Adventures on an Indian Visa (week 7): Thirukural
Everybody knows that the great reversed triangle of land, with its base in the north and its apex in the south, which is called India, embraces fourteen hundred thousand square miles Jules Verne
This morning I was off again, cruising south on a couple of busses to Kannayakamari, the most southerly point in India. In one sweep of the horizon you can see the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean & the Arabian sea, all meeting in a choppy, liquid mass, the Tazmanian Devil waves coming in from all directions. The sunset was crazy, a lucid ball of red that just sat on the clear horizon & was slowly swallow’d by the sea.
Towering tall on a rock just off the tip of India is a massive statue of a man, a Tamil saint call’d Thiruvalluvar, erected by the Tamils to celebrate the Millennium. You go to the statue on a little boat where I ended up penning the following sonnet;
I stepp’d onto Vivikenanda’s rock,
There paus’d, of situation took full stock,
Before me India, some vast fan spread,
Behind, lay endless ocean, grey as lead,
Above, & to the side, a statue rose,
Some noble poet in his noblest pose,
As I gaz’d up I swear he wink’d at me
Into my mind th’Orphean frequency
Sang, “Boy, wherever in the world ye be
Says saddhu, startl’d by me, who had seen
Or sens’d a dream twyx poets, inbetween
A butterfly thro’ silver sea-spray flew
…The boat-bell rang, I sprang to join the queue.
Kanyakamari was also one of the sites where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were scatter’d – the others being South Africa, London & Delhi. Throughout India there are statues of this wiry fakir everywhere & no wonder. His attitude of non-violence completely befuddl’d the warmongering English & won the day, with hardly any blood spilt in anger.
That night I hung out at my hotel with a lovely Dutch couple – who didn’t smoke weed but did play guitar. We were quite high up & it was a very cool experience to literally be at the singular point to where an entire subcontinent funnels all of its very life force.
I am currently sitting in a dark & dodgy internet cafe in deepest Tamil Nadu, & am a little – a lot – stoned after sharing a spliff with Prakesh, the owner. I roll’d into town early this afternoon with a German geezer & a Dutch couple I met in Varkala. Outside this cafe lies the fascinating city of Madurai, & it was here that I was first flung into the world of Thirukural. In the lanes close to the great temple that forms the city’s heart, I came across one of the Manivasagar Pathippagm bookshops that are scattered across Tamil Nadu. These are both publisher & bookseller, & one of their publications caught me eye. It was a small red book, I was browsing thro’ a bookshop when I saw a picture of a man I thought I recognized. It was in fact the poet-saint, Thiruvallavar, the statue of whom towered over me back at Kanyakamari, now sitting cross legged in flowing white robes, a pen in his right hand & a scroll in his left. The book was a mere 20 rupees, & on first glance found it a fascinating thing – a kind of guide to life. Then something happened to really kick off my fascination with the book.
On my way back to the hotel I was accosted by a scrawny guy offering to sell me some smoke. I was running out, so agreed to top up, biting a little of the ‘weed’ to check it out. There was a crush, & then a rush of liquorice flew round my mouth. ‘That’s not weed.’ I said. ‘It’s opium,’ he replied. I’d never tried the stuff before, so my curiosity get the better of me, I bought a bit & started skinning up with it. Not long after my first bite I was spun out on my bed, staring at the spinning fan above me. I didn’t exactly have Coleridgean, visions but it trigger’d off a shed load of poetry. On my first ever look thro’ the Thirukural I was immediately touched by its beauty & simplicity, & tho’ my western mind was finding some of the maxims a little difficult to digest, I felt there & then an affinity for the text.
Almost immediately I started converting them into a more poetical English, using the same form as they appear in Tamil – 4 words on top & three below. There are 1330 individual ‘maxims’ & I already intend, one day, to translate the lot.
I love Madurai, me, a crazy melting pot & a most magical place. The 12 gopuras of the great temple here dominate the skyline, but this time the technicolour pantheons are covered up by these massive brown hats – basically rush matting on a stick-scaffold. The 1000-year-old temple is busy as buggary, & just as noisy. I can’t blame them tho’, there’s so much detail on the sculptured phantasmagoria in & around the temple, from the huge cow at the main gate to the horses prancing like the Scottish lion rampant. There’s also the Golden Lotus Tank, a wonderful ghat a little larger than a basketball court. It’s very lush & looks like some ornamental garden-fountain, with the said golden lotus emerging from the waters. In the early morning when the sun just peeps above the high porticoed walkway that surrounds the waters, it is a wonder to behold.
The city itself is quite clean, very busy, but generally a nice place. I’ve been showing off my primitive Tamil, & it’s gone down like a house on fire. My best memory of the day was taking a walk along the river & seeing a few slices of Indian bankside life The river itself was serenely beautiful, lots of grassy islands with a few horses grazing on them. The main event was the washerwomen, hundreds of them bearing the rocks with their wet washing, leaving gleaming white bedsheets on the grass like sails in the Spanish Armada. Further along I came across about twenty kids – 6-12 years of age – holding hands & trying to tig each other. They were playing kabbadi, a great wee game, sort of rugby without the ball, full of dust & cheers. I loved their celebrations, like raving away at a dead good techno-trance night.
Spent the evening working on more of the Kural – they really are starting to flow & I’ve decided there is no time like the present & seeing I’ve got 20 weeks left in India I can spare a few of them in transcreating an ancient Tamil text, right?
Today I woke up with a plan – I will go to Thiuruvanamalai & translate the Thirukural at the library there which my Danish friend, Rita, whom I met in Goa, said is very good. Leaving Madurai, I was forced into my first Indian train jump of the tour – the sleeper train was full & I didn’t want to hang around now I’d decided to go. I got a couple of hundred k before being collar’d – & despite my offers of baksheesh (bribes) & beers the fella just wouldn’t let me stay – the best I got was a third-class carriage. I took one look at the hot, thirsty mass of humanity & opted for a new mode of transport. As usual, luck was on my side, & right outside the station was a luxury, air-condition’d coach heading exactly where I wanted to go – I paid my hundred rupees & off we went into the balmy night.
The winds blew me up to Pondicherry, where I stock’d up on the duty-free booze its well cheap, like! Now Pondy is famous for two things; it has the highest suicide rate in India & is also a former French Colony & connection between the two cannot be ruled out. Pondicherry is the old French morsel of empire that carried on during the British Raj in much the same way the Portuguese held on to Goa. Cue boulevards & avenues & white-washed villas that are positively Marseille at the seafront, but then get swallow’d by India street-by-street as one drifts inland, until about ten blocks in all traces of the French have disappeared. I didn’t stay long tho – at the merest smell of a cooked garlic clove my toes curl in anger & I begin to shout very loudly – in bad French – at the nearest French person, or even a Dutch or Spaniard if I’m drunk. So fifteen kilometers from Pondicherry lies Auroville, the place I’d chosen to chill for a couple of nights. Auroville is an experiment in communal living, like a European Eden. Thirty years ago a holy woman called the Mother bought a load of land, planted forests of trees & decreed the area to be devoted to spiritual, artistic & intellectual study. It is virtually a cashless place (I managed to blag free food by making up an account number) & very serene.
Across the several square miles of land that Auroville takes up, there are various places to stay, & I got quite a good ‘un called Reve (pronounced rave), where Vics I’ve got a great hut on stilts. The place is full of young, mainly French, ashram-heads, & is a picture of perfect tranquillity. To get about the place, a moped/scooter is essential, & these are a good quality & cheap to rent. I was soon scrambling about all over the place – keeping the company of an American lass from San Francisco called Rhonda, who let me ride her buzzin’ blue bike while clinging to me quite tightly. In return, I kept rolling up spliffs in various scenic woodland spots & I would definitely have pounced if it wasn’t for her exploding acne!
I began the day this morning razzing down the red dirt-roads of Auroville to the Boulangerie for chocolate croissants, listening & singing to Betty Boo – the choruses especially startling anyone by the roadside. Also filling the roads are loads of cute birds on bikes, from all over the world, which is always good for a poet’s soul. Auroville is a place I could hang out in for a while, but I’m too damn restless. I’m sure I’ll be back in India one day, tho,’ so that’s a rain check.
On my last, & only full, day in the spacious international ashram of Auroville, I encountered a majestic & divine epic poem called Savitri, composed by an Oxford-educated Indian ascetic called Sri Aurobindo (born 1872). It was the main work of his life, & is read out at the ashram once a week to devotees, an occasion which I was lucky enough to had arriv’d for just in time. The poem is wonderful, all epic & omniscient blank verse made even more wonderful by a sneaky opium joint before I went in. That’s how I’m smoking it, by the way, crumbling a little bit into a joint every now & again.
Auroville is the world’s chief repository of Aurobindo’s works, stored in a modern library on site, in which I have found a number of interesting paragraphs that have assisted me in my studies. It was while studying his words, I came across this remarkable description of poetry, which lovers of the art must enjoy.
‘All poetry is an inspiration, a thing breathed into the thinking organ from above; it is recorded in the mind, but is born in the higher principle of direct knowledge or ideal vision which surpasses mind. it is in reality a revelation. The prophetic or revealing power sees the substance; the inspiration perceives the right expression. Neither is manufactured; nor is poetry really a poiesis or composition, nor even a creation, but rather the revelation of something that eternally exists. the ancients knew this truth & used the same word for poet & prophet, creator & seer, sophos, vates, kavi.’
All in all a very erudite day, I was well inspired to work on the Kural, & I also read a little of the writings of Aurobindo’s partner in asceticism, the Mother, penning the following sonnet;
THE MOTHER ON YOUTH
You will become the Person you want to be
Our future is in our own hands
The higher our private aspirations
The higher our realisation
This is the key to youth
Never accepting the irreparable
& with firm resolution follow our true life´s aim.
Those useless years age us
Contentment beginning the decline
But unquenchable thirst for progress
Keeps us moving ‘til our dying day
Those deeming completed tasks
The start of things to come
Will never feel the weight of passing days.
Left Auroville this morning & cross’d Tamil Nadu, which seems to consist of a verdant flat plateau interspersed with solitary bouldery peaks. One of these pointy geological reliques is the Annamalai hill, beneath which Thiruvannamalai nestles. It took me three buses to get here, but I’m here & I found myself in a very holy place, whose its temple is huge. I’ve booked into a cool hotel (Hotel Ganesh) for a week or so – alright, there’s a few ants crawling about at the front door – but I figure if I leave no food in my room then no ants will invade. Downstairs is a restaurant where I get my thali served on a giant banana tree leaf – makes sense really, perfectly bio-degradable. The hotel owner has also agreed to help me with my translations of Thirukural, while the reception on mi telly is wicked for the weekend’s footy. I think staying in a madcap town off the traveller’s trail is gonna be a nice way to get used to Tamil culture, seeing as I’m dedicating myself now to transcreating an ancient text. Its proper Indiana Jones, like – Indiana Damo, chasing down the lost literary treasures of the world in far-flung corners of the world.
As Edinburgh is the Athens of the North, I would like to declare Thiruvannamalai the Edinburgh of the East. I swear down, Mount Arunachala is just like Arthur’s seat, with the town curled around its base – there’s probably a few other comparisons to be made, but to tell you the truth Scotland seems a long way away right now, bombarded as I am by all this nonsense. Did I say nonsense? I meant to say life-reaffirming, spiritually awakening, international cultural exchange.
My hotel runs a catering & management college next door & gets the students to do work experience, which involves cleaning my room whenever I want, & bringing food to my room & other little errands – very Agatha Christie. I’m on the top floor of the place, which means I’m among the rooftops of the town, always a cool sight. It’s made a lot sweeter, however, by the vision of Mount Aranchala, that fills up the panorama less than half a mile away.
At the foot of the mountain is the Sri Ramana Ashram, full of brainwash’d westerners who wouldn’t know a good time if it bit them on the ass. I tried to blag some free food there today, but they saw through my attempts at self-realization – & I’d even paid ten rupees for a bindi painted between the eyes. However, I do get to use their library, & that’s a fuckin’ godsend. I spent my morning & afternoon there today, under a fan & transcreating the Thirukural. I don’t speak Tamil, but I’ve got several English translations spread in a semi-circle about me, plus a dictionary & thesaurus. Additional help comes from my personal librarian, who is assisting me with the thornier moments thrown up by classical Tamil. It’s actually a very cool experience & the Tamils are rather quite taken aback by a Burnley boy poeticizing what is to all extents & purposeless their Bible!
My first port of call was Thiruvannamalai, a bustling town nestled beneath the holy red mountain of Aranachala. It was here that the 20th century Sri Ramana Maharishi had spent most of his life in deep contemplation. A famous ashram had developed about his mediations, which still thrives to this day, many decades after his death. One part of the ashram houses a library, & it was to its silent desks that I found myself drawn. To my delight, there were many books on the Kural, whose pages I plundered in order to create as exact & enjoyable a rendition of the Kural as possible. While I sat at the long desks, keeping cool beneath a spinning fan, several hefty tomes spread before me, I was helped many times by the librarian, Ramesh Babu, who would assist me upon awkward points of classical Tamil. All in all I am passing my day in complete discipline, focussing thought on page & poetry while my cortex is soothed by some cool cerebral wind! Its proper bangin!