When it rains in Madras
August 6, 2017 § 3 Comments
When it rains in Madras, it could very well be a place you have fantasised. Forget the potholes and the inevitable inundation for a moment, and just enjoy the magic of an afternoon transformed into an overcast evening, fit to go with the three o’clock steaming coffee and hot onion pakodas or molaga bajjis.
Growing up, I always found it hard to relate to the dullness and dreariness English writers associated with rain and overcast conditions. I remember a July a decade or decade and a half ago when it poured after a spell of drought. Schools postponed their sports days and daily march-past drills as heavy clouds finally stormed the city. I lay on the couch and watched English bowlers swing the ball under sunny conditions on the television while munching on hot pakodas. The commentators were over-joyed at bright sunshine, which they seemed certain makes a good day- not to a Madras boy though, especially one who has run from third-man to third-man under a mid-May noon sun.
It doesn’t rain often in Madras. Every time the umbrella was brought out, my thatha would recount how everyone in Trivandum used to hang one on to the back of their shirts while walking. A much-green me would dream of distant places where the monsoon was a thundering beast at the sight of which the trees shuddered, and the rivers ran.
If you have lived in Madras, you will know of those evenings when a bunch of clouds threatened to wash away the city, but all they actually did was shed a half-reluctant tear at the sight of kodangal lining-up in front of hand-pumps, as if we deserved no sympathy.
It rains sometimes in May, a light evening reprieve during the scorching Agni-nakshatram days. It rains on a couple of June days, which year-by-year seem hotter than the one before, and then there are a few temperamental showers in July- South-West monsoon mostly avoids us, but every now and then a bit of her flaying skirt brushes the ever-growing fingertips of the city. The real rain comes after the second summer in October, as the winds change, and the North-East monsoon huffs and puffs, and roars into town.
The veppam reduces, and the air-conditioners can finally be switched off as T.Nagar lights up for the festival season- one traffic jam at a time. The season also brings cyclones and kinder versions of it. The ever-enterprising crows and the rowdy parrots shut up for a while and the nagaram stands eerily still as the storms march through and the winds trumpet as if royalties still ruled here.
A couple of Decembers ago, Madras faced the worst rains it had seen for a century or so. The city was turned into islands, as the three rivers which are usually dry or filled with sewage, roared with such might that a medieval saint-poet would have been inspired to praise them with a couplet or two. As the streets lay dark and torn with festering scars, an awe swept us all- we were grains of sand on the Marina, waiting for the day a big wave carried us away.
When it rains in Madras, it could very well be a place you have fantasised. The city’s strides slow down to a hesitant step-by-step prodding, lest you are sucked into an open manhole, the honking not so incessant and there’s an uncertain sigh- the steam out of a pot of perfect tea, whose leaves are from a distant estate with a silent mist hanging over a rippling stream with grassy shores.
My Madras is a bunch of names who criss-cross each other as streets. The city always has felt old to me, holding out with its own, all the while borrowing from those who came to call it their home. And on a day when the sun can’t be seen and a drizzle to fore, there’s a melancholy which lingers on- of grandfather’s tales and time forlorn.
May in Madras
May 17, 2016 § Leave a comment
When it rains in mid-summer, Madras sighs, half in relief, half in wont reminiscences. This rain, let out like old alcohol bought in another season, to celebrate another joyous eve, first strikes with the smell, a petrichor, a de javu, of a November day- breezy and clay lamps which struggle to remain lit. And when you taste it, at the tip of the tongue, the air is no more languid, but fresh, vigorous, and resplendent. The harsh light is kept out by a curtain of clouds, and the shadows longer as if the sun was further South, and the tempers of precarious Bay, waiting to blow out.
This is May, in Madras. You can call it Chennai if you want, but the ring of the word, without the harsh Che is more of this city- not the incessant cacophony of horns, but the amorous sea-breeze than reminds you of shores on which Occidental flags fluttered and gyrated to the tolling of ancient bells, and the braying of donkeys, diligently carrying laundry.
This city, in this month, when tempers flare, and you perspire without effort- as if you are born into success; and the smoke of camphor and agarbatti prevail in the narrow lanes, brings upon a languid hope. That tired, strained hope, which some find in a heavy meal after religious excesses. That wish after noon, for the school day to get over, or at best for the Maths teacher to disappear.
The waves in the beach of Madras, diligently crash, again and again- the troughs and tides, make their own pace, unhurried by the liners, or excited children, angry parents, hidden lovers, or drunk men caught in the nets of boats they may not own. The crests, shoved away, by the over-crowded port on which a canny English man once found a place to stretch his leg, and measured an empire that never set- creep in, year by year, till a time they shall swallow with a tumultuous crash, the old fort, and Santome.
The simmering heat is a memoir of those days- of history, and childhood, of myths, and veritable veshti-clad old-age. And year, on year, it comes again, and the thirst just becomes more, and more. Till an insatiable day, when nothing can be quenched, except the land that is the city, and her people, their boisterous pride and nine yards of contemptuous vanity.