Christmas Eve and MGR

Here's something different: an MGR fan-blog. MGR, an extremely popular filmstar and then politician, died on Christmas Eve, 1987. I found this passage from the blog especially interesing:
[someone said that] when MGR fell sick in 1984, he was rushed to Brooklyn Hospital in United States. There he died, but he was fitted with machines and the control was given to MGR's wife Mrs.Janaki Ramachandran, and she controlled, the button is not mechanical one it is in a form of medicine (tablets).


One day (23.12.1987 night) MGR's wife has administered the wrong drug and the machine ceased to function and it was reported that MGR was dead.

As it happens, I was working at the American Consulate in Chennai when MGR died. I've posted my memories of that time on Chennai Metroblogging. Here's the text: M. G. Ramachandran, known as MGR, died on Christmas Eve, 1987. He had been an extremely popular filmstar, and then politician; he was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when he died. He was elderly and his health had been failing for some time, but his death caused an enormous outpouring of emotion in Tamil Nadu. I was working at the American Consulate in Chennai at that time. Early in the morning on Christmas Eve, the Consul General (CG) called me and said that he had heard that MGR had died. He said that I should try to get in to the office as soon as possible, because we were afraid that there might be some kind of unrest in the city. I was able to drive in from my house in Rutland Gate because it was still early. Later, as more people heard the news, people in cars were driven back; cyclists were forced to get down and walk, as a sign of ‘respect.’ As it happened, I had the Consulate building almost to myself. A few people had come walking, or had arrived very early; the rest stayed home. My office was on a level with the Gemini flyover – at the time the only flyover (overpass) in Chennai, and a central route to Rajaji Hall, where MGR’s body was taken to lie in state. As the day progressed, more and more people began crossing the flyover on foot, walking downtown. Soon they were a solid mass; people were coming in to Chennai from outlying towns and villages, to see MGR. I spent much of the day taking phone calls and just staring at the people streaming by. Some of them were crying, no doubt, but as the crowd grew and grew there was and air of excitement, as though they felt their own strength, and wondered what would happen next. Every once in awhile, someone would stop and throw a stone at the Consulate. One hit one of my office windows, and left a spider web of cracks in the bullet-proof glass. In the afternoon, someone jumped over the wall – which had just been raised in a security upgrade, though it had not yet become the fortress that it is today – and smashed the glass on each side of the Consulate’s main door. Then he ran back and over the wall and was gone. There was some looting of shops – I could see from my window a petrol bunk being broken into, and people making off with cans of engine oil and such; some cars, I heard later, were damaged; there was violence throughout the state, and many people committed suicide; but what I saw was just the huge, unimaginable mass of people, all headed in one direction. On the day of MGR’s funeral, I drove out with a black dupatta tied to my windshield wiper as a sign of mourning, and picked up a large floral wreath. I was nervous about it, but no one stopped me. I went to the CG’s house, where a police escort was supposed to take us to Rajaji Hall. No one turned up, however, so we decided to go alone. We put the wreath prominently in the front seat beside the driver, and set off on our own down the beach road. The road was completely jammed. The size of the crowd was unimaginable – hundreds of thousands of people. The driver had to inch along. People peered in, saw us foreigners and the wreath, and parted to let us pass. None of us spoke a word – it was like driving through a tunnel made of living human beings, of whose intentions we were unsure. Eventually we reached the place, later than we had intended, because of the non-existent police escort. By this time MGR’s body had already been removed and placed on a gun-carriage (I think that’s what it was), where he would be taken in procession through the streets, before being buried in a hastily constructed tomb on the beach. We carried the wreath to the carriage, handed it up to someone who placed it on MGR’s body, and stepped back. Then we drove back through those thousands of people; I went home and watched the rest of it on television. If you have seen Mani Ratnam’s film Iruvar, which tells a story based in part on MGR’s life, there is a scene at the end, where the main character’s body is taken on a carriage through huge crowds. That scene looked very real: it brought the day back to me. It was an unforgettable experience.


We flew from Chennai to Coimbatore. Most of Tamil Nadu is red and flat; then giant rocks or very small mountains rise suddenly from the plains. This view from the plane window, of rocky hills above thin cloud looked like the mountains of heaven:

The main road to Coonoor was closed for more than a month: landslides because of heavy rains. It had just re-opened the day before we drove up, but no heavy vehicles were allowed, since roadwork was still going on. The road was almost empty. In many places, raw red earth slides looked as if it would take very little to set them moving again.

A picture from the hotel:

More of my photos of Coonoor on Flickr
. (and still more to come) sketchbook:
From November 15, 2004 to June 8, 2005 I travelled through many countries, read 34 books, got sick 3 times, got robbed 2 times, and learned more about myself and this world than i thought possible. This sketchbook records those 7 months in images.

Sketches of Thailand, India, Africa, Europe. Most of it could be anywhere, but I kind of like the idea of a travel sketchbook that doesn't have anything picturesque about it. Once in a while.


My brother-in-law sent us an email, purporting to have been written by a doctor in Mumbai - one of those emails which gets forwarded from one person to another - and claiming that the juice of papaya leaves is helpful in treating dengue fever. Whether it's true or not, here is the rationale:
It's believed one's body would be overheated when one is down with dengue and that also caused the patient to have fever. Papaya juice has cooling effect. Thus, it helps to reduce the heatiness in one's body, thus the fever will go away. I found that it's also good when one is having sore throat or suffering from heatiness.

I've always been interested in traditional Indian medicine's idea that some things are heating, and some cooling, and that an imbalance between the two causes illness. For instance, mangoes are hot. If you gorge on mangoes and get diarrhoea, it is because you have overheated your system. Some foods are obvious: chillies, onions, garlic are hot, yoghurt is cooling. Others, like the mangoes, are not so obvious, at least to me.

I never knew what to call the condition of heat overload, and now I do: 'heatiness.' I think this is a great word, with many applications. In this fast-paced world of ours, there is altogether too much heatiness; and papaya leaf juice, yoghurt or any other cooling substance is certainly worth trying, to get the temperature down.

A Day of Death

It’s All Soul’s Day today – for Roman Catholics, at least; not for my cook, Mary, who’s evangelical. I drove past the Quibble Island Cemetery today (which was an island in the Adyar river delta once, but is so no more, thanks to all the development in recent years) and saw that the gates had been thrown open, and that flower vendors had lined up on either side, selling garlands of yellow marigolds. A steady stream of people walked through the gate, garlands in hand, to visit their dead. A loudspeaker is blaring out hymns.

When it rains heavily in Chennai, as it did last week, and the soil becomes soft and loose with water, big roadside trees topple over. In our own garden, three eucalyptus trees – twenty years old and at least 55 feet tall - began to lean over our neighbour’s wall, breaking it in one place and threatening to crash down on their roof.

Today we brought seven men in to cut the trees down. We feel terrible about it; R and I both cried when the first tree fell. (Mary was practical: she said, "Such big, thick trees -- we'll get good money for them.")

The men worked so hard all day long – small men all muscle and bone, wearing tucked up plaid lungis, shirtless, barefooted; and with only a long rope, a two-man handsaw and some machetes for equipment. In between feeling unhappy and worrying about whether the job could be done with no damage to the neighbour’s property or ours (ten clay tiles smashed on our side, and a number of smaller plants and branches of remaining trees crushed and broken), I was full of admiration for their industry and skill. But it feels like a day of death, all right.

NaNoWriMo 2006

Getting ready for NaNoWriMo, I have gleaned a couple of references to free programs / gizmos for writers. There are lots more, which you can find by browsing the Nanowrimo forums. Go and sign up -- the time to write your novel has come!
Papel - 'the intuitive tool for creative writers'. I just started to use it, and it's wonderful. I've made one 'papel' for my novel, and another one as a kind of idea dump - for blog, poetry, short story ideas. It has a desktop with text documents which can be moved around, as in mind-mapping - for scenes, characters, notes, or whatever you want.

A cute pocket storyboarder.

Noisy Keyboard makes your keyboard sound like an electric typewriter. Turn it on or off, according to your mood.

As to my novel, I've decided to have fun, and not to worry about being intelligent, or about who might read over my shoulder and sneer at me. Maybe I'll actually finish this year.


A terrific thunderstorm last night. I saw a bright flash, as if a light bulb had exploded, and glass flying and clinking on the floor. A window had blown out. I photographed it as if I were a reporter at a crime scene, and tried to sweep up the shards. (In the morning Lakshmi found more, 15 feet from the window.)

I looked out the door where the watchman was sheltering in the porch, and said, "What was that?" He said, "Minnal" - lightning. "Is that so?" I nodded, and went back inside.

Still Here

I’ve been so down about the image-less state of this blog – and by extension, the fragility and futility of the world, etc. etc., that I was on the verge of chucking it. The blog, that is. Then R persuaded me not to.

I was driving through driving rain today: it’s been going on for several days now; parts of the city are flooded, and everything is a soggy mess. I was listening to Ernst Bacon’s Remembering Ansel Adams, for clarinet and orchestra, and it became apparent that the inside and outside of the car occupied parallel but completely different universes. It was a dangerous illusion, given the need of the driver (me) to pay close attention to the splashings and swervings; but so pleasant, being cocooned in cool and meditative sound.

Beyond that, life goes on in its usual soggy and messy way. We saw a very good film, Indian but mostly in English: Being Cyrus, with a good cast, and excellent acting by Saif Ali Khan. Divali, the festival of lights, came and went, with some squibs dampened by rain, but enough remaining to create a continuous wall of noise from morning to night. Oh, and I painted a shell that I like. That’s about it.

My husband's take on the same shell.

Coconuts and Poochis 2

Back in March I wrote about how we had applied a medicinal poultice to the crowns of our three coconut trees, because insects were spoiling the young coconuts. And whether because of our efforts or not, the next crop was superior. Now our newish gardener has declared that the coconuts need another dose. He's from the countryside and knows farming - certainly our garden has never looked better - so we have obeyed. In addition to what we had applied in March: rock salt, mothballs, sambrani (a kind of incense), turmeric, and edible camphor (used here in some sweets), we have now added asafoetida and a fragrant bark called (I think) vaasambu. Lakshmi, Ethiraj the gardener, and a coconut-tree climber worked to pound the ingredients between two stones in the ugliest part of our house, the area behind the kitchen:

The coconut-tree climber has an interesting looking container hanging from his belt to hold his machete. the rope over his shoulder is his climbing sling. He wrapped the pink cloth around his head to make an informal turban, shinnied up the trees, cut off excess leaves (how does one determine this, I wonder?), cleaned the crowns, applied the poultice and shinnied back down again. Now let's see.

Two French students by Ramesh Gandhi

An Elephant Crackup

There's a fascinating / scary / terribly sad article in today's New York Times magazine: An Elephant Crackup? It is primarily about African elephants, but it mentions Indian elephants as well; and the problems are apparently evident among all elephant populations:
... today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly. It is not leaving without making some kind of statement, one to which scientists from a variety of disciplines, including human psychology, are now beginning to pay close attention.

Several Things

It's fever season. We always have malaria and typhoid, to greater or lesser degrees; this year we have chikungunya. I'd never heard of it; it has emerged after 37 years. And more recently, there's dengue. Dengue is usually more prevalent in the north, but I heard from someone here a couple of days ago that he had been diagnosed with it. Both are carried by a day-biting mosquito.

When we sit out on the lawn at night and I get bitten, I think, "Never mind, it's a night-biter," and if I get bitten during the day I think, "Never mind, this one isn't likely to be carrying anything." So far, this primitive magic has worked.

One night, very late, there was such a thunderstorm that it was like a very austere musical composition: concerto for thunder, with the soloist right overhead, and supporting thunder all around. It was so beautifully spare a piece that the only frill was the percussion of rattling windows. By the time the rain started, I had already gone back to sleep.

Petrol bunk red:

For Once, Then, Something

I suddenly wanted to read poems by Robert Frost. I had read him in high school, then did not for many years. I found this poem, which I had not known before, but which I found beautiful:

For Once, Then Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Good News and Bad News

Regarding my recent disappearance from the airwaves, Blogger has sent me this note:
I have some good news and bad news for you. The good news is that your blog is now back online and publishing correctly with all your posts and archives intact. The bad news is that everything you have uploaded to your page such as pictures and images have been lost. We deeply and sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Once I get over being stunned, I will begin to try to replace those images. Anyway, here I am. Blogger has pulled me out of the hat. Tada.

Several Things

August 22 is Madras Day, the (368th) 'birthday' of the city of Chennai, which was called Madras for almost all of its previous birthdays. Kutcheribuzz has a Madras Day website, and Chennai Metroblogging has a number of posts connected to the city and the day.

Going through newspapers that had piled up in our absence, I found an extremely interesting article about professional mourners in the Tamil fishing community. Their art, of wailing and singing songs for men who have died, is called oppari. I Googled oppari, and found this article: Professional Weeping: Music, Affect, and Hierarchy in a South Indian Folk Performance Art.

This looks very cool (via Lifehacker): a free yoga class delivered each day by podcast, from Yoga Today. Unfortunately, you have to have really broad broadband, and unlimited downloads, to benefit from it: I've been trying to download one hour-long program for hours, and it's coming very slowly. The site suggests that if you choose the higher-res download (1 GB), you leave your computer on all night, so that it will be ready for you in the morning.

At the Bar

So we're vacationing in Bangalore, and we're in the bar, and sitting at another table is Feroze Khan, who was a filmstar once, and who is a producer, and whose son is acting in films. He was drinking with someone who seemed to be a pal of his. A little blonde girl, the child of one of the foreigners who are staying at the hotel, and who looked to me to be about nine years old, all dressed up in churidar-kameez, with a dupatta and everything, and probably feeling very grown up, went over to his table. My first thought was, Where are her parents? Then I looked again, nosy/curious, and saw that she had draped a loop of string around the pal’s hands, and was showing him how to play cat's cradle. She was very intent on the loops and twists, and when she was done both men applauded. I looked again a few minutes later, and she was sitting in the chair next to FK's, and he was showing her what looked like sleight of hand, a magic trick. He looks dramatic, a shaved head covered with a long scarf. He was doing magician-like hand movements with flourishes, and she was trying to copy him, and the light was shining down on both of them, and it looked charming. Then it was over, and she ran back to a stool at the bar, where her father or someone was waiting for her.

Independence Day

August 15 is Indian Independence Day. Last night someone from Guest Relations called us and said that the hotel was having a flag-raising at 8:00 this morning, and invited us to attend. To my surprise, R agreed – he avoids ceremonies of any kind, and we never get up before 8:30. But we duly walked up to the hotel gate at five minutes to eight. A group of employees was arrayed around the flagpole; the security guards in their uniforms were trying to look military. Coffee and Indian sweets were kept ready at tables to one side. One of the staff came up to us holding a tray covered with pins in the colours of the Indian flag: saffron white green. R picked out a flag pin, I chose a small rosette shape. Then we waited. A few hotel guests trickled in, but most were staff. 8:00 came and went and R, always obsessed with time, began to be impatient. Finally, at 8:10, a car drove in the gate: the Manager had arrived. He drove a little beyond where we stood, got out and hurried back to the flagpole. As he passed us, R showed him his watch and said, “Independence came late to India.” (He told us afterwards that he had attended the Chief Minister’s flag-raising, which had been late.)

The flag was already at the top of the flagpole, folded into a small bundle. The Manager pulled the rope and unfurled the flag, from which flower petals showered onto the watchers below. Everyone applauded, and a tinny recording of the national anthem was played. The Manager shook hands with the assembled staff members, and we went to breakfast.

In the afternoon we will fly back home. When we scheduled our return for Independence Day we didn’t think twice about it; now, with the new state of high alertness, and an additional warning for today, we are dreading the prospect of delays at the airport. All passengers must now arrive at the airport 90 minutes before the flight time (for, in our case, a 20 minute flight). We don’t know whether we can carry on the laptop, my camera, R’s camera bag crammed with lenses – none of which we would like to pack into our suitcases.

It will all happen, one way or another. This day will slide into the past, and tomorrow morning I will wake up in hot Chennai, and walk downstairs to start the day, as if this place, with its concerns and ceremonies, never existed.

All Diseases Cured

Still on vacation, and still updating my arts blog with sketches and findings and such: fire star arts

Photography at Sepia

It's always interesting to see what Sepia Gallery, in New York, is showing. Their current online exhibition has eight photomontages by Vivan Sundaram, called 'Retake of Amrita.' According to the description:
...'Retake of Amrita' ... fuses photography, painting, family history, and autobiography into multi-faceted contemporary fictions. This series of digital photomontages utilizes images from his family archive, including photographs taken by his grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil...; the primary protagonist of the series is his aunt, the painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941).

Take a look at the section on past exhibitions as well.

Several Things

I'm on vacation, first of all. Hurray for wi-fi!

Secondly, a few days back I was able once again to see the blogsites which had been banned by the government earlier - blogspot, typepad, geocities. Many ISPs had lifted the ban earlier; mine, Hathway, was apparently one of the last to let go. No notice of imposition, and none of lifting: one day it was all just there again.

Thirdly, I am amusing myself with a little pamphlet I made out of old wedding invitations:

I'm filling it up and posting the pictures on my sketch blog, for those who are interested in this kind of thing: fire star arts.

That's about it, I guess. It's so lovely in Bangalore right now - soft air, a breeze making the most beautiful sighing sound in the branches of the trees, birds with more melodious cries than those of my household crows. As in the beginning of every vacation, it's hard to imagine ever leaving.


The blog ban continues, even though it's increasingly clear that it was all a mistake.

My hard disk crashed, and the people who are trying to rescue its data are ominously silent. The worst loss for me will be ALL of the pictures I've taken on my not-so-new digital camera, and the scans I've been making of R's old black and white negatives, and my slides from travels here and there. At least I can re-scan the latter, though the thought of going through it all again is depressing, to say the least.

I'm listening to a CD someone gave me yesterday, A Sufi Voyage, with music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Pathaney Khan, and the Sabri Brothers. Rollicking, wonderful stuff. Almost enough to make me forget my hard disk. (Mera Ishq Vee Toon!!! I don't even need to speak Saraiki to love it. Makes my hair stand on end.)

I'm trying to write a short story, and finding it hard going. It didn't help that my first draft was on my -- did I mention this? -- hard disk.

Ghulam Farid Sabri, whom I wrote about here

update: My computer person tells me that he is able to direct my hard disk, which has to be good, right? That Sufi voyaging must have helped. So Inshallah I am hoping that by Monday all will be well. Mashallah. And I'm installing a second disk so that I can back up from one to the other. Someday I really will become a Luddite, really -- but then how will I be able to listen to beautiful music by inspired qawwals?

Bitterness 2

I'm revisiting my baby bitter gourds. This is the vine, outside the kitchen door. The rectangle of light is the height of a brick laid flat. You can see a yellow flower, and a new baby gourd growing from the base of a second flower.


The blog ban continues, but I’m not going to write about it – others are doing so.

Instead, I present here the latest fruits of our garden, called bitter gourd or bitter melon. They are usually cucumber-sized, but because we are lousy gardeners baby vegetables are fashionable, these are tiny. The vine on which they grew was as fine as a thread. Are they not beautiful?

Clampdown 2

According to NDTV 24X7, an Indian news channel, the clampdown on blogsites (and some websites) is NOT connected to the recent blasts in Mumbai, but is an effort to curb the propagation of religious extremism on the Net. If that's true, the ban may not be lifted any time soon.

If it's not clear from what has been said so far, the Indian ban applies to ALL blogs from these sites, not just those originating in India: ALL blogspot, typepad, geocities blogs worldwide. If you have a blog from one of these providers anywhere in the world, I cannot read you.

It's odd that we can still post to our own blogs, and read the blogs that we have had the foresight to subscribe to through RSS. These loopholes may well be closed soon, if this is to be a long-term policy.

Meanwhile, there's a workaround which allows me to read Blogspot blogs, but it's getting a lot of publicity, so it may not last long. It doesn't seem to work for Typepad. Movable Type is not affected -- no religious extremists there, apparently.



Since last night, I'm able to post to this blog, but not able to see the results after they are published, except through my RSS reader. According to Boing Boing, the Indian Government has asked Indian ISPs to block certain blog providers such as Blogspot, Typepad, and Geocities, without any explanation. I called my service provider, Hathway Internet, to confirm that that was my problem, and they hung up on me.

A couple of years ago, the government had blocked access to all Yahoo Group sites, then as in this case because of perceived security threats.

I naturally support all efforts of the government to fight terrorism, and realise that they have a difficult task right now, after the Mumbai/ Srinagar bombings on the 11th. I wonder if this is the way to address the problem.

India Blocks Access Major Blog Sites
India blocks Blogger, TypeAd and Geocities blogs and websites
Blogs, websites go blank

Several Things

Metroblogging Chennai is turning into a fun and often informative place to read about the city. Lately I have been most looking forward to the posts of David Appasamy (the link lists his latest posts on the site), many of which are about a Chennai which is vanishing or gone. The latest, for example, talks about Buckingham Canal when it was actually used to transport goods - something which is today hard to believe, seeing it silted up, polluted, almost destroyed.

A French website for travellers who create illustrated travel journals (carnets de voyage). Many beautiful images from members' carnets.

and from my own carnet,

GRT Temple Bay resort in Mahabalipuram


My latest post on Metroblogging Chennai: Bleah! or, Current Architectural Trends

Look at this poor, architecturally-challenged creature. I am posting it not because it’s ugly — we have plenty of ugly buildings to look at out our windows as it is — but because it represents three of the city’s current architectural trends:

First, see a portion of the building on the left. This is the way most of the city’s buildings look: no architect consulted; slabs extending over the windows to act as sun / rain shades; general boxiness. Flat roofs; generally many small rooms.
If you look at the side of the building in the center, you can see that it is really the same as its neighbour.
The upper part of the facade, made of reflective glass, typifies the new buildings coming up here, of which this is a very modest version – most of them look as weird in their context as if an alien spaceship had come down in (in this case) Santhome High Road.
And finally, we come to the street-level facade, in a style which refers to Tamil traditional domestic architecture: tile roof, columns, verandah. I like this style a lot, myself, and it has come back into fashion once again, primarily for expensive houses — for people who can afford nostalgia, while concealing inside all the modern conveniences.
Any one of these three styles would have been fairly unexceptional in the Chennai of today; it is the combination which makes this a remarkable object lesson in how not to make a building.
R and I got our names in the paper today: a nice article in The Hindu's MetroPlus section, by Geeta Padmanabhan: What symbolises Chennai? Think Chennai, and what strikes you — the city's landmarks, its tradition, culture or people?

Two other Chennai bloggers were also quoted: Thennavan and Vatsan. (The three of us also contribute to Metroblogging Chennai.)

A Village Toy

I drew and watercoloured this small bullock toy today. It has holes drilled in the platform so that wheels can be added. The thread-garland around its neck was the handle of a shopping bag from Anokhi.

My painting doesn't capture the roughness of its texture. I put a photograph of the original on Flickr.
I love this sentence, from Tahir Shah's The Caliph's House. He's describing the morning of bakr-id, in the slum near his house:
The donkeys had fallen silent, as had the limping dogs; and the wicked boys had been hosed down and dressed in white.


I love the vanishing hand-painted signs / murals. I took this photograph today, on Chamiers Road:

And one more, on Flickr


In what folds and crevices of the brain do these things reside: just now, out of nowhere, I began to sing under my breath
I'm Popeye the sailor man
I live in a garbage can
I love to go swimmin'
with bald-headed wimmen
I'm Popeye the sailor man

I'm not even a fan of Popeye, though I do like the way his muscles ripple after he has sucked in the spinach - the tattooed ship under full sail on his bicep begins to toss and pitch in the swells.

Go figure.

Tommy and Aruna

Here we are in the Irony Department. It's a cheap one, I know, but pretty striking all the same:

Now take a look at the lower right-hand corner of the picture, at the little blue shed containing Aruna Automobiles All Two Wheeler Service. Here it is in its proper scale:


R's childhood friend has come to visit from Calcutta, bringing a carton of langda mangoes and a box of sandesh, one of R's favourite Bengali sweets. I believe that 'sandesh' means 'message.'

Sandesh is made from paneer. I have seen my sister-in law make it in Chicago, mixing paneer and sugar in a food processor, then stirring it in a wok over a low flame until it became a little less moist, then rolling it into lozenge shapes and decorating it with mandarin orange slices.

The modern version has many added flavourings. Here's a tour of the plate above: the yellowish squares are, according to R and his friend, the classic form of sandesh, with saffron and pistachios, and decorated with silver foil. "We never knew that sandesh could be white (the most common colour now - unless it's sweetened with jaggery, which colours it pale tan). Only in the villages would you find white milk sweets."

Next are slices of plain sandesh surrounded by sandesh flavoured with rose water and dyed pink. Decorated with chopped pistachio and saffron threads.

In the center are two large pieces, strongly rose-flavoured, decorated with fresh rose petals, resting in individual trays made of folded and stapled pieces of banana leaf.

Then, two balls of plain sandesh enclosing chocolate and rose petals and decorated with silver foil.

The cool soft graininess of sandesh, the freshness of rose petals (small and dark blood red, roses from before the essence was bred out of them): what a delicate message they convey.


I went out yesterday morning to buy some beer.  Before the state government took over the liquor business, one could enter a respectable place and choose from a fairly wide selection of Indian liquor (no wine, though, even though there is quite decent Indian wine, and even though liquor stores are called Wine Shops).

Now, though, the liquor stores are filthy, with only the cheapest brands on sale, and are apparently intended to convey the message that if you keep alcohol in your home you are destined for one of the lower circles of hell.  Drink in hotels or clubs (independent restaurants aren't allowed to sell alcohol) - fine.  Drink at home - hell.

I went to a Wine Shop on the corner of Mandaveli High Road and C.P. Ramaswamy Road, because I was headed to Cinema Paradiso.  I walked inside the gate.  A group of what the Indian press used to call boozards clustered around the doorless opening to the Wine Shop.  To the left was a makeshift stall featuring some kind of bright orange-red fried snacks.  I walked through the assemblage to the counter, told the man inside that I wanted some Kingfisher beer, which fortunately he had, and waited while he hauled a case from the back of the small room.

As I stood there, I felt a tapping on my shoulder.  I turned, and a horrible looking, toothless fellow grinned at me and said, "Hello, Madam."  I said quietly in Tamil, "Don't touch me."  He immediately stepped back, and one of his comrades said, "Sorry Madam."  I paid for my beer and carried it out to my car.  It was nothing at all, really, it ended almost as it began; yet it upset me.

I would be grateful if someone could a) tell me where to find a decent Wine Shop in Chennai with a good selection of stuff; and b) why did the Government take over this business in the first place?  They were already auctioning off licenses to run the Wine Shops for large sums, and there's already a tax on every bottle sold.  Why did they need to take over alcohol retailing?

The beer was good.  But that's another story.


I called the clouds, and for once they responded. I was sitting in a cane chair on the lawn at about 5:15 in the evening, resting my head on the back of the chair and looking straight up at the sky. A procession of clouds, white around their frayed edges and raindark in the middle, headed east across a sky of the palest blue. It was very beautiful, and I thought of Meghdoot, the Cloud-Messenger, carrying its message of rain.

Next came a thin, even sheet of yellow-grey, which spread to cover most of the sky, and sent down the lightest of sprinkles - not even a drizzle - that went on for an hour.

Later there was a more definite shower, with lightning and thunder. Water splatted loudly on the leaves in our leaky atrium.

This morning the sky is bright but grey-tinged, the air is heavy, and the stones of the garden walkways are patched with damp. Perhaps more rain-mail will come today.

At Play

I've been reverting to childhood lately: cutting paper and pasting it to more paper; only the scissors don’t have round ends, and the paste isn’t thick white goop, in a round jar with a brush attached to the lid. It was so enjoyable: no worries about not being able to draw, or how the wash will come out, or lost edges or any of that stuff.

Some friends dropped by with a wedding invitation, and it was so pretty that I grabbed it from R’s hands and lost all interest in the happy event (R was busy anyway, giving them a lecture on the wrongness of extravagant weddings, and the worse wrongness of inviting him to attend them. They didn't mind - we had just gone through the same routine a month ago, with another daughter.). Almost as soon as they left I cut it up and made it into a pocket,

and put in a picture of myself, taken 100 years ago or so, in a kathak pose, and a gift tag with a quotation from a letter which someone wrote to me, in Urdu, at that time:
How can this eastern candle (me!) burn in the palaces of the West?

I glued in the picture of Theda Bara as Cleopatra, to signify that the writer was having a little Orientalist fantasy of his own.

I went on to make several more pockets. I’m planning to bind a book with black pages and glue them in, as in a photograph album. The title of the book will be Où Sont les Neiges, which has two meanings:

1. Où sont les neiges (d’antan) (Where are the snows of yesteryear), because a lot of it will be about the past, about memory; and
2. Où sont les neiges because I live in the tropics, and ou sont les damn neiges, anyway?

Or because it's a monsoon land, maybe I can call it Où sont les nuages? I don't know. Anyway, on - or back - to paper dolls. Or mudpies, or something.

The Caliph's House

I've been enjoying The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah. It tells the story of his and his family's relocation from England to a huge, old mansion in Casablanca, its renovation, and the characters living in it, both human and supernatural (jinns, that is).

(This picture is from an article in the New York Times)

I'm one of those who enjoys looking at pictures of pretty houses, though I feel a little guilty about it: Our house is pretty enough, but my eye still tends to roam. Anyway, Shah's website includes a section of photographs of the Caliph's House, taken after the dust had settled, and jinns and eccentric local characters had been appeased.

Here's the India tie-in: Shah, whose wife is Indian, ordered a container-load of furniture for the house on the Internet, from a company in Bombay: The Raj Company. The photograph below is from their website:

So that's it - something to look at on an idle Sunday.

Titli and Meghdoot

We saw a perfect little gem of a film, Rituparno Ghosh's Titli. Titli, the pet name of one of the characters, means butterfly, and the movie was light and beautiful as its name. The three main actors - Aparna Sen, Konkana Sen, Mithun Chakraborty - were all excellent. Konkana is just remarkable. The script was gentle and understated, believable, full of quiet humour.

In one scene, Aparna Sen recites part of Kalidas' (middle of the 4th and early 5th centuries A.D.) poem Meghdoot. She recited from a Bengali translation of the Sankstrit original, which I read in the English subtitles, but still - the imagery was so beautiful that I wanted to read it again.

In Meghdoot, the Cloud Messenger, a lover, separated from his beloved, sees a cloud - it is the first day of the rainy season - and requests it to carry a message to her. He describes in great detail the route that the cloud must take in order to reach her, and the sights it will see on the way.

Here's the Sanskrit text with English translation, with links to more information about Kalidas and his works. Click on each line of the text to read the translation - it's a bit tedious because you have to pause after each line to click on the next, but it's worth it. Oh, and there's a second page, too - the link is also in Sanskrit, so you might miss it. These people (SUNY at Buffalo) are not interested in idle readers. Bless them anyway - the only other translation I could find was ghastly, rhymed doggerel.

Here are a few lines which I've lifted from here and there in the poem, just to give a bit of its flavour:
Even the mind of a happy person is excited at the sight of a cloud. How much more so, when the one who longs to cling to his neck is far away?...

The wives of travellers, holding back the tips of their locks of hair, taking courage from their confidence (in their husbands' return), will look up at you raised on to the path of the wind...

cranes, like threaded garlands in the sky, lovely to the eye, will serve you...

...the eyes of the country women who are ignorant of the play of the eyebrows, who are tender in their affection, and who are thinking 'The result of the harvest depends on you'...

You will see the river Reva spread at the foot of Mt Vandhya, made rough with rocks and resembling the pattern formed by the broken wrinkles on the body of an elephant....

you who have made a momentary acquaintance with the flower-picking girls by lending shade to their faces...

On the way, after you have ascended to the Nirvandhya River, whose girdles are flocks of birds calling on account of the turbulence of her waves, whose gliding motion is rendered delightful with stumbling steps, and whose exposed navel is her eddies...

Reveal the ground with a bolt of lightning that shines like a streak of gold on a touchstone to the young women in that vicinity going by night to the homes of their lovers along the royal highroad ...

which has been robbed of light by a darkness that could be pricked with a needle. Withhold your showers of rain and rumbling thunder: they would be frightened!...

I could go on quoting lines, but instead, please go and read it yourself. And see Titli if you have a chance. Rituparno Ghosh is a great film-maker. There are too many superlatives in this post, but it can't be helped.

A Cool Picture for a Hot Day

I borrowed picture and text from R's blog:

At a time when the Indian plains are seething and writhing with heat, staring at this picture, which I took years ago in Bangalore, may cool you off a little, as it did me and my guests.

Several Things

Vijaysree Venkatraman, writer of the excellent A Propos of Nothing, has an article in the Christian Science Monitor: A spice box and a cookbook got her started, which includes a recipe for Indian beans and peas.

The photograph of a spice box which accompanies the article was taken by the author of Mahanandi, a luscious-looking Indian and western food blog which I hadn't come across before.

Food ... mangoes.... eating mangoes twice a day. We started with the mangoes from our own tree, not very interesting but dear to me because I watched them swell up in their tree overlooking the badminton court. On to banganapallis from the fruit vendor's pushcart. Then one day I went out and bought a box of Alphonse mangoes from Maharashtra. When we put the first bite into our mouths, both of us emitted an involuntary 'aaah', and then laughed, because they were so luscious, so voluptuous...

The Gujarati word for 'right hand' literally translates as 'eating hand.' I wondered if the left hand might therefore be 'toilet hand' or 'unclean hand,' or something like that, but it isn't.

We hired a new gardener. He started out as our watchman, who moonlighted as an auto driver, but he asked us to hire him as a gardener because he loved that work. He only requested that we match his previous salary from the two jobs. We agreed, and we like him and his work. One week after he made the changeover, his slum of 200 thatched huts burned down. The government gave the affected families Rs. 1000 each; and some local charitable groups donated casuarina poles and palm mats - including matting impregnated with tar for the roof. We also helped him. He took two days off and rebuilt his hut.

Four days ago he again took two days of leave, sending a message that an insect had bitten his face and it had swelled up. That didn't sound right to us; we suspected that he had actually been driving the auto again, to make some extra money. When he returned, he told R the truth: his neighbours had claimed that when he rebuilt, he had grabbed an extra four feet of land. They broke the hut and beat him up.

Lakshmi says that he married a woman from the fisherman community, and lives with them, and that they are all rowdies. Whether that's true or not, it appears that a gardener is no match for them.

A few thoughts about three movies

After a hiatus from watching movies on DVD, we saw three in three days: Memoirs of a Geisha, (the latest) Pride and Prejudice, and The Constant Gardener.

1. The most stunning scene for me, in Memoirs of a Geisha, showed a long strip of red cloth floating in a brown-black river. The camera moves from above along the length of the cloth, and it seems to take forever. A more dramatic scene shows the geisha standing on a cliff and throwing a handkerchief into the wind. It's shot from a helicopter, which pulls away so that first you see only geisha and handkerchief, and then a huge landscape of rocks and sea.

In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth stands on the edge of a cliff, thinking that she really ought to have accepted Darcy's proposal of marriage. The scene is shot from above, from a helicopter, so that we see her small in a big landscape.

In The Constant Gardener, Justin and the local British intelligence agent - or whatever they're called in England ('intelligence agent'? can that be right? It sounds so hifalutin', so Graham Greene) - have a scene on top of a cliff, shot from a helicopter to reveal a dry African landscape.

By this time I was thinking, What's this? Is the cliff-edge-helicopter-shot the new car chase -- i.e. a scene which must appear in almost every film? (A car chase delivered the actors to the cliff edge in The Constant Gardener.) Or these are three movies with cultural pretensions, and therefore they have put their characters on high?

2. R says that when a character in an American movie says "Would you like a cup of coffee?" in the next scene they will be having sex. That's nothing new, but in The Constant Gardener the transition from offer of coffee to sex was quicker and more seamless than ever before, and R asked, "Is western culture really like this now?" When I saw Quest for Fire (1981) I laughed: the prehistoric man sees a woman bending over, doing some work, jumps on her, she growls a little but accommodates him, and they both move on. It looked like a parody of modern Western life. But soon it may depict its reality.

The sex scene had a different look: it took place in the daytime and was full of bright, washed-out light. It was shot at such close range that the actress's skin actually had the texture of skin, it wasn't all smooth surfaces and highlights and shadows. Probably because the director was not from Hollywood, but Brazilian: Fernando Meirelles, who made the great City of God.

3. One thing that these three movies did NOT have was a toilet scene. Come to think of it, the toilet scene is the new car chase - certainly it's much cheaper to film. Years ago I saw an animation festival in Washington. In one film, a character sits on a toilet, and then one sees from below long green stalks of asparagus emerging from her backside. Soon we will be seeing the real thing. (At least one Indian film, trying to appeal to an overseas Indian audience -- Salaam Namaste -- has a toilet scene. There must be more that I haven't seen.)

Two ads for the same product are currently running on Indian TV: in one, you see a urinal flushing, with the voiceover saying that if you don't use the product you're pissing your money away. In the other a toilet is flushing, the camera looking down into the bowl, while the voiceover says, if you don't use the product you don't give a shit about your money. I feel incredulous each time I see these ads, but I realise that it's about copying western popular culture.

I've been away from America for so long that sometimes I don't get the cartoons in the New Yorker; or I gape at American movies and think "What is the world coming to?" -- maybe it's just me, moving quickly through time to obsolescence. It's comforting at such times to rest my mind on an image of red cloth weightless in brown-black smoothly flowing water.

Some Links

An Indian art ezine: Matters of Art (Via Self-Winding)

A very well-written blog, by someone based in Mumbai: Windy Skies

From the Pakistani newspaper The Daily Times: an article about Indian actors and singers who lived in Lahore before 1947 (via Metroblogging Lahore)

On the art front, One Mile From Home: "Walk a minimum of one mile from home. Record where you’ve been with a drawing, sculpture, photo or painting and then walk back. Every day for a year." Lovely stuff.

My new counter, over there on the side bar, from NeoCounter. According to it, in the two weeks or so since I installed it, I've had visitors from 92 countries! That's pretty exciting, even if many of them are searching for things they won't find here, like s*e*x pictures of T*w*i*n*k*l*e K*h*a*n*n*a. My unverified sense is that a majority of visitors are of Indian origin, so maybe this is a snapshot of the Indian diaspora.

Metroblogging Chennai has a Flickr group. We're looking for people who would like to post pictures of the city - anything and everything that will give the viewer a picture of Chennai today. Take a look, and join in.

And in the art department again - maybe - an open-air sculpture in Prague: Piss (also via Self-Winding)
The idea is disarmingly simple. Two bronze sculptures pee into their oddly-shaped enclosure.

While they are peeing, the two figures move realistically. An electric mechanism driven by a couple of microproccesors swivels the upper part of the body, while the penis goes up and down. The stream of water writes quotes from famous Prague residents.

Visitor can interupt them by sending SMS message from mobile phone to a number, displayed next to the sculptures. The living statue then ‘writes’ the text of the message, before carrying on as before.

Of course, I see solo performances of this kind every day; but I don't think they're writing poetry.

Three Potatoes and an Omelette

Someone asked me to do two illustrations for a book: three potatoes, and an omelette with a sprig of basil. It was both thrilling and scary, because no one has ever asked me to draw anything before. And making a painting is a dangerous adventure for me - I never know how it will come out, or even what the next brush-stroke will bring. I seem mostly to hover on the brink of disaster.

I set to work on the potatoes first. I was in despair over them for awhile, but I feel that the final result has a potato-ness that is satisfying to me (I know this looks as though it took five minutes to do, but it didn't):

Then I thought about the omelette. I thought about eggs, a cosmic symbol, and the yolk glowing, yellow-gold. So I painted it floating in the sky, an omelette-sun:

Thekkady 6

It is Kerala which has made the words “Ayurvedic massage” famous all over the country in the last few years. So I had an Ayurvedic oil massage, followed by Shiroday, in which oil is poured in a thin stream onto the forehead for 15 minutes – supposed to be very tranquilising. The oil used was herb-infused sesame oil, and there were two masseuses, one standing on each side of the table. (Am I going to get icky Google hits for this?)

The massage part was relaxing, obviously, except that my mind wouldn't relax - it was humming with self-consciousness. At the end of it the Shiroday began: a strip of cheesecloth was tied around my head above my eyebrows, to keep the oil away from my eyes. A frame from which a clay pot was suspended was wheeled over me so that the pot was above my forehead. It had a small hole in the bottom, through which a length of rope extended. When the warm oil was poured into the pot it flowed down the rope and then onto my skin. A masseuse stood behind my head, slowly guiding the pot from side to side so that a steady stream of oil moved back and forth across my forehead. From time to time she moved a fingertip in a circular motion, or combed some of the excess oil from my hair with her fingers. The pot was refilled several times.

It began to be too much – eww!, how would I ever get all that oil out of my hair? And the background music, Shivkumar Sharma whaling away at the santoor with the tabla galloping along beside him, was too frenetic. I would have chosen something with a long, slow, meditative alaap – the rudra veena, perhaps. (Or something in the south Indian classical style, instead of the northern). I wanted it to end, but didn’t feel that I should interrupt their routine. At length it did end: a masseuse wiped the soles of my feet and rubbed some of the oil out of my hair. I showered, scrubbing with some mildly abrasive ‘bathing powder’ mixed into mud in a dish.

I left relaxed and rank, reeking of herbal oil. I was like a carrot which had been pulled out of its protective earth and exposed to the light, and then put gently back again. I felt green and vegetative, at last.

Thekkady 5

Bundles of thatch were stored under several of the cottages. I took a number of photographs of them. This was my favourite.

Thekkady 4

The whole reason for Thekkady's existence as a tourist destination is that it abuts the 777 sq. kms. Of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary surrounds a large artificial lake that was created when the Periyar river was dammed in the late nineteenth century. One of the things one does in Thekkady is to take a boat ride on the lake, in the hope of seeing some of the wild animals which live in the sanctuary. So we did that.

It was actually my second visit to Periyar. My first was when I was still in college, and had come over to Madurai for a couple of months to study Tamil. I took a bus to Periyar with a friend for a weekend. I wrote about the boat ride:
In the morning we took a two-hour boat ride around the lake and saw beautiful scenery, several herds of wild elephants and a few deer, bison, wild boar and birds. I took several pictures of the elephants, which came out as tiny black dots on the edge of the water. My family made fun of me after I got back and showed them my slides, saying "Look! It's the elephants!"

So this time I thought that I could bring home some more photographs of small brown blobs, of which I could say “Look! Those are the elephants!”

We sat on the upper deck of a two-decker, large boat –a crowd of people, and many screaming babies. There was a group of French tourists, Malayali Muslims with ladies in burkhas, families from numerous other parts of India – R said, “This is a group of many hues and cries.”

sitting on the boat at the jetty; a smaller boat to the right of ours

We spent almost two hours pottering around the various branches of the lake, seeing nothing much except for a few deer and a wild boar. At first, people cried out at every fallen log (“Mugger!” - crocodile) and boulder ("Hathi!" - elephant), and the French tourists kept saying "Oiseau! Oiseau!" (Bird! Bird!). But then they became resigned to not seeing much except green and green, and the characteristic dead trees rising from the water of the artificial lake.

Don't miss the deer, near the top, just to the left of the center of the book. I have drawn a helpful arrow, but it's not very visible in this scan

Finally though, as if it were deliberately kept for the end, we did come upon a group of about ten elephants grazing near the water’s edge. I took a photograph, and here it is -- Those are the elephants!

Something very nice happened a couple of days later. I'd been drawing in my journal everywhere, and one day a waiter at the restaurant, Mahesh, said that if I liked, he would draw me a picture of Periyar Lake. And he did, and presented it to me. Which brought tears to my eyes, as everything does these days - why does the world have to be so touching? Here it is -- much reduced in size. It has elephants bathing in the lake on the right, too.

And one more Periyar story, from my first visit, when I stayed at Periyar House, inside the Sanctuary:
After dinner: D was very nervous about the possibility of running into wild animals, so we walked only partway down to the lake and sat on a flight of stairs. Suddenly D said, "There's an animal over there -- let's go back" and walked up the stairs. I looked, abruptly realized that there really was something there, and scurried back to a sort of moat with a baffle over it, to keep animals out. Then I looked and looked, and when nothing moved I called to D, who was farther up, that it couldn't be an animal and that I was going to find out what it was. I crept up on it, and suddenly it turned its head and looked at me, and I said, "Oh! It is an animal!" and ran up the stairs. Then I noticed ghostly white bundles of laundry lying about, and realised that the fearsome beast was the laundry man's donkey.


I interrupt the thrilling story of our visit to Thekkady, because someone commented about the Iyers of Palakkad and their language, which is a blend of Tamil and Malayalam. It reminded me of a cook who worked for us for a short time...

We had a cook named Shanti, who was with my husband for abut 35 years, until she died. I was a relative latecomer. Shanti assumed, usually correctly, that I didn't know much, so she felt secure in her position as the ruler of the kitchen. She had actually begun as a housemaid, sweeping and swabbing. In those days R, unhappy with her work, told her that her name, which was G. Shanti, should actually be D. Shanti: Doosi ('dust') Shanti. But somehow she stuck on, and eventually became a cook. Only, every few years there would be a fight - we would insist that she arrive on time - or, once, she believed that our house had been cursed by a black magician - and she would quit. We would bid her good-bye, half-relieved to be rid of her, with her stubborn individuality, and hire a series of people, none of whom seemed to fit into our household. Then, after six months or a year, she would turn up at the door again, and we would groan and sigh, and take her back. Eventually she grew old, and we hired an assistant for her. Finally she had a heart attack in the kitchen, and died in the hospital a few days later. Her assistant, Mary, is now the ruler of the kitchen. And a more pleasant one too, though I still miss Shanti, with her sense of humour and her good cooking and her maddening ways.

So anyway, during one of the interregnums, we hired a woman named Parvathi, a brahmin from Palakkad. We took her on out of desperation, because my mother-in-law was still alive then, but elderly, and she expected all the household routines to go on as usual, with or without a cook: ghee had to be made once a week from the butterfat skimmed off the top of the milk (yes, in those days Aavin milk actually yielded ghee, believe it or not!). The menu was more elaborate than it is now, with just the two of us. There were sweets, and savouries, and things had to be done in a certain way, yet she was unable to do much herself, because of her severe arthritis. So I was trying to be a proper housewife, which I never was and never will be… we hired Parvathi.

At our first meeting she talked so fast, laying down so many conditions - as a brahmin she would prepare the food but not wash the dirty dishes, for example - that R was taken aback. He told her that she spoke so loudly and rapidly that his heart was going dha-rup dha-rup with fear, and that if one put a coconut in her mouth, by the time she finished talking the chutney would be ground and ready.

Parvathi told me that her father had been a temple priest at Guruvaiyur Temple in Kerala. He had married Parvathi's mother when he was 45 and she was 13, and they had had eight children. When the youngest child was one year old, her father was doing puja in the temple — he had drunk the sacred water, and bent to put flowers at the god's feet -- and he fell over and died. Auspicious for him, but hard on the family.

Parvathi spoke in the mixture of Tamil and Malayalam for which Palakkad is famous, making it difficult for me to communicate with her. She would work for us only part-time, because she had a job in another house as well. It was hard for brahmins to get well-paying work, she said. If she were lower-caste she could string jasmine and sell it, but it wouldn't be suitable for her ... The housemaid resented having to add kitchen chores to her workload, and Parvathi didn't really want to learn Gujarati cooking. After a couple of weeks we parted very cordially.

A few days later I opened the door and there was Shanti, waiting to be invited in.

Thekkady 3

Taj Garden Retreat, Thekkady. The place is intensely beautiful: a hazy blue silhouette of mountain in the distance, greener foothills in front of that, then the hotel itself, which is comprised of a main building and 32 modern-but-thatched cottages on stilts, built on a fairly steep slope, all surrounded by trees, hibiscus, monstera vines, palms, winding pathways, and the croaking of many tree frogs. Or very loud crickets, I don't know. Think soundtrack of jungle movie, minus the shrieking baboons.

Random impressions:

Fish and coconut! Coconut and fish! (I'm talking about the food - Malayalis eat a lot of both, and so did I.)

I love the soft, rolling sound of Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala - and a pallindrome). It is Tamil's closest relative, but sounds like running water, rather than the rattling stones which Tamil can sometimes approximate.

Each version of English is a translation of whatever the person's mother tongue is. In (not highly-educated) Malayalam-English: "Soup is just getting." "We used to do this" = "We do this."

While playing badminton on the sloping, roughly surfaced court: darker and darker clouds, continuous rumblings of thunder, then spatter, then heavy vertical rain – cold on my skin as we returned to our cottage, under one of the hotel’s green umbrellas. It rained almost every day, usually after some dramatic thunder and lightning, just so you know it's coming.

Honeymoon couples – girls, Marwari, with fading mehndi on their feet-ankles-calves, and bangles stacked almost to the elbow. Sometimes the young men try to show off by the way they command the waiters, and look even younger because of it.

Elderly white tourists in groups.

Indian families with small children. Many of them are Gujaratis -- how did that happen? One very loud man yakking on the cell phone from morning. Ugh. Talking about profit and paise, and long-term and buying and selling.

Bulbul – the black crest and face blend into dark mottled brown at the neck, then to lighter brown of the back and wings. Cream-coloured breast (coffee-cream, not yellow) – a whiter patch where back meets tail – small red patch just under the tail – it teases some fibre from the climbing monstera, lays it on the stem, the strand falls to the ground. I think it's building a nest in the depths of a thuja shrub across the walkway -- at about my eye level. How are they so fearless, to nest so close to the ground?

left: the view from the bed; right: the veranda (the left stair rail is perspectively challenged, poor thing)

In the outside world, power in Tamil Nadu has changed hands after an election. According to the newspaper, the outgoing Chief Minister says that the current political situation in the state is like giving a garland to a monkey.

Thekkady 2

In the morning we flew to Madurai. This is what the land looked like as we descended:

The earth is red, and in many places the vegetation is sparse and scrubby. Rocky hillocks rise abruptly out of flat plain. I have flown over Tamil Nadu and into Kerala before, and each time I have felt the abruptness of the change: Tamil Nadu vast, dry, red -- it has fields, rice paddies, orchards, but they appear to be clinging to the surface of a hard land; then, cross the ghats - the low mountain range which runs up the western side of India - and BAM! Kerala, green, lush, abundant. Both landscapes have their own beauty, but Kerala's is more obvious.

This time we landed in Madurai, a temple city in the south of Tamil Nadu, and drove up the hills and into Kerala. (Here's a map. We started from Chennai, which is shown in blue, right on the northeast coast. Madurai is more than halfway down, more or less in the centre, and situated at a crossroads: a real heartland city. We drove west, through Theni, and just across the border into Kerala.)

Thekkady is 150 km from Madurai. The drive took 3 1/2 hours, most of it through flat plains – rocky outcroppings, fields, plantations of coconut, grapes, sugarcane; many small villages. Village temples, some of them protected by large painted sculptures of warriors on white horses.

In several places farmers had spread out hard cobs of millet on the road, to be threshed by the cars driving over them. Parts of the road were thickly lined with shady trees, their trunks painted in black and white warning stripes.

At one small village, a small procession emerged onto the road: about ten people. One man carried a red umbrella - tall, dome-shaped, intended to symbolise royalty or divinity. Behind him a woman carried two decorated brass pots on her head.

Later we passed another mini-procession in a larger village: a drummer, a couple of men in horse costumes, prancing.

The hills rise directly out of the plain. The ghat road ascends abruptly, much more steeply and directly than on the road to Coonoor. The road is less travelled than the road to Coonoor, which is often like a roller coaster ride, with cars flying in both directions on the same narrow track. A beautiful drive through forest, with views of green hills and valleys.

A few tiny villages are strung alongside the road. At Kumili village one leaves Tamil Nadu and enters Kerala by driving under a bar which extends across the road. This is where the hotels and resorts begin. In five minutes we were in Thekkady.

Thekkady 1

We just got back from two weeks in relatively cool Thekkady, a small town on the Kerala side of the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border (but not by much), which abuts a huge game sanctuary / forest. It is my earnest intention to post some drawings, words, photographs of the same over the next few days.

(This photograph is a cheat, actually, because as you can see, the drawing is different from the real flower's pose. I had drawn it on the tree first, but its face-on view was much more complex and amazing than its profile. So I plucked it and brought it back to our room, and did it again on watercolour paper.) And by the way, what is it? It's gorgeous, with a sheen like silk, and seems to grow wild on the roadside, on trees - or perhaps they're large shrubs... (update: thanks to Anna, who surmises that this is a datura.)