In the Name of

Priya Dileep

(India)

In one of his many tributes in verse to a mother-figure, probably his own, A. K. Ramanujan speaks of the strange attachment she had to the three red champak trees that towered over their home. He remembers how for years, the day following the first bout of rain would throw him into a rage. Because those trees would have “burst into flower” by then, and given his mother her first “blinding migraine of the season” [i]. His porous home, an entity with orifices rather than passages or apertures, could in no way keep out the long fingers of their “street-long”, “heavy-hung”, “yellow pollen fog of a fragrance” [ii]. But anyone’s suggestion that the trees need to be felled would only be met with a display of her flashing temper even as the throbbing aches continue to visit her year after year. The champak trees would thus keep flowering through the seasons of his childhood, conferring on the household and their gods “basketsful/of annual flower/and for one line of cousins/a dower of migraines in season” [iii].

This poem is titled “Ecology”. For the last few decades, it has frequently figured in the General English course-paper prescribed for undergraduate students across various streams of study in my part of the world. It’s often said (in meetings held to discuss possible inclusions to a new semester’s syllabi) that the poem helps to foster ecological concerns in young, impressionable minds. But Ramanujan’s use of that title, one suspects, is at once more and less than what that term means in progressive, and no doubt, relevant activism. And what the ideational arc of ‘the good cause’ tends to gloss over is the ambivalent nature of the relationships it depicts and their impact. For, neither the glorification of the mother’s sacrificial kindness to the trees in readings that often hail her as an embodiment of  a benign ‘Mother Nature’, nor any celebration of her decision as an agential act can expel the sustained tension in the poem, and which, aesthetically speaking, spells its strength. Nor can they address the woman the poem depicts with as much tenderness, as with helpless anger. Ramanujan’s “Ecology”, then sees something else, something imperfect.

*****

Seven years ago— on a day in the middle of that year’s summer vacation, and whose particulars are missing in the notes I prepared later— I happened to meet an old woman who may be said to be a great wonder. The meeting was the result of a sense of quietly persisting intrigue and a few phone calls. It was neither well-rehearsed, nor inspired by my active commitment to environmental concerns. In fact, I cannot claim to have lifted a finger for that cause (or any other social cause that demands collective action for that matter), other than carefully segregating garbage in three non-leaky, biodegradable bags, and leaving them outside my door exactly how I’m expected to keep them. But Saaluramarada Thimmakka is a living legend, or by now, has become that.

I wasn’t alone on that journey, and had the lovely company of a student-turned-friend fluent in the Kannada dialect that Thimmakka speaks. Deeply curious about wildlife in general, he is someone who can talk at length on the mating habits of snails, or some such thing one doesn’t often think about. I vaguely remember us gossiping about pigs on the way to that meeting but that’s probably irrelevant here. But yes, I wouldn’t have learnt that the lichens blanketing Thimmakka’s trees then were not harmful parasites, but substrates formed of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi, had he not brought it up while we stared at those trees like two dumb, barely there creatures. As it happened, I had an ulterior motive. And that concerned the stories that had clustered around this woman, known today as a veteran environmentalist not just in Karnataka.

We met her at her rented house in Bagalkunte, a small neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bangalore, the city which I have for long considered my home. Several media houses had already done features on her. This flurry of interest came about after she had secured a place as one among the “hundred most influential women of 2016” as per the assessment of that year’s panel for the multi-format series launched by the BBC every year since 2013. This was how I came to hear about her as well. Almost all of these stories, including her published biography as well as the many awards conferred in her honour, refer to her as the ‘mother’ of the trees she had reared over the course of an exceptionally long and remarkable life. Those trees today line a stretch of four kilometres between Hulikal, the tiny village where she has spent most of her life, and a neighbouring one, Kudur in Karnataka.

*****

Before meeting Thimmakka, I had entertained an idyllic fantasy of listening to her while those trees, by then enormous in size, whistled stories to the humans under their dense canopies. It, however, didn’t pan out as I had fancied. Her foster-son, Umesh suggested a meeting in Bagalkunte since they both had just returned from Belur, where the international foundation in her name has an office. Diminutive in stature, but largely unfettered by age at least with respect to the ability to communicate, she sat like some sibylline oracle before the numberless mementoes bestowed in her honour. Most of these objects were stacked on the only table in that dimly lit room. The rest were heaped in a corner on the floor along with a large black and white photograph pasted on cardboard, of an unsmiling Thimmakka and her equally sombre-faced, late husband, Chikkaiah. A glass-fronted display unit built into a niche on a wall of that room stood empty as if it were some metaphorical enactment of the incongruous pulls of longing and belonging.

*****

Thimmakka’s zigzagging reminiscences would fall into a loop every time she needed to locate the emptiness of a distant past against the recognition, rather the adulation that reached her in the autumnal years of life, as if like an afterthought. While listening to her, I took care to look important enough, and tried to not cast furtive glances at her cavernous nostrils sunken beneath two glinting nose-pins, or the liver spots scattered across her skin. For, her age, her extreme age, is an enigmatic thing in itself.

According to her own calculation, she was 106 then. But if we were to follow the narrative in her biography, she should have been 108 in 2017. A minor niggle perhaps, unless one wishes to nitpick. While signs of old age were clearly detectable on her— heavily swollen, arthritic feet; and stiff fingers, bent inwards at their tips, and looked as if they were glued together, to name just two— any attempt to figure out her exact age could only have been an exercise in absurdity. I had never personally met a centenarian before but I wondered if she was really as old as she was said to be. Then again, the confusion about her age might less be a question of veracity than of memory. Temporal scales for exact calculation, any which way, seemed to have no relevance in her case. Our questions like “do you know when you were born” could only boomerang from some uncanny dimension, where something akin to an arboreal experience of time held sway. Or, that was how it seemed.

Likewise, events in her past didn’t tumble out from her memory as pegged out on specific years. I wondered how many times she had told her story by then, and whether it lapsed into some set pattern every time she recounted her past, or conversely, if there were versions to her memories both of which, I suppose, are common proclivities of human memory. But a clear framing to the events of the past was given when, after pleasantries, our second question, “why trees, and why not something else” was answered with an explicit linking of the same to her childless status in a long gone past, along with the implied admission that while planting the saplings, neither of them had any inkling about its future impact that would ripple across time and space:

See, my own village is quite far from here. I grew up in Hulikal, in Magadi taluk. And then, later, I got married. We waited twenty-five years…twenty-five years! But we could not have children. That’s when my husband said there’s no hope of us getting respect and care like this, so let’s plant trees, and acquire merit that way. So the next morning – we had a patte-gaadi— he and I together, we got on the vehicle, and went out. He went ahead, and I followed, and we got saplings of the trees that we wanted. So that day, we dug holes, and planted the saplings, and that’s how the journey started. He and I together planted so many trees like that, for ten years [emphasis hers].

One year we planted fifteen, another year we planted twenty, like that…. Every year we increased the number of trees we planted. On four kilometres we planted… from Hulikal, going forward to Kudur [emphasis hers]. And now they’re still there…. from being so small, they’ve become this big [gestures with her hands]. For some ten years we did that, and then, when they became big, maybe ten years after thatthe country got to know of our work, and now they call me to functions and honour me, and do all that…. They give me presents like saris and shawls and jackets, and so on [gestures around].

And look [points to the photo], my husband’s photo is there, over there on the ground… In my home – Hulikal – there in my home, I’ve kept it properly [emphasis hers]. I’ve put it in glass, and put it on the wall. After some three years of my coming to Bangalore, we got this house…. This is just a rented house. I can’t put it in glass here. And now of course, the country has recognised me, they treat me with respect, call me to functions, and give me awards and shawls and saris, and jackets. You tell me, madam, isn’t it that way? The respect I’ve got, it has come like that…

See, we all want to have children, we have dreams of having them, and we do as our mind says. For me, I prayed. I asked Hari-Brahma [said with great force], but I could not raise children from my own womb. Perhaps he meant me to raise my children from the earth itself. You can say I borrowed a womb from the earth. So, I’m telling you, when we felt like having children, we did what we had to… [iv].

*****

Thimmakka’s biography [v] offers a sympathetic account of the prolonged hardships of her childhood when she had to contribute to the pittance her parents earned, one as a bonded labourer, and the other as a domestic help to affluent neighbours in the locality. As a child, she would collect fallen leaves of the buruga trees around her home and sell them at a nearby marketplace. In a prefatory note (although not titled as such), the author explains that the entire account in the biography was read out to Thimmakka and Umesh in its original version in Kannada, and was approved as authentic by both of them.

This phase of her past, as recorded in this book, is particularly bleak wherein her own mother is remembered as a harsh and vicious person totally unlike her affectionate father. And she is also clearly differentiated from a generous woman at whose house Thimmakka was employed as a domestic help during the formative years of her childhood, and who, she took to thinking of as her foster mother. What lingers in her memories of her biological mother, anyhow, are frequent incidents of physical violence meted out to her for minor evasions of duties or mistakes. All of these meld together in cementing her reckoning that she was unable to give birth because her own mother had neither taken care of her when she had been bitten by a poisonous snake, nor made any propitiatory offering to the snake gods afterwards, to ward off future calamities.

*****

In another poem, similar at least in impact to “Ecology”, Ramanujan portrays the mother in it, again possibly his own mother, as a being that morphs into a bunch of entities across a few lines. She is a tree in the opening lines, and then, an eagle perched on one of its branches, but soon, also its possible prey— a rat, because, instead of the rodent for which the trap had been set, one of her fingers got caught in it— and then again, these visions get pulled into a vivid image of the old mother bending, and perhaps resembling a beast on all fours, but worthy of awe still, to pick up a grain of rice from the kitchen floor with “four human fingers” [vi]. The son who watches her can only respond by licking the bark of his mouth although his tongue is equally dry like some old piece of parchment. The more he retrieves from memory, the less the possibility of anything definitive, and which is perhaps why it’s titled “Mother among other things” [sic].

*****

But human habits of retrieval in memory aren’t identical to those of material discovery, are they? Thimmakka was reportedly ‘discovered’ in 1994 by a state official from the Public Works Department who happened to be on some mission in her locality [vii]. Apparently, a lecturer who accompanied him on one of his surveys informed him that the several hundreds of trees that flanked the road from Hulikal to Kudur had been planted and reared by an old couple. The officer wanted to popularise this “selfless act of the couple”, and asked the lecturer to write an article so that others might feel compelled to emulate their work [viii]. ‘Discoveries’ of this kind need the attention of some powerful person I suppose. The first media story on Thimmakka thus came out in a Kannada newspaper called Prajavani. But Chikkaiah had unfortunately passed away three years prior to this incident. And he recedes as a distant, silhouetted figure, in almost all stories on her. This first story was titled “Saalumarada Sangathi”, and roughly means “The Matter concerning A Row of Trees”. Perhaps this story generated the popular moniker, Saaluramarada, or “Row of Trees” which had, by the time we met her, become the prime, honorific marker of her identity and popularity. In fact, that expression had become her first name.

*****

The rest of her story, well, it is history. We are told that the above-mentioned article became a huge hit, that she was inundated with fanmail, that it grabbed the attention of politicians who swear by different flags, and that every other NGO soon started convening meetings to honour her [ix]. Sometime around then, the author of the first article wrote another story, this time in English, for the Deccan Herald. Titled “Thimmakka and her 284 Children ”, it seems to have had a hand in establishing the link between her lapsed motherhood and the trees she and her husband ended up rearing over the course of several years. One can only conjecture whether this connection had been articulated by her, or whether it was an imaginative evocation of her past that the author came up with. This story, anyway, had a wider reach. And it could have influenced the selection of Thimmakka’s name for the “National Citizen’s Award” which was conferred on her in the same year. The biographer also explains that the entire process of selection for this award was accelerated by the fact that H. D. Dewagowda, a native of Karnataka was the prime minister of the country then. Be that as it may, hereafter, we see the mother narrative repeated in story after story with their numbers escalating after the international recognition bestowed on her.

It’s probably indecent to wonder what psychological connection this hugely popular maternal narrative might have had to her enduring memory of her own mother as ruthless and unkind, which she probably had been. One’s intimate impressions of another, especially those concerning fear, even when mired in other feelings, and when held with such potency, come with an unbreachable bulwark at least for that person I suppose. Also, the absence of a sheltering kind of security from a parent to a child tends to cast lasting shadows. Inappropriately, I still wondered if she, the ‘bad mother’ could have generated, like the negative of a photograph, Thimmakka’s own ‘mothering’ of the trees.

Add to that this other thing: a puzzling turnaround. Against the steadfastness of this memory of her mother is what seemed like its opposite, a staggering inversion, in this case, of a crucial, much-reported event of her past. Several former accounts of her life I have been able to read have as their linchpin the stigma meted out to her by her husband’s family, in particular her mother-in-law, as well as the people in the vicinity in general then, for remaining childless. The memories thus recorded include endured trauma of social isolation, blatant insults flung at her for being a ‘barren woman’, castigations that she was inauspicious and worthless, and her own half-hearted consent to her husband to get another spouse, all of which, we are told, led to her attempt to kill herself by drowning in a nearby pond. Thimmakka’s biography has a lengthy record of that fateful day. The middle aged Thimmakka figuring in these pages is one who feels alienated by the sheer weight of expectations on her person. While her body, depleted of the desire to go on, is sucked into the depths of the pond, and her lungs are filling up with water, something, it is told, stirs in her mind. And somehow, she manages to swim back to the surface of the pond, and what now seems like the rest of her story.

But this momentous turn of events, engineered by others and which pushed her to the very brink, was totally refuted in her protean chat to us. She cut short our attempt to probe with a curt denial:

“No, nobody said anything, there was nothing like that. I myself felt bad, that is all… We tried praying very much, we visited the doctor once, but…” [x].

And Umesh who was present all through our conversation, who also strangely gave me a copy of Thimmakka’s biography for perusal, which contains graphic details of this possibly excised memory, fully backed her response when she stopped midway. Could it be that all of that no longer mattered to her? What was this: an attempted or accomplished reconciliation with the past, or the result of a perforated memory? Maybe owning a name that sends ripples of adoration in the present can also wash over near-fatal hollows of the past.

*****

So the need to name an entity, a relentless human temptation, and having a good name, along with everything it fetches do matter after all, much as we are otherwise led to believe? What about nicknames then, especially those that are shameful? Thimmakka’s late husband, too often referred to as ‘Bikkalu Chikkaiah’, might have said something in response perhaps, if he could spit out words without the stammer that had taken possession of his throat sometime in childhood. Bikkalu in Kannada means one who stammers. If a celebrated qualification became Thimmakka’s first name, in her husband’s case, his nickname seems to have turned his actual name into a surname.

As per the account in her biography, that name was conferred on him, once again, by some state officials who had come to inspect a breach in a canal, and because he had stammered while trying to answer some question put to him. Chikkaiah became ‘Bikkalu Chikkaiah’ then and there, we are told. But this man, the biographer also takes care to add, was a trained nadaswaram player, and an extempore oral poet even, although technically illiterate, who could conjure up funny ditties and sing them perhaps for his own merriment. But Chikkaiah, if he had wished to escape his nickname, failed at it. And he keeps failing at it even after his death it seems unless, across repeated usage, that word has turned into an empty sign no longer signalling shame, or anything at all, and which, I suppose, isn’t uncommon. Anyway, Thimmakka’s biography which praises him much also has a photo of the couple on the inside cover of the book under which this nickname is dutifully, or perhaps unwittingly reproduced, along with the encomium, “The True Representatives of Mother Nature”. But so do several published eulogies on them.

But the singer with a stammer— who reminded me of the deaf protagonist (named Singer) of Carson McCullers’ debut novel [xi] who can speak, but mostly doesn’t— seems to have had other preoccupations. The short-statured, frail man recalled in the biography is someone who watched the flow of water in the rainy season, and harvested little water bodies on land that belonged to no one in particular, and where it would pool together. In his wanderings, he would look for fodder for cattle, left unfed and usually confined to a pen to prevent their straying into the paddy fields in Hulikal. Maybe he preferred the company of animals, who don’t value words much, to that of humans. But these memories neatly fall into the worshipful stance her biographer takes, wherein he emerges as a saintly figure who “dreamt of an Eden on earth” [xii]. This attribution of sacrificial altruism perhaps conceals more than it reveals.

To think thus of names and the vagaries of fame, or inversely shame actually attributed to someone, and recorded in a biography is unpleasant. Julian Barnes, possibly echoing Henry James, speaks of this predicament better than anyone I can think of:

You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.

You can do the same with a biography. The trawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn’t catch: there is always far more of that. The biography stands fat and worthy-burgherish on the shelf, boastful and sedate: a shilling life will give you all the facts, a ten pound one all the hypotheses as well. But think of everything that got away, that fled with the last deathbed exhalation of the biographee [xiii].

But what’s it that got away? What to make of its ‘whatness’?

I must have riffled through the pages of Thimmakka’s biography quite a few times. Especially the ones that carried photographs, as if the mere act of looking in bewilderment could issue forth another story, the way our canine child gets me to feed him yet again, just by darting intense, prolonged stares at me. Who was this man then? Alongside the wandering poet-singer, there is also the husband who was forced by his mother to attend two bride-seeing ceremonies, and one of those prospective spouses, we are told, was rejected at first glance because she resembled a black sesame seed. And then, there’s the man who sold a cow for a thousand rupees, and stashed that money away so that his funeral rites might be smoothly performed. Or the one who ignored the summons from the village chief three times, because he was hurt that those who had filed the complaint were his own mother and brother. Or, again, the husband who thrashed his wife with an areca sapling for attempting to kill herself, and then consoled and fed her with his own hands. Or one, to whom, I wonder why celebratory attribution of ‘fatherhood’ for rearing those hundred-odd trees hasn’t materialised.

*****

Perhaps it’s true that the narration of a person’s life gets overtly coloured by the nature of the subject’s death [xiv]. Any number of names, real and fictional, might be put forth to illustrate that tendency of human memory, whether written, oral, or silently held. But let’s look at a single instance. Allow me to mislead you here a little as I arrive at my point from the opposite side of the quandary: the immediate aftermath of the death of a wildly adored icon, although as depicted in what’s perhaps an imagined scene. Sharon Olds’ haunting poem on Marilyn Monroe’s corpse depicts the “ambulance men” who carry her inert body down the steps of her home [xv]. She is cold, and heavy as iron. They close her eyes, but her mouth just wouldn’t. They move a caught strand of hair “as if it mattered” [xvi]. And note the shape of her breasts flattened by gravity under the sheet, and carry her “as if it were she” [xvii]. They could never be the same again, says Olds. But for the rest of the world not privy to this encounter, either in a written account, or for real, Marilyn cannot be a terrible vision, can she? She grows lovelier in imagination because of her early death it seems.

*****

But the events that led to Chikkaiah’s death cannot claim any loveliness. What resounds across them is the caterwaul of failure, its banality as well, which, incidentally, is something I happen to relate to rather well. Truly, I can speak of a clear idea of success with as much immediacy as I can about the high-security cantonment premises in Bangalore.

Chikkaiah’s death, we are told, revolves around a few quickly spiralling incidents entailed by another death: the passing away of one of his relatives for whose cremation, the family was unable to procure firewood. Chikkaiah apparently asked them to chop off a dried out branch or two from one of the trees he and his wife had planted. Soon he was arrested for infringement on, and destruction of public property, and was imprisoned for the offence. Even though, he was released after a week, it is reported in the biography that he was “shocked and hurt very much by the humiliation he had received in return for his selfless social service” [xviii]. In her conversation to us, she went on to mention how he fell ill immediately after he was released, and never managed to recover from whatever affliction the above events had infected him with: “he lived for three days, and the fourth day he died” [xix]. Added to this public humiliation is the exacerbating fact, the result of a hindsight though, that the only public recognition Chikkaiah had received for their combined venture was a silver medal presented to the couple at a cattle fair in 1958. Fame which would turn Thimmakka into a ‘mother’ of trees knocked on their door too late for him.

But Thimmakka’s biographer, while rounding off the story of Chikkaiah’s life, certainly marks him out as a noble soul perhaps as a kind of reparation, and which, although clearly well-intentioned, emerges in the larger narrative arc of the book also as something that’s rubbed on him from the hagiographic glory in which the couple is swathed. Maybe Henry James was right when he said that after an individual’s long work is over, the hand of death in passing over the person’s image tends to smoothen the folds, making the figure retained in memory a ghostly being, from whom “accidents have dropped away”, and “shades have ceased to count”, and that it then “stands sharply, for a few cherished things, rather than, nebulously, for a swarm of possibilities” [xx].

But saintliness conferred on people while they are still alive works differently it seems. The survivor, the one who continues to act toward some good becomes not just a saint, but a hero. And heroes can never be silent, can they? Perhaps that’s the burden of the exalted survivor. (Maybe that’s an attribute a hero shares with someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, one who is accused of a crime, but refuses to confess, someone, say, like Perry Smith.) Strangers like me would continue to seek their stories, even those they have forgotten, or those they don’t wish to tell anymore.

I don’t know of any apparatus that might reveal with clarity how we get to be the persons we think we are at a particular phase in life when the body that endures itself and the world is a congeries of too many things: time, genetics, culture, socialisation, the values we come to cherish whether in opposition to all of the above or not, and so forth, and which, in its entirety, may be said to be the existential equivalent perhaps of an ecosystem with so much remaining out of sight. Doesn’t metaphysical idealism someone holds on to, or is attributed to someone, and to which causality is assigned, have a psychic life as well? Why indeed is ethical largesse when it’s lauded, understood as mutually exclusive to a legitimately human clamour for relevance, some sense of contentment, or plain, no matter how fleeting, experience of joy? Maybe one is left with shards thrust into memory, which one might squint against sunlight, so to speak.

I think it was Monet who said that in order to paint something he needed to first forget its name [xxi].

*****

And since a clutch of shards is what one is left with, here’s a random one from the pile: the cover photograph of her biography. This lucent image has captured her standing with her face turned upward. Her arms are raised to the sky as if in supplication, while the lush foliage of those trees under cottony banks of clouds soars above her, and the branches look as if they are reaching out, from across the sides of the road, to hold hands. The old woman— her figure so tiny under those mighty trees, with her sari flapping in the wind— seems to be conjuring something from the air. When asked about this picture, she, however, made light of whatever magic we had attributed to that image with what seemed like a feline insouciance. As she recalled it then, she had been demonstrating how those trees would sway in the wind, and the photographer had caught her unawares. Maybe that’s exactly why it conveys what’s possibly outside the frame, but what we felt was right there in it. A minor thing in the grand scheme of things. But in what idiosyncratic ways do detail, accident, and history join hands in an image that ineffably punctures the soul? And that, in turn, threatens to sweep away the few images I managed to gather of her as well, doesn’t it?

*****

To consider that is to sense the elusiveness of a stable human subject. But then again, in the middle of her winding talk, she would drop an expressive statement, as if in communing with her past, she spotted something that had been deeply imprinted: “things that fall remain fallen” [xxii]. A musing like that wouldn’t chime with the easy romance of love for nature, would it? I suppose it springs forth from some image that has little claim to charm: that of desperate eking out of living where intimate engagement with the land, while sweating hard on it was the only thing to fall back on, and which has a way of delivering its own truths perhaps:

I did a lot of things to live, you name it and I have done it. Other than driving a vehicle, I have done almost everything else. I have done farm-work, quarry-work, tarring, cooking in many houses, large houses. You can’t say that I didn’t know anything [xxiii].

That, as far as I can think, doesn’t require any commentary.

*****

Our triangulating talk must have worn her out by then. Or, maybe she was just being hospitable. Either way, she suggested that we share her staple meal, comprising a brownish ball prepared of finger millet flour, with a soppu (a kind of chutney I thought), made of green chillies, salt, and curry-leaves, as accompaniment. When we dithered, mumbling something civil but inane, she declared: “Saalumarada Thimakka is a big name now. You shouldn’t refuse the food [sic]!” [xxiv] My friend must have eased the unsettling delicacy of the moment, asking her something or other, since I tend to clam up in such situations. And stuck at some invisible boundary, I pretended to enjoy what I had tasted of her meal.

*****

I think it was a little later, once the conversation crept back to a certain level of lightness, that we asked her why she and her husband had planted those trees by a public road. I wasn’t weaned off the propensities of my academic training then: the way it orders one’s thoughts, the way it assumes a clean but elevated space from which questions can be asked, and from where everything can be understood, the way it prioritises questions with anticipated answers, already spotted at a distance… This question was admittedly gnawing at the back of my mind for a while then.

She took a moment to digest the question, and then came up with an unfinished answer: “I had land, I haven’t forgotten about it. But see, it was on those four kilometres that I first had space, and somehow that was where we felt….” [xxv].

To one who has left behind a series of things, and drifts through life like a zombie, decades put into doing the same work– harsh, physical work at that– day after day, year after year, is something that inspires a confused, if not grudging sense of awe. Confused because, I can’t see myself attempting it, but, while it reminds me of my own lassitude when it comes to finishing things, big things at least, it’s admirable from a distance too. This cannot be like finding time to write what one enjoys writing, apart from doing random copy-editing hacks for occasional income, can it? What indeed makes one stick to something that demands such perseverance, a kind of toil, after routine toil for basic sustenance?

Maybe this line of thinking itself is enabled by the privilege of having decent means of living, along with pursuits that interest one, which can together keep quotidian discontentment somewhat at bay. But that doesn’t keep me from wondering if the act for which they had joined hands helped to fill some silence that had crept into their marital life for whatever reason. Maybe the physicality of this long-drawn-out effort made conversations possible. Maybe for space to become ‘our space’, or ‘my space’, one needs to root down longing as belonging in something or other. As for time, the appalling duration of it, and its slow ticking across years, for a sapling, hundreds of them, to turn into trees, it’s beyond my comprehension. Maybe that’s how time experientially, or from the vantage point of retrospective vision, turns into space; ten years, twice over, or more could then be seen as four kilometres between Hulikal and Kudur.

But no, these thoughts did not assail me while listening to her, leaping, as I was, across indecipherable gaps in her talk, following the trail of those few words in Kannada I knew. They popped up only later, much later. Her final words to us, at any event, took the shape of an exhortation, which, from her position in life, as one who has enabled the conservation of thousands of trees apart from the ones by that village road, she seemed truly capable of passing on to us, or anyone else for that matter:

People are cutting them [trees] down. They’ll say, we need roads. They want roads, and there are more cars, more buses, trucks… They come and they have big loads to carry and all, and they say, we need roads, so the trees get cut down. Nothing can be done about it. They need roads, for buses and trucks and other things, so they’re cutting them down. In the cities also, the population has increased very much…. Nothing is to be done about it.

People do what they want… They raise homes, and sometimes they raise trees, and of course dogs, perhaps children…. I feel like, by my not being able to have children, it was better for the country, for everyone. Instead, I grew trees, it was good for all, and I am happy as it’s good for the birds. It’s good for the animals too, and all forest dwellers. The birds, when they have children [emphasis hers], they need to build nests, for that they need to have trees… the trees…

From them only the water comes. Back then, for almost twenty years, there was no water in our lakes. After the trees, it filled up… If girls grow trees… not only trees should be grown by girls, the nation should be grown by them. It is from girls that everything— from little birds to the country to…. anything at all— originates…But of course, everyone has to do it…. you must…get everyone to do that, not just girls… [xxvi].

*****

I said I went to meet Thimmakka because I was intrigued by the jumble of stories about her. What I didn’t say then is that, that sense of intrigue was stoked up by a random incident, a trivial one too perhaps, a post I had chanced upon on Facebook a few days before meeting her. It said, riffing on Roland Barthes’ well-known declaration in The Death of the Author, something like this: ‘The mother dies the moment the child is born’. Brazen it sounds, doesn’t it? But I couldn’t help mumbling to myself, “Yeah, try saying that to one who has an autistic child.” And then, after meeting Thimmakka, I wondered, although in prevarication, how she would have responded. Even as the circumstances are different in those two cases, sometimes the mother, or the parent just cannot declare death, let alone die in the sense of a total release from motherhood or parenthood, whether the child in question is one who has an incurable condition, or one who was never born, and cannot be forgotten precisely for that reason. What universally significant immanence do naming words, common or proper, and no matter how widely used, contain when a knotty mass of codes, conventions, compulsions, and so on anchored in time and place directs the language of a person’s relationship to them?

And the other side of such liberatory intellectualisation of messy human experience in the above Facebook post is the unctuousness with which politically correct sermons on care are peddled on social media as if fidelity to some version of an ideology, along with the professing of those mighty feelings of care or empathy exempts one from considering what we say when we say things (that exempting is what enables ideology to work like gospel, isn’t it?), as if those feelings are purely rational forces that can set us on some steady climb of progress.

That said, I too am toying with words. And my beagle napping next to me is suddenly jerked awake by some siren, not the simultaneously seductive and dangerous one that wafts in from Greek mythology, but the disturbing one that blares into our eleventh floor apartment from the busy road close by. A completely unnecessary mention that is, isn’t that, rationally speaking? Add to that the fact that I’m acrophobic. But when I look down from my balcony, the tingling sensation of dread in my toes isn’t entirely unpleasant. It gives a mildly stimulating kick even. In fact, the mere act of typing the words in the second last sentence above induces a fainter version of the actual excitement my feet sense when I look down. (Certainly, there might be some physiological explanation like the malfunctioning of nerves, or something of that sort for it, but that cannot clarify why I find it exciting, can it?). But, as far as I know, no death-wish wriggles with new life in my head that forces me to defenestrate myself. I’m, anyhow, inclined to take that as another insight into the general life of the sensations and drives of ‘rational animals’, its irrationality, to be precise, that can never be fully erased (which Justin E. H. Smith compellingly regards not as the opposite of rationality, but as its twin [xxvi]), and of my own in particular. But sometimes, they certainly bear fruits.

*****

To return to Thimmakka’s final words from the whirligig of thoughts in my head, an endless chain of possibilities is what she sees: of raising homes, trees, dogs, children, anything at all. But that comes with the reminder that they did what they did because of what they hadn’t been able to. (That somehow reminded me of “A Hunger Artist”, especially its last few lines which reveal the protagonist’s actual reason for fasting for long stretches of time, which becomes his art, and which, for a while, is entertainment to others [xxviii].) This articulation of motherhood then is not so much about domesticity as it’s often made out to be. It seems to have an extendable format, wherein it becomes a mutating ‘I’ in an indeterminate space where ‘I’ first felt that ‘I’ had space. While her words ring undeniably of progressive activism, the neat certainties of ideological finger-wagging cannot address it. For, here’s a woman who couldn’t rubbish those reviled, binding aspects of motherhood, its stereotypes in fact, even as whatever value she attaches to it might have been thrust upon her from without. She also appears to have made use of them, at least in hindsight, although it’s not clear to me why when emotional values one ends up cherishing are understood as set in motion from elsewhere, agential choices are touted as fully authored by a discrete, non-porous, acting subject. And what has driven it is not self-effacement, even as some notion of service to others is there, but a persistent desire for a name, one shared by her late husband as well, and which he failed to achieve when alive.

And what’s this name but the result of an opening out to something which was never there? Maybe for some people, the word, ‘name’, longed for and patiently acted upon, and blessed with recognition that owes its life to a merging of the energies of accident, affect-laden stories or mythologies accorded salience in history, and the desires of the present— a kind of coalescing whose habits are not entirely resolvable or rational— then and thus, that word might turn into a four-letter word that rhymes with it. And that word is not ‘same’ or ‘lame’. Richly rewarding it can be, but it might still rob something of these humans. Maybe there’s always a price to be paid.

*****

But yes, now that we have reached the last of these careening thoughts, you, “you, my quiet one, you, my true one” [xxix], you with whom I talk without utterances, with those heavy-lidded eyes gleaming in ironic amusement, with your lips pressed to each other, and drawn in, as if you are rolling your tongue around words yet to find their breath, which together make you look like a little scamp bent on some mischief, you are mulling over this last question, aren’t you? Over these last seven years after meeting the old woman, how many little green things have I so far taken care of? Here’s the answer: none.

Unless, an Aloe Vera plant in a tiny pot someone had gifted my husband at some gathering, and which I usually watered twice a day, but also, at times, whenever it occurred to me counts, and which, Theo gleefully chowed down. Or perhaps, unless, Theo who lolloped into our midst only a few years ago, peeing everywhere, and as often as he needed to— another unplanned turn of events— when I was wistfully longing for divine intervention counts. Or, maybe, unless this inchoate stream of words counts. But what can it really do, without a wet nose, and paws that smell of the leap of hope which only a dog can truly convey? Surely, it dreams of dreaming up a map of the missed seasons of the mind. But for whatever it has failed to map, and since silence discomforts us, maybe we would need another story. It may not be the gushing kind, and might even stammer a bit. Either way, it may not please much or many perhaps.

*****

End Notes

[i] Ramanujan, A. K. “Ecology”, Collected Poems. OUP, 1997, pp. 12-125.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Personal Interview with Thimmakka. Captured as audio recording. Transcribed and translated by Jayaditya Vittal, 2017.

[v] Originally written in Kannada, and later translated into English. Beluru, Indiramma, The Empress of the Living Emeralds! Saalumarada Thimmakka. Translated by Ganesh S. Beluru. Saalurmarada Thimmakka Foundation, 2015.

[vi] Ramanujan A. K. “Of Mothers among other things”, Collected Poems. Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 61.

[vii] Beluru, Indiramma, The Empress of the Living Emeralds! Saalumarada Thimmakka. Translated by Ganesh S. Beluru. Saalurmarada Thimmakka Foundation, 2015.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Personal Interview with Thimmakka, 2017.

[xi] McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Penguin Classics, 2000.

[xii] Beluru, Indiramma, The Empress of the Living Emeralds! Saalumarada Thimmakka. Translated by Ganesh S. Beluru. Saalurmarada Thimmakka Foundation, 2015, p. 24.

[xiii] Barnes, Julian. Flaubert’s Parrot. Vintage: 2010, pp. 16-17.

[xiv] Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography. Princeton University Press, 2005.

[xv] Olds, Sharon. The Dead and the Living. Knopf, 1984, p. 10.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Beluru, Indiramma, The Empress of the Living Emeralds! Saalumarada Thimmakka. Translated by Ganesh S. Beluru. Saalurmarada Thimmakka Foundation, 2015, p. 29.

[xix] Personal Interview, Thimmakka, 2017.

[xx] James, Henry. The Daily Henry James. University of Chicago Press, 2016, p.116.

[xxi] Attributed to Monet. Source Unknown. The same thought, although differently phrased, is attributed to Paul Valery as well. The source is unknown in this case too.

[xxii] Personal Interview, Thimmakka, 2017.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Smith, Justin E. H. Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. Princeton University Press, 2019.

[xxviii] Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist”, Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Translated by Michael Hoffman.  Penguin, 2007, pp. 252-263.

[xxix] Celan, Paul. “The Bright Stones”, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry by Paul Celan, A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Pierre Joris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, pp. 37.

Priya Dileep

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Contributor for Panorama.

Priya Dileep lives in Bangalore. Writing her 'author-bio' gives her stomach cramps.

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