Nithya said: This is one of those stories about a bird called crow, that appears in thousands of children’s stories and in a few hundred fables, features occasionally in modern literature, thought to be a representation of time because of its black color, has taken the form of our ancestors who have become time itself, worshipped as the wagon of lord shaneshwara in whom the time gathered in intensity, beyond all these, this story is about the one who sails spontaneously in the wordless sky, that comes to the earth only for prey and reproduction, that interacts with us crossing her boundaries by her ways of cawing, looking at us with a bent head, boringly walking towards us in small steps, and, if you noticed attentively, surrounding us as the ceaseless sound of her voice.
I could have complicated this sentence still further. But I want to leave Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges alone. Poor guy! like the Bible itself, he has been wrongly read, misinterpreted, misquoted, and copied to make the original look like phony which only he himself intended and is quite content about all that in his grave. So, I will get straight to the point.
This was 1971. A monk named Asitananda had come here for the guru puja in April. Asita is a Buddhist name. The name of a monk who was the teacher of King Suddhodhana, a realized-soul who foretold Buddha’s birth.
According to legends, Asita was on the verge of death due to extreme hunger while he was walking alone through a jungle. In order to save him, a forest hare offered itself into a forest fire and became the monk’s food. This massive sacrifice prophesied Asita the coming of a great phenomenon in history. He proclaimed either an emperor who would conquer this world or a Buddha who would renounce everything will be born. But I think Asita was lacking in intelligence. The birth of an emperor might have been mentioned if that same hare, instead of killing himself, dropped another hare into the fire to serve the monk.
Asita means unstable. He had other names such as Kaladeva and Kanhashree as well. Kanhashree means black light. It meant he was black in color. But the direct meaning of the word Kanhashree is a crow. A crow is an embodiment of Kaladeva, the god of time.
Our monk got his name from the elder bhikkhus who initiated him into sannyasa when he stayed in an ancient Buddhist monastery in Bhutan. He served in several monasteries as a Buddhist bhikkhu. Then he came down south. He met Narayana Guru in Srilanka.
It was said once he explained Buddhist philosophy to Narayana Guru. But Guru said he was already a Buddhist. When Asita could not understand him. Guru said, “Tell me all of Buddha’s names.” When Asita listed out the names he came across Advaita, meaning the non-dual one. Narayana Guru raised his hand and smiled. Asita instantly became his student and started serving him. He became Asitananda. But he continued to be a Buddhist.
Once, a Bharatanatyam program was held followed by Mohiniyattam at the monastery. Sages had come from various monasteries. When the dance program was announced, a group of sages stood up and left the place. They went into the small forest nearby and remained there for the duration of the program. At the end of the program, they met Guru and registered their objection: Sages should not engage in sensual arts like Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam. They are a trap that will pull you into the worldy. It is a great blunder to arrange these programs in a monastery, they said.
Guru told them about a practically dependent philosophical problem faced by sage Swetha Kethu during the time when Brahmanas were created in the post-Vedic period. The question was whether students of Veda could eat honey. Honey was the only available sweet food in the forest. Isn’t sweet a catalyst for sense pleasures?
The debate had become intense. Swetha Kethu answered: Honey is nectar. Any sense perception when it attains its perfection becomes nectar. Sound becomes music. Colors become paintings. Objects become sculptures. Movements become the dance. Language becomes poetry. In the same manner, the flavor becomes honey. It is the nature of worldly people to treat nectar as a form of desire. But the way of sages is to treat the same as Brahman, the ultimate reality. The Vedic students could eat honey since they have renounced the world temporarily.
But the sages from the Ramakrishna monastery did not accept this justification. They argued it was against their resolution of dispassion. “One can explain art in any whichever way one wants just by using intellect. But our senses and our desire need not appreciate art in the way we want them to. Since desire has no dwelling place of its own, it occupies all places as its residence. It does not have its own image; so it takes up any shape. It joins with anger and delusion and makes them its vehicle. It will do the same with knowledge and wisdom too.”
The eldest of them, Vishwanada said, “Art is like a cuckoo. The bird has a sweet voice alright. But think of its guilefulness. It lays eggs in a crow’s nest. The cuckoo’s eggs hatch before the crow’s do. The young ones come out and push away the crow’s eggs. By repeated cuckooing, they could even make the baby crows believe that the cuckoo’s voice was the best. They could kill them by doing so.”
“Correct!” said Ramachandran from the Gurukulam. The mournful Ramachandran became more mournful now.
That encouraged Vishwananda. He said, “Like a thief, art always enters through the backyard. Trying to justify its actions is only to support its behavior. When you leave a palm’s gap, it’ll enter and empty your treasury.”
The sages left in protest. Guru said, “Swetha Kethu faced a similar dispute when he wrote his Grihya Sutra. One can never avoid it. There are only two ways to confront the worldly. One has to choose between the two. Only one knows better about oneself.”
I asked, “Who among the worldly is suitable for that nectar?” Guru said, “Only a few possess a suitable mind to engage deeply in art. Art can induce their imagination, help them blossom, and let them travel to distant places. They attain ecstasy and bliss only through art. The nectar is suitable only for them. For several others, art is just materialistic. They’ve not expanded their heart through their imagination. For them, the nectar is a huge burden, bondage.”
Guru said one could easily feel the difference. Those who attain art through imagination gather all their former artistic experiences and ride on them to reach a new form of art. Those experiences will provide them the intuition to understand new art. The others will encounter art based on the definitions and understandings they formed out of their former experiences. As they engage more in their art, their intuitiveness will grow less and they will become adamant thugs.
Nithya said: One day, we were talking in the kitchen. The same discussion had raised itself again. Asita was kneading wheat flour. He never paid attention to these discussions. He was an extreme pragmatist. Philosophy, meditation, and service – that’s all he knew. No art, no poetry. I wanted to drag him in.
“What do you think, Asita Swamy? Can we watch Bharatanatyam or not?” I asked.
“Why not? Aren’t they dancing well?”
“But it’s entirely sensual. The women invite with their eyes. The words of the song, their body movements all express sensuality.”
“Yes. But it’s not real. It is only pretension,” said Asita. “When we pretend to be something, aren’t we free from it?”
“The whole of humanity has freed itself only through this manner,” he said. “From fear, from ignorance.”
“Absolutely. A proper way to know the original and go beyond is to counterfeit,” said Swami Chidananda who sat across. “Son! Who do you think are these Shiva and Vishnu and all? Only the fake images of Brahman, right?”
Chidananda always used to tease Asita. He had a tone of mockery and ridicule in his speech. He was the only one who smoked bidi in the Gurukulam, which became his identification. He took a deep drag from his bidi, puffed out smoke, and said, “Think about it! Buddha himself is a counterfeit version of Mahavira.”
Asita did not pay attention to him. Without any preface, he asked, “Do you know why Mahaseko Dharmaprabhava named me Asita?”
We were all ears to what he had to say.
Asita said: My hometown is Kunnamangalam near Alappuzha. My house was called a peculiar name, Kakkadhoshaththu veedu. If anyone asks to see Kakkadhoshaththu veedu Shankaran, people would point at my father.
My grandfather Aiyappan Vaithiyar was a teacher of Adimurai. He did Varma treatment too. He was interested in witchcraft as well. He was a rude man. He generally did not respect anyone in the town.
Suddenly the demand for dried kernels of coconut had gone higher in Alappuzha. You buy coconuts, cut them open, dry the sliced kernels and take them in boats to Alappuzha. The shipmen would buy it for twice the price. My grandfather joined that business. He went around in boats to bring coconuts home. My grandmother sliced and dried them.
All day kernels of coconut would dry in the courtyard. Crows were a huge problem. They would grab the drying kernel and fly away. After pecking at the kernel a few times, they would drop them into the stream. It was impossible to sit safeguarding the kernels all the time. My grandmother had to break open the coconuts and slice kernels. Someone suggested if we hanged a black cloth in the yard the crows would not bother; they might think there was a dead crow hanging.
Why not place a real crow? My grandfather thought. He was capable of that kind of thinking. He would never do what is commonly done. He wanted people to talk about what he did.
But he was unable to find a dead crow. He did not know where crows died. He decided to catch one himself, and he followed Malayan’s technique of catching cranes. He shoved dried fish as bait into the hook of a fishing line, tied it along with a plant, and dropped it at the lagoon. When crows came and swallowed the dried fish, the hook impaled their throats and they were trapped.
The next day, he heard crows’ noise and went out to see. In the lagoon, crows were flopping in the dirt. Crows in flocks sat on trees above and cawed interminably. Their cawing gave him an odd satisfaction. He walked patiently amid their look and grabbed the four struggling birds from the ground. He twisted their necks and killed them in front of the other birds from trees, the ones surrounded the struggling crows, fluttering their wings with relentless cawing.
In one hand, he grabbed the crows’ legs in a bunch and walked carrying them with a bamboo cane in the other. The other crows surrounded him, screeching, following him to his house. My grandmother cried aloud at the sight of the dead crows. “What have you done? It’s a great sin to kill crows!” she said.
“What great sin? Aren’t we killing hens? Isn’t Malayan catching cranes every day?” said my grandfather.
“We eat those birds. Not crows! They are our ancestors…this will bring in a sin akin to killing your father,” said my grandmother.
“What? This nasty crow is my dad Malayathu Kochaman? He was a tiger!… In birds, he was an eagle.”
My grandfather sat in the courtyard, cut open the bodies of crows, cleaned them off their innards, stuffed old cloth into them, and placed them on sticks at the four corners of the yard where the coconut kernel dried. “Let’s see if any bird comes now to eat our kernel,” he said.
No crow came for kernels. None came around their house even. Only after a week, my grandmother felt the difference. The ceaseless bird sound of our hometown excluded only their garden. Not only crows but not a single bird of any kind came. An ear-splitting silence reigned over the house.
When birds stopped coming, the buzzing of insects went up. The never-ending sound of ‘ree, ree’..during daytime… during mid-afternoons…The sound that filled their house during nights threatened the entire town. In fact, this added among the townspeople to the fear of my grandfather. Many more people started coming to him for witchcraft.
Next began the real problem. Crows followed my grandfather everywhere and attacked him. First, while he was sailing in his canoe, a crow swooped perpendicularly down on him and pecked on his head. Before he could lift his oar to protect himself, two more came from sideways and attacked. Blood oozed out from his head. His ears were torn. He had to struggle to safeguard his eyes. He crouched inside the canoe, sailed toward the bank, and ran into a small hut nearby. The crows kept pecking and tearing his back until he entered the hut.
At first, he thought it was a coincidence. He thought the crows came for the dried fish in his boat. But soon after that incident, when he was going to a shop, another crow from a nearby tree pounced on him and pecked.
He discovered that they recognized his face and targeted him. They found him even when he walked wearing a turban or covered his face with a cloth.
It was not the same group of crows. They were different every time. Some were aged; some very young. They did not make any specific noise before the attack. Only when they pecked him would he realize that they had been watching him all the while.
Crows attacked him wherever he went alone. To protect his eyes he would crouch and sit on the ground. Crows would leave after constant pecking, leaving his head badly injured.
He started carrying a thatch umbrella. Even if he tilted the umbrella a little bit, a crow would suddenly appear out of nowhere and attack him. His whole body used to be filled with wounds and scars.
The whole town talked about this. He gained the name kakkadhosham (crow’s curse). He stopped his business and mostly stayed home. He could not even go to his courtyard without an umbrella.
He did several atonements. Spent a lot of money on puja and witchcraft. Nothing calmed the crows down. They neither touched the food offered by him or his wife nor did they come closer to it. People said it was pitru sabam, the ancestors’ curse. Crows refused to visit the area where he offered food for his ancestors. So my grandfather was not allowed in the spot where ancestral rituals were done.
The astonishing thing was the crows did not leave him alone even when he traveled out of town. Whether he went to Ambalapuzha or Vaikom, crows suddenly swooped down on him and pecked. Once he went to Kollam. The moment he got out of the boat, an aged crow pounced on him from the top of a coconut tree.
He turned into a lunatic and panicked at the sight of anything black. He never went into his courtyard in his last days. But crows visited his dreams, pecked, and tore him apart. On most nights he would awake with a scream and sit shivering.
My grandfather died at the age of sixty-eight. When he was cremated in the cemetery at the bank of the river, crows sat on the surrounding trees and screeched in a frenzy.
My father was nineteen at that time. When he returned after breaking the pot and setting fire to the pyre, a crow swooped down on him and attacked his shaven head. He screamed and fainted. Those who accompanied him lifted him up. Blood flowed down his face.
After that incident, the crows continued attacking my father. They hunted him wherever he went. He tried to sell his house and garden. But nobody came forward to buy the kakkkadhosham garden. No plants grew there. Once a seedling was sprouted, insects would populate and destroy it.
My father left everything he owned and left first for Alappuzha and then for Kollam. But the crows followed him everywhere. Though he was very careful, crows attacked him at least once every two months.
In 1906, the daily swadeshabhimani published an article on this bizarre incident. But he learned later that it was only a common incident that happened everywhere.
My father died at the age of forty eight. He was an elementary school teacher. He went everywhere with an umbrella, wearing a huge turban and thick glasses. He made numerous efforts to get rid of those crows from attacking him. Except for the umbrella, nothing proved useful. The moment he closed his umbrella, while entering his class or a tea shop, he would be attacked by a crow, coming out of nowhere.
Trying to pacify lord Shaneeshwara had become his life’s mission. For forty-one days, he worshipped and fasted at Eramathoor Shani Deva temple. Another eighteen days at the Palakkad Noorani Shani Deva temple. Every Saturday, for seven years, he visited Kuruppam Thurai Shaneeshwara temple near Kottayam. He went to Thirunallaru in Tamil Nadu and Mandapalli in Andhra Pradesh. Nothing proved helpful. He was even attacked at the courtyard of a Shani Deva temple in a town called Titwala in Maharashtra.
When he died, his body was cremated at the lagoon cremation ground in Kollam. Crows in gangs sat on nearby trees and witnessed the proceedings. Having set fire to the pyre, I was returning to our bullock cart that stood across on the muddy road. The only question in everyone’s mind was whether the crows would start attacking me as well. I think that was the reason why they walked beside me, letting me walk alone.
Suddenly a crow descended upon me straight from the sky. I felt a searing pain in my head as if I were stabbed with a knife. I fell. Others ran away, screaming. Four more crows swooped down on me and started pecking. I tried to get up but fell again. They tore up my flesh. I ran toward the bullock cart, hollering, and entered it. They never stopped pecking until then.
I was shaken that very day. I knew crows hunted my father. I knew his dad’s story. But I never thought they would chase me as well. So far, I’d trained myself not to care about them. But now, I felt as if my life had come to an end. All my friends left me. I was doing the first year of my bachelor’s then. I could not continue my studies.
I started roaming with an umbrella. In spite of my being cautious, crows attacked me several times. I was at the marriage function of my close relative when a crow attacked me yet another time. I was standing at the center of a big crowd when this happened. I lost my dhoti when I ran screaming. I went into a room with my underwear. The crowd scattered and started yelling. The father of the bride asked me with a stern face, “Why have you come? Why don’t your mother come?” Another said, “Why don’t you stay at home? Why do you come to places like these?”
I came home crying. I left home the same night with empty hands. Without a ticket, I went to Chennai on a train. After wandering in Chennai for two days I got a job in a Malayali tea shop. When I gathered some money I went to Visakhapatnam. From there to Bodh Gaya. I was wandering in its ghats and near stupas. I’d gotten accustomed to working in hotels.
I got acquainted with some bhikkhus in Gaya. I became an assistant in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Then I took Brahmacharya. But the crows never stopped chasing me. I could not go anywhere without an umbrella. Even carrying an umbrella, I had to be more watchful. There were crows who would land first on the ground and attack my hip suddenly from down below.
When I was walking on the road in Rajgir with another bhikkhu, a heavy wind snatched my umbrella. Before I could retrieve it, crows surrounded and attacked me. I lay crying in the darkroom of the monastery with wounds all over my body.
The senior bhikkhu who generally preferred solitude came to me and enquired. After listening to my story he said, “To your grandfather and your father, this was a question of righteousness. But for you, this is a philosophical problem. You just have to solve it.” He put his hand on my head and said, “Fortunate are those who meet with philosophical problems. For them, the path to freedom is open for sure. Their only job is to bravely walk that path.”
I didn’t properly understand what he said then. I kept thinking about ways to escape from crows. I requested to be transferred to Himachal Pradesh and went there. I spent a few days in Shimla monastery. From there I went to Spiti plain. I was in Dunker and Lalan monasteries. Crows followed me everywhere.
At every new place, I would experiment if crows attack me. I would go into the yard, my body shaking in anticipation. Were there crows cawing elsewhere? Himalayan crows are huge. The Whites have registered them as ravens. They are not loud like our crows. They would mostly sit quietly on tree branches under the shadow of leaves.
I’d be all ears while I waited. Suddenly I’d hear the ruffle of wings; my body would quiver; a crow would pounce to peck me and fly away; I’d relax and heave a sigh of relief. Sometimes I’d even feel content.
But I noticed one thing. The crows didn’t attack me now, meaning they didn’t try to tear me apart. Just a few pecks and they’d leave me. Probably because I wasn’t afraid of them now; not hiding from them. I’d just close my eyes and stand waiting for them to come and peck me. I would not leave the yard until they were done with me.
One day I was standing in the yard of the Tabo monastery. It had only been four days since I arrived there. A huge crow came and sat on the Stupa. I saw its eyes. Very closely. Beady eyes. No expression. No fear, nor doubt. They did not seem to know me personally. I wasn’t a concern for them.
Then why did they attack me? They had made it the duty of their tribe. They had received that command through some strange biological connection. They didn’t know why they did it. They could not even be aware of how they were able to recognize me.
The single giant being that filled the sky as hundreds and thousands of crows might’ve known the reason. Or might it? Like the nuances of wind are inscribed in their wings, this pecking might also be registered in them. Like the millions of information about food and areas that had gone into their system…this had become for them a biological trail. A universal law.
As if performing an ancient religious ritual, the crow flew toward me and pecked. An unavoidable and meaningless act. A drop of blood came out of my torn flesh. The crow bent its body once, cawed, and flew away to disappear into the sky. I stood watching the flying crow. That I would never have a son was the first thought that came to me.
From Tabo Monastery I went to Danley, a tiny monastery located far away into the Himalayan mountain range. It was an abandoned, dilapidated building. It was gloomy, dusty, and crumbled at the backside, like a bloodred shell of an insect.
I repaired and cleaned it up with the help of the inhabitants of the town. Winter was nearing. Danley was a small town with only twenty-seven houses. During winter all people would leave for Lagul, another small town in the plains.
But I decided not to leave. It was not customary for bhikkhus to leave monasteries. I made arrangements to stay during winter. I collected a lot of firewood, dried food, and grains. I knew I was the only one who was staying back.
Winter came. The whole town emptied itself. I was the only one left. The icy cold wind that blew for a few days had stopped. It’d started snowing. The white snow had covered the surrounding mountains. It was stepping down from those mountains with its soft feet.
James Wilt’s poem came to my mind.
The snow has started falling, ‘Tis falling o’er mountain and plain, The trees bend under their burden, Shake free, and are draped again.
Lines like these stay with you forever. I was chanting, ‘Shake free, and are draped again’ like a mantra. Shaking free, to be draped again, what else?
I did not go out for many days. It was extremely cold outside. When I did go out, I wore a bamboo basket on my head and walked like a tortoise. When I carried firewood, the basket would lie on top of them. One day after finishing up all my work, I made tea for myself and sat at the entrance of the monastery.
There was a birch tree in the front yard. In Sanskrit, a birch tree was called Poorja. These trees surrounded the monastery. Their bark was white in color. In the old days, they were used for writing. The trees had shed their leaves and stood with their bare branches. A few leaves were left on this one. A crow was sitting on a branch.
At first, she did not look like a crow. I had to look closely. She had her neck drawn in, beak pointing up, body in a heap. She had fluffed up her body in order not to freeze in the cold. Why hadn’t she migrated?
I thought she was waiting for me. To fulfill her duty. Suddenly my mental strain gave way to a laugh. What dutifulness!
I stepped down and walked toward her. She fluttered her wings at my sight and raised. Since her wings were drenched heavily with snow she could not fly and fell in the yard.
I carried her into the monastery and placed her in front of the fireplace. She recovered quickly. I offered her some wheat grains in a bowl. She strutted toward it and pecked the grains. She turned her head and looked at me with her confused eyes.
I removed my shirt and knelt before her to offer myself for her pecking. She kept turning her head rapidly. I turned my movements into a kind of dance. Fluttering her wings, the crow suddenly flew toward me and pecked. But the pecking felt only like a soft touch.
She pecked me again. Just like a kiss. I understood that she only pretended. I too pretended to be afraid of her pecking. We both celebrated that play. After so many days, I laughed hard and jumped up in the air.
The crow stayed with me the whole winter. She would eat wheat grains twice a day; would go into dark corners of the monastery and hunt rats; would sleep near the fireplace, her wings closed, beak drawn in. She’d wake up hearing my footsteps, greet me with a soft caw, and go back to sleep again.
Occasionally she’d remember to peck me. Though she’d come at me at a faster pace, the beak would touch me only softly. We acted out this play throughout the winter. She left me once the winter was over.
The snow melted on the mountains barring their peaks. The light in the sky was blinding. People returned. With them the sheep and the yaks. Thousands of swallows after them. Grass raised on the ground. Fresh leaves sprouted on the branches of bare trees. Hundreds of colors in those leaves! They continue to change every day. Insects buzzed day and night. The earth had resurrected herself once again.
I was going to get yak’s milk from the nearby village. I did not carry an umbrella. I wore only thin clothing. Suddenly a crow attacked me. But I did not get the usual shock. In fact, I experienced a pleasant feeling. I got used to their pecking now. The crow too was only kissing me.
Two more crows came and pecked me playfully. We were dancing that joyful dance. They flew and sat around me cawing. I looked at their eyes. I knew the crows had pardoned me.
From then on, crows did the pecking only as a play, a pretense. I went to Vidisha. From there I came to Guntur. At every place, this act of play occurred once every month. The crows would cry when I walked. When I signaled to them that I was ready, they’d come and play with me.
“When I took sannyasa, Mahaseko gave me the name Asita. He said the old Asita got his enlightenment from a crow,” said Asita.
We were under strange emotions hearing that incredible story. Asita said, “What is art? Only a pretense, right? Nothing is real in art. A shadow dog won’t bite. But you can play with him.”
Swami Chidananda, who sat across, said, “Absolutely. Even renunciation is a pretense of life in another form.” He went to light another bidi at the stove where tea boiled.
Nithya concluded by saying, “I asked Asita what would a crow say to a sage who has no obligation towards his ancestors? He laughed and said that it’d say, ‘I am not their ancestor. But they believe in it, so I pretend.’
B. Jeyamohan (b. 1962) is a Tamil writer and literary critic based in Nagercoil, India. One of India's finest authors writing today, he has traveled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, and his work examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions. His best-known, critically acclaimed novel, Vishnupuram (1997), is an epic fantasy that layers history, myth-making, and philosophy. His works of fiction include the novels: Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural (1999), Kaadu (2003), Kottravai (2005), and Vellai Yaanai (2013), and explore diverse themes ranging from ideological anguish following the collapse of Soviet Russia to the symbol of the mother goddess in Tamil cultural history to the great famine of Madras in 1876-78. A prolific writer, his output includes multiple novels, short stories, volumes of literary criticism, writer biographies, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature, books on philosophy, and numerous other translations and collections. He has completed his serialized retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata called Venmurasu (The White Drum), consisting of twenty-six volumes. This is the longest novel in the world and certainly the longest in Tamil.