House Full: Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions Nor Garlic’

I spotted Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions Nor Garlic’ in Giggles. It did not occupy a pride of position. I might have missed it; it was tucked away under a pile of books. I had picked books, had my bill ready and was chatting with Nalini. I was visiting her bookshop after a gap of three months and she was narrating how she met Amitav Ghosh during his recent visit to the city. She had attended his book reading session, had been invited to join him for lunch and Ghosh had visited the bookshop. “He didn’t breathe a word about what is coming up next,” she went on when I spotted Srividya’s book. I pointed to the book. “You want that?” Nalini asked and went about carefully pulling the book out as she kept narrating about Ghosh’s visit to the bookshop. I looked at the book, passed it on to Nalini and asked her to include the price of the book in the bill. “You want to buy the book?” She paused, ran a thought in her mind and got her guess right “You know the author?” she asked. “Yes, we were together in school.” “Oh really?” her tone picked up, but it had gotten really late for me and I did not want another rally about knowing – meeting authors.

I had picked a few books, but launched on Srividya’s book first. Since then I have visited a few other bookshops and have found Srividya’s book. I have read blogs carrying reviews of the book. During these times of fanfare and tamasha that accompany book releases ‘No Onions Nor Garlic’ has made a calm entry. It is difficult for me to distance the book from my knowledge of the author who was my good friend during high school days. I shall attempt all the same!

Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions Nor Garlic’  is a comedy/satire/romance that deflates a range of things from academe to caste to marriage.  The book lays open the caste politics in Madras University. Prof Ram the bumptious senior professor in the department of English has controlled who enters the portals of his department; he had ensured that no candidate from Palayankottai, a Dalit outpost saw the light of the day in the faculty of the Department. He bullied the Jivas and the Thamarai selvis; he had a coterie of old Brahmin foxes to support him. Despite his being a watchdog of Hinduism in the Department, he cannot stop the new wave of Dalit teachers and students who want to wash into the department like the waves at the Marina beach. He installs a statue of goddess Saraswathi la- the statue of Liberty, emerging out of the Bay of Bengal to dwarf the statue of Ambedkar installed in the English Department.

As the president of Tamil Brahmin Association (TamBramsAss), he is involved in taking head-on the upward movement of the Dalits that he calls trottitude or reverse troddenness  where the scheduled castes  “stomp with an upward motion” on the upper castes to deprive Brahmin boys of their “curd rice and lime pickle”. For this, he enlists his favourite student Sundar, but the hitch is recalcitrant Sundar is in love with Jiva, a Dalit girl. The novel goes to include the family orbit of Sundar, the No 5 Varadan street residents – chain smoking, blaspheming left oriented father, a typically Tam Bram mother- Sachu- who consults next door Bucket mami on all matters personal, Kitcha , the constipated brother who works in the R& D department of Jagadambal Pappadam and Condiments. To complicate matters Sundar is also engaged to Jay, Ram’s Canada returned daughter and Sundar’s sister is engaged to Chunky, Ram’s pompous son who is a research scholar at a University in Canada. This twin engagement is the coop pulled off by Mrs Ram and Sachu, for reasons that are varied. Oh yes, there is Akilan the native interpreter for Caroline, the foreign ethnographer visiting Chennai; Sastri the frustrated research student of Prof Ram who has written about ten drafts of his thesis; Swaminathan, Prof Ram’s uncle whose Tidbits Of Vedic Wisdom in The Bindu is what  religious Tamil Brahmins prefer to start their day with besides their filter coffee and MS Subbalakshmi’s Venkateshwara Suprabatham; Thayee, the old woman who brings food for Prof Ram; Dr. Arul, a professor from the backward community and a eyesore to Prof Ram; thappu drummers and the people at Paravai village —  all of these add dimensions to the tale of love in the world of casteism and reservations.

The novel captures the stinking face of Chennai – both literal and figurative. It begins first with Madurai Muniandi Vilas, the veritable breeding place of germs and stink, moves to No.5 Varadhan house where Kitcha’s nearly hour long ablutions of gargling and nose clearing could have actually caused the bathroom to cave in while Kitcha is still at the act. The story whizzes, giving us a vertigo, to the English department where Prof Ram and Dr Arul foul the air with the choicest of expletives that climax in the unpleasant act of Prof Ram biting Arul; then it taxies its the way to Paravai village where Chunky’s incontinence creates a local myth that is bound to find its way into the folklore that Caroline will painstakingly document with the help of Akilan.

Putting a Kollywood movie to shame the novel gets knotted with twists and turns. Sastri wields a gun to take revenge on Prof Ram; he makes the professor eat the drafts that run to 1662 pages of double spaced typescript. Thayee looks at the prone body of Ram (no, he does not die, after all) and screams ‘my nephew’ la Pandribai (of Tamil movie fame) style and then Ram’s uncle kindly steps on the stage to make public the secret behind Prof Ram’s birth. The frontbenchers who have come for first day first show are delighted – Machan, Ram is not a Brahmin. Ada pavi, he is thayee’s nephew. Ram’s mother, thayee’s sister was Swaminathan’s ‘keep’, she gave birth to twins, a boy and girl. One was adopted by Swaminathan’s brother, and the other, hold your breath, is Dr Arul who grew up in an orphanage. Fi ! Fi! Fi! We blow bigle and throw paisa on the screen. A part of the crowd get up – hey kasmalam, sit down; movie is not over as yet. Hey, that’s not it – Caroline and Jay are partners and Akilan and Sundar’s sister have been married secretly. As the burgundy curtain with its load of dust embedded in the folds falls, Jiva and Sundar run in slow motion towards each other. Paisa vasool.   

Nine Nights Of Festivity: Navarathri

Today is Malaya ammavasai, the day of payasam, vadai and tharpanam in Brahmin households in Chennai. Schools have closed and crates containing gollu bommai are down from the attic. There is dust all about and old people get into sneezing fits as the gollu padi is set. Gollu bommais are arranged and kolams are drawn, as the curtain falls for the first day of navarathri tomorrow.

When I was a young girl I was busiest during Navarathri holidays. After keeping gollu on Malaya ammavasai and after a heavy lunch, my mother and I went unmindful of the puratasi kaichal (September heat) to Madaveethi in Mylapore to buy betel leaves, areca nuts, kunguma chimizh, small mirrors and dainty combs, blouse pieces of different hues and little gifts to be given with thamboolam to friend and relatives who paid visits to our home for navarathri.

Of course every navarathri my mother bought me a new pavadai. It was stitched and kept ready even before the navarathari began. I wore the new skirt for the Saraswathi puja, I had several other pavadais for the rest of the eight evenings, there were three lovely Kanchipuram pattu pavadais with yards of tuck that I wore since I was eight years old till I turned fifteen. (Refer Foot Note on Tucks and Kanchipuram Pattu).

There were shundals prepared every evening – different lentils cooked and flavoured with coconut, red chillies and karuveppalai leaves. These were wrapped in old newspapers that were torn into neat squares, and given away with thamboolam to those who visited to see the gollu. Children went on all days to every house in the neighbourhood and came back home with different shundals from different household. There were always different shundals for dinner to meet the different tastes of the family members.         

My mother recollected her days as a young girl when she and her friends dressed themselves as  Krisha and Gopis and went to different homes, sang Meera bajans that MS Subbalaksmi popularised through her movie. My mother described the jewellery she wore for the occasion, I could visualise her dressed like Baby Kamala, the young actress and classical dancer of my mother’s era whose dance of the popular patriotic number ‘Aadovome palli paaduvome’
 sung by D K Pattammal was an instantaneous hit in the movie ‘Naam Iruvar’.   

Things have not changed much in Chennai. It is the same holidays, a laid back atmosphere among certain family members juxtaposed with frenzied activity amongst certain others; certain parts of the city especially Mylapore, Triplicane, T Nagar and places where Tamil Brahmins live are frozen in time. You will just have to walk through these localities to be transposed in time to your youth.

A Footnote On Tucks & Kanchipuram Pattu
This requires a blog by itself, but I shall make do with a footnote. When Kanchipuram pattu pavadais were bought for us it was a life time investment. Kanchipuram silk was expensive and long lasting, we wore these as long as our days of pavadai wearing lasted. How can this be possible with us growing taller each year?  So tucks were invented, where yards of the silk, in several layers/ tucks were stitched inside the pavadai. Every year one tuck was opened out and the pavadai flowed longer to keep up with height that we gained. My mother stitched different patterned blouses every navarathri and gave a new avatar to the old pattu pavadais.          

There were stringent dos and donts that were listed every time I donned my pattu pavadai. – do not play wearing pattu pavadai, do not sit on the floor while wearing pattu pavadai, do not make it wet, do not trail it on the floor, bunch it up while you walk.  I followed these rules and my pavadais lasted well for over eight years. Do not please screw up your nose when I let you into this secret – my pattu pavadais had not been washed even once through all those years. There was no need, they never got dirty and I never wore my pavadai for more than a couple of hours every year. That was the tradition, washing does not go well with Kanchipuram silk, and somehow pattu will never be the same once it is washed. This was a common topic of discussion among my mother and her sisters when I was young. My mother suggested her sister to wash the sari at home and dry it without wringing it. Another aunt of mine shared the wisdom of giving the sari for dry wash, my mother did not subscribe to that – she confessed that her sari which had heavy jari weighed lighter after a dry wash.

My mother took great care of the Kanchipuram pattu saris. She aired them, pressed them by keeping them under the bed and wrapped them in my father’s old veshtis in such a manner that when folded the zaris of her different saris never rubbed against each other. Very rarely she washed them or gave for dry wash. Her marriage sari, the nine yards kura pudavai that she wore when my father tied the thali remained with her for 35 years. The maroon sari with gold border never lost its lustre, not once did she wash it. She wore it on all auspicious occasions and strangely because she did not wash it, the sari was considered as madi.   

Giggle At Your Risk

After a gap of many months I dropped by the bookshop Giggles. Nalini, the person who runs the shop suggested various titles and  I took my time looking around. If you know Giggles you will understand that ‘looking around’ is not to be taken as a particularly perfect way to spend a balmy September afternoon. Once you know what is at stake, you might want to go to Landmark instead and Nalini will hold no hard feelings against you. Well Nalini is like that and more so, Giggles is like that! The books are stacked from the floor to the roof, so towers of books gently rest on each other all along the narrow room to make a formidable wall with a narrow passage. I pick my way through with my waistline that I toil hard to maintain for the sole purpose of gaining Nalini’s approval. If a pile is upset while I walk up and down the ramp in search of titles, Nalini knows what to blame. If you want to pull out a book that is at your eye level, it calls for a lot of care. Nalini is very cool about getting any book from the pile for you. She is ensconced in her seat and has to make various adjustments if she wants to come out, like moving away a few bulky coffee table books, squeezing between her table and a tower of books that reclines towards her in a comradely fashion. She does that sometimes, now she has rated me a pro in pulling books without causing a landslide, she just gives a few suggestions: “Uma, move Vikram Seth from there, leave Rushdie – he is OK, just hold him tight and press him down, now pull the book you want.”  There are many books that I have retrieved in this fashion, holding and caressing various authors – just following blindly Nalini’s instructions.          

Whose History Is It?

The Pillar That Devanaampiya Ashoka Commissioned To Be Built

My son and I got involved in researching on the history of Ashok Nagar, a locality in Chennai where I lived with my family; it was the place where I grew up. After marriage I moved to Hosur where my son was born. Then we went to Baroda and when my son was eight we moved back to Chennai and Ashok Nagar.

Ashok Nagar spreads on the four sides of a tall pillar which is an accurate modern day replica of the pillars built during Ashoka’s time. The pillar was the launch pad for our research. The pillar made of concrete, is definitely a serious architectural project. The pillar seems built with great expertise and precision. Who commissioned the pillar to be built? I have no clue how to trace the person/s who built it. I can for sure say that no political party was involved in this project as there is no reference to anyone/ party near the pillar, which is always the case. If an individual commissioned the pillar, s/he should have obtained permission from concerned authorities. And the person/s has chosen to remain incognito. Or I did not try enough to find whose philanthropic gesture it was to create a landmark that reminds us of a great emperor of India.

Why was Devanaampiya Ashoka invoked so far from his birth place? I am not very surprised at this because Ashoka is one of the few historical heroes who are part of our collective consciousness. The career of Ashoka as the ambitious prince and king, the bloody Kalinga war, the remorse of the emperor at the brutal killings, conversion to Buddhism and the path of pacifism has been followed and absorbed effectively by us as students despite the dispirited and monotonous presentation by school history textbooks. Moreover capital of Ashoka’s pillar has been taken as the national emblem. Every civics book for schools carries this piece of information.

Our first engagement in researching on the history of Ashok Nagar took us 2000 years back in time to 300 B.C. My son had read enough about the Mauryas. Chandra Gupta is more favoured by my son than Ashoka. My son goes again and again to the episode of the precious lesson that Chandra Gupta learnt from a mother chiding her child not to eat the food from the centre of the plate, but to start from the periphery where the food is cold. Chandra Gupta adopted this as his political strategy for empire building. My son is very impressed with this anecdote and this was his entry point to the study of Indian history. He justifies why Chandra Gupta is a better emperor than Ashoka, my son remains unimpressed by the map that shows the large extent of Ashoka’s empire. According to him Chandra Gupta is the emperor in the truest of sense as he left a legacy that could outlive him. He reminds me that the Mauryan Empire collapsed less than fifty years within Ashoka’s death, while Chandra Gupta with his preceptor Kautilya left a strong empire for his successor Bindusara, Ashoka’s father.

We regaled our knowledge of the three great emperors of the Mauryan empire, the conscious efforts made by Ashoka to spread his philosophy of pacifism, non-violence and vegetarianism by commissioning pillars made of polished stone be erected in various parts of his kingdom. These pillars bore edicts that expressed his philosophy and beliefs; he further encouraged monks to travel across his kingdom and beyond it through land and sea route to spread Buddhism.

Ashoka’s son Mahindra has gone down in history for reasons that his father, as a true Buddhist would have been proud of. Mahindra along with Sanghamitra, Ashoka’s daughter, became Buddhist monks. They travelled to Ceylon to spread Buddhism. There are evidences that point that the Ceylon king Tissa and Ashoka were friends and that Mahindra was sent initially by Ashoka for Tissa’s coronation. Later Mahindra might have gone not on a diplomatic mission but to spread Buddhism, a source says that Tissa’s queen was ordained as a monk.

Buddhism spread to the southern outreaches beyond the Mauryan Empire, to the Early Sangam kingdoms. Buddhist monks, traders and merchants brought Buddhism to the Tamil kingdoms. It is a matter of pride that the Sangam kingdoms remained impenetrable. It did not fall a prey to the political design of Ashoka. However trade, both inland and overseas flourished between the Sangam kingdoms and the Mauryans. While monks traveled along the river valley, the Deccan plateau was deemed unsafe by merchants and traders to essay with their goods. They preferred the sea route. Nagapattinam was a busy port where ships from the Mauryan port of Tamralipti docked. Mylai and Mallai were small villages that served as quiet ports for small time merchants and traders.

Our engagement with facts stopped there. From thereon our wings of conjecture took flight. My son and I, as we stood close to the present day Pillar wondered if Buddhist monks traveled close to the spot where we stood, did they carry tales of the great emperor. Why did Mahindra and Sanghamitra not consider going en route Sangam kingdoms to Ceylon? Or did they? There are no evidences for that. Did Buddhist merchants and traders crisscross with their wares close to the place of my origin?

This exercise to construct connection between the Ashok Pillar of modern day with Devanaampiya Ashoka is based on certain assumptions. There is the assumption that the strong and dominant culture of the Mauryas impinged on other cultures. There is even a subconscious yearning to be a part of the greater forces, the larger history. Aren’t histories of individuals not valid? Can’t we construct our own histories – history as we live and see it?

The Pillar That Bears My Personal History

During the 70s Ashok Nagar, a suburb in Madras, was just developing. The Housing Board was constructing new flats in this locality; there were not too many takers. T Nagar, Mylapore and Nungambakkam were the residential areas in South Madras that were highly sought after. My parents were staying in dismally small houses in Nungambakkam and T Nagar when they decided to buy their own house. In those days there were not many flats; people lived in independent houses with a garden all around to grow Thulasi, Parijatham, Karuveppalai and Malli. My maternal grandfather’s house in Mylapore was a typically traditional living space with rezhi, mitham, koodaram and thaavaram, a back yard with maa maram, nelli maram and vazhai maram. 70s was a transition period, charm and pride attached to living in Mada veedhi of Mylapore and Triplicane were passé for the Brahmin families, and the younger generation bought houses in T Nagar, Alwarpet, Nungambakkam, Mandavelli and Raja Annamali Puram. Santhome was for Anglo Indians, Vadapalani was OK for lower middle class Brahmin families, and Kodambakkam had a mix of Brahmin households and a liberal sprinkle of Christians. Those who had been habitating in these parts of Madras knew of places like Kellis, Purasaiwakkam in North Madras and Adayar, Saidapet in South Madras only by their names. Places like George Town, Mount Road, and Parry’s Corner were commercial hubs of Madras. Ashok Nagar was totally unheard of; it could have been in Timbuktu.

That was what everybody expressed when my father announced that he was booking a housing board MIG (Middle Income Group) flat near Ashok Pillar in Ashok Nagar. Relatives and friends looked at my parents like as though they were moving to a British outpost in Africa. They looked up facts about the suburb, they were thankful that a subway in Mambalam and an overhead bridge in Kodambakkam span over the railway track to connect the rest of the world with Ashok Nagar. They gave a tick. Next, they checked the bus services available. There were two buses from Ashok Nagar to Mylapore – 12 E and 12 F (my mother’s parents lived in Mylapore); two buses to Nungambakkam – 25 B and 17 D (1. My father’s uncle lived in Nungambakkam; 2. I a
nd my brother studied at PSBB School in Nungambakkam; 3. My mother worked as a teacher in the same school). 25 B and 17 D plied my father to George Town where his bank was located. No other connectivity mattered – so a double tick. Every one thought it was not so bad after all.

That was only until they visited Ashok Nagar for the first time. My mother’s parents, her brothers and sisters got down from bus near Ashok Pillar, to find themselves in wilderness. There was a very tall concrete pillar, picturesquely flanked by eucalyptus trees on all sides. Deserted roads diverged on all the four sides from the Pillar. They took the road going south; eucalyptus trees and gul mohar trees cast long shadows on the kutcha red earth road. There was no sign of civilization. They hopefully walked on, confident that they were on the right track; their confidence waned the moment they encountered a thick grove of mango trees. It appeared like the Congo forest to them, they were not prepared for this sort of adventure at all. My parents always forgot to mention the large expanse of Mango grove that spread between Ashok Pillar and their flat as a valuable landmark. It was always a practice for us to cross the grove and bring home our visitors. It was akin to going to the gate to welcome guests; except that this type of welcome ceremony entailed a half a km walk across the dark grove, which I loathed doing alone even on the sunniest and brightest of days. I always ran through the grove; even the juiciest of mangoes from the trees did not entice me when I was alone.

My father briskly emerged from the grove and led my grand parents, uncles and aunts through the cool shade of the trees, jewels of sunlight sparkled through the leaves. My mother’s family was down to earth, a no-nonsense clan from Mylapore; they had no poetry in their souls to appreciate the quiet copse that through its emerald haze filtered shafts of sunlight. They were more worried about leaving the place before sunset.

They were however happy with the flat; it was large, well ventilated with enough space in the front and back to nurture a garden. There were only four rows of flats that ran parallel; there were 10 blocks in each row, with four houses in each block. The roads between the rows of flats were broad, our flat, thankfully for me, was the farthest from the grove. Across the road there were empty plots of land, a narrow lane cut from the road and lead to a raised land that we called medu. Along this lane spread a large colony of huts; our milkman, flower seller and house cleaner came from this colony which was a criss cross of lanes and by lanes which I always enjoyed exploring.

This lane that lead to the medu was my favourite haunt. There was a nadar kadai where goli soda, kadalai urundai, butter biscuit and kamarakat were sold. The nadar kadai proved handy for my mother and grandmother too. The nadar sold vegetables and provisions, everything we bought there had the dank smell of dark, moist and closed spaces; the tamarind and the salt most of all carried this. Though my mother favoured a slightly bigger shop on the medu, for urgent needs I was made to dash across to the nadar, an errand that I enjoyed carrying out. The nadar kadai was useful for my uncle too as he went there to buy his cigarettes. He stood at the shop chatting up with his friends while they smoked. There was always a coir wick burning at its edge for people like my uncle to light his cigarette.

I studied K1 and K2 in PSBB, Nungambakkam. The school was in its nascent stage; due to lack of space it worked in shifts. My brother and I attended the morning shift while my mother who taught for the high school attended the noon shift. My days in PSBB were a blur, probably because I was bathed and packed to school even before I woke up for the day. I studied grades 1 -3 in a school called Annie Besant located in Ashok Nagar. A woman called paal kara Lakshmi (she was a milk woman who doubled into a helping hand during the day) took me to school and brought me back home, she helped me carry my school bag. I crossed the mango grove twice a day en route school and back. I do not remember clearly when the grove was cleared, the grove existed during the years I attended Annie Besant school, which was my sixth and seventh year. The grove was razed to ground in no time. The open space gaped angrily at us. Now after thirty years the place is unrecognizable, the grove has become a tale that I tell my son; there is always a tinge of shame and guilt in my tone that I never valued the grove and took pleasure in its vastness and quietness.

The highlight in the history of Ashok Nagar was the building of a large shopping complex near Pillar. Those were not the times of shopping malls or shopping complexes. We were used to strings of shops in Mylapore opposite the temple tank or rows of shops along the road in Luz corner; a building complex constructed exclusively to house shops was a new concept for us. It took almost six to eight months for the complex to be built and at about 1974 it was completely operational. The shopping complex was a fairly large structure with two floors. On the ground floor were shops, there were provision stores, tailor shops, a medical shop, a stationery shop and a launderer. There were TUCS (Tamilnadu Urban Cooperative Society) and the Ration shop where commodities like pulses, cereals, sugar, oil and kerosene were sold at subsidized rates. The Ration shop was a busy outlet, people stood in long queues to buy their rations against the cards that were issued to them. Other than these shops there was the Indian Bank on the ground floor and Housing Board office on the first floor.

Older than the shopping complex was the Ashok Nagar Recreation club. This was an asbestos roofed bluish green structure, located at the edge of bramble filled open space that extended west of Pillar. There was another access to the club from my flat. The club was located on a broad road on the west of the mango grove. We skirted the mango grove on its western periphery to reach the broad road that we called the 5 E road as the only bus that plied on the road was 5 E. I have not been inside the club. My father’s cousin lived next door. Her husband and my friend’s father who lived in the flat above ours frequented the club. My father told me that these two men went there to play cards (sittu kutcheri). As children we were not interested in the club, we preferred to explore the thickly over grown space around the club. My brother played cricket with his friends in the open space across the club and I learnt cycling on the broad 5E road. The road was quiet with no traffic, an ideal place for playing cricket and learning cycling.

Adayar River runs south of Ashok Nagar, in those days it was a murky stream tugged down by domestic and industrial wastes. The only time the river appeared panoramic was soon after good rains; it flowed carrying in its swift current broken twigs and dry leaves – no there were no polythene bags. I am talking about pre–plastic proliferation era when there were thankfully no plastic carry bags, so no ugly bags ballooning in the water to besmear the face of the earth.

Spanning the river was a low bridge which submerged in the river every other monsoon. The road that extended from the bridge led to Guindy where there was the industrial estate; the estate was itself in its embryonic stage and there were few small industries tucked behind clusters of trees. This stretch of road from the bridge to the estate was quiet; my father went here for long walks in the mornings.

Beyond the bridge, on the right, about a kilometer down south a brief detour took us to Defence colony, a posh neighborhood with large houses and tastefully maintained garden. We explored this quiet neighbourhood many times, walked all the way on hot summer afternoons to play and loiter in the shady avenues. We knocked doors and asked for water to drink, the red dust from the earth that settled on our hair made us look like urchins and vagabonds.

When my cousins visited us during holidays, we packed food and went picnicking to St Thomas Mount which was five kms away from home. To reach the mount we had to pass through the Defence Colony and beyond it through paddy fields and mango groves. It took us about three hours to reach the mount. We left at dawn before the sun rose high in the skies, we ate the goodies that my mother had packed for us, relaxed under trees, played about in the fields and reached the mount dog tired and dirty. It was late morning by the time we reached the foot of the hill, we then dragged ourselves up the steps with no energy left in us to jump the rocks and trek up. All our exhaustion vanished the moment we reached the top of the hill. The view from the top was breath taking. On the west stretched a rocky terrain, on the south the brown runway of the airport posed a contrast to the green trees that rolled on the east. Roads leading south were black lines that could be viewed between the crops of trees. Beyond the trees on the east were the rocky hills. As we inhaled the fresh air we realized how we had left the dust and crowd at the foot of the mountain and had stepped onto a reified realm where a collage of earth brown, greys and greens cooled our eyes. We turned north-east and searched for the Ashok Pillar, it emerged majestic out of clouds of greyish green trees and the houses and buildings that seemed crawled out from our height were blurs of grey. We pointed at the buildings spread close to the Pillar and claimed that was our house; it was a pleasant sport for me to close my eyes facing the north- east direction and visualize my mother at home attending some late morning chore.

The face of Ashok Nagar kept changing through all these years. A marriage hall in mid 70s, Udayam theatre in late 80s, the ESI hospital and Maya hospital built at about the same time, more flats and independent houses, Government Girls High School, private schools big and small made Ashok Nagar a busy place and far from an outpost.

Thirty odd years since my parents moved into their own home and 2000 odd years after Mauryan traders walked in the same neighbourhood, the locality has changed beyond recognition. Would the traders, merchants and monks of Ashoka’s time be able to make sense of the mayhem that this locality has turned out to be – the traffic, the dust, noise and crowd?

History has been carried down the centuries; Ashoka, his empire building acumen and his ideology has reached us through various sources – archaeological sources, literary sources and folklore. Ashoka has been appropriated in the nation building agenda in post independence India. In present times something inspired a person to build a tall pillar in what was a quiet suburb, a pillar modeled meticulously after the pillars that Ashoka built. I and many people like me have participated with this individual and with Ashoka in making the history of the locality happen. This goes to underline the point that we have to move away from the overbearing shadows of great heroes and acknowledge the histories that common man/woman make.