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.)