A Sunday Gathering

Friends’ reunions in India are getting increasingly rare. With most of our circle living elsewhere, such meetings happen about once a year, each time with a different set of characters. Let me first define the circle for you: it consists of seven friends (G. and his partners-in-crime from childhood) and their wives (us). Let me also tell you how these gatherings usually go: we eat, we go to the beach, and we eat again. One of these meals is always taken at Saravana Bhavan (Vadapazhani, if possible).

Today’s gathering was slightly different: there was no visit to Saravana Bhavan, an event which deserves to go down in the annals of this group’s history. We went to Bombay Brasserie for lunch, and I don’t think I’m far off the mark when I say that the tamarind candy and sugar-coated cumin were enjoyed more than the actual meal. Don’t blame it on the food – it was lovely – but our tastes are still bound to be gratified by the simplest things. We grab the chance to go back to a time when playgrounds existed and the biggest crime we could commit at college was to skip classes to go to a movie.

We went to Elliots Beach after lunch; we had to, on an afternoon tailor-made for the purpose. The sea was blue-grey and the weather pleasant, for Chennai’s monsoon is arriving and a cyclone hovers not far away. A rickety blue wooden boat bobbed towards the shore on high waves. A brown horse cantered on the sand and a man loaded with colourful plastic toys called out his wares. Snack stalls did brisk business and voices rose in merriment above the rush of the waves. Our own group bought a plastic gun and a bottle of soapy water to blow bubbles from on the pretext of entertaining the child. Visiting the beach after over a year, I enjoyed soaking in the colours and the sounds that I had missed during my stay in the US. Life in Chennai can be messy, but simple joys are more easily attained. Never underestimate the comfort of not having to wrap up every time you decide to step out in December.

We waded into the surprisingly cool water. The foamy brown waves rolled in, throwing salt-spray on our faces. We dug our heels in as the receding waves deposited sand on our feet. Srini screamed in delight, filling his fists with sand, and I wished I could, too. But I’m unfortunately more obsessed with propriety and hygiene than my three-year-old self. I insist on bottled water and I’m wary of iced golas. However, I’m also pretty hypocritical about such things, which is evident from my enjoyment of steamed peanuts fresh off a pushcart on the pavement. The others ate, as Sai put it, chilli powder with a bit of sliced mango around the edges.

We rounded off the day with a little balloon-shooting tournament, where the owner of the stall displayed a tremendous amount of good-humoured patience as she loaded our guns. I marvelled at how quickly she blew up the balloons; one short whiff of air, one twist of the mouth, and the shiny multicoloured balloons were ready to be torn into a million pieces, victims of our unerring aim. We wound up  with a visit to Murugan Idli Shop, for what is an afternoon out in Madras without idli, vadai, and filter coffee? (I simply cannot wait for the December Season to begin.) Plans for an all-boys’ vacation were laid as we stuffed ourselves – Thailand, Dubai, Goa, Pondicherry – and postponed as reality kicked in, all in the span of half-an-hour: another exhibit of the perils of growing up.

So ended, we thought, our day of feasting. But one unscheduled stop at our friends’ as we dropped them off meant being plied with murukku, barfi, and laddoo – Diwali and an upcoming wedding ensure that they are well-stocked and equipped to cater to ravenous beings who haven’t been home in a while. Celebrating my first Madras Diwali, I realised that it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have “childhood” friends I grew up with nearby. If you’re lucky, you find people who accept you the way you are and there is no pressure to dress a certain way or to speak a particular language. You also learn important things to store in a corner of your head until required: for example, did you know that animals have passports and that Ferrari model cars start at Rs 3 lakh? I didn’t.

During our conversations at the beach, we briefly touched on the fact that the last of the group turned thirty yesterday. The grey hair and crow’s feet are starting to appear; there are marked transformations and masked troubles as our parents and grandparents grow old, and balancing home with work gets demanding. However, none of this matters on a day like this, all laughter and no expectations. Some good company and a beach are all you need.

Nights

Madras

We are standing on the seashore, watching the moonlight bounce off the waves, turning them cellophane-y. The moon consorts with a bright object in a straight line from it – with my limited knowledge, I would have called it Venus, as I do any object in the sky that doesn’t twinkle (apart from the moon, naturally). But this is Jupiter, not Venus, says my friend, and we look it up on Sky Maps on his phone. Will I be able to see Jupiter’s moons? Only with a very strong telescope, he says, and so I add that to my list behind Saturn’s rings.

We make a tour of the ice cream carts, looking for one that will sell us something beyond drab vanilla, which is no good without a sprinkle of nuts and a dribble of chocolate sauce. One of the ice-cream vendors produces a magnificent cup of chocolate-chip lusciousness, and I’m sold. Another friend chooses an ice lolly in cola; I taste it, it brims over with the blissful ignorance of summer evenings from childhood, when cold things were particularly appetising after long hours of play at the park.

Singapore

I can’t sleep now, not when the fierce rainstorm lures me to the French windows. I have to watch the thick sheets of rain ripple and run down the glass, blurring the streetlight which blinks in vain, for nobody is out on this unforgiving night. My book has temporarily lost its charm and I meditate on the rain. Nothing in the world comes close to rain in the tropics, to a Southeast Asian storm (if you don’t believe me, ask Somerset Maugham). The words “South China Sea” give me visions of sailors out to explore distant continents, carrying rich cargoes of silk and spices, explorers scripting their tales in exquisite letters, and exchanging treasures with Mesopotamia or Egypt. We will be ancient history some centuries later, so why is the present not as captivating as the past? Why should there be so much mystique attached to the old, when it was probably just as commonplace then as our doings are to us now?

I listen to Sarah McLachlan singing Ordinary Miracle. Is that where I should find my answer?

Falmer

I would sleep, but for fast Internet and the novelty of cold winters – also, the snow has just begun to fall and I cannot bring myself to snuggle into my duvet and lose forever what I might never see again. This is no blizzard, no raging whirl of snowflakes, but a soft, gentle descent to earth. It is just enough to let us fashion a tiny snowman out of half a fistful of white, powdery snow; all that we can manage to gather out of the thin layer that carpets the roads, the grass and the slatted benches by the barbecue pit. We throw miniature snowballs at a friend’s window, and she laughs at us from the glowing warmth of her room.

However, perhaps the happiest of all is the solitary tree outside my window – its leaves have fallen away, leaving only the birds and the squirrels for company. Much as it enjoys their play, wouldn’t it much rather be cloaked in a majestic, glittering cloak of pristine white?

(This is the kind of nonsense I have been filling my head with since I was sixteen, and I am glad to realise that I haven’t outgrown it yet. I don’t want to.)

A Bride in Madras

I’ve finally arrived in Madras, city no. 8 in six years. I’m quite taken by this lovely place whose inhabitants seem to prefer the guillotine to moving elsewhere even for a short space of time; where proud British street names jostle for existence with the names of Tamil reformers/politicians/artistes. I’ve been here for just about a week (and a few odd weekends), and I’ve seen Mount Road, Cathedral Road, Marina Beach, Virugambakkam, Turnbulls Road and Anna Nagar: there’s a motley set of areas for you. I’ve been to Express Avenue and Phoenix Velachery. Plans to visit the Anna Centenary Library keep running into obstacles (anyone know if you can get a membership there?), but I’ll make it sooner or later. In the meantime, I have the books bargained for and bought from the tent opposite CMBT, and as I’m not in the mood for life-changing reading now, Nick Hornby will serve me well for a while.

The usual “weather-water change” effects notwithstanding, I’m determined to enjoy myself. It’s always exciting to move to a new city and study people: I’ve made friends with kindly shop-owners who grumble only a little when you choose closing time to begin shopping for supplies for a whole month, and got to know (superficially, because you don’t want deep discussions on seemantham plans) heavily powdered maamis who offer you blouse pieces, betel leaves and areca nuts, and a hundred-rupee note with a one-rupee coin to attest your newly-married status. What is really fascinating though is the universal obsession with jasmine flowers. When I went to see the house my husband lived in earlier, the elderly neighbour, a Christian widow, came up to offer her congratulations. After a couple of minutes of small talk, she went inside and emerged again with a string of jasmine flowers in her hand. “I noticed you don’t have any flowers in your hair,” she said. “My eldest son is married to a Brahmin girl.” – by way of explanation. The cleaning lady in the house we live in now said to me this afternoon, “I’ll get you some flowers in the evening. Wear them in your hair.” Little gestures, lovely people.

In the two weeks since I’ve been married, I’ve performed about a hundred namaskarams and been blessed with at least twenty sons and two daughters. Those without a specific gender bias have just recommended four or five children in general, so I’ve left them out of the count. Not quite not-so-lovely people, they have their hearts in the right place, they just don’t know what my husband and I want. I’ve seen numerous temples in Tamil Nadu, but I’ll save the interesting bits from that trip for another post.

I meet new people every day: relatives, friends, neighbours who couldn’t make it to the wedding or are just spurred on by curiosity. While I look for work, I fill in the gaps with the Chennai edition of the Times of India (don’t fret, we’re switching to The Hindu soon), learning to decipher Tamil movie names, complicated in part by atrociously elaborate fonts. I awake to bright sunshine at 6.30 am, wipe the perspiration off my brow, then roll over and go back to sleep, entirely unlike the ideal Narasu’s coffee model. Later in the day, I shake my fist at the dark clouds that gather menacingly during the day and disperse meekly at night. I look forward to the unknown.

Life has changed, but in a way that I can’t explain. For the first time in months, I’m not shopping for earrings or clothes or footwear, dreading facials and make-up sessions, or spending excruciating hours at the boutique, trying to convince them that I want my blouse to be more functional than ornamental. I am finally able to read a book without spending a whole hour on one paragraph. I’m listening to new music, using wi-fi, living by the sea (well, almost). I’m at peace again, even if it’s still early days.

For the uninitiated:

seemantham = baby shower; maami = middle-aged/elderly woman; namaskaram = saluting your elders