The day began with me feeling quite blessed – on the beach by quarter past 6, just in time to see the blush pink sun rise from the sea casting dreamy ripples on the warm waves that wash my feet… It is possible to forget the filthy sections that I’ve just crossed when I reach the seashore – the sand that retains the previous evening’s evidence of gluttony when everything from chewed up sweet-corn to foil wrappers and plastic cups are flung carelessly and lie strewn everywhere. My back’s turned to the eyesore of a hundred food carts that are permanently stationed on the beach. Even the stench filled Buckingham canal that I passed with stagnant islands of foetid rubbish floating on inky sludge can be forgotten in the presence of such beauty.
As I retrace my path home, she who is now known simply as Amma, the current Chief Minister of the state, dominates all the posters stuck on the walls. Madam Jayalalitha is the giant centrepiece on massive rosettes that are propped up with casuarina sticks tied with rope all over the city’s main roads. Her serene countenance hounds me and precedes me on my daily walk to the beach. I notice the rosettes and posters are refreshed almost daily. Queen of India, they say – there’s a picture of an old film of M G Ramachandran placing a gold crown on her head – like her, he too was a film actor who became Chief Minister and she was his favourite co-star. She is a woman of such substance that she encourages a sycophantic following from her subordinates and the people at large. She is their saviour. I’m drawn to another poster of an old woman whose expression is full of pathos as she surrenders, hands outstretched to Amma’s benevolence.
Little did I know it would soon be my turn. After a round of shopping within a mile’s radius of my parents’ home, my father’s last stop was the dry fruit store on Cathedral Road. The area with space to park was on the opposite side where the sign said “Stick no Bills” and “Trespassers will be prosecuted”. Nowhere did it say “No Parking” nor did the khaki clad police woman who saw us get out say anything. When Amma drives past, she likes seeing female police lining the streets – many young women in uniform, slim and lithe were ambling down the road, taking vantage positions. So we weaved our way across to the other side – me increasingly stressed about my father’s unsteady legs as he did the daredevil thing of going with the flow of traffic. In the shop, we bought pine nuts, almonds and walnuts (each costing 5 quid!) and when we came out, we could see the little car was missing. Towed away.
The shock at this happening so swiftly was compounded by the bewildered unhelpfulness of the lady cops – “we don’t know but we think your car is at the other end by the traffic lights at Music Academy. Just ask my superiors,” she said, not that bothered by our distress. A jeep drove past us and stopped. The senior policeman listened with an attentive expression that didn’t quite convince. He heard our outraged ranting, nodded and said “Can’t help”. His driver, blind in one eye gave me an evil look which freaked me out as they drove away. Ms Vennila (beautiful moon), the indifferent cop lady suggested we ask the policeman in the distance, with a walkie-talkie for advice. He was directing traffic opposite the hotel formerly known as Chola and we walked towards him with little hope. He smiled, full of benign good humour, possibly a little inebriated too. My father gave vent to his feelings again, “Look at me – can’t you see I’m an old man – how far do you want me to keep walking?” The man, a little more considerate than the previous few kindly shooed us in the direction of the next junction 500 metres away and we headed there slowly. And there it was – the tiny automobile, thankfully unscathed but firmly clamped at the wheel. The cop in charge over there (the place was teeming with them) said “This is the Chief Minister’s route, you can’t just park anywhere,” when I told him that I didn’t see a No parking sign. That’s when my dad’s outburst reached a climax, “So if the CM wants to travel, we can’t move about? Shall we all leave town so that the CM can live happily?”
A bit of a dramatic turning point here, thinking about it in hindsight. And then the real business of dealing began – “475 rupees”, he said, taking out his ticket machine that looked exactly like the ones the traffic wardens in England carry. There’s a moment of automatic revulsion at the sight. I didn’t have my license with me, so he couldn’t make it official, he said. He turned to my father, softening somewhat, “for your sake 200 rupees, but first get into your car and sit down, sir.” And then as my dad struggled into the front seat with his stiff knees and fished into his pocket for the right amount of money, the man almost broke down. “I feel bad now – just give the boy who does the clamping 100 rupees for his trouble.” And then by some incredible good fortune, away we went – exhausted but relieved. O Mother, O Goddess, thank you for showing mercy.