Monday, August 11, 2008


Heavy spontaneous deluges pour down just as darkness falls over the city. As I walk outside my room to investigate, alerted by the roar of spattering rain on the roof, I am greeted by the mellow, damp smell of tropical monsoon, which is notable not for its own faintly scented odor but for what it masks: the scent of neighbors burning their garbage on the roadside in little smoldering piles, and the choking fumes of automobile exhaust. It even shuts up the damn crows and peacocks incessantly cawing and crowing in our foliage, as they scurry elsewhere for cover, as do the more pesky raspy-voiced peddlers with their ever-present dinging bicycle bells and their astonishingly loud, monotonous, chanting bleats of "e-bulayyyy a sulayyyyyy a-boooollymayyy" (any Tamil speakers?). Even mosquitoes disappear temporarily and geckos scurry out into the streetlamp light, the reptilian cavalry coming out to feast and turn the tide in the battle against the dark horde of the bloodsucking Mosquitan forces, who are suddenly vulnerable as they cling to underhangs and light fixtures.
I also used to run for cover during these cumulonimbal outbursts, but I know better now. My neighborhood is at its best during these showers, with the unpleasantries of everyday Chennai life temporarily masked. I walk around in board-shorts and sandals and receive my Indian "second shower." I guess its a little Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption (only a little less deserving and a little more clean), but it is refreshing. Anyway, as long as you're not wearing business clothes or don’t have papers in your pack, it's quite nice, in addition to simply delighting in watching everyone else run frantically for cover and into the ever-patient maws of circling rickshaws, happy to charge a handy sum for their moving shelter.

On a similar note, I just got back from a weekend trip to Hyderabad, and boy, do I sure know how to pick 'em: my weekend consisted of this.

(photo yoinked from the link... my photos are much less impressive, taken at night from inside the car)

If you don't have time to click the link, basically, over fifty people drowned and the town was swimming in floodwater all weekend. Thankfully, the excellent sightseeing, unique local Andhra cuisine, and amazing hospitality of my hosts more than made up for a potential disaster of a trip. But the torrential monsoonal downpours and overcast skies made for really grey photographs lacking contrast (posted soon) that will be a little disappointing... may have to pay a visit to the 'ol Adobe PhotoShop.

The train ride, 15 hours, almost bested my other longest non-stop travel record, set just months before on the flight to Bombay from NYC (15 hrs, 45 mins), but thankfully it didn't, as this method of travel has much less amenities than the latter (and a few unpleasant creatures scurrying about that are not present in airplanes). Anyway, the car we toured Hyderabad in for three days almost floated on several occasions, as we ran the gauntlet a few times with a car to our right stalled and motorcyclists to our left turning away in disappointment after looking at the dips-in-the-highway-turned-ponds ahead. It was quite a scene. I asked the father of the family I stayed with about the lack of city planning and infrastructure I have noticed throughout India so far and in Hyderabad in particular. Interestingly, I was told, it wasn't always this way. The later Nizams (local Mughal rulers) of Hyderabad had installed storm drains and sewers (among many other essential public goods) in the early 20th century, but democratically-elected successors (instead of patrilineal rulers) have chosen quick-fixes and voter-pandering over less visible essential services, and the ever-expanding city seriously lacks city planning as a result. There is something to be said for absolute power and huge royal coffers, I suppose! Potholes half a foot deep and dips in the road with no estuaries (but plenty of tributaries, unfortunately!) clog motorways as cars pause before the obstacles to judge whether or not their shock absorbers can take one last pounding or their engines will last one dunk in the pond.

The food is more Mughlai than South Indian, for sure. It is therefore much spicier, uses more chicken, and is more “Punjabi-tasting” than the surrounding areas’ cuisines. I quickly got used to breakfasts of spicy scrambled egg (don't know the dish's name), idli, masala, coconut chutney, and dinners of “Chicken 65" (hot, red, and barbecued) with biryani and tortilla-like chapati. Tea is had every few hours at roadside stands in little shot-glass mugs, and fruit stands offer freshly-squeezed juice at every corner.The architecture was quite impressive and looked very similar to the sights in Delhi due to the erstwhile Shahs' and Nazams' ruling of the area. The styles incorporate Central-Asian-Khanate onion domes (like those of Uzbekistan's silk road landmarks, Delhi's Taj Mahal, and Moscow's St. Basil' s Cathedral, which ironically was built in to celebrate a victory OVER an invading Khan horde… whoops), Mughal, Turkish, and Persian designs, with minarets appearing on all four corners (the religious demographics are flipped in this city as opposed to the surrounding areas: a large majority of Muslims, which a minority of Hindus). Most positive has been the hospitality found in these households I have been staying at during my travels (which, incidentally, has reflected the religious mixture dominant in these areas: Hindus in Delhi, Muslims in Hyderabad, Christians in Chennai). It has been interesting observing the huge differences in religious and social rituals observed during all three homestays, whilst experiencing a similarity in their enormous concern with hospitality.

On the subject of hospitality/politeness, I continue to be impressed by the helpful and welcoming nature of (non-rickshaw and non-government employee) Indians. That is, those you encounter in everyday conversation: hosts, workplace acquaintances, strangers asked for help, random strollers on the beach. Even on the crazy rushed atmosphere that is the government city bus system, there are tacit standards that citizens seem to stand by.
When a bus pulls in, and passengers try to squeeze out while impatient boarders rush the doors, those with bags throw them inside through the open windows to reserve a space. Once, before I even opted for this seating method, a woman beckoned towards me whilst in the bus and motioned for me to throw my bag to her. I ended up saving my legs a two-hour stand all the way back from Mamallapuram due to her quick thinking.
Even inside the bus, where you have to watch where you sit due to ever-shifting zones for female-only seating, I was standing as there was seemingly no space to sit, but a bench full of old men pressed themselves to the sides to make room for me and insisted I squeeze between them (as a non-female, non-elderly, and non-disabled person, I am used to being the absolute bottom of the seating chart!).
As mentioned many months ago, even when the surge of passengers has ended and the bus chugs off, leaving a few stragglers sprinting alongside trying to gain footing on the door's platform, hands extend to catch the runners and lift them up to safety.
And lastly, on my long train ride to Hyderabad, my neighbors saw that I didn't fit on the upper bunks of the sleeper car and offered me a seat next to them down below to sit during the waking hours, while (for the sleeping hours) a girl traded me her bottom bunk for my head-bruisingly low-clearanced top bunk.

I doubt I could find any of these things to occur in public transportation back home. Once you get past the pressing, pushing throngs and different concept of personal space (where the "six-inch rule" reduces to zero inches), you see the other side of India’s populace.

1 comment:

Shantaram said...

Greg - peacocks in Chennai? That's a new one on me! Or did I get mixed up?