Out of Station; and Zombies

We're going out of town for a couple of weeks, during which time I will assiduously avoid the computer.

I wondered what to post today, and suddenly I felt like re-reading Donald Barthelme's story, 'The Zombies.' You probably all know it already; but in case you don't, it's here.

...If a bad zombie gets you, he will weep on you, or take away your whiskey, or hurt your daughter's bones. There are too many daughters in the square, in the windows of the buildings, and not enough husbands. If a bad zombie gets you, he will scratch your white paint with awls and scarifiers. The good zombies skitter and dance. "Did you see that lady? Would that lady marry me? I don't know! Oh what a pretty lady! Would that lady marry me? I don't know!" The beer distributor has set up a keg of beer in the square. The local singing teacher is singing. The zombies say: "Wonderful time! Beautiful day! Marvelous singing! Excellent beer! Would that lady marry me? I don't know!" In a high wind the leaves fall from the trees, from the trees. ...

Rain Theft

At one point in my life I was crazy about science fiction. I avoided the swashbucklers and the flying dragons for the most part, but read just about everything else. I remember how depressing I found John Brunner's books, especially Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up -- which imagined a near-future of deadly over-crowding, pollution, and almost non-existent resources. I must go back and read them again, I think: things that are happening now keep reminding me of him. Here's an example which is especially poignant to me, in this country on the knife-edge between barely enough water, and drought. (The latest Union Budget includes a big seawater-desalination project for Chennai, but when and whether it will actually materialise is a very open question.):

Cities fall out over cloud

Chinese meteorologists are accusing each other of what could prove to be one of the defining crimes of the 21st century: rain theft.

The use of cloud-seeding guns, rockets and planes to induce rainfall has created tensions between drought-plagued regions, which are competing to squeeze more drops out of the sky than their equally arid neighbours.


"The practice has caused considerable controversy in recent days, with some saying that one area's success with rain has meant taking moisture meant for one place and giving it to another," China Daily reported yesterday.

The paper cited the case of central Henan province, where five arid cities are racing each other to induce precipitation. When clouds passed over the area last Saturday, Pingdingshan enjoyed a downpour of more than 100mm, but Zhoukou had to make do with less than 30mm. Meteorological officials in Zhoukou accused their counterparts in Pingdingshan of intercepting and overusing clouds.

Legal experts are now calling for the government to draft laws on cloud-farming, but scientists say the technology's effect is not yet clear enough to measure and regulate.(more)

(There have been some attempts at cloud-seeding in Tamil Nadu, but I don't know if they've ever succeeded. For one thing, you have to have clouds to seed; and they can't be blowing so quickly out to sea that they've passed over the land before the seeding takes effect; and so on.)

Marriage and Indigestion

A friend dropped by, yawning because he's been going to weddings every day. The mahurtham (wedding ceremony) is usually at about 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, because that's the most auspicious time; then there are receptions, and processions to temples (for Tamils) in the evening; and more informal gatherings like mehndis (originally North Indian, but now adopted by some Tamils) during the day. He said, "I haven't slept for days, because I have to get up at 3:30 every morning to get ready to go to the mahurtham. And my wife is refusing to cook -- she says we'll eat at the wedding." I said, "But wedding food is usually pretty good." He said, "Yes, but you can't eat all that more than once a day," rubbing his stomach.

Ramesh disapproves of, and refuses to attend, weddings: he thinks they should be private affairs, not huge productions with just you and your 500 closest friends (this is the definition of a small wedding -- the big ones have thousands of guests). Our friend at first defended weddings, but then began to laugh and agree: "The main thing is that we meet all the relatives whom we don't really want to see, but are obliged to meet occasionally. We greet them, say insincerely, 'You must come home sometime,' and leave quickly before they have a chance to accept."

There's a rush of weddings right now, because the Tamil month of Adi starts this weekend. Adi is inauspicious for new beginnings, so people with wedding plans are in a hurry to get them over with before it begins.

My Wounded Heart

Ramesh often quotes snatches of Hindi film songs -- romantic, melancholy -- and I usually understand them. But yesterday, we were putting on our shoes to play badminton, and he said,
jo khushi se chot khaaye
voh jigar kahaan se laun?

I began to translate it. 'chot khaana' literally means to eat a wound, but the 'real' meaning is to be wounded. 'Jigar' literally means liver, but is generally interchangeable with the heart -- in its emotional sense, not the organ. You can call someone your beloved liver, or your liver-friend -- just substitute 'heart'.

So I translated, 'From where can I bring a heart which is happy to be wounded?' No. Close, but no cigar. It should be 'How can I learn to endure (laugh in the face of) suffering?' It broke my head open, and still Ramesh had to tell me.

In the morning a Tamil friend -- with whom I generally speak English -- had called, and began, for fun, to speak to me in elaborate, filmi Tamil, all rolling phrases. I knew he was saying something very simple, like, "What are you doing? Have you had breakfast?" but my brain just locked up, and I said, "I'm sorry, but you'll have to say it in English." He said, again jokingly, "You are the Tamil expert, and I have to ask you what you had for breakfast in English?" I said, "You'll have to say it in servants' Tamil, that's all I'm good for."

That kind of day.

Female infanticide, and too many people

Population of India to overtake China's within 30 years
India's population will overtake China's as the world's largest in 30 years, according to data released yesterday, despite the continued assault on the female population in a society in which bearing male offspring is still paramount.


However, the sex ratio for children up to six years has slipped from 945 females per 1,000 males in 1991 to just 927 females 10 years later, indicating that despite government measures, such as a ban on sex determination tests, female foeticide is still widely prevalent. Many girls are also killed in infancy.

According to recent research, 90% of the estimated 3.5m abortions in India each year are to eliminate girls.

"It's like Prohibition - after the ban, the whole business of tests and abortions has gone underground," said a population activist, Prabeen Singh. "Families are now also resorting to traditional methods to get rid of girl children, such as herbal poisons."

Until now, it was believed that the bias against girls was especially acute in the countryside, where the high child mortality rate, combined with the prestige gained from having a male child, the need for wage earners and the prohibitive cost of marrying a daughter heavily tilted the scales in favour of sons.

But the census has come up with a startling statistic - the sex ratio in the national capital region of Delhi has plummetted to just 865 girls to 1,000 boys, well below the national average. In one district in Delhi, it has dropped below 800.... (more)


I just couldn't resist posting this picture of the late, great actor (or Thespian, as such people were often called) Shivaji Ganeshan, in one of his famous roles, "Veerapandiya Kattaboman":

It accompanies a reminiscence of Shivaji in The Hindu, An Actor and a Gentleman.

He was a very big actor, trained to act in stage plays that travelled from village to village, where subtlety is lost -- but he was physically tiny. Each time I look at this picture, it makes me smile.
One of those things that floats around the Internet. Can't translate it without losing the charm:
Aahat si koi aye to lagta hai ki tum ho.
Hawa koi lehrayi to lagta hai ki tum ho.
Ab tum hi batao, kya tum kisi BHOOT se kam ho?

I did a search for listening to Carnatic mucis, and found this huge site: Carnatic Music Krithi Audio Archive -- I'm just dipping into it, it looks like a treasure trove.

Lots more stuff at Carnatic Central.
Via wood s lot (an excerpt from a fascinating article -- read it!):
Translating Tamil Dalit Poetry - [PDF]
Anushiya Sivanarayanan
World Literature Today

For the past two years, I have been involved in a project to translate Tamil Dalit literature into English. (Dalit is the collective term for the “untouchable” castes of India.) ... Initially, I had planned on getting a professional translator to do the work involved and actually spent a whole summer in India meeting prospective writers and translators who expressed an interest in my proposed book. All the men I met were professors of English in city colleges who had translated Tamil Dalit writing before. Except for one, none of them were of Dalit origin, but then, neither am I. In fact, one of the initial reasons I felt uneasy about even trying to translate Tamil Dalit poetry was my uncomfortable awareness that I was attempting to take on the task of interpreting and illuminating voices of a culture that had for centuries been silenced by those belonging to my caste groups and class....

... Dalit literature is an entirely new genre within Tamil literature, and Tamil scholars -- many of them non-Dalit -- find themselves scrambling trying to find a new poetics for this emergent literature...

... [N. T. Rajkumar, a Dalit poet, says:] "Our gods are jungle gods. Their stories and even their statues are now being tamed to make them fit mainstream Hinduism, especially now, with the Hindutva movement aggressively taking over our local temples. These men find the statues of our gods too wild, in some elemental fashion, as if their very mode of address goes against the patriarchal bent of the Hindu scriptures. So our goddess statues, with their Kali-like, dark-stone images have been covered in sandalwood past -- as if by turning the black stone into yellow, the narratives could also be changed..."

And here, from the same article, is a poem by N. T. Rajkumar:
For the family
to gain religious merit
in the next life,
they fed the poor full of rice.
Then, when the girl from Kollathi
began to wash the dishes
in the back lot,
she was forced into intercourse.
After feeding on her
the Brahmin promised to come
in his next life, too.
She killed herself and
now comes
as the goddess of Kollangottu,
screaming for human sacrifice.

Lusting after women and gold,
he married the dancer with lies of love
then stoned her to death
amid the thorns of the cactus fields.
You are my witnesses, she cried
to the cacti as she died.
The dark-blue goddess of the cactus fields
demands blood-filled rice,
transmogrifies into the midnight
goddess Isaki.

I've Spent Years

I’ve spent years
in another country,
learning songs you’ve never heard.

What is it that rises
like the scent of attar
from the whispers of consonants,
breath of vowels;
the word which enters
from behind the curtain of a line,
to make the listener sigh with pleasure?


The harsh wind asked me,
what are you writing in the sand?

I answered: I am a ruined garden
after spring has passed.

The dust of my self trickles
from the clenched fingers of my hand.

That’s not how it really is.

If I were singing
as I moved from room to room,
you'd hear it:
almost familiar, just out of reach.

Stone Inscriptions

997 A.D. stone inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu997 A.D. stone inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu


CHENNAI, JULY 3. Bilingual inscriptions in Tamil `vatteluttu' and Sanskrit in Grantha letters engraved on an outlet stone of a big lake has been found at Madakkulam village near Srivilliputhur town of Tamil Nadu's Virudhunagar district. The inscriptions were made during the reign of the Chola King, Raja Raja I, and is dated in the 12th year of his reign (997 A.D.). He ascended the throne in 985 A.D.

It was Raja Raja Chola who built the Big Temple at Thanjavur.

The inscription is about the process of water distribution from the lake. The Tamil `vatteluttu' inscription is in concentric circles on the top surface of theoutlet stone while the Sanskrit inscription is in verse form on the other four sides.

The Sanskrit inscription ends on the side where there is an engraving of Ganesha seated on a lotus with a long stem.

The outlet in the lake is circular and the stone is erected in the middle. The outlet structure has seven channels through which water can be let out in equal measure. A sluice stone with an inscription in Sanskrit, also of the same period, was found but the inscription is faded and illegible. ... (more)


I saw this cartoon on Whiskey River, and it reminded me of a little story of Ramesh's: One day he was visiting the Technical Teachers' Training Institute here, and overheard a conversation. One man said to another, "Sir, what does 'lukewarm' mean?" The other replied solemnly, "That which is not cold, and which is not hot, but which looks warm -- that is lukewarm."

Chennai in the New Yorker

I subscribe to The New Yorker, but my issues arrive a little late. It's better than in the old days, when every two or three months I would get a stack of them. Before the Internet, they were my preferred link to the Big World, so I waited for them like a cargo cultist.

Anyway, the point is that kind Language Hat informs me that the latest issue contains an article about Chennai, "The Company Town," about a worker in the IT industry here. There has been a lot of media attention to Bangalore in recent years, but little about Chennai, which, along with Hyderabad, has been struggling (fairly successfully, I gather) to compete as an IT resource center.

The article itself is not included on the New Yorker website, but there is an audio presentation, with a slide show:
In this week’s issue, Katherine Boo tells the story of Harish Kumar, a worker in the Indian city of Chennai who is coping with the promises, and the problems, of American outsourcing. Here Boo discusses her article, accompanied by photographs by Samantha Appleton.

I didn't find the black and white photographs very extraordinary, but there were two which show one version of middle-class life here:

Harish Kumar eats with his family

Harish Kumar with his grandmother

(Not everyone eats on the floor, but some do -- we do, sometimes. In the older houses like this one in the crowded Triplicane area, it makes a lot of sense -- small rooms, big families -- the spaces are often multi-purpose.)

The most striking thing for me about Boo's audio commentary was the beginning, in which she says that Chennai has changed so much and so fast in recent years that it's hard for its residents even to grasp it. I recognise this change every single day: in the many construction sites; in the daily increasing traffic on the roads; in the availability of products which one had had to buy from smugglers, or go abroad to shop for; in the way young men and women interact with each other... in the increasing desperation for water... Sometimes I feel that I'm watching stop-motion photography -- it's that rapid, and that disturbing.

And she points out the obvious: that even in the colonies of people who earn their livelihood by breaking rocks by hand, hammer-tap by hammer-tap, into gravel -- even there, people dream that their children will learn computers and enter the IT industry. And they pour into the city seeking that dream. And the city struggles to accommodate that burden. I imagine that that is the story of every Third World city. But it's something to see unfolding before your eyes, I can tell you.

It's Not Natural

From The Guardian:
It's not natural: The developing world's homophobia is a legacy of colonial rule

... When the constitution for the newly independent territories of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados was drawn up in 1962, its architects honoured their former rulers by preserving colonial values which would themselves be abolished in Britain within five years. These laws had their roots in Victorian morality, but they were embraced enthusiastically by the black nationalist middle class; and, like many illiberal attitudes in the world, these filtered through society, and were transmuted into a virulent machismo among the poor; a consequence, perhaps, of people having been stripped of everything else, including the promises of a better life after independence. It is out of this culture, fortified by contemporary evangelical Christianity, that the culture of music-driven homophobia has grown.

Jamaica, of course, is far from the only country coming to terms with the imperial bequest of hatred of same-sex relationships. The Naz Foundation, which works on Aids prevention in India, recently challenged the constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This forbids "sexual acts against the order of nature". The response of the central government was that homosexuality cannot be legalised in India as the society disapproves of such behaviour. "The purpose of Section 377 is to provide a healthy environment in the society by criminalising unnatural sexual activities against the order of nature."

In fact, such laws were often inspired by imperial anxieties about homosocial cultures among their subordinate peoples. Even today, it is common for westerners, observing young men holding hands, and mistaking the meaning of this non-sexualised touching, to marvel at the "openness" of gay relationships in India. ... (more)


This wonderful poem, from yesterday's Poetry Daily:

We remember the darkness at our backs, the spine of stars.
How each memory was sifted, then offered back to us from the ash of our bodies.
How the night plow spilled its cargo of ice over the curved fields.
Murmur of smoke at the edge of the woods.
A crucible of starlings, open sky.
Now two more suns and the moon smaller by half; at the end of the day, another day.
This is not the heaven we counted on, still so knotted to the blue world.
We remain winter shadows, heat rising from rooftops —
Blade and bee falling endlessly before the scythe of the sun.

--Gregory Mahrer

Kalyana Mandapam Blues

You can always tell a North Indian wedding, because they have the bridegroom perched up on a white horse, wearing a turban, and looking foolish and anxious at the same time. He'll be surrounded by a group of milling people, some of them attempting to dance, led by a ragtag marriage-band, and they'll be straggling toward a Kalyana Mandapam, or marriage hall, one of which has just come up on the corner of our street.

It's a huge, yellow, disproportioned, ugly thing, which will change our quiet neighbourhood finally and forever.

In the case of the wedding baraat (bridegroom's procession) mentioned above, the marriage-band would usually be wearing uniforms somewhat like those of American high-school bands, but this group wore Tamil kurtas and veshtis, and played nadaswaras (super-sized and super-squeaky oboe-ish instruments) and the kind of drums that you sling over your shoulders with a strap and play on two sides -- holding a stick in one hand and using metal-capped fingers with the other. In spite of their traditional South Indian appearance, they were playing out-of-tune Hindi film songs. They were preceeded by a bus carrying a generator and shining a huge klieg light on the procession, so that video-cameramen could immortalise the scene.

During a wedding, our street now becomes a parking lot, and you can hear the doorman, far up the street, calling out on his loudspeaker, "Driver so-and-so, Driver so-and-so...." Sometimes there are firecrackers.

Two days ago the ruling party held a political function there. There were cutouts of the Chief Minister, and vertical tube-lights lining the street, and lots of recorded music blaring, and giant figures of the CM and other party notables made out of hundreds of tiny lights strung on bamboos lashed together. That part was pretty, but our street was crammed with "party workers" in their politicians' uniforms of white veshti and kurta. I looked out of my window, across the green and leafy garden and through the gate at their white forms, and at the busses and trucks which had brought them and were clogging up the road and thought, "Oh no, politicians! There goes the neighbourhood!"

Gul Mohurs

All month the gul mohur trees have been in brilliant bloom.

I've decided to make my new coptic-bound book into an alphabet book, centered around our house and garden, so yesterday I began the pages for G, Gul Mohur:

(There will be more things: a photograph of Mary holding a huge mass of the flowers, which I asked Chinnaraj to cut down from the tree for me; a photograph of the tree from which they were picked; some text...)

Anyway, the interesting thing for me was that before I drew it, I hadn't really known what it looked like. Usually I just see a fallen petal

or a bright orange tree, with mimosa-like delicate leaves. Yesterday I discovered that it has five large petals, of which four are solid colour and one speckled -- is that the landing platform for insects? Behind the large petals are five much smaller ones, folded back. And there's a cluster of - what? - stamens? - iin the middle.

In the evening I drew it again from memory, to make sure that I understood it:

And I felt that I had, and was amazed.

Travel Sketchbooks

Here's a page of travel sketchbooks by Enrique Flores. Click each book for a slideshow. Three of them are about India, one for the South of India. I'm completely envious.