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You’d have thought that a caffeine shot would have energised my yarn into knitting itself speedily into fabric, but apparently caffeine doesn’t have the same effects on everyone. It took way longer for the Tosh Sock skein in ‘Nutmeg’ to turn into a wearable pair, and despite great initial ambition and effort, they eventually managed to achieve only a plain vanilla stockinette grade. (At least the coffee stains don’t show!)
I knit exclusively on this pair for much of April and May, a good part of the latter month on a glorious holiday to Mexico, recovering from a horridly busy semester. Apart from the Knotty-knice pattern I first tried for it, which ended up too loose on the foot and a pain with all those twisted stitches, I also tried a pretty cabled cuff and various other things. Alas, the photographs of those iterations (imagine my nutmeg cable climbing up the pyramid at Teotihuacan) and of the trip in general, are now with the person who found my camera on the bus after I kindly, thoughtfully, left it there and traipsed off. Long, winding, bus journeys through mountains apparently don’t just make me nauseated, they also make me lose my brains and valuable things.
SO, I had a fantastic and gorgeous time in Mexico; I just don’t have the pics to show for it. The spouse mounted a very spirited critique of photographic reproduction as a poor and illegitimate approximation of reality to cheer me up, for which I was very grateful at the time, quelling all inner wails about ‘but how will I blog about it?’ Now, with some distance, I too am philosophical about the ephemerality of possession, of material goods, of memory, but boy would it have been nice to share some of the pics with you!
In any event, none of the patterns I tried on these toe-ups were satisfactory either because they were too long, or too tight, or whatever, and I finally fell back on stockinette. But then I got obsessed with just using up all the yarn (a substantial 390 yards in this skein!) to see how long the socks would get. I increased 2 stitches along the calf every ten rows 8 times. (60 + 2 st every 10th row, 8 times = 76 st total at cuff).
Then I tried them on and realised that socks look longer when off, than when on your leg. I was confident the cuffs would kiss my kneecaps, but they barely managed the point in the calf where I was sure they would slide right down, so I added some scrap sock yarn I had to get them past that hump. Now they don’t slide down, exactly, but merely threaten to. If they do slip with some stretch and use, I might add more lines with another yarn to the cuff later. Still, it felt really good to knit right to the end. I have just a few yards of the Tosh Sock left, which does feel good.
They look like soccer socks, no? I looked at all the World Cup team colours, though, and these colours seem to fall right between Brazil and Spain. Actually, they look like the colours of another, magical team – a variation on Gryffindor’s quidditch socks.
I meandered from New Delhi to Pune last week by rail and road, stopping along the way at the old Buddhist site of Sanchi, the Hindu pilgrimage town of Omkareshwar on the Narmada, and the Melghat forest. For the last couple of years, I have been researching an old travelogue-cum-memoir from the nineteenth century that wanders around a lot of places in central India. By now it has seeped in so deeply into my consciousness that I had a hard time sticking to my own itinerary. The guy I’m writing about had three years in which to muck about, though, and I had but a week, so I didn’t feel so bad.
I’ve written before about the Orientalist traps that lurk all around whenever I travel to places that I encounter regularly in my work or in books I’ve read, and I am very impatient with the desire to reach into a pristine past or the temptation to take ‘authentic’ pictures, or worse, picturesque ones of dunes or ghats or spice mounds in crowded markets. For all that, I was still surprised when I went to Sanchi.
I knew about the extensive restorations in the last century of this nearly-2000 year old Buddhist stupa, and its deep imbrication with the very evolution of Indian archaeology and art history in the 19th century. My first reaction was – whoa, it’s really held up well all these years! To be sure, individual pieces of intricate carving have, and stunningly so. But when I pored over all the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of the heavy restoration to the main edifice in the museum, I felt strangely disappointed.
None of this makes sense, of course – not this sense of satisfaction at an imagined authenticity, nor even this idea of ‘restoration’ to an ‘original’ structure. South Asian history is full of colonial efforts to ‘restore’ its history and culture that were blundering at best and disastrous at worst, with ill-effects that are still all around us. Still, I wonder if the heavily overgrown, grimy stupa would have drawn me the same way that this utterly magnificent piece of scuplture and its serene, beautifully organised grounds did. But then, the entire tourist/nationalist/historicist frame through which the serenity of Sanchi has been produced and which surely influenced me, wouldn’t have existed. The same with the contemporaneous Heliodorus pillar in nearby Vidisha, with its inscription to the deity Vasudev by an Indo-Greek nobleman devotee: it wouldn’t have been resurrected for proper historical consumption by middle-class Indians or global tourists, but would have continued to be worshipped by the local fishermen as a pole-god, kham-baba. Truth be told, I felt silly photographing it, but then I couldn’t *not* photograph it either. I mean, there I was, in front of Heliodorus’s pillar!
At Omkareshwar, which is the site of one of the twelve Jyotirlinga shiva temples and therefore a hallowed stop on many pilgrimage routes, it’s easy to forget everything else – the river Narmada is bewitching, and makes you forget all the hustling priests and the bustling devotees.
The only thing that looms large and dwarfs any other geography is the big-assed, ugly dam right near the Omkareshwar island. I suppose it’s only fitting – India’s ancient and modern temples, cheek by jowl.
I also ate a local delicacy called Dal-Baafle – a blob of greased wheat dough that is boiled, roasted and then dunked in some dal – that is heavily overrated and hard on the teeth, I thought. But I did have some egg curry with bhakri at a small shanty in the Melghat forest that probably ranks among my top five meals of all time. The ten kilometre hike in the forest that preceded it no doubt had something to do with it, but still.
Melghat was my first exposure to the Satpuda mountain range: neither as majestic as the Himalayas, nor as riotously dense as the Sahyadris closer to home, but gentle, quiet and rich in its own way. This forest, now a large tiger reserve, is a delicious mix of teak, bamboo, gum, spiders, bears and is bursting with birdlife.
More photos are here.
A wonderful way to wash off a rough semester, what?
Last week I went to Madison for the big annual conference in our field. Like all good conferences, this one allowed me to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. And some friends I knew, but had never actually met. Like Mary and Huan-hua, long time blog friends. They took me to Lakeside Fibers, one of the most beautiful yarn stores I have ever seen – bright, large, welcoming and full of glorious natural light.
We sat out back in the coffee room, which was playing Aretha Franklin, and was lined with finished projects and a whole wall of Cascade 220.
I think I want that kind of home decor – some finished projects, a wall of books, another of yarn, some great music and comfy chairs to lie back and chat or read, and the aroma of coffee and baked goods that isn’t overpowering. If there’s no french vanilla or cinnamon, that should take care of that, I think.
I even knitted a bit on my shawl!
I love Madison, especially since I’ve always visited it in fall when it’s riotously in colour. This time it had a special twist – Mary and Huan-hua, thanks so much for the wonderful meet-up! To commemorate the lovely warm light in that room that afternoon, and the warmth of new friendships, I chose these shades.
The variegated bronze is Zauberball, a wool-polamyde sock yarn whose colours are supposed to diffuse in the fabric like this. Isn’t that stunning? The solid at the back is a more simple Cascade Heritage, with which I want to try one of Cookie’s genius sock designs. It’s in the shade cinnamon, which is so much nicer as a shade than an ingredient in desserts.
Mary also generously gifted me this fabric. Tracy, you were very much missed, although you were present on Mary’s camera screen with us. Thank you so much for the fabric! I cannot wait to make something with it, and hope that when we all meet next – somewhere in India in December or January? – I will have turned it into something wearable.
Four teenaged nieces + one boisterous nephew + lazy family get-together + two needles + yarn:
Look at them, rapt. None of them had ever knit before. They all took turns, and produced a recognizable garter stitch wristband in two days that was actually wearable. Apart from the number of stitches varying wildly throughout, no major problems. My nephew did approach the process rather like one does arm wrestling, using all his force and determination for each stitch that threatened to get away from him, but that’s where the cotton yarn helped. It survived his enthusiasm, and didn’t snap.
One of my nieces got it real bad, and knit through meals, car rides and conversations the entire trip. She has already called once to confirm the address of knittinghelp.com. The craft has a new devotee:
bas ishq mohabbat pyaar…. So goes the song from the film, Delhi-6, that I mentioned in my last post. This is Delhi, my friend, nothing but love, it croons…..
I miss Delhi. Over the last two months, I had many a moment to mull over my sentiments about this mad city. It is a cliche to say that people have a love-hate relationship with Delhi, but alas, this is true and I am no different. It’s not just the fact that most of my friends in India live there, or that it’s the nerve-centre of the history academy, or that I have bittersweet memories of past lives. It’s also its many quirks and vices that are difficult to categorize. So here are some random likes and dislikes.
L) I love the months of Feb-March in the city when the dry winter gives way to a hesitant short spring. You can go from woollen vests to thin cotton tops in a span of ten days around Holi. Gardens all over are in riotous bloom, especially the roses at the President’s residence, but I especially love the bougainvillea that pours out on to footpaths like pink paint from a can knocked over, and the silk-cotton flowers strewn all over the ground.
D) For all its greenery, I detest the wasteland that is the central, planned city of “Lutyens” New Delhi. Everyone seems to ooh and aah about its lush elegance, its colonial bungalows, landscaped rotaries and tree-lined avenues, but the area is an effing nightmare for pedestrians. The lack of proper traffic lights turns the mildest of drivers into raving lunatics, while it takes pedestrians an eternity to cross a road or rotary. To say nothing about the fact that this suburban, made-for-cars layout in the middle of the city, with no shops or people to keep it alive after sundown, makes it very unsafe for women to walk around by themselves right in the heart of town.
L) But I gotta say, in the late winter afternoon sun, walking a kilometre or two down these avenues for lunch from the archives to one of the State houses for various regional cuisines, gossiping and laughing with friends, or alone, spotting birds in the trees is wonderful. This is also the time when Delhi comes alive with concerts – classical dance, play competitions in different languages, free music concerts in the parks, food and film and handicraft festivals… it’s hard to decide what to go to and what to miss. In general, I favoured food over film, but I managed a good dose of the rest as well!
D)But the whole place also has a kind of sarkari stench hanging over it. Compared to the crass malls of Gurgaon and the shining lights of privatization all over the country, this Nehruvian-elite govt-servant scene in the capital seems positively benign to many, but it sets my teeth on edge. It’s not just the “lal-batti” culture of politicians with commando security and blinking cars holding traffic ransom at will. Everything from the clipped accents to the ethnic-chic elegance and the hush and rustle of well-heeled power that self-deprecatingly and disingenuously masks itself as middle-class is at once very familiar and quite repellent.
L) Delhi-ites reading this will snort in disbelief when they read this, but I actually enjoyed public transportation this time round. I’m not just talking about the Metro, which is fucking amazing. I travelled by DTC and chartered buses every day to work and back, and experienced some of the camaraderie of daily commuters that I hadn’t before. In the green government buses, the conductor sits at the back, making everyone go to him to get their ticket. In the rush hour pickle, this is not really possible. So people sitting on his side of the bus pass money back and forth to passengers throughout the bus. “1 seven,” “2 three,” “1 five,” they chant, telling him how many tickets of what denomination. They also pass back the tickets and change along the same chain, with a dispute occasionally breaking out and some accountant gamely rising to the occasion to solve it. The conductor robotically just dispenses tickets and passes them on. I had to do that once and very quickly lost my patience, but am amazed at how long others’ good humour (given that this is Delhi, after all) lasted.
D)The private Blueline bus-walas are barbarians for the most part, and regularly mow down people on the streets. Their conductors can dramatically improve your swear-word vocabulary in two days. Their status as a haven for molesters is also legendary, and this is easily one of the most hateful things about Delhi, bus commuting having scarred generations of women’s relationships with public space in the city. But I was surprised that I felt safer in them than I remember, with so many more women in all kinds of clothes in the buses, toting phones, backpacks, briefcases… I wonder whether mine was really a rose-tinted one-off experience, or if I’m just older (as a friend suggested, try asking younger women!), or whether Delhi’s male bus passengers are – gasp! – a tad improved on their humanity index?
L) But if the Blueline buses are a tribute to the Wild west, the Metro is positively brimming with civilization. It’s a shining symbol of the new India, but it retains a good dose of old Nehruvian societal improvement through homilies and maxims. Advice on dos and don’ts from watching out for unclaimed baggage, to moving to the centre of the carriage, to not spitting, to minding the gap, is fitted in neatly between station announcements. These regularly made me laugh, because they are so typical of the many faces of Delhi. A male baritone in a sardonic voice straight from a poetry session across in the old walled city, dressed in a sherwani and the grease of many a kabab, does the Hindi ones. “Aglaa station…” it says thoughtfully, taking a pause, as if to repeat the first phrase of the couplet, “Chandni chowk hai. Yahaan“.. (another thoughtful pause)… “Bharatiya Rail ke Dilli station ke liye badleiN.” (pause before the poem’s punchline..) “Saavdhaaniise utreiN.” Just as you are pondering the meaning of the poem, a school-marmy English female voice follows, in a clipped convent-educated-elite voice: “The next station is Chandni Chowk,” it spits out, with all the native elite’s contempt for native words. “Change here for the Delhi station of the Indian Railways Network. Mind the Gap.” You can almost feel the cane stinging your palm as you leave the train, your ears smarting with the punishment she has just doled out, and the sound of r’s correctly rolled.
So many random observations, so little space! All in all, it’s difficult to arrive at a balance sheet with the city. There is so much that I love and despise there, I wish I could keep going back on a regular basis just to keep the debate going in my head. Those reading this who have a similar love-hate relationship with Delhi, what are your pet raves and rants?
(A bunch of people asked why the blog has been so silent, and after digging deep for angsty reasons, I realised a practical one was a mental block against posts with pictures. Well, so here I am, trying to break it, with a post without pictures, totally covering up for not taking interesting pictures of the city while I was there.)
Has anyone seen this new release? The film was quite interesting, nothing really great, but the songs are quite catchy. And, um, Abhishek Bachchan is looking more fetching, somehow.
(Chandni Chowk as seen from atop the Fatehpuri Mosque):
In the last two weeks, I went twice to “Delhi-6″ which, I learnt from the movie of all things, is the local shorthand for the Chandni Chowk area of the old, walled, historic city of Shahjahanabad-Delhi. No, I didn’t go because I saw the movie, I went to eat and shop; this is a good time of year to enjoy a lot of seasonal sweets in the city, and the weather is just right to wander out all day in the sun. Flanked by the Red Fort at one end and the Fatehpuri mosque on the other, the long street leads off into many small lanes of culinary, sartorial and historic delights, ranging from 17th century markets to 18th century bankers’ havelis to 19th century poet’s houses to 20th century madness and beyond. We visited the house of arguably the greatest Urdu poet of all time, Mirza Ghalib (the archway to the left below).
After the snazzy new metro was built, it’s now a piece of barfi to get from central New Delhi to Chandni Chowk – max 12-15 minutes, and it seems to be quite the yuppie Delhi-ite thing to do now, to go and eat at all the old and historic street eateries in the crowded old neighbourhood. I went with a couple of friends, big SLRs in tow, playing local-cuisine-connoisseur-cum-shameless-yuppie-tourist to the hilt. I have a few ponderous posts in the pipeline about living and commuting in Delhi, but since this post is mostly about food, the old philosophy of maximum visual, minimum commentary will now apply. A couple of the photos in this post are courtesy Ami and his wonderful Nikon:
Daulat ki Chaat, a sinful, frothy, light-as-air whipped cream thingy:
Samosa innards after the first, hot bite:
Nankhatai baked in pure ghee:
Possibly the world’s best gajar ka halwa, also in pure ghee:
Fresh, piping hot jalebis, also fried in pure ghee:
Rabri, for those who like thick, gooey cream:
One of the most delicious things about Chandni Chowk, however, is the old silver market lane, Dariba kalan. Remember my silver earring splurge last semester? Well, I.went.a.bit.nuts.this.time. I was too ashamed to photograph all the gorgeous pieces I bought, but really, the stuff there is exquisite: even the mirrors in one of the shops just lured me in. I cannot believe I didn’t spend all my money there in my previous lives in Delhi. Needless to say, I will be making up for all time lost…
In the nearby Delhi University area, we ate the best ever Chhole Bhature in the whole wide world, at Chacha di Hatti: (I think this might technically be the pin code Delhi-7, but whatever):
Gujarati snack shop in nearby Kamla Nagar, also the Delhi University area:
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.
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!
Last Diwali I rued the fact that I could never be home for this mid-semester festival. I had a blast instead with friends in the Bay Area. This year, amazingly, the food took a backseat even though I was with my family, and instead of celebrating at home, we skipped the festivities and the ear-splitting, incessant firecrackers in the city and went on a trip. We went back to north Karnataka: our route this time was Saundatti-Hampi-Aihole-Pattadkal-Badami-Kudala Sangama-Almatti. Below is a spread of one photo from each location respectively. As always, click through to Flickr for larger versions, and many more annotated photos of each site.
One of my adolescent fantasies was to drive a rough and ready jeep (4×4 vehicles are often generically called jeeps in India) through the rugged landscape and bad roads from Pune to my grandpa’s in Bagalkot. In this fantasy, my superior driving skills got me through the bruising country, and I drew up at the gate of our old house in a triumphant swirl of red dust. I was of course lissom, and wearing chic dark glasses, short shorts and a skimpy top.
The house, as you know, is gone. Let’s not even go near lissom or the short shorts. And it wasn’t a jeep, it was a small compact car, but boy did the rugged landscape, the superior driving, and the bad roads part work out just like I’d imagined. We encountered some of the best (NH4) and worst (too many to list) back roads in northern Karnataka. This was my first time truly driving a car for extended periods in India, and I enjoyed it immensely. The area is now very cash-crop-intensive, with sunflowers, corn, tobacco and sugarcane nearing harvest all around us. (This increase in this cashcropping, especially corn in the past decade, warrants a separate post, really. Michael Pollan is right – corn is fucking everywhere.)
A Bay area friend was frequently on my mind, as I thought of the history of the region, and about Kannada and Kannadigas. The state (Karnataka) and the language (Kannada) are hardly unique in their diversity of dialects, religious-cultural influences and histories, especially in the subcontinent. But it is still interesting to closely watch how our family, settled outside the state, adjusts to the subtle differences of word-usage and twang from district to district, and how we modulate our speech accordingly when we visit.
When asking for directions, my father reverts to the rural Bijapur speech he spoke as a kid on the farm. My staunch Kannadiga-patriot brother-in-law insists on speaking “pure” Kannada the minute he crosses the border, his Marathi evaporating fast. Oh this red soil! he murmurs, his eyes misting over. He points out our “mistakes” and tells us how to speak the “correct” Kannada of southern Bangalore and Mysore. We roll our eyes, because we can still tell the northern Hubli strains in his accent. His sons mimic him in the hopes of getting the goodies they want to pry out of him, both cunningly bilingual in Marathi and Kannada since they learnt to speak. My sister and I freeze initially, and it takes us a while to acquire that delicious sing-song of Bijapur district-speak. We soon surprise ourselves with our fluency. My mother decides it’s not worth the effort – her Marathi is better, she taught the language for years, and her Kannada shows it. The ratio never falters with her.
The Maharashtra-Karnataka state border has been witness to serious tensions over these linguistic differences, each state wanting a piece of the meaty, tobacco-rich area. Like other census-based partitions in South Asia, it has not been a happy one, each side left feeling cheated out of the boundary arrangements. Bigots on either side proudly refuse to speak the other language, even though it is impossible not to be bilingual here. When we were kids and we would travel down the National Highway 4 (Bombay-Bangalore), sometimes during violent outbursts, my sister and I played a game – converse only in Marathi till the border town of Nipani, then only in Kannada. The one who used a word from the other language lost a point. We realised very early how porous our versions of both languages were – we kept losing points. It has remained like that, thankfully, and unlike many fools in both states, we don’t chase the vanishing horizon of excessive linguistic purity.
At the glorious ruins of Hampi, purity keeps tempting people into dangerous pasts. Local guidebooks and tourists are at pains to insist on the exclusively Kannadiga roots of the kingdom’s dynasties (even though Krishnadevaraya, its most famous king’s love for Telugu is well-known), the newly elected BJP government in Karnataka is only the latest in a long line of cheap memory-makers to cash in on Vijayanagara’s position as a Hindu bastion against Muslim intrusions into an imagined pure Indian culture. The stone carvings themselves, meanwhile, hint at more complex memories, of central Asian horse-traders, Indo-Persian and Dravidian architecture, Hindu mythology and art, animist deities, and a deliciously polyglot landscape.
History and language are, and ought to be, messy. I wish we’d focus on keeping our monuments clean and tidy, instead of the pasts and peoples they are traces of.
Warm and fuzzy childhood memories, mixed feelings about the joys and trials of filial duty as well as solitude, colour, silk, food and laughter, and annoyance at cooky relatives and the shit that goes on in the name of tradition. That’s what the last few days were awash with, when I travelled down south in Karnataka to my ancestral town Bagalkot for a cousin’s engagement ceremony.
One of the fringe benefits of a year-long sabbatical – you get to attend ceremonies that are not held keeping the US academic holiday schedule in mind! I saw people I haven’t seen in ages – some mercifully the same as they were a decade ago; others depressingly unchanged, still others quite unrecognizable. This was, of course, a mere appetizer; the wedding with the full extended family in attendance will surely magnify all these feelings ten-fold. Here are some snapshots – and there’s more where these came from.
No doubt, all family reunions are inundated with such mixed feelings. But this time I also encountered a literal flood. Since my last visit over a decade ago, much of Bagalkot has been submerged under the backwaters of the Almatti Dam over the mighty Krishna river (which, incidentally, takes its birth in the town where I grew up, several hundred kilometres to the north!). Hundreds of thousands of people were resettled 10 km away – at Navanagar, lit. newtown, designed by fancypants architect Charles Correa. There have been concerns over the quality of resettlement, and there continue to be severe conflicts between different states over the fate of the dam’s catchment areas during periods of low and excessive rain. But the dam did not witness the kinds of protests and politicization that have marked big dam projects in India; folks I encountered seemed excited about the prospects of a newer town in exchange for their crumbling buildings. I wonder how many voices of protest also got submerged along with old houses.
Old Bagalkot, for its part, was not a shining example of semi-urban bliss, and those parts that have remained, stubbornly maintain this feature.
Navanagar, despite being all about right angles and wide roads and long-term planning, is a tangle of electric poles and an overall feeling of malevolent dust that my camera resolutely refused to capture. Sort of like the utter hideousness that is Gurgaon, but for poorer people, with all the flat ugliness and none of the skyscrapers or crass malls. The electric poles were like so many hopeless fishing boats afloat in a dead sea of dry brush. The folks who live there are upbeat about all the possibilities for the town, which is fast growing into a major centre for educational and administrative institutions in Karnataka. Meanwhile, this is what remains of the road leading to our old house:
And this is where the house used to be.
I am not a nostalgia hound, and rose-tinted, sepia-tinted memories of joint family tradition bore me. Set-piece family photos and stories about large meals and festival gatherings always make me wonder cynically about how many women toiled to make endless cups of tea to keep the conversation oiled. But it was still shocking to actually see all the changes, and the old bungalow and neighbourhood, with all its pigs and dust, just gone.
Some classic features of old Bagalkot, however, happily remain – the photos (more here) below are for my dear friend Sepoy. He will be annoyed at the lack of food pictures, but I think these will do nicely in their place:
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