Poet, Author, Editor, Creative Writing Consultant

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Ambassador Mercedes in Pondicherry

I am at Pondicherry at a Writing Residency as the Lavanya Sankaran fellow for 2009-10. So proud and happy to be here the way I am. I have the proverbial room with a view. Beautiful, calm, serene, woody and squirrelly. I can spend time with myself and my writing.

But I also get restless with this at times. I want to recharge my batteries, go out and see something new, read: visit a place. And so many places abound around here, it becomes tough to pick. I tell my friend, I plan to go to Kumbhakonnam (a number of Chola temples there) for the day. It is Sunday, a good day to be out. This friend is a well known Tamil writer who knows his part of the land well, and he gives me sound advice. He sips his morning coffee as he sits on the black polished granite ledge of the central courtyard of the premises at AdiShakti (the building is on the lines of the Nalukettu design of old architecture in Kerala, but this is Tamilnadu ).

He says, “Kumbhakonam is too much to do in a day, go to Sidambaram (he has a soft accent and means Chidambaram) instead , there is a big Shiva temple there, the Tellai Natraja.“

“Yes,” I say, very excited now, "that’s where I will go.” So I pick up my mobile and call for my pumpkin carriage, Cinderella is ready for her outing.

By 10 am I leave with taxi driver of Ambassador car, with a Mercedes sign up front, for Chidambaram. I sit in the front, but the seat is tough and a bit uncomfortable and the day is hot. We cross Pondicherry (going past Thathachevadi village) and then go right past a river which has an island in the centre and boats to row to it which is a part of the Pondicherry area. We are going on to the Cuddalore district of Tamilnadu (10.45 am). We are on national highway 45A.

The driver stops for 5 minutes at a repair shop to get his car horn checked. His horn is very irritating, it speaks in short sharp blasts which sound horrible to the ear. After the repair, it still works the same way. “Toot-toot, toot-toot” no break there, nor any music in the rendering. But the Ambassador is cheaper than the Indicas and the driver knows a smattering of English and he is a good man. I had paid him two 500/- rupee notes on an evening outing before (fumbling in the gathering dusk in my purse)and he returned them so I could pay him the two 100/- rupee notes due instead. So I kind of liked him for that.

After a while I hear him say something to me. It sounds like “Dee sell”. Dee sell? I have a problem understanding what he is trying to say till he stops at a petrol pump. Then I figure it out, he wants to buy Diesel.

Since I am in a new place and curious, I ask general questions, like how far to Chidambram etc. Chidambaram is 90 kms, and it would take us about two and half hours to get there.

I get then, an education. Never let it be said that education belongs to classrooms.

Tamilnadu has 24 districts. One of them is Cuddalore. Kanchipuram is another. Adi Shakti, where I was staying, is in Kanchipuram. Chidambaram,where we were going, is in Cuddalore. Cuddalore district has six villages, of which Chidambram is one village-town. Each such district has an IAS officer and an IPS officer. All this information comes my way courtesy the taxi driver, Mr. Selvan.

I ask about a statue I see on the way. That’s MGR, he says, now dead. He also informs me that now it is the ‘rule’ of Karunanidhi of DMK in Tamilnadu. AnnaDMK chief was MGR. Jayalalitha is also of AnnaDMK. She is no longer ruling. I am introduced to the basic politics of the place.

We cross a river at Cuddalore by a bridge, and then we see a road leading to the right to Kumbhakonam (Cuddalore to Kumbhakonam one way is 120 kms). We get onto the East Coast Road now and a good breeze blows, cooling after the hot sun. We are now 26 kms into Cuddalore and there are rice fields everywhere. “After Cuddalore town we will pass Bhavnagiri and reach Chidambaram,” he says. At 11.45 we are at Bhavnagiri which is 10 kms from Chidambaram.

5 kms from Chidambaram the driver stops. “One minute, one minute,” he says and gets off. He is a master of repetition, helps him make his point, I guess. He checks the tires and gets in again. We carry on after that, and 4 kms from Chidambaram we are at Silvaipuram which has the Kali temple. Here we witness an accident of two vans. A number of people, dressed in red , mainly women, are standing around. The red colour is over powering. They are the Adi Parashakti devotees, travelling in one of the vans. Mr. Selvan, my taxi driver, keeps saying, “accident, accident,” then “over speeding, over-speeding, over-speeding,” as if I had not understood the first time. Maybe he is trying to convince himself that this is an accident caused by over speeding. He himself is a slow and careful driver.

He always talks to me in spurts, there are periods of silence and then he holds forth on something in his broken English. I look at him as he talks to me now, suddenly voluble again. He is slim and tall and dark with regular features. He works in Tindivaanam as some govt officer. He lost his first wife 5 years ago in a bus accident . Maybe that is why he is a careful driver. He is giving me all this information as we drive along. He has a son studying in Trichy. Trichy? Trichy is a town in Tamil Nadu. He has married again and has another child, a 3 year old son.

I ask him if he has any other cars. This particular one is not too comfortable, I think, maybe he can get another one for the drive to the airport at Chennai, when I leave for Delhi in a few weeks time. Or for any other intermittent outings I may undertake.

He says, “I had other cars, but the drivers were not good. They got drunk and had accidents. I got rid of all of them. Now I have only this one car, and I drive it. I have one car, one office, one house and one wife...” I stop my smile from forming. He knows how to count for sure. Something of the nature of the guy comes through, he is polite and cautious and very careful to the point of being nervous. I think this could be because of his loss of his first wife in the accident. He is also deeply religious. His dashboard is overcrowded with photos of gods and goddesses.

He suddenly spots a car ahead in which the driver is talking on the mobile phone. He gets all excited and begins to talk in Tamil to me. He is cursing the driver, I get a sense of that. I look at him, astounded, taken aback at his sudden Tamilian burst. This happens once more at another place, he begins to talk Tamil to me, in his anger, as someone almost bangs into his car. I learn two new Tamil words, “karp” for black and “naayi” for dog. It is with us humans, we fall into our language in times of emotional communication.

The Tellaai Nataraj temple is huge. I did not expect it to be so big. And it reminded me of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, though this is the temple of Shiva and that temple is of Vishnu. It has a water body in the front like that of the Padmanabha . I just make it in time to see the dancing God before the curtains close for puja. They open again after half hour. A woman standing close to me calls him ‘shivan’, which sounds so beautiful to me. They all call ‘shiv’ as ‘shivan’ here, and to me it sounds more close and intimate a term.

There are four huge gateways, a water body in front and some fantastic friezes and statues all along the wall surfaces. There was one with Durga with a yellow golden sari draped on it and her face was very beautiful which caught my absolute attention.

I bought some prasadam, walked out to the small market common outside each temple, spotted a handicrafts store there and bought an elephant and a bull (tribal work in a mix of metals) and a very small dancing Parvati (yes, Parvati) in brass which I just love.

Little raindrops had begun to fall and I made my way to the taxi, pretty happy and satisfied, content in a way. Also I was looking forward to stopping at the small kali temple on the way. As the taxi wound its way back to Adi Shakti, I was happy to have made this unplanned trip to Chidambaram. I promised myself I would see Kumbhakonam too some day. I had a couple of toffees in my purse, and offered the driver, Mr. Selvan one. He took it . I had another of these. We had struck a strange friendship along the way. I looked out of the window and he concentrated on is driving.

He remembered to stop the taxi at the Kali temple. I had requested for this on the way to the Tellaai Nataraj. I was really tired by now, all the walking within the temple and the hot sun had sapped my strength. But seeing the statue of the lady near a tree, surrounded by snake forms, was enough to jolt me into awareness and I felt a surge of woman power. I had a sense of something very primal here. Inside the temple, the pujari had begun the aarti, I could see the dancing flames from outside.

I returned to Adishakti, tired but totally full of the temple, its architecture and space, the thronging devotees, the women in red, kali, dancing parvatis, politics and a countryside of dark colour and blinding sunlight.