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.

Nostalgia by the Potomac

“It’s just water!” a teenaged boy calls to his friends, as they step reluctantly out of the shelter of a clothing store on to the pavement. Everybody seems utterly unprepared for this cloudburst; the weatherman predicted a sunny day, and has hardly been wrong in these two-and-a-half weeks.

We first saw the violet-grey clouds approach as we sat in the overgrown garden of the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in Washington, DC. It was built in 1765 as a two-room cottage, and two floors were later added to it to accommodate three bedrooms and a decent-sized dining room, the way it has been preserved today. Old houses in strange places tend to be disconcerting, and this was no different. A slightly sagging bed, children’s playthings on the floor, and blackened utensils around the hearth quite created pictures in your head. You could see the African maid stirring a broth in the large cauldron, while the lady of the house, Cassandra Chew, entertained guests in the parlour. Aproned children spilled the sticks out of the little case upstairs, and a gardener toiled outside to provide vegetables for the family’s meals. Are they still around, and do they miss being here?

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We loitered in the garden for a bit, admiring the flowers and the rich greenery: for a largely commercial area, this well looked after house is an absolute delight. This is about as English as you can imagine, a far cry from the official starkness of the Federal Triangle.

***

Georgetown is like a slice of Europe in America. The grey pavements lined by red brick structures, many of which seem to date back to the nineteenth century, are heavily reminiscent of the Lanes in Brighton: not quite so quaint or eclectic, but endowed with character in their own way.

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Brightonian?

We head, perhaps in the way of most tourists, to Georgetown Cupcakes. Now this is a Wimbledonish experience, because you have to queue for half-an-hour before you can enter the shop and be bewildered by an array of colourfully iced cupcakes. Our selection goes from four to six, and we carry our pink box like two happy children to the banks of the Potomac.

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The Potomac river separates the town of Rosslyn in Virginia from Georgetown. So, when on the waterfront, you arrive fresh from the joys of a quaint little town to a contemporary glass-and-concrete skyline, relieved by a lush island on the river. We watch boats bob by. People lie on the grass and go jogging beside the adjacent Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A board tells us that this was once a busy thoroughfare for goods carriers, and that this posh shopping district was once, in fact, an industrial area. The blue skies on this placid evening were probably once filled with smoke, and the buildings housing designer wear home to gaunt clerks poring over ledgers.

We eat a cupcake apiece as we watch massive white pillows of clouds mass overhead, almost seeming to drop on the top of the bridge across the river. This town was once the home of a few Native American tribes. In the span of a few centuries, it has changed unimaginably, witnessing various wars and upheavals before being absorbed into the capital of this powerful country. Plaques commemorate a Masonic Lodge, the Star-Spangled Banner, the flourishing of a port town, all clear evidence of a colonial past. Conquest isn’t always fair, and I do not condone the displacement of the Native people, but the growth of America has been nothing short of marvellous. As somebody ignorant of the intricacies of American history, I’m very intrigued about the stories every inch of this area seems to have to tell.

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

Hyderabad, Chapter X

The potholed road has jolted me awake; it feels like being on a camel’s back, rising and falling as the bus struggles along roads ravished by the monsoon rains. A few rows ahead, a man clears his throat noisily and spits- where? This is an air-conditioned bus and the windows can’t be opened. This worries me (what would Ignatius Reilly have said?). I decide to concentrate on the stars instead, plenty of them against a very dark sky, both of which I haven’t really seen since moving to western India over three months ago. The western skies are funny, darkness doesn’t set in until very late, and then it is only a half-hearted sort of night, not the velvety blackness that makes the stars glitter and inspires poetry even in those who can’t write any.

The newly laundered blankets give off a sickening odour; a little while ago, I thought it was someone’s sticky hair oil. Two men share a laugh in front of a little tea shack lit by a solitary bulb. How can there be a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere? (There can be a tea shack in the middle of nowhere, though, make no mistake- just as there are people selling dosas at Nathu-La pass, as I have recently learnt.) Perhaps there’s a railway crossing ahead. I’d like to hear a train cut through the night, hooting and shuffling rhythmically as it bears its cargo of things and hopes and dreams to goodness knows where. But then I won’t be able to hear anything probably- not in this bus which hermetically seals in sighs, snores and stale air.

******

The house at Hyderabad isn’t as large as I thought it was when I was a schoolgirl. The backyard isn’t quite an orchard, and the tank looks painfully tiny to be the sprawling lake that I used to imagine it was, as I pretended to be a boat-girl, a long wooden stick serving for an oar. I made up my own songs and sang them to the trees that slipped by, consorted with the birds and shared special secrets with the water. I dug for “shells” in the mounds of sand left over from some construction work and tucked them away in the purple satin lining of a maroon velvet jewellery box. I wrote stories peopled with handsome princes and gorgeous women in silk and velvet gowns. Oh, I loved the idea of luxury. I feel silly about these memories at times, but I can’t really laugh at that little girl because I still live in my head quite a bit. See, that’s how I can be in Hyderabad whenever I want!

Do you know how, when you’re young and people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, you have a ready answer? Untroubled by any consideration of degrees, capabilities and money, you can easily say teacher or doctor or space scientist. At that point, you don’t realise that you cannot for your life stick a pin into a dead frog or really comprehend Newton’s Laws, and you’re always brimming with hope and promise. Upwards of fourteen, every age is a spoilsport.

The upside to being older? I appreciate Hyderabad better now, and take delight in the beautifully mixed culture that has evolved there. As our bus winds through the city on its way to the outskirts (we are now on the return journey), the skies open up and there is a flurry on the streets. The mosques begin calling the faithful to prayer, male voices overlap in the air, different tunes for the same purpose. Women in burqas hold hands as they hop carefully over culverts and the pools that have already begun forming on the roads. That Eid has just been and gone is evident from the hoardings that various political parties have strategically put up. We pass a line of stalls- kafan shop, agarbatti shop, attar shop. Whitewashed minarets rise from behind them, and a young man watches thoughtfully at the door of the mosque as rainwater gathers in the courtyard. In India, we preserve our traditions over centuries, as we do the infrastructure. See a pothole? Fill it and forget it. The Indus Valley Civilisation with its paved cities must be a myth.

Standing away from the road, separated from a line of shops, is a clean, shiny Zoroastrian Fire Temple. I peer into the dark to understand what the shapes on the sturdy pillars are- they look like lions, but with moustachioed human faces. Zoroastrianism. Persia. Iran. Irani chai. I think of the hordes of people who have migrated in the centuries gone by, crossing vast swathes of land, settling in distant countries but keeping their links with ancient tradition alive. Hyderabad has absorbed all these influences so well, culturally it could be in almost any country this side of Asia.

I want to see the rest of the world, but I think I must start at home.

Presents from Madras

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.

>Illusions

>The bus trundles into the city just as the sun begins to struggle its way through the clouds and I feel the difference. Bangalore’s unbroken skyline of glass and concrete, the result of an almost rabid, ruthless growth whose only aim seems to be to blank out every trace of tradition and history, gives way over a journey of ten hours to a timeless city that is in no hurry to grow out of its skin. I’m in Hyderabad.

The muezzin’s calls to prayer rise over the roar of traffic and impatient honking; spanking new specimens of modern architecture take turns with graceful domes and minarets in their quest for the sky, their motives carefully demarcated. Smiling families look down from hoardings at the lonely old bearded man sitting in front of the meat shop, his dhoti tucked up between his legs, looking out at the road despondently as he awaits business. Boys perch precariously on their bicycles as they manoeuvre through dried slush and narrow gulleys, the result of the heavy rains of the past week.

The arrival of the month of Ramadan is evident. For a change, the self-proclaimed merits of Hyderabadi biryani are relegated to second place as Haleem signboards pop up indiscriminately, on the walls and in the hands of young men outside the restaurants and dubious food stalls. Rows of lights adorn shop-fronts, men in white caps and knee-length kurtas mill around the mosques freshly re-painted green and white. Ordinarily placid streets are packed with pedestrians trying not to get run over by cars with bumpers kissing and two-wheelers fitting into abnormally tiny gaps, the bustle of Ramadan mingling with frenetic last-minute shopping for Raksha Bandhan.

I ride through the familiar lanes with old friends, and unwelcome doubts assail me. Do I miss Hyderabad? Why do these roads that once seemed jaded and devoid of charms suddenly seem spellbinding? I know. It’s that old trick that the mind and the heart conspire to come up with, that disillusionment that hits you like a hurricane and throws all semblance of sense out of gear. It is absurd to compare the known streets of Hyderabad to Moroccan souks, but that is where fantasy decides it wants to go, and I shall let it wander thither. Of what use is an imagination if you don’t let it run wild, especially when all else is so rigidly held back by unreasonable restrictions and rules?

And then, as the bus wends its way through the tree-lined streets of Bangalore on my ‘homeward’ journey, I realise that what I felt in Hyderabad was, indeed, a momentary restlessness- I don’t despise the city any longer, but what I’d felt for it over the weekend was just a nostalgia-tinged infatuation. I might want to live there again, but not right now. Neither city has been able to give me what I seek- but because I’m still discovering Bangalore and have a little faith in the nooks and crannies I don’t know of yet, I hope to come one step closer to that elusive thing without shape or form that lingers within my grasp, and yet refuses to let me close my fingers upon it.

Stubborn- that’s what life is.