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Thadhiginathom - Part 11
- Zakir Hussain
English translation: Dushy Gnanapragasam

July 14, 2020

(Reproduced with permission)

A new world! A new dawn!

Cities that are home to a majority of the world's population, are miniature nations in themselves. Its inhabitants adopt a multifaceted culture without the need for a unique identity. Cities are entities that are in constant restless motion forming hierarchies not based on caste and creed, but based solely on wealth and lack thereof. Anyone can succeed here if only they possessed perseverance of effort and innovation in thought. The ability to determine 'this person can accomplish this task by this means' and to implement it is an important and unique feature of any city.

In the predawn hour, the 'Yercaud Express' expelled me - who did not have an address for it to note down - from its long stiff body with a jerk and a yawn. I was the last one to get off - with a quivering heart. The noise of trolleys being pulled on uneven paths screamed like broken loudspeakers making passengers run asunder. Porters in red uniforms hurried with heavy loads won in barter. The owners of the loads followed them - intently observing and pretending to chat - like cats following their kitten. The stench from the fish and shrimps in large sacks engulfed the area and lingered in the nostrils even after exiting the railway station - as if it had become embedded on the brain. Though this city rush was new to me, a sense of calm came over me knowing that I had left my village behind.

In my village I had a friend, Prabakaran, who is older than I. He was studying at the Thiruvallikeni College and stayed at its hostel. I somehow found the address and reached there. Two days later he sent me to see his friend Kaliq Basha who was known to me from my days in Salem. I stayed with him for a month. Then Kaliq got me a job in billing section at Bilal Hotel, Mount Road, through someone he knew. I worked for twelve hours a day and earned ten rupees for the work. Food was provided free of charge and was given an off day on Saturdays. At a time when it was a struggle to find daily meals, this arrangement was agreeable to me. I worked there for two months. From time to time I went to see dance recitals with their permission. I was getting used to life in Madras. Later, I moved to room number 45 at 'Pal Pandian' mansion on Ranganathan Street, T.Nagar, and lived there with four other friends.

In those days, the telecommunications department issued a directory containing the telephone number as well as the address of their customers. Those books were large enough to be used as pillows. Many profited from selling those at the end of the year, along with the old newspapers. They issued a brand new directory at the beginning of every year. There was always a long line to receive those books - armed with telephone bills in hand. It was through that book that I obtained Chitra madam's address. Because I could not muster enough courage to call her on the phone, I decided to go see her in person.

It was the rainy season. In those days, the streets of Madras, which normally looked like black lines drawn on the surface of the earth, would magically transform into muddy fields ready for planting as soon as they saw a bit of rain. To travel on these streets in a vehicle - where one cannot determine where the street began and where it ended - is to defy death. These streets are still primary among the reasons that instill fear of death in the people of Madras. When City buses cross the streets with blaring horns, the water would part in great waves like that of the Bay of Bengal soaking us and the stray dogs in sewage. The streets of Madras had the power to leave bewildered even a know-it-all who claimed to know every nook, cranny, and crevice in the street. When the entire State yearned for rain, those in the capital city had the "good heart" to pray for the rain to stop. There were many who depended on a dry street for their livelihood. For them, rain was not just an unwelcome guest; it was a bandit that stole their livelihood.

On a day such as that, I reached Chitra Visweswaran's house on Sri Labdi Colony in Alwarpet. It was the first house on the street. The parapet wall of that house was neither too high nor too low, but high enough to see the head of the person walking by it, and had bougainvillea creeping over it. The flowers that bloomed in bunches - disregarding season - wilted in the rain as an actress without fans. The entrance lobby was built with strong iron rods such that anyone entering would be fully visible. The red clay images of idols that stood between bamboo chairs, and the walls adorned with the famous Kalamkari paintings of Andhra proclaimed that this was the dwelling place of a renowned dancer. My inner inhibitions, combined with the rain, made even my tongue shiver. In the pouring rain, my lips became dry. Without having rehearsed what to say or how to say it, with a confidence brought on by fear, I pressed the doorbell.
(July 12, 2020)

To be continued...

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