I was a kid when I visited Chennai. I spoke Hindi at home and English at school. The concept of learning more languages wasn’t popular till then. And even if it were, I would have never learned Tamil.
My father had tight business connections with Tamilians and visited Chennai twice a month. I was a Daddy’s Girl through and through, but the thought of learning Tamil out of sheer curiosity never appealed to me.
I have stayed in Chennai for three months, not in one go, but three month-long trips in three consecutive years. The adventures were as colourful and varied as an artist’s colour palette. The first time we stayed in a spatial guest house by the beach. Next to the house lived a rich neighbour in an exquisite bungalow. His name was Mr Kartik Narayanan. I don’t remember if he had a wife or kids, but he knew my father and invited us over for dinner at his place.
I accompanied my parents with utter fascination because the first luxury car I had ever seen was parked in his driveway. It was a Contessa. While my father talked to him in perfect English and we were served dinner, I never spoke a single word. I was so desperate to take a spin in the car that my stomach ached, and I could eat nothing.
Mr Kartik Narayan was in his mid-50s and was a very busy man, but when we were leaving his house after dinner, he told my father to wait, and he asked me in Tamil, “You love this car, don’t you?” I didn’t understand a word he said, but I caught the feeling.
I smiled, and my father laughed because he knew I didn’t know Tamil. He told my father to take the car out for a spin, handing him the keys. My father felt embarrassed to see me drooling over the beautiful car but accepted the gesture.
When we returned, he smiled and asked me in Tamil again, “How’s the stomach ache now?” Without understanding anything, I knew what he was asking and hid behind my father, blushing red.
The memory of the joy I felt while I took a spin in the car has faded, but I won’t ever forget the man—the benevolent, kind businessman. He understood a kid’s desire without having any conversation.
It was time for another trip to Chennai. This time we stayed in another guest house owned by the company. The house had a lawn, a kitchen garden, a back garden and a housekeeper called Appan. Appan was a poor local with no knowledge of English.
In the one month I stayed there, Appan gave me many memories that would last with me for a lifetime. He didn’t know how to make calls and used to hold my hand, make me sit on the sofa next to the landline and hand me a phone number, and he would gesture for me to make a call to his village. I used to make his calls and watch him talk in his colloquial language. The expressions on his ebony skinned face told everything he spoke.
My mother taught him how to make chapatis. He would roll out the dough, take the circular steel lid, and cut out the Chapati like a stencil. That was absolute fun to watch.
He used to call me ‘Amma’. I haven’t seen a more pure and innocent man in my life, or maybe I was never that pure and innocent ever again. But Appan used to make me omelettes and Maggie noodles and play with me. I loved him for that.
It was weird that I never felt that we didn’t talk, that we didn’t know a single common word except ‘Cobra’. Yes, as per him, at night, a cobra came into the guest house from the kitchen garden and slid into the place under the kitchen’s backdoor. He even claimed to have seen the snake’s prints on the wet soil.
I don’t know how he made me understand this, but I never once slept on my extra bed on the floor after that and insisted on sleeping on the bed, or the cobra would swallow me alive.
It was my third trip to Chennai, and we were staying in yet another exotic guest house. I remember it was overrun by lizards. But I had a refuge there. My father had a colleague, Mr G.S. Bala, who had a daughter just one year older than me, Deepa.
My father used to leave my mother and me at his house, and both men would drive away to the office while we, my mother, Deepa and her mother, were left together.
My mother and her mother had no language to communicate, but they used to talk through Deepa. Mom would say something to Deepa in English, and Deepa would tell the same to her mother in Tamil. Then her mother would reply to something in Tamil, and she would translate it for my mother in English.
But her mother was the kindest and most loving person I had ever met. She taught my mother how to make Dosas. My mother taught her to knit. She used to take us sightseeing at beaches, markets and places.
Deepa used to have a massive swing in the middle of her drawing-room, and I wanted to play on it. Her mother removed every piece of furniture from the room and gave it to us to play with for one whole month.
I used to sit with Deepa on the swing and tell her to take it higher and higher till our feet touched the ceiling fan. I don’t know how Deepa understood me back then, my English was bad, and I was too small. But Deepa’s laughter and Auntys’ fond smile are frozen in my memory forever.
Today I don’t know where are they, Appan, Mr Kartik Narayan, Deepa or Aunty, but their memories are still fresh in my heart, bringing tears to my eyes.
They all taught me a fundamental lesson.
“When hearts communicate, language is not needed.”
I loved them beyond their colour, caste, religion, and social stature, and they loved me back many times more.