Category Archives: Chennai

Cooling Beaches, Sickening Sparks and Unexpected Gifts

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.”


Slums and Cinemas: Billy Graham meets Doubting Thomas

The meaning of names and preaching in a slum; beating up worship bands at the flicks; praying at the doubting apostle’s tomb – I check out three churches in Chennai.

Few of us in the West think our names have significance.  Bill or Burt or Bob, it’s pretty much the same.  In many cultures, however, your name expresses your character, your meaning, who you really are, and why you are here.

In the Old Testament God renamed Abram (“exalted father”) as Abraham, or “father of many”, because all Jews would be his descendants.  Jesus renamed his disciple Simon as Peter or “rock” – the cornerstone of the nascent church – and in the final book of the Bible he promises, “To the one who overcomes…  I will give a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”  (Revelation 2:17)

Many still view names as important.  Western converts to Islam often take an Arabic name, and Hare Krishnas or other Hindus receive a Sanskrit name from their guru at initiation.  Indians are often named after a Hindu God, and are baptised with a new name if they become Christian.  Many go for a Biblical hero like Samson or Thomas or Paul.  Some look to church history: Martin Luther lectures here at the Hindustan Bible Institute.  Others choose the names of more contemporary greats: yesterday I met Pastor Billy Graham.

Billy Graham has little leisure.  His business card lists “Church Ministry, Prayer Ministry, Slum Ministry, Village Ministry, Healing Ministry, Teaching Ministry, Pastors Conference & Open-Air Meetings.”  With a congregation of 450 in a slum of 13,000, he may be woken in the wee hours to pray for a parishioner’s sick child, or even the slum’s Hindu priest.  I asked a few questions through a translator and sometimes my meaning didn’t get through.  “What excites you most about your work, what is the most rewarding?”, for example, evoked no intriguing stories of slum dog millionaires he has known, but the brief, pious, and uninformative reply that his reward is in heaven.

We briefly toured the slum.  I expected to be shocked but it didn’t look much poorer than other Indian streets.  One-room houses were shabby and small, not unlike tramping huts I’ve slept in, and many had colour TVs – one way that political parties purchase slum votes.  Men rode motorbikes or chatted on cell phones.  Women fried bread and chicken curries on their doorsteps.  Scores of scruffy little hands shook mine.  In a World Vision craft shop, women were weaving baskets and making handbags, pillowcases, and attractive greeting cards.  I bought a packet.

They don’t seem desperately unhappy.  In India: a Million Mutinies Now (1990) V. S. Naipaul interviewed people throughout India about changes they have seen.  I was most struck by a few born in slums who had prospered and upgraded to comfortable private homes.  They felt alone and missed the community in the slum, so they moved back in.  Poverty is complex, and not always easy to assess at a glance.

Today I attended a 7am service at Billy Graham’s church.  I was taken by a smartly dressed auto-rickshaw driver from his flock, a large gentle man who was a “terrorist” before conversion.  Maybe I was paranoid, but I feared a few of Billy’s newer converts might find their faith – or their fingers – tempted by a rich white worshipper in their midst.  I left my camera behind, and planned to keep a mental eye on my pockets.  On arrival, however, I was seated in honour on stage behind Billy Graham – who was dressed in a white shirt and skirt like an Island pastor – which I found embarrassing, though I had a good view.

The concrete room was under a bridge (technically illegal, so a change in political climate could eject them), equipped with fans, microphones and speakers.  Through the open rear door I saw a hut with thatched walls, chipped bricks holding down the plastic roof sheet, below a billboard advertising designer fashion clothes for motorists on the bridge.  Women passed carrying yellow water-jugs on their heads.

Inside it was less crowded than I expected.  Men sat on one side, women on the other, their heads covered with saris.  Musicians pounded drums and cymbals while the congregation chanted and clapped for all they were worth.  Without an occasional “hallelujah”, I’d have guessed it was some Hindu celebration or an African tribe.  No Sunday sleep-in for the neighbours!  They asked me to share and I wondered what I – with so much – could offer those with so little.  So I talked about a Psalm that has comforted me in times of fear or uncertainty, as a man translated into Tamil.

I lift up my eyes to the hills –
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip –
he who watches over you will not slumber…
Psalm 121

From the slum I directed my steps to a very different service.  The “Powerhouse” is an English-speaking congregation, one-quarter white with several American aid workers, and meets in a cinema.  A Western band played familiar songs rather loudly.  Then the worshippers left and moviegoers arrived.

Movies are big in this state.  The leading political party was founded by a scriptwriter; the best-known Chief Minister was a big-name actor, his successor was a star actress.  Both films and politics draw fans by championing lower caste South Indians over high-caste Hindi-speaking northerners.  So what better way to educate myself and avoid the midday sun than to stay here in the air-con cool?

The flick was in Tamil but that hardly mattered.  The hero Shivaji was a Robin Hood type who cheated the rich to help the poor.  There were snatches of English, as in normal Indian conversation, so I got some jokes: “Business ethics?  This is India!”  Dance and fight scenes were fun, some with Matrix moves.  Best was a melodic punch-up in a music shop – glissandos as mighty blows slide villains up double-bass strings, stumbling across kettle drums with tooting trumpets stuck up their behinds.  After 2 ½ hours, it began to drag.  I purchased a flaky pastry “vege puff” in the intermission while trailers displayed censorship certificates.

After slum drumming, cinema service, and a bit of biffo with Shivaji, the day cooled down with more spiritual depth at a third and very different church again: the whitewashed neo-Gothic St Thomas Basilica.

Two days after Jesus was crucified, he rose from the grave and appeared to his disciples.  Thomas wasn’t present.  He was a scientific sort of chap – when Jesus walked on water he probably looked for a sandbank or a surfboard – so he refused to believe that Jesus was alive until he saw the scars for himself.  One week later Jesus appeared to Thomas, who responded “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

The story goes that Thomas sailed to India in A.D. 52.  It could well be true.  Traders sailed every year with the monsoon winds and there are first-century Roman coins in southern India.  After building a palace for an Indian king – rather slowly as he kept giving the funds to the poor – the tradition is that Thomas wound up in Chennai and was speared to death while praying in A.D. 72.  (See my sermon on doubting Thomas, “Believing Scars and Faith in the Night“.)

Under the basilica is a small chapel with his tomb.  At the entrance hung Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of St Thomas.  With brow wrinkled in astonishment, Thomas advances a finger towards the scar in Jesus’ side as he emerges from the darkness in chiaroscuro light.  The chapel was almost empty.  I sat on a pew and was still.  I thought of how I relate to Thomas: I’m often cynical and uncertain, fearful and of little faith.  Then I remembered that earlier in John’s Gospel Thomas said something that is less well known.  As Jesus set out towards Jerusalem, his disciples recalled that up there people wanted to kill him – it could be more fun to travel someone else.  But Thomas said “Let us go too, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).  The infamous doubter could be a man of courage and loyalty and, if tradition is true, he lived up to those words right here.

An unusual crucifix showed the risen and ascending Christ with arms lifted off the cross in victory.  Behind me a girl softly sang hymns in an Indian language and in English.  Amazing Grace – how sweet the sound.  In His Time – not mine: a message for life and especially in India!  “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee”.

My reaction was less spiritual when tourists entered, loud, chatting, ticking off another sanctimonious site, ignoring signs requesting silence.  I left and as a memento bought a plastic “credit-card” containing a few grains of holy sand from the tomb, believed to have miraculous healing powers, with the blessing:

“May St Thomas, through his powerful intercession, enable you to be free from fear, anxiety and pain.  May you be blessed always with courage, confidence, success, health and happiness.”

Fortified Faith and Theosophical Potpourri

Combating poverty and Christ-like pigs, bussing through history and defending St George; dangerously blending icons at the Theosophical Society and desperately seeking books at Madras University.

The last days I’ve spent mornings at Hindustan Bible Institute classes, and a justice seminar of Chennai Transformation Network where leaders from groups like World Vision and Habitat for Humanity spoke on eradicating human trafficking, empowering the urban poor, and ensuring access to justice for the underprivileged.

The most interesting classes are “Indian Christian Theology” and “Culture”, with some examples of how ignoring culture can kill communication.  One missionary told pig-keeping slum dwellers how shameful it was for the prodigal son to feed swine, thus insulting their livelihood.  (By contrast, I’ve heard of Bible translators in a Papua New Guinea village, where sheep were unknown, call Jesus the sacrificial pig of God.)  A local take on Christ’s parable of the talents was better received: before going on a one-year pilgrimage, a father gave a bag of rice to each of his three sons.  The first hid it, and rats ate the rice.  The second cooked it and had a feast.  The third planted it, and harvested ten times more.

It’s all part of the enculturation issue we discussed in the Bangalore course (see here) – how to transplant the good news of Christ without superfluous or patronising baggage.  On the other hand, Biblical passages that seem irrelevant in the West can spring to life here.  Should Indian Christians accept prasad – food offered to idols?  Some do, some don’t.  Some have Hindu neighbours who separate a portion for them before offering the rest – an example of why Chennai prides itself on being relaxed and tolerant, without the interreligious violence that erupts further north.

In the afternoons I sally forth to explore the city.  Over lunch the students ask me where I plan to go and direct me to the right bus.  Most people in town speak almost no English and only a few are fluent, so I sometimes get directions wrong.  At 10 cents per ride and rarely more than five minutes between buses, it doesn’t matter, and wherever you end up is sure to be interesting.

Most buses have no doors or window glass.  I’ve made a few slow-moving boardings, and watched chaps sprint alongside as we gathered speed.  I think they’ll never do it, but they leap up, grab window bars, and squeeze in the door as the bus leans over with people hanging outside.

The geographer Ptolemy referred to a town here in 140 A.D.  The Portuguese and then the Dutch arrived to trade in the 16th century, and around 1653 the British completed Fort St George.  In 1800 surveyors still saw tigers in the hills 40 km away.  From their base in Pondicherry (which I visited a few weeks ago – see here) the French captured the fort in 1746.  The British took it back three years later and enlarged the defensive moats.  When I arrived, they were full of litter and slum dwellings, but part of the fort is still in military use.  The Indian Army is in occupation.

In the cool evening, off-duty Indian soldiers played badminton behind the oldest British church in India, 1680 St Mary’s.  It’s surrounded by graves bearing English and Latin coats-of-arms.  The museum had paintings of frilly-laced, prim and proper Victorian ladies being carried ashore by bare-chested coolies, and letters from British commanders about engagements with Indian and French enemies.

With its bomb proof roof and fortified setting, St Mary’s could represent a form of faith that aggressively excludes all compromise with other views – no rewriting of parables here.  At the world headquarters of the Theosophical Society (established 1875), however, I saw interreligious boundary-blurring par excellence.  Theosophy is Greek for “divine wisdom” and has the slogan, “There is no religion higher than truth”.  The grounds have coconut tree groves and a 400-year old Banyan tree, one of the biggest in the world – its forest of prop roots span an area of 238 x 250 feet and can apparently shade 3000 people.

Scattered around the complex are small Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and “liberal Catholic” houses of worship.    The Society logo is a mash-up of mystical icons: Hindu OM and Buddhist swastika above the Egyptian ankh inside interlaced black and white triangles, representing matter and spirit, surrounded by the Greek Ouroboros serpent swallowing its tail in the cycle of birth and death.  The central hall was lined with elephant heads outside – perhaps to represent wisdom – and the walls inside had a roll call of spiritual greats: Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Zarathustra, Istar, Freemasonry, Asshur, Ashtaroth, Bha ulah, Moses, Mahavira, Quetzalcolata, Nanak, Lao Tsze, Confucius, Mithra, Orpheus, Osiris.  Quetzalcolata was the only one I hadn’t heard of (Google says a Mesoamerican deity whose name means “feathered serpent”), but where were Socrates and Plato?

The library’s research collection has original sacred manuscripts from India, Sri Lanka, China, Siam and Persia.  The gallery was a religious jumble sale: Jewish scriptures; Shiite and orthodox Koranic scrolls; miniature volumes of the Bible and Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, with accompanying magnifying glass; old astrological, Sikh and Zoroastrian texts; Buddhist writings on palm leaves; autographed books by H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, et al.  In the bookshop I recognised many gurus from my course in Bangalore last month, and bought small reference works on Hindu gods and goddesses and temple architecture.

The eclectic spiritual potpourri, an omnium-gatherum of creeds, reminded me of Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988).  Three vanity publishers spoof an ancient conspiracy by throwing together a grab bag of cults: Jewish Kabala and Jesuit mysticism, Caribbean spiritualism and the Brazilian occult, Stonehenge druids and the Knights Templar, Hindu kundalini yoga and even theosophy itself.

As the story unfolds, they find that crossing religious DNA in playful parody spawns a monster in reality.  One hopes that theosophy and the like will be more benign.  Boiling ethics down to a lowest common denominator, however, may leave you unable to say that murder or rape or racism is wrong.

There was a similar syncretistic flavour at the museum of Vivekananda, a guru who popularized Hinduism in the West in the 1890s.  He also held that all religions are one.  His ideal India had a “Vedantic brain, Islamic body, and Christian heart”, and he founded the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta on Christmas day.  He taught that if you devote yourself to service, you’ll be happier than with a treasury of valuables: “They alone live, who live for others”.  The Museum is in the 1842 “Ice House”, which stored blocks of ice shipped from Boston, insulated for over four months in straw.

For more academic enlightenment I visited Madras University, founded in 1857 along with those in Bombay and Calcutta as India’s first three British universities.  The campus is across the road from Marina Beach, has impressive stone buildings and exciting-sounding courses.  After meeting the HoD of Philosophy and Religion, I eagerly headed for the library, which I heard had 500,000 volumes.

I entered a hushed reading room with wooden panelling and seating, hung with old portraits.  It felt like a scene from a Victorian novel.  There were only papers and reference shelves here, so I pushed on to seek all the books.  I found a basement with long aisles of ageing volumes, out of order and covered in dust.  I pushed on further, hunting current texts.  I passed card catalogues – echoes of school librarian days 20 years ago – then found a room of computer terminals.  It seemed like recent works must be requested from library staff, perhaps to combat theft.  At least, I thought, I’d have a virtual look.  I typed in a few philosophers and theologians and Victorians like Dickens.  My heart sank when almost every screen of results had mis-spelled titles and mistyped authors.  Maybe I’d not be studying here.

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.