When A.R. Rahman’s music floats into Mani Ratnam’s films, we get a unique kind of magic—the kind we sensed the moment we walked into the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, the moment the hostess told us that this palace was a favourite venue of the filmmaker for his dance sequences. Imagine the dreamy arches and the unworldly sculptures in the song Kehna Hi Kya from Bombay; the luminous festivity of the dance to Tere Bina in Guru. The magic of those sequences were created by the picturesque courtyard of the Nayak Palace no less than Rahman’s music and Mani Ratnam’s lyrical cinematography. Inside, the palace has its own dance hall. When was the last performance held there? Did the performers or the audience of the last performance know that the curtains were going to come down on history? And that a technicolour extravaganza would be unveiled centuries later by the force of nature called Bollywood?
It is the kind of moment that stands out in a traveller’s memory, like a festering wound that bleeds stories. We were walking around the Meenakshi temple, wordless at the intricacy of the sculpture. Premila Paul, the retired professor of English at American College, Madurai, who had invited me to speak at the college, told us stories that would have remained stone otherwise. The time came when we were to enter the shrine, fast-tracking to avoid the queue by paying a fee of Rs 100 each. Premila said, “I’ll wait for you outside.” Pausing, she said, “No one will know if I bluff my way inside, but I don’t want to do it.” Instinctively, we looked up to the boldest words above the shrine: Only Hindus Allowed Beyond This Point. Suddenly, I thought, “Premila is not a Hindu?” But that was the first time I thought about religion too, even though I was inside a temple. Somebody’s religion. “We’ll skip the shrine too,” I said. “No, no, you guys go inside,” she said matter-of-factly. “We’ll meet out there, next to Ganesha.”
The novelist Shashi Deshpande was lost. She is a small woman, though her frailty is dangerously deceptive. But there were probably about a hundred people crowding over her on the stage of the auditorium, 95 of them women, I think. I’ve never been a huge believer in the gendered division of reading, but there was something deeply gratifying about the crowd of women around Deshpande after her lecture in American College that day. That morning, I sat next to Dr Deshpande, Shashi’s husband, and heard questions uttered with awkward passion: “My husband has encouraged me to pursue my education after marriage. What do you think of marriage and women’s work?” “Why do adultery by women play a prominent role in your novels?” All questions by women, many of whom had constructed academic careers around Shashi’s oeuvre. It was an unforgettable picture of what Deshpande’s work mean to women, particularly students and academics in Tamil Nadu, and how she has offered language in which to live lives.
To be the speaker the day after the Shashi festival was as humbling as it was exciting. Most of all, it was terrifying. Over 500 people came to listen to Deshpande. How many would come to listen to me? But they came, they came, almost all of them, again! I held forth on the “creative process”, a term I now dislike with passion even as I believe in the reality it seeks, and their engagement was kind, and something of an epiphany.
My five-year old son, Neer, got a gift from the lovely folks in American College. A book, Green Well Years. He sat down with it every night—the next four nights anyway that were spent in Kodaikanal International School where the literary festivities moved henceforth. And did he make a ceremony of it! Green Well Years were well beyond his years—it was a novel for adults about a boy growing up in Madurai. The author and illustrator, the Madras-based artist and storyteller, Manohar Devadoss, weaves a bildungsroman, the story of Sundar, but as all good coming-of-age stories do, it is also a tale of a place. For Sundar, the green well, once a major source of water for Madurai, has always been a dry well, but stands as a relic to a very different past. If you are looking for a lively introduction to Madurai that is no less real for being a fiction, read it. The pencil sketches of the temples, the nature, and the evolving landscape of the city are delicate masterpieces. You’d never know that they are the work of a man who is now almost blind.(An author, his most recent novel is The Scent of God)