Do you believe in destiny and that despite our birthplace or background we are all fated to lead the life that we live? I am a cynic who prefers logic over the mystic, but there have been moments when my own transformation into a maverickbird have left me with serious doubts. Perhaps born, but definitely not bred to become what I am today, its compelling how malleable, changeable and hardy my existence has morphed into. Trained in bharatnatyam (classical Indian dance), having spent my very much sheltered, over protected school days in a shy introvert shell, guided into expert house keeping skills from an early age and critically made to master fine nuances of dressing (and behaving like a lady of decorum), being a tough solo gypsy was something nobody could have ever expected out of me.
My family members still shake their heads in puzzled disbelief whenever they read my travel stories and my friends from school find it hard to believe that I would turn out to be what I am today. I have come too far from what I was supposed to be and somewhere in the middle of the journey, had nearly forgotten about the original me. There’s a saying that you eventually become what you believe yourself to be and this could be applied to my existence. However, even for the eagle which soars the highest, there’s always a place which it calls home and every cloud has an identity which forms its integral core.
With gradual maturity which only time and life can bring, stirrings for my nearly forgotten roots started making their presence felt strongly and recently made me go for a trip down the memory lane in search of my essence. Having being born out of an interracial marriage, pinning down 1 particular place/culture as my own had always been difficult for me until my solo Tamil Nadu trip sorted it out. My father hails from the southern state of Tamil Nadu and throughout my childhood I have been dragged down south to visit my grandparents on nearly every other school holiday. Tamil Nadu visits had always made me feel like a fish out of water and I had never been able to relate to the state. I look nothing like my southern relatives, didn’t have their peculiar twangy accent, couldn’t speak their language and didn’t even understand the culture. It used to be a far cry from the liberal, free thinking environment I was accustomed to, however to appease my southern clan I was bred like a good south Indian girl as much as possible.
From getting trained in Indian classical dance to being taught strict coy discipline, nearly every vacation without fail guaranteed displacement of my little world. This lead me, during my stormy teenage years, into taking a silent vow to consciously avoid south India as much as possible and there had been a time when I used to get dismayed by the advent of school holidays. I hated suffering through long hot train journeys from Calcutta to Chennai only to be bombarded by harsh sounding undecipherable language upon arrival, getting my hair immediately plastered to my scalp with generous doses of coconut oil, flowers being clipped to my geeky, uncool twin braids, getting my eyes lined with smarting home made kohl, thick enough to make me resemble a raccoon, donning gaudy silk pawadais (traditional Tamil costume for unmarried girls, consisting of a petticoat, blouse and a veil) and walking bare feet to the temple.
Tamil Nadu, except for the coastal and hilly regions, is dry and unbearably hot throughout the year and all my afternoons used to be spent counting squirrels feasting on pink cored guavas in our orchard. Watching my grandmother’s pre dawn ritual of applying rangoli designs on the freshly swept home front, grinding massive amount of rice paste for idlis (light, fluffy rice cakes) on huge stone mortars, inhaling tingly aroma of spices, turmeric, vermilion and flowers emanating from the kitchen shrine and listening to my grandfather’s religious chants as he prayed and cooked every morning used to be my unfailing daily routine. Evenings used to herald yet another round of temple visit, more walking around without shoes, getting thumped in the head as blessing by the temple elephant and bargaining for fat drumsticks, pumpkins and eggplants for meals which hardly ever varied.
The only highlights (read slight changes) to this routine used to be choosing cabbage over egg plant, acquiring bigger, more intact roses (called roja poo in Tamil) than our neighbours from the flower seller’s cart, visiting relatives who lived 2 houses away and spoke only Tamil or going to the crowded markets near RockFort in Trichy to buy gold, more lengths of gaudy silk and ice cream sundaes. Boredom used to be oppressive just like the heat and the spicy food and days never varied from one another. In fact, the days, somehow used to get merged into one endless stretch of doing the same things everyday at the same time and all the trips used to culminate into embarrassing family photos, all of which highlighted a very awkward, overdressed me sporting oily, flower mounted twin braids, panda bear thick kohl lined eyes and strange looking shapeless silk blouse, petticoat and veil.
My paternal grandparents were strict vegetarians who lead a sublime ancient lifestyle and were one of those really lucky people who had traveled far and wide in their youth i.e during 1940’s owing to their families’ financial strength. Despite their global wanderings, being born with golden spoons, both of them had faithfully clung to the life that had been kind to them, had loved me to death and had firmly believed that despite my mixed ethnicity and rebelliousness to reject everything southern and traditional, I will one day come back to my roots i.e Tamil Nadu. Earlier I had always balked and laughed at this seemingly outlandish thought, until recently, when a strong, sudden pull drove me back to Srirangam, the final resting place of my grandparents and the house where I had happened.
My solo soul searching Tamil Nadu trip was both heart wrenching and eye opening and I saw my home state for the first time through the eyes of a long, lost, waylaid daughter. Although I can’t say that I liked most of what I saw, the tug in my heart that I had felt for the state was undeniable. Even though, I tried to cover as much as possible of Tamil Nadu, the harsh cultural difference, heat, raucous city noise and spicy food made me linger at a few places longer than I had intended. The trip had been marred with stomach upsets, long, uncomfortable train journey, heat exhaustion and an emotional turbulence. But it also brought out the richness of my state’s culture, made me proud of my legacy and I was awed by the spectacular natural beauty it is endowed with.
So from biking into the pink and white depths of barren Dhanushkodi, to getting thrown out at Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, doing voluntary work at Shola Forests of Palni Hills, searching out ancient Iron Age burial grounds in the middle of coffee plantations, basking in the grandeur of Tanjore stone carvings, ghost walking through my grandparent’s house in Srirangam, chasing colonial legacies at Tranquebar and Pondicherry, reliving forgotten history at Gingee, hunting for elusive kurunji flower sea at Ooty, crying over fiery Chettinadu food and marveling at artistic excellence at Coimbatore, Chidambaram, Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram, this series is on how Tamil Nadu finally claimed back her rebellious cloud gypsy, her maverickbird.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE