Sunday, July 17, 2005

The monsoon cometh.

Rain. Water. Finally, the clouds building up these last two weeks dumped the first of the precious monsoon rains. The heat turned humid, the skies darkened and the heavens opened. The dusty streets became waterways, the downpour creating rivers carrying an endless parade of garbage and detritus. And the water level rose quickly. In the time it took to walk the kilometre from the Madurai train station to a hotel, I was ankle-deep in a turbid chocolate broth. Lovely.

I climbed the steps to the hotel and brought a small water feature with me. My room was depressingly small and dreary; tired as I was, I wanted to visit the much venerated temple of this city.

Madurai is the classic south Indian temple town. The town itself lives and breathes within the walls of the complex. Far removed from the tranquility of Christian and Islamic places of devotion, the Hindu temple is less sanctum sanctorum and more over-populated bazaar. It is pandemonium. In some way, it reminds me of a shopping mall on Saturday afternoon, all colour and movement.

After pondering the significance of a giant aviary full of resplendent noisy green parrots, I admired the small shrine to the left and wondered whether the chrome, gold and silver laminate had been inspired by some bad 70s schlock romance starring Joan Collins.

I peered nervously at the Lotus Pond to my right. In India, any body of water makes me nervous.

[It has to be said. Water in India is a tricky business. The Ganges at Varanasi, holiest among the holy, is a putrefying mélange of fetidness. You meet the odd Westerner who has bathed in it. Why? Clearly these people are desperately seeking credibility within the backpacker scene. Perhaps by wallowing in this quagmire will they obtain the requisite number of points and be admitted to the League of the Cool.

Test your own traveller credibility rating. Take a bucket. Defecate and urinate. Add the remnants of bin juice from the garbage can. Spit and gob several times into the bucket, try to add something large and dead. Rotting vegetables or those cold cuts in the fridge are a good start. Run a bath, add the bucket-concentrate. Mix. Dive in, fully clothed.

If you remain in the bath for longer than five minutes, you are way, way cool. But I still wouldn't admire you. And you'd be pretty unlikely to get a pash from me either]

Anyway, I slid past the lurid green lotus-less Lotus Pond and down a dark corridor. A few people sat worshipping sculptures with couple of extra heads and limbs; one woman was supine before an orange-stained Ganesh. I arrived at what I had come to see - the Thousand Pillared Hall.
The entrance fee was one rupee (I mean, why bother?) I sprang up the steps and stood amazed. The structure is magnificent, there are literally a thousand carved pillars (but you'd expect that from the name), some plain, others alive with gods and demons. The path to the main shrine is stunning, and you can well imagine the power it has over the believer.

However, someone saw fit to install a museum here. Among rows of silent stone columns sits the saddest exhibition of nonsense I've seen for some time. A collection of bronze deities languish in dusty plastic display cabinets; poorly lit scenes illustrate some story in thousands of miniature paintings. It's like trying to watch a movie when the tall guy sitting in front of you won't stop fidgeting. You spend your entire time angling for a better view, but leave a little irritated. Still, the temple is wonderful, and it's only a matter of time before most of the exhibits collapse into a pile.

I walked among the stalls of the temple selling every type of religious artifact. Talismans, beads, offerings for the gods. Everything orange and gold. Sandalwood and incense. But I wouldn't like to be the temple elephant. His keeper called me over for a blessing and an offering. The poor animal. His ears, trunk and forehead are decorated in gaudy floral and organic patterns. Imagine his dismay at the monthly Pachyderm Piss-Up. His mates with proper jobs in the rice fields and jungle would have a field day. Let's face it; you are the Tammy Baker of the elephant world.
I decided to look for a bird's eye view of the complex. Out in the street I entered a Kashmiri Emporium. Never heard of it? The Kashmiri Emporium is to Indian travellers what fried food is to people in the north of England - you want to avoid it, but you are faced with it three times a day. The shop is a vast depot of every imaginable item from the subcontinent. From a half-inch soapstone replica of the Taj Mahal to an original hand carved mahogany folding screen with mother-of-pearl inlay, you can get it here.

It is, quite simply, the nec plus ultra of gift shopping. Backgammon and chess sets, jewellery that would please Ivana Trump, enough bonbonieri for any Greek, Italian or Turk wedding. Need a three hundred square foot Afghan carpet? A life size statue of a dancing Shiva? Tibetan prayer bowls? A pregnancy test kit from some Proto-historic Indus settlement? It's on the shelf. American Express is, naturally, accepted, and your goods arrive home faster than you, via DHL. Possibly in better condition.

I like Kashmiris. They are generally Muslim and [if this sounds racist, it's not meant to], they make a pleasant change from the niggling immaturity of most Hindu males. Muslims, in my opinion, are a more serious people, and I can relate to that. You can have an interesting conversation with them. This particular young Kashmiri, Gavoor, took me up seven flights of steps for a view of the temple. It had started to rain, but Gavoor wanted to talk.
He was twenty three, far too handsome for his own good, but with sad eyes. He was far from home (at least three days on the train), missed his family and girlfriend, and didn't like the dirty Hindu temple and town. He worked every day of the week for twelve hours. And he was going bald.

He seemed sadder still when he learned of my marital status.

'Man is not perfect without woman' [Yep, I'm sensing the flow of this conversation already ...]

'It's OK, really. I quite like my life.'

'I recommend marriage and children.'

'Do you want to get married?'


'Well then.'

'But I have to get married. Man is not perfect without ...'

We had gone full circle and I could feel but little sympathy for him. What is it about kids in their twenties? You look your best, you have few responsibilities, and you worry about a few hairs falling out. I have grey hair and wrinkles. I cannot be empathetic.

I left Gavoor contemplating his weary existence and receding hairline, and promised to return tomorrow to purchase something glittery and in bright colours.

Out in the street I was accosted twice. My first assailant was an inebriated wretch, barely a man. He lunged at me like the Canterbury Bulldogs at the local girls' school sports day. The next ten or so minutes were painful. Sidesh told me many times over that he was a tailor. He reeked; of sweat, of dampness. Yesterday's drink leached from his pores; today's from his breath. It was an unwelcome guided tour in a mist of Johnnie Walker. I eventually made it back to the hotel, spouting outrageous lies. 'Of course I'll come tomorrow and let you make me an outfit'. Don't know why I didn't suggest it earlier. The thought of him measuring my inner leg is too much to bear.

Still, no sooner that repulsing the repulsive, a corpulent figure almost flattened me with his motorcycle.

'Vous etes francais'.

'Non'. [I just look miserable at the moment because I'm over it today]

'Mais alors, tu parles francais'.

A very Louis Bunuel moment. And one of the odder evenings of my life. Within an hour I had visited his travel agency, met his brother, collected his laundry from a neighbouring shop while he padlocked the office, and sat in a restaurant munching idlys, puri and dosa.

The conversation flowed easily for a while, we talked about this and that; at least we shared a certain francophilia. He showed me his poems in French. He was disappointed with my poor German. Barely noticeable at first, he grew agitated, turning sullen at moments, silent, staring at the far wall of the room. I'd resume the conversation, pick up where we had left off, or perhaps start a new train of thought. In stages, he became morose. A bit spooky. He seemed to be sulking, brooding over something. Maybe it was my new haircut. I've known people to get jealous over my hair.

It had been a rather singular day. I was tired. The forlorn Francophile requested the bill, and the exhausted Australian paid it. It was a quiet ride back on his motorcycle to the hotel. On parting, he handed me the latest review of 'The Indian Society of French Studies'.

Laying in bed, I pondered the 'Teaching of French in Pondicherry since the 1950s', and wondered at what point in my life it had all gone horribly weird.

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