Dedicated to the city I love.
Theppakkulam in 1890s. Source
It is late afternoon. Madurai is as unforgiving as she always is during the summer. Perhaps the fire started by the legendary Kannagi has not subsided yet. Indu got out from the rusty bus in the Periyar bus terminal. She has to catch another bus to get to her home in Thiruparankundram, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga.
Periyar is a mini-sea of people – from the market women; with their many baskets of vegetables; who are ever ready to bang the metal of the bus like a drum to overwhelm the driver into submission, to the college students skillfully getting onto the running bus so as to travel on the foot board, one could see a whole variety of humanity here. Indu had always disliked the crowd, the sweat and not to mention the occasional perverts who just cannot stop ogling at her. But today was all different. Indu had just won a `2000 cash prize for her eco-friendly electronic project, trumping the biggies in her department. She had never felt more comfortable with the stench of garbage near the Periyar’s entrance, where she was contemplating how great it was to be born as herself.
Indu had to cross the main road to reach the smaller bus stop that hosts all the buses that run to the west and beyond. The outskirts of that smaller terminal are dotted with so many little shops that one would feel they are in a village fair. But then, as they say, Madurai indeed is a glorified village!
There are beautiful tiny shops selling colourful bangles right next to what may smell like the very fountainhead of aroma, a Malayali tea-stall, where mouth watering vadas and tea are being prepared for his early customers. Next to it is a small stall emitting heat like a furnace, where they sell all kind of multi-coloured fried and roasted chips. The entire thing looks like a colourful rangoli with hues of orange and yellow being prominent. Then there is a new three storied building or “mini mall” as it is popularly called, which reeks of a renewed height of posh. May be the city-bred will not understand, but for little Madurai even a 3 storey is posh.
Indu decided to gift herself with something nice, may be a perfume. How she would love to have a “foreign scent”. But the summer sun having been working over-time, managed to make not only her, but anyone who is passing through those crowded streets of Madurai, weary and thirsty. She decided to buy a Coke. As she dragged herself under the heaviness of her college bag, she was reminded of the mother of eight in Australia, who had died just because she was a cola addict.
Indu reached the fresh juice stall opposite to the mini-mall and waited among the crowd to order a pomegranate juice. She changed her mind and ordered a Jigarthanda, a local delicacy, which roughly translates to “Cool Heart”. The FM was blasting an old MGR hit, where he is proclaiming how the poor won’t suffer if his commands are carried out promptly. ‘Uyir ulla varai, oru thunbam illai, avar kanneer kadaliley vizha maatar; avar kanneer kadaliley vizha maatar”. Indu, unknown to herself, started tapping to the music while waiting for her drink. Indu stood gracefully, not giving away how desperate she was to get into the new mall.
It was almost a minute or so when the drink had arrived to cool her heart. Indu was distracted from the activity of intensely staring at the mall by a noise. It was a small girl crying. She was getting beaten up by a lady who seemed to be her mother. Dressed in a very greasy dress, the small girl reminded her of those poverty movies they show in Doordarshan.
Indu did not realise that she was hastily gulping down the drink, even when she had spilled a few drops on floor much to the discomfiture of the flower-lady, who had been sitting in a corner, minding her own business, making beautiful garlands of Jasmine or “Malli Poo”, giving out a fragrance of the other world, in the hope of selling it at least three times above the actual price. Hastily apologising and later buying two mozhams* of Mallippoo as a token of reconciliation, she then looked for the girl child.
She was sitting a bit away from the mall, looking after, what one should call a fancy stores, only that there was nothing fancy about the drab hair clips the shop was selling, nor was it a store. It was more of an ad-hoc setup involving an aluminium sheet covered by a green-blue cloth, which was breathing its last, what with the colour fading and holes growing.
The girl was evidently in a bad mood, but she had stopped crying. Indu could still make out traces of dried tears. Her mother was resting behind her, lying on a piece of cloth, under the merciful shadow offered by the mini-mall. Indu asked her name. Valli, came a monosyllable reply. Lord Muruga’s second wife. Indu was immediately reminded of the handsome Sivakumar frantically wooing the tribal princess Valli, played by the elegant Jayalalithaa. She smiled at Valli, who returned it promptly.
“Why did your amma scold you?”
“Because I did not look after the clips”. Valli was evidently enamoured by Indu’s smooth hair.
“Why did you not do so then?” Indu looked at the hair clips thinking of buying a few.
Valli did not answer.
Indu bought two clips, and took out the Jasmine flower from the cover. She then asked the girl to come nearer. Valli looked beautiful when she had the Mallippoo gracing her hair.
“I had gone to the mall, that’s why.” Valli stood up and pointed to the nearby building.
“Oh! You found anything you like?” Indu took Valli by hands and both of them were now in the front of the mall.
“Yes, I like this”, said Valli, pointing to a teddy bear kept on display. Indu, smirking at how Theodore Roosevelt’s forest hunt was now enticing a small girl in the Indian peninsula, first thought of taking Valli inside. On second thought, she asked her to wait out.
When Indu had comeback with a teddy bear in hand, and a `1999 bill in her bag, she looked for Valli, but in vain. She went a bit forward to where the hair clips were sold. No one was there. Indu asked a man nearby, who had been busy selling hand-kerchiefs displayed on a stick, arranged craftily. “Anna, did you see the girl and the woman here? They were selling hair clips.”
The kerchief-seller said with an irritant voice,
“Naane inga pozhappa otta paakren. Ithila ammaava paathaya, chinna ponna paathaya-nu, nee vera. Poyi velaya paaruma.”
Indu looked around. She saw the two mozhams of jasmine flower lying scattered on the foot path. Indu’s tear drops evaporated even before they fell on the tarred street-road. May be, Kannagi is still fuming.
*Tamil and Malayali people stilluse their basic unit of distance measurement called muzham (hardly 1foot) to measure the length of jasmine garland. Ancient tamils also used muzhakkuchi (scale/tape) which is the basic measuring instrument to build a temple or other building. One of the temple which used muzhakkuchi is Tanjore Big Temple from Tamil Nadu, India.