Sunday, October 29, 2023

Greek idyll

 I think of Zakynthos.

The blue and the green, and all the flowers and colours in between. The quiet of the slow warm afternoon, sun-slanted paved alleys deserted during the siesta, a beige street punctuated with the colours of the shop-fronts, a lady dozing in a chair, a car purring past on the paved road, out of place like a leopard in a drawing room. As we passed the cross alleys, the green hillside behind Zante came and went from our view, the buildings of the Jewish cemetery small between the trees. On the other side, swaying masts far away between the house fronts, accentuating the blue of the ocean behind them.

Round a corner, tables and tourists spilled from a small taverna. Salads, souvenirs, selfies. Across the road from the taverna, a grey building with green wooden shutters turned out to be the supermarket we were looking for. Two young people at separate tables outside smoked as they talked on their phones.

Time seemed to swell in the soft sun, flow slow and languid while the breeze wandered through the leaves and the coloured flags. We bought knick-knacks we did not need, pastries we would not eat. Sauntered back towards the seafront, sat below a large white cross, a memorial that we could not decipher because we lack a classical education. Strange that the townspeople seemed mentally closer to us, people from a poorer eastern country, than to the Brits who had exalted their legacy across five hundred years until Anglo and Greco became culturally interwoven in colonies across the world. But the sun was mellow and the breeze was cool, and the mewing of the seagulls was too high and keen to allow much thought.

I think of Zakynthos.
And I yearn to go back, spend slow days and nights in the stream of time, fill my memories with scattered lights and the clop clop of trotting horses, savour strange food at leisure while watching sailboats skim the blue between sea and sky.
But when I try to work out why it is that I want to see Zakynthos again, and not the more strident rhythms of Rome or Athens, I wonder. Do I truly seek new milieus, environments? Or do I seek beauty? Nature? People, cultures? Peace and comfort … but then why would I leave my snug home cocooned in minor privilege?
It struck me, then, that my second view of Greece (after Roger Lancelyn Green's "Legends of Greece and Rome") was the idyllic Corfu of the Durrell family. And when I dream of slow peaceful days amid the bougainvilleas and the sun-soaked patios, I actually seek a return to a mood, a yearning, from the books of my childhood. I want to lose myself inside a story that I loved.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Idyll, idle

 Somewhere to the west, behind me, a single-line railway cuts across town from north to south. Late last evening, and again just now after the sun has passed its zenith, the cracked two-tone moan of a diesel loco rose behind the bungalows of the Civil Surgeons and the Additional District Judges. Diffused by distance and the trees that surround this space, it is a far lost lament circling towards the sun. In starkly contrasting mood, a young neem tree in front of me sways and shimmers happily in the afternoon sun and breeze. Roseate parakeets swoop and squawk between the scattered trees. 

I look up into the branches of the guava tree, and a black-hooded oriole chatters right above me. A wood-dove erupts from a mango tree on my right, flies a pointless circle round the garden, then vanishes into the foliage fifty yards away to my left. How pleasant it is that birdsong here is louder than the traffic. How pleasant that even on a working day, my phone has not rung once in the last hour, so I can use it to take photographs and record my musings. How very pleasant to sit here in a green-gold mental haze, with “no deeds to do, no promises to keep”. I sigh in pleasure, and settle myself even more comfortably into my chair in the shade of the old guava tree.

 In the middle distance a furry dog shakes itself luxuriously, then jumps up on a verandah ledge and drapes itself lengthwise for a siesta. A flight of pigeons clatters up, then resumes its circling. From some green hideaway, a coppersmith barbet briefly tolls its triple note, a sound that I had hitherto associated only with the long hot afternoons of pre-monsoon summer. Now, in the chill of a retreating northern winter, it seems strange as a familiar tongue in a foreign clime. But still it lulls me further into this pleasant trance, just being, observing, floating on the slow current of the drifting day. Somewhere inside me the querulous voice of my weekday self rises in familiar rhythms, only to be summarily swamped by the surge of idleness. Which is also the voice of reason, for on this day, in this fairy-tale moment, there is nothing that I have to do, nowhere that I have to go, nobody I have to meet. A rare backwater on the stream of my unexciting life, where the absence of obligation offers placid enjoyment.  “I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep / Let the morning time drop all its petals on me …”

 P------t, proper in his dark blue sweater and trousers, looking faintly disoriented as is his wont, approaches with small measured steps. He bears a tray with a cup of tea and a small bottle of mineral water, which he sets down on the chair next to mine. He is about to enquire what else I need, but I smile and thank him and wave him away. This moment, this mood, is not to be spoiled by speech. The sun is slipping farther. The birds are still loud, still insistent. The parakeets are the noisiest, spoilt children shrieking and screeching as they zigzag between the trees. A pariah kite mews and cheeps as it glides down into a nearby tree, giving away the location of its nest. A smell of earth and wood-smoke rises behind the bungalows. Chulhas being lit in preparation for tea, as working people find their way home? There is a hint of sharpness on the breeze now as evening sidles in, an edge even in these last days of a fading winter.

Mynahs, grackles, finches, rollers, all tune up their parts against the backdrop of the parakeets. A faster train approaches from the north, a higher longer note indicating an electric loco, and Dopplers its way to the south. More auto-rickshaws moan their electric threnody as office-goers ride homewards. The long light laps against the Circuit House, washes the trees a warmer shade, pours shadows over the grass, softens the edges of my vision's frame. The shadows of paired kites pass over the sunlit grass, as their circles descend with the fading of the day.

 Five squirrels leap and circle and chatter in front of a cottage. The dog has finished its siesta and descended from the ledge, stretching luxuriously before shaking itself and trotting off on its evening rounds.

 And now, as the birdsong subsides, as only the parakeets remain, to perch on the top branches with loud chatter, the usual evening sense of sadness settles like mist upon the vista. A nightjar strikes up in a far corner. I sip my tea. A gentle giant, bespectacled, comes over to ask me to move to the eastern lawn. That one is better maintained. The western side is comparatively unkempt. I find it more attractive, but the undergrowth might provide cover for snakes. Surely it's still too cold for them to emerge? But why take chances .... I hoist my day-bag and cup and step forth for sunnier climes. The open lawn on the other side of the House will bask in the setting sun for nearly another hour, long after these trees have furled the western grounds in soft shadow and frogs have taken over duties of the orchestra pit from the birds.


One gap remained, one sight unseen. Fourteen years ago I spent a month in this faux-colonial edifice, in the room almost under the stairs. Morning and evening I would walk or sit on the lawn, and every time I would see a family of four Indian grey hornbills. Large ungainly birds, they would perch on the higher branches, or hop about upon the thicker ones like a kindergartener who needs the loo. Their flight was slow and clumsy, alternately flapping heavily and gliding between one tree and another. They never perched on buildings or poles.

On this visit, I looked for them but caught only a brief glimpse of one in silhouette, that too on a tree outside the huge grounds of the Circuit House. Sitting in the gathering gloaming on the eastern lawn, I read up on grey hornbills. Their life-span is thirty years or more, so the same family could well be around. But nary a sight of them have I had so far.

But wait! That repeated call from the depths of the banyan tree? Like a large pariah kite trying to imitate a car horn? Surely ...

And in a moment of joy, first one and then a second hornbill bursts forth from the behind the trailing roots of the banyan and flies away to the east. A sighting. And a farewell.

Patiala has fulfilled a promise.


Monday, January 02, 2023


 Barrraaaa … ter-raaatt!” Sardar Karnail Singh bellowed across the paddock. And twenty sad OTs, Officer Trainees, held on to the reins in quiet desperation as their lives were speeded up an unwelcome notch. We had all been told to lightly spur our horses upon Karnail Singh’s command, so they would move from a sedate trot into a canter, the burra trot. We all took to heart the part about “lightly”, and barely brushed our heels against our horses’ flanks. In hopes that they would miss the memo and stick to the rather comfortable slower pace. No such luck. The horses were far better trained than their riders, and after several seasons of Karnail Singh’s dulcet tones echoing round their ears, they understood his orders thoroughly. Wherefore the horses broke into a canter. And several OTs, I am sure, broke into a sweat.

For a brief spell, I was actually exhilarated by the sensation. Fingers knotted in the reins, knees clamped tight around the horse, I fondly imagined that I cut a fine figure. Or at the very least, a less sorry figure than U---- S---, who on the very first day of riding class had fallen off a stationary horse and broken his collar-bone. And as usually happens in such circumstances, I became careless. My grip on the reins must have slackened. The first I got to know of this was when my steed suddenly harrumphed and broke into a full gallop. A gallop! With a rider who had mounted on his own for the first time, only four days prior! What the … well, here again, I must confess, the fault was largely mine.

There were a few horses in the stables that were earmarked for the special category of plump, despairing, dewy-eyed lady officers who almost broke into tears when they entered the paddock. These were the placid, even-tempered steeds, usually no more than 11 to 12 hands high, who seemed to maintain the same speed regardless of whether they walked, trotted or cantered. Then there were what one might term the horses of the general pool. We gentlemen officers were supposed to try our luck with these. And there were three horses that were in a class of their own. Nobody, or almost nobody, wanted anything to do with these. One was the strangely named Budstar, a white army remount who was born to lead. She had impeccable manners and the general air of a tolerant regimental colonel. The problem was, she stood more than 16 hands at the withers, and the ground seemed very very far away for a poor city boy stranded astride her. (I can vouch for this, because eight years later I was misguided enough to mount up on her for what was meant to be a gentle walk around the suburbs of Dehra Doon but ended as a wild never-ending gallop across ploughed fields, including some cauliflower crops that caused chaos in the squadron.) A second unpopular horse was the aptly-named Touch-Me-Not. This gelding combined all the loveable qualities of Thomas Silverstein of Leavenworth and Freddy Krueger of Elm Street. On the first day itself he had lashed out with a two-legged kick that narrowly failed to decapitate our friend Tali Temjen Toy. But apparently even the most contrary horse can find a rider. Rajesh Singh grew up riding horses around the Police Lines in Patna. He was confident enough, and actually a good enough horseman, to adopt Touch-Me-Not as his regular mount. And our resident vet from the Indian Foreign Service, Ramesh Kumar - tall, gangly and experienced - quite liked surveying the horizon from the exalted height of Budstar.

Which left the third horse that nobody wanted to ride. Dara. A handsome muscular deceptive son of Belial with a coat like gleaming milk chocolate and a twinkle in his eye that sometimes changed into the glint of scheming evil. Guess who set his heart on riding this good-looking rogue? Oh well. I was much younger then, but I was also much much more foolish, out of all proportion to my youth.

So it came to pass that I found myself astride several hundred kilos of rocking horseflesh, accelerating rapidly but not quite smoothly past the line of the other horses. I barely registered a look of horrified surprise on the face of a fellow officer as we appeared at his elbow and then vanished ahead of him. In those few seconds that seemed to last forever, I squeezed my knees tighter and tighter until my entire lower half seemed clenched in rigor. I pulled on the reins until I was sure my fingers would be cut off. All to no avail. Dara thundered on. And I realised that my situation was about to become more dire.

The riding paddock at Charleville is set in a hollow at the bottom of a hill. The gate from the road is on the only open side. The other three sides are the natural enclosure formed by the hill slopes, but … BUT! … buttressed in local granite to a height of twenty feet. And Dara, mad bad Dara, completed the gallop down one side of the paddock, left the line of the other horses far behind, turned around the shortest side … and headed straight for the stone wall at a rate of knots! I was doomed. I knew it. Inside my stalled brain I could hear a distant yammering. And still I kept up my futile pull on the reins, and still I squeezed my knees tight until my circulation gave up the fight. The stone wall seemed to jump closer. It came into focus despite the bounce and rattle of Dara’s galloping, until I saw the cracks and dimples made by the chisels, the little clumps of grass between the edges, the line eight feet up where my head would probably be smashed open ….

Until at the last moment Dara heeled over onto his right, like a motorcycle banking into a tight turn, and the wall fell away on my left. My mind went blank with the realisation that I was not going to die a strange and horrible death between a horse and a hard place. The relief lasted only for a split second. I realised two things simultaneously. First, that while I would probably not die, I might be crippled. Because Dara was now galloping along the outer wall, and so close as to crush my left leg or at least my left knee against the stone. Second, that the distant yammering was not just within my head. Sardar Karnail Singh, now in my field of vision, was bellowing across the paddock “Aise, sahib … AISE !!”.  as he sawed his hands alternately in front of him. Adrenaline lit up my brain. I realised that Dara had literally got the bit between his teeth, and the only way to get it back against the tender part of his mouth and re-establish control was to pull the reins left and right alternately. Which I did. Immediately. With more strength in my numb fingers and forearms and aching shoulders than I would have thought possible.

It worked. The thunder faded. The rocking subsided. Dara slowed, first to a canter, then to a trot. He ran off the circular sandy track beaten by the hooves and finally stopped on a patch of wild grass and weeds. Harrumphed, snorted long and loud, as if laughing at my discomfiture. I swear he looked back at me, over his shoulder, and all but winked in glee before he returned to cropping the grass. I was too dazed to even pull his head up. From somewhere far away I could hear a friend calling “Good show!”. Karnail Singh, with uncharacteristic kindness, shouted “Saab, utar jaaiye”, that I could dismount if I wanted to.

But I did not dismount immediately. Instead, I pulled Dara’s head up, slapped him on the neck, tapped my heels into him, and walked him slowly back to the corner where the syces waited. Only then did I dismount, in style – first pulling off the riding hat, then my little fingerless leather gloves, then making a great show of patting and stroking and reprimanding Dara, before I finally swung off and dropped to the ground. My apparent savoir faire was the subject of my friends’ grudging admiration later. Even Karnail Singh held off from his usual refrain of “Sahab, kya kar rahe ho, ghodey ko kharaab kar dogey!” What are you doing, you’ll ruin the horse.

Only I knew the real reason for my apparent nonchalance. My legs had been trembling so violently that I knew they would not have supported me if I had tried to get off the horse immediately.