Dr Suresh Venkita, our Group Medical Director, a senior cardiologist and an avid writer, has yet again shared this lovely story from his desk.
Boys don’t cry
Sooriya had not known men since he was born. He did not quite know what made men tick.
There were almost no men in his village. They were all lost to the civil war.
He gave no serious thought to the fact that he was a boy, now in his adolescence, and on his way to manhood.
His mother had brought him up like a girl and he just went along with it. It never struck him to ask her why. She never spoke about the man who was in her life. Or about any siblings he might have had. May be she did not want to lose him to the war too. The few boys they knew in the village had become boy-soldiers. The guns they took to, like ducks to water, had eventually taken them too.
Some girls also had gone to fight that war.
He got accustomed to being a girl in a boy’s skin. He was soft and slender, delicate and dreamy. His hair grew long and, in evenings, mother would rub coconut oil into his scalp and draw the hair out with her comb. She would tie them into two plaits and string into them fresh jasmine flowers.
He had a voice as mellifluous as hers and together they would sing hymns to the village gods as dusk crept in and crawled away into the night. The oil lamps burned a few hours into the night until the oil ran out. They shared the cold rice, butter milk and pickle and slept, holding each other tight. On nights he woke up sweating after scary dreams, she would sing softly in his ears the lullabies she sang to him when he was a baby. Comforted, and feeling safe, he would drift away into a deep and dreamless sleep. He did not know that thoughts and worries kept his mother awake all night.
The mother became the boy’s best friend. They laughed and cried together. They played ‘Pandy’ with the other girls, flinging a stone on to the squares they drew on the ground and hopping one legged among them. They also loved playing hide and seek among the tea bushes and, when dirty and tired, dived together into the pond and swam, racing to the other end. They were hungry and scared together too, when food in the beleaguered village began to run out. What frightened the mother most was the day when the soldiers came around and walked past their hut. One turned around and stared at her and her adolescent child in a tattered skirt and blouse. She knew he would come back that night with other soldiers to find them. That was when she said ’Soorie, pack up, we are leaving tonight’.
With two sacks on their backs, they slipped away into the darkness and walked all night and the next day to the coast from where they took a boat to the country where they found their life again, as two together, in the state of origin of their forefathers.
She was good with clothes and he with tailoring. She picked the right fabrics, drew her own designs and cut with craft and confidence. His fingers could weave magic with the second-hand Singer sewing machine. Together they made their boutique a successful business.
They were happy together. At home they were just two girls having fun.
But at school he reverted to being a boy. Boys got used to seeing him wearing his hair long. He was good at studies and swift on the track and field. He ran like a hare at times and like a horse at other times, always hitting the tape first. That came easy; running had kept him alive in the village.
At college they did not mind that he did not play football or cricket as he was a good friend to all and helped them with homework and tough assignments.
But come evening and weekends, he reverted to skirt (Pavadai) and half-sari ( Davani). As they worked together designing and creating beautiful clothes, he giggled a lot at mother’s jokes about the customers who came in that day. When she spoke about good looking men who came along with their wives but stole glances at her, appreciating her figure and demeanour, he was as curious as any girlfriend would be and wanted to know all about what they said or did behind their wives’ backs!
At home mother and son were comfortable sharing confidences, clothes, foot wear and jewellery.
May be not cosmetics as it happened that day!
His mother walked into the room just as he was about to apply her new lipstick. She was startled. He was startled. "What are you doing with my lipstick? It's new...I haven't used it so far. Couldn't you have waited?" He smiled and handed it back to her. "I forgot to tell you...I am playing Draupadi in our college production... rehearsals start this evening."
Draupadi was not the first female character that would come his way to play. But he had matured to play such complex roles and was confident that he could give a convincing performance.
After all, the first role, his debut, was playing ‘house’ with other girls in the village. They were all adept in playing house wives, busy with worn out but still colourful plastic pots and pans, stoves and kettles, cups and saucer and ladles and spoons. The dialogues would go like this’’ Oh, your husband should be coming home soon, time to put the kettle to boil. What do you plan to make for tiffin?”.
Of course, there was a difference. Draupadi would have had to cater for 5 husbands coming home to tea!
Sadly, in the village they left behind, since a very long time, no men had ever come home to tea.
Sooriya had done his homework on Draupadi, one of the most important female characters in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. She had emerged from fire as a dusky beauty, became a benevolent empress housed in a palace of illusions and was proficient in financial management of Indraprastha, their empire. Tragically she became the final stake in the game of dice where Yudhishthira loses her too, after losing himself, his brothers and his kingdom to Duryodhana. Draupadi questions the legality of her husband’s action to stake her when he himself had lost the wager at dice. No one has right to put a woman on bet according to shastras; not a husband, father, or even the gods. The abject humiliation Draupadi is subjected to at the court sets the scene for retaliation and the eventual destruction of the Kaurava or Kuru dynasty as predicted by a celestial voice at her birth, and baptism, through fire.
She was the first to fall on the final walk of the Pandavas to heaven but the first to be raised to divinity as discovered by Yudhishthira as he romped alone to the gates of heaven.
Draupadi Amman is now best known as a village goddess with unique rituals and mythologies. The followers believe that Draupadi is the incarnation of the goddess Kali. Fire walking or theemithi in south India is a popular ritual enacted at Draupadi Amman temples. It probably pays tribute to her sagacity as she walked on the fire of humiliation, banishment, war, loss of loved ones and death yet emerged unscathed. There are over 400 temples in south India and Asia dedicated to Draupadi.
Armed with knowledge about the personality of this remarkable woman Soorie played the role to perfection.
Swiftly opportunities to play the roles of other remarkable women in ancient and modern history of India came Soorie’s way. He played Kannagi, whose grief and rage at the loss of her husband burned down the southern city of Madurai. He also played Mumtaz Mahal, the love for who moved the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to create a timeless monument of love, the Taj Mahal, on the banks of Yamuna. He played with gusto the heroic but ill-fated mission of Rani Lakshmi Bai, the young queen of Jhansi who took on the might of the British army. He had the courage to play Phoolan Devi, the bandit queen of Chambal valley whose searing journey through humiliation and revenge ended in retaliation years later when she was shot down right outside the gate of her home.
But the role that he relished the most was enacting the life of Indira Gandhi. A life that began as a lonely, unhappy and insecure child sent away to a Swiss school after the death of her mother and the incarceration of her father, her marriage to Feroze Gandhi following an emotional and rebellious decision, the loss of her father and later her son and her tumultuous years in politics and in power, all ending on the garden of her official residence at Delhi, shot to death by her own body guards.
The defining moment in his life arrived when he was asked to break the mould, crawl out of his skin and shell and play men.
And no less a man that the father of Indira Gandhi! In Attenborough’s Gandhi, Saeed Jaffrey, acting as Sardar Vallabhai Patel, had described the young man who came to greet Gandhi who just got off the ship from south Africa as ‘‘That is Jawahar Lal; he has his father’s intellect, his mother’s good looks and the devil’s own charm”.
Just as with the roles of women who left their mark on ancient and modern India, roles of such men were on offer to him. Besides Nehru, the list included emperors Ashoka, Vikramadithya and Akbar, scientist Homi Bhabha, poet Rabindra Nath Tagore, writer-director Satyajit Ray and modern day techie icons like Satya Nadella and Sunder Pitchai. He had an exciting career in stage, TV and films beckoning him.
That was when Soorie realized that he did not know a thing about men.
In order to act, he had to find out.
He had to learn about this country and its men, but not from books as he had learned about characters so far but from its streets.
But to start with, he had to be Sooriya and learn to stay Sooriya.
He decided to hit the road.
Mother did not know what troubled him but packed his bag for him.
It was time to make his decision known.
He lifted the skirts, blouses, saris, lingerie, cosmetics, coomb, bangles, chains, ear drops, bindis and the hand mirror from the backpack and kept them on the table. The next step was to lift them and leave them in the cupboard.
His mother watched, but did not say a thing.
Sooriya did not say anything either, but took a long look at his mother that spoke more. It also said ‘’ Amma, I am done with this, it is over’’.
He lifted the backpack and stepped out.
He straddled the motor bike and turned to her, standing silent at the door.
His eyes spoke again’’ Amma, good bye’’
She spoke up, softly’’ Soorie, wait ‘‘.
He waited for the familiar ritual- smearing of a streak of ash on his forehead and buzz on the cheek.
She was taking time; he sat on the bike and turned to watch the traffic.
“ Sooriya’’ came her distinct, strident call from the back. She had never called him Sooriya, it was always Soorie.
Puzzled, he turned.
She stood there, her long hair cropped to a boyish cut, dark goggles shielding her eyes, a ring on the left ear, a leather jacket slung over the right shoulder, chequered shirt with sleeves rolled up revealing a tattoo of a hooded serpent running down most of her left arm, faded jeans torn and gaping at the knees, a studded belt and knee-high boots, with a cigarette dangling from her lips.
She walked up to the mo-bike, threw the stub on the ground, crushed it with the toe of her boot, slipped on her leather gloves and said ‘’ Shift, I am driving’’.
His eyes clouded.
Sensing that, she turned around on the seat, looked at him squarely in the eyes and said ’’ We boys don’t cry’’.
Dr. Venkita S Suresh,
Group Medical Director and Dean of Studies,
DNB and other post-graduate training programs.