there we were, in a taxi for the day from coimbatore to palani, the three of us, looking for that ‘rosebud’ moment in my father’s childhood- a time in his life kept as far away from us as he possibly could. what was it about that time, those place and those people that he did not want us to know about? we never knew anything about the days when he was sent away by his parents to live with his uncle and aunt in kozhumal to compensate for their lack of progeny; or the time afterwards when he was, at the age of 10 returned to his parents to live in udmalpeth- when his parents lost some children to disease, or in childbirth. even these fragments of information came in the last days of his life, on the hospital bed, to my mother. i never heard these stories. yet, somehow this places have always been part of my consciousness- an imagined ancestry in a pastoral landscape of trees and rivers.
the pretext for this trip down south this time was my mother wanting to go to palani- the only religious place i think my father prayed at- perhaps until the age of 15 when he left to go to loyola college in chennai to study. he never returned. angry at being so easily traded between families; ashamed at his humiliation in being so easy to trade. in chennai he finished at the iit and then to bangalore and the iisc, before coming to bombay and tifr where he met my mother.
i think it was bangalore of all the cities that was the closest to what he would have thought as his hometown- the time of octagonal hostel rooms and friendships over a film seen everyday. he was a fan of asha parekh and had her poster in his room.
i don't think i have ever seen my father pray in public- ever- except for a discreet bow to the photograph inside his cupboard of murugan, after bath. sometimes he put vibhuti on our foreheads if sonal and me ever left town.
murugan sits on a sudden sharp outcrop of rock set in a flat fertile landscape surrounded by dark shadows of mountains. the older temple lies buried under many extensions. we took the ropeway and the vip route that slid past all the other waiting worshippers. you entered from the side and rushed through a maze of metal barricades that all but completely erased the traditional hierarchy of spaces in the temple. sonal, dad and i were here last 20 years back, before i went to the usa and had traveled here by a local state transport bus. although kozhumam where my father grew up was just 10 kilometres away he refused to take us there. he did not even mention it.
at kozhumam, we found the agrahara where the iyer’s lived with great ease. a few questions in the tiny village and we were in quiet lanes with white washed brahmin houses around us. we were about to give up locating the exact house when after a turn we arrived upon a massive structure that was being torn down right next to the main temples on the banks of the amravathi river. my mother remembered it from 40 years ago. i half remembered stories of houses lined up on the river from my father. he had no nostalgia for that time that i could discern. there was no trace in his conversations of his great lineage. in fact he recoiled at any investigation of that side of the family from any of us with his characteristic send of humour. and if we continued- a sharp retort. we recoiled away form any further questioning.
inside we met distant cousins never imagined, they looked at us like aliens- we had no language- no common history or characters whose stories we could tell each other. we were told that the entire lane belonged to my father’s mother’s family before people left for the big cities and these were gradually sold off. now three houses are left- one of which is being demolished and turned into a factory. in the last of the three houses we met my uncle and his mother. we saw the photographs of the woman who took care of my father when he lived in that lane and drank sweet hot coffee in the dark volume of the living room lounging around on low chairs, sitting on the cement floor. we saw the photographs of respected powerful men in fading sepia.
we learnt that the house in udmalpeth- my father’s father’s house had been sold and demolished and a shopping mall stand there. i did want to see the shopping mall too- my father would have been amused. it didn’t happen. we drove back straight to coimbatore.
i have seen my father twice since he died- once sleeping beside me a week after he passed away. i woke up to find him there urging me to go out and telling me he is all right. like the ghosts of dreams and cinema he was wrapped in white. i still remember his face and the light in his eyes. the second time was in a dream in which my mother told me he had come back to life and to go on to work and meet him in the evening. i remember him standing in the corridor of the courtyard and then heading out.
i think i met him again yesterday in kozhumam. i saw him grow up surrounded by the distant mountains, playing the courtyards and the streets; a playful child, angry, confused, petulant and scared. i saw him in the faces of the young men and children on the streets and wondered what about that extraordinarily beautiful languorous landscape- the privileges and power of caste and prestige- made him run so fast, so hard; made him suspicious of religion, of history; made him love us so much that we were the only things that mattered; that made him jealous of our lives outside; and made him conceal all his sentiment under that whacky incredible sense of humour.
coincidences_ on our way to coimbatore we met one of his favourite students at the airport. prathmesh had designed a way to cool hard working computers by inserting coolant as pipes into the machine. although i had never met prathmesh before, i remember my father’s stories about his work and how crazy it sounded- and how proud he was when it actually worked.
and then the other one- my father died 6 months back today to the day. our flight was delayed just enough that we landed in bombay almost the minute that he passed away. we miss him. very much.