Friday 25 August 2017

A Chennai full of stories.

Can you recall the first stories you were told? Did they come from books or from hearts? Were you tucked in bed or sat on a lap? Was it on cold winter nights or on warm summer days?
All of my first stories sprung from my grandparents: Beji and Papaji and a couple from my father.

A veritable mismatched pitara (treasure trove) of Krishna's antics, Rama's principles, the horrors of 1947 partition, the sweetness of the fruit that grew in their garden in Shinkiari in North West Frontier (now in Pakistan) mixed with faint memories of Beji-- of when as a little girl, she visited the tall Buddhas of Bamiyan (which are no more). She couldn't remember if someone in her family took her with them or told her stories of the tall Buddhas but she spoke as if she'd been there herself. Maybe she'd travelled in the descriptions she'd heard.

Stories hold that power: the power to transport you in time and space, in memory and in sense, in smell and in taste, in touch and and in feelings. Stories are like the threads of a tassel that bind us together as a family, a community, a country, a people, a history, a nation, a race and humanity. Stories trickle down traditions, read across pages of epics and race down memories. They escape lips and sound out that which we know has always existed within us as carriers of this cosmos, but love to be reminded of our place, our destinies, our heritage and our aspirations anyhow.

The distance between birth and death is as long as a story.

But don't be fooled into thinking that your story is separate from mine or that each one of us can package our own individual story in a neat little box and tuck it away. No, sir. Our stories are all tangled together, entwined and connected. We may be bouncing in our own private orbits and we may think that what we see and experience is unique to us and doesn't effect others, or vice versa, but in the end the trampoline of cosmos we're bouncing on is the same for all of us. Our actions send out ripples that go on and on--so it is important that we pay close attention to how we conduct our lives.

I digress. Sorry. So to Chennai...
Last month, on an early morning walk in Doha, Ambika mentioned that she'd be travelling to Chennai for work. 

She's a friend and a surgeon and she'd been asked to lecture/conduct workshops etc. at Chennai, Madurai and Tanjavore.

"Can I tag along?" I asked shamelessly. The cities she had just mentioned have been on my ever growing bucket list and I couldn't resist this opportunity.

"Of course."

The flights looked okay. That was that. I plunged into research to ensure my Tamil Nadu adventure would be a fruitful one.

Friends who live locally were contacted. Google was put in top gear.

I kept Dr. A informed of  the itinerary that was taking shape. She's a busy surgeon with just enough time to sleep at night. I'm a self professed traveller living off of my husband's salary, who can even take afternoon naps. 

"This adventure is beginning to  sound like Thelma and Loiuse." texted Ambika one day after I'd found a great home-stay off the beaten track.

"I like Ambika and Arti better." I texted back.

"Besides, I'm not planning to end like Thelma and Louise--not done with my travelling yet." I thought to myself. I didn't type that.

Instead, smiley emojis were exchanged. Bags were packed, flight boarded and we were off.

Thanks to a recommendation sent by Shefalii of Photoconcierge, we started our Chennai adventure with a walking tour conducted by Akila Raman of Story Trails

Trust me, you've got to experience it to know how amazing it is. We started at four in the evening  and ended at seven.  I can honestly say that those were the best three hours of story-magic I've ever experienced. 

Akila's passion for the place, her knowledge and her melodious voice all came together to take us on a journey that started on a hot July afternoon is bustling Mylapore in 2017 and after meandering through stories of Shiva, Parvati and their two sons and the one about the treaty signed by the Muslim kings who own the land on which sits the temple tank as well as the one about the pink saree that Mother Mary is adorned with at Mylapore Church, it ended with a strong cup of filter coffee and dosa. If I ever have a chance to visit Chennai again, any tour by Akila will be the first thing I'll add to my itinerary.

Akila told us so many wonderful stories and with such skill that I didn't feel like an audience. I was that little girl again-- the one who'd sit next to Beji on her clean kitchen floor and listen. And Beji would  open the portal of time and space and I'd watch Kanha steal butter. As if by magic, I'd become a character in Beji's stories. That's exactly how I felt that evening in Chennai. Thank you Akila and thank you Shefalii.

Spiritual pondering inside Kapaleeshwara temple:

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To enter the temple.
 Preparing for a festival. Story telling through dance and drama and all the colourful props.

Shakti worships Shiva. Yes, she's the all links back to ancient texts and legends--stories as old as humanity.
Parvati and Shiva temples are adorned with red and white stripes. 
Perhaps, like the lingams, the colours hint at  the feminine and masculine energies of the universe.
Why do people whisper in Nandi's ear? 
Because he has the power to reach Shiva even if the latter is in the deepest meditative state.
And I thought secretaries are a modern invention!
Legends and beliefs aside, I whispered a little prayer of my own. 
If and when it comes true, I will let you know.
Akila with her audience:)
By the time we stepped out of the temple, the hot sun had decided to descend. 
The temple tank
The setting sun lights up the houses opposite the tank.
We had the privilege of entering the temple priest's house with Akila.
The shots that follow are from inside his home.
9 yards of silk and brocade hangs in the courtyard:

Earth can yield--lamps, bricks, pillars and slabs--same source but such different lives.
 Street food: served with love.
 The beautiful church in Mylapore.
It was built on the tomb of Saint Thomas and is known as San Thome Basilica.
It is a Roman Catholic minor basilica
Mary in pink.
I saw this rose on the floor of the temple priest's house and wondered how it got there?
Was it in a garland?
Was a woman wearing it in her hair?
Did someone leave it there on purpose?
And just like that, a story started taking shape.
That's how easy they are--these stories of our lives.
But remember this: we are the authors of our stories--no one else. It's only us. Always us.
And if we choose to play the victim, then it's our choice.
For my part, I choose to be the hero of my story--every time--
no matter what drama is unfolding around me.

What about you?
What's your story looking like this morning?