Category Archives: Thirukural

THIRUKURAL (2008-09)

EPISTLE IV

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Thirukural

November 2008- February 2009

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I – Return to the Raj
II – Bollywooder
III – Paradise Beach
IV – Tamillian
V – Indiana Byron
VI – Aranuchala
VII – The Deccan Mujahadeen
VIII – Caught Between Cyclones
IX – Half Way
X – Fookin’ Terrorists
XI – Tashil Nadu
XII – Crossing the Karveri Delta
XIII – The Karma of the Kural
XIV Nalatiyar
XV – Planes, Lakes, Peaks
XVI – About Fookin’ Time
XVII – Poi Tu Varen
XVIII – Sun, Sea, Sand, & Fookin’ Aboot on Bikes
XIX – Gokarna to Goa
XX – Bombay to Burnley

 

 

 

 

I: Return to the Raj

I don’t seem to be having much look with the flights at the moment. I’ve finally hit Mumbai, but did so via the city of Amsterdam thanks to some divine intervention from Him-on-High. After buying a ridiculously cheap ticket to India (less than £250 return), I took a train all the way up to Birmingham, pulling into England’s second city at 5.30 PM. From there, I jumped another train toward Birmingham International, but got off a couple of stops early so I could sharpen up for Bombay. Above me, the planes were beginning their ascent, & all about lay hooded gangs with dodgy accents. I walked a few miles, through the pleasant suburbs of Marston Green, before reaching the airport with ten hours to spare. To kill time I found a nearby hotel, reached via the megalithic NEC centre. There wasn’t a show on, so I found myself wandering through its cavernous interior like Jonah in the belly of the Whale. At the hotel I sat down with a couple of pints; watched the Birmingham / Coventry match – very apt – before mooching back to the airport & settling down for the night on a comfy Burger-King seat.

Come morning, me & my fellow passengers were led onto the plane at 6AM, only to be told Amsterdam was full of fog & the plane had been delayed. During this time I reflected on how well my new ‘e’ passport worked; it is a veritable breeze at check-in, all computerized, & that… I’d basically been using a dodgy passport for ten years – no more nerves anymore every time I pass through passport control.

After 4 hours on the tarmac we finally set off, soaring through the dull mists into the bright, amber sunshine of the lower heavens, before descending back into the thick fog which blanketed Holland. At this point, the pilot told us we would be landing blind, a first time for me and a little nerve-wracking. Anyhow, we landed safely, only to be placed in a queue for a new set of tickets… this has turned out to be a flight to London at 7, followed by a nonstop flight to Bombay, getting there at 11am tomorrow. I don’t mind really, cos it avoids late night crooks fleecing me in Bombay and I also get a chance to wander the canals and coffeshops, plus do a spot of window shopping down the Red Light district.

I decided to jump trains in & out of Schiphol airport, the yellow & blue double-deckers a nightmare for jumping – you have four different directions the conductors can come. I performed the train-jump perfectly of course, & was soon monorailing through the fog, over countless parked-up bicycles & anonymous suburbs, into the heart of Holland itself. I spent a pleasant couple of hours in the city centre, the sun a pale, white disc through the fog, lending a surreal glow to the proceedings. The Red Light district was just warming up for the afternoon trade; a handful of pimps, dealers & various miscreants slouching about, plus one ‘sex’ window in ten containing mainly Eastern European ladies entertaining a trickle of punters. Not me, though, & I just coffee’d & reefer’d it til the train-jump back to the airport. It was my last chance to cash in my complimentary tickets from KLM for the messy flight & so I had a huge steak dinner.

Getting out of Amsterdam was gorgeous, my plane at first slowly wheeling for ages through the mist, over motorways & canals; while other planes moved about like ghostly blimps as one-by-one we got ready to take off. Those in front did so with a huge roar & were soon just a tail-light twinkling as it faded into the fog. Finally it was our turn, & with a rush of power we were launched heavingly into the air. An hour later I was landing at Heathrow, marked out from the sky by the huge glasshouse terminal that glows with effervescent light. I then had to rush through London Heathrow to make my connection, picking up a copy of Viz en route (an unexpected bonus) & all of a sudden found myself surrounded by Indians! We were all catching a Jet Airways plane to Mumbai, which turned out to be an excellent experience – comfy as fuck, tasty food, good movies & a host of freebies – of which the toothpaste, blanket, socks, eye-coverers & comfy pillow will be accompanying me on my tour.

Ten hours later I finally made it to India, crazy fuckin’ country that it is! On arrival I immediately deflected an attempt at the pre-paid taxi rank to rip me off (short changed). I shared the taxi with an innocent Aussie, & as we hurtled through the epic sprawl of Mumbai I passed on some of the wisdom I’d received when arriving green-gilled a few years back. I mean, Mumbai is huge, about 25 million souls rushing around its virtually identical roads. We felt like a couple of white blood-cells (the tan hasn’t kicked in yet) surging around the arteries of a phantastic Chimera of the days of legend.

In the center of town, & with my lecture over, me & the Ozzie booked into the Salvation Army hostel & proceeded to go for a walk. My first target was the Britannia-topped, Empire-kitsch wonder that is the Victoria Train Station. I bought a ticket for Goa departing the next morning, wanting to get out of the crazy days as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, tomorrow morning I have to head across town on the rail network – the busiest in the world – in fact half of all India’s trains come in & out of Mumbai, with  people clinging to every spare bit of atom, hanging off the roof & sides –  I guess it’s gonna be fun.

On the way back to base, I visited the Asiatic Society’s Library. A splendid old white building which still uses cards to catalogue its books. It is also full of greaco-roman lifesize marble statues of not very famous Britons who’d been involved in the Empire. It reminded me that India is a land of opportunity for any Tom, Dick or Harry. Well, with a little will & hard work I can get these kural translated & maybe create a paper statue to my own literary efforts.

Mumbai
5-11-08

 

II: Bollywooder

After writing my last emails, I was just about to chill out for the night, y’know, catching up on some sleep, jet-lagged to fuck, when after an evening meal I was approached by this fifty-year-old English reprobate, all long hair, criminal-slouch & drug-abuse-strained drawl, who goes ‘do you wanna be an extra in a Bollywood movie.’ Of course I said yes – I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t – & soon found myself on a bus with about twenty other young travelers spinning through Mumbai. At first I thought it was like Nightmare on Elm Street 2, or Jeepers Creepers 2, & we’d all get slaughtered – but before long we were at this old English school, eating some wicked food & dressing up into Edwardian costume. The women looked especially wicked, it’s a total shame they don’t do it any more – apparently the silk armgloves itched & they were murder to get into. Anyway, the shoot took about six hours & we got paid 500 rupees to do it! All we had to do was sit in a big hall & be an audience. The film will be at next year’s Cannes festival & goes by the name of HARISHCHANDRACHI FACTORY. Its subject is the first ever Indian filmmaker – Dadsaheb Phalke – who took his film to England… & we were the claphappy audience!

After about three hours’ kip I was back on the road, jumping the morning commuter trains out of VT station. My journey was relatively peaceful, but what the grand tide of humanity passing by me in the other direction was mental – Indian office workers taking up every inch of room on the trains, inside & OUT! Crazy days! On the outskirts of Bombay I had to change for the Goa train, & met a Canadian who was going south too. We spent a couple of hours in the vicinity, chilling in a temple while swapping books & literary anecdotes. He’s called Danny, a nice guy who looks a bit like Jim Morrison & was brought up in India at an expat school. Apparently the weed back then had been laced with opium, which helps to explain the otherworldliness in his ambience.

The Goa train came in & Danny took 2nd class sleeper while I took a first class carriage for about a tenner (lessons learnt from previous visits). The journey was pretty nice actually, about 12 hours of air-conditioned sleeper carriage punctuated by hand delivered hot meals, watching the monsoon-fresh greenery of middle India pass me by. I was sat with these Catholic Indians; a violin player named Errol, his lovely wife & their eighteen year old daughter who kept giving me the eye. They were fans of Alexander McCall Smith & were amazed when I told them that I used to live on Scotland Street… but were disappointed to discover there was no number 44.

En route to Goa, Danny decided he wanted to come with me for a couple of days, so we both found ourselves in Benaulim (by the sea) at about midnight. Unfortunately, all the hotels were shut, so we ended up squatting a half-built villa for the night. A nearby guard dog had seen us & proceeded to bark its head off for about an hour & half – the last thing you need when you hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep for four nights. On waking up, the dog turned out to be a tiny thing (with big lungs) so we decided not to exterminate it with a firm kick to the cranium. Instead we found a wicked cottage right on the beach (I step out onto sand), watching speedboats whizz people in parachutes high over the Arabian Sea. The weather’s great – night & day – about 32 degrees in the mid-day sun, & thanks to a hairdryer/sirocco-like breeze blowing in from Arabia, about 25 at night! Benaulim beach is part of a long stretch of white sand as far as the eye can see. There are about twenty-five bamboo-built, thatch-roofed restaurants spread out in a line, each slightly different in character. At one we watched the sunset with this astrologer genius from Manchester – we got on apparently because we were the three air signs (Aquarius, Gemini & Libra). At another we chilled out with the ‘cool’ set of Goa & at another – the Hard Rock Café – I got out my mp3 player & did about 9 disco numbers before getting booted off – a new record!

Benaulim

7-11-08

III: Paradise Beach

There is something extra special about walking along an Indian beach in the early morning, the sun just hotting up as the waves roll sexily in to shore, safe in the knowledge that Burnley beat Chelsea on penalties at Stamford Bridge in the cup last night – Asian euphoria at its very best.

I’m currently in Gokarna, a place in the next state on from Goa & just as lovely – tho’ I don’t think anything can beat the textbook beach idyll back in Palolem. That place was gorgeous – much nicer than Benaulim – a mile-long curve of sand with coconut boles hanging over the restaurant-packed beach. It had a bit of a night-life, & after blagging another disco (for several hours this time) I bumped into a lesbian bird called Fee. She heralds from Todmorden, a town just 10 miles from Burnley. ‘I’m off to Gokarna,’ I said. ‘You’re coming with me!’ she said.

After a day spent razzing about on a moped to a distinctly dodgy Goan fort, I jumped in a taxi with Fee & headed south. A couple of hours later we hit Gokarna island, took a sneaky road & I suddenly found myself at the eponymously titled Paradise Beach. What a touch. Fee’s a regular here… everyone knows her & as her ‘friend’ I’m getting good prices on the weed / illegal beer & my room (one pound). This is a beach hut, with the floor & bed carved from rock (mattress on top) all covered by rushmat roof & walls – its wicked & only ten meters from the sea. Fee has slung her hammock up right outside (for free), & we’ve put rugs & plants around making it into a little villa. the restaurant is literally 5 seconds away, where I am currently building up a tab – as I am at several other places along the beach.

Rock-gouged, sandswept Paradise Beach is at the end of a long chain of beaches which are travelled to by either clifftop walks or boats. Inbetween are rocky headlands – great for scrambling – & many a restaurant to grab some shade & drink a lassi. On the walk into Hindu-heavy Gokarna town I bumped into an English guy with a guitar, & told him about our little slice of Paradise. Currently there’s an English lass staying in the beach hut that lady-of-the-manor-like overlooks our own private part of Paradise, & she & Fee have begun to waffle on incessantly. Hopefully the guitar-chap will bob along to paradise as well, where I’m hoping to stay awhile & recreate a little of the colonial Raj – a little England if you will.

Gokarna
13-11-08

IV: Tamillian

I’ve finally made it to Tamil Nadu. Seven years ago I picked up this book of sayings called THIRUKKURAL, written by the Tamil saint, Thirruvalavar. Since first flicking through the book in an opium induced haze in a dodgy Madurai hotel, I have always intended to to render a poetic English version. So, here I am, finally starting to do it all on a hotel balcony overlooking the main chaotic drag of Thiruvanamalai. Below me there are tarmac layers vying for road space with rickshaw on rickshaw as the gridlock inches closer & closer to wherever the fuck it’s going.

Yesterday morning I was still in Gokarna. I’d spent a whole week in ‘Paradise,’ but I reckon the brain begins to turn to jelly after too much bumming about on the beach. It was well wicked though, boating from beach to beach & eating some fine cuisine in the the wave-lapped restaurants. The forests above the coast were also lovely, & I saw my first ever Kokava’s… crazy white heron-type birds that follow their chosen cow/buffalo everywhere, nibbling on the insects that nibble on the cows. Here, both bird & beast come across as a perfectly happily married couple.

Leaving Gokarna involved catching a sleeper bus to Bangalore – an overnight journey of 12 hours that tossed me into the air every time we hit a bump – even the bottle of whiskey & two valiums couldn’t keep me asleep. This was cool, though, as it let me watch our entrance to Bangalore. Honestly, I’ve never seen so many trucks, lining the roads for about 3 miles on the western approaches to the city. I got dropped off into the heart of Bangalore at rush hour (about 8am), where many a western clad youth was hurrying off to their call centre work. Bangalore is the principle centre for telecommunications in India, nick-named the notorious ‘Silicon Valley’ – & odds on when you get an Indian callworker in Britain they’ll be based here.

I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I managed to find a bus out of there… there were several bus stations & about a million buses to choose from, with mine sweeping me over the state border & into Tamil Nadu. So far, TN seems to consist of a verdant flat plateau, interspersed with solitary bouldery peaks – remnants of ancyent volcanoes. One of these pointy rocks is the Annamalai hill, beneath which Thiruvannamalai nestles. It is a very holy place & its temple is huge. I’ve booked into a cool hotel (Hotel Ganesh) for a week or so – taking a single room for 125 rupees (1 pound fifty). Downstairs is a restaurant where I get my Thali (a mixture of dishes) served on a giant banana tree leaf. Makes sense really, perfectly bio-degradable. The hotel owner has also agreed to help me with my translations of Thirukural – it’s basically the Tamil Bible – & the reception on mi telly is wicked for the weekend’s footy. I think staying in a madcap town off the traveler’s trail is gonna be a nice way to get used to Tamil culture, seeing as I’m kinda stuck here now for the winter translating this obscure fuckin’ poem.

Thiruvannamalai
18 – 11 – 08

V: Indiana Byron

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.

Thiruvanamali
22 – 11 – 08

VI: Aranuchala

That spot of rain I was talking about last time turned out to be the annual monsoon – apparently they get it later in the years this far south – it’s been proper pelting it down! This rain then apparently drives all the snakes indoors – including cobras. Luckily I’m on the top floor.

The other day I decided to climb Arunchala, the extremely sacred mountain which overlooks Thiruvanamalai. Waking at six, I caught Glenda with a quick STD (they are the international phones), her slightly slurred voice telling me she was still up & drinking (surprise) at one in the morning Scots time. My ascent then began in light drizzle, which follow’d a series of arrows & religious graffiti painted on the scattered boulders, all pointing upwards. As I climbed, the view of the town & surrounding area began to increase. Thiruvannamalai is not as big as I thought, & shaped like a dolphin’s fin protruding from the southern flank of the sacred peak. Beyond it lies a flat, nameless plain – very green – with a range of hills about 10 miles away or so. Their proximity, & the fact that the crazy town streets quickly fade into verdant champaign re-inspired me to get a bike & go cruising.

After about an hour I reached the summit – a pleasant sensation made even more so by an encounter with the local guru. He is 30 – an orphan – & has been living in a shack just off the summit for ten years – 10 fuckin years meditating & shit. He’s the guy who’s painted all the graffiti – including one funny one indeed… his own fuckin’ website. Talk about 21st century asceticism. He even has a mobile phone – no reception on the top of the mountain however – but I’ve got his number if I ever need to meditate with him. He was a nice guy & gave me a glass of chi & taught me a little Tamil. If I make it back up I’ve promised to bring him some tea & brown sugar.

The descent was delightful, passing through a little corner of the world that the gods promised the Dragonflies. After musing on the possibility of anyone being eaten alive by dragonflies, & coming to the conclusion that they properly hadn’t, I paused for a while. About a hundred of them were buzzing around me, with some of the braver ones coming almost to my nose & hovering with their four delicate wings for a few moments, before darting off awhile. Further down the flanks of Arunachala I came across the two caves that Sri Ramana had lived in at the turn of the century. He’d been doing a similar thing to the guy at the top of the mountain, basically meditating for years. I guess that after a while enough people turned up & gave him 50 rupees (like me) for him to steadily improve his living quarters. First he built a house around his original cave – where devotees still sit in silent candlelight to this day – then he moved to another cave higher up the slopes & built a villa around it. His final port of call – for 27 years – was the ashram at the bottom of the hill.

The Sri Ramana Ashram is quite a funny place – full of meditating souls, Asian & Western, with everyone leaving shoes at the door of what is quite a large temple complex. I witnessed quite a spectacle while I was there, sat cross-legged on a marble floor before the shrine where Ramana’s body is buried. A few brahmin – men & boys – were sat down singing with deep intonation some Vedic hymn like the drone of a Miltonic canto. It took the form of a question & answer thing, the acoustics of the room echoing their voices even further, & while they sang a few devotees wailed ceremoniously round the shrine. To me it was rather like a Lenard Cohen single played at 33 rrp. I even joined in for a couple of circuits, the music sending vibrations through my chest – but just before the Stepford Wives & their spiritual tupperware party had persuaded to give my brand new sandals away & move into a cave,  I quickly reclaimed my shoes & fled to the safety of the library across the road.

All this brought up the question of religion for me. The closest I’ve ever been to god was down the ‘Dads & Lads’ night on Fridays down Woodtop Church in Burnley, where after singing a few hymns we were given tea, biscuits & got to play pool. But to the Indian faith & devotion is totally ingrained into the psyche. It was the same for the English not two centuries ago, but modernistic materialism is the new religion now – coinciding with the end of the age of Pisces… Jesus was a fisherman, remember, & the age of Pisces began when he was born. Will India be affected by atheistic modernism. I believe ultimately it will, but the change will take centuries, not the mere decades it took the West to wake up & smell the bullshit. Besides, Christianity was based on fear of the afterlife – Heaven & Hell – while most eastern religions believe in some form of Moshka – the release from the never ending cycle of birth & death. By this reasoning, eventually there will be no one left in the east to believe, because they will all be in Moksha

The few westerners who come to India seeking ‘salvation’ are a funny bunch – but looking at the predominance of middle-aged ex-hippies wandering about the ashram it is my conclusion that most of them took too much acid in their youths. I mean, so did I like, but there’s no need to turn into a thrill-less mind-junkie, lost in your own thoughts & only ever getting laid when its tantric (ie no quickies).

Thiruvanamali
26 – 11 – 08

VII: The Deccan Mujahadeen

Well it’s no use pretending anymore, you’ll all find out my real name soon enough. I am Yawansum Avadabadis, a senior member of the Deccan Mujahadeen who are now gloriously attacking the heart of Tony Blair-loving India. I am currently positioned on the 19th floor of the Trident hotel, Mumbai, writing this on some dead American’s laptop, his Yankee blood curling crimson pools around my feet.  For many years now I have lived in the west, sleeping with your women, drinking your terrible-tasting Tennent’s lager & studying your infidel ways – preparing for the day when we at the Deccan Mujahadeen can strike like a cobra at your dollar-loving, Anglo-Saxon imperialism…

Well, not really, but it’s been pretty cool watching they blanket coverage of the still ongoing terrorist strike against Mumbai. I presume you guys know about it in the UK – mainly for the fact that the English cricket team has cancelled its tour of India – a convenient excuse really as they were 5-0 down in the series. The action started a couple of nights ago, with mentions of a gun battle on the streets of Bombay – the very same ones I was walking three weeks ago. Hour-by-hour the flashpoints escalated over a number of locations, with hotels being taken over, police cars being used by the terrorists to shoot up civilians, petrol stations being blown up, top cops being killed, footage of blood in the streets, all followed by the slow, methodical counter operations of the Indian government. The NSG (National Security Guards) had to make its way thro’ traffic in clapped-out trucks for god’s sake – a far cry from the SAS in 1980. As I left my hotel for a walk, the commandoes  had just commenced their final mopping-up operations, searching for the last couple of young Kalashnikov-toting, grenade-tossing Fedayeen that still stalk the Taj hotel, Mumbai’s greatest landmark.

It is all very 9-11, marking the Obama age with a sanguinary relish, & I wonder if it’s going to affect my stay in India. No-one seems to give a shit about it down here in Tamil Nadu. The papers are more interested in the 50 people that have died from the week-long cyclone that’s been hanging over the state. “Call that rain,” I said to a series of astonished Indians, swaggering through a downpour the other day listening to a bit of disco on my mp3 player, with the arrogance of a Burnley boy who, like Eskimos & snow, knows 500 different names for rain.

Four days on & I wish it would bloody stop. The sight of Indians in umbrellas & dodgy macs, coupled with river-like, sewage-bearing streets doesn’t fit into my sun-kissed winter soiree with the Tamils. They seem happy, though, the ghats are overflowing & the state’s water supply should have enough now to see them through until next summer’s rains. The weather is also keeping me in Thiruvanamalai – the hotel is very dry & the storm-ravaged coast of my next destination doesn’t seem so appealing right now. Unfortunately Aranachala is perpetually swept in cloud, spoiling my view of the sacred mountai. This led to a brief conversation with my Landlord as to getting my money back – or at least get a reduction for the rain. I think he told me to fuck off in Tamil. Talking of which, I’ve learnt about 15 expressions so far – it’s a lovely language & quite accessible.

To finish, here’s a flurry of numbers

Days without smoking – 9
Days without alcohol – 11
Today’s sit ups – 42
Today’s press ups – 21
Kural completed – 410
Kural to do – 920
Days down in India – 23
Days to go – 83

Thiruvanamalai
28-11-08

VIII: Caught Between Cyclones

I have finally left Thiruvanamalai. For a week I was caught between two cyclones – The Operation Cyclone that the NSG called their anti-terrorist actions in Mumbai, & Cyclone Nisha that has been ravaging Tamil Nadu. In the last couple of days the rains finally ceased & now I am in Mamallapuram, next to the choppy waters of Bay of Bengal. It was definitely time to leave the old temple town, especially as my room was progressively turning black with damp. One morning I woke up to find fungus everywhere – my hat, my bag, some clothes & even my chess pieces all had a furry look & feel.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best room in the world after all. On one occasion I was in my mosquito net chilling out, when I felt a wee tickle. It turned out to be an ant, which I casually flicked away. Then putting my feet under the covers I touched something weird, turning out to be a few hundred ants chomping on a bit of banana which had previously stuck to my foot & came off in the bed. I found this quite a disturbing experience, which resulted in me flailing around like a madman & vigorously shaking sheets & mattress onto the street below.

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One of the most interesting sights in my last few days at Thiruvanamali was a circus-like spectacle of an eight-year-old girl balancing on a rope about my head high. While her dad sold popcorn; her mum knocked out some funky rhythms on a metal pan; & her older brother did the bass on a djembe, her legs wiggled wiggled left & right like a supersonic pendulum. Then, she did all that again, but this time balancing a pot on her head!

I have also been to the movies – situated in a fine building – to watch Death Race dubbed in Tamil. It was quite cool actually, for dialogue wasn’t really an essential pillar of the movie. There was also an old-fashioned interval, when the audience of 100 percent males dived for the samosas being sold by a couple of cheeky kids.

I have finally visited the famous temple that I’ve been walking past several times a day for two weeks. It begins with leaving one’s shoes at a little shack just outside for two rupees, then wading through several decrepit beggars & a police electronic bomb detector unit just to get inside. On the way in, a very cheeky monkey came & stole some food from a toddler’s hand, whose pathetic cries accompanied me inside the sacred space. Aranachaleswaram temple is a fine affair, consisting of 3 concentric rectangles leading to the inner temple at the heart of the complex. The inner courtyards are entered through similar gates to the main ones – n, s, e, w – gleaming white majestic edifices with the entire Hindu pantheon poised in many poses.

Deeper into the temple I saw my first elephant of the tour, which turned out to be the ultimate penny arcade machine. After being hypnotised by the gentle pacing, left & right, of his two massive front legs… I placed a rupee in his trunk. The elephant than patted me on the head with said trunk & gave the now mucus-dripping rupee to his trainer. Better still was watching him, ever so politely, use the loo. He took a few steps to one side, separated his back legs & pooed & peed AT THE SAME TIME – a feat we humans can only dream about. This got me looking at his penis – not in a gay way – the outer skin looked just like a big black brain & the ‘nob’ was as polished as an ebony jewel. It was the elephant’s eye which I found the most remarkable; possessing an otherworldly, almost alien aura, & with the loveliest eyelashes in the whole of nature.

On my last day in Thiruvanamali I saw both a lovely sunrise & a soul-searing sunset. In the morning the clouds had finally dispersed, revealing the landscape which I hadn’t seen for a week… all round me mountains peeked out of the milky  distance like nervous children. The sunset was amazing. I had just settled down on the rooftop, listening to my MP3 player & reading a spot of Shakespeare, when just as ‘patience’ by Take That came on, I looked at Arunachala. There is a legend that it was here that the dreadlock’d god Siva produced a lingam of fire – a measureless column – & won the submission of Vishmu & Brahma. Perhaps it was some mythological memory of an ancyent eruption, but I swear down, as the sun was setting the clouds were in just the right place to produce the same effect – a mighty golden column coming out of the mountain. At the very same time there was a wee cloud just big enough to cover the very peak of the mountain, in the same spot where I was blessed in Siva’s name by that Guru. I really did feel it – the mind monkeys had cleared from my mind on that occasion & this time I felt that Siva was saying ‘nice one son’ & wishing me well on my way

The next day, just as I was about to leave, I woke up to the sound of the rain. ‘Not again’ I cursed, wanting to hit the road, but then the rains cleared & Aranachala was revealed in all her glory, a scintillating rainbow arched perfectly from flank to flank. Remarkably, the same wee cloud as yesterday was again at the summit. ‘That Siva’s at it again’ I thought & finally left town. Three buses later, beyond those scattered heaps of boulders that form the regions hills, I was heading towards the coast, passing several large lakes where paddy fields once were – the devastating consequences of the recent rains. Apparently in the state these past couple of weeks there have been landslides, 700 bridges have collapsed, over a hundred dead

Mamallapuram is a bit of a tourist hotspot, with a fine beach & some amazing temples carved out of the rock. It got wiped out by the Tsunami in 2004, but is well back on its feet again. I’m staying in a far-too wicked room for 300 rupees. I’m basically paying 2 pounds fifty more than last time – which was only 1.50 itself –  but now I get a massive marble-floored room, this huge oak table (perfect for writing), a clean double bed, a wicked fan, a big TV with all the channels & a cool balcony overlooking the street – with not a hint of damp or mosquitos anywhere!  Suffice it to say I blagg’d the price down off a naive young guy, who got a proper rollicking off the boss when he found out. (I should be paying at least 500). Negotiating the cheaper price meant buying in bulk, so I’ve been forced to hole up for a week. By the way, I haven’t seen one advent calendar as of yet – the chocolate would probably melt – but I still miss them. I reckon there is a market for traveler-friendly portable advent calendars, with wee little fans to keep the chocolate cool (Dragons Den here I come).

Mamallapuram
2/12/08

IX: Half Way

After a week of doing relatively little up at Mamallapuram beach, I kicked my lazy ass in gear, finished off the potent weed that’s been rendering me nigh comatose for a week & jumped on a bus south. Mamallapuram was right enough; it had a beach, a few restaurants & some wicked temples carved straight out of the rock. I couldn’t help think how voluptuous the female carvings looked – two thousand year old porn! There were also some proper annoying gypsy necklace-sellers, who followed you everywhere, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, & between the whole tribe of them nailed every part of the town. They were very small as well, as were the cows which were half the size of normal – it seemed I had stumbled Lilliput-style on some curious pygmy nation. As for the poem,  for the past week I have been steadily moving through it, passing the halfway point the other day sat underneath a statue of Thiruvallavar that is on the beach. The part of the beach where the statue stands is mainly for Indians. There were plenty of juice & ices guys – about 20 or so – plus fortune tellers, trinket stalls, guys with parrots in boxes & two fine looking horses – a far cry from the scraggly donkeys at Blackpool.

Body language in India is weird. A shake of the head means yes; when a rickshaw driver pulls up next to you & I say what I think is no, they take it as yes & follow me down the road until I’m forced to tell him to fuck off. In the West we turn the palm face down for a shoo-off gesture & face up for a come here. Well, our shoo-off is the Indian come here, so when I find myself with several waiters watching me eat, & tell them to shoo-of, they actually come closer. Trust me, it’s mad as fuck having your every spoonful scrutinized by up to 20 sets of eyes.

Today’s been funny. I started at 6 am, walked the kilometer to the bypass & jumped on a bus to Pondicherry. The weather’s quite erratic. I’d arrived in Mamallapuram just as the last cyclone was finishing, & was leaving just as the next one is brewing. 10 k short of Pondicherry is Auroville, an internationally renowned ashram – a bit like the one in Thiruvanamali – but bigger & with better coke. The sites about 10 k from the highway, which I traversed on foot & then the back of an Austrian’s motorbike. I got to the visitors centre – which was just opening up for the day – had a massive ‘I-don’t-want-to-be-here’ vibe & set off walking back to the highway. Then the heavens broke. After ten minutes of avoiding the torrential rain under a tree I finally found a decent bit of shelter – to ride out the storm & finish off mi weed. Back on the soaking road I was picked up yet again by a Westerner who drove me all the way to Pondicherry. Now Pondy is famous for two things. It has the highest suicide rate in India & is also a former French Colony & connection between the two cannot be ruled out.

So I left Pondicherry… at the mere smell of a cooked garlic clove my toes curl in anger & I begin to shout very loudly – in bad French – at the nearest French person, or even a Dutch or Spaniard if I’m drunk. Two hours later I bobbled into busy Chidambaram. Last week it was still underwater after the cyclone hit, but it has recently resurfaced & looks much the cleaner for it. On the outskirts of town is the Annamalai University – or the centre of Tamil studies. Todays a holiday, so I’m not sure yet, but a professor there assures me that I can stay on campus & finish off the mural using the University’s library & computers. In the interim I’ve had to head back into town, hole up in a pretty shitty room for the night & wait for the morning, when I’ll be going back to school!

Chidambaram
9/11/08