I was walking down the road the other day, when it suddenly dawned on me I’d just seen my millionth moustache in Tamil Nadu. It wasn’t announced with fanfares, streamers & a quick trolley-dash around Woolworths (RIP), it was just my subliminal consciousness kicking in. I mean, man, they’re everywhere; about 99 percent of males have them, the overall effect seeming something like moving through a permless Liverpool. It’s actually cool as fuck; a proper democracy where everyone looks equally as nobby as each other. So, in light of the recent political turmoil in Africa, where the ANC is splintering up in light of corruption claims, I’ve decided to set up a sub-party of the LIF (Lets Invade France) called the Double B Double T (the Bring Back The Tash Party).
This tash-equality makes Tamil Nadu a nice place to wander about in, as opposed to other parts of India where the caste system is clearly visible. Alright, you’ve got your beggars & the street cleaning women, but everyone else seems to be much the same & getting on with life in happy harmony. The state is also very proud of its place in the world. A wee look on the map & you can see that Tamil Nadu is remarkably similar to the Irish landmass – in size, & shape & also, I find, in spirit. This strong sense of patriotic self-identity was born out of repelling the Indo-Aryan invasions 3000 years ago, plus several attempts by the various owners of Delhi to conquer & impose Hindi as the national Indian language. As I’m finding out with my pidgin creole, the Tamil language is indeed a beautiful treasure.
On a similar vibe to the tashes I have just clocked my tenth albino. Albinospotting is a wee hobby of mine, a far better past-time than trainspotting, or even trainspotter-spotting. I guess I’ve seen so many as there are 20 Indians to every UK citizen, so the chances increase massively, plus their fair skin stands out a mile against the dark seas of Dravidian flesh. One of them was a very handsome example, with blonde hair & blues eyes, the only way you could determine his Indian-ness was the paintlike splashes of brown spaced sporadically about his skin.
I’ve been in Chadambaram over a week now. In that time I have seen about ten other tourists – solely at the temple – & I feel I have got the place to myself (along with 50,000 mad Indians). I can really hear myself think (above the endless noise) & it feels good to get away from the tourist trail, especially as I haven’t seen an Arthur* in over a month. The town basically spreads out for a mile or so in all directions from its centerpiece – the tremendous Nataraja Temple. It feels great being there in the early morning, when the heat is soft & the colours pastel in the rising light. It is a very religious place, ran by these white robed brahmin who tie their hair back & scrunch a little bit of it into buns. Their ancient ancestors were sent there by King Hiranyavarman, whose leprosy was healed in the natural spring-waters of the ghat. These days they are running the temple as a private enterprise. I observed one of their ‘do’s, a procession along the roads that form a 2-mile square lap around the temple. It was led by some guys picking up stones. Twenty feet behind, a semi-naked baba was playing roly-poly the whole length of the circuit. Behind him were a few male dignitaries, a guy holding a psychedelic umbrella, & behind him were about 300 chanting women holding plantpots with strange phallic orchids in them representing lingams.
The town itself is built on a flat plain, & most of the streets have this samey-samey lower-middle class kinda vibe. Much more interesting are the poorer parts of town, where life mingles with the rubbish & livestock like a forgotten pan of boiling chi. Every fifty paces or so you’ll find this game called Kunder, where men of all ages gather & furiously exchange wads of rupee notes. First off two small marbles are thrown into a square in the ground, which has several indents for the holes to settle in. Then a big marble is thrown in an effort to hit them. I’m not sure of the rules, & essentially it’s all bit dull, but the guys get very excited indeed. Also in the poorer suburbs is a temple dedicated to Kali. The image of her killing men with a belt of ten shrunken heads already stalks my too-many-pills-come-down-dreams – but I have now seen her atop a temple, clutching the intestines of some poor, naked girl. Quite disturbing, & the Indians worship this shit!
Tho’ the chi & food is wicked, a decent conversation is hard to come by. I get my fix of ‘familiar’ culture from the English film channels, the blanket coverage of the Premier League & several newspapers printed in English. They cost between 1 & 3 rupees over here, & are pretty comprehensive; from local through national to worldwide news. There are no free dodgy dvds, however, or tabloids – but they do the job. The funniest story I’ve read to date concerns a Bangladeshi film director – Ahsanulla Moni – who has spent 30 million pounds on a lifesize replica of the Taj Mahal near Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. It has taken five years to build this second ‘monument to love’ & was opened up a week ago. Few Bungalis can afford the trip to see the real Taj in Agra, so essentially it is a noble venture – but the Indians are up in arms & are hoping to prove there is an international breach of copyright!
Another funny thing was seeing the same crazy trapeze balancing girl in Chidambaram. I’d caught half of her act – to the rhythm of her mum & brothers drumming – back in Thiruvanamali, & over the last few days have caught the rest. Not only does she balance a pot on her head, but she does it while walking along in the spokeless metal inside of a bicycle wheel. Her other feat is to crawl along the wire on her knees in a handleless frying pan. Amazing stuff, enough to warrant a piece in the Delhi Chronicle in fact. It turns out Chidambaram is where the troupe live & they are quite famous around the state.
I’ve also scored! Well, it’s a bit weird really. My hotel is building a new bar at the moment (noisy as fuck). There’s a gang of builders – men & women – & one of the builder girls takes time out from balancing bricks on her head to propose marriage to me. She’s quite sweet really, with brilliant white teeth, oaken eyes & dripping in bling, but I don’t think it’s gonna work out in the end – I’m not so sure Glenda would appreciate me bring a dusty bricky bird back to Heather Lodge. Talking of the hotel, there’s a wee lad there, about 11 I think, who’s basically used as child labor. He never goes to school, works all day & sleeps in the hotel foyer floor, with just a single sheet & a pillow – not a playstation in sight. Apparently his parents were too poor to keep him, so the hotel ‘saved him’ with a roof, 25 rupees a day (30p) & his food in the restaurant downstairs. At first I was shocked, comparing his life to the gift-happy kids of the west. But after some reflection I remembered some of the states of sheer poverty I have seen in India, & this kids got such a friendly demeanor & massive smile, that I cannot help thinking this is probably a good place for him to be. Anyway, I’ve been spoiling him like mad – sweets & bananas – & I’m gonna slip him a couple of hundred rupees before I go – it is xmas after all.
Today I went on a little mission 15 kilometers away to Pitchivaram. I set off early doors & hit the bus station, getting on a quietish bus. That is until an argument broke out & this women with red teeth began shrieking like a banshee, arguing with some geezer & then the rest of the bus. As we finally set off I thought great, a nice uncramped journey. Then the bus stopped &, like, a thousand people got on. Finally, we set off & soon broke from the town into level paddyfield lands stretching for miles. A few villages later, where humans mingled with herds of goats & flower-tipped lotus-stalks, with the bus steadily emptying en route, I found myself at Pitchivaram with this Italian guy. The place nestles about 2 kilometers from the sea-mouth of a river, the tide sending small waves rippling past, where fisherman ply their trade & shrimp graveyards dry in the sun. The Italian was a 40 year old ganja-growing dude from Venice, a bit mad but pretty cool, & we hit it off straight away. We agreed to take a boat together & were soon being rowed through beautiful mangroves on a two hour journey by this guy half my size.
Mangrove are cool; clusters of brown sticks jutting from the dull, green waters & flush with rhododendron-style leaves. On occasions our boatman took us through thicker parts, where the mangroves met arch-like above us & we were forced to dodge the hanging branches. The ‘circuit’ was funny as fuck as the guy kept asking for money – I swear down I’ve been totally outcheek’d by the cheeky fucker – he was a real pro. Taking a break from the kural, I was going through the haiku I wrote at Heather Lodge all last year – it seemed an appropriate place to do it, among the silence & solitude of these tranquil waters. That is, until our boatman decided to scream his head off – which nearly sent me into the waters – all so he could disturb a flock of two hundred heronesque birds from the waters. It was an amazing sight as up until then we’d seen just one lone sea-eagle hovering on the breeze. Where once had been just green foliage, now these Cocu birds were pirouetting magnificently above us. Back at shore, me & the Italian guy bought the boatman lunch; on the finishing of which he asked for a fuckin’ omlette – unbeleivable, but very loveable. The whole experience had been genuinely beautiful, from the boatman’s Tamil songs to my speaking Italian, which to my surprise actually worked.
I now feel ready to hit the road again. I’ve decided to spend the next five days or so on a little madcap dash to Rameshwarm on the south coast – following the second test match as I go – hopefully landing at said temple town just as Freddie Flintoff fires off the winning runs. The last test was cool as fuck actually, ending with the fourth ever highest 4th innings run chase ever – & the highest on the subcontinent. Sachin ‘God’ Tendulkar hit the winning runs with a 4 that also brought him his century, & immediately dedicated it to the healing process of all Indians in the wake of the Mumbai Murders – all emotional stuff.
* (Arthur Daley – Israeli)