Friday, March 04, 2005

Outlook Traveller: Loos connection

Stumbled across an old piece I did for Outlook Traveller back in 2001. Since I wrote this, have added to list these specimens:
1) the loo on board the train from Jammu to Kanyakumari, where the person who visited before you is always the one with the really upset stomach, and where cleanliness over a three day period is next to impossible. Also included Peeping Tom door with large gap where passing army jawans could stop for a quick (or slow) dekko while you attempted to use the one bright spot in the whole damn thing, ie the pink plastic showerhead that means you can bathe, if you don't mind putting one foot in a receptacle where no foot should go.
2) the one in the temple complex at Modhera where you have to borrow sword and slash through cobwebs in order to enter. Then you finish your business and stand up to discover that there is a) only half a roof b) which means the three chaps doing restoration work on the sculptures a level up have had their lunch hour greatly enlivened by you.
3) not forgetting the one in the DDA complex in Delhi where you queue up for ages and ages and finally ask the dour guard nearby whether the woman inside might need medical attention, and he says, oh, that's no woman, it's the office monkey's bathing hour.

Am I fixated on loos? I ask the husband. Yes, he says, through mouthful of food. Pay attention, I say. By fixated, I mean neurotically insistent on cleanliness. Yes, he says. Reason we have a happy marriage is we have separate loos. That’s not true, I say. We’ve shared a bathroom before. Yeah, he says, that was the year we almost got divorced.

So maybe I’m a little fussy, I tell a friend. A little fussy? he says. You keep your bathroom floors clean enough to eat off, except if anyone did you’d whip out the phenyl and start swabbing again. Oh go boil yer head, I say crossly. Slam phone down. Phone rings again. Travel agent, saying he’s booked holiday-in-the-hills. Joelikote? I say. Why not Bhimtal? Travel agent says, Joelikote has better, ah, facilities. Your sister said if I’m doing bookings for you, bathrooms had better be spotless. Bhimtal...his voice trails off. We go to Joelikote.

Only person who doesn’t give two hoots about insistence on clean loos is sadistic Outlook Traveller editor. Has five-star hotels begging him to send Ms N.S. Roy over just so that she can check out the new bidets that play ‘Up Where We Belong’ when you sit down. He sends her off to places like Sikkim and Ladakh instead. Scenic beauty unbeatable. Loos? Sikkim has Gurudongmar, Gurudongmar has army loo made out of leftover bulletin boards where if you raise your head slightly everyone inside the army quarters can see you. Forces one into ostrich thinking: if I can’t see them, they can’t see me. And its logical corollary: who cares if they do, I’ll never see them again. Ladakh has interesting phenomenon where Western-style loos overflow because there’s no drainage, and Indian-style loos are ringed with ice that has turned a shade of yellow-green for reasons we will carefully skirt.

Only collect, as E.M. Forster didn’t tell travellers. My family leaves the shrunken heads and Bohemian crystal to the tourists, and concentrates on who’s going to win the Most Fascinating Loo in the World award.

I picked up the trophy twice: once for a bathroom in Lucknow, once for a pissoir in Nepal. The Lucknow one graced the crocodile sanctuary in Kukrail, and was built by some back-to-nature architect. The floor was made of widely spaced wooden planks over wire mesh. One settled, heard a premature splash, and sighted a baby gharial snout poking up through the bars. Two more snapped cutely through the mesh. It was an improvement over the old Goa system of positioning loo over pig enclosure, thereby allowing for rustic charm and sanitary disposal system in one.

The Nepal pissoir would’ve made the most hardened slumdweller in Delhi shudder. It required you to climb atop the porcelain and thence onto a mountain of ordure that extended out of the bowl for a foot. I found a discreet corner of a field while courting couple made out in opposite discreet corner. They were quite friendly, breaking off to ask whether I stood (or sat) in need of a lota.

Past winners have included the loo on a Sunderbans launch, where if you lowered yourself incautiously, small fish nibbled at your nether regions; the olde English wooden thunderbox in a Kasauli hotel, where pulling the chain called down a celebratory shower on your head; and the one in Samarkand (last year’s winner) where my cousin found that the awful smell in the corner was a rotting sheep’s head (he took a picture, the little pervert). We agree that ladies’ loos tend to be grungier, on the whole. Men have an aiming problem (amazing how many use the ‘Look Ma, no hands’ method), but women have more paraphernalia to scatter around.

Me, I’ve perfected the art of bathroom Zen: you are not here, the things that squelch underfoot are not here, toilet paper is the only reality in a world of illusion. For my next trip, five-star hotels beckon: trust-in-us-just-in-us, they say, our loos are...scented, marbled, tiled, faucetted, spotlessly, squeaky clean. But there’s this drive I want to go on. Across the Himalayas again. To places where the loos, or the ammonia therein, will bring tears to my eyes. I shrug my shoulders, coin Zen aphorism: bad loo make good trip.

Business Standard: Speaking Volumes

(This column first published in the Business Standard, February 2005)

Feeling too lazy to remove the BS HTML tags and can't find the piece on this computer (write them on whichever PC's free, and then get my filing thoroughly confused),'s the link. It was a speculative look at the state of Indian publishing.

Book review: St Cyril Road

(First published in the Indian Express, February 2005)

This wasn't an adequate review; barely a summary of salient points. There was a great deal to say about the relative absence of poetry on the bookshelves, and with more space I'd have liked to have taken a closer look at the very different ways in which Chaudhuri and Kolatkar deal with neighbourhoods. Both Kala Ghoda and St Cyril Road revolve around what in criticspeak is called a sense of place, but that's where the resemblance begins and ends... might come back to this some day when there's less white noise in my life.

St Cyril Road And Other Poems
Amit Chaudhuri
Penguin Viking
Rs 200, 78 pages

“To want to be not an Indian or English
poet, but simply a ‘poet’ like the others,
to be undivided from them by class and geography,
those other languages within language,
as I believed them fundamentally
undivided from each other…”

Perhaps these lines from ‘Memorabilia’ are the key to Amit Chaudhuri’s poems. Here is an articulation of his aspirations, to be part of “the great equality conferred by the bookshelf”, measured only by the worth of his writing, not by his rank, position and place in the card catalogue of writers. Here, too, is the gulf between image and representation, the clunky lines and awkward rhythm unable to do justice to a poet’s desires.

St Cyril Road and Other Poems is an unusual collection of poetry from a prose writer often praised for the poetic quality of his prose. It bears the stamp of poems written in Chaudhuri’s youth when he intended to be not just a writer, but a poet; and the more private watermark of poems written at a stage when he had become the writer, poems not meant for publication. And it has the hallmarks of his prose work: his ability to store away apparently unremarkable moments and images and illuminate them in recollection, his love for the mundane over the extraordinary, the connections he makes between language and music.

A painting on the wall of a room in India becomes the starting point of a journey into England—“Growing up and taking the trouble to see the real thing/ hasn’t diminished the village, its heart as full/ of sleeping resonance as the unstruck church bell.” His mother and her music teacher create “something liquid and grieving”, “through the clear archway of notes”, a “mortal moment” shadowed by an impending but as yet unsuspected death. ; The sting of Old Spice; frost on a Mercedes-Benz; the mud-like stain on toilet paper, too dark to blend in with the “pale shit” of the English boys; the place in all conflicts but especially in Gaza, “between the kitchen and the garden and the wall and the barbed wire”. Revelation can come from anywhere, in Chaudhuri’s muted but vivid world.

For all that, St Cyril Road suffers from inwardness; Chaudhuri’s world is deeply internal, implacably personal, despite the stray poems here on war and Kashmir and violence. It is unfair to compare two poets as different as the late Kolatkar and Chaudhuri, but Kolatkar’s cycle of Kala Ghoda poems has all the vitality, the force that this collection lacks. St Cyril Road is important for readers in search of the quiet moment, or readers who want to trace Chaudhuri’s development as a writer in love with language. And it is an important book for Chaudhuri to have published; it takes some courage, after years of being identified as a prose writer, to stake claim to the poetry that was his first love. But this is too slight a collection, its impact too mild, to establish Chaudhuri as a major poet. He has staked his claim; perhaps a second collection, less haphazard, more intense, will consolidate it.

Nilanjana S Roy
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