தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு

Initials indicate town and parentage… But that’s for lesser folk who have to announce their antecedents. It’s not necessary for me. If you say Margayya, everyone will know. However, that’s not my name

RK Narayan, The Financial Expert

During my cycling trips through Tamil Nadu, the often asked question is, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு” – Thambikku entha ooru. It cannot be expressed in English so easily. The literal translation would be – “Where are you from?” or “Which place do you belong to?” or in a more contemporary style, ‘which place bro?’ The translation does do justice to the attempt by the inquisitor to unlock a wide range of information in such a simple question. The purpose of the question is not just to find out where I started the trip or where I live presently, but more about my origins, my ancestors, my ethnicity or possibly who am I?

As a fourth generation migrant (no idea about my ancestors beyond that!), this is certainly not a question that I enjoy answering to. I would invariably come up with some absurd response to make the questioner repent asking such questions. On some occasions, I would rattle out the lines from the Tamil movie ‘Parasakhti’, written by Karunanidhi and expressed by Shivaji Ganesan.

“பிறக்க ஒரு நாடு பிழைக்க ஒரு நாடு, தமிழ்நாட்டின் தலையெழுத்துக்கு நான் என்ன விதிவிலக்கா?” 

Translation – Born in one country, surviving in another; When this is the fate of most Tamilians, how can I be an exception

On other times, I quote ancient poem of Kaniyan Poongunranar, “யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர்” (Translation by APJ Abdul Kalam – I am a world citizen. Every Citizen is my own kith and kin). On one instance, I was embarassed by a homeless person standing nearby, ‘I should be saying that.’

An exercise to find one’s origins usually makes stories filled with passion, emotion, pride, as is normally seen in most movies or television soaps. I consider it as a futile exercise for me to discover my ancestry or native place. Even if I have to claim a certain place as my origins, I would be invariably told by others that I don’t resemble or behave like someone from that place. Given that real estate is expensive across all places, it is highly unlikely that I am ever going to get the ‘காணி நிலம்‘ (Translation: a piece of land measured in Tamil metric) anywhere to claim it as my place. Having lived across different towns of Tamil Nadu, my Tamil accent is a mix of various regions which will leave many confused about my antecedents.

For celebrities, it is a matter of pride for many to seek credence by arbitrarily tracing their antecedents all the way to Gods and Goddesses, a custom that is common to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. At times, the town or village will automatically start owning them even if they have a very tenuous connection. Very recently, a nondescript Thulasendrapuram found its identity by claiming Kamala Harris as one of their own. Of course, it was obvious that her mom would have been estranged as soon as she married a Jamaican or even before, for crossing the sea.

My search was limited to my dad’s choice – Vishnampettai in Thanjavur district. The only reason for his choice was his inheritance of small fragment of land. The land was disposed off long before I was born and there has been no contact with the village since. For a large part of my life, I was more confident of discovering Malgudi rather than Vishnampettai and its existence sounded only less fictional than Attipatti! Later, Google maps confirmed the physical existence of the place.

On October 16, 2021, I set out from Kumbakonam to ride all the way back to Coimbatore over a day or two. I wanted to ride along the river Kaveri till Musiri before taking the highway towards Karur and then to Coimbatore. The map suggested that Vishnampettai is not far away from the road and I decided to take a detour. At about 17 Kms from Thiruvaiyaru, the road takes a detour towards Vishnampettai. As I rode towards the village, the first person I encountered asked me, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு?” I refrained from answering the usual way and instead sought the way to the Agraharam – the ghetto of Brahmins. There was no one in particular whom I could look up to. I rode through the Agraharam which seems to be a rundown version of a prosperous locality of yesteryear. There was a well in the middle of the road that was built in 1938!

As I reached the end of the road, I spotted a temple with few uncles standing outside of it. I requested their permission to take a picture of the temple and soon, conversation began.

It started with routine questions on my current residence, job, marriage, which unfortunately did not elicit adequate response for them to probe further. After claiming that I ‘supposedly’ hail from this village, they conducted elaborate inquiries about my father, grand father and the gothra! Since I looked clueless for most questions, they decided that it was best to let me off. They were kind enough to offer me a lunch. It was a festival day and the final set of rituals were to be performed at the Temple. I offered the maximum amount possible (in fact, the highest I have ever offered to a temple!), with the hope that my dad would be impressed by my gesture and reimburse them. I soon realised that the presiding deity belongs to the rival sect and later, my dad didn’t show any eagerness to reimburse. After declining lunch with the excuse that I have long way to go, they offered me with sumptuous amount of chakkra pongal to binge on.

The route from Kumbakonam to Vishnampettai was filled with places associated with Carnatic Music. From the holy Thiruvaiyaru to Umayalpuram (Sivaraman), Maharajapuram (Santhanam), and Papanasam (Sivan). I wasn’t sure if Vishnampettai had any musician to their credit. When I asked a little boy on the significance of Thiruvaiyaru, he promptly answered, ‘Asoka Halwa’! I rode around to see if there are any other temples that can be remotely associated with my ancestors. Karumbeshwarar temple, located on the north of village, close to the Kollidam river, was an option for me to claim as a ‘family deity’, but there is no way to corroborate those claims.

Karumbeshwarar Temple

When triangulated with other data points, the claims of this village being my ancestral or native village somehow doesn’t add up. For instance, I have been long told that the family deity is Vaitheeswaran Koil (you can read about my visit by foot as well as cycle!) which is located about 100 Kms away form the village. It is unlikely that my ancestors would have performed their ‘duties’ in a temple so far away (not that any of us do now!). Considering that I have no financial stakes in discovering my nativity, it is easy to ignore the village. However, it is also true that the village doesn’t need me either.

“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”

Jean Paul Sartre

Tour of Tamil Nadu – 2018

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After riding in the 2010 (first edition of the tour), 2015 and 2017 editions of the tour, I registered for the 2018 edition of the Tour themed “Waterfalls”. My personal experience can be summed up the image below!

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In addition to riding in the tour, I also ventured to write about the tour for The Hindu – Metro Plus. I was supported immensely by Ganesh Ram whose picture got deservingly featured in the News paper

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It is a paradox that in an age of access to bullet trains, expressways, and long haul flights, choosing a bicycle as a means of touring still presents a challenge. There has been many stories of people touring all over the world in a bicycle ever since the first bicycle was invented and yet, many find it difficult to navigate even familiar cities due to issues like safety, weather, road conditions, traffic, on-road support and so on. Despite the advancements in technology and communication, the psychological barriers amongst riders today are more than ever before. In 2010, Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC), a Chennai based not-for-profit organisation started out to organise an annual cycling tour in partnership with The Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation. Vasanth Ramaswamy, Secretary TCC and curator of the tour, outlines the objective of the tour as

to promote eco tourism in the state of Tamil Nadu and provide a platform for touring on cycles.

Given the vastness and diversity that the state presents, TCC came up with innovative themes every year to explore different facets of the state. In the first edition, the tour started in Coimbatore with the theme of ‘Mountains’ where the tour offered the riders a chance to explore the three magnificent mountains, Ooty, Yercaud, and Kodaikanal, in their bicycles. The subsequent editions explored themes like heritage sites, cuisines, eastern ghats, forests, western ghats, Nilgiris and wildlife focusing on places that are intricately linked to these themes. This year, the tour was themed ‘Waterfalls’ and covered four of the waterfalls in North-west Tamil Nadu – Hogenekkal, Kiliyur falls in Yercaud, Periyar falls in Kalrayan Hils and Agaiya Gangai in Kolli Hiils. The tours typically start and end at one of the major towns in Tamil Nadu and this time, it was Erode. The intermediate halts over the next seven days were at Hogenekkal, Yercaud, Kallakuruchi and Kolli Hills.

The route for different days are designed to provide a variety in ride experience – flat sections, uphill rides that tests one’s determination, downhill rides that requires good control, headwinds to frustrate and tailwinds to provide much wanted relief. “We avoid National Highways as much as possible as they offer very limited scenic beauty; and most of them are all about speed” says Venkat Venkatadri, one of the key organisers. The first day of this year’s tour was from Erode to Hogenekkal through some of the beautiful roads that posed stiff headwinds, the second day had steep inclines, the third day was a relaxed ride at Yercaud that was all about scenery, the fourth and fifth day posed gentle climbs in Kalrayan Hills, and the toughest one was reserved for the sixth day when riders ascended the Kolli hills. The last day was a ceremonial easy ride back to Erode.

It is inevitable that any cycling tour would instantly evokes comparison to the prestigious Tour de France. Rajaram Pattabiraman, the tour director, quickly dismisses any such comparisons, “This is not a race; it is a tour. It is immaterial whether someone rides fast or slow, entire distance or partially, all days or some days in the tour. We want each participant to enjoy the tour and will offer support and recognition to all riders in the best possible manner.”  The participants for the event were from all came from all over the country including few international participants. The riders were from all walks of life, diverse professional backgrounds and all ages. For many, especially those fromother parts of India, it was a new experience to ride through Tamil Nadu in places that they have rarely heard about.

The tour would not be certainly possible but for hours of volunteering work and the extravagant on-road support by the members of TCC. When questions were raised about the sustainability of these tours, Vasanth explains, “We wanted explore the possibility of such tours and break a few inhibitions in the process. Participation in the tours have been largely through word of mouth and thus every rider helps in motivating few others. Over the past 9 years, we have made a repository of route maps, information on hotels that are cycling-friendly, availability of support and others. We have also followed it with feedback from participants. We plan to create a portal and then, make it available for general public. It will then help people design tours as per their convenience and choices.”

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Vasanth Ramaswamy –  Ace cyclist and Curator of the Tour

It is not always the destination that counts but also the journey. One may not find a small town like Kallakuruchi any romantic but when reached through the Kalrayan hills and  breathtaking views of Gomukhi dam, it will be a place to visit. Riding up to hill stations helps one to enjoy every bit of the view from the top and enjoy a sense of accomplishment. Modern day highways bye-passes most of the small towns and links only the major cities. Cycling through small towns helps us in connecting with many wonderful people and institutions. The friendly cheers from the children that accompanies one during the ride makes each of the rider feels like a celebrity. It also offers us a chance to try local cuisine and get a closer look at local customs and traditions. As Eddie Cantor once said, ““Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”

An edited version of this article was published in The Hindu – MetroPlus – Coimbatore Edition under the title “Up and down and round and round” – https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/forty-five-cyclists-savoured-the-sights-sounds-and-taste-of-northwest-tamil-nadu-as-they-visited-four-waterfalls-in-seven-days/article25879396.ece

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