Four Days in Mallangudi

Woke up early after a restless night: I am not, nor will I probably ever get used to sleeping on a mattress-less steel cot. Before I opened my eyes, I heard the sound of a broom scraping the ground in front of my door and I realized the very first ritual of the cycle of daily life had just begun: after sweeping the stones and leaves away from my doorstep, Jayaretina would douse it with a bucket of water, sweep it once again and let rice powder slide between her fingers to create a fresh morning kolam.
By the time I unfolded myself from the rusty position my body had taken during the night and unlocked my door it was 6:30. I stepped out to see the kolam, just as colourful as yesterday’s but a bit less elaborate, and saw, too, that the entire village (meaning the women of the village) was fully awake. Vivid kolams lined the road down from my house.

Bright kolams line the road in the early morning in Mallangudi.

I quickly washed and just as soon as I was back in my room and dressed, the children arrived…what a way to begin the day, with these beautiful children and their smiles and dark eyes and soft energies and squeaky voices calling out Julie Auntie. How can these people understand just how much they mean to me, how much I love them, how even though I am and will always be an outsider, I feel fully accepted here, as though I had my place, my little bit of home here.
I will write again – and again and again and again, I imagine – of my emotions and personal transformations, but for now I’ll continue just to write my experiences and observations of village life during this exuberant festival of Pongal.
So, the children. And the adults. People laugh here. They laugh, they giggle, they smile, tease and chatter. I know there is here as there is elsewhere as there is everywhere bickering and jealousies and anger (though I have noticed that, unlike most places I know, there seems to be no problem of alcohol abuse and its corollary of wife-abuse and family strife…perhaps that is what keeps this village so harmonious), but an outsider has the privilege of falling outside of objectivity. Here, in this village, there is a gentleness in human relations that is very, very real.
Most of the men are home and I have met the majority of them for the first time, even though I have been a regular visitor for about seven years. Nearly all the men do construction work in Singapore, Malaysia, the Andaman Islands or in the Gulf (Muscat appears to be the primary city). This seems to be the destiny of most Velars for the past thirty years and is the main cause for the disappearance of the savior-faire for the creation of offerings in terracotta. All of the children are going to or will go to college. All of them. Boys and girls alike. By the time they are in their early teens, nearly all of them want to become engineers. Most of them will. They are exceedingly bright and aside from an unusual example of timidity, they are confident, responsible, disciplined, verbal and easy-going.
As I was saying, most of the men are home and the children are on holiday and so the village is at full capacity, so I am seeing for the first time what the village would look like if there was well-paid work at home and the men didn’t go away for years at a time to support their parents and earn enough money to marry and support their wife and children, too.
Just as I had finished writing the previous lines, Ravi came to get me so that I could participate in the inauguration of their new house. I grabbed my video camera from my room and followed him to the building (the same place where I bathe and use the toilet).
Most of the villagers were already at the house, waiting for the rituals to begin. Ravi and Muthu were wearing the brand-new, deep-coloured t-shirts and dhotis I had given them. Krishna was bare-chested with an old but spotless white dhoti wrapped around his waist. He looked particularly serious and I wondered if it was due to the gravity of the event or of my clothing error. Was I placing unnecessary importance on my innocent blunder? Perhaps, but social interactions and intricacies were so very different here from what I knew and understood so well and though I had spent a lot of time in Mallangudi in the past, I still felt like an unseasoned player.
The house was still in its infancy: the walls were up, the roof was laid, two gaping holes were cut out on either side of the door-well. The wooden door frame was lying on the ground inside the house and I quickly learned that this was the object of the ritual: putting up the door frame. One by one, each villager took his/her turn smearing sandal and vermillion paste on multiple points of the frame, pouring coconut milk and water into the holes on the ground where the frame would rest, taking aarti and camphor…Coconuts were halved, bananas had incense stuck into their skin, heavy flower garlands crowned the door-well. And then everyone went to the frame, lifted it and stood it up and finally put it into the water- and milk-soaked holes. Only when the entire puja had been accomplished did I take note of a red silk sari and a white silk dhoti that had been hung on top of the garlands in the door-well. I deduced (and I was correct in my deduction) that they were Muthu and Indurani’s wedding clothes. This house is to be theirs (though since Muthu will eventually go back to Singapore, Indurani will likely continue to live with Jayaretina, Krishna and Ravi).
Different views of the puja for the inauguration of the new house
Different views of the puja for the inauguration of the new house.

When all was finished and I helped the family tote back all the paraphernalia of the puja and then sat down to write these lines, I came across something unusual…or shall I say something I had never been witness to before either here in Mallangudi or elsewhere in any of the dozens of other villages that I have frequented in the past ten years: a beautiful, well-dressed, gold-jewellery-bedecked woman, perhaps forty-five or fifty, came by to collect food. It is hard to use the word “beg” because nothing about her attitude connoted what I think of as beggar: she was neither a renouncer of worldly possessions (a female sanyasi) nor destitute, with begging as her only occupation. Her quite large aluminium pail was already brimming with various foodstuffs that she had collected most probably from the immediate neighbours: sugar-cane, a variety of rice and pongal and kesari…Jayaretina brought her a heaping plate of food, paak and betel leaves, candy from the recent puja
It was all done as if she were a family member or at the very least a close friend (and I never did find out who she was), with soft gestures and soft words. Perhaps that is why I cannot use the word beggar: she was so dignified and the exchanges seemed void of any disapproval. Again, I don’t know what the real dynamics of the situation were, who this person was, what words were said or what ideas were implied, but there clearly was no disdain on either part.
As I write these words, sitting on the concrete bench outlining Jayaretina’s house, I’m surrounded by life. The men are chatting on my left, the children are playing together on my right, behind me, inside, Jayaretina and Indurani are eating and speaking together and also speaking loudly to the men outside. Next door, Saraswati is washing her steel pots, all the while laughing at the funny stories the men are telling. I imagine the stories are funny because Saraswati cannot stop laughing. But then again, Saraswati is always laughing. If I were to use the language I was brought up to use, the language my mother has always used, I would say that Saraswati is a doll. But in Mallangudi, all the women are dolls.
Shortly after I went with beautiful Sukkanya to her home and ended up taking a nap on the woven cot on their veranda. Coconut fibre is so much more comfortable than steel…I do believe that I slept more peacefully and soundly in that half-an-hour than during a full night in Ravi’s house.
Sukkanya poses with the kolam she and her sister traced that morning
Sukkanya poses with the kolam she and her sister traced that morning.

My afternoon was one of excursions: first, the children took me for a long walk on the outskirts of the village, in the exquisite nature that has been maimed by plastic, scarred by discarded batteries, disfigured by empty aluminium shampoo packets. I will never (nor do I want to) get used to the rampant filth that is certainly suffocating the Tamil countryside. If only I could just Photoshop it away, as I do with my photos (this is a confession: I am so in love with this place that I cannot bear to show it as it really is: rare is a photo I have taken that hasn’t undergone major face-lifting by ridding the ground of ice-cream wrappings, plastic bags, broken glass and the like). I am routinely saddened and confounded by the degrading state of the environment here and ask myself regularly just how long this can go on before the entire state drowns in its filth.
Do they just not see it, I ask myself? If they don’t, then why not? And if they do, why aren’t they offended by, if nothing else, the unsightliness? Even if they have no notion, no education of environmental health, are they not even slightly disturbed by this sublime landscape-turned-dump?
Perhaps I would be less horrified were I not so enthralled with the culture, with the people, with their humanity. Perhaps then I could just go back home and keep the fact as merely a sad souvenir of an otherwise spectacular voyage, a small stain on an otherwise spotless experience (when I had my gallery in Paris showcasing South Indian traditional and ritual art, I became an old hand at hearing clients’ accounts of their inaugural trip to Tamil Nadu: “the colours are so vibrant, the smiles are so pervasive, the temples are so breathtaking, the sites are so fascinating, the land is so filthy”).
But I have lost my train of thought and I will get back to my walk with the children.
As we made our way through the scrubland towards natural watering-holes, on more than one occasion I was told, “Auntie, don’t go. Danger. Pey. Ghosts.” It was always Vishwanathan who sounded the alarm. Twelve years-old, struts like a peacock and speaks like a leaky faucet that just won’t stop dripping. Loves to take the lead. And, apparently, quite frightened of spirits lurking just beyond the village who strangle you or cut your throat if you aren’t careful. The others just laughed at him and he meekly followed us into these forbidden zones repeating “Auntie, ghosts,” “Auntie, danger” and miming his own strangulation.
With the children at the small Ganesh shrine on the outskirts of the village. Vishwanathan has his arm around the stone elephant-headed god
With the children at the small Ganesh shrine on the outskirts of the village. Vishwanathan has his arm around the stone elephant-headed god.

Just when they were showing me the village shrine to Ganesh, Ravi rode up on his cycle and asked me if I wanted to see the bullock races in the next village. I had totally forgotten that today was Matu (cow) Pongal and aside from painting cows with all sorts of lively colours, villagers sometimes organized bullock and bullock-cart races.
Cows are honoured during Matu Pongal and thus decorated to the hilt
Cows are honoured during Matu Pongal and thus decorated to the hilt.

In recent years, the races have been forbidden by the central Tamil government. As with most festive occasions in Tamil Nadu, the races were always preceded and accompanied by massive drinking of the worst quality of alcohol. And, in the frenzied atmosphere of drunken men and running maddened bulls, violence was commonplace and deaths, of both man and bovine, were frequent.
Nowadays, organizers must get special permission to hold a bullock race. In the larger cities, despite all of the precautions taken and the dozens of policemen present, the energy of the races still borders on hysteria and injuries still are quite common. Following a big bullock race, the newspapers feature front page stories complete with explicit, close-up photos of the dead and injured, satisfying the Tamil people’s curiosity and their love for gore.
In the smaller villages, though the men are usually just as smashed, the races are tamer affairs. The village we were going to was just eight kilometres from Mallangudi…and five via the dirt trails, ditches and sand-patches that Ravi chose to drive us there on.
Despite his deformed foot (Ravi was born with his left foot turned completely inward on its side. Never corrected by surgery, his ankle has become his sole and is just as calloused. He has a prominent limp, but is surprisingly quick and agile), Ravi manoeuvres his old TVS (the ubiquitous, sturdy two-wheeler in rural India; my ex-driver calls it “the Tamil Enfield”) with mastery; he knows these paths very well. I bounce and jerk like a jumping bean; Ravi stays as stable as the granite quarries we pass.
Ravi driving me on the back of his TVS through the rough dirt roads to see the bullock race
Ravi driving me on the back of his TVS through the rough dirt roads to see the bullock race…

We never got to see the bullock race: it had taken place earlier in the day. All we saw were the remains of the crowd on the asphalt road and a few people laughing at our error and laughing even harder at this vellikari (literally: white woman) on the back of a beat-up TVS.
So we drove off. To Malai Kovil, where the grand celebration called Thai Poosam will be held the day after tomorrow, to the shrine in Kottur and then to the one in Ilyangudipatti where Ravi proudly pointed out the terracotta horses, cows and elephants that he had helped create these past few years for the festival of offerings to the god Ayyanar.
The Sanyasi shrine near Mallangudi----Ravi posing with a pujari and a villager at Ilyangudipatti---terracotta offerings at the Ilyangudipatti shrine
The Sanyasi shrine near Mallangudi —– Ravi posing with a pujari and a villager at Ilyangudipatti —– terracotta offerings at the Ilyangudipatti shrine.

Upon returning to the village, I had just the time to bathe and dress when Sukkanya came to my house and asked me to follow her. “Sami,” she said. “Puja, Mutthaiya vidu.” I understood the words, “God, Prayer, Mutthaiya’s house” but hadn’t the slightest idea of what she was talking about. I was in for not only a surprise, but one of the most moving moments of my short stay in Mallangudi.
Mutthaiya is the Old Man of Mallangudi. He is the sage, the respected elder. A few years ago, while conducting research on the Ayyanar cult and the potters who are responsible for the creation of the terracotta offerings in mostly remote and hidden-away outdoor shrines (like Ilyangudipatti, where I had just gone with Ravi), I interviewed him. And a few years before that, and although he had ceased creating the statues (“I’m too old and my hands shake now”), he accepted to make one for me and allowed me to film him while he applied the paint. The four-foot high elephant he made for me is simply superb and a rare example of the artistry of the older (and often last) generation of potters. As we say, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. I cherish that elephant also because it is a material link to Mutthaiya, the Old Man of Mallangudi, a man who represents so much to his family, to his village…and now to me.
We kicked off our sandals at the courtyard gateway and Sukkanya led me through one hallway and then another and finally we ducked under a small doorway into a teeny tiny room, the puja room, where Mutthaiya was seated on one side and seven children on the other. The ceiling was so low that I had to bow my head to avoid scraping it with my crown, but I only needed to take three steps to find a small place behind the children and sit down. The altar was bedecked with images and lamps and bells and the flowers, camphor, coconuts, bananas, incense sticks necessary for the evening prayers.
But there were no prayers. There was chanting. One by one, each child took his turn to lead a chant and the others responded. They needed no prompting from Mutthaiya, who proudly looked on and responded with the assembly and now and then took the finger-chimes from one child and gave them to another. The two chanting books with their ripped and worn pages were alternately passed from one child to another and sometimes the only way to know when one chant ended and another began was the clear resounding of “Haro Hara.”
The chants were dedicated to Murugan, the most popular Hindu deity in Tamil Nadu. His dozens of names were intoned over and over: Muruga, Kartekeya, Subramanian, Saravana, Mutthaiya, Shanmukan, Palaniyappan, Kumaran, Arumugam, Swaminathan…“Haro Hara” is a call frequently repeated during worship of the god, meaning something along the lines of God, grant me refuge from suffering.
The little voices chanted with big, assured voices. Even the youngest, Sobiya – only three years old – followed along surprisingly well. Few pauses were taken for over an hour, one child naturally taking over from another when a final Haro Hara was called out at the end of each melody. The children chanted and glowed. Mutthaiya chanted and glowed. I watched and listened (and called out “Haro Hara”)…and glowed in the beauty of this special moment.
For I knew that they were not doing this for me; it wasn’t a performance. It was for Lord Murugan. It was their way of honouring him. It was also their way of tightly tying the knots between generations, of venerating the old and celebrating the young, of acknowledging and glorifying the interactions of one another’s lives.
Mutthaiya’s wife insisted that I eat dosais with them after the chanting session. As is customary, as their guest, I didn’t eat with them; I was served the delicate round crepes and they watched over me as I ate with gusto. It felt curious to be treated with such honour when all I wanted to do was to bow at their feet. After eating my third dosai; I excused myself and, in a half-daze, walked to Jayaretina’s home. She was waiting for me with a smile…and a stainless-steel plate upon which she quickly placed a dosai. I still do not know how I managed to eat it but I did. Jayaretina is such an excellent cook that even the simplest evening fare cannot be refused. However, I put my hand over my plate and repeated podum three times before she could plop a second crêpe in front of me. Enough, enough, enough!
Mutthaiya and his wife in their courtyard
Mutthaiya and his wife in their courtyard.

Jayaretina smiled at me and, fortunately, didn’t insist. She knew I had been to Mutthaiya’s home and probably understood that I had eaten there already. She put a hand on my shoulder and said, quietly, “Nalleke pappom.”
See you tomorrow, I likewise responded. I made it back to my house, thoroughly exhausted, and didn’t even go out again to brush my teeth. I just took off my clothes, lay on the metal-cot and I don’t know if it was due to having eaten so much or seen so much or done so much, but I fell asleep within a minute or two, my stomach totally full, my body wholly drained, my soul utterly blessed.
Day 1 ←   |  → Day 3