Weddings Without Bells and Whistles, Romerberg, Frankfurt

The wedding party appeared positively Muslim, folks from the Middle East. The women wore the hijab, and the men wore both casual and serious western. They were gathered and waiting in Romerberg, for the bride and groom. A black limo brought them into the cobblestone yard of this old and historic part of Frankfurt, and delivered the bride in flowing billowing whites, and the groom in glossy black. Her teeth dazzled in a frame of supple red lips; he was in fine trim and his suit sat neatly over his sleek sturdy frame. The two young things clearly belonged in blood to the flock round them, but they were dressed as if for a Christian wedding. Within minutes after they arrived the church/registry door flung open and a prior wedding party poured out of it, with the priest/registrar at their rear. In black gown and black hat, standing tall and a looking somewhat groggy at his portal, the priest/registrar raised high his hand and bid the next party come in.

The party that came out lingered before the triple doors of the building. The air was crisp, and the bride from this group hugged herself tight with her bare arms. She asked for a cigarette and it was given her lit and ready to smoke. She shook off the chill with a vigorous shake and took deep drags and exhaled a long time something deep that troubled her and showed in her dark eyes. She was disbelieving of what she’d just gone and done, it seemed to me, please forgive me for saying so. After a while she began to speak with her group, which appeared Caucasian. Unlike the first bride I saw, this one was dressed short, and tight, and young men back of her took glancing note of her outstanding gluteals.

Tourists in the square shot and shot again the serial nuptials with handphones and with proper cameras. A man handed me his DSLR and asked if I’d take his picture with the bride and groom, and put himself between them. The two were quick to oblige and leaned into him into a comely pose, and held out nice wide smiles. I loitered for a while afterward, trying to get a couple of good pictures for myself, but service vans and building gear and some renovation equipment round the central statue in the square made it near-impossible to frame a good shot. A third party arrived and grouped into formation to enter the church/registry, which the Middle East party had just vacated.

I wished to see how the Middle Eastern lady's vows had affected her, but I decided instead to hunt for some Americano. I hadn’t taken in all of the square, hadn’t absorbed the tall buildings with their steep roofs and high narrow façades and the repeating criss-cross of lines over their face. An elusive sun had broken on them in the moment. But I had to have a coffee.

I’m full-blood Indian, and a thin wind was skimming off the cobblestones and getting under my made-for-the-tropics skin. I needed to drink that coffee in a thick cozy interior, in spite of the golden light in the square, a warm muted light the likes of which we don't have at home. Also, it was a light that brought no heat with it.

"I'll come back," I told myself.

Bangalore, Open Only for Business

From the last row, we watched the hall fill up. Every kind of face came up and took their seat, North Indian faces and South Indian faces and Eastern Indians and Western Indians, and I remarked to my wife: "Not bad for a Farsi film. It's in its second week and it is going full-house." I turned and looked checked her face, to see if she was feeling the same pride in Bangalore as I, pride in belonging to a cosmopolitan city.

She laughed after a moment's pause. "Can't tell," she said. "They must've mistaken this for a heavy business-management film!"

My wife is not shy to declare to me at least once daily: "I'm always right." It's the proud Gowda blood in her. In silence I pondered her jesty remark and searched for truths in it.

At the end of the show we told each other it was a very good film. The Salesman is my wife's first Asghar Farahadi film; I have watched two others of his.

That morning, we'd been with a saleswoman from a realtor company, looking up a posh mock-up apartment of a condominium complex that has sprouted at the edge of the town centre. The mock-up was furnished and ready for life in it right away, if only the saleswoman would allow it. Next to the kitchen (appliances by Miele and such) in a soft-lit room the dining table had thick, rich, and glossy and definitely-not-Indian tableware on it. There wasn't the smell of cooking, of course, but the place was still appetising. The bedrooms and the living room had decks out to a lawn, but in the real building the decks would be high over the twenty-first floor, looking out into dingy Bangalore below. The floors until the twenty-first are for a luxe hotel.

The home shone much like the clear, many-hued eyes of the saleswoman. She didn't push the sale and so she further heightened our interest in the property. I had a question, though: "What kind of people are buying these apartments?"

"We have people from Bombay, from Karnataka, some NRIs, owners of large family-businesses, investment bankers — very fine people have taken our property."

Not a film director, or painter, or writer, or actor.

In the cafes in Bangalore my misfortune has been that the next table is always taken by dour men doing real estate deals. Most times, the scene is of men in starched whites looking on in silence, watching their men tackle potential sellers who're full of doubt that they're being had. Other times, a buyer boasts how he is crowding out a stubborn landowner, and gives every detail on how a hapless someone is being bullied out of a precious possession. I’ve also listened in on deals where all parties are happy with the process and the outcome. Still, they’re all an uninspiring backdrop for one trying to read and write in the cafe, and who'd be happy with just the plain buzz and hum of society.

But there are occasions when some bright-faced youngsters with dark shiny eyes like Mowgli’s have crowded round tables too small for the number of them, and they're tossing startup ideas, and their youthful voices ring out pluck and confidence and hope and knowledge and knowhow. Most startups fail, that's the rule, but there's no fear of failure in those shiny eyes.

I wish to hear folks discussing ideas for a play, for a film, for a book, for a painting or a sculpture or a song. Where in Bangalore are they meeting? Is the literary and cultural output of this flourishing city commensurate with its population of over ten million? We're throwing up more billionaires here than authors of great books.

In the meantime the heat is rising, a consequence of the spurt in construction, and the thick curdling traffic in the streets. Crawling in the streets you realise that it might take some time yet for Bangalore to produce good art and writing, because how can creative output emerge in a place where there's no walking room for the artist? Since the boom in business began, the number of motor vehicles mushroomed and the pavements shrank. Ours is not a city for walkers. As regards me, who cannot say I'm creative, but still needs to walk so as to tend depression in the mind and diabetes in the body, I leave home for a walk at five in the morning. These days there's the smell of sap from the fallen and squished yellow tabebuia, which is not as pleasant as the aromatic honge flowers which lay thick on the streets and lingered there until only a few days ago. There was a good-size moon in the sky this morning, and a steady breeze, but my shirt stuck to my sweating back, the ground below having not yet sloughed off heat from yesterday's sun. Only a few minutes were left for today’s onslaught. Summer is serious this year, it seems.

I'm doing what I can to make Bangalore bearable for myself. I'm reading a big book set in New York — A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.

Was Tipu a Freedom Fighter?

Bangalore Fort

It was the end of the walk. A lady asked: "Can you call Tipu Sultan a martyr?"

We were a group of about fifteen, water in hand and backpacks over most backsides. We'd done the city-hike with a local heritage-preservation team, a three-hour stretch titled "The 1791 War Walk." Its purpose was to tell us about the siege and fall of Bangalore in 1791. The siege had lasted six weeks, but after the storming the main fort was taken in less than two hours.

"Was he a freedom fighter?" a second lady asked. She was middle-aged, and was blessed with an agile neck, using which she executed perfect rounds with her head both while speaking and listening.

"No," a third lady answered, an artistic type in an elegant rough-kurta who spoke at a slow, measured pace, using the time to insert just-the-right-word in her sentences. "We were not taken yet. It wasn't time for a freedom struggle."

The walk had begun at the Yelahanka gate of the Pete fort which the British took first and settled there their siege cannons to soften the main fort. The Pete fort and the main fort were as conjoined twins. The Pete fort housed the markets and all commerce and the residences of the merchants, and the main fort secured the king's defences and administration. In Bangalore Tipu was deeply invested, he made his armaments here, and, besides standard ordnance, his quite-successful Tipu rocket.

We were standing where the fort had been breached during the battle. The breach is patched now and a plaque in the place commemorates the fateful night, and tour guides halt before it to name the valiant vanquished who fought on the site.

"But there's no doubt he was an intelligent man," the first lady said. On the night the British stormed the fort, Tipu was camped some distance from it, some kilometres away, and when his general begged for a command to go aid the defenders, Tipu dithered. And decided to turn back and take the battle to his capital at Srirangapattana.

"He was brilliant," the third lady said. "He had a great library." Everybody nodded to that, everybody seemed to know about Tipu's collection of Persian tomes which in the end went to England.

I was tempted to say he was an intellectual, but I checked my tongue which is anyway leaden with inertia in these settings.

"He is guilty of conversions. He did that. That he did, that he did," the second lady, she with the agile neck, chanted.

The leader of the group was also a lady, a learned one. With eyes focused on the ground and gesticulating with all of herself, she delivered final words. "That's the problem," she said. "People gloss over the good things Tipu did and they gloss over the bad things Tipu did."

Several of us in the group were men. We listened, but for some reason none of us participated in this final exchange regarding this brave man who was ever in battle to extend and save his kingdom, and who died on his feet, fighting, having never considered to retire from war and surrender to the luxuries of the British vassal's life.

This piece was cross-posted on Churumuri, on April 3, 2017.

Right and Wrong and The Way The Week Went

She had seemed a teenager to me, so slender her build, but I know now that she is about thirty and has a child of her own. I see her mornings before sunrise, when she runs wearing a skull-hugging cap and a snug tracksuit. She leans forward as she moves, head bowed, and in this manner she jogs for over an hour and in that same time I complete my daily speed-walk, passing her here and there on my track.

Regarding this lady, this happened: A private guard stationed before a mansion on First Main had been gaping at her daily as she passed, and she, having swallowed the annoyance many days, knocked on a police patrol car (Hoysala, they call the cars) that's usually parked on Second Main, got in, went back to the guard on First Main, and pointed the fellow to the policemen. In the shrillest highest voice they could muster, the policemen described everything they would do to the guard with their bare hands and their big boots if the guard repeated just once more what he'd been bloody doing.

"I'm not that kind of man, madam. I'm not that kind of man," the guard is said to have pleaded with the woman.

These are times hereabouts for women to deliver the strongest messages to men. One cringes each time news-reports appear on crimes against women, and so, along with everybody else I agree that women should assert themselves every way they can. But I've been thinking about that guard, and I've been thinking of myself who has studied the jogger's running gear, guessed at her age even if wrongly, and has written, now on this page, about her running style.

I don't know how serious my own wrong is in relation to the guard's, but I've begun to give the woman an additional two feet of margin when she passes me. On her part, she jogs on the edge of the asphalt on her side, and so there's a general mutual respect between us, I suppose.

A word about these private guards who stand before rich men's houses in my neighbourhood. They are dressed in olives, they wear a wide leather belt round a swollen middle, and leather slippers that aren't good for even a simple stroll. They're poorly paid, of course. On the same First Main a few weeks ago, a couple of chaps on a motorcycle stopped a white lady, grabbed her chain and made off with it, causing her to fall right before her home during the scuffle. At the end of the incident her guard rushed to his mistress to inquire if she was all right, allowing the thugs to flee unchallenged. Was the guard right in what he did? I'm still thinking.

Such has been the week, with thoughts on rights and wrongs. Early in the week, a few bats arrived on a tree in my compound. I noted them screeching in the night and I let them be, not yet realising they were bats outside in the branches. They must've been scouts, because the next evening an entire cloud of them descended on the tree, outnumbering the leaves on it. By morning, they'd powdered the stuff on the branches, buds and berries and all, and their spoil had layered the ground and the tops of our cars, like thick orange n' brown snow. I downloaded advise from Internet forums, had the branches hosed with phenol-infused water, and the things left, every one of them.

"I'd have let them stay if they hadn't messed up the place so," I told myself several times. But I must be honest, I'd been worrying if the things had flown in with a terrible omen on their wide wings. Afterward I heard that the bats had moved to a tree five houses down, and then I saw the folks in that house cut down the tree altogether. I don't know where the bats have gone now.

"Oh," my sister said last night at dinner. "Good thing if bats come home. They bring great wealth." She'd read that on the same Internet that gave me the easiest trick to be rid of them.

It's okay, I tell myself, having written this piece inside Starbucks, and now on my way home. Turning from the main street into our neighbourhood, I notice a street-side vendor sitting behind a line of stuffed goats. He's done a neat job, they look fresh and bright and alive and full of the kid goat's pluck. Also, they're cute in a strange way, and in a moment I realise why. In place of the short stubs that make for a goat's horns, he has planted the deer's twining antlers. They're perhaps plastic, I cannot tell from the distance of my car, but the result is interesting, quite nice-looking. "But I'd never buy that," I tell myself. "That's a wrong I'd never do."

A Khaas Durbar at The Taj Falaknuma, Hyderabad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything So Expensive, La

“First time in Singapore?”
“How often you come here, la?”
“Every two months. Three, sometimes.”
“You like it here?”
“Oh yes. Very much.”
Silence. And then:
“What you like here, la?”

I tell my complex answer, attempting brevity. We’re approaching the Suntec City Mall, and it’s raining, and I’m not sure we’ll arrive beneath a shelter.

This exchange with these very same words and sequence happens each time in Singapore when a taxi driver or a waiter or waitress or shop assistant gets comfortable with me and my frown-face. The conversation ends at this point, but in recent visits cab drivers have had one more thing to say — as in this case.

“It’s okay to visit, la. But it’s not easy to live. Everything so expensive.” He dragged the last word out. He pulled long on the “so,” taking the emphasis the highest he could.

This is a three-day trip, a private one, and I’m paying at a lesser hotel nearly the same that I paid at a business hotel here a couple of months ago. In the restaurants bills have been gliding up visit to visit these last years. I feel guilt as I pay and get off the cab, knowing I’ll never not love this city.

Malnad Diary, Week 08|2017

 Archive photo: Nandi Thota

Archive photo: Nandi Thota

We’d forgotten to pack some tea for the weekend. So when Hassan came up we let go the bypass and veered into town, and soon saw we were out of luck. Hassan was shuttered down along the entire length of the Bangalore–Mangalore Road as we could see, and also probably in the side streets that we couldn't see. Realising that a bundh was unfolding, and anticipating the riot that accompanies the bundh, we turned back at the town centre and sped out. Just before we hit the bypass we nodded to temptation and turned into another part of town, down the engineering college into a quieter street, and found a half-shuttered tea-shop — a ten-foot-square affair in a basement where a lady brewed tea, but was out of custom today. From on the pavement I inquired for tea bags, my ankles at her eye-level. She had no tea bags, what she could offer was ready-to-drink sweet white tea, but she had information. The town was protesting a water problem.

That knowledge sent us racing out again. Issues relating to water whip up the nastiest passions hereabouts, causing loss and injury and sometimes death. Even the liquor stores are shut, I thought as we drove, and seeing it was noon, I felt sorry for the hardy tipplers of Hassan, who down two pegs or more by this time, leaning on counters in liquor outlets that line the main street.

Hassan is headquarters of Hassan district, an agrarian place populated by serious and, as the government experts call them, “progressive” farmers. During last week, the state government in Bangalore has decided to drain the Hemavathi, which is the main river of Hassan district, into the far-off Krishnarajasagar reservoir, denying water to the farmlands of Hassan. The decision has thrown the district into panic. The savvy population of Bangalore first needs to be appeased by the government, because the IT folks there are loud and articulate and their voice reaches the corners of the world. The cry of Hassan won't travel beyond its plains, and in the meantime, the season’s incipient crop of potato, tomato, rice and sunflower and ragi and jowar will die with only so much noise as a dried plant crumbling.

We stopped at our factory on the outskirts of Hassan for some hours, so when we reached Nandi Thota it was late afternoon. The sun was blazing on the coffee plants, and the leaves were wrinkled and drooping, but the green lingered yet in them. In recent days the folks have been running sprinklers on the plants, but sparingly so, because of fear of draining the water tanks altogether. The coffee zone of Hassan runs along its western border, and here, too, the rains have failed, and this year’s crop would be poorer than last year’s.

Also, the plantation-hands are busy gathering the gleanings, berries that have fallen to ground. And they’re doing dhoolagathe. Which means it’s as busy as always on the plantation, whatever the intimations regarding the unfolding year.

There’s no 4G or 3G or even 2G at Nandi Thota. There’s only EDGE that hangs without accepting or delivering a byte, and there's a trembling voice connection. Some folks say that’s a good thing for the system, like occasional fasting is, but ‘m normal and I don’t fast, and I need my devices to be trading megabytes even as I sleep. This weekend, there was the added gift of no electricity, in favor of which, too, there’s strong argument, but I don’t care for this uplifting thing either, and asked for the generator to be turned on. It’s a diesel machine, and it ran like it was beating on its iron chest with heavy metal hands, very loudly but plaintively suggesting its age and its oncoming demise. My wife asked them to shut it down halfway through the evening, and we slept early and we woke up fresh and then we had to get the damn generator going again.

Such was the weekend. And now it’s the start of the next week, and after a quick day trip to Delhi, I’m en route to Singapore.

Sister Alphonse

 Robert Clive  meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey

Robert Clive  meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey

Sister Alphonse was very pretty. I can tell you that, although I never saw her hair. I knew her in Bellary during the years 1970 and 1971, a time when a woman wasn’t much thereabouts if her tresses didn’t knock about her knees.


“This book is rubbish,” Sister Alphonse said and collected from the class the government-prescribed history textbook we had bought, and for a little extra, she placed an order for a replacement on our behalf. “Here’s a proper account of Lord Bentinck,” she said. “He abolished sati.” She spent a whole class describing the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the Muslim King Sirajuddaula, and seared a deep dark idea of the man into my twelve-year-old brain. She soaked the burning shame I felt in the balmy story of brave Robert Clive.


I went to Calcutta the first time December last. I spent a few minutes before the obelisk that is the British-built monument to preserve the memory of the British dead in the Black Hole of Calcutta. The men had been crammed into an enclosure the night after Sirajuddaula ordered eviction of the British from their fort in Calcutta. A good number of the imprisoned died by morning; estimates vary from 43 to a peak claim of 123. Whatever the number, the redcoats managed to whip up support in Britain for military operations on land that they’d come to do trade in.


Sister Alphonse was Scottish. Bellary used to have a British military cantonment, so it followed that the town had sprawling Christian schools. I went first to St. Philomena’s, where Sister Alphonse taught history, and some art and craft. Then I went to St. John’s.


The Black Hole monument is no more upon the Black Hole, which hole was a mere guardroom that the British razed along with the fort it was in. They built an elaborate new defence and called it Fort William, and moved the monument around even in their time. It rests now in the quiet compound of St. John’s Church, the construction of which church began in 1784 under Governor-General Hastings. It was opened for Service in 1787 by Lord Cornwallis, the general who had earlier surrendered to George Washington in America. In India, Cornwallis would vanquish “tiger” Tipu Sultan and nearly complete the colonisation of the subcontinent.


After they killed Tipu they installed a boy king in his place, and gave him Education and Culture and Revenue Collection for responsibility. They allowed him a harem.


Sirajuddaula was a hot-headed 22 at the time of the Black Hole. He’d been incensed at the fortifications the British had been raising in his realm, in which his forebears had allowed them mere warehousing, with requisite guard. He ordered them to stop but they kept up the works and Sirajuddaula attacked. This was in 1756, and the British launched a reprisal in 1757. It didn’t matter that they’d commandeered only a 3000-man force against Sirajuddaula’s 50,000. The Indian generals were easily purchased and the king humiliated in an eleven-hour encounter in the Battle of Plassey. Later, Sirajuddaula was executed. Assassinated, it is also argued.

“India was colonised not by Britain,” William Dalrymple has begun to insist with increasing intensity. His book that argues the case will be out this year, but excerpts from it have been circulating in print media: India was colonised by a corporation, The East India Company. And, along with British businessmen and aristocrats, Indian Marwaris were eager shareholders in the company.


Dalrymple is a Scot. Beneath a picture shot by him and posted on Instagram, of a place in Bengal, he says female Hindu blood has entered his bloodline at a point. Dalrymple is big, robust. Hair that’s thinned on top is rich on cheek and chin and the colour of wisdom has erupted in thick lines along its length. He has the accent, and the scholarship, and, man, how he lets loose his grin! How he looks like Sean Connery!


My father was nineteen when India became free. In Kollegal where he was raised, a forest town in thick jungle country, there used to be stationed a lone white man, a Forest Officer. “That man saw an ox once,” my father told me several times. “He asked for its tongue. They killed the whole handsome ox for it.” It’s only so much that my father experienced the English, and only in the ears. An aloof guy, he didn’t belong with the nationalists; and he was never neither with those arguing that British times were the best times. The government department he worked in retains the name given it in colonial times: The Department of Public Instruction. He retired as its top man.


I was born in Mysore, not far from where “tiger” Tipu died.


In 1999, some folks tried to organise the two-hundredth-year commemoration of Tipu’s fall. It didn’t happen. Tipu was Muslim. Also, there was an attempt a year before to mark the five-hundred-year-old landing of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in South India. That event didn’t materialize either. It was the Portuguese explorer’s discovery of the sea route that commenced colonisation in these parts. Not many feel grateful for that, history and heritage be damned.


Every astrologer who has seen my horoscope has cautioned me to steer clear of water. No journeys by boat, but it’s okay to fly over the ocean.


The admiral who took Robert Clive from Chennai to Calcutta to mount a reprisal against Sirajuddaula died four months after the mission was accomplished. Clive lived to loot rich Bengal which in those days fed the depleting treasury of the Mughal empire. Oudh fell next, and afterward the Mughal himself. Clive got very rich, but he killed himself in the end. He never got to be glamorous among his folks back home, though later they installed mighty statues of him. I have felt very small the times I’ve looked high at the one that looks to St. James Park.


Sister Alphonse came from a well-off family, I think. I bumped into her once at the district maidan, where she was roaming with a compact video camera, the olden type that recorded on a reel of film. She was a radiant presence in the haze, crisp and fresh, in her ever-spotless ever-creaseless habit.

“Step back, Shashi. Step back. Now walk toward me,” she kept saying, until she had me walking as she wanted. Then she filmed me.


My mother was ever unhappy because she could never afford a drawing room like in the Woman & Home magazine that came from England, which she borrowed every month from a lending library.


The other day, I attended “Dinner with Dalrymple” in Bangalore.

“And for whom must I sign this?” Dalrymple asked me when I took a copy of his Kohinoor up to him. I’d been seventh in line.

He wrote my name in a flourish on top of the page, and signed himself across the diagonal of it. The lines are blue and thick, rather like brush strokes.


It is said of Clive, that when he marched, he used to have only a small contingent with him. Bystanders en route would outnumber his force in multiples, and they could’ve done in the firangi army on any of those occasions. But then, imagine on those plains a white man wearing red colours with gold trims on a great horse.


There’s a question that never came up in class, nor does the question appear in any Dalrymple I’ve read. Or in the other books. At what point in history did we get so filthy? How came we to surround ourselves with this omnipresent squalor, and stink?


“Why, Shashi has done something nice for a change!” Sister Alphonse exclaimed one morning in class. I’d drawn a pattern with felt pens, in red and blue. It must’ve looked good from her distance on stage, but the given task was to work with brushes. I don’t remember the punishment, but she got really cross with me that day.


Calcutta was built in the fashion of London. It was the city of palaces, rich in architecture, rich in culture Indian and European.

I walked round Dalhousie Square, taking in the enormous decayed cable-ridden Victorian, Edwardian buildings from which India was ruled. Afternoon, I walked to Park Street, went down it to the landmark Flurys, for tea and toilet. The toilet stank.

Flurys was established in 1927. For twenty years of its lifetime it has seen English rule and highbrow English custom. Did the toilet stink so back then? Was the tearoom as pink then as now?


If only there were jobs in Calcutta the educated Calcuttan would never leave the city. That is the claim, and it is untested for a long time because Calcutta has had no jobs on offer for decades now and her children are flourishing in other places. But I, I want no more a job, and I have decided to spend a few days every month for a year or two in Calcutta. I want to feel English rule from out there. I wish to add a few more words to the rich fact and the fiction that already exist.


I wonder what Sister Alphonse might say to that.

Red Dust

  Photo by the-lightwriter/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by the-lightwriter/iStock / Getty Images

At sundown the day’s dust would start to settle. By when folks finished dinner and stepped out to their verandahs it would be clear night outside, and eyes would dart from neighbour to neighbour and from neighbour to stars above. Most evenings a cool breeze played about, stroking a pre-bedtime peace.

Our houses were dispersed on either side of the street. The street went sloping down and ended at the houses of the American missionary on the one corner and the medical students on the other. The missionary lived with his wife and his little boy and the family was often out of town on God’s work. The medical students were from North India, a fair-skinned scandalous bunch. They’d bring nice-looking girls home and we’d spy on them from far. They took no notice of us. We were just local boys who sometimes held a moment’s interest for them, no more.

Where the street ended, wasteland began. On a clearing in it we played cricket evenings and holidays. Kids from other streets came to play as well, and in the dust we raised the ball from one game often went to the field of another game, and we went chasing, kicking up more dust, asking, “ball … give the ball, no?”

That night, we’d finished dinner and the adults had retired and were calling us in. We chatted with friends down the steps in the few moments before the final call. We took last glances at girls in line of sight. Just then, somebody saw dust rising before the missionary’s house. Brown and red dust. Light from unshaded incandescent street-lamps was knocking whorls of it. In its turn dust had turned the light amber.

We ran down the street, seeing men in action in swirling dust. Many men, although we didn’t count. Men on the fringe of the crowd, looking to the middle. Men in the middle, circling the centre, there punching and kicking and swiping at somebody.

We joined the crowd, which by now had come up the street, passed a few houses. Somebody among them noticed the street-side laundry-cart, where the dhobi always worked late. The somebody had hit on an idea. He and another ran and made a deal with the dhobi. They jogged up and spread red coals from the laundryman’s iron-box on the bed of dust among the stones on the asphalt-free street. “Bring him here!” they cried.

It was the milkman they had, we’d seen by now. The same milkman who brought untreated udder-fresh non-pasteurised milk every morning by six. On a bicycle he brought them, in cans either side on the back, walking, pushing his load. He was older than us, but we were only boys, and he was not too much older. He was wearing loose white pyjamas that he always wore mornings. His feet were bare, the slippers just lost, perhaps, because mornings we’d see him in rubber thongs.

Twice they pulled him back so they could push him fresh over the coals. He didn’t made a sound as he walked over the cinders. But he grunted sometimes when he took a hard punch, and when one got him on his diaphragm, he let off a pitiful “Hnphf!” His long mane-like hair was matted by sweat and dust and it swung as he reeled.

When they dragged him back a second time from the coals his wet dust-covered shirt tore the whole length from the collar. He let out a cry just then, said something. We could feel the dust in his throat. And the dust in our throats and dust up the nostrils. “Why?” an adult voice asked from the gate of a house. Parents and uncles and aunts were lining the street now, as when a Ganesha procession passes.

“Bastard lifts skirts of little girls, sir!”

It is possible nobody took serious belief to what was being told. It’s possible the fellow heard his accusers. Perhaps not. He staggered ahead, clear of the coals now, still taking an occasional beating. The frenzy of the crowd had abated at the top of the street. He didn’t couldn’t grunt any denial. His eyes set in a dusty dark wet face were dazed.

There at the top stood the last of the concrete light posts. Reaching it, somebody caught the milkman by his hair and brought his head round in a circle and kicked him on his butt. “Don’t do this again,” the somebody said. The man went tumbling, fell face down on the red dust of our little town. We felt his relief. We felt our relief. His soles were almost all we could see now, at the far edge of a pool of light. They were red and black and brown and raw.

Launching IndiQuest, a Personal Project

It is weekend and here I am in green Malnad, where coffee-picking is going on all round. I'm taking in this cool January and the sights of everything including the ring of hills that may be seen from the lower and upper decks of the plantation home. The only thing jars on this (otherwise) complete bliss is the chug of a diesel generator by the stream that separates my plantation from my eastern neighbor’s. The neighbor is pumping water uphill to his dried-up tank — as on my plantation, he is running sprinklers to spray a mist on his coffee, in the absence of timely rain.

Still, it is calm a good number of hours in the day, and I must be content, but I’m thinking forward to next week's short trip.

Calcutta. I'm going back only a month after my last visit there — which was also my first non-business visit to the city. During that visit I walked in the Dalhousie area, and the Esplanade, and along the riverfront starting at Prinsep Ghat. I went two-hundred kilometers north on a day trip to Tagore's Shantiniketan. It was a four-day trip, and quite a full one. In slots in between, I went to the Victoria Memorial, and the palatial ancestral home of Tagore, and the very minimal residence of Mother Theresa.

The upcoming trip would again be a four-day thing. I'll walk this time in the Howrah Bridge area, and Chinatown, and Kumartuli, and diverse places of worship. Whereas the last time I stayed at the Taj Bengal, this time around I'd be lodging with a family I found on AirBnb, a short walk away from Park Street, where too, I'll walk about as much as I can.

I'm reading. The last book I read on Calcutta was a journalistic work by Bishwanath Ghosh, an account of sporadic visits he made over two years to get to know the city. Now I'm reading the more scholarly and the more accomplished Amit Chaudhuri, his own experiences, again over two years. And I'm watching movies set in Kolkata. Last week I watched City of Joy; the week before that, Ray's Agantuk; and this week, I've scheduled Mrinal Sen's Calcutta 71.

I've given the exercise to know these Indian places — of which this Kolkata jaunt is a part — a name. IndiQuest, I've called it, and I'm maintaining online journals on the project in words and pictures. This year, I'll spend time Kolkata, and Chennai and Pondicherry. In 2018, I'll do the same in Mumbai and Delhi. I'll do short excursions to lesser towns from out of these larger cities for broader understanding.

In the meantime, I’ll keep moored enough of me in Bangalore.