Wondermental Rights – interview with Chandrika (7 May 2009)

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chandrikaIntroduction

Some two weeks ago, I received a long email from Chandrika. She explained her work and the moment I read the words ‘Adi Sankara’ and ‘The Life of Krishna’ I knew I wanted to interview her. I was a little worried she would back out from the interview and I am so glad she did not. I am sure that, like me, you’ll be as fascinated reading all she has to say. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing you to Chandrika …


Aneeta: Chandrika, I am very happy you wrote to me and agreed to this interview. Thank you and welcome.

Chandrika: Thank you so much, Aneeta. I was told about your website by a dear friend of mine, Marguerite Theophil, herself a great story teller, author of a book of stories, entitled Turtle Tales and a personal life coach who heals through stories. A very interesting person! When I started going through your web site, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that has gone into this project and am so glad to contribute in any way I can to its popularity

Aneeta: Such lovely comments! Thanks. Let’s start with something about you. Where were you born, where did you grow up, what do you do for a living and where do you live now?

Chandrika: While I was born in Chennai and had my primary school education there, I have ever since shifted to Mumbai and have lived in this city for the past 40 years! I have travelled little and see myself as a banyan tree, for I grow such deep roots that even transplanting myself for a few days is often disturbing, if not traumatic. As I look back at my career graph I see it as one that has taken all kinds of twists and turns, with a new persona emerging at each turn of the road. However, one thing has been constant  – I think I was and will always be a learner!

But, I stared my professional career as a teacher, after completing my post graduation in English Literature from the University of Bombay. Initially I taught in colleges around the city. At the same time I also began writing articles – for periodicals and newspapers on issues related to education and children. Soon, however, I tired of the educational set up, (academic teaching can often become very rigid and strait jacketed, with the syllabus quite outmoded and uninspiring and the students straining at the leash to do more challenging things) and I wanted to reinvent myself.

And so, to a post-graduate degree in Literature, I added a diploma in child psychology and another degree in education and looked around for an opportunity to interact with very small children. I found just what I wanted, when, quite by accident, I met Mr. Sanjeev Gujral, founder of Erehwon, (‘nowhere’ spelt backwards) an organization that specialized in Creative Thinking. I joined him, and as part of his research team, we worked though modules that could be presented in schools to develop the thinking skills of children. Of course our work was hugely influenced by Edward De Bono’s Lateral Thinking methodology, as well as the work of Alex Osborn, Tony Buzan and Roger Von Oech. But I had a feeling that there was little in these authors to appeal specifically to Indian children. And so, along with looking for ways to create material for our kids, I also began work on the Story Module, which was called Thinking through Stories.

Armed with this, I went to primary schools to experiment with young children all between the ages of eight and ten. With them, I explored Upside Down Stories, Inside Out Stories, Back to Front stories, Question Stories – actually every kind of  story we could think of! And unleashed so much imaginative energy that it could have put a Shakespeare to shame! That, by the way, was the beginning of my love affair with stories. Later, even after I quit Erehwon and ventured out on my own, I continued conducting workshops for children on Creativity. All of this found an outlet in my first book, published by Don Bosco’s Communication Centre Tej Prasarini. The book entitled Exercises in Education to Creativity was written as a resource manual to help educators develop the creative skills of participants in both a formal and a non-formal environment. The book contained seventy-three exercises as well as fifty worksheets as tools that could unleash the creative potential of students.

But most process work with children is a long-term investment. And there had to be a space where we could be in touch outside of the formal dimensions of a school environment. At just this time, my daughter who was six, was at a loss for good reading material. The two things combined in my head and lo! Nurture, a periodical for little ones emerged.

It was a magazine that started out as a quarterly and went on to becoming a monthly. It spoke to children through stories. We had a theme for each month, and we had our mascots (animals mostly) who told stories woven loosely around the theme. So we had a mixed breed dog called Pucho who told readers curious facts about their world, we had a giraffe, Sooj Bhooj who narrated fables, we had monkeys called Gadbad Gotala who asked them ridiculous riddles and so on and so forth. Our stories were culled from various sources, from Red Indian folklore to Tenali Raman tales; from narratives of Indian culture to childhood incidents of great men and women. We promoted through Nurture, among other things, a love of the English language, a sensitivity to the environment, an awe at the world in which we live, a desire to learn and grow, every day. In a nutshell, we promoted, what Sanjeev Gujral had coined in Erehwon, the wondermental rights of all beings. It was when I wound up Nurture after seven long years of being editor, writer, publisher, distributor that I realized it was time to reinvent myself. I had to peep around the next corner to see what was in store for me!

Aneeta: I like that term, ‘wondermental rights of all beings’. In your first email to me, you wrote about a project that started some three years ago which involves the translation of ‘our great spiritual texts found in regional languages into English’. Please explain what this involved and how it all happened and the title of your published book.

Chandrika: Once I closed down Nurture, a series of events that can only be described as miraculous took place, catapulting me to a different phase in my life altogether. For a while, towards the last days of the magazine, I had been compelled by forces I cannot even explain, to put down the many wonderful stories of Krishna I had read and been told about. I wrote fervently, although, at that point there was neither a publisher nor even a concept of a book in my mind. I did a lot of reading on not only the well known tales of this very paradoxical God, but also on the traditions of Krishna thought and literature in our culture. The result was a rather exhaustive manuscript. Armed with it, I went to a well-known publishing house, Vakils, Feffer, Simon and Sons, that was already bringing out books on Indian culture. There I was taken to Mr. Arun Mehta, the director of Vakils, who politely declined to publish a book on Krishna. He said a book had already been commissioned and would soon be out.

But he did ask me if I would be interested in taking up a translation of a Gujarati text, Atma Siddhi by a well-known Jain saint, Srimad Rajchandraji. Interestingly, Srimad Rajchandraji was Mahatma Gandhi’s guru and one he looked up to reverentially. I was completely flummoxed. Besides my work on Krishna, I was not very spiritually inclined. I was marginally conversant with Hindu thought, (although I was a Hindu by birth) but knew nothing whatsoever of Jainism. To make matters worse, I had no more than a nodding acquaintance with Gujarati. My ignorance was overwhelming, but such was Mr. Mehta’s persuasive powers that I found myself agreeing to take up the project. And thus began my voyage of discovery. I learnt about Srimadji, his inclusive philosophy, his compassionate attitude, his acceptance of divergent beliefs and his persuasive powers as a thinker and teacher. I was intrigued. Together with a close Gujarati friend and armed with a translation of the work in Hindi, a language I know quite well, I stepped into completely untraversed territory. And what a lot of learning there was to do!

The text, Atma Siddhi,  (relatively unknown outside the Jain community) is a dialogue between a master and his pupil on the journey of the soul. It is written in the form of quatrains, with the student asking the questions and the master responding with his answers. What I loved about the book was its innate simplicity and directness in tackling issues that are generally considered esoteric and complex. Explaining the journey of the soul through six simple steps, Srimadji states, (i) The soul exists (ii) The soul is eternal (iii) The soul is the doer of karma (iv) There is liberation from the bondage of karma (vi) There are methods by which we can all be liberated. Through his explanation, the guru helps demystify concepts like karma and dharma, birth and rebirth, the jeevatma (all souls) and the paramatma (God). All throughout, Srimadji first adopts the role of the student and then, the teacher. Illustrating his ideas with examples, images and logic, he guides the student from a point where he begins as a confused bundle of desires and attachments to a position where he is a reflection of a Perfect Consciousness, luminous, radiant and eternal. And as the student’s doubts are cleared and confusions resolved, we realize, that, in reality, we too are students and we too can be enriched and enlightened.

My contribution to the profound work of Srimadji was the use of the story. I first translated his verse into English; then gave it a prose commentary. To this I added an illustrative story or two. So at the end of 143 verses, there were at least 143 stories in my translation. The stories were drawn from a plethora of sources, sometimes from Bhagwan Mahavira’s life, sometimes from the Buddhisht koan, sometimes from the Puranic lore of Hinduism, sometimes from Sufi sources. Each little story could be read independently or in the context of the verse. And both ways, they contributed immeasurably to the understanding of Srimadji’s ideas.

I would like to illustrate what I am saying through an extract. This is a verse that describes the enlightened soul.

Verse 110:

Forgoing a bias for particular schools of thought,
Just following the true guru’s direction,
Right belief can certainly be sought,
Without prejudice or discrimination.

The Critical Essence:
The guru warns of the problems associated with those whose minds are just not ready for spiritual thought. He insists that the mind must first be prepared before the spirit can be attended to. And to do that it must first be freed of conditioned beliefs and preconceived notions, of prejudices and biases. Unless the mind is open to ideas, and is prepared for adventure, no discovery can take place. A thinker had once said, “An idea is dangerous, if it is the only one you have”. That is because a single idea will lead to dogma, dogma to rigidity, and rigidity will stem growth.

A fervent Christian met another who said he had just been converted to Christianity. The Christian decided to test the believer’s knowledge. “You say you have been converted to Christ. Now, tell me, what country was He born in?” “I don’t know.” “What was His age when He died?” “I don’t know.” “How many sermons did He preach?” “I don’t know.” The Christian was peeved. “For someone who says he is a Christian, you certainly know very little about Christ,” he scolded. To which the convert replied, “Yes, it seems I know very little. But this much I know…a year ago I was a drunkard, I was in debt, my family was falling apart. Now I have given up drinks, I have a job, and a happy home. All this Christ has done. This much I know of Him.” And one may add, is there need to know more?

For often we believe that to know religion is to be aware of the scriptures, to rote learn texts, to perform rituals. That is why, the true masters were always wary of religion. One such master was asked, “Why, sir, isn’t religion the best thing that humanity has?” “Yes, the best and the worst”. “Why the worst?” asked the confused devotee. “The worst, because people pick up enough religion to hate, but not enough to love.”

That is what society has done to religion. By making it a list of unbending rules and regulations, of do’s and don’ts, they have made it narrow, confined, inhuman. It is time to open the windows of the mind, to let thoughts move around it. To let ideas play. Only then can salvation be in sight.

But the book is not only a translation of the verses. To this we have added chapters on the Life of Srimadji, his influence on Gandhiji, his other literary works, his contemporaries, all great souls from Raman Maharishi to Sri Aurobindo, and finally a glossary, wherein I explain at length, concepts that are basic to Hindu and Jain thought.

Aneeta: I have always been interested in the story of Adi Shankara’s life. I will admit, I’m a little behind in understanding his work, however. I would, therefore, be very interested to know a little more about your next venture, which is a translation of his Bhaja Govidam.

Chandrika: Once I was through with Atma Siddhi, I told Mr. Mehta that there was another text that could benefit from a contemporary translation – Adi Sankara’s Bhaja Govindam. It is well known that Sankara strode the world of philosophy like a colossus. Equally well known to students of philosophy is his contribution to Hindu thought in the form of the theory of Vishishta Advaita. But now I learnt so much more…

Born at a time (probably the eighth century) when the Hindu people were riven by factionalism and conflicts and when Hindu thought was obscured by occultism and ritual practices, Sankara brought both clarity and cohesion to the community. He challenged those who sought to divide the community as well as the Buddhists of his day. His contributions extended from explaining complex Sanskrit texts with the help of commentaries to the establishment of centres all over India. Through debate and dialogue, through his hymns and writings, throughout his arduous wanderings in India, which he traversed on foot, not merely once but several times, he re-established dharma or righteousness as the core of life. Reading about him made me realize just how truly mammoth a figure he was in the philosophical landscape of India.

While Sankara’s writings are extensive and exhaustive, Bhaja Govindam is by far the best known of his works. This is firstly because of the lyrical simplicity of the verses. It is also because of the concrete and clear illustrations given to abstract, often abstruse ideas and concepts. Through the thirty-one stanzas, Sankara highlights man’s obstacles in his journey of life, (greed, lust, anger and delusion) and the concrete steps needed to overcome them. At the end of the road, beckoning man forward is the perfect life, one of constant awareness and joy.

In this translation, as in Atma Siddhi, we have used story to illustrate ideas. Let me give you an example…

Verse 4:
The water droplets, on the lotus leaf are poised tremulously,
Like life, that is insecure, filled with uncertainty.
Understand that it is consumed by disease and arrogance,
The whole of existence is riddled with grievance.

The Essence:
The irony of existence is that man lives as if certain of his immortality, when, in reality, he is not even aware of what the next moment will bring. All things on earth are born to die, all things wither and fade away, all is uncertainty. The only permanence is change. Poised on the very edge of the precipice called life, there is no guarantee about anything at all. What is worse, man is besieged by enemies both from without and within. Age and time attack him relentlessly from outside and disease, selfishness and arrogance corrupt him from within. Yet, so caught up is he in the passing parade of sensual gratification that he grasps at each delight as if it were permanent. And therefore ends each experience in dismay and despair. Despite all the lessons life teaches him, despite being repeatedly warned about the transitory nature of all things, man is still filled with pompous self-importance, with conceit and complacence.

The Ramayana is replete with stories that illustrate such ideas. It was the eve of Rama’s coronation. All of Ayodhya was a-bustle with excitement and effervescence. People everywhere lit lamps, burst firecrackers, made artistic patterns with coloured powder and decorated their homes with flowers and incense sticks. At the palace, there was a flurry of activity. One of the royal keepers, went up to the jewel encased box and reverentially took out the gleaming crown from its case and placed it on a shelf. In the lamp light, the gem encrusted diadem, glittered and glowed in radiant colours. Nearby, on the floor stood a pair of wooden sandals, Rama’s favourite footwear. Suddenly, the crown looked at the sandals and burst into tinkling laughter. It giggled, “Ah! Poor thing! What a plight yours is! Forever biting the dust, always ignored and treated badly. I, however will be polished and caressed and will sit with pride on the very head of the king – monarch of all I see! Wouldn’t you want to exchange places with me?” The sandals smiled humbly. “I know what my position is. But I do my work well, for I protect the royal feet from all that could hurt and harm. I wish for nothing more. I am content…” Saying this the sandals sighed happily. The crown shook its sparkling head in disdain.

Who could have predicted the irony of the subsequent events? For, Rama was not crowned king. Instead the very next morning he was exiled to the forests for fourteen years. So, he never actually got to wear the crown. Even Bharata, Rama’s brother, who was nominated in his place, refused to wear it. Wrapped and kept away, no-one bothered to look at it, as all it brought back were bitter memories. A while later, Bharata went to meet Rama in the forest, to persuade him to return. Of course he failed in his efforts, for Rama would never go back on what he considered was a promise. However Bharata finally insisted, “Brother, give me something that I can take back…something that represents you…” Strangely, that symbol happened to be Rama’s sandals. Carrying it reverentially on his head, Bharata placed it with the utmost veneration on Rama’s throne. Impossible as it sounds it was from that seat of honour that the humble sandal ruled, for the next fourteen years. Above it, in a forgotten cupboard languished the conceited crown.

For, as Sankara succinctly points out, fame and glory, as well as sorrow and sufferings are all but momentary events in this passage called life. To attach importance to either position or pelf is indeed to be completely misguided about the truth of existence. But what is the truth of existence? If all things are meant to fade away, and all things die, what significance does life have anyway? As a nihilist philosopher once said, “Why bother, when birth and death are merely points and life is not a straight line?” But it is precisely to avoid this kind of cynicism that Sankara issues his warning. “Invest your energies, where they will be best used”, he says. “Turn to the inner world, where the Self resides, now. Tomorrow may just be too late.” We can ignore that warning only at our own peril.

Reading his words, one would hardly believe that this was a text written in the eighth century, so contemporary does it sound! And although he spoke many centuries ago, Adi Sankara’s theme, which centres around the conflicts that man faces between the material and the spiritual and the balance he must retain between sensual indulgence and soul satiation, is modern indeed!

As in the previous book we have, here as well included chapters on The Life of Adi Sankara, (a miracle in itself), a brief look at some of his literary works, his philosophical contribution as well as a very special chapter on The Relevance of Bhaja Govindam, today!

Aneeta: And last of all, you tell me you’re working on The Life of Krishna. I know that story as well but I’ll never tire of hearing it again. So, please, tell me a little more of what this project is about.

Chandrika: By now, three years after I had been given my first assignment by Vakils, I was deeply immersed in spiritual reading and thought. In fact I took to philosophy like a duck to water! And just as my second book saw the light of day, Mr. Mehta asked me, quite out of the blue, whether I would be willing to take on his next project – The Life of Krishna! I was stumped! Wasn’t someone already doing it? I was told that due to some irreconcilable differences they were having with the original author, they now wondered whether I would be up to taking on the assignment. “Would I be up to it? Didn’t they know that that was what I had always wanted to do?” And to imagine this had happened just when I had for three years been reading and understanding the scriptures! Not that I was even now well versed! But I had already taken my baby steps! And I was overwhelmed by the miracle of it all! I was reminded so much of T.S. Eliot’s lines,

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

And so for the past one and a half years this is the project I have been working on. Of all the gods in the Hindu pantheon, perhaps, Krishna is the most complex. This is because no matter what you say to describe him, the exact opposite is also true. He is a lovable imp but he is also a thief who steals butter and makes young girls cry. He is a wonderful lover to Radha and yet, he drops her and walks away to Mathura without a backward glance. Worse, he takes on wives at will, marrying all who ask for his hand! He is a courageous warrior yet he flees as Mathura is attacked. He is a great friend to the Pandavas and yet, he does not lift a finger as they are deprived of  their rightful share of property. He is the exponent of The Gita, the highest spiritual text and yet, he lies, cheats and connives in order to win the battle of the Mahabharat. How does one reconcile these opposites? How make sense of a God who does everything that is so apparently ungodly? The book tries to unravel this “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” And I am doing this, not merely through the diverse traditions of Krishna lore that have sprung up all over India, I am doing this by dipping profusely into the poetry, the compelling, heart-wrenching songs written and sung about him, from Surdas to Tulsidas from Tukaram to Mirabai, from Vidyapati to Chandidas, from Jayadeva to the great muslim poet, Rasakhan.

But what started off as a single story on Krishna, from his exquisite birth to his tragic, lonely departure, suddenly started assuming gigantic proportions. And so, at the end of a year, I was armed with not a 200 page book that was originally commissioned but a humongous 500 page gargantuan manuscript. Now, as I sifted through the material, I realized I had matter for at least three books – one on Krishna, the second on The Mahabharat and the third on The Temples, Legends, Devotees and Songs about Krishna.

And so, briefly speaking, Krishna has taken over my life. And will continue to be an indispensable part of it for a very long time…

Aneeta: Clearly, your work involves many aspects of storytelling. What element of storytelling do you think is most important?

Chandrika: This is such a difficult question. Because while I love telling stories, creating stories and reading stories, stories are really magical creations. Often I have wondered what makes a story work, what makes it fail, and what makes it pedestrian and I have groped towards some probable answers.

Like E.M. Forster, whose Aspects of the Novel is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the nuts and bolts of story writing, I believe that a story needs to have a judicious mixture of Setting, Plot, Theme, Character, Climax and Denouement. Which one gains preponderance depends on the kind of story being told. A story may just capture a moment in time, freeze a point in space, or expose just one aspect of a character, but unless situation and character and theme blend, it will not grip. One cannot just put in the ingredients and hope to have a tasty dish. Judicious blending is of the utmost importance.

My second guru to story writing is Aristotle. In his Poetics, another must read for storywriters, he speaks of the inevitability of the story. By this he means that each character, each situation has within it, the seeds of its own growth and expression. That seed he calls ‘inevitability’. It is the nature, the grain of the story or character. And we cannot write anything that goes against that grain. Place a particular character in a situation and he will be propelled by his nature to behave in a certain manner. Create a particular situation and it will be pushed towards a conclusion, by its very circumstances. Often, writers impose an external character or action called ‘deus ex machina’ to resolve conflicts and that is so unfortunate for the story then lacks conviction.

The third factor I always stress is style, the ability to write evocatively. Language is a jealous mistress. It is also a cruel taskmaster. You cannot pick up a pen and become a writer. You have to work hard and in a disciplined manner at it. Indeed, hard work is often almost half the battle won. There are writers who write a certain number of words every day, even if they have to tear it all up, for the process itself is a regulative mechanism. But to write well, ah! That is sometimes a skill, sometimes God who moves through your words. The other day, I read an article where the writer talks of fingers tapping at the keyboard as “hungry hens pecking at grains”. Another described rain as “exclamation marks of delight!” Isn’t that wonderful? To be able to come up with such language is, at least for me, as important as telling a story. For ‘how’ a story is told is as important as ‘what’ a story is about. To be able to do this, there is only one key – read, read read. Especially poetry. Unless you learn to make love to language, seduce phrases and words, be a painter, musician and carpenter, words will not resonate within. And if it will not, you will be a wordsmith, a pen pusher, a keyboard tapper, but a writer? Probably not!

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give those who would like to become storytellers?

Chandrika: First and foremost, I would certainly not deem myself superior enough to start doling out advice. But this I would certainly tell them to do  –  to subscribe to your website! The plethora of articles there are almost a tutorial on good writing! What else have I to say? Read as much as is possible. Write all the time, about anything and everything, revise what you write and be open to criticism, for there is a hell of a lot you will receive of that! But use it all, to improve, because writing is always a journey, a work in progress, never a destination! And like all good things, it is full of pain and trouble as well, sometimes so much of it, that I wonder what makes us put ourselves through it. But if you really want to know what being a writer means, you have to read this wonderfully honest expression by the poet Bukowski. He has said it all and better than I could ever say it. Hence I quote him verbatim….

So you want to be a writer?

Charles Bukowski

Listen, if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything, don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind
and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your typewriter searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or fame, don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody else,
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you, do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all, you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers, don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers, don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self- love.
the libraries of the world have yawned themselves to sleep over your kind.
don’t add to that. don’t do it.
unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would drive you to madness
Or suicide or murder, don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is burning your gut, don’t do it.
when it is truly time, and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way. and there never was.

Aneeta: Chandrika, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Chandrika: Haven’t I already said enough? But one thing I must conclude with…if only I had the kind of help that is available through web sites like yours, for writers today, probably I would not have started writing seriously so late in life! I would probably have had the confidence and the courage to begin earlier!

Aneeta: Thank you. It’s not perfect but I try …


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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