Bachelor of Arts

booknarayan

 

Rasipuram Krishnaswamier (‘RK’) Iyer Narayan (1905-2001) was born in Madras (now ‘Chennai’) in southern India. He was a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. Many of his fictional works are set in the imaginary southern Indian town called Malgudi. Until recently when I bought a copy of “Bachelor of Arts” (first published in 1937 when India was ruled by the British), I had never read any of Narayan’s works. 

“Bachelor of Arts” is a delightful simply told tale about a young man, Chandran, whom we meet while he is completing his BA degree. We follow his life’s strangely interesting path after he graduates until he … well, I won’t give away the story. Despite the simplicity and clarity of the story telling, Narayan subtly changes the mood of the story as it progresses. I liked the way he did this. Another interesting aspect of this novel is the gentle way in which the author criticises the British imprerialistic attitude. I was also excited by the way Narayan, an Indian, portrays the ‘Indian-ness’ of his characters. As Grahame Greene wrote of Narayan in the introduction to the edition I read:

Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”

I agree wholeheartedly with what Greene wrote. I plan to read more of Narayan’s works as “Bachelor of Arts” has whetted my apetite successfully.

Chicken 65

HAMPI 2a

The state-run Mayura Hotel at Hampi is conveniently located in the midst of the extensive, picturesque ruins of the once very prosperous city of Vijayanagara. The former city was once the world’s second largest metropolis, but it was destroyed in 1565. I have stayed at the hotel on at least three occasions despite its shortcomings, some of which I will describe below. It is only fair to point out that the last time I stayed at this hotel was at least nine years ago. Things might well have improved by then.

On one occasion, we were driving to Hampi from Bangalore, and were running late. We rang the hotel to tell them that we would be likely to turn up by 6 pm. They replied that it would not be a problem: our room was waiting. And, so it should have been because check-out time was 12 noon. Whoever had occupied the room on the previous day should have vacated their room by noon.

When we turned up at the hotel, we were told that the room we had booked was still occupied. We were not pleased. The receptionist explained that the occupants of our room, who should have vacated it by noon, were still using it. We remonstrated and asked for an explanation. We were told that the family that was overstaying in our promised room had also arrived late the day before, and the hotel was kindly letting them extend their stay at our expense.  We were tired and not amused.

The receptionist and another member of staff settled us temporarily in a small bedroom while we waited for our room to become vacant and cleaned up. After a couple of hours, we were shifted to our allotted family room. There were several workmen in the bathroom. They were trying to turn off a jet of water, like a geyser, that was shooting up from the floor. They managed after about an hour.

There were no towels in our accommodation. By now it was well after dark. We asked for towels and were told that we could not have them because the person with the (presumably only) key to the linen cupboard had gone home.

At the end of one of our stays at the Mayura, we asked to have breakfast at 7 am, when the dining area was supposed to open. When we arrived promptly at 7 am, there was no staff too be seen. Apart from us, the dining area was empty. After a few minutes, I walked into the kitchen: it was empty. All of the kitchen and serving staff were standing in a crowd in a nearby room, their eyes glued to a television screen. We learned the reason when, eventually, someone came to look after us. The television was showing the funeral of the much-loved Kannada film star Vishnuvardhan, who died on the 30th December 2009. Vishnuvardhan’s family were dismayed because his loss was not so greatly mourned as that of another star Rajkumar, who had died three years earlier. People had committed suicide on hearing of Rajkumar’s demise. Nevertheless, our driver thought it would be safer if we drove with a photo of Vishnuvardhan attached to the window as a mark of respect. Without it, we might have been attacked!

During one of our stays, we were curious to taste what appears on many South Indian restaurant menus. It is something called ‘Chicken 65’. What appeared resembled breaded chicken nuggets. They were bland and tasteless – very disappointing. 

Some days later, we had dinner with an elderly Dutch couple, who were back-packing around India. It was clear to us that they had had enough of spicy food. We suggested that they ordered French fries (finger chips in Indian English), which, like omelettes and tomato soup, are almost always available wherever you are in India. Their eyes lit up at this suggestion. Also, we recommended that they order Chicken 65, which we assured them was not at all spicy. 

After a while, the chips were served along with a plate of chicken pieces that did not resemble the Chicken 65, which we had ordered a couple of days earlier. Our new friends tasted this dish, and their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. What had been served to them as Chicken 65 was far from bland; it was fiery hot. It seemed to us that the chefs in the kitchen paid little attention to what was ordered by the customers. We later learned that Chicken 65 is supposed to be hot and spicy. What we had been served before we met the Dutch people, was definitely not that dish.

The spicy dish was originally created at Buhari’s Hotel in Madras in 1965, hence the 65 in the name (see: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/the-hows-whys-of-our-chicken-65/article5042658.ece).

While we were staying in the hotel one visit, a tour group of Italians had dinner one evening. One man, who had had enough of spicy food, shouted out in a hysterical voice: “I want chicken, plain chicken with salt, nothing else, just chicken and salt, no spices, just chicken and salt.” He kept repeatng this, and we thought: “He should be so lucky in this eatery”.

Despite its elements of “Fawlty Towers” hospitality, the Mayura is a lovely place to base a few days of exploration of the substantial  ruins of a once great city.

HAMPI 3

It began with a bang

First experiences of India

My wife, Lopa, and I flew to Bangalore in India in late December 1993 to celebrate our marriage with a Hindu ceremony. This was the first time that I had ever travelled further east than Cyprus.

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We flew from London on a ‘plane operated by the Sri Lankan line, Air Lanka. The flight was memorable because the food served on board was superb. It was not the bland, insufficient fare usually provided when airborne. What we received on our trays in large metal foil containers was delicious Sri Lankan food, which tasted as if it were home-made by a cook who injected his or her love of food into the flavours.

Our first stop was at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. As we descended for landing during the slowly brightening dawn light, I could see acres of palm trees below us.  This was the first time that I had ever seen groves of palms. This exotic sight made me feel that at last I had arrived in Asia.

After disembarking, we had to wait for our next flight for several hours. In those days, we took anti-malaria tablets. That morning, the only liquid we could find to wash them down was tea. Until that moment I had always drunk tea without milk. The tea stall only provided sweetened milky tea. I found it to be sickly and no help for ingesting the evil-tasting tablet. Now, after many visits to India I quite enjoy Indian milky tea.

My wife and I waited in a room along with other passengers, all of them from the sub-continent. Suddenly, one of her eyes began streaming with tears because some foreign body had entered it. Lopa began dabbing her eyes with a tissue. All the people around us glared at me. They thought that I had upset my wife!

On landing in Madras (Chennai) after walking across the tarmac from the ‘plane to the terminal, Lopa became nervous about the Indian customs examination. She told me that the officials could be very awkward. In those days, very little in the way of foreign goods were imported into India. Visitors or returning Indians were often laden with goods that then attracted high import duties at the customs. Smuggling was rife, and the customs’ officials were eagerly on the look-out for hidden treasures such as electronic goods, booze, and so on. We were not carrying anything of dutiable value. Nevertheless, Lopa was anxious.

As we approached the customs’ officials, the gods blessed us in an unusual way. Lopa’s nose suddenly began bleeding profusely. Despite using a handkerchief there was blood all over the place. The custom’s official, whom we were approaching, took one look at the bloodstained woman approaching him, and waved us through the customs barrier without stopping us.

At this point, let me tell you another thing that surprised me during my first visit to India: women police officers dressed in saris, albeit plain khaki saris. Another ‘plane took us from Madras to Bangalore (Bengaluru).

Lopa’s family met us at the airport (this was the old HAL airport east of the city, which has now been replaced by the newer Kempe Gowda Airport north of the city). After fighting our way through a crowd of taxi touts, we scrambled aboard the family’s ageing Maruti van, through its sliding side door.

By now, it was late at night, and dark. When we reached the family’s house, we disembarked, and stood in front of the main entrance. The top of the front door was decorated with leaves attached to a thread, a ‘toran’ (तोरण). Instead of entering, we all stood in front of the door. I wondered whether the front door key had been mislaid.

After a few minutes, there was suddenly a deafening sharp cracking sound, a loud bang. I thought to myself: “Oh no, we’ve been in Bangalore for just over an hour, and someone is shooting at us.” The noise that had startled me was no more than someone cracking open a coconut with an axe. Cracking coconuts is a part of Hindu traditions, especially at weddings. Amongst other things, the coconut is associated with fertility.

COCO 0

Some days later, we began the three-day long series of events connected with our Hindu wedding ceremony.

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After the blessings by the priests, Lopa and I, connected together by several flower garlands and scarves, struggled into the back seats of a small Maruti car (not the van!). As soon as we were aboard we were driven a few feet forward. The purpose of this short journey was to drive over and thereby crack a coconut placed beneath one of the car’s front wheels.

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I can truly say that my experience of India began with a bang.