Here I am, in Thekambattu near Karumandurai, Attur district, Salem, Tamil Nadu. I am here to make a small documentary on urbanisation. Most who heard of my proposed trip to this village outpost did not understand why I was coming here at all – not when I was actually working on an issue which is the complete opposite of anything ‘rural’. There were two reasons for me being here. First, I am meeting a family who had the opportunity to stay in a metropolitan city, but instead, chose to settle as far away as possible. So I wanted to know the why and how of it. Secondly I wanted some time out, a place where I can relax and think and do nothing, and this was a perfect place for that. Coming to the point what is thekambattu – one of my professors’ batch-mates from IIT Bombay has made a home here with his family, a small, beautiful house on top of a small hill, surrounded by more hills called Kalarayan. This is like an ideal village away from a very small town called Karumandurai, which is about 67 kms from Salem –the steel plantation town of Tamil Nadu in South India. I had not given much thought to the process of getting there, I’d rather spent more time thinking about how I’d whip out my camera and start talking to the couple about their unique and rather heroic choice. I was stressing over the discomfort that a camera always succeeds in generating among adults. It’s not so bad with young children – they’re rather open about themselves – but adults are usually guarded – not out of suspicion but perhaps the fact that they know things can come out looking quite different than what was.
So there I was, with a ticket that was not confirmed, which had me scampering back to book another one that I luckily managed – and turned out that I saved a few hundreds I’d have to spend on a hotel room once I’d have got off the train late in the night at Salem.
So I ended up taking the Coimbatore Express from Mumbai, LT Terminus at 10:35 pm on a Saturday night; the train reached Salem at 2:45 am the next night rather early morning on Monday. I was instructed by Sunder sir (my kind host) to get a bus at 5:20 am – the first bus, which would ensure that by 7:30 am I’d reach Karumandurai. I didn’t know at the time whether the train was on time or late. I thought to myself it’s Indian Railways, anything can happen, so I put an alarm on my cell phone for 1:30 am, so that I won’t miss the station. I wanted to make sure that I valued the 3 precious minutes that the train stops at the Salem station. So at 1.30 am I took all my stuff and went to the door to get some fresh air, so I won’t feel sleepy again. I was at the door for one and a half hours – I could manage that only because I was very excited I’m sure. Finally the train arrived at my destination and I got down and I decided to while away my time for a little as it was still too dark to move out and the new bus stand was hardly 10 minutes away by auto. Like any other railway station in India, there were a lot of people sleeping on the platform and inside the station.
I sat there at the platform near a snacks counter and waited. I don’t listen to music on ear phones as after a while it starts hurting my ear and I get a headache too. So I bought biscuits and a bottle of water and coffee from the regular railway counter and had a short chat with the guy at the counter. I had a feeling that he was feeling sleepy and my inquisitiveness was bugging him, although he didn’t quite indicate it all too clearly. So I went back and sat on the chair next to the stall and started having biscuit and coffee.
At about 4:30 am I stepped out in search of the bus stop. Sparkling yellow autos with all kinds and colours of lights around them – they hit me like a flashlight in a dark cave – they seemed to me like the very first impression this place had impressed upon me. A dark man with big mustaches and a bright white shirt standing next to an auto was looking towards me. I got a little scared, there were a few others like him, all of them looked similar much like the stereotypical villains of the Tamil films. The moment they saw me they started speaking in Tamil, I hoped they were asking me where I have to go. I went to one of the guys and asked politely “New Bus Stand?” The guy became excited and energetically said something in Tamil, I asked “How much?” He said Rs. 70. I was instructed that they take Rs. 40 and if you can’t speak Tamil they will charge you Rs. 50. I started bargaining but nothing came of it and I gave in and said “Ok” and got into the auto. He took off with loud Tamil music blaring through the deserted streets of early morning. I asked him politely “Can I smoke?” he turned around, took a cigarette from my pack and said “yes, yes”.
He dropped me at the new bus stand, I gave him a 100 rupee note, he didn’t had the right change, so he gave me Rs.40, and said something in Tamil, but I don’t understand the language at all. Perhaps he was telling me that we’re smoke-buddies now and he’ll give me a discount on the ‘Not Knowing Tamil Tax’.
I had reached the bus stand, and could not locate the way in when I saw a policeman sitting outside; he was quite helpful and guided me to the entrance. Inside there were lots of shops like we have in Palika Bazar in Delhi. It was pleasant in the morning, a little cold rather, I saw people smoking in a corner so I went to a coffee shop and asked for coffee and went away to smoke, as soon as I had a sip of coffee, it reminded me of my last visit to Tamil Nadu. How the hell do they maintain a particular taste of coffee, it was the same when I had it 5 or 6 years back, and it’s the same all over again, after smoking I went to the coffee vendor and asked as instructed by my hosts for the bay for the bus to Attur. He directed me towards a place, again in Tamil. Now I had to find the bus which goes to Karumandurai, I asked an old man directing the buses around, I just had to say “Karumandurai” and he said something in Tamil.
It was 4:45 am by now and I was told that there is a bus which leaves at 5:20 am, I sat near the Attur bus bay, suddenly a white bus with bright colourful lights all around sped in to the bay I sat by, and whenever the driver used to apply breaks the lights would glow. It was what we call a private or chartered bus in Delhi, with all kinds of jazz on it, wheel cover, neon head lights, antennas, tube lights inside the bus and what not. I was not sure if this was the bus I was supposed to board – perhaps I even hoped not – hoping to have a very nondescript bus that would allow me a short nap. But as soon as it stopped, people sitting next to me started boarding it, somehow I felt compelled to ask the ticket collector and he confirmed my suspicion. The whole place seemed kind of stuck in time – the ticket collector was wearing a bell bottom style of pants which was in fashion when my dad was young. I asked him again to make sure I was boarding the right bus and picked a window seat for myself. There were 2 television sets in the front of the bus on the wall just behind the driver’s cabin, one on the left and the other on the right. And as soon as the bus started, it was switched on. For a while they played some devotional songs, of course in Tamil, but I could figure out by the tune. After two such songs the playlist moved on to films songs, followed by a film. Everything was loud! I asked the ticket collector to wake me up when the bus reaches Karumandurai, he assured me he would. I could only try to sleep to make up for the lack of since waking up at 1.30 am on the train. The wind was cold and as soon as I would doze off a loud song in the film would wake me up and jar my eyes with contrasting colours, amazing locations etc.
I was beginning to feel like I am high on something like cocaine, my eyes were transmitting psychedelic, colourful images, I feeling damn sleepy but somehow I could not, everything was moving so fast, loud colours, loud music, colourful lights inside the bus, it felt like I am in some Tamil disco bar or something. The wind was so cold that I had to wear my sweatshirt. So basically I was kept awake all the way, I couldn’t see much outside because it was dark still. Somehow time passed and it was 6:30 am, now I could see unassuming old huts in a quaint old village nothing very new – much like what I have seen at my grandma’s place in Nalanda inBihar. So I started checking out the people around me, they were all enjoying the movie. From what I could see of the movie I figured it was not based on any logic – it was appealing to people’s funny bones rather than the heart or the mind – there were people flying, jumping 3-4 floors, the story was based in Tamil Nadu and the song sequence was shot at the Taj Mahal, yet people were laughing at the jokes, crying if the lead actress was crying, they were completely involved in the movie and I kept looking at the people around me.
In the meanwhile Sunder sir called to ask me if I managed to get the bus as directed and I got a couple of other calls – but I couldn’t recall anything who said what and who asked what. I was so sleepy. After a while the bus stopped. It was 7:30 am and I saw people getting off at the stop. I was instructed get off where most of the people were, so I hoped that this is the place. And I sighed a relief when I figured it was. I also confirmed it with the ticket collector. Now I had to take a leak, I looked around but couldn’t find a washroom anywhere and everyone at the stop was looking at me with great suspicion an outsider is often greeted with in any small town in India – perhaps even the world. I asked the ticket collector about thekambattu, he directed me towards a road. So I was at Karumandurai which is a small town – almost still a village. I went in the direction of the road I was pointed towards, there was a small market there, so I thought I would find a place on the road side or hill side to relieve myself. As soon as I moved closer to the market, I could see Mr. Sunder on his bike. We greeted each other and soon enough I had to seek his expert advice as a local on a suitable place to take a leak. He simply suggested that we get away from the town then I could take a leak wherever I wanted to. But before we could head out we had to pick up some vegetables from the market as this was a rare visit away from home on the hill. Soon enough we were on our way. I found an apt spot and relieved myself on the way and it was a long ride back home – about 6kms from Karumandurai. We sped past huge fields, small houses and fewer and fewer people but the road was pretty well maintained. From quite a distance still my host started pointing a proud finger towards his house, or the general direction of his house, for I couldn’t see anything except trees. “I can’t see a house on the hill, I only see trees,” I told him. In fact, even he hadn’t realised that now the view of his house is covered with trees, earlier you could see the house from quite a distance but now you can’t. He parked his bike on the slope and we started climbing the hill, before I could see anything I was warned about a few things like, over excited loving dog, cats and her kittens. Their house was beautiful – fashioned like the old ones with a sloping, thatched roof and big windows and doors. It reminded me of our place while we were in Goa as well as my grandparents’ place in Nalanda. There too we had a similar house though not as isolated as this one. This was something else. The house is amazing on the outside and on the inside as well. Aesthetically done up; everything in the house felt like it belonged there. Nothing in the house looks like it does not belong there or is from somewhere else or that it shouldn’t be there, the wall colour, doors, wall texture, curtains, lamps as well as the ornamental items. They all added the earthy feeling to the house. Everything seemed to have a purpose in its existence in the particular place. There were lots of paintings and small artworks adding on to the beauty of the house. Sitting in the veranda makes you feel that you are not at all away from Mother Nature.
An amazing spot they go to often has been named the “Hippo Rock”, the kids, Badri and ___ have named it that because it looks like the back of a hippopotamus. It is the edge of the hill which they own and sitting there and having tea has its own bliss. You can see the whole Thekambattu village as well as the whole of Kalrayan ranges from this spot. All you see is different shades of green and blue. Green of the fields and the cultivations and various colours of sky from morning to night.
All the while I was there, the only thing I did was just roam around, read different books, have tea on the rock, play with the dog, eat, sleep, have long conversations and shoot a bit of the discussion and a little bit of farming.
Mr. Sunder and his family gave me a critical material for a documentary I am making about urbanization. I wanted to meet various people who had an opportunity to work in the metros but left it intentionally because of some reasons and I was there to explore the reasons why this family had decided in favour of a village outpost over the obvious “opportunities” that the megacity offered them. Millions look towards the metros to fulfill their desires, mind it “desire” not the needs, and this family desired that which Mumbai could not offer.