All rolled into one

Postal articles sent to Calcutta now bear the rubber stamp of Kolkata on the old name of the city. In other words, if one may pun on the title of the book, much has happened even if unobtrusively.

But it will be unwarranted to indulge in cheap pun in the context of description of Padmanabh Vijai Pillai by his companion, Manjula Dubey, as an “ascetic epicurean, gregarious, solitary, aristocrat of the spirit.” No doubt, Padmanabh would not mind. In fact, he was against the publication of his memoirs, which he regarded as strictly for his own eyes. In the words of Manjula, he wanted to “slip away from the world unnoticed,” but she was equally particular that it be published posthumously. As a result, we have a highly readable account of a poet-philosopher. He died prematurely of cancer at the age of 66. 

He was highly gifted, educated at the Doon School at Dehra Dun — the Eton and Harrow of the 21st century opulent in India and St Stephen’s College, Delhi, the alma mater of editors, economists, administrators and diplomats. Padmanabh joined the Indian Foreign Service at the instance of his father, Dr P P Pillai, who was a diplomat. After a single diplomatic stint, he resigned from the Service, as he had wanted to when joining itself. But his exit was not unnoticed or unannounced. Posted in Beijing, he found himself at the centre of an international incident when he was arrested on a trumped up charge of spying, roughed up by Red Guards and deported.

He was a poet, philosopher and ascetic, all rolled into one. His interests were as varied as his experience: he studied phenomenology, fairly esoteric; while working for his doctorate from Michigan University in the US, capped by a M Phil in library science, he worked as a farm labourer — as many students do — and a clerk in the postal service.
Obviously addressing Manjula, he writes: “Today is my birthday. Thanks to your kindly assiduity, I am reminded of it every year by a card from the Aiyappa temple. Standing before the shrine this morning, I had the sense, so Rilkean and so Hindu, that we are the border between the visible and  the invisible. Not simply liminal but a kind of vital membrane, passing through which all the phenomena of our world are transmuted back to the unborn which is their home...” Sentiment elevated to the heights of poetry.

On a lighter note, “I remember reading in a journal of statistics that in some neighbourhood in America, I forget where, 1.5 per cent of the postmen have been bitten by dogs ever year over the last 30 years. Everything else has apparently changed there — the population, its composition, the number of dogs, the number of postmen, etc. But not this.”

Finally, it must be recorded, however, that this cerebral output of a highly creative and febrile mind is not everybody’s cup of tea. More so not of a layman and a jack of all trades like me.     

Where nothing happens
Padmanabh Vijai Pillai
Seagull, 2009,
pp 176, Rs 495

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