For those of us whose origins lie anywhere around Madras (in this context, encompassing the whole of Tamil Nadu) and who have grown up hundreds of kilometres away from it, the city has always been a mythical land of eternal charm. In my own slightly muddled upbringing, Madras has remained the constant epicentre of culture, religion and murukkus. We don’t care about the sultry weather or the water problems because we don’t experience them. To us, Madras is a dream of ‘pure vegetarian’ restaurants, the hub of Margazhi kutcheries, and of temples where the best bargains are made. There is a temple for every wish that needs to be fulfilled- except, of course, when you need a visa, in which case you head straight for Chilkur in Andhra Pradesh- and every God/Goddess who needs to be appeased.
My grandparents on both the sides of the family left Tamil Nadu in search of work; consequently, my parents grew up outside the state, and so did I. Classmates at school were surprised when my summer holidays were spent in Hyderabad and not my ‘beloved Tamil Nadu’ (as one of my Biology teachers put it). “Teach me Tamil,” was a constant refrain around me. It didn’t matter to them the least bit if my language had been phased out of popular usage and I didn’t know any of the slang they were particularly interested in.
However, we aren’t as cut off from ‘home’ as I’m leading you to believe.
“We must visit the kula deivam temple this year,” says my mother, out of the blue. So begins a journey down south through the dust and the heat, enjoyable nevertheless (and thanks, in large part, to the prasadam). The shops that line the narrow, packed roads to any temple brim with colour and noise. SPB’s voice rings out loud and clear, accompanied by a shrill chorus, extolling the virtues of the main deity of that particular temple. The exquisitely sculpted gopuram rises from this sea of chaos, serene and untroubled by the confusion all around. An elephant, its eyes twinkling at the spectacle spread out for its merriment, blesses pilgrims with its trunk. (What does it think of us?) The fragrance of crushed flowers and incense pervades the air thick with voices; suddenly, everyone is speaking in Tamil and I have to be on my guard. I’m no longer in a city where I speak a language few people understand and therefore cannot remark on people‘s idiosyncrasies without drawing a few glares in my direction. Notwithstanding this minor ’disadvantage’, these trips are much looked forward to, helped in large part by the prospect of filter coffee and paneer soda on the warm, overflowing streets of Madurai.
This connection that I feel with Tamil Nadu, of course, owes a lot to my mother’s memories of her vacations down south. Having grown up in Hyderabad, she doesn’t wax eloquent over pearls or shopping in the streets around Charminar; what she does fancy, though, is buying strings of different kinds of fresh flowers for her hair and sungudi sarees (even if I try to convince her she can wait till she is twenty years older to wear them). The bond is inevitable; when she was five years old and watching her parents climb into a rickshaw to go to the station and catch a train to Madras, she threw a sudden tantrum and demanded to be taken along as well. This remarkable change in normally docile little Chitra’s behaviour must have astounded her family. Her aunt tossed some clothes into a bag and there my mother was, happily enthroned in the rickshaw, rattling off to the station. Things couldn’t have been very easy then; no reservations, no Tatkaal, but the prospect of a large family of cousins waiting to welcome you would have brightened the journey up.
My grandmother visited Madras often, leaving the children in her sister’s care. She brought presents back from every trip: the ones for my mother were carefully selected from the streets of Mylapore, outside the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, by her cousin Lalitha, a budding dancer whom the family still talks of with much pride.
“What did she normally bring you?” I asked my mother during our phone conversation one morning.
“Several pairs of coloured bangles- they cost only 10p each back then. Bead necklaces with matching earrings. Packets of little bells, the sort you find on silver anklets, to pin onto your pavadai so they jingled when you walked.”
A moment of incredulous silence followed, and then uncontrolled laughter. My mother could scarcely believe there was once a time when she looked forward to dressing up like a miniature goddess on Saturdays, thrilled that she didn’t have to wear the school uniform, the effect of grandeur completed by thick lines of kajal extended to resemble a tail. Her aunt would quickly gather up flowers from the garden and twine them so they could be stuck into the girls’ braids; vivid orange and violet strings were neatly tucked into the well-oiled and combed tresses.
“My friends would compliment me on my beads and ask where I got them. I’d tell them proudly that my mother brought them for me from Madras.”
Those were the years when life was simple. Times weren’t easy and material pleasures were scarce. A telephone and a car were considered the heady heights of luxury, and people who possessed them were looked up to with unabashed respect. There weren’t abundant amounts of money to go around in large families; happiness came from unexpected trinkets or a neighbour buying the children chilli bajjis or sweets. There was always tamarind in the kitchen to steal when the adults weren’t looking.
Chitra’s numerous acts of mischief could fill a book- they should really be saved for another day. However, I see where my fondness for Madras comes from. I was delighted when, on a recent trip down south, I was shown a couple of famous movie landmarks (which I admittedly didn’t know of)- the railway station and the LIC building. I also saw the much talked-of Moore Market. A sense of familiarity washed over me as I stepped into the streets of this city I barely knew. It is much maligned for various reasons, but I can’t help being impressed by its fervour and character. A passerby who overheard our conversation and offered us directions- even walking along to show us where to turn; the woman selling flowers by the road all smiles and garrulousness; friendly policemen: these were some of the kind people we encountered on our short ramble. No surprise, then, that ten minutes were quite enough to leave me thoroughly enchanted.
I’ve inherited the family’s fondness for Carnatic music, long hair and certain kinds of beads. Reason enough, I’d say, to get to know Madras better, sultry weather and all. I only hope it doesn’t change too much before I have the opportunity to do so.