Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mr. Walker.

While in Kenya last week on an official trip, I drove down from Nairobi to a small town called Magati, past the Rift Valley. I was headed to a site that had been identified for a project, which involved participation of the local community. The site was a few kilometers away from a point ahead of Mogati on the highway.

A colleague from Nairobi who was accompanying me said that an ‘elder’ from the local community would like to meet us. Should we meet him at Mogati or should we request him to come straight to the site, he wanted to know. Meeting him at the site at 2 pm would be more convenient, I said, and would save us some time.

As we reached the point that would lead us to the site, we were informed that the approach road could not be accessed as a river was overflowing due to heavy rains the previous day. A local person said he could take us to the site on a different route and we decided to use his services.

We got off the highway into a muddy road, which after 500m led us to a thick forest. The guide expertly navigated us through the trees on narrow dirt tracks. How he knew the general direction or where to turn, I couldn’t figure out as all trees looked the same to me. I had assumed that this was going to be a short drive, but found the journey stretching interminably. At one point, the jeep got stuck in the slush, and was extricated with some difficulty and some clever maneuvers from the driver.

We reached the spot after covering 22 km in slightly more than 2 hours. It was 4 pm.

The village elder was there, all alone and waiting for us. He had reached the spot at 2 pm as scheduled.

How did he get there, I asked my local guide. He had walked. Was there a shorter route for walking? No, he said, the old man had to take the same route that we had taken. As soon as he was informed that he had to meet us at the site, he had started walking in that direction, armed with a stick. Aware of the swollen river, he set out on the longer route that we later took. He walked the entire 20 km and reached the place on time. How long did it take him to cover the distance? Oh, maybe 2.5 to 3 hours, replied my local guide, nonchalantly.

We asked the old man to get into the jeep and started our way back on the same route. I certainly wanted to get back to the highway before it was dark. After 5 km or so, our jeep got stuck in the mud again and simply refused to budge, either forward or in reverse. If we had to walk the remainder of the distance, there was no way we were going to make it out of that jungle before it got dark.

As I was worrying myself with thoughts of giant mosquitoes, tse tse flies and snakes, I saw the old man pulling down some branches from a tree. He plucked out the leaves and heaped them in a pile near the tyres on the rear wheel of the jeep. Using that as leverage, the driver managed to pull the jeep out a few metres behind, then picked up full power and drove it past the slush.

What a man!

Not far from the spot we visited is the hilly region surrounding the Rift Valley, which has produced so many marathon runners and Olympic medalists in long-distance events. What is special about the region, many have wondered. Some have attributed it to the lung-capacity of the runners developed due to exercising in the high-altitude region. Some explanations point to the ‘birdlike legs”. And some to the fact that, historically, the men of the Kalenjin tribe had to move fast and over long distances to round up cattle, as those with the most number of cows managed to garner more wives.

I wonder how many cows and how many wives the old man I met has.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Chennai Chunam

Recreations in Agriculture, Natural History, Arts and Miscellaneous literature, by James Anderson, LLD was published in April 1799.

James Anderson was a distinguished personality who was based in Chennai and whose botanical garden in the city was world-famous. The suffix to his name, apart from the LLD, reads

“FRS. and FSA.E . Honourary member of the Society of Arts, Agriculture, Sec. Bath; of the Philosophical Society, Manchester; of the Agricultural Society, Altringham ; of the Philosophical So-ciety, Newcastle; of the Society for promoting Natural History, London, of the Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Belles Lettres, Dijon; of the Royal Society of Agriculture, St. Petersburg; of the Royal Economical Society, Berlin; of the Philosophical Society, Philadelphia; correspondent member of the Royal Society of Agriculturet Paris; and Author of several performances.”

Here, he describes the virtues of ‘chunam’- or limestone used as cementing material in India, and recommends it for use in England as well.

No cement for building hath as yet been discovered in Europe that can be compared with the fine Chunam of India for closeness, toughness, durability, and beauty. It sets as quickly as stucco, and at the same time acquires a hardness greatly superior to our best lime mortar, and is alike proper for works under water, as for those that are exposed to the air; so that it supersedes the use alike of gypsum and of puzzuolana, or terras.

It can be made here at all times, only that, during the monsoon or rainy season, it does not dry so soon, and causes more trouble to the workmen; I do not see therefore why it might not be done in England; and if houses were built in England as in India, there never would be the smallest danger from fire; for whatever accident might happen to the furniture, scarce any of our houses here can be injured: the walls are all of brick and mortar, and when fine-chunamed are exceedingly beautiful; as any colour, or variety of colours, may be given to it.

The wood of the doors and windows are never so much connected with it as to cause any danger: our roofs are equally secure, and probably the strongest and most durable in the world, being with difficulty broke down; the whole forming a solid mass, and the mortar harder than the brick. If a room does not exceed twenty-five or thirty feel breadth, large solid beams of teak (tectonia grandis), of about sixteen or eighteen inches square, are laid across from wall to wall; and at the distance of twelve or fourteen feet asunder. Joists of about seven inches depth and four inches breadth are then laid across the beams about a foot asunder.

When these are all properly fitted, and the wall all around raised to a level with them, the bricklayers begin at one corner, and go on diagonally to the other with great quickness, placing the bricks On their edge and applying them close to one another, after having covered their surfaces well with mortar mixed with a considerable proportion of jaggary, or coarse sugar, and also the top, on which they lay it thick. The workmen sit upon moveable planks laid across the joists. The under surface has a curious appearance, from the bricks seeming to have no support.

It is astonishing how few bricks thus jammed fall down, although I have seen terraces made when rain was falling very heavy, and running through in all parts as through a sieve; and those are reckoned strongest that are built in the wet weather, as there is less danger of vacuities than in the dry season, from the quick drying of the chunam.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

He will be missed

While paying her last respects to Shammi Kapoor who passed away last week, actress Madhuri Dixit was quoted as saying "He was a very fine actor and will truly be missed,”

Considering that Shammi Kapoor had been bed-ridden for many years, and had not acted for many more, that statement makes no sense. His ‘acting’ would have been missed- if at all-after his retirement. Death cannot be cited as the reason for his not acting. If he had continued to live on, he was unlikely to get back to his swashbuckling not-to-be-missed roles.

The ‘will-be-missed’ phrase is so clichéd and when used in the passive voice rings completely insincere. Will be missed by who? When in the future? How long?

Yet, I realized that bereavement evokes irrational responses.

Returning home today after attending the funeral of a cousin, I found myself reminiscing about the days, decades back, when we spent hours playing cricket or badminton or just shared some jokes. Yes, I am certainly going to miss him, I grieved.

This cousin was not snatched away at an early age. He had been ailing for some time, and the last instance both of us played cricket or badminton together was 25 years back. Had he not died today, would we have got back to playing those games? Impossible. Would we have got back to our exchange of jokes? Sadly, no. He had ceased to be a sparkling conversationalist, some years back. So, what is it that his death has caused me to miss afresh? What is it that I am deprived of now that I wasn’t a week back?

I don’t know.

But, at least, I used the cliché in its active voice.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Husband- the visible God.

In a post dated October 2005 and titled, “Dark thoughts of a closet MCP”, I had imagined the mind of a chauvinistic male. The post began this way:

You should have seen the fuss that my wife made and the tantrums that she threw up when I woke her from an afternoon siesta yesterday and asked for a cup of coffee!

Why she should go ballistic over such a simple request, I could never fathom. It would have taken her hardly a couple of minutes to warm the milk in the gas stove, mix the instant coffee and sugar and serve it to me, along with some chocolate biscuits, as I was on my recliner chair reading a book. Nothing complicated about it. Minimum physical labour involved.
It is not as if she had to slog it out like my multi-tasking grandmother who had to wake up at 3 am everyday, have a cold dip in the Cauvery (cleverly dodging the lurking crocodiles), finish her pooja, run after the cows, pin them down, milk them herself, then grind the coffee seeds, roast them, prepare the decoction, and get the steaming coffee ready for my grandfather at 5 am sharp, before he commenced his morning ablutions. All this, while she continued to prolifically deliver several babies a year.
I thought I was using my humourist’s licence to freely exaggerate and to sound funny in the process.

Last night, while watching a debate on a Tamil channel, I realized how wrong I had been. I had not only ‘not exaggerated’ (pardon the double negative) but had not known that many women actually liked their male partners to be completely domineering and demanding. This was a complete revelation to me.

This debate was between two groups of women, with one group arguing that husbands were ‘visible Gods” who needed to be served and obeyed unquestioningly and the other group defending the view that the husband was a friend in an equal partnership.

That such debates should happen at all in this age is a reflection of our society. The participants were well-educated (in the conventional sense of the word) and I heard one of them – belonging to the group that venerated husbands- say that she held an MBA diploma and that it did not make any difference to her convictions. She revealed that as soon as her husband came home from work, she insisted on removing his shoes and socks not just because she felt she ought to, but she enjoyed doing it. None of the women in the ‘husband is God” group attributed the behaviour to ‘traditional values”. All of them said they actually liked placing their husbands on a pedestal and being as obsequious as they could.

The thought did cross my mind that perhaps this was a stage-managed debate. If so, the women were exceptionally good actors.

Maybe this was a freakish group rounded up by the TV studio to make the show livelier? No, I don’t think so. I suspect that this was a good sampling size, one that is representative of a pan-Indian society,

It is pointless to talk about ‘subjugation of women’ when there are educated women still around, who volunteer to be slaves and derive masochistic enjoyment while being treated thus.