When we were kids, going to Madras meant that we could take as many cold showers as we wanted, without the risk of catching a cold. And of course, the existence of a shower helped a lot. The bathroom in our house in Bangalore did have an outlet for the shower, but no shower head. So all it was really was just a tap at a great height. But the house in Madras had two different kinds of showers in each bathroom. There was the one which was directly overhead, which meant the water would fall right on the top of your head, which was always fun after you got home from a day of playing outside in the sand, hot and filthy. It was also very big and very blue (or maybe it seemed big to my own tiny self) and that bathroom had a fancy shower curtain, pink with white flowers. The other bathroom had the one which was at an angle, placed in the corner of the bathroom, at the joint where two walls met. This one was small and silver colored and would squirt water on your face, leaving the hair almost dry. And the best part was, there were always shower caps if you didn’t want your hair to get wet (which was what I used to get yelled at for a lot because I was a constant victim of the common cold and wet hair was a surefire way of catching one). But then, I used to get yelled at anyway because even if I used a shower cap, at the end of it I would fill it up with water and play around with it, making the inside of the cap all wet and useless for the next person to shower.
We used to wait eagerly for the holidays because holidays meant one thing: going to Madras. We went every time we had any extended period of holidays and the summer holidays were always the best. We got to meet all our cousins and the 6 of us would play together and with the neighbors’ kids, get our asses kicked, not understand half the things the other kids said (our Tamizh was too brahmin for the Madras kids and their Tamizh was far too local to Madras for us to understand), fall down and hurt ourselves, hurl things at each other, flick water-bombs* into buckets of water and watch them explode, pluck green chilies from Samuel Uncle’s garden, trouble Adyar thatha’s Alsatian, poke fun at pakkathatthu Pavithra who was flat footed and couldn’t run very well, make our grandma yell at the top of her lungs to come in and eat, twist grandpa’s garden hose into an entangled mess. It was like the holidays transformed us normally chamathu kids into these monsters that just needed the salty Madras air to let go. Or maybe it was just that our parents were usually out and we were left under our grandparents’ supervision; and they were always too soft on us anyway.
And in the evening after it was dark and everyone had to go back inside, we would shower and change and sit outside in the porch, with the cool sea breeze flowing through our hair, listening to grandma and grandpa tell us stories of the old days, of the times when our parents were kids and it all seemed magical and so much more fun. And the times when Murali Mama came were always the most fun, because he always had the most incredibly funny jokes to tell us, which would have us doubling up in laughter. We would run around trying to catch the fireflies that showed up sometimes, or just talk and pull each other’s legs. Being the only girl on the maternal side of my family had definite advantages. I always got to sit on thatha’s lap and I got yelled at a lot less than the boys too. On the other hand, during navaratri I also had to endure the endless trips to all the maamis’ houses for golu and sing at every one of them. The boys would hide behind the big wooden screen and snigger as I was leaving. But they were always magically there to welcome us when we got back to steal all my sundal (chickpeas curry) packets. I even suggested to my Mom once that there should be one common golu venue and all the maamis should call me there and make me sing only once and be done with it, but the idea wasn’t really a big hit with her and only earned me a menacing glare and some mumbled words about “Madonnannu nenaippu“.
At dinner we would all sit at the big round table and have our mothers yelling and beating us because we were all too picky while grandma would tell them off for yelling at us. It was fun to watch the people who always yelled at us, being told off for a change. We had short forms for everything: RS – Rasam Saadam (we actually call it Saatthamudhu, but that would clash with Sambar so we left it at Rasam), SS – Sambar Saadam, TS – Thayir Saadam and so on. And of course, being the only girl, I had to stick around after dinner to help the ladies clean up while my sniggering cousins ran off to bed and got the best places underneath the fan. But then thatha would come along and chase off the boys and let me choose where I wanted to sleep. I always picked the spot right next to him, which was the most coveted spot. He would then make us all brush our teeth one by one and then turn off the lights and launch into his very famous Munsaami stories. Munsaami was the protagonist of all his stories and was a very naughty boy who always got into trouble for something that started out as noble. His friend Kandsaami had frequent cameos as well. The incredible thing about this, I realize now, is that thatha always spun these stories offhand and built them up as he went on. And the sheer imagination he had never stops to amaze me. Munsaami stories continue to be funny to this day. So after about half an hour of funny stories, crazy laughter and not-so-funny comments thatha would finally end the stories and admonish us to sleep. We, of course wouldn’t sleep, we’d be waiting for thatha’s breathing to become heavy and for him to start snoring, and then we’d launch into our incessant chatter again. Sometimes we’d get loud enough to wake him up and he’d yell at us to sleep, but most of the times we would take care not to wake him up. Sometimes I would sleep in the other room, where my mom and her sisters would be sleeping with my grandma, and I would fall asleep listening to them gossip about inconsequential relatives that I knew nothing about.
I miss those times and I wonder if my children will ever know what it is like to be in a time as magical as the time I have spent with my grandparents and cousins, my wonderful, amazing childhood. And that brings me back to the one thing I have known ever since I set foot here. I have to go back.
* Water bombs are seeds that when put into water burst open and make a “click” noise.