Soaking up the City | Madras Week 2018

You don’t expect magic from a cosmopolitan. But when you do encounter it, it’s the pleasantest surprise.

Ask a city Indian about home and he’ll tell you the name of his native village. It’s true. For most, home is in that place. Where the fields are. Where you wake up to the chirping of birds and breathe the freshness in the air. And it’s most certainly not a polluted metropolis with more IT offices than cattle.

But with me, it’s always been Chennai. This is home, the place I was born, the place I embraced after many muddled years in a foreign country.

I grew up despising that my family didn’t travel and that we couldn’t afford beautiful vacations outside the city. And then in the last two years, something completely changed me. I found opportunities to visit the inner parts of Madras more often and I got to see what my city really felt like in places that bustled with people and culture. They call it the ‘real’ Madras and if you’re a Madrasi yourself, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m glad that it hit me this early in the game- it’s not really the same old spaces and the same old routines I’ve been trapped into. I used to be desperate for newness and the excitement of travel. Now I’m more desperate than I ever was, but this time, for the Madras that I still haven’t laid my feet on.

For it’s Madras that’s has made me realize that there’s so much- at home- I can’t get enough of.

You may have noticed my blog’s tagline and now you know where that need to mention my identity comes from. It comes from the realization that a huge part of who I am, was and is being influenced by my city. I cannot imagine living anywhere else, and as long it’s a personal choice, I’d like for it to stay the way it is.

I cannot imagine a life without my filter kaapi and chai and Pondy Bazaar and the vegetable market in Mylapore. I cannot imagine not walking past a kadaiveethi with its sarees elaborately decorating the entrances.

And then there are things I haven’t been doing as often as I would like. The beach, for instance. I would like to stroll through the Marina every single weekend, while I don’t even remember the last time I’d been there. I would like to do so much more kacheri-hopping this December. I don’t know why that wasn’t my thing. I would like to randomly walk down the streets and spot a rack of books on sale and be like “Hey, I could do with a little more reading!”. I would like to visit Dakshin Chitra whenever I please, and feel like a connoisseur of the artistic.

Madras may not hold the allure of a little Indian village. Or the glamour of New York City.

It thrives on in-betweens and the utterly confused culture of a mixed population. But this imperfection only adds to its charm.

But most of all, I’d like to soak in all that the city has to give. I’d like to dress like a Madrasi. Eat like a Madrasi. Live like a Madrasi.

It’s a humid Thursday evening and I’m at the local Chai shop, winding up a phone-call session, when a girl wearing an ID card from work turns around to face me.

“So,” she says, “why do you still call it that?”.

“Call it what?” I respond, confused.

“Madras. Why do you still call it Madras?”

I think to myself for a logical explanation but nothing clicks.

“It’s a secret.” I end up saying. I couldn’t understand why she cared about what I called my city. I thought I’d add that Chennai wasn’t classy enough for my standards, but I thought the better of it.

“You know,” she smiles only slightly, “I still call it that too.” Her eyes gleam as she tells me so, and I find myself giggling.

Just another one of those little connections people make over a cup of chai.

But here’s the deal- there’s something about the word ‘Madras’ that truly is a secret. To us all. And I don’t think there’s a way we’d ever be able to explain it. This secret.

This little Madrasi secret.

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Give me all the colour

My taste in clothes and home decor have always been thought too bizarre for 2018. You’ll see me walking down the streets of Mylapore in a chilli red palazzo, a colourful kalamkari blouse, maybe some chunky jewellery, a bindi, my black nerdy glasses. You’ll think to yourself- oh, there goes a misfit. Perhaps I am a misfit. And quite an offbeat one at that.

My wardrobe is severely malfunctioned, of course, for I don’t own the staples- black jeans, pastel tank top. You would wonder where I get all my gaudy dupattas. Come shop with me sometime. Let’s watch together how flamboyance has a beauty of its own.

You should come visit my home one day. We’re not an incredibly organized household. Clean, but not organized. Our cupboards cannot possibly hold in the number of things we own. Yes, we’ve quite always been the opposite of minimalists. We clearly have too many things at home, not that our middle-class selves could afford so much, but that we rarely give away things we’ve been given.

And the colours- they could blind you if you’re into the grey-and-pastel aesthetic. Our bed sheets are often Rajastani printed, and our curtains don’t match the furniture in the rooms. The walls are covered in sloppy, amateur Kerala murals of peacocks and Krishnas attempted by yours truly. Vethala paaku to anyone who visits is an absolute necessity, so we have tons of that too. And you guys, our pillow covers look like vegetable salad.

But our home glows. We’re a loud, vibrant bunch and there’s so much emotion between us. There’s happiness and sorrow and panic and peace all within those walls. Remember the family you were so very amused by in My Big Fat Greek Wedding? We are that family.

Having grown up this way, I find myself attached to the abundance of things. I’ve been given gifts I can no longer use- but I’d keep them all.

Besides, I could never get rid of colours and mismatches and everything in between.

Give me all the colour there is in the world. I want to see so much more of it.

Not just in me, but in you, and in you, and in you. In everything that is beautiful. In the temples. In play schools. In the flowers sold on the street. In the sarees that we need more of in this country. In bindis and sindoor and baskets and jewellery. In homes- yours and mine and hers and his.

Give me all the colour there is.

We who ask the ‘uncool’ questions

Like any other child of the 2000s, I too have always felt the natural impulse to ask questions. No, I don’t mean the typical “Why should I believe in God when I don’t see Him?” kind. I’m talking about questions that are conveniently dismissed on the grounds of being too frivolous and orthodox to fit into context today.

For instance, I’m one of those annoyingly inquisitive people who would actually wonder if some saints could walk on water like they claim to, if the mythical River Saraswati would really break through the ground one day, and if perhaps parallel universes were really a thing.

But what if everything that we’ve been believing because well, there’s scientific proof, are in fact, debatable? And what if those theories that are rejected owing to their religious nature aren’t ‘blind’ belief, but rather perfectly accurate conclusions?

What if I’m wrong? What if I’m right? We live in a world of endless possibility- and the fact that we put forth problems and strive to solve them is what makes us human.

Let’s face it- we’ve heard ‘anything is possible’ too many times now. And yet, why do we sneer at those who believe in something that seems mythical, and in no way could be solved scientifically? Why do we dismiss a question just because it’s already been answered, once, and comes with an apparent scientific evidence?

Does the very idea of scientific proof backing our beliefs comfort us so much that we refuse to face anything else? Or are we intimidated by the fact that there’s so much out there we might not know- not now, not ever?

Remember that we all once believed that the Earth was flat, before it was claimed to be a sphere. And we all believed that the Earth was a sphere, before it was confirmed an oblate spheroid. How many times did they remake the periodic table to finally arrive at the one we use today? A century ago, people would have never believed that one day we wouldn’t have to meet face-to-face to establish communication. The newspapers will always have something new to tell us.

But the problem is not about which possibility is right and which is wrong. It’s about the people who silence the youth of today from asking the question. It’s about those who hide behind science and lead the world in a single direction, encouraging the social boycott of anyone looking the other way.

You, who has tried to influence us into feeling naive when we question science and believe religion- you, who promotes only a single, biased school of thought- and you, who has tried to kill our curiosity by calling it ‘absurd’ to imagine the seemingly impossible- this is our response to all of you.

We are the children of today, and we’re here to change that. If you think you’ve succeeded in your attempt to brainwash us with your weakly-crafted ‘Science tells all’ theory, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you haven’t.

We are here to prove to the world that there isn’t just more than one answer to every question, there are also endless possibilities behind every answer.

What must be encouraged among the youth today is not just to question the things that have no scientific evidence, but also the things that do.

Because that’s the beauty of science. It will keep changing, it will keep evolving, it will keep telling us newer things every day. Science grows with us. Science is everything that is human- it is a dynamic, fast-paced and complex institution. And it’s definitely not the absolute answer to every question.

But that’s exactly the point I want to make– nothing is the absolute answer to every question- not science, not religion, not history. And when we accept that, there’s so much that we can do. We most certainly do not have all the answers. But you are doing the world more good than harm in allowing us to ask the question.

There is still sunshine

How many times have you been told to trust no one and that the world is full of evil? In my case, that’s precisely the number of times I’ve tied my shoelaces and walked out the door. I hear it constantly through the day, except that it’s told in so many different ways, my ears are numb with disgust.

I refuse to hear it any longer.

There was a time when I really believed that every stranger I see on the street is a potential kidnapper. I still carry that thought with me wherever I go, because old habits die hard. But it comes along with this relieving hope that every stranger is also a potential saviour. And that every person I’ve not spoken to, fearing hurt, is a potential best friend.

I refuse to keep anticipating the worst.

I’m not telling you that it was always like this. I’m someone who’s seen the extremes of situations and felt the extremes of feelings, and I’m at a point where I can say with so much faith that I refuse to keep believing the world is full of bad, bad people.

It’s so simple. I’ve just seen too much good to believe it any longer. I’ve met too many strangers with hearts of gold. And as easy as it is to tell myself that we live in the worst of times, and that people are nothing but greedy, it never did me any good.

The trust I have in humanity is too strong now.

And yet, I might be totally mistaken. The world might be just everything that I’ve been told. It could possibly be a hell that I just don’t see yet. But at the same time, I’m happy I haven’t experienced that side to it.

And when I do, I’ll remember all the advice that people have given me. I’d know enough by then to embrace change and to accept the way things are. Heck, I’d be happy to do so.

But till then, I would like to believe in goodness.

I would like to believe that every child born today would grow up with so much to look forward to, so much love and joy that the world has to offer.

I would like to believe that I was born in a time and place that has so much to give me and that I have so much to give back to.

I would like to believe that there is still hope for humanity and that there is still sunshine left to see.

Jyestha

Sonakshi closed the door behind him, climbed over the bed and crossed her legs.

She was tired of trying to get Saathvik to talk to her. He would come home, well, room actually, and spread out a dozen different maps all over his bed. Then he would study them, although Sonakshi felt like he was eyeing her the whole time, watching her shift uncomfortably on her bed and clearing her throat a million different ways to get his attention. But that might just have been her imagination.

Surely, he cared enough to leave her notes on the coffee table, about where he was going in the mornings when she was still asleep. Even that day, he’d let her know that he would be at a colleague’s house in the country side, but that was quite all. Their talking these days was only through notes, although Sonakshi felt ridiculous leaving notes to someone who probably didn’t even read them. But she still put so much thought and sincerity into every note she ever wrote to him.

Saathvik was still reading maps. She wondered what sort of a sane person reads maps before going to bed. She thought it was because the bookshelf was on her side of the room, and that reading maps was a metaphor for Get the book rack to my side or get the hell out. She quickly dismissed the thought though and decided to contemplate over it later when she wasn’t too busy clearing her throat.

“What?” he barked.

Okay, she thought, we’re making progress.

“That was a question. What do you want?”

To her, that didn’t sound like a question but rather a subtle way of telling her to stop trying. He probably would go back to reading maps if she actually spoke, and that would be nothing short of embarrassing.

“I’m tired. I’m going to bed. You only have a minute.”

That was enough to get her started.

“Saathvik, I-”

“You’re pregnant?”

“What? No! Why would you-”

“Then it isn’t relevant to me.”

“And you just assumed me being pregnant would be relevant to you.”

The words just plunged out of her mouth before she could stop them. She almost thought she saw shock in Saathvik’s eyes, but she blinked and it was gone.

“We’re done then. Remember to lock the front door.”

She wanted to yell that that’s what she’d been doing every single night when he went to bed early, leaving her watching him through the darkness and hoping that someday, things would go back to where it had been.

But she didn’t. Because he probably- no- most certainly, didn’t care.

“Saathvik, listen to me just this once.”

“Get over with it already.”

“I can’t keep paying your bills. I need to send money home. To India.”

This was, she knew, important to him as much as it was to her. He nodded rapidly and turned away.

“There’s something else too…”

Saathvik refused to budge but she spoke anyway.

“I’m leaving.”

Saathvik sprang from the bed so fiercely, she jerked backwards in surprise. He pushed his head forward questioningly and for a moment, Sonakshi thought he looked like a really small dinosaur.

“I’m moving out Saathvik. I’m going to New York.”

“Excuse me?”

“I just wanted to tell you that. You can go to sleep now.”

They didn’t speak for the rest of the night. But this time, it was Saathvik who lay awake in the darkness watching his Sona’s face glow with relief.

The next day, like any other day, Sonakshi slid out of her bed and zombie-walked to the coffee table. This time, he hadn’t left her any information of his whereabouts.

“You actually read those notes, huh?”

She gasped a little too much and placed her hand on top of her head as she turned around to face him.

“What are you doing here?” she mumbled.

“Don’t go.”

“I have to. Don’t stop me. Work would be so much better there.”

“You’re just running away.”

“From what, Saathvik? From hurt? From heartache? From- from- torture?”

“You know that guy you’ve been trying to kill for three years now but couldn’t?”

Sonakshi raised a shivering eyebrow.

“You’re running away from that guy. “

Why I don’t call myself a writer

If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.
– Anais Nin
Words like this ought to inspire me. But they don’t and it’s not the best feeling. I know of too many writers who can’t get past a day without writing and I’ve been asked if I’m one of those writers a couple of times before.
In all honesty, I don’t see myself as someone who writes to ease the pain or discover the person that they are. Sometimes, I don’t even see myself as a writer. And as much as I hate to say this, I am intimidated by writers who find an escape through their writing. Reading their work utterly devastates me and I find myself longing for more.
To a writer, writing is like breathing, and writing is a reason to live, to stay in this world. It gives me so much sadness, but at the same time, I begin to think that beautiful writing comes from pain.
“I write because I can’t imagine not writing.”
-Richard Price
Sometimes, I feel like I’m only in this for the attention and not for the love of writing. I feel less real, less genuine. Like I’m a waste of ink that otherwise, someone else could possibly use to cure themselves of heartache. I feel like a joke, you know? And I know I could stop writing any day and it wouldn’t feel any different.
To everyone who writes to get through anxiety, depression or childhood trauma, I apologize for being so inconsiderate, for romanticizing your illness even when it’s only in my head. I am overwhelmed with guilt. But you don’t know how much I admire you, and how I know, deep inside, that I would never make it there.
Nevertheless, I’m so grateful everyday that I am a happy person, in every sense of the word. I am the product of a merry childhood and I pray that I would always be able to say that out loud with the biggest smile on my face.
And what’s important to me is the people I meet and grow with, and the relationships that come to stay. I want to touch lives and inspire, but perhaps writing is not the way. Perhaps it’s something else entirely that I haven’t figured out yet.

Sembaruthi

I love how you are gentle and caring and compassionate. I love how you give so much when I have nothing to give back. I love how you look me in the eye and say- I’m here. Worry not. We’ll figure things out. I love the way you do the dishes everyday humming to old melodies, the way you knit sweaters so patiently for some baby next door, the way you always have a lopsided smile hanging from the corner of your lips, as though there’s a secret behind your strange tranquility. I love your voice when you call my name, like cinnamon sprinkled in the bitterest of coffee. I love how you ask how my day went. And I know when I ask you about yours, you will lie to me that it was wonderful. That Mother and Father came over to see you. That they treated you nicely and told you that you were a good daughter-in-law.
I wish things didn’t have to be this way. I wish I could protect you like you protect me. I wish I could love you like you love me. But if nothing else, I’ve given you one thing. Resilience. Not that I’m proud of it. I am ashamed. But I’m proud of you. I’m proud of you for that fire in your eyes. I’m proud of you for that strength in your heart. I’m proud of everything in you, as much as I’m ashamed of everything in me. In your palms lie the energy that keeps us together till this day. The energy I was never able to provide like I should have.
And when my head falls in shame, I know yours is held up high, always ready for the monsters of our lives, for both of us together.
Power looks so good on you.