Slums and Sweat: by Rail to Chennai

Surreal surfing and sewer streams, scurrilous drivers and solicitous chefs, brutal laundry and bemused language; coping with cold waves and Internet cafes and taking the TARDIS back in time.

At Hyderabad station Tom and Jerry frolicked on TV screens while men in lungi-wraparounds shifted stacks of parcels on their heads.  I bought an India Today magazine for the journey (the local equivalent of Time).  Felt more relaxed and organised on my second overnight train, the Hyderabad-Chennai Charminar Express, but still had little sleep – rocking and rolling around corners, jolting and jarring as carriages bumped each other, plus buzzing overhead from broken wire on a bottle holder.  Lying on a high pillow in my curtained side berth, I watched village stations floating by in dreamy pools of light.

Chennai is India’s fourth largest city (population about 7 million) and was officially called Madras until 1997.  We approached the Queen of the Coromandel (India’s south-east coast) past tropical scenes of palm trees and shacks along a river and somewhat un-royal residences: slum houses roofed with tiles, corrugated iron, plastic sheets and flax.  There were downpours of rain.  Streets flooded ankle-deep.  Man in white shirt under black umbrella.

When I got off, I almost splashed through puddles in my sandals, then realized it might as well be sewage water.  Pack on back, umbrella in one hand, I juggled map in both hands to get my bearings.  I was glad to see a pre-pay auto-rickshaw booth which avoids hassles and haggling by setting a fixed rate and instructing the driver where to go.  Or not.  My driver stopped at a gas station and asked me to pay for his petrol.  I refused.  He insisted.  I began to get out and seek alternative transport so he backed off and we carried on, but I still paid more than the “pre-pay” receipt.

When at last I arrived at the Hindustan Bible Institute (HBI), the principal was not amused.  He took my prepay receipt, which should record the driver’s number, and rang the company to complain.  I hoped I’d be avenged.  In retrospect, as often in India, I reflect that these swindling scoundrels, who seem so malicious as you struggle to stay afloat in the Indian Ocean, are likely themselves – more deeply than me – just struggling to survive.

Like many Indian organisations, HBI’s functionaries strive to follow Christ’s injunction, “Let not your left hand know what the right is doing”.  But I’ve been warmly welcomed.  I transferred myself from bland Western dining to the Indian mess hall with simpler, tastier food, where I pay NZ$1.50 not $25 per day and can also meet the students.  Many Indians seem to confuse spices and germs, hotness and hygiene, unable to grasp that I fear tap-water in uncooked food, not chilli in well-boiled dishes.  It’s awkward to grab and dry the rinsed wet plate and cup before my food is served, without seeming rudely fussy.  Sloppy washing especially irritates a chemistry graduate – intolerable in an analytical lab!

I have my own apartment.  Blaring music ceases by night, though cooing pigeons peck loudly against my shutters at dawn.  I’d heard that Indian women do all the work and this was confirmed when I climbed up to the flat roof that overlooks a slum: women were filling and carrying water bottles, washing or hanging clothes, while a group of men stood gossiping.  One bloke was pushing a cart of water drums.

Clothing is mostly washed by hand – maybe by people like those I saw below me – then dried in fields of hanging laundry.  People often wash in polluted rivers and thrash dirt out by beating clothes against rocks, so I wondered how my shirts would fare when handled by the dhobis.  But the Merry White Cleaners and Launderers returned them washed and ironed, immaculate, as had the laundry man in Bangalore, and only one button was broken.

I’d hoped to learn a little language in India but my efforts have pretty much flopped.  In my first days in Bangalore, I noted how to thank the kitchen staff in their various languages (none Hindi), but my cheery “thank you” received only bemused amusement.  One lecturer told us Indian languages have no word for thank you as the sentiment is expressed by gesture.  That may have aggravated my difficulty.  Here in Chennai, I noted Tamil phrases from Lonely Planet, but then met only non-Tamil speakers at meals.

The HBI students come from many parts of India.  Those from north-east states look more Chinese.  A group from Myanmar/Burma use spoons to eat and are surprised that men and woman sit apart in India.  Students from less advantaged states have stories of poverty, persecution and miraculous healings that make my western Christian faith seem insipid and insincere.

Bangalore is 920 m above sea level, Hyderabad 600 m (daily temperature 14-31°C when I was there).  Down here on the coast it’s a little warmer and much more humid, though the rain has cooled the air. The Chennai paper described a day of 19-30°C, with 80% relative humidity, as “almost cold wave conditions”.  I am sweating more and my armpits are slightly itchy.  It hasn’t rained since I arrived so the ground is dry again.  Found I can buy 2L water bottles to refill my 1L ones and reduce plastic waste, though drinking several litres per day still produces a long row on my bench.

Compared to Hyderabad, there are fewer Muslims and mosques in Chennai, but the streets around HBI have many small churches and Christian bookshops with Bible verses in the window.  I found it hardest to find internet cafes in the IT city of Bangalore.  In Hyderabad, I walked five minutes from my hotel, stepping around beggars sleeping on the sidewalk after dark.  It’s a similar distance here to send off the day’s adventures, crossing a bridge over a stream of sewerage.  At the end of the weary day, I pass cart-vendors packing up their stalls, and then I step inside.

It’s dimly-lit and air-conditioned.  My focus shrinks to tapping fingers and glowing screen as my spirit surfs across the globe.  I’m online in Auckland and New York.  I’m connected to the 21st century.  Then I log off and wormhole back to a different reality – through the looking-glass door everything turns upside down.  As I step outside the TARDIS, time rolls back to a semi-feudal, semi-rural world.  Sultry smells and sounds and sights assault the senses once more.  It’s the first full moon since Diwali, so fireworks are going off again.

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