The first time we had gone to Marudhamalai temple (my first and R’s second), we had taken a taxi to the foot of the hill and from there, the bus up the hill. This time I was determined to pay my respects to Lord Muruga the traditional way, by climbing up the steps.

It was not too hot a day. R did his best to dissuade me in his usual manner – by saying I could climb the steps next time and take the bus this time. He should have learnt by now that when I have made up my mind in some things I can be as pig-headed as his Taurean self. A. tried to persuade me that it was not wise to make the attempt without knowing how difficult or easy it would be. But then I wouldn’t know that unless I tried it. So I marched ahead leaving them both with no option but to follow. Nike would have been proud of me.

The hill derives its name from the herbs it is rich in. What was Marundhumalai became Marudhamalai. Actually the sthala vriksha or tree is the Marutham tree. The climb was not steep and there was a parapet wall along the steps and trees and shrubs on the hill which made it a pleasant and balmy hike. But for someone like me who is patently so unfit, it was difficult to climb more than a few steps before having to rest. Even R. was breathing heavily and resting just as often. A. stood by, offering us a drink of water each time we perched on the parapet.

Thaanthonri (Swayambhu) Vinayagar was first on the route to whom we prayed, and halfway up was the shrine of Idumban where the priest splashed cold water on our faces to relieve our fatigue. Going up by the bus we would have missed these shrines which are part of the Marudhamalai temple. After thirty minutes we were on the hilltop and reached the main temple which is more than 800 years old. The deities of Muruga with Valli and Devayanai are Swayambhu and the Dandayudhapani Murugan in the main shrine (holding a danda or stick)  with a turban on his head is very beautiful. He is Bala Dandayuthapani or a boy Murugan and his name itself means “very beautiful”. There are shrines to Siva and Ambal as well and a large Ganapati under an ancient panchavriksha or five intertwined trees where several Siddhas are said to meditate unseen.

Behind the shrine several more steps took us down to a spring and the Saptha Kannimar or Seven Virgins shrine and down to the Paambaati Siddhar cave where the Siddhar or saint used to meditate. He was said to have complete control over snakes and even now a snake crawls into the cave through an underground opening and offerings are made to it. It is very cool and peaceful inside and many sit there in meditation. It is said that there is a passage through the hill from the cave to the main shrine and we could see the narrow opening at the back of the cave.

The temple is not too crowded unless it is a day of festival so it is possible to pray in peace. For the record, the steps were not 300 as I had thought, but 837 going to the top, and at least a hundred going down to the cave. But we will be making the climb again, even so.

But, we took the bus down.

An Easier Youth

When I think about it, some of the things that  are so ubiquitous now, would have made my childhood and my youth much easier to get through.

The first thing I can think of is conditioner. As a child I was blessed (in my mind I was cursed) with very long and shiny reddish-brown hair. It might have seemed beautiful and enviable to others. Indeed I received many admiring stares and compliments from strange women on the street and the strangest questions. Some asked me how I had managed to grow it so long and some wanted to know how I took care of it. Occasionally someone would ask if it was real. As the saying goes, it was so long that I could sit on it. It even earned me a role as Bharat Mata in a drama presented by the children of our colony. I was content to stand in the background unmoving and holding the national flag, as long as I was not asked to speak any lines. I wore my mother’s only silk saree – at the age of eleven – and my hair was left loose. That was the image of Bharat Mata that everyone has always had. Later my mother was asked to remove the evil eye cast on my hair by the comments of the audience.

But my hair was a great source of distress to me because  neither my mother nor I had any  idea of how to care for it. My mother should bear the greater guilt because I did not have any say in what was done to my hair. She would oil it every week and indeed every day and initially would wash it herself with a handful of shikakai powder. It would take at least two handfuls and two washes to get even half the oil out. My hair would then lie wet and still oily in a mass of knots and tangles that my mother would grab and tug and pull, in her effort to comb it and plait it. Each such session left me sobbing and whimpering in pain. Any loud crying would fetch me a few slaps so I knew better than to make any loud protest. By the time I was ten I think, my mother abandoned me to my hair, and I was lucky I never looked into the mirror to know how dreadful I might have looked hairwise. I managed the best I could before I learnt how to comb out the tangles without too much pain. But my plait was always a little crooked and not as well-done as my friends’ I think.  I would have dearly loved to get my hair cut in a fashionable style, but it was unthinkable for a Tamil Iyer girl in those days. Even a little snipping of the ends would have been noticed and dire punishment meted out.

In my teens I managed to cajole my father into buying me a bottle of shampoo which made it easier to wash my hair but made it also dry and blowaway, It was even harder to comb but I much preferred this windblown look to my earlier gunky one. Shampoo was taboo in our old-fashioned families and so it was even more precious to me and I jealously guarded my bottle of Halo Egg Shampoo. There were few brands to choose from.

The first time I heard of conditioner was in the late nineties when my cousin came home from the US to get married and brought me a bottle of conditioner among other things. It was still unheard of in India. Now we have as many brands and varieties of shampoos and conditioners, some of them leave-in, some rinse-out, as one can find in any other country.

Today, as I look at the various bottles in my bathroom, I wish I could go back in time and fill my childhood with all of them. I would have been a much more glamorous teenager with gorgeous hair.


No, Not More

Things have come to a pretty pass if we are horrified to find five hundred rupee notes in our inadvertent possession. (One thousand rupee notes were never plentiful in our house.)

We searched through the cupboards full of sarees for any stray notes tucked away behind clothes. I was in the habit of doing that to provide for a rainy day. Not too long ago, R would have been delighted when I managed to find a few hundred rupee notes in times of need. But now we hoped we would not come upon any such riches unless they were hundreds.

I opened the little yellow wooden box to find a wad of them. There were a couple more at Sai Baba’s feet in the mandir. The envelope in the mandir contained several more that had been set aside for Shirdi. We added them to the pile of notes to be deposited in the bank. Sai would get the newly minted currency, not the feared OHD (Old High Denomination) notes.

I Am Back (We Are Back)

Back in Bombay after an exploratory trip to down South, it feels as if I have never left. But it was a satisfying trip nevertheless. We, all three of us, enjoyed ourselves, doing what we had set out to do. An element of spice (tadka) was added when demonetization was announced on the eve of our departure. All other anxieties were driven out of our minds as we scrambled to locate and count stray one hundred rupee notes to finance our cuppas and breakfasts and taxi fares. We managed to find barely two thousand rupees and I was overjoyed to find two ten-rupee packets which I stashed away as emergency money.

Suddenly everybody, rich and poor, found themselves scrabbling for change. Like everyone else, we too stood in queues to convert a pittance of four thousand each, but between the three of us it added up to a tidy amount. Repeating the exercise the next day brought us more riches, But the government wised up and any further forays were ruled out. A few taxi drivers and hotels were obliging enough to accept our old notes and we were thrilled to have saved a few hundred rupee notes. At other places we just used plastic. But we felt cheated when, after a sumptuous dinner, the machine did not work and we were forced to part with a few notes. All conversations were about currency notes and exchange/deposit. We, as a nation, cared little about who had won or lost the US elections anymore. We had more important things to think about and talk about. Everybody was secretly worried about the packets of notes squirreled away in various cupboards over the years “just in case”. Who even counted them? They worried about the money withdrawn months ago for a major purchase that kept getting postponed. And what if it all added up to reach the dangerous figure of 2.5 lakhs?

If anything, the retiring of five hundreds and thousands taught us frugality. We thought twice before buying a soda or a coffee and steered clear of magazine stalls, reading the newspaper on the phone. I realized money is money only when you can spend it. Pity those who have bundles of the stuff stacked up in lockers. They know little of joy in life.

I Am Back

Well, here I am again, unable to sleep, ergo, back to blogging! I feel cheated that the mix of chemicals which put me in a state of deep sleep last night and left me feeling drowsy all day long, has tonight failed to work its magic.

I rubbed sesame oil into my feet at bedtime, used my pump to clear my airways, popped my anti-allergy pill, set my iPhone on bedtime mode to check on my sleeping pattern and with the AC turned on, snuggled under a warm sheet, and ..? Why was I not asleep already?

My legs were restless, my feet prickled, I switched positions, now it was too hot, now too cold, my bed-sheet tickled my chin, my arms were in the way – in short, it was more than two hours, and I wasn’t sleepy at all. R., as is his wont, was sound asleep within five minutes, undisturbed by my tossing and turning. Even his afternoon nap does not keep him awake at night. It is an admirable trait to be able to fall asleep so easily and I envy him.

I used to sleep well years ago but have always been a light sleeper. The slightest sound would wake me up. Somebody had to just whisper my name and I would be instantly alert. There are people who have to be shaken awake even when there is a flight to catch. Not me. The thought of a flight in the morning keeps me up. Having set the alarm for early morning, I end up being awake all night long. My children would snigger and say I should relax, be less nervous. But when I see the rest of the family fast asleep, trusting me to wake them in time, it makes me too nervous to sleep! This was a long time ago of course.

Now the house is empty. R. is fast asleep while I turn on the light in another room and peck at the keys on the laptop. In the morning he tells me I came back to bed at 2 in the morning.

Perhaps the cup of tea I did not have last night is the reason why I am unable to sleep now.