Blog… Observations, concerns, personal updates

Unexpected flashes of brilliant blue

An old picture from an old trip. A calm day, a duck gliding over the water at Karanji Lake, Mysore. I was watching it, feeling relaxed. I often find photographing birds very soothing, and so I took a couple of shots.

It was through the camera that I saw the duck flap its wings in preparation for a dive, and with it, an unexpected flash of blue. I clicked in time to catch it, and then stared at the picture I’d captured, sure I’d been mistaken. But then I turned and saw the duck, and yes, under that white and grey was a brilliant blue.

It was such a cheerful, unexpected blue that it brightened up my day.

And this time, when the duck folded back its wings, a band of blue remained visible, making me wonder whether the blue had been there earlier, too, and whether I’d just missed it. I stood there for a while, savoring the treat. Looking at the pictures, I relive that treat.

duck with flash of blueduck with flash of blueduck folded wings showing band of blue

One can see a message of optimism there, I guess. For me, it is such unexpected magic that I think of when life seems ho-hum.

Childhood memories, cities that change

I spent the happiest part of my childhood in Patna. No, that’s not a typo. My father was posted there, and I lived there from 1962 to 1966 in a large Govt. bungalow spread over several acres. The bungalow was an old British style one, with a pantry and coal-house and large rooms and place for dancing and fireplaces and mantels and curved staircases. There was this huge banyan tree whose roots I would swing on. I distinctly remember three huge Dussheri mango trees, fourteen guava trees, lots of red silk cotton trees, sapota trees, bel trees, and many others. I would carry a cushion to my favorite guava tree, climb the tree, and sit comfortably and read my Enid Blyton.

In front of the house was a lawn, its air fragrant with jasmines and roses. A sand heap, left over after some construction, was an excellent playing ground. We also had a large kitchen garden and I loved to pull out radishes and carrots and potatoes and pluck tomatoes and hunt for gourds; it was like a treasure hunt. Sometimes one saw snakes on the road, and at night one could hear jackals, but I don’t remember being frightened.

It was a different life back then. Milk, for example. Every morning, a gwala would bring along his cow. He milked her in our presence, with just a thin cloth spread on the mouth of the pail to catch the dust and pieces of grass. I would sometimes drink the milk from the pail directly, without boiling, just freshly delivered, so to say.

I loved Patna for many things, not just the house we lived in. The people were helpful and gentle. I liked my school. There was a library we often visited. And I had many friends, and we would run along the main roads, chattering away, carefree. We were not scared of traffic or people; we felt safe.

And ah, the river Ganges, vast, blue, clean (at least that’s what my child’s eyes saw it as).

We would take a boat to cross over to a small sandy island in the middle of the Ganges, where my parents and their friends would sometimes go to listen to Devraha Baba (and we kids would tag along). The water of the Ganges was cool and sweet and I would dip a glass in it and drink it.

Oh yes, I loved Patna. By the end of the four years there, my Hindi was a pukka Bihari Hindi.

Sometimes, I talk of Patna with that strange fondness to my husband, and once he asked me whether I’d like to visit Patna again.

I said no.

I had, once, in a fit of nostalgia, tried to revisit Patna using Google maps. I could barely recognize the city layout and after a futile search for Taylor Road (it must have been renamed), I realized that the Patna I knew was probably best kept untouched, safe in my memories. My revisit lasted all of ten minutes from the safety of my current home.

And I’m so glad I did not think of returning, because a childhood friend, who, like me, had many tender memories of the city, decided to visit it to show her son the school and library and all the places she often talked about. And her large, relaxed house. She was, not surprisingly, shocked and deeply disappointed by how different and unrecognizable it all was, how unlike her descriptions to her son.

Memories, ah. They are sweetest when fuzzy and distant and kept free of reality checks based on the present. I know that I’m not the same person any more, and neither is the world around me. I would not dare drink milk directly from the cow now, and even the thought of drinking water from the Ganges makes me shudder. I’m sure the house has given way to a large office complex or shopping mall or both by now, and that the air has no freshness in it. But I have the richness in my memories, and I can still savor the city I loved.

BTW, when I started this blog, I’d decided I’d try to add at least one picture/ graphic to every post, so I looked for something to include in this post. Alas, cameras were rare back then, and photographs usually confined to studios. In my parents’ old album, I could find only four pictures that showed the house–all taken by a friend of my father who was visiting, all faded, dirty, unclear. I can barely make out the house–the front of the house is the background of one photo, and the banyan tree and way to the coal-house is visible in another photo–but our second-hand Vauxhall Velox is clear enough, as is the sand heap I loved playing in. (BTW, I’m the taller girl in the photos; the shorter one is a friend)

Fortunately my memories are far more detailed and vivid…at least so far.

Patna housePatna housePatna housePatna house

The flower that predicts

I’ve been snapping those small flowers on the roadside that one normally doesn’t notice, but which sometimes just brighten up the day, sort of feisty flowers that hold their head high above boring dried grass and nods at me when I am walking past.

Some days ago, I saw a flower that reminded me of my school days, when this particular flower was much sought after while we waited for the school bus. We called it the “he loves me, he loves me not” flower. We would scour the grass and find one, and even squabble about who would get a turn at “using” it. Whoever finally got the flower would pluck off the petals one by one, chanting something like, “he loves me”, “he loves me not”, “he loves me”, “he loves me not” till all the petals were plucked off and the last statement uttered was deemed true.

We used to use it for every sort of prediction. “Surprise test today”, “no surprise test”, for one. Or “Hindi Sir will come today-yes”, “no,” and so on. Our basic premise seemed to have been that some cosmic arranger would match the flower we picked up with the question we had (and the answer we should get):) We considered the flower sort of believable and quite useful, because it was right sometimes 🙂 (Just as those astrology columns are, I guess).

I wonder whether kids today use such simple games? I suspect not; they must have mobile apps for this by now.

A hot day, buttermilk, and the satisfied discards of the litter-ati

So, right in front of our car is a bus. And somewhere, way ahead, is a closed railway gate. It’s a hot day. The bus is a long-distance bus, but not of the luxury sort.

The situation presents a business opportunity.

Sure enough, along comes a man with a cloth bag. There are plastic straws in a plastic pouch in his shirt pocket. His bag is full of plastic pouches with buttermilk and he takes out a couple of pouches and waves them out to the passengers in the bus. Hands wave back at him.

Business is brisk. Dozens of packets are sold. Some passengers even get down to buy them.

The vendor walks away.

And then the plastic packets start flying out of the window, sucked empty. Straws, too. They are thrown by the persons inside the bus, who do not even bother to check if anyone is passing near the bus; one packet almost falls on a scooterist who is trying to squeeze his way to the front of the winding queue of vehicles.

I’m sure you can picture what happens.It has taken just a few minutes and a buttermilk vendor to convert a relatively clean stretch of roadside mud to a splatter of discarded plastic.

bus stopsvendor selling stuff arivesvendor does businessvendor does businesspacket thrown outheap of littered packets

We are a culture without dustbins. I don’t think the bus had a dustbin; roads rarely do, anyway. And I don’t think anyone would have even looked for one, because these things are all inter-connected–people don’t look for or demand dustbins, they don’t expect them. They also don’t miss them. Packets can always be thrown out of the window, right?

Years ago, too, there were such buses, such vendors, such quenchers of thirsts. But the buttermilk was supplied in glasses that were collected back. Or in glass bottles that were paid for, and the money refunded when the bottle was returned. Or in earthen cups.

Not in plastic packets that won’t bio-degrade.

And here’s a thought: If they priced plastic packets to take into account the environmental costs, I suspect we’d be serving buttermilk in washable and collect-back glasses again.

From gobbling paper books to byting ebooks

I’ve always loved books. Always read a lot through libraries, and bought a lot of books. As my father was often transferred, this sometimes ended up in a race where I would buy books and my mother would persuade me to give them away, and many of my favorite purchases (huge piles of comics, lots of other stuff including Agatha Christies, Perry Mason and Chase) would vanish between the times I would go to hostel and return for vacations at a new location where my father had next got transferred. Later, when I moved away from parental packing and disposal techniques, my collection became unwieldy enough for me to offer books free to friends and neighbors. But the overall trend has always been upwards.

Last year, I moved house. As I dusted and packed shelf after shelf of books, and later dusted and unpacked them, I had to admit to myself that I was rather over-dosed with books, split equally between fiction and non-fiction.

There are science fiction books, fantasy books, children/ YA books, historical romance, mystery, literary books, bestsellers, classics, anthologies, you name it. There are Hindi books and English books, and even a few in other languages I am trying to learn. There’s poetry. There are books on science, math, religion, philosophy, neurology, ageing, dementia, business and strategy,health, exercise, self-improvement, writing craft. References, too, dictionaries, thesaurus, reverse dictionary, grammar books. And more, but you get the point. It is said that there is no such thing as too many books, and I’ve always thought so too, but I had to admit (duster in hand) that though I was unwilling to part with my collection, I possessed many books I would not have bought had I known the quality and content of the book in advance. I also had to admit that I was unlikely to read or refer to most of my books in future–partly because I lacked the time and energy and partly because I thirsted for fresh books. I even discovered scores of books which I had not read (a plus point of relocation 🙂

(Here, BTW, is a collage of some of the book shelves I populated)

my book collection

I’ve also found myself often at a loss for which books to carry along when I travel–I want to carry a whole bunch, but that’s not feasible, and looks a bit…greedy.

So around 8 months ago I decided to try out a few changes in my reading and acquisition approach (1) use libraries to read books and buy only books I felt I wanted to read again or that I felt I needed as reference (2) when buying a book, buy the ebook version (3) if a book was not available as an ebook, think and think again before buying the paper version.

I’ve stuck to that for most of the last 8-9 months. I’ve bought only around a dozen paper books, and the rest of my purchases have been e-books. I’ve done a lot of my reading by using libraries instead, or online stories/ articles. I’ve found that using libraries allows me to be more adventerous–I am less hesitant to try out a new author or read an introductory book on a new non-fiction topic. For many months now, I have used a Kindle, and also used my “Kindle for PC” app for a significant of my reading.

kindle readerI must admit that, though my actions probably bode well for trees, for my wallet, and also my back (which protested all that dusting and lifting), I miss paper books–the smell, the feel, the weight, the physical satisfaction of turning pages–and as I don’t want to buy more paper books, I find myself standing in front of my bookshelves and easing out an old favorite to savor. It’s fun in a way, like meeting old friends and finding I still love them.

An excellent trip to Mysore Zoo

I’ve seen zoos when I was a kid, and also when I was taking my son around. Usually I find them somewhat interesting for the first hour or so, after which my focus shifts to finding the way out. Animals don’t always pose well enough, the enclosures smell, the write-ups are faded and unreadable, and often describing a different animal from the one in the enclosure. I therefore assumed that visiting zoos as an adult would be quite foolish.

Then someone told me that Mysore zoo is the best in India, and I thought, here I am, in Mysore, let me give it a try. I was surprised at how enjoyable the trip was. I found the zoo well-planned and clean, the explanations outside the enclosure informative and written in an interesting way, and the entire path through the zoo clearly marked.

For example, I saw a sign that explained that giraffes were fed by placing leaves on tall poles in their enclosure so that they could feed themselves in the same way as they would eat leaves off trees in their natural habitat. Oh! I must have seen giraffes in just about every zoo I’ve visited since childhood, but I’d never noticed this before 🙂 I also saw a tapir, which is a highly endangered species (Wikipedia page on Tapir).

giraffe feeding in Mysore zooTapir in Mysore zoo

The zoo was remarkable also because there was, to my delight, no litter. I didn’t see any person (child or adult) misbehave with the animals. I even managed to catch some animals on my camera to save the memories.

A very good feature of the zoo was (maybe all zoos do it now) that it encouraged the public to adopt an animal, that is, participate in the upkeep of an animal of your choice by paying a fee. In front of many enclosures, there were signs giving the names of the persons who had paid for maintenance of the animals inside, along with the start and end date, and some of the names listed were celebrities and public figures. I thought that was a really cool idea (though I didn’t find out more details); if you are a lover of wild-life and want to contribute, you can probably get the details from the zoo authorities. The zoo (more formally known as Shri Chamrajendra Zoological Gardens) has a website at which includes inventory of animals and galleries of pictures 🙂 (this site seems to be having some problems)

Monkeys and writing speculative fiction for persons outside India

I’ve not lived outside India and so I usually base any fiction I write in India (unless I am placing it on some fantasy world or a planet where I am as experienced as the reader). One tricky part of writing fiction based in India for readers outside India is to describe the surroundings here correctly without launching off into elaborate and stilted explanations, and yet with enough detail for non-Indians to feel comfortable about the world–to feel they can see, hear, smell and believe it.

Writers often talk of the challenge of “writing the other”–writing assuming a culture/ race/ setting they do not belong to, in ways that are authentic enough to be accepted by persons of that culture/ race/ setting(and not sound condescending/ insensitive/ over-exotic etc.) It is quite as challenging to be part of a different culture and write about it in ways that are authentic and unstilted and would make sense to readers who are unfamiliar with the culture but have plenty of preconceived notions about it. I think of it as “writing for the other” 🙂

In a story I once drafted, I had a scene where some persons who were escaping into the mountains encountered monkeys. When I put it up in a critique group, one reviewer commented on my “mistake” of having monkeys out in the wild. Monkeys, she informed me, were only found in labs and zoos 🙂

I often smile at that memory when I take my morning walks and encounter company like this :

monkeys hunched togetherbaby monkeymonkey nibbling at twigmonkey on road

Morning greetings from spotted owlets

In Mysore, there’s a tree I pass on my morning walks, and it is a tired-looking gnarled tree with a rather dark and big tree hollow. I have found a pair of spotted owlets on the dried branches. They stare down at me with their wise eyes. It’s a great way to start a day.

I first spotted them some days ago. I stopped and watched them for a while, and they looked back solemnly. Fellow morning walkers saw I was staring at a tree and they stopped too, and peered and spotted the owlets. For some time after that, everyone was just watching them, either silently or discussing owls and other birds they had seen, and the presence of the owlets united us all in our admiration. Then others walked away, and so did I.

But I stop near that tree often now, hoping to see the owls. If I am carrying my camera, I sometimes try to capture the moment to savor it later. The owlets don’t fly away if I try to take a picture, but their colors match the surrounding branches and twigs so well that the picture I get is often more like a “spot the spotted owlet” puzzle contest rather than a clear, identifiable mugshot. I haven’t yet managed to get both of them in a single frame because once I zoom the camera forclarity, one owlet gets zoomed out 🙂

Here’s the tree:

tree where spotted owlets liveis this the home of the spotted owlets

And the owlet (difficult to spot in some of them 🙂 :

spotted owletspotted owletowlet difficult to spot because of the treeowlet difficult to spot because of the treeback view of owl

(If you are interested in birds, here’s the wikipedia page on spotted owlets.

Litter, litter everywhere

There are many awareness campaigns around us on waste management and waste segregation, because our cities seem to be bursting with all sorts of jumbled and unnecessary waste. Alert persons could have segregated it, composted off the wet waste, done appropriate recycling of dry waste to the extent possible, and many concerned citizens and activists are busy explaining which sort of waste should go in which dustbin.

Segregating waste means being aware of the consequences of piled up mixed waste. It assumes a basic degree of civic sense and concern for fellow human beings, and a sense of responsibility and willingness to work.

Me, I think we still haven’t got to step 1, that is, making people assume the responsibility of disposing waste properly. I’m talking of littering. I’ve seen people throw wrappers out of cars and buses, I’ve seen them throw plates of prasadam in front of temples, I’ve seen them throw garbage right outside their own doors (where they also light lamps to greet the Goddess of Wealth). And if someone has thrown something on a road, that becomes a magnet for others to add their contributions to that pile 🙁 Even signs that say, don’t throw garbage here seem to attract garbage.

litter around a don't litter sign

And scenic places, and places considered tourist landmarks and/ or religious are not immune either. In fact, they probably gather more litter because more people visit them and eat at the food stalls near them and then discard the plates and packets and whatnots. Here’s the famed Hussain Sagar lake of Hyderabad, and the litter near it.

Hussain Sagar HyderabadLittering near Hussain Sagar Hyderabad

What I wonder is, if most people are not even bothered to put obvious waste (wrappers, leftover food, crumpled ATM slips) in a dustbin, how committed will they be about sorting out waste into separate categories?

Tree nests

A few days ago, I spotted some tree nests during my morning walk. They looked unusual, so I stood around for a while, hoping to see some birds descend and start feeding their young ones. No luck. I peered at the nest, hoping to see the opening through which the bird inside would be fed by a hard-working parent, but I couldn’t spot any opening either. I finally did what anyone with a mobile does nowadays–snapped a few pictures.

tree nest of weaver anttree nest of weaver ant

Back at home, I wondered how to figure out which bird makes such nests. I tried surfing for bird nests; again, no luck. Finally, I posted the pictures on Facebook and was told that they were the nests of ants 🙁

I must admit to an initial disbelief. These nests were big, and on trees, and I’d never thought ants would climb up trees and make such (as a proportion of their size) huge nests. But then I checked up some more, and found pictures of trees nests made by weaver ants and a page on them in Wikipedia. Check out the Wikipedia page on weaver ants, and also one image available in Wikipedia commons. Because the images are released under creative commons, I am also linking to two such images below:

ants collaborating to make nestant nest in tree

I’m so glad I didn’t go closer to check assuming these were bird nests 🙂 But I’m very intrigued now and I’ll be on the look-out for nests that may have fallen down; if I spot one, I will (very, very carefully) examine it to see the workmanship of ants.