Monday, 22 October 2012

Train House

By MV Swaroop

“Park your car in that corner, you won’t be able to take it inside the street,” the old lady said, hauling a mridangam from the back seat on to her shoulders. I parked the car, picked up the other mridangam, the heavier one, and followed her. With a sprightly gait that belied her age - she was seventy-two - and unmindful of the weight of the mridangam on her shoulder, she turned into the most invisible of gullies that led to this sprawling network of narrower gullies.

“They really should fix that streetlight,” she said, pointing to this dark pole. It was eight-thirty in the evening, and it was too dark to even tell if there was supposed to be a light on that pole. Then she realised, “Oh, there’s no power!”

She shined a torch from her phone, and took a right turn into a gap between two buildings only wide enough to admit a small motorcycle. Even a malnourished Royal Enfield wouldn’t make the cut. The buildings on the street were locked in a tight embrace, covering every inch of space, almost growing into one another, sharing walls, terraces, balconies and doors. Compound walls were forgotten as a concept, breathing space was given a go by, and the view from any window was only another one. Even in near darkness, I could sense that I had stepped into another age. I had to remind myself that I was still in Central Madras.

She stopped at a narrow iron gate leading to a long, tapering, snaking corridor lit by two tired bulbs and lined by three worn out motorcycles. “We have a small generator - I can use one light and one fan when the power is gone,” she said. At the end of the corridor was a dull blue door that had surely seen happier times. When she opened that door, a new world unfolded behind it. I didn’t realise that there was so much space behind that iron gate. Her torch light revealed more iron gates next to the one we entered, and I wondered if all of them hid worlds like this.

“I used to live closer to the tank, but the owner wanted the house back for his daughter’s family,” she said, “But this is not too far from the tank. I walk down, sometimes, but I’m growing a little old, no? I am looking for a house closer to the tank, though.” I smiled. Civilisations grew around water bodies, I had read in my history classes, but I couldn’t believe that proximity to a tank was still a prime consideration for choosing where one lived.

On the ground floor was another blue door, of the same construction as the one outside, and the indistinct hum of a Tamil serial - that mix of pounding background music and thundering melodrama - floated from behind it. I thought I heard a child scream, but that might have also been the serial.

In the corner of the corridor was a closeted flight of stairs that had been standing for half a century at least. I didn’t ask her how old the building was, but the stone stairs had a particular kind of construction that suggested that era. “Thank you so much for coming. You see how difficult it would have been for me with two mridangams up these stairs.” The stairs were steep, and the mridangam I was carrying was boring into my shoulder. If the walk were a little longer, I might have needed a little break. “You’re carrying the big one,” she said, “I can’t even lift that anymore. It’s that heavy. But that nadam...

We reached a landing that was almost cruelly taken over by a large and incongruous asbestos door. She unlatched it, and led me into what used to be the landing - it had a tap in one corner, a chair and two pairs of slippers on a tiny wooden shelf - now converted into her sit-out. She kept up the chatter, as she fumbled through her handbag for the keys to the inside door. Her nephew, a well-known mridangam player himself, lived in the next street, she said. The neighbours here kept to themselves, she hardly knew who they were, she complained. “They don’t even come and talk, you know,” she moaned. She still gave me a fairly detailed biography of the family living in the house watching the Tamil serial.

The inside door said, “Mridangam and vocal classes” in a scribbled Tamil handwriting. No one could see this board when the asbestos door was shut. I wondered if the door was a new addition.

She found the key, finally, and opened the door and led me into a room that was not much wider than the door itself. On one side of the room was a wooden bench with two pillows on it. The other side of the room was a thin shelf that held a bewildering assortment of things. She put her mridangam on the bench, and I followed her. There were two more mridangams in that room, both standing proudly on their toppis. I walked up to one and struck it. “Tom!” it rang across the house. I was quietly proud that even though I hadn’t played one in three years, I could still get a clear tom out of it.

The narrow room ended in another door, beyond which there was a columnar kitchen, about two-thirds the length of the first room. “That’s about the entire house,” she said, proudly, “The first room is where I sleep and take mridangam classes. This is the kitchen. And there,” she said, pointing to another hidden door on the right side of the kitchen, “is a bathroom.” The entire house was built like two coaches of a train with a toilet and bathroom in the vestibule.

A thought struck me - it would be nice to disappear into a house like this, in a gully like this for a few months. It was hidden away from the madness of mainstream Madras, but it was still right there, in the centre of it all.

“Sit down,” she said, “I’ll make coffee.”

I had to go back to a friend’s concert, I protested. I’ll come back another day, definitely, I promised. “It will take me five minutes to make you the coffee,” she insisted.

My friend would be most upset if I missed her concert, I said. Another day, one-hundred percent, I assured her.

“At least have some kali,” she said, “Today is a special day for Nataraja. You know that, no?” My grandmother had mentioned something in the morning, and so, guilelessly, I nodded. She hurriedly put some kali on a steel plate and handed it to me. Suddenly, she said excitedly, “Oh wait. I wanted to show you. I have Anna’s photo here on the wall.” I looked. It was her famous older brother, and it was the photograph most widely released to the press. “A very nice photo. He looks so happy!” She attended almost every one of his concerts in Madras, “I am not able to travel too far these days. You know, Anna plays in places like Madipakkam and Annanagar... Then I can’t come. But otherwise, I come, somehow or the other.” And she always sat in the front row, and enthusiastically kept talam for the stage.

Next to her brother’s, was her own photograph. She was with our dark-glassed leader in it, receiving an award. “Kalaimamani,” she said, as I finished my kali and handed the plate to her, and added, “You can wash your hands in that sink,” like the two were a part of the same thought. I looked closely at the photo. I had heard strange things about that particular award, about when, why and to whom it was given, but she didn’t look like she could pull any strings.

There was another photo next to it, a still from a popular Tamil film. I remembered that scene well - a bunch of mamis reinterpreting a popular Hindi song Carnatic style at the behest of a man dressed as a mami. There she was in that still, in the left-hand corner, playing the mridangam. I remember being amazed by the fact that they had actually found a mami to play the mridangam.

I smiled, as I bid her goodnight and walked out the door, but I couldn’t help wondering, if, given her talent, she would have led a different life as a man.


  1. Was this fiction? I hope it isn't.

  2. Wow...such a nice article.After reading this I had to see the video of the "rukku rukku rukku" song from Avvai shanmugi to see this maami. Hats off Mr Swaroop..


    Kartik Ramabadran