Neat a po

I reach the baggage carousel number one at Chennai airport and am met with total sannata. No one. No luggage. I was seated in one of the front rows and I distinctly heard the air hostess say that our bags will be available here. What’s wrong? I turn around to find the whole world glued to a huge television screen watching World Cup Cricket. No one is complaining about missing bags or luggage arriving late. What an idea Sirji!

After ten minutes of calls and questions an Indigo staffer tells me that it will be on the last carousel. So I walk to the other end. Baggage arrives painfully slowly. One bag makes a whole parikrama of the carousel after which the next one is dumped on it. It takes forty minutes for everyone’s bags to arrive. Everyone, except me and another guy standing right across, have got their luggage. We look at each other, thankful for each other’s company, shrug and smile. The disadvantages of being punctual early birds to the airport. Baggage always arrives last.

I step out of the airport and smell the Chennai coffee. This is heaven! And my brain calls it home. This is where people understand appalams and not papad. Where no one has dinner but will ask you if you want tiffin. I really want to pop into Sangeetha’s opposite the Ola pick up point and savour some piping hot medu vadas. But the cab has arrived.

The driver switches on some koothu music as soon as I settle down. If I didn’t have to pretend to be this elegant controlled woman, I bet I’d have tucked my saree pallu into my waist and done an energetic jig to that throbbing folk music!

Almost as soon as we exit the airport, I see this huge billboard where Indigo is advertising its flights to Kuala Lumpur. “Kuala Lumpur neat a po” – it reads. It takes a moment for my brain to process that line. What language is that? And then I get it. Tamil of course! How could I forget neat a po? I throw back my head and burst out laughing. The cabbie turns his head to give me a curious look.

Neat a po. It means ‘go properly’ or ‘go directly’ in Tamil. The words I heard everyday from Akka when I left home. We lived in a rented house in Pondicherry. The owners were Mudaliars who lived next door. They were land owners who made a living by farming. Akka was our landlady.

Now akka means ‘elder sister’ or didi in Tamil. Now given our rudimentary understanding of Tamil when we reached Pondicherry, we simply called the lady Akka like everyone else did. The standing joke in school was: “She is Principal saar‘s Akka. She is his wife’s Akka. She is called Akka by all his children! Strange relations!” Strangely our landord was always referred to as Uncle or Siva’s appa. But we never called the lady Siva’s amma. Only rarely when her husband would loudly yell out for ‘Sarasu’ would we remember that she actually had a name. Saraswati. But I never heard anyone call her that.

Akka and my Dad got along fabulously. How, I have no clue. She spoke nothing other than Tamil. And my father couldn’t speak a word of Tamil. Not that he didn’t try. He even bought that “Learn Tamil in 30 days” book in Hindi that Rati Agnihotri buys in Ek Duje ke Liye. But his capacity to learn new languages was poor. So if the vegetable seller was selling coriander leaves for muppatu paisa (30 paise), he would argue and say he wanted it for napatu paisa (40 paisa)! After which we told him there was no point in even trying to learn. The crazy part was Akka and my Dad even had angry arguments. How they managed that without a common language between them, I could never decipher. And yet both Akka and my mother wept like babies when Dad got his transfer out of Pondicherry. Six years is a long time. It was like a bidaai scene from an Indian film.

In the beginning Akka was pretty wary of these ‘North side’ Hindikaran people who were tenants in her beautiful house. She hated how her simple house now had nails hammered all over the walls. Tamil houses are usually sparse and spartan. Our living room needed to be adorned with curios picked up from all our travels. “When you leave, you must leave all these curios on the walls,” she would say. “Who will rent a house with so many empty nails?” she would complain. She was shocked when we turned up multicoloured on Holi. What rascals we looked like! But the next year she was fully prepared to play with us. Dressed in a black saree and black blouse from 6 am! “That’s so unsporting Akka,” we would argue. “Who wears black on Holi?” But we still managed to colour her white hair and turn it pink for a week!

She was a fabulous cook and taught my mother some great recipes which I try to emulate. She was a pure vegetarian but would serve us fantastic non-vegetarian food. A few years ago, I went back to see her. She was wrinkled now. But her eyes gleamed when she asked “Anusu, yera sapadiriya? (Will you eat prawns?)” I nodded my head, amazed that she remembered my love for sea food. And yes, non-vegetarian food could not sully her steel utensils. She carefully spread out a plantain leaf and served me idlis and prawns. A combo I’d get no where else. Heavenly! She really cared for us. The combined grandmom-mom who was there for us when our parents were away.

Neat a po ma, she said as I said bye to her.


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