marți, 15 martie 2011

At the Bar

So we're vacationing in Bangalore, and we're in the bar, and sitting at another table is Feroze Khan, who was a filmstar once, and who is a producer, and whose son is acting in films. He was drinking with someone who seemed to be a pal of his. A little blonde girl, the child of one of the foreigners who are staying at the hotel, and who looked to me to be about nine years old, all dressed up in churidar-kameez, with a dupatta and everything, and probably feeling very grown up, went over to his table. My first thought was, Where are her parents? Then I looked again, nosy/curious, and saw that she had draped a loop of string around the pal’s hands, and was showing him how to play cat's cradle. She was very intent on the loops and twists, and when she was done both men applauded. I looked again a few minutes later, and she was sitting in the chair next to FK's, and he was showing her what looked like sleight of hand, a magic trick. He looks dramatic, a shaved head covered with a long scarf. He was doing magician-like hand movements with flourishes, and she was trying to copy him, and the light was shining down on both of them, and it looked charming. Then it was over, and she ran back to a stool at the bar, where her father or someone was waiting for her.

Good News and Bad News

Regarding my recent disappearance from the airwaves, Blogger has sent me this note:

I have some good news and bad news for you. The good news is that your blog is now back online and publishing correctly with all your posts and archives intact. The bad news is that everything you have uploaded to your page such as pictures and images have been lost. We deeply and sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Once I get over being stunned, I will begin to try to replace those images. Anyway, here I am. Blogger has pulled me out of the hat. Tada.

For Once, Then, Something

I suddenly wanted to read poems by Robert Frost. I had read him in high school, then did not for many years. I found this poem, which I had not known before, but which I found beautiful:

For Once, Then Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Several Things

It's fever season. We always have malaria and typhoid, to greater or lesser degrees; this year we have chikungunya. I'd never heard of it; it has emerged after 37 years. And more recently, there's dengue. Dengue is usually more prevalent in the north, but I heard from someone here a couple of days ago that he had been diagnosed with it. Both are carried by a day-biting mosquito.

When we sit out on the lawn at night and I get bitten, I think, "Never mind, it's a night-biter," and if I get bitten during the day I think, "Never mind, this one isn't likely to be carrying anything." So far, this primitive magic has worked.

One night, very late, there was such a thunderstorm that it was like a very austere musical composition: concerto for thunder, with the soloist right overhead, and supporting thunder all around. It was so beautifully spare a piece that the only frill was the percussion of rattling windows. By the time the rain started, I had already gone back to sleep.

An Elephant Crackup

There's a fascinating / scary / terribly sad article in today's New York Times magazine: An Elephant Crackup? It is primarily about African elephants, but it mentions Indian elephants as well; and the problems are apparently evident among all elephant populations:

... today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly. It is not leaving without making some kind of statement, one to which scientists from a variety of disciplines, including human psychology, are now beginning to pay close attention. ...


I just finished reading an article in the March 3 New Yorker, “Numbers Guy – Are our Brains Wired for Math,” about the work of Stanislas Dehaene. I was particularly interested in this paragraph:

Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language. And, as Dehaene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial. English is cumbersome. There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90. This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as “twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.” … Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numberals, with a minimum of terms. Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen….

I have a hard time with Hindi numbers (partly, of course, because I don’t use them often) – anything over 50 is confusing for me. From 10 onward, the numbers are irregular – for example 10+1, which logically would be das-ek or ek-das, you have gyarah, and every decade has its own oddities. 21 is ikis instead of ikbis (ek+bis – 1+20). And what about the 50s? Pachaas, 50, is followed by ikaavan, rather than ikpachaas (1+50), and then baavan (52), and then trepan – not trevan – so even within the decade it’s weird. Sheesh.

Tamil, on the other hand, is very logical. Except for 90 and 900, once you know the system you can count anything. Eleven is 10+1, not a special word like 'eleven.' After 20 (iruvathu, i.e. 2 tens), you have 20+1 , 20+2, etc. Simple. (Aha -- I just noticed that there is some variation between p and v, just as there is in my Hindi example above -- e.g., 20 is iru-vathu, while 30 is mu-p-pathu -- so the Santhi rules for joining letters together are coming into play in both cases.)

Is this understandable? I’m putting it in a cumbersome way. And I'm sure my spelling of the words for Hindi and Tamil numbers is atrocious.

The article made me wonder if Tamil children pick up counting faster than Hindi-speaking children – the system is more logical, so there’s less rote memorization required of small children. At the same time, Tamil is more polysyllabic than Chinese, so Chinese children might have an advantage over Tamil children, but not as much of one as they have over English-speaking children…

What do you say?

The Sun

April is National Poetry Month, and every year Knopf sends me a poem a day during April. (Though it's a bit late, they'll send you one too, if you send a blank email to: They'll keep you on the list for next year, too.)

I received the most wonderful poem yesterday, by Dan Chiasson, from his book Natural History:

The Sun

There is one mind in all of us, one soul,
who parches the soil in some nations

but in others hides perpetually behind a veil;
he spills light everywhere, here he spilled

some on my tie, but it dried before dinner ended.
He is in charge of darkness also, also

in charge of crime, in charge of the imagination.
People fucking flick him off and on,

off and on, with their eyelids as they ascertain
with their eyes their love's sincerity.

He makes the stars disappear, but he makes
small stars everywhere, on the hoods of cars,

in the compound eyes of skyscrapers or in the eyes
of sighing lovers bored with one another.

Onto the surface of the world he stamps
all plants and animals. They are not gods

but he made us worshippers of every
bramble toad, black chive, we find.

In Idaho there is a desert cricket that makes
a clocklike tick-tick when he flies, but he

is not a god. The only god is the sun,
our mind—master of all crickets and clocks.

Demolition Day

The Admiralty House, one of Chennai's few remaining fine old buildings, is being demolished. From The Hindu:

CHENNAI: The demolition of the Government House here, the oldest building on the Government Estate, has begun.

On Monday, workers were breaking the roof of the heritage building, commonly known as the Admiralty House, with giant hammers. The demolition will be completed in 40 days, according to an official of the Public Works Department, the custodian of the Estate properties. Some other buildings on the Estate will also be demolished, including the old MLAs’ quarters. The official says that as the buildings are vacated, they will be pulled down. The department hopes to complete the demolition of all the identified buildings by the end of next month.

The exercise is being carried out to facilitate the execution of the Rs. 200-crore Assembly complex project.

The government has selected a German-based architectural firm for the Assembly project. As per the present proposals, there will be two blocks – one housing the Assembly complex and offices of the Chief Minister and Ministers and the other accommodating offices of various government departments. While the first block will have ground and six floors, the second is likely to be a high-rise building, having a maximum of 20 floors. The government is planning to commence the construction of the proposed Assembly complex by September.

Till recently, the Government House building was occupied by the different wings of the Police department such as Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) wing, the Economic Offences wing and Narcotics Intelligence Bureau-CID. The wings have been shifted to different places in the city. In the mid-1990s, the building, as a makeshift arrangement, even served as the headquarters of the Police department when the government undertook renovation of the DGP office building on the Marina, which is yet another heritage landmark. Till Independence, the Government House was the residence of Governors. For sometime, it also functioned as the MLAs’ hostel.

S. Muthiah, historian, wrote about the importance of the heritage monument on several occasions in The Hindu. In his column on October 29 last year, he wrote that after the French left the Fort St. George’s buildings in a shambles, Governor Thomas Saunders of the British East India Company in 1752 rented a house belonging to the wealthy Mrs. Antonia de Madeiros just across the Island from the Fort. On August 28, 1753 the Government of Madras bought the house for 3500 pagodas to serve as the Governor’s garden house. Only in 1947 did the Governor’s residence move to the present location in Guindy – Raj Bhavan.