I am going to attempt to relate the rest of our trip in Chennai, Mumbai and Amsterdam before too much time passes, and memories fade and wither, or distort into things beautiful or horrible, that never occurred.
Here is the installment about our visit to Chennai.
WARNING : SELECT USE OF ANGLO-SAXON WORDS TO FOLLOW
The bus journey from Pondicherry to Chennai was stressful and discomfiting. When we boarded the bus at the Pondicherry bus stand it was largely empty. Because of the size and bulk of our luggage, we asked if we could have it stored in the luggage rack on top of the bus, but were told that was not an option, even though the rack was entirely empty. The overhead storage rack inside the bus was too slim to fit our suitcase and backpack, so we set them in the two seats in front of us. The ticket man on the bus wasn’t happy with this situation. We offered to pay for four tickets, since we were using four seats, and he accepted this, but he still warned us that this was a “public problem.” We had needed four seats on the bus ride to Pondi, and were never asked to pay any extra, so I was curious to see what the nature of this “public problem” was going to be on the return trip.
A few stops after we left Pondicherry the bus filled up until people were standing in the aisle, staring intently at the seats taken up by our luggage. Concerned (and seated) passengers in the back of the bus began complaining in Tamil to the ticket man about our luggage, seeing as it was keeping their fellow countrymen and women from being able to sit. He replied in Tamil that we had paid for all four seats, and that quieted the seated passengers, but those standing seemed no more happy about their fate. I felt awful. We needed to get to Chennai, we had a lot of luggage, they wouldn’t let us store it above or below, and I didn’t even have room for my knees in the narrow space between seats, much less large luggage. Storing the luggage in the seats was the only option, but seeing the weary gazes of the standing passengers, how could I feel good about this situation? Because I had money to buy a seat for an inanimate object, did that mean that a suitcase was worth more than a person? I avoided the eyes of the many standing passengers for four hours, sensing them piercing into me despite my avoidance of their reproachful gaze. Eventually one standing man couldn’t take it any more, and he manuevered himself underneath the fifty-pound suitcase which he balanced on his lap, sharing the seat with our bloated American baggage.
When we got to Chennai and exited the bus we were immediately faced with the task of talking the autowallahs down hundreds of rupees from the fare they wanted to take us to our hotel. It was our own fault, as we realized eventually there was a prepaid taxi stand at the bus station, but it somehow seemed like more work, so after Anjali started walking to the prepaid stand as a bluff, we managed to get the auto wallahs to agree to a fare below their previous last and final offer, and we were off to the guest house. I realized we were still getting ripped off, or they wouldn’t have been so eager to take us. As we careened through back roads (practically alleys) in an attempt to avoid traffic, Anjali noticed and complained about how the area of the city we were passing through *smelled like shit.” As I stewed over being ripped off by auto wallahs, I wondered if I was experiencing major-Indian-city burnout. The passing scenery looked so familiar I imagined I could be in Delhi. Would I be able to differentiate Chennai from all the other Indian cities we had visited, I wondered.
After arriving at the Paradise Guest House I questioned the front desk person as to what sort of fare we should have paid, and learned that we had only paid the maximum acceptable fare. Not too bad for first-timers. After getting settled in our room, our first order of business was to eat at the Hotel Saravana Bhavan (Restaurants in Tamil Nadu are called Hotels for some reason.) chain, which we proceeded to do several more times in the few days we were in Chennai. I especially liked their rava masala dosas and the mint chutney with a real chili kick. Their special ladoo and mixed fruit ladoos were unbelievable. Their special ladoo is like eating a mouthful of fragrant cardamom. We also ate at one of the Vasanta Bhavan locations and my mysore masa dosa was filled with the biggest log of ghee-dripping potato curry I’ve ever seen, slathered in fresh diced onions and served with a fiery coconut chutney.
Our hotel room bathroom had openings to the outside and there were similar openings between our room and the hallway. There was no mosquito net provided as we had used in our thatched-roof hut in Virupapuraggada, so we slathered ourselves in mosquito repellent, lit mosquito coils, and prayed we wouldn’t get bit by a malarial mosquito. I woke up in the middle of the night with the burning sensation that I had been bitten. I felt soundless things bite me on several places of my body, until I was covered with clusters of stinging welts. I couldn’t sleep in my miserable condition and four separate times I had to relight the mosquito coil after discovering that it had gone out. I was awakened early by loud noise in the hallway, and the next morning Anjali was kept awake by the strong smell of tobacco in the hallway and the noise of the smokers. We upgraded to an AC room despite never even turning on the AC just to have a sealed room where we knew that once we killed everything living in it we wouldn’t face more critters in the night.
My major goal in Chennai was to find a source for Kollywood (Tamil) soundtracks (as if the fifty or so I bought in Pondicherry weren’t enough). Not having any leads, one morning I hired an autowallah to take us to any place with a large selection of CDs. He took us to a line of street stalls selling bootlegged CDs and DVDs (Say no to bootlegs!). Slumdog Millionaire hadn’t even opened in India yet, but they had plenty of bootleg copies of the DVD. Jet Li and Jackie Chan bootlegs were very popular, with many movies compressed onto a single disc. Eventually we discovered Spencer Plaza, just down the road from our guest house. Spencer Plaza has over 1,000,000 square feet of stores, many no wider than a man is tall, crowded along labyrinthine alleys, as if the mall was attempting to recreate the feel of an ancient bazaar. There were endless Kashmiri emporiums, where at the whiff of an American they would begin asking, “Shawls, Madam, shawls?” This was so predictable and repetitive, occurring over and over every mall alley we walked down, that it seemed as if Americans must buy nothing but shawls when they come to India. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “It’s 90 fucking degrees out there, it’s humid as hell, my shirt is soaked in sweat, why the fuck would I want to buy a shawl?”
What baffled everyone is that I wanted to buy Kollywood soundtracks, which I did, nearly a hundred. The two stores I found with significant CD selections had movie soundtracks from the last few months, and then lots from the sixties and seventies, but nothing in between. I asked an employee why that was, and he said, “Lull period.” My favorite discovery so far is the percussion orgy “Hey Rama Rama” from the Villu soundtrack, but what we heard played everywhere was the hard rocking first track from the Vaaranam Aayiram soundtrack. Metal and hard rock are incredibly popular all over India, and film soundtracks are borrowing from these idioms more and more.
In Chennai we spent time in Higginbotham’s bookstore, which one of the employees claimed was the oldest bookstore in Asia, dating to the mid-1800s. She was quite bitter about the ignorant management, as they wanted literature shelved either by publisher or author’s first name, and she was a lone fighter in the battle insisting that the books must be shelved under author’s last name. She had worked at a Barnes and Noble in midtown New York, attended one of their book selling schools, and idolized the company and its owner Leonard Riggio. Whenever we attempted to talk to her about Powell’s Books she steered the conversation back to Barnes and Noble. Barnes and Noble was book selling heaven from her vantage point as a scorned and unappreciated worker at Higginbotham’s. She really wanted our feedback on the store and shared her lesser-known favorites from the Indian literature section. Her sister-in-law is the cookbook writer Viji Varadarajan, and she proudly showed off her series of cookbooks. I decided to buy them all, as they were on specialty cuisines of South India that I doubt I could find much information on back in the States.
I got the most amazing beard trim while we were in Chennai. I normally do my own problematic trimming with an electric razor, but I got the first professional scissor beard trim of my life in a barbershop off Road No. 1 in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad -for less than fifty cents- and once I had experienced that luxury, I wanted another. Getting a trim became more urgent since the crappy clipper I took to India was so nonfunctional I actually tossed it in the trash. We visited the cushy, upscale Park Sheraton Hotel, and took the elevator up to their luxury salon where a fastidious young boy gave me a very thorough trim and a back-of-the-neck cleanup for five dollars. In America I can’t imagine going into an upscale hotel and visiting their salon, but in India I knew that even an expensive salon bill from a luxury salon wasn’t going to break the bank.
In India you can spend as little or much as you want for a good or service. The same bottle of mineral water is thirty cents on the street, fifty cents in some restaurants, one dollar fifty in others, or at the high-end Dakshin South Indian restaurant which is also in the Park Sheraton Hotel, almost four dollars. The exact same bottle and brand of water. Anjali and I lived on fresh lime sodas in India, and you can pay as little as twenty cents or as much as two dollars, all depending on your surroundings.
Definitely eat at Dakshin in the Park Sheraton while you are in Chennai, which is well worth paying for the food and the surroundings. The menu is divided up by Southern Indian states, with a tantalizing selection of specialies on offer from each. I had some of the best okra of my life, and the best fish curry I had in India, both from the page of Andhra specialties. There was a trio of South Indian classical musicians playing along with the meal while we dined and our waiter Pravin is now one of our favorites in India. Just don’t fill up on the complimentary fried cispies before your meal arrives and watch out for that water bill!
Chennai is on the Bay of Bengal, and Marina beach, which was a few blocks from our hotel, is 12km long, the second longest city beach in the world after Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California. The beach is wider than most beaches are long, and it felt like we walked forever before we reached the filthy water. The widest stretch of the beach is 473 meters. The beach is filled with garbage decorating every inch of the sand. While we were in Chennai a group of students had a clean up of nearby Elliots Beach to protect the nesting ground of rare sea turtles. (We ourselves passed a giant dead sea turtle stranded on Marina Beach.) According to the Chennai Express, “The amount of waste collected by the group was roughly 100 kgs across a stretch of 30 ms of the beach.” That gives you some idea of how much garbage litters these beaches. However, the beach is not just covered in garbage, but also lots and lots of food stalls, many selling incredibly tasty-looking spice-encrusted fried fish, that we unfortunately didn’t try.
Our first night in Chennai Anjali was eager to see the beach, but as we walked towards it from our hotel we had to fight against a tide of thousands moving away from the beach. We made it to the promenade, and saw a band taking down after a concert they had just performed on a bandstand. As we tried to move closer to the beach we were ordered away by a line of policemen and women wielding nightsticks who were telling everyone to go home. It was a Pongal celebration, but not allowed to go too late, apparently. Our next visit several days later we reached the beach for a leisurely sunset stroll, where Anjali got cheap henna applied to her hands by a sweet old man that proceeded to rub off on everything she touched.
One evening we spent time with relatives of the Portland area Bharatanatyam dancer and instructor Sivagami Vanka, the founder of the Kalabharathi School of Dance in Portland. Our documentarian friend Alissa put us in touch with our gracious hosts over email, and we were honored to be welcomed into the home of Sivagami Vanka’s very gracious parents, “The Doctors,” for that is what they both are, retired as they may be. Shivagami Vanka’s sister Geetha was kind of enough to give us a tour of the nearby Kapaleeshwarar temple, dedicated to a form of Shiva and a form of his consort Parvati called Karpagambal. The forty-meter high gopuram of the temple is lit up with a giant neon sign affixed to its front at night. This is something I learned from seeing many churches, mosques and temples at night: Indian places of worship fully embrace neon.
Having Geetha tour us around the temple was a special treat, as she was able to explain a lot about the form and function of a Hindu temple that we would never know from just wandering around and admiring the construction. She had us perambulate a certain temple structure in such a way so as not to catch the attention of Shani (Saturn) an ornery god. On our way from the temple we were fortunate enough to run into a procession on its way to the temple. This was a smaller version of the therotsavam procession that occurs during the Spring Panguni Peruvizha festival, where idols of Kapaleashwarar and Karpagambal are paraded around on a giant chariot. We didn’t see the giant chariot, just the storage warehouse built to hold it which is the size of a grain silo.
Geetha and her husband were kind enough to feed us a meal of home-cooked dosas served with curds, gunpowder sauce (yes!) mixed with sesame oil, and the flavorful buttermilk concoction called Mor Kuzhambu. The family adhered to the traditional Indian practice of serving the man first, and allowing the women to eat only after he is full. This meant that I quickly finished my serving as I felt bad about making Anjali wait to eat while I savored the feast. For the dessert we were served homemade Payasam, South Indian rice pudding made with coconut milk.
A friend of Anjali’s had asked her to buy her some gold bangles, so one evening we caught an auto to a multi-leveled beacon of white and gold shining in the night and recommended by an Aunty railway officer over the places Anjali researched online, which apparently offered inferior goods of questionable quality. When you have the option, always take the knowledgeable and trustworthy local’s advice over anything online or in a book. We were ushered around the store by a couple of the many male attendants in matching suits and women in matching saris there to assist all customers. After looking at several sets of bangles and doing cellphone calculator conversion math I soon realized that the cheapest, thinnest, lightest whisper of a band of gold was going to be almost two hundred and fifty US dollars for a single bangle, which was more than the friend’s entire budget. The attendants were very friendly, asking us if we needed assistance in hailing a cab or an auto as we beat a hasty exit.
One thing that stood out in Chennai and really defined our experience, was how ripped off we were by the auto wallahs, who would charge us a 500% markup to take us somewhere. Yes, getting ripped off by auto wallahs is a fact of life for tourists in India, and we got ripped off in every city we visited, but Chennai really stood out for how much we got ripped off every time we needed to catch a ride somewhere. By the end of our three days in Chennai, we had enough of a lay of the land that we actually walked all the places for which we had been previously grossly overcharged for brief auto rides. The guide books warn what a hassle the auto wallahs in Chennai are, and warn of auto wallahs doubling the fare after you are already in the rickshaw, which only happed to us once. We had the hardest time getting a reasonable fare to a nearby destination, and when we finally found an auto wallah to agree to our price, he doubles it as we are driving off. I terrify him by leaning out the side of the rickshaw and attempting to jump, which causes him to quickly brake, at which point I do jump out. Despite the guy being a con artist thief, I still give him 10 rupees for the one block ride since Susan, our host in Delhi, had described a situation where she refused to pay a driver and he followed her around a neighborhood, yelling, cursing, attempting to turn the whole neighborhood against her and make her life hell, so I figured 10 rupees wasn’t much to pay if it meant that this guy would leave us alone after we exited, which he did.
However, as ripped off as we were, nothing prepared us for our taxi ride from the Mumbai domestic airport to our Hotel on Marine Drive. . .
TO BE CONTINUED