Category Archives: geography

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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Filed under fantasy, fiction, geography, kingdom, story, travel

Firangipani

In 1988 when we were the only inhabitants of our large apartment complex, a pig strayed into the play area one evening. This wasn’t as remarkable as what occurred next, an old lady in a colourful skirt-blouse apparel came running, panting with a rolling pin in hand and asked my mother pointedly ”Where’s that lil rascal? You seen ‘im? I got im proper now, he cant exape. Clive D’Silva, husband of that Gonzales baykoo, gave me galees. Twentyvees times and now he’s made my poor pig run off”. My mother then new to Mumbai, put it down to the city’s exceptional character and let the matter be except for reciting it at family gatherings.

Growing up in cosmopolitan Bombay it hardly seemed out of the ordinary to have a Meryl or Douglas as best friends, learn math from Anu Fernandez and get our cable connection from the very honorable abovementioned Clive D’silva. There was a thriving Christian community all around me, yet I only saw them as individuals, like coloured stones in a mosaic and not as part of a community. The inkling that they might be different from other Christians came to me much later, and therein I found a fascinating community, not a few feet away from home.

Half a kilometer from very snazzy high rises that house us, lies an ancient village and the fact that it has survived as a village to this day gives testament to the grit and fortitude of the people who occupy it. The East Indians are one of the earlier Christian communities of India, and native to the Mumbai area. Different from Goans, theirs is a chequered history that begins before the Portuguese arrived in this part of the world. They are scattered across the city in several parishes and to the outsiders appear only as old ladies dressed in gay skirts, going to church. Or as the local pao-walla. Once a year students of all creeds crowd at the fair outside the Mother Mary church in Bandra, the legendary goddess who is said to influence marksheets, regardless of performances.

Having known them at closer quarters I can attest to some more facts, their mouthwatering marzipans, their succulent plum cakes and the special Christmas rum cakes, their ‘bottle masala’ that only fussy old ladies know the recipe of. But the piece de resistance has to be their pao. Their pao making is elevated to an art, and the airy beauties make breaking bread somewhat of a fulfilling gastronomical experience. Then again maybe it’s their special singsong Marathi-konkani language whose mellifluousness permeates within the food. Hungry Mumbai that gobbles up pao by the kilotonnes scarcely pauses to reflect on this small humble slice of heaven.

Last week as a made my regular trip to Anthony bakery to get bread, “I’ll give you fresh sona pao, if you care to wait young man”, he said. So I took a walk into the small bylane and in an instant was transported into another world. Large coconut trees rose gracefully, amidst thick clumps of green shrubbery. An old house stood still, oblivious to the ravages of time and modernization that occurred not a step away. “Marjoram” it said in a faded red stencil, 1912. Further ahead lay “Marys abode, 1936”. Similarly sprawling pieces of history rose up on both sides of the lane which had become cobblestoned. Suddenly a bench materialized, with it two old ladies in their typical skirt-blouse dress gossiping about errant offspring. An old koli woman cried out “bombil” and soon there was a curious crowd about her. “Bombil already? Good good, get the masala ready Fiona” someone cried. Firangipani came next, this house seemed to be restored, painted white looking classically Goan, with a small altar of a benevolent Jesus raised on the outer wall, candles burning beneath it copiously. The lane continued occasionally littered with a car or two, with closely spaced houses, more palm trees and several wooden crosses on the roadside. An anachronistic aberration appeared to my left, in the form of a pani puri cart, only this one said “Mini-Vini Idlis”. Intrigued I inquired and was met by Mini Kurien, who married Jose Furtado from this very parish, at the local Holy Cross church (now housing a large convent school that invites Salman Khan to its annual day celebrations each year). Love converted Mini Kurien from Malyalee Syrian Christian to East Indian, and this was her evening pastime. Besides, idlis go very well with xacuti she said casually.

Lending a touch of surrealism was the fact that all this was happening in the midst of a bustling metropolis, but then the East Indians have always been here, we are the intruders in their world.

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Filed under childhood, geography, marathi

Bengalooru


Associations inevitably come into being aided by memories. And years later when the memories have no co-relation to the present the association still sticks, perhaps this is what constitutes nostalgia. Like or dislike for a place can stem in various ways. Some places have a romantic air about them that lend them a quality of Shangri-La. Some have an oppressive and foul name attached to them, like a malignant canker. The former and latter are talked often talked about leading us to attach epithets to those places. Some places are famous because of some natural attraction, or political importance. And there are some places that exist only on maps nestled along treacherous contours or nested unluckily in between page folds or margins; places that are just meaningless dots on a railroad.

For someone who is in the lesser twenties, talking about any earlier era seems redundant, even if the ensuing decades are littered with major changes. Even if I am a child of the new age, googling away to glory and crippled without wikipedia I cannot but look at the nineties with a simple longing. And my memories of the India I saw and experienced then threaten to go away to that wispy place where all memories eventually go to. The more I remember, the more I hazy it seems until the past and present merge into a continuum. So cutting a long thread short, my associations with places date mainly from the nineties. Chennai was the sunrise, temples and strains of MSS’s suprabhatam. Kolkata was a thirty six hour train ride on the Geetanjali and the fervent bleats of a goat before it splotched in blood, Mumbai was Bollywood and gangsters and Bangalore was for retired people.
Today’s Bangalore contrasts with my minds Bangalore with a violent clash amidst honks of incessant traffic. For a wide eyed kid taking in notes furiously ( yes yours truly scribbled in notebooks while travelling, made lists of stations encountered and described landscapes ), Bangalore was confusing even then. Was it a small city? Was it a large town? How could it be a city if it had such gorgeous weather ? I remember standing with my mouth wide open at the Visveswaraiyya technological museum, especially at a display showing a continuum machine with balls running though it. My mouth remained open as I awed at Kids Kemp, and stubbornly refused to close strolling along M G road with its book shops and old fashioned coffee houses and a tree lined pavement, Brigade road with all its ‘modern’ shopping and Ulsoor which suddenly seemed like a suburb of Chennai (I know I’m ruffling feathers here 😛 ). When the train pulled out of Cantt station, I silently prayed we got transferred and could live there. A recent trip to the city also had me agape, at the airport first, then at MG road where trees were furiously being hacked, but as India moves so must old sensibilities.
I wish this wizened twenty something could visit the Bangalore of the nineties again, but don’t we all want to relive the past?
PS: Happy birthday, to a pesky Banglorean.

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Filed under bangalore, city, geography, india, nostalgia, train, travel

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.

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Filed under culture, divinity, geography, india, region, religion, temple

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 clichéd 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.

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Filed under boston, driving, friends, geography, maps, massachusetts state routes, travel, vehicle

Season

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.

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Filed under bai, geography, india, mumbai, rains, vacation, weather

Encyclopedia Geographica

Most families discuss politics at dinner. Some well read ones bandy about famous words, and talk of Rushdie and Khalil Gibran. Still others watch soaps and grin at the vamp’s evil machinations. In my family, we talk. But none of that normal stuff for us. Being the dysfunctional unit that we are we talk geography. If this conjures up visions of people talking of Darfur and Patagonia, again dispel those. Let me elaborate.

Appa or Amma will start with where they went that day. The travelling spouse’s modes of transport would be acutely examined and then a long and protracted discussion would occur. Major roads would be discussed, the number of signals computed. The number of panwallahs, gutters to be navigated and the closest relatives abode from the point of destination would all be taken into consideration. Then the weather comes in. Mumbai being what it is, and more importantly where it is, you wouldn’t want to be flushed away in the rains. Hence all previous parameters would be voided in the face of the south western winds and newer, drier routes plotted.

Hinduism neatly divides the year into two halves, one replete with festivals, the other conspicuous by their absence. Travelling secular Mumbai in dakhshinayan compounds life. Amidst all the mandaps, mandals, makeshift temples and human detritus thronging them appointments must be made, offices reached on time and examinations be vomited upon. This is where we really excel. Sample this actual quote by my father to a bewildered rikshawallah: “Don’t take the left at the Church like you normally do, instead take a U-turn, immediately get into the housing society, pass through it and leave form the other gate. Never mind their watchman ill take care of him (!). Then get into the bus depot, circle the lake, go the opposite direction through that one-way and you will see a small gap between two trees, go through that, and you will be the first to reach the station today. Don’t thank God, thank me, and you will live to see another traffic jam”. Needless to say rickshaws avoid us like the plague.

Bandhs and political stirs leave all people scared and wary. My parents call too, but with detailed instructions on reaching back avoiding all the ‘political hotspots’ of the city (usually involving walking alongside stinky gutters, trespassing through several plots of private property and in one case, going through a tabela. No the cows weren’t pleased either).

Records, inevitably are set. “My husband can reach the mall under heavy traffic in a matter of seconds” Amma will proudly boast. In a benevolent mood she might even confide “We take a right turn at the vegetable market. Cuts 13.7 minutes, but watch out for cabbage peels.” These candid confessions sometimes lead to us bumping our rival families on one of ‘our’ secret routes leading my parents to froth at the mouth and devise newer, faster (and decidedly shadier) routes. We could give Google Earth a run for their money any day!

Talents rarely stay hidden and we are the local neighborhoods preferred database. Recently my father went a step further and lectured a cousin on how to find her way. Nothing wrong in it except that she was in Chennai and he in Mumbai. “Don’t listen to that autofellow, no train comes at that level crossing, just go across and you’ll reach home in time for dinner”. I was stumped. Amma, unfazed added for good measure that if my cousin took a particular lest turn she could pass by a temple too (and thank God for geographic mastermind relatives?).

All this knowledge isn’t gainsay. We have an original Rand Mc Nally atlas 1985 edition. It is a work of art no less. Mapping the entire globe form Cambodia to the Caucasus, Buenos Aires to Bangkok (with helpful footnotes on how to get to Juneau from Jakarta). The bloody thing must weigh a ton if anything at all. Then there are countless Indian atlases, from various publications. Also every time we take a vacation, as souvenirs we collect maps. So we have maps of almost all major Indian cities, two towns and some vague scribbles detailing a hidden Shiva temple a few kilometers off the railway tracks at Arakkonam. And then Appa bring maps from his sojourns abroad. So I know the way to wadi Haifa from Sharjah, and that the river through Gloffhausenbach has no bridges on it (leading me to pontificate if all Germans prefer wading to walking, but there is a time and place for every discussion). The digital age taught us to operate Google maps and latest versions of Google Earth are downloaded as soon as they are available.

A few weeks ago, I saw Amma reading a book on the Solar system (National Geographic special edition, weighs another ton and is a beautifully informative book). Houston, be scared. We are almost up there. “Beam me up Amma”

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Filed under books, family, festival, funny, geography, maps, travel