Thursday, June 03, 2010

From the land of Theyyam

“Train No 6627 West Coast Express is running late by 2 hours!”, came the announcement. It was hardly heard amidst the noise in the station itself. The sounds of people, hurrying towards their respective platforms, the advertisements running on the huge plasma screen, trolleys being pulled and trains arriving and leaving, all contributed to the strange symphony that only Chennai Central could create.

“Well! That might be good”, remarked Raghu. “How is a train running late good news?” asked Sajani. “It’s simple. The train will then reach around 4 in the morning tomorrow, which is safer and I get to spend two more hours with you. Isn’t that good enough?” Sajani smiled faintly.

“I feel so guilty, Raghu. All these years, and suddenly now I’m going back, when the one relative that I love is probably on her death bed.” Raghu patted her on her shoulder. “Calm down. Sometimes life leads us away. At least you are going to meet her now, before it’s too late. I wish I could come with you.”. “That’s okay Raghu, Achan would be alone here”, she reassured him.

Sajani’s mind however was restless. It was thirteen years ago, that she had left from Neeleshwaram for Chennai along with Raghu, after which she had, had very little contact with Sreedevi Oppol, very little contact with the little beautiful town of Nileshwaram. It had been thirteen whole years since she sat near the perennially full temple well silently soaking in the serenity and peace of the Swarnavalli Vishnu Temple. She wondered whether it was still all the same in her own little Neeleshwaram town, the abode of Neeleshwara.

“Shall I get you some coffee?” queried Raghu, interrupting her stream of thoughts. “No. you go have one. You look tired.” she replied and watched him walking away towards the coffee stall. Raghu had been a loving husband, supportive and caring, helping her in both her career and her personal life. He had suggested that they go to Neeleshwaram a lot of times, but unfortunately due to their respective careers and raghu’s father’s health issues, it had never materialized. All she had been able to do was call Sreedevi Oppol once in a while. Sreedevi Oppol had been the one sole source of strength since her lonely orphaned childhood and now she felt so uncomfortable, that all these years she never bothered to go see her and help her out in her own life, even though she led a solitary life herself. However it was always the thought of the amount of respect and love the local people had for Sreedevi Teacher that gave her the courage and confidence that she would not be alone. And yet the pangs of separation, guilt and awkwardness continued and suddenly a deep sadness enveloped her heart.

“Nandan called just now. He’s having a house warming for the flat he bought on Old Mahabalipuram Road”, said Raghu as he seated himself beside Sajani. “You must go and convey my regards too.” Raghu noticed the weakness in her voice. “What is it?” he asked worried. “No, Nothing. Sometimes you suddenly start feeling really sad, though there is no specific reason. It’s an amalgamation of all feelings. Strange thing is, the sum total is mostly sadness, perhaps because grief is the strongest ingredient.”

“Woah! Where did that come from? Don’t worry too much. Everything will be alright”

“Train No 6627 West Coast Express will be arriving shortly on Platform number 5” reverberated the station. As they walked towards the platform, the sky thundered. “That’s strange” said Raghu. Sajani just smiled and her thoughts meandered. Rain - That strange phenomenon that was both a blessing and a nuisance.

As she bade goodbye to Raghu, she realized, that this was the first time she was traveling so far without him. The air conditioned compartment looked comfortable, yet she had a disturbed sleep, partly due to memories, partly due to the parting and partly due to the added pressure of waking up early in the morning and not sleeping off. When at five in the morning, the train slowly ambled towards Neeleshwaram, she was all groggy and red eyed.

The air was chill outside as Sajani walked to hail a rickshaw. As the auto rickshaw noisily advanced towards Jawahar Housing Colony, she looked out and tried to make sense of those old pathways and buildings, but as much as her town had retained it’s old world charm, modernity was catching up in every way and it made her recollections all the more difficult. However as soon as she saw that old brown gate, she felt a sudden inner peace and lightness of being. Her thoughts were distracted when the driver asked her for twenty rupees. She realized, she was indeed in Kerala. No way could she have paid just twenty rupees in Chennai.

As she walked towards the old house, with its deep maroon tiles and red floors, she felt like she was entering another world. And then she appeared, wearing glasses and in a white saree! Sreedevi Oppol, looked weak, but her eyes still had the same old glow, her face still glowing with the same complexion. “Who is it?” she asked. “You have forgotten have you?” said Sajani playfully. As Sreedevi Oppol came closer, her eyes widened in recognition, yet at the same time, brimming with tears. “My Child!” she let out a sigh of relief and there they stood hugging each other.

The next few days, Sajani became a child again, as she wandered the length and breadth of Neeleshwaram, with Sreedevi Oppol. She played with the flowers, the people, rediscovering her life and old friends. It was one evening, while they were collecting flowers in the twilight and when Sreedevi Oppol complained of headache and had to take rest, that it dawned on Sajani, that Sreedevi Oppol was not well.

“I’m sorry, Oppol. I forgot to ask you. You had written that you were not well. I forgot about that totally after I reached here”. “No problem, Sajani. I myself don’t like to remember it much. It’s just this terrible headache. The Doctor at Malayatoor hospital said that there is some kind of growth in my brain.”

Sajani was shocked. All her guilt, remorse, pangs of separation, everything came back to her and in that weak moment, when she could hold it back no longer, she let go and cried.

“I’m so sorry Oppol. All these years, I never bothered to come see you. Never took care of you. I should have been by your side; instead I just lived my own life. I’m so sorry.”

“What are you telling, Sajani? I never thought like that. Don’t you have your own problems?”. “Please come with me. Come to Chennai. We will get this treated.” interrupted Sajani.

“Sajani, what has gotten into you?. I cannot. I…” Sreedevi Oppol was shivering as she walked away. Sajani sat silent and confused, as she watched Sreedevi Oppol walk towards the kitchen. Outside, Neeleshwaram got submerged in the thickness of the night, the chill settling in.

Raghu called early morning, the next day. His father had taken ill again. There had been blood and vomiting and he had been shifted to a hospital. Even as raghu consoled her and asked her not to worry, she could still identify the sheer helplessness and yearning in his voice. She informed Sreedevi Oppol, that she had to leave to Chennai. Sreedevi Oppol nodded anxiously and watched as Sajani proceeded towards the railway station to book the next train to Chennai. After all the waiting at the railway station, she could get a ticket only for the next day, and by the time she reached back home, she was already very tired.

Sreedevi Oppol was strangely excited when she said that she would leave only the next day. “Then will you come with me today evening?” she asked. “Where?” Sajani replied half-heartedly. “It’s Theyyam at Thali Temple. Come, it will set everything right. Lord Neeleswaran will set your mind at peace.” Though sajani did not feel like going, she nodded her head.

As they walked towards, the temple Sajani could already hear the peculiar drum beats. The mystic accompaniment of chenda and kuzhal lingered in her ears. As they reached the temple, the Theyyam performance was already starting. There were lots of people, gathered around a tall dark dancer in a red head dress, as he along with the drummers and a few other dancers who joined him, started to recite a song. It was about one Palanthai Kannan, a local legend and deity. Sajani could not make out much of the lyrics, but she just soaked in the magic of the atmosphere and looked wide eyed.

After some time, the recital stopped and the dancers retreated. “Is that all?” asked Sajani. “Wait and see” replied Sreedevi Oppol naughtily. After some time, the dancer returned, only this time, she could not recognize him. Totally covered in red and yellow, with a colourful crown and ornaments and a red dhoti, it seemed like an apparition to her awestruck eyes. She watched as the music started and slowly the dancer started swaying and chanting and as the music and the eager beats continued, he danced like possessed. The people watched and prayed, as the performance continued and hit several crescendos creating a purely electrifying experience. The dancer was believed to have imbibed the spirit of the local deity and as he ran in the courtyard and went round the main temple, the devotees followed, chanting their prayers. Sajani just followed her mind numb and blank, stirred into silence by the magnetism of the experience. As the Theyyam completed all eight steps of footwork, Sreedevi Oppol nudged Sajani. “Come let’s walk. It will get late.”

“Do you remember the story of Palanthai Kannan?” asked Sreedevi Oppol on their way back. “No. I guess I forgot”. “Let me tell you. Palanthai Kannan was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. He was from Neeleshwaram. Once he plucked a mango from the orchard of Kuruvat Nair. Kuruvat Nair got enraged and beat up Palanthai Kannan and drove him away from Neeleshwaram.”

“For a mango?” asked Sajani. “Yes! So Palanthai Kannan ran away to a temple in Mangalore and stayed in a temple there. After a few days, he returned with the blessings of the lord himself. He reached Neeleshwaram, and he took bath in Kadalikulam. News of his arrival spread everywhere and reached the ears of Kuruvat nair too. They came to kadalikulam and killed Palanthai Kannan.” “Oh!” remarked Sajani. “But they did not know that Palanthai Kannan had not come alone. Lord Vishnu had come along with him. Vishnumoorthi was burning with anger and he destroyed the entire Kuruvat ancestral home and their lineage. Vishnumoorthi then took rest at Vaikunda Temple and Vishnumoorthi and Palanthai Kannan are to this day worshipped here.”

“Quite a story” replied Sajani. “Sajani, its not just a story. The Theyyams of Neeleshwaram don’t just recite stories. These are our life threads. To me, you are like my Palanthai Kannan. You might have left Neeleshwaram, but I was always sure that you would come back. I don’t fear death. I am more than satisfied that the gods here blessed me enough to be able to see you, before I leave this body behind. You thought you wronged me. If I had felt so, would Vishnumoorthi have forgiven me?”

Sajani was silent, her eyes glued to Sreedevi Oppol’s face. “Sajani, out of your compassion for me, you ask me to come with you. But I don’t want that Sajani. I have found peace here. My life has derived meaning and energy out of this pure land. How can I leave it behind? Even if I recover, for how long will it be? What if I come there and could not return to Neeleshwaram. What if I could not see Neeleshwaran or Palanthai Kannan or Muthappan or Muchilot Bhagavathi one last time? Do you want to deny me this life, Sajani? ”. Sreedevi Oppol, kept her hands lightly on Sajani’s shoulder and they walked towards home.

Two months had passed since then. Raghu’s father had passed away and Sajani and he took a long leave to go to Varanasi, Rameswaram and Thirunelli to perform his last rites. But they could not return to Chennai immediately, not before visiting Neeleshwaram and paying their last respects to Sreedevi Oppol, who had passed away peacefully one fine morning.

Raghu was now a tormented soul. Death had weakened him. Sajani however consoled him and was a pillar of strength as she helped him get back to life and work. Raghu was slowly finding peace in Sajani and Sajani in Raghu. Sajani‘s peace also came from afar, from Sreedevi Oppol, from her beautiful hometown of Neeleshwaram, from the mystic land of Theyyam.

Pics Courtesy :,, (Beautiful Theyyam snap), by Eric Lafforgue(Through