In the searing hot winds that scream across, raising clouds of dust, where in corners you see miniature whirlwinds or twisters lifting up garbage and waste paper, in the evenings after office, I used to cycle around listlessly. There was nothing much to do in Chidambaram except to go inside the huge temple complex behind the high walls, sit beside the large beautiful temple tank with granite steps and feed the fish. On holidays, I would take a book and lie down in the cool corridors around the tank, read, smoke, go for a coffee, come back and read.
Sometimes I would cycle to the Annamalai University campus which was about 5- 6 kms from where I stayed. With a borrowed ticket, I would browse in the library of the University. In the evening I would go to the small railway station, never much of a crowd there, sit beneath a tree and read or watch people.
One day, I was riding by. In those days, Chidambaram moved on bullock carts or horse ( mule) carts. Not many cars. In front of me, there trotted along a bullock cart with a Muslim family inside. A young girl, purdha-ed except for her face sat at the rear, facing me. Though her head was covered, I could see her dark eyes, kohled. A tip of the purdha was pulled across the lower face with her hand. She had such beautiful long fingers, so smooth and fair a skin. Mesmerised, I tagged along behind, hoping to see her face. She knew; and held on to the mask, though I could see her eyes were laughing. The tandem must have gone on for a couple of kilometers; she would give me an occasional glance. Nobody else seemed to notice us. Then came the junction where I had to turn off. She must have sensed it in the way I slowed my bike, the disappointment clearly writ on my face.
As I slowly stopped and gazed at the cart moving away, perhaps a kind breeze would have come; or perhaps the girl would have felt some sympathy - the mask was let off from her hand for a fleeting moment and I must have stared open-mouthed - for it was a face of such beauty, I remember her full red lips, the aquiline nose and the eyes that spoke of an inexplicable sorrow. Just a glimpse, just a moment - 30 years later I still can see her...
Perhaps she must have been a wife to the old man sitting up front; perhaps - I don't know; I will never know. I will never ever know where she is, if she is still alive.
I sometimes wonder why such trivial moments stay with us. One forgets so many things; names, faces, important happenings, dates - why, sometimes I have to think twice to remember my wedding date!
Like a dry leaf taken up by the wind, this incident too has gone, never to come back. Tapping at the keyboard, I make a garland of my memories...
*********** Balachandran v, Trivandrum, 30.05.2009