India is one of the few places in the world where a whole metropolis can exist that you have, quite simply, never even heard of.
Madras (also known as Chennai) is like that. It is a vast, teeming, bustling city, size-wise on a par with New York and London and Moscow, and home to more than ten million of this planet’s population. But apart from eating a curry in Malaysia once which was described as “Madras-style”, I had never heard of the place. As far as I was concerned Madras did not exist, and for this reason alone, I felt a burning need to go there.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
We arrived in Madras more than a day late (see my previous post The Train Ride from Hell for details of our delay, on the Calcutta-Madras train). We checked into the Broadlands Hotel, which was pleasant enough: a series of old colonial buildings linked together by shaded courtyards. Our room had wonderful blue plantation shutters, timber floors and a creaking ceiling fan.
Although it was a budget hotel, the Broadlands made a point of advertising that room service was available. Small luxuries count when backpacking in India, and so one morning we decided to treat ourselves to breakfast in bed. We ordered toast and fruit salad, expecting it to be a luscious treat: Madras’ climate is hot, and tropical fruits like coconut and mango and pineapples are everywhere.
We were thus bitterly disappointed by what got delivered: fried, greasy toast and two miserable bowls of tinned fruit, covered in milky water that had once, before it melted, been ice-cream. We told the young man who had delivered these fruity horrors to take them away, and had a late breakfast at a nearby cafe instead.
Later that afternoon, the hotel proprietor approached us as we returned from a day of sight-seeing. “I am informed that you were unsatisfied with the fruit salads this morning”, he said.
“Yes we were”, I replied. Finally, an Indian hotel owner who was customer-service oriented.
“I see”, the proprietor nodded sagely. “The problem is that you did not pay for them”.
Camilla answered before I could say anything. “Of course we didn’t pay for them”, she said. “We got tinned fruit, not fruit salad, and it was terrible”.
“I know, and I understand and empathise with you”, thus the proprietor, “but you see, the boy has paid for your fruit salads personally, and his expenditure must thus be recouped”.
Huh? A few more questions and “the problem” became clear: the enterprising hotel owner out-sourced provision of room service to his employees, who would buy food from nearby restaurants, deliver it at a mark-up, and pay the hotel owner a commission for the privilege. When we had returned our fruit salad order, we had unwittingly upset the natural order of things, and the young lad who had bought them was now out-of-pocket.
“Look, I don’t really see how this is our problem,” I said. “As far as we’re concerned, the boy works for the hotel. I think you should be the one paying him”.
“No, he is not in my employ, and I am neither able to remunerate nor reimburse him for the victuals you have commissioned”, was the hotel owner’s reply. What was this guy – a defective thesaurus?
Camilla tried again. “But it was awful. Plus, we didn’t even order ice-cream, and it was melted. Why should we pay anything?” she asked.
“Sister …”, the hotel proprietor said, and I could almost see the hackles rising on the back of Camilla’s neck at the use of this term, “… I appeal to your sense of compassion. The boy has lost money, on your account. He is a poor boy – have some pity”.
I won’t repeat the rest of what became a lengthy conversation, Camilla steadfastly refusing to pay and the hotel owner making repeated appeals to his sister. Suffice it to say that there was nothing really new in this situation, just a simple combination of two cardinal rules of Indian Logic that we had long-since learned: one, the customer is always wrong, and two, the foreigner always pays.
So, we paid. You can’t fight the system. The hotel owner graciously agreed to reduce the price so that the boy (and, by implication, the proprietor himself) at least didn’t make a profit. We handed over a few rupees – the cost price of our fruit salads – and everyone walked away smiling. In the life of a backpacker, small victories often become much more important than they actually are.
Casablanca, in Morocco, is a massive city of six million people, with bugger all to do besides look at a huge mosque. Compared to Madras, visiting Casablanca is like spending a day in Disneyland. It is quite frightening how little there is for a tourist to see and do in Madras.
One morning we went to the Madras High Court, supposedly the largest court building in the world and a fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. We watched a small army of barristers as they arrived for work, decked out in wigs and frilly white collared shirts. They mostly arrived on buzzing, motorized scooters, so that after a while the courthouse parking lot began to look like it had been infested by a swarm of black and white flies.
Out of sheer lack of anything better to do, we went inside and sat in on a trial for forty-five minutes. It was conducted in English, the official language of the Indian judicial system. To be honest, all those involved in the trial looked a little bit bored and confused, and it was so hot in the courtroom that everyone was sweating profusely. I half expected someone, the fat, half-asleep judge perhaps, to jump up and say: “I object! Why are we, a roomful of southern Indians, required to prance around in these ridiculous gowns and wigs in forty-five degree heat?”
We strolled around the streets of Georgetown, the original site of Madras when the town was little more than a British trading post. Like in so many other Indian cities, the historic centre is today a dump: endless crappy clothes markets lining rubbish-filled streets. Mount Road, Madras’ main shopping thoroughfare, was not much better. There was a small mall on Mount Road, but it was of the type that even a fly-blown shithole in outback Australia would be embarrassed to claim as its own. And, it smelled of urine.
We tried the Madras aquarium, which may indeed be the single most miserable place I have ever visited. Once, many years ago, when it was the centre-piece of English Madras, the aquarium may have been a decent place to pass an afternoon. But, it hadn’t been cleaned in the last fifty years, most of the light-bulbs had blown, and the water in the tanks had a distinct greenish tinge. If fish could commit suicide, then the Madras aquarium would have long ago become the world’s first fish-free aquarium. It too smelled of urine.
In short, Madras is precisely the type of place that no foreign tourist in their right mind should ever want to visit. Therefore, if you are becoming familiar with Indian Logic, it will come as no surprise to learn that Madras has what must be India’s most outstanding train ticketing booking office dedicated exclusively to the needs of foreign tourists. We went there one afternoon expecting the customary five hours of queues and frustrations. Instead, we got immediate service from a lovely, personable lady, and within ten minutes she had booked and confirmed the train tickets that we required for the next three weeks of travel.
The fact that a visit to a train ticket reservation office was the highlight of our stay in Madras speaks volumes about the place.
One afternoon I called my parents in Australia and received the news that Camilla’s grandmother had passed away the week before; the funeral had already happened and I had to break the news to Camilla. Our mood turned gloomy and sad: we didn’t feel like moving on and being merry photo-snapping sightseers; but at the same time the prospect of wandering around dreary Madras was downright depressing.
It is a horrible experience having to deal with a trauma in unfamiliar surroundings, away from your home and family and without a support network to rely on. When Camilla went to call her mother, she was laughed at for crying by the men who ran the telephone booth. We considered cancelling the remainder of our trip, but Camilla’s mother insisted that we do nothing of the sort. So we decided to leave Madras, a place now filled with sadness and unhappy memories, as fast as we could. A few days later we caught a bus six hours south, to the seaside town of Pondicherry.
Pondicherry was once one of three French colonies in India, and as a result the first few streets back from the beach, known as “The French Quarter”, look more or less like a typical French village, only transplanted onto Indian soil. Thanks to a painstaking restoration effort by the French government, it is clean, the buildings are freshly painted, balconies overflow with Bougainvillea, and the seaside promenade is well-lit and well paved. Pondicherry is occasionally referred to as “the French Riviera of the East”, and whilst this is a bit of a stretch, the town does have a distinct French flavour to it.
We went for long walks by the seaside, and we sat for hours drinking coffee and eating ice-cream in Le Cafe. It seemed like all the eateries in Pondicherry had corny French names, such as Le Club, Le Cafe, Rendezvous and the misleadingly named Bar Qualité, which we walked out of one morning when no-one could explain why they could do boiled egg, scrambled egg and omelette, but not fried egg.
There was a pleasant jardine publique in the French Quarter. We sat there on the grass one afternoon and attempted to play a game of backgammon. Almost instantly, we were surrounded by a group of Indian men – more than a dozen – who simply stared at us as if this was the most entertaining thing to happen in Pondicherry in the last two thousand years. It probably was, come to think of it. The men wouldn’t budge, even when Camilla got up and attempted to shoo them away, waving her arms in the way one does when shooing away a flock of troublesome birds. You are never truly alone in India.
Apart from its French connection, Pondicherry is also the home town of the Aurobindo, a cult founded by an Indian mystic who, after spending a few years in England, returned to India to preach love, tolerance, and universal harmony. In so doing, he attracted a horde of Western followers to Pondicherry and today several thousand followers from over forty different countries live about twelve kilometres outside of town, in a slightly creepy “experimental” village called Auroville. At the very centre of Auroville is the matrimandir, a massive and quite striking metallic gold sphere. In the words of Auroville’s founder, the matrimandir “is a place for trying to find one’s consciousness – it is like the Force”. If I were George Lucas, I’d sue.
Auroville is run by the Aurobindo Society under a special act of the Indian parliament, and promotes itself as being somewhere that “men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.” We, however, were turned away at the gates when we tried to visit. It would seem that scruffy looking backpackers from Australia do not fall within the Aurobindo definition of “realized human unity”.
A bit closer in to town is the Aurobindo Ashram, where at any one time you will find Aurobindo disciples and students, meditating and chanting away. And then, right in the centre of Pondicherry we visited the Aurobindo Centre, which is housed in a beautifully restored French-era building. There we learned about all things Aurobindan, including that the symbol of Aurobindo is, oddly enough, a Jewish Star of David with a lotus in the centre. We also enjoyed a cup of herbal tea while watching a group of French ladies with shaved heads drape themselves in saris, before they too began a spot of late afternoon meditation.
We learned that the Aurobindo Society also owns almost anything else worth owning in Pondicherry: hotels and guest houses in the French section of town, several of the restaurants, and the gift store. It seems that as with any good cult, the organisation’s leadership is not above the earthly pursuit of turning a dollar.
The hotel where we stayed was one owned by the Aurobindo Society. A sign at the door specified that guests were required to be clean-cut, tidy, non-smokers and non-drinkers. Another sign said: “no hippies”.
When we checked in, I had inquired of the hotel manager if we could inspect the room allocated to us first – a standard anti-cockroach precaution practiced by all backpackers in India. “No”, was the hotel manager’s reply. “The room has all you need”.
I politely asked how he could possibly know what it was that we needed, but he merely repeated, somewhat mysteriously, “The room has all you need”. Further discussion got us no-where, and the manager became rather annoyed at the desire to see the room first. “Do you not trust me?” he asked angrily. He insisted that I was the first person to have ever made such an outlandish request.
We had clearly not got off on the right foot, and the tension level between us and the manager rose with each passing day. We were the only guests in the hotel, so he would look at his wristwatch like a disapproving parent every time we came or went, and he would glare at me viciously each time I passed him in the hallway. After initial attempts at being civil failed, I took to returning his dirty looks with venom, occasionally throwing a snide comment his way as well.
Things came to a head on the day before our departure from Pondicherry. A sign above the reception desk said “office hours, 2:00-4:00pm”, and so I had arrived at the office at 2:00pm exactly, to settle our bill. The manager was not present. I waited until 4:00pm, but he never showed up. Later, at 6:00pm, I saw the manager as we were on our way out to dinner, and I asked him if I could pay our bill. He tersely replied: “It is not convenient for me now. See me during office hours”. When I said that I had tried to, he merely shrugged his shoulders, and smiled smugly as if to say: “What did you expect? As if I’d put myself out for you, you prick”.
On returning from dinner at 11:00pm, the manager was sitting at the reception desk, irately looking at his wristwatch. He asked me if I would like to pay, given that we were leaving before sunrise the next morning. I saw my chance for revenge, and took it: “No, it is not convenient for me now”. Take that, dick-head, and I triumphantly ascended the staircase.
The next morning, we presented ourselves for check-out at 6:00am. The night watch-boy went to wake the manager, who arrived in his pyjamas, bleary-eyed and mad as hell. He sulkily filled out a receipt, all the while muttering obscenities under his breath. Having made my point I should have left it at that, but I couldn’t help myself, and I proceeded to deliver a short sermon to the manager on how he was a disgrace to the values of the Aurobindo movement. He glowered at me ferociously, but when I began quoting from the Aurobindo Manifesto that I had found in the chest of drawers besides the bed, I had clearly pushed it too far. The manager quite literally began spluttering and frothing at the mouth. He was just the kind of guy to round up a lynch-mob of irate Aurobindans, so we vacated the premises, and Pondicherry, as fast as we could.
Moving inland, our next destination was the Sri Meenakshi temple, in Madurai, built more than four hundred years ago to honour a Hindu goddess with three breasts. Now there’s a thought.
The temple comprises seven courtyards built one within the other, separated by six-metre high walls. Within each courtyard are a variety of buildings, halls and small temples and shrines, so that collectively the temple complex forms a confusing labyrinth of open squares, courtyards within courtyards, and dim covered spaces.
The outer three courtyards have been subsumed by the town of Madurai, and the separating walls have been used as supports for homes and market stalls. The inner four courtyards, however, are still used for religious purposes, and after depositing our shoes at the main entrance, we joined a steady stream of pilgrims walking through the temple complex, frequently getting lost in the maze of interconnected halls and open squares. The walls were painted like candy in red and white vertical stripes, giving the whole place a slightly kindergarten-like feel.
Gates leading from one courtyard to another were capped by gopurams, towering, four-sided pyramids that rise in staggered layers, each layer slightly smaller than the last. The stone of each layer is elaborately carved into columns, decorative motifs and three-dimensional representations of Hindu gods, goddesses and mythical beings, all exquisitely painted in vivid, almost psychedelic colour. For example, a single carving of a god might have had a blue face, a gold crown, a brown body, and a multi-coloured robe.
And, there were several thousand carvings on each gopuram. To be precise, there are apparently thirty-three million individual sculptures in the whole of the Madurai temple complex. That is a quite staggering number, and the combined effect almost defies belief: a colour explosion that you might expect in the testing laboratory of a paint factory, not a sacred Hindu temple.
In the fourth courtyard we came across a large open-air square-shaped pool, filled with green water – the “Tank”, as it is known. Prior to entering the inner-sanctum of the temple, pilgrims ritually bathe in the Tank. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to discover myself face to face with an elephant. This particular elephant had white paint smeared on its trunk, and a red Hindu dot between the eyes. The elephant’s human master suggested that for a few rupees the elephant would bless me. I held out a few rupees in my hand, and the elephant sucked them up into her trunk, and then gently patted me on the head with her trunk before spitting the coins into a nearby dish.
We returned to the Meenakshi temple later that night. Each evening a statue of Parvathi, the temple’s patron goddess, is carried in a sacred parade, from her day-temple to her “bedroom temple” where she “sleeps” each night. We joined a small group of Western voyeurs, and a much larger group of Indians who were there to participate in the parade.
In due course the statue of Parvathi was carried out by several priests dressed in white loin-cloths, their faces smeared with yellow paint. The priests were singing Indian lullabies, intended to lull the goddess to sleep. Following behind the priests was a double file procession of worshippers, who were all chanting feverishly. Two young boys walked at the head of the procession, each twirling two sticks of wood that had been lit at either end, creating four continuous blurs of flame. The air was heavy and smoky, and the sweet smell of burning incense and camphor sticks was almost sickeningly intense. I think I was perhaps high on the smell of incense, as I began to feel light-headed and absurdly happy.
We followed the procession until we were stopped by a security guard at the entrance to the Goddess’ “bedroom”. Non-Hindus were allowed no further. We struck up a conversation with the aged security guard, who told us about his wife and family, and his seventeen grandchildren, who, so he said, are “the joy of my life”. He also told us that he had been a guard at the temple for almost thirty-five years. What’s more, and he told us this with evident pride, for the whole thirty-five years he had been the guard at one particular gate of the temple, devoting his whole life to this single activity.
After we had been talking for about ten minutes, the guard suggested that he could show me something “special”. However, he indicated that the invitation had been extended only to me, and that Camilla should remain where she was. He said we would be back in a few minutes.
Camilla nodded her agreement, and so I followed the guard as he led me through a series of dimly lit rooms, into a large hall with dozens of floor-to-ceiling columns. We were the only people in the hall, and our voices echoed in a spooky sort of way. We wandered between the columns, and eventually the guard stopped and flashed his torch on one particular column, and told me to look closely.
His flashlight was illuminating a small carving, depicting a woman on her knees before a guy with an upright pecker, doing you-know-what. This particular carving was part of a series of otherwise clean carvings, and if it hadn’t been pointed out, I could have looked directly at it without noticing its erotic content.
I looked at the guard, and he had the smile of a naughty schoolboy on his face, which made me giggle. Thinking that I was giggling at the carving itself, the guard began giggling too, at the same time childishly poking his fingers at the man’s erect penis and the woman’s boobs. He got excited, and dashed off. I followed again, and pretty soon we were looking at another erotic carving, this time a threesome engaged in a highly gymnastic love-tryst. Then we were off once more, and within ten minutes I had seen half a dozen naughty carvings: a few couples, a four-handed woman masturbating a man who couldn’t believe his luck, more oral sex.
Our security guard was quite the dirty old man. I guess that when you spend your whole life as the guard of one gate at an Indian temple you have time to become an expert on temple erotica. As we were walking back towards where Camilla was waiting, the guard however suddenly became bashful, and made me promise not to show her the carvings – “not for girls”, he said.
Travelling through India, the culture can be so strange and the details of life can be so unfamiliar that you sometimes start to think of Indians as being almost alien, from another world. And then, occasionally, small things happens to put you straight: a guard in a temple giggling like a schoolboy at pornographic pictures; a group of men enjoying a televised game of cricket in Varanasi; a mother in Calcutta scolding her children and giving you a familiar “what can I do with them?” look.
As if to confirm this thought, I noticed as we were leaving the Meenakshi temple that night a man walking alongside us. It was one of the priests who had donned a loin-cloth and participated in the procession earlier that evening. Only now he was wearing a two piece suit and tie, and apart from a smudge of yellow paint on his cheekbone, he didn’t look all that different from a businessman in Sydney, Tokyo or New York. No doubt, he was heading home to dinner, with his family.
[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 7: My Day as a Bollywood Film Star, Kerala]