At 9 PM, I made my way out of the hotel and into the street. I was going to receive my mother who wanted to spend a weekend with me before she left for Chennai for the start of the next academic year at school. Hotel Shakti Paradise was one of the several lodging establishments that dotted the narrow winding road that led to the highway. Two stories high and painted a dull white, it was quite unimpressive to the casual passerby. The insides were no better. The rooms were cramped, dingy and dusty. Lizards padded about lazily on the walls and the ceiling, flicking their tongues out to trap the numerous mosquitoes that buzzed around the room. The mosquitoes usually ensured that every hot stifling night turned into a gory blood bath for the unfortunate occupant. The residents of Shakti Paradise often wondered what was going through the owners mind when he decided to name his hotel.
I passed down the street, duly noting the sights and sounds I had become familiar with over the past few weeks. Hotel Mohanapriya where I'd spent my first restless night in Salem, the rather bafflingly named "Decent Hair Cutting Saloon" and the ubiquitous software training institute that assured everyone of 100 % placements. "After college: just degree but after our course: JOB!" proclaimed the tattered banner that hung outside. I often found myself pondering on the fates of the students who joined these shady software courses. Did employment really await them at the end? Or was there a catch in the guarantee? What would it be like to attend these classes? Were the students eager, hopeful and excited about the opportunities that were supposed to be exist? Or was the course a last resort for the weary and cynical, the ones whom corporate India had summarily rejected?
Further down the street came an ancient and crumbling house that served as an incongruous setting for a firm selling industrial chemicals and then a restaurant that lured in customers by grilling chicken out in the open.I would watch with horrified fascination as the headless skewered bodies rotated slowly over the fire. As the heat slowly turned them a golden brown,a bewitching aroma would float gently over the compound wall and into the street, entrancing all those who passed by. The temptation to go sample some grilled chicken was always high but I usually moved on before I succumbed to it.
At the end of the street, I turned right and walked down the highway towards the pulsating, sweaty and chaotic mess that was the Salem Bus Stand. The Salem Bus Stand was an important one as the town lies in the dead center of Tamil Nadu, equidistant from all important cities and towns. Scores of buses roared in and roared out, disgorging people or swallowing them whole. The local economy depended entirely on the bus stand for its survival. Fast food joints, bakeries, hotels, STD booths, pharmacies, internet parlors and instant photo studios had coalesced together around the terminus in the heat of commerce. It didn't matter what time of the day or night it was, the place was always frantically busy.
An auto driver sprang out of nowhere and pranced around me nervously. Dark, sweaty and desperate looking, he defiantly demanded that I use his overpriced services. I shook my head and moved on.Auto drivers gave me the willies. Their fares were always exorbitant and intensely disliked haggling with them because I always lost. The hostile encounters usually left me feeling weak, helpless and very annoyed with myself. It was so much easier to give in to their demands than battle it out. My feeling of self worth however plummeted at the end of the transaction.
The truth was Salem depressed me. I felt like a stranger, someone who spoke the local language but felt no intimacy, no sense of familiarity with the people that surrounded him. Perhaps it was the unforgiving nature of my work or perhaps it was the loneliness that came from spending my evening and nights alone in the room with only the TV for company. Despite being a tamilian, I felt totally out of place in this small, crowded town. The culture, the values and the local lingo was rather different from where I came from. What I really resented most however was the intrusion of all that was bad and ugly about the world outside into small town Tamil Nadu. We'd been taught a clever term in class called Glocalization: the blend of global trends and local tastes. Glocalization had manifested itself in the form of cheap imitation malls painted a garish orange and cine plexes that boasted of glass and concrete on the outside and filth and graffiti on the inside. Practically every food joint proudly boasted of "Pizza" on its menu, a bloody goop of hard bread, cheese and tomato sauce and every second building was a call center training institute, promising the eradication of the "Mother tongue influence". Glocalization had robbed the town of its authenticity. Salem's aspirations seemed second hand, the hand me downs of bigger cities like Chennai and Bangalore. Modern India beckoned seductively and Salem was determined to get there as cheaply as possible.
At the bus terminus I bought myself a drink and stood waiting at the receiving area. The bus had left Bangalore at half past four in the afternoon. It took about five hours to make the journey and I found myself eagerly scanning the crowd that was discharged from every bus. Just as I was getting a little anxious, I caught sight of her sitting at the front seat of a bus that had just arrived, body tense and prepared to disembark quickly the moment the bus came to a complete halt. There was an expectant smile on her face, a smile that somehow conveyed a happy anticipation of meeting her son and simultaneously a grim determination to fight any crowd that came in the way of her getting down first. My mother was the queen of bus travel. Together we had traveled twelve years in Chennai’s PTC buses to school and back. I had graduated to a college bus and then finally auto rickshaws when I started earning. She had continued to use the bus; any other convenient mode of transport stank of elitism and wasted money.
She did not know I had spotted her as she disembarked and started making her way to the exit.
“Amma !” I called and pushed against the crowd and made my way towards her. She heard me, turned around and smiled.
“I didn’t know you’d come to the bus stand!”
“Well of course I would come. How could you possibly know how to find me otherwise?”
“I thought I’d ask around for a Hotel Saravana. You mentioned it to me several times over the phone...”
“I only eat there, I don’t stay there…” I chided her and reached for her bags. She let me take them with a smile.
“You want to eat first and the head to the hotel?” I should have known better than to ask.
“No, I feel too dirty from the journey. Let me freshen up first. Is your hotel far away?”
“No, just down the road. I got fleeced the first time I landed here. The auto driver charged me fifty bucks to get there.”
“Hmpf, you know what auto drivers are like…”
“It was two in the morning and I had no idea where the hotel was. What do you expect?”
“So you just gave him the money?”
“No, I strongly expressed my annoyance at being fleeced.”
“And then you gave him the money?”
“Can we change the topic?”
We reached the junction and turned left at the street to my hotel. Suddenly the street seemed familiar in a different sort of way. I wasn’t heading to a lonely room, I was heading home.
We walked in silence, quietly acknowledging the reversal in roles. She the dependent, me the protector and provider. The switch troubled me. It validated my rise to manhood but spoke of times lost forever, times when I was clueless and fumbling but happy and she cheerful, strong and brave. Those times were far less complicated. She had relinquished the role of navigator after my father passed away. I didn’t like to see her vulnerable, it just wasn’t her.
We entered the hotel lobby and made our way towards my room. The receptionist with whom I’d become quite pally over my stay stood up and grinned shyly as he nodded his head in welcome. My mother grinned back and nodded in acknowledgment.
I fumbled with the keys and then opened the door. “This is my room!” I announced, anxiously awaiting her reaction. After having spent the last few weeks sweating into the sheets and swatting mosquitoes in a dump my mind had snapped. I had hastily dumped any pretense of thrift and switched to a much more comfortable albeit expensive room.
She stepped in and looked around. “It’s pretty big… And air-conditioned too…”
“It gets insufferably hot here and let’s not forget the mosquitoes…” I began to apologize... “As long as you are comfortable…” she relented to my surprise.
I deposited her bags on the floor and she made her way to the bathroom. I felt lighter at heart. The sadistic boss, the physical hardship of the work and the heartbreak of poor sales paled in comparison to the pain inflicted by loneliness. Alone in the room for several weeks, every challenge I faced become insurmountable, every hurt I had experienced in the past magnified ten fold and my own human weakness seemed despicable. With her by my side, my mind stopped digging for dirt. I could relax without the sneers of the past or the fears of an unknown future. I felt happy because I knew she was happy too, to be there at my side.
She came out looking a lot fresher and stood in front of the mirror and ran a comb through her hair.
“The shower head is missing, don’t tell me you stand under a pipe every morning…”
“ I do…never bothered to complain actually. Most of the time I’m worried that I’ll miss the morning bus to Rasipuram. I just rush through the whole thing.”
“Its typical of you” she replied and continued brushing her hair. We didn’t say anything for a few minutes, enjoying the companionable silence.
“So where are we going for dinner? Saravana Bhavan?”
“There are two Saravana Bhavans here! One for the common man and one for those who want some peace and quiet. Food is the same everywhere though.”
“I want peace and quiet, I’ve had enough noise on the journey here. Did you know they played movies on full blast on government buses?
“I know, I travel on them everyday, makes the journey interesting. I’m already a fan of illaya dalapathi Vijay.”
“Bah…he looks cheap.”
“Don’t you dare say that aloud, he’s very highly regarded here... ”
“I don’t know how people can watch him. His movies are an insult to my intelligence!”
“Well you shouldn’t take him too seriously. People just want to be entertained. Neither are they looking to do some serious soul searching nor are they looking for intellectual stimulation. Give them some stunts, a few fighting scenes, some punch dialogs and a curvy heroine who loves the rain and they go home happy.”
“ Does that go for you too?”
“No… depends on the heroine…”
She smiled and made a few last adjustments to her sari. When I look back, perhaps the sight of my mother adjusting her sari in front of the mirror is possibly the strongest memory I will ever have. In the two decades that she taught at school, she would spend just a few minutes every morning getting the pleats of the sari just right before she caught the 7 AM bus. With her eyes focussed somewhere near the reflection of her knees, she would bend and squat ever so slightly a few times until the pleats fell exactly in place. We shared the mirror for twelve years with her making the last minute adjustments and me shifting around exasperatedly trying to get a look at my reflection so that I could comb my hair. I started off somewhere around her waist, scowling up at her reflection and eventually grinning when I towered over her and ran the comb through my head. Her bending and leaning no longer came in the way of my reflection. My mom was the tiny one now. With college, our timings were no longer the same and she had the mirror all to herself.
We left the hotel and walked down the street. I watched her as she took in the sight and sounds, trying to get a feel of the world I lived in.
"Decent Hair Cutting Saloon?" she asked, startled by the sight that made me grin everyday on the way to work.
"I guess the owner is a modest man"
She shook her head and we walked in silence. I had trouble keeping pace with her. She walked briskly, there was always a sense of purpose in her stride unlike my meandering gait. Her mind was focussed on getting to the destination. My own mind drank in the surroundings, wandered and then got lost.
I took her to the posher Saravana Bhavan that was a little further down the highway. The cheaper one was bang opposite the Bus Terminus and was the preferred eating destination of all the travelers. It was always crowded with customers who came in, quickly ordered without bothering to glance at the menu and then rapidly shoveled down plates of idly, dosa and pongal before washing it down with a tumbler of piping hot filter coffee. The waiters moved about with brisk efficiency, deftly making their way through the dense crowd, smartly collecting orders and delivering them with a flourish. It was never a place to linger over your meal. If you did so, you did an injustice to the man who fidgeted outside, waiting for a table. I had my breakfast there every morning. Surrounded by people who were impatient to go places, I felt some of their urgency seep into my own reluctant self. I usually left the restaurant with a sense of purpose in my step.
The Saravana Bhavan we were now heading to had a more polished air to it. Here families had their food in separate cabins. The restaurant was air conditioned and piped music played softly as waiters padded around discreetly. They wore suits and ties and recited the specials in hushed reverence. The lighting was dim and it took a while for the eyes to adjust to it. My mother and I were led to a cabin by a dignified floor manager and presented with the menus. I gave it a cursory glance and decided what I wanted. A year in the hostel at Ghaziabad had left me craving simple South Indian food. All I wanted was the usual fare of rasam, sambhar, rice and curd. I looked around and impatiently signaled the waiter. Only then did I realize that my mother had not made up her mind yet.
She sat with her back straight , regally regarding the menu with her reading glasses perched at the tip of her nose. She caught me looking at her and smiled. I realized that while for me it was just another restaurant, to her it was a special dining experience. I had eaten out far too many times and thrill of dining out had long since faded. For my mother however, it was a rare occasion. I felt a rush of affection as I saw her carefully consult the menu. She was the child, I was only a weary adult. My protective instincts surged. I would have savagely beaten anyone who had thought of hurting her.
"I will have a Gujarati Thali" she pursed her lips "it looks interesting."
"And I the usual meal"
"Bah, you come out and pay through your nose for what you could eat at home?"
"I pay to avoid an upset stomach. Your Gujrati thali for example would have given me a restless night"
"Eh? Whats wrong with it?"
"Nothing, just that I've eaten out far too much in the last couple of years to appreciate different cuisines. Nothing like curd rice..."
"Ha! I distinctly remember what a fuss you used to make when I served you curd rice. Not so fussy now eh?"
"You live and you learn". She shook her head.
"You know your father would practically finish a bottle of pickle with every plate of curd rice? I often wondered which was the side dish for which..." her voice trailed off. I didn't say anything.
She resumed after a few moments " Guess what your father's first words were to me when his family came home to exchange horoscopes?"
"Hmmm...cant guess. What did he say?"
"He sat silently for a while and then suddenly looked at me and announced " I eat non veg food!". Then he looked down at his shoes again and didn't say anything after that."
"Hahaha! He never told me!"
"I was frightened. What a terrible thing to say to a girl for the first time!"
"Well...I can imagine...you cant really blame Appa though. He probably had never spoken to any one of the opposite sex from outside the family. He was far too bookish."
Our dinner arrived and over the food I explained to her what exactly I was doing in my summer internship. My job involved selling candy at all possible outlets and looking for ways to increase sales of Perfetti's products. She listened with fascination as I narrated how I went from shop to shop with two jars of candy and begged shopkeepers to buy from me.
"Interesting, so is that what you'll be doing even after you finish your MBA?"
"No No! I'll be in charge of a sales force. I wont have to do the selling myself!"
"Good, for a moment there I was wondering why you on earth you quit your job as a software engineer."
We finished our meal and made our way down the road back to Shakti Paradise. It was quite late and the street was deserted. We walked in silence, each wrapped in our own thoughts.
She suddenly turned towards me and said " When I die, I dont want to be cremated. Donate my body to a hospital..."
I shook my head. For the last three years since Appa had died, my mother had repeatedly expressed a desire to join him. Her own life seemed purposeless according to her. The announcements which troubled me intensely in the beginning had now become routine. She often gave me instructions on what was to be done when she died. I had ceased to get upset after a while. The hospital idea though made me cringe.
"Don't be morbid. You aren't going to die anytime soon and I absolutely refuse to do anything of that sort. Why a hospital anyway?"
"Your grandfather scoffed at the idea of me becoming a doctor and got me married off when I was twenty one. Oh, I wanted so badly to be one!"
"So the only answer to a snuffed out dream is to become a cadaver?"
She smiled at the joke for a moment. "Let me contribute to medicine in my own way okay?"
I shook my head and both of us fell silent. A full moon appeared briefly from behind a few clouds, lit the street eerily for a few moments and then slid behind them again. We walked side by side, mother and son with thoughts of death and eternity beckoning enticingly to one and repulsing the other. The street had suddenly become unfamiliar to me again.