Parasurama vaadyar was a power- house of Vedic knowledge. As a teacher, astrologer and Ayurveda practitioner, he was held in esteem by the society. His tall frame, broad chest, long hands with lines of sacred ash drawn at the appropriate places and majestic look and walk, did tell that he was someone in the village . Some say that the smart smile on his face reflected his satirical denunciation of ignorant and irritating Brahmins and their superstitious beliefs which have no Vedic sanctions. But everyone appreciated his outspokenness, unquestionable knowledge in traditional and religious rituals and practices. The moment he arrived in the scene of a ceremony, those assembled stopped waste talks, sat erect, ready to hear his metallic voice, reciting mantras in their pristine rhythm which reverberated the entire area. There was a unique charm in his very presence, his recitation and his dignified behavior. He occupied the center scene till the end, when people dispersed with smile and satisfaction.
Vaadyar manni, his wife, an epitome of selflessness and virtues, was the pride of vaadyar and his family, nay, the entire village. The unlettered lady’s assets of unbelievable common sense and practical thinking combined with her unflinching eagerness to help the needy, made her most admirable and the entire village wept for her, when she died within a few hours, after a fall from the slippery steps of the village pond. She was hardly thirty then. Vaadyar was shattered like a lightning -struck banana tree and shivered at the sight of the doom ahead, whose gates were opened before him, unexpected. He had never entered the kitchen before and was now compelled to take care of his aged mother and two kids. He spent several evenings under the banyan tree near the village pond where his wife fell and cracked her head, wondering how Fate inflicted such a severe blow on him, silently and surprisingly as if he had accumulated a mountain of sin to deserve that punishment.
‘Sin, what sin have I committed? Did I harm anyone, did I cheat anyone, and did I steal anyone’s property,’ he went on asking questions to himself knowing well that he would never receive any answers. Then, the thought of past karmas entered his mind and he was firm in his conviction that he would have never committed so many sins even in his past births too. ‘No, definitely not,’ he told himself, ‘had I committed such unpardonable crimes in my earlier births, I would not have born as a Brahmanan. Or is the rebirth story itself a humbug?’ The bricks of belief were slowly getting loosened and he consoled himself, ‘certainly no. I have learned Vedas right from my childhood and such unholy thoughts should never enter my mind’
‘Maya! Damn it. Right in front of me is the pond with its slippery steps which became the grave yard for my wife. There is no Maya in this. I had a wonderful life with my wife and I am familiar with every inch of her external body and every beat of her internal vibrations. There was no Maya in that. It is a hard fact’
Vaadyar picked up a handful of betel leaves from the casket added other ingredients, chewed and spitted the waste forcefully, as if that was meant to deface the cause of his miseries, standing before him.
Ammu, Vaadyar’s elder daughter, hardly eight or nine, soaked in sorrow like the slippery granite stones of the pond, but soft and silent like her mother, came there, approached her father, held his hand and took him home.
‘Like her mother’s, Ammu’s hands are also long, lovely and sturdy,’ he said and wept. There was no change in the child’s face but, she quietly lifted the end of the upper cloth of her father and handed it over to him to wipe the tears. She was too short to reach his face.
‘Ammu is strong -willed too, like her mother, though soft outwardly’, Vaadyar mused.
Several months went on.
One night, seeing her son gazing at the roof, without touching the food placed before him, Vaadyar’s mother asked, ‘Parasu, are you going to spend your remaining life thinking about Lakshmi? Please eat something’. Moving slowly towards her son, the mother pleaded and added to console him, ‘ithellam mayai aakkumta konthai-these are nothing but illusion, my child’
‘Maya , mannanghatti,’ Vaadyar yelled, ‘Ethamma, mayai, I spent 15 years with her, is that Mayai ? She gifted me two children; is that Mayai?’
He was getting choked with emotion. ‘Amma, vellam,’ He wanted water.
‘ Laksmiyai kooppudu-call Lakshmi, his mother asked him in a slow and cracked voice! I am not in a position to get up. My legs are paining’
‘Aval varammaattalea-she won’t come,’ the son replied, helplessly looking at the shrunken face of his mother.
‘AthuthAn mayayida, madaya! That exactly is the illusion,’ The mother replied, hugging him closely to her chest and patting her son’s head and back affectionately.
‘For several years, she was everything for you, though you had not seen or heard about her before. She was verily your world; she was your pranan- life breath, and now, my son, she does not respond to your call even when you ask for water!
‘Engeta onnodu Lakshmi ? Aval engeta ponal- Where is your Lakshmi ? Where has she gone to? Ithuthan mayai-, ithuthanda mayai- This is illusion, this is illusion’
The old woman could no more control her tears. It flew like the waters of a perennial river, emerging from the cavern of a hard rock. Unable to sit further, she moved to her bed.
Sleep evaded vaadyar.
As usual, he was lying on a pai or dry grass mat on the thinnai , the front platform of the house. It was a full moon night and the sky and the hills, forests and streets were immersed in the divinely extravaganza. ‘Enna!’ it was Lakshmi’s voice; she was calling him. None else would call him so dearly, so sweetly. ‘It was she, it was she alone. No doubt about it. But she was dead, I burned that fragile body with these hands, I collected her ashes and dipped it into the flowing waters. How could she come here? No, she cannot. But, I see her moving ahead, turning head backwards, on and off, asking me to follow. No doubt it is she and I can recognize her sari, her body movement. I can even recognize her shadow.’
Vadyaar got up from the bed and walked towards the banyan tree on the bank of the village pond. A farmer was going around his fully-grown paddy fields to make sure that none was hiding behind the plants to steal the crops. A couple of young boys were returning after the late movie show. Some night birds were chirping and flapping their wings. “No, she is not there. It was nothing but a delirium ‘ He cursed himself and asked, ‘ how can a dead person come back? What a fool I am!”
Vadyar returned home woke up his mother and told her what happened. ‘Satyam amma, she called me and led me to the tank , but when I reached there, she had gone’
‘Ithellam mayai aakkumda Parasu, Poyi paduthukkoda konthai- these are nothing but illusion, go and sleep, my dear.’ The mother consoled, came near his mat, placed his head over her lap, massaged slowly his face and hands and back and sung a cradle song, slowly in a shivering voice, in a low pitch to put her son to sleep.
Tears flowing through his cheeks, Vaadyar, in a choking voice said, ‘Ithu mayayi alla amma -this is not illusion.’
‘Ithum mayayi thanda- this too is nothing but illusion:’ the mother replied, ‘nee patichavan, Vedajnani; nan onakku chollanaoda Parasu ? You are a scholar, you know everything .There is nothing that I can teach you.’ Vaadyar felt that he was a small boy lying on the lap of his mother, enjoying her inundated love and care. He forgot for a moment Lakshmi, her sari, her call, the village pond, the banyan tree, the cemetery, the land behind that-everything. The merciful sleep hugged him in no time.
He slept for hours and hours and woke up. His mother didn’t.
Vaadyar was speechless. He didn’t weep till his younger daughter entered and asked the grandmother to get up. Then, entered the elder one. The smart girl, intelligent like her mother, looked alternately at her grandma’s body and father’s gloomy face. His face was swollen like a summer cloud getting ready for a heavy down pour. She didn’t cry. Seeing her not crying the father cried and cried.
‘ Ithum mayayi thane, amma – this too is illusion, isn’t it mother?’ He hoped that it was also an illusion though he knew well that it was not.
After the funeral rites were over, he spent more time meditating near the village tank. The cremation ground where the bodies of two of his most loved ones were turned to ash could be seen from there and often he lost in thoughts about the soul and body relationship.
‘What was it that I loved and what was it that I lost? I loved my wife’s body, no doubt, but I did not love that alone. I came out of my mother’s body but mere body cannot generate another life.
When Lakshmi’s and Amma’s heart stopped beating and when their pranavayu, breaths, left the bodies, they were dead. No. you are wrong. It was not just the cease of air circulation or blood circulation that made them dead. You did not love that blood or air but something much more than that. What was it then, which made them dead, apart from the body and breaths? Is that the one called soul? So, there are three components in the play of life: body, pranavayu and soul. Or is the Jeevan and the soul same? The breath stopped, the body is burnt. So, we have to account only for the third component of life ie ‘the soul”.
Vaadyar, who was musing like a lay man till then, suddenly, at his remembering the word ‘soul’ emerged from the hibernation and his thoughts flapped its wings and roared high in the sky of Upanishads and other spiritual , philosophical areas. . He got up, went to the waters and performed the sandhyavandahanam.
‘What a wonderful concept this daily ritual is! Every day we do this looking at the rising and waning sun and also when the sun is at its top position. Thus, every day we watch the movement of the Sun’s udayam, unnathi and asthamanam . If the omnipotent source, the cause of generation, maintenance and destruction in the world has to undergo such rise, halt at the top for a while and then fall, what are we, the ordinary human being! Are we not assigned this ritual to keep us in alert always about the three factors involved in our life too?
And what do we do actually while worshiping sandhya? Collect palms-full of water from the vast resource, recite a few mantras, and pour it back into it. Is it not to tell us that our soul comes from the Ultimate and goes back to it and during the short interim period it is with us, we should keep it serene and sacred? ‘I took this sacred, moving liquid from you, it was mine for a short while; here I am giving it back-it is yours, it has been always yours and in fact it is YOU- I return with all humbleness You, back to You-Is this not tharpanam- Is not our life itself a tharpanam ?’
‘That is true, that is true, Vaadhyar,’ his mind muttered.
While returning home, again his thoughts went back to its lay-man status and wondered: ‘Why did this happen to me when I was least prepared and when the presence of my wife and later my mother was required for my children. If the calamities are planned and executed by someone, who is he and why should he interfere with my life? If that ‘he’ is God, why did He do it to me?” He asked and got back the reply. ‘Parasu , such things happen in the world, people die and for many, death comes without warning and, death leaves a trail of agony behind, some time, unmanageable. You are not the first one selected for this treatment and you are not going to be the last one.’
‘That is true, that is true, Vaadhyar,’ his mind muttered.
Vaadyar took up a temporary job of performing daily poojas in a Devi temple in the outskirt of the village, managed by a Nair family. It was a convenient assignment , two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, leaving him sufficient time to look after the children. The head of the Nair family, valia amman, who held vaadhyar in esteem, extended every help and even provided one family member, Madhavi amma not only to assist the Vaadhyar by providing pooja materials, washing the vessels, cleaning the premises etc. and also to take care of the kids by bringing them home if necessary.
Vaadhyar was attracted by the simplicity and gentle manners of Madhaavi amma and also by her looks. Wearing a daily-washed snow white sari and sandal paste on her fore-head, just a pair of golden bangles on her fair, long, sturdy hands, she used to spend minutes before the deity, closing eyes and the opened palms held together close to her chest.
‘Madhi, Madhavi amma, ini nale aakam,’. enough for the day, keep some prayers for tomorrow too.’ Vaadyar used to joke.
‘Para , Swamy, madhiyavunniall,’ she used to reply, devotion surging in her words. “I am not satisfied seeing the divine face of the Mother.’
One day Vaadhyar called for a meeting of the elders, below the flag-post of the Temple and announced:
‘Ellarukkum Namaskram-salutation to you all. The purpose of my request for your assembly here is to convey my decision to live with a Nair woman, as her husband. I hear your murmur of discomfort but you should realize that my children need a woman’s care. I am only forty and I need a woman’s company and such a woman is not there in our caste except widows. Widows are not allowed the privilege of re-marriage in our society. I am not the first in our village to choose a non-brahmin woman for partnership and if you threaten that I will be excommunicate for the crime, almost half the number of houses in this village has to remain empty. I have heard, I have seen who all have sneaked into the Malayalee houses, holding a chhootu in their hand, under the cover of night. If you have not done that, your father or his father had done it. I do not believe in doing anything clandestinely. Now, the next point is allowing Madhavi to stay in my house. She will not enter my house. We do allow Nair women in our houses for services but I do not want her to enter my house as a servant maid. The next point. You may say that you will not allow me to do pooja in our temple or call me to your homes for upadyayam-to perform religious rituals. I have no complaints. My ayurvedam, astrology and poojas in ‘kavus’ run by non-Brahmin trusts will take care of my daily needs.
And when you come to those ‘kavus’, I hope that you will not hesitate to accept prasadam from my hand.
The last point-. My ancestral house in this village, after I leave this world, will become the property of the temple. I hope before I die both my children will be married off and if not, it will be Madhavi’s look out.
But I want to die in my house, where my ancestors and wife breathed their last-that is my only wish but that again is not in my hand.’
No one raised an objection. The temple bell rang for harati. Everyone went inside for the evening worship. When Vaadyar was left alone, a woman came from the side entrance and fell at his feet. Parsurama vaadhyar was to spend the next long thirty years with her . And those thirty years flew off like thirty months days thanks to Madhavi’s affection, care and ability to run a house smoothly. Both the daughters were married off and settled well in life. Vaadyar spent his time reading and teaching scriptures.
His health started deteriorating. He thought the end was fast approaching. “You are left with only a few hours”, he heard some one telling “get ready vaadyar”
He was not sad. ‘Get ready Madhavi,’ he prompted his wife to accompany him to the ancestral house in the village, spread some dabha grass on the floor and lied over that.
Madhavi, with swollen eyes, open the small copper vessel containing the water from the Gnnges, on his request and poured a few drops into his mouth. A few drops of tears too, got mixed with the water poured from the pot.
‘Sing, ‘Kanikanum neram’ Madhavi.’, he requested her, then closed the eyes and went into deep meditation, his mind floating in the mellifluous devotional song of Madhavi..
Suddenly, the copper pot fell on his chest splashing the left- over water followed by Madhavi . She passed away within a few minutes lying on her husband’s chest and warmly hugged by him, her long hair wet by the Gangajel, her right hand touching vaadyar’s sacred thread, the left one touching the darba grass below. The woman, who spent maximum years with him, other than his mother, had left him now.
‘You seem to be in deep contemplation;’ I remarked while passing through, seeing him sitting alone on the porch of his house, When I went to our village during the last vacation. Raising the spectacle, he looked at and recognized me and invited to go closer to him.
‘All the three women in my life have left me unannounced,’ said Vaadyar, closing the book he was reading.
‘I came to die in my ancestral house .But Madhavi, who had not stepped into this house even once during the past forty years and who came along with me just to see me off, breathed her last,’ he continued, showing the floor where his wife died, ‘she breathed her last, on this floor, where my ancestors died and in addition, she chose my chest as a stepping stool to go up’
Words were refusing to come out of his throat. He paused, pushed the chellppetti, pan-leaf-mix casket towards me and continued in a slow, shattered voice,
‘I came to catch the train; she boarded it leaving me alone in the platform!’
Slowly collecting the ingredients from the brass casket and applying the white calcium oxide paste on the back of the betel leaves and gently extending his neck towards me, he added, ‘Ultimately, I have realized that I am now free of all my illusions’
I couldn’t catch his message, but just smiled and accepted the pan leaf package from his trembling hand.