Monday, January 08, 2007


Dear Andal, isn't Spring lovely Kannan's Lover
Amidst many hued flowers and birds' anthem?
'Tis dull compared to Margazhi
When my Kannan's music throbs down my bosom.

Margazhi (and I shall resort to this spelling although I am averse to the Tamil "y" written in English as "zh". So this is how it goes: Say Maarg-uh and then stick the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and say yee. Don't stick your tongue throughout the recital.) is beautiful; beautiful in what it presents as well as in what it promises. Margazhi, for long, is associated with music festivals and the SriVaishnava sampradhayas. Margazhi rings in the days when my mother wakes up early, well before sunrise, and donning a "madee" saree would proceed to the prayer room cum kitchen in our quaint flat in Bombay. I was always "madee" (and I later learnt that that was a convenient concession granted to me since there was no other way for her to manage me when I could still crawl under chairs and climb on top of shelves) and loved to watch her prepare the pongal (mom calls it thirupakshi and I thought that meant holy bird, but as nearly always, I am well mistaken). Pongal is one dish which is easy to prepare but which requires a loving mother to make it tasty and memorable. I preferred my "holy bird" hot, with a lot of cashews, softened black peppers, jeera, just the right tinge of yellow (due to the moong dal. I hate calling it paasi paruppu) and lots and lots of ghee (clarified butter). Ummmmm. Give me those days, throughout the year.

Mom would split the prepared "holy bird" into two portions; one without salt for the gods and her son (now I know why she called me Kanna and even named me Uppili adding to my collection of several names that were showered on me when all I wanted to do was lie on my back and be cleaned occasionally) and another, with salt for the mere mortals of the family!

She would make a variety of chutneys to go with this "holy bird". Chutneys made purely with grated coconut, coriander, curry leaves, combinations, tomatoes, ginger, combos, green chilly, gooseberry (nellikai) (join me in the mouth watering ceremony; I while I write and you while you read) and sometimes with cucumber. No wonder the ladies of the world think that the "holy bird" would successfully seduce the One-whose-skin-is-of-the-hue-of-dark-blue-clouds. Lesser wonder that Oothukaadu Venkatasubbaiyyer (don't sue me for the spelling) sang to Yashoda "Undhan paiyanai polave indha, vaiygathill oru pillai, ammamma naan kandathillai". Indeed, the butter-stealing darling of Yashoda deserves nothing less than this treat (though we both prefer it with fresh white butter with a few sugar crystals dropped in).

Everyday, mom would sing a different paasuram, which was more often than not, off-key (or so I thought). But I loved her voice bouncing off the bulb-lit walls of the kitchen, making the golden flames bounce in their silver receptacle casting shadows of the gods that danced within their well painted frames. I would love to watch the fiery tips of the wick cast a reflection on the yellowish oil in the freshly cleaned lamps. It wasn't my imagination but the golden blades of fire did dance to the tunes my mom laid out for them, while the rest of the world continued to sleep. Mom would coax me to go back to sleep, but was glad that I didn't listen to her. She saw in that obstinate act a promise of at least someone in the family carrying on the tradition of waking up early to cater to the gods. Such was the simplicity that made her smile and coo, "Enn Raju!" (My little prince!). If there is something that I can explain to anyone on earth, it is what drove Krishna to be more and more naughty. If I have become thus thanks to the love of one woman, think about what fired him to be the brat of an entire village.

Several years later, we came to Madras (you call it Chennai, I'll call it Madras) and I realised that had there been Indian Airlines (or Jet) back then, then Krishna would have moved out of there to here (to hell with a bunch of squabbling cousins!).

Margazhi in Madras is announced.
Margazhi in Madras is cherished.
Margazhi in Madras is relished.
Margazhi in Madras is beautiful.

As the lights of the sodium-vapour streetlamps streamed down, tangoing with the rising smoke from the stoves preparing pongal, I watched ladies, fresh from a bath, stooped over the patch of land right outside their door. Lovely white powder streamed from their fingers as they teased the earth into revealing brilliant designs. They'd stop to wipe their forehead or brush an eager strand of hair - eager to watch what colours the earth - back and the fluency of their movements made them gorgeous in the dimly lit passages that led to the temple towers of Mylapore. They would softly hum a song to the Lord while managing the curves of the kolam and the level of the milk in the pot, not far away.

I could stand there all morning, watching these women blossom into something lovelier than what womanhood could ever promise. And the world around them blossomed as the Vishnu Sahasranamam rumbled from the Srinivasa Perumaal temple, bringing with it the fragrance of flowers and sunrise.

The crescendo to this flowering beauty which snaked down the narrow streets of Mylapore, nudging smiles of contentment on the faces that lined the grilled windows, was the sudden flutter of untainted mirth wrapped in shrill giggles and silk. Out poured a bevy of doe-eyed beauties sparing no threshold of their soft feet and no heart of the love they commanded. What happens to them after they grow up, is beyond me!! Though I pouted at the fact that my sister got more clothes during festivals, I was happy for the very same reasons; many of her friends would visit us in their sparkling new clothes. Well, you lose some, you get some. Jasmines and December poo (flowers that bloom in December) on black locks falling oh-so-lightly on a red silk blouse atop a butter-white paavaadai (skirt) with gold butta (small gaping polka dots with a design)... I shall stop here with a call to retaining my sanity.

One could walk down narrow alleys with temples and houses decorated well. I saw a temple with a "To Let" board once and wondered whether the Gods would show the prospective buyer around the place ("There is where the missus and I go to rest and that is the well from which the priest gets us cold water to bathe. Yes, even during the months of Margazhi"). One could stand near the dwara (entrance) of a temple (and without offending anyone, a Vaishnava temple would be more rewarding in these months) and close their eyes. The conversations about kutcheris (concerts), how the new daughter-in-law couldn't even make gotsu (an eggplant sauce served with pongal), how that singer insisted on down-payment before the concert, about the new show on Jaya TV where they will be showing all the DivyaKshetrams... and you'll smile too. Temples in South India incur conversations about anything except the Gods. Maybe the Gods seek such gossip too!!

And as I listen to the waning chatter about the rising prices of moong dal and how 200 gms of ginger is now Rs. 10 when just a few months ago it was 2, I watch a young man with the skin like ebony, made darker in contrast with the glaring white veshti and shirt, cycle his way through the crowd that hums around the temple. Like a promising spot on the back of his shirt and veshti is his tiny daughter, dressed in bright green, wearing a pinch of the December poo, and clinging to the loose end of her fathers shirt (how could he leave her to sit on that hard metal carrier?). Her constant fear of letting go of her father is now replaced by the awe she feels in the midst of this human field of devotees thronging a god whom her parents worship and who gives her sweet water to sip and tangy green leaves to eat. She watches them flow in and out bathed in the tunes of a far away naadhaswaram and dodging the vegetable vendors and flower sellers as they rush to see their god, their Kannan who might just grace them with an iota of his love that he showered on Andal. As she continues to clutch her father's shirt, she smiles at what she will one day recollect... with a smile.


  1. I read it, re-read it and re-read it once more, I am getting home sick for the first recognisable time in decades. May be I am missing the Pongal!- Damn it!

  2. brilliant stuff.. i especially loved the way you described the "street scenes".

  3. Dear K,
    Sorry man. Didn't want to make you feel miserable so far away... But I just had another round of sakkarai-pongal and venn-pongal today. Ummmm. Delicious. ;-)

    Dear B,
    Glad you liked it. :-)

  4. This is so Madras! I could get the feel of it all, hear the tinkle of the girls' anklets! And 'holy bird' :))

  5. Dear S,
    You from Madras? :-o