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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.


Juggernauts, Monkeys and Maharajahs: Colours of Mysore

A mélange of cultures and technologies, brutal worship and courteous apes, vibrant markets and kingly dining.

Today we rose at 4:30 am for a 22-hour day trip to Mysore, the region’s historical capital 140 km south-west of Bangalore (see photos).  As we consumed cartons of Appy apple juice, the panorama unfolded outside the bus.  Mosque minarets were silhouetted against the dawn.  Workers clambered over lopsided bamboo scaffolding on construction sites.  Many buildings had lower floors completed and occupied, concrete-and-steel pillars sticking up on flat unfinished roofs.  (I heard this both avoids tax and allows for family growth.)  Multi-coloured clothes lines and saris hung several storeys to dry, splashing colour down grey walls.  White-uniformed kids lined up in a dirt school yard.  Unlike the Americans, blasé after Egypt, I was thrilled to see camels carrying loads.

In the West, new developments supersede the old: motor vehicles replace animal carts for transport, tractors replace bullocks for pulling ploughs, wheelbarrows replace shallow round trays on your head for shifting piles of earth.  In India, as we saw out the window, the latest technology is tacked on without discarding the past.  Nehru described the country as a palimpsest, a document of many histories and cultures written on top of each other, with none fully erased.  In India: a Wounded Civilisation, V. S. Naipaul criticised the way India absorbs the new and avoids any challenge to change.

We had our first view of Mysore from Chamundi Hill.  Here the goddess Chamundi slayed the evil demon Mahishasura.  His statue stood in the parking lot, with flowing black locks and generous moustache above clenched teeth and fangs; his right arm wielded a fierce scimitar, the left grasped a long snake.  The national ten-day Dussehra festival celebrates this victory of good over evil in South India, but in North India it commemorates the slaying of the demon Ravana by Lord Rama – legends often vary by region.

Filing through the temple, we glimpsed through receding gold and silver archways a tangled pile of floral garlands and jewellery that covered an idol.  No pics, ‘cos “Photo of goddess phrobhited”.  Outside the temple I was dwarfed by what seemed like a siege tower on wheels.  A removable flight of steps lead up to an empty pagoda with red pendants dangling at the corners from silver bamboo staffs.  It was topped by a cone festooned with white, green, red, orange, blue flags.  At the front, rusty cables were coiled and twin white wooden horses reared up on their hind legs.  The temple idol is taken out to see the world in this chariot, rolling on four shoulder-high, blood-red wooden wheels.  In central East India, crazed devotees used to throw themselves beneath the wheels of such a wagon that carried the idol of Jagannath (a title of Krishna), to die in ecstasy at their god’s feet – hence our word juggernaut.

The hilltop swarmed with hawkers wearing necklaces and belts of sunglasses.  Stalls sold plastic trinkets, flowers or coconuts to break as offerings, snacks and bottled Appy Fizz: “a cool drink to hang out with”.  I was leading on a parapet to photograph heaped coconut husks below when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.  I turned to say “No!” to the beggar or hawker and saw a polite monkey, who then continued along the wall.

Then we drove past colonial English buildings to the Maharaja’s Palace, rebuilt in 1912 after it burnt down in 1897.  It reminded me of European palaces, but with Indian and Muslim architecture.  A coat of arms bore a mythological Indian creature and Hindu temples punctuated the stone walls surrounding rose gardens and parade ground.  Apparently the royal bodyguards were paid a special allowance to keep their moustaches in good trim.

Inside were marbled floors from Italy, English mosaic tiles and a grandfather clock presented in 1860 by Queen Victoria, stained glass and cast iron pillars from Glasgow, and a collection of Continental souvenirs: Parisian statues, Belgian crystal, Venetian glass, along with Japanese porcelain vases.  Inlaid ivory doors and carved teak ceilings, royal family portraits, elephant heads from local hunting and tables with animal hoof legs.  In the car park outside, paper cones of roasted peanuts were sold from bicycles, vendors of wooden flutes played the Titanic theme song and Yankee-doodle.  I negotiated two flutes for 100R through the window as our bus pulled off.

India is a fantastic country, if (and only if) you are rich.  In Mysore I experienced the most brutal contrast yet.  Sweating through the sun and flies, we pushed past a pair of handless arm-stumps wanting food, safely up the steps into our bus.  A few minutes’ drive later, a uniformed footman saluted and opened a barrel-shaped door into a short basement tunnel, cool ice beneath the glass floor, which led to a softly lit, luxury theme restaurant.  Some tables were inside classic cars; my seat was a motorbike!  Waiters wore American cowboy hats and leather vests.  Maybe I’m an uncouth kiwi, but I do find it a bit much when an attendant (in the already overcrowded bathroom) insists on pulling paper towels from the dispenser for me.

After lunch three of us rickshawed to the Devaraja market.  Neat pyramids of apples, oranges, limes and coconuts; dangling brown and black wooden beads like rosaries; dazzling bangles; sacks overflowing with grains, spices, peppers; white, yellow, orange coiled flower wreaths; the smell of sandalwood and incense.  And a psychedelic painter’s palette of tikka or kumkum powder cones, scooped from square tins into scales and sold in paper cubes tied with string.  It’s used for cosmetic and religious forehead marking – different Hindu sects have different patterns.

Dragging the girls away from counters swimming with silks, we checked out the zoo.  More animals were cooped up behind bars than NZ zoos, but many roamed open fields behind ditches.  A sign warned “Please don’t cross the barricade.  Survivors will be prosecuted.”  The white tiger was new for me, but most entertaining were the baby monkeys chasing, springing, wrestling around outside any enclosure.  On the way back, the sun set behind green rice fields separated by muddy flooded paths, as a few farmers and a V-flock of birds straggled home.

Tools and Turnips: Twin Indias and Two Thanksgivings

Indian contrasts on the street: electronics and idols, Adidas and excrement, harvest and hunger, gratitude and guilt.

This weekend was the Ayudha Pooja festival, when Hindus worship their work tools and give thanks to their means of livelihood.  As in most festivals here, florists make a killing.  Shop fronts, market stalls, buses, trucks, tractors and bikes were all decorated with banana leaf branches; chunky yellow, orange, purple, white flower garlands; glistening tinsel or dangling tassels.  I heard drumming: tractors were pulling wagons through the street, carrying idols buried under bulky floral wreaths.  I saw a man circling an oil lamp and making offerings to his car – candles burning before the front bumper – as to a temple idol.  I spotted a garlanded transformer in a power substation, and was told that office PCs are also praised in ancient rituals.

It’s another taste of Indian contrasts.  Our first lecturer on the course said there are really two Indias: first world “India” and third world “Bharat” (the Hindu name for India).  There’s the educated 40% of middle-upper class Indians who enjoy Western comforts, and the struggling, often illiterate 60% who seem lost in the dark ages.  I’ve experienced this myself on a half-hour walk in Bangalore or Pondicherry:

Behind plate-glass in air-con cool, yuppies patronise Nokia and Adidas outlets, alongside a blaze of sari fabrics and then a superette: Colgate toothpaste, Kellogg’s cornflakes and Cadbury chocolate; electric toasters and cordless kettles; shelves of idolettes and incense holders, mangoes and milky sweets.   A 21st-century Western city spiced with an exotic tinge.

In front of the glass is a dirt-cum-concrete footpath with missing slabs that expose the aromatic drain a foot or more below.  Stray dogs pick at melons rotting in the heat.  A small boy tugs at your sleeve, a wizened old lady begs for a cent, a young woman moves hand up to mouth and back, entreating food for her baby.  And all around you the civic band is tuning: buses, motorbikes, rickshaws trumpet their sluggish frustration; truck horns blare stuck-record tunes; people cry out in strange tongues.

On a block of narrow shop fronts, chemist counters are packed with bottles and vials and boxes; medical clinics advertise x-rays and tests for stool, urine, blood, sputum; tailors sew trousers; cobblers mend shoes; mechanics fix motorbikes or radios or watches; astropalmists predict your future; flies crawl over skinned chickens beside tottering piles of dodgy DVDs.  All the life of the city is on display like a row of booths in a fair.

Saunter for a minute down a small side street, and you’re in a rural village.  Goats pick over a garbage heap and cows tied under a thatched roof supply the farmyard aroma.  A man urinates, a child defecates, a woman sweeps with a twig broom.  It could be the Middle Ages, if you don’t look up at the drooping tangle of wires.  Around the corner is a religious bazaar.  Through a multicoloured, poly-statued gate, worshippers glimpse a bronze deity by the flickering light of a priest’s oil lamp.  A mosque minaret wails the prayer call.  Turbaned Sikhs gather in a gurudwara, or Christians pray in church.

We attended a different sort of thanksgiving celebration today.  The local Whitefield Memorial Church (founded 1886) celebrated the goodness of God’s creation and the earth’s produce in its annual Harvest Festival Service.  Cauliflowers, marrows, coconuts, pineapples, carrots and corn coloured the windowsills, and a huge pumpkin rested before the altar.  The congregation belted out classic English hymns with gusto.  A salt-cellar, pitcher of water, bunch of flowers, winnow of rice, basket of fruit, unleavened loaf and a decanter of wine were paraded in with matching prayers.  ECC director Dr Chacko preached on the ten lepers healed by Jesus, of whom only one returned with gratitude – “were not ten made clean, but where are the other nine?”

Then was the annual church fete, which also had an English feel with a jumble sale, lucky dip, skittles, and guessing a cake’s weight competitions.  The scrum at the Indian food stalls showed less Anglo-Saxon reserve.  It was a pleasantly fun and festive scene.  As I left, however, I ran the guilty gauntlet of beggars seated outside and I recalled another gospel story: poor, starving Lazarus at the feasting, rich man’s gate.  I made eye contact and smiled at one beggar-lady, who then followed me plaintively down the lane.  Is it better to stride coldly, unseeingly past as many locals do?

I’m recovering from the initial shock of Indian streets and sometimes wonder what my problem was at first – walking around isn’t that terrifying!  Now the tension between the two Indias is starting to emerge in more troubling ways, which may not so easily go away.