August 7, 2010

Meals ready, Marianne

My essay about driving south last May through aamchi country to see, among other things and people, Marianne - is in Mint today: Meals ready, Marianne.

The top left photograph of the four they have printed is not mine even though they accuse me of taking it immediately below (in any case I'm not a fan of shots of long empty stretches of beach). The others are mine, and I especially like the one on the bottom left.

Incidentally, they excised a few lines from my original version, so that version is appended below for your reading pleasure or, well, pleasure.


The trip took on an extra dose of meaning on our return, when we went, en famille -- there's a reason I use French -- to McDonald's to celebrate a birthday. Firmly in Ronald McDonald's grip, I noticed the fantastic amount of trash a single meal at McD's generates. Waxy paper that the burgers came in, paper cups, plastic lids, straws, containers for fries, torn sauce packets, plastic saucers for sauce, paper tray liners …

And on our car journey around the south, we stopped at little places that served that southern delicacy, our very own original fast food: "meals ready". Lip-smacking nourishment -- rice, appalam, sambar, rasam, vegetables, dahi, buttermilk, pickle, payasam, served on a banana leaf, some of it in gleaming steel cups. The only trash generated, the banana leaf. There was one time all four of us ate heartily for the kingly sum of thirty-eight rupees. Yes. And this being coastal Kerala, there was fish on the menu too. 38 bucks. Grind your teeth in envy.

Food apart. Leaving Goa, NH-17 strikes south into Karnataka, and it's like wandering through one of Bombay's Chitrapur Saraswat colonies. I'm married into that community, so I've heard the names for two decades now -- Belthangady, Upponi, Gokarna, Honavar, Mudbidri, Bhatkal. By now, I know people sporting most of those monikers. Here, we drive through them -- town after town. It's as if I was roaming in some picturesque part of the US, and the towns were named Reistroffer, O'Leary, Bohrer, Earhart and Engelke -- names of pals of mine there. Sadly, I don't know of such a picturesque part of the US. But here in Karnataka, a community comes to life in this curious way.

For a stretch south of Baindur and Bijur -- yep, family acquaintances by those names too -- the road hugs the coast: rocks and pounding waves on the seaward side, tranquil backwater on the, well, backwater side. Shack balanced on the rocks was selling coconuts, caught our eye only as we shot past at 80 clips. Just past a sign on the backwater side that said "BOATING CENTER", being careful not to fall into either the waves or the backwater, we made a smooth U-turn and pulled over. Must be my face, because the man behind the coconuts took one look at me and began nattering in Tamil. Good guess anyway, because that's the one southern language I do speak (though my Tamil friends giggle). Coconut water on the rocks, mesmerised by the waves.

What's so special about coconut water, you're wondering? Well, it's the rocks, really. While we stretched and sipped, we gradually realized that where we stood above the water, the black rocks were all points and sharp edges. But below, where the waves flung themselves in seeming futility at the stones, they were worn smooth and curvy. The difference was dramatic. Geology at work, here at our feet. Not so futile after all, the waves pounding.

"Let's come back in a million years," said my son. "It'll all be sand." On that score, we have a deal. Also, since we missed out this time, I plan to take a Boating Center vessel out for a jaunt on the water.

Later, we rumbled through Thalasserry towards Mahe, which, even if it is smack in the middle of Kerala, is actually part of Pondicherry. That's because it used to be French, and that was the attraction. You see, I'm married into all things French too, being that my wife teaches the language. Our route to anywhere tends to include French cities such as Paris; on this trip, with Paris a tad distant, Mahe filled in.

Approaching the bridge over the Mayyazhi river that marks the Mahe border, two guys on a motorbike shot past on our left at considerably more than 80 clips, weaved to our right, straight into the path of an onrushing jeep. Frantic seconds ensued that I can only describe thus: glancing blow, desperate weaving by the motorbike duo, sandals falling, bare foot skinned on the road, and somehow they halted next to a police booth. We stopped as soon as we could. I got out and ran back, picking up the sandals on the way. Teenager on the pillion had injured his foot badly. The driver was OK, except for a long tear in his jeans. The jeep owner had already flagged down a passing rickshaw and was helping load the kid so they could go to hospital.

Oh yes, the cops helped too. Soon as they saw me approaching, they began bundling me into the rickshaw as well. "You go!" shouted one in English, when they realized I couldn't follow the others' Malayalam. "Mahe hospital! Go quick!" Ordinarily I might have gone, but here the jeep and motorbike drivers together looked like they had things under control; besides, with the three of them in the rickshaw, there was no place for me. But he got a little more insistent when he saw me hesitate. "Must go!" he said, pushing me. "You were in jeep! Take him to hospital!" I explained -- Tamil, English -- that we were just passing and no, I definitely wasn't from the jeep and I had only come to help and I had brought the kid's sandals …

The sandals did the trick. He stopped pushing and smiled. Took the sandals from my hand and thrust them into the rickshaw, which made a roaring, careening U-turn and skidded off towards Mahe.

Minutes later, more sedately and a little stunned, so did we.

Not a whole lot left that's French about Mahe, not even the innumerable bars and liquor stores right at the border. I suppose if I had stepped in one I might have stumbled on plentiful stocks of fine Bordeaux wine, but let me say it didn't seem likely. But we stumbled instead on a tiny park by the river, where we found dozens of dozing men -- they were not French either -- and a memorial.

Finally, something French.

It's an elegant black pillar topped by the head of Marianne, symbol of France and allegory for the famed "liberté, egalité, fraternité" slogan. As far removed from my experience as that revolution is, it's strange how the memorial put the words in mind, setting my spine a-shiver. Freedom, equality, brotherhood: 200+ years since the French revolution, 60+ years since we Indians became free, those ideas always resonate, always seem fresh. There's irony in a colonial regime trumpeting them, sure -- after all, how free and equal was Mahe under the French? But the words don't lose their power for that.

Shiver done, I examined Marianne more closely. Several French beauties have been models for Marianne, including Catherine Deneuve and, be still my beating heart, Brigitte Bardot. Which of them would I see depicted here? As I peered, my wife's laconic tones -- she knows me well, my wife -- brought me back to earth. This pillar was erected for the centenary of the French revolution, meaning in 1889. Long before Mesdemoiselles Bardot and Deneuve; in fact, long before France even started depicting Marianne in the likeness of its loveliest women.

So much for my beating heart. On the wall outside was a poster for a recent Malayalam film, complete with dashing if paunchy hero and fetching if also paunchy heroine. I consoled myself by peering at it. Felt an inexplicable urge, once more, for a meals ready.


  1. You made me go back to Konkan. One of my 'things-to-do' is to travel on NH-17 by road. I have done that only from Karwar to Goa and its a beautiful journey. There are also a couple of famous lighthouses in Mangalore, have you seen them? I had planned to go once but the monsoons canceled my plans.

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