It was 12:55 PM. I thought I’d better go outside and wait for the Auto. I locked the house and walked towards the gate, about to have the longest day of my life. Of course, I did not know it then. My hands fumbled around to open the rusty gate. The wrought iron handle felt very cold in the December air. With great effort I opened the gate expectantly to find the Auto but it wasn’t there. It was 1 ‘o’ clock already. The street was totally deserted; not a man, animal or vehicle in sight. I waited. Five minutes passed. He was probably caught in the traffic. Fifteen minutes. Did he forget about it? I took out my mobile to call him but it had no signal. So the universe really decided play with my patience. That was just the beginning of it. Another five minutes passed. I started to look left and right across the end of the street ends for any sign of the vehicle. Nada. He wasn’t coming. I didn’t want to waste any more time, so I decided to hire an Auto on my way.
Brows contracted, lips pursed and my face drew a nasty scowl as I walked the street alone. It was so silent and at this time of day it was only normal. The housewives would have been done with their morning chores and settled down for an afternoon nap. Schools kept the children busy and others were probably dozing off in their offices. The silence did not last long. Somewhere along the street, I heard the faint sound of an MGR song playing. Probably a black-and-white film in KTV’s matinee show. As I walked through the road, I looked around the mundane place hoping to find something to amuse me. There’s a new shop I hadn’t seen before ! The signboard was painted bright blue with large white letters displaying the name of the shop. Underneath the name was the address with the pin code Madras 04. That brought a little sunshine on my otherwise crappy day. I have always preferred the name Madras to Chennai. It has more history to it and I like old things! Every time I saw an old signboard with ‘Madras’, that made me happy. I withdrew my eyes from the petty shop and moved on. A few yards apart, I saw another shop. Having not left the house for a week, I think I missed a few changes to my street. Again my eyes lingered on the signboard. Madras 04. I thought, Well that’s odd. A feeling of uneasiness settled in me. I couldn’t explain why.
At last I reached the main road. Instinctively, I looked at the herbal apothecary shop ‘Dabba Chetty Kadai’ on the other side of the road. The place looked considerably smaller than before. Stacks of tin containers adorned every corner of the little shop. Bending over a grindstone in the middle of the shop was a very old man whom I had never seen before. That strange feeling in the pit of my stomach started to rise rapidly. The air was different. More trees. The road appeared broader with two metallic strips in the middle of them. Just when things couldn’t get any more bizarre I heard the rattling sound of wheels and a steady rhythmic bell on my right. I looked towards the noise and there it was, glaring in my face… A Tram.
A tram in the middle of Chennai city! I am not even sure my parents have seen trams. The thought of them gave me an idea. I called my mum but I think a part of me already knew that it was of no use. The mobile was lifeless without any signal. At least the prospect of seeing their names in the little white screen was reassuring. Surely I hadn’t time trav.. I hushed my mind not to think of that. I had to keep myself sane through this. When the tram came to grinding halt, I hopped in uncertainly. I sat by the seat nearest to the door. Naturally, I invited strange glances from my co-passengers. A bunch of ladies giggled among themselves. Something about them reminded me of old Thyagaraja Bhagavathar movies, probably their heavily oiled hair and Jasmine flowers tucked neatly in it. Some of the men threw a disapproving look at me. Sure, I looked like a freak-show to them. The conductor approached me. This was the hard part that I had been dreading for. What was I going to do? Hand him a one rupee coin clearly printed ‘2009’ ? The last thing I wanted was to land in trouble than I already had. I searched my handbag for some old 25 paise coins, hoping for some miracle. After all, I travelled back to another century. I was sure I could manage this “tram-travel”. There they were, a few ‘Ana’ coins. I gave him two coins and in return he pushed a small ticket into my hands roughly. Amidst the confusion, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of old Madras. The tram glided gracefully through the streets and the Madras that I had always admired in old black-and-white pictures came alive right in front of my eyes.
Like a child seeing a circus show, I was gawking out the window taking in all the beauty of Madras in its original glory. The Kamadhenu theater which had not yet turned into a wedding hall had huge posters of the movies in the entrance. One big poster with two women read “Mandhiri Kumari (1950)”. A movie which is going to become a classic in the coming years, I thought. So it was the year 1950. My parents hadn’t even been born yet! The conductor had been watching me staring out of the window with curiosity. He called out to me, “Ooruku pudhusa? (Are you new to the city)”. I blinked. “Tamizh theriyuma?(Do you know Tamil)”. I nodded and mumbled a small ‘yes’. I was a stranger in my own city. Shaking his head, the conductor went back to his routine. Passengers got in and out of the tram. A middle-aged woman with a little child came hurriedly sat right next to me. Tucking in a bag of rice safely beneath the seat, she dabbed the sweat on her brows with her saree. Then she untied the knot in her saree ends to take out the ticket money. The coins scattered on the floor and I helped her pick it up. The child looked at me with her big black eyes and when I caught her seeing me, her round face broke into the cutest grin. The mother thanked me and started talking. So one thing hadn’t changed in all these years. The random bus conversations between Chennaiites. The woman told me how difficult it is for people to make ends meet in such an economy. She rambled on about her woes, her family with occasional instructions to her daughter, “Padma, don’t suck your thumb” “Padma jannal la etti paakadha(Padma, don’t poke your head out of the window) ” “oru edathla okkaru Padma(Sit in one place, Padma)”. I was just a silent listener saying ‘yes’s and ‘hmm’s and ‘oho’s. After a while, little Padma and her mother got down in Mount Road.
Padma left behind her marapaachi wooden doll but it was too late by the time I noticed. I rolled the doll between my fingers absently and looked out of the window. The tall buildings that usually outlined Mount Road weren’t there. There was no sign of the towering LIC building. It would be another 10 years after which Madras would see its first skyscraper. Spencer Plaza was just “Spencer and Co. Ltd”. A line of Victorian style buildings dotted the road. It was magnificent. People were ambling along the road window shopping. Most of the shops I noticed had very English- sounding names. The tram turned around an edge and was nearing George town. Only a few people were left in the compartment. That feeling of anxiety engulfed me once again. I did not know where to go or whom to approach in this big city. Who would believe a cock-and-bull story about time travel? I started to miss my family. With a heavy heart, I got down from the tram. The city loomed familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. As I stood there hopelessly lost in time, a car zoomed past and the wind dropped dust in my eyes. I rubbed it really hard cursing under my breath and blinked multiple times. When I opened my eyes I knew at once that my prayers had been answered. The hustle bustle of the city told me that I was home. The name boards read Chennai. Trams were replaced by green buses and Autos. The traffic was back. Chennai was back. I got into a bus and sat by window waiting eagerly to go home. My phone rang and my mother was scolding me why I had switched it off. I didn’t not retort for I was glad to hear her voice. Moments passed and I wondered whether it had all been a dream. Did I hit my head somewhere and lose consciousness ? If it had indeed been a dream then it was really realistic. Thinking things over in my head I rummaged my bag to get the ticket-money. My hands came across two things – a small white paper with the jumble of numbers along the edges and in the bottom of it was printed the words, “018 Tram”. The second item that I found was a wooden Marapaachi doll. Padma’s doll. My only souvenirs from Madras…
A few weeks back I came across Weekly Writing Challenge’s topic “Through the door”. I was fascinated by the theme of Time Travel. Furthermore, the movie ‘Midnight in Paris’ which I watched recently inspired me into writing this fiction. Writing this post gave me immense joy because I experienced my biggest fantasy through these words.
Madras or Chennai, I love my city the way it is.