XII: Crossing the Karveri Delta

My last full day in Chidambaram began with a wee Tamil lesson with the hotel owner. This was overheard by some residents, who joined in, correcting my bad Burnley accent. It turns out they were at the hotel, building a scenic little waterfall for the new bar that is being built, which needed a different, more powerful motor to run the pump. Their man in Chennai was meeting them half way at Pondicherry, & I was invited me along. They were nice guys, all fluent in English & up for the crack. The conversation was entertaining, resulting in two very interesting facts; the temple at Thanjavur never gives off shadow & the Tamil police are the third best in the world for catching criminals – with the Scottish police being the best, apparently. I told them one visit to Glasgow would dispel this urban myth. We also discussed nuclear geopolitics, & was shocked to hear how savagely they thought about Pakistan. Apparently, if war breaks out, Pakistan will be obliterated, with only Delhi, Calcutta & Mumbai (plus most of north India) receiving the same medicine – leaving Chennai as the future capital of India. They cheered at this.

There was a funny incident on the way up to Pondy, starting with slamming into a traffic jam. The car ahead of us had number plates reading TN 07 AW 6646, which made the lads laugh as their plates read TN 07 AW 6466. Ahead, there were about fifty women staging a sit-down protest, hoping to get the 2000 rupees per family the government had promised all those affected by the recent cyclones. I felt sorry for the poor police-guy in the centre of the maelstrom, nervously fumbling with his phone as both screaming women & yelling driver did his head in. I watched the spectacle from a roadside cafe until, after about half an hour so, certain promises had been extracted, & we were back on the road. We hit Pondy an hour or so later, which involved picking up their mate, stocking up on the cheap booze & buying some illegal but expensive pieces of rock for the waterfall. I also got a wee guided drive about Pondy, policed by Indian ‘gendarmes’ & their very stupid red hats. Old Pondicherry is a very clean & whitewashed grid of European streets, far from the ramshackle chaos of most of India, all washed by the Bay of Bengal & glowing brilliantly in the sun.

The drive back to Chidambaram saw me tucking into my first beers in over a month, which led to me drinking most of my stash, making a total fool of myself with all & sundry, & falling into a heap on my bed about 10PM. Six hours later, in the faint pre-dawn, I suddenly woke up sober like the adrenalin-injected Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. It was time to hit the road, but before I did, I went to the hotel kitchen & watched the barechested cooks prepare breakfast, taking copious notes as they did so. The kitchen walls had oily muck ingrained into them, & one in particular had a legion of rather big ants moving about. The utensils were quite clean, tho,’ from the old geezer chopping massive amounts of veg on the floor, to the giant pans of the coal ovens. I watched them make the potato stew that I’d been having with my poori – a bready kinda thing – which I’ve grown quite fond of. My trip to the kitchens was then made complete by a portion of said poori & stew, fresh from the pan.

A few minutes later I was catching the bus out of town, the weather finally settling into pure, sunny skies after weeks of monsoon chaos. The bus began to trundle south through a gorgeous watery landscape; those flowering lotus pools, endless rivers, canals & rivulets that form the Carvery delta. The vegetation of this hill-less plain was lush, a tropical blending of palm trees, coconut boles & European style trees. First port of call, about 50 k to the south, was the idyllic little town of Tranquebar. After the bus dropped me off on the main road I made my entry through an impressive gateway full of the carved regalia of the Danish nation. Tranquebar was the only Danish colony in India, perched by the sea & perfectly poised to access the spices of both India & beyond. The Danes built a very fine settlement, like a mini Pondicherry, which is famous for this German protestant preacher, Bartholomaus Zeigenbalag, who had a number of firsts, including translating the New testament into Tamil & introducing the printing press to India. With my work with the Kural I kinda felt a connection with him as I stood over his gold gilded tomb on the floor of the local church.

Tranquebar a very cool fort. While waiting for it to open, I entertained myself with a game of cricket on the hard, flat ground outside the fort that was formerly used for military parades. It was a great game, a five-a-side affair, where I all the smaller lads went on my team. I was made captain & on losing the toss was asked to bowl. It was a five-over innings, with every player getting a bowl. Moving my fielders about like Napoleon we managed to get them all out in the 4th over – setting a score of 25 to win. As I didn’t bowl, I opted to open the batting, & come the last over we were 21 / 2. I’d scored a few good hits & slid half way down the track on one occasion to avoid a run out (luckily there was no instant replay). Three balls into the last over I hit the winning runs & me & the young uns were crowned the inaugural champs of the Damo-Tranquebar cup. An hour later, after the cursory look round the antiquities of the fort’s museum, I left town, getting a round of applause from the kids as I did so!

Waiting at the bus stop I saw a quite disgusting sight. This manky bearded beggar, with eyes as big as saucers, was led horizontal, his hands down his crotch & a literally foot long, inch-thick column of green snot hanging from his left nostril. The bus came & took me to Kumbakonam – where I am still – an hour-long journey made interesting by one of the Thirukural on a plaque at the front of the bus. It kinda re-affirmed my decision to poeslate the kural in the land of their birth. I could have technically done it at home, but I would never get on the X6 Dunbar-Edinburgh route & have Thiruvallavar staring down at me telling me to hurry up & get the fucker finished.

En route, I grabbed some roadside coconuts from a seller. The coconuts here are wicked things – a geezer cracks open the top, gives you a straw & you suck up the fresh, cool, healthy juice. The edible insides have a texture rather like the woman’s quimmy, & just like the quimmy are very difficult to get at. The Indians resort to a sharp knife & some shocking violence.

Kumbakoram is a nice enough place, a bit of a temple town, with its 12 Gopuras (temple gates) rising above the rooftops. These are very softly painted – half-way between the pure white of Thiruvanamali & the intricate artistry of Chidambaram gopuras. The rest of the town, carved in half by the river Carvery, is full of hospitals & one wicked bright-pink Catholic cathedral, testament to the multi-layered religions that make up the bedrock of Indian faith. I’ve spent the last couple of days here, watching the footy & typing up mi kural. The plan is to get to Rameshwaram on xmas eve, & this morning I bought a ticket from Trichy (100 k away) leaving tomorrow night. Let me just explain the state of play at the moment;

After queuing up for an hour, I was given a ‘waiting list’ confirmation ticket which I had to ratify with the station manager – who wasn’t around yet. Apparently every train has its ‘foreign’ quota & this needed to be checked out. Another 3 hours of to-ing & froing between the station & my hotel, to the constant chime of ‘wait ten minutes’ there was still no sign of the station manager. Then someone had the bright idea of getting me on the ’emergency quota’ list, which every train has. This (eventually) led me to being given a fax number, on which I waited at the front desk again for another half an hour before being told I had to use the fax outside the station. Or I could ‘wait ten minutes’ & the station manager might come. That was the last straw & I swiftly fucked off into the sunshine. Apparently the station-manager will be there after 5… but I’m not holding my breath.


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