January 14, Pongal. I remember Madras. Always. I didn't spend too many January 14ths there, but I have memories of Pongal, and Pongal is inextricably Tamil and so, for me, Madras. Sweet, yummy chakra-pongal, made by Patti (grandmother) and Seethai, our smiling gap-toothed relative and cook. Huge sticky lumps of it plonked down before me on the dining table in that house.
I went there last week, that house, at the fag end of seeing much trunami tragedy in Tamil Nadu. Nearly fifteen years since I last went to the place, over a decade since anyone lived there. I don't know why, but it sits there still, silent and wreathed in dust. Wreathed in my memories too, but nobody knows that.
For many minutes, I hang on the gate, almost unable to bear the sight of the place. Then I climb through a break in the wall and jump down, onto a minor heap of trash flung by passersby through the break. I'm in, and I'm desolate.
This yard is where my friend Prasad would race in -- from across the road outside! -- to bowl at me frighteningly fast. This yard is now an overgrown mess, weeds as tall as young trees. These two steps are where Seethai and others, freshly bathed and flowered, would trace delicately intricate rangolis as we neared Pongal. They are now filmed with mud, more weeds. The yellow and blue tiles on the front porch are still there, far paler yellow and blue than they once were. Thatha (grandfather) would sit under this small fan every day, writing or reciting Sanskrit, and it always rotated faster than I could believe a fan would. Now the blades are bent, hanging down limply. I press the switch, forlornly hoping they will rotate one last time. Of course they don't. Nearby, the electric meter -- I remember watching it move too -- is stationary, stuck forever at 380 units, last inspected on July 28 1992. There's the room, right at the back, where I'd be plastered with oil and made to sit until plastered with shikakai and cleaned off. The door is splintered and I don't dare look inside, suddenly afraid of more wreathed memories.
The doors are all locked. But one window, to the storeroom at the back, is open, and I step through and in, tearing my shirt on an obstructive nail as I go. Inside, I'm more desolate still. If some rooms are empty, others are filled with junk, including someone's abandoned exercise cycle. Not Thatha's, I'm certain. Half the living room is covered by an enormous pile of coconuts. Ten years worth, I imagine, from the trees in the yard where I once played.
I climb back through the gap in the wall. Maybe I had to do this, but I'm aching with what my memories look like today. So if you ever wander past -- 58 Montieth Lane, and it's now called Chennai -- do think briefly of me. I'm the little boy swishing his bat in front of the pillar in the courtyard, swishing too late for another zoomer from Prasad. That's me, but I'm not there.