The Night People of Old Delhi
by I. M. Shankar (1954-86)
[I fished this out of my old traveling companion’s papers. Contact me for more details on this amazing writer and dear friend who left us far too early.]
When you visit Gaston’s you should come by way of Chandini Chowk, the street of jewellers and silversmiths, once reportedly the richest street in the world.
By day Chandini Chowk is one immense, heaving juggernaut of humanity. Men struggle with pushcarts, hauling reams of paper and newsprint to Nayi Sarak, the stationery bazaar; others go mysteriously by, weighed down with blocks of salted ice or balancing caged birds on beams. Among the pavement vendors you can find boys in skull-caps peddling Victorian porn, alongside clutches of chickens and goats being readied for the butcher’s knife. Holy men linger near the fruit juice stalls, jewelers and sweet merchants play cards, panhandlers and pickpockets study their prospective patrons, and men surrounded by swarms of dizzy flies scratch themselves or pray as taxis and rickshaws desperately honk their way through the narrow street.
Meanwhile Gaston’s, at the west end of Chandini Chowk, is just another quiet Old Delhi street, not unduly crowded, its few stores calmly dispensing merchandise, with a couple of pavement dwellers huddled beside their belongings and a few tired men yawning and stretching themselves. Brothels tend to wake up late, and by day they are ordinary places, busy with the chores of cooking, cleaning, and preparing bodies and souls for the night.
The calm of evening, around half-past six or so, is a suitable time to set out. Chandini Chowk has quietened down, the hubbub of the day is over; the fragrance of fried parathas lingers in the air, tinged with auto exhaust. The crowds still hang about, but people are more relaxed; a man carries a bird with a broken wing to the Jain Bird Hospital, and an old mullah gazes reverently at the inscriptions in front of the house of Ghalib, the city’s illustrious poet. The Sikhs are in full form as they emerge from the Sisganj Sikh Temple, adjusting their turbans and searching thoughtfully for their shoes and slippers.
A little thoughtfulness is not out of place here, for Chandini Chowk is a street rich in memories. Sisganj was erected on the very spot where the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. Further down you pass a forlorn police station marking the site where British residents exchanged pleasantries while watching the mutineers of 1857 being hanged. Near Jama Masjid, the magnificent Friday Mosque, lies a warren of smaller streets where the sinister Nadir Shah, invading from Persia, bared his sword and announced the beginning of a massacre, eliminating nearly a hundred thousand men, women, and children in a single afternoon.
Gaston’s is best visited on a full stomach. For dinner, I would recommend Kareem’s or Jawahar’s, the most succulent of Old Delhi’s meat houses. They’re both around the corner from Jama Masjid, and you can feel the presence of the mosque close by, of crowds entering and emerging. A plate of well-skewered shish kebabs laden with spices and herbs followed by a piping hot murgh masala, and you’re ready for action. After dinner there are several other distractions possible, a tobacco- and cement-laden pan from a storekeeper sitting in a tiny store surrounded by mirrors, or a soothing cup of hot buffalo milk served in a small clay pot which is simply dropped to the ground when empty.
Of course, dropping something does not mean that it ends there. The street is littered with shards of glistening pottery, lying there in the dust like relics from some long-lost civilization. A horde of other creatures rush to lap up what’s left – ants, a few aggressive cockroaches and beetles, stray dogs and even a bandicoot or two hurry past your feet to scavenge those last few drops. And there are other creatures too, eyes which watch you hopefully, legs which hurry beside you. “Paisa sahib, ek paisa sahib!” – a little beggar boy or girl or perhaps even a blind woman may accost you as you stroll away.
A breeze comes in, lifting your spirits. As you walk on there will be faces you recognize, film stars gazing down from the billboards, as well as foreign residents like Vera the Czech junkie standing there resplendent in blue eye-shadow and velvet jeans, looking desperately for a fix, or Tom, a blind, blond American stumbling by with his stick on his nightly excursion from his semi-permanent room at the tiny Hotel Metropole. But tonight there’s no time to stop for chitchat. After a brisk walk, you arrive at Ajmeri Gate, the southwestern gate of the old city. Right next to it a rather desolate street beckons. Inscribed on a slogan-scarred yellow wall, beside a faded family planning billboard, is its new Hindu name, Shraddhanand Marg, a street named in honor of a Hindu saint. You have reached Gaston’s, formerly Sir Garstin Bastian Road, known to high and low as GeeBee Road.
At this point there is a further transformation in the surroundings. The sewers become invisible, releasing only a faint odor, stray dogs turn into pairs of glistening eyes, and people walk by possessed by night thoughts. The road seems to reel with its load of ancient houses with tiny staircases, above which you hear a mysterious jingling. In the lamplight the houses look dilapidated, with those ubiquitous walls of crumbling cream which characterize eighteenth and nineteenth-century dwellings in the heart of every Indian city. But there are crowds gathering at the foot of those steep staircases, and in the verandahs above girls with flowers in their hair lean out into the night, calling, giggling, suggesting the prospect of a happily transplanted houri heaven.
Although Gaston’s is of Victorian vintage, Chandini Chowk itself goes back to the reign of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj. Poets and prostitutes have plied their trade in this quarter for a good four hundred years. These days, however, things are somewhat more tense than before, owing to terrorist violence and police raids. You need to keep cool, but don’t whistle in the dark – pimps will be watching you from every corner, some huddled together sniggering or smoking dope, others catching your eye with a jaded, vacant look. You will also see a few look-alike blue-jeaned foreign tourists, chattering and pointing with vicarious pleasure.
You pass swiftly by these tourists and touts and stride up the staircase towards the source of all the excitement and commotion. A door opens onto a brightly lit room with walls of faded green plaster, and then you are suddenly surrounded by cocktail chatter. There are crowds of bright faces around, groups of bell-bottomed youths with Elvis hairdos, as well as several heavy-duty bouncers. People greet each other fondly, smiling at the colleague from work who sits calmly sipping tea with the ladies. They have the jaunty confidence of those who know they are here just for a visit, and that when the night is over they will be back in the world outside. There’s Himmat Singh, clutching a beer-bottle; he’s grumbling as usual about his day as a clerk in the Home Ministry. And there’s Sanjay Sharan, inhaling deep from his joint after a long day at Lintas, the ad agency. Also present are visitors from the Delhi University Student’s Union, along with a number of B. Com. degree aspirants from Dyal Singh College, young men so hard up that a mere look from a girl on the University Special bus will be enough to send them scurrying to their hostel rooms to play with themselves.
The girls enter one by one, with a slight flourish. There is a moment of silence followed by clapping and appreciative comments as each freshly made up young woman demurely takes her place. A woman’s eyes meet yours briefly – perhaps it is Razia, or Helen, or even Mumtaz herself! The musicians nod their heads and slowly begin their work. The rhythms pick up pace, and then an older woman smiles and starts to sing, in the ululating voice affected by playback singers. The dancers are gentle, inviting sympathy; hennaed feet patter away and then advance with a jingle, limber bodies clad in thin saris move smoothly in circular patterns across the floor. Their faces are ghostly, densely powdered; their breasts usually small under tight-fitting blouses; their waists are bare, the sari worn low, riding right above the pubis. The girls come together, then drift apart, patterns form, then disperse, fingers reach out in supplication, and then withdraw. The music casts a spell upon the senses, inviting the soul towards liberation; the sitar speaks of loneliness and delicacy; variations follow, each more insistent, gently provocative. Heard melodies are sweet, unheard ones even sweeter. You are aroused, joyfully awakened into a region of sweetness and light. The ego is to be discarded, the beautiful is present right here, must be surrendered to, ecstasy is possible, even in sordid settings.
Once you leave the dancing girls you are among the boudoirs, little windowless cubicles furnished modestly with a bed, a small dressing table or mirror, and a pitcher of cool water. Beyond lie the living quarters, a jumble of rooms and annexes filled with unseen voices. The verandah looks out into a courtyard; from the building opposite the kohl-rimmed eyes of children peer through dimly lit window slats at the visitor. Down below, old women are squatting in the dust, intermittently conversing or fanning charcoal fires. There are several stores on the premises, a tea-shop, a panwallah, and a man selling polyester fabrics under a tube-light, all of them fairly busy with customers. You can hear a buzzing from the crowd at the foot of the staircase; it is as if you have wandered into some nightly feast or celebration. From upstairs, the building seems to lean dangerously to one side, suggesting the possibility of being permanently trapped inside an overcrowded ark.
The protocols involved in visiting Gaston’s houses are simple. In the entertainment phase Anuradha in her purple salwar kameez will bat her eyelids, make as if to perch on your lap; Rehana, short-haired and gamine with enormous gold earrings, will stroke your cheek softly and whirl away; and the resplendently bangled and bejeweled Helen will stare at you with languid eyes, stylishly blowing clouds of smoke into your face. You move away coughing, wondering how much longer the farce will go on; but there are others who get their kicks from this sort of thing. In the audience you can find men unused to social intercourse with women, whose interactions with the opposite sex may have been limited to quiet discourse with female relatives. Any brazenness in a woman tends to overexcite these young men, and they soon find themselves exploring uncharted waters, reaching out for jeweled fingers, feeling their way awkwardly, like hesitant ballroom dancers, towards a dupatta or waist. The girl spins away, laughing a cold and mocking laugh. But soon, money is offered, and depending on the girl and the customer’s appearance, an offer might be clinched on the spot. Under the harsh scrutiny of pimps, there is rarely much bargaining.
After the payment is made – which the girl immediately pockets, tucking it into her bodice or waistband – she takes the man’s hand and leads him away; the victim follows, rather sheepishly. Watching her colleague disappear with a well-heeled young man, a girl who has been rejected in the selection process may pout a little, as if slighted, and make a few scatological comments; but soon she too has her turn and whisks away some other lad. All evening they come and go, these couples, paired smoothly together in the dancing rooms, and then wandering off to bed with the foolish fondling gestures of honeymooners.
The women come from all over, drawn from the poor across India. There are those who have been kidnapped, sold by their parents, bartered by their husbands; there are runaways and street children. Some are born to it, suckled here at Gaston’s and then groomed by their own mothers for the profession. Their education starts early – the little ones begin dance lessons almost as soon as they can walk, learning the languid, salaaming style of the dancers of the courts. By the age of seven or eight the most promising ones have already been singled out by the music tutor for voice training, and by the onset of puberty they will have begun earning their keep.
However, in some of the cheaper brothels all the training in classical arts goes to waste: the younger, poorer clientele come in clamoring for disco tunes and topless belly dancing, and the classically trained dancer may end up groveling grotesquely on the floor beside an empty bottle of Vat 69, with their younger sisters emulating them with rambunctious little twists of their hips. These el cheapo joints are easily identified, for their most common musical emanations are familiar songs from the Bombay film Pakeezah, a monumental tear-jerker about the life of a courtesan, memorable for its flowery Urdu dialog and a richly orchestrated repertoire of film songs and lamentations, the most popular of which, “Inhee Logon Ne” has become something of an anthem for prostitutes throughout India.
Like the world outside, the brothel life can be quite orderly, even monotonous. There are arguments now and then, and a pimp may occasionally thrash one of his whores; but there is little desire to break free, to change one’s destiny or to exert any influence over the world outside; there are no violent possibilities for bloodshed and escape. There is instead a sense of tremendous lethargy and inertia, a fatalism rooted in historical experience. There is a sense that the brothel is the real world, from which there is no escape in this lifetime. The activities of the household, the rituals of life in the old city – these are the things which seem important, rather than professional or material success. The brothel lives remind one of the lives of the aged, each day filled with exactly the same events as the one previous, quiet lives led in the shadows.
What fantasies pour through the minds of customer and whore as they copulate restlessly in those dimly lit boudoirs? In a land where sexual needs are usually denied and the very existence of the body challenged, the body’s secrets become precious indeed. In their act of coming together the woman’s body remains essentially mysterious, sheltering secret crevices and inviolate altars; the man’s, more palpable, is still sensed through some distant pre-conscious haze. Between the male’s grunting and heaving and the female’s listless waiting lies a gulf that is bridged only in the deepest unconscious.
Mumtaz was from Hyderabad. When she was eight her father died, after which she was taken away by an uncle, who kept her as a slave and sleeping partner. Thrashed regularly, she ran away at ten to the railway station and traveled ticketless to Delhi, clutching a piece of paper with the address of an aunt in Old Delhi. As luck would have it, the old lady lived in Gaston’s, and couldn’t believe her good fortune, for Mumtaz was already an extraordinary beauty. After her education she was reserved for the most favored customers, taking on no more than three or four a night.
She was very sensitive and gentle, a woman who breathed softly, helping me into position, and when afterwards under the dim electric bulb I would kiss her fervently on the neck, she would laugh, as if she understood me perfectly. Her body was perfumed with delicate scents, her skin laved with special unguents; her breath smelt of cinnamon, betel-nut and cloves, and her skin was soft, maternal, milk-like. Her presence in a room caused people to become quiet, almost embarrassed by her beauty, not sure where to look. Her eyes, heavily ringed with kohl and powder, seemed to glisten with a kind of hurt silence. If she had fallen into the hands of the right people, she could have become a film star, the heart-throb of millions, but she was quite content with her lot, singing her songs in a sad child’s falsetto.
Plastered against a woman’s flesh, pressed close by gentle fingers, the men of this dusty city become softer, almost childlike. But once outside, satiated but perhaps not fully satisfied, they return to their vulgar selves. When you emerge, there are men who come up to you and earnestly inquire how it has gone. “Kaisi Bhaiti?” – “How did she sit?” – is a frequently asked question, suggesting that the entire event is merely a matter of posture and fitting, reducible to details of mechanical adjustment. Some come out drenched in obscenities, laughing nervously and gathering their fingers in a circle, apparently hoping with this mystical sign to win recognition and approval. There are those who exit in something of a narcissistic trance, humming love songs, combing their hair, seeing themselves as irresistible Don Juans. Others, particularly the more bombastic university youth, come out bragging, or complaining ridiculously about having to wear condoms or about breasts not being bared on demand. You can see men staggering out struggling with guilt at various levels, married men with loyal wives and hungry mouths to feed, and first-timers from good families who worry about not having taken enough precautions, who, tormented by hypochondria and post-coital depression, head out as soon as possible to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
The night walk back afterwards can be rather stimulating. I still recall the sight of a fat businessman and his whore laughing innocently as they traveled down Chandini Chowk at 2 a.m. in the back of a cycle rickshaw. These are the lucky ones, girls who get taken out for a night on the town, occasionally even to some party among the nouveau riche in South Delhi. There are a few other stragglers, men returning from their haunts and the late night movie shows, a few pushers beckoning from the shadows, a couple of drunken youths walking home smoking beedis and bellowing film songs. People stop to refresh themselves at an all-night pan shop, or at the odd tea stall where you can buy buns filled with hot butter. A watchman stands guard outside the Jhaveri Jewelery Co., and in the Jama Masjid nearby a few night people are getting ready to sleep. Others are managing outside on the pavement, settling into cardboard boxes or inside giant tubes. The breeze comes in on nights like these, carrying the scent of the honeysuckle extravagantly named Queen of the Night, a smell which reminds one of the mysterious scents of a woman’s hair and skin, overlaid with the baby scent of Lakme Talc; a fragrance which mingles with the odor of horse dung and the earlier noted traces of auto exhaust and fried food that have accumulated during the day.
The sitar’s chords cut the night
Strange music from the minarets
The sad sleep in their hovels
A whore-filled rickshaw sways homeward.
White curds, broken
On the pavement, piss and pan
A few bones outside Kareem’s
Meat House, a broken bottle
A strong dog scurries away.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
MEN AND WOMEN OF MYSORE
by Inderjeet Mani
We arrived at the State Bus Stop in Mysore around eleven in the morning. It was rather a pleasant place, with travelers spread out everywhere waiting patiently on steel trunks or lolling about on rolls of bedding. Well-oiled men lounged about, carrying plastic handbag-like briefcases, smoking, spitting pan, or simply resting near sacks of flour. A family was seated in a circle, consuming a modest meal out of a tiffin box. Porters scurried back and forth, climbing up the buses like limber monkeys. A few monkeys were also present, gathered in small groups, chewing half-heartedly on discarded orange peels.
Rao was in a hurry. I followed him quickly, passing the imposing yellow walls of a public toilet and then a series of ancient buildings propped up on slender columns. I could smell fresh ground coffee. In the passageways well-built men in turbans sat sipping coffee and reading newspapers and picking their noses. Each wore shiny black shoes, without socks, and sported a stylish umbrella or cane. These men were probably officials, shopkeepers, men of property, taking time away from the heavy responsibilities of office. Despite their senior positions, their faces looked innocent and peaceful as they savored the sublime pleasures of morning papers and chicory-rich coffee.
The sockless men were followed by rows of neatly dressed young fellows banging away at ancient typewriters. These were professional letter writers, and their customers stood respectfully nearby. Some had apparently come without drafts of any kind. The typists listened carefully to each person’s problem, and then after a moment’s deliberation quickly drafted whatever seemed appropriate, refusing to entertain objections or suggestions.
Mysore, once an ancient capital, retains the charm of a small town. It is just small enough for the sense of imminent chaos not to matter.
Elsewhere the twentieth century creates a great heaving in the cities and towns of modern India. On the roads buses belching black smoke swerve into your path, with young men in bell-bottoms dangling on the footboard. In the midst of all the commotion, lighter vehicles such as cycles and overloaded scooters suddenly tumble to the ground. Animals appear unexpectedly, cows and dogs as well as drunken autorickshaw drivers honking like maddened geese. The pavements overflow with the homeless, refugees from the hunger of the countryside. Slums appear at the slightest provocation, and gutters glisten with mysterious refuse. In the homes of citizens there are water shortages and power outages. In the banks and government offices unruly crowds lunge towards the counters while dangerous-looking clerks dawdle over mountains of files. Life expectancy remains low, and things continue in a state of happy chaos; you sense the imminent breakdown of transportation and communications systems. Nevertheless, the residents seem to retain a marvelous grip on their sanity, apparently oblivious to the chaos swirling about them. When they are done with their day’s work they head cheerfully home and watch their ancient epic the Mahabharata on TV.
Mysore, by contrast, retains the peacefulness of an earlier era, a small, neat town, replete with broad avenues, fountains and parks. The streets are clean, and quiet except during rush hour. Water and electricity are plentiful, coming across irrigated fields from the Krishnarajasagar Dam. There is not much commercial construction except on industrial estates outside the city, and residences tend to be old and unassuming. In spite of the heat you are not called upon to smell your neighbor’s sweat. It is a city of rose gardens and flower shows. The Maharaja is said to be very keen on flowers. He has two palaces in Mysore. There is a national research center for the study of nutrition, and a very fine university library. It was also the home of the writer R. K. Narayan. And the local udipi restaurants are famed throughout the land.
The eating houses of Mysore are serious places. You enter to find a large dining hall with rows and rows of long tables crammed together. Except for the occasional clatter of a plate, silence is the golden rule. There is no lounging about, you are expected to take the nearest seat and get down to business.
Within seconds, your place setting arrives; it consists simply of an empty stainless steel thali onto which a passing waiter liberally squirts water. Soon after that a little fellow comes by with an apparatus consisting of a glistening stainless steel stand with four vessels. He briskly plucks out several fluffy white idlis, each quickly anointed with a tiny dollop of ghee and then sitting steaming quietly on the plate beside a patch of aromatic coconut chutney; surrounding the idlis are a circle of steel bowls containing the watery southern soup sambhar, several overcooked vegetables and a fiery pickle or two. A few minutes into the meal, reinforcements appear, in the form of gigantic stuffed paper masala dosais, the texture crisp, golden-brown, filled with a meal of crackling lightly fried potatoes, green chillies, and spices. Later another youth downloads a few more dishes from his four-container stand, a slightly different bubbling sambhar, a little vegetable curry, some coconut and mint chutney, a dash of chilli powder and oil, a “sweetmeat”, and so forth, all of which take their place on the plate like actors on the stage, and then are seen no more. Within a few minutes someone else arrives, with another variety of stuffed pancakes called oothappams, and the ritual is repeated. Following that someone drops by with a small rice bucket, and a new course begins.
It is a moderately-priced, all you can really eat affair. The waiters do not bother to talk – they simply plunk food down on your plate. There are no wasted words, none of the cunning prevaricating grace of French waiters. There is also no possibility of refusing any of the food. If you wave away an offering the waiter will be greatly offended, and your neighbor might inquire whether you are feeling unwell. You are forced to make room for more on your plate, and this requires eating almost continuously. There are no dishes to pass politely around, and as everyone else is busy eating, there is no conversation whatsoever, except for grunts of acquiescence as more food appears.
As you struggle on, the initial arousal of flavorful food gives way to a sense of weary, flaccid determination. You feel as if you are in the belly of some large factory. Despite the silence the room is filled with a buzz of intense activity, an uproar of culinary excess, and close to your ears you hear the labored breathing and belching of men who go out to battle. Here eating has become elemental, animalistic, returning to its origins as a complex bodily function, an animal need associated with the simple delights of satiation and relief. You become aware of the rapid patterns of chewing and swallowing, of sucking and slurping. Most of the eating is done with the fingers, and there are numerous displays of skill involving the tossing of rice balls into open mouths or the slurping or squirting of large quantities of semi-liquid food from a flattened palm. A meal of this kind could take up to three hours, ending only when the eater rises wearily to his feet and struggles to the washroom. After a vigorous gargle and tooth-scrub and a few sharp eructations, he staggers out in a daze into the street.
After a lunch along the lines described above, a puttering auto rickshaw bore us unerringly to the Bishnapur section of town, driving us over an unpaved street into a courtyard with a white gate and a few run-down houses, each graced by an intricate kolam drawing by the gate. As we got down, two little boys armed with sticks ran past, chasing after a puppy. A swarthy middle-aged man with a half-tucked shirt and crumpled trousers came running out of one of the houses.
“This is my brother Bala”, said Rao, an arm around the man’s shoulder. “Bala’s the topper in our family – one of Mysore’s outstanding criminal lawyers”.
Bala, who was his cousin and not his brother, grinned good-naturedly.
“My brother likes to exaggerate. I was admitted to the Mysore Bar a while back, but no gainful employment so far. But hey, welcome to Mysore, boss!”
As he shook my hand, he gave me a quick conspiratorial wink. After a few minutes’ polite chitchat, we were ushered into the house. It was clean and dark inside, with two small rooms, one of which served as a kitchen and social area, the other being a store-room which doubled as a bedroom. I followed the cousins up onto the roof. In the corner, between the water-tank and the toilet, I found a small hot room with a verandah overlooking the courtyard. A tall, nervous man rose up from the bed, his hair unkempt.
“This is my brother Chandra”, said the attorney. “He is running one printing business.”
“Not much business, I say”, said the printer apologetically, running his hand through his hair. “Only a few hours in the morning.”
He pointed to an outhouse in the courtyard, indicating his printing press. He shuddered as he spoke. I wondered what sort of illness he had.
Beedis were lit, and I took the opportunity to stroll out across the roof. A sea of other houses stretched before me, and in the one next door a young woman in a pink blouse and petticoat was hanging up her washing. She was facing me, her eyes averted, a clothespin between her lips, her supple body stretching towards the clothesline. Her face was shy but beautiful. Sensing my stare, she hurried away, her chores unfinished.
Back in the verandah Rao and his cousins were discussing career prospects. To put it bluntly, given the Indian situation it didn’t seem like the cousins had any. Nevertheless, they seemed to be managing, discharging the days of their lives with a cheerful spirit. Bala seemed an intelligent and articulate sort, a careful reader of books and newspapers. I wondered why Rao didn’t follow local custom and make his cousins vice presidents of his company.
Rao was in the statue business. He operated out of a rather plush office in Bangalore, with wood paneled walls, cut glass ash-trays, gold lighters, leather sofas, an ivory chess set, and a shining liquor cabinet well-stocked with Glenfiddich and Johnny Walker. His office had the kind of glitzy decor popular among smugglers and people in business for the first time, but it drew a lot of customers. They came to him because they wanted gods and goddesses.
“A deity with special powers”, he had explained, “from a particular temple. A businessman in Bombay wants the Goddess Meenakshi from the Madurai temple. Or even someone in Beverly Hills desperate for a Lord Venkateswara from Tirupathi. That’s where I come in. They need it – and I supply it. Replicas, of course, but created by artisans who are the last of a dying tradition.”
He had shown me a glossy catalog with gods of different shapes and size, quaint, homely characters like Ganesha or Saraswati, as well as malevolent, bloodthirsty Durgas, each durably-constructed but at the same time rather plain, shorn of their power. Then he had opened another cabinet, and there, sitting in shining splendor, next to a bottle of Glenfiddich, was a short goddess from the Sun Temple at Konarak. He stroked her shoulders thoughtfully.
An errand-boy appeared out of the blue, to be promptly sent off to fetch a few savories. He returned with paper cones filled with peanuts and the crunchy roasted lentils known as black gram. The paper in the cones had been recycled from school exercise books, and as I munched on the gram I was reminded of the recycled fate of Uncle Ramanna’s books. I sat there sweating, intermittently crunching the black gram and examining fragments of chemical formulae..A few flies buzzed busily about. Across the courtyard nothing was happening. The printing shed stood idle. Then a stray dog came and urinated against the white gate, dissolving the intricate kolam drawing. After a while the dog ambled off, following the trail of another mongrel, leaving the courtyard empty once again. A courtyard empty and desolate, and yet somehow waiting, sure of its place in the scheme of things.
“Guru, things are pretty quiet at this time of the year”, said Bala, apparently reading my mind.
He was leaning over the parapet, watching the young woman in the pink blouse and petticoat, who was now drawing water from a well. Her movements were slow and languid, as if she had all the time in the world.
“You must come during Dussehra”, Bala continued, offering me a Ganesh Beedi. “The Maharaja leads the procession in a golden howdah. Silver coaches, horses, camels, wrestlers, palanquins, quite a bit of local color…And then there’s the Palace – have you seen the Palace, boss?“
I had seen the palace. I had come to Mysore a few years earlier and stayed at the summer palace at Chamundi Hill, which had been converted into a five-star hotel. Afterwards I paid a visit to the game sanctuary at Bandipur. It was the honeymoon season and the rest-house was crowded with couples armed with video cameras. We drove into the jungle, where our jeep was charged by a wild elephant. As the driver sped back in reverse, the honeymooners giggled and took photographs. Afterwards I watched the local elephants being bathed and fed balls of baked millet. Their keeper was a tribal who had grown up in the jungle and worked as a beater for the Maharaja. He took me to a tea stall where he introduced me to his relatives. I spent a whole morning sitting there learning about the India of shikar and kheddah, while a cool jungle breeze rustled the canvas flaps.
From Bandipur I had driven to Srirangapatnam, home to the famed warrior Tipu Sultan, in whose dungeons the graffiti of imprisoned British soldiers could still be seen. Srirangapatnam sits on a small island on the Kaveri, and a few miles downstream I had come across one of the most beautiful temples on earth. The temple itself was rather modest, by 12th century standards, but at its steps, lapped at by the river, was a timeless pastoral scene. Two women with their pots and a cow sitting quietly in the shade of a peepul tree. It was very hot indeed, and the women, as well as the cow, sat perfectly still. Then, after a long while, one of the women got up and went down to the water, dipping her pot in the muddy Kaveri. As she stood there bending to dip her pot at the water’s edge, her dusty white sari lapped by the river’s slow current, she seemed like a figure returning from some ancient and mystical river culture, timeless, elemental, indescribably beautiful.
The woman in the pink blouse and petticoat had returned inside. Bala and I talked for a while about books. I asked him what he was reading these days and he showed me a soiled third-hand copy of Swann’s Way. He was having trouble with the names – he pronounced Proust to rhyme with ‘joust’ – but he was nevertheless able to venture out into the French writer’s world. He became quite animated talking about Western authors, glad to have found someone who could understand such things. Eventually, however, after a little more chitchat about this or that book, the conversation in Mysore ground to a halt, the heat grew more intense, and everyone fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours later. The cousins looked at me with a blank expression. A kind of happy but otherwise hopeless boredom seemed to be the driving force here. I was reminded of the many times I had been in a similar state, waiting in the dry dust of India for something to happen, longing for some distraction, a little something to light in the chillum, a little madness to break out of the heat. At times it seemed that to be Indian one had to learn a certain kind of patience, to sit without longing as people did under trees, at verandahs and street corners, perfectly motionless, neither watching nor thinking nor waiting, neither anxious nor elated nor blissful, the mind neither relaxed nor somnolent nor active, but simply waiting for time to pass.
Rao suggested dinner at the Hotel Royale. In my honor, he added, noticing his cousins’ polite silence. The attorney owned a decrepit Lambretta scooter, and we mounted thereon, all four of us. After whizzing through the back streets we arrived on a broad avenue filled with a parade of other scooters, each mounted by clusters of men and women with shirt tails and bell bottoms billowing in the breeze.
The only other patron at the Hotel Royale was a local businessman in dark glasses, eating noisily at a table heaped with the finest examples of Mughlai cuisine. Now and then he interrupted his labors to slug down glasses of Kingfisher beer. We sat under a wall-panel painted with mildly erotic Rajput miniatures. Rao ordered Chicken a la Kiev for Bala, and a Frenchy Fried Chicken for Chandra. The brothers seemed uncomfortable in five-star surroundings.
Rao opened four tall bottles of soapy Kingfisher Lager.
“To the Goddess Durga”, he said with a grin.
Chandra drank deep, and then looked as if he was about to faint. Rao started to talk about statues, and temple architecture. Eventually, he came to the Sun temple at Konarak. Teeming with thousands of writhing figures in every conceivable posture, throbbing with ecstatic solar energy – by the time the food arrived, our conversation had grown quite animated. I heard Rao prattle on about the orgiastic traditions at Khajuraho. I told him about a friend who was studying the art of metalwork in ancient India, in particular the manufacture of penile prostheses. The cousins smiled politely. They ate with the stealthy intensity of vegetarians on their night off. After my lunchtime exertions I had no further appetite for food and made do with beer. Chandra’s hand began to shake. Bala became very quiet, lost in his own thoughts. The sun set, and sitars began to play in the background. Stars appeared through the tinted window, and I caught a glimpse of a crescent moon gliding briefly behind a cloud.
We finished dinner and stepped out, a little unsteady on our feet. None of us was in a fit state to drive, so we left the Lambretta at the Royale. The night air was dense with honeysuckle, and palms swayed gently in the breeze. In the distance, the lights of the palace hotel at Chamundi Hill glowed softly. The streets seemed to glisten in the moonlight. Men were gathering outside the movie theaters for the late night show. The breeze came up, brushing the backs of my hands, calling, whispering, murmuring sweet nothings. Houses appeared, then a temple, then a neighborhood with low houses separated by small gullies and an open gutter. Children ran out across our path. Chandra started to walk faster. The clouds moved briskly, once more hiding the moon, and then we were in complete darkness. We walked, and walked. People passed by, some with flashlights, some greeting each other briefly, sometimes with a snicker or two. The neighborhood became cleaner, there were a few more lights, and music. Most of the residents were asleep, but here and there we saw a woman standing in a lighted doorway, her hands on her hips. Before I could utter a word in protest, the attorney put an arm on my shoulder and guided me in.
I entered a small house with an earthen floor. We sat across a rickety table with a kerosene lamp. The manager was speaking Kannada, and the attorney had to translate. A bevy of pale powdered women appeared from behind a curtain. They were not beautiful, and they looked very tired, but they had the good natured smiles of people who entertain for a living. I was given the first choice, then the attorney, and finally the printer, who seemed to be gaining new reserves of energy every minute. Rao declined them all, a scandalized look on his face. He was a deeply religious fellow, with three white horizontal streaks of burnt cowdung on his forehead, marking him out as a disciple of Shiva.
We retired to the room behind the curtain. Soft music was playing somewhere. I was introduced to Vandamma. She was very friendly, even sympathetic, with bright white teeth, a healthy guffawing laugh, a small powdered belly and a round rump. Wads of billed were tucked into the folds of her sari.
She asked me where I was from, and I lied, telling her my only living relatives had retired many years earlier to Bangalore.
“Oh, I’m from Bangalore too! Which part?”, she asked, growing interested.
“In the cantonment. Near the lake. Not far from Brigade Road.”
She laughed, showing a row of healthy white teeth.
“Near the lake”, she mimicked. “Well, we’re from the city.”
She spoke with tremendous cosmopolitan pride. I found her snobbery rather touching.
We staggered home well after midnight, the printer resuming his former ghostly demeanour. We sat up for a while quietly smoking on the roof, preoccupied with private memories, and then it grew very late, and the night birds became silent. The crescent moon seemed paler. The night sky flickered briefly, busy with activities of its own. Bala, who turned out to be rather keen on astronomy, pointed to Jupiter, and then far beyond, indicating two pale smears to the south that represented the Magellanic Clouds, seventy five thousand light years away from Mysore, and then north again towards the region of the gently winking lights of the Andromeda Nebula, a good two million light years further. Beyond, across a sea of darkness, lay numerous invisible galaxies, some long since dead, others as yet unborn.
“Quite a view, boss”, said Bala, a quiet excitement in his voice. “Many of those stars you see are no longer there.”
“Mind boggling”, I said. My voice sounded strange and isolated, up on the roof in Mysore.
He nodded quickly, and stubbed out his beedi.
“Yes, it takes you into the past, to the beginning – back to the Big Bang, in fact. Guru, you’ve heard about the work of the Nobelists Penzias and Wilson?”
Seeing our puzzled faces, he launched into a quick overview of Big Bang Theory.
From his account of it, the nuts and bolts of Big Bang theory seemed fairly straightforward. Once upon a time there was this cosmic egg, very dense, extremely hot. Nothing before that, period. And then there was a mighty explosion, a big bang, and things flew apart. The theory is based on various observations which indicate that the universe is expanding uniformly, with faraway objects receding faster, in accordance with Hubble’s Law, by which v = Ho.d, v being velocity of recession of a galaxy and d the distance to the galaxy, and Ho being Hubble’s Constant.
The scene during and immediately after the explosion was quite different from the pictures we’ve had handed down to us, no white-bearded God reaching out that final inexorable finger. This great happening had more the primitive flavor of a vast and terribly violent electrical storm, beginning at time zero. All sorts of exotic creatures were born in this first moment’s foaming frenzy – in the first four microseconds, the Charmed and Strange Quarks, and in the first five seconds Electrons and Positrons. Then came the Boson – the only particle named after an Indian. All this was supposed to have happened a good twenty thousand million years ago. The era of elementary particles lasted a long, long time. It would take a million years before even the first hydrogen molecules could form.
If you listen hard enough, you can apparently still hear the bang. In the 1970’s the theory was confirmed by the discovery by Penzias and Wilson, while fooling around with microwave antennae, of a uniform background radiation, almost certainly emanating from the Bang.
“That’s all there is to it, boss”, said Bala satisfiedly.
In the light of those revelations in the Mysore night, the night sky seemed very vast indeed, a vastness which had waxed enormously out of that single moment. Out of that moment of birth tumbled everything which ever existed, my own self as well as particles, stars, amoeba, and the souls of all who had lived and died. They were all my kith and kin, children contained within the same time envelope. I was connected to them all, to the most fleeting acquaintances, to unwashed faces spotted in the street, to Vandamma’s bright smile, to wisps of chemical formulae and to fragments from the Perennial Philosophy, to the Big Bang and to life’s little bangs, to the unsung men of Mysore whose thoughts, big and small, floated inconsequentially out into the darkness.
The big bang. What began as an unseemingly loud trumpet blast was clearly a thing of the utmost beauty and significance.
“The Big Bang”, I said once again.
Bala was standing up now, rocking gently back and forth.
“The Big Question is how it will all end.”, he suggested, humming quietly.
“Some questions are best left unanswered”, said I.
Just then the printer Chandra came to life.
“The answer is there in our scriptures ….”, he began timidly. “They tell of a period of being…. that is Matter, and period of non-being, that is Cosmic Energy. There is Expansion, then Contraction, then Expansion again, then Contraction, forever and ever!”
He laughed, a weak ha-ha-ha which degenerated quickly into a fit of coughing.
“There is the time of man”, said Rao contentedly, lighting up the last stub of his Wills Navy Cut. “There is the time of man and the time of God, but every journey is on the same immense ocean.”
“How very true”, I said, with a sigh. At that late hour everyday observations took on a tone of intense profundity. And on that note we decided to sleep, right there on the terrace under the stars.
“Time to take your meals, boss”, said the attorney, gently.
I looked up and found that it was bright daylight.
As I was washing myself I noticed a priest noisily intoning his prayers near a banana tree in the courtyard of the house next door. It was the house of the woman with the pink blouse and petticoat. The priest was armed with a brass pot. A crow sat perched on an electric wire watching his ancient rituals and ablutions, cawing noisily. I could hear kitchen vessels being scraped.
I descended to the main room downstairs, where breakfast was being served. The printer excused himself and hurried away, muttering something about working on a newsletter. I saw him through the window at work in the little shed, bravely turning a wheel of some kind.
“You boys were out late, I suppose?”, enquired Bala’s mother, as she ladled large helpings of vegetable curry onto our thalis.
The “boys” looked at each other.
“We did go out”, I said quietly. “But the food wasn’t that great.”
The mother wagged her finger at us.
“Now, now, I know what you boys were up to.”
She pointed to Rao, who grinned nervously.
“Whenever Rao visits, he takes them out for Non-Veg”, she said, her voice gently accusing. A note of disgust had started to creep in. “Mutton and Chicken…and Beef! How much beef did you eat?”
The sins of the flesh were quite different for her. Like Vandamma’s quaint snobbery, I found the old lady’s confidence in her understanding of men rather touching.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Toasting the Todas: A Vacation among Tribals
‘Off the beaten track’ — if only! Years of travel have made me long for exotic spots, places at the edge of the wilderness, where one might find a few creature comforts along with a chance to discover something new about human nature. Can such longings ever be satisfied? I found the answer recently, on a trip to the Nilgiri Mountains of southern India.
I went there with only the vaguest of expectations — glorious days hiking in verdant meadows at above 8,000 feet, and long nights by the fireplace, Kingfisher beer at hand, falling asleep over books of ancient travels that would wend their way into my dreams. It did not quite turn out as planned. An encounter with a tribal people resulted in one of the most memorable trips in recent years.
I arrived in Ooty in early January, fresh from a foray in Sri Lanka. Ooty, the British contraction for Udhagamandalam, is a hill-station set on a high plateau amid spectacular mountain ranges. To get there, I took a bus from the city of Mysore, a ‘Deluxe Coach’ that teetered to one side as it bumped along through the dry jungle of the Bandipur and Mudumalai game sanctuaries. The trip was not without its rewards; at one point, as the driver stopped to pay toll, a young Nilgiri Langur (Trachypithecus johnii) leaped onto the steering wheel, its dark eyes alert and shining, its spiky white mane giving it a strangely punk look. People feverishly snapped pictures, but then the driver swatted at it with a film magazine, and the disappointed creature bounded out of the window into the forest.
As the bus began its climb up into the Western Ghats, wheezing and bumping up along the hairpin bends, the forest gave way to grand escarpments rising out of the shimmering plain, their sides clothed in a mantle of evergreen forests. The furrowed slopes of tea-estates started to appear, and then close-ups of women plucking tea, and small vegetable farms with men standing in the fading sunlight tending their carrot patches. In the tiny villages perched on the edge of the terraced hillsides, barefoot children ran alongside the bus, waving their cricket bats at us. We passed young women walking carefully in flashy slippers, baskets of produce perched delicately on their heads, and young men holding hands and waving.
From the Ooty bus-stand, an auto-rickshaw took me across a rather tentative road to my hotel, the Regency Villas. The hotel sits on Fern Hill, the estate of the Summer Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. The cottages, all painted in pink, are refurbished hunting lodges from the days of the Raj. The walls come adorned with faded photographs of Mysore royalty gathering on the premises in Victorian times, posing next to slain lions and Englishmen in solar topees. I fell asleep wondering which visitor had slept in my creaky cot a hundred or more years earlier.
The Nilgiris, I knew, were home to a number of hill tribes, including the Todas, who, I had been informed, practiced polyandry, and also the Kurumbas, who were sorcerers. To find out more, I caught a bus to the Tribal Research Center, on the road to Mount Palada.
At the Center, I found a number of model huts, sparse but carefully maintained, along with a few tawdry stuffed birds, spears, and hundreds of botanical specimens in small labeled bottles, presumably the sorcerer’s materia medica. The Director, Dr. Jakka Parthasarthy, apologized for the poor condition of his museum, a result of a lack of government funding. He told me that polyandry among the Toda was rare these days, and that their practice of infanticide and the ritual deflowering of maidens were long extinct.
“If you’re interested in the Todas, you really should visit Vasamalli,” he said. “You’ll find her in Kash mand.”
Kash mand was a mand, a little Toda hamlet of huts and one-room houses, along with a well and a tethered long-horned buffalo. It sat quietly, this ancient hamlet, behind the forbidding wall of the vacation home of Vinod Mallya, the plutocrat responsible for Kingfisher Beer and now Kingfisher Airlines.
Mrs. Vasamalli, a middle-aged lady in a white sari, was lighting little clay lamps outside her tiny residence as a gesture of farewell to the sun.
She explained that the word “Toda” was derived from the word “Tud” in the Toda language, meaning “sacred tree”.
“Our culture is based on a reverence for nature,” she said. “No hunting, no internecine warfare. We are a pastoral people, who have traditionally survived by dairy farming, thanks to the buffalo.”
“How many Todas are left?”
“About fourteen hundred. Maybe a few hundred in five years. Unless you count the ones who are inter-marrying.” She shook her head. “But those ones don’t follow the clan customs.”
A young man walked in. He was tall, with a smooth, angular face, and a look of refinement and quiet dignity.
“This is my eldest son Ponnian,” she said.
As they spoke to each other in Toda, I heard a variety of wet sibilant sounds and tongue-twisting ‘r’s, spoken with an almost recitative formality.
“He’s sweaty because he’s come straight from the golf course,” she said, ruffling his hair.
She explained that Ponnian had started out as a caddy several years earlier at the Ooty Golf Club at Wenlock Downs. He was now a scratch golfer, given free clubs and access to a trainer, and was now by far the best player in the southern region.
Ponnian had recently graduated from college. He told me he was hoping his degree, golfing skills and other athletic achievements (he was also a marathoner) would help him get a job in the Army.
“Would you like to come with us for a festival tomorrow?” Mrs. Vasamalli asked. “It’s the salt-water ceremony, for the buffalos.”
We set out around eight in the morning, driving in a Mahindra Jeep towards Emerald. The road circled lazily around a tea-estate, swung through valleys speckled with yellow gorse, and then climbed up through a region of dense eucalyptus groves.
“This is just great!” I said, inhaling the scent of eucalyptus through the open window.
“The eucalyptus trees are a menace,” Ponnian said. “Australian imports, first brought by the British. Everyone, the Forest Department as well as the estate owners, has been planting them like crazy ever since. They drain the subsoil, and have made most of our sacred streams run dry.”
“Our dairy temples have to be built near streams,” Mrs. Vasamalli explained, as the jeep stopped for us to don the brilliantly-patterned, hand-woven shawls that were required for the ceremony. “It’s only if we perform our rituals properly that we can go to Amunawdr.”
“Where is that?” I asked.
“Further west, do you see it?” Ponnian said. “It is a sin for a Toda to point to any of our sacred peaks.”
I spotted a massive peak, tinged with blue shadows, with two smaller siblings nestling on each side. Between them, valleys shimmered into the distance.
“The souls of the buffalo go into one valley, those of humans into the other,” Mrs. Vasamalli said quietly.
“We don’t have the right to visit most of our sacred places,” Ponnian said.
The road ended at the bottom of a hill, and we had to trek up the last mile, climbing a steep and grassy slope. At the top was a mand consisting of a row of eight tiny brick houses, built above a brook. I could see an ancient barrel-vaulted dairy temple below, made of bamboo and mountain grass. It was an extremely modest structure, but Ponnian had told me how, to keep them in good repair, he and his mates had walked fifty miles to find the increasingly rare variety of mountain grass.
A long line of Todas could be seen descending the slope towards a pond below, followed by two herds of buffalos guided by young Todas. Ponnian explained that the Todas had come from far and wide for the ceremony. Though it was a working day, there 5
were nearly a hundred of them in their shawls, lean and tall, striding purposefully towards the pond.
The buffalos drank greedily. After they were done, each of the Todas cupped his hand in the water, and poured it into his mouth.
Outside the mand, a crowd of small children came running out in their Sunday best, followed by a crowd of rather striking Toda women, all with striking looks and long tresses. One of them sat down to get her hair braided.
“Wait, he’s taking your picture,” Mrs. Vasamalli giggled. “In your nightdress!”
The men meanwhile gathered by the dairy temple, in front of a bare-chested priest. After a short ceremony, they drank freshly churned buffalo buttermilk, served by the priest in small leaf cups. One of the men brought it over. It tasted pretty good, but then I am fond of buttermilk.
The men began dancing, a slow rotation with much banging of staves and cries of the sacred syllable “Ho”. As they danced, a pair of gorgeous flycatchers flitting above them, the Todas seemed to be part of an ancient pattern, one with the trees and mountains and the eternal sky. Meanwhile, the women had started their own dance, with Mrs. Vasamalli leading the way, singing a playful song that invited a dear but reluctant buffalo to come and drink. I tapped my feet but did not join in, for I was guzzling on wild honey, fresh off the comb. Before shoving a slab of the sticky mess into my mouth, I was instructed to place a dollop of honey on my forehead, as a mark of respect to the bee.
The dancing went on for several hours, and was followed by a lavish vegetarian feast, served to me inside one of the houses, which, I noticed, was spotlessly clean. I ate heartily, grateful to the women who, I knew, had to fetch water all the way from a stream.
After the meal, the men sat under the trees, smoking and conversing of tribal matters, while the women stayed inside and caught up on family gossip. A child came up to me and taught me the basics of counting in Toda.
There are many other enjoyable things to do in Ooty, including visiting the Botanical Gardens, which even in winter boasts a marvelous collection of hundreds of rare orchids. Outside the Botanical Gardens, I ran into another threatened culture at the Tibetan market, run by refugees from the giant settlement of Kushalnagar, in the Indian state of Karnataka. I had a wonderful time drinking tea with them and talking about the Dalai Lama, who had honored Kushalnagar with a visit a few weeks earlier. Other activities I recommend include trekking, visiting the old British graveyard in St. Stephen’s Church, browsing the Victorian fiction in the cavernous Nilgiri Library, and dining on fine Indian and international cuisine at the Savoy Hotel and the Holiday Inn. And if you happen to go there, like I did, in the winter, to hike in verdant meadows and to read a tale of faraway travel by the fireplace, a Kingfisher or warm brandy in hand, please do give a thought to the Todas, who have been trying ever so hard to preserve their natural way of life amid the hubbub of modern India.
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THE SONG OF SINGAPORE
by Inderjeet Mani
(Parts of this article were previously published separately in the Deccan Herald and the Reston Review.)
We were nearing our destination when the hostess announced that anyone entering Singapore for illegal work would be given “six strokes of the lash”, in addition to six months in prison. Soon after that she came graciously down the aisle and handed me an embarkation card, which carried a warning about the death sentence for drug smuggling. Meanwhile she smiled a disarming, somewhat shy smile, the professional smile of the Singapore airlines girl in her sarong kebaya. I couldn’t help smiling back.
I kept smiling as I walked on the highly polished floors of Chiangi Airport. It was different from other airports in the region. Tokyo’s Narita I had found suffocatingly crowded, with barely enough standing room; Hong Kong seemed crumbling and backward, and Bangkok remained dirty and overrun by sorry-looking hippies and whores. At Chiangi, by contrast, everything was spic and span, running smoothly and efficiently under the watchful eye of the security police. Travelers waited politely with their duty-free bags, the girls at the information desk were attentive, and in the cafeterias with the papaya juice fountains everything was calm and orderly. Even the taxis approached cautiously, waiting obediently for the police signal before collecting the next arrival.
As I left the airport I passed by a guarded gate. It was the V.I.P. terminal. The long black limousines of the government and business elites waited quietly inside the compound, their sleek blackness reeking of a quiet, unseen evil. As we glided along the beautifully manicured orchid-lined boulevard leading to the city, I realized that I had entered one of the world’s most successful police states.
Still, it was impossible not to sit back and revel in the luxuriant surroundings. Tropical foliage and tall trees shot up into the sky around me, palm leaves swirled in the sun, and I felt on my skin the slightest suggestion of a salty breeze carrying a whiff of jasmine. I put my legs up and sat back. Hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings appeared, each window bearing a flag and a pole of washing hung out to dry. The roads flashed by, smooth and spotless, still bearing the marvelous names bequeathed by the British, Bencoolen Way, Tiverton Lane, Goodwood Drive. Then we entered a region of broad avenues resplendent with the towering glass facades of banks, hotels, and shopping centers. Boutiques came and went, Alfred Dunhill, Nina Ricci, Chanel, as well as lesser stores like Qureshi’s Carpets and the Chew Cheong Silk House. The city seemed in the middle of a construction boom, busy with jackhammers and earth movers and ubiquitous hardhat signs. Orchard Road gave way to Sir Bukit Timah Road, and then the taxi turned suddenly down a quiet lane, thick with bougainvillea and other floral fragrances. We passed a number of sprawling mansions nestled within bamboo groves, arriving at last at the gates of the Balmoral Hotel.
As soon as I got in to my room I fell promptly asleep. When I woke up the sun had set. Opening the window, I was greeted by the shrill welcome of a thousand cicadas. I took a quick shower and went down to dine on the exotic foods of Asia.
As luck would have it, the hotel prided itself on its French cuisine. After some coaxing, a young Malay waiter furnished the native menu. The soup came with a number of interesting objects floating in it, including a sea-horse, which tasted rather mushroom-like. There was no one else to talk to in the dining room, so I summoned my waiter.
“Everyone’s gone to the bar”, he told me. “After dinner you should go to the bar. Try our famous Singapore Sling.”
I looked at him carefully, but he was quite serious. The bar was next door, and through the open doorway I could hear the lead singer of an Indonesian pop group belting out a mournful sixties tune about a tavern and the good old days. From time to time his harsh grating voice lapsed into some unidentified Malay slang. A few patrons clapped clumsily.
“In two weeks time it will be our National Day”, my waiter told me proudly. “Won’t you stay for it?”
His face had a fresh, innocent look. I would have liked to tip him, but tipping was strictly forbidden.
“Will there be fireworks?”
“At the parade grounds. We are not allowed to play with fireworks. Only the Army can do that. The government is very strict.”
He smiled apologetically about the strictness. I sympathized with him. Given the prospect of a public flogging (another quaint custom bequeathed by the British), no Singaporean in his right mind would dream of exploding a firecracker.
The vision of a wealthy, vibrant nation built on industriousness and fear is not a new one. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had the courage and good luck to carry it off. Singapore’s citizens were now well-versed in the skills of the twentieth-century, but they did not apparently share a commitment to democratic values. They seemed cautious, content to live with the devil they knew, who had made them prosperous and brought them to an advanced stage of technological development. The government in turn was apparently an intelligent one, aware that dissent must never be completely bottled up, but allowed to bubble off here and there through officially approved channels. The few who emerged in the censored Straits Times to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo did so in oblique ways, speaking only of the need to preserve their diverse cultural traditions, or complaining about the highly competitive college entrance exams. The most outspoken criticism I heard was of the Singapore Airlines girl, as an insult to Singaporean womanhood. It was no accident that they had picked on an advertising image; their society lacked other heroes, and their history celebrated only a former colonial master, Sir Stamford Raffles, who in 1819 did what he had to do and established the British presence on the island.
Mr. Lee’s caution also reflected the delicate position Singapore occupied with respect to its neighbors, the Muslim lands of Malaysia and Indonesia. Each of those still developing nations had substantial military machines. Unlike Singapore they were nations without a solid Western-style infrastructure, with a large underclass, and that opened up the possibility of political turmoil, the nasty threat of alternative isms, of people moved by beliefs, by passions: Islamic fundamentalism, communism, separatism, terrorism, or some explosive combination thereof. Lee and his cohorts were also concerned about the threat of racial displacement. Despite Singapore’s professed multiculturalism, with its tolerance of Indians, Malays, and Eurasians, each with their own vibrant ethnic communities – so much so that the country vigorously celebrated nearly two dozen festivals a year – the predominant influence in Singaporean government and business had always been Chinese.
In the Tamil quarter of Serangoon Road, I found bazaars of old, buildings with long colonnades and dark staircases, packed with tiny shops with their owners chattering animatedly, waving their hands, unfolding rolls of glittering saris. I could hear Tamils speaking Malay, Chinese Tamil, Sikhs Chinese, all yakking away about the police, sports, or financial worries. The staircases led up to flimsy wooden doors, reminding me of the brothels of Old Delhi, but they often had little girls seated on top in pavadais, giggling down at the passers-by. Some of the rooms on the ground floor were not shops but miniature residences which overlooked the street, and on this Saturday morning the head of the each household could be found seated in his tiny living room cluttered with steel cabinets and a worn desk or two, drinking coffee and pensively watching the street go by. Women wandered down the passageways in black purdah or wearing richly embroidered brocade dresses, saris, and salwar kameezes. Others stood in the doorways chatting, or stopping at stalls to eat. At the Apollo eatery a large crowd had gathered, to sample among other delicacies an especially spicy mutton, prawn and pickle dish served on a fresh banana leaf. A notice declared that hands were to be washed before eating.
Outside the Kaliamman Hindu temple I found more crowds, groups of Tamil dandies lounging about in slippers, with ash on their foreheads and cigarettes in their hands, their slender waists hugged by tapered bush-shirts, each with a comb in his back pocket to minister to an extravagantly puffed hairdo. From time to time one of the youths would detach himself from the gathering and head into the temple, to circle three times and prostrate himself before each of the rather fearsome idols of the Goddess Kali. These youths were reminiscent of their freshly laved cousins who gathered outside the cinema halls on Saturdays in Madras or Cochin, and yet they seemed somehow more vigorous, less sallow, less fierce, as if their transplantation another twenty degrees east had freed them of the oppressive burden of history and failure.
Strolling along I found myself in a hawker center, where people of every conceivable racial extraction were sitting together swilling Tiger beer and feverishly gulping down prawn and noodles. To feed sumptuously, to practice one’s religion, to retain the freedom to chatter about everyday matters – these were apparently sufficient to keep a civilization afloat. And what a chattering – some of it in singsong Singlish, with the characteristic “la” tagged on the end of every sentence, much of it in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tamil, and even a dash of Australian and Italian. The chattering rose and fell, merging with the sea of miscellaneous sounds created by humans and their inventions, the sounds of cars, buses, and voices rising like lightly crested waves above them. The most frequent sounds were scraping sounds, coming from frying pans being stirred, and then there were others, like the clatter of beer bottles being extracted from wooden cases, the clacking of fish being chopped by a cleaver-wielding Chinaman in a singlet. There was also a medley of lighter plopping sounds, prawns being scooped up from neat little piles, dishes bubbling peacefully, punctuated by the inevitable clinking of dishwashers’ glasses. At nearby tables I could hear sounds of a more private nature, slippers clinking, chopsticks clicking against plastic bowls, the sounds of vigorous chewing and sucking and slurping and swallowing, and the occasional smacking of lips. A child was playing with her bangles, letting them roll and settle on the table, and cigarettes were being lit up, then beer was being sirruped against a backdrop of bicycle bells. An old woman began coughing.
As I sat in the hawker center listening, the sounds seemed to cascade together and grow in number, gathering force, building into an immense wave, and it struck me then that each region of the world had its own peculiar chorus of sounds, its street or field or mountain song, as it were. Yet it seemed there was something unique and different to the sounds of Asia as a whole, and to the experience of Asian ears: a kind of quiet attentiveness amidst all the tumult, not simply a sense of happy chaos and multiplicity or simplicity but some other kind of preoccupation, which made living a rather busy and intense affair.
“Right here”, one of my neighbors at the hawker center told me, when I asked him about his origins. He pointed to Chang Kwok Hospital, an older, decrepit building festooned with flags.
He was an old Indian and he had lived his entire life within a few miles of the hospital, and it was possible that he would die in the same circumscribed area. And it was he who told me about the C.B.I.B., the Singaporean secret police.
“They’re everywhere. So many people work for them as informers. Anyone you see – it could be the man eating chicken curry over there, or that Eurasian lady with the straw hat…you can’t really tell, they look just like you and me.”
He explained about the housing blocks. Each block had its own vigilance committee, which reported once a week to the police. Everyone knew what was going on, even, he said, who was going out with whom.
“Doesn’t it bother you, all this spying? If you can’t trust anyone. what’s the use?”
He took a deep gulp of his beer, and then wiped his lips politely on his sleeve.
“As long as we mind our own business, everyone is happy. You should have seen us twenty five years ago. Now, no one goes without a roof over their heads. And Prime Minister Goh – he’s loosening things up a bit….”
The loosening up was of a limited kind, the most prominent act of liberalization being the much-welcomed lifting of the ban on R-rated movies. I had heard that this was part of an economic plan to eventually get a foothold in the X-rated movie business.
“And the young people – you should see them, so clever, so smart, their heads held high. Thanks to Mr. Lee’s foresight in the area of education, we now have some of the best schools in the world.” His eyes gleamed with pride.
His statement was disturbingly true. The Singaporeans seemed to have mastered the art of changing small children into robots. They had adopted the Japanese model, imposing sixty to seventy-hour work weeks on children over the age of ten, shaping them into obedient, industrious machines. It was an admirable, if frightening, achievement. I had talked about the results with some of my friends at the National University. They acknowledged that the government had taken a rather brutal approach, but what other choice did they have? With no natural resources, the island’s survival into the twenty-first century depended entirely on people, on selectively breeding tough technocrats, engineers, and skilled workers. Who else would be there to man the multinationals?
This singular emphasis on science and practical skills did not leave people with a narrow, blinkered attitude. Quite the contrary – the young robots were terribly well-informed, quick at grasping complex arguments, able to reason rapidly and cheerfully, to calculate and act decisively. Although their programmers had not paid much attention to the liberal arts, regarding it no doubt as a breeding ground for intellectualism of a dangerous sort, they had taken pains to cater, through the introduction of parochial schools, to the needs of various ethnic groups who continued to regard the mastery of Chinese characters or Tamil intonation with some pride.
My friend at the hawker center poured me another Tiger. He asked about India. He had been there a few years ago, but had come away dismayed by the inefficiency and squalor.
“My ancestors left a hundred years ago. I’m so glad they came here. We don’t have the sense of history you people have, but unlike India, all the different cultures here coexist peacefully – the five stars on the Singapore flag, la. Economically, we’re strong, very much the Lion City.. The security aspect is a small price to pay for all this..”
We sat and talked till evening, about the new, muscular Asia that was emerging all around us, after centuries of stony sleep. At times it seemed this new Asia was overtaking the West in development, it seemed to have bred a new race of highly skilled and organized people, modern and yet parochial, rationalist and yet skeptical of fundamental liberties, at ease in the international kitsch of consumer and pop culture, yet honoring – however superficially – ancient traditions and rituals. They were philistines, their culture would breed no Baudelaires or Shakespeares, and certainly no Buntys. But their streets were vibrant and alive. They ate well and drank hard and did not ponder the meaning of life, but they also prayed to a multitude of gods and did not kill each other. Such a paradoxical culture seemed well-suited to the flux of the modern world, but I wondered how long it would survive in the absence of political freedoms. Wouldn’t some of its bright-eyed youth one day take to the streets demanding liberty, whatever that was, as countless others had for some reason been prone to do the world over? Wouldn’t they risk whippings, lathi charges, tear gas, guns? Wouldn’t they sing Guantanamera and fast unto death outside the Legislative Assembly?
But at other times it was clear that nothing had really changed, it was no more than an old all-absorbing Asia taking on new forms, the pulse of the civilization was the same as ever. The old Chinese women still played mah-jong and watched the passers by with shrewd and suspicious eyes, and despite their financial pre-occupations people young and old still had a look of simplicity in their faces.
I said goodbye to my hawker center friend and wandered for a while in the bazaar. A boy walked by holding two polythene bags bulging with fish soup. At a cake shop the owner was seated cross-legged threading flowers, under an immense garlanded picture of Ganesha the Elephant God, single-tusked, pot-bellied, riding on his mouse. A few yards away three Chinese men sat together on a bench roasting lightly skinned pigs. Another sat huddled over a cauldron, scratching his back thoughtfully with a cooking ladle. Just then I nearly tripped over an elderly, bespectacled man seated inconspicuously on a small steel trunk on the pavement. He greeted me with a smile, and reached for my palm.
Like everyone else, I had been through some hard times, and I was curious to hear what this old Tamil gentleman would say. He measured my fingers, noted my date of birth and made various quick calculations in a tattered hardcover notebook.
“You will always be restless, traveling to distant lands across the seas, away from your birthplace. In five years you will prosper, as an exporter of a precious commodity….”
He talked for a while about business matters, and I soon grew bored, having sold very little merchandise in my life. As he talked on, I remembered, self-consciously, some rather stern lines from T. S. Eliot:
“[To evoke] ….biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from the fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors –
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road…”
“What about…other matters?”
“Next year you will marry, but the marriage will not be consummated.”
I heard a girl giggling, and turned, to find a small group of young women standing by, their eyes laughing, obviously enjoying the reading.
The palmist studied my face carefully, as if perusing some battle-worn map.
“You were injured in a car crash last June?”
“You think often about your old friends from long ago?”
“You long for your homeland?” He used the Tamil word “wooru”, which, rather like the French “pays”, means not country, but the land or region you come from.
Astrologers and palmists, I have found, have often been uncannily right about my past, but never about the future. And just as well, for life is best lived in complete ignorance of the vicissitudes of fate. Modern man must be thankful to be rid of the terrible prophecies of classical soothsayers and oracles. Yet, while we may scorn those obsolete methods of prediction, our understanding of ourselves is seldom wrong: we know too well our own weaknesses and foibles, recognizing that we will most likely live with them to the very end. We understand, for better or for worse, the rough trajectory of our lives.
Some days later I found myself waiting for a taxi in Raffles Place, surrounded by young people relentlessly shopping in the high-fashion stores and boutiques. A block away, overdressed young Chinese men were coming out of the trading floors armed with heavy briefcases. Rush hour was in progress, and BMWs and Benzes glided by, picking up those dashing young men in pinstriped shirts. At a taxi rank a policeman stood by, vigilant. A mangy cat sat near him. It was hungry, ferociously hungry, miaowing imploringly at passers by, and from time to time biting savagely at its fleas.
Meanwhile commuters hurried past, and the Benzes and BMWs kept on picking up more and more young bankers. Two young things in black party dresses were standing behind me speaking into a portable phone, planning the evening’s engagements. An elegant young woman in a miniskirt was holding the briefcase of a disheveled Dutch trader, as he held a suitcase in one hand and rummaged through his pockets with another for an apparently lost air ticket. Her voice was soothing, reassuring – they would take care of it at the airline counter, no problem, and why not take the MRT – the subway – it would be faster, only a short walk, and she’d be glad to carry his briefcase for him. She seemed so poised, elegant, beautiful, speaking with an air of happy wholesomeness about the somewhat tense goings-on in the trading room. Then she mentioned a party she was going to that weekend, talking about young Europeans and Singaporeans who had found nice flats and were apparently having the time of their lives. She reminded me of airline hostesses, who always seemed to be discussing parties and entertainments with an air of cheerful vapidity; but I felt happy for her, and a little sad that we had not had an opportunity to converse, for soon she had disappeared with the Dutchman, heading no doubt for the MRT.
The day before I left, I rode in a reconditioned dragon-headed junk across the oily waters of Singapore harbor to Pulau Kusu, or Tortoise Island. I was accompanied by a gray sky, a light breeze, and the brash voices of Australian and Korean tourists in flowery shirts and shorts. Dozens of small, thickly-palmed islands passed by, Sentosa, the resort isle, and Pulau Brani, and Lazarus Island, with its palms clustered together in spidery tufts. Cameras were clicking, filming relentlessly. The urge to trap, to freeze and impale moments of life like so many listless butterflies….but there was romance in the air. A woman handed the camera to a new-found acquaintance, leaning on the railings and posing blushingly, her hair lightly sprinkled with foam. The boat bobbed restlessly, its gleaming wood washed by light waves, its dragon prow surging forward. Meanwhile our guide, dressed in skin-tight jeans with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, was announcing that T-shirts and biscuits were on sale. Earlier on she had rattled off long statistics about the Port of Singapore – second only to Rotterdam in the number of ships arriving per day. The announcement switched to Japanese, then Chinese – her Japanese sounded fluent to my ears, while her English reeked of gangster slang. Perhaps she had done time at an American base or bar.
Pulau Kusu approached slowly, and then a boy quickly hopped onto the pier to tether our vessel. We alighted onto this tiny hilly island, site of a Singaporean October festival. There I found about a hundred small tortoises gathered in small communal pens, each with a shallow pond. I stood and watched them for a while, admiring their hard shells and statuesque semi-immobility. How far away their world was from the rush-hour one of Benzes and BMWs! Presumably lacking any sense of time or duration, their dull mud-pens may have constituted for them a vibrant world throbbing with exciting stimuli. Whatever the case, they seemed to care little for humans, as they unblinkingly inched forward towards some unidentified goal.
I strolled along a brightly painted walkway, its railings draped with creepers, passing a cluster of beach huts towards which one of the Australian cameraman was heading, brandishing a roll of toilet paper. There were two temples on Pulau Kusu. I hurried up to the Malay shrine, located up a steep wooded climb. There was nothing there, except a collection of unlit incense sticks and an ancient leatherbound Koran under a glass case. Down below, the Chinese temple was undergoing repair. In the temple compound was a resident python, slithering in a small caged cell. An empty food bowl stood outside.
The temple was peopled with statues of Taoist and Buddhist deities. A number of plump Chinese ladies with tiny feet stood about praying or selling flower wreaths and souvenirs. Before leaving, I murmured a quick prayer to two shy white goddesses, Gian Yin – Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Giver of Sons, and Da Bo Gong, who had the power to confer prosperity, and calm.
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