Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gods and People- Travelling through Orissa

Dawn breaks over the sleeping town, grey clouds streaking the rising sun and chopping its orange perfection into indiscernible shapes. A steady wind breathes life into the trees dotting the countryside and explains the bent, crooked trunks of the tall coconut-palms sprinkled liberally across the fields. Small roads span canals and lead further inwards into distant, mysterious villages. Pools and ponds materialise suddenly by the road, green-flecked, generously surrounded by tall palms and trees whose benevolent branches caress them with their leaves. Women cluster by their edges, carrying pots and gossip down to their gatherings. Cattle wallow in other shallow pools, boys and men swim lazily for respite from the sun which is now beginning to make its way up the broad, unexplored expanse of blue sky.

My journeys have more or less revolved around the NH5 for a few years- and we’re going south-east now, from Bhubaneswar, through Cuttack and Pipli, to the temple-town of Puri. Orissa (or Odisha, as it is called on some of the hoardings) has a countryside as beautiful as the fertile plains of the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh- about the only other rural districts I know reasonably well.

Puri comes with the traditional tourist trappings- auto drivers charge exorbitantly, beggars line the crowded streets, cycle-rickshaws draw the young and the elderly to the temple premises, cows and bulls with sharpened horns scrounge the streets for food. Look out from a distance, and it’s an unbroken sea of humanity- black-haired and brown wrinkled heads, coloured umbrellas, tonsured heads with red towels thrown carelessly about them. The sun beats mercilessly down upon the Sunday morning crowds at the temple whose deity has lent His name to an English word- ‘juggernaut’.

The Jagannath Temple is overwhelming in its architecture. The tall structure rises majestically into the sky, evoking awe for the artisans who must have poured sweat and blood into its construction in a period when technology, as we know it now, didn’t exist. While the spiritual powers of the temple are widely spoken of, its premises throb with the lives and the prayers of the masses of people who press into its walls every single day, all distinctions cast off, wishes and wagers with God laid bare. Monkeys abound in the cleverly crafted niches of the temple, seemingly docile, heads bowed as they survey the stream of people milling about with their keen eyes.

You are clutched by the waist, the shoulder, the arm, the hair, as people struggle to push their way into the sanctum sanctorum- the place, sadly, lacks order, and chaos reigns as the doors are thrown open to devotees, who unfortunately cease to be human in their wild pursuit of divine gifts and throw discipline to the winds. That single moment in the presence of those massive figures, though, is overpowering- that quick reminder of mysterious Higher Powers that keep you asking questions about the world and its origins, about life itself.

Puri is also famous as a seaside town- the road to Konark curves alongside wide, secluded beaches, the dark blue waters of the Bay of Bengal rolling heavily down upon yellow-white sands. The Sun Temple, a World Heritage Site built eight hundred years ago, is yet another architectural marvel. Defaced and plundered by invaders over the years, it must once have been a study in perfection. The walls are adorned by exquisitely crafted figures, another reminder of the skill that coursed through the veins of the people who carved them all those years ago, without the benefit of the knowledge that makes our lives so much easier now. The figures are supposed to be mostly erotic depictions. The twenty-four wheels of the chariot-shaped temple are astounding- chopped off in various portions now, they must have been a sight to behold once upon a time.

To one side is an area marked off as the kitchen, visibly soot-blackened, ovens dug into the earth in front of the large platforms. The place swarms with people, but thankfully, there isn’t any graffiti of the ‘Raja (heart pierced with an arrow) Neha’ kind. The romance is in the sculptures, in the gargantuan homage to the Sun God who rides His chariot across the skies, bearing the gift of Life.

It is time to turn back to Bhubaneswar, and after a lightning-quick stop at Pipli, famous for its handicrafts, for a spot of shopping, we take a detour off the highway to Dhauli.

Dhauli Giri houses the Shanti Stupa- a dedication to the Buddha, overlooking the vast, picturesque, river-watered plains of Kalinga. Could this fertile, life-giving land really have been the site of bitter battle, where the blood of thousands was shed before Ashoka realized the futility of war? Legend goes that the waters of the river Daya turned red as a result of the merciless killing- now, it is a placid blue stream that flows gently through green fields, a vista of incredible beauty when looked upon from the heights of the Stupa. Four serene statues of the Buddha look out at the countryside, the bearers of the truth of peace which finally convinced a remorseful Emperor to lay down his arms and kill no more.

By the foot of the hill is a park preserved by the Archaeological Society of India, which protects a piece of rock in a glass case- the rock inscribed with Ashoka’s edicts, the rules by which he wanted his people to live so there would be no more war.

The regular tourist trips have been accomplished satisfactorily, and in good time. Without much planning or anticipation, I have been pleasantly surprised and enamoured by all I’ve seen. What I need to explore next is my own backyard.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Quiet Wildernesses

Large green swathes of forest, mottled by purplish-brown patches of less healthy vegetation, spread out under a filmy cloud cover as the aeroplane begins its descent. (On my first-ever day flight, I think I know what heaven looks like- thick, smoky whirls of cloud underneath, a few grey streaks in the distance, more pearly white fluff in pristine blue sky overhead. This is what the movies make it look like, anyway.) On the ground, the elevations are visible- barren red soil has given way to more fertile brown squares and swirls, criss-crossed by the sinuous curves of muddy or algae-choked rivers, occasionally punctuated by a lake or two. Garishly coloured houses come into view as the plane prepares to land; it taxies down the runway rather roughly, reminiscent of rattling buses bumping down pockmarked country roads. A low, unremarkable-looking building comes into view, the plane halts.

I am in Bhubaneswar.

This trip into Orissa, having been pondered and toyed around with for months, is finally happening. Summer isn’t exactly the right time to visit a state notorious for its heat waves, but trips never happen when meticulously planned- they’re best carried out impulsively.

After a ten-minute wait by the baggage carousel at the airport, which, frankly, is rather shabby when compared to the swanky grandeur of Bangalore, I haul my bag off and walk out to where my parents are waiting for me with a car- the journey isn’t quite over yet. I am going deeper into Orissa, into a small town- or village- barely touched by the trappings of modernity and the more pretentious varieties of prosperity.

After shopping for a few supplies at the supermarkets of Bhubaneswar- because the little town we’re going to doesn’t have anything larger than small, stuffy grocery stores by dry culverts, the kind redolent with the smell of grain and oil- we’re on our way. The roads are good and not very crowded once we exit the boundaries of the city. We pass a few dry river-beds as we go on to Cuttack, and then the sandy bed of the Mahanadi- the water, stored elsewhere, flows down in a barely visible trickle.

Hills rise gracefully in the distance, surprisingly green in the dry heat- there must have been some good rain not too long ago. Pink lotus flowers spread out thickly on a carpet of their own leaves on a pond. A steady wind blows through the countryside with a relatively sparse population. Buildings- a lodge, a temple, tea stalls- appear sporadically on what is mostly an unbroken stretch of agricultural land.

A narrow road branches off the highway to take us to our destination. Shops are jammed together closely on either side of it, almost appearing to encroach on the narrow road, wanting to swallow up the traffic that consists mostly of two-wheelers. Nondescript, yes- this could be a scene from any Indian village, a return to the roots from which our bustling cities have grown.

Houses line either side of winding roads through the town, old-world, grimy, wizened, cobwebbed. Yellow and grey. This is a town that time forgot to touch. The car draws up in front of our house, and the first thing that I notice is the decent-sized compound around it and the motley group of trees.

As I write, I’m in the bedroom by an open window that overlooks the treetops. Day darkens into dusk, the wind grows stronger and conspires with the trees in the garden, nudging them into song. The palm fronds and mango leaves rustle relentlessly, caressed by the wind. The stars will be out soon, and so will the moon- the elements of the night coming together to weave their spells in the near-silence of this town ensconced in, but untroubled by, its own placid life.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Magic from Monotony

Perhaps the best gift a writer can ask for is to be able to conjure up images out of nothing; when what appears desultory and monotonous can be twisted into a creation to be marvelled at for its simple grace and earthy beauty, all without pretension.

Rohinton Mistry does this with consummate ease. Tales from Firozsha Baag is a delightful collection of stories about Parsi families in a housing complex in Bombay. Mistry uses random observations to depict the lives of the young and the old; generations and classes against one another, prurient impulses seeking satiation, women resigned to a life within the peeling plaster of the compound even as their daughters carry their dreams abroad, boys coming to terms with realities beyond cricket and gramophone records. In Mr. Mody, Rustomji, Najamai and Mrs. Boyce, you see the people you hear of and bear with constantly. A large number of Zoroastrian references are used throughout without needless stereotyping. What really works for me, though, is the lack of high-falutin phrases, the nonchalance with which Mistry connects with the reader.

Mistry has a keen, observant eye. There isn’t an implausible idea in the book; look around and you’ll see ample evidence of the vagaries of character so effortlessly described. You don’t race through the stories, you linger over them as does Mistry‘s pen, hovering over the calendar on the wall and the compartment in the train. If ever there were a worthy successor to Ruskin Bond’s unhurried, easy prose, it would have to be Mistry. His strength lies in his ability to pull wonders out of seeming nothingness, and you realise that the people in his book are all around you- only, you never looked at them the way he does.

I’d recommend the book for a lazy summer night when the blades of the fan cut through the hot air with a heavy languor; let the surface of your glass of lemonade frost up and nostalgia be an uninvited guest as a noisy, grimy, yet appealing world unfolds in front of your devouring eyes. It isn’t everyday that someone makes your cantankerous next-door-neighbour look human.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Capriciousness

I’m not supposed to be writing now. I should be working hard at something else. Words, however, insist on trespassing into my head and splaying their long, unwieldy limbs across the litter-strewn table. Surely you know how stubborn they can be? When they have nothing to say and must still force themselves forward recklessly, clamoring to be heard like a precocious child. You try to ignore them, but they will not listen to your meek entreaties- they know you’re tractable, that your weak arguments are a fa├žade.

So they flow forth and flood your clean, pristine sheet of paper that has long been waiting to be scribbled upon. It wasn’t originally set down for your blather, and has patiently awaited the fruit of your serious introspection. Capricious that words are, they will flow with cheerful anachronism, making themselves heard just when you don’t want them to- not whole-heartedly. But depend on it, when you want to write with such desperation that existence itself seems to hinge on it, they will dry up, clam up, go back into their shell like they never existed.

Maybe that is how words are supposed to be. Magical and unpredictable. Springing from the most unlikely sources and impulses, breathing life into dangerously mundane subjects. Call me a featherhead, but to me, words are close to the most beautiful creation of man.
The thunder is deafening. The sky is draped in grey clouds and the rain falls steadily. The children have abandoned their play (what a pity, when they should be getting drenched instead- this isn't exam time!), and a steady breeze sets the curtains aflutter.

Alone at home, sitting on a mattress on the floor, I watch the drops form a chain on the yellow sunshade. They glide across it one after another, merging, embracing, disappearing.

The Rain Goddess revels.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The 'Garden'

Silhouettes of moulting pigeons on window sills and balcony walls. Disembodied voices and noises. Stray feathers underfoot. Welcome home.

The process of settling-in continues, and I walk quietly past the tiny groups of children playing in the pretend-garden- a decent size for a crowded city- and the area around it, in front of the board that prohibits playing in the vicinity. This is one ‘law’ I wouldn’t want upheld. Can they really advocate boxed-up, claustrophobic childhoods to save a few measly window-panes at the cost of the yellow sunshine and pleasantly stinging raindrops that they once indulged themselves with?

Yet another elevator. Very small, painted a dark glossy brown, four walls scratched with unremarkable graffiti and closed without a glimpse of the outside world. (Is this how they carted people to Auschwitz?) You might well be shooting into space or plunging down to Hades, not knowing if the earth stopped turning or a Cormac McCarthy-style apocalypse struck- safely suffocating in that narrow little box, you would develop a lifelong aversion for elevators. How different it is from the sky-canopied, peopled area outside.

The elderly sit out on the benches in the ‘garden’. Two young children run by. “Saku Behn! Kem chho?” calls out an old man in a blue T-shirt and green cap. The children run to him, giggling. The little boy ask for chocolates.

“Didn’t I give you two today? One for you, one for her?”

“Just one?”

“Yes, only one chocolate per day.”

“So will you give us more chocolates tomorrow?”

“Not tomorrow, but the day after. I’ll have to go and buy the chocolates tomorrow, you see.”

The boy looks askance at the old man. “You need a whole day to buy chocolates?”

“Yes.”

With the implicit trust and simplicity of childhood, the boy accepts the deal placidly, and runs off as his mother comes to take him home. The girl goes along.

Twilight clouds linger in the sky. Play time is almost over. The thrilled shrieks and the bicycle bells gradually cease as darkness envelopes the garden and tired parents come home, bent with the burden of responsibility, casting their overwhelmed shadows on the sunshiny happiness of ignorance and carefree childhoods. Parents who believe in advertisements that say, “Your child watches TV. Your neighbour’s child knows who invented the TV.” Stinging, cruel.

A few more hours, till Sleep weaves her magic and takes all her children into her dream-clad arms.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Conversing with a City

My first trip on my own through the tree-lined streets of Bangalore- I’ve travelled the route earlier with a friend, and I’m not nervous about being out alone. My knowledge of Kannada borders on the negative, but languages aren’t barriers, are they? The buildings aren’t remarkable- there is nothing much to distinguish them from those in another Indian city- and as the bus whizzes past the flyover, I look curiously out the window, hoping to find something noteworthy.

The bus drives past small grey booths marked ‘Subway’ in unnecessarily cold letters- flights of steps lead downwards into unknown tunnels. I want to get off and explore- but I haven’t yet mustered enough courage to go traipsing through the streets on foot. New places are tantalising, though, and I wish I could take a bus whose destination I was unaware of and go off into the unknown. Sadly, incidents like the Pune rape serve as a reminder of the ugly reality outside the cosy comfort of your house- or hotel room- and of the lascivious predators lurking around, fangs bared, eagerly waiting to maul unsuspecting young prey. When you’re on the roads, snap out of the world you’ve created for the hours when you might need company in solitude. Books go only this far in teaching you what you need in life- the rest comes through roughing it out.

Temples rise out of the unbroken lines of shop fronts and houses. Masses of people press into the compound of St. Anthony’s Church this Good Friday, heads bowed in contemplation and prayer. Trees relieve the monotony of concrete- look up at the violet, yellow and pink blossomed canopy and at the whitish-blue sky through the netting of the leaves. Rainshowers have breathed life into the air. I remember that night, the roads slick with rain, a thin streak of unnaturally white clouds inching towards the moon, a moist breeze setting the branches into a slow, soft dance of their own.

Cities talk to you. They make conversation with you, absorb you and give you memories. They superimpose on what you’ve left behind and overwhelm you with their presence. Accept and make friends with them, and you live in danger of stagnation. Despise them and turn down their advances, you end up a restless nomad, once again made to go in search of that one perfect place to pitch your tent at. That thin line in between is what you seek- where you’re comfortable with the city, and not overly in love with it. Where you live like this is forever, and can still leave at a moment’s notice.

The city lies outside the walls of my fortress. I’m waiting for it to speak to me.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Solitude is when you’re comfortable with your own company, not intimidated by it- that’s when it degenerates into loneliness.

A dull roar rises out of the distance, sets the window-panes rattling- an aeroplane winging its way into the night, giving you its company, or intruding on your peace, for a few brief seconds. The air conditioner’s relentless hum fills the room, and you turn up the volume on the television. The subtitles impose themselves on your eyes, and you cannot help but read them. Dinner for one, and it’s done and dispensed with. A bar of chocolate lies tantalizingly in the mini-fridge, but a nagging toothache- the precursor of wisdom- holds you back every time you start to rise from your bed. Potato chips, biscuits, chocolate, noodles- a bachelor girl in a new city.

A three-day long weekend beckons and you have absolutely no idea what you are going to do with yourself. This is the kind of unpredictability to live for, the chance at adventure, if you can only make up your mind to go out and seek it- because there always are those relative comfort zones, even in unknown places, that the quiet nature takes refuge in. Your roommate is on a bus, off on that long-awaited trip home, and you have the whole room to yourself- total privacy. What more can you want, especially when you have the most perfect book in your bag- After Dark?

Loneliness is an illusion. Sometimes, there is no better therapy for the tiresomeness of the world than time alone with yourself, in decent quantities.