Look! he says. There it is, the house where I was born!!
Eyes full of wonder and memories, he halts in front of the door, now a different door, a different house altogether, painted, rebuilt, now a shade of green he does not like. Forty years have changed the entire street, he notes, his voice rich with remembrance and some regret. We pause awhile in front of the house. We are in North Madras, in Muthialpet, and we are stopping by to smell, to feel the streets where he grew up, played, laughed, lived, loved.
Now and again, he points to something, the bike slowing down, then picking up speed again as we pass memories by. They hang in the air, memories, thick with meaning for him, and wonder for me, and I reach out to touch them. This house was famous for a guava tree right in the middle of the house, he exclaims. And this one was a bhajan mandali, we gathered here to sing on Sundays. His brown eyes light up as he turns his head this way and that, looking for familiar pieces of fifty years past. Sitting pillion, I absorb it all, savouring the nostalgia that clings to the walls, the houses. People look up, curious, as we pause to worry over some new spot and then move on.
We stop at the entrance to the temple. It is almost deserted. We alight and then walk in. A lone woman sits at the open sanctum, a corner of the temple without raised steps. She waves her hands and talks to the goddess, her manner more affectionate than reverent. I watch her, fascinated. She welcomes me with folded hands. The temple smells of ash and a large cow grazes negligently in one corner with her calf. I itch to touch the pair, but they grow wary of my slightest move.
This is my sanctuary, he tells me, and turn to pray. The lines of worry seem to disappear from his face. The beloved goddess watches impassively. We sit down in front of the goddess. He talks freely. The spirit of the goddess descends onto the priest, and he cures people, banishes spirits and creates good, he says. This used to happen till recently. He nods and looks solemn. I find no reason to disbelieve him. There are many things that cannot be explained. I am too innately Indian to disbelieve. Anyway, the goddess is serene. I love her already.
We take her leave, the pair of us, and roam this part of the city, a world in itself. This road is Broadway, he informs me with the air of someone imparting vital information, waving an all-encompassing hand down the length of the road with its somewhat quaint shops. Can you imagine that? Trams used to run here! I’ve seen the tracks… And this – joyful – this restaurant and this saloon. (A smile now.) I spent years here! My childhood years, he reminisces. I try to imagine him that young and fail miserably.
He sounds like a child, all excited, taking me by hand and showing me his world, the streets and shops and houses and people that shaped him, much like a child shows off his new toys or a scribbled drawing. I watch and listen and learn about him, the child that is my father.