had unleashed on the ascetics of Kolapura, including Kola rishi, the goddess came to reside in the swayambhu lingam in the temple and came to be known as Mookambika. In due course, Kolapura changed to Kollur.

The bus pulled up into the Mookambika bus-stand shortly after and I got off and made for the temple. It was Onam and large numbers of devotees from Kerala and elsewhere had traveled to the temple to offer prayers. Clad in pale white saris with gold borders, flowers adorning their hair, women waited by the side of the road that ran by the temple. On nearing the Mookambika temple I saw the stone structure and the golden gopura through the entrance, rising against the backdrop of Kodachadri hills in the distance. As I walked past a group of workers laying the courtyard floor anew and entered the main temple, a priest hissed at me, “Take off your shirt. Take it off.” I took off my shirt and joined the queue of bare-chested male devotees inching in a single file between ancient stone pillars.

Later I walked across the courtyard to the other temple entrance that led out the perimeter wall enclosing the courtyard. On my way out the high wooden door I passed two stepped platforms flanking the passage to the entrance I had just exited. Elderly sadhus in saffron sat conversing on straw mats spread out on the red oxide coated platform. Some of the sadhus were deep in sleep, their worldly possessions stuffed in bags that doubled up as pillows. It was while he was spreading the cardboard mattress on the platform, possibly preparing for a nap, that I first saw Appu Kuttan, a solitary figure in deep pink lungi that came up to his ankles as he bent over the platform to adjust the cardboard mattress.

Introductions in place, Appu Kuttan allowed himself a gentle smile on seeing me taken aback after he had just told me that he had served in the British India army. On demobilizing in 1948, and without a job he began drifting, not becoming a sadhu until he had turned sixty. “I didn’t get any job after my discharge from the army so I became a sadhu,” he said matter-of-factly as I crossed my legs and sat across from him, warming to the conversation. He lit up a beedi and sat cross-legged on the edge of the nylon mat, the beedi stayed firm between his index and middle finger. Recalling the good times when he earned a ‘good salary’ while working in Aurangabad where the “Quartermaster also worked”, Appu Kuttan soldiered for the British Indian Army for eight long years during World War Two, serving in Singapore for a year where the British Army retreated under the Japanese onslaught, and six months in Rangoon where the Allied Army led by the British fought the Japanese to a standstill in the jungles of Burma before routing them in the same jungles, then in the mountains and across the Burmese plains, possibly handing Japan their biggest land defeat until then, and largely orchestrated by Indian soldiers in their thousands, fighting alongside the Burmese, the Karens, and the Kachins.

“I did not swing guns on the battlefield,” Appu Kuttan recalled. “I served in the 37 Field Ambulance Unit on the frontlines. We took our lunch in the trenches, sheltering from Japanese planes on bombing runs.” At this juncture he raises his hands, imitating the Japanese planes swooping down to drop their loads behind British lines. Allied troops were battling to keep China’s overland supply route through Burma open while Japan sought to cut it off. The Burma campaign began disastrously for the British in the December of 1941, with thousands of Indian soldiers in the British India army losing their lives to the Japanese and disease, malaria being rife in the swamps. By mid 1945 the tide had turned, and the Japanese were in full retreat.

“We took many Japanese prisoners in Rangoon,” Appu Kuttan said, a smile breaking on his lips at the memory as he exhaled after drawing deep on his beedi. “Japanese Officers were made to sweep. They would ask us for Goodbye cigarettes,” he said. “Eighteen of us in the Army company did not smoke, so we gave the prisoners our stock of Goodbye cigarettes.”

On joining the army at the “age of 18”, his first posting was Pune, then Aurangabad, before he was sent to Shillong for a year where he was entrusted with the logistics of distributing ration to Army Companies. “Gaadi leke ration ke liye chalo,” he recollects Karunakaran, a driver from Thiruanantpuram, telling him one day at the army camp. From Shillong he marched with the army to Rangoon serving with the 37 Field Ambulance Unit before leaving for Singapore for a year. I turned my head for a brief moment in the direction of animated voices behind me before quickly turning to Appu Kuttan.

“Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal of the INA was arrested in Singapore and held in our prison camp for a day,” he recollected, his eyes lighting up at the memory which I took to be less for the arrest as for her presence in their midst. As he spoke of her I couldn't help noticing his voice rise up a notch in what was otherwise a phlegmatic undertone that sometimes shook, struggled and faded. His age showed up in his voice, again.

Long before Lakshmi Sehgal, born Lakshmi Swaminathan in a Tamil brahmin family, joined the Indian National Army, she was putting her medical education to good use among the poor of Singapore after leaving India for Singapore in 1940, and after the British army fell to the Japanese in the ill fated Singapore campaign in World War II, she served the Prisoners of War, a significant number of whom were Indians. It was inevitable that she came in contact with the Indian National Army headed by Subhash Chandra Bose, born in an affluent Bengali brahmin family, then actively recruiting Indian POWs from the British Army to staff the Indian Liberation Army. The Japanese were only too happy to see this happen. And when Subhash Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore in July, 1943, and raised the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, a women’s regiment, the mantle of Colonel fell on Lakshmi Sehgal, fighting the British on the side of the Japanese.

Appu Kuttan turns back the years. “Lieutenant Colonel Satchidananda Swami commanded us in Singapore and Major David reported to him at the time. Now Swami Satchidananda lives at Anandashram in Kanhangad in the Kasargod district of Kerala.” Known as Anantasivan in his pre-monastic years, Swami Satchidananda came to the Ashram on being urged by one of his former colleagues (possibly Sam Rose) from the Army in 1948, the year Appu Kuttan returned from Singapore and was demobilized from the British India Army soon after India’s independence.

Pauses punctuate his recollections. Never once in the entire duration did he take his eyes off me. When I ask him if he visits his native state Kerala, he replies, “Aata hai, Jaata hai. Time doesn’t pass there. But here (at the temple), time passes. We (the sadhus) talk, and time passes. We sleep by ten in the night.”

After visiting temples all over India, and barely surviving malaria after the Badrinath yatra, and living at the Krishna temple in Ujjain for six years, and six months in Goa 'in between' where he claimed “some Malabari people know me well there”, Appu Kuttan eventually made Mookambika temple his home the last nineteen of the twenty five years as a sadhu. He sleeps in the temple shelter after he left the pujari’s (a priest) house on being asked to pay a monthly rent of 450 rupees, money he didn’t have. “I get meals twice a day at the temple here, and a paratha (a type of bread) from a shop nearby, and then I sleep here,” he said.

A short distance away to our right, under a makeshift tent that kept out the September sun, twenty-odd artisans chiseled away in a random yet rhythmic melody of chisel striking stone, fashioning largish stone slabs that four youth loaded into their handcart before carrying it through the door and into the courtyard where workers were laying a part of the floor anew. Then they came back for more, laughing and joking as they pushed their handcart to the rhythmic clicks of metal against stone in the time that Appu Kuttan and I sat conversing while the clock ticked to the beat of those soothing metallic clicks at a place that history had seemingly rented out for posterity.

As I prepared to leave, I motioned to the camera indicating that I wanted to photograph him. I barely noticed him smile under the white beard. While I readied the camera he told me that he was filmed along with another sadhu in Trichur when he was visiting his sister sometime ago, “TV ne pakda,” he said. I took a few pictures, cautious not to run through the three film rolls I had carried along for the trip. Then I shook his hand and swung my legs over the platform, onto the floor. After sitting there facing Appu Kuttan and the wall behind him, it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the glare of the Sun beyond the shade of the platform.

With a short wave of his hand he saw me off as I got down from the platform. By now we had attracted the attention of other sadhus sitting on the opposite platform, his ‘other family’ far away from a home he never really had, and with no one to wait for him in the night and wonder where he was if he got late, Kadavil Appu Kuttan had made the sky his roof and the earth his home. Freedom would come from fires entrusting him to the winds, scattering him where he had once walked, and in the rivers he once prayed to, before carrying him to the ocean, back to where some people say life began.

May 14, 2007

The Remains of the Day

The rail bridge over the Zuari runs parallel to the road bridge. From the window I watch vehicles speed over the bridge in the direction of Panjim (the capital of Goa), but soon we leave them behind as the Mandovi Express puffs her lungs out and lunges forward on her run north along the West Coast. To my left, a fork in the road splits into two, one ascends the bridge while the other runs on to Vasco, passing Sancoale on the way.

I trail my eyes over the spans to my left, held up by six visible pillars, and then linger for a second where both ends of the bridge disappear into a mass of green trees. For a moment I imagine I’m watching a tree bridge held up at both ends by dark green, leafy pillars. I count fourteen pigeons keep pace with us. Time goes still as the behemoth rattles over the bridge against the placid backdrop of the Zuari, only the metal girders flashing past in quick succession confirm our progress across the waist of the Zuari before she flares out into buxom curves, distancing Marmagoa (also spelled Mormugao) taluka from Tiswadi along the contours of an open mouth; the Marmagoa bay. To the south of the bay lies Marmagoa taluka. The city of Vasco sits on its lower lip. From Velsao where I visited Philip’s place sometime ago one can see planes take off and land at Dabolim airport.

In the late evening as we stood on the beach, facing the Sun go down on a fishing trawler returning ashore with its catch of Mullets (shevto in Konkani), Philip pointed out the darkening silhouette of the landmass to our right, jutting out into the sea and obscuring the Marmagoa harbour on the other side. It reminded me of a giant table rising from the sea where the gods sit down to early dinner, watching the Sun go down as a reluctant twilight prepares to bring the curtain down on the day. Unlike buses, or for that matter, trains, there is nothing to tell where planes are headed. A road or a railway track point in a definite direction, a peg in the Earth, a fixture, a steady, identifiable landscape. Up in the sky there is none.

We pass over the Sancoale creek that abuts Sancoale, a small village before Chicalim on the way to Vasco. From the time I first heard Sancoale pronounced ‘Saanq-Oooaal’ as a kid, I hung on to the notion that the sea must have spoken the name using a conch, rolling its tongue to be heard over the lapping waves – ‘Saanq-Oooal’. This was way before I visited Sancoale. It still evokes the feel of a faraway place; somewhere you will never visit but never stop imagining what it must be like to be there either. Eventually I did visit it three times. On one of the trips, Jaggu and I rode the long afternoon from the hinterland, lugging cameras and heading to wherever our fancy took us, even if it meant free-riding sixty kilometers in the blazing Goan Sun. Any place was good enough if it promised memorable photographs, a rustic wayside inn to stop for a pao-bhaji and empty roads to free-ride with the wind in the teeth. And Sancoale in that one image of the whitewashed façade of the Our Lady of Health church, only its front wall now survives the fire of 1834 and the vagaries of age ever since, standing against a deep blue sky, almost defiant in its centuries-old ruins, and marked by refugee-like barrenness of overhanging branches of a nearby tree, stands fixed in my memory like a rusted spear tip in fluorescent blue jelly.

Facing the façade I looked up and traced my eyes along the uneven laterite contours, wondering what must it be to stand alone in a reminder of an age long past, and for a purpose long replaced. Wisps of clouds broke through the branches, setting off the façade in patches of discontinuous deep blue skies. I knelt to take pictures while Jaggu looked around. Skeletal branches cast weak shadows around my feet. A few metres to our left a narrow strip drew up short into the flanks of the estuary. Here the Zuari flows into the Arabian Sea.

A narrow canoe lay anchored to a wooden peg driven into the ground among the mangroves. Broken footwear, pieces of nylon ropes, runaway fishing-net floaters and sundry little debris lay washed up in small laterite rocks piled up on the sides, fashioned to hold back incoming tides. They had met their ‘reefs’ and reduced to debris they now spoke of fishermen and fishing. I wondered if the footwear belonged to a dead man, and whether he had died of drowning, and whether he had drowned from being pushed out at sea. Somehow I felt that such an end seemed likely in the setting the ruins commanded. There was every likelihood the flotsam might have resulted from a fate as innocuous as someone casting away their worn footwear let alone a sinister end in the middle of the sea, but I was not prepared to concede that possibility; believing instead in the forlornness of the landscape abutting the sea and the dark promise it held for an unsuspecting victim. A black dog regarded us nervously as we took in the silence, and contemplated our strangely disquieting setting. In such places, noises cease to be noises, instead they voice the silence of the departed, and the rage of those whom time left behind.

On our way out we passed a low laterite wall fencing off the property. A jamun tree grew over the other side of the wall, and some of its branches reached over the laterite wall where we had parked the bike. Three kids, not older than nine years, were busy collecting jamuns. Two of them stood beneath the tree, holding awkwardly an oversized fishing net to prevent fleshy jamuns from squashing to the ground as they fell. The third was up in the tree, shaking jamuns loose. I picked up some jamuns where they had fallen to the ground on our side of the wall, and brushing off the soil against the seat of my pants I popped them into the mouth. Then I stuck my tongue out to see if it had changed to the colour of the jamuns – inky violet, like I used to do growing up. It had, to the colour of Camel Ink. Old habits die hard.

The setting sun lit up in a shade of gold the fishing net and the two boys straining to hold up its ends. I paused to take their pictures before kicking the bike to life, and entrusting the ruins to the remains of the day, we rode away into the sunset.