a place called home

I step out onto the clean and neat pavement, lined with pink blazing stars, a row of purple jacarandas and the smell of newly trimmed, symmetric green grass. A woman wearing a lulu lemon tee and black tracks is walking a chihuahua, chattering incessantly in a high pitched voice on her iPhone. The dog appears tired, after having finished his ablutions for the day, wants to retire and dream in dogworld. A bare chested man jogs along attempting to lose 200 excessive calories from the Shock Top Belgian he guzzled at the soccer match earlier today. An old Russian couple walk silently next to each other, she lost in her stolichnaya dolls and pirozhkis, and he taking in the surroundings like a sniff of vintage Kauffman. Long years of marriage puts these pauses and breaks, the kind where you are together and alone simultaneously. In the distance sat a homeless man, with his pieces of belongings, a tiny suitcase, a cardboard box, a pair of sneakers, a blanket. He hums Lennon, "All you need is love.." and eats a Ben and Jerry's ice cream. The Mexican who works at the restaurant next door, jumps off line 316 and runs to work while putting on his blazer. An ambulance whizzes by, followed by a cop car. An accident, maybe a head on collision, maybe just a dent. My phone rings, "Amma..".

****

I walk out onto the uneven kaccha road leading to Sitaphal Mandi. The road is brown, bumpy, crooked, and narrow. Some cows graze on along the side, they are troubled by crows and flies. A pack of dogs bask in the glorious June sun, while two other dogs are momentarily locked in a fight which soon becomes amorous. A huge line of two wheelers hurtle along the bumpy road. Couple of women dressed in cotton saris sit selling vegetables, the greeny, bittery kind with names sounding like Marvel characters. Women and children walk by, trying to get their kids to schoolrooms before the gong sounds. Babies cry, the heat is too much to bear. Men prance about wearing lungis, tucked up showing their (not so) bare legs. They stand gazing, taking in the surroundings very differently from the Russian man, sipping on a hot cup of Irani tea. Construction workers pile reddish-brown bricks plastered with grey cement. The cow dung fills the air with a manure like smell. The cackle from the women selling sabji intermingle with the sound of onions being fried in the Chinese fast food shop, the wafting smell of garlic spiraling into the vermillion sky. At the nearby station platform, there is a board, "Sabari Express is delayed by 5 hours..."

****

I step out into lush greenness, the foliage thick enough to cover an elephant. The rain has just drenched the brown earth of its sorrows. The smell of mud fills the ether. A praying mantis sits quietly meditating on a jasmine bush. The mosquitoes are composing their own fugues and canons. The blue gossamer winged butterflies fluttering their wings circle the mauve lilies in the pond, sure to cause another Katrina or a Sandy in some other part of the world. The Maami next door is reciting her prayers for the morning, while the Maama performs the rituals in the pooja room. The smell of sandalwood wafts through as the incense sticks continue burning. Ripe, yellow mangoes have fallen on the ground and a squirrel scampers to get a bite. A man hurries along to catch the bus to go pay the electricity bill before his life goes unto darkness. A thin boy heads to the local temple to ask for forgiveness and pray for plentiful. Someone is making a mug of strong filter coffee. At the corner stand people drinking lime soda, talking about elections, weather, and football. The different umbrellas passing by forms a rainbow in itself, some use Poppy, some Johns, and others plain, black ones. The sky is dark grey, overcast and rumbling. It will pour a lifetime's worth by the time the Sabari Express pulls into platform no: 1.

Impermanence

I once took an ailing linguist in 2009 to an ATM machine to withdraw cash and he thanked me profusely for it. Of course, at that time I did not know he was ailing. He seemed fit as a fiddle, even though I saw him sleeping during a couple of talks at the conference. I wrote that off by thinking that is what people do at conferences anyway, doodle, dream, or sleep. He was one of our invited speakers. His talk was exceptional, the kind you want to listen to even though your specialization is not in his field of expertise, in this case, phonology and tonal theory. He spoke on aspiration in Nepali that day. He had accepted our invitation and visited us from Paris, his first visit to India. His walk was fragile, with a little tenderness as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He ate little, had no beverages during coffee breaks, and spoke very little.

He died six months later in Massachusetts, of cancer. Unceremoniously enough, since none of us knew at the conference about his physical frailness. I wonder what difference it would have made, if I had known about his illness? Would I have felt he was tired and had to take a nap because of his medicines, when I saw him sleeping at a talk? Would I have taken him in a car instead of an auto to the ATM machine? Maybe we could have been kinder in the harsh Hyderabad weather, or the city's busy-ness, made his stay a little warmer and more enjoyable. Maybe we could have provided better food, more bland, more healthy. Or maybe, just a little bit more love.

I cannot forget his immensely kind words of gratitude after I took him to the ATM machine, nor the warm mail he sent my professor thanking me again for having done so. It reminds me of the impermanence of things, of people. Imagery floating past me like the bustling landscape rolling by from a train window. The people we meet today may not be there tomorrow. People come into your lives and go out of it even faster. The things we cherish and hold close will become dust tomorrow. Nothingness covers your languid existence. Life then, like a stone, rolls on by year after year, centuries after centuries.

walktalk

Maybe we did traverse similar roadsIn your infinite trips to Kochi as a child Maybe we did take walks around the town Play in the molten sand, got wet till our knees Prayed for a wish in the dark alleys of the quintessential church Maybe we did capture photographs In the cobwebs of our memories past Only to process them again, today As we walked talked in the streets of the quaint town Gazed at ships yonder and ate melting ice creams Or kneeled in front of the Lord Only to traverse through syncopated time

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In God's own Country- Kochi

Kochi is not just a place I grew up in, Kochi is home. With a place being called home comes memories, moments, and melancholia. Let’s rewind, some twenty odd years back into the 80’s. Kochi was still a growing metropolis back then. The roads were dingy but not crowded, the place had a feel to it, some kind of ambience akin to an old world charm. This was the Kochi of the Jews, this was the Kochi of the Dutch, this was the Kochi of the Gujarathis, this was the Kochi of the Muslims, this was the Kochi of the Christians, and this was the Kochi of the Hindus. Here, trade and travel mingled incessantly. Kochi’s landscape was filled with bungalows, old naalukettus, dilapidated buildings, courtrooms, and vast open spaces. The coastline, dearly called Marine Drive like any other coastline in India, was then sparse and not crowded with commercial offices or posh sea-facing apartments. One of the very first memories of the 80’s for me is the bus ride to school every morning through Marine Drive. My cousin sister and I would sit and talk about happenings from yesterday and feel the early morning 7 o’clock breeze on our faces, as the bus rattled towards school via Marine Drive. The sea would be a crystal blue sometimes, dark blue otherwise, and I would yearn to get out of the rickety bus and wander towards the waters. It always beckoned me, just as it does today twenty something years later. Life was a routine for the Mallus who lived in Kochi. The morning always began with the pathram ‘newspaper’ and a cup of hot tea. Tea is an essential part of the Malayali’s way of life. It characterizes energy, freshness, and an overall overarching sense of accomplishment. After the morning cup of tea, any Malayali feels like he is ready to take on the world and nothing is deemed impossible. A walk around the Ernakulam railway station or bus stand is evidence enough for this. The resonating sound of ‘chaya chaya chaya’ is concurrent to the chanting of a religious prayer. Coffee quite doesn’t have that energy around it. The long vowel at the beginning ‘kaa’ would be elongated even further ‘kaaaaaa’ and the way the coffee vendors pronounce the word ‘kaaaaaapi’ didn’t do the same kind of justice to coffee as it did to tea. So ‘Chaaya’ remains the favorite morning drink. In my house, we had a mixed bunch of beverage drinkers. Muthassan and Ammumma had their morning cuppa tea. My father and me were avid coffee drinkers. Amma was in between. But yes, the newspaper was still an integral part. No day began without it.

Those were the days when there were no FM radio stations. Every morning, each Malayali household played their favorite cassette. This ranged from Malayalam devotional songs to Old Kishore da and Rafi da’s numbers, to Dasettan’s golden classics. I remember the drone of listening to the same old song again and again, 365 days a year. Like I mentioned, there was a sense of routine in everyone. Change was never sought after. With routine came stability and with stability a sense of the world. Those days my grandmother used to avidly watch the Mahabharata on Doordarshan. Nowadays the Kochi evenings are filled with people crouched in front of Asianet watching Idea Star Singer, the Malayali equivalent of American Idol.

A Malayali had only two seasons to look forward to- the rainy season and the non-rainy season. June 1st every year characterized the onset of the Monsoon. We would put on our brand new school uniforms, raincoats, carrying over-sized bags and totter to school through puddles. The wind would blow the black color umbrellas upside down, of course now we have the more fancy ‘popy kudas’, those days people had a stronger preference for black umbrellas. The rain came with pros and cons. On one hand, it would disrupt our P.T periods. This entailed either wiling away the 40 minutes in class by playing book cricket or trying to finish up some homework so that the evenings at home would be more relaxed. The advantage of the heavy monsoon season in Kochi was that the Mullasery Canal would overflow very frequently. Thanks to the bad drainage system of the Cochin Municipal Corporation there were many instances when school had to be shut down.

One of our favorite pastimes during the Monsoon season was to make paper boats and play with it in the puddles on the roads and in my backyard. There would be boats made of different colored paper, in different shapes and sizes and similar to the Allepey boat race, we would have paper boat races in the rain.

When it wasn’t raining in Kochi, my life was filled with ice creams, floating islands, and five rupees pop-ups (ice popsicle-like). On these days as well people carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the heat. Umbrellas are thus an integral part of a Mallu’s way of life.

Sunil chettan’s kada was a much frequented hang-out those days. He used to sell magazines, mittayi, and other knick-knacks. I would hang on to my father’s finger and go there in the evenings for my Tinkle and Champak. Shikkari Shambu and Suppandi were my friends for evenings. Evenings also entailed playing cricket with the cousins, no not book cricket, just regular cricket with wickets and bats. Other times, we would be hiding under the bed to run away from the music master who came home to give us Carnatic music lessons or pretending to be sick and skip Hindi tuition lessons with Srivastava sir.

No mallu’s gastronomic appetite could be satisfied without a visit to B.T.H. The sheer size of their paper masala dosa, you would think, could feed 3-4 people. B.T.H also had the most delicious badam halwa. An evening at B.T.H would be followed by a walk in Rajendra Maidan where some handicraft exhibition would be on going.

A Mallu’s routine would be momentarily disrupted thrice in a year by three major festivals. Onam- the harvest festival, Christmas, and Vishu- the Kerala New Year. Vishu is celebrated on April 14th, Onam is sometimes in August or in September, and Christmas in December and there is one common thread linking the festivals together- food!

Wedding sadyas were another source of awesome free food. I used to look forward to the ‘murukaan’ at the end of the meal. The taste of betel nuts after a glass full of palada pradaman is pure bliss.

We are in the 2000’s now. The face of Kochi has changed. The skyline has changed. However, the ambience hasn’t changed all that much. The old world charm still remains. Mallus still divide their world into rains versus no-rains. Vishu will be celebrated with much fiasco in a couple of days. Kochi beckons, to travellers, to ex-residents, its kin.  There is a part of me that remains in Kochi, and will always will.

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Glossary:

Naalukettu- A traditional home build around an open courtyard

Pathram- Newspaper

Chaaya- Tea

Kaapi- Coffee

Muthassan- Grandfather

Ammumma- Grandmother

Kuda- Umbrella

P.T- Physical Training

Kada- Shop

Mittayi- Toffee

Sadya- A festive meal

Murukaan- Made by rolling two betel leaves with arecanut inside

Palada Pradaman- One of the desserts akin to Kheer

Footprints

There are many footprints buried in the sand I have tried to trace in the last one month. They all lead to a single place I call home. It is here I learnt many things, I learnt to love, lose, rediscover, forget, fight, laugh, weep, and encounter death. on love.

it comes and goes,

takes away a part of me,

engulfs me, devours

every active living molecule

renders me lifeless.

on loss.

grave emptiness,

vast spaces, a little

alike to drowning.

on rediscovery.

the joy of finding

a lost letter,

a birthday gift

or just, a dry flower

in between old, rusty notebooks.

on forgetting.

eroded memories

satiates the pain and the illusion

dawns of revival

baggages left behind,

clothes are burned

happiness is sought

in moving on.

on fights.

heavy clamoring,

heated tempers

a few pillows strewn

coarse voices, angry faces

when it all dies down,

there is peace.

on laughing.

anecdotes from childhood,

memories woven in school

old friends, tales of blunders

good times live on as tales

encountered across generations

passed on to the timeless bounty

of happiness.

on weeping.

dark, grey rain clouds

clambering up the alley

heavy, lush rain

pouring down the sheets of sand

the grains trickle away,

the dirt, the grime, the pain.

on death.

the non-existence of being.

our journey commences

from the birthing time,

inexplicable, incorrigible

the ultimate reality

it appeases all emotions,

numbs loss, fights, tears

nulls rediscovery, love, laughter.

in the end,

it's all binary.