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

South Indian Spiders

You know those light brown spiders whose legs grow to about the circumference of a saucer, and who, because they like moisture, lurk in bathrooms, so that at your most vulnerable moments you may look up and see them and get all mentally disorganised? I assume that they're harmless because no one has ever warned me against them. And I don't mind smaller spiders at all, probably because I loved Charlotte's Web... but I do wonder sometimes.

So I found this very interesting website, South Indian spiders. It's attractive to look at, with photographs and descriptions and lots of information about spiders generally (and some slightly creepy or cute graphics, depending on your point of view).

Unfortunately I can't figure out whether one of them is the bathroom spider -- which I have seen in other parts of India as well. Can anyone enlighten me on this one?

The Kiss

The New York Times has a piece that takes off from the infamous kisses which Richard Gere bestowed on the cheek of Shilpa Shetty on stage in India recently -- kisses which led to both of their effigies being burnt in demonstrations by Hindu fundamentalists (although it's clear from the video that Shetty is trying politely to avoid his intentions; at the end she said in Hindi, "This is a bit too much." I know this because we have been forced to watch the same clip again and again for days on the TV news.).

According to the article,
The earliest written record of humans’ kissing appears in Vedic Sanskrit texts — in India — from around 1500 B.C., where certain passages refer to lovers “setting mouth to mouth”

And it describes the Romans' classification of different kisses:
the “basium,” for the standard romantic kiss; the “osculum,” for the friendship kiss; and the “savium,” the most passionate kind, sometimes referred to as a French kiss.

What would we do without such grave issues to ponder?

Luxury Rooms Still Available

Once again we went for coffee, and looked at the LUXURY ROOMS AVAILABLE sign that I had blogged about here. I pointed the sign out to R as if it were a famous or beloved landmark, and as I did so I saw that one of the rooms had an occupant. A man wearing a sleeveless undershirt was leaning on the sill of an open window, smoking a cigarette and looking out. He was just as I had imagined him, except that he wore trousers instead of a lungi – but then it was the middle of the day. (Perhaps he was one of the guests Teju suggested in a comment to my earlier post, who required a luxury room only for an hour or two.)

On the way home I stopped at a stationery store. While the proprietor was writing out my bill a man came in and bought three sheets of paper. He handed over a ten-rupee note, but the proprietor shook his head and said, “No change.” The man fished around in his pocket and came up with a Rs. 5 coin, whereupon the proprietor grudgingly opened a small drawer full of coins, and gave him Rs. 3 back.

Thus the highlights of the day.

The Fire Star

Agni Nakshatram ("Fire Star"), an astrological period after which this blog was named, is traditionally the hottest period of the year. It began on May 4, and continues until May 29.

We've been suffering fiery weather for several weeks already this year -- whether it's because of global warming or not, when you live in the tropics even a slight rise in temperature affects you immediately. I'm too enervated even to describe it.

On the plus side, mango season has begun. We have two mango trees, of two different varieties, in our garden. The mangoes from the larger tree -- the gardener goes up to the roof-terrace to pick them -- were harvested last week when still green, and put away in a dark place to ripen. The ones in the photograph are not quite ready yet. Our mangoes are never very good, but I always watch with pleasure their progress from sprays of tiny white flowers to green buds to full-grown fruit. (And then I go to the store and buy a box of Alphonse mangoes from Maharashtra.)

In the Dream

Poetry Thursday inspired me again:

In the Dream

You bent over me smiling
I in my white cotton dress
(though really you were someone else).


a woman
splayed into an X
for DANGER for NO
endlessly slowly
into a giant sinkhole.

It is about the past
and the message is

I didn't need to be told so much
just because I found
behind something
a page of calligraphy:

Urdu loops and curves
woven into a poem
spooling backward.

love is an ocean of fire ||
in which you must drown ||

Chatrabuj Gandhi

I made this pen-and-wash painting of R's great-grandfather and two of his descendants, from the photograph I had posted below. I have inadvertently improved his looks: in the photograph he is, to be truthful, rather piggy-faced.