He looks at me. He looks at the photo in front of him. He looks at me again. The difference since then and now, is 20 long years. I wait for him to ask “Is this you?” If he does, I have my answer ready. “Yes, the cover may look different but the contents are the same.” Would he understand the metaphor? Alas, he does not raise his head again. He stamps our five passports and waves us off into the interiors of the Chennai airport. Moral: You are not as important as you think.
As we wait for our baggage, Oria, the youngest in our Nade of five, is busy staring at the bushy mustaches, the dour ash grey salwars of the lady officers, the two British gentlemen who click their tongues and shake their heads at everything around them in dismay. What could be going on in the mind of a one-year-old at seven in the night in this strange land? Oria rubs her eyes, yawns.
Moral: take pity on all babies; they are at other people’s mercy.
Coffee! The smell from the small plastic cups filled with coffee and milk is so alluring as we step onto the chilly Chennai night in search of the vehicle and the driver who is supposed to pick us up. A thin, immensely tall man, probably in his early thirties, holding a placard with our names written on it comes running towards us obviously guessing that we and none of the other dozen families in the vicinity are his clients. “Nam peru Prakash” he introduces himself, helps us stack our luggage at the back of the Tata Safari and says our hotel is in Nungambakkam.
As we ease past the evening traffic, it seems all too easy to merge with the land and the people Apollonius Tyanaeus described as “a race of mortals living upon the Earth, but not adhering to it. Inhabiting cities but not being fixed to them, possessing everything but possessed by nothing.” No wonder the caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India kept calling “come, come, come”.
“Tring, tring.” The sound of Prakash’s mobile phone drags my rambling thoughts back into the crowded Tata. We hear the voice of a woman at the other end, obviously his wife asking him if he would be home for dinner. Go ahead. I will get late, says Prakash. Next we hear the voice of a child. Prakash’s tone changes. He chuckles and gently tells the child to go to sleep because it will be very late when his Appa comes home. The conversation barely lasts a minute. Prakash drops his phone into his shirt pocket, presses on the horn and overtakes a lorry at alarming speed.
Moral: family ties are the same all over the world.
At the hotel in Nungambakkam, the receptionist gives us several forms to fill as part of the checking in process. When the receptionist points out I had not answered the question “where do you come from?” I tell him “Africa”. He jots this down obediently before handing the room keys to us.
In the morning we meet our guide Sarvan. He looks like Obelix beside the matchstick thin Prakash. We begin our pilgrimage, amidst the friendly banter between Prakash and Sarvan who intermittently, tease each other, argue and hum songs from Hindi movies. They are eager to filfil our every need yet fail when we ask them if we could buy a cup of yoghurt for Oria. “Yo-gut-ta?” they shake their heads in bewilderment. When we explain it’s like curd but not exactly curd and comes in ice cream cups they look even more puzzled. Throughout the four- hour journey the two of them mutter “yo-gut-ta”, scratch their ears, look baffled until we assure them Oria is perfectly capable of surviving without the “yo-gut-ta”.
Moral: Do not always expect to find what you seek, no matter how hard you try.
As we wait for two hours in the chilly night till Sarvan finds lodgings for us on Thirumalai, on the Eastern Ghats, the mountain range that runs along South Eastern India, I finally get a chance to taste a steaming cup of the famous Chennai coffee. But to my dismay I find I have only hundred rupee notes to pay for the six rupee cup of coffee.
Tasting that scalding liquid turns into a dream that will never come true as the boy who sells the coffee shakes his head saying he cannot change the hundred rupees. I begin to walk away when someone says “Hello, hello”. I turn to see a gentleman who looks a lot like Rabindranath Tagore(in the dim light from the street lamp) handing a plastic cup of coffee to me with a beaming smile. When I accept his offering and say “Thank you” he bursts into a stream of words in a strange language. He is probably saying “It’s a pleasure”. I beam even more.
Moral: Doing small things with great love is miles better than doing great things with no love.
At five thirty in the morning we join the 50,000 pilgrims to enter the Sri Venkateswara Temple. Four hours later after taking part in the Darshan, visiting the Sri Padmavathi Ammavari temple, and a lunch of Tamil Nadu thali inclusive of an amazingly hot side dish called gunpowder, we are back on the road heading towards Chennai. I make one last purchase minutes before we head for the Chennai airport. The thin lady clad in a cotton sari who sells the strand of jasmine to me says something in Tamil which I fail to understand. Did she say “Go well, stay well?” I hope she did. No other farewell would have been fitting at the end of this journey of thanksgiving.