Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Bird Is A Bird Is A Bird

Why does bad behaviour make for a better story than good? Is it worthy of narration because it’s unusual or defies expectation? If so, why do we assume people will behave well in the first place. Do most people go about minding their manners, making the ones who don't notable? As difficult as it is to make accurate generalizations about "most people," they probably do go about their business in a reasonably civil manner, but even if incivility is statistically unusual it's not necessarily uncommon in everyday experience; after all, there are 6.5 billion people out there, and even a tiny percentage of that number certainly constitutes enough individuals to yield frequent annoyance. Well, whatever makes violations of etiquette and decency interesting, I probably write about them too much, and I write about them as a stranger, not understanding what is considered polite behaviour by the people around me.

In fairness to India, most people don’t harass me on the street. The place is overflowing with people doing what they can in the best way they know how; and sometimes they even take time away from their business just to be kind and hospitable. Walking around Mysore one day, Talia and I came upon an imposing old mansion set back from the hustle in a barren expanse interrupted by a few well-groomed bushes and flanked by trees casting a shade that didn't manage to allay the overall impression of dessication. Upon closer approach, the exterior was neglected and peeling, too shabby for the space it commanded, but potted plants and climbing vines formed a narrow moat of fertility lending the house a cool appeal.

Hypnotized by a blend of curiosity and the promise of shade, we poked our heads over the threshold through the tall doors into the gloom of a high-ceilinged sitting room, its only illumination a few rays slicing in between heavy curtains. Unsure whether this was a public or private place, we ventured in and found a security guard sitting listlessly on a deep, velvet couch. He didn’t speak enough English to give us any information, but he didn’t stop us from going further either, so we headed for the far-off promise of the central atrium, surrounded by white, Roman pillars and filled with greenery, the brightest area of the whole hushed place. Out of a wood-panelled shadow, a short man with a fabulous, grey handlebar mustache, red powder running in a line the width of a fingerprint down his forehead, and a white uniform appeared.

Although he spoke even less of our language than the security gaurd, the man's whole face crinkled with a gleeful smile as he waved us toward his kitchen, the floor an expanse of clean slate, counters on either end stocked with fine, white china; he proudly turned over plates to display the fading British brand stamp. Next, we followed him up a balustraded staircase, through an attic, and out onto the roof, where we had a wide view of the mansion's once proud grounds and the city beyond. Last, he unlocked a grand wooden door with a brass plaque over top proclaiming "Governors Suite." It featured an anteroom with an intimate grouping of settees in white dust-covers, a large, new, Samsung high-resolution television, a bedroom with two single, four-posters set a modest distance apart and covered with frothy, white mosquito netting, and a bathroom with a claw-foot tub resting amid a glittering expanse of tile. Back in the driveway, saying goodbye as best we could, our proud host swept back a group of branches with his arm and revealed an inscription on the cornerstone from which we learned that we had visited the Mysore Government House, a lodge for state officials.

For every thing known to man, there are people who have it and want to keep it and people who don't have it and want to get it; while I was in Mysore, the camps were pitched over water. The Kaveri river runs through the state of Karnata, and from its dams, water is released to three other states: Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, and Kerala. The river is the main source of drinking water for Mysore, and India's first hydroelectric plant was utilized its falls, making Bangalore, Karnataka's capital, the first fully electrified city in Asia in 1906. In the late 19th century, back when royalty rather than tourists appreciated the excesses of Mysore Palace, agreements were signed resulting in a larger share of the Kaveri's water going to Tamil Nadu, which is south of Karnataka, than to Karnataka; as a result, Tamil Nadu has a lot of cultivated land.

tea crops, outside Ooty

Although Karnatakans have historically seen the old water agreements as an injustice, the argument now runs, from the Tamil Nadu side, that to rectify the injustice at this late stage would disrupt the lives of many farmers and the economy of the entire state; an economy that, from the Karnataka side of the argument, flourishes because of the initial unjust water distribution. In 1990, the government of India set up a tribunal to settle the dispute, and they finally reached a water allotment plan on February 5 of this year; 419 thousand million cubic feet of water per year to Tamil Nadu, 270 tmc ft to Karnataka, 30 tmc ft to Kerala, and 7 tmc ft to Pondicherry.

Nobody was really happy with the decision, least of all Karnatakans, and Talia and I happened to be leaving Mysore for Udhagamandalam (referred to from here on as Ooty), a hill station in Tamil Nadu, the day after it was announced. State agencies were striking in protest, and that included buses, so we over payed a private company for transport into Tamil Nadu. At the border, we switched from a bus with Karnataka plates to a bus with Tamil Nadu plates, and soon enough vibrant rice paddies bordered by palms divided the landscape. As the bus left the planes and rose up narrow, curving roads, the unrestrained green of the paddies was replaced with the careful hues of tea farming, and by the time we reached Ooty, 2,200 meters up in the sky, the reds and yellows of Karnataka had been washed away by the greens and blues of the Nilgiri Hills.

In comparison to the constant sweatiness, dust, heat exhaustion and chaos of Bangalore and Mysore, Ooty is the Garden of Eden. The comparison extends not only to the weather, but also to the people; hawking and harassment were nearly non-existent, so during my three days there, I indulged in one of my favorite activities, walking. The main agricultural product of the area is tea (which will only grow on land with a particular slope), and the dwarfed plants, glossy green and flat-topped, blanket the hills in a patchwork without reference to symmetry. Contrasting with the curving paths where harvesters wend their ways, precisely spaced, straight rows of small, sturdy silver oaks provide just the right amount of light and shade for the crop.

In the same landscape, non-indigenous Eucalyptus trees with gangly, bare trunks bearing energetic bursts of sharp, silvery leaves at their height stand cliquishly apart from soft-leaved, rounder, natives species which, in the bluish distances of the area, often reminded me of the trees, so ornate in their softness as to engender impossible desires, painted by Fragonard. The tender, new leaves shooting from the tops of the tea plants in the countryside surrounding Ooty have to be covered with bracken to prevent death by early morning frosts; they are harvested every twelve days. Most of the meticulous care and rotation necessary can be done by machine these days, but in the places I walked, it was done by residents of the countryside, where strange symbols and shrines mutely intimate the past, the indigenous tribes supplanted by the British.

Is this a shrine to the Easter Bunny, Poseidon, and the K-Mart home deco line, or what?

In the mid 19th century, Ooty developed as a cool retreat from the scorched plains. Today, many of the churches, homes, government offices, warehouses, and a botanical garden remain. The fact that most of them are not particularly well maintained adds to their charm; the churches still have congregations and people laze about or play games on the lawn of the botanical garden while school kids cut across on their way home.

shoe game at the garden

Since the place was developed by the British, I had expected Anglican churches; but I came upon a group of Catholic children being educated by hooded nuns, squirming impatiently while repeating obediently in front of the wooden, painted saints encased in glass next to the doors of their church, boys in their frayed but immaculate uniforms and girls in their skirts and braids. The next day, on a walk in the tea plantations, our guide told me his given name; it was (to my surprise) Thomas Sebastian, and it turned out that he was from a Catholic family. He informed me that yes, there are Anglicans in Ooty, but there are just as many Catholics, due to the efforts of European missionaries. In short, I saw a lot of old churches, and the Catholic ones housed some cheerfully painted statuary, but my favorite place, perhaps because of the way I came upon it, was the Nilgiris Library.

St. Joseph Pray For Us

After spending a few minutes in St. Stephens trying to decide which sect had built it, and finally deciding upon Anglican because of the preference for stained glass over wooden saints, an architectural seriousness that made the ceiling (supported by a center beam hauled 120 km from the palace of a sultan by elephant) feel close and pressing despite the height, and a plaque proclaiming the church's close association with local British administrators and dignitaries. In the end, I don't know why I care which version of Christianity the stones of old churches were lain to represent. Maybe its just something to hold on to, a toe-tagging system for the relics of bygone days.

St. Stephens

Leaving the church and walking down the first street I saw, enjoying the cool air and the wander more than anything else, a squat building hove into view. Its sign proclaimed "Higginbothams Pvt. Ltd.," and it was lined with glossy, dark-stained wooden shelves full of shiny new books. Even though I didn't intend to buy anything, I grazed for a while, and just as I was about to leave, I came across Pocket Guide to Birds Of the Indian Subcontinent. Now, if there was anything I was going to buy, it was a bird guide; the creatures fill the skies, forests, mountains, waterways, plains and streets of India, hunting, flitting, tweeting, foraging, swooping, diving, gliding, cawing, scavenging and flashing their hues, brilliant and dull, in a dizzying variety. It bothers me each time I see one and don't know its name. The question, "was that an eagle, a hawk, a kite or a falcon," has niggled me regularly for months, and although a bird often passes too quickly or too distantly for identification, I hoped that by studying a field guide I could at least enter the world each morning knowing the difference between a crow and a raven.


Is the desire to know the exact name of a bird the same as the desire to know the denomination of a church? In the case of churches, their representations or lack thereof are dictated by the beliefs of the sect. Their form is dictated by historical circumstances and philosophical underpinnings; in the case of birds, their forms are dictated by another law, and it is not for us to dream up the law, but to observe it, and mark out our observations with names. The language and logic of theology is far more familiar to me than that of ornithology, but I bet I would learn a lot from a field guide to churches, too. Whatever the reason for my conviction that I should know things by their given names, I stood there and considered the purchase of the bird identification guide carefully. First of all, it was 795 Rupees, or around 17 USD, slightly over my budget for an entire day, and second, if I bought it, I'd have to carry it, and it's not actually pocket sized. I justified the cost by telling myself two things; it's a reference book, so I'll keep it forever, and it has thousands of glossy illustrations, which explains the price. The extra weight in my bag was justified by the value of the book's contents.

Just as I settled the debate, the need for a bathroom came upon me; although I didn't see one in the shop, I reasoned, "surely, he'll let me use the private one, since I'll be spending a princely sum." When I began my browse, the only clerk in the store, a round, mustachioed, bespectacled, Hindu, followed me closely, picking titles from the shelves and holding them in front of my eyes. After a while, by means of complete unresponsiveness, I managed to get rid of him. Now, I placed my selection on the small wooden desk, covered with bills and receipts, newspapers and leaflets, which he stood behind as he ponderously wrote out the bill, complete with title, author, publisher, price, and date of sale. I asked if I could use the toilet. He said no, and I pointed out that I needed to go now, before any further transaction could take place. Then he claimed that the store didn't even have a bathroom. I absolutely did not believe him, so I asked, "well, where do you go to the bathroom?" His head wove from side to side evasively, "I'm sorry madame. What can I do." My need getting more urgent by the argument, I said, "so, when you use the toilet you lock up the whole store and go somewhere? Where do you go?" Several customers stood watching and giggling, and I expected my latest thrust to win admittance to a hole somewhere in the back of the building, or even outside. Instead, the shopkeeper said something about the police station and gestured widely, indicating any of several possible directions. I'm sure Abel Joshua Higginbothams, who founded the chain in 1844, would have been appalled at this treatment; at any rate, I was, and I turned away from the book, the clerk, and the shop, in a flurry of irritation.

another strange shrine

My need subsided as my indignance surged, but I headed in a direction I guessed might yield a public bathroom. Soon, I came across a small painted sign near a white, brick wall bordering a ramshackle lawn encircled by a driveway leading to a red, brick, two storey building; the plaque read "Nilgiris Library." A library is an even greater pleasure than a bookstore, and this one had a charming decrepitude about it. Also, libraries usually have the necessary public facilities. So, I entered the gate and rounded the drive, and at the entrance presided a stooped and wizened little man, looking fixedly at the ground. I sat down on a bench beside the drive in order to look at the building and the man. After a few minutes, he looked up, looked around, and shuffled inside.

Nilgiris Library

Above the doors on either side of the dim entrance hall hang handsome sets of antlers mounted on wood and velvet, and underneath, on a delicate old table, tall and narrow legged as a crane, sits a large, greying register. It turns out that the Nilgiris Library is membership only; through a series of gestures and words the old man excavated from his mind with a great amount of effort, doubt, and hesitation, I was informed that the woman who collects fees and enrolls members was absent that day. Having seen past him to the point where sun shone out from arched windows set in long doors, I was determined to have a look around, membership or no; after moments of tense uncertainty on both sides, I simply walked around him and towards the bright, vaulted reading room.

It must have been the sanctuary of a church, and now where the altar must have stood, sits a long table of "new arrivals," covered with a locked wire cage. On the wall, where I imagine there was once a tablet, shaped like the ones Moses got at his meeting with god, for listing texts to be read and hymns to be sung, hangs a portrait of Gandhi, and along the length of the room, solid tables covered with periodicals are ranged about like pews. I took in the titles on the tables with a certain hurried unease because the old man stayed loyally at my shoulder. I wanted to sit with a 10 year old National Geographic on one of the worn, leather chairs next to the table; but I knew I wouldn't be able to enjoy the silence of the place with my guard standing at my shoulder, out of duty and curiosity, on his rickety old knees, perhaps pondering some other day, when another white lady had visited the reading room.

I developed the idea that this man was ruining my experience of the library to such an extent that it became reality; then with an uncharacteristic ease, I accepted him as a part of the place, a necessary furnishing. Giving him a smile, I finished my counter-clockwise perambulation of the reading room, and when I reached my point of entrance, he opened the door with courtly style. Having resigned myself to this limited entry into the building, I turned toward the bright outside, but the old man beckoned, insisting I see something else. I followed his rounded back, covered in a suit jacket, and his cracked feet, brushed by the bottom of the white, cotton fabric wrapped in a skirt around his lower body, up a flight of creaking stairs to a landing, where we turned up another narrow flight and slowly ascended into a narrow hall overlooking the sanctuary. Proudly, the man made a sweeping gesture and insisted I take a photo from this vantage. The end of the dusty corridor is separated by a fence of the same wire used to guard the new arrivals. Behind it several shelves beside a leather chair are filled with ancient books, and the whole area is coated in a thick tissue of dust. After my visit, I read that the library has a rare books collection; I hope that wasn't it.

the reading room

Caught up in the surprise of the place, I forgot all about the need that had led me there, but when my guide showed me to the exit and offered me a warm, if tooth-deficient, smile, I remembered. In India, the word that is most readily understood (in terms of facilities) is toilet. So I asked, "Is there a toilet?" When this was met with incomprehension I switched vocabulary. "Is there a ladies room?" This time, he understood; he walked me all the way back through the reading room, pointed me down a hall, at the end of which waited a clean bathroom complete with a ladies lounge featuring benches and a mirror, and went away. Mission accomplished at last, I was severely tempted to dart off up a set of stairs and see what occupied the rest of the old church, but the picture of the old man, alarmed and straining himself to find me, led me back down the hall, past the periodicals and chairs, and once again to the foyer.

The old man offered me the register; but just in time to prevent my signature, I suppose recalling that I wasn't a member, he withdrew it. Out on the drive, in the crisp Nilgiri air once again, he put together the words to ask me where I'm from, and for once, I answered gladly, without the suspicion that the question was a prelude to attempted fleecing or stalking. Then, I asked him for the name of a certain tree growing alongside the drive. He answered, "eucalyptus." I bade him farewell, walked back to Higginbothams, and purchased that book.


Blogger Sharon said...

Reading your Ooty posts reminded me of my grandmother that I ended up writing a post of my own and I hope you don't mind I did link your blog too.

9:34 PM GMT-5  

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