Thursday, October 27, 2016

How to start a fire in a sandstorm

A sandstorm is brewing in a dusty village in Kutch, sixty odd kilometres shy of the Pakistan border. Dust devils are born and dance around, spinning faster and faster, gathering specks of dust, reaching for the sky, dissolving into nothing. Where once, the horizons were visible for miles on end, visibility suddenly reduces to a few metres.

A sandstorm is brewing

There is a maldhari- a nomadic herdsman in this sandstorm. And he wants to start a fire. He ignores the derision in the howling wind. He would like a cup of tea.

His sheep and goats bleat somewhere in the distance. They are obscured by clouds of sand.

He emerges from this cloud holding a vessel of freshly milked sheep milk, his baggy salwar billowing in the wind.

A heap of twigs are gathered and placed in a heap which is hollow inside. Into this, he places slivers of barks peeled off from branches.

Then, he sits around this heap of twigs, his legs straddling it. He arranges his salwar- his long, baggy, billowy salwar so that they form a barrier to the wind.

And leans in close to the heap of twigs.

And strikes a match.

A fire soon escapes its cage of twigs and licks the bowl of sheep milk.

How do you start a fire in a sandstorm? The trick lies in baggy salwars.

(For the curious: the tea tasted something wonderful)

On a day when the sand and the winds were relatively calm

This post was originally published as an Untold Short.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Zen Toilets

Remember the Epiphany Toilet? There is a whole episode in Scrubs dedicated to it: a toilet atop the roof of a building, on which you can sit and watch the world pass by beneath you, blue skies in full view. If you sit on the toilet with a burning problem, you will be struck with a sudden epiphany on how you can solve it and you might then victoriously stand up to celebrate your epiphany with your pants still rolled down.

Waiting for an epiphany to strike

I haven’t had the good fortune to find an Epiphany Toilet yet. But I have found other similar, celestial toilets which I will call Zen or Euphoria Toilets. A Zen Toilet must be in the open and in the wild. The actual pot is just a formality and not really essential; a light breeze caressing your bare posterior is always welcome. Here is the important part, though: to experience true zen/euphoria you must be in full view of anyone who happens to pass by, but you must be crafty so that you are not spotted while in the process of relieving yourself.

Zen Toilets gather and brew a concoction of feelings in you. The concoction contains in no fixed proportions: relief, from emptying your bladder; contentment at the breeze around your ankles and bare bottom; happiness from being able to hear bird song or animal calls or the wind swaying through leaves; mild worry and mortification that you might be spotted.  This heady mix simmers and culminates in blissful zen, causing a beatific smile to spread over your face. 

At night, there is the added pleasure of emptying your bladder in complete darkness with a sky full of stars above you. I experienced this in Kachchh on a cold winter night. I had at first reluctantly wriggled out of my sleeping bag and into the freezing night, not wanting to take off my layers of thermals. But at the insistence of my bladder, I found a Prosopis tree behind which I could squat, turned off my headlamp, exposed my hindquarters to the cold night air with a little whimper and looked up in the darkness.

I was greeted by a star-studded sky: a black slate etched with constellations and galaxies and the brown swathe that was the Milky Way; it seemed as though there were so many stories pinned up in the sky, waiting to be told. My beatific smile still lingered when I crawled back into my sleeping bag. 

Another Zen Toilet which gave me much happiness (and happened to have an actual toilet) was in a little village called Hewale in Maharashtra. The loo was outside the house and next to tall evergreen trees which langurs often frequented, and adjacent to a rice field from where you could hear people and cows calling. The toilet was on a stone slab and enclosed by straw mats on four sides and a tarpaulin on top. There was no door, just two flaps of straw mats in the front. While on the john, a friendly breeze had a habit of wafting in and twirling around my ankles. Sometimes, the breeze was a little too friendly and blew the flaps of the loo wide open. I soon learned to anticipate when this would happen and quickly grab the flaps before it swung open. Gradually, however, the Zen Toilet taught me to Let it Be and this I did (but of course, this was after I made sure that people from the fields outside couldn’t really see someone inside the loo). Zen was then attained with the help of the noisy rustle of langurs in the trees, fluty bird song and the grating call of the cicadas.

Next on my list: peeing into a stream or off a hill which I am told is euphoric too. But first I need to master that thoughtful invention that allows women to stand up and pee.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Passing feelings that brighten up busy evenings

I was sitting in the deafening silence of the library one evening when three whispered conversations were struck up behind me. Forgetting completely for a moment that I was in a library, I had the most pleasant feeling that I was in a dark forest instead with whispering trees around me. I just had to close my eyes to prolong the feeling.

Monday, July 7, 2014

In Which I Reveal a Morning Routine to the Internet

I am not going to go in to glorious detail about my ablutions or ceremonies on the water closet.

No, this post is about a different morning routine altogether (someone shrieks). If your guess had sinister underground dungeon in it, then you're wrong again. I will reserve that routine for another post.

It starts when I leave my house each morning. I go in search of a sleeping brown dog.He has three favourite sleeping places, so this does not take too much of my time.

One of Goofy's favourite places is right outside my gate

When I find him, either curled up by the edge of someone's house or lying sprawled on the road, I whistle from afar to announce my arrival so that he does not jump up with a start.

On some days, he is buried under several layers of sleep and I have to call him several times before he wakes up red-eyed, wags his tail once and then sinks back to sleep.

On other mornings, he opens eyes for only as long as it takes to determine who woke him up and whether that person is agreeable to him being there(a lot of the inhabitants of the colony object to the friendly bandit dogs, you see).

"Oh it's you," he seems to say every morning, closing his eyes again, greeting me with sleepy wags of his tail, turning around imperiously to present me with his belly that I obediently rub.

You might think it evil of me to wake up a sleeping dog each morning. You will be comforted to know that he pays back for it most happily by startling me every other day. His way of greeting me when he spots me idly walking about is to stealthily creep up behind me and stick his damp nose into the palm of my hand. I almost hear him chuckle every time.

"Touche, pussycat!"

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

So Long and Thanks for the Mangoes

Monsoon is here! Which means the mango season is almost over. Which means I will have to wait another year for the next mango season.

Horn OK Please: Mango season
Malgova and Jim Corbett for a rainy evening

I love mangoes. My seafarer's nose(more about it here) picks out the sweet scent of mango flowers sometime in February. Once this happens, my pining for mangoes which until then, had simmered deep within me with occasional spurts of urgent cravings, would burst forth impatiently until I satisfied it with the season's first offering a few months later.

My dad shares my love for mangoes. This makes him very particular about how we cut it. A knife was purchased in preparation for the mango season last year. It was hidden from everyone else in case we carelessly and blasphemously used it to cut something other than mango and made it blunt. The fine art of cutting mangoes requires a sharp knife, you see. Dad taught me this art when I came of age. It requires precision and finesse and I'm sure there must be a secret clan of mango cutters which you can only join when you completely master it.

The fine art of mango cutting goes thusly: the mango is held in one cupped hand with its top towards us. Wielding a sharp knife, we begin by shaving off slim slivers of mango skin which fall hither tither. Then, we sink the knife into the yielding golden flesh until we hit the hard seed and make horizontal and vertical lines along the fruit. Once that is done, starting at the top of the mango, we cut along the seed so that perfect cubes(irregular trapezoids in my case) slide off and topple in the most endearing way on to the plate. One of the perfect cubes(trapezoids) is put into our mouths and our thoughts about it declared. And then finally, we divide the mango into equal heaps of gold and pounce on it. The flesh on the seed is reserved for the mango cutter. 

My favourites are the rotund Malgova which is best eaten when not entirely ripe, the slender Benganapalli which I use for my mango cheesecake and Sindoori, because I like its name.

Horn OK Please: mango season
Raspuri for a carefree afternoon spent
 under the trees

The taste of the Neelam I just ate still lingers in my mouth. And in the back of my mind, are the beautiful, pale yellow freckles that adorn the mangoes sitting in a box of hay in a dark room in our house and slowly getting riper by the day.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Magic Faraway Institute

Horn OK Please: Indian Institute of Science

Indian Institute of Science (IISc) is like a fairy tale and the months I’ve spent here are some of my happiest. Its four hundred and fifty acre campus is full of surprises (I’ll get to them soon). Many of the department buildings are tucked away between a dense thicket of trees and some look like old colonial houses. The older buildings have quaint olive green doors and windows which made me fall in love with them instantly.

What strikes you very quickly in IISc, after thinking “Huge!” and “So pretty!” and “THE TREES!” is that it takes eons to get anywhere.  It takes especially long if you, like me, tend to stop every now and then to ogle at some pretty thing you had not noticed before. Because, you see, IISc is a magical place. It is just the sort of place where you would expect the trees to wake up from their slumber at night and roam about the place. 

There are trees everywhere, sometimes vast stretches of land of just trees. Like the Enchanted Forest (my Anne-of-Green-Gables name for it) - a huge swathe of land with rows and rows of towering trees. And what is beautiful about this place, is that the leaves are not swept away. They crunch deliciously underfoot and turn every shade of yellow and brown there is. Because of the distances, almost everyone owns a cycle, adding to the charm of the campus. I used to be a teeny bit paranoid about riding anywhere that was not completely empty and I would wobble as I rode whenever a car drove past or I had to cycle between crowds of people, but a month in IISc took care of that. I even tried riding without any hands on the bar and have a silly grin on my face every time I do it.

It is only in IISc where a snake crossing the road will not cause too much of a flutter. That said, snakes also go into departments and residential houses and create quite a stir because some snakes in the campus are venomous. Our lab often gets ‘snake calls’ and I was thrilled to bits to be around when this happened. Someone or the other from the lab takes with them a snake bag to rescue the snake and let it out some distance away from the department. Unfortunately, on both times this happened the snake seemed to be on a tight itinerary and didn’t wait for us to arrive. Even so, I could not stop grinning when we cycled up winding paths and appeared at the Director’s house one morning after receiving a snake call. The house had a sprawling, wild garden and the owner recounted to us how a five-foot long snake climbed on to the house from a mango tree.

Two favourite haunts of mine are the Bird Rock and Jubilee Park. One afternoon, we sat on a large rock surrounded by trees and golden grasses taller than us. At around 3pm, a loud party of birds descended on the rock. There were red-vented bulbuls, munias, babblers, prinias, oriental-magpie robins and paradise flycatchers. We watched them agape. There is a tiny watering hole on the rocks where they took turns (or so it seemed) to bathe in and the water glittered in the afternoon sunlight, as they splashed about.

A mud path leads from the Bird Rock to Jubilee Park. The first time I visited Jubilee Park, I could not believe my eyes. We were the only people in it and there were tall grasses and golden wattle trees and gulmohars and frangipani trees as far as the eye could see. Some stone steps lead down to a pond in Jubilee Park. Sitting at the bottom step, we watch the resident paradise-flycatchers catch insects and a furtive pond heron skulk near the water’s edge. On some afternoons, the minute we enter the park, we are greeted by a deafening chorus of the frogs in the pond.

I discover new things I like about IISc every day. Playing ball with Limpet in the Enchanted Forest as the light fades, climbing trees, exploring new places, ambling along tree-lined roads, sitting in the boughs of a huge banyan tree and watching birds and squirrels eating fruits, hearing the sharp ‘keeeee’ of a slender loris in the evenings, chancing upon some breathtakingly beautiful seed-pods.

Photo by Limpet

Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Travelling Home

I like to imagine I own a truck which I drive in search of stories and adventures. Sometimes I let the truck take me places, as it has a compass hidden away somewhere in its recesses, whose needle points unfailingly in the direction of new adventures. The truck is my travelling home.

Since this is still my imagination being whimsical, why don't I tell you how I collect stories and memories? Cork-stoppered bottles are the only homes for stories, scents and memories outside of our heads. Dangling from my truck is one bottle of contagious laughs, two round-bottom flasks of tales from far off places, one perpetually rattling bottle of interesting conversations and some others of sounds, scents(Read about how to stash away scents here) and colours of skies that I always want to remember. A butterfly net is all you need to catch them.

A bottle of skies

And now my imagination spins a happy yarn of the story truck: As I explored more and more with the truck, I found that soon, it started brimming with its own stories. This was something I had not anticipated. I could not sense the stories of course, but I suspected that they were the ones which made the whole truck smell of ripe mangoes one day and damp earth on another- both scents I had not collected. If you ever bumped into the story wafting around in the truck, you would- depending on what story it was- feel a rush of adrenalin, a burst of wonder, an oozing feeling of peace, a whoosh of contentment. And if you closed your eyes when this happened, the story would come to life in your head. It's a good thing the truck lazily drifted in whichever way it deemed best when I dived into a story.

I don't know why there is hay in the back of the truck. I wondered about it when I first came to own the truck and even prodded and felt around it, but didn't get to the bottom of what it was doing there. I first thought it was the truck's way of trying to fit in with the other trucks, but quickly dispensed of this thought. The truck thrived in its eccentricity. So I just let the hay be and burrow under it sometimes to go to sleep.

I also discovered the truck has quite the repertoire of honks which it uses on unsuspecting strangers: A thunderous sneeze, a guffaw, a toilet flushing, a squeak, a gulp, a shriek that would make anyone jump a foot, a rumbling gurgle.

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