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I was in Chennai again last week, this time for an old friend’s wedding. Lots of friends, old and new, some of whom I hadn’t expected to see there – it was all most pleasing and punctuated with good food and drink and gossip and laughter. There was much angst over which sarees to wear, much debate over whether the saree padars and hair were to be pinned up or not (the fashion police dismissed my preferred pinned-up look as the totally uncool air-hostess look), much ruing of short hair in the face of lovely fresh jasmine flowers, and deep discussions of those occasions when a bindi nicely complements the saree and those when it disrupts it. All of us present were professional academics; what else did you expect us to discuss with such passion?
An old friend and I also decided to take a few days off and ride a motorcycle down a short stretch of the Tamil Nadu coast to see a few sights – the old Danish colony, Tranquebar, the old French territories of Pondicherry and Karaikal, the weaving town of Bhuvanagiri, and Chidambaram, the great temple town and home of the Dancing Shiva, Nataraja, among others. We rode all the way down to Nagapattinam. Using an SLR with a helmet on is not the easiest thing to do when you’re sweating and the road is bumpy, but hey, I even managed a self-portrait.
Innumerable shades of green glint in the winter sun on paddy fields and palm trees, and in between lots of blue-white backwaters and rivulets and old Chola-period water canals, you suddenly come up on the majestic blue ocean. Short and tall, brightly, luridly painted temple gopurams, mosque minarets and church towers dot the landscape and jostling with people in the raucous towns are giant, oversize posters of Tamil political leaders of every political party mouthing overblown rhetoric. Grinding inequality and desperate political struggle is embedded in this stunningly rich, agrarian Kaveri river delta, which witnessed tremendous destruction and loss of life during the ferocious 2005 tsunami. It is impossible for me to try and capture the richness of landscape or history of all the areas we visited in a short blog post or my camera. As I gazed around me, I kept thinking that I was in a Mani Rathnam film, and that Roja would show up any second, singing chinna chinna asai…
It was my first trip to this part of the country, and I think my overwhelming feeling was how little I had absorbed, and a wish to return again as soon as possible. My own current research, such as it is progressing, has to do with Maratha migrants from western India to the southern Kaveri delta region of Thanjavur, their social networks and cultural contacts, etc. Even when I teach the South Asia survey, I sketch with some familiarity broad events and processes such as the economic/agrarian functions of temple complexes, Europeans arriving on the peninsula, the fortunes of the Mughals in the deep south, or the particular braiding of caste and religion, especially Christianity, in this region, etc. etc. But it’s still quite something to confront the sheer diversity of the long history of this area visually, through the architecture, or the diverse cadences of Tamil, Urdu, Marathi, Persian, French, English. (Over beer I subjected a poor, unsuspecting friend to a long, impromptu lecture on the service gentry of the Nawab of Arcot and the Marathas in Thanjavur and the impact on linguistic and bureaucratic practice – all he had done was speak a bit of Urdu-Tamil mix!)
Pondicherry, in particular, is a glorious place, no matter what you go there for – the French-colonial atmosphere, the beach, the diverse creole Tamil-Chettiar-French architecture and cuisines, the experience the bohemian life at Auroville or to visit the Aurobindo ashram.
But one last thing – the food. My ready association with Tamil food all these years has been with Tamil Brahmin food: vegetarian, rice-and-lentil-based bliss, typified by curd-rice-mango-pickle, the best comfort food in the whole wide world. It is possibly my most favourite cuisine of all, and I can easily live on it for months on end.
But on this trip, I had occasion to try some excellent non-vegetarian cuisine, mostly seafood. I had expected it to be very heavily coconut-based, like in nearby Kerala, but it’s not – it is very simple and delicious, if incredibly fiery with black pepper. In the photo immediately below, from left to right, is yogurt, rasam, mutton curry, coriander-chilli paruppu, and garlic prawn, with garlic prawn and another prawn curry in the plate. All to be eaten, one at a time in courses (all this time I thought only the Bengalis, as good derivative discourse folk, ate in courses. Turns out they have company). In the photos below are the best crab curry and fried pomfret I have ever eaten.
Perhaps my favourite discovery, was of the Karaikal halwa, a popular dessert in these parts, and whose provenance I am yet to find out in detail. When my friend first offered it to me as a local delicacy, I demurred, because the shiny red and black stuff looked like large insects that had met with an unhappy, squelchy end. But I am glad I was persuaded to try them, because they were deliciously sweet and nutty, made in ghee. The red stuff is made with almonds, the orangey, crumbly one with grated beet and cream of wheat (like gajar halwa), and the black stuff, by far the best, was of crushed cotton seeds. Yum.
This year I have made or planned more baby things than I usually do – my mother wants to use up a lot of small bits of yarn she has, and I decided to bend my why-knit-for-babies-when-there-are-socks approach to small and quick projects. Two ideas frame this approach – 1)adult feet, unlike babies, do not generally outgrow their socks within a few months, and 2) when you knit for one friend’s baby, there’s no end to it, because at my age friends everywhere are popping babies like there’s no tomorrow. My fear, totally irrational, of course, was that I’d never see an adult pattern again if I got sucked into one of those seed-stitch-and-stockinette-oh-how-cute! Debbie Bliss patterns.
But there are babies and then there are babies. I made a small cotton A-line dress for a special five-month-old with a very piercing eye and stern disposition. She was not happy with it at first, but looked quite pleased with it later on.
This is the third iteration. I first made it too big (160 st), then ripped it out and made it too small (100 st), and then finally settled on the right fit (120 st). I still have the smaller iteration, and am now eyeing another infant in the offing to give it to.
I made up the pattern as I went along. I decided to try out a picot edge. Then I basically knit two rows of each colour, decreasing 4 stitches 4 times evenly through the body to get an a-line shape. Single garter ridge finish for the sleeves (pick up and knit the first row, immediately cast off the next) and double for the buttonholes and neck (knit one extra row between pick up and cast off). I pulled at each and every picot edge during the blocking, saying “this little piggy…” to myself the whole time.
Pattern: Random A-Line frock, my own
Yarn: Classic Elite Provence (100%) cotton; Laura Macagno Shang’s100% DK cotton, both in shades of purplish blue and bluish purple. I have no idea how much I used, but it was not very much.
Needles: size 6 throughout.
Gauge: I didn’t check it before beginning, and forgot to measure before gifting it. Are you at all surprised it took me three tries to get the fit right?
All in all, it was a fun and quick knit. Laura’s cotton is great, but the Provence is extremely splitty. Both softened up a lot after the block, though. The baby this is for lives in a very warm climate, so the cotton should be plenty for her.
Happy holidays to all my readers, and see you all in the new year!
Years ago, I made a stockinette watch cap as a handknitted wedding gift for a friend. He wanted to boldly wear his politics on his head and specifically requested the colour combo and pattern. Last week, I made a second one just like it as another gift. Voila the Hammer & Sickle Hat:
The last time, I had winged the motif and not kept any notes (or taken a decent-enough photo!); I just remembered that it fell unhappily between fair-isle and intarsia, and there were long floats to deal with at the back and puckered stitches. This time, I charted several motifs in MS Word (using these fonts), to play around with the gauge and surface area of the hat, and finally decided that rather than knit the motif, I was better off using duplicate stitch. So I embroidered it on, and although it took me a while to get the fall of the stitches just right – duplicate stitch is harder than it looks – I think I like the final results better through this method. (Also, taking a photo of yourself embroidering something is just about as hard as photographing black yarn!)
So, the Project Specs:
Yarn: Vardhman Pure Wool bought at Samrat Woollen House here in Pune. 1.5 balls in black. (I think it’s DK weight, but it doesn’t specify yardage). Also, some red laceweight held quadruple, for the motif. I wanted it to be a little thicker and pop out of the black.
Needle: Size 4 (3.5 mm), 16 inch circular and DPNs
Gauge: 6 spi.
Size: 22″ circumference and about 11″ length total from cast-on to crown.
Notes: I cast on 120 st in the round, knit K2,P2 for six inches, then 20 rows in stockinette. Then I divided the hat into ten equal parts and decreased evenly at the end of each part – k10, k2tog, repeat all around, and so on, decreasing the number of knit stitches before the k2tog every alternate round. I made three motifs of different sizes before I got one that fit the stockinette portion well. I don’t know how many knitters out there would like to make a hat like this or use the hammer & sickle motif, but let me know if you’d like the other charts for a thinner-gauge hat or any other project. If you’d like the full hat pattern, I can write it up as a .pdf and put it up here and on Ravelry.
It’s a roomy and warm hat, and I sure hope the recipient likes it! Stay tuned for another FO coming up hot on this one’s heels. That one, I’m hoping to photograph with the wearer in it in a few days..
Tomorrow, the 14th, is my birthday, and I got the perfect present in advance this evening. I got to attend the Sawai Gandharva concert, the annual three day classical music extravaganza. Started by the doyen of Hindustani music Bhimsen Joshi in honour of his guru Rambhau Kundgolkar, a.k.a. “Sawai Gandharva”, the festival has been the pride and joy of the city of Pune for the past 56 years. I never missed it when I lived in India, and the last time I managed to attend was nearly a decade ago. This evening, Madhup Mudgal, a vocalist and student of the legendary Kumar Gandharva, sang the ragas Shree and Yaman.
Punekars (rightfully) think of themselves as connoisseurs of Hindustani music, and performing in this festival is both a challenge and an honour. People attend in the thousands, and an enormous public ground with a huge makeshift tent simply fills up with music and music lovers. But people also sit outdoors on both sides of the tent, bringing their own mats to supplement the ones the organisers provide. Pune’s well-heeled cultural elite sit on sofas or chairs (this is a very tiresome see-and-be-seen kind of arena) but thousands only buy “bharatiya baithak” (Indian seating) tickets, which are grab-a-spot-and-sit places on the ground. The actual stage is too far for most people to see, so nowadays they have large screens in addition to CCTVs. It nurtures the love of classical music in the city and attracts people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s really quite something, and I owe the little I know and appreciate in Indian classical music in significant part to it being there for me when I was in college.
Until a few years ago, the festival was held overnight, on the second Thu, Fri and Sat in December, with Bhimsen Joshi, also Pune’s most beloved local classical musician, performing last in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It used to be chilly then and we lugged shawls and blankets with us at 8.30 pm, spread a mat on the ground and parked ourselves till morning. New and upcoming performers opened the show every evening, and if you liked one you went to Alurkar Music House the following week and looked for albums. You took a nap when a boring sitarist or vocalist played late in the night, but always woke up, walked around the grounds for a bit, looking for friends or celebrities or other musicians here and there, had some tea and batata-wada and came back all fresh for the final artist of the night, usually a senior and famous vocalist – Rashid Khan, Parveen Sultana, Firoz Dastur, Jitendra Abhisheki, Jasraj, Kumar Gandharva, Prabha Atre…. the performance would draw to a close as dawn broke. Here, I attended Kumar Gandharva’s final performance, and it was here that the crowd refused to budge even after Rashid Khan was done, insisting that he sing at least another piece before he got up. The school whose grounds the show rents for the night, had to be postponed for an hour that morning, as Rashid Khan sang a beautiful thumri in Khamaj.
After an ordinance that banned loudspeakers in the city after 11 pm a few years ago, the festival, held in a crowded area of the old city, had to change its schedule and now it’s held from the late afternoon until 11 pm. Initially I was scandalised – Sawai at 5 pm!! How would we listen to early morning ragas? Whatever would happen to the sociality of the festival, with its late night tea stalls and the bleary-eyed analyses the following morning of this artist or that? Actually, it seems to have worked out better than everyone thought, because, like today, we now have afternoon melodies like Shree or Marwa or Bhimpalas instead of Lalit or Todi or Bhairav. And the festive atmosphere has remained quite the same. The only difference is that now I hardly know anybody in the crowd.
After Madhup Mudgal came two violinists, Ganesh and Kumaresh, who play in the Carnatic music tradition. They had the enormous crowd stunned and eating out of their palms for nearly two hours, especially with a ragam-tanam-pallavi that they also explained to the mostly Hindustani-knowing audience. (Don’t miss the macbook in the photo below, which he used to maintain a drone, I think – it was the cause of much discussion in our part of the audience.)
The violins just spoke to me, told me stories, cajoled me into believing their side of the story, made me weep and nod in sympathy and shake my head in disbelief at the wrenching sadness they conveyed. Both brothers were very rasik, and clearly enjoyed themselves as much as the audience did. You know, I think I have a crush!
I was so mesmerised I didn’t stay for the next and final performance by another famous brother-duo, the Hindustani vocalists Rajan and Sajan Mishra. I shall also miss tomorrow’s final show. But it was very overwhelming to come back to incredible music at this beloved institution. It really is the perfect birthday present!
Tragedy predictably descended into farce this past week. Film and advertisement personalities became political spokesmen, vying with TV anchors to recommend carpet-bombing Pakistan to avenge the terrorist attack. Politicians stumbled over one another to offer condolences and compensation to families of slain officers, in full view of a gawping nation. Grief and sympathy, in an age of 24-hour news, it appears, simply cannot be experienced or conveyed any longer outside the script of patriotism.
Some critical voices of sanity and caution in the Indian press, amidst the jingoistic, militaristic cacophony:
Mukul Kesavan on the English language channel coverage:
I can’t remember the last time that social class so clearly defined the coverage of a public event, or one in which people spoke so unselfconsciously from their class positions….The novelist, Aravind Adiga, said in an interview with the BBC: “One of the differences between India and other countries is that a lot of our civic space is contained within the five-star hotels. They have a different function here for us, they are places where marriages happen, where people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee. For the Taj Mahal to be attacked is somewhat like the town hall being attacked in some other place… .” I’d wager that 99 per cent of VT’s commuters haven’t seen the inside of the Sea Lounge. Whatever else they are, five-star establishments in India are not democratic civic spaces. Few Mumbaikars think the Taj Mahal Hotel is their city’s hôtel de ville.
And Adiga got the Booker prize for his depiction of the “Other India”? I simply cannot *wait* to read it! Other novelists have also mined Mumbai nostalgia for various newspapers, but Amitav Ghosh, mercifully, spoke some sense and refrained from telling us about how much he loved the Taj:
This has been another terrible year. Even before the invasion of Mumbai several hundred people had been killed and injured in terror attacks. Yet, let us recall that the attacks on Jaipur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Guwahati did not succeed in setting off chains of retaliatory violence of the sort that would almost certainly have resulted ten or fifteen years ago….The question now is: will the November invasion of Mumbai change this? When commentators repeat the metaphor of ‘9/11’ they are in effect pushing the Indian government to mount a comparable response. If they succeed in doing this the consequences are sure to be equally disastrous. The very power of the 9/11 metaphor blinds us to the possibility that there might be other, more productive analogies for the November invasion of Mumbai. One such is the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, which led to a comparable number of casualties and created a similar sense of shock and grief. If 9/11 is a metaphor for one kind of reaction to terror, then 11-M (as it is known in Spanish) should serve as shorthand for a different kind of response: one that emphasises vigilance, patience, and careful police work in coordination with neighbouring countries.
Siddharth Varadarajan in the Hindu:
Rather than threatening a ‘limited war,’ surgical strikes or a suspension of the peace process, the logic of this metastatis is the most compelling argument India can marshal in its quest for the international community to insist that the Pakistani military make a final break with jihadi groups. The war that was launched in Mumbai will only end when the Pakistani military is compelled by the world and its own people to end its war on its own society. India can help this process by finding ways to help tilt the balance of power further in the direction of the civilian government. At the very least, it should do nothing that will tilt things the other way.
Sukumar Muralidharan on the scary, militaristic mood in the electronic media:
The question the Indian media face is not a trivial one. Is it going to be an exclusive forum for the more extreme voices? Or can it find a sensible way forward, even in a conjuncture as trying as Mumbai 26/11, to promote a genuine social dialogue that is attentive to the true risks and benefits of any particular strategic course? From the huge variety of voices seeking to be heard in India, the media seemingly distils out only those that serve its prior conceptions. Though difficult in trying times such as now, can the media hear voices from across the border? Would it have any use for instance, for the following observations from the December 2 editorial in Dawn, one of the most restrained and sober voices in the Pakistan media: “…what cannot be condoned is the behaviour of the Indian media, that taking its cue from the politicians — and from a culture of nationalism that is especially apparent where Islamabad is concerned — came down hard on Pakistan, often conjuring up fantastical descriptions of the way the siege of Mumbai was laid. Not only does this put pressure on the Indian government to keep up its accusations and resist moves for a cooperative stance, it also damages people-to-people ties, for after all, the media is meant to speak for the common man”.
Farce in the political establishment matches that on TV. Heads have rolled: Union home minister Shivraj Patil, prone to changing his suits in-between TV appearances after major bomb blasts, finally slunk off. So did Maharashtra’s chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who took his actor-son and the famous purveyor of gangster chic films, Ram Gopal Varma with him on his first, official tour of the Taj after security forces had taken back the hotel. Deshmukh (at least one banner in a political rally aptly called him Deshmurkh – the nation’s fool) has been one of Maharashtra’s most ineffectual CMs ever, failing at law and order well before the capital city of the state was held ransom like this, but somehow, this particular crass act was too much for the Congress higher ups in New Delhi. His deputy, R.R. Patil, went a step further and brushed aside the attacks – “Such incidents are bound to happen in big cities once in a while,” he said. This from a man who banned dancing girls in Mumbai’s bars because he thought them too dangerous for the city’s moral fibre!
Our Oracle of 10 Janpath The Congress party, meanwhile, took nearly two days to find their successors because the state’s caste arithmetic for the upcoming polls has proved to be too sticky – prioritizing the investigation and security effort be damned. Narayan Rane, the leader spurned for the chief minister’s position, threatened to bring down the government, but magnanimously refrained in these pressing times of internal security. Will it any wonder, then, if tragedy were to once again replace farce? A very real, and immediate danger for Maharashtra is that with these guys being our “secular” options and beloved incumbents, the upcoming state elections next year will leave the field wide open for more overt chauvinists of various stripes to step in as viable alternatives – Raj Thackeray with his fresh Marathi nativism (beating up on poor north Indian migrant workers) and the Shiv Sena (excellent track record of Hindu majoritarianism). If that does happen, then God help us all.