South India is a land known for its luscious landscape, generous hospitality, heritage going back to almost two millennia and cuisine containing an assortment of spices, savories and sweets. Amid this huge universe of varieties and possibilities, I grew up in a city called Coimbatore, also known as the Manchester of South India for its booming textile industry and the rich cotton fields that surround it.
When I think of my childhood, the first images that flash before me are playing with other neighborhood kids on the roads and playgrounds nearby, riding my bike in the scorching heat to explore the nooks and corners of the locality, binging on the Pokémon marathon with my brother on Sundays and relishing an ice cream bought from a street vendor.
A typical day involved waking up and getting ready, going to school in a van with other kids in the neighborhood, coming back home, having lunch, taking a nap and then playing with the kids on my street until my mother yelled for me to come home and start my homework. I spent most of my time outside the home with kids coming from different families, castes and religions. No one focused on any differences.
In India, the schooling system involves three terms (quarterly, half yearly and annual), with exams at the end of each one, followed by a vacation. For every single vacation, I went to my maternal grandparents’ place — usually with my mother and brother. They lived in a village named Tirunelveli, which is about seven hours from Coimbatore.
The street had four houses, and each of them belonged to someone in my extended family. I absolutely relished those days, since it involved more time to play with my first and second cousins. I also got pampered by my grandparents, who never said no to anything I asked for.
I was exceptionally close to my maternal grandfather and always looked forward to being with him. His room was full of antiques, relics and vintage books. I was 7 then and cherished spending time in his room, mostly for the musty smell that filled one’s nostrils whenever he opened his bookshelf.
One morning, he handed me a book from his collection and told me that I could keep that book if I summarized the essence of the story by the end of the day. That task and the reward became a ritual, as I often visited him. By the time I was 10, I had a small vintage book collection of my own. The time I spent with him, his teachings and his advice have had a major influence on the person I am today.
Another fond memory I have from my childhood is a tradition that usually occurs in summer on the day after the village’s harvest festival. It involves forming groups among family members and relatives to throw turmeric water on members of other groups.
The day starts with having a simple breakfast and whiling away time before lunch, which usually is a grand meal with a variety of items for vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike. I still remember the giggles, the knowing glances exchanged and the plans plotted on how to attack members of the other gang with turmeric water. After lunch, the entire village becomes active, filled with sounds of laughter and water splashing in every direction. I would easily classify it as one of my happiest memories.
Throughout the entirety of my childhood, I don’t remember ever being alone or with just my family. Be it meandering with my friends around the neighborhood, staying in and playing board games or listening to older people talk about other older people, I was always surrounded. In later years, this aspect had a substantial impact on the way I mingled with others. Though I liked being with a gang of people all the time, I also found myself craving and taking some alone time — mostly with a book in hand.
All in all, growing up in the southern part of India exposed me to a plethora of unique experiences and valuable lessons. I believe that these early incidents and encounters have had a considerable impact and influence on me. I’m eternally grateful for all the factors that led me to where I am right now, especially the ones I came across as a child.
Given the chance to go back in time, I picture myself sitting next to my grandfather at the time of dusk and in a well-lit room, with me reading a book that he had gifted me, and him listening to it in silence with the occasional “Mmm” every now and then. Oh, how I wish I could go back to that moment!