Do not be satisfied with the stories that are told to you. Unfold your own myth – Rumi.

Posts tagged “Chennai

On Madras, its women, and its evenings…


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.


Voices from the Northeast…

There’s a boy who makes tea for me in a shop near my place in Chennai, a Bengali named Manish. The shop is owned by a Malayali, as most tea shops down south are, but is almost exclusively staffed by North-easterners, all of them Bengalis. I was under the ignorant assumption that he was from West Bengal, when one morning, in between the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto, I peeked out from my book, and found him looking at me, in between expertly pouring tea into two glasses.

It was one of those beautiful moments India’s diversity provides us with. A boy from the French colonial town of Pondicherry, in the capital of Tamilnadu, in a Malayali tea shop, drinking tea made by a Bengali, reading a book on the Bombay of the 1940s, by an Urdu writer who was born an Indian but died a Pakistani, translated into English. Dwell on that a bit.

I asked him where exactly he was from.

The answer was prompt – Agartala, Tripura. I knew Tripura from memories of my Social Studies textbooks, but for the life of me could not remember where exactly it is on our country’s map. I came to office that day, and the first thing I did was Google ‘Political map + India’.

This is the problem we have on the ‘mainland’, as the North-easterners call all of us – we don’t know enough about our own countrymen from the hills and mountains of the East.

Or more possibly, and sadly, we just don’t care.

When Mary Kom fought valiantly for the Olympic medal and made us all pump our fists and swell our chests in joy, few knew where she was from. Manipur is so far away from our mainland imagination that it conjures up no images at all. Do the young people of our supposedly ‘vibrant, emerging nation’ know or care what makes up the lives of these people, our own people, who when they write down their addresses on letters, end with I-N-D-I-A, exactly as they do?

In August, there was a exodus of Northeastern migrants from the southern hubs of our country, most notably Bangalore, and it was one of the few times that we mainlanders have actually looked up from our self absorbed, Chetan Bhagat-reading, real estate-coveting, Shahrukh-gawking middle class lives to actually sit up and notice that there was something going on.

Most of us saw what was happening, we are a pretty intelligent lot – that there were elements trying to break up the fabric of our country, trying to seed fear in the minds of our less affluent countrymen – dedicated, hard working young people, who have to travel so far to find work so that they can feed their families back home. The Assam riots were just a trigger.

As I said, most of us noticed, but the overwhelming majority went back to what they did best – doing nothing. Only a few of us acted.

In the Bangalore railway station, students took it upon themselves to paint and display large hoardings in several north eastern languages, asking our countrymen to stay back, that this was their land as much as ours, that they will be protected, that they can live with dignity here. ‘This is our country. You are welcome here’, one said. Several rallies exalted the North-easterners’ contribution, and urged them to stay back.

I saw all this and did my bit. I went to the early morning parade of private security personnel at my IT park, almost all of them from the Northeast, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and asked to be given a chance to speak. I told them exactly what the students in Bangalore had said, that this was their country as much as mine, and a few miscreants should not make them doubt their own people.

They are welcome in Madras, in Bangalore, in Hyderabad, they are welcome anywhere in our great nation, and those who think otherwise can go fuck themselves.

India’s northeastern frontier is rife with problems, and the people have always been disillusioned with the Indian government, right from the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The old timers of Arunachal Pradesh still speak of the time when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (allegedly) left them all to die, when he ordered the then weak and almost amateur Indian Army, battered by the superior Chinese, to retreat from the hills, leaving the people defenseless. The truth was that our first Prime Minister had no other choice. Our ill equipped and untrained soldiers were being killed in the hundreds and thousands.

Times have changed now, but consequent Delhi governments, even after so many years, have done very less to improve this image. The Northeast has fewer colleges, fewer work opportunities (everything is concentrated on the mainland), hardly any significant foreign investment. The tourism industry, which should be booming, is hampered by the Maoist threat, which in itself has been so ineptly handled by Delhi. There’s so much more. Delhi, it seems, could hardly care less. The response to the present problem itself was a joke.

Why would they trust us? Why should they? Have we given them any reason to?

If there is no coherent and collaborative effort from the Centre to root out the problems that our Northeast faces, we may soon have no ‘Seven Sisters’ to celebrate. I’m under no illusion that this will be anywhere near easy. The situations are complicated, the ground reality very different from what you and I can read and decipher.
But small steps that we take can make a big difference in our countrymen’s lives. We must take them. The time is now.

What can we do, as regular citizens? Be aware, mostly. Read the journalism that talks about them, write to people who matter, talk about this to your friends.

Our biggest crime would be not caring.

And when one of your friends uses the word ‘Chinki’, don’t rebuke them, don’t tell them off, don’t give them a lecture.

Call him/her a traitor.

There are several reasons why, but I’ll give you just one reason, and I hope its reason enough.

Manish, the boy from Tripura who works in a tea shop in Chennai to support his family of five back home in Agartala on a salary of Rs 2000, who wakes up at 4 and sleeps at 12 every single day, who sleeps on the bare floor of the shop itself, who knows only that you work in ‘computer’, this boy was wearing an Indian flag on his torn tee-shirt on August 15th.  I noticed.

He is an Indian. You, who call him ‘Chinki’, are most definitely not.

The View from the 7th Floor…

My MacBook has this app called the Noisy Typer. I found it on my random traipses through the net a few weeks ago, and immediately fell in love with it.

It does a very simple thing really – it simulates the sounds that typewriters used to make as I type, and my laptop becomes, for some time at least, an old clacking, wheezing typewriter.

I can’t have it running all the time though. My office on the seventh floor of SP Infocity on the OMR here in Chennai is too busy on weekdays to handle such irritants. So here I’m on a Sunday, typing away, as a cloudy Chennai evening draws itself to a close.

Its a big IT park, SP Infocity, it might even be called huge, if I didn’t know that the TCS buildings at the far end of this same road are much much bigger. This is a hustling, bustling scene on weekdays, with people rushing in and out, grabbing quick bites in the food court, talking office politics and relationships and plans for the future.

Today, though, it wears a deserted look, not unlike a storm ravaged village. The silence seems like a farce and the almost oppressive quietness make the tinted glass seem tired and forlorn. The lawns seem lonely, the switched-off fountain sad, and the laughing, Bhojpuri song-playing guards are withdrawn and thoughtful.

You know how they say homes and buildings reflect the people that inhabit them. SP only confirms that adage.

On weekdays, when there’s work to do, the handsome skyscraper gives you a semblance of purpose, of haste, of responsibility, of things to think about and get done.

When it is left alone on weekends, on the other hand, it doesn’t know what to do with itself.

Actually, I don’t think there’s a better metaphor for the way I feel these days, and I know a lot of my friends who feel the same way.

Today, for the first time in my life, I have more books than I have time to read, more dreams than I have time to indulge in and more options than I have time to weigh.

I have a guitar, but I don’t know which song to play.

I knew that the 20s would be a difficult time, but I never knew that the questions I would have to answer wouldn’t be from without, they would be from within.

Questions. Of identity and desires. But most of all, of belonging.

That is why the view from the seventh floor of my office building on a weekend looks so bleak. The building is looking for meaning, as are the young people who’ll invade it tomorrow.

And that is why my generation goes back to things which bring back some comfort, like my Noisy Typer.

As for me, I don’t know where to go. Hello, quarter life crisis.

A Wedding in Trichy…

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.

Hallowed land.

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.

Go live..!!

That Girl in the Coffee Shop…

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.

An Ode to Pondicherry…

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.

My school.

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.

My Year, in Words…

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.

For words.

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.