by Sreedhevi Iyer
However much the car shuddered, my voice had to ring out. The words could not shudder like the car. "When you say it the way it is supposed to be said," Father had mentioned, again and again, ever since I had begun to read. "When you really say it, that's when there is actual meaning."
We were cloistered inside an Ambassador on the dusty roads of Tamil Nadu, with the tour company driver slightly curious at the sight of us. Like our previous trips, this one was geared towards a destination concrete only in Father's vision. Sitting on the front passenger side, he dictated what I should read, while I sat in the backseat next to my mother. He liked to dictate, to tell others what they should do with themselves. He liked knowledge, it gave him a rush, and he could forget himself for a little while and relish in mental connections. He would dictate that I get the same rush for myself, too.
This was an annual ritual, this trip to the southern parts of India. It happened, end of the year, during my school holidays, so that I could also participate. After the fourth year, the process became comforting. We shopped for relatives. We packed communally in the living room. We made endless international phone calls booking and cancelling travel agencies. We organised family meets. We made lists of things to buy in Chennai. Our house in the small Malaysian town of Alor Setar would be a hub of chaos for about a week before departure, as we bundled ourselves to temporarily escape our reality.
My father's serious demeanour invariably transformed into unselfconscious excitement at the prospect of travelling in Tamil Nadu. The trips were usually his idea, and he decided the itinerary. It happened to involve family visits, but the real reason was to find old temples. The kind of temples built by kings of bygone dynasties, surviving as memorials to forgotten pasts. Father delighted in these structures with a childlike pleasure that was evident nowhere else. He knew their histories more than his own patients', and he never tired of seeking more specimens, the quirkier the better.
This time, it was going to be an especially obscure town, named after its chief temple, Darasuram.
"What was it called initially?" he asked me, as I packed my own little suitcase, inserting tampons and pills for stomach cramps, away from his eyes. This was his test, to make sure I had read up enough.
"Rarasuram," I replied.
"Because that's from Rajarajasuram, which was the name of the town, named after Raja Raja Chola the second," I said, as if reciting my timetables.
"That's right! And it's the third out of?"
"Three, the other two being Brihadeeswara and Gangaikondacholapuram, the Great Living Chola Temples," I said. I sounded mechanical, but he did not notice. All this had been drummed into me, over lunches, over drives, over eavesdropping on Father's conversations with his adult friends. He had spoken of the Tamil word for Kedah, the state we lived in. Only those residing in Malaysia would know of Kedah today, a northern state that bordered southern Thailand. We lived in its capital, Alor Setar. We gave this information out to new acquaintances in a slightly lower voice, as if hoping to skip past it, as if hoping they wouldn't have heard. An inconsequential town pretending to be a city in an inconsequential state so remote to foreigners that even the Lonely Planet had categorically printed that there was not much to see around here, despite being smack bang in the middle of Southeast Asia.
Kedah was Kadaram once, Father said. His friends had laughed. It sounded like a made-up word. Father had laughed along, but finished his story anyway. Yes, Kadaram. The Cholas of South India had conquered it, once. They had laid claim and ruled this land. His people. His ancestors. It had been a different kind of place, he seemed to want to prove.
The driver of our Ambassador glanced at his rear view mirror as I read out loud for my father. We were a slight oddity on the Tamil Nadu landscape. We spoke Tamil to the driver, but we sounded different. We wore very modest Indian clothes, but we walked like foreigners, he said, our steps too far apart, our arms dangling too freely. And more than anything, we gawked far more than deemed modest, even for out-of-towners. We reacted to the beggars, we covered our noses from bad smells, we delighted in street billboards of Tamil movies we watched in the privacy of our homes, we read Tamil signs out loud, as if it were a new language we had just come to understand. We were Tamil, he told us, and yet he had never seen Tamils like this before in his entire life.
"And you like all this?" he had asked Father, as we began our journey out of Chennai, gesturing out towards the muddied building facades and potholed streets.
"We come here every year for this," said my father, with a strange smile.
"Raja Raja Chola was also known as Arulmozhivarman," I recited out of Nilakanta Sastri's The Cholas, one of my father's historical bibles. The Ambassador lurched over a pothole, knocking out my mind. It punctured my sentence with a hiccough. "His son, Raja Raja Chola the second, built the Darasuram temple in the 12th century AD. This temple is known as one of the Great Living Chola Temples, constructed between 10th and 12th centuries. The legend with this temple is that the Shiva Linga was visited by Airavata, the divine elephant and steed of Lord Indra, king of the gods. The elephant bathed in the temple tank to lift a curse on itself, and hence the name of the temple deity, Airavateswara."
"Look at the years," said Father. He positioned himself in such a way that he was semi-turned to the back, always, towards Mother and me. "At that time, Europe was in the Dark Ages."
This specific comparative trivia visibly relaxed him after he referred to it. Maybe it made his place in the world an unattached phenomenon, something that can be held and turned and examined, then reinserted into a higher, larger continuity, so that we were no longer floating.
The road signs were in curvy Tamil script, simple enough for me to understand. Unlike other Indian-Malaysian children of my generation, I was not losing my native tongue, although I was nowhere near the literary sophistication my parents engaged with, as avid fans of classical Tamil literature. I derived my thrills from things like realising that Darasuram was less than fifty kilometres away. In Indian highway terms that meant another hour before we arrived.
"She must be hungry now," my mother noted, using my perceived discomfort to voice her own needs.
The driver veered off from traffic and braked on laterite dirt. We had packed a rudimentary lunch from our motel in the neighbouring village. Idlis, sambhar, chutney. Simple and typical. They had been hurriedly packed in banana leaves, folded over, then wrapped in newspapers. Mushed up idlis ran with lentils and liquid. We ate them anyway, standing behind the Ambassador, baking in the arid heat. Our driver observed us with a certain detached intensity, as if on a zoo visit.
We only knew we had arrived in the town of Darasuram when our driver stopped at the temple. We had seen no welcome signs, no sudden surge of buildings or population. The landscape, with its paddy fields and sizzling heat, did not alter. Darasuram was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but not a city stamped on the Tamil Nadu map. It was the smallest of the Chola temple triumvirate.
Peeking out from the car, I wondered if we had come to the right place. The structure was impressive, if not imposing, but it also seemed abandoned, as if left at a moment's notice. There were a handful of scattered tourists, some of them foreigners, like us, but mostly locals from other cities. An old man came out to greet us. He was hunched almost double, and if he weren't looking up at us, he would probably have to stare at the floor the whole time. He was bare-chested except for a string of cotton material slung across his torso, and he wore a soft white cotton veshti around his waist. He cried out a greeting so friendly we immediately warmed to him. He said he would show us around and speak in both English and Tamil, and that if we did not understand, we could ask him to repeat himself. He then smiled, turned around and went back into the temple. We took it as our cue to follow.
He showed us feats in stone. A hundred pillars in the main hall, none of them alike in any sense. A bas-relief of an elephant and a bull with a single conjoined head that made sense any which way you looked at it, like an optical illusion. A life-sized statue of Goddess Saraswati tucked away in a dark corner wall, with detail so exquisite she had different sized fingernails. These were skills once considered normal, beautiful and sacred, said the old man. The sculptures pointed to a past refinement, a sense of something having advanced upon itself, reaching a zenith before clambering down the inevitable mountain of civilizational decay.
We turned a corner, and instead of sculptures, there was writing on the granite wall. Father slowed his pace, letting the guide go ahead. We kept to his side. He scanned the words which were in Grantha script, a precursor to the Tamil he knew.
"And there it is," he said, pointing at a particular spot on the wall. The old man paused ahead, then returned to us. He straightened his hunch a little to follow my father's finger.
"Kadaram," said the old man, and Father flinched as if the sound had touched his body. I peered closer at the spot. The word looked like a hieroglyph, and it sounded as strange as it looked. It stared back at me, the grooves smooth from expert chipping, the curves supine, put in place by a sculptor following an ancient decree. In that moment, it became that old, known place, the proof of the smoky arm of those before me, like me, who had reached out and explored, known and claimed a foreign wonderland that I now saw as home.
I turned to Father. He was uncharacteristically silent. I must have imagined the glint in his eye. It was there one moment, and then gone. Perhaps it was the sun. I wondered if I said something now, really said it, it would make a difference.
The tour guide lowered himself back to his hunch and sighed. It made Father blink and look around, as if he had been in the same reverie.
"Kadaram is very far away," the guide said to my father.
"Not really. It's in Malaysia. We're from there."
The man shook his head. "Very far away."
He walked away.