CHENNAI IS an oven in April, a furnace in May. No afternoon sea breeze respite for inner city dwellers either, the concrete jungle seals all entries. The baked roads and tree-robbed avenues are a blur of dust and traffic fumes. Splashing your face for the hundredth time with warm water from the tap, you wonder yet again just how you are going to survive the cruel weeks to come.
"Anything to distract me as I'm broiled alive," my cousin sighs. I respond hesitantly, "Coconut water? Buttermilk? Watermelon juice? New mocktails for the season bursting into print everyday? Khadi? Mangalgiri? Kanchi cotton? We are swamped by summer sales." Her scorn is too deep for rebuttal. But she says pensively, "Remember how we learnt rhymes during summer vacations? We didn't notice the heat then, did we."
Those were the days when our canny Grandma set the dozen children of her joint family to learn long verses by heart through the blazing noons of May. The best recitation of each day won a fistful of sugar candy. Often Grandma herself reeled off riddle rhymes, and taught indoor games, each with its own string of verses — "pallankuzhi" on wooden board with slots for the shell counters, "ammanai" to juggle little silver balls, and "othaiya-rettaiya", a guessing game with tamarind seeds. We built up our stock of poetry (!) then. Our `era' was innocent of television and computer screens. Plays and `talkies' were rare treats. The mandatory family entertainment was to yank some child out of the throng, and have him or her recite Kural and Athi Choodi, or the rousing verses of Subrahmanya Bharati. (more)
In the same issue S. Muthiah writes about a man who has developed a version of Scrabble in Tamil. While English has only 26 letters,
Thamizh has 247 - and anyone thinking of developing the game in other vernaculars will have to deal with 468 (excluding compound letters) in Hindi, 385 in Bengali 523, or so in Telugu, 507, or so in Kannada, 68 in Malayalam, and 374 in each of Gujarati and Marathi!(more)
Everyone in Bombay goes out for dinner. Then they go to Muchhad (pron. MOOCH-ard) Paanwala and eat paan, he has his own website, he sits all day in dhoti with a so-big moustache. Then the whole city goes bowling, or they play billiards. They’re all talking on their cell phones, from the age of eleven onward. Then they go to bed. Bombay is like that.
Yesterday I found the website of Muchhad Paanwala, which means Mustachioed Paan-maker. He is framed in this picture by a paan leaf. And he does indeed have a so-big moustache:
His father Shyam Charan Tiwari established the shop thirty years ago. The shop was named Muchhad because his father Shyam Charan Tiwari had mustache so big and long that it touched his ears. And now it's become a family tradition, all the four brothers have long mustache...
They believe and treat their customers like God. They keep personal and family like relations with their customers and believe in giving the best service to them. And all the ingredients that they use are very pure and genuine without any mixing...
Paan is a small packet made of a special leaf, wrapped around various ingredients – according to your taste -- and chewed. It is supposed to be good for digestion. The smell of gulkand, a rose jam which is an ingredient in sweet paan, is one of the most characteristic smells of India for me. The marks of paan-reddened spit on walls and footpaths are a common sight in the North.
The thirteenth century manual for dancers, Abhinayadarpanam, “Mirror of Gesture,” includes a graceful gesture for folding a paan leaf and offering it.
The accessories of paan can be beautiful: betel nut cutters,
and paandaans – the compartmented boxes in which paan is kept:
The amazing book Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture describes the ornate decadence of Lucknow just before its overthrow as a result of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. There are sections on Lucknow's diversions: poetry, story-telling, bird- and animal-fighting, pigeon-flying, kite-flying, music, dance, food, forms of headwear... and the eating of paan.
About the paandaan the author writes:
... In the boxes are two metal cups to contain kathha and lime, and three smaller, equal-sized receptacles for cut nuts of various kinds. All of these are arranged in a circle, in the middle of which is another small container to hold cardamoms or cloves... There are tiny spoons for the kathha and lime... Placed over all these containers is a large tray... in which raw betel leaves are placed, wrapped in a damp cloth....
The size [of the paandaan] began to increase until it came to weigh as much as twenty to forty pounds. At the same time it became necessary for ladies to take it with them wherever they went. Just as ‘the larger the turban, the greater the learning,’ so the larger the betel box, the greater was the status and grandeur of the lady. Eventually the betel box took up all the space in the palanquin and there was no room for the lady...
When we buy paan nowadays, we either take it from the hands of the paanwala directly, or have it wrapped in leaves or aluminum foil. That way, there's still plenty of room in the palanquin.
I was struck by the image of the cat catcher, roaming with a long stick, always on the lookout and trying to outsmart those swift creatures. (That loop of wire looked nasty, though.) The man was young, with a mop of curly hair, a ragged green plaid lungi. He left smiling, as though being a cat catcher was a fine thing.
photo by Ramesh Gandhi
Today is the birthday of Gautama Buddha, which is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Vaishakh. Here are two poems in his praise from Sanskrit Poetry From Vidyakara's Treasury, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls:
May that victorious moment of the Buddha save you
when the soldier Mara, weapons rendered impotent,
screwed up his courage to that pitch
where, angry, he would swallow up the sacred head,
but then within a jewel of the wondrous crown
did see his own wide-open-mouthed reflection,
at sight of which his courage failed.--Sri Pasavarman
For whom the thousand shining eyes
of Indra falling at his lotus feet,
fulfill the rite of offering
a wreath of dark blue waterlilies;
for whom the rays of wondrous light
from diadems of prostrate gods
compose a new and saintly robe; may he,
the Sakya Saint, protect you.--Vasukalpa
Harvest of War
you shield your men from ruin,
so your victories, your greatness
Loose chariot wheels
lie about the battleground
with the long white tusks
of bull elephants.
Flocks of male eagles
with their mates.
before they fall
to the ground.
like the sky before nightfall,
in the red center
of the battlefield.
Demons dance there.
And your kingdom
is an unfailing harvest
of victorious wars.
A Woman and Her Dying Warrior
I cannot cry out,
I’m afraid of tigers.
I cannot hold you,
your chest is too wide
for my lifting.
has no codes
and has dealt you wrong,
shiver as I do!
Hold my wrist
let’s get to the shade
of that hill.
Just try and walk a little.
Then, on Woods Lot, another Colossus, from Burning Man:
Last night I dreamed that the cyclone had hit us. I went to the ocean and saw waves raised and static, like a mountain range, or a field of icebergs: jagged shapes in shades of pale and paler grey. In the spaces between them the water was almost flat, and shone with silvery light. There was no sun, the sky was also shades of grey, but rounded with clouds, in contrast to the jagged sea.
The real cyclone has moved north, and will bring water and suffering to some other part of the coast.
These pictures were taken in Calcutta, a great city, with a very different feel from Chennai. They were taken in places that I like: bylanes, backstreets, interstices.
Shiva temple, Bhowanipore
living on the footpath
an office behind Park Street
There’s a cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal, about 600 km east southeast of Chennai. It’s supposed to begin raining here on Wednesday afternoon. Imagine, hoping for a cyclone – we’re that hungry for rain. The temperature has come down a bit, at least.
I just read a good piece from Zellar: Open All Night: photo mart, about the pictures that people bring in for developing – (via Cassandra).
I have the habit of leaving film in my camera until I’ve forgotten what was on it. Once I took in a roll of film which had been in my camera for almost a year. I gave it for developing and returned in an hour. The man behind the counter handed me an envelope. I pulled out a photo at random and found myself staring at a close-up of the face of a corpse, with wads of cotton stuffed up its nose, and a white cloth tied around its head. I pulled out some more pictures, and saw an entire funeral ceremony – wailing people, the procession to the cremation ground. I was so confused that I wondered for a moment if I had taken these pictures and forgotten them. I said very hesitantly, “I don’t think this is my roll.”
The akam poems are full of indirect metaphor: each type of love is associated with a particular season, a landscape, a flower, a bird... Here is an example of an akam poem and Ramanujan’s commentary:
What She Said
Bigger than earth, certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man
of the mountain slopesTevakulattar
where bees make rich honey
from the flowers of the kurinci
that has such black stalks.
The kurinci flower and the mountain scene clearly mark this as a kurinci poem about lovers’ union. The union is not described or talked about; it is enacted by the “inset” scene of the bees making honey from the flowers of the kurinci. The lover is not only the lord of the mountain; he is like the mountain he owns. Describing the scene describes his passion. The kurinci, being a plant that takes about twelve years to come to flower, carries a suggestion assimilating the tree to the young tropical heroine who speaks the poem…
Furthermore, the poem opens with large abstractions about her love: her love is bigger than earth and higher than the sky. But it moves toward the concreteness of the blackstalked kurinci, acting out by analogue the virgin’s progress from abstraction to experience. .. This progression (from the basic cosmic elements to the specific component of a landscape) is also the method of the entire intellectual framework behind the poetry: moving from first elements to native elements to human feelings…
Here is another akam poem:
What He Said
As a little white snake
with lovely stripes on its young body
troubles the jungle elephant
this slip of a girlCatti Natanar
her teeth like sprouts of new rice
her wrists stacked with bangles
There is a small collection of akam poems here, with the Tamil text, transliteration, translation – and a table showing the landscapes / seasons, etc. associated with each type of love.
Public Call Office, C P Ramaswamy Road, Chennai
In another part of the city, we sit in the bar at the Adyar Park hotel. The audible voices are Australian and German – a Lufthansa air crew – but the place is almost empty, at 11:00 on Sunday night. The waiters, bored, drift over one by one to chat. There’s a display of expensive Cuban cigars on a round table in the middle of the bar. A waiter unlocks a drawer and brings out a cigar lighter like a miniature blowtorch to light R’s pipe. The chairs are comfortable, the lighting soft. We drink Kingfisher beer. I watch silent images of a local news channel from a television on the bar counter. Here’s Richard Armitage, the American Deputy Secretary of State. With his bald head and massive, boxy body, he looks like an old-style Soviet politician, only better tailored. He’s come to Delhi to pat India on the back for its latest peace initiative with Pakistan. (I feel hopeless, yet wish to be hopeful, about this initiative. Many Indians find Armitage’s peace-making avtaar ironic... to put it politely.) Now here’s the distinguished head of Javed Akhtar, screenwriter, songwriter, sometime poet. I wonder why he’s on the news. Last year a journalist from the Pakistani weekly The Friday Times was visiting India when Akhtar released a book of his Urdu poetry. She wrote snippily that he was a good songwriter, not a serious poet – but that Indians go crazy over anyone who can pronounce the letter ‘qaf.’ Which seemed pretty funny, and maybe true. Now it’s 1:00. Outside our small pool of light the place is being discreetly cleaned and ordered for tomorrow. Time to go.
One link which was interesting and surprising to me, was The Mystery of the Threshold: Ali of Southern India by Ulrike Niklas, about eunuchs in Chennai. I had thought of hijras as being a primarily northern Indian phenomenon, but apparently they have a long tradition in the south as well. One of the alis, as they are called in Tamil, mentioned in the article, was a priestess of a temple of the goddess Angalamman.
Here are a few other links:
The Hijra Community, an article and a glossary of terms
Livick Archives -- some remarkable portraits
Hijra: the Third Gender in India -- from Takeshi Ishikawa: The Works on Hijra, with portraits
Photo Essay by Anita Khemka - MUNNA GURU-Portrait of a Eunuch
Fashion: Eunuchs dazzling on Indian catwalks
The Eunuchs of Pakistan by Dennis Drenner - with a photo essay
Feminine Soul, Masculine Body from the World Press Review (hijras in Pakistan)
I thought of the time I went to Calcutta’s Park Street Cemetery with a friend who spoke only Gujerati and Hindi. The cemetery is a wonderful and mysterious place, full of British Raj history. Hemu had never been there, first, because she did not sightsee in her own city; but also, perhaps, because Hindus cremate their dead, and preferably within 24 hours of death. The thought of so many dead bodies lying just below the soil was oppressive to her. Hemu read on a gravestone the word "decayed" and asked me what it meant. I didn't know the exact word, so I said in Hindi, "When someone dies, his body becomes dirt. His face goes and only bones and teeth are there. The body becomes only bones." It must have sounded absurd. Then she asked me about "This thought and this alone/Your friends have left to mitigate their Moan,” and I had to admit my incompetence.
If I had to say this in Tamil it would be even worse. (I am about to give a laugh to any Tamil speaker who might read this:) Yaro settumbothu avarudaiya udambu odinju man mathiri ayidum... “When someone dies his body breaks and becomes like earth...” It’s not even grammatical.
I bow most humbly to all translators.
Mercury touches 40°C in Chennai
CHENNAI: For the past three days, Chennai has been feeling the heat. With the onset of agni nakshathiram or kathri veyyil on May 4, city residents have been sweating it out.
The phase is expected to last till June 1. And Chennaiites are finding various ways to beat the heat. In Parry’s Corner, you can find tender cucumbers a major hit with bus commuters. Most tea stalls are doing brisk business selling ‘Ice Moru’ (iced buttermilk) to thirsty customers. At several busy junctions, watermelon juice is being sold for Rs 5....
Something is injured or dying behind the wall across the street. Crows begin to dive, then rise, turn and dive again, croaking the loud signalling call. More crows fly in from all corners – from our garden, from the slums near the sea. All join, croaking and swooping, until the air is a pattern of interlocking birds, black and sky-blue, an Escher drawing.
It’s hot. On the other hand… mangoes every day.
Rabindranath Tagore was born today, May 7, 1861 -- via Woods Lot, which also has these links:
Translating Between Media: Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray
Nabarun Halder's Tagore Page
The homelands of the Indo-European languages stretch from Dublin to Delhi. But Hadza, a tongue that is one of a kind, is spoken by just 1,000 people near Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. Why do the world's languages have so uneven a distribution pattern?
The invention of agriculture has long been invoked to explain the spread of the Indo-European languages. Now, Dr. Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles and Dr. Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University in Canberra have applied the concept to 15 major language families. Their article appeared in the April 25 issue of Science.
The premise is that when humans lived as hunters and gatherers, their populations were small, because wild game and berries can support only so many people. But after an agriculture system was devised, populations expanded, displacing the hunter-gatherers around them and taking their language with them.
On this theory, whatever language happened to be spoken in a region where a crop plant was domesticated expanded along with the farmers who spoke it.
Even if the farmers interbred with the hunter-gatherers whose land they took over, genes can mix, but languages cannot. So the hunter-gatherers would in many cases have adopted the farmers' language. That is why languages "record these processes of demographic expansion more clearly than the genes," Dr. Bellwood said.
Just as China was a powerhouse of new language families in the East, the Fertile Crescent, the arc running through Lebanon and through Iraq, was the source of at least three major language families in the West, the authors say.
One was Dravidian, a language family now centered on southern India. A second was the Indo-European family, which includes English, French and German in its Western branch and Iranian and Hindi in its Eastern branches. A third may have been Afro-Asiatic, a family that includes ancient Egyptian and Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew.…
AND GRUDGE ME
THE SMALL PRICE
I SELL HIM AT
IN CONCOCTED PARTS
I AM YOUR CONNECTION
AND I REPRESENT YOU
IN RETURN TO PANDER HIS INVIDIOUS
WRATH AND RETRIBUTION
I DISTRIBUTE RELIGION
HOW DOES IT MATTER
IF BOTH ARE THE SAME
SO LONG AS THEY GIVE YOU
FEAR FROM WHICH TO ESCAPE WITH HOPE
ENSHRINED IN A POLICY
ON A CERTAIN COMMISSION
ENSURING MY EMPLOYMENT
AGAINST THIS MYTHOLOGY
AND SEEK OSTRACISM?
HAVE FAITH IN
THE TERROR OF DISBELIEF
TO THE DETRIMENT
BUT THE TRUTH --
DO NOT YOU AND I
photograph and poem by Ramesh Gandhi
The climate of Madras [Chennai] has been described with considerable accuracy as three months hot and nine months hotter.
The modern version is “Here in Chennai we have three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest.” Cue for polite laughter.
I know it’s the hot season when I think I’m coming down with a fever. Then I realise it’s the weather.
I’ve been reading A. K. Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War, about Tamil poetry of the Sangam period (c. 150 BC – 250 AD). These ancient poets divided the year into six seasons:
The rains (August-September), the cool season (October-November) the season of evening dew (December-January), the season of morning dew (February-March), early summer (April-May), and late summer (June-July).
In Sangam poetry, each season is associated with a landscape. The landscape of summer is the desert wasteland, or fertile land which has been burned by drought. The desert landscape is associated in the poetry with elopement, hardship, separation from lover or parents. Its time of day is midday. Its birds are the dove and the eagle. Its animals are the fatiqued elephant, tiger or wolf, and the lizard. Its trees are the toothbrush tree and the cactus. Its waters are stagnant waters, or waterless wells. The people of the desert landscape are wayfarers and bandits.
I think that about sums it up.
Agni Nakshetram, which continues until June 1, is traditionally the hottest time of the year in Chennai. It is also the inspiration for the title of this weblog. (I lifted this picture from here.)
Agni is one of the most important of the Vedic gods. He is the god of fire, the messenger of the gods, the acceptor of sacrifice. Agni is in everyone's hearth; he is the vital spark of life, and so a part of him is in all living things; he is the fire which consumes food in peoples' stomachs, as well as the fire which consumes the offerings to the gods. He is the fire of the sun, in the lightening bolt, and in the smoke column which holds up the heavens. The stars are sparks from his flame. He was so important to the ancient Indians that 200 hymns in the Rig Veda are addressed to him, and eight of its ten books begin with praises dedicated to him. When Agni is described in anthropomorphic form, he sometimes has two faces which are smeared with butter. He has seven fiery tongues and sharpened, golden teeth. He is red in color, with black eyes and wild, black hair. He has seven arms and three legs, and seven rays of light emanate from his body. He either rides on a ram, or on a chariot, pulled by goats or sometimes parrots. (more)
The Indo-Aryan word 'agni' is related to ‘ignite’ and igneous.’
A couple of years ago I tried my hand at writing Sapphic stanzas. This one is for Agni Nakshetram:
Sidewalk vendors raise heaps of green-rimmed melons
bright papayas, oranges made of sunlight.
Bursts of bougainvillea glow magenta
under the Fire Star.
Pick a mango when it is half-green, half-ripe,
wrap in straw strands carefully, nest-like, hatch it.
It’s the egg that brings forth another year – it’s
hot season’s augur.
Air like water hinders each heavy footstep,
holds the scents of car exhaust, incense, jasmine,
brings us news of mating crows’ squabbling caucus.
Summer’s upon us.
The City police today claimed to have cracked the mystery behind the murder of a woman resident of New Street in Mylapore… 34-year old Vidya was found in her home with her neck slashed on January 7… Vidya’s sister told the police that a local rowdy, ‘Naina’ Suresh was seen regularly with the victim in the recent past as she had to pay Rs. 20,000 demanded by him…One of my favourite Indian-English words is ‘rowdy,’ along with its extended version, ‘rowdy sheeter.’ Whenever police see a potential for civil disturbance – on the eve of elections, for example – they round up the rowdy sheeters (people who have a police record for petty crimes). Last year a group of Chennai rowdy sheeters took a public oath to reform, and were removed from the rowdy sheeters’ list. Critics claimed that only the most aged and inactive rowdies participated in the ceremony.
Police made inquiries on the life style of Vidya… Vidya had a luxurious life style and for keeping the cash flow, she was into a bit of the flesh trade too.
She used the services of autorickshaw driver Barani Kumar to act as a pimp…. In the process, she earned the friendship of vegetable merchant Padmanabhan.
The two developed an intimate relationship and Vidya was bold enough to even go to the residence of Padmanabhan at Alwarpet and knock his door at odd hours and to insult the merchant in front of his wedded wife.
Padmanabhan made up his mind to do away with her….
When he's shooting a film, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 62, doesn't listen to his actors, critics or the government, nor does he pander to his audience. He does, however, listen to the wind. While shooting his latest film, Shadow Kill, the story of an anguished hangman in 1940s India, Adoor was struck by the thumping sound of nighttime gusts playing on the leaves of a palmyra tree near his set in a rural Kerala village. "It sounded exactly like a heartbeat," he says. It was the rhythm he hadn't been aware he was seeking—a steady drumming, and a reminder of nature's indifference to his characters' troubled passions. "I made the wind a character in my film," Adoor explains. That's perfect casting for an Adoor film: the wind here is gentle and understated—and it's highly unlikely to challenge the director's interpretation of its role. (more)Two of his best films - The Walls (Mathilukal) (1990) and, even more remarkable, The Servile (Vidheyan) (1994), were made with Mammootty, one of the great stars of Malayalam cinema.
I saw Mammootty once. We were driving home from dinner on the Marina road around midnight. On the beach we saw the bright lights of a film shooting (it was NOT an art film -- pure masala).
A car was parked within a ring of lights. Mammootty sat in the driver's seat. Someone held a mirror while he combed his hair. Someone else leaned over the car window with a sheaf of papers, discussing the script. A man held a mike with an open book resting on top of it for protection. The director called "Action!" A man standing by the car's hood gave it a downward push, so that it would seem to have just come to a stop. Mammootty got out with an air of arrogance, stood by the car door with one foot crossed over the other, and said, "Good evening, Mr. Nair." "Cut!"
Mammootty got back in the car. People were gathered closely around it: one man crouched just behind with a spotlight for backlighting. Another spotlight with a blue cellophane filter shone on the car from a couple of feet in front. There were other, smaller lights on the sides. A small crowd of watchers lined both sides of the road. During the shooting they continued their conversations -- the soundtrack would be dubbed later.
"Action!" The car bounces, Mammootty gets out, stands, says "Good evening, Mr. Nair." "Cut, cut, cut!" He sits in the car. He is wearing a long beige kurta, light trousers, and white patent leather sandals. Ramesh said, "They'll have to keep shooting until they get those shoes in focus. Look at them!”
Finally Mammootty says "Good evening, Mr. Nair" in just the right way. Someone brings a clap-board to within a foot of his face. CLACK!!!
You can find entries for words that have entered English from India, such as bandanna, bungalow, cash, catamaran, cot, cummerbund, dam (as in 'I don't give a dam'), dungarees, ginger, jodhpurs, juggernaut, jungle, khaki, loot, pajamas, shampoo, thug, and verandah. Each entry provides examples of early uses of the words.
Many of the words in Hobson-Jobson no longer exist in English – the title, for example, was a British soldiers’ corruption of the cry of Shiite Muslims on Moharram: Ya Husain! Ya Husain! (The connotation was of 'A native festal excitement.') Browsing through Hobson-Jobson is endlessly entertaining as a document of British life in India at the peak of the Empire.
One of my favourite ‘Anglo-Indian’ words is juggernaut:
A corruption of the Skt. Jagannaatha, 'Lord of the Universe,' a name of Krishna worshipped as Vishnu at the famous shrine of Puri in Orissa… The idol was, and is, annually dragged forth in procession on a monstrous car, and as masses of excited pilgrims crowded round to drag or accompany it, accidents occurred. Occasionally also persons, sometimes sufferers from painful disease, cast themselves before the advancing wheels…
c. 1321. -- "Annually on the recurrence of the day when that idol was made, the folk of the country come and take it down, and put it on a fine chariot; and then the King and Queen, and the whole body of the people, join together and draw it forth from the church with loud singing of songs, and all kinds of music . . . and many pilgrims who have come to this feast cast themselves under the chariot, so that its wheels may go over them, saying that they desire to die for their god. And the car passes over them, and crushes them, and cuts them in sunder, and so they perish on the spot." -- Friar Odoric, in Cathay, &c. i. 83. (lots more)
This is a photograph, not of the original Juggernaut in Puri, but of a "Madras Juggernaut Car," taken in 1895. I found it at Harappa.com. It must be the temple car of Shree Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore, which is pulled through the streets every year during the temple's main festival. People do not die under its wheels today, but its enormous solid wooden wheels, the huge car rising high in the air, and the devotion of the volunteers who pull the huge ropes, are genuinely awe-inspiring.
After I posted the Madras picture I found this one, from Never the Twain? Indo-British Relations:
"Devotees in India Sacrificing Themselves to the Idol Juggernaut"; wood engraving; 19th century.