I was raised in a small temple town in South India, that was a bell jar of life, love, and prejudices. It felt self-contained and comfortably familiar — a severed outpost of progress way in the days of trunk calls and rationed television.
I remember mornings of temple chants, ground coffee or anise and those blazing afternoons with distant songs on Radio Ceylon wavering on on thin air. Picture this: a collage of small eateries with spicy food, barber shop with a bright rooster against a rising sun mirror etched on saloon doors, Charles Bronson at Regal Talkies which was Victoria Edward Library by day, opening movie shows where foul-mouthed men pranced on railings over the queue to reach the counter faster, gold foil tickets, jubilant shadow confetti when the hero shows up on screen. Nights came with percussive mincing of ‘parothas’ over flat hot girdle, migrant Rajasthani men serving hot milk over nuts served on streets and street fights that ended invariably with bloodshed.
There were colourful visitors too — Caucasian backpackers — residual free spirits of the seventies with their long hair, worn cottons and lost destinies; complaining North Indian pilgrims in bright saris and a bus full of tonsured heads offloaded near the temple; Tamil poets and Sanskrit scholars deep in discourse under cackling monkeys at the temple. There were street acrobats, dancing bears and movie announcements with posters on wheels or a brass band playing old Tamil songs. The west temple tower stood sentinel, like an ornate backdrop, watching us grow up.
School smelled of early fear for the system and yogurt on hot rice. The walk from the bus stop was across an old banyan tree and a graveyard full of stories. There were plots to throw blankets on that unsuspecting nasty teacher and beat him up right at that cemetery. Education was taken too seriously by most of us. But the classes were boring and most often without an objective. Stealing glances were all that was permissible with girls in public unless you were brave. However, we did have our share off school sweethearts and juicy gossip. Those weekend cricket matches at the school grounds should not have ended at all — small ice boxes on wheels that sell lollies. Stories involving catapults, dead snakes, garden lizards and the reluctant stride to extra classes after matches.
Literature was largely Tamil pulp, comics like Rip Kirby or Lawrence David translated and paperbacks from Higginbothams. There was the street library too run by an old man with his taped-together spectacles. I grew up with a thirst to know more. Seasons changed, Skylab fell (our school was sure that it will fall on the admin block), civil war broke in Ceylon, radios went silent, refugees came in, love died and new ones flowered. And one day like mine shrapnels we graduated from school to disperse into the wide world of our joys and agonies. A few stayed. But most moved out.
I was thrown into the shifted reality and culture of a creative school. I had to catch up real fast. This readies you against all hurdles without losing the honesty, values, and integrity borne from growing up in a small town under the temple towers.
I believe in small towns.