Ten days after I landed in Chennai, my parents and I packed ourselves into a car early one Monday morning and started off for Rajapalayam. My dad wanted to fly to Madurai and then drive from there to our destination. I was the one who insisted on doing a road trip so we could spend “quality time” together. Soon it became apparent to me that this was a bad idea. One, the roads are not as great as in the U.S. Two, the traffic. Three, nobody obeys traffic rules! But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Once we escaped the city limits and hit the highway, the roads were pretty darn good. We had to pay hefty tolls along the way but it was well worth it. Leaving the city meant leaving behind the traffic as well. Our driver was a dare devil with a need for speed. If the speedometer wasn’t touching 100, our man was not happy and he insisted on leaving the slow pokes behind by overtaking them whenever he could.
As we traveled further south and away from Chennai, we passed through verdant paddy fields glistening in the afternoon sun with field hands doubled over tending to the crops. The roads were lined with trees on either side, in stark contrast to the treeless cities we passed from time to time. We spotted kingfishers, egrets, and pigeons and occasionally a monkey. Rocky hills and scrub forests gave way to lush valleys and forested slopes. The last city we passed was Madurai, where we paid a small fortune in tolls. As we neared Rajapalayam – a town build by the Rajas who migrated from Vijayanagara – paddy fields and distant hills stretched on either side of the potholey roads. I kid you not, every house in this town belongs to a person with the last name Raja and all of them are related! We were headed to one such house to meet my Dad’s school friend from his Monfort days.
I have to tell you that I’ve been meeting Uncle V and others in his extended family for years and they are the kindest, generous, and most gracious people I have ever had the fortune of meeting. And the most impeccable hosts ever. They say you can tell a person’s character by observing how they treat less fortunate people. Uncle V showers the very same love and care to the house help and drivers as he does for his family and friends. He makes sure they are well fed and rested and medical issues are addressed promptly. Did I mention Uncle V was an ophthalmologist? Someone who built a hospital in rural Tamilnadu and performed free surgeries for the poor.
After tucking into idlis and dosas for dinner we called it a night. I woke up super early (thank you jet lag!) and it was so quiet and peaceful that my morning meditation was easy to slip into. I actually heard birds chirping in the morning. I wanted to explore the area in the early morning light, so uncle dropped my mom and me at the polytechnic college where all the morning walkers were making their rounds, quietly staring at us outsiders. The campus is beautiful and it was immediately evident that whoever did the landscaping had put a lot of thought and effort into it. On our way back we got an unobstructed view of the sunrise. Something I hadn’t seen after I came to Chennai. The lovely Sanjeevi hills served as a backdrop to the field where several groups practiced cricket and a handful of men were running or doing exercises.
Later I asked uncle about the hills and he told me they were named after the Sanjeevani herbs that Hanuman carried from the Himalayas to save Lakshman’s life in the battlefield. The monkey god spilled the herbs along the way as he was flying by and some of it landed in these hills and hence the name. This was no surprise to me. The very air in this place was healing. Peacocks roamed the streets freely. Exotic birds such as the paradise fly catcher have been sighted often in this area. Even uncle fed peahens and doves in his backyard. It was apparent that there was a deep reverence for all life in this town.
And thanks to the flourishing flora, I saw butterflies everywhere. If you have been reading my blogs for sometime, you know how fixated I am on butterflies. They just added to my sense of rapture in this little place that was so close to paradise. My brother joined us later that morning and we all spent a good part of the day catching up on happenings in each others’ lives and reminiscing the past. What joy it is to be in such company and in such heavenly surroundings!
We met uncle’s brother and his wife briefly and also Uncle A and the lovely Aunty S who despite travel plans found the time to make a casserole and some sumptuous sambar for us. She even packed some idli/dosa batter for the next day.
The next day we continued down south towards Trivandrum to visit my aunt (mom’s sister) and uncle. The roads were nothing like the ones in TN and made hair pin bends and sharp turns through the Western Ghats, which slowed us down considerably. We did make it in time for lunch (more like an elaborate feast) that my dear Valliamma had spread out for us. She loves all of us kids like her very own and is always around every time I come down from the U.S. This is the first time I’m visiting her after I got married. So both my aunt and uncle were over the moon with joy.
Dinesh left the same night for Palakkad and we stayed on till the next morning. Valliachan, my uncle, took me for a ride in his scooter early that day. Rain or shine, fever or wheezing, he has to go to the temple every morning. That day we went to his favorite Ganesha temple. Valliachan is 74 but drives around like he did in his youth. I had to apply hand brakes on his shoulders to slow him down and I almost fell backwards when he accelerated suddenly! It was exhilarating to feel the cool morning air on my face as we whizzed by narrow streets and smoking pyres at every street corner. Trivandrum is not the clean city it used to be back in the day. However, the water tastes like honey and just a shower in that water is equivalent to a spa treatment.
Before we even got there it was time to say goodbye. I promised them I’ll be back soon for a longer stay and we started our long journey back to Chennai. We had to get back the next day as Dinesh would be back from Palakkad.
Look out for the next blog. It is a guest blog by Dinesh about his trip to Palakkad.