Ink on my Apron: Life or something like it
Nothing prepares you for the evocative and varied snapshots that Mylapore throws at you.
Curatable content. This is a term I never thought I’d use in reference to my life and sure as hell never foresaw before my move to Chennai a month ago. On the contrary, I’d actually anticipated a complete dearth of material and a slight lull in my writing rhythm. I even went as far as painstakingly working on a “column bank” with material to tide me over till I settled in and found my bearings. And yet, here I am, grappling with the words I choose, on a daily basis, that will both articulate and do justice to the sensorial overload that is everyday India.
From the minute I wake up, I am assaulted by a variety of smells. The slightly ripe odour in my kitchen from the trash, which tends to acquire a rather rank quality overnight - no matter how inoffensive the contents and that I attribute to the oppressive heat - is the first to greet me. As I knot the ends of the bin liner, which will be hauled out the door on my way to work, I open my kitchen window only to let in the spicy aroma of what I imagine to be a peppery Chettinad chicken or mutton kuzhambu and the sound of my neighbour’s pressure cooker hissing and working in overdrive. My stomach lets out a half rumble as though in awe of the fact that not only are there people out there who can palate breakfast this early in the morning but they also seem unable to function without copious amounts of masala. Most days I count myself lucky if I have the time or inclination to grab a banana with just the right amount of brown spots.
In addition to ferrying me to work, my not-so-reliable rickshaw driver has a knack for devising his way through the most labyrinthine routes in what he claims is the best way to beat the traffic. His tone invites no argument and so I sit back as we are tossed through the city’s little backroads and alleys. I get whiffs of fish and shellfish that are laid out on pushcarts, nestled atop layers of sludgy crushed ice and the occasional overpowering scent of mallipoo from the endless jasmine garlands that are being woven with an industrial precision by the city’s endless flower vendors who set up shop in makeshift stalls around every corner. I find myself wondering if they’ve always been around and such an effortless part of Chennai’s fabric or if my senses have been heightened as to their existence after a decade of living abroad. I laugh at myself for these self-indulgent thoughts and realise I’m a living, breathing cliché. The stereotypical prodigal daughter who has returned to the motherland.
I take pictures of everything, scared that unless I physically document these images they will be forgotten and fleeting. My aunt laughs telling me I’ve become like every other white tourist, after all, what on earth is so goddamn awe-inducing about a mini breakfast thali.
It is nine am. A man retches outside the local state-owned TASMAC wine store and is watched without curiosity and nobody so much as bats an eyelid. A few steps away from him a sizzling tawa is greased and what appears to be chicken kebabs are placed on to the seasoned surface with little ceremony. Am I the only one who thinks it is too early for meat or business?
I count out the exact fare for my ride and as I enter the campus, the irresistible aroma of freshly-baked bread follows me. For days now this smell has been accosting me, stopping me in my tracks as I take a few minutes to soak in that doughy yeastiness. I look around, amazed at how this isn’t having the same hypnotic effect on anybody else and have almost begun to think this phantom trail is a figment of my overactive imagination. Finally, after a week, I tentatively ask the watchman, “Can you smell the bread? Is it from our campus kitchen?” He laughs. I am told that we have the special privilege of being neighbours to Modern Bakeries, a brand that was launched in 1965 and pioneered the concept of bread in India.
Today will be different though, a fact I am yet to be aware of. Grey overcast mornings always have this effect on me – a pleasant reminder of my days in good old Blighty and a special respite from the overbearing humidity. I want to take a break from the air-conditioned confines of our classroom and step out with my bright-eyed lot on one of the several field assignments I send them on. Over the past few days, I’ve realised that I am yet to really connect with this group and can’t quite put my finger on why. An exercise in perspective should sort that I think. Hopefully, they will be provoked - firsthand - into really inhabiting the full space of that word. We all respond to the same mundane things in unique ways, I tell them. The underlying unspoken sentiment is that for one day, I will get to see the world through twelve pairs of eyes.
Nothing prepares you for the evocative and varied snapshots that Mylapore throws at you, a fact that all of us seem to be in agreement about. Glass bangle sellers coexist harmoniously with stuffed toy peddlers, fortune tellers, and aluminium vessel vendors. A rather motley crew if ever there was one. My kids, as I’ve taken to referring to them (much to the amusement of friends and family), branch off in different directions eager to sniff out interesting stories and angles.
An hour later, slightly deflated by the sun but still brimming with a sense of enthusiasm at the possibility of what is yet to come, they declare that they’re starving and we make our way to the Mylai Shri Karpagambal Mess, which has been the part of our excursion I’m most excited about and was recommended by a fellow faculty member who knew where my allegiances lie. Vegetarian food has never been my port of first call but when in Chennai and more specifically, Mylapore, do as the maamis do. The lunch-hour rush is real and temple-goers stream in as steadily as working professionals from different parts of the city with different but similar degrees of fervour. After all, who was it who said that food is the best religion?
We’re a large conspicuous group and invite a few warm stares. I peer at bottles of pickles, wishing there was a way I could know for certain that the ginger variety I’m gravitating towards is a solid choice. A beaming maami proves to be my voice of reason and confirms that while the avakkai mango and naarthangai variety are close contenders, I’ve chosen well. She is with her sister who is visiting from Hyderabad and they chuckle as they tell me that no trip to Mylapore is complete without a visit to the temple and the area’s renowned silk sari shops, crowned with a pitstop at the Mess. Their lunch thalis, she declares, are second to none. This is a fact we’re going to have to confirm on another visit as we’re informed that they’ve run out of the “meals” in question.
This doesn’t prove to be a dampener to any of my kids’ spirits and I can’t help but smile as I watch them order endless rounds of ghee podi dosas and vadas with that particular appetite and zeal that seems reserved for the young. I’m transported to a similar time not so long ago when I lived in this city but under slightly different circumstances. Wallets were stretched towards the end of the month and our stomachs seemed like bottomless pits that could inhale plates of saambhar saadam with ridged Masala Lays chips and egg biryani with abandon.
Just when I think we have been stuffed to bursting point, I am asked, “Ma’am, shall we order some filter coffee?” I nod and am overcome with a sense of gratitude. This year is as much about them, as it is about me.
All photographs courtesy of Jehan Nizar
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.