Papakudi Meena

It was a little over noon when the train from Madras pulled into Dadar station in Bombay. It had been a long journey for the weary and grimy travellers, who disembarked with a sense of relief. Some were being received by family and friends, while many more were just making their way out of the station on their own.

Ram looked fearfully out of the train window. This was his first time in Bombay and he had never seen so many people or heard so many languages spoken at one time. He had also never smelt anything like this before—the smell of so many people, sweat, the salty air and his own fear of the unknown. His first instinct was to take the next train back to Madras and then another to his native village in southern Tamil Nadu. That’s when he thought of his family back home and the reason he had come to Bombay—to make a living like countless others before him, and countless others after him.

He took a deep breath, gathered his belongings and resolve, said a prayer to his favourite god Shiva and stepped off the train. He now had to make his way to his cousin Meena’s house in Matunga; Meena’s husband, Raman had promised to help him find a job. But first he needed to get to Meena’s house, which he had been told was not too far from Dadar station.

Meena had sent him the address and detailed directions to her house from Dadar station. Though Ram had read the sheet of paper many times, he still needed to refer to it before he set off towards her house. He put his hand into his pant pocket to pull out that precious sheet of paper. But his hand came out empty. There was no paper. Ram tried the other pant pocket. It was empty too. Then the back pant pocket. No luck. Next he checked his shirt pocket. That only had his train ticket and a few annas worth of change. The next few minutes saw Ram frantically searching his pockets, and then his bags—all three of them—for that sheet of paper. But in vain. The paper could not be found anywhere. 😦

By this time, Ram was close to despair. At that moment he had no idea what he was going to do in a city where he knew nobody, had very little money, and did not know the local language(s). He sat down on a platform bench to think over his next course of action. Going back home to his village was not an option. Somehow he had to find Meena’s house. But how?

Ram started chanting “Om Namah Shiva” to calm himself. He knew that if he had to think through the whole problem, he had to be calm. A few minutes of chanting the sacred mantra calmed Ram down considerably enough to be able to remember (from the many times he had read the directions) that Meena’s house was located somewhere between Dadar Circle and King’s Circle. He also remembered Meena telling him that her house faced the main road. But though he tried very hard, he could not remember the house’s name. Ram realised that the only option left for him was to walk down the entire stretch and knock on all houses along the road, first on one side and then on the other side, between the two circles. He was hopeful that in one of the houses he would find Meena.

With a new resolve and hope, Ram walked out of Dadar station. He asked a passer-by, “Dadar Circle?” and was pointed towards the right direction. When he reached Dadar Circle, he asked another passer-by, “King’s Circle?”, and was duly directed. Soon, Ram was standing at a point, where Dadar Circle was behind him and King’s Circle could be seen in the distance.

It was at this point that Ram realised how stupid his plan was. There were no houses on this road; there were only buildings, and each building had many houses/flats. It was virtually impossible to check the hundreds of flats on the road between Dadar and King’s Circles. But Ram was desperate. He had to find Meena’s house. Anyhow. Somehow.

As he stood outside the first building wondering what to do, he heard someone call out to one of the building’s residents, and the call being “answered”. This gave Ram an idea. He decided to stand outside the entrance of each building and call out “Meena” in a loud, clear voice. He was quite sure that this method would succeed and somewhere he would find Meena’s house. So off he went to the entrance of the first building and called out “Meena” loudly, waited for a response and tried again, twice. When there was no response from “Meena”, he moved to the next building down the line.

When he reached the 7th building, a woman answered his call for Meena. But she was the wrong Meena. That’s when Ram knew that he had to be more specific about which Meena he was calling out too. So he decided to prefix Meena’s name with her native village’s name—Papakudi. So from the 8th building onwards his loud and clear call was for Papakudi Meena.

The afternoon wore on and Ram went from building to building calling out for Papakudi Meena. The urgency and despair in his voice increased with each unanswered call. In some buildings he was chased away, and in other buildings, doors and windows were quickly shut. For Ram looked quite a sight with bloodshot eyes and unkempt hair, and after 3 days in the train he also had an unwashed look about him. Though this reaction hurt him, Ram forced himself to ignore such incidents; he just couldn’t let it bother him as he had to find Papakudi Meena.

It took him nearly 2 hours to reach Kings’s Circle. Tired, hungry and thirsty, Ram took a break and had a glass of sugarcane juice at a roadside stall. For the first time, the possibility that he may not find Papakudi Meena occurred to him. The possibility that he may have to look at another alternative also occurred to him. But Ram was not going to give up his search for Papakudi Meena without trying the return stretch from King’s Circle to Dadar Circle.

It was around 3.30 pm when he began the return stretch. This was also the time that children were returning home from their schools. Many of the children stopped to gape at this strange-looking man standing outside each building and calling out to Papakudi Meena. One of the gaping children was a school girl, who was intrigued by the whole thing. She said a quick goodbye to her friends and ran home—which was a few buildings ahead—to tell her mother about the man who was calling out for Papakudi Meena outside each building.

Equally intrigued, the schoolgirl’s mother went down to the building entrance to see who this man was. She heard him calling out even before she saw him appear at the building’s entrance. But this time, Ram didn’t have to call out as Papakudi Meena was standing at the entrance waiting for him.

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All characters, places, details, and indeed the story are true, even though it has a touch of a “believe-it-or-not” tale. For you see, Papakudi Meena was my maternal grandmother and the school girl in the story my mother. This incident happened c 1950, when Bombay had not become Mumbai, King’s Circle had not become Maheshwari Udyan, and Madras was not yet Chennai. It was also a time when such there were no telephones, when buildings did not have security guards, and more importantly when such an incident could happen.

I cannot imagine such a story hapening in this day and age. Can you?

35 thoughts on “Papakudi Meena

  1. This age and day? I would go with the “No” option. Ram will pick up his mobile, call his friends/relatives, friends/relatives call others, others call Papakudi Meena, the chain returns as SMS to give Ram the recent contact number and Ram calls Meena. 🙂 I think this is what will happen.

    I initially thought it was your attempt at fiction. I was surprised (and also felt good) to hear this happened

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    1. When I am in the company of cynical people, I narrate this story, and I find that most of them, even if it is only for a short while, feel good about the whole thing.
      And trust me, you wouldn’t ever want to read my attempts at fiction. 😀

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  2. Sudha…I LOVED it…It had be drawn in from the word go…what a lovely story…our histories are sprinkled with such gems and so often we treat them as mundane and delegate them to the corners of our memory…but to read this story…it made my day…kudos!!!

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  3. Lovely “story”….!!!! King’s circle was still King’s circle during the days I lived in Mumbai. Dont tell me that it has some other name now! You brought out the story of the new migrant very effectively! Today, school girls would stay away from unkempt and unwashed migrants!!!

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  4. A somewhat abrupt but obviously happy ending. What a harrowing experience it must have been for Ram. I can really empathize.

    I remember going to Bombay (not yet Mumbai) in 1997 to collect an admission form for Jaihind College and Sydenham College where my younger brother wanted to apply. It was my first experience. We managed to make it to Churchgate station and asked an autorickshaw driver how far these two were. He offered to take us to Sydenham for Rs.20.

    Fortunately, something told me not to trust this guy and we asked a pan-shop owner who was kind enough to point out that we were standing less than 100 metres from our destination.

    I obviously didn’t own a mobile phone and I didn’t know a single person in Bombay. I had my brother with me and he was just out of school. For me, a simple 17 year old from a relatively tiny city, it was a real eye-opener.

    In retrospect, I should have been shouting ‘Jai Hind Sydenham!’ while walking the streets. Maybe it would have helped. :o)

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    1. Welcome to my blog, Rocky, and thank you for stopping by and commenting. Yes, the story ended rather abrubtly, didn’t it? I’ll try rewriting that part again to see how it can be improved.

      I read your “Sydenham story” with interest as I have heard many similar stories first timers in Mumbai about being close to their destination and getting conned into taking cabs or autos there. BTW, you must have asked a taxi wallah to take you to Sydenham as autos are still not allowed into the city of Mumbai; one can find them only in the suburbs. 🙂

      I hope you will keep visiting.

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  5. I missed this post, delightful. Can never happen today 🙂
    Oh I haven’t been to Champaner, just googled and saw some images. The place looks a beauty. Will look fwd to your posts on your visit!

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  6. My maternal great grandmother did something similar way back in the 1940’s. She came all the way from Kodumudi to Jamshedpur, couldn’t speak a word of Hindi – all she knew was my maternal grandfather lived opposite the Ram Mandir. She said that to the rickshaw wallah and then on getting off in front of the Ram mandir went from building to building and house to house yelling out my granddad’s nickname. Eventually my mom and her sisters saw her from the window and brought her home.

    I love your blog and you have a way with words. I am blogrolling you. I hope that’s okay.

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      1. Never did meet her, but I know she was widowed very young, raised her kids as a single parent and then went on to live by herself for very many years when her only son (my granddad) moved to Jamshedpur for a job. She made great Thayir saadham and her vatthakuzhambu was to die for, I’m told 🙂

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  7. I enjoyed this story immensely..grippingly narrated. And the post-script gave me such a delicious taste in the mouth …like i had just witnessed a part of history.

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  8. Sudha, I must congratulate you on this stunning piece. The narration is so simple yet so vivid, the imagery so stark that I can almost see Mumbai – erstwhile – in front of my eyes.
    I loved it.

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    1. Thank you so much Deboshree. I had wanted to write this post a long time back, but it took me a while to get the nuances and the narrative flowing. This is also my favourite post, so it feels good when people like it. 🙂

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