Coming Up For Air

I have poked my head up just for a moment, a hibernating animal disturbed by a dream, to mention a few things that have occurred since my last post:

I have been working on my painting and sketching.

It has been raining – joy! The northeast monsoon, which brings us most of our water, has set in. It has begun well. It has had the courtesy to rain over the catchment areas, so that the reservoirs are no longer expanses of parched earth. There are showers almost every day in the city, mostly at night. If it keeps up like this, we may have the first normal monsoon in five years.

Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch, so the lovely monsoon set in just in time to rain out the fifth (final) day of a very exciting Test (cricket) match between India and Australia, which was being held here in Chennai. We actually had a chance to win, which is rare, especially when we face the mighty Australians. However.

angry chicken

Our cook, Mary, has been suffering a lot from arthritis. She’s been going from doctor to doctor, but all of them prescribe only painkillers, along with vitamins and antacids – so that she comes back with a handful of things, which look more impressive than just one or two. She’s beginning to feel the side-effects, so Ramesh suggested that she take a spoonful of turmeric every day. Turmeric is part of Indian traditional medicine, it’s supposed to help bones, and it doesn’t have any side-effects. A few days later he asked if she were taking the turmeric. She shuffled her feet and gave an embarrassed laugh, and said no. She is afraid that if she takes turmeric every day she will get jaundice. (Turmeric and jaundice have the same Tamil name: manjal, which means ‘yellow.’) A clear case of sympathetic magic: Eat yellow, become yellow. I asked why, if she believed that, she put turmeric into the cooking every day. She said that it was such a tiny quantity that it didn’t matter.

Two days later she began talking to me about her husband, who died at the age of 24, leaving her with two small children to raise. She said that for years it was so hard that she wanted to walk into the sea. I asked what her husband had died of, and she said, “No one knows. So it must have been an (evil) spell (manthiram, the Tamil version of the Sanskrit mantra).” I said, “How can that be?” She said, “We took him to the hospital, and he had all the tests, but nothing was there except a tiny black thing. Nothing else. But he could hardly eat anything for a whole year, and he had terrible stomach pain all the time. And then he died.”

dried eucalyptus twig and seeds

Veerappan, the Notorious Brigand, Bit the Dust after two decades of being chased around the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka by various groups of law enforcers. They couldn’t kill him until he was old and sick: he had asthma and stomach ailments, and had lost sight in one eye. But still, it was a Glorious Victory.


Back in 2000, when he had just kidnapped Karnataka’s most famous film star, Rajkumar, and was holding him for ransom, I wondered if I could write something about Veerappan. I couldn’t, but here are some of my notes:
Amid dense forests, hills, ravines, Veerappan, the famous bandit, killer of hundreds of elephants, feller of thousands of sandalwood trees, murderer of more than 100 men, is famous for his big moustache.

The first years among the trees were good. Everyone feared him, and if they didn't they were soon dead, beheaded most likely. the police forces of two states chased him through the woods like Keystone Kops, bumping into tree-trunks as he slipped away with a twirl of his moustache. Once Veerappan strangled his own baby daughter, because she was crying and police were nearby.

He's aging now, he has asthma, his guts ache from eating on the run: rice and dal buried in secret places, game he has killed, water from anywhere. He has to dye his moustache black. He wants to come in from the forest. So he kidnaps the most beloved movie star in the state of Karnataka, Rajkumar, another old man who ought to retire. They are sitting together on a fallen log, and it's raining heavily.

Milk of Magnesia

Veerappan submitts his demands on a cassette tape. Not for a hot bath, a soft bed, but for statues of Tamil poets to be erected in the major towns. The governments of the two states meet in high level conference, and agree. The real stuff, the money, is kept secret.

Rajnikant, the god of Tamil cinema - he's also getting on in years, he dyes his moustache too - volunteers to go to the forest to negotiate. Jaya Prada, former film heroine, now politician, sends the bracelet a sister ties on her brother's wrist. Thus armed, she declares her willingness to go into the forest.

Veerappan runs the back of his forefinger over one side of his moustache. It comforts him, like a small cat, warm on his cheek. He wants to get out alive. He never wants to see another tree.

Three things from the badminton court

Okay, I'm going back inside now.

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