Wisdom of the Ages: Thiruvalluvar Day

What was his name?

What was his faith?

What was his occupation?

When did he live?

Who knows? And more importantly, who cares?

For the heritage of poetry, philosophy, dharma and wisdom he has left us is beyond all these.

Thiruvalluvar, the revered Tamil poet, whose Thirukural even today is taught in every school in Tamil Nadu, and whose couplets on a range of subjects, from love and family life to economics and politics, are quoted by politicians, movie stars, professors, and common people alike, to clinch any argument.

I am but a poor Tamilian, who can neither read nor write Tamil, and am hence missing out on the riches of one of the world’s most ancient languages. Maybe to make up, I decided to do this blog on Thiruvalluvar on the occasion of Thiruvalluvar Day, Jan 15. The Tamil Nadu government has been observing this day as part of Pongal celebrations for many decades now.

Very little is known about him. Even his name is not certain—his works do not name an author! In fact, the Thirukural as a book itself does not carry a name! The French translator Ariel has referred to it as ‘the book without a name by an author without a name’.

His works have been dated by various scholars from 4th century BC to 5th century AD! In 1935, Govt. of Tamilnadu recognized 35 BC as the Year of Valluvar.

He may have been a Hindu. Equally, he may have been a Jain. Some claim Christian influences in his work. Many scholars hold he was beyond religion. For instance, Mu. Varadarajan says he probably “practiced religious eclecticism, maintained unshakeable faith in dharma but should have rejected religious symbols and superstitious beliefs.”

He may have been a weaver, a farmer, a priest, a drummer or an ‘outcaste’.

What is of moment are his works, especially the Thirukural, a collection of 1330 couplets. Each couplet consists of just seven words (termed ‘kural’), but pithily encapsulates wisdom. The 1330 verses have been divided into three sections by the author: the first is Arathuppaal which gives norms and codes for a virtuous life; the second, Porutpaal deals with the right way of acquiring wealth and expounds the fundamentals of politics and statecraft; the last, Kamathuppaal deals with family life and love in all its manifestations.

While urging you to visit any of the many sites devoted to the Kural and its translations, here is just a taste to whet the appetite:

Verse 211: Kaimmaru venda kadappadu marimattu ennarrun kollo ulaku.

Meaning:  

The benevolent expect no return for their dutiful giving.

How can the world ever repay the rain cloud?

Verse 541: Orndhukan notaadhu iraipurindhu yaarmaattum therndhusey vaqdhe murai.

Meaning:

Investigate well, show favor to none, maintain impartiality

Consult the law, then give judgment-that is the way of justice.

Verse 1032 : Uzhuvaar ulakaththaarkku aaniaq thaatraadhu ezhuvaarai ellaam poruththu.

Meaning:

Farmers are the linchpin of the world

For they support all those who take to other work, not having the strength to plow.

–Meena

Based on Wikipedia (of course!), as well as ‘Tirukkural-Arathuppal’ Prof SN Chokkalingam, Vanitha Press; https://ilearntamil.com/thirukural-with-english-meaning-athigaram-104/ and https://tamilnation.org/literature/kural/kurale1

Totalitea

Many moons ago, my husband and I were on a short trek on the Annapurna Trail. Late one afternoon we reached a small village where we would spend the night. As we sat, enjoying the unmatched feeling of contentment after a beautiful day’s walk, we were joined by a young man. He bowed low, as only the Japanese do, and joined us in quiet contemplation. After a while, in broken English, he asked if we may be so kind as to join him in a small ceremony. We were happy to do so.

The young man led us to a large spreading tree around which was a built platform, and gestured to us to sit. From his backpack he took out a beautiful bowl and a brush, and with fluid movement cleaned the bowl. He then put in it some tea powder and hot water from his flask, and carefully stirred. With a low bow, he respectfully held the bowl in both hands and passed it to my husband, so that he may take a sip. He indicated that the bowl be passed on to me to do the same, and then he did the same when I passed it to him. All this was done in peaceful silence. When we had finished the bowl of tea, he explained, half in words and half by gestures that this was a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and that his guru in Japan had asked him to share it in a beautiful place with the right people. We were humbled that we had the privilege of this sharing amidst the breath-taking majesty of the mountains, the song of birds, and the crisp air. 

It was one of the most meaningful and beautiful moments of sharing that we have ever experienced. The memory is vivid even after so many years.

We later discovered that our host had meticulously followed both the form and spirit of the chado or Japanese tea ceremony, an experience that is centred on respect, beauty, and simplicity. As is the tradition, before the ceremony begins, the host and the guests prepare their mind and spirit for the experience by leaving worries behind, and focusing on harmony and tranquility. The rest of the ceremony gently unfolds just as our young friend had done.

The history of the tea ceremony is equally engaging. The tea plant was brought to Japan in the 9th century by a Buddhist monk named Eichū on his return from China, where tea had been in widespread use for centuries. Eichū served the drink to an emperor, and not long after, an imperial decree was issued to start cultivating tea plantations in Japan. Initially tea drinking was limited to the social elite and only later it spread to other levels of Japanese society. It would take another three centuries before tea ceremonies would become a spiritual practice.

In the 15th century, Murata Jukō a Buddhist introduced the four core values of the ceremony–kin, or reverence; kei, respect for food and drink; sei, purity in body and spirit; and ji, calmness and freedom from desire.

In the 16th century, another Buddhist, Sen no Rikyū incorporated the philosophy of Ichi-go ichi-e (‘one time, one meeting’), the idea that each individual encounter should be treasured as such a meeting may never happen again.

Our chance encounter with the Japanese tea ceremony and our host was literally and spiritually “one time, one meeting”.

Tea and rituals related to tea have an important role in Oriental cultures. In China, where tea is said to have originated, one of the first written accounts about the tea ceremonies dates as far back as 1200 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty. The serving of tea was also named cha dao which meant ‘the way of tea’.  Attention to tea preparation and serving became the preoccupations of the Chinese tea connoisseurs, which transformed the way tea was regarded by the Chinese.

The Chinese tea ceremony is a blend of the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism and is based on the respect for nature and need for peace. The traditional tea ceremonies were described as he which translates as ‘peace’, jing which translates as ‘quiet’, yi which means ‘enjoyment’ and zhen meaning ‘truth’.

The tea ceremony remains one of the most significant traditions, even today, in Chinese weddings. The ceremony is conducted on the day of the wedding and sees the bride and groom respectfully serve tea to their parents, in-laws, and other family members. This symbolises the union of two families, the respect for the elders on both sides, and the elders’ acceptance of the marriage. In Chinese, the expression “drinking a daughter-in-law’s tea” is used to represent a wedding. What a simple but eloquent symbol tea can be.

While Japanese and Chinese poets have written lyrical odes to tea, the British approach to their cuppa is much more “stiff upper lip” and mundane! As William Gladstone said:

If you are cold, tea will warm you;
If you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are exhausted, it will calm you.

As for India, as with all other things there are myriad versions and preparations of the ubiquitous chai! Every home and every family has its own special brew, and chatting over chai is a national pastime.

In my home, the long morning tea session is an unbroken tradition, complete with a big teapot and numerous cups of ‘English tea.’ It is a time to sip, and savour our little garden while we each peruse the morning papers. It is a comforting and happy way to start a new day. And to remember the words of the Vietnamese spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh:

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.

What brought on these ramblings about tea? Every year, since 2005, tea-producing countries have been celebrating International Tea Day on December 15th. The day seeks to draw the attention of governments and citizens around the world to the impact that tea trade has on workers and growers. Last year it was proposed to expand this celebration to all countries around the world and to move the day to May 21st.

December or May, for tea drinkers every day is Tea Day.

–Mamata

Peanuts for Bulls

One of Bangalore’s landmarks is the Dodda Basavana Gudi (Big Bull Temple), which is situated–surprise, surprise, on Bull Temple Road, Basanvangudi, South Bengaluru. It was built by Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bangalore, around 1537. It is dedicated to Nandi, the vahana or mount of Lord Shiva, and the monolithic statue has a height of 4.6 metres and a length of 6.1 metres. This Nandi is probably the biggest in the world.

But where do the peanuts come in? Well, apparently, this was a prolific peanut-growing area many centuries ago. But year after year, a wild bull would rampage through the fields just when they were ready for harvest, and would destroy the crops. Over time, the problem grew so worrisome that the farmers were desperate. They vowed to build a temple dedicated to Nandi if only the bull would stop. They did so, and miraculously, the bull stopped its depredations.

A board at the temple has a slightly different version. According to this, one of the angry farmers whose peanut fields the bull was destroying, hit it with a club. The stunned bull sat down motionless and turned into stone. But then it started to grow and grow! The worried farmers prayed to Lord Shiva. A trident found near the feet of the bull was placed on its head, and at last it stopped growing. The grateful farmers then built a small temple, which was later enlarged by Kempe Gowda.

And in gratitude, farmers also decided to hold an annual peanut fair (Kadalekai Parase) in the area around the temple. It is held on the last Monday of the month of Karthik (that is next Monday, 14 December). Originally, farmers would make an annual visit to Bengaluru to sell their peanuts, but today most sellers here are traders who buy from the farmers and sell. Not only can groundnuts be bought and stored for the year, but peanut connoisseurs will  find a large variety of snacks to choose from–spiced, fried, boiled, roasted and sugar-coated groundnuts.

Not just a tasty snack, groundnuts are good as a source of protein. It is of course a major oil crop—in fact India’s most significant one. The green or dried leaves are used as cattle-feed. Being a leguminous crop, it does the soil good too, by fixing nitrogen. Approximately 85 lakh hectares of agricultural land in India are under groundnut cultivation and the annual production is about 7200 thousand tonnes.  

Well, COVID is bound to interfere with beautiful traditions like the peanut fair, but its importance in our lives will not wane. And hopefully Kadalekai Parase 2021 will give us all our nut-fix!

–Meena

See also: ‘The Worshipful Bull’, https://wordpress.com/post/millennialmatriarchs.com/823

How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear*

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

old man.jpg
Original illustration by Edward Lear Source: Google


No this is not 2020 Corona humour, although it pithily describes one of the fallouts of the lockdown! The verse was written by Edward Lear nearly 200 years ago. Lear is popularly associated with the Limerick, and best known for his
A Book of Nonsense, which he also illustrated, that was published 1846.

Limerick is a form of nonsense verse in which the first, second and final lines end with rhyming words, while the third and fourth shorter lines have their own rhyme. In Lear’s limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word rather than rhyming. For the most part they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point.

Interestingly, while he is best remembered for his absurd wit, Edward Lear was a popular and respected painter of his time. Born in London on 12 May 1812, one of 21 children, Lear was forced to start earning a living when he was just 15. This he did by selling his art and by teaching drawing. In 1832 he was employed by the London Zoological Society to illustrate birds, and later went on to work for the Earl of Derby who had a private menagerie on his estate. Lear stayed there until 1836.

Around this time Lear decided to devote himself exclusively to landscape painting (although he continued to write his nonsense verse.)  Between 1837 and 1847 he travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. After his return to England, Lear’s travel journals were published in several volumes as The Illustrated Travels of a Landscape Painter. Lear eventually settled, with his cat Foss, in Sanremo on the Mediterranean coast at a villa he named Villa Tennyson after Lord Tennyson whom he admired. He continued to paint seriously till the end of his life in 1888.

Edward Lear had a sickly childhood, and also suffered from epilepsy and depression. But in his verses he poked fun at everything, including himself. His irreverent humour, love for the ridiculous, and cooked-up nonsense words were like cocking a snook at the prissiness and orderliness of the Victorian society that he lived in.  Also different from the expected upright behaviour which was the norm of the period, the characters in his verses often indulge in absurd and outrageous antics.

His love for silly word play “a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud”;  his weird and wonderful creatures like Moppsikon Floppsikon bear and  “diaphanous doorscraper” (stuffed rhino); the characters with names like Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies remind me of another favourite—Roald Dahl.

I have always loved the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. I remember memorising and reciting The Owl and the Pussycat, perhaps his most famous poem, when I was in school. The words seemed to frisk and gambol just like the characters.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

We all need a bit of silliness in our lives, especially in these strange days of uncertainty. Today as we celebrate Lear’s birthday as Limerick Day, also marked as Owl and Pussycat Day, here is my humble offering to the memory of Mr Lear!

There was a wicked virus from Wuhan

Who said its time to cause some mayhem

I’ll travel the world for a lark

And make sure they close every park

That villainous virus from Wuhan.

*How pleasant to know Mr. Lear is the title of Lear’s self-portrait in verse.

–Mamata

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Swollen-headed

CBCA14C8-CCB2-4EE8-BE0A-E137CB978119At 11.11 by the clock, on the 11th of November every year (pretty palindromic, isn’t it?), at Mainz Germany, the Fools’ Constitution is proclaimed from the balcony of the Osteiner Hotel. This marks the start of the City’s Carnival, which is characterized by people wearing oversized papier-mache heads roaming around the crowds. It seems that this practice started about 80 years ago, but I could not find references as to why “schwellköpp” or ‘swollen-heads’ are an integral part of the festivities.

dolls 2

Equally mysterious to me is why shops these days have “schwellköpp” mannequins. I really can’t see why anyone would want to buy garments modelled by such weird looking dolls. I know it is all about attracting attention, but surely, there could be better ways to do this than having swollen-headed guys with multi-coloured hair? Fortunately, all the schwellkopp mannequins I have seen have been male. I fear female versions would be really too much.

The practice of using mannequins to model clothes goes back to 15th century France, but those were miniatures. The use of full size dummies started in the 18th century, and these were made of wicker. Later, mannequins were made of wire-work. In the mid-19th century,  papier-maiche dummies took over.  Today most of these figures are made of fibreglass or plastic.

Mannequins are also used by artists (lifeless figures hold a pose much longer than live models!). They have sundry other uses, for example in crash-testing and in testing defense equipment.

The use of these dolls in medical education dates back to the 17th century where ivory manikins were used by doctors as a teaching aids. Even today, medical simulation mannequins are used extensively in education and for teaching first aid.

I can only hope these mannequins are normal-headed. I would hate my doctor to have been trained on a schwellkopp!

–Meena

Bless Us, Ganesha!

C9965879-3514-46E5-950C-07964DC42871Who can have a problem with someone whose mission is to remove obstacles from your path? No wonder then, that Ganesha is a God whom all love. Wise, witty, with a sense of fun, he is quite the favourite.

No wonder then that his birthday celebrations have caught the imagination of people across the country, and they grow larger and larger every year. I love it too, though I have a question. Is his birthday the day he was made by Parvati and given life by her, or the day that Shiva beheaded him and then brought him back to life again, though with an elephant’s head in place of his original human head. Hmm…maybe someone will explain it to me some day.

Elephants have fascinated humans for ever. The Pali Jataka stories, which go back to the period 600 to 321 BC have references to elephants. According to Buddhist stories, the night before Lord Buddha was born, his mother Maya is supposed to have dreamt of a six-tusked white elephant which came to her from heaven, with a white lotus in his trunk. This is why Buddhists consider the rare white elephant the holiest of all animals, and the embodiment of the Buddha.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata have many references to elephants in war and peace. Flourishing cities for example, are those with elephants. The descriptions of elephants in Ramayana are supposed to be detailed and fairly accurate.

Tamil Sangam literature (1st to 3rd century AD), provides a wealth of information about them. An old poetical dictionary from this body of work has 44 names for elephants, four names for female elephants, and five for baby elephants. Each part of the elephant is named.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra treats the study of elephants as a branch of study and prescribes the duties of mahouts, and approaches to management of elephant populations.

Elephants abound in folktales, proverbs, similes etc. As per a popular Indian folk tale, in the days of yore, elephants could fly. Apparently they were pretty playful. One day, a herd of elephants was gambolling in the branches of a banyan tree. A branch broke and fell (why am I not surprised?). And as to be expected, there was a rishi sitting beneath the tree. His worship was disturbed by the falling tree branch, and as was the wont of rishis, he cursed the elephants that never would they ever be able to fly again. And so it was.

Well, flying elephants would be quite a management issue! But will we at least let our elephants walk the earth? With depleting forests, their habitats are ever-shrinking and ever-fragmenting. The lure of crops as an easy source of food near their habitats is another factor that brings them out of the jungles.  And as a result, human-elephant conflicts keep increasing. Train lines, electric lines and roads across their homes have led to several accidents and deaths in recent times. The threat of poaching for ivory (and sometimes meat), never goes away.

Ganesha, the God of Good Luck! We pray to Thee. Bring peace and goodwill on earth—among humans, and between humans and elephants.

–Meena

Verse and ‘Worsifier’

Every time I come across a crossword clue which calls for filling the name of a South American mammal, the first lines that come to mind are:

The one-l lama, he’s a priest.

The two-l llama he’s a beast.

And I will bet

A silk pajama

There isn’t any three-l llama.

One of my favourite verses from one of my favourite poets—Ogden Nash! Frederic Ogden Nash was born on August 19, 1902, in the city of Nashville in America. Nash was a college drop-out who tried his hand at different jobs before joining the marketing department at the publishing house Doubleday. At the age of 29, he received international acclaim with Hard Lines, his first collection of humorous poems published in 1930. Following this, he left his job to concentrate fully on writing. He was a keen observer of American social life, and his writing anti-establishment. His tongue-in-cheek humour, and often irreverent poems caricatured the pretentious middle-class mentality of America in the thirties and forties. He wrote prolifically, over 500 poems including long winding verses, pithy two-liners, and take-offs on sonnets , ballads and limericks with his own inimitable play with, and, on words.

Nash considered himself a “worsifier.” He had a wicked sense of humour, and a clever way with words that always make me chuckle, no matter how many time I read his poems.

To celebrate Ogden Nash, sharing some of my old favourites, on creatures big and small.

The Cow 

The cow is of the bovine ilkIMG_20190820_151218.jpg

One end is moo, the other milk.

 The Germ

A mighty creature is the germ.

Though smaller than the pachyderm.

His customary dwelling place

Is deep within the human race.

His childish pride he often pleases

By giving people strange diseases

Do you my poppet, feel infirm?

You probably contain a germ.

The Ant

The ant has made himself illustrious

Through constant industry industrious.

So what?

Would you be calm and placid

If you were full of formic acid?

 The Fly

God in His wisdom made the fly

And then forgot to tell us why.

The Mules

In the world of mules

There are no rules.

 The Kitten

The trouble with a kitten is

THAT

Eventually it becomes a

CAT.

 The Octopus

Tell me. O Octopus. I begs.

Is those things arms, or is they legs?

I marvel at thee. Octopus;

If I were thou, I’d call me Us.

While his observations on the human race are somewhat lengthier, here are some short and snappy classics!

The Baby 

A bit of talcum

Is always walcum.

 The Parent

Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore

And that’s what parents were created for.

 Birthday on the Beach 

At another year

I would not boggle

Except when I jog

I joggle.

 Crossing the Border

Senescence begins

And middle age ends

The day your descendants

Outnumber your friends.

 Introspective Reflection

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance

Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

Luckily for him, and for us, Ogden Nash could make a living from his insouciance, and his verse delights us even today!

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

The Lacy Brittle: Beawar Til Papad

Indian sweets are yum to the Indian palate. But they don’t lend themselves to hyper-levels of visual appeal enhancements as do cakes and pastries and other sundry desserts, as portrayed in various TV shows.

One traditional sweet which is intrinsically beautiful and delicate is the Til Papad from Beawar. A mono-layer of sesame and thinly sliced pistas and almonds in sugar syrup, each papad is see-through. Just hold it up to the light for a lacy view of the world beyond!

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At some point in my life, I studied in Mumbai, and it was always an adventure to reach Jodhpur, where my parents were, for the vacations. One such journey must have entailed some portion being done by bus, because I distinctly recall wandering around the Beawar Bus-stop. And that is when my fascination with this sweet began. Several shops were making the til papad. Basically til and nut-slivers were cooked in sugar syrup, which was taken off the heat at just the right moment; balls made of the goo; and highly skilled cooks rolled them out, one til-thick. It was amazing to see them at work, for they had to work with hot goo, and roll it really fast and thin.

A few weeks ago, someone from Rajasthan kindly gifted us a box of til papad, and that brought all the memories back.

Digging a little deeper into Beawar, I found that it was not one of the ancient cities of Rajasthan, the story of whose founding is part-history, part-mythology. Beawar was established by a British officer, Colonel Charles George Dixon, in the 19th century as a military cantonment. Situated as it is at a tri-junction of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur, it gained and still retains importance as a trading centre.

The people of the area were apparently as brave and war-like as from any other part of Rajasthan, and the British had a healthy respect for them. One source tells me that the name ‘Beawar’ originated from the term ‘Be aware’.

In recent history, Beawar’s claim to fame is its link to the Right to Information (RTI) movement. The RTI movement started with a number of activists demanding  transparency, after conducting investigations into wide-spread corruption at panchayat and block levels. The then-CM of Rajasthan, Mr. Bhairon Singh Shekawat assured them he would bring in RTI. But even after a year, this did not happen. So on April 5, 1996, thousands of citizens and activists congregated in Beawar. The protest took place at a busy traffic roundabout called Chang Gate, and lasted 40 days. This laid the foundation for the RTI being brought in.

So sweet little Beawar is strong too!

–Meena

 

The Worshipful Bull

In Indian mythology, Nandi the bull is both the guardian of Mount Kailash, and the vehicle of Lord Shiva. The worship of Shiva and Nandi goes back to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. The bull-seals found in Mohenjodaro and Harappa  have led some researchers to conclude that Nandi worship goes back many thousands of years.

A statue of a seated Nandi is often found in front of Shiva temples, facing the God. In metaphysical terms, Nandi represents the individual soul, looking to unite with the universal soul or Shiva. At a mundane level, people often use Nandi as a communication medium, whispering wishes into his ears, so that he may convey them to Shiva, who may listen to him more readily than to us!

Why suddenly this interest in Nandi? Because I was in Orissa this week, and did a three-hour road journey and also visited 5-6 villages.

Still doesn’t explain it?

nandi

Well, it was the number of Nandi statues I saw in this time. Almost every hamlet and village had one. Pretty big and prominent. Sometimes the shrines they were in front of were smaller than the Nandis. And there were also some stand-alone Nandis! They were in all shapes and sizes.  A few small, most medium sized and a few really large. Some smiling, some serious, some with inscrutable expressions. Some puny and under-fed, some healthy. Some in proportion and some not-so.  But Nandi, after Nandi, after Nandi.

I have travelled to several states. I have seen ever-increasing number of stand-alone Hanuman statues; and several Shiva statues. But as far as I can recall, I have not come across so many Nandis. I am not sure why there should be so many in Orissa particularly, because traditionally, large Nandi statues are more prevalent in the South—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu. But I do not recall that Nandi statues are found so commonly in these states.

The largest bull statue is in the Mahanadiswara Swamy temple in Kurnool, AP. It stands 15ft by 27 ft. This is followed by the bull in the Lepakshi Temple, also in AP. Other prominent Nandis are the ones at Chamundi Hills, Karnataka, Brahadishwara Temple, Tamilnadu, and of course, Banagalore’s own Bull Temple. Orissa does have one of the big 10 Nandis, at Bhanjanagar town.

But I think the state must beat all simply in the number of Nandis dotting the state scape. These are not old—would not think many are over a decade in age. It would indeed be interesting if someone could undertake a study to understand why there is such a proliferation in recent times. Wish it could be me, but sadly, I don’t think I can do it at the moment. So when I go back to Orissa, I will content myself with just looking out for them, counting them and clicking them

–Meena