I'm very grateful to those who have written to ask how I am. We're still on vacation. Friends who went to our house to see if it had been affected tell us that it is okay -- we're about a mile from the coast, and the water didn't reach us. But I'm worried about our servants. Two of them live in our compound, so they're okay, but two more, and families of the two who live with us, are in slums very near the sea. Our friends said that our compound is full of people, the extended families of the staff, who are camping out there. They are handing out fresh water to displaced people nearby. Beyond that, we won't know what's really happening until we return on the fourth.

I hope that those who read this are safe and warm, and that all your family and friends are, too. I don't believe in the efficacy of prayer, but I can't help praying anyway -- for so many thousands of people, the dead and those who have survived.

Out of Station; and a couple of things

I'll be away for two weeks -- see you in the new year.

A shop at Tambaram selling Christmas decorations --
Photo for the Hindu by K. Pichumani

Last night we saw a very muddled-up film called Grande Ecole. This morning I looked for a review, and found only a couple. I put this French one through Google's translator, and was pleased, because the review came out as muddled-up -- though delightfully so -- as the film:
"dramatic Comedy". A classification which goes like a glove to this film! If it is a comedy, it is dramatic. If it is a drama, it is laughable... It is there, it is very fresh: The turnip of the year! It is still with the poster, and one wonders well why... Good they is young people "who do not want any", and who are in a "large school" of trade. The elite as which would say. But of the questions turlupinent them, it is the case to say it, since one of them wonders whether it would not be there times a little homo on the edges... WITH THE SECOOOOURS! I want to leave this room. Not: I MUST leave before the next tirade...!! Wedged in the beautiful medium of the line, such were my thoughts during a good hour. But "to go", said to me I to encourage me, "the film will reveal his true face, it is not possible: it will occur a trick well ". Eh well at all my good lady! That nenni: Integral stew, the turnip, nullity, the false note. Never considering a similar horror... Then I summarize the reasons for which it is an absolutely abominable film? Eh well it is very simple: bombastic dialogues, painfully ânonnés by credible actors like tails of stoves, the whole filmed with... Euh with nothing in fact, it is well the problem! The mobile of this cinematographic assassination? Eh well one does not know. If the realizer had a message, personally I hesitate between "you would make better return on your premise, or to slip discretos to you into the room of with side" and "I looked at the series of AB Production too much, help me". I hesitate, I hesitate. Especially, especially, do not go there. You will not be able to say that I will not have warned you...

I posted a picture yesterday of S.S. Vasan's house, which has been torn down. Today's The Hindu had this about the house:
...The industrialist C. Rajam built the India House [the house's actual name, though it was known as Gemini House] in the 1930s. Mr. Rajam lived there until 1944. The house was sold to the Raja of Sivaganga, who later sold it to the founder of Gemini Pictures, S.S. Vasan....

Demolition Day 3

It really is the end of an era, although S.S. Vasan's house can still be seen in innumerable Tamil films:

Giving way to modernity

Vasan's House on Radhakrishnan Salai - a landmark in Chennai - being brought down to give way to a modern structure. The house belonged to S.S. Vasan, the pioneer filmmaker and publisher who ran Gemini Pictures and Ananda Vikatan group of publications. The bungalow, which wore a deserted look for many years, was rented out for film and TV shooting.

How many times I have driven past it, and seen that a film-shooting was going on, because of the bright lights and the big reflectors; and because of the small crowd of people gathered on the road to peer over the top of the compound wall.

Oats, Cheese and Breakdowns

I decided to make bread today. I found a recipe for oat and cheese bread which looked interesting. But I had chosen one of those days -- increasingly frequent -- of power outages. The power went out FOUR TIMES, each time for more than 20 minutes, and I just couldn't get the bread into my electric oven. The fourth time, I decided to run the generator, just to get the bread baked. Then it conked -- because the repairmen, who had been working on it yesterday AGAIN, had screwed up the settings so that it couldn't take the load of the oven.

Finally, I tore off hunks of the bread dough, rolled them out like parathas / pitas, and cooked them on a dry griddle. They were pretty good, too.

The generator people are coming tomorrow morning AGAIN, and the washing-machine guy is coming in the afternoon AGAIN. This is one of the real Third World things about living in Chennai: the power supply is just not reliable. We've replaced every appliance at least twice, because of extreme fluctuations. We've spent a fortune on stabilisers, UPS's, better versions of both... The state of Tamil Nadu is trying hard to attract IT and manufacturing industries, and with some success. But without steady power -- never mind water, and a few other problems -- I wonder how far they will be able to succeed.

Anyway, if you haven't tried oat and cheese parathas, I commend them to you.

Show and Tell

These are my shoes.

They were a gift, hand-made for me in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, a city famous for its shoes. The shoemaker came to the place where I was staying to trace the outline of my foot. Everyone told me that the shoes would be the most comfortable I had ever worn: they would form themselves around my feet like gloves-for-the-feet. In fact, they are excruciating to wear -- longer and narrower and smaller in circumference than my feet. I totter in them like a bound-footed woman, even though they look enormous.

Don't miss the curly toes. I feel like Dorothy in rhinestone slippers when I put them on. I'm going to try to paint them now, just like Van Gogh did -- even though his weren't nearly so... so... as mine are.

Well, that's about it. I just wanted you to know how much cooler I am than you are -- unless you have shoes like these too.


Some Art Links

Yesterday's New York Times had an article about Steve Mumford, an American artist embedded in Iraq, with a link onward to his paintings and articles in Artnet.

I'm looking at a few of Mumford's paintings every day. Today, I followed them with today's painting from ik reis in jouw hoofd.

Then I moved to Duane Keiser, who has been making a painting a day. They're beautifully filled with light.

And just to bring things down to a much safer level: Paint your own kaleidoscope.

Via Metafilter: Francis Bacon's Studio

Sunday Out

Yesterday, friends took us to Eden, a vegetarian restaurant in the new Harrison’s Hotel. As we emerged from the elevator, the lobby was crammed with people waiting to get in. We entered into a sustained roar, punctuated by the shrieks and squeals of numerous children. Ramesh took a look around and said, “My God, you’ve brought me to the Gujarati Samaj (Society).” It appeared that half the Gujarati and Marwari population of Chennai was there. With their children.

Among Gujaratis Ramesh becomes Rameshbhai, and several people came up to greet him by that name. (Bhai = brother; the female equivalent is ben, sister. These must be appended to all Gujarati names. Though not many people actually call me Nancyben. I confuse them.) One thing I’ve learned, after being married to a (very atypical) Gujarati for sixteen years, is that most Gujaratis love to eat a vast variety of (vegetarian) foods, and that they will not flock to any place where the food isn’t good. So I decided to let the intense clamour of conversation wash over me and enjoy it.

The food was good, not sensational, and had a wholesome quality. A mix of cuisines: pasta, curry-rice, tandoor, idli-dosai, that sort of thing, all made by what Ramesh insisted must be a Gujarati cook. (We didn’t check, it was too hectic.)

While we were eating a small boy came up behind Ramesh and said, “Boo!” He made Ramesh jump, and grinned widely. The boy said, “Uncle, where are you from?” R: “I’m from outer space.” Boy: “Where, Uncle?” R: “From between Venus and Mars.” The boy ran to convey this information to his mother, who sent him back to ask, “Uncle, are you a scientist?” R: “I’m an astronaut.” This satisfied him, or didn’t, but he did not return.

By the time we left the place, my throat was sore from trying to talk through the din.

The traffic equivalent of the restaurant where we ate last night – a very typical scene, near the Gemini Flyover. From The Hindu, photo by S. R. Raghunathan

This and That

Cream cheese (Malai Chaska) and crackers, carrot soup and pomegranate for lunch. I haven't been much of a fan of the colour orange, but carrot-colour and the dark, almost blood-red of pomegranates suddenly look very attractive to me, side by side like this. I have to have some blue in everything, though.

food stylist: Lourdes Mary

I was listening to the music of Swadesh, a new Hindi movie. It has a bhajan, a hymn to Ram, which includes the words 'Manse Ram jo nikaale Ram unke man men hain.' I made a mistake in translating it: the verb nikaalna means to take out, bring forth, or remove. I thought the line meant, 'even those who remove Ram from their hearts -- i.e., those who reject Ram -- Ram is in their hearts also.' But Ramesh said that it means 'Those who utter the name of Ram -- i.e., those who bring forth [the name of] Ram -- Ram is in their hearts.' No matter how much I think I understand, I still make such apparently elementary mistakes.

[update: I really shouldn't translate lyrics I listen to in the car, and then post them on this blog! Luckily, alert reader Sankalp pointed out that the lyric should actually be 'Manse Raavan jo nikaale Ram unke man men hain.' Raavan is a demon, Ram's adversary. I confirmed it -- it turns out that the CD has the lyrics tucked inside. So we go back to my original translation of nikaalna as removing something: Those who remove Raavan, i.e., evil, from their hearts, Ram is in their hearts. I have to say that I like my original (wrong) version much better. And I note that Shivani confirms that in my original wrong hearing, Ramesh's translation would also have been correct. So that takes care of that, I guess. *covers her scarlet face with her hands*]
Spent most of the day trudging around Spencer Plaza, a huge anthill of stores and people, the closest thing we have to a shopping mall. On the way in to the parking basement, I saw a funny sign:
Devdas never drove -- don't drink and drive.

More to come... probably.

Odds and Ends

I'm grateful to those who answered my request for comments on the poem I posted yesterday. It has helped me to clarify the way I read it. And the comments were good, and thoughtful, and a pleasure to read.

Hindi movie fight line:
I'll beat you into such a death that death itself will become exhausted!

A couple of links:
Moleskinerie slideshow, on Flickr
The Squared Circle slideshow, also on Flickr
Make Your Own Snowflake (because I haven't seen a snowflake for almost 20 years)

A little girl, begging with an even smaller boy, approached me as I was coming out of a shop. I told her to go away, but she stuck to me as I walked to the car, deliberately getting in my way so that I had to swerve to avoid knocking her down. Then she actually began to slap my arm lightly -- not very hard, just enough to provoke me. She didn't say a word. When I got into the car, she pulled on the door handle just as it was about to shut, so that it opened again and I had to slam it, and lock the door. Then she stood at the window staring at me, and slapping the glass. This is unusual: when beggars see that you aren't going to give them money, they usually move on to the next person. But this girl wanted to get a reaction out of me. And she did -- I can feel her hand slapping my arm as I write about her now. (I am inside the car, and she is outside hitting the glass, because God wants me to be happy.)

A Brief for the Defense

I was reading the November 15 New Yorker, and I came upon this poem:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

-Jack Gilbert

Okay, now that you have read this, please help me. I'm unable to catch the tone. Is he serious? Is it irony? It was the line, "...we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants" that first pulled me up. Maybe the fact that I don't share this belief kept me from being able to understand. Parts of the poem make sense to me -- I believe that one should try to face this terrible world with as much delight as one can muster. But should one give thanks when the locomotive of the Lord runs one down?

Is this really a brief for the defense? Or for the prosecution? I don't usually feel at such a loss. I'd be very interested in your comments on this poem, especially on what you think the author intended.

(Read twelve more poems by Jack Gilbert at the plagiarist poetry archive. I particularly like one of them, The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart.)

Pomegranates and Pepper

It's pomegranate season. I like to eat the ... what are they called? the juicy seed coverings ... with a spoon, but Ramesh loves dark purply-red pomegranate juice, dry and faintly sweet, seasoned with black pepper.

When I was a child, my mother gave me toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. When I grew up I exchanged the cinnamon for cardamom. When I entered this house, I learned about toast with sugar and freshly-ground black pepper, and I think that's the best of all.

Vendors stand by the roadside in Calcutta with their wares spread on a tray resting on a woven stand -- in this case, loaves of white bread; a brick of butter; sugar, and pepper. People on the way to the office stop and buy, keep their briefcases safely gripped between their legs, and eat bread and butter.

December Poo

A question for Tamil speakers: I had earlier posted a drawing of a flower from a tree that grows in our garden. In the comments, Raj suggested that the flower was one called December poo ('flower').

At the time I didn't think about it, but it suddenly occurred to me that this might be the flower referred to in Margazhi Poovai, a beautiful song from Mai Maatham (an amusing film, based loosely on It Happened One Night, which apparently didn't succeed at the box office. I bought the music because I was collecting everything by A.R. Rahman). Is that right? And by the way, if so, what is the December flower doing in a film called 'The Month of May'?

Two Things

Lakshmi went to the temple and brought back a plastic parrot for me. I had told her that I wanted a clay one to replace the one that broke, but this is what she saw, and this is what she brought:

It’s skinny, and has a worried expression. It appears to be pacing up and down, dragging its tail like a burden behind it. I feel sorry for this parrot.

I went to get my hair cut. The hairdresser is a Chinese woman from Calcutta. Usually I drop in without making an appointment, we nod and smile at each other, I sit in her chair, she cuts my hair quickly and efficiently, I pay her and leave. But this time she was in a chatty mood. She had just returned from a visit to her daughter, who is married and living abroad. She had eaten a lot – “I put on 2 kgs. weight, can you tell?” Like most people who return from abroad, and because the Christmas season is approaching, she had bought some liquour and packed it in her luggage. [Almost no foreign liquour is sold here legally (bootleggers flourish). Instead, we have something known as IMFL, “Indian-Made Foreign Liquour” – that is, locally-made scotch, gin, vodka, rum, etc. (I don’t think there is such a category as IMIL, but if there were it would include arrack; feni, made from cashews, from Goa; toddy, made from palm sap; and beer.) When returning from abroad, one is allowed to bring in two bottles – I think – of hard liquour; maybe a couple more, if it’s wine.]

The hairdresser had packed five bottles of liquour, which she listed for me. You take your chances going through Customs – sometimes they stop you, sometimes they don’t. She was unlucky. They told her that she couldn’t carry in so many bottles. Then, she said, “I don’t know why I became so stubborn. I said, ‘I only brought it in because Christmas is coming. If you won’t let me take it, I’ll break it right here on the floor and go.’ I could have just given them one bottle for themselves, that’s all they wanted, but I wouldn’t budge. I said, ‘Do what you want, I’m not giving.’ Then they cooled down. They said, ‘You should request.’ I said, ‘No, do what you want.’ And they let me go!” She flourished the scissors and laughed. “How was I so stubborn?”

In her enthusiasm she cut my hair shorter than ever before. My face seems to gape at me disconcertingly whenever I catch sight of my reflection. I’m hoping that it will be okay soon: Christmas is coming.

Things I saw today

A man preparing samosas

A tree shrine

Om Shakti Art Framing Works

Pipal and Strawberries

've been trying to paint a watercolour from a photo I took in Calcutta, of a broken brick wall with a pipal tree growing on top of and through it. Trying to mix the colour of the bricks, I produced something that reminded me of strawberries -- far from the dark, sooty colour I needed.

The painting looks ghastly, and I doubt that I can fix it. Still, trying ought to teach me something. I guess?

Here's the photograph:

It looks like Angkor Wat, not like something in the middle of a living city. Something so ordinary that no-one even sees it. (Though last week two separate people visited us from Calcutta, and both of them said to me, "Whenever I see a broken-down building I think of you.")

Sorting Ba's Things

When my mother-in-law, who was called Ba ('mother'), died, I wrote a series of poems about it. I've posted two of them earlier: Journeying and Uses for Wood. Here's another one:

Sorting Ba's Things

Sorting through cupboards in Ba's old room,
I tugged a stuck drawer open,
pulled the string of a small cloth bag, to find
pink and white grins of outgrown false teeth;
in another bag, spectacles, blinking in the light.

And there were her gods and puja implements -
incense sticks, oil lamps with wicks she rolled
out of cotton and ghee, small statues of Krishna,
elephant-headed Ganesh, Lakshmi the wealth-giver,
the book of slokas she chanted every day.

Sunday mornings she watched Mahabharat on TV -
a miracle in every episode - gods' stately progress
through the air, seated on lotus flowers;
towering demons with big bellies and walrus fangs
who laughed "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" just before
a hurled fire-discus struck them between the eyes
and they toppled like trees.
Sometimes I sat to watch with her,
and she would say, "Did you see that?!"

Dear Ba, by the end all the sets of teeth hurt you,
you wore them only for photographs,
and the glasses could not make the slokas clear.

May Lakshmi keep you beside her
on the silky petals of her pink lotus.
May Ganesh feed you the sweet ladoo he holds.
And when you are sated and sleepy,
may Krishna soothe you with the song of his flute.

A Death

Someone whom we knew died yesterday night. He was elderly, had been ailing in mind and body for some time, and died quietly in his sleep; so it was expected, acceptable. We went in the morning to his house. His body had been laid on the floor on a cloth, as is customarily done here. Another cloth covered his body, leaving his head visible. One rose garland had been placed on his chest. Except for the cotton stuffed into his nostrils, it was difficult to believe that he was dead. The overhead fan stirred the cloth, so that at times he appeared to be breathing. The furniture had been cleared away, except for a few chairs against the wall. His wife sat on the floor near his head, with several women around her. We also sat. She was calm, and chatted with us about her husband, things they had said to each other on the previous day. The front door was kept open, and I could see people moving up and down the sunny street. In an hour or so a priest was to come, to perform the last rites. Then our friend would be carried to the crematorium. In the evening his ashes would be immersed in the sea. To me, this is the simplest, most perfect way to deal with a death.

As I was writing this, tears began to stream down my face. Not for the man who died, but for death: its solemnity, death in the midst of life, acceptance, etc. etc. -- things that I can’t write about without falling into cliché. Then the doorbell rang. It was the generator repairman, who pretended not to notice that I was wiping my eyes and sniffling as I talked to him.

Two Things

Yesterday: so much wind that crows were blown all over the sky - while down below we played badminton like fools, chasing the shuttle around the court. We are superstitious about missing a day, even in such crazy weather.

It was Buddha Poornima, the birthday of Gautama Buddha (my last year's post); the birthday of the Sikh Guru Nanak; and the Tamil festival Karthikkai Deepam, a kind of sequel to Divali. Fireworks in the distance.

Rain morning and evening, the first since the sharp thunderstorm last week.

Thanks to Tilo for sending me a link to a paper on the ancient Tamil tradition of tauromachy, bull-baiting: Callikka··u — Embracing the Bull, Tamil Style. The paper also includes some translations of ancient poetry and folk songs referring to tauromachy.
A really interesting Dutch site: I Travel in Your Head
´Ik reis in jouw hoofd´ - I travel in your head - visual correspondent in Morocco is a project by visual artist Aline Thomassen and the Artoteek The Hague with sound compositions by the musician Lazaro Tejedor, in collaboration with Museum Het Domein, Sittard and GEM, The Hague...

For three months Aline Thomassen will work in Tangier and the surrounding province as visual correspondent.
In a journal of drawings she will share her daily experiences with the audience in The Netherlands via the internet. Lazaro Tejedor completes the picture of the day with current sound fragments from Morocco...

Aline Thomassen in known for here watercolours and paintings of Mediterranean women in strange, dreamlike situations. She has been inspired by her many and long stays in Morocco...

What Her Girlfriend Said

Here's another Tamil poem from the Sangam Period (100 BC - AD 250), from A. K. Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War:
What Her Girl Friend Said
to him (on her behalf) when he came by daylight

Playing with friends one time
we pressed a ripe seed
into the white sand
and forgot about it
till it sprouted

and when we nursed it tenderly
pouring sweet milk with melted butter,
Mother said,
"It qualifies
as a sister to you, and it's much better
than you,"
praising this laurel tree.

we're embarrassed
to laugh with you here
O man of the seashore
with glittering waters
where white conch shells,
their spirals turning right,
sound like the soft music
of bards at a feast.

Yet, if you wish,
there's plenty of shade
Narrinai 172

Main Hoon Na

We watched the DVD of a recent Hindi film, Main Hoon Na. (The English title, which is close enough, is “I’m Here Now.”) The film was advertised as a light-hearted tribute to the great days of the delirious masala film, the kind of film which has everything – brothers separated and reunited, a Mother, romance, action, desh bhakti (patriotism). A kind of Manmohan Desai film without all the rona-dhona (moaning-and-groaning). We found it delightful. It wasn’t done in the smirky way of some of the Bollywood self-parodies – it was played pretty straight, with the most understated acting I’ve ever seen from Shahrukh Khan. The songs were catchy. All was bright. By the time dozens of qawwals popped up to sing about ishq ishq ('love love'), we were completely sold. It was full of allusions to other Hindi (and western) films, but it was so much fun – and it has subtitles – that I think any non-Indian who is curious about Bollywood films would be able to enjoy it.

Speaking of desh bhakti: We used to know an army man. He had fought in several of India’s wars, and had medals for bravery. He and his wife would drop in unexpectedly, often after having a few drinks elsewhere. After all the helloing and such, he would sit down and say to me, in a gruff, military kind of way, “Desh bhakti! Play desh bhakti songs!” And I would dig out a recording of E Mere Pyare Watan (‘O my beloved homeland’), which is 1) a beatiful, haunting song, from Kabuliwala; and 2) the only Hindi song that I can actually sing every word of, from beginning to end.

Sometimes, after the Brigadier had had a few more drinks, he would suddenly stand up, put his glass on his head, and begin a slow, graceful dance. His wife would tell him angrily to sit down and stop making a fool of himself. But that’s another story.

The only Tamil film song that I could sing all the way through (but I've forgotten it now) was Adi Ennadi Rakamma, from an old Shivaji Ganesan movie. I knew you wanted to know this.

Links to other places

Thanks to Anand, who sent me the link for Seminar magazine. Its April 2004 issue was devoted to Changing Chennai. (I've met half of the contributors at numerous parties -- a reminder of what a small town this big city can be.) One of the articles, Two People, One Industry, sets one of my favourite films, Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, in the larger context of Tamil cinema. (This article is for Tamil cinephiles only, I'm afraid -- I enjoyed reading it, but realised that I'd seen only three of the numerous films it mentioned.)

A terrifically creepy spider (well, not creepy to Dinesh Rao, whose spider blog gave me the link.)

Download, cut out and assemble your own Punch and Judy playset. (Am I the only one who thinks of Punch whenever I see [Hindi filmstar] Saif Ali Khan?)

What's up in space? Find out on Space Weather.


In India, magicians look like this:

P. C. Sorcar Jr., an eighth-generation magician,
son of P. C. Sorcar

Jadugar ('magician') Anand, now playing in Chennai

Samrat Shankar

What I'm wondering about is whether the look - fake moustache and eyebrows, turban - is in imitation of Sorcar, the most famous Indian magician; or whether there is some older theatrical tradition, on which they all draw.

The Garden and Some Other Things

I’ve been walking in the garden and picking things up from the ground. The weather is lovely: breezy and not too warm – the best weather that there can be in Chennai. I found a sprig of eucalyptus leaves and seeds:

A slim, lightning-quick lizard darted away from me. They are much more attractive than the fat house-lizards – and are supposed to be poisonous.

One corner of the garden is less tended than the (not-very-tended) rest, and I imagine it as a bit of forest in the city. There is a flowering tree, whose flowers one hardly notices until they fall. When they are in season the ground is carpeted with them. Now I’ve begun to see just a few of them every day:

They are so delicate that they look as if they had been crushed. Their frilled petals are the palest lavender-pink, almost white, and they have fine pink lines which lead into the greenish yellow depths. In 1990 the tree on which they grow was blown over by a cyclone – or the fringes of one – but we managed to raise it up again. It has these fragile, crumpled flowers, but it survives.

When I was buying light bulbs and fuses to replace the burned ones last week (I go to a shop off Kutcheri Road, which sells electrical things in the front and tea in the back. The proprietor gave me a good cup of Nilgiri tea while I waited for my purchases to be collected and packed), I somehow got stuck in the maze of small streets that is Mylapore. One of the things I saw was a gaunt bullock, unhitched and munching on a small heap of straw and onions which the cartman had put out on the edge of its cart.

The refrigerator repair man was a young Tamil Muslim, with a white lace cap and a fringe of soft black beard under his chin. He was very polite – he called Ramesh Walid Sahib, which means “Respected Father.” When I offered him tea, because the main power switch had been turned off by electricians, and he had to wait, he said that he was fasting (it was the end of Ramzan). As he was leaving the house, he said to me, “Thinks good, life good,” which I took to mean that positive thinking is beneficial. (This was before the stabiliser which he supplied caught fire; but I appreciate his good intentions and his politeness.)

A Couple of Quick Things About Movies

A good piece by Suketu Mehta in the New York Times Magazine, about why a large chunk of the world loves Bollywood movies: Bollywood Confidential

Ramesh was describing to me an old Dilip Kumar film, Arzoo (1950).

At the end of the film there is a scene in which Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal are standing on the threshhold of a house, conducting a very intense conversation. People keep entering and leaving the house, the conversation is interrupted with polite greetings and good-byes, and then resumed. As soon as I heard this, I thought of my favourite scene in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998), in which the two main characters are standing in a dark hallway, with a swinging door behind them, conducting a very intense conversation.

Dil Se

People keep passing them in the hall, the swinging door opens and closes, making the light change again and again, very beautifully, and forcing the characters to break off their talk to speak to the passers-by. Is it a coincidence, or Mani Ratnam’s homage to Arzoo?

(I saw it on Mysterium) A lively website promoting Gurinder Chadha's film Bride and Prejudice. (Though it has a number of mistakes -- e.g., in the Cast section, Anupam Kher (male) was identified as Nadira Babar (female); and Namrata Shirodkar as Namarta Shirodokar.) This film was not a success in India -- did it do well in the exotic West?

Ghost World: Bollywood Noir - Essays on noir-inflected Bollywood cinema from the 1940s to the present by Gary Sullivan. (But there's only one essay there at the moment, about Kohraa.)

We saw an amazing film, No Man’s Land (2001), set in a beautiful meadow, literally in the middle of the Bosnian-Serb conflict in 1993. (The New York Times review) Eastern European filmmakers are masters of being funny and harrowing at the same time. You laugh, even though you know that there can be no good outcome. The film was so haunting that we watched it again the next day. It was very, very tightly written, nothing extra at all. It was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

Fire and Flood

The cheap clay parrot that I bought almost 20 years ago on a footpath in Delhi, I think, broke yesterday. Its head had an inquiring tilt that I liked very much. Lakshmi says that I can find another one near the Velankanni Church, or in Mylapore near the temple – where vendors sell trinkets to pilgrims. But the parrots that I have seen lately have been made of plastic.

Slightly higher up the scale of Disasters, domestic: Divali was last week. For most Hindus, it’s the major festival of the year. It means lights, and fireworks, and new clothes, and sweets. In our house we had a kind of anti-Divali. First, two days before, there was a terrible power surge. It damaged or destroyed many of our electric appliances (fridge, DVD player, printer etc.) … light bulbs that weren’t even switched on exploded with loud bangs and flame.

The day after Divali, there was a terrific - and rare - thunderstorm. Our gardener, who was supposed to keep leaves clear of the downspouts, hadn’t, so water built up in the terrace as in a shallow swimming pool, then burst inside and poured down the stairs like a waterfall.

The man who had repaired the fridge said that we needed a stabiliser, and that he could supply it to us. We agreed and he installed something that, in retrospect, was grossly underpowered, and made of an inflammable plastic. Two days after the flood, I heard loud banging noises once again, went to the kitchen and found the stabiliser burning like a torch and emitting heavy, tarry smoke. I ran back to where Ramesh was sitting and shouted, “The stabiliser is on fire! Do something!” Which he did. It wasn’t the way I had imagined myself responding to an emergency. I did better with the flood, giving more specific orders to the staff and throwing buckets of water over the parapet, as though we were sinking.

In short, we feel somewhat as though a cement mixer has been dropped on our hearts.

It’s hard to feel sorry for oneself these days, when so many terrible things are happening in the world. But I managed it by remembering a Gujarati poem, the gist of which is: When the sun, which seems so enormous, is a speck in a sky full of stars, who can say that the lamp in one’s house is not the sun’s equal?

Elephants Again

I guess I'm back. It's easy not to be back, but it's hard to quit, too. I value too much being forced to pay attention, to write (almost) everyday -- and the feeling that I'm communicating to someone -- to you, Reader.

I begin nice and easy, with elephants: it's time for Tamil Nadu's second annual elephant rejuvenation camp. Two articles from The Hindu:

To rejuvenation camp

Vellaiyammal starts its journey to Mudumalai on Tuesday.
Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

(From the article:) It's that time of the year in Tamil Nadu again, when captive elephants get to have a holiday, complete with good food, a daily bath — the works. Elephants from different parts of the State are now headed for the State Government-organised Mudumalai rejuvenation camp in Nilgiris district. ...

From Thanjavur, the granary of the State, Vellaiyammal, a majestic elephant of the Big Temple, left for the camp this morning. The elephant, which last year gave mahouts and other organisers of the trip a tough time before getting into a truck for the long trip, just walked into the vehicle at 7 a.m. ...

Gaja puja (elephant worship) was performed to Vellaiyammal ... A big flower garland and a dhothi were offered to the elephant and aarthis (worship with oil lamps) performed. The truck left at 8 a.m.....

Elephants begin journey (up to the minute info on arrangements made for the mahouts, the elephant that refused to get on the truck, names of elephants going to camp, etc.)

The Srirangam Ranganathaswamy temple elephant, Andal,
is all set to leave Tiruchi for the annual rejuvenation camp
at Mudumalai on Tuesday. Photo: R. M. Rajarathinam

I really am on hiatus, but ...

... I just wanted to clear the decks before November 1, the beginning of National Novel-Writing Month. (I tried it last year, got a third of the way through, and decided that my novel was unbearably drab, dull, etc. etc. -- in short, I gave up. I'm trying again this year, only with less advance preparation. If that makes sense. I'm retaining the thing I liked best about last year's effort, the title: Waiting for the Moonsoon.)

bananas and steel

On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, was assassinated by members of her own guard. I was in the Foreign Service at that time, working as the junior visa officer at the American Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan. I was standing at the desk of one of the Pakistani staffers, in the room just behind the visa window, looking through a stack of passports and visa applications. Then someone called someone, and said that the radio had reported that Indira Gandhi was dead.

An Inspector from the Customs Service dropped by the office to meet one of the staffers, and related some of the street gossip about the assassination. I said to him that it was strange news, and he replied, "Why is that strange? For a ruler there are only two paths, taj or takht." Taj means crown, and takht is a throne; but it is also the platform on which people are hanged.

kitchen shelf

Some weblinks that I've been saving up to post one of these days:

Use this animation to explore Picasso's collage 'Guitar', 1913. You can move the components of the collage around, to see if you can do better.

draw a girl -- this one you just watch, but it's so cool...

100 years of illustration and design -- a beautiful weblog, by an expert on the subject.

The artwork of Warren E. Saul (saw it on Everyday Matters) -- I've been looking at a few pages of this every day.
"For over 20 years, Warren Saul kept a daily self-illustrated diary he called "Sketchnotes." It ran to some 55 volumes, including many thousands of quick sketches, comments, and watercolors on all conceivable topics. His notebooks at times are reminiscent of an almost Leonardo DaVinci-like rambling, but entirely serious visual inquiry into the world around us. Sometimes, the drawings are just stream-of-consciousness cartoons done while my Dad sat at the kitchen table, at a meeting, or in a waiting room. He sketched from his car in a parking lot, or at a stop light or drive-up window. I like these the best. They are his take on his own life, seen through his own eyes."

Blogstreet's list of Chennai blogs

Coming Up For Air

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

I have been working on my painting and sketching.

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

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

angry chicken

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

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

dried eucalyptus twig and seeds

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


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

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

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

Milk of Magnesia

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

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

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

Three things from the badminton court

Okay, I'm going back inside now.

No Time to Play

I just don't seem to have much time to come out and play here. I'm going to take some time off. Thanks very much for coming. If you haven't read my archives: I've been getting the feeling that they're more interesting than what I've been writing lately - take a look.

See you one of these days (probably sooner than I think, judging from my one past experience in the hiatus biz).

bougainvillea petals, near the gate