Today is Navroze, the Parsi (and indeed Persian) New Year. And I had the privilege of celebrating the occasion at a community dinner which also marked the inauguration of the new Parsi pavilion in Chennai.
Most of Chennai's Parsis were there - along with friends and well-wishers - for a sit down meal on banana leaf featuring an array of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. The pavilion used to be a down-at-heel badminton court. Now, along with the adjoining community hall, it can be used for social occasions as well as bringing in revenue from its use for Muslim weddings.
This was not my first Parsi meal of the week - on Monday I had an excellent breakfast in the grounds of the Parsi dharamsala, just up the street from the community hall and pavilion. In the photo, there's (on the left) Darius and Tehnaz Bahadurji, the leading figures in the community, along with Mahiar Shroff, who manages the dharamsala, and his wife Zavera, who cooked the breakfast.
The centrepiece of the assembly of Parsi buildings in the Royapuram area of north Chennai is the fire temple. It was built by the Clubwala family and dates from 1910. There's a full-time priest and an assistant. The temple is wonderfully well kept and, as is customary, non-Parsis are not allowed to enter.
Royapuram is near Chennai's docks, which came under Japanese attack during the Second World War. The area was evacuated, but the Zoroastrian priest at the time refused to leave - insisting that he would ensure that the fire in the temple didn't die out.
There's never been a tower of silence in Chennai, and the burial ground is a small but, again, well kept plot in the grounds of the dharamsala. As you can see, there have been a number of interments in recent months; the last Parsi wedding in Chennai was almost six years ago.
The Parsi community in Chennai numbers a little over two-hundred - two-thirds aged seventy and over. But the community here has not suffered the sharp diminution of numbers witnessed in some other Indian cities.
There are about 55,000 Parsis across India, mainly in Mumbai and Pune. That number is shrinking - the community has a low birth rate and, by and large, is reluctant to accept those with only one Parsi parent as a full member.
Apart from their cuisine (and their relative wealth), Parsis are noted for their philanthropy, towards their own and more widely. The dharamsala in Chennai (below) is, like the temple, more than a century old - a place to stay for Parsi travellers and those without a home. And on the adjoining land the community has a number of apartments available for young Parsi incomers, to give them a helping hand in a new city and to seek to fortify the community's future in Chennai.
The community has well-attended monthly get-togethers and prides itself on its common purpose when (so I hear) many other Parsi communities, some much smaller, are prone to factions and feuding.
'Once, in a village, there was a goat. No one knew where she was born. The birth of an ordinary life never leaves a trace, does it? Even so, her arrival was somewhat unusual,'
The opening words of Poonachi or the story of a black goat by Perumal Murugan, first published in Tamil fifteen months ago and now out in an excellent English translation.
The 'ordinary life', of course, is anything but - Poonachi is the seventh-born and runt of a litter and black all over, and this is the story of her hopes, fears, feelings and travails.
READING OF THE OPENING PASSAGES OF POONACHI
The novel is both hugely readable and exceptionally effective. As the translator, N. Kalyan Raman, remarks: 'As we track the destiny of this orphan goat, shaped by a force-field of humans and animals, we realise that the author's real theme is our own fears and longings, primordial urges and survival tactics. Through a feat of storytelling that is both masterly and nuanced, Murugan makes us reflect on our own responses to hegemony and enslavement, selflessness and appetite, resistance and resignation, living and dying.'
The author, Perumal Murugan, vowed not to write any more after his previous novel came under fire from right-wingers, He has broken that vow with a novel which is in part political allegory, about an oppressively vigilant state. But this is not an Orwellian novel, even though it explores the sentiments and experience of a farm animal. It is about using the imagined experiences of a goat and those who care for her to explore the most basic of human endeavours, instincts and emotions.
And while I was reading the book, I came across - yes - a black goat (or two)!
This is kimchi stew, brought to the table bubbling hot. And with a stunning array of side dishes -
And this is a meal for one!
Kimchi is of course the salted and fermented cabbage and radish which is a staple of Korean cuisine. The stew comes with strips of pork and tofu and a fearsome combination of spices. Formidable!
'It’s a warm, hearty, spicy, savory, delicious dish that pretty much everyone loves. As long as they can handle spicy food, I never met a person who didn’t like kimchi-jjigae.' So says one Korean website, which offers a recipe too.
And where did I chance across this feast? In a hotel restaurant in the otherwise non-descript town of Sriperumbudur, just outside Chennai. The Kyung Joo hotel is Korean-run, established seven years ago, and up to 90% of the customers are Korean too.
Hyundai opened a plant here in the late 1990s - it's now producing almost 700,000 vehicles a year. It's one of the main manufacturers for the booming Indian car market, and also exports almost a quarter of what it makes here.
Samsung and other Korean companies have followed. There are now 6,000 Koreans living in and around Chennai - said to be the city's biggest expat community and certainly the biggest concentration of Korean nationals anywhere in South Asia.
By and large the community keeps itself to itself - but it has started promoting greater awareness of Korean culture, art and spirituality and at the same time some Koreans have become more curious about South India, its beliefs and traditions.
In Chennai, if you are local you can take classes in the Korean language - and if you are Korean, there's a special course available about Indian film music.
Near where I live in central Chennai, there are two Korean restaurants, a Korean cafe and a Korean bakery (not to mention the Korean consulate-general).
Choi Jung Ae, the proprietor of the Cheong Ki Wa restaurant, told me that she had been in Chennai for the past eleven years. Her kitchen staff are Nepalese; the table staff look Korean but all are from India's north-east, from Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram.
And the food? Great. I had a prawn and rice dish, which came with the inevitable spread of side dishes, including soft-shell crab (recommended!), a scrambled egg type concoction and of course kimchi.
I went to a well attended Sunday morning service today at St Stephen's English church at Pallavaram on the outskirts of Chennai. It's a church with quite a history - and with a lively style of worship which attracted a congregation of a hundred or so, many of them young.
It's part of the Church of South India, so within the Anglican communion.
AN AUDIO EXCERPT FROM THE SERVICE BELOW
The church was established more than eighty years ago to serve primarily the Anglo-Indian community - a distinct social group, now dwindling in numbers, which has some (often now very distant) European lineage. Many 'Anglos' have moved to Britain, Canada and Australia - and the treasurer of the church said that of those that remained, few came to church regularly.
He says that about 40% of the church's membership is Anglo-Indian, but on average only about 10% of those attending services at St Stephen's are from the 'Anglo' community.
I don't know whether it happens every Sunday, but today there was an excellent breakfast for all attending St Stephen's, a South Indian assortment of idli, sambar, vada, uppama and coconut chutney. Brilliant!
The church and adjoining school are on military land. Initially services were held inside the barracks, but in the 1920s four Anglo-Indian women - all reputed to be war widows - started raising money to build a church, and in the mid-1930s the current building was consecrated.
This part of Pallavaram is called Veteran Lines - it was where land was made available, probably between the wars, for army veterans to construct houses. In the 1950s, the area was almost entirely Anglo-Indian. Some of the sites have been redeveloped, but others - a few dilapidated but several still lived in and cared for - are more-or-less unchanged.
I talked to Craig, a young man who was proud to describe himself as an Anglo-Indian. He was walking his two dogs, one a pug. His father was in England, he told me, and he was hoping to be able to join him. Craig's ambition to emigrate is one that has been widely shared within the community's ranks.
The Veteran Lines area is in the top right-hand corner of this map.
Chennai has a beautiful Armenian church - and a woefully derelict Armenian cemetery. The church on Armenian Street in Georgetown dates back to the eighteenth century, and the gate bears the date 1712. I imagine it was when the land immediately surrounding the church could take no more burials that a new plot was found for use as a graveyard.
The burial ground is hard to find - and not all that easy to enter. You have to gently remove a sheet of corrugated iron to gain access - the gates themselves are simply an obstacle not an entrance.
This is just off the appropriately named Burial Ground Road in Island, not too far from the similarly forlorn St Mary's cemetery. The date over the gateway, or what's left of it, reads 1862. The most recent interment was a little over a decade ago.
Some of the graves are not in good shape and there's little sign of any care or attention. Parts of the burial ground have been used as a rubbish tip. It's all a little tawdry.
Casting around the cemetery, I was alarmed to spot what I at first took to be a body wrapped in a shroud on top of one of the graves. Eeek!
Happily, it turned out to be a local lad who had chosen the spot to have a kip. He was awakened from his mid-morning slumbers by (I imagine) his mother.
Either that, or it was another resurrection!
And the cemetery you can see beyond the railings? That, I was told, belongs to St Andrew's - I assume the Scottish-foundation Kirk in Egmore. It seems to be much better cared for.
This non-descript grave amid the wilderness of St Mary's cemetery in Chennai is the resting place of Laurence Hope, a popular poet who wrote on Indian themes 120 years or so ago. I put the flowers there myself. She deserves remembering.
I say 'she' because Laurence Hope was the nom de plume of Adela Florence (also known as Violet) Nicolson. Her most famous poem, Kashmiri Song, was set to music, and indeed when I was young I can remember my father singing, more to himself than anyone else, 'beside the Shalimar'.
The song has disappeared almost without a trace, but for the curious, this is it (with thanks to 'kbio1200' who both sings and plays piano on this short video he posted on YouTube):
And you can hear Rudolph Valentino's 1923 rendition of Kashmiri Song here.
The words of the poem (the song has slightly different lyrics) are striking - but then so is the story of Laurence Hope:
Poem: Kashmiri Song
Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?
Whom do you lead on Rapture's roadway, far,
Before you agonise them in farewell?
Oh, pale dispensers of my Joys and Pains,
Holding the doors of Heaven and of Hell,
How the hot blood rushed wildly through the veins
Beneath your touch, until you waved farewell.
Pale hands, pink tipped, like Lotus buds that float
On those cool waters where we used to dwell,
I would have rather felt you round my throat,
Crushing out life, than waving me farewell!
The Shalimar Garden - or Shalimar Bagh - is one of the magical Mughal gardens dating back 400 years and facing Dal Lake in Srinagar. There's also a Shalimar Garden in Lahore - 'shalimar' apparently means 'abode of love' in Sanskrit.
Adela's (or Violet's or Laurence's) father, Arthur Cory, was an army officer who became the editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, the paper that Rudyard Kipling worked for. Adela was born and brought up in England but at the age of about sixteen came out to Lahore, and eight years later she married an army officer almost as old as her father, Colonel Malcolm Nicolson of the Baluch Regiment.
The couple lived for about ten years in Mhow in what is now Madhya Pradesh. Nicolson was an Indophile and a linguist, and they shared a deep attachment to India and its culture. Adela began writing poetry, often suffused with an erotic tinge. Her first volume, The Garden of Kama also titled India's Love Lyrics, appeared in 1901. The book was in the name of Laurence Hope and was purported to be translations of Indian Sufi poetry. In fact, it was all Adela's own work.
Adela's poetry found an audience. Thomas Hardy was an admirer, though by and large the literary establishment was disapproving. When Amy Woodforde-Finden set several of the poems to music, they became celebrated songs - in vogue until the Second World War.
Nicolson ended his career in the Indian army as a general and, with his wife and son, returned to England. But the couple couldn't easily make the adjustment, Leaving their son behind, Malcolm and Adela returned to India, establishing their home near Calicut in Kerala.
I, who of lighter love wrote many a verse,
Made public never words inspired by thee,
Lest strangers' lips should carelessly rehearse
Things that were sacred and too dear to me.
Thy soul was noble; through these fifteen years
Mine eyes familiar, found no fleck nor flaw,
Stern to thyself, thy comrades' faults and fears
Proved generosity thine only law.
Small joy was I to thee; before we met
Sorrow had left thee all too sad to save.
Useless my love----as vain as this regret
That pours my hopeless life across thy grave.
Her suicide was clearly not a hastily conceived act. The couple lie together at St Mary's cemetery in the Island district of what has become Chennai.
An article about Laurence Hope in Madras Musings - which I have drawn on for this blog - says that Adela Nicolson was regarded by many of the English in India as an eccentric. She dressed in the Indian style and spoke fluent Urdu. It also repeats suggestions that her love life was adventurous.
It seems that a Somerset Maugham short story, The Colonel's Lady, was written with Adela in mind: the officer is concerned that his wife may have had an affair, but decides to do nothing about it because he too has had an extra-marital romance.
Adela had quite an after life. In 1914, a new and sumptuous edition of The Garden of Kama was published with illustrations by Byam Shaw. Her son oversaw the publication of Laurence Hope's Selected Poems in 1922. Her life and work inspired films, dance, novels and biography.
By the 1940s, her work had been largely eclipsed. As India gained independence, the writing of an Indianist from an early, distinctly imperial, era sounded discordant. But she was clearly a talented and complex woman, with a deep love for an engagement with India.
My thanks to Ramya Sriram's post on the Madras Local History Group Facebook page which alerted me that Adela Nicolson is buried in Chennai and indicated the location of the grave.
In St Mary's cemetery, if you head for the Commonwealth War Grave plots, the Nicolsons are buried close to but outside the WW1 plot a little towards the main part of the cemetery.
What a forlorn spot - a sprawling, semi-derelict graveyard in a forgotten corner of Chennai. This is St Mary's cemetery - first used as a European burial ground in the 1760s, and still put to use occasionally for fresh interments.
This is the cemetery linked to St Mary's church in Fort, which dates from 1680 and is reputed to be the oldest Anglican church east of Suez. The initial cemetery - in a guava garden much closer to the church - was cleared to improve the fort's defence against French incursion.
This more distant spot - it's in an area called Island and is owned by the Indian army - was established in 1763 and was the main burial spot for the more wealthy and influential Europeans in what was then Madras for a few generations. By the 1850s, some much grander churches had been built and the prestige of St Mary's dwindled - and the number of burials here started to diminish accordingly.
These photographs don't fully reveal just how overgrown and unkempt this cemetery has become. It's used occasionally for film scenes - I would imagine for horror movies. It really is a spooky place. Click on the video and see for yourself -
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
It's striking how many of the graves are of children, and how few of the adults lived beyond fifty. There was nothing glorious about Empire - either for its agents or its victims.
Tucked away in a corner of the cemetery are two beautifully tended Commonwealth war graves - what a striking contrast to the rest of the graveyard, a wilderness where the memorials are slowly crumbling away or being consumed by shrubs and creepers.
The smaller of these war graves is for the dead of the First World War. This is the larger plot, largely for those who died in 1939-45 -
Walking along the silent ranks of gravestones, I can't help wondering about the tragedies and personal heartbreaks concealed behind the inscriptions -
Service men from West Africa who met their deaths in South India ... a soldier who died in a shark attack while swimming in the sea off Fort ... those who were deeply mourned by their family ... those whose names are entirely unadorned.
What a terrible thing war is!
Although the cemetery is vast, it's not marked even on the most detailed online map - but the red marker gives an indication of its location. It's not too far from Chennai Central station. The caretaker lives with his family in the shack just inside the cemetery - he'll let you in and if necessary unlock the war graves plots.
I've had a liking for meetha paan - sweet paan - ever since my first stint in Delhi more than twenty years ago. And here in Chennai, Manoj at the local street corner paan stall makes a neat meetha paan.
I pop by most days. I guess I've become a regular. As soon as he sees my face, Manoj sets to work.
What's in it? Well it's a betel leaf smeared with lime paste, and with a concoction of delicacies - some sweet and sticky, others with a bit of a punch - which add up to a mouth-filling cocktail of flavours.
There's an online recipe here - but I suspect Manoj's are, if not quite as fancy, then more authentic, and his certainly have more ingredients.
The paan stall is tiny, but serves as both meeting place and roadside store. Manoj sells cigarettes (one-at-a-time, if need be), various types of paan, including the sachet kind, sweets, pens, all sorts of stuff. And business is brisk.
My meetha paan costs me 25 rupees a go (not bad considering I was shelling out 10 rupees back in the '90s). And then of course, you have to eat it ...
S.A. Govindaraju is a Godsend. He is that rarest of people in India - a second-hand bookseller.
His store - well, a windowless garage in the Chennai apartment block where he lives - houses about 5,000 titles, and a huge battalion of print adverts and cuttings. And Govindaraju can put his hands more-or-less instantly on just the thing he's looking for amid the turmoil of his enticingly cramped premises.
As well as posing for a photo, I persuaded the proprietor to talk a little about his love of books and bookselling -
Mr Govindaraju is 82. His career was in personnel management. And he's been selling books from his garage for the past quarter-of-a-century. He told me that he once had a much bigger collection but sold that off in bulk and then started amassing his stock again from scratch.
Most of his titles are paperbacks and in English, embracing fiction, factual, some academic titles, and a few old periodicals - I spotted a copy of that long since disappeared magazine Soviet Woman as well as bound copies of a Theosophical publication (their global HQ is just a mile or two away).
And what did I buy? Well, the first issue of Penguin New Writing from 1940, which has pieces by George Orwell and Mulk Raj Anand, not particularly rare but interesting ,,, and a Penguin appreciation of D.H.Lawrence issued in 1950 to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death ... and an Indian political pamphlet which I will come back to.
The political pamphlet is entitled New Horizons: the role of the Congress Party today in Indian national reconstruction by 'a Congressman'. Take a listen to some brief extracts ...
It sounds very contemporary - those are the sort of complaints you hear about the Congress Party today. But this pamphlet dates back well over half-a-century to 1963 - in that difficult period for Congress between India's defeat in the 1962 border war with China and the death two years later of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.
I do hope this blog may persuade you to visit Mr Govindaraju's book store if you are in Chennai. He recommends that you ring or email before coming round - not least so he can give you directions!
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