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

The Malgudi Runner

RK Narayan once said that if he wanted to look out for a story, he would just need to peep out of his window. It was through his eight window bedroom and of course, during his long walks that he found most of the characters for his short stories and novels.

The window with the view

It is for this reason that we find most of the protagonists of RKN’s stories are someone whom we can usually identify with, either in ourselves or in someone near and dear; unlike the characters portrayed in a Gautam Menon’s movie. His stories were never short of colourful characters depicting the richness and uniqueness of people living in those times. Then, there is one character that his stories missed out – a runner or let’s call him (not a symbol of chauvinism but just to make it a gender more familiar to RKN as well as me), a Malgudi runner.

 RKN was known to be a prolific walker. In his memoirs for The Frontline, T.S. Satyan wrote,

Narayan was an indefatigable walker. He saved all his time for walking and writing, keeping away from literary functions, seminars and controversies. “Walking is my favourite pastime,” he used to tell me. One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations on the people he met and the goings on that he saw. He never walked fast and stopped at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure. “If you have the language, you can write about them,” he once told me.

 Walking was very much integral to RKN as much as his writing. He could never get tired of his walks. In his essay ‘On Walking,’ he writes

 I walked because I enjoyed it and had the leisure. While walking, my mind became active and helped my writing.

He even wrote an unwritten ‘Testament of a Walker’ – An essay that deals with his lack of ‘automobile sensibility’ and pain of owning an automobile than about walking. He writes in it,

‘The most ambitious piece of work I have been planning for years is to be called ‘Testament of a walker.’ The title has been ready for decade although the book may never be written, considering its boundless scope and ramifications.

After writing and celebrating walking extensively, it still ponders me as to why he ignored running. Wasn’t it a fad then? or didn’t he find any interesting characters in runners to weave a story around them? There were of course runners in those times but sadly, they never impressed him. In the essay ‘On Walking,’ he takes a dig on the runners,

“The men who walk for athletic reasons, not a few, seem to be training for the Olympics. Jogging, running, with upraised arms or swinging them in windmill fashion, stopping in their tracks to bend down, stretch or kick imaginary balls, jumping high and low, with not a care for others in their path. For me these Human Windmills are a terror.’

So, it must be the ‘seriousness’ of runners and their terrorising actions that has kept him away from writing about them. Or they must have been too fast for him to observe them and draw conclusions in his slow paced life. I still feel that he missed a lot in runners. Imagine a runner in Swami to vent his frustrations against Rajam in Swami and Friends; Chandran getting over his love failure through running in Bachelor of Arts before getting married to Sushila; The World of Nagaraj disturbed by an early morning disturbance in Tim, the runner rather than the late night Tim, the drunkard. Or the evergreen Raju from Guide taking up running instead of fasting, which would have made a more interesting story than Forrest Gump.

The picturesque location of Malgudi would have provided an exotic running route which would be termed ‘romantic’ by the city slickers. Starting his runs from the town centre, running towards the Kabir street, a few loops in the Lawley extension, on the banks of Sarayu river, running past Albert Mission College, Palace Talkies and others; Weekend runs may stretch into the Mempi forest accompanied by tough trails on the hills. Add those talkative men in the morning walking crowd in the park next to Sarayu river for some flavour. The grand finale for such a run must be a post-run breakfast comprising of a delicious pongal, vadai and an aromatic filter kaapi at The Boardless.

The Malgudi Runner is not likely to be a very competitive runner; or if he was, he would be a serial loser. He would find his daily lessons and philosophical understanding of life in his running; sometimes he would find solutions for issues affecting the society too. An extremely self-righteous man, he would think that Malgudi would be better inspired with his statue than that of Mr. Lawley and the under-appreciation for his efforts clearly demonstrates the backwardness of this Nation. He believes that running alone would free his fellow citizens from the four hundred years of colonial bondage. He does not feel like he is running for himself… He runs for humanity. Whatever or whoever he was, he was sure not to be a dull person!