Authored by TS Tirumurti 'Chennaivaasi' is set in the heart of Chennai, the book is a story of a father who disowns his son for going against their traditions, of a mother caught between a fuming husband and a US-returned son, of an American girlfriend struggling to get used to being stared at on the streets of Chennai, and of a young man caught in the middle of it all.
Here's an excerpt from the book:
She heard the gate open and the car enter. It was her husband returning from the Kapaleeshwarar temple. She could hear the door being opened. And shut. Footsteps climbing the steps. A pause in the verandah-that was Appa removing his chappals. The sound of the chappals sliding to one corner of the verandah.
Amma was prepared. She had been rehearsing what to tell Appa. She had to try and break the news gently-if that was at all possible. Their third son Ravi had finally returned from America. That was good news. But he had come back with his American girlfriend Deborah.
'Ravi was here an hour ago,' she said when Appa came in. She looked away to avoid eye contact. God only knew how Appa would react.
Appa stopped in his tracks for a brief second.
'That good-for-nothing! When did he come to Madras?' he asked as he walked towards the bedroom.
'What brings him here? I thought he had decided to stay in the US with his darling girlfriend!'
'You know he was returning to take up a job here.'
'He can go to hell.'
Amma kept quiet. Appa went into the bedroom, took off his shirt and pant and exchanged them for a veshti and banian. Amma followed him into the room and opened the wardrobe, pretending to look for something.
There was silence.
'Has he come with his white woman or come alone?' Appa asked finally.
'He has come with her.'
'What? Did he come to our house with her?'
'No… not to this house… he came here alone. They flew down to Chennai together yesterday and are staying in a hotel.'
'I hope you told him I don't want to see his face or the face of that wretched woman in my life?'
'In so many words?'
'Yes, in so many words.'
'That porukki will not step into this house. He-'
'This is no way to speak about your son.'
'I'll call him this and more for the way he has behaved. That porukki thaazhi. He is a disgrace. He has ruined this family's reputation. We are the laughing stock of our friends and relatives. After the way I brought up my sons and daughter, this idiot has gone and ruined everything. Everyone is asking me what happened to all those wonderful values that I taught my children. With what face can I go out now? Who will respect us? All because of your favourite son.'
'He was as much your favourite,' she said gently.
'He is no more my son, let me tell you that. Once he went to America, he started thinking he knew it all. Like those upstarts. Not worth even a quarter-anna, going around with whores and picking up American habits! I never expected Ravi would be like this, that madayan.'
'Well, what's happened has happened. How long are we going to-'
'As long as I live,' Appa cut her short. 'He is not coming back to this house and he is not getting a single paisa from me.'
'What if he asks for his share of the house? After all, this is an ancestral property. He has a right to a one-sixth share…'
'He can go to hell, that madayan.'
'Let's not provoke him to do something silly. A case filed by the son against the father will become a soap opera. That's the last thing-'
'The goings-on in our house are already a soap opera because of that madayan. Anyway, let him do what he wants. I don't want to see him or have anything to do with him.'
'He may come back here to-'
'If he comes here again, I'll break his legs.'
The previous day, when the plane touched down at Anna International Airport in Chennai, Ravi and Deborah dismounted gratefully. Their backs were stiff, their legs wobbly. It had been a gruelling journey involving two transit halts.
The airport seemed friendly enough. It was no comparison to any international airport, not even as good as the one in Delhi, but the Chennaivaasis had to make do with it. Anna International Airport was named after the famous son of Tamil Nadu-Annadurai. Ravi remembered how small it used to be before, almost as if the city had no time for air travellers. Small and crowded.
On the other hand, visits to the train stations in Chennai-whether Madras Central or Egmore-were grand occasions.
Madras Central Railway Station was a particularly impressive structure. It was an 1873 Gothic revival-style structure that punctuated the Chennai skyline with an imposing clock tower. You had to fight to get platform tickets from the dark, tiny counter. You shoved your hand in with the money and got a ticket in return, dished out by the unseen ghostly figure sitting inside. When you entered the platform, the diesel smell and the farting of trains and steam engines made you giddy. Rows and rows of compartments bursting at the seams, filled with hawkers selling hot coffee, chai or paneer soda; coolies dressed in rust-red shirts and white veshtis weaving their way through the crowd with a pile of suitcases on their turbaned heads; a circle of waitlisted passengers accosting the ticket-collector to convince him that they desperately needed the last vacant seat on the train; mounds of brown gunny sacks, carrying anything from fruit to army rations, lying unattended on the platform, waiting for the goods train which always seemed to be stuck at Basin Bridge to let more important passenger trains pass through; a family of beggars arrogating a corner of the station for themselves near the public toilets; the excitement of trying to locate your relatives and friends through the windows even as the train streamed onto the platform; and the smell of railway dust wafting out of every compartment when the door opened-Madras Central was a busy station. Ravi loved it.
Holding his father's right hand-he must have been about five then-he marvelled at how just one engine could drag so many compartments. He dreaded the prospect of Appa losing the platform tickets and not being allowed to leave the station.
Father and son had their own favourite beggar, who sat just before the main exit on a torn gunny bag spread out over a flattened cardboard carton on the ground. Appa usually tossed him a four-anna coin before they left. There were other beggars outside, some afflicted with leprosy. The worst affected sat in a cart while the others dragged him around, holding out their stumps, the sores open and raw. Ravi would watch them in horrified fascination while his father shouted at them to go to a government hospital to get free treatment instead of begging. Appa did not favour giving beggars money, though he was a generous person otherwise. Begging has substituted daily wages, he warned. The more you encourage, the less you are helping them to become productive citizens. Look at some of these able-bodied beggars. They deserve to be whipped. But given the high unemployment rate, it was better to beg with open sores and fill the stomach than to starve with cured leprosy. And so these beggars persisted in their profession day after day till they withered away and died.
Appa always stopped in front of the station bookshop and bought Ravi Amar Chitra Katha comics. Mythology, epics, pictures and colours all merged into one another. It was worth going to the train station just for that.
Anna International Airport certainly had none of this excitement. You couldn't even see the planes take off. Now and then you could hear a plane thunder past, but that was useless. There wasn't any Amar Chitra Katha in the bookshop either. Even the beggars were shooed off by the police. It was useless to go to the airport. It just wasn't worth the journey.
Ravi and Deborah got their luggage. The four monstrous suitcases contained all they wanted to start a new life in Chennai. They collected it, told the disbelieving customs official that they didn't have anything to declare, and walked into the night.
It was a strange feeling for Ravi. He had always been met at the airport. Usually it was his father who landed up religiously and waited in the car, reading a book. Sometimes the car came alone with just the driver. But those were rare occasions when Appa was travelling. Today, there was no one. No Appa. Not even a car.
Well, there was always a first time. Ravi and Deborah took a taxi. Beyond the portals of the airport, the only thing they were sure of was their hotel booking. And their jobs. Very little else.
And, of course, their determination to make things work. To make Ravi's father agree to their marriage.
Appa held the key.
Amma sat quietly on the bed, pretending to stitch back a button that had come loose on Appa's shirt.
'Which company has he joined?' Appa asked.
'I don't know. But it pays him very well.'
'Obviously, all these American companies pay well.'
Ravi had told her that he would be soon shifting to Kamala athai's house. Along with Deborah, of course. Kamala athai was Appa's younger sister and lived in Gandhi Nagar, close to the Adyar river.
'That Kamala…' Appa shouted as soon as Amma told him. 'She's so gullible. Ravi must have given her a sob story. I thought my sister had better sense than to let my son and that thevidiya into her house. Tell her she is being naïve and foolish by letting that madayan stay with her. Her reputation will be ruined.'
'I'm not going to say any such thing. You tell her if you want. If you don't want him here, that's one thing. But let Kamala decide what she wants to do.'
'He can stay in the whorehouses of Kodambakkam, for all I care.'
Amma let that comment pass.
'Kamala has asked me to visit when I get the time,' she said.
'If you visit Ravi, don't come back to this house.'
Amma kept quiet. She had hardly expected him to bless her visit to Ravi but it was important that Appa know she was planning to go. With or without his permission, Amma was determined to see Ravi. That much she owed her son.
Book: Chennaivaasi; By: TS Tirumurti; Price: Rs 299; Extent: 270 pages; Category: Fiction