Recently, I visited the city of Chennai (formerly Madras), after nearly a decade. This city holds very fond memories for me and as the cab drove into the city from the airport I was amazed at how the city had changed and grown.
It was late in the evening when we drove towards the suburbs and here again, I was surprised to see that there were very few independent houses left, most of the landscape consisted only of apartment blocks.
Chennai houses are famous for their terraces or ‘mottai maadis‘ , which are used for drying vegetables for pickling, for sun-drying ‘vadams‘ (cousins of pappadums), for airing mattresses, for family gatherings during functions, and many more things.
But, for me, the most pleasurable memory of these terraces was when the entire family would go up to the terrace for nights-out under the stars. Summers in the city were stifling, and temperatures could soar to above 40 degrees celsius. Those were the days when we could not afford air-conditioners.
Preparations for such night-outs started just after sundown. A couple of us would go up to the terrace with a broom, buckets & plastic mugs. We would first sweep the terrace & clear all the dry leaves that had fallen in. Most terraces had a tap connected to the overhead water tank. From this tap we would fill our buckets, and then with the mugs, splash water all over the terrace. When the first mugs of water fell on the terrace, that distinct and aromatic smell of ‘parched-earth- guzzling-water’, would float our way. A few sniffs, and we would splash a few more rounds of water on the terrace. In about 30 minutes the terrace was dry and cool, the water having carried away the day’s heat.
After a relaxed dinner, the family would make its way up with straw mats, pillows and bed sheets. With a lot of giggling and fun, the mats were rolled and beds readied. Stainless steel jugs of water and tumblers were kept in a corner.
The family would lie down and feel the gentle evening breeze from the Bay of Bengal whispering through each terrace, through the coconut trees & the neem trees that most houses had. The sounds of the city at night reached our ears – the distant sound of the electric train, the dull roar of traffic on the highway, music blaring from some temple in the neighbourhood, a crow that cawed when it was disturbed in its slumber….
And as the stars twinkled away, my Dad would sing his favourite sixties songs from old Bollywood movies, and we would all join him, our voices echoing through the night.
With the stars as night lamps and the cool lullaby of the breeze, one by one we would all drop off ….. the sounds of the city gently fading away.