K Saraswathi Amma : Ramani (Part 2)

“But wouldn’t that decision been the sounder one? Ramanan was deeply wounded when he was abandoned. His life withered away, true. But if Chandrika had been faithful to her love, how many lives would have withered and died? The parents would not have lasted long at the sight of their daughter’s despicable fecklessness. Chandrika needs not Kuchela’s pure-hearted poverty but Kubera’s riches even if it is impure. Does not Ramanan who is forever singing “This world is not a fantasy” know this? The ultimate aim of Chandrika’s immense sacrifice for the sake of love would be of Chandrika, Ramanan, and their poverty-stricken children, born of the daughter of a wealthy family, sinking in the mire of hardships and disappearing from the world before or after each other.”

“There was one way out, Sush,” I said. “Why couldn’t have she raised the cowherd from his decrepit cottage to the flower-laden mansion?”

“He become her slave?!! Better than that…”

“Slave? Great! How can that be? When she submits to him all that she had and takes him as her Lord and Master, she is the one who becomes the slave, right? Sublime love….”

“Not divine love, possible lust, that was what it was. A sweet attraction. Ramanan’s eye, besides did espy not just Chandrika’s purity of heart and glowing body, but also the abundance of her diamonds? Ramanan’s comparison of status, worry about meeting his beloved, and fear of separation clearly indicates that his love was utterly worldly. In any case, didn’t I say right at the beginning that ordinary people would find it hard to draw a living picture of love against a background that is hollow- that is just a fantasy ?”

“If so, aren’t her parents really the culprits?”

“Yes, there are in the world no others more culpable and selfish than parents – the very icons of selfishness! To make the their children’s enviable social statuses the very aims of their life — what a crime! But what to do, are not parents such undesirable creations in this world?”

Sush’s derogatory tone angered me: “Agreed, I am a fool. But how is Chandrika, who seduced and sent to death a poor chap who knew well his unsuitability and tried to keep a distance, a good woman! He was so virtuous!”

“Look, Santhi, a maiden approaching a man begging for love? Honour is most important to them. Women who cannot declare their love or seek after their lust cannot beg for love either. Chandrika somehow got an inkling about Ramanan’s love for her. The poor child! That caged parrot deluded herself. His swelling love and adoration intoxicated her impassioned heart — emotions that could simply not be wiped away sprouted up there. A young heart, was it not? She felt that she could give up her very life for the youthful goatherd who sang her praises thus. ‘What is there so much for others to blame?’ ‘What can father and mother possibly feel, about their little girl’s abundance of love?’ – she lisps – what can such a little elite maiden know of the world? The Chandrika who silences Ramanan who begins to preach to her about the world by saying ‘I don’t want to listen to this speech’, is she not but a child in the matter of life-experience? In the end her eyes opened only in the tension between Ramanan’s love and her engagement. That uncompromising state of affairs stared at her, who was but helpless, in the face. Either suicide or betrayal of love – both equally strong, equally sinful. In the sudden nervousness, she felt that suicide was better, but she did perceive her duty correctly, in the end. She who had grown up in comfort and indulgence, was simply not strong enough to endure new and endless difficulties. With a heart thrashing about in pain, she bid goodbye to her lover in her mind. Is not the greater sacrifice that of love for duty, and not of duty for love?”

“Indeed, indeed! How magnanimous! Like that Lord Coverly said, you can argue plenty from both sides! But that’s not what surprises me — how is she going to look at her husband’s face, after all this hullaballoo?”

“What does she have to fear? My Santhi, you have seen only the world of men which preaches ideals, is it not? Your poor thing, just walk around, take a good look, understand what is happening! In their dictionary, bachelorhood has never been the synonym of chaste brahmacharya! Those who indulge in wrongs out of their lust should not condemn those who are frivolous at the beginning stage of their mental development, if they possess the least sense of fairness!”

My scarce good sense advised me to keep silent, given the fact that my knowledge was extremely limited and entirely reliant on books. Sush continued: “In any case, what did Ramanan’s sincere friend, the one who kept declaring, ‘are you not my life?’ and so on, what did he do? Like Chandrika, Madanan too kept egging Ramanan on in the matter of love. That raised Ramanana temporarily to a state of ecstasy that was beyond worry and precaution. But it turned him mad and led him to suicide at the news of Chandrika’s wedding.Santhi, the stern truth is that Ramanan was killed by the ‘two endearing stars of the sky of [his] life.’ What dangerous folly it was for Madanan who had roused the fire of Ramanan’s desire by telling him that ‘what a terrible sin it is to refuse this pure-hearted gift of love’, just when Ramanan was trying to curb his craving for Chandrika, quite wisely? Did not his love have the effect of enemity? The same Madanan who said that if only Ramanan would confide in him, he would mortgage his very life’ and also advice Ramanan that he should not let his life waste away ‘for a mere woman’ — what does he do in the end? Instead of strengthening his weak-willed friend by his presence and consolation and stopping him from making tragic moves, he takes it out at fate, saying, ‘why did you make me a witness to this gaol of sorrow?’ , then trembles, ‘what will I do, what will I do!’, and finally in his dearest friend’s moment of great danger, closed his eyes, proclaiming that ‘I cannot bear to see!’ What a despicable, laughable reward for Ramanan’s sincere affection! The true friend is not he who withdraws from the weakness of love in the face of danger, but he who will offer courageous aid.

Sushama fell silent. I could not find argument to support my stand, so I too was silent. I was surprised by the eloquence of Sushama who was rather known to be taciturn. She broke the silence again. “How can Chandrika be held responsible for the weakness that laid around Ramanan’s neck the fatal noose, a weakness that was of his own heart?” Did not he decide, after having tried many times to get past frivolous desire, to leave that fantastic world of desire, and failed, to end the act with one of shedding his own blood. Ramanan who had advised Chandrika to think well and if she found it harmful, to throw that love into ‘the wilderness of forgetfulness’, could he not take comfort in the fact that Chandrika had merely taken his advice and accepted the bridegroom that her father had found her? Why did Ramanan who knew well of the ways of the world, allow the undesirable, disallowed, pointless desire to thrive and grow?”

“My Sush, are not human beings incomplete? Even the incarnations of God are flawed! It is entirely wrong to say that Ramanan had no purity of ideals.” I felt that my words lacked the strength of conviction but still continued. If Ramanan was only like any other man in this world, then would he not have caused the flighty Chandrika social shame? She was the one blinded by lust!”

“Chhe! You mean by the intoxication of love! Santhi, bodily desire is not something that arises in a girl’s body on her own. It is something that is awakened by constant male presence and influence, and which grows in time – you would know if you thought about it well. But I will not say that Ramanan’s idealism and self-control were not admirable. My effort has to reduce the faults heaped upon Chandrika in a depiction that makes readers see all responsibility of the tragedy as essentially hers – to show that these faults are less than this from that very depiction. If not for the force of social law, Chandrika would have remained the heavenly river of pure love. And even if Ramanan did manage to achieve his desire, what insult would have befallen Chandrika from that?”

I asked, rather surprised: “How come?”

K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 1)

[This is my translation of her famous response to the poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s pastoral elegy Ramanan, which was arguably the most popular book in Malayalam in the 1940s. It told the tale of a poor goatherd, Ramanan, who fell in love with a beautiful aristocratic maiden, Chandrika, who, the poet bewails, betrayed their love by marrying another. Unable to bear the end of their love, the goatherd commits suicide. At its time, this feminist reading of Ramanan was not treated with the seriousness that it deserved but as a typically eccentric outpouring of a strange woman.]

“Throw away that book, Santhi,” Sushama came up to me after lunch, ending the silence under the causarina trees in the Women’s College campus. She snatched Ramanan, which I was holding in my hand, and threw it down with vehemence. “There’s nothing in it to pore over so avidly!”

“I’ll decide that?” I pulled the edge of her saree down and made her sit beside me. “But don’t vent your anger on the book. It’s a crime to damage library books like this.”

Her reply was in a piece of song:

Readily will I take all blame

But may you not misdeem;

Nothing abides over thee

In this life, this world of mine.

“The last declaration is a lie.”

“Yes,” she hugged me tight and said. “But I have never loved a girl-friend so much.”

I replied in a derisive tone.

“My Queen, I am glad to have received thy priceless love!”

Sushama reddened: “Santhi, how many times have I told you not to call me ‘Queen’! Poor kids! What do they know! What is the fate of the moth that leaps into the flame mislead by its outer allure? I know that my association does no one any good.”

“But then why did you make me your friend!!”

“Oh, that’s because I think that your nature is not swayed by external influences. I was taken by your naturally happy disposition! Somehow, I also felt that we were sincere friends for long, by some tie of a former birth. And besides, I really like the name Santhi.”

“But why do you preen so much, Sush?”

“Look, too much of coddling is bound to spoil anyone! Do you know what all my tears can achieve? I can do all sorts of wrong, I will not be blamed. Ah, leave it, Santhi,” she picked up Ramanan, which had fallen some distance away : “What is your opinion of Chandrika, in this work?”

“What a question!” My deep antipathy towards Chandrika instantly boiled in my blood. “What is there in favour of her? That vessel of gold a-brim with venom who betrayed the Lover who was entranced by the intoxication of Love, who was overflowing with blissful song — for cheap, ephemeral pleasures of the world… It was not Chandrika – moonlight – at all but an ill-omened comet from which the venom spilled all around… When that smouldering piece of firewood covered with silk, that flame which let out poisonous fumes, fell on that gentle cowherd boy and seared his tender body–“

“Calm down, tell me calmly,” Sushama said, covering my mouth with her rosy palm. “Speak without anger. Do you love Ramanan so? Great! If only he knew that the vine of his heart which had dried up from the disappointment over his first love had a chance to sprout again touched by the flow of love from such a lover of literature, he would not have killed himself. ” She took her hand away and continued, “But Santhi, should not such a harsh judgement be passed only after considering the circumstances under which such a cruel betrayal happened, especially by Chandrika who belongs to the race of women who Man had honoured with such epithets as abala [weak], chapala [flighty] and so on?”

“But why didn’t she think of all that in the first place? Did she not boast that even if the lamp of the sun dies in the sky, the lamp of her love shall not end? That she was willing to beg with a leaf-bowl for the sake of that sacred love? Did she not proclaim her willingness to sacrifice thus? How sorry! My regret is that she has heaped up such endless infamy and insult on all women!”

“Oho!” Sushama seemed all game to make fun of me. “So the fear is that no one may turn up to claim My Santhi’s love, right? Hey, don’t fear that. These are folk whose precept is, “do not count the teeth of the cow given free”. In the end when losses and gains are counted, all the losses are hers and the gains, his. She has become impure; her chastity is destroyed. She is the target of ridicule and insult, her heart is sore. Man is of course free in all ways? All joys that are available to the experiences are his; all of it is his gain. The curses of parents, the contempt of the world, their derision, hatred, slander, crime, the bad name suffered — and worse, sometimes, divine punishment in the form of an infant — all these are hers.”

The breeze ruffled the pages of Ramanan, still lying on the ground, and swept towards the college building. Sushama tied up the ends of the strands of her thought which had floundered somewhat. “Chandrika should not be condemned and cursed, she should be honoured and congratulated. A woman had at least wreaked this limited vengeance against the terrible betrayals that Man has been perpetrating against women over ages and ages. At an individual level, Chandrika erred. But Man’s work of despoiling is always deliberate. Chandrika’s act, however, had no other options. But the fact that a trivial woman was able to not just steep a man in unending dejection, but could actually destroy him, is a great victory for women in general.”

A song from the Department of Music which was adorned by a statue of Goddess Saraswathi, wafted through the air, caressing us. “And even if we admit that Chandrika is indeed a wrong-doer, her fault is not too big for sure. Look, Santham. Why is that the rich girl who luck exceeds the extent of the universe and sees all of the world in white light, from her mansion, not ready to act according to her boasts and promises? Either leave father and mother to fulfill my love, or from today forget that little bamboo flute… it was when she was forced to choose between these two lives that she noted the difference between them. In the first, the sole gratification was about the fulfilment of love, everything else is sorrowful. In the latter, the only pain is the loss of her beloved. “My pleasure, my victory, my enjoyment, my beauty, my brilliant youth’ — if all of these, except love, which are greatly sweet to Chandrika, are to be sacrificed at the altar of love with its foundations laid upon the God of Poverty, what would be her state after? The sorrow of her parents will tear apart her conscience. The derision of the world will pierce her heart and divide it; the poverty-stricken life in the goatherd’s hut will dry up the blue blood in her delicate body; even if the sole consolation amidst these manifold sorrows — Ramanan’s love — proves steady and bottomless, how much comfort and satisfaction could it possibly give her? God has not bestowed on Man the ability to love boundlessly. My dear literature-loving friend, don’t you know — love is just a part of man’s life, but everything in life for a woman?”

“Yes,” I retorted, “Is that not true?”

“If so Santhi, will Ramanan be able to at least console Chandrika, leave alone make her happy? Should not these things be thought through before she leaves the golden sanctuary of her birth for the goatherd’s cottage to be the housewife there? In such circumstances, if Ramanan’s love falls short then…”

“That won’t be.” I said that strongly. “I will not sully the ray of love even in the world of fancy — that is what he said — no circumstances can destroy his selfless love which is unmixed with desire for pleasure.”

“There! The topic of our debate has shifted!” Sushama smiled even though she was speaking with seriousness. “If Ramanan’s love was really so chaste — if it involved no bodily desire — why was her absence so intolerable to him? When she became another’s why did he wail so piteously – ‘even as you rise towards the matchless pleasure of sexual union, I lie in paths of the netherworlds of despair, growing cold’ – and kill himself? If he had not loved her consumable body but her eternally pure soul, why did he not take comfort in that it was not the heart that she had given him that was being taken away, but just the body? If Chandrika’s love was from just lust, Ramanan’s is no different? My dear Santhi, this sacred love that the poets are busy colouring does not exist anywhere in the world. Even the love of a mother for its child remains within the limits of bodily attachment. Is that not why she feel pain at separation from it? And if that is the case, how divine can be this attraction engendered by callow youth? Even those whose ego has been minimised do not feel love that is utterly selfless. We can’t help weeping with Kanva at his parting from Sakunthala. Tell me, Santham, am I wrong?”

“Maybe you aren’t. I don’t know.”

“Anyway, let us suppose that Ramanan’s flames of love cool down after the fulfilment of the union and in time. And if it gradually gets totally destroyed, what will be Chandrika’s state? Should not the impulsiveness of love be controlled by diligent thought? By then, she would most probably be not alone. What will that helpless, indigent, elite-born woman do then, Santhi, when she would be carrying the responsibility of caring for two or three little children? The sacred fulfilment of love will make her make a begging bowl of leaves. But even a pinch of rice will not fall into it. People will move away at the sight of a girl who defied her parents and ran away with a lower caste man. The street-brats will throw stones. My Santhi, the cow on the page does not eat grass. The world will not remember her as the goddess who sacrificed pleasure for the sake of love but as the fallen woman who abandoned her duty for lust.”

Sushama fell silent, choked with emotion. My experience of the world did not let me say that her argument was wrong. She began again: “For love that it beyond bodily temptations, what is the use of mutual [sexual union]? For progeny? When she sees those children she will know the extent of her sin. Does not Ramanan himself remark ‘how severe an inner blow’ it will be if Chandrika, the sole source of her parents’ hopes, if she wedded him?”

Expecting a response, Sush remained silent. I remained silent, looking at her attentively. She continued: “Then suicide was Chandrika’s last resort. Like all women, she was first confronted by love and then by death. But saying that she would not pour the red blood of her chest in sacrifice before them, she sidestepped both, wisely. In the end, seeing no other way, burning inwardly, she decided to enter the thorny thickets of conjugal life that her parents pointed towards and wander and tire in them.”

“Where did you get all this from, Sush? Did she not decide to live out of great desire for life, that intoxicates one, like wine.”

“Let it be so,” she flashed a beautiful smile.