New Book: The Complicated Life & Times of ‘Simple Simon’

Since Simple Simon is a semi-autobiography, the reader needs to ask this question at the end. We know what his passions are.

4 mins read
Illustration [Simple Simon]

            Vishnu Vàsu has recently published ‘Simple Simon’ as a commentary of his voyages coupled with some of his fantasies. According to my memory, his last literary work was in 1983 consisting of a collection of poems with a mischievous title. He was known as a musician in the 1990s for his musical band called ‘Colombo Percussion Trio’ and also as a Radio Artist.

            Simple Simon is such a unique literary work that cannot be confined to a single genre. Although the author prefers to classify it as a simple account of his memories as a wanderer once in his life (and still is), the book promptly grabs your attention as a celebration of meaningful explorations of a young man trying to discover his role on this planet. The time period of his journey is not clearly given but can be deduced as the late 1980s.

The subject matter of this work is wide as well as deep. It is somewhat difficult to define the boundary where the autobiography ends, and the wild fantasy begins. However, there are two underlined themes that the reader will notice throughout the book.

First, Vishnu Vàsu cannot stop sharing with us his life passion—music—particularly Eastern, Western and African drums. He discusses complex South Indian musical traditions in great detail in almost all chapters.

Second, this work is also a homage to his Guru Padmabhushan Vikku Vinayakram known as God of Ghatam. Vishnu spent thousand days studying Ghatam Bera in Gurukula tradition under his tutelage. This drum made out of clay is considered one of the most ancient and unique musical instruments dating back to the time of Ramayana.

Crossing Rishikesh city accompanied by a Nighanta

            Three chapters are reserved to describe Vishnu’s rendezvous with Naga Sadhus commonly known as Nighanta for their lack of interest in clothing. According to the author’s interpretation, the ‘Naga Sadhus’ have denounced physical possessions including the need to wear clothes before entering ascetic life. He had spent weeks sharing a cave (of course in total nudity) with four 60+ men: their leader Pandith Vishvanath Maharaj (probably a pseudonym), a sales executive, a retired Principal, and a person named Gopal. He made a pilgrimage to Beatles Ashram with the leader where John Lennon and his group practised transcendental meditation in 1968. Vishnu underwent a spiritual awakening with Pandith Vishvanath while meditating in one of the huts Beatles occupied. His experience was so powerful that he was able to walk the 2 km distance through Rishikesh City on their return to the cave wearing nothing but his birthday suit unabashedly.

Bábá & Obá

            A different yet familiar tale is in two chapters called Bábá & Obá. Few weeks were spent in a small fishing village called Ajido in Nigeria studying African drums, particularly in Yorùbátraditions. His teacher was Babatunde Olatunji (1927 – 2003), affectionately called Bábá by his students. He was a percussionist well known for his 1960 album ‘Drums of Passion’. According to Bábá, every drum has three souls: the soul of the tree felled to make it, the soul of the animal whose skin was used and the souls of all of the humans from the logger to the drummers. Vishnu sees a similarity in philosophy of traditional Sri Lankan drum making where a tree is planted, beg the tree gods to leave, and play for the first time—all at auspicious times with religious fervour.

            Obá was the village elder at whose home Vishnu resided during his stay in Ajido. Vishnu enjoyed his stay while helping the village fisherfolks drag their fishnets, milking the cows with the three wives of Obá and reciting mantras including Angulimala sutra with Obá. The show organized by Obá to conclude the training must have been a blast with thirty people playing twenty drums and other musical instruments in harmony.

Trans-express to KooragamAravan festival

            Vishnu meta transgender group on Mareena beach in Chennai. Although shy in the beginning, his inquisitive nature took over so later he befriended them. He immersed himself in their fascinating yet heartrending world. Born as Suresh to an upper-middle-class family then transitioned to graceful Sureka is one of the characters Vishnu had a strong connection.

The trip he took with one of them, Vindhya, in a train full of Hijra to attend Kooragam-Aravan festival was perhaps the most vividly expressed narrative. This 18-day event participated by hundreds of thousands of transgender and drag queens was a homage to Lord Arawan, a Pandiyan hero who sacrificed himself to Goddess Kali. He was mesmerized by 500 strong drummers playing while thousands of transgenders get married to men for one day to symbolize the marriage of Arwan to Mohini. The festival ended with an eerie spectacle of thousands of wailing widows beating their chests, throwing away their garlands and shattering their glass bangles to mourn the self-sacrifice of Arawan.

Who the hell is Vishnu Vàsu?

            Since Simple Simon is a semi-autobiography, the reader needs to ask this question at the end. We know what his passions are. We know what he did in his life so far. We know he is an inquisitive plus restless soul. He characterizes himself as a vagabond. Was he too charmed by the Indian mega culture to see its shortcomings? The answer is NO. He is appalled by the extreme poverty, caste system and Devadasi traditions in spite of cultural richness of India.

            Is he also an easily impressionable individual? It seems so at times especially since he was frequently too eager to venerate larger-than-life personalities. But he can also draw the line when it is needed. I greatly admire him for that. You should read the chapters about Ghandhi to see what I mean. He also shows great courage in revealing a painful part of his childhood in that chapter.

            At the end of the book, he invites the readers to come visit his apartment by Galkissa Beach for a couple of coffee. Although I don’t recall ever meeting the guy, after reading Simple Simon and talking about it in this piece, I feel like I have already had a few drinks with Vishnu Vàsu.

Pramod Kandanarachchi

Pramod Kandanarachchi lives in Brecksville, Ohio in the United States and has been a teacher and a researcher in the field of Chemistry. He was a graduate from the University of Peradeniya and obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He occasionally explores into other interests such a fiction writing, poetry & book reviews

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