'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A 'Magic Mountain'

This post is part of the Gujarat series but stands apart in many ways, just as Mount Girnar rises unreally from the 'ironed out' expanse of Kathiawar.

I first encountered Girnar long ago, in the Amar Chitra Katha volume on 'Ranak Devi' (*). Many years on, I read somewhere about a rock edict put up by Emperor Asoka (3rd centure BC) near there. And the only thing I knew about the more modern town of Junagad, which lies at the foot of Girnar, was that it almost became Pakistan during Partition - the local Nawab initially opted to 'go across' and was forced to stay back in India.

A couple of weeks back, I read in my travel guide book that Mount Girnar is a 1100 meter extinct volcano(!) and has several Jain and Hindu temples at its summit and is quite a challenge to climb.

September 21st 2007: Our car leaves Veraval in the morning. The plan: as our main party will explore Junagad and its Nawabi monuments, I shall go off and try to trek up Girnar. I have never seen a volcano before, even an extinct one...

The 100 km drive from Veraval to Junagad is thru flat country. There has been excessive rain this year(some of which showers on us as we proceed) and there is greenery all around. But the driver/guide tells us the downside of it: "all the peanut crop has rotted away!"

We pass country men wearing the exotic 'khadiyun' and 'Mer topis' ( a costume, minus the topis, heavily favored by dandiya dancers in urban India), Kathiawar cattle with big and gracefully curving horns and yes, 'Shakat Rikshas' carrying dense masses of people(**). A cluster of massive hills rises up ahead - Girnar.

The climb begins at the base of the hill at 9 am; the driver says: "the entire pathway is neatly stepped, in fact it is like 4-5 steps, then a flat stretch, then 4-5 steps, like that; there are chai shops all the way. The only real issue is your fitness... or faith; actually both!". As I start off past a gateway and a crowd of shops, he wishes me luck with a 'Jai Bhole Baba!'.

The weather is moderate and cloudy and that should help...

The path climbs thru a forest of broad-leafed trees; a gloriously colored peacock generally loiters in a clearing. About 20 minutes from the start, I see written on a step: "500". Before long, I see a "550"; clearly the number of steps passed. Initially, it is reassuring to see your progress precisely quantified thus but soon after, it begins to irritate and then depress: "1000, 1050, 1100,..." progress seems too slow and the legs start complaining; and some folks I easily overtook a short while ago steadily file past me, among them a tough young fellow carrying a cargo of 60 filled soft drink bottles ( yes, I counted them, they were neatly stacked). All confidence in my physical fitness has evaporated...

After around 1500 steps, one is above the treeline and the grassy slopes begin. The path hereon is a lot steeper; it is now "10-20 steps, then a flat, then 10-20 steps". By around 2000 steps, I am struggling. Then, I start seeing successive groups of villager pilgrims coming downhill; must be those who climbed early in the morning for the temple Darshan. Many of them, while passing me wish: "Jai Girnari!". I hear myself gasping the same slogan, first as a matter of courtesy, and then it becomes something of a necessity, a lifeline...

At 2500, a soft drink vendor says: "Ambaji (goddess) temple is at 5000. Thereon, it is an up and down journey - not all the way up - to first Gorakhnath and then Dattatreya temples." It is already an hour from start; I say to him bravely: "Guess in another hour I will reach Ambaji. I will do at least that!"

Soon afterwards, there is a surprise benediction: a stiff breeze starts and riding on it, a mass of clouds pass over with a gently refreshing shower. Soon it clears and vast views open up below, a swathe of forest, the sprawl of Junagad town and the limitless stretch of countryside beyond... slopes with millions of strawberry colored blooms alternate with sheer rock faces. The energizing breeze persists and I sort of find a second wind within. Before long I reach a plateau at 4000 - here is a cluster of over a dozen Jain temples, elegantly proportioned, intricately carved, many with domed ceilings with ornate mosaic patterns. Several of these temples have been left unmaintained and grasses and moss have sprouted all over - making them strangely more beautiful than they would otherwise have been. I don't tarry but proceed, pausing only occasionally and very briefly to enjoy the views. Almost precisely at 2 hours, I reach Ambaji, take a quick snap of the centuries old stone built temple, gulp down a bottle of 'limca' and strike out for Gorakhnath. The views are now practically 360 degree; one can see several dozens of kiometers of green plains in all directions, fading far away into a blue obscurity; there are no other hills anywhere near the Girnar cluster(perhaps the closest and the only other (and much smaller) group in the entire Kathiawar are the Shatrunjay hills at Palitana, almost 150 kilometers away).

The path from Ambaji is initially down (about 200 steps); then a sharp climb of well over 500 steps takes you to Gorakhnath. Some strange sadhus hang around this small temple. I pause to look back at Ambaji and ahead at Datta. The latter is particularly impressive, an almost pencil thin crag of granite thrusts up from a ridge running on from Gorakhnath and the Datta temple itself seems just an outcrop from the very tip. I am reminded of pictures of the Meteora and Mount Athos monasteries in Greece.

Though exhausted, I proceed. Again, the initial direction is downwards. The path twists down in stretches of up to 50 steps at a time and one cannot make out how far it is going to descend before climbing up again towards Datta....

At almost 1000 steps down from Gorakhnath, there is a small pond called 'Kamandal Kund' and the climb to Datta finally begins; stepcount wise, it is equal to the descent from Gorakhnath and, if anything, even steeper - the 'Jai Girnari's of oncoming villagers spur me on.

(I must say here, at least a third of the several hundreds of trekkers I see today are women - I hear one of them tell a companion, "I made a vow to come hear to ward off an evil spell". Separately, at least a quarter of the trekkers are 40 plus - and I saw several 70 plus couples, patiently working their way uphill, armed with little more than a stick. These men and women have amazed me far more than this very remarkable mountain itself).

Perched at the top of the 'Datta crag' is a temple, housing a big idol of Dattatreya - and guarded by a tough looking Sadhu and a pushy cop. Up close, the temple is an ugliness of tin sheet and concrete and worse, blocks out a full three quarters of the view from there. I pause briefly at the summit and look out into the remaining open quadrant, straining my eyes to catch something familiar in the distance. There is some cloud cover. I venture to ask the cop if one can see the sea (80 kilometers to the south, by the map) on a clear day. The incredulous answer is: "The sea?? where is the sea here?? ... go to Veraval or Somnath!"

Even the sense of achievement of having climbed all the three peaks of Girnar is of little help while negotiating the return to Gorakhnath and then to Ambaji, the most arduous part of the entire trek. Creaking joints, painfully twitching muscles, dehydration...; even a water bottle and camera feels like a ton; the superb views are no real help... and it is a long while before I stagger onto the the abode of the 'lady of the mountain' (***). It is 1 pm - the round trip from Ambaji to Datta and back has taken two full hours. I need to begin the final descent immediately; I have told 'High Command' that I would return by 2 pm and am behind the clock...

Presently, the Jain temple complex appears below, a fresh wave of clouds lapping at it. I climb down as fast as I can and pass them once again (there is unfortunately no time left to explore them) and I proceed, wishing "Jai Girnari" to fresh climbers struggling uphill; progress is mercifully quicker than expected, the step count falls fast and soon I am below the treeline. As I hasten to reach the base, I again encounter the peacock I saw in the morning at almost the same spot. And 2.10, the trek is finally over at the archway.

The driver is impressed with my 'progress report': "I have never gone past Ambaji in many attempts. My condition gets too bad by then." he says. I respond: "My condition was bad as well; but unlike you, I dunno if I will ever get another chance so forced myself to do the whole thing." (Today, almost a week down the line, the legs ache..)

After a short break to look at Asoka's edict(****) at the foot of the mountain, we begin our return to Veraval. On the way, we ask a villager whether we can buy his kind of 'Mer topi' anywhere. He says (driver's translation): "Only in villages you get it. Anyways, what use is it to you city people?"

Afterword: Is Girnar really a volcano? There is no 'fire and brimstone' anywhere; the mountain probably is the eroded stump of what must have been once upon a time, a gigantic mass of granite - yes, granite is a volcanic rock all right and Girnar might even be the remnant of the 'frozen' magma chamber of some long gone volcano; but is that enough to say "Girnar is a volcano"? I dunno! Overall, appearance-wise and feel-wise, Girnar is like a much bigger (and in parts, much more rugged) version of 'Ananganmala', a tight group of granite hills which sharply rise to around 1400 feet from the plains of north-central Kerala.

(*) The story of Ranak Devi, which I found quite depressing when I read it as a highschooler, goes like this: Ranak is the beautiful daughter of a village nobleman and is betrothed to Siddharaj, king of Gujarat. Khengar, the king of rival Sorath (Saurashtra, approximately, Kathiawar), falls in love with her, she too falls for him and they elope and get married. In a sequence of events reminscent of 'Iliad', an angry Siddharaj beseiges Sorath; the battles drag on for years, during which Ranak becomes mother to two sons...

Finally, thru deceit and trickery, Siddharaj scores a decisive victory, kills Khengar in battle and marches triumphantly into the citadel where Ranak waits prayerfully for her husband. And when she comes to know her husband's fate, she says rather matter of factly: "I will commit Sati. My husband will be avenged by my sons". Siddharaj promptly kills her sons; then he drags Ranak out on to the battlefield, where lies the slain Khengar. She begs him to arrange for a funeral to her husband, but Siddharaj decapitates the body and makes off carrying the head; Ranak tags along, begging him to give it back so that she can become a Sati but he does not relent. That night, Siddharaj has a nighmarish vision and scared, tells Ranak that he will finally arrange for the funeral.

In the morning, he sets up the pyre, and a large crowd gathers; Ranak sits atop the pyre with Khengar's head in her lap. But then in a final twist, Siddharaj warns: "Anybody who lights the pyre will be beheaded!". No one steps forward. An outraged Ranak curses the villagers causing a perennial river nearby to dry up forever. Then, she tearfully prays to goddess Amba and the pyre miraculously lights up. Once the flames die down, having consumed Ranak along with Khengar's head, the villagers scramble to pick up the holy ashes. Ranak Devi is still venerated in these parts as a noble 'Sati'.

Now, where is Girnar in all this? While following the triumphant Siddharaj's caravan, the distraught Ranak calls out to a huge mountain which is on the way: "O, Girnar, are you blind? Do you not see your Queen's fate?". Suddenly, a terrible avalanche of rocks begins, threatening to tear the mountain apart. Ranak says: "Enough, Girnar! Please do not destroy yourself!" and the rockfall miraculously stops...

Btw, Ranak cursing the hapless villagers (rather than Siddharaj) is reminiscent of Kannagi burning down the entire city of Madurai just because its king unjustly had her husband executed - of course, in that story, the king too perishes, overcome by guilt - and Kannagi finds her 'assumption' with Indra himself coming down, chariot and all, to receive her!

(**)The 'shakat riksha' is a centaur-like combination of a diesel powered Bullet mobike and a simple cart. It can carry upwards of a dozen people at moderate speeds with a lot of sound and smoke. In these parts of Gujarat, very poorly served by the state owned buses, these rikshaws form the backbone of the public transport. Almost all of these rikshaws are lovingly decorated with brightly painted landscapes, floral and other designs and pictures of heroes like Rana Pratap and Sivaji. This ornamentation reminds me of the highly ornamented Pakistani buses, which I have of course, seen only in pictures.

(***)The word 'Girnar' is probably a corruption of 'Girinagara' ('mountain city'), a pre-Christian town that flourished in the same area. The word 'Girnari' can be taken to mean either "the (male) resident/lord of Girnar" ( could apply to Gorakhnath or Datta) or alternatively, "the nari (woman/lady) of the giri ( mountain)" (goddess Amba of course).

(****) The Asokan edict of Girnar is one of his 'major rock edicts'. The inscriptions are in Brahmi on a large, smooth, elephant-sized rock. Among other things, it talks about Dhamma and has a passage about kindness to animals: " our royal kitchen, hundreds of animals used to be killed everyday (quite an abattoir, wasnt it?); now only two peacocks and a deer are killed per day and this will also be curtailed eventually..."

Wonder if 'King Piyadassi, the beloved of Gods' himself regularly feasted on the 'pea-chicken' and venison while the rest of the palace-folk were forced to adopt vegetarianism! I am reminded of the splendid specimen I saw on the foothills of Girnar...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Glimpses of Gujarat - Porbandar, Somnath and Back

(this is the third part of the present series)
September 20th 2007:

We leave Dwaraka around 2 pm by car and take the coastal highway running south-east towards Porbandar. The terrain is flat, scrubby and treeless; the sea keeps giving glimpses to the right. To begin with the weather is hot and bright. Then, from the south, a huge mass of dark rainclouds approach menacingly...

Rain breaks as we reach the village of 'Mul Dwaraka'. A small group of small temples stand next to the highway, one of them, rather surprisingly, dedicated to Buddha. And there is a small stepped well ('Vav'), unique in its L-shaped plan and teeming with frogs, next to the temples. Nobody around. A large number of pigeons sit silent and motionless on the spire of the main temple, soaking in the driving rain...

The rain abates as Porbandar is approached across a bridge spanning a wide creek with mangroves and a huge crane population. The core town is conjested - with narrow concreted gullies. In antiquity, this place used to be the home of Sudama, Krishna's friend. In more modern times, it was of course, the birthplace of Gandhi.

Finding Gandhi's 'janmasthan' is easy - although asking for "Gandhiji's home" takes some effort. In childhood, one never used to say his name without the honorific 'ji' but with age and cynicism having taken their toll, one has gotten used to saying just 'Gandhi' (formally); and in informal (not necessarily irreverent) conversation, one says 'Gandhimmaan' (='uncle Gandhi') in Malayalam and 'Gandhi Baba' in Hindi.

We reach a chowk hemmed in by large buildings all of which look centuries old - 4 gallies lead away thru large and ornate arches. A Gandhi statue stands in the center. Just into one of the Gallies is the building where the great man was born - it is a simple and boxy, though three storey structure. Most of it is closed for renovation. The precise place where he was born is marked with a swastika. Strangely, it is in almost in the front room of the ground floor.

There is a grand (almost gross) memorial to Gandhi that almost envelopes the 'janmasthan'. Called the 'Kirti Mandir', it contains, among other things, a poignant exhibition of black and white photos.

Next to the 'Sudama Mandir' temple, there is a maze laid out on the ground - and many people are trying to pick their way thru it. The design seems a copy of (at least it is reminiscent of) one of the intricate wall decorations at Ibrahim Rauza, Bijapur.

Some way past Porbandar, the highway runs for about 3-4 kilometers right next to the sea along a beach and then, it abruptly veers inland (and stays parallel to the coast). And the landscape changes just as abruptly; it gets suddenly much greener and stands of coconut trees materialize all around(so far our journey has been 'treeless'). This stretch, continuing until Veraval and beyond, is strongly reminiscent of the highway between Pondichery and Kadalur, Tamil Nadu...

We bypass the fishing town of Veraval and reach Somnath by around 8 pm and proceed straight to the temple. This temple, another of the 12 Jyotirlingas (in fact our second for the day) is of recent make. It has risen, post 1950, replacing the ruins left by successive demolitions by invaders. The temple is big and stands right next to the sea in a vast park with lawns and is brightly lit at night. The design is North Indian but there is plenty of sculptural decoration in Southern style. In a quick run thru, one could make out several 'Nataraja's, the marriage scene of Shiva and Parvati with Vishnu performing the 'Kanyadanam' as the bride's brother, and very surprisingly, yet another copy of the dynamic 'Gajasamhara'.

The book says a small museum nearby houses a collection of whatever debris could be salvaged from the demolished temple. Unfortunately, we leave ourselves no time to check it out.

For the next two days, we camp at 'Safari' resort - leaky bathrooms and bug infested cots - and passable food.

September 22nd 2007:

6 pm. We leave 'Safari' and take a 'ric' to Veraval station (to begin our return journey to Pune via Ahmedabad and Mumbai). The road leads right across the town. The place is full of boat building units and other odd workshops, and there is an all pervading stench of fish. There is a strong Mallu presence(*), brought about by the fishing industry - one sees a board in crude Malayalm script advertising a 'fish and prawn processing unit' and then, more remarkably, another board in English and Mallu: "Dr. Solanki".

Nearing the station, the road skirts a bay - the fishing harbor. Literally hundreds of boats crowd the waters; the murky twilight sky bristles with a jungle of masts and riggings; and fluttering all over this chaos are innumerable national tricolor flags. Strangely enough, one is reminded of two Monet masterpieces - 'Impression: Sunrise' (with a bit less murk and minus the red dot of the sun) and 'La Rue Montorgueil' (minus the buildings and green replacing blue in the tricolored flags).

September 23rd 2007:
We wake up as our train reaches 'Amdavad'. A 3 hour wait ensues before the train to Mumbai leaves. The run from Ahmedabad to Surat is strongly reminiscent of the railway line leading north from Chennai. Double tracks, a very high frequency of trains pulled by fast electric locos, flat and generally monotonously green terrain, wide rivers to cross (here, the intensity of cultivation is somewhat less than on the east coast and there is more variety in crops and more and bigger cities). Narmada at Bharuch handily beats Krishna at Vijayawada as the widest river I have seen (I have not yet seen Godavari at Rajamundry or anything wider than that). Past Surat, hills slowly begin to punctuate the eastern horizon - the extreme tip of the western ghats the map says - and gradually, they grow bigger and more craggy. The journey ends, in Dadar at 4 pm, and we haul our luggage across to the Asiad Bus Stand in a steady drizzle to catch a 'volvo' to Pune.

(*) - I remember the first time I heard about Veraval. It was a quarter of a century ago; a Mallu newspaper had written a series of luridly sentimental articles on the very real fate of some young girls from impoverished families in Kerala; lured to this place with promises of work in the fish processing centers, they were often cruelly exploited and sometimes, allegedly, even tortured to death.

Glimpses of Gujarat - Dwaraka And Around

September 19th 2007:

('We have landed' at Dwaraka around 4 am by train from Mumbai, as narrated in the last post here. This is the second part of the Gujarat series)

Dwaraka, believed to be the remnant of a great city in mythology, is now a small town with ramshackle buildings and sandy gallies (and busts of local luminaries at several of the intersections); it is underdeveloped (a very comfortable and subsidised lodge maintained by Reliance apart), and considering its importance as a centre of pilgrimage, sees rather few visitors (in our 24 hours in the area we do not see a single Mallu and just 2-3 firangees). Even Iskcon seems uninterested, apart from having erected a big, squat gateway at the entrance of the town. The weather is reminiscent of Chennai - hot, humid, sticky...

A slim and shallow river flows into the sea and on its bank, near its mouth stands the temple of Krishna ('Dwarkadhish'), naturally, the focus of the town. Approaching the temple along the river bank, one sees a bearded firangee seated in mediation on the steps leading into the river; a wandering cow approaches and prods him, he presently gets up (he is very tall), takes off his shirt and gets into the bath-tub deep river for a holy(?) dip. I am to see him again a couple of days later on the summit of Mount Girnar...

The temple foundations are at a rather high level and a slender Vimana tower rises dizzily over the sanctum to a height of over 100 feet (the dimensions are not really awesome but from the perspective of a narrow galli that leads to it, the tower's rise is quite vertiginous). A huge, brightly colored flag flutters near its summit - it is apparently ceremonially changed twice a day, each time with a new design. The temple is built of a greyish sandstone (?) which seems to be weathering fast in the salty winds from the sea.

The main idol in the temple shows Krishna as dark (indeed black), two-armed and seemingly holding up a snake; none of his weapons - the discus for instance - is to be seen. The 'Arati' takes aeons - the deity is hidden behind a curtain, a large crowd of pilgrims gather and wait impatiently for Darshan, and keep raising chants and slogans ('Victory to Dwarkadhish!', interesting, the devotee wishing God success, a phenomenon common all over Northern India) and it gets very suffocating in the milling crowd...

As part of the temple complex, there is a Mutt run by devotees of Sankaracharya where one can see plaster reliefs of varios events in the Master's life, from his childhood in Kerala (well, 'Kerala' is never mentioned) to his final disappearance in the snows of Kedarnath. The Mutt also does some serious trading in religious books and paraphernalia - the salesman shows us chains of crystals with alleged medicinal powers... And there is plenty of kitschy plaster reliefs of Gods, Saints and others and among them, I am surprised to see a copy of the Gajasamhara relief (Shiva killing an elephant demon, a Chola period masterpiece from Tanjavur, Tamil Nadu).

September 20th 2007:
We leave early by car. The first halt, about a dozen kilometers from Dwarka, is the Nageshwar Mahadev temple - said to be one of the 12 holiest Shiva temples ('Jyotirlingas') in the country. The temple does not have many visitors at this time of the day, but there are several priests standing in a line 'canvassing' for various special Pujas. Next to the temple is a colossal statue of Siva, seated (about 50 feet tall) In the morning sunshine, there are dozens of parakeets flitting around; some have perched on the prongs of the lord's trident, and one sits on the tip of the forked tongue of the serpent resting in coils around his neck....

Gopi Talab, a little farther ahead, is a long pond, adjoining which stand several small temples. At least two fo them show stones (with 'Ram' written on them) floating in water. One can touch them and they feel wooden, although they look stony all right. 'Semi-petrified wood'?

In one of the temples, the main priest is adjuring the pilgrims to buy "Rukmini's sindoor, only 5 rupees per jar, essential for your journey to be successful". ...

There are plenty plaster reliefs and effigies of divinities in these temples. Vishnu assuming the form of a merman (not the full fish of Matsya Avatara) to duel with the demon Shankhasura, who is himself half man and half conchshell, has stayed in mind; there is a 'life-size' tableau of Vishnu resting on Sesha, a huge lotus emerging from his navel and Brahma (as big as Vishnu) emerging in turn from the lotus..

On the main road, just outside the village, stand a cluster of stone slabs painted with human figures - men on horseback, demure women in saris,...; we are told they are votive offerings to spirits of ancestors. At any rate, they seem to be objects of active veneration.

We reach Okha at 10 am. This is a small port which lies at the tip of a small peninsula projecting north into the gulf of Kutch from the main Kathiawar peninsula. Boats leave frequently, ferrying pilgrims and others to the small island of Bet Dwarka, another place associated with Krishna. The temples are in a complex of double storey buildings, connected by passages and courtyards. All buildings have ornate and brightly painted balconies and are embellished with various designs.

Outside, there is a busy bazaar. I decide to buy a Gujarat road atlas for our further journey. The seller says "That will be Forty rupees". I look over the book and play Harishchandra: "but it is printed 'Fifty rupees' at the back!". And he responds: "Oh, they have just printed 'fifty'. The actual(?) price is forty!"

On our return to Dwaraka, we halt briefly at the Rukmini temple, just outside the town. Braving the midday sun, nearly 50 sadhus sit silently in neat rows in front of the temple. As we leave after a quick Darshan, one of them comes forward and says in Hindi: "Alms please. Just give me whatever you please and all the Sadhus will share it equally." The others just look at us hopefully; and presently, one of them speaks - in Tamil, perhaps having overheard our Malayalam: "yes brother, what he said is true. We share whatever you please to give!"

Afterword: The area around Dwaraka (Bet Dwaraka and Nageshwar in particular)are known to contains remnants of Harappan civilization. I did not know about this when we were there.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Glimpses of Gujarat - Across 'India's Mandible'

Note: When in childhood, I first saw India's map, Gujarat, or more precisely, the peninsula of Kathiawar (of course, I did not know the names then), struck me as shaped like a lower jaw - with the gulf of Kutch the open mouth. And I still think Kathiawar is almost as mandibular as Italy is a booted leg or Eritrea is a horn. This post is the first in a series on a recent trip there.

September 19th, 2007:

We wake up as our train (the Sourashtra Mail, bound for Dwaraka and Okha) pulls into Ahmedabad station at around 5 am. I stagger out half-asleep and a robust shot of tea - surprisingly reminiscent in flavor of the heady stuff one still gets at some railway stations in Kerala - served up by a stall on the platform instantly revives me.

"Monotonous, enigmatic and sometimes sinister..." - that was E M Forster on the Indian landscape as seen from the train window. And I am expecting monotony for the day - endless scrub, dusty towns, a bit of sea and maybe some salt pans towards the end. This is a trip to places which were never really on my wish-list - and I have no serious expectations and have made no preparations except the bare minimum of bringing a guide book along.

Ahmedabad is left behind soon ( from the train, it looked a rather run down and tired city, not the nerve center of India's most enterprising state) and for the next few hours, the train traces a broad arc into and across Kathiawar. Time for a big surprise! the countryside to the north and west of Ahmedabad, while almost absolutely flat, is dotted with wetlands, small lakes and ditches (this year the rains have been excessive) and hosts an amazing variety of birds - mostly migratory water birds. The emissions and effluents from the chemical factories which pockmark the region do not seem to have put them off. I spot several peacocks, a big night heron perched on a tree (I confirm this identification later from Salim Ali's guide, left behind at home in Pune) and a few grey herons, foraging in the slush. Swarms of a large stork (6 foot plus wingspan) have settled here and there. Occasionally, the entire group (dozens) takes off, rises to a few tens of feet and then they all glide down together, in slow motion. And then, there is a remarkable specimen - a slender white bird about 4 feet tall, 75 percent of which is taken up by the neck (seemingly capable of a 'telescopic' contraction in length as well as being twisted down while in flight) - the kind of vital statistics I have seen only in pictures of ... diplodocuses! And then there is bird which I imagine, is the great Indian Bustard.

At Wankaner station, a few steam locomotives, relics of a long gone era, simply rust away... Here onwards, as the train enters Kathiawar proper, the wetlands grow fewer, although the terrain stays flat; it grows quite hot and sultry and the bird-show is mostly over (or they are just resting in the vegetation). Thorny scrub dominates and stands of cactus form hedge rows. Agriculture is not intensive. And a few peapals apart, there are few trees. There are plenty of cattle though - and some are spectacular. The oxen seem as big and strong (perhaps a shade bulkier) as the Ongole bulls from the South; but their horns are the real spectacle - up to six feet in span, they are shaped like a graceful curly brace in frontal view, and near the tips, they have an extra twist backwards - thus tracing a proper 'space curve'. And here is a hen-sized bird foraging on the ground; it has a reddish crown and a long bill curving downwards - Salim Ali's guide is silent on this guy although 'curlew' comes close.

Jamnagar approaches and a vast swathe of marshland and salt encrusted flats opens up to the north. The gulf of Kutch is not far and the guide book says, there is a marine wildlife sanctuary out there. A huge petrochemical complex crawls into view, its complex jungle of structures crowding out a huge portion of the horizon.

The Arabian Sea appears to the left as a shiny blue sliver by about 3 pm. Another half hour and the largely blank landscape suddenly sprouts a few scattered temple towers. At 4, the train drops us at Dwarka, our destination for the day.
(the story continues in subsequent posts)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Bit More From Neruda And ...

I confess, this post will turn out to be more about self than about Neruda himself. Anyways, I begin with a quote from the poet's 'Memoirs'. The context, Neruda's visit to the Duke of Alba's palace in Spain, during the civil war.

"Naturally, I was interested in the bedrooms where so many Albas had slept, with their nightmares brought on by the Flemish ghosts who had come to tickle their feet at night. Those feet were gone but the largest collection of shoes I have ever seen was conspicuously there.... unbelievable and incalculable. Long glassed-in shelves that reached the ceiling held thousands of shoes.
Beside the Duke's bed, was a little print in a gold frame whose Gothic characters caught my eye. Caramba!, I thought, it must be the Alba's family tree. I was wrong. It was Kipling's 'If' - that uninspired, sanctimonious poetry, precursor of 'Readers' Digest', whose intellectual level, in my opinion, was no higher than that of the Duke of Alba's shoes. May the British Empire forgive me!"

I asked myself: Do I agree with Neruda there? Critical opinion of Kipling's poem has, at least in recent times, been quite low. Wikipedia says: "Despite the poem's immense popularity many critics deride "If—" as little more than doggerel and a list of aphorisms strung together.... George Orwell (ridiculed) people who only knew "If—" "and some of his more sententious poems". And yes, 'preachification and rhetoric' which I found off-putting in communist poetry (as I said in the last post here), can be held up as vices "If" suffers from.

I studied "If" at Junior College. For a teenager with grandiose dreams of making it big as a scientist, it was a big shot in the arm. And now, almost a generation down the line (or down the drains), at least these lines ring a bell deep within, whatever their poetic merit and ideological foundation (no, I have not put up the poem above my bed):

"(If you can) watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Getting To Know Neruda

This should be one of the longest posts here, and I know, even as I start typing, it is going to be one of the best.

I first heard of Pablo Neruda as a Junior Collegian. The context was probably very left-wing so I thought he was just another of "those commie revolutionary poets" (although I was quite sympathetic to socialist ideals, I also used to be put off by what I felt was the black and white preachification and rhetoric of many lefties, including desi commie poets). And I did not know then that Neruda was a 'Nobelist'.

Many years later, I received a post card from Gyani. It was from a place called Ushuaia near the southern tip of South America. He had just finished his sweep thru Argentina and reached "this small town near the Antarctic circle and overlooking the Beagle Channel". The message ended, "Now Chile, and Neruda's ghost". That was, for self, the first 'intimation of (Neruda's) immortality'.

Just a few days after that, I chanced upon a bilingual edition of Neruda's 'Residence on Earth' in the rather unlikely location of a pavement shop in Aurangabad. I have changed my own residence nearly a score times since then and this book has always moved with me with a few dozen others - although, let me confess, I could seldom fathom the poetry.

A few months back, I got to see the lovely Italian film "Il Postino" where Neruda appears as a sagely elder instructing a provincial postman on the subtleties of love and metafore. The two men cycling against the backdrop of what must be the bluest sea on Earth was an unforgettable image.

And, the other day, I borrowed Neruda's Memoirs from a friend. There was no real intent to read it fully (I rarely am able to finish books nowadays). Surprisingly, the book had an *index*; and therein was an entry for Nehru. I went straight to Neruda's encounter with the great man - it was so real, so human and yes, so utterly devoid of logic. One particular sentence was mindblowing: "I am very slow to react, and unfortunately for me, I am not malicious". I was hooked; and read the whole thing in a day and a half.

Let me key in a couple of passages, from the several dozens that I loved (Unfortunately, the poet does not mention the endearing 'postino' anywhere; maybe he never existed).

1. (from the passage on poet Alberto Rojas Gimenez):
"His lovely poems went around all wrinkled in his pockets, without ever, to this day, getting published.

Being generous to a fault, he attracted so much attention ... one day, in a cafe, a stranger came up to him and said, "Sir, I have been listening to you talk and I have taken a great liking to you. May I ask you something?" "What is it?" Rojas Gimenez asked, looking put out. "Let me leap over you." the stranger said. "What?" the poet asked. "Are you so powerful that you can leap over me here, sitting at a table?" "No, sir," the stranger said meekly. "I want to leap over you later, when you are resting in your coffin. It's my way of paying tribute to the interesting people I have met in my life: leaping over them, if they let me, after they are dead. I am a lonely man and this is my only hobby." and taking out his notebook, he said, "here is a list of people I have leaped over".

Wild with joy, Rojas Gimenez accepted the strange proposition.....

2. About the Nobel prize about which Neruda himself says: "Every writer on this planet would really like to get the Nobel sometime, whether he admits it or not":

"... In 1963, things got serious. The radios repeatedly said my name was very strong in the voting in Stockholm and I would probably be the winner of the Nobel. So, Matilde and I put into effect home defence plan number 3. We laid in supplies of food and red wine and hung a huge padlock on the old gate... expecting to be under seige for some time.

The newsmen got there fast but we kept them at bay. They could not get past the gate secured with the huge bronze padlock, which was as beautiful as powerful. They prowled behind the outer wall like tigers... What could I say about a debate in which only members of the Swedish academy on the other side of the world were taking part....

Spring had come late to the Pacific coast...
The radio has just announced that a good Greek poet has received the Nobel prize. The journalists have departed. Matilde and I are left in peace. We solemnly withdraw the huge padlock from the old gate, so that anyone, as usual, may come calling at my door unannounced. Like Spring.

In the afternoon, the Swedish ambassador and his wife came to see me. They brought a basket filled with bottles and an assortment of delicacies. They had prepared it to celebrate the Nobel prize, which they had considered a sure thing for me. We did not really feel sad about it and drank a toast to Seferis, the Greek poet who had won. As he was leaving, the ambassador took me aside and said, " I am sure, the press will interview me, and I don't know anything about him. Can you tell me who Seferis is?"

"I don't know who he is either" I replied in all honesty."


Now, I quote another incident which is interesting for a rather different reason. The place is Singapore, then part of the Brit colony of Malaya, some time around 1930. Here goes:
"I sat down at my table with writing paper... I needed ink. So I called a boy from the hotel and asked him in English for some ink, hoping he would bring an inkwell. He did not show the slightest glimmer of understanding. He just called another boy ... it was no use. Whenever I said "ink" and moved my pen, dipping it into an imaginary inkwell, the seven or eight boys who had by now congregated the first repeated my motion as one man, with pens ehty had drawn out of their pockets, exclaiming vigorously, "Ink, ink" and nearly dying with laughter. They thought it was a new ritual they were learning. I rushed desperately into the bungalow across the way, followed by them.

From the solitary table I took an inkwell, that by sheer luck was there, and waving it in front of their astonished eyes, I screamed at them: "This, this!".

They all smiled and sang out together: "Tinta, tinta!"
And that was how I learned, in Malay, ink is called by the same name 'tinta', as in Spanish.

A generation later (around 1953), a Mallu writer visited Malaya and Singapore. Having spent a few months there and picked up a fair bit of Malay, he proceeded to Indonesia, where the following incident took place. I quote from memory from his 'Diary'. Note: the writer found Indonesian very close to Malay and could ask his way around.

"I needed ink and went to a stationery store. The girl at the counter was polite. I asked her for ink in Malay, "Got tinta?". She seemed puzzled. I repeated the request "tinta?" and she responded: "tinta?". I mimed the act of writing and said: "tinta". She fished out a fistfull of pens and put them on the counter.

I was losing patience but scanned the articles crammed on the shelves - there was an ink bottle in the far corner. With some effort, I reached for it and put it before her. She said. "Oh, this is 'mashi'!"

Although I did know by then that several Dravidian words had found their way into Bahasa Indonesia, I was really surprised to see her say the Malayalam word 'mashi'."

(the author/traveler was none other than S.K.Pottekkat, whose 'Indonesian Diary' was published many years *before* Neruda's memoirs)
Note: Neruda need not have been so surprised. 'Tinta' probably is a loan into Malay from Portuguese. That language is very close to Spanish and the Portuguese have had a solid presence in the Malacca area since the era of explorations.

As for 'Mashi', it is probably derived from the very core Dravidian word 'mai'/'mayi' meaning black. And there is no surprise whatsoever in 'yi' going to 'shi'. There is a Malayalam novel by Bashir where three characters who even speak essentially the same dialect of Malayalam debate vigorously how the word 'puzhu' (meaning 'worm') ought to be pronounced. And their proposals were 'pusu', 'puyu' and 'pushu' respectively!

Neruda's memoirs were probably written in a tearing hurry. He was terminally ill and bedridden. But there is no premonition of death anywhere in the book; the last lines (about the popular Chilean president Allende's murder) were written just a few days before the poet himself died.

There is a poignant parallel here with the story of Massimo Troisi, the Italian actor who so superbly played Neruda's disciple in 'Il Postino'. Wikipedia says: Troisi, who was only 41 years old, died ... of a massive heart attack ...just twelve hours after the main filming on 'Il Postino' had finished. It was reported that he had postponed surgery to complete the film.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Anecdotal Evidence

In the last post here, I mentioned the dicey-ness of going by anecdotal evidence. Yday, I reread a very interesting discussion that happened at Anand's 'Locana' long ago. And now I recall a much earlier event that had crossed my mind when I read the Locana discussion(another trigger for this memory was that I saw the Cuban women's volleyball team in action on a sports channel. Were they powerful!):

1992. The Soviet Union has just imploded. The US is in a major triumphalist mood and merrily bullying former Soviet satellites. Cuba was a special target. The Indian Government, perhaps under American pressure, cancelled a shipment of rice to Cuba. The desi communists were outraged at this 'breach of faith' and started a drive to collect funds to send a shipful of rice to the indomitable little Caribbean island.

In our then circle was an academician who, when not busy pondering the deepest mysteries of mathematical physics, used to be a very articulate spokesman for various leftist causes. Well, better than 'articulate' would be 'stentorian' (a word I learned just a couple of weeks back while 'mugging' for GRE). So we refer to him here as 'Stentor'(*).

Coming to the point, Stentor was a vigorous fund collector for this Cuban business. He used to lecture everyone how although Cuba was a friend (memories of Castro hugging Indira Gandhi at a Non Aligned (sic) Meet were still fresh), the people of India were unaware of the plight that had befallen that country, and how it was our duty to help them out and so on...

As noted above, it was 1992. The Barcelona Olympics were going on. We were watching the athletics events on TV. Women's discus throw was being shown. Among the participants was a Cuban by name Maritza Marten, the visual impact of whose two meter plus stature was equaled only by her own oak-like heft. As she wiped the field with the competition and we watched in awe, one of the chaps suddenly yelled out: "Hey guys, Stentor is trying so hard to send rice to this 'Tun Tun'!".

(*) - The original Stentor was a herald from Greek mythology, who challenged and lost to the god Hermes in a 'shouting match'. The contemporary one has probably not met his match yet - nowadays one often sees him in action on the telly, shouting down folks in debates.