November 16, 2009

Beware Of The Dog And More

For all their love of dogs
The gentle folks on St. Roque Road sometimes forget
That to tell a dog not to mess up
Is to make him do just that!

For, a dog that lets you own it
Will be just as happy to let you own its poop!

November 12, 2009

Lions At The Gate

On the back roads where people are few and far between, where silence is left to its own devices, shattered only occasionally by a motorbike curving past you, it’s easy to be lulled into the melody of a melancholy road winding past old Portuguese-era homes.

That is until you come upon the lions.

We did, first at Brittona, then along the way through Ecoxim, and later, Salvador do Mundo before passing more lions as we made our way through Carona.

They watch over the road in pairs and needless to say they haven’t tired of watching over it for years on end. Decades are passé. The Brittona – Aldona stretch goes back centuries. And so do some houses. The others date back to early 1900s and possibly a decade or two further back, to the late 1800s.

Once we descended the slope to Britona after riding over the Mandovi bridge the ride got quieter specially after we swept past the fish market in the shade of the bridge. As night falls fish continue to be sold in the light of kerosene lamps. Cats keep vigil by the baskets at the feet of fisherwomen seated on small stools. The stools hold up well under the pressure brought to bear by the not inconsiderable girth of the ladies.

The cats have no use for the kerosene lamps. They have no use for the fisherwomen either. Their perseverance with their penance in front of baskets of fish would put a monk to shame.

In the opposite direction, not far from where we made the left turn, fishing trawlers ferry in fish. Across the river lies Panaji. Water ferries used to operate across the river to Betim. The bridge over the Mandovi made the ferry redundant.

The Sun was beginning to dip that October day last month. The Mandovi river lay to our right and for much of our way it would stay with us.

Rounding a bend I was drawn to the looming edifice of a whitewashed church.

The sight of the Nossa Senhora de Penha da França Church on the banks of the Mandovi in Brittona momentarily takes one’s breath away, more for its setting on the river as it curves past the 383 year old church. It is at Penha da Franca that river Mapusa, flowing southward, merges with the Mandovi. Along the road upstream of the river lies the maritime jetty at Virlosa.

On the banks of the Mandovi one can see massive barges ferrying iron ore upstream of the river. Occasionally they sound the horn, piercing the calm, startling water birds in the mangroves along Ribander causeway on the Panjim side of the river.

The Nossa Senhora de Penha da Franca church is known to have been built by seafarers, sheltering in her protective embrace on the high seas. The landscape momentarily stepped out to tango with us as we rode past the impressive white structure in the backdrop of the Mandovi.

White was restricted for use in painting churches during the Portuguese occupation of Goa. No Goan house came to be painted white in their tumultuous reign on India’s West Coast. So Goan homes took on colours nearly the entire spectrum of the rainbow, and they still do in the largely Christian stretch we rode through that evening. However some break ranks and paint white.

Gaily coloured homes lay back from the road, their gates opening onto paths that led to covered porches or balcaos as they are known locally. A profusion of carefully tended flowers in gardens flanking the approach to the entrance rose above the compound walls that ran along the road on either side of the two gateposts, lions guarding the gates.

While I had expected to see houses on high plinths, their balcaos continuing along the steps leading to the road, sometimes shepherded by curving balustrades, I saw few or none as we rode along, past homes. The plinths rarely exceeded a few feet off the ground. If there were any hidden from the road I wouldn’t know.

I could be forgiven for thinking lions came in all shapes or sizes, and different avatars as well.

While the lion resting on his belly came closest to what I might expect of a lion in the wild while it kept its eye out for prey, a sight reinforced by all the documentaries I saw in the years I was discovering wildlife before I discovered myself, I was still prepared to allow the King of the Jungle to lift himself up so he could see above the tall grass, into the far distance as Heraldson’s lion did.

However I could not bring myself to believe that a lion could swallow its pride and allow itself to be painted pink before being tasked with keeping watch over the gate.

Or for that matter take on a form that would make passersby pause and wonder of the fate that had befallen the proud King of the Jungle.

Still worse if it was reduced to mimicking a startled cat even if it could glory beneath many a sprightly flower bending over in affection.

If ever there was a case to be made for returning the King to the jungle, free to roam in freedom and roil the nights with his mighty roars and retain his form and identity, you have to visit John Sequeira’s lions above to see why.

Unlike the others we saw that evening, the lion at Olaulim had no company. It watched over the gate alone. It had turned the colour of the gatepost it was stretched out on. I saw no hint that it had ever worn the colour that lions wear. There was no hint it was saddened by the fact, at least none that I could recognise. Or maybe it was, and I had no way of knowing that either.

Some houses lay in disrepair. Their front yards untended. Gardens overrun by creepers and grass. Yet, the lions kept watch. If anyone decided to return they were ensured of a warm welcome at the gate.

But somewhere deep down the lions must’ve known they were fated to watch over a gate rusting away from a waiting that was lost to memory, lost to hope.

I could only guess. Was it a family that had migrated to far shores, intending to return while their dreams led them along even as they assimilated into once alien cultures, never returning even as they had promised themselves that some day they would walk through the gate and not walk out again?

Maybe they did return over the years, the visits becoming fewer over time until those left behind aged before passing beyond the pale and there was no one to return to, anymore.

I can only guess.

The lions, however, continue to wait.

November 06, 2009

The Mystery Woman

I have no idea how long she’s been there, nor how she came to be there and I know even little of why she’s there, sitting on a platform by the road, surprising travelers as they round the bend on their way elsewhere.

The red of her blouse accentuates the sky blue of her sari, and on cheerful days she might as well have stripped a length off the blue skies overhead before wrapping herself with it. The silver border, exposed to elements over time, has lost some of its shine but it is more than made up by her smile, no less enigmatic and mysterious than the narrow Goan village roads that hide serendipity around unexpected corners.

She looks over an old well and beyond to the road. Behind her a temple to Ravalnath or Bhootnath sits in quiet reflection, of shade and contemplation of an occasional pilgrim making his way to the temple. The deep stambh, a mandatory sight outside entrances to Goan temples, stands in the shade of a tree. A scooter is parked at the entrance to a house adjacent to the temple. A mud path leads to the gate. Blocks of laterite stones are neatly arranged to one corner.

An elderly man is busy working his axe on a coconut tree, splicing the trunk into neat strips, likely for use in fashioning fences or maybe to shore up enclosures in the backyard. It takes skill to splice lengths off a coconut tree. A steady twack-twack-twack interrupts the afternoon. In time it will begin to sound like a part of it. On the back roads nothing is orphaned.

A bicycle is parked by the side of the mud road. The woodcutter probably rode it to the small clearing where he is now working his axe. It’s likely he is doing it for a fee and that the coconut tree belongs to someone in the vicinity of the temple.

The well is old. Three-fourths of the opening is covered by a metal mesh. A rope hangs from the wooden wheel. By the looks of it the well is not very deep. Wells in Goa are usually not deep.

I turn to look at her. She’s tucked her hair into a bun, flowers adorning it. Jasmine probably, I tell myself. Anything else would not befit her posture. It’s easy to imagine the fragrance if you’ve ridden village roads in Goa and stopped by elderly women selling flowers at street corners, often on their feet and holding out flowers wrapped in leaves. While they wait on passing customers stopping by to buy the flowers they lend fragrance to the roads.

The dignity of her pose reminds me of singers of yore, on stage and singing. And of dancers as well while they awaited their turn on the stage. However it is not a pose I would expect to see if she were to be singing religious hymns. She would be sitting cross legged then, eyes closed, her hands seemingly in offering but actually moving to the pitch of the song.

Whatever the case maybe, she seems at home in the village. And travellers, at home with her presence on their journeys elsewhere.

November 05, 2009

The Devil’s Fragrance

Returning late one night last month I stepped out of the rickshaw and into the familiar glaze of sodium vapour lights. Skipping puddles on the road I made for the invisible footpath to shelter from the light drizzle under trees that merged into dark outlines of brooding leaves, beyond the seeming warmth of sodium.

I was not carrying an umbrella having delighted in the sunshine of preceding days. And just when it seemed that rains had given way to an Indian summer on the eve of a Bombay winter, they struck with a vengeance in that first week of October last month.

They washed the streets clean, cleared up the dust on the roadside and lent the air a tingling nip that was at once a pleasure to stroll in and a delight to feel on the neck in the breeze rustling the trees.

While there was work to wind up and packing to do, I was cheerful to the promise of October for, the first week would soon give way to Diwali. It also meant a long journey along the Konkan Coast, watching passing panoramas of old hills shepherding streams and rivers gently along while farm hands prepared to harvest paddy in the fields while twilight trickled over darkening contours, turning that midway moment into burnished gold of rural idyll.

Then on the eve of Diwali the demoniac throes of the drummer boys at Narkasur nights would beckon, the crescendo rising up to meet the evil promise of a demon before he would be reduced to ashes to wild cheers of crowds gathered to witness the ritual triumph of good over evil.

So when I stepped out of the rickshaw I had little on my mind save thoughts of winding up tasks before it was time to board the long distance train heading down the coast.

I was already imagining the train curving along contours of mountainous terrain while valleys opened up beneath me as I stood at the door letting the Konkan breeze wash over my face when I was brought up short on inhaling deeply of the night air as I made my way under the trees. Behind me the rickshaw had sputtered to life and was returning after dropping me off.

I instantly broke my stride, paused and inhaled again. Then I stopped. This was heady.

There was fragrance in the air, deep, heavy fragrance. A fragrance that meandered, and strengthened as much by stillness as by moistness in the air it hung like an invisible affirmation of a happy evening out.

Horns sounded behind me. It was then that I noticed a swathe of pale orange carpeting the street, covering cars parked to the side of the road in a layer of pale yellow.

A few had settled along the length of a pair of wipers resting against the windscreen. On closer examination they turned out to be flowers, small in size and individually mildly fragrant while collectively they intoxicated the night street about them.

While I stood there before bending down to scoop up a handful, more flowers fell, in slow motion. They meditated as they descended; exhaling their fragrance, adding to the hundreds, no, thousands that now carpeted the road.

A heavy wind had rattled the windows the night before and continued through the day.

I looked up. The first time I had chosen to make sense of a tree I must have passed by umpteen times, here and elsewhere. But not once had I wondered as to its existence except for taking its shade, and that of the other trees in the neighbourhood, for granted.

More flowers descended from the branches above, twirling as they fell to the earth. The branches were heavy with flowers, and the flowers heavy with fragrance, and the neighbourhood heavy with atmosphere.

That night I looked them up and realized they belonged to the Indian Devil tree (Alstonia scholaris), an Indian flowering tree native to the tropics and one of the 40-odd species of the Alstonia native to a wide geography.

The next morning I stepped out to the sight of more flowers covering the road. In the distance I could’ve mistaken them for snow if it was not Bombay and not the first week of October.

The flowers were white, five petals to each flower.

Elsewhere in the city the Indian Devil Tree was in bloom, lending the morning fragrance to school children on their way to school. The tree itself was not very big, close to twenty feet tall. Sweepers swept the roads, bunching the flowers by the side of the road.

Office goers hailed rickshaws while workers moved to clear fallen branches of an Indian Devil Tree that had failed to withstand the winds of the night before.

The flowers having graced the roads, and the fragrance the air, the early October morning had turned intoxicating. As I inhaled the morning freshness the fragrance lent the air a sharp nip as I drew it into my lungs. I could only guess as to its name. Devils purportedly intoxicate to overpower.

I was inclined to believe.

And I had little doubt that long after the tree had shed the last of its blooms, barely days after its first, the roads would carry fragrance from the fallen flowers and wandering feet would bring the intoxication home.

October 24, 2009

A Vermillion Morning

Udupi, 2009.

In the song of a worn stone
Floating in the silence of time
An ancient temple speaks,
Of how enduring faith
Lent the awakening sunshine
The melody of a vermillion morning.

October 22, 2009

The Bridge At Corjuem

Like with most things in Goa the bridge at Corjuem revealed itself as we rounded a bend in the road we had ridden over from Aldona. The road ran on to Quitla while we turned right before slowing down on the approach to the cable-stayed bridge over the river Mapusa at Corjuem (Khorjuem).

Earlier in the evening while passing through Carona on our way to Aldona we rode down a gentle slope that ran past the Mascarenhas home, the entrance guarded by a pair of lions in a profusion of brightly coloured gardening plants.

Hidden in leaves that rose behind the lion to the left, a clay soldier stood erect, his right hand raised in a smart salute. A letter box was welded to the gate that led up a short flight of steps to the cemented approach to the Mascarenhas home set back from the gate by several metres.

From the gate the porch was visible under a sloping roof of Mangalore tiles. In all probability it housed a balcao where the family rested in the humid afternoons for a bit of breeze or when neighbours stopped by to catch up on events marking the day. A balcao is where Goan families from an earlier era often connect with the world outside their drawing rooms. It is where they watch over children playing outside. It is also where they welcome visitors or see them off.

Growing up I used to sit in the balcao of the Rebellos and watch pigs and piglets upto their antics. Now I cannot imagine Goa without balcaos.

A quick picture later Jags and I rode down the slope before turning left in the direction of Aldona. Ahead lay a red house. Creepers and thick vegetation rose on either side of the narrow road.

As we came up the incline past the red house a group of villagers in Carona had gathered for prayers in Konkani in front of a roadside Cross. Carona is predominantly Christian. We paused by the shrine to Jesus to take in the divinity of the evening. The prayers hit high notes before evening out. To a travelling eye they soothed the journey and in the chorus the unity of a rural setting shone through. A road curved viciously and sloped down behind the Cross, past quiet homes.

There was scarcely a soul on the road save an occasional motorcyclist, the roar trailing long after he had disappeared round the red house we had passed a few minutes earlier. The sky was overcast. It was approaching six in the evening.

We came upon paddy fields to our left. Two women were scything through knee high paddy crop as we rode on to Aldona, reaching the village square minutes later. Further on the road ran to Mapusa. We turned right in the direction of Quitla, minutes later turning off the road the second time and onto the the approach to the Corjuem bridge.

The Sun had broken through the clouds, lighting up the colourful cables that held the bridge over the Mapusa. At the time of its completion in 2004 it was only the sixth cable-stayed bridge in India. For travelers between Aldona and Corjuem it offered an efficient alternative to the river ferry that plied across the stretch of the Mapusa river between the two villages. In time the river ferry became redundant.

The pillars rise to 49 metres and can be seen from far, above coconut groves, only competing with the Aldona church that seemingly rises to the skies when seen from the former ferry point we would visit later in the evening. The bridge spans 235 metres and was built at an estimated cost of rupees 23 crores. At the time there was talk of developing the Corjuem fort, a short distance away, into a tourist spot. The fort dates back to 1705 A.D. and unlike other forts in Goa that face the sea it is one of the only two found inland. On visiting the fort after crossing the bridge and turning left we found little or no sign of much having transpired in the time the bridge was thrown open to the public in 2004.

However we stopped for a bite of Poli and Batata Vada before resolving to visit the fort another time. The light was beginning to drop and we still had the former ferry point to visit. I was not very keen on it though. It’s never easy on me to see a formerly busy ferry point ferrying travelers across the river now lying desolate.

The poli was soft and elastic. The vendor said it came from a bakery in Assnora. The batata vada was oily and cold. I asked for two polis as the vendor reached into his basket fitted to the back of his bicycle. An elderly villager who had stopped by the vendor for snacking on poli and batata vada smiled before asking me,

“You’re buying one poli for the two of you?”

“No, I asked for two,” I replied, returning his smile.

He smiled back.

Then we rode back the way we had come, stopping by a roadside shop for a drink of Fanta. The orange drink soothed our throats gone dry from the long ride.

A calendar on the wall depicted the momentous scene from the Mahabharata when in the heat of battle with the Kauravas at Kurukshetra fought thousands of years ago, Lord Krishna instructs the kneeling Arjun of his dharma, calling him to his duty while dispelling his apprehension and doubts he is beset with on facing up to his own great grand-father Bhishma, his cousins the Kauravas, and his teacher Dronacharya on the battlefield. Krishna’s teachings on duty and righteousness in the middle of the battle at Kurukshetra came to be collected in the Bhagavad Gita, and is revered by the Hindus.

Lord Krishna is worshipped and celebrated across India by the Hindus and rests prominently in their pantheon of deities.

Pausing at the sacred scene from the Mahabharata in the calendar issued by Sattari Liquor Traders, wholesalers of Indian Made Foreign Liquor, and Haldankar Liquor Industries, manufacturers of Cajulana, Cashew, and Coconut Fenny (Feni), it rightly reminded me of Kali Yuga that commenced on the demise of Lord Krishna.

Kali Yuga is known as the age of Kali, the male demon, and also as the age of vice! In the Hindu school of thought the Kali Yuga is the last of the four Yugas or stages the world will cycle through before ending on account of its spiritual degeneration largely brought upon by vices. The demise of Lord Krishna kick started the age of Kali or Kali Yuga.

Before stepping out I reflected for a moment on the irony of advertising liquor on a calendar depicting Lord Krishna given that the Age of Kali or the Age of vice commenced with his disappearance from Earth!

Refreshed by the orange drink we continued straight down the road past the approach to the cable-stayed bridge, passing the spacious Corjuem Gymkhana dating from 1946 before turning right at the corner where the Mae De Deus (Mother of God) chapel straddles the approach to the former ferry point that was a lifeline to travelers between Corjuem and Aldona not too long ago.

In the distance the bridge seemingly rose from the vegetation along the Corjuem bank of the Mapusa river.

Where the ramp once sloped down to the water thick grass now obscured it. Only on looking closer did the outlines of the ramp reveal themselves in the knee high grass.

I closed my eyes and imagined the probable evening scene from years ago as passengers awaited the ferry at Corjuem, pacing the approach while the ferry lay berthed awaiting passengers on the Aldona side of the river. It must be entirely possible to see the ferryman loosen the rope securing it to the ramp and hear the pulleys lift the gangplank as the ferry blew its horn before pulling out of the opposite bank on its way across the river to Corjuem.

The sight of the ferry mid river would hurry the waiting passengers into walking towards the ramp while those on motorcycles would kick start them, readying to drive over the gangplank onto the ferry. Still others would cease conversations with fellow villagers waiting alongside and trace the approaching outline on the river, watching in silence before resuming their conversations.

The owner of the shop on the edge of the river, now closed possibly from lack of business, would announce to his patrons the approaching ferry as they quickly downed tea or spirits before paying up at the counter and walking out the door to the ramp to join the others.

As the ferry neared the ramp the engine would whine in the silence of the night, and punctuated by the rattling of chains lowering the gangplank it would light up in the headlights of vehicles waiting to drive over. A rush of feet and voices would head over the gangplank and onto the ferry as it swayed in the waters before stilling on the captain cutting its engines.

It is all over now. The ramp is hidden in the grass. The roads are empty. The shop is shut. And there is no ferry operating. Headlights no longer light up the river. Instead they take the bridge at Corjuem on their way over the river to Aldona, the cable-stayed bridge!

Behind me fishing nets dry on a bamboo pole. Further away three villagers sit talking on a sakho where passengers once sat out their wait for the river ferry to Aldona.

I meander in the grass and walk over to where two fishing boats lie in a tight embrace. Lying in silence they must whisper their memories of the river, of waiting voices that floated away into the night, and of how times were some years ago.

Often it is discontinuity that marks the passage of time while making memories along the way.

Related Posts

1. River Crossings
2. A Riverside Inn

October 09, 2009

A Buffalo Gets A Bath

Buffaloes love their bath. They love water, more so if it is muddy. Then they can roll in the mud until the mud can roll no more.

There’re folks who assign buffaloes the capability of thought. I do not dispute their ability to entertain thought, but to say that buffaloes revel in mud baths to keep ticks and flies away is stretching it too far. It might well be true, the effect of keeping ticks and flies away that is. But I am not prepared to believe that buffaloes roll in mud and water so as to keep ticks and flies away. That must be more a consequence of loving a mud bath, not the reason.

Their unmoving nature might prompt some into thinking they’re deliberating. They might well be, but deliberating a thought? No sir. A big head does not necessarily mean all of it is grey matter. As it is the world has enough heads, big and small, cooking up thoughts, and see where it has got us, and the buffaloes.

In the water they are a picture of calm even when a colony of frogs uses them for floating islands like they did with a buffalo lolling about in a streetside pond in Kasargod. It was only on getting closer did the 'warts' in the distance resolve into frogs basking on the buffalo's back in the late noon Sun as I hurried down the mud path for the bus back to Murudeshwar. For an animal that chews so much one might expect them to chew a thought of its frills and spit out wisdom. Instead they chew wisdom and spit out thoughts in those who observe them.

Where obedience is a virtue, it fetches you a bath that lasts three minutes!

It takes a strong man with strong hands to get buffaloes out of a mud pit. But it takes a hard man to give his buffalo a three minute bath!

On Naumi day in Lahavit, a farming village off Nashik, I was witness to just such an atrocity.

Nearing noon, the farmer led his buffalo out of the shed with a sloping asbestos sheet to the water trough. An outhouse abutted the shed. In all likelihood the farmer had his living quarters in an accommodation adjacent to the shed for he was bare-chested when he led the buffalo out. He was clad in a dhoti and the swell of his belly mirrored the swell of the hills in the far distance.

Grass grew lush in the foreground. A pipe ended over the water trough, a likely source of water pumped into the trough.

A tree rose over the trough and beyond I thought I saw signs of a sugarcane field fenced off from the farmer’s dwelling. I’ve no idea whom the sugarcane field belonged to. In the shade of the tree clothes dried on rocks heaped underneath. Power lines conveyed electricity to the farmer's dwelling.

To the other side, under a small tree, a tractor lay parked. A few feet away from the farmer’s tractor a wooden cart stood in the shade.

Next day was Dussera, and I was looking to experience it in Nashik. It was on Dussera day, after nine days of fighting his army of demons that Goddess Durga finally slew the demon Mahishasura after he took on his original form of a buffalo.

Mahishasura had sought from the gods a boon that granted him immunity from death at the hands of a male. Armed with the boon he turned on the Gods themselves. Constrained by the very boon they had granted Mahishasura they conspired to dispatch Goddess Durga, a female, to bring about his downfall.

During Navratri (Nine Nights), leading up to Dussehra day (it fell on Sept 28 last month) it is common to find pictures of Goddess Durga astride her vehicle, the tiger, grace public and private spaces. In the train we took to Kalyan that morning on the eve of Dussehra, fixed to a partition in the compartment was a picture of Goddess Durga by the tiger, duly garlanded.

She slew Mahishasura when in the heat of the battle he took on the form of a buffalo, his original avatar. Elaborate Durga pandals often depict her plunging her trident into Mahishasura as he bit the mud, his horns lying limp at the force of her thrust. And so do pictures depicting the moment.

I’m not sure if buffaloes were tamed as a result. Whatever the case maybe they somehow took a liking to mud and water.

So when the farmer reached into the water trough and splashed the buffalo with water that morning I imagined the buffalo sigh with relief unless of course it knew better.

The farmer was joined by an elderly lady at the water trough. She washed an utensil before leaving the bonded alone.

A quick motion saw the water splash against the buffalo on the left.

It was followed by a quick splash and a vigorous rub of the neck.

Another quick splash followed by a vigorous rub of the back.

No sooner had the farmer finished with the back he turned his attention to her right flank. Two quick splashes later he was done!

All it took was three minutes!

A three-minute bath before she was led back to her shed!!!!!!