4 minute miles: Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1: A Town Called Seemapuram

Not too many winters ago, I found myself with a small backpack and my camera on the glorious foothills of the Nilgiris. In those days, Seemapuram wasn’t the same tourist hotspot it is now – they preferred the more luxurious vacation that neighbouring Ootacamund had to offer. I didn’t like to count myself as one of the foreigners. I’d made it a habit to imagine myself as one of the locals. It was one of those little mental exercises I liked doing. I’d imagine a younger version of myself playing cricket on one of the narrow streets and my grandfather reading a newspaper on the front porch of the house nearby. I’d “recall” these fake memories and tear up with pseudo-nostalgia. I found that level of personal connection useful and it always gave me plenty of inspiration to find and capture the images that put food on my plate. 

I got off the down train from Madras. A short 7 hour journey that took me through 2 states before finally ending up in the state we had started from. I loved train journeys (still do) for the great leveller that it is. It doesn’t matter how rich, poor or influential you are because you’d still be travelling with a diverse group of people each time. It always made for great stories. On this occasion though, the train was largely empty because not many people travelled to this part of the country. I struck up a conversation with the ticket collector, an old, balding man in a black coat and a white lungi. The fabric of his shirt was stretched almost to the point of tearing by the sheer size of his belly. He sat down next to me and asked me for my ticket. I pulled out a neatly folded ticket from my pocket and handed it to him. As he examined the ticket, he said “You’re one of a very small clan”. My pride swelled thinking that he was a fan of my work as a photographer. But then he continued, “Not many people travel to that place, Seemapuram”. I climbed out of my bubble of fame and buried my pride under the wooden seat of the coach. “I hope you’ve booked your return ticket” he then said. “This train will only run bi-weekly now”. We spoke for a while before he retired to his cabin.

The Seemapuram railway station was small. It had a single platform with a room for the station master and one retiring room with 4 desks. The nearest washroom was in the hotel across the road-a small unassuming building which was the first thing to greet anyone who walked out of the station. As I walked along the platform towards the exit, the most striking feature was the emptiness. Coming from Madras central which was akin to an overcrowded cow shed, this little station was hauntingly empty. If it wasn’t for the train stationed on the tracks, one would be forgiven for assuming that this was a station that has been long abandoned. I took a minute to breathe in some of the fresh air – a rarity back in the city – and continued walking, past the retiring room and then turned left into the tiny passageway next to the station master’s cabin to the exit. 

I walked into Appu’s hotel to have a filter coffee to energise my tired soul. I sat down, only to realise that I’d left a bag on the platform. I left the rest of my luggage in the custody of the cashier and dashed back into the station, through the passageway, took a right past the retiring room and to the end of the platform where I’d gotten off the train. The bag was still there, thankfully. I picked it up and walked back slowly, trying to catch my breath when suddenly, someone grabbed my hand. I turned around and saw a young boy, barely 10 years old, wearing an oversized, old shirt that was clearly not his and shabby shorts that had been patched up with pieces of cloth that didn’t match the original. His hair looked dry and rough- almost matted and the grime on his face looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. I opened my wallet to give him a couple of annas so that I could get rid of him. A passport size photo of my wife, Stella, fell on to the crudely cemented floor of the platform. He picked it up and put it in my hand with glee and then accepted the 2 annas as if it were a reward for his service. He turned around and jumped a fence before settling under a tree to examine the coins I had given him. I put the photo back in my wallet and carried on walking, thanking him in my head because Stella had asked me to call her after I’d reached and I’d almost forgotten. I collected the rest of my luggage from the cashier at Appu’s and placed them all on a desk inside. After ordering a plate of idli-sambar, I walked outside to the phone booth. I told the operator the number I had to call and he connected the call for me.

“Hello?” Stella said.

I’d spoken to her barely 8 hours earlier when I boarded the train. But there was something in her voice that brought a warmth in my heart. There used to be a time when all our interactions were across a modern economics theory books rack in the public library at Baliyur. With the books in the way, I’d never be able to see her face nor she mine. But we’d hear each other clearly, our silences often more resounding than our words. When we did speak we’d be careful to keep our voices down, lest the librarian shush us down. Even so, the conversations would be staggered- interrupted by some passing visitor. They never bothered us- the modern economic theory shelves were probably the least visited section in the room- but we’d pause our conversation momentarily to let the intruder pass by. But I’d never grown tired of hearing that voice and I’d listen, like I was in some trance, to every word that’d fall through her lips. 

“Hello?” she repeated.

“Hi AK” I said. AK is the loving nickname I had for her, named after AK Dewat, the author of a certain modern economic theory textbook she used to pretend to read at the library when we met).

“Peter! How’s Seemapuram?”

“Oh. Serene. You should have come with me Stella. It’s beautiful”

“I can imagine. But this god-forsaken review meeting starts tomorrow and I can’t afford to miss it”

“Yeah well, I’ll bring back pictures. You won’t miss a thing!”

“Except the weather you mean. I could fry an egg on my head. That’s how hot it is here”

“Hahahaha. At what time is your meeting tomorrow? Where?”

“It’s at 11 in the mor..” she’d started saying when the line went dead. These disconnections were a regular feature of phone calls from small towns. The government didn’t care much for these parts so the telephone lines were in pathetic condition. The operator tried connecting the call again but wasn’t able to get through. I decided to try my luck the next day so that I could wish her luck in the morning before her meeting.

I walked back to Appu’s where I found my idli-sambar on the table near my bags. The cold breeze had already cooled down the sambar for me. I was too hungry to care so I ate it anyway. I spoke to the cashier to extract some local intelligence from him about cheap places to stay at. His name was Rahim. A 50-something man who fit so perfectly on his chair behind the cash desk that one felt that he’d been born, brought up and grown old at that spot and everything else was moulded around him for such a snug fit. He shouted for a tonga-walla to take me to the nearest lodge. A young boy helped me load my luggage into the tonga while Rahim explained the location of the lodge to the tonga-walla, all the while rooted to his seat. I paid Rahim for the coffee and the idlis and told him I’d come back for lunch. He didn’t seem too interested. “Quite the business-minded jerk” I mumbled sarcastically to myself. 

I checked into the paramount by 11AM. The paramount was about 2kms from Appu’s. At first glance, I couldn’t see where it was when the tonga-walla said that we’d reached. On closer inspection, I finally found it. The paramount lodge wasn’t as grandiose as its name suggested. It was basically 5 rooms on the first floor of a 3 storey building that also housed a bakery and innumerable “offices” of lawyers. In fact, the board that read “PARAMOUNT” was almost completely covered by other smaller black boards with some lawyer’s name and “BA. LLB” written on it. Slightly higher than this congested mess of boards were 3-4 other boards belonging to more senior advocates who had the distinction of being government notaries.

I took my bags out of the tonga and began my excruciating trek up the narrow steps that led to the paramount. A lawyer came rushing down, almost knocking over my luggage, with a client who was already late. From the bits and pieces I caught of their hurried conversation, I deduced that they were on their way to the railway station to catch the up-train to madras, most likely for some case at the high court there. I readjusted myself and climbed the remaining 5 steps without incident. Gitamma was the proprietor of the paramount. She sat the reception desk, which was simply a table near the door of the first room. While the set-up looked shady, she was ridiculously organised. She’d collected all possible information about the people staying at her lodge, including noting down my ration card number and my photography club ID number. I peeped into the register while she was writing and found out that 2 of the 5 rooms were already occupied and I was assigned the one in the middle of the corridor. Of the other two, one was a 70 year old ex-serviceman and the other a 40 year old business lady. I pushed my bags into the room and walked down to pay the tonga-walla. He told me that he’d usually be near Appu’s so if I needed his services I could find him there. I thanked him and went back to the room. 

My body was sore from all the travelling I’d done so I stepped out to the corridor to do a few stretches and breathe in some of that precious fresh air.  An elderly gentleman laboured up the stairs with 3 glasses of coffee. He kept one on the desk for Gangamma and then approached me. “Why good sir! You’ve brought good weather with you. May I serve your kind self some coffee from the finest estates?” I fell quite easily for his flattery and accepted the glass with glee. It didn’t take much to flatter me actually. Even simple attributions to meteorological events swept me off my feet.  “Thank you!” I said.  “Oh no sir! The pleasure is all mine.” He said and walked into one of the adjacent rooms to serve the last glass without even waiting for me to pay him. As he walked back down the corridor towards the stairs, I stopped him to ask him about it. “It’s complimentary, good sir.” he said and walked away.  Fancy, I thought to myself. I strolled back to the room and looked around. It was a small room with only enough space for a bed and a study desk. There was a table fan on the desk. It was understandably rusty. It was always rather cold through the year in Seemapuram so nobody had probably used the fan for ages. There was a window near the desk that opened towards the valley and it was a beautiful sight, only blocked by a massive branch of a tree near it. The room was so small that there wasn’t even space for a bathroom. There was only one common bathroom at the end of the corridor. “This is going to be hostel life all over again” I said to myself. But I knew I wasn’t going to be there for more than a few days so I consoled myself and began unpacking my suitcase. I took some fresh towels and change-over clothes from the suitcase and went to the bathroom to freshen up. 

As compared to the rooms, the bathroom looked luxurious. There were separate taps for hot and cold water, 2 buckets, a wall-mounted shelf with a mirror on it and a shower head- facilities, that one seldom had at the hostel. It was only when I hung my clothes on the clothes line that I began to realise the truth. The clothes line fell on my feet the moment I put one towel on it. There were two taps, but only one of them had water running…walking…crawling through it. The shower head had an intricate spider web around it and no water. The mirror-shelf was home to a few cockroaches who abandoned base as soon as I opened the shelf and then returned when I turned around to inspect the rest of the bathroom. The two buckets were there more from necessity than courtesy. As it turned out, one of them was broken at the base and the other, on the side. By putting the one with the broken base inside the other, they managed to salvage the situation. The crawling water from the tap had filled barely 1/5th of the bucket by this time. I sat on a little stool that was just outside the bathroom and waited. I dozed off for a bit and woke up just as the bucket filled to its brim. After taking a quick bath, I decided to go back, for want of a better place, to Appu’s for lunch. I locked up my room and walked down the narrow stairs of the Paramount.

Outside, the weather was as pleasant as could possibly be. Coming from Madras, this was one aspect of Seemapuram I couldn’t get my head around. It was 2 in the afternoon and yet, not even as warm as a “cool day” in madras! I wanted to make the most of it so I decided against taking a tonga back to Appu’s and made up my mind to walk instead. The Paramount was located on Korapuzha road. It was the central business district, so to speak. There were shops, small and big, on either side of the road which meant that there was always a lot of foot traffic. The establishments were run in buildings borrowed from 15th century history textbooks complete with large moss-lined walls. In truth, it looked rather nice to the average tourist. The velvet green colour of the moss offered a neat contrast to the dirty black of the wall with patches of muddy browns here and there. I had only just taken a step out of the Paramount when I realised that shopping in Seemapuram was no less difficult than in Madras. Shopping markets bring out the animal instinct in people irrespective of location or time. Everyone was in a hurry to get as close as they could to the vendor so that they could try and negotiate easily. I had seen near-stampede scenes at the RR Nagar vendor’s market in Madras on many occassions so what I was seeing now was not new to me. It wasn’t new but it was surprising that even in a town as lazy-looking as this one, shopping markets had such a frenzied customer base. With my hungry stomach now dictating terms to my feet, I hurriedly made my way through the crowd and hurried towards Appu’s.  

Just after Korapuzha road was a rather desolate, muddy stretch that separated the two village panchayats that formed Seemapuram. This tiny part of road had been a bone of contention between the two for many years. The result of this conflict was that neither took responsibility for it and the road ended up in its present state. That said, each panchayat took great care in maintaining its own side. Korapuzha road was maintained by the regular village panchayat. On the other side was the Valley Of Terrence Hill (V.O.T Hill or vothil as it had come to be known). Vothil had a panchayat of its own too but because of its strategic position, the Indian Air force had set up a base there. On paper, the panchayat was in charge but in effect, the air force was in control of everything and that was there to be seen as well. I walked past the controversial stretch and entered a boulevard of sorts. It was a road I don’t remember from the morning. Of course it was probable that I hadn’t noticed the canopy of trees and the little houses behind them because I was lost in thought while sitting uncomfortably in the tonga. But now, with nothing on my mind (or indeed in my stomach), I was more observant than I was earlier. There were neatly marked numbers on the trees- possibly the year in which they were planted (or an estimate of that year in any case). “1839” read one. “1848” another one. The others were mostly younger but they all looked equally majestic as they stood proudly over the road. I stood under one of the older giants for a minute to think of all that they’d lived through. All the people that have walked beneath them, all the summers when they wilted, all the springs when they blossomed. “If only these trees could tell stories”, I thought to myself and continued walking. A short while later, I reached a junction. One road went up the hill to the airforce base and the other, to the railway station. As excited as I was about the chance to click a few pictures of the british made canberras stationed at the base, it was far far exceeded by my hunger and so I took the road that led to Appu’s. 

Appu’s was the biggest hotel in Seemapuram. For the city-bred tourist, it wasn’t the most impressive structure. The fact that the biggest hotel in town was in reality a little shack was a testimony to the rest of the establishments in town. For the locals though, it was more than sufficient for their (rare) family outings. I paced downhill from the junction onto south station road and entered Appu’s. It was more crowded than it was in the morning but still mostly empty. I looked over to the counter and found Rahim busy counting money. I found a chair in the corner and dragged it over to an empty desk and sat down. A young waiter came running to me and stood in stoic silence. I expected him to recite the menu like they did in Madras but he said nothing. After an awkward few seconds I relented and asked him what was for lunch. He pointed to a board outside. “MEALS READY” it read. “Oh! Ok. One plate” I said. He folded his hands and gestured something to me. “What?” I said, looking around for some interpretation. By this time Rahim had finished accounting his morning sales and walked over to my desk. “Arun likes to play these games with customers” Rahim said and patted the young boy on his back and continued, “Get this sir a plate of fish curry meals”. Arun nodded with a smile on his face and ran into the kitchen. “I found him crying on the platform one rainy morning 6 years ago” Rahim said pointing to the gate of the railway station. “I don’t know how he got there. He was probably abandoned by his parents when they found out that he can’t speak. I brought him here so that he didn’t die in the rain and I didn’t feel like letting him go after that.” he said looking over his shoulder to the kitchen with moist eyes. When I saw Rahim earlier in the morning, I didn’t think that he’d ever moved from his seat let alone raise an abandoned child. Judging people in an instant was a skill, no, a dirty habit, I had developed with the fast-paced life of the city. I’d erred in my judgement of the man. In time I’d discover that I’d erred in my judgement of the sleepy town of Seemapuram itself, people and all.

To be continued…

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