Chennai Express


My last two visits to Chennai have been for visa reasons.

There used to be a time when that wasn’t the case.

Every summer, without fail, I would end up boarding the Brindavan Express or the Madras Mail to visit family in Madras. Occasionally, it was to visit my athai and cousins, but I most vividly remember visiting my granny’s sister. Her sons (my uncles) were not much older than me, and that household was always filled with children.

It possibly wasn’t every summer. A couple of summers, I remember visiting my aunt’s people in Anantapur. And back then, everyone visited us in Bangalore and my usually docile self would go wild. One vivid memory is of arguing with my studious uncle (who was four-five years older) about whether the colour indicated in a picture-book was blue or white. It was a page with a list of words beginning with W, and ‘white’ was one of them, and the corresponding picture was indicated in a cloud of blue. My equally docile uncle grew stubborn that it was White because the picture said so. I stubbornly maintained it was blue. Somehow, this five year old girl and nine year old boy found themselves in a fight-to-the-finish replete with punches and bites and scratches and knocking-things-over. It only ended when my strict grandfather burst in, rewarded each of us with a slap and sent us to cry ourselves to sleep. My illustrious uncle, who now is a professor in Germany, maintains he doesn’t remember this incident. And my other uncle doesn’t remember the incident when we found a beehive in Vidhana Soudha with honey dripping from it, and decided to stand under it with our tongues sticking out.

An incident nobody will deny however is my playing with my grandmother’s hairpin and a particularly low plug point, and getting excited at the sparks that shot onto the ground for minutes together, shouting about Diwali. No one else, I recall, was particularly excited. Not even my rowdy older brother, who then later used that incident to terrorize me.

Every Madras trip somehow involved my maternal grandfather. I don’t seem to ever remember a Madras trip which didn’t have me sitting on his lap and reading out every signboard out of the window. Other adults would bore easily, and ask me to count cows or something, but not ajja. There’d always be something happening. Every station had something interesting associated with it. When we’d pass by Krishnarajapuram, he’d asked me to wave to my other set of grandparents (which I religiously did, even though I knew you couldn’t see the train from their terrace),  he’d ask me to watch out for the monkeys at Malur (I don’t know how that got started). Bangarpet was where my goodie-goodie cousin Sangeetha lived.

And Jolarpet was somehow exciting to me because it was where Karnataka ended and Tamil Nadu began. I’d wonder if he’d ease up on his rule of always talking to me in Kannada then, but he wouldn’t. Somewhere after Katpadi, we’d have lunch which Amma or Paati would have packed. Somehow there was so little stranger danger then, and we’d end up befriending our copassengers and sharing lunch with them. They’d sometimes be dark stocky men from Katpadi called Selvam who’d call me ‘paapa’, and I’d shrink into my grandfather’s arms while regarding them curiously. They’d mostly be families like us with a bespectacled uncle and a granny who’d speak to me in English. And they’d bring idlis with molagapodi too. When I was a little older, traveling with just my mother, I met a girl my age from Pondicherry also traveling with her mother. I was intrigued by this girl saying they had bats in her school. I asked her if she’d touched one, and she said she hadn’t the cojones, but a senior girl had and reported that it was slimy. Many years after this, I’d develop a phobia for winged mammals, but I didn’t know that and was just plain fascinated.

And we’d get sleepy. And ajja would tell me a story. About crows or cows, usually. And it always ended with the little crow/calf going to sleep. And by the time Arakkonam rolled by, I’d be fast asleep.

Madras meant heat. And endless beach visits. If it was my athai we were visiting, I’d get amnesia about my parents and not listen to anyone but my anna and akka. Anna would tell me scary nightmare-inducing stories about every single thing, and make me cry. And then my aunt would scold him and take us to Marina beach. Akka’s friends were fascinated by me and I by their grownupness, and big hair and endless giggling.

If it was my granny’s sister we were visiting, the heat would really hit us. They didn’t have a huge neem tree in their building like my athai did. Endless jugs of icewater would be consumed much to the chagrin of my mother.

And that household had an endless stream of children passing through. We ended up this huge gang, with some older children bossing the rest of us around. I was around eleven by then. We didn’t really complain. They’d take us deeper into the water than the adults ever did. And Besant Nagar beach seemed a lot more exciting than Marina beach for some reason.

I grew fascinated with their consummate knowledge of Tamil cinema, their lingo which seemed straight out of Tamil movies, eagerly learnt rude Tamil words, and relentlessly teased my uncle (he of the white-blue conflict) about his learning Russian. (Little did we know then that he’d go on to learn German, Japanese and a few other languages and do a PhD in linguistics.) We’d watch movies on VCR late into the night, with everyone whispering filmi gossip. Someone said Janakaraj had died in an accident (which I found out only the day before yesterday is not true).  Someone else said Roja had AIDS (Also not true). That ended in a whispered exchange with a slightly older… cousin (for want of a better word… she was marginally related to my granny’s sister-in-law) about  whether kissing caused AIDS… not ‘spread’, mind you, ’caused’, like spontaneous generation. I fell asleep that night significantly more afraid to even accidentally touch anyone of the opposite sex.

I’d return from these trips significantly older, taller, tanner, wiser.

I remember a very different trip to Chennai too. The entourage was significantly smaller, just me, my granny and my uncle. I don’t know why we went on that trip to start with. All I know is, when we got there, we found the house locked. Forget cellphones, not many had landlines back then. Granny and I sat on the front steps for what seemed like hours until my uncle returned from the public phone. It turned out, someone (I forget who exactly) got very sick and got admitted to the hospital. And everyone went. And they forgot to inform the neighbors. We came back quick, and they didn’t let me see the sick relative.

And one summer I wasn’t allowed to go. Kavitha akka, one of the older kids in our group, died suddenly. I don’t remember of what. Her aunt who’d raised her, lost it. My great-aunt told me about Krishna-maami, the aunt who raised her, having a breakdown. More than Kavitha akka’s death, it was that which scared me and gave me months of nightmares. Krishna-maami was from Allepey, sometimes wore a white saree with a green border. The imagery of her in a white saree, hair undone, bawling, along with all the horror movies we’d watched in Madras, blended to give me a nightmare of Vithalacharya proportions. I woke up screaming a lot. And was too embarrassed to tell my parents why.

Soon, Madras became Chennai. Cable operators cut Tamil channels, mobs burnt buses, no theaters showed Tamil movies… both because of Cauvery and Veerappan kidnapping Rajkumar.  It seems a tiny thing now, but that along with my Bangalore-born mother’s derision to anything Madrasi made me a tad less proud to be Tamilian.

Besides, there were other holiday spots my father decided us to take us to. And my Akka got married, and Anna moved to Bangalore for engineering. My uncles were now busy with college and jobs. Kavitha Akka’s sister, the one who I ended up so attached to, had other tumultous events in her life. There weren’t anymore a gaggle of children frequenting that house.

I found more cousins closer to my age, and there were more kids my age in the neighborhood as well. I preferred burning my skin off closer home, bicycling in the heat and dodging kidnappers. I got busy with swimming.

I visited Chennai once more for my Anna’s wedding.

And then it was just the US consulate which brought me there.

Things have changed. The large railway station I remember is now crowded as hell and dirtier. The smell of the Cooum reaches it. The bookstore is now a tiny nook. I put my game face on to argue with the autofellows as I step out of the station now; I don’t ever remember exiting the station, I always was asleep in my mother’s arms when I did so.

My ajja hasn’t been around for nearly fourteen years now. My paati can’t stand more than a week in the city of her birth anymore; she ends up falling sick. Her sister has retired, and my younger uncle is now married with children. Kavitha Akka’s sister and I were close for a while before she got busy with married life.

The city seems weird without these familiar faces. And the internet has ruined it for me with the incessant jokes about Chennai weather and conservatism. I’ve had a few less than pleasant experiences with folks from there. I hate it that every Chennai Day post talks about how they love the city despite or because of its autodrivers and the Cooum river, and refer fleetingly to the music season.

I don’t find myself longing for the good old days. What I do want is to explore the city that fascinated me so much as a child, right from the pavadais on display at Nalli’s to the fishmarkets I wrinkled my nose at, and see if it still fascinates me as an adult. It might, it might not… it is just another city after all.  But through the years of prejudice, emotions, jokes, and sheltered visits, I’ve always been left wanting…. I just want to know.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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