I still remember the times I spent in the tiny town of Manamadurai close to the southernmost tip of India when I was a kid. Every summer holiday my father used to pack me and my sister off to this lazy town nestling near the Island of Rameswaram where my uncle and his family lived with my maternal grandmother. All my other cousins also used to assemble at this place for the summer vacations and we used to be a crowd of seven children. Two of us were boys and the other five were girls.
The boys were me and my cousin, Kannan. The girls’ names were Hema, Revathy, Jayanthi, Shantha and my own sister Sudha. We were all more or less the same age except for my sister Sudha who was the youngest. Fights used to break out frequently between us and my granny used to be hard put to maintain peace in the house. Uncle Narasimhan was a quiet man but he had a fiery temper and we were all in awe of him. Aunt Jambagam was a very talkative and kind woman. We all loved our granny a lot, especially myself and my sister because for some peculiar reason she was partial to us though she would never exhibit this partiality openly.
There used to be a garden at the backside of the house, which was not very well maintained, but it had a lot of banana and coconut trees. Next door there used to be a library which was stocked with a lot of novels and magazines in the Tamil language. I used to visit this library frequently and even became a close friend of one of the men who visited the library by the name of Sethu. My uncle was an employee of the Indian railways and his house was allotted to him by the government. All the houses were tiled roof houses. Manamadurai was bestowed with a river by the name of Vaigai. Unfortunately, it was a seasonal river which had water flowing in it only during the monsoons and never in the summers. As a result, I had never seen any water in this river as we visited Manamadurai only during summer vacations.
Another attraction for us children was a park which was very near my uncle’s house and which we could reach by just walking a kilometre along the road on which my uncle’s house was located. The major attractions of this park were a slide, a swing, and a seesaw. There also used to be a huge Oak tree in the park. Kannan and I always used to show off to the girls by climbing up the branches of this tree. The girls were too frightened of this tree because of the Chameleons and other creatures crawling up and down and would never come near it.
We children visited this park almost every evening to play. We used to go waltzing on the swing. We also used to play on the seesaw and push each other down the slide from the top at the least expected moments. One Saturday morning uncle Narasimhan told us, ‘Today afternoon I am taking all of you to the Shivanasamudram waterfalls in Karnataka.’ We had all heard of the Shivanasamudram waterfalls and had also studied about how hydroelectric power was generated there. All of us were puzzled because we could not understand how we could travel to the state of Karnataka within a timespan of a few hours. But none of us dared to question our uncle and simply nodded our heads.
After lunch uncle told us to gather in his room. Aunt Jambagam made all of us sit in a neat row on the floor. We children were mystified as to what our uncle was up to. Soon uncle entered the room carrying a parcel. He looked at us and smiled. He opened the parcel and carefully unpacked it. Out came a moderate-sized glass case with a wire coming out of it attached to a plug. Grinning from ear to ear uncle plugged the wire into the socket and switched it on. What happened next was something of a wonder. Within the glass case, we could see an illumination.
Gradually it turned into a very realistic image of water cascading from a tall mountain. The water appeared to be falling with great force. ‘There is your Shivanasamudram waterfall for you.’ Uncle announced grandly. Even though all of us children realized it was just a toy and an illusion created inside a glass case we were simply mesmerized by it. It looked so beautiful. After some, oohs and aahs from us, uncle switched off the toy. That evening, as usual, we children made a beeline for the park. The girls started playing on the swing and slide while Kannan and I climbed the Oak tree.
When we were at the topmost branches of the tree a whisper reached our ears, ‘psst, hey kids listen to me.’ Kannan and I looked all around suddenly scared. ‘Don’t be scared, I am the talking Chameleon. Look at the branch above you and you will see me,’ said the voice. Kannan and I strained our necks upwards and we could make out a Chameleon. The girls were still busy and were unaware of what was going on.
The Chameleon continued, ‘Your uncle only showed you a toy Shivanasamudram waterfall. You come here at midnight and we will visit the real Shivanasamudram falls.’
Kannan said, ‘But what will happen when our family finds us missing in the morning?’
‘I promise you, we will be back in this park by 3 AM and you can make your way back home,’ replied the Chameleon.
We promised the Chameleon we would be there at midnight. That night Kannan and I cautiously made our way out of the backdoor and reached the park. Kannan was carrying a torch which he switched on and we could see our friend the Chameleon at the bottom of the tree. ‘Now kids, lie down and close your eyes and we will be in front of Shivanasamudram falls soon,’ said the Chameleon.
In ten minutes, we were in front of a fantastic thundering waterfall. This was no mere toy. It was breath-taking. we could see the dam built upstream and make out the hydroelectric power station. It was fantastic. We were not allowed to go anywhere close to the falls, but it was worth every bit of the risk we had taken sneaking out at midnight. The waterfall threw up spray and there were a crowd of people with us. We stood there taking in the sheer beauty of the sight in front of us. Time passed as we stood looking at the falls rooted to the spot.
Suddenly I was rudely shaken by the shoulder and I woke up and found Kannan by my side. He had also just woken up. Our uncle towered above us and his face was dark. ‘Kannan, Jayakumar, whatever possessed you two to come and lie down here at night? We were going to file a missing person complaint at the police station. Fortunately, we found you. I am answerable to your parents for your safety.’
‘We visited the Shivanasamudram falls. The talking Chameleon took us there.’ I blurted out.
‘What! Don’t talk nonsense boy!’ My uncle thundered. Kannan was wiser than me. He did not say anything. We were carted off home and as punishment, my uncle did not allow us to step out of the house for one whole week. Kannan and I discussed our adventure often, but we could never understand what had happened that night. Both of us are now fully grown adults but every time we meet, we look at each other with a wondering look in our eyes.