I'll Always Love This City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will always love this city, I told myself.

Coffee Past and Coffee Present and a Copper Moon

Nandi Thota

Nandi Thota

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

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

~~

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

~~

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

~~

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

~~

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

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

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

Art, Perhaps

The lobby at the ITC Windsor Manor, Bangalore

The lobby at the ITC Windsor Manor, Bangalore

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

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

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

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

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

Gunman in Pensioner's Paradise

Coffee Day Square, Bangalore

Coffee Day Square, Bangalore

Bangalore, The Garden City, turned altogether into a Business City a decade or so ago, and these days there’s little room in it for frills. But new fancies are afoot. Such as guns and armed guards. I’m remembering something I saw the other day, at the Coffee Day Square by Cubbon Park.

It was Sunday morning, and quiet in the cafe. I eased into my reading, and was soon lost in it, and when I paused when a chapter ended and a fresh once commenced, my eyes caught sight of a pair of men coming in: a businessman and a gunman.

The gunman was lean and, as he walked, loose in the neck and waist and knees. It did not appear that he’d ever stood erect in attention. The youth in his body and the glow on his face suggested decent health, however. He wore a coarse-woven, deep-brown safari suit, and it fit him quite all right.

He came in trailing his charge: a middle-aged man who wore whites, and sported wheatish skin and all-white hair. As with most men at the top, he carried only a cell phone. From inside the cafe, a man who’d been waiting, and who rose and walked over to receive the businessman, had all the files in hand. But this businessman, in spite of his stunning white hair, didn’t really seem like a biggie; only in his white hair he appeared distinguished; the rest of him didn’t suggest stature enough to warrant a gunman. His white shirt he’d let fall over unremarkable slacks, he wore modest sandals over his feet. That’s the nature of things, I suppose.

I’ve recently finished watching the first season of Narcos on Netflix, and marveled at the numbers of men who stood about paunchy Pablo, armed with the best and ready to die.

The VIP—because only the very important go around with armed men—went into a recessed section in the cafe where I couldn’t watch him. The man who’d waited for him went along with him, bent and dererential and always a step behind. As regards the guard, he dropped his gun on the soft leather of a chair in a pool of chairs round a table next to mine. The gun jumped up and fell back in the seat and settled. The guard flopped down on a chair next to the gun’s, opened his handphone, and dived in.

I resumed the reading I’d been doing and lost count of time, and with the calm of Sunday settling about me, I almost missed the exit of the pair. A movement at the next table caught my attention. The white-haired-businessman had come up there, was tapping his guard on the shoulder, waking him from Facebook, or perhaps WhatsApp. The guard dug his palm into his seat so as to rise, picked up his long gun, slung it over his shoulder, and followed his charge. His eyes he kept to the ground. At every step he broke at his knees, at his waist, at his neck.

On his part, the VIP was alert. His eyes were quick, his head live to the world, his body bounding—and he looked fit enough to point at danger—should it arrive—to his guard. The guard would then aim and fire, perhaps. That must’ve been the deal. A deal worthy of an erstwhile Garden City, a Pensioner’s Paradise.

Maadeva and the Missionary’s Boy

Maadeva came home from school at 4:00, as usual. The missionary’s wife came out his door just then, which was unusual. She brushed past him, seeing and yet not seeing him, her lips stretched thin. She’d been in Maadeva’s house once before, with her husband the missionary, and there’d been a very polite conversation then. The couple had urged Maadeva’s parents to “give it a try,” and “to join them in prayer.” The couple had left a few slim books behind, with Jesus on cover of all of them, face framed by light-splash, halo on top.

“Read ‘em when you’re free,” the husband had said. Maadeva had so liked how the tall white man spoke.

Maadeva wasn’t surprised by this woman’s second visit, though. His mother was also at the door, sending off the white lady, and an anxiety brewing from yesterday gathered weight and turned into fear in his stomach. He couldn’t hug his mother today, and bury his face in her sari, because she did a right-about-turn and strode into the kitchen. Maadeva lingered on the steps, recalled the day before.


“I didn’t do anything,” he told himself.

What had happened yesterday was that he’d lost to Shri in a game of marbles, on penalty terms. And Stephen, the missionary’s son, had got entangled in the penalty part.

Right before his house Maadeva had lost, and Shri worked the marbles focused on exacting maximum penalty. The boys were both eleven, and attended the same class in school, but Shri was taller and stronger. Not smiling, eyes set on the marbles, and squatting in the street, he sent Maadeva’s marble flying with each strike of his own marble, delivered by mid-finger, thumb on ground. The marbles took an erratic course on the metaled-but-unaspalted street, colliding with stones, changing course, but never leaving the street. Shri went hopping along with them, and Maadeva walked in step. Presently, Stephen the missionary’s son appeared at his gate at the end of the street and, seeing them, came up. Which was unusual also, because he never mixed with any of the boys. It was a mystery where Stephen went to school, because he wasn’t in any class in Maadeva’s Jesuit school, the only one in town Stephen could’ve been in.

He joined Maadeva and watched his lengthening penalty. The defeated marble was making brisk progress. Shri never got up, just hopped onward to Maadeva’s marble’s next stop, to settle his thumb at palm’s length from it for the next strike.

“Gee,” Stephen said to Maadeva. “Aren’t you playing?”

“I lost,” Maadeva said. “This is penalty.”

“Oh,” Stephen said.

The party of three went down in step. Sweat flowed down Maadeva’s temples, it had made the back of Shri’s shirt altogether wet, and Stephen was wet all over. His mouth looked like he’d splashed water on it.

They reached Lavanya’s house. Fair Laavanya went to the Jesuits’ segregated school for girls. Maadeva went over to the compound wall of her house, climbed on it, pulled down a long leaf from a frond of the coconut tree there. Tearing the green from the rib, he rolled it into a conical tube, flattend the tube on the wall, fitted two bits of green into the narrower end, fashioning a mouthpiece there. He gave the thing to Stephen.

“It’s a peepi. Blow.”

“Gee,” Stephen said, blowing it. A flat monotonic screech issued from it.

“You’re my best friend,” Stephen said, after he’d blown it for a while. Shri looked up from the marbles. Maadeva was silent, aware of a just-born doubt worming around in his eleven-year-old mind.

Shri resumed, and cursed. “Ththu!”

He had finally missed. He stood up and kicked his legs in the air and went to fetch his marble which had gone a good distance. Maadeva squatted now. He started to sweep the marble up the street with the back of his hand. Shri and Stephen followed him as he went back up the street. After they’d gone a distance and a fair bit was still left to fulfill the penalty, Stephen spoke.

“Can I do it from here?”

Maadeva looked up. Stephen’s eyes were squinting in blazing light. Blue eyes. Yellow, tousled hair. Fruity lips pouting in a perfect round. Straight, flat-tipped nose. Nice curve to the nostrils. On Maadeva’s other side Shri’s dark face had turned darker in shadow of long hair that hung about it, and the sun behind him, silhouetting all of him.

“No,” Maadeva said, shaking his head. “Too many stones.”

“Lemme try.”

The sweeping had to go on until Maadeva’s house. Stephen swept the marble with flourish, and hopped with equal spirit. But he had to stand now and then. Maadeva’s peepi peeped from his pocket. Reaching Maadeva’s gate, he had wiped his hand on his clothes so much he was as dirty as the other two. His hand looked bad.

“We’re playing again?” he asked, clapping dust off his hands, grinning.

Maadeva looked at Shri, who winked and, without waiting, folded down to the ground, drew a circle in the dust with forefinger, and readied a fresh game.

“Penalty?” he asked. Maadeva looked at Stephen, whose waning grin lifted back up.

“Sure,” Stephen said to Shri. Maadeva looked hard at him. The boy was all red now, and just glowing.

“Yes!”


Finally, Maadeva went into the kitchen and got the slap he knew was coming. His mother’s brown oval face was all screwed up, specially at the mouth, which was twisted. She was shaking. “Loafer. Chasing white boys to play with. Look at you,” she said, and advanced again toward him. She didn’t hit him this time. Reaching past him, she laid a finger on a Bournvita tin on the shelves, on the chocolate-colored band round it.

“Always in the street,” she said. “You’re this color!”

The Snake in Maadeva's Head

500px: Silent Admirer by Phalgun Kumar

500px: Silent Admirer by Phalgun Kumar

“Come,” Maadeva’s father called, toothpaste foaming about his mouth. He pointed to the dirt track running from door to compound gate. A gleaming green snake was making slow progress across it, burdened by a fat blob in its middle.

“It has swallowed something” he said, and Maadeva hugged tight his father’s muscled thigh.

This was in Hassan. Maadeva was six, and he went to school and came back with next-door Partha on his bicycle. Partha was four years older. Maadeva sat edgeways on the saddle bar, his hair grazing Partha’s chin. Going with the older boy meant he arrived too early for his class in the morning, and he had to wait until Partha’s classes ended in the afternoon. An arrangement to keep him safe, even if there wasn’t any real threat to a kid there in those days.

These days the adult Maadeva dreams of snakes all the time. Of big long snakes, vipers and cobras, in woods and pits and endless dried-up runnels. He flies with considerable grace over them, without wings, with a fluid flapping of arms and legs, and he marvels at his flying style even as he dreams. He swoops down and glides and hovers over the snakes, but never in a way to annoy. He’s never been struck or bitten in any of these flights.

The afternoon on the day when he saw the green snake in the morning, when he came back from school, the thing was no more green. It was lying by the gutter than ran along their compound, some ten feet from the gate. It had been bludgeoned from head to tail-tip, and the head had been done into the ground and the length of the body had been beaten every inch so the glinting translucent green had bled and the dull color of sun-dried dirt had taken its place. The rise of the blob in its belly was smashed as well, and the sun had baked the splash from it with fine dust.

Maadeva is a businessman now, and his sprawling main-campus out of town is infested with every type of snake. The guards on campus catch them when they stray near office spaces, and sometimes Maadeva’s guests from abroad shoot selfies with a captured cobra back of them.

In all this snake-business, there’s a snake that resides in the dark in Maadeva’s head. That’s what Maadeva calls his right-hand-man who manages finance in his companies. “Fellow’s a cobra,” Maadeva tells his homemaker wife, “and he’d have ditched me long ago. If he’d been able to do just a fraction of what I can.” This is the one snake Maadeva hasn’t reconciled with, but he knows in his heart he’d be heartbroken if parted from it.

Some of you would know Maadeva is another of Shiva’s many names — Shiva, who wears a rather pretty serpent round his head, its coils tousling his rough tresses, its anterior binding them. Every day Maadeva folds his hands to Shiva, in devout namaskar, before leaving home for work.

Pasumalai in Madurai

I was in Madurai three days, lodged at the Taj Gateway Hotel atop Pasumalai. Pasu means animal; a malai is a hill, sometimes also a mountain.

The gate to the hilltop property is right on the busy main street, secured by a weighted crossbar and polite guards who ask you questions and believe your answers. The animals who’ve always owned the hill have their own scheme of entrances and exits and also a vast expanse back of the hill to which they scoot when humans get on their nerves. Signs on the narrow road up the hill ask you to watch out for mongoose crossings. Over three days I saw twice from the taxi low long mongoose flit across. Once I saw a baby mongoose emerge from and back off into the hedge by the swimming pool, which I was facing while walking on a treadmill in the hotel fitness centre.

So many mongoose. No signs about snakes.


The peacock is vain. Although male, it steps about in the delicate manner of a human female model on show on a ramp, slow and deliberate and ever full of self. It was probably its season, for the half dozen or so peacocks in the hotel fanned out their tails even at male humans. The dozen male and female of the birds that the hotel has planted on its property cry out continually, and sometimes at night the entire number of them are on top in the tree you’re passing beneath, and they let off an alarming cry all together and startle you into paralysis. For a moment, in the darkness, you believe ghosts exist.

Powerful nations have the agile eagle with its mean eyes as national bird. The Americans, for example. Germans. What can be said about Indians, whose national bird is the peacock? Another question: Couldn’t the English language have offered this not-too-bad-looking bird a better name?


Over a century ago, the Pasumalai Gateway Hotel was the house of the chief executive of the JB Coats company of the United Kingdom. That officer, white of course, wouldn’t have had to see the urban sprawl that’s at the foot of the hill these days. He’d have had a clean view to the single hill that looks like a sphinx on one side of the plains; turning right-about he’d see a twin set of granite hills, one wooded and the other bare and deep-veined; turning right then, he’d see a whole range of hills on the horizon, running soft and blue for a decent distance. He’d see the flat green plain running all the way up to them.

This hill-range I could see from the oddly named hotel restaurant: GAD, it is called. From another window of GAD, the sphinx-shaped hill could also be seen. Seated in the restaurant, the sprawl of the city wasn’t visible whereas the hills and the clouds looked lovely from it. Every meal I ate in that restaurant was good, equal to Taj’s quality and Madurai’s fame. Even the limited vegetarian I order. Thoughts came to mind that was tranquil in a sated body, and I scribbled some in my green-back Moleskine.

I might get serious with my notes someday.

We Are Not India's Enemies

I pass the Shia mosque near Johnson Market workdays when in Bangalore. Early morning I see a blur of it in good traffic; evenings, I’m force-paused before it, and I gaze in boredom at the all-white thing. Saturday last week, I went in there with some folks to look.

It was built in 1891 on an ₹800 charity from Iranian immigrant Aga Ali Asker. The purse came from wealth he’d accumulated in Bangalore, trading in Arab horses imported from home. The British in Bangalore and the Maharajah in Mysore were his patrons; he could count Mark Cubbon his friend, and sit in the Rajah’s private durbar.

Ali Asker’s grandson Mirza went to school with the Rajah, and became the Rajah’s diwan when the two had grown. The diwan’s life is a celebrated one, despite daubs of communal colour attempted on it season to political season. There are considerable luminaries succeding Ali Asker in his lineage, but it seems that wealth on the scale of Ali Asker’s hasn’t stayed in a single pair of hands after him. Perhaps it cannot; perhaps it shouldn’t.

On an expansive tract in the area where his Shia mosque came up is where Ali Asker settled, set up stables for his studs and fillies, and built his home. The central structure in the area is the now-crumbling, largely empty, dark and dank Johnson Market. Behind the the mosque and the market used to be Ali Asker’s house, now razed. Between these spots run alleys that are called Arab Lines, and on the widest Arab Line a high wide gate leads into what looks like a homestead which encloses an elegant colonial-style home, a big whitewashed structure that must be a private ashurkhana, and other, lesser structures. M.H. Agha, direct descendent of Ali Asker, lives there.

From the mosque we went over to Mr. Agha’s. We were a group of six, on a walking tour of the area. Mr. Agha offered tea soon as he saw us, walked us to a room on the front of the compound and, seating us there, began to speak. Tea came soon after, made and carried by his daughter, served sweet in gilt-trimmed china.

How was life here during Ali Asker’s time? Mr. Agha was ready to tell it, but first he needed to narrate his own story, his career at state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics, and his part in defending India against Pakistan in ’65.

India had a few aircraft that were down, he told us, whereas Pakistan’s squadrons were in fine shape. The chief of our air force called Mr. Agha, and challenged him to get them off the ground. Mr. Agha went and dug out every spare they had, took them to his “dispensary”: The ailment of the planes was in their engines. With ingenuity he had them spinning again, and the planes soon had their noses up in the air, pining for the skies.

Mr. Agha mimed with both hands the flying planes. When the enemy jets came over the border, Indian planes met them with the full force of their second wind and cut them down.

One among us was a journalist from New York, working in Asia ten years now. She is published in the Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review. She applied more than once her skill.

“Sir, can you describe this place to us in Ali Asker’s time?”

“Yes,” he said, surprised each time to be so interrupted, “but I must finish my story first!”

It is not easy to dislodge an elder from his mission, and Mr. Agha’s was less to sell the glory of Bangalore’s old Shia than to secure in us an understanding of the living Shia here, even if we were a mere inconsequential six in weekend attire. So he went on to the story of his son, a sportsman who has won the Ekalavya award, and then to the message of love and peace in the Muslim religion. The picture of Ali Asker's times, when Mr. Agha came to it, was dealt with in a single brush-stroke: "Yes, you can come again. Please call me before coming."

But he took us into his home, and allowed us to peer into showcases, and at portraits and photographs on the walls — Diwan Mirza with the Maharaja Wodeyar, Mr. Agha's grandfather in a very long car of the day, and so on. The past was living well in the nice old house.

Men at the mosque had also described Islam earlier in the morning. They'd narrated the history of Karbala, “the greatest tragedy ever”, to which the Shia identity is tied. They'd explained Shia icons, and robe, and sword, and turban, and asserted: “Whether Shia or Sunni, the Muslim is not an enemy of India." They'd urged us to go to the annual gathering at Karbala. “Five crore persons gather in a city smaller than Mysore. You'll find there the meal you demand. Idli-dosa? Just wish for it. You’ll see miracles all round you in Karbala.”

Ali Asker arrived here circa 1824. He didn’t come with an invading army. He was an immigrant in a place ruled by a Christian colonizer through a Hindu maharajah. His assets spanned the best parts of Bangalore, and many of them are landmarks well after his time. The official residence of today’s governor was Ali Asker’s, which he gave Mark Cubbon, which free India inherited. The length Ali Asker Road has been populated by a multicultural set of a quiet, elegant, rich people. When the Prince of Wales visited Mysore, the Maharajah introduced an aged Ali Asker to him.

We were visiting a community Ali Asker’s enterprise had spawned. We were listening to decent people of that community who, in these complex times, feel a need to explain themselves to others. I didn't feel good about that. But I'm glad I discovered Aga Ali Asker.


Reference: A Turquoise Cloud

Much Salt Over a Little Pepper

An inconsequential episode regarding pepper at Nandi Thota, except that …


We thought it was foreman Mohan’s work when we first heard of it, which was through a call by Mohan himself, to Sujaya in Bangalore.

“Somebody is drying pepper on the bungalow terrace, madam.”

“But we’re not drying pepper. Hasn’t the dealer taken it yet?”

Only the coffee is picked by plantation labour. Pepper is leased out to a dealer, who brings his own men who settle on the plantation until the picking is over.

“Not our pepper, madam. Somebody is drying it for himself. I saw it when I went up with Nagesh-sir. We saw it together.”

Nagesh is our civil-works contractor. He’d gone to the plantation to see about a leak in the roof. He called Sujaya the same evening. He’d gone there in the morning, had been unable to tell Mohan when he was coming. By the time Mohan came to the bungalow from whichever coffee-patch he was working on, Nagesh had already climbed the terrace. About 4 kilograms of pepper was drying there, spread out on plastic sheets.

“Mohan looked surprised, madam. But he’s the one behind it, no doubt,” he said.

Mohan called next morning. “It’s Vadhi’s son, madam. I found out today. He’s not denying it.”

Old Vadhi has been caught laying ingenious traps for wild hare across the plantation. And I had to shout at him once to make him stop bringing visitors to the labour line for his wife. The lady claims god comes upon her when she wills it. Armed with the almighty, and for a fee, she’d been telling villagers their past and future. She’d been offering to patch their future for a little extra.

“Who allowed the boy to climb the roof?”

“He says the guard, madam.”

“What’s wrong in that guard’s head? He should be guarding the bungalow. What’s he saying?”

“He says the boy is lying, madam.”

She called the guard. “I don’t know anything. madam,” he swore. “I don’t know how he went up. I’m always going round and round the bungalow.”

It is allowed for labourers to gather the little pepper that has fallen to the ground after the pepper-dealer is done. What worried us was that a workman had gone up our bungalow. How much liberty were folks taking in our absence? How much was Mohan involved?

Two weeks passed, and in that time Mohan reported that the bungalow-guard had left the plantation. Health problems. Also, Vadhi’s son was getting married.

The two days of the wedding fell on the same weekend we managed to free ourselves in Bangalore to visit the plantation. The son’s home was decked up with a thorana arch, made of banana stems and marigolds and palm fronds and mango leaves. A vaadya hung about, on call to play hard-edged pipe music to the accompaniment of rustic drums each time a ceremonial event happened.

We asked for Vadhi’s son to see us the next day. It was absolutely the wrong time for it, but we told ourselves, “We really must find out what’s going on, and nip it now.”

The music from the vaadya could still be heard the following morning. The bride would enter the groom’s home today, and more colour had been commandeered for the event: flowers, and silks, and so on. Relatives on both sides had arrived by rickshaw and small trucks. When the bride arrived she was led to the groom with a shining, chinari-decorated umbrella over her. Squealing children got in the way of men and women performing important, adult tasks round the couple. With high head-decorations, the bride and groom were the tallest in the crowd, king and queen in the moment.

Afternoon, Vadhi brought his son the groom to the bungalow. He handed Sujaya a large, long invitation card for the just-concluded wedding. His face was plaintive, different than the insolent one of the last time, when I’d shouted at him.

“He’s just a boy,” he said, gesturing to his son who stood behind him to come up. “Made a mistake. Please let it go this once.”

His son had shed his ceremonial garments, was now wearing black jeans, and a blue-striped white shirt. He’d been a tall groom decked up, but now he seemed about four inches over five feet. He was lean and wiry and moved constantly, stepping up and back and side to side. He had vermilion and sandal paste on his brow. His curly long hair fell about as he moved his head.

“You go,” I told the young man’s father. “I want a chat with your son.”

I sat on the stone bench in the porch. The boy came up to me. Came up too close, and I had to bend back my neck to engage his eyes. I asked him to step back.

“You know why we’ve called you,” I said.

“About the pepper.” His voice was not yet a man’s.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I’d put 4 kg pepper to dry before my house. The guard saw it and said, ’It won’t dry there, the ground is moist.’ He asked me to put it on your roof.”

“How did you go there?”

He pointed to the grill that fronted the electrical panels. The grillwork went up to the deck. From there a gangway led to the terrace.

“Don’t you know it’s wrong to do that?”

“Yes. But the guard told me to do it. I needed to dry the pepper to sell it. To buy a shirt.”

“Will you do anything anybody asks you to do, even when it’s wrong?”

“The guard cheated. Because of him I also became a cheat.”

“Did Mohan ask you to do it?”

“No, no. I shouldn’t bring him into this. He has nothing to do with this.”

“What else have you been doing here?”

“Nothing. I’m working all day. Evenings and holidays I play cricket in the village.”

He was too young for marriage. I couldn’t help thinking how much of a kid his bride would be. From the direction of the labour lines, a faint smell of jasmine was wafting in. I struggled for next words.

“It’s your wedding day,” I said. “Go.”

And he went.

“God bless you,” I called after him.

A Visit to the Chola Temples in Tanjore

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

We left for Gangaikonda Cholapuram (GKC) at 7:30, which wasn’t early enough, because there was already traffic congesting the 65 kilometer stretch from Tanjore. Roads in Tamil Nadu are the Kannadiga’s envy, but this one was narrow even if the asphalt was thick and hole-free. Anyway, we weren’t driving, and Chandran, the hotel driver, did his job in sober silence, and Sujaya and I relaxed, looking out at this sunsplashed, green part of Tamil Nadu. Rice Bowl of the State. In the cool inside we couldn’t tell the 38°c outside, so deceptive was the sight of fecund land through the glass. There were staple crops in the fields, and patches of teak, and tamarind and occasional mango and neem alongside the road.

The heat hit when Chandran opened the doors at the grand temple in GKC. The barefoot walk in the precinct was agonizing. The stone seared the soles as we went the distance from portal to door.

I envy the Christians their chapels. They are always clean, anywhere in the world. When you go in, the altar is immediately in view, you don’t compete for a darshan of it. There’s never noise there, and you can go in with shoes on. I’ve sat many times in the comfort of chapels and cheated the church a bit and meditated on the god of my choice.

But the GKC temple was clean as well, and quiet, and, very important, I could see the deity—a tall large Shivlinga—right from the door. It’s a long walk from the door to the sanctum in this magnificent temple.

Two chains hang on either side of the Shivlinga. Three oil lamps are attached to each chain, six in sum, and they are the only light source in the sanctum. The coils of Naga (the divine serpent) round the Linga, the hood of Naga flared over the Linga, the entire length of Naga from head to tail-tip is gilt, and it catches the lamplight and glows. The giant Linga is covered in a sheen framed by shadow. My hands went up on their own, folded in namaskar, in spell of a swelling worshipfulness that engulfed me.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram translates as the City of the Chola Who Conquered the Ganga. King Rajendra Chola’s marches went up to Bengal in the North, Lanka in the South, and the Khmer kingdom beyond the eastern seas. Winning the North, he brought to his capital the holy water of the Ganges, earning the title Gangaikonda Chola, rising to the greatness of his father Rajaraja who’d ruled 37 years before him and who’d begun the golden age of the Cholas. This was 1000 years ago.

King Rajendra’s temple in GKC is smaller than the great one his father built in Tanjore, but the artistry and technique employed here are more sophisticated, they have stood on the shoulders of what’s been achieved by the father.

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

Outside, a bony sunburnt mali was hosing the quite-green lawn. In sparse shadow we sat and watched the art on the walls. The form of the Chola statue is slender, the pose delicate, and the features of both male and female are sharp enough to cut with. West of the Cholas, contemporary Hoysalas had a taste for the buxom. My wife voted with me for Chola art, and evening in Tanjore we bought two Chola bronzes, and I’m still worrying if we paid too much for them—though we brought down the quoted price by a half.

Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

Then we went to the Big Temple of Tanjore, built by Rajaraja. The scale of everything dazzled us: the Nandi, the main deity which again is the Linga, the vimana, the expanse of the place, the subsidiary temples round the main, and, of course, the crowds. But the crowds were considerably less during this, our first visit; due the heat, perhaps, and maybe because of the aashada maasa, at which time nothing auspicious is done, no important project begun, or prayed for.

A veena player was performing by the great Nandi before the main gopuram. He had a full accompaniment backing up the sweet plucking sounds from the veena. The man tossed his head up and around a lot, sending his long hair flying, adding drama to mastery. The style was Carnatic, and his rapt audience comprised the young and the old and kids and locals and tourists. I asked an old man before me who the performer was.

Rajesh Vaidya at the Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

He turned and smiled a disbelieving smile. Rustic man, with a grey stubble and wearing a stripe shirt over a soiled white veshti. He asked in Tamil, “Don’t you watch TV?” He repeated the question, glancing at the folks around, who were watching us. “That’s Rajesh Vaidhya,” he said, engaging the onlookers. Everybody raised a smile to that.

I’ve since looked up that Tamil artiste on Wikipedia, and I think the old man at the performance was a kind one. My question to him was as asking, in Liverpool, “Who is John Lennon?”


Some more pictures …