Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Aroma of Relativity and Nostalgia

It is funny how memory associations work. Doing thing A makes you think of something else (thing B) that is at a superficial level unconnected. The un-connected'ness varies with the time of the day the thought crosses your mind. 2:00 AM on a saturday night is a bad time to be doing anything, least of all think of Paneer Soda (sweet carbonated water). A month before, when in Sholingar, I drank Paneer Soda (goli soda) after a really long time. There is something unique about the soda and it's bottle. It had been years since I had drank goli soda directly from that bottle. Although most shops have this bottle, you don't get to drink it raw. They usually mangle the contents with lime and give you some goop that's significantly inferior in taste. Paneer soda has that exquisite taste and simplicity that is rarely found in any other bottled drink. I had never mastered the art of drinking from that bottle. For newbies, goli soda is a bottle that has a goli (a small ball) as a lid. You push the goli inside to open the bottle. The goli stays on the throat of the bottle without really dropping inside. One has to constantly adjust the bottle between gulps, because the goli in the middle obstructed the flow of soda.
Last month, the shopkeeper took one look at me and taught me to hold the bottle in such a way that didn't have the goli constantly interrupting. I am a Paneer soda veteran and didn't know this technique existed. Paneer soda brings back memories. Memories of a time when there were no Pepsi and Coke cans. A time when my grandma took me to Ranganathan street and treated her grandson for a Rs 2.50 paise (it was a percentage of her monthly allowance) Gold Spot. The Zing Thing really. Once Gold Spot is into my consciousness, I feel shattered. The demise of Gold Spot always makes me sad and envelopes my train of thought. Memory is such a funny thing. I remembered all this yesterday at some arbitrary hour in the night. All that was required to bring out the memory was the ever seductive trap of an old Ilayaraja-SPB song. There I was, magically transported into a time warp and I let myself willingly drift into memory.

The night is dangerous my friend. It is when the soul and mind are at the weakest. When you hear the arresting melody of Ithu Oru Kathal Mayakkam or when Ilayaraja turns his amrithavarshini (the raaga of Varuna, the rain god) magic on you, memory goes into a hyper drive mode that simply sucks you in. Like you just took a blue pill from Morpheus and for a while at least, you'd like to not snap back to reality. If you stay awake in the night for more than necessary, on a weekend night and play around with musicindiaonline.com - you set yourself up for feeling really sad and wretched. The thoughts wander into arbitrary directions and you ponder the irrational, compare apples and oranges and end up feeling despondent that you are unable to change the wheels of time that seems to be cranking fast and hard. It is incredible how the opium of nostalgia has relativity so implicit in it. If nostalgia is rational then, does your life gets progressively horrible as you grow old? If we feel that the past was so great then does that mean our present is dire? Does that mean the future will continue to go down the drain? You wonder if the past's favorable comparison with the present is really true. Was the past really that great or has our memory approximated our old pains into some sort of a romantic struggle, that we apportion as part of the grand scheme of life? Are we struggling to accept change and seek refuge in the comfort zone of the well-known past?

Although I started with music for the ears, my focus was really the nose. Music is a cliched or more traditional nostalgia trigger. It is incredible how a taste or smell takes you back many years into the past. The smell of sand just before rain fall is usually a popular choice. But let me humor you with some not so common things. We know that Sandal wood and Jasmine incense sticks (agarbathis) stirs memories through smell. 'Dasangam' is an other splendid invention with an enchanting smell. Some people like sambrani, but my favorite is Dasangam. When I get up on a Sunday morning, He-Man, dasangam, my grandfather singing 'Sitram Siru Kaalai' and saffron-flavored water is a memory package that is stunning in its ability to make me travel time. Somehow the smell of Masala dosai takes me to a different place. Maybe it is because MD is my favorite food item, ever, by quite a distance. Walking back from school with a heavy bag, I could smell Masala Dosai at beginning of my street and immediately recognized that my mom was surprising me with something from the restaurant. With a 15 year record of having ordered Masala Dosai everytime I walked into a restaurant, surprise was more in the timing than in content. The few times that I've had false positives, I've been so crushed (and cursed my neighbors too).
Then there are these rose milk ice cream sticks for Rs. 0.50, which had a taste that was really priceless. In case, you don't know what this is, it is simply frozen rose milk. Every evening the vendor would taunt us with his small white two-wheeled push-cart and its bus-horn. OzDude was the richest guy around in terms of opulence defined by your ability to hand out Rs. 0.50 freebies. And I'd be one of the two to three "friends" waiting near him hoping he'd have the benevolence (and cash) to buy us one each. Sometimes, I'd have to settle for just a 'taste' (which is sticking your mouth in that "common" ice-cream and sucking the rose essence till that part of the stick turns white and transparent). The warmth of freshly packed coffee powder is another tickler. Not to mention the warmth of freshly ironed dress. The smell of a new notebook or brown cover reminds me of school.



School (photo above) has its own set of intoxicating aromas. Let me focus again on the unusual. I remember the aroma of various hair oils in Thirunelveli. On aroma and school people focus on lunch. The smell of lunch is prevalent everywhere. When people open their tiffin boxes, a curious smell of korma, sambhar, egg, and dosai, fills the school. The smell of lunch is certainly a treasured smell. But the morning aroma takes a different dimension. My memories of those uneasy 10 minutes in the morning, before classes began is colored with the smell of Hair oil, Cutticura powder and sacred ash. I was in a time and place, where an empty forehead was rarely visible. All students had either kumkum, sandal or scared ash and at least 3 litres of oil in their hair. The hair was pressed down and combed to perfection. For a Madras guy this was too disciplined and odd.

Since the government of India passed an order in 1987 renaming all Math teachers as Srinivasan, there was some chaos in the opposition party of Rajagoplan math teachers. Maybe, due to being in school during the great war of Srinivasan Vs Rajagopalan, I have memories of the chalk filled hands of Rajagopalan math sir as he left the class after an hour full of intense shouting and beating. The memory of the moment when he grabbed the back of my collar and pushed my face down, is terrifying in its clarity. Freeze that moment. You are waiting for impact and you don't know if the pain will crush you or kill you. Quite terrible. But focus on the olfactory senses here. The smell of the desk wood remains in memory. That and the smell of chalk in his hand is actually remembered later as aroma. Even the name carved on the desk with compass and blade is vivid in all its sepia tone glory. After impact, the pain radiates in your back like those glowing Eastman Color red spots they show in medicine advertisements. The smell of chalk and the feel of a virgin unused chalk piece was so stimulating to the senses. This time I visited my school and photographed the class. It was surreal.




Standing near the kitchen and watching your mom/grandma cook those extravagant dishes for a festival had its own set of smells. The Murukku, Thamizh Nadu's gift to the world, had a smell that was quite distinct from Omapodi. The smell of decoction when the filter is opened hits you like a two-ton brick. Laddu and Rava laddu had two distinct aromas. Memories of the distinction usually hits you in the middle of a design meeting several years later and make you cough on your status reports. The best smell to me was that of 'vadam/vetthal'. The vetthal koozh has a smell and taste that is incredible. To me, nirvana is the half-dried-vetthal. After your grandma puts the vetthal in the terrace to let it dry, you sneak up there a few hours later and tear the vethal out from the funky white sheet. It is half dried and half semi-solid koozh. Taste it and you'll know what I am talking about. It still makes my hand go to my head and brings out a silly smile. Someday I'll build a monument bigger than the Taj Mahal for the half-dried Vetthal.

Talking with friends late into the evening is an unforgettable album in the memory archives. The parapet wall, cricket bat, and wet tennis ball all have a smell that is as good as Ilayaraja's music. Recollections of chatting with friends sitting on a parapet wall at 7:30'ish in the evening is an incredible emotion of sadness and serenity. If you arrive late after the group has finished playing cricket then you ask someone to toss you the ball in the dark evening, until the ball is no more visible. Slowly the talk floats to every topic under the sun. You keep throwing and spinning the ball against each other in some random way and talk incessantly. Some people look at the watch and say "I'll leave in 5 minutes". They do that for 2 hours. The smell of evening grass grows on you. The incredible conversations about crushes, gossip and irrational fears about career on those parapet wall and St. Thomas Mt railway station makes you think about the conversation every time you cross that station.

On the topic of stations, don't you think Thirusulam is a more pleasant station than any other station? There is something about its cleanliness and empty spaces that makes it more special. This brings me to Madras and its beauty. Madras is so beautiful when it rains that you can write a Jekyll and Hyde story based on its summer and monsoon seasons. Travelling in an auto or suburban train when it rains is particularly awesome. In an auto you position yourself in the center of the seat to avoid getting wet and watch the wind beat the hell out of the blanket like protectors, the auto-karan has unrolled for you. Feeling cold in Madras needs to be treasured as a monument. Thank god! for the cross ventilation and the wind chill factor that the auto provides. It is sometimes a pleasure to watch the small wheels hit the puddles and the pedestrians jump to avoid the splash. In the train, especially when the train stops in Thirusulam, rain looks beautiful like never before. If you are travelling in train overnight, the water dropping on the bars of the window, early morning, is like god's little musical rhythm. The mood sweeps are acute when it rains the day before the exam. You are cramming and you have the nagging feeling that it is raining outside. There seems to be flicker of a vision, of some pleasantness that you promise you will experience when it rains after the exams. But you never get around to doing that.

Finally, walking in Venkat Narayana road with a head phones playing the immortal "Ithu oru pon maalai pozhuthu" and staring from the terrace, staring into the sunset with a transistor (541) playing the mesmerizing and probably one of the best songs I have ever heard, "Anthi Mazhai pozhigirathu" is all you can do to re-live nostalgia. But even that feeling will never match the feeling you get when you think about it a few years later, probably while sitting in some office cubicle or waiting in the car for the traffic to move. No matter how many times people write about it and no matter how eloquently the words slither through the neurons of your memory firing thoughts in unpredictable directions. It is an inescapable reality that you will never get it back. That is why nostalgia is some form of necessary masochist behavior where you take pleasure in some loss or sadness.

29 comments:

Karthik Sriram said...

Cool one, Hawkeye - Memories are a treasured thing really - I really connect some songs to certain phases of my life - infact I did a post some time ago on how some songs bring back certain important events in my life....

And I think you were a good generation ahead of me - all my math teachers till my UG were all maamis (PSBB had a Maami cult till recently) and in particular i remember my 12th math teacher not coming for the last period of the day because she had to prepare for janmashtami!

LKS

Anonymous said...

Machi,

Romba senti pottuta da... enakku enna ennamo niyabagham varuthu.... Nice Post....

- Ganesh

I said...

ada ada, engayo poita po.

Anonymous said...

Good one. I came across your site few days back and felt good reading some of your blogs and short stories (esp the role of Lord Sathyanarayana..)
I instantly connected myself with this one since i am a huggge fan of 'paneer soda'. i make it a point to have one whenever i goto Triplicane..Sadly the 'goli-soda' form factor is not available in all shops...
Keep up the good work !!!
Raj

dushy said...

What happened all of a sudden?

U cant give such a nostalgic post.
F A B U L O U S :)

And hoi,mornings never used smell only of the ash and oil,even the farts! Different kinds.

Dont hide the best smells of morning da :D

Chocolate Martini said...

Music and smell - the traditional nostalgia triggers... true.. but after reading this post, your words alone were enough to be a trigger...

although from totally another part of the world, some things will always be the same i guess. Like, the smells in the school, freshly ironed clothes, masala dosai...

hai hai.. nostalgia always brings a sudden rush to my head.. and this post did it.. great one...

Anu said...

One of your best posts ever.
Kudos!

~Anu

Sowmya said...

smell evokes memory like no other sense.

but one smell that always amazed me was - the smell of sugar factory or was it pond's in pallavaram. when the train passes the station, even without looking out, you would know that it is pallavaram. this would happen only for the first few days after college re-opens, after that your nose would get used to the smell and you won't smell the factory effusions anymore.

Hari N Iyer said...

this is not fair man !

Monday morning at work and ur post makes me hungry and home sick but in a pleasant way ...

Anonymous said...

Very nice post, enjoyed it very much.I got home sick 'coz of you.

- Ramesh

Arvind said...

Thalaiva! Touchitae!

Yes, I know I haven't called you that before. But it was deserved by the awesome post! :)

Saravanan said...

Awwwwwwhhh. zzzzzZZZ

Anonymous said...

Amazing post! Can't be explained better.

senthil

Babu said...

Maamu....ahhhaaaa Paneer Soda pathi pesuteya daaa...only yesterday Vidya was reminding me how we missed having PS this time when we were in Thiruchendur (Best PS I have ever had)...I pacified her saying atleast we had Nungu (palm) Sarbath..
My thumb had a tough time to break a goli in goli soda even when I was kid :-)

Friggen Awesum post daaa..u'll remain the best nostalgic author/blogger.

U shd probably quit selling XBox's and research more on senses and nostalgia and write a book ;-)

FJ said...

That was an excellent post, I think who grew up in Chennai will be able to relate to few/all of the things talked about. But I am not sure whether they could have been so articulate about them. Good Job!

Laksh said...

Nice one! Could relate to most of what you had written. Evoked a lot of Madras memories. Thanks!

Atish said...

Brilliant!! Never been to Madras and am not even a south indian... but u made me yearn :)

Jillu Madrasi said...

ennavo pa -nee adi vaangi rkku vendam.

Arksantos said...

Nice post. But kinda looong. I read through the whole thing because I had a 200 page standards document to read. lol.
Brought back plenty of memories.My best smell is that of fresh cut grass. Back in the day, I used to roam around the univ just to get a whiff. Wherever/whenever I smell fresh cut grass, it takes me back instantaneously.

Dugi said...

Beautiful.
Thanks for sharing...some of us look Tamil...speak Tamil...but was only one of half a dozen Tamil kids in the whole school. It's to nice to read different childhood experiences like yours.
-Durga

Krishnan said...

Brilliant and so evocative. You made me yearn for goli saada , that wonderful concoction sorely missed nowadays. I can relate to most of what you wrote and as someone commented, dont think one could have written so beautiful like you have done. You have a tough time bettering this post :-)

Mr.Freeze said...

Awesome post man.. The last part about VN road and "ithu oru pon maalai" song really hit a personal note...

Thanks for the rekindling of good memories!!

Suresh

Anonymous said...

" thank you for visiting my site. i hope u have a great day in longbeach.. "

i do not understand.. krishna senthil ..

why longbeach ?

Hawkeye said...

karthik sriram,

PSBB X std pass out in 1999? do you know Shrivatsan?

Ganesh babu,

thanks da.

I,

:-)


Raj,

thanks. Yes you are correct goli soda form factor is so rare nowadays.

dushy,

depends on where you during school mornings :-) looks like you were busy doing rest room graffiti (just kidding) :-)

Chocolate Martini,

thanks for your kind words. masala dosai is far reaching i guess.

Anu,

Danks!

Sowmya,

Yes! so true! that smell was so wierd when i started college. in my train rides i used to always lookup and think "hmm pallavaram". this trip i went to thiruneermalai and you have to go via pallavaram and i cud instantly sense it.

hari,

dont get me started on home sick. ill sit down and bawl.

ramesh,

Nandri :-) making you home sick is quite an achievement for this post. I take the compliment.

arvind,

good term 'touchite' :-) thanks.

saravana,

i lauve you


senthil,

nandri

babs,

breaking goli soda with hand is quite a task. i went to high ground and thought of having a rose milk ice cream. didnt see one.

buy zune baby! and get welcomed into the social.


fj, Laksh,

thanks.I think the madras force flows through all of us.

atish,

thanks! glad this post crossed boundries.


jillu,

many many times

arksantos,

see 200page standards documents has its uses :-). freshly cut grass reminds me of cosmo club for some reason.

durga, krishnan,

thanks for visiting and thanks for the nice comment

suresh,

V.N road i guess holds a special place for everyone.

krishna senthil,

Did you access the page from long beach?

Anonymous said...

ohh of course i get it when i was in chennai it used to come "have a great day in chennai" now its coming " have a great day in longbeach"

krishna senthil.

Anonymous said...

lovely read ,
got reminded of a "nostalgia pearl"....- "Dai, ECE students na , pottu vechittu, pongal sappuduravanga nnu ninaichiya? ECE da ! pazhaiya record notes eduthu paaru, innum sign vaangaaama irukkum ! "

Deepan Ramachandran

Sowmya said...

Hawkeye,

Excellent post and wonderful write up :)

## If we feel that the past was so great then does that mean our present is dire? Does that mean the future will continue to go down the drain? You wonder if the past's favorable comparison with the present is really true. Was the past really that great or has our memory approximated our old pains into some sort of a romantic struggle, that we apportion as part of the grand scheme of life? Are we struggling to accept change and seek refuge in the comfort zone of the well-known past?##

We tend to live our life by our thoughts. In the present, our total focus is on the actions and we get the opportunity of thinking about those actions and its consequences, once we cross that present moment. So we really taste that flavor of those actions ,only after keeping them in an alignment ie thinking about the past in the present moment. Well, we achieve the happiness or the sorrowful mood, that depends upon the consequences of our actions, we faced.

## Sunday morning, He-Man, dasangam, my grandfather singing 'Sitram Siru Kaalai' and saffron-flavored water is a memory package that is stunning in its ability to make me travel time.##

Really, you made me to think about my own sweet memories. :)

## Someday I'll build a monument bigger than the Taj Mahal for the half-dried Vetthal.##

Haha..

##If you are travelling in train overnight, the water dropping on the bars of the window, early morning, is like god's little musical rhythm. The mood sweeps are acute when it rains the day before the exam.##

Wow !

## No matter how many times people write about it and no matter how eloquently the words slither through the neurons of your memory firing thoughts in unpredictable directions. It is an inescapable reality that you will never get it back. That is why nostalgia is some form of necessary masochist behavior where you take pleasure in some loss or sadness.##

Very much true

Enjoyed the post thoroughly ! Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

You have a really good memory

Valli Doll said...

India by itself has a charm of its own. I am going to think abt all of this in my meeting now!!