In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.
Going off to Chennai
I had barely started enjoying my rest the following day when I realized I would be leaving for Chennai the day after – and I did have quite a few things to do before I left. So there I was, in a stress again, until the very last minute.
Taramai had popped in to see if Aleika was back, so I asked her to show me how to drape a nine-yard sari. I was planning to wear one for the train journey – it is quite a comfortable and practical dress. After she left, I checked that I could put it on again, but changed back to “normal” clothes. I did feel a little self-conscious about running all over town wearing that sari. Getting used to novelty does take a little time.
At the end of the afternoon, I had dealt with all my chores and had finally finished packing my backpack amidst sudden stomach cramps that kept interrupting my work. At one point I was almost afraid I might have to cancel the trip.
I am not writing about this just to make a display of my digestive health (or absence of health), but because with a little distance, it is quite funny to imagine how you can pack for a ten day trip in little slices of three minutes each. I had already gone through the experience when I was leaving for Delhi…
Mercifully my cramps left me early enough to allow me to be on time at Shinde’s for the departure – but I got so tangled up in the nine-yard sari that I gave up my brilliant idea and slipped on my salwaar kameez instead.
The train journey was quite normal. Compared to my first train journey to Delhi (we were also travelling in sleeper class, the cheapest one) I was feeling much more relaxed.
I had confirmation that sleeper class brings you a much wider variety of beggars than AC class – they come in all shapes and sizes, most of them cripple or mutilated. I was particularly stricken by a poor chap who had a hand larger than his head (I don’t know what could have caused it). I had got used to the fact that beggars often have limbs missing – and the sight of that man was quite frightening to me.
For the record, I noticed one beggar on a platform (he had most probably just descended from the train we were in) produce an important pile of coins from his pockets (about the amount that can be cupped in two hands, at least 30-40 Rs worth, I would guess). It was mid-morning.
We didn’t exactly know which hotel we would stay in; we had a few names, and a man travelling with us gave Shinde a couple more.
Shinde had the pleasure to experiment going through a railway station with a desperately visible foreigner, and we finally checked in at the cheapest hotel our fellow traveller had recommended to us. We had to fight a little to get the room, as the hotel didn’t have a license for foreigners (whatever that is). As Shinde is Indian and took the room under his name, we got it. Speaking to the manager is always useful, even if the desk staff find it a great joke when you ask for him!
In fact, we were really lucky with the hotel. Quite new, clean, with a nice restaurant (even if after a few days I was really tired of South Indian food for breakfast!), and it cost Rs. 195 a night for the double room… Of course the staff didn’t lose much time before asking Shinde if I was his wife, or his girlfriend. I suggested he tell everyone I was his sister, but we didn’t really have a chance to try that out. The concept of sharing a room with somebody who is not your lover doesn’t seem quite common around here… not that it surprises me much.
Chennai is much warmer than Pune (which is 22 to 29 C these days), but it is windy and slightly overcast. That didn’t prevent me from getting my first real Indian sunburn during our first day at the dog show – it’ll teach me to have sari blouses with very open backs. I had to explain to Shinde what a sunburn was, and why it hurt so much…
That evening, we decided to try out a restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet.
It was an utter disaster. The service was slow. The food was not very nice. Added to that, it was not a pure veg restaurant.
As Shinde is a very strict vegetarian, and usually sticks to pure veg places (since the day he was served (and ate) non-veg rice in a “mixed” restaurant, and had to fast for a month after that…). They assured us that the veg and non-veg food was cooked in separate sections of the kitchen. But all the same, Shinde was having more and more second thoughts about our choice, fuelled by the low quality of service – it made us wonder if there was more than one cook in the kitchen – and the raw egg that came in my “French onion soup”.
When the main course arrived, it was subjected to a suspicious examination (by both of us) and Shinde decided he would rather be safe than sorry. I ate all I could (it was nicer than the soup) and we went off somewhere else so that he could eat…
Bangalore; January 13
Dog show, shopping and tourism
The next day was very calm, sitting in the University Union Grounds during the dog show (for the third day), writing and chatting.
I was often asked if I was a journalist or a researcher. And quite a few people simply came behind me and started reading what I was writing! (Something nobody would ever dream of doing in Switzerland.) One person asked me what I was writing, and when I replied it was just personal stuff, he said: “Oh OK, but what is it, then?”.
I was mainly working on my web site – sitting down in a nice green space, with nothing much to do: those were ideal circumstances for me to do something I am always putting off because I have more urgent affairs.
We went shopping in the evening with some people Shinde knew. In fact, we landed in a kind of “fakes market” where you could buy plastic cameras supposed to look real and functional, but that you could barely manage to open. In my opinion, it was doubtful whether they would take any photographs at all.
Obviously, Shinde’s friends had no experience whatsoever of shopping with foreigners. I quickly introduced the subject to them : ). My presence in that market was hopeless! Prices would not come down low enough, and needless to say I was harassed all the way along. But finally, somebody did manage to find me a 150 Rs sari that I could wear the next day.
The last day of the dog show was a seminar. Two of the conferences were good, the two others left me indignant (once again) that such bad presentations should ever be allowed, and the food was very nice.
I found myself wondering, during those days, if I was “making the most” of my stay in Chennai (I had already had similar thoughts about my whole trip to India). I had seen the University Union grounds quite a lot during the last three days, I had walked up and down a portion of Poonamallee High Road umpteen times.
Was I really seeing less of “Chennai” than if I had been to visit all the monuments in town in an AC tourist coach? Well, I decided it probably was the case (the dog show wasn’t typically Madrasi, either!), but I did get to rest, to do something which requested time and calm, and that is an important part of going on holidays, isn’t it? In any case, that did set me thinking about what it really meant to have seen, or visited a town – or even been to one.
On Tuesday, we caught the bus to Mahabalipuram, a village famous for its beach temple and stone carvings, situated about two hours south of Chennai.
We walked, and walked, and walked during that day (not that we hadn’t walked the previous days in Chennai). We saw different types of temples and Dravidian monuments carved out of the stone, I dipped my feet in the sea, and we also did a little “tourist shopping”.
It was very instructive for me to see Shinde bargaining (I had already been able to see him at work with the rickshaws – nobody uses the meter in Chennai).
Being in a tourist place and mistaken for a “normal” tourist was fun at some moments, irritating at others. What is a “normal” tourist?
Coming back after that long day, we treated ourselves to supper in a rather expensive restaurant. The lunch we had been served at the seminar as well as the food I had eaten during the last wedding in Pune had reminded me that there existed a different kind of Indian food than the one that I ate everyday. I was really tired of South Indian food (although it was very nice) and the break was welcome. I am not used to considering myself a fussy eater – but I think my tolerance is decreasing.
After a couple of days of getting up early in the morning, we allowed ourselves a little sleep, and spent a good part of our last day in Chennai shopping in a gigantic sari supermarket. I thought I would go crazy. Just about every single kind of sari was available, from very cheap (Rs. 65) to very expensive (Rs. 70000). Most interesting for me, some very cheap but very pretty and fun ones.
My intensive sari-wearing in Chennai had made me even more enthusiastic about this type of clothing. Saris are really not as unpractical as it is said (we were almost rock-climbing at moments in Mahabalipuram), and I must say I do feel less like a tourist in a sari (I hate feeling like a tourist – even when I am one!).
After coming back to the hotel with our pile of shopping, we ran out to buy an extra suitcase (I’m almost starting to get used to this!).
Leaving Chennai in a rush
While packing, we suddenly realized some of Shinde’s saris were missing. We sped back to the shop (it had taken us about an hour to get there by bus). The train was due to leave in less than three hours.
The rickshaw we caught was asking far too much. With some patience on our part, he came down to something a little more reasonable, and as we were in a hurry we accepted. He put on his meter, so that we could be convinced that his price was too low (!). And to convince us more (this was so predictable), he took us for a ride. It was really not what we needed, and everyone got quite irritated.
In the shop, we had to choose the saris again, as the pile we had forgotten was nowhere to be found. We were both washed out, and Shinde was upset about his squabble with the rickshawallah.
We finally got back to the hotel. We had less than one hour left to pack, have a bath (the last one for two days), eat (we had had almost nothing the whole day), check out and get into the train.
Fifteen minutes before the departure of the train, I had finished my meal, and ordered Shinde a bit briskly to find a rickshaw while I fetched the luggage out of the room. There wasn’t really enough time to do things differently, and he seemed so unaffected by the urgency of the situation that I wondered how he ever managed to catch a train – and honestly thought that we were going to miss this one.
I ran upstairs, communicated the urgency of the situation to the lift-boy, who laughed with glee but helped me stack the luggage into the lift. He also helped me run out of the hotel (we were both laughing our heads off – me probably out of anxiety); Shinde was nowhere to be seen. I had really been expecting to find him waiting outside the hotel with an auto (as they call rickshaws in the hindiphobic south).
Ten o’clock. We had a five-minute rickshaw drive left to get to the station.
I packed all the luggage on my little self. I must have really been quite a sight. Running (hobbling) along, I saw Shinde coming calmly in my direction. I nearly yelled at him to hurry up, and we rushed to the auto.
As I was telling the driver to hurry up because of the train, he asked when it was due. And when I heard Shinde answering “Half past ten”, I understood everything. “Not 10:30, 10:10!!!”
How we ran through that station! Adrenalin really can do wonders! We didn’t even know which platform our train was leaving from, and I didn’t dare stop to take out the ticket to see the train number.
Nevertheless, at 10:10, we were in the train. I had but one desire: to strip and stand naked under the fans – not a desire to carry out, you will understand. The clothes I would be wearing for the next thirty-six hours were soaked through. And I had just had a bath…
The train left ten minutes late. We woke up at 5:30 a.m., Bangalore.
After having left our luggage at the station cloakroom, we set off for our day in town. We walked and walked; we shopped; we had snacks in numerous restaurants; we strolled through the Lalbagh botanical garden and took a quick nap there (Shinde hadn’t slept a wink in the train). And at the end of this long day told in a few words, I was in a barely functioning state. My whole body was aching, the cold I had almost succeeded in driving away was back in full strength, and my brain was totally spongy. I will make no comment on Shinde…
Pune (IUCAA); January 17
Our second night on the train went fine. Let us simply note that I vowed never to accept a “corridor” bed again (they are shorter that the normal berths and offer no stretching space whatsoever).
We spent two days in Belgaum, at Shinde’s elder brother’s house. I was exhausted and ill, so I spent quite some time napping and just taking rest.
I liked the place. They stay in the outskirts of the “city” (a small town with narrow streets and no foreigners).
I will note one memorable event during those two days.
I had been in bed five minutes on the second night when I decided to turn on the light and kill a few mosquitoes. They are big and vicious in that place, and although I was wearing my mosquito repellent I had been joyfully feasted on the night before. I knew that the safest thing to do was to eliminate physically as many blood-thirsty beasts as possible. I am not a gleeful murderer of living beings, but there are some limits to my respect of life: mosquitoes and cockroaches in tropical countries fall outside those limits.
I don’t think I have mentioned it, but the mosquito family has a very strong attraction to my skin (it is already the case in my own country, so imagine here!). Put me in a room with ten other people and one mosquito, and the mosquito will find me without hesitation.
So I got out of bed and walked across the room to switch on the tube light. I glanced over to the wall next to the bed, expecting to see one or two fat mosquitoes squatting there, but before I could complete my examination I found myself propelled in the middle of an Indiana Jones nightmare.
The floor was alive with healthy cockroaches (version 4.5 cm), barely a hand’s length apart from one another. The light set them scuttling off in every direction.
Before I could do anything sensible, I found myself standing on my bed (I don’t know how I got there!) having let out a little scream or two. Those who know me will confirm that I have little in common with the typical shrieking female portrayed in films, but too much is too much.
As Shinde and his brother came into the room, vaguely amused once they had understood what was going on, I was staring helplessly at an isolated cockroach scuttling across my sleeping-bag. Even the bed was not a secure place… I watched in dismay as cockroaches disappeared into the half-packed luggage and into the walls, wondering how on earth I was going to be able to sleep again – and where.
After Shinde’s brother had shaken my sleeping-bag I migrated into the room where everybody slept. It is the only room with a fan, and in India, lots of people simply can’t sleep without a fan, even if it is cool enough to do without. I prefer sleeping fan-less if the temperature allows it, particularly as the wind aggravates my cold.
I was getting into my sleeping bag when another scream announced that I had caught a glimpse of a shiny brown body in my sleeping quarters. There I was, standing on the bed again – to the now great amusement of the rest of the household. The sleeping bag enlisted for another inspection.
I zipped myself up in the bag and proceeded to calm down, but I wasn’t really sure why the cockroaches should confine themselves to the neighbouring room if they so much enjoyed partying at night. Needless to say the temperature was not at all meant for people who wanted to zip themselves up in feather sleeping-bags – I had to abandon some of my mummy-like security.
The cat woke me up. I peered down at Shinde who was sleeping on the floor next to my bed, only to see a dark thumb-shaped oval silhouette running over his back on the white bedsheet – the unmistakable sign of cockroach presence.
I courageously decided to stay awake for the rest of the night. I didn’t have the faintest idea what time it was – only that it was dark and probably before six o’clock (as Shinde’s sister-in-law would be up by then to get water from the pump in front of the house).
I petted the cat to keep him from meowing too much. He was *full* of fleas and had a major skin irritation and infection (probably from the fleas), and spent almost all his non-sleeping time calling out (crying?). I had wanted to take him to the vet myself but unfortunately it was holiday during my stay. So all I could do was attract the owner’s attention on the fact their cat needed medical attention fast. They had simply been thinking his scabs and bald patches were due to fighting…
In any case the cat calmed down when I stroked him and it gave me something to do while I waited for morning (whenever that would be).
Around three o’clock, the light came on as somebody in the next room decided to feed the meowing cat, so I was able to see the time and a few fat cockroaches running on the floor – and on the pillows of the people sleeping on the floor.
Pune (IUCAA); January 18
The next day Shinde and I caught the bus to Pune, after having freed our luggage of any undesirable six-legged hosts (we weren’t very sure whether the importation of Belgaum cockroaches to Pune was legal). My cold made the ten-hour bus ride really nasty – I promised myself to remember this day the next time I was tempted to travel by bus. Bus travel is fine when you are in good shape – but when you are ill, you are far better off in a train.
Anyhow, I survived, and we reached Pune around 9 p.m.
Silent meals with Shinde
I have probably mentioned previously that Shinde has taken up serious religious practice. As a part of that, he is subject to restrictions (amongst others) about menstruating women. And as it was my case during the latter part of our journey, it gave rise to some interesting situations.
The main restriction that involved me was that he must not hear any sound produced by a menstruating woman while he is eating (of course, that is valid only if he knows or suspects that she is menstruating). That is quite feasible – though I found the idea of silent meals a little dull – when all you have to do is remember not to speak and keep your bangles under control. It is more difficult when you have a nasty cough and a very runny nose that requires regular blowing. We therefore found ourselves eating at different ends of the same restaurant, or eating one after the other, with me going for a walk while he gobbled down his meal as fast as possible.
And to make matters a little more complicated, he could not eat the food from his brother’s house, as he can only accept food prepared by a woman who stays aside and obeys certain restrictions during her monthly period. I must say that I didn’t mind the situation too much, as it also gave me an excuse to talk with him about his religious practice.
The day after that was devoted to resting and preparing for the return home of Somak, Aleika and Akirno. Nisha had already tidied up the house from top to bottom while we were in Chennai, so we bought some garlands of flowers to decorate the house and I made sure all necessary household items were available.
- Aventures in India — Scribbled Travel Notes [en] (2000)
- From Pune to Alleppey [en] (2004)
- A Day in India [en] (2005)
- More Backlog [en] (2001)
- Arriving in India: First Weeks in Pune [en] (2000)
- Appreciating India: From Yamunotri to Pune [en] (2000)
- Back to Bombay and Surrendering a Flat in India [en] (2000)
- Sleeping in India and Putting My Brain Straight [en] (2015)
- Internet Cafés [en] (2001)
- Of Grief and Travel [en] (2011)