Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cannonball Tree - Nagalingam

Do you remember Jekyll and Hyde?  Or the story of an artist who in his search for painting the most beautiful and the ugliest face on earth ended up meeting, over a span of several years, the same man for both his portraits?  These, I believe, are not unbelievable (excuse the pun).  Our own life is a cycle of good and bad, positive and negative, or yin and yang as they say in Chinese.

Like the song Manidhan Paadhi Mirugam Paadhi (half-man, half-brute), there is a tree which we all have seen, if not known, that presents, on the one hand, the most beautiful, colourful, delicate and fragrant flower on earth, and on the other hand prevents us from approaching the tree by releasing a foul stench  from its ripening fruit.  Meet the Cannonball tree, botanically Couroupita guianensis, and in Tamil, the famous Nagalingam tree.

In my young days, in the large palace-like bungalow in Kumbakonam that was home to my grand-father’s uncle, there was a big hall in which a huge Tanjore painting of Lord Rama was placed on a beautiful rosewood table. Having been polished or at least wiped clean daily, its surface was as smooth and shining like glass. In front of the frame we would always see about 10 to 15 big flowers, filling the entire hall with their mystique aroma. From a distance, they would appear floating in water because of the smooth shine of the table top.  It was when playing with these flowers and enquiring about them that I was introduced to this flower and taken to the huge tree in the backyard.  I must say I was overwhelmed by the number of flowers the tree was bearing. 

As I looked up, holding a flower near to my nose and taking its fragrance in deep breath, I was even more fascinated with the huge balls hanging amid the flowers, which I learned were the fruit of the tree.  It was only when I took the flower off my nose that I started to realise a funny, foul odour wafting off and on in the air.  Initially I thought some animal or bird must have dropped decaying flesh somewhere nearby, but my cousin who lived there (I only visited Kumbakonam during holidays) corrected me by enlightening me about this fruit.

It is, indeed, very strange that I have not seen this flower or tree anywhere else during my many visits to other places in the country.  Other than Kumbakonam, I have seen this tree only in Chennai, and only in three places – one, in my office compound itself.  The poor tree, flanked by concrete high-rises on one side and well laid arterial tar road on the other, continues to survive and give off a few flowers every day.  How it does so looks like sheer magic to me.  The other one I noticed, long time back, was in T-Nagar, in one of the roads on the rear of the famous silk saree shops, through which parking for these shops are accessed.   In fact, when I tried to pluck a flower from that tree, a little boy of that house raised such a hue and cry calling his mother out and yelling at the top of his voice,  அம்மா, நம்ம வீட்டுப் பூவை திருடறாங்க! (mom, they are stealing our flowers!).  I had to quickly abandon my effort and move away!

Commuting from Ambattur to my office in Mylapore has been both tedious and exploratory.  Over the years, because of the various developments taking place in the city, I have had to change my route often.  Currently I am taking the route via Kilpauk Garden Road to cross Poonamallee High Road.  En route, on a particular day on Manickeswari Road I think, I noticed this third, magnificent tree in front of an old building.   It was only a fleeting glance, as I was speeding to work. But the image of over a hundred flowers on the trunk stayed put in my memory, and I remembered to watch for the tree the next day, to confirm if it really was the Nagalingam.  And yes, it was.  That was a Tuesday, and I started planning on how to photograph that tree. 

I chose a Saturday, when I could afford to go a little late to work.  I started a little earlier than usual, and made a stop at this place to capture a few photos of the wonderful tree.  I must admire the owners of this house for giving this tree the breathing space it requires.  It was on the roadside, giving a good view without having to go in, thereby eliminating the need to disturb the owners.  I took shots to my heart’s content and continued my commute to work.  On entry into my office building, I picked up two flowers from the tree in our premises for close-up shots from my desk.

While you can get serious information on this flower from Wikipedia and other sources on the internet, let me just give my version here.  The tree is quite huge, growing up to 25-30 metres high.  Unlike other trees that bear flowers at the tip of their leaf-bearing branches, this tree sprouts root-like stems all through its trunk, on each of which appear several buds like you see on the coconut tree.  While many of the buds wither, a few stay on to grow and blossom into this most picturesque flower on earth.  Some trees blossom profusely, even producing a thousand flowers in day!

This is a very beautiful, pink-red flower, big enough to fit in the palm of an adult’s hand. There are six petals and a bunch of stamens that are shaped like a hood of a serpent with several heads, and the base of the stamen resembles a soft pedestal on which the Shiva Lingam is located, and hence the name Naga-Lingam. The petals, on the reverse, take a yellow hue.  Though big and bulky, the flower is actually very tender, delicate and fragile. A mere twist or drop would break it in pieces. The flower has a strong and pleasant fragrance.  In fact, as I had mentioned in my childhood memories above, a few flowers are enough to fill a large hall with a pleasant scent for hours together.  The flower offers a good challenge for photography too!

The fruit, when ripe, emits an unpleasant odour, attracting scavenger birds and animals to come and break it open, paving the route for natural dispersal of its seeds.  I read that the pulp of the fruit is edible, but I don’t know whether anyone eats this fruit, which looks like a giant version of the wood apple. 

My post on this flower/tree in a photography forum has been received well, and one of the members has been so inspired by this flower that he has committed to ‘propagate’ this tree!  I am immensely happy that the hobby of photography (and casual writing) has, after all, been of some purpose too!  Looking at this tree, I keep wondering about nature’s designs – the fragrant flowers, when stowed away and heaped after their use, rot and stink, whereas from the stinking fruit comes this tree that gives such fragrant flowers!  Perfect Yin-Yang!

Post-Script: What a coincidence! It is as if the tree has heard my lament. I was attending a condolence call in Besant Nagar today (5 Sep).  Abutting the compound wall in the adjacent flat, I saw this young tree, grown slim and tall, and starting to sprout flowers.  A couple of photos:


Friday, August 15, 2014

Eureka! Tailorbird, the little rascal

This little bird is already known for teasing me with not posing for my photo-shoot.  I don't know how it senses, but every time I try to click, it shies deep into the foliage of the various plants we have at home, with the net result that though I have been hearing this bird for several years, I have not been successful in getting one good, bright, decent shot of this cute angel.

However, it is very good at arousing my curiosity.  Though small by size, its call is by no means proportionate.  It makes a loud but sweet chee-o, chee-o like tweets, and I usually get up and follow the bird at the first call I hear.  A few weeks back, I saw some unusual fiber-like attachments to the leaves of the night jasmine plant we have at home.  Initially, I thought it was a pest infection, like what happens to the hibiscus plant.  On closer scrutiny, I found two leaves brought a little closer to each other from their original position, tied up with some kind of fiber. But the leaves' surface was still facing outwards as is normal.  Going further close, I found quite a lot of activity on those leaves.  Not only were they sort of stitched, but some kind of foam and cushion material was neatly built inside, forming a beautiful, smooth bed-like cavity.

Having been familiar with the tailorbird's visits to this plant, the thought struck me that it could be the nest of a tailorbird.  I quickly googled and voila!, it was, indeed, a nest-in-the-making of a tailorbird.  My joy knew no bounds, at the thought of prospective opportunities for photo-shoots, and to witness the birth of a new generation of tailorbirds in my own garden.

It was not to be.  No, nothing untoward happened for the bird or the nest.  It seems the bird has been watching my action from a distance, and within a day, slightly shifted the 'entrance' of the nest completely away from the easy view it had given earlier.  As days passed, I saw how well the little lady had reinforced her fortress with further stitches and foam.  I had no way but to yield to its sense of security, and decided not to interfere with its nest.

Again, it was not to be.  Looks like mother nature, taking pity on me, wanted to give me some relief.  For, on a fine morning when I woke up and went to see the nest as I usually do everyday nowadays, I was shattered to find it missing.  It was a devastating feeling.  Going near for a close inspection, I found that the previous night's heavy rains had caused the cushion material to absorb plenty of water.  Unable to bear the weight, the little branch on which the nest was built had completely bent down, almost touching the ground.  Fortunately, the branch had not snapped.

Immediately, I sprang to action.  Taking a small length of strong twine from home, I raised the branch in order to tie it to a firm, nearby branch of the same plant.  As I was lifting the plant, I stole a peek to see if anything new was there.  Thank you, mother nature, there was!  Rather, there were!  A clutch of three beautiful, small, light blue eggs neatly tucked in the bottom of the nest!  It was like a jackpot for me.  On touching the outer of the nest, I could feel accumulated water slowly seeping  and emptying out of the nest.  With great joy and with great care, I tied the branch securely as it was before.

Over the next few days, with an incessant worry back in my mind whether the  mother bird had accepted my help, I kept a watch both in the morning and in the evening, before I left for work and after I returned from work.  No signs of life  I had to wait till the week end to extend the watch to day time.  I was careful to keep a good distance from the nest.  There was only a very small window between the usually thick foliage of this plant though which I was able to steal a glance.

At one of my several attempts on that Sunday, I could spot a small beak jutting out of the top of the nest.  Was it the tailorbird?  I was not sure.  Another glance, the bird was not there!  Unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I excused myself for what I was going to do.  I crept to the nest and tapped - no, touched it ever so lightly, just to see if there was any reaction.  The moment I touched the nest, the mother bird flew out of the nest, whizzing fast in the opposite direction!  Feeling both guilty at having disturbed her, but happy in learning she was continuing to live there incubating her eggs, I decided to leave it undisturbed.

This was about five or six days ago.  I very strongly believe in the old adage that man is an addict of habits.  The human mind is so weak that most of us cannot keep the promise we make to ourselves, and curiosity and anxiety, either alone or coupled, take the better of us.  So it happened today, being at home on holiday in view of Independence Day, my brain pulled my legs to the direction of the nest, not once but several times.  I could not spot the mother.  Just to check if the nest was otherwise safe, I went near the nest again and touched it from the outside.

Was it real, or was my mind playing tricks?  I thought I felt the nest shake a little, very minutely.  I touched it again, and yes, there was some movement inside!  There was no way of peeping inside, because I myself had tied it so securely.  Either I had to untie the knot, or I had to use a stool to climb and, the bad part, twist the branch to sneak a peek.  Wondering what to do, I scratched my head, and a bulb did glow.  I hit upon the idea of using the small mirror in my wife's make up kit.  Elated, I made a quick dash into the house and out with the mirror.

The story ends with a very happy note, but with some suspense.  The nest is very small, and its opening is even smaller.  It is at a height, and so cleverly camouflaged and covered with other leaves that there is only a very small gap through which you can take a look.  On extending the mirror, some portion of my hand happened to touch the nest, and at the slightest shake this had caused, I could clearly see TWO small beaks opening wide to expose the pink throat and inside of the chicks' mouth!  Poor kids, they thought their mother had come to feed them!

I had seen three eggs earlier.  So, was there another chick?  When did these hatch?  Why are they not making any noise?  Are they so young that their cry is not loud enough yet?  Or had their mother taught them not to make noise?  (earlier, I have seen in a video of a tailorbird nest in which the chicks made such a noise!)  Questions only mother nature should be kind enough to provide me answers.  Obviously, the mother must still be visiting the nest and feeding her babies, but it is quite long since I saw her.  I hoped and prayed she should be doing fine.

As I was sitting on the bench reading the newspaper this evening, I felt some movement on the branch. Turning back to have a look at the nest, I could see the mother bird sitting on the brim of her nest, holding something in her beak  At the sight my seeing her, she also saw me and immediately flew away!  I smiled, feeling glad that the bird is continuing to play the teasing game!

I have taken a resolve not to disturb the nest at all, at least for another ten days.  Will my resolve prevail?  Watch this space after two weeks!

--updated on 23 Aug 2014--

Well, like a drunkard or smoker giving up the habit several times, I kept my resolve till the day before yesterday, and decided to have peek again into the nest.  Using the same mirror technique, this time I saw a beautiful, well grown chick, eyes closed but with a sharp needle-like beak, sleeping at the edge of the nest.  Within a few minutes of my activity near the nest, the mother flew in from somewhere and hovered close to my hand holding the mirror.  I backed off, giving her the space she was protecting.

Yesterday evening, on return from work, my mother told me she saw a small tailorbird alongside a normal one.  Immediately I knew it must be the one I saw in the nest.  She told me that the mother was teaching the chick to hop and fly.  I cursed my luck at not being able to witness this, and went to to the nest, only to see it lifeless.  I still wanted to give it some time before prying near it again.

This morning, the motionless nest assured me that the bird and the chick(s) were not there. I went near the nest, loosened the knot I had tied to hold the branch and peeped in, tilting it to have a better view.  The was indeed empty, but for an unhatched egg still lying at the bottom.  Remember, I had seen three eggs, but had seen only two chicks opening their mouth?  Looks like they both have grown up and flown away, making me both happy that my home provided them a birthplace, and sad that I was not able to witness their growth and record photographs.


With a heavy heart, I clicked a few pictures of the empty nest and the unhatched egg.  I hope the little one will come hopping again.  Hats off to the mother bird and mother nature for the new window of life they opened for me.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mountain rail

Mettupalayam station

How do you describe the sound of elephants trumpeting? Never mind, that was what we heard, quite close by, as the train was puffing and chugging with jolts up the track, from Mettupalayam to Ooty.  All eyes turned towards the windows.  Those who were sitting in the first coach, on the right, were lucky. They had seen this small family – a father, mother and baby elephant – coming very close to the track in an attempt to cross, but seeing the approaching train, they backed off and hurried their way back, trumpeting loudly.  I, sitting in the last segment of the first coach, and on the wrong side, could only get a glimpse of their brown backs as they were running into the .. not a forest exactly, but thick woods would be appropriate word.  The entire train load of passengers would only talk about this for the next 10 minutes.

I was not that unlucky either.  On my side of the window, as the train was climbing up and the level ground on the side was getting down and down, I saw something attractive perched on a fence post of a recently built house.  Straining my eyes a little, I found it to be a peacock sitting comfortably and watching its surroundings, its neck popped up and the head swaying right and left majestically.  I wondered how lucky these people living here are, having peacocks flying around!

At a halt in one of the stations, there was a tree full of ripe grapefruit hanging all through its foliage.  A couple of daring youth didn’t let go of this opportunity and stealthily climbed up plucked two fruits, before the watchman noticed and yelled at them.  Having last seen and tasted this fruit decades back, I could only feel envious at them!

My granddaughter Jeevthi, soon after the excitement of train ride was over, started playing with her dolls (small ones attached to key-chains).  She would stand on her seat looking at the backrest and play with two dolls, often dropping them on the other side.  The family on the other side, initially obliging with looking for and taking out the fallen dolls on their side, refused to oblige after the third time and said they couldn’t find the doll.  Jeevthi had no choice but to start watching the scenery again.  When the train reached the destination Ooty, that family promptly returned her dolls!  They just didn’t have the patience to bear the repeated intrusion into their side, or were smart to thwart the potential repetitiive annoyance  in the beginning itself, depending on your view of the event!


Back at Mettupalayam, after arrival from Chennai and before boarding the train for Ooty, in the short time available, we had to brush, take our morning beverage and if possible finish breakfast too, as we were told breakfast would not be available on the way.  A few dogs which were there on the platform kept my granddaughter entertained.  I bought hot idlis that were on sale in limited number, and a slice of fruit-bun for the baby.  Later on we found that this was not necessary at all, because every station en route had a stall where tea, coffee and snacks were available fresh and aplenty.


The journey is long, timewise and slow, speedwise. The train goes at good speed until the first station, which is almost level ground.  After that, the gradient starts, and the pinion-wheel for grip is engaged.  As the train pushes, we could feel the coaches jolted forward in uniform, short intervals, making the passengers move awkwardly and giggle at the fun provided in doing so.  The train stops for reasonable breaks in all stations, giving plenty of time for the passengers to get down, stretch, have a tea, or even visit the toilet if need be.  At Coonoor, however, the engine is changed.  The steam engine is relieved and a diesel engine is attached for the rest of the journey up to Ooty.

On the way, you can encounter several bridges and tunnels.  You can safely reach your hand wide out to take snaps of the train from outside your window.  At some places, the scenery is breathtaking, giving beautiful views of mountains, valleys, streams, u-bends on the road below, etc.  If you are lucky, you may even spot animals like deer and monkeys, and rare birds that you don’t get to see in metros.

Overall, it is a journey that one must take at least once in the lifetime.  That is what an old man did in our compartment.  Looks like had a long, very long wish to travel on this train.  Unfortunately he could not accomplish this in his younger days.  Now his wife is old and not fit enough to take this journey. So she had asked him to make a trip just to fulfil his wish.  He was travelling from Mettupalayam to Ooty with us, and while we got down at Ooty for our stay there, he was just returning in the same train back to Mettupalayam!  I felt happy for him.  At last, he saw light at the end of the tunnel!

Just one more line. The staff members all through this railway are extremely nice and polite, answering most of your queries and going out of their way to help passengers in case of need.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kumbakonam – Nostalgia

 A boy’s take of life in early days

It was a big, very big joint family.  The palatial house in Krishnarao Agraharam, where I was born, was the property of Thor-thatha and Laan-thatha (big (meaning elder here) and small (meaning younger) grandfather, two brothers whose estate was very big, this house being the capital of their kingdom.  They were maternal uncles to my maternal grandpa.  Legally I don’t inherit a brick of that house, but emotionally every one of us children who grew up there owned the entire house.

The house itself was divided into three parts.  The first part was the living apartments.  The second one was granary and service area. Third one was reserved area. I will explain later.

As long as the two thathas were there, the atmosphere was strictly religious.  I was born after the Thor-thatha, so I know and can write only about the time of the Laan-thatha.  His presence in the house would keep everyone on toes.  Devotional song would be relayed in the hall through a speaker, connected to the radio in thatha’s room.  Such arrangement was very high-tech then.  When Pooja to the Deity of the house, Lord Nrusimha was nearing completion, one of the kitchen staff would strike the bronze gong at a particular rhythm, calling everyone to attend to the Haarathi.  Then food was served on banana leaves spread in rows throughout the hall.  There would at least be 30 to 40 people on any day having food there, and on festival days the entire Brahmin community in the neighbourhood would eat there.  No invitations.  All would come to partake of the holy Prasad.  There was no dearth of anything.  This was for the elders, who could suppress their hunger and wait for the pooja to get over at its own pace.  This was also only for the day time.  On special occasions, the number of people partaking food would run into several hundreds.

For children like us and others who cannot wait, and for dinner, there was a separate batch where simple food would be prepared and served.  I remember a Kamalabai who used to cook and serve for a long time in this ‘vowla’ batch.  When the number of people was high, which it used to be during summer holidays, we had dinner in the third portion mentioned above, leaves spread in a row along the walls of rooms there.  In order to save time, instead of serving items one by one, Kamalabai was asked to pre-mix and serve.  I remember Badri (Gopa’s brother) taking the lead during one particular holiday when it was election time too.  As soon as the leaves were spread and all diners sat, he would start shouting in a high-pitched tone:  “Vote For”.  All the other children were shout back in chorus “Sambar Bath”!  As soon as eating that was over, he would again shout “Vote For” and we would shout back “Saar Bath”.  Like that, dinner would continue amid a cacophony of calls of various items from all of us.  Then we would all retire to bed, on a huge, thick sheet of what is called Jamakkalam, under the old dome-fan in the hall, sharing stories.  Once in a bluemoon, in the middle of the night, we would awake to the shrill cries of a type of tree-dwelling civets (“mara-naai” meaning tree-dog in Tamil), fighting each other on something.

Getting up early was imposed on us, because the hall was to be readied for the religious activities every morning.  We would wake up to the sound and smell of – no, not coffee, but fresh banana leaves arriving in bundles and getting unloaded/dropped on the porch of the hall.  As soon as we got ready after brushing teeth, Vaitha would bring a huge circular tray full of tumblers filled with cow’s milk, hot, sweet-smelling and tasty.  I used to allow it to cool under the fan, let the layer of fat collect, and then scoop it and eat it.  The milk was so good that this process could be repeated several times.  Others would take Bournvita, Ovaltine, Cocoa, Horlicks, etc. to their choice.  Everything was available. 
Once the beverage was over, we would spread out, mostly to the front yard where there was a huge tree with fragrant white flowers, called “Panneer Pushpam”.  It was a type of tree-jasmine, very fragrant and very delicate.  The whole street would carry the scent of this flower in the early morning.  The children’s job was to shake the tree, collect the flowers and give them to the elders for adding to the pooja material.  The other flower we were often asked to collect was “magizhampoo” from Kalu athya’s garden, which again was extra-ordinarily fragrant, getting more so as it dried.  Then the boys and girls would separate their ways for their own games.

We would also watch with interest, for a brief while, two smiling men, cut the banana leaves to the required numbers and sizes.  What was interesting, for us then, was that both of them – they were brothers – were completely mute – deaf and dumb, but were so charming and communicative that they would engage us for a while with their sign language and hearty smile. 

We boys used to wander in the large “bagh” behind, home to a variety of trees and plants you could never see in the city, amid rows and rows of coconut and palm trees.    We also used to play in the pile of haystacks, often hiding mangoes we had stolen from the trees (though nobody bothered about it), to ripe there for a few days and eat them later.  Sometimes, we would land on others’ catch too, and sometimes we found our stash missing too.

Occasionally, we used take bath in the huge cement tub meant for storing water for bathing the cattle, to take extended dips during scorching summer heat. We would first plug the drain hole with a bunch of hay, and then switch on the motor pump. Standing in the tub, we would show our heads one by one to the forceful flow of water from the pump, until the tub was full, which was about chest-high for us then.  Once the tub was full, then we would start climbing the wall and jumping in as if it was a swimming pool, and make merry for hours together, completely losing track of time.

The afternoons, when all the elders would be asleep after a heavy meal, would be reserved for our stealthy explorations.  The huge house, with so many rooms upstairs, gave us enough room for adventure for any length of time. Of particular interest was the narrow, dimly lit, long and steep passageway upstairs from the main hall, and the winding stairs to the grandfather-clocks room from the entrance hall.  All the rooms had exquisite antique things- furniture, chests of drawer with beautiful glass handles of different colours, and innumerable fancy things inside those drawers which we ogled with wide eyes and deep desire, but did not have the courage to even touch.  The grandfather clocks, several of them, were stacked in one of the bigger rooms upstairs.  All of them had huge chains with two big cylindrical counterweights and the ends to act as the key mechanism.


We also used to admire several beautiful paintings, which we we later understood were originals by Ravi Varma. One of them was a huge painting of a mother lying with closed eyes either immersed in some pleasant memories or enjoying the feeding of her baby.  As small boys, we would often pause and pass an unsure and shy look at her open breasts and at the sight of someone approaching, would quickly run away!

The huge hall, two-storey high, would smell of the fragrant “Nagalinga” flowers offered to the various Gods in huge frames.  The rosewood or magagony tables would put polished mirror to shame. The country tiles would breathe and keep the hall cool even in the hottest of summers.

Another area of interest was the occasional trips out, either to cinemas or for festivals in the neighbourhood.  Thatha had a Dodge car, and trips to places a little away, such as Idaichumoolai, a village where all his agri-land was, would be on this car.  For other places, we used bullock-carts.  Riding on them was fun.  Cramped in the small cart, we rode through the busy town streets shouting and chatting, and constantly bugging Krishnamoorthy to poke the back of the bullock with the pin-tipped stick in order for it to run faster.  I remember when the famous MGR movie Adimai-penn was released, the town was allotted only one copy of the film rolls, but it was released in to theatres – Diamond and Jupiter, if I am right.  It was believed that the owners of the theatres planned and timed the show in their theatres in such a way that as soon as one roll of the film was finished at one theatre, it was immediately taken on a bicycle to the other theatre (I don’t remember seeing any two-wheelers in those days, bicycle was the fastest means of common man’s transport).

Can you forget the river?  A trip to Kumbakonam would not be complete without a visit to the river, when the water was neck-deep.  The river was fairly wide at the Vittal Mandhir ghat.  Though the flow would appear slow, it would just push you back when you stand in the water, and you had to strain hard to get a good foothold on the sand beneath and push your way forward in order to remain at the same place!  The cold water in the hot sun would feel like heaven, we just would not wish get out of the water, until a servant from the house appeared on the back with strict instructions to pull us out and get us home!

We enjoyed summer rains the most in Kumbakonam.  Almost every other or third day the skies would darken, thunder clouds would gather and heavy rains would pour for an hour or two.  The house was well ventilated with open spaces in between, neatly equipped with spouts and drains to collect and discharge the rain water.  We would make paper boats, let them float at the first point of water discharge in the hall, and follow it through to the kitchen and to the back yard, repeating the process several times until the flow of water stopped.

The hall also featured a broad wooden plank swing, on which my grandma would sleep in the afternoons.  In the evenings, all the relatives would sit on the plank, sometimes even 10 to 12 people sitting tightly close and holding each other over the shoulder for support, a couple of us taking turns to alight and push the swing to dangerous heights, much to the thrill of the adventurous and to the bewilderment of the weak and timid.  Both elders and children would scream at the top of our voice at the thrill of the swing ride.  Occasionally, we have had minor mishaps also, one or two of the riders falling from the swing and getting hurt, sometimes even hit by the returning swing.  Despite such risks, the swing ride was always an enjoyable thrill.

The other pastime activity was playing dice with my grandma.  She had a collection of exquisite, rare sea-shells which we used as coins or pawns for the game.

I learned to ride bicycle only in that house.  When my cousin-uncle Suresh (my mother’s cousin by relation, but younger to me by age) left for school, he had a small (baby) bicycle and I took it to ride within the confines of the hall, around the central courtyard.

The Sidhdha medicine practitioner named “Milagu Vaithiar” would visit at least once when we were there for our annual visits.  He used to carry a tin box tucked around his cloth-belt.  The box contained several cylindrical vials of powders of all colours neat stacked.  After the elders’ consultation with him was over, he would gather all the children around him and distribute a general, digestive mix of powder from his vials, neatly tapping the powder out from the vial on to small squares of paper and folding them into thin strips, to be eaten mixed with sugar or honey. 

If I sit down and think back, I am sure it will kindle more and more of the wonderful memories of the beautiful past we had at this lovely place.  Now the children who grew up there have all spread out. Some prospered well, some are managing to live. Only a few visit the house, that too not often.  The house now looks bare and empty, bereft of all life and activity.  The only life clinging to it seems to be the deity of the house, Lord Nrusimha, whose daily rituals are taken care of by the priest visiting every morning. And my aunt, who still lives there as a member of the families of the Trustees.  Only nostalgic memories fill the otherwise hollow emptiness of its environs.  What will eventually happen to this place, He only knows.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A bridge across the ...

There were six pillars, neatly anchored to the ground, to allow flow of traffic over them.  Over a period of time, due to various factors, one of them, the one adjacent to the strong extreme right pillar, lost its foundation and began shaking. Despite last minutes efforts to save it, one fine day it just fell off.  Fortunately, the gap created by its fall was small to allow the traffic to still flow above.  But the engineers rightly became concerned and thought it would be in order to perform a thorough inspection of the remaining pillars and take remedial action. 

It was found that the foundation of the remaining three pillars in the middle, to the left of the fallen pillar, had also eroded and the pillars were due to fall any moment.  Alarm bells were sounded.  Arrangements were made to divert traffic for some time.  The three shaking pillars were carefully pulled down and removed from the scene.

A thorough examination of the area revealed that while the two remaining end pillars were strong, they would hold better with a bridge above them, and might weather and fall off if left alone uncared for.  The engineers swung into action.  The outer layer of the both the pillars was skilfully etched away.  Since the interior remained strong, a special full length bridge was designed with pre-engineered slot to accurately cap over the exposed interiors of the two pillars and additional pre-fabricated pillars to bolster support in the middle as before.  The entire bridge was carefully placed over the pillars, in perfect alignment with the structure that existed before, so that traffic as flowed earlier could resume.  Minor adjustments such as chiselling and cementing were done to perfection. Within a period of two weeks, the new bridge was perfectly in place and visitors new to the region could not spot the difference!

The above story is a real life story.  Only, the characters have been changed.  Just replace the fallen pillars with the lower incisor teeth, the two extreme pillars with canine teeth, and traffic with the flow of a slushy mix of food and beverages, hot and cold, this story is a reconstruction of the real tooth bridge that was fitted in my mouth a while ago.

I saw several parallels to the work the dentist does.  It is a mix of engineering, civil, plumbing, electrical and chemist work all combined together, in addition to the medical profession.  The dentist needs to skilfully grind the teeth, apply appropriate medicine before and after the operation, perform repair jobs like preparing the cement, taking impressions, ensuring correct fit of the crown or bridge or implant as the case may be, pumping water while the procedure is on and flushing the water,  blood and saliva out through tubes, arresting bleeding with cotton swabs, adjusting the height and inclination of the patient’s bed-like seat all through the procure, my God… if you keenly observe what he does, I feel it is worth every penny you pay not only for the diagnosis of your problem and the relief he provides at the end, but also for the trouble he takes in doing so!

Only, you should be lucky in getting the right dentist, as I have read several stories of things going badly wrong.  My own experience with the last three dentists has not been good – the procedure was okay, but the results were not lasting.  I hope I have finally found the right dentist in Dr Vijay Anand.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Farewell, my friend...

You filled the void created by the departure of our beloved Rishi.  Not just filled, you more than made it up with your cuteness, briskness and possessiveness.  You just took to our family like fish to water.

I still remember the day we brought you home from my office building.   You had already earned notoriety with your sharp teeth.  With my friend ESN, who is afraid of dogs, sitting in the front and you on the luggage bay in the rear, I did have a fun time driving you home.  A journey through which you made your way to the front seat, both in our car and in our family.  I still remember how attached you sat next to Vasanthi when she joined halfway down in Anna Nagar.  And how happily you entered our house, and roamed through all the open space, fully enjoying and playing around, chasing squirrels.  We were intrigued when you didn’t raise your voice at all for the first couple of days, and even thought you were dumb.  But you picked up in just two days, and from that moment, there was no stopping you.

It looks like you were used to high life, I learned, not only by your efforts to occupy the front seat when I took you home, but also by the way you jumped eagerly into the car whenever we ventured out.  We have not taken you out much, but I do remember we took you long distances, up to Kakkalur some times.  You enjoyed going out in car, sniffing the air all along, particularly while passing non-veg restaurants!  Sorry, pal, all I could offer you at home was the chicken and meat variants of Pedigree.

You were a great source of strength and comfort for my aged mother, who happens to be alone at home all day.  With you being there, we were really free of worries, for we knew that you would not let anyone come near her, unless she knew them.  I don’t know how you dogs learn to read our minds, but it is always amazing how you distinguish between the people known to us, be they relatives or friends, and wag your tail;  and outsiders, such as maids and service people even if they come regularly, and show them your teeth. 
And hats off to your sense of duty.  I really felt proud of you on several occasions when you would just not leave my mother when she was lying sick.  Similarly, my affection towards you grew multifold when you would sit watch on the terrace for Jeevthi to take her 15-minute sunbath every morning soon after her birth.  Though it was funny and amusing to watch you chase even crows flying high over the baby, I felt proud of having you by her side then.  In spite of our constant watch, you would always try to steal a moment to lick the baby to show your affection to the new member of our family.  How kind you were, Chotu!

Unlike Rishi, who unfortunately was sick most of the time, we were so happy that you were healthy and bubbling with energy all the time.  You kept good company not only to us home members, but also to any visitors and relatives who you knew were our people.  Preethi, while returning from the US after a year, was anxious whether you would remember her and Jeevthi, and was so glad when she witnessed your warm welcome when she came home. 

As Jeevthi grew and learned to mutter words, one of the clearer words that came out of her tiny mouth was “Chotu-Baiya”.  It is to your credit that she never got afraid of you and felt free and comfortable with you.   In fact, all of Prasanna’s family members gradually grew fond of you, which you reciprocated so well.  It was evident you loved children, a fact that will be vouched by all the kids who met and befriended you in no time – Kappu, Pinky, Manasa, Vaishu, Jahnavi and so many others.  The only two who liked you but kept a distance were Nishi and Nivi.  We keep remembering how you used to drool at the sight of Rasagullas and other sweets.  And snarl at the very sight of Bharth just teasing you with an imaginary balloon to burst.

I really thought I was keeping you healthy and fit, and was even planning for the vaccination next week.  Your sudden departure has struck a heavy blow to me, making me feel lonelier at home.  I still cannot figure out what made you suddenly go so sick on the last days.  Was it the jack fruit to blame, or was it the other pup who died of some disease that spread its infection to you, I am unable to guess.  Whatever it was, we never thought you would leave us so fast.  We tried to save you at the last moment.   Forgive me, my dear friend, if I did not take good medical care of you.  I did not want you to suffer more painful injections that night, and if you were leaving, I wanted you to do so peacefully and comfortably at your favourite place.  Your memory will stay etched in my mind for ever.

I am sure I will meet you when I come up, whenever it is.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


The math tuition time is a mind relaxer.

If you are a regular follower of my blogs, you will remember Periasamy.  If not, do a quick read here.

The episodes are continuing.  With the increase in standard, Akaash is doing his best to concentrate and learn, and I must admit he is getting better at understanding the concepts covered in the current syllabus – that is, a few lessons in units of measurement for this term.  Every day upon arrival, he is asked to recite the mantras, which he does religiously: one centimetre is equal to ten millimetres; one metre is equal to hundred centimetres; one kilometre is equal to thousand metres...

Then he is given light exercises to work upon.  He starts with high enthusiasm and pulls out the new fountain pen his grandpa had just got for him.  The moment he sees the pen, his thoughts begin to waver and instead of attending to the sum, he starts briefing us on he how got the pen and the varieties of pens available with his classmates.  Vasanthi drags him back to the exercise.    As hard as he tries to stick to purpose, it only takes an infinitesimal fraction of a second for his mind to completely ignore it and latch on to something new, something of more interest to him than the drab number crunching. We have observed that his distraction is constant, only the subject varies every day depending on what gets in between his eyes and his exercise book.

Yesterday, Vasanthi was a little tired when she got home from work, and wanted some rest before she could take up tuition.  She asked me to fill the gap by giving him exercises in multiplication and division, involving three to four digit numbers.  Akaash’s first reaction, as expected, was that these were out of syllabus!  We coaxed him into doing these as revision exercise for his good.  Reluctantly, he agreed and made several mistakes – due mainly to carelessness and secondly to forgetfulness.  A good half an hour was spent on making him re-do all the sums he did not do correctly.

When Vasanthi was ready, he was excited that the real tuition for the day had started and eagerly showed her the new purple clip-pad he had acquired. He was also confident about the units of measurement he was about to study, or revise, that day, until Vasanthi uttered the word ‘gram’ in place of ‘metre’.   His eyes froze as if he had seen a live snake.  Any amount of soft, medium and hard thrusting of the same concept would not register with him, even though she explained she was just replacing distance with weight, and metre with gram.  Not wanting to give up completely, she gave him the new mantra to recite for the next few days – one gram is equal to thousand milligrams, etc.

Glad that the lessons were finally over, Akaash got up, collected his purple clip-pad, closed his new fountain pen, put it in his pocket and jetted out, not before, as he does without fail every day, clinking the new bell Bharath had fitted on to his bicycle.

As I mentioned at the beginning, math tuition time is a mind-relaxer - certainly to Akaash, if not to Vasanthi!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pitch it for .. Pichavaram!

Ours is an ancient land.  A lot of our ancient heritage is embedded in the old temples, whose architecture and sculptures remind of the life in the eras gone by.  Therefore, to keep in touch with the past, we need to visit these ancient places, which lie scattered in abundance wherever you choose to go in our country, disclosing their history, heritage and a lot more information to the discerning visitor.
We live in a modern age. The pressures and challenges of the continuous fast pace of work, the long time hours spent in commuting to work every single day, and the necessity to devote the remaining rest day of the week to attend to personal chores and maintenance work at home, all contribute to a recurrent crave for a break from routine.  Life in this fast world is exactly like the long-sighted vision of a person driving fast – you tend to concentrate on what is there at a certain distance ahead of you, and miss what passes closer to you, ending up bumping hard on speed-breakers! 
A good way of addressing both the above issues is to plan a holiday that combines both pleasure and pilgrimage, and that is what we did just now.  In our quest to take a complete break from routine, we always tend to think of far off and popular, exotic places than looking for places of interest that are nearby, which sometimes also end up much more interesting than what you were looking for! Pichavaram is one such place for those living in Tamil Nadu. Wondering where to go in the holidays around Pongal time, we hit upon the idea of visiting Pichavaram.  A quick surf along the shores of internet validated our choice, prompting us to proceed with planning for the trip.   
Pichavaram, a scenic place along the coast of Bay of Bengal between the estuaries of Vellar and Coleroon, is a complex of Killai backwaters and a large stretch of perennial, tropical mangrove forests that are rooted in just a few feet of water.  So large, in fact, that they are the second largest mangrove forest in the world, covering an area of 2,800 acres.  The largest is also in India, the impenetrable Sunderbans in the state of West Bengal, home to the majestic Bengal Tiger as well.
Looking at the places nearby, we decided to make it to Chidambaram and Srimusnam temples along with Pichavaram.  Chidambaram is about four hours drive from Chennai.  Saturday happened to be a working day for my wife Vasanthi.  So we started in the afternoon, picking her from her office and driving straight to Chidambaram, via Vandalur, Thiruporur, Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry.  We had snacks (sweet and sour kuzhi paniyaram, which were really good) and coffee at one Anandha Bhavan a little away from Pondicherry outskirts on the way to Cuddalore.  The road is perfect on this route. 
We had a good darshan at the Chidambaram temple.  That Saturday being Vaikunda Ekadasi, we were very happy to be there, getting to have darshan of both the Perumal (Shri Govindaraja Perumal) and Shiva (Shri Thillai Natarjar) at the same place and time, around the Maha Arathi time in the evening.  The temple complex in Chidambaram is really huge.  Contrary to reports, there was no disturbance from any of the priests.  We had a normal darshan, waiting in line along with hundreds of other devotees and the experience was very satisfying.  Unfortunately, since it was late in the evening, and also since photography was prohibited inside the temple, the option of taking the camera to make any decent photograph was ruled out.
We had booked accommodation at the Saradharam Eco-Resort within the Pichavaram boat house complex.  It was almost 10 p.m. when we reached the place, only to find the gate locked.  Wondering whether we had missed direction, I called the manager and he confirmed that the Resort was inside the complex, and sent the watchman to open the gate.  The rooms are situated in a three-storey building, and we opted for a ground floor room.  At first glance, while the room was okay, we found the bathroom a little smelly, and reported our concern.  They couldn’t do much other than spraying room freshener, which at least temporarily gave us some relief, as we were, already dead tired, dying to get to sleep.


No matter how late I get to sleep, I AM an early bird and get up at the first sound of the chirp of nearby birds.  I was awakened next morning by the measurably loud calls of mynas and kingfishers, and finding Vasanthi and Bharath unwakeable, I set out to an early morning stroll through the lawn, to test my new camera in low light.  The ‘margazhi’ weather was very pleasant.  The entire area was absolutely silent except for the calls of the birds.  Strolling through the lawn, I found the signs of the sun rising above the clouds in the horizon, and quickly got up to the terrace of the lodge.  Though there was a huge high-tension power tower obstructing a clear view of the sky, the sunrise through the clouds was breathtaking, with the crepuscular rays shifting position every second because of the moving clouds.  Clicking to my heart’s content, I waited for the birds to come up in the open, but only a myna answered my request.   The moment the sun finally got out of the obstructing clouds, it began heating the earth in earnest and I could feel the morning chillness quickly giving way to the warmth of the sun’s rays.  But the light was also needed for decent photography, and I lost no time in capturing the few flowers and grass shining in the early morning direct sun falling on them.


By now, it was almost 8 a.m. and time to wake up my family if we were to get to boating on time. Breakfast is brought from Chidambaram and served, so we had to wait the arrival of the first bus for breakfast!  Idli, Pongal and Poori were available and we ordered one of each to test.  All were very good and tasty.  The ticket counter opens at 8.30, and there was no rush at all in the morning.  In fact, it was a good decision to book the lodge here, as we had ample time to freshen up after a good sleep. 


There are two options for boating – motorboat and rowboat.  Motorboat is fast, takes more people, and goes to the beach quickly, but cannot navigate through the narrow clearings in the thick mangroves.  Rowboats go through every nook and corner, but are very slow and time consuming.   Going by the experiences narrated in blogs and articles, we chose to go the row-boat way and engaged a boat for a 4-hour trip to the beach.  The cost for this trip, which can take up to 5 persons, is Rs.1,000.  However, the boatman said only the two-hour trips would take you through the mangroves, and the beach trip would only go through the wider waterways.  As we wanted to go through the narrow paths too, we bargained with him for a de-tour through the thickets at an extra cost, and were happy we did so.  For, the boat rides through the thick roots and narrow waterways is really a one-time experience. 


The mangrove forest consists of trees of two or three particular varieties, with thick foliage and a widespread root structure.  From a distance, the trees look as if pruned at the bottom at a certain height, but actually it is the effect of the ebb and flow of the tides limiting the growth of leaves at that height.  They say hundreds of varieties of birds live here, but we could see only little egrets, great egrets, herons and kingfishers.  We could, of course, hear many more, but they were completely out of sight.  We also saw a lot parrots making merry in the forest growth.
The ride was both scenic and enjoyable with the cool breeze blowing on your face because of the slow movement of the boat.  Occasionally we came across other tourists crossing the path.  Besides tourists, we also saw fishermen on boats engaged in fishing. 
To break the silence during the lonely and long paddling, we engaged in conversation with the boatman, enquiring about his life, how he came into this profession and such things.  We learnt that he had dropped out of school very early, though he knows to read and write a little.  Because his father was a fisherman, he also learned the nuances and got himself enrolled with the government to operate (paddle) boats here.  He has three siblings, a brother and two sisters, one of whom is married. He is aware of the famous film “Idayakkani” starring MGR and Radha Saluja that was shot here, only through his father.  His father had not even got married then!  The tsunami of 2004 did not affect the mangroves, but the Thane cyclone did much damage, but the eco-system survived it.  Amid small talk like this, it took almost two hours for us to finally see the beach. 


The boatman stopped rowing and asked us to get down.  It looked slushy with lots of snail-like beings moving on the mud-floor, but he said that is what the floor is like at that place and asked us just to walk on those creatures, saying that they would not be crushed by our weight, but would just get pressed against the soft mud.  We got down and walked our way to the beach.
I have never seen such an empty beach anywhere, except in films.  It was just us and the boatman.  The undisturbed sand had formed beautiful patterns caused by wind.  The white sand was soft and shining.  The black sand was flaked, and crushed a little when we walked over it, giving us a strange feeling.  The shore was about two hundred meters or a little more away, and we slowly made to it taking as much cool and fresh air in as we could.  We saw mild waves lashing the shore.  There were crabs on the half-wet sand, coming out and wandering a little, only to hurry back into their hole when they sensed any movement.  The entire shoreline was desolate as far as we could see, and there were just the four of us.  We collected shells, the likes of which we had only seen in younger days and never get to see now in other beaches.  The shell of a dead turtle was there on the shore.  We also saw several fiddler crabs, singled-clawed red crabs, strangely moving their claw as if waving the hand.  It was fun to watch.  After staying some time on the beach, we walked back to the boat, and again passed through the fine sand and took photographs of the beautiful wave pattern the wind had created on it.  We made our way back to the boarding point, this time the fisherman taking the usual route and ending up much earlier than he took to reach the beach. Nearer the boat house, we saw the next generation, the young kids of fishermen that is, playing around on a row-boat, chatting and rowing the boat with just one paddle and a few casuarina poles.


The four hours we spent on the boat in the wild growth of mangroves and on the desolate beach was a very unique and out-of-the-world experience for us.  Back at the resort, we headed to the room for a brief rest before lunch, and had a brief nap after lunch also before checking out around 3.30 p.m.
From Pichavaram, we drove to Srimushnam, about 45 km away, to the temple of Sri Bhuvaragaswami, the third avatar of Sri Vishnu.  The idol, about two feet high, is said to be swayambumoorthy and made of salagram as well.  After praying the Lord and Thayar for the well being of all, we left for Chennai.  The GPS directed us on the Neyveli-Panruti route, on which route the road was horrible for a very long stretch.  We had evening snacks at Archana garden restaurant near Neyveli.  Once we touched NH45 before Thindivanam, the road was good and we reached home around 11 p.m.
Based on our experience, I give below a few points to note for the benefit of readers of this blog.
·         If you are travelling from Chennai, take the ECR route through Pondy.  The road is even and much better all through the stretch.
·         Staying at the resort in Pichavaram is strongly recommended, as it gives you a very relaxed morning before the boat ride.  The rooms are decent, and the attendants are polite and courteous.  The food is also good.
·         It is preferable to visit during the winter months if you plan for the boat ride in the morning.  In other times, they say the afternoon ride is cooler and more pleasant.
·         Going through the narrow pathways is possible only on the row-boat, which is a pleasant experience also.  Therefore, unless you are really pressed for time, opt for the row-boat.
Hope you liked this blog.  Please feel free to post your comments, which will help me in making future travelogues more interesting by adding/omitting narration appropriately according to your suggestions.  More pictures of the trip can be found at