Monday, January 29, 2007

Marriages: Arranged, Love, Polygamy, Polyandry

Marriages have different connotations for different people. For some it is the quest for the ideal match, while the others have the aspiration of living happily ever after. Then there is the social stigma of being single after certain age, as well as the hormonal, biological drive to be intimate to the extent of having intercourses without everyday haggling. Reasons are manifold, and marriage, at least in the Indian context, is both a social ritual and institution that isn't easy to escape from. In this blog, I will present certain ideas, not necessarily my own views or objectives, but certain ideas, that we must be cognizant of and maybe discuss freely. I present certain questions and debatable points about marriage. Perhaps some arguments are listed here just for the argument sake, but I will be looking forward to discussion and responses.

The traditional Indian method of arranged marriage has continued to be the main means of finding life partners. The peculiar aspects of it remain: in the first stage, the prospectives are selected based on both their castes and their astrological charts (birth charts). The birth charts are based on calculations, based on what time and place you were born at and this determines the position of stars and planets in the sky at the time of your birth. With that initial condition, predictions are made about every month and every aspect of your life. Only when the stars of male and female complement each other, they are ready to tango. Then comes the ritualistic meeting of families, secretive and furtive family checks and at last the male and female meet. In present scenario, it is more like an approved first date arranged by the family. Thrust into five to ten such dates, the Indian male gets to say yes to one of them. In progressive Indian families, girls get to have their say too.

What I am particularly curious about is this whole aspect of matching the birth charts: when did this custom come into play? The whole match-making business relies on an initial condition, which defines and determines the calculations and predictions made for the rest of your life. A four minute delay or so, changes the whole mathematics and as any non-linear dynamics or chaos theory expert will tell you, the error grows with time. In India, most people have watches that are inaccurate. In old days, there were no watches. How was this system established then? I asked my grandmother about this, and her answer was that in her childhood the custom wasn't as prevalent, and it is only in last 30-40 years that it has gained such a strong foothold. Being from a family of Brahmins, I know how much emphasis is placed on birth charts, and yet I am never convinced that it is an essential aspect for arrange marriage, or if it is necessary part of Hindu religion and practice. There are communities who don't care about birth charts at all. Yet starting with the time and place of birth, most Pandits arrive at similar conclusions, which points to the internal consistency of the system. Still, why birth charts?

The second obvious question is about selecting candidates from the same caste. If I ever try to throw an argument about how the caste system in ancient times was based on occupation and not birth, and hence every well-read, qualified female would be practicing Brahmin, I get glares which tell me of having committed a sacrilege. I am told that irrespective of what I say or believe in, if it is arranged marriage, why not look into the females of our own caste: there is neither dearth of beauties or well-suited prospective matches in our own caste. The emphasis on caste is then extended to emphasis of her being from same region. There is always too much social outrage, and family discontent involved in making a rational choice. So after the requisite melodrama, the sentimental outcome preserves the intra-caste tradition. The government and political system has contributed in its own menacing way through their vote politics, that relies on rifts in different castes as a means of annexing power.

The practical matter of getting the match fixed has its own routine of melodrama: egos clash, utensils crack, mud-slanging business occurs behind closed doors, detectives get work, and then there is investment, market survey and financial hiccups. Beyond all this thrives the practice of active and passive dowry. Active, when demands are outlined in terms of money and property required, passive, as the girls family bears all the expenses. This custom has many detractors, most just criticize others, and then themselves engage in dealings that fatten their pockets. Why cannot we collectively get rid of sale and purchase business that goes hand in hand with weddings? A recent trend is where "girls" threaten the family of the groom, gets the anti-dowry squad ready, and is able to extort money.

Indian weddings may bot be the most lavish, they definitely require more spending (if normalized by the annual income of the family) than anywhere else in the world. Gifts, food, place to stay, clothes, jewelery and so on add up to bills that can be used to construct better houses, or can feed many orphanages put together. Any attempt to cut down the expenses meets with mother's admonition who has dreamed of the event all her life, society's frown- who would rather have a corrupt Jayalalitha spend millions on a grand feast than look at a simple ceremony and in most cases, the bride or the groom requires the showdown to stamp his or her social and economic status.

Love marriage in India lives in the shadow of the arranged one. These days people have become smarter about making choices which are more acceptable to parents; so choose someone of the right caste and right qualifications. The arranged marriages are such an accepted trend, that even when someone strikes as a good match, one must think a zillion times over before committing, which by the way, is like the declaration of a battle. As my friend said, "I had to go for arranged marriage, for I never found someone worth creating a Revolution for." Dating, at least the way we thought of it then and now (I know the new generation is perhaps as different from us, as we were from our predecessors) , dating involved meeting up enough times, and usually ended up as damp squid as either the girl or guy's family put their foot down. I hear the trends have changed a bit, love marriages face lesser hurdles (especially if caste, birth chart and qualifications match alright).

Most customs, most rituals, most anarchist beliefs are carried by the middle class. The poor have their bellies as the biggest concern, the rich buy and sell rules as and when they please. The middle class takes pride in being the guardian of "culture", and yet the middle class, by its middling nature, fails to take stand on any big issues. We thrive by brandishing our anger in view of petty matters, for even if our anger caused by various misgivings against society and government, we can control and manipulate only our local domains.

Marriage as a union of just two bodies is a Christian myth, a western phenomenon. We actually come from the land of multiple marriages, and say upto fifty years ago, this was practiced everywhere in the country. Neither the Hindu religion or custom or tradition has ever thought of polygamy as bad or unacceptable. Yet, like Dharamendra, either you go through a touted religion change or you divorce the first wife, if you intend to marry another. If women could live together and share space and responsibilities for centuries in India earlier, what is the reason for forbidding this constitutionally? Be it Dushrath with four wives, or Krishna with hundreds, they who could afford to feed and satisfy their innumerable spouses were the only ones who married multiple times. Most feminists get appalled at this suggestion, though heart of the matter is that neither polygamy nor polyandry is any better or worse than monogamy. The happiness of a family depends primarily on its financial well being and on spouses being accommodating and reasonable. In certain regions of Himachal, polyandry has remained a custom: one wife for all brothers. It functions exactly on the lines as Draupadi who was shared between her five husbands. Muslims, under whatever clauses, can have more than one wife. Why have we Hindus become so obsessed with the foreign ideal of monogamy? I may or may not want multiple wifes, and I don't belong to the tribe where polyandry is practiced, but I see no reason why it should be prevented, why I should frown at such a possibility.

On a lighter vein, say in polygamy, existence of many wives will lead to a healthy competition between them. The male shall need to work twice as hard for sustainance, and this will lead to overall increase in productivity. Every mother will want her Bharath to outwit Ram, encouraging more competition inside the home. I cannot imagine any of our epics could exist without polygamy. Not even Dhruv Taara (Pole Star). The sisterhood of wives of same person is legendary. We have become increasingly nuclear in the present system, where working sons and daughters must migrate away from parents, each family has only one or two kids, and the whole culture of uncles, aunts and close ties with fifty other family members is fading. We need bigger families, better families. Already the number of females per thousand males has touched new lows in states like Haryana. Add polygamy to the system, maybe the dowry system would die altogether. Allow polyandry and every man will have a wife. In tribes that practice polyandry, the woman is at the head of the household, and of course, runs her men as she pleases. More or less.

What is the essence of this article anyway? Is the author trying to figure out how he can marry more than one woman? Does he need to get married to a girl of other caste, without having to go through birth chart and horoscope business? Is he dead set against dowry or has he by living in US for few years lost his grip on Indian realities and Indian customs? Of course, I need to raise these questions myself, for I know many readers are particularly curious about the personal life of author, or just because rather than attacking any idea, any superstition, any social or religious hogwash, they find it more satisfying and intellectually appealing to just pound the speaker. Dismiss the author, my friends, and start to think. Then tell me, what do you think?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Three words, one whisper

I whisper into your ear three words.

How I wish you wake up feeling complete,
tied to me by my breath, held to me
by a whisper, felt by your dream
as an embrace, as if of a child and the mother,
as a kiss on the altar, sacred and lasting kiss
on your lip, fleeting like a butterfly, gallant
yet fragile like a petal near a thorn,
my name - a trickle of honey over your tongue,
my name - dissolving away into your self
swelling your heart like throat of a bullfrog
with the notes of nightingale in its thorax,
my name - orchestra of delights in your smell
and sights, your sighs - ebbing, rising, splashing -
returning to my rough clasps, like waves,
like a ship you turning to me, making me your lighthouse.

How I wish to be your lighthouse,
but without you, I am like a candle in the sun,
melting without purpose, scorched and pining.
I, hungry for the hum of shehnai,
to amplify my whisper, to sanctify my whisper,
aspire to rouse you with my serenading whisper.

Will you wake up feeling like a ballet dancer,
like a bird on its first flight, like first kiss,
returning to me, three words - one whisper?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Return of the Native, II: Himachal and North

We arrived in Chandigarh on the Christmas eve. The sun woke us up in Trivandrum. A delicious lunch was served in our flight to Delhi (and the leg room was more than adequate, not to mention the pretty air hostesses who inspired me to compose a few poems there and then). Bhaagam Bhaag, which was released just a day back, featured in the Deluxe Coach from Delhi to Chandigarh (in a government bus service).

I have a special connection with Chandigarh. I studied in the city from 1995-1997, cycling my way through straight roads and round-abouts at the crossings. The days of free flowing traffic are like the memory of my carefree childhood: Over!

I soon realized that after missing five Indian winters, I was up against a monster that I was totally unprepared to face. This was even before I reached my home state, the veil of snow, the land of Gods, Himachal. (Interestingly enough, Kerala is called God's own country).

How important is one phone call was evident on Christmas, as I waited for a call from my friend, for I was supposed to attend his brother's wedding at Kurushetra. I had no idea about the venue, and he was too busy to go check his email and figure my contact information. Meanwhile, as is the case with my every India trip, I met with a new born neice, who welcomed me by wetting my arms. The rate at which my own friends and cousins are producing babies convinces me that we have the capacity to leave not only China behind, but outnumber all non-Indians put together.

I spent the night at a friend's house who I have known for a happening decade now, am convinced will talk to every week of my life, and keep meeting everywhere in the world. Then I decided to take a detour through Shimla. My parents had left for Sangrah, a remote place in Sirmaur District, and my detour meant that I was going to travel an extra ~300 km of the hill roads. Was it worth it? Yes. Of course. The travel time was 16 hours or so, and my back and body revolted at every jolt, but it was for a good reason.

What gets better than meeting your school buddies who you have known better than anyone you have ever known, who you have known for 16-17 years, who you have grown from boyhood to teenage through college and who have great jobs and would be fiancees to boast of? Nothing beats that! What is below zero temperature when you can walk arm in arm with two of your dearest friends, arm in arm swaying and laughing on the Mall of Shimla? Shimla, the queen of hills, sulking in its chilly winds, sings to you tunes of ecstasy, as vodka brings dance to your feet and a small bed is too big to hold together a connection that is as alive, as livewire across the continents and years as every foe's jealousy demands it to be. You might think I am going overboard with this, try watching any TV serial in India. The melodrama in Bollywood is no match to melodrama in those soaps that run for a few lifetimes, have dazzling females playing the role of scheming wifes or girlfriends, and where every family keeps meeting each other perfectly dressed in their living room. Our meeting was better than anything these soaps can ever show, movies like Dil Chahta Hai can ever capture. Icing on the cake was the meeting with my friend's future: I always knew that Himachal is land of beautiful girls, but its another thing when your chum is with one. For every Ram and Sita, there is a Laxman (who, even if he finds his Urmila, may or may not get to be with her as easily and as often).

When I started from Shimla, I never imagined how remote a place Sangrah is. It was supposed to be less than 200 km, and it took me 10 hours to get there, with last 30 km in our own car, for there are only a limited number of buses on that stretch, and the last one leaves before 5 pm. The road is no wider than a bus, everytime a vehicle needs to cross, you have to back into a wider curve, where it requires both skill and daredevilry to make the pass. All hopes I had of driving in India were scared away by looking at the few hundred feet car would easily fall through at the slightest mistake.

The hills rose in their naked splendor. One mountain after the other. Small rivers separating them from each other. Valleys, dotted by houses, decorated by fields arranged like staircases, cradling Himachali's born into a life of hard work and hardship. The bazaar had half a dozen shops, and everything of value, including petrol/gas required a travel of atleast 30 km. The cellphones were working everywhere, and I guess American cellphone companies should learn a thing or two from Indian cellphone service providers. Our house stood atop a hill, and every window showed mountains ready to sink their jaws into the sunny blue skies. Temperature dropped, angithi (coal stove) and heaters faught war with cold draughts, tea flowed in, sarson ka saag was served and heavy quilts, backed by blankets, allowed me to sleep through the exceptionally silent nights.

I had been only three days in Sangrah, when we launched into another travel. Sangrah is a Tehsil, the town is located 65 km from Nahan. Nahan is the capital of District Sirmaur, and lies 80 km from Dehradoon, and about 100 from Chandigarh. Midway between Nahan and Sangrah lies the Lake Renuka. The place has a famous temple, a beautiful lake dying a natural death at hands of negligent people, for it is besotted by silt, which is the result of uncontrolled deforestation. There is a small zoo closeby, and the place is full of monkeys. The only way population of monkeys can be controlled is by capturing them and selling their packaged meat to whoever, in whichever country wants it. There are more monkeys in every little town in Himachal than existed in the whole sena (army) of Lord Ram.

Renuka was the mother of Lord Parshuram. Parshuman, the warrior saint, who killed every Kshatriya man alive, and did this twentyone times. Parshuram, the mythogical giant, who is mentioned in every major epic: In Ramayana, Ram breaks his bow to win Sita's hand; In Mahabharata, Karan pretends to be a Brahmin child and learns his craft from Parshuram. When Parshuram figures that Karan had lied to him, he throws a "characteristic sadhu fit" and announces to Karan that his knowledge would fail him when he would need it most. (Arjun benefitted from this, and death of Karan was what actually turned Mahabharata's into Pandavas' win. Dinkar's Rashmirathi is a great read, a poem that puts Karan on a pedestal that he richly deserves). Parshuram brought Brahmaputra to earth, and when he had done his penance for matri-hatya (matricide: he killed his mother as his father commanded him to), he threw his Kuthar (axe) into Indian Ocean. Out came a piece of land, the piece of land I had visited only a week back, out came Kerala.

We reached Paonta Sahib on 31st evening, taking a detour through Chandigarh, for my sister lives there. Paonta Sahib, meaning "pao tikaa" sahib (where feet were planted), has a famous Gurudwara. Guru Gobind Singh who created Khalsa panth (transformed Sikhs into a warrior tribe), had put his dera (camp) at the bank of Yamuna, at Paonta Sahib. It was here that he assembled poets, sufis, bhakti saints, and compiled Gurbaani. There are many Gurudawaras in the area. One is famous for serving tastiest langars. Another Teergarhi Sahib, derives its name from a legend that Guru Gobind Singh fired an arrow there.

Across the Yamuna lies Utranchal, and its capital Dehradoon. Yamuna has lost bulk of its water through canals constructed into Utranchal and Uttar Pradesh. Himachal, I guess, has not learnt the lessons from rest of the world, and continues to encourage construction of dams and hydro-electric power plants, earning little profit every year and paying huge "undiscussed" costs in terms of displaced farmers, ruined farmlands, changing rain patterns, and ruined water level in downstream areas.

In my last two visits during summers, I had stayed at Paonta, where temperature rose to beyond 45 deg C, and in absence of cooling, power cuts during the day, I had a torrid time readjusting to heat. All my claims of being there, done that (for I had lived through summers of Delhi, Chandigarh and even Barabanki, near Lucknow) had perished when my body refused to obey my will. This time my parents have had moved to Sangrah, and my prized luck showed me worst of Sangrah weather. Actually not quite, for I escaped a snowfall, which I don't regret.

I started New Year at a factory. (I am engineer after all). A new temple was opened that morning, and we went to attend the ceremony. (A very Brahman-like way of spending first morning of the year: had I been in US, like every other year, I would have woken up late, trying to remember how much beer moved in my blood). Soon after, I left for Chandigarh, met up with two of my roommates from Atlanta and took a night bus to Pandoh from there.

The first week of the year was one of the coldest first weeks in last 35 years. I realized how porous my skin and sensibility have become due to the acclimitization to the central heating in US.

Pandoh is 17 km from Mandi, about 100 km before Kulu on the famous Chandigarh-Kullu-Manali-Leh road. Pandoh has a dam on river Beas, and is a small but beautiful place. Like most towns in Himachal, life here moves at an easy pace. People sing-talk all the tme (talk with stretched vowels and in a tone which is more like singing than talking). I arrived shivering at 2 am, and was to leave at 11 am. Next few days had similar pattern. I rushed through a chain of relations, spread through district Mandi, dining at one house, sleeping in another, and lunching at third place. Everywhere I go I find new stories of birth, marriage, death, of cows sold, of cars bought, of Board exams, of neighborhood brawls and elopements, of crop, of diseases. On my part, I impart more information about the foreign country, see a remarkable smile flourish on faces when I tell them that I'll definitely marry an Indian, and get all the blessings possible for rolling my tongue in Himachali/Pahari dialect.

A common question after Saddam's hanging was: "When is Bush going to be hanged?" Indian public has reacted very strongly to Iraq war, something we can never gauge by sitting in US. I guess Indian response is quite similar to response in many Asian and African countries, but who cares about what people think on street anyway?

From 1st Jan night, I felt feverish and blamed it on travel. Yet I continued till 5th, by when my throat ached, my head seemed to be exploding and my conversations had become hard to come by. Then I returned to Chandigarh, and on the way, saw rashes had started appearing on my body. I had planned to celebrate my sister's birthday next, but I woke up early morning on her birthday and rushed home. Chicken Pox had conquered me. My beautification was complete. Mirror showed me how my flesh would crumble away one day, how shallow is the sparkle of skin, how evanesent the valor of looks! Without shower, without shave, I turned into a "bin Paro ka Devdas" (Devdas without Paro, and without Chandramukhi too). Thankfully I hadn't planned on the sight seeing ritual that friends of my age indulge in when they are there. I am sure no girl would have agreed to marry a poxed dude. But I had planned on eating home food for last ten days, and all I got was khichri, daliya (all tasteless, slimy stuff). I lost five kgs, and it was only a couple of days before I had to leave home that I was cured and could eat normal food.

The return was again through Chandigarh. My last day in Chandigarh coincided with Lohri. My naani (grandmother) had served me the Lohri delicacies ten days in advance. In Himachal, we make something called "Chillroo". It looks like dosa, is made out of rice flour, and is served with either urad daal (which we call maah ki daal) or milk. A next morning after Lohri is for eating khichri (rice and urad daal mixed together, seved with 100 ml or more of desi Ghee). In Chandigarh, many people had placed tents outside their houses, there were ritualistic bonfires everywhere, the singing and dancing Chandigarh reminded me of how many festivals I have missed, how many more I will miss in pursuit of a PhD, a career, and I don't know if it is really worth the sacrifice. We watched Guru, and saw how under direction of Mani, Abhishek has given a powerful performance. More on movies later.

I left to Delhi early morning. Forgot the Hunchback of NotraDame (by Victor Hugo) on my seat: may it find a suitable reader, may the suitable reader enjoy it. Saw another college friend after few years that have seen him switch half a dozen jobs, gain a dozen pounds or more. Met with my IIT professor and realized that by implementing the reservation policy, the government has created demand for atleast 200 new professors per IIT to be hired within next couple of years. With a shortage of atleast 200 professors per IIT already, dismal pay scales, and increasing Government tantrums, the whole situation looks pretty horrible. By evening, I left these thoughts behind and reached Mumbai.

In Mumbai, I reached my friend's house, by paying twice the fare, for a taxi-wallah duped me. Too many people tell me that it happens only in Delhi, and well, I found that Mumbai is no better. This friend had moved into the city only a day back, and his house was like a hermit's dwelling. I have ten years of memories with him too; during last visit we had driven together from Delhi to Paonta. We had gone to Allahabad together for my TSE, and had done that during the MahaKumbh. I had visited him in Ahmedabad, and figured that Gujratis have excellent taste and excellent restaurants. I got to gamble in Atlantic City with him. Now we walked on BanStand, too many couple haunt the place. India has moved on, and I am still in my time wrap of the country I left behind in 2001.

The next day was spent shopping. My delightful hostess took great pains to ensure that whatever I ate, bought, bargained with was upto her high standards. A Delta flight brought me back to Atlanta, while my baggage came two days later. The travel to and fro in Delta was marred by uncalled for situations, to which my copassenger into a whining complaining machine, and I had enough laughs at her expense (christened her as Picky). Lost baggage haunted me at home. My hard disk crash awaited me at school, and only when data was retrieved I breathed easy. Else I was doomed to extra six months (atleast) in grad school. Then a water leakage made my room into a swimming pool and it is still in unusable state.

I am sitting here wondering if three weeks in 2007 have been this way, what should I expect from next 49 weeks? Yet there is hope, there is Ganguly, there is a fighting Sreesanth, who knows how to dance. There is poetry, literature, movies and there are friends and parties and purposeful research. There are the last few months of Graduate school, a PhD thesis to write, and the much needed miracles to perform.

Chalna hamara kaam hai by Shivmangal Singh Suman will guide me.... ( fakat yeh jaanta/ joe mit gaya woh jee gaya/ moond kar palkay sahaj/ doe ghoont hans ke pi gaya/ sudha mishrit garal/ wahi sakiya ka jaam hai/ chalna hamara kaam hai. (QUICK and DIRTY TRANSLATION: I know this/ he who is annihilated, lives/ who closes his eyes softly/ swallows a few drops happily/ for nectar infested with poison/ is the pint of saki/ our job is to move on! [ref to the Indian legend, where the ocean was said to contain many riches. Devas and Asurs (Gods and Demons) combined forces and extracted them. Poison was mixed with nectar, and had to be disposed. The poison was too lethal, and Lord Shiva saved the universe by drinking the poison bit, which made him into Neelkanth, the blue throat.)

I will write a separate peice on the strange customs and terrain of Sangrah region soon, and I will add a few book reviews. After returning from Kerala, I ran through Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, Bullay Shah (Panjabi/Persian), Materpieces of Urdu Rubaiyat (compiled by Kanda), An Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, Catalina by WS Maugham, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott and Navbharati (a collection of modern Hindi poetry). Five weeks passed too soon, and I am already waiting for my next India trip. I will, like last time I wrote a travel series, write a few character sketches of people I met, in my next blog.

Bolo Chicken Mata ki Jai (Say Hail Chicken Goddess)!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Return of the Native, I: Nashik & Kerala.

Five weeks in India flew by like Shatabadi at full throttle. Of course, ever since Laalu decided to be little more serious about his job, the Railways have become a profit making establishment and the services in general have improved. The trip saw me spend long hours in train when I took 22 hours ride from Delhi to Nashik and later 32 hour ride from Nashik to Coimbatore. What follows is a series of observations of the native when he returned to India, and travelled from Himachal to Kerala.

I had made a bizarre travel plan. I landed in Mumbai, spent night eating Indian Chinese and Chaat, and took a morning flight to Delhi. I met up with my family, had lunch with them, rushed to a market to buy clothes, and dressed up for the wedding of a friend. It is an incredible feeling to be dancing in Baraat of your bosom buddy with half a dozen of your closest friends around. I was jetlagged, but too excited to let that become a bother. Next morning I was on train to Nashik.

Chai chai chai... tea bole coffee cofeee kopi copy copy copy.... The drinks, the fruit sellers, the supply of juices and cheap chaat kept us occupied till we arrived in the city of Nashik. We Hindus have an amazing ability when it comes to showing complete disrespect towards our Dhaams (religious shrines), our heritage, our places of worship. Panchvati, the place where Ram, Laxman and Sita resided, as well as other "tourist/religious spots" looked least like place of interest, let alone the idea of their being so in context of Hindu religion. The banks of Godavari, the Ram Ghaat, Sita Ghaat and Laxman Ghaat appealed the least because of widespread squalor. I am usually not this critical, for my pious self emerges at times, and I am overwhelmed by the throng of masses full of faith, and the whole ambiance of the temples, the ghaats and such historical sites. But isn't that, the faith, the belief, the precise reason why we should look after this heritage better? The temples that have huge earnings are now all under government control, which I believe should be relenquished in favor of some responsible temple committees, that could use the money for keeping temples of the whole region in order, opening/funding schools and NGOs engaged in beneficial activities. (I know I know corruption, politics and infinite other roadblocks will emerge in despoiling every enterprise like this). Last time in India, I had gone to Brindaban, the temple where we find pictorial representation, or statue as the case maybe of every incanation of God, and also of every saint and poet worth mentioning. I was impressed to no end by the temple there (though just outside the temple boundary, the bazaar and road to it, were as dirty as one can imagine). In Nashik, I wished Vishwa Hindu Parishad and RSS spent less time on Ram Temple in Ayodhya issue and a little more on Ram Temples that already exist.

Shirdi was better managed, though after standing in line for three hours we had only 10 seconds in the main hall. Sometimes I wonder if making a trip to Shirdi or Vaishnu Devi or Tirupati is really worth it if we get so little a time to look at the diety? Maybe it is still worth it, for we tend to be in a pious frame of mind thoughout the journey. Faith moves mountains for people; mountains of their own doubts and dilemmas, and cures many a disease and relieves many of despair. Religion, I guess, has its purpose, even if sometimes it is limited to keeping the idle minds busy and in subjugation. The guavas of Shirdi, the wedding reception of two friends in a Mango grove with ghazals in background, time spend with my cousin who I was meeting after a few years and the Indian victory in Test closed the Nashik stay.

Since we were on waiting list on Mangla Express booked from Nashik to Alwaye (Kerala), I had to change plans, and spend a day in Mumbai, before taking alternate route through Coimbatore. We four (my parents, sister and me) were again chatting through tea, coffee and train trivia, when spots of chicken pox appeared on my sister's face. Already she had shown high fever during our Nashik stay, and the illness made us lose on half of our talking and grinning. It is like going on a long drive with intent of catching up on your favorite and new songs and having your music system breakdown after a few miles. I met up with my PhD advisor at his home in Coimbatore, and had authentic South Indian food in South India for the first time. Thereafter we rushed to Alwaye, and found ourselves in rooms overlooking the river Periyar. It is great to have a friend whose cousin-in-law not only found us good place to stay, but also made arrangements for subsequent trips. Later my friend's father found us equally good place in Trivandrum. There is nothing like help in a place where people speak another language, and you know nearly nothing about anything.

My mother found a new name for my sister. Dressed in veil all the time, she travelled with us to Athirapillai waterfalls. "O my Sania Mirza," my mom would say to her, while my sister kept her silence, veil and distance. The waterfalls were beautiful (you can see them in the song of Guru, where Aishwarya dances splendidly for a change, in front of the falls). Eight hours of boat in the backwaters showed us banks lined with coconut trees, lotuses in blossom, swans, pigeons and crows on wires on sides, fishnets and boats carrying coconut husks, children waving at us from the bank, green fields spread out for miles, and water, dark and nimble, carrying us forward. I had a couple of Americans and a Dutch girl sitting around me, and my mother had to retrieve me by asking me, "Tu unke saath aaya hai ya hamare saath?" (You've come with them or us?). It was interesting for me to talk to the American father who was trying to start business from Banglore, and to his son who was on a short visit and before Kerala had written India off as a nightmare. The Dutch girl got down at an Ashram, and was astonished how honest and helpful people were in Kerala (for her two weeks in Goa had seemed to her like a vacation in Europe with people ready to overcharge you for everything).

Kerala Tourism has done a good job in arranging a nice boat trip, with a stop over where Kerala food is served for decent price. We were charmed by strange names of dishes and by idea of eating on banana leaf. Our journey continued. The walls of Kerala were covered with posters of movies, with fat heroes and low cut blouse heroines. There was an occasional poster of English movie, invariably with titles like Night Lover. There were huge poster and cut-out ads for bras and lingerie. Green Kerala is pested by concrete and overpopulation. There was coconut tree at every door and every turn. The conversations with taxi drivers involved my speaking in sign language and their replying in Malyalam, and my deriving meaning from turn of their head and mention of key words. My sister and mother were appalled at lack of understanding of both English and Hindi shown by people. I guess the common assumption we North Indians make about Hindi being spoken and understood everywhere in India was at play there. They soon realized that same would be the case in many other states in India where people weren't born into Hindi speaking parents. They noticed and pointed out that the Kerala people invariably at cracks in their feet and wondered by Krack cream isn't as popular as Fair and Lovely is. My sister raised eyebrows at men wearing dhotis, and at men having to remove our shirts while entering temples. By the time we took one day Kerala tourism ride to Kanyakumari, my sister was healing and more importantly, her voice had returned.

Kanyakumari roared with Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal embracing each other, almost loud like Panjabis when they meet and greet each other. The numerious trinkets made out of sea-shells kept my mother and sister occupied for a bit. Then we went to the enshrine dedicated to the "other" Vivek, Vivekananda. He chose a very picturesque and solitary spot for his three day "tapasya". We learnt of the legend of Kanyakumari, how she had penanced and prayed to become the wife of Lord Shiva. Then on the deginated day, Shiva had set out to marry her. Kanyakumari was the only one who could have killed a Demon King, for he had the God's word that he would live forever unless a virgin kills him. Naarad, in his usual Narayan Narayan style realized that Shiva shouldn't reach the "mandap" (stage) for shaadi (wedding) and duped Shiva into thinking that the sun had set already and the time before he had to reach her was past. The Virgin Goddess (with Mallu accent of the tour guide, the story rolled with amazing grace) killed the demon. The temple there is dedicated to her memory. Kanyakumari possesses sands of several hues, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, another to Kamraj, a new one to Tsunami victims and India's first Wax Museum (titled Baywatch!!). The sunset is so beautiful that we missed it (the sun was late for the event, and our bus had to return at the scheduled time).

We had also visited a temple and old palace on the way. The temple had statues and carvings in stone that will appeal to both people with religious and artsy bent of mind. The Palace was built in a fusion style, borrowing elements from China, and had a museum with another set of statues which reveal how rich our heritage is. Even if one does not believe in Gods, one ought to bow at the artistic value of those statues.

Just two weeks in India had passed when I flew to Delhi, with memories of green Kerala, waves at Kanyakumari, our dance at the wedding in Delhi, Ghazals from Nashik reception, and an after taste of guavas in my mouth. Besides travel, I had read Dead Souls by Gogol (it is a comedy and first Russian novel), A Passage to India by Forster (grand study of Bitish Raj), Mrs Dalloway by Woolf (as is usual with her, brilliant descriptions) and Maila Aanchal by Phanishwar Nath Renu (an exceptionally good Hindi novel set in late forties, early fifties). Full reviews of these books and more about my stay in India, particularly in the North, in Himachal will follow.