Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Finding Time again

Did you know that when water-lillies first bloom open, they carry with them a little refreshing water in their cup ? Neither did I, until I travelled to Kerala a few weeks ago and made this discovery ... among others.
We had flown into Kochi and then planned to drive down to Thiruvananthapuram (say that 3 times really fast .... or just call it Trivandrum as almost everyone seems to) .

The drive is amazing! I developed a major crick in my neck just turning my head again and again to follow luscious scenery till out of eye-sight.

Trivandrum is one of those little cities that are, as one of my friends put it, "so full of character!" . The capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore and now of Kerala, there is a sense of old-worldliness about it, a leisurely ambling and simplicity ... never mind all those new roads and the sprinkling of high-rises that are almost like an after-thought. A concession to the 21st century, as it were.

Our plan was to stay at Maryknoll in Trivandrum

but once we got there, we kept lingering and lengthening our holiday. After the heat and dust of Mumbai, the tranquility of the lily pond and the cool, high-ceilinged rooms had me mesmerised.

Just about everything here is designed for coolness. High ceilings, big rooms, ventilators, big windows, cool floors, shade trees, and of course, it's built on top of a hillock to catch every breeze that wanders by. Perfect for living just 8 degrees north of the Equator! And it's cooler than my Mumbai apartment by the sea !

The little curved 'turrets', wrapped around antique wooden staircases, are fascinating.
But the most intriguing of all ... this home has front doors made mostly of glass. Talk about absolute welcomes !

Another thing I love... great furniture. Most of the furniture here dates back to the colonial times and the craftsmanship on these is like nothing I see in the modern pieces.
This beautiful writing desk tucked away under the wooden staircase has a great view of the lawn and a towering Michaellia champaca tree.
Can you imagine what it must be like when the Champaca tree is in full bloom, wafting its heady fragrance everywhere?

Greenery seems to reach in from every nook and corner.
At the back of the house, a staircase used earlier as an access for the housekeeping staff, now leads to terraces. The curved wall of the staircase is peppered with jaalis (patterned cut-outs) and even here the refreshing glimpses of green beckon... making one feel like you're peeping into another world.
Maybe it really is. I did feel as if I was in a time warp, slipping back into a more leisurely time. Finding time to breathe ... and just to be !

The 50-year old garden was undergoing a massive re-haul and rejuvenation but the bougainvillaea were in full bloom.

I love this delicate pink-tipped double-petalled one.

A step beyond and a low garden wall leads into the grounds filled with towering trees. Teak and mahogany trees seemed to be in a "who's taller?" competition.

And mango trees vied with jackfruit trees to see which could bear the most fruit. The mango trees win by number but when you take into account the size of each jackfruit.... phew!

And, not to be left out were the jungle jack (Artocarpus hirsutus)... small globes of spiky fruit filled with sweet-tart golden globules that leave you yearning for another mouthful.

Of course, all these fruits find their way to the dining table and our stay there was replete with huge platters of all these fruits as well as bananas and veggies grown in the kitchen garden. There's nothing to beat the flavour of fresh fruits straight off the tree!

Something that left me a bit bemused was to see blankets of leaf litter on the ground, especially under the coconut trees. I was told that it was part of their natural land management system. The blanket of leaves protect the earth from the intense summer heat and also helps to keep down loss of moisture through evaporation. And they obviously add to the fertility of the soil. Something like composting in situ. Smart!

One of the jackfruit trees was abloom with hundreds of Acampe orchids. These orchids are found growing wild in South India and are sometimes seen adorning trees along the highways.
The flowers are so tiny that most often they are not noticed. Their lingering scent, however, turns many a head.

I looked closer and found that someone had already staked claim here!

And down among the blanket of leaves, shy Caladiums peep out. Splashes of green and white in the most unexpected places, adding to the verdant appeal of the grounds.

One day, a few men walked in and there was a lot of hushed conversation. It seems they had come to buy palm leaves.
Why? To feed elephants!
This of course, was cause for a lot of excitement because we thought that we would get to see the massive animals. My children ran out on to the grounds to check but we were out of luck this time. Apparently they had not brought the elephants with them.
Maybe next time?...
It all seems so surreal now but at the time it fit right in with the ambience. Of a place cut off from modernity, where elephants would saunter in any minute, looking for a mouthful of palm leaves!

We did shake ourselves out of our lazy indulgence to drive down to Kovalam ( about 20 kms away). One of the best beaches of India, it is still very underhyped in my opinion. It shot to fame with the arrival of the hippies in the '60s. They frequented the wilder 'hawa beach' or 'Eve's beach' on the other side of the rock outcrop and there were hushed references to swinging parties on the beach but more often than not, they were usually laced with a tinge of "I wish I was there too".

The next time I come to Trivandrum, I must try to get a photo of the nearby Kaudiar Palace, or rather, the entrance to the property still owned by the Maharaja and his descendants. It is one of the last few private palaces with no entry allowed to tourists. This very exclusivity gives it a very secretive, aloof air. I love the tall gates allowing just a glimpse of lush greenery inside.

Till then, I have my photos of Maryknoll and its grille-work which is said to be an exact replica of that in the Palace (sorry, I didnt include them here) .
But, I bet they don't have all those fruit trees on the Palace grounds, though. Nor such a dreamy lily pond.
And even if they do, I'm sure I wouldn't be able to dabble my feet in it and watch the dragonflies, like I did at Maryknoll!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Welcoming the Monsoon

The Monsoon ... is... here! Finally!
It crept into Mumbai like a tardy school-boy, dragging its feet and tried to bluster its way through.
But it's oh so welcome, nonetheless !
If it were a person, I would've hugged it to pieces. But as it is, I'll simply hug myself in glee and drag my chair a little closer to the window and try to catch the raindrops on my face. Hopefully, without short-circuiting my computer!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Once upon a bird-bath

Its been one long, boiling-hot summer in Mumbai this year. The gul mohur is in full blaze and the monsoon winds which would've lashed these petals to the ground, are nowhere in sight. I love these fiery blooms but I'm not happy about the monsoons playing truant.
Neither are the feathered folk who call my garden theirs!

At one corner of the grassy patch which I euphemistically call a lawn, is a rocky area.
Actually almost the entire garden is a big sheet of rock. In some places it is just deeper down in the ground but in vast areas, it is just a few inches below the soil. Since digging out the rock is not practical, I have resorted to converting these spaces into a lawn. It looks very impressive to someone who's visiting but few realise that my 'luxury of having a lawn' is just an eye-wash.
Correction ... I need that grass there to hold on to the last few inches of soil before the next monsoon washes it away!
Some of the rock got exposed ages ago and the elements have carved out a small depression on one. I keep this filled with water and my 'bird-bath' seems to have become popular among the birds. Famous even, I would say, considering the number of migratory birds who stop by every year !
So you can imagine what the scene was like yesterday with the temperature shooting sky-high.

First I had a Bulbul telling some sparrows to wait their turn

while he fluffed his feathers and samg in the bath .
I love the Bulbul's song... there's something so liquid about it! And his perky-looking crest and red cheek mark him out as a real character, dont you think?

Then the Spice Birds showed up and took over the bird-bath.
I rarely get to see them sit still. they're usually flitting in and out of the garden with long grass strips in their beak busy building a nest in my Nursery Tree (don't bother looking it up ... it's just a tree I got when I tried to buy a Bottle Brush tree but ended up as something else. We call it that because all the birds love building nests in it) and trying to fool me into thinking they're not.

"Do you mind! It's my turn now. "

Then a weaver bird decided to join the party and add some colour. A lot of colour, actually! Love that cheery yellow.
I personally think these little guys are amazing. Have you seen their nests? Come on, think of it ... they only have their beak to construct these intricate structures! They'd put any architect to shame.

And, of course, the Mynah! They play a leading role in my garden theatre. They're my official pest-killers, snake-spotters,watch-birds... And they're bossy as hell!
They strut around, keeping an eye on everything that's going on, generally acting as if they're Mr. Boss. So if any other bird is already in the bird-bath when they're walking up, they'd better clear out. Fast!

This Pied Mynah is new to my garden. I've never seen him there before. Maybe he's visiting his cousins or he just found the bird-bath too tempting in summer.

The Babblers always arrive in groups, hopping around among the leaf litter and skraaking and calling to each other. Strangely enough, for all their aggressive volubility, they're very mistrustful and rarely allow anyone to get close enough. The lure of the cool water put an end to that !

Then, every once in a while, the bird-bath is taken over by the non-feathered too. By the looks of it none of the birds stayed long enough to complain!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dance of the water lilies

Come, join me in one of my favourite garden spots. The water-lily pond at Maryknoll in Trivandrum. I just spent 4 very self-indulgent days there, soaking in its tranquility.
The lily pond here is more than 50 years old and has just been rejuvenated.

I woke up to see the dragonflies hug open tightly wrapped buds. Time has no meaning here ... buds wait for the touch of sunrays before displaying the tiniest sliver of colour.

Then follows a ballet of awakening. Slowly, oh so languidly, they unfurl petal by petal.

And then, filament by filament ...

as graceful as any mudra you would see from a classical dancer.

Soon, their inimitable fragrance steals across the air and it is as if my senses are on hyperdrive.

Then, in the drowsy quiet, broken only by the call of a hidden koel, the water lillies pause like dreamy divas.

For, they are soon to be the star of another show... the dance of the honey-bees.
I watch them, fly in and out . Drunk with ecstasy and the promise of every floral treasure, they stagger under the weight of pollen so lavishly offered. They seem reluctant to leave and crawl on the stamen like someone who's had one too many and who still wants one more for the road.

Suddenly, I know I want a lily pond of my own. Maybe not a big one like Monet's inspiration or even the one at Maryknoll.
I think I could be very content gazing at a serene urli of water on my balcony, afloat with water lillies.