Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Roots I never knew I had

I recently went on a three day visit to Coimbatore, where most of my mother's family lives.
Since I was sulking all the way on the train I stared out of the window most of the time and had plenty of time to notice how the scenery changed. I fell asleep after having stared the entire evening at red soil, dry brush and scorched grasses. I woke up to a very different sight. Coimbatore lies near the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the land of coconuts leaves its unmistakable stamp on this place. The scenery outside looked like someone from the heavens had- in a careless fit of largess- upturned several buckets of emerald green paint over the earth. Fields and fields of banana and coconut trees rushed past us. The colour was almost blinding... only once have I seen such a green before, in the young mustard fields of Punjab.

We reached the sleepy station of Coimbatore and there I received the impression that never quite left me through the trip. No one speaks anything but Tamil there and several men scorn to discard their veshtis for the more modern trousers. The flashy advertisement boards outside show the latest designs in silk sarees as cows walk placidly amid the traffic. The smell is a mixture of the sickeningly sweet odour of fresh cowdung, mixed with the smoke coughed up from the bellies of busy vehicles, tinged with the intoxicating perfume of the jasmine flowers all women there wear in their hair. The whole place is like a town that should logically grow into a large pococurante metropolis but is held back by a rigid orthodox people who cling proudly but desperately to a fast fading way of life.

Coimbatore overflows with relatives I never knew I possessed. Tamil is such an exact language that every relative has a specific name that I must call them by, not like English where Uncle and Aunt would suffice. My grandmother was one of a brood of eleven, three siblings and seven half-siblings (my great grandfather having remarried after my great grandmother's death). To complicate matters still further, my mother's sister married her uncle, my grandmother's half-brother. I'm informed that such marriages are quite common in Tamil Nadu where people are still painfully proud of their caste. Indeed love marriages are still looked upon very disparagingly. Several times have I been told things like, "She had no character, raced into a love marriage at twenty three!" or, "She was a good girl, she waited until her father found a suitable groom for her".
However that may be, I was drawn into a bewildering maze of relatives all of whom wanted to see me and remember when they'd seen me last in the days of my infancy, and to see how many of my mother's features I had inherited. These are all educated people, there are high school principals and chartered accountants and mill owners among their number. But in every house I went to I found that though at their work they might compromise to modernity, their lives had always been rigidly traditional. Several husbands I heard praised for being so lenient as to "let" their wives work. I was highly praised everywhere I went, not for getting into IIT-no... but rather for my singing, my alleged knowledge of cooking and the docility of my behavior. One aged relative very nearly risked receiving a plateful of sweetmeats in his face when he sampled my cooking and said by way of blessing me, "After all, what does a man need but a wife who cooks well and keeps the house clean." Now, when I have had time for reflection, the incident seems more humorous to me than anything else. A couple of years ago I would have impetuously exclaimed at such antiquated notions, and engaged him in an avid debate on the rights of women. I am, I hope, slightly wiser now.

Most women there are housewives, and even my mother- college lecturer that she is- is looked upon as a modern miss. The women begin their day with making breakfast and seeing their husbands off. The morning is spent in prayers, gossip, cooking and the ubiquitous Hindi soaps. Ekta Kapoor is an influence that not even the most stringent Brahmins have been able to keep out. The women may mot understand much Hindi, but come one thirty they are glued to the television. My Grandmother herself who speaks not a word of Hindi, told me the entire story of Tulsi and of all the persecutions that much maligned damsel has undergone. In the evenings when their husbands return, they retire grandly to rest, while the wives who have meanwhile dressed freshly and threaded jasmine buds through their hair, bustle about to prepare dinner. After dinner is a time for conversation before bed, which is in many households, still a sheet spread on the ground.

An outing to a temple is the preferred pastime of a Sunday morning and accordingly, I was woken up at 5:30 am to accompany Perippa to a temple atop a hill. Too groggy to protest my atheism, I listened to Perimma's animated description of the beauty of the idols. I was warned that I was in for a very thrilling ride as the route up the hill comprised several hairpin bends. What I was not warned of was that Perippa at his at his most dashing traveled at 40kmph on his Honda Activa. Conscious of me, a delicately nurtured female, as his cargo, he never exceeded twenty. As we drove along the sun rose, women washed doorsteps and buffaloes ambled past. When we reached the hill finally, Perippa slowed to almost a halt and we negotiated the aforementioned hairpin bends with hair-raising caution, tooting the horn loudly as we inched along while mules looked at us in mild surprise.

That evening I accompanied my Grandmother to our family temple. In Coimbatore, every street has atleast one temple. This one belonged especially to our family and believe it or not, only brahmins are allowed inside! As I made my way into the dimly lit interior, I was shown photographs of my ancestors as my grandmother told me of how when she was a girl, a hundred brahmins would be fed at a time inside that very same temple. She spoke of how musicians would sing there and my great-great grandfather would perform all the pooja rites himself in front of our family idol. Now, it is dark and silent. The priest lives in a room at the back with his wife and two young children. There is a smell of incense and grease, the very stones seem weary. Their time is past.

The next evening, my last there, was spent in a very different way. I was taken to Chennai silks, that Mecca of all saree buyers. They have floors for different fabrics, sarees in just about every price range and a bewildering array of designs. The attendants all speak only Tamil and patiently help as you sift through saree after saree. Women sit there for hours arguing over prices and fabrics and designs. I wandered over all five floors as my mother bought her favorite cotton prints.
That night I was taken to visit the last of my mother's Mama's. He had recently given his daughter in marriage and was extremely proud of the wedding video. Unfortunately he also owned a new fangled DVD player that he did not know how to use, as a result of which I was inflicted with the footage of the bridegroom's Kasi yatra ceremony three times. By the time we staggered out of there, three hours later, I was firmly determined that if I get married it will be in a registrar's office and no videography will be permitted.

As I sat in the train the next afternoon and watched that verdant scenery roll by, I thought of the past three days and of the blog entry I would write when I got home, of the relatives I never knew I had and of the life I was returning to.
But most of all, I thought of those people, clinging determinedly to a fading past and of watching the sun rise from the rear seat of a Honda Activa, as buffaloes ambled past.