ANAMIKA

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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Mumbai - a Visit full of Revisits



It is said, a place revisited after many years looks smaller, diminished. But when I saw Elephanta caves the other day, a full 20 years after I first saw them, the sculptures looked decidedly more imposing, even physically bigger, than I could recall them. The much-damaged Dwarapalas looked colossal. The pure wrath on the face of the still-more ravaged 'Andhaka-killer' was awesome(the lower half of this 15 foot sculpture is gone, perhaps shot out by Portuguese marksmen(*)). And everywhere, the Mahayana Buddhist-Ajanta connection was unmistakeable, especially in two attendant figures flanking the huge three-faced Maheswara (both looked like the Ajanta Padamapani). The patterns on the crown/coiffure of the central Maheswara figure have a complex Mandala-like look.

It puzzles me why some folks chose to carve out such grand cave temples on this rugged little island. Some have suggested purely spiritual reasons: that the solid island in the heaving sea symbolizes the realized soul staying calm in the turbulence of 'samsara'. I had read there is a pre-Hindu Buddhist stupa somewhere near the highest point on the island; could not find it. I did see a couple of big howitzers of possibly early 20th century make. From the top, one could also see most of the Nhava Sheva container terminal. Containers were piled up like big apartment blocks all over. And I counted 40 big cranes. The much-hyped Vallarpadam has had all of 4 cranes for the last so many years (on the other side, a reliable source tells me, Singapore has 200+).

In several of the absurdly expensive curio stalls on the island (there were hardly any in '94), I saw several copies of a curious Buddha image - the Master sits, resting his cheek on a knee and seems to be asleep/dozing; the very same pose has been used by Giotto in a famous drawing of St. Joachim. Online searches clearly show this dozing Buddha form is not canonical and is probably of modern Thai origin.

Later, I found my way to the Bhau Daji Lad museum in Byculla. Here stands, in much ravaged state, the near-life-size stone elephant which gave Elephanta its name. The museum has interesting collections of craftsmanship (textiles, porcelain, metalware,...).

Also on display at this Museum was a set of paintings by Atul Dodiya (http://www.mid-day.com/articles/the-power-of-7000/15834152) proposing seven thousand new museums on various subjects to be set up all over India. I did not understand much of what he was getting at but some of his visions were quite curious and funny. A Sri Ramakrishna-like figure dominates the proposed 'Museum at Dibrugarh'. A stick figure is shown shitting on the road in front of the ultra-modern 'Museum at Jhumri Talaiya'.

Revisiting the Prince of Wales Museum after many years (not 20 though!), I discovered Kangra paintings and the wonderfully rich, lush green and incredibly detailed landscapes forming the backdrop for their usual theme of Radha-Krishna. The absolute highlight - a painting titled 'Vasakasajja'(**). Other findings: Milarepa is not straining to listen to some far away/ subtle voice but actually singing like a 'Bhagavatar'. An enigmatic half-smile seemed frozen on the face of a near life-size Dwarapala from the Buddhist caves at Pitalkhora. The Ashtamurti form of Siva (said to have been found at Parel in Bombay) showed the lord assuming eight bodies, all sprouting out like the branches of a tree from the same central figure (one recalls the 'Ekapada Trimutri' form of Siva where three divinites share the same lower torso but the branching there is that of a simple trident, the Ashtamurti is a much more complex affair), There was a 3-faced Vaikunthamurti (***) representation of Vishnu, the faces reminiscent of the Siva-Maheswara at Elephanta. And a benign Narasimha with Laxmi on his lap sports a big, swirling moustache that one often sees among paintings of Rajput noblemen (better still, the Narasimha looks like the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph II).

There was a photo exhibition on Swiss artist Alice Boner - her life and work. I had seen some of her work in Kashi but it was only now that I found out that she was a major influence on Ravi Shankar in his younger days; and she was a major influence behind Kerala's own poet Vallathol's decision to set up the 'Kalamandalam' for preserving our traditional arts. A sculpture by her of a striding woman was strongly reminiscent of a Greek Kouros. Her searches for symmetry and deeper geometric patterns in the figure of Nataraja and some other Indian works of art were intriguing. And here is a statement from Boner that surprises and thrills: "Geometry is the most adequate expression of the metaphysical basis of reality"

The ongoing worship of Tendulkar and the systematic construction of a cult around him leaves me colder than most ( it even lacks a minimum of originality - even the phrase 'Master Blaster', used sickeningly often to refer to Tendulkar, was flicked from Viv Richards). And at the Gallery of Modern Art, I was pretty much put off to see some of our leading artists trying to outdo one another in exalting the achievements of this one sportsman in a series of grandly mounted and lit but inane paintings and installations. A series on his absurd and phoney 'Century of Centuries' record stood out. Taking the cake was a big painting wherein all sorts of divinities belonging to all sorts of denominations (their figures have been culled from all types of famous paintings, Desi and Western) beatifically gaze at the advent of the 'Sachin-child' (at the focus of the painting is the famous photo of a 2 year old Tendulkar, barely out of his swaddling clothes, holding a tiny bat and perfectly reproducing the stance of a proper batsman). Vishnu and Siva hold cricket bats instead of their usual weapons and likewise for other gods and Biblical prophets ... But in the middle of all the stuff and nonsense, the artist has scored one genuine hit: An angel copied from Leonardo's 'Annunciation' is shown about to gently toss a cricket ball to little Sachin. Indeed, the pose of Leonardo's angel (down on one knee, he holds three fingers up in a hand as he is about to talk to Mary) is precisely the pose an adult would assume when tossing a ball to a small child.

Walking the Queen's Necklace from Walkeswar, I reached Nariman point half hour before sunset and with a few dozen others, clambered on to the wall jutting out into the sea. The tide was out so there was hardly a ripple on the waters. The sky above the red sinking sun was the color of strong permanganate solution and there was a glorious trail of orange daubs on the waters which were a striking green (the colors of potassium dichromate). The jumbled up concrete chunks on the wall looked like methane molecules (4 arms striking out at what looked like 109 degrees and a bit from a central node). A gentle blue haze obscured the headlands of Malabar hill....

A little later, I retraced the same path, past thousands of walkers and runners ( a Madari was performing with a scrawny little monkey that kept snarling at its admirers; many paid for this show - in multiples of 10 rupees), a long row of curious flowering trees (all were barringtonia asiatica, as I just found out), with the lights coming on in the high-rises (the ones on Malabar hill seemed to be shivering in the mist), the crescent moon leaving a pale silver trail over the waters and the tide slowly and almost silently beginning to flood in...

One vacant evening, I walked to Bandra and down the Bandstand to Land's End. The tide was out and the sea lay gently lapping at a vast field of black basalt which would go under at high tide and beyond was the usual neat sunset. Along the waterfront are the homes of some of top tinsel celebrities and other moneybags. Some bungalows literally reeked of wealth - a particularly opulent one looked like a reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - lush vegetation overflowing its ample terraces. Only in front of Galaxy Apts, home to Salman Khan (must say, one of the really plainer blocks in the area) stood a score or so youngsters, mostly from interior India, waiting for darshan - an indicator of his remarkable popularity. I have seen Salman from pretty close quarters when he came to flag off the Pune Marathon in 2008 (I even waved at him then) and am no youngster either so I did not join them.

And even in this city of crazy maxima and minima, I was shocked to see that an approx 3 km X 3 km expanse to the North and East of the Airport has developed into a consolidated pack of slums. On the other side, a rapid drive up the 30 odd kilometers of the Western Express Highway in rush hour must be the kind of experience few world cities would be able to equal. And near the Police Chowki at Walkeshwar was a board with photos of known chain snatchers, pickpockets and other petty criminals in the area. The religion-wise breakup of this lengthy roster (I won't go into the details here) can be taken as producing hard evidence reinforcing certain stereotypes; it can just as well be quoted to prove allegations of bias often made against the police.

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(*)The Mahakali caves near Andheri have but a handful of Buddha images. All have been defaced/decapitated.

(**)A glance at some notes keyed in after a long ago visit to this same place tells me Kangra paintings are actually a *rediscovery* and they had not impressed me as much in the first encounter. Let me quote: "Kangra and Mughal art often show landscapes interestingly. But landscapes are only backdrops for the human drama; it may be a very active background (as for example in Radha-Krishna paintings, the mango trees would be blooming and cuckoos cooing) but never a theme in itself" - again a case of a revisit amplifying an experience.

(***) A guidebook tells me it is actually 4-faced.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Jinx



- "Karyakkar and his men were now at the crest of Pulichimala and could see the expanse of Tirunelveli. From such a great elevation, although regions of distinct shades were discernible, it was not easy to make out the precise physical features of the land; wood and water, rock and valley – everything looked flattened out as if on a vast map unfurled."

"As they descended, the details of the vast country below gradually assumed clearer form. Presently, they caught sight of a sunlit stretch of gravelly terrain with a lone rocky hill standing guard over it. And suddenly, from among the cloud shadows scudding fast across the face of this hill, there emerged, at an equally vigorous gallop, two horsemen; they were fast approaching."


- "The fort of Mallankotta lies half a mile upstream from the Ponnani estuary on a large and elevated island in the Peraar river. The top of the island is a perfectly even tableland and gives an uncanny feeling that in long gone aeons, a colossal force had set to work with inexorable intent to flatten its former rugged features; the edges of this plateau drop down in sheer rocky cliffs into the river. Except for a dozen or so ominously tall palms which stood like silent sentinels, this desolate island was barren."

- "The Chenkali river, alternately cutting thru rocky gorges and tumbling down treacherous rapids in the dim depths of the tangled knot of mountains bearing the same name, finally breaks free and leaps off the rim of a cliff in a massive five hundred foot waterfall down into a darkly verdant valley."


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These passages were written long before cinemascope was invented and film epics were made. And these are but translations from Malayalam – the source: 'Bhutarayar', a 1932 novel by Appan Thampuran. Though the work won praise for its often vigorous prose, it also copped a lot of flak from some influential critics and never gained popularity among general readers. Now, it is largely forgotten. To explain why I took up the exercise of translating the above samples, I need to begin the story (it is going to be long, Reader!) in early 2013.

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Last year something unusual happened in Malayalam cinema. A period film of sorts called 'Celluloid' directed by Kamal, achieved the double whammy of box office success and very considerable critical acclaim. This is what this very preachy film tries to convey:

In the first quarter of the 20th century, an idealistic young man named J C Daniel invested the bulk of his wealth in a brave and noble attempt to make the first ever motion picture in Malayalam language (the film reveals no motivation for this adventure). Against heavy odds, he completed the film titled 'Vigathakumaran' (story-wise it was an early example of the lost-and-found potboiler) but the caste prejudices prevalent in Travancore did not allow him to screen it. Daniel went broke. Later, in impoverished old-age, he was neglected by the ignorant people of Kerala and its insensitive Government - a prime troublemaker was the rabidly caste-minded IAS officer Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, who made sure even the small Sarkari pension given to needy former artists was denied to Daniel (being a brahmin, Ramakrishnan was very particular that Daniel, a Christian, should not be honored for making the first film in Malayalam). Despite the yeoman efforts of journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan, who labored tirelessly to bring the contributions of the hero to limelight, Daniel died pennyless and broken. God of course, saw the Truth, and as usual, waited ... and waited; a generation later, a repentent Kerala Government instituted a 'J. C. Daniel Award' and many eminent filmmakers got together at a meeting - also attended by a huge section of the public - to offer tributes and to collectively seek the pardon of Daniel's Spirit for how he had been treated, when alive.

'Celluloid' had decent production values and good music. But plenty about its basic premise struck me as quite shady as well as shaky. For while it is certainly quite conceivable that Daniel's efforts could have been cruelly stymied by some caste-mad people of the then Travancore, his later travails had very little to do with the Kerala Government and pretty much zilch with the average Malayali commoner: indeed, as the film indicates (before hurriedly wiping under the carpet), Daniel squandered what remained of his wealth in a lengthy and seemingly dissolute sojourn in Madras in an attempt to make another film, this time perhaps in Tamil; for unspecified reasons, his own children turned their backs on him and at the end, only his steadfast wife was at his side.

Sad business, truly! But it is also amply clear (from the film's loud silence on the matter) that the Malayalam cinema community never bothered about Daniel when it counted. Satyan, who was, for long our number one star, was from the same region and community as Daniel but he did precious little for the old man ('Celluloid' - rather pathetically- makes Daniel say: "Satyan is from my own caste and he often asks people about me!"); Thikkurissi, another stalwart hailing from the same district seems to have done a clean zilch. The noble Prem Nazir, who became a bigger star than Satyan, did likewise (well, did precious little, that is)... Mind you, these were Daniel's younger contemporaries who ought to have felt some debt to the man later anointed the 'Father of Malayalam cinema'. And if they could not care less, why should the non-film community of Kerala, a couple of generations down the line, collectively do penance for a sin of the order of parricide, as this 'biopic' would have us believe?

I need to say a bit more on the film's attack on the late Ramakrishnan. A commie fellow traveler and gifted writer (and of course IAS), 'Malayattoor' was known to be progressive and secular in his outlook and social dealings. To accuse him of the basest form of caste prejudice is no sin but would demand the marshalling of some very hard evidence indeed. And this is what director Kamal said: "I had great regard for Ramakrishnan. But the film is based on a biography of Daniel written by investigative journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan; I needed to be true to what Gopalakrishnan wrote".

Well, what was it in Gopalakrishnan's work that made Kamal want to follow his judgements so faithfully? I checked and this was what I saw: Quite a loose cannon, Gopalakrishnan's books abound in intemperate verbal salvoes fired at most (but not all) prominent figures of Mal filmdom. Satyan, Tikkurissi, Nazir,... each one of them receive plenty of bile and vitriol for various acts of alleged omission and commission. I am sure, if Kamal were really particular about being *true to Gopalakrishanan* in a consistent manner, 'Celluloid' would have had to say things about especially Satyan which would have got its maker into a very nasty pickle in his profession. Another example would show how committed Kamal really is to Truth as revealed by Gopalakrishnan. The latter, in his writings, praised the generosity of old-time film producer Subramanian Muthalali but Kamal chooses to show him in 'Celluloid' not as a benign overlord but peddler of cheap and crappy 'jungle girl' kind of films and a crass feudal reactionary to boot. And of course, showing Muthalali in an unflattering light is a safe enough bet - his descendendents do not have any serious clout in the industry.

Kamal could of course, merrily attack Malayattoor because Malayattoor is dead, because he was from the numerically insignificant Tamil Brahmin community; and because there is also the average Mallu's jealousy that he very naturally attracts by just being a TamBrahm-IAS. And quite an attack it is. 'Celluloid' has film lyricist and fellow-commie Vayalar say: "(Ramakrishnan) is a very capable guy, mostly good. But what sometimes comes out of his mouth is the the fart of the upper caste overlord!".

Well, Kamal knows which side of his bread is buttered. 'Celluloid' is no 'poem on celluloid' but a faux biopic with competent music and rotten moral core. Any mediocre melodrama needs a villain. Cinema folk can be as mean and ungrateful as anybody else. And of course, nothing like a raking up a foul controversy to sell a product these days! But, even taken together, these facts hardly merit a post here! Indeed, I am only getting to the main point of this story. Here is another early filmmaking project I happened to read about a few months after 'Celluloid' made its money; and a comparison to Daniel's experience would be interesting:

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Around 1938, a few years after Daniel made his ill-fated foray into film making, Appan Thampuran, eminent man of letters, decided to make a film (a talkie) on his own novel 'Bhutarayar'. 'Kairaleevidheyan', a detailed biography of Thampuran written by the late K T Ramavarma devotes a chapter to this project which occupied a couple of years of Thampuran's old age. Having actively worked in theatre as actor-director-playwright, Thampuran seems to have had some clear and original ideas on how to transfer, modify and adapt the lessons learned on stage to the new medium of film. He hired Notani, the director of the first Malayalam talkie 'Balan' to helm 'Bhutarayar' but retained near-total creative control over the proceedings. Artistically gifted, Thampuran anticipated the great Satyajit Ray by preparing sketches for the scenes in the film. A troop of actors - established theatre hands and promising newcomers (among the latter were Tikkurissi and S P Pillai) were handpicked and hired on a full-time basis and rigorous rehearsals were held...

But all efforts came to nothing. Industrialists who had offered to finance the film backed out (or had to back out), some relatives offered help and they too ditched and .... finally, having exhausted his own funds, the frustrated Thampuran called it quits. Just as happened to Daniel, Thampuran's already strained finances took a major hit but, owing to relative good fortune, he did not have to suffer poverty in his last days like Daniel probably had to. Of course, Daniel's very mediocre stab at film-making (even his die-hard champions Gopalakrishnan and Kamal don't seem to attribute any artistic value to 'Vigathakumaran') has, albeit belatedly, thrust upon him a kind of immortality but nobody remembers Thampuran's project which had promised hugely more by way of plain and simple Art(*).

Biographer Ramavarma wistfully signs off: "I often heard from (writer) M T Vasudevan Nair and others that Tikkurissi and S P Pillai used to reminsce about the months spent at the 'Bhutarayar' rehearsal camp and the experiences there. I wrote to both gentlemen several times seeking information. Sadly, despite all the effort from my side, neither replied". Guess I don't need to add any comment of my own on this particular experience with film people. But our story needs to continue...

Ínspired by 'Kairaleevidheyan', I sought out a copy of 'Bhutarayar' and read it. Though set in Kerala of around 1000 AD and packing quite a bit of intrigue and action, the novel is not the usual historical romance. Critics have even classified it as the "first and only impressionist novel in Malayalam", whatever that means. Stylistically, the book offers many pleasant surprises - taut and racy descriptive passages like the ones translated at the top, brilliant caricature-like character sketches (the pen portrait of 'Thurassan' is a marvel). And it has, in Omala, the only known (to me) instance in Malayalam literature of an Eva Braun kind of female lead, a sort of 'gangster's moll', determined to stick with her Evil Beloved to the edge of doom, and if need be, beyond. I did not find the novel uniformly likeable or thrilling but its sui generis quality was not lost on me at all.

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And then, a few months back, came a surprise. an up-and-coming film-maker asked me if I had any ideas for a short film. I eagerly mentioned Appan Thampuran and his failed attempt.

"Thampuran's home in Trichur is now a museum" I said quoting from 'Kairaleevidheyan'. "It has preserved the preparatory sketches made for the film and other stuff. Thampuran also was a talented sculptor. Some of his carvings are preserved there. You could make a trip to the place and find out more. Just see how much attention that 'Celluloid' generated. At least from the point of view of art, the failure of Bhutarayar was a much more serious loss than the loss of 'Vigathakumaran'! You could perhaps make a film to highlight this point."

The chap seemed excited. "Please see if you can write your thoughts down. We will work it into a documentary script!" he said.

Shortly thereafter came a second saturday and in a sudden spurt of energy, I made a quick day-trip to Trichur, reaching the place around 11 am. The museum was locked up and there was nobody around. The day's newspaper lay at the entrance. I inspected the exterior of the building and found some granite carvings (done by Appan Thampuran himself as Ramavarma tells us) on the walls of its portico - 'Radha-Krishna', 'Mating cobras',... Sadly, dark brown (!) paint had been very thickly smeared over them and the details were impossible to make out.

The compound was deserted; not even a watchman was in sight. I stepped out and asked around to find out if the place would open at least by the evening. No one in the vicinity had anything to say. I gave up and left.

And the filmmaker, I never heard anything further from him - in hindsight, his asking me, of all people, for a script must have only been an act of desperation prompted by circumstances which must have changed for the better soon thereafter. I guess he is now on to something more fetching than documenting the failure of the long gone Appan Thampuran ...

And the jinx surrounding 'Bhutarayar' persists....

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(*) - A potentially unpopular thought: Consider the case of the Malayalam novel. In any discussion, 'Kundalata' is readily acknowledged as the first of its kind and right thereafter, it is promptly dismissed as a low-quality yarn and 'Indulekha' mentioned as the 'first proper Malayalam novel'; at any rate, there is no talk attributing any paternity (of a literary nature) to Appu Nedungadi, author of 'Kundalata' and no major award or anything commemmorates him. So one can legitimately wonder whether calling Daniel, whose actual position in the history of Malayalam cinema looks considerably less substantial than Nedungadi's vis-a-vis Mal literature (and to me, the argument that a silent film like 'Vigathakumaran' has no well-defined language has some merit as well), the 'father of Malayalam cinema' isn't going quite a bit overboard. One could even add, the truly unfortunate 'lost heroine' Rosy, who played the female lead in 'Vigatha...' has better credentials to be called the 'Mother of Malayalam Cinema'.

Update(December 16th 2014): Just saw a remark by noted film critic Vijayakrishnan quoted by someone else. The gist of the remark goes thus: "'Vigathakumaran'was a flop not only because of the opposition from caste-groups - as a film it simply wasn't much good. People in Trivandrum had already seen films made elsewhere (the city already had a theatre 'Capitol') and had some idea of what a film ought to look and feel like. Daniel's rather simpleminded approach to filmmaking - staging a play and filming it from a fixed camera position - left most spectators unimpressed."

Friday, December 05, 2014

Random Pieces

"... You don't belong here, in this World,

Where the laughter of sunflowers only reveal cruel fangs and trecherous claws,

Where dungeons as dark and heartless as the final Judgement await those who love their Land,

Where the bleached bones of the Just lie strewn over the wastes as rainless storms whirl and screech above..."


- a fragment from a Malayalam poem by K. Sachidanandan, in my translation.

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"One night, as he prepared his favorite paan, our much-loved lyrical poet P complained: "This patch of moonlight on my plate confuses me; I mistake it for the lime!". Now a time has come when our people crib: "Moonlight, what a waste - can't even dry copra!"

- from a typically pithy and sincere speech from media person Johny Lukose.

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The other day, I saw a drawing of Siva. The lord had the now fashionable Meluha features (square jaw, high cheekbones) and physique (muscular in a very lithe way, six pack and everything). His expression was warlike and agitated, eyes glaring. However, a curious counterpoint was provided by the cobra coiled around his neck. Facing its master, the snake had its hood puffed up and fangs bared but looked to be having a hearty laugh.

Nowhere else have I seen a laughing snake(*) but the drawing suddenly reminded me of a laughing *fish* and a very creepy story read long ago in the children’s magazine ‘Balarama’. It was titled: “The Skull that would kill four people and the Laughing Fish”. I remember being far more frightenened by the fish that keeps appearing at critical points in the story - and it would rapidly slip away laughing a shrill, piercing laugh - than the Death’s head which spelt doom for four people.

I can't find a copy of this story online. But a brief mention is here . The story is apparently of mid-eastern origin and spookiness apart, its core theme is adultery; perfect for a children's magazine I suppose!

Another Fish and laughter come together come together to concoct a disturbing vision in Goya's dark masterpiece: 'Burial of the Sardine' (can be seen at Wiki). A considerably more benign laughing fish features in this allegedly Indian fable .

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Watching ‘Interstellar’ and its intriguingly twisted time-tunnel, I was reminded of this story from ‘Yogavasishtha’, as was retold in an interview given to a Malayalam magainze a few years ago by eminent physicist ECG Sudarshan:

"A visitor presented king Lavana with a horse which he claimed was perfect for a hunt. The king promptly mounted the steed to check it out. The beast sped off, leaving the royal citadel and the surrounding country far behind. Eventually, it lost its way lost its way in a treacherous jungle. The utterly exhausted and famished king chanced upon a tribal girl cooking some meat. She refused to share her food and said: "We are untouchables. You look rich and high born!".

"What if i marry you and stay here?" the desperate king asked. She said: "ask my dad".

Lavana obtained the old man's consent and stayed put, partaking of the rough jungle food and getting used to the new way of life. Over the years, he fathered two children by the girl. Then came a severe drought and famine; the entire jungle shriveled up and there was nothing to eat and the children were crying in despair. Lavana lit a fire and told his wife: "When i am done, feed them!" and jumped in ..

Lavana woke up with a start. He had dozed for but a few minutes whole experience had been a dream! But he thought further: "it cannot be. It was too real, too bloody detailed. I need to check!" He promptly set out to look for the forest - his memories had an uncanny clarity and accuracy and they guided his search straight to a burnt out looking forest-clearing; there sat a wailing woman and her children. She lamented: "my husband immolated himself two days back!"

Who really was whatever - Lavana, the king who dozed off briefly, the desperately suicidal father or both or neither? I am told Gaudapada (or someone thereabouts) had speculated on our life being a dream played out in somebody's sleep. And Pindar is said to have said: "Man is a shadow's dream!"

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Once upon a time, all trains in Kerala were pulled by sooty steam locomotives and all coaches were the color of dirty rust. I distinctly recall the surprise I felt as a five year old on seeing a red and white liveried train headed by a gleaming blue diesel loco at Calicut station. Pop told me: "this is the new Jayanti Janata express; it goes all the way to Delhi. And it gets to Shoranur from here in one hour flat!"

Somehow, Pop's statement stuck and whenever I traveled by any train between these stations, I would check the time; the Holy Grail of one hour never happened; it was always 75-85 minutes for the nearly 90 kilometer distance. Obviously, that was a 'stretcher' from Pop (as Huck Finn would put it - strictly speaking, it was a 'compressor! - not by much, around 20 percent; okay for Pop!

...until last week when I took the Sampark Kranti express. Between Shoranur and Calicut, its WDM3D loco let it really rip in a sustained blast of diesel power. The train thundered past Tirur and Parappanangadi at full tilt and as it reluctantly slowed to a crawl at 'Kozhikode outer', only 58 minutes had elapsed from its stirring into action at Shoranur.

I reported the whole thing to Pop and he remarked. "Hey, the one hour thing was no fiction. I often took the Mangalore Mail to Shoranur when I was a student and it would reach in one hour!". "No way!", I protested. "You are talking about 1960 and lumbering steam locos; and it was a single track line in those days!" But Pop was adamant: "Hello, I know what I am talking about. One hour flat it used to be!".

Aside: I have had my present cellphone for several years but it was only last month that I figured out it incorporated a stopwatch! It was thrilling to see the Sampark maintain a smashing 105 kmph speed for long stretches, occasionally grazing 110. Flip side: the Kozhikode line is all set to switch to electric traction and the days of such diesel-fueled thrils are numbered.

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I saw a thirtyish woman and her 3/4 year old son step out of a shop on a quiet Ernakulam lane. Pointing at a lone tree standing across the lane, she tells the boy: "Look, a Paala tree with all those lovely flowers, so tiny-tiny and white, don't you see them?!".

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(*) One does recall an episode of a snake *possibly* sporting a smug, mocking smile; indeed it is this very cobra. Snugly safe on Siva's neck, he asks his wrathful nemesis, Garuda the eagle: "Hey Garuda, Howd'yedo?" (the cobra actually spoke Tamil, the translation is mine).