Sunday, March 11, 2012

Virugambakkam, Home Away from Home When We're in Chennai

When we go to Chennai, we stay with Rajan's eldest brother, Ranganathan, and our sister-in-law, Soundara, in an area called Virugambakkam, and we visit other relatives from there. (Chennai is so huge and sprawled out, that areas or districts have names of their own, almost like mini-cities.) Imagine street after street after street, going on for miles and miles. And to get a real feel for traveling in the city, go to this site. 


As soon as Ravi and Ranganathan brought us from the station, Soundara brought us good, strong coffee with milk and sugar. Let me say, there is nothing as heart-warming as South Indian coffee. (And I speak as one who loves the coffee in Spain.) There's a special technique in making South Indian coffee and combining the hot milk, pouring it back and forth and then serving it, and it was just the thing to shake off our travel weariness. 
(There is also a special technique to drinking this coffee in such a way that the cup never touches one's lips. Everyone makes it look so effortless that I once tried it, sure that it was easily done. Well, it is not. I got coffee all over me!) You can learn more about making it and serving it and the utensils required at this blog site. (It's also a site for wonderful Indian recipes. You'll really want to pay a visit.)


Ravi (our nephew) had to go to work after he dropped us at the house. Later in the morning his father (Rajan's 2nd brother) came over, and the morning was spent with the brothers visiting and other relatives telephoning to set up times for visits. Later in the afternoon, Soundara and Rajan and I walked over to visit with Kalyani's family three streets away. (Raghavan and Kalyani -- another brother and sister-in-law -- live in Pittsburgh, but they own the house at Virugambakkam.) A couple of weeks after our return from the trip, Kalyani's mother passed away; it's a time of sadness for them all, so I will wait to post about the paintings Renukka (Kalyani's sister-in-law) does. This just isn't the time.


Each time we go to India, by the third day I feel I've been there forever. Time seems to stand still there, and India has a way of just seeping into your psyche as daily routines unfold. We stay in our usual corner room, and each morning I wake again to the odd call of the Indian cuckoo, a different sound from that of the European cuckoo. In previous trips I've only ever heard one calling again and again, and always in the morning. This time there was a whole chorus of voices throughout the day. You can hear the cuckoo for yourself at this site. You can see a picture of one on this page at Wikipedia, since I couldn't ever capture it on film myself. They're really rather large birds, as you can see. 


As the morning unfolds, incense floats from the shrine where Ranganathan does poojai. He gives us each a palmful of holy water, and a small piece of banana, and, for me, flowers for my hair. Overhead fans whir overhead, stirring the heat, while delicious aromas float from the kitchen, because Soundara is a master cook. (Pattu had planned to come to Chennai and help Soundara with the cooking, but then she caught a virus, and her doctor told her to stay home for a week.) 


Not being Brahman, I couldn't help Soundara in the kitchen (though she was generous with her recipes and let me see how she prepared them). So all alone she served up feasts during our stay: vangibath, a spiced mixture of eggplant and rice; idlis that were marvels of fluffiness with sambar; snake gourd chopped fine and spiced. I could go on and on. As for tiffins: gulab jaman,deep fried dough balls soaked in syrup; ladu,an incredible "semi-sweet" made from lentil flour, sugar, and ghee, that literally melts in your mouth; savories like ribbon and vadai, another treat made from soaked dhal that has been ground to a thick dough flavored with chiles and salt and then deep fried.


Soundara is in her 80s and gets tinier each time I see her.Each time her face seems sweeter, if that's possible. She had her teeth all removed recently, but her smile is no less radiant. Rajan was four years old when she married Ranganathan, and she has always held a special place in my husband's heart. And I know she enjoys so much the opportunity to talk with Rajan face to face, even though we call often from California. It never is the same, is it?


Ranganathan, turning 90, was his same kindly, enlightened self. A devout Hindu, he is open and tolerant to all religions. When we visit, he tells me more about the Mahabharata, or the Upanishads, or other sacred writings that he continues to study. They say good people shine from afar, and these two are simply distilled goodness. I miss them when we come home.
A photo Rajan took of Ranganathan.




Soundara on the right; Shamala, on the left, comes once a day and helps with housework.
















When we are there, I love listening to Tamil swirling around my ears. All of our relatives speak English, but for catching up on news, it's quicker and easier for my husband and them to speak in Tamil, while he translates to me. I have valiantly tried to learn Tamil, but it's a challenge for one who didn't learn it young. The script is so different, and the alphabet is composed of many more vowels and consonants than in English. Not only that, the written symbol is slightly different for each vowel/syllable combination. You can see the whole alphabet at Wikipedia

The grammar is different, too, because like some other South Indian languages, Tamil is not Indo-European, but Dravidian. So, I content myself with simply appreciating the lovely sound of it when I'm there, and learning a few serviceable phrases (that I'm sure I pronounce all wrong.) Our relatives all promise that if I stayed there a year, I would be fluent in Tamil, but they are being kind, I know. This is a very kind family in so many ways.

Next post will be about our visits and visitors.

25 comments:

Theresa Milstein said...

Sounds like quite an experience. You made me feel like I was there too.

There's nothing like Indian food, is there?

Richard said...

I've never been to India, but from everything I've ever seen or heard about it, it's a world of it's own.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Theresa, I'm glad you felt that way. I love sharing India. There is more tto come.

Richard, you are so right. It's another world, but after a few days it feels like the only world. No doubt due to the hospitality India is famous for.

Joanna said...

I am absolutely loving your posts about India. With speak with such warmth and appreciation about this beautiful diverse culture and land.

You are not a Brahmin, but in what category would you fall, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Joanna, I'm glad you are enjoying the posts. As for the category in which I would fall: spiritual but not formally attending any church, a blend of Christian with a strong Hindu leaning. (Gandhi found them compatible; so do I.)

Lydia Kang said...

I've never seen a cuckoo and that coffee looks AMAZING! These posts have been so wonderful. :)

Alleged Author said...

I've never had South Indian coffee. It sounds fabulous. So glad you had fun!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Looks like you had a great time in Chennai. Did you have a typical south Indian tiffin( breakfast) complete with piping hot filter coffee.

J. A. Bennett said...

Wow! That sounds amazing! I'm loving the bird call. I really want to visit there someday. It sounds just wonderful!

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Hi, Lydia & Alleged, yes, the coffee is fabulous. No other way to describe it. It's strong, though.

Hi, Rachna, yes we always have a typical tiffin with coffee made just that way. Yum. When we came home, the first thing I did was make a batch of idlis.

J.A., yes, that birdcall gets me every time. It's a sound I've just never heard except there. It's so different from the cuckoo clock cuckoo.

Mark Noce said...

I'm curious about that coffee drinking technique.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Ah, Mark, it's hard to explain. They tilt their head, raise the cup above their lips, tilt the cup, and the coffee flows, waterfall style, but neatly, right into their mouths. In my case it flowed, not so neatly, all over my blouse.

Rosi said...

Lovely post and lovely people. Sounds like a grand time.

David P. King said...

It would be so nice to travel and broaden my horizons. Thanks for sharing your journey with us! :)

Terri said...

I suspect with much practise one would acquire the coffee drinking skill, providing that is, you´re not too burnt or too wet. By the way is the coffee hot or lukewarm?
I have seen here where wine is drunk from a bag( I shall look up the exact name) and again if performed correctly looks impressive. Not quite the same if the wine ends up everywhere but the mouth!

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

David, believe it or not, I used to feel I never wanted to travel. We moved a lot when I was a kid, so that's probably why. But it only took one trip to another land, and I was hooked. And it really has broadened my horizons, as you said.

Terri, the coffee is HOT. But you are right, practice would make perfect, etc. I'd like to see wine drunk from a bag. Maybe the next time we are in Spain.

Moonstar02 said...

Hi its me M.D from your artclass.Im the one who did that cute tiger picture.Im so happy I found your blog and I love the pictures.

Linda Jackson said...

Hi Elizabeth. You have been tagged over at my blog www.writersdolaundrytoo.blogspot.com. Hope you don't mind. :)

Terri said...

Mitty, went walking this morning along to Guitara and on the road saw what looked like 2 branches on closer inspection these turned out to be columns of caterpillars. There must have been at least 20 in each chain. A couple seemed to have become disorientated and we tried to attach them to their leaders, unforunately to no avail.
Neither Montse or myself have ever seen anything quite like it!
PS The wine bag is called "bota" and was widelt used in all of Spain. Made from a sheeps stomach and kept the wine cool. Plastic bottles have taken over!

Terri said...

Re your comments about travelling/ moving. As a child I always wanted to move house. I certainly achieved my goal... moved house 10 times (at least) in 38 years, living 11 years alone in one property. I´m a wizz at packing!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Elizabeth, I have tagged you on my blog.

Moonstar02 said...

Thank you.I can't wait till next class.Happy St. Patrick Day!Your blog so tottaly rocks.

Moonstar02 said...

Your the coolest teacher ever!

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Linda and Rachna, how nice of you to tag me, and that tag looks like a fun exercise. Hope you won't mind if I wait to pursue it, though. I have more posts about India coming first; and some book reviews I want to post. And I usually only post about once a week these days.

Terri, moving and traveling are such different things! Moving I did not like. (Always the new kid in class with fences to jump.) Traveling I just LOVE.

Moonstar, thank you for nice compliments to both my blog and to the art lessons.

Terri said...

I found out about the caterpillar chain.Some of the pine cones are covered in a white netting similar to spiders nest and these cones drop to the floor and from these the caterpillars emerge and start their journey towards eventually I suppose becoming butterflys. From the terrace I can see a pine tree with lots of it´s cones covered in webs. So, I hope it means lots of butterflys. I do hope so.