Demolition Day 5

Hotel Oceanic, on Santhome High Road. I've never been closer than this - it stopped being a hotel long ago, though I've been told that it was quite glamorous in its day. Lately it has been used as a location for film-shootings. Recently someone wanted to renovate it and make it into a boutique hotel, but that didn't work out. Now it has fallen to the building boom which is transforming the city.

Part of the arch leading into the hotel grounds, which have been blocked with a chain and padlock ever since I've seen the place. I never had the nerve to jump over the chain and take a look inside.

I had a fantasy, which I named A Weekend at the Oceanic: people in elegant clothes, and this crumbling building in the background. Nadira in a glittering long gown singing 'Mudmudke na dekh' ('Don't look back').

(My [not a masterpiece] painting of the Oceanic, based on these photographs, is here.)

(Update: Nadira, Hindi film star of the fifties, died on 9 February 2006.)

What to Buy Now

From Spice, an offshoot of India Today:

The text reads:
The Sajjadah 1426 ... is for the devout who pray five times a day facing Mecca. With electro-luminescent printing technology ..., the direction of Mecca is indicated via a compass module embedded in the rug. The closer the mat is turned towards the direction of Mecca, the brighter is the illumination on the rug. In case you are confused, the year 2006 is 1526 as per the Islamic calendar, and sajjadah means bowing in prayer.

The Monsoon

In November my sister came to visit for the first time. She appeared to enjoy everything. She said, "It's so exciting -- my first monsoon!" I said, "But you get more rain in Boston than we do." She said, "Yes, but it's not called a monsoon."

I could have said that it was my first monsoon too, in the sense that during this monsoon season we have had, and are having, more rain than anyone has seen or recalled. Fifteen months worth of drinking water released from the reservoirs, because they threatened to overflow!

A couple of years ago I entered NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. My novel was called Waiting for the Monsoon. The main character's life, internally and externally, was full of dryness and thirst. In the climax, a cyclone hit. The character had to rescue someone whose house was threatened by floods (all imaginary, before the tsunami and the current rains); finally the main characters gathered together, safe inside while the storm raged, internal thirst and the land's both quenched. (I never finished it; lost faith in it.)

Instead of a climactic cyclone, we're having storm after storm, and they all have names, suddenly, so that they seem to be bringing their wind and water with malice - Pyarr and Baaz and Fanoos; and, currently, Mala.

We are okay, except for continuous electricity breakdowns and a tree in the garden fallen because of sodden earth; but people in low-lying areas are in a bad way. And twice in the last several weeks there have been stampedes at relief centres, where more people died - 42 or so yesterday - than have died because of the storms.

Yesterday Mary told me that someone had told her that a statue of some god somewhere, in some temple, had suddenly opened one eye, and that's why this whole year has been full of disaster. It's an interesting concept: people are always calling on god for something or the other, but when he/she wakes up and pays attention, things become very, very dangerous.

How Siberians Escape

"Enjoy the experience safely and comfortably in our special thermal clothing. See! Feel! Enjoy!"

Two Things

My maid Lakshmi slipped and fell about three weeks ago, and got a small gash on her forehead. We treated it with antiseptic and so on, and it was okay except for a slight swelling. But she is deathly afraid of anything connected with her head: her two brothers died of paralytic strokes which were apparently related to drinking illicit liquour, but she believes that her family has a tendency for weakness in the brain. So she went for additional treatment to a neighbour in the slum where she lives: the woman poured boiling water from the rice pot onto the swelling. Now her attractive face is disfigured with a blackened mark where the skin burnt. She's not at all stupid, but she has little formal education. Is that why she did such a thing? The slum is a hotbed of rumour, gossip, opinions, superstition - can one live in it and think independently? Her pretty daughter is still a student - does she see the world the same way her mother does? Can she escape?

By the time Baaz reached us it had weakened and become less the hawk which is the meaning of its name, and more like a big bucket of water. I've been fretting for years over water scarcity, and this year, lakes and rivers are brimming and breaching. We've had 154% of the normal rainfall this monsoon season, and it's not over yet.

Baaz the Puyal

This week a man in Gummidipundi filed a case in the High Court, claiming that the Tamil Nadu Cricket Board should not be allowed to schedule matches in November-December (the monsoon season). According to him, the Board knowingly schedules matches that will be rained out, so that it can defraud the public of crores of rupees, because it doesn't refund the ticket money if the match cannot be played. The case was dismissed.

I love saying Gummidipundi. Goo-mid-ee-POON-dee.

There's a puyal, a cyclone, squatting in the Bay of Bengal, poised for days to cross our coast. A five-day cricket test match has been moving backwards in time, hour by hour, and has reached us now, today, and everyone knows that it will be spoiled by the puyal, which carries the name Tropical Cyclone Baaz.

As far as I know, our cyclones didn't have names before; but with all the glamorous-sounding female hurricanes in the news this year, we suddenly have Pyarr, which struck a couple of weeks ago, and now Baaz. I'm tired of Baaz. Every morning for days I have come downstairs in the morning and asked Mary - because she listens to local news on her radio - "Where's that puyal? What's that puyal up to?"

I like saying puyal too.

The start of play has been delayed by showers in the night and early morning. Now they say that Baaz will cross the coast tonight, but who knows? When it does come, it will arrive in a complex package, bringing us precious water; flooding our houses and fields; killing some of us; and, in many ways, spoiling our puny fun.


I wrote this poem after another devastating earthquake in India. It came to my mind again, after reading that many of the victims of this latest earthquake, in Northern Pakistan and parts of Kashmir, in India, were children.


A child’s forehead,
eyebrows, dark lashes.
Nothing else shows
above the broken pieces
the world flung over her

except one forearm
in a pink sweater:
at the wrong angle,
as if someone had found it
and placed it beside the closed eyes
for company.

Men will dig into the rubble,
free her as tenderly as they can.
Fire will melt the heaviness
from her limbs.
She will rise in smoke
above earth’s dark dream.

Phantom Cigarettes

I saw these candy cigarettes in the grocery store. I remember them as a child in Virginia, where we stopped at the green store, as we called it, almost every day on the way home from school, and looked covetously at the wax lips, the Pez dispensers, the Bazooka bubble gum, the little wax bottles with coloured sweet fluids inside... and the candy cigarettes. They were glamorous for us at that time - tilt your head back, pretend to blow out a jet of smoke... (in fact, there's a little boy above the Phantom's head, with his hat pushed to the back of his head, doing just that):

For Rs. 3, you get 10 sticks of white flavourless sweetness, each one with a red-dyed tip to indicate the burning tobacco; and a sticker, which looks remarkably sinister:

Until I looked closely at the cigarette pack, I assumed that the Phantom was the one from old American comics, who still appears in Indian newspapers. Then I saw that instead of shadows, his face was darkened with a beard and moustache. In fact, the Phantom appears to resemble the West's current idea of what a terrorist looks like. I'm sure that I could philosophise on that for awhile, but excuse me -- I have to blow an imaginary smoke ring.

Several Things

Another Hindi movie fight line:
Tume aisi maut maarunga ke khud maut bhi apne daaman ke pichhe chupke bhaag jaaye

I will kill you in such a way that even death will hide its face and run away. (i.e., death would be put to shame, outdone)

Real estate broker: "The only good thing about this line [of work] is, you get to know the who and who of India."

We saw Gilda (1946), starring Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. As we watched it, R realised that it was the main source material for the old (and pretty good) Guru Dutt film Baazi (1951), starring Dev Anand, with Geeta Bali playing Rita Hayworth's bad girl. Geeta Bali even plays the guitar and sings a couple of songs, as Hayworth does in Gilda. Of course, in Hindi movies of that era, the hero can't marry a 'bad' girl - she must die, sacrificing herself for him. Never mind that the 'hero' is a petty criminal, a card-sharp, himself.

(pic from Baazi)

Glenn Ford looks much more elegant than Dev Anand does in this picture. In fact, the look of Gilda reminds me more of old Raj Kapoor movies like Shri 420: the men in tuxedos and the women in evening gowns. (Today, Hollywood films get copied almost immediately -- it becomes a game, to recognise the sources of many Hindi movies - sometimes bits of several Hollywood movies crammed together.)

This is a picture of part of a public latrine - the kind which the Municipal Corporation puts up near slums which don't have water or sewage connections.

(pic of woman from public latrine)

Those green patterned tiles cover the entire structure. The sign says penkal: women. Look at that woman! Blonde, and with a short hairdo. The women who live in slums don't cut their hair, unless they go to a temple and offer it as a sacrifice. Since the sign is in Tamil, it's clear that it wasn't imported from some white-foreign latrine-labelling company. Couldn't the manufacturer have provided an Indian face? Was it meant to encourage me to go inside?

Coonoor VI

I think I'm about done with Coonoor for now, but I wanted to throw in two pictures.

We drove to Tiger Hill, which is supposed to have a great view, but it was full of mist. I took this picture, which makes me very happy:

It's a tea garden. You can see tea bushes below, and silver oaks above. The oaks are spaced out and trimmed so that just the right amount of sunlight reaches the tea plants.

(In this context there was an interesting article in The Hindu recently: Rainforest Revival: "Every year, hectares of rainforest vanish in the Western Ghats, partly the result of expanding plantations. After decades of bad press, a group of estates in Tamil Nadu decide to prove the critics wrong.")

We were waiting in the car for someone, at the bottom of the ramp leading to the hotel, beside the churchyard wall. We always carry R's heavy camera bag, full of lenses, but lately he has rarely taken a photograph. As we sat in the car I handed him my new digital camera, which he had never used. He raised it idly and took this picture - the best of the lot, in my opinion. So irritating... but I love the picture:

Coonoor V

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, familiarly known as the toy train, travels from Mettupalayam on the plains up to Ooty - a four-hour journey - and back every day. There are several websites with pictures and information about this train, which has just been declared a UNESCO world heritage site - here and here and here and here. One day we picked up the train at Coonoor and rode Ooty, a one-hour trip. My notes aren't very interesting, and my photographs are blurry. It was lovely, though - slow enough so that cows could saunter across the track in front of us without fear -- about 10 kph. A couple of tunnels, many wonderful views. A hoopoe flew across in a flash of black / brown / white.

We had lunch at the Savoy, in Ooty. I browsed through an old book - Ootacamund: A History - while we waited for lunch. I read about the second western 'discovery' of Ooty - the first, brief encounter, was in 1602, but this was the one that led to British settlements in the Nilgiris: in 1818, two English civilians reached Ooty - they might have been pursuing "a poligar who had been misconducting himself... they found the man they were in search of, in a hut. He was exceedingly polite in offering refreshments to the gentlemen, and pretending to go for some milk, took the opportunity of making good his retreat." In pursuing him they discovered the excellent climate, etc.

colonial kitsch: tripods of lances (for pig-sticking?)
hung with pith helmets

After lunch we went to look at a house that was for sale. We have a recurring fantasy about buying a second house here, or even resettling in the hills somewhere - but we haven't been sure enough to go through with it. The house was up a steep driveway - most of the property was steeply sloped and forested. It was charming on the outside; but we peered through the windows and found it very old-fashioned, rudimentary. There was an outbuilding for the caretaker and his family, a garage and, slightly up a hill, a small cottage.

The caretaker's wife, Mageshwari, showed us around. She was tiny, barefooted, slim, with a beautiful face, a sweet smile, very polite - we felt that we could almost buy the house in order to have her work for us. In the end we felt that the house would have to be gutted and modernised, and it seemed too big a project for us to take on. But the next day I felt a little guilty - austerity is good? the house looked cold because it was empty? Mageshwari's delicate bare feet, while I shivered in my sweater.

Morning: Crows squabble on and nibble the grass, a monkey steals a sugar packet from someone's room.

At the gate, the watchman chats with a sweeper in sari and brown sweater. She laughs.

A woman walks by with two bounding dogs.

A goods carrier grinds down the road.

Cloudy, with a very light drizzle.

I've made this guy look cheerful, when actually he's pensive and moth-eaten and sad.

Lunch: a child bangs his spoon on a table. The parents are unconcerned. Finally a waiter goes over and tells the child, "Don't! If you do that, monkeys will come."

This is a cubist goat, because I kept sketching it, even as it moved

The goats like to stroll across the road just as a truck comes barrelling down it, causing the truck to come to a halt. The woman who appears to be the goatherd says to them "Where are you going?" but idly, as if it is a casual conversation.


Along with some Ayurvedic medicine that we bought yesterday, a bottle of honey was thrown in for free. The Tamil word for honey is then. I imagine that it's a very ancient word: my reasoning may be fallacious, but most Tamil words are not so short; and the one-syllable words that I know name simple things: aal = man; pen = woman; man = earth; kal = stone; thee = fire; neer = water.

But I don't think of the words' age when I use these others. There's something about honey, its thick goldenness, the resonance of the word then in my head, like a soft bell.

Coonoor IV

Every bit of land that can be farmed, is -- mostly with tea. Only rocky outcroppings and the steepest slopes are forested.

An elderly lady, staying with her children in America: "In America, nothing has any taste - fruits, vegetables, even chicken. They grow everything with chemicals. I come here, and I can taste everything."

Sunday morning, 8:30: I walked behind All Saints Church and down Figure of Eight Road. All the shops were closed -- most of them connected to the tea industry. A group of ten young men trooped into a shopfront marked BAR, then immediately backed out again and sat on the curb laughing, to wait (I assume) for 9:00 a.m. opening time.

Birds: bulbuls, sparrows, flowerpeckers, pigeons, mynahs, seven rishis

What soft names: Coonoor. Ooty. A signboard for Oopoottil Trading Co.

We visited Beulah Farm, which grows herbs and fruits, and sells its own fruit jam. The road went up and up, over a steep hump, and then down, down down, until R asked if we were going to end up in Mettupalayam, on the plain. When we reached the place I went in alone; R stayed in the car, not interested. It was Sunday, and a small village church nearby - gaudy, decked with pennants - was broadcasting loud recorded hymns.

I walked down a flight of steps to a small house, or rather a series of huts, I think - it was hard to make it out - facing a very small open area of dirt. In that area were several birdhouses crowded with gorgeous white fantail pigeons, who perched there or hopped down to walk around on the ground; a couple of muscovy ducks; a sleepy dog.

The owner was Eapen Jacob, 81 years old, a Syrian Christian from Kerala -- tall, thin, with a long pale face, thin white hair, smiling. Or rather, "God is the owner - I'm only in charge." E welcomed me, and showed me around the rows of herbs, plucked sprigs for me - thyme, chives, lemon balm, lad's-love. There was rhubarb, and strawberries, and some fruit trees, on about 2 acres of land. He doesn't use pesticides, or chemical fertilisers; he keeps a few bees to pollinate the flowers. He told me twice that 'Beulah' means god's gift, and that he treats it as such. He behaved as though I were a welcome guest, not an idle tourist seeking diversion.

I was impressed with his sincerity and openness. I felt that he should meet R, so I said that I would call him in. E immediately went with me to invite him. We sat down in one of the small rooms and chatted. Then E said something about God - that everything is in His hands, perhaps. R said that there is no god, or if there is, he's absconding. E became very interested, and the two of them got into an intense conversation. I sat on the doorstep, sketching and listening.

Several children stopped to look at what I was drawing. I asked the dog's name - Jimmy. They laughed to see that I had drawn him, and that I wrote his name over the drawing.

E and R talked for about an hour, E insisting that there must be an intelligence behind the universe - but mildly. He paid close attention to R's arguments, in spite of their opposition to his own beliefs. He was looking for answers. And he was a little confused, because he was old.

Eventually we had to go. I bought some jam: Rhubarb, rhubarb-strawberry, orange marmalade; and E gave me plants as a gift to take back: chives, thyme, lads-love, spearmint. He was reluctant to take money for the jam - later, at the hotel, someone told me, "Eapen doesn't care for money - when you pay him for his jams he doesn't even take the money with his right hand. He takes it in his left hand and just throws it aside."

As he walked us back to the car, E was emotional, hugged R, said that he was an exceptional person. We all had tears in our eyes. I'm not explaining properly why he impressed me so much. I think he seemed to be a kind of holy innocent, with his beliefs, and his herbs, and his birds…

I said to him, inanely, "You seem to be a happy man." He opened his eyes wide in surprise, and said, "No! I have a question mark rising behind my head, not an exclamation mark - I am searching in the wilderness."

But R was making him laugh, too - he had a sense of humour. As R was getting in the car he said, "You have touched my heart. It is rare to meet such a good and decent person. I feel sorry for you - you need someone to protect you. Good luck." Then when we sat in the car, E tapped on R's window. When R opened it he said, grinning, "You mean you do believe in something? There is such a thing as luck?" R said, "No! You caught me! As soon as I said it I realised it was a mistake. I was hoping you hadn't heard me, but you did - it was the only lie of the day." Then they clasped hands, and we drove away.

Coonoor III

All Saints Church, Coonoor

I walked to the church, next door to the hotel. Buff-coloured stucco and a red-tiled roof. A monkey sat on the churchyard wall:

Its mouth turns up, but it is not smiling

I had just begun to draw a whole line of monkeys sitting on another wall, when the church sexton rode up on a motorcycle and introduced himself. He told me that he and his father had recently cleaned all the graves, which I had already noticed: all the pretty moss and lichen were gone.

AGED 32 YEARS. . .

The cemetery is so quiet, green and brown, built on uneven, sloped ground, the stones not in neat rows. The trees are not willows -- they are some kind of fir - but they 'weep,' drooping over the graves.

At dinner, from the next table: "He knows which side of the bread to butter properly."

Coonoor II

(When I began writing about Coonoor, someone said, But I thought you were going to Ooty. So, to clarify, Ooty is the District Headquarters of Nilgiri District - like an American county seat - and Coonoor is a smaller, nearby town.)

I got up at 8:00 and went for a walk. The weather was variable, like spring: cool, breezy, then washed with warm sunlight, then with dark shadows. Tried to look hard at everything, picked up leaves and cones to draw. Later, after lots of breakfast, we sat at a white wrought-iron table on the lawn, and I painted what I had collected.

At dinner I warmed my hands around a hot toddy. I was busy pretending that it was colder than it actually was, with the fire every night and the hot water bottles and all. A piano player stumbled through old Hindi film songs in an almost-empty dining room (because the 'season' was over). At another table the waiter asked someone, "You are full vegetarian?" and she answered, "Not even mushrooms!"

The next day, after breakfast, the really, really good Chef Ramalingam showed me his herb garden: mint, lemongrass, basil, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, celery. I admired all of them and asked if he grew parsley. He said, "Parsley, monkeys take it. Monkeys my enemy."

Then we sat outside again, and two monkeys passed by, large and small, and paused, but not long enough for me to draw them properly. Growling and coughing. Then one male, three females with babies clinging under their bellies.

R watched the young Indian tennis player Sania Mirza lose in the second round of Wimbledon -- on the national TV channel, Doordarshan, with commentary in Chinese -- why?? I think that if Doordarshan ever modernised we'd miss its reliable weirdness. But not very much.

The day is punctuated by sirens from the tea gardens: the beginning and end of the work day, and the lunch break. Then there is the whistle and the chuff ... chuff ... of the so-called toy train, coming up from Mettupalayam on the plains to Ooty. And the grinding of trucks labouring up the hills, loaded with petrol; firewood; sacks of tea; everything that from outside comes by truck up the hairpin roads.

I stood looking up at a huge fir tree and tried to see it as light and shadow, but each mass of light had its own shadows. I would have to draw every needle. Then it stopped looking like a tree at all. Shadows within shadows.

Coonoor I

Overheard on the plane: "You have to look at the details, and only then you understand what life is. The basic principal, like, goes for a toss."

Coimbatore: We stepped out of the plane into light sprinkles of rain - I'd forgotten that expression: "It's sprinkling." Grey clouds, breeze. Hills rose in the distance, behind coconut groves.

A crucifix was wrapped around the car's rear-view mirror. On the bumpy stretches the wooden beads clacked slightly against the glass, as if raindrops were spattering on the windshield.

1:55 p.m., Mettupalayam; 2:10, "GHAT SECTION BEGINS" - a series of hairpin curves heading up into the hills; 3:00 arrival in Coonoor.

from the ghat road to Coonoor

We stayed at the Taj Garden Retreat in Coonoor. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century as a priory for the All Saints Church next door, and converted to a hotel in 1908. Bits and pieces have been added on ever since.

We had an enormous suite: a foyer big enough for a sofa and chairs; a living area with creaky wooden floors (the first wooden floors I have walked on for many years) and a fireplace; a bedroom; a smaller bedroom; a bathroom larger than the second bedroom. All of it was furnished with what looked like gleanings from someone's attic -- hill station style.

We ordered tea and sandwiches, and sat at a low table in the foyer to eat them. We kept the door open to let the cool damp air - it was drizzling lightly - inside. There was a basket of fruit on the table. I looked out the window and saw a furry brown monkey squatting on the roof of a nearby building. I said, "Look - a monkey!" Before R could even reply, if he had planned to, the monkey was inside. It was the size of a small dog. I was sitting on the floor; it was almost at my eye-level. I shouted, "No!", but it hardly glanced at me. In a flash it went to the fruit basket, grabbed a bunch of bananas, and was gone.

After dinner, a fire in the fireplace, made of "jungle wood."

In the night, the lights went out just as we were getting into bed. I thought I touched a stranger's warm leg there, and recoiled, but it was


We stepped out of the plane into the blast of a hair dryer. At home, a concrete lined moat two feet wide ran the length of the street, just outside the gate. Our neighbours, forewarned, had moved their cars out and across the street -- only ours are trapped inside. The taxi had to stop on the road, and we entered with our suitcases over two wooden planks. To add insult to injury, a big heap of earth had been dumped exactly in front of the gate.

Inside, Lakshmi swept up small heaps of what I thought was red dust from the roadwork; but they were piles of dead ants. The switchplate into which the washing machine was plugged wasn't working; when the electrician came and opened it up, it was stuffed with ants too.

And so we settle again into Summer. I will develop my photographs and scan my sketches. Then I will write about our sojourn in Spring, and the people we met there.

Coonoor bouquet

Out of Station

We're going up to the hills, from whence cometh the promise of cool air and rain.

I wrote several posts about the area where I'm going last year (actually they're all part of one big file, the archives for May 2004):

Ooty I
Ooty II
Ooty III
Ooty IV

Here's a picture Ramesh took, of a skyline in Munnar -- but it's very characteristic of the Nilgiris in general, with their soft, rounded hills, topped with feathery trees:


It's been 104F in the shade for the last several days, and now is the time chosen by the Corporation (the city government) to dig up our road for, I think, laying fibre optic cables. I pity the diggers - it's all done by hand, and the men wear almost nothing, and wrap cloth around their heads in makeshift turbans, to shield them from the sun.

As is usual when they dig up the road, they broke our sewage pipe. I called the Sewage Board, and they came and patched it with some cement and said, If you give us money we'll replace the broken pipe, otherwise you'll have trouble when our patching wears off.

Then the telephone repairman came to the door and said, Because of the digging your telephone line has been cut. I said, No it hasn't, I was just using it. He said, Just try and see. And of course, the lines were all dead. He went away and then came back in one minute and said, I've repaired the lines. And of course, they were all working. So he said, Give me money for the emergency repair. (All these people are government employees and earn salaries, in case it is not evident.) I gave him Rs. 20 - couldn't help it. So he said, Five of us worked on the line. So I gave him another Rs. 30. What to do?

Because it's so hot, everyone who can is using their air conditioners, so we're having power failures. And just as I was writing that, the power went off. Luckily we have the generator, but I have to run back and forth to the kitchen to turn it on and off, and pull the heavy changeover switch. (That's whining, actually -- we're very fortunate to have it.)

Whenever I take off my watch I find that the leather strap has left a stain on my wrist, because of the sweat.

I think I was going to say something more positive than this, but I've forgotten. It's too hot to think.


He's a very worldweary creature, isn't he? Endangered and resigned to it. Gazing out from the back of a water lorry.

Waiting for the Monsoon

The moonsoon arrived late in Kerala, began to spread out over the Subcontinent, and then stalled. Sweltering Chennai waits stoically for the break in temperature it will bring. This picture is of Calcutta (only Calcutta / Kolkata policement wear white uniforms and white helmets) - from yesterday's The Hindu. It was so evocative to me of the way people in a monsoon-dependent country feel, when the rains come.

the first major downpour of the monsoon season
in Kolkata
- PTI photo

Beautiful Stuff

The art of Gail Rieke.
"Gail Rieke orchestrates some of the most sensitive collage works being done today. Their uniqueness has to do with the exquisite internal harmonies she discovers among these natural and man-made materials, and the way she balances the very specific nature of each piece with its potential for poetic meaning..." William Peterson, editor of Artspace Magazine

I especially love the travel journals, beginning with a suitcase wall, and proceeding to Seekers of Rust: travel journal in wicker suitcase, Southern Rural Japan, 2003.

I love things that are hidden away, that you have to unwrap - like glimpses of inner courtyards through doors just barely ajar. Like this work.

Tomato Rice

Some Parsi friends came home for dinner last night, bearing a big pot of tomato rice. I love this dish - with some yoghurt on the side it can be a meal in itself. In this case we also had baingain bharta (eggplant); corn with potatoes, seasoned with sambar masala; kachumbar (chopped tomatoes/ onions/ chillies) and apalam (fried dal wafers). And because it's still mango season, we finished with aam ras (mango puree seasoned with ginger powder). {sigh of happy exhaustion} … and here's the recipe, as written down by my friend:
Tomato Rice

Rice - 1 cup
Tomatoes, skinned & finely chopped - 1/2 to 3/4 kg
Onions, chopped - 4 large
Mustard seeds - 1/2 tsp.
Ginger-garlic, finely chopped - 1 tsp. each
Chillie powder - 1/2 tsp.
cumin seeds - 1 tsp.
turmeric powder - 1 tsp.
Green chillies, chopped fine - 2 to 3
Cloves - 4
Cardamom - 4
Cinnamon - 3 sticks
Sugar - 2 to 3 tsp
Salt to taste
Bay leaf - 2 to 3
Curry leaves - one small sprig
Coriander leaves, chopped - 1/2 cup
Mint leaves, chopped - 1/2 cup
coriander-cumin powder - 1 tsp.
Oil for frying

In a thick pan heat the oil, add mustard and cumin seeds, fry till they pop. Add the cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, chopped onions, ginger & garlic, and fry till light golden brown. Add curry leaves and green chilies. Fry for a minute or two. Add tomatoes, coriander and mint, chillie powder, haldi, sugar, coriander-cumin powder, bay leaf and salt. When all is mixed well, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and cook till almost dry.

Boil the rice till fluffy, drain. Add the tomato mixture a little at a time till all is absorbed in the rice. Line an ovenproof dish with butter or ghee, add rice. Let the tomato rice stand for 2 to 3 hours, reheat before eating.


There is a real estate boom going on in Chennai. People dream of selling their houses for large amounts to IT companies. And builders are buying land to make more and more expensive apartments for the enjoyers of the new wealth. Brokers have started turning up at our door, and last week a well-known builder offered us a large sum for our house. Or rather, for the land, so that he could tear the house down and put an apartment block in its place. Each apartment would cost Rs. 80 lakhs-1 crore (8-10 million); a sum which is not unusual for Mumbai, but quite a lot for Chennai.

We were tempted, mainly because the house is too big for the two of us. It's something of a white elephant: unusual and with its own beauty, but hard to maintain. We began talking about where we might like to relocate -- within Chennai? to Bangalore? Ooty? Even abroad?

But neither of us really wants to go through with it. Last night I had a dream:
A film star from the seventies - a one-film wonder named Kumar Gaurav - was exerting great pressure on me to marry him. (I think he was actually a character named Arman from a current TV serial, but in the dream it was a young KG, looking sad.) I got swept up in the potential excitement of it, and agreed, and KG put a diamond ring on my finger, and went away. Another film star, Suneil Shetty, rode by on a motorcycle and I showed him the ring. He waved and called out, "You did a good thing!" But I felt that the whole thing was a disaster - the diamond was small and not all that sparkly, and KG was already married and had a family, and maybe wasn't a good person, and now I couldn't even remember his name!!

I don't think we're going to sell our house.

part of our atrium, from upstairs - the pond is empty because we are still fighting the Invasion of the Snails

Meanwhile, the crows in the garden are having their own real estate boom: flying back and forth with twigs in their beaks, constructing awkward-looking but strong penthouses. Most of them seem to be directly above the badminton court, which is continually being covered with stray bits of construction material, along with their occupants' droppings. They, at least, have no doubt at all about what they are doing.


My poetry friend Helena Nelson has started a new venture to publish poetry chapbooks; and a magazine, Sphinx: A Magazine for Poetry People. The website is I rushed over there as soon as I heard, and bought Helena's chapbook, Unsuitable Poems, and also subscribed to the first two issues of Sphinx. Support clever, talented and hardworking poets! Go there and do the same!

Here's one of my favourite poems from Unsuitable Poems, reprinted by permission from the author:

Poetry Virgin

The Onboard Customer Service Team
welcomes you to this poem.
There is a pause provided at the end of most lines
and at the end of every stanza.
We apologise for the absence of rhymes.

A quiet stanza is situated near the rear of the poem
for readers who do not like howling.
Passengers should familiarise themselves
with the safety exits
and the lay-out of the poem.

Due to problems with signalling devices
the message of the poem has been somewhat delayed.
We apologise for the delay
but recommend the scenic views from stanza four
and the excellent wordplay in the buffet.

The Customer Service Team wishes to assure travellers
that this poem is equipped with the latest enjambement
and is not a sonnet of the Petrarchan variety.
If you have any cause for discomfort,
write, please, to the Poem Mistress at Barking.

the poem is due to arrive at its destination
in approximately one
make sure you take all your belongings with you
and nothing that does not belong to you.
thank you for travelling Poetry Virgin.

Poet's Choice

I really like the Poet's Choice in the Washington Post Book Review every Sunday. The poems are currently being presented by Robert Pinsky; they are always worth reading. I'm going to post last Sunday's article here because I love the poems, and because I don't know how long they are going to stay up:
Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 5, 2005

A great parody is a great tribute: To be considered worth imitating and worth laughing at is a compliment. Moreover, to be truly seen and understood is close to the pinnacle for a work of art, and no critical essay can see and understand as deeply as the best parodies.

There's an additional thrill for the reader if the object being parodied has not seemed ridiculous -- until the parody wakens the sleepy perception that, yes, even a charming and indelible work may have its ridiculous aspects. Here is a fine and famous poem by William Carlos Williams (1893-1963):

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

Williams's insouciance and offhand apology, his delight in his own capricious taste, and, underlying all of that, a certain male, maybe even professional, assurance -- these qualities do not diminish the poem. Still, it is bracing to notice them here and in Williams's other work. The late Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) leads us, hilariously, to take such notice. Somehow, substituting long lines for short ones, while keeping some of the rhythms, is another satisfying part of the joke:

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams


I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.

I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do and its wooden beams were so inviting.


We laughed at the hollyhocks together

and then sprayed them with lye.

Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.


I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.

The man who asked for it was shabby

and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.


Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.

Forgive me. I was clumsy, and

I wanted you here in the wards, where I am a doctor.

Sunday Morning

I had to drive out to West Mambalam early on Sunday morning.

I passed a long queue of people waiting to get into a temple on Venkatanarayan Road.

I had to go up to Panagal Park and turn left on Usman Road. On a weekday this area is chaotic, crammed: it is a major shopping area for silk saris and gold jewellry, among other things. More to the point for me, it was at one time the only place one could buy ‘exotic’ vegetables like brussels sprouts, broccoli, leeks, parsley, lettuce, mushrooms. All these vegetables are much more widely available now, and the Panagal Park vegetable market has shrunk drastically.

I’ve been as far as Usman Road before, but this time I turned for the first time onto Madley Street, heading to West Mambalam. When I first arrived here there weren’t any decent maps – there was a feeling that maps could be useful to one’s enemies, I think. Now I swear by my Eicher street map. I plot my route carefully, and keep it on the car seat. I like the variety of names – Hindu, Muslim, English -- I assume that Madley Street is named after some former British notable.

As I emerged from the underpass beneath the railroad tracks, the streets became narrow and winding, of variable width; like the village lanes they must have been. I had a hard time finding a place wide enough to park in. I started walking back toward the main road. Inside a tiny front yard, a man with a Muslim’s white cloth cap and a bicycle was holding a pair of scales on which reposed a silver fish, which ended in a neat pink ellipse where its head had been. A man and his wife scrutinised the fish, and another which lay on a cloth on the ground, and discussed them with the fishmonger.

Suddenly a car alarm started yelping. I turned back, and it was my car. A bunch of small children had clustered around it – it was the only one on the street. They were slapping it, delighted with the sound. I turned it off with the remote, but again they began to slap, each slap resulting in a yelp. A man came out of the house in front of which I’d parked – bare chested, with a brahmin’s thread across his chest, and wearing a white veshti. I was apologetic. I said, “If the children hit the car, the alarm will go off.” He shooed them away, and I went on, hoping that they would keep away until I returned.

On the way back I wanted to stop at Mansukh, to buy the Gujarati Sunday morning specialities: jalebi and gatia - which we never eat ordinarily, it's about the last thing I want for breakfast - but I got distracted by the Cine Dancers Association building, and missed the turn.

These were the excitements of Sunday morning.

Fruits of the hot season

A post to my sketchblog: Scenes From A Dentist.

Some Things About Coconuts

On the 25th we paid a man Rs. 20 per tree to harvest and clean our three coconut trees. He cut down 84 coconuts, leaving the ones that are not ripe yet. Half of the 84 had dried, but we can use one or two of them at least for recipes like bisibele bhat that call for dried coconut.

From the balance of the ripe fruits, the kaaikkaaran (vegetable vendor) has agreed to buy as many as we want to sell for Rs. 3.50 each. That means we’ll make…. Um… Well, Mary knows about these things. She's the one who hired the harvester, who shinnied up the trunk with a machete; and negotiated with the kaaikkaaran. If it were up to me I’d forget, and let them rot in the trees.

After we’ve made our fortunes, we’ll use the rest for chutney, which we eat several times a week.

The lower branches droop. Above them, a crown of newer branches grows upward. The clusters of nuts (pale yellow-green, the unripe ones) are surrounded by yellowish, crooked spikes.

The trunk is more grey than brown. Each segment of the trunk is as if stacked on another; each is slightly smaller than the one before. Where the trunk meets the ground it frays out, and extends a few worm-like roots above the soil. The gaps between the sections have more dots than lines. They look like stretch-marks.

Four ways to look at a coconut palm