Maragadam collected all her luggage and waited for the taxi to pick her up. She ensured that the case filled with the puppets, her treasured possessions, was safely loaded into the cab.
As they trundled through the cobbled streets of the tiny European city, her memories flew back home.
Home was a tiny village near Madurai, a cultural centre for performing arts, especially the famous puppet shows. For generations, her family had excelled at the ancient art of puppet-making. The tiny figurines of women, men, elephants, horses and chariots had been a part of her life since she was born, and she began handling them at a very young age. Maragadam fell in love with the tiny figurines that were being made at home. When other kids played with dolls, she manipulated the puppet strings from behind a screen, moving their arms, legs, and mouths and making them act out parts in the stories. She could talk in different voices and vocalise the feelings the puppets were undergoing. Her parents looked on with pride when she took their love for making puppets to the next level.
She went to college to get a degree in engineering, but her heart was not in it. She was only passionate about manoeuvring the puppets.
As she grew older, she chose famous stories and brought them alive through her puppetry skills. Her favourite was the unrequited love story of Ambikapathy and Amaravthy, the Laila-Majnu of the South.
When Maragadam spoke as a raconteur and described the magnificent court of King Kulothunga, where Princess Amaravathi first meets Ambikapathi, the son of the famous sage, Kambar, the whole grandeur would come alive for the spectators. She would expertly manipulate the puppets and give them voices from behind. The rich language spoken by the princess, Amaravathy, and the lyrical one used by Ambikapathy, the young poet, was immortalised by her evocative voice. The pathos of the tragic end to the story, recounted by her anguish-filled voice about how Amibikapathi is put to death and Amaravathi dies of heartbreak, would leave the spectators in tears.
Maragadam was more comfortable vocalising the feelings of her marionettes than talking about herself or her emotions. As a person, she was always shy, withdrawn and diffident.
So, when she applied and got selected for a Puppet Theatre Art course at a European university, her parents’ biggest concern was how a reticent person like her would manage her life in a foreign country.
It took a week to settle into a tiny studio apartment within walking distance from school. It had a kitchenette, a bed and a cosy living area. Maragadam had placed her puppets in a row on a convenient ledge.
Maragadam was feeling miserable. Even though everyone around her knew English, most had a European accent and could not understand her South Indian pronunciation. Her shy, diffident personality complicated the situation.
She missed home, friends and her comfort food. The bland fare at the Uni canteen added to her woes.
More than everything, she longed for a good filter coffee with all her heart.
She Googled to check if there was an Indian restaurant nearby and was elated when she found one within walking distance. It was unoriginally called ‘Namaste India’.
She ordered a strong filter coffee and a plate of alu paratha, paid and waited at the counter for delivery.
That’s when she heard a male voice ask for a filter coffee in the same Tamil accent as hers.
She whirled around and noticed a young man of her age at the counter: A tall, clean-shaven young man with a pair of rimless glasses and a mop of unruly brown hair.
In an alien country, longing for companionship, she badly wanted to rush to him and pick up a conversation. But her natural reticence stopped her and stilled her eagerness.
When she got her order and walked into the seating area, the guy was already sipping on his coffee at a table.
She took a chair where she was visible to him and he to her. She hoped against hope that he would notice her and start a conversation.
Suddenly, his phone rang, and he took the call and began talking.
Maragadam was delighted when her guess came right, and she heard him conversing in Tamil and learnt that his name was Sendhil.
Even though she felt miserable during the classes, the next day, there was a secret stash of happiness in her mind when she thought about the filter coffee guy at Namaste India.
Next evening, around the same time, she was back at the restaurant and was happy to note that so was he!
Both sat at the same places but still did not talk to each other.
Sendhil returned home, deploring his timidity. He was on a six-month-long project in the city and was also missing family, friends and Chennai.
He had noticed her at the Indian restaurant- a typical South Indian-looking girl, with her dark, lustrous hair in a long plait and a tiny diamond nose pin on the right side of her long, sharp nose.
He wished he could be like his other friends. The moment they saw attractive girls, they would make a beeline for them and soon have easy conversations, sitting close to them.
And here he was! Even though he genuinely liked her, he hesitated to tell her a ‘Hi’. He would have loved to know her better, exchange notes about their lives, listen to Tamil songs with her and discuss favourites.
Even after seeing her the second day and feeling the friendly vibes from her, he still hadn’t made progress.
He resolved to himself that the next day, he would approach her. But how would he start a conversation?
He stood before the mirror, extended his hand, and said, “I am Sendhil”. He shook his head in frustration. He did not like the simpering look on his face.
Would “Hey, Are you from Tamil Nadu?” work? No. Definitely not. Wasn’t it evident that she was? He would look foolish.
What about “Hey, you look familiar. Have we met before?” No. No. No. It was such a cheesy pickup line. And he wasn’t exactly trying to pick her up.
He was still undecided when he went to Namaste India.
She was still in the queue when he walked in, and no one was behind her. Thanking fate, he went and joined the line.
Noticing someone joining the Queue, she turned, and he was surprised by her smile of recognition.
He smiled back and asked, as if he did not know already, “Tamizhaa?”
She nodded and kept silent. He extended his hand, made sure his smile was not a simpering one and said, “Sendhil. From Chennai.”
They silently got their orders and looked for a place to sit. They found a corner table away from the bustle.
He removed his jacket, draped it on the chair, and eased himself into it, with Maragadam taking the opposite one. Hindi film songs played on the TV, and the hero and heroine ran around the trees as they lip-synced to romantic songs.
After a long pause, Sendhil broke the silence. “I am here for an office project. I don’t know how I will survive one whole year. I can’t bear the cold. Also, I am a little bit of a loner. I can’t make friends that easily.”
She smiled, understanding why it took such a long time for them to start a conversation. “For me, too. More than the cold, the loneliness is the issue. At home, I was always surrounded by my extended family. Suddenly, I am all alone and not one Indian friend. Also, like you, I can’t make friends easily.”
It slowly became a routine for them—meeting for dinner and talking about what was happening in their lives. After a day filled with conversations in english and working at being understood, it was a sheer pleasure to let go of all that trouble and talk comfortably in Tamil.
After nearly a month, Sendhil suggested they picnic to nearby waterfalls together.
Maragadam lay awake all night thinking about being with him the whole day.
The mild car perfume, the pleasant Tamil songs on Spotify, the scenic locales they passed through and the warmth of their camaraderie made them open up to each other.
Maragadam spoke to him about Puppetry and how the classes at the university were helping her hone her audio-oral skills. She recounted a funny incident.
“For a project, I was supposed to write a conversation between two friends and present it orally, along with another student. There was a meaningful, philosophical line. “I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to make friends with the butterflies,” and this is how it went.”
She enacted her Tamil accented version and how her class fellow corrected her, helping her get the European way ot saying them.
Sendhil laughed uncontrollably when she brought out the distinctions between the exaggerated versions of both accents.
He told her how all his male cousins in Chennai were envious, imagining he was having a good time with multiple European girlfriends.
“And here I am, not even able to wish them good morning without multiple repetitions till they understood my pronunciation.”
There was a small hike they needed to take to reach the waterfall.
Sendhil offered his hand at a particularly treacherous crossing, and Maragadam held it to help her vault over a gorge.
Both of them seemed reluctant to claim their hands back.
They perched on a dry rock jutting above the pool formed by the cascading water. They munched on some snacks they had carried from home.
For both, it seemed like they were in their own private world. Their conversations were filled with spontaneous, witty exchanges and sentimental talks about home and friends. They spoke about the funny incidents happening around them because of cultural differences.
It was pretty late at night when Maragadam returned to her tiny apartment.
She sat on her chair with a goofy smile. She recollected every moment of the trip: The spoken words and the unspoken ones, the feelings Sendhil’s touch evoked, the heady smell of the car perfume and the Tamil songs that played background score to their unspoken feelings.
On a whim, she pirouetted on her feet, grabbed the Amaravati Puppet from the ledge, and whispered lovingly to her, “Can you understand my emotions? After all, you must have undergone similar ones towards Ambikapathi. How did you voice your feelings to him? Were you also shy and tongue-tied? I can’t overcome my shyness and express my feelings for him. But you were lucky, I guess. During your time, the guys proposed. But this Sendhil is such an introvert; I am sure he will take forever to do it. But he’d better hurry. He will return to India soon because his project is almost over.”
Sendhil lived close to Maragadam’s apartment.
For a college project, Maragadam was to narrate Ambikapathi, Amaravathi’s epic love story, through her puppets in English. She had asked him over to try it on him and use his feedback to improve her presentation.
He walked through the quaint streets of the city dreamily. The sidewalks were awash with pots filled with colourful blooms. As he walked through the twisted streets, views of snow-capped hills played hide and seek.
The very thought of being with her filled him with joy. He wished that he could tell bare his heart to her. He knew instinctively that she reciprocated his love. But when even saying a simple ‘hello’ or starting a conversation was such an ordeal for him, how would he open his heart and declare his love?
She let him inside and gave him a dazzling smile. Sendhil felt himself melt and wished he could spend his whole life just watching how the dimples showed up and how the smile lit up her face.
She urgently thrust a mug of coffee into his hands and went behind the makeshift stage she had built.
As a narrator, she introduced the period of the saga, the king, and the heroine because the audience was new to India’s history.
With a flick of her wrists, the King entered on horseback and left the stage. Amaravathi and her friends played hide and seek in the palace gardens. The puppets’ movements were flawless, with no jerks or jumps jarring the actions.
He could see that she had been very creative in choosing the backdrop. It was a gold-hued curtain that showcased the rich maroons worn by Amaravthi and the colourful skirts sported by her friends. There were flowering trees and bushes painted on it. She extended them with natural twigs and green leaves for a 3D effect.
Soon, he forgot everything except her narration. The feelings of first love, experienced by the princess and the poet, came alive through her voice. There was a quiet background music that elevated the mood.
That’s when it happened.
Everything fell silent. The narration and the music stopped. Maragadam’s voice flowed out crystal clear. “Sendhil, have you not realised my love for you? I am too shy to express it in person. I want to let you know that I have fallen completely in love with you since we met. Every day, my love for you is only increasing.“
Sendhil stopped breathing for a moment. The words were music to his ears. A feeling of joy descended on him. He got up from the chair and hurried into the darkness towards the back of the stage. He felt like he was floating in the air.
He saw her standing in the darkness. He folded her in a deep embrace and whispered. “Maragadam. I love you. I have loved you from the moment I met you at Namaste India. I have been trying to overcome my reticence and open my heart to you. I love you so much, my precious one”.
Maragadam seemed slightly dazed. But she clung to him fiercely and closed her eyes in ecstasy.
After a while, they returned to the well-lit hall. They spoke with joyful smiles for a bit.
Then Sendhil said, “I don’t know about you. But I am damn hungry. Shall we go to Namaste India? We do need to celebrate our love with those depressing-looking Gulab Jamuns displayed on the shelf.”
Maragadam replied, “Of course. They do need to get liberated. I am sure they have been there since the restaurant began operations.”
Their spontaneous laughter faded into the night as they went down the stairs.
That’s when the puppets began stirring and came to life. The chariot started going round in circles, making a buzzing noise, copied from Maragadam. The horses chased after the chariot.
Ambikapathi stood up and searched for Amaravathi. He looked emotional, and there were tears in his eyes. Amaravathi ran to him from across the floor and hugged him tight, “That was a great idea, Amabikapathi. There is no way either of them was going to propose. Both of them are too shy and introverted to take the first step. And there are only a few days before Sendhil left.”
Ambikapathi’s voice shook, “Amaravathi, you did a great job proposing to him in Maragadam’s voice. There was so much love and depth in your voice. I could feel goosebumps all over.”
“Thanks. After all, she has voiced my feelings millions of times. I only repaid to her by imitating her once.”
“Do you think they will ever find out that it was not her voice that spoke?”
“Sure. Maybe one fine day, they will argue about whether she proposed or not. I had put her in a trance and stopped the music so the show would pause. She is not aware of my deception. She thinks that Sendhil took the initiative, came to her and proposed.”
Ambikapathi’s voice choked, “Our own love story seems to be caught in an unending loop of tragedy. But I am happy we could help theirs to come to a happy end through our intervention.”
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