[Issue 2 / August 2012]
May 10, 2012
Maya, I know that I am writing to you in uneven erratic installments about my recent trip to different shrines in Tamil Nadu but I still don’t feel good due to the heat.
Ten days of travel in the searing heat of April has sapped my energy. Even simple household chores and non-fussy basic cooking seem like mammoth tasks. A bit of an exaggeration here, maybe … but I do feel quite helpless. The summer is making me feel weak and fatigued all the time.
After our curious meeting with the head of the Skanda Ashramam near Salem, on a very hot day on 24th of last month, we drove towards Tiruvannamalai via Thirukovilur, which is known for its Sri Trivikramaswamy temple. By the way, I had never heard of Thirukovilur until Shankar mentioned it and told me that it was part of our ‘pilgrimage’. The town also has a famous Shiva temple, which though small, is significant, as it is one of the eight samhara kshetrams of Shiva known as attaviratams. Here Shiva is said to have vanquished and killed the demon Andhakasura.
While the sun poured its heat unrelentingly, the hills on the way to Thirukovilur kept me good company, and contemplation of their pleasing forms pacified the eyes fatigued by the blazing sun.
The road was under construction in many places and there were quite a few diversions. The swashbuckling trucks from the opposite side came at us with impunity. My heart was in my mouth several times. I turned my gaze towards the hills silently smirking at the driver’s foolhardy bravado. Areca nut palms, coconut palms, dense acacia bushes rushed past my window. Then the electric blue sky changed, softened, darkened, and it began to drizzle around 4:50 pm. The drizzle became more impetuous and I saw two men huddle together on a motorcycle. The paddy fields soaked in the rain gratefully. As we entered the town of Kallakurichi, the rain became gentle again and I asked Shankar if we could stop for some tea. “You don’t mind having it from a roadside tea kadai?” he asked. “It’s better than sitting inside a shabby restaurant. It will also be freshly made, going by the number of people stopping by.”
We requested the driver to stop the car, told him to join us for tea, and the three of us cut across the busy road to a makeshift tea shop put together on four high narrow tables in a rectangular formation. A group of people—laborers, passersby, petty shopkeepers—were already milling around this pavement shop abuzz with tea/coffee-making activity. The cylindrical copper boiler steamed away busily. Speaking in Tamil, Shankar asked for two cups of tea with less sugar and milk, and Venkat asked for some coffee with no sugar. The shopkeeper’s assistant, whose greasy face with a bulbous nose was badly pitted, turned to me and confirmed in perfect Hindi, Aapko bhi kam cheeni, kam doodh wali chai chahiye? I nodded my head slowly, surprised to hear Hindi in a small town of Tamil Nadu.
The tea, though quite sugary, was decent. And it was served in glass tumblers. I was pleased because I hate tea in plastic or paper cups, apart from the fact that they add to the non-biodegradable trash in our already sullied environment. Of course, one has to overlook the fact that the water used for rinsing the glasses may be contaminated.
As soon as we had paid for our teas, the drizzle became huge drops of water. The sky frowned darkly, there were majestic claps of thunder and it began to pour in torrents. We huddled closer under the awning of a shop. And I watched with concern and dismay as a pushcart seller of snacks tried to save his wares. The rain drenched the raw banana pakoras, mysore bondas, and mirchi bhajjis. It poured into the batter used for frying, diluted the chutney and ruined the spices and chopped vegetables. The young man who owned this mobile food stall tried to save the iron wok with the hot oil that sputtered as the rain sloshed in. I looked at this scene with bewilderment.
The man tore a newspaper into two halves, held the side rings of the cast iron wok with it and with two agile giant strides brought it to the tea kadai. He placed the wok with the angry hot oil on the edge of the aluminum table. Precarious. There were at least four or five people next to the edge of the table and I feared an accident but no one seemed the least bit concerned. I eyed the hot oil as if it were a fiery monster and then firmly told the tea-shop owner to move it further in towards the center of the table, though the center of a narrow table is not center enough for safety. He moved it with casual nonchalance, casting an amused look at me.
In the meantime, the young man was busy trying to save his food. He tried to curtain the sides of his cart with a blue plastic sheet. Try to imagine a bed with a mosquito net. Here, the rain mocked at his desperate efforts. He finally gave up trying to save the food and stood near us watching the downpour with helpless frustration. Then a young man standing behind him said something that provoked him. He turned upon that man with fisted fury, picked up a pestle from the tea kadai and threatened to ram it into his crotch. A major fight would have erupted if an old man in the vicinity hadn’t separated the two of them. All this time I eyed the hot oil with growing nervousness and panic. I was grateful when the driver offered to bring the car over to our side of the road.
With this mini drama behind us, we headed for Thirukovilur. I couldn’t get the face of the volatile young man and the scuffle out of my head for some time.
Maya, on Thirukovilur, in my next mail.
All my best wishes,
Priti Aisola’s debut novel ‘See Paris in Me’ was published by Penguin in 2009. She has lived in France, Syria and Hungry and has an M Phil in English literature. Priti is a keen poet too. Her second book, a travelogue, has been accepted by Wisdom tree, India.