Madras, we called it then, when I was 6, and 7, and 8, living in a company compound fringed by a casuarina grove. To the east were the backwaters of the Adyar river. To the south, the rambling grounds of the Chettinad Palace. Always locked, a large wrought iron gate separated us from its legendary opulence, but one summer, it’s owner, MAC Chidambaram, sent word that he would be happy to have the children of our estate ride his ponies of an evening.
Jodhpurs were stitched up, riding hats were to be loaned by the stable. 7 or 8 of us walked through that open gate in a cloud of excitement large enough to cloak my indifference. The clumsy effort of clambering onto my pony did little to enthuse me. A slow trot around the paddock, a patient syce by my side, was not my idea of fun. And when we got home, my ‘bums’ hurt. But I couldn’t be the first one to cry off riding.
Munnu, already a teenager, took to the saddle with aplomb. Within a week, the syce had handed her the reins. A few days later, she and her horse were liberated from the paddock, while I still felt like a tin soldier limping around a cardboard track. Every evening, Munnu rode faster, more freely. One evening, her horse bolted. Her syce stood rooted; another mounted a pony and gave chase. Our slow parade around the paddock halted, but now both horses were out of sight. Munnu was thrown by her horse before the syce caught up. No damage done, but the gate between Firhaven and Chettinad Palace was never again opened.
Not that we missed it. Madras was going through the parochial spasms of language riots, but Firhaven was a cosmopolitan enclave. Our 8 families were Punjabi, Gujarati, Maharashtrian Keralite, Coorg, and Konkani. On Holi, a tub with flaking enamel was rescued from the estate stores, plonked in the centre of the garden, and filled with yellow water. On Diwali, we slept through the pre-dawn Lakshmi puja of our Mylapore neighbours, and came out at night to set the skies alight with the barbaric tradition of rockets and ‘atom bombs’. For Christmas, we dressed in red and green, and sang carols in front of a Christmas tree.
My father’s employers looked after its own. We had access to a gorgeous cottage in Ootacamund, with trimmed hedges, and a cook who served up mushroom omelettes and strawberry tarts. Most evenings, my mother would pick us up from school, and drive us straight to Elliott’s beach, where the company shack was lit by lanterns, and our cold coffee stayed that way, thanks to a refrigerator that sputtered out kerosene fumes. On Sundays, we swam in the Madras Gymkhana, and snacked on fried fish and chips.
Sifting through a rich haul of memories from these years, I found only a few from school.
One is of a girl who sat at the next desk. Several weeks after I joined school, she shyly offered me a piece of dry mango pickle. It’s leathery texture was alien, but my tongue relished its coarse, crystallised salt. As it softened in my mouth, its tartness was released in an explosion of raw mango. My memory of the scene plays out like a silent movie, lit by the Madras sun, its white shafts slanting through the deep verandahs into our class. I have no memory of what words were exchanged, if any. But I know that the pickle was offered several times, and that it was the work of her grandmother.
One of the few words I remember from my time in Presentation Convent was ‘Sangam’. Addressed to me, and followed by a question mark. I had no idea what this was about, so replied with a question mark of my own.
‘You were in Sangam’. Not much of a question mark there, more a statement of fact, from a boy I met near the outhouse toilets, reeking of ammonia and damp heat. I shook my head, not so much a ‘No’, as ‘I still don’t know what you’re talking about.’
He didn’t elaborate, and we passed.
A couple of days later, a girl stopped me in the corridor. “You acted in Sangam?” This I could answer. “No.” She looked at me carefully, was not convinced, but moved on.
That would make Sangam a movie, I guessed. And apparently, I looked like someone who acted in it. My parents knew nothing about movies, but one of my Punjabi ‘aunties’ did. It was a big budget movie from the house of Raj Kapoor, shot in spectacular colour. And, yes, a boy acted in it - Randhir Kapoor, Raj Kapoor’s son. “But he’s much bigger than you, betey, and you don’t really look like him. Except for the green eyes, and of course the fair skin”.
Vimla Aunty was looking at my physiognomy, but my Tamilian school mates were seeing only my phenotype. They could clearly see what many custodians of Indian history try to deny.
Some ancestor of mine had wandered away from the Scythian territory “between the Caspian Sea and Jaxartes river”. I don’t know if she came in search of peace, or he came in search of conquest. I know my forebears carried the love of adventure that courses through my veins, and animates my joy in travel.
I carry no guilt if they were ferocious in battle, or brought alien customs to a distant land. I reject the notion that cultural appropriation is a crime. I’ll take my customs from whatever appeals to my changing aesthetic, and my evolving world-view, thank you very much.