Out of Station

We're going on vacation. Whee!

Mohini, by Raja Ravi Varma, 1895
(Via tiffinbox) Southern Exposure: Highlighting the work of photographers from the majority world. Terrific photographs from the Subcontinent and elsewhere, with commentary by the photographers.

(Via An Agoraphobic's Brown Study) 75 Degrees South - a blog by someone who is sailing for Antarctica, where he will spend the next two and a half years. I love this kind of thing - reading about different worlds. That's what I wanted this blog to be about. And if you're sweating in the tropics, 75 Degrees South has the additional benefit of allowing you to imagine that you're really, really cold.

(via selective amnesia) an interesting-looking new website, Living in India
Living in India is a new community 'blogzine' produced by a cooperative of bloggers and writers with a focus on India. It is being developed in conjunction with the teams behind Living in China and India Economy Watch...

Bloggers provide alternative voices to mainstream media. This site aims to showcase the wide variety of opinions and experiences of people living in—and writing about—this large and important nation....

We invite all bloggers from India and beyond to participate.
Ecotone's group blogging topic this time is Mythic Place. For my contribution I've linked to my earlier piece about the Shri Marundeeswarar Temple in the suburb of Thiruvanmiyur.


Here are three poems from A. K. Ramanujan's Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu by Nammalvar. Nammalvar (approx. AD 880-930) was one of the twelve Alvars, Tamil saint-poets devoted to Vishnu. They wrote the earliest devotional poetry in any Indian language. (I have already posted a couple of poems from this book here.)

beware, your life is in danger:

the lord of gardens is a thief,
a cheat,
master of illusions;

he came to me,
a wizard with words,
sneaked into my body,
my breath,

with bystanders looking on
but seeing nothing,
he consumed me
life and limb,

and filled me,
made me over
into himself.


My lord
who lives in the city
of names
came here today

said he'd never leave
entered me
filled my heart

I've caught him
the big-bellied one
not content yet
with all that guzzling
on the sevenfold clouds
the seven seas
the seven mountains
and the world that holds them all

I've caught him
I contain him now.


Instead of getting his praises
sung by the great poets

comes here today,

makes me over into himself
and gets me to sing of him,

my lord of paradise.


On the Balcony

We had coffee on the balcony. Wicker chairs, a wicker table, potted plants. The balcony wall is solid and high. Above our heads were palm fronds from the neighbour's tree, and all we could see were the tops of our feathery casuarinas and gul mohurs, and eucalyptus.

Because everything was reduced to this small space, I sensed the texture of things more strongly than elsewhere - the incised design on the pottery mugs, the teapot's bamboo handle. The multi-layered paint on the white wicker furniture, the chip on the rim of the pot which holds a small fir tree. The palm fronds which bobbed just above me and seemed about to brush my face.

Beyond the balcony is the compound wall and the road. Beyond that is a construction site which used to be a marshy backwater, which stank once in a while in the dry season. Beyond that is a small cemetery. I went there one day, and asked the caretaker to open the gate. He stood with his dog barking beside him, and shook his head.

Beyond the cemetery is another narrow body of water, which stinks more than our backwater did, and beyond that is Foreshore Estates and the beginning of Santhome High Road, which is narrow and congested, full of shops and houses, churches and schools.

I took an American visitor to Santhome Cathedral once, to see the tomb of Saint Thomas the Apostle. It's probably not really his tomb, and the church is not very interesting, but this man crossed himself repeatedly, and touched the feet of a crucifix hanging on the wall, and put his fingers to his lips.

Camp elephants get a warm adieu -- Tamil Nadu's month-long R&R for elephants comes to an end.

Hinglish and Miniatures

Metafilter has a link to Walrus, a new Canadian magazine. I found there an article, Lingua Franchise, about the way Asian languages are mixing with English. This is something that, at least in advertising, is very fashionable here right now. So I take the opportunity to post my favourite example of Hinglish, an advertising jingle -- with a very catchy tune -- promoting the drinking of milk (and one of the first to use a Hindi-English mix in this playful way -- I wrote it down in 1996):
Doodh doodh doodh doodh doodh hai wonderful
Pi sakte ho roz a glassful

Doodh doodh doodh doodh doodh, wonderful doodh,

Garmi me dalo doodh me ice
Doodh ban gaya very nice
Piyo daily once or twice
Mil jayega tasty surprise

Doodh doodh doodh doodh doodh, wonderful doodh,

Doodh hai must in every season
Piyo doodh for healthy reason
Rahoge phir fit and fine
Jiyoge past ninety-nine

Doodh doodh doodh doodh doodh, wonderful doodh,

Charon aur, mach gaya shor
Give me more, give me more!

Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme wonderful doodh
glassful doodh

In the same magazine, I also found an article, Small Worlds, about Pakistani miniature artist Saira Wasim. Wasim uses the ancient art of miniature painting to comment on issues of importance to her: the Musharraf regime in Pakistan, "honour" killing, the mullahs. She must therefore live in exile

More on Saira Wasim:

Saira Wasim's Free Artist Portfolio

Playing with a Loaded Gun: Contemporary Art in Pakistan

American Effect = Death Threat: The Art of Saira Wasim

Saira Wasim's Waterlilies, from the series 'Honour Killings'

Miniatures in another vein

Contemporary Miniature Paintings From Pakistan (Saira Wasim and others)

Manouvering Miniatures: Contemporary Art from Pakistan (Saira Wasim and others)

Yes, and also in Walrus, Margaret Atwood reviews a number of books about Iran: Resisting the Veil
Digital technology displacing signboard artists


Hoarding painters mourn the loss of their livelihood
with vinyl signs gaining popularity



I am a green goddess.
My name means Fish-eye:
like a fish-mother, whose eyes never close,
I'm always watching over my children.

Yes, fish eat their young - I do that too.
I protect the city, I destroy it.
Even I don't know what I'm going to do next.
It's safest to keep me confined.
My priests let me out once a year
for my wedding.

Each year I marry Shiva,
an invader from the north.
He smears himself with ashes,
wears snakes around his neck.
My parents find him disgusting,
which only increases my ardour.

Soon we'll do battle, just like last year:
I'll defeat him, emerge from my sanctum,
the people will celebrate our union.
Then they'll lock me up again.

Sometimes I want to be plain Meen,
to swim away from husband and city,
from the heavy garlands that weigh on my neck,
from the chanting priests' oil lamps and flowers,
from my worshippers' fears and expectations,
to lose myself in the teeming ocean,
get a day job, cut my hair,
go shopping, sit in a bar alone,
and once a year, perhaps, remember.


L: T found an old silver hammer, and he put it over his shoulder like an axe and said he was Parasuram, and walked up and down the house like that! It was so funny! (begins to laugh.)

T: (takes the hammer, which he has gone to his house to fetch, and holds it against his right shoulder - in a false, booming voice) I am Parasuram! I'll use my axe to tear out everybody's entrails! (waves the hammer.) Ow! My hand! (wincing and making a terrible face. He has pulled a muscle in his shoulder. Rubbing it, he resumes his normal voice.) In the morning I was Parasuram, and at night I decided to call myself T Nayak, because I saw a very nice Telugu movie yesterday, about the Vijayanagar kings. My family are Nayaks, and we may have royal blood.

My necklace is made of tiger claws. My mother made it for me when I finished my law. (Removes it from his neck, wipes it with his handkerchief and hands it to me. I see two curved objects that look as if made of toenails, surrounded by a thin gold case, with a bar across the top with his name etched on one side, and a flower design with six good-sized diamonds on the other.) There was an emerald hanging down from the centre here, but L took it, because she wanted to make it into a ring with two diamonds. Then she decided to use the diamonds for something else, and she forgot about the emerald, and our jeweller, he's a very honest fellow, he called up and said, 'Don't you want to take your emerald?' It's very valuable, old-fashioned, very dark green. I have a pair of cufflinks, each one has one tiger claw.

L: (proudly) It has the claw on one side, and an arrow on the other.

T: I also had a big tiger skin, with the head, for a rug, with teeth and all, and I took the skull and kept it for a while, and it had the claws, and I kept them, and I kept the teeth. I have them, too. They make jewellry with tiger's teeth, a row of teeth set in gold.

In Bangalore a man wanted to sell a baby tiger paw. He wanted Rs. 500 for it, then he came down, and finally we paid Rs. 35. L wanted it for the claws, but I said, 'It's not a tiger's paw, it's a baby bear's paw, that they've chopped off,' so she threw it away.

Hanuman: the Logo

I took this picture, from the side of a truck, because it illustrates the way Hindu gods are so proximate, so intimately known, that you can even use them as business logos, or for advertising slogans.

This transport company, now a courier, has been around for a long time. The picture of Hanuman which is its logo illustrates a story from the epic Ramayana. According to the website of a Hanuman temple here in Chennai:
During the war between Lord Rama and Raavana, an arrow of Meghnad hit the Laxman and he became unconscious. The army of Lord Rama sunk in the ocean of sadness and grief. Lord Rama himself was too much sad. Then Sushen Vaidya told that only `Sanjivani Booty' (A herb only found on Sumeru Hill) could save Laxman. Hanuman went on Sumeru hill, which was far away from the battlefield. There were many herbs like `Sanjivani Booty'. Confused Hanuman immediately lifted Sumeru Hill in his right hand and flew back to Lanka battlefield. Laxman was saved.
Here is more about Hanuman, from the temple's website.

And here is a joke, which refers to the end of the Ramayana, when Hanuman rescues Sita. (For the purposes of Indian humour, Sardarjis - Sikhs - are considered to be extremely stupid.):
Q: How do you know Hanuman was a Sardarji?

A: Only a Sardarji would be so stupid, to set his tail on fire to burn down a city in order to rescue another man's wife.

(update: Ramnath adds:
I had recently been to Trichy and there is a Sanjeevini hill about 100 kms from there, in Nilakottai. It is supposed to be having hundreds of medicinal herbs. ... a range of hills in Rayalseema region in Andhra Pradesh is believed to be 'coloured' by the ashes from his tail, as he flew back from Sri Lanka. If you look at those hills, you will find the upper part dark brown in colour, and the rest light brown.
I love the way there are stories everywhere -- it's one of my favourite things about India. And they are endless.)

Aniket Prakash Jadhan, 9, shows a painted hand of approval
after making his mark on a mural by JJSchool of Arts students
at the banyan Tree Centre in Dharavi, Mumbai
-- AFP

Kitschmass is Coming

(via Mirabilis) 12 days of Kitschmass - "for the best bad taste religious gifts." Don't miss the Mother Teresa With Child figurine, for only $42.00.

As 12 days of Kitschmass says,
...we bring you the Mother Teresa and White Baby Figurine. Blessed Ma T may have sacrificed all to live among the starving in India, but surely her real soft spot was for gleaming white babies of the West. It warms your heart to see hers go out to this child, condemned to a life of junk food obesity, student debt and congestion charges.

Bombay Bazaar

Dublog is back. Here's one from there, with good photographs of Bombay, and an entertaining text:

Bombay Bazaar

Photography and text by Catherine Karnow, with quotes from Pico Iyer.

In the fall of 1996 I traveled to Bombay to work with Pico Iyer on a story for Islands magazine. The piece would be published in 1997, the year of the Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence from Britain. Pico's family were from Bombay. The city was for him his "step-motherland." Pico went before me, and I followed to make my pictures.

Since I had grown up in the sixties in British Hong Kong, Bombay was at once familiar. As soon as I stepped out of the airport there was that same musty humid smell. It felt old, like sixties Asia: faded posters, smudged paint, life on the streets, a slow pace. At the airport curb were a line of tiny toy taxis painted yellow and black...

At Film City, Bollywood's largest film studio, actors in a T.V. series,
"The Life of Shiva," get ready for their scene.

Newspaper Stuff

No Woman, No Bride
What happens to society if women become extinct? This is the subject of "Matrubhoomi". GOWRI RAMNARAYAN talks to filmmaker Manish Jha.

A NEWSPAPER reported that a village in Gujarat had no women left; it had to seek brides in neighbouring villages. It disturbed young Manish Jha so much that he had to come to terms with it by making a film on the subject. But as the ironically named "Matrubhoomi" took shape on mind, paper and screen, the location shifted to the northern belt and the time to the future. Meanwhile statistics continued to record alarming falls in the population of women in many Indian States, indicating that the future was imminent. Infanticide and abortion after sex determination tests during pregnancy were the cited as major causes. UNESCO reported that 50 million women were missing from the population of India due to gender discrimination. Not surprising in a society where getting a daughter married often spelt financial disaster for the family. ...

A cookbook review -- one that I'm certainly going to buy: The Holy Food
Prasadam: Food of the Hindu Gods
By Nalini Rajan

... Prasadam is ... made up of lucidly written recipes of festive dishes we hold sacred, particularly because they are what we offer to domestic deities, and consume as ‘prasad’...

If this was a mere recipe book however, it could hardly have had the impact it does. What makes Prasadam of more long-standing interest is the manner in which it looks at the themes and motifs of Hindu worship and practice, and connects them to the social and historical developments that took place alongside. This makes for a layered narration which does not dismiss the myths and beliefs that buttress our festivals, but provides ways of looking at these myths that enrich our understanding of the context that gave birth to them. There is a charming, digressionary quality to the text that saves the book from being too structured or unappealing...

Whether it is Moon worship and milk-rich recipes, the Laxmi theme being celebrated with grain and pulse, our food staples, the profusion of tasty fare around the Harvest theme of Pongal, and the dry, storable sweets and savouries around Divali and Kartikkai Deepam, the food and the myths that serve to give it meaning and significance have been convincingly presented to the reader...

Metrowater seeks divine intervention _ with yagna at Puzhal lake
CHENNAI: With the North East monsoon playing hide and seek with the City and nearing its withdrawal stage, Metrowater, the primary water supplier here, now has nothing else to bank on but divine intervention.

With experts forecasting a dry summer for City residents and the water level at the reservoirs around the metropolis decreasing very fast, the Metrowater officials have gone ahead with their plans to appease `Varuna', the god of rains, to bring the much-needed showers to the City and enable them to maintain the minimum water supply to residents.

According to sources, they performed a five-hour `yagna', a special form of worship, at the Puzhal lake, one of the main sources of drinking water to the city....

A very scary article from the New York Times: Pakistan Is...

For a liberal and thoughtful Pakistani view, see the weekly Friday Times (free registration required) and its sister newspaper, The Daily Times.

(Today's issue of The Daily Times includes an excerpt from Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, a book that I am frequently reminded of these days.)

In Beulah Land

I'm a memsahib now. But when I lived in Washington, D.C., I tuned in every Sunday morning to a radio program called Stained Glass Bluegrass, on WAMU. When the Bluegrass Cardinals played in Lahore (yes! really! -- brought there by the now-defunct USIA), I stood up and requested 'There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.'

How it happened is, I started with folk music as a teenager, and moved on to folklore, and thence to comparative religion and from there to here -- it's all connected.

The point being that I just saw a link on Zellar: Open All Night to this links page, which connected me to a bluegrass gospel lyrics index, and two links for Sacred Harp, which is wonderful to sing -- very austere harmonies, and meant for participation, not for listening apart: Fasola and The Sacred Harp Online Index.

Lovely stuff.

(Update: Thanks to Bill of Prairie Point, who sent me another Sacred Harp link -- an NPR program, Preserving the Sacred Harp Tradition. Be sure to listen to it, if you've never heard Sacred Harp before.)


There are more than a billion people in India. (There are more than four million people in Chennai, of whom more than one million live in slums.) Who can grasp such numbers? For the most part, the people whom one knows or finds familiar float like an island on a sea of undifferentiated bodies. Then one reads something like this:

Violence forces Indian job recruitment campaign off the rails

When the Indian railways, one of the world's biggest non-military employers, advertised for 20,000 unskilled jobs recently, 5 million men applied.

The jobs were for "gangmen", whose work involves patrolling the tracks to check the conditions of the rails.

The monthly wage is about 6,000 rupees (£80) and no school-leaving certificate is required. But among the applicants were hundreds of graduates, postgraduates, MBAs and engineers. ...

At two recruitment centres, Mumbai, and the capital of Assam state in the north-east, Guwahati, local people stopped job-seekers from other states from appearing for the tests. They wanted the jobs reserved for candidates from their own states. More than 50 people died in the ensuing violence and railway offices were ransacked.

The recruitment drive was suspended last week. Competition for the jobs was too fierce, for even Indian railways - which employs more than 1.5 million people - to handle. ...
Five million people! It's as if the entire population of the city were struggling to get one of those 20,000 jobs.

Chennai is fairly fortunate: it's one of the IT centres, and has some industry (Ford makes cars here, for example). But even here there aren't enough jobs. According to the article 30% of the Indians who do have jobs -- about 50% of the population -- are casual labourers, working for day wages.

I watched some of these day labourers in Mahabalipuram. The hotel wasn't yet open to the general public. The hundreds of granite paving stones for the walkways were carried from the central unloading point by hand:

Earth and fertilizer and sand were carried by the headload:

There were certainly more high-tech solutions available -- from wheelbarrows on up. And yet this was the most economically efficient way to proceed, because nothing is cheaper than human labour.

These workers make about Rs. 150 a day. If they were fully employed, that wouldn't be a bad salary -- but when this hotel is finished, the workers will have to look for work somewhere else. When they are too old to work, they will have to depend on their children, since there is no government safety net waiting to catch them -- one of the reasons why the poor have larger families, and why they value sons more than daughters.

I don't have anything profound to say. I usually do quirky, or poignant, or lyrical - weak and equivocating. Then something smites me, as this article did.

Moving Here

Moving Here: 200 Years of Migration to England (via Special Places) tells the stories of the people who migrated to England from all over the world.
Moving Here is the biggest database of digitised photographs, maps, objects, documents and audio items from 30 local and national archives, museums and libraries which record migration experiences of the last 200 years.
Here's the culture and festivals section for South Asia. There's a lot more.

Cinema on the Streets

(An AP article, published in The Hindu, but not available on its website)
Kolkata - Just about every night, when the workday ends and this crowded, crumbling city comes alive with evening shoppers, two boys push a battered metal cart through the streets, looking for a place to set up their century-old machine.

And every night, when they start turning the crank, the children come.

Because hidden inside the cart is a tiny movie screen, no more than 25cm high, where a 19th-century projector throws up haphazard clips from Indian musicals.

 Muhammed Salim at work on his bioscope in Kolkata - AP

The scenes are blurry, the sound quality worse, and the plot, if that's the right word, is nothing but random slices of random musicals.

But in a neighbourhood where poverty is the norm and most homes are moulding concrete shacks, the Salim family's mobile movie theatre - technically, it's called a bioscope, though they simply call it "the machine" - can bring 10 minutes of joy for a few cents. Even around here, it's affordable.

"Once I put on the music, the children come and they have to watch," said Muhammed Salim (50) a greying potbellied man whose father began showing movies on Kolkata's pavements decades ago, and whose adolescent sons now work the machine most nights. "It doesn't really matter what's on."

The audience, most of them 8- to 10-year-olds, agree.

They could see much of the same on television, but that would miss the point: the bioscope is a novelty; it's watching gears rattle; it's the freedom of spending a little - and around here only a little - money.

"I love this thing," said Zeeshan Farouq, who spends nearly an hour a night at the bioscope.

In action, it's a bizarre sight, a clattering, shrieking crate that seems to be spilling children from its sides.

About 150cm long, it has a hand-cranked projector, marked 1898, that beams images into a rectangular metal box.

Up to a dozen children can crouch along the sides, watching through a slot. A blanket hangs over their heads, blocking out stray light, and a cheap speaker plays soundtracks at screechingly high volumes. Half a rupee brings 10 minutes of screen time.

Salim's movies are cobbled together from movies shown over the past decade. Fishing through bins at film recyclers, he simply searches for dance scenes and splices them into one film.

"The kids don't care (about quality), as long as people are moving on the screen," he said.

For three generations, the Salims have brought movies to the streets of Kolkata (the new name for Calcutta), beginning long before World War 2, when India was a British colony and thousands of bioscopes played silent black-and-white films.

These days, Salim's movies reflect a dramatically changed movie world, complete with buxom actresses, luxuriously swaying hips and plenty of scenes of clinging wet saris.

"It has been 70 or 80 years we've been showing movies," said Salim, whose father depended on the bioscope for his entire income.

These days, Salim says, there are just two bioscopes in Kolkata, a city of 10-million people. A handful of others are thought to be scattered across India.

The owner of a small tea stand, Salim runs his machine to earn a little extra money - he makes about 100 rupees (R14) on a decent movie night - and, in no small part, out of nostalgia.

"It reminds me of my childhood," said Salim.

His children are less romantic. "When I grow up I'll do this," said 12-year-old Jasin, who hopes to become an embroiderer. "If there's no work, I'll have to do it."

Salim is, by his own admission, a fairly simple man. His tattered button-down shirt is stained. His needs are few. His children are barely educated.

His love of the bioscope reflects a nation obsessed with movies.

Bollywood, the Mumbai-based movie world, cranks out more than 800 films a year, making it the most prolific film industry in the world.

Most are musicals that follow a strict boy-meets-then-loses-then-gets-girl formula. Unhappy endings are rare. Actors suddenly burst into elaborate song-and-dance numbers.

Urban cinemas are often packed, and across rural India, movies are shown on portable screens trucked to small towns and powered by generators. AP
Vaishnavite Temples in Tamil Nadu

Saivite Temples in Tamil Nadu

Preserving Place - the Ecotone group blogging topic for December 1.

How beautiful this is! Stonehenge 360 (via Caterina).

And so is this: Mr. Picassohead. Create your own Picasso. (Where did I find it?)

Since someone asked: I didn't even come close to finishing my NaNoWriMo novel. The minute we decided to go away for a week I knew I was doomed. I tried to write in Mahabalipuram, but mainly I thought about what a dull piece of work I was labouring over, and wishing I had a little more pizzazz in my soul. Khair, tomorrow is another day.

(I like that word, pizzazz! It just popped into my head, it's not one that I use. Do people use it any more? There's something about words with 'z' in them, like 'zing.' -- they seem to have energy -- 'sizzle' -- that's why I like the Urdu word 'zilzilla' - earthquake. It sounds to me like a thunderbolt, striking the earth and cleaving it open.)

In the Garden

I went outside to inspect the garden. It's the most pleasant time of year, which means that the temperature varies between 70 to 87 degrees Fahrenheit. The sea breeze, which is almost constant during the monsoon season, keeps every branch and stem in delicate motion.

The garden is attractive but untidy -- we didn't want manicured shrubs and neat rows of flowers. Good thing, in fact, since none of our succession of gardeners has known anything about gardening. The closest we came was one farm boy, who mutilated the casuarina trees by trimming them as one would if one were growing them for timber, removing the lower branches with their sprays of segmented needles. We could hardly bear to look out the window; but now shrubs, and the eucalyptus trees which alternate with the casuarinas, have hidden the damage.

I took a picture of a spiky plant that has unexpectedly (unexpected by me) put forth long stalks of orange berries.

I told Chinnaraj, who was sweeping, to put one of the aloe plants in a pot for a friend who has a skin allergy, and feels that only aloe can help her.

I pulled a couple of weeds and Chinnaraj hurried over to me. "No, no! That's good for jaundice!" I didn't understand him at first, because he used the Tamil word for 'yellow,' but then he gestured at his eyes, so I said, "Oh, you mean it's medicine?" He nodded. Everybody here, literate or not, has a store of home remedies. I said heartlessly, "No one has jaundice here. Pull it out."

My friend came for the aloe, and said that she had planned to bring her grand-daughter as well. But the grand-daughter, who grew up in England and is spending part of her gap year working at an AIDS-related NGO here, got a call that Richard Gere was visiting the NGO today. So she put on her new kurta and rushed off.


Waiting like a morning-garden spider
spinning daydreams, hoping for a dragonfly,
fearing something hardly fit to eat.

Waiting to be an expat in a sunhat
and dark glasses, sipping something tall
and as cool as I am
at a Paris cafe.

Waiting to be thin, waiting for a facelift,
waiting for a lift like Audrey Hepburn
in Two for the Road, waiting for Albert Finney.

Waiting to be famous so I can be modest.
Counting my blessings and waiting for some more.
Waiting to tire of waiting.


The Bitter and the Sweet of Temporary Things

Back in March, Time Magazine's Asia edition had an article about a Bhutanese film-maker, Khyentse Norbu -- The God of Small Films. I suddenly remembered it, and hunted it up. The part that came back to me was this:
...Another character Dondup comes across along the highway is an 81-year-old apple-seller, played appropriately by an 81-year-old apple-seller whom Khyentse Norbu found in a market in Thimpu. The apple man in the film-and on the set-is a perfect representative of the innocence of old Bhutan that Dondup initially finds so unattractive. Despite the crew's genuine efforts to make him understand that he's an actor, the apple-seller thinks everything about the shoot is real. For three weeks, each time he is asked to board a vehicle bound in the story for Thimpu, he believes he's actually going home. When a scene calls for him to fall asleep by a campfire, he does just that. When he's offered a cup of butter tea with the cameras rolling, he complains that it's not salty enough. By his last day of shooting he's thoroughly confused. He's just played a scene in which he cheerfully bids farewell to the other travellers and steps onto a bus. When it stops seconds later and backs up to let him off for the next take, he stomps his foot in bewildered frustration. "It only took me four hours to get here from Thimpu," he says to Khyentse Norbu with a slight hint of reproach. "I can't figure out why it's taking me so many days to get back."....

Rain ... Elsewhere

As Chennai continues to be dry, with only a couple of weeks to go before the end of the monsoon season, the rest of the South is getting a lot of rain. Here's a picture that caught my eye, taken in Pondicherry, about 4 hours' drive south of here -- from today's New Indian Express:

A family in Rainbow Nagar braves it out during the rain on Sunday

How docilely these people have lined up to be photographed! I got the feeling that they would have done the same even if the water were higher.

The main thing about this photograph - for me - is that they have posed for it. But since my previous post was about some very ordinary buildings: This shows another level of domestic architecture. It represents an income level higher than the palm-leaf hut, but several steps below the other houses mentioned in my post.


I wanted to photograph this scene, just off of Haddows Road, because it represents a) the range of architecture here; and b) the way things are all jumbled together.

The hut in the foreground, made of coconut palm fronds woven into mats, is a watchman's hut for a construction site. You can put one up in any empty space -- a river or canal bank, space left over at the end of a cul-de-sac, on the side of a road. Slums composed of these huts can spring up almost overnight.

The plastered-brick or cement block buildings in the middle are also very common, and represent most of what you actually see here.

There are lots of modern buildings like the one in the back -- Chennai has been undergoing a building boom in the last few years. But they still seem somewhat incongruous, or at least noticeable, because they are not the norm.

Here's an article with pictures of three houses which have been used as locations for popular local TV serials: a wealthy person's beach house, a traditional town house (very charming to me, though I don't know how it would be to live in it), and a prosperous middle-class house.


Last night we saw a Hungarian movie, Lovefilm (1970), by Istvan Szabo, who also made the terrific Meeting Venus. The main character of Lovefilm, Jancsi's, memories are mixed with the present -- sometimes there are extended scenes from his past, sometimes brief images. Some of the images are irrelevant to the story, just as memories can be random. But it's edited together so smoothly that the viewer is never confused about what's going on.

There's a beautiful scene where the main characters make love: the audio is of their love-making, but the visual is a scene of them as children, riding down a snowy hill on a sled together. The sounds and the visual are put together so well that at first you think it is the sledders who are sighing and laughing. It's a long, long slide down the hill, with the camera on their laughing faces, and it comes very slowly to a stop at the bottom.

There's a scene where Jancsi is sitting on the beach in France. He opens his eyes: the sea, and his lover, Kata, whom he is visiting. Closes his eyes: the grey buildings of J--- Street, in Budapest. There's a voice-over (which of course I read in English sub-titles), in which he says, approximately:
When I open my eyes now I see the sea, and Kata. I close my eyes, and I see J--- Street. In a few days, when I open my eyes I will see J--- Street, and when I close my eyes I will see the sea. That is what the sea and J--- Street have in common: they are both in my mind...

A Small Excitement

Ramesh and I were sitting outside in the evening, when Bahadur came to turn on the verandah lights. He said, 'There's a snake on the stones there, a small snake.' Ramesh said, 'If it's small, then grab it.' Bahadur prudently decided to call Chinnaraj instead. Soon Bahadur returned, moving briskly in his awkward way, head down. Chinnaraj followed, carrying two large sticks, while Mary stood at a safe distance to watch the excitement. Chinnaraj looked where Bahadur pointed, and stirred the grass with one of the sticks. Then he reached down and picked up a stainless steel s-hook, left behind by some workmen. He handed it to me, smirking, while Ramesh and I tried to suppress our laughter. Mary giggled out loud as Chinnaraj strode away with his two sticks. Finally even Bahadur emitted a choked chuckle, and continued on his rounds.

Ammu Opticals

Ammu Opticals, Kutcheri Road, Chennai

Two Things

From today's Google referrals:
i want to such web sites how gave me love's information in urdu language

From Metafilter: view photo galleries from PBase by country. This is the link for photos of India. There's a nice gallery of saris, which seems to have been taken here in South India.

Sanskrit Poetry and The End of the World

Two poems from Sanskrit Poetry From Vidyakara's Treasury, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls:
The body is but the product of semen and of blood,
which then becomes a meal for death, a dwelling place for suffering,
a tavern for disease. A man may know all this
and yet, perforce, from lack of judgment,
drowning in the sea of ignorance,
he yearns for love, for sons, for women and for land.

. . .

These rogues, the senses, seeking to please themselves,
cozen a man with hope of pleasure
to enjoy their objects of delight.
In the end, when they have gained their purpose,
they lose all interest and leave their man
in the power of fate with one more bill to pay.

My sister sent me this URL. It's very funny (takes a while to load, though): The End of the World.

Id Mubarak

The Moon of Id; half-tone print, c. 1950

From Popular Indian Art: Raja Ravi Varma and the Printed Gods of India, Oxford University Press

A Visit to an Astrologer

From my journal -- a visit to an astrologer in Calcutta:

On the way back from Dakshineshwar D said, "My astrologer lives near here. It's just five minutes away. We'll go and visit him." I said, "Will he tell me good things?" He answered, "He's a very old man, and very good, and he only says good things."

It was getting dark as he turned into a crowded area of small cement houses, with winding lanes barely wide enough for the car to pass. It was a neighbourhood for people who owned motorcycles. He parked in a cul-de-sac beside a two-story house, one room wide and perhaps two or three rooms deep. We got out of the car and D called inside, and we entered.

Panditji sat on a mat on the floor, with one knee up and one knee down. He was a skinny old man in a dirty, torn white undershirt and a torn white dhoti. On his right arm just above the elbow he wore several cords, and one chain of metal links, with charms attached to them. He wore rings with coloured stones on both hands. Several black cords hung around his neck, holding charms which were hidden beneath his undershirt. He wore thick black-framed glasses. He had big eyes in a thin face. His greying hair, through which his scalp showed, was combed straight back, and fell in thin strands halfway down his back. He sat with his head down, and occasionally glanced up from under bushy grey eyebrows.

We sat on mats. He sat beside a bed raised on bricks, under which were piles of papers, books, magazines. Next to him on the floor were steel glasses and dishes, all covered, with some drying slices of cucumber on one of the lids. Behind him were two steel cupboards set up on bricks. Under them were a number of small square paper candy boxes. I looked up from where I sat and saw the main electric switch, connecting the house to the outside lines. It was covered with cobwebs, and cobwebs hung from the ceiling. The room was lit by one neon tube light. A dirty ceiling fan was switched off. Behind me was a glass-fronted cupboard full of bulging plastic bags.

Next to the front door two glass-fronted cabinets were lit from within by electric lights. They were packed with gods. In the centre of the larger cabinet was black Kali, with her characteristic lolling tongue made of gold, and wearing gold earrings and necklace. The other gods were dusty with what looked like incense ash or vibhuti powder. In front of each god was a miniature steel plate and a tumbler the size of a large thimble. Each plate contained a fresh marigold, each tumbler was filled with water.

Coloured lithographs of deities filled every bit of available wall space. One was a calendar picture showing the head of Ramakrishna Paramahansa surrounded by a ring of Kali faces, beautiful dark blue women, smiling alluringly at him from different angles - but all with the long red tongue hanging down.

D sat beside Panditji and began talking in Bengali, explaining who we were and asking questions. Panditji pulled a book from the pile under the bed, opened it, touched a line with his finger and spoke briefly. As the darkness outside became complete, the room filled with hungry mosquitoes. We tried to wave them off, but Panditji ignored them.

It was a slow process. D asked something, Panditji gave a brief answer, there was a pause, then another question. Ramesh interjected something, at which Panditji laughed, like a cough. He asked D if I had any questions. I asked, "What sort of thing should I ask? What kind of questions do you ask?" D said, "It should be something specific." I said, "I don't know. Will I ever publish a book? How is Ramesh's health? How is my health? Are those the right kind of questions?" D said, "You can ask him directly, he knows all languages." Panditji said, in English, addressing me for the first time, "Do you want to say anything more?" I laughed, acknowledging my surprise, and he said, "Write this down." I pulled out my notebook, and he began to predict. "By September present position increase time." D translated this to mean that everything was good, and would improve after September. Ramesh's "time is running good time." He began in English, but what he had already said had pretty much exhausted him, so after awhile he switched back to Bengali and D translated for him. As D had said, he had only good things to say.

D told him a number of things about us, and advised him on his answers, which advice he took. Panditji looked at Ramesh's palm. D said, "See that cross there? Look, Venus is very strong." Panditji peered near-sightedly at Ramesh's hand and said, "Yes, it is very strong." D asked which of us would live longer, myself or Ramesh, but Panditji was discreet, and refused to answer. D said, "Will she live longer?" and he gave his coughing laugh. "Will he live longer?" A slight shake of the head, and a laugh. It was as though D were showing off the abilities of a favourite child. When I ran out Panditji said, "Any more question, Motherji?"

He pulled out one of the paper boxes, and offered us each a sweet. We declined, but D said, "I'll take it as prasad", food blessed by God, and pinched off just a bit and ate it.

Good old man, you are dead now.
May Kali, whose avid mouth
hungers for the flesh of evil-doers
be your protection.
The latest Bharatiya Blog Mela -- selected posts by Indian bloggers.
From The Hindu: The Peepul's Vinayagar: a peepul tree with root growth believed to depict the god Ganesh.


I was leafing through a cookbook at a Parsi friend's house here in Chennai, about ten years ago. It was The American Heritage Cookbook, of all things. (I looked for it at Amazon.com, but it seems to be out of print.) In the Drinks section I found an interesting-looking recipe for Lime-Rum Shrub, which was popular in eighteenth-century America. I made it, and found that it was really delicious - light and cool, and not very alcoholic. I've offered it a lot at parties, and someone would always ask me for the recipe.

It seemed to me that I had seen the word 'shrub' in books about British India. Before and during the American Revolution, a number of people were posted in America as well as India -- General Cornwallis, for example. I guessed that 'shrub' might have been derived from the Arabic 'sharaab,' or liquor. Today I got around to checking Hobson-Jobson, which confirmed it: Shraub. And the related Sherbet.

Another site I turned up today was a History of Alcohol in America entry on Punch, which astonished me with this:
Another universal and potent colonial drink was punch. It came to the English colonies in America from the English colonies in India... The word is from the Hindustani panch, five, referring to the five ingredients then used in the drink, namely: tea, arrack, sugar, lemons, water....(more)
This site mentions Shrub as being a punch -- though mine should be called Char, because it has only four ingredients.

Hobson-Jobson also has a long entry for Punch. (I suddenly wondered if 'to punch,' as in 'to hit,' might also be derived from paanch -- since a fist has five fingers -- but my dictionary thinks not.)

So, anyway, here's the recipe. It makes a bottle or two. It's really good, and you can keep it at room temperature in a tropical country for more than six months. It improves with age, but you can drink it immediately too, and imagine yourself at a quadrille in colonial America; or in a stifling ballroom in Calcutta, full of feverish gaiety, while punkahs languidly stir the air. For authenticity, of course, you would have to drink it at room temperature -- India began importing shiploads of ice from America only in the nineteenth century -- but it's best chilled:

Lime-Rum Shrub

1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups water
4 cups dark rum
1 cup lime juice

Heat sugar and water together until sugar dissolves. Cool to room temperature. Strain all ingredients into a bottle. Keep for a week before drinking. (update: Serving size: a whiskey glass, or a punch cup.
Trains of Thought - the experience of travelling in Indian trains.

More Mahabalipuram

There are a lot of pictures of Mahabalipuram's temples and sculptures on the Net, and mine don't add anything, but here are a couple anyway. Most of the ruins are not built but carved out of the huge rocks in the area.

One of the charms of the sculptures is the animals, which look very natural -- like this lovely monkey family:

and this elephant, with baby elephants underneath, from the large rock-carving which is now called Arjuna's Penance :

Here's a vertical slice of the same carving -- you can see the elephant on the right:

This carving includes gods, such as the serpent deities in the natural vertical cleft which is said to represent the Ganges River; humans; and animals -- all the beings of the universe.

These sculptors had a sense of humour: you can see the meditating man in the upper left, echoed by a meditating cat, with mouse worshippers, beneath the elephant's tusks. (There's a close-up of the cat here.)

It's a large sculpture, and includes more animals, such as a graceful deer; and more gods, and more humans. It's stunning to look at.

One of the haunting things about this place is that it was never finished -- you see so many rocks where preliminary chisel marks were made, and where somebody put his chisel down one day and never came back.

Thirty-Two Short Films

I was going to write and show more about the wonders of Mahabalipuram, but instead I've been watching Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould. It's almost miraculous to be able to see such a film in Chennai. I do pranam to the Cinema Paradiso DVD library.

This movie reminded me somehow of John Cage's books Silence and A Year From Monday, which are also put together in separate segments. Cage would be a good subject for this kind of film -- he had so many connections with dance and art as well as music, and he was such a good storyteller. And apparently a good friend as well.

And it's actually raining, and the sky is a lovely soft grey, which is another almost-miracle. Pretty good for one afternoon.

My Vacation

(I'm going to post some more pictures later.)

I walked into Mahabalipuram through the tiny tourist area, up to the temple gate.

Many shops, restaurants, lodges, but few tourists. All peaceful and quiet, no vehicles on the lanes except for an occasional bicycle. The shops have granite carvings, and many things from elsewhere - mirror-work patchwork from Rajasthan. Clothing - cotton kurtas and drawstring pants, which only the foreigners will buy.

(We are always called 'foreigners' in English. Or, in local languages, 'white people.' There aren't many brown-skinned foreigners - I don't know how they're accounted for.) Foreigners in couples, always thin, tanned, with long hair, men and women. People who were called 'hippies' for years after they stopped calling themselves that. (The prosperous tourists come in busloads, stay overnight at a hotel just out of town, are taken around the monuments in an hour or two, and go away again.)

All the restaurants advertise fresh seafood: Windward Restaurant, Tom's Chai Temple (a tiny thatched hut), Sea Star Restaurant. Hot pancake breakfast. Live lobsters, tiger prawns.

Aside from some thatched huts with cement sit-outs, and casuarina poles for columns, I saw exactly one traditional house.

All others were concrete boxes. Perhaps this is good, a sign of prosperity - but the boxes were ugly, and looked hot. Men rolled up nylon fishing nets in the narrow lanes. Almost everyone seemed to be a fisherman, and the rest served the tourists.

Several Ayurvedic massage parlours - I hate to think what the quality would be, here! They have sprung up everywhere, spreading outward from Kerala like spores on the wind.

They're charging admission now, to see the Shore Temple. Indians, Rs. 10. Foreigners, Rs. 250! I hadn't brought any money with me, so I turned back through the same streets, then down to the beach and back to our hotel, walking on the sand. Tiny crabs scuttling up and down.

The romantic (i.e., tightly cropped) view of the beach.

What a working fisherman's beach really looks like -
with the two gopuras of the Shore Temple
in the background, to the right of the trees

The rest of the time we did nothing - gorged on pongal and sambar, and more sambar. Hoped for rain.

Hindi movie fight line (from Kaalia):
Hum tumhe fifty-fifty kar denge.

I'll make you fifty-fifty. (i.e., I'll cut you in half.)

Newspaper Stuff

I've been avoiding newspapers for the last week, but last night I sifted through them, and these articles caught my eye:

We had hoped that it would rain while we were gone, but there were only a couple of light showers. As the paper says, Chennai looks to the sky as reservoirs go dry. And here's a picture from The Hindu, November 12 -- it did not appear on its website -- of the water lorries that are filling the streets these days:

Gyan for Dummies: the latest Tamil college slang.

'Allah fish' found: a fish with markings that appear to praise Allah was found in Cuddalore district.

More elephants: Yes! I can never get enough of them. In An Elephant's Journey, the elephant Vellaiyammal sets off from Thanjavur to the month-long health camp:
A dhothi and a rose garland were put around the neck of the elephant, which was tied with a rope to the truck. Wooden poles, padded with clothes were fastened around the elephant to keep it steady, and grass and straw were supplied. Aarthis were performed after the puja in the presence of S. Kosalaraman, the Thanjavur District Collector; S. Ilango, Joint Commissioner, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department and Bhabaji Rajah Bhonsle, the senior prince and hereditary trustee of the palace Devasthanam. An `ash gourd' was broken and lemons put under the wheels of the truck. The vehicle with the elephant moved out of the temple at 1.30 p.m.

In case you're wondering what an elephant actually does at health camp, here's what you need to know:
the routine would start at 5.45 a.m with the animals' designated spots being cleaned and their legs and tusks getting an oil massage. Then they would be provided with green fodder and given a bath. In the afternoon, they would be examined by a team of doctors....`ragi', `kollu', rice, mineral supplements, salt, turmeric, Ayurvedic ingredients, such as Astachoornam and Chayavanprash, were being included in the diet. Protein supplements were also being provided. The elephants would get a special medical care from veterinarians. They would be given a bath and then brought to the camp at 8 a.m for feeding and thereafter let into the wilderness for grazing. They would return to the camp at at 6 p.m.
Although most of the elephants at the camp are attached to Hindu temples, one of them, Fathima Beevi, is the elephant of a Muslim dargah in Nagore:

Back to water again: from the Guardian: Coke on trial as Indian villagers accuse plant of sucking them dry
The mighty Coca Cola corporation of America has given evidence to a small village council in southern India in an attempt to keep open a huge bottling factory which is threatened with closure following allegations that it is sucking the community dry....

The village claims that Coca Cola's biggest bottling plant in India is draining water from their wells, drying up their ponds and adversely affecting the lives of more than 2,000 families who depend on the underground water for crops...


Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram - Daniell, 1790's

In the late afternoon I walked to the Shore Temple.
Two days after the pleasure-boat capsized
shoes littered the sand
as though the sea said, "I accept this child.
And here is your receipt: one sneaker,
size three, red, dotted
with four-petaled yellow flowers."
A fisherman's wife had lit a fire in a shallow pit to protect it from the breeze. She stuck a couple of burning incense sticks above it, and carried a brass tray down to the water. She threw roses into the waves.

The fishermen along this coast believe that if their wives are faithful and perform the rituals, they will be preserved from harm. If a man is lost in a sudden storm, they blame his wife for not keeping him safe. They do not seem to blame the sea; yet they believe that it can choose to keep men or return them home. They are bound to something so big - what else can they do but try to pacify it?

Sun struck sparks off curving water. Fishermen bundled nets onto lashed grey logs.

I walked up to the temple and turned back. Once again I passed the woman making offerings. She carried her brass tray to the sea again, this time with a few jasmine flowers and a piece of coconut. I saw tiny bare footprints, and looked ahead. A small child and its mother approached a group of adults and children. They sat among catamarans pulled up on the beach, chatting idly and looking out at the ocean.
Sand humped and dimpled,
but smooth where waves wash it,
wearing white ornaments:
fish bones, hollow crabs, half-shells.
At the hotel, the sky was full of dragonflies blown in the intermittent breeze. Flash of white on a mockingbird's wing. Orange-black-white butterflies on a bank of weeds, the kind we used to make into pistols and shoot at each other when we were children. A watchman sauntered past, in khaki and a red beret. The dominant sound was of crows, who had built fat and healthy-looking nests in the casuarinas. The sea was a low lull. Even the white wave crests looked listless in the heat. We lay on blue and white striped loungers, partly covered with a blue and white striped beach towels, near the bright blue pool. The grass was closely clipped, and full of red ants.

I said to the dark clouds, "Open here, don't rain on the sea," because water was all we could think about. But the dark grey clouds kept moving serenely south and east, over the ocean that didn't need them.

The stray dogs were silent, short-haired, white with brown patches, with skinny tails that curled up over their backs. They were timid, polite. When they rolled on their backs, arching, feeling the grass tickle, they looked up with pleading eyes.

A wizened man in white shirt and white tucked-up dhoti, with a dark green headcloth, put thatch on the roof of the beachside pavilion. He added strips of coconut palm fibre in bundles, tying them, beating them with a flat stick.

The woman who swept the grass never changed her face, never looked up.

I took a walk into Mahabalipuram and saw a scurrying black pig; a miniature chicken the size of a game hen; goats sitting like gods on rough granite pedestals; a brown pig with swollen dugs and seven piglets; granite sculptors lining the road with their work: Lakshmis, elephants, Ganeshas, Buddhas; vendors selling sweet coconut water, and the tender coconut flesh afterward. I heard animal noises, chisels tapping at granite, machetes cutting coconuts.

Vegetable vendors lined the streets, their wares in small heaps on spread-out cloth. The people were short, dark, snub-nosed, with blunted features. I could imagine them carving the rock temples. But when I thought of them - of anyone - setting out on the blank sea in tiny boats toward an empty horizon - flat blue nothing - to trade with Indonesia and Burma, I could not think it possible.

In Mahabalipuram
We lie in dappled shade
amidst cawing crows, wave sound,
a sprinkler playing on the short grass.
The others drink beer and talk about evolution.
I'm stupefied in the soft heat.

A parrot perches on the water tap,
bends to coax drops from the steel mouth,
then is gone in a green flash, fleeing
a shadow - a hawk, which sails to the top
of a casuarina tree.

In the evening we sit in cane chairs
on a blue-railed verandah. Soft breeze
from the south, crickets' chirr, chat,
full moon over crinkled water.
To me, it all seems immutable,
the sea, yes, and the restless crows.


Lakshmi just came in to my study, and said that last night she and her three children were watching TV. There was something wrong with the picture, so the younger boy got up and jiggled the wire. He got a shock and fell back, still holding the wire. Landed on the older boy, who also got a shock. They both fell back on Lakshmi. Luckily, her daughter was sitting to one side, on a wooden bench. She got up, grabbed a stick, and knocked the wire away from them. If she hadn't, if she had also been caught in the current, the whole family would have died.

It rained yesterday, and the wiring in their flimsy house must have gotten soaked. Lakshmi turned off the main switch as soon as they got free, and this morning someone will come and try to fix it.

Lakshmi, a widow, is very afraid of dying and leaving her children with no one to take care of them. The oldest one started working last year, but he's just an apprentice welder, so he doesn't make much. The other two are still in school. She rubbed her shoulder, which is still aching from the shock.

I'm writing this from the Treasure House, too much of everything.

I just saw this on Wood s Lot:
Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.
- Albert Camus
which reminds me of an Urdu couplet -- I don't know who wrote it, I just liked it and jotted it down (I may have made some mistake here -- if you know Urdu, correct me!). The word but, statue, which I translated as 'cruel one,' usually refers to the cruel beloved:
un buto~ ne daale hai vasvase ke dilo~ se khof-e-khuda gaya
voh pade hai roz qayamate~ ke khayal-e-roz-e-jazaa gaya

those cruel ones have cast me into such doubt
that I forgot to fear god
every day is such a day of judgment
that I forgot the final judgment
A note from the quaint India that is disappearing fast: from India Today (registration required)
Poisoned Legacy

It seemed a quintessential, full-colour blast of Timeless India. On Dussehra this year, more than 10,000 snake charmers from across the country gathered at the 700-year-old temple in Charkhi Dadri, Haryana, to attend the annual snake charmers' panchayat (conference). Temple bells chimed as men in flowing kurtas and multicoloured turbans and bejewelled women in vivid pinks and purples paid obeisance to their guru, Baba Gulabgir.

Masked by the festivities, however, are anger, anxiety and fear... Snake charmers have been enduring symbols of India for travellers since the days of Al Beruni, but their art is illegal in this country, according to the Wildlife Act 1972. So their very livelihood and skills-passed down 15 generations over a thousand years-face extinction...

Defiance is writ large. "This is what my forefathers practised and this is what my sons will practise," says Delhi-based Sheeshanath. But the belligerence may be futile. Most of the children seem more comfortable with plastic snakes than real one. A study by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) shows that more than 40 per cent of snake charmers have opted for alternative professions. Others make ends meet by playing their musical instruments at weddings and celebrations. But unemployment is rife among the community.

To lobby for greater concessions from the government, the panchayat took three vows: they will not skin snakes (which they claim is against their code), they will pick snakes only from farms, and they will not trap the endangered python. In return, they seek a guarantee of land and jobs for their children from the government. "The end of snake charming is much more than a loss of tradition," says Thade Shri. "It is a loss of knowledge of the ways of the forests, of medicinal plants and herbs." Indeed, traditionally, the nomadic groups of snake charmers dispensed herbal medicines from village to village...
I was just reading the New York Times review of The Bookseller of Kabul. It was hard for me even to read the review, I don't know if I could get through the book - but it looks as though I ought to. Among other things, the reviewer writes:
With a fine eye for detail, Seierstad shows how Afghan women's powerlessness is enforced in ways large and small. The journalist often wore a burqa in public (even though she detested it) in order to mingle more freely. She points out how, because a burqa offers no peripheral vision, a woman must turn her whole head to see sideways -- "another trick by the burka-inventor: a man must know what his wife is looking at."

I bought a white 'shuttlecock' burqa in Peshawar - for fun, for a costume party, to play Casper the Friendly Ghost. The headpiece was tight on my face. After a few minutes it began to give me a headache. I could hardly see even straight ahead - the netting was against my eyes, so that I couldn't ignore it. Later, when I came to Chennai, I modelled it for Ramesh. He said, "It's frightening me -- please take it off."

The Armenian Church

The Armenian Church is a small, beautiful oasis on Armenian Street in George Town, the most congested part of Chennai. From the street you see steps up, and a wall, and a door. Enter the door and you are in a garden. There is a very attractive bell tower, and the main church off to the side.

There was once a prosperous Armenian community in Chennai, but there are, I think, only two Armenians left now. (There's a larger, but still tiny, community in Calcutta.) Here's an article on Armenians in Chennai, which includes pictures of the church and the bell tower which are actually informative, unlike mine.

Here's a watercolour of Armenians in Chennai, c. 1790, from the British Library.

And an article about the church and its six bells from The Hindu, with a picture of the bell tower.

And here are my pictures:

inside the bell tower

inside the bell tower, looking up

detail of a gravestone

a very common sight in Chennai

Hidden Away

This photograph really stopped me in my tracks. It is beautiful, and yet you know that the story behind it is a terrible one. It's from the latest Asia Edition of Time magazine -- a cover article entitled Hidden Away: Stigmatized, abandoned, often locked up, Asia's mentally ill are left to inhabit a living hell.

Kids at the Edhi facility in Karachi -
some as young as seven years old -
reach out -- photo by John Stanmeyer

It's a big problem. Government institutions are under-funded. The wealthy have access to drugs and psychiatrists, but psychiatrists are few. The tendency is to try to hide mental illness within the family, for fear of being talked about by the society. And for the poor there is nothing.