It’s the first of a new series of stories I’m going to write over at Medium, just to see what the platform can offer. I’m not ditching WordPress; this is where I first started writing, and I hope to complement both of them in some way. Perhaps I could actually use this blog more as an actual blog than as the place where I put out my finished work. I could think here. Maybe. But wherever this leads, I’ll keep you posted.
As for this story, I first came up with a draft of this after a visit to a village called Pavumba in the Kayamkulam district of Kerala, where a close friend’s family is from. Most of these characters are real, as flesh and bone as you and I are, but their actions are wholly imaginary. The biggest struggle I had with this story was how to end it. I needed an emotional attachment, something that wanted to keep Manikuttan here, and I wanted to nest that in a setting of loneliness and nostalgia. Kerala is famous for sending its sons and daughters abroad, but I wanted to explore what the sons felt when the time came for them to go. It’s a deeply felt story, as much about the place in which it is set as it is about the people that inhabit it.
I hope you like it, and do comment, here or on there. Your words are the solitary writer’s only encouragement.
It was on a clouded over Coimbatore morning that a 21 year old me first felt fear on a cricket pitch. It was a routine practice game, our business school against the engineering school, and the ball was doing a bit under dark skies. I was a cocky young fast bowler who did not feel the need to wear any protection apart from my pads & gloves. We were 5 down for 60 or so runs in a 25 over game, and I walked in to try to set a good enough score. I took guard on middle stump & looked up. The umpire called right arm fast & took his position. I stood on the back foot as I’m wont to, and watched the ball from the bowler’s hand, as I was taught to. It bounced midway & before I knew it, I had somehow moved my head away & watched the ball go, just inches from my head. I took a step back, bent down, took off my gloves, breathed in deeply, & called for a helmet.
I have never played without a helmet since that day. Not in university games, not in club games, not in corporate tournaments.
And I always say a prayer before I go in.
What happened to Phillip Hughes was a freak accident, something that will make old-timers, the ones who know a thing or two about life, sigh & tell us how everything is just unfair sometimes. We, the young, don’t have their wisdom & resilience to fall back on. We don’t know why it should be this way; we don’t understand.
It is this disbelief that we cricket fans had to deal with this last week. The loss to his family & his teammates is incomprehensible. All of us who’ve played team sport know the bonds that form between the people we play with; the word Michael Clarke used often in these last few days has been ‘brothers’. To the players, past & present, who’ve ever worn the baggy green test cap of Australia, the feeling of loss must be immense. And for his small & beautiful farming family, ‘salt-of-the-earth Aussies’, as Clarke described them, anything we can say & do will never be enough. They’ve lost a son, a brother, and a friend. May they have the strength to get through this & celebrate an Australian hero’s life.
But what does the ordinary cricket fan feel? The college student in Lahore, the retired gentleman in Leeds, the club bowler in Kandy, the school teacher in Wellington, how is he supposed to feel when he settles down again to watch the game he loves? Phillip Hughes’ death is almost without precedence in cricket, in that no celebrated young player has ever died on the pitch for a long time now. There have been injuries galore, of course, but none like this.
Which is why it left the cricket fan gutted. The tributes were spontaneous, the eulogies heartfelt, & the tears beautifully, tragically real. We have talked a lot about the spirit of cricket in the last few years, mostly in relation to inane & forgettable incidents, but if even there was a time that phrase could be invoked, it was this. The cricketing community is a small, exclusive sliver of the planet, one of the happy remnants of colonialism, and it came together in beautiful tribute to a man who played the game they loved. #PutOutYourBats was stunning in its simplicity & heartwarming in its scope. This game still means something, it said, the flame of the gentleman’s game still burns in the heart of its fans; for this game, its players are nothing short of heroes.
I’ve watched Hughes playing on television several times, and there was something about him, the little guy & his extravagant cut shots. There was something of the mongrel in him, a quality Ponting had. You saw the fight in him, you saw the grit. You saw that he was going somewhere, you saw that he wanted to. That much was evident to anyone who saw him play. But it is only now, after I read about who he was away from the game, and where he came from, that I realise something more.
Young Hughes was so wonderfully Australian.
Son of Banana farmers in the country town of Macksville, a lover of cattle & the outdoors, Phillip Hughes was the country boy with a dream of playing for his country. And he did it, with a homegrown technique that so memorably rattled the Proteas in that wonderful test match. How similar is his story to Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s; they are both small town boys who rose to be national heroes, and Hughes was already being talked about as a future captain. And like MS, Hughes in his beaming smile, slight golden stubble & confident swagger, personified his proud cricketing nation. He was Australian, & it showed.
Cricket is not going to be the same again. Hughes’ shadow will fall on every ground cricket is played from now on; its mortal peril is now painfully evident. And we fans will brace ourselves every time a player is hit. But I think we can give our players something more. Something that perhaps will give them a bit more strength when they put on their pads. Something I think they will value more than our concern.
We can give them respect.
The player knows he is in danger when he goes out there. He knows that he might be hurt today. But that is the game. If we say that cricket builds character & discipline, that it makes us better men, it is because of a reason. This game we love tests everything we have, technique, resolve, determination, patience, but most of all, courage. In a time when we blame our players for not playing well enough, for not trying hard enough, for making too much money, or in extreme cases, when we throw stones at their houses, it would do us well to remember that, as Simon Barnes put it, every innings is an act of courage. Maybe, just maybe, our respect would give them a little bit more of it.
Where to, now, for the cricketing community, then? Michael Clarke ended his speech at an emotional funeral with these words, & I don’t think it can be put better.
“We must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on.”
Farewell Phillip, you little beauty, you.
Like traces of mayo
on a light spread
I find your love
on hidden corners
of my tongue
Like rays of sunlight
in a lost mosque
in Old Delhi
I find your love
in the sudden warmth
on my face
Like the hard pinch of salt
after a morning near the sea
I find your love
on my dried skin
Like the faint scent of coffee
in Mylapore side streets
I find your love
the filter of my lips
Like the whispers
of sleepy children
in grey classrooms
I find your love
in the tremor
of my faltering voice
Like set stones
in a night sky
pierced with stars
I find your love
in slow glistening
on my forehead
Like the memories
of a cold winter
I find your love
in the long-withered flowers
on my grave.
I read a total of 51 books this year, the last of which I put down only a few hours ago, shivering in the chilly winds of the capital. It was a book about a city, Calcutta, which I thought was fitting, as most of what I read this year was somehow or the other related to places, and by extension, identity and belonging.
This is a direct result of the way I grew up – in several Indian towns and cities, and having never really had the concept of ‘home’ clear in my head, I continually search for it in literature.
2013, then, the year I turned 26, has been my most aware year of reading. I have chosen books, have let books choose me, and have let my friends force me to read one or two too.
I started the year with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and enjoyed it immensely. I have been reminded, though, that the style of The Original Scroll, which I read, is not entirely agreeable, and therefore I would recommend the other, properly punctuated version. It’s a dream of a novel, with words and phrases falling over each other and sometimes not making any sense. But I loved it; it’s an ode to the hope and beauty of the open road and of travel; to a young and open soul, it can be a call to rebellion.
The classics came through as well, with Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but the one that truly tugged at my heart was Richard Llewellyn’s How Green was my Valley. The adjective ‘beautiful’ is overused when describing literature, but it has to be used for this novel, set in the collieries of Wales in the early part of the last century. There is certain music in this novel, and a certain sadness for a time lost; perhaps one of the reasons why we read books at all.
I discovered VS Naipaul this year, who I had always been meaning to read but had always found cause to avoid too, because of the weight his name carries. I needed time, space and some more intelligence to read and understand a Nobel laureate, I thought. And I think I grew up enough this year, because I read two of his books, and was blown away. A Way in the World is a masterpiece, an absolutely gorgeous body of work, which I can only compare to chocolate melting in your mouth. The words dance, they coalesce into sentences that melt into others; reading Naipaul is an experience. His other book I read, Half a Life was a little gem, a story told with brevity and precision and at the same time managing to make quite an impact. His themes of colonialism, identity and migration are very close to me, and there shall definitely be more of Naipaul next year.
Speaking of impact, the books which moved me – sometimes to tears, sometimes to sadness, and sometimes to thoughtfulness – were, in retrospect, the short ones. Kamala Makandeya’s classic Nectar in a Sieve took me back to newly independent India, and cracked me open with a strong, sad story of my own people. So did Sri Lankan Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Journeys in the Night, a collection of writings about AIDS and sexuality in India, was also a very haunting read. With pieces from Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple, Nikita Lalwani and Kiran Desai in it, the book was a literary whistle-stop tour of our country.
Let’s go back to places. I read and thoroughly enjoyed William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns early this year, and in a curious twist of fate, found myself in Delhi a few months later. I wrote about that too, and the book is an absolute must read. So is Janice Pariat’s collection of mountain stories about Shillong and Meghalaya in India’s north east. Boats on Land is perfect for the winter; filled with magic and folklore and the spirits of the night, Janice Pariat brings to life a landscape that is at once mysterious and inviting. It’s a lovely book.
John Green’s The Fault in our Stars is my YA book of the year. It’s a slow, sweet, sensitive story, masterfully told, and shall be reread again and again. This book is important to me as some books are for all of us – they stay inside us for some reason. Read it.
My year’s best nonfiction included Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, and Tavleen Singh’s Durbar. Nobody needs any introduction to Gladwell, and I shall only say that What the Dog Saw is for me, his best.
Aman Sethi’s A Free Man is an account of a daily laborer’s life and times in Delhi. Don’t let that premise fool you, the book is about much more than that. As the title posits, Aman Sethi’s idea that his protagonist, the laborer who we are reading about, is more ‘free’ in the life he lives and the choices that he makes than you and I are. In the same vein, Tavleen Singh’s Durbar is a memoir of the famous journalist’s early years, and a sort of critique of the Congress government of the 70’s and 80’s. For me, it was a much needed history lesson, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in post-independence India.
Lastly, just for glittering prose and evocative stories, I’ll leave you with four novels, each of them very different from the other. Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom is a love story set in Bombay, and it’s a work of art in its depiction of mental illness. Ian McEwan’s Atonement was a book that held me captivated and horrified with its examination of an emotion we seldom find reason to think about – guilt. Graham Swift’s Last Orders is a celebration of ‘the courage of ordinary lives’. The story of three friends who set out to put to rest another friend’s ashes, the novel is a portrayal of human behavior and emotion at their rawest. It took me quite some time to get over it. Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, set in Madras, is a deep, intelligent masterclass. The book was a pleasure to read, and the characters Manu Joseph drew up were so realistic I could almost recognize them. A beautiful, beautiful book.
I haven’t covered all the books I read in the year that was, of course, but these are the ones that I think, were the best of them. And like the best Year in Reading posts, I hope I have put a few more books on your never ending to-read list.
Don’t waste another second, gentle reader. Words beckon.
When my father starts talking about Vivian Richards, there is this glint in his eyes I love. I can tell you what he’ll say, to the word. Vivian was big, he’ll say, imitating the famous swagger of the Caribbean master, and then he’ll tell me why he loved Vivian Richards, and why the world loved him too. He showed the white man how to hit a cricket ball, my father will say, he battered them into submission.
He showed them, did Vivian. That’s what my father will say.
For my father’s generation, Vivian Richards was the black man who gave it back to the white overlord. He was an era’s pent up emotion; he was their black salute. To a generation that rose from apartheid, stung by issues of race & strengthened by a sense of community, he was more than a cricketer.
Vivian Richards was an icon.
In the preface to the single greatest book on cricket ever written, Beyond a Boundary, the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James wrote, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The sentence was not entirely his, being a take on a line in Kipling’s poem ‘English Flag’, but to me, that is the most beautiful and meaningful sentence written about the game I love.
When Sachin Tendulkar made his test debut against the arch enemy in Karachi, he was 16. The bowling attack he faced still gives me goosebumps – Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir. Warriors and magicians they were; arguably the best bowling lineup ever assembled after the great West Indian pace battery of Clive Lloyd.
The year was 1989.
India wasn’t going anywhere.
Having modeled itself on the USSR’s economic policies of state control and central planning, India remained a financial crackpot of a country. The power of its young population was squandered in those years, entrepreneurship was buried behind so many layers of red tape, corruption and elite control that creative energies fizzled out. The only way you could get into the middle class in those dark days was if you could snag a government job through bribes or well placed contacts, or work in one of the public sector enterprises. Goods were scarce; imports for the state controlled markets were sold exclusively on the black market.
My country struggled to eat the food it wanted to, work in sectors in wanted to, do things it wanted to; the world looked down upon it.
The world had reason to. Millions of dollars in foreign aid reached our shores. Well heeled westerners travelling to the ‘exotic east’ found that everything was beautiful, but that India was stagnating, rotting away in an ugly sludge of its own making.
And India’s young people were sad, a proud culture found its uniqueness and identity questioned. National pride is seldom threatened in India; our country has fought wars armed only with unnatural courage and blind patriotism. But still, young India found itself in a strange place then. Their country was giving them nothing to be proud of.
It was then, on finding itself in an economic situation with probably no other solution, India opened up its markets to the world. India’s infamous red tape found its length shortened by several kilometers. Foreign corporations were allowed entry into the humungous Indian domestic market; for the first time in decades, monopolies were challenged, competitiveness was questioned. India was back.
The year was 1991.
Sachin was turning heads in the cricketing fraternity that year. And the heads that turned to see him stayed glued. He was complete, they said, he was the best since Bradman, they said. They argued about him, wrote about him, and basically went crazy over a teenager who could hit balls thrown at him with a heavy wooden bat.
It was in the 1991-92 tour to Australia, when Sachin made 148 on a Sydney pitch alien to a boy from the Bombay maidans, that Merv Hughes made his famous remark to Allan Border. He said, “This little prick’s going to get more runs than you, AB”.
Sachin was becoming the player India hoped and prayed he would be. But even one person among the entire booming population of my country could not have imagined what we came to associate with Sachin, and what he came to mean to us.
India was growing. Money was coming into the country. PV Narasimha Rao’s government had demolished the bulk of the License Raj, invited multinationals in, and cut import duties and taxes. People had more to spend. Things were looking up after a long time. The English news channels on newly arrived cable television had nice things to say about India. Smartly dressed anchors and journalists debated India’s growing might at prime time. India was to be the next superpower, they said, India would grow like there was no tomorrow and that there was no stopping it.
And Sachin, being the star that he was, became the best vehicle for newly arrived brands to reach an adoring local population.
When Sachin said ‘Boost is the secret of my energy’, we flocked to buy Boost. When Sachin declared that there was ‘Nothing official’ about Pepsi during the 1996 World Cup, we refused to drink anything else.
Bollywood boomed too, in those days. The age was one of action movies, where a good guy, someone we called the ‘hero’, would beat up several bad guys, kill the villain, and get the girl. A young India modeled itself on those movies. We wanted to be that hero. On the global stage, we wanted India to be that hero, the proverbial ‘good guy’.
In one of those years my father bought a Bajaj Sunny for my mother to go to school on – a weak looking, little plastic thing. But in those days, for a defense family to have two vehicles –my father’s Bajaj Chetak was the other one, was unheard of. The day the red scooter came home, an occasion for Pujas, coconut-breaking, and friends to come over, there was a cricket match. I remember the scene clearly. All of us Air Force families sat together eating a south Indian sweet called ‘Kesari’ my mother had made, and watched Sachin bat.
Those were good times, the 90s, full of hope, music and a belief in the country’s future and its place in the power plays of the world. It was a time of national pride.
Sachin was an embodiment of that pride. When the world hailed him, we were overjoyed, we were vindicated. Here was an Indian being the best at something in the world; we believed it was only a matter of time before we were the best at everything.
It was Sachin who first made us believe.
I was 2 when he made his India debut. I was in primary school when he smashed the Australians to oblivion at Sharjah; ‘desert storm’, we called it. I was writing my 10th board exams when he let loose against Pakistan in the World Cup. I was studying engineering, my graduate degree when I watched him in a TV shop window, winning the CB series in Australia. I was in the auditorium of my business school when MS Dhoni’s India won the World Cup after 28 years and dedicated it to Sachin. I had been working for 3 years when I cried as I watched his engraved-in-memory visage take the field for the last time.
When I say I grew up with him, I’m not kidding. I’m 26 years old, and I have not known the game I love without him.
I’m just one boy among millions; I’m talking entire lives here.
The void is not just physical, it’s emotional. Sachin was the last remnant of a time India holds very dear to its heart. He was our leading light in those days of hope and approaching glory. Because we Indians have never believed in anything as much as we believe in our country. And we never believed in a person as much as we did in Sachin.
This is the void that he has left behind, and that is why India cried that day, as its greatest sporting hero walked into the dusk, leaving behind memories a proud nation will cherish, and tell stories about.
To my father, the memory of Vivian Richards is one of rebellion, of defiance, of heroism.
To me, the memory of Sachin is of my nation’s rise.
Sachin took an emerging India to the world, as much as he brought the world to us.
He was our last action hero.
There were mongooses in Palam Air Force base in the late 80s. Besides, there were huge trees, cricket grounds, open air cinemas – all of them filled with that astounding calmness only a service kid knows. It is a calmness of order, of rules, of discipline, and of duty. It is a calmness I recognized in all the Armed Forces installations I grew up on – the Shillong radar station that monitors China, the humungous Jamnagar Indian Air Force base that guards our country’s western borders against Pakistan, the dignified air of the single airstrip in Thanjavur, which was built by the British for the South Asian theatre of World War II and is still maintained by the Indian Air Force for hypothetical future ops against an increasingly hostile Sri Lanka.
I grew up more Punjabi than Tamil in Palam, which was to be expected. My ponytails and fluent Hindi helped too, and though we still spoke Tamil at home, my first language through those early years remained Hindi.
I don’t remember much of Palam; I was too young, though images of quaint service quarters, large playgrounds, long walks, guard rooms, Gold Spot & of course mongooses, remain in my head. This was the Delhi of the late 80s, and my memories are embellished by my parents’ fond recollections of the first city they started living together in, passed on to me by way of the stories that are an intimate part of a service kid’s life.
My father had a big BSA in 1985, one of those bigger, masculine models they don’t make anymore. And with my mother sitting on the carrier, he would pedal to the Russian Embassy, where they would both watch the Indo-Russian film festival all day. This was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when our country was trying to emulate the Russian economic model, the ‘central planning’ of the Nehruvian era, and relationships between the two countries were at an all time high. Clothes were bought at Chandni Chowk, Lassi was had at Sadar Bazaar, and the Lal Qila was always visited, as was the Qutub Minar. The Republic Day parade was always seen in person, and cries of ‘Jai Hind’ on the base were common.
There is a black & white photograph of my parents at Qutub, a personal favorite, in which my father, stands with an arm around my Kanchivaram saree clad mother with the gardens of the Qutub complex in the background, and a baby with a hat cavorts on the ground before them – me. My sister wasn’t born yet.
Their memories weren’t all beautiful though. My father, then posted in the Air Force Police, was on duty at the Delhi Airport once, when a live bomb was found under the seat of the very bench my father had been asleep on for 4 hours.
I was one year old.
My parents always loved Delhi; they still do. I know it in the way they talk about the city, its gardens, its people, the things they did, the places they saw. I’ve always envied them for it, for the fact that they lived in Delhi when history was being written in its corridors of power, when events were being put in motion from its old buildings, events that would change the face of my country.
When Minister of Finance Manmohan Singh liberalized the economy in 1990, my parents were here, watching proceedings on Doordarshan.
They’ve seen an India I’ll never see, a simpler, definitely poorer, somehow more romantic India. They’ve straddled two eras, two epochs – an age of simple contentedness and a sometimes vulgar age of opulence. I’ll envy them forever.
In William Dalrymple’s celebrated memoir of his time in Delhi, published in the early 90s, he writes about “..a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns..”
When I returned to Delhi three months ago, I found that sentence I read still very much true. And I think that will always be true of this city.
When I chose to come back, I was leaving behind things that were important to me in Madras, the job at a startup I had loved and lived, friends and mentors who wanted me to stay, family who were wary of me going so far away.
But I knew I had to do this; I had to come back to where it all began.
The week I arrived, I took the metro to Chandni Chowk, walked in the old city and sat on the steps of the Jama Masjid, watching the sky fill with colorful kites and grey pigeons. With a friend I went to Nizamuddin the next week, sat on a bench on the road outside the Dargah and ate the most heavenly kababs I’ve ever had in my life. I went to the Red Fort and felt my eyes brim with tears of pride as I stood beneath the fluttering tricolor, the symbol of the Republic, where the Prime Minister, India’s commander in chief, raises it on days of national celebration. I saw the ivory throne of Shah Jahan, locked up in a corner of the Red Fort, and was moved by the sight of it, the seat of the once-mighty emperor of Hindustan. I saw abandoned and in-use British buildings, Mughal monuments, decades old coffee houses, and I saw a people who had endured the loss of possibly the most important idea of human life – the concept of who they are, where they come from; their identity.
It is a broken city, as my father always reminded me. Delhi’s culture was torn apart by partition; a city of poets, artists, craftsmen and intellectuals was turned into something else. And it shows. There’s something sad in Delhi’s air, a tinge of gloom in its winds. And there’s something beautiful in that sadness, like lost love.
It’s easy to become a poet in this city. You just have to listen to the wind.
On the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road, a chaotic, dusty melee of whizzing cars and vrooming bikes, there is a point when, on taking a sudden turn, you’ll raise your head to see the Qutub Minar looming a few miles ahead of you. It is a humbling little moment, one of many this city will give you if you travel on its roads. The Qutub Minar, built by Qutbuddin Aibak of the slave dynasty, is situated in a place the locals call ‘Lal Kot’, and not many understand its significance.
Lal Kot was the first Delhi, built in the 13th century by Raja Anang Pal of the Tomar dynasty, one of the last of the Hindu rulers of Delhi. Even before this, historians believe that this was the site of the mythical Pandava capital of Indraprastha. The word ‘Indraprastha’ is Sanskrit, and means ‘the place where Indra ruled from’.
This was the capital of the kingdom of the Gods.
And this is what you can see when you raise your head on a dusty road in Delhi. History walks through the city with the nonchalant, omnipresent faith of one of the faqirs you can see on Thursdays at Nizamuddin.
If you don’t pay attention to where you are in Delhi, you’ll miss an entire century. Just like that.
My friends still ask me why I chose to travel so far from home & come here. They reason I could have done whatever I wanted to back in Tamil land.
I don’t know how to answer that question.
I can only say that I knew. I knew I had to come back to the imperial city, and try to understand why – why the city and its stories beckoned to me in the way that they did, and why I feel what I feel when I walk through a city alien to me, and yet my own. How do I put into words the tiny streets of Chandni Chowk, the smell of Mughal cooking, traditions passed on across generations, the taste of Lassi in earthen pots, the sickly sweet Masala Chai? How do I make you feel what my heart feels when I climb the steps into Jama Masjid and am struck dumb at the immense beauty of its domes, what I feel when night falls on Hauz Khas lake with a unnerving suddenness, an instant of twilight dissolving into nothing?
I don’t know how to explain that.
I hope they understand that this was my parents’ Delhi. This city is part of who I’m. Its stories are mine too.
And I was worried about losing them.
The best part of the Hyderabad summer, when I was there 2 years ago, were the mornings. They dawned cold and fresh, forcing me to gather my sleeping bag and run back into the house from the terrace. In another five minutes I’d be off towards the Banjara Hilla mosque, blending in with the crowd answering the muezzin’s early call to prayer.
This is still the memory that defines Hyderabad for me, a vision of the faithful in white kurtas and grey beards, walking towards a voice that seemed to lure them towards it. It seemed magical, and if you think about it, it actually is.
I thought then, as I still do, that a little faith can be a beautiful thing.
I’d go straight to Ismail Chacha’s shop at the mosque gates, where I would be handed Irani Chai in a glass cupped within both his weathered, gnarled hands in almost lost Hyderabadi courtesy. Chacha would inquire about my health that morning & proceed to tell a story. He would start with “Jab Nizaamon ka zamaana tha, Sairam beta, tab Hyderabad main..”, and I would listen, tea in hand and my mother’s old brown shawl around me, to tales of the Old City.
Madras mornings, though, are different.
The wind is not wind, it’s breeze. The sea is Madras’s most conspicuous presence, and easily its most beautiful. But lovely as the beach is in the mornings, the city won’t give you enough time to enjoy it – the sun will be up soon, & you need to go places, see people, work, make money.
Which means the best part of the unrelenting Madras summer is when the sun decides it has done enough damage for the day, and descends to the west, much to the relief of an assaulted city.
This Monday, a friend handed me two tickets to the Chennai Super Kings vs Rajasthan Royals game.
It was half past 6 when we set out, on a summer evening in Madras.
Poet Meena Kandasamy had written a short piece for the Hindu for last year’s Madras Day, and I saved this passage from it –
“If you care to learn her (Madras’s) whole history, listen to it come away in layers, like the names of old, unforgettable lovers – Pallava, Chera, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara. Empires who held her close, coveted, almost concealed, since the 7th century – a port city on the Coromandel Coast.
She speaks a language with a legacy of 2,000 years; she also understands every word of English. She romps around with jasmine on jet-black hair, night or day. No other city shall ever seduce you in Madras’s Tamizhachi style: with sultry, sidelong looks; with spontaneous speech; with all her selfless, surplus love.”
It’s almost invisible, the invocation of Madras’s gender in the passage, but I was struck by how natural it seemed. Maybe this is because we almost always describe cities and countries as female, but in the case of Madras, I don’t think it could ever be otherwise.
Madras can never be a ‘he’.
As I sat on the back of my friend’s expensive sports bike and took in my adopted city, Madras’s feminine nature asserted itself, in a way I never would have thought possible.
We drove through Thiruvanmiyur, where on a small side street clogged with going-home traffic, a pookari sat on a wooden stool & chatted animatedly with a customer, while her arms expertly measured out mozhams of jasmine blooms. We passed through Adyar, where as a college bus stopped to let down students, a horde of young girls jumped down, heads buried in iPods, hair free and voices high. Footwear in front of the temple on LB Road overflowed onto the street. Mothers and daughters headed in, as the slow humming sound of shlokas being recited wafted out in the warm air.
Mylapore came and went in a buzz of activity. Madras’s oldest neighborhood is a standing history lesson, and again, women are its chroniclers. We passed Bharatanatyam students in full costume returning from classes, mamis waddling around getting provisions and the retired evening walkers gathering around the old coffee shops.
We’d almost reached Santhome.
It isn’t widely known, but Santhome is an integral part of the story of Madras’s birth –
On August 22, 1639, Francis Day signed the lease for a tiny strip of beach he had obtained from the local chieftain of the Vijayanagara Empire. It was a village called Madarasapattinam, about three miles from the Portuguese settlement of Santhome.
Francis Day chose this particular village for a reason. He had fallen for a Portuguese woman; he was in love, and she was in Santhome.
The village became Fort St. George, and marked the birth of the city of Madras, the oldest modern Indian city.
This August she’ll be 374.
We passed the gorgeous Santhome Basilica, drove on to the Marina Beach Road, and the old lighthouse flashed to our right. Queen Mary’s came and went, and the lights of Chepauk appeared from around the corner. The roar of the crowd came a minute later. The captains were heading out for the toss. My friend fed a little more juice into the bike’s engine.
Madras’s IPL team, the Chennai Super Kings is captained by someone the city loves to bits, as I do too, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. They chant his name like a God’s, they fight his critics rabidly, they pay thousands to watch him play. I know this, I do too. The man from the small town of Ranchi, in Jharkhand is now claimed by Madras as her own.
There have been numerous attempts to decrypt Madras and its people, its conservativeness, its intellectual snobbishness, its aspirational atmosphere, all of it. I have an explanation of my own.
Madras is a small town. It is not a metro, and it never will be. It is a migrant city, populated by people coming from all over Tamil Nadu’s small towns and villages. Madras is the city where dreams congregate. This is where people come in search of success and fame. It may be one of our country’s biggest cities, a centre of art and culture, a business and technology hub, but Madras’s people will always be from the small town.
And that explains everything.
In a Tamil village, where they are usually homemakers, the evenings belong to the women. They have finished the chores of the day, had their customary evening shower, and have descended, goddess-like, into the streets for their shopping, or are looking out from their balconies, or are gossiping at doorways or are going to temples, smelling of jasmine and turmeric.
Madras absorbed the village evening, and reflects it every single day.
Dhoni is loved for this very reason as well. He wasn’t born in India’s major cities like Bombay or Calcutta from where most of India’s cricketing stars come from. He did not attend elite schools, which usually pave the way for young cricketers into the state teams and then into the national team. He was not rich, nor did he have any influential uncles. He served as a ticket collector when he played for the Indian Railways team. He was from the working class, a boy from the backwaters.
Dhoni is a small town boy, like most of Madras. He was born in the hinterlands of a bustling country and made his way up himself, through hard work and more of the same, like most of Madras aspires to do.
Of course Madras loves Dhoni. Of course he is one of their own.
I got patted down by the security people at Chepauk and was shown my seat. Two rows behind me sat an elderly woman and a little girl wearing her hair in ponytails. When the Chennai Super Kings theme song came on, the little girl broke into dance and the old lady laughed as she clapped and sang along –
“Enga ooru Chennaiku periya whistle adinga”
I turned around towards the game, singing with them.