Om Namah Shivaya

Om Namah Shivaya

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Nov 30, 2014

UP, CLOSE & PERSONAL: The Gypsy Goddess - Meena Kandasamy


From Hindu lit festivals, to constant ongoing word wars on social media, I have been watching Author Meena Kandasamy's journey to becoming a fiction writer of repute, for some time now. Her book ‘The Gypsy Goddess’, seemed to me, giving voice to her restrained rage against passivity of society at large. In this powerfully crafted novel, she gave vent to her angst in most interesting and witty way, taking us on a journey, exploring one of the most heinous massacres in Nagapattinam at Kilvenmani, where in 1968, 44 dalits were burnt alive by the landlords. 

Click here to buy the book at Amazon
Although, she writes in her book, that Kilvenmani is a season ticket for journalists who want to make a pilgrimage into people’s memory, that writing an annual one-page article salves not only your conscience but also everyone else’s; this book is not going to be a salve to your conscience but an unwrapping of the bandages from distant past and expose a festering wound for all to see, feel and react to. And not to let, in her own words “the coppery sick-sweet smell of charred flesh: a smell like nothing else, a smell that was almost a taste, a smell that was meant to be smuggled to the grave”, it to be buried in sands of time; in the graves of modern Indian history.

When our book club, Sans Serif (which meets at Apparao Gallery every month), decided to discuss the book ‘The Gypsy Goddess’ by the author, Meena Kandasamy, I reached out to her and she enthusiastically agreed to join us for a discussion with the members. On the day of our meeting, I picked her up from her house and on the way, we happened to talk about Rishikesh, Kedarnath (My favorite places in Himalaya), where she spent almost a month shooting for a Malyalam movie Oraalppokkum, in which she is playing the female lead 'Maya'. I was happy to hear when she said that it was one of those places, where she did not have nightmares. 

In the opinion of our book club members, the Author Meena seemed to be quite vulnerable rather than the impresssion and the tag 'Ms Militancy', she is usually associated with.

Moderating the discussion with Meena Kandasamy at San Serif Book Club
Apparao Art Gallery - Chennai


As you start reading the book, your preconceived notions of blood and gore, given the background of the book, based on a horrible massacre, is immediately destroyed with her introduction. Author Meena disarms your bias with her charming words, painting the canvass of the book with her incisive wit. The usual impressions of typical Indian villages, comes out to be in a stark contrast...

Meena Kandasamy @ Hindu Lit Festival
Pic taken by me
“Famed for its large chariot and its buxom Devadasis, the temple at Tiruvarur once ensured that both gods and men were assured of a good ride. Then there’s a temple for the pubescent Neelayadakshi, the only Tamil Goddess with blue eyes. Clearly, some in the steady stream of visiting white men had spilled their seed”.

As you read on, you realize that her freshness of style, not only comes from the fact that it’s her first novel, (so she can choose to experiment with her writing) but also from being an outspoken poet, translator, an active firebrand 'Ms Militancy' in real life as well as on the social media platforms.

“Some poets are utter losers, unreliable when it comes to facts and incapable when it comes to fiction. … I am just spreading out the mattress on the riverside, setting up the landscape, inviting you dear reader, to join me and look beyond the trauma, with the aid of (such) romantic imagery.”

It was a real delight to read her thoughts on the style of her writing, as she takes the reader ‘head on’, getting them ready for anything down the road.

“Sorry… Here (in my book), I simply push them (my characters) off the page. Don’t bother asking me about authorial decorum and all that jazz. I am not running for Miss Congeniality. I stopped practicing politeness in tenth grade. Because I have taken pleasure in the aggressive act of clobbering you with metafictive devices, I can hear some of you go: what happened to the rules of novel? They are hanging on my clothesline over there.

Finally, as she gets ready to drag the reader through the murky waters of feudalism, caste wars and injustice, littered with raw images of poverty and exploitation, she lets you know that her experiences with the medium has made her wiser.

“Initially I wanted to put this section on poets and rivers down as a footnote and forget all about the fictional elements. Last time I wrote a footnote, however, I made the mistake of suggesting that Ponnar and Sankar, two local guardian deities, were Arundhatiyars, an oppressed untouchable caste, and a case was slapped on me by the touchy touchable caste – Hindus seven years after the book appeared.”

Author in discussion with book club members...
Reading the book, I felt closer to the dark reality that was seemingly so far off for those of us, who live in Metro Chennai, a part of the modern India, where, like every other urban city, the public memory is notoriously short. Though, in this write up, I would not like to discuss the politics behind the massacre, the ferocity of feudal landlords or the helplessness of the poor peasants as Meena Kandasamy is a far better person to do that, but I would like to say that it is one of the most difficult book to write. Meena has done a great job in conveying convey the texture, feelings and helplessness of the time, truthfully.

She says, “Even if we stylistically try and recreate the texture of every other old-maids tale, we must remember that hate is not always obedient to plot. It has ambition, it believes in unlimited possibilities and places its trust in tangents”. And she excels, in not letting her ferocious angst take over the book instead she shows us the mirror of our times - oblivious to the suffering of the poor, downtrodden and unjust politics etc.

“… and in desperation a mother throws her one-year-old son out of the burning hut but the boy is caught by the leering mobsters and chopped into pieces and thrown back in and in that precise moment of loss and rage every one realizes that they would dies if their death meant saving a loved one and that they would die if their death meant staying together and that they would die anyway… and together they prepare to resign themselves to the fact that they have mounted their collective funeral pyre.”

Arthur Schopenhauer has once said…
“Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes ".

For me that was the reality of the book.  Meena Kandasamy reached out to the readers, with simple truth being told as it is. She has perfectly captured the aftermath of the massacre through the eyes of Inspector Rajavel, who made the First Information Report (FIR) of the incident, without being pretentious…

“…only a cold-blooded sadist could have come up with an instruction to the reporting of police officer to note down the facial expression of a fire victim.”

In the end, I would like to share some of the lines from the book that got me thinking. …

Listening to Meena Kandasamy at Sans Serif Book Club...

What is a story worth if it does not have a supernatural element? Why begin when you can not bring in the Gods.

Words transform when they travel through a medium. They die, but worse they can kill. In a novel like this, there is no point in shooting the messenger dead. In the village of Kilvenmani, pannaiyal Subramanian is the linkman. … It’s through him that they receive their threats; it is through him that they learn that their end is near. Like the fool of all folklore, this man will survive and stay unscathed.

Revolutions are usually verbose and, sometimes, they make too many promises.

Don’t you even try to get familiar with what goes on around here, for it is not only the sounds of my native land that you will find staggering.

I was in the mood for some Dostoevsky that day, my mind was swinging with my mood and, reminding myself that men were despots by nature, I maintained an icy exteriors, almost as if I was frozen by fear.

It would be cruel not to appreciate Inspector Rajavel’s labors, and criminal to suppress the facts of the massacre. Therefore his observations have been shared hereunder, and the tabulation shall tell this tale.

Anger prevents Kilvenmani from disorienting itself, Maayi sees how the anger keeps the people together, injects them with life, provides them a reason to live, pushes them to action.

Because all of us are afraid and the fear in our hearts slurs the truth in our voices.

नमः शिवाय
Om Namah Shivaya
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WANDERLUST: A Spiritual Quest in Jageshwar and Kasar Devi


This is my third visit to Jageshwar Dham, along with my Amitabh and Shweta to celebrate their anniversary,  had a special purpose i.e. in search of the answers to some questions that I have had developed in recent times as well as thanks giving for the many blessings Lord Jageshwar has given me over the years. Jageshwar is believed to be the site of first of the twelve Jyotirlingas, Nageshvara Jyotirlinga.The temple city comprises a cluster of 124 large and small stone temples, dating 9th to 13th century AD. And I firmly believe that the spiritual energy of the place can affect one's inner consciousness deeply to unlock energy centres 'Kundalini' to give you a different perspective on life and living...

The Swayambu Jyotirlinga of Jageshwar Shiva.
Adi Shankaracharya meditated here, on the way to Kedarnath
I also had planned to visit Kasar Devi, A place where the Hippy Movement found a firm ground to develop roots and interest many of the prominent personalities. The place first became known when in the 1890s, Swami Vivekananda visited and meditated here and has mentioned his experience in his diaries. Numerous western seeker, Sunyata Baba (Alfred Sorensen and Lama Anagarika Govinda) whose book I was currently reading. It was also visited by personalities of the counter-culture, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Cat Stevens, Western Buddhist Robert Thurman, and writer D. H. Lawrence, who spent two summers here.

Kasar Devi

So here I am sharing my spiritual retreat, through images and some descriptions about the places that I visited. Hope you will all enjoy.

Jageshwar Temple Complex
My journey started from Chennai and I was joined by Ami and the family at Delhi. We took early morning train and reached Kathgodam, from where 6 hours journey by the scenic road through Bhimtal, skirting Nainitaal, Almora we reached Jageshwar, as the sun was setting. The evening aarti at the Temple was with usual rituals and mantra chanting, settled us into our guest house, by the night.

The mountain trails along with the stream is most uplifting in the early
morning walks...
My daily routine was to get up in the early morning and take a walk, after the morning mediation in the temple complex. The Jageshwar temple town has an amazing array of trails that leads you to various peaks that encircle the complex apart from the usual 124, century old shrines that pop up in the walks. 

One of the 10th Century that towers over the confluence of two streams,
the way to Dandeshwar Temple and a mountain path.
Some of these old temple structures are enticing and makes you realise the devotions of the people who made it and more so of the people, who used to worship, meditate and do spiritual practices around the place. The Archeological Society of India (ASI) has removed the idols within these structures to the museum in the town, but still have an aura that invites you to sit down and meditate. My time in the Jageshwar this time, was divided between walking, sitting in places like this for hours together and offering prayers to the temples, where the idols still survive and daily rituals still being performed.

Dandeshwar Templ Complex
In this journey, I have spent a lot of time in this tallest temple structure in Kumaon Region, consisting of 14 shrines from 9-10 Century, as I was discovering more connection to this temple. This temple is supposed to save one from the calamities, discontent and confusion. For me it was more to have clarity of thoughts and found the small garden within, full of blooming flowers a beautiful space of concentration. The mountain rising all around, concentrated the energy in the centre and I could spend hours together just silently sitting and chanting. There's a small tea stall beyond the complex, that anticipated my timings and offered tea in each one of my breaks from the meditation.

Sunrise at Jageshwar Temple
Every day, the sunrise brings its own unique combination of colors, mist and the sound of mantra chantings from the temple, as the priest get Lord Shiva, ready for the daily darshan. Though the visitors are not allowed when the ritual of waking Shiva is performed by the head priest, early in the morning i.e. 4 am, I was happy to be at one of the services one day. The temperature around the complex drops to 1 deg Celsius and walking barefoot on the stones for the long duration is almost impossible, yet the devout priests were able to take a bath in the Jageshwar Ganga stream alongside the complex, run here and there for the necessities for the rituals, barefoot and bare upper half seemed oblivious to the cold november. 

On the way to Kasar Devi, with Almora city in the back ground
The way to Kasar Devi is like playing hide and seek with the world's 3rd highest mountain peak, Nanda Devi. It rises above the various smaller peaks during the journey. The temple complex was constructed by a South Indian Shri Rudra in the 6th Century. Vivekananda came here to meditate...

At the Kasar Devi, with perfect view of the mountains in the back...

From the temple, one could clearly see the Himalayan range from the shrine of Kasar Devi, with various peaks like Trishul, Nanda Devi, Pachchuli Mountain groups and Pindari glacier. One of the most beautiful places to sit back and enjoy the beauty of nature and be in touch with your own inner self. No doubt the alternate culture found itself in these surroundings. My favourite restaurant along the road side, further down in the town, gave one of the magnificent views of the Himalayan range. One could site back here or at the Kasar Devi Temple, which provides many secluded spaces around the complex to think, write or meditate.
The view of Himalaya Range from Brihad Jageshwar
One of the most beautiful place around the Temple Town is Brihad Jageshwar temple, high on the mountain towards west, which is accessible by road as well as one of the beautiful treks, through the pine forest and some beautiful villages, once you cross the Jageshwar Temple complex. It's said that this temple is the old Shiva, whereas the one in the town is young shiva, who is very happy to grant boons. There's a story that when Adi Shankaracharya realised that Shiva is giving every one his blessings, whether the person is deserving or not, he requested him to be more selective in granting wishes, and pushed him deeper into the ground. While the Brihad Jageshwar is the one where most of the Tantrics perform sadhana to attain powers and siddhi. The priest told me that in the night, many of the saints fly over to spend some time at this place, on their way to mount Kailash, the adobe of Lord Shiva.

On the steps of Brihad Jageshwar
The serenity of the place is overwhelming and one can just spend all the time here. The temple complex is not very elaborate and old but the Shiva Linga is supposed to be from eternity. As it is not on the tourist circuit, so remains secluded and only very ardent followers and most of the tantrics, who are aware about the importance of this temple, visit here. 
As the sunsets at Brihad Jageshwar, hot tea is a welcome drink...

I have been visiting this place every time I am at Jageshwar, not only because of the peace and vibration that I feel here but also the trek to this temple from the town is one of the most beautiful as well as thought provoking. My afternoons were spend on daily journey to this temple and watch the sun set over the Himalaya - on the impressive face of Nanda Devi Mountain. As you walk down a distance of around 3 KMs from the temple, its almost dark. During my stay here at Jageshwar, a local villager has become a friend and offers a welcome tea in his verandah full of exotic flowers.

The dark night descends with winter chill - temperature coming down to
1 deg celcius. As I dig deeper into my consciousness, the outside mist
envelops the surrounding in silence to facilitate my thought process
The nights have been my perfect haven for thinking and by the time I come back from the daily evening aarti, its dinner time. After spending a lot of time around the fire, set up by the very eager and helpful people of the guest house, along with Ami and the gang; where Anumeha and Saanvi display their oratorial skills with nursery rhymes and improvised stories of Saanvi, we all retire to our respective rooms. My time of writing starts and most of the times it goes till early morning. The perfect silence, the twinkling of stars in the sky and the chill envelops all senses into a perfect calm and the subconsciousness takes hold of you. You fly to different plains of existence and I used the time to put those thoughts on the paper. My book is finally taking shape and I was quite happy about it. Writing this book is like a journey into unknown and unravelling myself. I was stuck in Chennai within my thoughts of existence, how does the consciousness works and what's the reason of existence etc but the place cleared the knots, unravelled the mystery. One does need extra sensory perceptions to understand these things and I was sure that the spiritual energy of the place will give me, the much needed space to dwell deeper within me to understand all these things...

Another morning and another sunrise as my journey was coming to an end..
It was an Himalayan expedition this time in its true sense and I was happy to scale some obstacles on my path of understanding. As I reached back to Chennai, I was able to put my thoughts in perspective... 

Hope you have enjoyed this journey with me, let me know your thoughts...

नमः शिवाय
Om Namah Shivaya
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Rituals and Meditations in Jageshwar 2012
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