A Babybox and Complicated Wishes

A pleasant lady we know dropped by yesterday to give us this object, which was filled with sweets, and to which was attached an invitation card for a party, to be held at a five-star hotel, in honour of her undoubtedly resplendent first grandchild.

I doubt if any south Indian, or at least any Tamil, has ever commissioned such an object: the new grandmother is Punjabi. I'm fascinated by it: the baby has yellow hair, and sits on a scrap of real terrycloth towel, under a sequinned palm tree. And the sweets are tasty, too. I'm wondering how to fit it into my house - I don't think I can bear to throw it away.

The lady stayed for tea. R joked with her about her allegedly fabulous social life, equally fabulous jewellry, etc. She said, "No, no, that's all over. My only wish now is to see my great-grandchild." This simple wish, in which so many other wishes are implied, gives me the opportunity to relate a story that R made up:
There was once a bania (a member of a merchant caste) who had the misfortune to be poor and blind. His wife was barren. He meditated and performed many austerities, and at length a sage - one of those unpredictable yet powerful beings from Indian mythology - appeared before him and said, "Because of the strength of your austerities I am compelled to offer you one boon." The bania first tried to bargain for more boons. The sage was impatient and said, "Hurry up, you get only one boon, and I have many other things to do." So the Bania thought for awhile and then said, "I wish to open my eyes and see before me my beautiful wife, on the seventh story of my golden palace, rocking the cradle of my child."
So in one boon, the bania gained his sight, wealth, a beautiful wife and a child. This story illustrates the shrewdness of banias, as well as the complexity and endlessness of desire.

Two Small Things

R said, "Well, that’s all bhootkaal for me." I got a start – “What? Ghost-time? What do you mean?” I thought he meant that although he was alive, he had outlived his time; had become, metaphorically, a kind of ghost -- because he is very capable of saying just that. But he explained that 'bhootkaal' simply meant the past. Whoo, what a scary, powerful word!

Comedian Javed Jaffrey at the beginning of the Filmfare awards – someone said to him "Salaam Namaste,”* and he replied “Wa aleikkum namaste." Well, it made me laugh.

*The name of a recent film, which combines Muslim and Hindu greetings.

Why Are You Going Back to Gokul?

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately: Mathura Nagarpati, from the film Raincoat. It’s sung by Shubha Mudgal, a classically-trained singer whose voice I sometimes find coarse; but it suits this song. The song is addressed to Krishna (referred to here as Mathura Nagarpati, the Lord of Mathura): You have already left Gokula to take up your crown as the Lord of Mathura; Radha has wiped her tears - why do you want to go back to Gokul now, and reawaken the old pain... (in fact, it's written in Bhojpuri, which I don't understand very well, but it doesn't matter. Here are the lyrics.)

It’s a lovely sad, haunting song. If you don’t know it, go listen to it: Mathura Nagarpati. (This is a free download site for which you must register. Alternately, you can listen to a streaming download at Raaga.com, but you must endure a commercial first.)


One crow
head cocked
carbon-steel beak agape
is raffish

Look again
at sleekness
at talons

Many crows
a raucous convocation
fly up at a sound
wheel settle complain
fight quick battles

A doubled creature
joined in fury
falls from the sky

a flapping vortex

the black confusion of fear

Two Stereotypes Share a Snack

A magazine ad from 1979. The gent on the left is the Tamil brahmin stereotype, with his forehead covered by a big caste mark (denoting, in this case, a worshipper of Shiva). On the right is a Parsi, member of a small minority group (Zoroastrians, originally from Iran) who are considered for stereotypical purposes to be lovably eccentric.

(I had written here that the name Parsi derived from Farsi, meaning Persian. Farah, in a comment, clarifies that Parsis emigrated from the Pars (a region in Persia), and hence were called Parsis. The Farsi language, the name of which I presume came from the same source, is not connected to the Parsis.)

M. F. Husain in Karachi

As a novice sketcher and an Indian cricket fan (finally! something to be happy about!), I was interested to see this little article in the Hindu this morning - from Reuters:
Strokes of another kind

KARACHI: Well-known artist M.F. Husain sat on the boundary line seeking to capture the moments in a cricket match that could symbolise peace between India and Pakistan.
Mr. Husain spoke of the joy of sport as he watched a raucous Karachi crowd cheer almost every ball in the final match in India's tour of Pakistan on Sunday.
"Looking at the way people are involved in the game, it is a soul searching and moving experience for me. I see cricket as a unifying force between the people of countries," the 91-year-old artist, surrounded by his canvases, colours and brushes in Karachi's National Stadium, said.
"It has played a big role in pushing the peace process forward and allowing people to interact with each other," Mr. Husain said.
Dressed in a black sleeveless tunic with a Nehru collar over a cream shirt, he showed a couple of works-in-progress - one of India and Pakistan's captains shaking hands under a single flag held aloft by a woman, and another of a fielder chasing a ball.
He said the appeal of cricket, a game spread round the world by Britain's 19th Century Empire builders, had grown in the last decade.
"I don't think the English when they invented the game of cricket, could have imagined just what an important role it would go on to play in building bridges between countries in the 21st century," he said.
"I also attended the World Cup final in Lahore in 1996. But this is something different: I feel cricket today, like the Olympics, is great unifier of people of different countries." - Reuters
This article in the Guardian spoke to me. I'm posting it in full here, since I don't know how long it will remain online:
Europe's contempt for other cultures can't be sustained

A continent that inflicted colonial brutality all over the globe for 200 years has little claim to the superiority of its values

Martin Jacques
Friday February 17, 2006

Is the argument over the Danish cartoons really reducible to a matter of free speech? Even if we believe that free speech is a fundamental value, that does not give us carte blanche to say what we like in any context, regardless of consequence or effect. Respect for others, especially in an increasingly interdependent world, is a value of at least equal importance.

Europe has never had to worry too much about context or effect because for around 200 years it dominated and colonised most of the world. Such was Europe's omnipotence that it never needed to take into account the sensibilities, beliefs and attitudes of those that it colonised, however sacred and sensitive they might have been. On the contrary, European countries imposed their rulers, religion, beliefs, language, racial hierarchy and customs on those to whom they were entirely alien. There is a profound hypocrisy - and deep historical ignorance - when Europeans complain about the problems posed by the ethnic and religious minorities in their midst, for that is exactly what European colonial rule meant for peoples around the world. With one crucial difference, of course: the white minorities ruled the roost, whereas Europe's new ethnic minorities are marginalised, excluded and castigated, as recent events have shown.

But it is no longer possible for Europe to ignore the sensibilities of peoples with very different values, cultures and religions. First, western Europe now has sizeable minorities whose origins are very different from the host population and who are connected with their former homelands in diverse ways. If European societies want to live in some kind of domestic peace and harmony - rather than in a state of Balkanisation and repression - then they must find ways of integrating these minorities on rather more equal terms than, for the most part, they have so far achieved. That must mean, among other things, respect for their values. Second, it is patently clear that, globally speaking, Europe matters far less than it used to - and in the future will count for less and less. We must not only learn to share our homelands with people from very different roots, we must also learn to share the world with diverse peoples in a very different kind of way from what has been the European practice.

Europe has little experience of this, and what experience it has is mainly confined to less than half a century. Old attitudes of superiority and disdain - dressed up in terms of free speech, progress or whatever - are still very powerful. Nor - as many liberals like to think - are they necessarily in decline. On the contrary, racial bigotry is on the rise, even in countries that have previously been regarded as tolerant. The Danish government depends for its rule on a racist, far-right party that gained 13% of the seats in the last election. The decision of Jyllands-Posten to publish the cartoons - and papers in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere to reprint them - lay not so much in the tradition of free speech but in European contempt for other cultures and religions: it was a deliberate, calculated insult to the beliefs of others, in this case Muslims.

This kind of mentality - combining Eurocentrism, old colonial attitudes of supremacism, racism, provincialism and sheer ignorance - will serve our continent ill in the future. Europe must learn to live in and with the world, not to dominate it, nor to assume it is superior or more virtuous. Any continent that has inflicted such brutality on the world over a period of 200 years has not too much to be proud of, and much to be modest and humble about - though this is rarely the way our history is presented in Britain, let alone elsewhere. It is worth remembering that while parts of Europe have had free speech (and democracy) for many decades, its colonies were granted neither. But when it comes to our "noble values", our colonial record is always written out of the script.

This attitude of disdain, of assumed superiority, will be increasingly difficult to sustain. We are moving into a world in which the west will no longer be able to call the tune as it once did. China and India will become major global players alongside the US, the EU and Japan. For the first time in modern history the west will no longer be overwhelmingly dominant. By the end of this century Europe is likely to pale into insignificance alongside China and India. In such a world, Europe will be forced to observe and respect the sensibilities of others.

Few in Europe understand or recognise these trends. A small example is the bitter resistance displayed on the continent to the proposed takeover of Arcelor by Mittal Steel: at root the opposition is based on thinly disguised racism. But Europe had better get used to such a phenomenon: takeovers by Indian and Chinese firms are going to become as common as American ones. A profound parochialism grips our continent. When Europe called the global tune it did not matter, because what happened in Europe translated itself into a global trend and a global power. No more: now it is simply provincialism.

When Europe dominated, there were no or few feedback loops. Or, to put it another way, there were few, if any, consequences for its behaviour towards the non-western world: relations were simply too unequal. Now - and increasingly in the future - it will be very different. And the subject of these feedback loops, or consequences, will concern not just present but also past behaviour.

For 200 years the dominant powers have also been the colonial powers: the European countries, the US and Japan. They have never been required to pay their dues for what they did to those whom they possessed and treated with contempt. Europeans have treated this chapter in their history by choosing to forget. So has Japan, except that in its case its neighbours have not only refused to forget but are also increasingly powerful. As a consequence, Japan's present and future is constantly stalked by its history. This future could also lie in wait for Europe. We might think the opium wars are "simply history"; the Chinese (rightly) do not. We might think the Bengal famine belongs in the last century, but Indians do not.

Europe is moving into a very different world. How will it react? If something like the attitude of the Danes prevails - a combination of defensiveness, fear, provincialism and arrogance - then one must fear for Europe's ability to learn to live in this new world. There is another way, but the signs are none too hopeful.


R has constructed a parable that I've been remembering a lot lately: a man decides to take sannyaas, to leave the burden of material life behind. He abandons his possessions, relationships, obligations, goes out to the edge of town and sits meditating under a tree. He feels that he is free. But then, something begins to disturb his meditation: it is a small mouse, which also lives among the roots of the tree. The man acquires a cat to kill the mice. The cat needs milk, so he buys a cow, hires a woman to take care of the cow, sleeps with the woman who bears their child…. and he's right back where he started.

We have been so like that man lately! When the power surges it damages the electronic stuff. So we buy a better stabiliser. When that isn't enough we install an automatic phase changer, and new earthing, and and and… because we feel more secure about the power supply, we buy another something, to protect which we need a better watchman…

"maze" by Ramesh Gandhi

At Chola Mandal

We went with friends to Mahabalipuram, stopping on the way at Chola Mandal, the artists' village. While our friends looked into the gallery, I went to draw the banyan tree. A big, minimally-shaped chunk of granite had been erected in front of it. As I stood sketching, a yellow-green chameleon ran down the trunk and squatted on the stone's highest point, staring at me. Two crows perched silently in the branches above it. When I could ignore the concrete skeleton of a new gallery right behind me, and the traffic noises from the road in front, the tree, the lives that sheltered in it, and the stone seemed to form a kind of small perfection.

In the Morning

A raucous clamour arose in the street outside. I was just stepping over Lakshmi’s mop for the fifth time – we don’t usually get in each other’s way so much. She gestured toward the road and said, “It’s a sait’s wedding.” It was the bridegroom’s party, led by a brass band, walking toward the marriage hall at the end of the street. Lakshmi looked at me with an arch smile and said, “Ayya (a term of respect, referring to R) is a sait, isn’t he?” A sait is a rich man, but I asked, “What is a sait?” She said, “Someone who wears lots of gold jewellry.” I gestured toward myself – I almost never wear jewellry (I don’t own much, for that matter, unlike most Indian ladies, from the middle class on up) – and said, “No gold here,” and she laughed. Not a very satisfactory exchange.

I decided to go out and take pictures of the band. I like the marriage bands, frankly, because they are so bad. They dress like members of American high school bands, and usually there is quite a divergence of sound among the members of the ensemble. This group, in addition to the brass section in red and gold uniforms, had a small flatbed truck on which were a man with a drum set and a singer, belting into a microphone “It’s the Time to Disco.” This is not a song from the American seventies, but from a quite recent Hindi movie. It was deafening.

As I waited for them to come a little closer, two Gujarati ladies in silk and diamonds – saitanis indeed – left the rather ragtag procession and walked up to me, and asked if they could use the bathroom. I was surprised, but I led them inside, and then returned to see whether I had missed the photo op. I was in time to take a couple of poor photographs, and to be capered at by a clown.

... I thought there was a story in this, but I don't seem to be able to find it.

(update: Tilo, ever thoughtful, wrote this comment: "I wonder why Lakshmi said that saits are people who wear lots of gold because when Uma who works in my house says 'sait' she is talking about a North-Indian family who mostly live in the traditional way i.e extended family - actually sometimes not even that. They could be nuclear and are mostly Marwaris or Gujarathis in reality..." This makes a lot more sense than my confused take on my encounter with Lakshmi - since my husband is, in fact, Gujarati. Thanks, Tilo!)

Sighting the Moon

I really like this: Sallie Wolf's Moon Project
I have been watching for the moon since November 30, 1994. On that morning I was surprised to spot a crescent moon low in the eastern sky at 6:30 AM. From nursery rhymes I had always assumed the moon was a nighttime visitor, and I was puzzled to see it rising at the same time I was. It hit me that I knew almost nothing about the moon, and I decided to watch for it and see what I could teach myself just by looking....(more)

The Moon Project is not about the moon as much as about my relationship to the moon. I have learned quite a lot about the patterns of the moon and its movements, but more importantly, I have come to a different understanding about time and opportunity. The moon is not visible only at night or at the same time everyday. I have to fit my schedule to the moon's, and I have to seize the opportunity to record the moon when it is visible, not when it is convenient. If I miss seeing the moon (bad weather, too many trees, forgot to look), that chance is gone. But each day presents a new opportunity...

Download your own moon sighting chart.

In the garden

The air is beginning to heat up.

The mango tree burgeoned with flowers this year, more than ever before. Now they have turned brown and dropped off, leaving fruit-buds behind. The largest of these have already grown to egg-size.

A kingfisher hurls itself, screeching, across the back garden every evening at about 6:00. It is half the size of a crow, with a round breast which makes it look somewhat comical when it perches on one pole of the badminton net; but it has that long beak, and a staccato cry which warns crows to keep off. When I hear it I smile and look reflexively at my watch to confirm that, yes, it is on time.

We put in new copper earthing, after the rains caused all kinds of spikes in our electric supply: Two holes were dug, each ten feet deep. In them were placed heavy copper plates, with copper tape running to the electric supply point; they were filled with sand and charcoal. The pits were dug by hand, by a man who shovelled earth into a metal tray and handed it up to another man standing above him. When he reached five feet down, water began to surge in, because the groundwater is so high now.

Mosquitoes are abundant too, after the rains. The garden is full, bursting. And the air, yes, is beginning to heat up. The hot season approaches.
Some wonderful pictures and the story of a visit to a traditional Tamil house in Mylapore, one of the oldest parts of the city - from Tilo: Another Mylapore Story

Inzamam and Niazi

This is for those aren't Punjabi, and who watched yesterday's India-Pakistan cricket match, and the blah-blah of commentary during and after:

Former Pakistani cricket great Imran Khan, commenting on the fall of Pakistani captain Inzamam-ul-Haq's wicket (for obstructing the field, a very unusual way of getting out), quoted a couplet in Punjabi:
kujh sheher de log wi zalim san
kujh sanu maran da shauq wi si
I don't know Punjabi, but I did happen to recognise the reference, to a poem by the great Munir Niazi. The crude translation is:
It was partly because people were cruel
and also I was attracted to death
Here's the entire poem:
Kujh unjwi rawan aukhian san,
kujh gallay wich gham da tauq wi si
kujh sheher de log wi zalim san
kujh sanu maran da shauq wi si

It was partly because the path was difficult
and there was a noose of sorrow around my neck
It was partly because people were cruel
and also I was attracted to death
There - wonder if anyone will come Googling for that little snippet?