The Mystery of the Missing Flower

I am not a little proud of my garden.

This little patch of paradise in the Nilgiris shines with so many jewel colours on a sunny morning – beds of impatience unfurl their many shades of reds and pinks while nasturtiums climb in vibrant shots of yellow and orange. White and cream geraniums raise their bunched heads and crimson salvia looks confidently around. Fragile angel wings glow in pale ivories and peaches, glossy begonias beam even as the stalks of lily wait to burst into hundred small starry petals.

Then there are my potted plants – graceful ferns, elegant palms, proud ficus, slender bamboo and a luxurious Christmas fir all blink awake to the morning sun. Not before long, these lose my attention to ruby azaleas and gorgeous fuchias which hang like so many jewelled ‘jhumkas’ or drop earrings.

But what is this?

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Where is yesterday’s double-flowering fuchsia that had bloomed in twin layers – a pearly core surrounded by overlapping magenta petals! I look around the base of the pot to see if dropped in last night’s gusty rains? And then half-suspiciously at Ginger to see if she has been bounding across the garden causing the flower to fall from the delicate stalk? Even if that happened, it should have fallen somewhere around!

Unwillingly I make way for a less-than-pleasant alternative – could someone have stolen into my garden at the crack of dawn to pluck this solitary flower? Unlikely, considering that the rose shrub is still showing off its blooms and rows of succulents sit primly in all their miniature glory.

As my family wakes up and one by one, they stream into the lawn still glistening with diamond dew drops; I ask them about the missing flower – they evoke polite interest before transferring their attention variously to the newspaper, phone, dog or coffee.

I am left wondering at this curious incident…my eyelids droop lulled by the humming of bees on the honeysuckle hedge and the streaming warmth of golden sun…at the very edge of my hazy vision, a graceful figure wearing a flowered wreath wafts past fragrantly just as my daughter’s voice jolts me back to wakefulness, “Did you know Mum, according to this blog, Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and gardens is said to have helped herself to whatever blossom caught her fancy from a garden – isn’t that sneaky…?”

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Now, I know…!

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Cry for Nature

It had been quite some time since I had read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. So when I came across another title by the Lebanese poet, at a friend’s place, I asked if I could borrow it. The Storm turned out to be a modern translation of Gibran’s prose poems as well as a couple of short stories. Narrated in his distinct style – soaked in mysticism and lyricism – so many of his central themes reached out to me : like the essential isolation of the human condition, the shackles of organized religion, the hollow materialism of the world and so on. The one theme however that spoke to me with the greatest urgency was the beauty of Nature and its inevitable degradation by humans.

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Aurore, ‘The Dawn’ by Kahlil Gibran

‘ ” Sweet Brook,” I asked, “why do you mourn?”

“Because I go unwillingly toward the City”, it answered, “where Man will spurn me. Instead of me, he will drink the juice of the grape and use me to carry away his filth. How shall I not weep when soon my purity become foul?” ‘

– From ‘A Lamentation in the Field’

Recently back from a trek through the Niligiris, I could not but help obsessing over the muck and mess human habitation spawns all around it. Towns looking like an ugly heap of tin roofs, sewage drains spilling on roads, traffic forced to a stand-still by reckless parking, vehicles belching out black fumes despite ban on unclean fuel – I could go on…

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concrete jungles

As we climbed higher into the hills, the air became purer and the surroundings cleaner. But then, we hardly saw any people around – slopes of tea plantations eventually gave way to forests and then to steep slippery narrow paths to the summit, known here as the Bakasura-malai. Why should one have to compromise on human company if one wishes to live amidst beautiful natural surroundings? How do other countries, societies manage to retain picture-postcard appearances despite having thriving communities?

I am aware these questions lead me deeper into issues of population, poverty, exploitation, corruption and many deeply inextricable civic matters. At this moment, however, I rue my limited time in this corner of paradise here and dread going back down to the madding crowds!

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Bakasura-malai peak

An Uninvited guest

Apparently my dog and I are not the only ones that like basking in the Nilgiris afternoon sun that streams into our front garden. As I headed out today for my usual post-lunch newspaper perusal I was arrested in my tracks by the sight of an uninvited guest. Though I have known them to reside in the neighbourhood and even spotted by the odd passer-by, this was the first time one had dropped in to share my patch of green and the sun.

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Painting by Otto Marseus van Schriek

 

My afternoon siesta had gone for a six and the whole time – with my dog securely under my blanket now – I kept wondering how D H Lawrence divined their beauty and mystique as evident in the famous poem, Snake…how it

“…looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face…”

Lawrence was known for his intuitive understanding of the primal beauty of the creatures of Nature. This poem in particular reveals how men goaded by the voices of their “accursed human education” have not only failed to recognize this beauty but indeed done their very best to stamp it out of the face of the earth.

But tonight when my dog wakes me up to be taken out, will I have the heart to step forth in the dark…knowing that somewhere around, quite near, resides my black, serpentine neighbour?!

Ooty Literary Festival 2017

On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.

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As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.

I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.

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What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.

As bell hooks, says

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Spice it up!

India for centuries has been home to some of the most exotic spices in the world. For the same reason, it has long attracted explorers and traders – indeed the country was a prominent stop on the famous Spice Route that at one time extended from the west coast of Japan to the Mediterranean.

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 Spices of various kinds

And it is here, in the Nilgiris, that many of these coveted spices are still grown. A moist climate throughout the year together with moderate temperatures and rich soil works wonders to sprout these jewels of exquisite flavours.

Fresh peppercorns look like garlands of plump, green berries. Depending on the kind of processing, they turn either black or white – while the former is hot and pungent, the latter is milder and smoother. When soaked in brine, the white peppercorns acquire a luscious pink hue. Black pepper in traditional medicine is believed to be a digestive, diuretic and stimulant.

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Types of peppercorns

Cardamoms again can be of two types – the green is smaller but more fragrant while the larger brown variety has a bolder taste. Besides refreshing the breath, cardamom is believed to aid the digestion and act as a heart stimulant too. A small shopping tip – buy cardamom that is still encased in its pods so that its flavours remain intact. After using the cardamom seeds, you can put the pods in jars of sugar or rice to impart a sweet aroma.

Cloves are actually dried flower buds that have a sharp astringent taste. Apart from flavouring food, clove is used for dental hygiene and its oil applied to treat toothache. However use clove sparingly – a little of this intense spice goes a long way.

With its warm, sweet flavour, Cinnamon is a must-have for any self-respecting gourmet. And believe it or not, it is actually the inner bark of trees of the Cinnamomum genus. Apart from jazzing up cakes and curries, cinnamon is again thought to alleviate symptoms of acidic peptic diseases.

Isn’t it wonderful how our very own corner of the Western Ghats is home to such flamboyant flavours? No wonder then the masala chai brewed from all these spices turns out to be the perfect  accompaniement  to cold, misty Nilgiri evenings.

A Peek into Toda Culture

The winding uphill path suddenly opened out to a wide grassy plateau-like feature. We had arrived at a Toda village – the chief reason why I had signed up for this 14 km hike in the first place.

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The Todas are an indigenous tribe of the Nilgiri hills in southern India. They are originally a pastoral community, even though the modern day members are steadily settling down to agriculture and small businesses. Regular contact with civilization has eroded many socio-cultural practices, like fraternal polyandry as well as much of their distinctive language. Paradoxically though certain aspects of their culture have become disproportionately popular – like their shawls brightly embroidered in red and white as well as their signature jewellery – indeed in recent times a rising awareness about the need to conserve their habitat has actually led to new construction of their typical oval, half-barrel-shaped hutments.

No such structures were in sight here, though. But as several Toda men and women milled about on the grassland and even performed a traditional rhythmic dance, my gaze travelled to a secluded grove lined with stones, in which their temple was housed.

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The Toda religion is as distinctive as their temple. In keeping with the central position of the buffalo in Toda culture, their religious head is the priest-milkman who tends the sacred buffalo and apparently, lives under numerous strictures, including leaving behind his family for the time he acts as the keeper of the sacred dairy.  Again we did not get to see either the priest or the animal – instead the organized merry-making concluded with a highly animated visit to the busy Toda handicrafts stall and then finally the customary felicitation of the village headman by the hike organizers.

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As we started back, I could not help feeling that this brief, superficial interaction was not exactly what I had in mind when I had set out for the hike. But then, I realized that a deeper engagement with their culture based on long meaningful conversations and preceded by a good deal of reading was the stuff of serious research, lifelong study and dedication – and surely this ancient people deserved no less!

The Hunt is on…

On the day of The Hunt, the sun dawned on a regal scene. Red flags fluttered in the gentle breeze as the lush valley glowed a pale emerald in the heart of the Wellington Gymkhana Club – today the site where the dashing riders of the Ooty Hunt Club would converge on their steeds after a three hour ride. Even as elegantly dressed ladies twittered in the pavilion and their bundles of energy darted through chairs, there was a palpable sense of expectation – any moment now, the riders might come into view…

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The Hunt in this context is actually a formalized horse-riding exercise, often through uneven terrain. Though real hunting of game no longer takes place, the hounds faithfully carry on before the riders – in a throwback to the British tradition whereby the erstwhile colonial rulers brought the Hunt into this corner of the Nilgiris in 1835. It has remained active ever since, thus making the Ooty Hunt Club the only functional one outside England and Ireland. The Club is primarily patronized by the riders of Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, whose Commandant is its Honorary President as well. Every year there are around ten Hunts conducted, with each getting progressively difficult.

Low sighs of wonder rustled through the audience as the riders galloped into view – the Masters of Fox Hounds resplendent in their red blazers and other riders – including a lady and two kids as well – smart in their navy ones. After the new riders were ceremonially given their lapel pins, it was photograph time…

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All around were bright, happy faces – riders and spouses posing proudly with the mounts, kids petting the now-sleepy hounds, the grooms beaming proudly upon being complimented on their excellent work – I wondered at the shrill ugly voices of hyper-nationalism, always dangerously near. Always up in arms to defend “tradition”, would they ever understand this scene before me? These values of fairplay, respect for rules, regard for the sport and sheer love for these grand animals – values that represented tradition in the best sense of the word.