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.
So it rained. At last.
I don’t think the monsoon’s here yet, though. The rains are a good few weeks away, but the summer’s ending, and I’m thankful.
It was a raging, relentless summer, like the wrath of a thousand angry Gods, and I bore the brunt of it. Everyone who knows me will tell you that I love the rains, but never have I looked forward to them like this time.
It wasn’t raining last Sunday afternoon, though, when I got on to the Vaigai Express to Trichy from the quaint familiarity of Egmore Station.
Monday morning was Kruthi’s wedding.
True to form, the train was an hour late. I sat on a bench and looked around.
I’ve been on trains since I was a kid, and the scene on a railway station never changes. It is a captivating picture of chaos, a microcosm of our vast country, a celebration of the way in which we Indians live our lives. There are families, all three living generations of them sitting together in a huddle, there are soldiers, there are students, there are parents holding their babies, kids running around, tourists with backpacks, chai-wallahs, porters, magazine-stands, lathi-wielding policemen. There is so much color, so many languages, just so much life.
The train rolled into the station and I jumped into it. I had no seat anyway, so I chose a random compartment and sat beside a disapproving old man, who was evidently of the opinion that only the people who had reserved tickets should be allowed to sit. I quite unfortunately did not share his viewpoint and that led to a spate of acrimonious staring at each other. At last the TTR, who arrived after a good two and a half hours, found out that I was supposed to be on the unreserved side, told me to get up, to the old fellow’s immense satisfaction.
By this time it was evening anyway, and I was tired of needling old men, so I went and stood near the door and let the wind do the rest.
The skies were darkening.
All day I had succeeded in pushing Kruthi’s marriage to the back of my mind, not allowing myself to think about it, but there, as the train approached Trichy and it began to drizzle, then rain, and the streaks of water hit my face and cold gusts of wind took my breath away, I had to.
That was how it used to be back at University.
Ettimadai’s monsoon and winter cannot be described.
Only those who were there will ever know how it felt.
I know. I was there.
I have woken up on those freezing mornings, beautiful and windy and dark, the sky full of rain, the mist full of stories, and wanted them to never end, to go on forever. I have come out of class, holding my books, and sat down at the entrance to ASB, watching the rain fall on the grass on our lawn and becoming one, like two estranged lovers meeting. I have watched the Anamalai, hidden in shrouds of silvery fog as I walked through Amrita University’s roads, under an umbrella, wondering what great mysteries lay beneath the mountain’s heights.
Kruthi was there too. My two years at Amrita School of Business will define my life, and I know it’s the same for her. She is special to me, this girl, because at a time when everyone I knew had either forsaken me or didn’t give a damn, she was there. You don’t forget things like that.
How do you feel when you go to a close friend’s wedding? How should you? Happy, sad? I felt both. Happy, coz’ I knew she’s happy. Sad, coz’ she’s going to Texas, and I have no idea when I’ll see her again.
She’s a lovely girl, full of laughter, advice and generally useless philosophy, but she’s genuine, there’re no pretenses about her. If she wants to give you a piece of her mind, she will, and if she thinks you are a pig-headed idiot, she will tell you so.
Our time together as friends is filled with memories, some beautiful, some painful. But as friends, we endured. She had her debacles. I had mine. But somehow, in the midst of all that happened in those two years, the people we lost, friendships that broke, relationships that soured, we remained friends. I think it was more because of her than me – I can be colder than an arctic salmon at times, and I respect her all the more for it.
The train rolls past Srirangam into Trichy. I get down and take out the wet ticket from my jeans – Rs 89, it says, Chennai Egmore to Tiruchirapalli Junction. I let it blow away.
This is Tamil heartland, an ancient city of temples, fought over by the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Pallavas and later the British Empire during the Carnatic Wars.
I’m happy she’s getting married here.
What will I say to Kruthi at her wedding? I don’t know. I’m far too emotional, I don’t think I’ll be able to tell her anything.
But maybe, just maybe, if I’m able to, this is what I want to say –
Take a bit of South India with you da Kruthi. Take the scent of jasmine and the smell of filter coffee. Take sambhar recipes and some pickles. Take some Tamil sarcasm and some Lankan flavor. Take that damned Nike bottle of yours, if you want to. Build a home like only an Indian girl can, full of love, hope and all that which goes into making a family.
Make us friends proud, Kruthi.
I saw her even as I went in. Though I didn’t pay attention then. She looked the same. Like all the regulars I was used to seeing, at Mocha Adyar. She fit right into the familiar, and my eyes let her blend in. Into dim lighting and low voices, into the smell of coffee beans.
As they say, the human eye sees only what it wants to.
I was looking for the corner place I loved, where I could put my feet up on the couch and read.
I found it.
My fingers went to the Flipkart bookmark. And Turkey came alive. I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’. It’s a stunning tale, told from viewpoints of paintings, dead men, dervishes, dogs, colors, artists and murderers. Delicately written and intricately detailed, the book represents more than the story itself – it shows us the evolution of Islam as a religion, the interpretations of its beautiful teachings into something darker, it shows us the art of the miniaturist, the skill of an artist. It had me captivated.
I only looked up because my coffee had arrived.
And there she was again.
She wore glasses. That’s the first thing I noticed. Duh, of course. There was a jute bag on the table. Must have been something handmade. Um, I don’t really know. She looked like she’d value something like that. I’m just guessing.
Long, black hair, a strand of which she was twirling with her finger.
Feet on the table.
In the other hand – a book. Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead.
Now if you haven’t read ‘The Fountainhead’, you certainly should. It’s a seminal work by one of the world’s most revered writers. Ayn Rand was a firebrand, and her philosophies, contained in her books, are the same. Objectivism continues to thrill, enrage and move people to this day, and I myself have been witness to charged discussions on it at the Romain Rolland, Pondicherry’s old French library. I should warn you that reading the book is not easy at all. It took me more than a month and I had to go back to certain passages again and again. But you should take that time. It’s an important book.
She had a faint smile, eyes down, a finger holding the corner to turn the page. I wondered which one of Roark’s antics she was smiling about. Then it disappeared, that hint of tiny delight. Her expression went neutral, then serious.
I sipped my coffee.
The finger kept twirling the hair. Pretty as that was, I hoped she’d let that strand rest. But no. She kept doing it.
And she kept reading.
Writing is, by definition, a very lonely exercise. It needs concentration, imagination and practice. It needs hours of dedication, hours of devotion.
Reading is different. It’s not lonely, in fact, far from it. When you read, you are with the characters, within stories. Actually, you don’t ‘read’, it is the tale that takes you along, drags you in, slowly, unconsciously, opens your eyes to places you have never seen, or indeed, might never see.
The irony is that something so lonely can produce something so comforting.
You can get lost inside a book. I know. I have.
She was lost. I could see it. In her gleaming eyes as they moved across the timeless print, in the way she leaned forward into the book as if she wanted to fall into it. I watched her in intervals, tearing my eyes away from my book, and I could see myself in her sometimes, in the way that we see mirror images of ourselves in puddles of water as we walk in the rain, snatches of reflections caught in traces of time.
She was in New York, in the 1920s. I was in 16th century Istanbul. And we both were in Chennai, in a coffee shop in a quiet street, with an old tree arching over the door, in the 12th year of the 3rd millennium.
As I walked out into the night, I stole a last glance at her. She looked up then. And gazed straight at me.
I stepped outside and kept walking.
I did not know her, that girl in the coffee shop, but I sure would like to.
It was named by Burma. Thane, they called it, the Eagle. It was 2011’s strongest tropical cyclone in the north Indian Ocean and on December 28, it was categorized a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm. For context, the cyclone that hit my town was the equivalent of a Category One Hurricane.
That. Is Big.
Pondicherry was under siege that early morning.
On New Years Eve, 4:30 am, Parthi, me and Rajesh stood just outside the Central Bus Stand, waiting for our other friends to come and drop us home. We had just got down from our bus, we had no idea what had happened. We had missed the storm. It was pitch dark, not a light. Not even the moon. Not a soul in sight.
We were still laughing and joking around. We did not realize the state our town was in. How could we? We could not see anything, the blackness of the night all around us. We knew there was no power anywhere, but we didn’t really think about it.
It was only later in the day, after golden rays split the night apart, did I really understand.
There have always been storms in Pondicherry. I remember one particularly bad one when I was in school, during which I sat at home reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, listening to the wind performing weird dances outside.
We are a sunburned, hardy people. The sea is not something we worship as much as something we identify ourselves with. Storms don’t bother us much. The next day it was business as usual for us. That’s just how we are.
But this time it was different. I didn’t want to to believe what my eyes were showing me that day. But I had to.
Scenes of utter destruction greeted me with all their gory details. Both sides of the street, I watched as people tried to clear the debris, to reclaim anything that was left of their houses, their shops, their belongings.
It was the eyes that hurt me most. The dazed, disbelieving look that asked of anyone and everyone ‘Did this really happen?’
Everything was broken. Power lines across town had been ripped off, there was not a tree in sight. Mud houses across town had been demolished, the huge, newly installed floodlights had fallen into three tiered office buildings. Glass lay on the roads. Plastic tanks had been blown halfway across town. There was no water. In some places, houses were underwater.
It was carnage.
People stood in very long queues, waiting for petrol or to take cash out of ATMs, their eyes betraying their emotions, as they took in the devastation that nature had wreaked around them. My people usually talk a lot, there’s laughter in every corner, every turn, in my beautiful little town, but that day, I heard nothing. Not one thing.
How did I feel?
Have you ever seen the town you were born in, grew up in, destroyed? The buildings you are so used to, the roads you drove your bicycle to school on, the shops that you bought chewing gum for free cricket cards when you were a kid, the trees whose branches were cradles for you and your friends, all of them, in tatters? Your town, where you first fell in love, where you made your first friends, where you played, fell, rose, fought, loved and lived?
If you have not, you will not know how I felt.
Pondicherry was a French colony. The architecture around the boulevard is still, mostly French. The arches, the facades, the wooden doorways, the very atmosphere itself is reminiscent of something of an era that is long gone. The breeze from the ocean sometimes brings with it old sailors tales, of long voyages on ships whose names are now forgotten. The beachfront smells of salt, of ships lost at sea, of a way of life lost to time.
I say this because that is how we are, as a people. Pondicherry is a small town. Everybody knows everybody. When at school, if I was hanging around near the now defunct Anandha theatre, Dad would know even before I had turned my bicycle around. I’m not exaggerating even a small bit here. Ask any kid brought up in Pondicherry. Its like the whole town is family.
And the family is old. We cling to traditions here, as if things that have survived for hundreds of generations could be torn from us in second. That day, it almost seemed as if it had.
My bike turned by itself to the place that means most to me in my town. Behind the main Cathedral and the Archbishop’s house, the building that taught me all I know today.
The entrance to Petit Seminaire Higher Secondary School revealed nothing. It was as calm and welcoming as it always has been, for 160 years. But inside, was a different story. Our beloved Escande Hall, the humungous exam room in which 6000 students sat and wrote their examinations, a building steeped in history as much as in emotion, had had its roof blown off.
The Assembly ground at the end, under the watchful eyes of St. Joseph, our patron saint, had trees. And I don’t mean your everyday trees that a harsh wind can bring down. These were decades old trees, on which generations of boys had played, wrestled with, and had their lunch under. Even they were reeling. One was completely ripped out and our ground was littered with branches and leaves, sand and green leaves forming an unnerving combination.
As I walked through, confused, downcast, a voice called out to me.
It was the school peon. His name is Anthony, I think. Very old he is, a thin, short man. His smile is something that all Petit Seminarians must have seen, at some time during our years there, but must have forgotten. He is as much part of the school as the statue of Virgin Mary at the entrance of Escande Hall is. He is a constant.
I asked him, “Anna, school eppa thirakum?” When is school opening?
“Naalaneiku pa” Day after tomorrow.
“Eppdi anna, ground ippdi irruku, thanni vera illayaam” How, the ground is like this, there’s no water too?
“Naanga ethukku irrukom?” What are we there for? He said, and smiled, that million dollar smile of his.
That old man has seen generations of boys become young men in that campus. He has picked up boys injured during fights and ran to the hospital. He has washed us when we were all nursery kids and didn’t know that crying wouldn’t get us back home. He applied medicine on our hands when we were caned by Father Rosario or Jayakumar Sir for being brats.
Petit Seminaire will open as usual after the half yearly holidays. 6000+ grey ties and white shirts would come out in full force and take over Mahatma Gandhi road. They will see no trees in their ground, talk about it for a bit and then go back to chasing each other, fighting and of course, studying.
Pondicherry is not the same today, but it will be. It might take a few months to get back all that we lost in that storm, but we will.
We will have that sparkling sunrise, that heart breaking sunset, the sound of the crashing waves, that cool breeze through the boulevard, the Christmas lights at the cathedral, the New Year celebrations that bring tourists from across the world, everything, every bit of it, again.
But more importantly, we’ll have laughter in the streets again, smiles on our faces again, the world envying us, all of it. Again.
Why, you ask?
Because Anthony represents all that Pondicherry stands for.
We are citizens of a town called Pondicherry and we are as proud as it is beautiful. And we will endure. A storm will not be allowed to scar us. We are a small town sure, but we have a big heart.
We will reclaim our town. As Anthony reclaims our school for us.
Pondicherry will rise again. And you will never see what went into getting our pint sized paradise up and running again. You will never see the hundreds of volunteers, PWD workers, policemen, working day and night to clear the streets and restore the glory that Thane stole from us for some time.
In the same way that we never saw Anthony cleaning our classrooms at Petit Seminaire.
Pondicherry prefers it that way.
Plan a trip a few weeks later, from Bangalore, from Chennai, from Hyderabad, from Delhi, from wherever you are, and you will find a vista of peace, of silence, of prayer. You will see sands that glimmer in the afternoon Sun, the beachfront shimmering in the cold evening wind.
You will enjoy your trip, every bit of it. We promise.
To the ‘The French Riviera of the East’.
To the town where Time stands still.
The movie ended with Aamir prancing around on screen. The credits came up & I walked out, drawn along with the crowd of happy, laughing people, who, like me, had enjoyed the movie immensely. A gust of cold wind hit me from the window on the side on the stairs. I looked out & what I saw confirmed my suspicion.
It was raining.
The monsoon’s arrived here in Hyderabad. Started about a week ago & hasn’t really stopped since. The cold is a weird, seeping kind of cold, something that cuts into your very senses. I like it. I always have.
I wait for this new cold coffee Krushers they’ve introduced, from the KFC below. It’s a special KFC, managed by people who can’t talk nor hear; you have to point out your orders. It’s quite close to our flat, and Anand & I end up here quite often. There’s something about these people, some of who now know us quite well now. In spite of being different from the rest of us, the smile never leaves their faces. I try to think about living like that, in a world where there’s no such thing as sound, no such thing as music, and it fails me. I can’t. It could have been so easy for them to say that they were not good enough, that they were embarrassed, & stay home. They chose otherwise. In our daily lives, we see courage & character in so many forms. This is one of them.
I sip the cold, frothy coffee & walk out into the foyer, where a lot of people are waiting for the rain to stop, or at least slow down. I stand there for some time too, and look around. One small kid loses her balloon in the wind. I grab it & give it to her. She says a shy, cute ‘Thank you’ & runs off to her mother. My eyes fall upon a girl fiddling with her boyfriend’s shirt buttons. I smile involuntarily. He catches my eye & smiles, suddenly self conscious. I take that to be my cue.
I walk out into the rain.
I’m wearing a red, or rather maroon, sleeveless sweatshirt. Hadn’t realised that I’d been wearing this one. Memories have a bad way of coming back to you when you least want, or expect them to. My flat is just down the road, about a five minute walk. I pull the hood up over my head, bury one cold hand into my jeans and sip some more coffee.
I walk past one of my company’s stores. The green neon shouts out at me ‘Heritage Fresh’. The store manager is locking up. It’s about 11. He must just have finished the accounts for the day. He can’t recognize me, not under the hood. I don’t want him to.
I walk on.
Cars & buses go past me in a blur of light & sound, some of which go to Hi-Tech city, the huge IT special economic zone to the west. Client calls from the US & the UK, some of my friends tell me, have to be taken after this time. Bus no. 147 comes towards me, the digital board on its top flickering in the rain, and at last dying.
I sip the last of my coffee & see a trash bin a few metres away. I look around. There’s no one. I position myself, lock my feet & throw the plastic can into the bin. It falls in with a dull thud. I do a Kobe Bryant spin right there. It’s almost midnight on Banjara Hills Road no.2, right opposite the Harley Davidson showroom, Hyderabad City, and if you’d been driving on this stretch of the urban jungle, you would have seen a boy doing a jig in the middle of the road and wondered “What’s wrong with him?”
There’s office tomorrow & I’ll have to go & work. Even if it is a chance to learn & perform, it still registers as another dreary day at the workplace. I just hope that it doesn’t kill this part of me, the part which still loves doing stupid things, which still wants nothing more than a coffee and a walk in the rain to keep smiling. I don’t wanna get caught up in this life, this corporate race. That’s just not me.
The rain’s slowing down a bit
I walk on, pulling my ipod out for the final song of the day. Quite fitting, really, as it’s Adele I stumble on, as she sets fire to the rain..
I let it fall, my heart,
And as it fell, you rose to claim it
It was dark and I was over
Until you kissed my lips and you saved me
My hands, they’re strong
But my knees were far too weak
To stand in your arms
Without falling to your feet
But there’s a side to you
That I never knew, never knew.
All the things you’d say
They were never true, never true,
And the games you play
You would always win, always win.
But I set fire to the rain,
Watched it pour as I touched your face,
Well, it burned while I cried
‘Cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name!