Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

So many trees…. May 4, 2010

Filed under: Indian literature — benjamuna @ 3:38 pm
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I don’t really recall the first time I read about the Banyan tree, but it was definately in a novel. And definately I understood it had absolutely nothing to do with bananas…. I got the feeling the tree had some significance, and that it was big! The first time I actually saw one, was in Pune some years back. My friends Girish, Sanjay and Mandar took me to the University of Pune, and I asked them to look one up for me, in the huge surrounding garden.

The Banyan tree (Ficus bengalensis) is sacred to the Hindus and is often found near temples. It is extremely long-lived,  one of the the oldest one – of 400 years – can be found in Kolkata Botanical Gardens. Yes, it’s big and not at all attractive in the sense of elegance…, but the aerial roots that decends to the ground from the branches gives it a  fairy tale look and also a very distinct look.
I often come across the Banyan tree in novels, very often described as big, and yes, it often grows to a phenomenal size.  I’m always on the look out for a Banyan, the first Indian tree I got to know.

A Banyan tree in the surrounding gardens of The Red Fort in Delhi.

Another tree which I have come across in many novels, is the Neem (Azadirachta indica). Its more elegant than the Banyan and very popular because of its medical value. Neem twigs can be used as a tootbrush, where plastic yet has not enveloped the society.  This is something often referred to in Indian novels, used mostly among poor people.
The first time I really saw a Neem was outside the gates of Taj Mahal in Agra. The Taj Mahal was grand and beautiful, but it takes some effort to visit one of the world’s seven wonders…and thus it was a bit of a relief when we escaped the guide….and my eyes fell on the big and beautiful tree that stood majestetically in the middle of a square. A beautiful Neem.

A Neem outside the gates of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

I fell in love with the banyan the moment I saw it, but it is quite possible to fall in love with the name of a tree….. The first time I read about the Gulmohar (Delonix regia), it was the name itself that caught my attention. Gulmohar or Gul mohur as I have also seen it written. 
Gulmohar is the name of a character in The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf. She is one of the whores on GB Road in Delhi. “It’s a flower, the bai said to her. It will make people swoon over you to catch the whiff of your fragrance“. Gulmohar comes from Nepal, snatched away from her hometown by her uncle Jangbahadur to serve as a whore in Delhi at the age of 16… The book is a terrific read, set in old Delhi and its main thoroughfare Chandni Chowk.

Somehow I associated the name Gulmohar with yellow… I envisaged a tree with yellow flowers. Obviously because “gul” in Norwegian means yellow. The tree has in fact beautiful orange/red/vermillion flowers. Its flowering season in India is April – June, a time of the year of which I don’t go to India. But my great wish is to see one, in full bloom! And for sure I will think of poor Gulmohar in GB Road!

Google helped me find this beautiful specimen!


Getting my Hindi right! April 25, 2010

Filed under: Indian literature — benjamuna @ 3:32 pm
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I know how to swear in Hindi! Not that it is important, although you never know when certain words may become useful…. For some reason almost all novels, written by Indian authors – includes a lot of words that are not translated, but kept in Hindi. Some books even include a glossary.

One of the first words I came across, was charpoi. Clearly it was something to lie down on, a simple bed (without any mattress) – often used outside. The first time I saw a charpoi, outside a dhaba north of Delhi, I instinctly knew what I saw.  And a dhaba? Clearly some kind of eatery (I concluded the first time I came across the word,) – along the road. Used by truck drivers and other passers by. But in the beginning I thought a dhaba was very poor and simple. It is simple yes, and most of the time (from what I’ve now seen) chairs and tables are outside. Toilet conditions can be a challenge, for over-hygenical Westernes….
Some say the food is poor. I guess it can be poor, sometimes. But go and eat at the Norwegian equivalent, the veikro, and food can be disastrous!  I had the most delicious, hot tomato soup in a dhaba last year. So fantastic that we had to stop at the same dhaba on our way back to Delhi several days later.

And there is the dhobis (who wash clothes), the dupatta (female shawl), and the dacoits who might rob your train through Bihar…. And the almirah (chest of drawers or cabinet   ) and the ayah (the live in baby sitter) – and the wallah, the tiffin, the sherwani, the mangalsutra, the ghats and women in purdah…. together in their zenana.
Not to mention that always-come-useful word accha.

Obviously, every one of these words cannot be translated easily into one word. But some can, without doubt. But it is as if a certain collection of words are never translated anyway. It’s a long time since I have come across a new word, though. I read Indian literature almost constantly, and my vocabulary that has been picked up from novels seems to have hit the roof. Sometimes I wonder if there exists a small hidden book somewhere, that contains the “untranslatable words of Hindi….”

All these original words definately give the books a certain Indian flavour, and if you have an interest in languages it is a big bonus! But I don’t think I’m able – yet – to strike up a conversation in Hindi by using this diverse lot of words…..
Oh, and the swearing comes almost solemnly from Vikram Chandra’s fantastic novel Sacred Games – about policeman Sartaj Singh,  criminal overlord Ganesh Gaitonde, a Bollywood film star…. but on second thoughts I’m not going into that!

And something more about Indian novels; they made me put a book of Indian trees on my wish-list for last Christmas. But that’s another story….


Midnight’s Children A MOVIE!!! April 22, 2010

I got Stavanger Library’s 2009 copies of India Today almost for free some time ago. I don’t read every single word, but I find a lot of their articles interesting and moreover, almost every copy has a book review.

Last night I read a copy that was almost entirely dedicated to “famous Indian people living abroad” – among them Salman Rushdie. And what news…. Rushdie is now about to finish the screenplay for Midninght’s Children and, even better new; the film will be directed by Deepa Mehta.

People tend to believe that Indian film is Bollywood, but it’s more to it than that. Bollywood is important for many people, but difficult to interpret for “Westerners”. Try as we might, we always end up with a huff and a sigh….. (A while ago I watched Baadshah… took me two days, and the music got stuck in my mind for weeks…).
Deepa Metha has directed three films (among many others) called Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), and  Water (2005). Beautiful movies. Highly recommendable! And forget about Slumdog Millionaire. An Oscar doesn’t say everything, Deepa deserves one now!


Rushdie & me… April 21, 2010

Filed under: Indian literature — benjamuna @ 6:39 pm
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Time to read Salman Rushdie. After three years with various known and unknown Indian authors, I somehow thought it was high time to read Rushdie. Or was it maybe because I was moving my Indian book collection to one designated shelf, and came across Midnight’s Children. The book tells the story about a boy who was born quote Nehru: “At the stroke of midninght hour, when the world sleeps, India will come to life and freedom.”In other words, 14 August 1947 – at midnight. I guess it was this historic touch that made me keep the book out of the book shelf, because stories centered around the Partition are always triggers my curiosity! And moreover, when it comes to India I believe in faith. I didn’t find the book, the book found me! As happened before…. (Geethia remembered…)

But – disaster struck….. I read approximately 50 pages and I didn’t understand anything. Vocabulary…. syntax….. story…. No. I read almost all books in the English language, but this was quite a nutcracker.
My bookshelves are deep though, and by chance I found a Norwegian edition. Must have been bought long time ago, a 1989 edition and the price tag says 45 kroner. Some bargain.
Again. The book came to me!

After a few pages I realised why I wasn’t able to decode the English edition. The language is not average even in Norwegian, nothing is average in this book. You have to think hard as you go. And being familiar with Indian history isn’t exactly a drawback!
Who’s voice is it now…. where are we…. what happens really now? Two stories simultaneously. It’s crazy. Witty. We are in Kashmir. Agra. Delhi (even in Chandni Chowk!!), and then Mumbai where Saleem is born. We’re in “Muslim-India”.

So far it’s a slow read. I’m not half way yet, but this might be one of those books who could last for ever!