Sunday, January 30, 2005

Never ever land

We spend a long time trying to grow up, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to recreate youth.

I watched a movie about a boy who grew up too quickly, a man who saw life differently, and the barriers only children can melt. Finding Neverland was simply beautiful.

Brain fry

I went off the tracks today. No reason in particular. There was just no rhythm. No flow. No continuity.

Time was disjointed. The seconds slowed down. At one point during the day I looked at the clock on the monitor. It was just past noon, 12:25, I think. When I looked at it what seemed like ten minutes later, it was still 12:25.

Every few minutes I'd stare at the clock, willing it to move quicker, dammit, but it wouldn't oblige me. On screen there was a cricket match playing, and I wondered how players could keep going year after year. Don't they tire? Don't they wake up one morning, groan, fumble out of bed and look in the mirror and rhetorically ask themselves, "why must we play so much?"

On fitful days like this, a mad fever usually strikes. Today was no different. Wonderful fever. Burnt my upper lip with the heat of each exhaled breath (only a slight exaggeration). It usually spreads to the rest of the body so it feels like everything is hot. It made the wait interminable. I wondered about Serena Williams, who overcame a damaged rib to win the Australian Open final. All I had to do was wait till 6 o clock. But still.

How does one think or get any work done? You think about lost weekends spent at work. You plot escape to recover from this breath that singes. You imagine cuddling up under a blanket. You imagine being somewhere else. Anywhere else. I dream of snow in New York. I dream of cooking a rice dish. Of making complicated sandwitches filled with pesto for a friend. Of the smell of fresh cookies.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Long days

Standing by your street I speak your name.

I dream of days that won't come again.

I need to vent, but don't know where to go.

Without you, Bombay traffic seems slow.

ps. Main shayar to nahi.

Kisna Costner

For a while now, Amrish Puri has carried a certain image about him on screen. That voice tells you he's evil. That manic look jumps at you for its proximity to borderline insanity. Not only did he look and sound evil in Kisna, but Subhash Ghai hammered it in by putting a silly wig on him in addition to a glass eye.

He (Puri, not Ghai, sadly) meets with a timely demise at the end of Kisna's (Vivek Oberoi's) sword as he attempts to carry off Antonia - Kisna's babe - and end her struggle with the local dialect. ("Keesna, keedaar oh?") Needless to say, she survives one attempt to kill and rape her after another. Kisna is always there.

"I love her now!" he booms back at a nerveless elder brother who tries his hand at silencing Antonia. The elder brother has failed and is getting a good talking-to. We empathise with big brother when Antonia says, "baut ho gya! Bai dusri bai se nahi lad suktey! Merko maro!" (It's nearly accurate.)

Ah, yes. Why is Antonia on the run? It's like this. Her father is in charge of a district in pre-independent India and he - but of course - despises Indians. Amrish Puri hates him back and has him murdered. He tries to stop Antonia's Hindi once and for all as well, but she escapes narrowly.

Kisna's mum, a cool woman wearing a cool choker, sends him out on a totally uncool task: to protect Antonia with his life and make sure she gets home safe. There's a slight problem, though. Kisna's engaged to a paranoid woman who dances her anger away. Never mind that though, and he sets off with Antonia without informing his betrothed.

Like every good adventure, they do fun things on the side. They stay over at Kisna's pal's place (Vivek Muskan, I think) and have a bath in a river. The Ganges, I think. Antonia steps out of it in a very wet, very white and very transparent sari, and when Kisna sets his eyes on her in this state, their souls meet. No, seriously.

Anyway. They do another fun thing by stopping over at Sushmita's pad for a dance. Then Antonia nearly gets raped by Rajat Kapoor, who plays a lustful raja. But Kisna's there. Like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard.

The direction is rubbish, really. It's supposed to be 1947. Imagine the horror when there's this shot of a bridge, and a modern car drives by. His dialogue writer is inspired by Times of India's "thought for the day".

Kisna: "He who knows nothing, knows everything."
Antonia: "Let us think not of big things, but of good things."

No one talks like that. No one. Speaking in sayings is horrible, and definitely not part of a society that counts openness among its virtues. But in Ghai's mind, I suspect, there are no demarcations of any kind. His characters exist on the surface, without history, without a future. It's a very right-here-right-now case. It's pop.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

And in this corner...

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you none other than.... (drumroll)....Mohammad Kaif.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Earthy whispers

Had it not been for an afterthought three days ago, a final comment to seal the next meeting, the experiences of today would not have occurred. I spent that evening with a friend at a bookstore, continued to a cramped restaurant, and wound up at a coffee shop. He patiently answered my hesitant questions and recommended books that would help understand the world. As the evening came to an end I realised that it could be months before we met again. I groped within for something to say. "I'll probably head to the Kala Ghoda festival in town in a few days. Are you interested?"

He was. So on a light January afternoon we drove to south Bombay for the yearly ritual. He was curious about the festival. I informed him it was a week-long event on art and music. The facts were based on memories from three years ago. It had been night then, and a popular middle-aged sari-clad singer named Usha Uthup had brought a shivering audience warmth with her vivacious voice on the last night of the show. The next morning the stage was in a state of dismantle, and the endless rows of handicraft and photo print stalls were empty. It was like clearing the mind after a massive party.

The festival's charm lay in its openness to the streets. Dancers and musicians performed on a stage built on a sidewalk at Kala Ghoda, the square the festival was named after. I had awaited this delightful weave of art and outdoors with the anticipation that only a sweet remembrance evokes.

I should have known better. Our first sights and sounds of this year's festival were of jostling crowds and blaring car horns. The event had been compressed into an outdoor space that seemed smaller than before, but the visitors had multiplied. There was the bearable discomfort - quite familiar to events that require understanding and patience - of no seats as a dance troupe rehearsed on an elevated stage. They twirled round and round with their arms spread wide like helicopters, while a woman wearing a t-shirt closed her eyes and sang into a mike. Smoke rose from smoke machines beneath the stage. A Frenchman rove among the figures.

Faces around the stage expressed befuddlement and a growing unease with the performance. Remarkably, only a few left for elsewhere. If not for empathy, they stayed out of curiosity. However, we left for the nearby art galleries where an exhibition of paintings and sculptures were in progress.

I was aware that we were in Greenpeace territory. They were persistent volunteers who ground money out of you with a propagandistic ramble. In two years I could not shrug them off. Friend asked one to go away just as his mouth opened. Today was turning out to be excellent.

The galleries left us cold, though I liked a series of paintings which appeared to be insired extensively by anime. "Their faces look the same," he said as we left the gallery. I gave him an obscure reason explaining why these paintings were gorgeous as we walked to the food stalls lined on a road which curved towards the Gateway of India. Along the way on both sides of the pavement, people spread old coins, photos of Bombay, wooden blocks, friendship bands. They called out, arms stretched, hoping to catch your eye, to establish contact. My interest in a wooden block with a paisley design on it caused a flutter. Two women joined the one in charge and goaded me on to keep it.

Placed outside the National gallery of Modern Arts, a few foodstalls were charmingly domestic in their fare. Fish, chicken tikka and rotis were on offer, as was home-made tea. We went Mexican with lots of cheese, silently wiping it off our shirts as the sky turned dark blue.

A short stroll away, the Gateway of India played host to a fusion of jazz and classical Indian dance. The monument towered over the musicians as they provided the dancer notes to move to. Perfect rhythm, I thought, as her feet moved with the beat. The friend, who had reserved his judgement for a while, had a different take. "In english, we were told to avoid cliches while writing. Musicians do it all the time." As we left, the music followed us and I began to understand the patterns of this piece. The flute kicked in where I anticipated, as did the change of beat.

His wife, a quiet one with a broad smile, was wrapped tightly in a shawl when we met her at Priyadarshani Park, half-an-hour's drive from Kala Ghoda. We were here to see an art installation which, by all accounts, was wonderful. As we walked down a winding paved walkway between trees and concrete benches, we saw streaks of colours fluttering against the darkness. The streaks were saris blown by winds from the sea beyond. Purple, blue, pink, yellow, green, all broke through the night sky. I had been here many times before, but it now seemed a different place. A place of celebration, of freedom. To my surprise, the name of the exhibit was 'Celebration'.

We mazed around the installations, admiring Dr Kerkar's aesthetic sense. Once a doctor, he gave up his practice - "I owned a small hospital" - and took up his passion. His passion had resulted in several sculptures dramatised by lights which accentuated and gave new meaning to objects all around us. Triangles in the mud with light bulbs behind them gave the illusion of the sea at sunset.

The January breeze blew inland as we approached him. He broke into a toothy smile and explained how he had been inspired to become an artist. Behind him were a line of metallic fins. Around us a crowd grew, listening to his every word. After a while, we excused ourselves.

But before we left, I turned to ask if he had been to this park before. I pointed an installation in the distance. Titled 'Petrified Lovers', the installation had lovers in various poses carved into terracotta cones. They were petrified of being caught. Which is why I asked Dr Kerkar if he had been here before and seen the lovers. He laughed out loud. "It's my first time to this park," he said. "But how does that matter? In India," he pointed towards the petrified lovers, "it holds true on any beach and any park! Everywhere!"

The people around smiled at this. We've all been petrified lovers.

Update: This needs tightening.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

What is cricket all about?

"That's what cricket is all about!" a broadcaster said in anguish after a catch was dropped during a recent Bangladesh-Zimbabwe match I bulletined. Not long after, as the batsmen scampered the length of the pitch and barely made their destination, the same commentator stated emphatically, "That's what cricket is all about."

"That's a good shot!" said another commentator when the shot we just saw was indeed a good one. "That's another good shot!" he continued, before ending with "That's a grrrreat shot!" for variation.

After briefly interrupting his commentary with common sense, the commentator then declared about the Bangladesh captain, "He has to get the bull with the horns," thereby implying that Habibul Bashar, the Bangladesh captain, currently had a harmless bull on his hands. But the man wasn't done yet. "He has to target his main bowlers," the commentator said of Bashar - who was smiling benignly when the camera cut to him - prompting visions of Bashar doing a Tonya Harding on Mortaza, Enamul and Rafique.

A little later, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, the man who moves my thumb to the mute button, declared, "It's all happening here." Where, Siva, where? I didn't see anything happen for five days.

Not to be outdone by himself, Siva returned to drive a stake through the heart of good commentary with a cheery "He's enjoying this," followed by silence. I stared at the screen, hoping to catch a glimpse of the enjoyment Siva had seen. I kept staring for a while before it struck me that for Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, commentary was not just about the happenings on-field. It was about creating excitement. Like making a summer blockbuster with a nail clipping as subject.

Not everything needs to be spoken about. Commentary needs the touch of a Wong Kar Wai, not Jerry Bruckheimer, for light and shadow can be as dramatic, and more unexpected than an explosion. The perennial lilt in Siva's voice builds an image of a man who is excited by everything, even a depressingly slow passage of play. It casts on the commentator, sometimes unfairly, a light that shows his detachment from reality, and questions whether he believes his own words. The emotion of excitement is forced onto comments that do not demand that particular emotion. And like with all forced emotions, a niggling suspicion is aroused. Suspicion is not something any commentator needs from his viewers, for he loses credibility. It is a downward spiral.

Silence holds a certain power. It is a crutch to hold on to when words and emotions fail you.

Update: This piece underwent several edits. Sorry if that's not the blog thang to do.

She died of what?!

Kokilaben Kadakia, the 77-year old lady who appeared on the last page of The Times of India (TOI) - India's favourite tabloid - only three days ago, is dead. The snap showed her getting ready to participate in the Mumbai marathon. I heard the news disbelievingly. Apparently she ran the marathon. She didn't look like the kind of 77-year old who'd run. More the type who'd take a stroll and retire to the side. Apparently not.

I discuss this with a friend who's taking a rather fatalistic view of life these days. I say it's stupid to run at that age. He nods. But he continues nodding and looks into the distance. He's got that 'there-is-more-to-life-than-meets-the-eye' look about him. Still looking into the distance, he continues nodding and says, "Poor thing. This is what happens when someone casts the evil eye."

Science sure gets a bum rap these days.

Update - 11:15 am:
TOI has carried a story quoting her doctor saying that she ran on her own, and did not tell him about her intention because she knew he would have advised her against it. But TOI has its own take on the matter. The article concludes with, "Mumbai bows its head and salutes your spirit, Kokilaben."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Hazy days

How much sleep do we need? Eight hours? Seven? A search on Google brings up a few theories (9.1 million). One headline says, "Over eight hours sleep too much of a good thing", while New Scientist says, "Seven hours' sleep the safest".

Safety apart, over time, eight hours, no more, no less, has become a habit. I rise, rather than stumble, out of bed. The morning acquires the crispness of a new book. Answers to everyday questions flow without thought, and I somehow know I've made the right decision. Weather does not change anything. Traffic becomes an opportunity to listen to my favourite song again. Throughout the day, the clock tells me I have more time whenever I look at it. Time is never slow, it glides by at an easy pace as I work, walk, exchange information. Daydreams are more vivid, excitedly descriptive about the path ahead, and the lasting impact their subject will have on humanity.

This elevated state of well-being is conducted to my family, for they respond with energy. It is conducted to lifeless objects, such as the phone, which rings bringing familiar voices from other continents. I smile at the man knocking on my window to sell me books, and lower the partition to tell him I have nearly every book he's carrying. He hopefully asks if I have 'The Alchemist' or some such. Not even that fazes me. We chat until the signal turns green.

There are always things to do, and places to visit. Days seem to last longer, which is strange, for a lack of sleep has the opposite effect. Time becomes inconsistent, like a clock with wonky batteries. I am forever subconsciously uncovering memories that I attempt to bury a little deeper everyday. The dark shrouds require lifting for thoughts to be freed, and even then they seem affected.

On waking up, the ground feels much too cold, and I scan the room for roaches and other creepy crawlies alert to my presence. I am half-disappointed they remain hidden. The clarity of other days is replaced by a low dark haze. Days that begin this way are spent plotting an escape from routine, from inevitability, from an unkempt state of mind.

Conversation, never easy, is schizophrenic under the weight of sleeplessness. The unintentional dismantling of the protective barrier - which also proves so restrictive in a state of consciousness - prompts a continuous ramble that is either insightful or nonsensical. When you reach deep within, do you find clarity? Or does it leave you bewildered?

A haze surrounds me, and this takes a few days to dissipate. Until then I traverse the gray stretch, making a mental note to hit the sack early. Speaking of which, it is 12:30am, and I have to be awake in much less than eight hours.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Paaji in da house

Now I have no fond memories of what Mtv and Channel [V] were like, simply because I have no memories of them. I wasn't in the country in the good ol' days when (I hear) Luke Kenny ruled and Cyrus Broacha was the freshest thing ever on tv. However, it couldn't have been like this. Why on earth are these leather-clad Sikhs wearing head warmers and walking around a warehouse singing Punjabi songs with a hiphop beat in front of a fisheye lens? Who listens to this? Why are these voluptuous Indian women dancing like that in their underwear? And does it not strike anybody, from the heads (nearly typed 'herds' there) of record companies to the guy who sticks the broadcast tape in at Mtv that Punjabi hiphop is an impossibility?

Having lived in Brooklyn, I've been lucky enough to have friends who would break into song at the drop of a hat at the university dining hall and other places. They did it beautifully, and the performance was as rewarding as the rhyme itself. Punjabi hiphop, on the other hand, is like watching Britney Spears. Netiher should be on telly, but there they are. And it's rumoured that there's a market for this stuff.

Another problem with Punjabi hiphop, and a lot of other entertainment in India, is that what should have been a novelty suddenly becomes more lasting because of its success. It's like a sudden spurt of horror movies after one does well, or the last decade's herd of romantic movies after 'Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge' (We still haven't recovered from that trend, by the way).

Hence the current barrage of Punjabi hiphop videos. Most start with a) a lone Punjabi male wailing mournfully before the beat sets in, and b) an African-American uttering gibberish before the beat sets in. This went out of fashion in the US with Vanilla Ice.

"Jassi in da house," proclaims a mandatory black* at the start of one especially inane music video. That's the problem. I want him out of my house.

*'Black' is a term used for matters of convenience on this blog.

Friday, January 14, 2005

So long, Farrell

Yesterday I paid to watch an avoidable movie, and then sat through it. For hours in a dimly lit hall I rubbed my hands in conspiratorial glee and plotted, thinking evil thoughts that would be part of my movie review. Alas, I could only come up with:

"Like Alexander, this movie should have been routed at the Indian border."

That was it. I'm not even sure of where in India his army was stopped. In any case, here's an exerpt from a review by Anthony Lane of The New Yorker:

"Alexander, born in 356 B.C., was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias, one of his many wives; or, to put the matter in its most startling form, Colin Farrell is the son of Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie. Wow. Given parentage of that calibre, the boy was never going to be your basic, middle-income Macedonian. Either he was going to conquer nation-states all the way from Athens to India, engraving his name in history, or he was going to wind up running a club called Oedipussy on the wrong end of Mykonos."

For the entire review, click here.

A triumphant return

While growing up, grass (the green kind) was a luxury. It was a priviledge to play on it. If you worked hard and your team made the finals of a cricket tournament, you could play at Sharjah Stadium. Otherwise, you remained in the boondocks of sand, pebbles, and concrete pitches. It was a kind of hell. The kind of thing people say "builds character". But there was nothing remotely glorious about facing a leather ball on concrete.

And then, if you weren't batting, you were fielding. Captains would screech and wave their arms about from first slip (a position that does not require much motion), beseeching you to dive, dammit, dive across stones, shards of glass, rought grains of sand, and pick up and throw the ball back to him with what was left of your arm.

So recently, when a few friends and I headed to Churchgate one morning to play cricket, I wondered what playing on grass at last would be like. In my dreams, I played on freshly-mowed grass and attacked the world's best bowlers. Would I do the same here, too? On Indian soil? In real life? The train rattled towards our destination while former visions of glory readjusted themselves to the present.

On arrival we staked our claim on a strip of land, erected protective netting, and finally got down to playing. There were no crowds cheering us on, no talent hunters emerging from bushes to tell us we'd play for India in February, and definitely no groupies. But I did bowl one batsman who appeared suitably bamboozled. He grinned. I scowled.

The rest of the session was hard work. We kept bowling, kept getting things right, kept doing things from memory until the entire act of playing felt comfortable again. I practiced faces of all sorts. Scowls, glee, angst, smirks. To get the international cricketer thing going again. Gradually the preconceived expressions became automatic, and the ball felt familiar.

Even then, I got whacked plenty. All over the place. It must have been the dew. The ball just wouldn't come out right. I suppose it's time to bring out the mystery ball.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ajay's smile

I meet this guy named Ajay outside a restaurant (Pizzeria) a few days ago. Actually, he comes up to a friend and me and rubs his tummy. He's unkempt, sleeps on the streets, and for a minute I actually wonder whether he's really hungry or he's faking it. This is before he says a word. It's something I go through everyday in Mumbai. See, judge, dismiss, doubt, change mind, ask for opinion, walk away from problem. It happens a lot when you're confronted with poverty. Well, with me, anyway.

But on the day - I think it was Friday - I get him a pack of biscuits, and receive in return a mile-wide smile not seen since...I don't remember when, actually. He parks himself on the pavement, and meticulously cuts open the pack, as if it was mealtime. You could imagine him sitting at a dinner table somewhere, with his parents going, "Sit straight, and what about your prayers?"

I interrupt his mealtime, and we get talking. He says he's from Jammu, and the word itself is so far away, it does not register for a minute. I imagine I'd look pretty stupid to anyone else, but with this kid, I can return a whole minute later and ask, "you mean Jammu from Jammu and Kashmir?!" In between, I had fooled myself into thinking it was the name of a slum somewhere in Bombay. He says yes and moves his index finger over the layer of dust on my car.

He has run away from home, with an older distant cousin, who becomes more distant when things do not go well in Bombay. He abandons Ajay, the boy in front of me right now. Ajay first sleeps at Mumbai Central station, but the cops harrass him. So he moves to Churchgate Station, where "no one troubles me". His parents have no idea of his wherabouts for the last six months. I leave him, promising to be back the next day.

I return, but he is not there. The keeper of the nearby store briefly deflates my faith when he says the people who hang around here, asking for food, have all been here for long, and that they spin convincing yarns. But I recover quickly when I remember Ajay's smile. It was quite real. It's nearly been a week but I remember it clearly. A genuine smile always stands out.

Monday, January 10, 2005

A toast to clarity

Descartes walks into a bar.

The bartender walks up to him and says, “Would you care for a drink?”

Descartes replies, “I think not,” and disappears.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Where is everybody?

I wonder where everybody is right now. The second-last person at work walked out at 4:45pm. I'm still here, waiting for my shift to end. There's absolutely no one here on Sunday evenings. They're out somewhere, doing things that people do on weekends. Watching a movie, perhaps. Or going for a play. Spending time with family. In here, I can faintly hear honking cars on a nearby road. Some honks are shrill, some are dull, and most invariably last longer then two seconds.

But in here, where the blinds are drawn shut, you hear few other sounds. The hum of the air conditioner, inaudible on any other day of the week, creates a noise that is almost visible. I hear the tap of a woman's heels in the corridor, and the sound disappears as suddenly as it appeared. A cell phone rings, and is quickly answered, or disconnected. The only evidence of the world outside are the sounds. Even they seem strange, as if they should be somewhere else.

How must living in a lighthouse feel? Is it like Sunday at 5:30pm forever there? How do you understand yourself in isolation? How does one live comfortably with oneself when you know what's out there, and that you could be doing any number of things? I could be at a play, or a movie, or playing chess with and losing to a friend. I could be eating Pav Bhaji with a friend. Or teaching one how to drive, and holding on for dear life as the friend hits the accelerator, thinking it was the brake.

Sunday evenings are full of possibilities. They're far too precious to spend thinking about what you'd do on a Sunday evening.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

If only

When is a disaster a disaster? Is it when the impact is sudden?

Yesterday, as a Bihari rickshaw driver drove me to work from the airport, the thought was bothersome. Much later, as I went to bed, it went to bed with me, and enmeshed itself with other thoughts in a noisy head. On waking up this morning I peered outside and, beyond the winter mist, took in the sight of ambitious skyscrapers rising beside roads that needed first aid. The mangrove trees nearby were fighting a losing battle against bulldozers determined to make way for a golf course. Stray dogs wandered lazily, pausing to bark at passing cars. A pile of garbage burned beside a skyscraper, smack in the middle of a residential area.

Then came the epiphany. What if disaster had struck already? What if it had crept up so stealthily and so gradually, we didn't know we were in the middle of it?

The last night of my visit to Tamil Nadu was filled with revelations. If only the Sacred Heart school had received notice from the government about the education meal scheme four years ago, the villagers would have one less meal to worry about everyday. If only the villages had received one phone call, asking them to run like the wind. If only hospitals were nearby. If only we had our tsunami warning system ready. What happened all across south Asia was shocking because of the sudden loss of human life. Losing 150,000 people in one go is pretty much Nagasaki.

But what if all the people in those six digits died gradually to things like: a) an ambulance not reaching a hospital in time because of a massive and regular traffic jam, b) fire extinguishers not working on the upper floors of a high-rise on fire, c) you name it. Would it still be a disaster? No. We'd be calling them unfortunate incidents that highlight apathy. It would be news for a few days. I'd be one of the first to forget.

But Bombay, being close to a faultline, is in a geographically precarious position. When an earthquake hits, we might not be ready for it. Already Tamil Nadu and other affected regions are spoken of tragically with 'if only's. Will Bombay's story be the same? If only builders complied with safety norms, if only the sewage system was cleaned regularly, if only trash wasn't burnt in the middle of the city, if only 5000 people weren't jam-packed in a single train, and if only that train had doors that shut.

I wonder if I'm being pessimistic about this city. It has survived and kept its nose above the water for a very long time. But the water levels are rising. And as anyone in Cuddalore, Naggapatinam, Galle, Phuket, Sumatra and Nicobar will tell you, when the water rises, keeping your nose above the water is only a start. You then need to find a way to get out of it altogether.

Everywhere people in traffic jams wait and wait and wait with unsmiling faces. We move, swerve, hit the brakes and cuss. We continue to wait for the next green light. And so we remain motionless, hoping that someday change will come. That someone will change things.

It is tragic that many don't believe that 'someone' can be them. It's not a triumph of pessimism. We've just forgotten what it feels like to be a hero.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

How do you solve problems like these, Maria?

Sister Maria Silva greeted us with an easy smile and a slight bow beside the church at Paramankeni Kuppam. "She's also our doctor," said one of the men jostling for sitting room around sister Maria, Govind and me. Very calmly, on our asking, she informed us of everything the village needed. Nothing for herself. The men looked on, careful not to interrupt. We had spoken with them before greeting Maria, and after describing the height of waves and trajectory of catamarans animately, they stopped gesturing wildly while speaking of Maria - a sign they were in comfortable territory.

You know that one person you turn to when everything goes wrong? The lady dressed in beige was that person. She never stopped smiling. Not even when she told us that the village school, Sacred Heart High School, had applied for government aid four years ago - to take up an offer of free meals for children - but had no reply yet. She only stopped smiling, and that too for only an instant, when we told her it was time for us to leave. She insisted we have tea with her. It was perfect. The cool air, the sound of water splashing on the beach, a warm cup of tea, a black sky above. It was perfect.

On December 26, shortly after the waves hit and flung a catamaran over a house, roared through concrete walls, wiped out 230 of 280 thatched homes and dragged a girl into the sea, Father Martin Joseph drove over 250 families from Paramankeni Kuppam to Cheyyur, nine kilometers away. Across the state, across the strait in Sri Lanka, across the ocean, there were stories of good being done. Walls that were either real or imagined - of caste, of religion, of suspicion - were broken when the tsunami hit. Even some local minister were doing their best for their villages. A wall in my mind crumbled when I heard that.

But a few things might take some time to change. In the wake of the tragedy, the governent announced that each home would get a bag of rice and Rs4000. I asked the fisherman how far they could stretch the amount. For a family of four, one month, they said. But they added that each home received only one sack of rice and Rs4000 regardless of the number of people under it. One home had 12 occupants. You do the math. No, don't do the math. It's depressing.

Ps. At 8:20pm, the lights went off and the skies revealed themselves. I saw a clear, starry sky. The only stars I'd gotten used to seeing are on bloody page 3. And some of them were black holes.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

It's so unbelievable, it could be true

Villages along the coastal road all the way to Mahabalipuram have been adopted by NGOs. The Indian Express had a red and black flag flying high at the entrance of a number of villages, but even where there was no red and black, there were other colours - other people, other help. Already the first steps to rebuild had been taken. At Nemmeli, the locals planted trees beside a newly-laid path to the village. As we drove by village after village, first steps were being taken everywhere.

We finally stopped at Mahabalipuram, and discovered that the boat that had crashed into the Krishna temple was gone, as were the others that had cluttered there last night. Debris covered the access area between the beach and the homes, but the streets were clean. The government had joined hands with the locals and washed the alleys clean a few days after the waves hit, before anything worse arose. This was surprising, because in nearly every other way, the government officials still lagged behind.

Somasunderam, the local minister, paid the village a visit on the 27th and then on the 1st. The first was an eventful one, for he promised each family Rs 4000, kerosine and 60 kilos of rice. A week later, not a grain, not a drop, and not a paisa were seen. There has been a question mark over the conduct of politicians in normal times, but even now, at this dire time, the question remains, which shows them in even poorer light. The officials who came by asked for ration cards. The fishermen pointed towards the sea. The Fisheries Co-operative Society remained unmoved, and no steps to alleviate pain were taken. Their primary function, as we understood it, was to add 600 rupees for every 600 the fishermen put in, and the lump sum would be the fisherman's after a year - like a provident fund. Much more was expected, in every possible way.

As we made our way down to the beach, slipping on rotten fish, entangling ankles in useless bundles of fishing nets, between homes and restaurants with cracks on the sides and gaping holes that were once entrances, a group of fishermen followed us. Boys who should have been somewhere else - out playing, studying? - untangled nets. It was torturous to watch. A dog nibbled at a strand. A number of the men, all clad in lungis, had fresh white bandages wrapped around arms and legs. One of them told us about Somasunderam's promises. He did not call them promises, but it was clear to everyone. They were not bitter, nor had they accepted that this was how things would come to pass. They believed they would have the aid meant for them.

Only a month ago did the village send the Fisheries co-op a list of the number of boats in the village in exchange for a 5-rupee concession on each litre of diesel for their motorboats. The documents they needed for the concession had not yet arrived. Once they have their boats, they will need the documents more urgently than ever. Will they have them? Noticing where our thoughts were headed, one of the men, Prabhakaran, told us what they really needed. "We need nets. Four different types of net," he said. "8 kgs each. The boats can come later."

Mahabalipuram is a popular tourist destination, and a good source of revenue for the region. The Shore temple is only a short stroll away. The town had not been ravaged. There was no significant damage to homes, though the buildings that faced the beach were completely devastated. Two casualties. But when the waves came and swept through the unprotected areas, the three freshwater wells the village relied on were filled with salt. They needed help. For two days they had it, and then the government stopped providing water.

"We told them," said Bhupalan Mamallapuram, the village chief, referring to the local government, "that the water [in the wells] had salt in it. They told us they were providing us water in the taps. But it is salty there too." They now rely on handpumps to extract groundwater. (Is groundwater a limited resource? I have to figure that out.)

Just then, Govind's (our very own bouncy-haired translator from Infosys. He's actually more, much more than that.) phone rang, and the common thread that bound the north and the south was temporarily broken. I turned around, took a walk, and peered at the beach through a house where the front and back doors had been blasted off the doorframe. A family took a stroll on the beach. A cow walked by, sniffing at the remains of people's belongings. I'm reminded of what the owner of one of the only intact sea-facing restaurants said to a colleague: There are always animals here. But that day, when the tsunami struck, not one animal was anywhere to be seen on the beach. Just like the government. (I made up the last line.)

Just before we left, Govind began conversing with a man who had lost a lot. He cried as he told us that the men handing out 4000 rupees insisted with the villagers that they be paid a quarter of the amount. Tears trickled down his cheeks when he said that while the DMK and the AIADMK battled it out, the aid would never reach where it was meant to go.

It was almost believable. Yesterday I visited a BJP mla's home and it was filled with open crates of vegetables while he sat with us and sipped tea and his children squirted packets of fresh water at each other. Today there were more accounts of political parties stopping trucks carrying aid and hoarding it all themselves. It's all so unbelievable, it could almost be true.

Ps. The following day I found out that only one village had a complaint with the BJP minister. The first time they went to him for aid, he asked them to go away. The next time, he told them he'd think about it and give them aid if there was any left. I visited two other villages that confirmed he had been providing aid daily. My apologies to Ponvardharajan.

Venpurasam and Mahabalipuram

Yesterday we hit the road to Venpurasam, a village struck hard by the tsunami. No one had died here either, but four days later, on hearing there was another tsunami alert, an old man had a fatal heart attack. The first thing you notice is how far the boats are from the shore. Like this, there are scattered objects...objects that don't belong where they currently rest...objects that hint at how furious the ocean was on the 26th of December. A solid granite statue, which would need a crane to lift, lay on its side 15 feet away. The water levels can be seen on the side of the temple. Three feet high. The temple is 7-8 feet above sea level.

The fishermen are scared. One says animatedly in Tamil, "We're all very afraid. We know that when waters are choppy, we shouldn't go in. But this thing came when the waters were calm! How can we trust it? We won't go in for another three months."

Government officials came by and told the villagers not to enter the waters until further notice. I wondered why. Could it have been because of the village's proximity to the damaged nuclear facility at Kolpakkam? The same alert was not issued in other places. At Mahabalipuram there was only a two-day warning. In any case, the fishermen were torn between staying safe, and venturing into the sea again. Village after village, people say the same thing. They need nets, but can't trust the sea. They want nets. Nothing else.

The doctors we brought along say everyone's in good health, but they're running out of pediatric medicines.

Before we left, I asked if they saw it coming. "Yes," said the old man who was frightened of the sea. "But first we did not know, because the sea went back by a kilometer. It stayed there for five minutes, and then it came rushing towards us. We saw six temples. Then we were pushed by the water, and we had to hold on to trees." I asked him about the six temples. He said they were underwater, and it was the first time the village had seen them. The sighting was confirmed at Mahabalipuram. The six temples were discovered by an expedition two years ago, and are from the Pallava dynasty.

On arriving at Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram (Translation: great wrestler), it took a while to realise that we were standing in a tsunami-hit village. It was pristine. Clean. Beautiful. But like at the other villages, it was the out of place objects that made your eyes widen. But the reason the village had been relatively untouched was because the restaurants that lined the beach took the brunt of the waves. The owner of the Sea Rock Hotel -which you will find in Lonely Planet guides - came up to us and asked if we were aiding restaurants as we did with homes. He didn't have insurance. His hotel was hit hard. A tourist was sucked out of her Sea Rock hotel room and into the sea. Another man lost his nephew, and with great strength, composure, dignity, told us his village had been ignored by the government. He said there were no hospitals nearby. They had to travel to Chennai. We'll probably visit there again, with some of the supplies they need.

Walking around, you couldn't help but feel that they were trying to return to a state of normalcy. What was it like....was it a beautiful day like this, with a soft breeze, the murmer, the chatter of little girls....was it like this when the waves came? How ever did that 20-foot long fiberglass boat crash with unerring accuracy right through the front of the Laxman temple? How did that massive concrete block get here, and, oh, that's where it came from?! How did the waves reach heights of 22 feet as they roared between two restaurant buildings and into the town? How did it feel setting your eyes on six temples you had only heard about, how did it feel seeing a relic from the past, a place of worship, and then then watching in horror as the black waves advanced at you with a roar at an ungodly speed?

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Pattikullam Kuppam

With a team from AidIndia, I head towards Kovallam, a place we have to survey. The group breaks up when we realise that a village, Pattikullam Kuppam, has not been surveyed yet. We head there, using the East Coast Road (ECR) which runs alongside the beach from Chidambaram to Pondicherry.

Before the bus comes to a halt alongside the makeshift tents, we hear a woman scream, "You take everything and sell it! We get nothing!" We slowly figure out there's a racket. People collect the aid meant for villagers and sell it. To add to their problems, a BJP MLA down the road stops trucks carrying aid and hoards supplies at his home.

The village is calm, and people even seem happy. There have been no deaths here. Somehow they survived. They've shifted base around 300 meters inland. A large boat lay nearby. I asked if they had moved it for safekeeping. They looked at me like I was mad. The water came gushing in, until half a km inland, it began receding.

The men all have one request. "Get us nets. Small fish nets, and lobster nets. Just 5kg for a net. we need 125 nets. Per kg 250 rupees." The absence of boats they can handle, but they need nets. They'll walk out into the ocean and throw their nets. I don't know what happened to the government's plan of giving the fishermen a boat and a net. There's been very little sign of government action. They came to the village and handed out 4000 rupees to each family. They also came by and gave out 10 sacks of rice. But there are 180 families here. The people here live on handouts, on donations, and don't like it one bit. Which explains the heaps of clothes lying around the road. Aid workers and donors dump them on the side of the road and drive away.

Three of us pay a visit to BJP MLA Ponvardharajan, posing as workers from a foreign aid organisation called 'Helping hand'. We smile, sip tea, and take pictures. He shows us around his home. The courtyard is filled with crates of fruits and vegetables. One room has sacks of rice stacked high. Another two are filled with clothes lying around. He poses for pictures, which I have to develop. Meanwhile, his other three kids, all under six, squirt water from water sachets at each other. The courtyard is littered with these plastic packets. He tells us bjp leaders from all over the country have sent donations, which he delivers manfully to every village from here to Cuddalore. We later find out that one village, Mahabalipuram, has had only one very generous donor, and it isn't our friendly MLA.

We're deciding what to do.