My story on looking for quiet places to read my new manuscript in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, featuring an elephant surprise, is in Condé Nast Traveller India. You can read it here.
Maybe they don’t know everything, the women with the divining sticks, but they sure know how to reel a girl in. Maybe they don’t see everything, but they do see you there on the beach, alone or in some laidback configuration, and somehow – they see enough.
And so they come up to you as you’re rolling your jeans up or dusting your bum off, scrunching the newspaper your sundal came in and absentmindedly considering whether to litter, trash or recycle. And they look you in the eyes with a smile of recognition and say: “Nee ambulaiya poranthirikanum, ma!” You should have been born a man.
Even later, when you find out that there’s nothing unique about this line, you will consider it a compliment, because it is meant as one.
And the shore-side soothsayer will offer you this opening gambit as she takes your palm, because whatever else she knows or doesn’t, she can intuit you aren’t going to take it as an insult.
Though later, you learn: some women who do terrible things to other women have been told it too. Other women who do worse things to themselves have been told it too. Are those also ways to be men, then? “Internalised misogyny,” you think. Women who should have been born men because maybe then they would hate themselves, and each other, less.
Even later, when you bristle and say, “Well, if I lived somewhere else, was steeped in better societal conditioning, desexing me wouldn’t feel like a compliment.”
But you don’t live anywhere but here. You live here in this city by the sea. With a long beach where you could be detained for holding hands at night. And by the brightness of day, you give yourself away because only someone who doesn’t mind sun-kissed skin would be loitering. Someone like you, a woman like a man.
Count them and see how few they are, the women. How far between the canoodling (straight) couples and the water-shy families. While half-naked men splash around like they own this city, or indeed, this sea.
“Should have been born a man”, you ponder – and you look at the transwomen who also mill about between stalls selling blackened corn and displaying balloons to shoot for prizes. And you wonder what the fortune-tellers say to them, though you don’t quite know how to ask.
And not yet, not today, but soon – you may wander along that beach and arrive at the memorial of another woman who “should have been born a man”. And you’ll think of the crowds of men in white who surrounded her, and all the women still in their kitchens, whose lives she made a little easier.
At first, when you were younger, you thought that all that the fortune-tellers meant with that provocative, alluring opening gambit was this: that you have courage in excess, a province you demurred was not exclusively male. Later you understood: if you were a man, in this place and in this time, what you could do with that courage would have multiplied. Or to put it another way, perhaps you wouldn’t have needed that much courage at all.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.
I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.
I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.
In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.
When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…
I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.
But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 29th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.
There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.
Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.
Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.
Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.
Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.
Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.
Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.
It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.
The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.
Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.
An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.
Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.
It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.
That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.
For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.
At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.
Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.
He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.
Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.
Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.
The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.
In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.
At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.
Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.
In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
My essay, “The Aftermath, The Afterlife”, is in Killing The Buddha. You can read it here.