Pipal and Strawberries

've been trying to paint a watercolour from a photo I took in Calcutta, of a broken brick wall with a pipal tree growing on top of and through it. Trying to mix the colour of the bricks, I produced something that reminded me of strawberries -- far from the dark, sooty colour I needed.

The painting looks ghastly, and I doubt that I can fix it. Still, trying ought to teach me something. I guess?

Here's the photograph:

It looks like Angkor Wat, not like something in the middle of a living city. Something so ordinary that no-one even sees it. (Though last week two separate people visited us from Calcutta, and both of them said to me, "Whenever I see a broken-down building I think of you.")

Sorting Ba's Things

When my mother-in-law, who was called Ba ('mother'), died, I wrote a series of poems about it. I've posted two of them earlier: Journeying and Uses for Wood. Here's another one:

Sorting Ba's Things

Sorting through cupboards in Ba's old room,
I tugged a stuck drawer open,
pulled the string of a small cloth bag, to find
pink and white grins of outgrown false teeth;
in another bag, spectacles, blinking in the light.

And there were her gods and puja implements -
incense sticks, oil lamps with wicks she rolled
out of cotton and ghee, small statues of Krishna,
elephant-headed Ganesh, Lakshmi the wealth-giver,
the book of slokas she chanted every day.

Sunday mornings she watched Mahabharat on TV -
a miracle in every episode - gods' stately progress
through the air, seated on lotus flowers;
towering demons with big bellies and walrus fangs
who laughed "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" just before
a hurled fire-discus struck them between the eyes
and they toppled like trees.
Sometimes I sat to watch with her,
and she would say, "Did you see that?!"

Dear Ba, by the end all the sets of teeth hurt you,
you wore them only for photographs,
and the glasses could not make the slokas clear.

May Lakshmi keep you beside her
on the silky petals of her pink lotus.
May Ganesh feed you the sweet ladoo he holds.
And when you are sated and sleepy,
may Krishna soothe you with the song of his flute.

A Death

Someone whom we knew died yesterday night. He was elderly, had been ailing in mind and body for some time, and died quietly in his sleep; so it was expected, acceptable. We went in the morning to his house. His body had been laid on the floor on a cloth, as is customarily done here. Another cloth covered his body, leaving his head visible. One rose garland had been placed on his chest. Except for the cotton stuffed into his nostrils, it was difficult to believe that he was dead. The overhead fan stirred the cloth, so that at times he appeared to be breathing. The furniture had been cleared away, except for a few chairs against the wall. His wife sat on the floor near his head, with several women around her. We also sat. She was calm, and chatted with us about her husband, things they had said to each other on the previous day. The front door was kept open, and I could see people moving up and down the sunny street. In an hour or so a priest was to come, to perform the last rites. Then our friend would be carried to the crematorium. In the evening his ashes would be immersed in the sea. To me, this is the simplest, most perfect way to deal with a death.

As I was writing this, tears began to stream down my face. Not for the man who died, but for death: its solemnity, death in the midst of life, acceptance, etc. etc. -- things that I can’t write about without falling into cliché. Then the doorbell rang. It was the generator repairman, who pretended not to notice that I was wiping my eyes and sniffling as I talked to him.

Two Things

Yesterday: so much wind that crows were blown all over the sky - while down below we played badminton like fools, chasing the shuttle around the court. We are superstitious about missing a day, even in such crazy weather.

It was Buddha Poornima, the birthday of Gautama Buddha (my last year's post); the birthday of the Sikh Guru Nanak; and the Tamil festival Karthikkai Deepam, a kind of sequel to Divali. Fireworks in the distance.

Rain morning and evening, the first since the sharp thunderstorm last week.

Thanks to Tilo for sending me a link to a paper on the ancient Tamil tradition of tauromachy, bull-baiting: Callikka··u — Embracing the Bull, Tamil Style. The paper also includes some translations of ancient poetry and folk songs referring to tauromachy.
A really interesting Dutch site: I Travel in Your Head
´Ik reis in jouw hoofd´ - I travel in your head - visual correspondent in Morocco is a project by visual artist Aline Thomassen and the Artoteek The Hague with sound compositions by the musician Lazaro Tejedor, in collaboration with Museum Het Domein, Sittard and GEM, The Hague...

For three months Aline Thomassen will work in Tangier and the surrounding province as visual correspondent.
In a journal of drawings she will share her daily experiences with the audience in The Netherlands via the internet. Lazaro Tejedor completes the picture of the day with current sound fragments from Morocco...

Aline Thomassen in known for here watercolours and paintings of Mediterranean women in strange, dreamlike situations. She has been inspired by her many and long stays in Morocco...

What Her Girlfriend Said

Here's another Tamil poem from the Sangam Period (100 BC - AD 250), from A. K. Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War:
What Her Girl Friend Said
to him (on her behalf) when he came by daylight

Playing with friends one time
we pressed a ripe seed
into the white sand
and forgot about it
till it sprouted

and when we nursed it tenderly
pouring sweet milk with melted butter,
Mother said,
"It qualifies
as a sister to you, and it's much better
than you,"
praising this laurel tree.

we're embarrassed
to laugh with you here
O man of the seashore
with glittering waters
where white conch shells,
their spirals turning right,
sound like the soft music
of bards at a feast.

Yet, if you wish,
there's plenty of shade
Narrinai 172

Main Hoon Na

We watched the DVD of a recent Hindi film, Main Hoon Na. (The English title, which is close enough, is “I’m Here Now.”) The film was advertised as a light-hearted tribute to the great days of the delirious masala film, the kind of film which has everything – brothers separated and reunited, a Mother, romance, action, desh bhakti (patriotism). A kind of Manmohan Desai film without all the rona-dhona (moaning-and-groaning). We found it delightful. It wasn’t done in the smirky way of some of the Bollywood self-parodies – it was played pretty straight, with the most understated acting I’ve ever seen from Shahrukh Khan. The songs were catchy. All was bright. By the time dozens of qawwals popped up to sing about ishq ishq ('love love'), we were completely sold. It was full of allusions to other Hindi (and western) films, but it was so much fun – and it has subtitles – that I think any non-Indian who is curious about Bollywood films would be able to enjoy it.

Speaking of desh bhakti: We used to know an army man. He had fought in several of India’s wars, and had medals for bravery. He and his wife would drop in unexpectedly, often after having a few drinks elsewhere. After all the helloing and such, he would sit down and say to me, in a gruff, military kind of way, “Desh bhakti! Play desh bhakti songs!” And I would dig out a recording of E Mere Pyare Watan (‘O my beloved homeland’), which is 1) a beatiful, haunting song, from Kabuliwala; and 2) the only Hindi song that I can actually sing every word of, from beginning to end.

Sometimes, after the Brigadier had had a few more drinks, he would suddenly stand up, put his glass on his head, and begin a slow, graceful dance. His wife would tell him angrily to sit down and stop making a fool of himself. But that’s another story.

The only Tamil film song that I could sing all the way through (but I've forgotten it now) was Adi Ennadi Rakamma, from an old Shivaji Ganesan movie. I knew you wanted to know this.

Links to other places

Thanks to Anand, who sent me the link for Seminar magazine. Its April 2004 issue was devoted to Changing Chennai. (I've met half of the contributors at numerous parties -- a reminder of what a small town this big city can be.) One of the articles, Two People, One Industry, sets one of my favourite films, Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, in the larger context of Tamil cinema. (This article is for Tamil cinephiles only, I'm afraid -- I enjoyed reading it, but realised that I'd seen only three of the numerous films it mentioned.)

A terrifically creepy spider (well, not creepy to Dinesh Rao, whose spider blog gave me the link.)

Download, cut out and assemble your own Punch and Judy playset. (Am I the only one who thinks of Punch whenever I see [Hindi filmstar] Saif Ali Khan?)

What's up in space? Find out on Space Weather.


In India, magicians look like this:

P. C. Sorcar Jr., an eighth-generation magician,
son of P. C. Sorcar

Jadugar ('magician') Anand, now playing in Chennai

Samrat Shankar

What I'm wondering about is whether the look - fake moustache and eyebrows, turban - is in imitation of Sorcar, the most famous Indian magician; or whether there is some older theatrical tradition, on which they all draw.

The Garden and Some Other Things

I’ve been walking in the garden and picking things up from the ground. The weather is lovely: breezy and not too warm – the best weather that there can be in Chennai. I found a sprig of eucalyptus leaves and seeds:

A slim, lightning-quick lizard darted away from me. They are much more attractive than the fat house-lizards – and are supposed to be poisonous.

One corner of the garden is less tended than the (not-very-tended) rest, and I imagine it as a bit of forest in the city. There is a flowering tree, whose flowers one hardly notices until they fall. When they are in season the ground is carpeted with them. Now I’ve begun to see just a few of them every day:

They are so delicate that they look as if they had been crushed. Their frilled petals are the palest lavender-pink, almost white, and they have fine pink lines which lead into the greenish yellow depths. In 1990 the tree on which they grow was blown over by a cyclone – or the fringes of one – but we managed to raise it up again. It has these fragile, crumpled flowers, but it survives.

When I was buying light bulbs and fuses to replace the burned ones last week (I go to a shop off Kutcheri Road, which sells electrical things in the front and tea in the back. The proprietor gave me a good cup of Nilgiri tea while I waited for my purchases to be collected and packed), I somehow got stuck in the maze of small streets that is Mylapore. One of the things I saw was a gaunt bullock, unhitched and munching on a small heap of straw and onions which the cartman had put out on the edge of its cart.

The refrigerator repair man was a young Tamil Muslim, with a white lace cap and a fringe of soft black beard under his chin. He was very polite – he called Ramesh Walid Sahib, which means “Respected Father.” When I offered him tea, because the main power switch had been turned off by electricians, and he had to wait, he said that he was fasting (it was the end of Ramzan). As he was leaving the house, he said to me, “Thinks good, life good,” which I took to mean that positive thinking is beneficial. (This was before the stabiliser which he supplied caught fire; but I appreciate his good intentions and his politeness.)

A Couple of Quick Things About Movies

A good piece by Suketu Mehta in the New York Times Magazine, about why a large chunk of the world loves Bollywood movies: Bollywood Confidential

Ramesh was describing to me an old Dilip Kumar film, Arzoo (1950).

At the end of the film there is a scene in which Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal are standing on the threshhold of a house, conducting a very intense conversation. People keep entering and leaving the house, the conversation is interrupted with polite greetings and good-byes, and then resumed. As soon as I heard this, I thought of my favourite scene in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998), in which the two main characters are standing in a dark hallway, with a swinging door behind them, conducting a very intense conversation.

Dil Se

People keep passing them in the hall, the swinging door opens and closes, making the light change again and again, very beautifully, and forcing the characters to break off their talk to speak to the passers-by. Is it a coincidence, or Mani Ratnam’s homage to Arzoo?

(I saw it on Mysterium) A lively website promoting Gurinder Chadha's film Bride and Prejudice. (Though it has a number of mistakes -- e.g., in the Cast section, Anupam Kher (male) was identified as Nadira Babar (female); and Namrata Shirodkar as Namarta Shirodokar.) This film was not a success in India -- did it do well in the exotic West?

Ghost World: Bollywood Noir - Essays on noir-inflected Bollywood cinema from the 1940s to the present by Gary Sullivan. (But there's only one essay there at the moment, about Kohraa.)

We saw an amazing film, No Man’s Land (2001), set in a beautiful meadow, literally in the middle of the Bosnian-Serb conflict in 1993. (The New York Times review) Eastern European filmmakers are masters of being funny and harrowing at the same time. You laugh, even though you know that there can be no good outcome. The film was so haunting that we watched it again the next day. It was very, very tightly written, nothing extra at all. It was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

Fire and Flood

The cheap clay parrot that I bought almost 20 years ago on a footpath in Delhi, I think, broke yesterday. Its head had an inquiring tilt that I liked very much. Lakshmi says that I can find another one near the Velankanni Church, or in Mylapore near the temple – where vendors sell trinkets to pilgrims. But the parrots that I have seen lately have been made of plastic.

Slightly higher up the scale of Disasters, domestic: Divali was last week. For most Hindus, it’s the major festival of the year. It means lights, and fireworks, and new clothes, and sweets. In our house we had a kind of anti-Divali. First, two days before, there was a terrible power surge. It damaged or destroyed many of our electric appliances (fridge, DVD player, printer etc.) … light bulbs that weren’t even switched on exploded with loud bangs and flame.

The day after Divali, there was a terrific - and rare - thunderstorm. Our gardener, who was supposed to keep leaves clear of the downspouts, hadn’t, so water built up in the terrace as in a shallow swimming pool, then burst inside and poured down the stairs like a waterfall.

The man who had repaired the fridge said that we needed a stabiliser, and that he could supply it to us. We agreed and he installed something that, in retrospect, was grossly underpowered, and made of an inflammable plastic. Two days after the flood, I heard loud banging noises once again, went to the kitchen and found the stabiliser burning like a torch and emitting heavy, tarry smoke. I ran back to where Ramesh was sitting and shouted, “The stabiliser is on fire! Do something!” Which he did. It wasn’t the way I had imagined myself responding to an emergency. I did better with the flood, giving more specific orders to the staff and throwing buckets of water over the parapet, as though we were sinking.

In short, we feel somewhat as though a cement mixer has been dropped on our hearts.

It’s hard to feel sorry for oneself these days, when so many terrible things are happening in the world. But I managed it by remembering a Gujarati poem, the gist of which is: When the sun, which seems so enormous, is a speck in a sky full of stars, who can say that the lamp in one’s house is not the sun’s equal?

Elephants Again

I guess I'm back. It's easy not to be back, but it's hard to quit, too. I value too much being forced to pay attention, to write (almost) everyday -- and the feeling that I'm communicating to someone -- to you, Reader.

I begin nice and easy, with elephants: it's time for Tamil Nadu's second annual elephant rejuvenation camp. Two articles from The Hindu:

To rejuvenation camp

Vellaiyammal starts its journey to Mudumalai on Tuesday.
Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

(From the article:) It's that time of the year in Tamil Nadu again, when captive elephants get to have a holiday, complete with good food, a daily bath — the works. Elephants from different parts of the State are now headed for the State Government-organised Mudumalai rejuvenation camp in Nilgiris district. ...

From Thanjavur, the granary of the State, Vellaiyammal, a majestic elephant of the Big Temple, left for the camp this morning. The elephant, which last year gave mahouts and other organisers of the trip a tough time before getting into a truck for the long trip, just walked into the vehicle at 7 a.m. ...

Gaja puja (elephant worship) was performed to Vellaiyammal ... A big flower garland and a dhothi were offered to the elephant and aarthis (worship with oil lamps) performed. The truck left at 8 a.m.....

Elephants begin journey (up to the minute info on arrangements made for the mahouts, the elephant that refused to get on the truck, names of elephants going to camp, etc.)

The Srirangam Ranganathaswamy temple elephant, Andal,
is all set to leave Tiruchi for the annual rejuvenation camp
at Mudumalai on Tuesday. Photo: R. M. Rajarathinam