Out of Station

Well, I'm off again. We're going to spend a couple of weeks at one of the southern hill stations. They've become ugly and over-developed in the town centres, but if you raise your eyes you can see landscapes like Chinese brush paintings (I wanted to post one, of trees bristling on a gentle hilltop, half-hidden in mist, almost monochrome -- but can't find it). And it will be COOL and I will feel COLD!

And when I get back I'm going to catch up on all the doings of all the people whose blogs I haven't been able to read lately... something I've been missing.

See you!

Nancy Willard

During April, which is Poetry Month, Knopf Poetry sends out a poem by email every day, from the authors whom they publish. If you’d like to subscribe, send a blank email to sub_knopfpoetry@info.randomhouse.com. The month is half over, but they’ll remember you next year, too.

A recent poem was by someone whose work I like very much, Nancy Willard: she is one of those who manages to make ordinary things extraordinary.

A Hardware Store As Proof of the Existence of God

I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east
like the steel woodpeckers of the future,
and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,
and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,
and bins of hooks glittering into bees,

and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,
and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,
and a company of plungers waiting for God
to claim their thin legs in their big shoes
and put them on and walk away laughing.

In a world not perfect but not bad either
let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,
caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,
and signs so spare a child may read them,
Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands, they can work wonders.

A Restless King

I’ve been reading an interesting book, The Heart of Meditation by Swami Durgananda (published by the SYDA Foundation). I had practised TM for several years in an earlier phase of my life, and I’m trying to get back into meditating. I was struck by this passage:
Indian tradition compares the mind to a king who has not been given a proper seat. Until the king is seated on his rightful throne, he will be restless, dissatisfied and even quarrelsome. Once he is seated, however, he becomes calm and begins to manifest his royal qualities… As we direct it toward its seat again and again, it will begin to settle down into it and eventually go there on its own.

Unfortunately, since reading it, whenever the inevitable thoughts arise, I imagine a king out of a Hindu mythological TV serial, wearing a gilded crown provided by Maganlal Dresswala, striding across my mind. A courtier approaches and says, “Please, Maharaj, take your seat.” Which makes me laugh. Not the way to get the restless mind to be still!

(This picture is from a comic book telling the story of Karna, a tragic and complex character from the Mahabharata; but the fashion statement is the same.)

Life Returns

So, I have a new motherboard. Humans really can anthropomorphise anything! There she sits, hidden inside a grey metallic cabinet, attached by multiple umbilicals to her stolid progeny. She is a mother who turns on her supplicants, and has a lifespan of five years or less. Yet I remain her slave.

A couple of days ago we visited The Park hotel, home of the most self-consciously modern decor in the city. I had recently written that the emblem of Chennai should be the plastic water pot: when we arrived at The Park, I saw that the window of its shop was filled with rows of water pots, glowing in the light like stained glass.

When I pointed them out to Ramesh, he said, "Chee!" disgustedly. Just the day before, we had been watching an Iranian film (Leila, in which the characters are wealthy urbanites), and he had remarked that the real definition of a Third World country is not just a country held back by poverty, but a country of extreme contrasts between wealth and poverty - a country that is two or three countries in one. The display seemed a representation of these extremes: the water pots, taken out of context, were presented as an amusing motif, and that was how I took it. But Ramesh saw them in context: poverty, struggle.
(I'm having computer problems -- so I may be off-line for a few days.)


I'm about to go out and pay the water tax. Since there's no water coming through the pipes, and hasn't been for most of the time we have lived here, I asked once what would happen if we didn't pay. Immediately the answer came: we'll cut off your sewage line. Very clever of them, to combine the two departments.

The emblem of our city should be a plastic water pot. When the newspapers want something colourful, they print a picture of the pots lined up, waiting for the water lorry. Since the last monsoon failed, there are more and more of them.

If we write a letter to the Corporation, they will send a water lorry around every night so that we can fill as many buckets as we can, without any charge beyond tipping the drivers. We see the lorries filling up all day long at the big, ugly water department that has come up nearby. Because there's not enough water to release into the underground mains, lorries drive from neighbourhood to neighbourhood: using precious petrol, often leaking water, tearing up the roads, doling out water by the bucketful.

Whether there is water in the mains or whether you buy water by the truckload, you need an underground tank to collect it. Ours holds 12,000 ltrs, the size of a truckload. You also need an electric pump, to pump the water up to your roof tank.

We buy truckloads of water from a private corporation, but lately the water has been as salty as our own well water. (We use the well water only for watering the garden, because we tested it, and it was declared unpotable... If our open well dries up, as has happened in many parts of the city, we will have to drill a deep borewell.) The other day I rejected a load, and phoned the company. I told the man who answered, "I want only sweet water, and you have sent me salt water." He pretended to be surprised. "Oh, you want sweet water? Okay, next time." I said, "No, not next time. Send me sweet water NOW." The driver got on the phone to find out what he should do with the load I had rejected. I heard him say, "Okay, I'll take it to the school." They get the water from private wells on the outskirts of the city, but these are getting increasingly saline because of sea water incursion, due to over-drawing of the groundwater.

Sometimes we buy 25-litre carboys of drinking water. We also have a machine called an Aquaguard, which is ubiquitous for anyone who can afford it. It has a charcoal filter, and it irradiates the water with ultraviolet rays. It kills bacteria, but doesn't filter out the salts and dissolved solids. There are many more parts per million of the latter than the standards set out for drinking water; so we are contemplating buying a reverse osmosis machine. That will sit on the kitchen counter, hooked up to the water pipe, and give us five litres per hour of what is called mineral water - actually 'reduced-minerals' water. We could also purchase a water-softening machine that would treat the water that we pump up to our roof tank; but we've decided that we can make do with bathing in our hard water.

One day I'll talk about what it takes to have fairly steady and reliable electricity! It's so expensive here, to live what the West considers a middle-class life.


This is from Snakeskin, the British poetry ezine. Helena Nelson is an excellent poet, and a generous one, too:
You are invited to become part of an experiment in poetry e-publishing. Re:United, a new verse collaboration by Helena Nelson and George Simmers, takes the form of an email correspondence between two fictional characters, Stan and Penny. It begins when Stan finds Penny's contact details on the Friends Reunited website, and gets in touch with her.

That was the only thing the authors decided before they began to write. The various letters gradually improvise the characters, the relationship, the back story.

So that you'll experience the unfolding sequence in something like the same way that the poets did, we have decided that the smartest way to publish this correspondence is as a series of emails from the two characters. We offer all readers the opportunity to add their e-addresses to a list of subscribers. Participating readers will receive one email letter/poem each day for a fortnight, from either Stan or Penny, and so will experience the correspondence more or less in real time.

If you would like to receive the poems, just mail to editor@snakeskin.org.uk with the subject line Reunited List.

This list will be used only for the purpose of publishing the Re:united sequence of poems, and will not be used for any other purpose or passed on to anyone else. Recipients who get fed up with the poems can remove their names from the list at any time.

Helena Nelson's latest collection is Starlight on Water, published by Rialto. George Simmers is editor of Snakeskin Poetry Webzine.

Vox Humana

My father was born on April Fools Day. I had a vexed relationship with him, which smoothed out only a few years before he died. As much my fault as his, no doubt - I find myself more like him than I wanted to be.

I wrote this poem about him:

Vox Humana

There's a cartoon: a man wrapped in a tuba,
its horn gaping above his head.
He sits across from a fortune-teller's
scarf-wrapped hair, hooked nose, hoop earrings.
She looks into her crystal ball and says,
"I see an empty neighbourhood."

Someone slipped it under our door
when my father bought the electric organ.
He would pull out Vox Humana for a heavy tremolo,
turn up the volume, and fumble
through Seasons in the Sun,
or Send in the Clowns.

The thing he knew best was that he had failed,
but he didn't know he couldn't play the organ.
He drove me crazy with his dreams, his pretentions.
When he was alive I made a clown of him,
told stories about him to my friends.

Now he seems like a man with a heavy tuba,
the Tuba of Failed Aspiration. He's sitting at a table,
staring at a crystal ball, hoping for anything
he hasn't seen before.