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: Indian Journey: Face to face with Indian lifestyles

Overland Dog Story in Tamil Nadu, Southern India 1982
Stewart Hughes
Hungry and tired we shuffle without enthusiam into the Vegetarian Restaurant on Madurai station.

A prominent sign declares: ‘Persons suffering from infectious and contagious diseases will not be served here.’
Good, that’s the last thing I want to eat.
A sign on the station offers:
Trolleys for hire R1.50
For carrying sick people R4.00
For carrying dead people R6.00

Out in the chaotic street we are looking for directions to the Ten Pillars. You can’t ask ‘Is this the way to the Ten Pillars’ because Indians like to please – they’ll always say yes. So I say smugly:
‘Where are the Ten Pillars?’
So he says, naturally: ‘In Ten Pillar Street.’
Indians will always say yes.
"Do you sell tea?"
"Do you sell coffee?"
"OK, one tea and one coffee please."
We are given two hot chocolates. It’s very infuriating.

It must be a Hindu thing. Like the head wobbling which means ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘maybe.’ It means what you want it to mean.
The goal of life according to Hinduism is two-fold:
Abhyudaya and Nihsreyasa
Abhyudaya is aram (dharma), porul (artha) and inbam (kama. In the reverse order it is sense – joy, refined by well gotten wealth and regulated by law.
Nihsreyasa is the attainment of moska deliverance from all sorrow, doubt and fear.
Tiruvalluvar has in his immortal work "tirukkural" stressed the importance of the path of abhyudaya in order to slip naturally into the state of nihsreyasa which brings about total spiritual emancipation.
(Tiruvalluvar – the Tamil yogi – the evolved soul.)
Well that makes everything crystal clear.

In this matriarchal society Indian men are like little boys gaining support from each other at every opportunity. If you attack them in any way or if you lose your temper, (‘Get out of my personal space!!’) they all hold hands, encircle you and giggle. A crowd of mainly young men gathers around you every time you stop anywhere, particularly in rural areas. They want to help or sell you something – usually both. Linda screams with indignation on max: ‘They’re all dancing around like a bunch of bloody Indians!’

The children endlessly scream: ‘WUDIZYERNEM?!’ You say: ‘My name is Stewart,’ and they scream ‘WUDIZYERNEM?!’ Or they greet you with ‘Good morning!’ in the afternoon and ‘Good afternoon!’ in the morning. Or yell ‘Hello! Pen?!’ Or poke sticks at you through the open train windows.

The locals fight like animals to get onto overcrowded trains and then demurely move up and make space for each other once they have a seat! Eight seated on a bench for four. Piles of luggage and people sitting on it between the seats. 23 people to a carriage. More in the corridor and on the roof and hanging off the sides.

Tamil Train © Stewart Hughes 2004

We’ve had three train journeys to get to Madurai. Every English-speaking person we meet on the trains talks to us. Indians are like one enormous family. Our fat Brahmin neighbour with bare torso and white dhoti tells us gleefully about a dead body missing its brains. Suicide. He tried to drag his wife with him under the train but she jumped away in time. They said he was unhappy because of poverty. I think he fell off the roof.
‘These people are so selfish!’ says our Brahmin friend, as our train is delayed.
‘Where are you coming from?’ he continues, with the usual opening gambit.
‘Are you married?’
They always ask if we are married and are always surprised to hear that we have lived together for several years but are not married and have no intention of marrying. This is very radical to their way of thinking.
‘Do you have issue?’
‘Do we have what?’
‘Do you have issue?’
‘Oh, you mean children? No we don’t have any children.’

He had an arranged marriage at the age of 21 and insists that arranged marriages are a good thing and that you can make any marriage a happy one if you both work at it. I agree with him that relationships are about compromise. After three children his wife is now sterilised, something the Government promotes heavily to little apparent effect. We have a long and deep discussion about God.
‘Let me finish,’ he says to me, a fervid disbeliever, as I try to put in my two-penn’orth.
‘God is superpower, you will see him some time in your life. He will come to you. All religions have some good, some bad. Hindu caste system bad.’ Well we agree on the last point.

Climbing with difficulty over endless recumbent bodies I make my way to the carriage toilet. This one is a squat job, consisting of a hole in the floor and two foot pads. Down the hole you can see the railway sleepers ambling past. There is shit all over the floor and even shit in the wash hand basin four feet off the floor. I’d have loved to have seen the guy perched up there with the train rocking violently. That’s talent. The locals don’t seem to understand that you shit down the hole.
On the bright side there’s less spitting here in the south. When we do see one we award them our ‘Gob of the week award!’
Where can we get away from in-your-face Indians for a while? I know, in a National Park, there won’t be any there. We head off towards Point Calimere Nature Sanctuary on the east coast. We spend another two days on a train to get there, arriving at the end of the line, Kodikkarai station, at midnight. Oh well another night sleeping of the floor of an infested waiting room.

The next morning we walk two miles to see the pink flamingos. There’s not an Indian in sight; our first escape from people in two months. Yippee! Absolute bliss. Except for the rabid dog. It’s following us barking and growling incessantly. Jesus we’re trying to see the bloody flamingos and this damned dog is driving them further and further out into the lake. And frightening us. I know nothing about dogs, particularly feral Indian ones, but read once that if you stare at them….. This dog is scaring me but it’s him or the flamingos and I want to see the flaming flamingos. I turn and with trepidation give the dog my famous Sam the Eagle (from the Muppets) glare. I’m petrified. Linda’s cowering well behind me poised to sprint. The dog stops in its tracks, stops barking and looks at me with alarm. Suddenly it wimpers and runs off tail between its legs back the way it came. Well I’ll be buggered!
Hughes 1 - Rabid Dog nil.

Who’d be a dog in Southern India? Vegetarian Southern India? No wonder they look so, well, dog-eared and beaten.
We go to see the flamingos again in the afternoon as the sun goes down. We hope they might take off but they don’t. Pink wings, pink bills and pink legs (just like mine.) In a pink sunset. Beautiful.

On the fringes of the park a man walks up and down a rocking pivoted ladder that pumps water from a well. Clever. Bare-breasted women work on the salt pans. We stay at the Forest Rest House where the beds are made of woven plastic shopping bags.

Heading the next day for Madras we have a five hour wait in Mayam station. Despite our 2nd class tickets we scurry for the peaceful oasis of the 1st class Waiting Room. Linda tries to nap on the elegant Victorian painted wickerwork recliner. It’s full of bed bugs. Today’s last straw. In a fury she marches into the Station Master’s Office complaining loudly. I skulk in a corner hoping he doesn’t ask to see our non-existent 1st Class tickets.
‘It’s a disgrace. I’ve been bitten….!’
‘Madam I will have this matter attended to immediately,’ he says wobbling his head. Yes, no, maybe?
He strides down the platform to summon the Assistant Station Master. Together they inspect the offending furniture and by lifting one end and dropping it heavily, create a shower of scurrying bugs. The Assistant Station Master pompously goes to summon the Station Maintenance Manager who duly arrives with a flunky bearing a pump sprayer full of a noxious petrol based insect killer. India bureaucracy in action – it’s a beautiful thing to observe.

The smell of petrol fumes is now so bad in the First Class Waiting Room we find ourselves back on the crowded platform. A sign says: ‘Dabur Chyawanprash (with ashtawarg) for general disabilities chest and lungs.’
I think we might need him shortly. Or maybe one of those 4 rupee trolleys for sick people.
Hinduism has taught me one thing: you need a lot of patience in India. It’s not about them, it’s about you, what’s in your head. When you lose it for the final time and die of a heart attack they’ll be happily standing around you in a circle holding hands and giggling.
India 1 - Hughes nil.

© Stewart Hughes November 2004


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