Chilling at the beach and charging for the hole, sparks in the dark and a gift of Christmas song.
While waiting for the train back to Bangalore I flicked through my mental album of Chennai memories (see a few photos here). Women’s faces coloured yellow with turmeric, apparently both auspicious and medically beneficial. Other women with short hair, shaved for religious vows. At a temple one night, flickering rope wicks of clay-bowl oil lamps outlined rooftops that reflected in the water tank, while worshippers inched along reciting scriptures that covered the walls, or prostrated full-length in the courtyard.
Another evening I sat on Marina Beach, 5 km long, relishing the cool sea breeze. I even tucked in my shirt. The lighthouse flashed behind me as the full moon rose over the Bay of Bengal, across which I’d fly to Thailand in a few days. Distant hawkers rang bells, vendors cruised the beach with flasks of tea and coffee; the police beach patrol rode by on horses. Couples held hands in the dark. A few metres from the waves, showers of sparks flew into the dark as charcoal cooker bellows were cranked to char fresh corn on the cob. There was an alley of light from stalls frying fish or selling plastic trinkets and seashells.
Chennai is known as a laid-back city and the beach was a quiet place to reflect. Cyberspace here was more aggressive. My security scanner warned of possible key loggers on two of four Internet cafe PCs, and my antivirus quarantined 123 files on my flash drive. Not wanting to enter my credit card online, I bought my rail ticket at the old red station – bypassing queues at the English-speaking tourist counter.
With transport sorted out, I planned to spend my final evening roaming the old colonial quarter. That afternoon I all of a sudden wished a supermarket checkout would hurry with the change. Then I ceased to care. I was intensely thankful to be shown the staff toilet – and that it was unusually clean. No time for my usual ritual: tie bag to door handle, secure pockets against loss when squatting, pre-rinse facilities with the tap and bucket. Stomach bugs had joined the cyber-nasties.
I can hear the whoops of joy as subscribers to Grant’s sickness sweepstake have their day at last! Ever the gentleman, Grant supplied etymology to correct my spelling when I mailed him the score: diarrhoea is literally “through-flow”. For language buffs, German is also evocative: Durchfall or “through-fall”. A hardened India traveller and hard-hearted friend wrote, “I am glad you rounded off your India experience with some sickness, otherwise it would not have been authentic.”
I was frankly less delighted. My evening plans were curtailed to quietly packing with packet Maggi soup and dry crackers in my room. I switched on my electric plunger to boil water. The plug sparked, my room plunged into darkness, and my morale hit the floor. Cold Maggi soup. I’d been surfing Chennai’s airwaves (mostly Indian pop) on my pocket FM radio, so I used its LED light to find my torch. Fleeing the tomblike gloom of my room, I wandered the campus, vaguely hoping an electrician would materialize. And then I heard the singing.
‘Twas the 150-year-old Madras Musical Association Choir preparing for Christmas. I was just in time for a cup of hot sweet tea and their second hour of practice – I’d only killed the power in my block of flats. We Wish You a Merry Christmas. The Holly and the Ivy. It was more educational and entertaining than a polished performance. I heard parts sung individually and the strict but funny conductor caricatured their mistakes, before they all combined in glorious polyphony. An un-awaited but lovely farewell gift from Chennai.
While I wrote my diary by torchlight, a far-off choir sang O Come All Ye Faithful and I was reminded that, despite the stomach-turning mess and stinking moments of life, grace and beauty are everywhere for those with ears to hear. As the American professor had said the month before, “Each day brings its own gift, but sometimes not what we expect.”