Where does poetry come from?

I come from haunts of coot and hern, 

I make a sudden sally, 

And sparkle out among the fern, 

To bicker down a valley. 

Even before Freud, people would have observed that dreams are the result of our unfulfilled desires. This is plain common sense. Freud made this idea systematic without bothering to make it scientific. He resorted to speculations. 

Art and literature, especially poetry, seem to have the same origin as dreams when we considers the similarities in their form and content. We all have our instincts, mostly biological in nature. But our sense of self, the ego and our sensitivity to the world, the super ego, suppresses our instincts.

Finding no way to materialize, our instincts go for the second options, they ideate as dreams in our sleep when our guard is down,  and when we are watchful as daydreams  or art or poetry, good poetry that is. In dreams art and poetry our instincts go for two kind of disguises, condensation in which several instincts are all fused into one and displacement in which instead of hitting the bull’s eye we hit something else. 

Translated into poetry these disguises become metaphor and metonymy, two basic ways of symbolism. Metaphor which we also seen in homonyms and other figures of speech and metonymy as we see in sublimation. These are only convenient examples.  

Freud calls this wish fulfillment which is not the same as materializing our real instinctual desire. Needless to say it is not as good as the real, second best. So, when it comes to poetry, like a child who over decorates a toy house, we embellish the second best to more satisfactory for us and more enjoyable for others.  

For example, one may wish to have children but has only Dorothy as a companion. No chance there. The sexual instinct is here suppressed by the ego and super ego, and rightly so. This leads to an ideation of the instinct into an incestuous dream about the sister (more direct) day dream about a solitary reaper (less direct) or a poem on daffodils (symbol of fertility, disguised or indirect) 

We don’t have access to Wordsworth’s dream but his two poems are there for us. In Solitary Reaper we see several of the instincts fused into the form of a reaping girl, enjoyment, fertility, (“Reaping and singing by herself”) Thus the girl becomes a metaphor or the poet’s (and everyone else’s) biological instincts. 

In Daffodils, it is not only that the flowers being symbol of fertility is again a metaphor, it is also a sight the poet has often enjoyed watching with his sister as they went for long walks in Lake District. Perhaps, more than the symbolism, it is their association with his sister which prompted the poet.  The lines,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

say a lot.

The Other Side of the Night

Soon after the curtain fell and the claps subsided, and even before Sumesh took his wig off, Prabhakaran, the troupe manager came with the voucher.

Sumi madam, please wait, don’t change now. Some kids are here to see you. They want a selfie.” Saying this Prabhakaran handed over the voucher and an envelope.

Sumi Madam! That was what Prabhakaran called him when he was in a playful mood.

Sumesh took the envelope and stared at it in surprise. Three thousand! In the previous show which was two weeks back he was given only 2000. Seeing his surprise, Prabhakaran smiled, and handing him the envelop, informed him, “Thousand extra because they were all so impressed by your performance.”

Sumesh took the envelope and counted the money. It was correct. He looked around for his bag, found it and kept is safely inside.

He looked at the mirror casually and smiled at his own image. God! He was sure that a thousand eyes had feasted on his looks that night. He removed the wig. It was a character wig. The role he had played that night was of a village housewife who faces problems when she moves over to the city. He searched his bag for another wig. There were two more and he knew which one he needed. He wore it, adjusted his sari, touched up his make up and went out of the green room to meet the kids.

They were not kids. Most of them were college students. They were sitting on the parapet and seeing him, they got up. Sumesh had always noticed  how men respected ladies if they looked rich, but only when they looked rich.

All of them were nervous and the least nervous of them mustered up all his courage and mumbled, “Madam, we want a selfie with you.”

Again Madam! May be they had heard Prabhakaran addressing him like that.

O, sure, group or individual?”

Hmm, group. Does anyone need individual?”

They all said they needed both. Sumesh posed for them whichever way they needed and they left happily after profusely hugging and thanking him.

When Sumesh went back in, the green room was already crowded. Two ladies and three child artistes were changing. They sneered at him. He asked their permission, went in and quickly collected his bag and other things.

When he was coming out, he heard a voice from behind.

You are not changing? You can change in the men’s room,”

He didn’t respond to that. He knew what it meant. These ladies  did not think that they were safe with him in this green room and he didn’t think he was safe with the men in the other green room.

The phone rang. It was Mathews. He said he had reached.

Mathews was the only one among his friends in the city whom he had trusted with his secrets. He had met Mathews several years ago at the Town Hall during a performance. They had no common friends and he thought it was OK to reveal his secrets to him

Sumesh had a desire to cross dress and he kept it a secret till two years ago when he heard about a travelling folk drama troupe which was reviving traditional plays.

For two years he had been working with them without his family find out. It wasn’t hard as he was a salesman who had to move around a lot.

Mathews was never too curious about it and they never discussed it. They were good friends who shared a lot of similar interests. That was all.

This time,  since he was performing in Mathews’ village, he had proposed that Mathews could drive him back to the city. He always wanted to travel without changing after the show.

But where will you change then? You have to go home. You have office tomorrow, right?”

O, that is easy. I have taken the office key and I will stay there and go home only tomorrow evening after my duty.”

Thus it was settled.

Sumesh looked around. The place was getting empty. Other troupe members were inside the van and some of them called out his name to say bye.  The organisers were all there. Sumesh saw Mathews’s new car parked at the gate and moved towards it. Sumesh took one last look at the auditorium and waved at the artistes in the van. Mathews came out of the car, gave him one look and went right back in.

Sumesh hurried into the car.

What? Do I look so ugly?”

O, no. You look gorgeous!”

Then why that look on your face!”

I was shocked. Now I am all right”

The car moved and Sumesh took several selfies with Mathews. After they travelled a few kilometres Mathews spoke.

I also feel like calling you madam like your friends did.  How you blushed when they called you so! You really look fantastic like this.”

Thanks. So, I am different from what you imagined.”

Yes, of course. Hard to tell you are Sumesh.”

Is that supposed to be a compliment or what? Do you like me as Sumesh or as this? Tell me honestly.”

What does it matter? We never care about the looks of friends. In fact, we do think a lot about how our enemies look, not friends.”

That is interesting. Did you eat?”

What? No, no. I didn’t eat. We will eat in some nice place in the city.”

City? That is a full two hours’ drive. I am famished. I don’t want to die in a sari”

But you won’t feel comfortable in a small place.”

Me? Who told you?”

OK, we will stop for tea and snacks on the way. Let me see how you feel!”

They stopped at a small place and Sumesh applied more make up and smoothed his wig before he got out. He made a mental preparation. Though he had shown much gusto to Mathews and had so much experience on stage, he was more than a little nervous. He got out and held on to Mathews like a new bride. He could see their image on a shop window. It gave him confidence. Moreover, the place was not well lit.

They found a roadside tea shop and ordered tea and snacks. The shop keeper invited them inside but Sumesh held on to Mathews’ arm and whispered in his ears.

Stay here, I want to show off.”

There was a little bit of traffic and a few people walking by. Most of the people looked at Sumesh, admiring a well dressed lady out at night. Nothing more, nothing less.

As they got back in the car, Mathews was the first one to speak.

O, my god! O my god! That was fantastic. I enjoyed it. You were awesome.”

Sumesh even forgot to thank him. He turned towards the window and  watched the night scenes as they flitted by. He was not particularly  interested them. He was in deep thought.

He was thinking of his wife. Was this how she felt when they went on long journeys? Or, was it a different feeling for ladies? He could not see how it could be different. He glanced at Mathews and thought he looked more handsome than ever. He wondered whether the change was in Mathews or in himself. Whatever it was, he felt more like a woman than when he had been on stage that day or ever. On stage, he enjoyed the admiration of other people and his own ability to fool them. But now, in this car with Mathews, his best friend, he was enjoying himself. There was no admiration from Mathews to speak of. Did that worry him? No, he thought. This was his night. His own night. Such a night may never happen again and it need not happen again. One was good enough and if it happened again he would happily welcome it.

How is my driving?”

O, very good. So smooth and comfortable. You have brought your new car? Trying hard to impress your girl.”


Yes, girl friend, me!”

O, I can see that there is no need to try hard to impress you!”
Sumesh pinched Mathews on his left arm.

You naughty. But you are right. I am enjoying this.  Never thought this night would end up like this.”

Sumesh wanted to do some shopping too. He wanted to buy some goodies for his children. But the shops were closed or about to close. He felt a little disappointed. He wanted to get out again with Mathews and mingle with the crowd.

He turned on his mobile and checked his messages.  Boring. Then he looked at his own pictures he had taken that day and pictures of previous performances. He didn’t like those old pictures. The new ones were fine, especially the ones he had taken with those young men and those he took in the car.

Mathews turned on the stereo and started swinging his head. It was a song he too knew and joined Mathews in swinging his head. The singer had a very husky voice which reminded Sumesh of cold nights in Kumily where he was born. He thought of that place only when it felt so cold or when he smelled spices. All the other memories he had buried long ago. Now this voice brought it back again. The chorus was dynamic and powerful. Mathews was enjoying it so much that Sumesh had to warn him repeatedly to be careful. 

Almost two hours later, they were in the suburbs of the city and Mathews was constantly looking outside to find a restaurant. He was looking for bar attached ones. But Sumesh knew that Mathews never drank. So, probably he just wanted a good place to celebrate. Was Mathews feeling the same as he did? O, that was impossible. Sumesh rebuked himself for day dreaming.

They could not find a proper place as it was close to eleven and bars had to be closed by ten. Finally, they settled for a small place which had a good drive way across a garden.

Mathews parked the car and Sumesh took some time to adjust his sari and smooth his wig. Mathews came to the left side of the car and was waiting.  He opened the door and held Sumesh’s hand as he rose up like a nymph from the  ocean and sailed smoothly away from the car.

 Sumesh took extra care to walk just like a lady, with minced steps and his each feet toeing the other. He kept his head down and held on to Mathews’ arm.

The place was a small one and wasn’t crowded. Sumesh went to the ladies’ bathroom. It was the first time he was peeing in one. When he came back Mathews had gone to the men’s washroom. The waiter, a young man came over and asked him what they needed.  Sumesh gestured towards the washroom to say that he had to wait.  He did not trust his own voice.

When Mathews returned, they placed the order. There wasn’t much to choose from but whatever was there was really good. It felt like eating in the family dining room during a private birthday celebration.

When they were about to get into the car, Sumesh went back in and gave a generous tip to the  waiter who smiled at him and said a nervous thanks.  Sumesh also smiled back and glanced around with the same smile lingering on his hot red lips. He knew that he was sending a chill down the spine of everyone sitting there.

When he returned to the car, Mathews commented on him, “You are a big show off. I never knew that about you.”

Why not? You have a talent to sing and I hear you singing all the time. This is my talent. This fooling the world. And I am thoroughly enjoying it.”

I can see that, both your talent and your enjoyment.”

Sumesh found that Mathews was a little rude which was quite unusual of him. Usually he was a  meek and mild person. May be this was how he was with  women. He wondered why all men thought that they had to show a rough jarring exterior when they were with women. Was he himself like that with his wife and daughter? No, he was very very soft with them. But he recalled that it was only at home. With other women whom he wanted to impress, he too did what Mathews was doing now. Rough, jarring exterior. Rude remarks. Sarcasm. Decent and polite, no doubt. But such things were only in the elaborate manners. A show off! Right. Just as Mathews had said just then. A show off. In attitude, just like sand paper.

The car came to a stop outside Sumesh’s office. The place was deserted and shrouded in darkness. From some street light far away, long shadows of trees and posts lay like they were  painted across the road. The building itself looked like it might crumble down any minute.

Mathews cleared his thought. He was struggling to say something. Finally, when he spoke, his voice was different.

Sumesh, I have known you for long and I know your preferences and nature. I know you are not gay and I am not gay either. But, tonight seeing you like this, I find it very difficult to let you go.”

Sumesh’s heart began to beat louder and faster and he too found a lump in his throat. This was the moment he was waiting for, the moment he had feared and desired at the same time.

Please, if you don’t mind, let me kiss you.”

O, that is OK.”

Sumesh moved closer to Mathews who put his arm around him, hugged him hard and kissed him on both cheeks. Sumesh sensed his own smell more than Mathews’, the smell of the generous make up he had put on hours ago, thinking of the audience’ applause. Now that large crowd shrank to a single person.

Mathews took his arms from around Sumesh.

Now dear, that was what you asked for. Now I am asking you for one. Yes, give me another.”

Sumesh leaned over to Mathews and put his face on his chest. He turned his head around and stared into Mathews’ eyes.

Mathews bent down and planted a loving kiss right on his lips.

Sumesh collected his bag and other things, l looked around and asked Mathews to turn off the head lights. He made sure that there was no one around and got out. He couldn’t bring himself to look back at Mathews and say bye to him.

As he walked away he felt like someone walking toward his own death.

Boundless Benevolence

Shaji Eruvatti
(Translated by Sreekumar K)
The house stood high up and notieceable with its long walk way and high compound walls.
Where the plaster on the walls had come off, cute moss had settled, its stems and leaves looking like kings and soldiers. Walking down the cobbled path, I pulled off some, rubbed one piece against another, making the king behead the soldiers.
I slipped.
The kings and soldiers flew from my hand. But I didn’t fall down. My initial shock having waned away into milder treamours, I looked down at the treacherous ground that cheated me of my strategic interventions in the muddled politics of a war-ridden nation.
By then I had reached the courtyard of that big house.
I looked around.
The whole courtyard was tiled like the indoors of most homes. The decaying leaves from the big mango tree, the water dripping from a piple near the house for people to cleanse themselves and the rain that graced the earth the previous night had conspired together to make me slip and lose my balance.
Various ways to make the ground less slippery had been tried. Obviously, nothing worked. Those who walked that way had to fend for themselves.
The compound extended to acres. In the middle was this two storeyed house. The verandas on both floors were protected with irn grilling. At the very entrance to the house were two holy spots set aside for prayers.
On one side of the courtyard was a half covered urinal facility. Near the kitchen, close to where the firewood was kept, there stood an outhouse. The servants were served there. Beyond it were the large kitchen, the stand aloof bathroom and a well.
I inched toward the kitchen and asked out loud whether my grandma was there.
The rhythmic sound of coconut fronds getting chopped coming from the coconut groves near the kitchen, was suddenly cut shot. In that silence, I repeated my querry.
Two heads popped up inside the window near the kitchen.
“Umma, that is our amma’s son!”
My first response was an attempted scream “O, my God.” But it didn’t make its way beyond my dry throat.
In response to the noises from me or from the two heads beyond the kitchen window, my grandma appeared in tattered clothes, holding a hefty matchete knife, her body drenched in sweat. Had it been blood, I would have taken her for a war hero.
“I am here. What is it this time?”
The question was absolutely unnecessary. So, it only meant if there was anything unusual.
I shrugged my shoulders, winked my eyes, pouted hard and said, “Nothing.”
On days when there was no school, the soul intent and purpose of such a desperate mission was the lure of food coming from the big kitchen there and it was no secret.
Food appeared before me as a goddess holding a large cup of rice gruel. Like all godesses I had seen, really speaking only heard about, she too wore a glittering top with sleeves reaching all the way to and beyond her pearly wrists, and a dhoti of the same glittery material draped around her waist down. A large bunch of tinkling keys hung from her waist. She had more than enough bangles aroudn her wrists worn over her sleeves, several huge earings all over her ears and a shawl that she was forever dragging over her forehead. Her lips were red from chewing pan.
“O, amma’s son is here?”
My grandma took the cup from her and was about to offer it to me when the goddess stopped her, spitting out her pan which made a red puddle on the earth.
“Hey, that is for you. For him, we have some tea,” she said, offering the box of pan to my grandma.
The lady of the house took me in and even before I entered, I spied through the window that the owners of the heads which had popped up near the window was now sitting on top of the big wooden grannary in a room next to the kitchen.
Seeing them I cursed my hunger which had dragged me here.
They were her daughters. They usually tend to stay somewhere in some cozy core of the big house and came out only when their husbnds were not there. I ws sure those diaagreeable men were not ther that day.
The tea was thick milk with a dab of the colour of tea to do justice to its name. I loved twirling my tongue in it as it warmed my mouth before I gulped it.
I was slowly enjoying my tea when one of the girls took the cup of tea from my hand, and the other girl, as if by a secret agreement between them, lifted me up and planted me on the wooden plank of the grannary
“OK, continue with the temple tale.”
There was nothing to continue about any of the stories, but they just wanted to hear me babble on and on. I was unaware of their intentions back then.
Granted I had some starting trouble, I went non stop once I started and overflowed the banks of gratitude to be shown for the generous supply of goodies that poured in from their kitchen.
“They fire three huge firecrackers for the temple festival every year.”
“O, really? Why would they do that?”
“To let the people even beyond the town that the festival is on.” I explained.
Next was a description of how Choppan wielded his sword and finally wounded himself and how the turmeric powder and blood streamed down his head like scary little snakes.
‌ “It doesn’t hurt?”
A look of heroism would appear on my face as I claimed that Choppan never felt any pain since his body was possessed by the deity of the temple.”
I would fill them with tales of how offering at the temple made people fortunate. I would end with a dance making the sound of the wild drums with my mouth. At times Umma, the lady of the house would also stand near the door smiling at me.
Umma would have come with a real meal of coarse rotti and fish curry and then it was time for a break. But sometimes the story telling session went with the meal, stories about how at an auspicious time in the everning I took home some fish breaking a taboo and how the deity came in my dream and chased me around the house, ending with how listening to my grandmas’ prayers she left me and went back to the temple. Such stories, for some strange reason, made everyone wipe tears from their eyes.
I also told them stories about how benevolent the deity at the temple was with examples like how I could recover a pencil I had lost, how my father had bought a brand new pair of slippers for me after I had prayed to the deity that I too wanted chappals like all the other kids at school,how I dreamed about finding twenty paise on the way and how it became true. I told them that I gave it to grandma to keep lest I should have to give it back to the deity if she demanded it back. I also told them how I bought my first candy with it, took it home and enjoyed it with my younger sister.
By the time, I was more rotti than myself and had to be helped up.
Getting up, that day, I told them of an unfulfilled dream.
“I had a dream of getting a wrist watch just like my father’s and I am sure the deity will make it happen.”
The sound of a glass tumbler falling on the kitchen floor and breaking into a hundred pieces took the girls there and in that instance, I wiped my eyes which were streaming with the hot spice in the curry and ran out.
I washed my hands at the pipe outside, wiped my hands on my trousers and went to say bye to my grandma.
There I pretended to do some hard work and then asked her, “May I go now?”
“You look like you are filled to your nose.”
With no intention to listen to more, I ran away.
“Hey, amma’s son!”
I had reached on the other side of the compound wall.
Were they calling me or their own son? I wondered.
I looked back.
Behind me there was a gap in the compound wall and through that the lady of the house was calling out to me.
I went back, my heart thumping hard.
She too had a look of fear in her eyes as she produced a little watch from the corner of her dhothi. She handed it to me.
My eyes shone with surprise and joy.
She whispered to me,” Don’t show this to anyone and don’t wear this when you come here.”
“Mm, umma.” I had no words for that occasion.
She took it from my hand and deposited it in my shirt pocket. Then she patted me on my back and with a flutter of her eyes told me I could leave.
My legs had become wings.
My hands were pressing the watch close to my hear lest I should drop it as I flew over the high flying clouds.
Looking down, at the earth far below, I saw that every wall down there had disappeared.

A Walk to Remember

It gave Sashank such a strange feeling to stay overnight at a hospital neither as a patient nor as a visitor. He was there to sell a scanner machine. Dr. Ramani, Sarala’s sister who had signed the MOU after so much deliberation was also kind enough to let him be the hospital’s guest for that night.
The next morning he had to catch a train to the next city, to another hospital, to see another doctor.
It was by chance that he had enlisted this hospital in this remote town in south India as a potential customer. He often forgot the hard learned lesson that there are no potential customers but only customers. One never knows.
Sitting in the dining hall, he looked around. Everything was either white or gray. The beetroot curry someone had spilled on one of the tables stood out in dark pink. The nurses around him were all in white and the walls were off white above the eye level and gray below that. There was nothing to catch one’s eyes except the pretty faces and cute smiles of the nurses. How did they manage to maintain their pleasant bearing even this late at night? Most of them would have got into that uniform before sunrise, he was sure.
One of the nurses came over to him and said Dr. Ramani was waiting for him on the ground floor. He suddenly recalled his appointment with her. She had told him they could meet after dinner and go for a walk around the campus.
“It is not as charming as your Kerala, but still it has its own beauty,” she had told him that morning.
He doubted whether she was trying to imply something. The comment sounded strange to him at that time. Now that he had toyed with it much in his mind, it was no more interesting or intriguing.
Down below, on the ground floor, Ramani was waiting for him, browsing though a magazine. He could see that she was no more in her doctor’s drab uniform but in a kind of party wear. Was she returning from a function or something, he wondered.
As they walked down the steps into the moonlight, he asked her whether she was returning from somewhere.
“No, I am here to see you. There were no other engagements anyway.”
That was interesting.
“How long do you know my sister?”
That wasn’t a question he had expected.
“Not long. We don’t even know much about each other. We met at a railway station two years ago. It was a long wait for the train and so we got to know each other. I found her an interesting person and connected with her on FB. I put up a post asking whether anyone could help we with finding some clients for that machine and she was the first one to comment.”
“You’re right, she is an interesting character. People generally think she is my younger sister but I am the younger one. Four years younger to her”
Now that was an interesting fact. He too had made that mistake and now he corrected it in his mind.
“She was not an academic person, more into dance and stuff. I was only academic. Top scorer in every class. But that is all about me. She..she has gone to become the pride of our family. Almost a celebrity by now, right?”
“More than a celebrity. She is considered a scholar in her own field. Many dance and very few know why. She know how and why.”
Ramani laughed at that. He didn’t think it was proper to stare at her who couldn’t be called an acquaintance.
He looked up at the sky. It was a full moon. The fare away hill to the east and the north looked like they had gone to sleep under a think burnt brown blanket. Around him, the plains lay washed in gold and silver.
“She is actually a blessed soul.”
“I know,” he agreed. “But she fought for all that. It can’t be called blessing. She told me how she suffered when her man left her.”
“Still, it is blessing. Many fight and lose out to fate. She strong-armed her fate.”
An ambulance went past them, its siren freezing them for a moment.
“At any moment now, I may be wanted back at the hospital. Shall we walk back.”
“Yes, yes, sure, duty first.”
“I am sorry, we had to cut short our walk. Such is a surgeon’s life.”
“I know, I understand.”
But did I, he wondered. He could go back to his room, read something or watch a movie on Netflix or jut go to sleep. But this lady would have to keep herself awake, probably the whole night and pray for the life of a patient, a stranger to her.
He looked at her. She was more beautiful now than when he first met her.
They walked back and as they were close to the hospital, her phone rang again. She moved away and talked hurriedly over the phone. She was warm but firm in her tone.
“No need to hurry now,” she said. “She is gone. Brought dead, says the duty doctor.”
He didn’t know what to say. Dead for how long, he wanted to know. Was ti a dead body that went past them a few minutes back? What was the point in all this commotion then? But who knew? Every minute of life is also a life long enough. Same dynamics, same principles, and mysterious the same way.
“When is your train?”
“Five thirty.”
He found himself rather reticent now.
“I have asked the caretaker to arrange some vehicle for you. The railway station is three kilometers from here.”
He still didn’t know what to say. This was all knew to him. People falling off like flies. He was sure that it would have been the same way for Sarala too.
Suddenly, he felt an awe for the person walking with him. He walked a little bit away from her. He senses that he was not getting the smell of the sanitizer on her. A doctor smells like mothers. A fragrance that cannot be washed away.
At the entrance to the hospital, she stopped to say bye to him.
And then she gracefully walked up the steps towards her office to sign a death certificate.
He waiter till the door closed behind her and then turned around to walk back to his room.
The moon was still shining bright.
Somewhere else some would not have finished their walk.

The student I will never forget

My Student : My Teacher




Often I am asked why I have ‘swasth’ as my e-mail Id. And therein hangs a tale.

Our school, Sri Atmananda Memorial, Malakkara, Chengannur, Kerala, is an international school with a unique teaching approach which helps children develop at their own pace. It is based on teacher-student relationship. Students teach us how to teach them.

Once, close to the 10th standard board exams, we found that one boy Swaroop S Nath had very little chance of clearing the exam. He was quite an artist and I was teaching him English. Just for the sake of the school’s reputation I decided to take up his case. After my groundwork on him I found that nothing conventional would work. One evening I took him for a walk and made him ask me a question, any question.

“Sir, isn’t water an element?” he asked.

“Well, it is not. But why do you think so?”

“Because in Shakespeare it is.”

I explained why it is like that. A great change was about to happen in him and me. We were walking through a paddy field and we saw the various ways of irrigation. Looking up at the red sky, I told him what I thought Doppler effect was all about. We talked about birds, Hitler, girls and photons. I showed him why heat and temperature are different. He showed it to his friends.

The very next day six of them wanted to come for the walk. I borrowed their textbooks and got ready to chat with all of them, on all subjects. Swaroop had taught me the way children think or better love to think.

For the next three months, Swaroop and I worked together till 11 o’clock every night and redid it in the class for the others.

Once in Tennyson we came across the line:

“To follow knowledge like a sinking star

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”

I asked the class what is beyond human thought. They “thought” and “thought” and gave up. I asked them why they thought ‘thinking’ would take them there. A heavy silence followed. Then it was spirituality all the way. Dr. Ramani’s rendering of “Darbari Kanada” on the flute told us about space, a full-wave rectifier about God and a fertilized ovum about beauty.

Swaroop was racing ahead, pulling the whole class and me with him. True, he couldn’t comprehend his texts properly and often I had to read to him. I had to listen to all the Mr. Bean stories he had to say. He frequented my home so much that my 4-year-old daughter Lekshmi thought he is my other child and he said, “In a way it is true”! However, he brought out the teacher in me as no other course had done.

He cleared the 10th with a high second class and pushed his classmates even further. A girl scored 83% and said she is indebted to Swaroop. For 12th he got 70% in humanities. He became a voracious reader. Today my inbox overflows with his very long mails. He has also written a longer flip version of this article. A US based company has his painting on their T-shirt. He became my partner for a part-time job I took up.

‘swasth’ is short for Swaroop and his teacher.




Somerset Maugham’s Salvatore

Somerset Maugham’s short story Salvatore is an example of how a writer uses craft to suceed in the art not only of story telling but of make-belief as well. The story is well structured and each element of  story such as theme, characters, settings, plot and tone are well chosen after much deliberation.

Rather than a plot what we have here is an understatement of a plot. There is no widning plot as such and the events are more or less insignificant though they are given in detail.

The theme as is given out at the end is the exuberance of goodness in an orndianry person. Even when his fate is out to get him, Salvatore shows stoicism and mettle to keep it at bay.

The plot is kep simple. While serving in the military in China, Salvatore falls ill. Consequently, the woman he wants to marry refuses to marry him because she is afraid he will not be strong enough to work. Rather than wallow in self-pity, Salvatore agrees to marry Assunta, a woman he claims is “as ugly as the devil,” and he then faces life with determination and “the most beautiful manners I [the author] had ever seen in my life.” Though he does not live the life he imagined, Salvatore comports himself with goodwill and makes the most of his marriage, his job as a fisherman, and his children.

Among more than half a dozen characters, Salvatore, the protagonist stands out as a round character who is chiselled to perfection by life’s experiences. Even thouugh he appears to be a weakling in the beginning, we eventually find that his weakness is only apparent. His power is the power of flowing water and he himself is in the flow of life. He takes life as it comes. If at all a plan, fails he waits for the next turn to show up.

There is not much in the way of settings or dialogure and the linear narration flows like that of a fairy tale. The writer narrates the story from the third person point of view, as life is experienced by Salvatore. However, at times the author takes the points of view of the minor characters. This cannto be considered the ominscient point of view because we don’t get to know much about what happens in the mind of the characters other than what the express through their actions.

The style is rather detached to the point of being journalistic. The form, multiple view point linear narration with no flashback is made use of so effectively. We are made to feel that the writer is only reporting a real life event. Even when a writer does so, we can only afford to consider it as a creative attempt. ITg does not matter much if he tale really happened. For the writer it is a created story, so to speak. This has a really huge impact on the reader even if it is a famous part of history. Playing on this advantage, Maughm relates the story as if it had happened as such.

In this story, from the very first sentence to the last paragraph in which the writer gives us the idea that the story is about the goodness in the central character, we are made to believe that the  writer is only a reporter and he has not altered the even much at all. Details which are not absolutely necessary are splashed all over the story, right from what the characters are wearing, to the random comment of the foreigners about the fishermen being lazy, the story is made to sound not just realistic but naturalistic as well.

The end effect is that, instead of the  readers dismissing the ideal of absolute goodness which can happen only in sentimetal fiction and popular movies, the readers are made to think that it is a possible ideal followed by someone who is physically weak and has had a tragedy in his younger days. This is a challenge posed by the writer to make the readers consider living such a life and that is where the story succeeds. The writes gets to make the reader fall for his magic of story telling

How to answer an extract based question from Romeo and Juliet

Read the passage and answer the question that follows:


O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate-stone

On the fore-finger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomies

Over men’s noses as they lie asleep;

Her wagon spokes made of long spiders’ legs;

The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;

The traces of the smallest spider’s web;

The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams;             

Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film;

Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,

Not so big as a round little worm

Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid.

Her chariot is an empty hazelnut

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coach-makers.

And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;

O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on curtsies straight;

O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;

O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,

Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,

Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.

Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,

And then dreams he of smelling out a suit.

And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail,

Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep —

Then dreams he of another benefice.

Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,                   

And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,

Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,

Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon

Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes;

And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two

And sleeps again. This is that very Mab

That plaits the manes of horses in the night,

And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,

Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes.

This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,            

That presses them and learns them first to bear,

Making them women of good carriage.

This is she —

Based on the above extract, show how the same serves several purposes.


When it comes to giving a free rein to imagination, Shakespeare is second to none. His lines on dreams, like,

We are such stuff as dreams are made on”

are much loved and often quoted. Romeo and Juliet has a dream-like atmosphere all through and Mercutio’s rather long speech in Act I, Scene 4, adds much to this ambience. Mercutio begins his speech with a reference to Queen Mab, an entity in charge of dreams. This is probably Shakespeare’s own invention. An explanation of this follows soon after, in plain language.

She’s the fairies’ midwife’

This may mean that dreams and fantasies are given birth to by fairies with the help of Queen Mab. What follows is a flowery but meticulous description which is noteworthy for its imagery which also helps in giving the whole play its dreamy atmosphere. Everything is small, not belittled but raised to the sublime.

“…she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate-stone”

A list of absolutely ordinary things which are so common that they are all unworthy of description appear in the first part of this speech. This has a great advantage of having universality by being appealing the all. Hazel nut, squirrel, grub, spinners, grasshoppers, gnats, crickets, and worms make the text read like a page from entomology. These creatures are mostly nocturnal, puny, fragile and cute, and they have very strange lives and life cycles.

And in this state she gallops night by night”

The only non-living image here is that of moonlight.

The choice of what Queen Mab’s chariot is made of offers several ways of intensifying the literal and establishing the metaphorical. Their strange nature and small size make the chariot and the charioteer look exotic. Moreover, being tiny, they can reach and appear anywhere without being noticed. The delicate and insubstantial nature of dreams, which Shakespeare often harps on, is found here also. Such a small size and fragility as well as such exotic and delicate nature send a chill down our spine when we think of the fragile lovers set against the ‘ill-tempered steels’. Thus the chaotic atmosphere brought in through ambiguity in language, oxymoron phrases and puns as well as the actual fights that happen is set against softness, quietness and fragility.

The second part of this speech is pure social criticism, though it is quaintly written to please the ears. Having talked enough about dreams and their universality, Mercutio now talks about individual frailties. Lawyers, ladies, courtiers, parsons, and soldiers are the butt of ridicule and censure here. The lovers are the only ones who dream of what they are supposed to.

And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;”

Much before Freud, Shakespeare here shows how dreams reveal who we really are. We are not entirely what we do or say since what we desire to do or say will have a bearing upon how we do what we do and how we say what we say. Apart from being social criticism, this part is thus a comment on our fragmented self. By profession we are one and by practice we are something else. Thus the greedy lawyer dreams of fees, the modest ladies dream of being immodest, the holy parson dreams of corrupt practices in the church, the honest courtier dreams of his private rewards and the brave soldier drams of fear in general.

And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two

And sleeps again

Thus as in The Tempest, ‘no man was his own’.

The third part of the speech is a description of what Queen Mab is potent of. She can play simple pranks like plaiting the manes of horses at night, cake together the hair tangled by the elves and train the girls to carry themselves and children. This part again changes the pitch of this long speech to suit the dreamy atmosphere, after those lines on the gross things seen in the society. In The Tempest and elsewhere too, Shakespeare, like he does here, makes use of the unexplained phenomenon, like plaited mane, caked hair or puberty by night to endorse the supernatural.

This is that very Mab

That plaits the manes of horses in the night,

And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,

Thus, we can say that Mercutio’s speech serves several purposes. It thrills us with its Romantic lyricism, excites us with its atmosphere that contributes to the tension in the play and incites us against the pretentious characters in the society. After all, this justifies the supreme position Shakespeare enjoys among poets and dramatists alike.

Stormcock in Elder by Ruth Pitter

Stormcock in Elder by Ruth Pitter is a Romantic poem in a traditional style. Even though written much after the Romantic movement in England, this poem is a perfect fit for those times when a lot of poems were written about birds and most of the writers adhered to themes which pivoted around far away and long ago situations. The theme of this descriptive poem is clear from the title itself. However, in the very first line of the poem, the word ‘dark hermitage’ about which there is no other reference gives the poem its Romantic quality. The reader too is left to imagine the situation for himself. In the same stanza,

From the world’s sight and the world’s sound,

reminds us of the escapism common among Romantic poets. Terry Eagleton, a famous critic accuses such poems of misleading the public into a kind of hallucination and thereby mitigate the effect of the immediate surrounding on them. He argues that the Romantic movement was one of the reasons why there was no revolt against the life of misery led by the poor in England after the Industrial revolution. In the lines following, the satisfaction of celestial presence is presented as a compensation for food which is one of the crucial basic needs.

Having stated her stance thus, the poem goes on to describe the bird and the situation in vivid detail.

In these lines we see the poet herself singing a Romantic strain in a world where other poets are exploring the miserable human conditions of the twentieth century.

The old unfailing chorister
Burst out in pride of poetry

Apart from the rich visual imagery, we also come across several references to wealth in these lines:

Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower
Of silver,

And then,

Full-fed in February, and dressed
Like a rich merchant at a feast.

Such references to affluence cannot be considered coincidences in poetry but a clue to the perspectives on life that the poet takes. Like silence, the absence of certain kind of images also speak louder in a poem, when they are conspicuous by their absence.

In the last stanza the poet seems to express her compassion for the doomed but actually she is siding with the others here:

One-half the world, or so they say,
Knows not how half the world may live;

This other half of the unknown world is the privileged half and the poet asks the bird to sing of those. In most of her poems, she herself has chosen to sing solely and soulfully about them only.

The craft of the poet is commendable though it is out of time. Crammed with visual and auditory images which do pull their weight, the poem’s consistent rhyme scheme ababcc hold the stanzas together and helps in making meaning. The words have been chosen mostly with a keen ear to how they sound. This is evident in how well the poems fits the metre as well as how well it rhymes. The divine effect of the reference to Gabriel in the end is a little marred by the reference to the broken tile.

As bright as Gabriel to smile
On elder-spray by broken tile

It is possible that the phrase ‘broken tile’ was chosen for its rhyming potential. But the word broken refers also to shifting grounds since she has already made a religious reference to the myth of Gabriel.