Issue 187, Winter 2008
Sent: October 20
So this house—our house—in Coimbatore was built in 1957 by my maternal grandfather shortly after he retired at the age of fifty-five. A couple of years before, he’d completed what he considered his life’s work: one of the first hydroelectric dams in South Asia. Nehru even came for a visit to celebrate the engineering prowess and power of the new India. My grandfather drove the Jeep while Nehru stood waving at the gawking crowds. “The girls”—my mother and her sister—didn’t meet the great man, but they both remember that as he passed them in the throng he tossed them his flower garland. My grandfather was the executive engineer in charge of the project, and among the boisterous gang of junior engineers my father proved himself the alpha by succeeding in his bid to marry the boss’s eldest daughter.
My grandfather built this house with the same precision and care as the dam. With ten-inch-thick concrete walls to keep it cool, deco window grills, teak doors, mosaic tile, and multiple terraces, it’s a tropical moderne classic. He named it Dwaraka after the capital of the Yadavas, the city of many gates, Krishna’s home in the Mahabharata. It’s the house I’ve known since birth, the place to which we descended from the hills of Ooty to the warm plains for school holidays. It’s the house in which I slid down my first banister. It’s here that I committed a stamping genocide of ants and then, in remorse and regret, cried through a burial ceremony orchestrated by my sister. It’s the house from which we left India—forever, or so I imagined.
I was almost nine then, and for the first year or so in Chicago I had many dreams in which I woke up in Dwaraka, embraced by the security of its walls, the sounds of crows and scooters and car horns, only to wake again to twenty-below wind chill and gang shootings at my elementary school. I counted on Dwaraka to remain unchanged, the place I would be able to go back to at any time. A child’s wish, one I still carry somewhere in my heart. Each trip back, every three years or so, the house would grow huge in my anticipation, and always shrink as I arrived at the gate. And each time we left again for America, the departure was charged with the knowledge that it might be the last time you’d see someone. My grandfather went first. Weakened by a sixty-year smoking habit of fifty a day (a full tin, my aunt said, eyebrows raised), his health started to fail, and when I saw him for the last time, he said good-bye by making me bow down for a blessing.
Sent: October 23
In Coimbatore priests are performing Vedic fire rituals for Obama, and in Mumbai boys trying to take the entrance exam for the railways were beaten up by followers of Raj Thackeray—the nephew of Bal Thackeray—who insisted that jobs in Maharashtra should be reserved only for Maharashtrians (i.e. Hindus). The beatings led to the arrest of Raj Thackeray and big riots in Mumbai with many taxis destroyed and drivers dragged out and thrashed, not to mention buses set on fire. Biharis, taking these affronts by Maharastrians personally, made their disgust known by smashing cars and setting trains on fire although it is uncertain any Maharastrians were on the trains. Meanwhile a judge has ruled that withholding sex in marriage is crime, and India has sent a rocket to the moon, an achievement that one paper called “going boldly where others have gone before.”
Sent: October 27
I finally made it out of the house and visited a guy I met in 1980, a friend of my beloved cousin who died in a car crash years back. That cousin was one of my earliest friends, a few years older, a notorious bad boy who smoked all kinds of things and never went to college, a mortal sin in the middle class. He later confessed that he’d picked up a copy of Nietzsche after seeing me read it as a teenager, and it left him confused and mildly angry. He was compact and powerful and had adventures, working with his hands as a rigger on offshore oil drills, doing some kind of business in Dubai. He was direct to the point of bluntness and had a big open laugh. I was at a family reunion in Kerala, looking forward to seeing him three days later in Bangalore, when he died.
My cousin’s friend drove me out in his pickup to see his farmland at the foot of the Western Ghats where he planted twelve varieties of ficus for some reason and, so far, forty mango trees. His company does security fencing, specializing in elephant control. He’d spent many hours studying the behavior of the big guys and patented a spring-action fence that gives when the elephant thrashes it, which they will do. So when a determined elephant spots a grove of juicy bananas and decides to power through, and he grabs a tree trunk and clobbers the fence, the entire fence takes the impact, springing back up to bang the elephant on the forehead.
He showed me the spot where he plans to construct an elephant lookout, but like my cousins here—and like anyone active in the workforce—he continued to do business all day on the phone: “You see, Mr. Madhavan, simply putting greater charge on the fence is of no use. You will fry the elephant. Mr. Madhavan, you must understand electricity travels in liquid. You might have seen me in my display freely asking people to touch the fence. If a thin chap touches it he gets a charge and simply pulls his hand off, but if a fat fellow touches it he is thrown three feet to the ground. You need less charge for an elephant than a monkey, Mr. Madhavan. I can of course fix the current fence, but I can only promise fifty-percent security. If you do it properly with the new springs, I can promise ninety-nine percent, leaving one percent to God. Simply do it sir. You will have peace of mind. Ninety-nine percent guarantee, one percent for God. Mr. Madhavan, it is not like five years ago. World has changed. Elephants have also changed.”