The basics, first. What? When? Where?
Where: Madras. The coastal city off the Bay of Bengal, famous for its three seasons – hot, hotter and (currently) hottest, besides, of course, the endless yards of silk saris dotting in and out of ancient temples where crows and priests bawl their loudest for prasadam; where the life jolts awake at four in the morning with Sahasranamam and Suprabhatam chants and assiduous kids sleepily continue their homework or cram History and Geography into their heads; where the city’s main passions – temples and curd rice – meld with its core – cricket and filter coffee – resulting in complete catatonia on the days with cricket matches on the TV. Whereas cities like New York would like to remind you that it is a city that never sleeps, Madras will shrug the shrug of a veteran housewife maami and threaten you that it is a city that will not let you sleep. The heat crawls on you like the penetrating eyes of the villagers seeing a stranger. If you have not broken the salt with the city, the city will break you first. No one is pardoned or excused. Even big big film starlets with too-big cooling glasses, sitting in their white A/C Contessa Classics cannot escape Madras’ fiery breath once out of their icy cocoons. The heat is demonic and visceral. It will exsanguinate you in the middle of Mount Road if you were as stupid to be walking in the afternoon. Madras’ temples might be merciful but she herself is merciless. There is no cure for the Madras’ hot and muggy summer, save melting into its bosom, eyes wide and arms open, and sucking at its warm breast, as I was currently, dressed in loose cotton clothing and a Bata Hawai chappal flopping at my feet, sweating my way to TKS’ house.
When: Oh Madras, how you change? One moment, you are a sleepy coastal town with the Marina Beach your biggest attraction and Mylapore defining the city limits. Slow chugging steamships docked in your harbor, unloading spices and ice blocks in exchange for your cruel hot treatment. What did the British see in you that they came in throngs, set up colleges and schools, bathed in the backwaters of the Cooum river, instilled the violin into your centuries old Carnatic music and opened warehouses filled with ice along Triplicane? And how they adorned you with their Victorian brick buildings – Central Railway Station, Loyola College campus, High Court – those regal and anachronistic, foreign and scandalous edifices during their time. And what did they see in creating the likes of Boat Club, Country Club and Gymkhana Club where the salt of your own earth wore fancy hotel costumes and entertained the angrez with gin and tonic and demonstrations of stereotypical desi stuff like charming a tone deaf cobra? Or making a boy disappear up an untethered rope? Or lying on a bed of nails?
And here you are now, progressing in slow motion. Whereas Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta have leapt and bounded in ‘modernisation’, opening bars and disco clubs, allowing teenagers to roam on bikes with their Siamese girl friends, opening up eateries, pizzerias and coffee shops, you seem to have taken great joys in opening another Nalli showroom or another branch of Grand Sweets. And, how you cling to your past and traditions? Chiding couples holding their hands in the beach; sending the alcohol-thirsty patrons to shady “wine shops” where the booze is handed to you from under a shuttered wall in exchange for exact change; clinging on to meaningless Iyer-Iyengar rivalry and not allowing girls to stay unmarried beyond their teens.
Oh you beguiling city, how enticing you are when you display this bubbling mixture of tradition and modernity, when, after performing the abhishekam, the devotee heads straight to Saravana Bhavan for a good tiffin and then to his coaching class, leading him to the gates of IIT and onwards to the United States of America only to send his parents first-class air tickets via Air India and also bring back suitcases filled with pen-pencils, Staedtler erasers, Toblerone chocolates and meaningless sundry for youess-eyed cousins and nephews and nieces.
How you shun the rat race of the Bombay citizen as he hangs on to his ticket, life and leather strap inside the metallic millipede that is the local train, always on the move, getting home, to work or the movie theater, the bar, disco or to their friends’ place. No time for themselves; always at the mercy of their desire-filled tectonic plates, moving, grinding and faulting at all times.
And how you shy away from the metropolis of the north and the capital of the country – Delhi – with its minarets and arches smack in the middle of the city. I see how you wonder if that is a tourist city or the capital of the country? No culture vulture. All mixed breed people. Chi! Chi! Whose father is a Hindu and whose mother is descended from Akbar or Birbal or whatever Mughal invader who spilt his seed in that region. Yes yes, they brag about their history – Jantar Mantar, Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar – but how far back does it all go, you have to ask, no? So the British invaded Madras too, but they loved Madras, is it not? Madras was their sultry mistress with coffee drunk lips and a red dot between her smoldering eyes. It was their jewel; a cultural pivot point from which many an Archimedes wanted to move the world. Not like the Delhiites, chewing and spitting paan everywhere and anywhere. Karma! Karma!
And of course, what to compare with those fishmongers in the East? Calcutta people are only famous because of Mother Teresa and nothing else. Madras, what is that I hear you whispering: sorry to say, Calcutta, but some of you are more Chinky Chinese than Indians, sporting slanted eyes and eating hot dogs. Only the Chinese eat dogs and cats. Having a tram running over dogs and ancient bicycles right down the middle part of your hairy city does not make you some big metro, is it not? Why, for all that brouhaha about tea-stalls where intellects commingle and discuss politics, don’t their Brahmins eat fish? Yes or no? Plainly answer and don’t dilly dally. Yes, isn’t it? Ha! Calcutta, it seems, more like Hypocritta!
Culture and tradition is the quintessence of a healthy and balanced city. Centuries of isolation beneath the Vindhyas have given you, Madras, the unique advantage of your own distinct south Indian culture – madisars, filter coffee, curd rice, coconut oil, the whole nine yards, to pun the phrase. The British were your only invaders, nay, guests. Even they courted you with respect; you were their exotic concubine: baking them with your hot and tempestuous muggy summers and then drenching them waist-deep in your torrential monsoons. When they pulled out their violins and mandolins in an attempt to display their culture, you reduced them by absorbing those instruments and churning out raagas and keertanais of such fine calibre that people wonder if Tchaikovsky’s compositions were on an instrument that heralded its roots from Madras.
Oh Madras, the city of my birth, how you uniquely position yourself as a metropolis and a flashing beacon of orthodoxy. While the world around you eggs on in its blind grope for flashy things, you, Madras, in 1993, still retain your charm and individuality. It will be years before you, too, will meet your match from the west; when you, too, will gas the streets with poisonous cars and motorcycles belching smoke; when you, too, will denude the idyllic Besant Nagar coastline by allowing, unchecked, the opening of clothing shops, coffee shops, DVD stores, supermarkets, restaurants, fast food stalls…the whole gamut of foreign bacteria that have begun infecting the other metros that no antibiotics could cure; when you, too, will brag about your average citizen’s commute from Adayar to Teynampet to be two to three hours, not the thirty minutes it takes today; when you, too, will go full out and allow the opening of bars and pubs, discotheques and beach houses for your young adults to paw and grope at each other while their heads swim with a peacocktail of stimulants. But why lament about the future when it hasn’t beaked out of its shell yet? After all, it is only Madras, and not yet Chennai (that aberration of a name that can only be relegated to describing the annoying eye disorder… Conjunctivitis… Madras Eye… Chenn-eye!). For now, it is 1993 and the situation is not yet alarming and I am on my way to my best friend’s house. I must soon direct the distracted Reader’s attention to a couple of foreigners, but we still have another dimension to define.
What: not so easy, dear Reader. Certain events require the acceptance of a spoonful of disbelief, a pinch of incredulity, a dash of fancy characters, all tossed together and pressure cooked for a while. Starting with tamarind water also helps.
Let me ease your discomfort by mentioning one word: earthquake.
See! I told you it would be difficult to believe, but you must hold my hands and walk with me till I show you how it happened. The floating friend was just the trigger for a series of events, a piece of dirt around which this pearl of a story condensed. But not so fast. Not yet. We still have to introduce the other characters of this tale.
Born and brought up in Besant Nagar, I never questioned the etymology of the two most non-Tamizh-or-Sanskrit names that revolved around my life: Besant Nagar and on its shores, Elliots Beach.
If one were to take Second Avenue and go down past the bus terminus, past the Vinayagar Temple and the only tennis court in Bessie, past Olcott Memorial School, you would end up in a dense canopy, as if inside an Amazonian jungle. This, Reader, is The Theosophical Society. Why, when and how it was created, I do not know. Suffice to say that its existence has drawn many spiritual white skinned tourists from around the world who pedal slowly into Bessie on their antediluvian Hero bicycles, wearing kurta-pajamas and toting a khadi jhola, their faces radiating some sort of bliss that they could not find in their home country, but did so after staying within the Society’s confines. What happens inside will consume another tome and will be relegated for “afterwards”, but for now it must be known that one of The Theosophical Society’s founders, Annie Besant, a lady, upon her timely demise in this surreal coastal town bequeathed her name for posterity by expunging the existing name. Maybe it was the locals who did it in honour of her deeds. But, then again, the locals spoke no English during her time, as the Anna Universities and Loyola Colleges were still in their infancy then. Anyway, that was that and Annie Besant City humbly got circumcised to Besant Nagar. With that G.K. update, we proceed to Elliot’s.
Elliot was a Portuguese hero, TKS once told me, the only Portuguese to have a memorial (the Kaj Schmidt) erected in his honor. As the legend goes, Elliot was one day swimming in the limpid, turquoise blue Bay of Bengal, backstroke probably for a while, breast stroke when tired, and then most probably, doing the dead man’s float, letting the currents gently waft him past the sandy shores towards the Temple of Eight Lakshmis or perhaps, even closer, to the Velankani Church. There was Sir Elliot, quite presumably swimming on a hot muggy Madras afternoon (the date on the Kaj Schmidt Memorial can tell you more), with the merciless sun beating down on all the poor umbrella-less sods brave enough, or stupid enough, to venture anywhere on the land, the now-warm now-cool water mollycoddling Sir Elliot’s swimming body, when he saw three people being swept away by the current. Immediately, he swam towards them, with powerful Portuguese free style strokes and brought them to the pristine sandy shores of Madras.
And promptly died.
Thus, TKS surmised, the local government decided to name this beach Elliot’s Beach. TKS, and probably every other post-British-era-educated government official who paid his way to office and was only in charge of cutting ribbons around statues for The Hindu’s photographer, had not paid attention during Stella Miss’ grammar class, as that was how the beach came to be known to everyone in Madras – Elliots Beach. No apostrophe. Just Elliots. It was probably the second worst named beach in Madras, right after Marina Beach, the world’s second longest beach.
Of course we were banned from crossing Second Avenue, the spinal cord of Besant Nagar, so there was no way we could get all the way to Elliots all by ourselves without the accompaniment of an adult. And since adults had day jobs where they hardly worked or worked hardly, we always saw the beach during evenings through dusk and left before night fell.
So, then, what happened around Elliots at night and day when curious eyes were busy staring at textbooks? That fisherman with a stump for a leg whose irregular thumping gait that could be heard echoing through The Theosophical Society on full moon nights as he fished for sharks sitting at the edge of the Broken Bridge? Fact of fiction? The smugglers from Ceylon who anchored near the Temple of Eight Lakshmis and sat smoking cheap beedis as the local police bartered with them? Ramayana or real? On certain nights when scores of bioluminescent creatures swarm to the coast and there was no one to see, the sinuous leathery shape of that beast periodically illuminated by the strokes of the Marina Beach lighthouse? Panchantantra or not? Who knew? While it was a land of smugglers, murderers, fishermen, mermaids and buried treasure, Suganthi Miss, our buxom Geography teacher, closet succubus, was correct about one thing about Elliots - land and sea breeze.
Suganthi Miss, that dream torturer of pre-or-post-pubescent boys with her diaphanous, jasmine-scented pink saris, bent on haunting the minds of yet-to-be-men by lazily sauntering across corridors during silent Math periods, was actually a slave driving she-devil as far as we were concerned. But she was right about the geography today and suddenly, on this muggy Saturday afternoon, the gulmohar and the neem trees, pregnant with flowers and fruit, started swishing in the wind, sorry, in the sea breeze, and nimbly took my mind off the heat.
By now, impatient Reader, you must be tapping your feet about this TKS character who seemed to be popping up everywhere with aplomb. So, without much ado, I introduce you to one of my best friends:
Tirunalveli Krishna Sathya Narayanan was his full name. TKS Narayanan was how the class-teacher called him during the morning and afternoon attendance. TKS was what the rest of the world minus his family called him. Dabbu, much to his consternation for its meaning (money) in the Telugu language, was what his family (except his Paati) called him. Narayana, as if in a devotional plea to the namesake god, was what his Paati called him.
There was nothing extraordinary about his looks: average height for a thirteen year old, a head shaped like a drumstick seed with an unruly mop that valiantly fought the teeth of any comb. TKS lived a very special life, according to Murali and me. His parents were in Qatar, a place somewhere in the middle of the Arabian desert. To get there, one would have to pass through security check at the airport, a very important procedure TKS assured us solemnly, board a huge plane that shows up once a week (not that tiny Indian Airlines plane), choose between (gasp!) Pepsi or Coke served in a can, not a bottle. And then wait for six hours before it landed near his house.
This was always the toughest part of his descriptions to believe because he never brought us back samples of the said canned Pepsi or Coke. As if they would not give him another if he asked. That was a lie; we knew it. TKS rarely spoke the truth. His mysterious parents showered him with gifts each time he visited them during the holidays to assuage their guilt of transferring the burden of bringing up a boy onto his grandparents. TKS claimed that his house in Qatar was so big (he wouldn’t show pictures) that he would roller skate (his mom denied him from bringing them back to India) from one room to another and (liar!) skateboard down the different floors. In Qatar, all the women wore a black blanket all over them so you couldn’t see who it was.
‘Why?’ Murali had asked.
‘Because they feel cold. I told you they were Arabic women.’ TKS explained and it made sense to Murali. I sort of believed that because I have seen these mysterious cold women in the gullies of Hyderabad when, once, my paati took me to see a Muslim seer who had, she said, magical powers. A black blanketed woman, with a cloth mesh in front of her eyes, served us sweet pink tea. When I picked the saucer and cup, I saw her hands were shaking. So, yeah, we believed some of what TKS doled to us about Qatar, but not all.
TKS’ parents dumped the responsibility of schooling and upbringing onto his maternal grandparents. Thus, he lived with his thatha and paati. TKS’ thatha was an active old man, very jocular at times and highly incendiary otherwise. As long as we behaved ourselves, he would make jokes and laugh with us, but if we screamed too loud or tried to do wheelies in the porch, he would lash out us and (annoyingly) say stuff like, 'Didn’t your parents teach you manners?' But TKS always threw a fit of tantrum and bailed us out at those times.
Diagonally opposite in nature was his tiny cross-eyed Paati. She never screamed at him, undid his shoes after he came from school, brought him coffee (unheard of), let him lounge in his school uniform until he went to play (immediate lashings at my place), then picked his uniform from the verandah, pulled out the necessary books to do the homework and then hand-fed him dinner. She was always timorously crooning, 'Yenna da, Narayana,' each time he flung his socks on his StreetCat or ran out of the toilet without pouring water or turning off the lights. She whispered, 'Yenna da, Narayana,' as Suganthi Miss excoriated him about his behavior during the monthly parent-teacher meeting whence TKS’ guardians were always summoned. She screamed, 'Yenna? Da? Narayana?’ when he ran across the vegetable stall to snatch an apple and start munching on it. She was a gentle darling of a Paati, very much like my own. But if my paati took care of me, I would never do all the things TKS did. He was a spoilt brat with rich parents who lived in the middle of a desert, surrounded by shivering Muslim ladies in black blankets and was always thumped on his head or got his ears pinched by his larger-than-life Thatha. But he was our friend and I guess, in a way, we loved him for who he was.
It was a good ten minute walk to TKS’ house and when I was not being caressed by the wind under the shady trees, the Madras sun baked my neck, legs and other exposed parts of my body. To get to TKS’ house, one could either take the road, or, impossibly, take a shortcut through the cemetery that was also a burning ghat. TKS’ Thatha, that shrewd fox, got a handsome deal on a house that oversaw the cemetery (his Paati would always look down when she went around the thulasi plant in their backyard, lest she saw the smoke coming from the ghat). My mom was a little apprehensive when I told her first where TKS lived and warned me not to go there often. ‘It is just not right,’ she said rolling the rotis one day, ‘and there might be ghosts,’ she added for extra measure, without realising that the opposite effect ghosts had on me. But she settled fine when I returned home safely the first few times.
I saw Murali’s tiny BSA Champ bicycle parked neatly in the porch and felt a leap in my heart. Murali was already here. I ran the last few yards and went inside the cool, air-conditioned house.
The housewives of Madras only got better with the prestidigitation of their culinary skills, with their fingers gaining their own senses, tasting, feeling, seeing tamarind balls, turmeric, coconut powder, garlic, copper vessels, steel spatulas, idli vessels, in short, the entire kitchen. TKS’ grandma, however, unfortunately, a poor victim of strabismus, tended to reach for the wrong ingredients in her culinary creations. Whereas interchanging, even by accident, salt with Horlicks or channa dal with Cadbury’s Gems was forgivable, the aging Paati had begun to substitute cockroaches, spiders, ants and other miscellaneous vermin for comestibles sending TKS and his Thatha into epileptic fits. I speak, keeping in mind, the revolting image of TKS opening his lunch box one day and wondering why the fried brinjal had withered legs.
His Thatha, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen and was most probably, at this time of the day, sitting in a PTC bus somewhere with a bagful of vegetables bought at wholesale prices at T-Nagar or Mylapore, bawling about the government or the turgid international politics to some unsuspecting school kid.
TKS was slumped in the big armchair in his white Tantex vest (which was advertising old Maggi ketchup and coffee stains) and shorts (sporting stains of attempts to wipe the stains on the vest). His Paati had quite visibly served him some upma sometime ago, as there were crumbs on the floor that were currently being investigated by a horde of industrious ants. Murali was animatedly talking when I walked in, his neatly combed and Parachute-oiled hair never leaving its preset position.
‘…That’s what he said, ya,’ Murali said, with his hands on his hips and pouting. A tiny dimple formed on his right cheek that had been festooned with Gokul talcum powder. Every evening, after Murali came home from school, his mom forced him into the bathroom to scrub his face with Mysore Sandal soap. Just before he left, she would bend down, hold his plump cheeks in her left hand and comb his hair, ensuring the part was prominent and perfect. She would then stick the comb into her hair and then dab some of the talcum powder from the light blue tin can (with an infant Krishna coyly holding his feet and staring beatifically) much to the annoyance of Murali. She would step back, survey her makeup, momentarily sigh wishing Murali was a girl instead of a boy, and then shoo him off.
Murali was a simple fellow, really. He never meant harm to anyone and his diminutive stature always elicited pity from all his friends’ mothers. While Murali hated his hair to be combed, right after he left home, he would stop at the first parked motorcycle's rear-view mirror and after wetting his fingers would carefully design his coif the way he liked.
Murali was a pious boy and religiously performed his sandhyavandanam and pranayama exercises daily after bath, twice a day. This was something I was guilty of not doing and a bone of contention with Amma. She would point to Murali and say, ‘See how chammathu he is! Doing his sandhyavandam daily. If you also do-off, you will come first in the class.’ Of course my retort that Murali never came first in the class did nothing to stop the attack.
Now, I must tell you one funny thing about Murali. His plumbing at home has some issues. So, of late, while having his evening shower, he said that he has been getting shocked. Once, he claimed, he flew across the toilet. We bawled as he narrated it pitifully. ‘Yenna, ya?’ he whined. ‘I am saying I am getting shocked, you bledy fellows are laughing.’
But that was Murali, always tiny and always at the receiving end. But he has a very important role in this tale and you are advised to feel pity towards him and pinch his cheeks for now.
Where there was electricity, there was magnetism. And all that shock treatment must have given Murali a magnetic personality. All his friends' mothers, mine inclusive, loved him and still pinched his cheeks. Dilly, the Parsi girl in our class, sometimes gave him long stares that didn’t quite seem platonic. That one time I caught her staring at him and wetting her lips, I nudged him and told him that Dilly was staring. He just ignored it and went about copying the notes from the blackboard.
‘How can anyone float on air?’ TKS asked, a crinkle of annoyance stitching his brows together. ‘It has to be a trick.’
‘What are you guys talking about?’ I asked, catching only the words beggar and floating.
I closed the door behind me, lest the ferocious fighting Thatha came out yelping about paying a high electricity bill and whether my parents would be so kind as to consider chipping in if I were to leave the door open again.
‘Vishnu! Finally! Come, man! Listen to Hydrogen now.’
‘Dei TKS, stop calling me Hydrogen Nambiar, okay?’ Murali threatened, wagging his finger. Only it looked like a squirrel growling at a dog. Many months ago, after learning about the elements, TKS seriously decided that Murali’s size and demeanour warranted the nickname Hydrogen Nambiar. This name, he tossed around every time he wanted to rib Murali.
‘Sure! Sure! So, Vishnu, someone has been calling Murali’s home and introducing himself as me, it seems.’
‘Not you, ya. Aiyo! Stupid!’ he slapped his head hard and the resulting force flung him onto a nearby wicker chair. ‘He says Narayana! Narayana! And then talks in a whisper.’
‘Aah! That only, machan,’ TKS said, his voice loaded with sarcasm. ‘He tells my name and then gives instructions to Murali. Last instruction was to go to the Shiva Temple and check out a floating beggar! Comedy da! Some pundey is crank calling our Hydrogen Nambiar and now he wants to go and check out the beggar.’
‘Murali,’ I said, trying to placate him. ‘How do you know this is not a joke da?’
‘Because he has called before, ya. He called twice. Once he called, said, Narayana Narayana, and then told me question by question what was coming in geography exam next day. Correctly, he told. Then he called again, said, Narayana Narayana, and then told exactly how many runs Tendulkar will make in the series. He is not some joker, ya.’
I looked at TKS, a tad astonished. Predicting Tendulkar’s score was no easy feat. ‘Really-aa?’
‘Aama da!’ Murali insisted. ‘One beggar is going to float outside the temple today.’
TKS shrugged, got up, shook the upma crumbs off his vest and went inside to change.
Aiyo! The thought of slipping back into that infernal heat deflated me, especially as I sat here, enjoying the rarity that was air conditioning. Murali sat down, lotus position, on the floor and using his hands tried to lift himself off the ground.
‘Hey Vishnu,’ he said, ‘you can see my hands now-aa?’ and after moving them around, ‘Now?’ and so on.
Reluctance and lethargy infiltrated my system and the chilled air made me want to take a nap, until TKS’ Paati made a cameo with a dripping karandi in her hands, enquiring, ‘Vishnu, have you eaten? Wait, pa. I made some brinjal and ladies-finger sambar. I'll get some mixture. Eat and go,’ and then retreated.
I took the threat seriously.
Murali was already outside, kicking the stand off his white Champ. TKS came out from his room, wearing a T-shirt with the words Led Zeppelin emblazoned loudly across it in yellow. He put on a cap that had a pair of sunglasses fixed to it. What was not obvious was that if he flipped a switch, a bunch of LEDs would light up on the frame of the sun glasses and travel across his face like an army of marching ants. TKS thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I thought he looked like walking hotel sign proclaiming Hotel Pataas Bhavan. For now, the switch was off and the dead LEDs looked like tiny pustules on the frame.
He pulled out the StreetCat from the verandah, carelessly letting the tyres leave streak marks on the walls. He mounted and began pedaling and as was norm, I ran behind the bike and hopped on to the carrier seat behind, now screaming, ‘Wait, man. Slow a little,’ and putting my legs up on the two tiny nuts that held the rear wheel in place, with the bike now swerving left and right as TKS fought to control it and then ending in a smooth ride as TKS rhythmically pedaled. I held to the sides of the seat for my dear life as TKS pedaled away from brinjal sambar, with Mysore Sandaled and Gokul Talcumed Murali trailing us in his white Champ, yelling, ‘Dei TKS-Vishnu, slow down, ya,’ with one outstretched arm and then standing up and pumping his legs to catch up with the larger StreetCat.
TKS, oblivious to his comrades’ uncomfortable situations, one on a tiny bike straining to catch up and the other sitting on a small piece of bum-biting steel, straining to hold on to a slippery rexine seat cover, started singing a new song he learnt from the 10th standard boys – ‘My shoes are from Japan,’ he gesticulated generally towards Japan, ‘And my scent is an Armani’, he mumbled another line in meter to hide the fact that he had forgotten the actual words, and then screamed, ‘But my heart is Hindustani,’ with wild patriotic pride, laughed, and started again, ‘My shoes are…’
There we were, on a hot Saturday, with Murali doggedly following a patriotic singing lunatic who was ferrying a very scared me, dodging and weaving amongst broken pumpkins, yellow autorickshaws, parked P.T.C. buses and the occasional Enfield or Vespa, as we were off to spot the floating mendicant outside the Shiva Temple.