A Day in Malnad to Clear the Head

IMG_8675-instagram.jpg

Depression in the Bay has brought a week of rain to Malnad, about five inches of it, taking the rainfall so far in the year to thirty-eight inches. Two-thirds of the monsoon season is now past. There will not be the historical average of ninety inches of rain this year, like last year and the year before. But the coffee plantations of Malnad have adjusted to the lack, it seems. All signs suggest a healthy crop at year’s end, provided nothing goes wrong in the time left, such as, for instance, rains from the Bay during cherry-picking.

So we didn’t worry for coffee, or for pepper, during this weekend's visit to the thota. We relaxed to the din of the birds that lasts through breakfast. (During which time the birds complete their morning-meal, and fly out to their different day jobs leaving behind an ocean of silence.) But by afternoon the cloudiness got me, boxing me in, in the vast, hilly sprawl of the place. In the evenings the cicada hemmed us in with their racket, though they were fewer this time than usual, as though their scouts had arrived ahead of the army of them, to test if the rain was for real.

And the elephants compacted the place even more. This was the first time the elephants had arrived on the plantation the same time as us, but they didn’t come over to the bungalow. They’ve been camping around our home lately, on the grassy clearing there, but this time they stayed out at their old lodging on a patch of jungle on the northeastern edge of our property.

“Don’t go out before 9:00. Don’t stay out after 6:00.” That was Basavanna’s caution to us as we were turning south at Ballupet en route our estate. That’s the precaution he takes himself, in his place next to ours.

So I sat and finished the novel I’d brought along. And, my wife and I took in the view and the feel of the place from within the bungalow, delighting in the pepper vines that are shooting up on the replanted coffee patch back of the house. A chill crept in from the crevices that the vermin use; the drizzle outside was constant, and the breeze with it; mist covered the distant hills and the tops of the areca palms along the stream which is our eastern boundary.

We did go out during the day, giving due respect to the northeast corner. I looked for the top of the elephant over the coffee and searched for its legs in the hollows below the high robusta plants. I sniffed at the clean air for the reputed stink of the wild elephant. All through, I maintained the bravest face I could and told my wife thrice or four times that we should foremost be calm if the beast should come up.

“We should turn around and walk away. But without haste. If we show agitation, the thing will think it should engage.”

My wife nodded as if to agree, but I could tell from thirty years with her that in the nooks of her mind she had plans of her own that she'd more likely follow, pulling me along as well.

I was happy to be returning to Bangalore, and I nearly said so in the car on the highway. But I checked myself when, in that very moment, my wife sank in her seat and sighed and said, “Just one day in the place and my head clears up completely.”

Incredible India

A blue public bus has passed thrice before me, bearing across its side a large-lettered legend: "Begging is a Punishable Offence." On the right end of it are the cupped wrinkled hands of the beggar. On the left, there’s the face of the Chief Minister grinning his brightest, as if in triumph at passing such daring legislation.

This is a politician whose secular intentions satisfy the liberal in me. He is also a socialist of a type and has been cool toward business and industry through the four years of his Chief Ministership. As regards me, I work in the avionics industry, and I’ve been vexed at a lingering opportunity not grabbed with both hands — to our general detriment.

So, now in this moment, I draw deep a sip of cold-brewed iced-coffee and close my eyes a moment and feel my emotions dissolve and disappear.

The bus takes a long time each time to negotiate the roundabout I'm facing. There's not enough width on the streets, and cars and motorcycles swarm around the bus, and the big long thing appears like a lizard bobbing among small and big ants of many hues.

I’m sitting in Starbucks, looking out, with the *Enchantress of Florence” in hand and jazz in my ears. The book is set in Agra and Florence and Turkey and Samarkand and shows off how Rushdie can weave an enchanting story using just those touristic places and the lands and the seas and the times that bind them. I've been in three of those locations, Samarkand not yet in my plans, but I haven't been able to get Florence and Agra and Istanbul into a decent blog post even.

(Rushdie is so expert he can word-paint with astounding brilliance Akbar the Great, but hush! To recognise greatness in Akbar is sacrilege these days.)

I should’ve been in Krakow this week, walking the streets and admiring the architecture and learning on site its near and long history. Instead, here I am at our local Starbucks, where I'm counting the rounds a commuter bus has been making and watching during pauses from reading Rushdie the Barista Cafe across the street, and the tree that conceals a half of it. A man is offering earnest prayers to the trunk of the tree. I say amen.

And I sip my coffee for which, when I stood in line, I had to tell off three men in whites who tried to jump ahead of me. But they were all right. They went to the back without making a noise, though each of them was burly, and clearly from the wealthy builder class, or the political — separations which when they exist, are thin and faint.

I had bought the tickets, made the hotel reservation, picked my seats on the plane for all sectors, but forty-eight hours before departure for Krakow a gloom came over me, black like the season’s clouds hanging overhead. In minutes I cancelled all reservations and leaned forward and settled in the pose of Rodin's Thinker, seeing grey, thinking nothing.

I haven’t missed the recurrent news of protests against tourists in Europe. In Venice, the voice of pain of the diminishing, 55000-strong populace is smothered under a daily deluge of tourist numbers multiples its size. Echoes of the protest are ringing out in Barcelona, and in Majorca, and in Rome where the mayor has asked visitors to leave his fountains alone.

Until now, visitors sought the fountains to relive cinematic moments, to rub some star dust on themselves. But folks need water, any water, across Europe this summer, because a heat wave is roiling the continent — so the news goes. Even Poland, where I was going, wasn’t exempt from Lucifer. Settling into schadenfreude, exclaiming how fortuitous I didn’t go, I checked the weather in Krakow: 26ºC daytime;16ºC nighttime; no rain in the week. The cloud over my head came down an increment.

But the protests have gotten me thinking. Now that everybody is travelling, is the cool thing to stay home? Home needn't be my residence in Bangalore. It could mean this Incredible India which I can cover by car, in long and short trips over time.

The Europeans could learn from us. We have monuments as old as theirs, and great and minor rivers, and mountains and valleys of flowers, and music and yoga and Bollywood and yes, oh yes, our touted culture and hospitality. And yet we keep tourists from abroad to a minimum. With such little effort. Ask the European who's been here already, I say.

Can you write a decent blog post staying put at home? I feel my clouds descending another notch.

Behind me, the three men in whites whom I’d told off at the counter are talking big-time politics. The second-most powerful man in India, and perhaps the feistiest, has been in town three days. These men, who are from the northern part of my state, are critiquing that leader in the lyrical Kannada of their region, in their diction that I love. I should’ve been accommodating toward them at the counter, I tell myself, and start warming toward home and note that the blue bus has arrived the fourth time.

Begging is banished, I see again. How nice. Where have those wrinkly joined hands gone now? I ask, rising to leave. Coffee is good at Starbucks, but I must go home for rice and sambar.

Only Ten Crores

Photo by triloks/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by triloks/iStock / Getty Images

Nights on the way home, nearing journey's end, we leave the main street and turn into Sadashivanagar — to enjoy for a short stretch a little less traffic. On this length live the actor-brothers Puneeth and Raghavendra, in adjacent identical cubic palaces. Several political leaders own private residences on this street, such as a recent foreign minister of India. And then there are the homes that hide that belong to the big, big industrialists.

Early last week we’d gone up one block in Sadashivanagar when we hit a police cordon. We were forced to turn right, back to the highway.

“What’s up?” I asked Mahesh, my driver. He gathers all the news during his downtime through the day.

“There’s a raid at Shivakumar’s house. By Income Tax people.”

Shivakumar is a top minister in the state government. He lives on this street that I favor. Entry to it was blocked the next night as well.

And the day after, I was in the area in the afternoon, needing to see my dentist on the edge of Sadashivanagar. The dentist has no parking and, being without a driver for the day, I had to struggle for space, circling, again and again, the cordon that covered three or several blocks around Shivakumar’s house. Hunting on the periphery, I found an opening by the Chroma electronics store. I drove in parked my car among a posse of police cars.

At the yellow barricade manned by the police end to end, I asked, “Can I leave my car there?”

“No.”

“I need to go to the dentist.”

“Where?”

“There.”

“Park there, then,” the policeman I was talking to said, waving toward a far distance.

“No room there. I’ve been going round and round twenty minutes.”

He considered me, my gray hair, and the hardcover book in my hand. On my part, I studied his burnt face, beaten by daily duty beneath the sun. Sweat glistened on it. Rain from the night before had left the day sultry.

He signaled okay to another cop.

The Police were camped at every intersection, sprawled and baking in red plastic chairs in the middle of the road and on the sidewalks. The thickest concentration of them was before Shivakumar’s house. Media persons milled about their OB vans. In Shivakumar’s compound, there were men in fatigues holding mean-looking guns. For all the numbers of men and women of action — the police, the press, the super-police, the minister's fans — there was no action. Boredom ruled. An IT raid is exciting in name only, the action itself being slow, tedious, bureaucratic.

Young broadcasters sat on the sidewalks and leaned back on compound walls. They seemed the most affected by the ennui of the thing. Shivakumar’s followers sat about in groups, in conversation among themselves — their faces showed concern, anger even, but there was no danger in the air.


The evening news reported the cash found. Seven crores, some said. Ten crores, others claimed. Barely a million and a half dollars! That’s no compliment to Shivakumar.


Because Shivakumar has a reputation. A big reputation. My grasp of its details is hazy, though. That’s because I belong to the legion that’s more glued to Donald Trump and his potential nemeses. So bitten am I by the Trump bug, I’m more focused on how he'll handle Jong-un than I am on our giant neighbor rapping a paw on a sore spot near India’s shoulder. At Doklam. Am I ashamed? Yes. Will I do something about it? I have only the addict’s weak answer.

Also, Shivakumar has a story. The ever-inspiring rags-to-riches story. The story of a farmer's son who started out with five acres of land and created wealth enough to be ranked among the richest in India. And he built himself a matching career in politics, reaching within grasp of Chief Ministership. His business success is significant for me; it points to what I could've done, but didn't.

I haven’t met Shivakumar ever, but I remember this: While driving past his house once, I had to pause a moment. Shivakumar had gotten out of his car and was crossing the street to his gate. He glanced at me, a smile playing on his lips. His face shone with the sheen of the powerful. His politico's whites were bright and stiff with starch. He seemed to be reaching out, to engage, and I'd liked him that moment. It was another face of his in the newspapers this week, with sag and pouches and stubble and fatigue on it.

So there, this was the big local news this week, close to where I live. It provoked no emotion in me. Now on the weekend, the police and the press and the strongman's fans have left. The barricades are folded and stacked helter-skelter by Shivakumar’s gates and by the gates of his neighbors. A new sight competes with the scene of last week: across Sadashivanagar billboards and posters and banners have sprung, announcing the birthday of Parameshwar, president of Shivakumar’s Congress Party. I'm adjusting to their glare.

The Fault, You See, Is In My Chakras

Photo by Alpha-C/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Alpha-C/iStock / Getty Images

“Please come … for my sake,” my wife said, and I went.

She had told in advance the lady who runs the yoga-meditation-reiki classes that I’ve been down — down a long time because I want to shift to a writing life, but I can't find a way to break clean from business and get into full-time writing. The lady had assured Sujaya she had the solution. She’d find which of my chakras had turned weak, and she’d stoke them, contactless, just as in surgery these days. With that my depression would go, and I’d move on to doing just my stuff with cheer and confidence.

“I’ll scan you first, sir,” the lady said, rocking on her haunches on a low, wide cane chair and settling into a perfect vertical — on a cane throne, actually, by the size of it. All around us were terra cotta heads of Buddhas of various visages: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian. There was also a poster of Kali with the out-and-fiery tongue. “Breathe deeply now, sir, or otherwise imagine you’re sitting under a waterfall.” She spoke in Kannada in a sing-song, every syllable dripping deference. Her neck followed her every inflection with a dancer’s dexterity.

She meant the dry, serene, sheltered back of the fall, but you’ve guessed that. I chose to watch my breath. In that otherwise pleasant room which had the car and tuk-tuk and truck and bus invading it all the time with their sound, the multitude of Buddhas, and a Durga, and the glowing face of my instructress, none of them were helping me to turn inward. An excess of Buddhas don’t aid concentration, I realized, they subtract in proportion to their number.

As regards her, her energetic face had liquefied and re-formed itself to an enviable calm. It pushed me to close my eyes and try every little trick I’ve picked up over the years to check thought and watch breathing. Chiefly, I chanted my mantra, as best I could, slipping often and wondering if entering the waterfall wasn't a better idea.

She took a very long time. I came to several stops in my effort and waited for her to call the end, but she kept going, scanning me.

“I see a lot of creativity, sir.”

She'd come out of whatever she'd been doing. Her already bright white eyes were shining now, and darting at my wife and me and back at my wife. “You want to write, no? If you start now something big will happen in just a few years.”

A silence broke out and held.

“You must be feeling a little bit better now, no?”

“With just a scan?” I didn’t speak that out, of course.

She wasn’t very young, but she had the teen’s fresh face with its excess of energy. Her thick hair sprang stiff from her head, in a nice way, like it had been treated to a mild shock. I pondered her assessment. She’d snapped me out of whatever she’d gotten me into, pushed me back into doubt and the dark. She searched my face, revealing on her own a frank hunger for results. But there soon overflowed on it the same disappointment that she read on mine. I felt guilty a little, for having infected her with my condition.

“We’ll do the chakras, madam,” she said, looking at my wife for permission to start the procedure on me. She took me into another room in the apartment.

A male assistant waited for me there. My shirt had to go, and I had to lie supine. The man put cold stones on my bare torso, sort of like the wet probes you wear for ECG. I had to chant om out loud now, on and on. The man joined me as well, with an om that had no oomph in it. After a while, I heard the lady join also, and she was very good at it, of course. We went on with the om, and finally, we stopped, and the lady asked me to stay supine and not open my eyes; she switched on some music; everybody left, abandoning me to the melody of a shrill flute. Scenes of glades and nubile women and Krishna came to mind — composed as in the ISKON posters — and, I was soon asleep, as you've guessed.

When it was all over, and we'd gathered where we’d first sat, she didn’t ask me questions anymore. “You’re 60% better already, sir,” she told me. "Please come back in two weeks, and we’ll finish the rest." Her eyes and voice failed to give strength to her otherwise firm words.

She came out to the elevator to send us off.

“You can’t call her a fraud,” my wife said, miffed with my judgment of someone who’d been doing such a good job with her chakras. (Though, I must tell you, her chakras are of the robust Gowda variety.) Even as I searched for words of reparation, she bounced back. “There’s more to her, Shashi. She can do regression!”

“What’s that?” I said.

“Regression. That’s what she calls it. She can take you to your past lives. She can stop here and there so you may look around.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You should go through it. At least as a writer!”

My wife is always right. No, really.

Happy Birthday, Anna!

Photo by NexTser/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by NexTser/iStock / Getty Images

Last week, Bangalore was called upon to celebrate — willy nilly — two birthdays: that of Mr. Suresh, who is a member of the legislative council; and Mr. Kharge, recently a minister in the union cabinet, now the leader of our modest opposition in parliament.

Posters and big and small and colossal billboards appeared up at the start of the week in all public spaces. I'm not sure all the spaces were paid for. The posters were designed after the fashion that has evolved these recent years. The birthday boys (Suresh is about 35, it seems; Kharge turned 75) are featured in the middle. Round their picture is a garland of heads of their party bosses, the big boss's head is bigger than the smaller boss's head and so on, and through tracing the size and location of the heads you gain a complete understanding the party hierarchy. Reading between the heads, you can tell who's in favor and who's not. There are other heads on the posters, of sidekicks, and again the biggest head belongs to the closest sidekick, the right-hand man, and the next in size to the … you get the picture.

Happy birthday, anna! The posters gush in garish color. Anna means elder brother, but you could also think of him as Big Brother.

I pass Kharge’s house often. It is on the way to my coffee. He lives in Delhi, being a national leader, but his home is here in Bangalore. Last week, the billboards and posters were prolific in his neighborhood. They had blinded other houses in the area, and since the ceremonies were held on the street, for a time traffic was closed off as well. You should be rich to live in Kharge-anna’s neighborhood. Being rich, and needing to hold on to your wealth, you will allow with good grace the erection of the hideous, humongous, loud and colorful affairs before your house. You may say no, of course, but that will hurt anna, who will wonder why you won’t consider him your buddy. If the wound is deep, his devotees might call on you and offer the hand of friendship.

We are not invited to the party. The posters are for our kind information only, to note, by the number of them, how powerful one anna is over another at the moment. For instance, Mr. Parameswar is the boss of the Karnataka State Congress Party. His birthday posters ornamented the streets a few days before Kharge-anna’s. But Parameswar-anna's posters were fewer.

This celebration of birthdays in this fashion is a recent phenomenon, it is something that started a few years ago. It is taking interesting turns. For example: If you are politically inclined, and if you have access to some money, you embed yourself in the public psyche by printing your own posters, adding the faces of a few of your friends for form, add images of the biggies in the party you choose to chase and pay someone to paste the posters across town. That's it. Do it!

It also helps the politician assert himself, and grow his head, and dislodge other heads on party posters when they appear next. As in the case of Suresh-anna, whose grandmother, uncle and other relatives were all legislators, and Suresh-anna was miffed last time when he was put in a contest for his party's nomination in the assembly by-elections. His posters were so numerous and so widely deployed last week, his party better take him seriously — especially when the next assembly elections come upon them.

And so, we the commoners endure the visual feast that our leaders treat us to in this honest and very public display of their rat race. You turn your face from one poster, another smiles at you, or frowns; you turn again, and a face that could well cause trauma in a child bores into you. In this city in which you could see an explosion of flowers on treetops in any season, this instead is what greets you these days.

The biggest presence in my psyche these days is my two-year-old grandson. I can't tell his inclination for politics yet — but he loves birthdays. Last month, when my own birthday happened, he came visiting with his parents. “We brought a cake for you,” he said. “I’ll cut it."

Soon my grandson will ask me who these people are, whose faces always adorn our streets and walls and buildings and lamp posts and traffic islands and pedestrian bridges. I must tell him, and I must also inform him their great deeds that allow them to usurp space that belongs to all. You mustn’t lie to children, of course, so I’m doing mental workouts to build the most pleasing narrative I can.

This post won't make the cut, I know.

Back and Blue in Bangalore

I’m in Bangalore now, and in this moment at Cafe Noir on the terrace at UB City. I'm drinking their vegan espresso — a shot of espresso with steamed soya.

The guys at the next table are venture capitalists, talking millions and millions of dollars, and of monies lost, and monies that fetched 3x and 2x and 5x returns. Across their small square gray table they're trading — in loud voices -— assessments of business outlook in India and China and America and Europe. They are waiting for another person to join them. Their present task is to offer an exit for a chap in one of their investments, and they've asked him to come at 6:30. It is 5:45 now. "You think he'll take 25?" one asks the other, and they conclude, "He should be fine with 22." That man must be small in their scheme: The two have spoken of a fund of 750 million dollars, a single investment of 360 crore rupees, a startup that’s rocketed to 4000 crores. One of them is a desi American, the other is a Mumbaikar come down for the meeting. The American has stretched his legs, and has manspread one leg into the space beneath my table. He has begun to stamp its heel on the wooden floor. I turn and look at him a moment. A decent man, he seems. His accent suggests he's a born-in-the-USA American.

The numbers begin to get bigger, in the meantime. They're leaning into the future now, looking to invest in every promising sector. These aren't the one percent. They're of the higher, rarer field — the point-one-percent bracket, I bet.

The American isn't stopping stamping his heel. On my part, I’ve stopped writing; I'm reading Don Delillo. Cosmopolis. I cannot concentrate anymore, so I throw a repeat glance at the American who doesn't return it, but I see him sense my eyes. He rests his jiggling feet, and his shaking leg.

"Let's go to my office," the Mumbaikar says. He's read my annoyance. So their office is here in UB City. They rise. And they hold their chairs on top and, instead of tucking them into the tables, they drop them. They are light chairs, and the vibration of their limbs has greater effect than their thud on the floor. My peripheral vision informs me that the American is looking at me. My peripheral attention tells me he's spoiling for an exchange of hostility. I won't play.

Now there's silence, although Cafe Noir is busy in the evenings. My Kindle has my eyes all for itself, but it has almost nothing of my mind, and a good few minutes pass before I resume concentrated reading. But I still have those rich men in mind. Should I have been forgiving a bit? Should I have loosened my grouch as they left?


Such forgiveness I received yesterday at the PVR Cineplex in Forum Mall.

Some ten minutes of the movie were left when the ringing began and I gave a start. Tring! Tring! But I'd switched my phone to silent right after I'd taken my seat. After I’d silenced it, putting my phone in my pocket, I'd looked about to see if the others were doing the same.

The ads and previews were running. I had young people on either side of me, their faces lit by their phones even as they chatted with their buddies. The ones next to me held their devices at a sly slant, but the glare from them got my side-vision all the same. I glanced left and right but none noticed my bristling face. Will they silence their phones and pocket them, or no?

And now my own phone was ringing. No, no, not the phone, I realized in a moment. It was my iWatch that was letting off a high soft ring. I fumbled, tap-tapping on the red on the watch face, and it felt like it rang a hundred times until it obeyed my insistent rapping. My face tingling, I gave furtive looks to either side and checked the rows of heads front of me. Not one stirred from watching the action before them. I’d upset no one.

I reckon some three persons in ten are depressive in my part of the world. But across the rows that I could see that were in earshot, it seemed that everybody was ready enough to ignore a minor annoyance.

The movie was Baby Driver, which had non-stop music vying with the musical noise of speeding motorcars — in Surround Sound. I must tell Sujaya about these people, I thought. It had been she on the phone, I'd stolen off to the movie without telling her, and in the movie hall I'd cut her call.


The book I’ll read next is This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, by Daphne Merkin. What’s my lot, I must embrace.

Lesson in Crime and Punishment

I decided I’ll go to Haw Par Villa, having never been there in all the years I’ve been going to Singapore.

The brothers Haw (Tiger) and Par (Leopard) were the Tiger Balm entrepreneurs. It was the time of the Empire, and the pair started their business in Rangoon, and came down to Singapore and increased their fortune there. In Singapore the brothers built a mansion on a hill, and that estate in their time and afterward has transformed into a public garden with statues and dioramas that tell stories and parables and aphorisms from the worlds of Tao, Confucius, and the Buddha. The most touted exhibit there is a long man-made cave depicting the Ten Courts of Hell. A sign outside the grotto cautions there's gore inside.

It was blazing hot on the exposed hill; so the enclosed space was inviting. And who doesn’t enjoy gore? Also, I’m at an age where one is keen for hints of the afterlife, and I found them in that dark interior, in neat, dim-lit dioramas.

The virtuous dead have it easy. On arrival at the Courts, they’re split into two classes, somewhat like the gold and silver card holders of airline loyalty programs. The best get on the golden bridge, the next best are routed to the silver bridge, and both bridges offer a quick passage to paradise. The sinful dead are sent on a rough ride. They’re to be dealt with across ten courts, each ruled by its own Yama, its own god of death. When the dead arrive before the Yama and the sins read out, the Yama has a ready list of punishments to hand down.

The prostitute, for instance, is presented before the second Yama. Her punishment is to be drowned in blood. The third Yama's jurisdiction is ungratefulness, disrespect to elders, and escaping from prison. He also tries drug addicts, drug traffickers, tomb robbers, and fomenters of social unrest. He is severe: If you belong here, you could have your heart cut out, or you may be bound to a red-hot copper column and grilled. The fourth Yama tries tax dodgers, rent defaulters, fraudsters and sends them to a stone mallet for a pounding. The sixth Yama takes cheats, those who curse, abductors, misusers of books, patrons of porn, rule breakers, and food wasters, and he saws them in two, or throws them upon a tree of knives. The seventh Yama is named as King Taishan: He pulls out the tongue of rumormongers, and those who sow discord among family. The eighth Yama digs the visceral organs from those who abandon filial obedience, cause trouble for family and cheat in examinations. If you have robbed, murdered, or raped, the ninth Yama will see you. He will have your head and arms chopped off; if you have neglected the old and the young, he will crush you beneath boulders.

It seems that you’re condemned to emerge from each court alive so you’re fit for punishment at the next court. After you have passed the first nine courts a fresh lease awaits you at court ten. Here a lady serves you a potion that erases the past from your mind, and sets you off on a new life, as human or animal, as the tenth Yama sees fit.

I regarded myself. I must prepare for the sixth Yama, and the eighth; I must prepare to crash on a knife-covered tree; must prepare to be sawed in two; must prepare to experience my visceral organs hacked. I haven’t known it was this serious to waste food; I could've been an obedient son. My belly writhes as I write.

These sins and punishments are declared on plaques posted alongside the thick-painted dioramas populated with expertly crafted oriental figurines — a diorama to illustrate each court. Reading the plaques, I wondered first if the Yamas catalogued them in an uncharacteristic fit of humor, and if the entire scheme is all in jest. Later, it struck me that the punishments lacked in imagination — they’re merely torture that man has inflicted on man down the ages. The retributions didn’t appear divine to me; they read like the secret penal code of a despot, ready for administering here and now — even as the sinner in the despot’s book lives. At any rate, I cannot imagine that the Ten Courts of Hell as described in Haw Par belong in the sagely Buddhist scriptures. They’ve perhaps mutated through time and in translation.

Leaving, in the cool of the taxi, the driver asked me, “First time in Singapore?”

“Naw … .” I told him how much I love Singapore, and how often I’m there.

“Foreigners don’t come to Haw Par, la.”

There hadn’t been many locals either. Haw Par Villa seldom made money over the decades when it was a for-profit. It’s a non-profit now, and entrance is free, and I’ve described only one exhibit from the sprawl.

Sounds of Silence

Minutes ago, my wife came home. She’d been to a trade association dinner. She's on the phone since she came in, talking business. Talking, she opened the refrigerator, pulled out a bottle, and tried to open it, all with one hand. The bottle fell, breaking the silence I’d been basking in.

"Need help?" I called from here on the second level. "No," she said from below, not coming off the phone.

I'm in the living room, writing. Until now, only the dogs on the street back of my house have been intruding into this quietude once a half-hour. There's not the sound of a motorcar, or of people talking whilst walking down the street. Or the patter of rain on top.

Bangalore is good these days, after many torrid weeks. The temperatures are around 29°/19°. That’s because it’s raining — but in the way it does in Bangalore — discreetly. The town has turned green, which change strikes me best when I arrive at my workplace, where trees recently planted have gained height and stand like teenager before full-grown across the campus, and their huddles are minor woods with the scent of rain among them.

Bangaloreans reading this may raise the eyebrow. Before they call me out let me admit there’s not been as much rain as we should’ve had. I’m only keeping this post steered toward the good.

While writing I’m distracting myself with the Guardian. And the New York Times. They bring into my microcosm big news of big people. I rather enjoyed it when Obama was in charge, and I welcome anything the tough-but-sweet German leader says or does. But, like with most folks these days, I’m locked into the Trump soap, and although I tell myself every day that Trump is none of my business, even if the climate is changing, the Greatest Nation on Earth won't leave a quiet foreigner alone, even if what it’s got now is Trump. He’s bad for the system, its media says, and shoves him through to my gut.

I read this comment by a certain Musteshfaibnalbitar, below one of the Trump stories in the Guardian:

"While I agree with your analogy, he is not, nor is any American, the leader of the free world. I live in a country that's truly free and he ain't my leader. That so called 'free world' thing is utter bullshit and smacks of the worst kind of 'murican (sic) propaganda."

Someone steeped in liberties would invent a username such as Musteshfaibnalbitar. As regards me, and us in my country, I must admit we're some distance yet from true freedoms. My username is the same as my real name everywhere. But I so agree with Musteshfaibnalbitar.

Trump, Merkel. May, Trudeau, Putin, Boris Johnson. And Tusk and Gorsuch and Corbyn and McConnell and Xi. Comey. These names are crowding my head in my home. I sift big names and mull big happenings when in a coop. Out in the wide, wide world I exult in the small things.

But I like my coop. I write and read here these days, rather than in a cafe, for the silence here. But I forgot to mention that I have an inner noise thanks to a recent onset of tinnitus. The doctor said I must practice to ignore it. I didn’t tell him the affliction is rather like Trump, it knows how to get in, in spite of my best efforts. I need sound to counter the tinnitus. So, and also because the writing was going nowhere, I did other things. It is getting to midnight now, and I watched The House of Cards. Wow. Can that Greatest Nation and its White House keel like in the serial? Now or ever?

There's a siren approaching. Our ambulances used to be shy and timid. The city appears to have fixed that. There’s at this time an occasional roar from the far-off main street — kids doing wheelies. During the Ramzan month just ended, local Muslim leaders realized that a good number from their flock were doing this daredevilry during the night hours. They pointed them out to the police, and urged the rest of their young to not sully their community, during Ramzan in particular.

I’ll go to bed. I cannot do anything now, except look for a Guardian response to yet another Trump tweet. I’m liberal, but I don’t mind him anymore. Rather, I’m anxious for him, he has begun to seem to me like a lead from a Greek tragedy. The climate may correct itself in spite of man, but Trump won’t, and I’m feeling anxiety for him, same as I feel when a play approaches end and tragedy. But, of course, Trump has no care for the concern of an Indian plebeian.

Last Week, In Paris

 Processed with VSCO with kp4 preset

The runways at CDG run flat, as they should, among swells of rolling land. The terminals on this wavy terrain are a circular construction. Inside, long travelators running from the gates to immigration fall off first, then run level, and rise back up. In the stretch to the exits, another set of travelators climb steep to the upper level, the belts shaking beneath the feet as they work upward. This airport is different. But then, there's the fact of French achievement in art and architecture, and one develops through repeat visits a taste for this airport, like the drinking type who develop a taste for French wine.

Our first meal was at Cafe St. Andre, where we were served an assiette of vegetables and rice. On subsequent days, at the Cafe Paris on rue Buci, we picked a table inside whereas everybody sat on the sidewalk, and the only vegan we could eke out there was an arabbiatta. A French business partner took us to dinner at Les Editeurs, off St. Germain Boulevard. The color red ruled the place and its walls were lined with hundreds of books. They brought us a bowl of boiled potatoes and artichokes touched by herb and a bowl of thick green cold soup, all of which tasted good with the flavors coming out in full in the rich ambience. A key customer hosted us at Le Procope, where earlier patrons have been Voltaire, Danton, Benjamin Franklin, and such. Here we ate grilled vegetables dosed with herbs and olive oil. Looking later for vegan-focused joints, we were pulled into a nice-looking restaurant on the corner from our hotel, with a view to the Seine. It had large splashes of green on the menu displayed outside. Inside, the handed menu ran several pages, with many organic references, but the only vegan on it was a list of sides: "exotic" rice, mushrooms, french fries, cold quinoa, and beans and thin-sliced carrots. We ordered the entire list, and they arrived in white china, each dish in a bowl and the set of them on a curvy plate — in the fashion of the Indian thali. We ate with the same vigor we approach the thali.

We were in Paris for the Air Show. The show was hot, the weather hotter. On the RER the systems struggled with the cooling but the ride was still okay, whereas on the free shuttle from the RER station to the fairgrounds we received a twice-daily feel of hell. In the morning most folks lined up for the buses, and those who jumped were graciously ignored. The minders sent into each bus a first batch to fill the seating, a second batch for standing, and a final few to fill spaces left. Then making sure the bus had no room for a mouse even, they waved it on and called the next bus. Like this we traveled in universal brotherhood the last mile, black and brown and white and strong and weak and man and woman and rich and poor and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and atheist all pressed together for a torturous half hour for the short jammed distance to the fairgrounds. Everybody seemed to endure the ride with impressive forbearance, steaming people in a sealed bus, working hand phones and speaking in murmurs, doing perhaps what I was doing, being calm outside, cursing within.

Evenings, the western civilization was put to the test. The minders were fewer than in the mornings, and ineffective, their energy drained by the day's heat. Visitors crowded the bus stops at the fairgrounds, many smart ones edging and sneaking through to the front. When the bus arrived people forced their way in, rather like in our India, even if not so badly. One evening, a man behind me, squeezing in with the others, said, "It's happening, it's happening, I'm going to vomit." Did he mean the demise of order and the consequent decline of the evolved west? Grand line, but thoughts like these roiled me in the heat of Paris.

There was time in the week to go about Paris a bit, to watch Parisians enjoy Midsummer's Day on June 21, and listen to music by buskers who'd taken every available public space. Each had an audience, some a half dozen, some even a hundred. While we lingered in Saint Michel the police arrived in six opaque vans. Doors opened and men in blue jumped out and took positions under the trees, by the bus stops, at the fountains, and whereas the men with rifles gazed with detached eyes, assessing but not engaging anyone, their other colleagues stood by the vans, alert to calls to action. When I passed a van by a drinking fountain, a youngish policeman broke into a gig, lured by the Afro drummers before him.

The most important thing, for me, is that I went to the Louvre, and went straight to the Denon wing, to the gallery of Italian paintings, to the Mona Lisa. There was a constant throng before the lady, but I could stand undisturbed on the periphery to her left and gaze. She did not disappoint, holding her composure and being herself in spite of this daily assault by the thousands, by some who look, and some who look and shoot, and others who come to shoot only. A blue phosphorescence issued from her direction, and through it she returned and outlasted my gaze. I'm shaken by her still.

Death by the Trunk of an Elephant

Photo by bugphai/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by bugphai/iStock / Getty Images

It happened last week. A planter died by the trunk of an elephant. Unconscious after he was flung by it, his body fought all night to live. Folks from the village and his kin took him first to the taluk hospital and then to the district hospital, but several of his internals had expired already, crushed when he’d smashed into the ground. There are witnesses and they have no differing accounts — and they’re unanimous in regard to who is to blame.

Such a death as this everybody had been anticipating for some time now, with the very human conviction that somebody would go like this, somebody but them. Everybody was proved right, all but one who was 40 years old, owner of the plantation right next to ours on our east with a stream for a boundary between his place and ours. He wouldn’t have been the one if he hadn’t stopped his car after he’d passed the elephants, if he hadn’t got out and walked back 100 meters in the dark of eleven to watch what they were up to.

The planation that neighbours ours on the west goes by the name of its previous owner, although she sold it some time ago, and a new, Bangalore-based owner tends it. Mala's Thota, people call the property, which means Mala's plantation. A state highway running down to Coorg marks Mala's Thota's western boundary. Across that highway there's the sprawl of the 500-acre IBC plantation, a smaller holding among many that IBC owns.

The night we're speaking of, some eight elephants came waddling through the IBC plantation, and when they reached the highway, paused before the sparse traffic before crossing over to Mala's Thota. While they waited for a safe moment a female in the herd went into labour. The herd circled her, the males looking outward and ready to defend. The female's heaving brought them onto the road a bit, causing vehicular traffic to coalesce, and move in a slow, respectful stream. The elephants slipped and slid on the roadside while making room for trucks and buses, not seeming to mind the inconvenience. In the meantime the female delivered, and the baby began to receive its first ministrations. Two hours later, the herd had still not moved, and villagers from the Hydur village a few minutes away had gathered to look, inhaling the drama, savoring the truce between man and untamed beast.

Folks in these parts have been experiencing the elephant every day: Water tanks whose embankments have collapsed under the weight of elephants bathing; fences and coffee plants trampled down; trees humbled and bent to the ground; trees uprooted and tossed about; whole coffee patches laid waste in a game conceived for the toddler elephant; heaps of fresh dung here and there with bright white mushrooms sprouting on them; deep round footmarks everywhere; and, of course, the stories.

Every day, the aged priest at the small Shiva temple on our plantation goes down the slope from the shrine and fetches a pitcher of water from a spring there. A few months ago, he heard a rustle among the mist-enveloped coffee and seeing what had caused it, he ran back to the temple with all the speed his bony legs could give him. He was still shaken two weeks later. "Just ten feet from me, anna!" Basavanna, who is a respected planter and who manages our property for us, was driving back after an evening at the Planters Club, and he saw elephant silhouettes at the far end among silver oaks. He halted to gauge the danger, but his wife hissed, "Drive, drive!" Puzzled, Basavanna looked about. A single elephant stood brooding some ten yards away, his outline showing in the foliage. His panicked heart and feet and his Pajero shot him out to safety. Then there was the incident of a girl who was chased down to Malegalale village. She ran fast enough to reach her home at the edge of the village. Perhaps the elephant was playing a chase. The elephant circled round a spot a few times, shaking his jowly body, and went back up the slope.

It has been a long time since the elephant lost its titles to these lands. But it has its memory and cannot help feeling ownership of these hills that were once jungle and are now human plantations and human playgrounds. It is making its last stand.

At eleven the herd was still at the roadside, allowing traffic to pass, nodding and swinging heads, jiggling bellies and backsides, waving trunks. The planter of this story drove past them and halted. He climbed out of his car and walked back to the spectacle of elephants in possession of a newborn. The planter admonished the villagers to stand back, warned them of the dangers in scaring a beast with baby. Then he pulled his phone from his pocket and began to shoot and, soon engrossed, crossed his own line. A male from the herd detached itself and came over to him in no great hurry, but full of fury.

Two days ago, on Friday, his family performed final rites for him.