While speaking of Mani Kaul and his films Shama Zaidi, in class, remembered an incident from the past involving her, Mani Kaul and B.R. Chopra. After some award function, she said, B.R. Chopra made a comment on Mani Kaul saying, “You make money by takings funds from government to make films.” To this, she remembered, Mani Kaul responding by saying, “We at least make films. You only make money.” This response angered B.R. Chopra and on the next day made him burst out in the presence of Shama Zaidi saying, “What does he think of himself? What does he know about me? I was a peasant leader in my village during pre-partition.” Listening to his words Shama Zaidi said, “I almost fainted listening to him.”
Narrating this incident Shama Zaidi said she later mentioned about it to another senior actor who was also in the present Pakistan during pre-partition days. On listening Shama’s narration of the incident in a comic manner the senior actor said, “Yes, he used to be a peasant leader,” which Shama said shocked her completely.
“You never know what kind of history people have and how they can change,” said Shama Zaidi and quoted the example of Ramanand Sagar who once upon a time was a member of the Progressive Writer’s Association and whose novels were appreciated as progressive writing. Ramanand Sagar later went on to make the Ramayana tele-serial in the earliest days of the aggressive waking of Hindutva fundamentalism.
Yes, we never know how people change. It makes us uncomfortable when the move of the difference is slide down. While working on my M.Phil thesis on the theater movement in Karnataka i.e. Samudaaya I was re-reading the autobiography of Siddalingaiah, an important Dalit poet and activist in Kannada. His autobiography gives an account of his life his struggle as a Dalit individual and gives a glimpse into the world of Samudaaya theater movement too. His aggressive struggle narrated in his autobiography is a moving account and so is the account of the activities of the Dalit movement in Karnataka then. But in the days when I was revisiting his autobiography Siddalingaiah had become a part of the system and lost all the fire inside him and in one of those days had also given a press statement saying, “We need to learn a lot from Bhagavatgeeta too,” which the Siddalingaiah who we come across in the autobiography wouldn’t/ couldn’t have said.
A similar example from the Marathi scenario would be Namdeo Dhasal who moved from the aggressive Dalit Panther to the Thakre team.
One of the poets from Nepal named Bhupi Sherchan can be another example. I remember how much I loved his poems when my student friend Prasith introduced me to the works of Bhupi Sherchan by translating his works from Nepali to English for me. I had also translated the poems to Kannada. After years when I chanced upon a book on Bhupi Sherchan during my days in JNU, it was quite disappointing to learn that the revolutionary Bhupi Sherchan in his last days almost became a man of the state and system which also got reflected in his poems.
Once I had discussed this matter with one of my mentors, taking the example of Siddalingaiah, Dhasal and Bhupi. What my mentor told me was interesting. He said, “None of us are like an arrow that takes flight from the bow. An arrow has an aim, a purpose. Humans aren’t like that. There is no path or an aim for life. It finds its own path. It has no purpose so thee is no missing of the aim in life. What we need to understand is that though they all moved away from the values that we believe in, at one point, they gave their energy their strength to the movement to the cause that we believe in, in their own manner and thus strengthened the movement. While they believed in the cause and movement they stood by it. When their beliefs eroded they moved away. There is no ‘digressing’ in life because humans are not born with a single aim in life a bull’s eye which s/he has to reach. There is only being and nothingness. In the becoming one can move in any direction and many direction for s/he is no arrow that took flight from a bow and has to reach a specific destination (aim). Their contribution to the cause the movement is valid, though they moved away.”
“Its an old age home,” he said while we were in the auto. I nodded my head.
We were on our way to meet an 83 year old singer who in the 1940s had sung with Amirbai Karnataki. He had called her before taking the auto and she had said her address as “Athashree” in “Hadapsara.” On reaching Hadapsara and seeing the Athahsree building both us had a doubt about it being an old age home. It looked like an apartment.
Signing at the security counter we took the lift to the sixth floor, as instructed by the security guard. On reaching the sixth floor, sliding my hand over the wall railings, I neared the door we were to enter. The door opposite to the door we were to enter was open and my eyes entered that house. I could see nobody inside the house opposite to while ringing the bell of the singer’s house. When nobody opened the door he asked “Should be knock the door?” and knocked it once. We waited again for a while and still nobody opened the door. Both of us wondered why nobody was opening the door. I rang the bell again and feeling quite weird to be staring at the closed door I turned around a bit and saw an old lady and an old man sitting near the door of the house opposite and staring at us. “Cheap curiosity,” I thought and looked at him. He too was wondering why nobody was opening the door. “She knows we are coming because she herself asked us to come. She couldnt have gone out,” he said and knocked at the door again. No. Nobody opened the door. I rang the bell. We waited. He knocked the door. We waited. I rang the bell. We waited. He knocked the door. We waited. No. Nobody opened the door. As we were repeating our actions the old lady and the old man kept staring at us. Feeling a bit weird to be stared at I thought I will talk to them and asked them, “Isn’t she at home?” The old lady got up and came out saying, “You call the security guard.” Wondering why to call the security guard, he said, “She knows that we are coming. I spoke to her half an hour ago.” But the lady was slightly panicking and stressing “You please inform the security guard.” We said that we had met the security guard and he said that she was at home. “You never know what could have happened. Go inform the security guard,” she repeated. Not understanding anything we took the lift back to the ground floor.
We inquired at the receptionist about the lady and he said, “I dont think she has gone out” and asked “Did you knock at the right door?” We said we knocked at the right door. He got up and took the lift to check by himself. When he left we kept wondering what the situation was like and suddenly we realized, recollecting the wall railings, that it was an apartment meant only for senior citizens! With only senior citizens in the apartment the lives there lived very close to death and the fear of death! Suddenly the fear in the old lady’s face gained meaning in my eyes. Her panicking gained meaning. I could locate that fear and panic. With this understanding a strange emotion settled in my mind which was unsettling. I felt numb. I sat on the couch that was kept. While sitting on the couch my eyes fell on two paintings that were hanging on the wall. Both were paintings of a spiral staircase with no human element within the frame. Just spiral staircase. I had read that spiral staircase has several meanings in myths and dreams, one of them being rebirth. May be it was deliberately kept there in that building to fight the fear of death by a hope of rebirth. But the panic that I saw on the old lady’s face and the fear of death that I sensed and the silence of the singer we were to meet scared me enough to not be able to think of what the staircase meant in myths and dreams. But the painting of staircase because of its curve which keeps the end hidden, scared me.
The man who went to check came back and called a security guard and sent him to check where the singer was. He went and within a couple of minutes came back to say she is at home and waiting for us. Unable to understand how we followed him being happy that she was fine.
Taking the lift we went to the sixth floor. This time I was staring at the wall railing which I had not noticed properly the last time though I had moved my hands over it. The door was partially open. He entered the door first. The singer’s voice welcomed him. As I entered the house I took a look at the opposite door which was now being closed by a relieved old face. We too were so relieved that we did not even ask where she was all the while. To see her in flesh and blood was enough!
He started interviewing the singer and I kept listening to nostalgic words flowing out from her mind. The singer’s daughter in law prepared tea for us and got some ‘Maharashtrian’ eatables. As we kept speaking to the singer and sipping tea the bell of the house rang. The daughter in law went running to the door. She opened the door and went out, shutting the door behind her. The old singer paused for a while and got back to sepia mode. The daughter in law opened the door and came in. The old singer paused and asked her daughter in law, “Everything fine?”
The question, “Everything fine?” bothered me further. The reassurance required about everything being fine is an extended part of the fear of anything going wrong any time. This fear occupies every house in that apartment. The house of the singer and that which is opposite to her house too. For sure in all the other houses too.
“Ek khaao na…” a friend insisted even after I said “No” when he first asked me to have one idli from his plate. “Kyun?” came the question…
Why is it that I avoid eating idli? Its not that I hate idli. But yes, for long I did hate idli, with all my heart…
When I was young, though a rebellion, I used to be very scared of my father. Very much. I had a very troubled relationship with my father. But because I was very scared of him I felt helpless before him and my rebellious nature would vanish in front of my father. The fact that I was helpless and that my rebellion vanished before my father made me even the more rebellious, though only in his absence… In those days my dislike for idli began… The connection? First of all I did not like its taste. Taste? I always felt idli doesn’t have any inherent taste. So yeah I hated its tastelessness. But my father liked and still likes idli a lot. So much so that on his birthday my mother prepares idli. No cake business. Only rice cake. So yeah, coming back to the story… There is this restaurant in Udupi named Mitra Samaj. That is my father’s favourite hotel in Udupi. So whenever we used to go to Udupi my father used to take us to Mitra Samaj. No brownies for guessing that the idli is the most famous item at Mitra Samaj (this was before the outlook dosa made its mark at MS). So everytime we went to Mitra Samaj dad placed an order for four plates of idli sambar. One for himself. One for my mother. One for my sister. And… one for me!!!
What could be more traumatic for a small boy that this: to be made to eat a tasteless thing without being able to rebel against the man who is making you eat it and against the choice made against his own taste!!! Idli played a small but crucial role in distancing me from my father further by fueling the already troubled relationship between us! Thus began my traumatic relationship with idli… What was the easiest way of expressing anger against one’s own helplessness? Punishing oneself, the innocent mind thought, in sheer helplessness. I ate idli silently in complete anger without expressing it. If not anything the anger made chewing of idli a bit easy…
Though I find this funny now looking back at it there is one particular incident which still pinches me somewhere. Idli is an important character in this incident which is why I am speaking of it. It was Ganesh Chaturthi and we were at Byndoor. That was the ritual. Every year Ganesh Chaturthi would be celebrated in my grandparent’s place. This was when I was in class 8, I guess. By then my relatives were very well aware of my short temper, my fear for my father and also about my dislike for Idli. On that particular Ganesh Chaturthi I was hurt by something and as a result angry about something. Because of my father’s presence I couldn’t vent my anger in any which way. I was in no mood for lunch but was forced to come for lunch by my aunt. I went and sat with a plantain leaf. Several dishes was served. I said a strong “NO” to every dish that kept coming. By then every relative there got to know that the angry young boy is angry over something. But nobody had said anything till then. But then when idli was being served I knew how to vent my anger. Not my anger towards that which hurt me but towards my helplessness of not being able to express my anger. I asked for idli. More idli. More idli. One by one every relative burst into laughter by the dramatic tone with which I kept asking for more and more idli. People around me laughed. I ate more. The laughter continued. I ate more idli. I ate every piece of every idli that was served on my asking for it. The laughter continued. By the end of it my anger was not for my helplessness but for the fact that nobody there seemed to understand that I was hurt and I was angry. I felt nobody there understands me. To make it worse everyone laughed. I felt humiliated and more painfully distanced because nobody understood. For years to come this incident became a joke among my relatives and every time it is recollected, though I laugh, it pains me because nobody ever understood that a young boy was punishing himself in his helplessness of not being able to express his anger when hurt. How did the boy hurt himself? By eating idli- the food that he disliked with all his heart.
This incident took my relationship with idli from dislike to hatred.
For years from then I avoided eating idli. Because I had managed to scare my mother with my anger she prepared something else at home, for me, the day idli was prepared. Going to Udupi had become an independent affair for me. So I never went even in the direction of Mitra Samaj.
After several years I had to move away from home and hometown. The capital city invited me with open arms. With aaloo in one hand and paneer in another hand. Imagine a boy from a small town in south India, for whom rice is the staple food, going to a place like Delhi and shifting his eating habits completely to wheat dominated menu. Morning breakfast: puri, bathure and siblings. Lunch and dinner: chapathi, roti, naan and siblings. Those days I understood why some of my friends in Manipal, who had come from the north, complained about “naarial” being a part of every damn food item in Manipal. Because I too was wondering why paneer had to be in every food item. If not paneer, it was aloo. Or worse, both together. Coming back to the main story… the domination of wheat on my plate made me crave for rice. I ate rice at time. But that was for lunch and dinner. But breakfast also demanded a break. What could I eat. To break the pattern initially I ate french toast. But it would not satisfy me completely. Then I moved to dosa. But the taste of it was not authentic. Couldn’t continue with it for long. The last resort was IDLI!!! Yes, I went for it. When in Rome not just be a Roman but also eat Roman food. Idli and I could never become friends, I felt. Tastelessness had reached great heights for a person who, though reluctantly, in a distant past, had tasted some authentic idli. My relationship with idli was completely spoilt. I went back to puri and bature. But never tried eating anything that was not a part of the Delhi food culture. Delhi managed to push me away from Idli even when I made an attempt to do fraaandship with it.
When I returned to Manipal from Delhi, submitting my M.Phil, I became friends with one of the most lovable humans I know. Nayani Sandeep. He was a student in the very same institute where I had studied and worked. A foody by nature, Sandy, was a huge fan of Mitra Samaj, their goli baje and their idli!!! So lovely is Sandy that there are hardly a few times that I do not listen to him. So when he asked me, for the first time, if I would join him to Mitra Samaj I could not give an answer in negative. Sandy took me back to Mitra Samaj. He introduced me to a new kind of idly called bullet idli. Small small idlis of bullet size dipped in sambar. Reluctantly I agreed to eat it for the first time as it was Sandy who was asking me to taste it once. Result: for the first time in my life I enjoyed idli, in the company of Sandy. Probably I liked it because the experience at Delhi had made me respect idli, though I did not like the Delhi idli.
After our first visit, Sandy and I became good friends. With that our visit to Mitra Samaj increased. With frequent meetings and frequent visits my love for idli increased. My troubled relationship with idli was being resolved. Sandy played the cupid. As Sandy got closer to my heart Mitra Samaj and idli too got closer to my heart. A life long troubled relationship was resolved. I started eating idli at home whenever my mother prepared it. That saved my mother from preparing two different items for breakfast whenever idli was being prepared. Everyone at home was surprised at home seeing me eat idli. Over the years my relationship with my father also got better. I also suggested him to have bullet idli at Mitra Samaj, though I never made an attempt to take him to Mitra Samaj. But yes, at home we ate idli together happily, at times recollecting, laughingly, how he took us only to Mitra Samaj and made us eatonly idli.
Now when I have moved to Pune I make sure I do not eat idli here. The reason is simple. I have resolved my relationship with idli and I fear it being spoilt if this place does not prepare idli the way I know it. This has something to do with the experience with Delhi idli. So in this fear of losing my love and friendship with idli I now avoid eating idli here and at the same time crave for the idli prepared by my mother and the idli of Mitra Samaj…
Last week we had two days of class with Umesh Kulkarni and Girish Kulkarni. One thing that Girish Kulkarni kept repeating is that one needs to open oneself to the world and then creativity will flower. In different words and in different expressions he kept saying is that one needs to engage with the world and that is primary to creativity.
Interestingly in the very same class Umesh Kulkarni mentioned that the character of Nachiketa in his magnum opus Vihir was inspired by the poet-saint Sant Jnaaneshwar. I found it quite interesting because of an anecdote I had read about the father of Sant Jnaaneshwar. The tale goes like this- The father of Sant Jnaaneshwar deciding to become a nomadic saint left behind his family and went on a pilgrimage. During his tour he meets an unmarried saint who asks Sant Jananeshwar’s father to go back to his family and that real devotion is in engaging with life and not in abandoning day to day life.
Recently I had the opportunity to watch the 1936 Marathi film on Sant Thukaram, a saint-poet like Jananeshwar. The film is titled Sant Thukaram and is directed by Damle and Fattehlal. At one point of the film Sant Thukaram is in a conversation with his wife who dislikes the fact that her husband is lost, always, in his devotion to lord Panduranga and pays no attention to his family. As always his wife picks up a fight with him for obvious reasons. In this conversation she asserts her point that life in the real world is important and Sant Thukaram realizes the importance of it and decides to earn bread and butter for his family. On realizing he says that he has realized that true worship is in living.
That reminds me of a story from the 12th century Vachana movement in Karnataka. Of the many poets (Vachanakaaras) Nuliya Chandayya was also one from that movement. Once while Nuliya Chandayya is indulged in labour the icon/idol of Shiva tied to his arm falls down deliberately to test him. Chandayya leaves it behind and walks ahead. The icon/idol cries to Nuliya Chandayya asking him to carry it. Nuliya Chandayya asks the God in icon/idol to take an oath in the presence of Madiwala Maachayya, another Vacahanakaara, that it will be at the service of Chandayya henceforth. The icon goes to Madiwala Machayya and explains the situation. This triggers a debate between the two as to whether idol worship is important. In the end Nuliya Chandayya declares that if the idol/icon wants to be with him then it must toil with him and engage in day to day life, labour and world. The idol/icon agrees. To be engaged with the world is not important just for creative purpose but to be what one is, also. If one is not engaged in day to day world then s/he will not rise to a higher level and one turns into a negligible stone.
While I am writing this a friend of mine, having no clue about what I am writing, shared his first experience of speaking to a common senior friend of ours. When he shared, in 2009, his desire to get into filmmaking with the senior friend the senior friend asked him, “Are you sure you want to do it at this young age?” and went on to explain that filmmaking can be learnt at a later age also but life needs to be experienced first and that it’s the experience of life which will make one’s films rich and richer.
Interestingly couple of hours before I took the bus to Pune, my mentor over a cup of chai told me something similar. He had asked me to throw myself to life first and that will give strength and depth to any creative work that I love to engage with. “Second hand experience of life through literature or cinema will not enrich any creative work,” he said and stressed on the importance of grounding our individual world on earth.