Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Seeing the country on LTC, and almost getting to meet Binayak Sen

Vellore 5th June 2009
We arrive early. My father's sister and her husband have not yet begun their day. We call at the gate, and at last they emerge: an old couple, they remind me of Ovid's  poem about the old couple who feed the Gods, and whose wish at the last is to be turned into two old trees. My aunt gets us tea and breakfast. My uncle says he has 18 different trees in his garden. He begins to list them, bannanas, 3 types of mangaos, chikkus, papayas, guavas, lemons coconut and so on! He is on the phone half the morning because Binayak Sen, the radical village doctor who is an alumni of Vellore Christian Medical College is coming for lunch with the clan and study circle members. The clan consists of my father's sister and her husband Mathai Zachariah, and the the other Zachariahs, who are my grandfather's sister's daughter and her husband with their two sons. One of the sons had spear headed the campaign asking for support to Dr Binayak Sen.  (Typing up my notes two years later, I can only say, we too teach anyone who come to us, right wing students and left wing students and the secular sit side by side in class, surely the medical oath in modern India, or anywhere in the world,  is similar: "Turn no one away")

My cousin Gita and her husband have a farm at the edge of the dusty nondescript town. It is pretty, and while they are extremely succesful farmers, Gita's story is laughingly full of woes. In the beginning, they discovered they had a glut of tomatos, so Gita would take them to market before reporting for work at Christian Missionary College. They had tough busy lives as doctors  at the hospital, so the farming was therapeutic. But then the bull gored their employee, and he had to have stitches. The farm produced generously. Gita had enough rice and oil from what they grew. This year, they harvested 650 kilogrammes of mangos, and  1300 kilos of rice. They got Rs 5  per kilo for the rice, and sold 650 kgs of mangos for Rs 5000. Their disappointment was palpable - the poor farmer receiving nothing for his/her labour, not even covering costs. Their produce is organic but not having an outlet, they are forced to lose profits.

6th June 2009
We leave for Bangalore early in the morning by taxi, The driver has overslept, and Gita cannot go to work without seeing to our comfort and safety. She helps everyone of the clan members who come to Vellore, though she is a perfectionist, and at work Professor of Neuropathology, as well as a  celebrated reseacher in her field.
The drive down is lovely, the hills and fields skim past rapidly, and then we are in Bangalore, in the drizzle, the traffic jams, the BPOs, the malls. From an old colonial cantonment it is now a city of glass and  cardboard. Everything seems larger than life. I cannot quite get used to it.
My sister lives in a village called Horamavu. The village as it stood five years ago has gone. There used to be a row of Banyan trees, older than memory  and a typically idyllic village scene of elders sitting under it, as well as the serpent stones, so familiar to travellers in India. Now everything has diminished in a cloud of dust and construction. The malls of the builders and contractors (tiles, bathroom  fittings, furniture, carpenters and upholsterers) give way to more dust and high rise buildings, a Gandhi statue in the middle of a new paved road stands for the honourable past - the future is without the village or agriculturists. Fields still rich in gras, trees, orchards have been cut like pieces of cloth. Each will have an urban owner and a bungalow. Nandi hills can be seen on clear days.(Again as footnote to notes typed up two years after writing them, I mourn the loss of boulders and rocks in rivers in Kashmir due to exploitative mining.)
8th June 2009
We hired a taxi, my sister and I, and went through the crowded city to my grandfather's brother's son's house.He is a famous economist, Samuel Paul, who runs a Consumer Rights Centre in Bangalore, for which work he got the Padma Shri. His wife, Lily is a very clever artist, working with glass, metal, fabric, thread. With the author Shinie Antony, who lives in the vicinity, we go to the Library in HSR Layout, where I am to meet some writers who meet once a month. I enjoy the event, and there are lots of questions. How do I balance my work? What are the tensions involved in doing so? Is there any money in writing? Does writing about the tragedies of peasants seem like something writers do for a foreign audience? There is a journalist from the Hindu, Nikhil Varma, who covers the event in a short succinct paragraph.
10th June, 2009
We catch the night train, Island Express. After one of these  trains tragically, fell into a river, it is no longer called Island, but is the Kanyakumari Express. We sleep well, hardly remembering the nerve racking ride through traffic jams in Bangalore the night before.
In the morning, we find we are in Kerala. The train inches past all that well remembered scenery, hills, water, fields, tiled houses, water lilies, farmers and labourers knee deep in rice fields, rain, (its endless,) but four hour later, after entry in Pallakad, we are in Chenganoor.

12 June 2009
Molly, my cousin Sam's wife, takes me to Paramala on her scooter. Paramala Tirumeni is one of the most saintly of the Orthodox priests. Molly is a nervous rider. Every time she sees a truck, she stops her two wheeler and pedals with her feet."Yeshue, yeshue!" I can hear her praying desperately. She is terrified of the traffic and keeps referring to me as "load". Its the first time she is driving on the main road with a "load".
We drive through the most beautiful country. Chenganoor is "Gulf country diaspora" inhabited: fields are few and the tiled bungalows of the rich are many. The flowers are of the most brilliant hues, reds, oranges, purples. I have never seen flowers of such colors, ordinary flowers, which have grown to larger than life proportions.
We reach the church. (I look for old buildings. there are none. Where is the old church?)  Molly likes its largeness, its newness, its blazoning quality. It is huge, it is white. Its mammoth. Inside the church the stained glass is modern art. A fish. In blues and greens. There are three sets of altars. Its airy, sunny, empty, open. A few dozen people are sitting on the benches or talking to priests, or praying.
We step outside into the bright sunshine. There is a memorial to the man who had donated land to the church in the early 20th century. And then Molly shows me what I had come all the way to see. It is the tiny house which Parimala Tirumeni had lived in. It is so tiny. Its now a chapel, empty but for the sweeper cleaning it. Its the size of a twelve feet by ten feet room, and though it is a tiled room,  it has the sense of austerity and bareness - the ideal of a simple frugal disposition.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Winter Festival in Pallakad 2010

Last night I saw
a faun
Half beast half male
In the shadow of the river
basking in the moonlight
He hid his face
on seeing me approach
I startled by his beauty
Looked again
As the river lapped
Softly behind us
He too looked up
A body
so slender
so boyish
His expression
like a colt
And suddenlty
The faun was
bashful, narcisstic
tossing his head
Begging forgiveness
for his beauty
elegant and foolish
in the drizzle
left to himself
to grow and die
hidden away in
the cool vault of his home
by parents unforgiving of nature
yet loving him for what he was
and so he smiled again.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Leave Travel Concession 23.6.2009 Kerala


Sun gleams
on the lustre of
with traceries of veins
and rain falls
edging off dewdrops
falling like a
pearl singly on the earth
anodyne of leaves
stained red
by age and sunlight
flat as a palm
hammered by light
hanging close
in a garden
beyond the span of my desire
rimmed by the river
moss green
crammed with washed
where fish swim
in the light of bright
black wing of crow
hurries past my window
without cawing
lunch time is past
No rice balls
came his way
Dear ancestor
when was it
you ate last?
Two squirrels
at my window wall
racing one another
seemingly at cross purposes
intention to mate
by the drizzle.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Earthquakes in the 1960s

My earliest memories of living in Delhi (I was born in 1957, in Delhi, in  old colonial Victoria Zenana hospital) are people running out when there was an earthquake. There would be a shout in the neighbourhood, Thompson Road, now sacrificed to the metro, and tiny children would be picked up by their parents, and we would all run out into the open. They were not frequent, as threats of crises go, but the drill was always the same, stand under the open sky, and presumably look upto the open sky and say a prayer.
Yesterday I got a circular letter from the painter George Oommen, (website for his lovely paintings  on South Indian, are against his name) which was about what to do during earthquakes, "do not sit under a table, do not use the lift, do not use the stairs.".all very terrifying, but good advice, specially the injunction to curl in foetal position next to a bed or a large chair, should there be an earthquake or a series of them.
As the protagonist in A Visiting Moon which was a novel I wrote in 2000, and published by Indiaink in 2002, says, "The odd thing about survival is that one does it anyhow." (150)
I suppose my epitaph would be "Why me worry?"  The day begins, and routine chores will appear without are inviting them, maybe in new forms.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Monuments and Maidens, Marina Warner, 1996 or The Street (Paris)

Marina Warner is one of  my favourite writers, and in this book, "Monuments and Maidens", she has an interesting chapter on The Street (Paris). She is basically concerned with architecture, philosophy, facades and invisibility. I wish I had read it earlier, or having read it, remembered it! What she communicates so clearly is that Paris is fashioned, and therefore the text is inscribed,  and yet, following Robert Musil, she says that monuments are meant to be ignored. The preoccupation with the female form is now replaced by the structures of engineering that displace the body, as in the glass additions to the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. Yet she says, "The city carries a story, the city presents a lure into its own version of the past; you could say it tells tales; that it lies." (pg 21)

The odd thing about maps and other people's versions is that they are merely guides no more,  or inscriptions for each pedestrian creates, memorises, retells, and finally in my mind everything is fantastic, because of the momentary quality of that experience. What fiction does is place an emphases on both narratives simultaneously, without believing that one is more important than the other.