October 31, 2010

The Torchbearer

This was no ordinary house.

That was no ordinary time.

And, she was bequeathed no ordinary legacy.

October 24, 2010

Halt, Who Goes There

(Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh)

Before I let you pass,
Tell me, O traveller,
What brings you here,
And I’ll let you wander among the walls.

You’ll pass unnoticed, for
The alleys are mostly empty.
And while divinity seemingly hangs by a thread
Faith stretches back to before time.

Mornings are rituals,
The Sun commands as offerings from the faithful,
Seeking light
To dispel real or imagined darkness.

Many a wandering feet have passed this way,
Seeking redemption for their ways elsewhere.
Some found it,
Others failed to recognize it.

My horns might’ve blunted,
And my forehead tender.
Yet my legs hold me up
So I may ask of you, again:

Before I let you pass,
Tell me, O traveller,
What brings you here,
And I’ll let you wander among the walls.

* The goat only relented after I shared with it the picture preview!

October 21, 2010

Goan Laterite, Red and Rough

Past Bethora, the woods barely part, allowing the rider passing glimpses of sloping roofs of formerly bright hued Mangalore tiles weathered over time by elements to an earthy shade of shadows that filter the morning sun to randomly shifting patterns on Goa’s back roads.

Set back from the road that narrows and curves past bends before straightening, only to curve again, trees rise high along the incline of gentle hills while across the road they drop away along the slopes, shading stone and mortar homes fronted by courtyards centered around brightly painted tulsi enclosures.

If you’re lucky you might spot a Tree Pie in the branches, the twitching tail giving its presence away while Magpie Robins disappearing into the underbrush serve to pause the rider out of concern for their well being. Fear not, the Magpie Robins for all their seemingly clumsy hop, skip and jump routine are supremely athletic. I grew up watching them.

I like riding through the quiet of Goa’s rural landscape, particularly through Nirankal where the silence can lull senses so completely that only the shocking red of a recently quarried earth will awaken them to a screeching halt. Most times newer constructions are hidden away among vegetation so if a rider is returning after a prolonged absence he is unlikely ever to notice it unless you happen upon a laterite quarry.

Laterite mined amidst the greenery is among the most visible of visiting cards that rural economic activity in Goa leaves behind, not as much for the gaping earth as for the searing red of the violation inflicted, the colour resulting from the presence of iron oxides.

Ajay and I pulled up at a newly quarried laterite mine the moment we rounded the bend past a clump of bamboo along the Nirankal-Dabal stretch. While there was little in the landscape to suggest anything out of the ordinary, the disquiet presented by the freshly excavated red earth proved to be hypnotic.

A makeshift house constructed from mined laterite stones and covered with dried coconut fronds stood at one end, home to a Kannada migrant labour family tasked with keeping watch over the laterite mine in the open area to the front.

Migrant labour from neighbouring Karnataka find employment in Goa, filling in for local Goans unwilling to take up hard manual labour. While Kannada-speaking labourers are often, though not always, shunned, ridiculed and likely to be looked down upon by Goans, they’re largely indispensable in filling in for hard labour requirements in this tiny coastal state.

I stepped over laterite rubble from the mine and made for their dwelling. At first I was taken aback by the walls raised with laterite blocks loosely placed one over the other. There was no mortar binding the stones. None at all. Nor did I see a door!

In the doorway the father sat in a swing fashioned from a rope while the lady of the house stood by the doorway in the shade of the thatched roof extending outward. In the middle of seemingly nowhere theirs was a picture of calm.

In the far distance the Western Ghats mountain ranges were outlined in the dreamy blue of a hopeful sky.

Across the road from the quarry a truck stood in the shade of a tree. Tyre marks criss-crossed the laterite mine behind me. While the driver’s side of the door invoked St. Caitan, the bonnet invoked St. Anthony in white paint over rusty red of the laterite it transported from the mine. To a corner of the windshield, under a picture of a suffering Jesus, were the words – Jesus I Love You. No one important was left out. I did not walk around to the back of the truck. If I had, I'd probably see an invocation to a fourth one from the holy pantheon.

The rear view mirror was missing from the holder. Truckers transporting mining extracts on Goan roads find no use for such niceties as a rear view mirror. Moreover, they've little to fear themselves, having entrusted their destiny into divine hands, literally speaking. It's the others on those roads who quiver at the sound of an approaching dumper.

Owning a truck in Goa is a viable business alternative, much in demand for transporting construction material, as also ore from Iron ore and Manganese mines.

The blue plastic drawn over a thatched roof fashioned from coconut fronds was held down by randomly placed fronds and laterite stones. A power tiller fixed with laterite-cutting blades stood to one side of the entrance conspicuous by the absence of a door.

Until recently it was common to see wiry men blackened by the sun toil away manually in the laterite stone quarries, sweat running off in little rivulets as they chiseled away at solid rock, fashioning out large, heavy laterite ‘bricks’ for use in construction of houses elsewhere.

Older constructions in Goa made extensive use of laterite, visible as much in the construction of temples as in churches, including laying steps to raise the plinth. Outlined in white paint, laterite steps, weathered to a shade of black from being exposed to the elements, ascend to the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Panjim, accentuating the church square in the heart of the city, and relieving passersby of the heat of the mid-day sun.

Road-side crosses raised on pedestals are as likely to have been fashioned from laterite stones as the raised plinths of homes in their vicinity.

In each case, more so in the years before machines came to be employed in cutting stones, much hard work, and skill went into manually stripping the laterite quarry into even sized stones for the market. I remember the men employed in cutting stones from rock formations to be wiry and black from being out in the sun. They rarely spoke, and when they did they were often cryptic in their replies.

One time in the monsoons, benefiting from a rare day of sunshine, a wizened old man I met while riding by a laterite quarry in Keri had his head wrapped in towel to protect it from the sun as well as serve as a cushion for carrying the laterite stones to stack some distance away. The old man told me it was a tough ask working the quarry manually in the rains. The stones are usually heavier on account of water seeping through. The costs likewise go up. Flashing a tired smile he returned to chipping the laterite deposits into laterite bricks, his head bent to the task.

The quarry was located a little over a kilometer away from the jagged outcrops of laterite hills that rise immediately upon cresting the incline that breaks cover and levels out into a temporary plateau of sorts before slipping towards Savoiverem, past Booth Khamba, a knee high shrine to the resident spirit whose blessings passing travelers seek on their way past, usually offering coins or incense sticks as much in deference as in obeisance.

Typical of laterite deposits, the jagged outcrops along the surface of the massive mounds from atop which the radio towers on Taleigao Plateau are visible in the far distance, pose stiff challenges if you’re walking on them, more so at sundown. I’ve startled many a Lapwing there and been startled in return by their screaming murder and flapping away agitatedly before circling overhead crying harshly. The night skies fairly dazzle from atop the hills in the vicinity. Hare droppings are common among the jagged outcrops of laterite.

The narrow road that runs past the laterite hills passes by a Banyan tree under whose shade I used to pause for a breather on my cycling sojourns many, many years ago. Now if I happen to pass that way in the noon I pause so the goatherd and his herd of goats have the right of way. Buffaloes grazing in the vicinity will raise their heads at the sharp commands he directs at his unruly flock.

In the years since not much has changed out there except for prices of laterite stones. They’ve become dearer. I remember prices of Goan laterite stones to be a little over a rupee each many years ago, steadily increasing to three, then five before the cost of each laterite stone came to be ten apiece, and even fifteen depending upon your location. Transportation of laterite added to the costs, with locations further away from the quarries parting more for each stone.

Laterite Chira (as laterite stone is known) is designated by the Govt. of Goa as a Minor Mineral alongwith laterite rubble, laterite boulders, Sand, Basalt, and river pebbles. The Major Minerals are Iron Ore, Manganese, and Bauxite. The laterite quarry we happened upon along the Nirankal – Dabal stretch is located near Iron Ore mines operated by Timblo and Sesa Goa.

Most private laterite quarries measure between 2,000 – 7,000 Sq. mts., while smaller leases are typically in the range of 400 – 600 Sq. mts. The larger laterite mines, above 20,000 Sq. mts., are relatively fewer in number.

Laterite deposits in Goa are largely to be found in Sattari, Canacona, and Sanguem, and to an extent in Quepem, with most of private laterite quarries located in these four talukas. The other talukas too have their share of laterite deposits but not as much. Private laterite mining leases granted by the Govt. of Goa will likely be located in villages going by the names of Fatorpa, Darbandora, Pissurlem, Loliem, Virdi, Melauli, Codli, and Agonda among others, names that enchant and evoke curiosity. In my cycling days I would wander down roads for the names of villages they passed through.

Growing up we used to cart laterite blocks stacked up at construction sites and make goalposts of them. Goalkeepers were careful not to lunge blind-eyed at the football, for the stones could hurt if there was so much as a missstep. And missteps were many when we would play catch. I picked up injuries regularly from falls on laterite outcrops when out playing, too many to count.

Boundaries on cricket fields were marked with laterite stones and so were wickets at the bowler’s end. Much to our unease, the leather ball would come apart at the seams from crashing into laterite compounds sooner than later.

Back then each leather cricket ball cost a princely sum of twenty two rupees, a sum we would raise by pitching together. And we played on until the guts spilled out in an unseemly mass of dry entrails, wobbling the trajectory greatly. In time we took to raiding cashew fields to finance our cricket gear, a kilo of raw cashew nuts fetching us ten rupees at the neighbourhood shop!

Laterite was not merely a stone, it was a constant in our lives in more ways than one.

October 01, 2010

Even Illusions Can Elude

I met Tulsabai when we stopped for tea at a roadside hotel in Ballapur, a seemingly non descript hamlet reached from Aurangabad off Sillod along the Jalgaon bypass road. We had left Aurangabad early that morning. I had sprinted past the bus in the baking heat upon seeing her transform from a dot cresting the swell in the road to an eye catching dash of colour approaching a barren tree, contrasting as sharply with the tree glinting beaten silver in the sun as the tree with an unusually blue sky.

There was scarcely a soul on the road except for the elderly woman in sari walking down the stretch balancing an empty pot on her head. Only a compelling reason could press legs out in the scorching heat. Her steps were slow and measured. She would turn her head every once in a while to watch for the occasional heavy vehicle coming up from behind her.

She told me she was headed to a roadside hotel "owned by a Marwari" some distance down the road to wash dishes at the hotel before filling up the pot with water the owner spared her before trudging back home.

Behind her, the barren tree reached up to the skies, and while its branches, reminding of upturned hands beseeching the heavens for mercy, sought succour in the pleasing blue they however wished for clouds to come floating by.

In the backdrop of the sky whose alluring blue reminded me of faraway oceans staring back from covers of glossy travel magazines strategically placed in air-conditioned book shops, I found the stark contrast of spare, leafless branches with Tulsabai’s clothes worn from use, poignant.

At least I had an illusion to fall back on. She had none.