A village school

The village was small, with maybe two hundred families. But it had two schools. The elementary school seemed to be closed, but the “English School” was working. The villages in this part of Maharashtra are reasonably prosperous. Still, on a rainy day we saw girls, some in uniforms, trudging to school along the main road. A village as small as this requires no school bus. Nor are bicycles needed to get from home to the school. There are a number of cars in the village, but they don’t drop the children to school.

From outside we could see a long shed, a string of class rooms set out one after another. We are fascinated by schools in small places, and retain faith in the ability of education to transform society. The Family talks often of helping out in schools like this, perhaps when we are retired and have the time to put in a month’s work, pro bono publico, at any time we choose. But for the public to put in work within the government’s educational system is hard, so perhaps this is just a pipe dream.

In any case, The Family slipped in through the gate and talked to someone inside. They are understandably suspicious of random strangers who walk in, but allowed her to take photos. At a different time of the year the large grounds could easily hold hockey matches, if they still play such games. She didn’t find any of the teachers to chat with. They are probably kept quite busy.

The classroom doors were ajar, and The Family reported on the subjects being taught. She walked around the building and took a photo of a mural of Saraswati painted on the wall (featured). The heavy rain had not damaged it, so it could have been repainted just before the monsoon. The picture has her holding the vina and a rosary, but the other half of the symbolism, a book and a water vessel are missing. Strange omission for a school, I thought. At least they remembered to show the sky at dawn behind her.

Flea and tea

My first unfiltered experience of China came one morning, ten years ago, when I walked through a flea market to reach a tea market. The flea market was the usual hotch potch of things, perfect for a quick look inside Chinese homes. Jade bracelets were laid out with bottles, jars, vases, and a very personable pig carved out of wood. If I had the weight allowance, I might have bought the pig right there.

In another aisle a middle-aged man sat with his collection of Mao memorabilia. The modern era of instant translation had not yet struck, and I hadn’t picked up even the smattering of Mandarin that I did later, so our communication was the age-old language of gestures and acting. You lose nuances in this language, but one meaning that came through was that some of the things he was selling was his own. There were a few medals with Mao’s face on it. A forty-odd years old man would have been in his early teens when Mao died, so I didn’t see how he could have won the medal. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Clearly there was a market for it even in the new China.

But most of the things put out for sale seemed to be more traditional. The small towns of India are full of little museums in forgotten mansions built by 19th century traders who found their riches in the trade with Shanghai and Guangzhou. Their display cases contained richer and more decorative versions of the things I saw. These “singing bowls” were quite a draw. Filled with water, you could set them vibrating with a clean high pitch when you drew your palms rapidly across their lip. I was shown how to do it.

I’d spent half an hour wandering around the market, and on the way out I stopped to take a photo of this celadon plate with a dragon winding around it. Later I would have the references to compare them with. Now I look at it and think it wasn’t a bad piece at all.

On to the tea market. I have no memory of what I’d imagined it to be, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling maze of an indoor market that it actually was. There were more salespeople than customers at that time on a weekday morning. I suspect that in a market as big as that, it might be true at all times of every day. I peeked in through the open doors of every shop. Rows of crates, full of loose leaf tea, and shelves filled with packed teas and tea paraphernalia. That was the layout of each shop. And people sitting and picking through trays of tea leaves.

My favourite photo from that day is of this long narrow stall. Near the open door was a white cockatoo. The man sitting there paid us no attention as we walked by. Later, gawking done, I came back to this shop to buy tea. It was deserted, but as soon as I walked in through the door, the cockatoo squawked, and an young man poked his head out of the inner door. He had no English, but called someone on a phone. A trapdoor in the ceiling opened, and an English-speaking helper dropped into the shop. That was an eventful way to buy enough tea to last me a year.

Survivors

Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.

Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.

The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.

Between lake and hill

Charming Naini Tal. We stopped to watch a game of cricket in progress in the large maidan on the west end of the lake. Was there a Manish Pandey developing in front of our eyes? That young man might have played on this field as a child. Kumaon has produced its share of cricketers recently; Ekta Bisht is probably the highest achiever among them. Some good playing but no pyrotechnics today on field. We moved away.

A touristy shop nearby was full of fancy candles, interesting fridge magnets, and herbal oils. The Family looked at the young girls managing the store and said “They should be studying.” At the check out counter she took a survey. Most of them were in college, working at this shop part time. The youngest had a hangdog look. “I’ve just finished class 12. I don’t want to go to college.”

Right in the middle of Mall Road was a large hotel in a meld of Kumaoni craftsmanship and colonial architecture, now completely empty. We scoped it out for a future visit. The manager was happy to show us several rooms. We loved the old-fashioned suites. It is old, and one can probably find more comfortable rooms elsewhere in town, but nothing half as charming. It even had parking. Perhaps an interesting place for a couple of nights in the autumn.

We walked along the narrow path between Mall Road and the Naini lake. Out of curiosity I checked Google ngrams, and found a surprising fact. The word “mall” was most popular in the mid-18th century, when it was used in the sense that the Mall Roads in colonial towns still evoke. The late-20th century revival of this word with its modern changed meaning is a lesser blip. We came to this interesting gate. What large eyes you have, Grandma! Naini Tal is idiosyncratic, and when the tourists are thin on the ground you can still enjoy the place.

Light and dark

A simple piece of artwork that I saw on a little walk around town last week is a pointer to a long story of trafficking. The short version of it is here. Or you can read the complementary long version here. As more people die of the pandemic, more children are orphaned, and the problem is bound to grow, unless action is taken.

Wonderfully ordinary

Like many of you, we had been shut away at home even after being fully vaccinated. While a deadly wave peaked around us, affecting every person’s circle of family and friends, we did not feel any urge to go out. But that wave is now slowly dissipating, leaving behind the post-COVID complications that still kill (India’s first near-Olympian, Milkha Singh, being the latest victim). The sheer depression of being isolated at home while one or two people you know die every day made us want to get out. It had been possible during weekdays for the last two weeks. Eventually, yesterday, The Family and I could juggle schedules to arrange lunch together. South Mumbai looks pretty ordinary, if you forget what it would have been at this time two years ago. Some shops are closed, many of them perhaps forever. The traffic is lighter than normal, and the number of pedestrians lighter still.

Lunch was at a pizzeria on Marine Drive, where we got a table suitable for watching the monsoon tossed waves on Backbay across a welcome view of Marine Drive. A stiff breeze blew between the distanced tables, keeping the monsoon’s humidity at bay. The service and attention to detail has improved with the drop in crowds. We slipped into a dream of normal times, sipping a light rose, spooning up pasta, biting into a crisp pizza, looking for an appropriate dessert to follow and deciding on an espresso instead.

Afterwards we walked past the Brabourne Stadium to the hundred years-old ice cream shop below the stands, now piloted by an old Parsi lady, the grand-daughter of the original Rustom. She never pushes at the boundaries of the stereotype of a cantankerous old Parsi, so sure she is of the quality of the ice cream that she knows that neither her manner, nor the looks of the shop or the merchandise, have to be updated by about three generations. The usual small stream of customers waited patiently for the wonderful ice cream sandwiches, a generous slab of ice cream between two thin wafers, leavened with mild insult. We walked away, a dripping kesar pista in hand, happy that some things never change.

No tiger in Mukteshwar

The tiny village of Mukteshwar (called Muktesar before 1947) has not changed substantially since Jim Corbett visited about a hundred years ago and met the brave little girl with the buffalo, before shooting the man eating tiger of Muktesar. You can do worse than follow his description of the place.

“Eighteen miles to the north-north-east of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west. The western end of the hill rises steeply and near this end is the Muktesar Veterinary Research Institute, where lymph and vaccines are produced to fight India’s cattle diseases. The laboratory and staff quarters are situated on the northern face of the hill and command one of the best views to be had anywhere of the Himalayan snowy range.” The beginning of the story sets the scene. The Institute was relocated to this place in 1893. The population of the village remains small, but standing at 812 in 2011, has probably quadrupled since Corbett’s days. The number of resorts has increased substantially as word of the views have spread, but they are strung out along the road without crowding the bazaar.

“Accompanied by a servant and two men carrying a roll of bedding and a suitcase, I left Naini Tal at midday and walked ten miles to the Ramgarh Dak Bungalow, where I spent the night. The Dak Bungalow khansama (cook, bottle-washer, and general factotum) was a friend of mine, and when he learnt that I was on my way to shoot the man-eater, he warned me to be very careful while negotiating the last two miles into Muktesar for, he said, several people had recently been killed on that stretch of the road.” Corbett continued on foot the next morning, and reached Muktesar by early morning. Our drive took us a little more than two hours, allowing for a halt for chai. The road is good enough to do bettter.

“This was the first time I had ever climbed that hill, and I was very interested to see the caves, hollowed out by wind, in the sandstone cliffs overhanging the road. In a gale I imagine these caves must produce some very weird sounds, for they are of different sizes and, while some are shallow, others appear to penetrate deep into the sandstone.” I’d kept a look out for these formations described by Corbett, but nothing we passed seemed to fit. It is possible that the caves were dynamited to widen the roads. The only similar formation today is Chauli ki Jali, which is a steep rock face used by rapellers, and could not possibly have been an alternative route up.

“Where the road comes out on a saddle of the hill there is a small area of flat ground flanked on the far side by the Muktesar Post Office, and a small bazaar.” This description is still true, and corroborates my conclusion that the road is the same as in Corbett’s time, but without the caves he described. The flat ground is where we parked the car. Beyond the bazaar are the two famous guest houses of the place. By not taking the upper path I missed out on Chauli ki Jali and went instead to where Corbett has his breakfast. “[T]he khansama in charge of the bungalow, and I, incurred the displeasure of the red tape brigade, the khansama by providing me with breakfast, and I by partaking of it.” In the century since the Muktesar man-eater raged here, the Dak Bungalow has become a State Tourism (KMVN) guest house, accreted a number of cooks and waiters, and, as I found, is still so tied up in red tape that it takes a long time to fill in the paper work needed to serve a cuppa chai.

After a chai and toast, I picked up my camera, and followed Corbett, who continues, “Then, picking up my rifle, I went up to the post office to send a telegram to my mother to let her know I had arrived safely.” Meeting up with The Family, back from her jaunt to the ridge, we found that the sturdy colonial era house has changed in many ways in the century since Corbett was here. I am sure the paved forecourt is no more than a decade old, the solar panels are substantially more recent, the sign over the gate perhaps a couple of decades old, and the gate itself is half a century old if it is a day. Telegrams no longer exist; I had sent The Family one of the last, but that is another story. Nevertheless, the post-office is still one that Corbett might recognize if he were to reappear here.

“In rural India, the post office and bania’s shop are to village folk what taverns and clubs are to people of other lands, and if information on any particular subject is sought, the post office and the bania’s shop are the best places to seek it.” The shops have been remade in the last century, and the post office has probably lost its social standing. But the bania’s shop is still a place where people gather. I was amazed at how much sense Corbett’s description of Mukteshwar still made.

Maps for lost lovers

Ambush photography is a name I have for a corner of street photography in which you take photos of other photographers, and their subjects, usually without them being aware of you. (I love the fringe of this area when your subjects become aware of you and your camera, so that you enter the photo through their facial expressions.) Several years of ambush photography taught me that it can tell you of certain universals about human beings. In our times when the world seems both more closely knit together, and more rapidly disintegrating into blocs of us versus them, I like the picture of our common humanity that emerges when I put photos from different countries side by side. The photo here is one such universal. Couples want photos of themselves, and they love to look at the photos.

You may be disappointed that I did not say anything about Nadeem Aslam’s exquisite book, whose title I plagiarized for the title of this post. But the photo does contain an echo of the story of conflicts between human variability and weight of expectations which is at the core of his book. The couple stand next to a poster with a man and a woman posed in the manner of a famous shot from James Cameron’s popcorn movie Titanic. That trifling movie has begun to create a stifling convention of how lovers have to be imagined. I am happy that these couples did their own thing instead. A common humanity does not mean exactly the same ways of doing everything.

The monsoon arrives

The monsoon’s wind reached us on Tuesday, two days early. It had been raining on and off since the weekend. The trees outside my window had been thinned in the storms of the last two years. But through grishma, the summer, the remainder of the canopy had deepened in colour. Even the late-growing new leaves of the mango tree had begun to turn green. The weekend’s pre-monsoon showers had cleaned the dust of summer off the leaves and turned the picture to a vivid red and green. On Tuesday morning as I took this photo I saw the sea had turned grey and choppy. Varsha was imminent.

The monsoon rains started within an hour of my taking the featured photo. In one day we received 44% of the month’s rainfall. I might have thought of this as part of climate change, if I hadn’t lived here long enough to know that about 50% of the season’s rains always came in a few short episodes, may be a day or two long. That is why the monsoon is a boon for school children and hard for adults.

I tried to imagine the coastal ports bustling before the monsoon, as the trading ships from Malindi, Zanzibar, Alexandria, Berenice, arrived in Bharuch, Muziris, Karachi; cargo from the west being unloaded, other ships taking on cargo for the eastern ports of Vietnam, Malacca, and Java. The oceanic trade lent its name to the monsoon: trade winds, as we learnt in school, without understanding how it had once linked us with Rome and China, Venice and Japan. Reliance on fossil fuels has cut the cord between our lives and the weather. But as we transit to renewables, taking advantage again of the trade winds should be a logical consequence. Perhaps my nieces will live and grow old in a world of Meghdoot, cloud messengers crossing the globe on trade winds.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.