Breakfast and Kolam - 2

potatoes and peas in tomato sauce, with roti and buttermilk (yoghurt thinned with water, flavoured with cumin)

A most haunting post by Coffee House, who encountered a crowd here in Chennai, staring at a dead baby in a ditch.

Breakfast and Kolam - 1

I thought I'd post a week of breakfasts and kolam designs -- Mary the cook also makes the rice-flour kolam at our doorstep, a new design every day:

dosai with two chutneys: coriander-coconut, and peanut (the black specks in the chutneys are mustard seed, not to be confused with the blue dots on the plate)

Eat Drink and be Murree

From The Guardian: A Morning Beer in Pakistan. Murree Brewery, Pakistan's lone beer factory in a country under prohibition.
Today's New York Times Magazine has an interview with Meera Nair, in connection with the release of her new film, Vanity Fair. (Filmography) The interview seemed disjointed and perfunctory to me, a handful of sound-bites. It contains this, which should be obvious, but probably isn't:
As an Indian citizen living in New York, do you see the U.S. as a force for good?

No. Islamophobia has completely raged in the Western world since 9/11. Americans are only given one very biased point of view about the Islamic faith.

You seem to be suggesting that Americans view all Muslims as terrorists.

Living in New York, we never felt foreign. After 9/11, we felt foreign.

Have you been mistaken for a Muslim on the streets?

Last time I checked, Muslims looked like every other human being. My parents are Hindu, and I married into a Muslim family. I would be happy to be mistaken for a Muslim.

Newspaper Stuff

A few things from this morning's The Hindu:

Monumental task: Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore gets a facelift - another article in connection with the temple's upcoming Mahakumbabhishekam -- a reconsecration and general sprucing up. The huge temple tank, which has gone dry in recent years, has been filled with trucked-in water for the occasion.

Sena 'treatment' to Mani Shankar Aiyar - Politicians beat an effigy of another politician with shoes. This is one of the most insulting things you can do to someone here. Sometimes a perceived miscreant will be garlanded with a chain of shoes.

Operation Cobra Rescue in Sriperumbudur - this caught my eye because the Irula tribals who rescued the eponymous cobra family (32 babies and their parents), and who are expert snake and rat catchers, have here been euphemised into "snake trans-locaters."

Chauffeur Training

We bought a new car last week. Today I received a letter from the company which sold it to us, signed by one Mr. Heavenly. I love that name! It's obviously a Christian name, since it's in English, but it's one I've never encountered before. Mr. Heavenly writes, in part:
... We are sure your car will give you years of trouble free motoring pleasure to you & your family.

As part of our endeavour to continuously provide value added service to our customers, we have initiated a chauffer training program specially designed for your chauffeur. This aim of this training program is to enrich the driving knowledge of your chauffeur in areas of vehicle knowledge, driving habits, safety feaures, maintenance schedules & self-help. Experienced staff will conduct the training of 04 hours duration...

I prefer to drive myself, though many people we know do have drivers. It's a nice idea. I could use assistance in several of these areas myself, especially self-help.

Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple

Sri Kapaleeswarar temple is the largest temple in Chennai. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. On the occasion of its Mahakumbhabishekam festival on August 30, The Hindu has a piece about the temple and its history: Ancient and Enduring Landmark


A few scrapings

Nothing much to write about, so here are a few scrapings:

Two days ago there was a Jain holy day. A Jain friend called from Calcutta to ask forgiveness for any wrong she might have done to us. It’s something Jains are supposed to do on such occasions – ask forgiveness of everyone they know.

(Note: Ditch the Raft has a very interesting post about this Jain holy day, Paryushan, and about a similar tradition in Judaism.)

We sometimes go to a tea pub in Adyar. The last time we went, we had continually to swat flies. When we mentioned it to the owner he said, “Actually, we don’t kill flies: we’re Jains.”

We’ve acquired a new car. I mention it because of the way it was delivered: with a flower garland strung across the front, and accompanied by a box of sweets.

It’s customary to give sweets to people on happy occasions. When I was a student here, you knew people’s birthdays: they would come into the dining hall wearing new clothes, and carrying a box of sweets, which they would hand around to all.

Water, Water

From The Guardian:

Meat-eaters soak up the world's water

A change in diets may be necessary to enable developing countries to feed their people, say scientists

Governments may have to persuade people to eat less meat because of increasing demands on water supplies, according to agricultural scientists investigating how the world can best feed itself.

They say countries with little water may choose not to grow crops but trade in "virtual water", importing food from countries which have large amounts of water to save their supplies for domestic or high-value uses.

With about 840 million people in the world undernourished, and a further 2 billion expected to be born within 20 years, finding water to grow food will be one of the greatest challenges facing governments.

Currently up to 90% of all managed water is used to grow food....

"The bottom line is that groundwater levels are plummeting and our rivers are already overstressed, yet there is a lot of complacency about the future," the IWMI report says... (more)

The Prince of Arcot 2

I recently posted about the new website of the Prince of Arcot, and mentioned that I hadn't found a mention of the Arcots' original palace in Chennai, the Chepauk Palace. In today's The Hindu, S. Muthiah has a small piece about the palace and the Nawabs of the Carnatic, who became Princes of Arcot: From Carnatic to Arcot.

Chepauk Palace

Someone commented on my earlier posting that all royal titles have been abolished in India. But the Prince of Arcot is a little different, as Muthiah points out:
The cost of building the [Chepauk] palace and keeping the ever-so-popular, generous and gracious but ambitious Nawab Wallajah in the lifestyle he wished, was enormous. And to meet his requirements, he borrowed heavily from the sahibs of a Fort where private trading was rampant...

The Carnatic Debts was one of the major scandals of the 19th Century and the debate in Parliament, with Edmund Burke leading the eloquence, is reported to have been one of the high points of British parliamentary history. The British Government eventually agreed to settle the multi-million pound debt in exchange for the title of the Carnatic, which stretched from southern Orissa to Cape Comorin.

The age of empire had begun - as did, in time, a special treaty arrangement honoured to this day by the government recognising the Prince of Arcot and the Carnatic Stipends as a special arrangement in the Indian polity.

In the Waiting Room

I went to an ENT doctor to get my ears cleaned. I do this every couple of years, because when I walk out afterwards, the sounds almost sizzle in my ears.

The doctor’s clinic, which was also his home, has been torn down. Like so many others, he’s replacing it with a multi-storey building of flats, with a new clinic downstairs. In the meantime he has rented a small office in a general clinic around the corner. I sat in the waiting room, which was open to the street, and scribbled in my journal.
Twice I tried to draw a bicycle with a coffee dispenser on a platform on the back, but twice its owner moved it away. I saw: a cycle-cart piled with tomatoes. A bicycle carrying a sack of cement, which the rider and another man dumped in front of the clinic, next to a deep hole right beside the narrow steps to the front door. They must be digging a borewell. An auto-rickshaw, parked across the narrow street.
In the lobby, a strange motto over the reception desk, in the centre of a clutter of posters and calendars related to medical products and health procedures. Artificial black-eyed Susans in a china vase.

A framed picture of Shirdi Sai baba with his hand raised in blessing, lean and austere, with a white cloth tied around his head and a trimmed white beard. The picture was hung with a sandalwood garland and a string of dead jasmine flowers.

That’s what I saw, waiting for the ENT doctor.

My Stuff

It’s made of what is called country-wood – that is, not a fine hardwood like teak, or sheesham or rosewood. It had originally been painted white – there are faint traces of pigment, if you look closely at the surface. Gomathi had it stripped and sanded to a warm caramel, called it an antique, and sold it to me.

It has three shallow drawers, and six tarnished brass handles, fluted and hemispherical, like halved umbrellas. It comes up to the middle of my thigh. It was made by a carpenter who didn’t care if the grains matched, or if there were slight irregularities at the edges of the boards. He didn’t care about nail holes, or about patching a short board with another piece of wood. He made a container.

When I open the drawers, they tilt downward. There are two paler rings on the top, left by glasses wet with condensation. I’ve partly hidden them with a brass urli – a shallow round cooking vessel – with a soft glow, as if butter had been used to make the alloy.

The chest’s roughness pleases me – it’s ‘authentic.’ It was clearly made by hand, and for a purpose. But in fact, I have put it in a false position. In this house its functionality is notional – it has become a decoration. It sits quietly in its corner; a small, stolid, country-wood fish out of water.

Dept. of Weirdness

Two sisters kill each other's husbands

MUMBAI, AUG.18. In a fit of rage, two sisters allegedly shot dead each other's husbands in suburban Juhu following some dispute.

The two sisters, Farida Ahmed and Gajala Firoz, were arrested and produced today in a local court which remanded them to police custody till August 25.

They told police that a financial dispute between their husbands led to arguments that ended in the shoot-out — PTI

The Prince of Arcot

The current Prince of Arcot, Mohammed Ali, who is known for his work toward harmony between religions, has created a website, which opened today, The Prince of Arcot.

As Newstodaynet reports,
A website has been designed and created containing a brief history on the Nawabs of the Carnatic, in South India (1690-1855 A D). The Nawabs were the sovereign and independent rulers of this part of the country.


Nawab Mohammed Ali Wallajah, who ruled from 1749 to 1795 AD of the second Carnatic dynasty which traced its lineage to the second Caliph of Islam, Omar Bin-Al-Khattab , distinguished himself eminently in South Indian history by his vast and unforgettable contributions to civil society. Nawab Wallajah stands out as the epitome of religious tolerance and nobility.

The website narrates historical events and developments from the times of the first Nawab of the Carnatic, Zulfikar Ali Khan (1690 AD) up to the present descendant, the Prince of Arcot.

I see that the website includes pictures of Amir Mahal, the current residence of the Prince of Arcot, which the British gave to the Arcots in 1876 -- it had been a police court -- but no pictures (or I missed them) of the much more attractive Chepauk Palace, built in 1768, which the British grabbed for their own use in the 1850s. It now houses government offices, and is therefore dilapidated. (The Chepauk Palace link is to a photograph and a good article by historian S. Muthiah, about the Nawab of the Carnatic, and how he came to build his palace.)

See also the photo gallery, which includes pictures of some of the rooms in Amir Mahal -- princely domesticity.

(Here's another, recent article about the present Prince, and about Amir Mahal: The House of Arcot.)

Some things about Iranian movies

In the last several months we’ve seen a number of Iranian movies on DVD. We both feel intense admiration for the director Abbas Kiarostami. Which was tested yesterday, when we saw ‘A Taste of Cherry,’ which largely consists of a man who wants to commit suicide driving back and forth, back and forth, on an ugly road being built on the side of a hill – bare brown dirt, the sound of earth-moving equipment, an occasional small tree. (But why is there New Orleans jazz at the end? I assume the tacked-on, artificial ending is there because Iranian censors don’t allow one to show suicide, which is a sin in Islam. But why that music, of all jarring things? It made me jump up from where I was sitting, in annoyance – you can do that when you watch movies at home – and pace around the room.)

(Note: Language Hat provided a link to an article which attempts to explain things: Imagining Life: The Ending of Taste of Cherry. I have to say that it didn't convince me, but it has interesting things to say about Kiarostami's way of film-making.)

I realised that in Kiarostami’s movies, a great deal of time is spent in going back and forth, back and forth: children run back and forth between home and the places they have to go to in ‘Where is Friend’s House’ and ‘The White Balloon’ (directed by Jafar Panahi, written by Kiarostami). In ‘Wind Will Carry Us,’ a man is staying in a remote village in order to make a film. Whenever his cell phone rings he must jump into his car and drive to a graveyard on a hilltop, the only place where he can hear the call.

One thing that this does, of course, is slow things down. People often go places in American films too, but it’s all elided, unless it’s a car chase. (You’d think that Americans were like dogs, chasing cars as part of their daily routine.) (The Vernacular Body was talking about slowness recently, as it happens. He writes:
When was the last time you saw a cinematic shot in a movie that was held for five minutes? Let's not even talk of television: I doubt they hold their shots for more than thirty seconds at a time. Too much money involved for all that lyrical shit. Besides, people get uncomfortable with silence, and with looking at the same thing for "too long". So, faster, faster, edit, jump, cut, channel surf, fade out.

He talks about the same thing in other ways that we live – quick, on to the next thing! It seems to apply more and more to me, certainly.)

Those very ordinary, repeated journeys in Kiarostami’s movies give me time to reflect on what’s happening; on the structure the film-maker imposes; on the country – Iran -- through which the characters are travelling. We are uncomfortable with slow things because we have to step back and consider them?

Another thing about the Iranian movies that I’ve seen is that there is no background music; then, just at the end, there may be a plaintive folk-tune, like a flower springing out of parched earth; which immediately brings tears to my eyes. Cassandra wrote something about this once: that Iranian movies are so austere, and then suddenly there will be a flash of colour – a flowering plant potted on a windowsill, or a blue door. Those small moments of relative lushness are magnified, become powerful and touching, in their drab context.

Another thing about Iranian movies is a purely private pleasure. As I listen to the flow of Farsi behind the subtitles, I hear many words which have entered the north Indian languages: mushqil (difficult), khud-kushi (suicide), zindagi (life), and so on. Each time one of these words jumps out at me, I repeat it softly to myself: mushqil… khud-kushi… zindagi…

Empty Land

Sorting through old photographs I came across this, of the land across the street from us, before it was stripped, leveled and surrounded by a cinder-block wall.

Wasteland is often like that here: sandy soil and thorn bushes. Patchy ground cover. At the edge of the road there was a cluster of datura. When it rained the low-lying part flooded, becoming a shallow and transitory lake.

The soft, feathery greenness against sand was beautiful, in a making-do-with-little kind of way. There were mongoose, snakes and bandicoots (large rats). When the land was cleared all three moved across the street and tried to find a place in the houses and gardens there. Only the bandicoots seem to have succeeded. We had a mongoose family of three for a year or so, but I haven’t seen them for a long time. (Whenever it rained there was a frog chorus from that land. What’s happened to the frogs? Small frogs would hop across the badminton court, waiting for insects to gather around the lights; but they’re gone now.)

We used to own a piece of land on the East Coast Road, near the Crocodile Bank. There was nothing on it but a little scrub, some casuarinas along the fence near the beach, and one big cashew tree. Cashews grow low to the ground and are umbrella-shaped, so that you can walk inside them and feel that you are in a hidden room. When we sold the land I wrote this:

Empty Land

We went to say good-bye to our land.

We stood for a while in the cashew’s shade
before flinching back into glare.
We walked the road we had built
past casuarinas, beachgrass, to the sea's edge.
Shells like bleached fingernails.
Holes in the sand where small crabs hide.

On the way to the car, bones:
a long curling horn,
its surface papery as a wasp's nest.
White shards half-buried. Old news,

not enough to make a whole of anything.
I picked up a vertebra's eroded torus.

That was all. It was empty land.

Two Things

BBC launches Tamil film music series. See Also

I saw it on All About George: Padma Lakshmi, glamorous Chennai-born wife of Salman Rushdie, talks about herself and food -- and provides two low-fat Indian chicken recipes: A model who eats? She wrote the book.
This is fun. If only there were options for the inside of the head:

Build a better Bush

Fearsome Power

This is a vexed subject, which has become emotional and politicised, and I know almost nothing about it. But what the heck, it’s very interesting. I would welcome comments from people who do know about it.

I had earlier posted two articles about a struggle between the most ancient layers of Tamil culture; and the pan-Indian tradition which, mixed with Tamil elements, formed mainstream Hinduism in Tamil Nadu today: Sanskritisation, and Dalit Poetry.

(By the way: As it happens, some of the oldest forms of Tamil culture are associated with the lowest castes, for which the current fashionable term is Dalit, ‘deprived.’ Mahatma Gandhi coined the term Harijan, ‘child of god,’ and that term was widely used at one time, but now I don’t see it at all. Was it seen as patronising? What happened to it?)

Last October the Chief Minister (CM) of the state announced that an existing-but-ignored law banning animal sacrifice in temples would henceforth be enforced: A decree on animal sacrifice.

Animal sacrifice is not part of the mainstream religion today, but it is a practise preserved in some temples of the ancient village goddesses. While many people felt that it was about time to stop this practise (which exists in pockets in other states as well), the people who were affected claimed that they were victims of the CM's wish to please the Hindu fundamentalists who were in power at the Centre at that time; and of caste discrimination against Dalits.

From the Frontline article cited above:
The reactions of political parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were mixed. Although animal sacrifice was not acceptable to them, they questioned the wisdom of seeking to end an age-old practice by the mere enforcement of a law. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), felt that the move was unwarranted. Puthiya Tamizhagam, a Dalit party, demanded a ban also on yagnas conducted by caste Hindus at the mainstream temples constructed and run under agama rules. During yagnas, gold coins, diamonds, expensive silk sarees, ghee and foodgrain are offered to Agni (fire) as `sacrifice', the party said. The Dalit Panthers of India (Viduthalai Siruthaigal in Tamil) saw the ban as an interference in the religious rights of the oppressed people and called for an agitation to protest against it.

Dalits and people belonging to backward and most backward communities, for whom animal sacrifice is an integral part of worship, expressed their resentment in no uncertain terms. Within days of the order, devotees in several parts of the southern districts went ahead with the customary practice at the local temples in defiance of the ban. August-September is the time of the annual or biennial `Kodai' festivals at these temples, and the mood among these people was one of anger, despair and defiance…

(My reaction: I haven’t witnessed animal sacrifice. I vaguely feel that, since food animals are being sacrificed, and since they are eaten afterwards, it’s just dedicating your (non-veg) food to god before you eat it. But I’m cursed with seeing too many points of view, and being unable to form strong opinions about most things.)

After the recent national elections, when there was a strong reaction against the central government for many reasons, the CM quickly began to reverse a number of her actions which had proved unpopular. Among them was the law against animal sacrifice, which was repealed on July 30, 2004: Animal Sacrifice Act Repealed.

Anyway, the reason I have raised all this is that I’ve started reading a book which I have owned for years, but only dipped into in the past: Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition, by David Dean Shulman. (Princeton University Press, 1980 – out of print). The book attempts to separate and examine the particularly Tamil cultural strands from the hybrid Hinduism of the Tamil country, by examining the myths which are connected with particular temples in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps because of these latest manifestations of what is not at all a recent struggle, between old and new, upper-caste and lower-caste, this book suddenly became very interesting to me. So, I was reading the Introduction, and I saw this, about the movement of mainstream Hinduism -- in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere -- away from blood sacrifice:
The process of Brahmin accommodation to ancient Tamil religion has been described by George Hart (in The Poems of Ancient Tamil) in the following terms:
”It must be remembered that, to the ancient Tamils, sacred forces were dangerous accretions of power that could be controlled only by those of low status. When the Brahmins arrived in Tamilnad, it was natural for them to dissociate themselves from these indigenous forces and to characterize themselves as ‘pure,’ that is, isolated to the greatest possible extent from polluting sacred forces; indeed, if they were to gain the people’s respect, they had very little choice. It was also natural for the Brahmins to characterize the gods they introduced as pure and unsullied by pollution… It follows that the Brahmins had to adopt from the high-caste non-Brahmins many of the customs whose purpose was to isolate a person from dangerous sacred power.”

The idea that the sacred is dangerous and potentially polluting is undoubtedly ancient in the Tamil area, and there is every reason to believe that the Brahmins who settled there came to terms with this idea in a manner that guaranteed their own claim to purity. But it is noteworthy that within the Vedic sacrificial cult itself we find an evolution away from contact with the dangerous forces of violence and death that are at work in the sacrifice. This development has been described by Heesterman in terms of the emergence of the pranagnihotra, the ‘sacrifice of the breaths,’ as a substitute for the original blood-sacrifice… The entire ritual is internalized, with the result that the actual slaughter of a victim is eliminated. Death and destruction are relegated to the chaotic world outside the individual performer of the ritual (just as they are made to rest beyond the confines of the sacred shrine in the Tamil myths)… It is this transformed tradition that was imported into south India, and that both crystallized and ultimately reinterpreted a local myth of violent sacrifice. Yet we shall see... how vital and enduring the underlying myth has always been, and how quickly the religious ideology superimposed upon it crumbles before the inherent force of the ancient symbols.

One of the myths he refers to is the wounding of the god -- as in the Madurai temple myth, where Meenakshi fights with Shiva before marrying him... but that's enough for now.

The Sufis of India

Via Sepia Mutiny, Time Magazine Asia's web edition has a photo-essay on Sufism. Or rather, what looks like (excellent) out-takes from an article on Sufism: Religious Ecstasy - The Sufis of India believe that the path to God is paved with love - pictures of religious observance and daily life among Sufis, mostly in the Nizamuddin area of old Delhi and in Ajmer.

As Others See Us

Some tips for Indians about to go to the United States, from The Hindu. (I wonder what I would say, if someone asked me for such advice. I probably wouldn't do as well as this.))
Beyond the Blue - II

Here are some dos and don'ts once you land in the U.S.


Please get used to saying, `Please' and `Thank you' frequently. Any request needs to be prefaced with a `please', and upon receiving it, a warm `thank you' is the absolute expectation. You come from a country where you have heard scores of times the words "Don't be so formal", making you believe that the closer the friendship, the lesser the formality. Perish this thought, instantaneously. You are going to a place where even a two-year-old cannot ask his mom for a glass of water, without being gently prompted, "Didn't you forget something?" Apologising comes in this list too. So start practising.

Americans are fussy about personal cleanliness. Body odour makes them shudder in disgust. Personal care products such as shampoos, deodorants, dental floss and mouthwash are multi billion dollar industries. Put these down on your shopping list and use them liberally and frequently.

Start thinking in pounds, quarts, gallons, inches, yards and miles. They really don't see the necessity to join the rest of the world, which uses the metric system. It is a similar story in respect of temperature too. It is Fahrenheit in the U.S. and not Centigrade!

Here are a few more quirks. This time it is words that you have always used that meant something, but don't make any sense or the wrong sense in the U.S. A lift is an elevator and you fill gas in your car, not petrol. Start thinking of a gas station, instead of a petrol pump. You rent an apartment and not a flat; you mail something, and not post it, using the right zip, not postal, code. There is no STD code (acronym for sexually transmitted diseases), only area code; your car has a hood and trunk and not a bonnet or a boot, or a dickey. Jelly is Jell-O and jam is jelly!

Don't be shocked if someone asks you, a college kid, about your school! If you are in your Master's programme you are in Grad school, otherwise you are an undergrad. There are no freshers, only freshmen; no boys and girls but young men and women! Don't ask for a rubber, what you want is an eraser. One takes a shower, but relaxes in a bath, and clothing is not generically referred to as "dress". Only women wear a dress, the rest of the items are mentioned by their specific names. And the list goes on; this is just a peek!

First come first serve

Make sure you always stand "in line". They strictly go by the concept of first come first serve, no matter who or what you are.

Do you remember the picture of Bill Clinton (during his Presidency) standing in line at a McDonalds hamburger joint, waiting his turn? As informal and friendly as they are, be prepared for direct, honest communication; absolutely no ambiguity here. If you are invited to someone's home for a meal, do take a small gift with you and offer to help with the clearing and cleaning of the dishes. Punctuality is a must. It is not fashionable to arrive late. Brush up your table manners and be silverware savvy.

You might find people there quite ignorant about their own part of the world. Don't be shocked. You are going to a country, where an impressive number of people wonder if they need a visa to go to New Mexico! If you are wondering about the same thing, find the time in your busy preparation schedule to look at the map of the U.S. of A! Happy journey!

The Old Madras Club

Hemanth, of Instant Kaapi, read my post mentioning the passing of the old Madras Club and has posted several pictures of it here. They're beautiful.

My father loved buildings, and he was a Civil War buff. He travelled to a number of plantation houses in the South. He took the family along on some of the trips, but my sister and I were too small to appreciate them, and whined a lot, so I didn't make it down to Louisiana to see Belle Helene. He took a picture of it, though, that haunted me for years -- a crumbling, columned building, hung about with Spanish moss. I just found a picture of it, in better shape than when he photographed it, at Louisiana: Plantation Country (page down). And a more evocative picture here. The image of Belle Helene came back to me quite recently, and I wondered if it was the root of my love for crumbling buildings. Our obsessions tend to stem from such tiny and arbitrary beginnings, don't they?

Several More Things

When did they tear down the old Madras Club on the Indian Express estate?? I didn't even know, just read a reference to it in Madras Musings. Which said that the city government had ground it into dust.

When it still existed, S. Muthiah wrote about it:
Senior British bureaucrats, members of the judiciary and military officers founded the Chennai Club in 1832....The first home of the Madras Club was at the end of Clubhouse Road and is now the property of The New Indian Express, a splendid Georgian building, handsomely pedimented, pillared and verandahed which is still an impressive sight. It had started out as a Mr. White’s residence and was developed into the building it is now over a period of fifty years. A guide should be able to show you where the racquet courts were, the Roman baths-type swimming pool, the Octagon that was the smoking room, the handsome billiards room and library, and the ‘hen-cote’ where wives and daughters had to wait for husbands and fathers. The Madras Club was, for over a hundred years, very much a “men’s only” institution, with women being permitted only on the very occasional special dinners (any meal in the Club in those days was said to be memorable. It apparently served the finest food in India!). With membership decreasing after World War II, such a vast property was too much to manage and was thus sold to the Indian Express Newspaper group....

How can the government care so little about the city's history? It's true that the building had been standing empty for years, but there was talk about how to preserve and re-purpose it. I was only there once, but I remember standing on the sprung floor of what had been the ballroom, and feeling that it still had some spring in it. And its impressiveness, and its beauty.

And what about what used to be wetland, choked with water lilies, next to the ugly red planetarium-shaped Ambedkar Memorial on Greenways Road? - which I don't think anyone visits, and which was itself built on landfill, enroaching on the wetland. The area was already dry - I think that its access to the rest of Adyar Creek had been cut off by construction. Then they stripped off the scrubby growth which had come up on it. Now it's hideous, a scar. There's a peculiar little building which apparently belongs to the fisheries department, and an upside-down rowboat, surrealistic on the dry ground. Someone told me it was to be revived as wetland, but I wonder - can the government resist the greed for land?

Recently the Chief Minister made a statement, saying that if it were not for her foresight in reviving the Veeranam Water Project, the only recourse for the city in the current water shortage would have been mass evacuation. I assume that was political rhetoric, but it struck me, because for years I've thought of this place as a future Fatehpur Sikri - the city built by Emperor Akbar near Agra, which had to be abandoned when its water supply dried up.

On the other hand, we're on the coast, so we could just be flooded when the oceans rise because of global warming. Yikes! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

As I was thinking these gloomy thoughts I had a sharp memory, a propos of nothing: after college, I spent two years here, studying Bharata natyam (a classical dance style) at Kalakshetra. I stayed in the hostel, and ate at the hostel dining room. (I was one of the oldest students -- most of them were in their teens or younger.) Students had to provide their own steel thalis (big round plates with a rim) and steel tumblers. When the dining room bell rang, you grabbed your thali and your tumbler and took it along with you. We sat cross-legged on the floor in long lines, boys on one side, girls on the other...

We were given sweets twice a week: Friday nights, after the bhajana (hymn-singing) at the Thiruvanmiyur temple; and Sunday afternoons, at tiffin. The Sunday sweets were dry, the kind that are cut into squares -- Mysore pak and barfi and such. On Friday nights, it was always payasam: one week pal payasam, one week paruppu payasam. I worked hard - a 1 1/2 hour dance class in the morning, and usually another class, or individual practise, in the afternoon, in addition to (in my case) Carnatic singing and dance theory. In the closed world of the hostel, food was an important diversion. I loved pal payasam, which is sweetened milk, with vermicelli and raisins and bits of cashew in it. I didn't love paruppu payasam, made from dal and sweetened with jaggery, which is like brown sugar but with a different, stronger taste. Sometimes the cooks got confused and served it two weeks in a row, which was a sharp disappointment.

This is distorted by memory, of course: holding out my steel tumbler, child-like, for one of the Iyer cooks to fill it with warm payasam. The pleasure of pal payasam, the disappointment of paruppu payasam. It is precisely when the sky is falling that my mind ducks into these bylines, and comforts itself with these very small, tender things.

Several Things

Last night we saw a ghastly but watchable movie (i.e., with no violence, and stupid enough to make fun of) on TV – Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai. Salman Khan is a notorious playboy. He falls for Twinkle Capadia, who can’t act at all.

He goes to Ooty. There he sees Twinkle as she is entering an expensive shoe store, with an elaborate, modern frosted glass door. I had to wonder, remembering Ooty’s tiny commercial area: okay, most people who see this film may not have been to Ooty, but what hill station will have such expensive and glitzy shops? Don’t they care at all? (Well, of course not – silly me. Everything about the movie was cobbled together, anyway. Why not the locations as well? And why get annoyed about that, when there were so many other annoyances to choose from?)

Via Teakada:
Strange ritual designed to 'please the gods'

A thousand devotees cracked open coconuts on their heads on Tuesday as part of an unusual southern Indian festival called Aadi Perukku.

The ritual, which is more than 30 years old, is meant to please the goddess of wealth. The devotees - men, women and children - travelled from all over southern India to the Mahalakshmi temple in Karur, Tamil Nadu state, the UNI news agency reported.

Not all of the participants were brave. Only those willing to have the priest smash a coconut on their heads were allowed into the central area of the temple.

Police said a few devotees were injured and bleeding from the head.

Today's The Hindu has an article, Tamil heritage on cyber space about the website Tamil Heritage Foundation. If you page down to the archive section, you will find section on the evolution of the Tamil script, a gallery of ancient artefacts, video clips on aspects of Tamil culture, and so on. It appears to be in the beginning stages, but it has a lot of interesting material.

Lost Reptile

Little dinosaur,
child's stick figure with long stick-toes,
you are in the wrong landscape.
How did you come to this white stone floor?

The fat house-lizards
cling to walls beyond my reach,
but a human footstep would redraw
your curved, expectant body -
the sketch of a smile -
into scribble.

The door is open. Scuttle quickly.
Shelter in a clump of grass
hidden away from hunting eyes,
and snap at pterodactyl butterflies.

Bangladeshi Blogs

The 3rd World View has a list of Bangladeshi Bloggers. He also includes a section on non-Bangladeshis blogging in Bangladesh.


Dried apricots, imported from America:
Suede-soft discs on a white plate
easy, spread open to the gaze.
Their taste bursts on the tongue:
The thermonuclear snack!
A sun in every bite.
Dried apricots, Indian:
Dusty small round dull-coloured. They are sweet, but you have to fight for them: flesh clenched around stone. Break the stone for the hidden nut. They teach the sweetness that doesn't come too easily.

Henri Cartier-Bresson 1908-2004

I know that many others will write about him, much better than I can. Here's the Guardian obituary.

I remember seeing an exhibition of his works at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington -- walking from one photograph to another, staring into each one, because they were too small to see without really looking -- and being amazed by almost all of them. His sense of composition especially: people and buildings and light and shadow brought into the most harmonious patterns -- not static, alive. His phrase, the 'decisive moment,' was so apt -- you know that in the second after the photograph was taken, the beautiful composition had disappeared.

Kashmir Women, 1948

Water Again

While big chunks of the North are flooded; and while Bangladesh is said to be 2/3 under water, here's what's happening in Chennai:
Reservoirs go dry

Without tankers, Chennai would be finished

A Visit to George Town

I drove to Parry’s Corner, parked on First Line Beach, and walked up and down the narrow streets of George Town. It’s a mess there -- mostly bicycles, two-wheelers (i.e., motorcycles and scooters), auto-rickshaws, sometimes a fish-cart or a lorry, very occasionally a private car. I did several errands, then went back to NSC Bose Road, to Ramakrishna Lunch Home. I bought sweet mixture, Karachi halwa (which I indulge in once a year or so – it’s gummy and full of ghee, and I love it) and samosas. I had to wait for the samosas, and while I sat someone brought me a glass of nimbu pani – lemonade. It was lovely after all that walking in the sun. Hardly walking, actually – rather picking my way very gingerly between one vehicle and another.

I walked back down First Line Beach to my car. In front of me was a white western couple, both with dreadlocks, and both wearing numerous layers of clothing, as though they were saving themselves from carrying luggage by wearing all their clothes at once.

I reached the place where I had parked my car, and it wasn’t there. I couldn’t believe it – I walked on and on, thinking I must have forgotten where it had been. Finally I turned and went again to the place where I’d parked it. There were plenty of cars, but not mine. I crossed the road, thinking I’d take an auto-rickshaw home and call someone, and find out what to do.

As I reached the other side, dodging traffic, and turned to hail an auto, I saw that a tow-truck had pulled up where my car had been. I ran back across and spoke to the policeman who sat next to the driver. He asked for my license number, looked through his book, and found my car. He said, "You have to come to the police station and pay Rs. 300 to get your car back." I had, it seemed, parked in a no-parking zone, though it wasn't marked as such. I said, "Where is the police station?" He told me to sit up on the back of the tow truck: he was going to give me a ride. So I sat like a circus performer on a float, stared at by all passers-by, while the truck remained stationary. Finally it did move, past all the big cars where I had been parked, and stopped only a block later, by a small car like mine. This they hitched to their truck, and then we drove off to the station. I should have waved regally, instead of keeping my face fixed in a rueful expression.

We arrived, there was my car, right in front of the station, I paid the policeman in the truck Rs. 300, got three different pieces of paper in return, and departed. I didn't mind, really -- in my mind, I was already making it into a story.

Extreme Kite-Flying, Again

Kite thread injures motorist after entangling him

CHENNAI: A motorist was injured on Sunday when the thread of a stray kite wound around him as he was riding with his wife and child near Triplicane, police said.


The thread of the kite was of the kind called maanja - one containing powdered glass. The glass would be ground into fine powdered particles and mixed with an adhesive. This would then be applied all along the thread. This makes cutting the threads of other kites during competitions easier.

The police have banned the use of maanja as it was life-threatening. But the rules are flouted and the use of maanja is commonplace. Two previous incidents in the recent past have left two persons gravely injured and one dead, but things have not changed.

‘‘Use of maanja has been banned. But even ordinary cords are dangerous. Kite-flying activities have to be curbed at public places...."

Two Things

Another good fight line from a (bad) Hindi film:
Main maut se nahin darta – maut mujh se darti hai!

I’m not afraid of death – death is afraid of me!

We stayed in a place where there was a continuous 'shhh' in the air: the breeze passing through hundreds of trees - like a milder version of the sea, or like rain. I kept thinking it was raining and it wasn’t; and then it did rain, and I was fooled. Quick, sharp showers and light drizzles – just what one hopes for in a vacation.

not fasting but starving

Meanwhile, in another part of the country: