At the risk of being assassinated by one of my New Yorker / Mumbaikar friends, let me say that no, I am not talking of either of those two wonderful cities here. Long before I was introduced to Bombay or New York, I was introduced to Madurai. That's why whenever someone starts talking about how her beloved city never ever sleeps, I always tell her if thats the standard by which you judge a city, Madurai should be right up there at the top. Every year, after school closed down for summer holidays, we would get on a Thiruvalluvar bus from Trivandrum bus stand sometime in the evening, and I would get woken up at Madurai's Periyar bus station at somewhere around 2 in the morning. There were no convenient trains to Chola land then, and the car didn't arrive for another half decade or so, and so rickety Thiruvalluvar bus it was. Stepping out of the bus and into Pandya soil, the first thing that hits one is the stench. And then, the madding crowd. Everyone who's been to God's own country and its neighbors know that every kilometre from the border, it gets progressively less greener and much less cleaner. By the time we are actually like some 300 km off, I start cribbing about all things Tam. Just look at this place, no wonder Kannagi burnt this down, I would say. That was a different Madurai; that city went under the sea, Appa would immediately correct me. Amma usually grits her teeth and asks us to hurry as we aren't done with our journey yet. We have to go across to the town bus stand to catch a town bus to yet another bus stand from where we have to catch a bus that would take us into Chola land.
As we get out of the bus stand, the crowd gets interesting. This is not the transit crowd anymore, these are the people of Madurai. And they are everywhere. All stores are open, and people are actually shopping. Yeah, At 2 AM. Restaurants are open too. There are also special night restaurants like Ariya Bhavan by Night which are filled with people. This is all surprising to little me because back in the city I call home, you cannot like buy a beedi past 8 PM. This is astounding, I tell Appa. Yes, it is and its not just this area, the entire city is alive as you will see. Huge chanthais on either side of the road where the vegetable vendors are doing brisk business. And the stench I was complaining about all this while is as good as gone. Because the aroma of fresh Malligaipoo completely overpowers anything that gets in the way. Jasmine here, there, everywhere, and unlike the ones we get in Kerala and may I also add Madras, these actually smell like jasmine. Not to mention the way they tie these flowers together. They tie them so close together that not even air can get in between them. On top of that, these flower sellers are the nicest people in the world, yes, they even bargain ever so nicely. [I know you Madras junta will have all raised eyebrows, but keep in mind its not just the flower sellers. Flower sellers only reflect the mood of the city they live in. Example: go check out Kovai!] My mother could never resist buying jasmine whenever she is in this town and its easy to see why. Hell, even I can't resist it and so I end up buying a small strand and carry it around like some treasure for the next day or so.
In later years, I have spent a fair amount of time exploring this city and must say that after Coimbatore, this would be my next favorite city in Tamland. Because it is filled with simple people who work hard, and it has no airs like Coimbatore, and its not a Maami-dom like Madras is. It has culture and a hell lot of character and it makes no apologies for what it is - a center where the people from the dry plains around it can come in and make a living. Anyway, so I was there the last couple of days and it wasn't very different from before. Didn't see too many skyscraper cutouts; maybe they got sick of them now. But the rest of the city remains the same. The super enthu driver anna [You know you are really, really old when the driver anna is a kid some 5 years younger than you] was so insistent that I need to see the city though I told him that I have done all the touristy stuff that he drove me around all four entrances of the Meenakshi temple and bid me to pray at each of them. He then gave me a driving tour of the city at night and before he dropped me off the train station, he brought me a strand of jasmine that I could take home to Amma dear. Needless to say, scored brownie points with Amma this morning who thinks that daughter's become all responsible now.
What onions, what garlic?, you ask? Oh well, read this delighful little book called No Onions Nor Garlic by Srividya Natarajan while I was on the trip and thought I would talk about it on this post, but this is way too long already. So all onions and garlic coming to a blog near you hopefully sometime soon.