Monday, October 13, 2014

The old Gods haven't fled

A sliver of Thiruvananthapuram's skyline on an overcast evening
This was posted on Kafila a few days ago.

On a morning not long ago, chaya cup in hand, I was getting my regular Kafila fix, when I paused mid-click. What caught my eye was a headline with ‘Gods, Own and Country’ in it. Now that combination of words could only mean one thing — a piece on Kerala. It helped though that right below the headline was a picture of a Kathakali artist in sthree vesham or female makeup.
So I dived right into the essay on Thiruvananthapuram by Professor Mohan Rao. The first couple of lines had me grinning with delight for he wrote of his “four wonderful days” in the city, one that’s been my home for much of the past three decades. 
I was so pleased by this that I skimmed the next few lines. Only to be stopped in my tracks, almost spilling some scalding chaya on myself in the process, by the Professor’s declaration that “… Ganesha is not a deity widely worshipped in Kerala.” 
Now I’m no expert in Hinduism, but I do know that my extended, and very Malayali, family used to perform a ‘Ganapathy homam’ on a number of specific occasions; before moving into a new house, for instance. And this has been going on for decades. I also remember that both my grandmothers had an image of Ganapathy in their personal pooja spaces. Just to make sure that I hadn’t got my wires crossed, I checked with a couple of Malayali Hindu friends who confirmed that Ganapathy and Ganapathy homams were an integral part of their families’ religious landscape too. 
In fact, virtually every temple I’ve been to across Kerala has invariably had a Ganapathy shrine within. Why, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple — arguably Thiruvananthapuram’s most well known place of worship — is home to the ‘Agrashala Ganapathy’. And around the corner from the Padmanabhaswamy temple is the ‘Pazhavangadi Maha Ganapathy Temple’. I believe it has been around for a couple of hundred years; since 1795 at the least. And for as long as I can remember, it is to Pazhavangadi Ganapathy that many Hindu denizens of the city, and from elsewhere, have turned to to smooth over obstacles or entreat a shot or two of good fortune.   
So why, I wondered, did the Professor believe that Ganesha is not “widely worshipped” in Kerala. And then it struck me — perhaps I had been misled all these years into believing that ‘Ganapathy’ is one of Ganesha’s several names!
At this point I decided that nourishment was required to fortify me to read the rest of the essay. Before I placed my order though, I took a few moments to toast the Professor for one of his inferences. He was on to something when he wrote: “Along the roads are posters of Ganesha, surrounded by saffron flags... Thus is the Shiva Sena announcing its presence in Kerala.”
In Thiruvananthapuram, over the past decade or so, Ganesha Chaturthi has evolved from a relatively low-key festival into a big, public celebration, with large Ganesha idols in temporary, road-side shrines and a procession to immerse the idols in the sea after 10 days of festivities. And yes, the Shiv Sena is possibly a major backer of this transformation. But is this cause for concern? I suspect not. For the Ganesha you encounter in Thiruvananthapuram is still a benevolent, lovable avatar. 
As I munched on some nibbles from Hotel Kavitha, my neighbourhood eatery, I learnt that the Professor had been struck by “the large number of vegetarian restaurants” in Thiruvananthapuram. So much so that he actually concluded: “While the local restaurants serving beef curry and appams also exist, they are clearly in a minority.” So astounding was this assessment about the sorry state of non-vegetarian cuisine in the city that I almost choked on my chicken kotthu parotta.
Yes, there are lots of vegetarian restaurants in the city. And yes, we enjoy the dosas and iddlis, puttu and kadala, chappathi and gobi 'manjoori' they dish out. But we love biryani, beef roast, fish curry, chilly chicken, chicken fry, shwarma and all those other delicious dishes that involve animals that were once alive, just as much.
Once again, I found myself wondering why! Why hadn’t the Professor spotted the scores of restaurants in Thiruvananthapuram, at various price points, that cater to our need for meat. In fact, if he’d ventured on to the city’s streets after sundown, he would have found it tough to dodge the ‘thattukadas’ that own the night with some of the best non-vegetarian cuisine in the city.
And for all the ‘arya’ named veggie restaurants that the Professor spotted, he appears to have missed the ones with ‘arul’, ‘saravana’ or ‘udupi’ worked into their names. This isn’t the “North Indian-Hinduisation of India” he believes it to be. It’s just clever restaurateurs trying to leverage the power of strong restaurant brands like Tamil Nadu’s Saravana Bhavan and Thiruvananthapuram’s own Ariya Nivas, which has been around for decades.
By now I found myself wondering whether the Professor had actually visited the city I live in. I know that residents often tend to overlook the familiar and that it is the visitor or outsider who notices things we take for granted. Yet, what was illuminating about the Professor’s essay was that he seemed to zero-in on some things, but was oblivious of other things that are equally, if not more, visible.
Let’s say I, like the Professor, had returned to Thiruvananthapuram after 30 years. What I’d probably notice is that so many men, let’s say ‘84 per cent’, seem to have eschewed mundus for trousers and jeans. But not the Professor, who was more struck that The proportion of Mallu men without moustaches seems to have reached an unprecedented two per cent.”
Similarly, I’d notice the diversity of the clothes that women in the city now wear — more salwars, churidars, skirts and jeans. The Professor, though, declares: “Strikingly almost all Hindu women now wear bindis — hardly anyone did earlier — and a shockingly high proportion wear sindoors …” I don’t know about sindoor, but I did wonder how the Professor concluded that “all Hindu women” in the city wear bindis. I, for one, know many who don’t, just as I know many Christian women who do.
I empathise with the Professor’s discomfort at having to remove his footwear to enter the Sree Chitra Art Gallery and the Kuthira Malika Palace Museum (which he mistakenly calls the “museum of the Sri Chitra Thirunal Palace”). I couldn’t share his distress at this practice though, since I believe the ban on footwear in both institutions is about protecting their rather fragile, old floors. And we should try to take care of our heritage, shouldn’t we?  
As I worked my way towards the end of the Professor’s essay, I remembered the paragraph I’d skimmed over at the beginning. So I returned to the lead to read about the “thick lush greenness everywhere” that the Professor saw from his seventh-floor hotel room. Something I won’t quibble with — Thiruvananthapuram is certainly greener than many other Indian cities, with fewer high rises marking its skyline.
But then, the good Professor gave me another jolt, declaring there are Hardly any high rises, an occasional mosque, temple or church rising above the green.” This is a bit of a stretch. From my seventh floor apartment it’s not “an occasional mosque, temple or church rising above the green” I see, but regular lines of apartment towers and commercial buildings sprouting out of the green to the north, south and west. And yes, the eastern reaches of the city are relatively greener, but even there I spot more concrete fingers breaking through the green every few months.  
The Professor’s next observation, though, was a sucker-punch. “But not that many apartment blocks,” he wrote, “Unlike Bangalore, the ones that have come up are not named Malibu Towers or Sacramento, but Revi Apartments.” While he is right that Thiruvananthapuram has fewer apartment complexes than Bangalore, not all of them are named like the ‘Revi Apartments’ he encountered. On one stretch of road I know rather well are a ‘Melody’, ‘Symphony’, ‘Alpine Heights’ and ‘Marigold’. And elsewhere in the city you’ll find a ‘Wimbledon’, ‘Carlton’, ‘Tivoli’, ‘Swiss Town’, ‘Kingswood’ and ‘Mayfair’. The Professor is spot-on about one thing though — there’s no Malibu Towers or Sacramento in Thiruvananthapuram. Yet.
And no, the old Gods haven’t fled. They’ve just retreated to the shadows to allow the new demi-Gods their time to Trend or be Liked.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ferry notes

A shorter version is in this month’s Second Anniversary issue of National Geographic Traveller India. The published piece is not on the Nat Geo website, so there’s no link to it. So pick up the issue. 

“The boat service is dying out, you know,” says Raju, the driver of the autorickshaw I am in. We’re careening through the pre-dawn darkness of Kottayam in his auto, heading towards the “boat station” at Kanjiram. I’ve just told him that I plan to take a public ferry from Kanjiram to Alappuzha on Kerala’s coast.
“With more roads and bridges, there aren’t many takers for the ferry. It’s quite slow, you know,” he explains, perhaps perplexed by my interest in the ferry. But when I tell him that I’m a writer, he exhales in understanding as though all is revealed.
As dawn breaks, Raju drops me off at the Kanjiram jetty, an asbestos-roof shed with a small concrete pier. It is the terminus for the Kerala State Water Transport Department’s daily Kottayam-Alappuzha boat service.
The first departure of the day is at 7.15 a.m., although timings can change if a boat has been sent for repairs. I’m rather early, so I sit on a ledge and study the ferry. This is no elegant creation of wood, glass and metal, but a squat, wooden workhorse that looks like it’s been around for a while. Noticing me on the pier, the ferry’s crew invites me on board and tells me to make myself at home. I pick a seat in the prow and wait.
A cat anticipating breakfast
Today, houseboats prowl Kerala’s backwaters, that intricate, interconnected maze of rivers, lakes, and canals that spread across Kottayam, Alappuzha, Kochi, and Kollam. A while ago though, these waterways were the liquid highways connecting large parts of Kerala and ferries were the region’s mass rapid transit systems, linking inland trading centres like Kottayam with Alappuzha on the coast. In A History of Travancore published in 1878, P. Shangoonny Menon, scholar and official in the government of Travancore, writes how in the 1750s: “Several canals were opened to facilitate and extended communication from the back-water to the new town of Alleppey (Alappuzha).”
My interest in the ferry though is personal: I’ve heard older friends and family talk about running errands, or commuting to work on it. As one friend put it, “The ferry was my physical link to the outside world.” With the evolution of faster modes of transport, public ferries may no longer be very popular, but they’re still a window into the region; a window I wanted to open.
I’m woken from my reverie by the voices of people trickling on board. Several carry plastic sacks bulging at the seams; others are armed with fishing rods and nets or farm implements. Almost everyone seems to have a newspaper. Most passengers seem to be regulars; greetings are offered and gossip exchanged. A few choose a seat and dive into their newspapers, while others swap tales about farm workers playing truant. And then, with a toot or two, we’re off.
The glistening 'blackwaters' against the sun
It’s a beautiful early summer morning, the sun is still a baby and there’s a cool breeze. Along the waterways people are beginning their day: brushing teeth, washing clothes and utensils; cleaning fish, and mending nets. We pull up by a makeshift pier for the crew to fix a mechanical issue. A fishmonger’s boat is docked nearby and a passenger makes use of this unscheduled stop to inspect his catch. She returns to the ferry triumphant, a handful of fish wrapped in newspaper.
As the canal opens out into the Vembanad Lake it’s easy to see why Kerala’s backwaters lure people from across the world. I feel like I’m in the middle of the perfect postcard, with green fields that stretch to the horizon, flocks of birds wheeling overhead, battalions of coconut trees guarding the banks, and lotuses blooming in water tinged gold by the rising sun. It’s all rather intoxicating.
We pass churches, mosques, temples, and houses in almost every colour of the rainbow — bright hues of violet, indigo, green, and orange. There are “cool bars” and “fish centres” and more mundane tea shops, hotels and Ayurveda centres that promise “relaxing” massages. For a while, we’re escorted by a squadron of ducks. Like an elephant, the bulk of a houseboat emerges from the mist, a film song booming from an extra-large telly on its deck.
The boat putters along, zigzagging across the water to pick up or drop off passengers. Some jetties are crumbling concrete slabs that seem to be in the middle of nowhere; at one, a dog greets a man as he steps off the boat and they head off into the distance.
A cheerful 'cool bar' and 'fish centre' 
I observe the people on board. There aren’t too many of us, only about 30. In the row of seats right behind me a tourist from Germany and a commuter talk about cameras and lenses; the conversation then veers to toddy tapping. The aroma of sambar and warm idlis wrapped in banana leaves wafts across the boat. My stomach lets out a low growl in response: A family has just opened its breakfast pack.
As we get closer to Alappuzha, the action picks up. The waterways get busier and more people are waiting to board the ferry at each stop. At one jetty a small gaggle of scrubbed, giggling schoolboys gets on. They head to the prow, prop themselves on the sills, and watch me scribble in my notebook. They begin a discussion about why this saipu or “foreigner” is writing notes. When I join the conversation in Malayalam, there are half-embarrassed smiles around.
Soon, the boat is as crowded as the Metro at rush hour. And suddenly, we’re in Alappuzha town inching through water hyacinth and trash towards the main boat station. It’s a little after 9.30 a.m. and there’s a small crowd waiting to board the ferry on it’s return trip.
I’ve had a lovely morning on the backwaters for just Rs 16. As I head away from the crowded jetty, it strikes me that the ferry’s days of glory may perhaps be over, but it still matters to many people in the region.  And that’s just the way it should be.

The Vitals
  • A one-way Kottayam-Alappuzha trip on the Kerala State Water Transport Department’s ferry usually takes a little over two hours and costs about Rs 16 depending on the route.
  • The ferry terminus in Kottayam is currently at Kanjiram, about 9 km from the town centre. In Alappuzha, the terminus is in the heart of the town.
  • There are several trips a day: The first scheduled Kanjiram (Kottayam)-Alappuzha trip is at 7.15 am, the last at 5.45 pm. The first Alappuzha-Kanjiram boat is at 7.30 am, the last at 5.15 pm.
  • Timings can change so it’s best to check with either the station master at Kottayam (+91-94000-50371) or Alappuzha (+91-94000-50324 / +91-477-2252510)
  • There are mobile phones on the Kottayam-Alappuzha ferries (+91-94000-50372/+91-94000-50373), though the crew may not answer while the boats are running.
  • There are no restrooms on the ferries and you’ll have to carry your own refreshments.
  • The Water Transport Department also operates ferries from Alappuzha to other destinations in the region. It also runs the ‘See Kuttanad’ service from Alappuzha for commuters and tourists. The first boat usually leaves at 5.30 am and a round trip takes about three hours. A one-way ticket for an adult on the upper deck costs Rs 80 and the lower deck Rs 30.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Six poems and a book

This is a plug for one book and six poems.
First, the book: Satyavati:Fault Lines, is an e-book by Karthika Nair. It’s an itsy-bitsy preview of her forthcoming book Until the Lions and is part of Harper Collins India’s Harper XXI series. Can be bought here.
The poems, by Anupama Raju, are on Poetry at Sangam House. More of Anupama’s work can be found across the Net, including here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Night at the museum

La Rochelle's Lantern Tower
International Museum Day is on Sunday. One of the great things about Museum Day, especially in Europe, is the European Night of Museums. There’s more about it below. So if museums are your thing and you’re in Europe this weekend, check out a museum or two. The French site has a database of all the institutions that are participating this year, from 30-plus countries.
A version of this is in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveller India.
On a cold and wet spring evening in La Rochelle, a town on France’s Atlantic coast, I set out for a night at the museums. I was not daft to head out on a museum crawl in such disagreeable weather, but I just couldn’t resist the spirit of La Nuit Européenne des Musées (European Night of Museums). It would have been hard to ignore the event for I’d heard about it from friends and also seen an announcement in La Rochelle’s city guide.
Held on the Saturday closest to International Museum Day (May 18), it is a one-night-only event when museums and heritage sites stay open until around 1 a.m. In addition, the entry fee to many institutions is discounted, if not waived altogether. Meant to encourage people, especially youngsters, to visit museums and other cultural sites, the Night of Museums also includes an array of concerts, themed guided tours, installations and other special events at participating institutions.
Created by France’s Ministry of Culture in 2005, the European Night of Museums is now a continent-wide celebration with institutions from Spain, Italy, Belgium, Romania, Moldova, the UK and other countries taking part. In the UK though it’s called Museums at Night and is spread over several days.
Graffiti on the walls of the Lantern Tower
On that evening in La Rochelle, it seemed as if half the town was participating in the event. As I discovered, queues at the more popular museums and monuments can be long. So at the Lantern Tower, once a lighthouse, watchtower and prison, it took me about half an hour to get in. The wait, though, was worth it, particularly for the centuries-old graffiti etched onto the tower’s walls by the Dutch, English and French prisoners who have passed through its dungeons.
At my last stop for the night, the La Rochelle Museum of Protestant History letters, documents and engravings offered me a fascinating glimpse of the town’s past as a 16th Century Protestant stronghold in Catholic France. And as I explored the museum’s collection, it struck me that Night of Museums is the perfect time to explore the smaller institutions, which are usually less crowded but equally captivating.
This year’s Night of Museums is on 17 May ( The U.K.’s Museums at Night is from 15-17 May ( 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Thriller in the hills

It was a pleasure to encounter Colonel Imtiaz Afridi on pages of The Rataban Betrayal. It was also very personal for me; it was almost like bumping into the many wonderful soldiers who are so much a part of some of my earliest memories. I really do hope we get to see more of the Colonel. 
Slightly different versions of the review are in this month’s The Hindu Literary Review — the version in the print edition is slightly shorter. 

About 50 pages into The Rataban Betrayal, I felt a little lost. I’d encountered over half-a-dozen characters, yet it wasn’t very clear who they were and what they had to do with the plot. It felt a bit like being in the midst of a bunch of threads floating in the wind.
And then, with great mastery, Stephen Alter started weaving those strands in the wind into an interesting story and it all began to make sense. Well, almost; for like all good thrillers, the book saves a twist or two for the end. 
Weaving tales is, of course, what Alter does rather well. He’s the author of 14 books, including five works of non-fiction.
Much of the action in The Rataban Betrayal is in Mussoorie and its satellite neighbourhood Landour. The murder of an American missionary, who’s also a CIA agent, and the killing of a couple of Indian guards on the border with Tibet stir things up in the town. Both the Indian and US intelligence establishments are sufficiently perturbed by these incidents to send undercover operatives to Mussoorie to investigate.  
The Indian and American agents eventually join forces under the direction of the wheelchair-bound Colonel Imtiaz Afridi. Retired army officer, former mountaineer, strategic affairs expert and spy master, Afridi oversees the covert investigation from his high-tech HQ — the shadowy, army-run Himalayan Research Institute. Together, the two agents and Afridi discover that the murders are part of a larger conspiracy with links to the Colonel’s past.
Alter has lived in Mussoorie for years and his insider’s view adds heft to the book. What also comes through is his knowledge of and deep affection for the Garhwal Himalayas and the people who live there. 
The plot moves quickly, like being in a fast car with an expert driver who knows just where he wants to go. The writing flows and is evocative and descriptive for the most, with the occasional dash of humour. I was especially taken by the description of the chauffer-driven, grey Ambassador with James Bond-ish accessories in which ‘Bogart’, a Delhi-based American spook, travels. 
The extent to which a work of fiction reflects reality is flexible. As Alter writes in the ‘author’s note’, while many of the historical and cultural references are based on reality, the narrative is not a factual rendering of events or contextual details. Yet, two things about the plot nagged me.
First, the Himalayan Research Institute comes across as a sort of Indian equivalent of the US National Security Agency, able to keep an electronic eye on India’s northern borders. While it’s safe to assume that India’s electronic intelligence expertise has blossomed in recent years, the institute’s all-seeing capabilities seem a bit much. 
And second, Alter talks about how the Dalai Lama is protected by the SPG. My understanding is that India’s Special Protection Group (SPG) only protects the Prime Minister, former Prime Ministers and their immediate families. 
Of course, these are relatively minor quibbles. More problematic is the characterisation of the Indian and American operatives. While I understand that both agents are primarily supposed to be intelligence analysts, I wondered why they were chosen for field ops given the rather elementary mistakes they made. In fact, during the denouement in the hills, the two almost muck it up. What saves the day is Colonel Afridi’s foresight. 
Afridi is, in fact, the book’s high point, its real hero — wise, decisive, loyal, hard as nails, but with his heart in the right place. He’s so much the hero, that I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a sequel in the works. I know I’d love to read another Afridi adventure and so I suspect, would most readers.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Writing that transcends

‘A community of mortals’: a headline written to snare. The story it led me to, though, is so powerful that I am delighted to have been snared. 
Alexandra Zelman-Doring’s tale of her husband’s heart attack and the hours that followed is the runner-up in the Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize for 2013. It is personal and universal, anecdotal and data-based. Above all, it is moving, but also wise. 
Several sections of the essay stay with me, but none more so than this line: “Borne on the brink of the music, it came to me: human beings endure impossible things.” We certainly do.

PS: Another powerful read is Raghu Karnad’s essay on Indians who served in the British army during the second world war. The essay, which melds the personal with the general, was runner-up in the prize for 2012.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Lord of light

The Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple lit up during the lakshadeepam of 2008
For a long heartbeat it seemed as if all the light in the world had cascaded around me. It was warm, benign light; just the sort of radiance you’d expect from a spiritual experience. And so it was — my first ever lakshadeepam at Thiruvananthapuram’s Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple.
Though I’ve lived in Thiruvananthapuram for 25-plus years, I’ve actually attended only one lakshadeepam, in 1996. And but for that feast of light, there’s little I recall of the occasion.
Celebrated once every six years, the lakshadeepam or lighting of a hundred thousand lamps is among the temple’s most important festivals. Preceded by the murajapam — the ritualistic chanting of prayers in turns by a large group of Brahmins — the lakshadeepam is one of those ‘experiences of a lifetime’.
In A History of Travancore P. Shungoonny Menon writes that the lakshadeepam and murajapam rituals were first performed by Karthaveerarjuna, “one of the Kshatria King(s) of a former age”. The first murajapam and lakshadeepam in more recent times were conducted by Marthanda Varma, possibly Travancore’s mightiest ruler. While the first murajapam was conducted in 1747, it did not end with the lakshadeepam; that happened three years later in 1750. In the 264 years since then, the lakshadeepam and murajapam have continued without a break, every six years.
The eastern approach to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy
temple during the lakshadeepam of 2008
Then as now, the ritual is intended to bring peace and prosperity to the region and its people. The murajapam involves the chanting of three Vedas — the Rig, Yajur and Sama — in a specific cycle and also chanting the Vishnu Sahasranaman or thousand names of Vishnu. The 56-day-long ritual culminates in the lakshadeepam, when a hundred thousand lamps, possibly more, are lit across the temple and its precincts.
Over the past few decades, some aspects of the lakshadeepam have been tweaked to suit changing circumstances. Electric lights have replaced some of the oil lamps used for the lakshadeepam, especially in the outer regions of the temple. Similarly, the temple is now lit not only on the actual day of the lakshadeepam, but also for several days afterwards. And from this year on, there will be another, rather visible, change — high levels of security. For this is the first lakshadeepam to be held after it was publicly revealed that that the temple is the repository of a substantial trove.
What hasn’t changed though is the essence of this unique festival of light. And as dusk falls on January 14, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple will be enfolded in a very special radiance.