Travel

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.

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?”
“Nooo.”
“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.

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.

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.

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.

A Visit to the Chola Temples in Tanjore

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

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

Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

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

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

Rajesh Vaidya at the Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

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

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


Some more pictures …