ഫൊക്കാന കമലാ ദാസ് പുരസ്കാരം (ആംഗലേയ സാഹിത്യം) Now You Know Me - Novel
വാഷിംഗ്ടൺ മലയാളി ആയ സിനി പണിക്കരുടെ “സീത: നൗ യൂ നോ മി” രാമായണത്തിലെ സീതയെ ആധുനികകാലത്തിനു അനുയോജ്യമായ വിധത്തിൽ പുനരവതരിപ്പിക്കുന്ന ഒരു രചനയാണ്. ഫൊക്കാനയുടെ കമലാദാസ് പുരസ്കാരത്തിന് അർഹമായ ഈ കൃതി സിനി പണിക്കർ തന്നെ മലയാളത്തിലും രചിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്. “യാനം സീതായനം” എന്ന പേരിൽ പൂർണ പബ്ലിക്കേഷൻസ് പ്രസിദ്ധീകരിച്ച ഈ നോവൽ ഉറൂബിന്റെ പേരിലുള്ള അവാർഡിന് രണ്ടാം സ്ഥാനത്തു വരികയും ചെയ്തു. മലയാള സാഹിത്യലോകത്തിൽ ഇന്നും ആചാര്യസ്ഥാനത്തു തുടരുന്ന പ്രൊഫെസ്സർ എം കെ സാനുവാണ് ഈ കൃതിക്ക് അവതാരിക എഴുതിയിട്ടുള്ളത്. അദ്ദേഹം അവതാരികയിൽ ഇങ്ങനെ പറയുന്നു:
“…..ബാഹ്യജീവിതസംഭവങ്ങൾ അപ്രധാനമാക്കിക്കൊണ്ട്, അല്ലെങ്കിൽ നിമിത്തങ്ങൾ ആക്കിക്കൊണ്ട്, ആന്തരിക ജീവിതത്തിന്റെ ചലനങ്ങൾ സൂക്ഷ്മമായി ആവിഷ്കരിക്കുന്നതിലാണ് സിനി പണിക്കർ തന്റെ സർവ്വകഴിവുകളും ഏകാഗ്രമായി പ്രയോഗിച്ചിട്ടുള്ളത്. അത് അതിമനോഹരമായി നിർവ്വഹിക്കുകയും ചെയ്തിരിക്കുന്നു……………. ഞാൻ ഇതിനെ പ്രതിഷ്ഠിക്കുന്നത് എം. ടി. വാസുദേവൻനായരുടെ ‘രണ്ടാമൂഴ’ത്തിന്റെയും പി. കെ. ബാലകൃഷ്ണന്റെ ‘ഇനി ഞാൻ ഉറങ്ങട്ടെ’ എന്ന നോവലിന്റെയും കൂട്ടത്തിൽ ആയിരിക്കും.”
രാമായണത്തിന്റെ ഇതിവൃത്തം സീതയുടെ അനുഭവങ്ങളിലൂടെയും തനതായ കാഴ്ചപ്പാടിലൂടെയും ഹൃദ്യമായും ലളിതമായും അവതരിപ്പിക്കുന്ന രണ്ടു നോവലുകളും ഇതിനകം പ്രസിദ്ധി നേടിയിട്ടുണ്ട്. ഒരു പ്രവാസി ഒരു കൃതി ഇംഗ്ളീഷിലും മലയാളത്തിലും രചിക്കുന്നതും, രണ്ടു പുസ്തകങ്ങളും ഒരേ വർഷം (2021) പ്രസിദ്ധീകരിക്കപ്പെട്ടതും ഒരു പക്ഷേ ആദ്യമായിട്ടായിരിക്കും. എറണാകുളത്ത് തൃക്കാക്കരക്കടുത്ത് ജനിച്ചുവളർന്ന സിനി പണിക്കർ മഹാരാജാസിൽനിന്നും കെമിസ്ട്രിയിൽ ബിരുദവും, കൊല്ലം എസ് എൻ കോളേജിൽനിന്നും ബിരുദാനന്തരബിരുദവും നേടി. വാഷിംഗ്ടണിലെ അമേരിക്കൻ യൂണിവേഴ്സിറ്റിയിൽ നിന്നും ഓർഗാനിക് കെമിസ്ട്രിയിൽ മറ്റൊരു മാസ്റ്റേഴ്സ് ബിരുദവും നേടിയിട്ടുണ്ട്. അവിടെ പി എച്ച്ഡി ചെയ്തത് മുഴുമിപ്പിaക്കാതെ, സിനി ഫെഡറൽ ഗവൺമെന്റിൽ ശാസ്ത്രജ്ഞ ആയി ജോലിക്ക് ചേരുകയാണ് ഉണ്ടായത്. ഏതാണ്ട് ഇരുപതിലേറെ വർഷത്തോളമായി ഡ്രഗ് എൻഫോഴ്സ്മെന്റ് അഡ്മിനിസ്ട്രേഷന്റെ (DEA) ഹെറോയിൻ സബ്ജക്ട് മാറ്റർ എക്സ്പെർട് (SME) ആയും ലീഡ് റിസർച്ചർ ആയും പ്രവർത്തിക്കുന്നു. “മീ റ്റൂ” എന്ന പ്രസ്ഥാനമാണ് സീതയെക്കുറിച്ച് എഴുതാൻ സിനിക്ക് പ്രചോദനമായത്.
Tomorrow; My judgement day, I have been ordered to appear before the king and his court in Ayodhya
A part of me still loathes everything that city is…and I am very hesitant to make a journey there. I wish I could continue to live in this ashram, until my time comes. Let me be a wild flower…a white jasmine, on the top branch of a tall, twisting vine. At the end of its life, it will slowly succumb to the earth’s pull in the caress of an evening breeze, without making a single sound in this world. I need to be that flower; Ayodhya and its King Ram shall not notice its departure, its demise. It is only fair that I get to exit from this world…in whatever way I choose, considering my entrance into it. And after what I have endured in it.
But fairness evades human life like a master illusionist in the most singularly fragmented moments of one’s existence. Afterwards, a broken life is reflected back from the hundreds of shattered shards, in anguish that is so pure and holy, any judgment or chastisement will be just another ritual to sanctify it.
It has been the story of my life. Look at me even now. When the king summons, I have no choice but to appear. A chariot will arrive from the palace. Perhaps, Sage Valmiki himself might return to take me there. He is my rescuer, my protector, my guru and a father. He is also a teacher and a grandfather to my twins.
It is ironic that he is all this. Because, Valmiki is an ascetic. He is someone who had denounced worldly affairs, who had discarded society to be a yogi, but became all this to me and my sons.
Life is funny that way.
Life. The science of the land, the Rig Veda, says life is a pursuit of the ultimate truth. One has to suffer through life to find it; to be eternally enlightened. I have always wondered why truth and salvation are excruciatingly linked to miseries in life. I remember thinking about this even as a teenager. Whatever secrets and truth the heavenly realms are holding, why cannot they be revealed to a happy person? Why are the gods very much against a happy life?
Despite the hundreds of hymns I have studied, I do not think of my life as a pursuit of the truth. My life stands in front of me like a grand jester from my father’s elegant court, hidden behind an artfully and royally designed mask. My life has deceived me several times, like a master manipulator. It is toying with me again, even now.
I hear my sensible voice at this moment, asking me to remain prudent and to tone down these assessments. Because I have been living like an ascetic in this ashram, my observations on life, along with my judgement and opinions, had been skillfully buried in the deep netherworlds of my mind. My outward appearance is that of a forty-nine-year-old yogini with a slender body and long, black hair, graying now. I am always wrapped in a maroon cotton sari.
The maroon shades the sunrises and sunsets in the background. Trapped infinitely between the encounters of days and nights, the dawn and the dusk suffer and sulk in maroon, in the colour of detachment. They show no loyalty to the day, or to the night. Caught between the cycles of births and deaths, the mystics wear maroon to pass through the wheels of lives, until their ultimate salvation.
I wear maroon too, but just superficially. I love Ram. I am not detached.
My heart still beats with a secret yearning when I think of him. It is exasperating that I still love him this much, after all these years. Seventeen years to be exact. Sometimes I raise my right hand absentmindedly in the air, trying to trace his handsome face. My fingers caress his cheeks, his lips, that small dent in his chin. I press with my right thumb there. He smiles at me with longing. That smile of his that is exclusively mine. A smile that carried just the two of us into the heavens.
‘It is not healthy for you Sita, to continue to love him like this!’ The old yoginis and Sage Valmiki used to advise me. But I could not help it. Every fibre in my body and soul belongs to Ram. It craves Ram, only Ram, every moment, day and night. Still.
Finally, the ascetics gave up on me. I was lost to them.
I was a lost life from the very beginning. I just did not know how lost. And because of it, I was hopeful from the first moment I could remember. I was a believer in good, positive things. Always an optimist. I smiled at my life and wished and prayed not to be lost. Lost is the most terrifying word to me, a simple word that carries an insufferable hell that lives in me, ever since my childhood.
I hoped that I could escape life’s torture by wishing it away. How wrong was I! And, where did all my wishing and hoping lead me?
To this ashram, via a muddy path. To Sage Valmiki’s ashram, with a few small bamboo-framed straw huts under the thick canopies of tall, enormous trees. This is a heavenly place on the banks of the tranquil Tamasa River. The river is a mystic herself. Always in meditation. Breathing in…and breathing out…in a simple, steady movement of existence. She is quietly flowing forward to her destiny, holding a measured pace, her secrets entirely dark and hidden.
The Tamasa is a tributary of the holy river Ganga. Ram and I grew up in two different provinces in the Gangetic plains of the northeastern land. We loved these rivers. The rivers in turn witnessed our love for each other.
And one day, about seventeen years ago, I ended up on the banks of Tamasa alone. Abandoned, again. This time by my darling husband and king, the love of my life. I was four months pregnant and my belly had just begun to protrude.
Lakshman was weeping like a child, on the muddy path. He is my brother—my sweet, sweet brother. A brother I have always admired, a brother who has always stood by me. We could very well be from the same womb, but he is Ram’s younger brother, a half-brother. I did not know what was happening at the time…or why Lakshman was wailing. It was heart-breaking to watch him. I stood by Lakshman, trying to console him, not knowing what to say or do.
Ram, my sweet husband, had asked me what I craved a few days earlier. This was another instance where my life, the joker, had played with me. Because I had no cravings for odd foods, like normal pregnant women. However, I wished for something else. I had told Ram that I wanted to visit Sage Valmiki’s ashram. We, all three of us, Ram, Lakshman and I, had seen it in our exile, some years ago.
I remembered two things so fondly from our first visit. One, Valmiki is the kindest soul, the most venerable, knowledgeable sage, in my humble opinion. I have heard the praises kings and scholars give other prominent rishis like Vasishta or Viswamitra of the region. But none of those sages had influenced me like Valmiki. I have loved Valmiki like a father from the first moment I met him. And he is my father Janaka’s friend. I bonded with the sage easily during that visit.
The second thing is this ashram. It had remained a paradise on earth in my memory. So, my craving as the pregnant queen of Ayodhya, I told my beloved King Ram, was to visit it. I did not need any special curries, dried meats, mango pickles or sweets. I just wanted to visit my favorite sage and seek his blessings for my baby. My baby, Ram’s heir. The future king of Kosala.
Ram used the opportunity. He sent me away from the palace on the most beautiful royal chariot, in the company of his brother Lakshman.
Ram’s face was of a king’s, not a husband’s, that morning; that was the only thing I vaguely noticed. Innocently thrilled about my impending journey, I did not pay any attention to what else Ram was…or was not. I kicked and screamed inside all these years for forgetting to check if he was a father that morning. A father to his child in my small belly. I will still be screaming after this life, with everything that has built within me these seventeen years. I think I will still be screaming as a soul. I do not know how to let it go.
Once we crossed the Tamasa to the forest side on a ferry, Lakshman and I had to walk a good distance to reach the ashram. It had rained the previous night and the path was muddy. I did not care. Humming a tune, I strolled on in a leisurely manner, splashing water in the dirt puddles like a young girl. I was enjoying the river and the beauty it afforded on its banks. A lot of it had reminded me of my parents’ palace in Mithila, the capital of Videha. When I think of Mithila, green fills my eyes. I grew up totally immersed in green. I longed for green in Ayodhya and had no eyes for the bricks, the stones and the marble.
I noticed that Lakshman had stopped walking. He was already sitting on a rock nearby and staring down at his feet. He looked drained and dishevelled. Even though he was dressed in his usual beautiful pleated silk dhoti and had a long silk scarf draped around his neck and upper body, everything about him appeared as if he was totally exhausted.
I teased him, ‘I am the pregnant one, Lakshman! And I am not tired at all! So, why are you?’
With that, Lakshman began to howl. I had never seen a man crying like that ever before. This was my warrior brother. One of the strongest men I had ever met. I ran to him but he would not look at me. He would not stop weeping.
I managed to dig out what was happening. Eventually, in bits and pieces. Then the howling began to originate from me. I had not realized that I was making such loud wailing sounds. They made their way out of me, long black snakes of pain. I stared at my own dark sounds.
I was being banished. Away from my Ram. Away from Ayodhya. Away from his precious court and his people.
I had been ordered by the king not to return. Ever. The baby in my belly and I were not worthy of his life or the kingdom. I collapsed on the muddy path. Lakshman sat by me, still weeping.
Finally, I noticed that the sun was coming down. He was comforting me with his gentle golden rays, but all I felt was the darkness around me…and inside me.
I was rubbing my belly. All that time, lying on that damp, muddy path. My blue silk sari was a wet mass. I was a wet mass. I weighed a million times more, and that extra weight never went away. Along with my screams, I would take this into my next lives.
It was time for Lakshman to return to Ayodhya. He had fulfilled his part per the king’s command, and I was exiled to the jungle. I asked Lakshman to leave; but he chose to remain with me. So, I condemned him with harsh words, said that he was as evil and cowardly as Ram, the brother he worshipped. I said I wished that I had never met him. That I had no brother, if I had one he was now dead and cremated.
I wept for those brutal words once he left. He was still lamenting aloud. I could hear him for some long moments, as he staggered away from me, to the ferry. He was cursing himself for what he had done, and he was cursing his brother and everyone in Ayodhya for the cruelty he had to inflict upon me.
Curled up on the ground, now alone, I cursed Ram for the first and last time in my life. For making sweet, kind Lakshman do this demoralizing, haunting job of exiling me. Ram knew of Lakshman’s brotherly love and affection towards me. Why couldn’t Ram have found anyone else? The king could have exiled me secretly through any of his regular charioteers; he had dozens of them. Ram could easily have spared Lakshman this pain and shame.
Seventeen years later, this is something I still cannot forget or forgive. My sporadic bursts of cynicism aside, I have found myself at peace with everything else, more or less.
Though this serenity is not solely through my own efforts. I have to thank the sage and this ashram for that. And my twin boys. My sweet, smart, loving, caring Luv and Kush.
The sage found me abandoned, on the muddy path. He was walking to the river with his disciples for the evening bath. I was a log, swirling in circles in a whirlpool of my own tears.
I was found again. Rescued again.
‘How many times do I have to go through this?’ I cried to Valmiki.
A thin, saffron-robed man, his eyes saturated with this world’s endless agony, the sage held me close and comforted me as my dear father would. He made me look at his eyes, and he began to absorb my pain. I took a calming breath for the sake of the baby in my belly.
‘You have got me, my child. And I will never abandon you. Never!’ I held on to the sage.
He took me to this ashram. I gave birth to my twins here. They grew up here to be a pair of handsome, educated, brave young warriors. They are also the sage’s disciples. A rare but precious duality exists in Luv and Kush; I find them equally spiritual and martial. My boys are one of a kind and I am the proudest mother on this earth. This ashram has made me that. The sage has transformed the lost log into a gracious mother.
Motherhood. It is known to transform women into gushing wellsprings of love and care to their children. However, I had not anticipated that this would happen to me because of the insufferable rejection Ram had put me through. But when Luv and Kush were born, I overflowed with bliss, loving them beyond anyone else in my life and protecting them with all my strength from the cruel world that surrounds us.
Luv and Kush have been my left and right eyes, my Surya and Soma, radiating light into me day and night, sustaining and invigorating my meek, mendicant existence.
And yet, I have found myself on innumerable occasions in this ashram as suspended dirt in a raging muddy river, unable to locate my existence in the realms of time or place. I have simply drifted along with the current. When you are stuck in the thick emulsion of a storming stream, all you can do is to look up to the light above and wonder. About a beautiful life that could have been. About the fortunate life my boys could have had in Ayodhya.
In those depressing moments, Valmiki and his pupils have always come to my rescue. They have loved and raised my sons as their own though the perfect tranquility of the ashram was disrupted and their meditations were disturbed for years during my sons’ infancy. Later on, the boys’ joyful enactments of stories about the gods and goddesses and their talented recital of folklore and prayers were counted amongst the happiest moments of the sages’. I have been a fortunate destitute.
Now, tomorrow morning, I will have to leave this beautiful home for Ayodhya. Somehow, something tells me I will not be returning here. What is waiting for me in Ayodhya? I am not certain. And it terrifies me.
Lost in thoughts, I have not noticed that the ascetics of this ashram had retreated to their huts. But the night is still young. I am rooted in padmasana under this large, old syandana. Its branches, heavy with flowers and buds, are bent and hung towards the earth as strings on bows, protecting and guarding me under a gorgeous pink canopy. Sensing my hesitance to travel to Ayodhya, the tranquility in this ashram has invited me to disappear into its waves of silver screen under the beautiful moonlight. I wish I knew how.
Soon my ears began to be blessed with the most peaceful, the most wonderful sounds in this world: the delicious music of dewdrops falling around me. A few remained, stuck in the alupam leaves around me, and these water pearls began a rolling dance on the elephant ear-like leaves under the moonlight.
What does one do on a night like this, when a beautiful dewdrop is poised to hold one’s life within? When it reflects our entire existence with such clarity?
We begin at the beginning. We gauge life’s gains and losses. We make a tally, we tell the story.