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.