Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Travel Diary: Kodaikanal Part II

As I’ve forgotten the order of our visits and on which of the 3 days we went to each, (we returned only two days ago but my memory is like a freaking sieve, I tell you) I shall list the rest in no particular order.

1) Pillar Rock(s). The first day we went it was quite unexceptional, because there was nothing but mist beyond the railings, monkeys who posed patiently for pictures with practically an arm slung across the brave shoulders of tourists, and the ubiquitous stripy ear muffs. We paid a woman 5 rupees to take a picture of us sitting next to her stuffed toy tiger. We didn’t want to stand next to the monkeys, yet found the experience lacking a certain something if we couldn’t have any animals in our photos. The next day we visited again in case the mist had cleared up and was rewarded by an awe inspiring view of rocks jutting up into the sky like pillars. It was magnificent, like the product of special effects in a Spielberg movie, and I almost expected to spot a pterodactyl or two near the misty summit of the rocks.

2) Bear Shola Falls. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Very few people. NO ear muffs. A tranquil walk amongst coniferous trees ended in a prodigious rock with a waterfall spilling down its length. Its solitude made it my favouritest place in Kodaikanal.

3) Green Valley View/Suicide Point. A colleague had told me before I left for Kodai that there were people employed to collect bodies that pile up at the bottom of this place. I have a sneaking feeling this is ENTIRELY why my husband agreed to take a day off from work for the Kodaikanal trip. Unfortunately by the time we located this place (it’s actually not called Suicide Point, hence the confusion) Jeet had fallen quite ill (hills never agree with us, ask my college buddies. I was so notorious for falling sick on trips to the hills that the professor meant to accompany us on one of our college trips to Sikkim showed great reluctance to take me.) and stayed in the car while the rest of us went to investigate.

I guess I was expecting something spooky; or at least a lonely, desolate place where people feel they can die in privacy. “I was on the top of the hill, and the sun was shining down on me. So I figured it was a nice day for a bit of a suicide.” What I didn’t expect was stairs lined with earmuff shops ending in a viewpoint protected with a high spiked fence. Frankly, if one has the energy to climb all those stairs, fight off the earmuff vendors and the teeming multitudes that constituted their clientele, and THEN be limber and tough enough to scale the nasty looking fence – I would enter my name in the Olympics instead of providing employment for the body gatherers of Suicide Point.

4) Pine Forest: We went to a stretch of the Pine Forest that looked quite touristy, and therefore, thick with retired Bengali people taking a stroll in their shawls. Again, my husband and I stayed put in one place, as our friends went for a walk in the pine forest. We watched a particularly foul tempered Pomeranian dog chase monkeys and a cow indiscriminately around the clearing where we waited. The monkeys shinned up the trees in a trice, and the poor cow looked wistfully after them, like she would’ve liked to but was too dignified to make a monkey of herself.

5) And last but certainly not the least…The Kodaikanal Lake. It’s a man-made star-shaped lake at the heart of the hill station. A view of the lake from higher up on the slope is quite something. The day we arrived in town all we could talk about was the boating. “When shall we go boating on the Kodai Lake? Shall we go now? Later on in the day? Tomorrow? The day after?” “I don’t KNOW. STOP asking me!!!” We finally went to the Kodai Lake on the second day around 5 in the afternoon and were told by the first boathouse that they’d closed shop a little while ago. So we resolved to walk to the next boathouse along the lake where we would be sure to get a boat. 5-odd kms, 2 hours, one corn on the cob, one cup of tea, and a few fists of masala muri later we had done a complete circuit of the lake and all three boathouses without any luck.

Once I’d got home and taken off my one-size-too-small-but-pretty Reeboks, I decided the walk had been great fun.

And that’s about all we did before we set out again for Bangalore early on Sunday morning. This time we (I use the term loosely) drove during the day, and like the wind -- towards home.

Aaaah. (Say it with me) There’s no place like HOME.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Travel Diary: Kodaikanal Part I

A very old friend of mine called me up one morning and asked if we would like to join them on a trip?. (this friend is the oldest that I have, I’ve known her from when I was 6, at a time when I was friendless and alone at school, and the only friends I had were of the imaginary kind. Actually, come to think of it I didn’t have too many of those either, compared to the raucous imaginary-friend parties some other little girls seemed to have. Those imaginary friends, phew, do they know how to have a good time!)

So we said yes, and away we went a week later at 1 in the morning in my friend’s car to drive for 9 hours and 450 kms to Kodaikanal. We had gone to our friend’s place to spend the night and start out early the next morning, but after we were finished with dinner starting off just then seemed like a jolly thing to do. So off we went at 1 in the pitch dark and it was quite jolly because the others drove. I didn’t sleep however, because I felt morally obliged to sit bolt upright scowling fiercely at the road ahead, thereby lightening the drivers’ (i.e my friend’s and my husbands’) burden significantly.

We got there at 10 the next morning. And it was beautiful. Beau-ti-ful! Ooty was a shabby little ugly duckling hill station compared to this one. (and let me tell you, when I went to Ooty I thought it was ugly even without seeing this place.)

And COLD. We kept wondering how cold it was, and discussed it repeatedly: “It must be atleast 10 degree centigrade…don’t you think?” “I have no idea. Stop asking me.”

My friend has a bit of an OCD about cooking and keeping house, so she instantly launched herself into making the guesthouse like home, (which as I very helpfully observed as I propped my feet up on the center table and flicked through my book ‘kind of defeated the purpose.’) Apart from all the cooking and cleaning and constructive sneering, we managed to take in the following sites:

1) Coalker’s walk. Don’t ask me what that means, my interpretation would be that if you’re high on coke, this is how the world would look to you. (Yes, yes not the right spelling – give me one that works better, smart asses.) It’s a pathway cut into the hill (the 21,300 meter high Palani hills) and provides you a wonderful view of the world swathed in mist. You can also walk there should you wish to rub shoulders with people who wear summer clothing accessorized with tiger-striped ear muffs in an attempt to look trendy or die of hypothermia, I’m not sure which. After a refreshing snack of cotton candy and barely concealed snickering at the ear muffs, we took ourselves off to the next tourist spot which was:

2) The Horticultural Gardens. It was a lot like other horticultural gardens I’ve visited, except that there was a very ugly couple being filmed with a video camera. Jeet said he thought they were getting married, and the others thought they were actors. I just thought they were ugly and the cameraman in dire need of money. My adventurous friend struck off up the slope following no apparent path and we followed obediently behind. I was grateful that Jeet waited for me as I hopped awkwardly over rivulets (looked like drainage water, nothing fancy) and yawning gaps in the hill while the other two walked briskly on ahead and disappeared round bends. Once I was sure I wouldn’t roll downhill and stop half dead near the feet of the couple being filmed, I decided it had been quite an enjoyable walk. Tip to tourists: Do not touch the cactuses in the greenhouse, even if a solemn 14 year old boy swears it won’t hurt.

(To be continued.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

What Indians do-do in books.

This is going to be a long one, so anyone who can’t read beyond 500 words may wait for my next post and skip this one.

I just finished reading the Booker-prize winning book the White Tiger, which my friend Chiquita was kind of enough to gift me as a birthday present. It was excellently written and quite riveting. (Can you sense the ‘but’ coming? Here it is.)

I was unfortunately reading Shantaram simultaneously. So the whole effect was one of overkill. When I read one of these books, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by how well…sub-human and ridiculous… Indians are made out to be. Have you noticed? I can’t deny most of the stuff that is put in these books, I would be lying if I tried. Yes we live in the Turd World, 90% of people use the great outdoors as a Great Outhouse. I refrain from explaining further because you only need to pick up one of these books to learn all about this phenomenon.

90% of us are, of course, desperately, miserably, “the pavement is my home” kind of poor-- that’s true. And when you’re describing the conditions they’re in I understand that one needs to linger lovingly over each scatological detail – ostensibly to portray the sickening existence they endure. But, why, oh why…do Indian authors in English (which Shatantaram is not, we’ll get back to that book in a moment) feel compelled to describe the bowels of even the upper class (evil, upper caste, murdering raping) characters of the story? They go to their gold-inlaid, made-with-the-blood-and-sweat-of-downtrodden-untouchables bathrooms. So why this detailed inventory of what they did there for the readers? I’ll tell you why. Because it is expected of an Indian book in English. It’s almost as if the publishers send the draft novels back to the authors with a note: “Dear Indian Writer in English, there isn’t enough faeces and sputum in the ninth chapter. Please rectify this mistake. Regards, the Editor.

Apparently shit sells.

Do these Indian authors (all of whom invariably come from upper caste/upper class, western educated families, with the luxury to take a year or two off from paying bills, so that they can write a book on circus-freak, black-and-white India and get a Pulitzer prize from the West for writing a 'no-holds barred, gritty expose on Indian society') talk about their bowel movements at those posh wine and cheese parties they meet each other at? Would they even talk to a person who does? No. But when it comes to writing a book, they have to discuss it over two revolting pages for each character, in all its Technicolor disgustingness. The West reads it with fascinated disgust and showers accolades and prizes on these people for ‘telling the truth about India in all its shittiness’.

Do western people not go to the bathroom? If you read their books one might even think that is the case. And that’s how it should be, because it’s a foregone conclusion that all human beings do and there’s no need to dwell on such details just for cheap thrills.

Now that I’ve used the word “shit’ 24 times, “bathroom” 19 and “sputum” once, I shall expect my Booker at the address provided on my home page, thank you very much.

Moving on, I want to point out some things I have noted so far in Shantaram. You can still forgive an Australian for talking about Indian do-dos (after all kangaroo crap is perhaps the only thing you can step in over there) but what I find outrageous (though terribly entertaining) is the exaggeration. Apparently he saw a man with his head on fire running into the sea to douse it while he was riding into Mumbai on a bus from the airport. I have been to Mumbai and traveled that stretch he’s mentioned a few times and never seen a man on fire. Neither have I been in a car accident the very next day and been dragged out of the taxi by my stereotypical cheerfully amoral and perennially ridiculous Indian guide, just in time to be saved from being lynched along with the taxi driver by an Indian mob.

All the Great Indian Novel stereotypes are tiresome. There are millions of people in this country of all shades and beliefs and humours. Are we all to be divided into cruel overlords and tortured low caste farmers? This is not to say that the sordid stuff they put in books about India doesn’t happen at all (they DO happen, unfortunately) what I object to are the generalizations. I read with disbelief as Adiga made sweeping generalizations about how people treat drivers in India. My parents have hired a succession of 3 drivers over the last 10 years (the drivers leave when they get better opportunities, my parents didn’t kill them, nor did they hunt down and kill their entire families down to the last third cousin when they turned in their car keys.) and not once has their been any rumors of my family members asking these gentlemen to wash their (the former’s I mean) feet in hot water. Nor in cold water, I hasten to add. They have never been asked to sweep the courtyard or play ball with the children either. Strange but true. And as for their being asked to pour whisky for their masters from a bottle that’s always kept in cars for the purpose AS they drove, let me tell you I’ve never heard of such a thing in my life. And it hasn’t been such a short time for me in India either.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Adiga spent a lot of time in the West because he refers to the character throwing away food in anger in two places in the book. Indians, especially someone as poor as the protagonist, NEVER throw away food. At the most, you might throw away some on your plate that you JUST could NOT eat…but throwing your share of the chicken curry against a wall of your mud and thatch hut in anger? That’s just fiction. If an Indian family has an argument over dinner they shovel their food into their mouths as fast as they can and stomp off only when dessert is done.

I wish someone would write a book or two about the wholly different trials and tribulations of the middle class, maybe a family that doesn’t torture the help, if we can be so daring. Maybe we can just put a note at the beginning of the book that it is understood that these people DO go to the bathroom, but entire chapters have not been devoted to it in interests of brevity. Maybe this family’s problems can be more universal, like yours and mine…problems at work, problems in love, problems with parents and kids, making friends losing friends people dying (but not necessarily because an upper caste overlord beat them to a pulp because the temperature of the foot bath was wrong, or because they tried to escape from being a sex slave)…you get the drift.

I will personally give such an Indian a prize. The story might not be exotic or Booker worthy, but it’ll be a subtle story about lives many of us literate middle class professionals live; and thereby identifiable. Anyone brave enough for the challenge out there?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Weird But True Excerpt

I read this here:

Thought it was hilarious so pasting it here for your reading pleasure.

"A Chinese man discovered the dog he had raised since it was a puppy was actually a rare Arctic fox.
The guy figured his all-white pooch was a Pomeranian that happened to be difficult to tame.
He also thought it was weird that the critter couldn't bark, that its tail kept growing - and that it stank something fierce. "
A zoo broke the news.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Others.

It’s funny that I’ve never discussed this on my blog, but I’m a total sucker for ghost stories. Once I feel I know a person well enough for him/her not to think I’m a weirdo for asking, I ask them if they have any ghost stories they can tell me. Most often than not people say they do believe in ghosts but never have any concrete instances to tell me about.

Of course the next question is, “Do I believe in ghosts?” The answer is No. In fact I don’t scare easy either. But that doesn’t stop me from getting that pleasurable goosebumpy chill when I hear stories about things that go “Do you remember me? I’m back!” in the night.

I, in fact; had I been a believer, have had ample ‘evidence’ of the supernatural. Who hasn’t woken up from a perfectly undisturbed sleep in the middle of the night with one’s heart thumping, and eyes swiveling around looking for…God knows what. It isn’t a bad dream, it’s a sudden certainty of something horrifying in the room with you… you just can’t SEE it.

Then there was that time when I was 7 years old and I had a 104 degree temperature. It was broad daylight and I saw a man, dressed all in red, grasping the second story window grille from the outside and looking in on me as I lay alone in bed. I had been so sick that both my parents were at home looking after me, and my panic stricken screams made them rush in from the next room. Of course that can easily be explained as delirium, which it was -- or Spiderman. My point is, if I wanted to believe, I had an actual ghost sighting – right there.

Then much later, a very lovely couple who still are very good friends took me in when I was a singleton in Hyderabad. They had a soft spot for strays so I and the two stray dogs fit right into the establishment. Weird stuff used to happen in that house. (No I don’t mean my money disappearing; that was the maid.) They would some times go out to do couple things like attend parties and whatnot and gave me and the dogs the run of the house for the entire evening.

I’ve always enjoyed having a house to myself. When I was a kid in Calcutta, I would try on my mother’s lipstick and my sister’s earrings. During this Hyderabad phase when I got some time alone, I would watch all the TV I could manage without having to worry about intruding.

One such night, as I watched the same Friends rerun for the umpteenth time with my favorite dog, Tiger (a mongrel with Alsatian blood) curled up next to me, a strange thing happened. He sat up with a start and looked directly at a point several feet off the ground in the doorway connecting the bedroom (where we were) and the living room. I thought maybe my friends had come back much earlier than planned, and expected to hear the front gate open any minute. (Tiger had wonderful hearing, he could tell his masters were home from the time their car drove up 3 storeys below.) What must be obvious to those who’ve got the drift of my story by now, no such thing happened. Tiger growled low and deep in his throat and stared unblinkingly at the connecting door for a few more seconds. Then, growling all the while, his eyes moved from the door, following a trajectory that cut across the TV, past the dressing table mirror and towards the bed where I lay.

It was at that point that the charm of having the house to myself began to pall. I had watched enough TV and felt an overwhelming need for human company. So I called a friend up and kept up a hectic pace of conversation until my friends returned from their party.

Another story, of course no ghosts feature in this, I find fairly sinister. I moved out of these friends’ place (I leeched off them for 6 whole months and we still remain friends!) and into a shared accommodation with two other girls. I was an illegal sub tenant of one of the girls, and was to share her room. I was her ‘sister’ if the landlord ever asked. Well this girl was terrified at night. She would ask to leave lights on, she would start at the slightest noise, and by the end of it I was as much of a basket case as she was. Later I heard from my second flat mate that this girl was a widow and that her husband had been cruel. He beat her and never let her meet her family or friends. When he died of a heart attack, she was glad. At least that is, until night fell every day and she drove me up the wall with her “what was that? Did you HEAR that??”

I cleared out of that place in double quick time let me tell you.

What was the point of this post you ask? There isn’t that much. Except that I’m alone at home, and had just turned in for the night. As I lay in bed, my mind had just started to skate into nothingness, when all of a sudden I was jolted wide awake…

So I turned the lights on and sat down to write this post.


Thursday, December 4, 2008


When you finally succumb to a lousy mood, it’s almost a relief, like your spirit can finally lay off rallying to find the bright or funny side of everything. Even though it’s laying there on the ground feeling really bad for itself, for the body it inhabits, and for the long fight that lies ahead when it inevitably has to pick itself off the ground, shake off the ennui and start rallying once again – it’s a momentary break from the struggle. A time of rest.

So your mind wanders about weeping with self-pity, without even a pat on the back from its bed fellow spirit. Your mind has a much harder task to do for the years and years and years that you live. Because no matter WHAT happens, it has to hold things together, and apart from cursing that wuss spirit for letting it down every so often ( I’ve observed it happens once a month, I wonder why that is.) it has to still function (“put your right leg down first, then your left, heave yourself up, walk to the sink and brush your teeth, etc’) while your spirit lies curled up in a foetal position, the slacker that it is.

Let alone taking a break, your mind has to work overtime to make up for the absenteeism of spirit. “Smile, smile, SMILE at the founder of the company.” “No you cannot make a face and punch her in the nose when she asks you how you are!” “Comb your hair, you can’t look like that in public, even if you couldn’t care less today, you’ll regret it tomorrow!”, etc.

So while your spirit takes a bit of a time-out, some ‘me-time’ if you will, so that it can loathe you and your life at leisure; your mind and body jerks around in a numb uncoordinated way all day (or week as the case may be).
I’m having one of those days. I shall let you know if my spirit finds some sustenance to revive soon. (There actually are plenty but I already told you that when the spirit is down and out; it refuses to entertain such thoughts.)