As so often is the case, the very worst news needs to be delivered when you completely inaccessible. I was on a train and out of network coverage, so my father, ever ingenious, tracked my express down by bombarding the traffic controller out of Secunderabad with incessant phone calls. This is how I found myself woken up in the middle of the night by a extremely portly station manager and told to de-train immediately. “Your uncle A has died. There’s a train back home in half hour from here. Catch it.”
The thing about him was that he was tall. Much taller than his five brothers, who were mostly medium height and of indifferent build. His head was a perfect balding oblong, much like Jean-Luc Picard’s. He even had the same pained grimace when the occasion demanded such a response. His face was long with an aquiline nose. His slightly large ears dwarfed by out-of-style thick sideburns. He mostly wore white shirts and brown trousers and never went anywhere without his thick handled leather case.
My earliest memory of him has to do with his handwriting. Of all the brothers, he had almost the same beauty and simplicity of writing style as my father. He had written inviting us over to Coimbatore for our summer vacation. “It would be great if you could come with your family and stay”, he said. The g in particular, with its perfect double storyed squiggle caught my eye. On my first visit to his new house in Kovaipudur, a suburb, he took me down to the post office. Both of us licking stamps to mail invites to his son’s thread ceremony. I greatly enjoyed eating the rice-gum paste. Over the many years and visits to his house, he became a sort of grandfather figure to me. He was quite older to my father and displayed a gruff gravitas towards him that I had not seen others do. It helped that I had never known my grandfather well. “That old guy” as I used to insultingly and dismissively call him was never much of a talker. Too vain to acknowledge his failures as a person, his ill health and advancing age, he passed on mouthing monosyllables and being angry at his sons.
Uncle A worked in the Indian Railways as an instructor at the signalling institute at Podanur, another suburb of Coimbatore. Often, he would take me down to his office and I would be allowed to sit in on his classes to junior engineers. I would marvel at his command over the subject as he moved about the large models, gesturing and explaining the workings to a bunch of bored twenty-something year olds.
On other occasions, he would drop me off at Madukkarai station where his friend worked as a station master. It was at Madukkarai, with its looming, dry, pre-monsoon hill in the background, I first discovered the intricate workings of the railway. The ding and cackle of the internal telephone, the glowing lights of the signal switch board and the infrequent punch of the Edmondson card ticket machine. It was also here at Madukkarai that I fully realized how much I loved the railways and how much I wanted it to be a part of my life. On certain evenings, both of us would come and sit at the far end of the platform and watch trains go by. The power, precision and timing of the locomotive and the arresting sound of steel wheels on steel rails made a deep impression on me. As if he knew how I felt, he would acknowledge with a deep, comforting smile.
He also loved his wife very much and unlike most men of that time, he had no issues demonstrating his affections publicly. I would often be red faced as I watched the both of them nudge and embrace and gently kiss each other while they walked and tended to their garden. He cooked often and in the later years when my aunt was seriously ill, he would teach himself to make the carbohydrate rich, low salt, low fat, low protein diet she needed to survive. Her death left him utterly broken. They’d been married 40 years and he would never be the same again. The usually cheery, witty person was gone, replaced by someone who had gone deep into a shell. I couldn’t recognize the man and found it hard to believe that one death could cause this much grief and pain. Little did I realize at that time, soon enough, the death of my V would cause me to become a very similar person that my uncle had become.
Space defines memories as much as people. All my life, I had either lived in or visited houses that were small or when large, filled with narrow corridors leading to damp, musty rooms. Here was a house that while still small, had the most wonderful light filtering through. It was set three quarters of the way back in a large plot ringed by a picket fence made of bamboo and bits of salvaged plywood. Entering the main gate, I would pass by a small lime tree on my left and a rose patch on my right. My aunt was a great fan of the yellow variety. Next in line was a round of brinjals and tomatoes. Never having been a great admirer of the purple vegetable, I would try and sabotage the plot as much as possible in the hope that I wouldn’t be served some curry made out of it in during my stay. A bougainvillea and jasmine plant surrounded the herb patch. I had no idea mint and coriander could be grown at home.
The house itself was set on a large, exposed plinth painted in a most deep ochre. The rest of the exterior was a radiant white. A small porch led to an area which in addition to hosting a nest of sparrows doubled up as a store. It was here, among the swirling dust and disorganization I would find cuttings on railway related news from around the world. The next room to this was the main hall, where in all its South Indian splendour stood an old cupboard displaying proud pictures of children, certificates for winning carrom tournaments, some clay figurines and a bright blue dining set. It was The Showcase.
The kitchen was where I found myself the most. It had something we had been planning to buy for a few years, but somehow never managed to do — a refrigerator. A full shelf stocked with Gold Spot bottles was a gift that kept on giving. My favourite memory however is that of my aunt hunching over a large spread of news paper, oiling her hands and patiently cutting open a jackfruit from the tree at the back of the plot. The fruit would then be cut into slivers, cooked and ground to fine paste, mixed with milk, coconut and jaggery to make a most delicious payasam.
The back of the plot held further delights. Other than the large, shady jackfruit tree, there were four coconut palms, one of which had grown so oddly horizontal, it resembled a gear lever found on certain Ashok Leyland buses. On some evenings, an cat would could climb this slanting tree and look down over proceedings with imperiousness. Towards the right of the jackfruit tree was a narrow, but deep well. The water from the well always cool and sweet and each morning at precisely 8AM, I would find myself shivering in delight as I pulled in bucket after bucket over a creaking pulley and poured it over my head.
On the days that I was not away at his work place, I would draw a deep, wide chair towards the fence and watch in succession as the older boys and girls would bicycle down the hill towards school. The girls were especially fascinating because most wore their hair long with a weave of jasmine clipped on and were dressed in the most eye-blindingly pink of uniforms. Their bicycles often had small baskets in the front. Once this procession got over, I would kick back and read Asterix books until I had every name of a Roman character memorized.
19 years after my last visit to Kovaipudur, I find myself at the post office down the road from the house. I have an Asterix book in hand. Asterix in Britain, the last book I remember reading on that chair near the fence. The house isn’t very far from here, but I approach cautiously and with trepidation. There is a hallowness to certain memories that one desperately wishes to not disturb. They are sacred. They are imprinted in such glorious detail that to have one aspect of it questioned or changed by current reality is to puncture a big, gaping hole in one’s soul. I had come prepared for such an event. The house hadn’t been occupied for close 10 years and hadn’t seen any maintenance done for close to six. I had come prepared for wild vine vine growing all over the exterior of the house. I had come prepared for thorny shrub covering what was once a beautiful garden. I had come prepared for the romance of an abandoned home.
Instead, I find destruction. Wild growth has been truly wild, covering every inch of the land. The picket fence is no more. The lime tree is gone. The house itself is barely visible, only the overhead water tank showing some signs of being present. Of the much loved red plinth, nothing can be seen. I walk a little ahead hoping to find a gap in the growth that will lead me inside. But no. Reality tells me to go back to my memories. I walk over to the neighbouring house and after introductions, I am led to the back of their plot. I climb awkwardly over the steel-plated well cover and catch a glimpse of the jackfruit tree. It looks bare and diseased. I can smell the payasam in my head. Thanking them, I head back towards where the main gate would have been. A large stone serves as a possible marker and it is on this stone I sit for the next half hour and read Obelix’s exploits on a rugby pitch.
Later that evening with two friends, I walk around Coimbatore. The weather is pleasant and breezy and we end up walking from the railway station to Oppanakara St and through the old flower market into RS Puram. I stop every so often and rejig my memory of the area from nearly twenty years ago. The old lady selling kuzhi paniyarams is long gone, so is Mani, the cotton candy seller. The once dominant smell of banana chips being fried in coconut oil is also missing replaced by nauseous and noxious diesel fumes. Along the way for a few minutes get lost and end up traversing through narrow streets, each specializing in some trade or the other. So we get to see shops like Ganesh Iron Works where giant window and door frames are being fabricated and Mangammal Dyeing Shop where vats of coloured liquid are being boiled and strong men are dipping yards of fabric into them.
We flit from street to street in search of one good place to eat, but are disappointed by either the fare dished out or by the lack of availability of such fare. After circling around for close to an hour, we end up at the venerable Annapurna. The large hall with its chipped sunmica tables and chairs that had one leg worn out more than others remains the same. So too does the ceiling, with its hollowed out squares supporting lengthy fans. The noise remains the same too - orders being shouted out, the stainless steel cutlery being washed and the hissing of the giant stone slab on which dosais are made. Only the smell of burning camphor seems to be missing.
Over idlis, masala dosais and rosemilk, we talk. Memories to be recounted twenty years later, perhaps at the same table.