It feels so good to be home, to know I’m standing on Indian soil. Strangely enough, even the night breeze mingling with pungent petrol fumes smells familiar, comforting, of where I belong. The sterile air of America still feels alien to my lungs. I breathe in deep lungfuls of air, the stuff that newspaper reports claim is toxin to the insides with its increased levels of SPM (suspended particulate matter). But this is the air my lungs grew up on and I can now feel them working harder, almost in recognition.
Amma, in a turquoise-blue-and-magenta Kanjeevaram, no doubt carefully picked for the occasion, is at the Arrivals Lounge, more grey streaking through her dark hair coiled into a bun, faint lines around her eyes. Her smile is the same though, as soft and warm as the idlis she served me when I bounded in at the end of a long school day.
The drive home from Anna International Airport in Chennai is predictably filled with banal domestic chatter—Radha is getting married to Niraj in May; Usha has won a Cambridge scholarship; great-aunt’s daughter Sunita is expecting her third baby, and her ma-in-law hopes it will be a boy this time; Rukmini Athai’s arthritis is worse; Balan the cook ran away with the maid-next-door; and, Patti the neighborhood dog is having a new litter. Nothing has changed, I think to myself. And yet, everything has changed.
The neon signs advertising pizza parlors and fast-food joints speed past the car windows, winking furiously in crimson reds and fluorescent pinks, like overdressed whores soliciting customers; festive coffee pubs, their names looped and curved in trendy typography are spilling over with scantily-clad teenyboppers; long and tarred arcs in the sky, the city’s new flyovers, stick their necks out like extinct brontosaurs; even old-fashioned petrol pumps, the sort that once stationed a surly attendant who reeked of petrol and had grease stains ground into his clothes and skin, are now transformed into new-fangled gas stations drenched in blazing white lights, with freshly painted vending machines, and uniformed attendants wearing well-rehearsed plastic smiles.
But, wait a minute. Where is the paan shop, the box-like
contraption round that corner where people headed for their after-dinner digestive? What of its bald, pot-bellied owner, with lips stained red and chewing incessantly, who ponderously patted wet betel leaves dry? I still see his fingers dipping into an entire row of sparkling steel containers full of mysterious chutneys and aromatic powders. He would fill the leaves with a little pinch from each, then twist and expertly fold the leaves into neat green triangles, all ready to be popped into the mouth. Where might that biscuit man of my boyhood have disappeared, the one who sat next to the shoe shop, the one who always gave me an extra butter biscuit that smelled of fresh sunshine, one I knew I could ill-afford even as my eyes feasted on the jar’s contents? A garish, loud shopping mall sprawls there in indolent luxury. The biscuit man’s meager legacy lies buried and forgotten under it, like a rare coin. A Coke vending machine has sprouted where the old STD/ISD phone booth used to be … how often had I rushed there, coins jingling in my pocket, to dial Asha’s number, my teen heart thumping, fingers trembling …
“This is Chennai.” The driver bursts into my nostalgia.
“Yes, this is Chennai,” I repeat.
Not the Madras I left behind ten years ago.
I’d followed the controversy of the Madras-Chennai re-christening faithfully on the Internet. Madras, the conservative heartland of India, was somewhat intimidated by the shrinking global boundary, and cowered like a common man in the presence of a striding giant. But commercial and economical considerations must eventually rule, and Madras was forced to come out of its shell to face, and participate in, a global market. No matter there is a group that holds the regional banner aloft with its strident voice of patriotism. It was this group, realizing that its known world was rapidly metamorphosing into a new identity that decided to seek refuge in roots. They declared: “We will rename Madras as Chennai,” as it has always been called in Tamil, the city’s native tongue.
I’d paid little attention to the ramifications of this name-change. To me, the city would always remain Madras. The Madras of my
childhood, the Madras of my carefree college days, the Madras I left behind to pursue the big Silicon Valley dream. Being confronted with the newness of its character was like walking into my living room to find the furniture all snazzily re-upholstered and rearranged and
tripping over it.
This isn’t Madras. This is Chennai. The cab driver was right.
“Why so quiet? Missing America already?” Amma’s question is accompanied by an affectionate pat on the cheek. Her hand feels
cool but dry and papery. I zip back to the here and now from my mental meanderings, offer her a tentative smile, and wonder if she will ever understand that it is Madras I am missing.
The swank Ford glides to a smooth, noiseless halt outside the front wrought-iron gates I thankfully recognize despite the fresh lick of glistening black paint they wear in welcome. I step out and my nostalgic senses drag in the combined fragrances of jasmine and incense wafting in on the moonlit night, tickling my nostrils and teasing my memories.
“Come, come, you must be hungry,” says Amma urgently, pointing the chauffeur to the bags. We step into the comforting old house and I feel it wrapping its huge arms around me. In minutes I hear Amma bustling about the kitchen, the clatter of ladles and plates signaling the setting of table for dinner. We share a meal, mother and son, after years and years of my frozen dinners and Chinese takeout fare.
“You haven’t touched anything!” she exclaims, a constant refrain of motherhood, sliding a spoonful of beans garnished with grated
coconut onto my plate. The coriander-flavored rasam, the color of burnt sienna, hasn’t altered an ounce of its formula in Amma’s hands,
I think to myself, admiring the consistency of her touch. I inhale its aroma of fenugreek seeds seasoned in ghee and let its tangy tomato-tamarind base work its magic on my starved taste buds, I drink my fill of it before mixing it into a small hillock of white rice Amma has heaped on my plate.
“You better go to bed early. You must be very tired. Besides, Radha Chithi and your cousin Aarthi are coming to see you in the morning,” says Amma as she stacks the sink with used vessels and gives the counters a gleam with her swab cloth.
“Aarthi? She was in a short frock, her hair in oil-soaked pigtails the last time I saw her.” I laugh aloud at what must seem an absurd memory to Amma.
“The oily pigtails are gone but the frocks are still short.” I detect a tone of disapproval in Amma’s attempt at humor.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This is not my room. Not the one I grew up in. It’s practically unrecognizable. I stare at the cream distempered walls adorned with M.F.Hussain’s brand of modern art. Wild, unintelligible splashes of color that drain one’s wallet, and taunt the cerebrum. A spanking new Onkyo music system, seductively sleek and hi-tech, sits on a teakwood side table. The bed, my bed, is in black metal, the mattress draped in a richly embroidered eiderdown, its golden sunflowers and trailing vermilion patterns rather ornate. I can still feel the cool softness of the Bombay Dyeing cotton bed sheets against my skin, the ones I snuggled into as a little boy, and see their pleasing floral prints of years ago. I root around for a copy of The Sportstar for an update on the cricket world but the magazine rack standing in a corner proudly displays one glossy after another, lined neatly like well-groomed prize cats—Man’s World, Cosmopolitan, Time, Newsweek, and even a few back issues of Vogue. I slip into bed uneasy. Sleep eludes me. I lie awake and let my mind roam the known and safe bylanes and landmarks of memory.
I see a little boy, about eight or nine, standing on tiptoe and struggling to tack up a poster of his cricket hero, Sunil Gavaskar.
The cellotape stubbornly refuses to bind itself to the uneven surface of the wall. On the wall are other posters—of Viv Richards, Ian Botham, Imran Khan, and Kapil Dev. Champions who dominated the cricket world. A brown table sits near the window, a survivor, scarred with scratches, damaged with Rorschachian ink blots and littered with Amar Chitra Katha comics, their dog-eared pages and curling covers testimony to the number of reads they have been subjected to. A black school satchel lies carelessly flung in the middle of the room while the day’s once-white uniform has been hastily slipped out of minutes ago by someone in a great hurry to get to his four o’clock game of cricket in the maidan nearby.
An hour later, flushed with the success of the three wickets that won us the match, I have trouble anchoring my mind to a math
problem. I twirl my canary-colored pencil distractedly, sucking on the pea-sized eraser attached to its bottom. Suddenly my stomach starts to rumble. It’s those mouth-watering smells drifting from the kitchen. The sizzle of papads being deep-fried in oil; curry leaves coaxed with a twist of the thumb to release their flavors into the sizzling broth; powdered cumin and black pepper leaving murky trails on milky-white buttermilk. Ten minutes to dinner, I think to myself gratefully,
wrestling with the Sumo—my math reader.
The springy soft mattress that accommodates the undulations of my frame is ironically branded Sleepwell. My mind is in the grip of
feverish contradictions—a richly nostalgic childhood; severing the
umbilical cord; reconnecting to a new cultural reality in America; and, the eventual homecoming to a country that seems to remain whole and untainted only in my memory bank. My slide down the slope of oblivion is late and rather brief.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The eastern sunlight strides into my room like an irate class teacher and rudely drives away the last vestiges of sleep. It is eight o’ clock. I blink in confusion and, for just a split second, wonder where I am. Reality rushes in on the warm aroma of filter
coffee steaming its way into my eager nostrils all the way from Amma’s old-fashioned kitchen. My taste buds respond almost in
primeval fashion. Before long Amma’s footfalls grow louder in
approach. In a moment her knuckles are thudding against my door.
“Chandru, get up. It’s late. Radha Chithi and Aarthi will be here soon.” I let her in and disappear into the bathroom. My morning
ablutions are performed to the background chorus of pillows being plumped and sheets being crackled to life.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
So tall he has grown! And dark and handsome!” Radha Chithi’s excited gushing has the expected result of puce on my ears. At 5’7” I suffer from no delusions concerning my height, especially upon my return from America where a six-footer is the norm. My caramel Indian skin earns me the “dark” sobriquet automatically, but my padded jaw-line, thinning hairline, and a waistline tending towards east and west don’t exactly combine well to produce anything handsome. Notwithstanding, Radha Chithi descends on me with the force of an avalanche, gathers all of me into a suffocating embrace, and instantly knocks the breath out of me. I think back to the Radha Chithi I once knew. Demurely draped in soft, subdued cotton sarees with the pallu modestly drawn over her right shoulder, her tentative glances shaded by coyly fluttering eyelashes. Has she metamorphosed into this giggly, quivery creature, her corpulent frame wrapped in a fluorescent cotton-candy chiffon saree, with a blouse that looks like its front went bungee-jumping, spilling ample amounts of unsavory flesh over the edge? The blouse has an “O” of missing fabric on the back, a surprised utterance at the daunting challenge of what it must conceal. Her jeweler must surely be riding a minor prosperity wave given the carats that decorate her—two nose pins, a chunky choker in a vice-like grip around her thick throat, a triple-tiered dome hanging from each ear, three gold studs curving up her ears, and gold bangles, a dozen of them that encircle her fleshy forearms.
“See, I helped your Amma stock her fridge with all the right stuff!” Pointing to the Kellogg’s cereal boxes sitting atop the fridge, she swings the door open to reveal a one-liter bottle of Coke, a packet of Kraft cheese, a jar of French mustard, and an assortment of fresh juices in an array of mini cartons. “Just for you,” she bats her heavily made-up lashes to make a point. “I know how your food habits must have changed in America. Don’t worry. We get everything in India now.” She is obviously proud to play the role of knowledgeable food-provider to a man whose ways she presumes have become all-American.
“Hi!” My senses, inundated with the millennium edition of Radha Chithi, recover, and I notice the person to whom the voice belongs.
“Aarthi! You’ve grown!”
Dumb. Predictable. Unoriginal. All that a one-liner shouldn’t be. And yet the words are out before I can herd them back inside.
With her bobbed hair looking healthy and hennaed, Aarthi is in a pastel blue spaghetti top and a pair of jeans she seems to have poured herself into. She looks every bit like a leaf blown off course by the winds of Western influence.
“So pretty, isn’t she? Aarthi is at your disposal, Chandru. She will show you all the new places in Chennai—coffee pubs, discos, malls, bowling alleys … even the cinema theatres have become very fancy, you know!” Radha Chithi cackles, delighted to be in step with the times.
“So how does it feel to be back after ten years?” Aarthi’s perfectly penciled eyebrow arches and shrug accompany the question.
“Well … I haven’t had too much time to think about it … but …
a lot has changed!”
“You bet. It isn’t the same old boring dump it used to be. Chennai’s hip now, y’know. And some of the discos are real groovy! You’re not going to be homesick, I can tell you.”
But I am, I want to tell her. I miss the old, stable beat Madras once moved to.
“So what’s your POA for today?” Aarthi asks, running her slender, crimson-pointed fingertips through her freshly shampooed mane and a sweet smell of fruit pervades the air.
“I’ve barely had time to think, actually. Woke up really late and have been lazy since.” I offer an excuse.
“Oh! Take your time, Chandru. Relax. You’re on vacation.” Radha Chithi pinches my cheek affectionately and turns to Aarthi, “Come on, let’s go. I have a lot of shopping to do.”
“I’ll call you later,” says Aarthi and follows it up with ciao. “Maybe we can meet for some coffee.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The neighborhood I am looking at through my window is so different from the one I imagined I would return to. The hundred-year-old house next door is no more. Its pretty flowerbeds, tall bushes with pink-and-white hibiscuses peeking from under dense leaf cover, and riotous masses of red bougainvillea, are now history. A huge truck is disgorging sand and cement bags in a furious roar in front of the skeletal framework of an upcoming apartment complex rising from its ashes. Construction workers, sun-burnt men and women with mud-streaked cloths coiled on their heads scurry about the place like busy ants, passing rusty trays of cement and pots of water in relay fashion. A thin emaciated child clad in nothing but a badly frayed underwear, her hair the color of coffee berry, plays in a mountain of sand, gooey yellow snot running down her nose. The hot air is thick with swirling clouds of powdery dust, a gray pall shrouding the place, almost mourning the passing away of the pretty bungalow that once graced this neighborhood.
“Raajaaaa … ” The familiar native accent draws me back instantly. I turn to find Ponni. Ponni, who is as much a part of our family as the ageing, yellowing albums that immortalize my growing years. Her ebony skin glistens, her face is creased in smiles, eyes crinkled affectionately at the corners. She stands before me and causes a cascade
of memories to rush down.
Playing hopscotch with me when I was disallowed from playing with my gang for telling a lie; cooling my raging fever down with a night full of cold compresses soaked in eau de cologne; helping me climb the mango tree in the backyard to pluck clusters of the golden fruit; sitting in the courtyard and making me follow the moon with my eyes as she told me tales of kings and queens; scrubbing my muddy white shirt to a sparkle after my exploits on the school playground; shelling peanuts for me when I was too lazy to.
The gold in her elaborate nose stud glitters in the sun as she circles my face in the air using both her palms. She starts at my forehead and ends at my chin and cracks her knuckles against her temples—a fond, comforting ritual to ward off the evil eye. “How many years since I saw you Raajaaa …” She lapses into the childhood name she gave me, drawing it out in syllables of deep affection. Her eyes shine with the unshed tears they cradle. I suddenly find it hard to swallow. She gathers my soft, white-collar hands warmly into her own callused, work-roughened ones. “Are you well, my Raja?” Standing near Ponni and inhaling the scent of cow-dung cakes mixed with the jasmine that sits like a fragrant crown on the bun nestling at the nape of her neck, I feel deeply connected to a vital part of my growing years. And like a newborn calf’s frantic search for its mother’s teat, and its sense of relief upon finding it, I exhale serenely.
“You look the same, Ponni. Haven’t changed in ten years!”
She waves a hand, tossing the compliment away. “You always liked to tease poor Ponni. It is you who has not changed, Raja.” With the ease and comfort of familiarity, Ponni starts to put things away, moving my large bags and suitcases around, and slashes at the furniture, duster in hand. “Move away, come on, let me clean up all this mess. I’ll make your room shine like a new coin,” she says, flicking me away along with the dust that lines the coffee table. I take in the soft, damp, crushed folds of the cotton sari tucked into her waist, the gold-flecked glass bangles that tinkle on her wrist, the thick toe rings that tap out a melody as she moves about on the mosaic floor, and the red dot, the size of a 50 paise coin, in the center of her forehead.
In a rush I feel it in my blood and bones.
I am home.
Chennai-based writer Uma Girish loves writing fiction as much as she does creative non-fiction.