Friday, October 19, 2001

The Indian Nod

After a while; after the attack on 'us' by 'them', re-appearance of actual silver cutlery on a plane ride; served by colorfully costumed Indian hostesses with an extra large red dot on the forehead. They whisper in your ears whether to serve Veg or Non-Veg, as if it is a crime to spell the latter. A man in leather suit (it's bloody 35C degrees outside) gulps enough Scotch to last a lifetime in a three-hour fly over to 'Singara Chennai'. The imbalanced dance he performs contradicts heavily with 'Sirungara Nadanam', a dance of Lord Shiva.

A heavy thud on the landing strip wakes you up to an ancient airport. Calcium formed water taps in the 'Latrine' explain the mystery of healthy teeth of this populous country. The immigration officer is reading 'Eelanadu' a newspaper from Northern Sri Lanka while stamping on passports and embarkation cards. The headline of 'Eelanadu' states a quote by Lankan politician: "Tigers shouldn't be the sole solution to the North". The passenger nods in a virtual agreement. The officer is puzzled and become suspicious by this T-shirt and worn-sandal clad, country looking backpack carrier of his 17-year tenure in Canada. "You speak perfect Tamil", he says as if that is an abnormality. Unsatisfactorily he let loose the passenger. With no smile, no welcome to India and an atypical stern face of a father who is about to punish his child.

It's rainy season; it's muddy season; it's don't go there season. Flooded brown streets filled with green debris from previous hour's thunder, lorries' screaming deafening horn, 125cc bikers on crazy parade, sacred cows, scary goats and people, lots and lots of people. A beggar child, less than five years old, cries for 'nalanaa' (25c) with little hand beating her purposely twitched mouth, on a stop sign. Auto Rickshaw drivers curse her for being nuisance to their crispy(?) driving habits. "Veetla sollitu vanthiya?" (Have you said good bye to home) as if you'd ask for blessing from your parents to go begging on the streets. This little child probably had never seen her father or even the mother.

The night of Chennai streets. 'Small' people sleeping under 80 feet cutout of a film star's gaze. The film star points a Magnum 44 at drivers of Mount Road. A twin of him with plastic biceps, wrestle-mania makeup, 6 inch carved blade and twisted look boasts a box office hit of this years' Deepavali. While high tech firms on Anna Salai with ultra blue neon signs portrays middle class boom, hungry children fights for coconut pieces from a late night vow at a roadside Ganesha temple. A sacred cow emerges from the chaos with the biggest piece of the coconut. Survival of the living that makes no difference in who fights for what.

India assembles many brands of cars: Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, Suzuki and the ever-lasting Ambassador: the car of choice and pride of greater India. It is the taxi, the tourist car, Prime Minister's limousine and a poor man's entry in to luxury. It wears the same makeup for more than fifty years with just a touchup of 'Talcum' powder here and there. The Ambassador comes in many models: Classic, Elegance and Super Deluxe. But, they all feel the same, look the same and sell almost at the same price of a single seat Harley Davidson in North America. These 6,000-pound beasts are made for the hard ride of typical country roads. It stays a good foot above ground; maneuvers the bumps, holes, dogs and occasional turkey with a flow of a slalom skater.

The driver of airport taxi, an Ambassador, of this goodwill ambassador from Canada sights the already leaving night bus to Trichy. He chases the bus with the horn screaming, waking up an entire neighborhood then cuts in front as if a normal way to stop a 15 tonner. Screeching brakes stops the monster just few inches from the passenger's door. An obituary missed is a life regained.

The Trichy express on Southern highway. Lorries overtaking busses. Busses overtaking lorries. Lorries ferrying sandalwood soap to teen beauties in Thirunelveli. Busses trafficking Kollywood dreamers to Singara Chennai. Everyone drives with the high beam on. And they wink at each other just before passing. Headlights romance in a starry night, with brown trees and thick leaves providing cover from a paparazzo full moon.

Three in the morning. Bus stops for a break and leak for passengers. While a cleaner checks tire pressure with a passionate kick on the sidewalls, the inhabitants of the night-bus looks for cover to leak. Males form a line near a dark tree. Females get lost in the darkness. If you have to go for 'number two' you are out of luck. No stream of water in sight. Tissue..? What tissue?

A ten year old washes dish at a tea stall, with darkened bags under his eyes. No shirt, bare foot and fatigue from a probable thirteen hour shift, in a chilly early morning. He choos a dog that tries to steal a spicy doughnut that probably was his only piece of dinner. Few minutes later a little girl, eightish, runs to him with empty glasses of Chai from another bus. Look around: there are many other child runners. Morning preys of a bulky boss who is probably sleeping with this third wife in a comfortable country-rope bed, under tamarind shades and beside granite floored bungalow.

Child labor is illegal in India. Punishable with severe penalty and jail term. Politicians win elections based on this issue. They go hug children, strike in front of factories that labor children, go on million men marches, hunger strikes, pelt busses, overturn police vehicles, you name it. Then all ends after winning of the election. While opposition continues to blare horn, the pattern continues: ten year olds wash dishes and little girls runs for empty Chai glasses in many night bus-stops while politicians and bulky bosses sleep with their third wife in a comfortable country-rope bed, under tamarind shades and beside granite floored bungalows.

Crispy morning wakes up to Trichy's main bus-stand. Previous night's monsoon effects of mud puddles, overflowing sewage, an arid smell of rotten water. A big sign by an eight feet wall that says, "Don't urinate here", politely disobeyed by a line up of men. Standing, sitting and in various posses with no regard to arriving passengers.

The town is half of Chennai in terms of people, business and chaos. With multiple cultural attractions dating back to early 7th century, Trichy and its suburbs attract loads of tourists and pilgrimages from all over India and overseas.

Trichy is also the closest point of entry for Sri Lankans arriving by plane thus boasting a tiny community of families with 'money-order' wealth accumulated from husbands and children who lives in countries such as Canada, UK, France and Germany. This Dollar wealthy, unofficial refugees cum expatriates from Northern Sri Lanka also generates an over inflation of seafood prices at the Ganesh Nagar fish market, by which, generates resentment from locals who's daily survival is not as classy as the former. Yet, they all mingle, share sorrows and happiness with white teethed laughter helped by calcium rich water drawn from bore wells found in almost every household.

The passenger is visiting his Sister and family. The brother-in-law is a well-connected senior central government officer. A 16-hour chauffeur drives him in a siren-light glowing official car (another Ambassador) to work, to ferry children to school and to the fish market that sells at over-inflated prices. People in Trichy respect higher authority with a typical Indian nod (a slant wave of head left to right at 45-degree angle followed by a head bow). The respect is out of fear, out of future usefulness or just out of habit of the typical Indian nod.

The family is building their dream house: A 3,000 square feet, granite floored, teak wooded masterpiece with an acre of land flushed with young mango, lime and coconut trees. The building takes ten months to build just third of the plan. Heavy manual labor in building trade still exists with no anticipation of change in near future. Kaveri river-sand is filtered and carried upstairs by 'sitthal' woman, one gunny bag at a time to build walls that would be processed one brick at a time. A suggestion to use mechanics is brushed away by lead 'kothanaar' – a self-trained builder, who by eyesight and an ancient leveling ruler defines the straightness of walls, windows and floor. He has built more than one hundred houses over the past fifteen years, he says.

Towards the eastern part of the town, Maris theatre is situated in middle of Trichy's 'hustle and buzzle'. It's a movie theatre complex with four cinemas. It is Deepavali season and all four cinemas are showing brand new films performed by 'stars' of the industry, which makes it impossible to even approach the box office without getting crushed by hoards of fans and onlookers. By default, the Rasigar Manrams (Fan Associations) buys the right to collections for the first week of movie release. The proceeds were supposedly used for charity and but on occasions a roadside pub that sells country arrack also draws enough benefit.

So, therefore in Trichy, the craving to see a movie during its first week of release can only be met by having right connections. Connections of an authoritative figure, super businessman, municipal politician or an area thug. Since the authoritative figure was already available, a phone call enabled five tickets to the hottest show in town: a movie of human complexity and Disney animatics. While the 2nd class and 3rd class patrons threw flowers at the silver screen, broke an auspicious coconut, whistled and applauded, the 1st class educators and the educated yawned and turned multiple times in their seats. A Bio professor seated next with his doctor daughters from Koimbotore complained that an actor considered leader by millions of people shouldn't play negative roles. He justified that the influence this actor have on people will just make them a mirror image of what he portrays on screen. Good logic; but didn't seemed to have heard among the festive hoopla.

Proper connections in India will even earn you a place near God. Sri Rangam is a temple town, half hour ride through potholed streets of Trichy. Built during early 7th century by the Pallava regime it boasts multiple Raja Gopurams (towers), detailed yet delicate sculptures, an open air recital theatre of the great poet Kamban, alleyways of houses, boutique shops, museums and a three hour line up of people from all over the country to worship Sri Ranganathar's sacred and secret statue and footprints. A payment of ten rupees will earn you a place in the three-hour queue. Twenty-five rupees will halve that. Connection of an authoritative figure, super businessman, or a state politician – thugs don't work here – will provide access to God immediately. While the people of ten rupees and twenty fives await patiently in iron caged line-ups, sweating from thirty degree plus humidity and carrying crying little babies, the VIPs gets whisked through by an uniformed guide towards the God. The statue of God, Sri Ranganathar, in a resting position, stays in a dark room. A priest lights an oil lamp, waves it from left to right to show the idol to worshippers. Within ten seconds the lined-people are pushed away to make room for another batch. The VIPs get extra seconds, extra blessing and additional Thulasi flowers from the priest. The God, unaware of these events, continues on his posture, since the early 7th century, through wars, famines, more wars and releases of many Kamalhasan movies.

The short stay at Trichy ends with eating out at Tab, a restaurant with a dark ambience of a basement pub and is made for the tourists. Run by Muslim brothers who happened to be fasting for the Ramadhan. The owner, older brother, sits with the guests through the whole meal, entertaining with casual chat, ordering additional food items directly from the chef, taking care of the connected people. This thriving businessman, thirtyish, practically owns many parts of Trichy's commercial real estate. With a cell phone plug attached to his left ear, the maneuvering of deals he make, while paying total attention to guests impresses the visitor. India composes many of these self made people. Although survival makes them superior hustlers, the pure existence of billion plus consumers allows for infinite potential. If someone would identify the need, the market gets flooded with supplies overnight. The best survives. The losers move on to fill another void.