"He is a North Indian, from Delhi," my new friend in Madras described me to the broker who was supposed to find a flat for me in the city. Then, covering the mouthpiece of the telephone with his palm, the friend turned to me, "Are you a vegetarian?"
I did enjoy the occasional mutton curry but that was too minor a detail to reveal and spoil the chances of getting accommodation, so I said yes. I had seen advertisements in local papers which declared the eligibility for prospective tenants rather boldly: ‘Vegetarians only’, ‘Brahmins only’ and so on.
"Yes, yes, he is a vegetarian," he told the broker, "yes, yes, one-bedroom flat. And make sure there is no water problem." They spoke in Tamil, a language I did not follow, and I tried to make sense of their conversation by piecing together my friend's facial expressions and the English words he used – 'vegetarian', 'water problem', 'North Indian'.
'North Indian' – the description made me feel like a foreigner in my own country. I had lived all my life in North India, but I had never thought of myself as a North Indian – only an Indian. But being called a 'North Indian' here, I guess, should not have come as a surprise, because even we in the North never considered those coming from the South as fellow Indians. We called them 'South Indians' – as if they came from a different world altogether. Today, I found myself in their world, after having travelled the length of India, for about 32 hours, on the Tamil Nadu Express, one of India's most efficient trains.
When the train came to a halt at the Madras station, I had no idea where I was going to stay. All I had was the appointment letter from my new office and an assurance from a Madrasi whom I had met recently at the Delhi Press Club. The man, called Pugazhendi Thangaraj, was a journalist-turned-filmmaker whose debut film had run into trouble with the Censor Board in Delhi, so he frequently visited the capital.
He gave me his card and asked me to call and when I did, he promised not only to find me a place to stay but also receive me at the station. "I will be standing at the exit. In case I cannot come, my assistant will be there with a placard." But a promise made by a stranger who stands nothing to gain by helping you is as good as a promise made by a drunk. But there he was, standing in a freshly-starched white shirt and a white dhoti.
"Hello, hello, welcome," he said with a shy smile. "I've found a mansion for you. We will be going there now," he told me. "A mansion?" I asked in disbelief. "Yes, yes, a mansion. You can stay there till you find a house." And the rent? "Only Rs 2000 per month." If I could live in a mansion for Rs 2000 a month, why should I look for another place? Something was amiss, and my ride from the railway station to the mansion was punctuated with apprehension.
'Mansion' turned out to be the local expression for bachelors' quarters. Madras is full of mansions – hosting students from all over the country and software professionals who keep its IT industry pulsating. There are many 60- and 70-year-olds living in them too – people who began living here as students and who never married and who now had no family to go back to. Then there are middle-aged men who have left their families behind in their hometowns and who send them a large chunk of the salaries they earn in Madras. The age of an occupant can be told from the clothes left to dry on his portion of the verandah. If you spot a pair of jeans hanging, he is probably a student. If it's only dhotis and a pair of white towels, you could safely assume the occupant is elderly.
I was allotted a room on the second floor of the mansion. As I climbed up the stairs, I noticed the signboard on the first landing: 'Drinking of liquor not allowed.' My heart sank. Then I noticed the signboard on the second landing: 'Female visitors not allowed.' My heart sank further.
My room was not more than eight by eight, and it had only a bare iron cot. Fortunately, it had an attached bathroom – even though it was tiny. A worn out soap bar left behind by the previous occupant sat obstinately on the wash basin: it didn't move even after being poked. I sat on the cot and thought: so this is the culmination of my 32-hour journey! But then I thought: what if Pugazhendi did not turn up at the station? He wasn’t obliged to, after all.
All my life in the North, I had never seen such kindness. Even the scooter-rickshaw driver who brought me to the mansion was very kind. He was not only polite enough to thank me when I paid him, but he also offered to carry my luggage. In Delhi, you spend a considerable part of your life haggling with the rickshaw drivers. They take it as their birthright to charge you more. It is not uncommon to be met with a nasty look, once you have paid them, as if they have been cheated. Madras, suddenly, felt like heaven.
But the joy was juxtaposed with the gloom of the room. Suddenly, voices pierced in from the neighbouring building, which stood barely four feet away from the mansion. A woman screamed in anger, a man screamed back in retaliation, following which the woman tried to outscream him while a child wailed. The noise was even more jarring because it was all in Tamil -- a language I did not understand. I needed a drink.
I called Pugazhendi who gave me directions to the nearest bar. He also promised to come by the next morning to take me house-hunting. My mansion sat by a congested street in the heart of T. Nagar, a bustling commercial area which itself is located in the heart of Madras. It was evening when I set out looking for the bar.
I walked into a scene I had never seen before, but had only read about in R K Narayan’s Malgudi novels. In North India, a street has no entity. It doesn't even have a name: it only serves as a connection from one road to another. Here, each street not only has a name but also an identity, accorded to it by the smell of jasmine being sold by the old woman sitting under the lamp-post, the smell of idlis being steam-cooked by a vendor under another lamp-post, the sound of the bell rung by a bare-chested priest at the small Ganesha shrine erected at one end of the street. And when you pass the shrine, the whiff of freshly-burnt camphor hits you. There’s some food for the eyes too: the walls flanking any street is plastered with posters – pictures of local politicians, filmstars, stills from new movies, promos of Tamil political magazines.
The moment I walked out of my street I ran into a sea of people: they seemed to pouring in from nowhere, and dispersing into nowhere. Actually they were out shopping in the multi-storeyed malls selling sarees, jewellery and steel utensils. As I walked past these shops, the chilled breeze wafting out of their air-conditioned interiors soothed the body totally unused to jostling through a multitude of people – so many people that I felt lost.
I wanted to ask for directions to the bar. But then, Madras is a conservative place, I was told. So I asked for the direction to Foodworld, a departmental store; Pugazhendi had said the bar was somewhere around there. “Foodworld is near to Apollo pharmacy,” one respectable-looking man, wearing a trident of sandalwood on his forehead, said. “Take right and go straight.”
I took the right and went straight and against asked someone, “Which way is Apollo pharmacy?” “Go straaaaight!” he said straightening his arm. “You will see a big hotel, The Residency. Apollo is opposite to that.”
Near ‘to’ this, opposite ‘to’ that – I was now getting used to the Madras lingo.
I didn’t need to go to the bar Pugazhendi had recommended. I had spotted a shop, bearing a signboard, Senthil Wines. I bought a half-bottle of whisky, hoping to smuggle it into the mansion, when a young boy, barely 15, said, “Sir, the bar is this side.” I looked up at the signboard again. It said Senthil Wines and then, in small letters, Bar Attached.
The bar turned out to be slightly bigger than my room in the mansion – the air inside thick with cigarette smoke and the sharp smell of alcohol. And it was dirty: empty water pouches and cigarette butts were strewn across the floor.“Side-snacks, sir?” the same boy asked, as he brought me a plastic glass and a bottle of water. I wanted to ask what all did he have for snacks, but language was a problem.
So I turned to the man who shared the rickety table with me. He looked well-dressed enough to speak English – the logic being if you are dressed decently, you must be educated; and if you are educated, you must be speaking English. This man did. “Try Chicken 65,” he said. The dish turned out to be deep-fried pieces of chicken served with slices of onion and lemon.We – the English-speaking man and I – got talking. His name, he said, was Anand – a Brahmin – and that he was a web designer. I gave him the address of my new office and asked him where exactly it was located. “Opposite to Spencer’s Plaza,” he said.
Meanwhile, another man – dark, impoverished-looking and wearing a dirty shirt and even a dirtier dhoti – joined us at the table. The white spots of lime on his shirt were fresh: he seemed to have just finished white-washing some wall. He unscrewed a quarter-bottle of rum and ordered a Chicken 65 as well.
Something struck me: The rickety table had achieved what social reformers in India could not achieve all these years. It had brought together two men, one a Brahmin, supposed to be of the Aryan stock who wears his faith in God on his forehead, his neck and his fingers; the other a Dravid, the native who has only recently been empowered by God-baiting parties that rule Tamil Nadu today. Or was it because alcohol is thicker than blood?
When I stepped out of the bar, I found there were more people drinking outside, on the pavement, than inside the stuffy room. They squatted in clusters – some of them even wearing ties – and merrily poured their drinks. I was surveying the scene when I was suddenly distracted by the sounds of nadaswaram – South Indian trumpet – and drums. I turned back to find a temple just across the road: a priest was waving burning camphor in front of the deity while about a dozen devotees watched, their hands folded in prayer.
Religion and alcohol don’t usually blend in India, but here in Madras, it was blending beautifully. Religion also cohabits here peacefully with rationality – as I came to realise within days of being in Madras – just as different religions coexist peacefully. Madras and its suburban districts are perhaps host to most Hindu temples and most Hindu organisations than possibly any other metropolitan city in India, yet the two primary political parties of Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are – at least in principle – anti-God.
Their common mentor is a man called E.V. Ramasami, known more popularly as Periyar (the great man) who died in 1973 at the age of 94 and who, by then, had firmly laid the foundation of a Dravid movement by decrying God and the caste-system. But in Madras I have often been woken up in the nights by the sound of crackers and nadaswarams. Whenever I went to the balcony to find the source of the excitement, I found a procession of devotees following the idol of a God or Goddess placed on a vehicle.
In North India, religious processions – leave alone midnight processions like these – can spark off riots. Hindus slaughter Muslims, Muslims stab Hindus, or so the newspapers say. In any case, people die. Maybe that’s because North India has seen more communal violence than the South.Ever since the 11th century Hindu rulers in the North were fighting Muslim invaders above the Himalayas. But by then Muslims from Arabia were already engaged in peaceful trade with Kerala. And by the time Christian missionaries came to Calcutta with the British forces in the 18th century, hundreds, if not thousands, of South Indians had already embraced Christianity. Madras is home to St. Thomas Mount, the hill where the disciple of Jesus is said to have been murdered.
In any case, the present day North India was born from the womb of religious violence. When the country was partitioned in 1947, Muslims from the North Indian states migrated to Pakistan and Hindus from Pakistan came to settle in these states. The exchange of population was voluntary but violent, and the biggest casualty was religious tolerance. South India, long adapted to religious tolerance through trade, remained untouched by the carnage. Here, Hindus and Muslims, as well as Christians were – and still are – bound by language and culture.
In the South, especially in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, it is difficult to tell who’s a Hindu or who’s a Muslim or a Christian till you get to know their names. And they take pride not in their religion but in the language they speak, be it Tamil or Malayalam. And language, at the moment, was the biggest problem for me.
After walking out of the bar that night, I had suddenly forgotten the address of my mansion. I only remembered its name. I flagged down a few scooter-rickshaws and asked, “J.K. Mansion?” The drivers asked, “Inge saar?” (Where is it, sir?). I could’ve perhaps explained in English, but in Tamil I was helpless. In desperation, I flagged down a young man riding a motorcycle. In normal course I would’ve avoided a man like him: he looked like a thug, wearing an unkempt beard and a black lungi. He didn’t stop initially, but eventually he slowed down. I thought he slowed down because he had found a prey, but at that point, I thought it was better to be robbed than be stranded outside a wine shop in a new city.
I went to him and explained my plight, only expecting him to grin. But his face went grim and he fished out his mobile phone to make a call. “Where is this J.K. Mansions?” he asked the person on the other end, in English. After a few minutes of conversation on the phone, he told me, “Come sir, I will drop you.” He deposited me at the gate of my mansion and I almost felt like touching his feet.
The next morning I found Pugazhendi knocking at my door. He took me house-hunting but nothing came of it. So the day after, he called a broker. The broker found me a house and since then, I’ve been living there (or should I say 'here'?). It’s been five years and I have grown to love Madras more than any other place, but every time someone asks for directions to my office, I tend to say, “Opposite to Spencer Plaza.”