The Big Idli during Pongal Week is ‘ferfect’, madam. Anytime is good for me in Madras, even that burning fortnight in May tersely called ‘Agni Nakshatram’ (The Phase of Fire). Despite only two kinds of weather, saar, hot and hotter, Madras, to borrow the Madurai word for kulfi-falooda, is my ‘jil-jil jigar thanda’ (cold-cold core cooler).
I live in semi-purdah in Delhi. Wouldn’t you, to hide from local yokels and the ceaseless shattering of your shell-like with MC! BC! But once I’m up in the air to Madras — always Madras, never ‘Chennai’ — and I see the video tracking the plane’s route south, ever south — I finally relax. Back to civilisation. Vel, vel, vetri vel! Victory to the Spear (weapon of Kartikeya, ruling deity of the Tamil land).
When I land at Meenambakkam airport for a week’s holiday during Pongal Week (to ‘ferfect’ weather as ‘Madras Tamil’ would say it), my friend’s driver, Ajmer Khan, whisks me first to her mother’s place for lunch and pampering by Mariamma, her wonderful housekeeper. We’re a bandwidth of ‘whisky-sambar’ not ‘idli-sambar’, which means we have a dedicated Carnatic core but do what we like in other things. At the same time, we’re terribly old-fashioned in some ways. So Mariamma has chicken curry waiting. And that very evening, even before I’m taken to my friend’s lovely home in the seaside stretch
called Thiruvanmiyur, a card is put in my hand for T.M Krishna’s concert and I’m driven off in state.
The reigning king of Carnatic vocal is in great form and sings ‘pyoor’ Raga Harikambhoji for an hour-and-a-half before the songs. The audience swoons in ecstasy and I’m swamped by the scent of silk and of flowers like ‘jathi’ and ‘malli’. I smile back at the gentle diamond-rimmed faces around me and when I step out, there’s fabulous coffee. I think I could just die that minute of happiness, but I have to do a couple of things first. One, go for a long walk along Breezy Beach every evening and two, pop in on Kapalishwarar and Karpagambal (Shiva and Parvati) at Mylapore. These matters are accomplished with the terrific bonus of my friend’s company, since Pongal Week is full of holidays.
We stroll up North Mada Street to the temple and hang around the courtyard, not talking, just absorbing the vibes. But before we go buy cloth at Rasi Silks nearby, we need sustenance. The ‘Karpagam Mylai Mess’, a tiny, family-run snack-and-lunch café does great coffee and that evening they’re trotting out fresh keerai-vadai (spinach-vada). Nectar and ambrosia? Better believe it. Thus fortified, we perform great feats of decision-making and decide, what the hell, to buy clip-on mookkutthis (nose-studs) so we can pull out the hot mami look and frighten bossy male cousins. Fresh figs and strawberries after our walks, a ritual Italian dinner at Bella Ciao on the beach, a Lebanese dinner at Cedars and kotthu parattha (egg-paratha chaat) on Elliot’s Beach are some of our rustic pleasures, plus a great view of the Perigee Moon, when it’s closest to earth and 15 times brighter than usual.
But I find that the sari-shopping isn’t done yet. My friend’s mother wants to take me to ‘Usha’s’ the best boutique in town, but Usha’s is closed for Pongal. Sundari Silks, the grand Chettinad-style sari shop, is open however and there we go, me sheepishly, for this is industrial-strength pampering. But such lovely new silks with classy matte jute thread, not zari, so modern and elegant.
I go home clutching a box with a deep rosepink sari that will need careful pre-wear washing before it’s supple enough to drape comfortably. And there you have it; Madras, I mean. Paying for quality, a customised blend of old and new and a primordial need for sensuous comfort: nice fabric, pretty colours, sweet smells, great tastes, fine sounds. I’m not saying it’s ferfect. Just heaven on earth for me.