India Day 2 – Chennai (Madras)

A whirlwind first full day in Chennai! I woke at 9am after a restless sleep.  Showered, and found the water surprisingly warm.  Felt a little less groggy, and headed downstairs to have breakfast.  A typical South Indian breakfast was laid out buffet-style, and I tucked in heartily to chipati and various vegetable curries and idli (deliciousspongy, round fermented rice cakes)  The Indian sauces I poured on top made for a breakfast diet I certainly wasn’t used to, but it was very welcome.  I was wary of the milky tea, however, so I didn’t drink anything.  It’s only a matter of time before I get food poisoning, but I don’t want it at the start of my trip!

After breakfast, I packed my day rucksack and went to the lobby, where I met Karuppasamy.  We got into his rickshaw and set off into the hustle and bustle of a sunny Chennai Monday morning.  Jakarta immediately sprung to mind as we began our journey, and I’m not sure which is more chaotic.  Here, autorickshaws jostle for space between huge trucks, cars, bicycles, hand and oxen drawn carts, animals, and people just wandering in the street; all admist the deafening blaring of horns and engines and the feeling of organised chaos all around, encapsulated in the wierd, wonderful, at same time revolting, overpowering, spicy and exotic smells of steamy South Asia.

Throughout our trip, Karuppasamy and I tried to strike up conversations with each other, but ultimately failed to understand each other, and so just smiled at each other and laughed maniacally a lot.

First stop was San Thome Cathedral, built in 1504.  Famous for being one of only 3 churches in the world to be built on the remains of an apostole (St ‘Doubting’ Thomas).  the pure white of the church is saintly, a serene contrast to the chaos outside.  In the basement is a chapel housing the tomb of Saint Thomas, and when I took a peek I could see people there locked in prayer, repeating the sermon’s rhetoric in that disturbing, religiously fanatic way of those at one with their religion.  I’ve never understood it personally, and became a ‘free-thinker’ the day I told my Mum I didn’t want to go to church anymore because it was ‘boring’ when I was 12, and my mum agreed.  But it clearly works for some people….indeed, when I was in the Philippines, they take their religion extremely seriously, as they do in Indonesia.

After a brief stroll around the grounds, we left and headed for the Ashtalakshmi temple on Marina beach.  You have to stroll through a narrow street flanked with tiny shops that make up the small villager’s high street to get there.  The street was bustling with colouful activity – Indian people dress in the most colouful of threads – and people walked with us towards the temple.

The outside of the temple was the usual clamour of worshippers, people sleeping, fruit stalls and beggars.  We removed our shoes and walked inside in. The temple is  3-tier and constructed in the Dravidian style, that is, displying the architectural elements such as the rainbow coloured gopuram and mandapas (pavillions in front of the temple).  We didn’t stay long as it was past closing time,and so instead headed for a stroll on the beach.  Though not the prettiest beach, it still exuded a certain wasteland charm.  Girls in saris and chudhi, beautiful and colourful, walked with their loved ones.  A group of worshippers wearing blue gang-walked up the beach following a man ringing a bell, and then faded away into the urban landscape.  I shared a laugh and a joke with Karuppasamy.  We were understanding each other’s linguistical incompetence a little more now.  We then walked back, but found the street blocked by a group of women focussed on a line of offerings aflame, which I learnt were from a deceased villager.  It was my second brush with death of the day, following the discovery of a suicide in the river earlier.  A crowd had gathered to watch the fire brigade pull out the women’s body.  Traffic had stopped.  Apparently she was from a poor family, and couldn’t cope any longer.  It hardly surprised me.  To witness the hardships endured by so many, the feral childrenand their threadbare parents eaking out a living admist the filth and pollution with no hope of anything better is very saddening.  In Jakarta I saw the poverty on a daily basis, families living under tollways but nothing can compare to India.

So, the road in the village was blocked, and Karuppasamy and I decided to take the longway round.  We went down the partailly paved, extremely narrow village footpath, which afforded me a glimpse of their lives.  Living in tiny, cramped houses…the smells overpowering and hygeine a problem….but at least there was a sense of community here.    After this, we tried to go to the Ramakrishna Mutt Temple, but found it closed, so instead went to Ponnusamy Hotel for lunch – chicken biriyani with all the relishes and sauces, eaten Indian style with the right hand and served on a banana leaf.  We finished by eating a paan, which is  a fragrant mixture of betel nut, lime paste, spices and condiments wrapped in an edible, silky paan leaf.  It acts as a digestive and mouth-freshener.  A small banana finished off the hearty meal.

From here we went back to Karuppasamy’s well-parked autorickshaw, then proceeded to the Government museum.  Though I had the opportunity to visit the different sections, including the bronze gallery, I stupidly didn’t, instead I just strolled around the grounds taking pictures of the British governement constructed red brick building.  After this we took anther long drive (everything is at a distance in Chennai)a and we reached an area where a number of autorickshaws were gathered.  We jumped out, and I got quite a reception.  I learned that we were going to see Karuppasamy’s best friend, Madhan Kumar, who is the managing director of Madhan Auto, buying and selling 2 and 3 wheelers.  We walked to his office, followed by a gang of what looked like Indian pop music video extras, all machocism and bristling moutaches.  Madhan’s office was tiny, but 4 people were in there scooping up their lunch.  Madhan ordered me a pepsi, and a little lad sprinted off to get me one.  Madhan was busy even when eating, and when it was over, he spoke a few words to me, and informed me  that Karuppasamy’s English translation was ‘Black God.’ which we all had a laugh about.  Madhan was clearly the boss.  He had an air of masculine authority about him, spoke as though he was shouting, and was clearly respected.  He was counting money, filling in forms, dealing with prospective autorickshaw drivers, all at the same time.  I imagined he’d be fun to have a few drinks with.

After parting company with firm handshakes, we went back to the hotel via a tiny coffee shack, where I got 2 cups of coffee so delicious they made starbucks taste like Maxwell House.  Harini called (not me, as my phone broke in Singapore), and I explained I needed to get a ticket to Bangalore, so she explained things to Karuppasamy and said a friend of hers would look after me over there.  She’s been a great help.

Back at the hotel we met Naveen and chatted.  I explained I wanted to go out to a bar and meet some people.  Karuppasamy was reluctant, concerned for my safety.  I reassured him I’d be OK, but he looked really worried and insisted to take me out and bring me back anytime I wanted.  I knew he was tired, so I said I’d make my own way there.  I bid them goodbye, and got changed and ready for a night out in Chennai!!  Unfortunately, it never happened.  I had a chat with a rickshaw driver at the front of the hotel, but he didn’t know where to go, and 5 people all joined in to tell him different directions.  Amazingly, Karupassamy had been waiting, and he turned up and tried to bargain for me.  Again, he wasn’t happy, and offered to take me himself.  Then I learnt the place was 30 minutes away, and I couldn’t be bothered…there’d be plenty of nights out, I reasoned with myself.  Instead, the 3 of us went to the hotel bar and I drank a bottle of Cobra and a bottle of Golden Eagle, both local brews, with snacks and chicken tikka to go with them.  Karuppasamy left happy, and I was impressed by his kindness.  I went to bed at 11pm, exhausted.  What a first day in India!

Author: Neil

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