The Toy Train

The Hindu has a piece on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, known as the 'toy train' which runs up from Mettupalayam to Ooty: Chug along the mountain track


I love Poetry Daily. I don't always love the poems, but I liked today's very much -- by Srikanth Reddy, from his book Facts for Visitors.

I am about to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my expectation extends over the entire psalm. Once I have begun, the words I have said remove themselves from expectation & are now held in memory while those yet to be said remain waiting in expectation. The present is a word for only those words which I am now saying. As I speak, the present moves across the length of the psalm, which I mark for you with my finger in the psalm book. The psalm is written in India ink, the oldest ink known to mankind. Every ink is made up of a color & a vehicle. With India ink, the color is carbon & the vehicle, water. Life on our planet is also composed of carbon & water. In the history of ink, which is rapidly coming to an end, the ancient world turns from the use of India ink to adopt sepia. Sepia is made from the octopus, the squid & the cuttlefish. One curious property of the cuttlefish is that, once dead, its body begins to glow. This mild phosphorescence reaches its greatest intensity a few days after death, then ebbs away as the body decays. You can read by this light.


Rangachari Anand has written a good piece on how South Indian names work.

South Indian names confuse non-Indians, and even North Indians sometimes, because one's personal name conventionally comes at the end. In this example, Anand's father's name was Rangachari. But the naming system is flexible: Vijay Amritraj, the former tennis player, has reversed the order, putting his given name first and his father's name second -- as an adaptation to the western system. And sometimes, for example if one had a famous grandfather, the family might adopt that name as a permanent surname, dropping the father's name... Anand has done a good job of simplifying the matter.
We saw a Hindi film called Ijaazat, with lyrics by Gulzar. One song began,
The night has come empty-handed...

I found the lyrics at Alfaazh -- but the first line is lovely enough.

Several Things

When Gujaratis want to praise something, they may say, “Bohu fine che,” “It’s very fine.” I haven’t heard ‘fine’ in Tamil, but in the last two weeks two separate people, a courier and a parking lot attendant, neither of whom spoke English, told me that my Tamil was ‘super.’ (Both times I glowed as if a switch had been turned on, even though I had spoken only a few sentences. Expectations of foreigners are realistically low.)

We saw an old Hindi movie on TV. We came in at the middle, but it must have been directed by Manmohan Desai, who made the most ridiculous (or delirious, if you want to be positive) movies, full of everything – and therefore closest to ancient Sanskrit plays: comedy, drama, love, separation, songs and dances, union at the end.

The movie was called Daulat, Wealth. It had a villain, Amjad Khan, who was trying to recover some diamonds he had stolen and then lost sight of. There was a false Christian priest, who buried a dummy stuffed with the diamonds. Like most Christians in Hindi movies he had a funny accent, and called his parishioners “may chayld.” Because of his sacrilege, the cross flew down from the church steeple and stabbed him in the back, to the accompaniment of much lightning and thunder.

Raj Babbar and Vinod Khanna were brothers, separated at an early age – another sure sign that it was a Manmohan Desai movie. And as a bonus, the villain also discovered that one of the heroines was really his daughter, but only as she lay dying.

Each of the lost ones had a nishan, a sign by which he or she could be recognised: Vinod Khanna had a scar across his wrist. The heroine wore a locket with the letter J for Joseph, the villain’s real, but hidden, name. Just like the fish which swallows the crucial ring in the ancient Sanskrit play Shakuntala; which, when discovered, breaks the spell of amnesia on the king, and allows him to recognise that Shakuntala is his wife, and her baby his child. (Yes, and not just any child, but Bharat, the founder of a great dynasty, after which India was named. Come to think of it, Manmohan Desai never managed to top this ending.)


I was going through some old bits of paper and found this poem, which I probably copied from the New Yorker, before I ever imagined that I would be living half an hour's drive from Mahabalipuram. It's by contemporary writer and painter Gulam Mohammed Sheikh:


Man's dream here has a very sharp edge:
teeth-marks of the hungry dead
pit the flanks of domesticated beasts.
Staggering badly, a thirteen-hundred-year-old wind
passes between a sow's sagging dugs
and yesterday's sculptors' rough fingers,
straining to sink inside, are tugged
into the spotted feathers of hens, purposelessly alive.
Chameleons slumber at ease in the belly of rubbish
slime-covered frogs poke obscene fun at God
who sits exhausted on the steps;
peeping through a cypress's dry skin
giggle like fish,
and there,
fallen like a raw black rock
on a clump of wild flowers,
idle Satan
yawns and writhes awake.
--Gulam Mohammed Sheikh (from the Gujarati)

Poems for the Rainy Season

From Sanskrit Poetry From Vidyakara's Treasury, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls:
In the paddy field flooded with fresh water
where the frogs begin to croak
and where the prickly cane along the bank is whiter than heaped pearls,
the children, sticks in hands and smeared with mud,
run after the rising fish,
yelling "chubhroo, chubhroo!"

A cloth of darkness inlaid with fireflies;
flashes of lightning;
the mighty cloud mass guessed at from the roll of thunder;
a trumpeting of elephants;
an east wind scented by opening buds of ketaki,
and falling rain:
I know not how a man can bear the nights that hold all these,
when separated from his love.

The cloud by miring the road has spoiled the red lac of her soles
and with his rain has washed the cosmetic from her cheek;
but for these sins he makes quick recompense:
his lightning shows the wanton girl
the path that leads her to her lover's house.

Can you believe this?

US intelligence fears Iran duped hawks into Iraq war

I could laugh, if I weren't already screaming. And please don't miss Chalabi's eloquent response to the accusations against him:
Mr Chalabi has vehemently rejected the allegations as "a lie, a fib and silly".

Water Strategies

(The minute I declared a hiatus, my fingers began to itch for the keyboard. Let's see...)

An article in the paper recently urged people to emulate the Jains, who apparently (if they are orthodox) get by on one or two buckets of water a day – because they believe that using water kills the organisms in the water. Their extreme non-violence requires them to try to minimize the damage that they do. (It’s interesting that the majority of Jains today live in Gujarat and Rajasthan, both very arid areas where water conservation is a necessity.)

I went to the pumping station, to get our address added to the list of those who can fill buckets from the water tanker, which comes to our street every other day. The procedure for getting a full tanker load is ridiculously complicated, but once you’re on the bucket list, things seem to be automatic. BUT – you must have your buckets ready when the tanker comes; you can only fill each bucket once, at least in theory, and you have to give baksheesh to the driver (Rs. 5). And someone has to be available without notice when the tanker comes. I’m going out today to buy larger buckets – we’ve already dug out every receptacle in the house, including some large pots and pans.

At the pumping station: I walked into the small office, where one desk and a wooden table were crammed in with two wooden benches for supplicants. One man, the in-charge, wore a shirt and trousers and sat behind the desk, talking on the phone. Another man, clearly of lower rank – he wore shorts, a lower-class marker (unless you are very westernized, or are taking your morning consititutional, or playing tennis – and I’m talking about men – women NEVER wear shorts) -- stood up and invited me to sit on the bench. In this culture, this was correct behaviour. Then another shorts-wearer came in, took off his shirt in front of me, and lolled on the bench beside me. In this culture, this was disrespectful, and it made me uncomfortable. It was an assertion of power, I think: You need water, and I have it. I shifted away, pointedly, and waited for the in-charge to get off the phone. Which he did, eventually, and agreed, after reading my letter, to add us to the list. It was easier than I had expected – usually everything takes much more time and effort.

We’re again buying 25-litre carboys of drinking water (Rs. 65 per carboy). It tastes delicious, after our salty well-water.

No such thing as a free lunch department: Because we got some much-needed rain last week, cholera broke out in parts of the city. It mainly affects the poor, who can’t afford to boil their drinking water. The city has been handing out chlorine tablets and monitoring the affected areas; the number of new cases has begun to subside.

Something good: The monsoon has officially arrived, two weeks early. It rained hard for about 40 minutes yesterday afternoon. I stood on the front doorstep watching it, and listening to its roar. It was wonderful.

The Amul Ad, and Susan Sontag

Amul, which makes dairy products, has a long tradition of referring to current events in their billboards. Many are light-hearted. Some are not. This is the one I saw a couple of days ago, at the Mount Road / Commander-in-Chief Road intersection:

And this article by Susan Sontag in The New York Times Magazine: Regarding the Torture of Others

(And here's the link to the Amul ads, from 1976 to the present.)
Time for a hiatus, I think.

The Romance of Television

Y called and asked if we’d like to see a shooting, for a Tamil TV serial. We drove to his house around noon. It’s in a big compound -- a large house, probably built in the fifties; a much older house, now crumbling, with columns all around, and a jumble of smaller buildings. In the centre of a circular driveway was a silver-painted metal assemblage of lightly-clad reclining ladies, decorated with rust – a dry fountain.

We walked in past cameras, lights, reflectors, wires looped on the floor, a man sitting cross-legged on a red plush sofa: Y rents out part of the house for shootings.

The shooting we planned to see was in T. Nagar. At the location, two houses had been converted into several sets and an editing studio. But it was deserted, except for a few staff people. It transpired that the shooting we had planned to watch had moved on, to a house in Kodambakkam.

We went around one of the buildings. There was a drawing room -- a suite of red furniture in the centre, with very cheap-looking pictures around the walls; a large kitchen, a bedroom with a rather creepy, gaudy round bed. Upstairs was a ‘hospital’ – several small, white-painted rooms, with a red cross on the door, and posters of naked babies on the walls. There was an ‘office,’ and a ‘jail’ – which we couldn’t see because the key was with someone who wasn’t there. Everything was very dirty. There were several small garden areas, one of them containing two swings, side by side.

During lunch I asked questions: Y said that his crew consists of about 50 people, including actors and crew – cameramen, lighting men, dress and make-up people, caterers. Everyone eats the same food unless there’s a star, who can demand special food. The actors – except for the bigger stars, whose wardrobes may be sponsored by a local clothing store -- provide their own clothes. A continuity assistant tells them what scenes will be shot, and reminds them of what clothes they have to bring. And so on. I asked what the rate would be, if we wanted to give our house for shooting, and he said the standard rate is Rs. 5,000 a day.

We returned to watch the only shooting readily available, the one we had walked through earlier. There were three small rooms, one leading into the other from front to back, on the ground floor; and rooms off to the side that we didn’t see – except for one where crew members sat around a table playing cards. Camera equipment and lights and light-boards were scattered through the rooms, along with some heavy, carved Victorian-style furniture. The back door was open to a small verandah, where a number of actors sat waiting to be called. Beyond that was a formal area of lawn and some small bits of statuary; and beyond that a view of the sea.

In the middle room, technicians were setting the lights and cameras, getting ready to shoot a scene. An actor was dressed as a rich man from the countryside (I know this because I saw the movie Thevar Magan): oiled hair combed back, a red tikka on his forehead, a (fake) handlebar moustache and sideburns, a big diamond in each ear, white kurta, angavastram (a cotton towel worn on the shoulder), floor-length veshti. He read a newspaper, sitting on one of the Victorian sofas. He had to stand up and sit down several times, so that the lights and such could be adjusted properly. Cameras and lights were crowded around him; electric cords snaked around the floor. There was a small curved set of tracks with a platform for a camera and cameraman. I tried to stand somewhere out of the way, but every inch was in use, and people continually walked back and forth.

An actress appeared and the scene was rehearsed. She told him something, he jumped up and shouted something, they both exited. They had to do it three or four times, because the actress kept forgetting her lines. Then the scene was shot. The coming and going stopped, but nobody bothered to stop talking, because the sound would be dubbed in later. The scene was over in a minute, and the background activity resumed. Time to go.

A View of the Sea

I have a romantic view of the sea. I was reminded of that not very unusual fact just now, reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's memoir, Living to Tell the Tale:
... when I was three or four years old and making my first trip to Barranquilla, my grandfather had led me by the hand across that burning wasteland, ... and then, without warning, we found ourselves facing a vast extension of green water belching foam, where an entire world of drowned chickens lay floating.

"It's the ocean," he said.

Disenchanted, I asked him what was on the other shore, and without a moment's hesitation he answered:

"There is no shore on the other side."

Today, after seeing so many oceans front and back, I still think that was one of his great responses. In any case, none of my earlier images of the ocean corresponded to that sordid mass of water with its nitrate-encrusted beach where the tangled branches of rotting mangroves and sharp fragments of shell made it impossible to walk. It was horrible.
refrigerator magnet poetry: make your own poem. (It's for kids,so it has lots of animals and play words, but I'm having fun with it anyway.)
From The New Indian Express: A piece of past left suspended in the thick of modernity

SALEM: A whiff of the Raj days engulfs you as you enter the New Town Railway Station. Right in the heart of the bustling Salem town, it represents an isle of isolation separated from the present by at least 80 years.

As a train chugs into the platform it unleashes a flurry of activities in a clear throwback to the railway communication ritual of the 1920s. The driver throws a token-and-pouch ring onto it, which the station master collects. Then he puts the ball inside the pouch into the Semaphore Arm machine. This is the way to signal a train’s arrival to the next station.

An inheritance of the British system, long jettisoned elsewhere, it still survives here. Every year, an officer from the State Department of Weights and Measures comes to check the Semaphore Arm machines here and the ritual continues.
The characters here fit perfectly into a location suspended in a time warp. Station master R Ratnavelu is visibly excited on receiving us. Not many people drop by in the station that caters to two metre-gauge trains, twice daily, to give him company. He keeps looking on either side as if searching for words, starts talking and gets lost in it eventually.

At a high point in his speech, Ratnavelu proudly declares himself ‘‘a representative of the President of India’’. We smile politely focussing deep into the tea brought by a watchman.

If Ratnavelu does not meet wayward journalists like us, who take short-cuts across rail-roads, then the only people he gets to talk to are beggars and trespassers, he says.

Ratnavelu’s other companion at the work-place is the Chief Parcel Supervisor R Krishnan. Krishnan fondly recollects the days when the station was busy, before the Salem Junction took away half its work; a time when trains ran from this station to Egmore, Nagarpatnam and Thiruvarur, among other places.

He advocates vehemently the resumption of the routes. Parcels may also be sent to the surrounding places like Ayothyapattam, Karippatty, Udayapa, Yercaud and Namakkal. What’s more, trains from Mumbai and Bangalore, may go to the southern centres via Chennai, without having to go to Chennai at all.

He strongly feels it’s a waste that this station, given its location, has not been converted into a Broad Gauge one. The very fact that the station registers a daily earning of approximately Rs 1.5 lakh from the recently-launched computerised Passenger Reservation Service (PRS) counter is proof that it’s only awaiting the infrastructure to cater to the population of the city.

Krishnan is still searching for the foundation stone of the railway station in order to know when this "prestigious place" was inaugurated. Going by the manufacturing dates of some of the machines used here, the station is approximately 100-years-old, Krishnan says, pointing to the British clay titles on the ceiling.

Standing under the sprawling tree that shades the inside of the station, with dozing figures on the platform and not a signboard to give you a clue about the decade in which you happen to be - you’d never guess you’re in the heart of a busy town. Even the PRS booking counter, being in a far corner of the station, does not disturb the tranquility of the station.

The two friendly moustached officers trundling along also exuded an archaic air with their starched white cotton shirts and trousers.

The grandfather-style thick black-rimmed spectacles of one drags you deeper into the past. Ever wondered about being in a time capsule.

Images of semaphore arm signals

Pitfalls of Hindi, cont'd

Recently Ramesh advised me never to say, "Chor do," which means "leave it," or "never mind," or "forget it." He said that because the 'r' is retroflex, halfway between 'r' and 'd', and as I said it, it came out (apparently) sounding like "chod do," which means "f--- me."

So I felt some schadenfreude today, reading The Hindu, a newspaper written in English mainly by Tamil, not Hindi speakers:

Vikings unplugged: A tete-a-tete with Neeraj Shridhar on `Chod do aanchal', his foray into Bollywood and more

In the old Hindi film song "Chor do aanchal," the singer sings coquettishly, "Let go of my aanchal [the part of the sari which hangs over the wearer's shoulder]." Written this way it means, of course, "F--- my aanchal."

Lilacs in September

Shocked to the root
like the lilac bush
in the vacant lot
by the hurricane --

whose black branch split
by wind or rain
has broken out

into these scant ash-
colored blossoms
lifted high
as if to say

to passersby
What will unleash
itself in you
when your storm comes?

--Katha Pollitt

Several Things

We’re eating mangoes from our own tree for the first time – langras, from Calcutta. They’re small, and have a slightly chemical under-tang, but they are very sweet. They are kept in a cardboard box in the kitchen, layered with newspapers. A clearly defined band of air around them is filled with their fragrance. Whenever I walk through that band, preoccupied with something or the other, I come to with a jerk, think “Oh! Mangoes!” and go on.

Agni Nakshetram, traditionally the hottest period of the year, began last week. Luckily for us it was raining, so that it hasn’t been as bad as on some previous years. Someone told me that if the weather is good on the first day of Agni Nakshetram, it will be good throughout the year. Okay, I’m ready to believe in that! (My entry on Agni Nakshetram from last year.)

I have missed many birthdays in the last couple of weeks:

In the last week of April, the birthdays of Ramanuja and Shankaracharya, among the greatest Indian philosophers were celebrated, one day apart.

May 2 was id-e-milad-un-nabi, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad

May 3 was Narasimha Jayanti, the birthday of the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu

May 4 was Buddha Poornima, the birthday of Gautama Buddha (my post from last year)

And finally, today is election day in Tamil Nadu, a holiday. The staff have already voted – Mary and Lakshmi showed me the indelible ink mark at the base of one fingernail, which indicates that they have voted, and prevents them from voting again. I asked Mary how it was: in the past, people were urged to vote in a particular way, and even bribed for their votes. This time, she said, rifle-toting police were everywhere, and no one could approach her. She showed me how easy it was to vote with the new electronic voting machine – using the buttons on the microwave oven as a visual aid.

Electronic voting machines are being used for the first time, all over this vast country. There was a newspaper picture a couple of weeks ago – because voting has been spread out over several weeks – showing an election official, with his voting machines, climbing on the back of an elephant, to go to some remote polling station in the eastern hills. One of those perfect images, like the satellite dish being transported on a bullock cart.
I wanted to write something clever, or rueful, or quirky -- all half-feelings -- but I just can't seem to do it today. Here's an article from the Washington Post (via Follow Me Here):

A Wretched New Picture Of America: Photos From Iraq Prison Show We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

By Philip Kennicott

Among the corrosive lies a nation at war tells itself is that the glory -- the lofty goals announced beforehand, the victories, the liberation of the oppressed -- belongs to the country as a whole; but the failure -- the accidents, the uncounted civilian dead, the crimes and atrocities -- is always exceptional. Noble goals flow naturally from a noble people; the occasional act of barbarity is always the work of individuals, unaccountable, confusing and indigestible to the national conscience.

This kind of thinking was widely in evidence among military and political leaders after the emergence of pictures documenting American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. These photographs do not capture the soul of America, they argued. They are aberrant.

This belief, that the photographs are distortions, despite their authenticity, is indistinguishable from propaganda. Tyrants censor; democracies self-censor. Tyrants concoct propaganda in ministries of information; democracies produce it through habits of thought so ingrained that a basic lie of war -- only the good is our doing -- becomes self-propagating.

But now we have photos that have gone to the ends of the Earth, and painted brilliantly and indelibly, an image of America that could remain with us for years, perhaps decades. An Army investigative report reveals that we have stripped young men (whom we purported to liberate) of their clothing and their dignity; we have forced them to make pyramids of flesh, as if they were children; we have made them masturbate in front of their captors and cameras; forced them to simulate sexual acts; threatened prisoners with rape and sodomized at least one; beaten them; and turned dogs upon them.

There are now images of men in the Muslim world looking at these images. On the streets of Cairo, men pore over a newspaper. An icon appears on the front page: a hooded man, in a rug-like poncho, standing with his arms out like Christ, wires attached to the hands. He is faceless. This is now the image of the war. In this country, perhaps it will have some competition from the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled. Everywhere else, everywhere America is hated (and that's a very large part of this globe), the hooded, wired, faceless man of Abu Ghraib is this war's new mascot.

The American leaders' response is a mixture of public disgust, and a good deal of resentment that they have, through these images, lost control of the ultimate image of the war. All the right people have pronounced themselves, sickened, outraged, speechless. But listen more closely. "And it's really a shame that just a handful can besmirch maybe the reputations of hundreds of thousands of our soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines. . . . " said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday.

Reputation, image, perception. The problem, it seems, isn't so much the abuse of the prisoners, because we will get to the bottom of that and, of course, we're not really like that. The problem is our reputation. Our soldiers' reputations. Our national self-image. These photos, we insist, are not us.

But these photos are us. Yes, they are the acts of individuals (though the scandal widens, as scandals almost inevitably do, and the military's own internal report calls the abuse "systemic"). But armies are made of individuals. Nations are made up of individuals. Great national crimes begin with the acts of misguided individuals; and no matter how many people are held directly accountable for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible for what these individuals have done. We live in a democracy. Every errant smart bomb, every dead civilian, every sodomized prisoner, is ours.

And more. Perhaps this is just a little cancer that crept into the culture of the people running Abu Ghraib prison. But stand back. Look at the history. Open up to the hard facts of human nature, the lessons of the past, the warning signs of future abuses.

These photos show us what we may become, as occupation continues, anger and resentment grows and costs spiral. There's nothing surprising in this. These pictures are pictures of colonial behavior, the demeaning of occupied people, the insult to local tradition, the humiliation of the vanquished. They are unexceptional. In different forms, they could be pictures of the Dutch brutalizing the Indonesians; the French brutalizing the Algerians; the Belgians brutalizing the people of the Congo.

Look at these images closely and you realize that they can't just be the random accidents of war, or the strange, inexplicable perversity of a few bad seeds. First of all, they exist. Soldiers who allow themselves to be photographed humiliating prisoners clearly don't believe this behavior is unpalatable. Second, the soldiers didn't just reach into a grab bag of things they thought would humiliate young Iraqi men. They chose sexual humiliation, which may recall to outsiders the rape scandal at the Air Force Academy, Tailhook and past killings of gay sailors and soldiers.

Is it an accident that these images feel so very much like the kind of home made porn that is traded every day on the Internet? That they capture exactly the quality and feel of the casual sexual decadence that so much of the world deplores in us?

Is it an accident that the man in the hood, arms held out as if on a cross, looks so uncannily like something out of the Spanish Inquisition? That they have the feel of history in them, a long, buried, ugly history of religious aggression and discrimination?

Perhaps both are accidents, meaningless accidents of photographs that should never have seen the light of day. But they will not be perceived as such elsewhere in the world.

World editorial reaction is vehement. We are under the suspicion of the International Red Cross and Amnesty International. "US military power will be seen for what it is, a behemoth with the response speed of a muscle-bound ox and the limited understanding of a mouse," said Saudi Arabia's English language Arab News.

We reduce Iraqis to hapless victims of a cheap porn flick; they reduce our cherished, respected military to a hybrid beast, big, stupid, senseless.

Last year, Joel Turnipseed published "Baghdad Express," a memoir of the first Gulf War. In it, he remembers an encounter with Iraqi prisoners. A staff sergeant is explaining to the men the rules of the Geneva Convention.

" . . . What that means, in plain English, is 'Don't feed the animals' and 'Don't put your hand in the cage.' "

And then, the author explains, the soldiers proceed to break the rules. The ox thinks like a mouse.

"My vanquished were now vanquishing me," wrote Turnipseed, heartsick.

Not quite 50 years ago, Aime Cesaire, a poet and writer from Martinique, wrote in his "Discourse on Colonialism": "First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism."

Are we decivilized yet? Are we brutes yet? Of course not, say our leaders.


I love this picture, from today's Indian Express:

First of all, you might wonder why the gent on the left is wearing sunglasses while he fights the ancient Mahabharata war. Well, because he is M. Karunanidhi, of course. He and his late arch-rival, MGR, who was buried in his sunglasses, never look directly on the light of sun or moon.

Even more interesting is the fact that the Dravidian movement, of which Karunanidhi is one of the senior members, was originally firmly anti-religious. It has had to move gradually in the direction of religion -- since that's what people want -- but showing Karunanidhi's son Stalin (named after Joseph Stalin, naturally) as the god Krishna is really something.


We’ve had four days of heavy rain. It was amazing, I can’t remember how many years it’s been since it has rained like this. And it wasn’t a cyclone or a tropical storm, with their destructive winds, but a “well-marked depression.” Now it seems to be over, and the sun is blazing. But the garden looks green, with the dust washed away; and the water-level in the well has risen. Our rainwater harvesting system, installed late last year, has gotten its first real test.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch (Ramesh’s favourite American expression), so there were many power outtages and fluctuations. The Electricity Board has been known to turn off the power when rain is heavy, to avoid short-circuiting those silver-painted Rube Goldberg boxes, raw wires waving in the breeze, that stand on so many street corners, and get their feet wet when the streets are flooded.

Two skinny casuarina trees in the garden fell over.

Worse, the inflow to the reservoirs which feed the city has not, apparently, been very great – one or two days’ supply only.

But it’s been lovely.

Ooty IV

I went to Ooty for the first time as a student. I brought back two very sharp memories, or images, which have come back to me repeatedly:

1. We stayed at the Anandagiri YWCA. It was autumn, so the weather was much cooler than it is now. I wrote, “I am sitting in bed with my ferenand knee socks, with four blankets on the bed. In the morning a servant brings a pot of tea in a cozy on a tray, with warm milk and hot water in the cup to warm it. Shortly thereafter the bucket of hot water is brought to the bathroom. Some time after the bath we go out to the terrace for breakfast -- it's warm in the sun -- and eat porridge, egg, toast with real marmalade, and coffee (bliss after six months of nothing but idli-dosai-chutney).” Here’s the memory:
I'm sitting at the wooden writing table in my cold room, by the window outside of which I can see a hillside with fir trees at its base, then terraced vegetable gardens, then some stucco houses with red tiled roofs, then a steeply slanted green field with a red horse grazing, finally more houses and a strip of cloudy sky. It is quite close, this hill, and the fir trees are so tall that they go from the bottom of the window to the top, cutting across garden, field, houses, sky. The picture seemed quite still and flat a moment ago, but now the horse has been joined by another, both switch their tails as they graze, a man walks in a diagonal line up the hill, a bird flies across the top of the picture, I hear caws and twitters, and the sound of a car in the distance.

2. We took a bus to Kottagiri, a very small town slightly lower in altitude than Ooty. I wrote: “The road was full of hairpin turns and brief flashing views of valleys, all covered, from top to bottom, with terraced fields. The bus was full of the local people -- so silent! The men with their heads wrapped in scarves, the women often in what looked like a short sleeved blouse and two dhotis -- one wrapped around like a skirt but covering the breasts and tied with two wool sashes, one at the waist and one under the breasts -- the other dhoti being wrapped tightly at the head and then draped over the upper body -- the whole being covered with a wool shawl. The jewelry looked more "primitive" too -- big round discs in the nose, etc. The bus dropped these people off here and there, in the middle of nothing but fields and a cottage or two.” Here’s the memory:
Kottagiri, a very small town, steep streets surrounded by fields and tea gardens. The sun warm on our faces. We set off on a path which wound down past tiny shops, then houses, then cultivated fields, then tea gardens -- and seemed as if it would continue so forever -- down, down, down, past one lovely view after another. The path was covered with green grass, a stream ran beside it. Tea gardens really look like gardens, the tea plants are like box hedges dotted over the slopes with trees planted at regular intervals. I had such a desire to keep going forever, but time was getting on, so we sat on the grassy path beside a tiny waterfall and bathed in the sun. I wanted never to leave.

Ooty III

I saw an obituary notice in the paper, with the caption: “SAD DEMISE: Major (Miss) Mabel Miranda…” What a name! It should be a song, shouldn’t it? Or, at least, a limerick:
Major Miss Mabel Miranda
Did something outré with a panda…

Took a short walk on the lane leading above the hotel, where there was no traffic except for one man on a skinny horse. When we returned the horseman was waiting by the hotel gate, hoping for business. There was no one in sight, and he stood beside the horse, resting his head face down on the saddle, as if he were very tired. In fifteen days, I saw him only twice with riders, a pair of small boys whom he led on a round and back. If this is the high season for tourists – and it lasts for only about two months -- how do the horsemen manage to live?

Then down into the bazaar: to the entrance of the botanical gardens, crowded with tourists. Past a cheap Tibetan market: lots of Tibetans have been resettled here. I saw three Tibetan women, with their folded-over dresses and striped aprons.

St Stephens church: A plaque inside had a text that seemed beautiful to me: Roland Harry Rolfe…”he leaves a white unbroken glory, a gathered radiance, a width of shining peace under the night.”

Outside, the most ornate marker in the cemetery was a small sculpture of an angel in front of a wooden cross – “our dear son… born, baptised, departed at Tranquebar, March 20, 1884.”

The tea gardens are inter-planted with silver oaks, to give partial shade to the tea bushes. The tops are lopped off because the branches spread, and would give too much shade. Tea picking: the top two leaves and a bud.

We had lunch one day at a tea plantation: lovely food (appams and sambar and beans poriyal, and chicken curry and a fish baked dish and rasam and potato stew, and a vegetarian cream soup, finished by a luscious pineapple coconut pudding), an idyllic setting, but very isolated.

In the side garden was a magnolia tree. One of the staff reached up with a long pole and pulled down a flower, huge and creamy, with pale green on the outside of the outer petals, looking almost artificial, with a conical white centre and an almost lemony scent. I haven’t even seen one for years. I looked at it, and thought that it looked like an oil-painting; and that its scent was like lemon furniture polish. I couldn’t see it directly, as itself.

Green moss on stones, fallen scimitar-shaped eucalyptus leaves in shades of red and brown, and the silver conical eucalyptus seeds.

We drove to Dodabetta, the highest point in South India. To get there you have to pay Rs. 15 for the car, and drive up via many hairpin bends to a small plateau which has been made as ugly as possible. First you must buy another ticket for Rs. 2, then you pass reeking public toilets, then refreshment stalls, then a multitude of admonishing signs, dominated by this one, which begins, "Welcome to the prestine [sic] world of nature."

to arrive at a “telescope house” – a round, two-level observatory building. Rs. 3 to look through the telescope. Otherwise, you can walk around the rim of the plateau, and look out at Ooty, Coonoor, Wellington, Coimbatore, the Karnataka border:

As we drove away, more signs called out to us:
Do not throw your wastages here and there – please use waste bin

Help us to preserve the nature

We live by grace of forests
Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker: TORTURE AT ABU GHRAIB

Iraqi blogger Baghdad Burning, on the same subject

Ooty II

Night smells: wood-smoke and eucalyptus. A muezzin calling the azaan woke me before dawn, apparently determined to convince all of Ooty that prayer is better than sleep.

Psychedelic guitar solo from the speakers in the dining room at breakfast (khara bath with sambar, sweet lime juice and South Indian mixed coffee). The speakers are so bad that it sounds as if the (doubtless) bell-bottomed rock god with matted locks is actually playing a kazoo.

We took a car to the Fernhill Palace Hotel. It’s still being renovated, supposedly to open in May, so we had to ask permission to enter, and pay Rs. 200 for the privilege. Fernhill used to be a hunting lodge of the Mysore Maharaja; then it was a hotel, then it closed… now it will open again. The place was full of carpenters and plasterers; lots of very gaudy plaster of Paris medallions, painted harsh red and white, in all the rooms. Several small courtyards, carved cornices; moulded ceilings, wooden floors, small fireplaces in each room. The furniture a jumble of pieces in assorted styles, left over from the Maharaja’s days: art deco dressing tables and almirahs, upholstered chairs, sofas, loveseats.

(I have borrowed this picture of Fernhill from this site,
which also has a picture of the 'toy train' running up
from Mettupalayam to Ooty, and pickers in the tea gardens)

I had visited Fernhill in 1976. I was studying in Chennai, and went with two other foreign students to Ooty during the Dussehra holiday. I wrote:
… we walked into the countryside, not very far to go. The houses are stacked on the hills, and where the houses end are terraced fields, evergreens and eucalyptus trees. We walked past the small lake and into a pine reservation - still, green, cool. I brought back autumn-coloured leaves, licheny sticks, bits of gnarled roots.

On the way back we stopped at the Maharajah's palace, which has been turned into a hotel, for lunch. Rather unprepossessing outside, just low red stucco -- but very grand on the inside, so that I felt ridiculous, clutching my twigs and dead leaves. Lunch had just ended -- snacks were available -- so we were the only ones in a huge high-vaulted room, with eight waiters dressed to look like the Rajah’s retainers.

After lunch we asked to see an empty bedroom and were shown two, one with a group of blue satin furniture separated from the bed by a screen. The second room featured a stuffed elephant's head directly opposite the bed -- absolutely enormous, in a small room. Honestly! I imagined a cowering Thurberesque guest, peering out from behind the sheets, eyeball to eyeball with the elephant’s baleful glare.

I asked the man who showed us around about the elephant’s head. He said that it had been sent back to Mysore when the hotel had closed, but would return. Can't wait.

We drove on to nearby Coonoor and visited a small British-built church and cemetery. I took these pictures:

Look at the feet! Not very comforting, more as if some devil were carrying him off. Because of the miniature coffin I thought it was a child’s tomb; but the (British) occupant – obviously in the ground, not suspended in air – was 32 when he died. Not an unusually young age, in these old cemeteries.

The stone cross, carved to look like wood, was appropriately covered with real lichen. The whole place was carpeted with fallen leaves.

Seen at Coonoor railway station:

I assume that the paint job is Indian; but that the British are to blame for the fountain itself, and for those dimpled buttocks. The father of this fountain sits in the center of Ooty, an area hopefully named Charing Cross:

A remainder sale by a fountain manufacturer back home? Some connection to the other Charing Cross? What bearded sea gods, dolphins and oyster shells are doing in a hill station is beyond my power to imagine.

Ooty I

We went up to Ooty / Ootacamund / Udhagamandalam (what everyone calls it / what the British called it / the Tamil, currently official name) for two weeks. Ooty is in the Nilgiris (‘blue hills’), on the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

We flew from Chennai to Coimbatore, and found that the car which the hotel was supposed to have sent wasn’t there. Somehow, we weren’t surprised. We hired a taxi to drive us up into the hills. The drive takes about two and a half hours, of which the first hour is spent on the plains. As soon as you pass Mettupalayam, the road begins to rise. There are miles of areca (betel) plantations: groves of impossibly skinny palms with light-gray trunks, topped with small tufts of leaves, crammed together so that when you look you see everything in light-gray. Monkeys sit at the roadside, watching the cars go by and going about their business. Then the ghat (hill) road begins: a steep incline, the road bordered by cliffs, or opening out to views of tea gardens, eucalyptus plantations, forest.

On the (lousy) road map of Tamil Nadu which I bought at Higginbothams in Ooty, the road appears to be a straight line. But in fact, it was more like this: , ascending steeply, full of hairpin turns and switchbacks. My neck began to ache and I felt queasy by the end. When we were 12 km. From Ooty it began to rain heavily, making things more… interesting. A few years ago, we drove up in heavy mist and rain, no visibility at all, even when the driver turned on fog lights; so that buses, cars and lorries coming downhill suddenly emerged out of white nothingness, right in front of us. These things don’t deter the drivers, however. They overtake everyone they encounter, horns blaring like screams. You arrive with your heart beating fast.

When Ramesh tipped the driver, he touched the money to his forehead before putting it away.

From the hotel windows we looked out at rounded hills with trees bristling on top,

photo by Ramesh Gandhi

and dark smudgy clouds behind them. The strong fragrance of eucalyptus.

This is the near view from our bedroom window – except I’ve left out trees and shrubbery:

One feathery tree rises from the big block of windows in the front, and partially obscures some of the rooflines. It looks like a small village, but it is the health club, billiards room, and service block. It is a kind of construction which used to be more common than it is now: keep adding rooms as needed, and give each new addition its own roof. Red tile everywhere, and buff-yellow stucco. And green.

Behind the hotel, a large green lawn and a derelict-looking building. A neat, narrow bed of larkspur around one side; wilder-looking white-flowered shrubs on the other; on one side, grass seems to grow right into the house.

On the road outside the hotel, a small shrine, with oil-lamp glowing, under a tree:

A family of Tamils settled in Bombay sat next to us at dinner. They spoke a mixture of Tamil, Hindi and English which fascinated me. One man was talking on a cell phone: “Namaste, bolo, eppadi irrukku? Nalaikku I am in Coimbatore, phir Madras jaunga. Appuram, we return to Bombay…” I’m accustomed to Hindi-English; and to Tamil-English – but this was something new to me. Perhaps all Bombay Tamils speak this way?

We took a short walk inside the hotel property after dinner. Rows of fancy cars, mostly silver, humped in the darkness like sleeping animals. I asked the watchman where the drivers slept. He was surprised at the question. “In the cars!” Some of the them – Mercedes, Skoda – cost more than a modest apartment in the city.

Deep sleep in silence: no air-conditioner, no fan, the window open.

Features and Cautions

Just before I went on vacation, I acquired two new speakers and a subwoofer (what a name!) for my computer. They came with a supply of admonitions. Here are a few – as a place-marker, while I write up my vacation notes.

With built-in amplifier and perfect match of subwoofer and satellites deign, the system reflect the purity of sound and creates powerful sound effect.

Pretty shaped satellite speaker creates clear and gentle treble effect.

Front volume and bass control make it easy to adjust to your demanding level.


Don’t put the system in high temperature or humid environment, avoid from water and strong shock.

Don’t open the cabinet to avoid electric shock or other accident. In case of damage, please ask for professional help.

In case of long time not using, please plug off the power plug. ('To off' is a common verb, by the way -- as in, "Shall I off the lights?")

One Year under the fire star

On April 27, under the fire star was one year old. I’ve been having such a lovely time, writing almost every day. And reading, reading, so much terrific writing in other blogs. It’s been a wonderful year, except for my tired eyes.