One of the things I noticed first on the autorickshaw ride from Trichy railway station to our hotel was the absence of tall apartment buildings. Another was the absence of real estate advertisements. The Trichy I knew in my college days in the late 1990s did not have either, but I had just arrived from Bangalore, home to a perpetual property exhibition, and the contrast I saw here led me to conclude that in some Indian cities fifteen years changes nothing. This is not entirely true. Autorickshaw fares have soared; in place of the lively Hot Chips fast-food stall next to the central bus stand there is now a dull office; and the sweet-corn soup at the Sangam hotel restaurant does not have the same tang anymore.
The hotel our autorickshaw dropped us at is now called Breeze Residency. It was Jennys Residency back then – the auto driver still knew it as Jennys – and in those days this was the hotel I wanted, for a curious reason, to book a room in. My friends and I sometimes passed the hotel on our way to an outdoor restaurant nearby, and to us Jennys always seemed grand, with its elegant facade of wood-framed windows, its whitewashed boundary wall that kept away the roadside filth, its neat line of Ambassador-Fiat-Maruti cars and their uniformed drivers idling nearby, and with the turbaned man stationed outside the lobby entrance. I kept an eye on the hotel for different reasons, though. I was going around with a girl in college, someone who would later be my wife, and I wished nothing more in those days than to spend a few private moments with her. The campus, one of the largest in the state, was not designed for this convenience. The ladies hostel was tucked in a corner, away from other buildings, and guarded like a Swiss bank vault. The classrooms were always occupied, the campus had no parks, the open spaces contained few trees, and although bushes were in plenty we were, well, not so desperate. At least that’s what I told myself. So on some evenings, while working on an algorithm due in class next day or watching TV in the common room my mind would wander and picture the time I would walk confidently into Jennys Residency and ask for a double room. It never came. Money was not the issue, courage was. And perhaps consent. (I recall discussing it, but cannot remember seeking her permission.)
Now here I was in December 2012, fifteen years too late, standing at the reception and asking for the room I wanted long ago. The hotel was a shadow of its past, not grand, not elegant, not even whitewashed, just about decent, and our room smelled of stale food. Settling into our room, the room I had dreamed many times of coaxing her into, my wife connected to the Internet to check her Facebook account while I propped myself up on bed and opened a book to read. What a difference fifteen years can make.
* * *
We walked about like tourists in a city that had seen few tourists, staring at ordinary buildings as though they were monuments, looking for signs that could, like Proust’s Madeleine, unlock a forgotten memory or two. Little had changed: old buildings and hotels and offices and statues stood where I had seen them last, and yet, in spite of the overwhelming feeling that this could be 1997, the pool of memories drew a blank. So I walked around photographing people not used to being photographed.
Trichy is not a big city. But despite its modest size it is very busy, and traffic is only a small part of that busyness. The streets we walked in were full of locals, working class men and women employed in stores or waiting at stalls or briskly walking in their simple clothes, shirts, pants, lungis, saris, nothing fashionable, nothing expensive, nothing of the shades and styles one sees in a cosmopolitan city like Bangalore. It wore the unsophisticated style of a provincial town, and in this crowd we stood out and were stared at often, much more often than we are stared at in Germany: we were aliens in our own country.
In the market near the base of Rockfort temple (perched atop a gigantic rock, with splendid views of the countryside), the streets spilled over like a river in spate, and in this anthill busyness people had found ways to manage the apparent chaos, to give structure and bring order. At the Vasan medical store, behind the wide counter crammed with waiting customers, there is a “process” for buying medicine. You place an order with A, who combs the shelves and picks out your pills and syrups and powders and takes them to B, who keys that list into a computer and fires a printout and gives it to C, who gives it to you. You use this printed invoice to pay D at the cash counter, and with the stamped invoice collect your items from C. The system simply works. In the five or so minutes I stood at the counter I did not at any instant spot an idle worker, and customers were all serviced in the order they arrived. I resolved to bring a German here one day to watch this marvel at work.
It was the 25th of December, and there were few signs of Christmas in the market. This lifted my spirits further. Earlier, at the hotel, I had spotted a Christmas tree with plastic needles and a few clumsily placed trinkets, and at lunch in another restaurant a dark-skinned Santa in a baggy costume hobbled around greeting people. Such exhibits were unheard of in the 1990s. Now, it seemed, Santa Inc. had migrated to the Indian subcontinent in search of fast growing markets. The bazaar near Rockfort had been spared though, and all the bright colours and lights and ornaments and saris on those shopfronts gave the street a quality we instantly recalled. We drank coffee at Ragunath, a restaurant we stopped at for lunch those days, and in that setting, with the calls of waiters shouting orders in Tamil and the crisp dosas cracking under the weight of eager fingers and the smells of the street mixing with aromas inside and the scruffy boys wiping granite tabletops with wet rags and the odd cockroach scurrying around with a nibble, in this setting it looked as though we had grown older while Trichy remained frozen in time, a model town alive yet unchanging. But places like these are timeless, and others before us have fallen prey to this illusion.
[To be continued]