Wednesday, April 29, 2009


November 2002

Red earth, as the poet said, and pouring rain.

The phrase runs around in my head every time I think of Goa. Red earth of laterite rock, bleeding down the hills as the monsoon storms lash them, the precious rain seeping down into the soil and into the paddy fields, rivulets flowing down leaves and branches.

But that's a vastly different picture from the travel brochures, or indeed from the beautiful one I stepped into at Palolem beach. I sat on fine golden sand, and watched the palm trees dance languorously with the clouds above, the breeze whispering the steps to both. I sat on a rock between a tiny islet and a tip of one Sahyadri ghat, both covered by a tropical forest, and watched as the tide swirled the pinks and oranges of the sunset in among the rocks at my feet. I sat below a velvet black sky, a sliver of the moon giving a Mona Lisa smile while I tried in vain to look at all the bright points of diamond starlight at once. I watched the waves lazily come in, the surf doodling starry patterns in the wet sand to cover the marks of my feet.

And yet, two weeks after I left Goa, the red earth, no more than a faint trace of fine dust now, but still red earth, clings stubbornly to the soles of my sandals, even as not a trace of sand remains. It's not so easy to shake it off, especially as it is that red earth in which I am deeply rooted, the same earth that my ancestors cultivated, the same laterite rock out of which they built their homes, the same that they returned to in death. It wasn't sand; it was earth.

Is it then surprising that beautiful as the beach may have been, it isn't what I could really write about as my Goa? Flights of fancy were possible, but nothing that made me feel truly a part of the place. Nor could I write about the tree-lined road along the river in Panjim, the quiet streets of Fontainhas with houses of cobalt, deep red and ochre, the chapel of San Sebastian, where I was given a key and allowed to let myself in, the sleepy and proudly inefficient tourist office, where "all India" knowledge was professed, but none of Old Goa; I was alien enough there to find myself wandering Goa's capital at siesta time with only a pack of dogs for company. In Old Goa too, I was no more than a faithless tourist, standing in front of the ornate casket that holds the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier and instead of praying, contemplating the fact that after 450 years, it was perhaps time to return him to the earth.

My Goa, the Goa that brings to mind that red earth and pouring rain, lives in the villages, where I didn't take a single photograph as a tourist, because no tourist ever takes pictures of the familiar. It is possible to visit a Goan village and see what I saw; the gently sagging tiled roofs of the houses, the decrepit but inevitable tavernas covered with promotional paintings for brands of alcohol, the whitewashed churches with flat Portuguese facades, adjoining cemeteries echoing their structures but only as lifeless shells, the wayside shrines, cross after cross and saint after saint, all honoured and cherished and looked after for decades, if not centuries.

It may even be possible to go into a village house and look at it; the shady veranda at the front of the house, with its resident dog lazily opening one eye as the stranger passes, the cool quiet rooms inside, luminous with a faded mellowed sunlight that has to pass through windowpanes of crushed seashells to touch and warm the carved furniture and the geometric patterns of tiles on the floor. Family portraits look down from walls while the Virgin, Christ and the saints who occupy a high altar remain aloof. A beam of brightness steals a patch of the floor through a skylight in the kitchen, where meals may still be cooked over a wood fire, and jars of pickles and vinegar in the corners and the loft await their hour of glory at the table. Chickens scratch in the red dirt of the yard outside, while cats lurk at the doorstep. Pigs nose into the toilets outside, sociable but unwanted, except as an ingredient for sorpatel, vindaloo or sausages.

It's possible to see all of that, but it will never be possible to truly know more about it than superficialities; as a child of the city, not even I should know more. High mass at the church at noon can be attended on a sweltering humid day of a feast, an impromptu football match in the church grounds can be watched, a concert of music organised by the maestre can be attended.

But that secret life that each village guards and holds close, the mixture of love, hate, holiness, patience, tolerance, violence, every emotion and feeling known to humanity - that you can never see, because it lies below the surface. It is brought out furtively on lazy afternoons, after heavy lunches, when tongues are loosened enough to tell of that fertile mixture: the stories that only a Goan, and a member of the family will ever hear, the stories that ultimately give me some possession of that earth.

Who would ever tell an outsider of the man who stole his brother's house and the dowry of his brother's widow? Of the woman who was thrown out into the cowshed to bear a child after her husband died? Of a woman who spoke only through song, or a man who ran away to sea? Of lives lost in the great influenza pandemic? Of walking along the Konkan coast from Bombay to Goa, from India to Portugal as it was at the time? Of marriages arranged, of jewels and ivory brought from Africa, of illegitimate children and unmarked graves? Of secret recipes handed down, feeding generation after generation? Of the remembered stories of words and actions that came from impulses and motivations now dust?

No one will, unless I tell you myself. Those are the tales of my own family and my own village, and unless I one day find words to capture them and overcome the guilt of turning over the topsoil to dig up what lies beneath, they may remain forever untold. One side of the disintegrating hillside will reclaim the old ancestral house of laterite stone, even as the village grows more modern on the other side, and cement buildings spring up from palm-fringed fields.

Monday, October 06, 2008


(Picture by Mr Mezza Voce, the beach of his native village)

And finally, I went to Mangalore.

Finally because it has always been a place I have known, not in terms of having been there, but by the fact of growing up around people who called it home. I lived in a building that was more or less full of Mangalorean Catholics, all of whom were related to each other. I ate their sorpatel and their fish curry and their pan-pole perhaps even more than I ate Goan food. They talked of St Agnes' and St Aloysius' colleges, of Kankanaday and Chikmagalur and Kalyanpur, of "the estate," a magical term that signified coffee plantations and that was always spoken with some reverence and pride, of "sado" at weddings where brides changed out of their white gowns into red sarees. Fabulous exotica to me, yet strangely familiar.

I knew they were not Goans and not East Indians but something rather different. This is a hazard of living in Bandra, where you might learn this distinction well before you learn the difference between North and South in India. It is an important distinction and learning it is imperative. It would never do to be confused. And, of course, you're only talking of Mangalorean and Goan Catholics here--everyone else might as well not exist.

There were, of course, also my father and Mahima Mangalore Stores. My father; who had lived five or six years in Mangalore at the start of his working career, knew everyone who was anyone in Mangalorean Catholic society and the rest of Mangalore too, and knew where everyone hailed from--a powerful body of knowledge in Mangalorean terms, that is for certain. And Mahima Mangalore Stores on Hill Road in Bandra, from where we bought varieties and more varieties of banana chips, jackfruit chips, and suchlike--the keepers of Mangalore saat and the boondi laddoos so peculiar to Mangalore. It was only many years later that I realized Mahima Mangalore Stores had completely misled me on what was Mangalorean and what was not, by stocking all sorts of typically South Indian and Konkani items that weren't necessarily Mangalorean. Stew powder, for one, which seasoned a good many stews of mutton and vegetables that I ate with rice. What sorrow to find that Mangaloreans didn't make mutton stew, and if they did, it was never with a powder from a shop!

And then there was Isidore Coelho--The Chef. He wrote a cookbook, titled just so, long ago, in Ceylon, if I recall correctly, where he worked as a cook for the governor. Though perhaps I invent that as a cheerful, productive, happily working class antecedent, and it is something else entirely. Ceylon or no Ceylon, governor or no governor, his cookbook, with several hundred recipes painstakingly written out and numbered (no pictures) is a fine encyclopaedia of the Mangalorean palate--and also the Goan palate and the East Indian palate. It has everything from vegetable dishes to desserts to meat dishes, and a final, irresistable treasure--a collection of home remedies. I thought for years that the author of this book that was always lying around the house was a Goan; then I discovered he was a Mangalorean. Perhaps it really does not matter which one he was, it is a separation that goes back only a couple of centuries, a short time if you consider it.

Finally, Mangalore tiles--impossible to not know if you are a coastal person in Western India. These tiles of fired, glazed clay, their reddish earth colour perfectly matching the red earth of the Konkan coast, keep the heat at bay from enormous houses graciously built around courtyards in Goa, from humble little huts, open between stilts to sand and wind and and sun on all sides, that work as fish markets in the narrow lanes leading to village beaches, from dilapidated, sagging old chawls in Bombay.

So that was Mangalore.

I went down this weekend to a different Mangalore--well, mostly different. I am, you see, married to a Mangalorean, though not of the Catholic tribe I am most familiar with. Going down to his native village was the Mangalore I know and yet not the Mangalore I know. It had sea, and sun, and sand, and coconut trees, and fishermen, and Mangalore tiles, and fish curry. In this way, it was really very much like Goa. Which is not surprising, because we coastal people are all the same, quite overtly the same. We cook in the same ways, we center our lives around fish and coconut in the same ways, we tile our roofs just as our brothers and sisters up or down the coast do, we build houses and walls of the same laterite stone, we grow the same endless quantities of paddy swaying as the breeze whispers in sleepy fields. No wonder, then, that Catholics could flee Goa some two hundred years ago to escape Portuguese oppression and cultural imperialism and seemingly endless wars, enter almost seamlessly into Mangalore, despite further persecution from Tipu Sultan, and become an intensely important force that has shaped its present and will shape its future.

And yet, it was not quite the same as the Goa I know or the Mangalore I had been most aware of. The little village we went down to didn't have any Mangalorean Catholics--it had Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus. A famous temple a few kilometers up the beach, a mosque at the street corner. And some Christians of the very odd unknown quantity that are the evangelical sorts, occupying the very next house from us. I would have been surprised to see a Sikh, but you never know. The language was not Konkani, and it is not Tulu or Kannada either, neither is it the Malayalam from over the Kerala border, only a few kilometers away. It is a complex and welcoming mixture of several of these, requiring a balance of grammar and vocabulary that would no doubt delight a linguist. Everyone around chattered in it, and I understood nothing but it was a cheerful lack of understanding. Ultimately, if nothing else, there were fish, coconut, and Mangalore tiles to help us along. And a little biryani from the neighbours, one of whom matter of factly informed us that he had been negotiating with the police in Mangalore for the release of four men arrested in connection with terrorism charges; that it was scapegoating of decent people.

I enjoyed it very much, though it was hot and forbidding in the sun, and I literally melted into sweat every time I left the relative comfort under the fan. For what is not to enjoy in quiet, sandy village lanes, some lovely, simple square or rectangular houses built of mud, wood, and Mangalore tiles, hysterical roosters and hens in the yard, trains whistling past, and always the sound of the sea in the distance? Not to mention the fish--I have much to thank the fish for, for it sometimes feels as if my new and as yet uncomfortable family will always look on me kindly in the end because I will almost always enjoy its fish curries and fish fries.

There is a little school there, a low roofed set of buildings, thankfully with those Mangalore tiles--a humble place with a computer center sponsored by Mr Mezza Voce's software entrepreneur uncle, who is perhaps the most successful person to have studied in it. The children laugh and play and sing the national anthem (entirely in one key, quite correctly, and then, startlingly, changing keys inaccurately for the last refrain). The ancestral property shakes as if in an earthquake when trains rush past, only a few meters away. In the lane outside, an old man sits and watches as people pass, and the cabin of the railway crossing man keeps watch, waiting for trains and the need to shut the gates so nobody can cross the tracks. There is the main road, from where you get the bus to the city, and the side road, where you can buy for two rupees some soda or ginger ale in a bottle sealed with a glass marble that twists the light within its green swirls even through that thick glass and which rolls up and down as you lift the bottle to drink. There were the two snakes in the coconut grove behind the house in which we stayed, and the mongoose nosing around there, an eternal fight between the two forces.

And then there is the sea and the sand. Almost virgin--there are no shacks here. Crabs running imperceptibly, the odd chappal left behind, the sea rushing in and out, waves breaking on rocks covered in bright green algae, men fishing with the inner tubes of tyres, men in fishing boats pulling at their nets, people strolling along of an evening. The colours changing, morning, afternoon, evening, the greys and dirty blues and earthy pinks and oranges of the Indian seashore.

We went to Mangalore city also. Past Milagres Church, so recently in the spotlight because of vandalism, past Vaz Villa, where my father used to live; we took a photograph for him. To Auntie P's house, which has housed a hundred and eighteen years of a prominent Mangalorean Catholic family, and which now houses, in twenty rooms, two people, countless antiques, and the last of the old style bullock carts that drove through urban Mangalore's streets. It was wonderfully cool in there, under the Mangalore tiles, and the fish fry, again, was perfection. Auntie P showed us her treasures and told us how upset the Catholics of Mangalore were about the several disturbing incidents of vandalism in the city and invited us to the estate for the next time.

The world of Mangalore city outside that immense house was dusty and hot and not very charming. The sugary biscuit-like Mangalore saat was good and so were the macaroons, delicate baked sugar froth enveloping cashew nut pieces, but the Taj Mahal Hotel of Mr Mezza Voce's childhood had deteriorated in quality, and the Mohini Vilas Hotel's graceful Art Deco structure was being demolished. There were no breadfruit bhajjis to be had, for some reason we did not quite fathom, and I am no fan of the wheat and banana halwas that were on offer.

We ran through several rickshaw drivers before getting to St Aloysius College, housed in a series of buildings climbing to the top of a hill, was enormous, with buildings built in various styles, everything from a quaint Mangalore tiled balconied hostel at the bottom of the hill to an imposing facade of a three-storey colonial structure at the top. It appeared to have a dress code of shirts for boys and salwar kameez for girls, and the meters of synthetic fabric that walked past us because of the latter made me feel even hotter. Inside the college chapel, we craned our necks and squinted at frescoes painted on the ceiling by a Jesuit of the late 19th century. I uncharitably but truthfully came to the conclusion that his only virtue was in having made the effort to do it all himself. Not all frescoes are worthy of praise, Sistine Chapel resemblances or not--especially if the Sistine chapel resemblances are the aim, and not something more original.

It was left to love Ideal, the ice cream parlour--for in a city teeming with construction work and terribly hot, nothing is better than a cold dessert.

I will go back sometime--to climb to Tipu's watch tower at the end of the beach, to count the trains that pass, to stay the night perhaps in the city in that mansion with many rooms, to drink soda from the goliwalla bottle. And certainly, but certainly, to visit Mr Mezza Voce's quiet, slightly frail, uprightly polite uncle who writes plays for traditional Kannada musical theatre, Yakshagana, who watched me looking at the showcase full of dolls and masks in the elaborate costumes of that Kannadiga classical performing art, and then brought out illustrated books on performing arts to show me. I am glad I could tell him that my great grandmother's family too was involved in the folk performing arts of Goa and then of working class Bombay. He was curious and interested--he asked questions and wanted to know more.

Even if for nothing else, I will go back again to see him. And perhaps to talk a little more, of writing and of performing arts and of being coastal people. We have found a language we can talk in; it is not hard, we are neighbours after all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Maybe She Should Have Done My Navjote

It is my definite opinion that life in Bangalore would be greatly enhanced by the presence of some Parsi friends. In fact, if I were to list some reasons for shifting back to Bombay, the Parsi population would be one of them, and among the highest on the list. Of course, the same benefits would arguably accrue from moving to Pune, Hyderabad, or (increasingly, considering the diaspora) Toronto.

It is probably quite telling that while I can only remember knowing one Tamil Brahmin until I was 12 years old or so, and being aware enough of her cultural practices to know that she was a Tamil Brahmin, I cannot remember a time before I knew Parsis. They were just always there, and always Parsi, though this certainly does not mean that they were always eccentric (or even always mad), always loud, always charming, always musical, always philanthropic, always Westernized, always liberal, always cultured, always polite, always gracious, always named Sodawaterbottleopenerwalla or, indeed, that they always manifested any of the traits that have been attributed to them in popular perception. They were, I repeat, just there, and just Parsi, though what that means is hard for me to define, because it means many different things that you see in many different people who are all Parsi.

My father is almost entirely to blame for their omnipresence in my early life and times, because he worked in a Tata group company for 32 years, which meant that every second colleague he had was a Parsi. One bizarre result of this circumstance is that I have far more memories of Parsi lagans and navjotes than of Goan weddings and First Communions. My aunt is also to blame, seeing as she spent some 7 years of my memory being, in Bandra terms, “friendly” with another Parsi, who eventually ended up becoming my uncle and presenting us with an extended Parsi family of our very own. Which is not to say we didn’t already have Parsi relations by marriage, but none were that close, so his official entry to the family heralded a new era in Parsi-Goan relations as per the de Souza family.

There were few Parsis in school but many in my childhood, some of whom are still around through my parents, some more at college, plenty more at a post grad course I took, some more at my first job in Bombay, and even some stalwarts in Hyderabad, when I was doing my MA. And certainly, many more incidental to living in Bombay. Numbers, oddly enough, can actually be relative—I think three Parsis out of a hundred are quite a lot, all things considered. Though not enough, there are never enough.

Once, I lived in Bandra and it felt as though the world was made up of people who were either Catholic (whether Goan, Mangalorean, or East Indian), Muslims (Bohri or otherwise), Parsi, or Bollywood stars. Now, I live in South Bangalore and it feels as though every second person in the world is either a Tamil or Kannadiga Brahmin. Thus the balance of the universe asserts itself and I learn to shift loyalties from prawn pulao, mutton Bohri biryani and dhansak to curd rice and bisi bele bhaath. Usually, it’s not a problematic shift. Today, it is, because it is Navroze, the Parsi New Year, and I cannot wish anyone except over the phone or via the internet.

So I remember, only some because I have too little time and a poor memory.

The secretaries at my father’s office--skinny Silloo with her two plaits and several long, wiry hairs sticking out of her chin, who went into battle at office birthday celebrations and came out victoriously with two pieces of cake to save in a box for my father, who spent most of his time travelling; whose mother I recall as an ancient lady grinning companionably at me, a chubby child, in a cramped little flat somewhere overlooking Princess Street; Nargis “Billi”, who still calls my father on his birthday and on Christmas day; Nargis “Tatu,” who I think had had polio as a child and still limped, and who embarrassed my poor father by sometimes using his office cabin as a lunch hour shop in which to sell lingerie to the other ladies in the office.

Dr Pardiwalla, who used to practice from a clinic in Bhalla House, an old bungalow on Hill Road, and who I recall as being the gentlest of women and the gentlest of doctors as well. Come to think of it, perhaps she was Gujarati. No, she had to have been a Parsi.

Another ancient lady who we visited when she was ill, living in one of the Art Deco buildings overlooking the Oval Maidan. Who she was I do not know, but I remember the view from her balcony and how she smiled when I said it was lovely.

The nameless—I have forgotten all of their names by now—guests at navjotes and at weddings, in Albless Baug and Malcolm Baug and at that agiary near the Afghan Church, the name of which I cannot remember... how we all ate and drank (ginger ale or raspberry because one was of course too young for the famed Parsi peg of whiskey) together.... ladies in delicate Chantilly lace saris and pearls and the wonderful but rare Parsi Garas, their embroidery coming to life as their wearers rocked back and forth with laughter or got up to dance the foxtrot or even ran when the waiters called out “first service” to get them to the tables (no, that is not a myth). And the Godrej cupboards, of course, in the great halls through which one passed to visit the toilet, one prosaic way in which we all have the Parsi in our homes.

Zarir, Percy, Fali—all the Parsis who became our family by marriage. And their children. And their relations, who also became our relations because that was the nature of our family and it still is like that.

Aunty Sheroo, who always showed up with something sweet to eat because she knew our sweet tooth—dal ni pori and mawa cakes from the Grant Road Mehrwan’s and the mawa boi from Parsi Dairy Farm being the favourites. You don’t know what the mawa boi is? I am not telling. It was a wondrous moulded object, that is all I will say, and we could hardly bear to eat it most of the time, it looked so marvellous. Alright, so you are deprived. It was a mawa sweet shaped to look like a fish. A fish that was a foot long. You will still get it at Parsi Dairy Farm, along with the pipe jalebis and the delivery boys (men) in khaki shorts and electric blue shirts. As for Aunty Sheroo, I have heard you can buy her dal ni pori in Toronto, though don’t ask about the price. We are family, we don’t know.

Sylla Mama, who was equally devoted to "Old Monk nu Rum" and Frank Sinatra, and who was reputed to have brushed her hair one hundred times every night.

Uncle Dali, who I made breakfast (akuri or scrambled egg or boiled egg, never anything other than egg) with and who chatted with me over that selfsame breakfast about his first wife and his second wife and the family at large. Such a great way to begin the day, just like the Bombay Duck pickle he is very fond of.

The ladies of RTI—Ratan Tata Institute, dikra, what else could it be!—who used to sit in their frocks and headscarves (yes, Parsis do wear headscarves) and embroider and stitch all day, chatting, praying, and sometimes arguing, shrieking, with each other, and who would scold us when we went upstairs to enquire within upon what they were doing. Such beautiful needlework and expensive too. If I had a lot of money, I would dress my children only in RTI made frocks and have two or three of their absolutely gorgeous saris. I would also eat more RTI food, or perhaps revive the Time and Talents Club of Parsi ladies who sold the best dhansak (in my father’s opinion) at Apollo Bunder.

Aunty Aloo, who lived at Kemp’s Corner and used me as her own personal audience for news, views, and opinions: example one, “So bad our Bombay Roads are no, can’t even cross Peddar Road now! Before, they used to wash the roads twice a day, imagine! Have you seen those roads in Singapore and London and Hong Kong? Like carpets!” and two, which is even more profound, ”Nowadays our politicians are all bad. Not like our Gandhi family, no? Our Indira and our Rajiv, you think now any of our politicians would die for the people like them?” and then segued into a conspiratorial “You know, no, Feroz Gandhi was a Parsi?”

The gentleman who sells sandalwood in a little shop outside the big agiary in Dhobi Talao, the one on the extension of Girgaum Road. Not the Sodawaterwalla Agiary (see, that is not a myth either, there is a shred of truth to the name), the other one. If you smile at him, he smiles back. Perhaps he does this only if he thinks you are a Parsi, but I don’t know about that. If I were less reserved, I might go talk to him one day.

Mrs Mistry of Cafes Churchill and Mocambo, who, when I asked if it was possible to cook me a proper lagan nu bhonu for twenty guests to celebrate my wedding, replied, “Anything is possible!” And Cyrus, who told me to ask her and mention his name with the additional magic words “of Cusrow Baug.” It was one of the finest dinners I have ever eaten, and certainly one of the finest Parsi dinners I have had.

Mr Hoodiwalla, who reminds me of a middle class Tata Blocks Bandra version of JRD Tata. Looks like him, still is dapper and somewhat debonair and irresistibly charming, despite a walker and old age and deafness. And his daughter and son in law, who were kind to me when I was in Hyderabad, inviting me over to their enormous mansion, where Aunty Silloo fed me on dhansak and chatted away while holding the reins of the household firmly.

And the 22 Parsis I once had dinner with in their house in Hyderabad (there were also two Anglo Indians), who all made me welcome and expressed polite but fake enjoyment at my understanding of their Gujarati, especially the one little old lady who grabbed my arm towards the end of the evening and said, with an almost villainous glint in her eye, “Come, we will do your navjote and get you married to a nice Parsi boy!” It is not as though she could do this here in India, but perhaps she was formerly a diasporic Parsi or just an extreme liberal. At any rate, she alarmed me thoroughly, but I know a compliment when I get one and that was perhaps the finest compliment I could ever receive.

Uncle Noshir, the only vegan Parsi I have ever met, who was a vegan long before it was fashionable to be one, and who was also one of the politest people I have ever come across. What but polite do you call somebody who forgets to tell my parents that he is a vegan, then comes for a dinner he has been invited to, and when there is naturally nothing vegetarian on the table (except the pulao--he is a Parsi after all, not a Jain) graciously says it is no trouble, he will have an omelette and the pulao?

Thelma, originally from Cowasji Patel Street and a great fan of Yezdani Bakery, who smiled like Audrey Hepburn and was one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. She married a vegetarian and could never eat fish or chicken or mutton in the house, so she would drag me to Anantashram in Kotachiwadi and smile at the grumpy banyan-wearing waiters until we got a little marble topped table and the fish curry we wanted.

My classmates—Rashna and Shaznin and Mehernaaz and Niloufer and Havovi and Hutoxi. And others, who I remember by face but not name.

My students--4-year-old Sheroy, the dreamer who went around humming snatches of pieces by Beethoven and Mozart and Bach, because his parents strictly made him listen to Western classical music at home. And 5-year-old Vistasp, who had the most determined chin in the universe.

My rebel Parsi friend who shall not be named, who wanted to take me to an agiary, because s/he felt it should not be off-limits to people who respected Zoroastrianism but were not Parsis. I declined politely. And Rohinton Mistry, who took his readers to the agiary in words.

Saveckshaw and Kaikhushroo, the street dogs that lived up at Doongerwadi on Malabar Hill, where are the Parsi Towers of Silence. Or rather, the person who named them because it is fairly obvious who was the Parsi there.

And last but perhaps not least, my little cousins, who are baptized Catholics but learn some of their prayers in Avestan. One of my cousins saw a picture of Zoroaster for the first time and afterwards solemnly told us all that Zoroaster was Jesus’ brother. And this, as well, is not a myth. I am convinced of it. It is a truth that exists in the way in which they live and I am glad of it.

I will now ring up several people and email several people and wish them “Saal Mubarak!” I thought of going out and eating Parsi food today—there is a good dhansak at Ebony, the restaurant on the thirteenth floor of Barton Centre on MG Road and an okay one at Juke Box in Koramangala. There is also akuri at Infinitea on Cunningham Road but those fellows deserve to be kicked because they think it is a Japanese dish. Thank goodness akuri is best made fast and at home.

But really, perhaps there is no point to this. I have it on good authority—the authority being no less than Busybee, who said he was not much of a Parsi but certainly was one—that in fact, despite all the feasting there is today after five days of prayers for the ancestors, none of the feasting is compulsory. What is compulsory is the preparation of plain rice and saltless dal. Why? Because this is something everyone can afford. The rich, the poor. Nobody will be left out or feel that they are not able to reach the festive heights called for. The rich can afford more, but they will come down to earth and eat what it is that their brothers and sisters can eat.

It is very likely that not many Parsis will actually do this today. If I had not heard this from Busybee, I would have thought it was nonsense. And yes, it is only a symbolic gesture. As it is, it bespeaks a spirit of generosity that I wish we had more of. In that generosity is probably a certain way in which will we find our redemption.

Saal Mubarak.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Early this morning, there was a muezzin in the distance somewhere, calling the faithful to prayer; I could hear him and had woken, as I have habitually done all my life, only to fall asleep again almost immediately, listening to that cry that twists and turns and means almost nothing to me. Not knowing what he says, that is the gift.

Then I heard a train in the distance and knew that I was asleep and dreaming, my subconscious playing an old, much loved memory of sounds it does not hear anymore. There are no trains that pass anywhere near JP Nagar in Bangalore. Neither is there a mosque within audible distance of where we live. In the small hours, I hear dogs in the lanes around and trucks on the Outer Ring Road. Sometimes a wakeful squirrel chatters briefly on the window ledge, disturbing me with a sound I am unaccustomed to.

Later, much later, before the sunrise starts to glow faintly from behind our cotton curtains, a Brahmin neighbour chants her prayers in unison with a recording. I hear her very faintly and doze through it all, just as I doze through the crunch of gravel under the feet of the old men who are up early to walk up and down in the space between our buildings and the compound wall and doze through the calls of waking birds. But these are morning sounds, like the bells being rung in four different churches in Bandra in the morning. For the night, I have only the squirrels, the dogs, the trucks, and sometimes a disturbed bird or two.

And it is strange, very strange to be so bereft of the fervent syllables of the azaan, calling out into the empty, dark night, and of the rhythmic clatter of a long distance train hurrying ahead over the railway tracks, sounding as though it is outside the window and not a mile away; so bereft that I actually dream of them.

When I was in Bandra, they belonged to the night. It was rarely possible to hear them at any other time; they were swallowed up in all the noise of people on the move. Perhaps it was possible once, but I do not remember such a time. It was always at night that I would wake, and sometimes follow the train with my ears, noting the momentary pause after each set of four beats its wheels counted out so loudly; and anytime later, while sitting in a train myself, wide awake, I could marvel at the clarity with which the clear air had already carried the familiar pattern of its movement to my sleeping body. It was always at night that I would wake to the far-away man crying out, "Allah-hu-Akbar!" and shiver at the power of his inflection, which rose from the depths and then plateaued, and invoked in me a primeval sense of awe and relief, as though he and I had spent all our strength in climbing in a mere second to the heights and could then rest and wonder both at what lay below and what lay above.

Sometimes it was only a recording played over a loudspeaker, but the night sharpened the sound and strictly removed all disturbance, leaving an austerity of pitch and momentum. And then one evening I stood on an open overbridge at Bandra Station and looked towards the Bandra Mosque a few feet away and towards the sky in the west, coloured as it was by the orange and pink of a sun setting into the sea. The trains moved below me, shaking the bridge as they went, and the azaan sounded out above me, loud and impossible to ignore, and I gazed at the sky.

On one night long ago that I will never forget, never, I heard the trains all night because I did not sleep. And between the trains moving on, passing by, unaware of what they passed through, we all heard people screaming, people wailing, people howling, people crying; softly, but clearly, as if they were on TV in our neighbour's house. The next morning we heard the name "Behrampada" and understood something of what the night had witnessed, what we had been made to witness by the night. It was sometime in December 1992, or perhaps it was January 1993. They were indeed our neighbours, though perhaps neither they nor we knew it when we brushed past each other at Bandra Station. The trains were louder for them, and more disturbing, but the trains and the azaan inhabited their nights as well as ours; and their days as well.

Many years later, I lived in Hyderabad, in a place that was like a bad omen. At night, I heard no trains, I heard no call to prayer. I heard, in fact, nothing, and always slept badly. There was a neat, well maintained park outside my window, with no trees. My neighbours appeared to never talk in their houses. I became genuinely alarmed when, one evening, I ran downstairs for something and came to the realization that the loudest sound on the road was the song playing on my laptop. They were quiet people, and there was a sameness to them that still makes me feel nothing whatsoever when I think of them.

Later, still in Hyderabad, I moved to the hostel that was to become home for a while. On my first evening, I sat on one of the lawns near the Vice Chancellor's bungalow, slapping at mosquitoes every minute or so, feeling the grass prickling at my ankles below the hem of my jeans, looking up at the fading light in the sky. And then suddenly, I heard them both in the space of a minute; first, a train whistled past in the east through the nearby railway station of Sitaphalmandi, and then, to the north, that nameless man called out and I still understood only the first three words. God is Great. They were all I needed to understand.

It was not night, though I heard them sometimes at night while I was there. The train was not so exact in its movements -- most often I heard only its whistle and an amorphous sound of its metallic rushing. The azaan I heard through traffic and through my classmates' chatter, through loud music coming from an upstairs room, through the resident dog's laboured breathing. I was happy there, though perhaps neither the train nor the muezzin had anything to do with that.

One day, at work here in Bangalore on Bannerghatta Road, I heard the azaan again; a crackling, faulty recording being played somewhere to the north, perhaps at a mosque in Bilekahalli. Another day, we were driving south from Frazer Town, and a train whistled and furiously battered its way above our heads on a railway bridge, flinging dust into my face and deafening me for a moment.

And then, last night, I dreamed that a train passed us, far in the distance, carrying people to the new and away from the old, carrying people away from the new and back to the old, and that a man called to the faithful, and they woke to pray before a new day of living side by side with their neighbours who slept through it.

I did not wake. I dreamed instead of what I have come to know as home.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

And a few stray thoughts on Bangalore

That there is, in my opinion, little that is as comfortable as an overcast sky and cool breezes occasionally rising and then disappearing again.

That Blossom Book Shop is a many-splendoured thing, some of those splendours being Freya Stark, Nancy Mitford, Rainer Maria Rilke, A. A. Milne, Julian Barnes, the possibilities for helping society by eavesdropping on conversations with shop assistants and proffering the required books or information that they can't supply, and the probability of meeting those you know or meeting those you don't know but are bound to like because they like the same books you like.

That the trees of Bangalore are wondrous in their capacity to patiently absorb dust, heat, pollution, and stress, and that those who planted and looked after them deserve at least to have trees, their children, respected.

That there is nothing so creepy as a plateful of potato smilies smiling away insistently at Koshy's, even as you eat them up in an act of perverse cannibalism, and that this is made creepier and yet oddly more enjoyable by a couple of mugs of beer.

That it seems, thankfully, as though the Indian Coffee House will continue to prosper, as long as the coffee is good slap-in-the-face-and-wake-you-up stuff, the ferociously-moustached man in the poster on the wall continues to be "a fine type", the scrambled eggs on toast are done in butter, and the sunlight comes in through the open doors and windows along with the bustle of M. G. Road.

That the "Towns"--Cox Town, Cooke Town, Frazer Town, and so on--appear to be nice, laidback, friendly places with just the right hodge-podge of people and the right dose of sinister spice.

That it is great fun to be at Ranga Shankara, where you get to see everything theatrically-oriented, from Girish Karnad looking just like the Girish Karnad of the newspaper photographs to plays with background music that sounds like aliens farting, from young and enthusiastic actors who are already stalwarts of the Kannada theatre scene to unabashedly drunk audience members who dig in their noses when the actors address the audience and look in their direction -- and where samosagaLu chennagi ide!

That while I frankly think Bangalore's colonial architecture is mostly boring, and St Mark's Cathedral is ugly, the great, heavy wooden doors on its colonial buildings hold such mystery and, sometimes, so do the worlds of quiet around old stone and plaster, the hush of dusty, tree-cocooned convents and churches and government buildings, even those that are on busy roads.

That despite the inadequacy of every chicken puff in Bangalore, it is undeniably blessed in its sausages.

That if Zafar Futehally and Vijay Thiruvady chose to live in Koramangala, there has obviously been more to it than the software boom and soaring land prices -- and that it probably has something to do with what gave us, when we lived there, an eagle on our neighbour's terrace and a delinquint monkey on our kitchen window.

That it is impossible to not grin when you first hear about "Congress peanuts" (peanuts split into two, like the Congress party after Indira Gandhi split it) and "Communist peanuts" (you figure this one out yourself).

That the sheer nippiness of Bangalore of an evening post-summer is to be felt to be believed.

That it is interesting how so much of interest in Bangalore revolves around food and coffee, even now.

That Shivajinagar is alarmingly respectable in parts and can actually exhibit all the dubious charm of a small village now grown and made decrepit, and that the most endearing house in Bangalore is arguably on one of its alleys, a little tiny house that opens its front door onto a tiny porch and the street, and does it so invitingly that I no longer want to steal the house of Colonel Ferris -- or was it Colaco? -- that is in the more uppity environs of Church Street.

That even though Bangalore isn't, in my experience, the most friendly city around, there is nothing like a little good company to make me want to list some happy thoughts about it.

That this form is borrowed from Busybee, and it would be interesting to see if he ever had anything to say about a visit to Bangalore as it was.