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Armed with a copy of Dan Cruickshank’s A Portrait of a City in 13 Walks, I arrived in London in December 2022, only to be welcomed by a temperature that was downright forbidding. The unforgiving cold slashed, clawed and gnawed at my face while every gust of wind was like experiencing the impact of a thousand pin pricks. Yet I was unwavering in my determination to gallivant around Hampstead Heath and relive the industrial bustle of Victorian Bermondsey. As the remorseless weather incrementally put paid to many of my hopes, I sought consolation in a pile of books. The first one that I reached out to was Desanthiri a travelogue by the prolific author S. Ramakrishnan. And incidentally it was the only one that I kept myself occupied with throughout my brief stay in Old Blighty.
From watching the rays of a resplendent Sun through the windows of his home in the district of Ramanathapuram, to traversing the length and breadth of India in conveyance of every type (including undertaking a 6-day journey from Sivakasi to Delhi in a lorry just to soak in the experience of traveling by that particular automobile), S. Ramakrishnan weaves a seraphic tapestry of travel, whose quintessential leitmotif is “understanding India”. 41 Chapters, each not exceeding 6 pages provide a marvelous glimpse of an India that revels in the confluence of the old and the new. There is no clash of contradictions between the ancient and the modern but an unwritten malleability, a ductile recognition of acceptance and co-existence. The travelogue primarily concentrates on South India in general, and Tamil Nadu, in particular.
In Sarnath, amidst a cruel cold and blustery wind that serrates his skin, Ramakrishnan enveloped by a shroud like fog, encounters hordes of patient people adopting a statuesque manner while paying their obeisance to the Buddha. Eons ago, an identical scene would have played out day after day after day, but in the presence of the Great One. Can his manifestation still be found in the absolute stillness of Sarnath, thus wonders Ramakrishnan.
Approximately 25 kilometres from Srivalliputthur, in the district of Virudanagar, lies a small and obscure town named Arjunapuram. This unknown locality houses one of the most famous wells in South Indian mythology. The legendary character of Nallathankal, a woman who after being tortured by her sister-in-law, and leading an existence of hunger and poverty flings herself into a well but not before pushing her 7 children into a watery grave. Folklore has it that the lot is miraculously resurrected. Even today in Arjunapuram, puppet shows are held in memory of Nallathankal and instruments such as the Australian Didgeridoo are used in the process. Women silently weep and brush away their tears as the show reaches the tragic point of Nallathankal’ s suicide. Legend has it that a peep in the well would reveal a lock of Nallathankal’ s hair even to this day. Disappointed at not finding his piece of interest, Ramakrishnan accosts a woman leveling a fence and asks her if she has seen Nallathankal’ s hair. To his utter chastisement and chagrin, the woman of humble origin retorts, “Every village town and city has Nallathankals drowning on a daily basis. Even if the water of every well dries up, you may find mundane objects thrown inside, but you would not be able to hear the anguish and lament of a woman let alone get a glimpse of her hair.”
Ramakrishnan bemoans the fact that our grasp of history does not leave the cramped confines of bland textbooks. The desolate railway station of Maniacchi is a classic case in point. A revolutionary activist during the Indian independence movement, Vanchinathan, assassinated the then Collector of Tirunelveli, Robert Ashe as a recrimination for his misdeeds, before taking his own life. He was all of 25. The gunshot that reverberated across London is now reduced to a neglected footnote warranting 10 “marks” in an examination paper. Meanwhile the station named after this Braveheart lies in a decrepit state.
Only a sparse populace is aware of the fact in the famed Saraboji Palace in Tanjavur, there exists a separate section that highlights the progress made in India during that age in the field of ophthalmology. In 1752, while the whole world was celebrating the surgical exploits of ophthalmologists in France, King Saraboji himself was operating on patients by employing pioneering techniques in ophthalmology that did not even require anesthesia. The palace contains extensive documentation of the same.
My ‘bucket list’ also contained a visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the place that birthed William Shakespeare. But I am ashamed to confess that I was not aware of the birthplace of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a veritable genius and India’s gift to the wonderful and mystical world of Mathematics. His house, at Sarangapani Kovil Street in Kumbakonam, even though designated as a public and renowned place of interest, attracts a maximum of up to 5 visitors per day! This may still be 5 more than the number of visitors attracted by Kayathaaru, the place where the revolutionary King and freedom fighter Veerapandiya Kattabomman was hung by the British. This place would have faded into oblivion had the magnanimous Tamizh actor Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan not erected a statue of the fallen warrior out of his own funds, following the spectacular success of a movie based on the exploits of this fearless son of India.
Desanthiri is remarkable for its sweep. But it is also revealing in its wake. It is a ruthless albeit necessary wake up call, a much-needed kick in the butt! While it is not a crime to travel 4594 miles to drink a pint of beer sitting in the same pub where once George Orwell and Virginia Woolf imbibed their spirits, it is an absolutely travesty not being aware of the fact that a bunch of dedicated, yet unknown sculptors have sculpted such exquisite marvels in Gangaikondachozha Puram that one of the idols of Goddess Parvathi even has a depiction of the nerves in her feet!
At least from a personal viewpoint.
Desanthiri – An Indian Wanderlust!
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