Monday, December 18, 1995

USA, Gujarat

We first met Blandine in Paris, and she was very kind to us. Two young girls travelling across the continent, unescorted and ill-equipped with funds, was something of a rarity in those days. She extended her hearth, and heart, to us; giving us our first exposure to things exotic, educating us (as far as we were capable of receiving such education) on French art, history and cuisine. We, on the other hand, Amita and I that is, were simple and innocent; gauche, even, and I can remember refusing to try the wine for fear of what might happen next.
But Blandine took all this in her stride and went as far as to make us welcome at her sister’s in Monte Carlo and her mother’s in Lille, revealing a strain of Indianness in her nature that eventually overcame her and she married a Coorgi tea planter by the name of Ravi Aiyappa, and they now live happily ever after in Paris.
Back then, Blandine was a great traveller and, like many of her country folk, revelled in the East. On her first trip to India after we returned, it was of course our bounden duty to reciprocate and we sent her off to spend a few days with Amita’s parents who had recently returned from a lifetime in various locations around the globe to the ancestral village in Gujarat. The idea was to acquaint her with The Real India, the India of the villages. And Blandine went, duly equipped with mosquito repellent for herself and imported chocolate for the village kids. And returned with a perspective on Indian village life that entranced us.
Now these villages of Gujarat were never told of by Kipling, and, well, tales are crying to be told of them. Tradition has enjoined their sons and daughters, over the generations, to export themselves across the seas and set up shop in more congenial corners of the globe. Every family has at least one such prodigal on its rolls. In strange lands – distant in space, and time, and manner – they replicate their village lifestyle with no more than a cursory concession to attached bathrooms, toilet paper, frozen food, central locking systems and the like. Food processors churn out dough for dosas and dhoklas as obligingly as for pancakes. Or paincakes, as local dialect would have it.
Through it all, their hearts remain in the hot, dry and dusty villages of their birth. And the exiles recharge batteries with periodic trips back home.
They come laden with gifts – the fruit of their toil in the unfriendly faraway lands. And it is these that Blandine saw, and marvelled at, driven to poetry by the incongruity they threw up. The dusty village houses were equipped with the latest in electronic gadgetry, but they couldn’t use it – the electricity, when present, was given to wild fluctuations. Cupboards were overflowing with synthetic fabric – but the weather was not conducive. Sores, rashes and conjunctivitis – these were the lot of their children, marvelled at for their strange accents and exotic manner; and diarrhoea – with no Best Before date to use as a guide, and cowpats to substitute for playdough.
At bath time, Blandine was equipped with soap and shampoo and hair-conditioner, all of differing nationalities, and headed to a bathroom fitted out in splendid matching tiles, basin, commode, and towel rail. Unable to resist, perhaps from force of habit, she turned on a tap but not a drop dripped out. Gushing water, after all, was only a phenomenon of the monsoon skies. And Blandine, reasonably versed in the art of bucket-bath, made use of one filled with water drawn from the well.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 18 Dec 1995

Monday, August 28, 1995

Monsoon country

She was looking for a good place to spend a few weeks writing her poetry. So, of course, I suggested Bombay. After all, the rains were due to arrive, and what more poetic concept exists on this planet, as sure as June rhymes with monsoon, as sure as one brings the other?
So she wafted in with the cool breeze from across the seas, bringing a whiff of exotic scent, and it blended and was lost forever in the heady aromas of monsoon Bombay: the new batch of fuming automobiles crowding the thoroughfares; the nearly-dried fish caught unawares and turned soggy by the early showers; the squatters’ rights that floated up from along the tracks where they are dropped every morning and cling to your hem as you struggle to cross roads knee-deep in the swirling cocktail that comprises equal parts of rain water and overflowing sewage.
I could tell she was intrigued, and on one occasion leaned forward delightedly, asking, “Is that a flock of migrating birds?” It wasn’t, of course; the little dots of white that roosted on the beach below were merely more squatters, delivering up still more of that early morning business to the sea.
Duly chastened, she sat back, and, some weeks later, didn’t say a word but peered, suspicious and disbelieving, at the peacocks that we could see thronging Malabar Hill and dancing on the roofs of old houses in unbelievable, illusionary glory.
In Bombay, visitors are fondly informed (in a kind of cultural counterpoint to “lovely weather we’ve been having lately!”) that there are three seasons: hot, very hot, and unbearably hot. After a few weeks of this I noticed she no longer smiled but nodded disinterestedly, having realized that this was not a little joke, nor even mere propaganda designed to lure unwitting tourists. The poetry was doing fine: the quality of rain (quoth she) falleth mercilessly from heaven and is a bit difficult to describe. We agreed that it was not quite the monotonous never-ending sleet depicted by Maugham and his empire-building cronies in an attempt to ruin the reputation of the monsoon countries. Neither was it the little patter of raindrops to which she was doubtless more accustomed back home. We got one excellent sample through the shutters of a Local into which the stereotyped mass of commuters (hapless victims of one another’s odours) was crammed, racing off to collect the pot of gold at the end of their own personal rainbows. Another time, thunderous buckets overflowed over us, a foretaste of the revelry to come on the auspicious occasion of Gokul Ashtami.
Greenery had sprung up across the city just as if it had been invested in the stock market. We had noted, with some alarm, the new trends in full coat-pant type rainwear, the kind which enables one to bike to work and stay dry, yet drip over the others in the lift.
It was time for one of those episodes in which the city is ‘thrown out of gear’. And it came to pass that it rained full speed on high tide day. People lived to tell the long and boring tales of how they were trapped in the bus (or car or train) for hours and hours, with no respite from the rain. Finally the deluge began to abate. Systems were restored. We were survivors!
Recovering from the terrible blisters induced by the gorgeous genuine-imitation plastic rain shoes the poetess had ventured to acquire from a roadside hawker, she found herself, in the language of the day’s headlines, limping back to normalcy.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 28 Aug 1995