Sunday, 13 January 2013

Listening Properly

My training grant from the Arts Council of Wales is to support my study of kalarippayat but also to learn Sanskrit.  So a few days after my arrival in Trivandrum I made some enquiries.  It turns out, if you study Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) at all, you have to learn Sanskrit, so the kalari was a good place to ask.

practising my letters

A few days later, Sujith (who was apprenticing last time I was here but now treats people in the kalari clinic) put me on the back of his bike and took me to a street behind the Chalai Bazaar that had apparently been bequeathed to Brahmins by a maharaja some time back.  Now other castes live there too, but it is still inhabited mostly by Brahmins.  There’s a Ganesha temple the size of a small, square room on the road leading to it and most of the houses have little chalk mandalas (I’m not sure what they’re called but it’s the closest approximation I have) reworked every few days outside their doors. 

stairway to Sanskrit

Up a small flight of stairs, I was sat down and introduced to the teacher, Mahadevan.

“It is a name of Lord Shiva,” said Sujith.

I took this as a good sign.

There were a few disruptions along the way: Mahadevan’s trip to deliver a paper in Kashmir, which took him ten days, most of which he spent on the train (it’s a LONG trip from Trivandrum to Srinagar), my trip to Bangalore to work with some dancers, the odd bout of flu (mine) or lack of sleep (his), and the memorable occasion when I turned up for my class at six in the morning to find the house locked up and the neighbour telling me he had gone away.  It turns out, he had lost his phone and couldn’t forewarn me.

But these things must be taken in the spirit of India, I mused (though this was not so easy after an unnecessary pre-dawn rising) and my progress has been steady, if not stellar.

I guestimate Mahadevan to be roughly my age.  Initially he would address me as “Ma’am” in text messages.  While this faded out, the “Namaste” as greeting remains.  He once bade me thank you and good night in Devanagari (the script of Sanskrit) after re-arranging a class time.  So apart from anything else, I have had a whole new education in SMS.

He teaches Sanskrit in a school in the day time and about a year previously had started the school for people seeking extra tuition on the top floor of his house.  I was his first foreign student.  He was clearly baffled as to why I would travel all this way to learn Sanskrit when, in his experience, people in India aren’t much interested (such studies not leading to a coveted “government job”).

So I explained that I practise yoga and have studied a little philosophy.  Advaita Vedanta,” I say, keeping the Kashmir Shaivism, a branch of Tantra, very quiet. Advaita Vedanta is a nice, vegetarian, socially reputable philosophy. Anything related to Tantra has connotations of animal sacrifice and cremation grounds (not to mention illicit sex and black magic) here in India.  Mine and many other versions of Tantra involve no such thing (except perhaps as a metaphor, here or there) but I don’t have the courage to go into such explanations until I know someone fairly well, especially as my version of English is only half understood much of the time.

Advaita Vedanta.  Why would foreigners learn such a thing?”  

Despite my eccentricities, Mahadevan agreed to take me on, explaining that I could aspire to learn to read in the time available to me.

Ganesha temple and coconut tree from Mahadevan's front door at dawn

Because of his timetable and mine, until this month, it was easiest to have my classes before kalari.  On Sanskrit mornings, I would get up at 4:50, get the bus into East Fort, passing the Murugan temple on the way, and walk through the pre-dawn Chalai Bazaar, only the flower and puja stalls open (they never seem to shut) for people off to the many temples lining the rest of my route.  So I would pass the huge Padmanabhaswamy temple at East Fort, walk past the mosque in the bazaar, turn left at the Shiva temple a little later, pass the Devi temple and finally turn right towards the Ganesha temple on Mahadevan’s street.  In a walk that took fifteen minutes.

Up the narrow stairs I would go, to the small table we sat on either side of.  The mornings where the power cuts coincided with Sanskrit time, we’d sit on the roof terrace with the mosquitoes and sunrise.

Slowly I began to learn my letters.

“Did I say “ta” or “ta”?” he demanded in some impatience, when I was attempting to differentiate between two Devanagari letters which still sound the same to me ( and ટ).  This may not seem important but they are quite distinct in Sanskrit and can completely change the meaning of a word, as can whether the vowels in it are short (a) or long (aa).

“Listen properly,” he admonished.  “You must listen properly.  Only then will you write perfectly.”


Sanskrit is totally phonetic, so theoretically, if you can pronounce and recognise the subtle differences in sound of all fifty plus letters (I get confused as to what count as letters in their own right and what count as compounds), you can perfectly pronounce anything you read and perfectly spell anything you hear.

I say theoretically.

One Sunday morning, I was reading out my homework. It being Sunday and not dawn, there were other teachers affiliated to the school in the room with the odd student.  One teacher sat next to Mahadevan was clearly very amused at my attempts.

“She has some problem with ‘ta’ and ‘ta’”, explained Mahadevan apologetically.

To give you a sense of it, there are four variations of “ta”, another four of “da”, four of “na”, but thankfully only two each of “ka”, “ga”, “cha”, “ja”, “pa” and “ba”.

Perhaps because he teaches children, Mahadevan was very good at introducing the letters in a way that was memorable, quickly putting them into words and eventually moving me onto children’s books.  Once I’d learnt the script, by tacit agreement, we decided I wasn’t going to be memorising a whole load of grammatical forms this time round, being rather pulled in other directions.

So instead, he explains the occasional grammatical principle and I practise my reading.  

We began with a few verses from the Bhagavad Gita and moved on to some fairly simple chants and bhajans. (My suspicion is he was too distressed at my massacring of the Gita and wanted my efforts directed elsewhere.)

“You must keep in touch with the letters,” he tells me, clearly concerned I am going to lose the fruits of our labours after my departure.

I have quite a few books that will help me with this in a big box currently wending its way back to Wales.  I now read like a dyslexic three year old but remain hopeful I will be able to build on this work, slowly and steadily, when I leave Kerala.  My main aim was to be able to read and pronounce correctly, and whilst I am far from perfect, I am a little further along the way.

We’ve just had a near three week break with his latest trip.  When he came back, we were working on a sound-play known as the Maheshvara Sutrani.  These are sounds Shiva played on his drum which the grammarian Panini heard in meditation.  To say it’s a tongue-twister is to understate the case.

Apparently the break has done me good.

“Your pronunciation is much better,” said Mahadevan.  “You are now pronouncing ‘na’ and ‘na’ and ‘na’ and ‘na’ correctly.”

Unfortunately, if I am, I don’t know that I am, and when I read them, I still have very little idea of how to differentiate most of them. 

In these last couple of weeks of classes, I usually make my way to the little Brahmin street during the late afternoon.  As his mum is up at this time, she brings me sweet Indian coffee and laughs at my lack of Malayalam.  This morning I waited, reading the Sunday paper, for Mahadevan to return from the temple.  A crowd of people came by my seat near the front door and called his mother, who then shared the kumkum (the red powder you dot on your forehead in blessing) they had brought her (presumably from the temple).  A little later, Mahadevan arrived on his motorbike for my class and gave me coconut and jaggery prasad, wrapped in banana leaf.

Mahadevan's front door

We worked on the opening of the Shri Shiva Sahasranama Stotram (a hymn to Shiva).  At one point, it describes him as ornamented with a snake.

“The snake means many things,” said Mahadevan.

“What do you think it means?” I asked.

He went on to explain that Parvati (Shiva’s wife) has a lion (or tiger) as her vehicle in her manifestation as the goddess Durga, while Shiva rides the bull Nandi.  The lion hunts the bull.  Their son Murugan rides a peacock, which hunts snakes (one of which Shiva wears around his neck), and their other son Ganesha rides a mouse, which in turn is the prey of snakes.  I think Mahadevan was trying to explain to me that the vehicles of this divine family illustrate that enmity, duality are illusory.  I’d never considered the vehicles of the gods in this way.

As I left, he wrapped the banana leaf with its coconut and jaggery prasad in a page of Sanskrit for me to take with me.  “So you can read after you have eaten.”  I later discovered it was a sheet from a basic examination.  I guess it’s something to aim for.

So it’s blessings all round.

Bhaja Govindam

From Lucy, with love. x

1 comment:

  1. It brought memories to me of my learning Sanskrit at school and it's ease with which we would learn shlokas back then and recite it in the hymn style , whereas how tough it is now to learn a new language ( for me it's spanish ) and barely manage to get the pronunciation and the message across..
    Will defy want to get back to improving my sanskrit, but am really glad i learnt sanskrit as it helps in understanding prayers ,hymns , shlokas and appreciate meaning of some words that loses it's essence when you try and explain it using english or any other language.. thats the beauty and irony of language-