Wednesday 26 August 2020

And then Arrived the Goddess

Title: Eight Armed Goddess
Poet: Sindhoor Varkoor
Publisher: Adisakrit

Sindhoor Varkoor’s ‘Eight Armed Goddess’ is creatively brilliant and simply unputdownable. I confess, I didn’t expect I would be as impressed with the Goddess as I had been with the poet’s earlier collection of poems, Musing Madhawa – Viraha Madhawam. But that was before reading the book. I couldn’t have been more wrong really. I read the first poem, and I knew I was hooked.

After everything
Gets over
Only outlines of memories
Remain like kohl in the eyes
Smudged into life
Nothing gets erased
(Outlines, p.7)

That was enough to make me sit up and I didn’t put the book down until I finished the entire collection. The poems portray the woman and all her facets.

I have stories
Of spilt milk
On burning coals
Watching carefully
I let it simmer and spill
I have stories
Of lost wars
When like the iron-gate
I still stood
Bearing the first slashes
I have stories
Of waiting
Like drought for rain
Deserted I live In vain
I have stories
Of bottled life
Filled to the brim
Like grave silence coffined in dust
(Stories, p. 8)

You can see the everyday woman here - the woman who is bearing it all in silence. And the woman who has faced her challenges, who stood her ground and never gave up even as she lost her cause. There is also the woman who refused to quit even when she was left with no other choice. And then there is the woman who realises all of it was for nothing after all. Of course, a woman is all of these rolled into one, and this echoes and re-echoes through her poems.

…When glass shattered
You know how many pieces
Made it
When they scatter all around
You remember how it stood there
As one piece once in time
—A monument
Shelved and wrapped in aroma…
(Spice Jar, p. 9)

In the above lines, you can almost hear a soliloquy of submission – a deceptive submission, for, she, the woman, having “…come/This far…Will not/Go back…” (‘Goddess’, p.10). And the Goddess in her had to reveal herself at last.

Do not play with this Goddess
As if she’s in your fold
She plays with you instead
This eight armed Goddess
Needs no single-shouldered bliss
(Eight Armed Goddess, p. 11)

In the same poem, the Goddess jolts you out of your stupor when she says

In her heart she holds and unfolds
Your universe as it is
And can shut your eyes
With a single kiss.
(Eight Armed Goddess, p. 11)

Here’s where the poet emerges in all her glory. With her poetry, she can show a mirror to your soul, she can shake you until your fa├žade slips leaving you facing your truth, she can take you on a spiral of bliss. The poet, or the Goddess (because here both are one and the same), fills you with fire, consumes you in fire, and what’s more, turns you into fire.
Varkoor’s poetry is intense with emotion. When the Goddess says, “My tresses can be angry dark waves/Sweeping you/Into their night” (Just because, p. 12), one so wished she did just that. The sheer beauty of the words makes you want to lose yourself in them. The poet has this knack for catching you unawares.

Do not think
You can cross those bordered isles
And become dew drops
In dreaming eyes

I may shut them once
To choke you twice
(Just because, p. 12)

But what is poetry if it isn’t filled with these little, yet profound, surprises? Varkoor’s metaphors are beautiful. In the poem ‘Rapunzel’, the poet defines the golden-haired beauty as,

A braided mystery twisted
You cannot hold
Or unfold
(Rapunzel, p. 13)

One finds this Rapunzel so perfect perhaps because one can see oneself in her. And finally when the poet says,

For you do not want to
See her face smile
Her eyes yearn for you
You will not dare look into them
As they show only a reflection
Of you

You will
Find it there
Where all ends end
Into a new beginning
Where you have her
Face to face
(Beheaded, p.17)

you come face to face with the woman who is, alas, liberated. For all the poignancy and profundity in her poems, the poet also displays occasional humour.

The endless curry contest has just begun
Hers versus mine
As I start cooking his favourite dish
My pickled poetry and her jarred emotions
All for him—hers and mine.
(Contest, p. 22)

In ‘Excavation’ emerges the liberated woman again, the woman who had to pay the price for it, like all women, of course.

The corals still preserve their pale red
Once a deeper shade
May be I can wear it on
Without mending it
Antiques have a price
That’s priceless
I wear it on now
The new old ornament
My Pride
(Excavation, p. 25)

‘Ma’ (p. 27) is so full of pain, hope and imploration, I feel I should leave it to the readers themselves to delve into its fathoms. Varkoor can make silence speak through her poem, when she says,

I like dolls
Their perfect pout
That perfect silence
(Dolls, p. 28)

The silence here speaks volumes.

Something I had particularly noted was the complete lack of punctuation in the entire collection of poems. Surprisingly, I noticed it only when I was halfway through the book. Without the distraction of punctuations, the poems seem to flow freely laying bare their intrinsic emotions, sometimes ending in an ultimatum.

Do not
Hate me
For I am Love
If you do not dare it
Bear it
Fare me well
(Stigmata, p. 57)

Picking the best out of Varkoor’s collection of poems is difficult. There is something in every poem that you want to take away, that you want to keep locked within your heart forever. Her poems are so rich in meaning that different readers may relate to them in different ways. As Varkoor herself says,

All of us from the same weave
Will drape life
(Mother’s Banaras Saree, p. 29)

[As published at

Sunday 9 August 2020

When Fair is not so Fair!

Illustration: Bharati Varrier

Revolts and revolutions against discrimination based on skin colour have rocked the world at every turn of history. Rather, these revolts mark the turn of the history. But what’s exactly in skin colour? Melanin, of course. Melanin, is the pigment which in different forms and ratios gives the skin its colour. And then there are factors like genes, exposure to sunlight, etc. So basically your skin colour – just like who you are born to – is a mere accident. And factors like how close you live to the equator are coincidental. The colour of an individual’s skin, hence, is neither an indicator of their class nor a measure of their ability.

Then what made the ‘whites’ feel superior and why were the non-whites helpless enough to allow this discrimination? The whites were not superior because of their colour, they were superior because of their power. And that’s definitely not fair. If blacks (kindly pardon the usage, but one’s trying to make a point) had been more powerful, then perhaps the whole picture would have been its own negative version.

Recently the multinational company Johnson and Johnson took the decision to stop selling skin-lightening products. It’s heartening, and it’s high time. Indian companies are also rethinking their business tactics.

To overpower the acts of discrimination of others, however powerful they may be, is by far easier than to conquer the sense of discrimination within the self. Indians, more than 7 decades ago, in spite of their skin colour which includes white, black and all the hues, tones and tints in between, and with hardly any power as compared to the whites who ruled over them, still managed to overthrow those in power and gain freedom. Though the ruling whites left the country, the seed of discrimination they left behind have been growing tall, with its roots running deep.

It is still prevalent in India to ask whether a newly born or a prospective bride or groom is fair or dark. This in a land where deities like Goddess Kali and Lord Krishna are dark as their names proclaim! Then there is the discrimination between the fair ‘northies’ and the dark ‘southies’. Imagine India being located farther away from or closer to the equator, then you will also be able to visualize shifting monochromes of the same picture.

Indian epics and puranas have many heroes and heroines – Draupadi and Arjuna, for example – who were dark and much extolled for their looks. In the ancient vernacular literature, syamavarna (dark complexion) was considered an epitome of beauty. And none of the world literature, art or revolutions, which came later and threw light on the unfairness meted out by the fair on the not so fair through the centuries, could restore blackness to its past glory. Unfortunately, not all the progressive thought, enlightenment and knowledge helped humans evolve beyond their skin.

Today the world is raging post the George Floyd tragedy. Humans are fighting for the rights of humans (one consciously avoids saying ‘whites are fighting for blacks’), trying to overthrow statues in an attempt to overthrow the stigmas associated with ‘black’. And it’s in this context, one hit upon the history of the word ‘black’. It seems it was one of the earliest words in the language. According to an update by, the word is also described as ‘absence of colour’. In that sense, black is then perhaps the most ethical of all colours. The problem, after all, is not in the word, it’s in misconstruing it.

Saturday 1 August 2020

School and Syllabus can take a Break

A school year ended and another began without much ado. No examination fevers, no revisions, and no progress, forget progress reports. Hence, no wins or losses, or rather, no winners or losers worthy of the title. And worse, no re-opening. Enough cause for worry for the teachers and the parents. So we moved on to online classes. But have the children taken to online learning? Perhaps not. The teachers try their best to make up for the lack of  personal care, individual attention, physical proximity, direct eye contact and those heart-to-heart conversations by putting their heart and soul out there on the screens, but to no avail. Four hours of strenuous teaching, what with turning to videos and Power Points instead of the blackboard (sometimes blackboard too), do not turn around even half the time’s worth of education, as per feedback. All that screeching and beseeching by the teachers and the parents respectively have not really got across to the children, especially the little ones.

Perhaps the young ones cannot figure out what’s happening in their lives. Perhaps they cannot understand why their lives have suddenly turned topsy-turvy. All of a sudden they realise school was the best thing in their lives. All that chit-chatting with friends, that last minute snatching of one last game before they were called back to their classes, the sharing of the lunchboxes, the catching up on things they have seen and heard around them – all of that disappeared in a flash. And along with that is also gone one of their major opportunities to learn. Dealing with their pent-up energy, enthusiasm and emotions is the new challenge.

So we’re thinking of a dwindled - and impoverished - syllabus. We will slash away parts of certain subjects in order to lighten the children’s burden of online education. But which are those subjects and who decides? Not the children for sure. They, as usual, don’t get a chance to choose. So here we are, making the same old mistakes but with a far worse impact. The situation calls for some drastic measures, of course.

Let’s suppose we, as a nation, decide to toss away one whole school year. We may not lose much. We may gain a lot instead. Let’s use the time to teach the children some life skills. Let’s allow them to work on their hobbies. Creative thinking will come to them naturally. Let’s instil in them the love of reading. They will not have to learn language and communication skills from the textbook anymore. Teach them gardening. They will learn to love nature and respect their environment. Let them brush up on what they learnt in school the previous year. They will be more than ever ready to start school when the time comes. Allow the students to discover by themselves what their favourite subjects are. They will know what self-learning is all about. They will also learn critical thinking, self-assessment and decision making to some extent. These are the first steps to self-dependence and independence. One year down the line, the children will be better equipped to take on their challenges, and they will make up for the time and the lessons they lost - if we still insist on calling this a loss.

We may realise in the end that setting back a year was not a major loss but a huge gain after all. The parents will be relieved of providing each family member with a computer at a time when many have lost their jobs and many are working on reduced salaries. For the job vacancies that will arise in the coming year, don’t forget, we have enough qualified, unemployed youth who can fill those posts.

The biggest advantage of all – we don’t have to put children’s safety at risk with increased online exposure. According to UNESCO, “Half of the total number of learners — some 826 million (82.6 crore) students — kept out of the classroom by the Covid-19 pandemic, do not have access to a household computer and 43 per cent (706 million or 70.6 crore) have no internet at home, at a time when digitally-based distance learning is used to ensure educational continuity in the vast majority of countries.” UNICEF notes, “Millions of children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during lockdown in the Covid-19 pandemic”. The ‘harm’ mentioned here includes sexual exploitation by online predators and such other risks.

In the meantime, when the school and the syllabus takes a break, the educationists and the decision makers, can work on making the much-needed changes in our education system. For starters, the children should be able to learn what they want to learn. For example, math needn’t compulsorily go along with the sciences. Students should be able to choose to learn math along with history, the languages, or even art if that’s what they want. There will be lesser stress on children and they will learn better. Human beings need not be categorised. They are born with diverse skills and talents. Allow them to develop their own skills and talents. They will grow up to become better professionals, better leaders, and better human beings. The world needs them.

Is this too much to wish for? Is this too impractical an idea? One only needs to look at the social media platforms, which are now flooded with children’s ingenious talent, for enough evidence to agree that the time has come for a drastic change. Perhaps this is the ‘real’ writing on the wall. Perhaps this is not a crisis but an opportunity.