Happy Deepavali

Folks have fled the strictly-business city of Bangalore, gone home for Deepavali. For a week the traffic will be tolerable, such as it was this morning when I arrived 15 minutes ahead for work although I’d started late.

Along the way, I looked up often from my reading. The world looks clearer as the end of the year approaches, and I relish the details that hit the eye when I look up from my reading and look out the window from the back seat of the car: The cloud and the sky, the lines on leaves, the texture on stone in the walls, and the varied hues of flowers. The sight will get better every day until December, even January, and so I am happy. I’m traveling only two weeks this quarter—to the cold parts of America in November—so that leaves me a lot of time to enjoy home.

I’ll not spend all Deepavali in Bangalore. I’m going to Malnad two days, where there are only trees round my home and there’s not another house in sight, whether I look out from ground level or from the decks on upper floors. The offending sounds are faint, except for the occasional tractor that violates the ear from a far distance. The cries of birds and the stridulations of the restless crickets are welcome, of course. Here in Bangalore, even with the immigrant population absent, the rest set off cracker-chains in quantities that make me irritable, and my dog scared. But I’ll come back to Bangalore for the remainder of the week—to experience the city when most people are gone from it, which happens only during Dasara, and Deepavali, and the odd long weekend.

Something else has thinned too, and I don’t know why. There are almost no posters of politicians on compound walls or on the parapets of overpasses along my hour-and-a-half drive to work. I noticed only a short series of posters of the our Chief Minister, of his smiley face with good teeth and gray stubble, pasted by organizers of a yesteryear celebrity’s birthday with the Chief Minister as chief guest. That’s it. There are none of the other posters of ministers and legislators and corporations and youth leaders and budding others.

Even the movie posters were few when I looked for them. Having seen them, I read the names of them: easy names: Belli (Silver); Bang Bang; Power; Cigarette; Neenade Naa (I’ve become you); and Chinnada Bete (The Hunt for Gold), which title has the exhortation beneath it, “Play Bold, Play Gold.”

And I noticed a change I hadn’t observed until now: Hollywood movies are no more promoted via posters on the scale they were in the past. I saw not a single Hollywood poster during the ride to work. It is the year of horror movies at Hollywood, it seems, and you get to know what’s on at the cineplexes via the Internet. That’s all right. It’s not walls and billboards that tell you everything these days. That task is usurped to everybody’s joy by the smartphone.

Happy Deepavali, all.


I wrote this last week, published it today…

Behave yourself!

I’ve taken a four-seater table at Cafe Noir on the terrace at UB City. I’ve opened a book to read.

"Behave yourself," I hear on my right. A fair fat young man is shouting at a dark-brown waiter. The waiter isn't taking the abuse, his eyes are gleaming back, but he can't raise his voice in return. So he is glaring at the the fair guy with anger of a purity that comes forth only when innocent. The two men are before the ice cream counter, and two kids who belong to Fair Guy are screaming for their treat.

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"Call your manager," shouts Fair Guy, “call the manager!" The waiter can't stop glaring at Fair Guy. He doesn’t move from behind the counter. Somebody else calls the manager from wherever he's gone, and he comes in a while, stands by Fair Guy and speaks in the softest of voices. "Who's this guy, man," asks Fair Guy, pointing all the fingers of his right hand at the waiter. “He says I can't stand here!" At this accusation the protest on the waiter's face intensifies and his eyes struggle to suppress rising emotion. The manager smiles. Seeing the rebellion on the waiter’s mien, Fair Guy tells him in an even tone: “Behave yourself! Who the f* do you…” The manager smiles on, and he speaks to Fair Guy in a voice softer than the ice creams before them. Fair Guy and dark guy burn down each other with their stares. Moments pass. Fair Guy loses his heat; his tone turns to a whine: there's no threat in it anymore, and the volume of his voice has dropped and is level with the manager’s. He asks for the ice creams the kids have chosen. The kids haven’t noticed anything amiss. They’ve been jumping to look in the glass for a glimpse of their favorites. Done at the ice cream counter, Fair Guy turns, glances round the cafe, and his eyes meet mine for an instant.

He pulls a phone from his pocket and pecks at the keys. The frown on his face and his set eyes suggest that he's calling the owner. To have him tick off his opponent, perhaps. Is the owner an acquaintance of Fair Guy? The owner is French, he's bald, and reserved, and nice. I know him, in that we’ve greeted each other during past visits. He’s not in the cafe today. In a while I realize that Fair Guy is calling somebody else. He's calling his wife who has split for a while, and is checking out the SingKong restaurant across from Cafe Noir. He spots her before she answers his call. By now he and his kids have moved to the table right of mine, and the kids have climbed to the seats. "Behave yourself," he tells the tiny fellows, and walks toward the entrance to wave to his wife. He has the phone clasped to his ear.

As he brings her in, a couple from the table left of mine notice the party and rise. They’re about the same age and they’re all friends. They embrace and exclaim loud greetings and part. On my right, Fair Guy's kids gobble up yellow ice cream that's been served them. Mango flavored, I guess. Fair Guy and his wife join the kids but they don’t sit. In a minute they leave. I presume the bill has been paid in advance.

In the silence afterward, I look for the dark waiter. He's at the bar, shaking hard a drink.

This Week's Commute: Of Lakes and Rains and…

I chased a Jaguar. I've long stopped desiring premium possessions but this one was blue and sleek and I wanted a full view of the thing in motion. The car progressed in spurts, leaping each time the congestion before it cleared, and I went after it in step. I was so intent on tailing it and its driver was so intent on testing its strength, we both went thudding into pothole after pothole, brand new potholes from last week's unusual rains. They dealt cruel knocks to our cars, but of course the Jag's driver wouldn't have felt them on account of his best-in-class shock absorbers. I didn't feel them either, but I sensed the knocks my car was taking. I lost the Jag before a Hyundai dealership where I slowed and it sped. Two new cars were coming out to make their debut, decked up in streamers and ribbons. The sight of them sobered me, and I stopped pushing my car.

I've been watching the potholes grow in depth and number over last week. Each night's rain opened new pits by morning, and made wider and deeper the existing pits. We watched them while going to work, and cursed them after each thud and bump when they jerked us out of reading or writing or fiddling with dials on the camera. Returing in the evening, we were overwhelmed by the pouring rain to notice anything else--we were one with the driver as he maneuvered through the flooded streets. The monsoons are being fierce on their way out this year. All these years they'd leave drawing nobody's attention; now they're making awesome curdling sound and flashing incessant blinding light. The downpour stops around the time we reach home, and then it comes back and wakes us after we've slept, and keeps up the son et lumière for a couple of hours, and we lie awake and wonder at the show. We worry for those who haven't a roof.

In the morning, though, the news isn't about the roofless. It's rather about those who've built homes in low-lying areas, areas where the waters have again and again warned people not to build.

Yesterday morning, such news was slapped on us. We'd been having a good drive. We went fast enough through Sankey Road and High Grounds and the Stadium Area--all the way until the end of Brigade Road. There, at Victoria Cross, barricades and frantic policemen diverted us rightward into Richmond Road, giving us no advice on where we could get back on track. So we skipped a few side streets and entered one at a distance, hoping a wide arc would do the trick. No luck. We arrived in a maze filled with cars and bikes and we traversed streets I'd never seen before--Alexandria Street, Wellington Street--and passed apartment blocks with wistful names: Aspen Wellington, Farah Garden (with a tiny lawn before the block). We wormed round and round through ever-thickening traffic, and decided after a half hour to attempt an even wider arc, and came out of Langford Town in which we were and turned toward Double Road.

There by phone I learnt the reason for the worse-than-usual traffic, a layer of mess on top of the daily mess. Last night's rain had drowned houses in Anepalya on Hosur Road to the sills of their windows. The tenants, who had only the previous day baled out knee-height flooding in their homes, had come to the highway and blocked the traffic to air their plight. No public agency had helped them the day before; no help was in sight now.

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I'd seen this inevitability last night going home. The rains fell on top of us in such volume and there was so much water round us that we went with water seeping through the crevices of the vehicle. Some cars had stopped altogether in the middle of the streets, and some were abandoned on the side. In Langford Town which I have mentioned above, the waters swirled and came down at us like tight masses of ropes thick as thighs, each turning with its own fury and looking ominous and purposeful. It realized after a while where that swirling body was going. It was heading to reclaim the lowland which is now the Hockey Stadium and which was once without doubt a lake. One lake of many that are now drowned in concrete. The problem at Anepalya is the same. As in so many places in Bangalore. Whose fault is it that the folks of Anepalya built their homes on a lake bed? Theirs who built? Theirs who tenant the building? Theirs who allowed the lake to be drained for the buildings to come up?

I don't know. I have fresh worries. Today, not too far from Anepalya, in the special court in the jail precincts of Parappana Agrahara, they're going to pronounce judgement on a corruption case against the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The verdict is expected to go against her. Her men will show off their loyalty on Hosur Road which I've mentioned above and which is the highway to my home.

I'm bracing myself for them.

Amritsar

Three wide streets converge before Brothers Dhaba. The flood upon them was knee-high, but that didn't deter the traffic. The waters didn't hold back the rickety cycle-rickshaws even. But the rickshawallahs needed to stand to gain strength to push down the pedal. The cyclists surprised me. They sat sedate as they cycled, mindless of the water that hit the hem of their trousers. At any rate most pedestrians and cyclists and rickshawallahs had rolled up their trousers. All old-Amritsar was deluged like this, as also the newer areas through which I had passed on my way to the Golden Temple in the morning. After the temple I'd been to nearby Jalianwallah Bagh, and there I'd asked my driver to pick the better among Brothers Dhaba and Kesar ka Dhaba for me.

The street that leads to the Golden Temple

I'd inquired for lunch options at my hotel. "Write down the names for sir, no!" the front-office manager had admonished his reception. They wrote two names, but there wasn't a choice really, because Kesar ka Dhaba was among inner gullies where the cab couldn't go. And, there isn't a meal in the world that I'd go wading through overflowing drainwater for.

I was early; so I'd a table by the window.

The sight of the wide flooded streets brought the dhaba's kitchen to mind and I worried if the food might get me down. I asked for a Roti Thali. The rotis were warm, and soft and crisp in the right places--eveything they should be in the homeland of the roti. They were bright white and dappled with varying shades of brown and tasted fresh and clean on the tongue. The channa and the dal were a murky sight and suspect, but a week after that meal I'm fine, and ashamed of having been so sqeamish.

Important persons came into the dhaba. One came in a beacon-topped car. He wore military olives with two gleaming stars on the shoulder. He was a tall tough young Sikh. He minded only his menu and the top of his table and the meal that followed. His neat and fat-free chin-lines showed through the beard. He ate with no apparent fear of what his meal might do to him. But the man was a soldier.

Almost as clean as the rotis was the dhaba--though there were footmarks on the floor from the slush outside. And there was the unclean feeling from the short time spent in stinking streets, which layered over time I'd spent in the perfumed hotel-car and in the washed n' mopped environs of the Golden Temple. There at the temple there was no flooding, no slush, no mess. The water flowed into gutters, volunteers swept the marble expanse before water had risen a quarter-inch, and the entire place was hushed and quiet. The silence made room for sweet Sikh bhajans in Hindusthani that came from within the 750-kg golden sanctum and carried everywhere across the complex. A step outside the wet white walls corporeal Amritsar lay in wait, waiting to rush up to you. Peace inside; Hell outside.

The dhaba was not a dhabha as I've known dhabas. It had no thatch roof, and it had cement flooring and tables and chairs and a multicuisine menu card. Authentic, I told myself as I chewed on the roti and the channa, and sipped rough-beaten lassi off a steel cup. Lassi elsewhere in the world comes smooth and in tall glasses. But I was content with what was before me. I looked around, watched the two-star army officer take in the entire menu before making a choice, and smiled at quintessential Punjab perched on a stake on the wall. A pink plastic doll had been sat on the it, dressed up in a sardarji's salwar-kameez, its face framed by a pukka grown-up's turban. It had the cherub's cheeks, and black n' orange eyes.

They are a genial people, the sardarjis. And possessed of a dignified mien. You wouldn't imagine them marked for humiliation and massacre.

Different reports cite different numbers of people killed at Jalianwallabagh. By any account, too many died. You could perhaps say the right number died. The massacre caused Gandhiji to shift his long-held commitment to be a model subject of the Crown. He decided that the British should quit India.

The field on which people ran to escape 1650 rounds of gunfire is now covered in cement. The well into which scores of people jumped and perished is on the edge of the bagh, and that is covered over too, with mesh round it. I recoiled from the stink that sprang at me when I peered into the well. Stepping back, looking down, feeling sick, I saw earthworms all round. They'd been trampled on and cut up and squashed under the feet of visitors to this site of great tragedy. What were earthworms seeking on concrete? They must've been washed up by flooding rainwater. To death on high ground.

Col. Dyer who ordered the shooting passed in bed in England. But his erstwhile boss the Governor of Punjab, Michael Dwyer, was shot dead in London by an avenging sardar. His name was Udham Singh. Britain hanged Singh three months after the deed. His remains were brought to Punjab thirty-four years thereafter, were received by Indira Gandhi, and his ashes were dispersed over the Sutlej. Two copies of his portrait are displayed on opposite walls in a minimal gallery on the site.

Gandhiji condemned the assassination. Nehru the freedom fighter expressed outrage; years later, Nehru the Prime Minister called Udham Singh a Shaheed.

I was susprised at my lack of emotion as I came out the bagh. Indeed, I was surprised at the absence of emotion even among the other visitors there. I could sense in their Hindi or Punjabi mentions of a terrible wrong, but the real interest at the gate to the bagh was in getting to the Wagah border. "Wagah border, Wagah border," chanted touts with receipt-books in hand, selling place on the bus to the border-crossing between India and Pakistan. There were takers for tickets to Wagah, but none for the DVD documentaries of the massacre that other touts worked hard to push. The folks across the border rouse stronger emotions in Indians, more than the sahibs ever did.

Toward the end of my meal in the dhaba, a Caucasian had taken the table across from mine. Unlike me, he was not looking about. He was absorbed in an Amazon Kindle that he held at the correct distance from his eyes. He had a long silken beard, and a lot of hair on his head, but he was not quite as hirsuite as the Sikh. Not yet. I figured the man must have embraced the faith recently. For the amount of hair that had grown in the time, a GAP-style fine-woven Western style cap was doing the job. It didn't matter, it seemed to me, how long ago he'd embraced Sikhism. He was as concentrated as the best sadhvi, a serenity was upon him that that would win any yogi's respect, and nothing drew his attention save his e-book. Was it Sikhism that had made him so? Or, was he taking to his new faith qualities that he already possessed?

I left the dhaba before his order arrived.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Elephants. Missed them again…

Basavanna called when we approached Ballupet; I strained to hear him over the sound of the rain on the car. He had elephant news. They'd arrived in his plantation the night before, and he'd called the forest guards for help. The guards had arrived soon after, and had left around 20:00. He had more to tell: Before going on to his place, the herd had passed the clearing round our bungalow, on our plantation, lingering in the wide open space for a while. That was news we could believe, because we passed later a pile of elephant dung in the middle of the track on the last stretch of the drive to our bungalow.

The view from Nandi Thota

The view from Nandi Thota

The gate to the plantation had been kept open for us, and the writer (foreman on the plantation) waited there, on his feet, without an umbrella. The rain had reduced to a drizzle, but still, it was an incongruous sight, a barehanded bareheaded man standing there not even wearing boots--to protect us from elephants. Basavanna had told us seven of them had been sighted. We went in slowly, squishing the slush on the track. The writer chose to walk.

"If an elephant does come up, I'll stop. We should be quiet," I told my wife. She tends to take charge.

"I'll crouch down here," she said, pointing to the space round her feet. She was joking, of course. At least, that was the aspect on her face when I turned to it. The truth is that she is happiest when we are visiting our plantation--which happens about once a month, and she won't let anything subtract from her cheer.

When we passed the dung we heard the first dadaki. Dadakis are big patakis. Patakis are firecrackers. The dadaki is louder, but from the distance of neighboring Basavanna's plantation, and amid the gathering evening-racket of the birds, and of the insects that had stepped up their stridulating in the gray wet dusk, the explosion was muffled. After the first burst that we heard, the next dadakis exploded about one each half-hour. Soon as we reached the bungalow Basavanna called, showing concern and caring.

"They've halted in Mala's thota," he said.

Mala is the past owner of a pocket of a plantation between Basavanna's estate and ours. The place still goes by her name, even after its title has passed to a businessman from Bangalore, who is an absentee planter like us. The Bangalorean has hired a local planter to improve Mala's plantation; just as Basavanna, the most respected planter in our zone, manages ours. But there is a spot in Mala's plantation, about three acres of it, that has never been cultivated--so it is a thick teeny jungle locked in among a spread of coffee plants. Passing elephants halt in that wild growth, sometimes for as long as three days. And after that they've been leaving on their own in the dark hours. It is different this time, because most planters have electrified their fences this year, and the animals should be shown exits they've not used before. A job for the experts.

"Would the guards allow me to join them tomorrow? Can I ask them?"

"I'll tell them myself. Take your camera along," Basavanna said. He always takes it on himself to grant every wish that comes to me while I'm at Nandi Thota. (That's the name of our place: Nandi Thota.) Anyway, such hospitality is in the nature of planters in Malnad. They're always exceeding the generosity they last offered.

I waited for morning. In the morning I waited for Basavanna's call. "The elephants are still in Mala's thota," he told us when we called. And then he called again and said the elephants had gone out the gates, like regular folks. Ever since we bought Nandi Thota and became once-a-month visitors in Malnad, we've been seeing trampled fences, fences that have come in the way of the herd. On our plantation, that is the entire northern boundary. We've electrified our fence along with all the others.

"The guards herded the seven together into Mala's thota last night. Looks like they found a way on their own."

It wasn't raining in the morning. Basavanna came over to our place around 11:00. Across from the deck, from where I sat, I could see a constant breeze among the coffee leaves, ruffling them and heaving the branches, going away and coming back again. Now and then a wind came, father to the breeze below, and caught the shade-trees and shook them whole. The trees have just been trimmed to control the shade. Through them I could see Parvathammana Betta, the hill with a small white temple to Parvathi on top. The temple and most of the top of the hill were covered in mist. It was a good moment for hot coffee here in the bungalow.

"Did they carry guns?

"No. Just dadakis. The guys don't get guns anymore. Give them a gun and they'll kill some beast and after that the Assistant Commissioner has to go home."

Yes. An Assistant Commissioner can lose his job if an elephant--or any wild beast--is killed and it can't be proved that it was all in self-defense. But, to go after wild elephants? With only dadakis? I'd imagined they'd carry at least a tranquilizer-firing gun.

"They know the elephant. I walked some distance with them last night," Basavanna said. "They pointed in one direction and said there are two elephants there. They pointed in another direction and said two. In the third spot, three. Seven, altogether.

"As for me, I couldn't see even a few steps ahead. I turned back soon as they lit a dadaki."

I'm winding up my story, too. That's all for this time. When the elephant is here next, I'll ask the forest guards to please take me along. Basavanna was as disappointed for me as I am for you here at the end of this post. "If Shashikiran had come here two days prior, he'd have got nice pictures," he told my wife when she came to take our spent cups.

Late Monsoons in Malnad

The rains are two months late this year and afterward the drizzle has been non-stop for several weeks now. They've taken down the berries in good numbers in Sakleshpur, where the rains are most intense in our district. In Ballupet, on the fringe of the coffee belt, the rains are less than in Sakleshpur. But the berries are on the ground in Ballupet as well. The crop across the entire belt was poor last year, whereas this year the coffee blooms were plentiful. They signaled a fine harvest to come when they turned into berries and weighed down the long, slender branches. But these late monsoons have doused those hopes.

The speedy stream through a fellow-planter's estate

The speedy stream through a fellow-planter's estate

The drops fall in an incessant soft patter on the roof and on the leaves of the coffee plants and the silver oaks and the other shade trees. The gray and the prennial sound of rain and the as-yet-unreconciled loss are together a cold dismal brew. But the planter has known disappointment and has lived with it for years; so now he is busy securing the best yield he can in the situation. This week, his workers are pruning the plants. They're pulling out the "sucker" branches so nourishment flows to the branches that have berries on them. They're arranging the sucker branches with their lush leaves round the slim trunks of the plants, for them to rot there and nourish the parent. Mulching, they call the process.

Only the cement-topped drying yard is free from slush—and the rocks that flank the plantation streams. Upon rocks green moss has grown and is multiplying. On the drying yard the growth is gooey and transparent and when you walk on it, and if you aren't in the moment, you fly. I was carrying a large camera in hand. I watched it go down thudding when I slid and landed on my back. To get back up, I slid broadside, inches each effort until I reached a railing. I checked the ground rubbing the soles of my boots on it, and after a time I rose. I was fine. My camera was scratched and its flash-shoe was crushed.

I must've looked clumsy, in how I fell and got up. And I was with three others. But I'm advanced in age and so I felt no shame and in two minutes after I was up I went down and shot some pictures. Here's one, of the stream that runs through Bheemeshwara Plantation. It was speeding down to Kempu Hole.

A lot happens over coffee

Last week, I enjoyed watching Kangana Raut's performance in Queen. The movie begins with a knockout punch to her character, delivered by the character's fiancé. He cancels their wedding, due the following day, and he is unfeeling as he does so, not even noting the mehendi drying on her hands. He checks her as she begins to weep and plead, telling her they're in a public place. At the Cafe Coffee Day. "Calm down, yar," he says. "It happens."

Though they began to arrive fifteen years ago, cafes are new in the Indian psyche, and we'd not imagined we'd consume coffee in this accelerating scale.

Starbucks on Cunningham Road, Bangalore

At week's end, I watched another Hindi number: English Vinglish, in which Sridevi's character has no English and her daughter is ashamed of her for that reason. Her husband and their little boy tease and laugh at her accent when she attempts to mix some English with her Hindi. Their jibes hurt her, but she finds joy in the boy's constant bursts of affection, such as in moments when he breaks into sweet gigs with her and spills to her that his sister is out at Cafe Coffee Day, wearing a very short skirt. Seeing the news doesn't shake his mother, he tells her there are boys at his sister's table, but he cannot rouse his mother on this count.

My wife and I are going to the Coffee Day Lounge this evening. The Lounge stands up to Starbucks, whereas the same group's Cafe Coffee Day is a notch simpler and inexpensive and is more loved by youngsters. My architect, Vasuki, is joining us at the Lounge. We are carrying blueprints for a project in Hassan town. Vasuki will make fresh drawings to accommodate a change in plans. All that will be fine, I'm only worried regarding what I should drink. Cappuccino? Americano? The latter, I suppose, with warm milk added. What shall I do about the time, though? I don't drink coffee after 6:00, and the meeting commences right then.

I prefer the Coffee Day Lounge to Starbucks. The latter is cleaner, and it is in India decked up in pleasant ethnic decorations. B ut at Starbucks I've to go to the counter, whereas in the Coffee Day Lounge I'm served at the table. I spread my books and papers and my camera and its appurtenances about me at the Coffee Day Lounge, and spend two hours each visit. I rise once only, to go to the rest room.

Also yesterday, I was at the Coffee Day Lounge at Sadashivanagar. After my first cappuccino, I asked for kestha kabab, which they serve with salsa and mint chutney. As I dipped and ate those patties (the cafe calls them kabab to be nice to vegetarians) a large party came in. Four round tables were joined for them. The group was led by a short old man in whites. He was frail but from the gravitas on his sun-blackened face and his gait and his stance and from the distance everybody kept from him, I could see he was the patriarch. The rest were a mix of old, and not-so-old, and young men and women--some fifteen in all. After they'd ordered, a young couple detached themselves and came over and sat at a table before me.

I realized it was a party out to arrange a marriage for these two youngsters. The man must've asked for time with the woman, to check out more about her than her looks. Confident souls, I thought, because neither was dressed for the occasion. She wore daily-wear salwar-kameez; he wore unwashed blue jeans. She had a matching number of questions herself, it seemed to me. In twenty minutes they were done, and they returned to the main party where the others were themselves dressed for no more than a casual outing for coffee. Only the patriarch was impressive in his white shirt (pen and folded papers in the breast pocket) and a kachche-style dhoti. The groom joined two men at one end and shared with them his findings, and the lady sat at the other end and told the women there what she'd heard. The rest were immersed in other things, and ate varied fare. The patriarch walked about.

That's it. They left soon after. From where I sat it seemed to me that they parted with the mutual noncommittal assurance: "We'll get back."

Wishing them well in my mind, I dipped my last kebab in the salsa. I'd been dipping only into mint sauce until then. My stomach rose up in revulsion at the salsa, which was stale, but I chomped on, the hot spices in the kabab insulating my tongue from the foul tomato. I've not so far experienced stale food at Starbucks, whereas at Cafe Coffee Day they've been generous with it. That's all right. If people find Cafe Coffee Day and its cousin-outlets good for courtship, for making and breaking marriages, and for a scene for a film, they are swell enough for me, for the light reading I do there.

My vote

I voted for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) today.

BJP and the Congress are warring cousins: if the one draws its spirit from Nagpur, the soul of the other is planted for eternity in the house of the Gandhis. The players on both sides wear the same spots, unconcealed and on the outside of their coats. We'd be naive to think we'd bring change through choosing from among the two--when they're each a mere reflection of the other.

india-elections

AAP has no experience in governance, but I believe we should be ready to accept tumult for a time, and some mild anarchy even. You cannot create the new without going into labour for it, without spilling blood from the vitals. I'm not seeking violence, I'm only saying one should accept suffering during the creative process, and nation-building is just such an endeavor.

After we've given strength to the AAP, Arvind Kejriwal's time will pass, and another may take his place who will provide governance, and some others may provide a clarified vision--staying loyal all along to the best intentions of the AAP, and the aspirations of the "aam" Indian.

We need to give the damn thing a try. The worst that would happen is that more good people will venture into public life.

Here I am, back again…

It is the time of the yellow flowers. Only traces of the pale purple jacaranda remain, and the flaming red Gulmohars will soon be upon us, but right now we have the yellow Peltophorums and the golden Tabebuias. In a good number of streets, the flame-of-the-forest are in bloom, but they're shy in spite of their fair numbers, and their crimson blush is overwhelmed by the bullish yellows of the others that abound about them. And, early in the morning, the Honge fall in a constant patter on speed-walkers and joggers. The tiny flowers with their curvy paper-petals have every main street and side street covered with sheets of their fallen, and their fragrance wafts about, now subtle and now strong. It doubles the pleasure of the morning hours.

honge-flowers-on-street

A somnolence that descended upon me a year ago has risen and gone, not bidding me good-bye as it went, retreating with slow steps and never showing its back to me. It has left my mind's eye blinking as though I've come out of being blind. I'm glad at its departure, but I'll not cheer, sobered as I am by a year spent in gray. But I'm celebrating in a way, seeing light via the camera, making pictures in black & white, low-key pictures dominated by deep blacks, the whites very bright.

It's going to be some time before I'm ready for color.

We had a good winter--the Bangalore winter--with a chill in which you didn't need a sweater in the evening nor outer-wear for early-morning running and speed-walking. So the heat and the haze that is now upon us has us in a breathless daze. In this time office-goers who have air conditioning in their transportation and in their offices are fine, but the rest are fuming, and fretting, and in this mood the big election is upon us, and it's an election like none other in the past, when every citizen is firm regarding the outcome they desire--even if the pollsters are cocksure that things will go exactly to their forecast.

I am back in the cafes.

The asphalt has cracked in the heat in the streets, and this is the time to close them, before the monsoons arrive, but it is not allowed to take decisions in the election season, and after the elections are over the new government will have to consider its composition before it determines priorities and makes decisions. It's not going to be easy, and that's how governance will be for a long time in our country which is bound to coalition politics in the medium term. In the meantime, though the left parties are floundering with causes that have gathered wrinkles and are no more romantic, unions led by them have upped their red flags: The city is witnessing a sudden surge in strikes and lockouts.

I'm just fine, in the midst of all this.

I've self-exiled myself to my homeland, for until June next year. I'm getting back to writing, and I told you here above that I've started making pictures. So there'll be posts on this blog again, at least thrice every month. I bid you to please come back. In the meantime, thanks for dropping by, and many cheers--wherever you are.


Follow me on twitter? @shashikiran

Musing: The Man Who Made the Golden Drink

From the upper floor of Cafe Coffee Day, I took several shots of the bust of Vittal Mallya installed where Lavelle Road intersects Vittal Mallya Road. Engaged thus, I realized I was lazing in the lounge-like section of the cafe, shooting the image of an exceptional entrepreneur who perhaps never found lounging-time in his life.

Inside the cafe, folks at the table back of me were talking real estate. There were young women, college-going, in the far back. On my right, four men, about thirty in age—whose conversation revealed their well-paying jobs—discussed stocks and shares.

Bust of the late Vittal Mallya, founder chairman of United Breweries Limited

In a sense, it occurred to me, Vittal Mallya and I were equals that afternoon. Even as I looked about the cafe and the world outside the window, Vittal Mallya was gazing ahead, smiling with a jacket on in the sun under an umbrella-shaped lamp-hood that didn't keep the sun off of him. I knew he was smiling because I’ve seen that bust up close many times. From the height of the cafe I could see a well before him; it was like a well I've seen before in Tokyo, before a bust of Basho the Haiku-poet.

A good eye would’ve made a good picture. As regards me, I'm a mere low-end amateur photographer. I held the camera a long time to my eye, waiting for a moment when no car or mini-truck marred the appearance of the triangular island, but every second there was a mass of them flowing round the thing. Two ladies wearing orange vests were sweeping the street, and they'd kept the entire intersection clean, as always--there's no spot in Bangalore so clean as this space.

In time I got a passable picture, with no cars passing, but with a couple of motorcycles and a bicycle. A spa had slung its promotion on the orange-striped stoplight behind Mallya’s bust. I can’t get it off the frame now as I compose this blog post. It is an illegal presence on the island, I think. Anyway, dusk had begun to fall in that moment, and I realized Mallya was looking with pleasure at a beer parlor, and that sight would of course bring a smile upon the liquor magnate’s face. I bent and peered at the pub: young people had begun to gather there, and were waiting for friends to arrive so that they could all go in together.

In that dusk I remembered a story that the architect Vasuki Prakash (first of Chandavarkar & Thacker, later of Mindspace) told me. He and his Managing Director had been invited to a meeting with Vittal Mallya, scheduled for the evening, at his office in the brewery on which site the mall-office-complex flourishes now under the brand-name UB City. This was many, many years ago.

The two arrived in time, and were requested to wait a while. After a while they were asked if they could wait a while longer. And so on. When Mallya called them in it was 2:00 AM. From the time I’ve heard the story I’ve not been able to decide who I must respect more: Vittal Mallya, who was so busy he had folks from the most respected architectural firm of the day wait until 2:00 AM? Or Vasuki and his boss, revered persons both, who waited all that time, respecting their customer and his business?

I couldn't answer that question even as I looked at the bust and watched the intensifying traffic. People were going home from work, people were coming out to party. Even as Vittal Mallya stared at the pub, nobody looked at him whom so many looked up to when he moved. People were honking round him, not ready to pause a moment on the spot where he is honored, whereas there was a time when the finest professionals would wait hours to see him.

Muddling Around at the Sira Fort

Fort Entrance

The historic Sira Fort is a large, public, alfresco lavatory.

It was built in the time of the Vijayanagara empire, and it has had different masters thereafter: the Bijapur sultans, the Mughals, Haidar Ali of Mysore, the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, and finally, the Empire. Now the natives have possession of the republican asset, and they use it for their basic human need, performing in a space open wide to the sky, and flanked by two fair-size lakes, one (Chikkakere) on the north, the other (Doddakere) in the south.

I first made the discovery of what the fort has turned into while trying to arrange the Sira Lake (Doddakere) with the ramparts in my camera frame. Just in time I saw what I was going to step on.

It was late morning, and at that hour it was empty of people. Tall grass rules the fort area, smothering the last vestiges of what must've been a palatial building. A smallish gumbaz-like structure peers out of the wilderness it has sunk into. Those two structures are all that are visible from the ramparts of the fort that figures so often in the history of peninsular India. But I saw one more thing as I continued walking on the fort walls: on a patch of dry ground before me, below where I was standing, a stone had been stood up to serve as wickets for cricket. So there is a second use for the fort, in an area cleared only so wide as to accommodate the run-up of a spinner, and a long off, a long on, slips, gully, and maybe a fine leg—no more.

Gumbaz-Temple

It is not a large fort, and evokes none of the grandeur of the Mughals, or the mega-monuments of the Bijapur kings, or the mighty edifices of Vijayanagara. It is not a hill fort either, flat and square on the plains with a moat round it. It is not even as imposing as, say, the Chitradurga fort, or any of the numerous other forts in the Deccan. With Aurangazeb his monarch, what made Sira the preferred seat of the Mughal subahdar? Couldn't that governor have picked a better fort?

I took pictures of the straight lines of the battlements, aimed the camera into the wasteland bounded by the walls, tried in vain to fill my frame with the remains of what must've been large structures in their time and, giving up, turned and focused my lens on pledges of modern-day love carved into plaster in the stone-age style with stone-age craftsmanship. I aligned the triangular loopholes on the battlements, and with that shot depleted all my ideas. Seeing the fort was still empty, I started toward a ramp to explore the ground below—just when six children appeared at the bottom of it, laughing and being the thirteen-fourteen-year-olds they appeared to be.

"Stand right there," I told them, and shot them as they stood arms draped on shoulders, linked solid, best friends each to each. "Right," I said, "that looks good." They clambered up to see themselves on a 3-inch frame. Satisfied, they asked about me. I worried as I answered if they'd scratched my lone-standing car on their way in.

"Have you seen the tunnels, sir? Palace? Elephant well? Horse well? Raja-Rani's tombs? Anjaneya temple?"

I scanned the expanse. "No," I said, "I've seen nothing." "Come. We'll show you," they said, tugging at me. "We'll show him everything, kano," they told each other, and came to instant agreement. "Houdu! Houdu!"

Indeed there were what seemed like tunnels. They showed me two, which flank the brow of the main gate of the fort, and are on the inner corners of the battlements. "They run until Chitradurga," the boys said. That would've been a long walk; the passage didn't have the height for a horse rider. "You can go in," they said, urging me into it, and themselves scurried into the first one, and the second one afterward. I did try, crouching with my coveted camera and bag and seeing that I couldn't go as far inside as they had, I said: "No. Some other day."

"Okay. Come on then. To where they were making gunpowder." At the first bastion we came to, they pointed to hollows on stony ground, big hollows for large pestles. "There's treasure beneath these stones," they said. "People come at night to dig them out. Do you know how the police come to know about it? They hear the tung, when the iron rod hits the stone. They come chasing when they hear the sound." The tung rang sweet in their teenage throats.

To the tombs we had to walk the entire length of one wall, and a half-length of the next wall. There was not a structure in sight—except for creeper and grass and shrub. "Here," they said, leading me down crude steps. "There," they said, pointing to a knotted mass of creepers and thorny jaali. I saw nothing. "Look in," they said, and held apart the creepers, raising them. There was a clutter of bricks, some small slabs, and such evidence of a broken-apart structure abutting the fort wall. A structure not so large, not too small.

"Kasturi Rangappa Nayaka's tomb," they said. "And the queen's and the rajkumara's," they added, with the breathlessness of excited children. "The British dug up the graves for treasure." But they changed that to robbers. "They still come to dig." I couldn't ask them the question that came to mind. Did the sultans who captured the fort allow Nayak tombs to stay on? Sira was taken from the Nayaks in 1637 by Afzal Khan, general of Sultan Adil Shah of Bijapur, the same Afzal Khan who was clawed to death by Shivaji in hand-to-hand combat. The Bijapur sultanate held Sira until Aurangazeb ousted them fifty years later. Haidar Ali gained the fort next, lost it to the Marathas, and his son Tipu took it back again, and lost it to the British, who held it for a century and a half.

Anyway, the excitement shifted toward the wells. "There are two, sir!" "We'll take the short cut," one said. "No," said the others. "There are thorns there." "Not a problem," the first one argued. His name was Lakshmana. I followed him, and the others came round the long way. Lakshmana wore no slippers, and indeed there jaali thorns on the path, thick and long and coniferous, which he pulled from his soles and walked on. "You aren't wearing slippers," I exclaimed. "He's not a human sir," the others who'd joined us by then told me. "Throw him from any height, hit him with anything, nothing will happen to him."

I considered Lakshmana. He was thin, dark, and positively undernourished.

It was a large well, and quite deep to the water level, and I couldn't guess the depth of the water itself. Green moss covered it, and hanging over the water from an overhanging branch was a geejagana goodu (weaver's nest). I took shots of it from several angles. The boys waited, and said after a while, "sir, here's only one, come to the other side." Indeed, there were more than a dozen weaver nests there, and, framing them, I felt underserving of the respect the kids were giving me.

Weaver's Nests in Well

The boys, though, had taken to beating down butterflies, killing a good many of the pale green creatures that flew around. They used fresh-plucked sticks unshorn of branches and leaves, and the poor things were easy prey. Each swish of the stick got at least one of them. "Stop it," I told them. "Stop, it," they told each other, "cruelty to animals is a maha-sin!" Pausing after the proclamation, they recovered from it, and waited until one of them resumed the killing, and one after the other they joined him.

Two more kids appeared in the distance. The red T-shirt of one of them was striking in the sun and was in strong contrast to the masses of green and granite. "Thuth!" my six companions said. "Those two are terrible. They kill puppies. That's all they know to do." The pair made straight for us and merged with the six, grinning wide and looking frail and incapable of killing anything.

"Come," they tugged again, "the elephant well is better." The second well appeared of a sudden, its mouth far wider than the first, and deeper, the water covered in just as much moss, and no wall or parapet around to stop the unaware from walking right into disaster. The kids ran to the opposite bank, where, sitting dangerously on a ledge cantilevered far into the mouth, they shouted for a picture.

And dragged me to the horakote, the outer wall, for another shot. "At the Anjaneya temple we'll sit on top for the pictures," they planned, even as they packed themselves tight into small door of the inner wall and posed. The temple had appeared like a gumbaz from the ramparts, and now, inside, it seemed even more Islamic, but the kids were confident it had been a temple, and they showed me where the deity had been. "A murder happened here," they claimed. So the murthi was moved to the court as an exhibit, and then to another temple in town.

I heard them out, believing and disbelieving, and distracted. I had a challenge on hand, now at the end of the tour they'd given me. They'd spent more than two hours with me, and had been kind and respectful and helpful to a measure that made me worry how I'd repay the debt.

"Will you join me for a cool drink?" I asked. "No," they said in unison. "But you must," I said. "No," they said again. "It costs fifteen rupees, sir. Why do you want to waste so much money? Don't want." By now another young one had come by, riding a bicycle. He was older than the others by perhaps two years, and his grown eyes were a meld of respect, curiosity, and a wry kind of humor. I found myself wary of him a bit, in spite of his likable face with its sharp features and pleasing lines.

Inner Entrance to Fort

"If I give you money will you buy yourselves something to eat, or drink?" I asked. "Don't give money," the older boy said sharply. "Okay," I said, and shook hands with every one of them. They were happy to shake hands, and disbelieving to be doing it. "Let's take a final picture," I said, "before the car." They were ready. I took a few shots and, firmly this time, I said, "come, we must have a drink."

They came, even the older boy, sitting on his bicycle and pushing himself forward. We went to a store across from the main gate of the fort. Some ordered for "cool drinks" and some asked for puliyogare, and I left as they refreshed themselves, knowing my debt remained unpaid. I looked in the rear view mirror. They were still waving goodbye.

My Friends

At Tipu Sultan’s Dungeons

The Gumbaz at Srirangapattana

A reverie on the rewards of the Raj

Some came for king and country, some for fame and fortune, first in a trickle and then in a flood, from Europe to India, and many among them came young to a place that was part welcoming, part hostile, riven all over, and tempting to take and possess. Fame and fortune favored a few, and king and country honored a good number, but what is the story of the larger remainder? The story of solid men like William Baillie, for instance?

I heard his story and saw his after-story in Srirangapattana, 125 kilometers southwest of Bangalore, a shout away from expanding Mysore. In that battle for Srirangapattana, young Arthur Wellesley found form and foundational confidence that helped him defeat Napoleon sixteen years later, at Waterloo. After Srirangapattana, the colonizer’s push for the entire subcontinent was over—with some mopping up left. On my part, I’d gone there to experience the story of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, father and son, our heroes, implacable foes of the British for 38 years. But I’ve come back with thoughts for the Baillies of Britain.

Col. Baillie’s Dungeon in Srirangapattana is clean and white-coated on the inside and well swept. Fresh air blows about the place, the breeze coming across the waters to this river-island, beating and rising up the fort wall, and playing over the flat-topped dungeon there. This is not a dungeon in the deep; it is a squat building in a dugout on a rise. I’ve been there thrice over ten years, and it has always been kept up for tourists, to whom tour guides tell with pride about the rout of Col. Baillie in the Battle of Pollilur, near Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu. Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan led that battle together, and, whereas it was for them their most cherished victory, for the British no defeat in India caused so much anguish as this one.

Col. Baillie commanded the British detachment in that battle, and, having surrendered, he was brought drained and bloodied into the dungeon at Srirangapattana, capital city of Haidar and Tipu.

The dungeon fronts the south, with arches running end to end. A yard runs the full length before it. It is a low-roof structure, held up by obese columns whose girth seems overdone, but, perhaps, the breadth served to secure a man on each face of them. If fifty prisoners were held in that hall they’d be stifled in the heat of Srirangapattana; if a hundred, they’d be choking. It seems small for an expanding kingdom forever in battle, which would’ve taken thousands of prisoners from its victories, but of course this one was in the capital, a mere five minutes by foot from Lal Mahal, the principal palace of Tipu, and so it was a special possession of his, where he kept very special prisoners.

Col. Baillie's Dungeon

A prison for prize catch. And Baillie was a shining trophy, even if ill and dying. He was held there together with David Baird, who had fought the battle with him and was captain at the time, along with other officers. Baird would be freed by treaty in 1784, and would return to Srirangapattana fifteen years afterward as second-in-command, and avenge his incarceration.

Baillie wasn’t so fortunate.

Everything had worked for the Mysore forces at Pollilur. Their numbers were superior, whereas Baillie was bringing back a mere detachment to merge with the main, which was in Sir Hector Munro’s charge in Kanchipuram. Haidar dispatched Tipu with 10,000 troops to intercept Baillie’s 2,800. Pollilur was close enough for Munro to know how the battle was going, but he chose to hold back and secure his provisions. Mysore had been joined by a French unit, fit and in form under the command of M. Lally. Never giving up conviction that reinforcements would come, Baillie gave dogged resistance that his surviving comrades praised afterward. But the odds turned against him altogether when a Mysore rocket found his ordnance pile. The explosion threw the sepoys into panic, and they couldn’t be rallied by the Europeans, and it fell upon them to rally round their compatriot, which they did, holding out against Tipu’s horses which came upon them in waves. Baillie soldiered on until all but sixteen of his men and officers had been killed or wounded.

“Your son will inform you that you owe the victory to our disaster rather than to our defeat,” Baillie is reported to have told Haidar.

That was in September, 1780. Baillie survived a mere two years in captivity; he died in the dungeon in November 1782. In the following month Haidar Ali died also, from a carbuncular growth on his back. Tipu ascended the throne and declared himself Sultan. He was thirty-two.

Seventeen years later, the British, having halved Tipu’s realm over the time, having negotiated with Tipu’s neighbors and arrayed every one of them against his landlocked kingdom, and having gotten their alliance to buy up some of Tipu’s top commanders, they laid siege to Srirangapattana. The siege lasted two months, but after they’d breached the fort they took the capital, and Tipu’s life with it, all in one hour. Within 48 hours after that, they’d given Tipu’s bier a gun salute and interred his body in the same Gumbaz the Sultan had built for his father Haidar. Both British and local historians acknowledge that a good number of Tipu’s subjects lined the passage of the carriage and bowed for their fallen ruler. Both acknowledge that the heavens wept and a mighty storm broke upon the blood-drenched island.

Mausoleum for Haidar and Tipu

There’s nobody who doesn’t acknowledge the pillage in spite of the mighty monsoon that May in 1799. Writers for the British say Arthur Wellesley put an end to it in two days. Others aver the looting went on and on. At any rate, swords and precious stones and gold and even the amulet on Tipu went far west into private estates. Speaking of stones, and considering how the wars with the exotic Tipu had been painted by the East India Company at home, an imagination fired, and Wilkie Collins wrote Moonstone in 1868, a detective story (the first ever, it is said) on the mysterious disappearance of a diamond (not the semiprecious moonstone) obtained by plunder by an Englishman in Srirangapattana.

The Gumbaz is a ten minute drive from the eastern gate of the fort. It shines today as it must have shone in Tipu’s days. The garden around it cannot be as beautiful as in kingly times, but it is as good as it can get on a republican government’s budget. The green of the broad lawns glitters in blazing light, and there is shade from plentiful trees, but the long walk from the main gate to the Gumbaz is unshaded. The sight is pleasing, though, and so the heat is bearable. Inside, the walls and the dome and the rug that is draped over Tipu’s sarcophagus are all covered in tiger burris (stripes). That is not surprising. In his time tiger burris decorated every garment and seat and musket and pistol and cannon and wall and ceiling and cushion and sword and dagger and knife and flag and the howdah on the elephant of the Sultan. Every object upon which his eyes fell had to remind him of the tiger.

The story of Tipu touches everyone, for the fact that he fell fighting, and was found under a heap of corpses with his sword clutched tight in his hand. As I watched inside the Gumbaz, an occasional Hindu folded hands; many Muslim men and women kneeled and prayed as one would to a saint. Few failed to bend over and run a hand over the tiger-stripe rug on Tipu’s sarcophagus. My wife ran her fingers on it, and struggled with the perfume that lingered on her fingers all the way home to Bangalore. Attar is a new scent for her. Not so many paid that honor to Haidar, a man just as brave, and brilliant, and who fought the British with (perhaps) greater determination, and gave his son the conceit of a ruler and general.

The Gumbaz draws many tourists and almost none notice a modest structure right by the gate to the vast compound of the Gumbaz.

Seventeen years after Tipu’s fall, thirty-five years after William Baillie had been dead, a nephew of his, Lt. Col. John Baillie, who was resident at the Lucknow Court of the Nawab of Oudh, built a mausoleum for him a few yards off the entrance to the sprawl of the Gumbaz. He put a small, low enclosure round it. It is an austere structure, but pretty, and poignant, evoking in its desolation the misfortune of a man who’d been as brave and as resolute as Tipu. Col. Baillie died much too soon to know that two days before his countrymen stormed Srirangapattana, British fire fell on Tipu’s rocket pile, and caused an explosion inside the fort, a greater explosion than the one which had turned the Pollilur battle against the colonel. The fire and the smoke and the sound shook Mysore’s defenders, though they’d been on the ready for the din of battle, knowing the assault was coming any moment.

Col. Baillie's Mausoleum

“Poor man,” I told my wife, taking time to take pictures of Baillie’s decrepit mausoleum, taking care not to step on dung and horse droppings and the turd of humans. The small gates to the wasting mausoleum were open, but no one was going in. The monument is not on the tour guide’s checklist. Grime caused by weather has dried on it, and though it has been painted sometimes, the paint has flaked.

“I don’t know,” my wife said. “Why did he come here in the first place?”

One feels for the fallen, in spite of the honest, and correct, question. I have always considered the colonizer as admirably intrepid and I have abhorred their avarice, but, looking for information on the times on the net, I came upon a letter from a young Englishman, twenty-year-old Archibald Hope, written home to his father from the dungeon in Srirangapattana. The prisoners knew ways to smuggle letters out.

………About the middle of December when we had recovered from our wounds we were sent up here (from Arni) which is the capital of Haidar’s country where I was so fortunate as to meet with my friends Captain Baird and Lieutenant Lindsay — here we were put upon a scanty allowance hardly sufficient to support nature dragging on a miserable existence loaded with irons and every hardship that a close imprisonment and infamous usage for 22 months could inflict upon a set of the most unfortunate men that ever existed. About a month ago I was attacked with flux billuus (sic) fever and the liver. Youth and a good constitution struggled along with these three complaints but they are now almost overpowered and I am attacked with the fatal symptom (a hickup) as I find my end approaching I request that you will never send a son of yours to this country unless you wish to make him miserable. I have empowered Captain Baird to settle all my affairs in this country. I will refer you to him for an account of them and everything else relating to me since my arrival in this country. My due love and affection to Lady Hope, sisters, brothers, the family of Castle Semple, my Uncle, Captain MacDowall, and all other friends.

I remain My dear Sir Yours most affectionately A. Hope

The letter is dated July 5, 1782.

A Short Trip to Pondicherry

It was a Saturday morning but the line was short at the shoe-keepers’. Less than a minute was what it took to hand in our two pairs and collect a single token for them. A busload of schoolgirls had been cleared just ahead of us. Another minute, and we were inside, unshod on hallowed ground, guided by smile and arm and firm words to turn rightward after the gate. That was the last spoken instruction. We walked in an unbroken line into complete silence in an alfresco setting, kept in line the whole length by volunteers who’d walled up the short distance to the samadhi of Aurobindo, and the Divine Mother. Round the granite-marble structure—a large knee-high square —folks broke ranks to kneel and feel the marble on the brow and thus absorb inner peace—or anything else they might’ve been seeking from the Hindu philosopher and his Spiritual Partner, who are both interred beneath the stone. Thereafter they squatted in the yard by the samadhi, or in the shade on the floor along an L-shaped verandah. The weight of the hush smothered everybody into silence, even my irrepressible wife, who took to pinching my arm to show me things.

Matri Mandir, Pondicherry

We sat in the verandah to gaze at the samadhi, which was what everybody was doing who wasn’t meditating with eyes closed. So much solace people drew from that stone in the heat of Pondicherry. Most of them were Indians, but many were foreigners. A white man who’d been squatting in the yard got up to leave and went up to the samadhi for a parting bow. He was wearing a veshti, clean and white and better gathered at the waist than any Indian had managed who wore that thing. On top he wore a saffron T-shirt. He attracted my attention because he had the demeanor of the high achiever, a saadhvi, so full of gravitas, and oblivious to his surroundings. I wondered how far he’d gone on Aurobindo’s path of evolution to the Life Divine. He knelt, too, and pressed his brow to the marble.

Not much later, I was enraptured by a face that was enraptured by the stone. Pretty face it was, its beauty doubled by the bliss upon it, and because all else had their eyes on the stone, I watched that visage freely. A few minutes passed and the young lady came round and knelt with her back toward me, lay her cheek on the marble, giving thus the most intimate offering one could give Aurobindo. Even as I was leaving, she lay there, arms on the stone, stone and cheek melded, eyes closed. Right Thinking came over me of a sudden, and shamed me for having stared. I went into the bookshop, in line again like water in a channel, and saw many, many pictures of Aurobindo and the Mother at all times in their lives. I envied Aurobindo his eyes, his height, and his Christlike beard.

Were people coming to the ashram having read the man? I didn’t pause before the books. I didn’t buy the pictures. But I left the Ashram resolved to get around to Aurobindo soon.

There’s the Aurobindo Ashram, which I’ve been describing until now, which is in the French Quarter of Pondicherry, and there’s the vast Auroville, 12-kilometers north of town, founded by French-born Mirra Alfassa, anointed Divine Mother by Aurobindo himself. Begun well after Aurobindo’s death, the Mother’s plan was to manifest in Auroville Aurobindo’s vision in its totality. Arid at the time of founding, Auroville is now a land of milk and honey, and neem and tamarind, and green grass flourishing in sweltering heat. And it is a source of leather goods and ethnic clothing and incense and aromatic oils and semiprecious ornaments and a hundred kinds of trinkets for men and women.

When the Mother founded Auroville, the vision was to draw 50,000 “servitors” fit for the quest for what Aurobindo called the Life Divine. For some reason, only a little more than 2000 have been mustered for the cause in the forty years that have passed, half of them Indian, and the rest mostly French and German. The founding was a grand affair, with representatives from each independent nation gathered on bare ground that would become Auroville. To the rites that were performed, the UNESCO added its blessings. The delegates had brought with them soil from their homeland, to pour it in an urn on this campus which would spearhead the evolutionary process of man, so that all humankind would eventually experience the Life Divine right here on earth, through engaging in the Integral Yoga detailed by Aurobindo.

How the “Aurovilians” live is hard to tell for the first time visitor on a day-trip. The closest a first visit can get to in Auroville is a distant viewing of the Matri Mandir, which is a hall of contemplation, not a hall of meditation as the introductory video asserts. A white hall it is said to be, a hall of silence, set in a giant golden globe which, to be honest, looks rather like the golden golf-ball that people call it who don’t revere it. But, of course, its beauty is revealed in the appreciation of its details, drawn in the main from Hindu iconography, and also the meaning the Mother attached to every flower, and other things.

You earn the opportunity to view the ball by first watching the 10- minute video at the Visitor Centre, which deconstructs the ball for the viewer and shows how its form, content and design are consistent with Aurobindo’s vision. It is all very moving, and puts you in the mood for the long walk in the sun to the viewing point which, when you arrive there, brings you to disappointment in the shape of a clump of trees with shingles round their base and stone slabs and a low hedge that none dare cross: Rules work when they’re backed by divinity.

To go into the Matri Mandir, you should apply a day (sometimes two days) in advance. It is all very Western, a system to achieve Oriental divinity in the systematic manner the West has mastered. Which means this exclusive expanse of land which is home to two-thousand favored people is in danger of a tenuous existence with the not-so- attractive villages that surround it. But travelers have known for centuries the means which to use to be accepted by local Indians: Not too far from the Visitors Centre, the claim is made on a plaque that people on this arid land have been waiting for foreigners to come save them, and, having come now, they have fulfilled a 500-year old prophecy.

It is a prophecy from the legend of Irumbai.

Abutting the Auroville campus lies the Irumbai village. Five-hundred years ago, a yogi, Kaduveli Siddha, had sat there in a penance so harsh, the heat coming off him turned the place into an inferno. By the guile of Vellai, the dancing girl of the village temple, the effects of his penance were neutralized with no damage done to his spiritual vows. Pleased that the crisis was over, the king of the realm ordered a thanksgiving at the Irumbai temple, featuring in the main a dance by Vellai herself. She danced so well the yogi saw Shiva in her, and when she did a complex movement and her anklet came loose, the yogi leaned forward and tied it back. The king and the courtiers mocked the yogi for ministering to a dancing girl. Outraged, the yogi invoked Shiva, who, intervening, caused the granite lingam in the temple to explode, and everywhere the fragments of that phallic symbol of Shiva fell, the land became infernal. The king collapsed in capitulation at the yogi’s feet.

“What is done can’t be undone. Still, your contrition is true. One day people will come from far off places and save your land.”

Was the king relieved with the concession? Foreigners came a good five-hundred years after he went into his grave, and fulfilled the yogi’s prophecy. You can buy the things that come off their works at the pleasing air-conditioned Auroville boutique on Nehru Road in Pondicherry. The quality of everything is good, and the service isn’t bad. I bought a leather portfolio there. My wife bought Yoga Shampoo, incense, oils, and after contemplating awhile, she decided not to buy a pearl necklace. And, oh, I bought a Brahmi tonic to boost my memory.

Nehru Street

A floating population of other men and women, also from far off lands, flit about on motorcycles roundabout Auroville, and the tiny French Quarter in Pondicherry, which is right by the sea and laid out in a neat grid. Whereas the restaurants and the squat boutique hotels that line the streets are all very pretty with a period-look and with period-names in French, and the coffee and the cuisine are all very good, the streets were what captured my attention, and I roamed them round and round savoring their names: Rue Romain Roland. Rue Suffren. Rue Surcouf! After that pirate! Ah, but the Frenchman Surcouf captured the fabulous English ship the Kent, and he killed also its captain, Rivington, in the Bay of Bengal, in one of the most daring pirate-attacks in history. In this French district, Surcouf is a hero.

Rue Surcouf

These are notes from a two-day stay. I’ve resolved to go back to Pondicherry soon, and stay in Auroville, and learn a little more regarding the Life Divine, Integral Yoga, and enjoy for a period this Francophile enclave in this Anglophile subcontinent, this quiet district in this bustling Pondicherry. I’ll write about it here, please do come back.

Follow me on twitter? @shashikiran

The Devanhalli Fort in Bangalore

Date: 2013-07-24 21:07 Title: Devanhalli Fort in Bangalore Slug: Devanhalli Fort Bangalore Tags: bangalore

The 500 year old fort is in excellent condition in many parts, specially at the front section. It is six kilometers further north after the exit to the International Airport on Bellary Road, and less than a five-minute walk from where Tipu Sultan was born—at which spot there is a simple memorial to the important warrior king. I would've liked to call him a great king, but I haven't the scholarship, and there's the danger of being shouted down.

I'll stay with the fort.

It was a mud fort to begin with, one of a series in this region, which, in addition to buttress the local ruler's strength, served as shelters for itinerant traders. The forts were rebuilt by the Muslims Hyder and Tipu, with mud sandwiched between granite, the mud serving to cushion the stone when stone took fire from cannons.

Devanahalli Fort

The circular bastions are also a Muslim contribution, a change from the times of the Gowda rulers (of the Morasu Mokkalu clan) who built their bastions square—two of the Gowda bastions still remain. Inside the twelve bastions in this fort and along the fort walls there's evidence of French expertise. The floor space of the bastion is sloped in a ramp so as to roll ordnance with ease and speed. Along the brick-topped battlements, banquettes run the entire length, allowing gunners to step up to fire and step down to reload in safety.

A fort should be strong but it should also be blessed with good fortune for the ruler who built it. The forts of Rajasthan are said to have buried volunteering men alive at the keystone; Kempegowda's daughter-in-law, if the story is true, sacrificed herself for the Bangalore fort; here in Devanahalli, a double sacrifice was offered, of a pregnant woman, thus making it a twice blessed fort. All to no avail, because when the defenders of the Devanahalli fort learnt that the better-armed Bangalore fort had been taken by Cornwallis' forces, they fled their posts with no time wasted, and when the British arrived at Devanahalli the fort was theirs for free.

Tipu got back the fort by the terms of a truce, an ignominious truce, because the sultan was forced to hand the victors his sons as hostage. His boys took leave of him at the capital, Srirangapattana, but when they were returned, he received them at the Devanahalli fort, at a camp by the lake north of the fort. He didn't show his emotion, it is said, he only ran his hands over the back of their necks and sent them into his tent.

Robert Home's painting

Now the fort is in the possession of free Indians who have exercised their liberty to build their buildings at will, in the manner of small-town buildings anywhere in India, each building free of any adherence to a town plan. Among such buildings are a number of new temples, and some old ones, but the temple that was built along with the fort, the Venugopalaswamy Temple in the Vijayanagara style, that temple is in excellent condition and the deities in it are lovely.

A walk on the ramparts of the Devanahalli Fort is a fine experience, because the fort draws your eyes unto itself, and the mind too, so unless you will yourself to look toward the squalor and the anarchy within and without the fort, a few hours on top of it refreshes the mind, and, because of the breeze on it, the body as well.


These are notes I made during and after a walk inside the Devanahalli Fort, led by Meera of INTACH, Bangalore.

An animal sacrifice that I allow

It should be a goat, and it should be black without blemish. It should be taken round the bungalow of the planter first, with incense in one man's hand and a prayer bell working by another man's hand. Its should then go to the writer's quarters, and thereafter to each hut in the labour line. At every stop the women of the house bring their own incense and take it round the goat's unreceptive face, and they press vermilion upon its reluctant brow, wash feet that refuse washing, and fold their hands to it in prayer.

Sacrificial Goat

The thing nods. It has spent a lifetime nodding, nodding most of all to matters that it clearly doesn't approve of.

That done, the goat is marched off to the coffee patch where the shrine of the goddess is, in a clearing among the coffee plants under the shade of a closed clump of shade trees, arali trees here on my plantation, and tied close to the stem of a coffee plant. The prayers offered it are the new experience for the animal; whereas it knows well the tethered life.

The yearly ceremony before the goddess Chowdeshwari is a practice so old no one knows when it began, and also not when the ritual was first performed on my plantation. The goddess is manifest here as a clump of rocks each the volume of two-three soccer balls, rocks just as nature has formed them, unworked by the hand of man. The rocks lie against the broad trunk of a tree, and before them the soil is a rich wet black. The deity in this form is no less sublime (or stirring) than a sculpted statue of any God, or of His Son, or of any Prophet who ever spoke to Man.

The priest who does the ceremony on our plantation, who comes from the Kenchamma Temple six kilometres away, is a middle-aged irritable man who prepares for the prayers with his cell phone annoying him all the time. If a prayer-article is not at hand when he reaches for it he lets loose a grumbling and shakes you up, because during a ceremony for Chowdy nothing should go wrong. She protects your health and your assets and all your loved ones, but her devotees have always feared she will move against you if you displease her. The priest knows your fear. The village by the plantation has gathered there also, and all the plantation workers, and all are filled with love for this wondrous goddess of protection, a love mixed in equal measure with fear. The priest senses the vibration of both emotions. On this day you will not challenge him, you will not fault him. He is prima donna, plus he is as a lawyer performing a professional duty, and any sentence handed down holds opportunities for him.

Besides being vegetarian, I'm also a believer, as fervent as those who pray to the handsome-in-every-sculpture Son of God and those who pray five times a day facing the One Shrine. And I store as much a measure of conviction for my faith as Alain de Botton's for his Temple of Atheism.

It is hypnotic, how the rocks of yesterday transform today by the priest's hands. First they become a wavy set of wet lines of turmeric and vermilion and sandalwood; the waves go down beneath strings of prayer-flowers and heaps of hibiscus and marigold; a colourful sari made of fine silk is draped over the arrangement. Other things flank the deity: a chatri made by a villager by hand who has a special wish, and a slender but strong black metal trishul which stands where it has stood for ages, one with the soil.

It takes an hour to set up the whole thing, and a hush has fallen. The priest is no more in a temper. He is calming, calming, and he comes to the centre of the space some six feet before Chowdy and begins a new arrangement on the ground: he spreads a thin metal foil on the base; stands a coconut on it; over the coconut he balances a block of vibhuti which has a hollow in it; he keeps a chicken egg in the hollow; and sprinkles other sacred things over the arrangement and round it.

He settles into deep meditation. Nobody speaks, except for a quick inisistent direction from a few volunteers to all to not fold their arms, but to leave them limp on the sides. The priest ignores the light buzz round him and concentrates. A machete has come into his hand. Silence returns, and now it is total, and the priest and his machete have become one with his handiwork.

The blemish-free black goat that's been tied to a side and has been bleating has gone quiet also. It is nodding to shake off a fly or a flea. My mind is on the goat. I'd told Basavanna, my neighbouring planter who manages my plantation for me, that I'd like from this year to make the pooje far more grand than in all the years the plantation has been in my possession, even more than when it was with the large family that owned it before me, or when it was with the English clergyman Fr. Jeremiah before them, and anybody else before that reverend. Basavanna took a long time to reply—we were on the phone. "You can't do that," he said, his fear louder than his words. The quiet was lasting a long time and just as the eyes began to drift from the priest to the deity there was a crack. Exactly as it should, his machete had gone clean through the egg, the vibhuti, the coconut, and the metal foil, halving every one of them precisely. And, as a bonus, which sight few missed, a large red hibiscus fell on the right of Chowdy, in the very moment the coconut cracked.

After which I closed my eyes and spoke to Chowdy. "I want your blessings," I prayed. "I'm afraid to displease you. Please guide me."

In the years until now after I'd done the final prayer, the animal would be taken a few feet away, and I'd see the thing as they lay it down, clutching its feet and pressing it into the ground and then I'd turn away and after a few moments I'd turn back and see that all had risen and the black blemish-free fellow had a red, red neck and no head anymore—gone without a sound. I'd turn away again, not sick, not unhappy, just confused.

So on this day I watched with greater anxiety than the rest, feeling fear for having questioned the sacrifice with which the village and the plantation workers have always been appeasing the goddess, and with which they've obtained protection from disease, tried to bring alcoholic husbands to their senses, sought suitable matches for the single, asked for freedom from debt to which each was tied.

The quiet was lasting a long time and just as the eyes began to drift from the priest to the deity there was a crack. Exactly as it should, his machete had gone clean through the egg, the vibhuti, the coconut, and the metal foil, halving every one of them precisely. And, as a bonus, which sight few missed, a large red hibiscus fell on the right of Chowdy, in the very moment the coconut cracked.

A great blessing! The goddess had been pleased with how the worship had gone. Everyone asked everybody. "Did you see the prasada? The flower falling?"

I was relieved. I supposed Chowdy had approved a reasoning I'd worked out the day before: I take folks out all the time for dinner—family, customers, friends, suppliers. Most of them pick meat dishes while I search the vegetarian menu. What's the difference now, at this pooje? The difference is that here I am made to see how the meat is supplied. Also, I press vermillion and sandal paste on its brow, hold incense to its face, and fold my hands to it. They slaughter the lamb some distance from me but within my view in the name of the goddess, and offer prayers to her, and take the carcass away and cook a spicy Malnad-style meal for themselves to eat, with liquor that they've brought over—for liquor is allowed on the day of this pooje. And my family retires to the bungalow for a vegetarian meal.

But Basavanna had dispensed with all that this year. He took me away right after the priest had done his work with the machete. We went to the bungalow. "They'll do the non-vegetarian part," he said. "You rest." And so it was. In a few moments I heard the sound of bells and went out. They were bringing the goat to take it round the bungalow, so as to bring the building and its residents under Chowdy's protection. They'd changed the order of the ceremonies this year, I realised. They went toward the back of the building and disappeared, and reappeared, the bell ringing all the time, and the procession went toward the writer's quarters. I went back in, not at all confused as in past years—happy even.

I'd seen the flower fall, too.

The Price of Water

Cities have died after they've dried up their water. How long will Bangalore live? It was once supplied by hundreds of lakes, and at the time its population was a fraction of today's, and now there are many more people and fewer lakes because people have drained the lakes and built office complexes and apartment blocks on them. Each year, when the monsoons arrive, they visit also these buildings in low-lying areas and flood them.

water

Our neighbourhood gets water from the City Corporation on alternate days, and we were all right with that until last month when the bore-well in our compound that served as a backup ran dry. When we sank that well ten years ago we went down only 180 feet. One has to dig deeper these days. A neighbour of our campus at Electronics City sank a well last month and hit water at 1500 feet. He was so anxious he performed the sacred ritual of breaking a coconut every successive one-hundred feet.

The water-diviner who located a fresh spot in our home was confident we had an inch and a half of flow at 380 feet. He determined that with a small fat round instrument quite like a compass, holding which he strutted about front and back of our home. He located three points, and this one with the promise of water at 380 feet was plumb in the middle of the path to the front door, and he urged us to dig there.

"All right," we said. What's the point in having a neat pathway to a home that's lacking in water? The diviner smiled. "I never fail in my predictions," he declared, smiling and showing teeth that were a match with his bright white shirt.

They were a crew of nine who arrived to dig. The driver and the mechanic were Tamils. The seven others were adivasis, tribals who have migrated to Bangalore from a village 20 kilometres out of Bhopal. They said their language was Hindi, but they were speaking an incomprehensible dialect of it. They had no other language.

They started at 1:00 PM (waiting out the 90 inauspicious minutes of Friday's Rahu) and struck water at 3:00 PM the following day. They did the job in a cloud of rock dust, adding shaft after five-foot shaft to the drill bit as it bore down screeching, thudding, rattling, and also groaning. They worked without face masks, without ear muffs, without safety boots which they should've worn because they carried such weights all the time, but they worked in good cheer with dust thick and deep in their hair and on their clothes, and painted on their faces. When they hit the first reserves of water, grey goo flew into their face, and they went on nevertheless, keeping eyes and mouth clear, wiping them clean when they could.

When they hit the big reserve, and water came bursting up to the height of the rig, they grinned with twice more happiness than we felt. When we thanked them they were shy to accept it.

When the manager of the drilling company arrived to settle the account, and when I congratulated before him the chief mechanic who had squatted before the rig the whole time for two days with his eyes on the shaft and his hands on the levers, the manager smiled in approval. "The owner thrives by this man's efforts," he said. And added that the man married six years ago, and will live only six years more. He said that in Kannada, right before the mechanic. "Che!" I admonished him. "For God's sake, don't say that."

"I'm just telling the fact, no sir," he said, insistent for the last word.