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.
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