An Evening at the Club

A friend invited us to spend an evening at the club. We sat in the wood-panelled bar, under the carved names of victorious sportsmen, beginning in 1864. The teams in those days had names like "Indians," and "Parsees," but the players' names were all British.

Another friend, T, joined us. She told us, "I'm spending so much of my time at the Economic Offenses Court, in Egmore. You should see it! It's so shabby, and everything is so corrupt. I have to stand up next to murderers, who are brought in with police escorts carrying AK-47s. The judge asks them 'Kutravaaliya? Illaiya?' ('Are you a criminal or not?') That's why I've gotten so deep into religion, and why I visit so many temples. I don't know whether it's coincidence or not, but nothing has touched me."

Ramesh told them that I was planning to write a novel during NaNoWriMo. T said excitedly, "Tell my story! Write about me!"

Nancy: How do you see your own story?
T: Well, it should be exciting.
N: Tell me what the story is - if it's exciting, then it will be exciting.
T: That's the problem. I don't know how to express myself.
N: Is your story the story of... a survivor? Someone who suffers a lot, and comes through it?
T: Yes! That's it! A survivor.
N: I may be able to put you into my novel. Of course, I'll give you another name.
T: No! No anonymity! Tell my story! Then I'll be able to say, 'See, read this! This is about me!'"

A nice selection of what Indian bloggers are blogging about, at the 34th Bharatiya Blog Mela.
S. Muthiah has written a piece on Chennai's Thousand Lights Mosque. I've driven by it so many times without ever visiting it, or knowing anything about it. The current mosque was built in 1981, but the site was used as a Shia Muslim place of worship from 1810 onward.

The article also talks about the area around the mosque, which is also called Thousand Lights, and which includes one of my favourite places, a cafe and boutique called Amethyst, which is a rare example of preserving and re-using an old building, instead of tearing it down -- the former Jeypore Palace:

The Hindu also has an article on the decline of kite-flying in Chennai. More fun, though, is the companion article, on how to prepare manjha, the ground-glass paste which is applied to kite strings so that they can cut down other people's kites (and your neck, too, if a kite string gets tangled up in trees on opposite sides of a road -- which happens sometimes):
Conventional manjha is an abrasive material that usually comprises of fine glass powder ground into a paste with idli, cooked rice or hide glue solution. This is then coated over a thread of sufficient tensile strength to make it (the thread) a cutting tool.

Manjha-makers like to invest their "recipes" with a certain mystique. Exotic ingredients such as cactus, barks of select trees and, most bizarre of all, blood of garden lizard, find their way into manjha recipes. ..(more)

Boating on the Hooghly

I'm missing Calcutta, which seems a semi-magical place to me. We have often visited it in the cool season, which is beginning now. I wrote this poem after a visit there:

Boating on the Hooghly

The boatman frees us from the shore.
In sooty-soft evening we ride the strong current
as though it is we who are standing still,
while ships at anchor are speeding past,
and the men who huddle on their decks
are rushing to lean toward tin-can stoves,
to gild their faces with smoky light,
to turn their backs on the growing dark,

while Renu beside me sings
of stormcloud-coloured Krishna:

Mother, why am I so black,
when Radha is so fair?
You were born on a moonless night, child,
your body is the body of the night

and the boat becomes an almond-shaped bed
carrying us to sleep, and a dream
that a Serpent King with a jewelled hood
stirs in his underwater cave,
creates a vortex and sucks us down
to sing lullabies to his serpent wives.

The boatman will save us,
the splash of his long-handled oar will wake us.
He'll row toward the shore,
return us, clinging close to the bank,
through deep shadow and fitful light,
past ships and their cargoes of firelit faces,
to firm ground and the song's end.

(This poem was published in The Reader (U. of Liverpool) No. 11, Autumn / Winter 2002.)


Need some Indian names for characters in your novel? Here are two sites with Sanskrit-based Indian names and their meanings:
Indian Baby Names

Behind the Name
And how about some Tamil names?

If you're writing a historical novel, here's an interesting piece on Medieval Tamil Names.

Here are some of the thousand (Tamil) names of the god Shiva.

Finally, not to be parochial, here are 20,000 names from around the world.

Oops, one more: The Random Name Generator "uses data from the US Census to randomly generate male and female names." (This is fun, actually.)

Novel Methods of Surgery, Murder, and Writing Novels

This came to me as one of those emails that bounces around the Web. I've condensed it a bit. It describes four episodes from movies by the Tamil film star Vijaykant. I haven't seen any of these movies, but I firmly believe that they exist!

1) Vijayakanth has an incurable brain tumor. His death is imminent. In a fight, Vijayakanth is shot in the head. The bullet passes through his ears, taking the tumor with it. He is cured.

2) Vijayakanth is confronted by three gangsters. He has a knife and a gun, but unfortunately only one bullet. He throws the knife at the middle gangster, then shoots the bullet at the knife. The knife cuts the bullet into two pieces, which kill the gangsters on each side. The knife kills the gangster in the middle.

3) Vijayakanth is chased by a gangster. He has a revolver, but there are no bullets in it. He waits for the gangster to shoot. As soon as the gangster shoots, Vijayakanth opens the bullet compartment of his revolver and catches the bullet. He closes the bullet compartment and fires his gun. Bang... the gangster dies....

4) Vijayakanth gets to know that the villain is on the other side of a very high wall, so high that even Vijayakanth can't jump over it. He pulls two guns from his pocket. He throws one gun in the air. When the gun has reached the height of the wall, he shoots at the trigger of the first gun with his second gun. The first gun fires, and the villain is dead.

A couple more NaNoWriMo-related things, picked up from the participants' forums:
Stickies: a very neat Post-It Notes kind of thing -- freeware -- make notes to yourself and stick them on your desktop.

The Snowflake Process: not software; the description of a method for plotting and organising one's novel. The idea of putting plot developments on a spreadsheet wouldn't have occurred to me, but I'm having a lot of fun with it. It turns out that I actually do have a plot! Who would have thought?

An old man patches gunny sacks damaged by the rains
in Koyambedu vegetable market
- New Indian Express photo by P. Jawahar

Reading The Cassandra Pages, I was reminded that Ramzan, as Ramadan is called in the sub-continent, starts on October 27 this year. From the Times of India:
Ramzan begins today

HYDERABAD : The holy month of Ramzan will begin on Monday. The moon was sighted on Sunday night. Fasting will begin at 4.50 am on Monday.

The announcement came after hours of suspense as the Ruyyat-e-Hilal Committee of Hyderabad did not sight the moon till 8 pm on Sunday. Finally, when the crescent was sighted, sirens were sounded from mosques to inform the faithful.

Namaaz-e-Taraveeh, the special namaaz performed during the month of fasting, began from Sunday night.
A link with information about the meaning of Ramzan is here. This site has general information, and also the texts in Arabic and English, along with audio, of the prayers to be recited on every day of Ramzan, beginning here (click on 'Dua' to hear the prayers).

Update: I'm always learning something from Language Hat. Here, he explains why the word Ramzan is used in the sub-continent, instead of the Arabic Ramadan.

Nature's Great Masterpiece: The Elephant -- Treasures of the Ewell Sale Stewart Library . Via Mysterium

Several Things

Last night we pulled up at an intersection, and I took a look at my favourite barber shop. One customer and the barber stood inside, filling the whole space. The customer, who was larger and taller than the barber, unbuttoned his shirt and removed it, so that he stood in a sleeveless white undershirt. He raised one arm, and the barber shaved his armpit. He raised the other, the barber shaved. The light changed, and we drove away.

As I gird my loins for NaNoWriMo, I've been browsing through the participants' forums. A couple of pieces of free software that they recommend look interesting:

Rough Draft, a word processor for writers. (I've downloaded it, but haven't used it yet.)

The Literary Machine seems pretty nifty -- I'm playing around with it now.
The core of The Literary Machine is a relational database for random information (e.g., research, notes, and archived writing) based on the Borland Database Engine. Information (including sounds, text, and pictures) is stored on electronic note cards marked by keywords that can be combined to form hybrid concepts. The system thus embeds information in a three-dimensional keyword matrix that illuminates the relationships among different items of information stored at different times in different contexts. It thus serves as a textual concept-mapper or concept-tracker and a brainstorming tool... etc.

Moral Stories: As you sow, so shall you reap

Happy Divali!

Firecracker sellers in Bhopal -- PTI Photo

The woman shown on the two boxes of fireworks at the bottom of this picture is filmstar Aishwarya Rai. They are 5000-walas -- 5,000 firecrackers tied together. You can buy 1000-walas, 10000-walas, and even -- I'm told, though I've never been subjected to one -- lakhwalas --100,000 firecrackers in a chain.

The noise has been going on since morning, and will reach an incredible crescendo in the evening. There will be all kinds of rockets, colourful bursts in the sky, as well.

The loudest varieties have been banned by the state Pollution Control Board, but according to the newspaper they have been selling briskly: charmingly named items like 'Atom Bomb,' 'Hydrogen Bomb,' and so forth.

Happy Divali!

photo by Ramesh Gandhi

Time on Bollywood

Time Magazine's Asia Edition has a cover story on Bollywood: Queen of Bollywood, with Aishwarya Rai on the cover. And a nice appreciation by Richard Corliss: Bewitched by Bollywood:
...For I am that strange, nearly solitary creature: a non-Indian fan of Indian movies.

Indian popular movies, that is. The movies that sing. The movies that show beautiful people suffering glamorously, wrestling with dilemmas of family honor and filial loyalty and, when words can't express the ache or ardor in their hearts, dancing vigorously with a couple of hundred of their best friends. The movies that enthrall, enrage and obsess a billion Indians, on the subcontinent and around the world. The ones that almost no serious film critic west of Suez notices, let alone cherishes. ..

Almost Divali

Divali (or Deepavali, as it's called in the South) is on Friday - the biggest holiday of the year, and I haven't done one thing about it. Today I have to pay bonuses to the staff, at least. I should be giving out boxes of sweets to friends, and buying new clothes for us. Last year I bought handmade-paper bags, and put boxes of chocolates, and sparklers, and clay oil lamps, and little gift-things in them. If we had kids I'd be buying firecrackers. Mary puts kolam, rice flour patterns, outside the gate and the front doorstep, so I will put out some lamps, like this picture from the Economic Times, on Friday evening:

I saw a picture of a crowd of shoppers in T.Nagar that looked like a political rally - people crammed together, filling the street, a few auto-rickshaws struggling to move through them - and decided to wait and buy something after Divali.

Mary and Lakshmi went out in the afternoon two days ago for the annual free sari distribution to the poor. Last year, The Tamil Nadu government announced that it would stop giving away free saris and dhotis, because the state had no money. The saris had been supplied by one village of weavers, who were now facing starvation. The opposition party announced a poor-feeding of rice gruel in that village. On the TV news they showed huge vats of it, and lines of people waiting to receive it.

Then the governing party announced that it would feed the poor with biryani - tastier, and more expensive, than gruel. The TV showed lines of people eating biryani off of banana leaves.

Then the two groups of party workers got into a fist fight, throwing things at each other, and the police were called in. All this was shown on the television - the stage at which notables were to speak, wrecked; white-dhotied party workers being dragged off. The weavers said, "What good is gruel or biryani to us? We need work." So it seems that their prayers have been answered, at least for this year.

Here's a picture of that ancient, newly discovered frog from the hills of Kerala. The Guardian had said that it resembled a flattened aubergine (eggplant) with a white snout, which seems about right:

I decided to take the plunge and participate in this year's NaNoWriMo. Let's see... I'm prepping for it by reading (don't laugh!) 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them.
Want to write a novel? Really quickly?

If, over the next few weeks, you see someone sitting in a coffee shop staring at nothing and muttering about how to get rid of a body or what would happen if cats could time-travel by sneezing, do not be alarmed. It's novel-writing time again.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It began in 1999 when freelance writer Chris Baty became frustrated at his inability to finish or even begin writing a novel. To force himself to sit down and write something, anything, he enlisted 20 friends for an impossible dare: hammer out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

It didn't have to be well plotted, edited, or even very good. It just had to get written, and by that lofty criterion six participants (including Baty) managed it via massive quantities of caffeine, encouragement, and dogged perseverance.

Word spread. Media coverage, word of mouth, and that enclave of frustrated writers, the Internet, helped the number of dedicated literary masochists rise dramatically. This year 25,000 people are expected to sign up and thereby abandon social life, regular hygiene and workplace productivity to achieve the lifelong dream of becoming a really bad novelist....

...There's still time to sign up. There's no fee, no obligation, no penalties for failure. Only the thrill of creativity, the heady joy that comes from realizing you're actually writing a novel, the cathartic blowout party afterwards, and bragging rights forever....

Don't Miss This

Via Follow Me Here, a hilarious piece from The Missouri Review:
Dear Mr. G.W. Bush,

We would like to thank you for the submission of your untitled poem ("Roses are red/Violets are blue") to The Missouri Review. We assure you that it received the utmost attention of our editorial staff. Though we regret that we are unable to accept your poem for publication, we would like to share a few observations and to offer suggestions towards a revision. It is our belief that another draft or two might strengthen the chances of the poem's later publication—if not in the pages of our own humble journal, then perhaps in another of greater merit.

We might consider this poem a reunion poem in which two lovers come back together following the woman's recent dalliance with another. Though on the surface the reunion seems innocent enough, given the poem's traditional "roses are red" structure and meter, the apparent joy of the man at her return, his willingness to forgive and move forward, a closer reading reveals a more ambiguous, potentially darker interpretation of the lovers' reunion...(more)

Yes, and more hilarity: No-sword imagines a conversation between the Chinese astronaut and Mission Control.

Rain and Deathless Love

It rained through the night, thunder growling romantically in the distance. This morning there was only a drizzle, which is dying away now, but the sky is a promising grey. The garden is burgeoning, drenched. When I came down I heard a hollow gurgling from the kitchen-side windows, and went out and opened the screened well-cover. A steady stream of water was pouring in from the rain-water harvesting system, which the government decreed in August should be installed in every building in Chennai. It's not very sophisticated: drainpipes from the roof-terraces - almost all roofs are flat here - are channelled into the well. Drainpipes that are farther from the well go directly into the ground, through so-called percolation pits - lengths of perforated pipe filled with gravel. It's only the second time since we installed the system that there has been enough rain to harvest.

We saw a classic film on TV: Amar Prem ('Deathless Love') (1971). The hero, Rajesh Khanna, became a terrible ham, but he was very beautiful in his heyday, as was his co-star, Sharmila Tagore.

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore in Amar Prem

And because it was a re-make of a Bengali film, they wear Bengali clothes, which make the wearer look dignified, substantial.

Rajesh Khanna is a good man driven by a bad wife to drink and visit a prostitute, Sharmila Tagore. She is not a realistic prostitute, but a courtesan, a prominent figure in Indian literature. She is a tragic figure, and the film is full of rona-dhona, 'weeping and wailing.' In fact, I find the second half unwatchable. But it is full of wonderful songs. The MP3s of two songs from Amar Prem - Chingari Koi Bhadke and Kuch to Log Kahenge -- are available for downloading here. Lyrics to the songs are here.

My favourite song, Yeh kya hua, 'What happened?' includes this verse:
What's the use of complaining
that my heart broke?
It was a toy made of glass -
something was bound to happen to it...

Under the fire star is six months old today.


This is my contribution to the Ecotone group-blogging topic, Place names:

Living in an ex-colony, I've discovered, means that place-names are highly mutable. The funniest example came during the Vietnam War, when the American Consulate in Calcutta went to sleep on Harrington Street and woke up on Ho Chi Minh Sarani - a little joke played on the Americans by the Communist government of the state of West Bengal, which continues to this day. (There's a useful page here with old and new names for Calcutta streets - I wish there were one for Chennai.)

The city where I live was called Madras for 350 years, since the British cobbled it together from a number of existing villages. (It survived long enough to give America a fabric called 'bleeding madras,' in the sixties of the last century.) In 1996, some local politicians decided that Madras was a 'colonial' name, and should be replaced with a 'real' Tamil name, Chennai. Ironically, the writer Shashi Tharoor has some scathing things to say (this is the cached version -- couldn't get the original) about the name and the decision. It seems that Chennai was originally Chennappa-pattinam, a settlement named after a local Telugu (not Tamil) chieftain. Local historian S. Muthiah thinks that, if the name had to be changed at all - he opposed it - it should have been changed to Mylapore, the largest of the existing villages brought within the city limits. Mylapore was an ancient seaport, which sent traders and culture-bearers across the sea to Southeast Asia. However, the city's residents were not asked for their opinions, and here we are in Chennai.

Names are being changed all over the country. In the state where I live, Thirunelvelli (Sacred Rice Field) was too hard for the British to pronounce, so they called it Tinnevelly. It has now reverted to its old name. Likewise Thiruchirapalli, which the British called Trichinopoly. And Udhagamandalam, which was 'anglicised' into Ootacamund -- but never mind, everyone has always called it Ooty.

Within the city, street names are changing too rapidly for most. Mount Road and its successor, Anna Salai (named for the late politician Annadurai, whose nickname was Anna, 'big brother') co-exist fairly comfortably. I wrote earlier about how I discovered that Lattice Bridge Road, or LB Road, had been renamed Dr. Muthulakshmi Road -- and that change apparently happened at least two years ago. It is still known by its old name.

At one stage, the state government decreed that caste names should be removed from the road names -- since caste is linked with social status. So Moubrays Road became C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer Road, and then 'Iyer' was dropped. A row of small streets in George Town, which was Black Town -- i.e. the 'native' town -- until the early twentieth century, had been named for local merchants, whose caste name was Chetty. Now instead of Linghi Chetty Street, Kondi Chetty Street, Arabulu Chetty Street and so on, we have Linghi Street, Kondi Street, Arubulu Street... I have been told that somewhere in the city there was a Lady Nair Street, named for the grandmother of a friend of ours, who had been ennobled by the British. After the caste names were removed it became Lady Street.

Some names change by popular usage: as spoken in Tamil, Hamilton Bridge lost its L and sounded like Ambittan ('barber') Bridge. It was translated back into English as Barbers Bridge. Now it has been renamed for a champion of rights for Untouchables, or Dalits, as they are called today: Ambedkar Bridge.

I'm sure that the British names which still remain - Peters, Lloyds, General Patters, Chamiers, Bishops Garden, and so on - will vanish eventually. You have to be quick on your feet to keep up with all this, or things slip out from under you. When I started writing this blog I had to decide whether to refer to Madras or to Chennai, and I opted for inevitability. But when people talk to each other it's still Madras. Or sometimes Chennai. Everything exists at the same time.

The Mother Teresa Show and a New Frog

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is being beatified at the Vatican on Sunday. She died in 1997, at the age of 87. There's a bizarre article about the event in the Washington Post:
In Rome, a Passion for Mother Teresa

ROME, Oct. 15 -- It's unlikely that the late Mother Teresa, the nun who gained fame for helping the poor in the slums of Calcutta, ever wore a sari with a slit up the front. But in a Rome theater this week, she is not only so adorned but also belting out pop tunes to standing-room-only crowds.

The show, "Mother Teresa -- The Musical," is part of Mother Teresa mania sweeping the Italian capital in advance of her Sunday beatification. Pilgrims are pouring into town, souvenir vendors hawk figurines, plates, scarves and medallions, and Italian state television has scheduled a made-for-TV biography...(more)

Mother Teresa by M. F. Husain

New frog species is 'living fossil'

A species of frog, whose ancestors hopped around at the feet of the dinosaurs, has been discovered in India. The frog, which resembles a flattened aubergine with a white snout, has been described by scientists as a "living fossil".

Franky Bossuyt at the Free University of Brussels and SD Biju at the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in India found the frog in the Western Ghat hills of Kerala in southern India...(more)

cartoon by Neelabh,The Economic Times

My Day

I went into the garden and pulled an ajwain plant from a bed it wanted to overwhelm - my hands were scented with it, it was lovely.

Out to buy vodka, for tangerine liqueur. The shop owner, with his clean hands, white hair, long and distinguished face, white kurta and long white veshti. A man at the counter, drinking, and a shop man from the chemist's next door, standing next to me and staring at me as I completed the transaction. The proprietor wanted to show that he recognised me: "Any beer today?"

photo by Ramesh Gandhi

I've been watching so many Truffaut movies - yesterday we saw Shoot the Piano Player - that last night my dreams had a voice-over: a man's voice, untelligible but in the cadences of French; rueful, explaining something. And in the last two days we saw a German film, Mostly Martha, and Almodovar's amazing Talk to Her. It's wonderful, after years of good-movie starvation.

But we're gobbling it, too fast, so that everything is getting confused. It's reforming and combining in my head into a new movie, but inferior, with grainier footage. Flashing bright / dark, like something seen out of a train window at night. Soon my dreams will have subtitles.

The Plumber

The plumber is wild-eyed and intense. He's short, skinny, with sharp features, jutting cheekbones. He wears a filthy shirt and a lungi tucked up over his knees. He walks briskly, carrying his bag of tools. He's earnest, he wants to explain what has gone wrong. He puts his lips to clogged pipes and blows on them like a trumpet to show you they are jammed.

Today he finished a job, and there was half a bag of white cement left over. He placed it carefully under one of the rocks around the pool in the atrium, and said, "Let this be kept here." I said, "I'll keep it, but not here." He said "No, keep it here, it will be useful to repair joints and for other work." I said that I would rather put it in a cupboard, and he smiled politely, unconvinced.

Still Praying for Rain

Priests performing Varuna Japam to invoke the Rain God,
by standing inside concrete tubs filled with water.
New Indian Express photo by D. Sampath Kumar

Waiting for water sans sleep is city’s everyday ritual

From a review of Letters From Madras by Julia Maitland, first published in 1843:
... European women were coming over in shiploads to defend their national and religious identities, while simultaneously seeking suitable husbands. The delicate balance between the English and the Indians was being thrown into a spin for the first time in 200 years because of increased imperialism and missionary activity, which aimed at converting the native people in matters of religion and education. Julia arrived with firm assumptions about race: Indians, she believed were ignorant, lazy, servile, cheats, wicked and foolish. She called them a "cringing set," ...

... She arrives in Madras in a great boat on the tip of a formidable surf and is at first quite pleased by the large, airy houses with high ceilings and rooms as large as chapels. But she soon discovers that she doesn't like Madras much at all.

She calls it "England in perspiration" and complains that all the institutions in Madras are committee ridden which she looks on as the next step to being bedridden. Everyone seems to be eaten up by laziness and listlessness. She's especially critical of the European ladies in Madras who spend all their time writing useless chits, then going on morning visits (which she cannot abide), taking tiffin with a friend, writing more chits and culminating the day at dinner parties that are dull, grand and silent, in mosquito-infested houses where nothing of interest is ever talked about.

...Her life is soon embroiled in domesticity, duplicity, thievery and servants, of whom she says, "It seems to me they sleep nowhere, and eat nothing... They have mats on the steps and live upon rice. But they do very little... " She records her conversations with Brahmins, butlers, and rajahs with a great deal of humour and also includes excerpts of the many metaphysical debates she has with her Moonshee about astronomy, the nature of god, the transmigration of souls and their individual shasters...

Unsurprisingly, weather is a great topic of conversation, and much is made of the ever-present heat ...

This book is important because of the specific visual images it conjures up of an India that was and continues to be. On one hand there's an almost wild beauty that has almost vanished in modern urban Madras, of sprawling houses in Harrington Gardens with deer prancing about on the front lawn and jackals howling under the windows. Simultaneously, there are failed monsoons, floods, famines racking the countryside and mothers fighting to feed their children - scenes all too familiar today. More disturbing is the fact that we are still battling the same stalwart issues of caste, class, race, religion, gender, and imperialism...(more)

At the Yacht Club

I was thinking about an evening we spent at the Yacht Club. The club had fallen on hard times. It had been pushed out of a bigger, better, old clubhouse near the port gate, and given a small piece of land inside the harbour enclosure. We had to show passes to armed security guards before we could enter the main gate. Then we drove on rutted roads, weaving around heaps of coal and granite waiting to be loaded, with no signs to guide us, until we reached a low wall enclosing some shrubbery, and the club.

The clubhouse was like a child's castle. Blocks piled on top of blocks with grey gravel facing, topped with cement crenellations, a scrubby lawn fronting on a narrow channel, wooden skiffs - the yachts -- crowded together on the grass. The channel was busy with tugs and pilot boats. A tiny arched drawbridge spanned the channel, wide enough for two people to walk abreast. There was continuous traffic up the stairs and over of small dark men, their lungis folded up above their knees, workers on the docks.

The stern end of a bulk cargo ship loomed above us like the backdrop of a stage set, its generators producing a continuous hum, loading potassium with enormous cranes. I walked to the edge of the quay. The hull was a high steel wall, more building than ship - the cranes so massive that I felt vertigo, tilting my head back to look up to the top. The counter-weight, a cylinder suspended many stories in the air, was the size of a car. Small dinky lorries were lined up, their drivers like pygmies from another world than that of the steel ship. Ore was heaped in rough piles. The air was thick with the dust of chemicals already loaded.

A tug hoots for the drawbridge. The operator has left his cabin - the tug must back up, hooting impatiently - the bridge-keeper comes running up the cement steps, then scrambles up a vertical steel ladder and into the lighted cabin. Yells at someone walking toward the bridge to stand back, closes wire gates at both ends, raises the bridge and the boat chugs through, to berth at a parking area across from where we sit.

Inside the main room of the clubhouse was a peaked ceiling painted with the names of winning skippers in annual sailing races. Victory cups were displayed behind the bar. We sat outside at a table and chairs set up for us on the grass. We had the place to ourselves. The club's old waiter had been a welder on the docks. He shuffled back and forth, driven by our host's enthusiasm - bring napkins, wash the glasses, bring boiled peanuts. And just beyond our small perimeter, darkness, grime, warehouses, hundreds of yellow lights from ships' superstructures, tugs. Many cargo ships, and more lying out at sea, waiting their turn to come in. It was one of many times when I felt as though the scene around me had been made from two different jigsaw puzzles, somehow forced to come together.

An Evening at Home 2

I’m reading William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, which arrived from yesterday, along with Mappings (which I ordered because it was cited in an excellent novel set in Karachi, Kartography), while Ramesh surfs the television.

He stops at a Hindi soap. As is often the case, the characters onscreen are women. As is often the case, they are having an argument. They are probably related - sisters-in-law in a joint family household. One says to the other, "How could you make a false accusation against me?" The other one, as is often the case, is venomous. She sneers. Ramesh changes the channel.

A Hindi movie; an American movie with Michael Caine; a Russian program without subtitles; Tamil film songs; Bengali something; a Gujarati soap. As is often the case, two women are arguing...

I love William Gibson, but doesn’t Pattern Recognition have too many commas? And what do you look like, if you look like Tom Cruise fed on virgins' blood and chocolates? Never mind...

Enter the Dragon is playing on HBO. Praying mantises fight on a boat in Hong Kong, watched by Bruce Lee and John Saxon. Men are betting on the outcome. This film has not aged well at all.

After a while we’ll see a DVD from the new library. In the last three days we've seen The Last Métro, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (what was the big deal about that, anyway?), and a beautiful, perfect Iranian film, Baran. It was so moving, the last scene - the hero looks at the heroine's shoe-print, in thick mud, as it fills up with rain. They have never even spoken to each other, and her father has just taken her away, probably forever. But the sight makes him happy. The intensity of suppressed feeling.

It is so often like this: printed words, sounds, talk, moving images, all overlapping. Former cricket star Kapil Dev is advertising a motorcycle. (There's a Test match going on in Ahmedabad. Dravid has hit a double century. Yay!) It's hard to remember that there is such a thing as silence.


Brown as late Autumn,
jointed with leaf-fragments,
your face a horned mask,
you pretend to be old wood.

Did a male mount you?
Did you graze on his head
as he impregnated you with twigs?

You will give birth
to copper stickpins.

When your life dries up
and you sink into earth

you will bring forth green.

Culinary Jottings for Madras

In 1984, when I was just about to leave Lahore, I went to a used book-seller and bought several old books -- District Gazetteers for the places I had visited; and Wyvern's Indian Cookery Book, being a new and revised edition of Culinary Jottings for Madras.

The title is somewhat misleading: the book's purpose is to help British housewives to serve British meals in India. It was originally published in 1878. I have the seventh, 'substantially revised' edition, published in 1904. I now present

Chapter I. The Cook.

If you want to put nice little dinners upon your table, you must not only be prepared to take a certain amount of trouble, but you must make a friend of your cook. Unless amicable relations exist between and him and his mistress or master, the work will never be carried out satisfactorily. There will be a thousand and one annoying failures, your mind will never know what repose means, and, in the end, -- utterly wearied with the daily struggle against petty larceny, carelessness, ignorance, stupidity, and an apparently wayward desire to thwart your desires to the utmost,-- you will resign the control to your butler, and submit to whatever kind of dinner he may be pleased to provide for you.

I do not allude to people who may possess a butler capable of composing, with very little aid, a fairly good menu, and able to direct the cook in regard to its preparation. There are, I know, a few men of that kind to be found but they are rare to meet, and even the cleverest of them requires a little diplomatic supervision, or he will drift into a groove of dinners, and tire you with repetitions. It need scarcely be said that the accounts of a competent maitre d'hotel are often questionable, but perhaps, in consideration of the trouble saved, this is a point that need not be too closely scrutinised.

Those who are not gifted with patience, those who are not physically strong, those who have important calls upon their time away from home, and, of course, those who do not feel capable of directing their cooks, cannot do better than entrust the management of their kitchens to their head servants; but all who are equal to the task, should take the helm in their own hands, remembering the old saying, -- "if you want a thing well done, do it yourself."

Of all failings inimical to the successful direction of a native servant, a hasty temper is the most fatal. The moment you betray irritation and hastiness in your manner towards Ramasamy, he ceases to follow you. His attention becomes distracted by apprehension with reference to his personal safety, and not in the consideration of the plat you may be endeavouring to discuss with him.

There are two ways of imparting the details of menu to your cook: -- one through your butler, the other by conversation with the man himself. For many reasons I advocate the latter plan. Some cooks do not care for the butler's interference, and in many establishments, the cook and butler do not pull. Butlers again, are prone to conceit, and often pretend to understand what you want done, rather than confess their ignorance.

So it is better to get the cook alone, and talk to him very quietly in his own way of speaking. To encourage him by a little praise, and if obliged to speak retrospectively of a failure, to strive to do so with a smile. You will soon get round Ramasamy when he finds that you are able to keep your temper with him: he then gains confidence in you and learns rapidly. There can be no doubt that in him there are materials out of which it is quite possible to form a good cook. The work comes to him, as it were, of its own accord. Nevertheless it is necessary to watch for his besetting sins, and correct them whenever they occur.

Two of the chief of these are:--
(a) To guess at quantities and weights without measuring the one, or weighing the other.
(b) To proceed with the cooking of a meal without any reference to the clock, to finish things far too soon, and then to keep them warm till wanted.

We should remember too that the fact of a dish having been successfully presented to us once, by no means insures that it will appear so again unless the details of its composition are gone through again carefully.

In the use of green herbs all native cooks require watching, for they are very fond of mint, and what they call in Madras 'country parsley' which is really chervil mint, ought not to be employed as a flavouring agent save with green peas, sometimes with new potatoes, in certain wine 'cups,' and in bona fide mint sauce, and chervil is of course no equivalent of parsley though useful in moderation in certain sauces. Marjoram, rosemary, fennel, etc. grow well in India and come in usefully for stuffings, etc....

Natives dearly love the spice box, and they all reverence "Worcester Sauce." Now, I consider the latter too powerful an element by far for indiscriminate use in the kitchen, especially so in India where our cooks are inclined to over-flavour everything. If in the house at all, the proper place for this sauce is the cruet-stand where it can be seized in an emergency to drown mistakes, and assist us in swallowing food that we might otherwise decline.

When spice is necessary the amount should be mentioned exactly; the cook ought never to be allowed discretional use of it.

Unless distinct directions are given to him, Ramasamy is accustomed to annex all trimmings of meat, giblets, etc. for his personal use... In many of my receipts advice will be found as to the treatment of the scraps, and each bad habit of the cookroom will be pointed out as it occurs to me.
Note: I learned from a posting on that the full title of the original edition was Culinary Jottings - A Treatise in Thirty Chapters on Reformed Cookery For Anglo-Indian Exiles, Based Upon Modern English and Continental Principles with Thirty Menus for Little Dinners Worked Out in Detail, and An Essay on Our Kitchens in India" By "Wyvern," Author of "Sweet Dishes," "Furlough Reminiscences."

Love in a Hot Climate

Lagaan (2001) is one of the best Bollywood movies ever. It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. It has wonderful music by A. R. Rahman; good choreography; and a gripping cricket match, in the course of which noble Indian (19th century) villagers triumph over dastardly British imperialists. What more could anyone want?

Gracie Singh and Amir Khan in Lagaan

Rachel Shelley, an English actress who played an important role in the film (as a non-dastardly Brit who helps, and falls for, Amir Khan's character), wrote an article for the Guardian about her experiences. It's here. (You don't have to have seen the film -- just to be fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes. A rare look at how India makes movies.)


Michael Dirda, in the Washington Post Book World, quotes from a short story by M.P. Shiel:
In the redundance of her decolleté development, she resembled Parvati, mound-hipped love-goddess of the luscious fancy of the Brahmin.
(Here's the full story.)

Every day of the year there's an Amitabh Bachchan (Hindi) film on television. In the ad for today's film, Agneepath, a phone rings. Amitabh picks it up. A sinister voice says, "You have an appointment with death at 5:00."

a man paints a billboard of Congress Party
leader Sonia Gandhi - from
India Today

The Movies

We've joined a new DVD library, with the promising name of Cinema Paradiso. In the last week I've seen Adaptation, Frida, Blood Simple, and Day For Night - all remarkable moves. And two that weren't so good: Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women, and a self-consciously whimsical German film, Tuvalu.

So, last night we watched De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). (It won an Oscar in 1971 as Best Foreign Film; De Sica won a Golden Bear as Best Director at the 1971 Berlin Film Festival.) The film is set in Ferrarra, Italy between 1938-1943. It is visually beautiful, and starts out looking carefree, as a group of young people in tennis whites bicycle up to the huge garden of the Jewish Finzi-Continis for an afternoon of tennis.

But as the film progresses, the liberties of the Jews are taken away one by one, quietly, almost always politely. The tennis afternoon itself occurs because Jews have been expelled from the town's tennis club. The Finzi-Continis retreat within the walls of their estate, pretend that the world has not changed. The father of another character tries to convince himself that Italian fascism is better than German fascism, that somehow things will work out.

At the end of the film the town's Jews are rounded up. As they wait to be sent away, there's a scene of memory, of three of the characters playing tennis, laughing, while what I presume to be a prayer for the dead is sung in the background.

The movie is very restrained, as it shows how easily the ground can be cut away, piece by piece, by official decree clothed in the garments of patriotism. Perhaps it was the quietness of the film that made it so frightening to me, so real, and so affecting.

In the Evening

We were sitting in the garden, when over the neighbour's wall came the sound of a singing lesson. A man's voice rose in a quavering phrase, a pause, the phrase repeated, again and again. The student's reply was softer, more silence than voice. At last the teacher must have been satisfied, he moved to the next phrase. It began from the same place, but soared higher, ended higher, on a note that avoided finality. That plaintive note, waiting for completion, again and again. Finally the student's voice, a woman's, strengthened, and the two voices sang together.

Unfinished things inspire most affection, are most evocative. They are imperfect enough so that one can identify with them, aspire to them. Hearing these voices, the careful repetitions, the climbing, the pauses, I looked at Ramesh. He was not listening, absorbed in some question of his own.

I swim along the winding stream of the notes' eddies and back again, the song still unfinished.

Years ago, when I studied singing for a short time, I sat cross-legged on the floor facing my teacher, Mani Sir. His cherubic face was ringed with white hair. He had a benign smile and a beautiful high voice. His white cotton clothes were shabby. He raised his face and sang a simple phrase as if it came from heaven. My response was laborious, phrase by phrase, each separate, not knowing the whole. He taught me as he had been taught, his hand marking the pattern of beats on one knee, mine tentatively doing the same. At the end, the phrases joined, and there was almost music.


Thanks to Caterina for this one: Swearsaurus. How to swear in 123 languages. Finally, I can swear in Tamil! (Actually, I already knew how to call someone an idiot, a dog, or crazy. But this goes far beyond those mild epithets. Oddly, the one dirty word I thought I knew isn't there -- King of Pubic Hair. Was my teacher just making it up? Has it gone out of style?)

You can also swear in Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, and several other Indian languages. How about this Gujarati gem: The mail man has lost his keys in your mom's *****.

Several Things

I had posted an article on Sanskritisation in Tamil Nadu. Jivha the Tongue links to a couple more articles on the same subject: how a dominant culture imposes itself, and why the less dominant culture buys into the project.

And let's not forget the really important stuff: K*a*r*i*s*h*m*a K*a*p*o*o*r's wedding menu (via scribbles of a lazy geek).

They've been showing a trailer on TV for a new Bengali film, Chokher Bali -- Aishwarya Rai's first Bengali film. In the trailer she is shown looking through a pair of opera glasses. Is it an homage to Ray's Charulata? Or - since both movies are based on short stories by Tagore - did Tagore like to put opera glasses in his heroines' hands? It disconcerted me - it was like watching an American movie and coming across a sled named Rosebud.

We went to Barista yesterday for coffee, and someone's cell phone rang. The ring tone was Raghupati Raghava, Gandhi's favourite bhajan. Was it a coincidence, or had he downloaded it in honour of Gandhi's birthday? At any rate, that was the only observance of the day - barring the Gandhi statue on the beach, which had been garlanded in the morning by politicians. We drove home by the beach road, so we saw the aftermath: the heavy rose garlands, and a hideous temporary platform which almost obscured the statue. Ramesh said they had built the platform that way so that Gandhi wouldn't be able to see what has happened to his world.

Durga Puja, the most important festival of Calcutta, is going on from October 1-5. The city will be filled with thousands of puja pandals, temporary shrines to Goddess Durga. Here are legends and facts about the puja.

October 2 was saptami. The next day, October 3 ashtami, is the most important day of the Puja. Durga defeats the buffalo demon Mahishasura.


The third day is navami. On October 5, there is Dussehra and Lakshmi Puja. Whew! Then comes Ayudha Puja -- when? -- and Divali, and then I think there's a rest until Christmas.

Oh... it seems that Ayudha Puja - 'Worship of Tools' - is tomorrow. Mary (a devout Christian) just asked me for money, saying that four gourds must be bought for removing evil from the house, one for each of the four corners. I told her that one gourd would do, thank you. The staff buys puffed rice and boxes of sweets for themselves. They clean up the generator and the cars, and one lime goes under each car wheel -- you drive over the limes and break them, and you are not supposed to have any accidents during the coming year. We don't believe in it, but respect for tools is not a bad thing. I should take care of the computer too.

And here's what today's New Indian Express has to say:
Police to look out for pumpkin smashers

The police will get tough with those who smash pumpkins on roads during the forthcoming Ayudha Pooja. They should desist from doing so, the police said on Thursday.

This smashing leads to accidents, particularly to motorists, the police said. In this regard, people should refrain from smashing pumpkins on the road and instead should do it either inside their house or shop, the police said. To implement this, police vehicles would patrol the city.

Gandhi Jayanti

Mahatma Gandhi, half-tone print, 1940 #

October 2nd is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi -- his 135th. For most Indians it doesn't mean much anymore. It is a national holiday during which no liquor is sold. The President, Prime Minister and many politicians, go to Raj Ghat, a memorial to Gandhi, to offer flowers. A few aged Gandhians, wearing white handspun khadi clothes and white caps, are trotted out for the cameras. Editorials talk of Gandhi's increasing irrelevance to the India of today. And yet, he is too great, too complex, to be forgotten entirely - and not just because his picture is on the money.

Raja Rao wrote a lovely novel, Kanthapura, which gives a sense of what Gandhi must have meant to many during the Independence Movement. The novel is narrated by an old woman living in the small village of Kanthapura. She tells the story of how the villagers came to participate in the Movement. In this scene, a traditional storyteller is telling the villagers for the first time about the Mahatma:
In the great heavens, Brahma, the self-created one, was lying on his serpent, when the sage Valmiki entered, announced by the two doorkeepers. "Oh, learned sire, what brings you into this distant world?" asked Brahma, and, offering the sage a seat beside him, fell at his feet. "Rise up, O God of Gods! I have come to bring you sinister news. Far down on the earth you chose as your chief daughter Bharatha [India]... But, O Brahma... you have forgotten us so long that men have come from across the seas and the oceans to trample on our wisdom and to spit on virtue itself... O Brahma, deign to send us one of your gods so that he may incarnate himself on earth and bring back light and plenty to your enslaved daughter..." - "O sage," pronounced Brahma, "...Siva himself will forthwith go and incarnate himself on the earth and free my beloved daughter from her enforced slavery..."

... And there was born in a family in Gujerat a son such as the world has never beheld! As soon as he came forth, the four wide walls began to shine like the kingdom of the sun, and hardly was he in the cradle than he began to lisp the language of wisdom. You remember how Krishna, when he was but a babe of four, had begun to fight against demons and had killed the serpent Kali. So too our Mohandas began to fight against the enemies of the country. And as he grew up, and after he was duly shaven for the hair ceremony, he began to go out into the villages and assemble people and talk to them and his voice was so pure, his forehead so brilliant with wisdom, that men followed him, more and more men followed him as they did Krishna the flute-player; and so he goes from village to village to slay the serpent of the foreign rule. Fight, says he, but harm no soul. Love all, says he, Hindu, Mohammedan, Christian or Pariah, for all are equal before God. don't be attached to riches, says he, for riches create passions, and passions create attachment, and attachment hides the face of truth. Truth must you tell, he says, for truth is God, and verily, it is the only God I know. And he says too, spin every day. Spin and weave every day, for our Mother is in tattered weeds and a poor mother needs clothes to cover her sores. If you spin, he says, the money that goes to the Red-man will stay within your country and the Mother can feed the foodless and the milkless and the clothless. He is a saint, the Mahatma, a wise man and a soft man, and a saint. You know how he fasts and prays. And even his enemies fall at his feet...

Click to listen to Gandhi's favourite bhajan, Raghupati Raghava. (There are a number of other audio links to songs connected to Gandhi here)

read Gandhi's writings

listen to Gandhi's voice

Some websites devoted to Gandhi:

Gandhi Serve Foundation

Mahatma Gandhi eArchive

Gandhian Institute Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal

Salman Rushdie's article for Time's Leaders of the Century issue

The Mahatma and THE HINDU: "The Hindu newspaper offers its readers, as part of its 125th anniversary celebrations, an eight-page Special Release on "The Mahatma and The Hindu" -- A representation of the coverage of an epoch-maker by a newspaper of record, 1896-1948."

Purdah I

One day they said
she was old enough to learn some shame.
She found it came quite naturally.

Purdah is a kind of safety.
The body finds a place to hide.
The cloth fans out against the skin
much like the earth that falls
on coffins after they put the dead men in.

People she has known
stand up, sit down as they have always done.
But they make different angles
in the light, their eyes aslant, a little sly.

She half-remembers things
from someone else's life,
perhaps from yours, or mine --
carefully carrying what we do not own:
between the thighs, a sense of sin.

We sit still, letting the cloth grow
a little closer to our skin.
A light filters inward
through our bodies' walls.
Voices speak inside us,
echoing in the spaces we have just left.

She stands outside herself,
sometimes in all four corners of a room.
Wherever she goes, she is always
inching past herself,
as if she were a clod of earth,
and the roots as well,
scratching for a hold
between the first and second rib.

Passing constantly out of her own hands
into the corner of someone else's eyes...
while doors keep opening
inward and again

-- Imtiaz Dharker