Saturday, January 31, 2009

The paradox of the holy cow

Every now and then a stranger, usually a poor migrant in ragged clothes, will turn up in the village towing a colourful cow. Not an ordinary cow. This one is decked up like a bride in mirror work and embroidered cloths, her horns decorated in ribbons, with gold tassels hanging from the tips.

The other day one such stranger turned up, playing the shehnai and adding a touch of festivity to the occasion. He was tall and dark and handsome, and looked like a rogue, but the shehnai, which he played well, made him seem more mysterious: a down-and-out musician perhaps? With him were a daughter and wife. They lseemed like beggars, dressed in unwashed rags and with that grimy look of those used to living on the pavement. The cow looked magnificent in contrast, even though its clothes were somewhat faded.

What surprised me most was the reaction of the villagers. My nearest neighbour Nirmala rushed out of her house and bowed low before the cow with folded palms. A quick aarti was performed solemnly on the road. The cow stood passively as cows do. As the man towed the cow from house to house, playing his shehnai, others came out. All offered money or a handful of rice or some old clothes, which the woman and the little girl received eagerly in a soiled piece of cloth. The man clearly was not from any temple. He looked as if he'd borrowed the cow to earn some money. Yet everyone offered alms as they would to any holy man. Even Christina, who is no Hindu, gave old clothes. I guess it's not called a cash cow for nothing.

A few days later in the market, the cow was yet again the centre of attraction, but this time the villagers responded very differently. It was the weekly market day and some villagers were squatting on the ground with vegetables piled in small heaps before them. Cows love market day. It's a lovely change from rummaging around in garbage. And they turned up as they always do, and wandered through the market nosing the tomatoes and cauliflowers and cabbages and quickly gobbling up whatever they could. Shoo! Scat! Go away! – the villagers shouted. And laughing and shouting they drove the cows away.

I guess the cows were not dressed for the occasion this time.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Nightlife in the village

The evening star – for whatever reason – is so big and bright these days that the eye simply can't help being drawn to it.

Even after the other stars appear, it's the one you look at again and again.

This might sound very dull to many, but living in a village one is so starved for diversions that you tend to notice these silly little things.

While city folk are caught in the mad rush to get home, or already drinking in a pub or watching a movie in a darkened theatre, the evening here is unfolding its few simple diversions.

You hurry to catch the last show of the Psychedelic Sunset starring Purple Haze, the Colours Pink and the Moody Blues at the open air theatre. There's often much drama in the performance, but you wish you had some popcorn to munch, and that the stones you were sitting on weren't quite so hard, or that the kayak you're in didn't rock so on the waves.

Or you can take in The Return of the Bats on the hillside, and shriek and shout as they go skimming over your head. Beats sitting in a giant wheel or visiting Appu Ghar.

There's the Sound and Light show – entry is free – at the Mango Tree, but only in some seasons. Then you can watch glowworms dance sensuously to the music of the Beetles and other insects. Not quite the Egyptian belly dance, but not bad considering it's just a little worm trying hard.

Those with somewhat kinky tastes can watch live porno shows in which lizards mate, or they can get their kicks from some S&M as the lizards do it with the moth inches away from a hungry mouth. It's not only the suspense that's killing.

Or you can act in a version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarf Frogs. Put on an apron and sing while you cook and the little frogs hop about,watching you with bright little eyes. And then have a romantic dinner in the garden under the stars with all the little creatures of the night in a live band singing specially for you.

Encore, anyone?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Not for the chicken hearted

How you get your chicken to the table surely says a lot about which part of civilisation you inhabit.

The guy who gets his chicken frozen from a plastic bag with a brand name lives in a different world from one who visits a supermarket and can choose his favoured bit of anatomy, who in turn is cultures away from the man who goes into the jungle to chase his lunch.

Out here it's a little better than it is in the jungle, but not much.

You can ask one of the villagers if they have a jungle chicken to spare, one of those magnificent multicoloured birds you'll often see scrabbling about in the dust or being chased by dogs. And leave it to them to do the needful. This is usually the tastiest chicken you can find.

Otherwise you head for one of the many Fresh Chicken outlets at the side of the road or in the market. These are normally open to the skies - where blood and gore rule, and crows hang around like vultures waiting for the tastiest morsels to be tossed to them.

To avoid all this I drive down the highway a little to a quiet and solitary chicken shop just off the road in the middle of nowhere. The white broiler chicken are all squawking away in an inner room. I tell the guy the size of chicken I want. I'm told a good chicken is no more than 1600 grams. The bigger ones are never tender, probably old chickens past their prime.

The guy grabs the victim and holds it over a weighing scale. Then he wrings its neck. Before it is quite dead he tosses it into a blue plastic bin and puts the lid on. What follows is a violent thrashing from inside. The bin rocks dangerously. I look at the scenery. The hills are silent and all about is quietness.

My chickens are very tasty because I make a special feed for them, the chicken guy says. And he tells me not to trust the chickens in the market. Some of them, he says, come tightly packed in a crowded van from across the border. All that stress, he says, shaking his head. How can a chicken taste good after so much suffering

While he is talking the dead chicken is taken out and its feathers ripped off. The skin is removed, the innards are pulled out and the mess is tossed onto a heap. Then the chicken is chopped up, put into a plastic bag, which is put into another plastic bag and handed over to you.

Gingerly you accept your yet-to- be cooked lunch. There is some blood and a bit of flesh sticking to the bag.

It's all enough to make you turn vegetarian.

I think, therefore I'm chicken

While on the subject of chicken, what happens when ancient Indian philosophers ponder the eternal mystery of the chicken and its crossing of the road?

You get some fresh chicken jokes, with a very Indian twist, invented by my funny friend Nandu Rao.

Upanishads: Then Nachiketa asked the Lord of Death, "O mighty Yama, why does the chicken cross the road?" Yama pondered the question and gently replied, "Understand Nachiketa that the road does not exist, neither does the chicken. Yet, there exists the desire of a chicken to cross the road. It is this desire that we have to rid ourselves of to become one with the unmanifested Brahman."

Bhagavad Gita: Rain cannot wet the chicken, knives cannot cut it. Fire does not burn the chicken, the wind does not ruffle it. The chicken is beyond the twofold confusion of life and death. Still, the road must be crossed. Pick up thy mighty bow O courageous son of Kunti and cross the road. It is thy duty, as it is the duty of every chicken, to cross the road and come to me.

Puranas: And then the sage Vishwamitra went to king Ajatashatru and demanded the compensation of a chicken. The humbled king offered him a barn full of the birds. Vishwamitra took only one saying, "The road is narrow, the path is hard and I am old. There is room and time for only one chicken to cross."

The Vedas: The road was black, darker than darkness. A faint stirring, a desire emerged from the blackness. A yearning to cross the road. Desire manifested. Took the form of chicken. Who knows when it will cross the road? Time is a cycle, without beginning and without end. We sacrifice to thee O Agni, the chicken that would cross the road.

Ramakishna: The road and the chicken are one and the same. Yet they seem to cross. Why? Let us bow our heads to mother Kali and pray for the vision of the manifested oneness of the chicken and the road.

Vivekananda: Arise chicken! Awake! Leave thy egg and cross the mighty road!

And on a less philosophical note there are these ones, also by Nandu:

Balbinder Chatwal, Roadside Dhabba owner: Was it a butter chicken or a tandoori chicken?

Sumeet Gosalia, Jain Dhabba owner: There is no chicken here nor is there any onion, potato, garlic or ginger. We do have vegetable kheema and can deliver it across the road.

Ministry of Health: We will not allow any chicken to cross the road till further notification. The bird flu epidemic is under control on this side of the road. Our jurisdiction does not extend to the other side.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

God, give me a sign

If you're a stranger in these parts, the chances of you getting quite lost are quite high.

Unlike city folk, villagers don't need signs to tell them what is what. They know, as they've always known: where the bus stops and how to get to wherever it is they want to go.

So there are no bus stops. But if you find some people standing aimlessly by the side of the road, chances are they're waiting for a bus. But equally they could be just standing aimlessly.

As for road signs, it's not as if there are none. There's some very grand looking signage in blue and white, but it offers information that's quite useless. So a stranger looking for Palolem beach will learn that Mumbai is 590 km up north, or that Cochin, in the opposite direction, is 720 km away, but he will remain quite clueless about the direction to the beach.

Those who've been here long enough don't bother with road signs. They look around instead for a walkie-talkie. A walkie-talkie is a local passing by, someone who might give you a sign that you're not lost.

Where's Palolem beach?

Two kilometers, the walkie-talkie sign will say, pointing.

Agonda beach?

Two kilometers, pointing in another direction.

Patnem beach?

Two kilometers, waving in yet another direction.

Providing a postal address to locate someone's house is equally useless. The only way is to describe the person or the landmark.

Yellow house with green gate and very ferocious white dog somewhere near the masjid? – you ask hopefully.

Ah, see there? Go left, go right, go left right left right.

So you go left, go right, go left right left right – as directed. And when you find you're quite lost, you stop to ask yet another walkie-talkie sign.

With a friendly smile he'll direct you.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Like a bird or a tree?

The other day I was talking to a village woman whose family has lived here for generations, and who – like most villagers - has never been out of Goa. Don't you ever want to see the big wide world? I asked. She shook her head and her smile seemed to say: What for? Villagers here don't even dream of running off to Bombay to become Bollywood stars.

It makes me think they're not so different from their coconut trees: Rooted to the spot till they are felled by disease or old age and then, useful no more, fit only to be used as firewood.

Yet I can't help being bewildered by such passive rootedness, such apparent contentment in living each day with never a desire for something new.

Isn't restlessness in the very nature of human beings? Or do these villagers possess that secret something, which more restless souls have yet to find?

Is it better to be rooted like the trees or to be free as a bird?

There is no happiness for the man who does not travel, the Aitareya Brahmana says. Living in the society of men, the best of men becomes a sinner… therefore wander!

And since the beginning of time, like migratory birds people have left their homes for the unknown, crossing oceans and continents in search of a better life. Sadhus and mystics have always been wandering men. And whoever heard of the hero of a great epic finding adventure at home? There are those for whom wandering is an end in itself, those for whom sleeping under “the star-eaten blanket of the sky” is nothing short of heaven. People move to escape their ghosts and to ponder the condition of their souls and to find happiness.

And yet the Buddha did not wander the world to find enlightenment. He sat rooted like a tree for many months in the shade of a bodhi tree. If he'd been a Goan it might even have been a coconut tree among whose branches restless birds fluttered.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The eternal ocean of life

There is a rocky outcrop on the beach nearby, a low hill actually, from where one gets a magnificent view of the sea.

Sometimes I clamber up the rocks and sit there to gaze at the sea.

From my lofty perch up on high the beach looks small and insignificant, a long curving strip of sand on which little stick figures scurry about like ants.

But if I look straight ahead I can see nothing but the ocean, a silver expanse of water stretching endlessly to the point where it becomes one with the sky.

The sun has set and I am still gazing ahead of me, lost in the sea and the sky. On a good day I am the sea and the sky, my consciousness no more than a raft bobbing on the lapping water.

Only the changing light reminds me that I am sitting alone on a rock and that it's time to go down to the breach and mingle again with the stick figures that still remain, before winding my way home.

The other day I came across an interview in Uncommon Wisdom, a book by Frank Capra. And it seemed curiously apt. Capra interviewed Stanislav Grof, psychiatrist and author. Grof is one of those 60s' characters, well-known for using LSD as a research tool for the exploration of the human mind.

This is what he said:

One of the most frequent metaphors that you find in psychedelic reports is that of the circulation of water in nature. The universal consciousness is likened to the ocean - a fluid, undifferentiated mass – and the first stage of creation to the formation of waves.

A wave can be viewed as an individual entity, and yet it is obvious that the wave is the ocean and the ocean is the wave. There is no ultimate separation. The next stage of creation would be a wave breaking on the rocks and spraying droplets of water into the air, which will exist as individual entities for a short time before they are swallowed again by the ocean. So, there you have fleeting moments of separate existence. The next stage in this metaphoric thinking would be a wave that hits the rocky shore and withdraws again but leaves a small pool of tidal water. It may take a long time until the next wave comes and reclaims the water that was left there. During that time, the tidal pool is a separate entity, and yet it is an extension of the ocean which, eventually, will return to its source. Evaporation is the next stage. Imagine water evaporating and forming a cloud. Now the original unity is obscured and concealed by an actual transformation, and it takes some knowledge of physics to realise that the cloud is the ocean and the ocean is the cloud. Yet the water in the cloud will eventually reunite with the ocean in the form of rain. The final separation, where the link with the original source appears to be completely forgotten, is often illustrated by a snowflake that has crystallized from the water in the cloud, which had originally evaporated from the ocean. Here you have a highly structured, highly individual, separate entity which bears, seemingly, no resemblance to its source. Now you really need some sophisticated knowledge about water to recognise that the snowflake is the ocean and the ocean is the snowflake. And in order to reunite with the ocean the snowflake has to give up its structure and individuality; it has to go through an ego death, as it were, to return to its source.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rich as a Goan fish curry

One of the things that struck me when I first moved in here was not only that even the humblest villager owns property. But that each of these little red-tiled cottages has wooden window frames and shutters. This might sound like no big deal, but the fact is that wood is fantastically expensive and even middle-class flats in cities nowadays prefer to use aluminum.

How, I wondered, could these simple villagers afford wood - often teak wood - windows and doors?

I asked a young woman whose family have traditionally been fisherfolk.

Oh, we got the wood from the jungle, she told me.

And the beams for the tiled roof?

From the jungle and from their own coconut trees.

What jungle, I asked.

And she explained how till 15 years ago, this entire area was practically jungle. When people wanted wood for furniture or for a roof, they simply cut down a matoo or teak tree. When they needed bamboo to erect cow sheds and sun porches they cut down a bamboo tree.

And she grumbled how it had all become so difficult now, what with less trees and a vigilant forest department.

And she grumbled about how these days they had to buy fish. When I was small, she said, the sea used to be full of fish and prawns. We didn't even have to go far to catch them.

The old days she described sounded like some primitive paradise where people lived off the bounty offered by nature.

In many ways it is still like this. Villagers here are still used to the easy life. Most families have a cow which gives them some milk. They have fruit trees. They get coconuts from their own trees for cooking. Those who still work the fields grow their own rice. And every family (almost without exception in this district in the southern tip of Goa) owns property with a house and a small garden, apart from the field (all this the result of tenancy laws in their favour).

These simple villagers here are rich. Goa, according to a recent study, is the richest state in India with the highest per capita income.

Doesn't it make you want to be a villager?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Of flying penises and other wonders

Looking at the poinsettia that's growing in my little garden - the way the blood-red petals gape open so shamelessly to reveal the flower's private parts (so to speak), the way they yearn towards the morning light – I'm not surprised flowers are often described in a language that 18th century prudes considered shockingly obscene.

Botany in the early days (I read somewhere) was fraught with sexual symbolism, most of it the creation of an innocent Swede called Carl Linnaeus, who classified plants in a way that is followed even today. An outraged Encyclopaedia Britannica declared: A man would not naturally expect to meet with disgusting strokes of obscenity in a system of botany, but. . . obscenity is the very basis of the Linnaean system.

Yet all the poor man did was to clearly spell out the sexual analogies between flowers and people. The calyx, according to his erudite explanation, was the bedchamber, the pollen was sperm, and so on.

Botanical textbooks were naturally considered too risqué for nice young ladies. It was only after the language was sanitized that botany was taught to them.

And in those days erotic poems about plants were what soft porn magazines are today to those seeking a little titillation. Even Darwin wrote a long and erotic poem called Loves of the Plants, with many learned footnotes.

I have so few flowering plants that when they do flower, the pleasure I take in them is immense. A flower is born! Yet no one bursts crackers and no sweets are distributed to celebrate the birth, and the flower will die in a couple of days and no one will grieve. That might be in the nature of things. But do human beings have to behave as if they alone – in all of nature – possess procreative powers?

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it – so goes the song.

The humble bee has even been called a flying penis by one enraptured botanist. If only the bee had an ego, how it would boast!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Incredible sunset #117

I was walking in the lane that curves along a rocky part of the shore. Beyond the expanse of small black boulders was a tranquil blue-grey sea. I could see it in that lovely curve of bay, between the low green cliffs at either end.

The cloud formation that evening was such that it seemed as if pale mauve hills with sharp peaks rested on the horizon, on the shining rim of the mauve sea. And into these hills rising from the sea, a brilliant orange-red sun was dipping. All was grey and mauve, but for a hint of rose in the sky, and the vivid orange of the sun that contrasted with the blackness of the little boulders in the foreground.

Why are words so utterly useless in conveying the beauty of a sunset?

I think even a camera could not have captured the glory of that sunset.

Perhaps there are things, like love, that can only be experienced. And neither words nor pictures can ever really tell you what it was like.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Froggy weddings

Two little girls were married to two frogs the other day in a regular Hindu wedding ceremony. The marriage, villagers believe, will help to ward off evil spirits and prevent mysterious diseases. After the ceremony the frogs hopped back into the village pond and everyone forgot about the event.

It didn't happen in Goa, but I'm thinking: why not?

The frog here is regarded as Lakshmi, in any case.

Why not have young men marry the frog princess and bring the goddess of wealth home? It could be a rehearsal of sorts for the real thing. And a nice twist to the usual frog prince story.

Villagers, after all, love nothing more than big fat weddings.

And this one could become a big tourist attraction, given the fascination foreigners have for colourful and exotic Indian weddings.

Maybe frog brides will become the next big thing. Men wanting to ward off evil spirits will all come to Goa to get married. There'll be sunset weddings and beach weddings. The froggy bride will learn to love the sea and the sand and will hop daintily in the surf.

Of course, the frogs might not like this.

And then we might have one of those Mad magazine situations in which a very angry frog husband turns up at the wedding, trailing his little froggy children, and croaking: That's my wife there, you %$%$#@!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Disneyland for rats

All I wanted was a roof over my head.

What I got was the kind of little cottage in which almost every room has windows on three sides.Which makes the roof a complicated arrangement of triangular shapes. From the top it looks a bit like a cluster of hills, with peaks and valleys. Inside, the ceiling is a maze of wooden beams and gables.

It's the kind of roof that roof rats dream of living in.

I moved in unsuspectingly, little realising what terrors lay in store for me.

The rats were there from the beginning, running around merrily, playing hide and seek and snakes and ladders, and every now and then peering down at me with bright little eyes. At night I'd hear leaves being dragged and I knew they were nesting in the walls. Entire families of rats, it seemed, were squatting in my roof. Once I saw a little one just sitting quietly, scratching itself and yawning. Another time I was in the garden when I saw it on the TV cable wire that runs from the roof into the trees of the compound behind. As if the cable were a tightrope, and it was performing for my benefit, it tottered along the length of wire at great speed and disappeared into the trees. In spite of my utter terror, I couldn't help giggling: the little rats were so like the mouse in Tom and Jerry cartoons.

But something dire had to be done.

Poison, I was told. But I didn't want dead rats raining down on me while I slept. I tried rat traps, but the rats never seemed to come down from the roof. I imagined them living there for ever, rat cities springing up over my head.

In desperation I called the rat catcher (actually a half-drunk roof carpenter who was willing to help). Just take them out somehow, I told him.

He climbed onto the roof with a long bamboo stick and began to remove the tiles where I thought the rats were most likely to be found. He removed a nest with little white baby rats and threw them out. And then, while I watched from inside, he poked the stick down the many long tunnel-like stretches that join sections of the roof. There they are, I shouted. Three little rats were scuttling down the beam in fright, one behind the other. And in spite of my terror, I found myself singing in mind: Three blind mice, see how they run! They ran with the rat catcher chasing them up and down the roof. At the end of half an hour, I had to believe they were gone.

But they returned, loath to give up the Disneyland that offered them such amusement.

In the end I had to put bits of rat chocolate at strategic points along the roof. It worked. Slowly they disappeared. I found dead rats in the garden. But they were dead. Peace at last.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The gora invasion

There are villagers here who see foreigners as a threat to their way of life. As an elderly fisherwoman whom I met in a queue (of all places) told me in some anger, 'First it was the Portuguese who conquered us, and now it is the tourists who will take over.' The woman lives at Palolem beach, and though she can earn good money from foreigners, she says: 'I will never rent out my rooms to the goras.'

Yet there are many who are happy to do business with the goras. And more and more foreigners are settling down here, wanting to invest in property or simply to rent, thought it's nothing like it is in North Goa (where an entire village is inhabited by Russians).

They live here at least eight months in the year. The funny thing is that most of them say they cannot afford to live in their own country.

An Irishman I met, who was a mason back home, told me that in England all he did was pay bills. 'Bills, bills and more bills,' he said in disgust. 'Here it is cheap.' The Irishman has built himself a nice house here where he lives with his wife and son. The son goes to school in Margaon, the nearest town, 35 km away. And the Irishman works here as a kind of contractor, helping other foreigners to build.

An elderly, retired Dutch woman, married to an Indian, has bought a house here and converted half of it into a hotel. Back home, she says, it's hard to make ends meet on the pension she gets.

Two women from Amsterdam have for years been living in a little rundown house which has a loo outside. One of them makes costume jewellery which she tries to sell to tourists in season, the other gets the odd assignment to be a DJ.

An elderly Italian with a ponytail runs a pizza joint by the beach.

A retired cop from England has opened a shop with some other foreigners where they sell mostly Indian exotica at extravagant prices.

An elderly, artistic couple from France live here eight months in the year,France being too expensive.

A Brit couple runs a popular hotel listed in Lonely Planet.

There are many such people whose euros and pounds and dollars buy them the bit of paradise that so many crave.

The question is: where do Indians go when they can't afford to live in their own country? Africa?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Howling gigantic curses

Why do dogs howl at the moon when it is full? For the last couple of nights the village dogs, particularly, I think, the homeless ones, have been howling and yowling and wailing as if at some midnight dog funeral.

Some say the moon affects mad people in the same way, that they became madder on such nights. One theory holds that the brightness of full moon nights keeps people awake and it is this lack of sleep that brings on the mania.

I think it must be the same for vagrant dogs.

They’re hungry and cold and wretched. They've been shooed away from warm verandas where luckier dogs snuggle down to sleep. All they can do is slink away and lie down in the dust to sleep, perchance to die. And then the full moon shines in their eyes, keeping them awake, snatching away even that tiny bit of comfort. It's enough to make anyone howl in rage.

And so that's what they do. When the moon is full they howl gigantic curses at the moon, at the unfairness of it all.

I feel like doing the same to them when they keep me awake with all their yowling. I wonder if dog lovers feel the same?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sweet, intoxicating females

In the big bad world of Man, baby girls might be bad news.

But in the world of plants, the female of some species is greeted with cries of joy by both men and women.

Take the papaya tree. Unlike most trees, the papaya comes as a male tree and a female tree. So when you scrape out the little black seeds from your breakfast papaya and toss them into the garden, you don't know which tree you're likely to get.

Slowly a sapling rises from the seed, slowly the tree grows (along with the suspense). Male or female?

And then one day you see little white flowers on the papaya tree. And you curse your luck. It's a male tree. And whoever heard of a male doing anything as useful as giving fruit?

But if bigger flowers grow (out of the trunk rather than the stem) you know you've been blessed. This is the tree that will yield you sweet papayas. And in your joy, you cry jubilantly: It's a girl!

And you cut down the useless male tree and toss it among the rotting leaves without a thought.

I'm told the same is true of the marijuana plant. It is the female ganja plant that has the power to intoxicate. The (pollen carrying) male is worse that useless since its presence alone reduces the female's intoxicating gifts. Without male plants in the vicinity, females thrive by remaining unpollinated and seedless and thereby more potent. Wherever marijuana is grown under artificial conditions, the males are carefully weeded out before they can do too much damage.

If there is a moral in all this for chauvinistic males, I hope they're getting it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The colours of tranquility

One of the things that so differentiates the urban from the rural is colour.

What are the colours of a city? If you stop to think about it, there's no such thing. The city is a chaos of colour. Hoardings, cars, buses, people, houses, exhaust. The eye does not once focus on any one colour.

Here on the other hand, there are three distinct colours that dominate the landscape. Whenever I am away and I think of this place, it is the sense impression made by these colours that come to mind.

There is green, of course. Countless shades of green, from bright, almost fluorescent greens to dark sombre greens, from yellowish greens to olive, lemon, jade, emerald and you-name-it greens. Green that is always lush and, in the rains, almost mesmerizing. Not surprising since it is the trees and the endless wild vines and plants that stand out most.

Then there is brick-red. This is the colour of the earth here, a colour you see a lot of since much of the ground is covered only by trees or fields. It is also the colour of the stone blocks that are used for building. Even though many homes have plastered walls, the burnt red of the cheera, as it is called, is still seen in abundance, often fusing with the ground so that some homes and boundary walls look as if they have sprung directly from the earth.

And above all this is blue, the endless expanse of cloudless calm skies touching the horizon and merging into the blue of the ocean.

Green, they say, is most soothing to the senses. And green and red in conjunction, as anyone who has studied colour knows, are complimentary colours and therefore most harmonious and pleasing to eye. Blue too is the colour of tranquility: of space and quietness.

There is a certain beauty in these colours, and much of this beauty comes from the fact that the natural landscape often seems to have the harmony otherwise seen only in an artist's work. If only artists could decide the colour scheme of cities, how beautiful they would be.

Sometimes I think the environmentalists and doomsday prophets are right. Man will ultimately destroy all natural beauty.

As the poet Primo Levi writes:

We, rebellious progeny
With great brainpower, little sense,
Will destroy, defile
Always more feverishly.
Very soon we'll extend the desert
Into the Amazon forests,
Into the living heart of our cities,
Into our very hearts.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Vogue for villagers

One of the most bizarre fashion trends I've seen is the long gown that village women hang around in. This is basically a loose cotton nightdress that is worn in the daytime. A kind of day-nightdress you could say. It has short sleeves, a modest neckline, and it falls all the way down to the ankles.

Women wear it through the day, traipsing around the village as if any moment they'll be jumping back into bed.

The gown is eminently practical. It's cool, comfortable, easy to wash and, most important of all, it keeps their nice clothes nice and new. Why bother to dress up when there's nowhere to go? (This place doesn't even have a movie theatre.)

The only time most of them get out of their day-nightdresses is when they have to catch a bus to go to Chaudi, a dirty little market on the highway. Saturday is market day, and villagers come from the nearby villages dressed in their Saturday best. This means a salwar-kurta for young women. Once called the Punjabi dress and worn only in the North, the salwar-kurta now seems to be the favoured garment in all the villages of India. National unity!

And though the village belle might look drab on most days and nothing like her counterpart in Bollywood films, when villagers dress up they do it with a vengeance. Particularly the Christians.

As I saw yesterday.

It was a sunny Sunday morning and the feast of St Theresa was being celebrated at the imposing village church set on a slight elevation on a dusty stretch of national highway. Old fashioned dance music was playing. And colourful stalls selling orange ladoos and toys lined the road. Milling about in this carnival atmosphere were excited village women and young village girls, all resplendent in dresses made from satin and velvet and other shiny material, in shimmering purples, greens, blues, reds. Dresses glittery with sequins. With yards of lace and ruffles and nets. With bows and frills and other baubles. Dresses that looked straight out of a catalogue for bedecked Christmas trees. In comparison the men were positively dowdy, in identical oversized and rather mossy black suits.

When the party was over, I knew that like Cinderella they'd be back in their day-nightdresses, broom in hand, sweeping the leaves in the courtyard. Until the next festivity.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

It's like that only

A villager's attitude can often be quite baffling to one who has lived and grown in a city. And most baffling of all is his tendency to shrug off just about anything and say: It happens.

Did you know a coconut tree has fallen and blocked the road?
(shrug) It happens.

But it's snapped the electricity wires! We'll have no light till they fix it!
(shrug) It happens.

Some insect has eaten up every single leaf on my teak tree. What to do? (Why do I even bother to ask?)
(shrug) It happens.

There was a snake in my garden yesterday!
Ohh. Ahh. (shrug) It happens.

Sometimes they'll add for good measure: It doesn't matter. Or: It's like that only.

Why, why, why does it have to be like that only? I want to ask. Why can't something be done?


It's not so much that they're fatalistic, but that they accept the things that I (with the city in my blood) find hard to accept. And this is particularly true when it comes to the natural environment that we share.

I often think this must be what is meant by "living in harmony with nature". They don't struggle against it as I do. They placidly accept the frogs in their well, the monkeys who steal their chikoos, the ants in their food, the rats nesting in their roof as a natural part of their world. A villager will briefly lament the dog who kills and eats his rooster, but he won't threaten to sue the owner of the dog. The owner of a mud house will bemoan sometimes the bandicoot who has tunneled underneath and threatens to bring the structure tumbling down, yet he won't lose too much sleep over it. If a cow eats up a favourite plant they only shake their heads.

The huge palm leaves that crash down to the ground, and which I don't know what to do with, they will weave into a canopy to protect them from the heat, the wind and the rain. The cow crap they're happy to collect (the dog crap they ignore).

They do what they can since they know they can't change what's like that only. They add alum to the well water they drink to cleanse it of the frogs who live there. They avoid planting large trees near dwellings so that rats and snakes don't have easy access. They keep cats and dogs to take care of unwanted creatures. They gather and burn dry leaves so that white ants won't breed there. Beyond that they can do nothing.

The only thing that seems to spur them into action is the presence of a snake, especially if it's known to be dangerous. They won't go to work that day. They'll gather neighbours and relatives, and armed with sticks they'll hunt down the snake.

Sometimes I wish I could be like them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My sporty little red bike

One of the nicest things about living in a small, uncrowded place is that you can cycle around.

I got a cycle not because I want to help save the earth or because it doesn't pollute the air – nothing quite so noble. I cycle simply because cycling makes me feel like a kid again. Kick the pedal and - whee! away I go!

Some lazy folk say cycling is not a good idea in Goa because it tends to be hilly in some places and there are far too many upward slopes. But that, I think, is what makes it such fun. For what goes up must come down. So you may pant a bit while climbing a slope, but then after that there's that long, long curvy downward trip when you're just whizzing along at the most tremendous speed, so fast indeed that you know that if a dog decides to suddenly cross the road you'll probably go flying, and so you gently touch the brakes every now and then just to control the cycle.

Cycling is also fun because while you lazily pedal along you can look around and absorb the scenery, which is generally worth absorbing given the graceful coconut palms and other natural stuff. And if it's a little sunny you wear a straw hat and pedal along slowly in case it flies off, feeling a bit like an old woman, but a rather eccentric and youthful old woman. And just that slow, unhurried pace gives you a good feeling because you realise that if you were on a crowded city road you'd probably be tense and ready to explode with rage at the stupidity of drivers. Though I had a cycle when I lived in Delhi. One wintry day I even cycled to meet a client whose office was close by. The receptionist, who was new and didn't know me, looked at me with the disdain reserved for those poor people who need to cycle because that's all they can afford.

It's a great pity that cycling has such an unglamorous image. Because, even in cities, it's perfect when the distance to be traveled is too short for a car ride and you're too lazy to walk it. For me, 2 km is a lovely cycling distance and I can go up to 4 or 5 km without too much sweat. The only problem about having a cycle here is that it tends to rust very quickly because of all the salt and moisture in the air, particularly during the monsoons. And the paint and chrome on my little red cycle (a children's cycle, I'm embarrassed to say, because I'm not very tall) is already peeling and looks quite shabby.

One day maybe I'll get one of those flashy new cycles one sees with gears and other gizmos. But only because I can't afford ever to buy a Ferrari. Frankly, I'd rather drive a Ferrari at top speed than zip along on a sporty cycle.

But, alas and alack, that will never happen.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The poetry of the sun, the sea

I can hear the sea at night nowadays. The rolling sound of the tide coming in, and then the distant crash of waves on the shore. After a pause the sequence is repeated, the rise and fall, the rolling, the crash. The steady rhythm lulls me to sleep like some otherworldly lullaby.

It's funny how very large shells seem to capture the very same sound. I gave a large cowry shell to my niece Maithili when she was five, and I watched with pleasure the wonder on her face when she put it to her ear and heard the sound of the sea. It's the never ending story of the sea, I told her. She was amazed that the sea somehow lived inside the shell, telling its tale, never stopping once. Intermittently through the day she put the shell to her ear to see if the sound had stopped. What story is it telling? - she wanted to know. And I told her it was probably about life under the sea, but we would never know because we didn't know the language.

There is probably some dry scientific fact that will explain it all, but sometimes I like the imaginative truth better.

Not always though. Many a time I want to know the why of many things I see and wonder at in my ignorance.

Like yesterday. The evening sun was a huge blazing orange ball. I could glimpse it through the trees and I hurried a little, hoping to see it set over the sea.

Why is the setting sun sometimes so huge and at other times just a regular size?

And why does such a glorious sun, which is almost a blazing ball of fire, not result in an equally glorious sunset?

By the time I reached the sea the sun had just set. And there was not even a hint of all that fiery, fantastic orange to be seen in the sky. Anticlimax. How could it all have just vanished so utterly and so soon?

Maybe not knowing and always wondering is precisely what makes the sea and the sun eternally enthralling. I know a poet called Nazim Hikmet must have felt something like this.

I came across his poem just yesterday:

as a kid he didn't pluck the wings off flies
tie tin cans to cats' tails
lock beetles in matchboxes
or stomp anthills
he grew up
and all those things were done to him
I sat at his deathbed
he said to read him a poem
about the sun and the sea . .

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My new year wishes

Dear god, this is my wish list for the new year (can you hear me, god? It's me, the disbeliever, the enemy of all those absurd beings you created).

I wish that all monkeys learn graceful manners and that they find ways to be gentle and good and kind and that they stop snatching and thieving and destroying what is not theirs.

I wish that all frogs (the ugliest and creepiest particularly) tire of village life and abandon my garden to hop and frolic on the beach where the tourists will love them and adopt them as pets and take them back to Germany and France and England and Russia.

I wish that every rat in the village is eaten up by every cat, all of whom will then grow so fat and big that the dogs who howl at night will run away in fright and there will be peace on earth and goodwill to all feline creatures.

And this monsoon I wish that you will not send playful little flashes of lightning right into my living room to strike terror in my heart and that you will go easy on the thunder (we're not deaf, you know) and that the rain will pitter patter gently down the window panes instead of huffing and puffing and threatening to blow my roof away. And I wish that the huge rat-like creature that has been digging up my garden is struck by lightning (since it's impervious to everything else) and that it turns to ashes before my very eyes (please god). And I wish that small insects do not crawl into my ears when I'm sleeping and buzz in there and refuse to come out.

I wish also that you could do something to stop the rooster crowing at 3 in the morning.

And while you're at it could you also stop my neighbour's hens from laying eggs in my garden. Dear god, that's all I need now, bloody little chicklings hatching in my hibiscus.

And I'd be really grateful if once in a while you could do something to kind of curb mother nature. She seems a little crazy sometimes, almost manic as the shrinks would say.

And before you think I'm ungrateful and greedy, I thank you dear god for the moon and the stars and the sunsets and all the pretty things you created.

Dear god, if only you wish it I could wish myself a happy new year.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Itsy bitsy, teeny weenie bomb blast

The new year celebrations are over and the cops are gone from the beach.

Dozens of them, toting guns – some in khaki, others in jungle camouflage – have been loitering around for days in the sand, looking hot and uncomfortable among all the bare bodies.

They've left behind ugly sand bunkers bang in the middle of the beach. What they hoped to achieve with these bunkers remains a mystery. Did they think they could hide behind them and shoot at terrorists who, of course, would conveniently be standing right there? But the sand bunkers were in the end more useful than the cops.

I saw a slender woman in a bikini reclining on one and gazing dreamily at the sunset.

Ironic, that, given that the bikini was named after an island in the Pacific ocean where the first atomic bomb tests were carried out in the 1940s. The reason being, of course, that the effect of this itsy-bitsy swimsuit on the susceptible male was thought to be as powerful as a bomb blast.

Sad how people now associate the word bomb only with horror: with blood and gore.

It make one long for more innocent times when the word bomb referred to silly things like beautiful women in itsy-bitsy bikinis.

But happily for all, sex bombs in their bikinis were the only bombs the cops found on the beach.