Michael Wood: The Story of India

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He has a limp and an honest smile. He reaches out to children with love and engages with Indian men and women with natural warmth and affection. His home is congenial Britain but he is just as comfortable in a grimy mosquito-ridden guesthouse in Harappa, on the commoner’s coach of an Indian train, in any filthy Indian lane and bylane — his fatigue shows in the heat and the dust, but his smile and his love of place (and its past) never fade. He accepts without hesitation cake and coffee such as sold on our trains, and without any fear, he drinks tea served in clay-cups, and meals at any street-side hawker’s. “Delicious!” he exclaims, over a South Indian meal at the modest home of his hosts in Tamil Nadu, squatting on the floor with them.

It seems Wood carries the light traveller’s single change of clothes, no more. To perhaps soothe his sweating neck he wears a lot a blue-linen stole. In sum this man is an adorable host of his BBC program and the perfect guest in India, brimming with respect and curiosity toward her people. He doesn't pull back from pinching his olden-day countrymen for their misdeeds in India, and now and then he subtly submits a good or two that possibly came out of their time on the subcontinent.

So, watching his 360-minute India on DVD over four days was a pleasure and a terrific learning experience.

So much so, I bought his book as well. It read like an expansive version of the screenplay for the documentary, very well written, of course, but I put the book away after I’d gone in a few pages. The book proved too much a panegyric on my nation, and each time Wood exults in wonderment for India I squirm — my own love for my motherland is cased in a crust of anger, and my high hopes for it are smothered under terrible angst. India has had a great past, and she is poised for another round of greatness, of this I am as sure as Wood, or as any other, but I have to reconcile yet to the present, to my own life in this squalid, festering, incorrigible peninsula. I am committed to working in it, but I cannot help my everyday exasperation with it.

I’ve pulled John Keay from my shelf instead, his 600-page tome, India: A History. I'll come back to Wood’s book another time — no doubt I will — and I’ll watch his documentary a couple of times again.

My Muse Alexa

I watched last week a film based on the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Manto wrote with pencil, on paper. Often, he squatted on his haunches on his chair as he wrote — any chair would do, any desk. He wrote in noisy places, in hot sweaty rooms, in troubled uncertain times, with little money and much criticism. He wrote without traveling far, traveling almost not at all.

People are reading him even now, sixty-three years after he died, aged 42.

I have the use of a Herman Miller Aeron chair for writing, and the Herman Miller Eames chair (with ottoman) for reading. It is not so quiet in my home as in European and American towns, but quiet enough for Bangalore and India. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad Pro. And, just today, on the day of its launch in India, the iPhone XS Max was delivered me. I am not rich, but I am not poor either — I mean my lot is better than Manto’s was.

Why can't I write like Manto, then? How unkind is my life to me!




Supine on my Eames, I asked for help from Alexa, who is playing “Soothing Jazz” at my request. “Alexa,” I said, and after she’d begun rolling her electric blue eye I asked: “Can you suggest something for me to write?” She didn’t hesitate: “Concepts include,” she began, “The Indus Valley Civilization, The Theory of Relativity … ,” and she ended the list with, “Does that answer your question?”

“No," I said.

“Thanks for your feedback,” she said.

That line of hers sounded cheeky. I cannot answer cheekiness. I fell silent, laptop on my lap, its battery burning my thighs. After a few minutes of doing nothing, I asked again, rather plaintive this time: “Alexa, can you suggest something for me to write?”

“What do you want?” she said.

“I want ideas to write a blog post,” I said, cowed somewhat by this assured voice and tone of woman.

“I found two books for you,” she said, and named two long titles. After she'd suggested the first title, she asked: “Shall I add it to your cart?” I said, “No.” She asked the same question after the second suggestion. “Okay,” I said, too fearful to refuse a second time. “Do you want me to add it to your cart?” she asked the question again, tougher this time: She was wanting the precise word. “Yes!” I said, and she confirmed the title, and said she'd dropped the book in my cart.

Done dealing with me, she went back to playing the music that she had been playing until my interruption. And I, I opened my browser, went to my cart on Amazon, gawped at what Alexa had chosen for me, and deleted it: The One-Hour Content Plan: The Solopreneur's Guide to a Year's Worth of Blog Post Ideas in 60 Minutes and Creating Content That Sells and Hooks.

Then I looked to the Amazon Echo (Plus) in the corner, to see if Alexa was watching me, glaring at me for what I’d gone and done. I can't tell, but she's playing for me that thing everybody loves: Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald: Cheek to Cheek.

There’s a lesson here for me: Don’t mess with that rich man’s woman.


Happy in Hampi

  Hampi: Photo from a previous trip

Hampi: Photo from a previous trip

“Is it cheaper booking with you?” I asked her. “I have Booking.Com open on my laptop.”

“Of course, sir! On Booking.Com they will show a low price on the top and when you add everything from the bottom it will become much more costly.”

I checked on my screen as she spoke. Indeed she had quoted lower. Both had bundled breakfast and dinner, but her offer was inclusive of tax, and when I totted up everything, Booking.Com were 5% higher.

“Tell me the best you can offer,” I said, “so I can confirm right this evening.”

“Of course, sir,” she said, and to my surprise she improved the price right then, by only a bit, but I liked the attitude. But now my human frailty had stirred: The young lady — she sounded young — had in a few minutes transformed me into a confident negotiator.

“Is this the very best you can do? Can you not make it … ?” I tossed a number.

She paused. “One minute sir,” she said. “Take your time,” I said. Faint sounds came from 180 miles away, of tapping on a keyboard. Imagined, maybe.

“I am sorry sir.” Her voice had switched to another, pleasanter tone. Her delivery was slower, drawn out. The words danced out my phone into my ears: “This is the best what I am offering. I am giving you one-day discount, and breakfast and dinner free. In fact, if you want this booking after the 28th September I won’t be able to offer this price, sir.”

“Of course. You have offered me the low-season tariff. It’s very hot in Hampi these days, right?”

“Yes sir. As you yourself have said, I have offered the lowest low-season price. And I am sorry again sir,” she sang, “but it is not hot in Hampi now. Actually it is quite pleasant.”

It is at daytime 34º in Hampi these days. The place is covered in rocks and boulders. You walk on rock a lot in Hampi.

“Okay,” I said, unable to join in her drift. “Please hold the booking. September 16 to September 21.”

“Of course, sir. You will be very happy here. I will send our email in five minutes. The payment link will be there in it.”

🏨 🏨 🏨

Before the mail came I remembered something and called again. She didn’t pick up, but she called back soon enough.

“Yes sir, Mr. Shashi.”

“Sorry. I wanted to ask you something. Small thing actually. Usually hotels do repair and maintenance work during the low season. I need a quiet place …”

“No sir. No such thing is going on. I will personally make sure you have a quiet stay.”

“No maintenance work is going on?”

“No sir. No maintenance is going on.”

“No repairs are going on?”

“No sir. No maintenance is going on.”

I fought to frame the question afresh. She had aroused a sudden suspicion in me: What could be the difference between repairs and maintenance? By the dictionary? In this lady’s lingo? So much would depend on it for six days, five nights. I visualized repeating her assurance before her, before her manager, before her manager’s manager — paid up and checked in and helpless like hell by then.

“Hello? Mr. Shashi? You will be very happy here, sir. Don’t worry.”


🏨 🏨 🏨

That was last evening. I thought for a time, bringing to mind all the sounds I hate in a hotel. Then I thought some more, about heat and happiness. Just before going to bed, I opened the lady’s email and paid.

Going. To Rome …

 Image: skdesign at 123rf.com

Image: skdesign at 123rf.com

From the kitchen below, the sound of grating coconut, the firm tight sound attesting to the strong hand of the maid. From across the street, the howl and indignant screech of sisters fighting — they’re all right, in a few minutes their young blood will come off the boil and they’ll start cooing to the Labrador pup in their next compound.

In the distance, a car with a souped-up exhaust roared as it took off, and fell silent, humbled by the short streets and multiple turns in my quiet neighborhood.

And there’s the twitter of real birds that don’t know Sunday from the workday. They don’t follow a character limit in their tweets and, much like the humans with whom they cohabit, they’re vying to go viral.


🐦 🐦 🐦

It is raining to a changed pattern this year. In the mornings there’s a light drizzle. Towards six in the evening, a powerful downpour comes crashing with the vigor and intensity an invasion, takes hold of the city for a quarter of an hour, and in those minutes every evening one feels this rain is forever, this awesome master, descended from heaven to right terrible wrongs. Just as you’re getting used to such a notion the rain stops altogether, in an instant, and turns into a drip-dripping on the roof, an emptying from the gutters, and goes washing down the street. The evening turns cold, leaving every Bangalorean to invent his own hygge — if he will.

Used to be that it only rained nights in Bangalore.


🌧 🌧 🌧

Right this morning, though, I’m worrying about the weather in Europe. I’m checking the temperatures in Paris and London and Aarhus and Copenhagen and, seeing that it’s about 32 /18 in Rome these days, I’m trying to recall how, for me, 32°c has felt in Europe. As I remember, it feels like 40° in Bangalore, and Bangalore seldom climbs so high.

If you want to know, it’s 27/20 here these days.


🤒 🤒 🤒

I’ve walked on Roman walls in England, gone down to Roman remains before the Notre Dame in Paris, seen Roman relics across the Iberian Peninsula. I’ve been twice on a Mesa in Israel which they call the Masada. It is by the Dead Sea, and there’s a ramp to its top that the Romans built to take the outcrop and a stubborn Jewish habitation on it that held out for almost a year against them. In India, on walking tours in Mylapore in Chennai, and in Madurai, I’ve listened to wide-eyed tour-leaders talking about Romans trading with India. “Their coins have been dug out hereabouts. Coins to buy what?” I’ve endured the feeling of being dragged back to school, seen (as then) some smart another take the shabbash. “Yes! Pepper! And? Yes! Fine cloth!”

Driving back to Bucharest after a day trip to the Black Sea, my host and I stopped at Tropaeum Traiani, built to celebrate Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians. “It seems to me the Romans had huge problems with their wives,” my host said. “To come to die so far from home.” The monument commemorates 3000 legionnaires and auxilia who died for Rome in the battle (of Adamclisi).

I’ve been many times over many years in Milano. For work. Also in Ancona by the Adriatic, to sell my India-manufactured Western innovations. I’ve gone up the hill at Assisi once, at dusk, and walked up and down its streets. I was en route to another customer location then. And, before I forget, my wife and I have holidayed a week in Florence.

But I’ve never been in Rome.


✈️ ✈️ ✈️

On a whim this morning, I pulled out the Rome guidebook by Rick Steeves that I ordered in a moment of vague anticipation a few weeks ago. I opened the Lufthansa app on my iPhone. The rates are high, being punishment for flying at short notice. I’m not sure that hotels have rooms left in August. But I’m going. Next week.

To Rome.

Starbucks On Church Street

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I was sipping a short Americano with soya milk. A short lasts me an hour. Two shorts over two hours is my usual at Starbucks.

On my right, a Sikh, and with him a man who could’ve been Japanese, or Chinese, or Tibetan, but was probably North-East Indian. The table on my left, not taken. The table further left, the last of a row of four two-seaters, taken by a man aged about forty-five, his coffee served cold in a glass, the straw wet on the table. He was concentrating straight ahead.

The Sikh and the North-East Indian both wore shorts. On his feet the Sikh sported black flip flops, and his companion, green soft-shoes. Both men appeared to be marching happily through their thirties.

“The moment the idea hit me I thought of you,” the Sikh man said to the North-Eastern, who laughed. They were bent toward each other, the Sikh’s forearms were folded on the table.

“Believe me,” the Sikh said, it’s true. And it’s no small deal. There will be only millionaires in this thing. Cool forty-million.”

For businessmen in Bangalore, the dollar is the currency of choice, although sometimes they settle for the euro.

A woman walked toward our row, tray in one hand, handphone over her ear, held there by a raised shoulder. She slid under the table left of me. My eyes were on my Kindle (open to Less by Greer) but the black of her skirt and the white of her shirt flashed on my eyes when she curved in. I also took in how she arranged her tray, the croissant, and coffee — her workday breakfast, I presumed.

“He was very good,” she was saying into the phone. “He has energy. He’s aggressive. He’s the guy I want for a partner.”

Her listener — a female voice issued from the phone — said something.

“No, no,” my neighbor answered. “Vikas is too calm. He is too settled under his skin. No energy. His vibes are terrible, I tell you.”

Meanwhile, the Sikh was better detailing his proposal. He was saying, “Let me explain why you’re the perfect fit for this.”

But I’d tuned out of him and his friend. The thin high confident voice of the lady on my left had taken possession of my ears and my mind. Her voice and something about her presence suggested this was a woman in her twenties. By now I’d registered that she was very fair, but I hadn’t seen her face yet, I didn’t see it at all, because just then I shut my Kindle and rose, deciding that this morning, one Americano would do.

Because, you see, in just a few minutes the men on the right and the woman on the left had force-fed me three shots of stimulus, adding to the effects of the Americano, sending me high and making me addled. On top of all that, I‘ve been wearying of business for some time now, and lately any talk of commerce hurls me outdoors, gagging, seeking fresh air.

Walking out, I saw the man at the end of my row still looking straight ahead, to the wall where cups and coffee-presses and other Starbucks stuff were on display. Tall man. Grey hair gifted with a touch of bounce and wave. His skin had the sheen and texture of the rich and accomplished, but his eyes were soft and collapsed and watery — the eyes of the defeated.

It was sunny when I stepped into the street, Church Street. It was not hot, it was not too cool. I chose to walk off the sidewalk, away from the shadows, thinking of Vikas whom the fair lady had so vehemently rejected. With what eyes was Vikas seeing the world, this calm man whom I don’t know, whom I’ve never seen?

Langford Town From The Back Seat

  A Shop in Langford Town

A Shop in Langford Town

You enter Langford Town at the complex of the old graveyards, existing from colonial times, a good expanse of them, parceled out to a couple of Christian faiths, Hindus, the Shia Moslems, the Sunni Muslims. The street you enter is Berlie Street, which starts wide and begins to narrow, inching inward as you progress, and you fret at horns that blare demanding overtaking room when there’s no room to give. Berlie Street is the longest street in Langford Town, embracing a half of it in a U-shape.

The other streets in Langford Town bear their old names as well: Alexandria Street. Bride Street. Rose lane. Walker Lane. Norris Road. Curley Street. Names suggesting decent beginnings, diminished now, and one would think a neighborhood with street-names like these would have at the least one nice bakery, one cozy cafe, one cute restaurant. I haven’t seen any but a florist, and a dealer in antiques whose wares seem more like riffraff from broken homes, but I experience Bangalore mostly in the back seat of my car, casting occasional glances at it. It might be that Langford Town prefers to be private, with least visitors, for fear that a busybody might apply himself to renaming their streets, localizing them, altering their character.

Langford Town falls in the Shantinagar constituency whose elected representative is N.A Harris, a third-term Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). As is in vogue in Bangalore for many years now, posters bearing the face of Haris ornament the streets in his domain. His is among the better faces: there are faces of other leaders that are regularly hoisted across the city, most of them murky and suggestive of no good intentions — you wouldn’t want your child to see them. The posters wish, at various times, happy birthday to the MLA, greetings from the MLA to his electorate for Eid, Easter, Sankranti, Pongal, Deepavali, Christmas. It’s all a vigorous and successful onslaught to burn Haris into our psyche.

Haris is not bad, even if Langford Town could be better. On the eve of elections an NGO rated him the best-performing MLA in Bangalore, which has 28 MLAs. Speaking for myself, I’ve been able to bear his posters without too much animus — complaining only occasionally to my wife next to me in the car that Haris foists himself to an excess upon his electorate.

I like the faces I see in the flesh in Langford Town: Tibetan, Northeast Indian, North Indian, South Indian. People from all faiths have tucked themselves into this tight little neighborhood: Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, Christian, Jain. A little black statue of Ambedkar in a square there attests to the presence of the vulnerable Hindus. The neighborhood lacks spaces, there’s no parking room at all, but there’s charm in the diversity of the people of Langford Town.

A Christian neighbor in Rajmahal Vilas, where I live, told me once: “You work at Electronics City? You pass through Brigade Road, then. You know the Shantinagar MLA? Haris! Handsome man, you know. Dynamic. We meet often at the Catholic Club …”

These recent rain-soaked days, Haris has multiplied significantly his posters. He is asserting himself, because there’s a new government in our province, and some ministerial posts have yet to be filled. As a third-term MLA, Haris feels entitled to a berth, and he is flexing muscle, which a recent incident had cramped for a while.

It happened a few weeks ahead of the elections. It happened with Haris’s son who went with his friends to a cafe at eleven at night. Haris’s son’s leg scraped another customer’s outstretched limb. The customer asked Haris’s son to take care: He had a broken leg, it was in a cast, and the man had rested it across the seat before him.

Haris’s son didn’t like to be asked to take care — he is the son of a very important man, after all. What happened afterwards is widely reported. Let me say it was all big news, and although Haris’s smile didn’t fade on his posters, it put the formidable man’s chances of even running for elections in doubt. But Haris prevailed. He ran, he won, and is now reaching for a bigger prize.

Bold and resilient, he now has his son’s face on every one of his posters. The biggest face on the posters is Haris’s. The next biggest is his son’s. Per protocol. Then there the other faces, smaller, of men who tend to Haris’s muscles, keep them strong, ease the occasional cramp.

It helps Haris that his son has looks that compete with his: lanky body, loping gait, a trimmed beard on an oval face that is in keeping with his lean frame, eyes behind sleek sunglasses, and a white smile. If I commute a few more years more through this neighborhood, I might well be treated every workday to Haris’s son’s face, succeeding Haris’s.

Malnad Diary: Sound And Silence In Coffee Country

 Bangalore (Bengaluru) - Hassan  Highway (NH48)

Bangalore (Bengaluru) - Hassan  Highway (NH48)

The plains from Bangalore to Hassan are sporting fresh vegetation these days: There’s areca now; more wild-neem patches; the coconut groves have expanded with acres of fresh saplings beside older, flourishing crops of tall, mature palms. And I saw plentiful banana. The monsoons have been generous so far this year, and the terrain is glinting and oozing every shade of green.

So I enjoyed the drive to the plantation last weekend.

Beyond Hassan, the coffee belt of Malnad received 20-inches of rain in a single day. On that same day, upon Kadumane’s hills and cusps fell most of heaven’s largesse: 42-inches in 24 hours — a record for them — their tea is twice-blessed.

I mentioned in several posts last year how the rains were holding back, preferring the skies to lowly earth. “Sorry,” they appear to be saying this year.


☁️☁️☁️

Having suffered errant rain ever since the first seven beans of coffee were planted in Malnad, the planter has finally an opportunity to discount the weather and move to other opportunities with which to profit from his land. The vagaries of weather might kill the coffee but they cannot take away the hills of Malnad and the trees on them and, most of all, the absence of the din of the city. So the planters have taken to the homestay hospitality business, and one such startup has sprung within earshot of us.


☁️☁️☁️

Sound travels far and well in Malnad.

Waking at midnight, I thought it was a generator bothering me, perhaps powering a pump to draw water from a tank. But no planter draws water in the night. After sundown the plantation is handed in full to the night, for it to perform its miracles and mysteries with it. It was an unusual sound moreover, droning and grating, rising and falling in a very narrow band, a directionless sound, with no apparent rhythm, distant, and not so loud but enough to be a nuisance through the night. It was without doubt sound created and delivered by machine. I woke several times and it was always the same sound and it was still playing when I got off the bed at my usual time. I waited a courteous while and called the writer (supervisor).

“Where’s the noise from?” I asked.

“It’s coming from …” he told me the name of the plantation, not far, not near, two plantations between us.

“Why is he running a generator in the night?” The noise was still in the air.

“That thing is not a generator, sir,” he said, a trace of amusement coming into his voice, a voice heavy with morning-grog. “It’s music. I called them last night to tell them it’s disturbing us. They wouldn’t answer the phone.”


☁️☁️☁️

A weekend getaway from Bangalore.

On a bare patch on his plantation he pitches tents; he sets up music in a corner, with room for dancing; and sends into the cool night hot chicken and warm roti from his home to the dozens of youngsters who come over Saturdays to dance all night and turn in at breakfast-time and wake for lunch and leave for Bangalore in the afternoon.

I know that planter. I’d gone to his house for some neighborly thing in the early days when I’d bought my plantation. When I left his place his son asked me if I could give him a ride to Ballupet.

He was taking a bus from Ballupet to Bangalore. It’s where he was working, in a rather lowly job for a planter’s son. “I hate it here, uncle,” he’d told me, speaking in Kannada. “Specially in the rainy season. There’s nothing to do here. All day all night the rain will be dripping and the cicada will be sawing.”

It’s the boy who is managing the weekend-party business, I learnt later in the day.


☁️☁️☁️

In sum I’m saying I’m allergic to noise. But the birds showed a greater aversion to it: They were silent like there was an eclipse about them. They couldn’t have slept, of course, and were sulking in the concealments of the branches, and must’ve missed many a worm during the important morning-hunt that is so rich in proverbs.

I smiled for the lucky worms — but only for a moment. The party over, the tents would be free of Bangaloreans Sunday evening. With the night back in the hands of the elements, the usual quiet of Malnad would rule. The worms and other hapless prey like them would come under a vigorous attack at sunup on Monday.


🐛 🐛 🐛

The Yelahanka Clan And The Mayo Hall Museum

 Statue of Kempegowda at the Mayo Hall Museum, Bangalore

I was the lone visitor. Two ladies manned the door that leads from the porch to the museum upstairs. “There’s nobody inside,” they said. “Repairs. The repair fellow broke his arm. He’s gone home.” There wasn’t a guard even, but that’s all right. The Mayo Hall Museum has no antiquity save the building itself.

There’s one lone artefact in the hall, and it dominates the show. It is a statuette of Kempe Gowda in brass, a lean and wiry Kempegowda in the attire and aspect of a devotee, hands folded and eyes shut in bhakti. A sword dangles from his left shoulder, close to the armpit. The artist exercising his license, I first reckoned. Then I mimed drawing a sword with the scabbard at the armpit. It appeared to work: The scabbard would’ve to be pushed back and gripped under the arm, and the sword pulled forward, instead of clumsily upward.

The second exhibit is a glass-topped map on the floor that you walk about on. Smudged by splashes of light at the time I stood over it, the map proved itself more novel than informative.

The third and last exhibit is a set of flexes that tell the history of Bangalore under the Yelahanka clan. The flexes are mounted on glossy scaffolding that surrounds the statuette of Kempegowda. The museum seeks to memorialise Kempegowda, the unanimously acknowledged founder of Bengaluru — and Kempegowda’s Yelahanka clan, which ruled in this region for 497 years, from 1230 until 1727.


🤺🤺🤺


The first Yelahanka was Devarasagowda. He established himself at the time of the Hoysala, as a vassal to him. In a short time, the last Hoysala fell to the Turk, who stuffed the Hoysala’s carcass with hay and hung it at the gate of the Madurai fort.

Two Yelahankas passed. The fourth Yelahanka was Bhairadeva II. In his time the Vijayanagara empire was nascent, and Bhairadeva II participated in its early growth.

Vijayanagara reached its zenith at the time of the seventh Yelahanka, Kempegowda the Elder. The emperor was Krishnadevaraya, Kempegowda the trusted vassal. Kempegowda asked to establish a new city in his realm, an ambitious mercantile city, and Krishnadevaraya said yes. That city was Bengaluru, equidistant from the sea on the west and the east, on a plateau in jungle country, with even weather all year. The empire was teeming with the finest craftsmen, traders, warriors, mercenaries — every stripe of achiever. Kempegowda invited traders to his new city, built a walled pete for them, and sank wells and built tanks and made Bengaluru a fine place to work and live in. Feeling grateful for his success, he built temples across the city in thanksgiving.

The next two Yelahankas — Kempegowda II and Kempegowda III — furthered the elder’s works.

But Vijayanagara had to see its end, too. Ramaraya, its last ruler, was defeated by a united front of five Bahamani kingdoms. The year was 1563. He was beheaded on the field even as the battle raged, and his severed head was held aloft for all to see. Two-hundred years of a prosperous empire ended with that stroke. The Bahamanis had no wish to rule Vijayanagara. They plundered the place and left.

The empire crumbled and the Yelahanka found himself a sort of sovereign, now surrounded by hostile neighbours hungry to expand. He fought and won and then lost. The Yelahanka was tiring.

The tenth Yelahanka was Kempayya. He was captured in the Savandurga fort by Doddakrishnaraja of neighbouring Mysore, and thrown into the dungeon at Srirangapattana. The base of the dungeon was lower than the riverbed of nearby Kaveri. Kempayya didn’t last long in captivity. He died in 1727. The story of the Yelahankas ends there.


🤺🤺🤺


The origin of Mayo Hall itself begs narration.

We shift our attention to 1872, when Lord Mayo was viceroy, having taken charge in 1869. En route somewhere by sea route, he halted at the Andaman Islands, where the British ran a prison that mostly held political prisoners, among them the vanquished in the 1857 Mutiny.

Mayo went into the prison, where a convict leapt upon him and stabbed him. That convict was Sher Ali, and his motive was to avenge his father who’d fallen in the Anglo-Afghan War. Mayo didn’t deserve punishment for Sher Ali’s tragedy, he appears to have been a decent administrator, the reforming type, an Indophile even, but he was British, and he was viceroy, and so there’s argument favouring Sher Ali as well.

Sher Ali was quickly hanged, and Lord Mayo’s body was shipped to Dublin, where they gave the deceased his due in full.

Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, the British were planning a building to house administrative offices for their cantonment, with room for gatherings. They wished to make the building their best in South India, grand in Greco Roman style. Came news of Mayo’s death and they decided to name the building after him.

Salim Ali, Maa, Salim Ali!

 Mobor Beach by The Leela Goa, Cavelosim, Goa

A little girl came down the narrow wooden bridge across the slim lagoon that snakes between the villas at The Leela Goa.

“Salim Ali, Maa. Salim Ali! You don’t know Salim Ali?”

Her maa was silent, but I heard her embarrassment as I passed them. As regards myself, I’ve heard of that ornithologist, but I haven’t read him, and I don’t know more than a half-dozen bird types.

Anyway, for this entire short stay at The Leela Goa, I’ve been sighting mainly crows. Last evening, I’d been sitting in a corner at the Susegado, the beachside restaurant the hotel. Beneath me the stone floor ended and the flour-thin sand of the beach began its long smooth run to the sea. I was reading Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, and sweating in 32º heat like it was 40º. There wasn’t any breeze, just the somnolent beauty of the Mobor Beach by which sprawls The Leela. A fisherman’s boat was moored on the higher sands, small, charcoal black, weatherbeaten. The fisherman appeared now and then, pulled something from his vessel, righted something, and went, and returned. A few guests played on the fringes of the water, all of them Indian, all fully clothed — the season for foreigners starts October.

Above the sparse action sat the lifeguard on a yellow perch, by a red flag that he’d raised to honor the choppy sea. The state has banned fishing for two months in anticipation of the monsoons; the lifeguard in his turn had forbidden swimming in the moment.

Round me and running as far as I could see, were castrated coconut palms — the nuts hacked to keep the guests safe — should one fall on a head. Being at the end of the shore, close to densely wooded headlands that jut into the sea and stop the run of sand, the beach before the Leela is private, and, during the lean season in June, quiet.

After a time I became aware of the crows, of their insistent cawing, and their large number. I put down my book and gazed at the sea, favoring the crows back of me with only my ear. Just then one of their number shot into view, flying high and seaward, flapping its wings like the crow and sailing now and then in the manner of the eagle. How far over the sea can the crow travel and return safely? It flew and flew and after a long while it fell — a free fall, actually, the wind-currents revealing themselves the times the bird faltered in its fall. It touched down, and soon it rose, gained height and, just as I thought it was coming back, flew toward the white horizon. In time the lone flier became a speck, a flickering dot, and vanished.

The following morning during my walk I caught sight of a bird sitting tall at the lotus pond in the golf course on the property. Its lush, tan body reminded me of the golden retriever. Its neck and breast were white. It dipped its beak into the pond — for water? Was it this — and not the crow — that I’d seen the evening before, taking off on a lofty flight over the Arabian? A sea hawk? The osprey? Is the sea hawk nocturnal? I suppose not. What was its mission then? At six in the evening? And why had this golden thing appeared so black?

At breakfast at the imaginatively named The Restaurant in the resort, I leaned back in my chair and looked out. The teeny couple hopping about on the branches of a distant plumeria were woodpeckers, I figured, after first guessing them as the kingfisher. Their colors glittered in the morning sun, and the jutting peaking on the head leaned backward and high. But I’m not so sure now as I put this post together: I’ve spent the last few minutes on the Internet, trying to extract the image of the bird, and its name, querying for a small bird with brilliant colors, predominantly blue, and a prominent peaking on top.

I could ask that girl who was outraged at her mother’s ignorance of Salim Ali. She should be here, somewhere among the abundance in this luxurious watering hole where all guests must arrive for the lazy resort-breakfast. She’s not in this South Indian section where I am sitting, relishing idli and dosé with red, white, green, and yellow chutney. She’s not in the North Indian bay from where I fetched cut-fruit and coffee. I’ll try in the large Asian n’ Continental hall at the far end.

I’ll also check with the kid if the snow-white birds that that Sujaya spotted among the pure-pink villas here are the crane. Cranes as I know are long in the neck and leg and beak. These ones are medium-large overall, but short and thick in their parts. Are they the stork? I’ll ask. What’s the difference between a crane and a stork?

The child will not be kind to me.