Into India: a marriage of heaven and hell

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It is the dawn in downtown Chennai that carries the lasting impression.

It is the dawn that etches the long, slow shadows, the horizontal sun reaching in low, carrying rare light beneath the eves and overhangs, roofs and tatty shades.

It is the dawn that allows a peek into a privacy generally believed consigned behind doors and gates and walls.

For that is when the sidewalks break their slumber. When public shadows move.

For it is here that the homeless live.

Go to Chennai to watch a cricket match. Find some simple accommodation within walking distance of Chepauk Stadium. Take a pre-dawn amble before the roads choke with the clattering, smoky hordes of two-stroke tuk-tuks, belching buses, rattling motorcycles and herds of marauding Ambassador taxis.

Slide past a dozy door attendant of the homely hotel into a tiny side road, flit left into a larger thoroughfare and trip over a pavement village.

It is impossible to navigate these paved curbs. There is no space. Not space for one shoe between the sleeping and slowly rising.

Blanket after sheet, hip to hip, anonymous feet stick out over gutters.

Small paraffin stoves, pots, plates, cups, buckets of water, lying dogs, parked bicycles, tricycles fill the space traditionally reserved for pedestrians. Walk and look, but not stare. Amble and gaze in wonderment more than alarm. There is no danger here. If anything, I feel I am the danger, the stranger, the intruder.

Families slowly rise with the sun, blankets are folded, sweet milky tea is brewed, teeth are brushed. But that does not hide the poverty, only instituting some kind of order before the onset of the city, before a light-headed madness pervades the streets and envelopes you.

The English language seems a dictionary short of a lexicon to portray the whirl and swirl of colour, swishing saris, motion, horses, donkeys, pedi-cabs, holy Brahma cows ambling down the road. The switch from the early slumber could not be more acute.

While pavements are still mostly cluttered with the trappings of homesteads, the streets now fill, and fill, leaving walkers no option but to weave, on to the pavement for a step or two, back over the gutter, through a gap in the string of parked motor bikes. Wait for a phalanx of traffic to pass, step into the street, around half a dozen motorbikes, back through a gap, over the gutter, two steps on to the pavement and back over the gutter again.

This is no "cacophony of sound and colour". It is, and more. The old “heaving mass of humanity” doesn't pay this joyous momentum the appropriate approbation either. “Seething”, “hectic” and “chaotic” don’t come close to conveying the sense of movement and sing-song mutter. The descriptions lack the heft of real hyperbole. “More” this and “more” are understatements more than anything.

The senses dazzle at a conflagration of colour, religion, road noise, vocabulary, scent, aroma, innuendo. It is an incredible, almost overwhelming sensation. India should have its own, dedicated book of adjectives.

My first Indian city, and a slowish one at that, I am told. Beyond magical reality, this is magical originality.

Dancing through the perpetual-motion wall of scooters that fill the five-lane roads in Vietnam’s central Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City demands a rare meditation, where a false step easily earns a crippling.

Thousands of machines fill those streets. The only way through the metal is ludicrously, crucially, against all logic and judgment, to pay absolutely no heed to the sea of wheels, spokes and handlebars, and just walk eyes front, straight, slow and sure. An almost insane pluckiness is required merely to step off the pavement and enter the flow. Step, look ahead, and do not anticipate or dodge. That is the rider’s domain. Stay your pace. If you dodge, they hit. But there is a semblance of order in Vietnam. All the vehicles drive on the left of the road, and approach jay-walkers from their right.

Not so Chennai, part of a billion-plus nation imbued with a frenzied fatalism that revels in a particular freedom on the transport lanes. Here, danger lies from left or right, north or south, any dotted centre-line a meaningless, long-since washed-out conceit. The road ahead lies where the opening lies, where the gap opens. Vehicles all are only warp and weft in a psychadelic tapestry of traffic. Here, the survival radar needs to be fully extended, on full alert. Don’t trust your ears. Pedalled tricycle taxis have a terrible habit of whispering up behind you from the wrong direction.

Buckingham Creek runs through this sector of Chennai, directly alongside the cricket stadium. However, its regal handle belies the muck masquerading as a stream that still offers some form of liquid to the shanties lining its banks.

It sounds like hell. But then without hell, where on earth’d heaven be?
For constantly, overpoweringly, amid everything the streets can throw up, is an amazing, all-encompassing feeling of goodness. A mist of smile and graceful acceptance. The scent of incense, a rainbow of coloured cloth in swirl and drift, little statues of gods and goddesses dotted randomly. This is a poor section of the city, filled with people full of kindness and generosity.

“You are a stranger in town sir, please have some tea,” “where would you like to go”, “can I help you”?

There is the sense of a huge, beautiful rose that has escaped the clutches of its thorny stem, smiling down from above. Temples and shrines, large and small, stand at the side of a road, or fill half a city block. Follow the subway up to Central Station and dodge a goddess, her lions and incense bearers bedecked with strings of beads and fresh and fading flowers.

In the throng, the cynic in the suspicious South African part of me covers my pockets, clutches at my belongings, gliding away from anyone within touching distance. Is this pickpocket country? For the lone traveler, it is a foolish lesson to learn the hard way.

Tuck into the parathas, samoosas, pakoras, street-stall fair, gain brief sustenance from any of the hundreds of chai stalls, sit on the pavements with the auto-rickshaw drivers, relish in an astonishing grass-roots level of cricket knowledge.

"Where do you come from?" The opening line to almost every conversation.

"Do you know Jacque Kallis?" My reply immediately cracking the ice.

Smiles light up the interaction … "and Jonty Rhodes, and Dale Steyn …" Cricketers are revered. South Africans, Australians, Indians. Everybody loves a good cricketer, and don't give a damn where they're from.

Football is often referred to as more than a sport, as a religion. In India cricket is more than a religion. It’s a manic, national obsession.

Soon everybody, including the sweeper in my meagre hotel (once a mosque hostel), my rickshaw driver and cyber-café attendant know there is a rare stranger, on his first, blown-way visit to India, who has come to their out-of-the-way city to watch the five-day Test match.

Day one and two, and the tourists pile up the runs, gaining early advantage. Each evening I have to offer a protracted rundown to all the hotel staff, desperate for all the off-camera details.

This game was the first real waypoint of the long journey, the first of five or six 'musts’. To see a game of cricket in the game’s most populous, and madly supportive nation.

One foreigner and 35,000 local supporters.

Blow a local vuvuzela-version for each South African run scored – against the deafening silence of the stadium at those moments.

Day two. Security confiscates my two musical instruments. They are disturbing the players, I’m told. No cameras, no smoking, no musical instruments, no alcohol. I’d gone along for the excitement, but the party-poopers were winning.

Someone with a peculiarly broad world view asks for an atmosphere comparison with a Kaizer Chiefs-Orlando Pirates game, between South Africa’s two arch-rival football teams.

The old Orlando Stadium wins hands down, where strolling vendors peddled their wares, peanuts, chips, nips of brandy tossed up into the stands, and torn-out pages of telephone books that make such a good alternative to cigarette rolling papers. And there’s nothing akin to that clingy-sweet, heady waft that so often permeates African football stands.

Outside the cricket stadium there is a chappati caravan. Nothing like the drifting smoke from football’s string of cheap-as-chips T-bone steak barbecue vendors, or the ranks of ice-filled, galvanized bath-tubs dispensing beer and sodas.

Day three, and the local team get their teeth into the game. Master blaster Virender Sehwag smites mightily, over 300 runs, the fastest 300 in the history of the game, the biggest innings played in India, and only the third batsman after legends Brian Lara and one Donny Bradman to knock off a double triple-ton.

Day four and the tables turn. South Africa’s bowlers get stuck in. One man screams “hooooowwwwww eeeeeees thatttt” when Sehwag is out before breaking Lara’s record of 400 runs. 30,000 glare. Ten minutes later the same cry, this time at the demise of demi-god Sachin Tendulkar for a duck (0 runs). Now glares take on a hint of menace. I quietly sit down. With a smile.

But the dust bowl of a cricket pitch eventually conquers all. A batsman’s strip that denies bowlers much pleasure and forces a draw in the hot sun – 37 degrees C, and 90% humidity, not a venue for cricket’s weaklings.

During hourly drinks-breaks in the game, umbrellas magically appear for the Indian players on the field. To wry amusement, over five days, there was never a hint of solar relief for the visitors. Home ground advantage is a hard school.

Noting a TV camera panning to the lone foreigner on occasion, an old wag drops anchor next to me for the final day, and perhaps by way of thanks offers a hand-fluttering, heading nodding running commentary on the game. Shaking hands to say farewell, he says: “Now you’ve seen the pop stars, it’s time for you to find some culture.”

Mamallapuram, 80km south of Chennai, is an old stone-age-type town, carved out of hard rock hillsides. Seven hundred year-old classic Dravidian-style temples litter the area, miniature bas relief versions of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complexes, themselves based on this self-same south Indian Hindu architectural style.

The stone artistry born millennia back still exists in the quaint seaside town. Streets and alleys click and clack and tap-tap-tap to the rhythm of chisel and hammer as stone masons sit on sidewalks chipping away at granite and marble carvings: the four heads of Brahma, Krishna, Lakshmi, Shiva, elephants, sprites, bangles, necklaces, pendants.

The tradition lives. Carvings are of the highest quality, and can be found in temples and private homes around India – and the world, goes the local boast. One, a marble bauble, begins its journey around half the world. On my neck.

Hit the beach, and find a strange, invisible line between haves and have-nots, outsiders and insiders.

Lining the back of the beach is the expected string of ubiquitous tourist guest houses, and their little beach bar/restaurants. Foreigners sit and drink beer, eat overpriced 'tiger prawns' and generally shake their heads with a rude "no" to the ladies of the beach selling their wares, silks and cottons, sarongs, cloths, clothes, bangles and trifles.

Lined along the front of the beach are the fishermen, and their wooden boats.

First morning, head down to the beach, keen to catch the sunrise, the early rays on the historic Shore Temple, positioned and aligned perfectly to sing out to the rising and setting sun. It's early, 5am or so. In the thin, sea-misted haze of dawn, stumble across sleeping bodies between the boats, homes for the homeless.

Peek up, and note people already sitting on the small hillside, between temple and sea. Politely steer clear, then glance back. Slowly, one by one, each sitting person, who I now notice had been squatting, stands, pulls up their shorts, rearranges their longi (sarong), and ambles down to the water to wash their hands.

The upper sandy beach is the line between the haves and have-nots: the haves sit on their little private porcelain thrones in their little, cheap rooms in the guest houses, while the local folk defecate along the shoreline. No wonder the grass grows so well in the shadow of the Shore Temple, a World Heritage Site. How many foot-worms are out there?

The sun finds itself behind a deep-sea cloud bank, and more bodies stumble out of the gloom, on to the shore, wading into the edge of the watery foam, calf deep. A lift of the sarong, a drop of the rear, and a 'shore dump' takes on a whole new meaning.

Then the tourists arrive, an hour too late for the sunrise, an hour too late for the gold glow cast upon the temple, and an hour too late for the avian twitterings – and throw themselves heartily into that same stretch of sea for an early morning frolic.

Back to Chennai and board the local express to Cochin, on the south-west coast of India, in the state of Kerala.

Railroads in India are a short and long-distance commuter way of life. Millions use Britain’s finest legacy each day. Seven classes: from 1st air-conditioned, with 2 luxurious bunks, all the way down to the blandly misnomered 2nd class, just a row of hard seats. I opt for the 'people's carriage', the sleeper class, 2nd from the bottom, but one which guarantees a bunk to sleep on.

Board, chain the luggage to something, meet the fellow travellers. It is not a closed cabin, rather an open plan carriage with sections of 8 bunks and a passageway through the lot, plied with chai wallahs (tea sellers) and food wallahs all day long: tea, coffee, bananas, water, sodas, samoosas, pakoras, binyanis, rotis, chips, chilli chickpeas, masala cashew nuts…

South India, not all that far from the equator, is lush of palm trees, coconuts and thick green vegetation. It is also hot. The coastal heat sucks, stultifies, soaks. First hand perspiration in class-A sweatshops places India firmly in the game – the Amazon, Angola, Singapore, Indonesia, New Orleans, the tropics and equator. India’s heat is unrelenting, coupled with near three-figure humidity. A body is sheen in motion. Sheen when still. Some strange cosmic painter spends the day lightly basting the skin with soft moisturising strokes. Rinse shirts twice a day.

The rail line curves, west inland and north, before bending down towards the country’s south-western tip.

Just after sunrise, cross a long bridge over a wide river and plain minutes after departing a tiny town named Divine Nagar. A light-blue shape appears on the glassed water surface. A dead, bloated man floats, spread-eagled, face up, the purple swelling of his death mask glistening in the perfectly angled sun, almost directly under the train, only 40m away.

The only ripples are from the apex of his legs.

No funeral pyres? Are there no vultures? Is this a gift to the fish gods?

Arrive in Cochin, and stumble into an odd piece of my schoolboy history.

Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama was the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail to India. On a later trip, he died of malaria in Cochin, and was buried in a church that still stands, before being returned to Portugal.

A cruel man, history has it, accused of having hundreds of Muslims burnt in the hold of an Indian Ocean trading vessel, Da Gama might best be remembered as introducing colonialism via a sea route to south-east Asia, more than being any kind of explorer.

More mini-circles of life: 11 years in Hong Kong, now on the southern end of India, and stumble across a set of gargantuam, bizarre ‘Chinese fishing nets’.

Contraptions of the strangest kind. Four 20m-wide arms (laminated bits of wood and branches) carry a flat, fine-meshed net. The spider-like device is connected to an antiquated 30m cantilever, tied down to a frame along the ground with a mishmash of ropes, strings, cords, cables, and balanced with a long knot of large boulders.

One version has them arriving courtesy of Chinese master mariner Zheng He in the early 15th century. They have been there ever since.

The broad, flat net is slowly lowered into shallow water flanking a deep shipping channel, and rested flat across the sand. Wait for half an hour, wait for the sand to cover the net lightly, wait for the fish to venture over the net ... and lift.

My guesthouse owner turns out to be a jerk. In hindsight, the only one of the entire expedition.

My choice of guesthouse is full, and a rickshaw driver offers to take me to his "cousin's homestay”. Rooms are clean, yet overpriced in the scheme of things. He has, in some terminology, a ‘wealthy belly’, and probably tops the scales at 150kg.

There are very few things you really need on the road. Money and a passport. (And if not money, the ability to get by without it.) The rest is, in very varying degrees, superfluous – except, that is, for a Sixth Sense.

My alarm bells were ringing. But after a night on the train, I needed a bed and shower, and he had the cricket on the telly, the second Test between South Africa and India. His mood was not being helped by the thrashing India were taking.

The sales pitches didn’t take long: why you not go to dancing? I sell you tickets. Why you not go on 'backwater' boat ride? My cousin got boat. Why you not… ??? All plus his own punter’s fee. He gets pissy because I am not interested, and makes snide remarks in the local patois about his guest's meanness. Sometimes voice and eye movement reveal far more than words.

He tells a young German female guest, a naïve, pale-skinned 18-year-old: Come sit here next to me, Karen, patting his podgy, gold-ringed hand on the cushion next to him.

But I stay for 2 days, for a dozen of those tiny-travelling reasons (llke, for example, it is more of a hassle to move for one day, than stay), then grab an auto-rickshaw out of there. His final play is to tell the driver to take me the long route and overcharge. Halfway down the ride I realise the game, throw a frothy, throw my bags out, bail off, and tell him where he can drive his machine. It takes me about 10 years to get angry. Just his day.

To a tiny junction, Ernakulam, on a train overnight to Mergau and wait for the Goa connection. Time to start heading north. The train runs two hours late. Some electric problem. Finally I see a team of mechanics change a fuse, and get the dozen overhead fans in the sitting compartment to fire up.

During the thick, slow, sweaty wait, gazing motionless out of a grubby window, a small, nervous tan bitch sidles up and squats on the platform, a metre away, eyeball to eyeball. It was not the squat, and impending dribble that got my attention; rather the neurotic, rolling look of her eyes, the jerking of her head. She is on a station platform, of hundreds of people, and slowly she begins to pee, lips curling back nervously, her eyes flick-flacking back and forth searching for the boot or cane rod swat. She is peeing next to a leeking polystyrene box of melting fish and ice. Perhaps it is the salt that makes her feel at home. In a flash she stands, and scoots, knowing what she has done, but like a good thief not hanging around the scene of the crime.

Trains are strange. Just look out of the window… and see.
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karimann on

India Style
Oh my God Sir Lancelot, it's sooo good to hear you again. Love the banter, you're a born natural!! Keep up the pod, it's going to be an awesome epic at the end. Lova ya K

the-rambler on

yo uncle herb
delighted u enjoyed the musings. we, of course, will be doing our utmost to keep on keeping u entertained...

swayaminfotech on

its so good.........

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