Tirunelveli is a minor, relatively well-known city in southern India. It’s famous for many things: iruttukadai halwa, temples, and rivers, to name a few. It’s less well known for being an absolute nightmare to navigate.
Take a guess as to where my family ended up last summer.
In Tirunelveli’s defense, however, we were relying on dated memories and facts. After years of never once reconnecting with our past, my maternal family decided to visit my grandmother’s ancestral home in a village just outside Tirunelveli. Our trip around Tamil Nadu was a homecoming, a way to rediscover what we had always known.
So we were lost in the labyrinth of dirt roads, stranded without service. A metaphor for self-discovery? Maybe. But we were really just lost.
We’ve just finished a massive meal at an Ashok Bhavan in Tirunelveli when my grandmother expresses a stray desire to visit her hometown again. Her request is barely audible at first, drowned out by the shrieks of my brother and sister arguing.
My mother asks her to repeat herself. In the relative silence of the van, my grandmother asks if we have the time to visit her ancestral village.
My siblings and I both react positively, with my brother quite literally jumping up and down in his seat. My mom’s expression is pleased, and my grandpa maintains his perpetual indifference. (He’s not inclined to do much other than make niche dad jokes.)
The main challenge, however, turns out to be not starting, but the actual process of finding our way. After exiting the main city and driving along the river for some time, we discover that my grandmother’s knowledge is extremely outdated- by approximately 50 years. (Go figure, right?) Her memory continues to fail her as we drive loops on the same roads, looking for a landmark that has stayed the same over decades of industrialization.
We ask several pedestrians if they know where the village of Arungolam is, to no avail. No one recognizes the name, except for an aging man with a sparse head of wiry white hair. “Oh? What is Arungolam? I only know Arugankolam.”
Upon further prompting, however, the man goes silent. He frowns deeply, wrinkles etched into his forehead. “I don’t know, anymore.”
We leave him muttering on the side of the road, with nothing to show for our time spent except for the knowledge that my grandmother has been mispronouncing the name of her hometown for fifty-something years. (She insists that it’s the colloquial name, but my mom begs to differ.)
We’ve driven by the same run-down soda shop approximately 11 times when finally, finally, my grandmother recognizes an old temple that she frequented in her childhood. It’s tucked into a crevice formed by the muddy road and giant trees, barely visible to the passing driver. Which is probably why we missed it the first ten times.
Our driver pulls to the small clearing formed by years of pedestrians. Schoolchildren, in their crisply-ironed uniforms and pinned-up braids, are slowly filtering out of the nearby primary school. They stare unabashedly at our party of seven, clearly foreign in an infrequently-visited corner of Tamil Nadu. I wave at one group of girls as they walk by, and they quickly whip their heads away and begin whispering to each other.
My grandma slowly hobbles over to the entrance of the temple, posture as poor as ever. It’s clearly forgotten, once-bright paint now fading and delicate sculptures crumbling. It evokes a faint sense of pity within me- a symbol of a culture abandoned by many of its own people, forgotten to everyone but an aging generation.
My grandmother slides her slippers off and sets them aside, walking in. The rest of our family trails hesitantly behind her, unsure of whether we should follow or not. I hover by the stuccoed wall, itching ferociously at a reddening mosquito bite. My brother picks at the graphics on his t-shirt until I swat his arm away.
My grandma suddenly walks out after a couple of minutes of muted conversation. She’s smiling so widely that the hole from the missing tooth in the back of her mouth is visible again. She tells us about the priest, who had directed her to the homes of her childhood best friend. Her excitement bleeds out into her voice, thick and tangible. She hands the van driver a sticky note with hastily-scribbled instructions, and then we’re off.
After maybe 15 minutes of driving, the driver pulls into a tiny side street. Two houses open onto this street, each front door labeled with the family name in neat black paint. There’s an old motorbike parked next to the front porch, and two milk bags lay on the chair next to the faded brown door. The road is packed loosely, dust clouding with each step that my grandma takes towards the front porch.
My family waits, gathered around the van in an anticipatory huddle. I can see the worry etched on my mother’s face, her expression a clear window into her mind: she desperately hopes for her own mother to be happy, to be satisfied with this journey today. Even my usually-unconcerned grandfather appears concerned. He tucks his phone away and watches his wife advance.
My grandmother knocks on the door with a tight fist. Her hands are trembling, and I cannot tell if it’s from her age or her emotion. She clutches her sari like its a lifeline, and I desperately hope that she does not end today disappointed. The world itself seems to hold its breath as we wait. Even the trees stop their quiet whispering.
We watch, with bated breath.
My grandma drops her hands. Her sari is wrinkled from where she had been grasping it. I can see her ready to turn away, ready to give up, as the door slowly, slowly creaks open. A woman with thinning gray hair appears on the threshold of the door. Her skin is spotted with age, and she squints at my grandma’s face.
“Chinnu?” my grandma asks, hesitantly. The other lady’s face clears of confusion and she straightens.
“Raji? Oh my, it’s been so long! Come inside!” Chinnu exclaims. She looks past my grandma’s shoulder to see us all beaming. “Bring your family, too! I’ve just made tea.”
My family and I follow my grandmother and Chinnu into the house, removing our slippers as we do so. The front room is dark, with a wooden cot pushed against one wall. The room opens up into the sunny courtyard, the area smelling of ginger and cardamom. Chinnu urges all of us to sit down and wait as she brings the tea. I yank my siblings to the floor as my grandparents ease themselves onto dusty plastic chairs.
Chinnu brings out a tray with three cups of steaming tea in stainless steel glasses. She rushes back into the kitchen and brings out packets of Indian snacks and sweets. She pushes one bag of murukku towards my brother. “Eat, eat!” she urges. “Do you want to drink milk? Or Bournvita?”
My sister and I decline, but my brother nods eagerly. Chinnu brings out two more cups, one with hot Bournvita and the other with tea for herself. She sits down in the chair next to my grandmother, and they begin discussing the events of the last 50 years. I eavesdrop on their conversation, not wanting to miss a single detail.
Chinnu and my grandmother had stayed in touch until they each got married; at that point, they’d drifted from each other and hadn’t had a way to get back in contact. She and my grandma discuss every topic possible, from family to their work life, to common friends of theirs and what they did with their lives.
Finally, the topic turns to my grandma’s visit to Arugankolam. She details every last twist and turn to our journey, punctuating her sentences with flying hands and dramatic voices. Chinnu turns to look at us, and asks “Are these your grandchildren? They’re so cute? Do they speak Tamil?”
I stand up and walk over to Chinnu. My grandmother answers her and prompts me to introduce myself with a vague gesture. I comply and say in Tamil, “Hi, Chinnu Aunty. My name is Shriya.”
Chinnu lifts her hands up and pinches my cheeks, hard. “She’s so cute!” she says to my grandma. “My grandchildren don’t visit me very often.” Her face falls a little. “No one really visits me anymore. They’ve all moved to the city and I haven’t been able to visit Chennai.”
I sit back down and the concrete and think about this. I lose track of the conversation going around me and instead, contemplate. Entire generations of people have moved away, to bigger and better opportunities. They’ve left entire cultures and societies in their wake and lose connection with any semblance of their past. I resolve, internally, to never let myself do that.
Chinnu and my grandma get up from their seats. They hug, tightly, for a long time, and I avert my eyes. I feel as though I am watching something I shouldn’t, something deeply personal. My grandma pulls away first, an apologetic expression on her face. “I’m sorry I have to leave.”
Chinnu smiles. “There’s nothing you can do, Raji! We’ve already exchanged WhatsApps, let me at least give you something else.” She retrieves scissors from the kitchen and goes into the courtyard. She cuts off two small red roses, and hands one each to my sister and I. There’s a sad smile on her face as she reminds us: “Don’t forget about your family, OK? Once you’ve lost them, there’s no going back.”
I tuck the rose into my hair and pin it into place. We wave our goodbyes to Chinnu and her husband, and settle back into the van. They stand and wave us off, as we pull out of the driveway and into the main road.
Somehow, I think, as we pull onto the main highway, I don’t think I’m going to forget about Chinnu for a long time.