I wrote this on a slow rainy Sunday afternoon.
The rain is pouring down outside our apartment in Kolathur. It is a beautiful and meditative sound, yet foreboding. It tells us of a flood slowly forming and filling the streets of the neighbourhood. These past couple of weeks of rain has meant water getting trapped on the pavement, filling all the holes and caveats and reaching above people’s knees when they wade, cycle and bike through it. Walking to work we pass the electricity board, a big yellow building filled with black boxes and tangled wires that gives us light at night time, fans to cool ourselves in the humid heat and internet to live our connected lives. Since the start of the monsoon, the yellow building has been surrounded by a small sea, slowly getting larger and deeper. I have sensed a tension building up between the rising water and the buzzing black boxes.
Although it is partly out of restlessness being restricted to my room that I write this, it is also from a source of inspiration. Being indoors, often without Internet, I retreat to my books. When you cannot live your days the way you wish to, see places and socialise, one way is to visit someone else’s life for a while.
So I have disappeared into the life of a fisher girl becoming a woman living in one of Kerala’s coastal villages in the 50’s. Karuttama falls in love with the Muslim boy Parekutty, two people who cannot and will never be together, except in their minds and through his everlasting nightly songs. I can see him looking at the vast sea singing and the fisher wives waiting on the shore for their husbands and sons while the “sea mother” rages, praying for their return. I can smell the salty wind and feel the aching empty stomachs during times of starvation. I can feel Karuttama’s and Parekutty’s hearts slowly being torn apart and pulled closer together.
On another rainy day I met Triton, a young boy growing up in a professor’s home in Sri Lanka, working as a kolla (house-keeper), at the start of the Sri Lankan civil war. He rarely goes outside the big gates, but learns about the world through the professor’s research on the coral reefs, vast library and his friends’ happy chatter during dinners in the house. I am time and time again brought back to the three months I spent in Sri Lanka through the place names, the delicious food Triton learns how to prepare and the sounds and smells of the garden and the sea side. But then of course, I learn so much more seeing the country from Triton’s street and his eagerly peering eyes and wide-open ears.
Before going to sleep I have giddily visited the young single journalist Sushmita Bose in New Delhi, writing a column called “Single in the City” for a Delhi newspaper. She makes me laugh and realise that I share experiences of living in India with many young Indians; experiences I thought were solely to do with me being new to this country and city. I giggled to myself when she told the story of her having to take leave from work to wait for an engineer to come and install (read: plug in) her new fridge. It was funny because the same had happened to us just a week before. I have enjoyed following her through her everyday struggles of getting to know New Delhi, Sushmita having moved from Calcutta. I have tried to learn from her Bengali cooking using mustard oil and green chilli (mostly ending disastrously, like when I emptied the whole mustard oil into the pan and kitchen walls). Finally, I have realised that single life in New Delhi may not be hugely different to single life in Stockholm.
However, it is not only the friends in my books I love to visit and learn from but the numerous people I follow on Instagram who live Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai. Since coming to India, I have found these people’s frequent updates invaluable to my settling into Chennai. To wake up in the morning, seeing what my virtual friends have had for breakfast, to hear their reflections and become a part of their everyday routines and get-abouts, makes my ginger chai tea on the corner cafe mean so much more than its lovely sweet and spicy taste.
It is like an addiction, because with every new person, real or fiction, I see India from a different angle, adding another layer to a larger even more complex but somehow clearer picture. It adds to my understanding of daily events and social encounters as well as a larger narrative of villages, cities and the country as a whole. Knowing I am only scraping the surface of Indian society, social media, culture, history and literature, only makes me crave for more.
So when my books run out, I start looking for bookshops wherever I go.
And when the Internet is out of reach, I sit imagining my Instagram friends go about their daily lives.
The rain keeps pouring down outside and my fingers start to tingle, asking for more. But there is no World Wide Web to get lost in or novels to get swallowed by. Instead I have to wait, listen to the drip-drop getting heavier and then lighter and go to bed hoping for drier streets in the morning. Meanwhile, I thought I could share this with you and allow the stories and narratives to travel further, deeper and wider, like the rain flooding the streets of Kolathur, Periyar Nagar and further.
So if you wish to meet some of these friends:
Chemmeen – T.S. Pillai (set in a fisher village)
Reef – Romesh Gunesekera (set in Sri Lanka)
Single in the city – Sushmita Bose (set in New Dehli)
And some more:
Selected Poems – Kamala Das
Gitanjali – Tagore