Since I often travel alone I have loads of time to people-watch, and restaurants are often great venues for the best and worst that the world and my imagination have to offer. This morning’s breakfast, well, no exception… the English couple at the next table were complaining that everything’s dirty and that they wanted proper tea not chai. The elderly lady in hijab was staring pointedly at the English lady’s shorts & crop top. The Polish businessmen wanted to smoke in the restaurant. There is always an American complaining about how many Indians are here (in India). The staff kept smiling at me in hope as I keep smiling at them and bemusing them by ordering in Hindi. Bombay is outside and the sun is shining.
And a humorous universe has the Internationale playing over the sound system. Must be the Russian tape as we’d just had Lara’s Theme.
These posts I’m inserting with 2014 and earlier dates, they were written at those times but since I didn’t have a blog then were not published. The photos were taken at the times and places where I wrote. Inspiration for this one of course, Agatha Christie, or maybe Miss Phryne Fisher.
Murder in the Mansion
It’s time for people watching: I am at dinner in the hall of a 112 year old mansion. 300 years ago this district welcomed a people from North Tamil Nadu who were displaced by a Tsunami. Chettina they’re called. They soon took power as money talks and they had plenty as bankers and money lenders financing investments around the rim of the Bay of Bengal – Burma, and Indonesia principally, teak and rubber. Great town, went for an afternoon perambulate and met some of the locals, just brilliant.
The mansion I’m staying in is internally solid teak, intricately carved and studded in bronze, it’s like staying in a beautiful bank vault with all the Victorian era locks and bars. Room after room is teak walls and cool locally made ceramic floor tiles – I had to sit through a demonstration of those being made. There’s the reception hall, meeting hall, party hall, and the Durbah hall which has been converted into the dining room where we sit in subtly illuminated splendour. It’s brilliant, in addition to the teak ceilings and ceramic floor tiles, there are granite columns, rosewood columns and slow spinning ceiling fans. Belgian glass in the windows and coloured crystal chandeliers with low wattage globes. Japanese wall tiles of peacocks and mountain scenes in lovely pastel shades.
We also visited a nearby mansion earlier in the day, it’s a museum not a hotel. Just beautiful, and again so cool inside.
At the next table are an English couple, we’ll call them Mavis and John. John is finding the pepper chicken a touch spicy and blowing his nose in the fabric napkin before screwing a corner to a point and ramming it up his left nostril as if seeking to remove his brain in a DIY Egyptian mummification process.
Next table over are two French Saphists, drinking white wine and smiling, holding hands. They appear much in love and are also struggling with the pepper chicken, although with greater style and sophistication than John. They instead sneeze and giggle. We’ll call them Marianne and Ginger. We have two older English academic ladies, very new labour they’ve invited their driver in to eat with them and he looks most uncomfortable. If either Mabel or Gerty are murdered they’ll try and pin it on poor Suresh. I feel sad for him already, he’s missing a night in the carpark with the drivers swatting mozzies. And there are more mozzies here than I’ve seen since the last Japanese encephalitis convention.
My fish course had bright green bones, totally to be expected from this fish variety apparently, but it’s something currently causing consternation to our next decorous Parisienne couple. I must say bright green bones in a white fish you’re eating is a touch unsettling. Anyway our Parisienne gent must be in money and here to get some finance tips to save Europe, I think she is a fashionable worrier – an executive assistant I believe. We’ll call them Alexia and Roget. It was delicious, the green boned fish I mean.
The final couple are Britishers. We’ll call them Bree (shapeless, tasteless and very double washed soft rind) and Nick (as he’s wearing high waisted pants like another Nick I knew in sustainability, his middle name is Alisdair.) There is simply nothing remarkable about them apart from their shapeless matching chambray shirts and pale slacks.
Oh I forgot to mention that John is wearing shorts, roman sandals and knee high white socks. He has one of those beards where the cheeks are shaved low but the hair around the face and under the bottom lip remains bushy and lush, bordering the face just about a cm or so. He should be murdered for crimes against fashion and etiquette.
Ah Bree and Nick have left us already. Shame. I think they’ve gone on the house tour before desert. I hope they’re not murdered in the Doll Hall out the back where special dolls are kept and only displayed for a local festival.
So onto dinner; fixed menu (~$15) and delivered by our two innocent, or are they, wait staff Shiva and Rama – I kid you not that’s their names, the other names I invented but not those two. Are they innocent? Shiva just needed me to pay cash for my beer as the mansion is not licensed. He’s also just made a plan for our assignation – 7 am by the pool for my house tour!!
Back to the dinner menu – Drumstick soup good for the health (drumstick beans not chicken). Veg pakora with tomato chutney, delicate. The fish cutlet with the bright green bones, tandoori style. Then a plate of the pepper chicken curry, mixed veg with cabbage, cauliflower curry and rice. All concluded with a most odd, fried potato ball, sweet. Most odd.
Will we all make it through the night? Will someone be tied up in their bed and hung by the panka rope? That’s the amazing wooden board with brocade curtain that’s hanging above the foot of the four poster bed. Simply pull the rope behind the bed head to fan yourself and your companion of choice. Wonder if my kindle enjoyed the breeze?
Next morning… The power went off while I was in the shower for at least 5 mins… I kept hoping for blood curdling screams, but none. Perchance we all survived?
Shiva and I climbed in the dawning light up four floors onto the roof to take in the view. He didn’t push me off, he took lots of photographs using my phone. We didn’t catch a glimpse of anyone stealing away from the murder scene, not from the roof and not through the bars from the women’s quarters above the Durbah Hall. It’s a very nice roof, locally made terracotta tiles all moulded on one man’s thigh so as to have a consistent profile! I kid you not. I wonder what would happen if his thigh met with an accident mid construction?
Tour complete I’m waiting for breakfast. According to Karthik’s instructions I now take black tea with lemon, fruit and curd, dosa – no eggs.
John is arguing that his bill’s not ready. I later understand his point as I waited interminably for mine. But at least it was in luxurious surrounds and I’m under instruction to be nice to the servants.
After finally leaving the hotel we did a drive by photo shoot of the local fort: Thirumayam Fort. Variously described as ancient and built totally new by Britishers Madam. Certainly the remains are British but whether this hill side had prior defensive fortifications is unclear. It certainly has a commanding aspect.
Yesterday after arriving at Chidambara Vilas there was a (late) guide and we toured the environs – another banker’s house, the aforementioned tile makers, a cotton weavers, the outside of Maharaja’s palace and a temple or two.
The “important” temple is for Ganesha. Karthik is hilarious. Clearly he’s under instruction that I’m to be made happy and he’s worked out that happy means temples and markets. He gave the guide a right telling off in Tamil when we got to the Ganesha temple 30 mins before afternoon opening time and the guide suggested that we not bother to wait! My instant Tamil (which appears to use lots of English words) allows me to follow both this lecture on Madam’s predilection for temples, and to understand directions every time we get lost, which is often but fun.
So, Ganesha temple, this is an important temple because it’s the only one where Ganesha’s trunk bends up to his right. Everywhere else it’s left side. No idea why. The temple is about 1600 years old and quite worth the wait. The deity is carved in the rock and covered in gold. The temple and god are carved into the surrounding granite monolith – not separated from the “living rock”. It’s not a cave, just carved into the granite. It was good.
The “surprise” temple was for Lindsay and me. Lindsay coz it’s a horse temple. If you want to petition the god, you get a terracotta horse made, put your name on its chest and donate it to the temple. It’s interesting for me as the book I found describes those local village temples as pre-Hindu, confirmed later as originally Dravidian. The Dravidians are interesting as they are among the first modern humans to come out of Africa, some of their more adventurous number walked on to Australia. Dravidians had no construction and worshipped protector spirits who lived in nature.
Today we went to another, very very old Dravidian temple. More of the terracotta horses this time leading to and placed under a massive ancient tree. The god here is called both Shiva (most high of the Hindu gods here) and also Ayyanar which is local Tamil for most high god. Seems to be an amalgamation of the pre-Aryan /Dravidian local most high god with Aryan love of horses adopting the Hindu name also for the most high god. Very interesting and I loved it, but I’ll stop now before you all fall asleep.
Anyway by the time we got back to the hotel last night I was filthy, marinated in bug spray, dust and sweat – it’s hotter here. So it was swim, a shower and then the murder dinner where nobody died. Not even a monkey.