Nine years of mastering an exotic but very practical language and you end up in a place (in India) where it's useless. I got an inkling of the the great Northern- Southern divide after Devdas, the person who drove me from Madurai to Rameshwaram and back, rejected my offer for a cigarette. Quite clearly, I told him along the three-hour drive from Madurai airport to Rameshwaram town, "Ek cigarette?' His antiNorth 'Periyar' response was: "Sorry sir, English." To which, apologetically, I responded, "Do you want a cigarette?" and a few seconds later he chugged along. That, of course, was a cursory discourse. Between the fishing town of Dhanushkodi and the temple town of Rameshwaram, I got down and interacted with a fisherman and his family I asked Devdas whether he was sure Ramu, the genuine fisherman, from Dhanushkodi, could respond to my queries, which ranged from 'Do you think that the Sethusamudram Canal Project will effect your fishing?' to 'How fat are your fish?'. I told Devdas to ask interesting questions about Dhanushkodi - things like whether the community is worried about the dredging work that is going on because of the Sethusamudram Project to what they he thinks of Lord Ram. There was a 15-minute conversation between Devdas and Ramu in chaste Tamil. After which I asked Devdas, "So, what did he say?" My charioteer: in chaste but dodgy English replied: "No problems. Fishing. " That was a mighty short translated reply for such a long explanation. "He said that, sir No Problem fishing." Hmm, EV Ramasami Naicker, of 'I will not speak Hindi' fame, just made his point to a Bangali boy rambling around South India.
Dhanushkodi is some three hours by road from Rameshwaram. At Rameshwaram, of course, one does the most obvious thing - of searching out a public drinking space. Unlike Gandhiji's and Narendra Modi's dry state, Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu is a much more amiable place for the searching out process. Main Street in Rameshwaram, which in the descriptive sense matches its name, is the happening place in the holy town. That's where the souvenir shops are; that's where my hotel (with tubelight and musty smell quotient) was; that's nearby the shop selling alcoholic beverages, and that's where the western tower to the Rameshwaram Temple with the sign 'Shiv, Shiv' (in Tamil, of course) stand towering over the landscape. But before anyone with a sacred thread comes across and says anything horrendously Hindu-scriptureish against me, let me announce to my objective, non-judgmental readers that after polishing off a rather neat utthapam (not to be confused with Robin Uttapaha) meal at a non-veg restaurant next to the temple (after reading a few pages of an unreadable VS Naipaul book inside the pavilion of the Rameshwaram temple), I went looking for a bar. Not everyone new to Rameshwaram would, I think, ask people where the nearest whisky bar is. Well, neither did I. I kept loitering around and moving in circles around the great temple, counting the number of liquor stores near it (answer: two). Building up reguisite courage, I asked where the near- est bar was. The polite man selling Honeybee Brandy told me, "There, secom dturn right." Which sounds moderately easy umtil... ...Until you realise you're in front of a grilled room, caged and lit up by a dank, yellow bulb, with a thin mustachioed man in starched dhoti and kurta standing at the entrance. By that time in the holy town, I'm full of divine incentive. But seeing that handlebar moustache on that enthusiastic man - who calls me with a flourish to enter and 'enjoy' - I lose appetite and think of concentrating on the next day Running back to the safety of my hotel, I sleep off the non-hangover and next morning I'm back at Dhanushkodi. An hour away from Rameshwaram, it's a ghost town - much more interesting than Ram, or his setu or Rameshwaram town (with its weird, uninviting bars). It turns out Dhanushkodi town and its accompanying railway line were washed away during a major cyclone in 1964 (A trainload of passengers were also reportedly washed into the sea). When I reached the Dhanushkodi sea front all I saw were four Tamil Sri Lankans picked up by the Indian Navy post and packed into our mini-van to join their compatriots at the refugee camp at nearby Mandapam. As for the ruins of the doric columns and the half-broken stone arcs that stand on the beach, they look look like anachronisms that nobody wants to talk about right now simply; because they don't know what to say about them. Palamik Kumar, my friend, philosopher and guide, at Dhanushkodi tells me in chaste Tamil which I will translate only 18 hours later in Chennai: "This was the real town before the big storm. Now it's nothing." He's also the one who tells me that on the other side - 17-odd kms away - there's 'Ceylon'. 'What about the dredging ships there yonder?" I ask in pidgin Latin. "Ah, those....But the 1964 cyclone..." he continues. Ironically, the day after, everyone in Chennai talks to me in Hindi, despite me telling them that I'm a Bengali who moved to Delhi less than a decade ago.