World Travel In Hacktreks - From Our Archives
There was yet another power cut, or load shedding as they
like to call it in India. Consequently, the growl of generators
filled the air, and the stench of diesel wafted upward. I was hanging
over a balcony, looking out over Triplicane High Road. It was dusk
in Chennai. Lumbering bullocks were pulling carts, buses were weighted
down at one side with people hanging on, cows were stationary, and
mopeds, cars, and auto-rickshaws were competing for space. Men were
making their way to the Big Mosque in response to the call to prayers,
which echoed throughout the neighbourhood. Others were making their
way to wherever it was they were going. Street-dwelling families
were arguing between themselves. And sari-clad women were sat by
the road side, selling hair flowers, while others filled plas tic
pots with water from a municipal wagon Chennais response
to its perennial water shortage.
|Back to the Future on Triplicane High Road
women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair, but
not both together.
The flower sellers
reminded me of a song from a more innocent time which goes along the
lines of someone told me theres a girl out there with love
in her eyes and flowers in her hair. The song was called Going
to California. High above Triplicane High Road I began to think
that whoever said that must have been wrong. I first heard that song
when I was sixteen, filled with the innocence and hope of youth. I have
been looking for years for this woman but have never found her. I found
women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair,
but not both together. Im not sixteen anymore and perhaps I should
abandon a false hope born of the naivety of youth. But then again I
have never been to California maybe thats the problem.
She is probably out there, somewhere.
I headed down the stairs and straight into the Maharaja restaurant.
It is one of my favourite restaurants and is typically South Indian
with banana leaves used instead of plates and uttapam, Mysore bonda,
idlis and dosas on the menu. Supervisors were shouting orders to the
staff; uniformed bare-footed boys were clearing tables by placing leftovers
into large metal buckets; and waiters were scurrying around shovelling
out various dishes from gleaming, smaller aluminium buckets - unlimited
vegetarian meals for a fixed price of twenty five rupees.
As usual a sense of urgency and anticipation prevailed. As soon as a
customer sits, someone approaches almost immediately to pour water from
a metal jug into a matching shiny mug. Many things in India appear inefficient
and bogged down with lethargy or bureaucracy, but not South Indian restaurants
they are electrifying.
I sat next to my friend Lise. Every-time I was with her I felt like
melting. But this time it was different; I almost did. She had a flower
in her hair! One of the boys would have had to have wiped me up and
carry me off in a bucket. That would have been embarrassing to say the
least. She sat talking about her day, and I sat thinking about just
how beautiful she looked. Eventually the melt down phase passed and
I pulled myself together.
She told me that Copenhagen is the third most expensive city in Europe
to live in after London and Paris. I told her that where I live is one
of the cheapest - Liverpool. I looked at one of the boys clearing the
tables, and thought that he would never get the opportunity to find
out. At twelve I was in full-time education. At twelve, he was working
at least eight hours a day, cleaning tables. He had his life in front
of him. I looked at Lise and thought that she did too. She was twenty-nine.
Thats when it hit me I was no longer young and it
was bothering me! I was already patently aware of this, but normally
wasn't really worried by it. I usually took comfort from knowing that
I was still relatively young. I could tell that it was affecting
me by what I was saying to Lise: I try to no longer think about
the past or the future, but t ry to live in the present. I never used
to. - the desperate ramblings of an aging man.
For me, it was less a case of The Age of Tyranny, the headline
in a local newspaper, but the tyranny of age. I didnt like to
think about my past it was growing almost infinitely longer by
the minute and my future was growing shorter by the second. But then
I thought to myself, how is it really possible to live in the present?
I can never grasp it. Its elusive. Its only possible to
anticipate some future present, or remember some present from the past.
I was beginning to sound like some English teacher obsessed with verb
Lise had an enthusiasm for her future. She made me think about where
I was going or more precisely, to where I had been. I was going
somewhere when I was younger and was on my way to getting there. In
fact, I had got there and then decided to go somewhere else India.
I guess by the time we reach a certain age, we are told that we are
supposed to be where we set out to be in our early twenties. The trouble
is that I never really knew where I wanted to be, or who I was. I knew
who I was supposed to be but didnt want to be it. Im drifting,
shifting, and fIuid a kind of general multi-purpose generator
oil that fits in everywhere, but has no specific purpose. Maybe the
diesel fumes from outside were beginning to affect me.
I sort of ended up by accident or fate in India, talking to a Danish
girl with a flower in her hair. That was the present and
I wanted it to last forever. There was a fleeting moment in the Maharaja
restaurant when she may have been that girl with love in her eyes and
flowers in her hair. But we were in India, not California and we no
longer live in an age of innocent hope; and as usual the present was
all too fleeting.
A few months later I was in Himachel Pradesh in North India, talking
with an English girl called Lisa (it was a time for Lisas or Lises
same name really). I was in a village called Vashisht and spent
my birthday there. Its a beautiful place, surrounded by rolling
hills and soaring snow-capped Himalayan peaks. There can be few better
places in which to grow older officially. Lisa was thirty-four. She
wasnt in her twenties and because of that I once again felt relatively
young. When Im fifty Ill still feel relatively young. That
is until I meet someone in their twenties or by then, in their thirties,
and it will be a case of me feeling relatively old. Its a strange
feeling I'll never be just young or old, always relatively one
or the other.
What of the future? When I get back to England, I will write a story.
I will sit in front of the computer, alone. And because Ill be
alone, Ill neither feel relatively young nor relatively old; Ill
just be me. I will be in Cumbria surrounded by timeless misty rolling
hills, and Ill look out at those English peaks and think of the
poets who immortalised that amazing part of the world with their poetry.
The Cumbrian Mountains, Wordsworth and Coleridge will inspire me to
Triplicane High Road, generator oil, and
But more aptly, I will be inspired to write of things to do with love,
loss and hope. And my thoughts will drift toward another time, another
place to beautiful Vashisht, the exotic Maharaja restaurant,
and to a girl I once knew who had love in her eyes and a flower in her
hair. I will be in the future, wanting to be back in the past, yearning
for a present that never was. And I will come to the earth-shattering
conclusion that the present is always absent and its absence is always
present. Then Ill put on Going to California and drift
away. Someone told me theres a girl out there
find her again one day in some far off land for a while - at least for
a few vanishing moments. That's about all we can hope for.
© Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India 2002
RAINBOWS IN CHENNAI -
The Madras Diaries
Traveller Tales on the Road in India
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