Where Everybody Knows Your Name…

A link to this post on Huffpost:


Growing up in the early 70s and 80s, every household in Madras and Pondicherry (and I suspect, everywhere in India) was surrounded by a small village. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

Our grandparents’ house in Purasaiwalkam where I spent my early years in a joint family, and pretty much every summer vacation after we moved to Pondicherry, was a teeming hub of life, and part of a complete ecosystem that sustained itself.

We lived in an upstairs portion overlooking the super busy Tana Street, across the big church which was always a happening place. It had a huge bell that rang every hour (I think). Purasaiwalkam and the neighboring Vepery, being home to many Anglo Indians, there were always weddings happening there, with the brides dressed in actual “western” style gowns, sporting short bobs.

Downstairs was Dinesh Bakery – run by a Keralite guy. Even though we didn’t traditionally eat bread in our typical Tambrahm family (bread was, typically, a “fever” food), there were exceptions when a cousin from Delhi visited, and his mom, my aunt, would buy fresh bread and load it up with butter bought from a family a few houses down the street. I haven’t had bread like that, or the wholesome, thick, creamy, golden yellow butter, although Kerry Gold comes close, since my childhood. The mornings always smelled of freshly baked bread, in odd symphony with the aroma of dal, and the ghee-laden tempering of hot rasam, and incense and camphor from the puja room.

A couple of streets down, there was “Kanniyappan Provision Store”, the family grocer. Every time we visited Madras, a trip to Kanniappan store was a must. Ah, the things that made us happy! The store had the peculiar smell of gunny sacks, spices, sugar candy, “kadalai urundai” (peanut brittle), and all kinds of mysterious things. The lighting was part natural and muted. When “Aradhana”, the Hindi movie (that’s what we called them before there was Bollywood, and before “Boycott Hindi” was a big thing down south) was released and was a big hit, the story goes that Kanniappan actually named his newborn granddaughter Sharmila Tagore – last name and all.

Then there was the incense seller who visited the house, bringing his wares, and the whole family sat and chatted with him. The downstairs also housed a textile store, Maraikair Bros, and I would spend hours at his store, dreaming up dresses made of the beautiful fabrics. Mr. Maraikair (not sure what his first name was, he was always Marakair mama to us) had a handkerchief tied around his head. I am amazed at how well his face and his voice are permanently etched in my memory, even as I struggle to remember names of my coworkers from a few years ago.

In Pondicherry, I remember the lady who came around selling yogurt every morning (“thayirkaari”). And the “kudukudupandi”, the fortune teller, shaking his mini drum, and chanting “nalla kalam porakkudhu” (good times are here), in that peculiar sing song tone.

This guy was the father of the chain mail. If we gave him money, we would be blessed with a wedding in the family, good times, big lottery wins, and the next baby born will be a boy (we are a family of five girls). Heaven help us if we didn’t – our family would be cursed with very bad luck for a very long time. We were terrified of this guy.

There was also the “keerai kaari”, the lady who sold all kinds of greens. And the various vendors throughout the day who would make the trip to sell their wares – fruits, pots and pans, sarees, anything at all!

If that was all the vendors, there were entertainers on the street as well – the famous “puli aatam” in which guys painted themselves like a tiger and danced on the streets, and the guy who staged a snake-mongoose fight with an actual mongoose and a snake, and the “poikal kuthirai” in which people stood in life-size horse models tied around their waist and danced. It was all fascinating for a little kid.

There was also the beach, with its “thengai manga pattani sundal” (boiled peas seasoned with tart mango pieces, coconuts and lime juice, absolute to die for snack). I don’t remember the old lady of Marina beach at this age. She seems to have become a fixture in the late 80s, the fortune teller who tells every girl with a guy that she should have been born a boy in a scary, foreboding tone, and extracts a hefty sum. What girl wouldn’t fall for this line when she’s with her date? I didn’t realize she said the same line to every girl until much, much later, in my 30s, when I met a girl from Madras who said she was told the exact same thing by an old fortune teller at the Marina beach!

I miss those days when we go back to visit – these days, everything is delivered with a phone call. While the convenience cannot be beaten, I am nostalgic for the charm the old way of life held, a pace that was relaxed, and immersed us in each experience. How many of us know the grocer’s granddaughter’s name anymore?


Puli Aatam (Tiger Dance)

poikal kuthirai

Poikal Kudhirai (Horse with Fake Legs)




Characters from my childhood: Nagaraj

His name was (is?) Nagaraj. To say he was unusual would be like saying the sun is bright – that is, for those who knew him. He was the servant in our house in Madras (now Chennai – still can’t get used to it) or as they’re known here, “the help”. He or his mom came everyday, twice a day, to wash the dishes, sweep and mop the floor, and wash the clothes.

Nagaraj voluntarily took on the extra job of bossing everyone of us around. We were scared of setting him off because that kid had a mouth on him. When I think of him now, he couldn’t have been older than 14 or 15. About our age. We (the four of us sisters) lived with out grandparents, aunts and uncle while my dad worked in Kenya, then Nigeria during a crucial time in our lives. My mom traveled back and forth. To say the least, it was a difficult time for everyone concerned for a lot of reasons that this post is not about.

But Nagaraj made our everyday lives a bit more colorful. I mentioned he was unusual. How, you ask? Well, for one, I think it was unusual to have a male servant. But it was more than that. He made beautiful, complex “kolam” designs with rice flour – popularly known as “rangoli” art that would put all the Tamil women who compete in kolam designs in the month of margazhi (December) like their life depended on it, to shame. He sang haunting melodious folk songs that none of us understood. He was tall, skinny, midnight dark with big white teeth, and a mop of curly hair. And some mornings he would show up wearing a bright red cloth over his clothes, with ash smeared on his face and a big circular red vermillion mark on his forehead. Rumor had it that he went to the graveyard in the nights and participated in scary rituals. On those days, we learned to stay clear of him and not annoy him – we were terrified he would invoke the wrath of some scary ghost on us.

He was super sensitive. He especially had a love-hate relationship with my sister who never met an argument she didn’t love 😉 – just kidding, PS. Let’s say she was spunky – yeah that’s the word I’m looking for. Anyway, it took close to nothing to set these two off. And all of a sudden, Nagaraj would be saying things like “What do you say now? Are you saying I should fall at your feet?” – clearly putting words in my sister’s mouth. (In pure Madras thamizh: “ippo innaangare nee? un kaal-la vuzhanuma?”

My sister, of course, wasn’t one to let him have the last word: “If that’s what you want, who am I to stop you?” (“onakku vizhanumna vizhen!”)

And all of a sudden, a crazy morning with 7 people getting ready for work/school with one bathroom in the house, all before 8 am, would escalate to levels matching the Iran-Iraq conflict.

He also had nick names for some of the privileged ones. My cousin, S, whose only fault was having a vague Telugu ancestry was fondly christened “Anjali Devi” (a popular old time chubby Telugu actor) by him. Every time she came to visit, he would speak to her in Telugu, and call her Anjali Devi, which made the poor girl run crying to her mom.

I’m sure there are so many other memories of Nagaraj that my sisters remember. Quirky, bossy, artistic, talented like nobody’s business – he was one of those people who owned every room they were in. If he hadn’t been born poor, if he had had opportunities that other kids his age had, I have no doubts he would be running a company or something now.

Pasumai Niraindha Ninaivugale (It was the best of times…)

Signs of spring everywhere.   It feels like the whole city’s dynamics is suddenly different.  Pulsing, alive, expectant.  My tulips are in bloom.  My daughter is home.  Hah…that almost rhymed.

We survived her 1st year of college, away from home.  She survived.  She is a more confident, more independent version of herself after the past 8 months.  She has promised to spend time with us…already planning evenings of playing euchre, literature, scrabble, or watching our favorite shows as a family – House, How I met your mother, Big Bang Theory…  Spring is my most favorite season – a time for rejuvenation and hope.  The darkness of the winter past buried with the snow – laid to rest for now.

When I think of my younger self, and good times, Pondicherry beach always tops the list. Followed by, in no particular order: waiting for the children’s magazine “Gokulam” every Thursday and fighting with my sister to lay my hands on it first (loved the Vikramaditya stories – still do with a passion – they are THE BEST – he’s my hero, hands down!), fun with my cousins playing ‘ezhu kal’, Trade (Monopoly for those in the US), being able to see the beach from the mottai maadi (terrace) of the house in Pondy.

(I remember believing the grown-ups when they told us we couldn’t go to the beach on Sundays because it was closed but that’s a whole other story about my naivete or stupidity as some people would say)

I also grew up in a family that loved stories. My mom fed us dinner with stories of  Cinderalla, some version of the Beauty and the Beast, a story about 3 sisters Rupavathi, Kalavathi and Gunavathi. (No prizes for guessing their character traits, and who sticks with her father when he’s old and broke!)  She didn’t have access to a lot of resources, and spent her life taking care of her family – I am amazed that she knew these stories because I don’t think her mother (my paati, Perambur paati as we called her) couldn’t have told her either.  (note to self: ask amma about this).

I was the chosen company for my Purasawalkam patti (paternal paati) when she went to the ‘katha kalakshebams’ at the temple during summers. (I think the real reason was no one else wanted to go).  And came to love the stories of Ramayana and other Indian mythology.

My dad’s stories were fun and action-filled animal stories from Panchatantra – complete with sound effects.  The crow in the ‘Paati – vadai – kaka’ story always sang ‘chowdvi kaa chand ho’ when the cunning fox asked it to sing, to steal the vadai.

I have continued this with my kids.  I’ve told them stories – some made up, some read from books.  They both until very recently would ask me shamelessly to read or tell them stories at bed time J (seriously though, I don’t think one is ever too old for stories…)

I loved the beach – the Gandhi statue which was (is?)  the landmark of the Pondicherry beach, with the narrow steps leading down to the beach, the ‘pattani sundal’ with the tart mango pieces and chillies.  To this day, the ocean calms me down.   Whenever I’m stressed seriously, I crave the ocean – the salty air, the never-ending blue shimmering in the sun, the deafening roar of the crashing waves.  It’s a meditative experience – I always come back recharged, refreshed and my creative juices flowing.

Then once we moved to Chennai in my 9th grade, life was different.   I took a while to come into my own and went through some confusing and difficult times.  Then came my +2 years.  We were a group of 8 girls who hung out all the time together – Padma and Shanti who were almost like twins, Rajni and Chandra the quietest, sweetest and the nerdiest, Mythili and me who were best friends for those 2 years, and Rachel, and Usha, a super tall, super skinny Telugu girl who brought really hot Andhra food for lunch. I loved her tomato rice and she would bring a whole separate box just for me on days she brought the tomato rice. Trying to get into the lunch boxes before the lunch hour was the greatest accomplishment we looked forward to every day.

We argued about everything – Who was a better music director (Ilayaraja or M S V), better director (Balachander or Bharathi Raja), sexier actor (Kamal or Rajni), everything under the sun. Debates with our Commerce teacher (Zeenat) would get pretty heated …I remember one particular one – is footwear a necessity? This one went on for a long time. Ms Zeenat, vivacious and young, encouraged us to be open about everything.

I remember reading (and crying over) ‘Love Story’ by Erich Segal at school under the tree we used to hang out at, during a free period.  ( I watched it recently – and kinda surprised – it did nothing for me…)

 And of course, guys. There were 2 handsome guys who came to audit the accounts at our all girls, Christian missionary school – one short and handsome, and the other tall and handsome. They had close to a mob worship going on considering it was an all-girls school.  Nothing happened – just a lot of ogling.  But that was our big thrill back in those days. Of course, we were all seriously obsessed with cricket. I was ‘in love’ with Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer (later married an English girl…sigh…)….Wonder what he’s up to now.

College was more subdued, but still fun. My best years were my 11th and 12th grades. I was close to Rachel, and kept in touch until a few years ago. Those were the carefree days. You could forget all your troubles when you’re with your friends. We could solve all the world’s problems – nothing was out of reach.  So idealistic, rebellious, impractical!

It was the best of times!

Marina Beach And Kadalai

I am writing this under threats that a certain person who shall be nameless will end our marriage if I publish it.  Because this exposes him in a light his family has never seen him before and his family (for that matter most of my family) thinks he has descended straight from the heavens and his image will be tarnished forever.  And, I’ve gone and invited all his family to read my wonderful blog.

But truth – especially one that is actually funny in retrospect (after 20 years the scars have finally healed and I can truly laugh at it) seeks light and it shall set us free.   Okay okay…enough of the nail-biting, edge of the seat suspense – I’ll come to the story, at the risk of ending my marriage!

Back in the days when Raj and I were newly engaged (we had a loooong engagement period of 8 months) we would, as most couples do in Chennai, go to the Marina beach to hang out.  One of those days, we apparently had selected a spot that was, well, a bit sketchy because Krish Ashok had not blogged about what places to avoid here.

This place we selected turned out to be a hotspot for police raids.  (Do you see where I’m going with this?)

It was dark, a moonlit night…seriously though we were not doing anything that should not be done in public.  (I can sense R cringing – mama and maami, if you’re reading this, don’t say a word to R, just talk to me about it – and save yourselves and R years of therapy.)

Louve Boat

So suddenly there were cops around us – a lady cop for me and a Karate Mani type for R.  We tried explaining to them that we were really engaged, really, wedding invitations have been printed, and both our parents had given their blessings.

Me:  naanga rendu perum kalyanam pannika porom.  Engagement aayidithu (we’re going to get married, we’re engaged).

Lady Cop:  ivannallam nambathey-mma.  Appadithan solluvaanunga.  Apram kazhatti vittuduvaanunga.  Vera enna sonnan?

(don’t trust these scoundrels – they’ll say anything and then will ditch you..  What else did he tell you?)

Me:  illa illa nejamaa enna kalyanam pannikka porar.  Enga appavukku kooda theriyum.

(No no he’s really going to marry.  He promised.  Even my dad knows).

But clearly we were not having an impact.   Back in those days, there were no cell phones (does this date me? oh well) so couldn’t call my parents.  We were taken to the police tasun.  They called my father.  Who was luckily at home, and came to the station with a wedding invitation and confirmed our story.  And they let us go.

Suffice to say, we couldn’t face Marina beach for a long time after this incident.   I was recently reading Krish Ashok’s blog and came across this entry about the sweet spots for lowers in Chennai and it brought back a rush of memories that I HAD TO SHARE with the whole wide internet.  When I told Raj, he was vehemently opposed to it and threatened to end our marriage.  I had to go into the legalities of what the ‘my’ in MY blog means, and really, it is funny in retrospect.

I mean it was really touching – the lady cop convinced R was a no-good romeo just out for a good time, and would discard me like kariveppilai or worse, murungaikai (curry leaf or drumstick, all chewed out) and go marry a rich Andhra girl whose daddy would fund his finance business…oh wait, that’s Kandu Konden Kandu Konden – digressing!

But this was back in 1989.  I cannot believe the attitudes are still not very different 20 years later….guess that’s part of Chennai’s charm!

Molaga Bajji

To read Krish Ashok’s hilarious post, go here:


PS.  If you see me in the ditch at the traffic light near the Keystone Mall, holding up the following sign after R reads this post – please stop and help!

‘ Will blog for food  (vegetarian, preferably S Indian) and shelter’.