A Madras Memory

I sit cross-legged atop the cemented water tank on our terrace and look up. From the highest point of our house, all I can see are walls of neighbouring houses taller than ours. The tip of our neighbour’s mango tree peeps into our roof dangling its plump green fruits as if to taunt us. Take one if you dare.

To the untrained ear, it seems a calm and quiet evening. Pause. It is anything but. I attune myself to the stillness around me and find in it a gentle presence.

The sound of faint but persistent ambulance sirens drifts into an off-key crescendo and recedes into the distance. A koel perched on a Peepal tree coos its soft buttery song to distract a crow away from its nest. Heavy drops of water slowly drip from a pipe creating an orchestral echo inside the water tank I sit on.

I gaze up at the sky, at its seemingly endless expanse. Each time I look away, it changes colour. I focus in the middle and try to take in all the sky at once. Velvety violet weaves through folds of crimson hues. I watch wide-eyed, careful not to miss a moment of this sultry Madras sunset.

I think about how I will reminisce this evening a few months later when I return to my two-bedroom tomb in a foreign land. Alone, in unforgiving winters, reaching for old memories.

I decide to test myself. I close my eyes and bite my lip. The devil is in the details. I squint and force myself to picture the silhouette of the magnolia tree across the street, its leaves filtering the sun’s scarlet rays, the outline of a ragpicker’s shadow flitting past, the intricate ridges in the cracked cement underneath my feet. I sigh in exasperation. Making memories is hard work.

Defeated, I glance sideways.

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With his dhoti tied up, wearing brand new running shoes that haven’t yet been broken in, my grandfather walks in circles around the terrace, his face a picture of quiet determination. Beads of perspiration adorn his brows. Long white strands of hair carefully brushed across his balding scalp gently sway in the light breeze. He wears a white baniyan with splotches of pale blue, like fading Rorschach tests on ragged cloth.

“It’s going to get dark soon,” he looks up at me and says. “Come walk with me.”

“It’s such a bore, Thatha,” I whine. I see no point in walking solely for walking’s sake. I have a far more important purpose today – imprinting a memory of this sunset evening.

My grandfather calls out to me again, “Quickly come, look what I found.” He peers over the stunted wall of the terrace and points to a fresh coconut frond fallen on the street in front of our house. I look at him excitedly. We both know what that means.

I hurriedly jump down from my royal perch atop the tank and land in a half squat nimbly on my toes. “Careful ma!” my grandfather cries out. “If you twist your ankle…”, he shakes his head.

I smile slyly at his worried face and run down the stairs brushing past him. My hair tied into a neat ponytail, bobs up and down, in rhythmic synchronicity with my stride. I pick up the feather-like frond and hold it up like a sword. “Come fast, Thatha. Or meet your fate.”

We sit side by side on the staircase as he slowly braids the pinnate coconut leaves.

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It is now dusk. His large hands, with veins bulging, move in steady motions, with bursts of swiftness. My eyes dart back and forth and lose track midway. He twists and turns narrow shafts of swampy green and murky yellow to form delicate little figurines.

He proudly hands me one. “A dog,” he says. I laugh. “You mean a giraffe. Look at its weird neck and sickly tail.” He feigns shock and pretends to take offence. “No no, it is what I say it is,” he says resolutely.

“Here, take this cat.”

“No! A horse, maybe,” I exclaim.

“A monkey?” He hands me another one questioningly.

I giggle. “No, a sheep.”

A bat flying overhead suddenly swoops past us in a downward arc, flapping its wings in silent defiance. Startled, I look up. The sky is dark and melancholic. Moonlight gleams through translucent curtains of heavy Mammatus clouds.

I sit hugging my knees. I’m mildly disappointed that the moon has risen, leaving my sunset incomplete. Nearby, the sound of crickets chirping falls in sharp contrast to the raucous squawking of a trio of rowdy crows.

My grandmother’s loud, stern voice cuts through the din as she calls out to us. A delicious whiff of spice blends with petrichor and wafts across creating an olfactory symphony.

“Masala vada?” I ask, brightening up. My grandfather turns to me and whispers, “These are uppu rottalu, the pauper’s vada – a special recipe from my village. Try as you may, you won’t find these anywhere else today”.

A sudden downpour descends on us, and we scuttle inside. The feast begins. Crunchy patties of deep-fried goodness disappear down our throats faster than my mother’s quicksand temper.

My grandfather recounts with fondness tales of his childhood as we wipe the steel plate clean. He describes his big brother’s annoying habit of spitting paan onto dried flowers strewn on the street. His mother’s back always hunched over, burdened with caring for six children. His father’s strong, sweaty shoulders carrying him over crowds gathered in village carnivals.

“It’s odd how of all the things, it is the people I remember the most,” he remarks.

Outside, the rain beats down relentlessly. His stories appear to invite thunderous applause.

Later that night, I lie on my grandmother’s lap. Her body softly vibrates against my skin as she speaks. I close my eyes and a slight smile escapes my lips. My tummy and heart full, my memory complete.

Chandni Suresh is a rehabilitation counselor based in Maryland, with a penchant for overly romanticising nostalgia.

Featured image credit: Kavya P K/Unsplash