miercuri, 9 martie 2011

Internal Monologues

I went out today to pay the half-yearly water tax to the challengingly acronymed CMWSSB. When the city was called Madras it was the MMWSSB, but now it is the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board.

As I drove, listening to Pandit Shivkumar Shankar play the santoor on the CD player, I was remembering a conversation that took place at home yesterday. It was quite interesting and wide-ranging, and one of the topics was death. I mentioned the T*e*r*r*y S*c*h*i*a*v*o case, and said that we Americans just don’t seem to be able to handle death (vast generalisation, I know). I cannot imagine that such a thing could happen here, where death is acknowledged as what it is: part of nature, part of life. Our guest suggested that the reason is that Christians, (and other People of the Book), believe that there is only one life, and that makes them terrified of its ending. Hindus, Buddhists, etc. believe in many lives – it makes things seem more relaxed. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, of course, but it is an interesting thought. We talked about it, and then Ramesh joked that this janam-janam (life after life) business is the reason for Indians’ tendency to postpone everything: “There’s plenty of time, in the next janam we’ll see.” We laughed and moved on.

I also remembered, as I have many times, that when my father died, my mother refused to look at his body in the coffin – she had seen him for the last time being wheeled into the operating room – because she ‘didn’t want to remember him that way.’ But then she had to send my brother-in-law to look, before they closed the coffin, to make sure that it was really his body: otherwise she would have wondered, she said, whether they had mistakenly put someone else inside. How difficult, I thought, how different from the way death is handled here.

And then, waiting for the light to change, it suddenly struck me, for the first time in all these years, that I hadn’t looked at my father’s body either. I had also left it to my brother-in-law (though it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be anyone else in the coffin). I was so amazed – how had this never occurred to me before? -- that I missed the turning to Spurtank Road, and had to go all the way over the Chetpet Bridge, and a long way down Poonamallee High Road before I could turn around and come back. And then one stretch of the road was full of flower petals, mostly crushed into the pavement by the traffic, because a funeral procession (in which the body is carried on a kind of stretcher, decked with flowers, and with its face visible) had recently passed by. Which seemed charged, significant to me, although it wasn’t. And for several hours after that I would be doing my work, when a large exclamation point would pop up in my head: !!How?? and go away again.

When you pay the water tax you have to stand in line at the counter where someone looks into the computer to see what you owe. He writes it on a slip of paper, which you carry to the cashier’s window, where there is another line for payment. As I was waiting in the second, cashier’s line, three women walked into the office together, went up to the counter, and began shouting all at once. They went on and on, and everyone craned their necks to see. After a few minutes, from the official side of the counter, a Lady Officer moved forward and began gesticulating and shouting back. She was large and had an ugly face, and looked powerful – she had a smaller lady minion hovering behind her – but the three women did not stop their angry tirades. I thought snobbishly, That’s how uneducated women speak, so loudly... And then as I was going out, a well-dressed woman, whom I had heard speaking good English inside, was shrieking into her cellphone in the echo-chamber of the stairwell, so that I had to put my hands over my ears in order to get down the stairs and out.

Coonoor I

Overheard on the plane: "You have to look at the details, and only then you understand what life is. The basic principal, like, goes for a toss."

Coimbatore: We stepped out of the plane into light sprinkles of rain - I'd forgotten that expression: "It's sprinkling." Grey clouds, breeze. Hills rose in the distance, behind coconut groves.

A crucifix was wrapped around the car's rear-view mirror. On the bumpy stretches the wooden beads clacked slightly against the glass, as if raindrops were spattering on the windshield.

1:55 p.m., Mettupalayam; 2:10, "GHAT SECTION BEGINS" - a series of hairpin curves heading up into the hills; 3:00 arrival in Coonoor.

from the ghat road to Coonoor

We stayed at the Taj Garden Retreat in Coonoor. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century as a priory for the All Saints Church next door, and converted to a hotel in 1908. Bits and pieces have been added on ever since.

We had an enormous suite: a foyer big enough for a sofa and chairs; a living area with creaky wooden floors (the first wooden floors I have walked on for many years) and a fireplace; a bedroom; a smaller bedroom; a bathroom larger than the second bedroom. All of it was furnished with what looked like gleanings from someone's attic -- hill station style.

We ordered tea and sandwiches, and sat at a low table in the foyer to eat them. We kept the door open to let the cool damp air - it was drizzling lightly - inside. There was a basket of fruit on the table. I looked out the window and saw a furry brown monkey squatting on the roof of a nearby building. I said, "Look - a monkey!" Before R could even reply, if he had planned to, the monkey was inside. It was the size of a small dog. I was sitting on the floor; it was almost at my eye-level. I shouted, "No!", but it hardly glanced at me. In a flash it went to the fruit basket, grabbed a bunch of bananas, and was gone.

After dinner, a fire in the fireplace, made of "jungle wood."

In the night, the lights went out just as we were getting into bed. I thought I touched a stranger's warm leg there, and recoiled, but it was

Coonoor II

Coonoor II

(When I began writing about Coonoor, someone said, But I thought you were going to Ooty. So, to clarify, Ooty is the District Headquarters of Nilgiri District - like an American county seat - and Coonoor is a smaller, nearby town.)

I got up at 8:00 and went for a walk. The weather was variable, like spring: cool, breezy, then washed with warm sunlight, then with dark shadows. Tried to look hard at everything, picked up leaves and cones to draw. Later, after lots of breakfast, we sat at a white wrought-iron table on the lawn, and I painted what I had collected.

At dinner I warmed my hands around a hot toddy. I was busy pretending that it was colder than it actually was, with the fire every night and the hot water bottles and all. A piano player stumbled through old Hindi film songs in an almost-empty dining room (because the 'season' was over). At another table the waiter asked someone, "You are full vegetarian?" and she answered, "Not even mushrooms!"

The next day, after breakfast, the really, really good Chef Ramalingam showed me his herb garden: mint, lemongrass, basil, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, celery. I admired all of them and asked if he grew parsley. He said, "Parsley, monkeys take it. Monkeys my enemy."

Then we sat outside again, and two monkeys passed by, large and small, and paused, but not long enough for me to draw them properly. Growling and coughing. Then one male, three females with babies clinging under their bellies.

R watched the young Indian tennis player Sania Mirza lose in the second round of Wimbledon -- on the national TV channel, Doordarshan, with commentary in Chinese -- why?? I think that if Doordarshan ever modernised we'd miss its reliable weirdness. But not very much.

The day is punctuated by sirens from the tea gardens: the beginning and end of the work day, and the lunch break. Then there is the whistle and the chuff ... chuff ... of the so-called toy train, coming up from Mettupalayam on the plains to Ooty. And the grinding of trucks labouring up the hills, loaded with petrol; firewood; sacks of tea; everything that from outside comes by truck up the hairpin roads.

I stood looking up at a huge fir tree and tried to see it as light and shadow, but each mass of light had its own shadows. I would have to draw every needle. Then it stopped looking like a tree at all. Shadows within shadows.

Coonoor III

All Saints Church, Coonoor

I walked to the church, next door to the hotel. Buff-coloured stucco and a red-tiled roof. A monkey sat on the churchyard wall:

Its mouth turns up, but it is not smiling

I had just begun to draw a whole line of monkeys sitting on another wall, when the church sexton rode up on a motorcycle and introduced himself. He told me that he and his father had recently cleaned all the graves, which I had already noticed: all the pretty moss and lichen were gone.

AGED 32 YEARS. . .

The cemetery is so quiet, green and brown, built on uneven, sloped ground, the stones not in neat rows. The trees are not willows -- they are some kind of fir - but they 'weep,' drooping over the graves.

At dinner, from the next table: "He knows which side of the bread to butter properly."

Coonoor IV

Every bit of land that can be farmed, is -- mostly with tea. Only rocky outcroppings and the steepest slopes are forested.

An elderly lady, staying with her children in America: "In America, nothing has any taste - fruits, vegetables, even chicken. They grow everything with chemicals. I come here, and I can taste everything."

Sunday morning, 8:30: I walked behind All Saints Church and down Figure of Eight Road. All the shops were closed -- most of them connected to the tea industry. A group of ten young men trooped into a shopfront marked BAR, then immediately backed out again and sat on the curb laughing, to wait (I assume) for 9:00 a.m. opening time.

Birds: bulbuls, sparrows, flowerpeckers, pigeons, mynahs, seven rishis

What soft names: Coonoor. Ooty. A signboard for Oopoottil Trading Co.

We visited Beulah Farm, which grows herbs and fruits, and sells its own fruit jam. The road went up and up, over a steep hump, and then down, down down, until R asked if we were going to end up in Mettupalayam, on the plain. When we reached the place I went in alone; R stayed in the car, not interested. It was Sunday, and a small village church nearby - gaudy, decked with pennants - was broadcasting loud recorded hymns.

I walked down a flight of steps to a small house, or rather a series of huts, I think - it was hard to make it out - facing a very small open area of dirt. In that area were several birdhouses crowded with gorgeous white fantail pigeons, who perched there or hopped down to walk around on the ground; a couple of muscovy ducks; a sleepy dog.

The owner was Eapen Jacob, 81 years old, a Syrian Christian from Kerala -- tall, thin, with a long pale face, thin white hair, smiling. Or rather, "God is the owner - I'm only in charge." E welcomed me, and showed me around the rows of herbs, plucked sprigs for me - thyme, chives, lemon balm, lad's-love. There was rhubarb, and strawberries, and some fruit trees, on about 2 acres of land. He doesn't use pesticides, or chemical fertilisers; he keeps a few bees to pollinate the flowers. He told me twice that 'Beulah' means god's gift, and that he treats it as such. He behaved as though I were a welcome guest, not an idle tourist seeking diversion.

I was impressed with his sincerity and openness. I felt that he should meet R, so I said that I would call him in. E immediately went with me to invite him. We sat down in one of the small rooms and chatted. Then E said something about God - that everything is in His hands, perhaps. R said that there is no god, or if there is, he's absconding. E became very interested, and the two of them got into an intense conversation. I sat on the doorstep, sketching and listening.

Several children stopped to look at what I was drawing. I asked the dog's name - Jimmy. They laughed to see that I had drawn him, and that I wrote his name over the drawing.

E and R talked for about an hour, E insisting that there must be an intelligence behind the universe - but mildly. He paid close attention to R's arguments, in spite of their opposition to his own beliefs. He was looking for answers. And he was a little confused, because he was old.

Eventually we had to go. I bought some jam: Rhubarb, rhubarb-strawberry, orange marmalade; and E gave me plants as a gift to take back: chives, thyme, lads-love, spearmint. He was reluctant to take money for the jam - later, at the hotel, someone told me, "Eapen doesn't care for money - when you pay him for his jams he doesn't even take the money with his right hand. He takes it in his left hand and just throws it aside."

As he walked us back to the car, E was emotional, hugged R, said that he was an exceptional person. We all had tears in our eyes. I'm not explaining properly why he impressed me so much. I think he seemed to be a kind of holy innocent, with his beliefs, and his herbs, and his birds…

I said to him, inanely, "You seem to be a happy man." He opened his eyes wide in surprise, and said, "No! I have a question mark rising behind my head, not an exclamation mark - I am searching in the wilderness."

But R was making him laugh, too - he had a sense of humour. As R was getting in the car he said, "You have touched my heart. It is rare to meet such a good and decent person. I feel sorry for you - you need someone to protect you. Good luck." Then when we sat in the car, E tapped on R's window. When R opened it he said, grinning, "You mean you do believe in something? There is such a thing as luck?" R said, "No! You caught me! As soon as I said it I realised it was a mistake. I was hoping you hadn't heard me, but you did - it was the only lie of the day." Then they clasped hands, and we drove away.


Along with some Ayurvedic medicine that we bought yesterday, a bottle of honey was thrown in for free. The Tamil word for honey is then. I imagine that it's a very ancient word: my reasoning may be fallacious, but most Tamil words are not so short; and the one-syllable words that I know name simple things: aal = man; pen = woman; man = earth; kal = stone; thee = fire; neer = water.

But I don't think of the words' age when I use these others. There's something about honey, its thick goldenness, the resonance of the word then in my head, like a soft bell.