Monday, June 26, 2006


In school once, when I was a child, the teacher asked that we write a two-standard-notebook-size-page essay on anything that we liked. This assignment was given to us, not out of tutorial compulsions, but because the teacher was moonlighting after our early-morning charity school hours, and therefore wanted to take a nap. I won the contest, the remarkable thing about it being, I did not write my work in two pages. It was as follows:


I hate to hate, but heat makes me hate. Therefore I hate heat, even though, I repeat, I hate to hate.

Is it, one can wonder, a coincidence that both words, HATE and HEAT, are made up of the same letters? Are they Spoonered relatives?

Well, the point I am trying to make is, I still hate to hate, but heat makes me hate, and therefore I hate heat, and there is just no end to it anywhere in this country, air conditioning notwithstanding, except in the hills. And I do not like to hate. So I am doubly heated.

My parents always told me that I had a higher temperature than was normal. Having had me examined by doctors, experts and charlatans, they contended with pride that I was a very warm person. That has caused another problem: I am a great target for mosquitoes. People who know me claim that I am a mosquito magnet. If there were one mosquito on the North Pole, frozen or in torpor, it would have to wake up and target me.

See my picture below, and find out whether it is effective or not.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On Photography as Art and Expression

Recognition of photography as an art form has been, contrary to logic and expectation, slow and gradual even though now implicit in international proclamations at various forums. That such acceptance is not ungrudging and somehow leaves an unexplained feeling of lingering doubt is a stupendous anachronism.

My pictures are composed by establishing an emotional rapport with the subject. While I do not scoff at the profusion of possibilities for variants with mechanical, chemical and electronic aids having limitless scope, my personal preoccupation has been with the aesthetic. This obsession has limited me to the gentle, rueful, poetic and melancholy and distanced me from the larger segment of reality.

I am as much wearied of comprehension as of incomprehension. One thread, however, which binds the many lives I have lived and lost is an obsession to communicate, somehow, anyhow. I feel obliged to explain everything, including why the unexplainable is unexplainable, the easiest way of doing so being by talking incessantly.

If these pictures and words speak to you, then more words by me would only be in surfeit; on the other hand, if they do not tell you anything, then anything more that I say would be dismally worthless, compounding what is probably already an imposition.

I invite you to pry into my search for comprehension and beauty -- and into my discovery, alas, of the perpetual futility of the existence of life itself, especially the conscious form of human life, which has the ability to know its futility, but by and large succeeds in burying that knowledge deep in the recesses of its subconscious. As far as is known, humans are the only creatures conscious of their being, and constant seekers of subterfuges to escape the unbearable burden of this consciousness: that they are, that they exist.

Through these photographs and poems, as I sing to you of life, love, and loneliness, perhaps you will talk back to me.

Visit an abbreviated version of my gallery - colour and black and white, on my website.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Ice House, Its History and Heritage

I received a query from someone of Indian descent, now living in the United States. She wanted to know whether I could give her any information about the history of the Ice House, which had at one time belonged to an ancestor. She wanted to be able to tell her children about their proud heritage. Here is my reply:
If at all, most people's interest in Ice House is either because it was indeed an ice house in a sultry countryside, or because of the spirituality it acquired due to Vivekanand's visit there, as well as his supposed stay for a considerable period.

Yours is one of the rare interests, in the genealogy of ownership, and curiosity about the extent of pride you can proffer to your children and your mother, whom you will bring to Madras.

Well, first, the matter of your greatest interest: The founding and owning of the building at different stages in the history of British Raj is somewhat obscure. Different claims are made by different writers or researchers. One more cogent is as follows: one Mr. Frederick Tudor is credited with importing ice for his compatriots from America and therefore requiring storage facilities, which he built in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

How ice could come from half a globe away, travelling at 10 mph in ships, and be stored to serve the 'Burra Sahibs' with chhota or 'burra' pegs, would be in the annals of so many things that happened in man's evolution, which now would seem a mystery or miracle.

Tudor supposedly ran his business in Madras from 1842 until around1880. The business collapsed, because ice began to be made, again by British invention (Indians abhorred inventing anything), locally, by what was called the steam process.

One Mr. Biligiri Iyengar, affluent practitioner at Madras High Court, purchased the Ice House and added circular verandahs and windows to convert it into a residence.

The Ice House was renamed Castle Kernan, in honour of Mr. Iyengar's friend, who was then a Justice of repute at the Madras High Court. Mr. Iyengar, apart from staying in the building himself with his family, also provided shelter to poor and educationally backward students. Aside from its original fame as Ice House, the building acquired renown once again during Swami Vivekanand's stay there (Feb 6-14, 1897). Biligiri Iyengar became one of his staunchest devotees, and thus it transpired that Swami Vivekanand happened to stay there with his Western and indigenous devotees.

In 1917, the Government acquired the House, which was then called Marine Mansion. This can be found in an obscure marble tablet somewhere on the building. From 1922 to 1941, the building was used as a hostel for teachers and students. The Ice House, renamed Castle Kernan, was re-renamed the Ice House by an enactment by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1963. Today, the Ice House is known as Vivekanandar Illam, which is the result of continuous application by the Ramakrishna Math since the visit of the Master, which the government, out of procrastination, finally accorded on 6 Feb 1997, and handed over management to the Math on lease, to set up a permanent exhibition on Swami Vivekananda and Indian cultural heritage.

The story can be completed in 3 to 4 pages more, from all the sources, including the Goverment archives, which are available, or have some interest. But since your inquiry is in connection with your family's ties and connection to that building, I think I have dealt with it sufficiently. You will have to find, in your great-grandfather, either on your maternal or paternal side, a connecting link with Mr. Biligiri Iyengar, since I do not believe you will be able to trace anything with Justice Kernan or Frederick Tudor, or the various successive Swamijis belonging to Ramakrishna Math, who variously or together lorded over the building, which I can assure you was very uncomfortable since it was not properly ventilated -- on purpose, in order to preserve the ice.

For more information, recommended reading: Madras Discovered by S. Muthiah; Madras: The Architectural Heritage by K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer; Vivekanandar Illam

(the picture comes from padalis)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

ESP or make-believe?

Someone dear to us recently wrote us a sentimental and nostalgic letter, and asked if I believed in ESP; and if not, how I would explain it. My response, which was a quick riposte, and therefore brief, follows:
Among mankind's myriad varieties of wishful thinking, one is the notion of extra-sensory perception. The universe being never static, infinite accidents, or if you will, coincidences are continuously occurring. It is unavoidable that some of these events establish unity in the lives or minds of people - which is to say that inevitably similarities in thought or event can not only occur simultaneously in different spaces and times, but also among people who are connected, by relationship or at least by acquaintance. When such a thing happens, we like to consider it meaningful, and therefore special, attributing to it some higher motive or purpose, while in actuality it is, plain and simple coincidence, with the difference that it occurred between two known people.

Scientifically, it is provable that, except by coincidence, similar notions cannot be transmitted by the cosmos, unless they are activated by the scientific, deliberate, use of mechanisms dependent on electricity, magnetism, etc. I can expand on it, but I do not want to tire you. If you have questions within what I have stated, please feel free to ask.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Aging Badly

In old age, waiting for youth is an endless wait. The end comes, mercifully, sooner.

A Cool Picture for a Hot Day

At a time when the Indian plains are seething and writhing with heat, staring at this picture, which I took years ago in Bangalore, may cool you off a little, as it did me and my guests.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Externalise, Stand By, Let Life Pass You By

“To avoid bewilderment, dejection, unhappiness and incomprehension in conducting the act of living an imperfect life in an imperfect world, externalise your feelings,” he pontificated.

“But if I externalise my feelings, that means that I might not be able to feel happiness either, because I would not be able to feel anything internally, right?” I said.

“Yes, true. But then, since you have externalised your feelings, you won’t mind not feeling happiness, because not enjoying would also be externalised. You see the point, don’t you?” His eyes glinted.

“Well, sounds very good. How do I go about it? I continually feel that I am chewing all my internal organs because of my total maladjustment. So I would find a release. Now, pray tell me, how do I start to learn and practise externalising my feelings?”

“You have a problem there. We are all products of our environment. If you do not know how to externalise, or your system does not do it automatically in self-preservation, then it cannot be learned by you at this point in life. So you are condemned to suffer not only this deficiency in your system, but also the knowledge of it.”

I actually know people who externalise their feelings; a few whose bodies externalise the effects of wear and tear – remarkable. They make suitable societal statements, and demonstrate expressions, without actually experiencing them or feeling them. I envy them, and since I cannot externalise, my envy adds to my overall misery.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

My Poem: A Priest Pleading With Me: Religion Simply an Organised Form of Superstition

This is my own poem about religion, creating an imaginary dialogue where a priest pleads with me to validate him and the necessity of god, even if he was missing or did not exist. (Larger versions of the photographs can be seen on my website:







Infrastructure, Indian-Style

Some foreigners once asked me about the state of Indian infrastructure. I took them for a drive, and passed a trade fair where a politician's cutout, some 60 feet tall, was shaking precariously in the wind. I parked the car and took my guests behind the cutout, which was supported by crooked scaffolding of casuarina poles, held together with carelessly tied coir. I grandly announced to my guests, "This is India's infrastructure."

Don't ask me whether they were impressed or depressed.

Javed Akhtar, A. R. Rahman, Great Lyric, Great Music

Both Urdu and English were written by Javed Akhtar for the film 1947, Earth, and were set to music with great sensitivity and tenderness by A. R. Rahman:

The English version:
My Lord, O God

My lord, O God why in Thy world
Is there hate and killing?

Whilst Thou are so large hearted
Why is the human heart so petty?

Why are there borders at every step?
If the whole earth belongs to Thee
If the earth moves around the sun
Why is there such darkness?
Why is the garment of this world
Stained by the blood of man?

Screams echo all around
Who will listen to words of love?
Dreams shatter every moment
Who will gather the splinters?
Why are there locks on every heart?
Why is there rust on every lock?

My lord, O God why in Thy world
Is there hate and killing?
Whilst Thou are so large-hearted
Why is the human heart so petty?

The Urdu version:
Ishwar Alllah

Ishwar allah tere jahaan men
Nafrat kyun hai jang hai kyun
Tera dil to itna bada hai
Insaan ka dil tang hai kyun

Qadam qadam par sarhad kyun hai
Saari zameen jo teri hai
Suraj ke phere karti hai
Phir kyun itni andheri hai
Is duniya ke daaman par
Insaan ke lahu ka rang hai kyun

Gunj rahi hain kitni chikhen
Pyaar ki baaten kaun sune
Tut rahe hain kitne sapne
Inke tukre kaun chune
Dil ke darwaazon par taale
Taalon par ye zang hai kyun

Ishwar allah tere jahaan men
Nafrat kyun hai jang hai kyun
Tera dil to itna bada hai
Insaan ka dil tang hai kyun