Free

To fly as the gale decrees. Riding the wind currents, dipping into air pockets, twirling skirts that scatter rain drops. To spin, float and rush at bare branches, wheeee!  Free to flip up my skirt. No one to grab and force it down, to sigh in exasperation. No judgement. Free to get completely soaking wet, to break a rib or two. To spin any which way, free from the need to be useful. And finally, free from the hand that clutches at my handle. Holding me down, cower under me, avoiding the rain.


Vacation

“Yes! Yes! Yes”, the kids chorus as they hear they are to join the family on the yearly vacation down south.

“When will we go, Mommy?”

“Will we really see the whales?”

“Will cousin Jay come too? I dont like him! He just preens and he hordes  nuts!”

“Hush, dear! We dont talk about Jay’s peculiarities. Anyway, no, Jay wont come with us.”

“Yay!!”

“So where are we going mommy?”

“Florida.”

“Florida??!!” But I thought you said we would go to the tropics or something!”

“You are still too young to travel that far, dear.”

“Hey, mom! Can Maggie come too?”

“Who’s Maggie?!”

“Shsh…you were not supposed to talk about Maggie, blabbermouth

“Nobody.”

“Boys….If you dont tell me I’ll have to ask cousin Jay.”

“No!!!!”

“So…?”

“She just moved in next door, she has really pretty stuff. Bright and shiny.”

“Moved in next door? What happened to the Joneses?!”

“Idunno.”

“I dont want you hanging out with strangers, you hear? And I dont care if she just moved in or if she has pretty stuff. You stay away from her. Now go practice your flying so you can be ready to leave soon. I don’t want anyone complaining they are too tired before we have even left the city!”

“We never do that!”

“As if!”

“C’mon, shoo. Out you go! And don’t go pecking at seeds in the park. You are still too young to know which are the good ones and which are not”, said their mother as her babies fluttered their wings and took off from the nest.


Fixer-Upper

Wrrum, tick, wrrum, tick. the sound of the ceiling fan coming back on woke her. Where was she?! Oh right! Power cut so she had come to sleep in the large hallway with the front door open . There was something important to do. What was it? She struggled up from the mat and sat staring blearily around her. Something exciting, out of the ordinary. The perfect solution. Solution to what? What was the problem? Perhaps it was just a dream.  She got up to go to her room when she noticed the side room was closed and a garbage bag was outside it. Now the memories came flooding back. It was not a dream after all. She was going to fix it, that’s right! Grinning she walked to the bag and rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for. She picked up the pieces and walked back to her room, put it in the desk drawer and locked it. She tucked the key under her pillow and made a knot in her saree so she wouldn’t forget again and went back to sleep.

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“She left the front door open again” Ding! goes the tumbler-davara as his wife plonks it in front of him.

“You know no one’s going to come up to the fourth floor to steal. Why the drama?”

“Drama. Seriously?! And who said anything about stealing?!”

Seri, vidu! It’s too early in the morning to fight. You know the doctor said it is only going to get worse. We cant lose our cool so soon. I will get the child lock on my way back this evening. I’ll fix it. We’ll find a way. ”

The newspaper rustles as he hides behind it. He hears her muttering something in the kitchen. He sighs, folds the newspaper and inhales the fresh scent of his early morning filter coffee.

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His mother was muttering again. That is all she seemed to be doing these days. Apart from banging  stuff on kitchen counters of course. When was the last time they had an early morning hurry burry without the dark looks and tightly-gripped-together lips? He used to hate getting up in the mornings, now he just loathed it. It was so much better when Bobo was there. He could still feel the warm fluffiness under his chin where Bobo used to curl up every morning. He loved Bobo. He missed Bobo. If Bobo came back everything would be fine. Nobody will be angry at Paati anymore and Amma wont look so exhausted or Appa so sad. He had to look for Bobo one more time. He could fix it, go back to normal life again. He would be like Chota Bheem and save the day!

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Gone, again!  Even this morning, the entire Sahasranam recitation went fine. Not one name dropped. That is 1000 names, that is, and all present and uttered out loud. And yet, here it was this knot in her saree mocking her memory. What could it be for? Looking out the window of her back room she saw the road with its swarm of people walking by. The traffic snarling, people busy going everywhere. Was it ever like this before? When was the last time she had time to just sit down and think? She was too busy to sit down, that’s for sure. She should be out doing things. But what things? She squeezed the knot between her fingers closing her eyes, hoping she’d remember that way. Well, no point sitting and hoping for something.  The trick is to walk it out, something might trigger the memory. She shuffled out to the main hall and looked around. Where was everyone? Shouldn’t they be here by now? She walked to the front door and found some strange plastic thing on the knob. What was this? It didn’t let the door open! Curious, she leaned in to look closely at the hinge. This is interesting! Surely this wasnt there before. She couldnt possibly have forgotten this! It must be something new. It looked new. There! that was the original door knob still there underneath this covering. Just need to take the covering off and the door will open as before. That was easy! Just need that… that…never mind the word! she knew what she wanted. The thing that will fix it just fine. This was going to be fun!

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” He stole a cat! Are you going to do nothing?!

“I am sure he didn’t steal it. Besides, it could–”

“It is not Bobo. For God’s sake don’t you start saying it is Bobo!!”

“It IS Bobo!!” his son shouts from his room, behind the closed door. “I CALLED AND HE CAME TO ME!!”

“You went to it carrying milk and cheese. What do you expect? IT IS A CAT!!!”

Alright! It’s fine. Even if it is not Bobo–”

IT IS BOBO!!”

“– EVEN SO, its not like he stole it. He found it wandering the streets”. Then in a whisper, ” It has made him happy. The first time in weeks I have seen him smile!”

“It had a bloody collar on. Of course it belongs to somebody. You can’t ignore facts, just because your son is happy!! I want him to be happy too, but not this way. What is happening here? When did we start losing the plot altogether?!”

“I didn’t see the collar. Fine! we’ll put up notices tomorrow. We’ll give it a week. If nobody claims him by then, he’ll stay.”

“HE IS BOBO. I AM NOT GIVING HIM BACK!!”

“Son, IF this belongs to someone else you wouldn’t want them to feel bad like how you felt when Bobo left, would you? I promise you, we’ll get a new Bobo for you. I’ll fix this, believe me.”

“Yes, but what if Bobo had gone to this other person when he left us and that person now sees the poster and wants him back? He was my Bobo first!”

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The door was fixed alright, but what is that “thing” in her saree for? It was still sitting there mocking her, and as if that were not enough she couldn’t remember the word for it. The talk with her daughter-in-law was just a disaster. It was frustrating. What do you do when your efforts are met with blank incomprehension and the panic in the eyes of the person you were trying to talk to? What’s the point in crying at her?!  What had she done?! She had just come looking for answers. She went back to her room and shut the door with a bang. She needed to calm down but her brain would play back the conversation, gaps and all and the panic would start again. When her grandson walked into the room it all started to make sense. His face was aglow with happiness. That look of joy, that was it! Bring that carefree smile back in his face and fix it there. That’s what she had to do. She remembered that now and the rest came floating back. Of course! that is what she had picked up from that….that…no! she was not going to get lost in that world of words again. She was going to hold on to this moment if it killed her. She quickly drew a piece of paper toward her and started drawing her grandson just as he looked right now with that glorious smile on his face. So words had deserted her. Never mind, she still had images. She was going to keep this paper with his face on the desk so she will never forget what she had to do! The…thing…fluffy thing…ptch! never mind, just stop it grabbing the pencil. There! Her grandson and she both laughed as she picked it up off the paper and set it aside so she could finish her picture.

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It was all a disaster. Bobo didn’t fix anything, he just made it all worse. Now Amma was mad at him. He couldn’t think how to explain it to her. He knew it was Bobo, he just knew it! Even  Paati did, they had laughed at Bobo together when he played with her pencil. Just like how they both used to play with Bobo before. She recognized Bobo, he was sure of it. But now it was all wrong. Now all he did was picture Bobo pining for someone else. Someone who had bought him a collar. Now looking at Bobo only brought fear, a deep pain in his stomach that made him not want to eat anything. Even the ice cream Appa had gone out to get especially for him. Would someone really come to take Bobo away? Another thing to fix apart from all the others that Bobo’s coming back was supposed to fix! It was all just a great big disaster.

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This little thingy goes on that, and now this whole thing on this… There, now this first half is done! This whole “images” idea works. Just have to forget there was ever another way to communicate. Forgetting, she could do; no problem! In fact, she was getting to be a regular pro at forgetting! Her dry chuckle sounded loud in the sudden silence. The war of the words must have ended sometime ago. No point worrying about what all that was about. Wouldn’t understand anyway and trying only seemed to make everything worse. Silence was good, it was comforting, helps with thinking. Calms you. She stretched and straightened her back and turned off the light. So dark outside, must be late. Perhaps should go to the store tomorrow. She turned the light back on and drew a picture of the tool that she needed to buy in her diary. She put that and her incomplete project back in the drawer and locked it. No more knots, no more emotional attempts at conversation. Once this was complete that’ll be proof that her new system works. After all it helped her fix this …thingy…and they were just going to throw it away too!

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“She was upset with me earlier. For taking her saree to the wash. She has worn it for a whole week, she wouldn’t give it to me to wash, so I just took it and washed it while she was in the bath.”

“That was good. Maybe she was not upset because of that.”

“She kept thrusting the thalappu of the replacement saree at me. It was all knotted and I could tell she was bothered by the saree. I dont think she could have possibly meant anything else”.

“So she wore the replacement saree. That couldn’t have been so bad.”

“I did try to explain to her that the old saree was filthy and she will have it back tomorrow.”

“How did she take that?”

“Like everything else, tried to say something, couldn’t and so walked away and shut herself in the room.”

Silence, as he tries to think of a way to comfort her. She finishes brushing her hair and gets into bed.

“You know the worst part? It was the saree I had bought her last Diwali. A simple cotton one because she wanted only that as it was the softest and didn’t bother her as much as silk does.”

“The replacement saree? Yeah I remember the Diwali saree. She said she didnt have that color, right?”

“Not really, but that’s not the point. The point was, she wore it again for Pongal and when your sister asked her why she wore an old saree, said she loved it best. That was just six months ago. Now she can’t just find the words, she has forgotten her likes and dislikes too. How much longer before she forgets us?”

He hugs her tight as tears flow not sure he can fix this anymore.

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No one had called yet. He had made sure he had his fingers around the collar when Appa took the photo for the flyer. He didnt think Appa had noticed. He made sure to keep Bobo out of Amma‘s way so she wouldn’t get mad again. But in the evenings he noticed Bobo sitting at her feet under the dining table. He seemed to like playing with her saree and she didn’t seem to notice. So perhaps Bobo would stay after all. But Bobo was not fixing anything.  Paati now rarely came out of her room or speak to anyone. He thought perhaps Bobo slept in her room during the day when he was off at school because he had seen his hair on the bedspread. But he couldn’t tell if  Paati noticed or not. He wasn’t sure what she did all day. They had a new girl in to keep her company during the day, but he thought it was more to make sure  Paati didn’t leave the house and wander off.

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The maid girl was a genius! What clear illustrations! There, that’s her knock. Good, now where is the drawing of the tool? Oh! yes here it is. Good girl, memory worth the two of them. Her personal memory-…person. If she were only a bit more dextrous with tools, she could finish the whole project by herself. Well, thank God she doesn’t! Then there truly will be nothing left to do but sit and worry about the big blanks in her brain. No sense in worrying about it now. Where is that shop? It was round this corner wasn’t it? Wait! where is the girl going now? Oh, this is a new one! So shiny! Look at all those tools. Much better than that old shop that was round the corner. What was the owner’s name? He had that black tooth in the front. He knew her name, was always ordering people about to get her coffee while she chatted about the specifics of what she wanted. He had a daughter didn’t he? What was her name? Nice girl, two braids. Wait, where did the girl go? Don’t panic, she has to be here somewhere. Oh, thank God, there she is. Well, isn’t she the smart one, she’s found the exact tool. Oh, right, she has the drawing. Not that smart then! So many words on the packaging, but that is ok, the girl will know what to do. She has even remembered to bring her purse..with money…well, she is a regular memory-bank isn’t she? Memory-bank! That’s a good name. Anyway, here’s the tool now for the final piece to fix, then…well better not think of the “then”. As Krishna says …what is it? Sure it starts with ka…Should ask the memory-bank girl, she was sure to know.

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“I don’t know…”

“What?”

“That girl the company sent…”

“What about her? She seems alright. She had really good references.”

“I know. Its just that she seems so…I dont know…meek…”

“Meek?! Well you dont want an aggressive care-taker do you?”

“No of course not. Perhaps, “meek” is not the best word. It’s just that Amma always liked energetic people. People with some quickness of mind, you know?”

“Well, Amma is not quite herself now-a-days, is she? So perhaps this is what she needs now. Besides, you were the one who told me she gets upset when people try to engage her in conversation. So perhaps, “meek” is what is best.”

“I know, I know. I just… we used to do things together all the time. I miss bouncing ideas off with her. Remember that Kangat’s wedding? That embroidery pattern was all her brain-child! I just miss her, I suppose.”

“You think we should perhaps get someone who will stimulate her more? Do you think she will deteriorate faster with this girl?”

“No, I dont know. I might just be projecting. Maybe she does need someone to just calm her. She definitely seems calmer.”

His phone beeps. He checks his message.

“I have to go now. I thought this was a good fix…”

“No, go. We can talk when you get back. Besides she has been here only a week. We still have time to make a decision.”

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Paati was definitely upto something. Ever since that girl came, the two of them were in her room all the time. Even Bobo seemed to be in on the secret. He slept outside her room, guarding the door. Anytime someone came close to it, he’d open one eye, stretch and flex his claws! Appa thought the girl was the solution. There was definitely less shouting with the girl around, but he was not convinced. He didn’t think Amma was either.  There was something strange about her. She kept smiling secretly to herself when she thought no one was looking. And then there was that sound. He heard it the first time last night. A sort of whirring noise. He was about to go check it out, when it had stopped suddenly and he had heard that girl giggle. What was she upto? He was definitely going to find out tonight. He was going to sneak into Paati‘s room and find out. The two of them where upto something, he was sure of it.

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Done! All done! Unbelievable. The silly Memory-bank was bouncing up and down on the bed watching it fly. She was going to destroy the surprise if she didn’t stop that giggling soon. But still that whirring sound….she should jump too! Well today is the D-day! What time is it? Oh right, that’s his step! Quick have to be ready before he opens the door. Where did that stupid girl go? Yes, yes I am coming! Oh everything is here, good. One…two…here we go!! The door opens and her grandson walks in. That look on his face! Much better than the drawing. He was hugging her and jumping up and down. He was throwing words at her too, but it didnt matter. The happiness is back.

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Amma fixed his Battle Robot Helicopter!” she says as soon as he walks in the door. She’s got tears in her eyes.

He looks around and sees his son manning the remote and the Robot zooming overhead, while the cat chases the chopper’s shadow on the ground. His mother is sitting on the sofa with a big grin on her face, he hasn’t seen in months. The girl is throwing directions at his son, not meek anymore.

“What?”, he says stunned.

“That’s what they have been doing all this time in her room. They have come up with some picture cards to “talk” to each other with. They even went to the shop to get some special part to fix the pieces together. It’s only words that upset her. She’s still there, we just needed to find new ways to communicate.”

“What?”, he says again, not really caring. His family was fixed. His mother had fixed it, like she used to fix all his problems when he was younger. The details could wait.


Gingee Kottai Valliban* – Gaudaman, 8A, saves the day.

Sometime during middle school there was a plan afoot to take us to Gingee fort and Sathanoor dam for annual excursion. However, thanks to an uncharacteristic lapse in my memory, I can’t recollect if that plan was executed. I do however, remember that I never went on that excursion. Fast forward about three decades; I finally had time to make this trip a couple of weeks back.
The ever reliable Google maps told me the trip should take about 2:30 hrs without traffic and my sometime reliable friend said the roads for the most part were pretty smooth. Since the wise people of TripAdvisor said it is a very hard climb and “impossible for women and children” I decided my elderly mom and I will of course climb it. We figured if we left at 7:00 am we should be there by 10 at the latest and it shouldn’t be too hot to do the climb.
So off we set, only 30 mins later than our intended departure time on a nice little Tata Indica with the A/C on and the Sun shining a deceptively mild light through the distant trees. We quickly took the NH45 that was as smooth as silk though pretty crowded at this early hour too. After an hour and half of driving by innumerable coffee shops** we finally stopped at a road side restaurant for a quick breakfast of uthappam and vada. The good thing about these quick pit stops are that they are truly quick. It took about a minute to take our order, about 5 mins to get piping hot food and 2 mins to pay and leave. So the rate limiting step of the whole process is your eating speed. 20 mins after we stopped for food we were back again in the car and zooming along the beautiful highway again, keeping a wary eye on the Sun that was indulging in a playful hide-and-seek game with some fluffy clouds and being generally meek.  The only bottle neck until we reached Tindivanam is the toll house that is a choking, honking mess. After taking the exit to Thiruvannamalai, one turns left at the board that says “Gingee 20km” and go about a kilometer on newly laid road. After a km the road disappears for about 200 ft and then reappears for another km or so when it disappears again. This way, the 20 km stretch takes you about 1 hr and with the help of random people on the street, you reach the Krishnagiri fort.

Obligatory history lesson: The Gingee (or Senchi in Tamil) fort encompasses three hills : Krishnagiri, Rajagiri and Chandrayandurg. Earliest fortification in this area was built by an Ananda Kon, a local chieftain of the shepherd clan but later fortified and made larger by the Marathas, Carnatic Nawabs and Mughals. It was briefly under Maratha rule but was wrested from them by the Mughals who placed Rajput rulers as their local representative. The most famous ruler of these was Raja Tej Singh, locally called Desinghu Raja*** who was a mere teenager when he died a glorious death defending the fort and is immortalized in Tamil folklore songs for his pains. Krishnagiri is the smaller fort and comes first on the road, it’s also called the Queen’s fort. It is easier to climb as it is smaller and has well defined, albeit rough hewn stone steps. It has a temple, granaries and preserved citadels. The Rajagiri is the larger and more imposing fort, the site of Desingh’s valour. It has among other structures a marriage hall****. It used to have a large moat and one side of the fort is a sheer drop to a great big chasm. Connected to Rajagiri is the third and smallest hill, Chandrayan durg also called Chamar Durg for no apparent reason, although wiki thinks it could be because chamars or cobblers set up there to supply the army of Rajagiri.

We reached Krishnagiri at eleven o’clock. The Sun, like a good government employee quit its silly games with clouds and got down to the business of the day, shining bright and hotly at us. Having done our TripAdvisor research, we were well prepared for this. We came dressed up in trek friendly clothes and quickly dug out our hats and sunglasses, secured our water bottles to our packs and strode out bravely with, as the song says, heel for heel and toe to toe. After paying the ridiculously small sum of Rs.10/person that gets you admission to both the forts, we commenced the great trek up.

Krishnagiri in all its glory

Krishnagiri in all its glory

We were pleasantly surprised to find hand rails right at the start of the stone steps and decided that we can conquer this fort after all. Like all silly assumptions this one too bit the dust as soon as we turned the first corner.

The handrail that raised our hopes

The handrail that raised our hopes


At the end of the “hand rail-ed” portion is the very first rest stop where you can catch your breath and take in the glory of the surrounding fields and cityscapes.

Rajagiri and Chandrayandurg

Rajagiri and Chandrayandurg

Distant hills and fields

Distant hills and fields

Sentry post facing the civilian settlement

Sentry post facing the civilian settlement

There are four such pit stops spread over the climb and are an essential hideout from the Sun and the views are breathtaking enough to make the rest not seem too time consuming. More importantly the higher you get the cooler the breeze that helps mitigate the effects of tropical heat of interior TN.

After cooling ourselves for about 5 minutes we resumed our climb, this time without handrails, under the unrelenting heat only to run into hordes of people returning from their climb. Everyone of these groups would stop when they see us and exclaim at my cruelty for bringing an elderly lady on such an arduous trip. It was not the exhausting climb that bothered them, but the fact that there was nothing when you reach the top. “Oh! look at that poor Aayah*****”, they would exclaim at each other, stopping short. Then turn around at me and say accusingly,” Why are you taking her all the way up there ma! There is nothing to see, but broken down ruins!” They would promptly discard my palliative, “it is to see the ruins and enjoy the climb that we go,” with a dismissive flick of the hand and shake their heads, “what climb?! what ruins?! you only get knee pain for all this”, sigh, and resume their downward journey leaping over the steps like mountain goats. It didnt matter that there were Aayahs among them too, they would stop by my mom and advice her in a stage whisper, “turn back right now! there is nothing to see. They cheat by saying there is a temple, it is nothing! There is no God, only pillars!”

Take note of all those women trekkers, TripAdvisor

Take note of all those women trekkers, TripAdvisor

You would think at least the ascending crowd would be encouraging, but you would be wrong! We seem to have hit the ideal time for romantic couples’s ascension and the men of each and every couple would pass us by and remark to his girl, ” even this aayah is climbing and you make such a big deal!” and the woman in every couple will invariably give me killer looks as if I am solely responsible for her current predicament! Nevertheless, we finally reached the third rest stop breathless and burning with the heat of the mid-day Sun. At this point, my mother gave up, being defeated by the Sun and I decided to forge on ahead to conquer this bloody peak. So off I went after catching my breath and drinking half my water.

The last rest stop. The end is in sight! hurrah!

The last rest stop. The end is in sight! hurrah!

Apart from the people mentioned in this post, there was another set of travelers that I haven’t mentioned so far. These were the young men traveling in groups of 4-5 whom we met at most rest stops. They were by far typical youths who had a typical youth attitude of staring one out of countenance. It is not the curiosity stares that you get in trains which is typically Indian and is indicative of nothing more than idle curiosity to while away the often tedious journey. This is the more offensive stare and accompanying rude comments of the college going Chennai male at bus stops and is exclusively reserved for young women/collegiate girls regarding her looks, attire etc . As long as my mom was with me, this was just a minor annoyance, akin to the buzzing of a particularly persistent mosquito, that neither bites nor flies away in search of better prey but insists on buzzing by your ear. Once I left my mom behind, this buzzing got more interfering and in-your-face. Determined to avoid this unwanted attention, I quickened my pace to the last rest stop and sat facing my phone with the hope that studied ignoring will defeat the most persistent of them. The longer I sat staring at my phone and gasping for air, the angrier I got at the situation. I started composing angry and frustrated blog posts in my head and did not notice a change in my surroundings.

The first I knew of my immediate surroundings was when someone said, “Hello, what is your name?” I looked up angrily, ready to do battle, only to be confronted by about 10 school kids sitting across from me eagerly looking in my direction. The buzzing annoyances were nowhere to be seen. I quickly regrouped and responded by asking the speaker his name in return. The kid jumps up, strikes a pose with his hands on his hips and says, “my name is Gaudaman”! His classmates and I burst out laughing and that attracts the rest of his class and his teacher. After such an opening who can resist a good long conversation? Not I, for sure. From our conversations, however, it was clear that going by my attire the kids and their teacher had decided that I was “foreigner” and were trying to have a conversation in English with me. I indulged until I asked them what class they were in. For which the chorus answer was quite unintelligible, and so had to be repeated twice. I finally got it but our hero, Gautaman, decided that I needed help and so drew the number “8” in the air quickly followed by the letter “A”. Before I could assure him that I definitely got it, he kept repeating his little mime until I gave up and said in Tamil, “purinjidu, thambi!******”. There was a second’s shocked silence while they assimilated that I could speak their language after which Gautaman’s face took on an expression of exaggerated surprise. He jumps behind his classmates and shouts out in Tamil, “she can speak Tamil”! After this their teacher prompts them to have a conversation with me in proper Tamil. They chat, try to get a bet going with me on the name of the hill we were on (I refuse), take group pictures with me and shake my hand (INDIVIDUALLY!) and leave, promising to say hello to my mom on the way down. 15 minutes of pure unadulterated entertainment. The rest of the trip was done on a high completely unfazed by buzzing aggressive mosquitos and burning hot sun.

As promised by others the hilltop had a temple with only pillars and citadels, and as anticipated by me the view was spectacular and the breeze cooling and gentle.

Old temple

Old temple

no saami wonly pillars

no saami wonly pillars

citadel ruins

citadel ruins

other mandapas

other mandapas

Travel Tips: The ASI in its infinite wisdom allows you to climb these forts only from 9 to 5. In other words, just when the sun is at its hottest. To make matter worse, the Rajagiri fort entrance closes at 3 pm and the Krishnagiri at 4 pm, so there is no chance of you beating the heat! My suggestion is get there by 9m, attempt the larger one, Rajagiri, first. Take rest at the near by traveler’s lodge and come back to climb Krishnagiri at 4 pm.

Krishnagiri is an easy climb as long as there is no Sun!

Remember the route from Tindivanam exit to Gingee is very poor and takes a long time to cover, so be prepared for that.

Wear good firm shoes as the stones are worn smooth by the passage of many feet.

* A take on the name of a movie called Vanji Kottai Valliban in which a tinsel town handsome youth, aka Gemini Ganesan warms the cockles of the princesses’s heart. Read the story to understand the reference.

**If you ever need proof that Tamils are coffee fanatics, take the NH45. Not for us the Starbucks and Seattle coffee houses, we swear by our filter coffees. And to cater to us there are a gazzillion Kumbakonam Degree Coffee outlets, interspersed with a million Lip and Sip, Only Coffee shops, abutting a hundred 99Degree Coffee s. In case you missed these, there are also Cafe Coffee Day s.

*** cue this song.

**** and why not? One can want to get married during a siege, it is entirely possible!

*****Women of a certain age are automatically “Aayahs” or grandmothers irrespective of the presence or otherwise of actual grandchildren. In Indian culture this is a form of respect.

****** Understood, little brother


Mo!*

It is too much of a risk, thought Kate, sliding into the backseat next to her husband. Perhaps they should have heeded the internet chat group and gone with the ridiculously expensive tour group than pick some taxi-wala from the roadside. She felt secretly thrilled that she thought in Hinglish now! Mark caught her smile and put his arm around her shoulders, early morning fight forgotten. Well! and why not? She can’t be that worried if she is getting distracted by her Hinglish thoughts. The taxi was now going its usual breakneck speed, oblivious to traffic and accompanied by the cacophony of blaring horns that was now only marginally less nerve racking than it was two weeks ago when they landed in India. “I am still not entirely convinced, you know”, she said, not willing to let go of her worries all that easily. “But it is a brilliant idea, darling! You know we thought so at the time. Besides I can take this guy anytime with one hand tied behind my back!” Mark said nodding at the driver. Kate looked pointedly at his nascent beer-belly and smirked. “Aww…common babe! I am at least twice his size!” Which was true, of course. Before Kate could say anything. however, the driver turned right around and started to speak, making them instinctively lean back and yell “Road!” while simultaneously stomping on the imaginary brake. The driver, stunned, turned back and then grinned at them at the rear view mirror. “No problem, Sar no problem! I drive 4 years, aahn, not one accident. Don’t worry madame, not even one scratch, madam, don’t worry, don’t worry! Now only you come a? Just Arrived?” He said grinning superciliously at the two of them now. Kate sighed while Mark took this opening to engage the driver in a chat. He did that all the time in India and it never failed to surprise Kate. Not that Mark did it, but that Mark did it. The man who would grunt discouraging monosyllables at the New York cabbies staring pointedly at his iPhone now initiated conversations with everyone from the bell boy at their fancy hotel to taxi drivers. She couldn’t even blame it on the iPhone, because even at the hotel restaurant that had wi-fi, Mark had chatted away at the waiter while she googled TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet reviews. It was so different from their previous trips where Mark was the one planning everything and she just hung back and enjoyed the luxury of it. Now she was the one planning and Mark was the one living it up. It was fine, she was liking the planning, but she wished Mark was just a bit more involved. He just made on the spot decisions these days, no research no discussions, just…snap! and off we go. Like this taxi thing last night. They were having a great time at this out of the way restaurant that came highly recommended by people who “travel like a local” at TripAdvisor. Mark was so happy to be out of their comfort zone, eating with his hands and his happiness was so infectious she even washed her hands with the bar soap provided in the “Hand Wash” area! They were giggling like teenagers on their way back to the cozy, safe five star rated hotel room when Mark had said, “look, darling, a taxi stand. Let’s just ask one of these guys if they will take us out tomorrow! We had great fun today, it will be awesome tomorrow too!” and she had said yes, without thinking it through and let Mark talk to the driver and fix it all up. But then in the bright sunlight of the morning she had started having second thoughts. She just couldn’t resist checking for advice online and now she was too tensed for any adventure. There are so many ways this could go bad! But Mark and the driver were getting on like a house on fire. Maybe it will all work out, maybe.

The taxi turned off the main road onto a bumpy lane. The driver started to pay more attention to the road and Mark to the hutments on either side. Kate’s stomach plummeted at each bump and her temper sky rocketed at each click of Mark’s camera. After about half an hour of this, Kate couldn’t take it anymore and nudged Mark, “where is he taking us? Does he even know?” Mark looked surprised at her, ” To the rock temple, darling!” he said, like there could actually be a doubt! “But do you know this is the route? What if he takes us some place else?” “Oh! he’ll ask for directions, Sweets. Don’t you worry. These guys are not like the Chennai drivers, they stop for directions. The new age man, eh?!” he said nudging and winking at her. The driver had by now rolled down the window and called out. She turned to look at the porch of a house where she could see the U-shaped bend of a girl stirring something on the floor. “Paapa!” called out the driver. No response. “Mo!” he said raising his voice and the girl jerked up like a jack-in-the box with the most comical expression of bewilderment on her face. Despite everything, Kate burst out laughing.

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Amala breathed a sigh of relief! The house looked liked the wreckage after a flood, but at least there was no constant yelling and hustle bustle. The last week was a nightmare. First the kid had got a tooth ache and cried all night. Then just when the doctor’s narcotic had started to work, her brother got stung by the scorpion and literally brought the roof of the cowshed down. By the time her dad and uncle had fixed the roof, the tailor had brought the blouses for her sister’s wedding sarees and NONE of them fit! Oh, the pandemonium! The kid woke up, the dressing came off as the brother tripped on the ladder in his hurry to see what the shouting was all about, bringing his uncle down with him, her mother was shouting at the tailor, her sister was crying unconsolably and her father was yelling at everyone! Needless to say, they had all turned to her as the calm one to fix all their problems. She had sent the tailor off with alterations, reminded her mother she could use this as a bargaining chip to lower the prices or even get it free, dressed her brother’s foot again, and sang to the kid to get him to go back to sleep. If that was a bad start to the week, it only got worse from there. The Mandap decorator dropped by to say he ran out of cloth for the wedding dias, the patched roof started to leak, one of the calves decided this was a good time to make a bid for escape** and the dentist decided to pull the kid’s teeth out. She just wanted some quiet! Peace was not important, if only she could get quiet! If they would all just go crazy silently she could still deal with it. But being called every five minutes in tones ranging from mere panic to abject terror was driving her insane! Why does her family have to be so loud? Fear, tension, worry, fun, happiness all had the same reaction. Loud! Finally, after a lot of behind the scenes fixing by her, she had packed them all off to the wedding hall a day before. She can get the house ready now for the visitors arriving after the wedding, she said. This was the best time to do it, or there would be too much hurry burry later. We need to look our best for the groom’s people. She really didn’t need to see the hall again before the wedding. Yes, of course she will be there bright and early on the wedding day! It is only a 10 min walk, no need to worry. Yes, she will remember to feed the cows before she leaves. And finally! almost like a miracle they had all left and the blissful quiet settled around her! All she had to do, she could do by herself. She picked up the broom and had cleared out the entire house before noon. And no one called to her, not one peep! Not even the cows. It was blissful.She was at the porch, the last of the clean ups. She was so engrossed in the silence she didn’t hear the car draw up. She vaguely registered a shout until, someone yelled out the dreaded word. “Mo!” they said and she jerked up stunned that her quiet could be broken so soon.

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* Short for Amma, a term of endearment used for young women and girls in south Tamil Nadu

** He had the right idea.


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