The Purple Mango Tree

stories, plays, rhymes and other things for children and childlike adults

Friday, November 3, 2017

3 Days in Mamallapuram

Once the decision is made, the excitement begins. We start poring over maps and books; we begin visiting travel sites on the net; we call travel agents and ask friends about places to stay; we wait impatiently for the 60-day countdown so we can book our train tickets. And finally, the bags are packed amidst much screaming and “helping” by the children. We double-check the taps, unplug everything, switch off and lock up. Already hyperactive, the children go into overdrive as soon as the infectious bustle of Howrah Station hits their senses...

So, we go "koo-chuk-chuk" on board the Coromandal Express with our two kids, age four and three! Once on the train, the tantrums, boredom and demands for endless activity come in tune with the rhythms of the train tracks. And all through the long chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk we:
Eat and cry
Sleep and play
Play and cry
Sleep and eat
Eat and drink
Fight and sing
Xmas songs in October
Until Chennai Central

Heads still swaying to the rail-time beat, we haul our luggage on a trolley and push, push, push, fighting and sulking about who gets more pushes and who shoves who most. Arbitrating arbitrarily, we have barely time to register the organised efficiency and cleanliness of Chennai Central. We who are used to the chaos of Howrah Station are disoriented by the lined up trolleys and disciplined crowds. And where are the beggars, the filth, the rotting odours? I shake my head as we walk without mishap to the taxi stand.

Our resort is in Muttukadu, about 30 odd kilometers from Chennai on the road to Mammallapuram, a.k.a. Mahabalipuram. When we find it, we are pleasantly surprised at the charming, low-slung, palm-lined huts almost hugging the sea. Each palm tree has a number on it, but the numbers are neither logical not sequential. Tree 23, for instance, stands in a huddle with trees 46, 152 and 7. Immediately, Sanjib makes the kids run around the whole resort to hunt for trees with numbers he calls out.

It is not long, however, before the children lose interest in the tree game and begin hopping and whining to get into the wading pool immediately.

I want to go out too. I can’t wait to greet the sea!

Hello, Sea—
on my tongue
in my nose
on my skin
in my eyes
on my toes
my ankles,
my calves...

It is an emotional, spiritual, ritual, religious moment; a re-joining of a fundamental umbilical cord; an epiphany of sorts each time I meet the sea. I wade and wallow and soothe my city-sore eyes. I rock myself to the rhythm of the waves and commune with my ultimate mother. The communing stops when “Baba” can’t hold the children away from me anymore.

After quick cold showers we have dinner on a wooden terrace-restaurant that hangs over the beach with the sea practically lapping white phosphorescent froth under us. It smells so fresh up there with the stiff, sea- breeze whipping through our hair. As we wait for the food to come, I teach the kids to hold out their tongues to the breeze until they can taste the salt. We must’ve looked rude to the other diners, but I didn’t care and the kids loved it!


The kids are digging sand and scavenging shells with the intensity and fervour of conducting important research. I suddenly find my daughter poking at a frightened sand crab who is trying desperately to scuttle horizontally away from her into his hole. I rush to save him and tell the kids a story about a shy little crab who got hurt by a child. I know my son the serious, sensitive crusader will never let his sister poke another crab now. Satisfied, I return to the waves that beckon me.

The children make a big mess as they wash the sand off the shells and sand the bathroom in the process. Finally, after the children, the shells, the clothes and the bathroom are cleaned, my husband is too exhausted to do anything but laze at the pool.

We brunch with the blues—
above, a clear turquoise
lower, a band of soft, fluffed up powder
lower still, an indigo horizon,
then miles of rich Prussian coming towards us before turning into a muddy, sandy, marshy almost-green the last few yards.
From the horizon, on the Prussian, little white wave-heads play, bobbing up and down, turning little cartwheels as they swim to the shore holding hands, putting their heads together as they rush in—“and we all fall down.”

Sunkissed, sun-lazed, my children take a short power-nap as the air-conditioner drones. I want to read a book but my eyes mutiny.


We drive down the road towards Mammallapuram to a board that reads Dolphin Park. We stop curiously only to hear that three dolphins were killed just six months after they were imported many years ago because they couldn’t adjust to the temperatures. My temperature is rising to boiling anger as we are told that they now have sea lions who put up an hour long show at Rs 150 a head, and the video camera would be Rs 200 extra. My husband tugs me away before I can do the hapless employee any bodily harm. We drive away on the straight road by the sea to Mammalla-Mahabali-puram.

In almost no time, we’re at a World Heritage Site: the Shore Temple and rock carvings at the erstwhile Mahabalipuram, away from the bustle of Mamallapuram—a typical small town Indian village that now caters to tourists. The village was built between the 8th and 10th century AD and was a major sea-port of the great Pallava kings.

Here, in Mamallapuram, it is easy to see the various forms the South Indian temple took before it evolved from the early cave temples to the more elaborate style of gopurams, courtyards and thousand pillared halls.

A lighthouse balances on an exquisitely carved platform that is perched on a rocky elevation. Here, fires were lit to guide the ships safely to port.

Six temples grow from under the sea, one thousand three hundred years old, their tops showing at low tide. The seventh was dug out from under centuries of sand by the British. A ten-foot tall Vishnu lies on his side, facing the sea-breeze. A cave temple on the sea rocks, waves curling at its feet in supplication. Forgotten architectural wonders, our heritage, discovered by Colonial Indologists and now preserved by the Archeological Survey of India. It is an ongoing “dig” and more of the poetry on stone continues to be uncovered slowly.

The best known of the rock carvings is huge—all of 27 metres long and 9 metres in width—and sculpted from a single rock. The bas relief tells the story of the descent of the river Ganga to Earth. A natural fissure in the rock makes the river, and the withered wise man Bhagiratha is pictured standing on one foot, while all of creation witnesses the falling of the Ganga.

We’re back to Muttukadu at night, hunting tree number 31, 27 and 56, drawn again to the sea, blacker than the sky which is lit up by Orion and a crescent moon.


Just before dawn, the children still fast asleep (but not for long, I know, because my daughter has an internal radar system that alerts her when I am more than 5 metres away!) my spouse and I steal away for a walk on the beach. We kick off our flip-flops, hold hands “before-like” and snatch our 15 minutes of romance.

It is the day we leave the sea and I am suddenly tearful. It is always like this—every time I have to leave the sea to go back inland, a visceral part of me reacts to the umbilical separation. Perhaps that is why I am inspired to write the first Haiku of my life as night turns into day on the beach in Muttukadu:

Molten gold tear-drops
Swell the bosom of the sea
Black waves beat the shore.


A leisurely brunch later, we’re packed and ready to move on. As we leave our little cottage, the eighteen-armed Tree # 1 waves a furious farewell. And the sea, she sends out from behind us, a salty breeze-kiss and ruffles our hair.

We spend the day shopping for South cottons and Kanchivarams and sightseeing in Chennai. After a sumptuous dinner, our driver Koela Rajan drives us to Chennai Central. We walk to Platform#3 where our trusted steed stands waiting, charts in place, to take us to Kodaikanal Road.

Pictures courtesy:

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Zadeer the Zebra

Little Zadeer was born in the early hours of the morning as his aunts whinnied softly to his mom, comforting her in her painful efforts to birth him. When he was born, his mother lovingly licked him clean and named him Zadeer--the new one. As he tried to get on his feet, falling several times before he stood trembling before them, they all smiled. He was such a cute kid!

Soon, Zadeer's unique brown and white stripes turned black. His stripes marked his identity. Just like no-one else in the world has fingerprints just like yours, no two zebras have the same stripes. Zadeer learned how to use his stripes to hide himself in the tall Savannah grass. He played with the other foals in his harem and could run really fast at the slightest warning bark from his aunts or cousins. He knew which grasses, shrubs, herbs, leaves and twigs to eat. Life was good.

One night, Zadeer was standing as he slept (that's what Zebra's do, you know). Suddenly, he heard a soft rustle. His nose twitched. What was this he was smelling? He hadn't smelled this smell before. It was odd--like too much sun-hot smoking the grass--and quite unpleasant to him. He gave a soft bark. His nose twitched and his tail swished. He didn't like it, but he wasn't sure if this smell meant any harm to his harem.

Before he woke everybody up with a loud bark that meant "Danger! Let's run," Zadeer decided to explore the smell a bit. That was brave and young Zadeer meant well, but do you think this was very wise? Of course not! 

Hidden in the shadows of the grass, Zadeer saw four really strange moving trees. Each tree had two trunks and two branches. The walking trees were smaller than the grass. Each tree had a black stick hanging from its right branch. The rounded fruit on the top of their trunks made whispering noises though there was no breeze moving the Savannah grass.

Zadeer backed away. He didn't know why, but his heart was beating fast. Something in him knew he had to run. He returned to his harem. He barked. Loudly.

Friday, April 29, 2016


image credit:

Just like humans
I'm a mammal
and a social

I live high up
in the mountains
I like grass
and mossy fountains

It's really cold
so I wear a coat
thick and long
from leg to throat

Most of the time
I'm really quiet
chewing cud
and watching my diet

Eating my meal
again and again
is exhausting--
what a drain!

I hardly ever talk
and never talk back
So why do humans
call talking too much
going "Yakety Yak?"

Thursday, April 28, 2016

X-Ray Tetra: Goldfinch of the Water

X-Ray Tetra, a.k.a Pristella maxillaris a.k.a Golden Pristella Tetra a.k.a Water Goldfinch--those are the many names of this tiny fish that lives in the Amazon's waters. Although it is related to around one hundred other Tetra species, it is the only fish of its genus.

X-Ray Tetra prefer the fresh water but can also be found in brackish water close to the coast. and can be found in Brazil, Guyana, Guiana and Venezuela. It lives in big schools in deep water in the area between the middle and the bottom and is quite peaceful.

It eats worms, insects and small shell-fish and is eaten by frogs, birds and other big fish. Like us, it remains awake during the day and sleeps at night.

The X-Ray Tetra lives between 2 to 5 years. You can easily recognize it from its yellow, black and white striped fins and its golden or silvery body that glistens and looks translucent. Female fish and male fish look similar but the female are rounder and bigger than the males.

The X-Ray Tetra has special features in its bones that makes it very good at hearing things. Because it looks transparent, its enemies can't find and hunt it easily in the shifting and shimmering water.