Villages in Chettinad: On Belonging

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January 20th 2019
Published: January 20th 2019
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Saddened to leave the Chettinad area, where the pace is slow, Chettiar mansion doorways give passage to a more opulent time, and the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Visited the Ayyanar temple outside Kanadukathan, where the guardians are huge. Inside, the priest motioned to me, asking if I wanted a puja. Yes, I nod.

So he chants with the lit camphor, brings forth the ash, demonstrates what to do with it—place on my forehead. Picks up the red kum kum and offers, says, “Kum kum.” I accept, try to get it right on my forehead. He says something like, “kannadi”—pointing to the mirror. I dab it just right, above my nose, between my eyebrows, and when leaving I talk with a man who tells me I had fixed it very well on my forehead.

The priest returns from the inner sanctum with a swatch of jasmine garland, cut from the deity, and offers the sweet-smelling gift, indicating it belongs in my hair.

When I look in the mirror back in my room, kum kum is smeared all over my forehead. Maybe I had swiped it with my hand, or maybe my sweat from the bicycle ride dissolved its edges.

Back to the same temple the next morning, before sunrise, cool and streets empty. People with head scarves and ear muffs wandering—the lady with the cart of recycle bins, the guy on a motor bike with the shiny milk container on the back, stopping at gates, yelling for the woman of the house to get her fresh milk. A few bicycle riders are out, but they pay me little mind. Free and easy, I command the road, and dogs ignore me, going about their business.

My place. For a few minutes it is my place.

The lady in red with the wild hair at the temple is busy doing something, bending over, picking things up. Certainly not the abundant trash lying about, or the piles of cow poop, the tootsie dog rolls, coconut shells from previous offerings. She wrestles the dried stalk of a long banana leaf.

The details of the place emerge. The shiny round “buttons” on the front of the guardians, the third eye, cobras poking their heads through their round ear rings, fat toes. Those grotesque noses, prominent and sharp, fire flaming behind their heads. Ayyanar’s horse wears mirrors that reflect the tree across the street, rings of necklaces, different colors. His testicles hang by a wire. Needs maintenance. But his other parts were anatomically correct, pink and fresh.

The evening previous I avoided taking photos inside, didn’t even ask the priest. About eight niches house Ayyanar associated helpers, including Karuppaswami. That visit was after I had made a long bicycle detour, going in the opposite direction looking for the wrong temple. Good exercise, but not where I wanted to go. Mosquitos were chomping when I finally found Ayyanar, so I avoided pausing and gazing at all the different helpers.

Interior is closed the next morning, but the wild woman and the terracotta horses and the blubbery bellied guardians are enough for me. And there were those seven virgins, lined up and covered. What were they hiding? What precious jewels, fantastic riches remained clouded, leaving my imagination to think of seven ripe and beautiful virgins, there behind the drapery.

The peacocks cry in the fields beyond. The crows caw, an occasional motorcycle putters past. A man stops to wash his feet from the tank of water outside the temple.

Moments of familiarity. Moments of knowing, of belonging, of being home. I am home. Home when I travel this place.

The morning of the bullock cart race people gather, the tea stall is crammed with men bundled in their hats and muffs and jackets, and I’m in my tee shirt, although a long-sleeved one, mopping perspiration from my upper lip. I order a coffee, which comes with the tea maker’s fat fingers rimming the cup where my lips will go, and I down it very quickly since it is quite small.The men look at me. No women, save for the lady taking the money for the vadai and coffee being sold.

A popular place, fronted by a splendid colorful kolum, being trampled by the unwitting feet of the men.

Fluorescent light shining, casting dim shadows, and a pack of dogs sniff the street and each others’ rear ends. The rickshaw drivers, including the man who drove me yesterday, shiver. “Have you had tea?” I ask. Yes, they all answer. I want to buy them each a tea, but it might be a challenge to bring three cups and they would feel obligated to drink it. Sometimes Indians are so regimented about how many teas they drink in the morning.

A few bullock owners had arrived and were unloading down the street. But I stand near the drivers, between the two tea stalls where I had had coffee (the second was less popular, but seemed cleaner, and the coffee was just as good). I just stand there, between night and dawn, taking in the scene, motorbikes stuttering past, men’s voices talking about whatever, hands being warmed by the metal tea cups. Grey light. Will the sun ever shine—it was coming.

I know. I know I belong there, without a doubt, in that moment, this is my true home, this is where I have lived many lifetimes growing close to others and the land, falling into the rhythm of the village, into the lives of the people.

The feeling lasts less than a minute, but I am so sure, so certain I belong, every part of me belongs there, I am no different from the auto rickshaw drivers clustered behind me. I understand that the place needs a pack of dogs, and trash blowing about, and spittle on the road, and crumbling mansions beyond. It is all right.

Everything is as it should be. Everything, including me.

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