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Back to the Future on Triplicane High Road
Colin Todhunter

I found women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair, but not both together.

There was yet another power cut, or “load shedding” as they like to call it in India. Consequently, the growl of generators filled the air, and the stench of diesel wafted upward. I was hanging over a balcony, looking out over Triplicane High Road. It was dusk in Chennai. Lumbering bullocks were pulling carts, buses were weighted down at one side with people hanging on, cows were stationary, and mopeds, cars, and auto-rickshaws were competing for space. Men were making their way to the Big Mosque in response to the call to prayers, which echoed throughout the neighbourhood. Others were making their way to wherever it was they were going. Street-dwelling families were arguing between themselves. And sari-clad women were sat by the road side, selling hair flowers, while others filled plas tic pots with water from a municipal wagon – Chennai’s response to its perennial water shortage.

The flower sellers reminded me of a song from a more innocent time which goes along the lines of – someone told me there’s a girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair. The song was called “Going to California”. High above Triplicane High Road I began to think that whoever said that must have been wrong. I first heard that song when I was sixteen, filled with the innocence and hope of youth. I have been looking for years for this woman but have never found her. I found women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair, but not both together. I’m not sixteen anymore and perhaps I should abandon a false hope born of the naivety of youth. But then again I have never been to California – maybe that’s the problem. She is probably out there, somewhere.

I headed down the stairs and straight into the Maharaja restaurant. It is one of my favourite restaurants and is typically South Indian with banana leaves used instead of plates and uttapam, Mysore bonda, idlis and dosas on the menu. Supervisors were shouting orders to the staff; uniformed bare-footed boys were clearing tables by placing leftovers into large metal buckets; and waiters were scurrying around shovelling out various dishes from gleaming, smaller aluminium buckets - unlimited vegetarian “meals” for a fixed price of twenty five rupees. As usual a sense of urgency and anticipation prevailed. As soon as a customer sits, someone approaches almost immediately to pour water from a metal jug into a matching shiny mug. Many things in India appear inefficient and bogged down with lethargy or bureaucracy, but not South Indian restaurants – they are electrifying.

I sat next to my friend Lise. Every-time I was with her I felt like melting. But this time it was different; I almost did. She had a flower in her hair! One of the boys would have had to have wiped me up and carry me off in a bucket. That would have been embarrassing to say the least. She sat talking about her day, and I sat thinking about just how beautiful she looked. Eventually the melt down phase passed and I pulled myself together.

She told me that Copenhagen is the third most expensive city in Europe to live in after London and Paris. I told her that where I live is one of the cheapest - Liverpool. I looked at one of the boys clearing the tables, and thought that he would never get the opportunity to find out. At twelve I was in full-time education. At twelve, he was working at least eight hours a day, cleaning tables. He had his life in front of him. I looked at Lise and thought that she did too. She was twenty-nine. That’s when it hit me – I was no longer young – and it was bothering me! I was already patently aware of this, but normally wasn't really worried by it. I usually took comfort from knowing that I was still “relatively” young. I could tell that it was affecting me by what I was saying to Lise: “I try to no longer think about the past or the future, but try to live in the present. I never used to.” - the desperate ramblings of an aging man.

For me, it was less a case of “The Age of Tyranny”, the headline in a local newspaper, but the tyranny of age. I didn’t like to think about my past – it was growing almost infinitely longer by the minute and my future was growing shorter by the second. But then I thought to myself, how is it really possible to live in the present? I can never grasp it. It’s elusive. It’s only possible to anticipate some future present, or remember some present from the past. I was beginning to sound like some English teacher obsessed with verb tenses.

Lise had an enthusiasm for her future. She made me think about where I was going – or more precisely, to where I had been. I was going somewhere when I was younger and was on my way to getting there. In fact, I had got there and then decided to go somewhere else – India. I guess by the time we reach a certain age, we are told that we are supposed to be where we set out to be in our early twenties. The trouble is that I never really knew where I wanted to be, or who I was. I knew who I was supposed to be but didn’t want to be it. I’m drifting, shifting, and fIuid – a kind of general multi-purpose generator oil that fits in everywhere, but has no specific purpose. Maybe the diesel fumes from outside were beginning to affect me.

I sort of ended up by accident or fate in India, talking to a Danish girl with a flower in her hair. That was the “present” and I wanted it to last forever. There was a fleeting moment in the Maharaja restaurant when she may have been that girl with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair. But we were in India, not California and we no longer live in an age of innocent hope; and as usual the present was all too fleeting.

A few months later I was in Himachel Pradesh in North India, talking with an English girl called Lisa (it was a time for Lisa’s or Lise’s – same name really). I was in a village called Vashisht and spent my birthday there. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by rolling hills and soaring snow-capped Himalayan peaks. There can be few better places in which to grow older officially. Lisa was thirty-four. She wasn’t in her twenties and because of that I once again felt relatively young. When I’m fifty I’ll still feel relatively young. That is until I meet someone in their twenties or by then, in their thirties, and it will be a case of me feeling relatively old. It’s a strange feeling – I'll never be just young or old, always relatively one or the other.

What of the future? When I get back to England, I will write a story. I will sit in front of the computer, alone. And because I’ll be alone, I’ll neither feel relatively young nor relatively old; I’ll just be me. I will be in Cumbria surrounded by timeless misty rolling hills, and I’ll look out at those English peaks and think of the poets who immortalised that amazing part of the world with their poetry. The Cumbrian Mountains, Wordsworth and Coleridge will inspire me to write about…what?…Triplicane High Road, generator oil, and uttapams!?

But more aptly, I will be inspired to write of things to do with love, loss and hope. And my thoughts will drift toward another time, another place – to beautiful Vashisht, the exotic Maharaja restaurant, and to a girl I once knew who had love in her eyes and a flower in her hair. I will be in the future, wanting to be back in the past, yearning for a present that never was. And I will come to the earth-shattering conclusion that the present is always absent and its absence is always present. Then I’ll put on “Going to California” and drift away. Someone told me there’s a girl out there…maybe I’ll find her again one day in some far off land for a while - at least for a few vanishing moments. That's about all we can hope for.

© Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India 2002

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