#23. Vijayalakshmi

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Within the warren like structure of folklore, ballads, myths and stories, there are valuable lessons to be gleaned about the social, cultural, economic and belief systems of a certain time. Also, the way these narratives change tone, interpretation, emphasis and voice best reflect the social tenor of that particular moment in history. The story of Parayi Petta Panthirukulam (The Twelve Tribes Born of Parayi) starts with the wise man Vararuchi of the court of King Vikramaditya being highly impressed by the intelligence and presence of mind of a girl of the Paraya caste. He married her and they went on to have twelve children. At the birth of each child, Vararuchi would make her abandon the infant by claiming that if the child had a mouth, the God who gave it a mouth would find a means to feed it. When the twelfth child was born, the wife refused to leave the child behind claiming that he had no mouth. Hearing this, Vararuchi agreed to take the child along. Soon the wife realised that the child had indeed become mouthless. This crushed her. Vararuchi then took the baby to the top of a hill and consecrated him. He came to be known as Vayillakunnilappan (the Lord atop the hill who has no mouth). As all the twelve children were adopted by people belonging to different castes and social strata, the bloodline of Vararuchi and Parayi courses rather democratically through the people of Kerala.

Among these twelve, we however, are going to look at Uliyannur Perunthachan, the master carpenter, whose story is metaphorical in terms of studying the shades that human nature can assume. An expert in Thachushasthram – the science of architecture and carpentry, he was especially proficient in temple architecture. Tales of his genius abound. Chief among them are how while constructing a temple pond, the people of the village all differed on the shape of the pond. So, Perunthachan designed a pond that looked square, rectangular, circular, oval or triangular, depending on where one was standing. The pond was so confusing that people praying in it found it difficult to discern the four directions, a vital aspect while offering prayers.

When the river eventually changed its course and flowed next to the temple, people abandoned the pond, preferring the river. In time, Perunthachan constructed a bridge across the river but also placed a doll that would dip and emerge from the river as soon as someone stepped on the other end of the bridge. By the time the person reached the doll, it would squirt a mouthful of water at the passer-by, drenching and embarrassing him.

Perunthachan was a proud man who earned respect through his blazing ability. He is said to have stopped at a site where a temple was being constructed. The carpenters paid him no heed and even went to lunch without inviting him. In their absence, Perunthachan is supposed to have quietly marked sections of the wooden rafters that were to form the roof of the temple. The carpenters returned and upon seeing the markings, assumed that the senior carpenter might have made them to indicate the length that needed to be sawn off. The carpenters did exactly that and found that the rafters were now short and just would not do. Upset, they went off to make new ones. In the meantime, Perunthachan had already carved out the necessary supports. He connected them to the rafters which were now the perfect length. And finally gave a hard blow to the top of the roof and fixed it in place once and for all. The carpenters returned and were filled with wonder. They fell at his feet. Perunthachan was pleased.

In these narratives, Perunthachan was not alone. He was accompanied by his son – Kannan (a fictitious name as mentioned in the English translation of the Aithihyamaala by Sreekumari Ramachandran) who was said to be a craftsman of extraordinary skill. When Perunthachan constructed the temple pond, Kannan is supposed to have asked him if the people would cross the river to bathe in the pond. The father brushed away his query as at the time, the river was far away. But it changed course as I mentioned earlier. This proved the son’s foresight.  Kannan placed another wooden doll on the bridge that would slap Perunthachan’s doll, causing it to turn its face and squirt the water harmlessly. All these were supposed to have caused considerable affront to Perunthachan.

Kannan had also witnessed and learned the way Perunthachan had joined the rafters- a technique that was something of a professional signature. It is said that the father began to grow jealous of the son who was gaining fame with each passing day. One day, as they were working on a temple site, Perunthachan on the roof and his son right below him, Perunthachan’s chisel is supposed to have slipped and fallen on the son, instantly killing him.

One doesn’t know whether the act was a deliberate one or if it was genuinely an accident. On the one hand, a master carpenter whose tools are an extension of himself – meaning, that such a slip was well nigh impossible. On the other hand, it could have been an accident. The ambiguity is what makes this tale alluring. The labyrinthine ways of a gifted mind. The possibility of having to choose between artistic immortality and filial love that Perunthachan presents is also symbolic of the way our choices shape our legacy. It is also cathartic as it shows the vulnerability that nestles in human nature. More importantly, that no one is above these frailties of character.

G SankaraKurup’s Perunthachan is one of the few dramatic monologues in Malayalam and Vijayalakshmi’s Thachante Makal takes the narrative of this legendary figure further as she plumbs possible depths. Vijayalakshmi is one of the best-known poets in contemporary Malayalam literature. Her works are powerful statements about being a woman. Though not explicitly feminist in their tone, her poems voice women’s concerns with nuance. Vijayalakshmi is a poet who uses subtlety and understatement to make a powerful impact. This technique is itself disruptive and one is left wondering at the possible layers that can be peeled off a single phrase. Her first poem appeared in the iconic Kalakaumudi when she was barely seventeen and she has not looked back ever since. She has several acclaimed collections to her name such as Thachante Makal, Mazha Tan Matteto Muhkam, Andha kanyaka, Mazhakappuram, Seetha darsanam and Vijayalakshmiyude Pranayakavithakal.

Her works have brought her numerous awards, including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and the Vylopilly Award. In 1995 and 2018 she won three prestigious awards in a calendar year. She is an influential voice in Malayalam poetry and has served on various literary bodies such as the Kerala Sahitya Akademi and the Samastha Kerala Sahitya Parishad.

The Carpenter’s Daughter (Thachante Makal) reimagines Perunthachan’s story to include a daughter who is talented in her own right. The poem gives a voice to the young girl, grieving for her big brother and going through the trauma of having to wonder at the nature of his death. Vijayalakshmi preserves the element of doubt, but opens a few windows through cleverly building an image of a lurking father, who pauses at doorways. The poet through her images reveals the world of the protagonist that centred around the sibling.  The idea of a girl setting out on her own to wield a chisel in the world of men is just the sort of poetic surprise you can come to expect from Vijayalakshmi. The lines that the father addresses to his daughter resonate with pain and possible regret. But regret about what?  The act or the shadow of accusation or the death itself. That is the question the reader must answer -the best they can.

The poem was translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan and was featured in the Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Literature edited by P.P. Raveendran and G.S. Jayasree. Ms. Sankaranarayanan is a celebrated translator who has translated a number of acclaimed works from Malayalam such as Lalithambika Antarjanam’s Agnisakshi (Fire, My Witness), C. N Sreekantan Nair’s Kanchana Sita, Matampu Kunhukuttan’s Bhrushte (Outcaste), Kovilan’s Thattakam, P. Vatsala’s Agneyam, and Sara Joseph’s Oorukaval (The Vigil), into English. Her translations have been published by the Sahitya Akademi and major publishing houses such as the Oxford University Press and Aleph. She is also a poet and has been featured on Samyukta Poetry. For more on Ms. Sankaranarayanan, do visit  http://www.samyuktapoetry.com/5-vasanthi-sankaranarayanan/

Sonya J. Nair

Editor

The Carpenter's Daughter1

I bow to that magnificent spirit

That carved

A thousand temple towers

As I leave

With a box of chisels and a ruler

I will not be a prey to that floor chisel.

Since early days

My mind, mute and meek

Was geared to my father’s austere discipline.

What fun I had

Playing with the scattered wood shavings,

Joining them, making forests out of them!

 

A droplet in clouds blue-

On earth massive trees

Rise from seeds.

From millions upon millions of stars

To the earth come light and life.

So too it was in me that his fire fell and flared.

 

Sometimes, while he worked

He recited verses from the Vastuvidya.

We listened, my brother and I, to his right and left;

Words conjuring

Rajjusutra,2 lines and points—

judgement of directions—

properties of land—

measurements and calculation.

 

We learnt from father, the principles of architecture

Following Bhaskareeyam3and Mayamatam4

theories about the position of Vastupurusha5,

And even the technique of buildingkoothumadam– the dance theatre.

Yes, I listened to him and learnt it all,

Together with my brother.

 

At times, the great man would say,

Knowledge is not enough,

Learning should be practical

The greatness of human beings lies

In breathing life into

scientific truths.

 

As you carved wooden lotuses

I stood witness to their arresting beauty.

In their hearts when you fashioned buzzing bees,

Who could fathom your arcane workings?

A door which at the touch of a finger on the left

Opened into an underground cavern

         The sixth square, which caved in at the pressure of a foot

         And sank into a sea of water;

         The young coconut, on which I carveda black eye

         Making a doll to play with.

          In the midst of all this, my left eye saw      

In that unmoving eye, the smoldering embers of an inner eye.

 

Carved ceilings, in many places, here and beyond,

Pillars supporting the faces of hope,

Within the pillars Narasimhas,

 aglow with the light of a hundred thousand suns

wait to spring forth.

The new embankment to the lake shaped neither as a circle,

A square nor as a definite angle,

Yet embracing all this, its look disorienting

Even the Ashtadikpalakas, the Guardians of the Eight Directions.

The trick by the doll on the bridge,

The steps shaped like musical instruments

Leading to the dome of the sanctum sanctorum,

Words to Agnihotri6 that the principle

Of the single chosen deity

Should stay stable in the mind of man

Fixed as if by ashtabandha, the glue of eight ingredients:

All this I reminisce as I turn to face the past.

 

The past like fields shrouded in waves of moonlight.

On its border stands

the ghost of a loved one

like a paalatree in full bloom.

Its scent harrowing.

The one, who from the day of birth grew along with me,

The one who rubbed grime and soot

When I hurt my knee and cried aloud;

The one who made swings

And pushed them for me.

The one who declared, when I came of age,

‘It is time to request Devendran, the King of Gods

To tie the taaliaround the neck of my beloved sister!’

The one who then picked a fine piece of sandalwood

And carved a perfect idol for me.

 

Trees to my brother were

Half-finished idols waiting to be completed.

Gods, childless came to him in sleep and pleaded:

 ‘Please make idols of us!’

 

I flung at him

the sting of my criticism

So as to make him work better,

To which he responded ever and always

With an enigmatic half-smile.

 

He who knew his craft was once

Carving a stone idol of Ambika, the Mother Goddess,

And I said in jest:

‘It is a pity the idols you make

Are just like father’s.’

Looking straight into the tender eyes

Of my brother, a pensive man

Who knew no anger, I said this too:

‘You cannot grow in the shade of a huge tree

Your nourishment comes from seeking sunlight,

By yourself, unaided,’

But he, gentle and virtuous, would not agree.

 

For him the astrologer predicted untimely death

Seeing signs inauspicious in the horoscope.

But my elder brother, devoted to father,

Followed his sire like a shadow.

Unsuspecting disciple, he wore on his face his usual smile,

Filled with the sheen of burnished gold,

Even as he lay with his throat severed.

 

Even now inauspicious death

Lies under my feet as a hungry serpent.

The floor chisel, darkened by blood stains

May slip and fall on my sleeping mat too!

 

I cannot, like an impassioned Rajput

court death on the battlefield of revenge.

And insulting elders is indeed a great sin!

Moreover, if that spirit which carves

The wonders of the world slips again

Who is there to question it?

Who is fearless enough to face the elephant in rut and chain it?

Brother, it is beyond me

To offer my young blood as a tribute to you.

 

Alone in my own terrain, I took unto my heart

The weight of a stone chisel.

Striking on the black and white stones

I began to learn the lessons of life.

The twist chisel turned and did my bidding.

The small chisel, softened by ghee, submitted to my will.

Tame and petted as pampered cows were now

the foot ruler and the scale in my gentle hands.

 

Father’s craft in chiselling thick tree trunks

Into thin slabs of wood—

I mastered to challenge the wild seas

With boats hewn from my thoughts.

 

Outside my closed and bolted doors

Came day and night, summer and monsoon,

While I sat within these anthills of my mind

looking deep into myself.

 

 

Those who grieve, those that smile,

Those who fear, those that are peaceful,

The devas, kinnaras and yakshas,7

The king of asuras who plays the Rudraveena,8

Sukra, the master of Demonology,9

Who keeps a pot of wine next to him,

Accursed Yayati,10

Ahalya who looked at Indra with desire,11

Bhishma12 who had to lie on a bed of arrows

For supporting wrong:

Out of the marrow of the trees, I chiselled them all

Into expressive shapes.

Why did the sunlight falling on the half-closed door

Grow dim once in a while as I worked?

Did the shadow of a magnificent figure shut the light out?

Just a glance and then moved off:

What could be the purpose?

To kill or to nurture?

Fright and adoration flare up

As at the sight of a fierce tiger

In the heart of the forest.

No, I do not believe in people’s gossip;

Yet the image of a broad chisel stained with blood

Moves in the air,

And it is enough to disturb my concentration!

Even I struggle to carve the dragon’s protruding tooth

I have to carve many emotions—

Contempt, wonder, compassion and control

Carve I must, arrogance and competition,

The forest fire of jealousy that blazes;

Carve I must, the desire that comes in disguise

Riding Pushpaka, the celestial aircraft.

 

The asura chief 13

Who created the three cities,

Sudharma, the durbar of the devas,

And the palace of the Pandavas,

Comes in dreams and says:

‘Break the bondage of the silken thread,

Go away,

As the moonlight falls on the window

Pick up your toolbox and leave this house.’

 Like a coward I pondered over this every night;

To flee in fear is not easy.

No point in feeling scared;

One has to confront life boldly

And leave bidding a proper goodbye.

 

I went to father in prayer after his morning dip

And said:

‘Today is Saptami, the seventh day,

It is good to start a journey  

With your blessings.’

 

He, Brahmadeva to me, opened his eyes,

His deep voice fell on top of my head:

‘Go

But, wherever you go, remember,

The name that endures rests on your fingertips.’

 

True, what else can a father wish for a daughter!

A father who lost his name with a slip of his finger!

This toolbox weighs more with the added weight of the journey.

No disciples for me, no followers,

No friends to give me company,

No folks to praise my sculpting skills.

For me henceforth the far wild,

The world of the lone tusker,

With no light save the one from Arundhati, 14

The star in the vicinity of Saptarshi, the Great Bear!

Thus am I on my path with this chisel box and the ruler

As planets benign and malignant

move headlong in their orbits!

I will not be a prey to the broad chisel!

 

Long ago, as the story goes, Viswakarma Prajapati,

The master sculptor of the devas,

Gave Samjna, his daughter,

To Surya, the Sun god, in marriage.

In the heat of passion the Sun burnt her insides,

Turning into a volcano.

On learning of her grief

That father, such his dexterity that he put the Sun

to his grinding stone and tamed the flare.

Will the hands of that untiring divine sculptor,

Filled with love and tenderness, be

Ever inexact?

 

If so, I can forswear my meagre sculpting skills

And court death, a severed head in the pool of blood

Spilt by the sublime weapon that slips

From the unrelenting hands of the Sculptor-God.

The mighty banyan tree with roots above and shoots below

Is not the sort to nurture miniscule life forms.

They say my grandfather thought

God who gave you a mouth

Will arrange for your food as well. 15

And so, here, let me go with my chisel box and ruler.

I will not be a prey to the broad chisel.

 

Translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

Footnotes

1 A reference to G. SankaraKurup’s poem The Master Carpenter

2 Rules of alignment in Vastu, principles of joining cardinal points and lines.

3 Treatise on astronomy composed by the twelfth- century mathematician Bhaskara.

4Treatise on architecture attributed to the legendary architect Maya compiled around the tenth century CE.

5 The cosmic spirit that in Vastu symbolizes the forces that simultaneously govern the cosmos, the human dwelling, and the human body.

6 According to legend, both Agnihotri and Perunthachan are the sons of Vararuchi. Agnihotri is thus the paternal uncle of the speaker in the poem.

7 Devas, kinnaras, and yakshas are celestial beings in Indian mythology.

8 A kind of veena, a stringed musical instrument.

9 According Indian mythology, sage Sukra, son of Bhrigu is the mentor to asuras.

10 A king in the Soma dynasty. Yayati was cursed with old age by Sukras when he deserted his wife Devayani, who was Sukra’ daughter. Yayati exchanged his old age with the youth of one of his sons, Puru.

11Ahalya in Indian mythology is the wife of Sage Gautama. She was cursed and turned in to a stone by Gautama when he discovered that she had an illicit relationship with Indra.

12 The patriarch of the Kuru clan figure in Mahabharata who is emotionally close to the Pandavas, but is duty-bound to lead the army of the Kauravas. He is mortally wounded by Sikandhi, but does not die immediately as he had been granted the boon of choosing the time of his death.

13 Maya, the asura architect, who is known as the designer of the cities of Tripuras and of structures such as Sudharma, the court of the gods and Indraprastha, the palace of the Pandavas.

14 The wife of Sage Vasistha who after her death, according to the Puranas, takes her place as a star near the constellation Saptarshi, the Indian equivalent of the Great Bear.

15 It was Vararuchi’s reason for abandoning his newborn children to the wilderness, much to the chagrin of his wife.

 

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