When Chellamma died, C. Rajagopalachari, (Rajaji), then the Governor General of India, wrote a letter of condolence to my mother, Thangammal Bharati:
“At a time when the whole nation is celebrating Bharati’s birthday, your letter conveying the sad news arrived. She fed me one day in Puduchery – me and R.V. Krishnayyar. When the meal was done, Bharati danced and danced (kudithu kudithu) and dancing, sang a song too for us. Look, what a very fortunate woman she was! How many women in this country have such a celebrated husband? There is no grief in reaching the feet of Narayana.”
As Rajaji said, Chellamma was truly a bhagyavati. How many women in this country would have had such a celebrated husband?
Perhaps, Kasturba, Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, also had the good fortune to live with a celebrated husband and enjoy an extraordinary life with him! And yet,the lives of these two women were not “enjoyable” in the normal way – normal in the sense that they lived a “comfortable,” and “happy” life with no worries, enjoying their status as the wives of “celebrated” husbands.
No – the life that Kasturba and Chellamma lived could not be called an “ordinary” life. Both the women encountered enormous difficulties, in both their personal and social lives. Their lives were full of hardships, and they suffered unimaginable mental anguish. As both the Mahatma and the Mahakavi were dedicated to the freedom struggle and social reforms, these women had to bear the consequences of their actions, and, married to idealists, the subjects of their husbands’ extraordinary “experiments with truth,” in Gandhi’s own phrase. At times, the two women had to tolerate their husbands’ extraordinary behaviour, even at its most demanding and apparently irrational, at home.
As their lives became “public,” it was a struggle for both women. They not only had to deal with the British government, but also had to deal with the resistance and, indeed, antagonism, of the members of their own society. In Chellamma’s case, her experience was probably more difficult: she belonged to the oppressive Brahmin caste, came from a relatively poor background, and was herself restricted by the backward environment and thinking of the people of the village from which she came. She therefore had little or no support from the general public of her, and Bharati’s, times.
And there was an important difference between the lives of the two women. Chellamma was the wife of a Poet. This was a blessing! But, what kind of life fell to the lot of Challemma as the wife of a Mahakavi?
She married him at the age of seven when he was fifteen and still in school. She came from a south Indian middle-class Brahmin family, their financial status bordering on the affluent, and the social status certainly in the upper rungs of society in the village of Kadayam. As a young girl, Chellamma enjoyed life as a passing spectacle of religious and social festivals, entertainment of musical and theatrical events, and the numerous celebrations in a large joint family, of birthdays of children, upanayanams, weddings and more weddings, and even the passing of the old, a cause for sadness, nevertheless full of ritual-bound celebration.
The young Bharati visited Smt. Nivedita Devi, the disciple of Swami Vivekananda, on his way back from attending the meeting of the Indian Congress in Calcutta. This experience proved to have inexplicable and extraordinary dimensions for Bharati, in which Nivedita revealed to him the sampurna rupa of the Bharata Shakti and taught Bharati the meaning of true service to the Nation. Chellamma describes this meeting in her path breaking biography of her husband, Bharatiar Charithiram. As Chellamma relates, Sister Nivedita asked Bharati why he had not brought his wife to the Congress and he apparently answered, “We do not usually bring our wives to meetings; moreover, of what use would it have been to bring her to the Indian Congress”? Nivedita explained to Bharati the greatness of women and the importance of recognizing that women are free beings, like men, and that woman should be treated as the equal of man.
At that very moment, Bharati’s vision of a “New Woman” (pudumai penn) was born in his poet’s heart. And who else could this new woman be, but his own wife, the embodiment and personification of his pudumai penn? In this sense, Chellamma became Bharati’s goddess. Chellamma was immediately aware of the profound change that had happened in Bharati.
“The wife who loves is Shakti and immortality is attained through her,”
was Bharati’s conviction, and Chellamma knew in her heart that her husband was undertaking something new and wonderful, and felt the imminence of freedom, not only for the country, but for the women of India. “Nalla kalam varuhuthu!”
In those days, Chellamma and her household were well-provided for. Bharati was settled in Madras and worked as a sub-editor of Swadesamitran magazine. But, alas, this situation was not to endure. Chellamma’s financial comfort and security were ultimately destroyed when Bharati’s nationalist engagement was to have extreme consequences. In order to continue his struggle for an independent India, Bharati was forced to leave British India for the French territory of Pondicherry..
Thus began a life of privation and severe financial hardship. How Bharati related to this situation has been widely written about – it is largely speculation! It is reasonable to agree – because we really do not understand what makes a poet a poet – that Bharati’s mind moved continuously on an ecstatic plane, and he took little notice of the practical demands of a household of a wife and two daughters. Accordingly, it became Chellamma’s sole responsibility to manage the household, and to feed and clothe the family– the start of a struggle that would not end until her death in 1955.
Chellamma talked about her life with her poet husband on All India Radio, Tiruchy:
“It seems that poetry is the property of a poet; it is true that he lives in his own world of poetry. But, unfortunately it is his wife who has to find food for the family! Once my husband entered into his poetic mode, even a sage could not be compared to him. But, could the wife also be in the nishta and not worry about the household? What am I to do if the poet who worships his wife as his “queen of love,” (kaadali Rani) does not realize that he must also feed her? Can the bird which soars in the vast blue sky on the wings of imagination be compelled to live an ordinary life, in the dark house of the earth?
It is acceptable for the poet to live his own life, with his strange habits, idiosyncrasies, and idealistic attitudes; but who would think that the wife would want to live a life of worry?”
Chellamma was totally dedicated to Bharati. Her husband was a god to her. She had absolute faith in her husband’s beliefs, values and principles She respected him so much that she followed his principles verbatim, not only in their life together, but also, after her husband’s death, and until her own death.
In due course over her life with Bharati, as the thread that binds jasmine flowers together acquires the fragrance of the flowers, she became a “fragrant flower” herself. She divested herself completely of the old attitudes she had acquired from a young age, and had developed the true qualities of Bharati’s ideal woman. And later, she came to see the outside world from her husband’s perspective. The freedom that he envisioned, for women and for everyone, became her own life’s goal. From the time of her husband’s death, Chellamma lived her life with extraordinary courage, and maintained an unshakable faith in God. She acquired the ability to execute the important things that mattered in life, and she impressed upon the minds of the children of the family, including myself, her unwavering focus on the higher and finer things in life.
She became the embodiment of Bharati’s poetry– the embodiment of her husband’s ideal woman – and the embodiment of our best cultural values: love, sacrifice, courage, valour, faith in God and Truth, and an attitude of optimism towards life.
The biographers of James Joyce talk about the “great poverty” in which the great writer lived towards the end of his life. What “great poverty” meant to the author of Ulysses, in 20th-century Britain, is hard to estimate from this distance in time. Although I lived with my grandmother until I turned 17, I have very little comprehension of what it was to be a “have-not.” My grandmother certainly would have been incapable of thinking in those terms. How does one reconcile the life of great poverty and material deprivation with the privilege of living the life of the mind and the spirit?
In “great poverty,” Chellamma Bharati lived and died, and attained immortality!
My grandmother brought me up and made me the person I am today. I have seen her handling all kinds of situations in life: the happy occasions, the sorrowful moments, unimaginable sufferings, society’s differential treatment, injustice – to name only a few. She surpassed all of these “rasas,” the manifestations of Parashakti’s, through faith in God, and with her husband’s guidance!
A few words about Chellamma’s final days and hours.
It was 1955. I had returned to Kadayam, my grandmother’s birth place, from Tirunelveli, where I was studying, after completing my exams at College. I was surprised at the state in which I found my grandmother. As I came in, she embraced me and said that she had been “waiting” for me to come back home; apparently she had advised my mother not to disturb me at College by communicating to me that my grandmother was unwell.
Over the next week or so she became worse, and finally fell into an unconscious state. The doctor advised us that “the time had come”. Shakuntala, Bharati’s younger daughter, had now arrived at her mother’s bedside from a distant land, and a couple of our friends had come as well. The village house was my grandmother’s own house, and it was quite large and comfortable. She was surrounded by her daughters, grandchildren, and friends, but she was in a coma, unable to recognize the people around her.
But, at length, we were wonderstruck to hear, once again, the sound of my grandmother’s gentle voice. From the bed of the unconscious woman, we could hear her singing two lines from my grandfather’s poem, Kannan-en-Arasan (Kannan my King):
“I came as his servant, to sweep the floor and the porch.
He made me his minister, who was worthy of the country’s praise.”
The poem continues:
“I came to serve, to earn my daily bread,
He gave me with wealth unequalled.
I was bereft of learning and wisdom,
He made me understand the subtleties of the Vedas.”
This singing, in Bharati’s original melody, continued a few times. We were shocked and surprised to hear her murmuring these lines repeatedly.
Obviously, these lines from Bharati’s Kannan Pattu must have affected Chellamma deeply.They related to her own experience. She only murmured the first two lines, but the other four lines continue the feeling of the first two. She relates her own feelings about herself in comparison with the great person – that she was fortunate to have him as a life-mate, and that by this association, he made her “wealthy” of riches that were impossible for her even to think of.
What was happening to her? What was she thinking in her “unconscious” state? Were the memories submerged in her subconscious mind coming out to the surface at this time of departure from the world? Was she meeting with her husband again, and talking to him about herself? Did she want to thank him for the life – an enriched, ennobled, and worthwhile life – that he provided for her, as she was leaving the world?
Complete silence reigned for a time. Then again, she continued,
“Tirumal came and fully occupied my heart”.
(I have recorded the lines that she sang; to listen, click here.)
Yes, it was Bharati himself who was fully occupying her heart all those years; he was the companion who guided her throughout her life; he was the guru who gave her clarity of mind; he was the magician who removed all the meaningless tangles of her heart and made it strong and fearless!
I asked Dr. Bradley Vines, Ph. D. a cognitive neuroscientist, if he could help me to understand what was happening during Chellamma’s extraordinary, spectacular, final moments in this world. In response to my questions, he provided the following commentary:
“The incident of Chellamma’s singing from the depths of a coma presents a remarkable case that, to my knowledge, is unique in history. However, this profound event exemplifies principles of cognitive neuroscience that are common to us all. By considering the way the brain functions, we may gain insight into how and why it was that Chellamma sang the poetry of her late husband, after losing consciousness, with her final breaths.
Singing is a complex behavior that involves the coordination of a number of different areas of the brain. To sing, we must engage motor systems that control the movement of vocal muscles, access memories that encode melody and words, and process the sound of our own voice to make adjustments over time. Seen in this light, singing is a miraculous phenomenon on its own, let alone the act of singing in a state of coma. But, from a neuroscientific perspective, it is the very richness of singing, in terms of the recruitment of a wealth of neural resources, that makes such a deep and lasting impression on the mind.
Both music and poetry facilitate human memory. Taken together, music and poetry form an ideal mnemonic device. Through the ages, people have used combinations of music and poetry to remember lengthy narratives, as in bards’ epic tales, or to grasp important information, as in the case of the oral tradition of ayurvedic medicine. This is because music, with its melodic contours and rhythm, is rich with salient features that are ideal for the brain to encode. Poetry, similarly, offers a variety of handholds for the mind to grip, like metric structure and patterns of rhyme. Furthermore, music and poetry both engage systems of the brain that are associated with emotion and reward. Research has shown that experiences that are associated with strong emotions become more deeply engrained in memory and are easier to recall. It is for these reasons that the neural networks reinforced by music and poetry are so robust.
Chellamma had sung Bharati’s poetry throughout her life, and she was deeply moved by the words of her husband’s song. It is therefore understandable that the music would be deeply engrained in her memory. Science, potentially, could even explain the fact that she sang the words of her husband’s poetry from a special state of awareness so far removed from day-to-day consciousness that she was unresponsive even to her most beloved family and friends. What transcends the current reach of neuroscientific explanation, however, is Chellamma’s personal experience. Neuroimaging tools provide insight into the associations between brain activity and behavior, but they cannot give us access to the very experience that the human brain makes possible. For now, we can only imagine what Chellamma’s experience may have been as her final consciousness in this life became completely filled with poetry.”
Some of the facts that Dr. Vines points out in his analysis are surprising to me. First of all, I had not realized that Chellamma’s experience might be a “unique” incident, and not an ordinary occurrence in a human life.
I would explain further that the person we are talking about was not an ordinary person. Chellamma’s experiences with her husband – as a poet and as a unique personality – must have been so powerful that they created “unusual” emotions and processes in her brain. These strong powerful and unique emotions, associated with her experiences with her husband, must have been deeply ingrained in her memory until they were recalled at the very end of her life.
Dr. Vines talks about how music and poetry are structures that support memory and cognition, helping us to remember lengthy narratives and epic tales, and to grasp important information. In our country, it is true that the “oral tradition,” was perhaps the only method by which lengthy narratives, epic tales, and poetry were traditionally taught. Dr. Vines also talks about the means by which both communicate, music by “melodic contours and rhythm and poetry by “metric structures and patterns of rhyme” which are appealing to the human brain. Both music and poetry provide “footholds” for the brain to remember. The arts of music and poetry are so powerful that they engage systems that not only remember the facts of a given incident, but also maintain the experience that it is associated with – the emotions and feelings.
Dr. Vines points out that Chellamma’s brain must have been functioning in a “special state of awareness,” as she was removed from her normal, conscious state. I understand the limits of modern science, when he says that “the neuroimaging tools provide insight into the associations between brain activity and behavior, but they cannot give us access to the very experience that the human brain makes possible.”
Where science stops, philosophy may step in. If this is the case, I do have a philosophical explanation for what happened, whether or not it can ever be proven by science!
In death, or in a coma,, the functioning of the brain ultimately stops completely and the awareness of the outside world becomes nil. At this stage, the brain shuts down all its activities and becomes a vegetable, a “nothing.” It is a wonder – no matter how deeply her memories were ingrained into her brain – that Chellamma remembered and murmured two lines of Bharati’s poetry clearly, and the one last line (I don’t know where it was from) which so beautifully expressed her state of mind at the end of her life.
My theory is, that as the brain shuts down its day-to-day activities, there still remains the soul which, as the Gita says, is immortal and can, never be affected by the five elements (see Bharati’s Tamil translation of the Bhagavat Gita)– the glowing ember, which existed in “this body” all these years and witnessed the activities of life in “this body.”
Perhaps, this was the final expression of Chellamma’s soul before leaving its bodily existence – to become reunited with her husband’s soul!