Thursday, June 7, 2012

Madras, the once-city

Close your eyes; it’ll disappear.
            As a child, even though we used to live close to the beach, my mother would not let me swim in the sea often. Only when my cousins visited us in the hot summers were we allowed to waddle and splash about in the waves. We were pretty far from the Madras harbor and rarely saw ships, but we could always make them out in the distance. One evening, my cousin and I watched a motorized catamaran bounce on the choppy waves and speed away along the coast. With each blink of the eye, the boat grew smaller, and smaller, until it was just a little full-stop on a large green paper.
            “Close your eyes,” Amit, told me. “And count to ten.”
            We clenched our eyes and loudly counted to ten. When I opened them, the catamaran was gone. For that little boy, standing amidst the swirling sea, it was like magic. Then the bells at the Temple of Eight Lakshmis began to peal urgently. My mother got up, dusted the sand off her sari and indicated to us that it was time to go home. She enticed us to leave by offering to buy us few cuts of unripe mangoes from the hawkers. But I remember holding her hand and walking homewards, stopping every few steps to turn and search the sea. The waves hissed in the dark and bid me a frothy goodbye, but the catamaran was nowhere to be seen.
I closed my eyes and it had disappeared.

It’s getting dark now. I’m standing on the shore, probably very close to where I once stood with Amit. I see a white blob pulsing towards me. There was a time when the sight of sea creatures – mollusks, clams, fish – would set my heart racing. Can it really be a jellyfish? In Madras? Another wave pushes the creature towards me and it tries to embrace me with its plastic tentacles. It’s only a cover from Grand Sweets. As much as the sea fascinates me, my city tugs at my heart stronger. I turn towards her. This is not the Madras I once knew. This is not the Madras I left behind.
Where once I used to sprint and win running races with my friends, the beach is filled with so many people that it resembles a colony of seals that have come to shore to birth their calves. The cool evening breeze that was once filled with temple bells and the occasional sounds of someone guffawing is now punctured by the incessant metallic noise of motorcycles and cellphone ringtones. The silence of the noisy crows, Madras’ roosters, caws louder than anything else to my ears. Ungainly flats have erupted like toadstools after a rain shower in the past few years since I left home. I walk away from the shore and onto the mud, carefully dodging a bleached Bisleri bottle and a blue Reynolds pen cap. I walk towards the pavement where, once, my friends and I frequented every evening after a satisfying game of beach cricket and Frisbee hockey.
            Right there, on that little mound in the middle of the beach, where currently people are huddled together, my friends and I would set up the pitch each day and play. The bowler ran down the incline and bowled at the batsman who tried to hit boundaries towards the sea. The mercurial sea breeze had to be taken into account before each shot, for even the best batsman’s lobbed shots can boomerang back to the bowler if the breeze was strong enough. On most evenings, a band of elderly gentlemen sat on the pavement and cheered us if the game got really interesting. And if there was an interesting cricket game being played elsewhere, we grouped with the old men around an old Grundig transistor radio and cheered Sachin’s boundaries and Kumble’s wicket taking. When the game was over, we sat on the wall bordering the pavement, our legs dangling, eating boiled peanuts or spiced chickpeas, and discussed everything from IIT classes to that new girl someone spotted walking her yipping Pomeranian dog.

My life’s mission was to get out of Madras. I managed to do more than that and got out of the country. But right after that, I was plagued by periodic bouts of homesickness for which there was no Western medicine. No amount of online videos or chatting with friends can allay the chronic nostalgia that simmers in every uprooted Madrasi. Madrasi? Madras-vasi? Madras-people? This always used to be a hot topic for debates on the beach, but those are dead names for dead people of a dead city. Chennai is the chintzy phoenix that has risen from the golden ashes of the once-city, Madras, and I hate it.
Now, I walk up to the cricket pitch on which I once smacked legendary boundaries in the direction of Bay of Bengal. Romancing young couples stare at me, some with suspicion, others with indifference. Most of their faces are illuminated by the halo of their cellphones. I want to shake them by their shoulders and yell, ‘This used to be my playground for more than five years, you know? Now you sit here like discarded cardboard boxes, wasting in the sea breeze.’
I squint at the traffic jam on the road. Horns are blaring and tempers are flaring. Aunties in tennis shoes, joggers and the random health nut used to exercise on that road early mornings and late evenings. I remember the awe with which my friends and I stared at a boy on rollerblades as he zipped across the road and smoothly jumped over the speed-breakers near Cozee Café and disappeared down the road. He would be hard pressed to find the room just to stand on the road now.

How did it come to this? Time improves dosa batter, smoothens sandstones and forges a great Stradivarius, but Madras, it appears, has aged like a packet of Aavin milk forgotten on the verandah for a few days. Young ones, be it humans or animals, are always cute. Madras was alluring and fascinating when I was younger. And now the city has grown up with me. I see its scabs and smell its body odor. It stinks.
And then I remembered what Amit once told me. I tightly close my eyes and take a lungful of the comforting saline air. I try to tune out all the ambient noise. When I open my eyes, all this will disappear. It’ll be the way it once used to be. My close friends will all live within walking distance and they’ll be young, lithe and limber, somersaulting on the sands and tossing tennis balls high up in the air. The road will be empty enough for me to bicycle down it without holding onto the handlebars and let the sea breeze tousle my hair. Airplanes will hold the same mystery again as they fly over the sea. There will be large swathes of empty spaces for us to play football and cricket every evening. I will look forward to going to Ramkumar’s Lending Library on Saturdays to see if a newer Asterix, Tintin or Three Investigators book was out. The streets and alleys will be filled with the smells of incense and the sounds of Carnatic lessons and pressure cookers whistling up hot food.
            I stand there with my eyelids glued shut. And then the Temple of Eight Lakshmis begins to peal its bells. It’s time to catch my flight out of the city.
It’s time to leave home.