Excerpts from a Diary - 1
By the time I arrived in Madurai, the rains had followed us for hours. Not the shy kisses of windblown drops of romances,, but the fierce assault of early monsoons, the kinds that drown unsuspecting cattle within hours, the kinds that sting and turn the brown of Indian skins into bitter dark, a splattering of dilapidated industrial rust. Potholes along our way stared on at the furious skies, open-mouthed, receiving and spewing all that which come its way: water, tadpoles, vegetation, car tires. Only the sprayed remains of the red earth of Tamil geographies sticks, somehow resists the fierce urgencies of this seemingly imminent deluge.. Staring through the dashboard at the mackerel skies, Venugopal, with whom I have hitched a ride, begs to differ. He prognosticates with the confidence of a veteran weather man, “This won’t last!” I hope so too. Supposedly, for long stretches of rain, darker and denser clouds are a must. Earlier, driving past the flooded flat lands of Sivaganga district, in central Tamil Nadu — a good three hours away from Madurai — the skies were elephant black. We could barely see a few feet past the windshield,, when the milky whiteness of slanting rains rendered the world opaque.
Lulled by the constancy of the rain’s pitter patter, I decided to take a nap, and Venugopal drove in silence. He preferred the music he hummed in his head to the inanity that streams out of FM radio. By late evening, we hit the edges of the Madurai Ma’vattam, the greater Madurai municipal region, when suddenly traffic lines, like whorls of hair, on a newborn’s head straggled in from unknown quarters. Water-sprayed boulevards of tar and concrete lay ahead. Frogs, which hid in stalks of wild grass on either sides of the highway, clambered out into the middle of the road and stared at the rushing wheels in silence. For a moment, I was reminded of Buddhist monks in Vietnam before they immolated themselves. A calm, almost mindless, sentience that watches the inevitable of death. I was surprised by how big these frogs were and more so, how they never seemed to learn from the deaths of a fellow frog. When a truck runs them over, the splatter of blood and flesh accretes onto the road, till that organic muck climbs onto successive tires of vehicles which tread across India. In death, these amphibians manage to travel this quadrilateral shaped land. Venugopal told me later — he seems to know everything — that if the frogs do escape the snakes in the fields and the vehicles on the highways, they would end up captured by young boys who would sell them to restaurants, who in turn would sauté them, making them indistinguishable from deep fried chicken. Supposedly, when well-cooked with spices, frog is merely chicken by other means. He says all this with some longing and a guilty smile. I didn’t ask if he had tried it. Some times, even a man as garrulous as Venugopal must be allowed his private vanities.
We had been on the road for the past six hours: slipping by the rice fields of Palakkad in Kerala, the temple city of Palani in Tamil Nadu, the small village-towns and vegetable fields of Pollachi, Udumalaipettai, and Dindigul. Food was on our minds but we were keen to make it to Madurai before the sun set. Neither of us knew the city and didn’t want to drive around searching for our hotel. As we entered the outskirts of the city, I woke up from my nap, only to see my palm stained, like aureoles around a dark breast, by grey semi-circles,. The penciled notebooks in which I had been writing had smudged in.
I had held the notebook, in a fevered grip during my nap, perhaps subconsciously fearful, that words would fly out if I loosened my fists’ curl. Wary premonitions of lost notebooks and forgotten words easily follow in late afternoons. These small, seed-sized handwritings that have filled these pages with observations and thought will cede away their presence to other matters. They shall vanish as if they never rose to the fore in this world. As if these words never existed and will all too easily join a Borgesian universe of unwritten words. A minor sense of dread and impatience fills me. How do I save these pages? Write a book, says Venugopal. “Nowadays everybody is writing one”, he adds in case I entertain any thought of authorial self-importance.
As of now, long after I have left Madurai, nothing in these notebooks is in any form that others or even I, a few months from now, will be able to recognize. I can’t speak of their intrinsic value. The notebook is full of paragraphs of prose - prolix, lapidary and sometimes lucid. The writing inside the margins is the mainland that describe the subcontinent sized ideas that I seek to describe. On its sides, like littoral islands off the coast of a behemoth country, the margins are filled with chicken scratch: an archipelago of thoughts, ideas, doodles and interminable sentences. Some passages about Madurai makes little sense, others about God and me in this historic city are no different than what we expect from harried diarists or inmates on death row: thoughts of imminent mortality mixed with confusion about what is to follow. Despite all this, despite the odd melodramatic flourish, given that they are witnesses to my heart’s excess and all that my eye sees - I have grown fond of them.
In all of those jottings, the only rule I have followed is that I have tried to resist the lure of being clever; I have sought to record my earnestness. Lack of sincerity, slyness in prose, even if well written, bores me now. I have met and worked with really clever people, and most writers are not particularly clever. Even the cleverest among them — say, James Joyce — comes across as a navel gazing fool, when one studies quantum physics or stochastic calculus. What I seek from writers is their sincerity, even if I disagree, even if they are mediocrely told. The diary is full of fragments of thought that seek to go past the obvious , some sentences that occasionally store away an epiphanic petal or two that have managed to stay afresh on the pages, despite the odor of decay that all written words are born with. Despite the summer heat and a traveler’s tedium, I had written so obsessively about this city in those notebooks and have tried to make sense of this experience that would have, at any other time in my life, just been yet another vacation. In sum, now that I look back, these diary pages come across as a faithful remembrance of my slow moving days in Madurai.
I had come to Madurai as an itinerant, headed for somewhere else, somewhere much more beautiful and fun, somewhere on the Bay of Bengal coast, somewhere cooler. Somewhere. I had not expected to be there. Days later, when I left that summer soaked city, I did so with the longings of a native. For who or what exactly did I long, I don’t know. But behind that longing was a slow burn, a kind of love that I have never experienced for a place before: my words intuit and grope to find what it is that I am so attracted by. But the analytics of this seduction -- between a city and a human — I don’t fully understand even to this day.
At night, Madurai is a world of camphor smoke and blue moonless nights that is everybody’s to see. Dogs howl for the absent moon, young women of Madurai text messages to their boyfriends under this watchful dark sky. Somewhere within this ‘objective’ world, there is another world, where the curlicues of my being unfurl. It feels and smells Madurai differently. To enter from one world into another, there is a register shift, a grahabhedam as Carnatic musicians often do. Rolled up, like some hidden dimension, this private world of impressions and immediacies seeps into me, like some lovestain. I say to myself: this night is black, as black as the angered glance of her eyes. The former fragment of the sentence is an attestable, shareable, demonstrable fact bound by the laws of radiation physics. The latter part is a consequence of my histories, of a product of contingencies that brings me here. The words inside my notebook speak to this doubled perception - the world outside and the fleeting one inside.
On my first night in Madurai - with the city lulled into quiet, save for the traffic buzz, as if some bees stirred at some unseeable distance — since there was nobody around, I went up to the hotel’s terrace. I lay there, staring and counting stars. The last time I did this, I was a child. Like then, having no recourse but follow the natural course, the saltshaker of stars sparkle and stand by stolidly. They remind me of impassive uncles at a family gathering, mildly bored, but who are content to genuflect to their talkative wives. The Earth spins, like a dervish on hashish, so fluidly that I can only marvel at where its torque finds these energies; all the while I can barely keep my count of stars straight. I squirm my eyes to see past the flood of halogen light from the temple spires that are consecrated unto the Goddess Meenakshi, who herself is ensconced within the dark of the temple, with only an oil lamp for illumination. I cannot help but think that the sanctity of the night’s dark is violated by this blazing wattage. The temple shines light back unto the speckled blanket of black in the skies as if, like me, it too was counting or searching for something in that immense void above. The faint blips of stars from the Godless cosmos that I stare at from the terrace, and the efflorescent patina from bulbs from the Goddess’ abode on Earth, come together in the corner of my eyes. These two light cones meet, intersect, jostle and explode. Like bursts of tenderness between two lovers during an argument, it is hard to say where one light begins and the other ends. My eyes, tired after a long journey, loose their strength to keep open. All my faculties reason surrenders to the body’s imperatives. I withdraw into my private world where only a dreamless sleep awaits.
[excerpts from a sort of travelogue of my days in Madurai]