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Life in Trichy - Archives

No Stop Signs
Brian Andrea

 A voice comes from the crowd.
“Madam, I have very good Sari for you.”
“A Sari – not for me thank you.” I laugh.
“Do not be worried, I have jumbo size!”
Now it is my husband’s turn to laugh.
The thought of me in a sari is ridiculous and jumbo size – what an insult!
Wearing polyester trousers, he is your typical Indian salesman – small and dark with sticky out ears and an old-fashioned haircut.
“I have absolutely no intention of buying a sari.” I retort. Ever the salesman, he suggests, “Maybe you want a suiting for your good husband?”

For generations of travellers India has evoked an exotic mix of history and adventure.  Founded around 2500 BC in the Indus Valley - it is a land of Rajahs, Hindus, and pompous colonisation that bequeathed bureaucracy and a legendary railway infrastructure.  It has ancient fortresses, temples, and a merciless caste system that created a billion people and supposedly “keeps society from disintegrating into chaos”. Romantic India fuels our dreams and we disregard tales of dysentery, dodgy food and filthy toilets.
Experts tell us, “You will either love it with a passion or hate it with a vengeance.” And “yes” we agree, it would be madness to cycle there. We arrange our Visas and go anyway!
A blazing mid day sun beats down and I dismount, tired and sore. Day old sweat soaks my clothes and salt encrusts my lips. The heat is suffocating. Perspiration seeps from my pores, runs down my legs and into my shoes. Slumped over my handlebars in the Tamil Nadu city of Trichy, I am mesmerised as the melee at the crossroads unfolds.
Bus drivers brazenly use intimidating tactics to overtake. “Kings of the Road,” they understand the pecking order where size rules! Along with pedestrians, bicycles remain on the bottom rung.
Magical countryside exposes a simple rural life.  People live in mud walled huts; pancakes of dung dry in the sun and women chat as they fetch water from the village well. Egrets ride the backs of wallowing buffaloes, young boys herd goats, emerald green rice is harvested and old men sit in contemplation.
Avenues of Banyan trees provide shade and families of Monkeys groom one another. Flocks of green Parakeets fly overhead and Kingfishers peer from power lines into a field of blue peacocks, the national bird of India. Road-gangs spread black tar and smoke drifts skywards. Female labourers carry heavy baskets of rocks on their heads and smile shyly and waive. Men sit drinking Chai and playing cards.
An ancient bridge crosses the Cauvery River and we witness a disturbing scene. The occupants of the bridge are beggars – crippled and deformed dwellers of the streets with outstretched arms.
The air is pregnant with spicy aromas and incense. We find ourselves amongst gaily painted shops and signs in Hindi where graceful women in colourful saris glide by, their dark skin enhanced by gold nose studs and earrings. Chickens en route to market balance precariously on the crossbars of old bicycles.
The dhobi wallah parks his mobile laundry and shrieks for customers. Outside the Bank of India two uniformed officers clutch ancient 303 rifles and in the Chai stalls, leathery old men sit talking and smoking bidis. The dashboards of Tata trucks house a collection of plastic gods and garlands of Marigolds swing from rear vision mirrors.
Our hotel is a grey concrete affair and I endeavour not to gaze too intensely at the rubbish outside the front steps – I am reminded of recycling day at home – cans, plastic bottles, and paper everywhere. Noisy pigeons make nests and skinny cats wander through the squalor picking at left over morsels whilst mangy dogs with huge bald patches sleep in the middle of the road.
 Shocked I ask, “Is this really what we have come to see?”
 My husband shrugs and we enter our hotel. The bathroom plumbing can only be described as “primitive”.  The hand basin leaks water all over the floor, the shower soaks everything but the intended bather and exposed electrical wires swing dangerously.
 “This place is an absolute death trap.” Brian remarks.
 The shared toilet at best is “functional” and reeks of stale urine. Despite our initial delight to find a sit-down loo, we both hesitate to put buttocks to porcelain!
 “God, this place is awful”.  I say, as I grab our packet of sterile wipes.
That night there is a huge thunderstorm – the heavens open, streets flood and turn to mud. Somewhere in the building we hear the throaty cough of a heavy smoker and the sound of phlegm. Sleep proves elusive –  our sheets feel dirty and the pillows are like rocks.
Here solitude is unknown. Men constantly stare and crowds appear whenever we stop. Pimply youths initiate conversations and we are never alone.  Noise bombards us - shrill speakers blare from every corner and we fear permanent deafness from air horns that literally make our ears ache.
“Are all Indians deaf?” We ask.
Indian men have no concept of personal space. Morning ablutions reveal squatting men emptying their bowels as they clean their teeth with a stick.  On any street you see them, fingers up nostrils as they adjust their private parts and saunter along, arms slung around their best friend!  It is acceptable for men to spit tobacco and blow their noses directly onto the pavement – for them there are no taboos. Women, of course, live under a completely different set of rules!
We are delighted to find our hotel balcony overlooks a roundabout that flows with life. Bewitched, we observe overloaded buses with stuffed suspension, and passengers clinging on for grim death. Rickshaw drivers toot, a drunk sleeps in the gutter and little girls with long plaits stroll from school. Lorries fart diesel, a man pushes a cart of watermelons, sweaty backpackers consult travel guides and the air resonates with the latest music of Bollywood.
Abruptly, pandemonium stops as “the Mother of India” makes an appearance. This is a girl with attitude; stealing fruit from a stall she then sits herself down in the middle of the road and chews her bounty. Traffic is forced to take evasive action. After all, the cow is sacred in India, and thought to be a gift from the gods to the human race.
To our right is a small temple, its steps worn smooth by the feet of the faithful. Incense burns and effigies of gods are draped in marigolds. Pilgrims bow their heads, hands locked in prayer. At the entrance, shops sell deep fried Samosas, chai, souvenirs and offerings for puja. Begging saffron-clad Sadhus extend a hand and amputees propel themselves along saliva stained streets.
Mimicking the biblical sea, the traffic parts and four beggars cross, hands on shoulders. The man in front has a white stick. “It’s the blind leading the blind.”  I whisper.
We take a rickshaw through the hectic streets of Trichy where the massive 83-meter Rock Fort temple guards the city. A large procession of chanting, drum-playing men passes en route to the temple. Clouds of smoke and fireworks choke the air. The rock is one of the oldest in the World. The Pallavas cut the first temples but it was the Nayaks of Madurai who took advantage of the fortified position. 18th century Trichy witnessed the British and French struggle for supremacy.
The rock has 437 steps and at halfway a 100-pillar hall. Finally, a dark tunnel leads us to the top and the Temple of Ganesh, the “Elephant” God. We pass resting pilgrims and tired schoolboys who all want to shake our sweaty hands and say “hullo.”
One brave little boy asks the question we have come to expect, “Sir, Where do you come from?”
 “New Zealand.”
 “Yes, New Zealand I know - a very green country with many sheeps'.
 “Do you know Stephen Fleming?” another asks.
 “I am telling you Sir, Stephen Fleming is the very best cricketer in the World,” the boy with a wonky eye offers.
 “No,” another declares, “Our Sachin Tendulkar is Number one.”
 We agree and leave as friends.
Trichy will also be remembered for the incredible Masala Dosas we sampled every night at the open air Sangeetha Restaurant. They are delicious - huge, wafer thin and packed with spicy turmeric coated vegetables. We wash them down with a cold Kingfisher beer.
Leaving our hotel we read an amusing notice pinned to the bedroom door. “Stealing or damaging the WC will cost you Rupees 2,500! “
 “Who do you think steals a toilet?” I query.

 On the outskirts of town a Mobile temple is parked – a three-wheeled cart painted red with gold tinsel. It has gaudy paintings of gods, birds, flowers and trees and loud speakers shriek. The rotund owner has a beaming smile. He is delighted to show us the temple and persuades Brian to make a donation!
Notwithstanding the frustrations and unpredictability – yes, we loved India and its people with a passion.  

©  BRIAN ANDREA Feb 2007

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