The Great Arc

From S. Muthiah's Madrascapes column in today's The Hindu:
I'VE JUST heard that 200 years of mapping in India, from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas, is to be celebrated in Britain from July 12 till January 7 next year as an `Indian Festival of the Great Arc.' That's a festival that started in Delhi and Dehra Dun on April 10, last year, on the day Captain William Lambton - his colonelcy still a long way in the future - began his epic work, the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India 200 years ago...
The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named by John Keay is a very readable account of this feat. Lambton's survey began at St. Thomas' Mount, here in Chennai. As the jacket blurb says,

... Through hill and jungle, flood and fever, an intrepid band of surveyors carried the Arc from the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent up into the frozen wastes of the Himalayas... With instruments weighing half a ton, their observations had often to be conducted from flimsy platforms ninety feet above the ground or from mountain peaks enveloped in blizzard. Malaria wiped out whole survey parties; tigers and scorpions also took their toll...

Learn the Ghatam Online

According to The Hindu, "'Ghatam' Suresh teaches intricate rhythms to students across the globe, staying in Chennai." The article describes his method of online teaching.

'Ghatam' Suresh's website (the URL is not given in the article) is here. The ghatam is a large clay pot, used in Carnatic classical music as a percussion instrument.

Donkeys' Wedding

From The New Indian Express:
"A Hindu priest blesses newly married donkeys during a ceremony in Chennai on Saturday. According to Hindu belief the marriage of donkeys speeds up the arrival of monsoon. The city has yet to see any rain this summer as temperatures have soared to a daily average of 39 degrees Celsius."
I guess it worked -- since we had some rain on Saturday night.

In Pudupet

Pudupet, one of Chennai's neighbourhoods, means 'New Town,' but it doesn't look new. According to chennaibest, it began as a market for automobile spare parts in the 1940's. It has congested streets; many small shops; houses; small temples with red-and-white striped walls; ordinary stuff. Here are a few pictures:

It Rained!

It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained! It rained!

Our Wildlife 1

On the other side of our street is empty land which used to be a marshy backwater, part of the Adyar River estuary. A couple of years ago the thorny bushes were cut down, the land filled with truckloads of dirt - though it still floods when it rains - and ugly cement-block walls were built around it. Then nothing happened. Now work has started on the lot just east of our house, and as a result, snakes which had been living there crossed the street and moved into our gardens.

First Mary told me that a big black snake, longer than her arm, had taken up residence in the rocks in one corner. She said it was poisonous. I asked, "What shall we do about it?" She said, "You can't do anything, they move so fast. And every compound on this street has a snake now."

A couple of days later, she and Lakshmi came to show me a translucent snakeskin which the gardener had found. This happens once in awhile, and it wasn't all that big, but Mary said it was a cobra - a nalla paambu, 'Good Snake.' I looked at the skin doubtfully. The head was normal-sized - wouldn't the shed skin have to flare to accommodate the cobra's flaring hood? But Mary said, "Look, it has the naamam." The naamam is the mark that worshippers of Vishnu wear on their foreheads; the mark on the cobra's head apparently makes it a Vaishnava. (Lord Vishnu reclines on a bed made of the coiled body of the giant cobra Adisesha, its hood shading Vishnu's head like a canopy - so maybe cobras really are Vaishnavas...) I looked at the snakeskin and saw a brown smudge from eyeholes to nostrils, but I still had my doubts.

Then, yesterday, Lakshmi told me that a brown water snake had moved into the atrium - the center of the house, where there are plants and a shallow fish pond. The fish are muddy brown, undistinguished fish that an earlier gardener had brought in from the now-vanished backwater across the street. I had been pretending that our fish were the last remnants of an extinct, though undistinguished, species. Lakshmi said the water snake was not poisonous, and that it was a kutti, a baby.

All the exciting things, as usual, have happened offstage. I haven't seen a snake, not even the one inside the house (I wonder how long it takes for snake-kuttis to grow up). In the night, when I walk throught the atrium, I hear a plop in the water, and wonder if the snake is having dinner.

Srinivasan the cable TV guy came to collect the monthly rental, and to talk about the new set-top boxes which the central Government, in its wisdom, has decreed that its citizens must have. Fortunately, India has no other problems, so the Government has time to spend on deciding the cable TV access system, which has been on the front page of the newspapers almost every day lately...

Anyway, what struck me was that Srinivasan said, "Even people who live in a hut without water, a sewage connection or electricity have a TV, a cable connection, and a rechargeable battery the size of a car battery. The monthly cable fee is Rs. 200-250. Once a week they pay Rs. 25 to recharge the battery. No water, no electricity, no food, no problem - but television is a must."

The Indian Blog Mela, a periodic showcase of what Indian bloggers are writing about, has kindly included me in the current round. Among the interesting articles is one about Indian Jews in Israel.

Rain Magic

This is a piece of sympathetic magic, designed to bring rain to the dry city. I bought this watercolour, by A. Najam, in Lahore, Pakistan. Monsoon clouds really look like this, hanging heavily over the paddy fields. Sigh.

Cook and See

I came to India for the first time to study Tamil for two months during a summer vacation. When I was leaving, I bought a book called Cook and See. It was the translation of a Tamil cookbook called Samaitthu Paar, which was first published in 1951. I was told that it was presented to Tamil girls when they got married. The author's picture on the back cover made me feel immediately that I was in capable hands.

S. Meenakshi Ammal

I had been staying in a (very) cheap hotel near the wonderful Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. I didn't have a clue about how to cook South Indian food. When I got home I decided to begin with sambar, but the measurements were in ollocks and seers, and the instructions began "Take a stone vessel..." My career as a South Indian cook was stillborn, and the flimsy paperback fell into several pieces.

Recently I was pleased to find that Cook and See has been modernized and re-issued as The Best of Samaithu Paar: The Classic Guide to Tamil Cuisine, available from Penguinbooks India. Here is Meenakshi Ammal's recipe for sambar, the most basic Tamil dish. You can eat this with rice, or idli, or dosai, or wadai... I could eat sambar (almost) every day.



Vegetable 1/4-1/2 kg
New tamarind - a lump the size of a small lime
Red gram dhal (toor dal) 2/3 cup
Turmeric powder 1/2 tsp
Gingelly (sesame) oil 3 tsp (my note: or use any cooking oil)
Dry red chillies 10 (Medium) or 6 (Large)
Green chillies 2
Mustard seeds 1/2 tsp
Fenugreek seeds 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida powder - a pinch or to taste
Curry leaves (Chopped) 3 tbsp
Salt 1 tsp
Rice flour 1/2 tsp
Coriander leaves (Chopped) 3 tbsp

To serve 4 persons

A variety of vegetables -- drumstick, lady's finger (okra), onion, brinjal (eggplant), pumpkin, carrot, French beans, runner beans, etc, -- can be used to prepare sambar. Select any one vegetable. Cut into medium size bits and wash. Vegetables like onion, brinjal, lady's finger, French beans, runner beans and cluster beans can also be fried a little before adding. Amaranth stems, radish, runner beans, cluster beans or pumpkin may be cooked separately with just enough salt and then added.

Soak the tamarind in 1 cup water for 20 minutes. Squeeze it out, adding water little by little to prepare 1 cup of juice.

Choose a heavy vessel, e.g., stoneware, with a very narrow mouth. Wash the dhal. Clean and remove stones, if any. (If the dhal is cleanly husked, it need not be washed.) Boil 1 to 1 1/4 cups of water. Add the dhal, turmeric powder and 1 tsp oil. Cover with a shallow lid, filled with water. (A cup of water may also be placed on the lid.) Add this water to the dhal, if needed,while the dhal is cooking. Cook till very soft. (Some dhals do not cook soon. If so, add a pinch of baking soda. If baking soda is added, do not use turmeric powder, as the colour of the dhal will be spoilt.) Remove from fire and mash the cooked dhal. Keep aside.

Heat a vessel. pour in the remaining oil. Pinch red chillies into halves. Slit green chillies. Fry the pinched red chillies, mustard, fenugreek seeds and asafoetida to a dark brown colour (without blackening it). Add green chillies. Pinch curry leaves and fry for a few moments. Add the tamarind juice to the seasonings with salt. Add the cut and washed vegetable.

When the vegetable is cooked in the tamarind juice, add the mashed dhal. Allow it to boil well. Mix the rice flour in water. Add and stir well. Bring to boil once more. Boil for a few minutes. Remove from fire. Garnish with coriander leaves and a few curry leaves.

Note: Asafoetida water may be used in the place of asafoetida powder. If using asafoetida water, add to the sambar when boiling. To prepare thicker sambar, increase the quantity of dhal. The dhal can be cooked in a pressure cooker as well.

An Evening at Home

A lizard clucks behind the bookcase, looking for sex or a fight. There’s a Kathakali play on TV. "Guh-guh-guh-guh," says evil Duhshasana, clawing his red wool beard and rolling his eyes. Suddenly he charges, ‘GUH-GUH-GUH-GUH-GUH!!’

Let him strut. Soon the hero will gouge out his guts so the heroine can fulfill her vow to wash her hair in his red wool blood.

I’m sitting behind you, we both face the screen. I stare at the back of your head. The lizard is hidden, but I know what it’s doing: It holds its fleshy pale tail stiffly, and raises it, lowers it. Raise. Lower. Cluck. As if it had all the time in the world.
As someone who thought GeoURL was a neat idea, I found this pretty funny -- from Idle Words:

Here's a great illustration of why it's bad to rely on metadata alone.

There's a nice project out there called GeoURL. Bloggers figure out what their coordinates are, and include that information in a META tag in their weblog. This information consists of a latitude/longitude pair.

Students of Murphy's Law will instantly see the potential for mayhem. If you look at a map of the 5000 weblogs with GeoURL data, you'll see there's a curious cluster around the East Horn of Africa. Is this some new phenomenon sweeping the blogosphere? A blog craze in Yemen? Fishermen blogging from the Indian Ocean? Somalis moblogging from Mogadishu?

Nope -- it's hapless Czechs and Germans who got their latitude and longitude transposed. If you don't believe me, look it up!

Vedic chanting

Been longing to listen to some Vedic chanting? You can hear 18 hours of it at The site also offers lessons in Sanskrit, and information about Vedic Mathematics, Ayurvedic Medicine, and Astrology. By clicking on the Veda window, you can call up the Sanskrit texts of the Vedas, with English translations.

At My Puja Room, you can look at pictures of the principal Hindu Gods while you listen. This page has a photograph of a typical puja room in a home in Chennai (Madras) -- page down. At Virtual Puja Room, you can perform online puja to Lord Ganesh or Goddess Durga. And at Rediff, Home and Decor tells you how to orient your puja room according to the ancient principles of Vastu Shastra:

It has been known that the Pooja room is best located in the North - East corner of the house. But a Pooja room has its own directions. The deity should face West, can face East or North but it should NEVER face South. The Northeast zone is considered most appropriate for worship for another reason also. In the morning the sun's rays fall on Northeast side of the house and this direction is considered most auspicious for health. It keeps our mind fresh and the soul pure and clean - essentials for true prayer. Placing the pooja room in the Northeast will bring in happiness, prosperity, monetary gain, health, wealth, and peace of mind.

Making Bread

I cut this poem out of a magazine when I was in high school - I think. Somehow I didn't save the author's name, and I haven't been able to find it since. Whenever I knead a batch of bread dough I remember it.

Making bread is like making love.
The housekeeping of it takes

me in. I like the floury apron
costume as well as I like

our skin selves, sly in bed.
It rises as you rise,

slow and hunchbacked, spread
out in the loaf pan like

a fat turtle. It doubles in size.
I punch it down, kneading

the milky dough, rolling it over
the way you roll over on your

flat back. We feed ourselves,
mouths wide as teapot spouts,

selfish as crows. The bread
covers itself over and over

in the oven like a smooth sheet,
feeding children, our children,

the children we can't make yet.
In the kitchen I make bread.


New Indian Express photo by R. Ravindran

Chennai is on the coast. Fishing communities live literally on the edge, squeezed between the city and the sea. Catamarans co-exist with mechanised trawlers, and with huge container ships waiting to enter the Port.

Catamaran is a Tamil word. See Hobson-Jobson: Tamil kattu, 'binding,' maram, 'wood.' A raft formed of three or four logs of wood lashed together...

Driving in Chennai


There aren't enough cars in this picture. And no busses or trucks. Otherwise it's about right.

Go Alone!

Ramesh was sitting cross-legged on the carpet with the paper, while I read The New Yorker in my chair by the window. Suddenly he read out, "'Small Railway Stations to Close'." I looked up, and his face was full of insincere concern -- as when I say something childish like, "I hurt my finger."

I made the same face at him and said, "They won't close your railroad station - it was never really open." He said, "No, it's just a facility. They'll still need facilities." He has an imaginary village, with a small railroad station, not a regular stopping-place but available in case of need. He meets the station master, crosses a bridge over a nearby river, talks to people. It's a device he uses every day, when he lies down and tries to go to sleep.

He began singing a song by Tagore - "O, unfortunate one! If no one listens to you, go on alone" - adding his own verses: "O, unfortunate one! If small railway stations are closed, go alone! Go alone!"

Tamil Diglossia

I made a remark about Tamil having too many syllables, which was meant lightly. But I did a little looking around the Net on the subject of Tamil diglossia, and found this interesting para, about Diglossia and the Linguistic Culture that maintains it:

Speech communities have belief systems about their language--origin myths, beliefs about 'good' and 'bad' language, taboos, shibboleths, and so on. These beliefs are part of the social conditions that affect the maintenance and transmission of that language. Thus, the fact that a language is diglossic is actually a feature of the linguistic culture of the area where that language is used, rather than of the language per se. To speak of a particular language as diglossic or not is at best imprecise, since a language (e.g. English) as spoken in one part of the world may exhibit little or no diglossia, while the same language (again using English as an example) as used in a Caribbean creole community would have to be considered diglossic. Speakers of a particular language can not be characterized as diglossic; only their behavior, or the behavior of the speech community can be considered diglossic. Thus, beliefs and attitudes about the language condition the maintenance of diglossia as a fact of linguistic culture. In the case of the Tamils, for example, it is the set of beliefs about the antiquity and purity of Tamil that unites all members of the linguistic culture in its resistance to any change in the corpus or status of Tamil...
This link is part of a larger piece by Harold Schiffman, at the University Pennsylvania. It begins here.


Our bank (I mean the bank where we have our account, if that's not clear) threw a party for its customers on Saturday night, at Dakshinachitra, a building museum on the outskirts of Chennai. Dakshinachitra, which is still being developed, has brought or re-constructed examples of traditional architecture from the four southern states, and arranged them as if one were walking through a small village. They have craftsmen as well, and put on occasional dance and music performances.

Tamil agrahara house, Dakshinachitra#

In addition to the beautiful setting, the party organisers had provided a palmist, a mehndi-painter. . .

(These are not my hands! I asked for something simple and got a very busy teardrop shape that covers my right palm. There’s a page on mehndi / henna here.)

. . . and a practitioner of kili josiyam fortune-telling. A parrot (kili) chooses a card from a stack, based on your name and perhaps some other details. The practitioner then interprets the card that the parrot has chosen. Looking around the Net, I was astonished and delighted to find Cyber Kili Josiyam. Try it, and don’t worry if you don’t know your birth star. The parrot will forgive you.

One of the interesting things about the party was that I met a Tamil Jain. I knew that, centuries ago, there was a strong Jain influence in parts of Tamil Nadu, but I had assumed that it had died out. She told me that there are about one million Tamil Jains today - out of a population of about sixty-two million.

Some beautiful pictures of India, taken by Michael Cross, a physics professor who, appropriately, teaches a course on Chaos Theory. My part of the country is represented by pictures of Tiruchirappali and Tanjore. Very characteristic South Indian temple architecture.

Tiruchirappali was too hard for the British to say, so they called it Trichinopoly. When they went away, the original name was put back, but no one wants to bother with such a long name. So everyone calls it Trichy. Tamil has too many syllables, even for the Tamils. That’s why it’s a classic example of diglossia, a language which has two different versions, the formal one and the one you actually speak. I have a book on this subject: Diglossia: A study of the theory with application to Tamil, by Francis Britto. I really am going to read it one of these days. . .

Hindi film villain: I am the Godfather’s grandfather!

(the original line, in Hinglish: mei~ godfather ka grandfather hu~!)


R the insomniac watches classic Hindi movies on TV after midnight. On Friday night (or rather Saturday morning) it was Tansen (1943), starring singer-actors Khursheed and K. L. Saigal. Saigal wasn't much of an actor, and he had a permanently miserable expression, but he was an immensely popular singer.

K. L. Saigal

Saigal plays Tansen, the greatest singer who ever lived. He was such a great singer that when he sang a raag, its inherent qualities were manifested:

In the film Tansen's beloved, Tani, is attacked by a rogue elephant. Tansen sings to it, praising its noble gait, and appealing to its pride. It stops just before reaching Tani, sits and raises its trunk to salute Tansen.

Tansen sings so beautifully at the court of Emperor Akbar that the accompanying instruments begin to play themselves.

He sings a midnight raag at noon, and darkness falls.

Tansen's jealous rivals at the court convince Akbar to force Tansen to sing raag Deepak ('light'). They know that if he fails, he will lose face. If he succeeds, the lamps in the court will light themselves, but he himself will be consumed by fire. Tansen sings 'Diya jalao,' and the lamps spring to light, one after another. But the raag causes his body to burn with fever. Only raag Megh Malhar, which brings rain, can save him. But no one at the court knows Megh Malhar except Tansen himself, and he is too weak to sing. He begs Emperor Akbar to allow him to return to his village, so that he can meet Tani once more before he dies. He is carried to Tani, who had learned from him how to sing Megh Malhar. She does so, and clouds gather (megh = cloud). It rains, quenching the fire in Tansen's body.
What a wonderful expression of the power of music! Even though the special effects are primitive, and the songs are good but not that good (once in awhile I find myself singing 'diya jalao! jugga-mugga jugga-mugga, diya jalao!') -- the idea that the elements can be affected by music is very compelling. If only we had a Tani, to sing Megh Malhar for us!

The Archive of Hindi Movie Songs has the lyrics of three of the (many) songs from Tansen.

Tansen (1520-1589) was a real person, one of Emperor Akbar's 'Nine Jewels.' He was so influential that even today, a number of north Indian musical gharanas claim descent from him.

Emperor Akbar, Tansen, and Tansen's guru, Haridas#

More about Tansen:
Indian Music and Mian Tansen, by Pandit Birendra Kishore Roy Choadhury

Mian Tansen (1520-1589)

Birbal aur Tansen (in Hindi)

Gardens of the Mughal Empire - Miyan Tansen

An ad for gold bangles, from Khazana Jewellery on Cathedral Road.

Lok Adalat 2

When I got ready to go to the Lok Adalat, I discovered that the session, though under the auspices of the High Court, was actually being held in the Ripon building, the headquarters of Chennai Municipal Corporation.

Ripon Building

When a person subordinate to you wants a favour - in my case, the cook wants a loan, the gardener wants leave - he or she approaches with a particular smile. It is the Smile of the Humble Petitioner. When I sat at the table with the Corporation Representative and the People's Representative, my face wore the same smile. They were smiling too, the smiles of people who are dancing through a formality, the outcome of which is more or less certain. I went through the nifty Talking Points that I had prepared; they told me I had no legal grounds for appeal; I cast myself on their mercy, all of us smiling away at each other. Corporation Rep said, "The judge is pleased with you. He grants you a 5% reduction." The whole thing took about five minutes.

I had to wait for forty-five minutes to sign a copy of the decree. In a cramped, narrow room, two women typed the decrees on manual typewriters - one original and three copies, three sheets of blue carbon paper, held together at the bottom with a clothespin to keep everything from flying up in the breeze from the ceiling fan. Six male clerks sat around laughing and chatting. I approached one of the clerks, who waved me to sit down. A friend had given me some tips for dealing with government employees: the lower they are in the hierarchy, the more you must show respect. Call them 'sir' and 'madam.' Try not to turn your back to anyone, they don't like it. And of course (this is a general point of etiquette), don't sit in such a way that you show the sole of your foot to anyone. Applying these rules, and smiling the Smile, I conversed with the clerk, who obliged by telling the typist to bring my decree from the bottom of her pile to the top.

All in all, I was pleased with my small navigation through the maze of Indian bureaucracy.

A link to Indian fotologs, from Just a Little Something.

An amusing page on Hindu hells, from Incoming Signals.

I've been surprised at the number of articles about Gregory Peck in Indian newspapers. Yesterday I saw an Indian angle, in The New Indian Express: the Hindi filmstar Suraiya "caused a sensation by stating that her greatest desire was to do a role with [Peck]. Dev Anand, who was said to be smitten by her, assiduously maintained his reputation of resembling Peck..." Gregory Peck came to India in 1954, and stayed at the Wellington Club in Bombay. "Both Suraiya and Dev Anand lost no time in meeting him. The encounters, from all accounts, were brief but exclusive..."

Dev Anand


I hate SUVs! What are they doing in a Third World city anyway, where there is almost total dependence on imported oil; traffic at near-gridlock; hardly any parking space. One harried me yesterday down Santhome High Road, which is a bottleneck and one ought to face the fact and relax.

I cursed to myself all the way to Nungambakkam High Road, and so overshot my turn, and had to go back to Gemini Circle and start again. When I did turn into the narrow side road - a two-lane street with parking on both sides - I got stuck behind a truck heaped with 25-litre plastic bottles of mineral water. As long as the jam continued, the water people unloaded one bottle after another, delivering them to offices and houses on the road. Like ants carrying pupae away from a hill under threat. And I was late for my appointment. Grrr...

(The last time I drove on that narrow road was six months ago. Because of the monsoon's onset the side-roads were flooded. As I rounded the corner I passed an Electricity Board substation, burning and sparking where loose twists of cable were soaking in brown water. The smoke was white and acrid, it hung in the humid air. I had just passed a man carrying a brass tray piled with strings of jasmine, which he was selling from house to house. I imagined that he would step into the water and the smoke and be electrocuted, and fall backward with the flowers on his chest, like Ophelia.)

And another thing!... A big Grrr for today, when I have to go to the High Court, to a Lok Adalat (People's Court). Lok Adalats are set up periodically to address grievances against government services. This one is a Property Tax Lok Adalat. I have to try to convince them that our latest house tax assessment is too high.

I once went to lunch in the chambers of a previous Chief Justice of the High Court. The Court's main buildings are in the Indo-Saracenic style. The CJ's enormous chambers led off from his private courtroom, which was ornate, but badly maintained. The ceiling was covered with beautiful and elaborate wooden patterns, but in between were unfortunate pseudo-Mughal paintings. The plaster-of-Paris designs on the walls had been highlighted with silver paint. The original stained glass windows and ornate grills were terrific, though.

The CJ disrobed down to shirt and trousers for lunch, so I was able to see his costume partly deconstructed: underneath the short black cape was a natty fitted waist-length black jacket, with black piping on the sleeves and black covered buttons. It would have made a nice lady's evening jacket.

The guests were taken on a walk around the Court buildings, and had a good lunch, brought from home in large tiffin carriers by Mrs. CJ and served by white-uniformed bearers.

Sigh. The Lok Adalat will not be held in such pleasant and interesting surroundings. I wish I could be a memsahib more often!

The High Court stamp is from a page of Indian stamps.
A roadside artist on G. N. Chetty road, from the New Indian Express:

photo by R. Ragu

English Ghazal

The Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote in a number of forms. He attempted to adapt the Urdu ghazal into English. A short piece which he wrote on the ghazal form is here. I usually feel that English ghazals are a travesty of the original form - good Urdu ghazals are so succinct, rich in sound, metre, allusion. The usual problem of translation. But I thought this worked well as a poem - from

(Completely irrelevant: I wonder if the repeated phrase, 'even the rain,' comes from the e. e. cummings poem which contains the line 'not even the rain has such small hands.' In Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine used it to good effect on Barbara Hershey. It's a lovely short poem which has no connection I could see to this one.)

Even the Rain

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief's lottery, bought even the rain.

"our glosses / wanting in this world" "Can you remember?"
Anyone! "when we thought / the poets taught" even the rain?

After we died--That was it!--God left us in the dark.
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.

Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you'd poured--what?--even the rain.

Of this pear-shaped orange's perfumed twist, I will say:
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.

How did the Enemy love you--with earth? air? and fire?
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.

This is God's site for a new house of executions?
You swear by the Bible, Despot, even the rain?

After the bones--those flowers--this was found in the urn:
The lost river, ashes from the ghat, even the rain.

What was I to prophesy if not the end of the world?
A salt pillar for the lonely lot, even the rain.

-- Agha Shahid Ali

I was walking down a narrow Karachi street, looking at the market stalls and the crowds, when I heard for the first time Mir Taki Mir’s ghazal, “Look, is it a heart or a soul, from which something smoke-like is rising? Whose heart is smouldering there?” The singer’s voice rose above the clamour like a wisp of smoke, but I heard it anyway and said, “What was that?”

More Static

In the absence of rain, the weather department has resorted to predictions of clouds. One day the prediction will be ‘cloudy skies.’ Yesterday it was ‘thunderclouds expected.’ The cartoon weather map on the TV news shows slanting lines falling and falling over the southern Indian peninsula. The monsoon has arrived in the entire South, they say. We get clouds. And occasional thunder, far in the distance.

I read a very good article about Agha Shahid Ali by the novelist Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh talks about Ali’s ‘greatest’ poem, Lenox hill, which is in Canzone form. He mentions a poem with the most wonderful title: “I Dream I am at the Ghat of the Only World.” He says that Ali had shrines in his apartment to his idols, including the singer Begum Akhtar. I pulled out Ali's last book, which I bought after his death, Rooms are Never Finished. Maybe I’ll read it this time. ( has an exhibition on Agha Shahid Ali, along with links to a number of his poems.)

Whom would you enshrine?

Lakshmi says that the headache medicine R gave her is very good. She says that she had too much water in her head, and when he gave her medicine, a lot of water came out. The doctor had told her to wash her hair only once a week, because she had too much water in her head. She says, Everybody says that’s what causes headaches.

A terrible Hindi movie on TV – Gair, with Ajay Devgan. Some of the good fight lines:
Do this or the crows will eat her body!

The only reason I didn’t clothe you in the garment of death is ... (I got distracted – what was the reason?...)

…I pushed him into the mouth of death!

The Painted Photograph

I was just going through the June 2 edition of The New Yorker, and saw that Sepia, in New York, is showing Indian painted photographs through July 12. You can see ten fascinating examples here. Here's one, of Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur, 1890s:

According to the press release:

The “artist-photographer” emerged in India in the mid 19th century, drawing upon the preexisting artistic traditions of miniature painting and combining those with the new medium of photography. Black and white photography, for the most part purely descriptive in nature, became infused with color and detail ...

Madras Museum

I discovered from an article in today's The Hindu that Chennai has more museums than any other city in India. Unfortunately, the exhibits are poorly displayed and not very informative. This is The Government Museum at Egmore, inaugurated in 1851. According to the Hindu article, the museum is internationally known mainly for its Amaravati sculptures, bronzes, coins and medals. It has the largest collection of Roman coins outside Europe. (The reason is Indo-Roman trade. There's an article about that here.)

This building is a fine example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, a British Imperial hybrid. Call it Orientalist, but I like it.

Quail Are Tricky

Quail are tricky.
Having plucked and trussed these long beaked birds,
make a small hole in front of one leg of each.
Pull out the stomachs and intestines (guts).

Having plucked and trussed these long beaked birds,
leaving the remaining entrails undisturbed,
pull out the stomachs and intestines (guts).
Skin the heads and remove the eyes, claws and outer skins,

leaving the remaining entrails undisturbed.
Bend the heads round and ease out those beaks,
skin the heads and remove the eyes, claws and outer skins.
Push the beaks through the thighs at one side.

Bend the heads round and ease out those beaks.
Split right through them and the heads and tuck back in place.
Push the beaks through the thighs at one side.
Cook for five minutes. For service flame the birds.

Split right through them and the heads and tuck back in place.
make a small hole in front of one leg of each
Cook for five minutes. For service flame the birds.
Quail are tricky.

(This is a found pantoum. The original text source is The Ambitious Cook by Fanny and Johnnie Craddock)

The Douglas Fairbanks Jr of Tamil Cinema

I found this picture on the Coming Attractions board at Chitra Talkies. My guess is that there is not a Tamil-speaker anywhere who wouldn't recognise him instantly. He is M. G. Ramachandran, known as MGR. MGR was an actor who used his immense popularity to become a successful politician. He became Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital, in which position he died in 1987.

Here is my summary of his movie Nan En Piranthen, "Why Was I Born?" (1972), one of the first Tamil movies I ever saw:

MGR (who was 55 at the time) plays a man just returned from college. His face is pink with makeup, and every closeup is in soft-focus. He is the sum of all virtues. During the title song he persuades drunkards to stop drinking toddy, stops a gambling match, etc. He arrives at home to find that his family has become poor, because they have mortgaged everything to put him through college. He goes to the city to find a job.

Back at home, his evil sister-in-law keeps intercepting the mail and stealing the money that he sends, so she and MGR's family are evicted.

In the city MGR saves a child from being run over by a car. The driver of the car, an old friend who has become successful, gets him a good job and lets MGR use his house while he goes to Europe. Unfortunately the boss wants to hire a bachelor, so for the sake of his family MGR tells a lie! The boss has a daughter who is confined to a wheelchair by a psychosomatic illness. MGR cures the illness by singing to her, and she falls in love with him.

After MGR's family is evicted they set out to search for him. Their clothes appear brand new, but are covered with large, neatly sewn patches in different colors, to indicate their poverty.

The boss's daughter is kidnapped and threatened with a forced marriage. MGR saves her, confesses that he is already married, she persuades her father to forgive him, MGR is reunited with his family, and all ends happily.
One of the things this summary tells you is that marriage is at the centre of Indian culture. You cannot watch a movie or a TV show - or listen to many conversations - without quickly coming to the subject of marriage. A sample dialogue from a TV show might be: "Hello, how are you?" "How can you ask how I am? Don't you know I'm trying to get my daughter married?"

The other thing this summary tells you is that MGR was the noblest of men. He made sure that the characters he played never had the slightest negative tone. In a country where people are obsessed with movies, this helped his political ambitions: people confused him with his character. In real life he made well-publicized gestures, like buying raincoats for cycle-rickshaw drivers during the monsoon, which also contributed to this image.

Perhaps the most bizarre incident in MGR's life was right out of the movies: for reasons that I have never seen explained, M. R. Radha, who acted as a villain in many movies, including MGR's, shot him in the neck. MGR's speech was permanently affected, but his escape from death created a wave of sympathy which boosted his career.

Some information about MGR is here. Here is a page about the AIADMK party, which he founded, and which is currently governing Tamil Nadu. (Tamil politics is a big subject! Maybe later...)

Mani Ratnam's beautiful Tamil film Iruvar told a fictionalised version of the story of MGR and his chief political rival. MGR's character was played by the Malayali actor Mohan Lal. The heroine was played by Hindi filmstar Aishwarya Rai, in her first film role.


When I see a song from an old MGR movie on TV, it always makes me smile. He's so obviously counting the steps. Dancing was never his forte. At the end, the look of triumph on his face because he hasn't lost his balance makes me feel that I can keep mine too.

Blogging About Place

Some people writing online have gotten together and formed a wiki, a collective website, called Ecotone: Writing About Place. Most of the current members of Ecotone are living in and writing about rural places, but I wanted to join them because I have a strong sense of this very urban place where I live, Chennai, India. When I first began to think about what I wanted to do with a blog, the thing that came to mind was to chronicle a particular life in this particular place.

The Ecotone members decided to write collectively about "how I started thinking about place - and why I started writing about it." The results are here. If anyone reads this and finds the idea of writing about place compelling, we welcome you to join the ongoing discussion. I would particularly like to see some more urban places represented: the meadows, streams and forests are lovely, but I also want to breathe city-grit, and walk on uneven paving stones!

Anyway, here's my contribution to the topic:

Most people don't really see the places where they live. I'm so lucky to have pulled up my roots and transplanted myself to a strange place. No matter how long I live here, it will always be somewhat exotic to me. I see it. Little things tickle me - or annoy me - every day. It keeps me on my toes. Because things are so interesting, peculiar, irritating, I want to share them with others. Look! Can you believe this?

I live in an ancient culture, which has taken in many invaders. Yet it remains itself. I am fascinated by the modern things that have ancient roots. I want to tell you about them.

Chennai is changing rapidly. India grows more prosperous, the outside world enters willy-nilly, old buildings are torn down. I want to chronicle the buildings and customs that I care about before they disappear .

I grew up in a small city, Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. I could look out of my door in Old Town and see the Potomac River. It was a beautiful place. I was conscious of being lucky to live in an old house, looking out over the broad river. It always seemed to rain on weekends, just to spoil them. Now I live on the seacoast, in a not-very-old house, in the tropics. In spite of the poor drainage, and mess, and flooding it entails, I long for rain, for the monsoon. In my mind, the monsoon has become a season of romance, when peacocks dance in the forests -- even though the only peacocks I have seen have had their tails plucked out to sell to tourists...

This place is such a mixture of everything, I feel compelled to talk about it. I guess that's the real reason why I write about place.

Static from the mind's radio

There's a TV show sponsored by a product called Chakola's Fairness Oil. It's a comedy, interspersed with clips from film songs. I can't understand much, because it's in Marwari Hindi - though Ramesh says it's very well-written. For me, the laugh comes every time they say 'Chakola's Fairness Oil.' First, Chakola sounds like a joke-name. Second, I'm used to the obsession with being fair-skinned, to the fairness creams advertised everywhere. But fairness oil? What's that? (My old cook's daughter, Raji, rubbed turmeric into her face once a week. When she turned up in the kitchen with her yellow face it always gave me a fright. Some people put talcum powder on their faces, which makes them look dead.)

We saw the beginning of a Hindi movie on TV. It was called Mann, 'mind', but it was a re-make of An Affair to Remember. In the beginning, when the passengers are boarding the ship, a 'comic' figure - not part of the original! - makes a pass at the heroine. He tells her,
We go together as though I were the chaddi [under-drawers with a drawstring] and you were the naaDa [the drawstring]!
What can one say to that but chi chi, and turn away.

We saw the wonderful Bagh Bahadur (1989), directed by Buddhadev Dasgupta. Pavan Malhotra plays a traditional tiger dancer. When a travelling circus brings a real tiger to the village, no one wants to see his dance. In despair he puts on his tiger body-paint, and dances into the tiger's cage, and is killed. It is very powerful. And it was broadcast after midnight, on the dull government channel, Doordarshan. In order to see good Indian films in India, you must be an insomniac.

A friend with a family coffee plantation in the cool hills of Coorg told me: You know in Coorg they have elephant menace: if you have a jackfruit tree, or a papaya tree, or bananas, the elephants come right up to the house and eat them. One friend of ours, an elephant came up to his house, and they burst [fire]crackers to scare it off. Then about four in the morning the elephant became very angry, and it came back and destroyed his car - broke the windows, and crushed it and rolled it over, and went away.

We renewed the property insurance on our house yesterday. The policy is called Standard Fire and Special Perils.

Another cliché from Hindi movies:
Doctor (speaking to anxious relatives outside the Operation Theatre): I've done all I can. What the patient needs now is not medicine (dava) but prayer (dua).

Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati

June 13 is the 110th birth anniversary of Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, the 68th Peetathipathi (head) of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam (monastery) in Kanchipuram, near Chennai. He died in 1994, in his 100th year. He was, and is, very much revered here as a genuinely holy man. Here is an interesting article about how he was chosen as a boy to become Peetathipathi.

The Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam has its own website.

The Peetathipathi (The current incumbent is the 69th) is a direct spiritual descendent of Adi ('original') Sankaracharya (approx. 788 to 820 A.D.), founder of the advaita, 'non-dual', school of Hindu philosophy. Sankaracharya established four principal monasteries during his life-time, and himself presided over the one at Kanchipuram.

Anti Child Labour Day

Two pictures from The New Indian Express, taken on June 12, Anti Child Labour Day:

This is a very difficult issue: these children's income is probably essential to their families. They are probably lucky to have these jobs... one of the daily reminders of the difficulty of taking clear-cut moral stances (on some issues) in a complex world.

Demolition Day

Gowri Ramnarayan has a long, elegaic article in The Hindu about Kalki Gardens, a historic Chennai building whose current owners, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Centre, are planning to demolish it.

Kalki Gardens, built in 1857 as a garden home for an Englishman, was in its heyday the home of the greatest Carnatic singer, MS Subbulakshmi. It was also the headquarters of Kalki publications, edited by the Tamil writer, `Kalki' Krishnamurthi. (One of Kalki's novels, Ponniyin Selvan (Ponni's Beloved), is being translated and posted online here.) It was a focus for literary, cultural and political activity for many years until 1977, when Kalki Publications shut down.

Two pages further on, S. Muthiah has written about the Madras Mail building on Mount Road, also soon to be torn down.

It is depressing to see how rapidly the uglification of Chennai is proceeding. If it's old, tear it down!

I'm rounding off Demolition Day with a building which is already gone, a much humbler structure on Santhome High Road. This is my own picture. Someone told me that it belonged to one of the churches on that road, and that a caretaker's family lived there. It has been replaced by a wall.


In Lahore I saw an antique ring which held, instead of a jewel, a mirror the size of an American silver dollar. A lady wore it on her forefinger, and raised it to admire small pieces of herself: her eye or the curve of her lip, or the diamond set into her nostril.

You can see the absence of a mirror in the gesture of a dancer, who holds the palm of her hand in front of her face, turning her head slightly to check her invisible reflection, as she decorates herself with imaginary finery for her beloved, who will arrive when the dance is over.


This caught my attention, at
i realized today that japan may be obsessed with the escalator. i don't know how many there are, but this many for sure: more than you can imagine. and all of them are on, going, moving and rotating in perfect working order, perpetually and effortlessly rising, just waiting to take you to the top. literally millions of lurching steps turning at your service to deposit you at the entrance/lobby/foyer in the most sublimely causal way mechanically possible. one is simply lifted into liminalty and sent forward to the beyond, gently nudged to carry on.
I stopped, and counted, and realised that I have seen three escalators in Chennai: at the airport; at Spencer Plaza, a kind of shopping mall; and at Lifestyle, a Western-style department store. There must be more, but not very many. The one at the airport is usually turned off. The one at Lifestyle starts to run only when a person approaches it. Imagine the power consumption! I felt like the villagers in The Return of Martin Guerre, who visit the nearest market town - not even a city - and are aghast.

Nature Day

I looked out the office window and saw a bulbul perched on the metal window grill, pecking at its reflection in the glass. The crows drive out the pretty birds, so I haven't seen a bulbul for years. I wrote in my journal - in 1991!:

There's a nest in the woodrose vine outside the drawing room window, just above my eye level. It's inhabited by a small bird which I believe to be a red-vented bulbul - it has a black head and beak, a black tail with white at the tip, a brownish-gray variegated breast, and a bright red patch under its tail. It just fits into the deep nest, so that I see its beak sticking out of one side, and its cocked-up tail from the other. According to my bird book, bulbuls are pugnacious, and are still used as contestants in bulbul fights. It doesn't look pugnacious at all.

(This picture is from Birds seen in IIT Bombay/Mumbai.)

I looked around for something about bulbul fighting, and found this, in Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, which describes the culture of Lucknow (in northern India, near New Delhi) before 1857. I assume from the description that the guldum is a bulbul:


...the bird in question is called guldum, Rose-Tail, because it has red feathers like a rose beneath its tail. Villagers and lower-class people often make them fight but better-class people have never taken much interest in the sport.

Guldum-fighting is not unattractive to watch. During training the birds fight over grain sprinkled on the ground. When they fight, both birds fly into the air as they close with each other, become enmeshed and then descend still entangled.

There's an article in The Hindu about the rare South Indian talipot tree. They really are odd looking - dead palm trees with Christmas trees stuck on top. I've only seen a couple of them:

My grocery store is not exactly nature -- in fact, as in American grocery stores, you hardly see any food when you walk into it. This is different from the not-so-old days when you saw sacks of dals and rice, and piles of different coloured spices, and when you could buy one egg. Okay, this kind of store does still exist, but I shop at Food World... Anyway, these are the varieties of mango which were on display in the fruit section yesterday:
Jawahar pasand
Thota puri