The Writer's Sharp Tool

I’m not writing about the writer who writes. This post is about the supervisors on our coffee plantation. The British in their time in India called the plantation supervisor a writer, because besides his duties among the coffee plants and the shade trees, he kept petty accounts and the muster roll. Native planters have stayed with the practice.

After eight years, Ravi is no more our writer. He left us in April, a friendly separation prompted by the completion of construction of his own home north of Sakleshpur — we’re at four o’clock from it. His departure was quiet, and although there was a little drama (he touched my feet for blessings, and wept and embarrassed me and himself) the theatrics were no match for the near-weekly crises at the start of his tenure with us.

For instance, I’ve recorded in this journal the incident when Ravi chased a neighbour’s cow out our eastern gate. With complete disregard to who owned the deeds, the cow had trespassed into our coffee patches through our western gate. Tracing the cow after dark, mad as hell that a mere writer had affronted him thus, that planter quarrelled with Ravi and in the altercation planted his foot on Ravi’s chest. It took some time to set minds straight in this case. Another time, Ravi called us in Bangalore in the night, saying four gunmen had been sighted on our plantation, by an old lady from another plantation's labour line, and nobody had seen them leave, and the old lady had overheard that their purpose was to finish off Ravi. We had to commandeer security for him from Bangalore that night, from some two-hundred kilometres out east. The gunmen have remained a mystery, and he and we and the reclusive local police and all others whom we had involved in the affair have never once mentioned the matter after the incident.

These excitements ceased after we appointed a respected planter, Basavanna, to manage our property. We visit there once monthly, and we skip when our real business, that which puts bread on our table, gets thick in the city or when it pushes us to travel. The plantation is now a sober, dull place, save for the elephants that have been felling our fences and stamping down the coffee plants. We’ve not had the luck to see the herds that come. When we arrive, we are only treated to the sight of their fibrous football-size droppings, barbed wire broken north, east, and west, and violated coffee patches.

The new writer is Nataraj, who is much older than Ravi. When he came asking for the job, the picking of Arabica and Robusta had all been done, the borer-infected coffee stems had been pulled out and burned, and fertilising and pruning works were in progress. There isn't a free month in the year that it takes for coffee to blossom and ripen and become good-to-pick beans. Over the month that has passed since Nataraj joined we’re worrying if he is too laid back to be able to manage the plantation. Ravi wouldn’t be still for a second. Not that he used all his energy for the allotted job, Basavanna always used to say, but that matter is for another post.

"Why did you leave?" I asked Natarj. He was a senior writer on a 500-acre plantation owned by a big builder in Bangalore.

"When I joined them there weren't two coffee plants in their place. Everything on it I planted," he said.

I nodded. "Right. Why did you leave?"

"My son is working with the owner's company in Bangalore. The owner trusted me fully. He'd come once a month. Then he was coming at all. He'd left everything to me.”

I nodded again, allowing him to forget his superiors in that place. We were on the verandah. Out in the yard the bougainvillea were flourishing on the coconut palms they’d been trained on. They were blazing, flashing colour that they’d gained in excess heat and light, whereas the coffee leaves out in their patches were wrinkled and drooping and altogether disillusioned with the promised rains that were just not coming. Before me, Nagaraj was sweating.

"Now he's appointed a new manager. He trusts that man more nowadays."

I kept on nodding. Only, I slowed it, like folks do when they turn contemplative.

“That man doesn't know anything. He has brought along a young writer. About me, he complained to the owner that I threatened him with a machchu. “

I raised my brow. And tried to imagine this middle-aged man raising a machete.

"The writer goes about with a machchu like how other people go about with a pen. When the manager stopped me to speak with me I had the machchu in hand. The hand moves when you talk. The machchu moves with the hand. The manager took a video of me and my machchu on his phone and showed it to the owner. I didn't realise that the voppa was taking my video."

"Didn't you explain all this to the owner?"

Nataraj paused a long time. I tried to read the truth from his face, from its liquid lines and its shiny saggy pouches. A grandfather’s face. A face capable of anger, it seemed. Rage, even.

“The owner hasn't come here. Anyway, he trusts his manager more. After so many years. There were no more than two plants in the place when I joined.“

He didn't tell if he quit or if he was asked to go. I didn’t press to know. Rather, I asked him to report the following month. He's been all right the weeks since he joined, but I'm thinking that he is a perhaps a little slow.

"Let's give him time," Basavanna said when we discussed him last week in the wet world that’s now upon us, the monsoons having finally arrived.

“I was thinking the same,” I said.

Picture This

  Photo by ClaireMcAdams/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by ClaireMcAdams/iStock / Getty Images

Picture this. On the ground floor of the house across the street from your home lives a couple with one child, a son, who is away abroad for most of the year. His parents send him on jaunts to Europe so he may soothe there his manic mind, which bursts to the fore soon as he’s back in town. He screams demands and yells accusations of which their neighbours can hear every bit.

On the first floor of their house live their tenants, where the parents have two daughters, the elder of whom declares war on her father roughly twice monthly, and she is so scathing in her abuse that he can check himself only a short while before he begins his returns, loud but weak, and after a half-hour of taking the overwhelming oral beating he walks out and drives away and you hear only silence from behind the thick foliage where their house is. The silence holds until next time. That father, an artist, has enjoyed years of fame, and though he's out of public view these days, these spats within earshot of so many people would be hard for him to bear. Whether it's the father who suffers more, or the daughter, you cannot tell.

Picture this. The folks in the ivy-clad house six houses down the street live in Europe almost all months of the year, even in winter, and they are very successful doctors, but the bigger success in the family is the daughter, who is a constitutional lawyer, a lawyer making a name in Europe, but she's steeped in acute depression that she manages to keep secret where she works. She has a psychiatrist for a mother. You see the mother when she visits, only the mother not the daughter, and you see the wash of the daughter's suffering over the mother's face.

Also picture this. The daughter of the family on the corner of your street is an accomplished singer who has given classical performances across the nation, but she was brought down by in-laws resentful of her public shows, and she sings no more now, and has returned to her parents and retired at a young age to silence and to days of walking her little boy up and down the street.

That's four families among five that you know on your street, along which stand some thirty other houses each with its own public and private stories. Consider now the man in the other home that you know, some distance up the street, and hold that man who happens to be your age and is holed up in his house, and yourself, to honest light, that lone dull light that is all the light you’ve been able to access lately.

You have considered all six of six, and you have a statistic that is a match with this monsoon morning in June.

This Mind and the Monsoon

  Photo by Maxiphoto/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Maxiphoto/iStock / Getty Images

I am carrying a torch with me mornings these days when I step out at 5:00. The light breaks by 5:30, but until then I've to be sure no tree has been yanked of its branches overnight. At the start of the week an entire tree had fallen before Karle's house, and I couldn't pass it through its left part or its right part or through its middle. To be honest I did try to pierce the right and I went under the branches through the foliage that glistened before my torchlight, and fear came upon me of snakes shaken by the events of the night, by thunder and lighting and buildings resonating with terrible sound, and I was sure any snake would be in a rotten mood, and that even a non-venomous snake would've obtained some poison to deliver into a hapless morning walker. With such thoughts rising I leapt back and did an about turn and took an alternate route. I'm embarrassed to say it, but that's what I did, and I must admit it now when I can, because someday this blog might be read by hundreds of thousands, and I'd no more be able to reveal these things about me.

It rained just like that last night and it felt like our roof was being flayed of everything on it but in the morning we saw that all that had happened was that the coupling between a section of solar panels had come loose. The water storage and the grills and the Mangalore-tiled pavilion and everything else had been pushed and pulled as by giant hands, but they'd all held. The house has survived a week's pounding by the elements, and I should send a letter of thanks to the contractor who built it fourteen years ago, but I'll probably not, and that's another story.

And today, just now, as I started to write this post, it started to rain to the accompaniment of thunder. A big bang went off a short distance away, clearly the transformer that serves our neighbourhood has blown, and the lights have gone. I'm reclined in the comfort of a spacious but hemmed-in living room, with windows only in the outer rooms. I cannot see the play of lightning, I can only wonder at the sure wondrousness of it, and at the low great rumble that appears to have decided to stay with us this time round. As like in a chorus, the waters falling from the already full gutters round the house are giving depth and body to the drama. It is rather nice, this mix of the dark and the damp and a growing chill and the unnerving action, and in the net my spirits should rise. They've been so down. (We'll keep this too under wraps when I become famous, dear few readers of this blog.)

Oh yes. It's to raise your spirits that the monsoons come.

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.