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The International Writers Magazine
:International Travel: India

Give me South India any time
Colin Todhunter

Wet, windy, cold and damp. Apart from a few days in July or August, this just about sums up British weather. So you can imagine how South India may appear to someone like me. It’s hot all year round and is pure exotica with its coconut trees, banana plantations and rain forests. Somehow the British equivalent of lettuce fields and cabbage patches blanketed by frost in the middle of winter doesn’t compare.

But South India is exotic in a way that North India is not. The Himalayas are fabulous and Rajasthan is amazing, but by and large my impression of the North is one of too much dust, pollution and overcrowding. I can certainly leave the North behind in December, with its chilly evenings. Delhi records nightime temperatures of below 10 degrees at this time of the year. Much too reminiscent of the UK.

Give me the South any ime. It’s more relaxed and pleasing on the eye. I love Munnar, Kodaikanal and Ooty. Memories of tea estates, wooded hills and the toy train are always just a thought away. But it’s not just the geography. Being a foreigner in India attracts quite a bit of attention. The North can be quite intrusive — “What’s that in your pocket?”, “Where are you going?”, “What are you carrying in your bag?”. Just a few examples of the type of inquisitiveness I encounter in the North. The South is different. I am more or less left alone. The people are definitely a more genteel lot. The harshness of the North is lacking.
And the food — unlimited vegetarian meals served on banana leaves, and idlis, sambar and dosas. Wow, that’s a pretty exotic list for any foreigner used to the “delights” of bangers and mash in bleak mid-winter. To use an inappropriate and very Western metaphor — South Indian food rocks. With an increasing encroachment of Western style fast food joints — you know the ones, the Macs, the Huts and the Kings — I sometimes see a highly synthetic future where the banana leaf in South Indian restaurants will eventually be replaced by the plastic imitation variety. Outside Central Station in Chennai there is already a plastic coconut tree, which stands out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s a sign of the times; a sign of things to come. The exotic lure of the international world of plastic.

I may be a secularised Westerner, but I never really realised what worship was about until I came to South India. I once visited Trichy at the time of some religious festival. I’d never seen anything like it. The British truly come to life when watching their national sport, football. The passion inside any stadium throughout the country on a Saturday afternoon can be somewhat unnerving to an outsider. But on that day in Trichy passion was redefined. From Chidambaram to Kumbakkonam to Rameswaram — it’s quite astounding how temples still dominate the towns of the South, harking back to a time in Europe when church architecture and religion dominated.

Over the years. I’ve estimated that I have travelled over 70,000 kilometres overland within India and apart from the Taj Mahal, Varanasi and the forts of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, most of my abiding memories are of the South. And to be sure my better experiences have been in this part of India.
So as a new year dawns, perhaps it is an appropriate time for me to look back and say “thanks for South India” or more aptly, “thanks to South India”. I’ll never forget you.

© Colin Todhunter Jan 2005
(Written before the late December tsunami disaster that hit the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka terrorities)
Liverpool Cultural Capital '08
Colin Todhunter

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