miercuri, 9 martie 2011

A Death

Someone whom we knew died yesterday night. He was elderly, had been ailing in mind and body for some time, and died quietly in his sleep; so it was expected, acceptable. We went in the morning to his house. His body had been laid on the floor on a cloth, as is customarily done here. Another cloth covered his body, leaving his head visible. One rose garland had been placed on his chest. Except for the cotton stuffed into his nostrils, it was difficult to believe that he was dead. The overhead fan stirred the cloth, so that at times he appeared to be breathing. The furniture had been cleared away, except for a few chairs against the wall. His wife sat on the floor near his head, with several women around her. We also sat. She was calm, and chatted with us about her husband, things they had said to each other on the previous day. The front door was kept open, and I could see people moving up and down the sunny street. In an hour or so a priest was to come, to perform the last rites. Then our friend would be carried to the crematorium. In the evening his ashes would be immersed in the sea. To me, this is the simplest, most perfect way to deal with a death.

As I was writing this, tears began to stream down my face. Not for the man who died, but for death: its solemnity, death in the midst of life, acceptance, etc. etc. -- things that I can’t write about without falling into cliché. Then the doorbell rang. It was the generator repairman, who pretended not to notice that I was wiping my eyes and sniffling as I talked to him.

Sorting Ba's Things

When my mother-in-law, who was called Ba ('mother'), died, I wrote a series of poems about it. I've posted two of them earlier: Journeying and Uses for Wood. Here's another one:

Sorting Ba's Things
Sorting through cupboards in Ba's old room,
I tugged a stuck drawer open,
pulled the string of a small cloth bag, to find
pink and white grins of outgrown false teeth;
in another bag, spectacles, blinking in the light.

And there were her gods and puja implements -
incense sticks, oil lamps with wicks she rolled
out of cotton and ghee, small statues of Krishna,
elephant-headed Ganesh, Lakshmi the wealth-giver,
the book of slokas she chanted every day.

Sunday mornings she watched Mahabharat on TV -
a miracle in every episode - gods' stately progress
through the air, seated on lotus flowers;
towering demons with big bellies and walrus fangs
who laughed "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" just before
a hurled fire-discus struck them between the eyes
and they toppled like trees.
Sometimes I sat to watch with her,
and she would say, "Did you see that?!"

Dear Ba, by the end all the sets of teeth hurt you,
you wore them only for photographs,
and the glasses could not make the slokas clear.

May Lakshmi keep you beside her
on the silky petals of her pink lotus.
May Ganesh feed you the sweet ladoo he holds.
And when you are sated and sleepy,
may Krishna soothe you with the song of his flute.


I went to Suriya Greens, and bought tomatoes, big white onions in a small net bag, potatoes, zucchini, yellow peppers, carrots, black eggplants, strawberries. I gave up non-vegetarian food for the New Year (assuming that eggs are honorary vegetables), and since then vegetable shapes and colours have appeared more sensuous, colourful, inviting, than ever before.

I bought a bag of fresh peppercorns, clustered thickly on their stems like beads. We make it into a simple pickle: corns still on the stem, lemon juice, turmeric, salt. I chewed a green sphere and submitted to its explosion of dark heat and flavour. Fifteen minutes later the right side of my mouth, where I bit down on it, still burned; but softly, just to remind me.

Several Things

I haven't seen the new film Alexander; to me, Alexander will always look like Prithviraj Kapoor (founder of a Bollywood dynasty which still continues, in its third generation), who played him in the film Sikandar (1941) -- Sikandar being the Indian version of Alexander. The legs may not be in style today, but look at that face!

It's Spring again, at least theoretically, and time for the Basant festival in North India and Pakistan. Chapati Mystery is celebrating Basant Week: "A bit of history today. String preparation and type of kites tomorrow. Next, rules of engagement..."

(my Basant post from 2003 is here: Kati Patang)

Via Wood s Lot: Edward Burtynsky - Shipbreaking images: wonderful photographs of shipbreaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh:

(See also an article about shipbreaking in the Indian state of Gujarat by Dilip D'Souza)

(forgot where I saw it) -- on BBC's Asian Network, vote for the top 40 Hindi film soundtracks of all time -- with clips of all the songs

From The Hindu: Fading notes: an article about the making of reeds for the south Indian relative of the oboe (and the north Indian shehnai), the nadaswaram. As with most traditional crafts, the reed-makers hardly earn enough to live on. The painstaking process of preparing the reeds was fascinating to me.

Several Small Things

I have so little to tell these days, it has taken me a week to find a few paragraphs.

The days are still balmy, the evenings breezy, but veyil kalam, the hot season, is sending out warnings: the sharp beam of light that gets between the curtains somehow just after sunrise in the hot season has found the bottom of the bed, and is creeping up toward my eyes. Long twigs have begun to fall on the badminton court: the crows are getting ready to nest again. It’s all so inexorable.

My gardener, who lived in a slum called Thideer Nagar ('thideer' means sudden, or instant, so the name means something like Sudden Town. I assume that it refers to the way slums can come up overnight on empty ground, like a crop of mushrooms) near the Lighthouse, has been shifted along with thousands of his neighbours to a new, government-built slum clearance project in Thoraipakkam, south of the city. He hasn’t turned up for work for two days. Mary, whose son was also shifted, says that the housing is better there. Instead of palm-leaf huts, there are four-story buildings of one-room flats, with electricity and toilets attached (but no water connections indoors). But residents must pay Rs. 250 a month rent, and must take long bus rides to get to work.

An English couple visits Chennai every year at this time. I love them. They’re old enough to be my parents, and I think of them in a confused way as a family/friend combination – an uncle and aunt, perhaps. Coming from a nuclear family of four, I have to guess what extended families are like.

They have just returned from a side-trip to Kuala Lumpur, where they were guests of ‘minor royalty’. They rang up yesterday morning and asked me to drop by their room in one of the clubs here. The club was very pleasant in the morning, full of trees and old, white-painted buildings. Silent, no one around. They gave me a bag containing packets of yeast, rice crackers, several cheeses (dry, sharp cheddar best of all – and Brie and Camembert). We sat and chatted for an hour about their trip, and what the world is coming to, and so on.

In KL they had been guests at a dinner party, where the guests were seated strictly according to social hierarchy. At the head of the table was a Tengku (I don’t know Malaysian nobility, but never mind). Another Malaysian guest, further down the table, had been a senior diplomat, and had lived all over the world. After the dinner was over, someone from higher up the table said of the ex-diplomat, "I don't suppose he ever sat down with Tengkus before."

Feeding the Elements

My brother-in-law, Bhupen Gandhi, commented on my post about how a cow almost ate the mail:

There was a time [growing up] in Calcutta, when I used to make special trips to feed cows. Ba would make extra rotis [bread] for five offerings: to earth, water, fire, crows and cows. After throwing pieces of roti at crows -- which contain the spirits of our relatives and forefathers, who must be pacified -- I would carry rotis in a brown bag and go out to look for a cow in the streets. I would empty the contents of the bag in front of it when I found one and watch it eat. I wasn't the only one doing it, and cows were used to people approaching to feed them. They would snach the paper bag right out of your hands and eat the whole thing.

Ba would make small 2" rotis and add ghee on the top. She would put one on the saghadi (our coal fired earthen-pot stove) fully afire. She would put another roti on the floor next to the thali [the metal plate from which one eats], say a prayer and sprinkle water on the roti. Thus earth, water and fire. This was a daily ritual.