These days I dream often of home. It’s usually me being back in Trivandrum. My brother is driving my Mazda, which was shipped across continents for (apparently) no good reason.
The other day I cooked rasam. I couldn’t decide on what to cook, which is where I struggle most when it comes to cooking. I got the idea from Uma who was preparing rasam the previous evening when we spoke. I had a nice meal (which means there was fish), and then I had a post-lunch nap.
These days I dream often of home. It’s usually me being back in Trivandrum. My brother is driving my Mazda, which was shipped across continents for (apparently) no good reason. Towards the end of the dream I watch as my 23kg-luggage bag shuffles away across a container belt, while logistics of my return flight hover around my head like calculus in cartoons. It’s as if I’m contemplating shipping back my stuff to Texas, but not myself. Wonder why.
Over a month ago my physiotherapist had asked if I miss home, and I quickly said no, just the people, things, and some of the places (lol).
Interestingly, after my big fat lunch I dreamt that I was back in school on a late evening. There were crowds by the stage and something loud was playing on speaker. It must’ve been School Day, you could hear commotion and cheering from back there. I was rushing from behind the stage to our classrooms near New Hall, there was a sense of urgency to the whole thing but I have no idea why. I spotted many familiar faces, made up and in costume. I quickly waved at a friend, it seemed I was surprised that she showed up in my dream still in her uniform. Some were friends from undergrad. All of us weirdly affiliated.
I couldn’t with my dazed dreamy head make out the timeline, but I had to. If I was still in school it meant I might have to practice for a group song I was better off lip-syncing to anyway for everyone’s benefit. If I had just got out of high school I might have to attend felicitation and line up backstage – but in that case someone should be looking for me. If I was in undergrad and just visiting, why were my friends in costume and practising? Or was I in the present, working in the US and visiting teachers?
If my physiotherapist ever caught me in a dream these days I’d respond What are you talking about, I don’t have to miss home when I am home.
I remember being a bit sad when I woke up, and realizing it was Teacher’s Day in India.
How do you measure sadness, how much is too much? Do you need to be so sad that you find no joy in life, or is it when you somehow cannot force yourself to smile?
Who has seen the most sorrow? Can a child’s sad story be considered sad enough? Or do you have to be broken after you’ve built that adult threshold for grief?
By the time you’re 25, everyone has had that experience, from life or from people. Everyone has lain on their beds numb one night having cried their eyes out, thinking of how alone they are, of how right those were that left everything and everyone, of how they were brave, of how helpless we are by ourselves. Sat on the floor and bawled at this cruel world of those that hurt us. Defenceless, alone, but above all, innocent.
That’s the sad, but also the beautiful way we’re all equals at 25. How time is an equalizer, maybe the only one.
This isn’t about being 25 though.
Nobody is more sympathetic to our younger selves than us, I think.
Last month I was sitting on a bench outside DO class when two students approached me, said they’re from the Theology department doing a survey, and asked if I believe in God or a higher power. (My better guess is they were two friends in conversation looking for a random person’s perspective, but yea).
I do, I say. They ask me their theological question which isn’t relevant in this story, but they took me back to this phase I had almost forgotten I had.
I don’t have an adjective to describe it though, it’s just a vulnerable 19 year old me and an overflowing heart. There’s people, there’s college, there’s lots more people. But they’re somehow neatly tucked away like we belonged in parallel stories, in separate worlds.
Amma and I visited Padmanabha Swamy temple every month back then on my asking. It was the one place where I took peace in return for surrendering all that that plagued me, where I didn’t have to fight and was finally at ease. And I never wanted to leave.
Everything the temple housed was alive to me – oil that dripped to floors from large hanging lamps, flowers from prasadam that were gently squeezed to the back of aunties’ hair, the constant humming breeze to which untrimmed bushes swayed. Alive and sacred. They were glimpses, or rather a beckoning at a life sans desperation, a life that was elusive yet very much existed, that I was allowed to be a part of for the short while that I was there.
I saw beauty in every person, I could see only kind faces that reflected back at me the serene in passing, as if they all knew why I was there, as if they all said a prayer for me.
I saw old ladies seated on a mandapam reciting chants and that’s when I knew I could sit with them and cry my heart out if only I had learnt those songs that Amma knew. I wondered how they did not break into fits of weeping every time they sang them. I envied what devotion (and in all likelihood old-age) gifted them. They were already at peace and singing a prayer for me and others like me, just like the solitary cobweb floating on a high corner I chanced upon seemed to be.
Every time after going around the whole temple, Amma and I sat on the parapet facing the sands on my asking, watching the towering gopuram in the orange lights.
It was almost always 7pm by then, and I wondered how there were no pictures of that one angle of it bathed in shadows and light against the dark sky, one you can see only from the inside. How whoever constructed it back then saw the quiet splendor that I was looking at, or probably much more.
Of how somebody had known humans would house worries bigger than themselves to look for comfort in things larger than life.
I wondered if there were others who visited the place to absolve of all that taxed them, who marveled at its massiveness and felt the same empty light heartedness I felt then.
I watched a classical recital in the temple once, and I watched others who sat listening – silent, smiling, dissolving. I could only see pointlessness in my suffering then, how what I bore was boundless to my trivial self yet how the world was much bigger than any of it. And yet I knew I’d soon walk past the doors of the temple out into the world only to be overwhelmed by my own reality. It makes sense that I never wanted to leave.
I remember thinking Gopika was lucky for getting to visit so often, for staying so close by. I wondered what one did if you had no troubles to hand over, if you had no turbulent mind to begin with, and I couldn’t imagine much more. Looking back, what’s funny is I was either not in my elements while I was there, or it was the only place where I was. The lines are blurred and there’s no way I can tell now.
Jab kahi pe kuchi nahi bhi nahi tha, Wahi tha wahi tha, Wahi tha wahi tha. (When there was nothing, He was the one, the only one.)
There is a story of how when we were kids my brothers and I played in the sand inside the temple for hours, and I have listened to it being retold as many times as I’ve been there. I once asked Amma about why the place felt so positive, and she mentioned something unappealingly scientific about energy flow, unobstructed pathways and open spaces.
Every time I have gone back, I have still seen magnificence but in the “open spaces, positive energy” way. I’ve smiled at how I once looked to its huge corridors* and pillars to be a part of me, how I felt lighter with every step I took around the temple, how even the cheli of wet footprints had brought me peace. How I held on to this one place because I found nobody and nothing else to turn to. I’ve wondered at how young I was, how innocent I was, how I didn’t deserve any of it. Like we all do, I guess.
Yet I’ve not felt the same submission nor seen the surreal there since. I see beautiful faces, sure, but also the regular lives that go on behind them and the chanting. I see pottis and that solitary cobweb on the high corner, but they’re no longer conferring a hurried blessing upon the mortal me. And yet I had seen all of it there, the same way we seek comfort in music or art, but cannot go back once we’ve made it through. Like the Room of Requirement lending itself only to those that need (ask and you shall receive?).
Faith to me was hope. I needed mine to be larger than life, larger than anything I knew. It was, and it’s how I survived.
(You’re right, this article may be summarized as Paalam kadakkuvolam narayana).
* I meant pradakshina paatha but I’ve only ever called it chuttunna vazhi and hence.
Story of a tea shop owner near Medical College Hospital
A man walks into the only tea shop that doesn’t sport animated neon signs in this part of town. He hands over a thermos flask to the owner at the counter stirring the large vessel of boiling milk. He doesn’t utter a word but walks straight in and alights on the cranky red stool against the tea-stained wall.
It’s a line of adjacent shops on this side of the main road – on the other side you have the hospital buildings – the scanning center, casualty, the subsidized medicine store BPL cardholders queue up at.
On this side, the neon lightboards are turned on at least an hour before darkness sets in with dusk – English Medicines in red cursive letters, Hot tea & Biryani in a thick blue font, Vegetarian Restaurant in another. Many announce Tourist Homes – funny they’d call the residents tourists considering none would voluntarily be here.
The signs vie for your attention like a new breed of daily Instagram feed. They would probably have been irrelevant in another part of town but here, in the din surrounding the government hospital, with a hundred people scampering around any time of day and night, it sells.
Attempting to charm when every shop offers the exact same set of items – buckets and mugs, coarse threaded towels and thorth, jugs and steel plates, essential crockery – spoons, knives for families that came away from home in emergency, magazines to lighten your mood, and of course neon lights because every shop has it on this side.
Except this one.
Amidst the cacophony outside, this tea shop slows time down. Maybe because it lacks the urgency of those flashing lights.
The owner takes the flask and fills it with tea, looking for signs of objection from his customer before proceeding – he sees and nods in approval. The man knows his customers well. The ones that want to engage in a bit of chitchat, complain about hospital facilities (or lack thereof), others that want to know if there’s black tea available, some offhandedly commenting on the propensity to rain.
But some just sit on one of his cranky plastic stools, quiet. They’re the ones he wishes God would bless. Though technically he doesn’t believe in God.
He lives with his wife in a one bedroomed apartment in a lane near Medical college junction, big enough for the two of them to keep their few possessions and their TV. Business is good, especially during monsoons when all the dengue kicks up.
Before this, he and his wife sold tea with vadas in a road near the temple at Guruvayur. Business was podipooram there. He woke up at 4 and was at his shop by 4.30 after an ice cold bath and a glass of black tea his wife prepared. Men and women from all walks with their little kids, occasionally older fathers and mothers with their newly wed children and in-laws would arrive in Venad Express in the wee hours, stop for a quick tea at his counter before checking into hotels nearby.
You could see the sleepy-eyed family, kids rubbing their eyes, some threatening to fall off their chairs (there were very few in his shop) before his tea jolted them back to wakefulness. They’d want to know when the queues at the temple were shorter and on what trains they could leave by evening. As day proceeded, his shop would get crowded with people thronging at its steps.
Back then his shop was neater. Life lent his sturdy Communist spine a 12degree bend but he never acceded to his wife’s suggestion of selling Guruvayur appan souvenirs like every other shop nearby – car fixities, chain lockets, rings, pictures for the pooja room, miniatures for the study table, some Guruvayur pappadams.
It was big business – all of it – he could be heard saying often. The sheer number of sweaty weddings with couples and their tiny cohort of relatives that stood in queues, devotees lining up from 5 am until 12, all that money clinking in purses and pockets to make way into the temple chests.
It also made his living.
His wife’s idea would definitely make some extra cash, but he was a non-conformist and didn’t conform. What’s a tea shop got to do with the deity that feeds on all this money? Sell some knickknacks eda, it’s not against our leaders’ ethics, his wife-appointed Communist maaman assured him. Neither is stashing money away in lockers and hitting their wives, he had retorted.
He was not one of them and he was proud of it.
So he had never sold any trinkets at Guruvayur, and when his wife’s arthritis drove them to Trivandrum, he had no neon light adorning the entrance to his shop.
It was practically useless, there were tall yellow lamps at the wide junction that lit up all 7 roads and the vehicles entering. And who keeps boards for Tea? People poured in anyway. This was a reference hospital and people came in without anyone’s invitation. Away from home, the poor needed hot tea for families, for patients in bed, for those in recovery and those awaiting surgery.
He could make small talk – it was part of his job, more so part of his curious mind, but it was the quiet customers he really liked having. Who trusted him to do his work and handed over their apprehensions along with their flasks, at least for the few moments it took him to fill them. It’s a solemn entrustment, for someone else to take charge.
He liked reading too much into things.
His shop was an entry ticket away from the commotion, from blinking neon lights and hurrying hordes. From the suffocation that built up when they had spent a few days at this place and longed to pack up their few belongings, the mat and the newly bought buckets and mugs but mostly the mended patient, and leave.
Of course he couldn’t help them with their son’s raging fever, the mother’s acute pneumonia or the longing for heading back home. But for a few moments, life was back to normal – the two glasses of tea everyday, the only permanent bits in an unpredictable life. It’s why they longed to move out of hospitals onto this side – they could talk about vadas and cricket here and nobody would judge.
Soon enough they’d leave with a word of thanks to the doctor, another word to the person in white and white that nursed them, injecting every dose of prescribed medicine into their vein asking with a smile if it hurt too much.
The guy on the other side in the tea shop who filled their flasks with hot chaya and gave a reassuring nod every morning and evening remains forgotten. The stranger who asked you about your mother’s illness and your hometown. You’ll remember the taste of his tea on the first evening back home and casually mention him as a token. And then you’re allowed to forget all about the shop with no neon lights.