As Edinburgh is the Athens of the North, I would like to declare Thirruvannamalai the Edinburgh of the East. I swear down, Mount Arunachala is just like Arthur’s seat, with the town curled around its base – there’s probably a few other comparisons to be made, but to tell you the truth Scotland seems a long way away right now, bombarded as I am by all this bullshit. Did I say bullshit? I meant to say life-reaffirming, spiritually awakening, international cultural exchange.
My hotel is wicked – a quiet oasis among the electric buzz of the city. I’m paying 125 rupees (1.50) for a room with a toilet & tv. Alright, there’s a few ants crawling about at the front door – but I figure if I leave no food in my room then no ants will invade. The hotel also runs a catering & management college next door & gets the students to do work experience, which involves cleaning my room whenever I want, & bringing food to my room & other little errands – very Agatha Christie. I’m on the top floor of the place, which means I’m among the rooftops of the town, always a cool sight. It’s made a lot sweeter, however, by the great mountain that fills up the panorama less than half a mile away.
There’s a few mosquitoes about & their bites are itchy as fuck. After two days & nights of being bit, plus splattering them (& my blood inside them) all round my room’s walls, then thinking I’ve got the last one, settling down to sleep & hearing the hungry buzz of YET ANOTHER ONE hovering around my neck like a vampire, I bought myself a mosquito net. Funny thing is, their corpses have attracted the ants who have been streaming into the room like vultures & polishing them off one by one.
At the foot of the mountain is the Sri Ramana Ashram, full of brainwashed westerners who wouldn’t know a good time if it bit them on the ass, never mind a fuckin Jock Stock. I tried to blag some free food there the other day, but they saw through my attempts at self-realization – & I’d even paid ten rupees for a bindi painted between the eyes. However, I do get to use their library, & that’s a fuckin’ godsend. I’m currently spending my mornings & afternoons there at the moment, under a fan & transcreating the Thirukural. I don’t speak Tamil, but I’ve got several English translations spread in a semi-circle about me, plus a dictionary & thesaurus. Additional help comes from my personal librarian, who is assisting me with the thornier moments thrown up by classical Tamil. It’s actually a very cool experience – Indiana Jones meets Lord Byron – & the Tamils are quite taken aback by a Burnley Boy poeticizing what is to all extents & purposeless their Bible!
I’ve been walking to my studies every morning & afternoon without fail, passing herds of immaculately uniformed schoolkids & guys wobbling about on bikes laden with steaming chambers of chi. Next comes these massive decorated festival carts with wheels as big as two men; well what I really mean are two western men – apart from some geezers down the ashram I’m the tallest man in town, which is kinda weird.
I then pass the great temple, whose four god-carved gates tower over the town; then the busy markets, before walking down a poor village type road, full of rubbish, chickens & bricks – it’s got that industrial-age, Burnley feel where everyone kind of lived in the street. Then comes a glorious ghat (reservoir) whose green water is quite surprising on the eye. Beside this is a middle class suburb, lots of one floor villas with rooftop terraces overlooking the ghat. These have name boards hung proudly on the outside, for example one was a health educator & another was the sub-inspector for the local police force. After this comes the ashram area, where the westerners flock & chill out, spending a lot more money on their generally inferior food. I mean, I’ve been eating wickedly & struggling to spend more than three pounds a day on food.
There’s quite a few orange-clad babas hanging about the ashram – after some enquiry I have discovered none of whom support Holland in the world cup. I have also discovered, on one of my sidestreet walks, that they are unscrupulous rogues. I saw a couple of them eagerly emptying their metal carry-tins of cash – loads of it – with a lot more vigor than their semi-pathetic attempts to get some rupees out of you. They were huddled together far from the eyes of the more gullible westerner, like a couple of cockney gangsters, dishing out loads of rupees & swigging back a very large bottle of whiskey.
So what is life like in small town Tamil Nadu? It’s certainly not a redneck place, quite affluent really, I guess gaining an element of prosperity from the influx of pilgrims. The place is full of pedestrians & bikes – pedal & petrol – mingling with the Tamil animals; don’t-give-a-shit-Cows nuzzling through the roadside rubbish tips or planting themselves in the centre of the busiest roads; abandoned puppies & the same dog everywhere; grotesque rats & deformed ponies; giant horny oxen trotting through the streets hauling produce-laden carts; cats, bats & monkeys haunting the rooftops. I chucked a paul-daniels-faced monkey a banana the other day & chuckled to myself as his little hands unpeeled it – just like a human!
Eating out is a bit weird; you are attended on hand & foot, with refills for food & water arriving from a team of waiters. This state of affairs, coupled with my cleaner boys at the hotel, is perfectly satisfying my colonial pretensions – all I need now is a tiger hunting blunderbus & a bridge club. The maddest thing I’ve seen was a sleight of hand con guy, who had set up a little shrine & had two snakes & a rodent & just kept chatting non-stop & banging this little drum as he did his ‘magic’. Actually I was quite enthralled, as were the Indians, but the point to it all was beyond me.
All the shops are the same size, & everyone is a specialist (Tesco’s would have a fit). There’s shops which contain only penny sweet jars, coconut warehouses, spice merchants with multicoloured sacks, pharmacists, clinics, speaker shops, bookshops, 20 rupee an hour internet places, garland makers with bright fluffy flowers, tailors sat sewing to the world, the most delicious looking cakes you’ve ever seen (with complementary chewy fly), busy barbers, banks, mobile phone shops, modern looking shoe shops & guys sat in the street surrounded by old flip-flops cleaning & repairing peoples footwear (one of these guys fixed my hat)… & even an interior decorators. There’s also the chicken marts, which are a real sad thing to see. Proud cocks & white hens stuck together in cramped cages, watching agitatedly as one-by-one they get the chop right in front of their sad little eyes – I tell ya, my chucks back at Heather Lodge don’t know how lucky they are!
At one point I sampled the wears of a fried fish stall – very delicious but too many bones. More palatable have been the samosas; other fried street foods (3p) & the bananas (2p) which you buy in bunches of ten from gypsy-type women in the street. These in turn come from the banana wholesalers, where bunches of up to a hundred green bananas cling to a bamboo style stalk. The leaves have been stripped off by now & even these are sold off in the street to guys from the restaurants – that’s in the street remember, & I’ve gotta eat off em. Other food you can buy on the street-carts include apples, oranges, grapes, banana fritters, peanuts, ready-to-eat corn-on-the-cobs & fresh coconuts, which they crack the top off for you so you can drink the milk with a straw, then crack in half so you can eat the creamy flesh inside.
Fashion sense is not that varied. All the women wear saris & the men have only four possible combinations of outfits – either a pair of trousers or this kilt thing to cover the legs, with either a short sleeved or long sleeved cotton shirt (in stripes or checks, so I guess that six combos). The flip-flop is the footwear of choice, though about a third of the folk go about barefoot. They hardly ever use the paths & invariably compete with road space with everything else… mainly because the paths run over stinking sewers & are full of holes. Most of the roads themselves have strange delusions of concrete, but these are basically under a pile of crud, which during the recent rains has turned to ghostbuster goo.
For me, the weather’s been great, actually, quite cloudy & rainy – the top of the mountain is often obscure by mist – tho’ warm enough to sleep naked. I’m not a big sunlover, so a bit of respite from the heat is wicked. In a few days, once the novelty of disciplined writing wears off, I’m gonna get green scooter-bike for 75 rupees (1 pound) to explore the countryside. I’m a bit nervous, actually, as the roads are certifiably insane, & all those raring buses blaring in my ear is making me, actually, fuckin deaf!
Tonight’s been a bit crazy in town – the leader of Tamil Nadu – Karunanidni of the DMK party – has just turned up & the centre has been bedecked with banana trees, light statues & a hell of a load of Belgium flags. Apparently it’s the flag of the DMK, but just like Belgium, the rally was pretty boring so I didn’t stay for long. The guy sounded just like the one at Wigton Cattle auction, but a bit slower.
So to conclude, I have been in India almost 3 weeks now – only 3 months to go – the poems going well & my poo has finally hardened, though is still maintaining its curious yellow colour. India at present is a pretty funky place to be. I mean, it’s come along way even in the few years I’ve been visiting, slowly turning into the global superpower that a democracy of a billion people must support. At the moment they have the smartest guy on the planet – Vishy Anand has just become world chess champion – the best cricket team – they’ve just walloped the Aussies – & they’re the only ones who’ve been willing to do anything about the Somalian pirates, sinking one of their mother ships only recently. What, with Usain Bolt & Lewis Hamilton being the fastest men on the planet, Barrack Obama being the hardest (thanks to several trillion pounds to spend & quiet a lot of nukes), & the Chinese being the best Olympic nation on the planet, it looks like the world is tilting on a 21st century axis & the darkies are taking over.
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