Tag Archives: health

Batting, Baking and King Chilli Pork

I’m inducted into the creed of cricket and cringe as bandits attack; I’m thanked with pink icing and farewelled with pork.

As well as power cuts and oppressive heat, summer brought the 76-match IPL cricket series.  The Indian Premiere League is apparently the second-highest paid sporting association after the NBA.  Players earn on average US$4 million per year and teams have been sold for over US$300 million, some to Bollywood stars.  I’ve read that 80% of cricket’s global revenue comes from India.

I’m at sixes and sevens when it comes to cricket, but many Indians have said I resemble NZ’s cricket captain Daniel Vettori.  I wouldn’t know.  I hadn’t heard of him before I came.  There’s even a Kiwi or two on the IPL teams.  I thought I should experience the Indian obsession before I leave, and I can almost count it as religious study.  Cricket is practically a creed here.  When Sachin Tendulkar came to visit one front page screamed, “GOD COMES TO TOWN” – only at a second glance did I see the small font “cricket” that came first.  So I joined the boys to watch the gods play live on TV several evenings.

Cricket must be one of England’s most enduring gifts to its former colony and it’s been called an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British, but the IPL hype recalled American football more than leisurely British reserve.  Teams have names like the “Delhi Daredevils”, “Pune Warriors” or “Deccan Chargers”, with logos of roaring lions, a snorting bull or a mounted spearman.  Cheerleaders in miniskirts dance with pompoms.

india-ipl-cricket-teamsMy students taught me the rules, or tried: as one writer said, “baseball is to cricket as simple addition is to calculus”.  I understood enough to share their excitement as the Chennai Super Kings took out the Kolkata Knight Riders with a six in the very last ball.  I savoured the accent of an Aussie commentator, and was surprised by eloquent outbursts from the junior cook, whom I’d thought did not speak English: “Catch, catch, come on… very good, very good catch – three wickets out!…  Oh beauty, what a six, yeah!”  Phrases from years of cricket-watching, I presume.  I shared the frustration when lights and TV died – praying for power to come back, beseeching someone to switch on the diesel generator, texting friends for updates.  At 9 pm, someone from the North replied, it was still 45oC in Delhi.  I’m glad I’d escaped to down here by summer.

I enjoyed the adverts as much as the game, for their snatches of Hindi and humour.  A car drives through a rocky desert on a dark and stormy night.  It is forced to stop where a tree trunk blocks the road.  A gang of fierce bandits swoops down.  Driver and wife quail in terror.  The bandit chief, with a wicked grin, taps on the car window with the butt of his gun.  Electric window slides down a crack.  With an even broader grin the bandit asks in an eager wheedling tone, “What is score?”  Camera zooms in to the built-in TV on the car dashboard. Batsman strikes and crowd erupts and bandits group around to watch: it’s the latest feature of car model X.

One morning in the last week of English teaching, as the wives and children of students arrived for the coming semester, I found a baby bat trembling on the curtain of my classroom.  It flew off once gently bumped onto the windowsill.  For our farewell party, the lady teachers baked peanut brownies, chocolate chip biscuits and cupcakes with pink raspberry icing.  The smell reminded me of home.  The class presented us each with a hand-made card and a group photo with warm thanks, although some admitted of our Kiwi accents that: “the first few days I couldn’t get much because of adjusting pronunciation.”

kiwi-cookiesIn the final days of teaching, I had a little Bangalore belly, my only sickness here.  The other teachers covered my classes while I studied the tiles of my bathroom and made occasional excursions to bed.  I’d read that Indians love to play doctor and it seemed to be true.  For my stomach, one student prescribed gulab jamun, a desert made from balls of milk powder soaked in sweet syrup, or maybe lemon juice.  Another said that sleeping under a fan with a bare stomach is bad for digestion – I always do!  A third recommended I try bananas and avoid jackfruit.  Several expected me to be dosing up on drugs.  I took my own prescription of dry crackers or toast and Marmite, with glasses of the orange-flavoured rehydration mixture my Auckland doctor had prescribed – almost the only item of my medicine box that I used except for daily malaria tablets – and a day later things were looking up.

On most weekends students from the Northeast states prepared their chilli pork special, so hot it made their own noses run.  On my final evening, I helped Worchihan cook it in the male students’ kitchenette.  For chefs among my readers, here’s the formula:

Ingredients: pork, onions, garlic, ginger, salt, turmeric, and chilli powder from local markets.  King chillies and fermented bamboo shoots from the Northeast.

Instructions: Peel and slice onions, garlic and ginger, then crush with mortar and pestle.  Combine all ingredients and cook for an hour or two.  Do not add water.

In the cramped room, in long sleeves with trousers tucked into my socks to keep off mosquitoes, it was sweaty work. While we peeled and cut and crushed, Surendra entertained us with his guitar – Amazing Grace et al. – and with music on his phone.  “This is when we have fun”, said Worchihan once the pot was bubbling away: time to relax and chat, shaking the saucepan every five minutes to mix and avoid burning.  They helped me identify words in Bollywood songs and Hindi Christian choruses, before dancing to the Back Street Boys and Justin Bieber’s “Baby Baby Baby”.

chilli-pork-specialThen up to the TV room for the interstate cricket semi-final of Delhi vs Chennai.  The last Delhi batter went out around 10:30pm and we trooped back down for pork and rice.  The spicy pork was a slight gamble with my recovering stomach but too good to miss, and despite my contribution it didn’t disappoint.  Except for Kevi, who complained that we’d only added four king chillies: there’d be a better taste with eight.

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Chilling in Mosques and Boiling in Bhopal

I sleep on a train, study at a madrasa, rage at litterbugs and relax in mosques; I walk from the coast to the Himalayas in a few hours, sweat like dogs and play chess with Krishna.

The Leprosy Mission and Allahabad Bible Seminary had looked after me for over a week.  On Friday I set off on my own again, for the big push south towards Bangalore on three overnight trains.  As I waited for the driver to take me to Allahabad Junction station, I heard the students singing at Friday evening chapel, “Because I know He holds my future… all fear is gone.”  I had earlier sung with them, “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah, pilgrim in a foreign land.”

train-meal-hindiI travelled second class AC, on the upper bunk.  With my bag alongside my feet, I just had room to sit or stretch out; in third class which is three tier I’d be hunchbacked.  Towels, sheets and blankets are provided on the blue vinyl mattress.  With mesh pockets to hold bottle, book and glasses, and your own reading lamp, once you draw the curtain it’s a cosy little shelter.  Vendors move along the carriage droning “pani water pani water” – chilled water bottles, “chai coffee chai coffee” – Western teabag or coffee, “masala tea” – the Indian brew, “tomato soup” – with croutons.  Each is poured from a thermos into a small paper cup for five rupees, about ten cents.  There are cartons of juice, punnets of yoghurt, packets of chips; and omelette, “veg” or “nonveg” meals.  I bought the vegetarian for Rs 50.  Like an aeroplane meal, it comes in a tin foil tray: three chapattis, vegetables, runny yellow dal that almost spilled until I spooned it onto the rice.  I inserted my ear plugs, and had more sleep than I did on trains in 2007.

It was a 12 hour trip, arriving at 8 am in Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh.  It’s a quiet city with only 1.5 million inhabitants, and has seldom made headlines since the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak that killed perhaps 20,000 people.  (One of my English students in Bangalore is a drummer and once played there to commemorate the disaster.)  After the Hindu interlude in Ayodya and Allahabad, I was back to a more Islamic city.  Bhopal is 40% Muslim, way above 15% nationwide, with over 400 mosques.  From my hotel room balcony, I could see the minarets from two of the most famous above the jumbled rooftops.

I spent my first day exploring these mosques and the markets in between.  Although one of India’s largest mosques, the Taj-ul Masjid seemed almost deserted.  On the west side towards Mecca was the prayer hall, with fluted arches, white onion domes and two 18-storey pink towers that reflected in a square pool for ablutions surrounded by plastic stools like mushrooms.  Dull pink walls lined the other three sides of the courtyard, punctuated by dozens of bright blue doors.  Arabic scriptures hinted at the world inside: a madrasa or Muslim school, with, I was told, 500 students.  Teenage boys emerged for a morning tea break after studying since 7 am, and ushered me into their room.  Perched on a bed, they eagerly asked how many Muslims were in New Zealand, and how many mosques in my city.  Many spoke little English, but an older student told me he was learning English to spread Islam across the world. bhopal-mosque-arches

Back outside, young boys laughed and chased a school of fish around a pond while their elders sat in the shade.  Beneath the stone vaults of the prayer area, students bent over books on low benches; blackboards with math sums and English vocab stood between the pillars.  As I left, I saw a wrinkled state government sign glued to the wall.  It referred to yoga, which is compulsory in most schools but may offend Muslims:

Authorities will not compel the students to undertake the exercise of Surya Namaskar or Pranayam and will not take any action … if the students of such educational institution do not perform the aforesaid exercise.

For lunch I sat on a step with a bread roll and banana.  I was looking around in vain for a bin for my peel, when a goat approached and gobbled it up: a pleasingly perfect, zero-waste solution – two of us fed from one banana!  I’m less impressed by the homo sapiens.  I saw one guy, flanked by rubbish bins one meter to either side, drop his takeaway plate to the ground.  Wanted to grab his collar and shout, “That’s why your country is such a stinking mess!”  Indian writers lament the lack of public ownership or social responsibility, although people scrupulously clean their own homes.  Shopkeepers look strangely at me when I ask for a bin, and when my bag gets cluttered with empty bottles I wonder whether I’m being stupidly idealistic and should ditch them in the gutter like everyone else.  At other times, I have self-righteously preached in my mind to onlookers: “Watch carefully sir.  See, the wrapper simply goes into the trash can.  One more time now: that’s iiiiiiiiinto the can.  It’s not so hard, is it?”  At least there’s some show of concern from the top: the paper said the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was introducing spot fines for littering.

bhopal-mosqueHot and tired and sick of wading through garbage and threatened by a headache from the symphony of horns, I climbed the steps of the smaller Pearl Mosque, removed my shoes – and socks to air my toes – and slipped inside.  Mosques are often a lovely refuge of cool, clean quiet.  This afternoon, the tiles were so hot I put my socks back on and stayed on the narrow strips of carpet crossing the courtyard.  Cables were strung overhead to hold, I presume, an awning for the Friday prayers.  I leaned against a pillar in the shady breeze of an open arcade and watched schoolgirls play hide and seek on the rooftop across the street.

At 1:30 pm men flooded towards the pool in front of me, mostly dressed in loose white kurta tops and pyjama leggings – most suitable for the heat.  They washed arms and feet, rinsed faces, blew noses, scrubbed teeth with fingers and spat the water back into the gutter around the tank, all as prescribed by Islam.  Some asked my country while they purified themselves.  As they lined up and began to pray, latecomers straggled in, often with more Western or secular clothing.  Some had no head covering and borrowed a white prayer cap from a stack on the floor.  Behind the men, two boys imitated their prostrations at double speed, giggling and bumping each other.  Apart from this quarter hour of action, there was no one much around except a few men sleeping.  With traffic muffled by the walls and reflections dancing in the water, I nearly dozed off myself, and felt little desire to re-enter the chaos.

I later realised one reason for my apathy.  In early March, the temperature was apparently lower than usual, but now it was above average.  By the mid-30s, my shirt is permanently wet.  As the mercury climbs towards 40oC, I don’t consciously notice a rise in temperature so much as increasing exhaustion – I relate to the dogs lying half dead on their side – and decreasing appetite.  I mostly breakfasted well at my hotel buffet, reading the paper, writing my diary and mapping out a plan of attack for the day.  By early afternoon I’d emptied several one litre bottles – surprised at how quickly chilled water becomes warm – but eaten little except a packet of chips to replenish salt lost in sweat.  I’d go to a restaurant by mid-afternoon, more to rest my feet in the cool than to fill my stomach.  If air con is lacking, I’ve learned to ignore the waiters’ directions and grab a seat underneath the fastest-turning fan.  When I reach my room, it’s shirt off, fan on full, collapse spread-eagled on the bed beneath it.  Some evenings I roll my sleeves up and down, up and down, as heat and mosquitoes battle to dominate my attention.  It’s always gratifying to see Indians mopping their brows too: I’m not just a wimpy Westerner who can’t handle the heat!

bhopal-museum-of-mankindThe next day I took a rickshaw to the National Museum of Mankind.  This is an open-air tribal complex where “the communities are the curators” and villagers from throughout India practise their crafts in traditional houses.  Straw was tied into bundles and hoisted onto roofs for thatching.  Guys dug a hole to erect a totem pole they’d just carved, in front of a ceremonial hall hung with horned skulls.  Murals on mud walls showed scores of figures farming, weaving, building, hunting, cooking, playing, fighting, copulating.  There was a coastal village with a fishing boat and a Himalayan village of two-storey stone buildings with balconies, slate roofs, and paintings of the Buddhist wheel of life and death inside.  Bamboo-panelled houses on stilts.  Crudely modelled clay village gods.  Past the peak season, there were few people around and again I had a sense of Bible times, as in the villages I visited with the Leprosy Mission (see here).  Had it been 10o cooler, it would have been a totally lovely day.

I descended the hill to stroll alongside India’s biggest man-made lake, bypassing the many snack carts for an iced chocolate shake and veg puff (flaky pastry with samosa-like filling) on a café balcony.  Coming from the seaside city of Auckland, the view reminded me slightly of home.  Children were feeding geese on the beach and splashing in paddle boats.  Dinghies were anchored offshore, while people rowed out to a low grassy islet with a Muslim shrine to the patron saint of local fishermen.  Across the water was the old city and minarets of the mosques I’d seen the day before.

That evening I saw a live Hindi play for Rs 50, about $1.25.  It was an excerpt from the Mahabharata epic, which is eight times longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined, or four times longer than the Bible.  (In Ayodya I saw a snippet of the Ramayana, India’s other great epic – see here.)  The audience sat on carpeted steps; I was the only white face.  The stage was simply set with several white pillars, what looked like an inverted mosquito net, and giant chess pieces: a king, queen, castle and knight.  I caught a lot of individual words and the play seemed to involve female machinations to manipulate weak men – the blurb indicated a feminist twist to the ancient tale.  It opened and closed with Krishna, the divine hero of the Mahabharata, playing his flute under soft rainbow lighting.

Royal Birthdays and Sporty Buddhas: Serenity in Bangkok

Clogged lungs and quiet streets, 7-Elevens and temples, saffron monks and lemon kings, sweet and salty feet.

I had a smooth flight from Bangalore to Bangkok on Sunday night, but with little sleep.  Beside me a large Indian gentleman forced me into the aisle and a small girl behind whacked my seat should I dare to doze.  On arrival I took a taxi to my guest house. With variously-shaped glass buildings soaring all around, it seemed like the 21st century after Indian cities, where I saw few skyscrapers.  A hazy red sun was rising at the end of the street: the beautiful side of smog.  (See my Bangkok photos here)

I was impressed by the wide, smooth highways.  Mini-bus utes chugged along with two rows of passenger benches on the back.  Motorbikes carried multiple passengers without helmets, but the streets were free of litter and potholes.  I hardly heard car horns and many drivers indicated before changing lanes.   First-timers in Asia come to Bangkok from the West and complain of the chaos.  Returning from the other direction, I was surprised to find how quiet and peaceful, clean and tidy, an Asian city of 10 million can be.

My parting souvenir from India was a smoker’s wheeze – I wondered how many cigarette-equivalents of pollution I consumed per day.  An article in the New Indian Express, “It’s Getting Harder to Breathe” said 20% of Chennai adolescents suffer from wheezing, so I’m not alone, and perhaps 1/8 of premature deaths in India are due to air pollution (Luce 2006 348).  In Bangkok I was never conscious of fumes.

On the street kids played badminton (instead of cricket in India), while their elders relaxed in shady cafés over chess.  Guys lovingly polished their bright new cars, often pink.  India’s mangy street curs all looked much the same to me, but here there is a range of dog breeds, often with collars, as well as many cats.  There are no bars on windows against human or monkey intrusion.

The Thai people seem so laid-back.  A few blind beggars in town shuffle along with speakers playing music on their back, donation-box on their chest, but they never approached or harassed me as in India.   I saw the high-tech IT-Square mall and browsed the narrow lanes of the amulet market: round medallions, figurines of copper, brass, silver or gold, shining plastic or faded terracotta statues of Buddha or Hindu gods to hang around one’s neck.  Nowhere did proprietors pounce; in fact they hardly noticed me.  Rather than fighting off every passing auto-rickshaw’s offers of “help”, I had to wave down taxis and their drivers always switched the meter on.

Everywhere you look is the red-orange-green logo of 7-Eleven superettes, and Thai Buddhist temples or wats.  Soaring red, gold, blue roofs with shining glass tiles.  Black Buddha statues were slim and athletic, unlike the East Asian laughing Buddha with his belly like Jabba the Hutt’s.  They were covered in fluttering square-inch leaves of gold foil, scented with buckets of burning joss sticks.  I was overwhelmed by the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  It’s a riot of dazzling statues and glittering glass, soaring gables and gold stupas.  Respectful dress is required: pre-warned, I’d worn socks in my sandals to cover my feet, while bare-legged women are lent wrap-around sarongs at the gate.

Saffron-orange robed monks are also everywhere, from venerable sages to lads blowing soap bubbles: an apt symbol of a faith that teaches the fleeting of all things.  Another monk was up a ladder, wiring fluorescent tubes around a huge royal portrait.

The Thai are very religious and they love their king.  December 5 was His Highness the King of Thailand’s 80th birthday and I read all about him in my Thai Airways magazine.  He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch (61 years) and a gifted polymath: saxophonist and jazz composer, regatta-winning yachtsman, agricultural experimentalist, eradicator of diseases.  He is deeply loved by his people who display his portraits in schools, shops, houses, billboards.  Many people wore T-shirts of lemon yellow, his birth day’s colour.

His Highness seems the picture of a true king, as if from a legend.  His list of accomplishments sounded like the biblical King David and King Solomon rolled into one: victorious general, harpist and songwriter, student of nature and sage.  I will use him to introduce my sermon next Sunday on the Magi from the East visiting the baby king Jesus.  But I occasionally found the adulation disturbing.  In a black and white newsreel, for example, an old Thai lady placed her head beneath the king’s foot.

The following day I caught the Chao Phraya River taxi boat into town, past many more temples and corrugated iron huts.  I wouldn’t swim in the brown, weedy river, but it was less aromatic than Indian equivalents.  I tested the four Thai condiments of salty fish oil, sweet chilli sauce, sour chillies and spicy-hot chillies on chicken fried rice as I overlooked the river, watching water lapping through the wooden floor planks.

Thai culture is heavily shaped by pre-Buddhist belief and practice.  There are many little spirit houses with fruit and incense offerings.  Temples had murals of the Hindu Ramayana epic and I’ve seen many Indian elements, like greeting with hands together as if in prayer, and not touching or pointing with the soles of your feet.  An Indian story tells of a holy man sleeping in a temple.  The priest reprimanded him for lying with his feet pointing towards the idol and he replied, “God is everywhere.  Where is he not?”  He was a courteous man so he changed position anyway.  Such was his holiness that he woke to find the idol had moved to again stand before his soles.

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.”

Lutheran Looms and Pilgrimage to Pondicherry

Spinning wheels and Lutheran meditation; tsunami fishing, idolatrous infection and the Life of Pi in la France.

In colonial times, Danish and German missions were active in this area of southern India (see yesterday’s post for our first adventures here and photos here).  We were hosted in Tiruvannamalai by the Arcot Lutheran church, whose motto is “not to be served but to serve”.  At their centre for destitute women cloth was being woven on manual looms and traditional spinning wheels just like Gandhi used.  Many of us queued to purchase towels, tablecloths, satchels, decorations.  An American couple, who were on the very first St Olaf Global trip in 1968, shared how they lived simply in the US (with just one bathroom and a second-hand car) so they could retire at 58 years and come here to teach English.  Doug had owned an art gallery, and bumped into a keen buyer just as they wanted to leave, confirming his conviction that life is not random.

The church also runs an inter-faith dialogue center called Quo Vadis, Latin for “Where are you going?”, which Jesus’ disciples asked before his final journey to the cross (John 13:36).  As their flyer says, “life is a pilgrimage where we would like to stop for a while to ask each other where are we going and where are we coming from?”  They have an internet cafe and a library of diverse spiritual books for pilgrims.  That evening we rolled out dough for chapatti bread while sharing our spiritual journeys, before folk dancers – yellow-saried women and white-singleted men – spun, circled and leapt to tribal drumming.

After a long day, the final meditation on the moonlit roof induced more sleep than enlightenment.  As we gazed at a flickering lamp, the leader told us to imagine the light coming within us for a few minutes, which was fine, but I hoped the light would then go out so I could go to bed.  I wasn’t the only one who suppressed a groan when the leader described said source of illumination descending into our bodies, and I realised it was going to crawl for eons through every single limb.

After leaving Tiruvannamalai, we lunched on the cool pillared veranda of the Lutheran bishop’s residence, a dilapidated, 18th-century British East India Company warehouse on the Eastern coast.  The December 2004 tsunami damaged the chapel a few metres lower, and flattened a church school down the road.  The church engaged in emergency tent accommodation, reconstruction, and counselling fishermen afraid to re-enter the sea: their source of life had betrayed them and brought death.  Now the school has been rebuilt and kids enjoyed the playground by the beach.  Vibrantly painted fishing boats, long and slim, were pulled up on the sand.

We spent last night in humid Pondicherry (population 220,000), a coastal French colony from 1672 – 1954.  Our guide mangled street names like Rue de la Marine, Rue Bazar Saint Laurent, Rue des Missions or Rue Dumas, though managed the less continental Canteen Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road.  A long canal separates the former Ville Blanche (white town) area by the sea from the inland Ville Noir (black town).

European Catholic churches were filled with rosary-reciting Indians.  Plastic-looking crucifixes were as garishly painted as Hindu temples, and Pieta statues of Mary holding Jesus’ body were wreathed like Hindu deities.  Our hotel balcony overlooked a demolished building.  Tin-roofed, thatched shacks leaned against the remnants of walls, clothing hung out to dry, women washed their hair and cooked over open fires in the rubble.  On the wall above them was a sign for “Computer Education. Institute of Technology”.

While in Pondy, we briefly glimpsed the ashram of Guru Sri Aurobindo, educated in European classics at Cambridge, where devotees were stealing flowers from his grave.  We boated across a palm-encircled lagoon to wade in the Bay of Bengal at sandy Paradise Beach, where women swam fully clothed.  And we rode the “Joy Train” around the 1826 Botanical Gardens.  Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi (2002) mentions this toy train and begins in an imaginary zoo nearby (see New York Times article “The Zoo Is Fiction, but It Just Might Spring to Life”)

In the evening I went for a stroll.  I bought a pair of sandals from a cramped stall, and chanced upon a small Hindu temple.  Five schoolboys practised, “Hello, my name is…” and shook my hand.  A smiling man insisted I receive prasad – blessed rice and chickpeas on banana leaves.  Some early Christians worried that food offered to idols could harm the soul.  St Paul tackled the issue in his letters and it’s still a hot potato for some Asian Christians.  I was more worried about my stomach.  I wasn’t carrying the alcohol hand steriliser that doctor friends gave me and temples don’t always seem too clean.  After reading of my concern, my friend Grant of the sickness sweepstake called me a wimp:

Speaking on behalf of my bet re: stomach complaints, please do not hesitate to eat anything given in temples.  The dodgier the better.  And forget all that alcohol hand cleanser stuff.  A “Real Man” wouldn’t worry about such things.  Chow down.  Time is ticking and you seem far too well.