I'm very grateful to those who have written to ask how I am. We're still on vacation. Friends who went to our house to see if it had been affected tell us that it is okay -- we're about a mile from the coast, and the water didn't reach us. But I'm worried about our servants. Two of them live in our compound, so they're okay, but two more, and families of the two who live with us, are in slums very near the sea. Our friends said that our compound is full of people, the extended families of the staff, who are camping out there. They are handing out fresh water to displaced people nearby. Beyond that, we won't know what's really happening until we return on the fourth.

I hope that those who read this are safe and warm, and that all your family and friends are, too. I don't believe in the efficacy of prayer, but I can't help praying anyway -- for so many thousands of people, the dead and those who have survived.

Out of Station; and a couple of things

I'll be away for two weeks -- see you in the new year.

A shop at Tambaram selling Christmas decorations --
Photo for the Hindu by K. Pichumani

Last night we saw a very muddled-up film called Grande Ecole. This morning I looked for a review, and found only a couple. I put this French one through Google's translator, and was pleased, because the review came out as muddled-up -- though delightfully so -- as the film:
"dramatic Comedy". A classification which goes like a glove to this film! If it is a comedy, it is dramatic. If it is a drama, it is laughable... It is there, it is very fresh: The turnip of the year! It is still with the poster, and one wonders well why... Good they is young people "who do not want any", and who are in a "large school" of trade. The elite as which would say. But of the questions turlupinent them, it is the case to say it, since one of them wonders whether it would not be there times a little homo on the edges... WITH THE SECOOOOURS! I want to leave this room. Not: I MUST leave before the next tirade...!! Wedged in the beautiful medium of the line, such were my thoughts during a good hour. But "to go", said to me I to encourage me, "the film will reveal his true face, it is not possible: it will occur a trick well ". Eh well at all my good lady! That nenni: Integral stew, the turnip, nullity, the false note. Never considering a similar horror... Then I summarize the reasons for which it is an absolutely abominable film? Eh well it is very simple: bombastic dialogues, painfully ânonnés by credible actors like tails of stoves, the whole filmed with... Euh with nothing in fact, it is well the problem! The mobile of this cinematographic assassination? Eh well one does not know. If the realizer had a message, personally I hesitate between "you would make better return on your premise, or to slip discretos to you into the room of with side" and "I looked at the series of AB Production too much, help me". I hesitate, I hesitate. Especially, especially, do not go there. You will not be able to say that I will not have warned you...

I posted a picture yesterday of S.S. Vasan's house, which has been torn down. Today's The Hindu had this about the house:
...The industrialist C. Rajam built the India House [the house's actual name, though it was known as Gemini House] in the 1930s. Mr. Rajam lived there until 1944. The house was sold to the Raja of Sivaganga, who later sold it to the founder of Gemini Pictures, S.S. Vasan....

Demolition Day 3

It really is the end of an era, although S.S. Vasan's house can still be seen in innumerable Tamil films:

Giving way to modernity

Vasan's House on Radhakrishnan Salai - a landmark in Chennai - being brought down to give way to a modern structure. The house belonged to S.S. Vasan, the pioneer filmmaker and publisher who ran Gemini Pictures and Ananda Vikatan group of publications. The bungalow, which wore a deserted look for many years, was rented out for film and TV shooting.

How many times I have driven past it, and seen that a film-shooting was going on, because of the bright lights and the big reflectors; and because of the small crowd of people gathered on the road to peer over the top of the compound wall.

Oats, Cheese and Breakdowns

I decided to make bread today. I found a recipe for oat and cheese bread which looked interesting. But I had chosen one of those days -- increasingly frequent -- of power outages. The power went out FOUR TIMES, each time for more than 20 minutes, and I just couldn't get the bread into my electric oven. The fourth time, I decided to run the generator, just to get the bread baked. Then it conked -- because the repairmen, who had been working on it yesterday AGAIN, had screwed up the settings so that it couldn't take the load of the oven.

Finally, I tore off hunks of the bread dough, rolled them out like parathas / pitas, and cooked them on a dry griddle. They were pretty good, too.

The generator people are coming tomorrow morning AGAIN, and the washing-machine guy is coming in the afternoon AGAIN. This is one of the real Third World things about living in Chennai: the power supply is just not reliable. We've replaced every appliance at least twice, because of extreme fluctuations. We've spent a fortune on stabilisers, UPS's, better versions of both... The state of Tamil Nadu is trying hard to attract IT and manufacturing industries, and with some success. But without steady power -- never mind water, and a few other problems -- I wonder how far they will be able to succeed.

Anyway, if you haven't tried oat and cheese parathas, I commend them to you.

Show and Tell

These are my shoes.

They were a gift, hand-made for me in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, a city famous for its shoes. The shoemaker came to the place where I was staying to trace the outline of my foot. Everyone told me that the shoes would be the most comfortable I had ever worn: they would form themselves around my feet like gloves-for-the-feet. In fact, they are excruciating to wear -- longer and narrower and smaller in circumference than my feet. I totter in them like a bound-footed woman, even though they look enormous.

Don't miss the curly toes. I feel like Dorothy in rhinestone slippers when I put them on. I'm going to try to paint them now, just like Van Gogh did -- even though his weren't nearly so... so... as mine are.

Well, that's about it. I just wanted you to know how much cooler I am than you are -- unless you have shoes like these too.


Some Art Links

Yesterday's New York Times had an article about Steve Mumford, an American artist embedded in Iraq, with a link onward to his paintings and articles in Artnet.

I'm looking at a few of Mumford's paintings every day. Today, I followed them with today's painting from ik reis in jouw hoofd.

Then I moved to Duane Keiser, who has been making a painting a day. They're beautifully filled with light.

And just to bring things down to a much safer level: Paint your own kaleidoscope.

Via Metafilter: Francis Bacon's Studio

Sunday Out

Yesterday, friends took us to Eden, a vegetarian restaurant in the new Harrison’s Hotel. As we emerged from the elevator, the lobby was crammed with people waiting to get in. We entered into a sustained roar, punctuated by the shrieks and squeals of numerous children. Ramesh took a look around and said, “My God, you’ve brought me to the Gujarati Samaj (Society).” It appeared that half the Gujarati and Marwari population of Chennai was there. With their children.

Among Gujaratis Ramesh becomes Rameshbhai, and several people came up to greet him by that name. (Bhai = brother; the female equivalent is ben, sister. These must be appended to all Gujarati names. Though not many people actually call me Nancyben. I confuse them.) One thing I’ve learned, after being married to a (very atypical) Gujarati for sixteen years, is that most Gujaratis love to eat a vast variety of (vegetarian) foods, and that they will not flock to any place where the food isn’t good. So I decided to let the intense clamour of conversation wash over me and enjoy it.

The food was good, not sensational, and had a wholesome quality. A mix of cuisines: pasta, curry-rice, tandoor, idli-dosai, that sort of thing, all made by what Ramesh insisted must be a Gujarati cook. (We didn’t check, it was too hectic.)

While we were eating a small boy came up behind Ramesh and said, “Boo!” He made Ramesh jump, and grinned widely. The boy said, “Uncle, where are you from?” R: “I’m from outer space.” Boy: “Where, Uncle?” R: “From between Venus and Mars.” The boy ran to convey this information to his mother, who sent him back to ask, “Uncle, are you a scientist?” R: “I’m an astronaut.” This satisfied him, or didn’t, but he did not return.

By the time we left the place, my throat was sore from trying to talk through the din.

The traffic equivalent of the restaurant where we ate last night – a very typical scene, near the Gemini Flyover. From The Hindu, photo by S. R. Raghunathan

This and That

Cream cheese (Malai Chaska) and crackers, carrot soup and pomegranate for lunch. I haven't been much of a fan of the colour orange, but carrot-colour and the dark, almost blood-red of pomegranates suddenly look very attractive to me, side by side like this. I have to have some blue in everything, though.

food stylist: Lourdes Mary

I was listening to the music of Swadesh, a new Hindi movie. It has a bhajan, a hymn to Ram, which includes the words 'Manse Ram jo nikaale Ram unke man men hain.' I made a mistake in translating it: the verb nikaalna means to take out, bring forth, or remove. I thought the line meant, 'even those who remove Ram from their hearts -- i.e., those who reject Ram -- Ram is in their hearts also.' But Ramesh said that it means 'Those who utter the name of Ram -- i.e., those who bring forth [the name of] Ram -- Ram is in their hearts.' No matter how much I think I understand, I still make such apparently elementary mistakes.

[update: I really shouldn't translate lyrics I listen to in the car, and then post them on this blog! Luckily, alert reader Sankalp pointed out that the lyric should actually be 'Manse Raavan jo nikaale Ram unke man men hain.' Raavan is a demon, Ram's adversary. I confirmed it -- it turns out that the CD has the lyrics tucked inside. So we go back to my original translation of nikaalna as removing something: Those who remove Raavan, i.e., evil, from their hearts, Ram is in their hearts. I have to say that I like my original (wrong) version much better. And I note that Shivani confirms that in my original wrong hearing, Ramesh's translation would also have been correct. So that takes care of that, I guess. *covers her scarlet face with her hands*]
Spent most of the day trudging around Spencer Plaza, a huge anthill of stores and people, the closest thing we have to a shopping mall. On the way in to the parking basement, I saw a funny sign:
Devdas never drove -- don't drink and drive.

More to come... probably.

Odds and Ends

I'm grateful to those who answered my request for comments on the poem I posted yesterday. It has helped me to clarify the way I read it. And the comments were good, and thoughtful, and a pleasure to read.

Hindi movie fight line:
I'll beat you into such a death that death itself will become exhausted!

A couple of links:
Moleskinerie slideshow, on Flickr
The Squared Circle slideshow, also on Flickr
Make Your Own Snowflake (because I haven't seen a snowflake for almost 20 years)

A little girl, begging with an even smaller boy, approached me as I was coming out of a shop. I told her to go away, but she stuck to me as I walked to the car, deliberately getting in my way so that I had to swerve to avoid knocking her down. Then she actually began to slap my arm lightly -- not very hard, just enough to provoke me. She didn't say a word. When I got into the car, she pulled on the door handle just as it was about to shut, so that it opened again and I had to slam it, and lock the door. Then she stood at the window staring at me, and slapping the glass. This is unusual: when beggars see that you aren't going to give them money, they usually move on to the next person. But this girl wanted to get a reaction out of me. And she did -- I can feel her hand slapping my arm as I write about her now. (I am inside the car, and she is outside hitting the glass, because God wants me to be happy.)

A Brief for the Defense

I was reading the November 15 New Yorker, and I came upon this poem:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

-Jack Gilbert

Okay, now that you have read this, please help me. I'm unable to catch the tone. Is he serious? Is it irony? It was the line, "...we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants" that first pulled me up. Maybe the fact that I don't share this belief kept me from being able to understand. Parts of the poem make sense to me -- I believe that one should try to face this terrible world with as much delight as one can muster. But should one give thanks when the locomotive of the Lord runs one down?

Is this really a brief for the defense? Or for the prosecution? I don't usually feel at such a loss. I'd be very interested in your comments on this poem, especially on what you think the author intended.

(Read twelve more poems by Jack Gilbert at the plagiarist poetry archive. I particularly like one of them, The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart.)

Pomegranates and Pepper

It's pomegranate season. I like to eat the ... what are they called? the juicy seed coverings ... with a spoon, but Ramesh loves dark purply-red pomegranate juice, dry and faintly sweet, seasoned with black pepper.

When I was a child, my mother gave me toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. When I grew up I exchanged the cinnamon for cardamom. When I entered this house, I learned about toast with sugar and freshly-ground black pepper, and I think that's the best of all.

Vendors stand by the roadside in Calcutta with their wares spread on a tray resting on a woven stand -- in this case, loaves of white bread; a brick of butter; sugar, and pepper. People on the way to the office stop and buy, keep their briefcases safely gripped between their legs, and eat bread and butter.

December Poo

A question for Tamil speakers: I had earlier posted a drawing of a flower from a tree that grows in our garden. In the comments, Raj suggested that the flower was one called December poo ('flower').

At the time I didn't think about it, but it suddenly occurred to me that this might be the flower referred to in Margazhi Poovai, a beautiful song from Mai Maatham (an amusing film, based loosely on It Happened One Night, which apparently didn't succeed at the box office. I bought the music because I was collecting everything by A.R. Rahman). Is that right? And by the way, if so, what is the December flower doing in a film called 'The Month of May'?

Two Things

Lakshmi went to the temple and brought back a plastic parrot for me. I had told her that I wanted a clay one to replace the one that broke, but this is what she saw, and this is what she brought:

It’s skinny, and has a worried expression. It appears to be pacing up and down, dragging its tail like a burden behind it. I feel sorry for this parrot.

I went to get my hair cut. The hairdresser is a Chinese woman from Calcutta. Usually I drop in without making an appointment, we nod and smile at each other, I sit in her chair, she cuts my hair quickly and efficiently, I pay her and leave. But this time she was in a chatty mood. She had just returned from a visit to her daughter, who is married and living abroad. She had eaten a lot – “I put on 2 kgs. weight, can you tell?” Like most people who return from abroad, and because the Christmas season is approaching, she had bought some liquour and packed it in her luggage. [Almost no foreign liquour is sold here legally (bootleggers flourish). Instead, we have something known as IMFL, “Indian-Made Foreign Liquour” – that is, locally-made scotch, gin, vodka, rum, etc. (I don’t think there is such a category as IMIL, but if there were it would include arrack; feni, made from cashews, from Goa; toddy, made from palm sap; and beer.) When returning from abroad, one is allowed to bring in two bottles – I think – of hard liquour; maybe a couple more, if it’s wine.]

The hairdresser had packed five bottles of liquour, which she listed for me. You take your chances going through Customs – sometimes they stop you, sometimes they don’t. She was unlucky. They told her that she couldn’t carry in so many bottles. Then, she said, “I don’t know why I became so stubborn. I said, ‘I only brought it in because Christmas is coming. If you won’t let me take it, I’ll break it right here on the floor and go.’ I could have just given them one bottle for themselves, that’s all they wanted, but I wouldn’t budge. I said, ‘Do what you want, I’m not giving.’ Then they cooled down. They said, ‘You should request.’ I said, ‘No, do what you want.’ And they let me go!” She flourished the scissors and laughed. “How was I so stubborn?”

In her enthusiasm she cut my hair shorter than ever before. My face seems to gape at me disconcertingly whenever I catch sight of my reflection. I’m hoping that it will be okay soon: Christmas is coming.

Things I saw today

A man preparing samosas

A tree shrine

Om Shakti Art Framing Works