I am an emotional reader. When a book or a character appeals to me, it takes me a while to say goodbye to them. Sometimes never. But no book has ever done what B Jeyamohan’s Neelam did to me.
Neelam is the fourth book in ‘Venmurasu’, the 26-book series of the Mahabharatham in novel form, in Tamil. Simply put, it is Krishna’s story. But nothing about it is simple. It is a stand-alone book and so there was no issue of continuity when I started with the fourth book. I heard that the other books are different from Neelam in language and style and I can see that as I am now a few chapters into the first book ‘Mutharkanal’ . I have embarked upon this epic journey called Venmurasu as part of my 2021 reading challenge.
Neelam is a luminescent gem in the series, different from the others not just in language and style, but also in ambience and the whole aura that it evokes. While the language is opulently lyrical and sumptuously beautiful, it creates a world – I should say a cosmos – of magic realism into which, if you dip a toe, you are pulled along, on a blue current that engulfs you in a heady swirl of emotions and thoughts from which you can never fully emerge. And that’s not a bad thing. Believe me.
You meet the Baby Krishna, a few pages into the book and from the first sight of his little blue toes peeping out of a basket, held aloft by his father crossing a raging river, the tiny toes that the Yamuna valiantly strives to touch and be blessed, you are caught up in a blue haze. It is a storm, a whirlwind; a deluge, an ocean; and with the first glimpse of that toothless smile, there is no turning back. It is a cerulean web in which you are blissfully enmeshed. Radha breaks off a piece of bamboo for him, adorns his curls with a peacock feather and you are lost in the notes and the eye that never sleeps.
The ‘love’ of Radha and Krishna is the bedrock of Neelam around which everything else happens. And this love as we know is not the earthly kind of love and I don’t know if it can even be called ‘love’ at all as we understand it. I merely use it for want of a better word. It’s a phenomenon that eliminates trifling limitations such as age, gender, custom, time, self, dimensions, manifestations… Nothing matters here except a purity and a clarity that encompasses everything that is divine and human, spiritual and mundane; elemental and unmanifest; omnipresent and intangible; the ultimate prakrithi and purusha . And through it all, you see Krishna’s infinite love and wisdom, the philosophies He advocated, the principles He stood for, and His message for Mankind.
There is darkness too. In the senseless infanticide that surrounds the birth of Krishna, something neither Mathura nor its principal proponents recover from. And assuming responsibility for those unnamed souls, Krishna takes on a name for each one of those souls, redeeming them. The Sahasranaamam (1008 Names) attained a whole other level of meaning for me, with that. That I think is one of my favorite parts of the book. And the one that brought my first trickle of tears. It was merely a prelude to the many Kalindis that were to follow.
The old stories we grew up hearing are presented anew – in a clearer light of rationale. Puthana towers as a manifestation of wounded motherhood’s righteous rage – the rage of Mother Earth Herself; Kamsa’s obsession walks a fine line between fear and love, a strange blend of Bhakti, if you will; and Vasudevar is forced to confront some uncomfortable questions about his choices.
The author says the lush flora and the settings he describes so vividly were inspired more from his native surroundings in Kanyakumari District rather than the original Brindavan on the shores of the Yamuna. I can see that and in some places, the landscape of his native turf, which also happens to be mine, (a land where the five distinct landscapes detailed in Tamil Sangham literature – Kurinji, Mullai Marutham, Neythal, and Palai can be found), makes its presence felt. And I was surprised to see a new angle to a legend that I grew up with. The legend of Devi Kanyakumari (to which I have my own take here). He gives a whole other angle to this much beloved belief, one that I find extremely fascinating. But even before I came to the clinching statement about Her, as Jeyamohan described the landscape, I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. And I knew he was talking about home.
Krishna is a favorite God with a lot of people, but I have never exactly called him a ‘favorite,’ much as I loved him. He was just there, in the periphery of my devotion. But Neelam has rendered him very real. A presence too strong and powerful for a mere mortal to face. Everything I had read or was familiar with over the years – the Bhagavatham, the Bhagavad Gita, the Narayaneeyam, the Gita Govinda, several poems… they have all suddenly become more real and tangible, the many facets of this Sapphire. I am finally beginning to understand what the firebrand poet saw in the hue of the crow’s wing and felt in the touch of fire. I see the charming rogue who stole butter and hearts, the cowherd who herded souls, the lover who set the shores of the Yamuna afire with passion under a voluptuous moon, the benevolent ruler of Dwaraka, the Man who gave the Gita and urged his friend and nephew to fight for what is right, and he feels more real today than my own self.
Suddenly, ‘feeling blue’ has attained a whole other level of meaning. In a good way and I simply cannot have enough of it. The couple of days after I finished the book, I was in a kind of daze, a bubble of sorts when all my thoughts revolved around the book, they kept chasing after the beatific smile of a little blue toned baby and dwelt upon the tinkling anklets adorning his tiny feet, I inhaled deep the sweet, sweet fragrance of his baby breath and gently struck his divine little behind in mock anger. I heard the haunting notes of his flute, felt kadamba petals whirl past me and the breeze seemed laden with the fragrance of sandalwood. I breathlessly awaited midnight trysts with the blue hued one in lush woods redolent with the sensuous fragrance of the most exotic flowers. I lived Radha’s ecstasy and agony even as I watched flowers bloom along her footsteps. Even her viraham, like her single-minded surrender was blissful. Sometimes Radha seemed to be the protagonist of the book rather than Krishna and that is exactly how it should be.
And then I slowly recovered from it. But not for long. Neelam came back like a cobalt bolt of lightning. Almost an assault. The darkness in the books overwhelmed me. The dark, cold, stone dungeons that bred children for death and the senseless brutality of infanticide, the hopelessness of Mathura that had become a cursed city – everything cast a shadow upon me.
I suddenly realize how many of our casual conversations, our songs, and thoughts are inextricably woven with the symbolism and iconography of Krishna. Flutes, peacock feathers, Dwaraka, Yamuna, Kalindi, Kadamba trees, Vanamalas… so many innocuous words and motifs, whether they consciously refer to him or not, my subconscious started connecting everything to him. On the days the book assaults me, all those references pierce me like shrapnel. I am awash with powerfully surging emotions that threaten to drown me or settle like a dull ache somewhere within me. Everything assumes enormous significance and I am reduced to a bundle of emotions inexplicably tearing up.
And then I see a beautiful dark-skinned baby pointing to his little tummy and saying, “Kannan paavam,” and suddenly my world is bright again.
And when I try to write of what all this means to me, every word seems trivial. Like it does right now. I am trying to capture something that is much bigger than these words, than myself, than this universe itself. And I find myself lost and in despair. But I had to write this. Even if the words sound hollow and trivial, a mere shell presuming to capture the pearl of Neelam, it had to be written. Not for closure. That can never be, nor do I want it to be. I need Neelam in my life. To go back to it and take a dip in those soul cleansing azure waters again and again. But write I must, for my redemption. For in writing this, I hope to come to grasp with at least some of what Neelam evoked in me.