Two Days in Tamil Nadu

“Äre you sure you’re my daughter’s son? You seem to be losing it.” {The street outside the Alangudi temporary living quarters.

MAY 28 — It was three years since the last trip, and it was overdue. To Tamil Nadu.

Arrived at Tiruchirappalli Airport, which has a dryness the competent staff members replicate. But my mind was on Muthu outside waiting for his lost cousin, well lost in more ways than one.

They don’t usually put on T-shirts in Tamil homeland, so I stuck out like a sore thumb on this Friday in a crowd of people looking quite alike.

Only 9am, but already a warm May day as Muthu weaved through the traffic at the main thoroughfare outside the airport heading to the first toll stop, for the two-hour drive to Alangudi, my mom’s village.

He was even chattier than usual, and we were in a rental, the house jeep was in the workshop. It takes time he said when it’s the brake and they’d have to dismantle it. The dismantling was required he asserted. I nodded.

The local drinking hole in Alangudi won’t fire up.

Passed the 45 Rupee (return) toll before setting for the next toll booth at Pudukottai (New Fort), where the British caught up with Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, the last Tamil ruler. At the end of the 18th Century. This is the heart of Chettinad, so they say. It did not end well for Kattabomman.

It takes another hour reach my uncle’s temporary home. He feels the family home’s cursed. The passing of my mom — his sister — after a visit in 2014 and then a son followed by his wife within three years upset him too much. So they moved out, temporarily.

It’s small, the new lodgings, for 11 live there. My grandma remains at the old home a few clicks away.

Not quite noon, so we went to get grandma.

My cousin, Selvi, was there at the old house looking for one of the giant keys to lock the rooms. They were liable to be used as a weapon.

Grandma, she is a sight to behold. It’s always a marker for meaning. If that makes sense. Something to connect to all that is me as a person to a larger universe of meaning, and purpose. She just wants to know if I am well. I say, yes.

Everyone is well when they get to see grandma.

Muthu’s son the precocious Sai Nathan was already romping about the yard. With the livestock missing since the family moved out, leaving granny alone, it looked even more barren. The house, the two telecommunication towers and the acres of land behind.

With the nephews. Sai Nathan, Muthu’s son, and I are colour-coordinated.

Sai Nathan, all six years, was keen to impress with his knowledge of anatomy, thanks to his teacher Miss Mary at the private school just by the highway to Rameshwaram.

It was amazing that both aunt and great grandma when we passed the church at Thirakappatur were keen for the boy to pay respects to Mother Mary. It’s a fluid concept, religion in South India, one which I wished most of the world could subscribe to.

Back again at the rental, lunch was not ready.

My three cousins lived together with their dad with their five children. My uncle, Panchanathan just had open heart surgery, by his words, performed by the excellent surgeons of Madurai. The temple laden town has become a medical-tourism sweet spot apparently.

Muthu suggested a short drive to the local, for a quick one. It would be 3.30pm in Kuala Lumpur, guess TGIF was in order. Though my fifth time in the south, I never been to a local. Those represented very badly in Tamil movies. I’m used to the AC bars with their bites for the beers. Three lukewarm beers were summoned and Muthu ordered fish.

The local is nondescript and the front sold the beverages before customers sauntered to the back to a mild breeze to consume their idyllic drinks. The next table was quick to point out I was foreign, and asked if I was Malaysian or Singaporean. The answer got some of them to mutter the Malay they did know.

Lunch to cap the drinks

When we got back, lunch was ready.

While all things can be said about Indian restaurants back home, it is another level, the food in the south. Their cooks are the only ones my late mother would ask tips from.

The plan after lunch was to ease into our Karaikudi hotel after a stop at the money changer. And unsurprisingly, the money changer offered sweet rates.

Close to 4pm, we wanted to hit my dad’s side, Konapet. 16km away from Alangudi. Both villages revolve around Karaikudi, the main town.

My aunt and her niece in Konapet.

Silly me told them I’d be there by 3pm and they had been waiting. My uncle Subbayah was in the large grounds outside the village. We walked together to the premises before my uncle, the step-brother to my late father, said perhaps I should head to the temple first. His granddaughter had come of age, and family members are barred from the temple. So, I had to go to the temple first. Okay.

When Muthu and I walked into the family temple — story goes my dad was a founder back in the 1960s — the main priest recognised me. The face gave it away, he added. Usually priests give blessings, this one gave a name-card. Another of the diaspora had come back but they lost contact. “He’s from our village, call him.” He meant now. No answer.

They trying to look for this relative in Malaysia, if anyone does know any Ananth with relatives in Karaikuddi 🙂

Never mind said the priest, he said stay on another two hours, they were going to slaughter the baby goats. I tried to hide my lack of enthusiasm, and said I had to go the village. Had to, indeed. Muthu gave me a tour, nevertheless, of the young animals waiting for their end. I’m no vegetarian, but maybe too urban to appreciate an introduction to dinner an hour before.

Back to Konapet, and the various homes of my relatives. My two step-uncles, the cousins, their children. Unlike the growing trend, my father side relatives had kept close and still live in the same compound. I suspect this has plenty to do with the eldest uncle whom all of them look up to, the pillar of the family.

It was dark, and Uncle Subbayah was not impressed we were heading to Trichirappalli (Trichy) the next day. I said it was a short trip, he kept his grunt. I added we’d stop for late Saturday lunch before hitting the road for the city. He stopped grunting. Can’t say I’ve seen him laugh.

It’s dark and time to head back to Alangudi.

When we are in Karaikuddi, family won’t let us eat out, it has to be either at mom’s Alangudi or dad’s Konapet.

Even by tourists’ standards it’s too early.

My cousin Devi’s husband, the professional cook was between gigs having been in the middle-east, Malaysia and Singapore — slaved away in the small kitchen in Alangudi.

The marker on the side of the house, indicating the family house in Alangudi is slightly younger than independent Malaya.

Finally, I managed to establish a video call to home, so my brother’s family could see grandma and the family live. Maya, my niece, had a first look at her great-grandma. I’m not sure whether the one-year-old or the ninety plus year old will remember the call, but we’d remind them. My grandma kept kissing the screen. Please place the appropriate clichés here.

Post-dinner, a wild night ahead in Karaikuddi. 9pm and adventure ahead. Except all commercial activities, not the least bars, had to end by 11pm. The law of the land. Which meant just the bar opposite the hotel before shutter-time. The bar manager was enthused by our visit, since he too spoke Malay, after his years at the Shah Alam F&N factory.

Evening ends soon enough.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Fried quail was breakfast. Muthu asked if we wanted to sneak in a few beers, he put a few in the fridge for us.

Even by tourists’ standards it’s too early.

Trichy is a large town. The Indian towns seem to sprawl on rather than challenge the skies.

The eating ended, but it was the goodbyes which were difficult. Well, to one person, my gran. She’s frailer since the last visit, and the senility is steadily creeping in. She asks about her eldest son, which is normal, when you let your first-born leave India as a five-year-old. Another when she asks me how my deceased mom is holding up. As the years go, and family just fleeting figures in many ways, the recollections and even reality becomes a flux for her.

I told her that her daughter has left us. She nodded, and she looked as if it was terrible truth she’d always known to have ignored when the days become too hot.

We managed a bit of shopping in Karaikuddi, which included a saree for my sister in law, and another I’m not sure would be welcome.

My uncle Panchanathan, months after his open heart surgery. The older brother to my mom.

And then to Konapet which is on the way to the highway to Trichy.

A small audience was waiting for me at my dad’s village. My cousin living in Chennai returned from a 14-hour one-way bus-ride with her kids to see me. Konapet is a curious place. The men have nothing to say, and the women are full of chatter, they had to know more about me. Actually, it seems our differing worldviews which really enthralls them.

They said, both the genders, I had to come back for the village festival and stay longer than a two-day trip. I feel I’ve agreed to the terms. 2020.

Trichy is a large town. The Indian towns seem to sprawl on rather than challenge the skies.

Short of ideas, there was one to take a picture by a Gandhi monument. The auto-drive said there were plenty of monuments for the nation’s father, which one would we fancy he asked. Ten minutes later, we are asked to alight by a large roundabout. There’s the Mahatma in the centre, and a police post by the side. Not to mention a temple fighting for space in a city famed for walking clubs than nightclubs.

The last stop, Chola Bar. Where they serve, Hitman Rohits.

Muthu seems perpetually perplexed that we choose to be in a bar longer than necessary for a buzz.

If he knew the number of things about Tamil Nadu which continue to perplex me.

There’s always a thought, in a different universe, this would be home. The right-wing nutters in Malaysia would like me to seed that idea, but there are even more mad right wing nutters in Tamil Nadu. It might be far more productive to get them together and I sit in my dining room back in Cheras ruminating about who’d win the fight.

We flew out in the morning.

By the Gandhi monument in Trichy (well, one of them), while traffic is abuzz.

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