Rediscovering my roots: Chennai Express

“We are leaving for Chennai Thursday. No ifs and buts. Keep yourself free,” my uncle tells me.

I hang up and mentally start ticking my never-ending check list…apply for leave; create acceptable reason for leave; calls with the team; finish incomplete documents; visit my never-friendly bank; ticket printouts; stock weekend groceries; yadayadayadayadayahhhhh….. you get the picture.

4.30 am on a Thursday morning. Backs packed. I board the taxi with mum and grandpa (nanu). Suitably excited.

“You don’t spend. You just come. Let  mum and grandpa decide the itinerary. You don’t think, just relax and enjoy the trip,” these were my uncle’s strict instruction.

Bambubhaibatliwala had other commitments so I was game for an all-expense paid trip where the most I had to think would be to chose between dosa and pongal-vada or staying back in the hotel and snoozing or braving the heat to explore the local market, and going back to being a child. Eh, I was game and visibly excited!!

5.15 am and we are at the city railway station, the old gate. Uncle with a rucksack waiting for us.

We board the Shatabdi which is just veering into the station. I check for our names and find we have been allotted separate seats, yay!!! Now, I can pop the earplugs and snooze away for the next 5 hours.

Settling in

Settling in inside the Shatabdi

We stack our bags on the rack, and I settle down in my chair. My uncle beckons and I sit next to him. He has negotiated with a fellow passenger to exchange seats. Jugaad, i tell you!!

I look around, pleasantly surprised. Is this the new Indian Railway?!Wow.

No cockroaches.

No rats.

No lizards.

No pan-chewing, tobacco-spitting stains.

6:00 am: Shatabdi leaves Bangalore City Railway station and we are off to Chennai.

6:02 am: Bottled water arrives

6:35 am: Napkins and a tetrapack of juice is served

7:00 am: Breakfast is served

8:15 am: Biscuits and tea/kaapi served

9:00 am: The Day’s newspaper is handed out (you have a choice of Deccan Chronicle, DNA, The Hindu)

9:15 am: Self trying to sleep cuddled on dear uncle’s shoulder

9:30 am: Shaken up by dear mum to look out window at beautiful green fields, which are admired and eyes shut

10:00 am: Stench hits nose; Eyes open and look around…huh, flatulence

10:15 am: Eyes still open and wandering around; Look up to find a squiggly apparition dancing in the loft



10.15-10.30 am: Self excitedly points to four-legged mammal, the vahan (vehicle) of our elephant-headed God Ganesh.

More fingers are pointed and everyone now looks to loft.

The mammal scurries up and down.

Screams heard.

Pantry boy comes running out.

Mammal scurries around and finally decides to head to the next coach.

10:30 am: Self reclines further into chair and closes eyes

10.40 am: nudge, nudge

10.50 am: Heading slowly into Chennai Central

10:56 am: Chennai Central

Hop out train along with bags and parents. Uncle busy finding out taxiwallah.

Chennai Central in the background

Chennai Central in the background

Mum embarks on a narrative retracing her countless journeys that took her to and from Chennai Central to other parts of south India; her childhood; her teenage years; her marriage; kids and now after 3 decades she is back in Chennai.

BTW, when in Chennai, always use the Fast Track. They are the old reliable. Good drivers, great service and reasonable fare.

Onward to the hotel we stayed at Egmore. No more on the hotel. Disappointing experience and a total rip-off. Charged for 3 days*2 nights stay (AC accomodation) and the darned AC never worked once. Only bitter taste to an otherwise fabulous trip.

So why did we head to Chennai when summer was almost at its peak? Where we mad? The answer:

96-year old Grandpa's roots

My 96-year old Nanu’s (hi)story began in Chennai where he stayed and finished his schooling before falling in love with mosima (my grandma) and settled in Kyasapura (his ancestral village)

Tracing my Nanu’s History. Shri. Shankar Prasad Mishra….

His Home: Singanna chetty strt, Chintaadripet


His old school : Pachaiyappa’s,  one of the oldest educational institutions in Chennai; more than 2 centuries old; my grandpa studied there in the pre-independence era; He participated in the freedom struggle, notably the salt march where freedom fighters gathered on the marina beach to show their solidarity with Gandhiji, when he set off on the Dandi march

Emotionally Charged!

Emotionally Charged!

Standing inside the quiet quadrangle of Pachiappa’s School bang in the middle of a bustling Broadway market, which was  packed with people, pen shops, flowers so fragrant you would get dizzy, fruits, people and more people, was stepping back in time.

Nanu identified his headmaster circa 1937, a Mr Mudaliar who hated grandpa’s guts since he refused to speak in Tamil. The rickety wooden floors, the green board, plaques that decorated the corridors with medals and honors and awards for students past, photos of celebrations and important occassions…. it was an emotional moment.

The rest of the travel was rediscovering old world Chennai where people still respectfully address you ‘aiyaa’ or ‘amma’ (Sir/Madam); where flowers are not just jasmine or rose but garlands of kadambam (my mum’s eternal favorite) which is a mixed garland of henna flowers, champa, jasmine, kankambaram, green leaves similar to tulsi but of a more heady aroma; mangoes native to Tamil Nadu; where every street corner has a small shop selling piping hot kaapi; idlis with moliga pudi; plain dosas with atleast 3 varieties of chutney; vadas; pongal-vada; Raagi (which I discovered was Vivita…my childhood memories; where the veggies delight: Ambika Papad Depot; Gandhiji Sweet Bhavan; Sarvana Bhavan; Vasanta Bhavan and so many countless more, and where temples lurked after every winding alley and where mum and grandpa had smiles, exaggerated gestures, laughter and stories for every step your foot took.

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Biting into Nipapatus on a cold winter evening makes me want to be a child again. When life followed its pattern.. routine but safe and boring but reassuring. Fighting over Nippatu was a favourite past-time between my brother and I. We would race back from school, race through our homework and then patiently wait by the gate for our uncle to return from his factory. We waited for the hot Nippatus more than his return and the minute we heard his bike we would scramble to snatch the packet from him. This practice continued for as long as my uncle worked at the factory. School, high school and some years in college till acting grown up became more important than indulging in this childish past-time.

Now, years later, as I sit alone on the porch and bite into the hot Nippatus I do not enjoy it as much as I used to as a child. My uncle still gets them for me, but it is me and not Us. I realise now that it was the bonhomie and camaraderie I shared with my brother, that ritual of trying to be the first one snatching the Nippatus and biting into them while snooking the finger at the loser or wagging a tongue that made it so deliciously delectable. Often were the times when my brother would slow down on purpose so I got the first go while he sat on the steps to watch me grin and wave it at him, often were the times when he would save up some for me coz I had fallen sick, often when he would race home missing his last PT period just to beat me to the Nippatu, times when we hid a piece or two from each other and woke up to a midnight snack just to catch the other having a snack too surreptitiously. Of course, both of us would snicker and sleep.

All these shared moments helped us bond for life and now as I sit alone biting into a Nippatu a tear stains my cheek and a smile breaks out on my face. For far though my brother is, I still have these memories to keep me company till he comes back to me and we fight for a Nippatu again.