Sunday, January 25, 2015

Two Road Trips, Ten Years Apart: In TNIE Today

Road trips have always been a favourite, I am that journey-is-the-destination kind of person. Tamil Nadu is another favourite place, one that is brimming and fat with beautiful memories for me. The two combined, and like another time ten years ago, I was on a road trip again, last September. Wrote about it in today's The New Indian Express. Read here or see below.


After a while, the highways all look the same. The grey asphalt that burns the eyes, the surrounding lush green from the paddy fields or the full forests, they don't distract after a while either. The road pulls your attention to it, even though the sights to see are on the side. In the periphery of your vision, there are tea stalls and quaint villages but it is, after all, the road that changes that one part of you that grows and explodes and merges into the grey or into the life of the person next to you. Road trips do that.

When you have taken to the open roads for several years, the beautiful sunrises that catch the glint of your car's rear view mirror, the gorgeous sunsets that bleed orange and yellow and then a warm dark blue into the sky, they all look the same too. Travel, where the road is the destination, becomes the thoughts that changed along the way, about the person you became because of, in spite of that trip. Yet there was that one long trip, across Tamil Nadu, about which I will probably always say, "I remember it like it happened yesterday." It happened ten years ago, in the week just before Sunday, December 26, 2004.

It was a then close friend's birthday, and I was home from university. In the afternoon sometime, dad called me to watch the news on TV, a tsunami had hit the East Coast. A strange word that was then, no one quite knew what it meant at first. One of the channels was showing huge waves lashing against the base of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. We, my parents and I, on a road trip in an old white HM Contessa Classic car, had been standing there exactly a week ago, to the day. The boatmen who took us on the ferry had remarked, small talking, that the sea was unusually rough that day. They had casually wondered why, a week ago. I remember where I was when I heard of the tsunami because the images on the TV screen seemed surreal. Mum wouldn't let me get back to university the next day, along the West Coast, fearing...something...for the earth we knew had shook a bit that day. A newly married couple, family friends, on their honeymoon in Mangalore, had waded off the beach, for the waves had seemed a bit too menacing for their comfort. In Dhanushkodi, that vestige of an older disaster, a family from Chennai had posed theatrically before a broken brown church and asked that I take pictures and send it to them in T.Nagar. I had posted them some prints in a faded yellow envelope with a five-rupee stamp. I wonder if they were at Marina Beach when the sea pulled back, gathered force and spewed upon the Sunday picnickers that day.

Everyone has a tsunami story.

Everything had looked picturesque, calm. The windmills near Kanyakumari, towering over palm trees, had been turning full speed. Perhaps the winds knew then, the catastrophe that would blow that way in a few days’ time.

Late September, ten years later, I found myself in a HM Ambassador car, with a friend, retracing some of the routes we had taken then. Some new places were added to the itinerary, a few passed off for having been there and done that. The highways were wider, neater, better laid out with the white divider line gleaming and fresh in the emerging sun every day. We took to the highway just before dawn each day, to avoid crowds and cars, to let the breeze, cool and cold by turns, nudge us into long silences and happy conversations.

The countryside had long been cleaned up of the remnants of the tsunami. Memories would have stayed, how could they possibly not? In some village along the way, the signboard carrying its name neglected in the langour of the earliness of the day, we stopped for breakfast. We had, between us, six idlis, perhaps three crisp vadas, a cup of tea, or was it coffee? In that rather dingy shack of a hotel with a makeshift radio belting out Tamil film songs loudly, our total bill came up to a mere, to our disbelief, Rs 30.

Disaster was not among the tourist attractions where we went. Except perhaps in Dhanuskodi. There commerce has swept in, several shacks selling engraved shells, Lays chips, cheap sweetmeats and oily snacks dot the barren flat land. The story behind this dot, an afterthought on the coastline makes for a good anecdote for the dinner table.

There is something in the very nature of the open road that seems to demand the questioning of the existential, the obvious acknowledgment of there being something greater than just us and our many crisises. Perhaps it is the surprise of the unknown at the next bend in the highway, even when the destination is familiar, expected. Perhaps it is the act of movement across landscapes that merge one into the other, the trips themselves that become indistinguishable from the previous to the next. Perhaps it is, like the movies, the books across culture elucidate, really just about the lessons learnt and the stories constructed.

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