By Ashwin Mudigonda
When the umbilical is severed, either a child is finally born or a soul hastily departs. A story begins or a tale ends. This is how my story begins.
Sometime in 1981, inside an Air India flight (when it was still India’s most prestigious airline and was not burlesqued as Scare India) approximately six kilometers above the Earth, amidst the cerulean skies over the Indian Ocean, probably closer to Sri Lanka, in the wee hours of the morning, as the sun baked its way above the horizon, a baby was rudely thrust into the awaiting trembling arms of a tight-bunned, sari-clod, blue-bloused, made up, red lipsticked airhostess and the screams of the mother finally subsided. Everyone exhaled curry-laden breaths (breakfast had just been served) and a mild applause also echoed around the chilly metallic tube, now that the drama’s climax had come and gone. The Captain even ordered the crew to open a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne normally hidden in the galley for special dignitaries.
It was a few minutes before a Gujarati lady, conspicuous in her ulta style of wearing the sari amongst the predominantly south Indians aboard the airplane, placed her glass on the tray and loudly whispered in a disgusting American accent, ‘Arré! Kya happened to the baby? It is there or what? Crying-wrying not happening only.’
But what to say about a baby born in the skies, a child of the Heavens? So agog was it to see the pink soan papdi clouds, the fantastic blue of the sky and the gentle undulations of the Bay of Bengal as the pilot banked gently towards India that it opened its mouth to proclaim its presence and not a peep came out. It quickly shut its mouth and blinked peacefully at the tiny bobbing trawlers, fishing boats and the blinking Cyclopean eye of the Marina Beach lighthouse near the city as the aircraft began its descent towards Madras.
And that was the way I silently slipped into this world.
My grandfather was many things – a Sanskrit scholar, a gentleman who smoked a pipe, an Old-Monk-on-the-rocks aficionado, an early morning walker at Elliot’s Beach, a habitué of the old library at The Theosophical Society, a Romeo of wordplay, a pedigreed Brahmin with pierced earlobes, a devotee of the murkus and ribbon pakodas from The Grand Sweets…I can go on. But my grandfather really was, especially after he retired from Vivekananda College as a Sanskrit professor, two people rolled into one: he was Prof. V. A. Narasimhan for the most part and, later on in his life, as loneliness and a strange poison ravaged his mind, morphed into, I don’t know how to say this without eliciting raised eyebrows or out-and-out laughter, but I will say it anyway, he transmuted into the monkey-god, Hanuman.
But I must weave the rug of my story from the early gossamers of my memory. My grandparents never approved of my mother’s choice of a husband – an airplane-flying Surd residing in Delhi. At least, not my grandfather. ‘I sent her to St. Stephen’s to study,’ he told Cyrus Uncle more than once as they smoked tobacco on the porch. ‘I sent her to Delhi to study, Cyrus. St. Stephen’s, I say. Prestigious and all. And what did she go and do there? Fall in love with a Sardarji. A Surd! A Tomato Singh! You know what this is?’ And Cyrus Uncle would blow a smoke ring or two and say, ‘Yes Veeay. It is…absurd,’ and they would chuckle. But that was later, a few years after the anger had simmered.
When he read that inland letter from his daughter announcing that she was tired of the whole ‘Madras Tambrahm arranged marriage’ thing, which, in her own words, was nothing more than an ‘arranged rape’ after a ‘dog and pony show’ where the girl had to coyly walk into the room, looking down with diffidence, dressed in ‘nine yards of a fucking silk costume’ and serve tumblers of filter coffee to the groom’s side before sitting down and slapping her thighs and croaking in Carnatic or dragging a veenai and twanging out a keerthanai, when my grandfather read the letter, he crumpled it into a ball of blue, yelled, ‘Nonsense, I say,’ and flung it out of the house, much to the dismay of my grandmother who had just taken a break from her cooking due to a catch in her lower back and was rubbing Amrutanjan balm in languorous circles. She stopped the tape-recorder that was playing M.S. Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam and hobbled towards the letter, smoothened it, read it aloud slowly and clutched it to her bosom. ‘Anna,’ she decorously addressed the ball of anger that was my grandfather, ‘at least she is getting married. We should be happy, no?’
‘Happy? To a man who has never shaved and wears his hair in a kondai under a giant red ribbon. What is he? A kleptomaniac obsessing with tomatoes? Nonsense! What abomination? Gorilla or what he is? And…and those people carry knives in their pants. You know that, Savithri? Knives! For what? Suddenly, you have an urge to cut a brinjal in the middle of the day? For that? And they also wear a steel bangle. Steel bangle, Savithri. Steel.’ He slapped his head in disgust, smudging the three immaculate veebudhi stripes.
‘But…if she is happy…’
‘You are also like your daughter, Gayathri. Chi chi! For now she will be happy! Long term? Thought of that? Marrying a non-Brahmin. Sudras they are. Meat cannot enter the house. That’s all! I have nothing to do with that girl. Let her marry on her own.’
My grandma retreated into her sanctum, the kitchen, rewound the Suprabhatam tape, and set it playing again while tearfully chopping onions.
Outside, on the porch, V.A. Narasimhan emptied the last bits of tobacco into his ornate briar pipe, struck a match and puffed greedily on the drug, closing his eyes and letting the sea breeze evaporate his thoughts. He stretched and sank into his wooden-framed wicker chair with enormous hand rests, letting its familiar crisscrossing wires bite gently into his body.
A few minutes later, he entered the kitchen and told his wife, ‘Savi, you are my key. You are free to unlock any door you choose. Go if you want. For the wedding, that is. I’ll book a seat in the Tamil Nadu Express. I’ll go to Central and make reservations. Just make lots of sambar and put it in the fridge. I’ll manage with rice and curd.’
There are many understatements that can be made about Madras: what an orthodox city, the beaches are beautiful, the schools are excellent, so many crows, et cetera. But unless one makes the pilgrimage to the city and witnesses first hand its traits and characters, one always comes away feeling a tad underwhelmed about it. The same can be said about my grandfather too. To call him an idiosyncratic old man would be an understatement. His affectations were a mystery to everyone around him. While he believed in waking up before sunrise to don his tee shirt and stitched white shorts, lace up his Bata canvas shoes, grab his walking stick and march up and down the beach, swinging his arms wildly as if he was participating in the Republic Day parade in Delhi, tipping an imaginary hat to the other pre-dawn exercisers, while he believed that the body was the temple and one had to worship in it by exercising regularly, he took great delight in returning home, requesting a tumbler of filter coffee and then collapsing into his wicker chair where he would lovingly clean his pipe and smoke tobacco. Sometimes, he would reach for the slingshot that he annually purchased from gypsies at the Velangani fair and take potshots at crows, squirrels and stray dogs using pieces of turmeric as his choice of projectiles. These turmeric pieces, my grandmother assiduously collected from other houses as part of the tambulam for her daily puja, but she always fell short of them when she really needed them, thanks to my grandfather. But for the most part, he was content smoking in his armchair, listening to Carnatic songs on All India Radio and sometimes humming along with it. Like many Brahmins of Madras, my grandfather had an innate ability to hum a raga accurately and most of my childhood memories are burnt with the visage of a pipe-smoking old man with a shock of white hair, facing the sea and humming, ‘Thadha dinnaaa,’ and bobbing his head animatedly.
He rarely kept company because no one really understood him when he spoke. If anyone visited him, he would instruct my grandmother to fetch coffee and after making light talk for a few minutes, he would inevitably get up, dress up, grab his walking stick and say, ‘Sorry, but I have to go to the library. Research, you see. Please don’t let me keep you. Savithri has been dying to tell you news about her daughter.’
If they were at a social event, he would smile, greet and get done with the niceties before excusing himself to find a place to smoke. If it was a lunch engagement, he would methodically clean the banana leaf with a palmful of water, stretch the leaf as if he was ironing his shirt and quietly wait to be served, not ever bothering to speak with the person beside him. When served, he would carefully inspect the food with an eagle eye for my grandfather had the legendary ability to spot and fish out hair strands from his food and make a drama as he threw it in front of the table with disgust, yelling, ‘Nonsense!’
The only person to whom he opened up completely was Cyrus Uncle.
Dr. Cyrus Treewallah was a young, teak-thin, bespectacled botanist with a penchant towards Bombay Dyeing fabric. Immaculately shaved and neatly combed, he could easily be mistaken for a Bengali. He had just started his career at the prestigious Anna University as an Associate Professor of Botany. My grandfather and he met at the beach one morning during one of their morning walks and their friendship instantly was cemented when he saw Dr. Treewallah rolling his own cigarette, gazing at the sea. ‘My place tonight, old chap,’ Narasimhan later said as they were parting. ‘If you get the leaves, I have the tonic.’
Later that night, as Savithri slept, Cyrus and Narasimhan clinked glasses and toasted to their new friendship as the nearby waves of the Bay of Bengal made soft susurrations and the Gurkha of a neighboring colony went about on his beat, tapping his stick loudly. The men smoked their tobacco in silence for a while as bats zigzagged through the night.
‘These creatures are just silent crows. I thought we got rid of those darned crows by sun down,’ Cyrus said, staring into the dark. ‘Can’t take their torture during the day. They are smart buggers, you know, Mr. Narasimhan.’
‘Please, call me Veeay. Or else I’ll have to refer to you as Dr. Treewallah each time.’
‘Very well, Veeay it is then.’
‘You are right. Those crows, I tell you, sometimes I wish I could grab a handful and wring their cawing necks. Nonsense creatures, I say. Always disturbing my naps in the afternoon. Sometimes they hop into the kitchen and escape with Savi’s appalams or vadams.’
‘Or omelets! Rascals!’
With a Sunday ahead and no serious agenda, the men chatted away, swapping stories from their lives with merry, paying no heed to the yawning difference in their ages. In fact, they felt like they had known each other forever, maybe, even from their past lives. After a couple of pegs, whatever strings were attached, came apart and the jokes and escapades intercourse ran free.
‘I’ll tell you an incident involving the Catastrophe of the Apostrophe,’ Narasimhan said, his milk white hair waving in the gentle night breeze. ‘There was a bakery nearby, near the railway station. Anu’s Bakery.’ As if to enforce the point, the Pondicherry-Madras night train rumbled by with no respect for those asleep in the houses along its tracks.
‘You mean where the milk stall is now?’
‘Very same place. Right there was Anu’s Bakery. One year, I forget when, a few years before you moved to Madras, we had a major typhoon. And the apostrophe fell down and washed away into the sea.’
That’s all there was to the joke for Cyrus picked it up from there – Anus Bakery – and guffawed loud until he had to place his drink down and massage his sides. ‘Veeay! Kya ré? What did they sell there? Chocolate pies? Brown fudge?’ And that set off another round of laughter. Like a couple of kookaburras, the men laughed into the darkness. It was good that the neighboring colony was quite a distance away and the sea absorbed most of their noise or else someone would have sent the Gurkha to silence them.
They spoke politics, they compared their religions, especially debating the Paris ritual of disposing off their dead, they spoke about the status of the Cooum river and about the special batch of Old Monk rum that was not available to public.
‘Remind me next time, Cyrus,’ Narasimhan said. ‘I’ll make sure we sip on the good stuff.’
‘I have a rejoinder to your bakery.’
‘Let’s hear it.’
‘You know the irritating eye infection, conjunctivitis?’
‘The very same. I have a new name for it.’
Cyrus gave a smug smile and tapped his glass with his fingernails, setting a metronome. Narasimhan’s mind raced to break and reassemble the letters of the ocular disorder into a pun. ‘I give up. What?’
‘Chenn-eye, of course.’
‘Touché, my friend. Touché. That might very well be the fate of the city’s name if corpulent politicians claiming to draw a salary of one rupee a month have their way. So what is your research on? You mentioned you were a researcher.’
‘You’ll laugh if I told you that.’
‘Laugh? Why laugh? What nonsense? I demand you tell me your research right now or else, Sir, I challenge you to a duel.’ He reached for his slingshot in mock anger.
Cyrus smiled and opened his mouth to speak but he had to hold his silence as a goods train rattled by for a long time, clanging and making loud noises. Finally, the engine let out the sound of a dying dinosaur and faded away, taking along with it the sounds of metallic interruptions. ‘The only cost of this paradise,’ Narasimhan sighed and said. ‘You were saying?’
‘My research involves the Soma herb. You must know about it, Brahmin and all?’
‘Soma? You mean that…the…is it what I am thinking? The ambrosia mentioned in the Rig Veda?’
Cyrus sighed and removed his spectacles. ‘Yes. That. I know it’s difficult to digest but, hey, you know there is an archaeologist in Delhi researching on Kurukshetra?’
Narasimhan urgently leaned forward spilling drops of rum on his veshti. ‘No no! I am not questioning your research. Tell me more, Cyrus. What do you know about Soma? I had a friend by the name of Somasundarm. Passed away a few years ago. Mathematics lecturer. But I am sure Somu would be eager to hear what you are about to tell me. What have you discovered?’
‘A lot and nothing. I mean, historical texts suggest it was a hallucinogen of sorts. My candidate plants grow in Kashmir. We are planning a research trip there. It was a very important plant for the Brahmins and the priests imbibed it before rituals. You know, during its time, Soma juice was extracted and drunk in every temple?’
‘Every temple? Nonsense! If it’s a drug, how can they sanction it?’
‘It’s a drug only if you name it so. What if I told you that sandalwood smoke was an intoxicant or, to draw from my religion, loban was a relaxant?’
Cyrus wiggled his eyebrows in reply. ‘It’s all in the name, Veeay.’
Now, Narasimhan leaned forward, lowered his voice and with gravidity said, ‘You know, I think our meeting was a godsend. It will surprise you that I also am immensely interested in a certain mythical plant. In fact, that is one of the reasons I visit the Theosophical Society library. Have you been there?’
‘Well, not to the library. I have taken many number of walks through the Society’s little forest. A couple of times, I spent some quality hours on their beach, meditating on the setting sun, watching the fishermen return home. It is so secluded and private. None of the dirty riffraff, you know, groping couples, drunk fishermen and the hoi-polloi.’
‘I am with you, my friend. Those drunk fishermen you see are who I would call Djinns in Tunic. Those drunk boors, in their psychedelic lungis, crab walking along the shore with a bottle of arrack in hand, appearing from nowhere and disappearing similarly. But the library at the Society is a keeper, Cyrus. They have tomes and tomes of ancient manuscripts and translations. You must spend some time there if you are hunting the djinns of mythology. Come with me next week. I know Mr. Srinivasan, the librarian. We’ll get you a membership in a jiffy.’
‘But, coming to your point. What was the plant you were interested in? Yggdrasil? Moly? Athelas?’
Here, Narasimhan heaved a great sigh as if unloading a heavy burden. ‘Cyrus, I have not mentioned this to anyone, but I believe it is my life’s quest to find the Sanjeevani plant.’
A distant auto-rickshaw puttered its way across the streets. A lonely crow emitted a solitary caw and hearing no response, shut its beak.
‘Sanjeevani? The herb that Hanuman fetched to arouse Lakshmana from his stupor?’
Narasimhan was defensive. ‘You sound surprised for a scientist in search of the botanical equivalent of a unicorn.’
‘Not surprised. Absolutely not. In fact, I am glad to meet someone who does not pooh-pooh my study. I’ll tell you what, Veeay.’
‘There is a conference in America in a few months. It’s a conference on cryptobotany,’ he said, smiling and waving his hand as if swatting the name aside. ‘That’s their fancy way of addressing mythological plants. But you must come with me. You might just learn something. I’ll dig up the conference proceedings that is in my office and I’ll see if there are any talks on medicinal herbs. Either way, you might discover something.’
V. A. Narasimhan ruminated on that germ of thought, masticating it in his mind. Cyrus checked his glass, found it empty and got up and stretched. ‘I must head home. It’s really late.’ Narasimhan nodded absently, still lost in reverie. Before Cyrus latched the metal gate, he stopped, smiled and said, ‘You know something, Veeay? If you clip the lion from your name, Simhan, the rest of it reads Vanara. Monkey. Hanuman. Fitting! Goodnight, old chap.’
He tipped an imaginary hat and left, whistling a tune.
My grandfather stuck true to his word of having nothing to do with my mother ever since that inland letter snuck through the grills of his gate bearing the news of her marriage. However, compartmentalizing his emotions, he had always given my grandmother a carte blanche to visit Delhi. He dutifully took the bus to Central, stood in line at the reservation counter, booked her to and fro tickets, hailed an auto on the date of the journey, dropped her at the station and punctually waited on the platform to receive her, shooing the coolies who swarmed around him as he sipped his coffee.
While growing up, my parents had no time for me. My father, the absurd pilot, was always jetting off to one country or another, leaving home at the wee hours of the morning and returning late at night. When he was in town, he visited the star hotels with my mother or was invited to social parties. My mother was an English teacher and if she was not busy correcting exam papers, she was out on some meeting or the other. On some nights, she would come home really late, dismiss the maid and lie down next to me exhausted, her clothes smelling of aftershave and her breath of alcohol. She would lie down, stroke my hair and whisper, ‘Kanna, so sorry,’ and cry. I don’t know why.
Sometimes, my parents had people over. But I was not allowed to stay up later than ten o’clock. And anyway, after a point, there was only so much cheek-pulling and smiling that can be done with a mute kid who sat with a long face, a sniveling nose and a big handkerchief tucked into his shirt’s front pocket. It was as if my muteness was hereditary. I seemed to have gotten my silence from my grandfather. That was what my mother told me.
A few years later, when I was too old to be put in daycare, summer vacations proved to be a big headache for my parents because they were clueless as to what to do with me when I was not at school. Also, their fights were increasing in quality and quantity and neither of them wanted to deal with the kid. Thus, for the first time, I was sent to Madras to spend time with my grandparents when I was seven, under the guise of performing the Sacred Thread ceremony, a ritual to initiate me into Brahminhood.
It was nice to have a taxi service that stretched across the entire country. My father personally flew me to Madras from Delhi before flying out to Singapore. It was a memorable trip and I was even allowed to enter the cockpit. On his order, I turned on the wipers for the windshield and he thumped my back, yelling, ‘Shabash, beta. You are a natural pilot! Chalo! Go to your seat now.’
My grandfather met us at the airport and I was exchanged like a secret briefcase between two spies – with no words or niceties exchanged.
Madras was a scary city. Everybody spoke a language, Tamizh, that I could not understand even though, technically, it was my mother tongue. While Delhi scared me with its fast traffic and erratic bus drivers, Madras scared me with its phlegmatic and apathetic way of life. It appeared that all that people cared for was their cup of stretched filter coffee, The Hindu newspaper and Carnatic music. And all three bored me.
After a quick sacred thread ceremony at the Vinayaka Temple in Besant Nagar, I returned to my grandparents house near the beach, a Brahmin. My grandpa instructed me with the esoteric intricacies of Brahminism – Surya Namaskaram, Gayathri Japam, Sandhya Vandanam and all that. ‘Just move the mouth, I say, move it like the way I am,’ he would say. ‘Now say Ommm…’
I mimed Ommm.
‘Bhur. Bhuvahah. Suvahah…’
I mimicked the geometries of his mouth as he chanted and repeated the aspirations of the sounds by observing his cheeks. Soon, I was up at dawn, holding my nostrils and silently chanting the mantras, much to the pleasure of my grandpa. ‘From far, he looks as if he really is chanting the Gayathri,’ he told Cyrus Uncle one evening as I held my poonal and moved my lips silently. I only did it because I was scared of him.
I clung to my grandma the entire time I was in Madras because I was mortified by my grandfather, that ferocious bulldog with a vile mouth. Once he caught me peeping from the bathroom corner as I watched him shave. He yelled, ‘Yenna da, Krishna? Never seen a blade before? Oh sorry! You must never have! This is called blade. Removes hair. That would be mayir pudingi in our language.’ And then guffawed into the washbasin.
My grandma was a diminutive lady as most grandmas were, with a frail frame and was filled with vibrant energy. She woke up before dawn and even before she brushed her teeth, made the coffee decoction. After bathing, she tied her hair in a white cotton towel, turned on the tape recorder and the entire house would resonate with M. S. Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam. So scared was I of sleeping alone that I woke up the moment I heard those words, ‘Kausalyasuprajarama purva …’ and ran to my grandma, mouthing, ‘Sandhya pravartate,’ and held on to her sari as she walked around the Tulasi plant and then went out in the backyard to draw the kolam before entering the kitchen to start cooking. I clung to her like a baby elephant holding its mother’s tail.
‘Yenna da, Krishna,’ she said. ‘Waking up so early?! Go sleep, kanna. It’s holidays. Sleep sleep.’ But I refused to budge and she hoisted me onto the granite slab by the sink and prepared my Horlicks. Sitting there in my grandma’s kitchen, the sunlight bursting through the window rails and inking geometric shadows on the floor, watching the crows fight for morsels and hearing the waves crash nearby, the early morning train rumbling by, the air redolent of frying coconut and curry leaves, brings back warm and tearful memories. Popping that scene like a pin through a balloon was V. A. Narasimhan, my grandpa, who had just returned from his morning walk, sweaty and irritable.
‘Where is that fellow? That badava rascal? Where is he?’ I gulped the milk, ran out to the backyard, stripped to my underwear and hastily tied the veshti that was fluttering from the clothesline before squatting down, holding my left nostril and closing my eyes.
‘Aah! Doing Sandhi? Sorry, skipper. Please proceed.’
From inside the kitchen: ‘Anna! He is a small boy. He is scared of all this newness. Be lenient, no?’
‘What did I do? What are you accusing me of? I am just trying to put some culture into the fellow. What all they teach him in that Delhi, who knows? I am going to surgically remove the Gobind Singh and replace it with Go-vinda Gooo-vinda!’ He held up his palms together high over his head and then jumped on the floor, prostrating full length at the idol of Rama and Sita. ‘Now, where is the coffee?’
‘Dekashun is almost ready. Go read paper. I’ll bring it for you.’
Narasimhan left, yelling, ‘How many times to tell you. It’s de-cock-shun. Not dekashun.’
Once he had had his morning coffee and read the newspaper, my grandpa left to do his research and meet friends, leaving the house to my grandma and I. I cherished those moments when we were alone. She patiently thumbed through old sepia photographs of my mother, explaining when each picture was taken. I do not remember much of those pictures, but what I do remember vividly was the only picture of my grandparents when they were young. The picture appeared to have been taken in some hill station for they were dressed in full-sleeve sweaters. However, it was my grandfather’s comical sartorial choice of a monkey-cap with a black pompom on top which completely rendered him unrecognizable save the burning intelligence of his eyes that was comical. I could picture him saying trying to hug his new bride and say something funny along the lines of – ‘My Savi. Mon Key. Savithri, you are my monkey,’ while she squirmed and shied away, mumbling, ‘Yenango! Everyone is seeing.’ I pointed at the picture and laughed silent laughs and my grandma looked at me with tears in her eyes.
Some afternoons, we went to Ramkumar Lending Library and I was allowed to pick all the comics and Enid Blyton books that I wanted, which I brought back and voraciously read through the day. Other times, when my grandma napped in a cocoon of Amrutanjan air, I spent time carefully painting my fingers with gum from the blue Camlin bottle, waiting for it to dry and then meticulously sloughing the ‘skin’. I spent hours observing the transferred fingerprints against the sunlight that distilled through the windows.
In the evenings, we regularly visited Elliot’s Beach. There was no beach in Delhi and I eagerly anticipated our trips. Some days we would go to the market first to get vegetables or go to the Ashtalakshmi temple, but the beach was always on the agenda. After a few days, it gave me a great rush to smell the tang in the air and taste the breeze with the tip of my tongue. When we reached the railway crossing, she would hold my hand tightly even if there were no trains crossing by. I never understood this fear of my grandma’s, this fear of trains that constantly rattled by her doorstep and even took her to meet her daughter.
Once at the beach, I truly felt liberated by the vast expanse of blues. I lost time searching for conical shells, building tunnels in the sand or watching clams burrow through the mud in the wake of retreating waves. My grandma patiently waited for me, spending her time reading little paper booklets containing various slokas. Sometimes, we would be just in time to watch the fishermen haul in their boats and reel in their nets and I would watch, amazed, their catch. Sometimes, the sundal vendor would squat by our side entreating us to buy his savory wares. Sometimes, the manga hawker would walk by with his aluminum plate filled with serrated and salted mango slices. My grandma always indulged me and reached for her purse that she hid inside her blouse and purchased snacks by the seashore. Our signal to go home was the urgent pealing of the bells of the Velangani Church and, simultaneously, the Ashtalakshmi Temple that was juxtaposed next to the church. ‘Va da, Krishna! Let’s go home! Thatha will be home soon.’ And off we went.
Once home, my grandma got to work preparing dinner while I read or watched TV after my evening prayers. My grandfather sometimes joined me and we ended the rituals by prostrating full-length at the idols of Vishnu and Rama as he blew the conch and lit a piece of camphor. Some days, Cyrus Uncle would visit and those were the days I liked the most because Cyrus Uncle was sweet and he was not as intimidating as my grandpa. Much to my grandma’s chagrin, my grandfather allowed me to sit in the verandah as he and Cyrus Uncle smoked and sipped their rum, making lofty cryptobotanical conversations to a silent audience.
Maybe it was the age, maybe it was the silent chanting at dawn and dusk, maybe it was nothing, but with the gift of gab denied to me, I was suddenly bequeathed with a new ability – I saw ghosts. I only saw one, however.
The first time I saw her, I leapt and landed into my grandpa’s lap like a scared cat, pointing a trembling finger at her. She smiled as she swam in and out of my vision, diaphanous, terrifying, and sari-clad. Narasimhan looked in the general direction, saw the hibiscus plant and asked, ‘Yenna da? Is that flower bothering you? Your grandma will slay it in the morning for the puja. Don’t worry.’ I ran back and slithered underneath the sheets next to my grandma and slept a dreamless sleep that night, too scared to open my eyes even at dawn.
I observed the lady almost daily. She sat serenely besides Cyrus Uncle most of the times appearing like a faint mirage in the tube-lit verandah. Her hair waved in the air as if she was underwater, gently resisting gravity. She laughed when the men laughed and turned angry when their conversations heated up. When silence reigned and the sound of the waves replaced conversations, she imitated them by bringing an imaginary pipe to her mouth and blowing smoke rings. She seemed totally unaware of me or even if she was, she didn’t care. After a few nights, I became bold enough to be an audience in their court again.
‘Veeay,’ Cyrus Uncle said one such night. ‘I have some important news.’
‘Marriage? Your daddy mummy pestering you too much, eh, old boy?’
‘Shut up! This is serious. I received a package from Germany. It is marked urgent and fragile in three languages,’ he said. He exhaled a ring and continued, ‘I thought it was my candidate. But its probably yours? There was a note addressed to you by him. Von Pipi.’
‘Finally! But it has to wait. Next week, Cyrus. Next week. My grandson leaves in a few days. After that. I still have to show him many more mysteries of the shaving blade across the morning stubble.’
Cyrus Uncle smiled and nodded. He turned towards me and molded his hands, casting animal shadows on the ground. I laughed as he made a rabbit, a deer and then a bird. The lady imitated him instantly with a childlike glee, but from my perspective, it looked like she was strangling grandpa.
Just as I had begun to look forward towards the nights filled with tobacco, the mornings redolent of chutneys and the evenings intoxicated by camphor and incense, it was time for me to go back to Delhi to my parents. My summer vacation was over and I didn’t want to be uprooted from Madras, especially the beach.
I felt a heavy nostalgia. The pain of homecoming. I didn’t know if it was the pain of leaving Madras or going back to Delhi.
Exactly two letters were lost by the Indian Postal system because of the sender’s name – Prof. H. A. Numan who apparently resided in Besant Nagar. The letters simply were not delivered. Narasimhan waited anxiously day after tantalizing day, week after agonizing week, for Dr. Hans von Pipi’s research material to find its way across the Mediterranean, then distill through Europe, before, filter-coffee-like, dripping into Madras. But the darned papers never came.
What papers? The papers summarizing von Pipi’s literature survey at the Schadenfreude Library situated in Berlin. Survey of what literature? About the potential candidates for medicinal plants cited in Indo-Aryan epics. Any examples? Yes. Burning high on the list was the fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita Muscaria, a plant whose psychoactive sap has been noted to heal wounds rapidly, stanch blood loss and even (gasp!) even resuscitate a person who has slipped into coma. Noted where? Somewhere in the Himalayan foothills, where else?
‘What proof do you have, von Pipi?’ Narasimhan asked, nervously sweating despite a mild snow shower outside Café Reggio at the Village, where the two were downing shots of espresso laced with sambuca. ‘What proof do you have? You have a hair in your theory? Hair, I say. A mushroom as a candidate? Incredulous! This won’t hold in a court of law!’
‘Professor Newman! Shanthi!’ von Pipi whispered, half-closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. He delicately placed his coffee cup down as an old faun from a Renaissance painting glared down at the couple, urging them with his wooden staff to forget their mythical ambrosias and focus on the tangible man-made ones. ‘Let me assure you zat I haf done ze utmost research. Zis konference, it is big, yeah? Fay-mouse. I am not a, what you kall it, a, um, klown, yeah? Not a klown. I haf no reason to chat wit you, yeah? I share zis information because us Deutsch haf done a rig-o-raus study off your Hindoo religion and even though your Jewish name is funny for a Hindoo, you showed me ze Sacred Thread. Vat I haf to offer you is from ze library’s research. Take it as a gift, from my kountry to yours. I am a fan of Ganti.’
‘Proof, Pipi, proof,’ Narasimhan said, slamming his fists together. ‘Send me proof and I swear to god, I’ll cite you as the main author when I find the plant myself. I am putting together a team, as we speak, to explore the foothills of the Himalayas. Professor Cyrus will also be there. You want this, you bivalve.’
‘Bivalve? What iz zat?’
‘Pipi. A shellfish. Paphies Australis. I am the old man by the sea. Ah! Forget about it. The papers? Yes?’ Narasimhan did not wait for the response as he got up and hugged the petite German and gave a resounding slap on his back. They shook hands, bowed, joined palms in a namasté gesture, tipped hats and parted ways. Professor von Pipi left the café, took a deep breath as the New York winter sodomized his nostrils, blew a plume of smoke and mingled into the bohemian crowd, leaving Professor H. A. Numan, aka V. A. Narasimhan, nicknamed Vanara, alone in the café with a beatific smile normally found in maternity wards just after a healthy delivery.
Then, he spotted her for the first time just as he heard the church bells chime three o’clock. Sitting in the corner, near the dingy curtain that hid the toilet, sitting alone, so diaphanous and transparent, unlike his thoughts, there she sat, her hair waving like a black jellyfish, some had even penetrated the walls, she sat there, no cup of coffee or newspaper in hand, but with iridescent jewelry and intricate ornaments, there she sat, an angel, a nymph, a seraph, a woman with such a powerful smile that a halo flickered behind her like a recalcitrant light bulb, causing Narasimhan to get up in blind rapture and begin to run towards her, toppling chairs and grabbing squealing waitresses for support, causing him to walk over the tables, over newspapers and hot buttered croissants, causing him to lay down and prostrate full length on the floor of Café Reggio at the apparition of a goddess, Sita, Lord Rama’s wife, and whisper amidst happy tears and raspberry jam, ‘Sita Devi, it is I, your servant, Hanuman.’
Why were the two letters not delivered? Because there was no Professor Hanuman living by the beach in Besant Nagar.
My parents left each other, accusing the other of transcontinental infidelities and, similarly, Time separated from me, leaving me, if I had the ability to speak, as an ungainly prepubescent with his voice about to break. Over the years, my grandparents and I kept in touch by writing long letters. I wrote these with great flourish using my newly acquired passion of inkmanship. Crafting elaborate letters, curling the g’s and striking the t’s, absorbed my patience, my love and my time. These were instantly responded to by my grandparents individually. My grandma preferred the yellow postcard as she couldn’t hold the pen for too long because of her chronic arthritis. My grandfather preferred the inland letter, the very weapon that sailed through his gates and stuck a knife in his chest. He expounded upon everything Madras – the muggy Madras heat, the severe deterioration of the Cooum river, the closing of Ramkumar Lending Library, the amazing masala and garlic bread from Hot Breads sold from the backside of a Maruti van and the annoying addition of an extra train service that insisted on running by at two a.m. He spoke at length about the vandals defacing the Kaj Schmidt memorial at Elliot’s Beach and his accidental discovery of a blue-colored bioluminescent algae along the seashore. He wrote in great detail about the Oliver Ridley turtles that beached themselves along the Madras coast and laid eggs by the dozens. He also explained elaborately his theory about the turtle hatchlings’ confusion between the moonlight and the tubelight, causing them to walk right into the fishermen’s huts, ending up as tasty stew. ‘I saved one for you, Krishna. You can set him into the water when you come here. Kris? Krish? Are your friends calling you that at school? Tell them that V. A. Narasimhan will leap from Madras and, in one bound, land there and smite them with his mighty mace. Cyrus Uncle sends his love. With love, Hanuman.’
This side of him, I didn’t understand. Hanuman?
Both my mother and my grandparents had acquired a telephone at their residence and sometimes I received a collect call from Madras. They knew that if there was silence at the other end, it was me, and then both would snatch the phone from each other to enquire about me. ‘Dei badava, rascal!’ the receiver yelled at me one day before my final exams. ‘Are you doing your Sandhi properly? Inhale. Three counts. Hold five counts. Exhale six counts? I’ll check on you when you come here next week.’ I smiled as my grandparents fought over me. ‘Anna, paavam! That child. I hope he is eating properly,’ to which came the pat reply, ‘Of course, of course. Makki di roti. Fly Chappathi. Paneer Masala. Rosewater masala. Navarathna Kurma. Nine gems turtle.’ To this association of kurma, the dish, with Kurma, the second incarnation of Lord Vishnu as a turtle, my grandfather exploded into cackles and finally handed the phone to my grandma who immediately let out a bevy of take-care-of-yourself-kannas, before collapsing into tears. I smiled and eagerly awaited my annual Madras trip next week.
She, Madras, welcomed me the way she welcomed all – warmly. Cast into existence from her warm loins, I have every right to that heady feeling that Madras festoons upon my arrival. I got off the railway station having traveled alone for the first time, sans my father’s assistance, stretched and drank in the intoxicating smells of chutney, idly and rotting fish.
He was right there, waiting for me, my grandfather. ‘Va da, rascal! How are you? Grown up! Look at you, so tall. Sporting a caterpillar, eh, skipper? Here!’ he said, thrusting a cloth bag overflowing with greens and vegetables. ‘Carry this. I went to Moore market for some vegetables. You can tell your paati that you brought it from Delhi, though I doubt if you can purchase sambar vengayam from there. Your call. Let’s catch an auto.’
The city sped by me at sixty kilometers per hour – the stinking Victorian Central railway station, its giant clock, the Marina Beach, its lighthouse, Santhome Church, its cemetery with creepy headstones that came afterwards, the Aiyappan temple, Adayar bridge and its two fat hippopotamus-lion hybrids guarding the gateway, the verdant Theosophical Society and finally, into Besant Nagar via Elliot’s Beach.
I was home.
My grandma grabbed the air around my face and cracked her knuckles on her forehead, the pain of arthritis visible in her eyes. She hugged me tight and kissed me all over as Narasimhan sauntered to his wicker chair and collapsed, fanning himself with a visiri. He reached for a tiny pill bottle that was wrapped end to end with labels and tossed what appeared like homoeopathic medicine balls into his mouth. He closed his eyes and sighed.
‘Savithri! Coffee for the skipper and I.’
‘Coffee-aa? Anna, he is still a kid.’
‘Savi one,’ he said, counting on his finger. ‘Don’t argue. If you do, Savi two, he will sip Old Monk with Cyrus and I tonight. And now, my dear wife, Savi three, the coffee?’
‘Ayyo! Rama!’ she slapped her forehead and retreated into the kitchen to make coffee.
And as if on cue, two things happened: the soan papdi vendor pedaled by, tinkling his bells and the ghost of the lady I often saw floating in my grandpa’s verandah materialized.
And then another thing happened. V. A. Narasimhan’s cheeks trembled and his eyes twitched and then suddenly, he sprang full length on the floor, touching the ethereal feet that so gaily hung inches from the cool floor. ‘Sita Devi,’ he proclaimed. ‘It is I, your humble servant. Anjaneya,’ saying which he promptly rushed into the house much to the amazement of my grandma who was bringing out a tray of piping hot coffee, and returned minutes later, half-naked, his poonal hanging on the side of his shoulders, a slice of lemon stuffed under his upper lip, his forehead sporting hastily drawn veebudhi stripes, a couple of cotton towels tied together in a tight fashion and inserted into the back of his veshti resembling a coiled tail. Failing to find a mace, he settled for the broom which he proudly slung across his back. Jumping from foot to foot like a buffoon in a circus, he entered the verandah to an astounded and, dare I say, silent audience.
‘Thatha?’ I mouthed. My grandma set the tray down and sat down in the chair with a great sigh. ‘This is happening more and more often. Ayyo! What to do? Who will take care of him when I pass away?’
The phantasm hopped off the ledge and sauntered into the house, smiling, radiating, attracting, and walked towards the back door, from where one had a panoramic view of the sea. Following her was the monkey, babbling, ‘My Devi, I was confused. I am sorry. I was confused. I went there to find the herb, but I was confused. So many herbs, you see. I didn’t know which one. I leapt one giant leap from JFK airport and brought back the mountain of information that I needed to find the Sanjeevani. Give me time, please. Let me go through von Pipi’s papers in detail. Please tell Sri Rama that I will make haste.’
He stopped when he bumped into the wall. He blinked and looked at the lemon wedge on the floor and the tail hanging from behind him. He held it in wonderment and pinched his chin in perplexity. Yanking out the tail and flinging the broom aside, he walked into the kitchen, politely requesting my grandmother, ‘Savithri, about that coffee? What happened?’
Later that night, after dinner, after Cyrus Uncle came home, we took the turtle hatchling that my grandfather had saved to the beach to release it. The moon had ascended gracefully, leaving a trail of lenticular clouds in its wake. The waves swished and swashed around our legs, dragging us gently towards the moon. I placed the turtle down and immediately, it began to crawl towards the sea. With the help of a couple of waves, it was gone. Then, Cyrus Uncle tapped us both. ‘Veeay, Krishna, look. The algae. They are abloom.’ The entire shore was awash in sparkles of blue. It was as if the sky had crumbled and its many pieces lay twinkling on the Madras shore. A silhouette of a fisherman appeared, then it took a piss and ran back towards the hutments.
‘Filthy fishmongers,’ my grandfather ejaculated. ‘Those rabid rats are always polluting and defacing. Mark my words, Cyrus, one day all this will be raped and raped again. Once the news gets out about this slice of paradise, you will have hordes descend upon this beach and soon our morning walks will be through the throngs. Like the New York subway.’
Cyrus Uncle lit his pipe and puffed. ‘In a way, Veeay, all this is food.’ He swept his hands, encompassing the sea and the city. In the distance, the Marina lighthouse winked at us. A few ships stringed a necklace of lights in the inky black of the sea. ‘The blue of the shore. The black of the sea. The purple of the sky. That moon in the middle. It’s like a flag of sorts, isn’t it, Krishna? All this is food. It’s food for thought for those Theosophists. It’s food for food for those Cozee and sundal enthusiasts. And it’s food for romance. Have you seen the inordinate number of young couples sitting in that dark corner near Cozee, fondling, kissing, making out?’
‘It’s food for the soul,’ my grandfather said, sorrowfully. ‘It’s sea food.’
She slowly appeared. And I was scared. Her form was larger than usual, about eight feet. She stood there, her hair ferociously fluttering in the etheric wind of her universe. Her nostrils flared and her eyes screamed murder. She clenched and unclenched her fingers and tossed her head back and laughed a toothy laugh. The points of her teeth gleamed in the moonlight. I shut my eyes and reached for my grandfather’s hands as the distant rumble of a train ricocheted through the salty air.
‘Let’s go, Doctor Treewallah. The boy is tired. He has had a long day. Train journey and all.’
‘After you, Vanara.’
We walked our way and she, hers, along the Bay of Bengal coast, towards Lanka.
Exactly what it was that Narasimhan extracted from the fly-agaric mushroom, one cannot be certain. In fact, the procurement of the said mushroom itself remains a conundrum in itself. Cyrus, with his access to the Guindy campus, was once also able to get a pass for Narasimhan into the Guindy forest. With an officious sounding conference invite on Cryptobotany in a foreign sounding name like San Diego, California, it was easy to sprinkle stars in the eyes of the gatekeepers of the forest. When he went there, what he plucked, how he processed them, the devil, that is, the details, are completely anyone’s guess. What was known was that the little homoeopathic bottle with sugar pills was infused with…something. Something that added vim and vigor and that extra spring in his morning walks. And something that glowed in the dark, ensuring the cornucopia of labels to mummify its mystery.
Any side effects? Of course! With increased energy came a great reluctance to sleep. Narasimhan was old now, yes, seventy something years. His platinum jubilee was right around the corner. But he didn’t sound or look a day older than sixty. Four o’clock that morning, unable to sleep a wink anymore, he popped exactly three pills, flexed his arms in front of the mirror, neatly shaved, and set out to the beach for his extremely early morning walks. So early that these days he began to tap the sleeping fishermen and wake them up.
He returned to find the Suprabhatam playing. Nothing unusual there. It was the spilled milk from the steel vessel on the gas stove that caught his attention. That and his wife splayed on the floor, dead.
Narasimhan looked at his sleeping wife, looked up again, saw something and minutes later, lunged out of the house, broom on shoulder, a wedge of apple lodged under his upper lip and a cotton tail behind him. For added drama, he set fire to his tail using matches and exited stage right.
Towards the beach.
Any side effects? Of course, with great reluctance to sleep, came hallucinations.
It was Dr. Cyrus Treewallah who found the body of his friend’s wife and set the obsequies into action – calling the vadhiyar, informing the relatives, etc.
Many weeks later, I received a collect call from Madras. I silenced my hello. ‘Krishna,’ the voice rasped. ‘It’s Thatha, skipper. She…she was here today. You have seen her, haven’t you? She has not returned. Always respect her, Krishna. She is Sita Devi. Sri Rama’s wife. Sanjeevani is not happening in my lifetime.’ An inkling of hope radiated inside me. Maybe, his madness had finally left him. He paused as a train decided to rumble through our mutual silence. But: ‘It’s the bridge. I should have known. It’s the floating bridge of stones to Lanka, dammit. How could I not have seen it? I must find the bridge, Krishna. That is Thatha’s ambition. I still have energy in this body and I’ll go find the bridge Lord Rama walked on to cross the seas. I purchased a TTK atlas book and have sketched potential sites. Maybe when you come…’ And then the phone expired in mid-sentence.
My grandfather blipped in and out of existence, randomly appearing on my radar and then disappearing for months. Every letter got wilder than the previous one and I feared for his safety. Sometimes as I flipped past the newspaper, I half expected to see an ominous sounding news article titled – Old man in Hanuman costume sets fire to the entire colony using his ‘tail’. After many agonizingly silent months, as if reading my silent thoughts, I got a call from Cyrus Uncle. ‘Hey, Krishna!’ his smooth voice carried. ‘Don’t fret about your grandpa. He is cuckoo as usual, but smoking and drinking just fine. You must visit him this year though, okay? He misses you a lot.’
My tenth board exams were getting over soon and I decided to visit Madras after a long hiatus. For a surprise, I purchased a Wilkinson’s Sword double-edged razor and decided to shave the fuzz on my face at his house. I even got myself a bottle of Old Spice aftershave. I spent the entire train ride to Madras anticipating the heat and the burn of the city and my new aftershave.
No one received me at the station and I took the bus home, savoring the longer ride.
That night, after a simple meal of coconut rice and vadais, the three of us sat on the porch, drinking. My grandfather poured me my first drink – Old Monk rum – added an ice cube and offered it to me. Cyrus Uncle sat on the ledge, his favorite seat, puffing away at a cigar, his spectacled eyes reflecting the moon overhead. His hair had begun to gray. A gentle zephyr nuzzled us and allayed the humidity a little.
‘Cheers, Krishna,’ my grandfather said and clinked glasses with me. Cyrus Uncle raised his and tilted it towards me before sipping. ‘The Superannuated Ascetic does not like the cold,’ he continued. ‘One cube is one too many.’
We sat in silence for a while, enjoying our drinks. I felt giddy and happy at the same time. I toyed with the catapult that had not seen any action in years.
‘You are the son of the Wind, Krishna,’ he said in a voice that was low at first, but was increasing in urgency. ‘You are born of Vayu. That Tomato Singh is not your father. Vayu is.’ I put my drink down and let my grandfather take me through another fairy tale. ‘You are the Prince of Puff, the Heir of Airs, born in the sky, on the shoulders of thunderheads. You, my grandson, are truly Hanuman. You must find the Sanjeevani someday. Heal Lakshmana and Urmila will be grateful. Heal him and his brother, Sri Rama, will owe you one. Make that your life’s worth…’
‘Stop it, Veeay. Leave the kid alone.’
Narasimhan nursed his drink in the gentle silence.
People talk, yes. Especially, gossip mongers love to talk. Many have seen the old man, jumping on walls like a langur, carrying a broom on his shoulders and proudly wagging his tail. Sometimes, the stray dogs chase his tail and he swats them with his broom, yelling, ‘I slay you, Lankini. Die, Kumbakarana. Aha! Hanuman wins again,’ before comically disappearing down the street. It was light humor. People indulged him. They turned the other way and said, ‘Yes, yes,’ when he claimed he was Hanuman.
But he was an old man, prone to the infirmities of his age. Reduced hearing, perhaps? Lowered cognitive powers, maybe? Who can tell?
What the eyewitnesses did see was: the approaching Pondicherry-Madras Express; the safety pole descending and blocking traffic on both sides; an animated old man, his hands up in the air, chasing a mirage. There was a technical problem with the warning bell and a man in a khaki uniform was attempting a fix by banging the mute bell with a hammer.
No sound yet. Now, the near toot of a diesel engine.
poom! poom poom!
He, still blathering about floating stones with the word Rama imprinted on them.
Poom! Poom Poom!
The air slowed down. The sea reduced the volume of its waves. The crows stopped cawing. Even an auto’s horn, that single spongy gray breast on the side of the yellow demon, that had been squeezed, was not released. Incredibility hung in the air. That, and the sound of metal against metal as the brakes were rapidly applied.
And then suddenly, a sound impregnated the air, thrusting the spermatozoa of a million bells.
And she appeared again for the last time. He gave a toothy smile and lay down full length between the tracks, whispering, ‘Sita Devi. I am coming.’