"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)

observing

The Observer Observed

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Anu with Joseph, our tour driver

Picture taken in Hampi, Karnataka


Observing From A Distance: Part 2

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Picture taken in the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, Israel.


Observing From A Distance: Part 1

 

A nun from the Sacramentine Sisters of Bethlehem.

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Picture taken in the Grotto of the Lady Mary in Bethlehem


A Certain Aloofness

A tourist observes the evening street-life of India from her guest-house balcony.

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Picture taken in Pattalam, Fort Cochin.


Northern Exposure: Part 5

Adopting a posture.
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Picture taken on the road to Gangtok, Sikkim, during my travels in northern India.


Three Characters In Search Of An Author

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Three strangers across a crowded room:
Each is alone.

One stands in silent thought;
One eats but, as if shamed, never raises his eyes from the table;
One, like myself, absorbed by those around him.

I capture their image then go on my way,
No wiser of their world or worries.
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“Whatever is a reality today, whatever you touch and believe in and that seems real for you today, is going to be
– like the reality of yesterday –
an illusion tomorrow.”

Luigi Pirandello
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Pictures taken in the Sri Krishna Cafe, Cochin.


Well Poised

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Or simply well posed?

It’s a question I often ask
Of myself..

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Picture of a passing rider, taken in Palace Road, Cochin.


Back On The Road

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It was Friday. We had been travelling for eight days.
The wonders of Hampi and Mysore still floated in and out of my thoughts.
The diverse temples were almost merging into a single amorphous memory.
But our travels were not over.
It was time to get back on the road.

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Before setting out again, there is usually the small matter of re-packing to be dealt with:

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My own packing skills show neither forethought nor patience.
Nowadays, I collect together what seems necessary, then leave my kind staff to do the rest.
A few minutes later, having compared my selection with what he thinks proper, Anu will invariably return with suggestions, such as:
“Papa, I think maybe you wanting some inner-wear*?”
 (*Indian English for underwear)

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He is practically always right. My planning is well on the way to becoming reliably unreliable.


Perhaps I am better suited to observing life from the sidelines.
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On The Road

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A long journey lay ahead of us.
Leaving our hotel in Belur early, we decided to take breakfast on the road.

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On my first visit to India, any thought of eating in one of the countless, road-side restaurants induced emotions ranging from a tight-lipped “I think not” to something verging on hypochondriacal terror.


Their cleanliness and décor can prove challenging to a Western eye.

But I have since learnt that the food served is invariably tasty, cheap and safe!
As expected, breakfast in this establishment was far better than any we had eaten in our tourist-class hotels.

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Back on the road, there was little to do but observe:

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Take lunch:

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Then observe once more:

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While the scenery changed:

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Until finally we reached Hampi,

Our hotel,
Cool showers
And cooler beers. 

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Tinsel Town

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Inadvertently finding yourself in the midst of a film-shoot is not unusual here.

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Though barely known outside of India, “Mollywood” is big business and attracts devoted fans. The industry is based in Cochin where there are plentiful scenic locations to act as movie backdrops.

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“It’s a wrap”

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All Aboard

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The Fort Cochin Ferry:

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(From a crossing last week)


Café Lite

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Sunday morning called for another breakfast at the Sri Krishna Café,

A sensual feast of taste, smell and colour.

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With just un soupçon of people watching, on the side.

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In Focus

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“To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.”

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Picture from The Telegraph


Are You Sitting Comfortably?

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Are you sitting comfortably?

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Then I’ll begin.

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Ghost In The Machine

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“…creatures walk the earth unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep”             John Milton

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“I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.”

William Shakespeare

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Caught In The Rush Hour

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“Rush hour: That hour when the traffic is almost at a standstill”

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I find I have fallen in love with my adopted home

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Morning Shadow

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We often speak of evening shadows.

But with the coming of dawn, our attention seems held only by the new light.

Is there an innate reluctance to focus on what departs?

A preoccupation with what takes its place?

Perhaps it is the contrast which captures our attention.

Morning shadow

maybe an illusion

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We perceive merely an absence of the light;

the last trace of night’s darkness.

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Fine Art

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Kerala has just one college of fine art.

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On Saturday I travelled to Thrissur, and spent my happy hour at their graduation exhibition.

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Tropical Greys

Even the tropics have their grey days.

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Days when tourists fade away, leaving the beach to local lads

And livestock.

Days when all seems strangely muted.

When colour struggles to force its way through the rocks,

iron and concrete.

Days when skies, seas and ships are grey in uniformity:

And slow in motion.

Days when men stand watching,

And apparently, waiting.

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Looking for a Sign?

India is a land of few road-maps

But many signs.

The signs point out countless opportunities, pathways and destinations.

Knowledge

Literature

Nourishment

Together with experiments in a foreign language.

New signs

And forgotten signs

The very same road may be signed as masculine when you join it

But, just a few yards further,  shows gender confusion.

A colonial sign, from the Dutch East India Company,

VOC

Stands opposite a sign for sport events.

A busy entanglement of signs

For the tourist

The traveller

The Divine

And the deceased.

Perhaps the trick is to know where you’re going…


Heard In The Opera House

Following on from yesterday’s story of ill-fated love,

I am put in mind of a visit to the opera.

The production was staged in The London Coliseum:

A performance of Bizet’s Carmen.

The lights dimmed,

As the plaintive chords of the prelude resonated throughout the opera house.

Then, over the sound of her rustling sweet wrappers, the voice of the woman sitting behind me could clearly be heard.

“Eh” she announced, in a strong rural accent.

“Listen to that music.”

“You can tell it’ll end in tears.”


Scene In The Palace

When some European friends recently stayed, we decided to visit to Madurai.

Having seen the splendour of the temples, we drove to the nearby palace.

The columns and colours give the building grandeur and beauty.

But beneath the ornately painted ceilings

and cover of shadow

A timeless drama was being re-enacted.

In a distant alcove, almost concealed from general view, sat a boy and girl.

There was no chaperone.

Such meetings are usually considered scandalous in India.

The girl started to cry.

Although not wanting to pry, I found myself caught up in their story

The boy offered his handkerchief.

She threw it on his face.

Gradually, they both began to laugh.

What made their romance star-crossed?

Caste?

Religion?

Class?

I guiltily zoomed the camera in for my final shot.

Then walked away,

Reflecting on the countless times that this scene has been replayed.


Spiritual Masala

Here spirituality is a religious ratatouille:

The recipe includes Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

Each providing

Colour

St Sebastian's Day Festival

Cochin Synagogue

Jain Temple

Culture

Preparing for Kathakali dance

Christian Festival

Curiosity

Commerce

Temple souvenirs

Temple traders

Conversation

Comfort

And

Contemplation


Redefining the Question

I receive the New Yorker regularly.

It is a kind gift from my younger son.

This month I particularly enjoyed a writer’s account of his return to the USA after many years abroad.

The following section was especially intriguing.

Most Chinese were intensely curious about foreign life, and they liked to ask certain questions. What time is it there? How many children are you allowed to have? How much is a plane ticket back?

People tended to have extreme views of the U.S., both positive and negative, and they became fixated on fantastic details that they had heard. Are American farmers so rich that they use airplanes to plant their crops? Is it true that when elderly parents eat with their adult children the kids give them a bill for the meal, because they aren’t as close as Chinese families? When I taught at a college, a student names Sean wrote in an essay:

I know that persons in America can possess guns from some books and films. I don’t know whether it is true….I know that beggars must have bulletproof vest from a book. Is it true? There is a saying about America. If you want to go to heaven, go to America; if you want to go to hell, go to America.

It was hard to respond to such combinations of truth and exaggeration. In the early years, it frustrated me, because without any context I couldn’t convey a more nuanced perspective. But eventually I realised that the conversations weren’t strictly about me, or even about my home country. In China, I came to think of the United States as essentially imaginary: it was being created in people’s minds, and in that sense it was more personal for them than it was for me. The questions reflected Chinese interests, dreams, and fears – even when people discussed America, the conversation was partly about their own home.

Go West, Scenes from an American homecoming.

Peter Hessler, The New Yorker. April 19, 2010.*

My recent trip to the USA, despite many previous visits, reflected this pattern of being conditioned by what was familiar, rather than objectively seeing a different society and culture.

As Vedic Hindu philosophy first suggested and modern physics agrees:

The observer, the observed and the process of observation are intimately bound.

When we think of, or question, the unfamiliar what we articulate is based on what we have seen before.

But our questions have value.

They provide insight into what motivates or worries the observer.

When ever we examine national character, religion, history or even alien life forms, we project our fears or required certainties, often attempting to reinforce existing judgements.

We rarely wish to explore beyond this safety zone.

Like a newspaper with its own agenda, the mind exercises censorship.

By first defining the questions, awkward observations can be kept at bay.

It seems impossible to see beyond the shadows on the wall.

All that catches my eye is conditioned by previous reflections.

My desires and fears are caught in the picture

If  I am a camera,  that camera casts its own shadow.

*Sadly, Peter Hessler’s excellent and entertaining article is only available on-line to subscribers of The New Yorker.