When she entered that suburb of Paris where a lot of Tamils lived, the first thing that met her eye were the crows. Her mother used to say that crows were the forms our ancestors took. Had her ancestors now crossed the oceans and arrived in Paris? These were not the crows that cawed. These sat in silent penance on electric wires. Perhaps they were displaced crows. Whatever they were, they calmed her anxious heart.
The cause of her anxiety was the fact that she had agreed to give a talk at the Tamil association in the neighbourhood. It was only after she had already accepted the invitation that her Sri Lankan friend explained the complexities involved.
Her name was Tiripurasundari. It was perhaps the fact that she was a doctor that made them excited about listening to her. They might expect her to draw from her experience as a physician and provide some spiritual insight that could redeem them from their lives of displacement. What is more, the title of her talk had the word ‘culture’ in it. That word might have unleashed in their minds the images of iconic Tamil women: the one who looked at the sky and commanded it, ‘Rain!’; the one who made the rope in a well stand suspended in mid-air; the woman who asked, “Did you think I was a crane, Konganavaa?” and challenged the spiritual powers of a holy mendicant with the power of her chastity, reminding him of the time he had cursed and burned to death a crane that had shat on him by mistake; the woman whose womb is said to have resembled a lion’s den; and the valiant mother who said, “If I find a wound on my warrior son’s back, I will cut asunder my breasts that gave him suckle.” Her Sri Lankan friend had pointed out these possibilities.
The friend had also told her that if she had assumed that she could use ‘culture’ as a bait and pretty little fish would come leaping towards it, she was hugely mistaken. What she ended up catching might be large whales that she could not reel in. If she had given a safe title to her talk, such as “Womanhood in Bharati’s Vision” or “The Tamil Women Depicted in the Thirukkural,” there wouldn’t have been any hassle.
The friend said she would stay with her through the talk, like a security squad offering protection. The crows stared at her accusingly.
The people who came to receive her had moved to Paris thirty years ago. They looked like they took delight at the mere sweetness of spoken Tamil. First there was breakfast at the residence of the secretary of the association. Idlis soft as jasmine flowers, sambar, and chutney powder mixed with sesame oil. And Mysorepak too. They served her with love. Those who wrote travelogues in the sixties might have been flattered by such a reception. They might have been overcome with emotion and might have wondered aloud if it was some past-life connection that brought them to these people who made and served Tamil food oceans away. But she was taken aback when idlis were laid on her plate accompanied by a comment about how someone who was to talk on tradition must be served traditional food. She had planned a completely different approach to the idea of tradition in her talk.
She was born in a family of practitioners of medicine who were famous in the field of obstetrics. She had apprenticed with her father, mixing medicines, looking for medicinal roots, gathering herbs, crushing them, and extracting their juices. But despite her able assistance, her father was sad that he did not have a son to carry on the family’s traditional profession. Those who came to her for treatment often asked her if there was a way for them to conceive a male child. The midwives she met in several villages spoke to her about how the little specks of paddy they had fed into the nostrils of female infants had come to haunt them in times of exhaustion, choking their throats while they were eating. Her widowed aunt had to leave her marital home and seek refuge with Tiripurasundari, because the aunt wanted to send her girl child to school. There were many such experiences she could draw from.
Tiripurasundari looked at her friend in distress, but she only shrugged, suggesting it was too late to do anything. She’d already placed her head on the grinding stone.
Women in saris and salwar kameez were standing outside the hall where the talk was to happen. They hugged and greeted each other French style. None of the youngsters could speak Tamil; they spoke to one another in French. They stood aside and looked at her as if she were a strange creature. Older people came closer and asked her how many children she had and what her husband did for a living.
Before the talk, the secretary of the Tamil association spoke to her in great detail about the association’s activities – Pongal celebrations, Bharati poetry contests, kolam contests, dramas, lectures, Tamil classes, debates (topics: ‘Who is greater in chastity – Kannagi or Madhavi?’, ‘Who really runs the family – husband or wife?’, ‘Which is better – love marriage or arranged marriage?’ etc.)
Once she finished her talk, some people stood up in outrage. “Do you mean to say men should wear the taali around their necks?” asked a man in great anger, taking a perspective that had nothing to do with her talk. Some people clapped for him. Another man said, “I came here hoping you would talk about the greatness of the Tamil clan that was born before there was stone and sand on this planet,” and he kept his hand on his waist and paused dramatically. People raised noises of support. He told her that he had driven over a hundred miles to listen to the talk and that he was disappointed. Hearing that her name was Tiripurasundari, another man said he had come thinking he was going to listen to a writer who lived in Africa for many years and wrote under the pen name ‘Lakshmi’. When someone informed him that it was several years since ‘Lakshmi’ died, he looked sad. Someone else was offended by her remark that a very strong rodent poison was needed to kill all those pompous culture bandicoots who made their noises sitting safely in their holes and burrows in the murky terrain of culture. He said it was an incendiary speech that could lead the younger generation astray. No one really heard her friend’s thoughts on the subject.
The women in the audience stayed silent. When the crowd started dispersing slowly, the younger people approached her hesitantly and started speaking to her in English. Questions and opinions started to emerge.
“Aunty, do girls our age in Chennai feel free to talk to men?”
“My mother says I should not speak to a boy in my class. She says it is not our culture to do so.”
“My mother eavesdrops whenever I am on the phone.”
“Do you draw kolams in the morning and pray to god?”
“Was Kannagi a real person?”
“Do you cover your TV, DVD player, VCD deck and all that with cloth covers? Why do you do that?”
“In India, do young girls always wear davani, half-saris?”
“Do they only marry the men their parents find for them?”
Those youngsters didn’t ask her what caste was. They had no doubts or objections about it. They said that was how things worked. They were very sure of that fact that it was an age-old thing, that it would not change, and that it shouldn’t either.
On her journey back from the event, she didn’t see the crows. Perhaps they had flown back to their nests. Midwife Angamma hated crows. Whenever she saw crows, she would say, “So pitch black, it reminds me of the eyes of that child, Sundarimma. When I placed the grains of paddy in its nostrils, the infant opened its eyes like a crow and looked at me. The crow which sat on the kitchen window sill the next morning, crowed till the afternoon.” And her grandmother would sit on the front veranda, shooing away crows, and saying, “This is not a crow. This is the crow demon.” She wondered if the crows here would remind her of Hitchcock or of Bharatiyar’s Nandalala, the god Krishna, whose vision he glimpsed in the black of a crow’s wings.
The people with whom she was going to stay had given her the name of the metro station where she should get down. Only when she and her friend got off from the train did they realise there were many exits to the station. When they chose one of them and stepped out, Paris had changed.
The vegetable shops she had seen in the morning were not there anymore. The streets were dimly lit, and the houses looked like owls. If they walked past a certain street, they would get to another one. Then they would turn into yet another street. If they walked all the way down that street, they would reach a dead end. If that happened, they would retrace their steps, then they would find a cross street. It felt like they kept walking in circles.
The experiences at the event and the fatigue from all this walking had made her friend irritable. Suddenly, a large French bandicoot ran across the street. Hearing her scream, her friend said sarcastically, “Why do you scream? This too is a culture bandicoot!”
They had to continue walking through the crisscrossing streets. That’s when she was reminded of that game.
The game of finding one’s way through a maze. You think you have found the exit and you find yourself hitting dead-ends. After a lot of twists and turns, you are once again at the entrance. It was said that the wax palace that the Kauravas built for the Pandavas had many such maze pathways. They said that even the forts in the old days were built this way. Sometimes a winding passage from inside a fort would take you right inside the sanctum of the main temple. With a pencil, she had traced these pathways drawn in the puzzles printed in magazines. Once during her travels, she had even played in a maze in a garden somewhere. Even in labs, it was in such mazes that they made rats run through winding, crisscrossing, dead-ending pathways, didn’t they?
She recalled that in some places they called such structures Ravana’s Fortress, and she shared this information with her friend. And by then they realised that their destination was right in front of them. Now they had to press the numbers on the gate outside. But in the surrounding darkness, they couldn’t see the numbers. Her friend hadn’t brought her glasses with her, and hers were in the room. While they were wondering if they were indeed at the right house and if they had pressed the correct number, the gate opened noisily.
“Ravana’s fortress has opened its gates,” she said to her friend.
“Get inside quickly before it closes again,” her friend replied.
Once they parted for the night and she lay on her bed and closed her eyes, she saw visions of winding streets. Streets with no beginning or end. Sudden turns and crooked pathways. Bandicoots were running here and there. And overhead, crows flew with their dark wings outstretched, as if they were floating. One of the bandicoots banged itself against a dead-end, lay there, and looked at her. Suddenly she heard the bandicoot speak in Solomon Pappaiah’s voice explicating the Tirukkural. It also spoke in Sivaji Ganesan’s voice from the film Manohara, and asked, “Are you going to be patient even now?” And in Kannamba’s voice, it replied, “Especially now.” Then it broke into a lullaby: “On a silver tablet, with a diamond-tipped stylus, for you to learn sweet Tamil alphabets, your uncle will come and take you to school; he will hold you in a tight embrace.” That was followed by a love duet: “Oh brand new book, I am the poet who shall turn your pages,” to which the heroine sang in reply, “I am the beloved of this poet who sings songs from my pages.”
The crows started flying low. One of them flew particularly low and caressed her cheek with its wing before flying away.
Read the original Tamil story here.