Chettinad came in bits and pieces over the years. It came through sights and smells and it came through stories. Stories that I read in travel magazines, but more so from people who had been there. Stories which spoke more in expressions than in words. Much like traveling in Chettinad is, without knowing how to speak in Tamil. Sometimes knowing a local language is so helpful, but sometimes just knowing how to communicate humanely is all that matters. Chettinad is that. It is more humane of an experience than just sights.
I landed in Madurai, the closest airport to Karaikudi, the biggest (small) town in Chettinad. The only direct flight from Mumbai was delayed well into the night so there was not so much of looking out of the window on our way to The Bangla in Karaikudi. The road felt smooth under the rubber and with not much of traffic, the 90 km journey took us only 90 minutes. When the car entered Karaikudi, the town looked like the average south Indian town I was used to seeing in Karnataka or Kerala. I was expecting Karaikudi to be sleepy but not the late-night kind of sleepy, but the midday kind. I had 48 hours in the region to find my kind of a sleepy town, not just to find that town but an entire region, and how it generally felt to move around.
Usually, on research trips, there is a certain hurry in my stride, but somehow it does not feel hurried most of the times. In Chettinad too, an early start on day 1 would’ve helped, but we could only leave the Bangla around 10 to start driving. Blame it on the breakfast and the conversation with the friendly waiter, Selvam over the dosa and coconut rice. The coffee could’ve been better I thought, but then the fun of drinking a filter coffee in Chettinad is on the roadside Kaapi Shaap!
I had come to Tanjavur a decade ago, I don’t remember if I liked it or not, I definitely did not dislike it. When the car started out of Bangla, I decided for some reason that the wheels should be turned to ‘direction Tanjavur’. Though going to a big city with a big touristy temple was never on the cards, I felt I had to see it once to turn it down. What came up though were the cashew roasters near Pudukottai. On a stretch of a kilometer and a little more, there are families, whose job has been to roast the cashews from the surrounding plantations. At first, it looks rather rustic, but wait till you peel your first fruit and taste the smokey kernel. Distant imagination, but I thought of the smoked Salmon that Norway makes.
The cashews helped to work up an appetite but lunch was still far away. It was planned by our guide in Kanadukathan. On entering the town, I knew was in the ideal Chettinad town that I was looking for. However it has hit the tourist map and though the streets are my kind of sleepy, I have imagined how it would be in the peak season with a bunch of white tourists taking pictures of the huge mansions. It was still off-season in Kanadukathan, and the first mansion we visited felt like it has been empty for 100 years.
There was an eery silence and every step on the wonderfully laid out tiles felt like walking on the soft sandy and more importantly a lonely beach during sunset. It is nice and much cooler inside the mansions. The walls were plastered with egg white and even before I felt the smooth texture on them, I kind of felt the temperature drop from the outside. The pictures of ancestors on the walls make the mansions look lived in, but that’s the only sign of life I thought in the present. In its past, though the same structure would have housed at least 50 people, all eating together in its huge dining area.
The Beedi making industry in South India has reduced to very few units still making the hand-rolled mini cigar. The reason I heard, was Cigarette, not that people stopped smoking. In the British days, the governor of the Madras province used to love smoking a hand-rolled cigar made in Trichy. My interest in the hand-rolled tobacco leaf from Cuba or cheeoot from Myanmar got me wondering how would it be in my very own country. I was pleasantly surprised to know that the shop that sold one of these was only a few meters away from my lunch place. With the cigar in one hand and a glass of freshly brewed ‘straang’ black milk tea, I felt that the only thing needed now was a bed to sleep.
I even asked my guide, ‘how many places still to go’. My guide was a local from Kanadukathan, and there was a sudden excitement in his voice the whole afternoon when he spoke of his village. The entire Chettinad region has many small scale home run works. The next couple of hours got us from laying our own colors on a hand made tile to frying our own murukku on a woodfired gallon of hot oil. The later was fun coz the women in the women’s co-op that made the snack were in a good mood. They let us hang around for quite a bit as we all engaged in humor that we did not understand but laughed nevertheless.
By the time we hit the basket making place, we craved for tea. I am not a tea drinker, but it is like in Poland, vodka is everywhere. Here in this region, there was tea and filter coffee on every street. In the evening at the Bangla before dinner, we made time for a drink and the cashews from the morning. As I peeled the nut I relieved the day with my brother, Ani. We spoke about tomorrow and how to go about planning it, but we also smiled about today. We smiled talking about the events of the day from the cashew roasters who seemed like they work round the clock, to the odd clock on the wall of a mansion. A clock which perhaps stopped when the family moved out but was still there to remind us of the time that was.
Later at dinner, we were upbeat as we knew that Chettinad is now open to explore as a workable idea. It is always nice to sleep to that thought! Especially after a good meal for company.
To be continued in Part 2