At the everlasting age of sixteen, like greenhorn Adam into the Garden of Eden, I was released into the bustling alleys of Mysore city. And I, rascal of a dreamer, was dumb enough to imagine that I had become a freeman at last in the sprawling and anonymous city. For Mysore was so far, far away from my tiny village in the spice-hills of Kerala where intoxicating Sin flowered and fruited lovingly everywhere along with pepper, ginger and pappaya. It rippled down the rocky streams. And God patrolled us relentlessly and inexorably. For all I knew, God partook of our sins and laughed in secret from the dark caverns of the rubber plantations, exulting shamelessly in his double-facedness.
Mysore in those days had the eternal odour of horse dung and urine, of jasmine and masala dosa and of coffee and cow-dung cake whose smoke rose in blue whirls like wraiths melting in the sun. And as I discovered to my utter horror, God stalked every nook and cranny of Mysooru Nagara, round the clock, as a thundercloud of unknowing and a chastising mystery. He sat upon the summit of Chamundi Hills, disguised as the far-away row of lights burning in the cold night, filling us with an unspeakable longing for the black sky as we lay in our hostel beds looking out the window through the white and mesmerizing veil of the mosquito net.
In those days God had filled Mysore with music. The city was like an immense jukebox in which robot arms kept playing music from every direction. Music hung over the city like a magnetic field. It drifted into our classrooms, playgrounds, beds, toilets and dining rooms. It stood guard over our masturbations, daydreams and terrors. Our college, St Philomena’s, was then the last urban point of the city on the Bangalore road. Beyond were tomato and groundnut farms, coconut groves and paddy fields and Tippu Sultan’s Srirangapatna and Cauvery the mother-river. On bicycles hired from shops opposite St Philomena’s church for ten paise per hour, we would race like madmen up the pot-holed Bangalore road to Tippu’s Fort at Srirarangapatna, hang around staring at the ancient things, huddle at the spot where Tippu fell and died, and watch Cauvery go by, churlish, dark-green and elusive among the waterweeds and sandbanks.
I had already learned to hum “Begani shaadi mein Abdallah deevana…” because “Jis desh mein Ganga bahti hai” was still playing in Mysore when I made my first entry into the city. Our small group of bare-footed Malayali initiates into the city had made the pilgrimage to Gayatri cinema under the patronising wand of senior students and sat riveted and dumbfounded, watching Raj Kapoor and Padmini and crowds of dancers illuminating the magic screen. Soon I was at the first first-day showing of Junglee, fighting my way dizzyingly through the wild crowd and snatching a ticket for thirty paise. At that moment I knew I had become a citizen of Mysore. The film took me in custody. As the silky lines of “Ehsan tera hoga mujh par…” winged in through the orphan night into my hostel room from NR Mohalla or Lashkar Mohalla, or from Banni Mantapa, I would lie staring into the mosquito net’s undulating whiteness and wet my pillow with tears shed copiously, for nothing and nobody. I didn’t know that I was becoming a changeling for myself, drop by drop, night by night. I merely cried into an emptiness that hurt my soul as it hurtled through the smoky skies of the alien city.
The music invaded our souls and cleaved unto them. And we cleaved unto the music. We understood no word of the Hindi lyrics but we needed to know nothing. We only needed to hear. It was lovely and lucky to be alive and young and foolish in the Mysore of Shankar-Jaikishan, OP Nayyar, SD Burman, Madan Mohan, Ravi, Salil Chaudhury, Naushad, Roshan, Khayyam, Laximikant Pyarelal, Jaidev. It was hard, very hard, to invest a whole four-anna coin to listen to a single song. Yet I would grip it in my hands determinedly and push it into the jukebox’s metallic mouth and glow with joy as the player’s arm picked up exactly my record and the restaurant filled with my song. I would look around shyly as the song rose over the clang and tinkle of trays and cups and saucers, the shouts for service, the litany of bills and the abiding roar of conversation. Then, borrowing twelve paise for the next coffee that would give me a further perch on my seat, I would wait for another millionaire of four-annas to make the magic pilgrimage to the jukebox.
I and my friends had heard the songs a thousand times but this was the ultimate pleasure. We made the songs sing. With our country-bumpkin ways and backwoods Malayali dress, we would sit coyly yet smugly, as the jukebox sang at our command. At that moment we felt we had mastered the city. Rafi, Mukesh, Lata, Asha, Kishore, Talat, Suman Kalyanpur, Mahendra Kapoor – our Mysore overflowed with their song and we were its flotsam and jetsam. The music put wings to our nitty-gritty village hearts and launched them into incredibly beautiful yet forlorn spaces. It made the city fecund with mysteries whose existence we could only guess at.
God, like the abominable Alien entrenched in the spaceship’s clockwork, was perhaps the invisible and implacable disc-jockey of the Mysore jukeboxes with their winking red and blue bulbs. He had, no doubt, followed me all the way from the humid shades of my village Urulikunnam to sing unto me – and to catch me sinning. With the anonymity of a forger, He scripted into my heart “Allah jane kya hoga aage”, “Tumhari mast nazar”, “Kahin deep jale kahin dil”, “Mere mehboob tujhe”, “Mein chali mein chali”, “Diwana hua baadal”, “Mujko apne gale laga do”, “Tasveer teri dil mein”, “Jo wada kiya”, “Mujhe kitna pyar hai”, “Bar bar dekho”, “Mehtab tera chehra”, “Sau saal pahale” and a hundred other thrilling melodies as if He were calligraphing a miniature prayer-book. And He charged me four-annas per song, like a fiend. That was how matters stood between me, Mysore and God in those days.
I did not venture into the by-lanes and interiors of the city at first. From St Philomena’s College, which stood at the Mysore-end of the lengthy island formed by old and new Bangalore roads, I would take the straight path into the city, sticking to familiar landmarks, one of which was the huge, dark, granite heap of the Church of St Philomena’s. Just where the island tapered and the two roads came together, there was a grove of tall trees and on the opposite side a pond where buffaloes wallowed all day and skinny girls made, dried and stacked dung-cakes. My eyes would craftily search the girls for any sign of what I imagined to be the desire that cities flaunted, but only listless and gaunt poverty stared back at me blankly. The grove was made up of trees unfamiliar to me, huddling together in a circle. It appeared to me as distant and lonely as a planet that had frozen in its orbit. It had a grassy floor awash with the moving shadows of the conferencing trees. Every time I looked at it, I would be filled with sweet misery and a premonition of all the dreams I would see. I never did pick up the will to cross the few hundred feet of grass, bush and dry leaves and enter the grove to subdue it. I have a worrisome feeling that that was one of the lairs of God in Mysore – thank God I never walked into it.
From here, the road was an uphill stretch for about a kilometre, with old, gnarled shade-trees on both sides. It was near-deserted most of the time and turned very lonely as the day wound down. A bullock-cart dragging its feet as if it was sleepwalking, a cyclist milkman with a collaborating cow in tow, a Bangalore bus grinding unhappily on its way, farm workers’ families, haggard, covered in mud and dust – such were the occasional travellers on this road. In the evenings, after hurried encounters with the city, our pace quickened to a half-run downhill in order to reach the hostel before the gates closed and Fr D’Souza, the warden, shook his head at us, his lips tightly pressed in a knowing smile. Dusk would gather its forces around our truant figures, encircling us from the sky where clouds turned dark orange, from the branches overhead swelling with eerie bird-talk, from the tarred road where night slithered under our feet like a fog, and from the distant lights beginning to twinkle, hinting at dreadful uncertainties. And behind us, like a gilded serpent with a tongue of cold fire, the city would hiss and growl. Then a song would break loose from the commotion like a shining night-bird, overtake our lonely trajectory and transform the dusk into an arena of sweet and compelling longing: “Naina burse rim zim rim zim…”, “Yeh wadiyaam, yeh phizayem bula rahe he…” – so would sing the lovely singers.
Up the hill. Past the Fountain Circle. Past the black mountain of the Church. Past its grotto where Mother Mary stands open-armed, speaking ghostly words of wisdom. Down shabby Ashoka Road with its row of Marwadi pawnshops to Nehru Circle. Go round the Circle to the right and take Irwin road till you turn left on Sayyaji Rao Road. Down you go till you see the two kings, Krishnaraja Wodeyar and Chamaraja Wodeyar, their bulging crowns and flowing gowns splattered with the white shrapnel of bird shit, looking over the city from marble balconies, immune, frozen like autistic warriors wrapped in amnesia. We never enquired whether Krishnaraja and Chamaraja were good kings or bad. We were just happy that they stood there as reliable landmarks. The great palace of the Wodeyars was a few thousand feet away, its towers and domes soaring behind the high walls like a magic mountain. We did not ever gather sufficient courage to seek to enter the palace grounds. Once in a while we would furtively go up to the southern gate pretending to worship at the temple there, but essentially to peek at the sex-sculptures that decorated its walls. It took a lot of staring and screwing up of eyes to decipher the precise nature of the erotic activities of the figures on the granite panels placed high up on the wall, but we always managed to get an erection or two. Our giggles and exchanges of lewd looks must have alerted the pujaris and worshippers to our profane intentions, but no one took our pornographic pursuits seriously enough to evict us.
In the horizon loomed Chamundi Hills, rocky, near-barren and blue-grey. The temple and the palace on its summit looked, from afar, like a white patch shorn off a passing cloud. We knew the hilltop also held a huge granite holy bull whose robust and smooth balls always received our admiring attention, and a big, technicolour rakshasa with unsheathed sword in hand, his mouth gaping, bloody and toothy. It was hard to say whether the demon was smiling or screaming. If memory serves me right he was about to eat a baby. Chamundi Hills was one of the targets of our periodic cycling assaults on Mysore. We would huff and puff and push our way up its hairpin curves, gaping at tourists, wondering at girls and checking out all the usual sights. Then we would let speed swallow us as we raced downhill. In the evening we would tell loud and chattering stories about who fell down and how and who cheated in the bet on pedalling all the way to the top without getting down and pushing.
A time came when I decided to explore the Hill in my own way. By then I had taken to wandering the city all by myself like a secret agent smelling out uncharted territory. Though the acknowledged object of my quests was Sin and I was an inveterate coward, my searches took me into sad and forsaken places, scummy and dangerous city backyards, lonely alleyways that breathed down your shoulders and made your steps tremble and shake, crowded places where evil walked neck to neck with you, exuding strange smells. I also found sweet places under park trees, benches on the side-walk that hugged you, theatres that kissed you, roads that caressed you and restaurants that bathed you in indescribable desire. I was a specialist in getting lost, panicking and retreating. I was ridiculed, stared at, chased, shouted at, threatened, humiliated, thrown out. I walked into snares that no ordinary damn-fool would walk into. I was the Best Readymade Schizo in Mysore city.
I was not planning to climb the Hill by the regular road. At one end the Hill gradually sloped down till it flowed into the land. It fascinated me that Chamundi Hill had this secret pact with the soil and that I could, if I wished, touch the Hill at the spot where it grew out of the earth. It thrilled me that the Hill had a beginning and an end and I could connect with that. One late afternoon, keeping the general direction of the hill-end in view I started walking towards it. Soon I was out of familiar streets and sights and moving farther away into the limbo where village and city met and merged and lost worlds emerged. Then the clusters of huts too vanished and the dusty cart-road straggled for a while, finally leaving me in the middle of wide fields where only the hardiest crops grew in the dry and shallow soil. A few goats and buffaloes wandered around biting at leaves. I looked back and was astonished to see that I had left the city far behind and lights were beginning to glow in it. The sun was sinking and an overwhelming twilight was falling over the land. I understood I had misjudged the distance to the Hill because I could see that it was still a long way off, beyond a lengthy slope covered with bushes. The goats and buffaloes were gone. Suddenly I realised I was all alone, that the Hill was beyond my reach, that I was a stranger under a sun setting over a strange land, that the Hill had stood there for tens of thousands of years and it had no use for me. I felt the evening grow dark all of a sudden. I didn’t seem to know the direction I had to take to get back to the city. I stood under a vast sky, with a mountain turning dark before my eyes, listening to a silence that was overpowering, the faraway lights of the city making my loneliness all the more terrifying. I started walking back, looking to the lights as my guide. It had become cold and I thought I was about to start shivering. At that moment I knew I was being followed. I knew somebody or something was close behind me and getting closer. I jumped round in panic to see who or what it was. There was nothing; only the fields rolling away into the twilight and the Hill covering itself with a sheet of night. I started walking again. This time I had no doubt that I was not alone. There was something close on my heels. It was a most powerful sensation. When I moved, it moved; when I stood still, it stood still. I was sure that when I listened, it watched me listening, and it saw the fear washing over me. I was afraid to move, yet I knew I must move – run. Each time I turned in terror to look back I nearly jumped out of my skin anticipating what I might see. But there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Hill stood still. The night was beginning to sweep over the land. I knew I was being stalked and that I was constantly in the stalker’s line of sight. I looked at the city lights for support, but they were blinking in another world. In the dim light cast by the black sky I screamed once and ran for my life. In a way I knew I was running away from nothing. But I could feel the stalker, like a heat-seeking missile, keeping up its invisible pressure behind me. I kept sobbing and running. Bushes scratched me and stones bit into my feet. I ran breathlessly through the tide of darkness swiftly rolling in, and slowly the stalker melted away. But with remembered terror I continued to run till I reached the first cluster of huts. I walked through the village quietly like any other stranger meekly passing by. I marvelled that none knew that I had just been lured into a phantom world a few thousand feet away from the circles of light of their lamps.
Was it the Devil? God? Or was the Hill evicting an intruder through a whiff of its selfhood? Were the fields laying an illusion-trap for a stranger? Was the sky deluding me with a phantasm of anonymous forces? Was the twilight mounting an instant drama in fear? Or was it a random burst of electromagnetic energy that had lost its way and was trying to cling to me like a motherless kitten? I will never know. I like to think it was a part of me that hovered there, lost and afraid, alien and lonely, slinking after my retreating steps. It must have been as terrified as me. Maybe it still wanders out there, alone, all alone. I rule out the Devil and God from this event because it would have been very silly of them to waste high-value time chasing me out of Chamundi Hill’s evening world. Both are, by profession and by compulsion, hidden persuaders, operating from secret chips in our brain. I think, in general, they had helped my schizophrenia along so that each could manipulate a separate me and have fun watching me trying to be saint and sinner at the same time. When I ran screaming, God might have been an interested bystander and Devil busy in the city lanes – I don’t think he cares much for greenery.
I wonder what it was that made me fall in love with both boys and girls in Mysore. It was pure love, head over heels, which would transfer itself to another after a while. It was silent love. I never managed to convey my tender sentiments to my lovers. I just allowed myself to be haunted by them, and they themselves never knew it. There was my junior hostel-mate, J, a sixteen-something plump boy from South Canara’s arecanut groves in half-pants and checked shirt, hardly handsome or pretty but very self-possessed and warm. I used to wrap myself around him and look after his every need. I must have even fantasised Sin but it was unthinkable in real terms, considering the pureness of my love. I taught him cycling and accompanied him on his first solos like a mother. He was a shaky rider, always on the verge of falling off. One day on Irwin road he was riding ahead of me and a bus squeezed him to the road’s edge. He lost balance but didn’t fall because he and the cycle were leaning on the bus! As soon as the bus passed he fell on to the road and when I picked him up in my hands I overflowed with tenderness. Perhaps I wanted to kiss him then, I don’t remember. I was in love with most of the girls too. I think some liked me as a strange toy. When they allowed me to get close I would backtrack, projecting them as mystery creatures from a magical world. Once my classmate, one of the stars of the college, asked me to go to her house in the evening to help her with English – a language where I had exhibited some talent except in talking – hinting that she would be alone. I crawled the half kilometre from my hostel to NR Mohalla where she lived, like a python who had swallowed too huge a meal, stopping and staring at the cacti hedge, meditating at a wayside pond, climbing the sloping road to the Mohalla as if it was Golgotha. Then, having crept up to her house, I stood hiding myself in the shadows on the opposite side, watched her with pounding heart for a while and returned, empty, defeated, consoled only by the softly rising moon and the music that came floating beneath the just-risen stars. I still hadn’t been sanctioned chappals and pants and I was a barefoot lover in a dhoti.
RK Narayan was living in Mysore then. UR Ananthamurthy had, I think, just started teaching there. Prof CD Narasimhaiah was the uncrowned king of English and Indo-Anglian studies. A galaxy of Kannada writers and thinkers resided in Mysore. Sardar KM Panikker, the historian, was our vice chancellor. Oblivious to all this, I lived out my close encounters with the Other city. I lived blithely, hand-to-mouth, alternating between diarrhoeas and constipations, between fevers and falls from the cycle, pawning one day my precious cycle and another day my precious watch, following women on the streets to Restaurants at the End of the Universe and bitter finishes. I learned to confess in English so that I needn’t confess to Malayali priests in unambiguous Malayalam and instead pass up a garbled and undecipherable list of sins in English to French and Tamil priests. I certainly must have mixed up nomenclature and categories, for one well-meaning retreat preacher who heard my confession in English became so overcome by my Sin Agenda that he kept following up on the state of my soul for months afterwards. I had begun to buy my first English books from the grimy second-hand shops and pavement-sellers, was discovering the marvels of Economics as retold by Kewal Krishna Dewett and, more than anything else, immersed in selling over my soul, lock, stock and barrel, to Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tagore’s Reminiscences, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Milton and a million-dollar textbook called An Anthology of Contemporary English Verse, edited by (May God Shower Everlasting Bliss on Her) Margaret J. O’Donnell.
It was only when I had finished my degree in Mysore and started post-graduation in Bangalore and my Kannadiga fellow-students treated me with a certain respect, that I discovered that for the past three years I had been enjoying the singular privilege of studying under the Gopalakrishna Adiga, great pioneer of the modernist movement in Kannada poetry. It shows the state of abysmal maya in which I spent my years in Mysore. I am amazed at my daftness and sometimes wonder whether I might not be equally daft today about many things even as I experience them. To me Gopalakrishna Adiga was, all those years, just Adiga Sir whose every word I captured, chewed, swallowed, and regurgitated. So much so he would ask to see my notebook to refresh his memory on something he discussed a week back. He would also admonish me that I must think beyond what he taught and not be just a copyist. Little did he know that he was dealing with a cunning cannibal of sorts – that I was a ruthless alien waiting to be born as soon as sufficient life-soup had been sucked in. For I was not only a guaranteed schizophrenic but also an overfed, greedy bookworm. Nearly all my reading was in Malayalam and I had gnawed into almost everything that was to be had in local libraries around my village, good, bad and ugly. Now, all my instincts were gathered and poised for the next change-over, fuelled by nostalgia, emboldened by freedom, powered by awakening adulthood, fired by sexuality and instigated by the city. All my reading and experiencing were now on their toes on the springboard of chance. And Gopalakrishna Adiga threw the door wide open and let me in to a world whose existence I never had suspected. He was not doing it specially for me. He was, like any great teacher, giving his students everything he had. And there were only four of us majoring in English Literature: two beautiful Coorgi girls who were essentially beating time (one of whom had invited me for the aborted homework), a boy called Victor, and myself. I was just learning to speak English, though on the writing of it I had some claims. Victor was an earnest and bright student but I had an edge over him as a diehard bookworm. It was upon this motley group that Adiga bestowed his magic as teacher and – now that I know what he was – as poet. He made me step through the looking-glass of imagination and see literature in reverse – as a process. He showed me the bits and parts that made creation work. With great ease he went behind the work and brought into view the blueprint of aesthetics and technique. Everything I had read now stood before me in a different light. I slowly realised that literature was not only about reading yourself into an ecstasy, that it had a premeditated form, purpose and plan, that it was possible to create literature if you tried. In my interior tours with Adiga Sir, I became both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, sat with Keats near the winepress, breathed the west wind with Shelley, laughed with Gulliver at the Lilliputians, climbed to precipices with Wordsworth.
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
Once Adiga Sir had taken me indoors of Eliot, Auden and Dylan Thomas, the alien-seed in me was ready to pounce.
In my third year, I left college hostel and moved, adult and free, into the annexe of Carlton Hotel, a Victorian establishment run by Mr Mysorewala, a Parsi gentleman with polished manners and, if my memory is not wrong, unpolished greed. The annexe was an outhouse of sorts with a few dark and dingy rooms where students and suchlike lower phenomena stayed as lodgers. We ate at the main table in the Hotel with the regular guests, which involved learning western table manners and making conversation in English with those guests who asked us a kind question or two. The boy from Urulikunnam was now learning to breathe in another, rarefied air. I fell in love with almost every white woman guest of the Hotel, most whom were in their fifties. That we were a lower form of life was evident from the fact that we had, with the help of the attendant Hassan, established peepholes into most bedrooms of the Hotel, from the rooftop and from other vantage points. Therefore, other things being equal, any lovemaking and female undressing that took place in the Hotel had at least a dozen breathless viewers. My room was at one end of the outhouse, with a small, mesh-wired window opening onto a dirty veranda and staircase, beyond which was a side-lane. The staircase led to a Marwadi residence and I was laved with music levitating down the whole day, Radio Ceylon and Binaca Geethmala embroidering my unrest and sorrows with the greatest melodies of our times. A beggar woman and her child took shelter on the veranda at night and left behind disquieting odours. Sometimes for days both were ill. At other times dogs took their siesta there.
The door to the veranda was permanently locked and it was inconceivable for me that I should enter the world on the other side, seemingly a million miles away. However the door had a wooden board which could be shaken loose from the veranda. A young, precocious boy from the Marwadi house upstairs would sometimes remove the board and squeeze in through the gap. He was a master of tantalising, excruciatingly oblique sexual stimuli, played out with great innocence. I practiced yoga, read and reread Dale Carnegie, took postal courses in self-improvement and hypnotism and pored over Quiller-Couch and Fowler trying to fight my way into the English language. For days I had been trying to translate “Preludes” into Malayalam for no other reason than that Eliot haunted me like one of my phantom lovers. I was, therefore, working face to face with the bewitching clockwork of his craft and the bookworm’s hoard of Malayalam words were being put to test. One day, moving away from the translation, I tried to write something of my own. I wrote it in English and abandoned it after a few sentences. Another day I ran into it again, completed it in Malayalam and found, to my great surprise, that it had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was a story about my home, my stream, my farm and my childhood. Adiga Sir had let loose the alien and he was now ready to swap bodies, invade minds and travel time’s secret places. I drank Eliot’s blood and grew. I ate Dylan Thomas’s flesh and flourished. I devoured them all. I was a full-grown cannibal. And I had learned how to mix memory and desire to make seducers out of words.
Mysore remains a great and calm city. It has become bitterly crowded, but seems to retain its sanity. I go back there once in a while and walk my old trails. The obscure landmarks of my tramping paths are gone. I can’t even recognize my favourite theatres. But I was immensely happy to find in its old place the little magazine-vend on Sayyaji Rao Road where I had bought the Republic Day issue of Mathrubhumi Weekly carrying my first story. Mysore was also the favourite city of my elder brother Joseph. It was he who brought me to Mysore and he died there. Many things have died with him. But I return to Mysore because, as I said, perhaps a part of me waits for me there. God, I am sure, still stalks sinners in Mysore. But all His old lairs must be gone. About the jukeboxes, I am certain. So where does he dispense music from? Does He still burn brightly from Chamundi’s summit? Does He still waylay sex-maniacs in the form of hard-hearted women? Does He still suffer schizophrenics to fall in love without gender-compulsions? He gave me a long rope in Mysore and may He continue to be lenient to all sinners there as He was to me. May Mysore flourish and grow ever more sensuous!
Every street-lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.