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.

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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.