Who knows how long this will last
Now we've come so far, so fast
But, somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
I need to remember this
So baby give me just one kiss
And let me take a long last look
Before we say goodbye
End of Innocence - Don Henley
People often say that distance makes the heart grow fonder. In my case, it is the prospect of distance that has been making me think a lot the last few days. In a few months, I’ll be leaving Chennai for another city. The chances of me ever living for a long period of time at Chennai are remote at best – at least not for the foreseeable future. My life over the last 21 years hasn’t exactly been nomadic, in fact, far from it. I was born in this city and have spent almost my entire life here. And now, I have to leave.
The last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to experience the city a lot more. That temple car down the street or the neighbour you barely talk to suddenly take on new importance when you ponder over whether you’ll ever see them again. I’ve been a lot friendlier to the people on the street, always wondering whether I’ll ever cross-paths with them again. The iron-wallah down the street. The granny next door who berated you as a kid for sending cricket balls flying into her garden. The old corporation school headmaster (a friend of my father’s) who wishes me every single morning with the same cheerful grin though he’s past eighty. The guy across the street you fought with as a kid over an umpiring decision. The list is endless…
Apart from these are all the sights and sounds of Chennai I’ve grown up to and taken for granted. I’m planning to blog some of my favorite memories of the city. Now, as I’ve pretty much grown up here, this means a lot of memories from my childhood. One such memory is the New Year’s Day trip to the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane.
Those who know me well would be pretty familiar with my reluctance to get out of bed at any time earlier than 10 in the morning. However, there’s one single day every year when I actually get up early without a fuss at all – Jan 1st. Now, getting up early on New Year’s Day is a bit dicey as I would have been up late the previous night watching TV (those hilarious pre-recorded countdown shows) and on the stroke of midnight, calling up people. My mom is an early riser and would wake me up at around 6 am. I remember one year when she didn’t wake me up as she thought I was sleeping soundly – and I lost my temper so badly at this that she’s made it a point to drag me out of bed, however loudly I may be snoring. We do this every single year without an exception (except that one year).
Now those among you who get the impression that I’m a religious person – nothing could be farther from the truth. But there’s something quaint about this custom and it has become such a tradition in my family that I don’t want to break it. But this Jan 1st would probably be the last time in a while unless I manage to be in Chennai at the correct time. In retrospect, I should have probably posted this on Jan 1st – but couldn’t resist.
After brushing my teeth and a quick shower, I get into an auto-rickshaw only half-awake. Driving through the roads of Chennai early in the morning of Jan 1st is a unique experience. Apart from the roads being relatively empty, you also see the wreckage of cars, autos and what not. I always wonder what kind of drunken revelry could lead to such madness – for there’s not a single year when I haven’t seen some auto-rickshaw look as if it had just been crumpled by a giant hand. Apart from that, the ride is one where I usually ponder over the year gone by. It is difficult not to get into a reflective mood and start saying things like “Look at how much things have changed’.
The drive lasts around 20 minutes. The temple we’re going to is one of the oldest and biggest in Chennai and it also happens to be one of the very few temples I’ve ever visited. But I’ll get to the temple later. Let me first describe the area in which it is located – Triplicane. Triplicane is a reasonable-sized neighborhood present very close to the beach in Chennai. It holds some special significance for my family as my mom grew up there. But the interesting thing is that this place has barely changed since my mom’s childhood days.
Whenever I visit Triplicane, I always get the feeling that I’m stepping into a time-warp. The auto rumbles into a narrow street with old houses on both sides with the paint long gone. The houses are remnants from an era long gone – silent witnesses to the change happening all around them. However, I never get the feeling that these houses are refusing to move into the 21st century. The feeling that always strikes me is that these houses don’t need to – as if they exist on a different plane altogether where our modern gadgets and fast-forwarded life style don’t really hold any value.
Our auto-rickshaw driver never has an easy time navigating through these streets. Not only do you have to battle for space with the cows, you also have to contend with all the elaborate ‘kolams’ in the front of every house. Peeking into those houses is an interesting experience in itself. You won’t see your computers or DVD players or cordless phones (though of late, I’ve spotted a few). What you’ll see is straight out of a classic Tamil movie. The man of the house would be reading the newspaper, probably sipping on his ‘filter coffee’ in his ‘veshti’, oblivious to the kids around him. The kids would be very different from the spoilt, unclean brat that I am. They would be decked out in their new clothes and playing, with some grand-parents or elder relatives keeping an eye on them. The women would be decked out in those ‘madisaru-sarees’ (I can never figure out how women can actually get into them – that’s probably why they’re smarter than men).
My mom knows a lot of people in this area from her childhood. What strikes you is that people are very friendly and they remember you. My mom usually pays a visit to an old lady who studied along with my mom’s elder sister. She never fails to recognize me and usually embarrasses me by quoting incidents from the first few days after I was born. My mom also points out Subramaniam Bharathi’s (the famous Tamil poet and freedom fighter) house every time we go past his street. Looking at the dilapidated condition of his house, you really wonder whether people would recognize his name in the decades to come. Britney Spears – yes. Poets and freedom fighters – probably not.
The temple itself is an imposing structure. Encircled by those quaint walls with the alternate red and white strips, it covers a reasonably large area. I’ve always wondered as to the red and white stripes – is there any special religious meaning to this? After leaving our footwear outside and buying the necessary ‘archanai’ (archanai = puja in Hindi? Someone help me out) items, we enter through the main entrance.
Walking down the main pathway, your feet take some time getting accustomed to the cold stone floor. You enter through a 15-ft high gate, laden with little bells which you’re supposed to peal when you walk past them. The threshold you step over is important too – intricately carved, you have to be careful about which foot you use to step over it.
The temple itself is a study in contrast between the low and the high. On one hand, you have these incredibly cramped pathways. On the other hand, you have these soaring towers which seem to reach the sky itself. My mom makes it a point to tell me the religious significance of these towering spires every single time – and I forget every single time.
You have practically no hope of getting into the main sacrosanct area (the inner shrine for Lord Parthasarathy), so we usually resign ourselves to catching a glimpse of him from afar. This also means that you don’t have to stand in serpentine queues and jostle with an unruly crowd, so this is a big win. Now, to catch a glimpse of the inner shrine, you have to climb a few steps from around 100 feet away. Right next to these steps are two small 3-feet tall statues of baby elephants carved out in stone. I remember these statues quite well as I would sit on them as a kid as my mom tried to catch a glimpse of the ‘archanai’. Last year, I saw a small kid sitting on these statues and it threw into sharp focus that I’ve actually grown up. These statues must have seen thousands of kids like me grow up and then one day, finally stop coming. If only they could talk – I wonder what stories they would be able to tell! I have a confession to make – last year, when there were not too many people around, I quickly hopped onto one of the statues to relive some of my childhood memories. Somehow, it was a lot easier when I was not 6 feet 5 in tall. Oh well.
I really wish I had photos of all this but I don’t think the temple allows photography inside the temple itself. Probably a good thing too.
The ‘archanais’ themselves are pretty serious affairs. In recent years, the inner-sanctum of the various shrines have been getting pretty crowded. Are a lot more people getting religious? Or there are a lot more people? Hard to say. As a kid, my favorite part of these rituals was the part where the priest came and plonked the divine crown on top of your head before moving on to the next person. In recent years though, priests have had problems with reaching the top of my head – guess they don’t get too many 6 footers there.
An interesting cultural phenomenon is the ‘VIP archanai’. Though these probably cause a bigger impact on the Tirupathi Tirumala temple (which, by the way, I’ve visited only once in my life, that too as an infant). This basically means that if you are a big-shot – someone famous or someone close to temple management, you get to ‘jump the queue’. The irony of this special treatment never fails to amuse me – as well as the fact that you have to buy tickets for ‘archanais’. There are two kinds of tickets – one buys you a ‘normal’ archanai and the other buys you a ‘special’ archanai (which basically means you get more flowers,coconut,etc). I wonder whether God ever looks at the people with the normal tickets and says ‘You cheapos! Forget your wish ever coming true’. To my knowledge, my mom has never to this day bought one of the ‘special’ tickets. Not that it was more expensive – but because she was always convinced that all this commercialism was bad and that God wouldn’t mind. Well – the second part is what she always used to tell me when I was a kid.
The walls of the temple are a pretty interesting study in themselves. Most of them are adorned by marble plaques having the Thirukurral or some other verse. I always find it amusing to see the names of the ‘sponsors’ on these plaques. Here you have this divine poetry – and then you have ‘Smt. Some Chettiar’ at the bottom. You see some famous names sometimes – for example, names from the TVS group pop up pretty frequently. Since my mom went to school in this area, she recognizes a lot of the famous names on the plaques. What is scary is that I don’t recognize any of them. What would these people have thought if they knew that their fame was only to last a few decades?
Other walls have inscriptions carved into them – though mostly in Tamil, since this carving was done hundreds of years ago, the script is very different. Besides, time has played a part too – eroding away whatever those inscriptions were trying to say. You find these inscriptions every where – even on the floor. I like to run my hand along these inscriptions – all those wise men through history talking to you through the mists of time. This place is a budding archaeologist’s idea of heaven. If you want to know how to Tamil history feels like, you have to pay a visit here.
During one trip to the temple, I discovered that the pillars around the temple have the 10 avatars of Vishnu carved onto them. What is interesting though is that these avatars don’t follow the normal order that we know of – the pillars seem to be laid out haphazardly. But I doubt whether that’s the case – I suspect there’s a deeper meaning to the arrangement of these pillars. Right next to the pillars is a wide open space where religious discourses are held. There would be a old priest relating some incident from the Ramayana and these 10-15 people listening in rapt attention. Some decades ago, before the spreading of cable Tv – or even the radio, this was the only form of entertainment. I’ve never seen anyone below the age of 50 or 60 at these discourses which is a sad story in itself.
After making a trip round the temple premises (which involves going through some pretty narrow, dark pathways), you wind back outside. After collecting your footwear, it is time to go home. My mom makes it a point to buy me some milk chocolate at some store for the trip back. Apart from the milk chocolate, we pick up the day’s newspaper as well, usually full of New Year’s Day cheer and the previous year’s last sunset. Soon, we would be rumbling back home in an auto with a whole year in front of us. What could be more exciting than that!