Shantiniketan and Tagore and Bengal a Bit

This is land that yields three crops in a year. Conquerors and marauders through centuries have sought its wealth. I gazed at the soil as we passed Singur, black soil on which the Tatas attempted to plant a car factory a few years ago. They were welcomed first and then driven out. Those that sent them packing have reaped plenty political mileage, my guide told me, even if all that fertile land is bare now and bereft of any crop save heaps of scrap steel that lie about, the edges of the metal sharp and jagged, a piercing sight. We drove by the place early in the day, watching the play of morning light on metal, and it was a sad sight that clear and chilly December morning.

There’s been a flight of corporate houses from Bengal, but the fecund soil has held.

After Singur the lands are again in productive use. It’s been a year of less-than-satisfactory rain on the subcontinent, and the lands have just delivered the best crop they can in the circumstance, and now they were bare and gray and brown. Rice and potato are the staple, and there are rice mills along the route to boil rice for the local palate; for potato there are barns equipped with freezing.

We were driving 200 kilometers to Shantiniketan, half of it on the Golden Quadrilateral, the rest on the State Highway. For a break we stopped by a string of stalls selling coffee and tea and many kinds of sweet Bengali mishti. Where we drank tea there was a toilet: a room in the back with footrests and nothing in between. Stuff flowed round the rests and out the room through a rough-hewn narrow groove, and down a hole outside. It wasn’t smelly though, and outside in fresh air I was able to push back the experience.


Approaching Shantiniketan, the terrain changes. The soil turns red, and there are woods with plentiful sal trees on either side of the highway. The air is different also. It’s December and there’s a nip in it, but there's also in its feel a strong suggestion of tall happenings in the woods. My guide asks permission to do a detour and takes me to a community centre, where there’s a tiny museum, with portraits of men who resisted English rule and were caught and sent to the Andamans. To the Andamans it was a dread one-way journey, but a few did return, as you can read at the bottom of a few portraits—perhaps those alive when the jail shut down.

Tourists throng to Shantiniketan, most of them Bengali. Tall and incredibly handsome Rabindranath Tagore is an enduring hero, a beloved son of Bengal, and a visit to this residence and kaaryagaar of his is a necessary spiritual excursion for the Bengali, it seems. It was Tagore’s father who founded Shantiniketan. Visiting once this area near Bolpur, being tired, he paused for rest among the chhatim trees. The aura of the place struck him, and he perceived in it a setting for great karyas. After him, Rabindranath, losing his wife early, and two children and father and a friend, suffered a catharsis that led him to focused intense activity in Shantiniketan.


He didn’t live in one single house during his long residence there. Rather, each time he tired of his current home he built a new one, and with advancing age he designed progressively smaller houses. Each is a work of art, a first-rate abode for an artist. It was possible to look into the rooms in the houses, in which there are pictures of him with guests. So many intellectuals visited him in Shantiniketan, from everywhere, all the way until his last days.


At 1:00 the open-air classes had ended, and a stroll on the campus was possible. There were few people about, all young, on foot and bicycle. The trees were old and their bases were fresh-painted black to fight termite. Sunny winter had turned the soil dry, and there was dust in the cool air, and haze from it, and acres and acres of chiarascuro carpeting, and dreamy light on strange buildings. “If we’re lucky we might find a Baul,” my guide said, and we did, right by the arts school. In that school they’d be studing and creating varied music, and in my moment there a group were working on the verandah on a Bollywood number. Round the building on the back, a Baul had settled under a tree with a dotara, before an audience of two. He was into song already, and we settled down to listen. “The guy’s authentic,” my guide whispered. The strings and the song and the chill air and the golden late-afternoon sun made a soothing blend.


It was night when we returned to my hotel in Kolkata. “You must go to Joransanko Thakur Bari,” my guide told me at the gate.


Joransanko Thakur Bari is a palace in red, evidencing the great wealth of the Tagore family. Notions of wealth linger only a moment, though, because soon the extent of intellectual and artistic action during the Bengal renaissance springs forth at you in the building, moving you, inspiring you. And you empathize with the Bengali sentiment for Rabindranath, their own Gurudev, their Poet, the P in uppercase everywhere he is referenced. Taking ill in Shantiniketan, the Poet made a last journey from there on an olive green train to Kolkata, to this ancestral home. Surrounded by love and tender caring by many hands, but feeling unbearable pain for several days, he died here.

Within this home in its large courtyard a stage had been set up for a show scheduled for the evening. Young men and women were doing last-minute rehearsals; young chaps standing beneath arches on upper balconies looked down to the women on stage with unabashed longing in their eyes. The overwhelming impression, however, was of an assured, continued creative effort hereabouts, stemming from Rabindranath Tagore, everlasting muse for so many people in creative Bengal.

A Sojourn in the Cinemas of Singapore

 While going round and round on top at the Bugis+ FilmGarde

While going round and round on top at the Bugis+ FilmGarde

I wished to rest in that restless city, and I decided to do it at the cinemas. As it turned out, I was in town at the tail end of a film festival happening there. There was also an Indian entry, a lone one in a long list of Asian films scheduled in theatres across the metropolis. I decided I must watch it, among others.

I sat through four films: What's With Love (Indonesian), The Road to Mandalay (Taiwanese, set in Thailand), The Plague at the Karatas Village (Kazhakstan), and Lion (India & Australia). The first three were features from the Film Festival, and the last one, Lion, I watched in place of the Indian entry for the festival that I’d first planned on.

The Road to Mandalay tells of illegal Burmese immigrants in Thailand: how they’re smuggled in, their life among the Thai, their struggle to get menial risky jobs, and their striving to acquire an identity. The director, producer, and male and female leads attended, and answered questions on stage—questions in English, answers in Chinese. They were impressive: The director was short and stylish in a sharp glossy steel-gray suit; the tall male lead shone in casuals and often lifted his chin and turned and slanted it at varied angles and all could see the sleek traverse of his jawline; the leading lady, very slim and also tall and cased in a satiny gown, was effusive and ever-smiling. The producer looked different from the rest of them, like a working man, like he’d come straight from his desk at office.

 The female lead, Road to Mandalay

The female lead, Road to Mandalay

Mandalay was a celebarated entry. It was screened at the Marina Bay Sands, and the huge auditorium was full, and many other actors and directors and film personalities had come—they sipped wine and cocktails in the open behind a barricade before the rest of us, while we watched them and waited for the doors to open.

What's With Love had excellent cinematography, and the performance of the engaging male lead, Nicholas, was restrained, superb. It’s a commercial flick, but it had insight for me into Indonesian zeitgeist, specially of the young. Here too, the film crew was in attendance: The Director Riri Raza was cerebral, Nicholas Saputra was confident, and the producer Mira Lemana was genial but suffering after-effects of an operated throat—she wrote answers for questions posed her, and she laughed and grinned all the time with all her self, and was particularly endearing. There were many young in the near-full house in the basement-auditorium in the National Gallery where What’s With Love was screened. They asked questions: “Most of the movie covers a stretch less than a day. Were you inspired by Linklater?”

 The Indonesian Crew of What's With Love

The Indonesian Crew of What's With Love

The Plague at the Karatas Village felt like a play. The film must be the lowest-cost production ever. Karatas village is suffering a plague but the villagers will not believe it even in face of clear evidence, even as their dearest fall, even on their way to the grave, and they laugh and dance through their dark miserable lives. A new mayor comes to town, calls the folly, offers help, urges them to seek a cure, but there’s not a villager who’ll heed him. The truth of their condition is crucified on table and chair and burned as at the stake.

The truth the director was revealing wasn’t coated in anything palatable. At the start not a seat was empty in the petite theatre at The Art House in the Old Parliament, but a good number left the hall as the film progressed, trying hard to be quiet, unobstrusive, on their way out.

As regards the Indian entry at the festival, I arrived at 11:00 for the 11:45 screening of Psycho Raman, at the Bugis FilmGarde, pumped up to see the director, Anurag Kashyap, and hear him. The place was quiet, just an occasional couple or a single person strolled in and went up the escalator to the halls. Biding time, I walked round and round the fifth floor where the FilmGarde is located, and at 11:40, seeing no crowd, no celebrities, I decided to go in, feeling sorry for the Indian team. Such a poor turnout, it seemed. At the gate surprise awaited me. The usher took my ticket, said there’s no show at 11:45 at Hall 6, and, seeing my disbelieving face, dug back into my ticket and his papers and found my error.

“This ticket’s for 11:45 PM!”

“For midnight!”

“Almost midnight, la,” he said.

After a moment we both laughed. And as I went down the escalator I felt doubly sorry for Anurag Kashyap—to be scheduled for near-midnight! I felt sorry also for myself: As much as I wanted to see Kashyap and watch his film, I cannot stay awake midnight hours. So I bought a ticket for Lion, starting in ten minutes.

I shed many a tear for Sarroo, the Lion, I’m ashamed to tell you. But, remembering little Sarroo at the start of the film, I feel it's perhaps all right to cry for a child like that. Ooh, how that kid ran! And aah, how he smiled! Sometime in the middle of the show I decided to adopt a child like that, but the resolve quit me by the time I'd come down the escalator after the show. As I write these lines I remember the impulse, and I consider the possibility, but no. I haven't the strength and the goodness of heart to embrace the toils and challenges that a child—and the man he’d become—would surely bring me.

 Bugis+ FilmGarde Cineplex

Bugis+ FilmGarde Cineplex

Calicut, November 2016

 Calicut beach

Calicut beach

None of the bustle of Calicut is apparent on the road along the northern stretch of the beach and, when you turn right from it onto the not-too-wide nor-too-long Bhatt Road toward the Kazhassi Raja Museum, that stretch is quiet also. Cars and rickshaws and trucks and buses come into you with, it surely seems, full intent to mow you down if you don’t get out of the way. Being an outsider lacking equal courage, you yield to the very edge, almost scraping the compound walls rising from the streetside. There are no kerbs on Calicut’s streets. Folks in this ancient trading town are civil and dignified and as honey face-to-face, but when they drive they’ve as much heart as a battering ram.

 The Kazhassi Raja Museum, Calicut

The Kazhassi Raja Museum, Calicut

The museum is the crest of on peaceful East Hill where no noise rises from below. It’s a tidy affair with exhibits as you’d expect in a town: A few coins from various local dynasties and from Tipu Sultan’s time, from British times, some sculpture, a few slim but serviceable swords and, strangely, a range of handcuffs hung up there by the Excise Department. They’re irons for small wrists, super-tormentors of the thick-wristed. Across from the handcuffs a few pieces of miniature art in ivory are what I liked best there. Such items were in my grandmother’s possession when I lived in her home while at university — dice, deities, and boxes. I cannot aspire to own any such in these days, but long live the elephant.

In the rooms in the back are megalithic remains, chiefly burial pottery, and on the way out you pass a wooden palanquin that once carried a king. The museum is rich in wood — this is God’s Own Kerala, with wood aplenty for felling.

It’s cool, the museum. Literally. The tiled roof and intelligent ventilation and cool flooring calm the heat of Calicut. Upstairs, they have a collection of paintings by Ravi Varma and Raja Raja and Bengali artists. These art are prized posessions: A guard opens and shuts the accordian shutters at the entrance all the time, closing it when the room empties, opening it again when a visitor arrives.

On the promenade by the beach the crowds are thick in the evenings, but it's not noisy in spite of the numbers of people. There are men, women, and children sitting and strolling and playing on every inch, but in the mornings the place is taken almost exclusively by walkers and runners who are mostly male. The women are perhaps at home, doing duty to husbands and brothers and children. Mornings too, people are quiet while they go about their thing, and group-walkers are hushed as they talk-while-they-walk. You can hear every breaking wave.

Which made me think the average Keralite is a pretty decent guy. I spoke this at the restaurant in my hotel, and the captain fell silent, turned thoughtful, and agreed: "Yes, the north-Kerala people are very nice." And he went on to describe their honor, their conduct, their every virtue.

A couple of mornings I turned away from the beach and walked in the streets and lanes. On Silk Street which gets busy with school kids, there’s a statue of Chinamen holding up silk: itinerant Chinese traded their silk here for Malabar’s spices for centuries, even until sixty years ago. Roundabout this street and along the seafront are low sprawls of buildings whose birth is ascribed to the Dutch, Portuguese, and, of course, the English. Anyway, I noted the tall Portuguese Matri Dei Church near there with its Romanesque dome, and the ancient Mishkal Mosque built in Hindu-Chinese style, and, one serene morning, turned nearby into a neat-looking and particularly inviting narrow lane. Mistake. Even as I entered, folks from a plastics industry swept their last day’s waste into a string of small heaps separated by a dozen yards or so, and set fire to them. I choked and doubled back, unable to breathe, in that place right by the sea.

On the beach as well, sewers from town had been led out into the sea; the covers on them were terminated well before the edge of the water. So the refuse fluids from town travel the final lap to sea in the open, and they’ve cut a wide path in the sand. Walkers and runners measure their laps from one sewer stream to the next, doing an about turn each time they hit the curving path of the stream.

I went there mornings because the doctor had advised me to be active all day long. I was The Taj Gateway, enrolled for a two-week Ayurvedic package that promised to lift mind and body in a holistic programme that involved drinking rough-mixed herbal drinks thrice daily, a therapeutic massage in the morning, yoga in the afternoon, and meditation, and such. There wasn’t time even to read a novel I’d opened when I arrived.

It’s the end of two weeks now, and I’m hoping the well-being I feel isn’t from a placebo effect. Anyway, of three allopathic tablets prescribed me ten years ago, I’ve dropped one with no consequence. I’ve been promised the other two will go as well, and for that to happen, I’ve been given assorted bottles of liquids and herbal pills that I must grind and mix with the liquid medicine. In time, I’m told, I can drop even these last elixirs.

These millennia-old remedies take time to yield results, I've been cautioned. That's fine, I'll wait.

 Calicut beach

Calicut beach

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.


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.