Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inviting shopaholics for a rest cure

There are more coconut trees than shops out here. A thousand times more.

So it’s funny one doesn’t see ads like the following promoting this southern tip of Goa:

Are you a compulsive shopper who wants to kick the habit? Then come to this paradise of No Shops. (Not what you city types would call a shop, anyway.) We at Niche Tourism offer the Nirvana Rest Cure for sick souls like yours.

It's all not here in the south of south Goa. No designer stores, no fashion shops, no music shops, no jewellery stores. No shops where you can buy furniture or fancy foodstuffs or anything useless. (A few years ago you couldn't even buy ice cream. As for vegetables, people just ate fish.)

Our small market area called Chaudi is so ugly you’ll never be tempted to visit. (No one can be that desperate.) The biggest store here is a government-run departmental store where you get everything you don't want (but ordinary people need). Most tourists don't even know Chaudi exists, that too only 2 kms away on the NH17 , because they go straight from airport to beach and back. It's only the long-term foreigners (practically residents) who are in on this secret, and for them a few stores keep Marmite and other goodies. On Saturday is the grand weekly bazaar for vegetables, but it won't interest you. A festive air reigns as simple folk from the neighbouring villages flock here to stock up on provisions, have their future told by a card-picking parrot and get their footwear fixed from the only mochi in miles. Boring for someone used to malls.

With no shops to distract you, shed your material soul and discover ananda in god’s own creations (better than Gucci). Meditate on tranquil blue waters. Release all your negative energy on some of Goa's most beautiful beaches: Palolem, Patnem, Galgibaga, Agonda. Seek beauty in the hills all around. Return to your city with a light heart and a full wallet.

(PS. If you are beyond redemption and can’t cope with the cold turkey, go for Plan B. Drown your sorrows in liquor. Lots of booze shops here.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bird of nostalgia

I almost saw a koel today. I've been told it's a black, rather ugly bird, but it's so shy I've never been able to spot one - though for many years I've wanted to.

Most people wouldn't get terribly excited at the idea of seeing a koel.

But every time I hear that familiar 'ku-wooh, ku-wooh' something happens to me.

Sounds – like smells – tend to prod forgotten memories, to reawaken old, lost emotions. Who has not heard a song after years and years and not felt something which has nothing to do with the song and everything to do with the memory associated with that song?

Whenever I hear a koel's ku-wooh I am so deeply moved it's almost absurd. The sound instantly sends me back to my childhood in Poona. I see again the quiet shaded avenues, the huge ancient banyan trees lining Ganeshkhind road, the hills I used to climb. The sky is blue. I can feel the soft sunshine and smell the grass. Most of all I remember the vast peaceful silence which was every now and then broken by the koel calling: ku-wooh, ku-wooh.

D H Lawrence expresses most aptly this deep sense of nostalgia in his poem Piano, based on a memory evoked by the sound of a woman singing softly in the dusk:

. . . The glamour/Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast/Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Perhaps what makes the memory especially poignant for me is that the Poona of that memory is dead. The banyan trees are gone, so is the silence on Ganeshkhind road, so is the fragrant air, so are the hills. Gone also is that vast silence in which a child could not miss hearing the call of a simple bird.

C'est la vie, as they say.

The spitting game

In Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, a favourite pastime of a group of old men is a game called hit-the-spittoon. Idling outside the paan shop, chewing tobacco, these old fogies amuse themselves by seeing who among them can direct the jet of red juice into the brass spittoon.

A variation of the game seems to be played here every morning by old and young, men and women. But without tobacco, paan or spittoon.

It's a mystifying game, and I'm yet to figure out the rules.

I think it's called 'This Is The Way We Brush Our Teeth', but I can't be sure.

From what I gather, it's played like this: toothpaste is applied onto a toothbrush, and then the players hit the road brushing their teeth.

My first experience of the game was when the milk boy arrived one morning with foam all over his mouth and the brush inside.

But I've seen people wander up and down the lane for no reason at all, the brush clenched between their teeth like a cigar. I've seen a man taking his buffaloes to graze and doing it. People stroll about on the beach or visit the little provision store, all the while vigorously brushing. Women do it while getting water from the well and while cleaning the courtyard.

And every now and then, they turn to one side and go pthoo! pthoo! all over the place.

The remarkable thing is how they manage to hold a conversation without allowing all that foamy toothpaste to fall out.

Maybe that's the point of the game.

Or to see who can spit in more places every morning.

Maybe they just get bored brushing their teeth in one place.

Or they do it because toothpaste is good for the trees.

But I suspect it's a status thing. To tell the neighbours, and whoever else might care, that they don't use black tooth powder or a stick of neem. Oh no. Look at me: I brush my teeth with Colgate toothpaste! Pthoo!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sounds that wake you at 3 in the morning

Thwack! Thomp! Thunk! Cat jumping on tile roof in hot pursuit of rat.

Pa-tchhack! Frog landing flat on floor after taking flying leap from favourite hiding place behind painting on wall.

Tchack! Lizard falling off wall after unsuccessful mating attempt.

Bhup. Bhup. Bhup. Moth banging head against walls.

Khrr. Khrr. Khrr. Khrr. Pregnant rat dragging dry teak leaf through rafters in the roof in order to make nest and babies.

Brrrrrz. Brrrrz. Lost insomniac bumble bee.

Pingg! Flying beetle with hard shell colliding into fan.

Kr-rack. Kr-runch. Kr-rack. Kr-unch. Kr-rack. Stray cow breaking and eating, breaking and eating enormous leaves and stalks of bread-fruit tree.

Gruck-gruck. Gruck-gruck. Frog singing love song.

Keeeeeeeeeeeenh! Cricket screeching non-stop.

Wneee. Only a mosquito.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sex and violence in the garden

It's a languorous sunny day, the kind when one feels much too languid to do much. I'm slouched in a deckchair on the veranda, an open book on my lap, gazing at the lush little garden and the coconut and cashew grove beyond.

Slowly I become aware of the almost frenetic activity that's going on around me. Some bees are buzzing madly, one with its nose nuzzling an open flower. Dragonflies hover above the hibiscus, the sun glinting on their filigree wings. Butterflies, lots of them, flutter nervously. A tiny bird has plunged its thin long curved beak into a pink flower and is sucking deeply. Two equally tiny black and white birds, who have made a secret nest inside a bush of fragrant white zai flowers, flit back and forth. There's a lone fat squirrel that keeps dashing up and down the cashew tree trunk, thumping its tail and shrieking. High up on a coconut tree a solitary bird is singing.

Courtship, pollination, procreation . . . my garden has become a hotbed of sexual activity.

And then I see a snake, not a common sight in the daytime. And slowly I make the connection between the snake and the zai flowers. The snake has come to eat the frog, who the night before was hiding in the zai flowers to eat the insects who – like besotted lovers - were irresistibly drawn to the seductive fragrance. I'm always being told by my villager neighbours not to plant fragrant flowers anywhere near the house because they attract snakes; and always I dismiss what they say, thinking: But snakes have no sense of smell.

The frightened little frog goes hop-hop-hop close against the wall. The long black snake slithers after it, swift, silent and intent. They both disappear behind some plants. Suddenly the sunny garden seems full of menace. Somewhere a sea eagle screams. After a while the snake reappears and glides out of sight. No frog. R.I.P.

It strikes me later that the snake was no villain. He was just doing what snakes are meant to do. Good and evil do not exist in the natural world. It's human beings alone who can be truly evil. Why then, I wonder, do I fear the snake more?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Not waving but drowning

The sea was rough today, a dirty muddy colour with a pale frothy surf.

But still people were in the water, jumping high every time a huge breaker approached and seemingly being carried effortlessly beyond it so that it crashed below rather than on top of them.

Yet every time I see the bobbing heads and waving arms, I can't help thinking of a poem by Stevie Smith:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

There are no life guards, of course, on this beach as on many others. Even if there were, would they be able to tell the difference between a man who's waving and one who's drowning? Literally and metaphorically speaking.

Would anyone?- I wonder.

Would you?

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he's dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The importance of being wild

Reading Oscar Wilde the other day, I realised how horrified he would have been by the idea of city people choosing to live in a village. Wilde was an aesthete who devoted his life to the beautiful and the sublime. Naturally he simply loathed the countryside. It is only in the city, he asserted, that a man can indulge in civilised pursuits (those being the Only Worthwhile pursuits, of course).

But Wilde would most certainly have been horrified by what passes for a city in modern India. I imagine him in dirty, crowded Bombay looking "With such a wistful eye/Upon that little tent of blue/Which prisoners call the sky". Reading Gaol all over again. The very word civilised - which suggests elegance, refinement, culture – is rooted in a word that means city. But what, I wonder, is civilised about our cities?

Granted, you will find theatres, art galleries, bookshops, libraries, seminars, intelligent conversation, cultivated people. But what about life and living? "My art I put into my work, but my genius I put into my life." Wilde again. Are not all the civilised pursuits a sham of sorts when the quality of living itself is so thoroughly uncivilized?

Call my rant sour grapes (I yearn sometimes for civilised diversions).

But I really do believe that the rot seems to have set in cities, and there must come a time when a better alternative is available to those who want it. Getting out is an option. But why should that mean going backwards in time? Why can't one take along all the nice bits of civilisation?

Whenever I drive along the Konkan coast or in the hills of the Western Ghats, I see all around me miles and miles of beautiful empty land. Beautiful and quite uninhabited. I see spectacular views of rolling hills and of the glittering silver sea. And I imagine people fleeing the city and settling down in this idyllic landscape; living in cottages (no skyscrapers) amid trees and gardens. I imagine children running free, learning how to climb trees and recognise flowers and fish, shells and birds. Naturally, as in all idylls, the state is only to happy to provide electricity and water.

What next? The way I see it, people don't have to have homes in the same place they have offices and markets and leisure activities. This is how it is in cities today, and the result is mass chaos. Instead, everything should be neatly compartmentalised. There would be clusters of just cottages, each cluster like a little village. And each cluster would be connected by a world-class motorable road to a "facility", also set in this idyllic landscape. One such facility could be a centre of art and culture. Another could house offices and places of work. Yet another could have shopping malls and restaurants and skating rinks and bowling alleys. There would be no overcrowding, filth, pollution. There would be no need for rural development, since the rural would naturally get developed with only a little help from the powers that be.

It's not as wild as it sounds.

And surely such an arrangement would be good for the soul, and for the body and mind: offering everyone a chance to lead a rich and beautiful life?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A drinking woman

Lena is the only woman I know of in this village who drinks and gets drunk.

She lives in a nice little house with her brother and a sister-in-law who recently returned from Dubai or someplace. They seem like decent people. Lena herself is a sweet-faced young woman with a friendly smile and a mop of short unruly curls.

But often she gets very drunk.

Then you'll see her weaving barefoot down the road, but with a drunkard's care. She is always dressed in a long green satiny gown with short puffed sleeves. The gown flares out gracefully. It's all frills and flounces. On one shoulder is a satin bow.

She looks like some skinny, ragged creature out of Vogue for Urchins. Or like someone who got into a scuffle after a grand ball at a rich man's house. Or like some sad, jilted woman eternally condemned to traipse about in her wedding dress.

When the urge to drink is upon her, she will try and wheedle two rupees out of you. That is how much, I'm told, a glass of the stuff costs. Cheaper than tea.

She always tries to earn the money first.

She'll approach you with her sweet smile and offer a few cashew nuts fresh from a tree, or a flower, or a stray kitten, or a cutting from the croton in her patch of garden. The first time she offered me a flower I thought she was just being friendly.

Now I know better. If you don't give her the money, her sweet smile will vanish and she will glower at you, muttering dire curses in Konkani.

When she's drunk she'll still be muttering dire curses, only now her eyes will glaze over.

I wonder where she drinks. Sometimes I feel anxious for her. After all, she's the sole woman among drunken men. But when I see the two local drunks – the squint-eyed stout fellow who always greets me cheerily, and the skinny curly headed fellow - I think 'nah'. There's something so comic about each helping the other to walk straight. You can't imagine them doing her any harm. I hope so, at least.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The pao wallah

If the birds don't wake you here in the mornings, the pao wallahs will with the soft pom-pom-pom of their bicycle horns as they go past with laden baskets covered by a sheet of blue plastic.

It's always the horn they softly tap, sometimes with their own distinctive pom-pom tune. They never call out. They never cry: 'Pao. Garam pao. Naram pao, kadak pao' as you would expect a vendor to normally do. If you're a regular customer they might stop and tap the horn a couple of times outside your window, but that's all. When you stumble out sleepily, they will hand over the warm pao, pocket the coins and glide away softly, all without uttering a word. The whole transaction has a certain dreamlike quality to it. Maybe it's just that everyone is sleepy, including the pao wallah. Too sleepy to cry out.

The pao itself is unlike anything I've tasted elsewhere. It's not like the pao you get in Bombay, and it's not at all like the so-called pao wrapped in plastic which nowadays you get in some city stores. The one I particularly like is the kadak pao. It's a crescent shaped roll with a hard crust and a soft inside. The closest thing to it that I know of is the brun you get at Irani bakeries in Poona. There's also something called a poli, which is a small round flattish roll. It's also kind of hollow so that you can stuff it with cheese or ham or egg or even pizza toppings to make a very exotic breakfast.

Pao wallahs seem to be a phenomenon peculiar to the Konkan coast. In Alibag, where I lived for a while, I used to see them cycling miles every morning to sell pao in the many little villages around. And they almost always tend to be Muslim. I wonder why that is. Maybe because the pao itself came with the Muslims somewhere from the Arab world. Maybe because the baking of bread is not native to India and it's something the Hindus just never learnt. Whatever it is, I hope they never learn to shout like the fruit and vegetable vendors in cities.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ever played frog ball?

I had a yellow frog in my kitchen today. Which meant no lunch (no peace!) till it was out of the house. But frogs in the daytime are particularly drowsy and stupid. (At night it's just the opposite: they jump about like India rubber balls). And this one refused to budge.

I looked out of the window, hoping to catch someone who would catch the frog for me. And I got lucky. For a straggly group of boys was returning home from school.

Thinking it a big joke, about a dozen of them crowded into the house.

The biggest took charge. I gave him a plastic bag and stood at a safe distance. (As soon as you grab a frog it tends to squirt a liquid, and only the least squeamish will grab one with his bare hands.) He picked up a koyta (a curved axe of sorts) and tried to whack the frog into the plastic bag as if he was playing a game of hockey, the bag was the goal, and the frog the ball.

It reminded me of the game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland, where the ball is a hedgehog and the mallet a live flamingo. The frog jumped all over the place, everywhere but into the plastic bag. The boys shouted and cheered the boy on.

This went on for some time, with the koyta not even making contact with the frog. Losing patience, a little fellow pushed aside the poor hockey player and eagerly lunged forward to grab the frog with his bare hands. Holding the frog gleefully by its one leg he ran out and tossed it onto the road. Instantly the boys were after it, trying to kick it as if it was a football this time. Even I felt sorry for the poor frog. But you know what they say about little boys, and frogs and snails and puppy dog tails. I guess a little girl would have kissed the frog.

(But the truly philosophical question is: Why does a frog exist? And if it's whole raison d'etre is to catch insects and eat them so as to maintain the eco balance and all that, then shouldn't it be out there in the garden doing its froggy thing instead of slacking off in my kitchen?)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Nature's (roll) call

Monkey shit.
Cow shit.
Dog shit.
Cat shit.
Lizard shit.
Rat shit.
Buffalo shit.
But no goat shit. This is fish country. Though now that Id is approaching you see the odd goat or kid being fattened on wild greens. But always on a tight leash.
And one can buy a sack of some of the above to fertilise the garden for 10 or 15 rupees. Chickenshit.
(No point being delicate about it all when you're deep in it).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Roof with a view

There is a Japanese haiku that goes: Yesterday the storm blew my roof away/Now I can see the moon more clearly.

When a monkey broke some tiles on my roof so that all night the rain poured in, the last thing I was thinking was: Hey! look at the pretty moon.

More like, if I see that monkey again I'm going to get a gun and shoot him.

It makes me think about enmity in general and what a deeply individual response it is to threat. The monkey destroyed my property, exposed me to the storm and terrified the wits out of me .
He counts as my enemy.

But a soldier aiming a gun across the LoC at a complete stranger who has done him no harm, and for no reason other than that he's been told the man is his enemy - what sense does that make?

Much has been said about governments creating war for political ends, but mad politicians wouldn't have this power if seriously bizarre individuals didn't support them in droves.

A friend who visited one of the border towns marked by barbed wire fencing tells how he shouted across to the Pakistani soldier: Look, there's an Indian bird on Pakistani territory. Shoot it!


Friday, September 12, 2008

Odd bits #2

I never knew you could see the full moon and the sun together at the same time.

I was at the beach one evening. In front of me was the sea and the setting sun. And then I turned round and saw, rising over the casuarina trees, a pale full moon.

There was a guy who, like me, was obviously seeing this for the first time. 'Look, look,' he said excitedly.

And both of us looked. It was an incredible sight.

Love the city, hate the city

Which city dweller at some point has not dreamed of giving it all up – the hotshot job, the fat salary, the endless circle of senseless days, the difficult spouse – to become a vagabond, a hermit, an adventurer. To be free! And who – come the next morning – has not ceded the idea to the more prosaic reality of home loans, children's schooling, the desire for a plasma TV, another day in the city.

The city, as my economist friend Sauvik Chakraverti likes to point out, exists at the very heart of life. It is the city that offers more division of labour, thereby more markets, thereby more opportunities for you to peddle your talents and all earn all that nice moolah.

Like it or not, the city is the heart of life.

But cities have become unlivable: crowded, dirty, expensive, lacking even basic amenities like electricity and water.

And more and more, people who are not tied to a 9 to 5 job are saying 'hell with it all' and moving out. These are mostly wealthy people who acquire a second home in one of the many villages around Alibag (outside Bombay), have very expensive alternative lifestyles, and manage to straddle the best of both worlds.

Those who don't have pots of money opt for the Simple Life. They grow their own fruits and vegetables, bake their own bread, make their own pickles and jams, and wallow in rural bliss. I don't know anyone who actually lives like this. I'd like to, but it's all too much hard work.

And that's what I've found the Simple Life is all about. It's how simple village people live and clever city types don't.

I've found that trees, amazingly, shed a million leaves, which have to be swept up and burnt or decomposed in some compost pit which you have to build. And fruits have to be protected with netting or plucked before the birds and the beasts get at it. This is much harder than it sounds, believe me. For one, they grow quite out of reach. Having any kind of a garden, in fact, means endless hard work: digging, planting, putting manure, weeding (millions of weeds!). What about the gardener? you ask. What gardener? There is no such thing in a village. Gardeners all live in the city. Domestic help live in the city. The guy who cleans your car lives in the city. Sensible people live in the city!

Perhaps I too should migrate to the city. Living the high life is what I dream of now. A bungalow on Delhi's Amrita Shergill Marg. Some nice village help to do all the chores they would refuse to do in their own village, while madam lounges about in a blue silk kimono. Sounds like bliss: a city idyll.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Odd things #1

I never knew hens lived in trees.

But come evening and you'll see these ungainly fowl – they have glorious plumage: shades of purple, orange, green, brown – fill up a small bush or tree.

I know dogs love to pounce on them. It's a sight to see an otherwise smug rooster throw its dignity to the wind and scatter like a frightened hen, squawking loudly.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An evening stroll

And then there's the sea.

I walk down in the evening, sidestepping cow dung. The narrow lane is shaded by old trees; the small houses on either side screened by tall hedges of brambles and mixed foliage. Few people are about. I pass Malati, in her bright pink nine yards, searching as usual for her three cows so she can shut them in for the night. I tell her the monkeys are not allowing the papaya plant she gave me to grow. Ramakant saunters past, his gaze directed as it always is at the sky. He is a small wiry man with gentle eyes who cuts and trims trees for the villagers, and brings down their coconuts. Now he stops to say something to me in Konkani, gesturing with his arms. In return I say something in Marathi. Neither of us understands the other, but it is a pleasant exchange. At the end of the lane, the friendly, cross-eyed drunk raises a hand in greeting. Three little Muslim girls, in pyjamas and with colourful dupattas tucked behind their ears, are returning from their lessons at the masjid. In the day they go to a convent school, wearing brown pinafores. "Aunty!" they chorus, flashing me a smile.

I am continually astonished by the friendliness of these people. In my old neighbourhood in the city, people I saw everyday remained strangers to the end.

As I walk along the lane by the side of the sea, a subtle change comes over the landscape and people. Those who see me regularly still smile and nod. But to some I am a stranger, like the tourists who descend in season, a stranger whom they must nevertheless greet. Hello, they say mechanically. Hello, the children say smiling coyly. Hello, hello. They have learnt this from the tourists and it always sounds strange. A tall fisherwoman from whom I sometimes buy fish at the door strides past. She is wearing the traditional nine-yard sari tucked between her legs, a large nose ring and a big tikka on her forehead. 'Hi!' she calls out to me cheerfully.

There's hardly anyone on Patnem beach today. Some women are strolling about. Three small boys are playing cricket. The sun will set soon. Two men pull in a fishing net. One of them is a tailor by profession, but he seems more in his element by the water. They shake the net. Two small fish fall out. The tailor puts them into a bag. I pick up a large shell that has fallen from the net. There's something live in it still and I throw it back into the sea. Barefoot I walk down the long curve of the beach. At the end there are bare black rocks rising from the sea and merging into a low hillock thick with bushes. Sometimes the sea recedes completely and you can walk round the rocks to the even quieter beach on the other side. I clamber up as high as I can. The beach looks very tiny from here. I look at the miles of sea and the sky. The sun sets. The sky changes colour. I forget the time. Slowly I realise I am the only one still on the beach. In the tourist season tiny coloured lights will be coming on at this time in the shacks lining the beach. Now it's as if I am the only person in the whole world. Reluctantly I walk home. I notice there is a crescent moon in the sky.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Rich as a fish curry

In many ways all of Goa is like a village: laidback, sleepy, green with paddy fields and palm trees; particularly when the tourist season is over. But it's a village that's quite unlike the many poor dusty villages – of Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal – where India is said to truly live, where there are bloody caste feuds, there is oppression, unemployment, hunger, fear and hopelessness.

You see none of this in Goa.

People here are prosperous.

Almost every family in the cluster of villages where I stay has its own plot of land and little house with a red-tile roof. On this plot is the ubiquitous coconut tree, as necessary as the tulsi in the courtyard. Many have fruit trees – mango, jackfruit, chikoo, papaya. Some have skinny cows, a few keep buffaloes, a small number have chickens. The Christians keep pigs. I've seen ducks waddling down the road in a line and some strange spotted fowl that resemble turkey. Those who still work the paddy fields grow rice, but only for themselves (even though labour is expensive and it might be cheaper to buy it). But as Shaku, a young widow with a son, tells me: 'What to do? We can't eat shop rice – it gives us indigestion.' Lone fishermen in the evening catch their family dinner using either a net or a primitive fishing line. Apart from living off the fat of the land, people own shops in the small market on the highway, run shacks on the beach in season or have a government job. Almost every family has a son in the Middle East who earns pots of money, which he faithfully sends home.

There's electricity in every house, and it's really cheap. My monthly bill is no more than 200 or 300 rupees. All homes here have a telephone, which usually doesn’t work because they haven't paid the bill. Most astonishing of all, water is piped to every house even in the more remote villages. The PWD provides a little cupboard-like loo outside the main house, but otherwise plumbing is unheard of. Cows, of course, do it everywhere and you have women gathering dung every morning.

My neighbours include Hindus, Christians and Muslims. They all draw drinking water from the same well. Which is weird because they have piped water at home. But well water is all they will drink. Even though it means several trips to the well. Even though there are frogs swimming around in it. But in Goa a frog is called Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. It seems appropriate.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

It's a jungle out here

Yesterday the monkeys came. I heard the loud swishing of palm leaves as they swung from tree to tree, followed by their distinctive whining chatter, and my trembling heart readied for battle.

It's not that I'm not used to monkeys. Where I lived in Delhi I've known monkeys to sidle in through an open window or balcony when they think no one is looking and snatch half a dozen peaches or a bunch of bananas. I've seen a monkey open the fridge and steal eggs. I've even witnessed a monkey amble up to a trundling ice-cream cart and boldly point to an ice cream. Even parliament house has them, only no one notices too much because they so resemble our netas.

But those are city slicker monkeys with funny faces.

Here they're savage jungle beasts with very black, very ugly faces set in a halo of unkempt hair, and even white teeth which they will bare at you in a sneer of utter contempt. When I first moved in here, an enormous male was in the habit of appearing at the window above my kitchen sink in order to stare at his reflection in the glass pane. Suddenly I would see this huge gorilla-like creature (almost five feet tall) filling up the open window which only a moment before had been full of the lazy blue sky and a single palm tree. King Kong. I tried to shut the window, he tried to grab my hand. I noticed it was tiny and very delicate, more like a gnarled black claw. And it felt very dry.

The further away you go from the city and civilisation, the closer you get to the jungle. This is something I have only learnt recently. When I opted for the Simple Life, I had this quixotic notion of nature, which consisted almost entirely of beautiful trees and birds, peace and harmony. Call me stupid. 'The woods are lovely, dark and deep,' Frost said, not mentioning the snakes and hundred other strange creatures that must lurk in that lovely darkness.

But nature is not the blissful idyll of romantic poets. It's wild and untamed, it's savage and cruel. In my garden one morning a crow attacked a fat frog. It pecked it and pecked it and the poor frog shrieked and shrieked, hopping this way and that to get away from that relentless beak. The gory yet monotonous drama continued all morning till the creature at last was dead. I had a long black snake once, chasing frogs in the undergrowth in broad daylight. It was killed two days later by my neighbour's dog. Crows will sometimes drop dead rats in your path. Once an eagle dropped a live chicken only inches away from where I was sitting, enjoying the sunset. There was an angry scuffle – a sudden frenzied beating of wings – and then the eagle and his prey soared up into the sky again.

And I came here for the peace and quiet.

Yesterday the monkeys came, but all that happened is that one of them broke my papaya tree again, stuffing its ugly face with the leaves. Luckily they didn't break any roof tiles this time. And I was grateful that the little baby monkeys didn't enter the house to crap and piss all over the place as they did once. Nor did dozens of them form clusters at each window, forcing me to run out of the house shrieking for help. And I was thankful I was not sitting on the garden bench when a stream of piss fell out of the leaves in the cashew trees above.

Today after days of sunshine there's rain falling softly. I can see through my window how beautiful it all is, lush and green. And I'm only just able to sustain the illusion that this is paradise after all.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The way of the dream

Years ago I read a short story by Somerset Maugham in which the protagonist, an Englishman living in the South Seas, year after year dreams of the England to which he will return one day. The day arrives at last, and as he is approaching England he begins to tremble in excitement at the thought of experiencing again the smells and sights and sounds of the place. And then the uneasy thought pops into his head: Suppose the reality does not measure up to the dream?

I remembered this story, somewhat wryly, when I decided to abandon Delhi and its 'jumbled heap of murky buildings' amid which I had lived most of my adult life.

For years I had dreamed of living far away from the raucous noise and ostentation of the city. The simple life was what I hankered after: A small, quiet place where all I needed was a cycle to get around. Clean sweet air. A little cottage and garden where I could grow some vegetables and live cheaply. Maybe I could keep a cow who would give me fresh milk every morning (I drew the line at hens despite the temptation of free eggs. Hens make me nervous). In this simple paradise, I thought, I would spend my time reading and try my hand at writing a novel.

Such was my innocent dream.

After about a year or so of drifting about hopelessly, chance (not serendipity, I fear) and circumstance brought me to a small village at the very southern tip of Goa. South Goa is in some ways not Goa at all. When people think of Goa, they are thinking of north Goa, which is hip and happening. Where I stay it is quiet. Birds sing sweetly (I never knew birds could actually sing a whole tune), unless the bird is a woodpecker, in which case it shrieks not unlike a cartoon Woody Woodpecker. At night all you hear is the hum of insects. Frogs croak in season. Sometimes a hidden cricket in the house will set up such a piercing scream that you cannot hear yourself speak. Very rarely a local drunk can be heard raving.

This is the quiet life I dreamed of. Now I even have a little red cycle. Yet nothing is as I thought it would be. For in all my dreaming of the simple village life, reality was the one thing I had not bargained for. And it is something I discover a little every day, often the hard way.

I think sometime of the protagonist in Maugham's short story. He never made it to England. He chickened out and returned to the South Seas, his dream intact.