I really am on hiatus, but ...

... I just wanted to clear the decks before November 1, the beginning of National Novel-Writing Month. (I tried it last year, got a third of the way through, and decided that my novel was unbearably drab, dull, etc. etc. -- in short, I gave up. I'm trying again this year, only with less advance preparation. If that makes sense. I'm retaining the thing I liked best about last year's effort, the title: Waiting for the Moonsoon.)

bananas and steel

On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, was assassinated by members of her own guard. I was in the Foreign Service at that time, working as the junior visa officer at the American Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan. I was standing at the desk of one of the Pakistani staffers, in the room just behind the visa window, looking through a stack of passports and visa applications. Then someone called someone, and said that the radio had reported that Indira Gandhi was dead.

An Inspector from the Customs Service dropped by the office to meet one of the staffers, and related some of the street gossip about the assassination. I said to him that it was strange news, and he replied, "Why is that strange? For a ruler there are only two paths, taj or takht." Taj means crown, and takht is a throne; but it is also the platform on which people are hanged.

kitchen shelf

Some weblinks that I've been saving up to post one of these days:

Use this animation to explore Picasso's collage 'Guitar', 1913. You can move the components of the collage around, to see if you can do better.

draw a girl -- this one you just watch, but it's so cool...

100 years of illustration and design -- a beautiful weblog, by an expert on the subject.

The artwork of Warren E. Saul (saw it on Everyday Matters) -- I've been looking at a few pages of this every day.
"For over 20 years, Warren Saul kept a daily self-illustrated diary he called "Sketchnotes." It ran to some 55 volumes, including many thousands of quick sketches, comments, and watercolors on all conceivable topics. His notebooks at times are reminiscent of an almost Leonardo DaVinci-like rambling, but entirely serious visual inquiry into the world around us. Sometimes, the drawings are just stream-of-consciousness cartoons done while my Dad sat at the kitchen table, at a meeting, or in a waiting room. He sketched from his car in a parking lot, or at a stop light or drive-up window. I like these the best. They are his take on his own life, seen through his own eyes."

Blogstreet's list of Chennai blogs

Coming Up For Air

I have poked my head up just for a moment, a hibernating animal disturbed by a dream, to mention a few things that have occurred since my last post:

I have been working on my painting and sketching.

It has been raining – joy! The northeast monsoon, which brings us most of our water, has set in. It has begun well. It has had the courtesy to rain over the catchment areas, so that the reservoirs are no longer expanses of parched earth. There are showers almost every day in the city, mostly at night. If it keeps up like this, we may have the first normal monsoon in five years.

Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch, so the lovely monsoon set in just in time to rain out the fifth (final) day of a very exciting Test (cricket) match between India and Australia, which was being held here in Chennai. We actually had a chance to win, which is rare, especially when we face the mighty Australians. However.

angry chicken

Our cook, Mary, has been suffering a lot from arthritis. She’s been going from doctor to doctor, but all of them prescribe only painkillers, along with vitamins and antacids – so that she comes back with a handful of things, which look more impressive than just one or two. She’s beginning to feel the side-effects, so Ramesh suggested that she take a spoonful of turmeric every day. Turmeric is part of Indian traditional medicine, it’s supposed to help bones, and it doesn’t have any side-effects. A few days later he asked if she were taking the turmeric. She shuffled her feet and gave an embarrassed laugh, and said no. She is afraid that if she takes turmeric every day she will get jaundice. (Turmeric and jaundice have the same Tamil name: manjal, which means ‘yellow.’) A clear case of sympathetic magic: Eat yellow, become yellow. I asked why, if she believed that, she put turmeric into the cooking every day. She said that it was such a tiny quantity that it didn’t matter.

Two days later she began talking to me about her husband, who died at the age of 24, leaving her with two small children to raise. She said that for years it was so hard that she wanted to walk into the sea. I asked what her husband had died of, and she said, “No one knows. So it must have been an (evil) spell (manthiram, the Tamil version of the Sanskrit mantra).” I said, “How can that be?” She said, “We took him to the hospital, and he had all the tests, but nothing was there except a tiny black thing. Nothing else. But he could hardly eat anything for a whole year, and he had terrible stomach pain all the time. And then he died.”

dried eucalyptus twig and seeds

Veerappan, the Notorious Brigand, Bit the Dust after two decades of being chased around the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka by various groups of law enforcers. They couldn’t kill him until he was old and sick: he had asthma and stomach ailments, and had lost sight in one eye. But still, it was a Glorious Victory.


Back in 2000, when he had just kidnapped Karnataka’s most famous film star, Rajkumar, and was holding him for ransom, I wondered if I could write something about Veerappan. I couldn’t, but here are some of my notes:
Amid dense forests, hills, ravines, Veerappan, the famous bandit, killer of hundreds of elephants, feller of thousands of sandalwood trees, murderer of more than 100 men, is famous for his big moustache.

The first years among the trees were good. Everyone feared him, and if they didn't they were soon dead, beheaded most likely. the police forces of two states chased him through the woods like Keystone Kops, bumping into tree-trunks as he slipped away with a twirl of his moustache. Once Veerappan strangled his own baby daughter, because she was crying and police were nearby.

He's aging now, he has asthma, his guts ache from eating on the run: rice and dal buried in secret places, game he has killed, water from anywhere. He has to dye his moustache black. He wants to come in from the forest. So he kidnaps the most beloved movie star in the state of Karnataka, Rajkumar, another old man who ought to retire. They are sitting together on a fallen log, and it's raining heavily.

Milk of Magnesia

Veerappan submitts his demands on a cassette tape. Not for a hot bath, a soft bed, but for statues of Tamil poets to be erected in the major towns. The governments of the two states meet in high level conference, and agree. The real stuff, the money, is kept secret.

Rajnikant, the god of Tamil cinema - he's also getting on in years, he dyes his moustache too - volunteers to go to the forest to negotiate. Jaya Prada, former film heroine, now politician, sends the bracelet a sister ties on her brother's wrist. Thus armed, she declares her willingness to go into the forest.

Veerappan runs the back of his forefinger over one side of his moustache. It comforts him, like a small cat, warm on his cheek. He wants to get out alive. He never wants to see another tree.

Three things from the badminton court

Okay, I'm going back inside now.

No Time to Play

I just don't seem to have much time to come out and play here. I'm going to take some time off. Thanks very much for coming. If you haven't read my archives: I've been getting the feeling that they're more interesting than what I've been writing lately - take a look.

See you one of these days (probably sooner than I think, judging from my one past experience in the hiatus biz).

bougainvillea petals, near the gate

Lost at the Movies

We were playing badminton, and I decided to pretend that I was Toshiro Mifune – not the shambling samurai of Yojimbo, or Sanjiro, or Seven Samurai; but the proud, yet compassionate and wise doctor of Red Beard. It didn’t work though: by the time I had drawn myself up and glared at the shuttle, it had gone elsewhere. I should have tried the brutal bandit of Rashomon – he was very quick, and didn’t spend much time thinking things over.

We’ve been seeing a number of Kurosawa movies lately, and I’m under Mifune’s spell – what presence that man had. The minute he enters the scene, everything becomes electrified.

Then, two days ago, we saw yet another amazing Iranian film: Secret Ballot. Although the director, Babak Payami, has lived in Canada since 1988, the film has the characteristics that I associate with Iranian films: making a lot out of almost nothing; the most subtle expression of feeling; the use of non-actors in their own setting; natural light; little music... The film is about a woman who arrives on the remote island of Kish, in the Persian Gulf, to collect the votes on Election Day. A soldier patrolling the coast to prevent smuggling is assigned to drive her around the island. It was funny and touching at the same time. I’ve been thinking about it and smiling ever since.

Yesterday I went to return the DVDs to the library, and discovered that the Tamil Nadu government has closed all video libraries, to combat video piracy. It reminded me of something Ramesh said years ago: If your watch is stolen, don’t report it to the government. Their response will be not to catch the thief, but to ban all watches. I don’t know how long the closure will last, but in the meantime, I’m going to watch Secret Ballot again.

Elephant Hunting

I have a book, a huge, heavy tome, called Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce & Industrial Resources, published by The Foreign & Colonial Compiling & Publishing Co., London, in 1916. I’m not sure what it’s for really, but it may have been meant to lure English businessmen to South India: there’s a lot about the industries of South India, pictures of the principal cities, information about the hill plantations, and so on.

Last night I was leafing through it, and came to the Fauna section, which was full of photographs like this one:

1. Tiger shot by G. Hadfield. 2. Shot by J. H. Wapshare,
on June 28, 1891. 3. Record Bison, 46 in.; shot by Gordon Hadfield.
4. Panther (7 ft. 9 in.) shot by Gordon Hadfield.

Here is an excerpt from the Fauna section, describing the hunting of a rogue elephant:
The elephant is generally protected in British territory. Only proclaimed rogues may be shot, but leave may occasionally be obtained to shoot one in Native States or on private land. …

In some localities immunity from pursuit has made them very bold, and they do a considerable amount of damage by devouring the crops of the villagers, and refuse to be frightened away by the shouts of the watchers who are on guard to protect the fields from the ravages of wild beasts. Solitary tuskers are most troublesome in this respect … As a rule the elephant is inoffensive as far as human beings are concerned, but a rogue elephant will frequently terrorize a whole countryside, chasing any one whom it sees and killing any one whom it can catch. There is perhaps no sport which is quite so dangerous as the pursuit of the rogue elephant. His keenness of scent makes it a matter of difficulty to approach him unobserved, while the thickness of the jungle which he usually inhabits gives the sportsman but a poor chance of escape if he should fail to floor him.

The following account of the death of a rogue elephant gives a good idea of the dangers to be overcome: --

"The tracks led us at first through bamboo forest, and then we got into terrible country, which consisted of a series of low hills and deep ravines. The undergrowth of thorns and shrubs was bad enough, but in addition the whole place was chock-full of a sort of reed with long leaves about an inch or so broad. The elephants, had, of course, knocked these down in their passage, so going downhill was one long slide and going up beggars description. To add to the difficulties the thorned cane grew everywhere. The reeds were 8 to 10 ft. high on the lower slopes, and taller still in the ravines. On the tops of the hills the undergrowth was only up to our knees. We twisted and turned in all directions, and several times came to places where the elephants had rested. After passing one of these the scent became red-hot, and a pig suddenly grunting put the Korachas into the 'On your marks, gentlemen,' position. Not long after this, at about noon, we heard the elephants feeding in front, and I and one Koracha crept forward. The elephants were in a deep nullah, hidden among the reeds and cane. The sides were, for a wonder, clear of reeds, but were covered with a mixed tangle of thorn bushes and saplings. From our side the further bank was visible, but only in one place was there a space sufficiently open for us to see even an elephant. We could only get within 30 yards, and at that distance could see the tops of the reeds shake as the elephants fed on them. The wind seemed steady in the right direction. We watched from behind a huge tree trunk, and the Koracha showed me by signs that he thought the elephants would move towards us. A quarter of an hour thus passed; then suddenly one of the elephants trumpeted, and a tremendous crashing in the reeds ensued. The Koracha bolted away to the side of the ravine. One of the elephants went away to the side and the other crossed the open space mentioned above and stood with its head hidden and body perfectly exposed. I had been looking in the wrong direction, so did not notice whether this elephant was the tusker or no. Consequently I did nothing, but the Koracha, pointing frantically and calling as I then imagined (though, needless to say, he knows not a word of English), 'That is the one,' I took careful aim just behind the shoulder and fired. The elephant moved a yard and then stood still again. Thereupon I fired the left barrel and the brute rolled into the ravine. There was a tremendous crashing noise for a few minutes and then all was quiet. After a wait I started to climb down to investigate, but gave up the idea on a frenzied protest from the Koracha. He signed that we should clear out, and as it as only wise to give the elephant time to die, I agreed. We had walked 20 yards parallel with the ravine and a few yards from the top when we heard the elephant following us along the bottom. The reeds appeared to me to be only 4 or 5 ft. high, so I concluded the elephant's death struggles were causing it to move down the slope. Thinking another shot would be advisable, I approached to within a distance of 15 yards, the Koracha protesting, but following all the same. The elephant was moving about, and suddenly its head appeared in the normal position. This surprised me greatly, as I still imagined it to be on its side, as it was till then invisible. I fired at the head and it was withdrawn. In a few minutes the trunk appeared, pointed in our direction, and wagging about like a leech. A trumpet, and the elephant came out of the reeds full speed. I had been absolutely deceived as to the depth of the ravine and the height of the reeds: the latter approached 20 ft. The Koracha was off like a shot, and shouted frantically for me to follow. I knew that escape by running was impossible for me in that tangle of thorns and trees, so stood still and trusted to Providence to be able to stop the brute. It got 5 yards out of the reeds, and was then 8 or 10 yards from me. At that point the bank was not far from perpendicular, and the ground being soft and slippery the elephant was temporarily checked. Taking advantage of this I fired, but it had not the desired effect. I see now that I misjudged the position of the head, and put the bullet into the hard bone at the top. I did not dare try and load my right barrel, but thought my best chance was to wait until the elephant was right on me and then fire in his face and try to escape past him in the confusion. Just as this flashed across my mind the elephant turned a bit to the side and exposed the side of his head. I immediately fired my second cartridge, and to my relief the elephant fell back into the ravine. Apparently the shot had finished him, for he lay like a log for two or three minutes. The Koracha and I commenced mutual congratulations in dumb show, and were carrying on an excited conversation without being able to understand a word the other said, when the elephant returned to life and started to rise. The Koracha disappeared like magic, and I opened a steady fire on the brute’s head. After three ineffectual shots I began to wonder if the orderly was right when he said that the bullets would not penetrate the skin. The elephant recovered rapidly, and if the fourth shot had not floored him I should certainly have retired in confusion. This time the brute fell right back into the reeds and lay completely hidden. The noise of his breathing showed that one of the body shots had pierced his lungs, and I imagine that a solid nickel bullet through the lungs has no immediate effect on a large animal, though it must eventually kill it. I now went back to camp, a distance of 3 or 4 miles, and on returning after having some food, found the elephant stone dead.

The tusks of this elephant measured 5 ft 9 in. and 5 t 11 in. respectively, and weighed 127 lb. the pair."

A Dinner Party

Last night we went to a dinner hosted by our bank. In America, my bank never asked me to dinner, but it happens here among the private banks.

The party was well-done: it was held at the Taj hotel. Good liquour was served, which is important: those who like imported Scotch must drink it at a hotel, and pay a fabulous price for it; or, for home consumption, they must phone the bootlegger. He will bring Black Label or Chivas, say, wrapped up in newspaper, and the customer must hope that it is genuine. (I had a glass of okay Indian wine, which, for a reason beyond my understanding, cannot be sold in the wine shops of Tamil Nadu.)

Entertainment was provided: a man named Ash Chandler, who was introduced as 'India’s first English-language standup comedian.' In fact, he was Indian-American, here on a visit, and most of his material was American. Some of it must have gone over the audience’s head: herpes, not an issue here; an imagined eulogy for John Holmes, whom no one had heard of; Kerry’s body language. But he also sang several songs, did some good impressions – essential for Indian comedians – and told a few India-related jokes ("Nagaland – anyone here from Nagaland? No? Come to think of it, have you ever met anyone from Nagaland? Do you think there really is a Nagaland, or did they just make it up?"), so it worked out well.

We had an excellent dinner, chatted with a couple of people whom we hadn’t met for awhile, and went home feeling that our bank must really like us.