Sunday, December 06, 2015


It happens sometimes when you're feeling dull or languid, and want nothing but that little snug place under the rock, the world will become extra peppy and bombard you with 'Carpe Diem!' messages. Bugger off!

Monday, November 30, 2015

So it is

But listen to this pattern of causality I've observed in the universe!

I seldom wear nail polish, but when I do, when I do... two or three days later, as night follows day, the maid will not turn up and I will have to wash a sink-load of dishes.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye...

I'm too late talking but Phantom, but I was laughing and foot-tapping a while ago over Afghan Jalebi. The film didn't do great business, and nor can I see that the song fit in too well with how it was picturised, but what a song! What lilt, what arrangement and what 'lachak' these singers carry off! There are four versions, I believe, and I can't decide which one I like the most.

And while on Pritam, I went to an old favourite, Raabta from Agent Vinod. Again there are multiple versions, all of them alluring (and potential ear-worms). And these words by Amitabh Bhattacharya! I thought I was listening to a love song, and it transformed somehow into one of those 'eternal love' songs.

मेहरबानी जाते जाते मुझपे कर गया
गुज़रता सा लम्हा एक दामन भर गया
तेरा नज़ारा मिला, रोशन सितारा मिला
तकदीर की कश्तीयों को किनारा मिला

सदियों से तरसे है जैसी ज़िंदगी के लिए
तेरी सौहबत में दुआएं हैं उसी के लिए
तेरा मिलना है उस रब का इशारा
मानो मुझको बनाया तेरे जैसे ही किसी के लिए

कुछ तो है तुझसे राबता
कुछ तो है तुझसे राबता
कैसे हम जाने, हमे क्या पता?
कुछ तो है तुझसे राबता

तू हमसफ़र है, फिर क्या फिकर है
जीने की वजह यही है, मरना इसी के लिए

I find the phrasing so piquant, genteel almost: Mujhko banaya tere jaise hi kisike liye... not 'I have been made for you' but 'I have been made for someone just like you...' - the lover is throwing himself wantonly at the beloved but some remnant of a sense of decorum stays him perhaps... and a small concession is made to modesty.

I must just say also: excellent work by lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya these past years. The style of poetry in Hindi films has changed so much since Sahir, Shakeel, Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra... but no matter! At least we can congratulate ourselves on seeing the backs of Sameer and his ilk. Amitabh Bhattacharya, Swanand Kirkire, Prasoon Joshi, Irshad Kamil... so many poets this decade.
Super like!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Appa deepo bhava

"Mann se Ravan jo nikale Ram uske mann mein hai...”

I woke up with this line ticker-taping through my mind yesterday morning. A sub-conscious reminder that it was Deepavali perhaps, but there was no very coherent train of thought leading to or away from Javed Akhtar’s words in Swades.

It is a traditional, oft-repeated sentiment, of course. That, for Ram to reign, Ravan must go. And typically, as we tend to do in India, sophisticated ideas and concepts get distilled into names, into personifications – powerful receptacles and representatives of everything that the dialectical process that preceded it bestows upon them.

Naraka Chaturdashi is named for a powerful and evil man who met his death at the hands of Krishna – and realised, in his dying moments, what a fool he had been. In a message for this day, Sadhguru says that what happened centuries ago can’t surely be relevant to us but we mark it because we must remember – now rather than on the death bed – to purge ourselves of negativity. Consciously sit down and remove accumulations, prejudices that have gathered when we weren’t looking.

In today’s Deccan Chronicle, Swati Chopra writes that in his dying hours, his disciples asked Gautama, the Buddha, for one last teaching. He uttered: “Appa deepo bhava!” Be lamps unto yourselves.

She says:
This Deepawali as we light our homes, let us take a moment to think about the inner illumination the Buddha pointed to in his last words. How might we become lamps unto ourselves? There are two points of emphases in this statement — “lamps” and “yourselves”. In saying “unto yourselves”, the teacher is laying the responsibility of working towards enlightenment upon the student. Do not think of the teacher as the one who will illuminate you. Do not outsource your spiritual work. The teacher can point towards the path; it is you who has to actually walk on it. Thus, the dying Buddha asks his students to look beyond him, the form of the teacher, which will die soon. The real illuminant is within.

This song, Ishq di booṭi, from Coke Studio Season 6 is very special to me. I love every note, every detail of the arrangement, I love the words and I am blown away every single time by the climax. Written by the singer Abrar-ul-Haq himself, there is one succinct passage that tells you what you must do to advance.

The song is laid upon an imagery that was invoked by the Sufi mystic-poet Sultan Bahu:

Alif Allah chambey di booṭi Murshad man vich laayi hoo...
My Master has planted in my heart a jasmine plant... in the name of the primordial one...

That ‘chambey di booti’ is very precious seed, from which the spiritual quest begins. It must be looked after, it must be nourished, it must become the focal point of your life. When that plant grows, when it blossoms... there is havoc but oh, “jaan phullan te aayi hoo” – the very life-breath comes aflutter, Bahu says.

Abrar-ul-Haq goes further with the horticultural theme:

dil di kheti de wich pahlaan niyat da hal waah
khoṭ adaawat nafrat jhagṛe saare maar muka
nafs jiya dushman wi koi naeen, zahr da ṭeekah la
laalach badla hasad kameenah choolhe de wich pa
ishq di goḍi kar ke te hanjuaan da paani pa
te booṭi beej lai
chambe waali booṭi beej lai
haq wali booṭi beej lai

First plough the field of your heart with your sincere intention
Falseness, enmity, hatred, strife: send them packing!
There is no enemy like your own ego – feed it some poison
Greed, revenge and envy are vile – cast them into the fire
Cultivate the field of love, water it with your own tears
And sow the seed!
Sow the seed of the jasmine flower!
Sow the seed of Truth!

The CS video is here, but I recommend closed eyes.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Wherefore art thou, Prem?

I must confess to a guilty pleasure: I have a sweet tooth when it comes to movies and I relish a particular brand of sweet. Ahem... Rajshri, and especially this Sooraj Barjatya.

Of course, in the enjoyment of these movies, a considerable amount of mental editing is required. One must omit several songs, purge out animal references, try to forget a LOT of the comedy and spray-paint over coy or tart heroines (as the case may be)... in fact, you might argue, almost everything. Sigh.

Maine Pyar Kiya, I found ok, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! was tolerable and Main Prem ki Diwani Hoon was an embarrassment. But I loved Vivah, Ek Vivaah Aisa Bhi... and for some reason, I have watched Hum Saath Saath Hain every time it has been possible. And seeing that it airs almost every other weekend on one of Zee's movie properties, let's just say I've watched it in part many, many times. A friend stumbled on the secret and gifted me a DVD - in spite of this, I watched it once on youtube and also on an Air India domestic flight. Yes, well, so sue me.

So what of this Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo? The songs are all out and I'm dreading it a bit. The only thing I feel confident about is that it will be better than Main Prem ki Diwani Hoon. Maybe.
Salman Khan is having trouble playing Prem, clearly. His muscles are getting in the way. Sonam Kapoor is having trouble fanning even a small kangri's worth of heat between them (but she looks lovely!). But I can't not watch a Rajshri Diwali release, I'm going to grit my teeth and get it over with.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

I'm missing the mountains. My life - and my environs - feel ordinary, too blah. I cannot understand why I'm here at this point and not there.

I want to change everything - even if only the furniture. So I have tabs open for furniture websites that have been hurling Diwali discounts at us, but also maps of Uttarakhand, and properties for rent or sale in Hardwar or Rishikesh. Yes, that kind of mood.

I'll bore you no further with my vacillations but I must share with you this many-veined map of the state. I saw it for myself first hand but I was still breathless when I saw this overview of the minor and major rivers of Uttarakhand.

Map courtesy (with a larger version):

In spite of this, a good thing came along yesterday in the form of a Vijay Tendulkar play 'A Friend's Story'. It has only recently been translated into English, I understand. An NCPA production directed by Akash Khurana. Neat, neat work!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Chal Akela

ज़िंदगी की राहों में रंज-ओ-गम के मेले हैं
भीड़ है क़यामत की, फिर भी हम अकेले हैं 

#throwback #SabaAfghani

When my parents bought me my first-ever tape recorder, I carefully chose six cassettes to buy along with. A very nice starter kit! And this tape  'Anup Jalota - In Concert' was one of them. 

I discovered just now that there is a Sonu Nigam version of the ghazal. But... not a patch on Mr Jalota's version.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Himalaya Yatra 4: White Mountain, Green Mountain

White Mountain, Green Mountain

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach-blossom flows down stream and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.
–Li Bai, ‘Green Mountain’

A header change that needs no explanation at all: my mind is still in the mountain clouds.

But even here there is cause for dismay. We see a lot of breast-beating about dwindling habitats of wildlife species, but whoever gives any thought to the fact that the territory of the sadhaka is imperilled? My Sadhguru rues that with the building of motorable roads, there are no more impenetrable, remote retreats for spiritual men.

Time was these yogis could find themselves bolt-holes high up in the caves, secure from prying eyes or thirsty but encroaching masses who would gather at their feet. The waters of these Himalayan rivers are so prized, I understand, for this very reason. The yogis who stayed at these higher altitudes poured their knowledge and energies into the Bagirathi and other streams, a way of sending downstream what they had earned and what they could share with others. The whole concept of ‘Ganga nahaana’ or bathing in sacred waters comes from this.

But now, abutting the sacred Vyasa Gufa in remote Mana – a place that must have, over time, harboured countless sages and adepts – is a teashop claiming to be the last tea-stall in India. As we trekked to the point where Saraswati emerges from the cliffs, I crossed a small cave. An aghori sat in it, smeared with ash, a ‘dhuni’ duly lit for his meditations – and a small crowd around him, taking pictures. I don’t know if he minded, but I did.

Thanks to our coffee table books and the documentaries that we have seen, we have objectified our holy men. An aghori is not just a picture, is he? He is a life, an entire way of life... a purposeful life with life-choices wildly different from most of us. I was made sharply aware of that this trip. People like you and me, who drop everything they know and walk away into the hills, in search of a truth they only dimly perceive. Brave men.

I hope they find their retreats – high on those slopes, living on so little! Possessing just that much, my Guru says, as would make a difference between life and death.

I so loved the Chinese poet Li Bai for his utter gorgeosity and poetic empathy. And, I cannot resist another poem by him:

Lines For A Taoist Adept

My friend lives high on East Mountain.
His nature is to love the hills and gorges.
In green spring he sleeps in empty woodland,
Still there when the noon sun brightens.
Pine-tree winds to dust his hair.
Rock-filled streams to cleanse his senses.
Free of all sound and stress,
Resting on a wedge of cloud and mist.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Himalaya Yatra 3: Hum toh dariya hai...

Hum toh dariya hai...*

Another aspect of this yatra that had me hugely excited was the water: the glacial sources, the streams, the rivers, the confluences... and finally these amazing, wide swathes of life-giving, life-enhancing goodness.

Everywhere we went, almost every road we took had a gurgling stream of water flowing alongside. The presence was never far away – deep ravines, rounded rocks and boulders, clean flowing water – now turquoise, now jade, now a frothy blue-white... no wonder that the journey seemed to have cleansed me.

And then there were the prayags – the confluences of rivers that are said to generate immense energy. As these streams and rivers hurtle downhill, they meet and go on from that point as one. The Mandakini and Vasuki meet at Son Prayag, the Alaknanda and Mandakini meet at Rudra Prayag, the Pindar and Alaknanda meet at Karna Prayag... and finally, the big two, Bagirathi and Alaknanda meet at Dev Prayag to flow on as the massive Ganga. 

Dev Prayag, Bagirathi and Alaknanda.

Mystery Prayag - I can't remember which one this is! Maybe Rudra Prayag, after all.
Rudra Prayag
We came across many of these and since we criss-crossed the many landmarks, I have pictures of some confluences and have absolutely forgotten which ones they are. I wonder if I’ll have another chance at visiting these glorious places, take them in more slowly? I didn’t know even a quarter of the history associated with these places... I didn’t know, for instance, that Karna Prayag, the only confluence where we had the time and opportunity to go down to the customary temple was so rich in significance. This was where Karna earned the protective kavacha and kundalas from his father, the Sun God. Kalidasa refers to this spot in Meghadoota and the famous love story of Dushyanta–Shakuntala played out here. Wikipedia tells me Swami Vivekananda meditated here for eighteen days. And, and, and... that the stone temple at the confluence was rebuilt by the ubiquitous Adi Shankara!

Karna Prayag

We visited the even more remote Keshav Prayag as well, and I'm kicking myself for not getting a good enough look at the source of the Saraswati before yielding to 'time to go' urgings from tyrannical bus leaders. But that is the problem – roughly every third stone in this blessed place is terribly important. And the mind can only soak so much. But never mind the mind – if my energies have managed to absorb what they needed, I’ll not ask for more.

*Title is from this sher:
Hum toh dariya hai, humein apna hunar maloom hai
Jis taraf bhi chal padenge raasta ho jaayega

Friday, October 16, 2015

Himalaya Yatra 2: Jaana jogi de naal

Jaana jogi de naal

A most delicious thing happened to me on this trip – an event that coloured and informed my entire outlook. About three or four years ago, I came across Sri M – a kriya yogi, an enlightened being who came from a great spiritual lineage. Extremely curious, I ordered his book, Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master. When the book arrived, however, I read a few pages but put it aside. My own journey was so new, I needed perhaps to cement the bond with my own glorious Guru – intake nothing but his words, look upon no face but his. It was not yet time.

Sri M’s book is set in the very sacred mountains, around the same rivers that we were travelling in, and as it happened, a fellow traveller was carrying a copy – in fact, a copy signed by the great man himself. She most kindly lent it to me and I spent a few long bus journeys drinking in this story avidly.

In his book, Sri M narrates a sharp incident set in a cave in Mana, the outermost village before the Indo-China border – of how a fakir climbed the steep cataracts of the Alaknanda to fling himself at the feet of a yogi meditating in the Vyasa cave in these cliffs. Even with my brief reading of the book, I had been fascinated by this place on the fringes of Badrinath.

Now, all of Lesser Himalaya, and its throbbing spiritual activity, came alive for me. The innumerable seekers, sages, saints at various levels of achievement... the several establishments, the ashrams, the infrastructure, the difficulties, the doubts, and the juxtaposition of the mundane with the profound... in fact, the very way of life and its orientation.

Sri M speaks of refuges in Hardwar and Rishikesh, of the steep paths beyond Gangotri and Gomukh, of kutirs in Kedarnath and Badrinath, of walking drunkenly in the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib... he describes the yogi’s life, how they eat, how they live, how they pray, how they are... I was absolutely riveted! This is a near-fantastical book he talks, almost casually, of things that seem bizarre to the modern mind. It occurred to me that perhaps our Amar Chitra Kathas spoke nothing but the literal truth of how things are, if only we could suspend our disbelief!

I read faster than I should have, maybe – I did want to finish the book before we touched Badrinath, and also wanted to return the book to Farah as quickly as possible – she’d taken the trouble to lug it across the peninsula only to have it wrested from her by a needy reader; it wasn’t fair.

Once before I had the good fortune to read a book set in the very spot I was reading it in – and that was in the Himalaya as well. It is an incomparable joy, this.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Himalaya Yatra 1: Uth Sangeya...

Uth, Sangeya...

So I’ve been on this pilgrimage. Not the first time in my life that I’ve set out to go to temples: in the course of my travels, I’ve seized any handy excuse to go haring after shrines of energy and significance. But nevertheless, my first pilgrimage. Train, bus, by copter, pony and on foot... all that to go to a particular place. Why does one do it? Because even the arduous journey alters us. Because human beings before us have left something some significant aspects of themselves there, in energy form, for us to tap into. Because these places touch and influence us in ways we cannot understand.

What a revelation it was! Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath are together known as the ‘char dham’ – four pilgrimage destinations of the Himalayan region. On our itinerary were three of these; we left out Yamunotri.

I knew academically, of course, of the vastness, of the largeness of the Himalaya – and I have been in the Lesser Himalayan region before – but this was even more experiential. To traverse these mountains, wind up and down on slender shelves hugging the walls, to see other buses in the distance, looking so puny against the giants they were crossing... this is the first time I’ve looked so closely at the map of Uttarakhand.

The gigantic (and controversial) Tehri Dam

Snow-laden peaks in the distance

So this is a small series, till I’ve exhausted what I want to say.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Home again

Home, after a fairly gruelling pilgrimage.

As I went about from place to place, I longed to blog - but there wasn't time, I didn't have a convenient gadget, and it wouldn't have done justice to the moment I was in, if I was trying all the time to record the previous. So I have tried to cram it all into my memory, and unravel it at leisure.

For now, though, it's a sweet kind of pleasure to be reunited with my unmoving bed, my razai and my yoga mat.

The Navaratris begin today - I have a home to spruce up, three bags of unpacking to do and some muscles to loosen.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Man laago mero yaar...

I have most fun, I've found, in the throes of an obsession. When I'm hung up on one song, or chasing the meaning behind a haunting, intriguing piece of poetry in a language I have no access to.

Last week it was Adi Shankara. I had heard 'Guru Ashtakam' before but I had not engaged with it as I did now. How direct is this saint-poet, how severe, how unequivocal! In Bhaja Govindam, he begins by chiding: "Chant Govinda, you fool!" 

I am slain by his conviction, the force of his statements... and I lean on him, borrowing – no, taking – from his unshakeable stance some strength for my own shaky base. He is right, he is right! there is no other way to be! No use being turned in any direction but this...

Here are the eight verses as rendered by the wonderful Uma Mohan and group (who have my gratitude for their offerings that come with perfect enunciation and a proper respect for the material. This one is a bit over-orchestrated arrangement-wise but it's grown on me).

Sareeram suroopam thatha va kalatram,
Yashaschaaru chithram dhanam meru thulyam,
Manaschena lagnam Gurorangri padme
Thatha kim? Thatha kim? Thatha kim? Thatha kim?

A beautiful body you may have, and a wife as beautiful,
Great fame and a heap of money the equal of Mt Meru,
But if your mind does not bow at the lotus-feet of the Guru...
Oh, what is the use? What is the use? What is the use? What is the use?

Kalatram dhanam puthrapothradhi sarvam
Gruham baandhava sarvamethadhi jaatham
Manaschena lagnam Gurorangri padme
Thatha kim? Thatha kim? Thatha kim? Thatha kim?

A wife, wealth, children, grandchildren and all
A house, relations, birth in a great clan,
But if your mind does not bow at the lotus-feet of the Guru...
What is the use? What is the use? What is the use? What is the use? 

Shadangadhi vedo mukhe saastra vidhya
Kavithwadhi gadhyam supadhyam karoti
Manaschenna lagnam Gurorangri padme
Thatha kim? Thatha kim? Thatha kim? Thatha kim?

Knowledge of the six angas etc; Vedashastras at the tip of your tongue,
Expertise in the composition of fine poetry and prose...
But if your mind does not bow at the lotus-feet of the Guru
Then what is the use? What is the use? What is the use? What is the use?!

And he goes on thus... dissing our 'accomplishments', what we think of as our successes, piercing the bubble of self-satisfaction. Nothing is worth anything unless you have turned that way, and sent your mind to stick like glue at the Guru-Charan.

It reminded me of a fairly stark statement I came across recently:
The only useful purpose of the present birth is to turn within and realise the Self... There is nothing else to do.
That is Ramana Maharshi speaking.

They've all been saying the same thing, over and over, haven't they?


I had more ear-worms to speak about but this post is laden already. Next time, perhaps.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

When the cuckoo sings

It’s been a Japan kind of month. Months after I travelled there, I was called upon to file the story, and the days of August went in remembering, reading, dwelling... and it seemed fitting to have a haiku by the master himself on my header. Matsuo Basho was the man who created the three-lined haiku as we know it today. With the country so much on my mind, I picked up to read Jane Hirshfield’s The Heart of Haiku, and then a long piece on Basho in the National Geographic... it was poignant.

Even in Kyoto,
how I long for Kyoto
when the cuckoo sings
–Matsuo Basho (trans. Sam Hamill)

This haiku, however, has haunted me for a while. What is to be done with this nameless angst? Even in Kyoto the poet longs for Kyoto... what then is Kyoto? Is it an amalgam of every single sight, smell, taste experienced here? Is it an idea, a memory? How does one merge with Kyoto, how to slake this longing? How to hug all of Kyoto?

It happened to me once in Sikkim. We were winding down the hill with the river Teesta flowing by. We wanted pictures and the driver was obliged to drive on for a few kilometres before we came to a suitable vantage point. One spot that gave us a decent glimpse of the hills, the forests and the winding river. I was suddenly so impatient with it. I wanted to soar over the landscape, merge with every blade and drop... I wanted to become the valley and here I was, frustrated, limited to one little fenced off spot, straining to absorb it all.

This, I imagine, is the limitation of our sense perceptions. We can see the tree, but only one side of it, not what’s behind it. We cannot know it, we cannot become it – with this apparatus. We cannot know the tree, even if we have every cell of it under a microscope; we cannot know it in this way.

And so, although content with our little pockets of life, once in a while, when the cuckoo sings, we long for Kyoto.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


Just back from Srimanthudu. It got good reviews and P decided this was the last chance she was going to give Mahesh Babu. As it turned out, ‘Prince’ redeems himself with an earnest, genuinely heroic role after that string of hero-valiant, seeti-maar, misogynist rubbish.

A nice story with a conscience, I was happy with most things about Srimanthudu, including the time they took to establish the hero’s dissatisfaction with the wealth his family urges him to enjoy. Like Siddhartha Gautama, a whiff of the outside world is enough to lure Harsha into trying to ease other people’s troubles. They’re family, he tells his father repeatedly, and he means it. A man with a capacity to adopt – truly adopt – an entire village. I found him inspirational.

I was less than enthralled with the numerous fight sequences and thoroughly disgruntled with the last one, a final confrontation with a barrage of menacing villains which should exhibited more brains than it did. Also a bit shocked that the resolution to the problem involved murder and arson!

Also, I wish I could have brought myself to like Shruti Hassan, because for once, here was a female lead with a story, a purpose and a mission. However, I found the actor’s puckered-lips reactions to every situation extremely distracting. (Why, why do they mess with the faces creation gave them?) Plus, I’m not a big fan of Tollywood’s female dubbing artistes, who can manage to ruin any talking part at all.

The Telugu industry is having a good run, isn’t it! 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

So it is

Broadband internet has been maddeningly erratic for the past three weeks. We have registered our complaint on at least four occasions with innumerable follow-up calls. They came again today and tinkered with a variety of options.
It seems to have worked. I've had uninterrupted connectivity for more than three hours now. The World of the Internet is open to me and, as it happens, I've nowhere to go.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

न्रुपत्वदाभ्याम् नतलोक पन्क्तेः *

ए जज़्बा-ए-दिल गर मैं चाहूं हर चीज़ मुक़ाबिल आ जाए
मंज़िल के लिए दो गाम चलूं और सामने मंज़िल आ जाए

* From Adi Shankara's Guru Paduka Stotram
"Long queues of those who bow are elevated to the stature of sovereigns..."

Monday, July 20, 2015

They walk among us

Hyderabadi autowalas are, by and large, a delightful set. Chatty, warm, funny... of course, we have our cads and they're fussy as to destination, but most of them are decent chaps.

I was dropped off by friends halfway home yesterday evening and found two autos, both with snoozing drivers. I was reluctant to disturb their rest but it was late, and I didn't want to be hanging around Begumpet, so "Bhaiyya?" it was. He woke with a start, "hau, hau."
"Secunderabad chaleinge?"
"Hau, hau, chalo." He was diving into the driver’s seat with almost mindless alacrity.

I sniffed the air. "Peeke hai kya aap?!" (Have you been drinking?)
"Arre nai, Madam, aisa kaisa bolte! Aap pukaare toh pehli baar mein utha na mai? Peeke su logon ku baar baar uthana padta!" Evidently chagrined.
Ok. But I liked his lined face and we discussed destination and terms. I tried to haggle but he cut me off irritably; pay me what you think fit, I won't fight about this! Fair enough, I thought, that's my line usually.

We zipped along and after a little small talk, again: “Peeke hai kya bolke aisa kaisa pooche madam?”
I didn’t see the need for this super sensitivity and said so: “Kaiku nai poochna, bhaiyya? Mera iraada aapki tauheen karna nai tha, apni hifazat ke liye poochi mai. Galat kya hai?”
Two Urdu words in one sentence and he was impressed. Where did you learn to speak Urdu?

Then halfway there, he requests permission to speak frankly. Okay, I say.
“Aapki nazar tez hai, aap sahi pehchaane: mai peeke hi tha!”
I was unsurprised – I’d been alert anyway for traffic mishaps.
“Sharab galat nahin hai, Madam,” he assured me, “lekin kuch log sharab ka naam kharaab karte hain.”
Ok, I said, willing to indulge his argument.

Then he launched into a sher, lauding my perspicacity:

Hum ulaT'te nahi bejan kitabon ke varak
Hum wo padte hai jo chehron pe likha hota hai

I am not used to turning the leaves of lifeless tomes
I read that which is written on living faces

“Wah!” I said, “kya baat hai!”
Seeing that I had needed no assistance in deciphering that couplet, he asked if he could recite me a sher of Allama Iqbal’s.
“Of course,” I said, “Irshad!”
“Will you understand it?” He was polite but clearly this was to be a test of the depth of my classical knowledge.
“I’ll ask you to explain if there is a word or phrase I don’t understand,” I assured him.
He threw down the gauntlet with:

Ye kainat abhi na-tamam hai shayad
Ke aa rahi hai damadam sada'a-e-‘kun faya kun’

It was not a sound background in Urdu literature or Muslim theology that had me in instant raptures over this one – merely my magpie-like assortment of random knowledge.

Creation is as yet incomplete perhaps
For incessantly comes the wave: ‘Be!’ and ‘It is’

“Do you know what kun faya kunmeans?”
Yes, I did and said, “It is the original hukum or the word.”
My new friend was delighted.

What is your education, he asked me. I confessed to an MA.
And then delicately, how many children do you have?
None, I said; I have never married.

“Oh, your degree is a diploma then!” he said, downgrading me promptly.
Obviously, his values were old fashioned.
“Arre!” I protested, half-amused, “aisa kyon? Mai khud mein mukammal hoon, kisi aur se judna zaroori toh nahin!” (I am complete by myself, surely it isn’t necessary for me to partner someone else…)

He conceded the point and then had a sher for this keyword too:

Kabhi kisi ko mukammal jahan nahin milta,
Kahin zamin toh kahin aasman nahin milta…

No one has ever achieved a complete perfect world,
Here the earth eludes us, there heaven

(Link to another post on this sher)

I don’t hold with that one, I told him. The poet is simply faint-hearted.

He laughed out at that and said oh, you are like this then:

Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle
Khuda bande se khud pooche bata, teri raza kya hai!

Elevate yourself so high that at every turn of destiny,
Even God might ask, ‘Speak, what is your will?’

Absolutely, I said.

Sorry for boring you, he said to the end. “Shayari se hum bore nahin hote,” I told him. He agreed: “Bada sukoon wala junoon hai.”

He asked for my name at the doorstep, and told me his.
Sheetal bibi, he called me, 'Sheetal bibi' with such affection as he said Khuda hafiz and shabbha khair.

Friday, July 17, 2015

हुई शाम

बेक़रारी सी बेक़रारी है
दिन भी भारी है, रात भारी है

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Watching the wind

Did I say this place was windy? Yes, I did. Let me say it again. W.I.N.D.Y.
Doors are opened with great circumspection. Some wind corridors are so gusty, I sometimes can't advance till the currents let up. I tried to hang a few clothes today on the clothesline and had to stand IN the bucket to keep it from flying away; and what a struggle it was to keep the sleeves from lashing at my face!

I was sitting on a stone bench a couple of days ago, at dusk. The gales dropped for a bit and then, as I watched, I could see the breeze approach. It reminded me of this pretty, very appropriate haiku by Brad Bennett.

the wind arrive
tree by tree

That's more or less what I've been doing this month.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Winds of Change

So, I blog from a new home. After four years with Isha Foundation (at least three quarters of which my sister spent at the Isha Yoga Center at the foothills of the magnificent Velliangiris), we knew this was going to last. We applied for more permanent lodgings at the ashram and we moved in this month. I will now be able to come oftener, stay longer and not wait for an occasion to visit this blessed place. I have indulged myself by coming to stay without a return ticket booked and I can’t tell you how chuffed that makes me feel.

The Velliangiri hills are a wild place. Wild holy men, wild elephants, wild winds. And our building is quite at the edge of habitation. Our bedroom window opens eastwards, looking upon a brook, fields, wilderness, coconut groves and hills. Last fortnight, Shweta had a wild boar sniffing under the balcony, and spied a black-naped hare twice; yesterday I caught sight of a mongoose trundling along the wet mud. Lots of birds – bold white headed babblers, swifts, bee-eaters, robins, bulbuls, lapwings... and an abundance of butterflies.
And of the Grace that cascades down these mountains, I cannot speak, because it is beyond speech.

Today is the summer solstice. This season – I’m so lucky to be here at this time! – Sadhguru calls “the annual fest of the wind”. He says, “Sometimes, the winds are coming down from the mountain at 120 kms per hour. These are winds of change; we are shifting from Uttarayana to Dakshinayana. A significant change in the way the planet’s energy spheres operate. The winds are significant as a symbol of blowing away the past and beginning a fresh cycle of sadhana. Very significant for all spiritual seekers.”

And believe me, the gales are very purposeful. This is the first time I’ve actually heard wind howl, the doors and windows are being rattled constantly, we’ve lost our doormat, we've had to retrieve our dustbin from the floor below, and I’ve had to reassemble our coconut-stick broom after the winds had hacked it quite furiously. Anything that isn’t nailed down goes with the wind. It's exhilirating.

A few views:

View from the balcony

From the bedroom
Dawn breaks over our patch of the earth

Rain so dense you can't see a thing

Saturday, June 06, 2015

हम खता ही खता

था उन्हे भी मेरी तरह जुनूँ तो उनमे मुझमे ये फ़र्क़ क्यूँ?
मैं गिरफ़्त-ए-ग़म से ना बच सका, वो हुदूद-ए-ग़म से गुज़र गये

Two of me

I’ve been wondering what triggered it off. Has the direction of the sunlight changed, giving the birds a more reflective view; or was there a peculiar cloud cover that enhanced visibility? Because the car stands exactly where it has stood for years. Or perhaps it’s just this one narcissistic bulbul who finds his own image fascinating.

He has been making loving noises to himself all morning and oh, goodness, there is bird poop all over my rear window mirror.

Edited to add:

Aasheesh Pittie from Indian Courser is telling me the noises my bulbul makes are far from loving - this is territorial aggression, except, of course, mistakenly directed at his own image.
I think I'll dust off some 'raqueeb' shers.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


सूर कहे, श्याम सुनो... शरण है तिहारे
अब के बार पार करो, नंद के दुलारे...

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Heart of Summer

I worried this morning at the torpor that had overcome me. What did I do wrong? Was it the food that I ate? Was I unwell? It was a stupor that should send off warning alarms to any sadhaka – subject though we are to the three gunas, it is best that we keep our states hovering at Sattva. I accept that Rajas is sometimes inevitable but Tamas is deadly, and unacceptable.

I did have rice last night but very little… about a quarter of the quantity I happily consumed every night in my former life without any ill effects whatsoever. But now the system has become so sensitive; it responds so promptly, so unequivocally, it calls for tight discipline.

But that can't account for it fully, and I’ve now decided that this stupid lethargy must be the heat wave. I happened to go out walking twice yesterday and it has been torrid across India this fortnight. Everyone has been miserable.

Less from tradition and more from a need to exclaim over it, I find I make an annual ‘agni nakshatram’ post. Counting the days, counting down to the rains… in spite of wanting to be stoic about it, the last days of May defeat me.

But there is a haiku to go up. Poet Brent Partridge puts down an inscrutable little gem:

as much forever
as we've got—
the heart of summer

Does he mean what I think? Is he talking of the interminable way in which summer stretches out? Or that this intense season so forcefully pins you to the moment that you glimpse eternity? I can’t say. But I like poems no less because I can’t understand them.

A few hot blasts from the past:
And, a re-up of a Senryu I'd written.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


मैंने एक मुस्कान सजाकर राज़ को पर्दा दिया
प्यारा तुझे है मेरी सूरत से मेरा नक़ाब पिया…
ज़रा सा है फर्क पिया…

Friday, May 15, 2015

Reporters: First Impressions

Cross-posted from Critical Mass


We – a group of childhood friends I grew up with, my mother, my sister and I – have been huge fans of Pakistani serials ever since we came across them. They seized our imagination and we sighed over how subtle they were, how same-same and yet how different! Naturally, Dhoop Kinarey held pride of place in our hearts. We binge-watched the whole series – a thing, let me tell you, that is very difficult to do with a large group belonging to three different households. Ours was the drawing room that hosted this orgy, and we would break reluctantly for meals and other necessities, enduring some rather uncomplimentary comments from everyone who wasn’t involved.

This was to show our history, and the extent of our nostalgia with Pakistani serials, particularly this one. So a few years ago, when production house Director’s Kut announced that they were going to remake it (with permission and blessings of the original makers) as an Indian soap, we were both fascinated and aghast. As we feared, Kuch toh log kahenge didn’t work too well; it couldn’t have. Kritika Kamra was perfectly cast, but Shweta and I were particularly unhappy with the choice of hero. Mohnish Bahl as an Indian Dr Ahmer Ansari… no! We were casting about mentally for someone else who could have done something approaching justice. It should have been Rajeev Khandelwal, I said. Shweta (passionate and intense about almost all matters) all but doubled up in agony at the hallucinatory nature of the prospect. Oh, why didn’t they think about it, she groaned, and declared the pairing looked so right in her mind, she couldn’t watch the soap after all!

That dream comes somewhat true now. Sony TV’s new series Reporters is just about 20 episodes old, it packs a punch and ta da! it has as its lead pair the evergreen Rajeev Khandelwal and effervescent Kritika Kamra. And the chemistry is everything we hoped and knew it would be.

Of course, Reporters has nothing to do with Dhoop Kinarey, but there are parallels. Like Dr Ansari, Kabir Sharma is her superior, and considerably older. And Kritika Kamra, even more in Reporters than she did in Kuch toh log kahenge channels that free spirit, that foolhardy courage that epitomised Zoya Ali Khan.

Reporters is exciting for many reasons. It sets itself backstage of television news as it is today – amidst a horribly-gone-wrong recipe of hysterical melodrama, screechy sensationalism and narcissistic anchors. The series is able to borrow so many aspects from real life that it strikes a chord at once.

As the series begins, star journalist Kabir Sharma makes the transition from print to television. He is ambitious, thirsty actually, for fame and success. We get a hint that he has a point to prove to someone. Ananya Kashyap, cub reporter at KKN, has long hero-worshipped Kabir – she is young, a touch naïve, very idealistic and starry eyed.

It is my reading that she intersects Kabir’s career at precisely the right moment – he is hell bent upon doing anything he can to achieve professional glory. Without Ananya’s questions, without her innocence to check him… he would have gone over to the dark side, and yet retained enough humanity for self loathing. But she is here and here we are… to sit on the sidelines and see the battles between pragmatism and idealism, professionalism and conscience, between experience and naiveté. To see each temper the other. And to wonder if they can come together to become something better.

It may be too early to speak but so far, it has been fascinating. The star power of the leads is compelling, the support cast varied and charismatic, the writing is detailed and nuanced, and the plotlines are engrossing.

Every episode ends with a small, direct comment from Kabir Sharma – sometimes he argues for sensitivity, sometimes for toughness, sometimes he remarks on the integrity we’re losing in every sphere of our lives. In that very style then: jaane se pehle, Reporters seems to have its heart in the right place.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Distress post

So, again, we face a deadline - and today, I deliver or die.

It's a nice enough document that I'm editing. A development project report on watersheds: positive, with solid results to show and interesting as well.

We had quite a bit of rain last fortnight and one neighbour was quite anguished that in spite of so much water all around, he had still needed to order a water tanker. There's the story in a nutshell. Nature is bountiful, even for the way we are multiplying now, but we can't seem manage her gifts.

This watershed story is so much fun - contour bunds, check dams, trees... small, common-sensical interventions and the groundwater table goes up.

We'd gone trekking in the Sahyadris a few years ago and stayed one night at a village that had a most beautiful water tank a little distance away. The men and women in our group were allotted different time slots, and we had trudged across with plastic packets stuffed with toiletries and clean clothes. The village folk were bemused at this sudden descent, but willing enough to share... and the bath was an exhilarating business. I remember being so charmed with this common resource... it had only fed my desperate wish for a rural life.

Trivia for the day: The most popular drumstick variety in some parts of Tamil Nadu, I learnt, was a high-yielding, drought-resistant variety called PAVM, or the Pallapatti Alagarsamy Vellimalaimurugan Moringa - named after an innovative farmer who developed this new type. More here.

Monday, April 13, 2015


 ग़ैर को दर्द सुनाने की ज़रुरत क्या है ?
अपने झगडे में ज़माने की ज़रुरत क्या है ?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Sounds of Water

I’m not the first person, surely, to wish we could package seasons – little packets of pickled season – to be opened later, when we could really use it. A bagful of sun-warmth and sun-scents for chilly winters, a purple-dark cloud of rain for when it’s blazing down in the second fortnight of May, a few icicles of cold when you’re so parched you could swoon.

But Hyderabad, I am certain, is a spot most cherished by the gods. Almost nine months of splendid weather! The rains treat us well, winters are mild and are sufficient only to let us enjoy our woollens, and the summers, hot and torrid though they are, are kind and bountiful. And even those three months of heat are alleviated by nicely placed April showers, lest we become too overcome.

It has been months since I changed the header on this blog, and I was looking to see if I could find something appropriate. I read this haiku yesterday and put it aside. But it has been raining here all morning, and as I puttered around the house, I found it true.

Joyce Clement says:
a different pitch
from room to room
summer rain

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Shaad piyala*

Someone on Twitter just now asked for ways to be happy. No, not seeking the real thing, she was putting together an article - for the many pages that will need filling up for Women's Day, I presume.

I was tempted to respond and did, with a couple of 'commonsensical' suggestions that would be acceptable to our periodicals. But as I thought about that question and answer - both so pat - near-hysterical laughter welled up within me. How does one answer that question in polite circles? How does one attempt the question and still sound measured? The real answer, by all accounts, is obscure, arcane, beyond description... but some have tried.

O Nanak, the entire world is in sorrow;
He alone is happy who has been blessed
with initiation by a Perfect Master.

Or, as the colossal Shankara puts it:

yogaratova bhogaratova
sangaratova sangaviheenah
yasya brahmani ramate chittam
nandati nandati nandatyeva

Through yoga or through pleasure
In company or alone
He, who trains his mind to revel in Brahman,
Enjoys bliss, enjoys bliss, he alone enjoys bliss.

* From Sultan Bahu:
Sar devan akhan naahi shaad piyaala peeta hu... They’d give up their heads than give up His Secret, they who have drunk from the Cup of Gladness.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Something's got to give

Sheetal Vyas has had it up to here with people being so clever on social networks.
And I sound like half a million other people right now thinking the very same thing, never mind how clever they were themselves being half an hour ago.

The way our social media mutates... the way it is juggernauting its way through the way we are, the way we communicate, the way we perceive the world and connect with it... by when do you think it'll start hacking away at our egos instead of building it?

Monday, March 02, 2015

Explaining myself

There is no doubt that I'm a lot more online when I have deadlines than when I don't.

Close friends know at once by the number of posts, likes and comments I have up on various social platforms that work is looming. It's not that I avoid work - it's just that after closely reading and editing a few dense paras of text, I need to look away. Normally I'd shut the computer and go away but with tight deadlines, I can't afford the time off. So breaks necessarily must come from other online diversions.

But alas, today, I wish I hadn't - a series of depressing articles came up for inspection and I'm now anguished as well as stressed for time. I think I'll watch a few cat videos before I go back to how tough pigeonpea has it in Rajasthan.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In Twos and Threes

As always, stuff comes in twos and threes.

Earlier this week, I was reminded of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s heart-wrenching Maaye ni maaye main shikra yaar banaya. I had read an excerpt from the much-praised H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s account of a goshawk she raised. It sounds fascinating and I can’t wait to read it.

Batalvi, experienced perhaps in loving wild things and having them leave him, is enamoured of the hawk in this poem. He says:

Choori kuTaaN
Te o khaaNda naaheeN
Uhnu dil da maas khavaaiya
Ik uDaari aesi maari
O muR vatani na aaiya

I crushed choori, but he would not eat it.
So I fed him the flesh of my heart...
He took flight, and such a flight it was
That he never turned this way again...
Oh, I befriended a hawk, mother!

Jagjit Singh sings a melancholy version of this poem here:

And while on this, I found something else. Jagjit Singh singing Batalvi again and this one, the utterly pathetic Maaye ni maaye mere geetan ne nainan vich...
I clung to this song for a while, when I was grieving my mother’s death so intensely a few years ago.

Aakh su ni kha laye Tuk
HijaraaN da pahkiya,
LekhaaN de ni puTHaRe tave!
Chat laye tarel looni
GhamaaN de gulaab toN ni,
Kaalaje nu hausala rave!

Tell him, mother, to swallow the bread
Of separation.
He is fated to mourn.
Tell him to lick the salty dew
On the roses of sorrow,
And stay strong.

Although I still love Nusrat’s version best, here is (a very young) Jagjit Singh giving it a shot:

Translations are from Suman Kashyap, or based on her translations.

So far, so good

I feel like posting today, only I don't know what.

Let's see...
  • Instead of kriyas, I went for Hatha Yoga this morning with an energetic round of Angamardana. I should have kept it up but somehow I prioritised the more spiritually punchy Surya Kriya and Yogasanas. Upayoga is dashed useful, so I kept that up. Angamardana is very physical and frankly requires quite a bit of fortitude from lazy people like me - and it sort of became the rarest practice. But it was lovely today - I'm bouncing off the walls.
  • I didn't care for the pongal Dad had made (too tamsic and sleep inducing), so dumped some shredded cabbage into dosa batter and made some uttapams.
  • I caught a bit of the song from Aashiqui 2: Aashiqui baazi hai taash ki and it left me feeling so sad all over again. Poignant despair. It did good, that movie, to leave such an enduring mood-cloud almost intact after so many months of watching it. That's success, isn't it?
  • I do like Aditya Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor. They make a nice pair and seemed so sweetly in love on Koffee with Karan last year. So romantic! *moony-eyed*
  • It's been weeks since I saw a movie - the last was a marathon that included Birdman, Rahasya and Dolly ki Doli. I'm going to book as soon as it opens for Dum Lagake Haisha. Yay! 
  • I was impressed with but didn't exactly like Birdman - pretentious, I felt, and without an emotional connect. I'm afraid technical wizardry goes only so far without a story. It seemed to have swept the Oscars though. I much preferred Boyhood. Not only for its amazing concept and 12-year span but also its content, its genuine interest in growth.
  • Did not watch the Oscars yesterday but keen to catch Lady Gaga's act if I can. 
That's it. Those are the things on my mind. Plus the fact that I need to watch the clock to do the kriyas I didn't do in the morning. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015


So, I'm talking to my sister today and, in the middle of narrating her dinacharya, she says, "I found an unusual sympath... sympathy-giver... today."
"Confidant, sympathiser...," I suggest synonyms.
"No, no, it's not enough - I mean sympathant."
And so we see the birth of a new word.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Mood piece

It is a cloud, you might say, darkly glowering with blue edges. But it has other shades too - here and there rays of a sparkling yellow pierce it, hinting at an outer world. There is a region of red that we must gingerly tiptoe around, a patch of smudged pink that I'm trying to clean, a riot of green that must be encouraged to grow.

But on the whole, given this terrain, we prefer the black to the blue - the black, we have a handle on. Black is self indulgent, we can dig in our heels here, be surly and contrary. But blue comes leaching in and how's one to tackle that? We tend to drown in blue treacle, unable to row, swim or navigate.

I need to redecorate.

Friday, February 06, 2015

No luck

I was on my way to an event today - a dastangoi of extracts from Alice in Wonderland. Very excited, I'd arranged my whole day around this event, although I'm very stressed for time.
Halfway there, I look at my phone and find they've rescheduled from 5pm to 6.30. I take a u turn and come back home. I can use even 45 minutes to do some of the things on my list. Then finding myself still enthusiastic, I set out again. Now I'm caught in horrendous traffic and am sure to be at least 20 minutes late to a 50 minute session.
It's one of those days!


धीरे धीरे प्यार को बढ़ाना है, हद से गुज़र जाना है
मुझे बस तुझसे दिल लगाना है, हद से गुज़र जाना है

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of tables and chairs

I sit for once at a proper table. I'm in a new hotel in Coimbatore, and these perches in new places are something I enjoy very much. Although there is a notebook and a nicely sharpened pencil, I want to blog, so the tablet is in front of me and I Swype away. I'm feeling rather writerly and would have supplied a picture if this table hadn't been so messy.
Oh, why I can't have a table at home!? Well of course there is one but I don't have a chair whose height I'm happy with and so seldom sit at it to write. But a new chair! Where does it go when I don't need it? This is the problem with old houses that have been well lived in. Every corner has been accounted for. And there no room for more stuff unless you have already chosen what to get rid of.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Humour me

What an oddly strong mood to be in. Packing, and I'm afraid I'm going to be in browns and peaches all this week. Only force of will is admitting a few blues and reds.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Stories from the Seema

In October last year, I undertook two travel assignments for Outlook Traveller – one to Medak and the other to Kurnool. A '2 States' kind of story – one trip into Telangana and the other into Seemandhra. I was supposed to go to the coast, but every time we plan a story for Coastal Andhra, it has most lamentable consequences for that region. Srikakulam, we thought in 2012, and it triggered Cyclone Laila. We had only started to consider Guntur-Vijayawada again and it brought on Hudhud. So we decided on Kurnool, which has proved more hardy. Not that it has a history of being particularly easy for me but at least there isn't a trail of disaster.
It was hot weather, I had a migraine throughout but we managed a lovely trip. Here is the story. Photos on this blog are mine.

These Border(less) Lands
As we speeded along the road from Hyderabad towards Kurnool, my thoughts dwelled quite a bit on the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh into Telangana and the residuary state. The rights and wrongs, the causes and effects of the matter aside, it felt like a house divided, borders where they didn’t need to exist... too many lines, I thought sentimentally, are never a good idea.
The destination was Kurnool, the gateway to Rayalaseema – a province with a rich and varied history, a place of hot passions, violent factionist loyalties, a land that was once the stronghold of Krishna Deva Raya. Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra together now get called ‘Seemandhra’ – two thirds of the former whole.
Kurnool town received us indifferently. We settled into the hotel, and battered as we were from the hot drive, decided on a siesta first. Then, as the sun moved west, revived by cups of tea, we ventured first to the tomb of Abdul Wahab Khan, the first Nawab of Kurnool. The two domes were visible over rooftops from a distance, and narrow, winding roads led us there. No sooner had I stepped into the compound than I acquired the company of a band of inquisitive school boys, intrigued by visitors from far-off lands. We took a shine to one another and my friends accompanied me inside as I peered into the musty burial chambers of the noble family, then to an adjoining dargah and around the tomb to the Hundri riverside, now a murky trickle.
The tomb held no surprises but I was utterly charmed by the building that abuts it. This was Osmania College, a privately run college that offers up to post-graduate degrees. I wandered into the grey, stone courtyard. Students were making their way home and activity for the day was winding down. Established in 1947 by the educationist Dr M Abdul Haq, this place exudes a combination of an old-world that keeps pace with the world, albeit in its own way. At many points, I saw, at a height above my own, markings declaring ‘Flood Level, 2009’. I knew there had been floods in Kurnool a few years ago but it was still startling to realise that had I stood at this point then, I’d have been submerged with half-foot to spare. 
I strolled into the library and was warmly made welcome by Mohd Akmal sa’ab, who has held charge here for 32 years. This reading room, he informed me, was inspired by the Connemara Public Library in Chennai. A long central reading table, afternoon light slanting on the bookshelves, small lime-washed staircases leading to the upper levels... I took in a breath of deep delight. Portraits of various dignitaries lined the walls, including one of Ghalib. And the issuing counter was such an anachronism, I had to have a picture of that as well.
But light was fading and I wanted to see the Konda Reddy Burz by decent light, so I tore myself away and rushed to the Old Bus Stand area. There, to one side of teeming traffic, was the semi-circular citadel. It is not a word one commonly applies to forts but, I tell you, it fits this one: Konda Reddy Burz is cute. Dated to sometime around 1530-42 AD, it was built by Achyuta Raya, the successor of Krishna Deva Raya. It was used as a community call-to-arms, the man from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told me; not living quarters but a bolt-hole in case of attack. There is a boarded up underground passage here that is said to lead all the way to Alampur, 28km to the northeast, to emerge somewhere in the precincts of the old Jogulamba Temple there. But the thrill of hearing about secret pathways like this one inevitably dims in the light of repressive realities. It has been sealed, they will tell you, the passage has been blocked by rubble and is unusable... and no! you certainly can’t explore it. Oh, what is the use? This sort of thing would have never deterred children in adventure books but I nod meekly and go away.

The next day, we took a winding route across the district to Belum Caves. Barely 25 km out of Kurnool, however, we stopped to have our breath taken away. Let’s put it this way – there are rocks at Orvakallu. Lots of them. Magnificent deposits of quartz and silica piled up in spectacular formations. Between two tall walls of stone, there is a ravine that has been cut through by water. I’d been here before but it was even more impressive the second time.
We rushed through breakfast and headed to Banganapalle. I didn’t have too much information about what I was seeking here – just couple of references online. However, the picture I’d seen was enough to have me turn a touch dogged and enquire for the ‘Arundhati bangla?’ at every halt for directions. What I was looking for was the summer residence of the Nawab Mir Fazl Ali Khan Bahadur, more recently famous for being the shoot-location of a Telugu fantasy thriller called Arundhati.
They told us we’d find it on the road to Yaganti, near the village of Pathapadu. And just when we began to have misgivings about this search, there it was under the torrid noon sun: on a slight hillock, somehow looking imposing, forlorn, forbidding and beckoning at once. A beautifully proportioned bangla with a series of arched windows, staircases leading up from each side. It looked deserted but there were a couple of villagers in occupation after all. An array of local snacks were laid out and they collected a modest entry fee which opened the locked doors of the building. I bought a potnam of sunflower seeds for Rs 5 and followed her in. Corridors gave way to chambers. Here and there the roof had caved in and sunlight streamed strongly in, making for nice pictures but a sad story. I could see why Arundhati had chosen to come here – there were ghosts still.
Pathapadu Bangala.
 Our next halt was Yaganti which was famous for its temple to Shiva. Nestled at the foot of some imposing cliffs, the lord is called Yaganti Uma Maheshwara here. Built by the illustrious Sangama kings Harihara and Bukka Rayulu, the 15th-century temple is beautiful, with a pushkarni ever-supplied with spring water. And to one side of the main temple is a dramatic shrine. Steep steps lead up the cliffside and right into a thin aperture in the rock... the cave opens up to considerable height and here, in an alcove, reigns Lord Venkateshwara, whom Sage Agastya first intended to install at Yaganti before Shiva took it for his own.
Embedded in the cliff-side.
By now, we could see that stone was a ubiquitous feature of the Kurnool landscape. Untouched and towering in some spots, and fully exploited at others such as the village of Betamcherla, famous for its polished slab. Marble, granite, black stone are all mined here and almost every building we passed was in the stone business. But now, at Belum, we were approaching rock at another level altogether. With a length of 3229 m, these appear to be the longest cave systems in the country outside of the karsts of Meghalaya. The entrance was a circular pit and right away, we descended and then moved into a spacious chamber with a circular opening overhead. I craned my neck to see a deep blue sky and a white puff of cloud... at the rim of the crater, grass fluttered in the breeze... so pretty! That was our last glimpse of the sky for a while.

Skylight in the Belum Caves.

Belum Caves were first discovered by British surveyor Robert Bruce Foote in 1884, but it was only recently, in 1982-84, that a team of German speleologists headed by Daniel Gebauer conducted a detailed exploration of the caves. The team mapped about 3½ km of caves, and when APTDC stepped in to develop the caves as a tourist attraction in 2000, they put to use only 1½ km. Knowing that this tourism corporation had great enthusiasm that was not equalled by good taste, I will admit to some apprehensions about their treatment and showcasing of natural wonders. Walking into the caves, I did purse my lips at an artificial fountain, did wonder if they needed to be quite so obtrusive in designing stairs and ramps for tourists. But after the whole tour, I have to tip my hat to them, and indeed thank them for making the experience of these caves at all possible for people without endurance or a thirst for perilous adventure. The whole walk has been designed to include various features of interest – large caverns, interesting formations and, at the lowest point at 120ft below, a spring they’ve called Patalaganga. It gets hot and it gets claustrophobic, so at four points during the walk, the authorities have lowered air shafts for people to stand under and, literally, recover their breath. The sense of being underground, surrounded by damp black limestone, running my finger along indentions made by water, seeing shapes formed by years of stress and deposit... it was simply terrific.
It was time to head back to Hyderabad but there was time for one more detour – the temple complex at Alampur. Now this, strictly, isn’t in Kurnool – it falls within Mahbubnagar and therefore Telangana. On the other hand, history binds these places rather tightly. After all, when carts ferried stone to the temples being built at Alampur in the 7th century, it was at Kurnool that they stopped to be greased. Kandenavolu, they used to call it then, for ‘kandena’ meant grease.
The Jogulamba temple, Alampur. It's one of the 18 Mahashakti Peethams in the sub-continent.
The temple complex at Alampur is on the banks of the Tungabhadra and each shrine – there are many – has a tale to tell. I walked along here and there, and came upon a dargah wedged snugly into the wall next to a temple for the lady Kamakshi. India’s secularism pops up in the most unexpected nooks. Then I stopped at an ornate pathway when a priest fortuitously offered me information. The jyothirlinga at Srisailam had four gates in four directions, and this spot, where I now stood, was the western gateway – an entrance that has witnessed footfalls of every pilgrim that came from this direction.
The lay of the land was different then, I mused, their hubs were other than the ones we’ve created... the lines they drew on their maps were formed differently. Kingdoms collapse, establishments fade away, lines blur and are redrawn afresh in each era... cities rise and fall but the land is more enduring. These border lines don’t matter as much as I think they do.
The piece appeared in Outlook Traveller, November 2014. The link to the online version is here.