Travel

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.

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.

Austrian Airlines, And The Colour Of Good Times

 Austrian Airlines

We flew to Vienna from Frankfurt on Austrian, a partner airline of Lufthansa.

On the return, the flight was full. Austrian had improvised a rule to control cabin baggage. All roll-on hand baggage had to be re-checked on the broad aisle leading to the gates — they’d imposed a new, reduced limit. Mine was four kilograms over for Economy, the class we’d chosen for the short hop. I was redirected to the counters by the firm Asian lady who was doing the weighing. At the counters, the agent urged, “Remove something. Carry it separately.”

“I’ve nothing I can remove,” I said after I’d unzipped and looked up stuff I’d packed myself. The agent thought for a while, tapped about on his keyboard, pondered a bit, and looked up. He was a nice-looking burly man with a round face. A smile had replaced the indecision that had so far been on it. “I’m allowing it,” he said. “Because I don’t want you to feel bad about Vienna. Please take care the next time.” He put a red paper-band of permission around the handle of my roll on.

“Thank you,” I said, bringing on my best earnest expression. “I’m going to remember this gesture before many people.”

Austrian is all about red. A lovely bright red. On the tail of the plane, on the wingtips, on the piece of cloth held by Velcro on the headrest, on the trims of the magazine pouch, on the catch of the tray before you, on the checks on sashes and on the curtains that put Business beyond Economy — everywhere the color red rules against a background of white and half white. Among these reds flit about the cabin crew — who are themselves awash in red.

The ambience cheered me and reminded me of another airline which used the same colour on the same scale to similar advantage. It was called the Kingfisher Airlines, its brand burnished by the byline, “The King of Good Times.” Indeed, I have pleasant memories flying on it; the airline was my local favourite for the time it operated. The good times didn’t last, however, and Kingfisher is now only a memory, a mixed memory. I’ve seen some recent photographs of its ruddy founder, who now lives in England, and the colour of good times appears to have faded on that flamboyant man as well.

Ah, but this piece is for Austrian — may that rouge on them ever be fresh.


Photo Copyright: Austrian Airlines Flight: funlovingvolvo / 123RF Stock Photo

A Day And A Night In Slovakia

  From Vienna to Piestany via Bratislava

From Vienna to Piestany via Bratislava

Chasing Windmills

Soon after we’d left the Vienna airport, they came up, on both sides of the Bahn, an unending presence along the route running from the edge of the highway to the horizon itself: white towers with long blades drawing energy from wind that pushed them. As in Judo. Standing tall on the rise and fall of the Austrian landscape, they turned with gusto. It was raining. Gray air and grey cloud pressed down on the lush green expanse of earth, earth free of buildings, cut through by grey road and dotted with these high windmills. Until yesterday Europe had been awash in uninterrupted golden sunshine, but this moment in the rain changed two weeks of the sun into mere memory.

“This rain is good,” our customer who was driving us from Vienna to Slovakia said. “There’s been too much pollen flying.”

The Austrians voted out nuclear energy a long time ago, and they must succeed with alternates. In Slovakia, our customer said, a Soviet-era nuclear plant is serving its five-million Slovak population just fine. (I haven’t done a fact-check. The customer was brilliant, so well informed.)

At the border, the profusion of windmills ended.

Auto Power

The big thing in Slovakia is auto. Most big European names have moved in, whisking to effervescence the dour east-bloc economy of yesteryear: Porsche’s Cayenne, Volkswagen’s Tuareg, the BMW 5, Citroen’s C3, Land Rover, KIA’s Sport, the Audi Q5. Auto has done for Slovakia what software did for India. Nearly half the industrial output is auto, which constitutes a quarter of its exports. Every few moments we passed trucks lugging fresh-made cars out to the world, cars shining like candy even in the absence of sun.

“They bought used cars from us in the past,” our customer remarked. “Now Germans buy new cars from Slovakia through agents in Germany. Up to 33% cheaper.”

The first things that show up when Bratislava appears are the spanking new malls, rising behind arched sound barriers lining the stretch of highway that passes through town. Slovaks have it good these days. A forklift operator in an auto plant makes a thousand euros a month, with an indirect payout of 47% on top.

Going through Bratislava, looking at a hill covered in old buildings, India’s police quarters and its railway quarters came to mind. The buildings were painted in bright colours, but the colours couldn’t hide dullness, the communist past of them. They weren’t painted back then. The newer buildings nearby were different, designed by free-market architects.

Bratislava is hilly, riparian with two rivers — the Danube and the Morava. Riding a wide old bridge, I noticed a hotel named after Chopin. And on a hoarding, again by the bridge, a hotel was advertised which was named after Mendelssohn. Europeans fight the most horrible wars and yet they unite completely for the arts.

Leaving Bratislava, we were in the plains again, fertile plains with hills in the distance. The mountains lurked beyond the hills, perhaps, but we couldn’t see them from the valley of the Váh river, from the road to Piestany.

Tiny Piestany

Piestany is small, population 30,000. It is a spa town whose springs have drawn humans to them since 80,000 years ago. The town centre has the things a town centre should, in a petite pedestrian zone — in a brisk ten-minute walk we’d covered the area. The boutiques were modest (Zaira, selling garments, hit my eye). The restaurants suggested French and Italian cuisine, but the Argentinian steak ruled everywhere. The Hotel Park Avenue, where we checked in, boasted unchallenged the best Argentinian in town. The hotel sat on the corner of a nice old park. Communist dictatorships nurtured parks — I remembered the large ones I’ve seen in Ceaușescu’s Bucuresti.

Everybody spoke German. They learn it at school, a carryover from when East Germany and Czechoslovakia were ideological buddies. Our waiter spoke English, and he organised for us vegan soup and aglio olio. Afterwards, he urged that we try their chocolate egg — a shell of chocolate the size of an ostrich egg, with ice cream inside, and raspberry sauce. “Somebody should order the chocolate egg,” he said and laughed. He was tall and young and good-looking, and he laughed after every three sentences. “I’ll take it,” our customer said, relieving the vegans.

Loveable folks, the Slovaks. Only five million of them, living in a beautiful land with room to spare. They won’t take one single refugee.

We’d come to Piestany to visit a factory, with a mission to move a hundred-worker operation to India. The senior executive who showed us around didn’t hide our purpose from the workers. They weren’t afraid of losing work they’ve been doing for years, because they wouldn’t be losing their jobs. We came away without suffering guilt.

On the return, the clouds had gone, and the world was again golden.

And If Doris and Ella Were Vegan in Paris?

 Les Halles, Paris

We went into the first safe-looking place we found in Chatelet, and ordered for penne pasta, telling the waiter thrice that we’re vegan, so no cheese please, and strictly vegetarian. He repeated our words to us in total fidelity.

And he brought steamed chaste penne, sans cheese and meat, but also without vegetable or herb or salt or pepper or anything at all save its sweat. But he’d brought along a suitor for the dish, some mustard sauce, and after the first forkfuls taken with tentative touches of mustard, I began to rather like the plain, now-spiced, faux-Italian meal.

“It’s good,” I said to my wife who had gone into a wakeful coma. Her penne was steaming, contrasting very well against the cold outside the glassed cafe. She didn’t reply, which was unfair because it wasn’t my fault the pasta had come as it had. We’d asked for pasta with vegetables, and we’d repeated our order three times, but the folks had chosen to keep our pasta free of everything. My one mistake could’ve been that, because the waiter was nice and polite and so French, I’d signalled to my wife with my eyes to not refuse the thing he’d kept with such panache on the table.

After a few minutes, the waiter came around to ask how we were enjoying his cook's creation. “There should be one vegetable in this at least!” my wife admonished him, pointing to her full plate. The waiter was fine with that. “Oh!” he said, and picked up her plate and, before I could stop him, my half-finished plate as well, and carried them off to the kitchen. In fifteen minutes he returned to our dead-silent table with linguini tossed with peas and sliced carrot and shelled-green-beans — and the whole mix smeared with thin creamy cheese.

My wife was too hungry by now, and she pecked and ate a little, pausing from being vegan for just one meal, swallowing one tainted noodle at a time, while I gazed at my plate as she had done in the first act. “Don’t worry about me,” I said to her, magnanimous in word only. “What I ate from my previous plate was a lot.” But she couldn’t go further than a few noodles, what with the cheese on them, and her husband not eating. We exchanged glances. And called the waiter. And paid. And tipped. The waiter was genuinely perturbed that we’d eaten nothing. “Pack?” he asked. “No!” we said, and smiled our friendliest, feeling hunger even in the dry skin on the face.

We hurried back through sub-zero temperature and an unkind breeze to the hotel, and went straight to the hotel-restaurant, and begged in fervent English to be saved. They brought us assuredly-vegan soup, and fries, both scalding hot and served on heated, pure-white china.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m loving Paris, even if it’s bitter cold, even if I’m here for business only. Also, I’m thinking of Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald, and their love of Paris — how they loved the city every moment because “their love was near.” In my case, I’ve brought my love along, and I’m wondering how strong is truth in song.

Jet Airways Flight 23

  Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images

It is dark, but for one laptop screen in seat 1F in front of me, where a Tamil man is finessing a presentation, adding and removing bullet-points. He is middle-aged, has an enviable paunch and a flowing beard, and he seems imperturbable.

The man in the next seat is young. He’s had a Black Label; he dined on chicken with it. The spirit has brought out his demons, I think: he’s shaking his head, and torso, with increasing intensity.

Only moments ago the young man let off a terrible groan, and turned and looked at me, to check if I’d heard him in spite of my noise-cancelling headphones, now playing back a Mozart sonata.

He may be forgiven his groan, set off by a fear that I share in equal measure with him, with perhaps all others in this cabin. This plane that we’re on has shook and shuddered and creaked and rattled for over an hour now, over the dark waters below. We’ve had moments when it seemed the plane would split along its spine. There’s been no service for some time; the captain has ordered his crew to their seats. But dinner is done, the trays have been cleared. The smells of what we ate are in the air.

We’ve crossed the Andamans, the monitor on the bulkhead tells me, and that an hour’s flying is left before we touch down in Bangalore, where the time now is 8:18, which also I read on the bulkhead.

**

We progress, scuffing the clouds as we go, and the blinking light from the plane’s wingtip pierces the clouds, causing flashes like lightning, except that these are so predictable, so metronomic, the only sound accompanying them the terrible labouring of the plane, which I hear in the moments I take off my headphones. In a half-hour we’ll be over land, I tell myself after a time, surprised to note a smile on my face when there’s growing anxiety in my heart.

I concentrate on my breathing, on the in-breath and the out-breath and the burn in my nostrils, trying to pat down the memory of the Air Asia flight which flew up in bad weather, weather that froze the moving parts of its wings, high above the waters that bring such rotten luck to Indonesia all the time.

**

The land appears as a curvy line of lights along the shore of Chennai.

More lights come up: large and small patches of pixellated amber, and a long line through them — a highway running northward and southward. Like embers the lights look; swollen and scorched, the earth seems.

But I know it is none of that. There are people down there, millions of people cloaked in the reduced, evening-heat of Chennai, who do not know that there’s this plane over them that has escaped tragedy and the front pages of tomorrow’s papers, and which will land in 39 minutes in Bangalore, inshallah.

**

The next day I tell my wife I experienced turbulence like never before last night. “Me, too!” she says and describes her flight last week on the same stretch. She’s been through the greater experience. As always.

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.


Is Cambodia Worth Losing Two Legs For?

071110-cambodia-132920-2-instagram.jpg

The lady at the next table raised her voice, breaking the murmur of conversation in her group. “Listen! I must tell you something.”

You’d think she was speaking Hindi, from the speed of her speech, the manner of speaking, her accent, and inflexions — but the words were all English. Anyway, her insistence hushed her three companions, all male.

“I know, like, a lady in our complex. She has a husband, you know, and a child. She was fine, like. Then suddenly she developed aching in her legs and after waiting for a long time she decided to see the docs.”

It was hard to tell her words in the din of the cafe. Also, I was trying to stay focused on Coetzee, who I was reading.

“She was losing control over her legs. After so many days they diagnosed what was wrong. She’d been infected by a dog tick in Cambodia, and … “

“Dog tick?” One of the men interrupted.

“Dog, tick,” she affirmed. “Dog tick. Now the problem was, like, they didn’t know the cure. They’d studied this thing in college, but they didn’t know the treatment. Now both her legs are amputated.”

Her companions fell silent, but I had a question I couldn’t ask: These days, doctors consult with peers across the globe in real time over the Net. Couldn’t they gather the information they needed? And, at any rate, wasn’t it impressive how they traced the cause to a dog tick? In Cambodia?

Breathing deep, I let it pass. And remembered the few weeks I spent in Cambodia, ten years ago.


An essay by Amitav Ghosh took me there: Dancing in Cambodia. It tells the story of the Khmer Rouge, starting the narrative with a Cambodian troupe of dancers who performed in France and won, among thousands of French people, the attention of the great Rodin, who followed them from Paris to Marseilles and painted them. Later, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge would decimate art and culture and all intellectual effort in the nation. The essay pushed me to travel to the place forthwith. My primary destination was the school Tuol Sleng from Amitav's story, which is now maintained as a Torture Museum, but I extended the travel to Siem Reap, the Cardamom Mountains, and Sihanoukville.


During the short reign of the Khmer Rouge, some 15,000 young and old prisoners passed through the horrors of Tuol Sleng, en route to certain death.

The school was a few minutes’ walk from my riverside hotel in Phnom Penh, reached through malodorous streets — Rue Pasteur, Sihanouk Boulevard, Monivong Boulevard, Norodom Boulevard — quite like the streets in small-town India. The school was plain — a staid missionary-style school, typical of Asia. In bare classrooms stripped of desks and benches and equipped with cheap metal cots, every conceivable excess man can devise for man was performed. Lesser prisoners built their own tiny mini-cells within the classrooms. It was not difficult to imagine the doings that happened there — here was a place that revealed the cruel face of mankind — a place that could crush the toughest. I went out and sat a half-hour on a bench in the schoolyard and watched sparrows flitting about in the heavy, tainted silence.


I spent the following week in Siem Reap, experiencing a different, older history of Cambodia, spending daytime in wonder among the ruins of the magnificent wats in a setting nestled among grand equatorial trees. Although the jungle that had enveloped this wonder has been cleared, giant trees still gripped large parts of the structures with talon-like roots.

In the evenings the air of Siem Reap town was insufferable, worse even than in Phnom Penh, from bad gasoline sold street-side in bottles and used by all classes of vehicles. I wore an ineffective surgical mask to hold off poisoned air. Toward the end of the week, returning to the hotel after a spicy Indian meal at Kamasutra on Pub Street, unable to breathe once without searing my chest, I cried out loud in anger, again and again.


I cleared my lungs in the Cardamom Mountains in the following week, feasting on pine-scented air in a cottage by a large, tranquil pond. I read Thoreau in the week. The resort where I stayed was almost entirely taken over by a missionary team from the US, their Khmer recruits, and many children. After raining bombs long and hard on these luckless people, these people from faraway nations were engaged in harvesting beautiful Khmer souls. One morning, I shared my table with the lead evangelist. He was young and friendly and very fresh-faced. “Join us for a prayer meeting?” he asked me, and smiled when I said, “Let me try.”


After the mountains I spent lazy hours on the boat in the sun off Sihanoukville, watching raptors swoop right before our vessel and pick off supple fish from the waters. There was peace all round that brought out a sigh now and then, but neither mountain nor water cheered me. It didn’t help that each evening after dinner I had to fend off taxi drivers determined to carry me off to a massage house. “Sexy massage. You want boy or girl?” I’d been four weeks in a land too steeped in tragedy.

On the eve of departure, I stayed in the pompous, and positively un-homey Hotel Cambodiana, for supper and a few hours’ sleep. I couldn’t sleep that much. A text message arrived in the small hours, telling me I had lost my father.


This story should’ve been about another person’s grief. I cannot help but wonder if, for that lady, Cambodia was worth losing two legs for.

Lesson in Crime and Punishment

I decided I’ll go to Haw Par Villa, having never been there in all the years I’ve been going to Singapore.

The brothers Haw (Tiger) and Par (Leopard) were the Tiger Balm entrepreneurs. It was the time of the Empire, and the pair started their business in Rangoon, and came down to Singapore and increased their fortune there. In Singapore the brothers built a mansion on a hill, and that estate in their time and afterward has transformed into a public garden with statues and dioramas that tell stories and parables and aphorisms from the worlds of Tao, Confucius, and the Buddha. The most touted exhibit there is a long man-made cave depicting the Ten Courts of Hell. A sign outside the grotto cautions there's gore inside.

It was blazing hot on the exposed hill; so the enclosed space was inviting. And who doesn’t enjoy gore? Also, I’m at an age where one is keen for hints of the afterlife, and I found them in that dark interior, in neat, dim-lit dioramas.

The virtuous dead have it easy. On arrival at the Courts, they’re split into two classes, somewhat like the gold and silver card holders of airline loyalty programs. The best get on the golden bridge, the next best are routed to the silver bridge, and both bridges offer a quick passage to paradise. The sinful dead are sent on a rough ride. They’re to be dealt with across ten courts, each ruled by its own Yama, its own god of death. When the dead arrive before the Yama and the sins read out, the Yama has a ready list of punishments to hand down.

The prostitute, for instance, is presented before the second Yama. Her punishment is to be drowned in blood. The third Yama's jurisdiction is ungratefulness, disrespect to elders, and escaping from prison. He also tries drug addicts, drug traffickers, tomb robbers, and fomenters of social unrest. He is severe: If you belong here, you could have your heart cut out, or you may be bound to a red-hot copper column and grilled. The fourth Yama tries tax dodgers, rent defaulters, fraudsters and sends them to a stone mallet for a pounding. The sixth Yama takes cheats, those who curse, abductors, misusers of books, patrons of porn, rule breakers, and food wasters, and he saws them in two, or throws them upon a tree of knives. The seventh Yama is named as King Taishan: He pulls out the tongue of rumormongers, and those who sow discord among family. The eighth Yama digs the visceral organs from those who abandon filial obedience, cause trouble for family and cheat in examinations. If you have robbed, murdered, or raped, the ninth Yama will see you. He will have your head and arms chopped off; if you have neglected the old and the young, he will crush you beneath boulders.

It seems that you’re condemned to emerge from each court alive so you’re fit for punishment at the next court. After you have passed the first nine courts a fresh lease awaits you at court ten. Here a lady serves you a potion that erases the past from your mind, and sets you off on a new life, as human or animal, as the tenth Yama sees fit.

I regarded myself. I must prepare for the sixth Yama, and the eighth; I must prepare to crash on a knife-covered tree; must prepare to be sawed in two; must prepare to experience my visceral organs hacked. I haven’t known it was this serious to waste food; I could've been an obedient son. My belly writhes as I write.

These sins and punishments are declared on plaques posted alongside the thick-painted dioramas populated with expertly crafted oriental figurines — a diorama to illustrate each court. Reading the plaques, I wondered first if the Yamas catalogued them in an uncharacteristic fit of humor, and if the entire scheme is all in jest. Later, it struck me that the punishments lacked in imagination — they’re merely torture that man has inflicted on man down the ages. The retributions didn’t appear divine to me; they read like the secret penal code of a despot, ready for administering here and now — even as the sinner in the despot’s book lives. At any rate, I cannot imagine that the Ten Courts of Hell as described in Haw Par belong in the sagely Buddhist scriptures. They’ve perhaps mutated through time and in translation.

Leaving, in the cool of the taxi, the driver asked me, “First time in Singapore?”

“Naw … .” I told him how much I love Singapore, and how often I’m there.

“Foreigners don’t come to Haw Par, la.”

There hadn’t been many locals either. Haw Par Villa seldom made money over the decades when it was a for-profit. It’s a non-profit now, and entrance is free, and I’ve described only one exhibit from the sprawl.

Last Week, In Paris

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The runways at CDG run flat, as they should, among swells of rolling land. The terminals on this wavy terrain are a circular construction. Inside, long travelators running from the gates to immigration fall off first, then run level, and rise back up. In the stretch to the exits, another set of travelators climb steep to the upper level, the belts shaking beneath the feet as they work upward. This airport is different. But then, there's the fact of French achievement in art and architecture, and one develops through repeat visits a taste for this airport, like the drinking type who develop a taste for French wine.

Our first meal was at Cafe St. Andre, where we were served an assiette of vegetables and rice. On subsequent days, at the Cafe Paris on rue Buci, we picked a table inside whereas everybody sat on the sidewalk, and the only vegan we could eke out there was an arabbiatta. A French business partner took us to dinner at Les Editeurs, off St. Germain Boulevard. The color red ruled the place and its walls were lined with hundreds of books. They brought us a bowl of boiled potatoes and artichokes touched by herb and a bowl of thick green cold soup, all of which tasted good with the flavors coming out in full in the rich ambience. A key customer hosted us at Le Procope, where earlier patrons have been Voltaire, Danton, Benjamin Franklin, and such. Here we ate grilled vegetables dosed with herbs and olive oil. Looking later for vegan-focused joints, we were pulled into a nice-looking restaurant on the corner from our hotel, with a view to the Seine. It had large splashes of green on the menu displayed outside. Inside, the handed menu ran several pages, with many organic references, but the only vegan on it was a list of sides: "exotic" rice, mushrooms, french fries, cold quinoa, and beans and thin-sliced carrots. We ordered the entire list, and they arrived in white china, each dish in a bowl and the set of them on a curvy plate — in the fashion of the Indian thali. We ate with the same vigor we approach the thali.

We were in Paris for the Air Show. The show was hot, the weather hotter. On the RER the systems struggled with the cooling but the ride was still okay, whereas on the free shuttle from the RER station to the fairgrounds we received a twice-daily feel of hell. In the morning most folks lined up for the buses, and those who jumped were graciously ignored. The minders sent into each bus a first batch to fill the seating, a second batch for standing, and a final few to fill spaces left. Then making sure the bus had no room for a mouse even, they waved it on and called the next bus. Like this we traveled in universal brotherhood the last mile, black and brown and white and strong and weak and man and woman and rich and poor and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and atheist all pressed together for a torturous half hour for the short jammed distance to the fairgrounds. Everybody seemed to endure the ride with impressive forbearance, steaming people in a sealed bus, working hand phones and speaking in murmurs, doing perhaps what I was doing, being calm outside, cursing within.

Evenings, the western civilization was put to the test. The minders were fewer than in the mornings, and ineffective, their energy drained by the day's heat. Visitors crowded the bus stops at the fairgrounds, many smart ones edging and sneaking through to the front. When the bus arrived people forced their way in, rather like in our India, even if not so badly. One evening, a man behind me, squeezing in with the others, said, "It's happening, it's happening, I'm going to vomit." Did he mean the demise of order and the consequent decline of the evolved west? Grand line, but thoughts like these roiled me in the heat of Paris.

There was time in the week to go about Paris a bit, to watch Parisians enjoy Midsummer's Day on June 21, and listen to music by buskers who'd taken every available public space. Each had an audience, some a half dozen, some even a hundred. While we lingered in Saint Michel the police arrived in six opaque vans. Doors opened and men in blue jumped out and took positions under the trees, by the bus stops, at the fountains, and whereas the men with rifles gazed with detached eyes, assessing but not engaging anyone, their other colleagues stood by the vans, alert to calls to action. When I passed a van by a drinking fountain, a youngish policeman broke into a gig, lured by the Afro drummers before him.

The most important thing, for me, is that I went to the Louvre, and went straight to the Denon wing, to the gallery of Italian paintings, to the Mona Lisa. There was a constant throng before the lady, but I could stand undisturbed on the periphery to her left and gaze. She did not disappoint, holding her composure and being herself in spite of this daily assault by the thousands, by some who look, and some who look and shoot, and others who come to shoot only. A blue phosphorescence issued from her direction, and through it she returned and outlasted my gaze. I'm shaken by her still.