If you lived in the 1930s, and had passed through Pithapuram on a train with your head stuck out of the window, chances are you would have seen a boy on the station’s lone platform. I’m talking of one particular extra-slight boy of five or six, seated on the shoulders of a girl only a tad bigger than him. If you could have tuned out the hiss and rumble of the train, you would have heard the melancholic song on his lips:
“Flowers on the Madras train,
O, My Lord, My Lord,
Flowers on the Madras train.”
The boy was me, and the put-upon girl, my slightly older cousin, Seetha.
It has taken me seventy-odd years to figure out the import of the lyric. I was just stringing the two most favourite words in my limited vocabulary, “train” and “Madras”, as efficiently as I could, and I guess I had thrown in some “flowers”, made a garland, and brought in the “lord”, I suppose, as insurance. While this may have been my only foray into the family business of rhyme, what with my father, my grandfather, and his father before him all being poets, apparently, I was already on the path to breaking family tradition.
When not at the station waiting for trains to rattle by, much to the relief of Seetha’s sagging shoulders, I would be seated on the floor at home, drawing trains of all sizes and shapes on any scrap of paper I could find. And, though my canvas was small, in my mind, all of them were on their way to the mythical town of Madras.
“You know, there is a beach in Madras and it has a lighthouse. Have you ever seen a lighthouse? Also, there is a place called Moore Market, where you can buy toy boats that go ‘put-put’ in a bucket of water powered by nothing but a candle...and other great stuff. And behind it is a park with animals that you will never see anywhere else...”
By the time I was five, I knew everything there was to know about Madras from the constant stream of city types that passed through our house.
Madras had great English films. Madras had rickshaws. It had zoos, parks and beaches. But, best of all, even better than streets paved of gold, Madras was famous for those special trains, those amazing ones that could ply on roads alongside cars and buses.
It was in 1939 that the lord finally paid heed to the hundreds of flowers I had sent his way and put me on the train to Madras for the first time. A distant cousin was getting married, and our family had been invited.
My first sighting of Madras outclassed anything I had imagined so far. Pithapuram Station meant watching trains stop for a couple of minutes and chug by insolently to distant, more exotic destinations, but it became apparent that Madras Central, with its five platforms, was the place where they actually came to rest.
Pointing to an engine letting off steam at Platform Number 1, my father, inveterate lover of tobacco, and ever the poet, said, “Doesn’t it remind you of a farmhand putting up his feet and puffing on a cheroot after a hard day’s work in the fields?” Even though I didn’t quite get the analogy, how could I disagree with a man who was eulogising trains, that, too, in my Madras?
When there was a wedding in the family, it was customary in those days to take over a neighbour or relative’s place to house out-of-town guests. With the current contingent being slightly larger than normal, a resourceful relation, realising that he would need more than a couple of neighbours to fit us all, managed to get Pachaiyappa’s College to lodge us temporarily. I was eight years old then, and got the irony of my situation only much later.
When I was born, my father had figured that a normal education was of no use to his only son. He would learn from the world. And this was why, while other kids in Pithapuram were going off to school, armed with slates and hard chalk, I was either at the station waiting for the next train to pass by, or at home, drawing trains. And now here I was, a kid who had never seen the inside of a school, getting direct admission to one of Madras’s premier colleges.
To my delight, my father was as good as his word, and the wedding turned out to be just an excuse for my official discovery of Madras.
We went to Moore Market first. Considering what I had heard, it would have been a crime to go anywhere else. It was like nothing I had seen before. Shop upon shop upon shop selling things that you didn’t know existed, wouldn’t ever need but wanted instantly at any cost, in twos, just to be on the safe side. There were toy guns, train sets, ladies’ blouses, doctor sets with miniature stethoscopes and very real-looking syringes, police and army uniforms in children’s sizes, cigars, multi-coloured sweetmeats in cellophane wrapping, and in one shop, even yappy little live mongrel puppies – all being sold by hollering shopkeepers convincing you their shop was the best.
An hour later, exhausted but armed with a couple of toys, just as I thought it was time to go, Father said, “Wait, there is more.”
Apparently, there was an inner square of shops, dedicated exclusively to second-hand books. My fatigue was forgotten the minute I laid eyes on a most magical creation – a book like no book I had ever seen, full of pictures, from top to bottom of the page, on every page, bursting out of squares set tighter than the Moore Market shops. Men with guns and big hats rode flowy-maned horses, beautiful girls in long gowns showed fear, their hands partially covering their full, red-lipped, open mouths, bad men in black hats stood behind rocks, gnashing their teeth, and though there were bubbles full of words I couldn’t read, I could understand the story in it easy as Grandmother telling me.
It was at that moment I altered my dream of being an engine driver when I grew up. I was going to become an artist who drew pictures of the sort I had seen in books they called comics. It made sense. While an engine could take you only as far as there was a railway line, a storyteller could go to places that didn’t even exist.
On our way back, as we rode one of those trains with only one carriage-cum-engine that mingled freely with people and didn’t spew smoke, I was told it was called a tram. The next few days were a whirlwind. The Marina and its lighthouse, People’s Park behind Moore Market, a miniature zoo that had an animal, I still can’t recall which, that was a dead ringer for my uncle Ramam, Spencer’s in Mount Road, with shops that were as different from Moore Market as Pithapuram was from Madras, where the prices were so high that anything expensive anywhere in Madras was referred to as being sold at “Spencer rate”, Parry’s Corner, the museum – every place a saturated baroque painting to my black- and-white imagination.
When I returned to Pithapuram, I told the country bumpkin kids in my neighbourhood of my Great Madras Trip, beginning with the conquest of Moore Market, followed by my victory run in the tram, my ascent of the lighthouse, and my life-saving discovery of comic books. As I held forth to a bunch of open-mouthed, if not entirely convinced, kids, displayed prominently on a shelf in the background were the toys I would never share with them.
No more was I the kid who didn’t go to school. I was now the kid who had gone to Madras.
It was a good seven years, several drawing books, multiple boxes of pencils and zero formal education later that we went to Madras again. This time, it was for good.
I was now fifteen. I wondered whether the magic would have worn off. When we got off at Madras Central, and I headed out to find not one but three jhatkas to help get us and our formidable luggage to Triplicane, my fears were put to rest. One look at the haphazardly parked yellow-and-black taxis and the bustle of city folk who all had somewhere to go, the Tamil movie song that could be heard over the din, and I knew my love affair was far from over.
Our first home in Madras was the already crowded house of my maternal grandfather in Triplicane. But at ten in the morning, with everyone off to schools, colleges and offices, the house was empty save the womenfolk stuck in the kitchen, and myself.
With no adults to ask me any questions, no teachers missing me anywhere and not one responsibility I could think of – thanks to a father with his head permanently stuck in a cloud made up of swirly words – I was free to explore the city of my dreams.
I spent most of the day filling up the pages of drawing books. In the evenings, accompanied by my “uncles” who were roughly the same age as me, having put together two annas in our collective pockets, Marina it was. To eat the freshly made sundal and murukku brought by an Iyer gentleman in his long and shiny metal box.
Today, as I sit on a concrete bench overlooking the Kottivakkam beach, it is hard to imagine that more than seventy-five years have passed from that day when I first set foot in Madras. My favourite pastime is watching my son and grandson walking up and down the one kilometre stretch of road every evening, albeit in opposite directions, and listening to the sounds of the sea. Each time a wave crashes it seems to be saying “what if”, “what if” to me. I’m at that age, I suppose, with all the time in the world to ponder the “what ifs” of my life. What if my father had sent me school? What if my wife hadn’t died so young? What if my grandson wasn’t autistic?
Of all the “what ifs” the waves bring my way every day, the one I never contemplate is “what if I hadn’t come to Madras?”
Excerpted from “Flowers on the Madras Train”, Bujjai, translated from Telugu by Krishna Shastri Devulapalli, from the book Madras on My Mind: A City in Stories, edited by Chitra Viraraghavan and Krishna Shastri Devulapalli, HarperCollins.