From time immemorial, there’s been a miracle for every season and every reason. There have also been instances of miracles quoted in the history book of every civilisation. Is it a manifestation of our dislike for the mundane and the ordinary? Or, an act of faith and not of reason? Shreekumar Varma delves deep into the idea...

An imaginative child is the natural receptacle for miracles.But growing up is a process of shedding.
Wonder, joy and belief are soon lost like leaves in a colder season. What remains then is doubt. And that crinkling of the eyes that just won’t accept anything beyond the ordinary. Or sees nothing but the normal. It all depends on the cold winds of growing up: personal temperament, parental disposition, family circumstance and early experience.

Because, happily, there are also some children who never grow up!

I was recently pointed to a survey that said 79 per cent of people in the US believe in miracles. Even with the limitations of surveys, that’s a high figure. For a place like that. There are some places where you have to believe in miracles for life to go on. In India, for instance, we’re in touch with the gods. On a daily basis. We know folks who’ll recite their list of miracles at the drop of a skeptical eyebrow.

Though I’m not so sure too many people can match my own experiences out of the ordinary. What you might call supernatural. Where the eyes see and the mind is numbed. Where the body registers, but the intellect questions. And finally, where the mind accepts as calmly as the spirit. Not too many people, I’m sure. It’s probably a quality of those who never grow up.

When I was about nine, I was talking on the phone with a friend. Call ended, I jumped up hitting my head on the sharpness of an open window. The gushing damp turned out to be blood. My mother would have none less than a neurosurgeon examine me. Which is how we met Dr Narendran, who was to become one of my father’s closest friends. He in turn introduced the family to his guru — a swami.To put it briskly, life changed.

My father first, and then the rest of us, were so overwhelmed by the holy man that we hosted him at every opportunity. Not just him, but hundreds of his devotees. There were a few incidents — stories now — that served as portals to usher us into a wonderful world of unreal beliefs. Just a fortnight ago, a cousin in Bangalore rubbished them: “Nonsense! How can you believe all that!” And I told her: “Because they happened to me.”

Belief generally seeks the sanction of experience. Unless you haven’t yet grown up, that is, shedding your most natural qualities.

I was at the doorway to adolescence when the most breathtaking among those miracles happened. Adolescence is a stage in life when you’re shedding your wonder and sprouting scales of scepticism. Nothing feels right. Everything must be questioned. All doors are closed except the ones you’ve decided to keep open. The swami in our lives made a difference. The shedding and the sprouting were long delayed. There was a period in limbo when — much against the grain of the times, the robust scepticism of classmates and the rough scientific dismissals of my then reading — I revelled in the reality of the unreal.

When I discovered the interior monologue of a normal world.

At first they were routine surprises. When he picked up a muddy stone and it turned to rock sugar in my hand. Or when a tomato from the fridge turned plastic, beads of sweat and all. It only grew better. Jesus-like, he ensured that limited meals fed an unexpected army of devotees. The atmosphere was changing. Charged, on-the-brink. There was growing confidence that the world was actually a better place. Revelations waited to bloom at every turn.

An empty room. A bowl of sandal water and a sheet of blank paper placed on the floor. He half-opened the door and called out. There was a jingle of anklets and the paper swished and flew into his hand. Imprinted with fresh baby-feet marks, wet with sandal water. How do I know? Because I was at the forefront, watching with sharp eyes.

Silent signs

But why miracles? He answered his own question: Because there had to be a sign from the guru. The sign isn’t everything, but it let people know there was another world out there. Like an ad or something. It’s an indication of the wondrous world beyond. Of God. Of self-discovery and fulfillment. Thus the miracle. Trailer to the main feature, which was self-realisation. Just so you know who you’re dealing with.I remember desperately eyeing someone’s camera one evening. I was 12 or so.

He asked: You want one too? I nodded greedily. He waved his hand, and lo! There it was, a mighty Canon, smelling of fresh leather. I held it in my hands, examined it; but he said everything has its life in a place and a place in life (or something like that) and this one had to return to Japan where it belonged. So he sent it back. Just like that. It was one of the most disappointing nights of my life, but I learnt a lesson. You cannot fiddle with basics. You can materialise what’s available, you cannot create something new. Your miracle is opening someone’s eyes to what’s there, to what’s possible, not pulling out things that aren’t there. But the upshot was: I saw a camera appearing and disappearing, and no one believed me.

Miracle. What’s that? Something out of the ordinary? Something unexpected happening because you want it to oh-so much? Remember Shahrukh Khan in Om Shanti Om: Want something really badly, and the whole universe will conspire to make it happen!

I saw several miracles at close quarters. It wasn’t “Ooooh, look at that, how does he do it!” like in the street magic shows on TV. It was a reverential acknowledgement of divine power. It wasn’t a feeling that could be readily duplicated or explained. I know that because I was there. Others doubted, and still keep doubting, because they’d heard of such things and knew they couldn’t really be true.

And then came the big ones. Not in terms of what we saw, but what we experienced, what we felt.

It was just the family, four of us, and him. We were on our terrace. He said, you’ll feel the presence of the Lord of Tirupati. What he did was materialise a chunk of the Tirupati laddoo. What we felt was inexplicable, indescribable. We sensed a powerful presence. The atmosphere was mightily charged. There was a fragrance that we all described later as “divine”. It seemed like seconds, but an hour had passed. Later, we discovered all our watches had stopped at the same time.

In our family, religion had remained mostly in the background, but in the last three or four years, with the swami, we found it gaining importance. On two other occasions, my father had even more unbelievable experiences. Once the Devi appeared before his eyes. It was a splendid vision, sharpening his senses, a moment of stunning, sizzling spirituality. His faith in the swami recalled to mind the days of our myths when Rama and Krishna lived like men on earth.

Faith is of two kinds: that of the monkey, and that of the cat.

The baby monkey clutches his mother, holding on for dear life. He loves his mother and has faith in her, but also knows he’ll fall if he lets go. The kitten, on the other hand, is what you may call bindaas. His mother holds him by the scruff of his neck, carrying him with her, and the baby luxuriates in full trust. There’s nothing particular this baby has to do but revel in the sense of complete dependence.

Faith makes you either cling or let go. When your faith in the Almighty is strong, miracles are besides the point. And when you’re clinging, they become road signs, confirming you’re on the right path. While planning this article, I had dinner with an old friend, writer-psychiatrist Dr Vijay Nagaswamy. He is an atheist. He was amused by my narration of the swami’s miracles and said the mind can be quite susceptible. I asked him if it wasn’t possible that the mind and, indeed, the human being hides more potential than we’ve recognised at this point in our evolution. He agreed.

There was another friend at the table, Bobby from Bombay. He grinned. “Shree, remember the silver lining?”

Unanswered questions

Some years ago, when dark clouds overwhelmed both our lives, we were driving down the road by the Theosophical Society. Suddenly, the trees parted and the sky beamed down on us. It was a couple of hours before dusk. Bobby said: “Look! The silver lining!” Indeed, there was a family of jolly clouds, all bound together by a sharp lining of twining light. We looked at each other, smiling as if in acknowledgement of some divine sign.

He took out his phone and clicked a picture. Within a month, those dark clouds had parted. We found our lives in exceedingly better circumstances. He messaged me the picture he’d taken, and I sent back a smile of acknowledgement. Vijay heard all this, smiling gently like an understanding father. His expression said: There are so many things you can explain, and so many you can’t, why mix them up!

You either buy into the whole idea of God, divinity and the occult possibilities of our lives. Or stand on the other side and look at everything through science, free will and sheer human potential.

The happy thing is, there’s no difference, if only you knew it!I’m a writer. I’ve donned many career caps, as journalist, teacher, publisher, editor, printer, playwright, novelist, poet. Many of these paths were paved with pressure-points, deadlines and quick choices. All of them had to do with words sprouting wings and taking on an imaginative life.

And, yes, all of these paths were paved with miracles.Because I was imaginative enough to spot them.

I often tell people who point out simplistic or ridiculous things about my religion: You need imagination to understand my religion, to read my myths, to see my God. It may be so in other religions as well. For me, these myths and fantasy tales (if you call them that) are but filters through which I see the Ultimate. Or the Full Potential. Or the Realisation. I cry and laugh as I read or watch these myths being played out. They become as real as my own experiences. My imagination is a solid ally!

My wife tells me this story: A rich leper was being treated by an Ayurvedic doctor. The leper also prayed at the local temple. Every morning, he rose early, bathed in the temple tank and poured his heart out to the powerful deity. And he was cured! He went to the doctor and said, “My God saved me.” The puzzled doctor went to the temple tank and found a dead snake wedged in its mud wall. The species was rare, and known for the ghee from its body that could cure leprosy. The bathing leper had been unknowingly ingesting the right medicine. The good doctor smiled and remained silent, having seen the real picture.

End of story. But then, who was right? The doctor who knew the “real” cause, or the rich man who believed he would be cured?

Our lives are filled with miracles. We find unbelievable new friends. We lose trust, love and friendship on the wings of someone’s whim and misunderstanding. We come upon solid walls only to find doorways in them. Loss becomes a stepping stone, life is always opening out.

Our lives lie in the midst of miracles. The ocean with its wanton waves roaring and charging like foamy white lions. The grandeur of snow-drenched mountains suddenly opening up like a vision as your horse trudges up a steep and narrow track. The clear blue night-sky enveloping you, beckoning with lighted windows to heaven.

Our life is a miracle. Filled with miracles. And yet we find it so hard to believe in them.
The New Indian Express, Sunday, Feb 18 2007
Rama: The literary avatars

In the Milky Way of literature, planets and stars have a way of connecting. They collide, merge and submerge. Big stars consume smaller ones and a new planet may absorb an older star, forging an entirely new identity. It is indeed a promiscuous cosmic panorama where the reader has to travel miles of darkness to reach the light.

As for a writer navigating this vast outer space, it is virtually impossible to remain neutral and unimpressed, and to keep his hands to himself. The bright light of a star may lure, and the mystery of a distant planet may fascinate him into recreating just such a world for himself.

Inspiration is a heady source for new ideas! It is also easier on the reader who gets a reference point. For instance, if I am inspired by RK Narayan, my reader is blessed with a double-entry system when he visits my world. Besides deriving inspiration, a writer can also use an archetypal work as a canvas on which to paint his own impression of contemporary society.

The danger remains, however, that a writer may draw from a previous work - say an epic— and create a new world that could impinge on the reputation of the original work. Here’s the problem: Readers who aren’t too familiar with the epic may read the new work and imagine that they now know the epic. I came upon such an instance recently.

Invited to interact with the audience after watching a play based on a great epic, I found them deeply affected by the portrayals. A few of them obviously found no difference between the play’s puny protagonist and the epic’s mighty hero. This is a burden that literature must often bear.

In fact, it’s a cross that any mythological hero has to carry. Having triumphed over (or succumbed to) the tricks and trysts of destiny all through the currents of an ancient story, he or she then falls prey to the plots and politics of every subsequent writer who needs an archetypal scenario to fit his theories in.

Listen to this: “You are inventing a new interpretation for statecraft, you are putting it to test and making it practically usable … But I fear that this statecraft which breaks and smashes relationships of the soul is an eternal curse to this earth. Please allow me to depart … I do not wish to stay here any more…” And a little later: “Please permit me to leave…this is my last darshan of you … May the Lord who is all powerful bless you!” (Kanchana Sita, OUP, Eng. trans. Vasanthi Shankaranarayanan)

This is an excerpt from a dialogue in CN Sreekantan Nair’s Malayalam play based on the Uttara Kandam of the Ramayana. Surprisingly, the speaker is Hanuman, and this is part of his condemnation of Rama for abandoning Sita. That the eternal devotee Hanuman (generally visualised as being in deep meditation of Rama) should turn around and vent his bitterness on him accusing him of injustice and cruelty, and turn sarcastic to boot, obviously suggests the manipulation of a well-known story and its characters.

The playwright was a pillar of Malayalam theatre (and established the modern theatre workshop, the Nataka Kalari). In his play Rama can do no right, there is virtually no other character who doesn’t revile or lampoon him, and he himself is shown as being regretful, stubborn, helpless, superstitious, under the yoke of Brahmin gurus, and not in clear control of any situation. It is a reversal of everything we have come to believe of the hero.

The Ramayana has undergone many forms and interpretations. Valmiki’s original version was literature, the poetic story of Raghuvamsam and its greatest hero. But there are two moments of inconsistency with its heroic depiction of Rama: when he kills Vali through subterfuge, and when he uses harsh words against Sita after reclaiming her from Ravana, prompting her to walk through fire to prove her chastity. These two incidents have puzzled ordinary readers through the centuries.

Even Rajaji, reinterpreting the classic for children, expresses his dilemma; but they can probably be interpreted as a tragic flaw in the hero by those who enjoy the story as literature, or as the compulsions of a dispassionate ruler who cannot submit to a personal agenda by others. The story ends with his coronation. The Uttara Kandam, where Sita is banished to the forest, was added later.

In subsequent versions, its literary character gave way to the spiritual, and Rama was deified. Tulasidas and Kamban, singing in the realm of pure bhakti, ironed out every wrinkle by seeing Rama as the incarnation of Vishnu come down to vanquish evil and protect mankind. Sita suffers no indignity, she is willing part and participator in the vast cosmic theatre being played out.

The Adhyatma Ramayana (anonymous, but attributed to Vyasa, and part of the Brahmananda Purana), which is in the form of a doubt-ridden dialogue between Siva and Parvathi, is both intensely spiritual and high philosophy. Here Rama is a detached observer, he is witness-consciousness, able to transform without undergoing transformation himself.

It is said that while Krishna all along realised his divinity, Rama was born and lived as Man and had to be educated by Brahma about his true divine identity. In the bhakti versions of the Ramayana, he is God himself and acts in the capacity of an omnipotent protector. There is no place for doubt or predicament in this persona. All this goes to show the hierarchy of interpretation that epics like the Ramayana enjoy.

And then at the tail end of the series comes Sreekantan Nair’s Rama. Praised in the earlier versions as Sita Rama, Raja Rama, Veera Raghava and Kosala Rama to highlight the perfection he achieved in every role he played, Rama is here reduced to playing Bourgeois Rama, a heartless king who exploits his position and who is in turn exploited by wily Brahmins. Sage Vasishta, an embodiment of love and compassion, is turned into a cunning advisor whose salacious purpose in life is to maintain the unfair ascendancy of the Brahmins.

There are two ways you can use the archetypal element in literature. You can tell a completely new story and hark back to elements in myth to point out parallels. Readers who are familiar with the old story can then relate easily to your story. This is what Madambu Kunjukkuttan does in his Malayalam novel Ashwathama. The reader, already familiar with the eternal angst of the legendary character, identifies immediately with the new protagonist.

The second alternative is to retell an old story with all the original characters intact, presenting it in the light of a new authorial philosophy or insight. MT Vasudevan Nair did this with the Mahabharatha hero Bhima in his novel Randam Oozham. And it is what R. Manoharan did with Tamil theatre. You show up an aspect or angle that was neglected or irrelevant in the original text - that is, you proceed to stretch it to its natural conclusion, or investigate some interesting proposition, either character or plot potential, that remained unexplored in the original. The latent danger here is two-fold: one, you are altering the very fabric of an old story to accommodate your new theme; two, there is the possibility that the antiquity of your story may rob it of a contemporary impact and thus weaken the force of your message. Also, the strong, already ingrained image of the mythical characters in the reader’s mind may act as a deterrent to accepting fresh inputs.

Sreekantan Nair’s Rama is a personal Rama. In its own unique framework, his play works as a diatribe against the exploitation of women and the evil aspects of the caste system.

But it needn’t be confused with the Ramayana.
In The World Of Belief