"Wading neck deep in a swamp, your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it" Mary H. Kingsley (1897)

memories

A Transition

As an old and weary year makes way for something new, Fort Cochin celebrates on the beach.

Happy crowds assemble.
Police, in high-profile but good humour, watch over events.
Fireworks, friendship, cameras, laughter, singing, and even space-restricted dancing, all play their parts.

The previous year’s “Santa Claus” is set alight:
a custom I have seen nowhere else!

Then, as the final fireworks die, an excited but tired crowd quietly fades,
like ghosts of the recently departed year.

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This celebration of memories, hopes and dreams is over.

Happy New Year!
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Pictures taken on Fort Cochin Beach at midnight, New Year’s Eve.


That Special Time Of The Year

Our house is in relative chaos:
The exterior is being repainted;
Two of the bathrooms are being re-tiled and re-plumbed;
The interior must be repainted before my January guests arrive;
And family are stopping-over this month, either en route to, or returning from, our ancestral home.

But everything stops for Christmas.
Despite the sheer impracticability of it, I decided that our Christmas tree must be assembled and decorated.

This morning Anu brought it down from storage, just as he did last year.

With so many workmen in the house to feed, Dalila was far too busy to join Anu and I in setting up our tree
– for the first few minutes.
As we tried to remember how the tree was assembled, and the sound of English Christmas carols filled the house from our music-centre, she came through into the hall:
first to check up on us; then to join in the fun.
Even Shaji left supervising his workforce, to ensure our efforts were up to scratch.

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During the procedure there was, almost inevitably, a power-cut.
Fortunately, the light was sufficient to finish our task.
By seven o’clock this evening, when Shaji, Dalila and the assembled workmen were leaving,
power had been restored,

And a group portrait could be taken.
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The Day-Trip

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Since January we have had a fairly constant stream of guests staying.

I suspect my regular cast enjoy the excitement.  Taking care of “Sir” must, at times, seem relatively humdrum.

They have always been cheerful

But they have worked hard.

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Yesterday, as a small token of thanks, I took them away for the day:

A “works-outing” to Nelliampathi.

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An SUV was hired to transport us.

We were a party of eight, plus driver:

Shaji, Dalila and their two sons; Anu; Robin and his nephew; and myself.

The destination had been Robin’s idea

And he carried a list of suitable eating places.

Setting out shortly after dawn, we broke our journey for breakfast, then continued until reaching the Pothundi Dam and its gardens.

The day was already quite warm.

We stopped for tender-coconut water before reaching the relative cool of Nelliampathi Hills’ tea plantations.

Here, we took a walk

Before lunch.

Then a stroll through the forest trail and across ancient lava flows brought us to the dam again, this time, thousands of feet beneath us.

Finally, the journey home.

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Our driver had been safe and friendly.

The car held its own along the often challenging roads.

The only mishap: a short-lived episode of travel sickness in the youngest member of our party.

By now conversation had quietened, our legs were tired and the children were sleeping.

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It was a splendid day, full of laughter and gentle excitement.

Looking back, it seems already a dream…

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The Ghosts Of Christmas Shopping

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As the decades slip past, Christmas shopping can be strangely poignant:

Ghosts of Christmas Past, that we think lie safely buried, merely rest.

They are always ready to be conjured up.

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“My fiftieth year had come and gone,

I sat, a solitary man,

In a crowded London shop,

An open book and empty cup

On the marble table-top.”

From Vacillation IV,  by William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)

 

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Sunsets And Siblings

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Following the road to Calicut our driver, Babu, reached the hotel in good time. After showering, taking tea and a rest, we drove to the beach for the sunset.

Indian families frequently assemble on the shore at dusk: the sun is less fierce; the sea breeze refreshing.

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There, a mother and her two children were enjoying the spectacle.  As she stood bathed in golden light at the water’s edge, the sea lapping the hem of her sari, her young son and daughter paddled with unrestrained glee. Though the waves were gentle and the children in shallow water, the mother chanted an almost constant litany: “Be careful. Not too deep!”.

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The brother and sister’s innocent pleasure, alongside their mother’s anxious happiness, triggered memories of my childhood.

Our mother was not a swimmer and would stand nervously beside the breaking waves as my sister and I tried to jump them.

My sister, a couple of years older than me, was by far the braver of us both. Although shy with strangers, in the security of our family she was a fearless tom-boy.

Given an audience, I could not stop talking – but when it came to action I was much less adventurous. Little has changed.

Water redeemed me. It was the one area where I had greater physical prowess and confidence than my sister. I gloried in its overwhelming power and my seeming weightlessness.

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It is from such memories – the shared moments of joy and grief, our childhood bonds – that unwavering love and solidarity are forged.

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Fifty years later I can no longer jump the waves, alone or with my sister.  More than five thousand miles and different continents now separate us.

But the love, friendship and support have never tarnished.

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Déjà Vu

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“Neither (he) or his advisers had considered the reactions of the Afghans to the advance of an infidel army into their country to evict the ruler and replace him with a prince whom few of them knew and fewer cared for…

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He imagined that by throwing large sums of money at the Afghans he could win them over… A policy which had worked up to a point (elsewhere) but failed in Afghanistan where religious and national passions were deeper and fiercer.”

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Both quotations from a discussion of the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839 – 1842 in “Raj: The making of British India” by Lawrence James, published in 1997.

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“A new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country. Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless.”

George Lawrence, Letter to the London Times, prior to the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878 – 1880.

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana

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Lambs of God

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In today’s “Hindu”, they publish a beautifully judged essay from Fergal Keane.

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In the footsteps of the soldiers of the Somme.

Fergal Keane

On the other side of the wood, the fighters soared and looped in a bright blue sky. I was standing in a cornfield and thought of how, in another time, that sound would have sent me running in terror for any cover I could find.

But I was not in south Lebanon now, or Iraq or Afghanistan. When the French military jets, practising for an air show, eventually wheeled away, the song of a skylark filled the air.

The soldier poet, Isaac Rosenberg, heard that song. Rosenberg, whose family had fled anti-Jewish attacks in Eastern Europe, was serving on the Somme with the British army. He described the birdsong “showering men’s upturned faces” — a small miracle in the dawn as he returned from a night patrol in No Man’s Land. His poetic genius was stilled by a German bullet later in the war.

We walked from the British lines to the German, across the ground where the doomed thousands had advanced on that July morning 94 years ago, into the flying lead of German guns that had withstood the most intense artillery bombardment in the history of the British army. Between July and November 1916, more than a million men became casualties of war in these fields.

Today the chalky soil is planted with barley and corn, and when a breeze rises and brushes the stems and ripples across the fields, it seems the gentlest landscape in the world.

I thought of the lines of Basho, the great Japanese poet of the 17th Century, who, coming across an old battlefield littered with warrior’s rusting armour, wrote: “Summer grasses. All that is left of the dreams of soldiers.”

We walked up through the fields, across No Man’s Land, through a small clump of trees and hedges to the great crater of Lochnagar. Here, two minutes before the advance began, British sappers had detonated a series of huge mines under the German positions. Even to someone used to the physical devastation of war the first sight of Lochnagar is heart-stopping. The crater is 91m in width and 27m deep.

In these fields, and further north into Flanders, was laid the pattern for war in the modern age. An epoch of machines and inventions, from the tank to poison gas, to aircraft, to atomic bombs. It stretched out from here into a future where machines would riot across the earth, and the capacity to kill and maim would be limitless. But it is the memory of the individual that strikes most forcefully at the Somme.

A colleague walking ahead of me across a newly-planted field suddenly knelt down and picked up what looked to me like a small stone. It was a button from the tunic of a French infantryman. One late fragment of all that had been lost here.

That sense of war as the country of the individual soldier has been with me as an unshakeable presence in these last few weeks. Soon after coming back from the Somme I went to Scotland to speak at a book festival.

I was talking about a long forgotten battle in India in which a small force of British and Indian troops had endured a terrible siege at the hands of a much larger Japanese force.

When the time for the audience to ask questions came, an old man in a wheelchair raised his hand. “My name is Angus Taylor,” he said. “And I was there.” He told his story of a fighting march across jungled hills, against a pitiless enemy.

Angus Taylor described coming on the bodies of comrades who had been laughing and joking with him just a few hours before. There was no hint of bravado in his speech, or self pity. He was a modest man, one of those many quiet fathers who had come home from war and found a job, made a home for his children, and spoke little of the places he had been or the things he had seen.

Afterwards we had a chance to speak alone. Angus brought out his photographs of the war. Among them were two which he kept in a little black wallet. “I found that on the body of a dead Japanese,” he said.

There were two photographs in the dead man’s wallet. One showed a woman posing shyly for the camera, alluring in her traditional dress, and the other a child, the couple’s daughter, plump and smiling, leaning against the outside wall of the family home.

The soldier would have taken these photographs before he left for the war and kept them with him until the end. For 60 years they had lain among another man’s memories. In such a way does war bind the living and the dead.

— © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate

© Copyright The Hindu

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Revisiting

This week, in “The Hindu” newspaper, Pranay Gupte wrote of a reunion he attended.

It reminded me of a similar episode in my life. The feelings of estrangement that such events induce are probably inevitable.

Pranay Gupte finished his piece by saying:

“The past is not prologue.

When the past is gone, it is gone; no amount of imagery can truly reconstruct it.

There is no way I can translate my regret into something more meaningful. My past was lived in a different time, and although it will linger in my mind. I don’t think I will revisit it through another punishing journey. With every word I write, that past recedes, it moves away beyond my grasp. Perhaps just as well.”

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Revisiting the past is like turning to capture your shadow.

The image is immediately distorted. What we see, although attached to us, lacks full dimensions. It almost seems to mock us.

We are told “the unexamined life is not worth living“, but what we look at is a strange affair: a chimera. It should not be fully trusted.

The past cannot be viewed with innocent or unbiased eyes.

Its full truth is forever barred to us.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”   L. P. Hartley.

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