Thursday, September 30, 2010

The King's Life in the Balance

He was a pest, a curse, and a bane on so many of our lives. A rowdy of the first order, he bullied his way to the top of the trees. He only ate the sweetest, tenderest coconuts, supping out the centre of the young green fruits before wantonly throwing the remains to the ground, little caring that each bud he plundered would have given us an income, had we let them grow. He scared the kids, and seemed to take a fiendish delight in watching the kids run screaming back to their mums. He put us all on our guard, and waited for each of us to be alone before he'd appear in a doorway, growling from his belly and baring his teeth as he frightened us into giving up our last banana, or a tender guava, or a little bag of sugar or other sweets.

The monkey catcher came to catch him. He brings a cage with a trap door, and places tender food inside. Attaching the trap to a wire, he hides in the bushes, he melts into the leaves and soon the world forgets that he is there. Sooner or later a monkey is overcome by hunger or greed or both. He reaches in and finds the fruit secured. In tugging it he inches closer, then as he goes to grasp the prize — ker-lunk! the string is loosed, and that's our monkey trapped. Once that has happened, the rest is easy: the others, anxious to find out what's happened to their friend, will go to help. But the first one has worked his way into an inner chamber, leaving the first space empty, empty for another primate to enter. It's only a few hours more before seven or eight monkeys are encaged.

The cages are spacious, airy, roomy, and at all stages plentiful supplies of food and water are supplied. Before too long, two or three may be seen inside the cage, chatting and chewing, gossiping away about their new situation. One of them waves his paws expansively in the direction of the field, to explain the direction the troupe will be following next, as if he knows. He only needs to le the others think he knows.

Let's find out: The monkey man has lit a beedie and smoked it down to the stub. He asks for water, and a dish of rice and soup, before sitting on his haunches to consume his fare in similar vein to his cousins in the cage. The final stage of his job is drawing near, and with two large bags made of stitched-together paddy-sacks he hoops them over the other end of the cage. This also has a door, an escape door, and with a hucky-hucky-hushing sound he shoos them into the bag. A few deft sleights of the hand and the bag is released and tied and knotted, and we're handed a bag of wriggling monkeys.

Next step is grabbing a rider and hoiking the bag onto the motor-bike. We point ourselves away from the town and into the open road, deeper into the countryside, away from paddy, culture, crops and people. And while such places remain to us, we free ourselves and open up a further enterprise for them. We open the bag and shake it out, watching their bemused faces, as they purvey their land and wonder what's to steal. Adjusting from the darkness of the bag, they blink and wonder, even looking chattily in our direction as we let them out. For a few hours we were their captors, and now for many more they have their freedom; while we remain within our cages, made of bars you cannot see.

The King, however, never could be caught: he laughed defiantly as he bared his teeth, scorning the cages and bags, humiliating us all and out-witting the ruses of the monkey man. We settled down into an uneasy truce, we lived our lives and left the King to rule with tyranny atop the sighing trees.

Our King has Lost His Strength
And then there were the screams; the sobs, the cries of pain.
The Wheelchair Ridge becomes a Bed-rest
It made no sense, to hear the cries, and rush outside, and find the King of high trees crying on the ground.... Instead of Palm-fronds, leaves wet from a monsoon downpour now become the mattress for our King.      

The hard ridge I built to stop the wheelchair sliding into the soft silt becomes the place where Hero King will rest.

Oh yes, he was a nuisance sure, a plague, a pest, a background itch; it was our fervent wish that one day soon, the monkey man would catch him fast and bag him up so we'd carry him away, further than his kingly eyes could see, beyond our reach and out of sight and once and ever out of mind.

He cries for Help then shoos us off
Yet now it's different, now we want to know, what might have happened to make this fall from Grace. Was it a scorpion, or a krait, lurking in the bushy can-can tufts which blow and billow in the humid air? Was he stung? Did he fall? Nah! It seems unlikely, unbelievable that such a guy with street-cred such as this can fall, or break, or succumb in any way. Yet succumb he has.

We look up, suddenly suspicious of the electric cable, the government cable leaning on its rotting pole, sparking and hissing when the branches brush against it. Electricity, the unknown force, the unseen enemy of the Monkey King. His wives and children and minions, subjects all, are gathered in the bushes at the wall side of our compound. Seeing if we can help, they stare hopefully up, yet hiss at us if they think we mean him harm. Our Rowdy, our Nuisance, our Pest and Danger, and yet our King to climbed to heights and places where we can merely dream.

We Offer Food, the Choicest Monkey-fare we have...

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Small and Valiant Hero

It was over three years ago that a man arrived on my doorstep; in his hand was an ordinary shopping bag which he held away from me slightly, asking if I'd like to see what was inside. The bag heaved slightly, and I couldn't wait. I plunged my hands in to feel a ball of warm featheriness, and ever so gently lifted it out to see a guinea fowl whose beady eyes blinked in the bright light. So arrived Johnnie, a bird who was to be my pride and joy, keeping me company and strutting round the grounds to inspect everything and everybody.
Johnnie pecks for worms in an empty flower-bed
 Not only does he pick up worms, bugs and centipedes, but they say that he can pick pests and parasites off cattle too. He's very green, and a scrupulous biological control officer. There ain't no flies or fleas on him!

Clean as a Whistle

When you make a dive for Johnnie, he just crouches down on the ground, with a crooning noise ~ but only if you're human. If another animal tries to get near him, Johnny is off like a little rocket!

Within a few days of being birthed from his hand-bag womb, Johnnie has made himself completely at home. In fact, Johnnie treats the place as if he's lived here for ever.
And even longer than that.

No unauthorized entry allowed!
When it comes to John's bath, the team of appointed bathers move in to do their duty. Bathing is a great daily event here, and  for maximum satisfaction for all, it's carried out in a small enclosure at the rear of the house.

For some it's a pleasure, for some it's a chore; some just want to get on with their study jobs and not spend an hour being swallowed up by the bathing and exercising ritual, but for Johnnie this event carried out at 10.00 a.m. each morning is an important job and a positive delight.

Just the Thing to Wet My Whistle
The special treat is, for some reason, my dirty bath-water. This would doubtless raise some eyebrows, were it to be witnessed in the outer and greater world. But Johnnie is crazy about sipping it while it's still warm, and I maintain that there are some vital micronutrients and trace elements which Johnnie finds beneficial to his health.

This is a Good as it Gets
After the ritual of bathing, it's time to spend in quiet refection as we offer our devotions foe the day. Not to be left out, Johnnie is very methodical in his duties as a verger, and he pays his earnest respects to the many names and forms we give to the One Creator and the the source of all life and being:
Hail Ramana!
Hail Mary!
     A few days before we leave India, Johnnie becomes fully involved in the packing:
Better sure they don't leave something important behind!
Master has packed all the Important Tablets.
Hope he takes Good Care while he's in England
 Good-bye dear Johnnie, you valiant wee policeman of a bird; I guess you're past middle age for a guinea fowl by now, and you must take good care of your health!
     Regulating his life according to a strict and fastidious routine, Johnnie goes off duty when the shadows of night begin to fall. Ensuring that he hasn't left any loose ends behind, he heads for his favourite tall tree, where he flies aloft to perch on his favourite branch, away from night predators and snakes.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~
Johnnie has left us now. Gone to meet his maker, as it were: Yesterday while quietly feeding, he was set upon by a gang of five hungry dogs, who attacked and him before tearing him to pieces and eating him up. It feels indescribably sad, that a quiet, peaceful and devoted being should meet his end in this violent way.

Good-bye, dear brave friend: For more than three year you shared our lives and our houses. I hope your end was quick and that it didn't hurt too much. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What did the Lady Really See?

As a child, I saw a program on the telly where a tasty meal was prepared and served upon a plate; the food then was held out toward the viewer offering you the chance of taking it out of the telly and enjoying it. From that time onwards, I’d held a hidden wish that one day someone would buy me a TV like that. Or at least if it wasn’t to do with cooking, I wished that the day might dawn on which a TV story would spill itself out of its electronic box and so come into my life. What I didn't expect was that the time would arrive when this would happen to me, when I was at the tender and highly impressionable age of thirty-five.

It was the mid 1980's, and after a sorry gap of one-and-a-half decades I found myself back in India, having fed on and swallowed the Mahatma Gandhi line with no thought as to how I’d digest the fish that he’d left wriggling on the hook. Caste distinction had gone, and brahmin and road-sweeper could now walk together in the garden of frangipani trees, even if they weren't yet ready to clasp hands or at least link their arms together.

I was staying in Madras (as it was then) as the guest of a merchant I'd met on my first visit, and for a few nights I was to be their guest before moving on into the deeper south. They now had a colour TV and an A/C living room with sofa, and they appeared anxious for me to watch the movie which had just started and, although part of my reason for coming to India was to get away from the telly, I felt unable to move off to the shady garden with a book. A guest was staying with them, a lady with a silent green silk sari who made a waft of scented wind in my direction as she swept by, for she wore fresh jasmine flowers tied into her hair. She was coming from the direction of my hostess's kitchen, bearing a small dish of ice-cubes, on the top of which were set four dark sweetmeats. I immediately recognised them as the Ferrero Rocher chocolates which I'd brought from England as a gift for my hostess. The Green Lady immediately opened the gold foil wrapping and popped one into her mouth, before sitting squarely on my right as she settled her ample bottom down on the settee like a mother hen on a clutch of eggs.

The film related the story of a love affair between a high-caste brahmin lady and a young man from one of the lower castes. Degree by degree the pair were fighting social prejudice and bigotry, their few triumphs and many set-backs musically unfolding in front of us. The vision in cool green had become so transfixed with the proceedings, that she'd returned to the 'fridge to get a few more of the diminishing supply of chocolates, and had even managed to replace the ice. Returning with her replenished dish, she gave me a little grin as she immersed herself in the story, saying: “I expect you're thoroughly sick of these, but for us in India they are a great treat! Mmmm” As I watched her sucking the dark cluster into her orifice, my glance flicked over to the left to where my new friend and object of adoration, Chandru, was standing in the shadow near the screen. Chandru my carer of a few weeks’ standing, was lurking with the look of I-don’t-belong-in-there on his face; Chandru, whose skin was the same colour as the chocolates which the Green Lady was devouring with relish.

In a flash I saw it all: India’s heart had long been torn by class division: when the mad slash of zealotry had taken his life away, Mahatma Gandhi had left his healing message for the Nation ~ the message that untouchability was a sin and a crime. Little by little the message had filtered down to everyone and now this middle-class home, this fan-cooled living room had become a melting pot for that message for me — on my right side the Green Goddess was munching away, and on my left was a young man from the caste of thr lower scribes, who had worked his way into the job of caring for me and had also seated himself in my heart. What more natural than for him to come to sit next to me on the same sofa as the Green Lady, watching a hopeless love affair on the TV, yet knowing that within this very room, racial prejudice was melting as fast as the ice-cubes in the lady’s saucer?

A vision welled up in me, a picture of harmony and peace, goodwill to all men. This very room was to be the melting pot, the microscopic picture of bonhomie which would radiate steadily outwards until it engulfed all of the sub-continent: after all, the ingredients were here, instigated by the very programme we were watching. It had reached the point where the lovers from different castes were being torn apart by family and social prejudices. It was very heart-rending too. The Green Silken lady took the corner of her sari with her left hand and wiped away a tear which had started to run down her cheek, whilst with her right hand she took another chocolate from its bed of ice and crunched noisily. That particular hazelnut must have been a hard one, for I fancied it had put up a valiant fight before getting crushed between her molars.

What was I waiting for? There ahead of me was the film, on my right hand was the lady, on the left my shadow-lurking lower-caste friend. Why not call him over to join us and we could all wallow together and end up being friends? Didn’t revolutions begin in the most unlikely of places, and hadn’t I read once that the Indian Mutiny been sparked off by a chapatti? What, in effect, was preventing me from calling him over? Only my own stupid self, I decided. I myself, who could soon be sitting alongside the very Indian waiting in the wings, I could be the spark that starts off a social revolution, if only I could conquer my own inbuilt sense of hesitation; besides, I knew already that these chocolates were a rich source of the euphoric drug theobromine, which was why one gave them as a token of love, didn't one? Deciding that my fears were groundless and that this was, after all, 1985, I patted the seat next to me with my hand and called him to come to sit by me, while making reassuring noises that there was no reason whatever to be afraid.

DSC00020DSC00018Chandru came over and sat beside me cautiously as he took my hand. The woman on the right sharpened her face so that her nose appeared much more angular than it was made to be, and the muscles in her body seemed generally to tighten up; she took one of the two remaining sweets off the melting ice and pushed it in her mouth, not with the lazy relaxed swing of a few moments early, but with an impulsive motion that was almost a twitch. “Oh of course,” she said, “I see he needs to come and help you back a bit” and stupidly I fell in with idea, with Chandru easing me back another inch or two onto the settee; but he carried on holding my hand after I’d become settled. The lady on my right began unwrapping the last clustered chocolate from its melting dish of ice and carried on watching the movie, which was now approaching its melodramatic climax, with plenty of tears and pleadings and tugging at the hamstrings of the heart. Chandru was holding my left hand firmly in his right, and I saw my short stubby white fingers poking out between his long and slender black ones. I looked down with a pang of shame, for I would have wished that mine were as long and graceful and delicately formed as his. He however did not seem to mind or even see the clash of what my eyes saw, for I think he felt another tension hitherto unknown to me. His hand-grip tightened, [DCS00020] but his entire body grew more fidgety, and he said: “Shall I get your bed ready for you to take some rest, dear? You have had a long journey of many kilometres and you should take some rest.”

My enthusiasm of a few moments ago evaporated, and I knew that with Chandru’s announcements, the magic of the dream was melting fast. I was aware of kitchen noises and cupboards being noisily closed. What sounded like a ’fridge door followed by a mallet sound. Soon after this, Milli the daughter of my friend entered with a beaming face and a dish of crushed ice fragments on which were borne more Hazelnut Chocolate Clusters. She looked sorrowfully at the green lady’s pool of water with its fast disappearing lumps and its twisted strands of golden silver paper. “How are you Chandru?” she said smiling. Scanned at [7-15-2010 16-09 PM (5)] “Heavens, look at the time! Night falls so fast in the tropics, and we fear your auntie will be worrying about where you have got to and believe me, you don’t want your bus to become bogged down in the traffic. This is Madras, not a country town you know!”  
Scanned at 7-15-2010 16-09 PM (5)
Chandru’s twitching nerves now had an outlet, and he sprang up as if propelled on a spring. With a hurried thank you, and words of how much he had enjoyed the film, he jerked his limbs in several directions, and picked up his little overnight bag; he mumbled a hurried good-bye to me, and within a few moments he had left. Milli came over and sat next to me, offering me a Ferrero Rocher from its crushed ice-bed. I thanked her, but reminded her that they were a gift, and in England I could get them any time I wanted.

I stared vacantly at the TV and reflected that in distant childhood I'd been watching it and wishing that the magic drama being enacted on the box would spill out into living room. Now it had done that with the granting of my wish. This was my reintroduction to the new India, and I wondered whether I'd be ale to swim the waves without becoming engulfed by them. We all had seen different pictures, different movies, and my attempt to harmonise them marked the beginning of a struggle that was to puzzle me for many years.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Memories of an injured friend

The phone went "Hello," I said.
"There's a big bird in our garden, dear - I think it's nearly dead"
"I'll grab my coat & partner and we'll be there" and off we sped.

Attacked by something big and fierce, he flapped a bloody wing at me,
When I came near he spat and hissed and would have turned my hand to gore.
Out came the leather gloves and then he lunged and clawed and tore.

I held him fast, kept clear my face,
It was not hate but only pain
Which held him in that ruffled state

We took him to our garden shed,
Gave him water and a nice clean bed;
We'll see how he is tomorrow, I said

The following day dawned bright and clear,
Yet still I couldn't hold him near
Without exacerbation.

I soothed him, fed him, brought him viands
Till at last he fell compliant
When he on me became reliant.

Each passing day he drew a little near to me
He saw no further reason to attack, you see,

I soothed him, fed him, brought him viands
Till at last he fell compliant
When he on me became reliant.

I saw him next day, we'd called him Oúlu
He was more fluffy and more gainly,
Getting better and acting tamely

Another day, and he looked restless,
Grateful, and yet wanting to leave,
With us he'd had a safe reprieve

I soothed him, fed him, brought him viands
But now his look had turned defiant
No longer would he be my client.

Just one more day, his time was through
We'd let him free, no hullabaloo;
And then I clasped him with full care
Lifted him up, and threw him in the air.
He beat his wings and circled round about
Then he was up and he was Out
In seconds he'd relearned to fly
Then up he wheeled and vanished in the sky;
Up to greet the rising sun
Tu-whit, Tu-woo, and he was gone.

I soothed him, fed him, brought him viands
For now I knew I'd lost my client.
For each of us was self-reliant.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Glossary: viands = food-stuffs, victuals

Grateful acknowledgment is made to for the use of the photograph of an injured owl.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Does Virgin have to be a Total Prune?

Dear Richard Branson,

The afternoon was so nice and bright, I thought I'd take my guys out into the back garden, where we relaxed to read or listen to some songs. I was finishing a book I had been deeply into and, remembering that my mobile could go on the net, I'd started googling a few interesting links, when I was interrupted with a mini banner which said:


I think my phone must have thought my mind as green as the grass on which I was lying; nonetheless I found my face turning a little pink as I dialled the Virgin helpline and prayed that a girl wouldn't answer:

"Hello Virgin Mobile, this is Lisa speaking," announced a member of your staff: "How may I help you?"

My face had now turned to a livid puce when I realised that my prayer hadn't really been answered at all; but I guess it had at least been modified, as I judged from her accent that "Lisa" wasn't from British shores. So I imagined a sunny backdrop, perhaps from Italy or the South of France, and that made it all so much better, even if I wondered why your staff are allowed to work in such exotic locations.

"Lisa," i said, "I'm lounging peacefully in the back garden with my friend and I've got my Virgin Phone and a Coke in my hand, and I've found a reference which has got me searching for the English meaning of a 1975 Indian song; but Virgin appears to be living up to its name and telling me I'm not allowed to read it. I'm think I'm big enough and old enough to take read the site, Lisa, don't you?"

DSC00011 Scaled900

"Oh John," she said, "I'm sure you are!"

I was sipping my Coca-Cola®, when something in the lilt of her Mediterranean voice went into alliance with a bubble in my mouth, and I snorted coke out of my nose into a fine spray which then broke out into a splattery cough which set her laughing, and it wasn't long before the virgin and I were cooing to one another like a couple of teenagers out on a first date. Between splurts and giggles, Lisa managed to spit out that to remove restrictions on my account she'd need to speak to a third party. Parties being in somewhat short supply at the time I managed to hook in little Rajah who's thirty years younger than me on the clock, but most would agree that at half my age he's more mature than I'll ever be. So for a few minutes he stopped fiddling with his own gadget and started playing with mine whilst promising the Virgin Girl that I was allowed to drink shandy now, and in his view I was over 18. "Make sure he switches off before rebooting his phone she said" Rajah handed her over to me in peals of silvery laughter, which was where I left her on that sunny day called Yesterday.

And Richard, have you been playing too? It's time to stop playing with your aeroplanes in the garden dear. Come in and eat your tea. Time to stop playing Nanny to me, because that's my job, not yours. Now off you go -- time to learn to manage your companies like a Big Boy!

Love John.

PS: I almost went of focus. What was the fuss all about?

I'd been finishing the Whistling in the Dark interviews, and was flicking through the intro again where I was reminded about the 1975 blockbuster film Sholay, "that finds an excellent parallel in the overtly gay, 2007 film Brokeback Mountain [which] in fact the other side of Sholay, its off-screen side. The Yeh Dosti number sung by Jai and Veeru on a motorbike emerges as a queer song when when one scrutunises its lyrics and imagery."

Yeh dosti from the film Sholay (1975)

Yeh dosti — from the film Sholay

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Raj Rao, R. 2000: Memories Pierce the Heart: Homoeroticism, Bollywood-Style, in Andrew Grossman (ed), Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade, p 305. New York: The Haworth Press.

A queer reading of the song Yeh Dosti is set out in the author's forthcoming novel: Engineering College Hostel (Penguin).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Who is the Fair Cop?

"Hello, Hello, May I have a word Sir?", shouted a voice I couldn't see.
Unable to see my mystery caller, I waited till he shifted himself round into my field of vision, even as I was trying to work out who it was. A uniformed copper bedecked with movie camera on his helmet and all kind of gear stepped in and said he'd like to ask me a few questions. Wondering what the heck might be the problem now, I recalled that Barney had just driven back from ASDA: Had he jumped a red light or done speeding?
I feebly stuttered "...err ask away!"
The seeds of my deepest fears were beginning to sprout and I knew the time had come for me to drill deep through the layer of the fragile world we see, in order to hook him in from the shadowy area on the surface of the choppy mind: my entire survival depended on keeping my car and driver, and I couldn't afford to lose either.
"Indeed it is, officer!" I smilingly aver whilst desperately summoning my inner strength.
He looks slightly crestfallen, for my sweet carer has been doing nothing more sinister than loading bags with the remnants of our picnic and loading them into the boot of the car.
"Just wanted to confirm that, Sir!" he adds: "These criminals make themselves look as though they're loading a vehicle when in fact they're stealing it." I glimpsed a weak link in his mental armoury and made to soften it with sympathy. "You don't say, officer! I'm fascinated" He was loosening up nicely. "Please tell me more!"

"Well Sir, you see it's like this..." He then launched himself into a saga of his duties and responsibilities which, when mingled with his sympathies and apologies, gave him a rather appealling mien. I had a brief mind-flash of bringing him down to my level, of being a mere boy again, up and bold and ready to indulge in a love-hate bout of fisticuffs. He's down to my world now for a wee chat and a bit of hand-contact,

continuing to tell me in half-apologetic tone about how it could be seen that my little Rajah might have been making off with my bags and with my car. Of course this is exactly what Rajah was doing, only he was also taking me along with him: He didn't see that! Neither did he see that my short arms working in flicks and smooth curves.
Flashing my fingers and spinning silken threads from words, I was spinning a gossamer fabric on which he could focus his mind's eye as his eye-balls followed my finger

and I saw his attention wander, thence to focus somewhere in the depths of his recently-abandoned childhood. The rest was easy. Hooked with my yarn he travelled back to the time of innocence, when golden light played upon branches laden with apples. In short we were both held captive, and he was tickled pink. A final snap of the fingers and he was back

to being the friendly Bobby-on-the-Beat. Just a few seconds was all that it took. Beamingly he told me about how he was happy to be serving the community in this way and I beamed back at him; he called his mate over : he’d been cautiously watching from a short distance, but now he swam into view, joining the merry scene; and so we parted, our fates pulling us in our various ways.

A snatched glimpse of their conversation revealed that he was training his mate on methods of approach, which explained the movie camera on his helmet and all the other gear he had strapped to him. "That's the way to do it..." came a whispered echo of his voice . Indeed, I reflect wistfully to myself: that indeed is the way it’s done.

Back home, while my innocent eastern lads unpack the shopping and put on the kettle for a cup of tea. I hobble to the scanner as I empty the contents of my pockets. The pen with its three ergonomically smooth-gripped edges perfectly fits the awkward curvature of my fingers and will, I’m sure, be my pocket companion for many years to come.

I'm grateful to Messrs P Kumaresan and P Bharanidharan for taking the photographs and also to the Cambridgeshire Police for allowing me to play with their Officers for a while.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Oh Come into My Barlar...

If we picture the Indian rural setting we see before us today, we'll see cows being milked, goats grazing, chickens pecking at the ground to find some grain. Then wander along from here in the direction of the town, and sooner or later you'll see a hair-cutting salon or perhaps a "Beauty Barlar" with its price list displayed for all to see.
>>>01-DSC01716 beauty barlar2Final3

When I go into such a 'barlar' I feel as though I've been warped into a parallel state somewhere between the sixties and seventies, and yet in neither of these states. Smart young men saunter in and out, admiring their own and their friends' hair-dos, hips swaggering and trousers flaring away like mini-trombones at the bottom of their legs. You may be in a 'barlar' but you never dare say 'barber' for that is now such an insulting word amongst the young that it's most impolite to utter, or even to think. 'Barber' is Out and 'Disco Ravi' is in with the Hip-Hop, the One-Stop Shop and dishy-dashy Don't-Know-What.

Disco Ravi is a Cool Kid who dances lightly on his toes, his smile and fingers flashing as the SunBeams catch them on their homeward journey through the bars of his window onto the soft moisture of his slightly parted lips and flashing blades. He's not fat, and his nimble legs display soft black trousers which show off every muscle curve of his prancing thighs ~ the fit is snug, and yet Ravi manages to stay mere millimetres away from being fat. He's lit by sunlight because there's a power-cut and the heat is sweltering; many of the young men have to mop their brows; yet by a miracle of physiognomic impossibilities, Ravi always manages to look Cool. Without even a bead of perspiration on his smoothly-shaved face, you suppose he'd keep that dusky hue even in the Sahara.

You feel that he's so entrenched in his work, and is so much part of the furniture, that he arrived with the arrival of the town: you feel that Ravi is rooted in.

And yet in this town, his roots are completely lacking in depth; they travel horizontally out into the country field before taking a nose-dive into the arid soil, hungrily seek reserves of moisture trapped between the ground, on the quiet land of their fathers or grandfathers, to their relatives who are not ashamed to be referred to as 'barbers', not ashamed that they never had a shop or dandy barlar, rustic barbers who are there in the village to visit you at your beck-and-call, at any time of the day or night, ready to wait on you with every need that you may have, to convert their passion into your pleasure, for their passion is human body hair, its variety and growth patterns — to study the way in which it grows, and the best method of removing it.

Broadly speaking, their services fall into two unequal parts. The first —and by far the most common— part being head-focussed, or that pertaining to your noble bonce and the panoply of hairs which crowd, gather and curl upon the nut, growing out of its cracks and fissures on your visage with its level plains and curvaceous dales. These can be trimmed, smoothed or removed, wherever and however they desire to grow. Eyebrows, moustaches, beard and rebellious whiskers. Ear-hairs are no problem and when it comes to nasal follicles, the cowardly had best close their eyes, whilst the brave may brace themselves to cast their eyes down to see long blades scything their windswept harvest on their journey into your nostrils.

This hair-cut and shave is the be-all and end-all for many a fine Tamilian, and for men like this, the line is drawn. Yet as some of us find ourselves unable to paint one room without wanting to daub more rooms in our houses, so some Tamils, after submitting their heads to the hands of the village snipper, want him to treat another part of their body, and for many it's little short of sacrilege to shave and smooth the plains of the face, to harvest off the moustache which crowns the hole where air and food flow in, only to neglect the orifice on the other end where waste and gases flow out. For men such as these the area surrounding the body's exit needs to be smooth and hairless as as the entrance.

This offers an exquisite delight for the razor man, who applies his skill with equal deftness here. But he needs help from the client, who must put his arms behind his back and applying one hand to each buttock, draw them apart as he opens the anal slit into an 'O'. This exposes the duck down, and the barber then begins working away. He gently caresses away the fluff and as he works a reciprocal energy comes into play. The client, acutely aware of the knife-edge between ecstasy and pain, hovers on the threshold as the tingle runs up-and-down his spine, goose-bumps helpfully bringing the fluffy hair into attention.

All too soon the delight has passed and eager for more, the client will then turn round to face him with the barber's bladed fingers following in close pursuit through to the remainder of the perineum. Their journey only ends when all the hairs on the genital region are scythed. The gent feels the winnowing caress of the wind over the area and after paying —or deferring to pay— thr barber he'll head for the shower to take his own private douche. After doing that, he may well visit his friends and lifting up his lunghi, will display himself, front and back. Showing off his satin smoothness he'll be the envy of his buddies, who'll want to follow suit. So they're soon waiting patiently for their head hair to grow another crop for the barber to harvest.

Our sketch of one of the hidden sides to Tamil Nadu is now almost complete: only a small portion in the corner remains, the empty gap which tells us that the tale is not quite finished, but I don't have the space left for the conclusion of the tale, neither is my pencil thin enough to cram in all the lines. I'll just have to shade it in for now, draw a modesty line beneath it and tell the remainder on another day.
04-DSC01736 (copy)

I'm grateful to S Arumugam for taking the photos and for the characters' permission to use them in this blog.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Whacked in Both Eyes

When I went to the Opticians recently for my biannual sight test, I looked forward to the glaucoma test at the end of the session: It had been a dusty day, and I fancied having the short, sharp puff of air squirted into my eye, to giving a coy little jump and going 'ooh'. Well that had gone. No longer any need to get you up to the contraption, he said. You can stay in your wheelchair, and I'll bring my snazzy little contraption right up to you. Just look over here now, and keep looking at that point.

The next minute the machine went click-clickety and I found myself blinking rapidly. It was probably some sort of laser or visible ray. Anyway it was soon over.

"Excellent!" he said, "your pressure is 15 in the right eye and 16 in the left. Then he showed me his thingie more closely and explained that the machine, an I-Care® Tonometer had fired a probe onto my eyeball six time, and then he showed the probe to me:

I nearly fainted at the though that a 1¾ inch needle had been whacking my eyes at ultrafast speed, but I guess I was interested, in fact I was fascinated enough to wheedle the probe out of him, even though he's 'not really' allowed to do it. If you don't tell, Sir, neither will I!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Visit to the Orthopædo

I was visiting an old friend in London last year, when I found it suddenly very painful to sit. In fact the situation was so bad that I had to make a sudden departure from my visit and head back, with my lads, to Cambridge, Even then, it took many weeks for me to recover from the unknown event. Yet how could I recover when I had no inkling what I was recovering from? Not long after that, it was time for me to head to India to continue my adventures. To live and love; to laugh and cry; to see many who are better ~ and a few that are a great deal ~ worse than me.

As long as you get yourself inveigled into the right sort of bunch, India is a great place to be where sitting presents a problem, for you can lie and loll and sprawl, speadeagle yourself, lounging on couches and propped up with cushions stuffed full of silk cotton growing from pods on trees in the next field. With massages and lively chat, your bed exposed to the wildlife and fresh air, you can easily lose yourself in wreaths of timelessness. One day melts into the next until, of course, it's time to come back home.

Driven on by pain again, I have an X-Ray and an appointment with the Orthopædo, who shows me one of these:

The contraption inside me is a hip replacement known as a Mckee Pin, and it was inserted into me when I was a lad of seventeen. It's an artificial ball-and-socket joint, and in my case the ball is still going strong, but the socket has eroded away, disintegrated and collapsed. Yet the good old ball is going so well, that it's trying to grind its way further up into my pelvis. What a good job the body defends itself against such excesses by producing defensive gristle, cartilage, scar tissue and stuff. So there it is! I'm a ball without a socket, a hinge without a bracket, a ping without a pong and a Cedilla without a C. ;)

Now is this a 'good' thing, or a 'bad' thing?

Well that depends on how you want to look at it.
If I'm hoping to enter the paralympics or climb the Eiffel Tower, or even a modest flight of stairs, my hopes are dashed. But if you don't mind being cuddled, cajoled, carried, toted, and carted all about, adjusted, mollified and pampered, then it's great news.
In other words, it's a repeat prescription for being spoiled way beyond what's good for me, a docket for being caressed and stroked, and it's a voucher for my every whim to be granted my every whim in a flash, and in that respect it's just the ticket.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Last Walk

While prejudices of race, religion and sexual orientation steadily crumble in the rain, there seems to be one small taboo remaining: The funny way in which people react when they go into a room and see you lying down. They get an idea into their head that they have to whisper, or treat you as if you were unwell, or a trifle out of sorts. Few indeed are there in England who will visit you at home without drawing up to an embarrassing halt when they see you're lying down.

In India, however, lying down is much more a part-and-parcel, a deeper embedding into the warp and woof of life than in the green pastures of England. In warmer climes you can stroll into a hall to see a lady cleaning brass work on the right, an infant swinging from the ceiling in a muslin sling in the middle, and a man lying down and sleeping at the back of the room, whilst another guy might be simply reclining on the floor and chatting in a desultory way; yet in England — even in the chill of deep mid-winter — you may find yourself categorised as out-of-synch if you're not up on your haunches and alert to all comings, goings and musings.

In India my resting often turns into a sprawling dance: I'll shift my position so as to re-angle my leg; then with the end of my prodder I'll give a gentle tap upwards to my carer's knee. By magic his leg will immediately bend, slowly rising to the vertical, as if it were a hydraulic lift. A tap in the opposite direction, and the hoist will stop. Sometimes others will come along for a sprawl, and two or three sets of legs will ascend to lean against the wall, proclaiming silhouettes of forked tree-trunks with miniature toe buds wiggling playfully in the breeze of the fan.

Lying supine is not, however, restricted to the bedroom and locked door: It spills out into the verandah and the Dinnai* and it lops along the path and field. Day or night I may stroll along on my constitutional, and invariably meet a gentleman in the Land of Nod, as we see here on our leisurely stroll.

This gent seemed so peaceful, with his feet in just the right position, gently resting in the spokes of his bike. Good ah'-noon, Sir: I know exactly how you feel; please don't even think of shifting yourself – no need to stir – for you'll never be able to get back into that position if you nudge your foot away from the stiff wire of the wheel!

And look at the serene expression on the face of this gent; I wonder where he is and how he fares, a wee pillow under his right arm, and nought but cold stone beneath his head.

Moving on in our walk, and further on in time, we see the deeper sleep of age. All this man's belongings form a pillow to cushion his head. No-one will disturb him during his rest. He's doubtless left his family, and surely left sad, unspoken tragedies behind... I wondered how he lived his life and how he made a living, how he fared. He travelled well. Now see how organised he is, with all his belongings tied up in a sack, with his pillow and his sandals on the bench!

We wander on, in timeless silent mode. Before long the scenery’s changed, and we're away from the countryside and back to the shrieking, clanking conurbation, with mad bikes and madder lorries rushing past us at break-neck speed, missing our slender frames by inches. I want to get home, I want to rest, to slumber in the silence of my quiet bed, I want a spot of stillness in this manic rush.

As if my thoughts had taken shape, I spy a bundle left upon the remnants of a pavement; right outside a chemists shop. I pass it by, then feel a pull. It is an inner urge — a tug which draws me back to where the bundle is. I ask ‘what's that?’ and looking at the heap, my friends look too, to see the spectacle which brings me to a halt.

“He's dead”, my friend said, “Here he came, because for him the road of life was at its end. Shall we leave a little money? The authorities will come along in the morning and take the body off. The ones who do this job get little pay.” I empty the contents of my pockets onto his cloth, about seven Rupees, 11pence or perhaps a couple of dimes in value, wishing that I’d carried more. I was sad and glad, yet also horrified to see the people hurrying to-and-fro, oblivious of the situation, yet aware enough to leave him be. I look and look, fancying I see a glimmer of hope in a slight breath; my friend denies it – then it’s there! ~ there’s definitely a little life left in the bundle!

I cast an appealing look towards my friend: to take him to our local doctor, to call an ambulance, to tell the Police? Yet straight away my plea falls flat. What would they do? Who could ever take him in? This was his path, and now for him the journey was at its end. What difference could a little breath make now?

I leave him, imagining how once he was a little boy playing marbles in the street with other boys, with mother, father, uncle, sister, brother. All now gone, alone, friendless: little brought in and next to nothing taken out. And yet, paradoxically, he was fine and so was I.

So were we all. It was the way it was, the way it had to be, and everything had worked out as it should.

= = = = = = = = = =

*Dinnai: A kind of stone couch attached to the front of your house. Strangers may sit there without permission or leave, and you can welcome any people there. Often, Visitors on Dinnais may become quite good friends, and be served with refreshments, even if they are never invited into your house.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reflections on a Water Bottle

I look back on life — it's
funny how things turn out.
You, the creator of beeping
sirens and honking cars, yearn
for the solitude of the
mountains. You, a connoisseur
of fast food, now gaze at water
that took years to gather
natural minerals as it trickled
down from the Himalayas to
within your reach. And I, some
of the purest water in the
world, stand here, trapped in a
bottle. Come, enjoy the irony.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

From Ground to Brick to Dust

When this house was being built in 1992, one of the labourers was gored by a cow. Rajamba had been treating it herself with country herbs, but it was to no use, for when she brought the place to me for inspection, pus was oozing out. The wound was very deep and far beyond anything I could do, so I sent her packing off to a good hospital in town, and within days it was well on the way to getting better.

Even when wounded, Rajamba didn't stop work of one kind or another, not even for one day. She'd been labouring for this house, carrying bricks, cement and buckets of water. After her accident, she took a few days off from here and resorted to some field work, helping to bring in the paddy harvest; but not long after that, swathed in bandages oozing blood and acriflavine, she reported in one morning and was soon carrying pans of cement for the stonemasons again.

No record was ever made of her birth, and none will be made of her passing: Out of nothing she appeared, moved and had her being. And now she has returned to nothing. Less than a week after passing from us, she's already becoming a dim memory. Once the heat comes she'll be forgotten, without trace memory or any record that she ever existed.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Use Our Toilet & We'll Pay You

I'm grateful to Tim Mars for sending me the following snippet: B-)

"A toilet that pays its users has been opened in Musiri, Tamil Nadu, India.

"It is the first of its kind.

"The public toilet, in the town of Musiri in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, gives users as much as 12 U.S. cents a month for their excreta. Fæces are composted and urine, which is 95 percent water and has already passed through the body’s own filter, the kidneys, is collected, stored in drums and used as fertilizer for bananas and other food crops in a two-year research project by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

"‘The day that I can use your toilet and you pay me instead of me paying you, that will be the day when we have really learned to reuse our waste,‘ says Santha Sheela Nair, India’s secretary of drinking water supply."

Here's the Full Story