Countries of my mind by Maithreyi Nandakumar

30 Aug

Maithreyi

Maithreyi Nandakumar left Chennai nearly 16 years ago to live in England. She has worked for the BBC as an award-winning presenter and producer of Sangam for BBC Radio Bristol, as a newsroom journalist for television (BBC Points West, Bristol) and as a researcher and reporter for BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. Since turning to write fiction in recent years, she has had short stories published (Her short story The Interpreter’s Tale won the first prize in the Bristol Tales Anthology), and has also had a radio play recorded (Round the Bend), and is currently working on her novel. She finds herself in Chennai more often than planned and suffers from a Tiruvikrama delusion of spanning at least two continents with ease!.

I sit in the veranda on the cane chair in my parents’ house, feet on the low grilled rail, rocking backwards with the practice of years. It’s not quite a storm but its raining steadily- the rain has a definite sound here- 30 decibels, at least. Not as loud as it can get when in full force. Back in Bristol where I now live, it could be ‘chucking it down’ and you wouldn’t even hear it. Here, the paving suddenly begins to glitter, the drops shining as they fall on the ground- a raindrop disco, I think to myself feeling a simple rush of happiness. It’s December of 2007 and the sun’s shining gently. The temperature is very moderate (about 24 degrees)- winter, in these parts. It’s not supposed to rain at this time of the year. Climate change, global warming, I think immediately, but I push the thought back. Sometimes we can get too conditioned, and the pangs of anxiety can wait. The downpour is making everything look so cleansed, and even virile- especially the coconut tree whose brown trunk is glistening as if it’s had a coat of fresh varnish. The young papaya plant below seems to be taking the shower bravely, quite excited by it, giggling girlishly up at the majestic coconut. Its gentle naturally frayed leaves are getting a good soak- but it looks happy and playful. There isn’t the usual heavy smell of hot mud and water letting off the earthy odour- today the rain falls politely as it does back home.

On another visit in July, I recall my child leaping out of the door and straight into the summer rain. He’s wearing a vest over his knee length shorts. He does a little dance and looks thrilled to be getting drenched. I smile at the accumulating memory of my visits to this country that used to be home.

When is the rainy season in England, my family ask? Now, all the time, I reply. I’ve grown accustomed to the steady, gentle drizzle that is a constant presence anytime of year. I do sometimes still pretend it’s the monsoon on particularly stormy nights in England- the howling wind that tunnels through our street that makes me want to remain in bed under the duvet in a long reverie- of those endless, soggy days and nights when the rain falls down with relentless intent.

Where I live now is near the very edge of Bristol. A few hundred yards away, I imagine there is a dragon that sleeps in the day lying elegantly coiled in the castle that overlooks the Avon gorge. She comes into her own at night when she slides out quietly onto the grand expanse of the Downs, now rid of the barbecues and summer lovers, to look up at the moon suspended over Clifton bridge- and roars in hearty welcome. She smiles, her tongue wagging happily and laughs at the small velvety clouds playing hide and seek in the creamy darkness. Below, the flaming torches light up the Portway where the odd truck passes by the hill-face desultorily- its drivers struggling to remain awake, their massive vehicles wobbling to steer straight when they wake up with a start. In the distance, perhaps in one of the old quarries, a relentless drumbeat can be heard. A rave going on or kids playing music as they climb up to a precarious ridge to paint graffiti in impossible places. She laughs in sheer joy at being here when everyone else is fast asleep.

There will always be a certain sense of delicious satisfaction in being able to call two places 5000 miles apart as home. Like being able to gorge on organic chocolate and the fluffiest ras malai with the pleasure they both deserve! Of course, things are not always quite what they seem to be. With every passing year, more questions arise as I fight to stave off labels from either side of the two continents and can sometimes feel stifled by my own thoughts.

When I go for those long walks my head is my own little kaleidoscope of special images. I see magic in the sky, in the trees- in fact, I see saris everywhere. The bright grey sari across the sky right now is one of sheer chiffon, one of those contemporary designs with puffs of dark grey velvet scattered all over. The pre autumnal trees in this majestic avenue, that are a luminous green, shot with sunlight through them is a giant replica of the heavy silk sari I wore at my wedding, where each thread of green yarn was woven with another thread of gold. Surely, this was paradise?

I’m still sat at my father’s veranda, as we say in Bristolian. I’m now soaking up the sounds of what is now my past for future reference, for above moments of nostalgia. This is now no more Madras, the measured, gentle place that never felt like a huge city, but Chennai, a throbbing 24-hour metropolis. Here, you can hear explosions going off at night- of quiet old buildings getting blown down and razed to the ground to be replaced by towering offices or posh apartments. The city planners have done away with pavements and walking is deemed an archaic practice. But all around me, people are in frenetic motion- young men and women in motorbikes and snazzy automobiles go up and down the concrete flyovers on their way to work. Before leaving Bristol for this visit, I’d called the HP helpdesk about a battery I needed replacing. Only to find that the call centre I got through to was located near my old school in Santhome, by the beach. I asked if I could bring the laptop over, could he replace the battery in person, but no, he said laughing, they would place an order to a warehouse somewhere in Slough or Essex for me. But I spoke such accent-less English, he said.

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