Traffic

Little, fuzzy red lights in a row, aglow in front of her all along the curve of the road. Reminded her of Marine Drive back home. “Only it is ruby necklace, not pearl”, she thought to herself in the peaceful quiet of the car punctuated by the swish-click of the wipers. Her husband had sworn by I-95 and here she was on 485 and it was bumper to bumper. She had heard enough of the traffic report to know that she was not going anywhere at anything more than 5 miles an hour for at least another 30 min. She had switched off the radio and sat savoring the muted silence in the car. How different traffic here is, from India, she thought. There no matter how tightly you shut the windows and how tinted the glass, you could never have this feeling of isolation. When she had come to this country first, the very first car ride, from the airport to her husband’s one-bedroom apartment, she had thought her ears had not popped yet. Only later did she realize that sound was just muted here. Faint echos. Almost as if pushing their way through all that empty space, trees and lawns, and manicured gardens, they arrived at your ears, tired and exhausted, capable only of evoking a faint memory of their origin. Nothing was sharp, or distinct  like she had forgotten to remove cotton wool from her ears. She had used the q-tips very generously those days. The TV was loud, the shower radio on high, anything to push back that stifling quiet.

Now, she welcomed it with open arms. It was like her own private cocoon, nourishing, keeping her sane, giving a rest to her ears. It spoke to her of the unknowable comfort, peace and safety people say the baby feels in the womb. It eased out the tensions, worries, panic and the go! go! go! that life had become these days. Her sanctuary, her little slice of heaven. Her girl friends were always on about “me time” that they snatch out of their busy lives. The spa, they said. Interminable, annoying music that no one in their right minds found relaxing, she thought. Mani-pedi, they gushed. Chatter-chatter and the nagging worry of being judged, she sighed. The mall, finding that beloved shoe, that perfect top, they rhapsodized. The crowds! the jostle! she shuddered. Traffic, she sighed serenely. Horrified looks they gave her before they broke out into the most vitriolic diatribe she had ever heard. Even religious bigots didn’t hate each other as much as people hated traffic. It should have been, “Traffic-the great leveler”, not “Death”, she thought, before shutting up and agreeing with them for fear they thought she was really weird. She knew better now to keep her little secret sanctuary to herself.

She had managed to convert only one person and that was enough for her. They took turns every other Friday to lose themselves in peak hour traffic on the way back from work. But there were rules though. You couldn’t take a detour to run into traffic. You had to choose a highway at the start of the journey and stick to it and take your chances.

“40 mins”! her husband said tight-lipped and bleary-eyed as he opened the door to her. She smiled triumphantly at him, noting the envy behind the irritation and exhaustion. “That ought to learn ya” she said in her fake southern accent as she picked up and tossed a squeaky toy she had stepped on into the basket. “I told you you can never go wrong with 485 on a Friday evening. You should have listened last week! Is he in bed?”

“Yes”, sighed her husband, her one convert, as he flopped onto the couch next to her.


Where history meets fiction- The Prague Cemetery

As readers of this blog might know, I am a crazy fan of Umberto Eco books. However, I do agree that he gets carried away by all that knowledge of history of medieval Europe he has gathered, that his books are littered with so many names, places and historical incidences that it is easy to get lost in the history and lose the plot. The trick to getting over these aspects of his books are to read it in broad strokes and not pay attention to the minute details*. You don’t need the minute details to appreciate the story, but if you don’t get the broad picture, you loose the beauty of the plot.

I got this book almost 3 years ago very soon after it was released, as a gift from my sister to her friend. I was the postman in this long distance love affair :/ I couldn’t meet the friend for the longest time and during that time there were days when the only way to pass the heat-soaked afternoons was to curl up with a good book. Having an Eco book within arm’s reach was too much of a temptation for me and I succumbed. Of course Fate intervened and the very next day the friend showed up to claim her gift and off it went leaving me hanging. Fate was not entirely cruel, however, as it packed the remaining days of my trip with too much activity for me to miss the book and 3 years later, I finally managed to get my hands on it again and this time read it through!

I am sure all of us are aware of the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion and the role it played in the greatest unconscionable act of ethnic cleansing that modern Europe witnessed i.e. the Holocaust. The Prague Cemetery is the author’s imagination of how that book came into existence**. Fictitious characters are cleverly intertwined with actual historical ones that it is impossible to know where reality ends and imagination begins. Eco does with characters what fantasy writers do with places. The grandfather of the protagonist and the protagonist himself are to The Prague Cemetery what Charring Cross road and Diagon Alley are to the Harry Potter series. The weave is so intricate and seamless that I had to go to Wiki to figure out who is real and who isn’t.

Eco grips you right off the bat when he starts the book with the protagonist describing his opinion of every single ethnic/cultural group native to Europe mainly culled from his grandfather. And what an opinion it is for sure! Every single group, be they Italian, German, French, Hebrew,etc., is described in the most ribald terms possible, stripped apart and set up on the pillory to be laughed at or despised according to the reader’s temperament. And what he has the protagonist say about the different religious sects of both Christianity and Judaism is a brilliant essay on the psyche of a bigot! Only of course he is not so much a bigot as an equal opportunity hater. Nevertheless, it sets the tone of the book and so sets the precedent for what comes in the end, i.e. the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion.

Like all Eco books, the middle gets a little too involved and heavy, but in this case it still is interesting because of the end.  Eco weaves his magic in his inimitable style and you get the feeling of being propelled through history as irresistibly as the “author” of the conspiracy. There is no end to intrigue and plots within plots and as usual I am in awe of how he manages to hold all the strings, allowing them to get entangled in some places but always unravelling them so effortlessly as to make it seem almost magical.

There are of course shades of The Focoult’s Pendulum in this, but the end is not as ironic. At the end of this book, I am more inclined to believe Eco’s version as real than perhaps what “truth” might actually turn out to be. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it is impossible to review this book without giving away the crux of the matter! So on that note, I will conclude by merely requesting all of you to go read the book :)

 

 

 

 

* unless of course the minute historical details are the reason you read the book in which case, screw the plot!

** this is all I am going to say about the details in the story. If you want more, go read it :/


Boomerang

Thud! The sound carried over the distance through the dewy early morning air that was otherwise silent and drowsy in that pre-dawn stupor. It had hit the damn tree again. The only reason Priya didn’t burst into tears was because she was hopping mad.
“That was good, no, Chellam?” said her mother, the eternal cheerleader. Priya could have rolled around in mud, ignored personal hygiene and acted like a demented banshee having a bad day and her mother would still have said, “my Chellam, so good!”. On a normal day she would have just ignored it, but today was not a normal day. Today, she gritted her teeth and yelled back,” No, Ma. That was NOT good. It is supposed to clear the tree and come back!” as she walked towards the tree to retrieve her boomerang. To which of course her mother said, “Oh! That’s OK, Chellam. You will get it!”

By the time she got back, her mother had gone back inside with the milk can, leaving Lakshmi and Rani to stare accusingly at her while chewing their cud.

“Oh don’t even think of giving me that look. You know you bumped her into the dung last week, because she kept saying, “Just one more drop, Lukkuma. You can do it!” with every squeeze.”

Lakshmi kept chewing cud and glared imperturbably at her.

“Besides, she doesn’t understand. The records people are coming TODAY. I HAVE to clear the damn tree. That is the 1,500 ft mark. It will be the world record!” Priya said, her voice raising to a squeak at the end.

Lakshmi burped and Rani wagged her ears disturbing the flies camped there, still looking unperturbed.

“You are right”, she said. “I need to be calm. I will be calm. I can do it, ” she straightened her shoulders and nodded and caught sight of her mother at the kitchen window, grinning at her. The calming breath she held came out in a huff. She shook her head to clear it and took her stance. Her left leg firm in front of her, right on the line. She lifted her left arm to point out at the tree and the horizon further out. She raised her right arm, lifted her right leg and….flick. The wedge of wood, she had whittled and polished and slaved over, flew, almost gracefully. It cleared the tree soaring high above the tallest branch and came right back at her making a ‘whup, whup, whup’ noise. She took a half step to the right and made a clean catch, hearing nothing but the whiz of the air, and feeling nothing but the comforting weight and smoothness of the wood. Then the sound rushed in and she heard her mother squealing and clapping and running to her and she grinned and ran and hugged her, hopping together in glee while the cows started at them with the same bovine disdain they always had.

“You did it! Hooray!!” said her mother, sounding like Dora, the explorer with an Indian accent.


Royal Palace and Library: Thanjavur part II

My trusty little guidebook, wiki and the rental car driver all told us the same thing. The palace grounds holds the library and the museum and is adjacent to the Periya Kovil. So after visiting and being suitably awed by the Periya Kovil’s “periyaness”, we took a power nap in our pleasant room. Refreshed (aka cups of filter coffee later) we headed out to the Palace grounds. We managed to get the car parked in the palace compound and got our tickets. The good thing about this is, it is one common ticket to enter all the buildings in the compound, which is the palace, the bell tower, the library and the library museum. The bad thing is there is only one ticket, so you should keep the stub they hand you very safely to be produced to the guard at the entry of each building. You could of course, keep it safely in your wallet and search for it fruitlessly in your hand bag, head back to the ticket counter, stand in the long line to buy another ticket and when your turn comes, open the wallet and find the original stub. But that is usually not recommended.
Anyways, that digression aside, we managed to enter the palace grounds to be completely underwhelmed. It is not so much dilapidated as just run to ruin. There are supposed to be lawns, which are more overgrown weeds with some patches of grass interspersed between them. And all that dust and peeling paint everywhere, made it feel more like an old building waiting for its demolition order than ruined splendor of bygone days.

sad lawns of the bell tower grounds

sad lawns of the bell tower grounds

peeling paints in Darbar hall

peeling paints in Darbar hall

Nevertheless, to misquote Austen, as a fact universally acknowledged that a tall building with rickety stairs is in need of a climber, we climbed up the bell tower. Considering it was only 10 min left to closing time, it was more of a race up the top. Closing time or not one always stops for photos, so here are some

the complex from the tower

the complex from the tower

 

One of the ubiquitous gopurams that dot the Thanjavur skyline

One of the ubiquitous gopurams that dot the Thanjavur skyline

 

That might actually be periya Kovil in the distance

Periya Kovil in the distance

 

And then there was this, within the bell tower on the 3rd or 4th floor. What it is doing there all by its lonesome in the middle of all the Chola, Nayakar and Maratha splendor, I have no idea.

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Anyway, after all that intense cardio, we decided to walk around the pavilion to the Chola bronze statue exhibits. Needless to say, the statues themselves were exquisite, but I couldnt help but compare it to the museum displays of statues in Rome. A statue of Bernini would have been placed in such a way as to make it almost life like. Not to mention the detailed description of each piece explaining not just its pedigree or sculptor, but what it is supposed to denote and a whole lot of history. Here, we found this:

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As you can see, pathetic lighting and as you cannot see, but will have to take my word for it, no information other than “sculpture no.xyz:title” . The title part had the name of the sculpture but other than it being Manickavachakar, there was nothing else. One has to be extremely dedicated to take the time to look carefully past the poor lighting and display to see the incredible details on a deceptively simple statue like this. I truly wish, the government* spends the time and money to get a good curator to curate these pieces and upgrade the museum.

Nevertheless, I did manage, in the small time that was left before the closing of the museum, to catch the following brilliant pieces:

Shiva leaning on Nandi (now lost)

Shiva leaning on Nandi (now lost)

 

Parvati tired of sitting

Parvati tired of sitting

 

Shiva leaning heavily

Shiva leaning heavily

 

I thought these had an incredible sense of humor apart from the obviously stupendous technique and on coming back checked on wiki to learn that that trait was indeed a trademark of artists of that era!** How wonderful it would have been if these little tidbits of very interesting information were incorporated in the display to hook the visitor further into exploring this lost art form.

We then made our way to the Saraswati Mahal Library where we were requested to not take pictures. The Library is massive in its collection of diverse sets of manuscripts, books and maps. There was even entire books on palm leaves preserved there and some of them could be viewed under a magnifying glass of greater clarity. They did ask for donations for ongoing renovations, so I am hoping that the poor display and general mustiness of the place will soon be reinvented, if not to the National Library of Congress in Washington standards, at least to the Chicago Public Library*** standards.

In summary, I would definitely recommend a good half a day each to the Chola Sculptures and the Library to give you time to study these in depth. I definitely recommend either a good guide book or other information sites to take along with you to help you better appreciate these treasures and enhance your trip. The Royal Palace you can definitely skip.

 

* I could be wrong and this could be a private owned museum, but the point still remains.

** Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chola_art

*** Don’t be mislead by the name, here is what it looks like:http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lobby_Harold_Washington_Library.jpg

 


On the footsteps of the Thevan

Not Shivaji’s Periya Thevar nor Satyaraj’s Balu Thevan but the one and only Kalki’s Vanthiya Thevan. To me, he is the quintessential Tamil hero, flawed but endearing. Ever since having the 5 volumes read out to me as a kid, I have dreamed of making a trip to all the places Vanthiathevan visited in this historical fiction. Finally, two winters ago, I decided to fulfill that dream. Naturally, such a decision called for a careful re-reading of the text while mapping all the places and of course such a course is doomed to fail. First, there was the time crunch, which resulted in delegation of the project to my mom. Second, the difficulty in accurately identifying said places, what with many of the old towns acquiring new names and not unique ones either. And finally, although modern modes of transportation ensures that the year long journey that Vandiyathevan took in the book, can be considerably shortened, only the possession of Hermione’s Time Turner would have enabled me to finish the trip in the three days I had at my disposal. So bowing down to the pressure of realism, we decided to just do Thanjavur.

Apart from the Ponniyin Selvan reference, the other images that Thanjavur conjures up are those of jeweled paintings and rich Tamil literary heritage. However, I was completely unaware of its Maratha heritage.  It turns out that a descendant of Shivaji* put down his roots way down south in Thanjavur, ousting the Nayaks, who were the remnants of the once powerful Vijayanagara Empire. These latter day dynasts, integrated Telugu and Sanskrit into the cultural outpouring from the area.

We reached this culturally rich town, late at night to the accompaniment of loud horns and dense exhausts from all kinds of vehicles stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion that can only be rivaled by Chennai at non-peak hours. We stayed at the Oriental Towers which is not precisely the center of the town, but close enough to most of the places we wanted to be. The hotel lobby is huge, very well maintained, but incredibly ill lit. I think they took the idea of recessed lighting to new depths**. However, the staff was really very efficient and courteous, setting us up in our room quickly and efficiently despite the late hour. The room was spacious, neat and the bathroom was clean. They set up a truckle bed for us, which was a bit rickety, but acceptable. The only problem was the bed linens, which were well worn and one of them tore as I put my foot through it. But the housekeeping was accommodating and gave us new (er) sheets.

We woke up early next day to a foggy morning and had breakfast at the adjoining restaurant.

foggy morning out the hotel window. Periya Kovil in the distance

foggy morning out the hotel window. Periya Kovil in the distance

I am sure the food was tasty, it was Chettinad cuisine, but was too spicy for my Chennai mouth. So with burning mouths and hungry stomachs we made our way to the Brihadeeswara Temple or Periya Kovil.

Periya Kovil, which is perhaps the centermost site of attraction in Thanjavur, is a UNESCO world heritage centre and thanks to this distinction, is incredibly well maintained. I have not seen a better kept temple in all of TN***, with hardly any trash littering the site and more importantly no paan stains. Even more significant was the fact that they have wheelchairs available for rent at the temple for the mobility challenged. But like all good things, this comes with a caveat too. The wheelchair is something from perhaps the first generation of wheelchairs. This one had two large wheels at the back legs and two pointy stubs at the front, such that the only way to wheel the wheelchair, was to tilt the chair and its occupant on to its back wheels while pushing the whole contraption forward. Given that the chair was made of wrought iron or something equally heavy, it required a body builder to wield it! But thankfully this was India, so there was no dearth of said body builders, or at least men strong enough to push a 100 ton wheelchair with a 10 ton occupant for a reasonable price.

Having safely navigated the wheelchair situation we entered the main entrance with its impressive Gopuram whose walls were engraved with essays about the building of the Temple, none of which we could decipher even though it was written in Tamil.

Gopuram Vaasal inscriptions. See if you can make out what it says

Gopuram Vaasal inscriptions. See if you can make out what it says

The Gopuram itself is incredibly huge and wonderfully sculpted. It was the Grand Canyon of south Indian temple Gopurams, so high that looking up at it gave me a crick in the neck, so could only get pictures of it in parts.

Rajarajan Gopuram

Rajarajan Gopuram

This main Gopuram leads to an inner entrance which is in direct line with the Nandi Mandabam and the Brihadeeswarar sannidhi. Keeping in line with the colossal scale of the temple, the Nandi is equally huge and imposing, apparently carved of one single rock.

Inner Gopuram

Inner Gopuram

Nandi

Nandi

view of Rajarajan Gopuram from Nandi Mandabam

view of Rajarajan Gopuram from Nandi Mandabam

The Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi, true to its name is the tallest one in the complex. The outside walls are filled with carvings of various Gods and Goddesses not to mention dancers in various Bharatnatayam poses.

Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi

Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi

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Side view of the Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

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The Lingam inside is also big enough that you can see it all the way from the entrance. The inside however is quite dark, which I am guessing is that way so as to preserve the old murals and carvings that adorn the walls and ceiling of the  premises.

Glimpse of Ayyan from the entrance.

Glimpse of Ayyan from the entrance.

Faded Chola fresco at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Faded Chola fresco at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Chola sculpture at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Chola sculpture at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Not to be outdone, Thayaar sannidhi is equally grandiose and what was most impressive for me was Amman’s fashion statement. The saree was draped around her most artistically.

Amman in all her glory

Amman in all her glory

But what was the most impressive for me was the Aaradhanai Mandabam. All along the outer walls of the temple complex is this many pillared corridor, filled with murals depicting various stories from the Siva puranam (Thiruvilayaadal) originally of Chola origin, painted sometime in the 1000-1100 A.D. By the time the Nayakars came along in the 1500-1600s, these murals had faded and corroded away due to the soot from the oil lamps lit along the corridor. The Nayakars hence, painted over these murals thus adding their touch to this piece of heritage. Not to be outdone, the Marathas in the late 1600 to mid 1700, erected Lingams all along the corridors thus sealing the confluence of the three dynasties for eternity. The Archaeological survey of India, sometime in the 1930s discovered these frescoes/murals and found the two layers of chola/nayaka paintings. They apparently used a unique technique**** to remove the Nayaka layer and mounted it on to fiberglass stands and it now stands in the museum that is within the temple complex. Thus we can see the Chola murals and the Maratha lingams in the Aradhanai Mandabam.

Confluence of the three dynasties of Thanjavur

Confluence of the three dynasties of Thanjavur

Thus ended our trip of the Periya Kovil. Our visit to the Palace, Saraswathi Mahal library and Water Tower, to come soon. Here is the link to my pictures of all the murals. Please add comments if you know what is being depicted or correct my comments. http://www.flickr.com/photos/95381240@N08/8689535683/in/set-72157633373847110/

* his half-brother in fact, at least according to Wiki

** pun intended ;)

*** OK so all of TN, that I have seen.

**** here is the Hindu article that says more about this http://hindu.com/thehindu/fr/2003/02/28/stories/2003022801300600.htm


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