I landed at Chennai's Kamraj Airport — Chennai, erstwhile Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu State. Heat welcomes me first at the arrivals gate.
The second welcome I receive when I nod at a guy who's holding a placard with my name on it. The guy with the placard nods back. Somebody from Chennai had called me earlier and told me that "Venu" will be waiting for me at the airport. So I stepped closer to the person holding the placard with my name and asked, "Venu?"
I confirmed the name because suddenly I had had this nagging thought, what if there are two 'Atul Sabharwals' arriving in Chennai at the same time? What if this guy is waiting for the other Atul Sabharwal? What if the guy who was actually supposed to pick me up is still writing the placard somewhere in the parking lot?
He nodded again, reaffirming his name. Password accepted. I was relieved. He is Venu. And I am the Atul Sabharwal he is supposed to receive. We both started walking towards the parking area.
"Bag?" he said walking behind me, offering me to handover my bag to him.
"It's okay," I replied and kept walking with my bag on my shoulder.
He overtook and started walking ahead of me, leading me to the car. It was only when he was opening the door to the driver's seat that I noticed his t-shirt. The Indian Cricket Team's official t-shirt. A fake one, of course.
He looked like a typical South Indian — the way they look in the restaurants that serve South Indian food in Bombay or Delhi or the way they look in South Indian movies. I had never been to Chennai before but I had enough visual reference of it from the South Indian movies that were aired on Doordarshan – India's national TV network – with Hindi subtitles. So far the imagery fell in sync with my visual reference – the faces, the dresses, number plates on vehicles.
I kept my bag on the back seat and seated myself in passenger seat, next to Venu. Venu took his place behind the steering. And the drive began.
"Hindi? English?" I asked him, fastening my seat belt.
"Tamid. Madayadam." He replied with a gentle smile and shifted the gear.
In South Indian accents they roll "L"s like "D"s so Tamil becomes Tamid and Malayalam becomes Madayadam.
I wanted to ask him how much time it will take us to reach the shooting location but I know neither Tamil nor Malayalam.
We both sat in silence.
Then, when the silence bored him, he pressed a tiny button on the car stereo. FM radio started playing a Tamil song. A few seconds later, Venu looked at me. I think he did. And then his finger changed the FM channel. An English song started playing.
He was the host so he was being hospitable by playing a song in a language that I understood.
I looked outside the window and saw huge hoardings and posters of Tamil film stars. I was familiar with most of the names, thanks to my childhood Doordarsahn viewings. We drove past a theater that was playing a Tamil film. Colors almost leaped out of giant hand-painted posters.
A Tamil song started coming out of the car speakers again. The poster may have evoked some emotions in Venu and he couldn't stand the English song anymore. I saw his finger changing the channels as I looked away from the giant poster. This time Venu even hummed with the radio. People in South Indian states are crazy about their film stars, especially in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. They build temples to worship their matinee idols, establish fan clubs, and a riot can erupt if you even say a word against their idol. Everybody sees a film at least five times and that, too, in a theater, on a big screen. They like seeing their gods king-size, larger than life.
The location didn't seem to be approaching and I was getting a bit restless. I had work there and the day was just passing. I took a blind chance.
"Location, how far?" I asked.
He looked at me apologetically. "Radio off?" came out from his mouth.
Is that what he thought I'd ask him to do? All this while he'd been thinking that I will tell him to turn off the Tamil song and play the English one. And he thought his fear had come true.
"No, no, no." I defended myself from being seen as a snobbish guest who wants to invade and impose his own tastes and preferences.
His finger stopped just near the button and then the hand went back to the steering.
We are back to square one. Both of us sitting tongue-tied. The Tamil song playing on the radio.
The song ended and the radio jockey said something in Tamil. I was busy looking at the streets. The voice went away and the next song started playing, "Mangalyam."
I know this song. I know this song. My mind screamed. I had heard the Hindi version of the song. It's in the feature film Saathiya – the remake of a Tamil film… the name… the name… the name escaped me.
Then I got it.
I looked at Venu and said, "Alaipayuthey?"
He looked at me and for the first time in those 45 minutes, he smiled. A smile that grew broader as he nodded and said, "Alaipayuthey."
Alaipayuthey, the first word I ever spoke in Tamil. It just became more than a film title.
Alaipayuthey, the word, made two of us communicate, converse, connect.
All this while, I guess, we've been itching to communicate with each other. To have a conversation. All this while we've been trying to guess what's going on in other's mind and making futile attempts — he in his broken English and me by breaking my English trying to sound like him.
And one word successfully opened that lock for both of us.