Men and Women of Mysore

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: Men and Women of Mysore | Tags: , , |

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.

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Toasting the Todas

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: Toasting the Todas | Tags: , , |

Toasting the Todas: A Vacation among Tribals

 

by

Inderjeet Mani

Back porch of the Summer Palace, a few yards from my cottage

Back porch of the Summer Palace, a few yards from my cottage

‘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.

 

 

Villages of Fern Hill, as seen from my room

Villages of Fern Hill, as seen from my room

The golfer and his mother

The golfer and his mother

 

Todas gathering for the salt-water ceremony

Todas gathering for the salt-water ceremony

 

Ceremony at the dairy temple

Ceremony at the dairy temple

 

 

Morning Toilette

Morning Toilette

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