Friday, September 25, 2009

Quaker Quotes

The nine days I spent in Tamil Nadu were by far the most hectic of the entire trip. By dint of intricate planning and a willingness to undertake an insane number of bus journeys, I managed to see palaces, museums, forts, Ramanujan’s house, and no fewer than twelve historic temples. My last two stops were at Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram.

During my sojourn in Tamil Nadu, I had been staying mostly with Tamil Brahmin families who, though otherwise possessed of many excellent qualities as hosts, do not exactly outdo themselves when it comes to food. (This is because their religious code imposes severe dietary restrictions.) So when I discovered that Pondicherry has French cafés, and Mahabalipuram has beach shacks where they serve fresh seafood and play Bob Marley, I went slightly overboard.

1. Grilled calamari; 2. Grilled fish; 3. Baked tomatoes stuffed with shrimp, mayonnaise and egg; 4. Grilled sole with lemon butter sauce; 5. Tenderloin steak with scallop sauce; 6. Cold coffee

Err, more than slightly overboard. Quite a bit, actually.

***

In other news – news which has most certainly reached you already because, unlike me, you were not on a train when it (the news that is, not the train) broke – Justine Henin is making a comeback to competitive tennis. The news has made me happy for weeks, but I am also a tad embarrassed that all my melodrama was for nothing.

The Quaker, as I have learnt through long acquaintance, habitually talks undiluted drivel. About once a month, he says something that makes sense. About once in a decade, he says something that actually deserves to be quoted. The Quaker Quote for the decade 2001-2010 appears here, and is in re Justine Henin:

There ought to be some sort of a law expressly forbidding anyone with a backhand like hers from being ever allowed to retire.
Amen to that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Asking for directions in Kumbakonam

Sroyon: Excuse me sir, could you please direct me to the house where Srinivasa Ramanujan used to live?
Native: [rapid Tamil, uncomprehending expression]
Sroyon: Ramanujan’s house? Ra-ma-nu-jan.
Native: [rapid Tamil, ambiguous head movements]
Sroyon: What?
Native: [rapid Tamil, points]
Sroyon: Right. Thanks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Madurai High Court

Every now and then, I see a sign which totally cracks me up. I saw one such at the Madurai High Court (or, more accurately, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court) where, for want of anything better to do, I had gone to watch a few sessions. I really, really wish I could put up a picture of the sign, but when I took out my camera, a security guard directed a salvo of irate Tamil at me, from which I inferred that photography was prohibited.

Anyway, the sign was above a gate, and here is what it said:

ENTRY FOR HONOURABLE JUDGES ONLY

Dishonourable judges, presumably, have to enter through the other gate.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sroyon and the Amazing Technicolour Temple

I got my first taste of Kerala hospitality minutes after I set foot in the state. I arrived at the Paragon restaurant straight from the Calicut train station, hungry, sweaty and confused. But as soon as I stepped into the restaurant (yellow and white walls, high ceiling, wooden furniture), a ministering angel in the shape of a smiling waiter took matters in hand.

Unfortunately lunchtime was still an hour away, he informed me, so the entire range of menu options was not yet available. But if I was in a hurry, something basic could be arranged. Or would I perhaps like to wait till lunchtime? In that case, maybe some coffee and a snack while I waited?

After that, I let the management have their way with me. Unbidden, they plied me with one course after another; I asked no questions but tucked into snacks, coffee, prawn, fish, three kinds of subzi, pickles, chutney, curd, payasam, papad and strange round rice. After these excesses, I was expecting to shell out a three-figure sum. The bill, when it came, was for Rs. 78.

And for as long as I was in Kerala, this treatment continued. Our trekking guide at Wayanad invited us not only to his own house but also to his sister’s, and served us grape juice and coffee. My hotel at Alleppey let me ride their bicycle all day, all over the quiet town and all the way to the beach; they charged me only five rupees “for the bicycle repair fund” which I thought was even sweeter than lending it for free. Whenever I had to go somewhere, Joseph from the hotel would offer to drop me off on his scooter. When I checked out and went off to Kottayam, they looked after my luggage so that I wouldn’t have to lug it around.

On my last night in Kerala, I arrived at the Alleppey railway station late at night, just as the IRCTC canteen was closing. I asked for coffee, but the man said there was no coffee left. To show that he was truly sorry, he gave me a milk toffee. While I waited on the platform for my train to Madurai, I chewed thoughtfully on the milk toffee, and decided that it was Kerala’s farewell gift to me. I was sad to be leaving Kerala; I felt a lump in my throat. But it could have been the milk toffee – I couldn’t be sure.

***

But let not our sadness at bidding goodbye to Kerala temper the exuberance of arriving in Tamil Nadu. So say hello to the baroque rainbow that is the Meenakshi Temple of Madurai, the technicolour temple of the fish-eyed goddess.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mostly About Kottayam

All guidebooks and travel websites are unanimous in their opinion that there is nothing to see in Kottayam. But Lonely Planet has a passage which caught my fancy:
Kottayam is a bookish town: the first Malayalam-language printing press was established here in 1820 and it was the first district in India to achieve 100% literacy. Today it’s home to the newspaper Malayala Manorama (with the second-largest circulation in India) and is the headquarters of DC Books, Kerala’s excellent bookshop chain.
A bookish town! What a quaint attribute for a town to possess! So, on a whim, I checked out of my hotel in Alleppey and caught the early morning ferry (Rs. 10, 2.5 hours, lovely scenery) to Kottayam.

The first person I met upon landing in Kottayam was a paediatrician, and you can’t be a paediatrician without being bookish. He gave me a lift to the centre of town; on the way he told me about Dutch farming techniques, and who else but a bookish person would know about things like Dutch farming techniques?

For over two hours, I loafed around the arterial streets of Kottayam looking for evidence of its bookishness, and I was not disappointed. The public buildings look bookish, the Jerusalem Marthoma Church is the most bookish-looking church I have ever seen, and the bookshops practically ooze bookishness. This being a Sunday, the DC Heritage Bookshop was closed, but the bookish vibes emanating from its venerable red-brick façade well-nigh overpowered me. The schools were likewise closed, but there were no children playing on the streets; no doubt their bookish parents kept them hard at work at their textbooks, moulding them into bookish little replicas of themselves.

At the restaurant where I had lunch, a family of four sat at a corner table. Not to be foiled by the lack of reading matter inside the restaurant, they were poring over the menu, brows knit in concentration. “Ki pagoler moto bookish,” I muttered to myself, and polished off my pazhampori.

In this way, for over two hours did I tramp the streets of Kottayam, soaking up its bookishness. When I tired of this (for there are limits to how long I can amuse myself thus), I returned by bus to Alleppey, making a longish detour to pack in a spot of birdwatching at the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. But now I must leave you, else I shall miss the night train to Madurai.

I am afraid this has not been a very sane post. But then, this has not been a very sane day.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Backwaters at Alleppey

Today I embarked on an epic six-hour laze on a canoe on the backwaters at Alleppey. Or rather, I lazed for five hours; for the last hour, my boatman, Raju, let me paddle the canoe. I crashed it only once. (I still maintain it was the other boat’s fault.)

There are three ways to cruise the backwaters at Alleppey. Houseboats are like floating five-star hotels, but they can only ply on the widest canals, and use motors which pollute the environment. Motorboats can enter relatively narrower canals, but also cause pollution, and look ugly to boot. Canoes have beautiful, slim frames, and with no more than a splash, can glide sleekly into canals scarcely wider than themselves, into a green universe of dappled sunshine, water-birds, coconut groves and villagers with winning smiles. Since they are propelled by paddling and punting, canoes have the carbon footprint of a housefly. They are also the only form of backwater transport I can afford.

Raju, the aforementioned boatman, told me that only foreign tourists choose canoes, and only the most hardcore backwater enthusiasts choose the six-hour tour. Rich Indians go in for houseboats, and the rest choose motorboats. I asked him why on earth anyone would choose a motorboat over a canoe. He said, “Indians very speedup.”

Indians in general are anything but speedup, but even if you are a chronic speedup, you have to be a strange kind of philistine to bluster through the backwaters spewing diesel fumes and scaring cormorants.

I asked Raju about houseboat tariffs, and almost fell off the boat at the figures he quoted. “When you marriage,” he told me, “you visit Kerala and choose houseboat.” “In that event,” I informed him gravely, “I will again choose a canoe.”

But this post is not solely about the relative merits and demerits of the various forms of backwater transport – a subject which, at best, is of limited interest to the general reader. The general reader (a notoriously demanding breed) wants to hear about the fabled scenery. Is it really as beautiful as they claim? Do they, perchance, enhance the colours and airbrush out the plastic litter in the tourist brochures? Do the Mallus really have forty-six different words for coconut oil?

While I am not (yet) in a position to answer Question 3, I admit this frankly: the scenery is stunning, and it is not fair that it has so far got only a passing mention in this post. It deserves much more than a passing mention. It deserves pictures.

I’d have to be crazy to try to describe this in words, wouldn’t I?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

First Impressions of Kerala

My stock of Malayalam (a palindrome, as every Indian schoolkid knows) is limited to a line which my Mallu friend taught me, and which roughly translates as, “If you cooperate, we both will have fun. If you don’t cooperate, only I will have fun.” It is a line from a B-grade movie, and was said, as you may have guessed, by a rapist to his would-be victim.

Given that the line, however colourful, is of limited application, and given that I shall be travelling mostly in rural Kerala, I foresee a bit of a language problem. Because of the language barrier, I may never know the answers to certain questions which puzzled me on this, my very first day in Kerala.

Why do the good people of Kozhikode abbreviate Red Cross Road to R. C. Road when both have the same number of syllables? Why is the water served in restaurants lukewarm and, more unsettlingly, phenolphthalein pink? Why are there so many people selling lottery tickets on the long-distance KSRTC buses? Are they trying to tell us something?

But I can see you are getting fidgety. You are probably thinking: Here is this post which purports to be about first impressions of Kerala, and its unromantic author is going on about pink water and lottery tickets. Where are the coconut groves, you angrily demand? Whither the emerald-green pools?

Well I am not very good at describing nature, but I shall tell you this: I approached Kerala with a measure of cynicism. Ever since I was old enough to say Thiruvananthapuram, I can remember people gushing about its stunning natural beauty. God’s Own Country, they call it in the tourist brochures. Even Lonely Planet, which is usually matter-of-fact, waxes lyrical over Kerala:

Kerala is where India slips down into second gear, stops to smell the roses, and always talks to strangers.
Funnily enough, I have never been to Kerala, and I have long wondered whether its beauty was somewhat exaggerated. Add to that the fact that I have been travelling through rural Maharashtra, which gets no hype at all, but is still incredibly fetching, especially at this time of the year, just after the monsoons.

My train from Hyderabad is passing through Lonavla, and at the end of every tunnel, the passengers collectively gasp as a yet more verdant vally opens up before our eyes, and I am thinking, will Kerala be prettier than this? We are at Malshejghat on a weekend trip from Bombay, and it looks like they set out to make the picture-perfect hillside and went overboard with the mist and waterfalls, and I am thinking, surely Kerala can’t be even more beautiful? It is late afternoon, and my train is chugging down the Konkan coast along what is widely regarded as the most scenic rail route in India; I am holding a steaming cup of coffee and stray raindrops are flying in through the window to sting my cheek, and I am thinking, surely not.

As I said, I am not very good at describing nature, but I shall tell you this: when I woke up this morning, my train had entered Kerala, and with my first glimpse outside the window, I was sold. So much for unwarranted skepticism. Cast aside your reservations and pile on the hyperbole: Kerala is worth the hype.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Obituary: Churchgate Food Court

Not only is Churchgate Station in Bombay smack in the middle of the principal commercial area of the city, it is also a stone’s throw from the stock exchange, and most of Bombay’s government buildings. Every evening, a hundred thousand clerks, peons and down-on-their luck underwriters leave their offices and trudge to the station to catch their train back home. But before they embark on their journey home, where do they have dinner?

Opposite Churchgate Station, in the veritable shadow of Eros – the movie theatre, not the god – there is a little triangle of pavement formed by two intersecting roads and the diagonally-situated LIC building. If you went there by day, you would notice nothing remarkable – perhaps a newspaper vendor or two, and the obligatory sugarcane juice stall. But if you went there of a night, you would be hard put to recognise the place. You would find a clutch of food stalls which had magically sprung up on our little triangle of pavement, and enough crowd and bustle to rival Churchgate Station across the road.

People would sit on stools, steps and newspapers, tucking into their food and discussing local train crowds, waterlogging, and the sudden fall in Mahindra stock prices. Every night, amateur polemicists would offer a hundred different solutions to the city’s transport problems. Every night, a thousand plates of unda pulao would be consumed.

It was Bunty who introduced me to this place. Many is the night when, after my daily toil at the law firm which was nearby, I would head here for dinner. Sometimes I would eat alone; other nights, we would get our dinner packed and eat it on Marine Drive.

There are two reasons why we liked the place so much. First, it was cheap. There were not many joints in this upmarket area where an interning law student – poor almost by definition – could have dinner for less than twenty-five rupees. Second, though our triangle of pavement was tiny, and there were only about six stalls, there was an incredible amount of variety on offer: sizzling noodles being tossed madly into the air, eggs boiling furtively in battered aluminium pots, kebabs being slow-roasted on skewers. There were more mundane options too: a diverse range of thali meals, and the ubiquitous pao. You could also have tea – either a full cup or, in classic Bombay style, cutting. For dessert, there was kulfi-falooda as well as ice-cream.

Bunty and I used to affectionately call it Churchgate Food Court, for it was a poor man’s version – almost a parody – of the glitzy food courts in shopping malls which serve a variety of cuisines in an open space at roughly six times the price.

Our favourite was the eight-rupee maska-bun with jam (Rs. 2 extra for double maska). The maska-bun man would take a sweet bun, slice it open, and proceed to stuff it with more butter and mixed-fruit jam than any bun deserves to be stuffed with. At home, I tried to make it myself, but it just doesn’t taste the same. Is it memory that softens the bun and sweetens the jam and makes the butter creamier?

On this trip to Bombay, I decided to pay a visit to Churchgate Food Court and found it deserted. A paperboy told me that it does not exist anymore, evicted no doubt by one of those periodic drives that aim to make our cities look more ‘international’. I mean, I know about progress and modernisation and the inevitability of change and all those things. It is naïve to think that we can cling on to the old ways forever. But still, on nights when we realise that a thriving institution has vanished without a trace, we are permitted a sigh of regret, a sappy self-indulgent blog post or two, aren’t we? Where does the maska-bun man practise his art now? Where are the underwriters having dinner tonight?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Duty

Epitaph on the tombstone of Henry Lawrence (1806-1857) at the Residency Cemetery, Lucknow