Friday, July 29, 2005

Will we not remember?

Yesterday, I took down from my bookshelf a battered copy of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' to read the chapter about the rains of Macondo. Needless to say, soon I was engrossed in the Buendia family history for the nth time. Flipping back pages, I re-read the chapter before the rains. For those of you who remember, this is the one where Jose Arcadio Segundo(one of the twins, the third generation if I remember correctly) becomes the sole witness to(and sole survivor of) the massacre at the railway station of the 3000 banana plantation workers. When Jose Arcadio Segundo gets back to Macondo after his escape, he is horrified to discover that all memory of the massacre has been wiped out - no one in the entire town remembers what happened, and no one believes Jose Arcadio. The town thinks that he is insane. And then the rains begin.

And I wonder if this kind of selective amnesia is where we, as a country, are moving towards. Or are we already there yet? As P. Sainath asks in this hard-hitting piece,"how much media coverage has been there of workers' problems"? As we cruise along our no-speed-limit autobahns, will we let a third of our country rot? Worse, will we not even remember that we watched them die and didn't do anything about it? Will we not remember that we dismissed concerns about unsafe working conditions claiming that the workers would have been worse off if they did not work in sweatshops? Will we not remember that we demolished homes of millions in order to transform our cities into Shanghai? Will we not remember at all?

Notes/Updates for those of you who wrote in already!

Note 1: No, I am not trying to draw any parallels between Marquez's work and/or the events of Gurgaon and Mumbai during the past week. The labor unrest and the rains were the two events that I read about a lot during the past week and it just happened to be a coincidence that I found both of these issues occuring one after the other in Macondo too.

Note 2: I'd highly recommend P. Sainath's article in 'The Hindu'. Link via Anand. I'd also recommend P. Sainath's book 'Everybody loves a good drought' - its has excellent examples of what community initiatives can do for all-round development.

Note 3: Having grown-up in God's own country, I am very much aware of what unchecked labor power can do. In my opinion, it isn't very different from what unchecked feudalism(by whatever manifestation) can do. So let me make it clear that here, I am talking about basic human rights and not power.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

It rained in Macondo

"It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days. There were periods of drizzle during which everyone put on his full dress and a convalescent look to celebrate the clearing, but people soon grew accustomed to interpret the pauses as a sign of redoubled rain. The sky crumbled into a set of destructive storms and out of the north came hurricanes that shattered roofs about and knocked down walls and uprooted every last plant of the banana groves...."

- One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Ain't this cool?

Yossarian Lives - Google style

Link via Chapati Mystery.

Fighting abstract nouns

Heard on Chicago Public Radio this morning that the Bush administration doesn't like the 'global war on terrorism' anymore. No no, hang on, wait before you fall off the chair! The administration is quite happy with all the killing in Iraq(yeah yeah, those bastards are terrorists, why would they attack us on 9/11 instead?) and elsewhere. What the administration doesn't like is the tagline 'global war on terrorism' (GWOT). I am sure all the brave, young Americans fighting in Iraq will be very much relieved to hear this. Not to mention the poor Iraqis who are getting killed left, right and center. How heartening it is to know that one is not in the midst of a global war on terrorism anymore.

My spirits went up too - maybe we will not be fighting an abstract noun anymore. Not so fast. The newscaster reported that according to the Bush administration, we are all now involved in a 'global struggle against violent extremism' (GSAVE). Another abstract noun! How do you struggle against abstract nouns? As Terri Jones of the Monty Python fame asks in this beautiful piece written some years ago, how will an abstract noun surrender?

Monday, July 25, 2005

An Half-Day in the life

Following is from my jounal dated sometime in Jan 2005. Those were the days I was traveling ORD - LAX almost every week and hating every minute of it. Looks like I wrote this for some comic relief during one of those long 4-hour flights. Things have gotten better since then and I do not travel anymore; so never got a chance to finish this piece. Here's Part 1 of 'A Day in my Life'; Part 2 will probably never see the light of day.

Over dinner a couple of weeks ago, Dan, my project manager was talking about how he was so sick of all the lawyer and doctor shows on TV and how it might be interesting if someone were to make a series on us-consultant types. ‘It won’t work’ was my first reaction but then I don’t watch TV and thankfully for all the TV producers, the world isn’t full of people like me. And right now, as I sit here on my boring, 4-hour flight back to Chicago, this consultant show seems more and more exciting. Why would people who watch a movie like ‘Hitch’ four times a month (as United gives them no other choice) not watch a show about themselves? So I decide to spend my flight time on a day in the life of a consultant to see if there’s any show value in it.

Monday morning 5 A.M.: Another manic Monday at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. I am in line at the Premier security checkpoint with scores of other grumpy people, most of whom I recognize as we all stand in this same queue every Monday. This particular queue is a great leveler – it doesn’t matter if you are a partner, manager or a lowly associate; it doesn’t matter if you work for McKinsey, Deloitte or the body shopper down the road; you have to stand here and watch all those who woke up before you disappear through the only security checkpoint that’s open at this time. I must say here though, that since the writing of this piece, I (being a smart person) have discovered that at 5 A.M. on a Monday morning (yes, I know that’s a redundancy, its deliberate) at O’Hare, the regular security queue at the North end of terminal 1 is much faster than the Premier queue as most of the people who take the 6 A.M. flights are Premier Execs; once I discovered this I am getting to sleep 15 minutes more than all those losers on the Premier line.

Once I get out of security, I rush to the Bagel Factory to get my breakfast. I never had much of a breakfast until I became a consultant and started traveling. There’s a pretty long line at the bagel place – there is something about expensing your meals that leads people to have five sumptuous meals a day. I get a bagel and then back to my gate to join my fellow travelers; we all wait to see which lucky bastard is getting an upgrade today so that we can all give him a dirty look. More often than not, its one of our own managers. They call seating area 1 and we all rush in, say Hi to the flight attendants, grab some blankets from other seats, stow away our luggage and settle down to watch the fun. It happens when seating area 3 is called; all these losers come in to find that there’s no place to store their rollerblade suitcases and now they have to walk all the way up the aisle dodging everyone to check in their luggage.

Once this tamasha is over, we get out of the gate onto the runway but as every traveler who has passed through O’Hare knows, we end up sitting on the runway for at least another 40 minutes before the flight actually takes off. Another on-time departure for United since we got out of the gate on time. Who cares if we are on the tarmac for another hour? At 6 A.M, we are usually 8 in line for takeoff. This all very normal, trust me. Once the flight takes off, the vast majority of us drift off to sleep. But there are some notable exceptions – certain self-important people power up their laptops and start typing away. These are the same people who end up buying those exorbitant ‘restaurant quality, buy-on-board’ meals.

LAX 8 A.M. Pacific Time – The flight touches down right after 8; usually we have clear blue skies and a temperature of about 70 degrees. When we get out of the aircraft, people usually stare at out winter jackets and gloves; we just let it pass. I walk straight down to the rental car shuttle which takes me to the Hertz location. Another place where everyone’s watching everyone else to see which one of us is getting that convertible this week. I get a Mazda 6, no complaints; I merge onto 405 N seamlessly but the traffic slows down to a standstill right after. NPR and the famed California landscape keeps me sane for the next 90 minutes as I somehow wade through the winding roads of the Santa Monica mountain range. Ordinary mortals who don’t have the pleasure of working in consulting tend to have romantic notions of all the traveling we consultants do; they have this picture of these jet-setting consultants gallivanting from NY to LA, from Greenwich Village to Beverly Hills; from Broadway shows to movie premieres thus getting to enjoy the pleasures of all the beautiful cities of the world. We consultants, for obvious reasons, never bother to correct anyone who thinks that way. The reality is that during the week, we usually end up in places like Corning, NY, Harrisburg, PA and Thousand Oaks, CA (the last mentioned is a 90 minute drive from LAX in the wrong direction.)

I reach my destination only to find that by now, no parking is available anywhere close to the building I work. Once I park in some Godforsaken lot and trudge up to my office, there’s a whole bunch of emails and voicemails waiting for moi. Its 10 A.M. in California but I have been up for 9 hours now and so it already feels like the end of the day but there’s really no hope of getting out anytime soon.

A word about our work quarters here: In most client sites, we consultants have separate rooms to ourselves. It’s usually an old storage room which nobody knew existed until a new client recruit found it and came up with the bright idea of giving the consultants some privacy. The ratio of the number of people in this room at any particular point of time to the number of people who are supposed to be here is comparable to the ratio in some of the rooms one would have seen at Dachau in Germany in the early 1940s. Of course, there are some who think we deserve no less and our community usually doesn’t complain as long as we are allowed to bill over budget.

I get started on the formatting changes that I need to do on the PowerPoint presentation (as everyone is well aware, we consultants spend 20% of our time on Excel, 50% on formatting slides in PowerPoint, 20% on writing emails and the rest 10% on filling expense sheets, the only exception to this if you are a manger in which case you would spend the Excel time on writing proposals) when one of my client colleagues rush into the room. “We need to run those models again. Something is amiss”. If one is relatively new to the job, one would start running those painful simulations n times until the client says that it looks okay. If one is on the enlightened side, one would just ask the colleague in question the exact numbers he wants and then fudge the model to give him his numbers. Needless to say, there would be a neat slide in the deck which would talk about all the ‘judgements’ (read ‘fudge factors’) that have been applied. I do the latter and get back to my formatting. By now, consultants from all offices have arrived and everyone is catching up on office gossip. To an outsider, this would look like a complicated discussion as it involves the frequent use of words like ‘granularity’, ‘gain traction’, ‘buy-in’, ‘critical path’, ‘deliverables’ – I could go on and on but you get the idea.

Its lunchtime! Though there are about 18 cafeterias spread over the 52 buildings this company owns, we consultants like to eat somewhere else where we can expense a little more, not to mention the idea of having something other than cafeteria food. But alas, this is Thousand Oaks, CA, not exactly the culinary capital of the world.

Monday, July 18, 2005

We, the Living

Following is a simple but beautiful poem that my friend Susmit wrote a long time ago. Yeah, he stole the title alright but don't judge the poem by the title! I believe he wrote this poem on a particularly snowy day during his first winter here in America. And for some reason, I am reminded of this poem on a particularly hot day here in Chicago. So here's 'We, the Living' published with permission.

You live in a different world,
Talking to the skies above,
While I, poor blade of grass,
Bury my head in prosaic reality.

But today on this snowy day,
I feel a strange kinship,
When I see you, lofty branch.
Bow your head in the heavy snow.

The wind is harsh, biting and cold,
The snow is heavy, wet, .....and cold,
The sun has forgotten us here,
While I sink to my neck in snow.

But lift your head, O drooping branch,
And look winter in the eye,
For you are stronger than the wind,
And snow's lighter than you think.

There will come a gentle spring,
And warm summer days too,
We will see them, you and I,
And laugh at memories of the snow.

For we are stronger than them all,
Weak and unarmed though we be,
For we have life, and we the living,
Do not give in to the dead.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Do we really know more? And why?

Dilip has an interesting post on our obsession with local news and he says that the media in India and in America are not that different. The average Indian doesn't really know much about the world than the average American as the average Indian is some semi-literate dude from a small town who doesn't have an Internet connection. I agree but what about the above-average Indian - people like you and me? Do we really know more about the world than the average American?

I believe that depends on how you define the world. Let us have a small quiz here. Let us see how many of the following questions can we answer without resorting to Google or Wiki. Honor system, ofcourse.

1. Who is the President of Chad? or Does Chad have a President? or What system of government do they have anyways?
2. What language is spoken in the highlands of Peru by the natives?
3. Easiest of the lot - In which country can you find Mount Kilimanjaro?
4. Closer to home - Who is the King of Bhutan?
5. What is the capital of Laos?

My score - 2/5. I know where is Kilimanjaro. I know what language is spoken in the highlands of Peru(because I was there recently).

So anyways the point I am trying to make here is that we care to know about the 'world' we are interested in - we are usually interested in emulating/aping the developed and the powerful world and ofcourse, we will make an effort to learn about them. America, on the other hand, is the most powerful nation in the world and her average citizen has no incentive/interest in learning about anyone else. What say?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Second City - Early Impressions

Following is from my journal dated sometime in late 2003. I had moved to Chicago sometime in early 2003 and I had recorded my first impressions of the city in this piece. Revisiting this today, I see a a lot of things that I should add and a few things that I should change. But I also see that somehow my inherent cynicism seems to have taken a back seat and since that doesn't happen often, I refuse to rework this!

The Second City:

“Chicago, Chicago
That toddlin' town
Chicago, Chicago
I'll show you around, I love it
Bet your bottom dollar
You'll lose the blues
In Chicago, Chicago…”

“Well, at least it’s not St. Louis or Minneapolis. Chicago can’t be that bad, can it?” my friend sounded skeptical when I told him that I was moving to Chicago. I wasn’t convinced either. Chicago, in my worldview, wasn’t my kind of a city. I liked what I saw of it the last couple of times I was there but visiting is very different from actually living there. New York is more my type, or Boston maybe. But Chicago? Nah..I didn’t think so. When you have been enamoured by the charms of the East Coast for the past few years, you really wouldn’t want to move to flat, ugly, industrial Chicago. Or so I thought. It was almost as if it was the antithesis of everything that I wanted in a city – history (speaking in relative terms of course), culture, civilization, charm, and a sense of refinement if you know what I mean.

Six months later and a few hundred times wiser, I survey the city that I wanted to dislike from the skydeck of the John Hancock Center. “I know you people want to go up Sears Tower”, I tell my out-of-town friends with the confidence of a native Chicagoan “but trust me, this one has the better view. Sears is a waste of time. You don’t get to see the lake in all its magnificence and that makes all the difference.” This is the city I was sure I was going to hate? What was I thinking? I don’t remember when was it that it happened, but I think this city has a habit of creeping up behind you when you aren’t looking and completely take you by surprise. New York will always be my first love but the human mind isn’t known for being faithful; so I don’t think its fair to blame me for this one indiscretion.

Once I moved to Chicago, I started exploring the city with a detached superiority that a native New Yorker would have been proud of, carefully pointing out to myself why this place can never be compared to New York City. When I walked the entire stretch of Lincoln Park, I thought that it was so absurd to try to create a Central Park here. But then I had to admit in some remote uncorrupted corner of my mind that Central Park does not have a real lake running alongside it and what a difference that makes! New York might be the city by the sea and we all know how seas and oceans look like but this is the city by the lake and this lake is like no other; it has a character of its own. I think sometimes that it sets out to deceive everyone that it’s the sea and many a time, it succeeds too. It’s only the taste of freshwater and a vague memory of 8th grade geography that convinces you otherwise.

It was the beginning of summer when I moved here, so one of the first things I checked was the schedule of Shakespeare in the Park. Guess what? They had none in the city this year and my worst fears were confirmed. I wasn’t going to do anything with this city anymore. A friend had to drag me to the summer music festivals in Grant Park. By the time it was the Jazz festival weekend (we were done with Blues, Classical, Latin and Celtic by then), I stopped sulking entirely. I must say here that I was also very happy with Steppenwolf, Second City and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

I did not take the lake cruise until I was forced to; a bunch of friends came visiting and I had to play the gracious hostess. I wasn’t expecting much – after all, what could beat the Manhattan skyline? I was vindicated thoroughly; nothing could beat the Manhattan skyline. But to my surprise I was willing to concede that this not only comes a close second but it has much more variety in terms of how the buildings looked.

I started digging more into the making of this city and its neighborhoods. Nope, this is definitely not where the immigrants, after many days of travel through the rough seas, caught their first glimpse of the lady with the torch and saw in it the promise of the American Dream. But this is where they came by the droves – Germans, Poles, Scandinavians, and others through railroads and boats; this is where they toiled hard to realize that dream. This is where they fought some of their toughest battles, not just against the harsh winters that Mother Nature bestowed on them, but also against other men – landowners and industrialists who forced them to work 10, 12 and 16 hours a day under hazardous working conditions. The history of the American labor movement is also in good measure, the history of the city of Chicago though I wonder how many Americans read that in their history books today. The struggle for the eight-hour day that led to the infamous Haymarket fair incident here in Chicago was the origin of May Day, a day celebrated across the world with the notable exception of the United States as Workers’ Day.

If 9/11 showed us the resilience of the New Yorker, the Chicagoan went through a tragedy of a similar magnitude more than a century ago when the fire of 1871 destroyed all that was – 300 dead, 90,000 homeless and 18000 buildings destroyed. If ever there was an example about the worst times bringing out the best in man, this was it. The Chicagoan built the city back from scratch, but this time with safe building materials and safe construction techniques. The engineers and architects to come out of this period are some of the best in American history – William LeBaron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and John Root. They, among other things, developed what is known today as the ‘skyscraper’ and were the proponents of the Chicago School of Architecture. New York might be the city of skyscrapers, but this is where it all began.

Chicago literally rose from the ashes to claim its rightful place and it edged out New York to host the World Fair (World Columbian Exposition) of 1893 where the whole world came to terms with the indomitable spirit of Chicago. As every fellow East Indian would recall, it was here, as part of this fair, at the World Parliament of Religions, that a young Hindu pilgrim from British Bengal succeeded in introducing the essence of Hinduism to unsuspecting Westerners. The building where Swami Vivekananda delivered his famous speech has been renovated many times since – today, it is the home of the Art Institute of Chicago and there is a bronze plaque there commemorating his address. It reads, in part – “His unprecedented success opened the way for the dialogue between Eastern and Western religions”.

Eager to learn about the different styles of buildings here in Chicago, I took an architecture tour not long ago. I came across a building called the Rookery at the intersection of La Salle and Adams streets as part of the tour. The architect of the building was John Root but the skylit lobby went through a renovation later, and the architect for the renovation was Frank Lloyd Wright. Standing in that lobby, looking at the contrast between the lobby and the rest of the building, I realized the sheer genius of the man – for hundreds of years men have copied, varied and perfected the classical, Hellenic style and then this man comes along and builds something that is so radically different and yet so exquisitely beautiful. It is almost as if he is making a cultural statement with his straight lines and symmetry, he is ushering in a new era of science and industry; its time to move on from Gods and Goddesses; it was time to herald the modern age.

After the tour I went back home and rummaged through my bookshelf and pulled out ‘The Fountainhead’ to see whether there is any mention of the city that Howard Roark first starts working. I had read somewhere that Roard was modeled on Lloyd Wright. One doesn’t have to agree with the author to appreciate the inspiration for the work. I couldn’t find any reference to Chicago but there is no doubt in my mind that it could not have been any other city but this. This is essentially Roark city – efficient and functional and still beautiful. As Louis Sullivan put it - “form follows function”.

Every city I visit, I search for an underlying theme, a theme that makes its existence meaningful. With Chicago, I had to try harder than other cities to find what I was looking for. It came to me at an extremely ordinary moment at a coffeeshop in Wicker Park. There I met a young lawyer who graduated top of his class at Georgetown, turned down offers from all corporate legal firms, and is working today with a healthcare union in Chicago. He has a goal – to lobby hard for legislation that will bring down healthcare costs for the millions who cannot afford insurance. That’s when it dawned on me – ‘It’s the people, stupid’.

Every time I look at this city, at its buildings rising all the way up to the sky, at the cunningly deceptive blue lake, what makes me fall in love with it is what it stands for – it is a testimonial to the heights that men and women have conquered, men and women who fought against all odds for what they believed in, and their spirit, more than anything else, is what makes this city come alive.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Tsunami and the Chola country

Following is a travelogue entry from my journal written sometime in mid 2004. I have not been able to look at it since the fateful South East Asian tsunami devastation in Dev 2004 as most of the coastal regions mentioned in this piece were ravaged by the tsunami. Today, after reading Dilip's reports about his travels on the East Coast Road(link via Anand of Locana), I finally gathered the courage to revisit this particular piece. I had originally put this down as my tribute to a beautiful novel and a great empire; I never really thought about the people who currently live in this part of the world but the recent tragedy and its aftermath makes me think that they probably are the most important.

In Chola Country:

It was sunset and very peaceful. The waves in the sea near Kodikarai had grown calm. The catamarans and boats that had gone out in the morning were coming back. Birds that had gone out to sea in search of prey were returning to their nests. The white sand stretched quite a distance from the shoreline. Further inland was a jungle, its trees still, with not a leaf rustling. The red sun was plunging towards the spot where the sea met the sky. The few clouds that tried to make its reddish rays were themselves tinged with light” – Thus begins the second volume of Kalki’s magnum opus ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ with the author describing Vandiyathevan’s first glimpse of the eastern tip of the Chola mainland. We were greeted by almost the same sight a thousand years later when on a glorious January evening, we traveled through an extremely narrow one-lane road down the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu to reach Kodikarai.

History is a tough discipline; it requires its students to be passionate and patient. Very few of us manage to study it like it should be; even fewer interpret it objectively. More often than not, the vast majority of us get our history not from historical texts and data but from folklore and stories that have somehow managed to stand the test of time. Fact merges with fiction and we almost never know when one ends and the other begins. Probably this could explain why I got my history of the 10th century Chola Empire not from any history textbook but from a novel written by Kalki Krishnamoorthy in the 1950s.

My first recollection of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ is from when I was nine years old – my mother used to read the episodes in the Tamil magazine Kalki and narrate the story to me at dinnertime so that I would eat more than I usually do. I gobbled up exploits of the dashing Vandiyathevan and the conniving Azhwarkadiyan between mouthfuls of sambar and rice. Having never grown up in Tamil Nadu and not having learnt to read Tamil yet, I never ventured to read the story myself. Soon Vandiyathevan was replaced by the Famous Five and the girls of Malory Towers. There he remained forgotten throughout my teenage years – through Holmes and Poirot, Pip and Sidney Carton, Atticus Finch and Holden, Roark and Aragorn. Though I must say here that once or twice, Aragorn did remind me of the hero that I had heard about long ago.

And then one fine morning nearly 7 years ago, I was glancing through the Literary Supplement of “The Hindu” and met Vandiyathevan all over again. There he was on the banks of Kollidam ogling at Chola women! Apparently, to commemorate Kalki’s birth centenary Macmillan India was bringing out an English translation of the “Ponniyin Selvan’ – a five volume (the fifth is divided into two) work by C.V. Karthik Narayanan. I waited eagerly for the first volume and was probably one of the first to buy it the moment it hit the stores. Soon after I moved to the States and became yet another displaced Indian but I made my parents buy every volume as soon as it was published and ship them to me. My father, for once, was happy that his daughter was showing some interest in Tamil literature though I am sure he would rather I read it in Tamil; my mother just put it down to another case of what she calls the ‘DISDI (displaced Indian suddenly discovering India) syndrome’.

For my part, I was totally mesmerized by the book. As every person who has read this book would agree, I was magically transported to the Chola empire of thousand years ago. I was there with Vandiyathevan on his horse when he crossed into Chola country for the first time and took in the sights and smells of the land. I was there standing next to him when he overheard the conspiracy to crown the new emperor. I was there through his numerous skirmishes with Azhwarkadiyan, his various infatuations on almost every woman he meets, his travels to Thanjavur, Pazhayarai and then to Kodikarai and Eezham where he meets Ponniyin Selvan, his efforts to save Karikalan from the tragic fate that awaits him, his adventures in the dungeons of Thanjavur, his happiness at the coronation, and his reunion with Kundavai. Finally, I was with him at Manimekalai’s deathbed, his characteristic impishness drained from him, the mantle of adulthood upon his tired shoulders.

‘Ponniyin Selvan’ taught me more about the places, culture and the people of Chola land than any history book could ever have. I wanted to retrace Vandiyathevan’s footsteps; I wanted to travel where he traveled a millennium ago. I was overcome by a feeling of belonging, something that I have never felt before with respect to the Cauvery belt. The thought that for hundreds of years, the water from Ponni irrigated my forefathers’ lands, gave us the grains that enabled us to survive, and that the water still flows in my veins today gave me a totally new perspective on what Alex Haley would call ‘Roots’.

So it was in the month of January, a year and half ago, I convinced my parents that I wanted to do a quick tour of what’s left of the once mighty Chola Empire. My mother was ecstatic at the thought of her agnostic daughter actually setting out to visit one shrine after the other all through Chola land. Because that’s all what’s left of the empire today – ruined Shiva temples dotted across the land, from Thanjavur all the way up to Kanchi. Needless to say, my mother added her own list of temples to my trip – these were mostly newer temples where devotees flock to as they have all the ‘powerful’ Gods and Goddesses who easily grant all kinds of boons!

Our first stop was the Thanjavur Brihadeeshwarar temple. Enough has been described about this temple, the magnificent Nandi, the rock Gopuram, the intricate sculptures and the elephant that greets everyone at the entrance. This temple appears in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ not as an actual structure, but as a dream in young Ponniyin Selvan – he dreams about building temples in Thanjavur and all across Chola land and this particular temple was built after he took over the mantle of the Chola empire. I was very glad to see that this temple was maintained extremely well unlike other temples in Tamil Nadu. I wish the Dept of Archaeology that maintains this one would take in more temples into its fold so that we can preserve our culture and history intact. If nothing else, it would at least ensure that the rock gopurams of temples are not painted in garish green!

Next on my list was Pazhayarai – first capital of the Chola empire before they moved it to Thanjavur. In the novel, it’s the home of Kundavai, daughter of the Emperor, sister of Ponniyin Selvan, and the only woman who manages to stay in Vandiyathevan’s mind for more than a day. However there were no proper maps on how to get to Pazhayarai and no one we asked had actually heard about the place, so we promptly got lost and found ourselves close to Thiruvaiyyaru. We went into this picturesque town on the banks of the Cauvery and it looked to me as if music was in the air – there were dhoti-clad men singing hymns all across the town. One could easily believe that this was the home of the annual Thyagarajar festival. We went into the temple and saw the pillar mandapam where the festival is held. The festival has taken place sometime recently, so parts of it were still beautifully decorated. We met a priest in the temple who knew where Pazhayarai was; so we got new directions and set out again.

We passed through Dharasuram, Udayalur, and Thirukkandiyur on our way – all these towns appear in the novel. Other than the names, there’s nothing left of them now. Almost no one in these places seems to know their heritage – in a way, I felt it was better this way since they didn’t have to compare their present impoverished state to the affluence that they enjoyed in the Chola times. We finally reached Pazhayarai – it’s a small, forgotten village that no one cares about. The only thing that remains from the Chola period is a beautiful but dilapidated temple – one half of its gopuram is missing. No one does regular puja there anymore; kids play cricket inside the temple premises; an old lady tries to do what she can to keep the temple going. In front of the temple, a small signboard says ‘Vanished City: Pazahayarai’ – the only reminder of what this village once had been. O Ozymandius, King of Kings!

We spent the rest of the day visiting more temples – most of these were on my mother’s list; so there was really not much for me to see. After spending the night at my cousin’s place in Karaikal, we set out the next morning on our journey down the eastern coast. We passed the port town of Nagapattinam where the Hindu Ponniyin Selvan recuperates in a Buddhist viharam after surviving the storm in the Indian Ocean.

We finally reached Kodikarai after a four-hour journey down the coast. This landmass juts out into the sea making a horseshoe shape. The forest mentioned in the novel exists and it is a famous bird sanctuary now. We saw the lighthouse that helped Poonkuzhali find her way back more than once. There were some fishermen’s huts along the beach and the boats were just returning. We talked to a fisherman who offered to take us for a boat ride in the ocean. We refused as it was getting rather late and the sun was about to set. Of all the places that I had seen, only Kodikarai seemed unchanged, it looks the same as it would have looked a thousand years ago; exactly how the author describes it! As we started towards the car, I turned back one last time to see if I could find Poonkuzhali’s boat. There was no cradle-like boat that I could see. It was only in my imagination that I could hear her singing in her melancholy voice:

When the ocean waves lie still,
Why do the waves of the mind churn?
When Mother Earth lies fast asleep
Why does the heart skip a beat?

The birds of the forest wing to their nests
As archer and hunter seek their rest
As land and sky lie steeped in silence
Why does a storm blow in a beauty’s heart?

Clouds billow not and the wind is a soft breeze
Then why does a whirlwind swirl in a maiden’s heart?

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