Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mast Nazaron Se Allah Bachaaye

Long time, no post.

Long post, no time.

So copy-paste will have to suffice for this one. Of late, we have been listening to the Mast Nazaron Se Allah Bachaaye qawwali (by Nusrat) and we find it quite delicious.

Mast Nazaron Se Allah Bachaaye

mast nazron se Allah bachaye
maah-jamalon se Allah bachaye
har bala sar peh aa jaye lekin
husn-walon se Allah bachaye

in ki maasomiat per na jaana
in ke dhoke mein hargiz na aana
loot lete hain ye muskara kar
in ki chaalon se Allah bachaye

bholi surat hai baatein hain bholi
moonh mein kuch hai magar dil mein kuch hai
lakh chehra sahi chand jaisa
dil ke kaalon se Allah bachaye

dil mein hai khwahish-e-hoor-o-jannat
aur zaahir mein shauq-e-ibadat
bas hamein shaikh ji aap jaise
Allah walon se Allah bachaye

in ki fitrat mein be-wafaii
jaanti hai ye saari Khudaii
acche acchon ko dete hain dhokha
bhole bhalon se Allah bachaye

Although one can't easily tell by just listening to the song, this is one of those 'competition' qawwali type things (think Teri mahafil mein kismat aazmaakar hum bhi dekhenge). The first 3 shers appear to the words of some prude shaikhji type person, a puritan. The remaining 2 shers are riposites from the husn waale, cautioning that the Allah waale are more dangerous than most, they doth protest too loudly. This might be quite delightful, if done on stage, with costumes and all. Lyrics and translation are available.

Another qawwali that has recently shown up on the radar screen, is by Amir Khusrau. This one is actually very old, circa 13th century. We first heard this in the soundtrack of the film Ghulam (an old one, not the kya bolti tu one) Ghulami. Gulzar modified the lyrics so that khaas-o-aam could understand the song, but much was lost in this modification. The music is also rather kitschy 80s Hindi fillumi.

A much better version is the original combination of Farsi and Hindi (the lyrics are on the same page), as sung by the Warsi brothers. The song shifts delightfully from Farsi to Hindi and back. In this day and age, both the languages (even the Hindi as used in the song) are somewhat inaccessible, but somehow the song speaks to us across the centuries.

Zihaal-e-miskeen mukon taghaful (Persian)
doraaye nainaan banaye batyaan (Brij)

Ke taab-e-hijraah nadarum-e-jaan (Persian)
Na laihyo kaahe lagaye chatyaan (Brij)

Isn't it amazing that something written 700 years ago is still sung and understood today and brings so much pleasure? Will anything of this age endure?

Finally, lest our readers think we've gone all serious and dotty, what did god tell Noah as she sent the Deluge?

"Long time, no sea."

Monday, January 16, 2006

Pongal O' Pongal

Exhausted. Spent weekend running in circles around the harvest, chanting "pongalo pongal". Phew.


A hurriedly hatched trip to Belur, Halebid, and Malnad resulted this weekend. The surreal temples at Belur and Halebid were built during the reign of the Hoysala dynasty, in the early centuries of the second millenium A.D. During this time, they developed a style of art and architecture that was radically different. Some of the sculptures are stupendously intricate. That stone can be hewed and shaped into such 'relaxed complexity' is hard to believe.

The Narasimha (Halebid), for example, is lovingly embellished with such details as the intestines of poor Hiranyakashipu emerging from the slash in his belly, distinct punctures where N.'s talons hold H.'s legs and so on. These guys would've found some cool jobs in Hollywood. Not all of it is blood and gore, and it is evident that non-trivial amounts of thought and imagination seem to have gone into every figurine. After the temples, we drove out through Chickmangalur (via Joldal - again a Kenneth Anderson connection!) to the hills of Malnad. The evening, night and much of the next day were spent at Wood-Way Home Stay.

The bungalow itself was built by a European coffee planter on a hill slope. A large, cool, womb-ish, house. The vestiges of the coffee bean processing days are about the place - places for drying the beans, removing the pulp and so on. Also lawns, trees, swinging chairs etc. A ramble through the estate, learning the fascinating business of coffee, was followed by sitting on hill top and watching the sun go down over the Baba Budan Hills. At night beer, chicken, baked potatos, peanuts, campfire, moonlight, conversation. Dinner followed. Unbelievable. Vegetable biryani, chicken biryani, two kinds of veg curries, dal, a chicken curry, salad, fried bread with a third type of curry, rice, thayir, caramel custard. Unbelieveable. Santosh, who is the major domo type person at Wood-Way, is God. Don't tell anyone.

Then demented movie. Later, in the quiet of the night, the grounds were bathed in moonlight, a cool breeze blew over the valley, and the Trout Quintet playing softly. All cliches, but what to do? Next morning, we drove up to 'elephant head' hill. From this high place, you can see the distant hills of Kudremukh and the Bhadra Sanctuary, and catch sight of the resident serpent crested eagle, trying to find a helpful thermal. Pongal lunch followed, coffee (some of the best coffee ever) bags were packed, and then we rejoined the real world.

In other (shattering news), the Pats are out of the reckoning for another Superbowl title. Perhaps not a dynasty, after all? What a bummer of a year for the Red Sox and the Pats...Yuck.

Finally, EPW carries an interesting critique of the (draft?) National Rehabilitation Policy (for people displaced by projects such as dams, mines, steel plants etc.)
However, the clause that is the real give-away, that it is not even the intention of the policy to ensure that oustees will actually be given agricultural land to make their living, states that even this allotment of agricultural land or culturable waste is “subject to the availability of government land in the district”. Everybody, not least the government, is aware of the ground reality and non-availability of government land suitable for agriculture. Thus, the application of such a condition is intended to defeat the prospect of land-based rehabilitation from the outset. Why, for example, is there no provision for the purchase of irrigated agricultural land by the state government to compensate the oustees? Why is there no explicit provision for the acquisition of private agricultural lands in the irrigation command of the projects for the rehabilitation of the oustees, if the lands are being acquired for irrigation projects – small, medium or large? Especially, when this is a widely accepted principle for most State Displacement Acts, that those who benefit must share their gains with those who are losing their resources?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Indian Journeys

Note:This must be read as a continuation of this. One tends to write a lot more on trains, one finds.

Once again, is partly inspired by another railway musing from Veena.

September 4, 2004 - Egmore Station, Chennai

Per usual, diary writing efforts have come to naught. The blue pen exhibited symptoms of Montezuma's Revenge very impressively and departed for its Penly Abode. Now a second (black) one is slowly puking its guts out and this may well turn out to be its swansong.

Much has come to pass since we wussed out, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. In brief, I made it safely across the USA, spent a day sucking up to assorted people in Berkeley, hung out with P____ and C_____ in the Bay Area, flew off to bewildering Japan for an 8-day pilgrimage to various Shinto and Buddhist shrines, spent a couple days in a hammock next to a pit full of crocodiles in Chennai, went home (sweet home!), did laundry, went back to Madras and was given an F1 visa despite best efforts, went to Bangalore and met A___, K__, A___, D____, M____, K___, I___, R____, P_____, R____, back home for Amma's birthday/retirement celebrations, to Bangalore and Hampi with S____, R__ and M____, met P______ and B_______, and went to Thrissur, August 15 sadyaa in our new flat, many people, to Madras for P____'s and S____'s weddings, Coimbatore by "airbus", toy train to Ooty, window fell on fingers, Mudumalai for a day, there be elephants, back to Thrissur for Onam, Machad, Croc Bank again, and now here we are. The details will take forever to fill in, but there were enough incidents to fill up a small book. Much has changed in the last few weeks. Said "no" to Berkeley, which was drastic. No visibility yet into future, no plans. Ship to Andamans, Sri Lanka, Northeast, Kashmir are all possibilities.

October 2004 - Somewhere in Himachal Pradesh

Lesson #1 - Never travel by the Visakhapatnam-Korba Express ever again. If you book a ticket to Delhi, you have to spend 9 hours sampling the charms of Raipur, Chhattisgarh (where you detrain at 7 a.m.) before your connecting train, the Chhattisgarh Express from Bilaspur shows up and takes you to Delhi.

Lesson #2 - Never travel by the Chhattisgarh Express. It is a clear case of a piffling Fast Passenger putting on airs and pretending to be an Express.

All the people around me when I got on the Korba Express in Vizag were North Indians. Or more properly, no one was South Indian. This has not happened to me in an age and it seemed like I was in a North Indian island inside Vizag. Flashes of irrational panic!

The atmosphere, the to and fro, is very different than in a southbound train, My highly prized, newly purchased copy of "Trains At A Glance" was almost immediately appropriated by Mr. Lower Berth. Mr. Kantabanji is in the opposite seat. Mid-twenties, traveling with what appeared to be most of his clan. Kantabanji, as I was to discover at two in the morning, is a one buffalo town on the Orissa-Chhattisgarh border. My buddy had brought his sister to Vizag "for medical purposes". Apparently that is the only thing Vizag is good for. If you take away the hospitals, Vizag would plumb the depths (he indicated the plumbing of depths with a heartless gesture). I wanted to ask him what he thought about the port, shipyard, naval base, steel plant, refinery, university and such, but desisted. Not everyone is a Vizagite and therefore perfect.

Mr. Kantabanji went on to give me a detailed autobiographic account, after I'd summarized my hitherto worthless existence. He is a wholesaler for FMCG in the area. His father is a social servant. Before that, he (the father) used to be Mayor. Mr. K himself wasn't too good at studying, although he was intelligent. Until some uncleji drilled some sense into him and he began mugging in earnest. In any case, it turns out that he went for a movie on the same day as his 10th standard exams, so the studying wasn't too fruitful.

K's younger brother was apparently a sort of Newton-Gauss-Archimedes rolled into one. However, he too was not interested in studying. K had to help out by visiting the sibling's college professor and acquiring information on the likely questions appearing in the exams, after a small payment, of course. He was very proud of this achievement, and prouder still that the errant kid actually studied for those questions and wrote the exam, unlike his dishonest friends who took "slips" to the exam.

K also had a lot of things to say about lodge owners in Vizag, in particular the one where he had stayed at. Apparently some insult had occurred and one of K's buddies was due to arrive in Vizag in a day or two to thrash the offender. K is a great believer in thrashing. Nothing like a few blows exchanged to resolve a confrontation, was his motto. "He hits you, you hit him, end of matter.", as he put it.

Somehow, I liked him. He seemed like the sort of person who wouldn't think twice about strangling your allegedly cheating grocer on your behalf, simply because you met him (K) once on a train for a few hours and he's your "friend" now. Since we were close friends, he showed me all the lewd SMS messages he had saved on his phone; verified (by the process of plucking it out of my pocket before I could say anything and going through the messages) that I had none on my phone; asked me to exchange berths so that his sister's brother-in-law's aunt's sister-in-law could get a lower berth. When he led off his cackling brood in the morning, he cheerfully woke me up and gave me back my berth. Peanut shells scattered all over the floor were the only signs of "The Passing Of The Grey Company".

Next morning was hot. You could tell that it was the sort of day the Deccan Plateau loved to dish out, as early as 7 a.m. We pulled into Raipur where Mr. Lower Berth urged me to repair to the first platform and the waiting room as soon as possible. He then proceeded to put his preaching into practice. I stood on the platform for a little while, feeling orphaned.

Crossing the overbridge to #1, I first tried to go to the cloak room to deposit my backpack. Quickly changed my mind and went back to #2 to see if they would detach my compartment and later attach it to Chhattisgarh Express. Then I could stay put in the safety of the Indian Railways coach and bide my time. But no, just as I descended the steps to the platform, the entire bloody train buggered off in the direction of Bilaspur, coach and all.

So I lugged myself back to #1, brushed my teeth at the platform tap, made sure at the enquiry counter that my seat would be available when the train came in the afternoon, had breakfast at the canteen. By now I'd calmed down somewhat. Memories of many such interludes spent in Vijayawada station with family, when we used to Kerala for summer holidays. The whole Coromandal-Jayanthi Janatha experience reprised!

I managed to get a retiring room overlooking #1 for Rs. 110. It was a large room with a high roof and two beds. A three-room shower-loo-washbasin complex was attached. All seemed very Raj. Quick shower. Nap till 11. I locked the room and ventured out into Raipur, in a much better frame of mind than when I'd arrived.

Raipur hit me almost immediately. Once again an overwhelming, irrational, panic. Of dislocation from the south. Where, pray, was I? And what was I doing there? Raipur is ostensibly a state capital. You wouldn't think it if you saw it. The station road is a dusty hot strip of stores selling hardware, medicines etc. Potholes, filth, dust, heat, incessant buzz of something. In a bit of a daze I walked along until I came to "Parbhat Talkies". "Parbhat Talkies" appears to be one of the more happening places in the vicinity of the station. A bunch of trendily dressed college kids (Or were they school kids? One can't really tell nowadays.) were hanging out, probably cutting class. All seemed very jolly, happy, and blissfully unaware of the fact that they were in Raipur. Saw "Dhoom", which wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Hema Malini's daughter is cute! And a bomb to boot!! That rhymes!!! I was too restless, couldn't wait for the movie to end, the whole Raipurness of the place was stifling. This is what Mandna must've felt like to Agastya Sen.

Staggered back to the railway station and had lunch at the canteen. En route, I managed to get a new strap for my watch, for an incredible Rs. 20. The look on the shopkeeper's face when I asked for something "not too pricey, in the Rs. 50 range" was priceless. He only had straps in the Rs. 20 range!!

The window of my room in the Raipur station overlooked the lone metre gauge platform. Sometime in the hot dusty afternoon, a decrepit, forlorn train sidled off. Was reminded of Bill Aitken's journeys. Wonder where this one was headed. Too hot and lazy to find out.

Chhattisgarh Express, previously referred to as the "Bokaro-Alleppy of North India" by Mr. Kantabanji, rolled in at its appointed hour. Mr. Lower Berth - who unbeknownst to me, had run some errands in the morning, and had watched movie along with me - showed up on the platform and we boarded together. I was somewhat relieved to see him again.

Mr. K wasn't joking about this train, it stopped everywhere and let on everyone and their joint families. Morning found us in Bhopal and Mr. LB got off. I was sorry to see him go. He shook my hand as he left, and I daresay he was as "emotional" as I was. I began to treat the riff-raff inter-city daily traffic along the Kazipet-Delhi line with the customary contempt and superciliousness that the South Indian with the reserved berth reserves for such unfortunates.

At Jhansi, while we waited, pointed northwards, a Vizag bound train from Delhi pulled into the adjacent platform. Once again, I was possessed by the terrible urge to grab my bags, run across, bribe the TTE, guard, driver, station master, pantry car workers, whoever it took, to let me aboard and carry me home!

Evening found us near Mathura and Vrindavan. The evening light filtering through the dust made for pleasant basking. The landscape had changed, from the aridity of the Deccan, to the gorges of the Chambal valley, and later to the verdant fields and farmlands of what must be the Indo-Gangetic Plain. But, for all the variety, rural India remained beautiful to look at, at least from the train window. I was to discover in the succeeding weeks that Himachal Pradesh from a bus, Ladakh, the farmlands near Kanpur, the Aravalis near Alwar and Sariska, Punjab, Haryana were all green, lush and beautiful. From windows!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sowing The Wind

Our favourite historian has delivered again. From the manner in which he delivers, one begins to imagine he is trained in the innards of Pizza Hut, or Dominos or somesuch. Or not. Practically the very first post at the choultry involved this man, and two years and many biryanis down the line, we find ourselves gushing over him again.

On New Year's eve, we bought 1 pair Sandak chappals, 1 pair Hawaii chappals, 1 chicken biryani and 1 copy of Sowing The Wind in the vicinity of Paradise(1) and wended our way home to Begumpet, through the reveling throng. It is debatable as to which purchase resulted in maximum pleasure, but the book is rapidly rising to the top.

"Sowing The Wind" (about Rs. 500 in paperback in India) is about the mismanagement of the Middle East between 1900-1960, mostly by the British, the French, and the Americans, but with generous dollops of aid from the Turks and the peoples of Egypt, the Levant, Palestine, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Persia, Arabia and so on. Having blitzed through the first third of the book, it appears that Keay has once again come up with a wonderfully readable account of the origins of many of the conflicts in the Middle East (including Israel-Palestine, Kurd-Iraqi, Shia-Sunni, Iraq-Iran). Some of the reasons why the Western powers felt the need to meddle in these parts
  • The British wanting to control both sides of the isthmus of Suez, so as to keep their short cut to India and the Far East bits of the 'empah'. Ergo, they mess around in Egyptian politics, and are desperate to see some form of 'friendly' government in control of the Sinai peninsula
  • The combined concern of the Western powers for the Holy Oily Places [thanks, Sir Hmphrey]
  • The British wanting some form of control over Iraq and Iran (oil!)
  • And consequently wanting some control over a sea port (Haifa) in the eastern Med from where they could lay a railway line over Palestine, Transjordania and on to the Tigris-Euphrates doab
  • General guilt in Christendom over their treatment of Jews for oh 1500 years or so
  • The French being...well...French [thanks, Eddie]
We haven't yet started talking about American interference in these parts, mostly because we haven't read about it yet.

Keay brings his trademark dry, dark humour into this work, as he does in all his writings. For example
...anticipating a much later solution to the Kurdish problem, Churchill even proposed the use of chemical weapons as he wondered whether 'some kind of asphyxiating bombs to cause disablement of some kind' might not be the answer...
There's a lot more, in this vein, absolutely delightful stuff. The way he treats Lawrence (of Anakapalli, in case you were wondering which one) and other larger-than-life characters of the World War I etc. periods is chuckle-inducing. You also learn that the Middle East was full of the most unlikely personalities (Gertrude Bell, A.T.Wilson, King Faysal of Syria/Iraq), and some incredible incidents (remind us to tell you about the mile long railway train that took 5 days to cover 60 km)

The book is a keeper, rock on John Keay.

1. Paradise, contrary to popular perception, is not some ethereal version of Brindavan Gardens, replete with gurgling brooks and coy, lute-armed seraphim and cherubim, and nubile damsels/utes who keep you satiated through a system of underarm bowling [thanks, Larry] involving the bunging of the occasional grape (or grapeshot depending on your misdeeds and their mood) in the general direction of your mouth, as you recline on an Ottoman type thing <2 minutes silence in memory of the poor Ottoman yokel> with your remote control.

No sirree. Paradise, is an establishment in Secunderabad which serves as an old age home for destitute chickens. Destitute c. arrive here and are rehabilitated and moulded into finer things (biryanis) and sent on their merry way. That this merry way is usually down someone's GI tract is something that the d. chickens don't seem to be too concerned about, if you believe the latest surveys conducted among adult destitute c. populations in South India.