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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Episode 2/Chapter 13. What, If Our Dreams Come True! :The story of Lakshmana Iyer, the Master

Chapter 13. The story of Lakshmana Iyer, the Master

“Every story is more horrendous than the previous one. If the story of the jamindar Rathnam was pathetic, then the story of Jhia, the nomad girl was a great tragedy. The story of Easwaran and the calamity at the temple makes me cry. I feel helpless.” I confessed to Ambalam.

“I shall complete with the last of the stories I know intimately. That is the story of Lakshmana Iyer. You hear that and then decide what you can do about it. I already get a feeling that your arrival here, has a special purpose. Shall I continue? But, remember. All that I told you, were just samples only. There were many more people whose lives were destroyed due to the flood.”

I nodded my head. My heart was heavy with sorrow.

‘I already get a feeling that your arrival here has a special purpose.’ Why did he say that?

For his age, Lakshmana Iyer was a very brisk and active man. He performed his ‘Shashti abda poorthi’ (completion of 60 years of age) only a couple of months ago. It was a simple function, but with greater emphasis on Vedic rites and rituals. His grown up children hosted the function, in a simple ceremony performed in their ‘ashram,’ located not very far from the river Tamirabarani.

Until a few years ago, he was running a small ‘vedic patshala’ (a school for teaching ‘vedas’), with just eight students, in a small rented place, in an adjacent village. He himself had learnt the Vedas in Kasi (present day Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh) on the banks of the river Ganga, when he was quite young, under the tutelage of a very learned ‘guru’ who was an authority on ancient scriptures. After completing his full academic course which ran for a little more than twelve years in the ‘gurukulam,’  he wandered around places in North India for several years before he was directed by another ‘guru’ to go to river Tamirabarani to start a ‘Vedic patshala’.

Establishing a ‘Vedic patshala’ on the banks of the river Tamirabarani required a great deal of efforts and support from local people. Thanks to Keshava Iyer, a rich landlord who resided in Kallidaikurichi, a small town very close to Ambasamudram on the banks of the river, Lakshmana Iyer got a substantial grant to start and run the school. Keshava Iyer was a conservative Brahmin and was married to Ganga. Even after several years of their marriage, the couple didn’t have a child. Ganga’s parents were only too willing to give their second daughter Gomathi in marriage to Keshava Iyer so that he can have an heir to his vast properties. Unfortunately, even the second marriage didn’t produce an offspring at home. A visiting ‘Swamiji’ suggested Keshava Iyer to help poor small children learn as a penance for some past ‘karma’ and predicted that he will have a child soon.

Fortuitously, around the same time Lakshmana Iyer landed in Kallidaikurichi and the meeting between him and Keshava Iyer became very fruitful to them both. Keshava Iyer helped Lakshmana Iyer with a small house and some adjacent structures, to start the school. Within a year, many children from poor ‘brahmin’ families from the nearby villages joined the school.

Within the same period, both Ganga and Gomathi conceived and strangely both delivered twins. Keshava Iyer was delighted at the great blessings. He believed that the visiting ‘Swamiji’s blessings came true and stepped up his support for the ‘Gurukulam’. The Vedic school flourished and earned a high reputation, in and around Kallidaikurichi. Everything went on smoothly during the initial few years.

Lakshmana Iyer was a very knowledgeable scholar and a sincere teacher. He loved the children who studied in his school and the children too reciprocated equally well. He was very ‘brahminical’ in his philosophy and attitude in the true sense and taught the children that realizing ‘Brahman’ ought to be the ultimate aim of every student. ‘By realizing Brahman, you realize everything else,’ he told his students, echoing Vedas and Upanishads.

He was also a nationalist and was influenced by the teachings of Gandhi during the freedom movement. Having stayed in Northern India for the most part of his younger days, he had seen Independence Movement in its active form and embraced the call to be free from foreign oppression. He had also taken active part in the freedom struggle while he was in northern India, though at the fundamental level he believed that as a true Brahmin, his task was to help people attain true freedom, by knowing the Ultimate Truth – Knowing God. Torn between conflicting ideals and goals, sometimes he had become a recluse at Joshimatt in Uttar Pradesh, to resolve the conflict.

Once, when cholera and small pox broke out in southern India, it affected many villages near Kallidaikurichi. A number of people died due to inadequate medical attention and lack of medicines. Many parents lost their children; many children lost their parents and became orphans. When the disease spread to Kallidaikurichi, many families quarantined themselves. Volunteering agencies were quite slow to help the situation. A few Christian missionaries brought in many volunteers and held medical camps, but many in the area were suspicious of the Christian missionaries and their motives, refused their help and drove them away.

There was a barber Singaram, who regularly visited the school to tonsure the heads of the Brahmin students. The Brahmin students were supposed to have only a small tuft on their head and not allowed to grow long hair. Singaram travelled a long distance from another village and he marveled at the discipline of the children in the school. He interacted with Lakshmana Iyer and other children, raised penetrating questions on God and on life and death and learned a lot. He was in a sense one non-brahmin student at the school. Lakshmana Iyer too liked him and used to comment that, maybe one day Singaram too might become an enlightened saint like Valmiki or Vyasa. On those occasions, Singaram used to ask Lakshmana Iyer innocently, ‘Do you really believe so?’ The answer invariably was, ‘Why not?’

One week, Singaram didn’t turn up for his regular visits to the school for performing the tonsuring for the children, Lakshmana Iyer was upset. There was no news from him for a week. Lakshmana Iyer was worried and he missed Singaram and his prying questions on ‘Brahman.’ He sent word and the news he got back, devastated him. Singaram seemed to have been affected by small pox the previous week and died all of a sudden, leaving behind him his wife and a four year old son.

People at Kallidaikurichi were really surprised when Lakshmana Iyer shed tears for Singaram and mourned his death. Lakshmana Iyer gave another rude shock to everyone when he brought Singaram’s wife and his son Maadan to his place and kept them in a small outhouse in his school. Immediately, a number of locals protested, saying Singaram was from a low caste and could not be allowed in a Brahmin locality. Lakshmana Iyer tried to explain, but the people were adamant. The matter was taken to Keshava Iyer, who was unsure as to what stand he had to take. But when his wives Ganga and Gomathi, insinuated by their parents, protested too, he gave in.

He, subtly, suggested to Lakshmana Iyer to send away the family of Singaram to their place. A veiled threat was given that the school might lose patronage if the advice was not heeded. Lakshmana Iyer was in a fix.

Singaram’s wife too pleaded with him to allow them to go back to their village, to avoid further embarrassment to Lakshmana Iyer. When one day, he almost decided that in the interest of the school, it was best for Singaram’s family to leave, more shocking news came in. In another nearby village, a massive cholera outbreak afflicted a number of families and within a couple of days, twelve children in that village became orphans overnight.

Lakshmana Iyer was overwhelmed suddenly. His nationalist feelings took over. He rushed to that village. The residents were all from the so-called low castes and considered untouchables. He was reminded of Gandhiji’s teachings. He decided to defy every objection and brought all those children to his place.

When the news that he was bringing those low-caste children to his school reached Kallidaikurichi, people gathered on the outskirts and blocked his entry into the town. He was asked to go back and not return to his school. Keshava Iyer refused to entertain him, for fear of antagonizing the other powerful local people and suggested to him to take them to some other place. He gave some money to Lakshmana Iyer, to temporarily tide over the situation, with a promise to give him some clandestine support.

Whatever went into his head, Lakshmana Iyer took a very defiant stand and took all those children to the outskirts of another village on the banks of Tamirabarani. He did not even bother to check whether the land belonged to someone or not, he got a few huts erected and put all the children there. He went back to Kallidaikurichi in the dead of night, woke up all his students who were temporarily taken care of by one of his senior students under his instructions and brought them too to his makeshift huts.

Since then, his new Gurukulam started functioning from there. People of Kallidaikurichi could do nothing about whatever he did, except complaining to local authorities about the unauthorized use of public land. Local chieftains visited the place, were very much impressed by the arrangements made by Lakshmana Iyer and decided to follow a ‘no-interference’ policy, as far as his Gurukulam was concerned.

Some support came from different corners, but they were quite meager. However, Lakshmana Iyer met the challenges with great determination.

He consciously decided to segregate the Brahmin boys from the other children. He believed that the path to salvation and higher consciousness could be different for different sets of people, though every path was valid. He always advocated the virtues of tolerance, equality, and acceptance, and he never wanted prejudice even unknowingly. He felt that it was his duty to help every child attain higher states of consciousness by showing them their right path. 

“Don’t be carried away by the pigment of the color of one’s skin. Beyond the skin, everyone is the same. Never ever think you are superior to the children from the other section. They just have a different set of duties - Dharma - to be performed, that is all. Otherwise, they are your equal. Besides, they have different sets of skills and knowledge. Everyone here would use their knowledge and skills for the common good. You, as Brahmins, have a duty to perform and that is, to help people realize God. You will perform that duty without any bias or prejudice or ill feelings.” He told those Brahmin students.

To the other children, he said, “Do not ever think you are in any way inferior to those boys who are studying Vedas. Your duties are different and you will all be mutually supporting each other. They have a different upbringing than yours and that doesn’t make them superior or you inferior. Remember, you are their equals. But it doesn’t authorize you to intrude or meddle in their affairs. We are all different arms and limbs of the same society working for common good. Maybe one day, if you desire, you may also rise to sainthood, but remember, the life of a saint or a true Brahmin won’t be an easy one. Singaram was one who could have become a saint one day but for his ill-fate, remember that.”

In between, a few apprehensive Brahmin parents came to his school and wanted to withdraw their children, as they didn’t want their children to have anything to do with low-caste children. Some were convinced and some were allowed to take away their wards.

There was harmony in the Gurukulam and the children did what work was assigned to them. They cleared the bushes, tilled the soil, planted trees, grew plants for flowers and vegetables, watered them by bringing water from the river,  and turned the land into a green garden.

Keshava Iyer initially continued his monetary support to Lakshmana Iyer, clandestinely. He still remembered with gratitude the fortuitous coincidence of his wives giving birth to healthy babies after he started helping the Gurukulam of Lakshmana Iyer. But in the course of time, he too became powerless before his wife’s objections and his support to the Gurukulam dwindled. Lakshmana Iyer didn’t worry. Somehow, he kept the Gurukulam going. All was fine until one night.

That night, it rained heavily and powerful gusty winds blew off some of the roofs in his Gurukulam. It was pitch dark. Being a low-lying area, in the darkest of hours, they didn’t notice Tamirabarani river breaching the sides and entering the Gurukulam. They were all caught unawares. Many children were quite young and helpless. A huge tree broke off from its roots and fell heavily across a few huts. Lakshmana Iyer and a few seniors frantically searched for every inmate in darkness. The night was dark and rain was pouring torrentially. They spent the whole night getting as many kids as they could, to a safe place. When it dawned, at least sixteen children were missing without any trace. Lakshmana Iyer lost all his sense of composure.


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