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

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Youthful Goddess

She stood, draped in a rich sandal-colored sari. Sandalwood paste covered her much of her face, mask-like. But those eyes, long, kohl-lined ... they gaze with a strangely alluring intensity; and on her nose-stud a big, brilliant crystal flickers, catching the light from oil lamps all around. The legend that seafarers of yore used to be guided by the glow from this jewel seemed entirely plausible. Even as we stepped out of the shrine, I felt a pull back - to stand in the queue all over again to be transfixed by her eyes - and that glittering 'mookkutti'...


Kanyakumari is not a sharp cape or promontory; India faces up to the southern ocean along a 1-2 kilometer wide edge. The plunge into the Ocean is abrupt almost all along this southern rim (the rim appears to be just fractionally tilted to the East-West direction and the eastern end of it, where the Kanyakumari temple stands may just about be the southernmost point on the peninsula - the Vivekananda and Tiruvallvar rocks, a short distance offshore from the temple are more to the east than south).

The southern edge of the Indian landmass reveals a core of dark granite with an overlay of laterite. And the land gains in elevation rapidly with distance from the Ocean. There are some beaches all around, but none is wide.

Within a couple of kilometers of the two ends of the southern edge - the eastern tip marked by the temple and the western tip merely known as 'sunset point' - two very big churches soar over the fishing villages on the eastern and western shores; Kanyakumari district has a large Christian population and the fisherfolk are overwhelmingly - almost entirely - Christian (names such as Nicholas, Stanislaus, Alfonso, rare among Mallus are common here(*)).

We reached the sunset point well before sunset; but this is Monsoon season, and a thick glob of clouds hung over the Arabian sea turning sunset into a smear of colors (the sunrise the next day would be but slightly different).


Here is what I had heard about Vivekananda's association with the place. The late 19th century Master reached the cape while wandering the length and breadth of India. "He had no money to pay for the ferry, so he swam the waters of the straits and sat in meditation for 2 full days on a rock which now bears his name..."


Morning. We wait with a big crowd, for the ferry to the Vivekananda Rock. Just beside the jetty is a fair-sized fishing harbor. Trawlers are pulling in; just as they reached a few tens of feet off-shore, men jump off and begin relaying the catch shore-wards. They bring in hundreds of a large kind of fish - about a meter long. The men are all very dark and bristle with sharply defined muscles. Almost all boats have staunchly Christian names - 'St. Roch', 'St. Jude', St. Christopher', 'Arokiamatha', 'Power of Jesus',...

A large-ish launch finally approaches. It is incongruously named 'Bhagirathi'. As the crew secure her to the jetty with thick ropes, I notice, these guys are just as well-built as the fish-relayers but look conspicuously Hindu - ash-marks on their foreheads and all(**).

On the Vivekananda rock, the memorial to the Saint (built in the 1960's) feels much bigger than it looks in pictures. There is also a shrine where Goddess Kanyakumari's footprint is worshipped - it is said she stood here in severe penance, balancing herself on one leg, waiting eternally - and hopelessly - for her beloved Lord Shiva to arrive and claim her hand in marriage (Shiva is said to have played truant, even getting involved in a rather beastly affair at Gokarna on the west coast of India; or he was prevented from keeping the date by some other scheming divinities - they needed Shiva's leadership in some critical demon-slaying mission and so prevented him from settled down in blissful matrimony).

On a nearby rock, stands a colossal statue of Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar, facing the peninsula, towering much higher than anything on Vivekananda rock.

(*) The present representative in Parliament from the area is one Mr. Bellarmin. He shares his (very rare) name with a 16th Century Italan Cardinal (later canonized) who was seriously involved in the Inquisitorial proceedings against Giordano Bruno and Galileo (Bellarmino was the saint's surname actually). An old friend of mine Herm Anand (named after a Saint named Hermann), who hails from Kanya Kumari, also comes to mind.


(**) I had heard earlier of the Hindu-Christian divide of Kanyakumari - including urban legends which alleged the local Christians were agitating for a christening of the district as 'Kanni Mary' ('Virgin Mary'). The Rock was an object of serious contention. When the move to build the grand Vivekananda memorial gained momentum, it acquired a strong and exclusive Hindu flavor (fired by a perspective that saw Vivekananda purely as a figure of Hindu Revival) and the local Christians came up with a counter-claim that St. Francis Xavier had also meditated on the rock and so it could not be an exclusively Hindu holy place. Then some documents apparently surfaced establishing the rock to be property of the temple and so, the Hindu nationalists could go ahead and build the memorial; even then, some bad blood persisted and the local fishermen were initially not enthusiastic about ferrying fervent pilgirms to the island...

The existence of the 'footprint shrine' does enhance the claim the temple had on the rock. Since the Vivekananda story mentions a ferry, the island probably was already a site of pilgrimage - not clear whether the holiness associated with the place was purely for its being the site of the Goddess's penance or also for its St. Xavier connection. And yes, Vivekananda's swimming the very choppy straits to the rock was a remarkable feat, something even an okay swimmer like self (I can swim country-style(***) for a mile or so in swimming pool conditions) cannot dream of ever managing.

I have another guess: the Tiruvalluvar colossus which overpowers the Vivekananda complex was a deliberate, state-sponsored balancing act; Tiruvalluvar's impeccable Tamil and equally impeccable Secular credentials could sort of temper Vivekananda's alleged North-Indian saffron presence.

And during our return from the cape, we saw a surprisingly large crowd at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally in Nagercoil, vigorously shouting slogans and waving saffron and swastika flags.


(***) - the 'country-stroke' is often called 'dog-stroke' by experts. But I would describe it "...the Mind is without fear and head held high!"

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

India's Limit

"Kanya Kumari has changed beyond recognition since I first saw it in 1946. Big concrete structures such as the Gandhi memorial and the Vivekananda monument have clearly spoiled the pristine nature of the place!" - S K Pottekkat (writing in the mid 1970s).


I was on a short holiday at home in Kerala (in an eastern suburb of Cochin city) and got this idea of driving down to Kanya Kumari. The distance of within 300 kilometers looked easily manageable.


We start off an early morning. It begins as a smooth drive on the four-lane Cochin bypass goes straight down south. But the fun lasts but a few dozen kilometers and our road shrinks into a proper, potholed Keralan National Highway, thickly lined with semi-urban villages(*). The suburbs of one town straggle into those of the next. Moreover, this highway is also the primary street in almost all towns in our path - and within towns, narrow and choked with traffic. In the so-called rural areas, huge hoardings advertising jewellery and real estate crowd out the greenery - and there still is plenty of traffic to negotiate.

Alleppey is the gateway to the ultra-picturesque lake district but from this road, except for a couple of stagnant canals and a spillway, one sees no evidence of the 'kayals'; we certainly see nothing even remotely beautiful.

An isolated - and brief - flash of scenic splendor is provided by the Arabian sea - as we skirt the Purakkad beach. Then on, the traffic progressively increases and we cut right thru Kollam in the morning rush hour (yes, just as we enter this city, we catch a brief glimpse of what must be a beautiful lake to the east). The suburbs of Kollam continue for dozens of kilometers and then Trivandrum takes over.

As we are to figure out, Trivandrum is no proper metropolis but a point halfway down what must be easily one of the longest continuous stretches of suburbia in the *country* - beginning at Kazhakkoottam, the 'highway' runs thru Karyavattam, Ulloor, Kesavadasapuram (officially, Trivandrum proper begins here), Pattom, Palayam, Thampanoor, then on to Manakad (offical end of Trivandrum) Balaramapuram, Pravachambalam, Neyyattinkara, Parassala, Kalayikkavila (Tamil Nadu begins here),Marthandam,... - a length of well over 50 kilometers.

It takes us 5 hours of continuous and brisk ( almost as brisk as is probably humanly possible) driving to cover the 200 kilometers until our first halt, Thampanoor. We also discover that the State-run hotel 'Chaitram', smack opposite the Railway station in Thampanoor is a terribly slow and Sarkari place (although a couple of guidebooks classify it as 'recommended').

The heavens open in a heavy shower as we leave Trivandrum but it soon clears up and past Takkalai, the creeping suburbs at last give way to some proper landscapes. This is a very fertile tract of country, lush with fresh paddy fields, banana plantations, stands of coconut palms - and the odd sprawling water-lily spangled lake - to the east rise rugged granite hills (the southern limits of the Western Ghats). These hills look very angular and chiseled (one of these is said to be a fragment of the medicinal mountain taken to Lanka by Hanuman) and the entire picture makes for a tropical (and somewhat scaled down) version of the 'Grand Tetons' in the US (which I have seen only in a few dramatic photos).

The scenic splendor generally persists for the rest of the journey apart from a mercifully short stretch of urban mess at Nagarcoil.

We briefly halt at Suchindram to look around the 'Sthanumalayan' temple. This largish Tamil style, stone-built temple is primarily dedicated to Siva but said to be blessed by the presence of the full Trinity - Brahma and Vishnu being the other two; indeed, Sthanu is said to mean Siva, Maal refers to Vishnu and Ayan is brahma (I can't make much sense out of the last two names).

Brahma is of course a minor player in this trinity but the temple does make an effort to give Vishnu and his associated deities importance comparable to Siva. There is a colossal (nearly 15 feet) and quite famous idol of Hanuman (a primarily Vaishnava deity). The monkey god stands, hands folded in prayer - but with wide-open eyes; his head is subtly tilted to one side and canines stick out fang-like from his mouth. The expression is one of veneration perhaps with a dash of 'adbhuta'.

Above one of the entrances to the inner sanctum is a badly damaged mural done in what seems to be Kerala style. I could not make out what mythical scene it illustrates. The rest of the artwork in the temple is less than awesome - on one of the pillars we did see a small carving of Bali and Sugreeva locked in mortal combat, a rarely illustrated Mythological episode.

Granite hills continue to spike the eastern sky almost until we are only 3-4 kilometers short of Kanya Kumari. Then, to the east, the land suddenly appears to give way to an expanse of blue - the Bay of Bengal (more precisely the Gulf of Mannar; we have not seen the Arabian sea after Kollam). A kilometer or so of shops and hotels and the road hits a dead end (the usual type of wayside stone matter-of-factly states "Kanya Kumari 0 Km"). Ahead is the Gandhi Mandapam (a memorial to Gandhiji), the Kanya Kumari temple stands a little to the left behind a cluster of shops and beyond the Mandapam is an open beach and then, the infinity of the Indian Ocean.

"The statistic that only 20 percent of Kerala's population is urban is misleading; the villages are urbanized and extend in a few parallel chains almost right thru the length of the state." - Encyclopedia Britannica, circa 1985.

"Which is the largest metropolis in India? Bombay? No Sir! It is Kerala, the fully urbanized state!" - a newspaper ad from early 1990's.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Two Precious Things"

The other day, I went scouting for books among the pavement shops around Churchgate, Mumbai. It was largely a disappointing affair, there are far fewer shops around these days than there probably used to be and they quote absurd prices (for example, a Naguib Mahfouz novel, obviously second hand and heavily thumbed, was listed at 325 bucks, only approx a third less than a brand new copy would cost).

I had given up and was walking back to catch my 'local' when I saw a very small wayside stall, exclusively for obviously pirated books and approached. The owner looked Parsi (or Gujju Muslim?).

There were a few Wodehouses (pirated) in his collection. I picked one up and asked the price in Hindi. The propreitor said: "50 bucks!". That sounded fairly okay. I was about to select one of those when I saw, just beside the Wodehouse pile, a recent bestseller, a fat bestseller. I picked it up and asked: "Yeh kitna?". "125 bucks!".

Not bad at all, I mused; 125 is hugely less than the book's 'sherief' price. I picked up a Wodehouse and the Bombay bestseller and asked: "Donon milake, dedh sau chalega?" ("Can I have these two for 150?"). The owner replies, in firm English: "Sorry, no bargaining here! I begin with a very reasonable price unlike other chaps. And, once I quote the price, it is fixed!"

I admit, in English: "The prices you quoted are certainly reasonable. But I thought, since I am taking two books..."

He cut in: "If I give you a discount over what I quoted, I won't make any money in this deal. I need to, right?"

I pause in thought. He continues: "As you can see, every book here is good. I stock no obscenities(*)!... And believe me, I have been in this trade for 40 years!"

I look up (perhaps disbelievingly) and he continues: "And I also give a guarantee on the books I sell. If (there are) pages missing etc., just bring it back and I will replace it. You will find me right here, whole day, seven days a week!"

I desperately need something meaty to last me a few days (and I am not very smart bargainer anyways), so I give in and say: "Okay, I will take only this (the recent bestseller; I am no Wodehouse fan, yet). And here is the dough". I hand him 125 bucks.

He gives me 10 bucks back and says: "Look here Sir, There are two things that are precious in life - good books and good people. I keep good books, so good people automatically come to buy them!"

I say "Thanks!" and offer him my hand. He grips it with surprising vigor and says: "Have a good day Sir, and hope to see you again!"

(*) - but there was a 'God of Small Things' on show.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

'Amdavad' Revisited

Note on the title: 'Amdavad' is how Gujaratis tend to call the city of Ahmedabad - some smoothen it further to 'Amdaad'. This truncation, especially the practice of *spelling* the name in Roman letters as 'Amdavad', is often attributed to a Hindu intent to de-Muslimize the name. Here, I use it only because it is reminiscent of the Malalayali articulation of words and names which led 'Trissivaperoor' to naturally become 'Trissoor' ('Tiruvanantapuram' is seldom more than 'Tirontaram' in spoken Mallu; and for locals, 'Kotamangalam' is not much more than 'Ko-lam', the hyphen there standing for an intimate mix of very brief sounds difficult to resolve into any definite sequence of letters!). And it is also widely known that Gujjus also tend to make the 'Coat-Cot merger' goof which Mallus are more 'famous' for (I wrote a long post here on this phenomenon long ago).


I had passed thru Ahmedabad by train last year and it had appeared 'a tired and run down place' then. That still is the case as far as the eastern half of the city is concerned. To the west of the Sabarmati river, things are altogether different as I found out during a brief visit last month.

Roads are generally wide and smooth - especially in the planned area of Gandhinagar (more an illogically vast campus than a proper suburb). The traffic is an improvement over Pune and the pollution scene is hugely better with the CNG autos. The city bus service is seriously bad though, at least first impression wise. And yes, there are any number of swanky malls and multiplexes (several times as many as one sees in Pune, a city of very comparable population); and at least the middle class seems to characterize these manifestations of wealth (rather mysteriously) as 'achievements' of the Modi administration.

We spent half a day at Akshardham temple. Surrounding the opulent main sanctum (a grand golden statue of Saint Swaminarayan is the focus of devotion here) is a vast permanent exhibition, on the life of Swaminarayan, his teachings and so forth. Dozens of elaborately detailed, electrically animated tableaus reenact the adventures of young seeker Neelkanth who grew up to become the Master Swaminarayan. An interesting piece of kitsch was right at the entrance - a sculpture of a human figure carving himself - only the face and hands are finished and these hands are shown chipping away the rest of the rock. Also interesting was a group of statues of musicians who 'played' various instruments in sync with a Bhajan played from speakers. Also on display were marble portrait statues of several Gurus in the Swaminarayan tradition - at least a few of then resembled Narendra Modi. The process is rather rigidly organized and people have to move in batches and spend a minimum of 3 hours working thru the exhibits - no quick run thru is allowed.

Here is an extract from one of the spiritual lessons put up:
Question: "Is there something beyond Atma (the Soul)?"
Answer: "Yes Sir! There is Paramatma (the ultimate Soul) and this Paramatma manifests in divine incarntaions such as Swaminarayan"

Another afternoon was spent in a long and tiring walk thru the old city. This partially Muslim-dominated area is allegedly communally sensitive and riot prone. But although I walked around fairly extensively, I never sensed any serious tension in the air; it was quite different from other 'mixed' areas I have been to, like say, Old Hyderabad or even Byculla in Bombay. And boards of even Muslim shops were more in Gujarati than Urdu - perhaps there is no language edge to the religious divide. Yes, residential areas seemed religiously segregated but then, that does not necessarily imply violent hatred (even many modern societies in Bombay are 'exclusive').

The Jama Masjid is a vast mosque - and has hundreds of elaborately carved pillars. A rather surreal legend says one of the stones paving the floor is actually the base of a temple idol which has been buried upside down! There were not many worshippers (it was midday) and those who were around were not bothered about self and a couple of other tourists. It was a far cry from the Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad where a heavily armed cop once shooed me off saying: "keep walking, don't stare at the mosque!".

The 'Rani Sipri' mosque is much smaller and has almost Hindu windows (I don't really like this religion-based classification of art; all I mean is that these windows 'felt' very similar to, say, the ornate windows at the Adalaj Step well). A modern looking temple shares a wall with 'Sipri'.

We also managed an excursion to the beautiful Sun temple at Modhera. A bad miss was the step-well at Patan (the book says it was built in 11th century), which, judging from photos, is full of sculpture which marks a stylistic continuation of Chalukyan art of far away Deccan (especially the Pattadakal variety, 7th century AD). Indeed, the 'Solankis' of Gujarat claimed inheritance from the 'Chalukyas' even in name. Even in the sculptural decoration of the Modhera temple, there was a Deccan Chalukyan flavor.

I also got to correct an old impression that the actual wells inside 'Vaavs' are square - they are circular like any normal well elsewhere; it is just that the water sources are virtually lost in the elaborate palaces built around them.