Three Britons in Stone Whom I Saw This Week

King George, Chennai

King George, Chennai

Thomas Munro was so kind to Indians under his jurisdiction here in South India, they worshipped him in mind and speech, and in temples. His kindest cut was on taxes, and gratitude overflowed on account of it, so much so that for years farmers in the south named their newborn Munrolappa, in honor of him. Besides rationalising tax, Munro campaigned for greater inclusion of Indians in civil administration, and in the juduciary— all big stuff in his time. Now, two centuries after his rule, worship of him lives on at least at one temple, in Cuddappah, Andhra Pradesh.

I’ve not been to that temple; I heard the story in the back seat of a car before the statue of Munro on Mount Road in Chennai. From Koushik of Story Trails: He challenged me: “Can you tell me what’s wrong with that statue?”

I’m never comfortable being quizzed, but I gave a try, staring at the tall figure sitting high and mighty on a matching horse.

“Is the symbolism of all legs planted on ground not right for Munro?” I ventured.

“No,” Koushik said. “See? There’s no saddle. And no stirrups!”

“Oh,” I said, not at all seeing the wrong in that.

Not all agree to retaining this statue on this roomy traffic-island middle of town. The last loud protest came at the Tamil conference in 2010, and in spite of an ensuing unfavourable resolution that hangs over the memorial, it stands. But somebody might yet give that weighty horse a rap on its rump and send it somewhere, someday soon.


Not far from this memorial, in the bazaar area, there’s another vestigial piece, this one of King George V, who was crowned emperor on Indian soil in a grand ceremony that came to be called the Dilli Durbar of 1911. A crown was made just for the occasion, and his majesty deigned to wear it just this once. Madras (Chennai) was the toehold of the dominion of India, it was the city the Raj spread out from, so it was altogether fitting for Madras to mark the durbar with a statue, and install it at the edge of the Black Town for natives to marvel at every day. It was altogether right to rename Black Town as Georgetown, and leave no doubt as to who was boss.

And now, a hundred years after, when all Chennai is black town, the statue—which never meant much to denizens for whose amazement it was put before them—is a forlorn affair. Its face has acquired an expression that reflects the abandonment it’s forever doomed to. It bears no hope of being claimed ever by his true subjects who erected it. Meaning no offence, but causing it nonetheless, the weakest citizens of free India have taken possession of the space round the monument, and have flung about it their rags, and rusty rickety wheelbarrows, and plastic water vessels that catch the light and glow in too-loud colours. Odd wooden structures lean on the high pedestal.

And on the ferocious stucco British lions round the base, scabs have broken out. The statue is jet black, and offers no contrast to the camera, concealing the rich royal texture its makers have given it. Whatever the face says, it stands strong and straight and very regal, even if condemned to a life of eternal neglect. I felt a fondness for it but Koushik wouldn’t allow me to linger there. “We can’t be parked here,” he urged, “this place is too busy!”


And he took me to Fort St. George, and gave me a quick glimpse of another Briton in stone. Cornwallis defeated Tipu Sultan in two wars, which are recorded as the Anglo-Mysore wars. In the first of them he took half Tipu’s kingdom; in the second he took Tipu’s life and what was left of the Kingdom. To celebrate this achievement, the Britons made a white marble statue and marked out a terrific location in Chennai for a cenotaph to the victor. They called the stretch Cenotaph Road. But the statue of Cornwallis suffers a jinx. It and its cupola have been wandering two centuries each to a different place, and now the statue is sheltered under a staircase in the modest museum in Fort St. George. Its cupola stands outside the museum on a corner under a tree. There’s argument that it is not even the corresponding cupola to the statue.

“But it’s all right,” Cornwallis might say from his afterlife. “I got what I wanted in my lifetime, leave aside the Washington bit.” As for Munro, he fell to cholera on a tour of duty bringing genuine grief to colonial subjects. And George, he died nine years before the jewel was freed from his crown.

A Goat Sacrifice Turns Veggie

“Crazy guy!” I swore from the back seat.

A Renault Duster swerved ahead of us, going off-road and climbing back, steadying only as it passed us. Mahesh was silent, he is always silent, the best driver I've ever had. Then he spoke.

“Snake,” he said, dropping speed.

I looked back. It was a long one, the length of a rat snake. Non-venomous, a kere haavu. It was sleek and smooth and shining, a blue n’ white beauty, winding and unwinding and stuck on asphalt. A car behind had wised up to what had happened and had also slowed down to watch.

“It’s run over,” Mahesh said.

We were a half-hour away from our coffee plantation, where we visit twice a month from Bangalore. Being close to destination, we were more earnest on completing the journey than stopping to contemplate on how to end a creature’s suffering.

And anyway, I haven’t it in me to do a mercy killing. I’ve cut open anaesthetised frogs in school and seen their little hearts pumping while I’ve poked their other organs. But, being born vegetarian, I cannot kill for food, and I'm too squeamish to kill for sport, or in imitation of "Christian kindness".

This trip was for the annual prayer offered at the Devi’s shrine on the plantation.

~~~

Until this year, every year for eight years now, I’ve been pressing my fingers first on a goat’s brow, and pressing them next on my forehead. After that ritual, the plantation workers have led away the goat for slaughter in Devi’s name. “You mustn’t stop it. The villagers will blame you for misfortunes that might befall them,” the priest from the nearby temple told us when we bought the plantation eight years ago. Even the priest from the Shringeri temple, the temple to the goddess of wisdom, said the same thing.

~~~

A fresh young government officer near Tumkur was faced with such a problem some months ago. His townspeople killed a buffalo each year to appease the deity in the main temple. When the event came up this year, soon as he learnt about the imminent sacrifice, the officer gathered priests and devotees and asked them if they shouldn’t stop the practice in this time and age. He was met with silence.

He met them again. “If we don’t pour a paav of buffalo blood over the goddess we’ll all face doom in the year,” the men submitted. After hours of argument the officer struck a deal.

“Why kill a whole buffalo for a paav of blood? Why not ask a vet to draw only so much out?”

He won. I read the story in the papers. And I showed it to my wife, who has twice the normal woman’s will, and the same measure of pluck.

She called the plantation last week, and told the manager, and the foreman, that we’ll not have a sacrifice on our plantation this year. “Government orders,” she said. I know of no such order. The other side of the line returned silence.

“That’s good,” she said. “None of them protested.”

I sat back watched the wife in action.

She called an astrologer in Kerala, a state that stocks the best of them. He gave her permission, and a vegetarian solution: “Smash to the ground a water-gourd stuffed with kumkum. Smash two gourds, actually.”

My wife had the manager and the foreman buy two fat gourds, and one more. They did her bidding even if they didn’t break their silence.

“They don’t seem worried,” she said to me.

~~~

The same priest does the ceremony each year. He is head priest at the big temple nearby, so he’s much in demand, and should be booked two months ahead. He can’t help play prima donna, but he was a changed man this year. He smiled when I entered the hallowed ground. He decorated the deity better than all past years. He spoke kindly to the poor villagers who squatted about. When his cell phone rang, he ignored it.

When the finale comes there’s not even the sound of breathing, or the rustle of leaves among the press of coffee plants and shade trees. Even the birds are hushed. The breeze halts. With grave deliberation, the priest makes a hand-sized base of sand, presses a coconut into it, spreads a copper foil on the coconut, balances a block of hollowed-out vibhuti on the foil, inserts a lime in the hollow, and settles an egg on top of the lime. He takes a machete; he raises it over the assemblage before him, and closes his eyes, and meditates. Then, in the terrible silence he has caused, he brings down the machete, cleaves the assembly into equal halves, a sharp crack pierces the still and silent hearts gathered there, bringing gladness and relief with it.

The right hand of every man and woman rises to the breast and stays there. Eyes close. The goddess is happy. She will protect these her devotees; she will hand them the fortune that’s been prayed for; and a good crop; and she’ll keep out every disease from the old and the young.

~~~

Post-finale, for a touch down, the sacrifice. A vegetarian one this year. Into a narrow incision in the gourds the priest asked an assistant to pour red kumkum powder, and seal the incision. On either side of him he had two young men raise the gourds as high as they could. At his command they brought down the gourds with the full strength of their arms. From the smashed gourds red juice flowed, redder than blood.

~~~

In peace I write this, at my table in Bangalore.

On Forgetting to Make a Wish in Rishikesh

Rishikesh Town in the Valley

Rishikesh Town in the Valley

Leaving at seven in the morning, we had an easy drive to the Neelkant Mahadev temple. Still, it took us an hour to get there, because though the traffic was thin, and the hotel car was a superior SUV, our driver Kuldeep worked less the pedal and more his tongue.

We didn’t mind it. We rather enjoyed his Hindi, and tried speaking it a bit ourselves. The first part of the drive was down the mountain to Rishikesh town, and then we went up the mountains watching the play of the sun on the speeding Ganges. The sight of the river kept up for quite a while, and then we turned into pure mountain, passing occasional vendors of lichees and tiny dwellings with men and women working public hand-pumps for water.

“How old is the temple?” I asked Kuldeep in halting Hindi, unsure of the gender for the noun.

“Very old, sir,” he said, in lilting Hindi.

That was a good enough answer for me, because Rishikesh is almost as old as the religion that was sired in the mountains round it, and raised in the fertile plains that extend from it. I worked up a hazy vision of a large ancient temple, on the scale of the behemoths in southern India. I was wrong in my imagining. A temple dating to the founding times of the religion cannot be large. Big temples came later, rather like what the Christians have in Jerusalem, which is small, when compared with what they’ve got in the Vatican.

The deity at the Neelkant is the size of what Kuldeep claimed it was: The throat of Shiva in human form. By legend here’s where Shiva drank the poison the oceans threw up when gods and demons churned them to extract from them the death-defying amruta. Shiva did that to save creation from sure extinction, and was himself saved by his wife Parvati, who gripped his throat to prevent the poison from advancing. After he’d consumed the poison, Shiva cut off his throat and left it behind in Rishikesh. Our forefathers built a shelter round it.

This was Kuldeep’s story, told in sweet sing-song. The first part, we’ve always known. The latter was new.

Wikipedia says the deity in the Neelkant temple is a Shivalinga, the phallus of Shiva. The throat, then, must’ve been Kuldeep’s twist. Anyway, the deity as I saw it seemed neither like phallus nor throat; my memory holds out an image of a liver whose colour has turned.

That’s all right, I suppose. What matters really is what Shiva means, and his meaning lies but within us, which we carry inside of us everywhere we go.

The shelter over the deity is a small plain white cuboid building which you reach after an hour in line on a good day. A conventional temple-shell houses the cuboid, and the not-too-large hall round it. In the line, which crawled, the devotees were patient. They were mostly simple country folks, most of them aged. I was expecting a dramatic appearance of the deity, housed in a gilt-trimmed grotto, and so I was surprised by the austere cuboid and, when I entered, the so-small rock jutting out the ground. The priest who slouched on a stool by it was the more domineering presence. By his side lay a large metal basin in which currency notes of every denomination were piling high.

Will he surrender all that money to the temple fund? Or, are they all for him to take? I couldn’t push back the questions that came to mind, on the spot, and my punishment was served on the instant.

By tradition of that temple, I’d to pour a cup of water on the deity, sprinkle bael leaf on it, empty a tiny bottle of honey, and a same-size bottle of rose water. Confused by how the temple had turned out, I poured only half the cup of water, and forgot about the honey and the rose water. Liveried Kuldeep, who was doubling as our guide, asked the priest for a special service for us, and what we got was to linger there a few seconds longer.

Anxious that I hadn’t made a prayer before the deity, hadn’t made a single wish in this very special temple in this most holy place, I went out and walked up and stood in utter disorientation. An aged man, about seventy-plus, walked past me, and knocked my elbow as he went, sending a small, holy Shivalinga that I was holding flying off my hand. My anxiety doubled: Was this an omen?

Good things had been hoped for, such as a flower falling off the deity while we were there, or some such sign saying life would be splendid this day on. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, I forgot to make a wish; and my Shivalinga went crashing to the floor.

We walked back to the car in the sun, noting how the cool from the cloudburst of two nights ago was still prevailing. Down the mountain, in a bit, the Ganges reappeared, curving outward from a mountain group, rushing down the deep wedge between mountains, showing up her sinews in the sun, a picture of strength and resolve and endless striving. My spirits lifted; they couldn’t have stayed down on a birthday.

A Little Havelock

Port Blair … Havelock Island … Ross Island … Aberdeen Jetty … Neil Island … Corbyn’s Cove … Harriet’s Mount … Chatham Saw Mill. The Andamans didn’t sound Indian to me, nor even British. I rather remembered Singapore, where almost every stretch has an English name.

But I’m just saying. I’ve no quarrel with names and nationalities.

At Barefoot Resort on Havelock Island they asked me to take off my sneakers before climbing up to reception. A sign outside their restaurant asked the same. “Is why we’re called Barefoot,” they said.

“Really? Nice!”

Leaving my footwear at the steps was a good idea at my cottage. I took in no sand from the beach. (I only walk on dry sand. Go sneer.)

The resort leads out to Radhanagar Beach number 7. It’s a wide beach in a smooth arc and it’s a 30-minute brisk walk end to end. The ends are marked by a smattering of black pitted rocks. I didn’t climb over the rocks to see what’s on the other side. The Barefoot stretch was enough beach for me, where there were never more than six humans at a time. There were countless translucent crabs, though, but they were ever hurrying into their half-inch-wide holes, letting me be in my shell.

At five in the morning on the beach, it was just me and very early light. At five in the evening, there were more than one person on the sands. The day begins and ends sooner here than at home, even if the two share the same timezone. The islands are some sixteen-hundred kilometres east from the meridian on the mainland that marks Indian Standard Time.

I abandoned the beach during the length of the day. An Amazon Kindle in hand, reading The Jewel in the Crown, I let the heat and the wet and the unfailing courtesies of the Barefoot staff melt me. They never turned down a request: Can you cut the two-day lead-time for laundry to one? Yes, sir. Can you move me to that other cottage? Sure, sir. Can you give me a check-out at 2:00? I can manage 1:00, sir.

Rakhee, the senior staff at reception, came over and spoke Kannada with me. But I’m a proper Kannadiga, so I answered her in my best English.

Tall trees overhang the length of the shoreline and their canopies glow green and golden all the way. A good number of them are the Andaman Redwoods (padauk), broad and round and grainy, high and straight and robust. Precious, but, thank god, you cannot export unprocessed timber out the Andamans.

“We’ve no tigers on these islands. No leopards. No cheetah. But we have 48 types of snakes. So you can use this.”

A 4-inch torch with translucent body. When lit, the body glows white as well. It was the welcome-gift they gave at check-in, with an assurance:

“You won’t come across a snake. But if you see it, just stand there. It’ll go off.”

At night, the white torchlights continually approached the restaurant from three sides, making slow studious progress on tame jungle tracks. But when their owners emerged from the pitch dark they revealed untroubled faces. I remember one guest. He stood outside and shone his light on the stilt below. “Saab hai? Saab hai?” a waiter urged to know from the deck. The man didn’t answer; he looked on into the light he’d made. “I don’t think there’s a snake there,” the waiter said gently, after a long respectful pause. The guest came in eventually, still not saying what he’d seen. A deliberate, thoughtful man, with rotund face covered in plentiful hair.

Back in the room the housekeeping boys had forgotten their logbook. I couldn’t help reading the open pages, where several entries noted missing towels, and:

Room #05: Romantic dinner was done and decration.
Room #05: in bed sheet got blood stains. also both towels.

The Andamans are a favoured destination for honeymooners. I felt respect for people who wait until Havelock to consummate.

From anywhere in the archipelago you return to Port Blair to get out. It’s a town like any other in India.

“But why is it so much cleaner?”

“Central government rule,” the Barefoot Taxi driver said en route the airport. “They clean up. People respond. Chain reaction.”

Neat. The driver’s name was Netaji. After the patriot who planted the tricolour for the first time (it is said) on Indian soil.

“How’s it so that all Andaman people are so sweet like you?”

I didn’t ask him that. A nice tip seemed better. He was shy to take it.

The Cellular Jail in the Andamans

Prisoners on the upper levels of the Cellular Jail, if their wings faced Ross Island, should’ve been able to see that pearl of a place the British had made for themselves. It was something the colonisers rewarded themselves with, posted as they were to a frontier post in which a major task was to administrate the dread prison of the jewel in their crown and, of course, to provide safe harbour to passing friendly vessels. At night the condemned men should’ve watched the lights on the island across waters black in the dark, a mere ten minutes away by boat.

Kala pani. Black waters. By day the waters in this vast bay are a brilliant green upon deep blue. Sometimes they’re green everywhere. Their uplifting sight is a sure cure for the depressed who’ve arrived of their own will. But for those condemned to these small islands a thousand watery miles out from home, the waters would’ve offered no colour and no hope any time.

The Jail Museum (and the daily sound and light show) pin most attention on one jailor: David Barrie, an Irishman, who was in charge from 1905 until 1919. He welcomed every fresh boatload of men in person, and challenged them to answer why the prison walls were so low. “Because there’s the sea on all sides for a thousand miles. So listen! Here on this island I’m your God.”

The jail is on a rise on the tip of the island. Its design is clever: the seven wings of it branch out from a central hub like bicycle spokes. Their lengths are unequal, because they terminate on a polygonal perimeter. Each wing faces the back of the wing in front, pushing the prisoner to complete desolation.

Savarkar was among the big ones that did time in the Andamans. Ten years, from 1911 until 1921. His cell is on the second floor of an inland-facing wing. Down below and across from his cell were the gallows where three men could be released from the misery of Kala Pani with one tug on the lever. Savarkar writes that the sounds of the bulbul bird eased his loneliness. In his cell a hundred years after him, I heard busy sparrows, and a heavy quiet.

On Ross Island the English had engineered the elegant life they put together anywhere they went. There’s now only the palimpsest of what they’d built in their time, because time and the elements and the roots of tall trees have crushed the structures. Only the façade and the back wall of a fine Presbyterian church stand now, and they’re waiting to fall also. A short walk from there on the same height is the plinth of the Commissioner’s bungalow with a few walls gripped by trees. On some stretches on the floor some tiles live with their patterns intact. They’re a fine pattern, tiles for an exalted man.

It’s such a small island. But it held everything: a press; a bakery that turned out stuff French style; barracks; lighthouse; tennis courts, swimming pool; a clubhouse for junior commissioned officers; a club house for pukka officers; a market; large bungalows for whites; sequestered dwellings for Indians. Some Tourism Department boards claim Ross Island was then the Paris of the East. If that was so, then it must’ve been Paris in Miniature. When the Japs occupied the islands during World War II, they broke down the buildings for bricks with which to build bunkers and shelters, rendering waste plentiful Italian marbles and tiles, elaborate painted glasses in the church, and all such lovingly obtained stuff with which the Britons had built their Little Paris.

Only the bakery and a portion of the barracks are restored on this island. The sound n’ light show uses the façade of the bakery to cast visuals. For me, this show is better conceived and executed than the one at the Cellular Jail. Only, the Ross Island version is graphic, and the hangings and an assassination, as they’re shown, are not for children to see. There were over a dozen kids in the audience with me. The poet Gulzar has written the show and narrated the Hindi version. Actor Shabana Azmi had done the English version. It’s an emotional affair. It intends to rouse. And the Indian who’s been in the Cellular Jail is raw enough for the rousing.

A Stray Princess and Others

The brown stray before film-producer Shailendra Babu's house is a princess. The guard of the Swiss expats next-door to Babu's sweeps a perfect round bed for her, using fallen flowers and leaves, and she settles in it nightly. But the black one that has staked out on Fourth Cross sleeps in the gutter along the particularly swank houses there. Once he growled at me and I barked back at him and little children who happened to be around on that normally empty street watched me in quiet disapproval. Anyway, I've won respect since, and walk undisturbed on that stretch.

The first intersection that connects First Cross to Third Cross belongs to a black n' white, who always used to leave me alone. She came sniffing after me the other day and I snapped at her and she didn't like being spurned at all and bared her long teeth and raised her hackles—I've abandoned her short street to her. The two others who're on the next two connecting streets are a somnolent lot, and I skirt around them when I'm there, always worrying what might happen if I should step on them.

Some strays have moved up. A black n' brown that a European lady took for a pet, she has fully bent to obedience. These days her skinny guard walks him, leaving his post at his gate for a half hour in the morning. He doesn't hold him on a leash, which is how my neighbors insist they be allowed to treat their dogs, fears of others be damned. The western woman's fare hasn't fattened the stray, and the two gangly males walk side by side in urbane intimacy.

Three minutes away from my home, on the corner of First Main and Fifth Cross, a schoolboy sits at five-thirty most mornings on the front steps of the enormous house there. It's an exotic house in the style of a Rajasthani haveli. The boy feeds by hand two strays and his orangey Pomeranian. Biscuits, I think. He doesn't look up when I pass in the light of the street lamp, casting a long shadow over his party.

The stray before my house, who has assumed charge of entire Third Main, is rickety and deeply scarred below her eye. How she defends her long territory, I don't know. When she took the street a few years ago, I had to lower the guard on my gate because she'd slip in under it to commune with my handsome Siberian Husky. She barks all the time, and in spite of her large realm she's forever parked before my house, because actor Jai Jagadish's daughters throw crumbs for him from their balcony across the street. I accommodate the barking because of a certain guilt: This female's predecessor used to lie just where she does, and one night I pulled my car out the gate and right over her in a sudden, careless burst.

Short Jottings From Southern Country

Upstream Kaveri, where some water flowed…

Upstream Kaveri, where some water flowed…

A cobbler had squatted on a corner of the town square in Malavalli, not even an arm’s length from the traffic lolling before him. With neck and shoulder he clasped the stick of a black, tattered umbrella that sheltered him from the April sun. He was cutting a piece of pelt into tiny bits to stock up for slippers he was expecting to come in for repair that day. The constant traffic was slowed by pits and bumps and large stones that had come loose from the metalled square. Dust flew everywhere, a lot into the cobbler’s face, close as he was to the source of it.

We were headed toward Talakkad.

Out the square and out of town the dust lay low. Everything was pressed low by brutal heat that bore down from above. Equal heat rose up from the tortured earth. At ten in the morning not a soul was at work in the fields, but when we passed an occasional tree with a wide-enough canopy, there we saw people, lying in the shade, or engaged in gossip, some even playing a card game. Not a cow was in sight, or an ox, and in Bannur, not one of the sheep for which Bannur is famous. That town beat me, made me think how a place so withered spawned sheep so full and wholesome.

The granite blocks that serve as survey markers on the fields are now painted a bright blue. It’s a new practice, those stones have been naked and discreet all these years that I’ve known them. The paint was fresh on all of them, and they stood bold and erect in their brand new coat. Also bright was the green on the long leaves of corn and cane, and the world still looked rich where these crops awaited harvesting.

It was possible to savour beauty in spite of the ever-trickling sweat that harassed face, neck and back. We swigged water a lot.

In the evening, on our way home, the world had cooled and though we felt sticky, we were dry. We paused ahead of a long narrow bridge across the river Kaveri whose path lies a few minutes out from the village Mullur. It is a very wide path of the once-great river, midway here in its course, a dried-out path in which two or three thin, bashful streams had survived. They were scurrying onward to the Bay of Bengal, some three-hundred kilometres down. Speeding in low crevices they looked like they wished not to be seen. A riverbed with no river on it: It seemed moist, and at dusk it was the colour of rust and deep shades of grey. The sight and I pushed back at each other, but as we moved on I wished those gangly streams good luck.

Shiva is an Emotional Fellow

“How to date a temple? How to tell who built it, and who made changes and additions? How do we decipher these icons and what shall we infer from changes made in them? I’ll tell all this in the manner of a storyteller,” Dr. Kulkarni promised us before the portal to the Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple at the feet of Nandi Hills, Saturday last.

Dr. Kulkarni is Principal of the Fine Arts School at the Chitrakala Parishat. He is a scholar in art history, a practicing artist, photographer, master of Vedic scriptures, and a long-time traveler. He bears his load of learning with ease and a friendly, comely, perpetual grin on a rotund person.

We were a group of twelve roasting under an avatar of the sun that we haven’t ever known in Bangalore. It helped, though, that we were with the good folks from INTACH, who’d organised the trip with Dr. Kulkarni as lead.

Here’s one story from among many that Dr. Kulkarni told us over three hours, this one before an Udbhava Linga on back of the 9th century temple.

At some point in cosmic time Vishnu and Brahma broke out in quarrel on the subject of who among them was the greater. They argued with divine persuasiveness over ages, but seeing no promise of a resolution in the ages to come, they agreed but on one thing: “Let’s go to Shiva. Let’s ask him which of us is greater.”

Shiva sized up their fury and saw that a test was inescapable and he set one for them. “Choose an extremity of mine,” he said. “My feet or my crown. Who reaches either end faster than the other is the greater. Having gone there, bring me proof.”

Vishnu chose the feet and began a rapid descent to them. But after countless yugas had passed he was still somewhere among Shiva’s thighs. He decided to give up.

“Vishnu is a cool fellow,” Dr. Kulkarni added to his narration. “But Brahma, you see, he is a cunning guy.”

During the time Vishnu had spent attempting a speedy journey to Shiva’s feet, Brahma had been engaged in an ascent to Shiva’s crown. At the time when Vishnu gave up the challenge, Brahma had reached no higher than Shiva’s navel, and just when the hopelessness of his quest was becoming apparent to him, he came upon the kedage flower. A plan blossomed. He told Kedage his plight, and his serious wish to be pronounced winner by Shiva.

“Will you come with me and tell Shiva you’ve seen me on his head?” he asked Kedage.

Now Kedage (lavender) used to be strewn about Shiva’s crown, and she was wary of Brahma’s propensity for pronouncing quick and terrible curses. So she agreed, and even as she was saying “Yes,” Kamadhenu appeared on the scene. Kamadhenu, as you know, grazes among Shiva’s tresses, and Brahma told Kamadhenu his plight and his serious wish to be pronounced winner by Shiva.

“Will you come with me and tell Shiva you’ve seen me on his head?” he asked Kamadhenu.

For the same reason as Kedage, Kamadhenu agreed, and Brahma and Kedage and Kamadhenu hastened and appeared before Shiva, and Brahma declared he’d mounted Shiva’s crown.

“Is this true?” Shiva asked Kedage, and she lied, and Shiva of the three eyes, seeing the lie, cursed her:

“You will never again be used in prayers to me.”

Then he turned to Kamadhenu and asked her: “Is this true?” and Kamadhenu lied as well. Enraged once more, Shiva cursed Kamadhenu:

“You will never again receive worship at your face. All worship to you shall henceforth be at your tail.”

“You see, Shiva is a very emotional fellow,” Dr. Kulkarni added at this point. None of us asked him how Shiva punished Brahma for the bigger lie.

His next story was about how all worship to Shiva came to be directed only to his phallus. I’m not writing that story just now, but I must tell you that I came away feeling good about having spent time in a place with people who speak in jest of our Father in heaven, same as how we pinch and punch and tease our father here on earth.

Can You Walk Like This?

These are days of the honge (Pongamia Pinnata). The white n’violet flowers, which are bud-like even in full bloom, are falling nonstop, and when they hit the ground they sound like tiny ping-pong balls. By evening the heat toasts them and the traffic crushes them to thinner-than-vermicelli fibre, and they turn springy like dried moss.

Sharing the street-space are copious splashes of bird droppings. There are also, of course, recurrent spittle spat on the entire length of my morning walk by my compatriots. I mention these merely to boast that I’m nimble, and that I reach home with clean soles.

But yesterday:

“Walk like this!” the doctor told me, and showed me how.

Short steps. The back of the front foot touching the toes of the rear foot. Repeated so, from wall to window in his smallish room at the Columbia Asia Hospital.

Negative.

“Now do this,” he said, and did the same with eyes closed.

Disaster.

“If you’d asked me but three days ago, I’d have done this backwards, and faster than you,” I told him in my mind.

“Worry is, this’s happened suddenly,” he said, reading my eyes. “We've to rule out a stroke.”

In minutes I lay on an MRI apparatus, wearing earmuffs, head cased in an inner and an outer cover. The inner had a cutout for the face, and the outer had a white translucent window. With a soft moan the machine sucked me into its claustrophobic parlour for a twenty-minute talking-to.

Two kinds of sound assailed my head—in seven cycles. A treble and a bass, they worked to no pattern, screeching and squeaking and tapping and knocking. One cycle among them was different, almost pleasant: in it the treble and the bass sounded like they’d both just been tuned-up, and were on a dry run. I tried not to shake my head to the tune, having been warned thrice not to. My mouth, of course, was shut all the while the machine performed its monologue.

“About time,” I thought when I finally felt the technician’s hand on my arm. He first removed a berry-sized ball he’d kept in my hand to abort, if I wished to, this excessive man-machine intimacy.

For the Doppler Test next, the technician smeared goo on the broad blunt probe and pushed and dragged it across my throat at many angles. When she had my head toward her I could watch the monitor. Cloud-like formations moved on it. Red flashes appeared like in a storm, and when she moved the cursor small green specks came up among the red splashes. “Blood vessels,” she told me. The visual was accompanied by soft, continual explosions, sort of frothy, like gunfire in sci-fi movies. Only, the sounds were even more muffled here. “Documentation,” she said. A lengthy graph took shape along the bottom of the monitor.

Back in the doctor’s office, he had my brain in black and white at all angles before him. He flashed a younger-brother smile at me. “No stroke,” he said, surprising me with what looked like genuine relief. “But we need to send more blood to your brain. Plus, you’re short on B12.”

“This is a little painful injection, sir,” the nurse told me in her little cabin. She spoke in such a strong Malayalee accent, I relaxed in an instant. None do I trust more with the needle than the Malayalee nurse.

In a week I should be able to do the catwalk.

A Very Good Deal

It’s Good Friday, good even at 36º, because the streets are empty this long weekend, and the lobby-lounge of Shangri-La is quiet. I’m reading Gora over cappuccino (one-and-a-half shot). Outside, a breeze is worrying the slender young Ashokas that line the compound wall of the hotel. The trees are heaving against their bindings, and despite their masculine name, they appear maidenly to me.

By the glass wall at my opposite end are seated three men who came in right after me. One of them is about twenty-five, fair, tall. His hair is wavy and his face like Rajesh Khanna’s. His companions are forty-ish, and one of them has an apostolic beard. Each time I look up from my reading I see them, and they sense my eyes and turn and our sights lock a moment.

After about an hour like this, while I’m into my book, there’s commotion by my side. An old man has arrived. He is maybe five feet two, no more. His shirt is too large, and also his trousers, and they’re both white and starched stiff. So you can’t see his limbs move, but you can tell they’re thin. I can see his shoes, though. They’re of white leather, with tan trims. Only his feet seem to work, the rest of him floats like a tableau. The men I’ve been watching have jumped up and rushed over to welcome him. The waitresses have hurried up also, wide-eyed and bowing and smiling.

The old man runs his palm over the young man’s face. He chucks his chin. They go over to the table they’ve already taken. As the old man arranges himself in his seat I see he is bald on top, which shows through strands of extra-black hair pulled across the crown from left to right. He catches me watching him, yet I gaze, in spite of myself, and he immerses himself in his group.

The waitresses hover a while and leave. I realise now that their table has been empty all the time. After only a few minutes the old man rises, and the men in their forties rise also, and they walk over to the front, where they settle in a spacious pool of couches. The young man, alone now, leans back and pulls out his phone.

After a brisk bout of talking the three men return to the young man. The old man talks, the other two bend their heads and nod. Their table is still not served. I think back to a friend from long ago. He was CEO of an investment company that put venture funds in mine. He started his own business later, and during its startup days he ran the enterprise from the lobby of the Taj Hotel, doing meetings there, sometimes over coffee, often over nothing.

The four finish their business in quick time, and continue talking on their way out. The old man again strokes the young chap’s face. “Sochlo,” he tells him, while passing me. “Accha deal hai. Better settle, I think.”

I lose myself again in my reading, conscious of Seoan’s Under The Moon coming down from speakers high above. When I look up next, the young man has returned and settled alone among the sofas in front. His profile is sharp and set, and he is staring straight ahead. A chill beer sits aloof before him, for which he should bend when he wants it, so far is the table from his seat.

“Cheers,” I tell him in my mind, and pick up my just-served vanilla-infused tea.