Two Things

Abraham dropped by again yesterday. He has somehow decided that we, like him, should sell our house to a computer company for a fabulous price. He even brought a broker with him. We aren't interested in selling, so it was a waste -- though he did drop in one sentence which made my eyes pop: "... you know his third wife ran away with a mrdangam player (a drummer)... "

She was clearly unhappy, but a mrdangam player! Gracious!

Hindi movie on TV, policeman to criminal: "If only you were my brother, I would be able to show you that you are on the wrong path."

Oh for God's sake, he is your brother! Don't you know that? Whenever anyone says, "I feel as though you were my relative," he / she is your relative. Especially if one of you is rich and the other poor, or one is a policeman and the other a criminal. Don't you know anything about Hindi movies??
From the Onion (because I was morosely sipping tea when I read it):
National Poetry Month Raises Awareness Of Poetry Prevention

NEW YORK—This month marks the 10th National Poetry Month, a campaign created in 1996 to raise public awareness of the growing problem of poetry. "We must stop this scourge before more lives are exposed to poetry," said Dr. John Nieman of the American Poetry Prevention Society at a Monday fundraising luncheon. "It doesn't just affect women. Young people, particularly morose high-school and college students, are very susceptible to this terrible affliction. It is imperative that we eradicate poetry now, before more rainy afternoons are lost to it." Nieman said some early signs of poetry infection include increased self-absorption and tea consumption.

An Unexpected Visitor

We were waiting for friends to arrive for dinner when the doorbell rang. I swung the door wide, expecting them, but it was a man who drops in once every couple of years, whom I’ll call Abraham. I invited him in, but I was wary. He can be amusing, but once he gets settled he’s hard to dislodge. He wants to talk, in a mumbling stream which is almost impossible to cut into, even to answer the occasional question. He loves gossip, and always arrives with some. On the other hand, he also wants to collect something to take to his next stopping-place. He’s like a bumblebee, picking up pollen here and depositing it there.

Abraham is a Syrian Christian from Kerala. I like the sound of Malayalam, though I can’t understand it: it is closely related to Tamil, but it has a softness and a lilt that Tamil does not. I also like the way some Malayalis, Abraham for example, speak English. The ‘o’s are especially elongated – phone becomes phwu-ooooone, and the lilting rhythm is soothing.

Abraham sat looking down at his lap, his body rocking very slightly. His shirt looked as though it hadn’t been ironed, though he can certainly afford to have it done. He started right in with a flow of words, as though we had met last week, not a year ago. He’d sold his house in Chennai to a computer company. One crore [a lot of money] per ground [about 1/16 of an acre, I think], and he had nine grounds of land. “I just have to settle up with my nephew. But I’m only going to pay him two and a half crores, because he doesn’t like me.” He smiled. “Then I’ll go and stay in my house in Coonoor. It’s a big house, and I like the view.

"C just took an old bathtub from me. An old-fashioned thing it was, and very dirty. He'll have to clean it with acid before he can use it. He’s having liver trouble, his stomach's all bloated up. He says he's stopped drinking: he only takes wine now." Abraham paused long enough to look up for the first time, and laughed slightly. “Wine won’t help him, but I didn’t say anything. I don’t want to be too friendly with him, because I’m afraid he’ll come and visit me in Coonoor. Anyway, I asked him if he was planning to come to Coonoor, but he said, ‘I can’t, my teeth are gone, and I have to spend all my time at the dentist.’”

C is very wealthy. Why did he want Abraham’s dirty old bathtub? Did it have any connection with his liver trouble? I tried to ask, but he wouldn’t let me interrupt him. And at last he bumbled off to the next flower, just in time for our friends to arrive.
From The Onion:
New Tech-Support Caste Arises In India

NEW DELHI—Thanks to widespread outsourcing of telephone-service jobs, a sixth caste has blossomed in India: the Khidakayas, a mid-level jati made up of technical-support workers. "I am happy to be a Khidakaya," said technical-support agent Ranji Prasat, who speaks English with a flawless American accent and goes by the name "Ron" at work. "While we rank below members of the reigning order, those of us responsible for helping Americans track their online purchases and change their account PINs share many privileges not enjoyed by the merchant class below us." Prasat said he expects to marry another tech-support worker.

Errands and Such

I went to the post office and stood in line at the stamp window, which was surrounded with several hand-written signs, all of which read "Revenue Stamps No Stock."

Bought my stamps, posted my letter in the postbox by the door.

In the Department of Insignificant Things, it's a disaster when your tongue cleaner breaks, and you realise you don't have any more, and being absent-minded you keep forgetting to buy new ones, and your tongue feels ickier and ickier, until you start using old credit cards, etc. Today I finally managed to get to a fancy store, which is where you have to go to buy them. (A fancy store sells oddments -- 'fancies,' I suppose -- small things that other places don't sell, impossible to describe -- a complete miscellany.) And bought 30, skewered together with a safety pin. And a roll of cloth tape for nadas, the drawstrings of pajamas and petticoats and such.

And then I bought groceries, and had some xeroxing done, and rented two DVD's: the new Alfie, and The Motorcycle Diaries.

And we're having biryani for dinner tonight, with raita and ready-made makhani dal -- very exotic for us, not at all our usual simplified-Gujarati fare. In the Department of Insignificant Things, it's a pretty good day.

Update: Dinesh's interesting comment: In my line of work [entomology], the fancy store was invaluable. I often found myself using stuff from there in my field work. For example, I used those garish neon ribbons (the ones school girls use to tie their braids) in order to mark spider colonies. It was quite a sight to see. And here's a link re: the postboxes: The Indian PO
Chapati Mystery has an interesting post on the origin of the Hindi word vilayat, which is popularly believed to have been derived from Blighty, a slangy name for England. It seems that in fact, it's the other way around.


under the fire star is two years old today. I haven't been giving it much care and feeding lately, but it seems to be a survivor.

Three days ago we ate our first mango of the season, an undistinguished specimen which Mary bought from the fruit lady who pushes her cart past our gate every day. Yesterday I went out and bought a box of Alphonse mangoes from Maharashtra, the ultimate in mango-ness as far as this household is concerned. They're not ripe yet, but they're resting in the dark, wrapped in wood shavings, and it should be any day now.

My pattern is to gorge myself at the beginning of mango season -- mangoes in the morning, mangoes mangoes in the evening, mangoes at suppertime. After a week or so, my digestive system rebels and I can hardly look at a mango for a couple of weeks. Then, just when the season is winding down, I get panicky and feel that I've missed my chance to eat mangoes for another whole year, and I begin again. So I'm looking forward to all that.

Yesterday, the two shallow fish ponds in the atrium of our house were being cleaned, and Lakshmi called me to come and look. Chinnaraj was scooping out handfuls of black grit. Lakshmi said they were poochies, which means insects, but when I looked closely I saw that they were tiny spiralled/conical snail shells. There were thousands of them, moving sluggishly, making faint noises of foot over shell which Mary described as mulla-mulla-mulla. We drained all the water out, transferred our mud-coloured fish to the well, and left the ponds to dry out. I did some hasty Internet research, which mainly turned up aquarium snails. One site said that clarifying agents could control snails, so I sent Chinnaraj to the chemist for alum. Once in the past, when someone came around offering to clean out the well, he tied alum in a piece of cloth and threw it in to clarify the water. So let's see. In the night as we sat in the drawing-room, which opens into the atrium, we imagined an army of snails on the move out there: mulla-mulla-mulla.

Three Songs

Ramesh has been reading Talking Songs by the great Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar. Yesterday he mentioned that, although the book includes the lyrics (and translations) for sixty of Akhtar's songs, his song Breathless wasn't there. So I rushed to the Net and found the lyrics here. They're in Hindi, but even if you can't read them, you can listen to the song here: page down to Breathless, check the box, go to the bottom of the page and click 'play selected.' It's fun -- it's a patter song, sung apparently all in one breath (which is why it's called Breathless), and the melody is a mix of western and Indian styles. Fusion, I suppose, although that's not really accurate; and it's an overused word these days.

Last night we watched Almodovar’s latest film, Bad Education. In one scene, a transvestite lip-synchs a Hindi song: "Aao huzoor tumko sitaron mein le chalo..." (film: Kismat (1968); Singer : Asha Bhosle; Music Director : O P Nayyar; Lyrics : Noor Devasi; Director : Manmohan Desai; Actors : Babita, Bishwajeet, Helen, Kamal Mehra, Murad)

We actually got into a small argument -- my fault --because I, convinced that it had to be in Spanish, refused to hear the Hindi. I kept saying, ‘but you know that so many Indian film songs have used western melodies.’ But it really was in Hindi. We wondered how that could be, and thought that perhaps this had in fact been a Spanish song first. But how had Almodovar come across it? Are Hindi film songs known in Spain? (I found an audio link to the song here, but couldn't get it to play.)

Update: Thanks to Chris Yavelow, who sent me a link to a wordless version of aao huzoor tumko. The sound is very cheesy, but kind of fun for all that.

Yesterday was Tamil New Year, and the Tamil TV channels were showing special films for the holiday. Sometime late at night we came across a showing of Michael Madana Kama Rajan, just in time for a song that I love, Sundari Neeyum. It's beautifully picturised, and sung by the actor (Kamal Hasan) who is supposed to be singing it – which is rare in Indian films, where the actors generally lip-synch songs sung by others.

In the film Kamal Hasan plays four characters, including a hilarious brahmin cook from Palghat, who speaks in a mixture of Malayam and Tamil, and who sings this song. Well, it's a duet, actually. You can listen to it here. Page down to Sundari Neeyum - 3rd from the bottom of the page, check the box and click 'play selected' -- do it! It's a lovely song.

Oh yes, and, fooling around on the Net I found this site where you can look up the ragas of Tamil film songs. The raga of Sundari Neeyum is kEdaaram.
I've been reading Alembic almost every day for about two years now -- it's beautifully written, and by a thoughtful person; exactly the kind of writing I like. Now its proprietor, Maria Benet, has published her first book of poetry, Mapmaker of Absences. One feels that people whose words one reads regularly are old friends, or distant relatives -- it's such a pleasure to read about their doings in the world.

Some Links

How odd -- I was going to post a ghazal by Mary Jo Salter, which arrived in my email as one of Knopf's daily emails for Poetry Month (April) (to subscribe, send a blank email to; but the email contained the warning: "No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher." And besides, what I wanted to say about it was that, to write ghazals in English, you really have to be Agha Shahid Ali.

And just now, in Chapati Mystery, I read this post about an impromptu English ghazal session, and the examples given are much better than Salter's. It helps to know Urdu, obviously, and the ghazal tradition; and, apparently, to be slightly drunk as well.

I saw this on Chapati Mystery too: The art of Rajkamal Kahlon. Gouache on 19th century bookpages (specifically, Cassell's Illustrated History of India).

Closer to home:

Newly-discovered Mamallapuram temple fascinates archaeologists

Reel-time blogs: An article about blogs about Tamil cinema.

The Dark

We drove to Anna Nagar, to dinner at a friend's house. It had rained for much of the day, and was still drizzling lightly. Santhome High Road was blocked off, and traffic diverted to the beach road. Santhome gets flooded quite quickly when it rains, but I was surprised, this had not happened before.

It was the first time I had driven on this stretch of the beach road since the tsunami. It runs very close to the sea, but it is not scenic: it is where the fishermen live, an extended village, squeezed between the city and the ocean. The pavement is narrow, two lanes only, and ends abruptly, without any kind of footpath on either side. Palm-thatch huts are put up very close to the road, and people live more on its edges than inside. If you drive there in the daytime, mothers are bathing children, or washing clothes, from buckets close to the car wheels; children play, people sit, or stand and talk. There are goats and chickens. The beach side is littered with nets, drying clothes, junk. For many it is the village latrine, though there are a couple of public latrines in the shape of a steamship, with a funnel.

Last night, creeping along in the dark, with no illumination but the lights of the vehicles, I could see little. At the southern end, where we entered, the place seemed as heavily populated as before. This is part of Srinivasapuram, an area which the government wants to empty out, to send the residents to its new slum clearance project in Thoraipakkam. (Thoraipakkam: my gardener comes to work from there every day with tales of criminal rule, extortion and violence, the poor preying on the poor, where the police are paid off and see nothing.)

As we drew closer to the Lighthouse, we could see big empty areas where the people had already been removed, and the place had been bulldozed into piles of rubble. But on the other side of the road, the beach side, were rows of terrible huts, just plastic sheeting on casuarina poles, and straw mats, and people's possessions. I guessed that they must have refused to be moved: the fishermen have claimed that it is their ancestral right to live by the sea. They must have been soaked in the rain.

At our friends' house, a tiny bat was hanging from a recessed light fixture in the ceiling. It had flown in through an open window. They had tried to encourage it to leave, but were afraid of hurting it. Its body was only about three inches long. It hung from one delicate foot, its wings wrapped around its body. It was swinging slightly, and shifting its wings in front of its chest, so that it looked as if it were wringing its hands in agitation. It was still there when we left, still restless.

This morning I saw in the paper that Santhome High Road was blocked off because a five-storey building, which was being renovated, had collapsed. No one was living in it, but several workers were trapped in the rubble. At least three of them were killed.

Last night the world seemed precarious, a place of darkness. Which it is, for so many. Most of the time I just don't notice.


On Sunday, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, the sky became dark. I looked out the window and saw dozens of birds speeding across the sky, carried by a stiff breeze. I went outside and stood on the steps, and waited for the rain to begin. I stretched out my hand beyond the covered area, and let the first drops fall on my skin, and felt their coolness. It hasn't rained for several months. It only lasted for about 15 minutes, but the power went off immediately, and came back when the rain stopped.

Yesterday it began at mid-morning, and rained until mid-afternoon. Lots of rumbling thunder, which I like, and the power off for hours.

This morning it's raining again -- splatting, solid. The air is saturated. The temperature has come down. It's the normal pattern here during the hot season: heat builds and builds, and then is broken by thundershowers.

I hope the power doesn't go off again, because I have a lot of work to do. The new fiscal year began on the first of April, so there are papers to be gathered for the accountant, and several taxes to be paid. I'm half-convinced that the Electricity Board sends people out to turn the power off when it rains, so that the jury-rigged electric boxes, with all their exposed wires, don't get flooded and begin to spark.

The garden changes colour immediately, as dust washes off of the leaves. Our rather ramshackle plants are lush and swaying. It's what the tropics are supposed to look like, for a change.
A new photoblog by R. Balaji, in camera, largely made up of pictures taken in Chennai and its state, Tamil Nadu. There's an amazing photograph of workers at a salt pan in Tuticorin, which looks as though they're harvesting snow.

Book Meme

Anna invited me, and I really meant to do it, but I didn't; now abdul-walid has (though he had already invited himself and three others, so I don't know if it counts). I hate these things, because I know I'm not clever enough; and yet I feel tempted. So okay.

1. You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be?

The first thing that popped into my head was Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. So let it remain. (But if it's taken, I'll be W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn.)

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

In childhood, many: Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard; Rudolph Rassendyl from The Prisoner of Zenda (from a collection of pulp fiction of the turn of the century, which belonged to my grandmother); the Scarlet Pimpernel. Swashbucklers all. And one horse: the Black Stallion.

Of late: Arkady Renko, from any of Martin Cruz Smith's novels through which he slouches.

3. The last book you bought is?

Shamiana: The Mughal Tent, by Shireen Akbar

4. What are you currently reading?

Orhan Pamuk's Snow, John Busby's Drawing Birds, Stephen P. Cohen's The Idea of Pakistan

5. Five books you would take to a deserted island?

How could I possibly choose?

Some enormous compendium of poetry, which might include Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mary Oliver?

Some potboiler novel that I could read to forget the island - a long one. With one of those swashbucklers from my childhood, maybe.

Maybe some science fiction? Samuel R. Delaney's Triton?

I just don't know. More poetry. The Complete Works of Jane Austen. A wilderness survival manual. The ship would sink before I could decide.

6. Who are you going to pass this to (three persons) and why?

I think I'll leave it to anyone who would like to respond. How about you?

Here's one, thank you, from Chandrachoodan. And Dinesh.

Two Links

I'm not sure what it is yet, but I know it's really cool: Global Village Health Manual

And the terrific Chapati Mystery speculates on the etymology of the word 'termagant.'

Lowest A/C Prices in History

I admit it, I'm always a sucker for these tongue-in-cheek uses of Indian mythology for product advertising.

Note: I got some interesting comments on this post.

Anand sent me a link to an article, The Invention of the Hindu, by Pankaj Mishra:
Hinduism is largely a fiction, formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a multiplicity of sub-continental religions, and enthusiastically endorsed by Indian modernisers. Unlike Muslims, Hindus have tended to borrow more than reject, and it has now been reconfigured as a global rival to the big three monotheisms. In the process, it has abandoned the tradition of toleration which lie in its true origins.

And on a lighter note, Anand Vishwanathan tells me that the figure in the ad, whom I had taken to be a character from the Mahabharata, Bhima, because he is shown with a mace, is actually Kumbhakarna, a demon who was the brother of Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana, who slept for months at a time. Which makes the ad funnier than I realised.

And Partisan adds: What's even funnier, the tagline says: "Kannai Mooditu Vangalam", which means, "You can shut your eyes and buy it." Just the right pitch for a sleep-inducing air-conditioner, right?

I learn so much from everyone's comments -- thanks once again for them.