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My grandfather was puzzled by the last complaint. What exactly did I want to read when school was closed? Oh, books about young people in faraway places and their adventures. You know, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews, the Three Investigators …
It is not a textbook and should tell a story, right? I thought he got the idea, but then he volunteered to get me a copy of the Vicar of Wakefield. I politely declined.
He spoke of us, his youngest grandchildren as “little scholars.” Like many men of his generation, my grandfather believed that “good” English was ample proof of intellect. My grandmother, with her native shrewdness, was much harder to impress.
Madurai was a one-temple town, yes. But it wasn’t just any old temple: it was the Meenakshi temple and we were lucky to live so close to it, she had us know. I associated the temple with the Goddess alone. So much so that I did not realize it was a Siva temple, primarily.
In fact, it was the same Siva temple that served as the venue of the most popular episode of Thiruvilayadal—featuring Sangam poetry. My father played the audiocassette of this hit movie so often that we knew the dialog by heart, but entirely without context. If pressed we could even recite the classical poetry bit from the beginning and the end, perfectly—with some gibberish in between.
After spending an amorous night with his queen, the Pandiyan king, who rules from Madurai, comes up with a question. Are beautiful women born with naturally fragrant hair or is it a characteristic acquired after years and years of aromatic treatment? He wants the answer in verse and announces a contest for Tamil poets.
The poor poet Tarumi, a devotee of Siva is handed a prizewinning entry by the Lord himself. And Tarumi would have won too, had it not been for the court poet and self-appointed critic, Nakeeran. Siva is amazed that anyone can find fault with his verse but the court poet does not budge. So what, if God himself composed the poem? In anger Siva burns Nakeeran to cinder but brings him back to life at the steps leading to the Meenakshi temple’s lotus pond. In A.K. Ramanujan’s translation, the God-given verse reads thus:
whose life is passed in search of honey
don’t speak to me of desire
but tell me what you really saw:
Could even the flowers that you know
be as full of fragrance
as the hair of the woman
with the even set of teeth and the peacock nature,
to whom long affection binds me?
The sprawling Meenakshi temple, a veritable art gallery, had many stories for those who were clued in and even those like us who were not. The women of Madurai say it is Meenakshi who rules the city, all of Siva’s Thiru vilayadal (Holy games) notwithstanding.
As another of these vacations in the place with “nothing to do” came to a close, we awaited the elaborate sendoff which included touching the feet of the elders. Depending on our behavior through the entire trip our grandmother would give us some cash as a parting gift. Though we immediately handed it over to our mother for safekeeping, we could draw on the amount for an entire year to buy ourselves treats.
My grandmother rummaged through the almirah and pulled out her leather purse and an old framed picture. It was a black-and-white photograph. In it, she was younger, her hair had just started to grey and she was wearing a dark silk sari. She passed it around for our inspection and praise. She looked distinguished and we said so, but evidently she was looking for more. Nothing was forthcoming, so finally she said it herself: “People say I look like M.S. in this picture.”
She was referring to the Karnatik diva: M.S. Subbulakshmi. We had no clue that the classical vocalist’s initial M stood for Madurai, her place of birth. We did know that M.S. held an exalted place among South Indian singers. Quite apart from that, she was a picture of dignity and grace with beauty that grows resplendent with age. That was the resemblance my grandmother wanted us to spot and we let her down badly.
Many years later I was on the I-93 during rush hour. It was getting dark, my cell phone was dead, and the fuel tank was dangerously close to empty when the audio player picked a CD at random. M.S.Subbalakshmi’s Bhaja Govindam saved me from panic. The sense of calm M.S. manages to convey through her soulful music is a quality every listener can appreciate without knowing the ragas or the meaning of the lyrics.
I realize now that many people from Madurai claim some kind of tenuous kinship to the cultural icon. My grandmother was not alone in wanting to establish this connection. Connoisseurs of silk saris in Tamil Nadu call a rich double-color of ink-blue and black threads, favored by the singer, M.S. Blue.
After 15 years I visited Madurai again. All that remains of my grandmother now is a familiar sepia picture on the wall. She seems curious about my life abroad—those faraway places we read about in books, as children. Did they live up to their promise?
Perhaps she knew how happy I felt when my brother gave me the Tamil classic Silapadigaram and its sequel Manimeghalai. He had found these translations at a used bookstore in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Why were we looking for old Tamil literature in far-off distant places now?
She smiles in profile at the irony of it.
Vijaysree Venkatraman writes from Cambridge, MA.