Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rain as endless as the Ocean

I caught myself humming it again! "Aazhi mazhai-k-kanna...." The moment I see dark clouds gathering, hanging over the land and the sea like a visitor pausing at the threshold, I start singing.

Oh, Kanna! The lord of the rain that is as endless as the ocean...

While growing up in Kumbakonam, particularly during the monsoons, this song perpetually came forth from me. For the clouds gathered every few hours before breaking open and falling on earth in heavy pellets of rain, sending the plantain trees in the garden down with their crops in whatever stage of fruition. But before falling the trees stood beautiful against the monsoon grey, dripping rain drops from the edges of their torn leaves that looked like elephant ears when they rubbed against the translucent window panes. And this particular Thiruppaavai (a work in 30 verses written by Aandal, in 9th century AD, on Vishnu, her love) was the unfailing background music for this duration of my childhood in Kumbakonam. I never thought of inquiring why. I assumed it was because the word "mazhai" (rain) featured in the very first line of the song.

Yesterday, as I looked out the living room window of this Chennai apartment and saw the ends of the casuarina tree shuddering against a dark sky in a sudden breeze, I sang again. I rushed to the terrace of the three-floor apartment and looked at the sea.

Do not withhold any of your generosity. You must enter the ocean, inhale the waters and rise to the skies with a thundering noise....

The clouds were moving in from the west and towards the sea, giving a very brief and brilliant shower, but nevertheless scaring the womenfolk into quickly retrieving the clothes drying in the balconies. A domestic help came running to the terrace, cursing the rain, to gather the red chillies laid out to dry on a jute sack. She gathered the sack into a tentative pile and rushed out, shielding it from the rain by holding it against her chest and bending over it in a gesture of protection.

You should darken like the body of Narayana, the lord who holds a lotus from his navel, whose shoulders are strong...

Everything had acquired a darker hue. The sky, darkening in its desire to give, had made the trees greener somehow. The sea too appeared to have darkened into a bluegray and, at the horizon, looked as if it curled upwards into the sky, planning to wrap everything into its fold.

…and shine like the discus on his right hand and resound like the conch on his left...

And that's when I knew why I sang this song.

The Prakara at Oppiliyappan Kovil was great fun, though it was not as long as the ones in Sarangapani or Chakrapani temples. But Oppiliyappan was the family deity and had also assumed a greater importance by the fact that he required a bit of a ride to get to, while Sarangapani and Chakrapani were in Kumbakonam, very close to the daily hangouts, easily accessible for examination-inspired prayers. Oppiliyappan had a village to his name, had buses stopping there, letting out hordes of noisy pilgrims rushing to buy his favourite Tulasi garlands and red and white lotuses before entering the temple. Tulasi was what the whole place smelled of. And camphor. That was the fragrance of the holy water too. Dark tulasi leaves and camphor would have floated on the water in the silver bowl for hours, turning the water fragrant. When the priest hurriedly gave you a spoonful of it and you drank it off the palm of your right hand curved to a dip, it was as if you drank the place itself, taking it all in.

Right after the darshanam, you walked around the Prakara, rushing out into its wider space after being squished out and released from the darkness and focussed importance of the main shrine. The first stretch of the Prakara had paintings corresponding to each Thiruppaavai. They were multicolor, modern-looking, oil-paint-on-stone-wall freezes of scenes described in the Thiruppavai verses. Aandal and her friends were all indistinguishably beautiful, sashaying about in long paavaadais (ankle-length silk skirts). Krishna, the cows, the trees, the gardens – everyone and everything shone with prosperity. Below each painting were etched on granite slabs the lines of each verse. My mother and I would stand and recite the familiar verses every time, looking just at the paintings, without any need to look at the lines at all.

The fourth one was my favourite. It had Aandal and her friends standing together, looking reverently at the sky. The sky was Narayana himself, shown not in the bright colours that filled the rest of the frame, but in a dark grey, rising out of the sea in such a whoosh that you could not see his feet, but just a dark cloud rising from the depths, curving into the sky and becoming Narayana himself, smiling, leaning over the world in benevolence. A streak of lighting, too, in a corner.

Just like the rain of arrows that come forth from the Saarnga bow that Narayana holds, Oh, Krishna, you too shower timely rain on us so that the world may live on and we shall rejoice in it...