The thousand-pillar corridor of Madurai Meenakshi Temple.
Snapshot
  • In his centenary year, we remember LāSaRā—Lālgudi Saptarishi Rāmamrutham, the great Tamil writer who brought into his literary works the Darshanas of Indian tradition.

Here is SOMETHING that could have happened to you. You are walking the corridors of an old South Indian temple. The traditional singers of classic mystic-devotional hymns recite them in those semi-darkened corridors as they take the Idol of the presiding Deity in ceremonial procession; you do not completely understand the hymns as your Tamil has moved centuries away into a lingo that has almost lost all its classical vibrancy. You do not exactly know the meaning but still there are instances when you find something in the music communicating to the inner realms of your being. You find a rare peace and joy. Sometimes a word or a sentence suddenly makes profound sense and you feel an exhilaration. An inner door opens into the realm of meaning and perhaps an altered state of consciousness.

A veritable Mantric effect. Now think of a writer packing such Mantric effect into his writings. Tamils know him as LaSaRa, Lalgudi Saptarishi Ramamrutham. His writings spanned an entire generation and stirred the deepest realms of the Tamil psyche.

LaSaRa remains a paradoxical exception of the rarest kind. People did find it hard to comprehend his writings. Yet they read and read and like osmosis he slowly moved inside and the process continues. His words have in them the power to expand in meaning and enter into the depths even the reader knew not existed within.

His short story Janani is about Goddess Parashakti desiring to be born as a child. It is not the avatar of the Goddess. She says that specifically. She desires to be born in a very human way—through the body—and enter the world. She gets born as an illegitimate child; the mother attempts to kill the child and is stopped by her lover. The child left to itself is discovered by an Iyer, who takes her home. The child grows up in the house of the Iyer and is named Janani. She is constantly abused by her foster-mother and never gets the warmth of the mother she has sought in being born.

She is married to a military man and then there is a separation before the consummation of the marriage. In that interlude she also feels libido rise in her. Then on the night of consummation, something erupts in her. She pushes her husband ferociously as he approaches her and he crashes against the bed and dies. She is jailed. After release she goes around as a beggar. People consider her a mad woman. However people also notice that whichever shop or house where she gets alms becomes prosperous. Yet she is a “mad woman” to them. One day she falls into the eternal sleep.

This is an unusual short story. Janani is the Universal Mother, the mother for all eternity and for all existence. And she desires to feel what it is to be a girl. She chooses an embryo formed of an illegitimate relation. It is said in passing that the husband of her illegitimate mother is in the army. Then the person to whom she is wed is also a military man. There seems to be a cycle. As her husband approaches her with lust, he thinks she is angry with him and says that the anger of women should always be within the limits of control by men. Else women would be considered the devil.

After the violent, fatal attack on her husband, Janani is imprisoned, and, with the authorities uncertain about her mental health, she is made to spend her time alternately in prison and hospital. Then in the inner realms of Janani as she is alone in the darkness she hears a voice. When she asks the voice who it is, it informs her that they are one and that she has been searching for this self from which she has cleaved for the birth. “Do you remember where you tried to see me first?” She remembers. As an infant she first tried searching for the self, lost in her birth, in the flame of the traditional lamp. Then the voice speaks to her. Here is an approximate translation:

“Ah! Now you remember. Whenever you kindled the wick of the lamp, whom do you think you kindled? You tried to kindle yourself. As days went by accumulating the dust of the birth which you voluntarily chose and the rust of time, I inside you got buried and got lost somewhere in the abysmal depth. Now with the violent quake that happened, as you rolled over in that seismic rapture, I, who was buried inside you, came out.”

The short story became a cult classic in Tamil. LaSaRa published his first anthology of short stories in 1952. The anthology was titled Janani.

In Janani, the narrative process resembles but surpasses the individuation proposed by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. The dangerously alluring manifestation of the divine feminine in the violent act, is followed by the acts of unconscious and unrestrained grace.

The life of Janani after her release from prison, which LaSaRa narrates, is very commonly Indic and yet an extraordinarily unexplored phenomenon. Almost every Indian village and town and a majority of Indian households know of such experiences of men and women, who move around resembling mad beggars and when they seek alms from a particular house, that household gets blessed with prosperity or freed of ailment. By combining such a very real folk phenomenon with the life of someone who seems on the surface an ordinary, mentally disturbed female and presenting the whole narrative in the mytho-cosmological setting of Indian religion, LaSaRa created a powerful short story that explores the divine in the travails of a very human female through her life process.

The short story denies conventional values and yet resonates with the collective unconscious of society.

Most of his works in fact revolve around women—mothers, daughters, wives, lovers, friends, and the stories zero in on the manifestation of a feminine character which transcends the temporal and connects to the Feminine embodied in the very essence of Existence. As he himself once said, for him “all moments are part of Eternal moment”. His doorways to that “Eternal moment” open themselves in the Feminine.

LaSaRa himself depended on the intuitive feminine aspect of the self to write. It is very difficult to find in his non-fiction too an absence of the same forces which propel him in the field of fiction. Janani was born in his mind when he was looking at the flame of the traditional lamp. A staunch believer in mystic experiences, his own grandmother, an illiterate woman, had shown the power of such altered states of consciousness. And in that state, she not only composed spontaneous poetry but also answered the questions and clarified doubts of pundits who had come to her after hearing about the phenomenon. He saw first hand how an illiterate rural woman answered questions from varied subjects ranging from the Upanishads to Sanskrit grammar.

For LaSaRa, the intuitive stimulus could come from anything—from fireflies to the drums of the village festival to the sound of a passing train. Sometimes he had direct visions too, like he was searching for one specific sentence for a specific expression and could not get it. Then suddenly he saw a hand writing that sentence he was searching for. This made his writing an extremely slow process. When he wrote a series of stories based on the five elements (the Pancha Bhuta series), he had to wait for eight years for the story to “dawn” on him. According to him, on an average, it took 36 years for him to write a short story. And yet he wrote 300 short stories and three important novels considered classics in modern Tamil literature. His writing thus became a tapas and the most interesting thing is that he saw this tapas as a co-creation with the reader.

When literary critics tried to impose western categories on his works and techniques, he rejected them. When they tried to identify his technique with James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness”, he pointed out that the expression of his creativity was rooted in the longer and more fertile Indic tradition of dhyana and tapas. He elaborated that a form of Deity for dhyana existed in Dakshinamurthi, which predated Joyce’s technique by centuries. Just because a westerner used a particular form and gave a name to it does not mean that an Indian writer is borrowing that technique.

And then he pointed out how his own writing differed from Joyce, for it was more sublimated and in tune with the inner harmony than that of Joyce. He went a step further and pointed out that stream of consciousness is known to Indic tradition and is more refined and more attuned to the expression of art in India while the technique itself had been just discovered in the West. Imagination for him has to be “an aspect of truth” and his truth is rta.

On another occasion, when an interviewer asked about his writing being Freudian, he pointed out that the psychological realm from where his roots absorb nourishment is Sankara—he who realised the Ultimate Truth as the Divine Feminine and proceeded to describe her from head to foot. Saundarya Lahari always inspired him. Such interviews simultaneously showed the narrowness and rootlessness of a generation of native literati and the creative heights to which an Indic soul can soar, totally incomprehensible to the Macaulay-educated academia.

In the works of LaSaRa, the unmanifest manifests in all shades, from Freudian to Jungian, and beyond. If a critic is to approach LaSaRa with the tools of Freud or even Jung, he would miserably fail in comprehending what he creates in the reader or the inner processes of his creativity.

His another celebrated work Ocean of Milk sees the family itself as a churning of the ocean of milk. And it brings out both nectar for immortality and the primal venom. Many think that through such works, he celebrated the institution of the joint family. Essentially it is not any specific institution he was attached to or was nostalgic about. He always saw through the human interactions, in the frictions and embraces, in the anger and love, the manifestation of the Eternal. So the words for him become Mantric. He once famously said that if a writer writes the word “fire”, the reader should feel the word burning through the paper.

Not just interaction between humans but even the mute spectators of the human course of events can manifest the Divine in LaSaRa’s works. His short story Yogam deals with how a stone stands witness to all things that happen around it; LaSaRa takes us through events of treachery and happiness; fun, frolic and agony; desperation and joy; a suicide, couples in varied states of emotions and so on. A boy throws a stone at it as a sport; a couple spit betel leaf juice on it during their romance and so on. Then one day, the stone which has been silent witness to all these, is recognised as a Shiva lingam.

Autopoeisis is today considered by a school of scientists as one of the primal creative processes through which evolution happens. Swayambu is the parallel process which has been identified for millennia in Indian culture for the same process and it accords reverence to such swayambu manifestations like the lingam. Not just Shiva lingam but many goddesses are also such swayambu or autopoeitic manifestations. Here in LaSaRa we see the process in a very naturalistic way, which yet hides the meta-natural in it.

What is the essence of his writing? He always left it to the readers to decide but then when an interviewer pressed, he said that he was trying to bring into literary forms the Darshanas of Indian tradition. And then he added that “this is more what I attempt than the essence of what I write”. Today his works stand as a compelling enigma for modern Indian literary critics forcing them to go beyond their conventional western literary frameworks and update themselves with Abinavagupta and Bharata to understand him in his complete grandness.

His works were derived from real experiences around him. They were not rootless fantasies or wordplays and as such they demand in psychology, an expansion of the science beyond Freud and Jung—perhaps into Patanjali and Thiru Moolar.

The works of LaSaRa have been translated into English, French, German and Spanish. He was given the Sahitya Academy award in 1989. Born in October 29, 1916, his writing started from his seventeenth year. He died on October 29, 2007. This is his centenary year.

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