Saturday, November 14, 2009


Vadivu sniffed the air, something was not right. And whatever was not right, was attracting her irresistibly. Something rose deep within her, almost like the rush she felt at nights with her husband. But this was different. She sniffed deeply again, inhaling fully and the scent left her before she could completely explore it. Dropping the basket she was carting she stepped back a few paces and looked around. Just another normal day. And no one had time to notice a low-caste woman who carried excreta away. In a back alley of all places. Untying her saree’s loose end to fan herself in the hopes of trapping the scent within its folds she inhaled again in quick short bursts this time. And it hit her. The most blissful divine scent. Definitely masculine, full bodied, rich dark and enticing beyond rapture.

Dhanammal wished the tonga would move faster. It was hot and she dare not uncover her face lest any man set sight upon her. Her mother-in-law sat next to her and her husband Thannilaipadi Narayanaswami, in front of them. She was new to Madras and the sights and sounds awed her and scared her at the same time. Narayanaswami worked for the East India Company. It was a prestigious position and he often reminded Dhanammal of his importance by unleashing English words at home. Sometimes in passion, sometimes in fury, sometimes in boredom. Many of his words were poorly pronounced, some bizarre to the point of offense but the illiterate Dhanammal had no way of knowing his folly.

The tonga stalled. Apparently there was some commotion in the road ahead. Narayanaswami got down to investigate. As they sweated it out in the blazing midday sun, Dhanammal smelt it. Her first reaction was to turn up her nose at what she perceived as an alien stench. Then a curious secondary sniff and the slow realization that she was smelling something new, something different. She turned to see if her mother noticed anything, but Periya Meenakshiamma was asleep, her drool coating the edge of her widow’s saree, her tonsured scalp sweating freely. Slowly she raised her head out of her veil. She turned around to the source and saw an Englishman’s mansion. And amidst the noise and stench of the city, amidst the perspiration of a hundred men, the distinct flavor wafted to her. “Like Radha to Krishna” she thought. Several well dressed men and women were seated around tables. Just as the tonga lurched, she saw a dirty ragged half caste woman sniff the air vigorously. Dhanammal felt sick to her stomach and retreated in the veil again, content to sniff the diluted scent that spinned her head.

The incident was a few months ago. Deepawali had come and gone and the winter chill was upon them. “Ice falls in England. Ice katti. brrr” Narayanaswami shivered one particularly cold day, refusing his cup of buttermilk that Dhanammal had churned for him. The couple had settled down in Madras in a tiny house near kotai. Dhanammal had busied herself in domestication while Periya Meenakshiammal acted supervisor tut-tutting her disapproval more often than not. Come margazhi and Dhanammal requested her husband to take her to see the magnificent Kapaleeswarar temple at Mylapore. Now and then Dhanammal would recall the day she smelt ‘that’ but she never whiffed it on any of the innumerable trips she made to Mylapore. At the temple market she kept herself unnaturally aware of her surroundings and yet she never whiffed that scent. It must have been magic, or the heat she thought to herself. Yes the heat.

Narayanaswami was deferential to his bosses at work and played the role of a subservient dull clerk to boot. He befriended no one from his office preferring to rush home and immerse himself in brahminical rituals of yore. Occasionally Dhanammal would sing to him what she had learnt in her childhood. A mixed bag of bhajans, prayers and the occasional keerthanai. She would often try to impress him with a Dikshitar krithi (to whom Narayanaswami was partial as he claimed descent from the composer) but failed miserably. Life went moved on in the slow sedate way that urbanity sometimes brings.

To be continued…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mee Marathi

For someone who has grown up speaking Marathi, the whole mee Marathi thing seems a little jaded. Even since Raj Thakeray went from being a on the sidelines to a politician of prominence the debate has raged endlessly; to Maharashtrianize or not that is the question.

And I have no easy answer. I have found myself vociferously opposing the man’s strategies and vehemently endorsing what he says at times. Maybe it is the Marathi boy in me speaking, maybe this is what philosophers call ‘rationale’. I do not know, but the Marathi issue is too close a topic to the heart to not talk about or to brush under the carpet.

Mrs. Pawar was my first link to the Marathi world, a burly woman, she babysat me till while my parents went off to work . It was at her place that I took my toddler steps and ate varan-bhat. I learnt to cuss in the way to school sharing meager space in an autorickshaw with seven other kids. I learnt to read at tuition classes (Mrs. Koregaonkar, who prayed to all the Gods in the pantheon for my passing) and learnt the ‘gavthi’ accent from our bai. I have more friends to whom I speak the language than I care to admit, and have sighed endlessly over ‘davya dolyavar vat’ all the time maintaining my innocence with a studied ‘khara ki!’.

The charm of Marathi is lost in Mumbai people will moan but ask anyone to speak hindi and the words will be littered with offerings form Marathi. Scores of words I use to express myself in lose their beauty in sore translation. How can one explain to a non Maharashtrian what ‘halkat’ is. Or when someone is being a ‘bawlat’. Or what the meaning of ‘maaz’ actually is? To date I call the potato batata and onion kanda regardless of the language I speak in. And what can replace the mellifluousness of a sighing heart, lost in its sweet nothings of ‘premat padloy’. The exclamation ‘haila’ (immortalized by a Mr Tendulkar) to a coy ‘laaz’ and the versatile ‘ai gaa’.

You can take sides all you want, I am content sitting on the fence here. Or maybe even on the other side, where comfort takes precedence over language and words are no longer hindered by thoughts. It is not years of schooling that have made me Marathi, neither is it long nights of mugging up textbooks. Belonging doesn’t stem from laughing helplessly over PL Deshpande’s works or from sipping the perfect solkadhi. I can live in the USA, consume mounds of rice drenched in rasam but when the going gets tough I sigh a fortituous ‘sagla bara hoil’ and that’s really all it is to it.



gavthi: pertaining to the country, rural

davya dolyavar vat : curl of hair over the right eye, line from a famous song

khara ki: really?

halakt: a man of loose morals

bawlat: irksome, troublesome? I cannot find an exact meaning, peevish maybe?

maaz: charbi(Hindi), kozhupu(Tamil)

premat padloy: fallen in love

haila, ai gaa: exclamations!

laaz: shame, blush

solkadhi: a Konkani dal with kokum in it, is simply awesome

sagla bara hoil: all will be well

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pithy prose

I am never too enthused about grammar. There are those who ponder for hours thinking if a participle must be gerunded or if the adjective clause satisfies causal requirements for it to be one. I am not one of those. In fact grammar can go take a hike as far as I am concerned. This is not to say that I sentences constructs this like, but that as long as I can get my information across I am good.

Clauses and the like only serve to confuse the already bewildered writer, who has reached this state of bewilderment because of the many eccentricities that bedevil this English language. Anyone can attest to the fact that English is a minefield of traps of various forms, and the unwary are often causalities in its complex constructs.

Although in hindsight, professing to write without heed to grammar is like attempting to sing without following a raga, ie. Simply noise. A friend of mine, a grammar nazi, spends all his free time hacking away my beautiful prose with the axe of grammar and punctuation. I call my prose beautiful only because after all the grammar bashing I was left drained and my self confidence languished below a heap of incorrectly used adverbs.

Spellings are another grey area, or is it a gray area? I know not, but my friend the spell check that Microsoft so kindly provides wildly gesticulates with red undulating waves and lets me know of lexical malapropisms among other things. It also fancies itself by neatly underlining all of my prose with green waves. Apparently this signals bad bad grammar. Wren and Martin (who are to English Grammar what Rakhi Sawant is to the Indian Media) would frown with extreme displeasure.

Perhaps I must take to writing in French, although I am entirely unsure how the French would react to moi butchering through their pretty cedillas and cute accents. Also if memory serves right French objects carry genders, rather all objects when referred to in French, must be addressed respectfully by a gender, failure of complying to which leads to a report of sexual abuse and a stint in the prison linguistique in Montreal.

Which is when I realize the versatility, beauty and brilliance of ‘it’. It effectively desexualizes any lingering masculinity or femininity in objects and clears our obfuscation in addressing things. It also lets you insult subtly a male or female by referring to them as such thereby effectively rendering genderless (Although some species of homo sapiens may be too dense to get the intricacies of this, in order to insult them, just slap them. Once should do the trick).

Rambling along and ranting about positives and negatives has made me weary and wise

Off I go with the rest of my damaged poise

All of this dear reader isn’t just noise

I shall post regularly or may the Gods smite my voice.

PS: Apologies for the absence, and failure to reply to previous posts.

Regular programming hopefully resumes.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


For me Bombay has always been home. If anyone asks me “favourate city” I say Bombay in a heartbeat. There are several reasons I am attached to the city, apart from the fact that it always spells out home. So recently I was myself stumped (discombobulated, googly-ed, startled senseless out of my wits) when someone asked my what’s my favourate city and I said “Chennai”.

There was silence, the kind associated with a patriarch revealing incestuous facts of a family. Friends opened mouths and forgot to close them, others looked at me and wondered if the flu hit my brain and as for myself I sat in a quiet daze of shock still ruffled at the alacrity and the gall of my response. Later that night I took in a deep breath and came out of the proverbial closet. To myself first, then to family and friends. It was true I liked Chennai, ok loved. Yes I had always had these aberrant desires. No it wasn’t my parent’s fault I assured them. It must be the trauma of a scarring childhood experience my wise counselors sighed and concluded. Maybe it is.

Vacation for me always meant gallivanting off to the south by whatever means of transport available. And vacations were never complete without Chennai. The city played host to me several time a year, lulled me to sleep on lazy summer days, fed my appetites on breezy evenings and watched me grow with a matronly eye. As a kid, and a Bombayite I hated Chennai. I wanted to Gestapo the auto-karans, outlaw Saravana Bhavan and revamp the Marina into a mega-mall. No one travelled by trains, buses ahd alphabets and no one spoke indhi. And yet I unfailingly visited the city, my visits held together by a gaggle of endearing relatives and affectionate grandparents.

Very much like the prodigal son coming home, slow realization dawned on me. Like the first soft rays of dawn that broke over the Bay of Bengal, like the subtle aroma of coffee assaulting nostrils, like the gentle whiff of malli on a hot summer’s day. Every time I visited the city I was hit by a wave of nostalgia and a realization of returning to something inherently comfortable. Chennai did not have Bombay’s sense of acceptance or Bombay’s kill to get to the top attitude, but Chennai felt different, felt like home.

Childhood remembrances are important clues to personality traits my psychiatric friend says. If ever mine was analyzed there would be an entire kaleidoscope of images. Of Mylapore in the mornings, T. Nagar in the evenings. Of going up and down the 1A with cousins, running on the endless expanse of sand on Marina and a thousand other inconspicuous, innocuous memories all of which climax into a giant snowball of emotions leading to lumpy throats and misted visions.

So there. I’m coming out on my blog now. I love Chennai, I think it rocks and I’m proud of it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

There and back again

Dedication to writing is one thing I admittedly lack, as evidenced by the gaps in my blog archives. I would rather it have at least four posts every month and be a neat 48 to close a year but then life rarely moves in symmetrical progressions. Nastiness abounds in various forms and blogging is the first casualty too often. I admire some who keep managing to spew words out week after week irrespective of what offerings they chew in life. A recent blogging behavior of mine has been to trash almost everything I write as un-blogworthy. As a result of this incessant trashing I lost focus of what was blogworthy and gave up writing altogether rather than face complex theological conundrums.

I blog because I write. And when writing itself is stilted, blogging automatically stops. Why then , I thought to myself in a rare moment of self introspection did I not write anymore? Writing is impulsive stemming from a momentous inspiration I reflected. Images, people, words, music and all of the aspects that go on to making our daily life are reflected in one bright nanosecond of a realization that writers expound in words.

Or writing springs from a carefully collected repository of ideas. Ideas that have been examined for fallacies and stored. Ideas that are to be written about because of their very fallaciousness, ideas that are hilarious and ideas that are profoundly interesting. But this would involve a certain degree of discarding time since reflections are rarely pertinent to the current real world. These I like to write and there is a certain degree of comfort that comes from dipping into ones thoughts and not having to worry about how those fit in with the times.

The cynic in me then pops his head to say that I write merely for an audience. I shamelessly concur. What art is not driven by the thought of praise or of moving the masses? Although it will take a lot more than my pedestrian prose to move masses I yearn to see my words in print, with my name bolded. So the lack of a discerning audience is the real reason for my intermittent hiatuses. There is a part of me that still thinks that writing that is for fame’s sake must be shallow and will cause the well of ideas to dry up as a vengeful curse, very indicative of my minds medieval weirdness. A small conscience wanted to write for humanity when the cynic replies that words do not fill stomachs.

So I a fit of cognitive blogging I write about writing thus metablogging and also pushing another of my digressive ramblings into blog archives. Here’s to hoping the metaphorical well never has to dry up again!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

This and That

Bringing to you offerings from my drafts folder. Enjoy.

My aunt is a lovely creature sometimes prone to fits of efficiency, but otherwise charming and delicate. The only time she loses her charm and delicateness are when she is reprimanding, using a combination of words that would make Shakespeare blush (and get back to work at once). Often softer relatives of ours, God bless them have called upon her to do the dirty job of minding the children. Many an errant cousin has been ‘brought to line’ by my aunts gentle ministrations. Her own daughter once in a fit of boredom I suppose, ran away with her then current boyfriend and was subsequently discovered in a not very reputable lodge outside Jammu no less. Legend has it my aunts screams could be heard all the way to Gilgit, rattled the high command in Siachen and caused an avalanche of Himalayan proportions to hurtle down those gentle hills.

A camera distorts images. At times, it shows more than the naked eye can see adding details to the frame, capturing an image wider than two eyes can. It zooms to objects of dexterity and pans across panoramas. The eye seems curiously deficient in these regards. And apart from all these optical shenanigans, a camera also records images for posterity. But then there are times when the camera seems a poor substitute for the eye. Unable to capture nuances of light as rays of the sun fall delicately, colouring different parts of a vista differently. The eye dims when the sun is up and persists sharply in fog. The camera doesn’t hesitate a second to remind you that the sun is right behind you and throws everything in the viewfinder into black chaos. More often than not I am disappointed when I look at something with a camera because the recorded image does not do justice to the real thing out there. Most of my gripes I realize can be remedied with a better camera and a more talented photographer but a camera is no substitute for the eye. This is not to say that the eye does not manipulate; in fact the mind calculates several parameters (mood, music among others) to suit itself and the image one sees is the very result of all those factors coming together. Sometimes beautifully and sometimes not.

Our society was built in the early nineties. Fortunately or unfortunately the buildings reflect fashion of those times. One of them being symmetry. All flats are identical and I really do have a point to make as you shall see. At a social gathering I excused myself to use the restroom and was terribly perplexed to find myself in front of an immaculate but tiny kitchen. The sink lay exactly where the flush might and condiments occupied the place of other motley toiletries. My face was part wonder, part confusion and the hostess kindly directed me to an orifice in the wall, which miraculously was the toilet. As I did my business I counted the number of airline toilets I had peed in that were bigger and sighed sadly. I am no architect but what I had just witnessed was the rise of an alarming trend. At first I assumed it merely to be a social experiment in testing if one could cook where one used to pee previously but the plot is far more sinister than I had imagined. In a dazzling display of spatial ingenuity people are resorting to bizarre tactics to modernize homes.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

In search of the one

To some a temple is merely an edifice in stone, mortar and bricks. A collection of cement loosely arranged to house objects of reverence. To others it is a marvel of sweat, blood and tears shed in copious quantities to appease the deity within. For a demanding deity tall spires stretch out into the sky their shape dictated by social norms of the region and the resident deities religion. Gods seem curiously similar to humans in this regard, some have grandiose structures that seem to pale anything into insignificance next to them. Some temples have exquisite carvings demanding extreme devotion and extracting the skillful dexterity of the sculptor. And then there are those temples seeming to be but simple abodes, a roof and a porch; stark in structure making up for it with millions thronging outside.

Real estate goes by three commandments; location, location and location. Some temple builders of yore seem to have known this all along. Which is why there are temples straddling the rapid and visceral Ganges, those built along the mature Ganges; temples overlooking the placid bovine Ganges and then those looking upon the great river as it disintegrates into muddy silt and meets the sea. There is a beautifully derelict temple in the Kangra valley where nothing seems of grandeur. Then as one bows down before the Goddess, the mighty snow capped peaks of the Himalayas rise and seem to form the very roof of the temple. Some temples have the sea as a fourth wall, yet others lie submerged in caves demanding precarious climbs. And some temples rise magnificently out of nowhere, themselves becoming a beacon of architectural beauty and enriching the surroundings. Spires rise out of green paddy fields, and spires stand among skyscrapers blending into the landscape almost as if God intended them to be there.

Does a temple ask to be reviewed? Or are critics merely supposed to comment upon the more trivial pursuits of mankind? To a devotee a temple is a sum of several parts architecture being but one if at all. The munificence and largesse of the God, the sternness of austerities demanded for worship, the extent of penitence demanded in case of a wrongdoing and the power and veracity of the said God to mete out justice, these theological parameters often decide the position of the temple in the Indian social fabric, irrespective of religion. Art and architecture are therefore incidental, which is not to say we are a society of philistines but that God cannot be bothered with too much art. And then there are temples where art is the sole God, but man needs pray at the altar of his needs than his appreciation for mere structures.

Every temple has an ambiance factored by aspects within and without. It is these that make every temple unique. Some are places of refuge, some places of fervent prayer. Some ask for open mouthed adoration and some are inconspicuous to the extent of being one with their surroundings. The temple is an innate part of the Indian geography imbuing its many hues to the landscape.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


It was afternoon when I walked in. She was there sitting with her legs splayed, a violin resting delicately over her shoulder gracelessly obscuring her lithe body behind wood and string. I has always seen her hair as a wet collection ending in little droplets that ran down to her skirt at the temple, today however they were dry, and beautiful though a tad colourless. Lengthy strands moved lightly near her face, and one troublesome bunch strayed across her eye, she brushed it casually eyes sparkling with the promise of music to come.

“I’m really rusty you know. Not proficient or anything, I just dug this out today”

And then with the incongruence that betrayed her shyness she blurted out

“Lets jam”

She slowly began, her arm moving in a rhythm, gently poking me every time she moved up an octave. I was captivated. By the music as well.

Absorption into music comes suddenly. One moment you are there listening to ordinary sounds, the telephone, people moving about, the trees rustling and the next second you are spellbound, stuck within a world without any escape. What happens in those few seconds of rapture I know not but the realization of having been lost in music always comes about as wondrous and novel. She moved through familiar notes quickly and I was humming at the crescendo I squeaked. She opened her eyes her large black orbs moving about a little shocked a first, with the intrusion of this alien note in her world of rich sounds, then a little apologetic.

“I’ll shift lower, how do you want it? no sing. I’ll continue”

And I slowly found strength to go over those notes with her. Shyly at first barely audible, then moving about cautiously as if testing the raga for endurance before breaking out, into full throated exuberance. Faster and faster she moved her arm, keeping up with my new found tempo across Shankarabharanam and Mohanam. Unawares except for constant poking of my chest by her elbow, dimly aware of her presence and completely ensconced within the confines of a few notes. Her string snapped with a sudden twang at Hamsadhwani when our eyes met. I was in a cold sweat.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

To drink or not to drink...

Tamilians cannot make tea. Take it from me. I can brew an almost perfect filter coffee that makes maamis go besh and look upon me as a potential son in law, but I cannot for the life of me make tea that might impress a Malyalee, a Maharashtrian or a martian for that matter ( No offense to Malayalees, Maharashtrians, or martians for that matter).

My philosophies for making tea are rather hasty as I have come to realize but my habits have steeped in and I am unable to change them. Making tea for me means boiling an inordinate amount of water and throwing in tea powder, sugar, milk, ginger or any other spice that strikes my fancy and then let the unholy concoction bubble for as long I am willing to wait. My tea drinking friends consider this nothing short of blasphemous and I am often looked down upon for this alone.

My shortcomings with regards to tea were discovered by chance. On a rainy afternoon in damp Syracuse, friends unexpectedly dropped in and a spirited evening of conversations followed. Wanting beverages to revive flailing spirits tea was called for and I in all good earnest volunteered. Later on I received heapfuls of curses; someone even accused me of trying to thwart the pleasant evening with my mean coffee drinking agendas.

There are few things better than a good cup of coffee, filter or otherwise and a strong flavourful cup of tea is one of them. Tea drains away blues in the rains. And yes I am quite aware that rhyming is not one of my stronger skills. At home we follow the good Indian tradition of stuffing our guests silly with food and drink. Coffee is passed around ubiquitously, propelling late night caffeine driven card games with unusual amounts of calculations defeating the mathematically challenged.

Last week I went to a friend’s home. “Im sorry there’s no tea or coffee” she said exasperated, her hair forming tense ringlets near her temple. “Beer is in the fridge though, chalega?” A better time was never had before.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Country roads take me home

There is a virile excitement to be found in driving fast. Zipping across landscapes in a rush, driving in raucous speeds gives one a thrill otherwise unattainable. And this is not a pleasure extended to those who occupy other seats n the vehicle. The slow increase of numbers, ascending to the forbidden and mentally marking off milestones as the road markers seem to merge, until time itself begins to fly. Wind in the hair, spirits loose and caution (or the lack of it) hovering like a concerned parent behind.

There is another joy in driving slowly, the slowness brought upon by choice or force; with a low speed limit and a near empty road, the lack of acceleration not robbing the essence of movement. With speeds like 30 mph, there is time to note every lark that perches upon telegraph lines, time to feel every bend in the road, time to whoosh past trees and time to feel gravity working on you, as you hurtle down hills.

Driving in Massachusetts can be exasperating because the roads there have potholes. Lanes dizzyingly and exasperatingly merge or diverge, befuddling the novice. Driving in Massachusetts can be rewarding because the road suddenly will cut across a lake, pierce through a dense forest or dally around rounded hills; or even more suddenly deposit you in a city amidst skyscrapers and the sea.

It takes two to tango. And providing a much needed background score to this vista was a well furnished ipod that would play notes befitting the landscape and friends in tow, replete with lazy witty repartees. I spent most of the fall and winter of 2008 on trips that were more lessons on nature appreciation and less trips.

Much has been said of the American freeways and how they are a pleasure to drive on and also extremely purposeful and useful. This post is a tribute to the unsung heroes in Massachusetts, the state routes. Unseen, unknown like dark ribbons on the landscape.

Route 9: Is a major artery for Boston and its suburbs. About 10 miles form the city centre, it decides it has had enough and then exclusively zips past lakes. Peppered with grocery stores, malls and humdrum commercial establishments that suburbia thrives on.

Route 20: Is actually US route 20 stretching form Boston proper, traversing the length of the continent ending somewhere non-descript in Oregon. Parallels I-90 for most of its length often ducking under it and in one case going over it. In the city it has a most innocuous beginning in a leafy square, hardly expected of a road going all the way to the Pacific. Becomes a surprisingly crowded road, linking areas. Is densely forested, and in my opinion has some of the most lip smacking restaurants this side of the Atlantic.

Route 85: This one is hardly important but a personal favourate, simply because it was close to home and I had a treat driving on it one cold snowy afternoon with kathanakuthoohalam for company.

Route 135: One does not expect waterfalls on an urban road. And it is not inappropriate to lose ones head if the first time one sees a waterfall on a road, it is frozen and the ice threatens in looming shapes, to engulf small cars.

There are many more but I realize that I can hardly say different things about any of them. All of them were the same, traversing lands of great beauty and picturesque. Route 140 where a friend (who cooked well) lived. Route 111 where we got lost at 1 am in the morning, route 62 that we were always confused about, route 117 that took us to a great big Wal-mart. Routes 2 and 3 that were less state routes and more freeway, route 110 that had the huge houses, route 30 which most illogically loops around everywhere, route 28 where I ran over a duck, route 1 with all the seaside villages, route 128 winding along cold forlorn marshes, I could go on and on.

What I’ll do instead is hope I haven’t bored you with this long post, and hope you can see all of what I have said without calling me a clich├ęd sentimental old fool.

This post is also a birthday present to K, who was privy to all the aforementioned incidents and travels. Music connoisseur, in charge of general maturity and a close friend.

Friday, May 22, 2009

City Profiles

I like writing about cities. Most people see them as dots on a map or as places populated with urban detritus, but not as an organism. Not the fire breathing, I-will-destroy-everything-in-my-path kinds nor as a gaggle of dysfunctional humans. But as an entity that shapes the environment around it, in all spheres political, social, geographical and mental. It is easy to see a city as a collection of famous buildings or past happenings of importance. It is also easy to see every city having a ‘character’ atry, hep, modern, conservative, heartless and so forth. What is not easy to put in words the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of every city and see it with that perspective.

Consider a piece of lush land between low rounded hills and a shallower inlet of the sea. Miles of mangroves blurring the distinction between the land and water and the whole scene reads like a page out of Tolkien’s epics. In the nineties denizens of Mumbai were confronted with the existence of such a piece of land lying east of the city, on the Indian mainland and they conspired to turn it into a city.

And this momentary deliberation is what makes New Bombay what it is. A planned city with the widest roads in this hemisphere. Railway lines with stations so near one can walk to and from them. Malls, theatres and shops confined to particular areas and homes in sectors. Sectors in nodes. It was all very novel and for the first few years after its conception the city lay barren with pockets of population stranded like some post-communist city. And with time all industries moved to Navi Mumbai (in a cruel mockery of the name change from Bombay to Mumbai, its sister followed suit). MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial development corporation) was established all over the hills, ironically with toxic companies having the best views. Come monsoon and all the unpaved roads become unofficial waterfalls with picnickers reveling in them.

Viewed from the eastern end of Mumbai, New Bombay has an impressive skyline, one that is tall, modern and spans the length of the city. Mangroves, buildings and the foothills of the western ghats in the distance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Anyone who has lived in Bombay long enough can tell you when the rain won’t come. We are experts at predicting when it won’t happen. Come the last few days of May and all of humanity has had enough of the heat and the sweat. And of the dull monotony that stark afternoon sunlight brings. Mangoes have been consumed, the raw ones pickled. Juices with ice cubes floating in them had by the gallons to make the throat sick. The last few days of May are the summer that deprive us the joys of the season without affording its pleasures.

As reports of drizzles come in hopes turn heavenwards. The first of June is awaited with a fervor bordering on the religious, but like all other things Indian, the rains are late. Veterans then remark that the rains never arrive on the first, and that the one time they did come on that day, in the 50’s, the rest of the season was bad. “Monsoon hits Kerala” newspapers exclaim a few days into June and then the real countdown begins. Three Kasargode, five Uttar Kanara, seven Karwar, nine Goa. The wait becomes irresistible, unbearable and the rains seem sadistically within reach but away.

Vacationers will come back with tales of how they encountered a few stray showers on the ghats, or how their seaside weekend was spiced up by the sudden prattle of premature showers. And all we can do is sigh at their luck, and beseech the fan to miraculously cool us faster. A few more days of dogged heat and listlessness and then action suddenly comes to the backyard. “It rained in Uran yesterday” a Port trust official would blurt out, in the manner of revealing a state secret. “My cousin living in Panvel said that it s raining there now”, the bai would chip in excitedly. Reports would come in from seaside urbania all around Mumbai. Pen, Alibag, the ghats near Pune, the Ggats near Kalyan, Vashi.

Tomorrow. The experienced would nod their ascent. And paving the way for the anticipated tomorrow would be a day far stickier than any other day of the season. I never knew if it is really a meteorological phenomenon that makes the day hotter and more fetid or it is simply the minds preparation for a new season. The heat at its zenith, humidity at a naturally impossible hundred and the first could sighted. Like the climax of a movie life then moves in slow motion. The eye impatiently scans the skies for the pregnant clouds, but there are none to be found, and almost magically the clear sky turns murky, the smell of mud assaults long before the first drop wets the earth.

Like a slow orchestrated ritual culminating in a bedazzling climax the rains hit Bombay. As the dispossessed shriek and run headlong into the spray.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I woke up groggy and sleepless. A tangle of arms and legs greeted me. And slowly a head emerged from within. “Good morning beta, welcome home” Appa’s head said to me. Thinking myself to be in a surreal Kafkaesque dream, I promptly went back to sleep. Seconds later a leg landed on me, pushing all the wind out of me. “Sorry, I haven’t quite mastered this asana” again Appa’s head spoke to me. I opened my eyes fully and Amma stared at me, nothing unusual in it, except that she was upside down. Jet lag is funny I thought.

A few minutes later I was completely awake, although my body believed it was still ten time zones away. And I got a feel of the situation at home. “One must be healthy, we aren’t getting any younger you know”. The parents had discovered Yoga. What followed was a bewildered me being demonstrated a series of bodily positions I never believed possible, especially from the ones who had birthed me. Appa effortlessly rolled himself into a series of punctuation marks and enquired to my well being. On the other side of the room, Amma was breathing like a wounded rhinoceros. “Advanced Pranayama...good for the stomach you know” she said.

And the house was in the throes of extreme fitness. Mornings started with a pod of garlic. No wonder the milkman left, and the paper fellow doesn’t come in until nine I mused. Breakfast was a minimalistic fruity affair. Lunch was seasoned with queer strange smelling herbs. Dinner almost did not exist. Hedonistic I balked at such austereness. And craved for ghee dripping form edible surfaces. Instead I am supposed to do crunches. Something about me having a non-flat stomach.

Pah!. Homecoming.

* I am home for a vacation. And this is what happens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Chaos theory will have us believe that small disturbances in a system will ripple through, magnifying themselves leading to one huge cataclysm. The bigger the system and the longer it takes for the smaller errors to accumulate. And after the big bang, the newer systems are generated with small errors of their own, which in time lead to further chaos. India was an idea crafted by politicians, visionaries. An impractical reality that somehow defied all laws of coherence and managed to stick as a coherent entity. Too many differences in the entities that constituted it. Most countries had a strong basis in language, religion, history or culture. Some were racially defined, some were remnants of large civilizations. India was all this and more. And none of this. Peoples of different colors and histories, strange languages and stranger antecedents. At time the only string holding the country together was its land mass and the sheer number of people.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century Indians sought to gain common ground. Politics provided a great platform, the violence and dazzle luring all equally from Itanagar to Calicut. The onslaught of the middle class with similar values. The common feeling of battling poor infrastructure, violence and general chaos to reach the elusive higher plane. At the turn of the century it lay poised like a badly balanced airplane to take off into the future. And like a horrible aircraft , ill fated to reach the skies, it blew. And splintered into pieces. Like the body parts of the mythical Shakti, into several pieces, as it was since antiquity. India as a nation ceased to exist in 2035. Experts will point out several factors and reveal the imminence of that action. Some say it was to happen, some felt it to be an unnatural paradigm. Foreign hands, Gods, Religions, Colour and every possible prejudice were blamed in this fission. But reality lay splattered, a loose coalition of city-states and smaller principalities across the sub-continent.

And now each of these entities would be free of violence they thought. Bound by religion, culture or language exclusively. Some countries exclusively urban, some completely rural. Some spread out over large swathes of land, some confined to off shore islands and scanty mountaintops.

Circa 2009

Facebook and Orkut were merely tools. Sure they provided valuable connections now and then but that was about it. Six degrees of separation worked for once, in his favour. Combing the mists of the ancient past, searching through medieval rabble and trying to locate the future in the present chaos of modern India, his was a difficult task indeed. Especially the part of India he was supposed to work on.

Searching wasn’t easy. For one his search began around 1279 AD. And history wasn’t an easy pursuit. Like a temptress his destination moved across regions and countries. It changed languages and religions. And the messy proposition of caste. Which had oscillated no lesser than five times in 1500 years.

The task was fairly straightforward, to separate India into little nations. They were a large organization and had working teams, named in a cruel mockery of the Indian army. The Rajputanas would take care of Rajasthan, the Sikh regiment would create Khalistan. The Marathas would bring back their medieval glories and the Telengana dream of statehood went a step further to nationhood. Their team was nicknamed ‘Sangam’ signifying the lost Tamil age.

To bring back the glories of the Tamil nation, they needed a king. And not just anyone would do. So a meticulous search began. Looking through temple records, land deeds, properties and inheritances. Modern government databases, census data. Methodically sifted. Each demographic scanned and formulated. Large swathes of data residing as a muddle of names and places. It seemed hopeless at first but slowly a pattern began to emerge. And history, initially obfuscating, then slowly revealing patterns only to disappoint. Then letting out a little clue and piece by piece the jigsaw fell into place.

They had started with the Pandyans first, the last surviving Tamil kingdom. The lineage seemed straightforward enough till the fifteenth century where it ran into several errant progeny marrying in and out of religions. Invaders complicated the picture and the present day descendants would most likely be Indonesian. Or not. The Chera descendants were lost, over records and state boundaries. Eventually with time and meticulous research they had got to the inevitable.

Find the descendant of the Cholas. She survives.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


"So where did we come from?" I asked. And my grandmother gave me the old Iyer lady’s equivalent of a finger, proceeding to slurp her rasam with sudden gusto. Appa looked pointedly away at a spot on the wall, concentrating suddenly on it. For a family obsessed with its Iyer ness this was definitely off-beat. No one would admit how and when it happened, but it did. And its repercussions were felt even today in the later generations.

Like most protagonists of a certain age I had delved deeply into my family’s history and discovered certain truths, which no one was willing to explain. My parents are very liberal and open minded with regard to love marriages, as long as it is not me who is doing the loving. Somehow my grandmother and mother seem to harbor the notion that I am a stud-muffin of gargantuan proportions and that some harlot will seduce me into marrying her and swapping bodily fluids with her (probably just one point where mother-in-law and daughter-in-law agree, but I digress). So when I led a long and mostly inconclusive argument about our origins and trying to figure out if anyone had transgressed the noble traditions of arranged marriage within my family I stumbled upon it. The more I thought the more evidence I got. People, places, names, phrases, why even the Gods that adorned our pooja-room.

We have Telugu blood in our family I concluded. So did anyone in last century elope? I asked my grandmother and she shuddered. Did we have arranged marriage with other linguistic groups. I asked in chaste Marathi and Appa admonished me likewise, in unchaste Marathi. Mind your language Appa, but pray tell me how did this happen? No one, all arranged marriage only and grandma closed the topic with her air of finality.

As I staggered with my new found knowledge I looked for support. Evidence apparently didn’t count for enough. Our ancestral village was Anantapur AP, within its’ very heart. Far away from the Kaveri or any other water body associated with Tamizhness. Our clan-deity, Tirupati. All the ancestral property we would have had but for evil zamindars (this is often used to reiterate the supposed greatness of our lineage) was in what is present day Chitoor. But the one thing that clinches it: eat my grandmother’s thakkali thokku without steam emanating from your ears or sweat drenching your face. So I went from family member to family member in vain hopes of getting a past legitimate “love-marriage” so that I could now pursue my Assamese love with zeal and woo her.

“Telugu-Tamil all are same pa no difference” Ramudu mama said, licking avakka pickle off his fingers.

“In days of yore, everywhere south was Madras presidency; you don’t know anything about that” Shanta maami screamed taking a break from watching Gemini TV.

“Didn’t you learn Carnatic music, you numbskull, similar culture. All arranged” Subudu periapppa reiterated all the while tracking constituency boundaries across Telengana.

“No we aren’t Telugu, don’t get ideas in your head” Savitri chitti said, going off to fight with her borthers over a paddy field in Guntur.

“Lite teesko da” said my cousin smirking at my futile attempts.

I have decided. I shall woo my girl in Assamese style. I shall sing Bengali love songs from Charulata to her. I shall quench her thirst with tall glasses of lassi, feed her undhiyu and dance the lavni with her. We will ring in vishu and she shall pray for my long lasting life keeping vraths on karva chauth.

Jai hind!

Offence takers: Don’t take offence. No slights to Telugus (I am partly one). Or anyone else for that matter.