India

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.

My Post: Follow the News, Follow the Money

Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images

“Follow the news,” he said, bringing to my mind Deep Throat) and All the President’s Men. “You’ll see where the government is spending money. Just now they bought a huge number of rockets. The Israeli Spike missile contract is brought back. Ammunition! They’re stocking ammunition in large quantities. Suddenly. Why? Why do they need so many rockets so urgently?”

I listened, my eyes locked to his. The man before me was a brilliant businessman, quite young and rising fast, and, more importantly, a key customer with top-class global exposure.

“Our borders are getting hotter,” I ventured. “China has all but acquired Pakistan …”

“Pakistan is nothing,” he interrupted. “Nothing. Okay they have nukes. Maybe they can bomb one Indian city. Max. But when India responds, Pakistan, so small it is, it will be blown off the map. The Chinese are the real threat. Every day they are coming one kilometer into Arunachal, sometimes three four kilometers, walking in when they want, walking back. Someday somebody will lose his head. Some ego will explode. Then?”

I wondered about his geography while he took a moment to rearrange himself in his seat. We were sitting poolside in the hotel he was staying at, the temperature had fallen and a chill had enveloped the area, as it had the entire city — the chill was creeping up and down beneath my jacket and trouser and shirt, and my socks even, seeking skin, teasing out an occasional shiver.

“I don’t believe in these things, Shashi, but I must tell you something. There’s a 37 year-old guy. In my city. He’s done his PhD in astrology. He doesn’t accept money for his services, because he believes he’d lose his powers if he did that. That fellow is saying, and people are quoting him, that right now the stars are steadily moving toward their same positions when Kargil happened. I don’t believe in this prediction business, Shashi, but give it six months. In six months we will have a war. With China. Not a long war. About three months, maybe.” He swayed his torso side to side to measure out in mime the possible duration.

“Three months,” I cried. “That’s long!”

“Yes,” he began to nod after a pause, giving each nod generous time, and then he took his arms behind his chair, clasped his hands there and stretched. “There will be a big recession. The economy will take a hit for two years, maybe three. We will all suffer.”

“The entire world will take a hit,” I said. “We’re not a small economy anymore.”

He thought a bit, and went back to nodding, even slower this time. “But there’s one thing,” he said. “There’s one thing Modi has done. He has really gone out and got India some powerful allies. So we should see.”

It was my turn to nod thoughtfully, slower even than him, gazing at the beer on the table now, gelid and golden, tempting as hell. You could tell its temperature by sight, from the even, thin, drop-free frost over the entire mug. Nice squat mug with no handle, with Kingfisher Ultra in it.

“Right,” I said, marveling at how every Indian businessman that I know adores Modi.

“Some of us will have good business if there’s a war. But I hope it won’t happen,” he said. “But you must follow the news, Shashi,” he said. “You must follow the news. Read what the generals are saying. You will see how things are shaping up.”

I nodded again, and my eyes clouded, and turned inward, and caught Deep Throat by a column amid blue vapors in an underground parking lot. “Follow the money,” Deep Throat urged in his thick voice, sticking to his line after all these years. In a moment I snapped back to the moment, and found my customer still with me, and we got down to the business that we’d met for.

This morning, I found myself recalling the conversation, which happened last night. I was nodding to the recollections. I was still nodding after breakfast, and again in the car on my way to work, which made me think I must write about it, and thereby clear out my head and steady it.

Also, I decided to rent All the President’s Men this weekend. The news should wait, I figured, in these times of Fake News. And because my life is better when there’s no news in it.

Some Questions Before Aurangzeb’s Tomb

 Aurangzeb’s tomb, circa 1850 ( Wikipedia )

Aurangzeb’s tomb, circa 1850 (Wikipedia)

His tomb is a simple affair even if Lord Curzon upgraded it with marble during his viceregal tenure in India. How much simpler was it at the time Aurangzeb was interred? On Wikipedia I found a sketch of it as it must’ve looked in the 1850s, before Curzon got to it.

Aurangzeb died in 1707.

Why did the Englishman Curzon go against the Mughal emperor‘s wishes, and improve the tomb? There would be a good answer, but in this moment I have only the question.

 The tomb with Curzon's changes, circa 1890 ( Wikipedia )

The tomb with Curzon's changes, circa 1890 (Wikipedia)

These days attendants at Aurangzeb’s grave eke out some earnings telling briefly the final events in Aurangzeb’s life: his death in nearby Ahmednagar from natural causes (natural causes, the attendant stresses); his desire to be buried near his teacher Chisti’s tomb; his express command that his tomb be simple and to the tiny budget he’d stipulated – fourteen rupees and twelve annas. The attendant at the grave telling me all this was blind. And nice. “I am blind,” he said, humble in a dirty white tunic, a stick limp in his hand. “And I am poor.” He held out a hand. I put money in it, which he took and pointed a finger to a box by his feet, a wooden public hundi with the slit on top. I put the same sum in it as I’d given him and looked up.

“Where was his palace (in this part of his empire)?” I asked him. I wanted to know if Aurangzeb’s royal residence had been in the fabulous Daulatabad fort. Or Ahmednagar. But the fellow was done with me. There was another tourist at the door, and the blind man had heard him arrive.


The young Aurangzeb spent his energies in the outer reaches of the empire, in the west, the northwest, and in the south in the Deccan. His father Shah Jahan kept him challenged in the Deccan, demanding higher revenues from a poorly performing agrarian region. Aurangzeb decided to annexe the Bahmani kingdoms further south to augment income, but his father decided on his behalf to sign a truce with them, exasperating Aurangzeb, stoking suspicion in him regarding his father’s intentions toward him. Such a down-spiraling relationship caused the emotional chasm between father and son to grow to equal their geographic separation, driving Aurangzeb to wrest the empire through treason and treachery and terrible fratricide.

He is argued by many to have ruled well, extending the empire to the largest the Mughals ever ruled, increasing its wealth to surpass the other great monarchies in the world at the time — but also depleting it towards the end.

The last decades of his fifty-year rule were spent in taking the Deccan, at great cost to his treasury and, as regards his fighting men, he lost in that period over two million of them at the rate of a hundred thousand heads a year, it is said.

As for Aurangzeb himself, to die asking to be buried so far south from Delhi, from the seat of his empire — how did it feel? Where lay his heart? In Delhi? In the Deccan, where he’d honed and proved himself when young?

Far from the graves of his forebears his remains rest. The first great Mughal is buried in the northwestern reaches of the empire. Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal, is buried in the empire’s deep south. The other four greats lie in Delhi and Agra. There are many descriptions of this Mughal after whom the empire began its decline: valiant, despotic, cruel, and also syncretic. As many people revere him as despise him. Standing before his grave I wasn’t sure where I should lean, but I can tell you I was moved for a moment by the asceticism of this man who ruled for so long over so vast an empire.

 The tomb as it appears now … ( Wikipedia )

The tomb as it appears now … (Wikipedia)


Indian Christmas

   Gateway Hotel, Nashik, India

 Gateway Hotel, Nashik, India

I’m at a hotel in Nashik. It’s all decked up for Christmas. A plum cake was delivered to my room with Merry Christmas sketched out in chocolate on the plate. The hotel is sold out, but I can tell easily that most guests are not Christian. Some are Sikh. Most are Hindu. In the small world I move around in, Hindus appear to have appropriated Christmas.

Merry Christmas! And, because I’m entering a Buddhist retreat on Wednesday, and will observe complete silence for ten days with all my digital devices surrendered, I wish all you wonderful people right now: Happy New Year!

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I wrote this little thing after reading this Guardian story.

Gateway-Hotel-Nashik.jpg

Saru Maru, Sanchi, Satdhara, and Stupas and Stupas

 The Main Stupa at Sanchi

The Main Stupa at Sanchi

Saru Maru

The intimation of Sanchi is on the brow of a cave-front among the Sara-Maru caves, one-hundred-and-twenty kilometres south of Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh. In Brahmi script carved in stone 2200 years ago, it proclaims that the emperor had been there, with his lady whom he’d not married yet, for vihara. The woman was Vidishadevi, who Ashoka the Great would wed in Vidisha where Sanchi belongs, whence Vidishadevi came. He’d instal the earliest stupas for her in Sanchi, with the relics of the Buddha embedded in them. Back home now from Madhya Pradesh, I found this translation of the Saru Maru inscription on the Web:

The king, who (now after consecration) is called Piyadassi, (once) came to this place on a pleasure tour while he was still a ruling prince, living together with this (unwedded) consort. (Translation by Falk.)


Sanchi

 Another Stupa at Sanchi

Another Stupa at Sanchi

The Sanchi stupas sit on an outcrop on plains trimmed in the distance by low hills with languorous ridges. The Halali flows close by. There’s the wind of the plains about the monuments, but there’s also the sun bearing down on them, and the few trees around don’t help so much the crowds. The stupas aren’t designed to offer shade.

But you feel no inconvenience in Sanchi. You only experience peace.

There are things to see: Fine carvings of Buddhist divinities and representations of Buddha and Dharma and Sangha, so masterfully rendered that you shake your head in disbelief that such work was possible in India’s earliest stone monuments. Besides the Buddha, there’s a square panel showing Ashoka, on a thorana at the entrance — portly, seeming to be recovering from a fainting spell. Two queens support him: the sovereign was grieving the death of a Bodhi tree. After a few moments spent gazing at the art, you stop and turn inward, wanting to savour the spiritual. You will climb the stairs of the stupa, and walk round the bare egg-shaped mound, and close your eyes, fingers grazing the mound to keep course and not fall off.

Done with Sanchi, walking the gentle gradient down the hill and out, you’re already speaking a lot less — I can tell you I was.


The Aaram Bagh Resort

 The Aaram Bagh Resort

The Aaram Bagh Resort

The waiter opened a wide visitor’s book over my dinner plate. He pointed to a comment in it by Raza Murad, a veteran Bollywood actor. Raza Murad had praised the meal, the service, the ambience. He hadn’t checked into the rooms, the waiter said, dropped in only for lunch. Taking the cue, I lauded Aaram Bagh just as much, for service over two-days and for the delicious meals. Deserving praise, I must concede.

The resort is a compact palace a few kilometres off the highway, 12 kilometres from the Sanchi stupas. It was surrounded by cropped rice fields that run up to hazy blue hills all round. Over dinner, our group of eight bantered about the use of a palace in that desolate place. “To arrive at harvest and count moolah.” Or, “For time with the mistress.” Checking the hotel’s website now, I read that successive maharajas visited here with their maharanis for rest. But also they used the place as a hunting lodge and once invited the British viceroy to join in. They don’t say if the viceroy accepted.

Raza Murad’s latest big movie is Bajirao Mastani, in which he plays the Nawab of Deccan. At 71, he’s been in some two-hundred films, and is not quite finished yet.


Satdhara

 The Largest Stupa at Satdhara

The Largest Stupa at Satdhara

Only 3 kilometres from this propped-up vestige of royalty, at Satdhara, right by the Halali flowing in a deep, deep gorge, is a profusion of even more stupas, the highest among them nearly as tall as Sanchi’s. We set out to Satdhara morning at 6:30. Not a single other tourist blighted the place, but a few Langurs marked our passage from a distance. An occasional local passed us by, and one among them brought us to a fresh dig and said a hoard of begging bowls of bhikkhus were found there, taken away to the museum now. Among the stupas are dispersed a host of monasteries, reduced to the base by time. It is a concealed expanse, leafy and serene, and exists merely to house monasteries, it seemed.

Riches. Renunciation. Surrender. The contrast lay before us within a three-kilometre stretch.


Incredible India

A blue public bus has passed thrice before me, bearing across its side a large-lettered legend: "Begging is a Punishable Offence." On the right end of it are the cupped wrinkled hands of the beggar. On the left, there’s the face of the Chief Minister grinning his brightest, as if in triumph at passing such daring legislation.

This is a politician whose secular intentions satisfy the liberal in me. He is also a socialist of a type and has been cool toward business and industry through the four years of his Chief Ministership. As regards me, I work in the avionics industry, and I’ve been vexed at a lingering opportunity not grabbed with both hands — to our general detriment.

So, now in this moment, I draw deep a sip of cold-brewed iced-coffee and close my eyes a moment and feel my emotions dissolve and disappear.

The bus takes a long time each time to negotiate the roundabout I'm facing. There's not enough width on the streets, and cars and motorcycles swarm around the bus, and the big long thing appears like a lizard bobbing among small and big ants of many hues.

I’m sitting in Starbucks, looking out, with the *Enchantress of Florence” in hand and jazz in my ears. The book is set in Agra and Florence and Turkey and Samarkand and shows off how Rushdie can weave an enchanting story using just those touristic places and the lands and the seas and the times that bind them. I've been in three of those locations, Samarkand not yet in my plans, but I haven't been able to get Florence and Agra and Istanbul into a decent blog post even.

(Rushdie is so expert he can word-paint with astounding brilliance Akbar the Great, but hush! To recognise greatness in Akbar is sacrilege these days.)

I should’ve been in Krakow this week, walking the streets and admiring the architecture and learning on site its near and long history. Instead, here I am at our local Starbucks, where I'm counting the rounds a commuter bus has been making and watching during pauses from reading Rushdie the Barista Cafe across the street, and the tree that conceals a half of it. A man is offering earnest prayers to the trunk of the tree. I say amen.

And I sip my coffee for which, when I stood in line, I had to tell off three men in whites who tried to jump ahead of me. But they were all right. They went to the back without making a noise, though each of them was burly, and clearly from the wealthy builder class, or the political — separations which when they exist, are thin and faint.

I had bought the tickets, made the hotel reservation, picked my seats on the plane for all sectors, but forty-eight hours before departure for Krakow a gloom came over me, black like the season’s clouds hanging overhead. In minutes I cancelled all reservations and leaned forward and settled in the pose of Rodin's Thinker, seeing grey, thinking nothing.

I haven’t missed the recurrent news of protests against tourists in Europe. In Venice, the voice of pain of the diminishing, 55000-strong populace is smothered under a daily deluge of tourist numbers multiples its size. Echoes of the protest are ringing out in Barcelona, and in Majorca, and in Rome where the mayor has asked visitors to leave his fountains alone.

Until now, visitors sought the fountains to relive cinematic moments, to rub some star dust on themselves. But folks need water, any water, across Europe this summer, because a heat wave is roiling the continent — so the news goes. Even Poland, where I was going, wasn’t exempt from Lucifer. Settling into schadenfreude, exclaiming how fortuitous I didn’t go, I checked the weather in Krakow: 26ºC daytime;16ºC nighttime; no rain in the week. The cloud over my head came down an increment.

But the protests have gotten me thinking. Now that everybody is travelling, is the cool thing to stay home? Home needn't be my residence in Bangalore. It could mean this Incredible India which I can cover by car, in long and short trips over time.

The Europeans could learn from us. We have monuments as old as theirs, and great and minor rivers, and mountains and valleys of flowers, and music and yoga and Bollywood and yes, oh yes, our touted culture and hospitality. And yet we keep tourists from abroad to a minimum. With such little effort. Ask the European who's been here already, I say.

Can you write a decent blog post staying put at home? I feel my clouds descending another notch.

Behind me, the three men in whites whom I’d told off at the counter are talking big-time politics. The second-most powerful man in India, and perhaps the feistiest, has been in town three days. These men, who are from the northern part of my state, are critiquing that leader in the lyrical Kannada of their region, in their diction that I love. I should’ve been accommodating toward them at the counter, I tell myself, and start warming toward home and note that the blue bus has arrived the fourth time.

Begging is banished, I see again. How nice. Where have those wrinkly joined hands gone now? I ask, rising to leave. Coffee is good at Starbucks, but I must go home for rice and sambar.

A Khaas Durbar at The Taj Falaknuma, Hyderabad

At the bookstore in the departures area of Bangalore airport, almost the entire oeuvre of William Dalrymple was displayed in front, on a shelf given over to him. What does it mean if Indians, who haven't cared to write their history until recently, are fed Dalrymple on this scale? How are we turning out, suddenly consuming history for main course, and varied recent fiction drawn from Hindu myth? A nourishing diet, perhaps, I don't know, I can't really tell. I wished to browse the Dalrymple shelf, they seemed like nice new editions, but I couldn't pause there, because our flight was announced and we had to run. I thought of Shashi Tharoor as we hurried. His most recent book is a 360-page dish on colonial India — the nationalist would find it to his taste, even if Tharoor didn't cook it for him.

We were flying IndiGo to Hyderabad. Their code is 6E. The crew, all of them very young women, say 6E in a way that sounds as sexy. Unintentional, I bet. IndiGo is well run, and Indian women, young or old, would surely hit back at a boss who asks them to say sexy for 6E.


On board I read How to Travel Without Seeing. The more visible words on its cover are How to Travel. I hid the cover all the time with my hand.


The long-running arcade at Hyderabad airport is a kind gift with which to cope with the Andhra sun. I trailed the cabdriver as he dragged my suitcase, my eyes glued to it, wary that he'd pull it over a pothole and ruin the castors on that suitcase that I bought in Japan in 2009, and which survives in fine shape with me.

We sped on the PVN Expressway for a good time and distance, and just as I began to exclaim that Hyderabad has better traffic than Bangalore we descended into the incredible Indian mess and started to crawl.


Three narrow-fronted reception tables greeted us at Taj Vivanta. The one closest the door was manned by a very pretty young lady, but the free attendant was at the second desk. He was nice too. I asked him for a room on back, and on a high floor, so as to be as far from the noise of the street. As he worked on it an older young man stepped in to help. They took some minutes.

"We've upgraded you, sir," the older young man said. "To our highest floor. Your room is on the corner. Gimme just two minutes to get it ready. Some coffee-tea until then?"

"Two minutes?" I kidded him. "Tell me ten if you need ten!"

"I told you what housekeeping told me sir," he said, shrugging, opening wide his eyes, taking us to the restaurant, to a table by the window.

We asked for coffee-tea as we took our seats. Just as the waitress left us the younger attendant from reception came over and gave us two keys to our room. Ready in two minutes.


Our meeting was at the Taj Falaknuma, a palace hotel on a hill, 45 minutes from the Vivanta. The air rarefied even as we turned toward the hill from the main street. At the gate the guards checked our names and struck it off a list they held in hand. At the next gate, an arched regal entrance, we stepped out of the car and got in a buggy and climbed higher, deeper toward the palace. There was nobody in front when we arrived there, but after we'd climbed the stairs and entered the hall in front young men came running up, asking, "B meeting sir? B meeting?"

The place was rich all over, with not a blemish on floor, wall, or ceiling. It appeared tastefully done, and when we inquired my suspicion was confirmed that the hand of a woman was involved in the restoration — Princess Esra, who lives now in London.

The meeting was in the Durbar Hall. It was long and narrow with the customary paintings on walls and deep drapes and a slippery floor and there was cashew before us and boat-shaped China on which were arranged frightful pastries with icing like wings on the head of Asterix the Gaul. It was dim in the hall. It was dim everywhere in the palace. It was five in the afternoon and out the windows under the sun the world was white and blazing.

But in that lofty place on a hill the waiters and waitresses were as waiters and waitresses anywhere. Thank goodness.


Next morning we were in the airport by six. The lounge was a longish vestibule with ravaged one-armed seats and breakfast in which curries and chutneys were sweetened. (In Andhra!) But I'm being harsh. It was a quite pleasant trip into and out of all that heat.

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.

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.

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.

~~~

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.

~~~

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.

~~~

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.