Monday, August 30, 2010

Stochastic Resonance

I was nearly dead when I went to the house of Chaathan.

The illness started soon after my birthday, I remember. After ten days of misdiagnosis in the hands of the Campus doctor, I was barely conscious of the shivering with high fever, vomiting bile and difficulty in breathing along with an unbearable pain in my chest. I begged my friend (the one who was my ‘side-y’ in the hostel) to take me to Delhi, to my cousin’s place in Dhaula Kuan. I guess the proper treatment started then. I remember the doctor asking my cousin,

“How did he reach this state of pneumonia without being diagnosed?”

The days that followed are hazy. Daily injections blackened my upper arms, steroids and antibiotics became my staple diet, x-rays to monitor progress and consultation with doctors at AIIMS interrupted fitful sleep. I think I saw the silhouette of my folks standing near the bed with lowered heads. Was it after the first or second week that I left Delhi, returned to my hometown and went to the house of Chaathan?

The journey used to take couple of hours to reach there. The first part was on the highway from Trivandrum to Kottayam and that took an hour or so. The rest of the journey was on a narrow road climbing high into deep and dark hilly forest. I think it was a cousin who gave me those details, the one who was cured of jaundice in that place. I do not remember the journey or my first sight of that house. I do not even remember how many days had elapsed till I regained consciousness there, in that house of Chaathan.

When I regained consciousness and opened my eyes, I saw a lady wiping my face and body with a hot towel. She is beautiful. Though I thought she was old then she must have been in the thirties or late twenties. I guess I always remember her as I saw her then – concerned dark eyes, gentle dusky face, pious and sensual in the traditional two-piece sari-set (mundum neriyathu) and, with each touch I felt she was holding me firmly in a comforting embrace. I call her appachi (aunt).

I saw her turn her head and I followed her look. I saw Chaathan for the first time. He was standing near the entrance of that room. He is tall with a body lean and muscular from sheer hard work, with a visage of indeterminate age, salt-and-pepper-hair and deep light-brown eyes staring intensely.

In the years that followed, I realized that my time in the house of Chaathan was like a permanent tattoo, a mark etched on my mind and actions. I yearned for that and probably tried to mimic or recreate. I remember most the minute and trivial details.

In the house, Chaathan wore a mundu (dhoti) and when he went out for business or pleasure, a well-pressed jubba (kurta) too. For kkrishi (farming), he used to wear just a thorthu (light cotton towel). I used to watch him wash his own clothes, meticulously hang the clothes on the washing line and then ‘iron’ the dried clothes by pressing with his strong brown hands. I observed all that in the days that followed.

On that first occasion, he told appachi

“Give him hot rice and fish curry, the worst is over.”

He left my room without another look or comment.

I realized soon that both of them were not accustomed to having unnecessary conversation. Though appachi was always approachable, she would often counter my incessant chatter with a smile. Chaathan was fine and normal most of the time but there were dark brooding moments when it was wise to let him be. I realized early that they loved to read and discuss, explore fantasy and science together and it seemed like their passion allowed anything.

After a day or two, I was well-enough to roam in that house. It is not a large house. There is a large area in the middle where Chaathan sat in a reclining chair which had a cloth back. Balan, the all-in-all help, used to sit on the floor near Chaathan’s chair and roll beedis for him. My bedroom was in the west wing along with three empty rooms. In the east wing, there is the master bedroom and the dining-cum-kitchen area. The bathroom and the toilet are a little away from the house, behind and shielded by trees.

The house of Chaathan did not have doors. I asked appachi about that and she replied rather confusingly,

“Doors need locks, and keyholes to spy and…when you really want to get out, you might find yourself locked within?”

Seeing the puzzled look on my face, she added with a less-serious tone,

“This house is too small for doors, isn’t it?”

When I was well-enough, I started taking my meals in the dining area which was adjacent to the kitchen, with the smell of cooking and wood-smoke clearing my head.

One evening, I saw Chaathan with a tattered paperback book in his hand and I realized that it was a book that I carried in my backpack for ‘sleepless moments’. It was No Orchids For Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase. I was having podi-ari kanji (rice porridge), appachi was sitting on the floor fixing a murukkaan (paan) for herself and Chaathan, smoking a beedi, started reading the book aloud, his deep voice resonating in that room. Even now, I can hear that story being read well into the night.

“It began on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds…

Miss Blandish watched him come across the room. She saw his new confidence and she guessed what it was to mean to her. Shuddering, she shut her eyes…

Some people could cope with this because they believe in God. I haven’t believed in anything except having a good time…”


One night, I was restless, finding it difficult to sleep and I got up to drink the cool water in the kujam (long-stemmed clay vessel). I stood near the bedroom-window for a long time. The moon had gone and I could hardly see anything. I heard a sound behind me and I turned around. A young man, probably about appachi’s age, was standing inside the room. Even in the dark, I could see his eyes, fierce and wild. He approached me slowly. When he was at an arm’s distance, he reached out and clasped my neck with a strong hand that smelled of sandalwood. My back was pressed against the window ledge. I was shivering violently and I wondered whether the fever was returning. We stood like that for a few long minutes. When he released my neck, I crumpled to the floor. I lay there without looking up. When I did, he was gone.

I stood up, trying hard to control the shivering, drank some more water and waited for a while till I could walk steadily. Then, I left my room to go to Chaathan’s room in the east wing. Light from a lamp was streaming from his room. The polished floor had a bronze hue in that light but felt cold to touch. I stopped at the entrance of his room and looked inside.

Chaathan and appachi were in a close embrace on the bed. I could see appachi’s naked back while they kissed deeply. Chaathan, who was facing the entrance, saw me before I could move away. Without breaking away from the kiss, he looked me over from head to toe, taking in the mild shivering and my sweaty state and probably, the panic on my face too. He gave me a slight nod and lifted his palm a little as if to indicate that he would be with me in five minutes or so. I went back to my room and sat in the dark.

It was definitely more than five minutes before Chaathan came to my room. He switched on the light. His calm composure was soothing. He stood near the entrance, looked around my room carefully, breathing deeply and wiping the sweat on his body with a thorthu.

Before I could say anything, he asked me,

“Did he come?”

When I nodded, he continued,

“Are you scared?”

For some reason, I replied,

“No.”

Chaathan smiled with amusement,

“Aren’t you scared of the living? You should be. As for the dead, they are not that bad. Don’t worry. Try to sleep.”

As was his custom, he left immediately without waiting for my response. But, I did sleep well after that.

Next morning, when I went for breakfast, nobody mentioned anything about the previous night. Later that day, I overheard Chaathan telling appachi and Balan,

“He is the right one. Not a believer or a disbeliever, without beliefs or doubts. He is like a fresh book waiting for the writing.”

I do not know whether they were talking about me.

I was then quite fit and ready to venture outside. That day, I stayed within the compound, walking on the sand in the courtyard, scrawling and sketching with my toes and erasing just as quickly, or resting beneath the canopy formed by a maavu (mango tree), a plaavu (jackfruit tree) and a beautiful aal maram (banyan tree).

Next morning when I woke up, I saw a youth standing at the entrance of my room. He looked a few years younger than me but that could have been because of his slight build, impish face and an ever- ready buck-tooth mischievous grin. He introduced himself quickly as Kundra, as if that said everything. He told me to meet him outside after breakfast and the morning bath. Then, he slipped out quickly not waiting for any confirmation from my side.

But, I was there and Kundra was waiting for me, eating a mango lustily with the syrup dripping down the side of his arms. He held out another one for me but I declined the offer. Then, he rummaged in the waistband of his mundu and came out with a handful of roasted cashew-nuts, and I accepted that greedily.

Finally, I had a companion who could chatter more than me. On the days that followed, he was my guide on that land. He told me about the houses outside that estate, the workers’ homes and the bigger houses that lay empty. Chaathan seemed to be in control everywhere, benevolent or otherwise, sharing their lives in every way. He told me that Chaathan’s younger brother had been appachi’s husband. Chaathan’s brother was found dead near the temple with sandalwood paste on one hand and blood on the other. He whispered that there is a rumour that Chaathan had killed his brother.

Kundra took me everywhere.

We explored the hills on one side of the house, the rubber plantation, climbed on top of big boulders perched precariously on rocks, collected wild pineapple growing near the rocks and he showed me the cracks where snakes lived. Even the sacred king cobra that leaves a golden trail, he said.

On the other side of the house, there were coconut trees, the banana plantation, the fruit trees and pepper creepers on teak, rosewood and mahogany trees with tendrils hanging within reach.

There is a narrow way downhill on that side to go to the temple and the river. The path ends on a small hill where the temple is located. The hill shields a place called moonattumukku (three rivers’ junction) and this is the bathing place for women. A turn in the river shields this place from the bathing place for men situated fifty meters downstream and the way to that is via the steps at the back of the temple.

On our third or fourth day, Kundra showed me a hiding place on a small ledge right above the ladies’ bathing place. We watched the women bathe. I saw a young woman bathing alone far from the rest and she stood out, a captivating beauty with graceful movements. I looked at Kundra. He seemed bored after finding little that could interest him. He lay on his back and dozed. I wondered,

“How could he sleep after seeing her? Can’t he see her?”

I turned back to that woman. She was looking directly at me and she gave me an amused smile. I moved away from the ledge, shook Kundra awake and ran away from that place. But, I did not tell Kundra about that young woman.

The next day, Kundra did not come. I ventured out alone but I did not go near the river. When I returned, I saw Balan in the courtyard. I asked him,

“Do you know where Kundra lives?”

The wizened face looked at me for a while from behind thick beedi smoke before replying,

“Kundra? My son went to the city a few years back.”

I was not sure whether I had recovered from the illness or whether my body and mind were still weak and susceptible.

That night, I was once again restless. Light from a half-moon gave me shadows to chase. I fell asleep when the half-moon disappeared behind some clouds. A touch woke me up or was it the smell of jasmine? I sat up on the bed. The young woman I had seen bathing was lying next to me. I thought I would start shivering. If she had smiled again, I would have. But she didn’t. I looked at her face and wondered whether I deserved her. I didn’t know what to do. She touched my face and then my chest. It seemed like she was spreading some balm on those areas which had doubled up in pain so recently. She knew that I was inexperienced and she guided me. We undressed slowly and made love. When she left, my first thought was about how I could convince my batch-mates that I had lost my virginity.

In the days that followed, I spent time walking and eating, regaining strength, helping Chaathan in the fields and talking to him and appachi in the dining area.

On one of those days, he asked me,

“Do you know about resonance?”

I recited from memory,

“A peak in the signal-to-noise ratio as we change the frequency of the input signal, and it occurs when the frequency matches the natural frequency of the system.”

“And, do you know about stochastic resonance?”

“No,” I replied.

“It is also a peak in the signal-to-noise ratio. But, it occurs as we change the input noise intensity. It is a phenomenon where the presence of noise in a nonlinear system is better for output signal quality than its absence.”

Why was he telling me this? Chaathan continued,

“We are more accustomed to linear response where things add up and intuition works most often. But, when we see a wave build up and travel like a solitary wave or a soliton, an immutable and non-dissipating entity, we feel that it is impossible. But it is possible if you step into the nonlinear world.”

He paused and smoked silently for a while before adding,

“We have an issue with noise, too. We would like to deal with the signal alone. The noise is unavoidable but we treat it like a distraction to be reduced. But, are we aware about every signal and can we really differentiate noise and signal without uncertainty?”

Once again, he let these words play upon my senses and strangely, I felt I was beginning to understand him.

“Everything about us and around us is nonlinear and a dirty mixture of signal and noise, especially the mind, the body, thoughts and emotions. When can we perceive more than others? Be free, from constraints; feed the noise, without bias or filtering, in the right environment; let the nonlinear system do the rest. That is when we will sense beyond what we usually sense, when the output signal gets truly magnified with increasing intensity of random feeds.”

I had a lot of questions but I realized that Chaathan had slipped out of that mood into one of gloomy silence. I slipped away and thought a lot that night.

Next day, Chaathan, appachi and Balan sat with me for breakfast. None of us spoke. It was time for me to leave. I kept my head down and finished the food on my plate. When I raised my head, I saw that Kundra and the young woman were also in the room. Then, the others I had seen in that region started appearing in the room. Even the man with the fierce eyes stood outside with that group while I bid farewell.

I slept on the trip from there. I remember very little of what happened after I left the house of Chaathan and till I reached Delhi once again.

I have not gone to the house of Chaathan after those days. Years have passed and whenever I have asked others, they shrug and feign ignorance about Chaathan. Nobody likes to talk about that and most have hinted strongly that I should avoid such talk.

Recently, I was talking to my mother about those days. I thought I should try to ask her once again about Chaathan. But, I stopped myself when she started as usual,

“When you lost consciousness in Delhi, even the doctors lost hope. Only God knows what brought you back from that state when you were nearly dead…”

Some memories have to remain private.

Author’s note:

Under the guise of fiction, I might have abused reality and the physical sciences, especially the three-decade-old multi-disciplinary subject of stochastic resonance.

I could be excused because I hate one and love the other. I am reminded of a foreword in a Physics Ph.D. thesis: ‘Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.’ And, I do believe that any hypotheses should not cause Pauli’s complaint: ‘It’s not even wrong.’

I have been warned many times about abusing article-length and proper communication. I wish I could put the blame on small towns and villages where time dilates and space is truly warped.

I know that it seems like a death-wish.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) & Oru Pennum Randaanum (One Woman And Two Men)

Yesterday evening, I enjoyed a marathon session of cinema. I watched two movies by Adoor Gopalakrishnan: Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) and Oru Pennum Randaanum (One Woman And Two Men). Each film has four chapters based on stories written by Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai.

Let me begin with the ending of the two movies.

The movie Naalu Pennungal ends with a woman saying:

‘…purushan illathe ottakku oru sthreekku jeevikkaan kazhiyanamallo…’ […a woman should be able to lead a life alone without a man…]

Oru Pennum Randaanum ends with a woman and three men (her husband and two ‘others’):

Woman’s husband: ‘Aaraadi ivan?’ [Who is he?]
Woman: ‘Ente kochinte achan.’ [Father of my child.]

Why did I put in those scenes? If you have read those lines and not seen the movies, note down your immediate thoughts about what you think you can expect. Then, see the movies or read the stories and find out if your notes match the sensitivity and complexity portrayed.

For those who are interested in knowing more about the movies or the writer, please follow the links provided above.

I have read somewhere that Adoor himself considers these movies to be simple. But, it requires a master-craftsman like him to recreate Thakazhi’s stories for the screen. The beauty of the land, the harshness of the system, the troubles and hardship in society, the complexity of human relationships – these are depicted with a careful eye.

For a movie-lover, two points stand out after watching these two movies:

• The two movies have strong roles for women and most of the stories are women-centric. This should be noted especially because the Malayalam cinema of recent years has hardly a role for women.

• It would be nice to have more budget movies of this type, i.e., with strong short chapters. These short chapters or movies of 30-45 minute duration would be ideal for prime time TV, but I can only hope.

I am not really reviewing the movies here. Then, what am I trying to do out here?

Personally, I had three reasons to go through these movies and old stories, and to write about the same:

• One, I love fiction (quite often, more than reality) and writing. I also know that there are very few thoughts which have not been thought before in a better way. When I write, I wonder whether my ‘modern’ thoughts have been expressed elsewhere in a ‘better’ way ages back. By ‘better’, I mean ‘more true’. When I read stories, the first question that comes to mind turns out to be: ‘is it truly narrated – sans commercial acceptability and values, sans schoolbook morals, sans fear of the moral police?’ The stories in these movies are truly and carefully depicted.

• Two, when I need to scavenge for stories, I use my village. There are fewer rules, fewer gods and fewer reasons to worry in small places. In these two movies, the stories are based in villages and set in the period 1940-1960’s. Usually, I am more inclined to see a movie about life in a metro but I know that there is more life outside the metro. In these two movies, the social scene and human relationships are depicted without airbrushing. It allows us to see how society and human relationships have improved and where it has regressed.

• Three, I wanted to record something that I would like to understand better. And, for once, I would like to share the experience with others. I am sure that this is not due to altruism. Maybe, I desire a group who will ‘cut the crap’. The stories in these two movies are, like life and unlike popular writing, natural.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Better Luck Next Kid

Better Luck Next Kid

“Look at the bright side – it’s just a 5 minute walk from your house to the Court. It takes 1 hour for me to get here and more than hundred rupees, not that that will get you anything these days.”

I am now quite used to his style of delivery with the frequent changes of pitch or volume to emphasize each and every part of a sentence. I met him here at my lawyer’s office two and a half years back and I guess you could call us well-acquainted. I call him Sasi and when he is not around, my lawyer refers to him as Pickaxe Sasi. In the local papers, he is a ‘quotation killer’.

I once asked him for a rough quote. When he told me the price for a human head, I remarked,

“Isn’t that cheap?”

“Demand and supply,” he replied.

Another time, I asked him if he is not scared to die.

“Today or tomorrow, who cares?”

And after some thought, he added rather reluctantly,

“I am not that careless. Be with the right people, kill the wrong people. Leave the rest to the system. It works.”

I have been visiting this office quite regularly for the last three years. It is a nondescript and small office packed with files, 2 tables and 5 chairs. It is on the first floor of a commercial building situated right next to a drainage canal and the unbearable stink stays on my skin for days after each visit. My lawyer is rather good but he has no qualms about keeping his clients waiting for long hours in his office while he attends to some other case.

In the first six months of those three years, I was distraught, depressed and defeated. I survived that phase but my wife didn’t. I had to survive for the sake of the other kids. As Sasi says,

Life can be shitty, close your nose and keep your head high. What the heck, you have got only one.”

I tried quoting to him what I remembered of Confucius,

“You will live a 1000 lives and this could be the only one you will remember.”

I cannot print his reply, even without the emphasized parts.

My son’s case has been going on for three years. Initially, I could only think of what he and his group had done. The papers did not allow me to forget the crime and the victims, the kids especially. I could hardly recognize the photo the papers printed, he looked like a killer. And, my honest gaffe was often repeated,

“…he did something evil.”

In the first two years, my lawyer expressed hope and told me that my son might get away with a few years or utmost a life sentence. We played all the trump cards that we had – manslaughter, accidental victims, background of the intended victims, right religion, right caste, right class, right background and upbringing, even remorse and the possibility for quick rehabilitation. But unfortunately, nearly everyone in my son’s group had the same credentials. A few months back, my lawyer confided that I should get ready for the worst.

Today, he will be sentenced and my son had requested me not to be there in court. That is why I am here, with Sasi, waiting in the lawyer’s office.

My other kids have turned out ok. My other son is influenced by Lady Gaga and Bono. With my daughter, I have to argue about low-slung jeans, piercing and tattoos. We still have meals together and there is enough money for the occasional visit to the fake KFC for tubs of chicken broast.

This son had bad luck. He turned out to be like me.

I was younger than him when I started off with Flower Power and sang on the streets with my group of friends, ‘give peace a chance’. Disillusionment followed fast and we tried to be rebels or fashionable anarchists. We wanted to target nuclear power stations but there weren’t any in the immediate neighbourhood. We tried to stay away from the unavoidable political affiliations. We had our gurus and the godfathers but they were smart enough to prompt only from outside the stage.

During a period of unrest in the country, a powerful students’ group in Delhi taunted our manhood by sending a pack of bangles to our union. We would have showed our machismo with country bombs, knives and cycle chains but the jeep in which we traveled broke down somewhere on the outskirts of Rohtak. We spent the night finishing off two bottles of Old Monk and when the jeep got repaired the next day, none of us were in the mood to go to Delhi.

A year later, we made it to a two-paragraph column on page 5 on a Saturday mid-day paper. We were even given a name, Urban Naxals. Since the paper was sympathetic to our ideals of bridging the huge class-divide, the paper also referred to us, in the second paragraph, as Robin Hoods. I left that group when I found my uncle’s name in a list of victims. I knew that my uncle was bankrupt and that he borrowed heavily from my father and others to keep up his lavish lifestyle. That group lasted for a few seasons and for some reason, without any victims.

I was brought out of my reverie when Sasi tapped on my shoulder. My lawyer was climbing the stairs to the office. I stood up and waited at the door.

My lawyer looked at me and shook his head.

“Your son and another got death. The judge concluded that they are the leaders. The country needs an example, it seems.”

I was ready for that, I think.

Sasi placed his hand on my shoulder and said,

“Better luck next kid.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Two Bridges To This Station


We haunt a million places.

Ask Jean-Paul in that café
or Isabel with dreamy eyes;
the local Romeo on the beach
or the Juliet on those snowy slopes;
ask them where they wish to be.

It is the same there,
for you or me, him or her.

How we wish we were in another’s place,
when the wallet’s empty or the mood’s foul,
when the rains don’t stop or the sun is hot.

But, it is really the same there.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

We do not belong there,
in that place without clocks,
with a shaded path
to an unknown station.

On those walls,
there is a scrawl over ours
but our seat is there
in that empty station
with the scarred ground.

We arrive with the last train,
mid-morning and south-bound.
The north-bound trains
don’t stop here anymore.

The locals pass by, without a glance;
for the gossips have gathered
at the gate or the market,
at the tea-stall or the backyard wall.
They are there for proper yarn,
stranger than ours,
when clocks come alive and merrily cry,
“Cuckold! Cuckold!”
or there’s blood and stones on the street
and a dead cuckoo.

There are braggart’s tales
of conquests and passionate lies,
about when
they spied the white cotton petticoat,
they slept against a bare broad chest,
the kisses and more,
on shaded river steps
or beneath the bower.

We are shy
and we choose
narrower paths
to our close secrets.

Those paths lead to the first bridge
sagging with old tales.
An uncle drunk drowned in these waters,
a cousin stuck mowed down
by the last north-bound train.

On the right,
there’s always the blue-green calm.

On the left,
dark clouds hover but we are not scared.

There’s another bridge
which tries to hide the world beyond.
It’s a new bridge
with one tale to tell.

If you go to the edge,
you can spy.

Over the coconut trees and the yellow bloom,
there’s our old friend in his boat,
barely seen through misty eyes.

His mother was a witch or a soothsayer,
an astrologer or a priestess;
her son like us denied all.

He pushes the pole against the river bed,
his two-helpers lying prone upon that cargo of husk.
We used to play together
when we were friends with him,
there’s a chipped tooth
to remember that
and there’s another deeper scar.

That dry lonely stump
in the middle was green then,
as green as that island
with the temple,
where we wished to go.

He refused us that ride,
“Not all places are the same –
that’s for lovers
who will be together.”

I kicked and punched
and screamed,
“We will be together.”
I cried
against his silence,
“Tell me why.”

To stand on that island pier,
to be in that cottage,
to pray at the temple,
to be together,
that’s not for all.

I am here,
she is with Him.

There are two bridges to this station,
there are two forever separated.