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)




Madras Memories: Puli

We only knew him as ‘puli’—the word for tiger in the Tamil language.   He is one of my earliest scary memories.

We could see into his balcony from the terrace or the balcony in the back of our grandparents’ house in Madras. He was always pacing. Catlike. We had heard stories about him—bad stories, scary stories. To this day, I don’t know the origin of these stories because no one in our family had ever met him. As if he knew we kids were watching him from our balcony he would suddenly stop and turn to look at us.  This usually sent us screaming inside.   I remember his eyes were unblinking, and catlike.

The stories we heard about puli were wild. How he came to be called ‘puli’ (his eyes were yellow like a tiger’s), and most terrorizing to us kids, that he had a girl tied up in chains inside the room by the balcony where he could be seen. This girl was supposed to be his sister, and mentally unstable. That he was guarding this mad person. And that he never let her out of the house. Never fed her.

If you have ever walked on Tana Street, you know it’s a madhouse. My grandfather’s house was across from a church. We would go for walks in evenings to the market to buy the day’s vegetables, and crossing the spot where his house was, in the back of Tana Street, was comparable to going past a cemetery. I would literally hold my breath and was very aware of his house, and the catlike stare and the pacing, until I passed it.

My grandparents eventually moved away from Tana Street but we never solved the mystery of the tiger. I wonder what was really going on in that house. I wonder if puli is still alive. I don’t know why I suddenly thought about him today, but it’s one of those memories that still sends shivers up my spine.

Is this an irrational fear or a sixth sense? I don’t know…and hope to never find out.

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.