My journey began in Chennai 2015. What is a young lad from Glasgow doing in Chennai, India? You might well ask!
It started on that night in November 2013 strange dream of me drowning or nearly drowning holding on to someone or something very precious to me. That was strange. I am a very good swimmer, a ‘wee fish in water’ as my grandma used to say. I had read late into the night tossing and turning. I was so excited about my success in getting a placement in an Indian music college! The Royal Conservatoire course had a three month placement for our class in the final year of my music course. I wanted to experience a completely new genre of music, Carnatic music, a classical South Indian music thriving ancient music that intrigued me from the first tune I heard.
A young girl, Kavita, from Chennai had arrived at the Royal Conservatoire and played a few keertanais which were like an aria on the violin, and I was hooked. These Keertanais were composed over a few hundred years ago but never heard of before in Glasgow. Truth be told, I had a crush on her and I wanted to be with her. Well, more than a crush, we had spent the three months together when she was in Glasgow for her placement and we had become close. I was the young man from faraway Elgin and she was the young lady from even further away Chennai. Two young people in a strange new city, we had so much in common. The long distance relationship had continued and made us stronger.
Maybe that dream was something that I had imagined, yet that river, the feeling of drowning made me sit up in fright and wonder.
So here I was, in January, the supposed cooler month, still sweating in the subtropical heat of Chennai. I walked along a tiny lane, Bradis Kesil Road. I asked people around what that meant. I was informed that the name of the lane seemingly made no sense in Tamil and none of course, in English. Later I found out it was a mutated form of the name Brodie Castle, through the hundreds of years it had changed to this convoluted word. The tiny lanes lead to the big T.T.K Road and on to the River Adyar. This was where my new college, my place of learning for the next three months was. Thendral or Breeze as the building was named was an imposing structure built literally on the edge of the river. The cool breeze gave me some respite from the humid heat that did nothing for my pale Scottish skin. Being with Kavita, learning more about her city and the classical music was a big compensation and very exciting.
Just two weeks in and I wanted her more than ever. Things were strange here. It was such a segregated society in many ways. I felt I could not be with Kavita, the way we were in Glasgow. Holding hands, kissing in public was taboo in Chennai.
We sat on the steps, close to the river. Our secret rendezvous were on the banks of the river, often after classes in the cool of the evening, the tropical skies changing from a blistering white heat to darkness in a few hours. The star spangled sky was spectacular, watching the waxing and waning of the moon so clear in this city, a far cry from the cloudy skies of my hometown.
The first assignment was a good enough excuse to seek her help. Kavita looked ravishing in her pale primrose sari; her brown eyes sparkled in the fading twilight
‘You look amazing, I blurted out.’
‘So what was the raga again? Ham…sad…vani,’ I asked and I felt the blush spread to my neck. I changed the subject quickly. She smiled. I felt a strange thump in my heart.
She tossed some dried flowers, the browning jasmine strand that she had removed from her plait. The river gurgled as she picked at the flowers, no words from her, just a big sigh.
‘Penny for your thoughts,’ I said leaning towards Kavita.
She moved closer, I could feel her breath on my face, I bent down to kiss her gently, on her cheek first, and then I held her chin and kissed her on the lips. There was no need for words. She felt the same. I proposed to her, the star lit night was the witness as she accepted me.
That night and that strange dream again, the one I had had in Glasgow. No, it was not a pleasant feeling. When I woke up in the morning, I just brushed it aside.
The meeting with her parents went more smoothly than I had imagined. The iPad announcement to my mum and dad was received equally well. After all they had met Kavita when she was in Glasgow and had liked her. We were an item!
Pongal in Chennai was like Christmas at home. Pongal is a harvest festival and people were draped in silks, the children enjoying the time off school and the shops bursting with sales and flashy saris, jewels and gifts. This was an exciting time to be here, witnessing the colours and beauty of a rural festival celebrated in the bustling city. Kolams, the intricate designs in rice flour on the pavements, the smells of jasmine, roses, marigold, all intermingled with the aroma of food stuffs, vegetables that I had never seen in Scotland. Houses were lit up and shops, the hustle and bustle of this festival was an experience that I’ll never forget.
Kavita looked radiant in her red silk sari as we walked into a show at the college that evening. What a surprise! The play was about the history of the college.
I did know that the college was originally Brodie’s Castle, built by a Scotsman James Brodie from Elgin, my own wee city! Now here was a connection that I was not aware of. Chennai often thrust these little gems on me, the enmeshed history of our two countries, in the most unexpected of places. A play was performed that evening that dramatized James Brodie’s life in what was then Madras, now Chennai. He worked for the East India Company had amassed wealth that bought him the estate in Elgin. He also built this castle here on the banks of the River Adyar. The castellated turrets to remind him of home! The college building I was in, ‘Thendral’ or Breeze as it was renamed was the actual castle. A bit of Scotland buried in its walls. I felt elated. I looked around me, feeling a new sense of pride and patriotism. I surreptitiously squeezed Kavita’s hand, hidden under her sari. She gave me a sweet smile that set my whole being aflame. I loved her and she had brought me to a place that had a new meaning for me.
The play, however, revealed the tragic end that befell the Brodie family. The Chiefs of the Brodie Clan had been cursed, “to the effect that no son born within the Castle of Brodie should ever become heir to the property.” That curse came true. James Brodie and his family were drowned in a boating accident in the River Adyar. I felt a chill descending on me as the curtains fell at the close of the play.
The evening concluded on a happier tone with young dancers performing the classical dance Bharatanatyam to the famous composer’s music that we had learnt. The dance and the music transported me to another world of grace and beauty.
Happiness is transitory? No, not at all! We were blessed, laughing, giggling our way through the halcyon days, as all young lovers do. So why was Kavita upset about a street vendor of prophecies, who relied on a dumb parrot to pick a few cards and read our future? It was a silly parrot that put a stop to our deliriously happy week.
‘Let’s have a laugh, come on, that bird could predict me our future.’ I protested
But Kavita dragged me to that little stall by the shade of the banyan tree. A little man with a fierce moustache and huge red dot and ashes on his forehead did a namaste, prayed to Lord Shiva’s photo and took our hundred rupee note. Beside him in a tiny cage he had two green parrots and he shuffled a huge stack of colourful cards, a bit like tarot cards. After asking for our names and mumbling some mantra, he opened the cage and one of the parrots came out. Gingerly it eyed us and strutted along for a few minutes. As the man mentioned my name, the parrot picked three or four cards from the pack, one after another and laid it down, then picked one and handed it to the man. The parrot walked back into its cage and the man delivered his prophecies based on the card. He hesitated, and then said a string of sentences in a soft voice to Kavita. She thanked him, with a namaste and we left.
‘What did he say? I thought you were going to ask him to read your card after?’
‘Forget it, nothing we didn’t know. It was all the usual general stuff that is like the horoscopes in the newspapers. Not worth it.’ She struggled to smile, the lips creased into a grin that did not quite reach her eyes.
The sparkle in her eyes had left and she hurried us to a restaurant. As we sat there she said,
“It is a bit like those silly Tarot cards. I got the death card! What an awful thing to get. I just decided I don’t want you to get anything as unpleasant as that.”
“You don’t believe in such nonsense do you?” I asked as I sipped an ice cold drink that we had ordered.
“No. Of course not!” She smiled and my heart melted.
The next few days we were busy with the course work at the college. Life was good, having Kavita at my side made me content.
A week later we were at the Madras Boat Club, thrilled to be invited by Kavita’s friends for a lazy, late Sunday afternoon for a trip down the river. That boat ride was special. It was almost dusk; the breeze from the river was cool. We snuggled closer and talked about our future together. Should we settle in Elgin, Glasgow or Chennai?
Then it happened.
The sudden current took us by surprise. I did not know that Kavita could not swim. Nothing I did could save her.
I was devastated. The guilt nearly killed me.
I came back to Glasgow, and then travelled up to Elgin to stay with my parents. There was a huge void in my life that could never be replaced. I felt like nothing, empty without her. Thendral and Brodie castle came to mind.
That tragic history had repeated itself in a convoluted form. James Brodie had died in a similar boating accident, a sudden current that had taken his life and that of his children. A witch’s curse on his family had come true. That fact is documented. It was even used by Shakespeare, in his play, Macbeth.
Now Bradis Kesil Road made sense. A name crumbled and pieced together in a language that transformed like no other. That tiny lane was a gory, sad and forlorn reminder of the history of the Scottish Brodie Clan that was cursed by a witch.
Was it my connection with Elgin that had brought this tragedy? I’ll never know.
That dream of me nearly drowning, losing something precious, was now a nightmare that I will have to live with all my life.
- Tradition says a curse was pronounced against the Brodie Chiefs, “to the effect that no son born within the Castle of Brodie should ever become heir to the property.” The legend of the source of this malediction was one of the early Brodie Chiefs“who induced an old woman to confess being guilty of witchcraft by offering her a new gown, and then, instead of fulfilling his promise, had her tied to a stake and burnt“.
- The “blasted heath” where Macbeth is said to have met the three witches, is located on the lands of Brodie. The event was popularized in Shakespeare‘s play Macbeth. This location is referred to locally as Macbeth’s Hillock. (Source : Wiki)