Seven Little Buddhas

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Seven tender necks supporting seven shaven heads. At a distance behind them, I am seeing the back of them. I’ve been in the hall twenty minutes. I was watching my breathing, all alone in that space, and then I’d gotten up to leave, but sat down again when these maroon-robed boys with Tibetan faces came in. I wanted to see them before the golden Buddha. Why? I don’t know.

They’re only boys: the oldest is about twelve, or fourteen, and the youngest perhaps six-years-old. They look back at the slightest sound, at me, and at another man who has entered, dropped a cushion and squatted on it.

The hall is a fifteen-minute walk from Starbucks, whence I came, where I’ve been two hours through the afternoon. There I’d had a large realtor sitting at the table before mine, his bulk overflowing his chair, challenging its thin wooden legs. A lot of these types come here, carrying two phones each — for some reason, they cannot function with a single handphone. I had businessmen back of me as well, two fellows with sleek silver hair and the complexion of the wealthy, who spoke lofty things: business excellence; benchmarks; Fortune-500 mentors; and so on. Left of me, a teenage girl learnt by rote from a book, waving a finger in the air to better push her material into her head. As anywhere in the world, half the cafe is always in possession of students. Nice.

Here in the prayer hall, after a time the little fellows sink unto themselves before the golden Buddha. On the white marble floor, I see now a pool of water leaked in from the centre of the dome above. (It has been raining unusually hard these days in Bangalore). Otherwise, the hall is clean and bright, and the calm in it subdues the sounds from the traffic on CV Raman Road outside. I like this place. I’ve been for looking something just like this to spend a few quiet moments when I need to.

At Starbucks in Sadashivanagar one seldom goes in to relax over coffee. Everybody drops in for a spot of intense work — alone, or in groups. I enjoy eavesdropping in this care: Men in their twenties discuss startups and targets of twenty or thirty or fifty million — the numbers are all in dollars; girls barely out of the teens announce launches of new stores on Lavelle Road or Cunningham Road or at UB City — boyfriends ask them to mind overhead. They laugh, even as they speak such serious stuff.

Here in the Buddhist prayer hall, the man who’d come in has left. The boys are still. I gaze again at their necks, and the meaning of “green behind the ears” begins to make meaning to me, although the boys are the colour of rice-husk. As regards me, I’ve been squatting longer than my legs can take — blood has stopped flowing in them. I must get up, I must go.

Outside, I make inquiries. The place is a seminary. A total of seven kids are being put through the mill. I like what I hear, but I’m also confused by it. I need all the time the extended drive through jammed traffic gives me, to reconcile to the fact that these kids are committed to monkhood. Who made that decision for them? The kids themselves? Grown-ups on their behalf?

Back at my desk, I’m still thinking about the boys and other kids who flow all day through Starbucks. I ask: Where really is the battle against dukkha being won?

I’m telling myself I should find out. Even if it takes time and some effort.

Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

Saru Maru, Sanchi, Satdhara, and Stupas and Stupas

The Main Stupa at Sanchi

The Main Stupa at Sanchi

Saru Maru

The intimation of Sanchi is on the brow of a cave-front among the Sara-Maru caves, one-hundred-and-twenty kilometres south of Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh. In Brahmi script carved in stone 2200 years ago, it proclaims that the emperor had been there, with his lady whom he’d not married yet, for vihara. The woman was Vidishadevi, who Ashoka the Great would wed in Vidisha where Sanchi belongs, whence Vidishadevi came. He’d instal the earliest stupas for her in Sanchi, with the relics of the Buddha embedded in them. Back home now from Madhya Pradesh, I found this translation of the Saru Maru inscription on the Web:

The king, who (now after consecration) is called Piyadassi, (once) came to this place on a pleasure tour while he was still a ruling prince, living together with this (unwedded) consort. (Translation by Falk.)


Sanchi

Another Stupa at Sanchi

Another Stupa at Sanchi

The Sanchi stupas sit on an outcrop on plains trimmed in the distance by low hills with languorous ridges. The Halali flows close by. There’s the wind of the plains about the monuments, but there’s also the sun bearing down on them, and the few trees around don’t help so much the crowds. The stupas aren’t designed to offer shade.

But you feel no inconvenience in Sanchi. You only experience peace.

There are things to see: Fine carvings of Buddhist divinities and representations of Buddha and Dharma and Sangha, so masterfully rendered that you shake your head in disbelief that such work was possible in India’s earliest stone monuments. Besides the Buddha, there’s a square panel showing Ashoka, on a thorana at the entrance — portly, seeming to be recovering from a fainting spell. Two queens support him: the sovereign was grieving the death of a Bodhi tree. After a few moments spent gazing at the art, you stop and turn inward, wanting to savour the spiritual. You will climb the stairs of the stupa, and walk round the bare egg-shaped mound, and close your eyes, fingers grazing the mound to keep course and not fall off.

Done with Sanchi, walking the gentle gradient down the hill and out, you’re already speaking a lot less — I can tell you I was.


The Aaram Bagh Resort

The Aaram Bagh Resort

The Aaram Bagh Resort

The waiter opened a wide visitor’s book over my dinner plate. He pointed to a comment in it by Raza Murad, a veteran Bollywood actor. Raza Murad had praised the meal, the service, the ambience. He hadn’t checked into the rooms, the waiter said, dropped in only for lunch. Taking the cue, I lauded Aaram Bagh just as much, for service over two-days and for the delicious meals. Deserving praise, I must concede.

The resort is a compact palace a few kilometres off the highway, 12 kilometres from the Sanchi stupas. It was surrounded by cropped rice fields that run up to hazy blue hills all round. Over dinner, our group of eight bantered about the use of a palace in that desolate place. “To arrive at harvest and count moolah.” Or, “For time with the mistress.” Checking the hotel’s website now, I read that successive maharajas visited here with their maharanis for rest. But also they used the place as a hunting lodge and once invited the British viceroy to join in. They don’t say if the viceroy accepted.

Raza Murad’s latest big movie is Bajirao Mastani, in which he plays the Nawab of Deccan. At 71, he’s been in some two-hundred films, and is not quite finished yet.


Satdhara

The Largest Stupa at Satdhara

The Largest Stupa at Satdhara

Only 3 kilometres from this propped-up vestige of royalty, at Satdhara, right by the Halali flowing in a deep, deep gorge, is a profusion of even more stupas, the highest among them nearly as tall as Sanchi’s. We set out to Satdhara morning at 6:30. Not a single other tourist blighted the place, but a few Langurs marked our passage from a distance. An occasional local passed us by, and one among them brought us to a fresh dig and said a hoard of begging bowls of bhikkhus were found there, taken away to the museum now. Among the stupas are dispersed a host of monasteries, reduced to the base by time. It is a concealed expanse, leafy and serene, and exists merely to house monasteries, it seemed.

Riches. Renunciation. Surrender. The contrast lay before us within a three-kilometre stretch.


My Not So Unquiet Neighborhood

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I’ve given up coffee starting this week. And tea. So cafés are not home to me anymore, which is a shame, because I’ve been enjoying reading and writing in them, and eavesdropping, and watching the occasional odd man or woman. I must work at home, which is a problem because my UK-resident next-door neighbor has engaged a gang for repair for some time now, and from nine until six each weekday men are drilling and sawing and pounding and such. I haven’t asked when their assignment will end.

I’m writing this post at seven at home, after a stroll outside. It is dark, and there’s an äzän going this moment. I don’t know where the mosque is that’s issuing the call, I haven’t seen it, it is not in our enclave. I cannot tell the direction it is coming from. It does not matter — they know, those who need to know. Now as the äzän ends my tinnitus is picking up, rising and falling and swinging around. There’s the drone of an airplane as well, flying low, which reminds me that anytime now the leisurely horn and the long rumble of the faraway evening train will carry till my home and me in my couch. I haven’t lost my love for the sound of trains, although I’ve always indulged an allergy to sound.

These above are the sounds in the evening.

During the night, the dogs. O yes, many dogs, stray, spoiled with leftover burgers and fried chicken and a collar for safety in this dog-loving enclave. They begin barking and yowling and wailing all in a single orchestral performance, each trumpeting its own intense angst, shaking me awake, making me wonder what’s up, how it is that so many kinds of hurts have been heaped in one moment on these mongrels on 2nd Main. Starting around 2:00, they won’t stop until about 3:00. Two hours later I leave home for my morning walk, and at that reasonable hour when their cries could be tolerated they are silent and have disbanded and are in singles, each in its territory, some sleeping and some prowling, some fat and some scrawny.

Doesn’t sound like a silent place, you say?

But I’m not altogether wrong about the quiet about my home that I’ve boasted about in previous posts. No cars are plying on the street as I write. If there are strollers passing my house I cannot hear them. It is possible that soon the Nepali watchman, Balaram, will tune his radio to music from home, and stand in the street for a few minutes holding that umbilical connection of sorts. He does that a couple of times a week. Not today. Today there is not even rain, whereas yesterday and the day before we were lashed soundly by it, making us wonder if we were in Bangalore, or transported by miracle to coastal Mangalore — where rain of such magnitude belongs.

I’m not complaining. This post precedes a holiday week here in South India. I’m leaving for Bhopal tomorrow, to visit the Paleolithic cave paintings at Bhimbetka, and Buddhist stupas, and to read love-notes the great Ashoka ordered carved in stone. I’ll tell you about them.

It was a busy day, and I’m sleepy, and a good night seems assured. Despite those dogs I told you about.

Is Cambodia Worth Losing Two Legs For?

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The lady at the next table raised her voice, breaking the murmur of conversation in her group. “Listen! I must tell you something.”

You’d think she was speaking Hindi, from the speed of her speech, the manner of speaking, her accent, and inflexions — but the words were all English. Anyway, her insistence hushed her three companions, all male.

“I know, like, a lady in our complex. She has a husband, you know, and a child. She was fine, like. Then suddenly she developed aching in her legs and after waiting for a long time she decided to see the docs.”

It was hard to tell her words in the din of the cafe. Also, I was trying to stay focused on Coetzee, who I was reading.

“She was losing control over her legs. After so many days they diagnosed what was wrong. She’d been infected by a dog tick in Cambodia, and … “

“Dog tick?” One of the men interrupted.

“Dog, tick,” she affirmed. “Dog tick. Now the problem was, like, they didn’t know the cure. They’d studied this thing in college, but they didn’t know the treatment. Now both her legs are amputated.”

Her companions fell silent, but I had a question I couldn’t ask: These days, doctors consult with peers across the globe in real time over the Net. Couldn’t they gather the information they needed? And, at any rate, wasn’t it impressive how they traced the cause to a dog tick? In Cambodia?

Breathing deep, I let it pass. And remembered the few weeks I spent in Cambodia, ten years ago.


An essay by Amitav Ghosh took me there: Dancing in Cambodia. It tells the story of the Khmer Rouge, starting the narrative with a Cambodian troupe of dancers who performed in France and won, among thousands of French people, the attention of the great Rodin, who followed them from Paris to Marseilles and painted them. Later, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge would decimate art and culture and all intellectual effort in the nation. The essay pushed me to travel to the place forthwith. My primary destination was the school Tuol Sleng from Amitav's story, which is now maintained as a Torture Museum, but I extended the travel to Siem Reap, the Cardamom Mountains, and Sihanoukville.


During the short reign of the Khmer Rouge, some 15,000 young and old prisoners passed through the horrors of Tuol Sleng, en route to certain death.

The school was a few minutes’ walk from my riverside hotel in Phnom Penh, reached through malodorous streets — Rue Pasteur, Sihanouk Boulevard, Monivong Boulevard, Norodom Boulevard — quite like the streets in small-town India. The school was plain — a staid missionary-style school, typical of Asia. In bare classrooms stripped of desks and benches and equipped with cheap metal cots, every conceivable excess man can devise for man was performed. Lesser prisoners built their own tiny mini-cells within the classrooms. It was not difficult to imagine the doings that happened there — here was a place that revealed the cruel face of mankind — a place that could crush the toughest. I went out and sat a half-hour on a bench in the schoolyard and watched sparrows flitting about in the heavy, tainted silence.


I spent the following week in Siem Reap, experiencing a different, older history of Cambodia, spending daytime in wonder among the ruins of the magnificent wats in a setting nestled among grand equatorial trees. Although the jungle that had enveloped this wonder has been cleared, giant trees still gripped large parts of the structures with talon-like roots.

In the evenings the air of Siem Reap town was insufferable, worse even than in Phnom Penh, from bad gasoline sold street-side in bottles and used by all classes of vehicles. I wore an ineffective surgical mask to hold off poisoned air. Toward the end of the week, returning to the hotel after a spicy Indian meal at Kamasutra on Pub Street, unable to breathe once without searing my chest, I cried out loud in anger, again and again.


I cleared my lungs in the Cardamom Mountains in the following week, feasting on pine-scented air in a cottage by a large, tranquil pond. I read Thoreau in the week. The resort where I stayed was almost entirely taken over by a missionary team from the US, their Khmer recruits, and many children. After raining bombs long and hard on these luckless people, these people from faraway nations were engaged in harvesting beautiful Khmer souls. One morning, I shared my table with the lead evangelist. He was young and friendly and very fresh-faced. “Join us for a prayer meeting?” he asked me, and smiled when I said, “Let me try.”


After the mountains I spent lazy hours on the boat in the sun off Sihanoukville, watching raptors swoop right before our vessel and pick off supple fish from the waters. There was peace all round that brought out a sigh now and then, but neither mountain nor water cheered me. It didn’t help that each evening after dinner I had to fend off taxi drivers determined to carry me off to a massage house. “Sexy massage. You want boy or girl?” I’d been four weeks in a land too steeped in tragedy.

On the eve of departure, I stayed in the pompous, and positively un-homey Hotel Cambodiana, for supper and a few hours’ sleep. I couldn’t sleep that much. A text message arrived in the small hours, telling me I had lost my father.


This story should’ve been about another person’s grief. I cannot help but wonder if, for that lady, Cambodia was worth losing two legs for.

But He Didn't Have a Couch

Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

It was a small room in a small clinic, and I'd come in from the rain. The only window was to my left, and it let in no air, didn't send air out either. The man before me and I sat inhaling one another’s exhalations.

I was on the seventh day on antidepressants, prescribed by a psychiatrist a week ago. They’d set off a raging in my head, and returned me to insomnia that I’ve known only when very young. “Also, you need to see a clinical psychologist,” the psychiatrist had added: “He won’t advise you, but he'll help patch gaps in your thinking.” That order had been given me in a bright room with air conditioning, which I was now obeying, arriving in this sauna, where the lighting was as dim as my worldview at the moment.

“It’s a pity nobody told you about clinical psychologists all these years,” the man said. “Your problems would’ve been solved long ago.”

I nodded so much as to intimate acknowledgement without agreement. You’d understand I was not in a believing state of mind.

“You may need some pharmacological treatment. Please take it. But I can also cure you,” he said. “First, I don’t want you to think you’re depressed. You are not depressed. You're facing inertia. That's all."

I considered the rapid diagnosis. And how he was speaking in earnest, and how much. His enthusiasm had me wondering if I was the kind of patient clinical psychologists pine for. Still, wasn't he speaking more than was my right as the patient? It was then that I remembered movies I've seen, and cartoons in The New Yorker and Punch and such, in which the shrink does nearly no speaking. That's the patient's prerogative. And, looking about the air-locked room, I wondered, Where is the couch, where I should've been reclining, from which I should’ve speaking up to the dark? Shouldn't this man be back of me, on a side and pensive, pen and pad in hand?

"I get people of all ages," he was saying in the meantime. “With all complaints. I get men asking to increase the urge. I get men asking to reduce the urge. Just the other day, I got a 77-year-old man who can't do anything, but he's got too much urge. His wife had given him a hiding. He'd gone and done something to the maid. Now he’s asking, Doctor do something for me.”

(Was that a Freudian spot in our interaction, devised to provoke response? If yes, I'm curious to know how he interpreted the holy blank face I held out to him. Into which pigeonhole did I go?)

"As regards you, you're in inertia. You’re not at your potential. We can take care of it."

How so fantastic. To prove himself, he told me about a businessman who came to him at another hospital where he was working — a high-end hospital that caters to non-resident Indians.

"He had a factory in Malaysia. Doing about 300 crores. 'I should be happy, Doctor,’ he told me, ‘because I make so much money. Still, I'm not happy.' So I said, 'Who told you 300 crores is a lot of money? Just before you a patient met me who is doing 10,000 crores. Here. In India.'

"After that patient left, I forgot him. He came back after three years. 'Remember me, Doctor?' he asked me. I said, 'No.' How can I remember all patients? Then he told me about our last meeting. 'Now I have two more factories, Doctor. One in Dubai, one in Brazil. I spend ten days every month in each place, and now I'm really content. My revenues are up two times.'"

“We must ask you the same thing,” he said, bending forward. “Are you running at full potential?”

"I want to write, Doctor," I said. "I wish to be a writer."

"We can make you a writer also," he said, leaning back in his chair.

A flush of warmth shot across my being, of a kind I'd experienced long years ago when I'd first gone out with my wife — before we were married — when our foreheads had knocked one another's on the bumpy bus ride. On Route 11 in Mysore, from college to NR Mohalla. Electric images of books and newspaper features with my name on top swam before my eyes — but only for a moment. Soon as they came, the sweet visions vaporised.

“How shall we take this forward?” I asked him. He proposed an aggressive and immediate schedule. “Think about your convenience and get back,” he said.


"How did it go?" my wife wanted to know when I got home.

"Great," I said. “Learned guy. He's a PhD."

My wife arched high her brow, puckered her lips, and nodded in appreciation.

"But he didn't have a couch," I said.

Sense and the City

Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images

Last night’s rain was rough and lasted hours. Spirited thunder and lightning accompanied it, forcing us awake, keeping us awake. We heard the distribution transformer down the street explode twice. The power went out with the first blast, and we were surprised that the transformer had meat left to blow up a second time. This morning, I stepped out a half-hour late for my walk, at 5:30, because snakes are a real threat in the neighbourhood and I didn’t want to step on one unwittingly, on wet streets with no streetlights.

Yesterday’s red patches of the large and juicy spathodea had been washed away by flooding brought on by the downpour. The streets looked almost like their cousins in better-managed countries. A good start to the day.

But the air has turned greyer than the sky. The punishing rain has softened the streets, and constant traffic has skinned the asphalt and ground it to gravelly powder and dust for wheels to whisk into the air, all day long. You’re all right if you are in a car. It must be terrible for motorcyclists. As regards pedestrians, Bangalore stopped respecting them a long time ago.

Such are the sights and sounds of my city these days and, on top of them, it is a time of festivals of all faiths, and some party or the other are setting off firecrackers every evening. They’re also taking out colourful processions (with Bollywood and Sandalwood music) on streets that have no room for a lone pedestrian. I should be happy for them who are rejoicing: There’s invigorated bhajan and āzān, delivered over loudspeakers, early morning and late nights. And I am religious myself. Whatever the faith, God is being worshipped. But to be honest these amplified affirmations of devotion are a bother, even if they’re musical, and I’d rather they performed their rituals in their homes as I do in mine.

In such a state of mind, I was browsing on my Mac just now, and an Osho video caught my attention, in which he preaches, If small things are bothering you then your attitude is the problem. Accept everything, he says, and you will observe your breathing, without needing to force yourself to watch it, and then you will experience deep relaxation. Accept all that you see and all that you hear. And, he says, you must note the smells, and surrender to them also.

I have enjoyed occasional sermons of this compelling speaker on video. He has the eyes and the composure and the delivery (and the flowing white beard) to lock you in and believe every word he says. With quiet force, the man argues that smell has been repressed for centuries and therein lie the reasons for the misery of man.

Whereas I, I’ve always believed that smell is quite rightly ignored.

To inhale Bangalore and to accept it, to correct my attitude. O, Osho, who was never born and who never died! Who only visited planet Earth for a time. I’ll heed you through this week and sniff at our city in this gloomy season. Please, may I suffer no side effects.

The Airplane Was Red

Illustrative Image: Photo by s96serg/iStock / Getty Images

Illustrative Image: Photo by s96serg/iStock / Getty Images

It was a red plane.

It was flying low that typical tropical summer day. It was vacation time, and schools were shut for summer after the year's final examinations. We were playing marbles, or perhaps we were spinning tops — I don’t remember — when we heard the drone overhead and looked up.

"It's coming down," somebody observed, and without any delay, we gathered up our game and put it in our pockets and started after the plane. We didn’t think to check the truth in the observation, the trajectory, or anything at all. We were ten-year-olds, wired at that age to leap with the impulse.

So we ran after the shiny thing above us, tracing its flight path on the rock-strewn ground below. We ran two hours, or perhaps three, it's hard to tell after all these years. We ran and ran, and we kept running in its general direction even after it disappeared from sight.

I do not think we even hoped to get to that thing. We'd seen something, and we were chasing after it. That's it.

The town of my childhood was very small. If there were sneakers in the world those days, our stores didn’t know of them. We got by with a pair of cheap black-leather shoes for school, and flip flops for all other times. We might’ve been wearing flip-flops that day we pursued the plane, but it is more likely our feet were bare, but that was all right because our feet were calloused enough from rough and restless daily use on rock and thorn and mud and gravel and concrete.

Our path went cross-country, of course.

And we came upon the plane. It didn't occur to us that day how improbable a thing had happened. Coming upon it, in a sudden flat clearing, we stopped and steadied our breathing and walked up a respectable distance to it, and considered our find. It seemed new, I remember, and was glossy like candy in the red parts — the fuselage, the tail. The rest of it was steel-grey, and it shone in those parts as well. It stood there all by itself, nobody inside it, none outside. No pilot. No bystanders. There was no sign of a village, or a lone dwelling in any direction around us — only a rough terrain full of stones and thorny shrubs and other scrubby greens. Not arable land, thinking back on the scene now. I cannot recall why, but a fear came over us, and we turned back, having spent no more than a few minutes before this first plane that we'd seen in our lives.

It took us the entire afternoon to cover the distance we'd run on the out trip. We were tired, and we weren’t running on the return.

Near the limits of the town, on a familiar street, we came upon a vendor of ice-candy. We had just-about enough coins to buy one of those sticky orangey things for each of us. They smeared their colour around our mouths, and we reached home looking like monkeys of a type. A new fear was now upon us: We'd all missed lunch, and we'd have been missed in our homes. There was explaining to do and beatings to take, by hands of those who loved us most, who’d have been anxious all day on our account.

Folks who know my town, which still doesn't have an airport, won't believe this story that I find implausible myself. Why was a plane parked on that scrubland with no one — not even the pilot — anywhere near it? But I can hazard a guess now: The airplane had developed a snag while flying, the pilot had made an emergency landing, and he'd gone looking for help and a phone.

Anyway, this happened. Really.

A Day in Malnad to Clear the Head

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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.