When the mottled grey crab sidles through your gate
because it turned right, not left,
and has mislaid the sea,

and rears up and waves its claws
to say Come no closer;

when a lizard falls on your left shoulder
or you see a black buffalo
or a brahmin walking alone
but you cross the threshold anyway,

you've entered the world's house
uninvited. Your host
is polite, but he's looking at his watch.

You begin to stammer.
Crows drive the bright birds from your garden.
Your heart breaks.

All you can do is turn left, not right,
and tell the sea, "I have mislaid my life."

The sea will say, "Ssshhhhh,"
and "I'll welcome you, come,
we have eaten the same salt.

It seasons your tears, your blood.
You are already drowning."

When you find the sea
you know where you are.

From where you are
you can work out how to get home.
Monsanto's chapati patent raises Indian ire

Monsanto, the world's largest genetically modified seed company, has been awarded patents on the wheat used for making chapati - the flat bread staple of northern India.

The patents give the US multinational exclusive ownership over Nap Hal, a strain of wheat whose gene sequence makes it particularly suited to producing crisp breads.

Another patent, filed in Europe, gives Monsanto rights over the use of Nap Hal wheat to make chapatis, which consist of flour, water and salt.
Ire is putting it mildly. Foreign corporations come in and try to patent neem, which is a tree used medicinally for centuries; basmati rice; and now the wheat used to make chapatis. As the article says
Mr Sharma says there is little hope of the Indian government intervening to prevent the chapati being patented by Monsanto.

It simply cannot afford the legal fees, having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting a US decision to grant a Texan company a patent on basmati rice in 1997...
Tiruttani temple elephant treated at Chennai

CHENNAI: After nearly a week of intense discomfort, Valli (28), the Tiruttani Arulmighu Subramania Swamy Thirukovil elephant, will now breathe easy, thanks to a team of doctors from the Madras Veterinary College, who cured her of severe constipation....

Valli, a favourite of devotees at the Tiruttani temple for nearly 20 years, is more famously known as the little elephant who acted with Rajinikanth in the superhit Tamil film ‘Annai Oru Aalayam’ in the 1980s. ...

A team of doctors, under Dr K Amir Jan went to work and manually removed the excreta from Valli's anus. A total of eight kilos of waste matter was thus removed. Following this, Valli rapidly recovered her appetite....

Doctors who attended upon Valli said the problem had risen because she had consumed a lot of plastic material, probably along with the food offered by devotees...

Hasta Mudra

Via MetaFilter: a beautiful site, Hasta Mudra, about the history and significance of hand gestures in the Bharata Naytam style of dance. When you click on each of the sections, you hear its name pronounced in Sanskrit. There are video clips of dances dedicated to the gods Shiva and Krishna.

I studied Bharata Natyam here for two years at a famous school, Kalakshetra. I've always wanted to be able to write about it, but I couldn't see how to do it. This site give a very good idea of what it's about.

And here are the names, and photographs, and meanings of the one-hand and two-hand gestures.

Bhramara, the bee, from Bharata Natyam Mudras

(Part of the slokas from the ancient text Abhinayadarpana, which name the one and two-hand gestures, can be heard in the background of the Shiva video, at Hasta Mudra. Chanting the slokas while showing the appropriate gestures was one of the first things we had to do in our Dance Theory classes.)


I went out and bought some drawing materials yesterday. I can't draw. My father could, and my sister can, but my lines look so hesitant and lame on paper that I gave up long ago. Then, at Christmas in Bangalore, I met a very pleasant woman who paints watercolours wherever she travels, and does oil portraits while at home: Nira Spitz. She was painting a brass pot with a plant in it, in the corner of a lounge. Later, as we began to talk to her and her husband, she came to our verandah, and began painting the cottage across from ours. Here's one of the pictures she showed us from her notebook, of the Lake Palace Hotel, in Udaipur:

from Nira's Watercolour Gallery

Seeing her looking so contented and absorbed in her work, I said something inane like, "Gee, I wish I could do that." She immediately pulled out a drawing pad and pencil, and a big eraser (most important), and said, "Draw something simple - like two leaves. Don't try to draw too many things at once." So I obediently drew two leaves, belonging to a palm tree just beyond the verandah.

And I liked them. I decided to give myself permission to make stupid-looking drawings.

My first creation, last night, was a papaya in pastels. It could have been done better by a small child. And she would have had to explain to her Mommy that it was a papaya. But never mind. I'm going to do it.

(Yes, and I was additionally inspired by a cheerful weblog called Everyday Matters, which I read about in Mint Tea and Sympathy.)

We also went to a Homeopathic pharmacy in Adyar yesterday. There are three main systems of medicine here: western medicine, which is called Allopathy; Homeopathy; and Ayurveda, the traditional herbal medicine of India. (There is Yunani medicine, of Arab origin, in the North; and Tibetan medicine; but these three are the main systems available here in Chennai.)

Ramesh knows a lot about all three. He feels that homeopathy is very good for certain things, like skin diseases, asthma, migraine, allergies. He wanted to buy a particular medicine, but he saw that a homeopath had a small office in the pharmacy, so we went in to see her. The room was the size of a closet, in which the homeopath, an earnest young girl with pretty, soft South Indian features, sat behind a tiny table covered with a printed plastic cloth. Beside her on the table were a blood-pressure apparatus, a flashlight, a ledger book, and a Materia Medica, which she thumbed through as she questioned Ramesh. We squeezed into two folding chairs. There was a sliding panel between her room and the small pharmacy, so that she could pass prescriptions to them.

The thing about homeopathy is that it doesn't recognise diseases, only symptoms. So you and the homeopath have to go through a very long list of questions before the right medicine can be determined. Do you have pain here? Does it increase at night? Do you get irritable? Do you feel uncomfortable when you eat certain foods? Are you subject to stress? And so on and on. And the claim is that there is only one medicine for each particular problem. So if you take the medicine and it doesn't help you - and it's very slow-acting, it takes months - it can always be said that some symptom was missed out, and so the exact medicine was not prescribed. (There are other odd things about homeopathy as well - the doses are minuscule; the strength of the medicine is in inverse proportion to the size of the dose; like cures like: so if you have respiratory problems, you take something that causes respiratory problems; the same medicine might be given both for diarrhoea and for constipation.... It seems completely counter-intuitive to me.)

Ramesh joked with this rather serious young girl, which confused her, but she did eventually begin to laugh; and she persisted until she found the medicine she wanted to prescribe. It was the same one he had come to buy in the first place.

The pharmacy sold a number of tonics and such, as well as the pure homeopathic formulations. As I browsed the shelves, I saw a bottle labelled with a very pink set of lungs, for coughs and congestion. It was called Wheezal Mixture.
Has Mysterious Killer of India's Vultures Been Found?

I've been reading for several years about the decline of India's vulture population, and its consequences:
...over the last decade, populations of the Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus), and slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) have declined by more than 95 percent in Pakistan, India, and Nepal. Now, [animal] carcasses rot for days, raising quite a stink throughout the region.

"Any time you have an animal die of disease and its carcass sits around, it's a problem," said Oaks. For example, in India, the rotting carrion supports booming populations of feral dogs, which in turn spread rabies.

Additionally, vultures play an integral part of the Parsi "sky burial" ceremony in which human corpses are left out to be consumed by the raptors. The lack of vultures in places like Mumbai (known earlier as Bombay) is causing significant problems for this ancient tradition, said Oaks.
I had read that Parsis were even attempting to breed vultures in captivity. Now, according to several articles, scientists have discovered the reason:
...The culprit appears to be a drug akin to aspirin and ibuprofen.

In a study that sheds light on a decade-old mystery, Oaks, a veterinary microbiologist at Washington State University in Pullman, and colleagues link the vulture deaths to the recent and widespread use of diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that has become a popular treatment for ailing livestock throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The New York Times adds
... the devastation of vulture populations was the first clear case of major ecological damage caused by a pharmaceutical product.

There has been growing concern among scientists and environmentalists about the "vast amount of drugs that end up in the environment one way or another," [Dr. Oakes] said, but no effect of this magnitude.

A study in 2002 by the United States Geological Survey found traces of many different pharmaceuticals and "personal care products" — including steroids, insect repellents and many others — in the American water supply. The effect of these traces is unknown, but the concern is about the unexpected. One laboratory study suggested, for example, that antidepressants like Prozac could trigger spawning in some shellfish...

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

With the cool season officially over, and the weather inexorably hotting up day by day, this song inevitably comes to mind:
Mad Dogs and Englishmen
by Noel Coward

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire to tear their clothes off and perspire.
It's one of the rules that the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is much too sultry
And one must avoid its ultry-violet ray.
The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts,
Because they're obviously, definitely nuts!

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don´t care to, the Chinese wouldn´t dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one
But Englishmen detest-a siesta.
In the Philippines they have lovely screens to protect you from the glare.
In the Malay States, there are hats like plates which the Britishers won't wear.
At twelve noon the natives swoon and no further work is done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

It's such a surprise for the Eastern eyes to see,
that though the English are effete, they're quite impervious to heat,
When the white man rides every native hides in glee,
Because the simple creatures hope he will impale his solar topee on a tree.
It seems such a shame when the English claim the earth,
They give rise to such hilarity and mirth.
Ha ha ha ha hoo hoo hoo hoo hee hee hee hee ......

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it.
In Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the natives shun,
They put their Scotch or Rye down, and lie down.
In a jungle town where the sun beats down to the rage of man and beast
The English garb of the English sahib merely gets a bit more creased.
In Bangkok at twelve o'clock they foam at the mouth and run,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit deplores this foolish habit.
In Hong Kong they strike a gong and fire off a noonday gun,
To reprimand each inmate who's in late.
In the mangrove swamps where the python romps
there is peace from twelve till two.
Even caribous lie around and snooze, for there's nothing else to do.
In Bengal to move at all is seldom ever done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

I found the text here -- there's also a link to the first chorus of the song, sung by Coward himself.
Didn't you always want to know how to build a sword-cane?

What His Maid Said

He's a monster, how much can I take? He wakes me up in the night to tell me, "I'll bring three women into the house, I'll pay two lakhs apiece for them, I'll put them in three bedrooms, and I'll do this to the first one and that to the next one, and show you also, you'll have to treat them all well."

Yesterday there was a six-year-old girl, and he said, "I can sleep with her too if I want to." I say, "Why do you tell me this?" I want to go back to my village, but he'll follow me there. I'm only a servant, what can I do?

Several Things

Suddenly there are too many interesting weblogs. I just saw a very funny piece in Patang! (what a nice name - it means 'kite') - Pakistan's President Musharraf is abandoned by his carpool after the second assassination attempt.

Then there is kitabkhana ('bookroom'), a blog about books which I read about in a Scotsman article about literary weblogs, which I read about ... somewhere.

A Moving tribute to the poet Nissim Ezekiel, who died recently: Nissim Ezekiel: 'you missed out a comma in the fourth line' by Menka Shivdasani (not a weblog, but I read about it in Kitabkhana.)

A beautiful piece in Alembic, which is part of Ecotone's latest group blogging assignment, Coming and Going.

Cassandra Pages visits a greenhouse on a freezing winter day.


We had a surprise meeting last night, with an American friend who lived in Chennai some years ago, and is here for a visit. She had lived for many years in Africa, and had a wonderful collection of African art.

photograph by Ramesh Gandhi

I wrote about her house and the art for the Indian interior design magazine, Inside Outside. One of the pieces was especially powerful (I'm quoting myself):
...a fetish from Burkina Faso, made to trap an evil spirit (fetishes may be made to contain benevolent spirits as well). This one is a wooden figure surrounded by a thicket of bronze spikes which have been hammered into it and linked with cord. G says that when she first installed it in her house in Africa, whenever she came near it she felt ill. So she put it in the garden (over the objections of her gardener), talked to it, and gradually, over a period of days, moved it closer to the house and finally inside, where it was no longer harmful....
When G was getting ready to leave Chennai, she asked Ramesh to take pictures of the art. He took a number of pictures, and finally G asked him to shoot the fetish from Burkina Faso. She said that no man can touch it, so she positioned it and then, to Ramesh's surprise, began to talk to it. She said, "Don't be angry, I'm just moving you for ten minutes to this place, no one else will touch you, and after ten minutes you can rest." Ramesh began to take a picture of it, and -- yes! -- the camera broke. G put the fetish back immediately, again speaking softly to it, and apologizing for the disturbance.

Last night I asked her about the piece. She said that she still has it, but now she keeps it in a glass case, to make sure that no one can touch it.

William Gedney Photographs and Writings

Like so many wonderful things, this is from Wood s Lot:
India, 1969-1971 and 1979-1980

Priest, Banaras

William Gedney Photographs and Writings

From the mid 1950s through the early 1980s, William Gedney (1932-1989) photographed throughout the United States, in India, and in Europe....These photographs, along with his notebooks and writings, illuminate the rare vision of an intensely private man who, as a writer and photographer, was able to reveal the lives of others with striking sensitivity. Included here are selections from Gedney's finished prints, work prints, contact sheets, notes, notebooks, handmade photographic books, book dummies, and correspondence.

Selections from thirty-three of Gedney's handmade books and notebooks are included here along with a typescript and a number of loose pages of miscellaneous writing.

Brooklyn and India, 1969-1971

India Daily Diary, 1970-1971

Plotting for Bollywood

From the BBC: Plotting for a Better Bollywood
Improbable tales of true love overcoming desperate odds are a hallmark of Bollywood, the Indian film genre watched by millions worldwide.

But all is not well in its world of singing, dancing heroines and moustache-twirling villains.

The global fame of the Bombay film industry might have grown in recent years, but profits are falling fast.

The blame, say critics, lies with the hackneyed, highly predictable plots.

Film after film often features near-identical storylines, masked by little more than a fresh cast and new song-and-dance routines.

In an effort to bring new plots to Bollywood, an Indian Government-funded body has announced plans to hold a nationwide competition for the five best film scripts. ...(more)

Out and Back

I drove to the dentist and saw a delicate, prancing white cow, painted on the blue door of a water-lorry. A woman rode pillion on the back of a motorcycle, in a wine-red churidar-kameez. Her gold-bordered dupatta was pulled over her head to cover her face completely, like a monk's cowl. A graceful draping of cloth, a mere allusion to the hidden body.

Passing the huge hoardings which advertise jewellry shops, you would think Chennai is a city of gold. Pale, beautiful women wear gold bangles stacked to the elbow; gold belts; necklaces; chains of gold across their hair. They are apsaras, celestial beings who live in the sky, while our dull, ant-like forms struggle below.

The dentist's office: clean, modern, hushed. The victim patient faces a floor-to-ceiling window, beyond which is a crowded courtyard garden of palms and bamboos. On one wall is a photograph taken by Ramesh - a separate climate, another kind of vegetation:

photograph by Ramesh Gandhi

A little pain, some chit-chat, then release into the balmy air and empty sky of the end of the cool season. Masses of glowing bougainvillea - they flower most profusely when there is not enough water. Traffic, and hoardings, and the beach. Stands being put up, shielded with palm-leaf matting, for the Republic Day parade on the 26th. The bottle-neck of Santhome High Road, opening out at Foreshore Estates and the estuary, and home.


"No. 124 Hippies In India"
(Indian postcard, probably 1970s)


(Northern India Transport Train)

Wot makes the soldier's 'eart to penk, wot makes 'im to perspire?
It isn't standin' up to charge nor lyin' down to fire;
But it's everlastin' waitin' on a everlastin' road
For the commissariat camel an' 'is commissariat load.
O the oont, O the oont, O the commissariat oont!
With 'is silly neck a-bobbin' like a basket full o' snakes;
We packs 'im like an idol, an' you ought to 'ear 'im grunt,
An' when we gets 'im loaded up 'is blessed girth-rope breaks.

Wot makes the rear-guard swear so 'ard when night is drorin' in,
An' every native follower is shiverin' for 'is skin?
It ain't the chanst o' being rushed by Paythans from the 'ills,
It's the commissariat camel puttin' on 'is bloomin' frills!
O the oont, O the oont, O the hairy scary oont!
A-trippin' over tent-ropes when we've got the night alarm!
We socks 'im with a stretcher-pole an' 'eads 'im off in front,
An' when we've saved 'is bloomin' life 'e chaws our bloomin' arm.

The 'orse 'e knows above a bit, the bullock's but a fool,
The elephant's a gentleman, the battery-mule's a mule;
But the commissariat cam-u-el, when all is said an' done,
'E's a devil an' a ostrich an' a orphan-child in one.
O the oont, O the oont, O the Gawd-forsaken oont!
The lumpy-'umpy 'ummin'-bird a-singin' where 'e lies,
'E's blocked the whole division from the rear-guard to the front,
An' when we get him up again -- the beggar goes an' dies!

'E'll gall an' chafe an' lame an' fight -- 'e smells most awful vile;
'E'll lose 'isself for ever if you let 'im stray a mile;
'E's game to graze the 'ole day long an' 'owl the 'ole night through,
An' when 'e comes to greasy ground 'e splits 'isself in two.
O the oont, O the oont, O the floppin', droppin' oont!
When 'is long legs give from under an' 'is meltin' eye is dim,
The tribes is up be'ind us, and the tribes is out in front --
It ain't no jam for Tommy, but it's kites an' crows for 'im.

So when the cruel march is done, an' when the roads is blind,
An' when we sees the camp in front an' 'ears the shots be'ind,
Ho! then we strips 'is saddle off, and all 'is woes is past:
'E thinks on us that used 'im so, and gets revenge at last.
O the oont, O the oont, O the floatin', bloatin' oont!
The late lamented camel in the water-cut 'e lies;
We keeps a mile be'ind 'im an' we keeps a mile in front,
But 'e gets into the drinkin'-casks, and then o' course we dies.

Rudyard Kipling, Barrack Room Ballads

(update: Once again, Mirabilis comes to the rescue, with a link to a Popular Mechanics article, How to Control a Runaway Camel. What is that word for cosmic coincidences?)

Evening Raga

Remembering sandesh, its creamy / grainy texture, my mouth and nose flooded with the taste and smell of rosewater.

Surrounded by recorded music of the sarangi, I remembered how the instrument looked, lying on my carpet in Lahore, more like a sculpture than an instrument, knobs protruding at odd (to me) angles, too many strings. The scratch of bow on strings was so concrete.

Jasmine flowers. Darkness and sound and scent. Too much wine.
Two links to photographs of India from Wood s Lot:
Photographs of Agra, Allahabad, and Fatehpur Sikri from

Photographs of rural and tribal India by Marcus Leatherdale

Manifestations of Shiva

I just found this great link, thanks to rouquin ricain's journal: Diana Eck's lecture on Manifestations of Shiva. The lecture is broken into video clips, with an accompanying slide show.
In this program, Professor Diana Eck introduces us to the mythology, imagery, and pilgrimage places of the Hindu great god Shiva. With video from the course Hindu Myth, Image, and Pilgrimage and an accompanying interview, the program follows Professor Eck as she approaches Indian civilization through her exploration of Shiva and his holy family, grounding understanding of this culture in the landscape of India.
I heard Eck lecture years ago -- she was very good, and extremely knowledgeable. Her book Benaras: City of Light, is also excellent -- scholarly yet readable.

Life Update

Bahadur came back from Arani after only two days. Mary reported that he had donated all his money to the temple (he had borrowed Rs. 1,000 from another watchman) and felt no better, so came back.

I've praised Mary's kolams so much that they're getting larger and larger. Kolamavu (rice flour) is showing up more often on the grocery list, and they're beginning to look as though one should not step on them, lest one fall right inside to somewhere.

On Saturday we made what turned out to be a stupid decision, to take visiting friends to Mahabalipuram for lunch. On the way we noticed more traffic than we had expected, and realised that it was Kaanum Pongal, the final day of Pongal, when one goes out and visits people, or goes on family outings. The East Coast Road is full of entertainment spots, so Mayajaal was jammed, and VGP was jammed, and so was Dizzee World, and so was the place where they used to have performing dolphins, until they all died. (The poster now shows a seal balancing a red ball on its nose; that's all I can say about it.)

At the outer edge of Mahabalipuram, where we planned to have lunch, there was full police bandobast (a nice Persian compound - the 'o' in the middle is an 'and' - it means literally 'binding and fastening' - but is used to mean arrangement, management, system...), and we were sent on to the Pondicherry road. We thought we could turn into the town at the next side road, but instead we were herded, along with many minivans and busses full of cheerful people, onto a large field which had been converted into a temporary parking lot.

We tried to get information from several policemen, and from local youth who tried to collect Rs. 20 from us to enter a place we didn't want to enter. When we refused, one of them banged the palm of his hand on the car again and again, with a terrible, angry face. Finally I got out and applied my Tamil to a policeman, who said that the whole town was full because of 'Kaanum Pongal function,' and all the roads were blocked. If we wanted to enter, we would have to go 'by walk.' Otherwise we would have to turn back.

Well we did, and this time the policeman at the first bandobast allowed us to go to the hotel for lunch. We had a good lunch, almost alone, because it was so hard to get in; strolled near the beach for awhile, and made a second bad decision, to have tea at Fisherman's Cove on the way back.

Fisherman's Cove was also very crowded. We decided we'd better really start back before it got dark. As soon as we drove out of the gate, a group of children surrounded the car, chanting "Pongal kaas (cash)! Pongal kaas!" We had to wait for them to tire of us before we could go on.

As we drove the road became more and more jammed, mostly with vans and trucks stuffed with poor people; and motorcycles carrying families of four. The car got scraped twice, once by a Share Taxi - a tin box on the structure of an autorickshaw; and once by a motorcyclist who dislocated the side mirror. We finally got back, very late, feeling as debilitated as ancient mummies brought to horrified life, and wishing to return quickly to the silent peace of the tomb.
Arundhati Roy's speech at the opening Plenary of the World Social Forum in Mumbai on January 16, 2004.

A remembrance of the great Urdu short story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, in the latest Friday Times (free registration required).


The Washington Post's Sunday column Poet's Choice has this poem, by William Meredith:

What it must be like to be an angel
or a squirrel, we can imagine sooner.

The last time we go to bed good,
they are there, lying about darkness.

They dandle us once too often,
these friends who become our enemies.

Suddenly one day, their juniors
are as old as we yearn to be.

They get wrinkles where it is better
smooth, odd coughs, and smells.

It is grotesque how they go on
loving us, we go on loving them.

The effrontery, barely imaginable,
of having caused us. And of how.

Their lives: surely
we can do better than that.

This goes on for a long time. Everything
they do is wrong, and the worst thing,

they all do it, is to die,
taking with them the last explanation,

how we came out of the wet sea
or wherever they got us from,

taking the last link
of that chain with them.

Father, mother, we cry, wrinkling,
to our uncomprehending children and grandchildren.

Several Things

Delhi Art Gallery

Who knew that The National Fossil Wood Park is in Thiruvakkarai, near Pondicherry?

Google referrals:

Dussehra sex -- this is like Easter sex, or Purim sex. What's the connection?
dravidian jodhpurs -- jodhpurs were, of course, invented in the Rajasthani state of Jodhpur, far from the Dravidian South. Can't imagine that any such thing exists.
crows rule -- yes indeed
shoe some tamil cinema actor picture -- um...

Sugarcane is part of the Pongal harvest
(detail from a photo in The Hindu)

Mango Blossoms

The mango tree which leans over our badminton court is bursting with flowers, more than ever before. Each time I see them I remember the song from Kalidas' great play Shakuntala. The unfaithful lover is compared to a honeybee:
Once in your passion for its honey trove
mango blossoms shook to your embraces;
now content to dwell with the lotuses,
have you forgotten the earlier love?

Sanskrit plays are a lot of fun - there's a jester, and a sutradaar, who introduces the play and tells you what's going on. There are songs and dances, just like in Indian movies today. And there's no such thing as tragedy. Things get sorted out by the end.

I looked for a translation of Shakuntala on the Net, and found one here (in PDF format). It's a nineteenth century translation, by Arthur W. Ryder, and is a bit flowery. There's a more modern translation, by G. N. Reddy, here.

Anyway, try it - it's a very pleasant window, open to a sensuous, lyrical, different world.

Happy Pongal

Today is Pongal, a harvest festival, and the major festival of the Tamil year.

Yesterday was Bogi, when people clean their houses and burn old things. Nowadays people also burn tires - although the police have tried to crack down on that practice, which is very hard on people with lung problems - as well as wood and cow-dung. When I came downstairs yesterday morning, I looked out the window and saw everything grey with smoke. I thought there must be a big fire somewhere, but I couldn't see anything - the sun was pale, red, and barely visible. I asked Mary if she knew what had happened, and she laughed and said it was Bogi, and everyone was burning something.

There's a nice article explaining the meaning and practices during the four days of the festival at, along with a recipe for the sweet, sakkarai pongal, which everyone makes today. One has to let the milk boil over, to signify plenty, a successful harvest.

I love the third day of Pongal, Maatu Pongal, when people who own cattle bathe and decorate them, and paint their horns. There is something very attractive about a freshly decorated bullock.


There's another, even more decorated, bullock, and a personal look at Pongal by an outsider, at the interesting City of Boiled Beans.

While I was looking for a painted bullock, I stumbled on a set of good travel photographs, of Chennai and farther south, here.

Mary made a special kolam for Pongal today, and decided to include a message in English, which she doesn't know. So if you come to visit me, you'll find 'HAPPY POGAL' written at the doorstep.

Angkor Wat

Kenro Izu's photographs of Angkor Wat at Sepia.

Using a custom-built large format view camera that produces a 14 x 20 inch negative, Kenro Izu has been creating unforgettable images of ancient temples and stone monuments from around the world since the early 1980s...

Nissim Ezekiel

The poet Nissim Ezekiel died in Mumbai on January 9, at the age of 79.

The Journal of South Asian Literature. v. 11, which is online as part of the Digital South Asia Library, includes a biographical sketch of Ezekiel, a number of his poems, and articles about his work.

Here is a link to his poem The Night of the Scorpion.

The Mid-day obituary includes a couple of short poems. Here are two:
Irani restaurant instructions

Do not write letter
Without order refreshment
Do not comb
Hair is spoiling floor
Do not make mischiefs in cabin
Our waiter is reporting.

Poster poems

I’ve never been a refugee
Except of the spirit,
a loved and troubled country
which is my home and enemy.



    Here's Ba in black-and-white,
    waiting for the whistle's shriek, the forward lurch.
    She's going to meet her brothers, attend a family wedding.
    Widow's white sari, grey hair pulled back,
    one lens of her glasses shining, opaque.
    Part of her body is half-erased
    by light from the compartment window.
    The rest is in shadow.

    In a film, the camera would pan now,
    in a blur of compressed time, rushing
    to her next journey: the hospital,
    the cremation ground.

    She joked that her ticket to death was booked,
    only the berth was not reserved.
    When the time came she changed her mind,
    dug in heels too weak to hold her.

    Let this photograph replace the memory
    of her departure. Its shadows hide terror,
    confusion, descent into coma.
    Her destination is the obliterating light.
A page of links to Indian art galleries, from Punjabilok.


Two weblogs that I like, When I Paint My Masterpiece (an Indian woman in Calcutta) and Chai and Apple Pie (an American woman in Pakistan), have vanished. It's most disconcerting - I don't like it at all.

Bahadur, the Nepalese watchman, suddenly announced two days ago that he was going on leave for a while. He speaks a mixture of bad Tamil and bad Hindi, so it took me a while to understand, but he said that he was going to a temple at Arani, here in Tamil Nadu. He said that he had so many illnesses, and they were all caused by Shaitan - the devil. He had heard that he could be cured at this temple.

Mary says that he has 'gas trouble' (in English) because he eats fish at 3 a.m. (he's on night duty, so that's not surprising), and six eggs at a time. He won't go to a doctor because he insists that it's not gas but jadoo (black magic). She also thinks he'll be back soon, because Arani is a village town, and he won't find it easy to stay there as an outsider.

I'm afraid that his real problem is unhappiness. He wants a wife and a family, and he's not likely to get them. The subcontinent is full of men who have been forced by poverty to leave their villages to find work elsewhere. Even those who are married must usually leave their families behind, and hope to see them once a year or even less often. Bahadur hardly hears from his remote village in Nepal any more. He had a brother there, who died. He is very much a stranger here. He is far from bright. His paralyzed hand prevents him from getting a higher-paid job as a watchman at a factory or office, which might make him better marriage material.

What god can solve his problems?

Several Things

Laughing Knees has an extremely interesting piece on The Last Samurai, as viewed by someone with intimate knowledge of Japan.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people here. When I have infrequently visited America, it has looked like a film set: brightly lighted, unnaturally clean, and empty. Where is everybody?

It has come in the news recently that more than half of India's more than one billion people are under the age of 25. That kind of statistic calls up in my mind a frightening image: a photograph of dead-eyed child soldiers from one of Africa's war-torn countries. Then I realise that it's not the same at all. In those countries, so many adults have been killed that there aren't enough to teach the children how to be human in society, whereas here traditional values and structures are still very strong.

Edward Hugh, in Living In India, has written an economist's take on this statistic, An Area of Darkness, Part III. (The piece also reminded me again that I'm living in one of India's model states: Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala are lowest in birth-rate, as well as highest in literacy, so the demographics are less skewed here.)

(Via Mirabilis) a parody of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky using Indian food names: Chapatiwocky.

This reminds me of a Tamil parody of the Indian national anthem that someone taught me many years ago. I've forgotten the middle part. Can any Tamil speaker help me out?
Janangalin manangalil pasi pini pattini
Paarungal ithuthaan India....

(many names of Tamil foods)....

Kaapi! Kaapi! Kaapi!
Suda suda suda kaapi!
(Please don't shout at me if it seems disrespectful! Think of it as historical research.)
Forty-one fascinating photographs of old Madras. Thanks, Rajesh.

On C. P. Ramaswamy Road

A while ago, I went out to take pictures on C. P. Ramaswamy Road. Two days ago I drove down that road and found that one of them has been painted over:

His name, according to the painting, is M. Selvam (a generic kind of name -- selvam just means a man [wrong! -- see update below]), and from the garland surrounding him, I would guess that he is dead. And now he has disappeared behind a layer of white-wash. I meant to ask someone who he was, but I didn't. The open shirt looks like that of a working man, perhaps a driver. The luxuriant moustache is old-fashioned and countrified. It is mainly worn, at least here in the city, by policemen.

Here, a block away, is the Tamil film star Sharatkumar:

As I was taking this, a man beckoned to me from around the corner. He wanted me to photograph him with his dog. So I asked him to sit in front of a sign for an autorickshaw stand.

The bench is for the drivers to rest on, and Lord Ganesh protects them on the right. (As soon as I took the picture, he held out his hand for it. I said, "It doesn't come instantly. But I'll give it to you when it's ready." And I did, and he saluted me, and gave me the most beautiful smile.)

Update: I am really grateful when people correct me -- I know that I'm bound to make mistakes. So, thanks to Ravages, of Selective Amnesia, who tells me that "Selvam, in Tamil means wealth, prosperity and cattle, depending on the context. Parents sometimes name their first born male child Selvam."

Update 2: Tormented by the thought that M. Selvam might actually be Nakeeran Gopal, as suggested by Ramnath, I belatedly rushed to the site, and put the question to a couple of gents who were squatting on the footpath. They told me that M. Selvam was an autorickshaw driver -- there's an auto stand nearby -- who was killed. This was a memorial to him. And they also gave me the good news that the picture will be renewed shortly. So that's all right. (And while I was out I dropped in at Sangeetha for bonda / sambar / chutney and Kumbakonam coffee. So that was all right, too.)

Marriage Bands

I love the bands that accompany North Indian wedding processions, or baraats. They usually play Hindi film songs, mixed with western standards like 'I'm Getting Married in the Morning.' They blare and are often out of tune, but they wear spiffy uniforms, and they add a lot of liveliness to the proceedings.

Once, in a Calcutta hotel room, I heard a marriage band. K said, "The baraat is coming." I went to the balcony to take a look. There was the band, and the light bearers, and well-dressed people dancing with their hands raised in the air. Last came the groom on his white horse. He wore a red turban, and was draped with heavy white flower garlands. The baraat stopped at the gate leading to the hotel. The band played, people milled around, a few people came out of the hotel and approached, then went back inside. I asked K what they were waiting for. She said, "The bride's mother has to come and put tilak on the groom's forehead, and invite him in. I don't know why it's taking so long."

Finally the bride's group did come out, the groom dismounted and entered with his party. K laughed at him, because his garlands were almost dragging on the ground. The white horse and the band remained outside the gate. Just as they began to move away, we heard another band, more drums. Another baraat was approaching like a plane circling an airport, now cleared for landing.

The first band re-grouped, and began to try to outdo the newcomers. They blew their trumpets with frantic bwaaaaas, and beat the drums faster and faster, but the other baraat continued to approach. It had a bigger band, with a fancy banner carried in front. Someone held a red royal umbrella on a long pole over the bridegroom and his horse. As the members of the first party went into the hotel, their band gave up and slunk away.

Bandwallas, by Naina Kanodia (from the Taj Magazine)

(Some more information about Naina Kanodia is available at Art Today Gallery and Artists Without Borders.)

Oyin Shaap

The state government is always up to something with regard to the liquour business: it allows bars to be opened, then closes them. It suddenly tells all the wine shop (that's what liquour stores are called, although they almost never sell wine) owners to bid for their vending licences at auction. Then it calls for new auctions. Every time something like this happens, a great deal of money changes hands. And the government blocks some products made in other states, so that we never get Riviera wines, made in Maharashtra; or Grover wines, made in Karnataka; or Kingfisher Premium beer. (Plain Kingfisher, which we do get, is good; but Premium is great.)

So, recently the government announced that it would henceforth sell all liquour from its own stores, and shut down all the wine shops. I've driven past a couple of the shabby-looking places, with their green and white government signs, but haven't stopped.

When the newspapers refer to these events, they never talk about the shops' 'customers:' they always use terms like 'tipplers,' 'guzzlers,' 'drunkards'...

One term which seems to have gone out of fashion, sadly, is 'boozard.' It sounds Elizabethan to me, and it was common at one time.

Another thing I will miss, unless the government does another flip-flop, is the term 'wine shop.' I like it because, when transliterated into Tamil, it becomes 'oyin shaap.' I don't know why, because it's possible to transliterate it as 'vaayin shaap', which works better for me. But oyin shaap is certainly more fun to say.

Oh for the good old days, when this guzzler could stagger down to the oyin shaap for a bottle of Honeybee Brandy! What kind of world are we living in, anyway?

Breakdown of the day: Two light switches have to be replaced, because ants have made a home behind them, and eaten the wires to dust.

Park Street Cemetery

Ecotone's current blogging topic is Cemeteries. Here's my contribution:

Park Street Cemetery was inaugurated in 1767, the oldest cemetery in Calcutta. Inside the gate the maintenance staff, three or four men, sat idly on a charpoy. The mausoleum nearest the exit was being lived in. It was furnished with a cot, a plastic water pot, a few pieces of cloth.

Mausolea shaped like houses were crowded together amid tall crotons and palms. It was like coming upon ancient ruins in a jungle. There was a skyline of domes and flat roofs and towers, all the same brown cement with chunks fallen away to show the red brick structure, built for the most part along wide paths. Everything was green and damp. The tops of monuments, urns and such, were broken off and lying on the grass. Shouting boys played cricket among the graves. There were cawing crows, and intermittent sounds of traffic from Park Street.

One of the biggest tombs - pyramid above pediment - contained the body of "Elizabeth Jane Barwell - 'the celebrated Miss Sanderson' aged about 23."

The most elaborate tomb belonged to Rose Aylmer, who died in 1800 aged 20. The poet Walter Savage Landor wrote a poem to her, which was inscribed on her tomb:
Ah, what avails the sceptred race!
Ah, what the form divine!
What every virtue every grace,
Rose Aylmer, all were thine...
Mrs. Martha Goodland, 21 March, 1785, aged 23:
If ever Tears deservedly were Shed
If ever Grief was due to Virtue Dead
Thy Merit Martha and thy Spotless Ways
Claim Tears from all, for all allowed them praise
Thy Strength of Mind we scarce shall meet again
Shewn through a long, most agonising Pain
Thy warm affection as a Wife or Friend
Make all who knew you weep your cruel End
Cruel Alas - but this one thing were sure
Those Virtues that in life you held so pure
Will be repaid - This Thought and this alone
Your friends have left to mitigate their Moan
Whose Heart is torn is wretched while he lives
And only prays one day to reach that shore
To meet his Martha and to part no more.

I liked the home-made verses - they made me feel that real people had written them and grieved. As in all British cemeteries in India, there were too many graves of young wives, and very young children.

When I left, a gang of young boys was half in and half out of the gate, shouting and laughing. An old Anglo-Indian man drove them out and said to me, "They won't listen! They're animals!"

Out and Back

Thanks to those who wished me Happy (several things). I wish you the same.

We're back, after two weeks of vegetating in Bangalore, in the most beautiful cool weather.

As we went through the airport security check I scanned the list of prohibited items. I found that, in addition to hatchets, knives, and so on, one must not carry betel nut cutters on board.


I've seen people sit down after dinner with a betel nut cutter - something like a nutcracker, with blades - and a betel nut - about the size of nutmeg - and expertly shave off thin slices to chew. I wouldn't think of taking one on a plane, though. Trains, yes: Most of one's time in a train is spenting eating something or the other. It's one of the reasons to go by train.

We returned to see Mary's kolam in front of the gate, and at the door.

She's turned out to be expert at making the rice-flour patterns. They begin with a grid of dots, which are connected in an amazing number of ways. She told me excitedly one day, just before we left, that a group of foreign tourists had walked down the street, photographing the kolam at every gate.

I've spent today dealing with real life: I ordered a truckload (12,000 litres) of water, because none has come through the pipes in these two weeks; called Palani the repairman, because one of the hot-water heaters has conked out (he says it's because the water is too salty); called the washing-machine repairman, because something has gone wrong (he will also blame the water quality). Ramesh used to say that we should name our house Breakdown House, but this isn't too bad.

There's a funny ad for chewing gum on TV these days: A man is annoyed at another man, and comes charging wrathfully toward him. Then he smells his intended victim's fragrant gum, and begins to smile. Embracing him, he sings an altered version of a (beautiful) Hindi song:
kyo~ itna muskaraa rahe ho
kya gham hai jis ko chupaa rahe ho

Why are you smiling so much?
What sorrow is it that you are hiding?
The commercial alters the second line slightly:
kya gum hai jis ko chabaa rahe ho

What gum is it that you are chewing?
It's clever, funny, and another example of the current fashion of mixing English and Hindi.

Two Conversations

L: When I was in college, they said, 'She's like a champa flower.' It took me a while to realise what they meant. (nods significantly)

Nancy: Champa is related to jasmine, right? So it must be a compliment?

L: It's mixed. You know what they say about champa: its fragrance is so strong that even snakes can't go there. So the meaning was that everyone was attracted to me, but I was standoffish, so they could not approach me. I used to wear a rose in my hair every day, and every day one boy would come up behind me to smell it. I knew he was there, but I never turned around.

D: A couple of years ago our landlord came home and said, 'I need five lakhs (Rs. 500,000).' He is a government official. He has several houses and a number of office properties, which he rents out. I said, 'Why do you need it?' He said, 'My corruption trial is coming up, and the judge says he'll acquit me if I pay him.'
That's an almost-perfect corruption story. (Another gem was when a friend's son described how he met a purchase officer at a factory where he wanted to sell a product. The order was given, and as he was leaving the purchase officer said, 'Be sure to send my bribe by registered post.') But I've heard so many such stories. They tire me now.
From The Hindu of December 21, a passionate and well-written article: The colour of our passports
Stopped from boarding a flight to London, recently, TABISH KHAIR reflects on how the new rule for transit visas had nothing to do with terrorism but everything to do with the terror of people with the wrong colour of passport.