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.)