Looking at My Life : Balamani Amma

Translated by J Devika

[Balamani Amma, ‘Jeevitam — Ente Nottathil’, in Ammayude Lokam, Mathrubhumi Books, Kozhikode, 2007′ first published, Mathrubhumi Weekly, 1951]

Nalappatt Balamani Amma (1909-2004) was born in Malabar and rose to become a prominent modern poet in Malayalam, imbibing the energy of exciting social change in her times, and taking, in many of her early poems, the voice of the’new mother’ in the 1930s. However Balamani Amma’s poetry goes far beyond sentimental maternalism, and her thought went beyond articulation from the gendered positions offered to women within modern Malayalam literature. Her uncle, Nalappat Narayana Menon, was a well-known cultural and literary figure in Malayalam. She was married in 1928, and spent a large part of her life with her husband VM Nair in Kolkata. She received the Sahityanipuna prize from Pareekshit Raja of Kochi in 1947 and subsequently won the highest literary awards for Malayalam literature in post-independence Kerala, which culminated in a Padmabhooshan in 1978. Her daughter Kamala (Kamala Das, Madhavikkutty, Kamala Surayya) is one of Malayalam’s greatest literary lights whose fame and eminence has only grown since her passing in 2010.

Only when I sit down to write about life in my own view do I realize that I have never tried to reflect on my life as a whole. What do I see now when I make that attempt? A long series of events, like a set of coloured frames, and the resonances each of them create in my heart. How significant is the role played by my will in forming this string of two entwined strands? Very little. When I think deeply, it appears to me that all that education and life-experienced acquired after childhood have been able to do is strengthen and fine-tune my childhood instincts shaped by the traces of culturing left behind by past births, or acquired from my immediate environs. I cannot say about any of the phases past that if it were today, I would have taken other decisions, done otherwise. Therefore I shall reflect on the path laid out for me by those natural instincts.

A small child is throwing a tantrum for a green-coloured bottle with gold lines on it. Its mother and relatives had excellent reasons not to give it to the child. They tried many times to persuade it gently; it was useless. Worn out from crying, the child felt that its nerves were all taut and tightened. Its eyes seared; the tears were all dried up. Its throat was parched. In the end, someone handed the bottle to the child, grumbling. It stopped crying. But it was not triumphant; rather, the child felt insulted in its mind, somehow. It put the bottle inside a box and never wanted to take it out ever.

Such incidents recurred many times in the life of that child — me — many times even after childhood was past — until I finally felt that I must somehow escape from such terrible experiences. It took more time for me to realize that obstinacy is not a militant state of mind as many think, and that it is the mark of the unbearable pain when one has to fight hard; and that anything won from doing something one abhors is not worth it at all. Once I learned this, the way of life that suited me became clear.

Resistance — swimming against the tide — always pushed me into a depressive state of mind. It tires me.  In such situations I am troubled by questions: why, in this good world, do humans have to keep struggling against other human beings, circumstances, why do  lives their days in pain and shame? Don’t our agony, including the great wars, arise solely from our obstinacy? If that did not exist, how much sweeter our life-experience would have been? These thoughts slowly took me towards the belief that helping to build the willingness to give way happily is the greatest good that an individual can do to the world. I believe that this is the only way to create a happy and fulfilled existence until humanity transcends its emotion-driven nature (if that ever happens).

Often, the courage and diligence needed to put down a weapon and resist the temptation to pick it up again is more that what is required to engage in battle. That it why it takes so long for one to realize that whatever is won after desperate, hard struggle do not bring happiness. But if you wish to look at life not as a contest but as a celebration, this is inevitable. You have to break open the dams that hold one’s small desires and rights in order to allow the natural joy of life to pour into the mind. This will not dull the inspiration to action; rather the reverse. If it is love and happiness that shape your daily practices, then action is not a duty to be fulfilled for humans. It becomes an inevitable and natural manifestation of the vibrancy of life. Its impact on others will not be negative. It will impart a fresh beauty and  fullness to any sphere of activity — large or small. Then trivial inconveniences cannot bother one. But there will still be unavoidable difficulties of the mind and the body in one’s life. But they will be borne better by the heart grown stronger from its expansion.

There is the complaint that this is the age of unease and dissatisfaction. Knowledge took birth and grew; life became easier. Activity in many spheres of life grew more intense. Will these developments lead to unease? Is the one who travels in any aircraft is more uneasy that the one who rides a camel? Standing right in the middle of an age which made it possible for us to understand and love the universe comprehensively — after all, is not knowing, understanding, a synonym of love? — Man, the Creator of the Age, cries aloud that this is the age of unease. Our curse is the over-developed judgemental mind — those who did not learn to leave doors and windows open have to now complain about the darkness and suffocation.  With serious effort, Man can create a world rooted in friendship and empathy which provides essential facilities for all. But the foundation-stone for such a world must be laid in the hearts of individuals; not in laws and edicts. Each one must foster such circumstances in their own sphere of influence.

Even as we try to wipe off poverty and diseases off the face of the earth, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that the happiness of people will be secured by these alone. Whatever Man’s unending inner thirst may be, the pleasure it seeks is definitely not reducible to a bunch of facilities. It is the standpoint of a generous mind that has become one with the universe, the greatness that holds in it countless individual lives. It is attainable only through idealistic, committed, constant effort. All of the great books and moral precepts of this world contribute to fostering this, through nurturing such appealing virtues like love, compassion, and patience. In my opinion, all of the fine arts too have this aim.

My optimism does not allow me to believe that the ties of love and pleasure that bind individual lives to the universe last a century at the most. Or, how many really believe  totally that Man’s history ends with death? Each momentary experience in life creates an emotional resonance that may last for more and more days according to its affective strength. The domain of thought that grows around it lasts even longer. Therefore the  totality of the emotional richness of a life, one may think, echoes in the soul for far beyond one’s living years; also, the web of thought may also outlive the actual lifetime. Then, a new experience begins. Another life. Could there not be a new life before these emotional ripples end, one may suspect.

And all the ideals and abilities of the human being who keeps growing through the continuing culturing of countless births are conjoined in all their fullness to form his God. This is why the conception of God differs according to individual instincts, and why religious organizations that ignore individual diversity are dissatisfying for thinking people. To declare disbelief in such a fullness would be to proclaim the lack of a firm goal in the face of life’s mulifarious activities.

In my view, life is a valuable achievement. Those who know how to appreciate it properly may become deathless. Mankind is only acquiring such ability. These are my thoughts [above] on how that training should be. To the extent that I was able to convert these into practice, I have enjoyed life.

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