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.
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’s almost gone, 2011, and try as I might, I really don’t know what to label it as.
Eventful it has been, my masters is over, and I find myself working. I have changed jobs already, been lucky enough to find something I love doing. I have been distressed, I have been lost. I have been confused. I have walked for hours in the Hyderabad rain. I’ve earned real money for the first time in my life. I’ve made new friends. I’ve run away from love, hunted by the demons of my past.
I’ve tried to hide from myself, and at the same time found a way through it all.
I have lived in three different cities, each one special to me in it’s own way, each having a story of it’s own.
I don’t know what to call 2011, it has been a slideshow of emotions – mostly sad, sometimes happy, but always special. But this also means I’ve lived life, and I suppose that’s something.
I have discovered, or rather rediscovered things that used to mean a lot to me.
Music. I sang a lot this year. At parties, at friend’s places, at get-togethers, on my own. Among friends in Hyderabad, at joints in Chennai. Some times this year, music was all I had.
Cricket. I donned the red and white of the Amrita School of Business for my last university game. I bowled reasonably well, batted very badly & lost that game. It hit me hard. My final university game deserved better. I wasn’t sad about the loss – that’s part of the game, and of life. But I was certainly disappointed. At that point of time, my game could have given me some kind of solace. It didn’t. Even my beloved game deserted me.
But these won’t be the things that will say ‘2011’ when I think about them, many years from now. I will remember 2011 for something else entirely.
For abstractness, for meaning, for imprints left in the mind.
My love for the written word came back with a vengeance this year, and having nothing else to hold on to, I clung on to it with everything I had. Probably more.
It was “one of those days”, as we call them – evenings when existence seems to question itself and your heart lurches in the misty memories of times gone by. I was chatting with a friend. Nothing big, just your basic depressing gtalk chat about the futility of it all, when she said something that made my heart stop.
Sai. Love is terrible, in that one taste of it is never, ever enough.
I don’t know in what context she said this. I don’t remember. Maybe I was just being my usual cynical self, but that string of words is an observation so deep and so true, the meaning of it is enough to knock you over.
Words have a way of doing that.
I found refuge in my books this year. I read so many, sometimes a book a night. There have been nights when I’ve finished a book at 1am & started another. It has been my year of books.
I’m so thankful that I read, though. I of course don’t remember the exact moment I became a bibliophile, but it must have been something like Alberto Manguel describes here –
At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book – that string of confused, alien ciphers – shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader.
I don’t think there’s a better way that can be put.
I was woken up one morning last month by a phone call which asked me simply this – “Do you remember what you tweeted late yesterday night?” I didn’t. I just knew that I was sad, & I was sleepy. “I have sent you a mail, check.” I woke up and did what he told me to do. I checked.
Twitter has become something of a diary for me, and of millions like me around the world. It records my moods, my thoughts, my opinions, my every move.
Those 140 characters sometimes can become mirrors, reflecting things from the crevices of your soul, things you try hard to keep hidden.
My friend had sent me a curation of my tweets from the last night. It must have been a godless, moonless nightfall. For the darkness in my own words scares me.
Her haunting presence in your every waking minute. The knowledge that you never were for her what she was to you. That.
The trauma of beautiful loss. Knowing that as she walks in your head, she tramples on your dreams.
The World went on. She has moved on. But your heart screaming out what you already know – You will never be the same again. Never ever.
The letters she never wrote. The kisses that never transpired. A love that never was love. What happened doesn’t matter. What didn’t, does.
When words are all you have left. And flashes. Of memories, that is. Distant, cold. And the laughter that once ruled your life.
When all I want is for my thoughts to fade away. The flicker of a lamp, the damp of the night, her hold on my heart, the time that flew by..
The songs she demanded you sing. The rains she demanded you bring. When all she loved was what you gave her. Not you. It was never you.
Where that came from, or where it went, I do not know. But there it is.
From the contemporary science and fiction of Richard Dawkins, Ian Rankin to classics from Wodehouse, to some heartbreaking Rumi and Neruda poetry, I have uncovered gems, but some of the most beautiful pieces I read this year were not on paper at all.
This one, from someone I know only as mentalexotica, is something I just cannot have enough of.
Why I will write you four letters in one night
Because I cannot keep away from you. Because my nights are yours in thought and memory of the morning before, of the unexpected detonation of desire beneath the sheets at 6:49 am. Because my days are filled with disinterest and wild distractions both. Because your lips keep the memory of my tongue pressed upon them like unwithering flowers. Because my skin is stained by the fingerprints of your craving. Because breathing reconciles itself only with short, sharp pulls and forgets how to exhale. Because writing to you is not writing but an accident of words; colliding, spilling, revealing. Because my body is sore but my longing goes un-neutered. Because the amber-gold highlights of your hair spilling across your face tease a wicked game. Because the white in your smile is a reminder of the bruise on my neck. Because love is a four-lettered word when we make it. Because I cannot keep away from you.
I cannot keep away from you.
If that doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what will. I will not try to describe the words above. I don’t possess the intellect to, and I will fail miserably. I’m only a guy who reads. I’ll just get lost in the turmoil it throws my soul into.
It’s time to end 2011 on my blog. What better way than a poem? But first, a small story.
There was a boy, in London. He loved a girl madly, hopelessly. She loved him too.
And then she died in a plane crash in Canada, far away from him.
It was Christmas, 1943, World War 2. He wrote a poem in her memory.
The boy, Leo Marks, was a cryptographer. In March 1944, he used that poem, to encrypt secret messages for the Allies. He used the words he wrote for the girl he loved, to fight Hitler’s evil empire. He was fighting for nothing less than the freedom of the known world. It’s only a few lines, but they do not betray easily the secret they carry or the emotions they were born from. Read it once, and then read it again. Then read it once more. These words demand it.
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
Mine was a well thought out routine. Even though there were buses on this route every five minutes, I preferred this bus that started at about 8.20 am. 29C is one of the busiest routes in Chennai, if not the single most busiest. On an average, it took me 70 minutes to get from Perambur to Adyar, but it’s not at all surprising if on a particularly bad day it takes you 2 hours to reach and on another day, it takes you just 50 minutes. Welcome to Chennai!
And so, a back breaking 2 hours and 20 minutes on a bus, daily. If you started running from my house to Pondicherry beach (that’s probably the whole length of my town), it’d definitely take much less time!
Chennai wakes up late. Even at 8.20, there won’t be many shops and businesses open. But the rush would be on, government employees in uniforms, software pros with plastic ids proclaiming their organisations and of course, not to forget the kids with their huge school bags. On an average, a 29C would have about 2 fights per trip, each way. Immensely more enjoyable than some of the paperbacks I read, they sometimes would culminate in awesome fistfights. Not to mention the ticket checkers, when they came in, a verbal duel is definitely on the cards. Well, I never complained, they make for great time pass on a long bus ride.
Each day brought with it a different story, which I watched from my not-so-comfy window seat. There would be the domestic brawl, the wife brandishing a broomstick and a drunken husband (in a lungi that threatened to fall any second) trying his best to fight back. This was in Otteri, I think. Then there was the absolutely-in-love pair that would be making their way, hand-in-hand to one of the many great hang outs at Nungambakkam. And of course, the quintessential Chennai death procession, complete with a cacophony of drums and dancing men. I saw at least 4 of these, and each one had the same underlying theme – flowers, music and the dancing.
But there is another fact here. Why do I think this is the best route in Chennai and why was I in my best spirits day in and out of a demanding internship? The answer is simple. Two great educational institutions lie on this route – The Stella Mary’s and the Dr.MGR Janaki College. I refrain from further elaboration by simply stating that both of these are women’s colleges and I’m 21 years old (Okay okay 22!!). No further comments.
Sport is critical as well. Every playground I saw was almost always full. Cricket and Basketball being the most played. And when Chennai won the IPL, the celebrations lasted a fortnight, complete with fireworks on the streets and sweet distributions on the bus. The bus drivers and conductors put up posters of Dhoni with the trophy on the sides of the bus. I loved the involvement. These people love their city.
Each great city has a character, an identity. This one has it as well. South India’s sprawling metro is a city to reckon with. The speed at which it moves might be overwhelming at first (It was for me), but once you get in the groove, you become a part of it. You become yet another cog in the wheel of the unstoppable juggernaut that is Chennai.