Ganesh exclaimed. ‘Wow, the rooms at Dindigul are booked. So, we can leave comfortably for Kodaikaanal. At Kodaikaanal, anyway, the guest house is already reserved for us. Pray to God that we have a happy and safe journey’. Tarun said, ‘Dad, I am eagerly looking forward to this road trip. The hill station, curvaceous roads, hairpin bends, green stretch, dark clouds chasing us, beautiful botanical garden, pillar rocks… all that I have read in text books. I must see them in reality’. Varun, the younger one, also chirped, ‘I will enjoy, the slide, the swing, everything in the garden. I will not miss the boat ride’. Ganesh turned to his wife, Satyabhama and asked, ’Are you not excited’? Satyabhama said, ‘why not’! But she asked him to tell the boys that grandmother was also coming with them. Otherwise they would create ruckus at last minute which would hamper everybody’s high octane spirits of going on a long journey. Yes. He had to tell them, pacify them and make them agree. After all, a long tour of seven days by rail and road.
Ganesh tried to book rooms in a hotel in Dindigul. Being peak season at Kodaikaanal, rooms were not available at Dindigul which was at the foot-hill. So, he asked his cousin, Mahesh, a bank manager there in the town, to use his influence and get hotel accommodation. He agreed, but on one condition, that his mother also would go with them. Ganesh had no problem. But Tarun had. Grandmother, Varalakshmi, being a pious lady, would insist on discipline and impose lot of restrictions. It was annoying for the young boys to take it easy. A spoil-sport-lady by herself, all the time rolling beads and cursing others. Varalakshmi was keen on going to Palani, a holy temple town. Her son Mahesh, could not take her to Palani, owing to his nature of busy work-schedule. Moreover, he was a bachelor, staying in a lodge with some more colleagues. Varalakshmi was living with her elder son at Chennai.
Varalakshmi came to Ganesh’s house two days in advance – ahead of the scheduled trip. The entire family, along with Varalakshmi, were to go up to Dindigul by rail and from there by road to Kodaikaanal. Obviously, the children made wry faces and ran away at the very sight of grandma. Parents did warn the boys to respect elders and behave themselves. Varalakshmi too, was, a lot nagging. She was often and again giving instructions on items to be taken, not to forget warm clothing, handy herbal medicines, notebook, pen, umbrella, raincoats, jar of pickles, homemade snacks and sweets for her son Mahesh and a host of many tips and tiny items. Suddenly she would remember binoculars or goggles, then she would call Tarun to include them in the notebook and ensure they were not omitted. While everybody was in the same mood of carrying their essential requirements, grandma’s interference and poking now and again, was a nagging nuisance. War of words between Tarun and Varalakshmi could not be avoided. For example, grandma wanted to crack a coconut as offering to God, before start of journey, whereas, Tarun said, that should be done at the end of the journey, as a thanks-giving prayer. Both Ganesh and Satyabhama had to intervene to keep them under control. Before leaving the spot, Tarun would mumble a few words and grandma would tap her forehead and say Raama-Raama – meaning ‘what a day I am made to see.’ Their equation was going on… but, before long, came the day of journey. Ganesh was a bit worried – carrying too many loose items, would be a difficult task to keep a watch. Less luggage, more comfort would surely make journey a pleasure. Both Ganesh and Satyabhama had to keep their fingers crossed, sincerely praying for happy long journey.
Early morning, all five of them, along with their hoard of luggage, came to Egmore railway station, to board the train. Suddenly, grandma was not to be seen. Ganesh became panicky and scolded his son. He thought Tarun must have teased her and she in turn, got upset and got lost. But the innocent boy did nothing to harm her. He was so upset that he wanted to curse the old lady for killing their enthusiasm at the starting point itself. Ganesh calmed down, He tugged the luggage in proper position and told everybody to occupy their seats. He told them not to move out of their seats, even if the train left. Then, he set out in search of his aunty, Varalakshmi. To his horror, he found her seated cosily, in about two compartments away. Thank God! He could spot her in time. Because of vestibule coaches, he brought her to her proper seat in the proper compartment. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief. If anybody wanted to know why she was absconding, they must have to ‘tap their forehead’ – meaning Oh! God! what a funny lady! At the railway platform, on spotting the rising sun in the sky, from an angle, she immediately folded her hands and offered her prayers and obeisance, by kneeling on the floor. Such salutations were uncommon to the general public. She was not bothered about her onlookers. Once done with her salutations, she moved ahead. But she could not locate Ganesh or his family. She vaguely remembered they were to travel by AC chair car. So, she got into one such compartment and occupied a vacant seat, knowing fully well that it was not hers. She strongly believed in God and next, the TTR (Travelling Ticket Examiner), who would ensure joining her with her family members.
Finally, the rail chugged out of station. Both Tarun and Varun stayed glued to the window, watching the trees, buildings, people, rail stations, … all speeding in opposite direction. The elders, kept talking about family matters, getting update of other cousins, prospects of Mahesh marriage etc. The train was on its course. After a while, it was crossing a dry river. Varalakshmi wanted to throw a coin into the river. so, she came to the window. Ganesh stopped her. She interrupted and said, ‘all water bodies are sacred and life-supporting. Hence, from time immemorial, as a measure of thanks, coins are thrown into the river, as humble offering to River Goddess’. Ganesh was in a fix. How to deal with this lady? In AC coaches, windows remained closed only. Knowing her nature, he had to stop her going to the doorway for security reasons. With difficulty, he convinced her that the river here, was a polluted one, but, in Kodaikaanal, there were many springs and rivulets, all fresh, unpolluted and pure, where she could fulfil her desires. As usual, she cursed all those who polluted the rivers and killed the very river itself. According to her, all bad people were none short of demons. They had to be pushed into hell and made to suffer their doom’s day. Finally, the train reached Dindigul.
In spite of heavy work at office, Mahesh came to Railway station to pick up his mother and others. He came to hotel. After a brief stay, he took leave. He left his car at the disposal of Ganesh for their road trip. Varalakshmi was very cool and composed for two reasons… one, she met her son and next, very soon, she would visit Palani, her dream destination. Tarun and Varun were eagerly waiting for the next leg of journey. Ganesh almost went out to buy Roadmap, to which Tarun objected. “When GPS is readily available on your mobile phone, why do you want this outdated roadmap? I will help in navigating.” Varun said, ’even I can help you, dad.’ Ganesh was proud of his children. ‘This younger generation was far ahead of us.’
All set to go, they were heading for Kodaikaanal, about 70 kilometres from Dindigul. Because of mountainous road, an uphill task, Ganesh was very cautious in driving. With every passer-by in car in any direction, children waved and cheered. Soon, the chill mountain breeze and tall pine trees greeted them. Varun wanted to know what tree it was. Tarun instantly said. ‘it is a cobweb stick to clean the sky’ and after a pause, he said pine trees. Grandma said ok, ok. A fine tree! A pine tree to clean the atmosphere! War of words between them, got changed into pun of words and wits. That was the magic of touring. They enjoyed every bit of nature. Very beautiful scenery awaited them. Suddenly it rained, suddenly misty, suddenly cloudy, suddenly chill, suddenly a brook flowing, sudden flight of cranes, sometimes monkeys crossing, --every minute the scene was changing. Boys thoroughly enjoyed. Others too. They travelled non-stop, so as to avoid night journey. But none of them got bored, not even the 60+ years old grandma. With the help of GPS, they located their guest house, which was a bit far away and cut off from main township. Once they were led into their rooms, they stretched and relaxed. But not Tarun. He wanted the notebook-pen. ‘Thanks to grandma’. He had seen a board showing ‘A Must-See-List’ –all important sight-seeing places in Kodaikaanal. It was an advertisement displayed by a local agent / tourist operator giving his contact details. Tarun jotted down all points in his notebook. The list was long. Lakes –3 or 4, parks –3 or 4, falls and fountains -3 or 4, view-points –3 or 4, museums, solar observatory, pony ride, boat ride, kurinji temple, golf course, exotic fruits and vegetables… he patiently noted down all the spots. With the help of GPS, the boys identified the places and numbered them.
Ganesh got ready and others hopped on to the car. Sightseeing started. As and when they finished one, they ticked the item from their list. At the lakes, Ganesh asked Varalakshmi to throw as many coins she wanted. Tarun instantly said, the coins would be drowned in the lake. If picked up from the bed after centuries,they would be termed as antique coins. But, if grandma threw coins standing in the upstream of Liril falls or Silver Cascade falls, such coins could easily be collected at the downstream itself. Water also very clear and depth also, not much. Such varied comments ready wits were exchanged every now and then. At Bryant Park, Tarun wrote his name and address in the Visitors Book. But at Botanical gardens, he gave his father’s name and mobile number. For Suggestion Box, he wrote, ‘Oxygen Supply Needed 24X7. Plant Cactus. All varieties.’ Before penning this suggestion, he had an argument with grandma. He wanted to suggest ‘Get Black Rose’. But Paatti (Grandma) insisted write cactus. Tarun thought cactus grew only in deserts, not in plains. She cursed him for his ignorance. Later half-heartedly, he wrote what Paatti suggested. They went to next spot. All of them travelled a lot, walked around places a lot. They were on their way to the temple. That was added to the itinerary exclusively for grandma. There, they heard a loudspeaker calling Ganesh. Ganesh also got a phone call and sms. That was from the Horticulture Department of Botanical Garden. They had a system of pooling all suggestions once a month, pick up those viable and practical ones, try to contact the suggester and read out his suggestions on the stage. Varun-Tarun’s excitement knew no bounds. They jumped up in joy. ‘Thank you Paatti. Your cures were answered’. They went back to the garden. A packet of exotic seeds was given to them in honour. In a small town of floating population of tourists, it was sheer luck to be spotted on the same day.
Boys were not carried away by the enchanting views of pine forests at a distance, nor with view of Palani Hills and temple. Even if view from Dolfin Nose was breath taking, boys were bent upon boat ride and horse ride. Grandma was again missing. This time, Varun spotted her through binoculars. She was with horsemen bargaining for rides. Tarun-Varun ran and joined her. She asked them, ’your rates are not for rides, it is all raids on us!’ One hawker sarcastically said, ‘Oh! Granny, if you are mounting the horse, I shall give you a free ride’. The onlookers laughed. She never bothered about anybody laughing at her. She, clad in her typical south Indian nine-yard saree, to their utter surprise, stepped on the stool, then on to the saddle, then raised herself and seated comfortably on the horse. She stunned everybody. She taunted at the horseman, ‘you silly foulmouthed idiot! You are cursed.’ Tarun had to say something different. He said, ’Grandma, take Varun and tie him to your back. You will be just like Jhansi Rani as described in my History text book.’ The horseman meekly said, ‘my horse is also named Jhansi rani. So, one Jhansi Rani on another Jhansi Rani!’. At the same time, he took a photo of old lady seated on his horse and showed it to her. He said, ‘as promised, your ride for 500 metres is free. I will use your photo. I can get more customers. You cursed me. It is all blessings now. See how many have come here for the ride!’ By then lot of people had gathered. She got down, made Tarun-Varun to go around twice. She paid him his charges, though he refused. After all, it was his livelihood. She would not snatch it.
With boat rides and some adventures, the fun filled tour, was almost over. Time to go back. Tarun-Varun’s chorus, ‘Bye-Bye Kodaikaanal’ echoed on the hills. Once again grandma was on her toes, with instructions. ‘Don’t forget your belongings, curios, mementoes. Check thoroughly.’ Ganesh settled the bills. Receptionist was busy. There were many tourists. Peak season! With the car moving, the family’s return journey started. There was no GPS, no navigation, no cheers, no arguments --- all remained silent. In fact, Varalakshmi dozed off also. Car kept moving. Due to a sudden jerk, she woke up and remembered her ring. She asked Ganesh to go back to the Guest House. By then they came far away. Quite a distance. Ganesh was hesitant to go back. Less likely to find the ring where it was lost, less likely to get back to their rooms, as they were now occupied by fresh tourists, less likely to lodge a complaint with police, as the very ring was an ordinary one, not gold or diamond. But Varalakshmi was adamant. To her it was very precious. It was her first gift from her husband, some forty years ago. U-Turn was inevitable. They came back to Guest House. Even before Ganesh would seek permission from Receptionist, Varalakshmi barged into her ex-room. There was a young man, who screamed at her for her unauthorised entry. Unperturbed by his screams and howls, she straight opened the drawer and took her precious ring. Tarun also came running behind her. His packet of seeds was in another drawer. So, he too straight went to the drawer and tried to take his treasure. By then the young man, caught him by his collar and banged him. ’You thieves! Get lost.’ In trying to balance himself, Tarun clung to the table, but in vain. All he got was a handkerchief dipped in chloroform. He fell unconscious. Chloroform in hotel room! Grandma, sensing something terribly wrong, gave a strong blow to the fellow. ‘You wretched demon, how can you harm my grandson?’ A sudden unexpected blow from a total stranger, that too heavy, was too much for him. Before he could organise himself, she signalled the girl on the bed to flee from the room. The young man getting his things out of control, was about to hit Varalakshmi. By then both Ganesh and hotelier came up. Ganesh looking at him angrily yelled, ‘Are you not ashamed to beat an old lady?’ That fellow shouted, ‘Oh! A Tarzan in the mask of granny, you call an old lady?’ He turned to the owner and complained. ‘Call the police, Hand them over.’ Hotelier said, ’Yes. The police already arrived. Not for them. For you. This hotel is for family and married couples only. Not for eloping lovers or flirting couples. Understand?’ Police came up and arrested the fellow. Ganesh took care of Tarun. Valakshmi picked up the seed packet from the drawer. They came down. The parents of the girl, had come over there. Father rained blows on the girl for eloping. She had left behind a note at home. With the help of police, they traced her out immediately. She was a minor girl and the fellow was not of a good character, which she learnt now. She fell at the feet of Varalakshmi and thanked. Others also thanked her, for solving the case amicably. Varalakshmi, tapped her forehead and commented, ‘what a day!’
With minimum medication, Tarun regained conscience. Now gleefully, they all returned to Dindigul. They came to the same hotel room booked earlier. One leg of journey was over. The rest was to follow. Visit to Palani. Being a visit to temple, there was no scope for entertainment nor excitement. There was no argument, neither war of words. Now that the boys understood grandma and her cursing nature, they were not disturbed. By her heroic deeds, she was awe inspiring. The way she dealt with horseman and young man, was amazing. Tarun said to his parents, ‘Next time whenever we go on tour, we must not forget grandma. We should include her without fail.’ Both could not believe themselves. ‘She was cursing you.’ He confidently said, ‘No, no, her curses were indeed blessings. Let us welcome her curses.’
Without tapping their forehead, they thought, ‘what a boy! He says curses are welcome.’