The Hot Season

There are heaps of watermelons piled by the roadside. When I get out of the car, my sunglasses fog up instantly. I can smell my own sweat. What does it all mean? Yes, the dreaded hot season has returned.

A couple of years ago I wrote a poem for the hot season, in a very rhythmic form called a Sapphic stanza. I posted it here last year, but here it is again: it has returned with the sun. I remembered it last week, and I've been humming the rhythm of it, with bits of the words thrown in here and there, ever since.

It's a little early for it: mangoes come after watermelons, and our mango trees are just flowering (though my neighbour has green fruit on his trees already). But the season has begun.

Hot Season

Sidewalk vendors raise heaps of green-rimmed melons
bright papayas, oranges made of sunlight.
Bursts of bougainvillea glow magenta
under the Fire Star.

Pick a mango when it is half-green, half-ripe,
wrap in straw strands carefully, nest-like, hatch it.
It’s the egg that brings forth another year – it’s
hot season’s augur.

Air like water hinders each heavy footstep,
holds the scents of car exhaust, incense, jasmine,
brings us news of mating crows’ squabbling caucus.
Summer’s upon us.

Internal Monologues

I went out today to pay the half-yearly water tax to the challengingly acronymed CMWSSB. When the city was called Madras it was the MMWSSB, but now it is the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board.

As I drove, listening to Pandit Shivkumar Sharma play the santoor on the CD player, I was remembering a conversation that took place at home yesterday. It was quite interesting and wide-ranging, and one of the topics was death. I mentioned the T*e*r*r*y S*c*h*i*a*v*o case, and said that we Americans just don’t seem to be able to handle death (vast generalisation, I know). I cannot imagine that such a thing could happen here, where death is acknowledged as what it is: part of nature, part of life. Our guest suggested that the reason is that Christians, (and other People of the Book), believe that there is only one life, and that makes them terrified of its ending. Hindus, Buddhists, etc. believe in many lives – it makes things seem more relaxed. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, of course, but it is an interesting thought. We talked about it, and then Ramesh joked that this janam-janam (life after life) business is the reason for Indians’ tendency to postpone everything: “There’s plenty of time, in the next janam we’ll see.” We laughed and moved on.

I also remembered, as I have many times, that when my father died, my mother refused to look at his body in the coffin – she had seen him for the last time being wheeled into the operating room – because she ‘didn’t want to remember him that way.’ But then she had to send my brother-in-law to look, before they closed the coffin, to make sure that it was really his body: otherwise she would have wondered, she said, whether they had mistakenly put someone else inside. How difficult, I thought, how different from the way death is handled here.

And then, waiting for the light to change, it suddenly struck me, for the first time in all these years, that I hadn’t looked at my father’s body either. I had also left it to my brother-in-law (though it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be anyone else in the coffin). I was so amazed – how had this never occurred to me before? -- that I missed the turning to Spurtank Road, and had to go all the way over the Chetpet Bridge, and a long way down Poonamallee High Road before I could turn around and come back. And then one stretch of the road was full of flower petals, mostly crushed into the pavement by the traffic, because a funeral procession (in which the body is carried on a kind of stretcher, decked with flowers, and with its face visible) had recently passed by. Which seemed charged, significant to me, although it wasn’t. And for several hours after that I would be doing my work, when a large exclamation point would pop up in my head: !!How?? and go away again.

When you pay the water tax you have to stand in line at the counter where someone looks into the computer to see what you owe. He writes it on a slip of paper, which you carry to the cashier’s window, where there is another line for payment. As I was waiting in the second, cashier’s line, three women walked into the office together, went up to the counter, and began shouting all at once. They went on and on, and everyone craned their necks to see. After a few minutes, from the official side of the counter, a Lady Officer moved forward and began gesticulating and shouting back. She was large and had an ugly face, and looked powerful – she had a smaller lady minion hovering behind her – but the three women did not stop their angry tirades. I thought snobbishly, That’s how uneducated women speak, so loudly... And then as I was going out, a well-dressed woman, whom I had heard speaking good English inside, was shrieking into her cellphone in the echo-chamber of the stairwell, so that I had to put my hands over my ears in order to get down the stairs and out.
Elck's erotic poem, incorporating the assertion painted on the roof of an auto rickshaw, two posts down from here. I love the couplet
and then the letters
stopped coming

... and of course, the climax (heh heh).

Feeding the Elements

My brother-in-law, Bhupen Gandhi, commented on my post about how a cow almost ate the mail:
There was a time [growing up] in Calcutta, when I used to make special trips to feed cows. Ba would make extra rotis [bread] for five offerings: to earth, water, fire, crows and cows. After throwing pieces of roti at crows -- which contain the spirits of our relatives and forefathers, who must be pacified -- I would carry rotis in a brown bag and go out to look for a cow in the streets. I would empty the contents of the bag in front of it when I found one and watch it eat. I wasn't the only one doing it, and cows were used to people approaching to feed them. They would snach the paper bag right out of your hands and eat the whole thing.

Ba would make small 2" rotis and add ghee on the top. She would put one on the saghadi (our coal fired earthen-pot stove) fully afire. She would put another roti on the floor next to the thali [the metal plate from which one eats], say a prayer and sprinkle water on the roti. Thus earth, water and fire. This was a daily ritual.


Holi, the festival of spring, falls on March 25 this year. It isn't traditionally celebrated in Chennai -- it's a northern festival -- but if you drive in parts of the city where north Indians congregate, you may see some of them on the street, throwing coloured powders at each other. The red dye remains one one's face and hands for a day or two, so you can tell who's been playing Holi.

I love thandai, a cool, sweet/spicy drink which is associated with Holi, but which can be made at any time. Tarla Dalal has sent out a recipe for it in her weekly recipe email, so I reproduce it here. In the north, it is acceptable to consume bhang (cannabis Indica) on festive occasions such as Holi. But smoking it is not acceptable -- it's for hippies or drug addicts, not respectable middle-class people. You must eat a goli of it -- a ball made of bhang and some sugar, and god knows what -- or mix it in thandai. Eating / drinking bhang always seems to me to be an inefficient way of consuming it. But it's part of a social occasion -- you're supposed to get together with friends, and eat fried snacks, tell jokes and laugh a lot -- or play Holi.
THANDAI (by Tarla Dalal)

Thandai is a very popular drink in Rajasthan. This famous dry fruit and saffron flavoured milk that is traditionally prepared as an offering to Lord Shiva during the festival of Mahashivratri. Thandai is popular all over North India as well. It is often mixed with 'bhang' to make an intoxicating drink.

Cooking Time : Nil.
Preparation Time : 3 to 4 hours.

Makes 6 glasses.

1 litre full fat milk
½ cup powdered sugar
10 to 12 peppercorns
a few saffron strands

To be ground into a fine powder

¼ cup almonds
2 tablespoons poppy seeds (khus khus)
2 tablespoons fennel seeds (saunf)
½ teaspoon cardamom (elaichi) powder
20 nos. white peppercorns

1. Boil the milk and allow it to cool completely. Keep aside.
2. Add the ground powder and mix well. Refrigerate the mixture for 3 to 4 hours.
3. Strain the mixture through a sieve, add the sugar, peppercorns and saffron and mix well.
4. Serve chilled.

Note: My sister-in-law, Charu Gandhi, adds: When you sink a copper coin and let it leach a bit in to a Bhang-laced Thandai it really gets potent. (Although, I have never tried it that way, let alone with Bhang.) When I made Thandai in India, I did not add Saffron; instead, added fresh Rose(Indian roses which are so fragrant) petals. There are other seeds I use to add, I have forgotten the name. It may be called pappita or some such name. They are white almond shaped but thinner and smaller. Try it with Rose Petals if you get them, or you can add Rose water.

Plan B

My sister Beverly is a guest poster today on my other blog, fire star arts. Do take a look. I've always admired her taste, her eye for things. Don't miss the chicken.

Two Links

I saw this on Language Hat: The University of California Press has many of its editions available to the public online. This is the Public Only Subject List (all books are available to those affiliated with the university). It is a huge collection. I've just been skimming through it, but found two books connected to my state of Tamil Nadu: Caste and Capitalism in Colonial India: The Nattukottai Chettiars, by David West Rudner, and Eugene Irschick's Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795–1895. Oh yes, and also Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891–1970, by Sumathi Ramaswamy, and Inside the Drama-House: Rama Stories and Shadow Puppets in South India, by Stuart Blackburn. To tell the truth, though, I'm going to start with the film and art sections, and work forward from there.

The New York Times has a piece about chaat, a huge category of (extremely delicious) North Indian snacks. (This is supposed to be a permanent link - couldn't find one for the accompanying glossary of terms, but it's still there as I post this.)

Through the Windshield

At Gemini Circle this afternoon. I took the picture - with my cell phone - because I admired the peacock painted on the back of the truck, and saw for the umpteenth time the contrasts of the world -- me in my car with the windows closed and the air-conditioner on, listening to a Brahms clarinet sonata on the CD player; and the man in front of me, sitting on sacks of goods. And the enormous hoardings, messages in the sky, advertising products he can never buy, and so on and so on.

A Cow Ate It

I drove in the gate, and Chinnaraj came toward me with a brown paper envelope containing a Gujarati magazine, Dakshin Hulchul. Someone gave us a gift subscription; there seems to be a new issue every third day or so. As I took the envelope out of his hand, I wondered why it was so damp, and torn up around the edges. Chinnaraj said, "I was just bringing this inside to give to you when a cow came up behind me and tried to eat it." I looked at him suspiciously -- no one has ever said that to me before -- but decided to go inside quietly, and wash my hands.

Before that I got my hair cut. In the small hairdressing salon, a television, on a high shelf, was playing an old Hindi movie. I wasn't interested, and my mind was drifting off, when the hairdresser, who was in the middle of cutting my hair, said, "Tijori khaali hai (the safe is empty)," and laughed. I looked up at the TV and saw Rishi Kapoor just about to open a big blue metal safe. He did open it, and recoiled theatrically, so that the viewer could see that it was indeed empty. The hairdresser said, "His brothers already stole all the money. The father told the daughter, as soon as I've had my heart surgery I'll divide all my property into four parts, but then he went to the hospital and died."

She laughed again and said, "This is very common in families." I said, "What, stealing your father's money?" but she was absorbed in finding out what was going to happen next. I've wondered many times who enjoys these family melodramas, full of misery. Now I've seen my hairdresser watch one and laugh. Fortunately, she's good at multitasking, and my hair is all right.

More Waiting

I was waiting yet again. Two women, working-class women, behind me were talking animatedly in Tamil. When it's Tamil I have to pay attention to understand it, and when something doesn't concern me I often don't pay attention, preferring to let waves of sound wash over me and go elsewhere. But suddenly I heard an English phrase, "Love is short, life is long," and began to listen. The woman hesitated, thought it wasn't quite right, and said, "No, love is long, life is short." I liked it better the first time. They were talking about a young girl who was being unreasonable. A match had been proposed to her, with a boy who had a good job, along with which decent quarters had been provided. But she was holding out for love? And, approximately, "How she talks, using all English words. What does she think of herself?"

In Court 2

I went again with my friend to the court, and did some sketching:
The opposing lawyer is not here. My friend's lawyer is angry. "I called him to find out why he didn't come. He's just sitting in his chamber. He said he didn't know the date. How can it be?" He complains to the judge. "Your Honour, you must give ex parte judgment." The judge smiles slightly, says, "I cannot give an ex parte judgment, sir."

 The lawyer turns to us, exasperated. "This lawyer, he puts tika (i.e., he wears the forehead-mark of a religious man) and lies."

Time passes. Nothing much is happening. The lawyer examines his hands.

The judge also waits. A lawyer walks in, speaks to him, he replies, then there is silence again, except for the chuff-chuff-chuff of the three ceiling fans.

Finally the opposing lawyer does arrive, with a rueful grimace.

The two lawyers go through their routines: "You promise to speak truth?" "Yes." In a few minutes it's over.

In Court

I went with a friend to a court hearing for a small matter, and took these notes:

Ceiling fans whirr. A faded litho of Manu the Lawgiver on the wall behind the judge, and below that a name in large letters: G.R. Thangamaligai – a prominent jeweller here – can it also be the judge's name? No, it's a wall calendar, supplied by the jewellery company.

The lawyers in black robes face each other across a dark wooden table. The opposing lawyer has a two-day stubble, oiled grey hair, a vermillion tika on his forehead, steel-rimmed glasses. He smiles at us. He must have been quite handsome when he was young, but shabbiness has overtaken him.

The walls are washed yellow up to about six feet high, greyish-white above. Deeply recessed, arched windows. Metal beams on the ceiling. Wooden benches and stiff wooden chairs with white plastic canework, set around the walls for the petitioners. Tube lights suspended from the ceiling at the end of metal rods. Surrounding the judge, wooden cupboards and shelves crammed with ancient files.

The judge, who looks neat and serious, talks quietly to the lawyers. A woman calls out case numbers. The court reporter taps on a manual typewriter – you can hear the separate sound when he presses the shift key for upper case letters, and when he slides the carriage return brrrrrrrrrrr along its track. There is a computer, but no one is using it. The proceedings are in Tamil. The lawyer says something, waits for the typist, speaks again.

I can't understand anything, but very soon the hearing is over. Nothing seems to have happened. A new date is given.

The opposing lawyer's ragged black gown, flapping behind him as he walks away.

Things Fall From the Sky

A kite fell into the garden yesterday.

In the night, I dreamed that when I picked it up, I found a small grey bird tangled in its sharp string. I managed to free it, even though it struggled against me, and held it between my two hands, as if they could heal it.

Because things don't fall from the sky very often, I took the kite inside, to my little office-room or study, or whatever it is:

Soon there won't be room in it for me.

A Presentation on the Budget

Our bank held a dinner party and a presentation on the Union Budget last night. I have posted my astute observations on the same at my painting and sketching blog: fire star arts.

In the Waiting Room 2

Rachel of Velveteen Rabbi told me about Elizabeth Bishop's poem, In the Waiting Room. I like Bishop a lot, but didn't know this poem. Bishop did wonderful things with traditional forms, but this is much looser, and conveys the boredom, incomprehension, and sometimes terror, of waiting:

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
--"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities--
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts--
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How--I didn't know any
word for it--how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

More Elizabeth Bishop at the Academy of American Poets

In the Waiting Room

Today I went to see the skin doctor – the one who says that I must apply sun block twice a day, even if I don’t leave the house – really! – because the tropical sun is so strong that it comes in through the windows and ricochets off the floors, walls and ceiling and attacks you, if you are as pale as I am. I never follow his advice, because I'm absent-minded, and it seems so extreme, and it's greasy, like applying a layer of sweat to one's face. But then every couple of years I get nervous and rush off to see him. He's a specialist in emergency dermatology, which I never knew existed, but which includes things like toxic shock, and extreme allergic reactions. He does leprosy too, for which I assume I will never consult him. I have confidence in his ability to read the text of my skin. My notes from the doctor’s office:
In the crowded waiting room, resignation or sulking, people quiet for the most part, stirred up to a surge of impatience, hope, irritation when a patient comes out of the inner office. We all lean forward, some rise and walk toward the office door; one is chosen, the rest mutter. In a minute someone will walk over to the secretary's desk to remonstrate, quietly or angrily. My appointment was at 1:00. Now it's 3:10.

After the second hour I went to the lobby for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake, which has left me twitchy and irritable. The people next in line are standing at the inner door, almost touching it to ensure that no one gets in ahead of them. When will I be called?

When I had seen the doctor two years earlier, he had looked fit and cheerful; now he seemed collapsed in his chair. He told me, when I was finally called in at 4:00, that he hadn't yet had lunch, and that he was swamped every day with walk-in patients who camped out from early morning, refusing to leave until they had seen him. He said that he wasn't well. I wondered vaguely whether he had a cold, or a touch of flu; he said it was much more serious than that, but that he wouldn't go into the details. I said that he shouldn't kill himself with work in this way. He said, "I'm halfway there already," and smiled. "Besides, this is what I do, this is what I’m married to. And that’s how the cookie crumbles." I echoed, "Yes, that’s how it crumbles," and we both laughed – for no reason except human contact.

On the positive side, I was able to read a sizeable chunk of Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves, which included this encouraging quotation from Kabir: "You have slept for millions and millions of years. Why not wake up this morning?"
The Blog of Henry David Thoreau

Whales on a Beach

Our visiting English friends were telling us about their trip to France – to Nice, where the man bought at a flea-market a magazine illustration -– a drawing, or a lithograph -- from the 1920's. It showed a pod of whales which had beached near Cochin. A crowd of people had gathered around, garlanded them with flowers, and were worshipping them.

I can imagine the hugeness, mystery and beauty of the great creatures. One might wish to cover them with flowers. But, of course, then what? What happened when they died and began to rot? A Buddhist might draw profound conclusions about the impermanence of all things, including the gods; but would the people on the spot, from villages round about, be so philosophical? Would they simply call it a case of mistaken identity and go about their work? I do know, from experience, that those who wish to believe, do so. Setbacks, major or minor, don’t seem to cause much trouble.

Nothing profound to say here, just that the image keeps haunting me.

Water lorry

Water lorry