The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.
- Mignon McLaughlin
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It had been 15 years since I had returned to the small town that birthed me.
I would meet a handful of friends who had witnessed me turn beet red on many occasions - as I climbed guava trees and my skirt flew up to my face, bawled like a child as I fell off my cycle and stood paralyzed as a rhesus monkey boldly walked up to me and grabbed my bag of chips.
It would also be the first time they would see me since my ugly, public divorce. I had ignored their messages since the news broke because while I can live with them having seen my underpants, it was far more embarrassing to let them see the cracks in my heart.
The night before I left, between morsels of tangy tamarind rice dipped in a spicy lemon pickle, my six-year-old son quizzed me on this mysterious destination.
"So, it doesn't have a beach?"
"No, but it does have a river! Unfortunately, it's all dried up", I replied.
"Then it's not a river", he said, matter-of-factly.
"I guess not. But when I was in high school, it rained heavily one night for hours and a thick brown liquid flowed like a river - it looked delicious, like chocolate!", I said, licking my lips and smiling.
He paused as he chewed carefully as if he was trying to digest the oddity of the whole thing.
I remembered that day clearly. I was in the eleventh grade and we were in the middle of a very boring history lesson at school when our teacher received the news from her paunchy colleague who appeared to be perspiring excessively in excitement. The students were so excited that the teachers gave in and allowed us two hours to go gawk at this miraculous occurrence for ourselves. We had half-walked, half-run the kilometre to the bridge that overlooked the once bone-dry Palar River. I did not have a single photograph of the river for lack of a smartphone or camera, yet I can recall the sights and smells with striking clarity.
"Does your hotel have a pool, Amma?" he asked, eagerly.
"No, I'm staying at a little guesthouse near the old house I grew up in. I don't think it even has a TV."
He was so stunned this time that he stopped chewing altogether.
I would have loved to take him with me. It would do wonders for this little boy in a big city whose entire world was so modern. It would also be good for him to get some fresh air and enjoy being a child.
Unfortunately, he had developed a cold and couldn’t travel. Sadly, in my case, the onset of cold feet was not a satisfactory excuse to justify missing the wedding of an old friend that I truly loved.
Around 9 o’clock the next morning, I boarded a rusty train to the little town of Vellore. Surrounded by the smell of rust, piping hot vadais and the train toilet with the cacophony of musical voices and squeals of babies, I was unfazed and strangely felt quite content. I made good use of my ability to drown out the voices around me and immerse myself completely in a great book. 5 cups of sweet watery tea later (the colour of which, I must add, looked a lot like the Palar river water), purchased from a very shrill tea-seller, I had finally arrived.
I got off at the familiar little Katpadi station that I noticed had retained its charm and instantly infused me with a sweet sense of nostalgia. After heckling with an auto-driver who was most indignant that I had interrupted his midday reading of a Tamil newspaper, I triumphantly boarded his jittery vehicle and we rumbled away toward the little village I once called home.
We passed a shabby railway crossing and fields of maize dotted with grazing cows before I finally saw the hill come into sight. Unwelcome tears caught me by surprise.
'Karigiri', when translated, means sleeping elephant and was so named after a little hillock that resembles the face of an elephant lying on its side. At the foot of this hill, lies a quiet little hospital that was set up to care for leprosy patients at a safe distance from the main town. I grew up on the hospital campus where my parents served as doctors.
I had lived in this village for over 10 years in a big stone-walled house right at the foot of the hill. It was too big for a family of four and despite our abundant library of books, toys and furniture, it was filled with echoes. The ceilings were high, the windows were huge and the window-sills were my favourite spot in the house. When friends and cousins visited, we would enact plays and sing songs from the window sill that we used as a mock stage, complete with the dramatic curtain call. When I had no playmates, I would curl up with a book and a bowl of raw mangoes cut into pieces, sprinkled with just the right amount of salt and chilli powder. I learned to roller-skate down the long corridor when it was too hot to play outside. I was firmly instructed to kick the front door open and pause before I stepped out, lest a scorpion or snake fall from the beam of the door. We had spent many nights attempting to catch terrified bats that had entered our house and were flying about wildly. We had picnics on the hill often - with homemade peanut butter sandwiches, orange juice and jam biscuits. All my friends’ houses were just a short walk away so we were always together, going on new adventures every day.
Our garden was always full of interesting flowers that I re-christened – for instance, I named the plumeria ‘bulls-eye’ after its resemblance to my favourite choice of breakfast eggs.
The guest house that I would be staying at was situated less than 500 metres from my old house. As we drove past, although the house was abandoned and the garden was unkempt, it surprisingly still felt very much like home.
As I waited for the old watchman to let me into the guesthouse, I looked over to my old home in the distance and it seemed very unnatural that I was to stay elsewhere.
My train was predictably delayed so I only had enough time to quickly shower and change before it was time for the wedding. I was beginning to feel the anxiety simmer in my blood as I applied my makeup. As I finally checked my hair in the mirror, a house lizard tut-tutted disapprovingly.
I decided that I would walk the short distance to the chapel – a mixture of nerves & curiosity. I instinctively quickened my pace as I walked under the arched trees down the road. When I was a little girl and I walked back from the chapel every Sunday evening with my friends, we'd have to walk very discreetly so as not to startle the crows and thereby invite their terrified droppings pelting us like bullets. On occasion, a mischievous friend might shine their torch overhead and we'd all run screaming in different directions to get as far as possible from the tree, erupting into breathless giggles.
As I entered the rickety old chapel gate, my eyes immediately fell on the group at the far right and particularly on a man with a distinct hunch in the corner with a dripping patch of white and streaks of greenish yellow on the back of his shirt! I couldn’t help but giggle. One of my first friends, who had been lanky like a reed with hair like a Backstreet Boy now looked like a balding, hefty rugby player. He had also been the unfortunate recipient of a crow’s dropping this evening! I couldn’t control my laughter. He walked over to greet me and enveloped me in a warm embrace! It felt familiar & instantly comforting. We had had huge crushes on each other when we were teenagers and had dated briefly. He walked me over to the group and I felt this strange sense of contentment like I finally had returned to where I belonged.
The wedding was beautiful! But Indian weddings are so strange – you end up spending most of your time with the other guests & family members, barely speaking to the bride & groom, except for the customary quick ‘congratulations’ and obligatory awkward photograph that is over in a (very bright!) flash. But I wasn’t complaining. I felt more at home than I had in a very long time. Ever since my heartbreaking divorce, I have wondered many times about whether the concept of home is just an illusion, or at most, a temporary settlement. Were the walls built of memories, the floor breathing permanence and the furniture marked with your scent? Did that constitute a home? Was it just a place to lay your things? After everything I had been through, I had very nearly given up on the hope of having one. Until this wedding. It wasn’t just that over the cliched music, aroma of spicy biryani and glittery clothes, the love in the air was tangible. I finally understood that home wasn’t just a place on a map, it wasn’t where you came from or where you would return. Nestled between this bunch of old friends I once knew but barely even spoke to, I knew this was my place. This is where I belonged, in the company of these people who knew me and unconditionally accepted me. I felt an extinguished part of my soul stirring. I was beginning to feel like myself. I don’t know if it was the heat of 800 people packed into one reception hall or the multiple layers of my sari or the blazing wedding lights, but I felt a deep, comforting warmth.
After we all stumbled onto the stage in a stupor of excitement and got the flashy photograph out of the way, we sat at a table toward the far end of the ground outside the chapel, ooh-ing and aah-ing about how we had all changed and recounting our many adventures!
“Do you remember the summer days when it grew unbearably hot and we had outgrown swimming in the pond, we would sneak up to the water tank supply and swim in the dark, chlorinated water?” a friend asked.
We all nodded, fondly turning the memory over in our heads.
“The smell of freshly plucked guava still reminds me of summer days we spent nibbling like squirrels while reading under the cool shade of our favourite banyan tree!”, said another.
“My ankle still stings from a fall I'd had while swinging like a monkey under that tree and the root snapped, remember that?” I said, with a laugh.
My eyes briefly met my old friends’. That was also the day we’d had our first kiss. His earnest, awkward attempt to make me feel better as I massaged my aching foot. I wondered if it were still there, with its roots hanging lazily. We loved swinging on them and even performed heroic shows for our parents of our monkeying around. We were so confident, creative and unafraid in this little town. Somehow venturing into the great big world had made me feel incredibly small.
“Petrichor instantly fills me with spontaneous excitement - finally earthworm hunting season!” he said, interrupting my flow of thought with his bright smile.
When I was growing up here, I wasn’t so keen on the earthworms but I was fascinated by stones. I’d go hunting for interesting ones each time I went for a walk. All the ones that shone in the midday sun, I'd faithfully collect and proudly display them to my mother and sometimes, if I were in a very generous mood, I'd allow her to keep one.
I carry this place with me wherever I go – the smells, the sounds, the feel of the gravel beneath my feet, the curve of the trees, the slant of the mountain. Like the stones I used to gather diligently, each memory, though seemingly frivolous, is infinitely precious to me.
After shovelling plates of rich biryani and glowing orbs of laddoos into our mouths as we narrated the accounts of our lives, my ex-boyfriend offered to walk me back to the guest house.
“So, fancy-entrepreneur-from-the-big-city, do you miss our old life here?” he asked when we’d broken away from the group having bid our goodbyes and passionately vowed to keep in touch this time.The mud roads were narrow and dark but I hadn’t felt safer in years. The sound of crickets were everywhere as the leaves on the trees danced slowly.
“Very much”, I replied. “I didn’t realize just how much until I met you all.”
“Hmmm.” He concurred. “I don’t think any of us did.”
“Coming back has been therapeutic. I don’t know why I waited so long to return!” I said, with a hint of regret. Would I have been a different person if I hadn’t been so eager to wander so far from my roots? What would my life look like if I’d never left? I wondered.
“We’re so fortunate that it hasn’t changed much. It’s as if our entire childhood - our memories, stories, everything is suspended in time.” He replied, looking around and taking it all in with a deep breath.
“Oh how I wish I could go back in time and bring the wheels of time to a stop.” I sighed, longingly.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I worried that he would interpret this as an invitation to ask about the divorce. I drew in a slow breath, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t.
“Why go back when we can recreate it now?”, he asked. I looked at him and his lips curled upwards, mischievously. I saw a flicker of the young boy he used to be and my heart began to race.
As we continued walking the muddy road with the eerie rustling of leaves around us, my confused eyes met his that glistened like stars. We didn't say a word but as if in time to music, we both stepped off the road, down on to an uneven, overgrown path that we only knew from the firm clarity of our memories. I used the rubber band around my wrist to tie my hair into a high ponytail, then lifted my sari and tucked it into the skirt. I saw his outstretched hand and instinctively placed mine in his. He hoisted me up until I was standing beside him, barely inches from his face.
‘Ready?’ He whispered.
I nodded in the darkness and tightened my grip.
Then in a crescendo, he shouted, “One. Two. Thuh-reeee!”
I pushed myself off the banyan tree branch and as the wind swept my hair back, I squealed gleefully as the adrenaline coursed through my blood & I revelled in the familiar freedom of flying through the trees.