Here Be Dragons

They did not take notice of me. Oh they looked at me all right, but I didn’t matter much to them. Plus, I did all the right things. I hiked up Elephant mountain, burned incense at the City God Temple, ate through the 36 bowl feast and generally kept to myself. But they didn’t ignore me because of all that – they did because they knew me. I was one of theirs after all. Rainfed and born of sweat. Of the same mud, same desperation. When the old Dragons looked at me, I didn’t stand out. Same blood, same grit, same hunger, same satiety.

For me: I too felt it. The deep sense of knowing, being known. Understanding and being understood. They City was very familiar to me, entire streets a facsimile of home. Mossy old buildings growing into each other, sun and shadow bathed windows, hopeful plants poking out of rusted grilles. The constant rain. Oh the rain from home! Misty one moment, barely felt and torrential later, whipping up the same same mud-scent. And then there were the trains.

These trains are different though. Back home, our trains are alive. They run us, things of chaos and steam, hope and happiness. These are different. But now and then one them gains sentience here. Just for a bit. Droopy eyes looking about. Last week, a train to Shui Yuan was 9 minutes late. Maybe it’s a mechanical fault. Maybe It is us.

The Dragons looked at me thinking me to be the same, but one day they started looking at me. Like really looking. Surely I wasn’t the first one. I wasn’t the only one here to bring my Gods, other Gods, our Gods. We have been coming to green island since forever, bringing our elephants and our monkeys, tigers and Goddesses. It is so easy to sneak them in here. They hide openly among the palm fronds and amidst the banana leaves, under the mango trees and around the neem trees. And deep in the dark forest, they convene at an old Banyan tree.

Yes, the Dragons were brought here too, sure everyone knows that. But you go tell it to them. To their face – thought as much! So they’re here, as they always have been, as they will be. The bear and old mother fled, fled when the Dragons were brought. They went east and south. To Wasa and Wayaseva, Tongatapu and Mangareva, to PukaPuka and Antua. And to Jambi and Palawan. They married, they multiplied, they morphed and in a hundred ways they endured, they also utterly died when they faced the one God. They also left parts of themselves here. And now we come.


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The plate of memories

I run into the house, hands over my head to protect myself from the rain. It rains furiously; hot, burning rain. I step into the house, obviously there is a power cut, the darkness within is punctuated by candles. Somewhere, deep inside, a kerosene lamp burns, casting its dull faint glow across the corridor. I take off my sodden shoes and wet socks sitting on the floor. Throw my bag and catch my breath. I am tired, and I am late, they have already cremated her, being unable to wait that long. Everyone else seems to have left. And then I see her shadowy form within. Once she sees me, she starts wailing, crying and talking really fast. Complaining, scolding, shouting, crying some more. Then fully out of steam she calls me to the kitchen.

My aunt’s kitchen is not the stuff of modern, white, gleaming surfaces and shiny appliances. It is an ancient kitchen, built long ago, satisfying the demands of another age and time. Everything is dark and dingy. There are huge cuddappah shelves holding hundreds of old complan tins, full of the weird and wondrous. The floor is old mosaic, pitted and cracked, uneven now, after years of alternating fiery heat and tropical rain. Lizards scurry across the shadows. Water drips constantly. The sink is a huge depression on the floor in one corner, the ‘counter’ is the floor on the other corner. In my house, we sit down and cook; all the tools of our trade lying around us at easy reach, in disarray.

In the dim light I see cooking underway. She must have known I was coming, she would have guessed my timing. She wouldn’t have eaten for all this time and still she kept up a constant stream of complaints and tears, old memories sustaining her thin frame.

In the old pot, there is rice bubbling away. One another stove she lays another pot. She throws in some oil and turns up the flame. In go curry leaves, they pop and splutter wildly. Then mustard and something, something and something else. Turmeric and her bright red dried chillies. She works fast, all her attention towards me, barely glancing at the pot. Another flame is lit in a huge whump, and over it goes the old wok, unsteady and wobbling. Minutes later, greens go in, rain and dirt, steaming away.

I’m sitting cross legged barely a few feet from her smelling of wet rain. I haven’t spoken a word to her. I know despite her wailing and scolding, that this is the only way she knows to say that she loves me. After all she has to, we are the only ones left now. The smells from the pots and pans cling to me. I am already beyond hungry, beyond grief.

Presently she sets two plates on the floor, and the hurricane lamp in front of us. By tradition my plate has been thrown away with the dead ones possessions, I now have ajji’s old plate. It is oblong and magical, it fills the eater up with memories and stories. First, curry on both our plates, and then something dark green. Then rice, hot and steaming, and a dollop of ghee for me, oil for herself. I wait for her to eat a bite, and begin. We eat in silence. Brinjals and pupmkins, greens and potatoes. Buttermilk at the end.

Then I begin to cry softly and she hugs me with her other hand, a wave of sadness enveloping us both.

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The center of the world

I am standing at the center of the world. Part land, part air. Part earth and part sea. I am standing at the top our beloved lighthouse. I stand facing the sun, her heat sending birds screeching downwards into the cool water, and making strange mirages on the horizon. Below me is our beloved city, Mayyazhi. Ahead of me is our allMother the sea. In the far, far distance, if you squint hard enough, even though your eyesight isn’t as good as mine, you can see our glorious boats making their way to the little pearls. They are ten ten thousand islands, all bless our King! Gold Island and Silver Island, Agatti and Bammatti, Raarti, Chengathi, Kalpathi and Visatti, one island with a single coconut tree – the watching sentinel and one more with the blue mangoes. Then there’s temple island and God island (where nobody goes) and Death island (yes! Ifyou go there, you will die. Surely) and Moth island, Flame island and Fantastic Island – and hundreds of thousands of others! Beyond those is the open ocean – but I’m not done yet! The Open Ocean and father ahead – more islands. They have strange names Ulookuroo and Vaadhoo, Fulikadoo and Malookuroo all ooo’s and loo’s. Our great king has sent out our best warriors and engineers there, to show them the greatness of Mayyazhi. And beyond that, there are more islands! Can you believe it? With stranger names and stranger people no doubt, no doubt. Those people have orange heads and green eyes and they eat little children and old men like you. Fukafuka and Fakaravaka, Funafuti and Farafangana, Tranana and Wanana, Wasaya and Wayasewa. And beyond that – are our own Eastern mountains, because the world is round.

Behind me is all our Kingdom too. Green, green land. Forests and fields, paddy and coconut. The inland sea, and inmost islands, Tiger islands and the Heron marsh, and ten thousand canals: the teacher’s canals, the engineer’s canals and the boat canals. Canals so large two elephants could walk side by side in them and still have the King’s boat race them. And canals so tiny, I could jump over them, pissing all the way. Then there is the KingMothers village – Kollengode and beyond that Arikkode, and Chemanthi and Nellicheri. Those villages are all stone (because only the King may use metal) and they speak funnyfunny. But our KingFather, the old king, he married the queen of Kollengode, even though they speak funnyfunny and are so fair skinned that they burn in our summer. Our river Paramba also comes from there, from somewhere beyond our lands, beyond Kollengode, beyond the new lands, beyond even the forest people’s homes, beyond the large blackfruit groves and from within the dark forests of the Eastern mountains.

Then there are the eleven roads that lead to us, the North road and South road and the five East roads. But I’m still learning! I am going to see a map next week. I must recite everything perfectly before I can do that and I could tell you all in one go, but you keep interrupting me because you’re so stupid. Once I learn our land, I will learn the old stories. I’ll learn of allFather and allMother. And the queen of Qatlat, the rakshasi who was vanquished by the Godeess of Mayyazhi. And Mayyazhi is the center of our kingdom, with the King and her Queen, the city of brick and metal (the only one! all bless our King) and the city of a hundred canals. The only city on the treacherous coast, the only city where the King may live, the only city with the old tombs and the only city with a temple to allFather. Home of the Goddess, city of Black fruit and white pearls, city of stories, city of the most delicious, juiciest halva,  city of the most intelligent women, and  city of the darkest, strongest men.

I am standing at the top of our beloved lighthouse. It was built with yakshi magic and stands strong even in the stormiest of weathers. It lies on a spit of land jutting out to sea, our allFather meeting the allMother (Don’t tell anyone I told you that). The sea is our mother because she gives us fish when we are hungry, and pearls so we may look nice. But she is also our wife because when the women go out to fish, she keeps them safe.

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Sixty days of summer

It was when the first lady of the market forgot her name that everyone knew that the mangoes had arrived. For weeks the market sweat, stank and perspired through the long days and slept deliriously through the night. As the days got warmer and the stench of jasmine stank unbearably, and banana blossoms wilted and fell off, the wait increased for the mangoes.  And finally one day, the mangoes came. But nobody forgot their name, or the smell of jasmine and therefore they were declared not real mangoes. Then the green ones came, plump and tight, raw and pert. They went ‘click’ against the tongue and made cheeks shudder and hence, they were pressed into service: shredded thin and floating in oil and chilly; sliced thick with lumps of jaggery, diced into geometrical cubes and served fresh with just so much salt. And they were pickled by the hundreds.  The rough knives of the butchers cut no meat that month; they only thwacked raw mangoes by the tens, by the hundreds. Every household brought them. Salted them, chillied them, oiled them and stored them in huge jars. The whole city urgently made pickles and the mangoes kept coming. One day they lost their tartness. One mango came, just a little sweeter, then a little more and then some more until they could no longer be pickled. But the city’s wives were smart; they curried them. Beat them into yogurt curries, disciplined them into mildly sweet sambars and enterprising rasams.

One day the markets’ first lady forgot her name. She was there before anyone else sat down to sell; she was there before anyone was there to buy, first in the morning before the fishes came, before the flowers came. She sold ginger and coriander, curry leaves and mint and she knew everyone who went into the colossal building and everyone who came out. And at the end of the day she spoke to the mice and cats and dogs, the names of people who had remained in the market, rotting amidst leftover mogras and champas, aralis and mullais, roses and daisies.  She forgot her name because she came late that morning, after sunrise and the mangoes had preceded her. She, who came before everything and everyone, lost that day. In her place sat fat yellow mangoes oozing suppurating mango pus, soft and sweet. Other subtle mangoes, yielding neither in flesh nor in color but with madness in their taste. Others too, shamelessly yellow and curvy, delicately tipping towards a perfect finish.

The wives of the city hurried past her, trampling over her and stomping her ginger and sneezing her mint. They rushed to the mangoes, some wrapped in red gelatine paper, some in cardboard boxes with more hay than mangoes, some rolling on the floor in old cabbage peels. The mangoes were touched and prodded, pinched and pressed, smelt and sneezed upon, thrown, tossed and bruised, worried, fought and haggled over, purchased, brought, bought. Some stolen.

And in the homes of the city the mangoes finally died their deaths. In discarded peels and sucked out seeds. Blue mangoes and red ones, Alphonsoes and inferior Devgads, fat Banganapallis and nostalgic Benishas. Hindi Payris, Gujrati Kesars and Bihari Dussheris.


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Azadirachta Indica

The roads are now full of hawkers crying out over neem leaves. Small, bitter and edging out towards tiny buds. People, too are buying them by the kilo. Neem bunches poke out of bright plastic bags high and mighty, or huddle with curry leaves. For a day in the year, they’re worshipped, ingested, delicately swallowed, bit into, grimaced upon and gracelessly spat out. For a day they live in our collective consciousness before finally they too wilt under the mighty suns gaze, droop crackle, and die as green powdery dust.

I didn’t know the neem trees name in any other language, I never thought to ask, or even thought it had one apart from ‘neem’ . But I don’t know anything, you see. Brought up under a literary landscape of beeches, maples, pines and firs, the neem only existed as a bitter pill to be swallowed in the summers. I didn’t wonder about this when my mother fanned me with copious boughs of neem leaves as I lay delirious under the pox, or when she rolled tender young neem shoots with jaggery, into my underlip (once a year, unfailingly). Or when I sat reading under its cool shadows, behind my grandmothers large house.

Having read scores books in English, I had somehow grown up in their landscape, seeing our trees, naming theirs. I looked in vain for pines and firs, in the sweltering heat and drenching rain, and proclaimed our greenery useless, only fit for shade. How exotic their trees sounded – Rowan and Elk, Apple and Juniper, Sycamores, Firs and Redwoods. How tall and richly green they were, how naked in winter and how blindingly colourful in fall. And ours stayed green always. Never coloured, never bared their selves, only bore pests, harboured insects and grew stunted and filthy.

And I came back to live in a city of trees, in a house made of trees. Paper flowers covered my terrace, branches of tamarind trees fanned me and tall coconut trees rose impossibly above, reaching for the sun. Mango trees bloomed in compounds, making me sneeze and huge neem trees swayed gently, scarily and somewhere a giant switch flipped, and I stepped outside.

I read up, fervently hoping to make up for decades of loss, Mango and Neem, slender Coconut palms  and the stately Ashoka, roadside Tamarinds, holy Peepuls and holier Banyans, Bananas, Jambuls and Tabuleias, Jacarandas and Moringas, large Curry leaf trees and Areca nut trees, slender Pepper vines and deadly Oleander. Thorny Rosebushes and wild Berries. Bor and Cashew, Gulmohar, Raintrees and Cotton trees, Jacarandas and Jackfruits.

I’m still woefully illiterate. Now the wide roads on my way home are lined with neem, tomorrow the mangoes will come, small, tart impossibly succulent and in a host of names – for which the English language must once accept defeat. Payris, Bangdas and Hapus, Banganapalli, Mallika and Neelams. Each with its own introduction, its own smell and its own sickly, addictive taste.


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It wasn’t merely the oldest street in the city. It was older than the city too. It was called bazaar street then, when the city was a village on the river ford. It existed simply as ‘the street’ even before that. It had birthed the city and it sat in the city’s edge, unconcerned with the chaos, like an old mother relegated to whispering shadows.

It always wore a festive look. Opiate Flowers continuously fell out of trees. They had fallen on the mud, long ago, fallen fresh as tigers trampled them, licked the soft petals and lay drowsily, and now they fell on the road beneath, through a haze of dust and heat, sunshine and noise. Vegetables were piled in heaps; huge green pumpkins meticulously stacked in pyramids, muddy yams rolling by their base, baskets of ripe yellow bananas, careless mounds of green leaves all looking the same, long gourds hanging from tree branches and banana leaves underneath everything. Scores of little shops stood by the street, under the watchful eyes of the drowsy trees. The little shops sold everything. And the large homes sat behind the little shops, all their people drunk on the flowers falling on their courtyard. Outside the street, a country revolted, men killed and women burned. Changes slowly trickled down time and space to reach the street. The fruit sellers came first; with their exotic cold apples from the Himalayas and dates from across the ocean, large cantaloupes form the north and walnuts and almonds from Afghanistan. A large woman sat one day with fish from the western sea and the fish never stank, since they were perfumed by the falling flowers. Traders from the hot plains brought tamarind and cashew and from the far north, they got delicate saffron flowers. The traders also set up a tandoor and passed around crisp rounds of bread dusted with sesame and browned onions. Then the South Indian women came to live in the big house at the end of the street and brought with them the alien stench of jasmine. Jasmine and almost-jasmine, roses and tiny green leaves in their hair. They drew the men wild, teased the women and even woke the comatose fishes. Their coming ripened bananas and brightened stone-pitted applies. Dates oozed juices and the bees came to live on the trees, dropping honey on the mud and the whole street was mired in a smelly, sticky mess of solid air and languid dust. Then the opium flowers conspired to sit on the women’s heads, and drove out the jasmines and the almost-jasmines and the roses and the little green leaves and the street became liveable again. It was to such a street that winter arrived.

It arrived at night when the men slept and the women lay tossing and turning. The opiate leaves fell as usual but landed on a hard white surface.  In the morning the mists hid the white ground from everyone, until a child unexpectedly screamed, running on the street and shattered the veil. Frost and hard dew, clouds and knife-cold air. The ghosts of the tigers fled, and the ghost of old men that sat near the banyan tree fled. The cats turned to stone, the bees fell solidly, like so many fruits and the dogs ate the dead bees and died. The fish stank and bananas decayed, spreading death up and down the street. Only the opiate flowers still continued falling. In the winter when this land turned cold, and the trees were bare, there were no vegetables and no fruits, no gay festoons over the houses and shops, and the street still came alive. It lived in the vapours from the kitchens and on hot coffee from the little shops, bloomed by the old tandoor of the traders and moved about on gossip that circulated urgently and died by the smell of decaying fish.


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The house itself seemed to be radiant with prosperity. And at the centre of it was Radhika. The girl with the pretty smile who dropped coins everywhere. No one remembered when it began, it was as though she had always been dropping them. When she stood, coins fell out of her dress.  When she woke, she would find herself surrounded by coins. When she lay down to sleep, coins rolled out of her hair, rolled across the mattress and spun in lazy circles on the floor. At other times they fell furiously, loud plink-plonks on the hard tiles. When she walked in the courtyard they fell with muted thuds on the hard earth and lay there reflecting sunlight. They ceaselessly fell: nimble, bright new one rupee coins, chipped almost polygonal two rupee coins and dull, fat five rupee coins that thudded threateningly. One morning at the washbasin, expired coins started falling out of her mouth as she brushed. Fifty paise and twenty fives, small ten paise coins and rhombus fives, all covered in spittle and foam.

In the beginning the coins were swept off with brooms, brushed under beds and stuffed under mattresses. Eventually the falling coins did not touch the floor but fell on their older cousins, metal striking metal. The rooms began to be covered in sheets of live coins with minds of their own: some hot, some cold, some bright and reflective, some old and corroded and some that changed colours when one squinted at them. Then the mother of the house had the servants store the coins in buckets. The old bathroom was dusted and the buckets were shoved in, brimming with coins, their pale plastic cracking.

It was then that everyone knew that Radhika had been seeing the cable-boy. One night as he prepared to jump back over the wall after their furious, restrained passion, his pockets began to jingle wildly. His shirt was pulled down by an immense weight and his pants seemed to poke into his legs. Then the mother of the house had him undress and leave all the coins in a tidy heap by the door. So it was that by the heap of coins, everyone knew that he had come and gone.


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His mind has often burned. With single minded passion: anger, jealousy, loneliness, with unbounded ferocity. His mind has even burned with regret and guilt. And once, on a clear cold night, the very sight of the plump full-moon sent him burning with madness. Hence he knew all the ways in which his mind burnt. He recognized the onslaught. He knew the signs. He sensed the seed of the fire, the manner of its catching flames. He knew the marks it left upon his heart. For days the fire would burn steadily, consuming him from the inside. Eventually it would explode within, without warning in a bloom of torment. Outside he maintained his passive disposition. Walking among fallen yellow flowers, the walls of his heart wilted and walking over cackling dried leaves his arteries surged with red hot blood. He even knew who was burning within. Jealousy simmered. Anger flared. Loneliness waxed and waned, came and went, lingered when he was with company and mercilessly assaulted him in his solitude. Then there was the dragging flame of guilt, with ashen embers flaming suddenly, poking him in private corners of his heart, uninvited.


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The drive to the Western Fire Temple is a long road.  Especially if one is driving from the plains. Leaving at sunrise, it is possible to keep driving into lengthening shadows for the better part of the day, before the trees start closing in. The road goes on straight, west among rice fields and mango trees, flaming gulmohars and solid neems. Eventually, the road loses its ambition and bends a little. Then a little more, a slip here, a curve there and finally, abandoning all sense of direction, it entangles itself in complex knots. It is at this point that you really begin to notice the trees, the sinister ones, if you have been looking. Huge banana trees stand at regular intervals. Larger than normal, with a skirt of old tattered leaves covering their trunk. Tall coconut trees rise in between.  Fat tees with large, flat, poisonous white leaves rise above the mists and large jackfruits threaten to fall onto unsuspecting cars, squishing little children.  Sometime later there will be a marked sense of ascending, and the mists rise with you, passing through you and playing with you. Tendrils of wild mist will snake across your windshield. Thick trunks of mist will appear at will, on the road.  Through the mists, headless horses will rise as mountains. The lady of green mists may bring rains upon you. Soft rain that dries up before it can reach the ground, or piercing rain that sends cars screeching into hungry ravines lurking around corners.

Wild coffee shrubs roll down hillsides, pepper plants nimbly climb up coconut trees suffocating them, their dark fruit falling like raindrops all over the forest. If you get out of your car to pee on the roadside, you will be scared. It is not silent, or eerie. On the contrary it buzzes with indistinct life. You may hear growls and soft thuds. You may hear the high pitched screeches of birds. If you hear his growl, get back in and start driving again. You still have a long way to go. Sometime in the afternoon, for even though the sun disappears and twilight hangs about uninvited, it is still noon, you will see an old temple. It used to tower over the forest once, when the kings walked. Now it lies in resignation, one with the forest. It would appear like women in colourful sarees are peeking out of the tall windows of the temple wall, singing desperate songs of longing. Keep driving, for those women are bewitching but vile and lure the careless traveller into their mystic mazes.

If you do not fall prey to these yet, then you have journeyed further than I. Somewhere across an invisible boundary, the forest turns benign. The mists leave.  Bright moonshine reflects off lively rivers. The smell of impending dawn lingers in the air. Pay your dues to the Rakshas at the gate, and you shall pass in.


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He strode down the street, magic following in his wake. It is a strange thing, this magic. Abstract yet very visible in its effects. It is also not in his control. The first time he had nearly jumped out of his skin; producing a fireball out of nowhere. That ball of flames had hovered in front of him and none of his hand movements could do anything to it. Then seemingly of its own accord, it moved straight, and crashed into a wall, dissolving into nothingness. Later he thought about it. He hadn’t touched it, felt it or gone anywhere near it. He soon gave it up as a dream.

The second time it was water. He managed to raise a ball of water from the commode. Repelled and curious at the same time, he froze. The ball of water hovered there, as if waiting for a command. He dared not speak. Tentatively he held out a finger upwards. The ball still stayed there irresolute. He half thought of leaving it there and making a run for it. What would anyone else make of it? And just like that the ball crashed into the commode splashing everywhere.

Concentration, that’s what it is , he thought to himself. Maybe focus was what kept up those elemental balls (why only those shapes though?) up in the air. Convinced that it was not a dream anymore he started looking for signs of magic more consciously. He concentrated on mundane objects for log times, unblinking till the tears came unbidden. He wiggled his stubby fingers in various motions. He mumbled nonsense words and one fine morning, a fine ball of dust rose to meet his face. He was terrified. He ran, not once pausing to look back. Only after he turned two corners did he pause for breath. But it is magic! he thought to himself. Surely it could turn corners. Apparently the dust ball could not turn corners. In a daze he spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly.

He knew air was next. Air or what was the fifth element? An air ball wouldn’t scare him, but the fifth element bothered him. He had given up trying to control whatever this magic was, yet he wished he knew what he was doing. Somehow when the air ball came, he knew it would. He was wandering, and between his hands air began to whirl about. He felt a tightening of his gut and moved his hands. The air ball moved with it. Not believing, he gave his hands a shake. The ball wobbled. In a moment of excitement, he raised his right hand and forcefully pointed the palm outwards. The air ball whooshed out, eager to do its bidding. He expected it to crash into a wall and … the ball went straight for the wall, but instead of exploding, it split into two in with the impact. Every surface it hit, it split again. Within minutes there were a dozen small air balls the size of marbles, whirring around. He watched them with a dazed fascination. He came to consciousness suddenly and the air balls dropped to nothingness with a dozen tiny swooshes.


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