At the Dawn of Youth: Balamani Amma

Translated by J Devika

[This beautiful piece by Balamani Amma is not only a masterpiece that displays her fine craft, it is also open to a queer reading — I have hardly come across such a beautiful tribute to a ‘girl-friend’. Balamani Amma’s adolescent fascination for the poetry of Mrs Hemans makes it really possible]

[‘Yauvvanaarambhathil’, from Ammayude Lokam, Kozhikode, Mathrubhumi Books, 2005]

Today’s girls cannot imagine a time of the beginning of youth like what I experienced. A life unperturbed by high school-college education and exams, yet confined to the home, the yard, and the village temple, at atmosphere full of literature and generosity, days that fell like fragrant divine blossoms, above everything, the delicate veil of an enigmatic sadness that enveloped everything. The doors of the heart lay wide open so that the beauty and grandeur of the universe could enter anytime …

When the distant thunder of the World War rang, I was just big enough to connect my alphabets. A time in which I read, haltingly, a large newspaper headline that said ‘Austria Runs’, and immediately thought of a fleeing little animal. After a few years, the Mappila revolt in Ernad shook our village briefly and swept by. The echoes of the Non-Cooperation Movement reached us when the locals and our family were discussing seriously plans to flee. Like in many other places, nationalist fervour spread in our home and in my Uncle’s in-laws’. Spindles and spools appeared in the house. Looms began to be stored in our entryway.

The backlash from the government threw many into jail. My Uncle was felled by his wife’s demise. He withdrew from all activity and became reclusive. The young people who had followed him had no desire to go to jail either. So the tide began to withdraw. The spindles disappeared. The charkha and the looms moved into the loft. But no one gave up the khadar shirts. All this was over when I turned sixteen. But we still heard the voice of the freedom movement which we had followed. Through the newspapers and the poetry of Vallathol.

Among the people, the opposition to the British was more prominent that the belief in Gandhiji and his precepts for life. Looking carefully, one may notice that the oppositional zeal has a great role in any mass movement. That is why people were unable to show the widespread ardour evident during the time of satyagraha in the building of independent India.

By then, my sanskrit studies had ended. My teacher who had taught me for two or three hours every day except holidays, stopped coming.  He was a young man who would brush the dust off his feet on the wall as soon as he entered the room, seat himself on the grass mat on the floor, drink the tea my mother brought him, reminding me not to mention this to my father, and surely avoid any lascivious shloka that may pop up as he explained the kavyas. He would only try to hide from others his scholarship in sanskrit and the capacity to enjoy the arts. He would summarise the meaning of the shlokas for me quite well.

In that age when one cherishes the closeness of friends over the affection of parents, luckily, I was not lonely. My younger sister was always with me, never saying anything unpleasant, always staying close. Though she could not often make sense of my intense, often totally strange internal sensations, she tried to accept them. And I poured them into her, warm and fresh.

I had a friend who I not just loved, but adored from my depths. She was a neighbour, a beautiful young girl. One of my ever-lasting memories is about meeting her one day on the way back from the temple. My younger sister was by my side. There were other children with her, from her family. It began to rain hard, and all of us took shelter in a nearby house with the edges of our mundus wet and stained with the mud from the narrow village path. There was a parrot there in a cage; we listened with wonder to its chatter. My girl-friend and I were holding hands all the time. When the rain subsided, we started off again. The memory of this meeting illuminated my mind for very many days.

One day, there was news that she had a fever. We went to see her. She was exhausted, only half-conscious. My sister and I gazed at her with great sadness. I could not touch her. My mother had warned us that it may be contagious.

The next day, the old woman who came to sweep our yard said that she passed away that night. I began to weep. “Why do you cry, child?” the old woman asked, “Oh, you were friends!” she added glumly.

I walked  on the moist soil on which wild arrowroot had spread, near the serpent-grove. My heart was in pain. My beautiful friend had been denied an earthly existence. I would never hear her voice again, I could never hold her smooth hand again.

I wrote her an elegy.

When Mahakavi Vallathol paid us a visit the next day, my uncle gave him that poem to read. He saw a western style in it. Most probably, the style preferred by Mrs Hemans, whose work I used to devour those days, had infected me. Those works from which the pain of parting and love flow as a searing stream.

I had another friend. We would sit on the steps of the bathing tank in the morning and discuss books. This girl-friend favoured the spiritual and the informative to the emotional and sentimental in writing.  We would sit there and talk about literature until all the other steps that led towards that massive pond were empty and the garuda-eagle had begun to circle the waters glittering in the risen sun, calling aloud to Krishna. Only then would we begin our bath. I would rise up into some reverie, floating on the clear blue of the still waters, as the wild growth on the edges of the tank cast their shadows on it and the leaves of the banyan tree that stood on the bank murmured in the wind.

The sophisticated folk of today do not bathe in such open tanks. Even villagers do not do so nowadays. For me it was a source of wondrous, unparalleled experiences. Dawn, in that space, was enlivening and heavy with beauty. Dusk opened to you the very gates of heaven. It is impossible to describe the experience of the mid-day there. I believe that experiencing all of this consciously; being conscious of all of this, was a great gift. There is much indeed in our ancestors’ advice to recite one’s prayers immersing oneself in the waters, or dipping oneself in it.

I used to go to the temple on most days. I loved celebrations just like I loved solitary reverie. Mine is a generation with the season of Onam, the Navaratri, the temple festivals, the rhythm of Kathakali and so on impressed on our very soul.  I loved to circumabulate the temple with my grandmothers as during festivals such as the Navaratri, enjoying the percussion performances.

My uncle had faith in reciting prayers and customary salutations, but would say, ” we don’t eat from the hotels, do we? So the home will do for thoughts of God too.”

But my sense of belonging towards the temple remained. Nowhere else can we feel the sense of oneness with the thousands of people familiar and unfamiliar, united as God’s children. The music of the temple drums and the radiance of the many lit lamps have the power to dissolve human ego into the soul of the universe without hurting it. The gold-bordered mundu and the torn rag of a towel are alike there — I do believe that retaining the difference of caste and religion in these virtuous spaces is wrong.

At home, I was interested in nothing but books. That old Tharavad contained no pretty homely object that women would want to wipe and polish and protect with clean clothes daily. The tekkini area of the house had an almirah full of books. It also had an old wooden storage-box with books too — books in Sanskrit, Malayalam, and English, and a few Tamil books too. During the harvest, both the almirah and the box would be surrounded by heaps of paddy. Flipping through the books and re-arranging them was my afternoon pastime. I finished reading most of them those days.

In the legged-boxes inside our araas — rooms — there would be Kottaar mundus with gold borders for special occasions, palm-leaf manuscripts, heavy ear-ornaments of ivory and bronze, vessels used to tell the time, and other things. By this time they had become mostly useless. While Ravi Varma’s gods and goddesses looked on from the glass-frames that hung from the walls, I would stretch out on the red-painted cot with carved legs and indulge in reverie. Or read, leaning on a low-hanging branch of a mango tree in the midst of billowing verdant beauty in summer’s sunshine.

In those days, Vallathol shone like a radiant star in the literary atmosphere. Many of his patriotic songs I knew by heart. I read Asan’s Nalini and Leela many times and they made me weep. Hall Caine’s tragic tales pained me too. Today, no matter how superb a poem or novel may be, they do not move me to tears. Is the ability to identify closely and experience sorrow waning among humans? Is that a gain or a loss?

I read G.’s [Sankara Kurup] soulful poetry, the national and socially-relevant sonnets of those who followed Vallathol’s style, like Kallanmaarthodi, and Ulloor’s grand, majestic poetry. I also appreciated Indulekha as the representative of the new novel and its smooth, simple style. But in those days, I was attracted more to the novels of C V Raman Pillai with their inimitably diverse cast of characters and eventful plots.

One of my best-loved books was Tagore’s Gardener. I loved his stories too. Sri Krishnamurthy’s Gurucharanangalil was a book I read daily. My uncle advised me to read a chapter from that book every day. He admired it so much that he translated it into Malayalam in the Kilippaattu-style. This reading help me grow in the mind. Each time I read it, the desire to adopt its advice in everyday life increased in me.  Though one had to violate many times the oath that one would try to act in the interests and wish of others over one’s own interests and wishes, how alluring it is!

My uncle was translating Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. He would be immersed in this work the whole day. I used to read all the parts he finished each day. He liked our participation in his literary ventures. He never treated us an intellectual inferiors. I used to discuss literature with him often. But young girls had no entry to his literary evenings in which literary figures and poets came together.

I used to talk about literature with my parents too. My father who had to bear a lot of family responsibility would read only a few books he liked. Most of them were of high quality. In criticism, he was averse to literary appreciation. I remember him once reading Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs and summarising it for my mother as he read.

I cannot say that I had no dreams of conjugal marriage. That would have been impossible for a young girl who had wept reading Nalini and Leela. Though I was born and raised in a family that was facing financial ruin, I did not think too hard about ensuring a prosperous future. I used to write poetry occasionally. Because I read so much of poetry, it was only natural that I felt liking writing it. And because there was no anxiety of publishing it in some souvenir or airing it on such-and-such deadline, I wrote only when I felt like doing it. For some reason, I did not harbour the hope of becoming a poet. Today I feel that in anything, the desire to flourish takes root in flourishing itself.

It is not the emotionally-charged early years of life that are the most enjoyable. The joy of those days is intensely sweet. And the bitterness of small sorrows is unbearable too. Only with age and education and thought, only with the attainment of composure through these, does life appear to one as a blessing.







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