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.
Written during a fiction writing workshop with writer Jerry Pinto at the British Library, Bangalore, this is my first work to be critiqued, reviewed and rewritten dozens of times. Originally meant to be a 500 word short story, it stumbled on to 700, and is part of my attempt to capture something of Madras and its people. Read.
4 pm is a strange time, she thought. It’s not the evening, and its not afternoon either. It’s a slow, strange time. She adjusted the basket on her hip, and resumed.
“Meenu Meenu, Sangarameenu”, her loud voice echoed unnaturally, reflected back from the jutting iron beams, the mounds of sand and the un-plastered bricks of the new houses.
There were only a few fish left today, an amount she would usually take home to cook, but the lady at the end of this street often bought some at this time. She ambled on, her path now familiarized with routine, past the Bihari laborers shouting incoherently at each other, past the one-eyed dog wagging its tail with interest, past the overflowing drain where a big dead rat was being fought over by a few crows, to the large metal gate, painted a deep, morose brown.
It was only when she peeked in, ready to announce her arrival, did she actually see the bikes and scooters outside the house, the rising homam smoke, and all the people. “A pooja”, she thought as she turned around instinctively, already thinking about what she could make with the fish for the children’s dinner.
“Irunga ma”, a voice called. Wait. She turned around to see a boy come bounding across the portico, dodging the swing and dozens of chappals. She recognized him, it was the lady’s school-going son.
He arrived before her in a second, and handed her a box of sweets. Before the gift could be acknowledged and thanked for, he had already jumped back into the smoke and the commotion in a flash of teenage feet.
Ah, something for the kids, she thought, as her legs picked up pace unconsciously and cut through the market. She could not wait to get home now. David and Nancy would already be back from school, and they would eat sweets tonight.
She had reached the main road, and now had to take a share auto home. Five rupees was a lot of money, and she usually walked the whole distance, but today was special. She put down the basket, smoothed her saree, tied her hair up again and squatted by the bus stop. It had been a good day, there was money in the cloth purse at her waist and it hadn’t been that hot.
The Madras evening descended around her, the breeze trying to assert the ocean’s proximity, as she threw her basket in the back of the share auto.
And amidst the young man immersed in his phone, the old man with the jute bag and a frowning girl, she saw Nirmala.
“Akka”, she called out happily. “Adiyei, vaa vaa”, said Nirmala, and the two friends jostled for space in the cramped vehicle.“Hospital la enna sonnaanga?”, she asked eagerly. What did they say at the hospital? Nirmala just smiled. “Please ka, sollunga ka”, she implored.
Nirmala turned and smiled, “Solren, shhh”.
It seemed like a long time to her, the 5 minute ride that usually was over in a jiffy, before the auto driver cried out “SRP Tools!” Both of them got off and picked up their baskets.
“Naa amma aaga poren di”, said Nirmala quietly, as the roar of the auto died away into the cacophony of the Old Mahabalipuram Road.
I’m going to be a mother.
She did not add ‘at last’, because her friend knew. David was 10, Nancy 8, & Nirmala, two years older than her. Though she often tried to understand what her friend must feel, she knew she never would. She would never understand what Nirmala had gone through.
“Sweet kudunga Akka”, she asked Nirmala, and immediately regretted it. Nirmala never had any money. Her friend’s husband, unlike her own, was a drunk.
She put her basket down, pulled away the sack under which she had hidden the sweet box, and thrust it into Nirmala’s hands.
Nirmala looked at the box and turned away, managing to get the two words out before her voice broke, “Apa pasangalukku?”
For the children?
“Meenu Meenu Sangarameenu”, she cried out loudly and smiled, raising the basket to her hips as the street lights came on above them.