William Dalrymple on Benazir Bhutto

William Dalrymple, travel writer, historian and sharp observer of South Asia, has written an excellent piece on Benazir Bhutto for the Guardian: Pakistan's flawed and feudal princess -- take a look at the very interesting comments as well.

A Glimpse of Kalakshetra in the Seventies

I just read a terrific article by a woman who studied bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra in the seventies -- as I did: Sleeping With Movie Stars, by Gitanjali Kolanad. My experiences were not exactly the same (I didn't sleep with any movie stars, for example), but she made me remember that time and place very vividly.

I also admired the dancer who played Lakshman, though I never tried to do anything about it. I also remember Rukmani Devi saying that a dancer is a dancer not only in class or on stage, but always... although I haven't benefited much from that piece of wisdom. Small kids called out 'vellakarchi' ('white girl') when I passed, as they did to her. I thought I might die before I completed the 'tat adavu' ...

Thanks to India Outside My Window for the link.

Chennai Superstars

This is hilarious -- it's a TV ad for the new Indian Cricket League, for the Chennai team. It's a spoof on the superpowers of Tamil film superstars. Thanks, Viji!


Last night I went into the kitchen. As I turned on the light a big bandicoot came out from under a counter and appeared to be charging at me. Though it might have been trying to get out of sight. But still. I uttered a kind of groaning sound and ran, or walked very fast, back through the dining room and into the drawing room where R was doing Sudoku. I said dramatically, "There's a big bandicoot in the kitchen!" He looked up briefly, said, "Go call Mary," and went back to the puzzle.

I went out back to Mary's room and apologetically woke her up. She got up enthusiastically, though, and grabbed a mopstick, hoping for a chance to bash the rat. We went inside together, I strewed poison cakes around, she tapped everything with the stick, but nothing emerged. Mary went back to bed and I returned to R.

He looked up again and said, "What happened?" I told him, and he said, "So, did it hiss at you?" "What??" "The little chuchunders don't hiss, but the big ones, if you turn on them they'll open their mouths." I said, "I didn't turn on it, I ran in the other direction." He gave a condescending laugh: ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. So I did the same to him: ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

In the night I dreamed that the Mongol hordes had come and were rampaging around upstairs, while we cowered in a small room. I had a bunch of very knobby, odd-looking jewelry, which I concealed about my person -- not a good idea, probably, with hordes of any kind. Eventually they left.

In the morning I came downstairs. A pipe that had been blocked was now wide open -- the bandicoot had discovered it somehow, and chewed through the blocking material, and escaped. I stood with Mary and Lakshmi, pondering over the giant droppings, sharing details of the exciting story, and wondering how the thing had gotten into the house in the first place.

Here endeth the wildlife story of the day.


Eating/admiring cape gooseberries ('geuzbrees'). Orange/green/yellow gleaming spheres enclosed in veined onionskin paper. Sweet-sour. Sweet.
There's an unbelievable op-ed piece in the NYT today: Pakistan's Collapse Our Problem. It seems to me to be delusional in the extreme. I can't imagine any scenario in which Pakistani authorities, military or civilian, would allow an American force to come in and 'protect' their nuclear facilities, and hold their country together for them. (I especially love the idea that American forces should carry Pakistani nuclear materials to New Mexico, and keep them safe for Pakistan there! Even the authors of the piece concede that it's not likely that Pakistan would agree to this.)

I'm just wondering -- if the New York Times is hosting such a piece, by people from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, does it mean that many others are also thinking along the same lines? What do you think?

p.s.: And don't miss this, also from the NYT: U.S. Hopes to Arm Pakistani Tribes Against Al Qaeda
I just learned from Blogocentricity that Sawariya (a new Hindi movie, which has had poorish reviews) means 'Are you dying?' in colloquial Tamil. ('saavu' = corpse 'death') My first chortle of the morning.

(Oh -- just realised that 'saavu' is the same as Sanskrit 'shava'. Hmm.)


Hindi is riddled with pair-words (there's probably a more technical word for them). I learned a new one last night, because there's an old Hindi move by the same name: qaida-qanoon -- rules and regulations. 'Rules and regulations' being, of course, an English example of the same phenomenon.

Early on, I would always get thrown by this pair: thoda-bahut ('a little-a lot').

Me: Do you know about x?
Hindi speaker: Thoda-bahut.
Me (thinking): Well, which is it, a little, or a lot?

In fact it means, quite a bit ('a lot-a little').

For a while I thought that when you hear a pair-word you should focus on the second word of the pair, as in thoda-bahut. But then you have ajeeb-o-ghareeb ('strange and poor') which translates as simply 'peculiar'. The pair, as far as I know, exists only to make the rhyme.

Another one I've always liked is mota-taaza ('fat-fresh'), which correlates to 'hale and hearty.'

Fat used to equal healthy, because it meant that one had enough to eat. Twenty years ago, if someone said to me, "You're looking healthy," I was pleased, but then I realised that they meant, "You've put on some weight." (And if I had lost weight they would say, "What happened? You've gone down.") That's no longer the case, as western standards have crept in, and gyms and diet clinics have sprung up all around. For the prosperous, yes. The poor are not overweight and under-muscled.

I'm rambling.

My Office

Because I like getting glimpses of other people’s work spaces, I thought I’d show you my office. (I don't know why I call it that -- because it has a desk in it? Is there a better word? 'Study' sounds pretentious, and I do actually do some work here...) It’s only 8’ x 12’, it’s the most crowded room in the house (the rest of the house is NOT full of knick-knacks, in spite of what you see here), but it suits me well. Here goes:

The west wall. The flowers are ginger -- I had brought them in to draw them. They're almost dead, but I like them that way, spotted with black and curling up.

A worktable and shelves on top of two small filing cabinets. Books that I've bound. Art supplies. Stuff.

The north wall -- there are doors to the left and right of this picture. The glass bricks look black, but they're not -- they let in a pleasant diffused light. I tidied up the sketchbooks before taking the photograph :).

Part of the east wall (I'm not showing ANYBODY a built in cabinet to the left of the picture, crammed with files and papers to be filed). My desk, an old one, made of sheesham wood, and a little chest for paper and the printer and scanner, made of what is called 'country wood' -- i.e., too insignificant to be named.

The window, on the south wall, to the right of my desk. It's a grey day - in fact it's raining now. Not an ideal one for taking photographs, so there's flash burn everywhere.

So that's it.


I just love this paragraph, from The Sleep-Industrial Complex, in the NYT magazine:
All good nights of sleep are alike. Each miserable night of sleep is miserable in its own way. You either close your eyes and, many hours later, open them, or you endure an idiosyncratic epic of waiting, trying, failing, irritation, self-sabotage and despair, then stand up at sunrise racked with war stories you don’t have the energy to tell.

Purity Indian Barley

These tins of barley have been mouldering in the back of a cupboard for untold eons -- perhaps my late mother-in-law had intended to prepare barley water -- but Fate Intervened.

That mother looks to me as if she's just about to give her child a good shaking.


I haven't posted this before - I thought it might be too sugary. Nonetheless...

Orange berries, bittersweet
on a leaf plate, with white pebble cakes.
She pours carefully
from an invisible pot, raises her invisible cup,
fingers crooked delicately, sips,
puts a berry to her lips, smiling a party smile,
saying num num num, whistles
on a blade of grass for music.
Some more tea? Isn't it delicious?

Her father's shaving. He makes a foamy beard,
draws the razor in a lawnmower swath
to smooth skin.
"Shave me too, please!"
He removes the razor's two-sided blade,
squirts her face with shaving cream,
shows her her beard in the mirror.
She stands very still
while he shaves off the foam.
She wants to have a moustache
when she grows up.

Jump, jump, two at a time.
The lower flight stairs are even-numbered.
The second flight, you skip a step,
then jump, jump, jump again.
The second flight has walls to close you in,
it's always dim. Run!
Reach the top before the tv warms up,
or else.

In Mommy's book of paintings
a naked lady is tied to a tree,
and a knight in armour rides up to save her.
She picks up Gwendolyn, the biggest doll,
takes off her clothes and props her against a chair leg.
She knows it's nasty, but she doesn't know why.

A secret clubhouse in the attic cubbyhole,
with a toy piano, and lots of things.
Two children sit, murmuring stories.
The door shuts and click, it's locked.
They shout and shout, and start to cry,
knowing they'll die before anyone finds them.
Then Mommy opens the door
and admits them into light.


Twitter's charms have not been evident to me -- but today I read in Via Negativa '"I’m taking advantage of Twitter’s strict, 140-character limit, challenging myself once a day to answer the question, “What can I see or hear from my front porch while I drink my morning coffee?”' -- Morning Porch

That sounded interesting, then, on going there I found another twitterer whose writing I admire, sbpoet. There must be more.

So I went and got an account: nancygandhi (I could have done better than that?). I'm not sure about it: I mean, I'm treating this blog shabbily enough; will I be able to stick with regular 140 character utterances? I'll see. Maybe I can get rid of some of those unfinished poem-fragments I have lying around, at least.

New Year

The day after Divali is Gujarati (and some other people's -- but not Tamils') New Years Day, according to the Vikram calendar.

The weather is as good as it ever gets here: the temperature in the low 80s, with a steady breeze because it's the monsoon season. Our raggedy garden is looking its best. If you direct your eyes only at certain angles, it's still possible to ignore the new buildings coming up all around us, and to forget the nightly rumble and crash of trucks carrying supplies to, and dirt away from, the construction sites.


Yesterday was the south Indian festival of Deepavali; today is the north Indian festival of Divali -- but it's all one: lights, fireworks, giving boxes of sweets and nuts, wearing new clothes, visits with friends and family. We don't really celebrate any festival, but we still wrap up a few boxes of nuts (called 'dry fruit' here) and other nice things to give; and receive a few boxes of sweets and other nice things. I lit one big candle, instead of setting out hundreds of tiny oil lamps.

The fireworks yesterday were properly deafening (though some dastardly person began at 5:45 in the morning, for which I curse him as noisily as possible). I expect they will be deafening again tonight. You can buy firecracker chains of 10,000 crackers -- you unroll them down the length of the street, and they seem to go on exploding forever. I have been told that chains of 100,000 crackers are available too, but fortunately we've missed out on them so far. Big bangs and flowers of light rise above the popping crackers.

I just ate TWO sweets (Mysore paak, a weakness of mine), and am feeling slightly sugar-sick, with an aftertaste of roasted gram flour and ghee.

So, Happy Deepavali / Divali! On to the next station in the festival season, which will only end with Pongal in mid-January.


I sent this poem out -- I had written it some years back, and forgotten about it until recently -- and got it back with a constructive note, saying that the ending was too familiar. I agree, actually -- I have this tendency to romanticize, and it was easy, I guess ....

But the interesting thing for me is that the final word of the poem: green, was pretty much just a word when I wrote it. And now it is staggering under the burden of so many meanings, implications, hopes, fears.... I see language changing all the time, but I don't often pay much attention to it.

I might try to look at this again sometime, but meanwhile, here it is:

Brown as late Autumn,
jointed with leaf-fragments,
your face a horned mask,
you pretend to be old wood.

Did a male mount you?
Did you graze on his head
as he impregnated you with twigs?

You will give birth
to copper stickpins.

When your life dries up
and you sink into earth

you will bring forth green.

Hold On

The Sunday Washington Post reviewed Shashi Tharoor's new book, The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power.

It's a very positive review, but suggests that
The reader would do well to start at the end, which is where the extremely funny introductory "A to Z of Being Indian" has inexplicably been placed, then dip through the beguiling biographies in Part Three, before going on to the reflective cultural essays in Parts Two and Four, and ending up with the political and economic material in Parts One and Five. Anyone familiar with the house numbering system in Delhi will find this system not only logical but apt.

I was reading this review to R, and when I reached the end, we both burst out laughing:
... it is a chaotic, joyous, occasionally exhausting and often uplifting collage. As such, it could hardly be a more fitting reflection of its subject. If Tharoor's India really is the future, the rest of us had better hold on tight.

Martial Law

I usually go to The Daily Times, a liberal Pakistani newspaper, when I want to know more about what's going on there. Today there's an analysis by editor Najam Sethi which should interest people who are interested in the region.

(I'm giving the link but also copying the text - in case the site comes down; private TV channels were blocked yesterday, and curbs have been placed on news media -- here's the list of resrictions):
News analysis: Where do we go from here?

By Najam Sethi

Several points are interesting and significant about last night’s political rupture.

1: We have a state of martial law, whatever the government may say and however long it may last. The Proclamation of Emergency (PE) and the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) have been signed by the “Chief of Army Staff”, General Pervez Musharraf, and not by “President” Musharraf or Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. In fact, a PCO is an extra constitutional deviation and only an army chief can order it.

2: The constitution has accordingly been “held in abeyance”. But significantly, the PCO says that the country will continue to be governed, “as nearly as possible” by the constitution. But where there is any other departure from the constitution apart from what is contained in the PCO and the PE from now onwards, it will be at the behest of the “President” and not the COAS. In other words, General Musharraf’s presidency has been confirmed and upheld by the PCO.

3: The PCO prohibits the courts from holding or issuing any decree against the President, the Prime Minister or anyone exercising powers under their authority. Specifically, the President shall now require a fresh oath under the PCO by those judges who wish to be included in the Federal Shariat Court, High Courts and Supreme Court. In this context, four Supreme Court judges have already taken oath under the PCO from President Musharraf and a new chief justice of Pakistan has been nominated, ie, Justice Hameed Dogar. In other words, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry is now to be referred to as a former chief justice of Pakistan. He will be in the company of at least seven other fellow judges who have revolted against the PCO. We should now expect a host of other judges from the four High Courts and possibly Federal Shariat Court to be excluded from the new oath taking ceremonies. If this manoeuvre is accomplished by General Musharraf relatively quickly and the high courts are sufficiently revamped, then we shall have a pro-executive judiciary soon.

4: All ordinances promulgated by the president prior to this PCO remain valid. In other words, the National Reconciliation Ordinance is alive and kicking. Benazir Bhutto will be pleased.

5: The PE lists several reasons for its necessity. The prime reason is the state of deteriorating law and order and the vanishing writ of the state owing to acts of terrorism. But the judiciary has been held to be a major culprit in log-jamming the executive and undermining the war against extremism. Indeed, out of 11 effective clauses in the PE, eight refer to the negative role played by the judges and the judiciary in undermining the war against terrorism, the executive functioning of government and the economy. As such, the Supreme Court under Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry is held critically responsible for harming the national interest and exacerbating the crisis of the state and deadlock of the political system.

6: The 2007 PCO does not dissolve the assemblies or the provincial and federal governments. Nor does the PE announce any extension of the term of parliament by up to a year as is possible under a state of emergency. This means that General Musharraf intends to allow these parliaments and governments to finish their terms on November 16 (National Assembly) and November 24 (provincial assemblies), followed by general elections within a stipulated time frame.

7: We should expect the lawyers, civil society groups and most, but not all, the opposition parties to launch a spirited protest on the streets and boycott the courts. But with the electronic media blinded, and the administrations freed from the oversight of the courts, the police and paramilitary forces will be used to arrest opponents and crush the protest movement. Two factors will play a critical role in what happens next: one, the extent to which the lawyers can continue their protest and if necessary sacrifice some dead bodies for their cause; two, the role played by the People’s Party of Ms Bhutto and the JUI of Maulana Fazalur Rehman. We should also expect a surge in terrorist activities and bomb blasts by Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to take advantage of the situation.

8. Ms Bhutto has returned to the country in the midst of the crisis. The government will expect her not to destabilise its modus operandi in exchange for a power sharing deal. In all probability, she will oppose the PCO and PE. Supporting it would incur the wrath of Pakistanis who generally don’t like what General Musharraf has done. But she may lend only token PPP support to the protest movement. Much the same may be said of Maulana Fazal’s JUI. Instead she will demand that the road be cleared for free and fair general elections so that the people may give their verdict on all parties.

9. Writ petitions will fly against the PCO. The new SC will agree to hear them. But no judgment will be forthcoming until such time the elections have been held and a new parliament is in place to indemnify the PCO and confirm President Musharraf as the legitimate president of Pakistan. In other words, the unconstitutionality of this act will probably be pronounced by the new SC after it has got retrospective validity from a new parliament some months hence. The question of whether General Musharraf will remain army chief for another five years or take off his uniform then will have to be settled by the new parliament in 2008 as happened in 2003.

10. The US, EU and the international community will condemn the PCO and demand a restoration of full fledged democracy via free and fair general elections. General Musharraf should not have any problems complying with their demand in due course.

To Be or Not

One of the blogs that I started my blogging life with, Giornale Nuovo, has ended after a wonderful five-year run (though the archives are still up). The shock that one gets when something familiar disappears has made me wonder about this blog. I have not been paying it attention, it is overgrown with weeds. And yet, once in awhile, I still see something and think, I must post this.

While I decide, here are a couple of things that I've read / seen / heard recently:

This, from Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution, in which every sentence is so clever that you just have to shake your head in amazement:

Gertrude thought children and dogs overrated, and used to say that you loved them so much only when you didn't love people as much as you should. As much as you should had a haunting overtone of as much as I do - an overtone, alas! too high for human ears. But bats heard it and knew, alone among living beings, that Gertrude loved.

And a very different sentence, from the beginning of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, by Jason Goodwin. I just read a review of a mystery novel he has written, set in the Ottoman Empire, with a eunuch detective, and it sent me back to this earlier work:

Between age-old fortresses with wells and marketes, domes and minarets, and lemon groves where learned men rehearse theological points worn smooth like pebbles in the handling, the turkmen come riding upon embroidered saddles, with stirrups like metal galoshes.

And a link to amazing paintings, by Gerard Charruau. These cityscapes, which must be very large, because they appear to be painted on sheets of paper glued to canvas, remind me of the crowded scenes in Mughal miniatures.

I imagined a painting of Chennai -- though it has such a low skyline in most places, that if you look at it from a rooftop, many of the buildings are obscured by trees. And the buildings are mostly not pretty... I think a montage of the good ones, placed together...

And finally, a link to a YouTube video from a singing contest which is similar to American Idol. The song, Tujhse Naraaz, from the film Masoom, is in Hindi, but it need not matter, I think. It's very touching (Rough partial translation: "I'm not angry with you, life, I'm surprised / disturbed. Your innocent questions unsettle me. I never thought that in order to live I would have to manage pain; that if one smiles one has to pay a price for it...") -- it makes me cry. The singer is Amanat Ali, a contestant from Pakistan. You have to overlook the horrible costumes and gaudy sets.

I guess I've answered the title question, for the moment at least.
A slide show of some remarkable work by Indian photographers -- from the New York times.

Raghubir Sing's Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal (1991)

Daniyal Mueenuddin

I just read a beautifully written story in the New Yorker, Nawabdin Electrician, by Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin. It's online here.

I googled him and found another (very different) story at Zoetrope: Our Lady of Paris.

As soon as I finished reading Nawabdin I read it again, out loud. It sings. It starts out rather R.K. Narayan-ish; i.e. quaint / whimsical, though the writing is better - and then it goes beyond that with a powerful conclusion. Read it immediately!


We're back at sea level. It's not too bad -- it's raining, and the sky is soft and grey.

About 30 years ago, I took 2 years out of my American life to study classical dance here in Chennai, which was then called Madras (20 years ago I returned and stayed on). During a school vacation I went up to Ooty, close to Coonoor, from which we have just returned. Everythng was much smaller and simpler then, of course. I stayed at the Anandagiri YWCA and was given what is called bed tea, in a white china pot covered with a tea cozy. I paid for a bucket of steaming hot water to bathe in. I sat on the terrace and ate toast and home-made marmalade for breakfast. It was cold and wonderful.

One day I took a bus to Kotagiri, which was a tiny hamlet, just a few buildings and the tea estates. I had tea and something in a place with old lithographs on the walls, of Queen Victoria, and kittens. Then I walked into the estate, a valley with a stream flowing through it, and thought that if there were such a thing as heaven it might look like this.

Even today, whenever I see a tea estate I imagine that person, my self of that time, surrounded by the tidy green plants, interspersed and shaded with silver oak trees. She sits beside a clear stream in gentle sunlight, reading a book (there would be libraries, of course). Perfectly alone and contented, forever.


I’m having a jaladosham (jala = water; dosham = disease, in Sanskrit-Tamil) – i.e., a cold. My nose is producing almost as much jala as the drizzling sky outside my window. The product of the nose is called, in Tamil, mukkupi (mukku = nose; pi = disagreeable substance).

Although my physical state is expressing itself in Tamil, I am listening, for about the millionth time, to a song by Kailash Kher called Saiyyan, a most romantic love song, in Hindi. It can be found here. Or go out and buy the CD -- Kher has a big voice, full of feeling. Even when he's belting out a song (not written by him) whose lyrics are almost impossible to figure out, i.e. "Allah ke Bande"... -- 'jo bhi ho, voh phir ayega' -- you mean that bird is going to get injured and not be able to fly all over again?? (It's a great song too, though, Allah ke Bande -- rousing and catchy -- just don't think too much about what the lyrics mean. If you don't know Hindi, all the better, in this case.)

When people have a cold or a fever, they usually attribute it to ‘change of climate’ – even when, in Chennai, the weather seems to me to be pretty much business as usual. I nod politely, but inside I’m scoffing. And now here I am, 30 degrees F cooler than usual, and loving it intensely, and I’ve caught a cold. I automatically think, ‘ah yes, change of climate,’ and then scoff at myself.

Thus the internal monologue of the morning.

The Toy Train

I never feel so purely childlike as when we take the toy train (it has a grander official name and status: The Nilgiri Mountain
, a World Heritage Site) from Coonoor up to Ooty. We have lunch at the Savoy and then drive back to Coonoor.

We arrived at Coonoor station at 1:00 p.m. for the 1:30 train, and bought two first-class tickets for Rs. 78 each, entitling us to sit in splendid solitude in the first car. While we waited, we wandered around the station with our cameras. I shot the small fountain:

R took this picture of the train:

A group of men had gathered on a bench on the station platform. One of them sang Tamil film songs in a good strong voice. I love the smiles on his listeners' faces:

A little late, the guard took his seat on a bench at the front of the train, just outside our compartment (photo by R):

The engine was in the rear; the guard held red and green flags, with which he signalled to the engine driver when people or cattle strayed too close to the tracks. When we reached Ooty, R asked him how long he had been working on the train. He said 19 years, with 6 more to go. He lives in Mettupalayam, in the plains, where the train's journey begins; and travels up and down every day.

Scenes from the trip:

At Lovedale, the Station Master came out to meet the train:

The proprietor of the Combined Fruit and Vegetarian Teastall looked on:

A family sat in the second section of our car. Their youngest child rested his chin on the back of our seat, and looked out with fascination; inside me, I had exactly the same expression:

Some Things About Coonoor

Coonoor is about 1770 metres higher, and 30 degrees cooler, than steamy, tropical Chennai by the sea. Here are some things about it:

it has fallen leaves that look like autumn

red tile roofs are everywhere - even on the churches

you can wear a wool shawl in the evening

it has beef stalls

mist rises up from the valleys

there are tea plantations everywhere, even in the town

(okay, you can see this in Chennai too:) a cow with horns still bright after the Pongal festival

you can walk for ten minutes and reach the forest

it has monkeys.

Far Off Hindostan

I brought on vacation with me a stack of old New Yorkers. Today I was reading an article from April 2005 (!), Global Warning: Mrs. Mortimer's guide to the world, by Todd Pruzan. Mrs. Mortimer (1802-78) wrote a number of books for children, including a series of guides to different countries, one of which was Asia and Australia Described (1849). As Pruzan writes, "No matter where your ancestors had the misfortune to live, Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer likely had something nasty to say about them." The article is fascinating, and I rushed to the internet, to find out what she had to say about 'Hindostan'. Here it is -- page down for the entry on Hindostan, which begins:
This word Hindostan means "black place," for in the Persian language "hind" is "black," and "stan" is "place." You may guess, therefore, that the people in Hindostan are very dark; yet they are not quite black, and some of the ladies are only of a light brown complexion.

What a large country Hindostan is! Has it an emperor of its own, as China has? No: large as it is, it belongs to the little country called England.

How did the English get it?

They conquered it by little and little. ...

... There is no nation that has so many gods as the Hindoos. What do you think of three hundred and thirty millions! There are not so many people in Hindostan as that. No one person can know the names of all these gods; and who would wish to know them? Some of them are snakes, and some are monkeys!

The chief god of all is called Brahm. But, strange to say, no one worships him. There is not an image of him in all India.

And why not? Because he is too great, the Hindoos say, to think of men on earth. He is always in a kind of sleep. What would be the use of worshipping him?...

Vishnoo, the preserver, is a great favorite; because it is supposed that he bestows all manner of gifts. The Hindoos say he has been _nine_ times upon the earth; first as a fish, then as a tortoise, a man, a lion, a boar, a dwarf, a giant; _twice_ as a warrior, named Ram, and once as a thief, named Krishna...

It goes on, and she has a few kind things to say, and it is all written in a remarkably authoritative style, even though she never went there.

Pruzan points out that Mrs. Mortimer's views were consistent with those of the time; and concludes his article by citing a few recent stereotypical views of foreigners, including one by the Russian politician Ivan P. Rybkin, who, in 2004, declared: "Tyranny is tyranny. Tyranny in Africa is tyranny, only there they eat people."

Politician, Coonoor

Tamil politicians liked to be shown embracing the elderly poor -- it started, I think, with the late M.G.R., back in the seventies. This picture looks a little ambiguous to me, though. And I feel that they have made him more fair-skinned than he is. Wonder if he won...

Looking out the window at Cafe Coffee Day in Indira Nagar. It made an attractive picture, although it was too humid to sit outside. Coconut palms are a constant feature here; yet I realised that this picture might look quite exotic to someone in, say, Boston.

It has been raining almost every day. When it rains and I turn on the cold water tap, the water that runs over my fingers is actually cold, not just tepid -- it startles me every time.

Vinod Joseph

I had earlier written about Vinod Joseph's first novel, Hitchhiker. Now Epic India, an online arts magazine is publishing ten of his short stories, one every Saturday. The first one, The Boy Who Killed a Rainbow, is here.

Take a look -- the story has the same rich detail as the novel, without its heavy burden of caste politics. It's very easy to imagine the setting and the people, and their everyday talk. It's pace is about as leisurely as the days it describes, but it made me want to bathe in the river too, and throw stones at the rainbow.

Update: Story #2, One Hundred Rupees, is also up. I liked it even more than the first one.

A European Traveller

(Thanks, Peter!) The New York Times has an article about a new show at Washington's Sackler Gallery: Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17 Centuries . The article includes a slide show, and the first picture in the slide show is the 17th century Mughal painting of a European traveller which I've been using as a kind of logo on this blog since it began:

(The article captions it "Homage or sendup?" - and he does look rather silly, I suppose; yet how could one not admire him, striding through a landscape so completely unknown.)


It's the best kind of weather: rain, not heavy and therefore destructive, but fairly steady and saturating, so that the garden looks impossibly, radiantly green. The temperature is almost 20 degrees less than it was a couple of weeks ago -- in the upper 80s.

We went to Amethyst and sat on the verandah, watching drops of water dropping from leaves and drinking cappuccino. It was heavenly.

Several Things

A recent search referral:
plaster crumbling away salt infection

I read this and immediately thought, Yes, that's me all right...

Some good photographs of Chennai.

A new(ish) Indian blog directory.

I love mehndi. Here's a photoset of Indian mehndi on Flickr. And one of Arabic mehndi. (both of these links via Dispatch from L.A.)

A pleasant side-effect of the real estate boom: yesterday afternoon one of the city's few organised real estate brokerage firms sent us a bushel basket full of perfectly ripe banganapalli mangoes. How many such baskets must they have delivered all over the city?

I've eaten more mangoes this year than ever before, and the season is not over. Last night Mary surprised me with a sweet-sour curry of green mangoes from our garden, after I had eaten one of the meltingly sweet real estate-mangoes for tea...

It is equally sweet-sour to remember that mango season will be over soon; though if it weren't I would be in danger of ending up like the young English lady in India whose epitaph I'm sure I read about somewhere, who died of a surfeit of pineapple.


In India, when you are talking about bed linen you don't say 'sheets' but 'bedsheets.' I suppose it's to save you from the embarrassment of asking a shopkeeper for sheets and being presented with pieces of paper, or sails.

I struggle with insomnia. Tossing twisting, contorting into the aches I will feel tomorrow, I forget what I am trying to do: SLEEP, dammit.

It's dry, dry, not finding sleep. The twisted sheets have sandpaper edges. The air-conditioner gurgles like a creature with indigestion. I will fold one sheet into a captain's hat, another into a boat, raise the sail and I'm away.

Two Searches

I don't look at my search engine referrers very often - they tend to be pretty repetitive (e.g., from a few minutes ago: 'late in night we clothless photo') - but yesterday I did, and I found two interesting ones:

--'at what does watermelon laugh when it's murdered.' That was intriguing enough that I did the search myself, and found this page. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I gathered that it was a line from a poem by Pablo Neruda, and, searching further, found this.

--'I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer'. That turned out to be from 'Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams' by Kenneth Koch. Here it is, from this site:

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

-- Kenneth Koch

That's two excellent discoveries. I must read my referrers more often.

Mango Thieves

Six large mangoes were stripped from our tree overnight!! And I have a prime suspect, too... but I only used that post-title because it sounded so good: what I really want to talk about is saffron.

When I became a poor imitation of a Gujarati housewife, one of my first tasks was to phone in the monthly provisions order, something which my mother-in-law had been doing before my arrival. The provision store owners were also Gujaratis, so they had all the special things we need, like kokum, methi kuria and so on. Once a month their van would pull up, and the kitchen floor would be heaped with bags of rice, dals, oil, sugar, spices and so on. It was a big event. Now we have stores which somewhat resemble American supermarkets, and I prefer to go and buy the stuff myself; but they did not exist at that time.

So I carefully made a list and phoned the store. They always recognised my voice, and put me on to the best English speaker among them. I began working my way down the list. We ordered most spices in 100 gm. packets – cumin, anise and black mustard seeds, turmeric powder, asafoetida, etc. On that particular day, I also had saffron on my list. We didn’t use it very often, but it had run out. So, along with everything else I said, “Saffron, 100 gm.” There was a silence on the other end of the line, and the man who was taking my order said, “Sister, do you know what 100 gm. of saffron costs?” I didn’t, and he named an astronomical sum. It was my turn to be silent, then I said very meekly, “So, how much do you think I should order?” He said, “One gram should be fine,” and I quickly agreed.

I remembered this in the grocery store yesterday, because another foreigner was similarly taken by surprise – she was confronted with 4 or 5 grams for Rs. 315 (about US$7). I’ve been grinning ever since.

(update: I've gotten some good comments on this post:
Ravi said, "I encountered a similar case in a grocery store in Chennai many years back; but the ingredient then was cardamom. I think the customer lady ordered for about 100 gms and the guy in the grocery store immediately quipped 'Are you having a wedding at home?'"

Kumar said, "... I was sent by mother to get 1Kg milagai (red chillies) for avakai from our mango trees. I shortened it to "milagu" (pepper), ... I was laughed off and asked to check with my mother again."

Subramanian said, "Immediately on introduction of metric sytems ... I had been to a nearby grocery and I ordered 5 grams of Butter without any idea how much it would be. Then the grocery man ... said he is not even having such an accurate balance to weigh 5 grams ..."

It seems that looking silly at the grocery store is a common experience.)

Ba on the Ganges

This week's Poetry Thursday prompt is rivers. This is the last in a series of poems I wrote after my mother-in-law died.

Ba on the Ganges

When Ba was heavy and middle-aged,
she took her mother to Benares.
They sat side-by-side in a small boat,
posed stiffly for a photograph.
Behind them, temples, and stairs to the water.
Both faced the camera, smiling slightly,
together holding a small brass pot.
They poured a thin stream of milk into Ganga.
You are Himalaya's daughter.
You came from Heaven to purify the world.
You flow from Shiva's tangled hair.

One of the things set out in her bedroom,
with gods, liniments, spectacles, prayer-books,
was a small copper cauldron, sealed with tin --
Ganga water, last aid, to be poured into her mouth
as she was dying.
You purify those who bathe in you.
You contain the hopes of men for salvation.
You bear the burden of the dead.

When the family women reached the hospital,
each carried Ganga in her purse,
but Ba’s nostrils were already stuffed with cotton,
jaws tied with a strip of white cloth.
They poured the water over her lips.
Your waters bear half-burned corpses.
You enter into them.
Your bed is heaped with bones.

Ba’s brother took her ashes to Benares
in a clay pot garlanded with marigolds.
Bending over the wavelets which slapped against his feet,
he set her afloat on Ganga. She bobbed on the surface
for a minute or two, then sank to join
the assemblage of the dead,
given to the mercy of the river.

Other poems in the same series: Journeying, Uses for Wood, Sorting Ba's Things


I've been making books lately, using a good new book-making book. These two have covers made of cut-down photographs by R. The photograph, called Pattern (the link is to the complete photograph), was silk-screened on handmade paper. He also wrote a poem called Pattern, which was exhibited alongside the photograph:

India Without the Slogans - the back page essay in the latest Time magazine's Asia edition. A well-stated reaction to some of the hyperbole surrounding India at the moment. I love India and I hope its future is the brightest -- but it has a long way to go before it overcomes its enormous problems.


Chennai is in the grip of a real estate frenzy. Last week I accompanied a friend who is looking for an apartment, to try to get an idea what all the fuss is about.

We first went to a project in Alwarpet which is just a couple of months from completion: 5 buildings set close together, with an open area in the middle, which will eventually contain a swimming pool. All but two of the flats have already been sold. We walked through one of them and saw from every window the nearby windows and balconies of the neighbours. The person who had taken us to see the project said that it had opened for advanced sale two years ago, at Rs. 2,500 per square foot. The remaining flats have been selling for Rs. 10,000 a square foot -- what an increase, in only two years! The flats that we saw were decent, but small and not exceptional.

Next we saw two empty plots in Poes Garden, one of the city's hot real estate spots, where the price was Rs. 12,000 per square foot. Again, all but one of the flats had already been sold. Then on to Rutland Gate, where a project is going for Rs. 11,000 per square foot. At least there, there is a private lift for every flat, as well as a swimming pool, and there are only 15 flats on 21 grounds -- less density than what we had seen so far. All but three of the flats have been sold.

Finally we went to the Boat Club area, which is considered the ultimate in snob value. It was once full of enormous houses, and it's still quiet and leafy. But I was surprised at how many apartment buildings had come up here, too. We saw a flat that was slightly under 4,000 square feet, which was selling for Rs. 17,000 a square foot! That's about 7 crores for an apartment (= approx. US$1.5 million, if my calculation is correct). Once again, it was spacious, which most Indian flats are not; but otherwise not obviously special.

I went home with my head swimming, and blessed our green garden, and our own house, with its own peculiarities, faults and virtues. It felt like a small island in a choppy sea; but the city is changing so rapidly all around us: I wonder how long we will be able to withstand it.

Getting Ready

Kathakali dancer getting into costume, Madras, 1978


The Poetry Thursday prompt this week is for a humorous poem, or a poem which tells a joke.

NOTE 1: The poem starts off with one of my favourite jokes ever. No one to whom I have told it has ever thought that it was funny.

NOTE 2: Scrod is a fish which is associated with New England.


This guy is visiting Boston for the first time.
He gets into a taxi and says to the driver,
“Do you know where I can get scrod?”
The driver says, “I’ve heard that question a million times,
but never in the pluperfect subjunctive.”

Taxi drivers are the Buddha.
Bartenders are the Buddha.

The meaning is, "Hey, buddy,
why are you tying yourself in knots
over something so
as conjugation, anyway?
Do I have to draw you a diagram?"

The man in the back seat realises
that pluperfect is too much to ask
and achieves nirvana.
He leaves without giving a tip.


The heat is so great now -- 105 or 106 F every day -- that whenever I open a drawer, hot air pours from it, like the breath of something living.

I went out for some errands, and found a small patch of shade in which to park. The nearest house had a small marble plaque on the gatepost with the name of the house: Surya Kripa ('the sun's benevolence'). Talk about putting the best face on things.


I've been fooling around with Photoshop. I had a photograph of a bulldozer road roller which I had taken in Coonoor a couple of years ago. When I found an online tutorial on how to make your pictures look as if they were taken with a Lomo camera, I tried it out:

I was attracted to this bulldozer road roller the moment I saw it, but it's only now that I feel I have been able to do it justice.


Some time back I wrote a post about a great TV ad from 1996, which I remembered very fondly. It urged people to drink milk. I had copied the lyrics from the TV -- they were innovative at the time, a clever mix of Hindi and English that wasn't quite so common in those days. The singer of the jingle, I learned recently, was Kunal Ganjawala, who is now a successful playback singer.

At the time I couldn't post the song itself, but that was before YouTube. Here it is -- an abbreviated version, unfortunately, but watching it still brought a smile to my face.


When I hear the Tamil word for honey - then (rhymes with lane) – it feels very old, because it's a one-syllable word in a polysyllabic language. A bee is theni. Yesterday I learned that the word for beehive is then-koodu. Both Lakshmi and Mary were excited -- they approached me separately saying, Do you know there's a then-koodu in the garden?

Mary says that the honey will be most abundant by amavasi (the new moon) which is coming on May 16. After that the bees will drink it away, and the hive will dry up. R eats honey in his oatmeal, so they were trying to figure out how to get the honey for the household.

I went out with Lakshmi to see it. She pointed, but it took me a long time: I was looking for something like the cartoon hive which is swung at by a dim-witted bear, and which bounces back in his face like a punching bag, full of angry bees. But this was formed around a branch, very high in a eucalyptus tree. It was more than 2 feet long, and black, like a thickened growth on the tree itself. I felt it as a kind of natural blessing, and saw with relief that it would be very tough to get all the way up there. I said, "Let it be; we don't need that honey."

Now I am making a transition, from the Tamil word for honey to the Sanskrit word, madh; and on to its relative, the old English word for honey-based liquor, mead; and finally, over to an article in yesterday’s paper. The article says that our state of Tamil Nadu will soon sell imported liquor through the state-owned liquor stores, as part of compliance with WTO requirements. I am hoping that at the same time Indian wines will become available here too. It would be ironic if I could legally drink imported wine, but not the local stuff. And that in itself could be a good enough reason not to change – we need our ironies, after all.

One more transition, to another kind of sweetness: yesterday Ethiraj, the gardener, climbed up the big mango tree with a cloth bag tied to a long rope. He picked the fruit and lowered it in the bag, where the watchman waited to empty it, with Lakshmi on hand to call out advice, above and below. Now we have 100 mangoes, in addition to the 90 from the first picking. This year they really are good and sweet, better than ever before; and plenty for everyone.

Poems of Summer

from Sanskrit Poetry from Vidyakara's "Treasury", translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls

Above the fledgling of the wild goose,
although he rests in coolness of a flowering water-lotus,
the loving mother bird will hold her wings,
a handsome white umbrella.
The little parrot, parched with thirst,
resting on a fair maid's bosom,
will sip at the necklace pearls which grace her breasts
in hope that they are water.

Coolness, which stayed a while beneath the waters,
made brief acquaintance with unguent of sandalwood,
set foot on lily stems and moonlight,
and rested later in the shade of tasty plantains,
now is found alone
within my sweetheart's arms.

The summer breaks the tight embrace
of God Narayana and Goddess Sri
already sleepy from the ocean's rocking
of their water-dripping palace.
And now the sun's fierce rays
do fry the moon, deprived of all its spendor,
as if it were a pancake
on the heated potsherd of the sky.

Two Links and One Home News Flash

Links first:
From the Washington Post: Finally, Our Chance To Savor India's Favored Fruit ... "This is mango's moment. For the first time, India, the world's largest producer of the world's favorite fruit, has been granted access to the U.S. market. Best of all, it's the particularly coveted Alphonso variety that is on its way to grocers...."

From The New Yorker: Letter from Jaipur - The Idol Thief: Inside one of the biggest antiquities-smuggling rings in history.

Home news:

Our gardener cut his foot on the iron lid of the underground water tank, and it became infected. He walked gingerly, and wore a cloth wrapped around his foot for several days - he works barefooted. But then he removed it, so I assumed that he had recovered.

Three days ago he didn't come to work. In the afternoon his wife called and said that the infection had not gone away, and that he had been going to the hospital every day for an injection. According to her, the injections had generated too much heat in his body, so he had been eating only gruel and yoghurt (cooling foods). Finally, the diet and the foot together had kept him from getting out of bed altogether.

(I am writing about it because of the Indian notion of heat and coolness in the body which, when out of balance, leads to illness. Each new instance of this idea fascinates me.) (Fortunately, because or in spite of his mix of western and local treatments, the gardener has now recovered.)

How We Cope With the Heat

After Lunch (Mahabalipuram)
photograph by Ramesh Gandhi