Late Monsoons in Malnad

The speedy stream through a fellow-planter's estate

The speedy stream through a fellow-planter's estate

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 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

Starbucks on Cunningham Road, Bangalore

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.

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…

honge-flowers-on-street

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.

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

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

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.

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 the Bangalore Fort, Standing Only

The Bangalore Fort

A kitten was at the northern door, a slender orangey thing nosing at the cracks that age had caused on solid wood, looking to get out of this remnant of a fort that had besieged it. It is a smaller portal compared to the one in front, but large enough for an elephant to come in—and good enough to keep a cat from getting out. The thing mewed in momentary fear, but when I returned a while later after having taken a picture of the bastion it was gone, having found a breach somewhere.

As regards myself, I was seeking the dungeon, to find the plaque that marked the breach that Cornwallis achieved in 1791. In that small enclosure I couldn't find it, though I went round and round, looking and looking. I asked the lone young guard who, when I entered, was seated on the plinth of the white Ganesha temple that greets you at the main entrance. He had only Hindi, and I failed to translate the word dungeon to him. I turned to a gaunt lady who sat by him, who had wrinkles so deep they evoked history in this already historic place. With a mouth full of chewed betel all she could tell me in Kannada was, "what's on show here is all there is to see," and she pointed to the board outside where, "everything about this fort is written."

But I'd read the board, and it had promised the presence of the plaque, but there weren't directions on it, no map. Learning from the board that David Baird had spent some time in the selfsame dungeon, I was twice keen to get to it.

Resigned, I went into the inner courtyard and took pictures of the walls and the lawns and came to the outer enclosure and began to shoot an alcove framed by lovely floral lines when the guard came up from behind and said most respectfully that photography wasn't allowed with BIG cameras. "You may use your phone, instead," he offered in concession, and ran back into the inner yard to check what a few others who'd gone in were doing there that wasn't allowed. I settled in the alcove that I'd been trying to photograph, sat on its sill and opened four pages on the fort that I'd printed off the Internet. I'd read but a page and the guard reappeared, somewhat out of breath, and said without any loss of deference, "Sir, sitting here is also not allowed."

He was young, and he had a fresh clear honest earnest face, and there was no option but to obey him. I stood in the sun, there being no shade in the hour I was there, but it was quiet and peaceful with the din outside muffled and distant on account of the thick fort-walls. I read with tranquil mind the remaining three pages on the fort that I'd printed from Deccan Herald Online, a story by Meera Iyer of Intach.


Slideshow of some images of the fort

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 Canterbury Cathedral

Transient

Three swords, the length of them jagged like lines of lightning. They are the shrine to Thomas Becket. A light that comes in at a slant from an adjacent wall completes the meaning of that work of art. Becket was born without heraldry, it seems, and for most of his adult life he was no more than an able administrator who backed up a weak king. And what he did when Henry II named him Archbishop of Canterbury was to set himself to the task with such devotion as he'd always shown the king. But Henry had made the mistake of turning Becket over to God, and he'd lost him thus.

So the king's men took Becket's life as a matter of their duty, and after some clergy swore they's witnessed the mandatory miracles, Becket was declared St. Thomas. A Saxon saint, in Norman times. It is a poignant story, but it is consistent with its time and so it doesn't move me as does the fine Cathedral of Canterbury as it exists today.

The reigning archbishop, Justin Welby, has been a top man in big business before he entered the clergy. So he should be as able as Becket, or perhaps he is even better. I heard him over Classic FM radio Easter morning and I liked him very much. It was a sunny day, and cold outside. "The spirit of Christ has risen," he assured, and asked listeners to come to the Cathedral, "where you'll find you're very welcome." It was warm, the timbre of his voice, it was the voice of a knowing man.

Last week, I went to the Cathedral along with my wife. We had travelled to Canterbury (she from Paris, I from Bangalore) to pack my stuff and wind up my stay there. We went to the Cathedral two days. The first day we strolled round and round the building in the evening, having entered it from the small rear entrance which opens into a neat, rectangular garden with a war memorial in its centre. The next day we spent a few hours inside the building.

I enjoy the silence in Christian temples. There is a certain quiet also during sermons, and when the choir performs the silence is a magnificent, majestic foil. I told my wife I wish our Hindu temples were like that. I don't know what she thought, she didn't answer me. (We have both been to the pravachanas of Brahmananda Swamiji, whose devotees we are, and who also commands complete silence when he teaches the Gita.) Now as I write I think of the bells and the chants and the fragrance from flowers and incense in our temples—and prostrations and circumambulations. Also bhajans, and the beating of drums at closing time in the Hanuman temples. They're all very, very nice, but I like the quiet in the church.

We sat on a bench back of the Cathedral, watching the metal statue of the "Son of Man," who seems frail in sum but if you see him up close he is robust in his parts. A bunch of turkeys walked about on the lawns and the tourists took pictures of them, white tourists, who must have had turkey at least every Christmas. But these turkeys were neat and well turned out, small heads ever pecking the ground to feed their fat bodies, and there at the back of the Cathedral they must've held a special meaning for the tourists.

I watched Becket—the movie—this week here at home in Bangalore: Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry. Even in the film it was the Cathedral that touched me. As it always did when I watched the sun on it during daytime, and the yellow light of lamps on it at night, when I walked days and nights on St. Thomas Hill, on which is sprawled the University of Kent.

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.

UB City

The terrace at UB City is where I’m happiest hanging out. It is across the street right after the east gate of Cubbon Park, and I pass the place twice daily* while commuting to work.

The terrace is at level 4. It is lined by alfresco cafés and restaurants and there’s an amphitheater in the corner with a deep well that looks toward the UB Tower. Inside the tower are the offices of the UB Group, makers of Kingfisher lager, India's best beer. UB Tower is so like the Empire State Building and you cannot help noting that the spirit of the chairman of the UB Group hasn't soared to the full height of that Manhattan skyscraper—the famous businessman has built only a mini-me. But one is charitable on the terrace at UB City, drinking coffee and beer and wine and taking the best breeze in town. In that ambience, where nice people wearing business-suits and shorts and tees are all mixed together, you cannot help but feel that Bangalore is rising, and you experience a lift yourself.

After a meeting in town, or in the evenings on holidays, I drop in at the Café Noir on the terrace at UB City for a café au lait and a pain au raisin. The folks at other tables order for sangria and pasta and ratatouille and crêpe. After a time I ask for more coffee and some pain-au-something-else.

UB City fronts Vittal Mallya Road. For me the important other stop on that street used to be Bounce, the saloon at street level on the corner where Vittal Mallya Road intersects Lavelle Road. I don't go there anymore, I've learnt to buzz-cut my hair myself.

At Bounce, the staff are almost all immigrants: The reception has sometimes been manned by young women of African origin. The hairdressers are Manipuri and Sri Lankan, and the owners (I think) are North Indian. Bounce competes with the saloons in five-star hotels and charges almost as much as them. The music is techno, a style which from start to end goes nowhere, and makes no side trips. (But it is more tolerable than the somnolent spa music in five-star hotels.) Suresh who used to cut my hair at Bounce is from Galle, and each time there we used to discuss Colombo and Kandy and Sigiriya, the Lankan places I’ve been in.


  • Not after 2-April-2012, when I stepped down. I go to Electronics City only occasionally now.

see London a bit, perhaps…

Cleopatra's Needle at the Victoria Embankment, London

Cleopatra's Needle at the Victoria Embankment, London

I’m seeing it for the first time, it is just as I saw it years ago in the opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia. Except, I can now see the stone the staircase is made of, black, with copper-coloured rivets planed smooth. They might be mock-fasteners, but they look very good, sleek like the tall black doors made of English oak.

The journey should begin at St. Paul’s, of course, and the next steps should cover the Square Mile. After that, my heart will guide my legs about the rest of London. “This should be a long relationship,” the heart has determined. “I need some time,” the mind pleads, “let me think this through.”

But they’re excited, each as much as the other.

I began the journey in the crypt, and stopped altogether before the Duke of Wellington’s sarcophagus. A halting start to an ambitious plan to know London. An omen, but I’ll not worry.

Arthur Wellesley was twenty-nine when he fought under General Baird’s command in the Fourth Mysore War against Tipu Sultan. On May 4, 1799, the English stormed the fort of Srirangapattana, having managed to breach it after some eight weeks of siege. Tipu fell that night, and they didn’t know they’d killed him. Seeing in the morning that they’d taken the capital but not the sovereign and they went searching for him and found him under a heap of carcasses. Wellesley was made Governor of Mysore; a child was installed on the throne. The very same Wellesley rode sixteen years later to Waterloo as the first Duke of Wellington. And now, here he lies, before me in this moment, raised a bit, in a stone casket which can pack ten men.

Tipu Sultan was forty-nine when the bullet got him. I’ve often called Tipu to mind when I’ve needed courage. His father Hyder Ali was tall, and Tipu was short, yet he was his father’s equal in war. Before this Cornish granite casket for the Duke of Wellesley, which is even bigger than the faux sarcophagus of Alexander the Great in Istanbul, Tipu diminishes to a dot in me. I linger a while longer and name my emotions; I let them be.

Why do graves of the great move one so? From St. Paul’s I went to Westminster Abbey following St. Paul’s Walk along the Victoria Embankment, pausing in the Park before young Byron in stone, and the bust of Sullivan with the plaintive lady embracing the plinth. A young black man was speaking to Sullivan from a bench a few meters away. I stopped also at the apartment above Gordon’s where Kipling lived and wrote The Light That Failed. It is Saturday and tourists have taken over the Westminster Bridge, and a thin stream of joggers negotiate the crowds. Seeing tourists posing before Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square I realise how useful are monuments. They bring in the tourists and, correctly deployed, they keep them out of the life of the locals.

In line for a ticket at Westminster Abbey, I pass the plaque for Sir Eyre Coote. After Tipu’s father Hyder Ali had won a decisive battle against Sir Hector Munro of the East India Company, Governor General Warren Hastings sent Coote after Hyder Ali. Coote checked Hyder Ali, but never decisively defeated him. The Company took Mysore only after Baird and Wellesley defeated Tipu Sultan.

Most visitors in the Abbey are Latinos and Italians today, and they listen rapt to the audio given them, deeply interested in the Henrys and the Edwards and the Georges. I listen too, but I am more interested in the grave of Mary, Queen of Scots, and I stand tiptoe to confirm the likeness of her mask to Vanessa Redgrave. At prompt number 14 on the numbered map I tire, and long for coffee outdoors though I know there’s no sun there and it could be raining.

But then I come to the Poets Corner, to names I know, and names I’ve known and forgotten, names of people I’ve read, and not read. Names I love for good reason, and names I love for no reason. I grin and I sense the grin looks foolish. I frown when someone rubs her boot on Thomas Stearns Eliot, though I realise she is loving the name like that.

staying present on Tarka Rail

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The sun was out. A gibbous moon was out also. It was cold outside the train, of course, and the horses in the meadows had coats draped over their backs. Sheep sat together in some pens and in some others they stood united and grazed. Some sheep had black faces and the rest were white all over but black soil had rubbed off on each one’s coat. Sometimes they were near the rail, and when the train approached them they ran, bobbing their rumps as they went, showing red or blue stamps on their backsides. Happy sheep. They didn’t have a care. Their big decisions had been made for them. 

The horses were ponies, perhaps. The middle-age lady across the aisle would’ve known. She knew many things, which she shared with her husband and he nodded to everything she told him, and they looked out the window the entire journey, and smiled, staying warm and not taking off their beige coats. The woman wore also a burgundy-red bag which had a thin strap and a long stitch. Her smile lines were the same depth as her husband’s. 

They missed nothing in the 39-mile ride from Exeter to Barnstaple, the length of Tarka Rail, named after the otter in Henry Williamson’s book. I attempted the present-mindedness of the couple and tried to take pictures of the Taw river valley that ran alongside us, but I had trouble composing the photographs. Things intruded. The lamps overhead showed as bright parallelograms on the glass of the windows, claiming space in the view of straight hedgerows, strict channels, upright transmission towers supporting miles of straight-running cable with optimal slack, and the angles and arches of bridges. After a while I put away my camera to admire instead the perfect works of man.

It has been more than one hundred years since great Britons like Brunel showed what can be achieved by reducing gradients and curves, and in Brunel’s case with this very Great Western that I was riding on, but nature hasn’t begun to heed such men one bit. It was not possible to say, for instance, whether the stream that curved away would come back, which here it did, after vagrant tortuous runs, and then after a time it went away from under the train and when I began to miss it, it returned from under, grown somewhat, and went far out and away. Just when I thought it was gone for good, it was back, glancing again and again at the rails.

I tried to anticipate where the next moor might fall after this one. I looked for a pattern in every clutch of hills that came up, and as I did the futile exercise I envied the occasional single house on top of quite-high hills. I checked for similarity in geometry among the flats and the many lovely pools. Birds that foraged with sheep rose when our train came by and within moments did an about-turn.

“Sit down, Corrie!”

Corrie (and her mother) were two rows fore of me. Unlike the senior couple across, Corrie didn’t care to look out the window. Sitting down, for her, was to rest her tummy on the headrest, dangle her limbs in the air, and squeeze for occasional relief into the narrow between seat and window. Comfortable so, she was in battle with her brother in the row just ahead of me. “Stop it Corrie,” her mother cried, “it’s not funny.” But to Corrie it was most funny. She laughed gaily as she fought.

Then she fell. And began to wail. And recovered in seconds to soft cooing and went up the seat to rock on her belly again. “Get down, Corrie,” her mother ordered. “Corrie,” she cried again, and again, and once again, drawing the last syllable in a raga with many inflections. But Corrie had a fight on hand that she had to finish.

I shouldn’t have paid so much attention to the little girl. I missed the otters I’d been told I might see if I was lucky.

hunting for metaphor

Clowes Wood, near Canterbury

I went to Clowes Wood hunting for inspiration, which I needed for some text to be sent somewhere in twenty-four hours. But my mind stopped seeing in the “feels like zero” temperature. I tried several things. I lifted hopeful eyes to a low-flying plane but its plaintive drone served only to thicken the mind’s gathering somnolence. I’d walked up to the wood, and I’d walked in the wood an hour, and if a walk hasn’t delivered the writer a result, what can be done? I sat on a green bench and settled my eyes on a thick white tree and watched a breeze get behind the leaves of the vine round it. The sheath of them swelled and heaved, and I tried to see in the tree how it felt to be cuckolded, but, as ever, the tree only hove tight heavenward, to the very tips of its bare tines.

I wondered if I might sight a fox, and saw instead that there wasn’t a bird—not on the green conifers, not on the oaks, nowhere. There wasn’t a sound, not even a buzz from an insect. I vowed to come back in summer to hear the nightjars and to see the glow worms, and started to leave, when I heard my first human voices there—a child and his parents coming in, now when the phone predicted precipitation. Anyway, they were better insulated than I. The child had many questions and his mother had all the answers.

A boy raised somewhere here came to Malnad in the nineteenth century as the young Englishman Middleton, and sheared a string of low mountains of their jungle and planted coffee there. He called his plantation Kadumane: Jungle Home. I’ve spent days and nights there. After he’d prospered he came here to find a wife, and brought her home to Kadumane, travelling the last leg by ox-cart. The following morning, her first in her new home, his bride went out and screamed. Yesterday’s ox had been savaged by a tiger before dawn.

Where lie the roots of courage? The Middletons and the Ibn Batutas of all times fascinate me. Once I’m a real writer I might begin to meddle with their motives.

Still seeking inspiration, I went to The Blean this morning. Whereas many trees in Clowes were conifers whose green hadn’t left them, in The Blean the green was all on the ground: in the shrub, and moss on the exposed roots of trees. I wandered mostly in a section populated almost entirely with silver birch. Learning just now that Coleridge called these Betula Pendula the Ladies of the Woods, I realise they are indeed slender and nymphlike and quite becoming. (So many of them, and so bare.) There were many birds in the Blean, but I couldn’t tell which cry belonged to which bird of The Blean: the robin or the wren, the dunnock or the blackbird, the song thrush or the woodpecker.

How does one shoo a fox away? With a cry? A stick? Just as I thought to presume the English fox to be as shy as our Indian ones, I saw the furry thing. It came up at a fork ahead and stood there, deciding, and as I raised my camera, it trotted down and away, leaving only a blurry trace to speak for me.

Splitting hairs in this Spring Term

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I'm back, and with a resolution that I'll try and post every week. There was coursework for the autumn term that had to be turned in by 18-Jan, and now that is behind me. It has taken some adjustment to go back to being a student after a gap of thirty years. I must add that it wasn't easy for me to be a student back then either.

To write my coursework I sat at home in Bangalore, and also I spent a week on the plantation in Malnad—for the silence there. But the more silent a place, the more noise you hear. By day, there was for instance the sound of tractors coming and going in the distance, and the rending sounds of the tractor's trailer falling apart and back unto itself. In the night the crickets took over, starting their din right from sunset. I wrote there, but not so much more than I wrote in Bangalore. Still, it was good experience writing in Malnad. I thought of Tejaswi who shunned the city and did his reading and writing and conducted all his affairs in Mudigere. I am tempted to settle down similarly.

During a break between tasks related to my coursework, I learnt to shear my head.

The last haircut that I had was at Vatican Hairdressing, right before the Cathedral in Canterbury. A comely young lady cut my hair with great concentration (squinting, genuflecting, reflecting on the effects of a snip from various angles) and made something out of my head that I've not been able to achieve for the rest of me these recent years. She made me appear a few days younger. But, with all her focus, for the now-forming baldness on the back of my crown she could only achieve a brush-back. Which made me wonder if it is worth it to pay twenty-odd pounds every month toward a losing cause.

The High Street of Canterbury ends at Mercery Street and the Cathedral, which is where Vatican Hairdressing is. And at the start of High Street, at the West Gate of the old town, there is a Turkish saloon. I have wanted to go in and ask them what the Turkish Haircut is which they advertise on their board on their front, but I've been reluctant to mess with the strong men who work there with old-type razors. At Turkish it costs a third of what it costs at Vatican, but you don't want to go supine for a haircut and have everyone watch you from the street. Turkish Hairdressers have an all-glass front with no curtains. I'm not going to lie down there even if they offer the Ottoman cut. Or the Ataturk look.

All things considered, I thought it best to follow the dictum of the owner of Vatican Hairdressing: Make your hair your religion, he says on his website. With that one line he made my decision for me, brought to mind the courage in the first haircut Gandhiji administered himself, and now I have done my head twice by my own hand. With help from an able Philips trimmer, I've mastered the buzz cut, which I perform at setting 4. I feel such power after this achievement, there's no looking back for me in this regard.

With my head so altered, I'm pretty much ready for the term just begun. The University calls it the Spring Term. It's rather cold at the moment, and snowing like the Arctic snow is looking for a new home.

on a short break…

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I'm tied up with a project until 11-January. I'll start posting regularly soon after, so please do come back. (I'm active on twitter, in the meantime, and I send out a tweet or two every day, using my handle @shashikiran.)

Until my next post, then. And cheers! for another New Year that's been gifted you, and me.

The Sounds of Africans Trapped in India

For this episode, Sneha visits the Siddi community, also known as the Habshi community of Karnataka. By legend, these particular Siddis are descended from Mozambican and Ethiopian slaves, brought to India by the Portugese. During the 'Goan Inquisition' they were either freed or they escaped from Portugese ships. This Afro-Indian community is spread along the Gujarat-Karnataka belt on the west of India.

The Siddis still retain some cultural traits of their African roots. Their music is heavily percussive. Yet, at the core, they are Indian, speaking its languages, influencing its culture, and adding fresh perspective to the idea of a multicultural society within this country. It is this Indian, yet inherently foreign sound, that Sneha went in search of.

And I'm looking for Sneha Khanwalkar everywhere. I first listened to her music watching Gangs of Wasseypur. Next, I found her soundtrack for Oye Lucky, which movie I've not seen. Here in this series, Sound Trippin for MTV, she teases music from out of the thousands of sounds of India.

I'm finding love for things Indian that I've had a distaste for, thanks to Sneha. Ah, the things that art can do!