One River, One Crab (Old article published in The Indian Express circa 2008)

I have been feeling for a while that scripted English language theatre, as against devised theatre, is going through a crisis of form, content and method. But two plays I saw during the Royal Court Theatre Writer’s Bloc Festival, offer hope. One was Turel (River) by Swar Thounaojam and the other, Crab by Ram Ganesh Kamatham. The former sinuous, slithered along the earth, mysterious and apparently placid. The latter was sky bound, with harsh bursts of firecracker dialogue that sounded the way we speak in Indian cities.

Turel is set on a riverbank outside Imphal. A child has died and is being buried. Two characters, the old Brahmin, Eigya and the drunken Luwangcha, are living their separate, yet interconnected lives on the river bank. Eigya comes by every day to put fresh flowers on his grandchild’s grave and Luwangcha teases him, keeps him company.

There are subtle mentions of insurgency and the Meirapeibi – “young men with guns, women with torches” - and one is acutely aware that this is Manipur. The language spells impermanence. The shifting riverbank sand, Luwangcha’s missing wife, the anticipation of violence.

Then that thing happens. Luwangcha is attacked by a commando who, interestingly, speaks in Hindi. All other dialogue is in English with a little Meiteilon. So the choice of Hindi as the language of the commando comes as a scathing indictment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows the Outsider to penetrate a culture and a people with brutality. As he prods him with his gun, he discovers Luwangcha’s secret and something changes unalterably.

English language theatre in India has often shied away from political content. So watching a play about Manipur that is so exacting is a new experience. The playwright has rooted the play in a deeply personal space – the relationship between Eigya and Luwangcha. But following the discovery of Luwangcha’s secret, the play explodes into the political domain and then unravels further, till personal and political are inseparable.

About Crab, it has nothing to do with the sand critter. This Crab is an abbreviation of carabiner, the rock climber’s tool. Turel and Crab are both written by young writers grappling with the sounds and vibrations of societies that are adrift. The central metaphor of each play is one of longing. The birth pangs of the river. The solitude of a rock face. Both have that quality of viraha, so beloved of Indian aesthetics.

Crab has four characters, but one who matters. Zamiel. The existential heir of Meursault in his remorseless commitment to the truth and Gregor Samsa in his love that is willing to go the length. In 2007, when measures of success are employability, disposable income and other corporate-speak, the “alone-ness” of Zamiel is stark and darkly romantic. In contrast you have the hapless Rocky. Would that he were called Stone. He’s never gonna get the girl. Try as he might to get the job, learn to climb, scramble, achieve… It’s downhill for Rocky. Yet the characters are sufficiently grayscale (Zamiel’s relentlessness could well be a pain in the neck and Rocky’s stupidity is often endearing) to make the audience see oneself in Rocky while aspiring to be Zamiel.

There were things that I would change about both scripts but playwrights are works in progress and deserving of time. The purpose of this article is to say, something’s going on here, man! In the hands of these diverse, angry-joyous-introspective-self absorbed-globally aware Indian kids from Manipur to Banglore – English language theatre is looking up. And the Royal Court Theatre is looking India-ways.

- Kirtana Kumar

Kirtana Kumar is a Bangalore based theatre artist and documentary film-maker.

Mid-March in Bangalore circa 2009

The pretty morning light through my pink Cassia, early mangoes and that smell of wet mud that assures me it’s raining somewhere. Despite the traffic, there’s quite nothing like mid-March in Bangalore.

“Mid-winter spring is it’s own season.*”

So what shall we read when the weather is so alluring? Something clearly curl up-able, something edgy, something new? I’m an everywhere, anytime reader, so here’s what are currently in the loo, next to my computer, on my desktop, by my bed and on the yellow chair in the garden.

Loo – Tehelka

Desktop – The Guardian – Great Poets of the 20th century

Computer – The Shifting Point – Peter Brook

Kitchen – Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi

Chair – Buddha – Vol. 6 Ananda – Osamu Tezuka

Tehelka is a habit. My morning reading of The Guardian is a family joke, but seriously the Great Poets series is lovely, if only to revisit TS Elliot* and Ted Hughes and to read (for me, anyway) Siegfried Sassoon for the first time. Peter Brook is a theatre muse I often return to. But my something new and edgy are the last two.

I thought comics were for babies and that graphic novels were grown up’s name for comics. And am still ambivalent. But I love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and have since been introduced to the Buddha series by my daughter. Deep, funny and haunting.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is about an academic, Azar Nafisi, defending the cause of literature in Iran during the Islamic revolution. It is interesting to read analogies between Nabakov’s Lolita, and the oppression of citizens in times of political strife. How the simple act of watching Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice in censored, un-subtitled form can so consume a people when their senses have been deprived.

How much we take for granted, no?

Food in Cinema (Old articles published in Cine Blitz)

My mother’s family is from Mangalore. My mother’s sisters talk about food ALL the time. What I cooked for lunch, the price of bangda, the best way to cook meen pulli munchi, what I will cook for dinner. So if I love foodie-films, how can I be blamed? I grew up, much like Tita from “Like Water for Chocolate”, nurtured by the sounds, sights and smells of many kitchens. My grandmother’s soups fragrant with ginger and chopped coriander, the smell of jeera being roasted for the rasam, crushed garlic and mustard seed crackling in hot oil, cinnamon, clove and cardamom infusing my very dreams. Yes, that’s right - I am totally controlled by the women in my family. And how do they do it? Duh, through their culinary skills of course.

So something in me leaps at the idea of celluloid food.

Food as the ultimate aggressor – that’s what this article is about. Think about it, Mickey Rourke popping a Habanero chilli into the blindfolded Kim Basinger’s mouth in “9 ½ Weeks”. Or Hannibal Lecter gourmandizing on his victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Or the father cooking a spectacular and guilt inducing Sunday lunch for his daughters in Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” … you get the drift?!

Truly delectable foodie films actually influence what you want to eat. It’s been documented. When we were kids reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, we absolutely craved scones and potted shrimp. Same thing, different medium. So if you are feeling gluttonous, here’s a celluloid menu to die for:

1.“Like Water for Chocolate” (Mexican) - Cream fritters, Mole, Quail, Tequila

2. “Babette’s Feast” (French) Turtle soup, Blinis Demidoff, Quail, Clos de Vougeot 1845

“Like Water for Chocolate” is based on the novel by Laura Esquivel and was directed by her ex-husband Alfonso Arau. “Babette’s Feast” is based on a story by Isak Denison (author of Out of Africa) and was directed by Gabriel Axel. In both films, one character uses food to control another or to stir things up. Tita keeps her brother-in-law Pedro well and truly seduced with her cooking. Her emotions infuse her food with all the beauty of magic realism. When she is sad because Pedro is marrying her sister Rosaura, her tears fall into the wedding cake batter making wedding guest weep profusely when they eat the cake.

In both LWFC as well as Babette’s Feast, a parent prevents her or his progeny from marrying, thus causing passion to take on other forms. In the former, Tita’s ardour enter her food. In the latter, Babette with her decadent French style that involves wine, live produce, fresh fruit and herbs shakes the foundations of the puritanical spinster sisters, Martina and Phillipa.

Quails figure largely in both films as a symbol of hedonism. Tita makes a marmalade of rose petals from the flowers that Pedro has given her. She then smothers her roasted quails in this most amorous of marmalades which in turn makes everyone who eats this want to run out and make love! When Babette’s provisions arrive by boat, we have a hint of what is to come when she gleefully collects her cage of live quails. It is hilarious watching a bunch of people, who have been previously subjected to a diet of cruel-gruel and broth, now faced with such epicurean wonders! And when one of them pithily declares, albeit while gorging on quail, “Like the Wedding at Cana, the food is of no importance” you know you are watching a very subversive little film.

There are enough overt associations of food with evil. Women cooking, on celluloid, look like the archetypical witch in Hell’s Kitchen. What with the pots, vapours, bubbling stock and sweaty foreheads. It’s all a bit orgiastic. Tita’s mother, Mama Ellena, asks her if she put an emetic in the cake that has made the guest so sick with longing. Martina and Phillipa speak in hushed whispers about “exposure to dangerous, even evil powers.”

Another great food film is Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman”. The scenes of cooking are a work of love. Cutting shallots, throwing ingredients into a hot wok, chopsticks flying about, the greens and yellows of Bok Choy. How lovely that the cook in this case is a man. Although he is a bit of a Mangy mum, with his incessant need to cook and feed his daughters. Why, he could be related to me!

I’ve been wondering if there are any Hindi films where food plays a central character. Did “Pakeezah” feature a scene where Meena Kumari dips her fingers into a bowl of almond covered phirnee? Did Jai and Veeru ever cook a meal over a fire? Some rotis and a chicken smothered in ginger, garlic, curd and turmeric, perhaps? Green chilli and raw onion on the side. Do write and tell me of food scenes you remember.

I certainly fancy watching a film with Shahrukh Khan stirring up an urbane Coq au Vin. Button mushrooms…..a tad of thyme…a quartered chicken and some fine Merlot. Or maybe Ajay Devgan cooking a Yakhni biriyani. Or Viveik Oberoi doing some Red Beans and Rice while singing Pastime Paradise. Or Saif Ali Khan making crepes with strawberries…Or Abhishek flipping a masala dosai….. Oh the mind boggles!

- Kirtana Kumar in Cine Blitz

Heritage:Lost Spaces (Old published articles)

Heritage spaces? In Bangalore? Dear Reader, look around you. The tree massacres, the illegal incursion on Lalbagh, the daily demolition of old bungalows, Central Jail now euphemistically called Freedom Park. Is our heritage worth getting into a lather about? Please, won’t you be the judge?

Driving to BIAL on Friday, I see a shorn and shaven hillside rising up in front of me, evidence of a mining lobby that is apparently unmoved by monoliths or outlays of the Western Ghats and a political mass that fosters such crassness. Yet, the roadscape is slick, reminiscent of an anonymous foreign country. Somewhere along the road, on the right, one sees fragments from the time of Tippu Sultan, a dry-stacked stone wall and mantappa. But in the scheme of things – the political, spatial and social development of Bangalore - they are dwarfed, less important that the grandeur of the road and airport.

Perhaps one should begin with a litany of the losses.

Many years ago Bangalore lost Dr.Miranda’s house on St.Mark’s Road. The Vaz family’s Terra Vera, near by, is practically gone. We lost Victoria Hotel to a mall. We have lost several dearly beloved homes in Basavangudi, including the majestic Sheesh Mahal near Vani Vilas Circle. Onward from Lalbagh West Gate stood Sheesh Mahal, with its ornate mortar work windows on the right. On the left stood a house with wooden trellises and a sign for Afghan Snow. We’ve lost them all. Why, we’ve even lost Vani Vilas Circle or National College Circle as it used to be called. A piece of Bangalore history, we lost it to a flyover. We’ve lost the promenade on MG Road, as also Lakeview and Jamal’s. We’ve lost that old stalwart, Cash Pharmacy. Most recently, we have lost India Coffee House. Dewar’s Bar looks like its days are numbered.

And then work backwards to configure an equation between all that heritage signifies and all that the loss of heritage unleashes.

Heritage has been defined as the tangible and intangible expressions of a society’s culture that have been passed on from generation to generation and as representative of the “cultural capital and inspirational power of people and communities”. Taken in isolation the word “heritage” is itself often factious because it seems to imply ease and the insouciance of wealth. That it is best left to countries with money to make the argument for heritage conservation since we have enough urban issues on our plate what with public transport, sanitation and garbage disposal. Lazy intellects would even posit heritage against development, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Yet, heritage has everything to do with the way we see ourselves, each other and how we articulate ourselves. More importantly, heritage, especially in the form of public spaces and flora, is beyond individual or state; it serves the larger human community.

Having said this, I understand that heritage is a tough nut to crack. Short of clinging to tradition in a Luddite sense, in a country as diverse as ours, it is crazy to try and chalk out criteria for urban heritage conservancy that is based on age, the subjectivity of aesthetics or monetary value alone. For heritage to be relevant to a city I suspect a more citizen driven, ad hoc and ear-to-the ground approach is called for. For most of us, heritage is a bundle of things that make a city special and that mark the denizens of that city with a uniqueness that fortifies them from within and enables them to live splendidly. It is the value we place on the anachronistic and funky, as also on the historic and traditional. Thus an avenue of Rain trees (Samanae Saman) is as precious as Cash Pharmacy. And the two make sense, because we have the wit and candour to love an old bookshop or an ice-cream parlour. It is the way the glass and chrome of the new multi storied buildings is balanced by the harmony of old bungalows with gardens and jackfruit trees. And so on.

The spaces mentioned earlier were deleted from Bangalore in order to accommodate (no! not low income housing) but new temples to wealth and consumerism. Not to say they didn’t have previous utility, it’s just that in their new avatar, wealth for the individual is magnified exponentially. But rather than lay the blame on the individual, I think we should question our society that is so obsequious and upwardly mobile in its intentions that it constantly shoots itself in the foot in the name of progress. As a people we haven’t cared enough to protect our heritage, have we? We don’t have an urban commission worth mentioning. Certainly not one that has the vision to develop our city in a manner that is gracious or fine. One that has factored in quality of life for everyone. Even Shanghai, the city that Bangalore aspires to be when it grows up, has protected its Soviet neo-classical, communist era architecture alongside its traditional Shikumen residences. Further, this not an argument about tradition versus modernity. The two can co-exist with ease as in Paris, where the French have had the cultural confidence to place the fantastically industrial Centre Georges Pompidou alongside the 16 century Hotel de Ville.

The productivist mantra of the ‘90’s was that people couldn’t “afford” to hold onto their old properties because of the real estate boom in the city. Implying that an old home has no business standing upright since the land value could generate so much more. So much more what, one might well ask. And have we balanced the equation? i.e. does the elimination of heritage spaces on the one hand make us a kinder, more loving, more joyous people on the other? Clearly not, if the daily news is anything to go by. So perhaps it is time to pay heed to the emotional well being of a city. In keening for lost spaces this author is in fact not mourning lime and mortar, but familiar markers, milestones and witnesses. The stuff that solace is made of. Our souls yearn for that intangible cultural heritage, that long continuum of a city’s ancient and contemporary history. We want to be a part of its warp and weft. When my parent’s sold their home, my then four year old daughter cried “You can’t do this, all my memories are here.” So yes, the value of heritage is beyond aesthetics; it also lies in the domain of memory which one could extrapolate to include family, friends, experience and love.

After all Premier Bookshop on Church Street was not about monkey tops or Italian tiles. Yet it represented a common Bangalore heritage of intellectual enquiry, of relationships, of timelessness. In the post-globalization pursuit of homogeneity, Premier Bookshop was the gentle rebel. A small store, a learned bookseller, Proust rubbing shoulders with Ramanujam. By just being there and doing its thing, Premier Bookshop enriched and gladdened Bangalore. Travelers to the city, via Lonely Planet or the grapevine, knew Premier Bookshop the way they knew Koshy’s, MTR or Avenue Road. It was unique and irreplaceable. Maybe the key to heritage lies in that irreplaceable quality. When the value of a space lies in its being and not in its return on investment.

Finally, perhaps we should question our fundamental assumption that any decision taken to further personal wealth is necessarily a good one. I challenge this rationale. And challenge the idea of the inevitability of greed and the indisputability of gain. Surely that is not our raison d’etre on this earth. Let us instead re-investigate the twin notions of cultural capital and the inspirational power of people and communities. We need to shore up our cultural resources as well for us to feel in anyway complete. Therefore the long term impact of prioritizing one public space over another (road over relic, gated community over family home) and eradicating anything that will connect us to memory, while appearing to be practical and pro-development, may hurt us in very subtle ways. Maybe the disappearance of physical manifestations of grace will mark the end of civility for Bangalore.

So do we feel that the loss of heritage is worth getting into a lather about? Antoine de Saint Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, once wrote “A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance.”

I seek that inner distance and feel sure, dear Reader, that you do too.

- Kirtana Kumar in the Sunday Herald 2009



I don’t usually weep on reading an article, but when I read Shoma Chaudhury’s piece on Irom Sharmila in this week’s Tehelka, there was no option. She has been fasting in peaceful protest against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for the past 10 years… 10 years! Not 21 days, not 1 year… Andhra Pradesh is to be splintered by the merest hint of a hunger strike by Telengana Rashtra Samiti chief K.Chandrashekar Rao, and We the People don’t see fit to pay heed to a single woman’s 10 year long heroic resistance? Don’t see fit to pressurize our government to revoke a cruel, bestial and surely illegal Act? To hear her words - “it is my bounden duty” - is to hold a mirror to self and ask, “What do I really believe in? What will I willingly die for?”

I had the privilege of working on a Manipur based theatre project a few years ago. No state has moved me as much. Even before I reached Imphal, I was already half way in love. A state so steeped in art that every village will rig a stage and put up it’s own plays, where women look like delicate flowers clad in petals of pink and white, where Krishna makes his presence felt in the eyes of young men, where thang-ta is equally dance and lethal war-fare. I traveled in the districts of Bishnupur and Churachandpur and was fed and treated with sweetness and warmth by people who retain their humanity against the sort of odds that would defeat lesser souls. In the Ima Keithel or Women’s Market in Imphal, women laughed as I tried to haggle over a Meitei mekhla. My friend Sarat C. (who brings me rice wine in Bisleri bottles) took me to Ratan Thiyam’s exquisite Chorus Repertory Theatre just outside Imphal, where I watched Nine Hills and a Valley. I sat with Dr.Lokendra Arambam for hours, talking about literature, theatre and the history of Manipur. June 10th 2009 was the 9th anniversary of the gunning down of his brother, the UNLF leader, Arambam Samarendra. Apparently people distributed papers on his views on Manipuri literature and sang his song Chaikhre Ngashi. I was to meet Kanhailal and Sabitri. 60 plus year old Sabitri who, prescient, Cassandra-like, performed Draupadi in the nude a few months before that greatest act of protest at Kangla Palace…but time simply ran out.

To take such a people and do this to them…

Manipur has been at the epicentre of the Golden Triangle for 40 years. Sitting in community centres listening as old men shared their memories of armed jeeps coming in from erstwhile Burma, carrying drug lords and selling them pure heroin. I met a family with three generations of intra-venous drug users – grandfather, son and grandson. Except now pure heroin is a prohibitively expensive drug and sixteen year old boys and sometimes girls will shoot cheap non-injectibles such as Proxyvon for an approximate high. Subsequently they develop huge abscesses on their legs. Their hands and arms, they tattoo with needles and poster colours to hide the tracks. The Meira Peibi, Mothers of the Lost Son, to save their boys from the twin threats of insurgency and addiction, will shoot at their legs in abject desperation. I met a boy whose legs were riddled with shotgun powder. To prevent the spread of infection, activists have set up needle drop-off points and the message is “Do not Share Needles”. Not “Do Not use Drugs”, for they know the futility of this; “Do Not Share Needles.”

What is the word for the decimation of a people? Genocide?

And another…

Manipur has been under siege by the Indian state for nigh on 60 years. Even before AFSPA, there was the controversial 1949 Merger of Manipur with India agreement. Even before independence and the annexation of Manipur, the so-called Indian mainland had this feeling that it must crush the northeast, imagined as the Other, into submission. How else can one explain a Naga girl dragged through Imphal and gang raped in a church by Indian soldiers? In the year 194-? She didn’t die, imagine that. She lived quietly into old age and only recently told her story to a nephew who had it published. I wish I could remember the details of this; the woman, the date, the book.

An independent kingdom and a proud people have been systematically brutalized, sought to be crushed. And we are surprised that the attacks are still met with resistance?

And another…

Imphal is full of cycle rikshaws and all the cycle rikshaw drivers wear masks, like Zorro, scarves tied across the lower half of their faces – to hide themselves. Yes, they wear masks so they will not be recognised by their mothers and cousins. So they can hide the ignominy of being middle class and unemployed. Where are the jobs? Outside of government service and insurgency, where is the work? At a meeting on HIV prevention, I asked my Manipuri colleagues “What is the industry in Manipur?” This was met by silence and later a young boy said “I don’t know about industry and all that. I just know we are good people…and there is nothing for us to do anymore. I am a peer counselor to fellow IDU’s. At least it’s work”

I met one of the Meira Peibi who participated in the July 15th 2004 protest. She was a jovial grandmother who, like the others, was pushed so far over the edge by the years of rape and murder that yet another rape and murder, that of Thangjam Manorama proved too much. Along with 11 other Imas or mothers, she stripped her clothes off and stood before Kangla Palace screaming “Indian Army, rape us”.

I have nothing to offer other than my memories of Manipur. And one last visual: From Nine Hills and a Valley – a chorus of women draped in white with babies on their backs, mouths stretched open, twisting in silent agony.

Sharmila’s mother hasn’t met her since she began her fast for fear that she will weaken her resolve. Do read about what is actually happening in the North-East and be informed. Don’t let Irom Sharmila fast alone. Don’t let her fast be in vain.


Mad Puppy

In an effort to stave Bamboo’s depression (on account of Laddu and Rose’s passing, or so we think; maybe he’s just turning into a cranky old guy and this despite still having his tentacles intact unlike Surprise who is deprived in this dept. ), we decided that we must get a girl puppy. Truth be told, it was sort of for The Daughter’s 16th birthday as well.

We looked and asked around for yellow Lab girl pup. Several on the phone sounded dicey and spoke in terms of micro chips, show dogs and KCI when all we wanted was a cheerful baby to kiss and muck about with. This went on for a bit to no avail. Then on a fine evening filled with old friends and music, Sharmon said he knew “someone in the office who had Lab pups”. We followed this lead that led to the fattest, darling-est, prettiest furball you ever saw and she was the offspring of the lovely Itisha’s Paris & Deuce Bigalow (yes, yes…Male Gigolo). Except she wasn’t a Lab, she was a Golden Retriever, a minor detail apparently, ‘cause by now we were besotted we so couldn’t see the woods for the trees. Lab, Schmab. A dog by any other name etc. Some brisk googling on Kuki’s part informed us that crossing a Lab with a GR wasn’t a bad idea as the latter were apparently “more intelligent”. Good, good! Bamboo’s honour will be upheld, Laddu’s noble bloodline continued and doggie-depression shall be kept at bay.

Or so innocently we thought.

I should have known, should have had one teensy inkling, on that journey home. She wriggled and wiggled and squealed so much that I worried the auto driver next us at the Cunningham Road lights would think I was Chinese torturing her, so held her up for all to behold much as Mufasa did Simba. See? Fat and Adorable Puppy, that’s all. I thought the drama was because we were strangers and she missed her Mama. How wrong I was! It’s just that she is an independent little miss. And wants her own way all the bloody time. We didn’t name her Princess Mushroom Peaches Mirabella for nothing. Mushroom for short and Mooshoo for shorter. So when we now say “What’s the Brat up to?” everyone knows the One in question is not The Daughter.

The house, peaceful and dignified a week ago, now looks like a bomb shelter on acid. The floors are strewn with puppy debris; a pink sock, 2 soft toys, Bamboo’s old bone, a guitar cable, a pine cone, Hawaii chappals and every single Pretty Thing from my too-low coffee table including a Welsh Kissing Spoon, a snuff box and copy of On the Road. And this doesn’t include the reams of newspaper everywhere to soak up sweet smelling pup-piss. Or the bits of apples and carrots that she is teething on. Oh, and the little stoneware bowl of water and flowers on the too-low coffee table? She stands on said table, drinks the water, flowers glued to her nose and then leaves wet paw prints everywhere.

And yet, we wander about all day in a love-daze, kissing her endlessly, stuffing our noses into her peachy fur and feeding her sliced bananas and curd rice (she is to be brought up a Brahmin Pup, is this one). The other day some newspaper carried an item about stroking dogs, how that’s good for one’s health. Oh, boy… That’s our medical insurance. That, and full body massage.

And Bamboo?

* One week later…He’s not depressed anymore, I don’t think. He’s just furious. He’s either dead scared of the Precious Pup or dead angry. Either way, it’s a red hot emotion. Kuki says “Just wait for six months, she comes on heat.” But it shouldn’t be just about the sex, should it? Why can’t he let his guard down and go with the flow?

* Ten days later… He’s besotted too and has lost every shred of canine dignity. She’s licking his ear as I write, having jumped all over him, bitten his tail, eaten his breakfast and made him chase her and her rag toy under our bed and through the house. The only hope of discipline lies in Kiara, who every now and again casts a baleful eye over this Creature from Elsewhere and slaps her with a well meaning hiss.


Magadi to Masinagudi

Our Deepavalli weekend was beautiful this year. No crackers, no noise, no debris. Just happy dogs and lots of family and friends at Infinite Souls. Sad that Kiara had to stay in the city, but I haven’t as yet figured how to bring her to the farm and not have her freak out. She’s a city girl; used to her roof tops, spiral staircase, garden and full-on Cat Domination.

So there we were, a bunch of us, spread out between the El and both the cottages. Folks began to get in by noon on Saturday and by late Sunday it was full house. The oven had been packed variously with roasts, cinnamon biscuits, rosemary bread, spinach and corn au gratin and maki dhal. (You’ve never had maki dhal till you’ve eaten one that was cooked 12 hours in a woodfire oven)

We walked over to Rame Gowda’s farm to see what the elephants had done. Not a lot actually, they’d been quite discreet. A few broken papaya trees and giant footsteps into one paddy field. In at about 2 am and out soon after. The only sure proof they were there – a few lovely, olive balls of elephant dung. The last time he had elephants was about 15 years ago. Rame Gowda's farm is the prettiest thing around. He takes impeccable care of it and is always there - pottering around, ploughing, sowing, cleaning. It is terraced in small multi-leveled pieces, like a jigsaw cum maze. A large, old Jackfruit tree keeps it shady. And then he has the hills closing in on him on his north-west border. Right now he’s trying lowland paddy, so it’s even lovelier – electric green and soft. He borders the fields with orange kanakambara flowers. It feels like a little jewel tucked away quiety and much loved.

On Saturday night I lit tiny lamps on the verandah and we sat out beneath the stars. Away from the light pollution of the city, the Milky Way was visible, a scarf strewn against the night sky.

On Monday morning while the rest headed back to Bangalore, we set off, with Peter and Ina, to Masinagudi. Peter had given Ina a Canon camera for Christmas, so we were ok for documentation! All the pictures in this blog are thanks to Peter and Ina. They took about 800 pictures in India - from crazy traffic in Bangalore to, well, crazy traffic in Masinagudi :)

We took the gorgeous Savandurga Road between Magadi Road and Ramnagaram and then on to Mysore. There is something about that little 22km stretch past fantastic rock surfaces, ponds, old villages, temples, herds of goats, a barber’s shop, a timber yard, more rocks, forest. It’s worth the drive just to experience it. And leaving from Magadi, made it even better. We made our way to the Metropole in Mysore for lunch. Sat out on cane chairs beneath a slowly turning fan and everything felt just so.

When Zui was little, soon after we passed the little Hanuman temple and entered Bandipur we would say “Keep your eyes peeled” and one time we noticed that she actually did! So that’s now a family ritual except that Zui is now a Jungle Nazi and won’t let anyone breathe once we enter the sanctuary. She and Mark.

Anyway, we headed slowly to self same Mark Davidar’s Cheetal Walk. Passing all the beloved turns and bends. Strangely there were no herds of deer at the Bandipur Tourist Centre and we wondered about that. Mudhumalai, Theppekadu, Masinagudi township, Bokkapuram, Mavanahalla.

It was about 5.45pm when we made Mark’s turn off. The sun was low as we drove in and then lo and behold! There was a massive tusker in front of his verandah. We had heard earlier about his tuskers – Carlos and Rivaldo, but to think one of them was there on arrival! It was a trip. We just stopped and gaped. Then Mark came out and gestured us in. In seconds we were on the verandah and there, about 8-10 feet away was this majestic wild animal. Watching us, aware. It was scary enough to warrant we stayed close to the doors. Except, that is, for Jungle Nazi Zui who sat on a chair and gazed on bliss. “Back Rivaldo”, said Mark in a normal sounding voice, as he was saying “morning Zui”. And then as it got dark, “Go away now, come tomorrow.” And the 9 ½ foot wild Pachyderm turned away and walked towards the side of the house, stopped a moment, looked back and disappeared into the forest. It was an experience like nothing we’ve known, this liminality. Some sort of poignant meeting between two souls, wrought by years of fostering trust and trying a different sort of communion. What must it mean to communicate so subtly? How unspeakably beautiful. And in what contrast to the vulgar crassness of the forest department bus drivers – honking at a Gaur, yelling at others who have stopped. And in what painful contrast to the general traffic on the Sigur Road – speeding, honking non-stop, some Sabarimalai pilgrims holding flags and even yelling out the window.

That night we heard two massive, really massive, roars. A tiger very close by. Peter and Ina were sleeping in the open attic and Ina was terrified. The next day she told us that she seriously considered sleeping in the loo to keep atleast a little concrete between her and the tiger!

The next day, we drove to Vazhaithottam to pick up idlis and Murugan, Mark’s Man Friday. We sat in Basheer's strawberry pink shop waiting for breakfast to be packed.
In the short time it took us to get back to Mark’s verandah, another elephant walked onto the corridor. We couldn’t tell if it was a tusker – but there it was, rusty red in the morning light. Both the waterholes had cheetal by them and there was a large herd crossing the verandah. Sitting on Mark’s verandah was like being at a wild life traffic crossing. There were peacocks and langurs and wild boar. Then the deer. Then sambar. Then a medium herd of Gaur. At one point, a baby elephant stepped out of the shadows towards the water hole – no other elephants followed, just the little one.
We drove up the hill to Ooty and had lunch at Shinkow’s and then got back to the verandah. Around 5.30pm, a mother bear followed by a little cub walked across the corridor. It just went on and on. And I never get tired of cheetal. How pretty they are and how lovely the play of light on them.

But neither Carlos nor Rivaldo came by this day. Then that night, around 11pm, Zui asked Kuki to make sure the door was shut, so he went to the door and looked out on the verandah… In the velvet darkness, there stood Carlos, swaying gently on the sandy floor before the verandah. Not eating, nothing. Just standing close on hand. In a way this was even more beautiful a sighting. Black on black. The shadow of a wild boar near by and this big elephant just there.

Nothing more to add. Back in the city, I’m holding onto that image. An elephant swaying in the darkness, by the chair of a person who has spent 25 years seated there.


Custard Apples

The first time we set eyes on the land, in March/April 2006, the light was perfect. The sun was about to dip and there was that dreamy blue haze that made everything fairy-like. The big Banyan was the Enchanted Tree, Moonface was around somewhere and the light rain could only be the work of Dame Washalot. And what were those tall-ish shrub-trees all over? OMG, they're custard apple trees! Another good omen, this is a sign. So we sat beneath the Tamarind tree and talked about the price with Hanumanthappa and gang. We quoted, they refuted and we agreed and so it was done.
Within a few months, we started getting ripe custard apples off the trees. What does one say about this fruit? Google it and you get nothing. Well, you do get a Wiki description - apparently it's called a bullock's heart, coeur de boeuf... How gross! How unsettling! That such a delicate piece of architecture, requiring both tongue and teeth to work in tandem should be named so. Oh well, new histories shall be created. Let it be known that the custard apple was Pattabhi Rama Reddy's favourite fruit. Let it be known that the botanical name that it goes by is Annona Reticulata. Lovely Annona. Distant cousin, surely, of Ananas. But in temperament, more Melanie than Scarlet. Let it be known that some make an ice cream from custard apples. Let it not be asked how they get the flesh off the seeds.

Oh horror! Elsewhere it is said that the custard apple is generally rated as the mediocre one, the "ugly duckling" of its species... Fie! What a ghastly lack of imagination.

Dig this. A hot afternoon and a perfect custard apple. Firm, not squishy and oh yes, ripe. You open it tenderly not wanting it to fall apart. Behold two halves. You are wearing shorts and a grey tank top. You sit on the steps and stare out wondering if there will be rain in the afternoon. You scoop one lovely section into your mouth. Slowly you seperate seed from flesh, swallow, spit the seeds as far as you can...and so it goes. By the time you've finished it, your mind has wandered past Woody Allen to Allen Shore, Boston Legal, Death by Chocolate at Corner House, swimming in the Bangalore Club pool, potato chips, warm legs, your grandmother, summer holidays, your first cycle, The Big Lebowski, sloth bears, why do people grow up, Ullyses, Mel Brooks...

Not a bad trip, no? So don't diss them custard apples. They're they stuff dreams are made of.


Pond, thou art. And Walden, shalt be

Ok, so my inspiration remains the pond at Afsanah Guest House in Auroville. But I am as far from Afsanah as chalk to cheese. See the thing is, I haven't cracked the whole water plant/ biome thing. Having grown up with a father who has fish tanks, weeds and snails running as far as the eye can see (Madan once stuck his head into a tank, no doubt to catch a better view of a passing Gouramai, and had to be rescued... Who has to be rescued from a fish tank, I ask?) I thought it would be a breeze. Dig a hole, add some plants for green cover and then add the fish. The turtle, I was advised by an online pond friend, was a bad idea. Choose between pretty pond and turtle pond, quoth he.

Anyway, so the pond was dug. Three levels were scientifically carved out so as to simulate the littoral, the limnetic and profundal zones. Next step - plants. Kuki and I stopped by the pond near Taverekere. How hard can it be, ya? We'll just grab a few of those gorgeous white lillies and transplant them into our pond.

I made my way over abandoned Ganeshas and Marigolds at the water's edge....and yanked. Nothing. Not an inch. So then we (note "I" has now become "We" and a crowd is gathering to watch) rescued a Casurina pole from what looked like an old hearse or litter and try to disentangle a lilly bulb. Kuki held onto one end as I dangled dangerously over the other tugging ernestly at weeds. Someone claps when it looks like I might keel right over into the slush....that did it. Let's just buy some water plants from Siddapura instead, I screech. So we do, several hundred rupees of water hyacinth-like plants otherwise seen clogging the lakes at Varthur and Hebbal and surely available free.

These lie around in the pond looking bored before giving up their ghost. A particularly ravishing pink lilly that I buy from a nursery on Sarjapur road actually blooms a few times before it too languishes and fades away.

Up untill this point, Nagaraj (aka Doomsday Donna) has been valiantly cleaning the pond to keep the water clear. No more, declare I. From henceforth we place a moratorium on Clean and encourage, endorse and welcome Grime, Silt and Sediment. Therein lies the answer to prettiness and water-edge fronds and ferns, mossy rocks and lilting lillies.

And what of the fishes, you may well ask? About 50 guppies from The Father's fish tanks were transferred with much optimism. So much optimism that we also bought several hundred rupees more of fish from Russel Market (very hardy, Madam. will only die of old age) for diversity. Word in the bush spread like wildfire. Open Water Body, Captive Catch, no Green Cover. The fish, it hurts me to say, are no more. But we did have a happy Cormorant for a day. And frogs (soon to be extinct due to climatic changes) will be saved (in a Noah's Ark kind of way) because they have made a home of our now grimy pond and have turned Silent Mirror Pond into Mosh Pit Pond.

The last I spoke to Nagaraj, he said we have a couple resident snakes in the Pond. I suppose it will be a bird of prey next. So...water lillies or not, it augers well for the future, biome-wise.


World Guitar Nights: Guitar Clinic

WORLD GUITAR NIGHTS!!! On Nov 8th at Blue Frog, Bombay, Nov 13th & 14th at Jayamahal Palace Hotel, Bangalore - with Don Ross (Canada), Masa Sumide (Japan), Sandor Szabo (Hungary) and Konarak Reddy (India). On Nov 15th - GUITAR MASTER CLASS & CLINIC at Infinite Souls, Bangalore.

Brought to you by Fisheye Media Solutions/Starfish Music and Konarak Reddy, World Guitar Nights hopes to spread the good word about quality guitar playing in India.

On Nov 15th Infinite Souls will be hosting a unique GUITAR CLINIC: With Don Ross, Masa Sumide and Sandor Szabo in Bangalore. Designed to teach and explore special skills such as Finger Style techniques in Jazz & Rock Guitar, Hungarian Gypsy melodies, improvization and harmonies - this Guitar Clinic is a chance to meet, converse, play and hang out with all three guitarists at Infinite Souls - Konarak's rural artists retreat outside Bangalore.

For the convenience of participants, there will be an optional bus pick up from St.Mark's Road, Bangalore and you'll arrive in time for breakfast with the guitarists. Heal your technique and nourish your soul during Music Clinics that begin by 10 am. Lunch will be followed by one-on-one sessions with the musicians till tea. Take your time, learn at leisure, enjoy yourself.
This will be followed by an informal concert for workshop participants. Relax and listen to some of the world's finest guitarists, musicians who have defined a new vocabulary in guitar - up close and intimate - playing, sharing, improvizing. Contact: +91-9845213857 to register. Fees are Rs 4,000/- inclusive of workshop, breakfast and lunch. Rs 200 extra for optional transport.

PS - There'll be home cooked food available for dinner - woodfire pizzas, focaccia, apple crumble etc.

About Don: He is one of today's true innovators of guitar composition and technique. His sense of harmony and groove move him way out of the usual style boundaries associated with acoustic guitar. His is an unclassifiable musical style that borrows from jazz, folk, rock and classical music. When asked, Don usually pigeonholes his music as "Heavy Wood"!

About Masa: Here is what Don Ross says about Masa "50/50" is the funkiest guitar tune I've heard in years...maybe ever!! Excellent work, Masa. Your recording reaffirms my belief that the guitar is capable of more than "guitar music." With an abundant supply of creative energy Masa has continued to release one album every year ever since he put out his first solo guitar album “Treadin’ Easy” in 1999. The latest CD “CAT and MOUSE” is his 11th.

About Sandor: A classical guitarist who forayed into highly skilled improvization, Sandor is known for his compositions. He blends Far-Eastern music with Hungarian folk traditions in an improvised context which makes it very modern. He is presently studying ancient Hungarian Maqams. He is the master of playing 16 string, fretless and baritone guitars. Recently he has begun playing a double neck 24 string koboz (oud).

Cooking at the Farm

Cooking at the farm has become the only way to cook. Definitely one of life's fine pleasures, up there with swimming in the ocean or cycling to Bear Shola or the nights in Masinagudi. As the sun sets, we drag ourselves away from the verandah and those loud mouthed frogs, open a bottle of wine, get the woodfire started in the oven and settle down at the counter to peel garlic, knead rosemary into the bread dough or make up a batch of scones with pinenuts and raisins.

And if we can pick some of our own tomatoes or a nice yellow pumpkin, it totally ups the pleasure ante. It's enough for me to pick an occasional strawberry from the runners that are spreading all over the ground beneath the Tamarind Tree.

The first crop we grew was horsegram (ulluvalu) on advice from Yohan, to give the soil a nice nitroenous foundation. It felt like a good omen because Ulluvalu chaaru was one of Paabi’s favourite things to eat. His sister, Shakuntalamma, would make it in Madanapalle and bring it to Bangalore in little jam jars. Paabi would squish it into hot rice and ghee and just love, love, love it! Ulluvalu chaaru was traditionally made with the soup of the horsegram after the cooked grain was fed to the horses. The soup would be boiled down on a woodfire till it was thick and chcocolate brown, tamarind added and finally seasoned with fried onions, red chillies, curry leaves and cumin.

So when we harvested our first bags of ulluvalu, we got a big kick out of it. We even made little packages of horsegram with a recipe for Ulluvalu chaaru and gave it to the cast of The Wedding Party in January of 2008. Oh yes, we also grew ridge gourd/heerekai that first year.

I’ll never forget how delighted we were to see the first baby heerekai’s on their vines. They looked adorable – all green and fuzzy and sweet. The next year we grew Toor dal and Avarekkai and of course this year has been all about the bananas. Nagaraj was long in the tooth about not using any fertilizer or pesticide and grumbled on a daily basis. He was convinced the crop would suffer and all manner of other depressing stuff. But we kicked our heels in with all the naivete of new farmers, planted the bananas in furrows and fed them with cowdung and water and plenty of sunshine. We’ve had a really pretty crop – about 1 and ½ ton – of voluptuous little yelakki bananas, and have learned how to sell them at Hopcoms which is a pretty fantatsic resource. Straight from our jeep to the Hopcoms yard and then on to the Bangalore Club Hopcoms oftentimes!

I’ve also grown tough grasses and hard rooted herbs like rosemary, lemon grass and khus on my bunds to prevent soil erosion.… Let's see how that goes. But it has ensured easily available flavour and fragrance. We make a really refreshing lemon and rosemary tea. Next, I shall experiment with lemon grass ice cream and creme brulee.

But back to the woodfire oven…Everyone loves pizza and it’s ok to cook for about 20 normal people. But when you have 40 mad children who’re all screaming for pizza and who all want Margeritas and will have nothing to do with Blancos…it’s best to have some pasta and salad on stand by. And apple crumble.

I usually make two sauces – a tomato based sauce with plenty of roast garlic, olive oil and shredded basil that’s been thickened and made quite dense with brown sugar. And then my Rosemary-Onion Marmalade that goes on my Blanco – this, I know from experience, is clearly an adult pizza. A simple yeasty pizza dough and plenty of mozarella is all it needs before popping into the woodfire oven for about 8 minutes. I really don’t think you need toppings if your sauce is lovely and fragrant.

Rosemary-Onion Marmalade
Slice about 8 medium onions
Peel one full pod of garlic
2 tablespoons of fresh rosemary spikes
Olive Oil
Balsamic vingegar or Port

Warm about ¼ cup of olive oil in a deep pan and add the sliced onions and peeled cloves of garlic. Cook slow and long over a medium flame till the onions are starting to brown. Add the rosemary and about 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let it cook further till it’s the consistancy of marmalade. Now add a splash of Balsamic vinegar or Port and cook further. You need to cook the onions for about an hour in all for that perfect flavour. Add salt to taste.