Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Virginia's Visit

I haven’t blogged for two weeks now, but I have a really good excuse. Virginia’s been here since late on the 14th of October … forgive me, but I haven’t given the rest of you much thought! She left last night for Copenhagen (boo!), and I’ve got lots of time on my hands again, so here’s the news, and lots of it. To paraphrase a Virginia-ism, after her, you come first!

We had a wonderful two weeks. Virginia had a touch of flu two weeks before she arrived here, so between that and jet lag, she was still a bit under the weather with a sore throat. But with lots of room for rest around the edges, we managed to do quite a bit. During the first few days we stayed close to the MCC campus. Had a lovely lunch with Joseph, a trip with my favorite rasika Mathivanan into Madras for khadi (and a mandatory stop for lunch at Murugan’s Idli Shop—yum!), a wonderful evening and dinner with Suri and friends, daily walks around the campus, and a good visit and lunch with Gabriel and family. All of this happened as preparations were underway for Diwali, the Festival of Lights. It’s a bit like Christmas and Fourth of July rolled into one—Christmas for the lights and the exchange of gifts (usually sweets!), and Fourth of July for the “crackers.” My goodness, they love their firecrackers here! Starting the day before, there was a steady crescendo of bangs and pops, and by the time we reached Diwali Eve, there was so much noise from all directions that it sounded like a war zone! This continued through the night and all of the next day. When the car came after dinner on Diwali to take us to our overnight train, we got to see what we had been hearing for the past 36 hours—people were all over the streets, especially the narrow lanes, lighting all kinds of firecrackers. Our driver had to dodge people and explosions as we took a short-cut through the neighborhoods. Once we got to the main street into the city, we got to see fireworks as well. Wow! Lest you think I am exaggerating, as we were eating breakfast middle of the next week in Cochin, we heard bangs and pops in the distance. Virginia asked Rayson, our travel companion, if people were still celebrating Diwali. He said, no, that was the sound of military exercises being conducted at the naval base nearby!

So with Rayson Alex along for the ride we boarded the Allepey Express on Saturday night and took it all the way to … Allepey! Rayson did a wonderful job of making arrangements for our time in Kerala (and Ooty), and he was along as a companion and guide to make sure we got where we needed to go, but we especially enjoyed getting to know him better in several long conversations. He finished his doctoral thesis about eight months, but here in India there is an interminable wait for an outside reader (usually in England!?) to approve (or reject) it. Rayson has already been waiting 8 months, but 6 months to a year is pretty standard. Yikes!

Allepey is right in the heart of the backwaters region of the south Indian state Kerala, a place locals like to call God’s Own Country! Since I grew up in God’s Country (LaCrosse, Wisconsin), I had to see for myself. It’s nothing like LaCrosse, of course (surprise, surprise!), but it is a lush, tropical paradise. The Western Ghats, a mountain range that borders the eastern edge of the state, catch all of the moisture coming off of the Arabian Sea, and the frequent rains keep it green and beautiful. The town of Allepey is situated between the seacoast and the backwaters, a huge web of canals and lakes that span a distance of 75 km. from Cochin in the north to Kollam in the south. One of the big attractions for tourists is a backwaters cruise on a kettu vallam, an old commercial barge converted into a houseboat with thatched walls and roof and a covered deck from which you can watch the scenery on all sides.

Our train arrived mid-morning in Allepey, and we went straight to our boat for a two-night cruise! (This was our splurge!) Virginia and I were surprised to discover that Rayson would be spending time with friends during our cruise, but we were delighted at the prospect of some private time after two months apart! After leaving the dock, we putted out into the large lake just north of Allepey. Lovely enough, but we were far from shore, and there wasn’t much to see but water, distant palm trees, and the occasional water bird or flower. I started to think that two days of this might get tedious, but as we entered narrower and narrower canals and gradually became attuned to the rhythm and variety of life in the backwaters, it became a fascinating voyage of discovery. On many canals there is only a thin strip of land between the canal and a large field of rice paddies. Residents build their houses right on these narrow strips; some homes are simple thatched huts, some much more luxurious. Either way, there’s no place to hide from the boats on the canal, and as we cruised up and down the waterways, we got to see people as they lived their lives, did their chores, and carried on with their daily work. Our daily routine was simple: cruise for awhile, then dock in a shady spot for lunch and maybe a nap (lots of naps—A/C could only be used overnight, and the temperatures weren’t that much cooler than in Chennai!), cruise some more, then dock for dinner and the night (sunset at around 6 p.m. down here). Our first night we docked on one of those thin strips next to the home of the sister of one of our three boatmen. After a wonderful fish curry dinner we watched a movie they got just for us! It was The Last Samurai, and we’ve seen it before, but we really enjoy it, but there was some problem with the audio track, so we watched it with English subtitles! Halfway through it was time to close up the boat and go to bed, so we retreated to our A/C cabin and slept very soundly with the gentle rocking of the boat.

We woke to find a chicken scratching the earth to dig up breakfast for its brood of chicks. We watched a fisherman extracting his catch from the net, and we were even invited into the sister’s home for a brief visit! She had pictures of the wedding of one of her children, but even more prominent was the photo of her one-year-old grandchild! On the second day our cruise took us past several towns and villages and some much more upscale neighborhoods. We saw schools and churches (not many temples … that or we didn’t know what to look for here in Kerala—temple architecture is distinctively different here), pedestrian bridges and a highway bridge, boats of all kinds, high-end and simple resorts, and even the lake where the famous snake-boat races take place every August. Unbeknownst to us, we spent the second night docked back in Allepey where we had first boarded the boat, but we enjoyed getting out and walking along the canal looking at the businesses that lined the walk. We finally got to watch the end of the movie and enjoy another good dinner (food was very good on the boat—except for the first days breakfast of toast and jam only!?). The final morning we took a spin out into the big lake for breakfast, and then back to meet Rayson at the dock. Overall, it was a lovely, relaxing time with lots to look at and enjoy, whether it was the people, the wildlife, the water, or the vegetation. Very peaceful, very serene—just what we needed.

We climbed into the car with Rayson, and the driver took us north to Cochin, one of the old Keralan cities with many evidences of the Portuguese and Dutch who were there. We visited several of the standard tourist spots—the Mattancherry Palace with its elaborate frescoes, the oldest synagogue in India, the Chinese fishing nets, and St. Francis Church, the oldest English church in India. Then we checked in at the Green Woods Bethlehem Homestay, very lovely place surrounded by tall trees and all kinds of flowering plants. We had a very comfortable A/C room, hosts Ashley and Sheeba were very friendly and helpful, and the covered rooftop dining area provided lovely views of the trees that shaded us even two stories up. Then it was off to a long lunch at a place Joseph recommended highly, the Grand Hotel in Ernakulam (the modern city attached to Cochin). Joseph said we had to try the karimeen (a local fish) in moilee sauce … was that ever good! The sauce was mild and somewhat sweet, thanks to the coconut milk (virtually every Keralan dish has some part of the coconut in it!), and we ate every last bite. After a little shopping it was time to go see a program of Kathakali and dances at the Greenix Cultural Center. It was a sampler geared towards tourists that included different south Indian dance genres, including bharatanatyam, mohiniyattam, and theyyam, though we were especially interested in the scene from a kathakali dance-drama. Too bad we couldn’t stay in town long enough to see a longer kathakali performance, but this was a nice introduction. Next time!

Next day, after a lazy morning at Bethlehem, we headed out for lunch at the Fort House, an older, traditional hotel with a restaurant right on the water, shaded by a cluster of huge palm trees. It was a lovely place to sit and watch boats of all sizes (including ocean freighters) go by. To the right you could look towards Ernakulam, to the left the outlet to the sea, and on the far shore you could even see another set of Chinese fishing nets at work. After short visits to the Jain Temple (not open after 12:30!) and the Syrian Orthodox Church (Syriac Christians were the first to come to India, probably within the first century after Christ), we took a rest back at Bethlehem. Rayson left early to catch a bus so he could spend time with his friends at the NGO where he once worked, and after we checked out we took the car to the beach to watch the sunset over the sea. Sadly it was very cloudy to the west, so we didn’t see much color, but it was still nice to watch the ocean waves coming in! Then it was back to the Grand Hotel for dinner, a good choice not only for the food but for its proximity to the train station. A four-hour train ride got us to Coimbatore by about 1:00 a.m., where we had to wait another four hours on the platform. Some larger train stations have retiring rooms or at least A/C lounges where you can rest while you wait, but that’s not Coimbatore! We decided the train platform was comfortable enough, especially in the middle of the night, and it worked fine except for swatting the mosquitoes, especially when a young French traveler sat with us to wait for the same train. A one-hour train ride took us to Mettupalayam, and after a one-hour wait we boarded the “toy train” to Ooty (Udagamandalam … but who has time to say that?), a narrow-gauge cog railway that still uses steam locomotives as it climbs some pretty steep grades up into the mountains. One book called the ride bone-rattling, but I did not find it so. Now it did jolt and lurch its uncomfortable way up those steep grades, managing only 46 km. in a nearly five-hour-long trip, but if it’s bone-rattling you want, take the American Eagle, the old-style wooden roller coaster at Six Flags/Great America. Still, the views were fantastic, and with frequent service stops to let the old steam engine cool a bit and keep it in good operating condition, there was lots of time to look down into the canyon or up at the peaks, grab a snack, or snap pictures of the trees, flowers, tea plantations, monkeys, and mountain peaks. Virginia had a great time watching the Indian families in our compartment, seeing how Indian parents interact with their children.

We arrived in Ooty shortly after noon. Due to its elevation (about 7,500 feet above sea level), this was the place the British escaped to from Chennai during the hottest months of the year (much as they did from Delhi to Shimla in the north), and it still has some vestiges of British heritage. Just like Shimla, they build houses and neighborhoods right up the sides of the mountains, but Ooty is smaller, quieter, and somewhat slower-paced. We took a motor rickshaw up the mountain to our lodgings at King’s Cliff, former home of one of the British nobility with lovely views of the town below and the mountains around it. The building is quaint, and the grounds are immaculately maintained (how do they get that lawn so short and even?), with lots of flowers, shrubs, and trees. After lunch and a nap (more naps!), we took a little walk around the neighborhood and came back to sit in the parlor in front of the fireplace, read the newspaper, and finally get some dinner in their excellent restaurant. Virginia, who is trying to avoid carbs and sugar, had a bit of a run-in with the maitre d’ when he insisted more than once that she order rice or bread with her dinner (she has trouble in general with the frequent over-attentiveness of Indian shop keepers who mistake curiosity for a desire to buy something). There were some ruffled feelings on both sides, but the food was really good. Our room also had a fireplace, which made it a lovely place to retreat to, settle in, and warm up a bit … especially good in a building with no heating! Oh, did I mention that Ooty is delightfully cool due to its altitude? Average temperatures in October range from highs of 65 to 68 to lows of 45 to 50. Given that Chennai has been running at least 25 degrees hotter than that, this was a delightful and much-welcomed change!! I must say, though, that the nights really were on the chilly side. It got down to 58 degrees in our room overnight, and I was glad for the warm blankets and comforter … and my life companion in the bed beside me!

After a lazy morning (and another nap!), we headed into town. Got a few supplies at Charing Cross (very familiar sound to that!?) and had a wonderful veg lunch at the Hotel Nahar. Then we went for a good long walk. Up to the British church first, St. Stephens, then past the old British bank building in the most British looking part of town, then down a long stairway into the bazaar and municipal market, and finally past the train station to the Boat House on a lovely lake. Lots of Indians were there taking rides in motor boats or row boats or paddle boats or kiddie boats (one half of the lake reserved for non-motorized craft). Again, it was nice just to sit and watch the families, enjoy the water, and rest after a long walk. After another motor rickshaw ride up to King’s Cliff, we sat again in the parlor, visited with some other American guests (taking a short holiday from their yoga school in Mysore), and had another lovely dinner. Another fire in the room preceded another gloriously chilly night.

On the second Ooty morning, Virginia had wangled some cushions so she could sit on a chair out on the lawn and watch the dawn. After breakfast and another lazy morning, it was time to check out and make our way back to the train. On the way we stopped for an hour at the Botanical Garden, a lovely place that extends way up the mountain-side. We probably only went half-way up, but there was much to enjoy on a Saturday morning—the flowers, the topiary, the greenhouses, the elaborate displays (one shaped like India itself) … and the families! Then off for lunch at Fernhills Palace, former summer home of the Maharajah of Mysore and now a heritage hotel. Sitting atop a mountain on the other side of Ooty, it also afforded some wonderful views. The building itself is gaudily decorated in a style that owes a lot to the British, and the dining room offered nice views of the gardens in back. Then it was back to the train station for the ride back down the mountains and into the plains. The ride was much smoother and more comfortable on the way back town, taking only 3 and a half hours (partly because we didn’t need to stop so frequently). This time we had seats on the valley side of the train, making it possible to get some of the photos we missed out on coming up! For the final 10 km., the train was really racing along on the flat lands, so much so that our train car in the rear caught up with the engine’s smoke and ash before it could dissipate. In the fading light we could even see the sparks flying down the tracks behind us! Another hour’s wait at Mettupalayam and we boarded the Nilagiri (Blue Mountain) Express train to Chennai Central Station.

It was our third overnight train ride, but this one was going home. We arrived at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning and our car showed up at 5:30. By 6:15 we were back in our room at the MCC guest house, grabbing some more sleep before the day began. After breakfast I spent some time with the college choir talking music history, and then it was off to the Principal’s Residence for a very nice home-cooked lunch with Alex and his wife. After another nap and a quiet dinner at the guest house, we took a long walk around the campus. Monday was another quiet day. We went over to the staff room to see who was there for tea. There was no tea (it’s reading week before final exams), but Nirmal was there with a doctoral student, so we had a lovely long chat that could have gone longer had lunch-time not intervened. It was a good chance for Virginia to catch up with Nirmal after his stay at our home last spring. After lunch it was time to pack and nap (again!), walk over so Virginia could meet Gabriel’s daughter, and then head to West Tambaram with Gabriel to visit the tailor. The khadi fabric we bought before our trip west was now soaked and washed (to get the shrinking done before the tailoring!), and we left instructions for shirts and slacks for Virginia and for two new kurtas for me. I’ll have to carry them all home myself in December, but they should make a nice birthday present for Virginia!

Sadly, we had to drop Virginia at the airport last night (Monday). It was an absolutely lovely couple of weeks that confirmed just how much I left behind to come to India for these four months. We are past the midway point now. Virginia arrived after 8 weeks apart, and two weeks later we are passing the 10th week. With 7 more weeks to go, it all sounds manageable, but now my room, the guest house, and the MCC campus are filled with wonderful memories of Virginia as well. It remains to be seen whether that will make these last (less than) two months easier or harder! Right now I’m very tender.

Virginia hoped to see some rain while she was here, but we saw none at all. Rayson said there had been a shower overnight in Cochin, but it wasn’t much of one. Everyone here in Chennai has been longing for the cooling effect of the monsoon, not the early summer southwest monsoon you always hear about, but the northeast, autumn monsoon that the eastern seaboard relies on for most of its water. With unusually hot temperatures well into October, everyone is especially eager to see the rain. I worried that heavy rains might keep Virginia from flying out on time (though more time with her would not have been a terrible thing!). Well, there was no rain last night to impede Virginia’s departure. After she left I heard thunder in the middle of the night, but no rain here. But today … when I came out for lunch I saw that the sky was unusually dark, and two minutes later, down came the rains, with lots of thunder to boot! It cleared out after about an hour, a mild start to the monsoon, perhaps, but a portent of things to come, with lots more rain in this week’s forecast. The plants need it, the people need it, and we all long for the cooling the rains will bring! And some of us also long for a December trip back home!!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Final Term 1 Lecture! Virginia's coming!!

It’s been another eventful week. I’ve now given three lectures since returning from Madurai. More on that later. Not lots and lots of concerts right now, either. Some folks like Sanjay Subrahmanian are on tour in the US, and others are laying low with December Season looming on the horizon. There was a special event to honor legendary violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman on his 80th birthday, and A.R. Rahman gave a benefit concert that drew 70,000 fans. I wasn’t able to go to either of those, but Dr. Mathivanan gave me a good report on the felicitations for Jayaraman.

Last Saturday at the Heber Hall Festival, Octavia, I met a couple of alums from some years back. The three of us ending up judging both the acoustic and the electric rock contests, a task that ended up taking from around 10 in the morning till nearly 4 in the afternoon. A long day! Thankfully they brought us some food midway through. These contests are historically supposed to be for non-MCC bands (as opposed to the Selaiyur Hall festival contest for on-campus bands). They’ve gotten a bit lax on this in recent years, though, and have opened themselves to charges of favoritism and lack of impartiality if one of the MCC bands happens to win. The two alums were especially concerned about this, so when it came time to announce the results for the acoustic contest (which took an extra long time because we wanted to be scrupulously impartial), they pointed out the issues and encouraged the hall council to rethink this in the future (to the applause of non-MCC musicians in the crowd!).

I never cease to be amazed by the absolute dedication of MCC’s alums. This may be typical of India in general, but it is an obligation with a deeply felt sense of duty (one’s dharma) to continue to serve the faculty members who were your gurus. One of these alums from the Octavia contest (and now a new friend) is John Mathew, a very bright fellow with a veddy proper British accent who has had an international career in business and the sciences that has taken him to France, Harvard, etc., and now on to London. He was a co-founder of the MCC Scrub Society (dedicated to the preservation of the endangered native scrub jungle within the campus walls), and he continues to be active in his concern for ecological issues. When asked to give a lecture for an economics forum on campus, he of course agreed, and I got to hear his very fine talk on economic and scientific aspects of environmentalism. He was very good about checking in periodically during the week of his visit, and I look forward to seeing him again at some future date … who knows where or when?

I gave a lecture last Thursday to students of the philosophy department, my home for the fall. This time the topic was Music and Emotion, with a look at music therapy and some of the recent research showing more and more clearly that brain patterns in response to music closely match brain patterns associated with human emotions, and one can even match the musical responses to specific emotions! I think back to the oral exams for my doctorate, and I remember vividly how they mostly pooh-poohed the idea that music expressed emotions. Of course, there’s the famous line from Stravinsky that music is incapable of expressing anything at all (except itself), and I think that colored the thinking of much of that generation. Fascinating that science is now on the verge of confirming common wisdom on the subject, that music does express emotions (or at least does an impressive job of evoking emotional responses in the brain). In my conversations so far with Indian musicians ranging from amateurs to skilled performers to musicians with doctorates, no one here (so far) has done anything but affirm the idea that music expresses emotion, and that each raga evokes a different kind of emotion. I’ve had some good discussions with several philosophy students since then. This seems to be a topic of great interest!

Friday it was off to Kalakshetra, perhaps Chennai’s most famous dance (and music) academy. Jospeh and I met the director, Leela Samson, and we got to talk about plans for a January visit with students. It may be too late to make it work now, but there may also be the possibility of doing a guest lecture there! We had a lovely tour—I got to visit several classes, including a violin class and a 4th year dance class (I was very pleased to recognize the dance had something to do with Krishna when I saw the flute playing gestures!). We also dropped in on the instrument library, a hut filled with violins, tanpuras, veenas, mridangams, and two very special pianos. One dates back to 1804 and belonged to the founder of Kalakshetra (in remarkably good playing condition!), and the other is a more recent gift from the estate of M.S. Subbulakshmi, one of the most famous Carnatic classical singers of the 20th century. As a young woman in the days when actresses actually sang, she had a career in film, and as Gandhi’s favorite singer, she often performed for him. She just died a few years ago, so it’s a recent gift. Anyway, I got to touch the keys of Subbulakshmi’s piano!!

Over the weekend I got to visit one of the older British churches here, the Andrews Kirk, which appears to follow the Scottish rite in its worship. This is the place where I saw the pipe organ a month or so ago, and I finally got to hear it! Arul Siromoney, the choirmaster there is the son of one of the most respected, illustrious faculty members ever at MCC, Dr. Gift Siromoney. He was a mathematician and long-time head of the department of Statistics, but he was also a Renaissance man with interests that ranged from science to art to music to birds to archeology and beyond, and he touched the lives of many students and faculty members at MCC, all of whom still speak of him with awe. So I got to see the service, hear the choir and organ, and then stay for the rehearsal. When I visited Women’s Christian College a few weeks back, I met Arul’s wife, Dr. Anna Siromoney, head of WCC’s Physics department. When I expressed interest in visiting the Kirk, she tipped me off that the choir was preparing to sing a Haydn mass on the 18th. I told her I’d be in Kerala on the 18th, so she suggested attending the rehearsal the week before. So that’s what I did. I got to sing along for the rehearsal, which was great fun, even if it was difficult to read the tiny notes in the Haydn score. Arul asked for some feedback for the choir, which I was happy to provide. Given that the choir is tucked into a high-ceilinged alcove with the organ behind the pulpit/altar area where it’s sometimes difficult to hear even the piano accompaniment, they do a very fine job. Arul has then singing with proper Classical inflections and phrasing, and they have a very lovely soprano to do the virtuoso solo work in the Benedictus.

And then we went off for lunch! Dr. Anna was hoping to welcome me to their home, but they are in the middle of having the place painted, so things are somewhat discombobulated, and when the power went out after church, we all decided to head for a restaurant. She asked if I was homesick for American food after two months in India, and I thought for a few seconds and said, yes, that would be very nice, thank you! So it was off to Sparky’s an American diner run by an American who has spent time in Madison, Rockford, and Chicago’s western suburbs! “Never trust a skinny chef” is the place’s motto, seen on the sign out front, the placemats, and elsewhere. The walls are covered with state license plates, American kitsch, and the kind of signage you would see at Famous Dave’s (mmmm!) back home. And the menu had four pages chock full of the foods you might see at a diner back home! This is the closest I’ve seen to real American food in all my time in India—hamburgers, Philly beef, lasagna, etc., etc. Yes, you can get a hamburger with chicken or with a veggie pattie, but here you can also get real beef! I usually feel uncomfortable eating beef in India, but after two months here it sounded really good, so I ordered the Philly beef with onions, green peppers, and extra cheese. Yum! Just a little sweet, as if there was a bit of teriyaki sauce, but otherwise very good! Joining us were the soprano soloist and her friend, Arthur, the philosophy student Gabriel asked to accompany me into the city, and Arul’s mother! She is also something of a legend at MCC, and I remembered enough of my MCC history to know which department she was in and that she had written an article mathematical relationships in kolam patterns (the rice chalk drawings you see on sidewalks and roads just outside of many front doors, especially elaborate and colorful for holidays like Pongal.) She was very pleased that I knew something about her and her work, and we eventually discovered that I had also spent time in the house they once lived in on campus—when I had been invited to Merlin Isaac’s house for dinner early in my stay. What fun!

The last few days have been back to the grind! Monday, I gave a lecture on Music and Numbers for the MCC Math Association—probably 200 faculty and students in attendance in Anderson Hall, the college’s biggest lecture hall, used for conferences, special lectures, and the like. And today I gave a lecture that had nothing to do with music! My good friend Joseph Sathiaraj asked for a lecture on U.S. Gender Equality (or the lack thereof!) for students in the college’s values education program. And now that I’ve finished it, I think that will be my last MCC lecture for Term 1, which ends soon enough anyway. (Term 2 begins the last week of November, and even is later than scheduled due to the college closing for 2 weeks in August over swine flu concerns.) But better than finishing off the semester or lectures or anything else … Virginia arrives late tomorrow night!!! It’s been a long seven weeks since I last saw her (Skype conversations, even twice-daily, still don’t count as seeing her!), and I can hardly wait. I’ll have time tomorrow to pick up around the room and get ready. Her flight comes in at 11:05 p.m., but it’ll probably be midnight before she can leave the terminal. It’s going to be a looooong wait at the gate! We get a few days on campus, lunch with Sathiaraj and a get-together with Suri, and then it’s off to Kerala and Ooty for a week—some real vacation, and cooler temperatures, especially in Ooty. Kerala is on the lush side of India, the place where the monsoon first hits in May or June. Beautiful beaches, vegetation, and mountains (the Western Ghats). The call it God’s Own Country! Since I grew up in God’s Country (LaCrosse, Wisconsin), we’ll just have to see about that! We’ll be on a houseboat for a couple of nights on Kerala’s lovely, serene backwaters. Ooty is at about 7,500 feet elevation, and they’ve been getting warmer than usual October weather this week … all the way up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit! Sounds really good about now!

Sunday, October 4, 2009


It was a long, bumpy four-hour bus ride from Thanjavur to Madurai. It was my first ride cross-country on a public bus in India. Kausalya warned me never to leave my bag unattended and not to take any snacks from anybody. Occasionally these snacks are drugged, and they’ll steal your stuff once you fall asleep. The seats were really narrow, and with a broad-shouldered fellow next to me it was hard to keep from falling into the center aisle on the frequent sharp left turns. Fortunately, this fellow got off one hour into the trip, and his place was taken by a small boy! I was enjoying all the extra room to stretch out when suddenly I noticed the boy starting to barf. I was quick enough to move aside and avoid being hurled upon, but the odor was certainly pungent. There was no other place I could move to, so I just had to live with it. At this point the boy moved onto his mother’s lap on the next seat, leaving me with no one in the seat next to me. When a fellow standing in the aisle moved forward to take the now empty (but barfy) seat, I turned to let him in, resigned to have a full-sized seat mate for the rest of the trip. But when the mother pointed out the vomit on the floor, he decided he’d rather stand. At this point I realized a miracle had just occurred! Everytime anyone came forward to take the empty seat, someone would point to the vomit and they would turn back. For the rest of the trip, NOBODY was going to take that empty seat. And you know, as it dried up, the smell dissipated as well!

Kausalya put me on a very early bus so I’d be sure to arrive before the heat of the day. I made it to Madurai shortly after 11:00 a.m., and was checking in at the hotel by noon. After the heat of the previous few days in Thillaisthanam, I decided that a long, relaxing afternoon in the air conditioned comfort of my hotel room was exactly what the doctor ordered. I ate the buffet lunch and dinner at the hotel and got to enjoy some foods I had not eaten in a long time! (Outside of the occasional fish, chicken is definitely the meat of choice at MCC.) Another nice afternoon nap, time to check some internet—just a lovely, lazy day.

Next morning my guide and car arrived at 8:30, and we headed directly to the Meenakshi Temple, one of the most impressive temple complexes in all of south India. The old part of the city is arranged with the streets circling the temple like the petals of a lotus blossom, but it’s now so built up that you rarely see the temple’s towering gopurams until you’re right next to it. And it is spectacular! There are a dozen of the tall, tall gopurams over the temple’s gateways, etc., the tallest of which is 170 ft. high! They are profusely decorated with divinities of all sorts and brightly painted (by city ordinance from the 1950s!). You just have to see some of the photos in my Flickr Photostream! We spent two hours there roaming from pillared hall to pillared hall, past the Golden Lotus Tank, and on to the entrances to the inner sanctums of the two primary gods here: Shiva and Meenakshi, the fish-eyed goddess (a sign of beauty), herself a manifestation of Parvati, the consort of Shiva. Neither of these are open to non-Hindus, so all I could do was peek into the doorways and look back as far as possible. I could almost make out Meenakshi’s idol (I think), but could not see Shiva’s at all (I don’t think—hard to know for sure!). So much to see, and so hard to absorb even a fraction of it!

After the temple, we visited the Nayaks’ palace, a Catholic church, and the Gandhi Museum. Madurai was the place where Gandhi first adopted the lunghi as his typical garb, and 50 years ago (this year!) Nehru established this as the first Gandhi museum in India. The displays are very well done, giving a good picture not only of Gandhi’s life, protests, and accomplishments, but a history of Indian resistance against the British going back to the 1700s. It’s not as gross as sounds, but one of the display cases contains the blood-stained shawl Gandhi was wearing when he died. There are a few striking works of art as well, including a tableau commemorating the day Gandhi insisted the Harijans (his name for the Dalits, or untouchables) be allowed to enter the temple with all of the other Hindus! Well worth the visit!

Then back for a quiet afternoon. In the evening I took the guide’s suggestion and went back to the Meenakshi Temple about half an hour before closing. Non-Hindus can’t see the idols of Shiva and Meenakshi when they are in their inner sanctums, but every night they remove Shiva from his sanctum and parade him down the hallway in a silver palanquin. They take him into Meenakshi’s sanctum where they can spend the night in bed together. Their celestial lovemaking is supposed to keep the world (and universe) in balance and well-ordered. I came to watch the procession, and waited near the entrance to the Meenaskhi sanctum till about 9:15, when a procession came down the hall from the Shiva sanctum with tavil beating and nadashwaram blaring, the traditional auspicious instruments. The palanquin was set down at the entrance to Meenakshi’s sanctum, where the priests set down a silver step stool and proceeded to bathe it with milk and other fluids and cover it with garlands and flower petals while another fellow fanned sacred smoke in their direction. As the priests carried out their oblations, there was constant chanting or other music going on while many people circumambulated the palanquin (always in a clockwise direction). Eventually they carried the palanquin into the sanctum and out of my view with many Hindus following the priests inside to watch them put the idols to bed for the night. At the crack of dawn they will reverse the process and return Shiva to his own sanctum. I walked out of the temple with the sounds of the procession still ringing through the pillared hallways!

Next morning the guide and car came at 9:00 and we headed out to see a few temples. To the east of the city was Alagarkoil, a Vishnu temple, and to the west was Thiruparankunram. The sanctum of this temple is cut right into the huge rock hill that dominates the town, the hill itself said to be one of the abodes of Sri Murugan, son of Shiva. Unusually, there are five gods enshrined in the sanctum here. If I have it right, they are: Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Vishnu, and Lakshmi. There is a school for Hindu priests here, and we are in time to watch a bit of their classes before they break for the morning. Further around the hill you can climb up to see the Jain Caves. It’s a rugged climb, first up a long stone staircase, and then up several series of steps cut right into the rock face. The views are spectacular, but it is very windy. It is hard to imagine living in the very small caves that dent the hill’s rock face, though they are certainly cooler than the rock outside where the sun beats down all day. It is said these Jains would spend the day in the caves and go into town in the evening to preach and teach (not always very popular with the authorities!). Then back to the hotel for another relaxed afternoon, but now I have to pack and catch the 6:00 p.m. train back to Chennai. It will be good to get back to MCC—this has been a strenuous trip—but I return having had experiences I would not trade for anything in the world.

Asking directions

Odds and ends from the last 3 weeks—

It didn’t hit me till afterwards, but I guess I’m becoming something of an old hand on the MCC campus. Wednesday (a couple of weeks ago) I was taking a (hot!) longer than usual walk to use the ATM on the edge of the campus. I was on the last bit of road leading to the guest house when a two-wheeler (translation: motorcycle) pulls up and the fellow on the back seat asks for directions to the philosophy department. Bear in mind that I could not have helped one lick if he had asked for the departments of political science, economics, chemistry, or math (among others), but he was asking directions to my home department, and I could tell him the name of the hall and exactly how to get there! Up till now, I’ve been the one asking directions. Add to that a couple of notices in the MCC Newsletter—one alerting the campus to my presence here as “Scholar in Residence,” the other listing the lecture I presented in the Philosophy department 2 weeks back on a faculty accomplishments page—and I’m starting to feel like I belong. (Don’t fret, Virginia … you don’t know how glad I will be to come back home to you!!)

Got a nice visit from Vimal, director of the Heber Chapel Choir here on campus. I’ve been helping him acquire some music and books to help out the church musicians here on campus. We’ve been talking about doing some sessions with folks who are interested, perhaps some music history, perhaps some music theory. It was lovely to chat with a musician! We got to talking about the donation of a refurbished pipe organ for Heber Chapel. There’s a fellow who has been rehabing organs here in south India, and charging a pretty penny for the privilege. He’ll install this organ as long as they will maintain the instrument on a regular basis. Fortunately the donor is happy to provide this funding on an ongoing basis as well. As we talk, I am surprised to learn I was absolutely wrong (see One Week Down entry) about the number of pipe organs in India. Vimal tells me there are quite a few—most of them in disuse or disrepair, but lots and lots of them. They are another piece of the British heritage here; after all, how can you have a proper Anglican church service without a proper pipe organ? In turn, Vimal is very surprised to learn that the singers in my church choir back home are not all monster sight readers. I have to tell him that many of my music majors are not so good at this, either! He feels like he has to work so hard to get his singers to read notes, follow the director, produce a nice sound and blend, etc., etc. I can’t help but laugh as he talks, and I tell him that these are the things all choir directors struggle with everywhere. Certainly there are a few problems unique to the Indian context, but they are not huge problems compared to what we all face every time we step in front of a choir.

Before Vimal leaves, we agree to go out for pizza in the very near future, and when the day comes, we’re a foursome: Vimal, Suri, a friend of Suri’s celebrating his 25th birthday, and myself. We went over to Pizza Corner, a place some of my American students frequented in 2007. It may not have been the world’s best pizza, but it tasted like it to me!! I mentioned earlier how much I have missed cheese in my diet, so Suri made sure we ordered double cheese, and it was soooooo good. Best of all, it was wonderful to have company at dinner-time. Since then Suri has invited me over to his “pad” on a couple of occasions—some of the company I’ve been craving. Suri is such a kind man; he made a note of my cheese craving, and the next time I visited his place, he brought out a plate of cheese chunks! Suri also has a passion for American pop music of the 1960s (Beatles, Dylan, etc.), especially the more folk-oriented stuff. He helped coordinate a Beatles festival here on campus earlier this year with good performances of lots of classic songs. Like the historian he is, he knows an incredible number of those songs, many more than I do, and he’s even several years younger than I am!


My goodness, it’s been a long while since I wrote anything in my blog! Needless to say, it’s been an incredibly hectic (and ultimately wonderful) couple of weeks. First it was a week with three lectures (ouch!) and not much sleep followed by a trip to read a paper at the OSLE-India International Conference, and then there was a good six days spent in Tiruvaiyaru (near Thanjavur) and Madurai. There’s no way I can get everything into just one entry, so I’ll go with highlights and fill in other details in later entries. And do I have some pictures! I’ll get some of those up as soon as I can, but first the blog!

I have to start in Tiruvaiyaru (actually Thillaisthanam, a small rural village 2 km. to the west), the real emotional heart of my journey south. I met Dr. Kausalya in 2006 when she was still principal of the Government Music College in Tiruvaiyaru. I had traveled there to see the place where St. Tyagaraja (south India’s Beethoven) had lived, composed his great music, and died. I was also keen on arranging a visit with my students to the Tyagaraja Aradhana, one of the most important and most sacred music festivals in this part of the world. At that time she welcomed me at the college, a venerable old building on the banks of the Kaveri River. She saw to it that I visited the Tyagaraja shrine, the temple, the art gallery, etc.; she prevailed upon a younger colleague to give me a complete tour of the college; she invited me to observe her veena class; and following a conversation about the joys and trials of running the college for so many years, she invited me to her home to see the work she was doing with children in her neighborhood, a project she was hoping to continue and expand after her impending retirement (mandatory at age 58 here!). I was deeply impressed by such hospitality, but I also came away feeling a deep sense of connection with a woman who only a few days earlier had been a total stranger. And when I brought my students to Tiruvaiyaru in 2007, she was magnificent! She got us into the inner sanctum of the Saraswati Mahal Library where the curator showed us some of the rarest treasures from the library of Serfoji II (1777-1832, last of the sovereign Maratha maharajahs). Over the protests of security guards who said it was full, she walked us into an evening concert at the festival. She brought one of Thanjavur’s best hereditary veena makers to do a demonstration. She arranged a concert at the resort done by a folk singer who is now a very big star. She even got us into the press box on the holy day itself, sitting right next to the musicians (hundreds of them) as they sang Tyagaraja’s Five Jewels—right after the procession arrived from the site of Tyagaraja’s home (torn down in 2006, sadly). But perhaps most impressive of all, we got to see the children she works with, singing and dancing in beautiful costumes, looking much different than the motley bunch I had seen the previous summer. Her hard work was paying off in visible, tangible ways.

Fast-forward to September 2009. I have not seen Kausalya since January 2007. Over the past year, I had sent a letter twice asking about our 2010 course, but had not heard back. Once I arrived in India in August, good friend Joseph provided me with her email address. She’s now online! We were able to set up a visit following my conference in Tiruchi, just an hour and a half away from her home. But then she reads an announcement about the conference (and my talk!) in the newspaper, and she writes that she would like to hear the paper, too! So sure enough, as I’m sitting on the platform waiting to give my paper, in walks Kausalya. Same as we saw in Thanjavur in January 2007, she is immediately recognized as a guest of importance and is escorted to a seat in the front row. After I finish my talk, the principal of National College in Tiruchi (our conference host) walks down and sits next to Kausalya—clearly he knows her well, too! We have a few minutes to chat, and I tell her I can leave earlier than expected, so I will be there for her students’ gathering that evening after all. She warns me there will be no A/C in her guest room, but can arrange for that in Thanjavur if I absolutely, positively must have it. We agree to decide that once I arrive, and she is off to make preparations!

After some warm farewells from my OSLE friends Dr. Nirmal, Susan, and Rayson, I’m off for a car ride cross-country from Tiruchi to Tiruvaiyaru. This is the Kaveri delta region, and there are many river channels to cross, small villages to pass through, and fields and rice patties to look at. A little rain on the way (always welcome here, both for the water it brings and the cooling effect it has), but finally we arrive. Keenly aware that I appear tired (and I am dog-tired after a couple of short nights and an overnight train to Tiruchi), she offers me a chance to lie down while. I come out almost too late to see the student gathering. They are there to celebrate Navaratri (the doll festival), gathered around a stair-like arrangement of shelves with dolls representing various gods, goddesses, etc. from the Hindu pantheon. There are dances and songs, similar to what I remembered from 2007, and while many of the children are new, a few remember me from 2007 (though at least one is no longer a child!). After some conversation and a simple dinner of idli and chutney, it’s off to bed.

Kausalya’s work with the children has definitely taken on new dimensions. She has created a foundation, Marabu, and acquired a house right across the street from her home in the village of Thillaisthanam. She has done significant work remodeling the place, adding Western toilets and an upstairs that will provide more guest rooms when finished. The foundation house of course provides space for her work with the children and the veena students she takes on, but she is also looking to provide accommodations and instruction for international students who wish to come and study veena in more-or-less traditional gurukulam fashion, where you live with your guru and devote your time to study. I hope this will catch on. She’s not going to charge the exorbitant fees a student would encounter in Chennai (in fact, there will likely be no tuition fee), and the calm, peaceful rural setting, wonderful home-cooked vegetarian meals, and the amazing musical heritage of this place could not fail to attract students looking for an authentic Indian experience. The trinity of Carnatic classical music—Tyagaraja, Sastri, and Dikshitar—all lived in this area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and one can still sense their presence here.

For three days and nights I managed to both survive the heat and get rested up for the trip to Madurai. Afternoon naps were a must, as it was too hot to do much else without the possibility of occasional retreats to air conditioning. Late afternoons and evenings were a time to observe her work with students or get out and poke around. One evening I took a walk down the street with a neighbor to visit the local school and schoolmaster and sit awhile with the neighbor and his son. This is a small rural village, and I’m not sure what I expected, but the people I met were very literate and well-educated, and many had good English skills as well. I was surprised, quite frankly. Another evening we visited the temple of the moon goddess, Chandran, another local temple in Thillaisthanam, and the Tyagaraja Samadhi on the Kaveri river (looking very different than it did during the festival in 2007!). On the way we were “delayed” by a street festival with musicians, and elephant, and a float in honor of a local poet-goddess. We got out of the car to look, and suddenly I was an honored guest decked with a shawl by one of the festival organizers!

Mornings were a time for poojas, or devotions. One must bathe beforehand, and on second morning we had to wait and do nothing between 7:30 and 9:00, when Saturn was in an inauspicious position! Poojas include chanting, gifts of fresh fruit and a broken coconut, floral garlands and flower petals to be sprinkled on objects in your home’s shrine, a camphor flame used to cense sacred objects, and kneeling and bowing (but never to the south). As the senior member of the household (I assume), her mother always took the role of chief ritualist. There’s almost a sense of a new year, or at least a new beginning, with the Navarathri festival. All of the tools of your trade must be presented as part of the pooja at the end of the festival, and so Kausalya’s veenas were also presented, beshawled, and sprinkled with petals. As I tossed petals on one of her veenas, the stem hit a string at exactly the right angle to make it ring. Her eyes got wide and she explained that this was a very auspicious, positive response from Saraswati (goddess of music, like St. Cecilia or one of the Greek muses), and that I would have a blessed year! The second morning she started dismantling the dolls, to be stored until next year (like Christmas ornaments and decorations). I did not see the pooja for her computer, but she invited me to see the pooja for the car, done by her driver. He censed the entire car—under the hood, inside the car, around and under each of the four tires. And when that was done, you had to go for a ritual drive, visit the local temple, and buy something auspicious. So off we went for a ride, and all the while she, the driver, and her brother (visiting from Chennai) were pointing out the numerous vehicles decorated with garlands, palm branches, etc. as part of the festival’s end. Also like New Year’s, once all the tools of the trade are blessed, it’s time to begin again: to take on new students, to start new courses of instruction, and so on.

Over the course of those three days, we had many conversations. Over meals I learned a great deal about rural Brahmin cooking and cuisine and how to eat these foods in the traditional way. I think the biggest laugh I got from Kausalya came when I asked what she would do for entertainment when I was no longer there to amuse them with my clumsy attempts at eating with my right hand! When I observed any activity, she was careful to explain what was going on to help me understand. In quiet moments between things or in the evening, we had some longer conversations that ranged through various topics. Of course, there were many conversations about January and the arrival of my students. She welcomes our plans to take video of her work with the children and to interview her about various aspects of the foundation’s work. But she also wants us to learn some songs and dances from her children, to take a beginning veena lesson with her (where there is interest), and eat some traditional home-cooked meals. And now that January is not so far away, she is brainstorming other possibilities around town—visits to the temple, the Aradhana, the art gallery, the newly-renovated Durbar Hall (magnificent, she say!), and maybe even a visit with the Prince (descendant of Serfoji II)! I suspect that whatever happens in January will be far beyond what I can imagine—even though I’ve been here three times now!

We also had opportunities to talk about our families, she about the many relatives in the photos hanging on her walls, I about my concerns for my father and sister and my plans to be home for Christmas, more important for my family than any other time of year. Early on, her mother asked if I was English or German, since they are often “stout,” and I had to tell her that while I am an American, she had it just about right. I’m German on both sides and English/British Isles on my father’s side. She only missed the Polish from my mother’s side!

On the last night Kausalya told me I was unlike any American she had ever met: soft-spoken, thoughtful, and even somewhat child-like. It is true that I am frequently in awe of her; she is a strong woman with a big heart and a big vision. In her presence (and on her turf) I also often felt like a student with much to learn, walking around with my eyes and ears wide open. Even after four previous visits, so much is still foreign and unfamiliar, and this was my first real experience spending this much time in a rural setting, so very different from the MCC college campus I have come to know so well. Still, I think we each know where the other’s heart is, and that night she called me her brother. Even now I cannot begin to explain the bond we have had since our first meeting, for it is something deeper than words. There may be an element of mutual curiosity, but there is certainly an abundance of genuine respect and affection. Whatever it is, it is something wonderful and touching. On the final morning, her mother said, “Please come back!” And as I waved goodbye to Kausalya and her driver while my bus to Madurai pulled out of the station, unexpected tears welled up in my eyes. If there is an emotional heart to my journey so far, this was it. In the meantime, I am instructed to give her warm greetings to my mother and father, to my brother and sisters, to my wife and children, and to my grandchildren. Virginia is already telling family members that I have a new sister, and I shall greet them all for Kausalya when I get home for Christmas.