Sister Alphonse

Robert Clive  meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey

Robert Clive  meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey

Sister Alphonse was very pretty. I can tell you that, although I never saw her hair. I knew her in Bellary during the years 1970 and 1971, a time when a woman wasn’t much thereabouts if her tresses didn’t knock about her knees.

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“This book is rubbish,” Sister Alphonse said and collected from the class the government-prescribed history textbook we had bought, and for a little extra, she placed an order for a replacement on our behalf. “Here’s a proper account of Lord Bentinck,” she said. “He abolished sati.” She spent a whole class describing the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the Muslim King Sirajuddaula, and seared a deep dark idea of the man into my twelve-year-old brain. She soaked the burning shame I felt in the balmy story of brave Robert Clive.

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I went to Calcutta the first time December last. I spent a few minutes before the obelisk that is the British-built monument to preserve the memory of the British dead in the Black Hole of Calcutta. The men had been crammed into an enclosure the night after Sirajuddaula ordered eviction of the British from their fort in Calcutta. A good number of the imprisoned died by morning; estimates vary from 43 to a peak claim of 123. Whatever the number, the redcoats managed to whip up support in Britain for military operations on land that they’d come to do trade in.

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Sister Alphonse was Scottish. Bellary used to have a British military cantonment, so it followed that the town had sprawling Christian schools. I went first to St. Philomena’s, where Sister Alphonse taught history, and some art and craft. Then I went to St. John’s.

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The Black Hole monument is no more upon the Black Hole, which hole was a mere guardroom that the British razed along with the fort it was in. They built an elaborate new defence and called it Fort William, and moved the monument around even in their time. It rests now in the quiet compound of St. John’s Church, the construction of which church began in 1784 under Governor-General Hastings. It was opened for Service in 1787 by Lord Cornwallis, the general who had earlier surrendered to George Washington in America. In India, Cornwallis would vanquish “tiger” Tipu Sultan and nearly complete the colonisation of the subcontinent.

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After they killed Tipu they installed a boy king in his place, and gave him Education and Culture and Revenue Collection for responsibility. They allowed him a harem.

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Sirajuddaula was a hot-headed 22 at the time of the Black Hole. He’d been incensed at the fortifications the British had been raising in his realm, in which his forebears had allowed them mere warehousing, with requisite guard. He ordered them to stop but they kept up the works and Sirajuddaula attacked. This was in 1756, and the British launched a reprisal in 1757. It didn’t matter that they’d commandeered only a 3000-man force against Sirajuddaula’s 50,000. The Indian generals were easily purchased and the king humiliated in an eleven-hour encounter in the Battle of Plassey. Later, Sirajuddaula was executed. Assassinated, it is also argued.

“India was colonised not by Britain,” William Dalrymple has begun to insist with increasing intensity. His book that argues the case will be out this year, but excerpts from it have been circulating in print media: India was colonised by a corporation, The East India Company. And, along with British businessmen and aristocrats, Indian Marwaris were eager shareholders in the company.

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Dalrymple is a Scot. Beneath a picture shot by him and posted on Instagram, of a place in Bengal, he says female Hindu blood has entered his bloodline at a point. Dalrymple is big, robust. Hair that’s thinned on top is rich on cheek and chin and the colour of wisdom has erupted in thick lines along its length. He has the accent, and the scholarship, and, man, how he lets loose his grin! How he looks like Sean Connery!

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My father was nineteen when India became free. In Kollegal where he was raised, a forest town in thick jungle country, there used to be stationed a lone white man, a Forest Officer. “That man saw an ox once,” my father told me several times. “He asked for its tongue. They killed the whole handsome ox for it.” It’s only so much that my father experienced the English, and only in the ears. An aloof guy, he didn’t belong with the nationalists; and he was never neither with those arguing that British times were the best times. The government department he worked in retains the name given it in colonial times: The Department of Public Instruction. He retired as its top man.

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I was born in Mysore, not far from where “tiger” Tipu died.

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In 1999, some folks tried to organise the two-hundredth-year commemoration of Tipu’s fall. It didn’t happen. Tipu was Muslim. Also, there was an attempt a year before to mark the five-hundred-year-old landing of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in South India. That event didn’t materialize either. It was the Portuguese explorer’s discovery of the sea route that commenced colonisation in these parts. Not many feel grateful for that, history and heritage be damned.

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Every astrologer who has seen my horoscope has cautioned me to steer clear of water. No journeys by boat, but it’s okay to fly over the ocean.

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The admiral who took Robert Clive from Chennai to Calcutta to mount a reprisal against Sirajuddaula died four months after the mission was accomplished. Clive lived to loot rich Bengal which in those days fed the depleting treasury of the Mughal empire. Oudh fell next, and afterward the Mughal himself. Clive got very rich, but he killed himself in the end. He never got to be glamorous among his folks back home, though later they installed mighty statues of him. I have felt very small the times I’ve looked high at the one that looks to St. James Park.

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Sister Alphonse came from a well-off family, I think. I bumped into her once at the district maidan, where she was roaming with a compact video camera, the olden type that recorded on a reel of film. She was a radiant presence in the haze, crisp and fresh, in her ever-spotless ever-creaseless habit.

“Step back, Shashi. Step back. Now walk toward me,” she kept saying, until she had me walking as she wanted. Then she filmed me.

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My mother was ever unhappy because she could never afford a drawing room like in the Woman & Home magazine that came from England, which she borrowed every month from a lending library.

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The other day, I attended “Dinner with Dalrymple” in Bangalore.

“And for whom must I sign this?” Dalrymple asked me when I took a copy of his Kohinoor up to him. I’d been seventh in line.

He wrote my name in a flourish on top of the page, and signed himself across the diagonal of it. The lines are blue and thick, rather like brush strokes.

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It is said of Clive, that when he marched, he used to have only a small contingent with him. Bystanders en route would outnumber his force in multiples, and they could’ve done in the firangi army on any of those occasions. But then, imagine on those plains a white man wearing red colours with gold trims on a great horse.

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There’s a question that never came up in class, nor does the question appear in any Dalrymple I’ve read. Or in the other books. At what point in history did we get so filthy? How came we to surround ourselves with this omnipresent squalor, and stink?

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“Why, Shashi has done something nice for a change!” Sister Alphonse exclaimed one morning in class. I’d drawn a pattern with felt pens, in red and blue. It must’ve looked good from her distance on stage, but the given task was to work with brushes. I don’t remember the punishment, but she got really cross with me that day.

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Calcutta was built in the fashion of London. It was the city of palaces, rich in architecture, rich in culture Indian and European.

I walked round Dalhousie Square, taking in the enormous decayed cable-ridden Victorian, Edwardian buildings from which India was ruled. Afternoon, I walked to Park Street, went down it to the landmark Flurys, for tea and toilet. The toilet stank.

Flurys was established in 1927. For twenty years of its lifetime it has seen English rule and highbrow English custom. Did the toilet stink so back then? Was the tearoom as pink then as now?

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If only there were jobs in Calcutta the educated Calcuttan would never leave the city. That is the claim, and it is untested for a long time because Calcutta has had no jobs on offer for decades now and her children are flourishing in other places. But I, I want no more a job, and I have decided to spend a few days every month for a year or two in Calcutta. I want to feel English rule from out there. I wish to add a few more words to the rich fact and the fiction that already exist.

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I wonder what Sister Alphonse might say to that.

Red Dust

Photo by the-lightwriter/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by the-lightwriter/iStock / Getty Images

At sundown the day’s dust would start to settle. By when folks finished dinner and stepped out to their verandahs it would be clear night outside, and eyes would dart from neighbour to neighbour and from neighbour to stars above. Most evenings a cool breeze played about, stroking a pre-bedtime peace.

Our houses were dispersed on either side of the street. The street went sloping down and ended at the houses of the American missionary on the one corner and the medical students on the other. The missionary lived with his wife and his little boy and the family was often out of town on God’s work. The medical students were from North India, a fair-skinned scandalous bunch. They’d bring nice-looking girls home and we’d spy on them from far. They took no notice of us. We were just local boys who sometimes held a moment’s interest for them, no more.

Where the street ended, wasteland began. On a clearing in it we played cricket evenings and holidays. Kids from other streets came to play as well, and in the dust we raised the ball from one game often went to the field of another game, and we went chasing, kicking up more dust, asking, “ball … give the ball, no?”

That night, we’d finished dinner and the adults had retired and were calling us in. We chatted with friends down the steps in the few moments before the final call. We took last glances at girls in line of sight. Just then, somebody saw dust rising before the missionary’s house. Brown and red dust. Light from unshaded incandescent street-lamps was knocking whorls of it. In its turn dust had turned the light amber.

We ran down the street, seeing men in action in swirling dust. Many men, although we didn’t count. Men on the fringe of the crowd, looking to the middle. Men in the middle, circling the centre, there punching and kicking and swiping at somebody.

We joined the crowd, which by now had come up the street, passed a few houses. Somebody among them noticed the street-side laundry-cart, where the dhobi always worked late. The somebody had hit on an idea. He and another ran and made a deal with the dhobi. They jogged up and spread red coals from the laundryman’s iron-box on the bed of dust among the stones on the asphalt-free street. “Bring him here!” they cried.

It was the milkman they had, we’d seen by now. The same milkman who brought untreated udder-fresh non-pasteurised milk every morning by six. On a bicycle he brought them, in cans either side on the back, walking, pushing his load. He was older than us, but we were only boys, and he was not too much older. He was wearing loose white pyjamas that he always wore mornings. His feet were bare, the slippers just lost, perhaps, because mornings we’d see him in rubber thongs.

Twice they pulled him back so they could push him fresh over the coals. He didn’t made a sound as he walked over the cinders. But he grunted sometimes when he took a hard punch, and when one got him on his diaphragm, he let off a pitiful “Hnphf!” His long mane-like hair was matted by sweat and dust and it swung as he reeled.

When they dragged him back a second time from the coals his wet dust-covered shirt tore the whole length from the collar. He let out a cry just then, said something. We could feel the dust in his throat. And the dust in our throats and dust up the nostrils. “Why?” an adult voice asked from the gate of a house. Parents and uncles and aunts were lining the street now, as when a Ganesha procession passes.

“Bastard lifts skirts of little girls, sir!”

It is possible nobody took serious belief to what was being told. It’s possible the fellow heard his accusers. Perhaps not. He staggered ahead, clear of the coals now, still taking an occasional beating. The frenzy of the crowd had abated at the top of the street. He didn’t couldn’t grunt any denial. His eyes set in a dusty dark wet face were dazed.

There at the top stood the last of the concrete light posts. Reaching it, somebody caught the milkman by his hair and brought his head round in a circle and kicked him on his butt. “Don’t do this again,” the somebody said. The man went tumbling, fell face down on the red dust of our little town. We felt his relief. We felt our relief. His soles were almost all we could see now, at the far edge of a pool of light. They were red and black and brown and raw.

Launching IndiQuest, a Personal Project

It is weekend and here I am in green Malnad, where coffee-picking is going on all round. I'm taking in this cool January and the sights of everything including the ring of hills that may be seen from the lower and upper decks of the plantation home. The only thing jars on this (otherwise) complete bliss is the chug of a diesel generator by the stream that separates my plantation from my eastern neighbor’s. The neighbor is pumping water uphill to his dried-up tank — as on my plantation, he is running sprinklers to spray a mist on his coffee, in the absence of timely rain.

Still, it is calm a good number of hours in the day, and I must be content, but I’m thinking forward to next week's short trip.

Calcutta. I'm going back only a month after my last visit there — which was also my first non-business visit to the city. During that visit I walked in the Dalhousie area, and the Esplanade, and along the riverfront starting at Prinsep Ghat. I went two-hundred kilometers north on a day trip to Tagore's Shantiniketan. It was a four-day trip, and quite a full one. In slots in between, I went to the Victoria Memorial, and the palatial ancestral home of Tagore, and the very minimal residence of Mother Theresa.

The upcoming trip would again be a four-day thing. I'll walk this time in the Howrah Bridge area, and Chinatown, and Kumartuli, and diverse places of worship. Whereas the last time I stayed at the Taj Bengal, this time around I'd be lodging with a family I found on AirBnb, a short walk away from Park Street, where too, I'll walk about as much as I can.

I'm reading. The last book I read on Calcutta was a journalistic work by Bishwanath Ghosh, an account of sporadic visits he made over two years to get to know the city. Now I'm reading the more scholarly and the more accomplished Amit Chaudhuri, his own experiences, again over two years. And I'm watching movies set in Kolkata. Last week I watched City of Joy; the week before that, Ray's Agantuk; and this week, I've scheduled Mrinal Sen's Calcutta 71.

I've given the exercise to know these Indian places — of which this Kolkata jaunt is a part — a name. IndiQuest, I've called it, and I'm maintaining online journals on the project in words and pictures. This year, I'll spend time Kolkata, and Chennai and Pondicherry. In 2018, I'll do the same in Mumbai and Delhi. I'll do short excursions to lesser towns from out of these larger cities for broader understanding.

In the meantime, I’ll keep moored enough of me in Bangalore.

I'm Turning Inward

Halasuru Someshwara Temple, Bangalore

Halasuru Someshwara Temple, Bangalore

By way of architecture (predominently the Vijayanagara school) the Halasuru Someshwara Temple pleases lovers of heritage buildings. I spent a morning there with the INTACH folks. It is a temple in use, and perhaps for that reason it is greasy and messy. Those that have authority over it lack taste and annexes round it are hideous in contrast with the aesthetic of the 500-year-old central structures. People offer fervent prayers there, have done so a long time, and so the hallowed aura of the place will live as long as the temple survives. God is for ever, temples to Him are not.

The story of the origin of the temple follows the pattern we know. King went hunting, got separated from his party, lost himself in the jungle, and, tired, rested in the shade of a tree. He fell asleep and dreamt a dream in which God appeared. In this instance it was vassal Kempegowda who dreamed, and it was Lord Shiva who caused the dream and appeared in it. “There’s treasure where you lie,” he told Kempegowda. “Build me a temple with it.”

There’s another version: King Jayadeva of the same Yelahanka clan went hunting in the jungle, was lost, and after he’d tired lay down to rest under the canopy of trees. Shiva’s message to him was somewhat different: “There’s my Linga buried where you lie. Dig it out and build a temple to it.”

Neither would’ve dreamt that 500 years later, a Theresa May would visit the temple wearing a lovely silk sari, of the class that is draped round a temple goddess.

Some centuries before the time of Kempegowda and Jayadeva, in the twelfth century, when the great Hoysala ruler Veera Ballala lost himself while hunting, he did not sleep. He kept up the search for an exit and while at it he came upon an old lady who sheltered him in her solitary hut and made him a meal of beans. In gratitude he built a town dedicated to her, and called it Bengaluru, after the beans.

And here in Karnataka, Hoysala temples proliferated across the kingdom of the Hoysalas, all almost a millenium old, with intricate carvings and unique architecture of great beauty, marking a thanksgiving, a victory in battle, and such other vanities.


Bull Temple, Bangalore

Bull Temple, Bangalore

The other famous temple in Bangalore is the Bull Temple, also built by Kempegowda. It is small and white and nice, and the face of the divine bull Nandi turns coy with the ornamentation in butter that it’s covered in. It’s a large Nandi in a small temple; even on its haunches it is 15 feet high. In Kempegowda’s time it had appeared in flesh among the jungles that covered the plains across from the hill where it sits now. It was of a blazing golden colour, and those who’d sighted it chased after it, and when they found it the bull had turned to granite. That night it appeared in Kempegowda’s dreams and asked for a temple also.


“You’re a temple-going man,” a Malaysian customer used to tease me each time I declined his offer of a drink. That’s not 100% true, though I don’t deny that I’m the praying type. So when I visit a temple for its archeaology, the art on its walls, half my mind is given to the worship that must follow. I’m fervent in my prayers, because I’m afflicted with depression for some years now, and live in mild, perpetual fear of impending misery. I worry about mistakes I might make in the puja and cause slight to the gods. I look for omens, but I don’t know the things that count as omens, so I weigh everything that happens round me while I’m at prayer in a temple. If my wife is with me, I ask, “Is that an omen?” I repeat myself until annoyance creeps across her face. Then I stop.


I’d made a vow and I’d gone to the Male Mahadeshwara Temple to better seal it. It was early morning when I stood in line, and even then it had gotten really long. When I neared the deity I saw how little time each devotee was getting before the Shivalinga, after all the pains taken to reach that most sacred spot. So I pulled a large note from my wallet and when I arrived before the deity I kept the note on the collection plate in the hands of a young priest. He noted my contribution, and looked away, allowing me to linger, but in a moment he recovered and began to chant: “Move on! Move on!” So I went out and rejoined the line and returned a second time, and repeated the trick with another large note. I got a few extra seconds once more, but I had no more the presence to look for omens, and came out feeling dirty.


The very prashast Gavigangadhareshwara Temple is on a granite rise in South Bangalore. This, too, was built by Kempegowda, this time to mark his release from emperor Ramaraya’s prison.


Mid-year in 2016 I traveled to the great thousand-year-old temple in Tanjore in Tamil Nadu. The Tanjore Temple to Shiva was built by Rajaraja to proclaim his victories and overwhelm his foes and friends. The largest temple in these parts, its height and mass and girth stun you into sublime silence.


In which temple shall I worship?


“I visit a small temple quite near Ayyappa’s,” a big-time criminal lawyer whom I know once told me. He once saved an employee of mine from goondas who were out to cause him grievous harm. “She’s a very powerful goddess.” The lawyer lives in Bangalore, and the city’s temples appear to have disappointed him. The temple he goes to is among the misty folds of dense hills in the tail-end part of the Western Ghats in Kerala.


As regards me, I’m turning inward.

Shantiniketan and Tagore and Bengal a Bit

This is land that yields three crops in a year. Conquerors and marauders through centuries have sought its wealth. I gazed at the soil as we passed Singur, black soil on which the Tatas attempted to plant a car factory a few years ago. They were welcomed first and then driven out. Those that sent them packing have reaped plenty political mileage, my guide told me, even if all that fertile land is bare now and bereft of any crop save heaps of scrap steel that lie about, the edges of the metal sharp and jagged, a piercing sight. We drove by the place early in the day, watching the play of morning light on metal, and it was a sad sight that clear and chilly December morning.

There’s been a flight of corporate houses from Bengal, but the fecund soil has held.

After Singur the lands are again in productive use. It’s been a year of less-than-satisfactory rain on the subcontinent, and the lands have just delivered the best crop they can in the circumstance, and now they were bare and gray and brown. Rice and potato are the staple, and there are rice mills along the route to boil rice for the local palate; for potato there are barns equipped with freezing.

We were driving 200 kilometers to Shantiniketan, half of it on the Golden Quadrilateral, the rest on the State Highway. For a break we stopped by a string of stalls selling coffee and tea and many kinds of sweet Bengali mishti. Where we drank tea there was a toilet: a room in the back with footrests and nothing in between. Stuff flowed round the rests and out the room through a rough-hewn narrow groove, and down a hole outside. It wasn’t smelly though, and outside in fresh air I was able to push back the experience.

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Approaching Shantiniketan, the terrain changes. The soil turns red, and there are woods with plentiful sal trees on either side of the highway. The air is different also. It’s December and there’s a nip in it, but there's also in its feel a strong suggestion of tall happenings in the woods. My guide asks permission to do a detour and takes me to a community centre, where there’s a tiny museum, with portraits of men who resisted English rule and were caught and sent to the Andamans. To the Andamans it was a dread one-way journey, but a few did return, as you can read at the bottom of a few portraits—perhaps those alive when the jail shut down.

Tourists throng to Shantiniketan, most of them Bengali. Tall and incredibly handsome Rabindranath Tagore is an enduring hero, a beloved son of Bengal, and a visit to this residence and kaaryagaar of his is a necessary spiritual excursion for the Bengali, it seems. It was Tagore’s father who founded Shantiniketan. Visiting once this area near Bolpur, being tired, he paused for rest among the chhatim trees. The aura of the place struck him, and he perceived in it a setting for great karyas. After him, Rabindranath, losing his wife early, and two children and father and a friend, suffered a catharsis that led him to focused intense activity in Shantiniketan.

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He didn’t live in one single house during his long residence there. Rather, each time he tired of his current home he built a new one, and with advancing age he designed progressively smaller houses. Each is a work of art, a first-rate abode for an artist. It was possible to look into the rooms in the houses, in which there are pictures of him with guests. So many intellectuals visited him in Shantiniketan, from everywhere, all the way until his last days.

~~~

At 1:00 the open-air classes had ended, and a stroll on the campus was possible. There were few people about, all young, on foot and bicycle. The trees were old and their bases were fresh-painted black to fight termite. Sunny winter had turned the soil dry, and there was dust in the cool air, and haze from it, and acres and acres of chiarascuro carpeting, and dreamy light on strange buildings. “If we’re lucky we might find a Baul,” my guide said, and we did, right by the arts school. In that school they’d be studing and creating varied music, and in my moment there a group were working on the verandah on a Bollywood number. Round the building on the back, a Baul had settled under a tree with a dotara, before an audience of two. He was into song already, and we settled down to listen. “The guy’s authentic,” my guide whispered. The strings and the song and the chill air and the golden late-afternoon sun made a soothing blend.

~~~

It was night when we returned to my hotel in Kolkata. “You must go to Joransanko Thakur Bari,” my guide told me at the gate.

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Joransanko Thakur Bari is a palace in red, evidencing the great wealth of the Tagore family. Notions of wealth linger only a moment, though, because soon the extent of intellectual and artistic action during the Bengal renaissance springs forth at you in the building, moving you, inspiring you. And you empathize with the Bengali sentiment for Rabindranath, their own Gurudev, their Poet, the P in uppercase everywhere he is referenced. Taking ill in Shantiniketan, the Poet made a last journey from there on an olive green train to Kolkata, to this ancestral home. Surrounded by love and tender caring by many hands, but feeling unbearable pain for several days, he died here.

Within this home in its large courtyard a stage had been set up for a show scheduled for the evening. Young men and women were doing last-minute rehearsals; young chaps standing beneath arches on upper balconies looked down to the women on stage with unabashed longing in their eyes. The overwhelming impression, however, was of an assured, continued creative effort hereabouts, stemming from Rabindranath Tagore, everlasting muse for so many people in creative Bengal.

A Sojourn in the Cinemas of Singapore

While going round and round on top at the Bugis+ FilmGarde

While going round and round on top at the Bugis+ FilmGarde

I wished to rest in that restless city, and I decided to do it at the cinemas. As it turned out, I was in town at the tail end of a film festival happening there. There was also an Indian entry, a lone one in a long list of Asian films scheduled in theatres across the metropolis. I decided I must watch it, among others.

I sat through four films: What's With Love (Indonesian), The Road to Mandalay (Taiwanese, set in Thailand), The Plague at the Karatas Village (Kazhakstan), and Lion (India & Australia). The first three were features from the Film Festival, and the last one, Lion, I watched in place of the Indian entry for the festival that I’d first planned on.

The Road to Mandalay tells of illegal Burmese immigrants in Thailand: how they’re smuggled in, their life among the Thai, their struggle to get menial risky jobs, and their striving to acquire an identity. The director, producer, and male and female leads attended, and answered questions on stage—questions in English, answers in Chinese. They were impressive: The director was short and stylish in a sharp glossy steel-gray suit; the tall male lead shone in casuals and often lifted his chin and turned and slanted it at varied angles and all could see the sleek traverse of his jawline; the leading lady, very slim and also tall and cased in a satiny gown, was effusive and ever-smiling. The producer looked different from the rest of them, like a working man, like he’d come straight from his desk at office.

The female lead, Road to Mandalay

The female lead, Road to Mandalay

Mandalay was a celebarated entry. It was screened at the Marina Bay Sands, and the huge auditorium was full, and many other actors and directors and film personalities had come—they sipped wine and cocktails in the open behind a barricade before the rest of us, while we watched them and waited for the doors to open.

What's With Love had excellent cinematography, and the performance of the engaging male lead, Nicholas, was restrained, superb. It’s a commercial flick, but it had insight for me into Indonesian zeitgeist, specially of the young. Here too, the film crew was in attendance: The Director Riri Raza was cerebral, Nicholas Saputra was confident, and the producer Mira Lemana was genial but suffering after-effects of an operated throat—she wrote answers for questions posed her, and she laughed and grinned all the time with all her self, and was particularly endearing. There were many young in the near-full house in the basement-auditorium in the National Gallery where What’s With Love was screened. They asked questions: “Most of the movie covers a stretch less than a day. Were you inspired by Linklater?”

The Indonesian Crew of What's With Love

The Indonesian Crew of What's With Love

The Plague at the Karatas Village felt like a play. The film must be the lowest-cost production ever. Karatas village is suffering a plague but the villagers will not believe it even in face of clear evidence, even as their dearest fall, even on their way to the grave, and they laugh and dance through their dark miserable lives. A new mayor comes to town, calls the folly, offers help, urges them to seek a cure, but there’s not a villager who’ll heed him. The truth of their condition is crucified on table and chair and burned as at the stake.

The truth the director was revealing wasn’t coated in anything palatable. At the start not a seat was empty in the petite theatre at The Art House in the Old Parliament, but a good number left the hall as the film progressed, trying hard to be quiet, unobstrusive, on their way out.

As regards the Indian entry at the festival, I arrived at 11:00 for the 11:45 screening of Psycho Raman, at the Bugis FilmGarde, pumped up to see the director, Anurag Kashyap, and hear him. The place was quiet, just an occasional couple or a single person strolled in and went up the escalator to the halls. Biding time, I walked round and round the fifth floor where the FilmGarde is located, and at 11:40, seeing no crowd, no celebrities, I decided to go in, feeling sorry for the Indian team. Such a poor turnout, it seemed. At the gate surprise awaited me. The usher took my ticket, said there’s no show at 11:45 at Hall 6, and, seeing my disbelieving face, dug back into my ticket and his papers and found my error.

“This ticket’s for 11:45 PM!”

“For midnight!”

“Almost midnight, la,” he said.

After a moment we both laughed. And as I went down the escalator I felt doubly sorry for Anurag Kashyap—to be scheduled for near-midnight! I felt sorry also for myself: As much as I wanted to see Kashyap and watch his film, I cannot stay awake midnight hours. So I bought a ticket for Lion, starting in ten minutes.

I shed many a tear for Sarroo, the Lion, I’m ashamed to tell you. But, remembering little Sarroo at the start of the film, I feel it's perhaps all right to cry for a child like that. Ooh, how that kid ran! And aah, how he smiled! Sometime in the middle of the show I decided to adopt a child like that, but the resolve quit me by the time I'd come down the escalator after the show. As I write these lines I remember the impulse, and I consider the possibility, but no. I haven't the strength and the goodness of heart to embrace the toils and challenges that a child—and the man he’d become—would surely bring me.

Bugis+ FilmGarde Cineplex

Bugis+ FilmGarde Cineplex

Calicut, November 2016

Calicut beach

Calicut beach

None of the bustle of Calicut is apparent on the road along the northern stretch of the beach and, when you turn right from it onto the not-too-wide nor-too-long Bhatt Road toward the Kazhassi Raja Museum, that stretch is quiet also. Cars and rickshaws and trucks and buses come into you with, it surely seems, full intent to mow you down if you don’t get out of the way. Being an outsider lacking equal courage, you yield to the very edge, almost scraping the compound walls rising from the streetside. There are no kerbs on Calicut’s streets. Folks in this ancient trading town are civil and dignified and as honey face-to-face, but when they drive they’ve as much heart as a battering ram.

The Kazhassi Raja Museum, Calicut

The Kazhassi Raja Museum, Calicut

The museum is the crest of on peaceful East Hill where no noise rises from below. It’s a tidy affair with exhibits as you’d expect in a town: A few coins from various local dynasties and from Tipu Sultan’s time, from British times, some sculpture, a few slim but serviceable swords and, strangely, a range of handcuffs hung up there by the Excise Department. They’re irons for small wrists, super-tormentors of the thick-wristed. Across from the handcuffs a few pieces of miniature art in ivory are what I liked best there. Such items were in my grandmother’s possession when I lived in her home while at university — dice, deities, and boxes. I cannot aspire to own any such in these days, but long live the elephant.

In the rooms in the back are megalithic remains, chiefly burial pottery, and on the way out you pass a wooden palanquin that once carried a king. The museum is rich in wood — this is God’s Own Kerala, with wood aplenty for felling.

It’s cool, the museum. Literally. The tiled roof and intelligent ventilation and cool flooring calm the heat of Calicut. Upstairs, they have a collection of paintings by Ravi Varma and Raja Raja and Bengali artists. These art are prized posessions: A guard opens and shuts the accordian shutters at the entrance all the time, closing it when the room empties, opening it again when a visitor arrives.


On the promenade by the beach the crowds are thick in the evenings, but it's not noisy in spite of the numbers of people. There are men, women, and children sitting and strolling and playing on every inch, but in the mornings the place is taken almost exclusively by walkers and runners who are mostly male. The women are perhaps at home, doing duty to husbands and brothers and children. Mornings too, people are quiet while they go about their thing, and group-walkers are hushed as they talk-while-they-walk. You can hear every breaking wave.

Which made me think the average Keralite is a pretty decent guy. I spoke this at the restaurant in my hotel, and the captain fell silent, turned thoughtful, and agreed: "Yes, the north-Kerala people are very nice." And he went on to describe their honor, their conduct, their every virtue.

A couple of mornings I turned away from the beach and walked in the streets and lanes. On Silk Street which gets busy with school kids, there’s a statue of Chinamen holding up silk: itinerant Chinese traded their silk here for Malabar’s spices for centuries, even until sixty years ago. Roundabout this street and along the seafront are low sprawls of buildings whose birth is ascribed to the Dutch, Portuguese, and, of course, the English. Anyway, I noted the tall Portuguese Matri Dei Church near there with its Romanesque dome, and the ancient Mishkal Mosque built in Hindu-Chinese style, and, one serene morning, turned nearby into a neat-looking and particularly inviting narrow lane. Mistake. Even as I entered, folks from a plastics industry swept their last day’s waste into a string of small heaps separated by a dozen yards or so, and set fire to them. I choked and doubled back, unable to breathe, in that place right by the sea.

On the beach as well, sewers from town had been led out into the sea; the covers on them were terminated well before the edge of the water. So the refuse fluids from town travel the final lap to sea in the open, and they’ve cut a wide path in the sand. Walkers and runners measure their laps from one sewer stream to the next, doing an about turn each time they hit the curving path of the stream.


I went there mornings because the doctor had advised me to be active all day long. I was The Taj Gateway, enrolled for a two-week Ayurvedic package that promised to lift mind and body in a holistic programme that involved drinking rough-mixed herbal drinks thrice daily, a therapeutic massage in the morning, yoga in the afternoon, and meditation, and such. There wasn’t time even to read a novel I’d opened when I arrived.

It’s the end of two weeks now, and I’m hoping the well-being I feel isn’t from a placebo effect. Anyway, of three allopathic tablets prescribed me ten years ago, I’ve dropped one with no consequence. I’ve been promised the other two will go as well, and for that to happen, I’ve been given assorted bottles of liquids and herbal pills that I must grind and mix with the liquid medicine. In time, I’m told, I can drop even these last elixirs.

These millennia-old remedies take time to yield results, I've been cautioned. That's fine, I'll wait.

Calicut beach

Calicut beach

I'll Always Love This City

Cool wind played about my hair-bereft head, and warm smells of food came up from the buffet double-lining the lower split-level. Where I leaned against the side-railing of the ship, the Indian counters were closer, and the aroma of spices was strong—though a notch less piquant than back home. The band was Filipino, and their repertoire was Eagles and Bryan Adams and Bee Gees and Chinese, and a lone Bollywood whose lyrics on their tongue sounded cute and Chinese. That last drew cheery applause from the Indians seated and strolling across the top-deck. Chinese and Indians were half and half on the deck, which meant that most passengers on the ship were Chinese because in this moment, as in every moment from morning till night, all seats in the casino two decks below were taken by ethnic Chinese passengers.

So I stood there leaning on the rails in the cool cool breeze, giving my ear a ten-thousandth time to Hotel California, watching yet another frontman croon quite like Henley, yet another repeat of Feldon’s and Walsh’s guitar-work. They were four fine boys, and they engaged their audience with such earnest energy, it was easy to be charitable when they went off a half. There wasn’t a single passenger from America on this cruise, or from Europe—no, there was not one Caucasian in this tall vessel going up and down the Strait of Malacca over two nights and three days, whereas the captain and his first mate and one or two other uniformed men were all Swedes.

I stuck to a neat narrow restaurant that ran beside the length of the pool. They had a limited menu, but I liked the stuff there better, and the place was never crowded, and it was open 24 hours. I chose to order Chinese, of which they had vegetarian versions in honor of a regular Indian clientele.

What did I do in all that time? I read Rushdie.

Back on land in Singapore I fell upon Indian restaurants with a vengeance: Tandoor in the basement of the Holiday Inn, where I mainly sought their saag; Curry Culture in Cuppage where they favored me with half portions of dal and alu-gobi; and Yantra in Tanglin where I picked from the lunch-buffet dal and Gujarati kadi and bhaingan bharta. Growing older, I've begun to miss home early during travel, and a mild flavor of home-food is a modest consolation. So I ate some three meals also at Komala Vilas in Serangoon, telling myself each time I'd never ever go back there.

And there were other menus, and in regard to them I made eclectic choices:

A hundred and fifty exhibits of M.C. Escher were on show at the ArtScience Museum. The content and the place were a fine fit for Escher’s work. The museum is located at the feet of a building that holds aloft a ship high in the air, offering a grand view of the ocean and good strong wind in the hair. In this city where gardens grow on walls and in this complex where a curvy ship is raised toward the clouds, Escher's fantastical works appeared to depict quite the normal.

At the exit of the Escher gallery, I chanced to notice on the monitors that Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold was being screened just one level up. That documentary is not yet accessible in India in spite of Netflix and all, so I bounded right up. We were a half dozen viewers that afternoon. By the end of the show a storm was upon the city, and most people in the building had left, and I stood behind the glass and watched serial thunder, and unending lightning strikes that were so frequent and so bright it was hard to see their limbs. After a time a white lady and I were the only ones left in the foyer, and the young chap manning the reception brought three umbrellas and offered help. We walked together to the main Marina Sands. Our gratitude he acknowledged with a happy gracious smile, and I tried to read his roots on his brown face. There was Malay in it, and Indian, and also Chinese. He walked back to the museum, two umbrellas in one hand, the third held up to the downpour, water splashing on his sharp dark trousers and the umbrellas on his other arm wetting his bright white shirt.

I will always love this city, I told myself.

Coffee Past and Coffee Present and a Copper Moon

Nandi Thota

Nandi Thota

We spent last weekend at Nandi Thota, in coffee country.

Before arriving there, we went first to a 150-year-old plantation north-east of Hassan. The plantation was owned by English planters until Independence, and at the time of British departure its white owner was a man who’d arrived very young in India and grown very old at the time of Independence. He died quite soon after his countrymen left, with imperial honors on an aged breast, spreading wealth in death just as he’d done while alive. He’d determined early that he’d live out his life in India. After him, the first Indian to own the place planted some redwoods in it, bringing them from faraway islands. I wished to see those trees. They’re tall and smooth and sport a handsome girth. I’ve seen their kin in their natural habitat, on the islands they’re from, where they’re even taller, and broader. Here in Malnad they’re diminished somewhat, no matter if they’re rooted in fertile soil of an once-dense tropical jungle.

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When we reached Nandi Thota the sun was setting. The light was fading but we could see how neat our place had gotten with fresh de-weeding, and the pruning of the coffee plants and shade trees over the last couple of months. I felt good, but as I gazed at our trees which are younger than in the Englishman’s plantation, with its old trees and redwoods, I felt some envy. When our home came up, again I thought of the plantation we’d just been in.

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The Englishman’s old bungalow with its metre-thick walls stands there even now, home to its current owners. During his time the Englishman would’ve gone riding his horse to Sakleshpur, to spend evenings at the whites-only Munzerabad Club. His path would’ve been through jungle and through plantations of peers, and in those times it was a pukka jungle with tiger and leopard and bison and bear—and plenty more snakes than now, of course.

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On our own plantation, it was peaceful. Small birds hopped on broad sills and sang out for mates to come join them. A peacock flew into view from somewhere and we lost sight of it in foliage—I marveled at the distance that big bird covers in one go. A mongoose sensed us a hundred yards out and fled along the electrified eastern fence. Fireflies abounded in response to a deceiving appearance of precipitation. (Can’t they tell?) Basavanna, our next-door planter who tends our plantation updated us on works in progress, specially regarding planting new pepper. There’s frenetic planting of pepper across the coffee belt this year. Basavanna has done well and, even better, for the first time since we acquired this plantation he has enough hands on the ready for picking commencing November.

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We left for Bangalore Sunday evening with cleaned lungs and in good spirits. On the highway the breath was taken clean out of our chests. Hordes of cars were beating it for Bangalore, tailgating and cutting in and throwing us off—again and quickly again. The Dasara holidays had ended on the weekend and all who’d gone out to the coffee country were coming back in one mass. Anticipating the traffic we’d soon suffer in Bangalore, I closed my eyes. When I opened them next we’d passed Hassan and I noticed for the first time, after an International School that’s come up there, signs by the road alerting motorists to leopards.

The sun was setting back of us, and ahead of us there was a swollen copper moon climbing the sky. Thoughts of leopard turned deep and complex and melancholy in that light in that setting. I indulged myself until, suddenly, it occurred to me that leopards needed signs too, to alert them to humans riding Japanese-made, German-made, US-made, and even Indian-made beasts with all the speed they could eke out on the crowded highway, with burning focus on reaching the city on the instant, if possible.

I shut my eyes again, and when I opened them we’d reached the fringe of Bangalore, speeding over the flyovers at Nelamangala. The copper moon of dusk was high now in the night-sky, and though the moon was still round it had shrunk and turned a bright white, except in the parts where the rabbit showed. Next to me, my wife clucked her tongue to mourn the moon’s loss of colour.

Art, Perhaps

The lobby at the ITC Windsor Manor, Bangalore

The lobby at the ITC Windsor Manor, Bangalore

Lit by lamps overhead, the crushed ice in the pot sparkle, and they let off a light vapor when you unloose yourself upon them. Down below, white cotton puffed-up mats soak up and conceal accumulated spills, and keep the marble floor dry beneath your feet. The room is bathed in amber light and the fragrance of freshener. If you look up there’s news on the TV monitor, and when I was there the other day, the Man With the Golden Hair who is running for President of The Greatest Nation on Earth was on it.

In such eager manner the restroom at the Windsor Manor Hotel does its bit to return value for money.

At its door the restroom goes three yards further. On the wall right of the door, on my last visit there, I noticed something I hadn’t seen in previous visits: A framed obituary page pulled from the Economist magazine (newspaper, as the Economist’s folks call it), featuring the American feminist Phyllis Schlafly. Left of the door, the other wall sported two frames, one with a piece from Shakespeare’s Richard II, and the other with an excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt’s Sorbonne speech, The Man in the Arena: “Dare Greatly!”

The obituary page in the Economist is my favorite column in any magazine, and who doesn’t love Shakespeare, even if most are shy to say it? As regards Roosevelt’s speech, I haven’t known it before, and I’d have liked to read it, but the spot behind a hotel’s toilet door isn’t a safe place to lose yourself in reading. At any rate, why were these frames hanging there?

“Art, perhaps,” I said to myself, stepping out the door.