Saturday, November 30, 2013

Kiss Me

Kiss me,
Kiss me with the poison on your lips
So that I’m energised
To survive in your world.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

To a God Unknown


“I’m not sinning.  If Burton were doing what I am, it would be sin.”  Joseph Wayne, the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s novel, To a God Unknown, utters those words.  He is referring to his act of venerating a particular tree as sacred.  He sees the spirit of his dead father in that tree.  His brother, Burton, is a puritanical Christian for whom even the act of sex is a sin if it is indulged in except for the purpose of procreation.  Burton thinks that Joseph is committing the serious, pagan sin of worshipping a tree.

Joseph tries to explain away his love for the tree as a mere “game.”  But his wife, Elizabeth, understands that it is much more than a game for him.  However, she won’t condemn him as a pagan.  She knows that her husband is a rare human being who has some peculiar qualities and proclivities.

Rama, her eldest sister-in-law, had already told Elizabeth that individuals like Joseph were “born outside humanity.”  Such people are so human as to make others seem unreal.  Joseph is compared to a godling with “strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild as fierce and sharp as the lightning and just as reasonless as far as I can see or know.... I tell you this man is not man, unless he is all men....”

Spiritual belief is the fulfilment of a psychological need.  And the need varies from individual to individual.  People like Burton want it all very formulaic and they follow the written codes and canons strictly.  People like Joseph cannot find satisfaction except in the truths they discover for themselves. 

Christianity fails to satisfy Joseph.  “To Hell with my soul!” he shouts at Father Angelo when the latter advises him that the soul should be his primary concern.  Joseph thinks that the earth and all creatures on it including the trees and plants are his primary concern.  He had approached the priest with a request to pray for rains.

Father Angelo knows Joseph well enough to understand that the man is not unlike Jesus in some ways.  But Joseph has no message to preach.  Nor does he have any desire to be remembered or to be believed in.  “Else there might be a new Christ here in the West,” says Father Angelo to himself. 

Joseph’s view is that each individual must discover his or her own God.  He encounters an old man on the hill who sacrifices an animal every evening.  He believes that he is controlling the sunrise and sunset with the help of these sacrifices.  But his reason tells him clearly that he cannot control the sun in any way.  Yet he needs the belief for his own happiness.  Later when Joseph sacrifices a cow in the hope that he could control the rain, he realises that neither can he control the rain nor can the sacrifice bring him any happiness.  “His (the old man’s) secret was for him... It won’t work for me,” he concludes.

Burton leaves Joseph unable to absorb the latter’s pagan ways.  But Burton has girdled Joseph’s sacred tree before he leaves.  The tree dies.  Joseph’s life becomes sterile.  All the more so, because a series of tragedies strike him.  His beloved wife dies in an accident.  The drought kills animals and plants on the ranch.  His eldest brother, Thomas, leaves the ranch with the remaining cows.  Joseph does not listen to his advice to join him.  Joseph thinks he is an integral part of the earth.  Its sorrows are his own.  He perceives mystically that he is the land and that he is the rain.  He decides to sacrifice himself for the sake of the earth.  He cuts his veins on the wrist.

The rainclouds gather in the sky.  “I am the land,” he said, “and I am the rain.  The grass will grow out of me in a little while.”

The people of the area dance in the rain.  Father Angelo gets ready with his crucifix to go to the people and prevent their pagan fiesta during which “They’ll be taking off their clothes... and they’ll roll in the mud.  They’ll be rutting like pigs in the mud.”  Soon he puts away the crucifix reasoning that he wouldn’t be able to see the people in the dark.  “I’ll preach against them on Sunday.  I’ll give everybody a little penance,” he decides.   The last sentence in the novel is given to Father Angelo who says, “That man (Joseph) must be very happy now.” 

To a God Unknown is a novel that is largely about religious beliefs.  It shows beliefs of various types.  It shows that for most people belief is a mere given thing which means nothing more than a few rituals and prayers.  They don’t mind going back to the ancient rituals when that’s more natural to them. 


For a very few individuals like Joseph, belief is beyond institutionalised religions and their canons.  They have their own personal understanding of reality.  Such understanding transcends the notions of the good and the bad.  It is non-judgmental.  It is more Christ-like than the Christ of Christianity, more god-like than the gods of most religions. 


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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tarun Tejpal


The only time I listened to Tarun Tejpal speaking in public was when he was the chief guest on the occasion of the Annual Day in my school five or six years ago.  I loved his speech.  He spoke on the importance of courage, courage to question what’s wrong.   It was an inspiring speech, a really motivating one.  It came from genuine convictions. 

Tejpal’s magazine, Tehelka, has always reflected that courage.  The magazine has been questioning a lot of wrong things in Indian politics.  Tejpal had the courage to attack formidable leaders like Narendra Modi.  He brought convincing arguments and evidences against people like Modi.  I have a fair share of admiration for this person called Tarun Tejpal.

The scandal that has erupted is being blown out of proportion, I think.  The media loves to report about the sexual fallibility of people who have some reputation.  It’s true that Tejpal slipped; he did make a mistake.  He admits it.  See his letter to the woman concerned:

I think the letter reveals Tejpal’s characteristic courage.  He acknowledges his error and asks for forgiveness.  I don’t know if what Tejpal has said in his letter is the entire truth regarding the matter.  If it is, I would like to see a happy ending to this affair.  Sex scandals are really boring affairs, all the more so when they are magnified.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Perversions amidst Oppression


Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is a challenging work.  It is a complex novel with multiple themes each of which is interwoven with all others creating an intricate texture.

The title reveals the dominant theme: dissatisfaction with one’s self and longing for something that can make the self appear better.  Pecola longs for the bluest eyes.  She is a Black girl in America.  It is not only the complexion of her skin that bothers her but also the ugliness of her appearance.   It is a perceived ugliness, to some extent.  Everybody in her family thinks that he or she is ugly.  Every one of them “wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong to them,” says the narrator.

One’s environment – social, cultural and also the family – shapes one’s character as well as perceptions to a great extent.  Living with a man like Mr Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, the family cannot but see themselves as ugly.  People like Mr Breedlove perverts everything that they touch. 

The novel is also the story of many other Blacks in America who have been perverted by the racist society to some extent or the other.  Geraldine’s and Mrs Breedlove’s obsession with cleanliness is an example of such perversion.  This obsession is a mere mask for their dislike of their own people and their ways of being.

Elihue Micah Whitcomb, aka Soaphead Church, is one of the most perverted characters though he is not an African American.  He is a West Indian.  He has converted religion into a convenient business.  Using that new religion of his, he claims to help people “Overcome Spells, Bad Luck, and Evil Influences,” though he is a “misanthrope.”  He helps Pecola materialise her longing for “the bluest eyes.”  What he does is the climax of all the perversions in the novel.  [Ironically, in the novel, the more religious a person, the less loving he/she is.]

All the perversions we see in the novel are products of an oppressive society.  For the coloured people, survival in the White Man’s world is a tremendous challenge.  Some like Pecola are broken by the oppressiveness.   Perversions help others to go on.  A few like the narrator and her sister make it – by learning to be themselves and to love...

Reading this novel is a difficult experience because of its narrative style and structure.  The experience can be a rewarding one provided one has the patience and will power to plough through.



PS.  I wouldn’t have read this novel had it not for been a student who thrust his personal copy into my hand with the request: “Please read it and tell me what it’s about; I can’t make head or tail of it.” 


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Monday, November 18, 2013

Jack and Jill


Fiction

The 6 year-old Jack and 4 year-old Jill had a small, little fight.  Jack felt guilty.  “I’m sorry,” he said hugging his sister very affectionately.

During the unexpected hug Jill’s hand touched Jack’s little penis.  “What’s this thing you’ve got here?”  she asked groping Jack’s groin. 

“That’s the pipe for carrying urine,” said Jack.

“But I don’t have such a pipe,” protested Jill.

“You’re a girly, silly.”

“So what?”

“Stop being stupid.”

Jill went to the kitchen where mum was cooking dinner.  “Why don’t I have a pipe for carrying urine?” she asked.

“You’re not a boy,” said mum.

“So what?” asked Jill.

“Only boys have the pipe...”

“Why should boys have all the fun?” asked Jill.

Mum  looked into the living room.  Pop was sitting there, his legs stretched out on the tea poi and reading Vikram Seth’s Two Lives.  Mum and Pop, both, worked in offices.  Both had to get up early in the morning.  Both had to work their asses out in their respective offices.   But pop had the free time to read novels.  Mum was supposed to continue her work in the kitchen.  Mum had to get up a little earlier... 

The urine pipe does make a lot of difference, thought Mum.  And boys have a lot of fun with it.  Girls should be mum.  

Mum kissed Jill and said, “You’ll understand it in time, darling.”

Later in the night Mum asked Pop, “You don’t love me?”

“I’m tired, darling.”  Pop turned the other way.  Mum pulled the blanket from Pop’s side so that she could at least have a good night’s sleep.


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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Beasts within Us



“Civilization is skin-thin: scratch it and savagery bleeds out.”  [Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations]

Nobel laureate William Golding’s first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), tells the story of a group of school boys plane-wrecked on an uninhabited island.  The leadership of the democratic and sensitive Ralph is soon usurped by the savage Jack, and childhood innocence soon gives way to uncanny cruelty on the island.  The novel is the story of evil in the human being and his society.

Seeing that there are no adults to restrain them, the children are initially excited.  But Ralph emerges as a leader reminding them of their responsibility to find ways of returning home.  Ralph is a moral character in the novel.  His is a cultivated morality, the product of human civilisation.  Jack, on the other hand, is the uncultivated savage.  He soon wrenches the leadership from Ralph and becomes a dictator who imposes both his will and his savagery on the group.  Most of the children abandon Ralph’s benign leadership and become the followers of the bullying  Jack.  Jack provides them “fun and games” like hunting and mimicking hunting with one of the younger boys playing the role of a boar.

Simon is one of the few boys who do not follow Jack.  He is a saint of sorts to whom goodness comes naturally.  People like Simon do good and only good not because of any external moral obligations but merely because goodness comes to them naturally from within.  Such people may not last in the world of normal human beings.  Simon is killed eventually mistaken for the mysterious beast that was dreaded by most of the boys though none had really seen it.

There really was no mysterious beast on the island.  But Jack finds the myth of the beast useful for establishing his reign on the island.  He becomes the saviour of the boys from the mythical beast.  He sets up the head of a wild boar that they had hunted on a stump as a ritualistic symbol for propitiating the mythical beast.  A cult is born on the island.  Thus Jack is now not only a political ruler but also a religious leader.  He is a tyrant, in fact.

In a world where the beast is perceived as real, where fear is a dominating emotion, rules and morals are ineffectual and they may even totally vanish.   Rules and morals work when there is a feeling of security.  Where survival itself is in danger, power becomes the significant virtue.  Jack provides the security of that power.  He assures the boys that he will save them from the mysterious beast.  He constructs a religious cult with its own weird rituals.

Ralph and Piggy refuse to join Jack and his gang.  Piggy is soon killed though it was Ralph who was the real target.  Ralph flees in order to save himself. 

Piggy is the intellectual, scientific thinker in the group.  The intellectual has no place where myths and cults reign supreme, having created an environment of smouldering fear.  Jack’s boys steal Piggy’s spectacles whose lenses were the only means for making fire on the island.  Science is stolen from the scientist and is misused by antisocial elements.   

There really is no safe place on the island where Ralph can take shelter from Jack’s gang.  He is fortunate that a soldier, having seen the fire set ablaze with the intention of killing him, lands on the island with his parachute.  The boys are saved.

Golding believed that evil was an integral part of human beings.  Civilisation helps to keep it under control.  Morality, ethics and the various rules and regulations keep the wild beast in man under chains and whips.  The beast resides within every individual – with some exceptions like Simon who may not last long.  Left totally free, the child too will reveal fangs and claws.  There is really nothing like childhood innocence.  Such innocence is a transient dream.  The reality within the human being is a protean beast which can become various myths and assume numerous shapes.


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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Evil


Evil is coeval with mankind. 

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) said repeatedly in his widely studied Canterbury Tales, “Love of money is the root of all evil.”  How much can we alter that statement today, six centuries later?

When Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) made his unforgettable Doctor Faustus utter the following lines:
            Had I as many souls as there be stars,
            I’d give them all for Mephistophilis,
he created a character who would be perfectly at home in our own time with all its plethora of sensual delights.   

Now, how evil are sensual delights?

Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” said Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) witches in Macbeth.  They were expressing something much more than an epigram on hypocrisy or political chicanery.  If we want, we can even apply the epigram to many of the contemporary sensual delights.

We can apply that witchy epigram, moreover, to a lot of things today. 

The law today, for example, protects the foul.  Even in the days of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the law wasn’t any better.  He said, Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”

Can you guess who wrote the following lines?

The different forms of government make laws, democratic, aristocratic, or autocratic, with a view to their respective interests; and these laws, so made by them to serve their interests, they deliver to their subjects as ‘justice’ and punish as ‘unjust’ anyone who transgresses them…

Plato wrote it about 2400 years ago in The Republic.

There has been no escape from evil for mankind.  So what’s to be done?  Should Greek philosopher, Epictetus (55-135 CE), be my inspiration?

When Epictetus was a slave, his master used to treat him with consistent cruelty.  One day the master chose to entertain himself by twisting Epictetus’ leg.  “If you go on,” said Epictetus calmly, “you will break my leg.”  The master went on, and the leg was broken.  “Did I not tell you,” Epictetus observed matter-of-factly, “that you would break my leg?”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Children - no more childlike?



The above is a real picture of the condition of school education in India.  A front page report in the Delhi edition of The Hindu (13 Nov 2013) carries the photo from a teacher training institute in Dharwad.  The institute (DIET) which trains primary school teachers has only one student, and 6 teachers.  The previous batch had just two students.

The Times of India carries another report on the same day: 'Need Parenting Help? Call a Coach.'  More and more parents are turning to experts for advice on how to deal with their children!

Why have children become such a problem that parents need expert advice
and teachers seem to be terrified of them - so terrified that teacher training institutes are running the danger of shutting down?


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nangeli


Historical Fiction

Nangeli was beautiful beyond comparison.  She flowed in the veins of lustful men’s dreams like an intoxication.  Even her marriage to Kandappan did not diminish the number of her admirers.

“You are the pride of the Ezhavas,” Kandappan murmured in Nangeli’s ears as he lay fondling the shapely curves of her youthful body.   

Kandappan and Nangeli belonged to low caste of Ezhavas.  They were untouchables.  But even the most aristocratic Namboothiri longed to fondle Nangeli’s teasing breasts.  The people of Nangeli’s caste were supposed to stand at a distance of 36 paces from the higher caste people.  But  even the men of His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal, King of Travancore, slept with Nangeli in the darkness of their dreams.

When Nangeli walked, the wild roses on the wayside blossomed and emitted the fragrance of musk.

“Kandappa, Kandappa,” called Neelan through his gasps.  Kandappan stopped ploughing the field and asked Neelan what the matter was.

“Nangeli...”

“Nangeli!  What happened to my Nangeli?”  Kandappan abandoned the plough and bullocks and rushed to Neelan.

“Nangeli is dead,” cried Neelan.

Neelan was one of the neighbours who had watched His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal’s Pravarthiar, village officer, speaking to Nangeli outside her hut.

Pravarthiar had come to demand the breast tax from Nangeli.

His Majesty the King, in connivance with the Namboothiri priests, had imposed a tax on the low caste women who refused to expose their breasts.  If the women wanted to cover their breasts they had to pay the breast tax.  The gods had decreed it, uttered the Namboothiri priests solemnly.  The King could not overrule the gods.

Nangeli had refused to expose her breasts to the ogling men.  She also refused to pay the tax. 

“How can the King and the Namboothiris decide which part of my body they want to see?” asked Nangeli when Pravarthiar demanded the tax.

“The King rules over the earth and the Namboothiris control the gods who rule over the heavens,” said Pravarthiar as if that was an axiomatic truth.

“It is the King and the Namboothiris who should pay me a lust tax,” declared Nangeli vehemently.  “They make rules for their own pleasure and convenience.  Today it is breast tax.  Who knows whether they won’t impose taxes on other parts of my body tomorrow?”

“You dare to challenge the King and the Namboothiris!”  Pravarthiar was scandalised.  “They are the gods on the earth, your visible gods, you blasphemous wench.”

He threatened her with capital punishment.  But he was ready to forgive her provided she offered him a vision of the pigeons that fluttered beneath her breast cloth.

“Wait,” said Nangeli as she walked into her hut.  Soon she came out with her sharp sickle and pulled off her breast cloth.  Before Pravarthiar realised what was happening, Nangeli’s breasts lay at his feet in a puddle of blood.

“Take them,” spat out Nangeli.  “And pay the tax yourself.”

When Neelan managed to narrate what had happened, Kandappan sank to the ground with a sob that reverberated in the heavens.

When Kandappan stood up again, his cheeks were firm.  He walked home with steady steps.

With equally steady steps Kandappan walked into the flames that engulfed Nangeli’s corpse.  The fire spread to the heavens and burnt a file in His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal’s palace.


Post Script: The place where Nangeli lived came to be known as Mulachiparambu, literally ‘The Field of the Breast-Woman’.  The very next day of Nangeli’s self-sacrifice, Sri Moolam Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore (1885-1924), issued an order withdrawing the breast tax.   


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Friday, November 8, 2013

Vocation

 Fiction


Sister Angela decided to leave her religious calling and life in the convent.

“What makes you feel that you have no vocation?” asked her Mother Superior for the umpteenth time.  ‘Vocation’ in the Catholic parlance meant ‘God’s call to be a nun or a priest.’

Angela understood that she would not be granted dispensation from her religious vows unless she gave her reason for stepping out of the religious habit.  She wanted love, she said candidly.  Not the kind of abstract, spiritual love that Jesus and Mary and the hundreds of saints offered her copiously.  She wanted real, human love. 

Mother Superior was shocked.  How could a woman who had been donning the religious habit for about a decade desire such a demeaning thing as human love with all its vulgar passions and filthy acts and filthier body fluids?

It was now Angela’s turn to be shocked.  She had not meant sex when she said love.  Why did the Mother’s thoughts go in that direction?  Angela wondered.

Whenever she thought of love, it was the face of Johnny that rose in her heart.  Jesus had been superseded by Johnny. 

“Johnny who?” asked Mother Superior contemptuously.  “You don’t mean that silly young man teaching in our school?”

Angela merely looked at Mother, helplessly and not without feelings of guilt.  She felt as if she had committed a series of fornications with Johnny.  Hadn’t Jesus said that whoever looked at a woman with lust in his heart had already committed adultery with her?  Didn’t this apply to women as well?

No, no.  I committed no such grave sin, she said to herself.  It’s his smile that I want.  Childlike smile.  It’s his company and the conversations he leads me into.  Conversations about writers and their books, ideas and questions.

“He is just a philanderer, Angela,” said Mother Superior.  “People like him cannot love anybody except themselves.  If he engages you in conversations, it is because you flatter him by being his ardent listener.  Childlike smile, you said.  Yes, he is a child at heart.  Immature and silly.  Childish, not childlike...”

Angela knew that the Mother was not entirely wrong in her judgment.  Even she had felt time and again that Johnny had no feelings of love towards her. 

Mother Superior spent a few hours trying to make Angela understand the folly of her decision.  But Angela was adamant; she wanted love, human love.

Finally Mother Superior understood that Angela’s decision was irrevocable.  “Remember one thing, however,” said the Mother in conclusion, “human love is far more complex and demanding than divine love.”

Then came a very practical suggestion from the Mother.  “Why don’t you invite Johnny here tomorrow?  Say that you have something important to tell him.” 

The Mother advised her to appear before Johnny just after taking a bath.  Wear a skirt and blouse.  Let him see a part of your lovely body.  Stir the man in him.  Tell him with all your feminine charm that you are leaving religious life in quest of human love.  And see how he responds. 

Angela thought it good advice.  She did just what the Mother suggested.

Johnny listened to her with his usual childlike smile.  “I wish you all the best.  I’m sure you will find genuine human love...”

Human love is indeed very complex, reflected Angela as she watched Johnny walk away having said his good bye.




Thursday, November 7, 2013

Teaching

"I will take you to the court," said the student who was asked to leave the classroom for being "a nuisance".

The teacher bent down and touched the feet of the student.

"Please, do.  If it can make you a human being."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Bombs

 Fiction

“Bombs are the strategies employed by people who reach their level of incompetence,” said Shyamsunder to his son, Manvender.

“Why did people explode bombs near where Modi was speaking?” The 14 year-old Manvender had asked.

“... and incompetence is reciprocal,” Shyamsunder went on.  “Modi had exploded some bombs about a decade ago.  They are now coming back to him.”

Shyamsunder was running a coaching institute for IIT aspirants (“and also for ordinary students,” he would add with a sly smile) in Patna.  He had a been a computer programmer for a while in a private firm in Delhi.  He had to leave when the director of the firm, Mr Ram Kumar, had risen to his level of incompetence. 

According to the Peter Principle, the corporate sector gives promotions to the staff until they reach a position whose demands turn out to be beyond their competence.  Incompetence gives birth to manipulations.

“Management is not possible without some manipulation,” Mr Ram Kumar used to say when he was the senior manager – before he was elevated to position of the director.  He turned manipulation into a gospel.  Soon sycophants attached themselves to him.  Sycophants are people who have reached their levels of incompetence in their present area of work but believe they can be superstars given a chance in another area.  For catapulting themselves to that area of perceived merit, they need support.  Ram Kumars and sycophants walk hand in hand, with a bomb in the other hand.  They will let go the joined hand and trigger the bomb in the other when the occasion is apt. 

Shyamsunder believed that he had been thus bombed by Ram Kumar.  When Ram Kumar had been just one rung below his level of incompetence, Shyamsunder was one of his protégés.  Ram Kumar made use of Shyamsunder’s characteristic inclination to talk through his hat.  He pretended to be letting out certain precious secrets and Syamsunder shared those secrets with his colleagues in his own unique way imagining that he was winning friends and supporters by doing it.  But Ram Kumar was actually using Shyamsunder to spread whatever rumours would help him ascend the ladder of success to his level of incompetence.

“I tried my best to save you,” said Ram Kumar handing Shyamsunder his termination letter a week after he had reached his level of incompetence.  “The management thinks you are a serious liability to the firm.” 

Ram Kumar explained that the management had decided to follow Professor Robert I. Sutton’s ‘The No Asshole Rule’, according to which all toxic staff had to be expelled for the wellbeing of the firm. 

Shyamsunder stood up with the termination letter quivering in his hand and said, “Mr Ram Kumar, I want to tell you two things: one, you are ruining a person’s life including that of his family; and two, pip pip.”

“Papa, don’t forget to buy bombs for Diwali.”  Shyamsunder woke up from his reverie. 

In the evening when he joined his family to burst Diwali crackers, he put aside the loudest crackers for the end.  “Ram Kumar bombs – for the climax,” he said to himself with a grin that neither his wife nor his children noticed.



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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Discovery

Short Fiction

 Sculptor was frustrated. 

He had a theory that every rock contained within it the statue which the artist has only to discover.  Sculpture is the art of dis-covering. 

But the rock on which he was working refused to reveal the statue it contained.  Sculptor looked at his semi-finished statue from left and right, front and back, from all angles possible. 

No, this isn’t what I had seen in the rock. 

Yes, a sudden realisation dawned on him.  I’ve been making a mistake.  I had seen a particular statue in the rock while the rock contained a quite different one.   He took his hammer and chisel again. 

In the place of Sita which he had been trying to carve, now emerged Ravana.  With one face containing all the ten faces.