marți, 8 martie 2011

A Wedding

Yesterday I went to the nikah, Muslim wedding ceremony, of my neighbour's son. It was held at a community hall around the corner from my house, so I walked. As it turned out, I sat for an hour and nothing happened at all, and the women around me spoke only Malayalam, which I do not. And then there was a huge cloudburst, and Ramesh -- who does not attend any ceremony -- decided that I should be saved from getting soaked. He drove over, I handed my gift to a relative and my good wishes to someone else -- no sign of bride or groom -- and went back home. I missed out on the mutton biryani which was sure to have followed ... eventually ... but it was lovely to drive home through rain. Which stopped the minute we entered the gate.

I have only attended one nikah, in Lahore, Pakistan, when an American Urdu student married a young Pakistani man. So I'll describe that. The names have been changed to protect the bad-tempered:

Mansur's family had accepted Mary, at least outwardly. They had accepted that she brought no dowry -- possibly her American passport was enough -- and they were ready to stand in for her own family in preparing her for the wedding. But they also expected her to act the part.

On the wedding day Mary was in a bad mood. She resented being treated like a doll, having to pretend to be a shy young stranger afraid to raise her eyes before her husband's family. She was being dressed up, and her face slathered with makeup -- Pakistani brides wore more makeup and more jewellry than other people, and continued to wear elaborate clothes for weeks after the wedding. Mansur's sister and two sisters-in-law surrounded Mary where she sat, secluded in a back room, and tried to put on the pink face, the red lips, the black-rimmed eyes, and to give her their own jewellry to wear. It was inconceivable that she would want to look ordinary on her wedding day. But she kept pushing their hands away, and when they were finished she scrubbed it all off.

The men of Mansur's family were traditionally embroiderers. Only Mansur was educated and had left the trade. A friend of Mary's, living in India, had sent her some Benares silk, and she gave it to the family to be embroidered and made into a wedding costume. When it was ready, a few days before the wedding, she found that they had embroidered it in flashy, clashing colours. She refused to wear it. It was too late to start over, and she didn't have the collection of ornate dresses that are part of a traditional dowry. So she bought more silk, had it tailored very simply, and allowed the family to provide the red, embroidered veil.

The family was unable to find anyone to perform the marriage unless Mary converted to Islam. She agreed reluctantly to do so. But when it was done everyone she met, except Mansur, wanted to reassure him or herself that Mary had really undergone a revolution of faith. They would look at her anxiously, and question her about Islam. When the mullah came to perform the marriage he went into the back room where she sat and went through the whole thing again. She was enraged. It was as much as she could do to be polite to him.

Finally, Mary in the back room, and Mansur in the main room with the guests, signed the nikah-nama, the wedding contract. Mansur wore a garland of money and looked happy. Everyone ate a meal and posed for photographs. Mary sulked in the back. Later that night, when they were finally allowed to be together and alone, they set up a camera and took a picture of themselves. In the photograph Mary looked happy for the first time in a week.


Supple and slippery above and below,
Sliding wide-eyed under my hands
With a smile like daybreak,

You swim into my life only at night,
Bringing the shush of waves and shingle,
The smell of salt and distance,
The gull cries, the moan of seamarks,
And the broken sweep of light
From shrouded promontories.

You ride the storms and calms,
You plunge and surf,
Cruise the depths with sharks and stingrays,
And flicker through the feet of children
Paddling in the shallows,

To end up here in the dark between the sheets,
In the gap between dreaming and waking,
Coming ashore with your smile,
Your sea scent and thrashing tail,
Still slippery from the creation.

--- A. Alvarez

The Tamil Calendar

A Tamil calendar page for every day of the year.

Information about how the traditional Tamil calendar works.

The Tamil month of Adi began on July 17 this year. I thought I ought to know more about the traditional calendar in the place where I live. So I rushed here and there and found these snippets about the month of Adi (sometimes transliterated as Aadi):

Every year, Dakshinayanam (Sun's progress south of the Equator) begins in the Tamil month of Adi and Uttarayanam (Sun's progress north of the Equator) begins in the Tamil month of Thai (mid-January).#

Upanayana (initiation ceremony) and marriage are not favoured during Daksinayana (from the Tamil month Adi to the end of Margazhi).#

Adi Festival
-- It is celebrated on the first day of the Tamil Month Adi
-- It is a special function for newly married couples, who are presented with gifts and a feast is organized for them
-- Coconut milk is a must for this function.
-- Menu for the day is usually Curd Pachadi, Kosumalli Kottu, curry, butter milk stew, ana vadai fried appalam,Chips, Poli or some sweet #

Adi-Perukku [is celebrated] in honor of the Kaveri River. Women and girls go to the nearest river bank where they place offerings on a bamboo tray (upper left) into the water, then have a feast upon the shore. Varalakshmi Vratam ("vow to bring Laksmi") is also a ladies' festival, in which paintings of the Goddess of Wealth are made upon the walls (upper right), kumbha pots intended for worship are decorated with Her image. Beside the pot is placed various cosmetics, comb, beads, etc., and worship is done. Then the ladies sing songs inviting the Goddess to their home. Kozhukkatai, rice and jaggary cakes, are a favorite of the day. In the evening friends are invited to the house and given clothing, coconuts and sweets.#

A host of festivals are celebrated in the month of Aadi. The most visible manifestation of this month is in the form of kolams also known as Rangoli (hand drawn symmetrical patterns drawn on the floor) - that are painstakingly patterned early each morning in front of houses.

All the Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays of this month are considered to be very auspicious. Aadi Velli also known as the first Friday of this month is dedicated to Lord Ganesha (the Hindu deity invoked before starting any new venture or task) with an offering of Kozhukkattai - that is Gujiya or Mothagam. Kozhukkattai apparently is the favorite food of Lord Ganesha.

Aadi Amavasai or the New Moon Day of this month is dedicated to the memory of the family ancestors. On this day many people for Tamil community donate money for a good cause in the name of their ancestors. ...

The month of Aadi is special also because it is considered to be the harbinger of all other festivals that will go on till the end of the year, so that every month there is a festival to look forward to!#

Anupam Kher

The actor Anupam Kher interviewed himself on NDTV 24X7, a news channel, on Sunday night. He said that once his car was stopped at an intersection in Bombay, waiting for the light to change, and a little girl came over to beg. She laid her cheek against the window, to feel the coolness from the air-conditioner inside. Then she forgot to beg, and fell asleep, leaning against the car. He said, "It made me cry. I'll never forget that image."

I've discovered a well-written blog here in my adopted city: Coffee House. (We of Tamil Nadu love our coffee. It's the best in the world. If any Starbucks customer drank Kumbakonam 'degree' coffee from even the cheapest place here, he / she would faint with pleasure.)

p.s.: I'm moving a comment from the erudite Language Hat here -- something I wondered about, but never knew:

In case anyone else is wondering what "degree coffee" is, here's an explanation (from

Degree Coffee: There is a device that measures the density of milk. It looks like a tiny thermometer floating inside an eye-dropper (or ink filler). Milk with certified density is called degree milk and the coffee made with it is called the degree coffee. Since it looks like a thermometer and thermometer measures in degrees, people thought the quality of milk is also measured in "degrees".

Sadly the sanitary inspectors of TN no longer carry these manometers anymore and spot check the milk density in restaraunts, and very few people are even aware that there exists a device that can measure the density of milk using just a few drops of the sample.

How We Live

From India Today's cover story 'How We Live' (registration required), based on information from the latest Indian Census:

... There are 179 million residential houses in India-that is about six people to each house. About 40 per cent of Indian families live in one-room houses. ... There are more places of worship in the country (2.4 million) than schools, colleges and hospitals combined. ...

People in India don't seem to buy as many cars, TVs and refrigerators as was once anticipated. That is despite income levels having risen much faster in the 1990s than ever before. Here's one explanation: Only 52 per cent people in the country live in houses with permanent walls and roof. Only 56 per cent have electricity at home, just 38 per cent have water. When incomes of these families grow they may like to add these amenities rather than buy a consumer product. ...

Relative to their incomes, Indians enjoy fewer basic amenities-drinking water, power, cooking fuel-than they own consumer products. Sixty-two per cent of families (that is 118 million households) do not get drinking water at home. About five million families-mostly rural-still fetch drinking water from ponds, tanks, rivers and springs. Urban India does better though with 65 per cent of all families living in cities having access to drinking water at home. But the Census tracks only the access, not the duration or the quality of water supplied. ...

Against 88 per cent households in urban areas, only 44 per cent rural families have access to electricity. ...

India was a country of 1,027 million people in 2001. Nearly 40 per cent of Indians (402 million) are in the working age and 15 per cent in the age group of 0-6 years. ...

firewood is still the most widely used fuel with over 52.5 per cent Indians depending on it. Surprisingly even 23 per cent urban families use firewood for cooking. LPG, whose price swings are a headache for any government, is used by only around 18 per cent families (48 per cent urban households). The use of crop residue as fuel by more than 10 per cent rural households is an instance of recycling. ...

Homes without kitchen or toilets have TVs and two-wheelers. Manufacturers say that inadequacy of electricity-and not insufficiency of income-is a bigger restraint on the demand for their products. ...

Want to see the website of a Tamil film? Try Vaanam Vasappadum (The Sky Can be Controlled) (via scribbles of a lazy geek). The director is P. C. Sreeram, who started out as a cinematographer. He worked on a number of films, including several by my favourite director, Mani Ratnam before making films of his own. Take a look.

My First Time

The first Tamil movie I ever saw was Pennin Perumai (Woman's Pride), (1956).

It was presented as a classic film to the South Indian community in Boston, where I went to college. I was a beginning Tamil student, so I didn't understand much. Here's what I remember:

The heroine (Savithri) is married off to a rich man's son (Gemini Ganesan). After the wedding she discovers to her horror that he is mentally handicapped. [Extensive research on the Internet has revealed that his stepmother had given him something to make him sleep as an infant, retarding his development.] Being a noble Indian wife she sets out to teach him proper behaviour, reading and writing, etc. By and by he is cured, becomes a normal man, and they are in love.

Meanwhile, the hero's younger brother (Shivaji Ganesan), son of the rich man's second wife, is a villain - which is interesting, because Shivaji Ganesan was one of the top heroes in Tamil films in his day. He was still quite young - that's him holding the rifle in the picture above. I have no idea why he aimed a gun at his older brother, but I think that doing so shocked him into seeing the error of his ways…

More research informs me that the film was a hit, and ran for 29 weeks.

There's a strange reminiscence of the actress Savithri by her children

Dalpat Ram's Mad King

Ramesh was reciting a Gujerati poem he had had to memorise in childhood - by the poet Dalpat Ram. He told me the story:

A guru and his chela are travelling together from place to place. One day they arrive at the outskirts of a town ruled by a mad king. The guru waits while his chela goes into the town to look around. After an hour he returns, excited, carrying a big box of sweets. He tells the guru, "What a place this is! Everything is valued by weight -- an ounce of stones will buy an ounce of sweets! Grass is worth its weight in gold! We can settle down here and live like kings!" The guru says, "On the contrary -- we must run from this place immediately." The chela refuses, and they part. But because his chela has served him for a long time, the guru tells him that if he ever needs help, the guru will come. The guru goes to the next village, outside the mad king's territory, and settles there. The chela begins to enjoy his new life.

One night four brothers who are thieves go to a rich merchant's house to rob it. As they are breaking a hole in the wall, it falls on them and they are killed. Their mother runs to the king's court and cries, "What kind of justice is there in your kingdom? My sons were carrying out their trade, and they were killed. Should no one be punished for their deaths?" The king says, "You're right!" He calls for the merchant to be brought to the court, and orders, "Hang him!" The merchant says, "Sire, it's true that I paid to have the house built, but I didn't build it myself. Punish the builder." The king says, "Yes, you're right. Bring the builder, and hang him." The builder is brought to the court. He says, "Sire, I only supervised the work. Hang the masons." The masons say, "As we were mixing the cement with water, our attention was distracted by someone walking in the road -- so the cement became diluted." The man who had walked down the road is brought to the court. Like Kipling's Gunga Din he is a water-seller, carrying his goatskin water bag on his shoulder. He is very thin. The king has him taken to the hangman, but the hangman says, "Sire, just as your kingdom is great, so also the noose on my rope is too large for this skinny fellow." The king says, "You're right! Bring the fattest man in the kingdom, and hang him."

Well, the fattest man around is the chela, who has been trading stones for sweets for a long time. He is dragged into the court. The king says, "Now you must hang, but before you do you may have one last wish." The chela remembers his guru's promise to help. He asks the king to have the guru brought from the next village, so that he can meet him once more before he dies. The king agrees and the guru is brought to the court. As soon as the chela tells him the story the guru says to the king, "Don't waste time on this unworthy fellow; you must hang me instead." The king becomes suspicious. "Why are you so eager to be hanged?" The guru says, "I can't tell you that." The king insists, so the guru says, "That fool doesn't know it, but the exact moment that he's scheduled to be hanged is the most auspicious time: anyone who dies at that moment will go straight to heaven. Sire, you must hang me instead of him." The king says, "Do you think I'm an idiot? Why should I let such an opportunity slip away? Guards! Come here! Hang me at once!"

Buddha Poornima

Today is the birthday of Gautama Buddha, which is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Vaishakh. Here are two poems in his praise from Sanskrit Poetry From Vidyakara's Treasury, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls:

May that victorious moment of the Buddha save you
when the soldier Mara, weapons rendered impotent,
screwed up his courage to that pitch
where, angry, he would swallow up the sacred head,
but then within a jewel of the wondrous crown
did see his own wide-open-mouthed reflection,
at sight of which his courage failed.

--Sri Pasavarman

For whom the thousand shining eyes
of Indra falling at his lotus feet,
fulfill the rite of offering
a wreath of dark blue waterlilies;
for whom the rays of wondrous light
from diadems of prostrate gods
compose a new and saintly robe; may he,
the Sakya Saint, protect you.


The Cat Catcher

A man carrying a long pole with a metal loop on the end told Bahadur that he was a cat catcher, and Bahadur let him inside the gate without question. He was after a stray cat which had been coming in and out. The cat jumped over a wall, the man also departed. Ramesh reprimanded Bahadur for letting all and sundry walk in the gate, and Bahadur erupted with a tirade “ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya,” which goes on until you interrupt him and repeat what you have just said. Then he goes muttering away – one of many crochety individualists who have worked in our house.

I was struck by the image of the cat catcher, roaming with a long stick, always on the lookout and trying to outsmart those swift creatures. (That loop of wire looked nasty, though.) The man was young, with a mop of curly hair, a ragged green plaid lungi. He left smiling, as though being a cat catcher was a fine thing.


Someone I know went to Bombay for a visit, and reported back:

Everyone in Bombay goes out for dinner. Then they go to Muchhad (pron. MOOCH-ard) Paanwala and eat paan, he has his own website, he sits all day in dhoti with a so-big moustache. Then the whole city goes bowling, or they play billiards. They’re all talking on their cell phones, from the age of eleven onward. Then they go to bed. Bombay is like that.

Yesterday I found the website of Muchhad Paanwala, which means Mustachioed Paan-maker. He is framed in this picture by a paan leaf. And he does indeed have a so-big moustache:

His father Shyam Charan Tiwari established the shop thirty years ago. The shop was named Muchhad because his father Shyam Charan Tiwari had mustache so big and long that it touched his ears. And now it's become a family tradition, all the four brothers have long mustache...

They believe and treat their customers like God. They keep personal and family like relations with their customers and believe in giving the best service to them. And all the ingredients that they use are very pure and genuine without any mixing...

Paan is a small packet made of a special leaf, wrapped around various ingredients – according to your taste -- and chewed. It is supposed to be good for digestion. The smell of gulkand, a rose jam which is an ingredient in sweet paan, is one of the most characteristic smells of India for me. The marks of paan-reddened spit on walls and footpaths are a common sight in the North.

The thirteenth century manual for dancers, Abhinayadarpanam, “Mirror of Gesture,” includes a graceful gesture for folding a paan leaf and offering it.

The accessories of paan can be beautiful: betel nut cutters,

and paandaans – the compartmented boxes in which paan is kept:

The amazing book Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture describes the ornate decadence of Lucknow just before its overthrow as a result of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. There are sections on Lucknow's diversions: poetry, story-telling, bird- and animal-fighting, pigeon-flying, kite-flying, music, dance, food, forms of headwear... and the eating of paan.

About the paandaan the author writes:

... In the boxes are two metal cups to contain kathha and lime, and three smaller, equal-sized receptacles for cut nuts of various kinds. All of these are arranged in a circle, in the middle of which is another small container to hold cardamoms or cloves... There are tiny spoons for the kathha and lime... Placed over all these containers is a large tray... in which raw betel leaves are placed, wrapped in a damp cloth....

The size [of the paandaan] began to increase until it came to weigh as much as twenty to forty pounds. At the same time it became necessary for ladies to take it with them wherever they went. Just as ‘the larger the turban, the greater the learning,’ so the larger the betel box, the greater was the status and grandeur of the lady. Eventually the betel box took up all the space in the palanquin and there was no room for the lady...

When we buy paan nowadays, we either take it from the hands of the paanwala directly, or have it wrapped in leaves or aluminum foil. That way, there's still plenty of room in the palanquin.

Chitra Talkies

This is about a movie theatre which doesn't exist anymore - it was torn down to make way for an office building. It used to be in Pudupet. The building's facade was Art Deco, with motifs in raised stucco - a stylized eagle, and two side panels with elongated, flameless Olympic torches topped by geometric designs. "Chitra" was written vertically on the main, tallest portion. On either side of the main entrance were semi-circular cement ticket booths with cracks and holes in them, with wooden railings around the top, and small ticket windows with sliding wooden doors.

Most of the time an old black and white Tamil movie would be playing, because the theatre's receipts were too low for it to be able to rent first-run movies. There was a different picture each week, and a separate show at noon. The theatre’s new manager was struggling to come to grips with managing a movie theatre. He was a in his late sixties, his oiled hair dyed pitch black. He spoke with an expression of perpetual bewilderment. On the day I went with him to take a look at the theatre, he strode into the hall, then came back and said, "Did you see that? A whole row of seats has fallen down!"

He continued, “I was here in the morning, and the projectionist asked for oil to lubricate the projectors. He said they should use Vaseline, but it’s too expensive, so they use some other oil. I told him to buy only one litre, and gave him money from my pocket. Then he asked for a cloth to wipe the oil. He wanted to buy it from the petrol bunk. I told him, ‘Don't you know that one cloth there will cost 15 rupees? Take a bus and go downtown and buy it by the meter.’ I drew a map and told him where to go. Can you believe, for the cost of one cloth he got four cloths! I told him, ‘Buy four meters and get sixteen cloths, and they'll be slightly bigger than the ones you'll get from the petrol bunk.’

"On Saturday after the late show the watchman was opening the gate, and a taxi pinned him against it. They took him to the hospital and he died. All day Sunday I was running around to the police, the post mortem, arranging for a casket, attending the funeral.

"I told the police it was an accident, but then that man's son-in-law went and said, ‘It was a preplanned murder. All rowdies go there, and the watchman had so many skirmishes with them.’ So the Inspector came to me and said, 'What do you mean, reporting it as an accident, and now this man is telling me it was a pre-planned murder?' I said, 'If it's a murder, it's your job to investigate it.'

"One night we were at home, and the stall owner came to give me the receipts. Then he said, 'I'm having too much problem because outside people are selling cheap snacks under the gate, sundal and things like that, and I can't compete with them.' So I said, 'Then put sheet metal over the gate.' He said 'I did, but the ice cream seller would sell all his ice cream and then pour the salt water from the melted ice on the gate from outside every night, and it wore a hole, and through that hole they're again selling.'

"Last week four or five people got electric shocks, because the whole place is falling down. So I called an electrician, and he said, 'Sir, there is no insulation anywhere, it's all turned to powder, and all the wires have turned green. Everything has to be replaced.'

"Then one man came from the government and said, 'Sir, everything is wrong,' so I asked the manager, 'How much do I have to give him?' and he told me so much, but that man said, 'No, sir, we've been getting this amount for so many years, you must increase it now.' Then when I'd finished with him a man came from the pension fund and asked for free tickets for his friends and relations. Then the electrical engineer turned up and said, 'Where are the fire buckets?' So I asked the manager, and he said, 'No, they empty out the sand, and by the time the show is over the buckets have been stolen also.' So the electrical engineer said, 'Once a month when I come here for inspection you have to have buckets, take them on rental. Also, my four friends have come from out of town, so please let them in for free.' So I said, 'Give me some time, let me learn, I don't know anything!'

"Seeing all this, one woman was standing in the queue for tickets, and she said, 'Our Ayya!' I said, 'What?' and she said, 'I sleep on the footpath by your house, don't you recognise me?' So I gave her some money and said 'Okay, buy a ticket,' but she said, 'What is the need for tickets? It's our theatre now.' So then some urchins who were watching from outside started waving their arms and yelling, and they ran in, and then some others ran in, about twenty people went in without tickets.

"I'm so tired, I have so many problems, you know I put coconut oil on my hair, and last ten days while I'm asleep hundreds of ants come and bite me, I've got ant bites all over my body."