Borges, “The Unending Rose”

I love this poem. I have always feared becoming blind.

The Unending Rose

To Susana Bombal

Five hundred years in the wake of the Hegira,

Persia looked down from its minarets

on the invasion of the desert lances,

and Attar of Nishapur gazed on a rose,

addressing it in words which had no sound,

as one who thinks rather than one who prays:

‘Your fragile globe is in my hand; and time

is bending both of us, both unaware,

this afternoon, in a forgotten garden.

Your brittle shape is humid in the air.

The steady, tidal fullness of your fragrance

rises up to my old, declining face.

But I know you far longer than that child

who glimpsed you in the layers of a dream

or here, in this garden, once upon a morning.

The whiteness of the sun may well be yours

or the moon’s gold, or else the crimson stain

on the hard sword-edge in the victory.

I am blind and I know nothing, but I see

there are more ways to go; and everything

is an infinity of things. You, you are music,

rivers, firmaments, palaces and angels,

O endless rose, intimate, without limit,

which the Lord will finally show to my dead eyes.”

(Translated from the Spanish La Rosa Profunda by Alastair Reid, 1971)

Tholkkunna Yudhathile Padayalikal

*Tholkkunna Yudhathile Padayalikal.* Dir. M. R. Rajan, 2019. English subtitles.

M. R. Rajan’s new documentary film *Tholkkunna Yudhathile Padayalikal* (*Warriors of Losing Battle*) is an intimate and contemplative glimpse into the life and the persistent and pioneering ecological and socio-cultural activism of the Indian poet Sugathakumari. Rajan who has previously directed masterful documentaries about the Koodiyaattam exponent Ammannur Madhava Chakyar (*Pakarnnaattam*), the Kathakali performers Kizhppaadam Kumaran Nair (*Nottam*) and Kottakkal Sivaraman (*Minukku*), and film director Kumar Shahani (*When the Bird Became a Wave*), among others, has found the perfect subject for his reflective and meditative filmmaking in Sugatha teacher, as the poet was affectionately known in her home state of Kerala. Poetry whose natural home is the human voice and the ear might appear to be a challenge to translate properly to a visual medium like cinema. However, poetry belongs to the domain of images, and, in this sense, partakes in the language of cinema. *Warriors of Losing Battle,* produced by Kendra Sahitya Akademi, is an exquisite visualization of a poet’s soulful and shattering awakening to intervene on behalf of mother earth, poetry as a happening, an act and mode of resistance, an interruption and warning to the forces of greed and environmental destruction. Sugatha teacher likens her ecological awakening to that of a religious conversion.

The title of the film – *Warriors of Losing Battle* – is not an admission of defeat. Rather, for Sugatha teacher and her fellow activists, each battle fought to protect the environment, regardless of the outcome, was a brilliant opportunity to dream of a better world, to turn human imagination into a vision with weight, mass, density and dimensions, to reverse the course of destruction and turn it towards the direction of nurture and growth. Ultimately, the warriors of losing battle are the only ones left who will speak for the mountains, the river, and the trees. Rajan’s film celebrates these warriors who will not give up the fight though they know they might never win. You want to be in their company.

The film opens with an establishing shot, almost three whole minutes long, of flowers, buzzing butterflies and the faraway hills of the Silent Valley National Forest in north Kerala, the site of the first people-led environmental movement in the state in the mid 1970s. Sugatha teacher’s poem “Ini ee manassil kavithayilla” (“No more poetry in my mind”) read by teacher herself in a voice-over holds this static shot in place for the duration of the poem’s reading. It is a close-up almost at our eye level. We are almost inside the frame, in Silent Valley, smelling the misty air, the deep pink flowers brushing our face, the butterflies flying around our eyes, while we gaze at the apparition of peaks in the distance. The perfectly balanced foreground and background of this sustained static shot transport us and lock us into place immediately. We are in the land for which Sugatha teacher donned the warrior’s armor in the 1970s. The relationship between the image and the poem is both ominous and momentous: something greater than the homely joys and sorrows of teacher’s poetry up to that point will have to go. Something far, far greater and more life-defining is about to impact the poet.

The majority of this one-hour film utilizes the static camera with intimate close-ups that require us to maintain eye-contact with the images on the screen. We cannot afford to look away as we are invited to reflect deeply on what the film shows us: the gentle, overwhelming, and precarious beauty of an endangered ecosystem carelessly plundered, and bought and sold for human profit. When the camera moves, as in the shot of the watch tower at the heart of the Silent Valley, it is with an almost human leap and lurch to climb over it and drown it inside the verdant immensity of the great forest surrounding it. This is film-making of a very high degree of certitude, finish and finesse; philosophically firm, conceptually refined, and imagistically eloquent.

When we see Sugatha teacher for the first time, she is seated, this time facing the camera and us, inches away from our face, in a mid-close-up directly speaking to us. We see teacher’s face, her rather tired eyes, and her infinitely expressive hands as she recounts for us her earliest memories. Except for a quick cut to a photograph of her parents, Sri Bodheswaran and Smt. Karthyayini Amma, this is an almost four-minute-long static shot. Teacher’s anecdotes are engrossing. Anecdote one: teacher as a little girl with her mother braiding and decorating her hair with flowers. Anecdote two: two little girls, teacher and her equally illustrious elder sister Professor Hrdayakumari, building play houses for ladybugs with the cotton falling and floating from the trees in the yard. Teacher observes melancholically that she tried to save the creatures as they were sometimes swept away in a sudden downpour, but while you save four or five, five hundred die, she notes. I became the warrior of losing battles right then and there, teacher says. A little girl with flowers in her hair trying to save ladybugs from being swept away in the rain might as well be an enduring symbol for the ecological warrior in our times.

The film is structured as above with teacher speaking to the camera, primarily about

four of the many major events and causes that connect the arc of her advocacy and activist interventions: the Silent Valley environmental movement, the establishment of Abhaya homes for those suffering from mental health issues, Adivasi issues at Attappaadi, and homes for destitute girl children. There are clean cuts without any frenetic transitions. Several notable public intellectuals both in and out of the Shastra Sahithya Parishad, teachers, writers, poets, and artists appear in teacher’s memories of the early days of the *Save Silent Valley* movement in the 1970s when the forest faced imminent destruction for the building of a hydroelectric dam: N. V. Krishna Warrier, Ayyappa Panikker, O. N. V. Kurup, Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, R. V. G. Menon, Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, Sukumar Azhikode, S. K. Pottekaatt, O. V. Vijayan, John C. Jacob, Sharmaji, K. V. Surendranath et al. Several of teacher’s poems recited by teacher herself serve as transitions between different anecdotes. The film is precious just for the visualization of these poems. The poems rise over incomparable images of the forest, the trees, the river, the animals, the birds, and the insects with an ekphrastic clarity.

Sugatha teacher passed away in December 2020, and we come close to an awareness of her true significance in Kerala’s environmental precarity in the sequence with Maruthi and other Adivasi women and children in an Adivasi village. Teacher speaks with her characteristic indignation, dejection and resolve about the deforestation in the Attappaadi hills and her cautious determination to reverse the balding and browning of the hills by planting thousands of trees on just one hill, “to show the government that it can be done.” However, it is in Maruthi’s quiet and homely concern for teacher and her well-being that we come to understand how deeply human love and compassion guided teacher’s instincts to fight for what is right. While the Adivasi community sees and listens to teacher in camera over a laptop provided by the film crew, and we follow their comments about teacher’s timely intervention to stop the destruction of their habitat, and their genuine love for teacher, we feel a retroactive anxiety at the spectre of that lost battle. We feel the same anxiety in the scenes of teacher with the mentally ill and at the home for destitute girl children. We do not want this to be the losing battle. None of them deserve to die or to perish in abuse, poverty and destitution. Thus, the overall framework of the title becomes a cautionary tale.

Scripted by Anitha Thampi, *Warriors of Losing Battle* is photographed by K. G. Jayan and edited by Jais Thampi. The ecological theme controls the narrative of the film, and the framework of warriors who fight a losing battle brings a masterful coherence to teacher’s life and work as interpreted by the film. Kerala has witnessed some of the worst ecological disasters in the last few years validating every single concern expressed by Sugatha teacher in the film. Above all, *Warriors of Losing Battle* emphatically shows that the same faculty of imagination that spurs the poet stirs up the quest for truth and justice.

ആട്ടിൻകൂട്ടിലൂടെ നിയാണ്ടർതാൽതാഴ്‌വരയിൽ

*ആട്ടിൻകൂട്ടിലൂടെ നിയാണ്ടർതാൽതാഴ്‌വരയിൽ*
ഗായത്രി ദേവി, 5 ജൂൺ 2020

എനിക്കേറ്റവും ഇഷ്ടപ്പെട്ട അയ്മനം ജോണിന്റെ കഥകളിൽ ഒന്നാണ് *ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം* എന്ന ചെറുകഥ. കൊറോണ വൈറസ്സിനൊക്കെ മുൻപ് നടക്കുന്ന കഥയാണ്. അന്ന് നമ്മൾ വലിയ ആൾക്കാരായിരുന്നു. കഥ തുടങ്ങുമ്പോൾ കഥ പറയുന്നയാൾ വീടിന്റെ ഉമ്മറത്തിരുന്നുകൊണ്ടു മനുഷ്യരുടെ ഭയങ്കര വീരപരാക്രമങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രം വായിക്കുകയാണ്. നമ്മളെന്തൊക്കെ ചെയ്തിരിക്കുന്നു! എവിടെയെല്ലാം പോയിരിക്കുന്നു! ആകാശത്തും ബഹിരാകാശത്തും ഭൂമിയിലും സമുദ്രാഗാധതലത്തിലും നമ്മൾ കാണാത്ത ഒന്നും തന്നെയില്ല. നമ്മളറിയാത്ത ഏതെങ്കിലും രഹസ്യം ഈ പ്രപഞ്ചത്തിൽ തന്നെയുണ്ടോ എന്ന് സംശയിച്ചാൽ അതിൽ വലിയ തെറ്റൊന്നുമില്ല. അത്രത്തോളം പോന്നിരിക്കുന്നു നമ്മൾക്ക് നമ്മളെപ്പറ്റി തന്നെയുള്ള ഒരു മതിപ്പ്. ഈ സമയത്താണ് പുറന്നാളാഘോഷത്തിന്റെ ഇടയിൽ ബോംബ് പൊട്ടിക്കുന്നത് പോലെ ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം ആഖ്യാതാവിന്റെ “മനസ്സിന്റെ മറുപുറത്തു” (256) പ്രത്യക്ഷപ്പെടുന്നത്.

നമ്മളിൽ ചിലരെങ്കിലും ഇത്തരത്തിലുള്ള മറുപുറങ്ങൾ വായിക്കുന്നവരാണ്. മരം വെട്ടരുത്, പുഴകളടച്ചു ഡാമുകൾ പണിയരുത് , വയലുകൾ നികത്തി ഫ്ലാറ്റുകൾ കെട്ടിപ്പടുക്കരുത്, ആനകളെ പീഡിപ്പിക്കരുത്, പട്ടിയേയും പൂച്ചയേയും തല്ലിക്കൊല്ലരുത്, പാമ്പിനെ കൊല്ലരുത് എന്നൊക്കെ പറഞ്ഞു ജോളിയായിട്ടിരിക്കുന്നവരെ ബോറടിപ്പിക്കുന്നവരും സ്വൈരം കെടുത്തുന്നവരുമാണ് ഈ മറുപുറം വായിക്കുന്നവർ. ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം ഇത്തരത്തിലൊരു ഉപദ്രവിയാണ്. പുരോഗതിയുടെ പേരിൽ ചെറുതും വലുതുമായ ഭൂമിയിലെ ജീവജാലങ്ങളോട് മനുഷ്യവർഗ്ഗം കാണിച്ചുകൂട്ടിയ ഭീകരമായ വിനാശങ്ങളുടെ പരിണതഫലങ്ങൾ ഒരു ഡോക്യൂമെന്ററിയിലെന്ന പോലെ ആഖ്യാതാവിന്റെ മുന്നിലവതരിപ്പിക്കുന്നു ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം:

“ഇടയന്മാരാൽ ഉപേക്ഷിക്കപ്പെടുകയും മേച്ചിൽസ്ഥലങ്ങൾ നഷ്ടമാകുകയും ചെയ്തപ്പോൾ ഭൂമി വിട്ടുപോയ കോടാനുകോടി ആട്ടിൻപറ്റങ്ങൾ ഭൂമിയിലേക്ക് സങ്കടത്തോടെ തിരിഞ്ഞു നോക്കിനിൽക്കുന്നത്, വരൾച്ച ബാധിച്ച വനങ്ങളിൽ കൊടുംദാഹത്താൽ ഉഴറി നടക്കുന്ന ആനക്കൂട്ടങ്ങൾ അടിത്തട്ട് വിണ്ടു കീറി കിടക്കുന്ന നീർച്ചാലുകളിൽ തുമ്പിക്കൈ ഇട്ടടിച്ചു അരിശം തീർക്കുന്നത്, ഭൂമിയിലേക്ക് പാതിവഴി വന്നിട്ട് പിറക്കാൻ കാടുകളിലെന്നു കണ്ടപ്പോൾ മടങ്ങിപ്പോകുന്ന കടുവാക്കുഞ്ഞുങ്ങൾ, അതിശൈത്യത്തിൽനിന്ന് രക്ഷപ്പെടാൻ ജന്മദേശം വിട്ടു ലക്ഷ്യമില്ലാതെ പറന്ന് പറന്ന് തളർന്ന പക്ഷിക്കൂട്ടങ്ങളുടെ കടൽപ്പരപ്പുകൾക്കു മുകളിലെ കൂട്ടക്കരച്ചിലുകൾ, മനുഷ്യർ വിരിക്കുന്ന ചതിവലകളിൽ കുടുങ്ങാൻ മാത്രമെന്നോണം കടലുകളിൽ കൂട്ടത്തോടെ പിറക്കുന്ന മൽസ്യക്കുഞ്ഞുങ്ങളുടെ വലകൾക്കുള്ളിലെ കൂട്ടപിടച്ചിലുകൾ . . . എന്നിങ്ങനെ കല്പനാവൈഭവം കലർന്ന ചില അമൂർത്തചിത്രങ്ങളും കണ്ടു — ഇ. ച . ച പുസ്തകത്തിൽ.” (257 -8 ).

ചരിത്രമെഴുതുന്നത് വിജയികളാണെന്നൊരു തെറ്റിദ്ധാരണ പൊതുവെ സാമാന്യജനങ്ങളിലും ബുദ്ധിജീവികളും ഉള്ളതായി കാണാം. എന്നാൽ മൊത്തം നമ്മുടെ ഭൂമിയുടെ ചരിത്രമെടുത്തു നോക്കിയാൽ “തോറ്റ യുദ്ധങ്ങളുടെ കഥകൾ മാത്രമാണ് നമ്മുടെ ചരിത്രം എന്നൊരു അടിക്കുറിപ്പാണ് ” (257) ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം മനുഷ്യന്റെ ചരിത്രത്തിന് സംഭാവന ചെയ്തിരിക്കുന്നത്. ഇത് സത്യമാണ്. ജയിച്ചവരിലായാലും തോറ്റവരിലായാലും മനുഷ്യന്റെ കരുണയുടേ ഗുണഭോക്താവ് മനുഷ്യൻ മാത്രമാണ്. ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ വംശനാശം മനുഷ്യവർഗ്ഗത്തിന് ഒരു പ്രശ്നമായിട്ടുള്ളതായി കാണുന്നില്ല. ഇത് കൊണ്ടാണ് ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം മനുഷ്യചരിത്രപുസ്തകത്തിലെ “ഹിരോഷിമ നാഗസാക്കി ചിത്രങ്ങളിലേക്ക്” നോക്കി പരിഹാസത്തോടെ ചിരിക്കുന്നത് (258).

ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം വായിച്ചു അസ്വസ്ഥനായ ആഖ്യാതാവ് മുറ്റത്തു മുരിങ്ങച്ചോട്ടിൽ ഒട്ടിയ വയറോടെ പതുങ്ങിക്കിടന്നിരുന്ന പൂച്ചയെ എടുത്തു വീട്ടിൽ കൊണ്ട് വന്നു കുറച്ചു പാല് കൊടുത്താലോ എന്ന് ചിന്തിക്കുന്നു. പണ്ട് കുഞ്ഞായിരുന്നപ്പോൾ കൂടെ കളിച്ചിരുന്ന പശുക്കുട്ടിയെയും ആട്ടിൻകുട്ടിയെയും കോഴിക്കുഞ്ഞുങ്ങളെയും വളർത്തുനായ്ക്കളെയുമൊക്കെ ഓർത്തുപോകുന്നു അയാൾ. പശുത്തൊഴുത്തിന്റെയും ആട്ടിൻക്കൂട്ടിന്റെയും മണങ്ങൾ അയാൾക്കോർമ്മ വരുന്നു. “ഓർമ്മകൾ ഉറയ്ക്കുംമുമ്പ് ഞാൻ ഉറുമ്പുകൾക്കു തീറ്റകൊടുക്കാൻ ശ്രമിച്ചിരുന്ന ഒരു കുട്ടിയായിരുന്നുവെന്നു അമ്മ പറയാറുണ്ടായിരുന്നതും ഞാനോർത്തു” (259).

ഇത്തരത്തിലുള്ള ഭൂതഭോജനത്തിന്റെയും മറ്റും സുഖമുള്ള ഓർമ്മകളുടെ സദുദ്ദേശ്യമായ പ്രേരണയാൽ അയാൾ പതുക്കെ എണീറ്റ് പൂച്ചയുടെ അടുത്തേക്ക് നടക്കുന്നു. അയാളെഴുന്നേൽക്കുന്ന നിഴൽ കണ്ട വാഴക്കൈയിലിരുന്ന ഒറ്റക്കാക്ക “ഒന്നു നടുങ്ങിയിട്ട് ചിറകടിച്ചു പറന്നു” (260). അയാൾ വരുന്നതും കണ്ടു പൂച്ച “പെട്ടെന്ന് ചാടിയെണീറ്റ് ജാഗ്രതയോടെ നിന്നു. ഞാൻ അടുത്തെത്തിയതും അത് ഒറ്റത്തിരിയലിൽ പറമ്പിലേക്ക് എടുത്തുചാടിയിട്ട് പാഞ്ഞോടി” (260).

ബാക്കി എല്ലാ ജന്തുജീവികളെയും പിടിച്ചു തിന്നുന്ന മൃഗമാണ് മനുഷ്യൻ. ആഗ്ര വേട്ടക്കാരൻ. ഇതുകൊണ്ടാണ് സകലമാന ജന്തുജീവികളും നമ്മളെ കണ്ടാൽ പേടിച്ചോടുന്നത്. പേടിച്ചോടാത്തതിനെ നമ്മൾ വെടി വെച്ചോ, തല്ലിയോ, കുത്തിയോ, ഇടിച്ചോ, അടിച്ചോ, ബോംബ് പൊട്ടിച്ചോ കൊല്ലാൻ നോക്കുന്നു.

ഒരു fable പോലെ വായിക്കാവുന്ന ജോണിന്റെ *നിയാണ്ടർതാൽ താഴ്‌വരയിൽ* എന്ന കഥയിൽ ചരിത്രാതീതകാലത്തിനുമപ്പുറമുള്ള ഒരു യുഗത്തിൽ മനുഷ്യരും മൃഗങ്ങളും പരസ്പരധാരണയുള്ള കൂട്ടുകാരായിരുന്നുവെന്നു പരാമർശിക്കുന്നുണ്ട്. പലയിനം പക്ഷികൾ, കുറുനരികൾ, ചെന്നായ്ക്കൾ, നായ്ക്കൾ, ആടുകൾ എന്നിങ്ങനെ നിയാണ്ടർതാൽ മനുഷ്യരോട് അടുത്തിടപഴകി ജീവിച്ചിരുന്നു പലയിനം മൃഗങ്ങളും പക്ഷികളും. ഇവർ നിയാണ്ടർത്താലുകളുടെ കൂടെ മരുപ്രദേശങ്ങളിലൂടെയും, മലമ്പ്രദേശങ്ങളിലൂടെയും, വൃക്ഷരഹിതമായ പാഴ്‍ഭൂമികളിലൂടെയും ദീർഘസഞ്ചാരങ്ങൾക്കു കൂട്ടുപോയിരുന്നു.

“കൂട്ടുകാരായ ആ അന്യജീവജാലങ്ങളെ നിയാണ്ടർതാലിലെ മനുഷ്യർ തങ്ങളെപ്പോലെ തന്നെ കരുതിയും പൊന്നു. അതിശൈത്യത്തിന്റെ കാലങ്ങളിൽ അന്യോന്യം ചൂടുപകർന്നു അടുത്തടുത്തിരിക്കുകയും ആഹാരം പങ്കു വെച്ച് ഗുഹകളിൽ ഒത്തൊരുമയോടെ രാപാർക്കുകയും ചെയ്തിരുന്നു. സഹജീവജാലങ്ങളുടെ ദയ നിറഞ്ഞ കണ്ണുകളിൽ തന്നെയായിരുന്നു നിയാണ്ടർതാൽ താഴ്‌വരയിലെ ദൈവദർശനങ്ങൾ” (263).

പറക്കുന്നതിന്റെയും, ഇഴയുന്നതിന്റെയും, നീന്തുന്നതിന്റെയും കൂടെ ജീവിച്ച നിയാണ്ടർതാലുകൾക്കു “സ്വപ്നങ്ങളിലൂടെ ഇതര ജീവജാലങ്ങളായി രൂപാന്തരം പ്രാപിച്ചു അവയുടെ പ്രപഞ്ചാനുഭവം എന്താണെന്നറിയുവാനുള്ള സിദ്ധിയുമുണ്ടായിരുന്നുവെന്നു” ആഖ്യാതാവ് പറയുന്നു (263).

സ്വപ്നത്തിലെന്നപോലെ സാഹിത്യകലയ്ക്കും മറ്റൊരു ജന്തുവിന്റെ പ്രപഞ്ചാനുഭവം തിരിച്ചറിയാൻ സാധിക്കും. മലയാളവും, ഇംഗ്ലീഷും, തമിഴും, ഹിന്ദിയും ഒന്നും സംസാരിക്കാത്ത ആനയ്ക്കും, പോത്തിനും, പട്ടിക്കും, പൂച്ചക്കും, പാമ്പിനും അവരുടെ ചരിത്രപുസ്തകം എഴുതാൻ അയ്മനം ജോണിനെപ്പോലെ മറുപുറം വായിക്കുന്ന എഴുത്തുകാരുള്ളത് മനുഷ്യവർഗ്ഗത്തിന്റെ ഒരു മഹാഭാഗ്യമാണ്. അങ്ങനെയെങ്കിലും വേട്ടയുടെ ഉന്മാദത്താൽ തിമിരം ബാധിച്ച കണ്ണുകളിൽ കുറച്ചു വെളിച്ചം കയറട്ടെ. രക്തത്തിൽ കുളിച്ചു കിടക്കുന്ന ഇതര ചരാചരങ്ങളുടെ ചരിത്രം വായിക്കാൻ സാധിക്കട്ടെ.

A Case for Virtual Fall Term 2020 (and Probably Spring 2021) – Professor Stan Yoshinobu/Cal Poly

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Case for Virtual Fall Term 2020 (and Probably Spring 2021)

These are my thoughts. I’m a Math Educator, speaking as a college faculty person. I’m using my own logic. I’m not an infectious disease epidemiologist. Some of my opinions will change as we get new info. This is written on April 22, 2020.

Emotionally what I want is to go back to normal. I am sure we all do.  I have been in lockdown for 6 weeks. I spent my birthday in lockdown. I am zoomed out. Virtual teaching is not why I got into the teaching profession. My kids miss their friends and teachers.

Despite all that we have to be responsible and meet this historic challenge. We have a moral responsibility to ourselves and each other to make good choices.

Risks are asymmetrical, and this is a key point I want to make clear. The downside risk of a contagion on a campus is far greater than the downside of virtual teaching.  Sadly, the range of choices we have is between bad and horrific. But people don’t like bad, so it is understandable that we want something better. I fully understand that teaching via zoom in our bedrooms with kids at home is not a good situation. But this is the coronavirus era.

We are in a global humanitarian crisis. It’s a giant problem that unfortunately comes with a large basket of problems. The item in the basket this post primarily focuses on is in-person vs. virtual fall 2020.  I make a case for virtual fall 2020 and likely spring 2021.

A list of points and comments organized in a list.

  1. We don’t have a vaccine. ETA is March 2021, according to FDA (as of this writing). How we roll out 7+ billions vaccine is a manufacturing challenge, beyond the scientific challenges. Not sure we will get this before spring term.
  2. Equity is a big concern in general in this crisis and specifically with respect to vaccines. When it comes to vaccines and treatments and access to healthcare, we will likely see income disparities. So if a college knows that vaccines are out, and plans to open in-person next spring, then will it also have in place vaccinations for low-income students and marginalized groups so that every students has access to treatment?  If not, then the college could force poor students to make the choice between missing school or their health. The children of NBA players and movie stars will get vaccines before the children of gardeners and housekeepers.  But schools might be wanting to open, when treatments are announced or starting to become ready, and leave behind or force into a tough decision students who are at the back of the line.
  3. Testing is still not up and running to a level where we can do surveillance testing as of this writing. In CA, we are testing people with symptoms, but will we be able to test all our students before they arrive, after they arrive, during the term,…?  If yes, then this is a good start. It is one of the things reported that we need in order to open up society.
  4. Treatments (other than vaccines) are being tested as of this writing. These may help, but they are not here yet and it’s hard to plan on anything now for something that might help later. Widespread availability is another factor. Even if a treatment is shown effective in clinical trials, will your specific region have it in quantity and will it cover all students, faculty, staff, and the wider community?
  5. Travel is a massive issue facing colleges that does not affect K-12 schools nearly as much. Merely getting college students physically to campuses in the fall is a significant risk due to long distance travel. Colleges and universities generally have students from different regions, some students are international. At the start of fall term, hundreds of thousands of students travel from their homes to different cities, often with parents or family.  The situation where millions of people traveling AND being able to do so without spreading the virus seems impossible.
  6. Once on campus, hundreds of thousands of students across the US will live in dorms or apartments in close proximity to one another. Many eat in dining halls or other campus dining serving thousands of meals per day. The HVAC systems in buildings may be connecting the air between rooms.
  7. Even if somehow we get everyone to campus 100% coronavirus free, it gets messy from there. Do we let students go home on the weekends? What about Thanksgiving and winter break?  What if a family member of a student is in the hospital – do we let this student go home to see their family? And when the student returns is it to a 14-day quarantine?
  8. Students also do things like go into town and to the market. The university is not closed off from its region.  So the virus could be transported to the community or vice versa.
  9. Thought Experiment: How would a college town feel if 20,000 students from China and Italy are coming in August?  Ok, maybe not China and Italy, but maybe Los Angeles and New York.  We need to think about the communities around the colleges and their reactions (right or wrong).
  10. Winter break is especially concerning without a vaccine. Are we going to send people home for 3 to 5 weeks in the middle of flu and possibly a coronavirus resurgence, and bring them all back again for winter quarter/spring semester in January? If yes, then we need to replay the fall scenario again in a tougher environment and less time to prepare due to the winter holidays and length of winter break.
  11. Classrooms and labs force very close contact between students, with no option of proper distancing. Take a look at this image from one of our math classrooms. There’s maybe two feet between desks. Plus we pack in 35 students into this space.  After you get a 6 or 7 people in there, you’ve used up “6 feet of distance” between people. Classroom buildings have HVAC systems that could be moving air from room to room.
  12. Classes are used multiple times a day. A single seat or desk may see as many as 10 or 12 different people using it each day. It seems unrealistic that we will sanitize each desk completely during each period. We’d need to hire hundreds of staff to do this massive cleaning job. This is unlikely given budgets are expected to go down. Given that we won’t expand staff, then we won’t do the cleaning needed. Therefore, we will have a petri dish in each classroom.
  13. Thought Experiment: Student A sneezes on a desk. Gets up after class. Next class period, student B sits in that desk and gets infected.
  14. Universities are not setup with staff and equipment for daily testing, tracing, isolating, etc.  One question is, “Who is going to do this work for thousands of people regularly?” And if a student has to go on quarantine, then what about their roommates, classmates, instructors?
  15. If instructors get sick, then how does the class proceed, especially in areas that require specialized expertise, where there may not be a qualified expert able to step in? If staff get sick, then how does the university function if a large number are home sick?
  16. Each day, a university is like an all-day concert or sporting event. It seems more clear that we should not be having concerts or sports events until a vaccine arrives. The same logic applies to colleges and universities. Thousands of people engaging all day in close quarters, sitting in the same seats hour after hour, and then going to the library in close quarters.
  17. College parties are another issue. Are we going to ban parties? Even if we can legally (not likely), then how will it be enforced especially if students live off campus? If it does happen, then what is the consequence? Quarantines?
  18. Thought Experiment: Suppose student A goes to a “corona party” and gets coronavirus. Student B sits next to student A in a class, and get coronavirus. Student B is in an at-risk group and is hospitalized or dies. Student B washed her hands, wore a mask, did everything right, but also depended on all other students on campus to follow through with the guidelines.  This then raises the issue of putting at-risk students into harm’s way. And telling them to wash their hands isn’t going to ensure they are safe, because safety in this crisis depends on everyone.  Even if student A was being responsible, student A could get the virus from the grocery store or a humanitarian mission.
  19. In Education we talk a lot about safe learning environments.  A psychological factor is also in play during the coronavirus era. When someone sneezes or coughs, it’ll come with a tinge of fear. “I just sneezed – do I have coronavirus?” Or “My group mate just coughed! Am I going to get it next?”  The fear of illness and death is not a foundation to build a safe learning environment. It’s literally a potentially physically dangerous learning environment.  It’s hard to fully focus on a task or exam, when stressed about personal safety.
  20. Will we enforce a no-attendance policy campus wide? What I mean is that faculty cannot have attendance as a requirement or part of the grade. Here’s why this is important. If an instructor breaks ranks and requires students to show up for class as part of the grade, then the incentives for students to be in class are at odds with health concerns. Students in this case will be forced between choosing their grade and health. It’s a horrible dilemma that students should not be forced into.
  21. Similar to above, but “attendance” replaced with “exams.” What if a student is sick and it’s midterm day? Then the student might have to decide between taking the exam and their health and the health of their class. And even if a college has a policy on make-up exams, how will it get monitored and enforced?
  22. Marketing Risk Thought Experiment: Assume a college rolls the dice and goes for in-person fall term. That campus then gets an outbreak in October, when thousands get sick and dozens die.  First and foremost, there is a huge human cost that could have been avoided. And second, there is the reputation of the institution, which will be trashed. Who is going to go to Coronvirus U next year?  Why trust what they do or say after that? What parent will want to send their kid to a place where dozens died unnecessarily.  It’s very easy to destroy the reputation of an institution.
  23. If instead, the marketing is, “You will still have 3+ years of amazing, in-person, hands-on learning. But safety and health for you and everyone else matters most. So we will be working our hardest to do virtual right and then to open up when it’s safe.”  That would be more honest, and we’d get the kind of students we want anyways, who share our values. Those who are understanding and want to be at Cal Poly or wherever for what makes your institution special. That does not go away, if we hold true to our values.
  24. Sports will likely be governed by conferences or NCAA. So I won’t comment on this.
False Dichotomies

False dichotomies are bad. They also seem to have grown in number exponentially this year. Here are some examples.

  • The lockdown has created a rise in domestic violence. So we need to end the lockdown. (Choosing between lockdown and dealing with domestic violence).
  • If we do not run in person, then enrollment will be down and budget will be a problem. (Trade lives for money.)
  • We need to save lives or save the economy.
All these are poor logic.  Pandemics are a basket or package of problems, not an “A vs. B” scenario. Pandemics attack your whole society from top to bottom, from left to right. It’s a systemwide set of problems. This means every part of society gets affected and disrupted. So splitting up issues into coronavirus and non-coronavirus is poor logic, since it’s all one giant set of problems, and more importantly these false dichotomies can lead to bad decisions.

Here’s an example. Let’s focus in on domestic violence issues. Domestic violence is a real problem and we need to fix this like right now. But the solution isn’t to lift lockdowns early as a “solution” to address the rise in domestic violence. If we do that, then the disease might spread and you have more suffering in other areas of society. We should think of the rise in domestic violence as *part* of the crisis, and act accordingly. We should do both (a) reduce domestic violence and (b) keep people safe from coronavirus. For example, communities can start to do deal with domestic violence issues, by providing housing for victims in hotels, and offer moving services and security. A major conclusion is that false dichotomies lead people to make bad decisions, by improperly framing the problem into a choice between two (bad/incomplete) solutions.

Money Issues at Colleges
One major false choice facing universities are budget vs. lives.  It’s not presented like this. We talk about it in terms of enrollment.  Lower enrollment should be expected for fall. Some students might prefer to take a gap year. Maybe their parents lost their jobs or have reduced income, and they can’t go to college for financial reasons, whether virtual or in-person. Economic downturns of this speed and magnitude will create lower enrollments.  When 10%+ of workers have filed for unemployment in just a few weeks, that is going to affect college enrollments. I don’t think virtual vs. in-person is the kicker here. It’s more likely money and a tanking economy. We are in something like the great depression, and fewer people can afford college. That’s just a fact. We should expect lower enrollment.
Colleges are not immune to broad, deep shifts in the economy like the one we are experiencing now. But some administrators may think virtual means lower enrollment and in-person means higher. I don’t think that’s a clearcut case or even true.  I understand budget concerns are real.  A real, systemic solution is for state and federal governments to bail out colleges and universities. We did this for airlines and other industries.  We did this for banks during the last financial crisis.  Why not protect the future of our younger generations?  Of course I am not naive. That’s not happening. But this line of reasoning illustrates the folly of chasing dollars to address a wider societal failing, by trading the health of our communities, faculty, staff and the students we serve to run in-person classes during a pandemic (all the while assuming this is palatable to students and their families).

Some have argued on my campus that we need to keep businesses and the economy going. So bringing students here is worth it. The gist of their thinking is that some are going to die anyways, so you might as well save the local economy.  I think this is wrong and immoral.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. Education is a social responsibility to our youth. It’s not a business. We aren’t maximing profits. Educational institutions do not have in their mission statements the goal of supporting and upholding the regional economy.  People try and spin education in materialistic terms, but education fundamentally is a social responsibility. Thinking of students as consumers or bags of money is wrong or at least significantly incomplete.

We also can’t just ignore the bodies in the corner and get on with taking tests and doing labs. If people are sick and dying, even if it’s “just a few dozen,” it’s not going to feel like a learning institution. At least it won’t for me. Maybe others are harder and tougher that I am. But if I am losing colleagues and students to coronavirus, I’m not going to be all excited and happy to go to my next committee meeting and act like all is normal. The fear of death or illness has a way of souring the mood, amping of stress levels, and killing morale.  I can’t think of many ways other to make a community feel more like a disposable cog in a machine than pushing them into the middle of a global pandemic.

If faculty and staff feel like they are disposable cogs, the ones with outside opportunities (i.e. the ones who get more grants and publish more) will leave or get poached by savvy institutions. It’ll be harder to recruit good faculty and staff, and the quality if the institution would take a hit.  Students who don’t feel safe will not attend or go elsewhere.  So going down the route of in-person fall term has serious long-term risks, beyond easily quantifiable things such as positive test cases and number of fatalities.


Here’s a hard pill to swallow. The key societal mistakes were made before we arrived at the present day. We did not invest in pandemic preparedness, we responded slowly and with disorganization as a society, and we have gaps in our society that are being laid bare. It’s like we are on a raft and the river is leading us to a dangerous section. The college is in the raft and decision makers in the past put the raft in the river. We like to think colleges are independent from society. In some ways colleges are highly autonomous. But we are in the “river of the society” we have, and what happens to the world happens to us. The tough part is we can’t do anything about upstream decisions. We are now left with a set of hard choices and tough realities, ranging from bad to horrible.

I don’t like virtual college. We are not supposed to like it. It’s going to be the hardest period of our careers.  I hate thinking of the long slog back up the hill, and this is if I make it. But this reality is the definition of living during natural disaster. In the grand scheme, we are the lucky ones, given that we live in a modern, advanced nation and still have jobs and paychecks. We have opportunities to revamp and update some things that need to be fixed. We can be creative and human for our students during this time, and teach them about morality, community, solidarity, and steadfastness during difficult times. There exist things we can teach virtually in this environment that are both sorely needed and would have been scoffed otherwise. So while I see virtual (and the pandemic) as an unwelcome reality, I also see upside in the opportunity it presents and most importantly a clear, moral case for why going virtual in fall 2020 is the right choice.

Stay safe and stay healthy!

Same As it Ever Was

With apologies to David Byrne:

“You may find yourself wanting to vote for an educated, smart woman
You may find yourself wanting to vote for a socialist with a complete plan
You may find yourself wanting to vote for a gay man
You may find yourself wanting to vote for the environment
your child’s education
your parents’ medical needs
your soldiers overseas
your farmers
your factory workers
But no matter who you want to vote for
You’ll end up voting for some red or blue nepotist white guy.
You may ask yourself
How did I get here?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
You may ask yourself
My God what have I done?
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”


Facts of Life

*Facts of Life*

When we were kids, the boys made fun of one of Appu’s friends, a bookish genius; he had a photographic memory and knew the entire logarithmic table from start to finish by heart. The mockery went something like this: “Hey, S., what are the Facts of Life?” the boys would ask S. The story goes that S. would then say. “Oxygen, Nitrogen, Hydrogen, Chlorine . .” Ha ha ha.

S. went to Organic Chemistry for the Facts of Life. The rest of us thought we were all very smart, but really, we weren’t. All of us kids comprehended the Facts of Life with varying degrees of gaps, misinformation, and plain absurdity. As in other parts of the world, we kids picked up our sexual lore mostly from films and books, and to a lesser extent through prurient observation of backyard animals and their mating behavior.

Indian films and television have changed radically now, but when we were growing up, in the seventies, eighties and even into the early nineties, there was no kissing, no bodily nudity, or images of sexual consummation on screen. There was plenty of salacious and titillating content, but the censors drew the line at any type of sexual bodily contact, including kissing.

Thus after the hero and the heroine slide and slither around each other in barely concealed estrus, and the titillation potential borders the pornographic, suddenly we will see on screen two flowers coming closer and closer and closer to each other, falling into each other, smashing into each other: flowers “kissing” for lack of a better word. The more creative directors represented human sexual union on screen coyly with birds touching their beaks together, bees drinking nectar from a flower, deer nuzzling their noses against each other, and in the really daring instances, huge waves breaking roaringly on the shore, firecrackers bursting up in the sky, and milk boiling over. There was one particular film, where the hero breaks open an egg on the heroine’s exposed belly between the blouse and the sari; the egg sizzles and curls and turns into a Spanish omelet. She was that hot.

Thus, the Indian cinema filled our heads with a semiotic system for human sexuality, which included birds, bees, flowers, seashore, the sky, firecrackers, kitchen utensils, milk and eggs. It is a fact of life that human beings have a seemingly uncontrollable need to see sex represented. They want to see it, they want to write about it, they want to film it, they want to sing it, they want to hear it. It is sort of like how Tom Cruise always wants to have sex with his real wife on screen as well. Representation adds to the Reality. While couples in coitus have graced the walls of Indian temples for thousands of years, that was not sufficient for the movie-going Indian public who wanted to see “real” (real on screen?) sex on screen leading to all kinds of creative and not-so-creative short cuts to sex scenes of the afore-mentioned kind by directors and actors.

I remember one particular event of mass frustration by the movie-going Indian public over their lack of access to some flesh scenes. It was the 1987 International Film Festival in Trivandrum. John Huston had just made a film adaptation of Joyce’s short story *The Dead.* Great short story, but the movie adaptation does not work at all. That insight is in retrospect, but in 1987 we all wanted to see it. So, a bunch of us from the Institute of English—three girls and nine boys – we went to the theater that was screening the movie. International Film Festivals are big crowd-pullers in India, particularly Kerala, which has a very evolved film culture. Two types of film-lovers attend these foreign film festivals; one, those who really want to see the retrospectives of a Kurasawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky et al because they know the cinema of these directors; and two, those who want to see foreign films, because foreign films contain uncensored nudity. The foreign film festivals also brought movies with such titles as *The Big Blonde.*

So anyway, *The Dead* was playing in a duplex theater in Trivandrum; one screen showed *The Dead,* and the other theater screened a Swedish film called, let us say, *The Big Blonde.* It was a matinee. I and my friends, boys and girls from the Institute of English stood in a long meandering line to buy tickets for *The Dead.* Wow, such a big crowd to see *The Dead,* we remarked to ourselves. The crowd was all men; street-vendors, head-load workers, auto-rickshaw drivers, men with a beedi in one hand, in disheveled clothes, with blood-shot eyes, and mesh t-shirts with the arms cut off. Imagine, they want to see Joyce’s *The Dead*; we smiled in utter incomprehension.

The men eyed our group, a group with more boys than girls. The boys were all our good friends. Several creepy men eyed us girls lewdly and started making obscene comments. Our male friends turned red in the face and looked at us apologetically. “Do you want to go back?” Our friends asked us in a low voice. “No, that is okay,” I and my girlfriends replied, “We would really like to see *The Dead.* This filth does not bother us,” we said. The creepy men kept ogling us.

We bought our tickets and walked into the theater. Inside the dark theater, there was yelling and shouting; several men in the audience loudly anticipated the fleshly delights they were about to witness. We sat down and the film started.

Two very old women came on the screen; Gabriel’s aunts. Old, wrinkled, and with a twinkle in their eyes, they started talking about the Christmas party. They talked and they talked. A low rumbling started inside the theater. So far, no flesh. Then the guests started arriving at the party. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter was literally run off her feet. More talking. Lots of old people talking, talking, talking. The rumbling inside the theater intensified. The men were getting really antsy; they needed to see some flesh and they needed to see it right now or they were going to get their ticket fare back!!

Finally, Gabriel and Greta arrived on scene; a reasonably young couple. There was a temporary cessation to the hum inside the theater. Maybe this man and woman will have sex? But Gabriel walked off into the library and started to rehearse his speech. Greta mingled. Alcoholics waxed poetically; old aunts propped up the alcoholics. Every time a man and a woman came towards each other on screen, we heard a loud roar of anticipation from the men in the theater. This is it; now we will see some flesh.

Alas, there is no breeding in *The Dead.* How disappointing. We tasted the sweetness of revenge on our tongues. Twenty minutes into the movie, the men in the audience began to hoot and holler and shout. Several of them got up and left, loudly swearing how the theater ripped them off. Needless to say, we watched two movies that day.

But the politics of sexual representation came much later. In our adolescent years, our understanding of human sexuality was an absurd schtick. For instance, I believed, and I later found out, many of my friends and cousins did as well, if a woman in a wet, white sari hugged a man, she became pregnant. This was directly from the films. In one scene, Prem Nazir is chasing Sarada around a coconut tree. It rains and they hug. In the next scene, Sarada is clutching her stomach and throwing up. Pregnancy.

My cousin Kunji had another explanation for pregnancy. She was an exemplary student and got her information from the biology textbook. The male gamete is called sperm, Kunji began. It has a head, which is 5 microns and a tale that is 50 microns long. It propels itself by moving its tail in a motion called flagellation in a liquid medium towards the ovum, which is the female gamete.

Yeah, really? We would say. We were taunting her then; we were slightly older. What liquid medium?

The textbook does not say what liquid medium it is, Kunji admitted.

How far is it traveling then? How does it make a woman pregnant? We asked.

Kunji drew a blank.

We stared at my aunt, Kunji’s mother, one of the most respected OB/ GYNs in Ernakulam sitting there listening to us discuss the mechanics of human reproduction. What is this, ammayi, we would ask her. Your daughter says that the 5-micron sperm is swimming in a liquid medium flagellating its tail towards an ovum! Very bad parental instruction!

This was true; in our childhood, our parents did not spend a lot of time educating us about human sexuality. Our mothers told us girls that there was no reason for any boy or any man, other than our fathers or brothers, to touch us; so, there was no touching between boys and girls. We were unsure of the actual steps, but we naturally believed that touching mystically led to pregnancy. When he was in his teenage years, my mother told Appu that he should never feel tempted to give in to the prostitutes and pimps that hang around the train stations, bus stations and airports looking for young men. That was the extent of our parents discussing human sexuality with us.

For the longest time, I believed that for chicken’s eggs to hatch into baby chicks, a rooster has to approach and gingerly “step” on the said eggs. I don’t know where I got that idea, but in my mind I saw a rooster approaching an egg and stepping on it, balancing itself precariously on top of the egg. Then the egg was fertilized and baby chicks were born. It was a standing joke in my family and my cousins torture me to this day recounting this story whenever the occasion presents itself. I was reminded of my chick story, and relieved at the same time, when Dayani once brought home some chicks to foster while in fourth grade.

I will never forgive Sierra for saying this, Dayani told me when I picked her up at school. What, honey? I asked her.

Sierra told everyone in class today that my chicks are “dating” her chicks, Dayani said.

That is okay, honey, I told Daya, chicks can date chicks.

You know what mama, Dayani said, we know now for sure that Fudge is a boy and Sunshine is a girl. Fudge and Sunshine are the two chicks that Dayani was fostering.

Oh, yeah? I said. How did you figure that out, honey?

Mr. Miller in class today, Dayani said, showed us Fudge’s reproductive parts.

Really? I said.

Yes, see I had to do the dirty work because Fudge is my chicken and I am going to be a veterinarian, Dayani said. Mr. Miller showed me how to hold Fudge’s feathers up, and right near the “vent” – you know it is called “the vent” and not the bad nick name, mama – there is a small pimple. That is what makes Fudge a boy.

Oh, wow, honey, I said. I had no idea, I said.

It is true; I did not know what the reproductive organs of a rooster were like. Apparently, it is a pimple, near a vent.

Well, that explains why Fudge was constantly trying to jump out of the box, I said.

We couldn’t really understand it. We had kept both Fudge and Sunshine in a box in my office (where else?) and every time we opened the box to clean the paper or put food and water, Fudge would try to jump up over my hands and out of the box. He preferred to perch on the box lid or on top of the lamp we were using to keep them warm.

Sunshine just sat in one corner. Rooster behavior, I said; you know, “roosting” means to sit on top of something. Being caged in that box must be stifling for poor Fudge. Dayani had to take the chicks back to school, but if we ever get them back for fostering, I am getting Fudge a nice big box with plenty of flying room and a perch.

Seeing is Believing: The Invisible through Aravindan’s Eyes

[March 7, 2016]

Perhaps no other artistic medium is as apt and made to measure the invisible as cinema. The very premise of the movie camera is that if there exists something that can be seen, the movie camera has the power and capacity to show it to you. Conversely, if it cannot be represented by the camera, it might not be an object of perception.  The most enduring quality of Aravindan’s films is their search to depict on screen in three dimensional images, shapes, and colors that our five senses would be able to comprehend, things that are invisibledownload-1.jpg; in particular, entities that are the products of imagination and faith.  

It is commonplace to assert that a story is an act of imagination, which it is, to be sure, but Aravindan’s stories work on more than just the narrative level. There are symbolic and allegorical levels that run alongside the narratives that reach out to a matrix completely outside the world we experience through the senses or our brain. Aravindan’s stories and films show us the simultaneous existence of both the visible world of phenomena, as well as the invisible world of noumena–or what is thought, products of our mind, in particular, myth and faith.  Indeed his films may be read as subtle and sophisticated explorations of the capacity of myth and faith to create an ethical community, not merely the community within the space of the film, but also the community of the viewers..

Aravindan’s films trace the arc of the invisible as it lands and rests on a varied group of people bringing them together as a community.  In his films, contact with the invisible changes the people for the better, even if in the most imperceptible manner. Two feature films, Kummatty (1979), and Esthappan (1980), in particular, and the biopic documentary about the philosopher and teacher Jiddu Krishnamurthy The Seer Who Walks Alone (1985) show us through Aravindan’s eyes our world imbued with “things” of sacred value and weight that possess transformative power to forge a new ethical community. We see fields, roads, the sea, rocks, boats, hands, trees, birds, animals, and the sky as

download.jpgwe have never seen them before. With great love, Aravindan shows us these “things” as they are in their original, uncorrupted and sacred state.  In Aravindan’s eyes, these aspects of nature or the human mind become sacred images. Our encounter with such sacred images cannot be anything but ethical. The following is a brief appreciation of such an ethical encounter of one viewer and one film, Kummatty.

Kummatty, the earliest of these films, tells the story of a folk figure, the Kummatty, a relic of grandmother’s tales, a larger-than-life figure, a wandering folk minstrel who is also a boogeyman in popular imagination with an anecdotal propensity, it is suggested, to abduct children. Kummatty will take away unruly children from their parents. Thus Kummatty’s charms and powers are both positive and negative. He is a source of wonder and fear because his powers are unlike yours or mine. In other words, Kummatty is a liminal figure that embodies a pathway that connects the material world with the non-material world. He exists simultaneously in the visible and invisible worlds.

In the film, Aravindan is careful to expose us to the forged and fabricated aspects of Kummatty’s personality such as his fake beard, and his human necessities such as needing a shave. Kummatty falls sick as well and needs to be cured. The human limits of Kummatty are well established. When we first see him on the screen, he materializes literally out of nowhere—he simply shows up in the scene from a distance, his song preceding his form.  Indeed much of what we know of Kummatty resides in products of imagination such as folk songs that the children of the village sing. Kummatty himself sings songs of the Brahman, as formless as the deep, dark and vast sky, formless as the rain, thunder or lightning as represented in the movie’s unforgettable song “Karukara Karmukil” written and sung with great devotional clarity by Kavalam Narayana Panicker.

Kummatty upsets the placid pace of the village life when he befriends the children of the village. Children are as much liminal figures, as he is, as they contain both the past of a community and its future.  In a grand processional scene, the children celebrate the myth of Kummatty by recounting his story from the folk tradition in song form (“Manathe macholam talayeduthu”) as they follow him all across the mountain.  The children are transformed by this contact. We see this in Chindan’s new solicitousness to the old grandmother.

That Kummatty represents something regressive from the progressive perspective is indicated in the earlier scene where Chindan’s mother, in particular, calls Kummatty a “mad man” and discourages Chindan from spending time with Kummatty.  To be sure, there is a critique of modernity and progress, as we normatively understand it—“Forward! Forward!” is the chant of progress – in the film, in the episode where Kummatty turns the children into animals whose masks they were playing with. Human children turn into a peacock, an elephant, a monkey, a dog etc. The critique of modernity continues when Chindan—the boy turned dog—is abandoned by the wealthy family that initially takes him in only to cast him out as a “country” breed. Animal masks in folk traditions echo the totemic functions of their counterparts in the mythical world; animals are spirits. The children see them as toys. Thus in turning the children into the animal they were playfully mimicking, there is an implicit transformation of a toy into a totem, an encounter with the “uncanny,” an inanimate object turning into a living entity. This uncanniness is the ground of the children’s ethical transformation in Kummatty.

Ritual, community, the uncanny, the unknowable and the invisible come together in the final scenes of the film when the narrow domestic tragedy of a family that has its son turned into a dog opens into a communal ritual to reverse the metamorphoses.  Oracles and priests attempt to reverse the transformation but to no avail. Kummatty alone can reverse the metamorphoses because Kummatty is not a part of stagnant village rituals, which are as meaningless as modernity itself. Kummatty’s power is of another invisible order, the order of the formless and the unknowable, the order of the sky, the rain, the lightning and the thunder.  It is the order of openness. It is the order of freedom.  It is instructive that in the one year that the Kummatty has been gone and Chindan lives his animal existence as a dog, the grandmother who was the repository of the old stories, including that of Kummatty, has died. This loss of communal memory, however, is offset by Chindan’s metamorphoses into a dog, and a family’s and community’s suffering over this transformation. The family and the community have to mourn. They have to believe in loss. They have to believe in the magic and the power of the Kummatty. They have to believe in the power of the invisible.

Chindan (and us, the community) learn the lessons of the metamorphoses in the final euphoric climax of the film where Chindan, now reverted back to being a boy, sets free the caged parrot and watches it fly away into the sky.  For nearly four minutes we see nothing but birds flying in the sky, nothing but the rapid crisscross of birds traversing the sky in pure freedom, from one side of the screen to the other, as the children’s chorus sings the song of the Brahman, “Karukara Karmukil.”

The flight of the birds is much more than a simple metaphor of freedom. What is the flight of a bird? The flight of a bird is the pathless order of freedom. The overall plot of Kummatty is overdetermined to bring us to this vantage point where we dedicate our full attention to the random flight of birds, almost in real time, since not many of us would have watched birds in flight in nature as part of our daily routine. Yet, birds have flown in the sky without any particular pathways since the beginning of time. That is all they do. This simple and serious truth is the ethical promise of this cinema to its viewers. It is a direct representation of what Aravindan saw with his eyes.


Winter Solstice Blessings

I am awake enough now to write for the first time in the last one week. I had my achilles tendon reconstruction surgery done on my left ankle on Monday, December 16th. Posted final grades, took out the recycling and went to the surgery. I briefly remember waking up sometime in the hospital after the surgery, then the car ride home, then sobbing continuously as Krish propped me up on my non-weight bearing operated foot with crutches as he helped me up the long, wintry walkway and steps to our front door– it was a long walk; I didn’t think I would make it — slumping into bed, then searing pain, seething pain, screaming pain as the general anesthesia and nerve block from the surgery wore off, then periods of wakefulness and sleep, wakefulness and sleep, and wakefulness and sleep.  Many many Percocets later, I am awake now with my pain manageable enough, so that I don’t have to dose myself into narcotic and narcoleptic oblivion for another four hours. I didn’t take even one opioid this morning. IMG_9943

I had the following procedures done: they opened up my left ankle, cut out the extra bone growing out of my calcaneus and into my achilles tendon (Haglund’s deformity and resection), cut and repaired the achilles tendon where the extra bone had broken it, and rebuilt my achilles tendon by doing a tendon transfer from my big toe and giving new insertional points. I had the same surgery and the same recovery in 2017 for my right foot. I am in a splint for 3 weeks, in a cast for 12 weeks, in a boot for four weeks.  I am in the splint stage now. I am non weight-bearing with full and partial immobilization of my left foot for the next foreseeable future. With physical therapy I will be able to walk and drive by the end of May 2020. I am on medical leave from the university for the spring 2020 semester. As my friend Sharon astutely observed: another saga of the Achilles without the glory of the Iliad! Indeed.

It is a strange Christmas. Dayani is home which is wonderful. I put up the tree for her before I was immobilized. But I am not able to bake the cookies for her and with her, which is something I have always loved doing over christmas: peanut butter cookies with chocolate and peanut butter candy, peanut butter cookies with hershey’s kisses, sugar cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies. Next year.

2019 was a good work year, except for the daily pain reminder. Four good classes; thank you, students. Some of the student evaluations were very sweet. Two presses gave me a contract for my manuscript on indigenous films: I accepted Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington Books.  My SdB review essay is coming out shortly in SdB Studies; my review essay on Vera Hildebrand’s Rani of Jhansi regiment is also coming out soon. I will miss campus, my friends, colleagues and students in the spring semester. I have never not taught, so this feels strange to be marooned on this invalid bed like this for 20 weeks.

But here is my winter solstice blessings for you. May the great mother goddess Sun protect you through the dark pathways of your life.

“With faithful progress,
The Great Sun has traveled,
From north to south again,
And on this day pauses.

So we also stand still,
With the whole Earth,
In quiet thankfulness,
To the Source of Blessing,
The Giver of All Light.”            []






Women and Work in Regional Cinema

My article on women and work in regional cinema in Feminism in India: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, P. Bhaskaran’s Anweshichu Kandethiyilla, and Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha.


An ordinary morning for most women in India would be tangled and cluttered in getting their children ready and off to school or college, stepping aside so husbands can get ready and leave for work, and often feeding and helping aging parents and sick relatives. If lucky enough to have house maids, women lay out their chores for the day and supervise them as well. Women who themselves work do all of the above, in addition to getting themselves ready for their own job responsibilities. Many women also run the gamut of grocery shopping, paying bills, settling accounts at the bank, keeping children’s medical appointments, attending parent-teacher conferences, taking children for tuition, helping children with their homework, making social visits and any number of other responsibilities.

World Bank study indicates that India’s female labor force participation stands at 27% compared to 96% for men. Women, disproportionately, are engaged in unpaid work at home and the outside. While women of each generation find opportunities for greater and varied labor participation, it would not be inaccurate to say that women in general, face greater challenges in finding and keeping gainful and satisfactory employment. Women also face greater obstacles in defining and claiming their relationship to their professions with the same degree of dedication, satisfaction and pride with which men own their paid labor.


Women’s troubled relationship to compensated labor, and thus their own autonomy, share a history of resistance against certain types of deeply rooted patriarchal norms characteristic of all societies across the length and breadth of India. The three films from three different regions of India, in three different languages discussed here, provide a prophetic and resilient vision of how women have negotiated and claimed their economic and existential worth in a society that is all too ready to deny them the opportunity to discover their own autonomous personhood through work.

Two Films And A Common Theme Of Solidarity

Image Source: IMDb

Both Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) and P. Bhaskaran’s Malayalam film Anweshichu Kandethiyilla (I Searched But Did Not Find, 1967) were released in the same decade—the former telling the story of a young married woman from a genteel family fallen on hard times in Kolkata in the 1950s, and the latter narrating the story of a bright young woman from a Christian family in Kerala in the 1950s.

In Mahanagar, based on a story by Narendranath Mitra, Madhabi Mukherjee plays Arati Mazumdar, a sprightly young wife, mother and daughter-in-law in a traditional Bengali household who decides to break the family’s principle—”a woman’s place is in her home“—and take on the job of a salesgirl for a company that sells knitting machines. Susamma, played by the Malayali actress K. R. Vijaya in Anweshichu Kandethiyilla, likewise, decides to become a nurse in the military to offset the financial hardships of her family.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Both Ray and P. Bhaskaran artfully expose the social prejudices, not only against women entering the labor force, but also women working at certain specific jobs. In the time period in which the films are set, in the 1950s, both being a door-to-door salesgirl as well as a nurse were not seen as professions suitable for “good” women. These were jobs that necessitated women to go into unknown areas and mix and mingle with unknown men. Of course, these strictures were placed upon women by a patriarchal code of honor, chastity, mobility and modesty.

A Scene From Mahanagar
Image Source: FirstPost

Arati’s husband Subrata, played by Anil Chatterjee, is at first supportive of his wife taking up the salesgirl’s job, but soon he finds himself resenting his unsuspecting wife, as his own insecurities at his inability to find a better-paying job begin to fan the flames of a competitive jealousy within him. Ray expertly shows the bitterness contracting Subrata’s demeanor as he watches his mother serve his wife breakfast alongside him in the morning as they both get ready to leave for work, or when Arati comes home with presents for the family when she gets her first month’s salary. Subrata turns away petulantly in shame and jealousy at the clear evidence that his wife, his efficient “housewife,” is equally efficient at work and has even received a commission on top of her salary! Underneath the vows and the intimacies or lack thereof, a marriage is an economic partnership, and a family is an economic unit. Man is the head of this unit in patriarchy’s version of the story.

In Anweshichu Kandethiyilla, Susamma becomes the head of the family as she lovingly accepts the responsibility to take care of her aging uncle and aunt who had fostered her after her own mother had died, and her father and his wife had cast her out. If married women had to ensure that they did not earn more than their husbands did and always stayed a step behind and not tarnish the glow surrounding their husbands, unmarried women found their single status itself to be a burden in the workplace.


Based on a story by the acclaimed Malayalam writer Parappurath, P. Bhaskaran’s film explores the baseless prejudice Kerala had against nurses from the Christian community; often, young single women who traveled far and wide, all over the country and the world, worked and took care of their families, and served as exemplary examples of the nursing profession. Susamma’s brother refuses to accept a watch she sends him, and once again, imitating Subrata in Mahanagar, he commands Susamma to quit her job.

Also read: Fishing For The Hidden Feminist Agency In Kumbalangi Nights

He fears social disapproval of her nursing profession, and the disapproval staining him as well. A potential groom tells her that he will marry her if she would keep the fact that she had been a nurse, a secret from his family and friends. Susamma stands adamantly against these irrational demands. Befitting an educated and progressive woman, Susamma tries to find a partner herself. It is instructive that the two male romantic interests of Susamma are both cowardly and weak men who Susamma ultimately rejects. Susamma has to choose between her profession and dreams of a family. She chooses her profession.

Women And Work
Image Source: Hungama

Both Ray’s film and P. Bhaskaran’s film in the 1960s assert solidarity with working women in the characters of Arati and Susamma. Arati’s decision to quit her job when her boss insults her colleague, a young Anglo-Indian woman named Edith, after slandering her character (“Anglo-Indians girls like to have fun“) is an unforgettable moment in the film. ‘Apologize to her‘, Arati tells her boss. ‘It is a big world, we will both find some job, won’t we?,’ Arati asks her husband, who was also newly unemployed, and who finally admits and admires her courage to stand up for justice. Earning our daily bread has made us cowards, Subrata tells her, but you are brave. Susamma stands up for herself. Arati stands up for Edith.

Umbartha (The Doorstep, 1982)

Women standing up for oneself and for other women in both private and public life is reprised in Jabbar Patel’s Marathi film Umbartha (The Doorstep, 1982), which was also simultaneously made into the Hindi film Subah (The Morning). Based on the Marathi writer Shanta Nisal’s story Beghar (Homeless) and scripted by the Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar, Umbartha is the story of Sulabha Mahajan, a thoughtful young wife and mother, who wishes to escape the gilded cage of a loving marriage with a carnal husband and affluent in-laws.

Women And Work
Image Source: Amazon

Sulabha, played by the Marathi and Hindi actress Smita Patil, eventually convinces her husband Subhash, acted by Girish Karnad, to let her go to the village of Sangamvadi to take on the job of the superintendent of a women’s reformatory home. Living in the midst of abused, sick, unwanted, cast out women, Sulabha instinctively understands that even the most comfortable woman is just one unknown step away from being homeless, as she institutes changes in the women’s reform home, and the women’s home makes changes in her.

As with the professions of nursing and salesgirl, being a social worker in an abused women’s home is not where women of “sound mind” work, according to Sulabha’s husband, her in-laws and the people who know her. Why worry about these women who nobody wants? The most “good”, that women can do for such places is to serve as a member of the board or management. While Umbartha does have its limitations for an eighties film, especially in its treatment of lesbian sexuality, it admirably and boldly exposes the dangers awaiting professional women who put themselves in the frontline and show solidarity with other abused and exploited women. Sulabha’s husband goes back estranged from her when he visits her at the reform home. She stops him when he accosts her for a quick shag while an inmate bleeds to death in the hospital from premature labor. Sulabha carries her own homelessness within her like a talisman; she finds her home with the other homeless women. This is not a tragic ending, but a clear awakening.

Also read: 4 South Indian Movies That Start A Conversation About Caste

Susamma, Arati, and Sulabha. Decades later, these women still give voice and face to scores of Indian women who grapple with the true object of their attention: themselves, their work, and the others.

“Norway of the Year”

(I wrote this in 2010 November for the local paper. It feels the same to me now, raking the planet. I miss you, Sally.)

“Norway of the Year”

I was walking down the hill to the university from my home yesterday morning, a beautiful fall morning. We had a week of no rains so everything was brown, cold and dry. Halfway down the hill, a huge pile of dry brown leaves blew past me left to right in a swift wave motion, away into the woods, imitating the sound of hundreds of tiny feet pattering on the asphalt. The sounds of fall are crackly, crispy and brittle. In a month’s time, these curving hilly roads will become rather treacherous to navigate. Mama, did you put snow tires on your car, my daughter reminds me everyday.

But yesterday, everything was bone-dry, brown and black, full of lines angles and planes. Walking down the hill, I could suddenly see all the neighboring houses, their back porches, the tarped patio furniture, the covered swimming pools, the knick-knack heaps–bouncy balls, plastic chairs, toy guns, pool supplies, push-mowers, chopped wood– piled against the back walls that you don’t normally see when the trees are lush and thick with leaves. In this part of Pennsylvania, trees cover everything over summer. Whichever way you turn, trees block your view far and near. With the trees all bone-bare in November with barely a dry leaf hanging on for dear life, a sudden clarity has manifested itself everywhere. You can see clearly near and far; you can see the squirrels scampering in the leaves in the neighbor’s yard; in the distance, you can see the thin, ribbon-like winding roads leading off into houses high up on what my daughter calls “the broccoli mountains.” As the poet observed, fall returns us to a plain and simple sense of things. Each fall we look at these houses that disappear in the summer and become visible again in fall with wonder: “My God, how on earth do they get up there? Who maintains the roads?” We ask in amazement.

In a letter to a friend, the poet Emily Dickinson called the month of November “the Norway of the year”: “The noons are more laconic,” Dickinson wrote, “and the sundowns sterner and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.”

Indeed, isn’t that what change of seasons do? Make what is familiar, foreign? Transport us from one mode of being to another? Make mercurial and unpredictable your own backyard? From my kitchen window, my daughter’s trampoline blends in with the bony trunks of the November trees in the backyard. It is now a collection cup for falling leaves; nearly a quarter of the trampoline is filled with dead dried leaves. Dayani and her friends go on the trampoline to jump on the leaves! Careful, I tell them; watch out for bugs in the leaves. Shake yourself and check for ticks before you come in! From the kitchen window to where our backyard slopes and dips, the ground is now an undulating sea of leaves into which our littlest dog sinks each time she goes out.

Each fall, we find ourselves filled with a new sense of solicitousness for all that we don’t know, and cannot predict, or prepare for in the coming winter months. This much we know: soon as we rake the leaves and clean the gutters, the ground would be covered by snow for the next five or six months. There is oil and heat to think about, blankets and comforters to be aired, shovels and driveway salt to be set aside. Throbbing with impatience in the near offing is the first snow day of the year when the bony clarity of fall will give way to the brooding dark heaviness of wet winter dawns.

Then there are those mornings when the car refuses to start, the pilot light in the boiler gives out, the heater in your daughter’s room quits working, and the dog runs away into the snowy woods. Sally, our smallest dog will refuse to go out; she will stand at the kitchen door looking at the mountain of snow; in her mind she will think– this is not my house, am I in Norway? Did I really see a truck drive by with a cargo of snow? Are they taking the snow somewhere? I will put three sweaters on and pull a blanket around, just in case, when I walk downstairs to the basement to do laundry. I will let the water run for 15 seconds before letting my fingers touch it. I will hesitate to touch metal surfaces–quick pass and then grab the handle– trying to outwit the static charge. I once read that “Victor,” the feral child they discovered in the woods of Aveyron in France, did not have any sensitivity to cold. Dr. Itard, who worked with “Victor,” and the other scientists, noticed that Victor would go out and play in the snow naked like an animal. Victor was not cold at all; nor did he catch hypothermia. Dr. Itard concluded that our sensitivity to cold is a learned response. I have learned the lesson really well; I am always cold.

It must be so with any extremity of season, which pits the frailty, and vulnerability of all things man-made, against the obdurate persistence of nature. Winter returns us to our most unadorned human selves. When you peel away all the colors and shows of life, as fall does, as winter does, what we are left with is the easy slide towards death. Emily Dickinson knew this too. What is a stone? Is it alive or dead?

“This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”

It must be our awareness of how easy it is to die that makes us want to celebrate winter with festivals of sacred births. If there were no Christmas, no Hanukkah, no winter solstice, no winter celebrations, we would invent one. We would invent some excuse to contact friends and family that we have not seen in a while. It is our awareness of mortality that makes us take note of the occasional squirrel foraging for a pinecone, the rare bird in the ruined trees, the surviving deer traipsing across a snowy field. We stop to see if a stalled car needs help. We check to see if a neighbor needs a ride. It is Norway that teaches us the value of life.IMG_0371