Posts Tagged ‘chennai’

We first met when we were toddlers. He used to be extremely quiet, never known to using up his energies like I did. And as we grew up in two different geographies, we drifted away. Then came the first break in the ice. My father suggested that we kids go over to where our cousins lived, some 190 kilometers away from the Chennai where we had our residence, and spend the summer holidays with them. I guess he thought that we were becoming a bit of a nuisance and so decided to pack us off. But we did not realise that this would become almost an annual exercise. Nevertheless my brothers and I jumped in glee. This was the first time, we were being sent out of town ever since we grew out of our underwear.

That’s when I met him again, after so many years. He had an elder brother and a younger sister. Actually they were my nephews and niece. Their mother was my first cousin. But due to the disparity in our ages, we children generally introduced ourselves as cousins, and not as uncles and nephews. Though he was
younger to me by a good two years, we mirthfully got along well. He was more intelligent than his elder brother who was a year older to me. But because we were all of the same age, we went out together, played together, prayed together, had our meals together and slept the night together. There was a
wonderful manifestation of camaraderie between the five of us boys all the time. My niece, being a girl, was the odd one out. She would almost always be found cooking with a bunch of tiny wooden utensils using sand, water and leaves as the main ingredients. Some days it used to be her alone and a few other days, her friends would join her in the cooking feast.

While my niece cooked, we boys would bring the house down, jumping from the terrace onto the Chickoo trees, Mango trees, Neem trees and a delicate Guava tree that surrounded their house in a rather nondescript neighborhood. If we were not jumping from the terrace to the trees and from the trees to the
terrace, we would be playing ‘marbles’, ‘gilli-danda’, ‘French cricket’ and if our moods swayed or boredom got in the way, we could be seen playing ‘badminton’ with wooden table tennis rackets, that were available in plenty on the pavements in the town’s busy market place. And when we were fed up with all these games, we would most often than not play the all time favorite ‘hide and seek’. And guess where I would hide and never get caught? Up in the branches of the Mango tree. Oh! It was fun.

But the nephew I am talking about was a bit like my younger brother, quite diligent in studies. But sadly he was never into games or sport. In fact he was the only one who would hang onto the lowest branch of the Mango tree, when the rest us would swing like monkeys from the highest of highest branches. He was not the adventurous kind.

As time jetted around, my brothers and I would leave home and travel to different cities for our higher studies and work. And thus we boys got strewn around with the sands of time. But the elders on both sides faithfully kept in touch.

One day almost 10 years later, when I was working in Chennai I returned to my office after meeting a client. A colleague informed me that there was somebody waiting for me in the conference room. When I went in, I was aghast to see a skinny young gentleman perched comfortably on the leather upholstery,
leafing through a magazine. Recognition swelled on my face. It was my quiet nephew. He was working for a real estate company and had come to meet me regarding investments. I was thrilled to see him.

Thereafter we kept meeting at regular intervals, later on at his sister’s marriage, and further on at his elder brother’s marriage. The last was during my marriage. And every time I met him he continued to be the same skinny man I knew. At the same time his real estate business was becoming better and better
and he was gradually transforming himself into a young tycoon. I was glad. That was when his mother, my cousin, started scouting around for a suitable girl for him.

In October 2001, I had relocated to Bangalore. I got a call saying that he had been admitted at the Cancer Hospital in Chennai for Cancer of the Pancreas. I was devastated. I rushed from Bangalore. I found him lying on the hospital bed, all skin and bones. I was aghast. Tears swelled in my eyes. He smiled at me. I pushed the tears back, and went and gently sat down next to him.

Apparently, it all started with a simple stomach pain and constipation a month earlier in September. The local doctor in the town they lived treated him twice. But when the pain kept forging its way back, the doctor decided to take an X-ray. Doubtful of what he saw, my quiet nephew was asked to consult at this
famous Cancer Hospital in the Chennai. That’s where the specialist doctors attending on him detected stomach cancer. Soon many thousands of rupees disappeared down the drain. But gradually the treatment seemed to be coming alive. And two months later he was sent home.

A few months later when I met him, he was walking around, going to the movies with our other relatives and life seemed to be coming back to him. But he continued to look like the bag of bones I first saw on the hospital bed. That worried me. But I carried that worry close to myself and never discussed it with
anybody else.

A few weeks later, I got a call saying that he had once again been admitted at the Cancer Hospital after the pain in his stomach resurfaced again. Scans and X-ray’s were once again taken, but nothing came to light. So they decided to cut his bust open to see what the problem was. There was a thin cancerous film that
had engulfed his body from his abdomen and right up to his neck. The doctors were dismayed. They closed his body and told his family that the cancer was very advanced and that his days were numbered and nothing could be done about it. He was given two weeks to live.

Two days later when I saw my quiet nephew, he was very cheerful. Apparently he had been told that the medications would take a long time to heal and that he would have to bear with the pain and agony that came with the illness. But in the dark corner of his eye, I knew he did not believe one word of what had been told to him. And from the same dark corner of his eye, I knew he was ready to go. Only he didn’t say it. He remained quiet all the time.

When he had survived the two weeks, his family was asked to take him home. Relatives and friends came from near and far. Days rolled into weeks. And weeks rolled into months. On one of my visits to Chennai – where his family had decided to temporarily take shelter and stay, on account of the continued
treatment – I called on him. He was delighted to see me. My mind raced back as we cracked jokes and talked about the old times. It all seemed like yesterday that we were playing ‘marbles’, ‘gilli-danda’ and jumping from the trees and playing ‘hide and seek’. And now here he was lying on a naked bed, beside a
naked chair, that sat in a naked house, with naked windows and waiting for his departure from this world. Ah! How cruel could life be?

Some three hours later as I decided to leave, he held my hands and said:
“Remember how you ran away from our home after quarreling with my elder brother and how I came looking for you with your younger brother? I will never forget that day. I found you, you know. That was an incredible game of ‘hide and seek’ we played, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t believe that he still remembered this little incident after all these years and the unimaginable part was that he made that little incident look like a game – as if I was hiding and he was seeking me out. As tears swelled in his mother’s eyes, I hurriedly walked out saying that I’ll be back soon. That night I took the train and went back to Bangalore where I lived. Three days later, at eleven in the night on December 23, I received a call saying that he had passed away and that the funeral was to be held the next day at 11 a.m.

I took the 6.30 morning train. Having traveled by this train a number of times, I knew that this train was in the habit of checking in late, every time. I hoped and prayed and believed that the train would reach Chennai without any delay at 12 p.m., for that was the prescribed time of arrival. And I also hoped and prayed and believed that I would get to see the body before my quiet nephew was laid to rest.

Miraculously, the train was on time. But the city was being battered by a cyclonic storm. I rushed out, hailed an auto-rickshaw and asked the driver to take me to the cemetery, which was some 15 minutes away from Central Station. I was fervently praying that they do not bury him and that I somehow got to see him. Suddenly, the engine of the auto-rickshaw chugging through a river that used to be a street coughed and died. My heart died too. But my mind sputtered. I jumped out, paid the driver his fare, hailed another auto-rickshaw and raced through the rivers that had flooded this concrete jungle.

As I sailed into the cemetery, believe it or not, I could see from afar, the coffin still resting in the well of the Chapel, as if waiting for my arrival. The last rites had been delayed because of the deluge that had filled the burial ground. But just as I finished paying my last respects, the rain stopped and a few minutes later we buried him. He was only 29.

As I stood there, watching the earth swallow him gently, it looked as though he was playing a new version of hide and seek. A version where he had gone into hiding and one in which I would seek him out when my turn came.

Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent – All rights reserved.


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With every increasing trip, my love for Mumbai was taking on gargantuan proportions. But sadly every one of those trips lasted at the most, a couple of days. But there was one trip I’ll never forget. This one lasted a good 10 days.

It was my fifth time in Mumbai. I had arrived to work on some `priority’ advertising campaigns for my Mumbai branch. I was put up in a decent hotel in Dadar and everyday I would take a cab to my office in Churchgate. And soon work began. For breakfast I would have Dal-rotis. For lunch I would have Dal-rotis. And in the nights, Dal-rotis. If my mood swung left, it would be Biriyani and if it swung right, it would be fried rice. I had to swallow these with a strange rigidity; because none of the restaurants offered the cuisine that I liked the most – Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice. Or in more simple terms, the good old South Indian meal. And Mumbai being a place of distances, I couldn’t see myself traveling ten to fifteen kilometers, just to have Idlis and Dosas for breakfast. And Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice for lunch. So I had to make do with Dal-rotis, as I despised the bread varieties in the mornings. I needed something nice and spicy to break my fast. And all that was available in good old Dadar was Dal-roti.

By the end of the third day, I was fed up. I couldn’t take it anymore. And my colleagues were amused to see me getting annoyed over a plate of food, everyday. It was fine for them to be amused over my precarious situation, but would they
live on Sambar, Rasam or Curd Rice if and when they came to Chennai, Bangalore or a maybe Cochin or Trivandrum? The answer would be a big NO!

So on the fourth afternoon, I had made up my mind that I would pull out all stops and travel to the very end of Mumbai, if required, to get my Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice. Just then one kind soul in the office, told me that there was
this restaurant close to Eros Cinema that was offering `Thalis’ (meals). The very mention of `Thali’ and a different kind of creative juice flowed out of my gaping jaws. And in no time, it overflowed. And before it could flood the office and swamp the streets, I jogged to the restaurant this kind soul told me about.

There was a black board pitched outside the restaurant, with white plastic letters that shouted out in thick round fonts.
“Vegetarian Thalis” – Rs. 90/-.
“Non-Vegetarian Thalis” – Rs 110/-.
My heart sank looking at the price. But my spirits lifted me almost immediately and I heard my conscience crying out.
“Damn the price. Go have some Sambar Rice.”

So as I trudged in, all the stewards and waiters exchanged curious glances. I wondered why. And when I went to wash my hands in the wash basin and looked up at the mirror above, did I realize why they were continuously exchanging those
`curious’ glances. My face was radiating a light that would send the mighty `Sun’ into hiding. And my face had also developed a fabulous smile that was as long as the River Nile.

I sat down at a corner table. Soon a tie-flapping, nose-twitching, hungry-looking steward appeared next to me. I ordered for a “Thali” and asked him to get it real quick.
“Sir, it would take 10 minutes” he said.
“Areh Baba! I have a plane to catch, thoda jaldi lao na” I cried.
I was lying. There was no plane to catch. It was just that I was desperate for good old Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice. In three minutes the tie-flapping, nose-twitching, hungry-looking steward accompanied by a sad-looking, eye-popping, gelled-haired waiter announced their arrival at my table. They set the `Thali’ in front of me and disappeared.

There was an array of dishes. From Dals and Currys to something that looked like Sambar and Curds. Then I attacked with all five fingers. They dived in just like the Spring Board Diving event at the Olympics. My taste buds were in for a rude
shock. The dish that looked like Sambar tasted `sweeeeeeet’. Would you believe that? I was jolted. Then I checked the other dishes by putting a spoonful from each bowl into my mouth. Every dish that lay spread out before me tasted
`sweet’. I thought somebody had played a prank. I could see my face turning beetroot red. There was smoke coming out of my ears. I wanted to scream. But I held myself, and beckoned the steward. The tie-flapping, nose-twitching,
hungry-looking steward, flew to my side, saw my beetroot red profile and bowing low, almost kissing the carpet, asked me with a politeness that I had never heard before.

“Anything wrong Sir?”
“Why is everything so sweet? Where is my South Indian Thali?” I blurted out.
“Sir! This is Gujarati Thali, not South Indian!”

I ran from the restaurant, totally defeated. What kind of a cosmopolitan city was this? How could Mumbai not have a single restaurant that offered decent South Indian meals? For the first time I hated Mumbai!

So I went back to the office. The kind soul, who had told me about this restaurant offering “Thalis”, wasn’t around. I think he was really lucky not to be there. Then one of the Art Directors told me about Hotel Kamat at Colaba. She said that Kamat definitely offered South Indian food. For the first time I could vouch for that. Because there were quite a few Kamats in the city I lived. So I confidently took a Cab, reached Hotel Kamat at Colaba only to find that “Thalis” were `over’ and that only light `eats’ were available. I looked at the menu and ordered for a “Sambar Vada”. I was starving. In five minutes the hot-hot “Sambar Vada” arrived – a steel bowl containing two round cakes made from rice flour and dal batter, fried in oil and soaked in Sambar. My hair stood up and I could not believe it. The Sambar Vada was sweet, sweet and sweeter than sugar. Was it yet another Gujarati concoction? Or were all these restaurants being run by Gujaratis and Gujaratis alone? Now I was really beginning to hate Mumbai.

That same evening, a colleague of mine Ganesh Iyer, seeing me suffer promised to bring me food from his house the next day. Being a Tamil Iyer, I knew that this was going to be a feast. I told him: “Drumstick Sambar, Potato Curry, Tomato Rasam, and Bagala Bath (Curd Rice)” were my favourites”. But to my shock, he did not turn up the next day. I was aghast and heart-broken. And I sulked to a corner just like a puppy would after getting a thrashing from his master.

Then at one in the afternoon, a fleet of creative and media guys descended from the office and set out to the Fort area nearby, to have lunch. And in no time I saw my feet being dragged along too. I had no other choice. Just as they trooped
into a restaurant close to Sterling cinema – that offered continental cuisine – I stopped outside the restaurant and asked the Security Guard, if there were any South Indian restaurants around. He immediately told me there was one “Madras
Hotel” a few minutes away and gave me the directions.

My eyes lit up and my appetite hastened back. I felt like a Tiger waiting to spring on a lonely Gazelle. I started to walk briskly. Then started trotting. Then jogging. Then running. Then flying. I was panting profusely when I screeched to a halt outside a small hotel with a faded blue colored board that said “Madras Hotel”. I galloped in and sat down. It was a small place. And giving me company were cab drivers, auto drivers and small businessmen. Who cared of what company I kept! All I knew was that my poor stomach was in the need of some spicy company. And all I needed was a good meal, full of Sambar, Rasam and Curd rice. I ordered for a plate, then another, then another and another and yet another, leaving the waiters and the cashier gasping for breath. It was the best meal – or meals – of my life. Meals that numbered five. On day
number five. During my visit number five. I loved Mumbai.

With my stomach full and the colour back on my face, I hummed, whistled and slowly trudged back to my office at Churchgate. I never knew, that a bellyful of fabulous Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice would make so happy. I walked up the
stairs, ambled into the office and sank into my seat. I was drowsy. Then I turned and glanced at my desk. I found a big Stainless Steel Tiffin carrier parked on the table. Somebody tapped me on my shoulder. I turned. It was Ganesh

“Sorry! I am late” he said. “I have brought you your favorite Drumstick Sambar, Potato Curry, Tomato Rasam, and Bagala Bath (Curd Rice). Go ahead, have a feast!”

Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent -All rights reserved.

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