On this date, exactly nine years ago, I was in the train. I must be somewhere around Bhopal around this moment, having left Delhi the night before, excited about the 24-hour journey that still lay ahead of me. I was coming to south India for the first time. I was coming to Madras.
Memories of those days somehow remain frozen. Songs of Minnale were a rage. The streets were clean. The roads were still empty. Autorickshaw drivers could not dream of buying a mobile phone. The building I live in was packed with people. My neighbours ignored the number of women visitors I had; instead they chose to be impressed by the number of books on my shelves. A picture of Swami Vivekananda, sitting on the bookshelf, also helped.
Today. There is no such Tamil song which can be considered a big hit, registering even in the ears of those who don't understand the language. The streets are either dug up or littered with garbage (cleanliness is being compromised ever since Neel Metal Fanalca took over from Exnora). The less said about the roads the better. Even the maid carries a cellphone. As for my neighbours, there are not many people left. People my age or younger are all in the US, turning the building into an old-age home. People who remain have gotten used to my ways.
What I miss most is the silence of my street. I remember the days when I would run out of cigarettes and walk out of my street into the busy North Usman Road, buy cigarettes and come back and smoke one on the street standing outside my gate, listening to the birds chirp. Today, the street has become a thoroughfare because of the new flyover on North Usman Road, which begins right in front of my street. Vehicles not taking the flyover keep piling up at the mouth of the street, causing a constant jam, and all those who want to avoid it find my street to be the escape route!
Some things have not changed, though. Muni amma is still there. The day I moved into the flat nine years ago, it was Muni amma who had painstakingly cleaned it up with 'Surf water'. When I tipped her Rs 50, my neighbhour admonished me saying it was too much. Twenty-rupees would have done, she said. Muni amma subsequently became my maid, always being kind and motherly and never raising an eyebrow at my lifestyle. Once in a while, though, she would hint to me that it was time for my kalyaanam, or marriage. Today, she lives in the building, her son being the new watchman. She walks with a limp and has become too old to work as a maid. She is one person I've known the longest in Chennai, and she was one person who cried when she heard the news of my mother's death. My mother could speak Tamil and got along very well with Muni amma.
And then the fruitseller at the end of my street. For the first few years after coming to Chennai, I would buy apples from him on a regular basis. He must be 40 years old then, and he would sit there with his son, who must have been 10 or 12. Soon supermarkets sprang up in the neighbourhood and I stopped going to him. And after I got married, it was wife who was shopping for grocery anyway. The fruitseller was forgotten. Just the other day I noticed him again. He must have been there all these years and months, but I had somehow become blind to him. And now I saw him: his hair had all turned grey and he did not get up from his stool upon seeing me, like he did before. I had become a stranger for him. His son was now a man. And why not: if he was 12 then, he must be 21 now! How silly of me to have expected him to remain a small boy. That's when I realised that nine years have passed.
Did similar thoughts cross the fruitseller's mind too when he saw me the other day? If yes, what were they? Maybe I don't want to know them.