It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon in Chennai and we’re in our car, making our way back home after lunch through the sparse traffic. I’m twiddling with the radio dial, he’s making desultory conversation, and both of us are already halfway into our Sunday afternoon nap mode when we suddenly hear a throaty vroom vroom from somewhere behind us. Not good. It’s a sound familiar to any Chennai-ite and usually signals the arrival of one of those greasy-haired, too-tight-jeans-wearing bikers who gets his kicks by flouting road rules to such an extent that auto drivers seem positively staid by comparison. And if there’s one, there’ll be more; they invariably travel in packs.
“Uh-oh,” I begin, “it’s one of those crazy biker gan–”
Before the words have left my mouth, he’s streaked past us in a blur, a flash of pristine white. It takes my somnolent brain a minute to process that there’s something rather different about this biker. It isn’t his attitude; no, he’s loudly signalling his fellow bikers across the three lanes, zipping in and out between vehicles, and being quite as obnoxious as the worst of them. But this one’s hair is pulled back in a tightly-coiled kudmi, not a tendril out of place (I spend a moment admiring the sheer staying power of that knot). And no jeans, tight or otherwise or t-shirt with lewd slogan in sight. No, this guy flies by with his panchakacham flapping briskly in the wind, his poonal streaming devil-may-care somewhere past his left ear and his angavastram bellowing behind him like some sort of weird Tam-Bram version of Batman’s cape.
“Do you see what I see?” I ask the husband falteringly.
Before he can answer, the scene takes on an even more surreal feel. Vadhyar Biker No. 1 has now been joined by two others in equally complete priestly garb (though their kudmi-tying skills aren’t quite on par — definitely some frizz happening with one) and they all three zoom into our field of vision, gesturing, hooting, and generally behaving as if Lalitha Sahasranamam is the last thing on their minds . Dear God, I think. It’s a whole gang of them.
“If you mean the Hell’s Angels of Mylapore, then yes,” he says, sounding as shaken as I feel.
By this point, the Gang of Biker Vadhyars, led by he of the perfect kudmi, have congregated at one point for a U-turn, and when we last see them, are high-fiving each other and laughing fit to fall off their bikes. No religious ceremony will never be the same to me again, I think dazedly, as we continue our journey in stunned silence. The next time I see three vadhyars sitting together at some solemn occasion like a shraddham, I’m not going to be able to get the image of them doing wheelies out of my head.
Okay, so our society is changing fast. In the US, I once saw a vadhyar arrive at my aunt’s house in jeans and a t-shirt, change into veshti etc. to conduct the poojai in her fireplace and then zoom off again in his Toyota Camry. We got to change with the times, I get it. Take the vadhyar at my friend’s recent engagement, who stayed plugged in to his MP3 player (ear phones dangling stylishly off one ear) the whole time. That I can understand — he’s only human, he needs to listen to music during work, yada yada. We all do it.
But this? Even typing ‘Hell’s Angels’ in the same sentence as ‘vadhyar’ feels faintly blasphemous. And yet, those three were the veritable embodiment of biker ‘tude. Then a small voice in my head says, why not? Just because a guy’s day job involves piety and prayer doesn’t mean he can’t be a bad-ass biker by night (or in this case, by afternoon). We all need a way to unwind. Yoga or meditation seem a little more apt, perhaps, but hey, who am I to judge? Maybe guys with a direct line to God are the only ones who should to be zipping around at those speeds on our roads anyway.