My Neighbourhood I - Brodie Castle

I live on land which is part of the Adyar River estuary. One of my down-the-road neighbours is Brodie Castle:

Brodie Castle - #

From The Garden Houses of Adyar:
A 'garden house' for the uninitiated is a mansion belonging to that age when Madras offered everyone who could afford it acres of space. An East India Company official or a British free merchant could pick up these acres from the Government for next to nothing and on it he'd build a large house surrounded by gardens and tree cover. The greenery all around the building ensured total privacy, anyone wanting to get a peep of the house having to walk hundreds of yards to do so. Most of these houses took their names from their builders, and many of these names survive today as house, area or road names.
Perhaps the oldest survivor today is Moubray's Gardens, now home of the Madras Club. ...This house was the first garden house in Adyar.

A couple of years younger and also on the Adyar bank is Brodie Castle, built between 1796 and 1798 off Greenway's Road. James Brodie was an East India Company civil servant who got an 11-acre grant to build his mansion. But he enjoyed it for all too short a while; he fell on hard times and rented it out to Government, several judges occupying it over the years till, in recent times, it became the College of Carnatic Music who renamed the building Thenral. A white, towered and turreted building, it's not in the best of shape today but it still catches your attention. As for Brodie, he was drowned in his beloved Adyar River in 1801, some say in a boating accident, others say suicide. Whatever the cause, the family sold the 'castle' to the Government and it has been Government property ever since.

Inside Brodie Castle (photo by me)
-- this woman worked as a cleaner at the College

Here is what The Imperial Gazetteer of India, published in 1908, has to say about the houses of the English 'Nabobs' in Chennai:
The principal European quarters are in the west and south of the fringe, in Egmore, Chetpat, Kilpauk, Nangambaukam, Teynampet, and in the strip of land on the north bank of the Adyar river. Here are the fine houses built by the merchant princes and the servants of John Company at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, when officials were still allowed to trade. Many, such as Brodie Castle, Doveton House, Gambier's Gardens, still bear the names of the authors of their being. All of these are built of brick cased with shell-lime plaster (chunam), and are designed on very generous lines. The zananas attached to some of them bear witness to the social customs of the period.
I don't know whether Brodie Castle has a zanana -- women's quarters. A number of the early British settlers married or had arrangements with one or more Indian ladies, before the memsahibs and missionaries arrived and spoiled their fun.

My Lord, My Cannibal

I've been re-reading A. K. Ramanujan's Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu by Nammalvar (out of print, alas). 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 want to post more on the Alvars, but for now, here is a group of three poems:

My Lord, My Cannibal


My dark one
stands there as if nothing's changed
after taking entire
into his maw
all three worlds
the gods
and the good kings
who hold their lands
as a mother would
a child in her womb--

and I
by his leave
have taken him entire

and I have him in my belly
for keeps


I don't understand why,

while all the worlds
live within him

and he lives within them
by birthright,

our lord of Katkarai
of gardens blowing with fragrance,

should assault
and devour this poor little
soul of mine

with his grace.


While I was waiting eagerly for him
saying to myself,

"If I see you anywhere
I'll gather you
and eat you up,"

he beat me to it
and devoured me entire,

my lord dark as raincloud,
my lord self-seeking and unfair.

Baby Elephant Update

A BABY elephant squeals
as it is hoisted from a 15ft well, covered in mud, after a daring rescue mission by forest guards and locals in southern India.

The six-month-old calf had fallen into the watery pit after wandering away from its herd in Mukodula.

And the scared youngster rushed to greet its family... once safely back on firm ground.

Sestina in the Garden

Blown eucalyptus leaves
patter together like rain,
but they can't fool the gardener.
With each sharp gust of wind
branches buck under crows.
Crouching underneath: a scrawny cat.

Twitching at every sound, the cat
peers through sliding screens of leaves
at its raucous enemies, the crows.
They caw anticipation of the rain
that follows rising wind.
It spoils the efforts of the gardener.

Half-heartedly the gardener
waves his broom to shoo the cat.
Sweeping is useless -- the playful wind
is more adept than he at stirring leaves,
which will soon be washed in rain
along with the sooty crows.

It's here. Hunching, the crows
fluff feathers and endure. The gardener
runs to shelter on the porch. The rain
is falling steadily now. The cat
burrows into a pile of leaves.
The downpour's heaviness gentles the wind.

Warm rain falls straight without the wind.
Its steady weight subdues the crows.
Streams of silver tumble from the leaves.
Tinny music blares: the gardener
listens to his radio. No sign of the cat.
The garden surrenders to the rain.

Out comes the sun and dries up all the rain.
The air is so still you'd never guess that wind
had ever gusted. And here's the cat,
slinking through the grass. Once more the crows
begin to scold the gardener,
who, broom in hand, goes back to sweeping leaves.

Rain's end has released the crows.
No wind troubles the gardener.
The cat leaps over sodden heaps of leaves.

The Gangster's Funeral

Crowds, police throng Veeramani's cremation

CHENNAI: Huge crowds gathered on Dr Besant Road near the Ice House to witness the deceased gangster K Veeramani's funeral on Monday afternoon.

Veeramani's body which was taken along a procession from his house in Ayodhyakuppam along the Dr Besant Road and V R Pillai Street, was cremated at the Krishnampettai cremation ground about 3.15 p.m.

The long procession, with women screaming in despair especially, testified to the clout Veeramani had enjoyed among the Ayodhyakuppam residents.

Ironically, the body of the gangster was taken along the V R Pillai street, where a rival gang of Veeramani operates. Locals said Veeramani would never have ventured into that area when alive.

The striking difference between Ayodhyakuppam and V R Pillai street area also came through as the funeral procession wended its way through to the cremation ground. While almost the entire Ayodhyakuppam was out on the streets mourning the death of Veeramani, there was little sign of grief in the V R Pillai street, where many preferred to close their doors and watch it from the roof tops.

The police personnel numbering about 500, wearing helmets and wielding lathis and shields were seen barricading both sides of the roads along the procession...

Women had arrived in large numbers to have a glimpse of Veeramani's body that was placed in front of his house. A few women who had arrived at Ayodhyakuppam from Velacherry told our website's newspaper that they had only heard about Veeramani and that he represented the fishing community.

"Since we could not see him when he was alive, we thought we could have a glimpse of him at least now," one of the women said.

Youths belonging to Ayodhyakuppam had erected a barricade around Veeramani's body and were busy regulating the milling crowds. A few old posters hailing Veeramani, pasted on the walls in Ayaodhyakuppam area declared him as 'Neelakadalin Naayakan' (Hero of the blue seas).

One of Veeramani's associates said on condition of anonymity that the crowds went to show that he had done a lot of good work for the people. "He was almost our patron saint," he said.

"Veeramani was unique in his way of settling disputes between any two parties, though he took his share while doing so. He would never go back on his words or cheat anyone who approached him for solving a dispute. One could always look up to him for support in times of distress," he added.

Elephant News

It's not that elephants are part of city life. But they're so hard to resist:

Indian forest guards and locals rescue an elephant calf from inside a well in a forest in the village of Mukodula on Sunday. The six-month calf fell into the 4.57 metre (15 feet) well on Saturday after it went astray from its herd. Reuters
There's an article in the same paper about how the 62 elephants at Guruvayur temple in Kerala are going through their annual one-month Ayurvedic treatment of body wraps, tonics and massages, to revitalise them for the coming year. Guruvayur is said to have the largest number of tamed elephants in the world, all of which were donated to the temple by devotees.

Now, back to the ordinary world.

Journalist Polishes Writing Skills

Controversy dogs police shoot-outs

CHENNAI: Another chapter in the history of city’s goondaism and rowdyism is over. With the encounter-death of Veeramani, the uncrowned king from Ayodhyakuppam, a fishermen colony on Kamarajar Salai, at the hands of the police on Sunday.

Seeds have been sown for a new prince to take over the locality. But the new heir to Veeramani is yet to publicly emerge in the colony.

Triplicane and Ice House areas have had a long history of goonda raj. Before Veeramani, the areas were rowdydoms under ‘Gold’ Anbu and Doorairaj, who ruled the roost for quite some time before they fell victim to gang rivalry. ...


I got a note from a Belgian blogger who is interested in outsider art: Kunsten. Unfortunately I can't read him, but found interesting links, including one to a place I've been wanting to see for a long time: Nek Chand's Garden in Chandigarh:
One day 36 years ago, Nek Chand, a humble transport official in the north Indian city of Chandigarh, began to clear a little patch of jungle to make himself a small garden area. He set stones around the little clearing and before long had sculpted a few figures recycled from materials he found at hand. Gradually Nek Chand's creation developed and grew; before long it covered several acres and comprised of hundreds of sculptures set in a series of interlinking courtyards.

After his normal working day Chand worked at night, in total secrecy for fear of being discovered by the authorities.When they did discover Chand's garden, local government officials were thrown into turmoil. The creation was completely illegal - a development in a forbidden area which by rights should be demolished. The outcome, however, was the enlightened decision to give Nek Chand a salary so that he could concentrate full-time on his work, plus a workforce of fifty labourers. Nek Chand's great work received immediate recognition and was inaugurated as The Rock Garden of Chandigarh.
The idea that the almighty bureaucracy of this country could encouage Nek Chand, instead of demolishing his work is mind-boggling. There are more pictures of his garden here.

I was leafing through an Indian interior magazine called Design Today, and was amazed to find an article about Robert Polidori's beautiful book, Havana. It's full of photographs of picturesque decrepitude; a number of them could have been taken in Calcutta. I love this kind of thing, but it's interesting to me to find it appreciated in an Indian popular magazine.

It has been my experience here that most people who can afford it wish to get rid of old things (I don't mean good antiques -- ordinary things). Once I went with some friends in Calcutta to Khazana, a shop in the Taj Bengal hotel, and pointed out an old surya-mukhi (carved with a sunburst design) cupboard that I coveted. It had originally been made for a middle-class family - it wasn't high art, ever. It was painted blue and the paint was chipped. My friends were astonished, first to discover such a piece in this very expensive shop; and, secondly, that I should want to own it. One friend said, "I sold a cupboard like this to the junkman years ago. What would you do with it?" ... which made me feel guilty: it's a kind of decadence, isn't it, to be able to afford to like things that are on the verge of collapse because they are on the verge of collapse? (Ramesh eventually said that he wouldn't have the thing in the house. I consoled myself with a faux-rustic coffee table (?!). I feel guilty about that too, as though the Design Police might grab me at any moment -- but I like it. Havana, the only coffee-table book I own, is kept on it.)

I saw the Design Today article as evidence of India's prosperity. There's a growing upper class which can afford to be decadent, at the same time that the vast underclass would deperately like to possess something new, unscarred.
The Poet's Choice column in today's Washington Post Book World is about Reetika Vazirani. The article, which is worth reading, includes this quote:
"Culture shock is not your reflex upon leaving the dock; it is when you have been a law-abiding citizen for more than ten years: when someone asks your name and the name of your religion and your first thought is I don't know."
and this poem:
It's Me, I'm Not Home

It's late in the city and I'm asleep.
You will call again? Did I hear
(please leave a message after the beep)
Chekhov? A loves B. I clap
for joy. B loves C. C won't answer.
In the city it's late, I'm asleep,
and if your face nears me like a familiar map
of homelessness: old world, new hemisphere
(it's me leave a message after the beep),
then romance flies in the final lap
of the relay, I pass the baton you disappear
into the city, it's late and I'm asleep
with marriages again, they tend to drop
by, faithful to us for about a year,
leave a message after the beep,
I'll leave a key for you, play the tape
when you come in, or pick up the receiver.
It's late in the city and I'm asleep.
Please leave a message after the beep.

The Paper-kaaran

The paperkaaran has grey curly hair, a grey moustache, grey eyebrows, against dark chocolate-brown skin. His body is wiry. He wears a plaid short-sleeved shirt and clashing plaid lungi, a steel watch and a square silver ring. He is bare-footed. He silently weighs the old newspapers in scales like the ones Blind Justice holds, sorts empty bottles by type. Chinnaraj helps him while I sit writing on a stool and the watchman watches. Flies crawl over the stacks of newspapers. Two crows caw, a third joins them. It's warm and humid, with the faintest of breezes. I feel the slow seep of perspiration from the pores of my upper lip.

Newspapers, magazines, Diet Coke cans, beer and other bottles, plastic five-litre containers for cooking oil, old faucets and bits of pipe that have had to be replaced: this is my treasure. I write down everything in my notebook, and complain that he paid more last time. The price of old newspapers has gone down in the last few years, because people use plastic bags for packaging instead. Diet Coke cans, on the other hand, are quite valuable, fifty paise per can. I add it all up, he hands me some grimy, folded notes. He stows everything in jute sacks on his cycle-cart.

I leave so the staff can have their turn: theirs are the empty plastic milk sachets, torn bits of paper from the waste-basket, cardboard boxes, bottle caps. We all feel a little excited when the paperkaaran comes.

Kodak film box, by Ramesh Gandhi

Newspaper Stuff

Coca-Cola in India accused of leaving farms parched and land poisoned.

Elephant minders in New Delhi putting reflectors on the animals' backsides at night to stop them being hit by motorists. (And I've been complaining about cattle on the streets at night!)

CNN via Yardboy

Shivaji as Comedian. Okay, I admit it -- I have a weakness for Shivaji Ganesan. I think it's the eyebrows.

Dalpat Ram's Mad King

Ramesh was reciting a Gujerati poem he had had to memorise in childhood - by the poet Dalpat Ram. He told me the story:
A guru and his chela are travelling together from place to place. One day they arrive at the outskirts of a town ruled by a mad king. The guru waits while his chela goes into the town to look around. After an hour he returns, excited, carrying a big box of sweets. He tells the guru, "What a place this is! Everything is valued by weight -- an ounce of stones will buy an ounce of sweets! Grass is worth its weight in gold! We can settle down here and live like kings!" The guru says, "On the contrary -- we must run from this place immediately." The chela refuses, and they part. But because his chela has served him for a long time, the guru tells him that if he ever needs help, the guru will come. The guru goes to the next village, outside the mad king's territory, and settles there. The chela begins to enjoy his new life.

One night four brothers who are thieves go to a rich merchant's house to rob it. As they are breaking a hole in the wall, it falls on them and they are killed. Their mother runs to the king's court and cries, "What kind of justice is there in your kingdom? My sons were carrying out their trade, and they were killed. Should no one be punished for their deaths?" The king says, "You're right!" He calls for the merchant to be brought to the court, and orders, "Hang him!" The merchant says, "Sire, it's true that I paid to have the house built, but I didn't build it myself. Punish the builder." The king says, "Yes, you're right. Bring the builder, and hang him." The builder is brought to the court. He says, "Sire, I only supervised the work. Hang the masons." The masons say, "As we were mixing the cement with water, our attention was distracted by someone walking in the road -- so the cement became diluted." The man who had walked down the road is brought to the court. Like Kipling's Gunga Din he is a water-seller, carrying his goatskin water bag on his shoulder. He is very thin. The king has him taken to the hangman, but the hangman says, "Sire, just as your kingdom is great, so also the noose on my rope is too large for this skinny fellow." The king says, "You're right! Bring the fattest man in the kingdom, and hang him."

Well, the fattest man around is the chela, who has been trading stones for sweets for a long time. He is dragged into the court. The king says, "Now you must hang, but before you do you may have one last wish." The chela remembers his guru's promise to help. He asks the king to have the guru brought from the next village, so that he can meet him once more before he dies. The king agrees and the guru is brought to the court. As soon as the chela tells him the story the guru says to the king, "Don't waste time on this unworthy fellow; you must hang me instead." The king becomes suspicious. "Why are you so eager to be hanged?" The guru says, "I can't tell you that." The king insists, so the guru says, "That fool doesn't know it, but the exact moment that he's scheduled to be hanged is the most auspicious time: anyone who dies at that moment will go straight to heaven. Sire, you must hang me instead of him." The king says, "Do you think I'm an idiot? Why should I let such an opportunity slip away? Guards! Come here! Hang me at once!"

My First Time

The first Tamil movie I ever saw was Pennin Perumai (Woman's Pride), (1956).

It was presented as a classic film to the South Indian community in Boston, where I went to college. I was a beginning Tamil student, so I didn't understand much. Here's what I remember:

The heroine (Savithri) is married off to a rich man's son (Gemini Ganesan). After the wedding she discovers to her horror that he is mentally handicapped. [Extensive research on the Internet has revealed that his stepmother had given him something to make him sleep as an infant, retarding his development.] Being a noble Indian wife she sets out to teach him proper behaviour, reading and writing, etc. By and by he is cured, becomes a normal man, and they are in love.

Meanwhile, the hero's younger brother (Shivaji Ganesan), son of the rich man's second wife, is a villain - which is interesting, because Shivaji Ganesan was one of the top heroes in Tamil films in his day. He was still quite young - that's him holding the rifle in the picture above. I have no idea why he aimed a gun at his older brother, but I think that doing so shocked him into seeing the error of his ways…
More research informs me that the film was a hit, and ran for 29 weeks.

There's a strange reminiscence of the actress Savithri by her children here.

Waiting for the water tanker in Kamaraj Nagar, Chennai
--Photo for
The Hindu by M. Moorthy

How We Live

From India Today's cover story 'How We Live' (registration required), based on information from the latest Indian Census:
... There are 179 million residential houses in India-that is about six people to each house. About 40 per cent of Indian families live in one-room houses. ... There are more places of worship in the country (2.4 million) than schools, colleges and hospitals combined. ...

People in India don't seem to buy as many cars, TVs and refrigerators as was once anticipated. That is despite income levels having risen much faster in the 1990s than ever before. Here's one explanation: Only 52 per cent people in the country live in houses with permanent walls and roof. Only 56 per cent have electricity at home, just 38 per cent have water. When incomes of these families grow they may like to add these amenities rather than buy a consumer product. ...

Relative to their incomes, Indians enjoy fewer basic amenities-drinking water, power, cooking fuel-than they own consumer products. Sixty-two per cent of families (that is 118 million households) do not get drinking water at home. About five million families-mostly rural-still fetch drinking water from ponds, tanks, rivers and springs. Urban India does better though with 65 per cent of all families living in cities having access to drinking water at home. But the Census tracks only the access, not the duration or the quality of water supplied. ...

Against 88 per cent households in urban areas, only 44 per cent rural families have access to electricity. ...

India was a country of 1,027 million people in 2001. Nearly 40 per cent of Indians (402 million) are in the working age and 15 per cent in the age group of 0-6 years. ...

firewood is still the most widely used fuel with over 52.5 per cent Indians depending on it. Surprisingly even 23 per cent urban families use firewood for cooking. LPG, whose price swings are a headache for any government, is used by only around 18 per cent families (48 per cent urban households). The use of crop residue as fuel by more than 10 per cent rural households is an instance of recycling. ...

Homes without kitchen or toilets have TVs and two-wheelers. Manufacturers say that inadequacy of electricity-and not insufficiency of income-is a bigger restraint on the demand for their products. ...

Want to see the website of a Tamil film? Try Vaanam Vasappadum (The Sky Can be Controlled) (via scribbles of a lazy geek). The director is P. C. Sreeram, who started out as a cinematographer. He worked on a number of films, including several by my favourite director, Mani Ratnam before making films of his own. Take a look.

Starlight on Water

My friend Helena Nelson's book of poetry, Starlight on Water, has just come out.

She's a wonderful poet, lyrical and witty. Daily life made rich.

Her earlier chapbook, Mr and Mrs Philpott on Holiday at Auchterawe & Other Poems is a group of poems about a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Philpott. It's full of beautiful images; you feel that you are looking through one window after, catching glimpses of a life, wondering what's just beyond the frame. She has so much of the craft of poetry at her disposal, but it's very easy on the reader. I hope she sells millions of copies.

I had earlier posted some links to her poems on the Net; here they are again:
With my mother, missing the train
three poems
five poems
The actor Anupam Kher interviewed himself on NDTV 24X7, a news channel, on Sunday night. He said that once his car was stopped at an intersection in Bombay, waiting for the light to change, and a little girl came over to beg. She laid her cheek against the window, to feel the coolness from the air-conditioner inside. Then she forgot to beg, and fell asleep, leaning against the car. He said, "It made me cry. I'll never forget that image."

I've discovered a well-written blog here in my adopted city: Coffee House. (We of Tamil Nadu love our coffee. It's the best in the world. If any Starbucks customer drank Kumbakonam 'degree' coffee from even the cheapest place here, he / she would faint with pleasure.)

p.s.: I'm moving a comment from the erudite Language Hat here -- something I wondered about, but never knew:
In case anyone else is wondering what "degree coffee" is, here's an explanation (from

Degree Coffee: There is a device that measures the density of milk. It looks like a tiny thermometer floating inside an eye-dropper (or ink filler). Milk with certified density is called degree milk and the coffee made with it is called the degree coffee. Since it looks like a thermometer and thermometer measures in degrees, people thought the quality of milk is also measured in "degrees".

Sadly the sanitary inspectors of TN no longer carry these manometers anymore and spot check the milk density in restaraunts, and very few people are even aware that there exists a device that can measure the density of milk using just a few drops of the sample.

The Tamil Calendar / Adi

A Tamil calendar page for every day of the year.

Information about how the traditional Tamil calendar works.

The Tamil month of Adi began on July 17 this year. I thought I ought to know more about the traditional calendar in the place where I live. So I rushed here and there and found these snippets about the month of Adi (sometimes transliterated as Aadi):

Every year, Dakshinayanam (Sun's progress south of the Equator) begins in the Tamil month of Adi and Uttarayanam (Sun's progress north of the Equator) begins in the Tamil month of Thai (mid-January).#

Upanayana (initiation ceremony) and marriage are not favoured during Daksinayana (from the Tamil month Adi to the end of Margazhi).#

Adi Festival
-- It is celebrated on the first day of the Tamil Month Adi
-- It is a special function for newly married couples, who are presented with gifts and a feast is organized for them
-- Coconut milk is a must for this function.
-- Menu for the day is usually Curd Pachadi, Kosumalli Kottu, curry, butter milk stew, ana vadai fried appalam,Chips, Poli or some sweet #

Adi-Perukku [is celebrated] in honor of the Kaveri River. Women and girls go to the nearest river bank where they place offerings on a bamboo tray (upper left) into the water, then have a feast upon the shore. Varalakshmi Vratam ("vow to bring Laksmi") is also a ladies' festival, in which paintings of the Goddess of Wealth are made upon the walls (upper right), kumbha pots intended for worship are decorated with Her image. Beside the pot is placed various cosmetics, comb, beads, etc., and worship is done. Then the ladies sing songs inviting the Goddess to their home. Kozhukkatai, rice and jaggary cakes, are a favorite of the day. In the evening friends are invited to the house and given clothing, coconuts and sweets.#

A host of festivals are celebrated in the month of Aadi. The most visible manifestation of this month is in the form of kolams also known as Rangoli (hand drawn symmetrical patterns drawn on the floor) - that are painstakingly patterned early each morning in front of houses.

All the Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays of this month are considered to be very auspicious. Aadi Velli also known as the first Friday of this month is dedicated to Lord Ganesha (the Hindu deity invoked before starting any new venture or task) with an offering of Kozhukkattai - that is Gujiya or Mothagam. Kozhukkattai apparently is the favorite food of Lord Ganesha.

Aadi Amavasai or the New Moon Day of this month is dedicated to the memory of the family ancestors. On this day many people for Tamil community donate money for a good cause in the name of their ancestors. ...

The month of Aadi is special also because it is considered to be the harbinger of all other festivals that will go on till the end of the year, so that every month there is a festival to look forward to!#


Supple and slippery above and below,
Sliding wide-eyed under my hands
With a smile like daybreak,

You swim into my life only at night,
Bringing the shush of waves and shingle,
The smell of salt and distance,
The gull cries, the moan of seamarks,
And the broken sweep of light
From shrouded promontories.

You ride the storms and calms,
You plunge and surf,
Cruise the depths with sharks and stingrays,
And flicker through the feet of children
Paddling in the shallows,

To end up here in the dark between the sheets,
In the gap between dreaming and waking,
Coming ashore with your smile,
Your sea scent and thrashing tail,
Still slippery from the creation.

--- A. Alvarez

A man sleeps in the shadow of Coke cartons (Coca Cola India, agency McCann-Erickson India) winner of a Gold Lion for the Campaign at the 2003 Cannes Lions 50th International Advertising Festival. (You can see another winning Indian Coke ad, and many other winners, at the same site.)

What She Said

You know that Sharada is a real crook, I almost died because of her, I was sick and I called my own doctor, but he said "I have someone with me, I'll call you in an hour," so someone was saying to me, "Why don't you call Sharada, she's such a good doctor," so I called her and she gave me some drugs, and afterward my housemaid said, "Couldn't she have examined you just a little, she just gave you all those medicines and you took them," and then I was half conscious and Sharada asked me what day it was, it was Saturday, and I heard myself saying it wrong, I said it was Friday, and she said, "Where is the Pope," and I said "I don't know where the Pope is," so she told everyone, "She's going to have a stroke." You shouldn't tell people that, it's very private. And finally she said it was food poisoning, but I had eaten some food which a colleague had given me on Monday, and on Saturday I fell ill, so how could it have been food poisoning? It was the drugs she gave me, and I almost died because of her. Although she was very nice when her husband was alive, I must say, but afterwards, you know, she came one day in a silvery sari, all shining, and one of the Americans was there and he said, "Who is this Christmas tree coming along here," you know, I think people should dress more soberly after their husbands have died, all right, if she wants to wear a big pottu, it's part of our tradition, it's okay, but you should have seen her at the meeting, she was dressed as if she were going to a wedding, so much gold, and everybody was saying, "She's wearing two inches of makeup." That's what they said, "She's wearing two inches of makeup."

At Fisherman's Cove

At Fisherman's Cove after dinner, a friend and I walked to the edge of the sea and stood barefooted in the sand. The waves were low, and broke twenty feet away from us, sending sheets of white-edged water to swirl around our ankles. As they receded they left the sand beneath rippled in wide smooth ridges. Slowly my feet began to sink in as each wave brought sand with it to pile up around my feet. My friend said, "Look, there's a crab," and laughed shrilly like a child. The crab tried to scramble down beneath the waves, but was washed back onto the beach three or four times. I said, "There's your dinner" - she had eaten a crab about the same size.

Several pieces of what looked like Styrofoam washed up near my feet. As I bent to look at one more closely it hopped away. Then came a whole flock of these creatures - it was too dark to see them, but they looked formless, random. I thought that I must be mistaken, that they were blown by the wind, but again I bent to touch one, and saw it hop hastily away.

photo by Ramesh Gandhi

Poet Reetika Vazirani Dead

Poet Named in Apparent Murder-Suicide
A prize-winning poet who used verse to describe her experiences as a child and as an Indian immigrant was identified by D.C. police yesterday as the woman who apparently slashed the left wrist of her 2-year-old son and her own Wednesday and then died with him....

Reetika Vazirani, 40, and Jehan Vazirani Komunyakaa were found lying next to each other in the dining room of a house in the Chevy Chase section of Washington, where Vazirani was house-sitting.

Police called the deaths an apparent murder-suicide, but no official ruling has been made. Investigators found a note with references to the boy's father, Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, according to sources familiar with the investigation....

Vazirani's editor described her as a warm, intelligent person whose poems explored the two worlds that immigrants inhabit. Her work was published in several poetry journals in addition to her books, and she was active in creative writing circles. She won the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her second book, "World Hotel," and a Barnard New Women Poets Prize for her first, "White Elephants," published in 1996.

According to friends, Vazirani came to this country from India when she was about 6... Samples of her poetry describe life in India and in the United States and the impact of immigration on her family. In one poem, "Memory I," she wrote, "He grew strange, my father, caught between two accents and two worlds." ...

Vazirani was a writer-in-residence last year at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Later this year, she and Komunyakaa were to join the faculty at Emory University in Atlanta...
Some links to poems by Reetika Vazirani:
Three Poems
Saris of Kasturiya
Ploughshares magazine several poems
A web chapbook from The Literary Review
What she said to him about the myths they figured in
The Poetry Center at Smith College - several poems
The Virginia Quarterly Review two poems
The Academy of American Poets - links to several poems
Weber Studies - several poems

Several Things

From a journal entry:
Driving on the empty road late at night, rain. A friend was driving. As we approached a large intersection, reflections of lighted signs stained the wet road with wide bands of lavender red green. My friend swerved, braked, the screech co-incident with impact, a large heavy object rolling up on the hood, against the windshield, then onto the road, tumbling, coming to a stop a little way ahead. I heard my own voice – “Oh!… God!… What was it?” A black cow with white markings. The car came to a stop, we looked, saw it struggle onto its stomach, raise its head and attempt to straighten its forelegs, hindlegs remaining collapsed under its body. After another minute it scrambled up and walked to the side of the road. We continued on, I panting short harsh breaths with shock.
Anyone who has had a close encounter with a cow or a black buffalo while driving at night on Chennai's underlit roads -- that is, anyone who drives at night -- would have been happy to read about the Municipal Corporation's drive to round up stray cattle and auction them off. But sadly, in its first attempt, Corporation's cattle auction comes a cropper: no one stepped forward to buy the impounded cattle.

An article about the perils of Indian roads from The Week, Driving India Crazy (via Adventures With YardBoy).

I don't think I'm going to be eating anytime soon at Saravana Bhavan, a popular chain of vegetarian restaurants here. The story has been going on for awhile now -- this is just the latest installment:

Hotel owner held for bid to abduct widow

NAGAPATTINAM: Rajagopal, the owner of Saravana Bhavan chain of hotels in Chennai, is back in prison. He was out on bail after being arrested in connection with a murder. Rajagopal's arrest this time is for the alleged attempt to abduct Jeevajyothi, the widow of the man whom he is charged with murdering.

It is alleged that Rajagopal wanted to marry Jeevajothi, wife of Shanthakumar and a daughter of one of his employees. According to the prosecution, Shanthakumar was murdered in Kodaikanal and his body was thrown down a precipice. Police recovered the body following a confession by one of Rajagopal's accomplices...

Now you can buy Eastern Philosophy lunchboxes (via Incoming Signals)

I was looking for some recipes for ekadasi, the eleventh day after the new and full moons, when observant Hindus eat special, restricted diets. I found some links, which I'll post separately. But here are two ekadasi jokes, from this elaborate page, which contains a lot of information about ekadasi. I'm going to look into it further, after I recover:
Some go right over the top, no japa on the beach because of the Grains of sand, no swimming 'coz the sea has grains of salt in it, and sand too, and even cannibals don't eat beans on ekadasi, only humanbeans.

That new bhakta is so thick, it turns out that when he was preparing to take birth and Lord Brahma was going through his check-list Lord Brahma said "Brains" but our new bhakta thought he said "grains" and seeing it was ekadasi, he said " thanks I'm fasting".

What She Said

to her girl friend
In his country,

summer west wind blows
flute music
through bright beetle-holes in the waving bamboos.
The sweet sound of waterfalls is continuous,
dense as drums.
The urgent lowing voices of a herd of stags
are oboes,
the bees on the flowering slopes
become lutes.

Excited by such teeming voices,
an audience of female monkeys
watches in wonder
the peacock in the bamboo hill
sway and strut
like a dancer
making an entrance
on a festival stage.
He had a garland on his chest,
a strong bow in his grip,
arrow already chosen,
and he asked which way
the elephant went
with an arrow buried in its side.

He stood at the edge
of a ripe-eared millet field.

But, among all the people
who saw him standing there,
why is it
that I alone

lie in bed
in this harsh night,
eyes streaming,
arms growing lean?
Akananuru 82
From Poems of Love and War, translated by A. K. Ramanujan

Suburbs / Thiruvanmiyur

Ecotone: Writing About Place decided to blog collectively today about Suburbs. You can see what others have written here. (People tend to trickle in over a day or two -- if you don't see any other entries, come back later!) I'm modifying this topic a little, to write about Thiruvanmiyur. When I first saw it, Thiruvanmiyur was a village on the southern edge of Chennai. Now it has been swallowed up as the city expands to the south. Here are some impressions of Thiruvanmiyur as I first knew it:

Chickens roll in small piles of ashes and fluff their feathers. Goats stand on their hind legs to tear at the lower branches of trees. Dogs dig holes in the dust to lie in, for coolness' sake. The street is always full of children, crying out to me over and over -- "Hello, hello, hello..." "Good morning, good morning..." If I respond they greet me more urgently, trying for one more response. Animal shit stinks, and human shit too, in the sun. Ten women stand in line at the communal pump, but dozens of brass pots are piled one on top of the other, waiting their turn.

I am sitting on the 23A bus, listening to the slap of clothes being washed on the steps of the temple tank. The water level is low, and red lotuses float on its surface. Men bathe, boys stand in water up to their chests.

Men call out their trades as they walk down the street:

DIT-ti-le, dit-ti-LE, da da da, da da da, da da da, da da da, da Dit-ti-LE!
Va-LAI-ya! Va-LAI-ya pa-LAM!
uppaway! uppaway!
Paper! Paper!

A day for men in costumes. In the afternoon two men collected money for Mahashivaratri. One was beating the drum, and the other wore a rearing gold-foil cobra on his head, from which hung many garlands made of bits of cloth, gathered to look like flowers. They fell to the ground, and more hung from his waist. He wore a brilliant yellow veshti. From across the street he looked like a bride.

Later I went to the beach where a crew was shooting a mythological film. They must have just finished for the day -- a group of fairly ordinary looking people gathered around big pots of food. Then the star appeared from behind a sand dune, in a gauzy veshti covered with gold, his chest and large belly adorned with fake gold ornaments. He wore a wig of long curls and carried a gold helmet. He was twice the size of everyone else.

The next day a whole monkey army was on the beach -- men in knee-length skirts with long tails coming out behind, blue plastic helmets and big, false-looking blue plastic maces. There must have been at least a hundred of them.

How brightly the stars shine now that there is no moon. You can see the Milky Way. It is so quiet that the only sounds are the fan, crickets, and occasional drumbeats from the Mahalakshmi temple. In the field cows stand still as statues. If you turn off the fan you can hear the ocean.

When you go out at 6:00 p.m., the sun is still burning hot, but it's focussed, so you feel that the heat is coming directly from the sun, and not from air, from dust, from every side and all around. The loose dust of the road to the village is marked with the tracks of bicycles, cars, hoofprints of buffaloes and goats, footprints of dogs and bare human feet -- but it is almost always empty. An old woman might stand by the roadside and stare, or an Ayyar from the kitchen might ride by on his bicycle. That's all.

I just saw my first lunar eclipse. Somehow I thought the moon would disappear in blackness, but it's a dull, orange brown, burnt out and dead. No wonder it arouses fear. Tonight is the wedding of Shiva and Parvati in the village temple, but they'll wait until the eclipse is over. Black, cloudless sky, the sound of the ocean, and subdued film music from the festive village.

Tamil New Year's Day -- the village is full of kolam.

kolam, made from rice flour#

How are we shaped by the place where we live?

I was looking for this post, which I wrote for Ecotone's July 1 group blogging assignment, and found that it had vanished from my blog - ?! - so I am repeating it here. When I first wrote it and tried to link to it there was something wrong with the permalink. Skip it if it looks familiar.

The people at Ecotone: Writing About Place decided to write today about 'How are we defined and shaped by the place where we live?' If anyone would like to write on this topic, they are welcome to add a link to the Ecotone site. The page for this topic is here. I began to write about this, and then wondered whether I could really say anything at all. It's just a beginning.

The first thing about this place is that it is in the tropics. It is hot here, all year round. We are fortunate to be able to run the air-conditioners every single day of the year. (That may not always be possible - India relies on imported oil, and the price of electricity has been soaring.) The vast majority of the people here cannot shut their windows and turn on the air-conditioner - they wait for the sea-breeze to set in and give them some relief. In America I loved to walk. Here, I stand at the window looking out.

The second thing is water: this place is always on the border between having just enough and not enough water. It is dependent on the two annual monsoons, which sometimes fail. The groundwater resources have been severely strained by over-use. Here on the edge of the sea, as fresh groundwater is depleted, sea-water is beginning to push in. Our well water is more brackish every year. Some of the plants in the garden are well-adapted to brackish water; the more delicate ones have died or are dying. The preciousness of water is always on my mind. I worry about it, try not to waste it. When I visit America, I see water gushing out of taps, left open while people chat. I see people drinking tap water directly, without boiling it first! I've forgotten these luxuries. (Even as I write this I'm worried, because no water has come through the city pipes into our underground tank for the last two days. I'm afraid we'll have to start buying water by the truckload again. That water is pumped out of suburban wells. The quality is uncertain, the water is expensive, the trucks tear up the city roads.)

To these most elemental facts, add human beings. There are so many of them. Too many for the land or the sea to support, and yet, somehow, they scrape by. They are adapted. I'm like one of the fancy plants which are dying out of our garden. I am expensively watered, fed and temperature-controlled. I am always aware of this.

In the morning I looked out the window at a bougainvillea in brilliant bloom by the gate. I went out with my camera to photograph it. The street was empty except for a knife sharpener, who carried his grinding apparatus and called out the name of his trade. As he passed me he said, "Grinding?" I shook my head. I recently read that this trade is dying out as better knives have become cheaply available. I looked at him through the filter of the article. He walked in the sun, his green plaid lungi tucked up around his knees, the heavy wooden stand containing the grinder and a few knives for sale on his shoulder. I photographed the bougainvillea and went back inside, through the garden to the big house.


It's fashionable to have an urali, originally meant as a cooking vessel, to fill it with water and float flowers in it. Here's mine. Usually it's dry, and heaped with used badminton shuttles; on Divali I put flowers and candles in it:

photo by Ramesh Gandhi

Yesterdays The Hindu had an article on uralis, how they're made; and showing a picture of a very old urali from Madurai, which looks exactly like the ones you see today:

Amarnath Yatra

Thousands have darshan of the ice lingam at Amarnath Cave

Nostalgia and the Madras Club

Some friends took us to Nostalgia Night at the Madras Club -- a small group of musicians and singers performing old Hindi and Tamil film songs, dinner on the big lawn leading down to the Adyar River.

The Madras Club#

The Madras Club was founded in 1832. S. Muthiah writes:
The first home of the Madras Club was at the end of Clubhouse Road and is now the property of The New Indian Express, a splendid Georgian building, handsomely pedimented, pillared and verandahed which is still an impressive sight... With membership decreasing after World War II, such a vast property was too much to manage and was thus sold to the Indian Express Newspaper group... Meanwhile across town, by the Adyar River, the Adyar Club at Moubray's Cupola was having similar problems...

This property by the riverside had been acquired by George Moubray, Government Accountant, sometime between his arrival in 1771 and his departure in 1792. He was granted 105 acres at an annual rent of Rs. 800/- and there he built Moubray's Cupola, still famed throughout Madras for its distinctive cupola and the sky he painted beneath it on the dome, thought to be later echoed in St. Andrew's Kirk ... the two clubs decided to merge. The Madras Club took over the Adyar Club in April 1963... In 1964, the Madras Club opened its doors to Indian members (but got its first Indian President only in 1973)...(more)
The Madras Club is so old-fashioned that its (Indian) members can say things like, "Bearer! Bring beer for Master!" According to club lore, mulligatawny soup, its name derived from Tamil meligu (pepper) tani (water) was invented here.

While the nostalgia was going on I left the lawn and went into the main building. I saw that the gate blocking the narrow staircase to the roof was open, so I climbed first to the main roof, then up two increasingly rickety staircases to the large cupola. From that height the sea breeze was strong. Because Chennai's skyline is low, the sky was very big - blobby clouds lit by a full moon. Looking down in the darkness I saw a forest of treetops, which tend to become invisible during the daytime, blocked by billboards and the need to pay attention to chaotic traffic. To the south, the remaining water in the Adyar's almost dry bed gleamed silver. I was excited, imagining George Moubray, the English Nabob, taking his ease here in the evening, perhaps even dining here -- there was enough room for a table and chairs, and of course bearers -- escaping for awhile from the heat below.

(Looking around, I found a page of ARMS, CRESTS & MONOGRAMS of FOREIGN CLUBS, which includes the crests of several Indian and other former British colonial clubs -- not Madras Club -- but it's fun anyway.)

Delhi-Lahore Bus Resumes

It's a small step, but a happy one. The grey cockades are Pakistani, the red ones Indian.

The bus bound for Lahore from New Delhi
at the Wagah border check post on Friday. — Reuters

Saraswati and Raja Ravi Varma

I learned today that there is only one temple dedicated to Saraswati, goddess of learning and the arts, in Tamil Nadu. According to this article, there was a festival there recently -- at the Maha Saraswathi Ambal temple at Koothanur.

People offer pencils and notebooks to the goddess, get them blessed and take them back home.

I've always liked the idea of a goddess of learning. Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906 -- from the neighbouring South Indian state of Kerala) painted a picture of Saraswati -- I bought a lithograph of it from a sidewalk vendor when I first came to India as a student.

You can see many Ravi Varma paintings here.

(Ramesh says there ought to be a god of dreams -- to bring sleep to insomniacs, and to apportion dreams from his stock of them. I imagine this god as being like a pharmacist, his shop crammed with bottles and jars of dream images, concocting potions for you at your request.)


I scanned this from the children's supplement of the New Indian Express.

It's a good story, but it also interests me because it represents a very old strand of Hinduism. The Bhakti movement (c. about 9th c. AD onward?) changed mainstream Hinduism, emphasizing devotion to an individual deity. In the oldest Hinduism, the power of ritual practice was so great that, when performed perfectly, it had the power to affect the gods themselves. This is one of many stories in which a human or demon (asura) performs such austerities that the gods must confer together and plan a way to stop him/her before things get completely out of hand.

Elements of Devotion

Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion (via the remarkable wood s lot). Many beautiful photographs of daily worship, divided into sections: Morning Prayers, Community, The Temple, Processional Images, Ephemera, Vows and Healing, Old Age and Renunciation. The picture below is from South India.

This rock crystal Linga, the symbolic image of the God Shiva, is being washed with sacred substances in the household shrine of a south Indian maharajah. The pre-eminent Hindu saint, Shankaracharya, gave it to the royal family's ancestor in the seventh century.

Guru Dutt

July 9 was the birthday of Hindi film director and actor Guru Dutt (1925-1964), who killed himself at the age of 39.

Guru Dutt in Pyaasa

Guru Dutt made a number of moody, beautifully-lit black and white films with great songs, which are considered classics today. He was married to the popular singer Gita Dutt, but was famously obsessed with the actress Waheeda Rehman. Her most memorable films were the ones he directed -- he made her luminous, other-worldly.

Waheeda Rehman in Pyaasa

Kagaz ke phool (1959) was semi-autobiographical, about a film director who is separated from the actress he loves - played by Waheeda Rehman - and falls to pieces, his life destroyed. A song that I love comes from Kagaz ke Phool:
vaqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam
tum rahe na tum, ham rahe na ham

(time has inflicted such beautiful cruelty:
you are no longer you, I am no longer I)
Kagaz ke Phool was a commercial failure, fuelling the depression which eventually killed Guru Dutt. Although he made several films after Kagaz ke Phool, he never listed himself as the director again. Other great films by Guru Dutt are Pyaasa (Thirst) (1957) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Master Mistress and Slave) (1962). Pyaasa has the great song Yeh Duniya:
Har ek jism ghaayal, har ek rooh pyaasi
Nigaahon men ulfat, dilon men udaasi
Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai

(every body is wounded, every soul is thirsty
glances are filled with longing, hearts with sadness
if you conquer such a world, what have you achieved?)
Some lyrics of songs from Guru Dutt's films.

Some of Guru Dutt's films available on DVD.

A biography of Guru Dutt: Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema, by Nasreen Munni Kabir, Oxford University Press, 1996

Guru Chic

Is it irony, or something else? Indian gurus used to go West. Now, America's slick, stylish gurus are inspiring India. India Today's (registration required) cover story is about the latest trend in spirituality. (By the way, there are two puns here -- the title, 'guru chic' is a play on guru-shishya: guru-disciple. 'Guru cool,' in para 2 below, is a play on gurukul: a traditional method of teaching in which the guru transmits knowledge directly to the shishya):

The stereotype of the saffron-clad sadhu is out. The New Age gurus are trendy, young people dispensing a designer manual for modern living...

Meet the guru cool. In the past five years, a plethora of new gurus has sprung up across the country and unlike the earlier, older masters, they are trendy, urbane and educated. They are bending and blending ancient wisdom and modern techniques to concoct a novel millennial spirituality. For them, wellness is the buzzword and they are more likely to discourse on relationships and career stress than the Upanishads and Vedas. Their practical and personalised approach is attracting hordes of followers...

Leading the pack is Bharat Thakur...
 Bharat Thakur

Jagdeep Kapoor of Samsika Marketing Consultants, Mumbai, puts the national spiritual market at over Rs 25,000 crore with a 30 per cent annual growth. This includes the core like gurus, yoga and meditation classes and the secondary support system made up of books, CDs and television channels...

The new spirituality isn't about pursuing nirvana in the next life but about attaining a mind-body-spirit harmony in this one. Renunciation is for the feeble. The struggle is to find peace in the cacophony of the commonplace. The aim is to combine consumerism with happiness. "Live life godsize," suggests Malkani. "Nobody here is taught to give up duties, jobs, family or sex," he says "The renunciation we teach is the renunciation of negativity."..
What is the world coming to? And, am I turning into my mother?