By Chitra Gopalakrishnan
It is November, an odd time for rains, perhaps, yet it is when the north-east monsoon wavers over our region, sometimes generous but mostly not.
I walk alone in the cool damp of midnight from the rim of the cremation ground, where I live, to its midpoint or the place closest to its middle. It is a long distance from the unsightly, flat, grounds of the cremation area, past scrawny, scrubby hills, to the mini-grove in the middle, one filled with trees of white babool, siris, white cutch, Indian persimmon and ebony and whose many pathlets twine their way into a smallish forest.
It is a walk no one in my village Venthila will undertake. If my skin folk avoid the somber cremation ground where their dead burn and their remains get sorted, they hold out far more adamantly from going past it to the grove and the forest beyond. For good reasons.
The one time my fellow villager Nagamuttu did cross the stretch to reach the grove, he said, he was inexorably bound to ill fate. His version, recounted each time with beading perspiration on his forehead, is this. “I had a feeling in my muscles and in my gut, I will be physically injured. I felt a real visceral fear of harm and a grisly nearness to evil. Worse still, for a long time, I could feel the weight of presences on my body, day, midday, dusk and night.”
I, however, have no escape from either the trek to the woodlands or from shadows who come to life.
I am no arborist, as you perhaps suspect. I have no interest in studying trees, shrubs, vines, and other perennial woody plants. I am more a man who lives on the margins, who seamlessly shifts his identity from a free-moving nomad to a local inhabitant of Venthila. A man removed from his world while he straddles its heart.
Let me explain my peculiar psycho-geographic landscape. I am the one person in my village with an ability to receive signals from spirits, see them and the visions they show. As I am expected to communicate it to whoever it is intended for, I have an obligation to arrive at the places these spirits summon me to. But more about how I became a wanderer, a spirit-observer and reporter of their sayings, of how I bridge the gap between fact and fiction, of how I travel in today’s world yet see as much of the past as I do the future, later. Once I bind my yesterdays with my today and tomorrows.
Tonight, I have been called to the sacred grove or koil kaadu, as we call it. A place so named as it is dedicated to our ancestral spirits. Mystic folklore forbids us from cutting its trees, breaking its branches, collecting firewood, grazing and hunting of animals. Our people believe transgressions can cause crop failure and death in the family. Perhaps why Nagamuttu suffered. As vegetation and life of every kind, be it birds, reptiles and insects, is left undisturbed in our koil kaadu, it has become a repository of rare and endemic species and as our village elder, says, “A place where culture and environment are complementary and borrow each other’s dynamism.”
So I walk on towards my revelation gateway, in a state of preparedness, with a certain inner climate of aliveness, to allow for a deep, attentive listening to the words of the spirits.
I look skyward from time to time to make sure I am headed in the right way. I see a group of stars huddled in a circle and the moon at a distance away, struggling with her loneliness. They all flash some light into the interiors of the grove but not enough. A steady stream of floating clouds that fill the sky stop the diffusion.
It is purely by instinct that I carry on, past tall, silent trees that stand watchful guard and their silvery-blue leaves who look on me with patience. I feel the moistness of their trunks, laden as they are with the dampness of yesterday’s rain.
My loose black robe merges with the blackness around only its gentle rustling betraying my presence. A light monsoon breeze picks up. It explores the grove tentatively, engages its tree foliage in a musical dialogue and then wanders guilefully to eddy and skirl around me in a dance.
I listen intently, waiting for a signal above the breeze, the chirping of night crickets, the chittering of bats, the sleep wails of grackles and the croaking of frogs. Soon a static buzz grows persistently in my inner world. I begin to feel shadowy presences gather at the edge of my consciousness. I knew they are there even if I cannot see them, gathering their forces toward a kind of definiteness.
Then in an instant, and without warning, the physical world around me falters.
The gentle breeze morphs into winds that whip the trees. They begin to lean forward, bend sideways and sway manically. Their leaves howl. Their branches gather a life of their own, extending themselves this way and that like hydra-headed monsters. And, the rootlets of many trees begin to cut through the surface of the soil.
In the midst of this disturbing landscape comes more perturbation. A million red eyes oscillating from crab trees peer intently at me through the darkness. As the winds move these the pinnate-leafleted perennial climbers, which have pythoned themselves around trees, shrubs and hedges, their seed eyes seem to move as well. They seem to dart to and fro with maleficence, ruby-red in their anger.
Pulled, pushed, tugged and tossed by winds spiralling upwards, it is now my turn to be swallowed into the substance of the gale. Borne up by the rush of air, in a state of weightlessness, I am lifted skyward and set down again at a distance near a waterless peravurani, derived from the Tamil words periya meaning big and oorani meaning pond. This was once lush with liquid, wrinkling like silk with each ebb and flow, and not the scarce, scanty hollow it is today, with a thin, pus green stream making its way through thick rinds of stone and the riprap of gravel.
It is then I see the shadows, past the sheets of the whirlwind and the pond.
Creatures who like to use winds to buffet hapless creatures. They are neither human nor beast and make odd wheeze sounds. I stand passively even as the pulse in my ears throb. Up close, I see these beings have no uniform shape, no recognizable face and are different from one another. Yet each one of them has a misshapen tail, defiant, tense and crooked. And sour breaths.
I know these visions would be a rip in the fabric of reality for many. I know they take a person to a different height of normal – paranormal, to planes of existence aside from the one we are in now and to unfathomable dimensions that are linked to our consciousness.
I am perhaps asking for too much suspension in disbelief from those hearing me out. Yet this is my reality, one that I have been accustomed to for years. To the unbelieving, I say, since there are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world, believe me when I say they are other realms, other planes of living, beyond what our limited rational understanding can perceive. Both there outside and here amidst us.
Yet even for me, used as I am to entanglements with aberrant sights and creatures from planes less material and embodied, these spirits are unusual. They leave me in awe of my own terror after they have spoken. This is because, for the first time in my life, I am being entrusted with messages for my whole village, for all my people. Earlier, spirits from other dimensions had messages for one or two people.
“Beware devils who sow distrust,
Beware dark demons of hate,
Beware soul-taking fire,
Beware people who are not who they seem.
If they uproot the earth,
If they burn the ground, Venthila will fall
Unless the lost village of love be found. “
When it became clear twenty years ago I had the power of prophecy, my father said to me, “This gift, of bringing back truths from unseen realms, which lie beyond the confines of our five senses, has been particular only to the men of our community. This over centuries. Some men of our clan have come by this gift, while others have not. You have, and you are special as we have been left bereft of this soothsaying ability for some years.”
“Start your new role as the keeper of truths,” he said, “by losing your name, identity, home, possessions and family. Now on, you will only be known as ‘Gudugudupandi’, or the carrier of the drum (gudugudu), belong to the cremation ground, not to us, and aloneness is to be your only way.”
My mother’s advice was far more prosaic. She said, “Smear the ash of the dead on your forehead, wear black clothes to draw in energy and light and make your predictions, derived at night in the burning ground, the very next morning before the sun hastens towards the sky.”
Venthila, my village, in Tamil Nadu’s Paramakudi area situated in Ramanathapuram district, is home to five hundred-odd homes. Strangers often tell us our “land looks plump with promise” and our river Vaigai “speaks of restfulness”.
This is perhaps because an aerial view shows up lush lines of mango, papaya, jackfruit, coconut, banana and palm trees, our rice, cotton, black gram and corn crops, our many ponds where lotus are spread across silent, limpid waters and the mild meanderings of our river Vaigai infused with a yogic calm.
Rising in the western slopes of the Varushanad hills close to the Theni district and flowing in a northerly and north-easterly direction, our Vaigai teams up with the river Varahanadi, to flow through Madurai and Sivaganga districts and then through my very own Ramanathapuram, to finally plunge into the Bay of Bengal.
Despite her free and flamboyant flow inland, Vaigai’s promise of water through the seasons is deceptive. She fails us regularly by falling into her low stage because of deficient rainfall. Her collapse shows up often in the suspension of our drinking water schemes as her bed completely dries up, in our failed crops and in persistent droughts in our district.
The aerial view of abundance is really a falsity. Our lands with sandy, red soil clay and black cotton soil mostly leave us unbraced against the immense upwelling of heat from their insides and poor yields that afford jobs to only a fourth of our people. They force many to regularly migrate, either to work on lands in other villages or to cities where they work with things they have no instinct for.
A miasmic mix of caste rivalries and its resulting socio-economic tensions are other quicksand traps for our dissatisfaction. Ironically, it is not just I, who lives a life on the margin, with experiences that are peripheral. There are hundreds of others dispossessed and expelled in my society, in ways that are visible, tangible and felt. Their practices, cultural traits, jobs and place of living are not considered right or acceptable in the larger socio-political dynamics.
Though I belong to them and we share a common ground of existence, one filled with unequal equations in power and practice, they don’t see it that way. Since I live on a plane where human-non-human, material-immaterial are entangled one into the other they see me as different.
In a land where its water is scarce but blood is easy, we have all let hate, distrust, intolerance and violence seep into us and our lives. The rutting billy goat dialect and actions of our politicians, the men we choose to represent us, is enough proof. They choose riots as a mode of life and we follow their instructions.
The tyrannical sun, which beats down on our tiled and thatched homes with equal fury, has seen many from our homes killed and the violence swirl outwards. Understandably, visitors to our village are few, unless you count land surveyors who come in from the city and leave in haste, and new settlers are unheard of.
It is against this backdrop that you must understand my prophecies to people of all castes and varying social denominations. With so many agendas of evil and privations all around, there is a fierce passion and longing for hope. So I always begin my soothsaying at dawn, before the sap-stickiness of the day sets in, with my clackety-clack drumlet, and the words “Nalla Kallam Porakkudu” (Await the birth of your good fortune). I take atreacherous turn in cases that are not-so-simple. But I make sure to use words with liquid grace to take away the sting of my forecast and humbly accept rice, lentils, fruits and clothes in return.
Beating beads suspended on both sides of my hour-glass shaped drumlet, I have imparted news of newborns who will come to fame, jobs for many, unwaged existence for others, solace for amorous lovers, separateness for illicit couples whose passion carried them beyond all prudence, marriage for in-the-wait young, remarriage for a few, local court verdicts in land disputes, and even the drying of our river, our lifeline, Vaigai.
While I am free in my wildness, caring little about borders, rules and customs, I do agitate about whether I am right to tap into something primal in people, things that are dark, festering, messy and inconvenient, for my revered status. After all, my new avatar is a far call from belonging to the lowest rung in the village’s caste ladder. On very many days, a soul-froth bubbles within me about toying with people’s uncertainties, a condition that has them both worried and intrigued about tomorrow’s dangers.
What settles my fluster, somewhat at least, is the fact that I have been handpicked and readied for this role by our goddess Jakkamma. She has chosen me to be a wanderer and for wandering to become my destiny. While planting my feet in this world, she has also led me at the same time to be part of a world independent of living people, a world beyond the five senses.
Jakkamma has tutored me not just to drop my clothes, possessions and youth but also the need to adhere and to please others while filling me with a deep sense of inner balance and a wisdom that is not heavy, drab or sententious.
So I tell myself not to feel alone or wicked and bare up to barbs of a few who call me a “sorcerer full of folly and impertinence”. I handle their resentment towards my “dire mulling’s” and “making known their private truths”. And I calm myself to be tolerant of Westerners and many city dwellers who have a different comprehension of such experiences and are unable to be fully receptive of what I say or of other dimensions of existence.
But I admit, I now understand how they must feel. This as the last vision of mine has somehow caused great violence to my being and my beliefs, stab-burning me like a lurid yellow sun with razor-sharp rays. For the first time, I am jolted by my legacy of “clear seeing”, “the faculty of supernormal sight”, “clairvoyance” or whatever terms people call it by. I feel an unfamiliar sense of aloneness and abandonment settle within and hesitancy about my capability.
Let me be clear, I am used to aloneness. I do know of its hold of aloneness on humid days, when without respite, I watch the arrival of fireflies from dusk to darkness. From when they change from in-view colourful insects to floating lights and then to gleaming trails. I understand its doggedness on cooler days when I walk fifteen kilometres away from my village to the wetlands of Chitrangudi to watch migratory herons and pelicans from dawn to dusk, feeling their sense of impermanence deep within.
But the aloneness I feel now is different. It is perforated and leaky not contained and calm.
We at Venthila have learned live by our village seasons of deprivation, hate and its oddities. But my vision, that has served its purpose of playing the devil’s advocate, has one thing to say to me. Our suspicion-scarred present cannot continue. For it will mean only one thing for the future: ruin.
How then should I tell my people of their coming end? How do I convince them of their need for assimilation despite their varying intents? How can I make my people see with the heart as I know that everything vital is invisible to the eyes? How can I restore my lost village of love?
I am in a state of ferment.
Idea upon idea falls over the side of my brimming mind till one sits still. It is born of a simple yet potent thought. From my deep belief of a cosmos in which all beings exist in dependence with each other, where the whole is contained in the part and the part in the whole.
This is the secret of survival I have learnt of the ancient Vedic scriptures, its touch of genius.
Quite simply, it says it is only the non-difference of ‘self’ and the ‘other’ which will allow for the oneness of the world, for the divine to shine in all things and all peoples. It believes that humans can ensure their continued survival only through tolerance and acceptance towards others, and compassion and reverence for all things. I, of course, through my own experience also know that this applies to the acceptance of non-human forms and spirits as well. To understand this cosmic vision better and in a simple way, think of a river. A river running downstream effortlessly to find the ocean.
Our country came to freedom with this belief 73 years ago. What we focused on determined what we manifested. Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities did emerge. The shortfalls of running a country and its business based on self-interest with little sympathy for the well-being of others showed up in our struggle for freedom so we built a nation with everyone’s interests in our mind.
It is another story that we have let go of this belief today.
It is then absurd if I dream that my tiny village can be made equable this way as well? For my lost village of love to re-emerge?
But will my people buy my one big idea? Will they let me guide them to health? After all, as a wanderer, I have chosen the lonelier path. But as they see me as someone who looks beyond, I feel they will allow me to lead them, to help them make sense of what I have sensed.
My plan is to enter my village, before the first crow caws, with a loud drumroll, determinedly calling out “Nalla Kallam Porakkudu”, “Nalla Kallam Porakkudu” for I knowfortune favours the brave. And my words, powerless as they may seem on other’s tongues, will become lucid, vigorous, powerful and convincing of my truth as I daily combine it in this way and that. I will speak with the power of all my five senses, with its infinite capacity, for it to become the language of my soul.
I will continue my foretelling till the time all my people let me past their thennais (porticos) and into their hearts, and never again shun me as low-born or an unconventional man living on the margins. Till the time my religion of holy madness, of love and oneness of all, becomes theirs. Till such time my divine search becomes theirs. And till they are convinced that all those who wander are not lost.
When this happens, I will know then that my Venthila, my lost city of love, has been restored.