Last year, my sister and I unable to contain any longer the frustration and moroseness of our stunted adult lives, decided to go to the Auroville Township. We had successfully saved enough to help us survive a week-long trip including boarding at a guest house, food, a scooter-on-rent for local commute, and the airfares. My sister, an expert in online research, single-handedly managed to plan, organize, and coordinate. I, on the other hand, gradually recuperating from a bout of illness depended on her, and was grateful for the reprieve.
Prior to the week the trip was planned, I had submitted my resignation to the Executive Director of the organization I was employed in. I had been contemplating upon the decision, and the time just seemed right. My sister had a multi-media project in the offing to document the lives of the skilled young in Delhi. During this interim period, disconnected from any purpose – a result of the discord in our personal and professional lives – we felt we would be consumed by our insignificance. We felt unaligned with the Universe and desperately wanted to learn the truth. The choice of our destination was natural, under the circumstances; we were going to Auroville to live a quaint life, if only for a while. The Universe, we learned only later, had other plans for us.
At the Chennai International Airport, we were picked up by a taxi we had pre-booked. The impending journey was just over three hours, in addition to three hours that we had flew. We entrusted ourselves to the skills of our driver, cautious though to remain alert over the lag we were already experiencing. I had by that time been awake for over twenty-four hours and was surviving, in the absence of caffeine, on strawberry-flavoured twizzlers.
An hour and a half into the drive, the driver pulled over at a café, to have coffee and I presume to relieve himself. I asked my sister, who was resting on my lap, to wake up. We had not expected the stop, at least not on the East Coast Road (ECR), which was infamous for various reasons. The café, more a traditional tea kadai (shop) had in its awning, multiple parked vehicles, and a crowd parked at the service station. Men and women, holding stainless steel tumblers, were engaged in conversations, while their children and grandchildren ran around.
Tamil, as one moves away from Chennai, has a beautiful pitch to it, carefully infused with the local slangs and the way it sits on the cords of the speaker. My sister and I, raised by Tamils, never quite learned the entire stretch of the culture, the language or the traditions (we do not regret it). Our half-awakened senses, adjusting themselves to their pandemonium, were quick to understand that there was no visible threat here. These were after all, our people.
My sister and I sat inside the car, as the driver, whose name we learned was Keshavan, treated himself to coffee, well-deserving and required for the long drive. A few minutes later, the driver reappeared opening the car door at my side. Tired and anticipating the culmination of our journey, my sister and I were taken aback at this gesture that was quite uncommon, at least because we were experiencing it for the first time. Keshavan seemed to not have noticed our discomfort, or even if he did, didn’t show it. He simply smiled and enquired of us in his accented Tamil, “Madam, would you like have coffee or tea?” I took charge and answered him with a quick, “No. Can you get us a bottle of water?” I handed him a hundred rupee note, and watched him leave, as he shut the door behind him.
The incident from this time is preserved in my memory although factual information eludes me. I remember the café precisely, a cemented half-way-through structure, covered with sheets of cheap tin, quite commonly used these days. There were men, middle aged, behind the service station, preparing coffee, tea, Boost, or Horlicks. There were glass jars arranged in a line, containing locally prepared coconut cookies, butter cookies, murrukku, vadai, and other snacks to go along with the brews. Crates blocked on one another held bottles of colour (informal for soft drinks) against one wall. Two graphite-coloured slates hung from the overhead support-beams, the prices of the various items scribbled on them in Tamil.
I still cannot remember the name of the café, or the hotel that stood next to it but I remember that that café was distanced equally between Chennai and Auroville. I remember Keshavan, a thin-built man, younger than me, whose day job was driving. He told me later, when I started a conversation with him that he enjoyed doing what he did. He had learnt English and some French under the influence of the tourists and visitors that he drove between Chennai and Auroville. That it was not required of his job but that it nevertheless made it better. I shared a little about our background (emphasizing the fact that we had relatives in Chennai).
For the next week, I would frequently call Keshavan to help me get taxis, knowing that he would get the job done. He also helped us in renting a scooter, and showing us the local market, where we could buy petrol (petrol was available in the local market), and how to go to Pondicherry. My sister and I knew, he did not have to do this for us; we did not hire his services beyond picking up and dropping us off at the guest house. That we assumed by default a sibling-like relationship (I referred to him as Anna (for elder brother in Tamil) and that he added the suffix –ma (referring to respect/love for a woman (mother/sister/daughter) in Tamil) was part of culture that he and I were part of.
The word give is Germanic in its origin and spelled in German as geben and in Old English as giefan. There are 16 definitions of the word give in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The first of these is to make a present of, which personally I like the most. On that southern summer day, I believe, Keshavan gave us the gift of a generous welcome.
That was our first lesson in giving, towards the truth.