Friday, October 29, 2010

Listening to flowers

There are people, I’m told, who talk to their plants. Some even play music for them, and classical is supposed to be especially popular. Sounds crazy. But there's a theory that plants feel pain and pleasure, just like us. And because soothing sounds make them happy, they thrive.

I’ve never been much of a talker. I’m better at listening.

And sometimes it seems the plants are telling me all kinds of things in their strange, silent, cryptic way. When the bougainvillea starts to bloom, I know it’s saying that the rains are over. When a flower opens languidly, it’s signalling: ‘Look at me! Aren’t I beautiful! Notice my colour. Observe the delicate formation of my petals.’

When the yellow hibiscus folds its petals to die at the end of each day, in sign language it’s saying: ‘Goodbye cruel world’. And when the white hibiscus opens its petals wide and glows in the moonlight, isn’t it mocking me for going to sleep when the night is so beautiful?

Sometimes it feels like that.

But flowers give out secret signals through their fragrances as well. And fragrance is more mysterious. Not the light scent of flowers like the rose, but the dark, hypnotic fragrances exuded by certain small flowers like the raat ki rani. When I planted the creeper, my village neighbours shook their heads warningly and told me that snakes loved the smell. I laughed. Snakes can’t smell, I told them.

It took me some time to understand that certain insects are attracted by the powerful fragrance, and that frogs come to eat the insects, and snakes to eat the frogs.

I got the signal wrong. I thought the fragrance was telling me to breathe deeply. What it was actually signalling was: Watch out for snakes!

This year the monsoons continued right through October. As a result the flowers are all late. The few that struggled into existence soon began to rot away. ‘Too much water, we're choking,’ they signalled frantically.

Global warming, I told them sadly.

I think I heard them sigh.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

River of words

It’s fascinating how our language (at least the English language) is replete with references to the forces of nature and the natural world. The sun and moon, volcanoes and mountains, thunder and lightning, the seasons, the birds and the bees, trees and flowers and weeds, snakes and snails and puppy dog tails – all this and more have profound, usually metaphorical, significance for us.

‘Sun is shining, but it’s raining in my heart,’ – goes the song. Corny, and yet how much more evocative than to blandly state: It’s a sunny day but I’m feeling sad.

Our language is richer, as is our imagination, as a result of this mingling of nature with our own moods and feelings:

"I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,/Insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,/Going on down, into the moist guts of the earth. . ."

Even while man conquered the wilderness and found shelter from it, he continued to use the language of the wilderness, and cities came to be called concrete jungles - as though somewhere deep down he was bitter about the beauty he had left and of the ugliness he had created.

Nowadays environmentalists weep for the damage we are inflicting on the earth. There may be something in what they say. But I think what is sadder is how much more artificial and ugly things are becoming for the sake of convenience. Nowadays the fragrance of flowers is bottled. Nowadays milk comes in tetra packs, peas come frozen, meat is tinned. We grow expensive plastic flowers in rooms lit by fluorescent lights. We wear synthetic fabrics. Children’s toys are made of plastic, not wood.

We’d be dead without progress and all the goodies it brings us. But perhaps we don’t have to go all the way and discard everything that is natural and more beautiful. If we do, perhaps a day will come when we have nothing but the words themselves rooted in nature.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mr Ambani's garden, and mine

I wonder if Mr Ambani has a garden?

I read somewhere that he lives in an apartment in the sky, in a swanky penthouse in south Bombay. And it's the most expensive apartment in the world.

I wonder if this swanky apartment has a garden.

It probably does. On the terrace of his house he probably has a landscaped garden designed by some incredibly expensive landscape/penthouse artist. Probably a little Japanese affair with a little rockery, and an electric waterfall that goes into action at the touch of button, causing little fairy lights to come on. Like Richard Cory, Mr Ambani probably sits there in the evenings with his lovely wife and children – when he has the time – and tells himself how lucky he is.

This is how I imagine Mr Ambani’s garden to be.

Poor Mr Ambani. Poor lil' rich Mr Ambani.

This is what I think when I survey my own little garden. Do you – dear city dweller – know what it is to have a little garden? I never did when I lived in the city. I didn’t think of such things. When I lived in my several different little barsatis in Delhi, I never even bothered to have potted plants. Too much of a hassle. Only once I experienced something that came close. The tenants before me had completely enclosed the terrace in bamboo and left some pots filled with green. The sunlight filtered through. I bought myself a little table and I’d eat my meals on this lovely terraced garden.

But now, now I have a real garden! It’s not in the front of the house, like most gardens. In fact, anyone passing by would think: ‘What a sorry house. No garden.’ Little do they know. My garden is on one side of the house, overlooked by a long (not so long, actually) veranda. I often sit there, dreaming. Sometimes I half close my eyes and look at it. This, I think, is how the Impressionists must have viewed reality. I see a blur of colour. Pink, purple, blue (yes, blue flowers!), yellow, red and, of course, green – countless shades of green. I don’t have a gardener (only Babuli, aka the village idiot, who sometimes clears the weeds). I’m not a keen gardener myself. Too lazy. But somehow, putting a plant here, a plant there, the garden has grown – and grown pretty lush. Last night I was amazed to see one yellow hibiscus awake and open (this morning it was dead, or perhaps still asleep). Its chrome yellow petals were peeled back and the stamen was sticking out – like a tongue. It was incredibly erotic, actually (now I have the word erotic on my blog, in addition to the word sex, and all the perverts searching Google are going to find my posts and be incredibly disappointed because all I allude to is the activity in the garden.) Every now and then I think I should sell the cottage (time to move on), but it’s always the thought of the garden that holds me back.

I wonder if Mr Ambani (who, according to Forbes, is one of the richest men in the world) has butterflies – huge butterflies in the most incredible colours – in his expensive penthouse garden. I wonder if he has caterpillars (the bad guys) eating his plants, and hundreds of fireflies (the good guys) giving him the feeling that he is in a tropical paradise. Maybe he’s imported them. Maybe he has robot fireflies and caterpillars who just look pretty instead of ravaging his garden. I wonder if he has real earth on the terrace of his penthouse garden, or only a readymade lawn. I wonder if the magpie robin sings for him (on a Sunday, a holiday). I wonder if he has woodpeckers banging away or the red whiskered bulbul courting his loved one passionately. I wonder if he has red ants in his garden or if squirrels run about, shrieking (when I lived in Delhi I had a doorbell that sounded exactly like a squirrel, only I didn’t realise it till I came here). I wonder if he has trees – a coconut, maybe. With money, anything is possible. Or so I’ve been told.

I know one thing for sure. There'll be no frogs in his garden, not even the odd snake. Lucky, lucky Mr Ambani. It's lovely the things money can buy.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Saving the planet

Does the planet need you and me to save it? Is there an implied arrogance, even conceit, in such a notion? Personally, living as close to nature as I do, I've often felt I could do with a little saving myself - from the fury of the monsoon gales, from snakes and rats and frogs, from thieving monkeys, and many of god's little and big creatures who seem to conspire to make life quite, quite difficult for me (see an earlier post: Save me from the environment).

But this hilarious short video by comedien George Carlin says it all.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Who's the greediest of us all?

I wonder why, of all animals, the pig is considered so greedy.

Of course, pigs are greedy alright. I’ve often observed the piglets around the cottages behind Palolem beach; dirty little things, their once pinkish skin covered in dried mud and worse filth. They have their snouts perpetually in a trough of food. Or they’ll be running around with their noses to the ground, constantly gobbling bits and pieces of unmentionable things.

But pigs are not the only creatures who go on eating, and who will eat just about anything: edible or not. Cows are as bad. And hens? All they do is peck all day long at the dirt, squawking all the while as if outraged by their own appetites.

And anyone who has had her garden demolished in minutes by a goat knows that the prize for greed should probably go to this insatiable creature. There are not too many goats in Goa. As the guy who sells chicken explained to me: ‘It’s very greedy, the goat. It will eat up all the plants.’ Close to where I live is a Muslim guy who butchers goats twice a week in his front yard. His goats are always tied up. And the poor things are taken to graze like dogs on a leash.

But observe, if you can, god’s little creatures. I watch them in the garden and am amazed at how they spend the entire day - from dawn to dusk - eating, generally each other. Big birds eat baby birds. Lizards will stalk a moth and pounce. Spiders will weave the most incredible web from tree to tree and sit in the centre, waiting for dinner to be served. A line of ants will be dragging some dead insect away, or even a bit of lizard shit. On a bad day there'll be a snake chasing a frog, or monkeys grabbing and stuffing their mouths with whatever they can steal.

My teak tree recently came into leaf (the branches were cut off during the rainy season). I was admiring the freshness of the green colour, but by afternoon the entire tree had been ravaged by little black and white caterpillars. All that was left were the skeleton leaves. And while the caterpillars were busy chomping away, little birds kept landing on the leaves and rubbing their beaks into them. They were eating the insects and the caterpillars who were eating the leaves.

The most astonishing of hungry creatures that I’ve seen at least, is the big red ant. During the monsoons, particularly, they are everywhere, busily bending leaves to create nests for themselves. First they drop some sticky whitish solution on the edges of all the leaves. Then they bend these leaves back and forth in the strangest way to create a nest the size of a football. I’ve seen this happen many a time. But the other day I observed them more closely in the mango tree. A line of ants had carried a dead wasp into the tree and were holding it on a leaf while the other ants were bending the leaves around the wasp. What’s the point of a home, I guess, if there’s no food to eat.

And if these creatures are not eating, they’re crapping or reproducing endlessly. To what purpose? God alone knows.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nature's graffiti

Recently my garden was thick with weeds and grass. So I invited some cows in to eat them.

The two cows were grazing just outside the gate. When I asked the boy who was overseeing them if they would eat my weeds instead – please, I added - he laughed and led them into the garden.

Predictably, perhaps, the two cows lunged for the nice flowering plants. I cried out, the boy shouted. The cows wouldn’t budge. Stolidly they chomped away at the round leaves of a small tree that in season has beautiful purple flowers. Finally one cow was led out of the garden in disgrace. The other, a rope round its neck, I coaxed into tasting some of the weeds. She nibbled at them delicately. To my relief, she seemed to like them.

I was thrilled. I began to make plans to go house to house, inviting the villagers to send their cows into my garden for a feast. I imagined disciplined cows nibbling away at the weeds, giving me the most beautiful weed-free garden ever. Never again would I have to depend on Babuli (aka the village idiot) to do the job badly. And then, just as I was wondering why nobody had ever thought to employ the cow in such a useful activity, the cow in my garden stopped eating.

Maybe she’ll like that, I told the boy, pointing at another clump of fresh weeds that had tiny purple flowers.

The cow turned to my hibiscus and began to eat it. I wanted, like AA Milne, to tell her: Weeds are flowers too, you know, once you get to know them.

But no. The cow was simply not interested in getting better acquainted with my weeds.

Later, while I was counting the number of good plants that Babuli had uprooted along with the weeds, I wondered what purpose a weed could possibly serve in nature’s grand pattern.

Weeds, I found, are not so much villains as simply plants whom no one loves. You call a plant a weed when it is growing where it is not wanted. Basically, a plant that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’m told that tobacco was once called the noxious weed. Some garden flowers, likewise, were born as common weeds till someone noticed how pretty they were and cultivated them for the garden (something like My Fair Lady, I imagine, only without all the song and dance). And cannabis, of course, is still called “the weed” though any die-hard smoker will tell you it ought to be "the crop". There are other good weeds, weeds that have healing properties. There are even some that are edible. In the monsoons I’ve noticed people here searching for these. One such weed has large heart-shaped leaves and is supposed to be very tasty.

The problem with most weeds is that you dare not be kind to them. Give them an inch and they'll soon want the whole garden.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The case of the biting dog

Getting bitten by a village dog is a common phenomenon. In fact you can’t say you’ve truly lived in a village until a bit of your flesh has been gouged out in this way.

The experience is one shared by pigs and buffaloes, though monkeys tend to be too nimble for the dogs. As for the poor hen, it doesn’t even live to tell the tale; scattered feathers in the wind the only evidence that a murder most foul has occurred.

The village is quiet when tourists leave, and on the evening it happens even the boys playing volleyball in the empty field are not to be seen. There are only the village dogs darting up to sniff you, and then running off as you cry out in shock at the pain and sight of blood.

Whodunit? you start thinking after you’ve been to the hospital and been told that the course of anti-rabies injections is going to cost a few thousand rupees. Whose dog was it?

One mean looking brown dog looks very like another. And given that all village dogs are either mongrels or pariahs (there is a difference, as any indignant dog lover will tell you), it’s hard to tell the strays from those that have been adopted.

Whodunit? Will you ever know?

The next morning the fellow who reads the electricity meter turns up. Inquisitive as only villagers can be, he wants to know about the wound on your calf. ‘Tcha,these dogs,’ he says, shaking his head in disgust and commiseration. And he tells how hard, how dangerous it is for men like him who have to go house to house reading meters.

Soon the whole village knows you’ve been bitten by a dog. Wherever you go, people ghoulishly want to see the wound.’ Tcha, these dogs,’ each exclaims, discounting his own dog of course.

Soon it’s common knowledge whose dog has bitten you.

It was Ganesh Electrician’s dog whodunit.

But Ganesh Electrician knows that every dog has his day,besides it's a dog's life and therefore he's quite safe from anyone demanding money for anti-rabies injections. It happens all the time with villagers. The money is never paid and once the angry villager calms down he quietly swallows an ayurvedic tablet if the wound is serious. Otherwise a poultice of some leaves is applied. Nobody has yet died of a dog bite.

At Ganesh Electrician’s, the entire family of seven is ranged on the veranda, hackles raised, teeth bared, snapping and growling. It wasn’t their dog whodunit. The village is lying. Their dogs never bite. Bark, snap, growl.

‘Tell me,’ one snarls, pointing at the dogs lying in the dust. ‘Tell me if any of these dogs bit you.’ From the back of the house the angry barking of a dog straining on a leash can be heard.

How to tell? One mean looking brown dog looks very like another.

‘Not our dog whodunit!’ the family barks. And snarling and snapping they drive you away.

How does one prove ownership, in any case? The dogs don’t have a license or collar. There are no papers.

You wish the owner had bitten you rather than the dog. At least then you could get the guy locked up in a mental asylum. But dogs? Dogs run free. Everyone loves dogs.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Muslims and Christian pray together

Elsewhere in India, much is being made of a Muslim girl wearing a scarf to college. Should she be free to do it? Should she not?

Astonishing the kind of things people have time for.

Here, the Muslim children of the village go to the local convent in the daytime in the prescribed uniform, which includes short pinafores for the girls. Like the rest of the children they too sing Christian hymns to Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the evenings, wearing more traditional garments, the boys and girls cover their heads and go together to the local masjid for their Islamic lessons. No one finds this strange.

How is it that Muslims allow their children to sing prayers to a Christian god in a convent school?

I put this question to Farzana when I give her lift to the local market. Farzana is a fiery and rather beautiful young Muslim woman with two little children. Her husband is a part-time butcher, while she herself makes samosas at home to earn a little money since her rather touchy and conservative shouhar will not allow her to go out to work.’

Farzana doesn’t seem to think it matters. ‘Let them sing,’ she shrugs. ‘The children know who they are, isn’t it. So what does it matter?’

This seems to be the general attitude here. Yet these are staunch Muslims who observe all the customs and rituals, including namaz five times a day, though rarely do the women wear a burka.

It’s probably the same in a hundred villages and towns where people don’t give much importance to who is wearing what and why.

Which seems to suggest that those who make a hullabaloo over such things are only troublemakers,encouraged to be chauvinists and worse by those who fear them and a law which does nothing to deter them. Happily, they don’t exist here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Village dogs

Village dogs are a curious feature of village life.

Every house has one dog, and often it will have several. The dogs hang around aimlessly on the street outside the house, often with the cats with whom they live in peace. Or you see them loitering at street corners. Or running lightly together down the road, like packs of hungry wolves with a secret agenda.

To a city person, used to trained and tame pedigreed dogs, these mongrels –lean and mean, tough and well-fed - can be quite alarming.

But there’re so many of them that you cannot go anywhere without having several dogs run up to sniff you or run circles round you, barking loudly. On the beach, when the tourist season is over, the dogs lying in the sand will get to their feet one after the other and go on barking till you turn away in disgust or fear. On a bad day you can be accosted by a dozen such dogs in turn. And if you are foolish enough to have a dog with you who is not a village dog, be prepared for violence. There is nothing these snarling creatures hate more than a pedigreed dog.

Unlike the pigs and hens and cats, who simply ignore you, village dogs are unable to pass a human being without reacting to his presence in some way. Mostly they do this by barking very loudly.

Dogs curled up and asleep in the middle of the road will get up slowly and bark loudly as soon as they see you. Dogs in someone’s compound will suddenly dart out on to the road and stand about barking. If you’re driving or cycling past they’ll chase you at top speed, barking all the while. And all you need is one barking dog to have dozens appear from nowhere to join in the fun. Sometimes they lose interest, sometimes the whole pack of them will trail after you, barking. If you’re lucky they’ll be distracted by a squawking hen and go tearing after the poor thing.

At night it’s unsafe to go out, not because you know you can get mugged, but because you know you can get bitten by a dog. Late at night gangs of dogs roam around, getting into fights with each other. You can hear the snarling and barking, followed by the shrieking and squealing of the poor victim. And then yet more frenzied barking. On full-moon nights the howling and shrieking and barking is insane.

This barking is what villagers love about dogs and the reason they keep dogs and feed them fish and rice and scraps of leftover chapattis. Without the dogs how will they know if someone is passing by? Or if the cow is eating up the papaya tree? Or if the monkeys have landed on the coconut palms? How will they know if thieves are trying to break in (never mind if burglars are nonexistent)?

Funnily enough the villagers are eternally complaining about the dogs: how they bite, how they eat the chickens, how they bark all night and disturb their sleep. But it’s always the other person’s dog who’s a menace. Never their own.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fisherbirds

A sea eagle is normally only seen perched high up in a tree on the beach, or gliding and circling far above the sea. They appear to be solitary birds, rather daunting when you see them up close, with their hooked beaks and disdainful air. Unlike the little birds in my garden they are not given to warbling and singing.

Rarely will you see the sea eagles catching fish.

But one evening when the gorged monsoon tide was surging onto Palolem beach, fast and furious and frothy, I saw about a dozen of them dipping down and skimming the waves and surf that washed onto the sand. This was the first time I had seen them so close to ground level.

The local fisherman had just come in, each boat laden with the prawns that are found aplenty in this season. There were also hundreds of dead silver fish scattered about on the sand, ignored by crows and dogs, but eagerly gathered by a little girl who seemed to think they were little different from seashells.

The sea that day was clearly overflowing with fish.

The great brown and white eagles circled close to the surface of the water. Every now and then one swooped down and appeared to snatch something out of the frothy sea. For this it used not its beak, as I had imagined, but its talons. Rising from the water was more difficult for the big, heavy bird. Each desperately flapped its wings and then struggled to rise again into the air. I watched one of them to see if it would fly away with its prey. It flew some distance and then turned and circled and swooped down to the water again. Had it quickly popped the fish into its mouth while flying? Had it not even succeeded in snatching the wriggling fish from the water? I thought the latter likely. Surely, otherwise, the eagles would take home some fish to feed the young ones? But maybe this is not the season for baby eagles and the big ones can selfishly gorge themselves silly.

I stood watching them for some time, unable to spot fish in the grip of an eagle’s talons, if at all it had caught any. How different these fisherbirds seemed from the fishermen who throw their lines into the water and then just sit on a rock, hoping and dreaming, or the fishermen who cast their net on the water. Yet, maybe they’re not quite so different. In the end, neither the fisherman nor the sea eagle can be sure of catching the wily wriggling fish.

You and I, on the hand, have simply to go to the fish market to have fisherwomen fighting to give us fish. Money is all they demand in return. Reminds me of a little verse:

A weaver bird might dine
Off caviar and wine,
If he could trade his nifty nest
For gourmet food –
The very best.
Alas! The little worm is his fate
For lack of just
This little trait.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Roots

The flood of the monsoon tide has dug deep into one beach, creating a tall bank of sand where the tide mark ends. Here the row of casuarinas now cling precariously to the edge. You can see the roots of some of these trees in this wall of banked sand. In some cases, the sea has washed away all traces of sand and a section of roots stands forlornly in midair. There seems to be no one single tap root, but only many long thin roots crouching rather spider-like on the ground. It’s astonishing that these weak looking roots are able to hold the trees upright. Some of the casuarinas have toppled over with no soil to hold onto.

Elsewhere large old trees have been felled by the recent furious winds, the broken roots standing in the air much like leafless twigs.

Trees are uprooted more easily than the villagers here. No storm can persuade them to loosen their hold on their “native” land. Apart from those who have gone to sea, and the few who have gone to the Gulf to make their fortunes, most villagers have never been outside the state – other than on the odd pilgrimage to Shirdi in Maharashtra - and have no desire to do so.

This makes them somewhat odd in the modern world where constant movement is more common than not: from house to house, from one city to another, one country to another: across oceans and continents and time zones, forsaking what has grown familiar, and sometimes loved, for what is unknown and strange and often disorienting.

The sense of loss, even grief, that this inevitably brings about is unknown to the villager for whom the past is preserved in the present: the same house, the same trees, the same people: only a little more tatty, a little more dilapidated by the passing years.

In the essay Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie writes:

“An old photograph in a cheap frame hangs on a wall of the room where I work. It’s a picture dating from 1946 of a house into which, at the time of its taking, I had not yet been born. The house is rather peculiar – a three-storeyed gabled affair with tiled roofs and round towers in two corners, each wearing a pointy tiled hat. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ goes the famous opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there.’ But the photograph tells me to invert this idea; it reminds me that it’s my present that is foreign, and the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time.”

Tree which are uprooted can sometimes – if the damage is not severe or the trees are still young – be replanted in the same soil. Mostly they just die. Human beings might die a little inside every time they are replanted. But they are sturdier and made sturdier still by optimism. What choice is there, in any case. To look back is only to know and remember that loss.

As the poet Elizabeth Bishop urges:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

. . .I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster
.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The hallucinating cat and other animals

Funny thing, this aching need some people have to get high.

It's such an irrepressible urge; it has so much force and persistence that psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel has called it a "fourth drive", which functions much like our drives for food, sleep and sex.

Animals, apparently, have such a need too. And like humans – who will risk death and imprisonment to get intoxicated – animals too will go to great lengths to gain that pleasurable sense of well-being that only certain hallucinogenic plants offer.

In the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes:

“According to Ronald K. Siegel, a pharmacologist who has studied intoxication in animals, it is common for animals deliberately to experiment with plant toxins; when an intoxicant is found, the animal will return to the source repeatedly, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Cattle will develop a taste for locoweed that can prove fatal; bighorn sheep will grind their teeth to useless nubs scraping a hallucinogenic lichen off ledge rock. . . Goats, who will try a little bit of anything, probably deserve credit for the discovery of coffee: Abyssinian herders in the tenth century observed their animals would become particularly frisky after nibbling the shrub’s bright red berries. Pigeons spacing out on cannabis seeds (a favorite food of many birds) may have tipped off the ancient Chinese (or Aryans of Scythians) to that plant’s special properties. Peruvian legend has it that the puma discovered quinine: Indians observed that sick cats were often restored to health after eating the bark of the cinchona tree. Tukano Indians in the Amazon noticed that jaguars, not ordinarily herbivorous, would eat the bark of the yaje vine and hallucinate.”

Birds do it. Bees do it and make honey that’s sweetly intoxicating. Certain elephants in Malay do it: travelling great distances to eat a vine that offers them a powerful kick. They will also trample on a palm that protects itself with long, tough thorns only to get at the intoxicating pith. Water buffaloes in opium country love to get drowsy on the cultivated opium poppies - though they are bitter and pungent to taste. Baboons love to eat datura. Cats love to hallucinate on catnip and go chasing phantom butterflies.

In places where khat, a powerful stimulant, is grown commercially, fields are protected by electric fencing to keep out goats who are mad about its leaves.

The fencing is a bit like prohibition in Gujarat. With a sign saying: Beware. Trespassers might die. In Goa, of course, there is no fencing. People get drunk all the time, even early in the morning. Maybe a little self-imposed fencing wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Rainmen

In the pouring rain, men and women draped in plastic are planting paddy. You see the bent figures in field after field as you drive past, snug in your car.

It looks like backbreaking work. Each figure, holding a bunch of seedlings (or should that be saplings?), puts one into the ground - and then another and another and another, never once straightening up during the process. In fields where the paddy has been planted you can see how neat the rows are, how perfectly aligned.

In the past, I have many a time gazed with pleasure at the tall straight blades waving in the fields around here. The green of the paddy is so bright and yet so extraordinarily soothing a colour that you can hardly bear to take your eyes off it.

I never once thought of it as food. Rice is something you buy in a shop, and it bears no resemblance to the paddy in the field.

Yet, to those who toil in the rain, standing in ankle-deep water, the relationship between their labour and the food they will eat is all too real. If they do not work now, if the rains are not sufficient, if the crop fails, then there will be no brown rice to eat for the entire year. Instead they will have to buy polished white rice in the market. And for a Goan who likes his fish curry and ukri (brown rice) that is a horror not to be contemplated. As a woman in the village once told me: Shop rice doesn’t agree with our digestion.

So paddy planters toiling in the rain - with their minds fixed firmly on the fish curry and rice they will eat - makes eminent sense. No work, no food.

But there is one other kind of person who must toil in pouring rain. You see him too, covered from head to foot in a raincoat, valiantly climbing ladders placed on electricity poles. It’s the poor linesman, an employee of the state-run electricity board. During the rains his workload trebles. He spends all his time fixing one broken line after another, day after day. And yet, we never see the fruits of his labour. No matter how much he works, the electricity supply still fails, again and again.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Darkness

Grey days continue, bleak and sunless. The sound of rain continues, almost without break: the battering on your red tiled roof and on window panes; the thundering cascades from the many furrows in the roof all around the house; the endless drip, drip, drip from trees.

All day and all night the wind moans and sighs and howls like some crazed Greek chorus, causing trees to dance wildly, scattering leaves as in some sacrifice.

The air is misty, as in a hill station.

One damp gloomy night, when the voltage is so low even the fridge stops running, all the lights flicker and die out. Through hazy sheets of rain you see a yellow light glowing dimly in the distance. It’s as you had feared. As a result of the downpour, carbon has formed on the wire connecting your home to the electricity pole. Yours is now the only house without electricity. Strangely enough, the fuse light on one power switchboard gives a ghostly red glow. You put the switch into the ON position and the light goes off. You would find this creepy if it hadn’t happened before. In the darkness you clamber onto a stool and switch off the mains in the fuse box to avoid the possibility of a fire.

You stumble through the dark house to call the electricity department. You unwrap the phone from its warm cocoon, but despite the blanket to keep it warm the phone will not work. You unplug it and take it into the kitchen. There, holding it a foot above the flame, you warm it gently over the gas fire. You try dialing again. This time the phone comes to life. But there is no hope for you tonight. The man at the other end of the line tells you to wait till the morning and to switch off the mains until then.

Your emergency lamp has run out of power. You have no candles, no torch.

Hopelessly you occupy the dark absolute void. After a while you think this is how it must feel for prisoners under torture in dark solitary confinement.

But why? - when darkness is a perfectly natural phenomenon. What is it that so unnerves us about being alone in endless darkness? Is it because we feel ourselves completely disconnected from that other outer world of reality? Is this the feeling of Absurdity described by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus?

In this brilliant essay (in which he examines the idea of Absurdity and attempts to answer what he calls the fundamental philosophical question: whether life is or is not worth living) Camus writes: "The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia. For a second we cease to understand it. . . The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage-scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us."

Yet, even primitive man lived in awe and fear of darkness. And then he discovered fire! What a great triumph that must have been. At last he had some control over the many strange forces that dominated his existence. Let there be darkness - god declared. And man replied: I don’t think so. Not right now.

In The Bible According to Spike Milligan: "God said: Let there be light; and there was light, but Eastern Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected."

In this, Milligan speaks for all the state-controlled electricity boards in India. No matter how loudly the great god wanted light, the State did not will it. Let there be darkness in all the villages, the State said.

And the poor people had no choice but to tremble in this darkness like primitive man.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Marooned

Four days of steady rain and winds blowing at 65 km an hour. You look out the shuttered windows and all you see is sheets of rain and mist. In the garden the neem tree has fallen and the sankeshwar with its bright orange flowers is partially uprooted. Elsewhere coconut trees have fallen and casuarinas. Tiled roofs have broken. The electricity comes and goes, and then stays away a long time. The phone has a dial tone, but cannot connect with the outside world. On the advice of the phone guy, it lies like a baby wrapped warmly in a blanket to coax it back into life. The roof drips.

Everywhere is a great salty dampness. It seeps into all your possessions. A few books have mildew already. The wooden furniture is damp and mildewy. Wet clothes flap eternally in the veranda. The sugar in its plastic container is slowly becoming syrup. The glass shelf which holds it has a patina of moisture. You wait for the computer to conk.

You dare not step out of the house with something as ineffective as an umbrella. You try it a couple of times and find the umbrella turns itself inside out. You fear that like Mary Poppins you will simply fly away, holding onto the handle.

When the thunder of the rain beating down on your roof lessens, you can hear the thunder of the angry sea less than half a mile away.

Food supplies are low. You eat rice and dal and potatoes and homemade bread. And more potatoes and rice and bread. You dream of fresh fruit.

You dream of sunshine and golden beaches and blue seas.

You are stranded on a desert island in the monsoons.