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Phil's 1998 India Travelogue


Madras is the fourth largest city in India, with a mere 6 million people (behind Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta). Similar to Bombay, it is actually a product of the British invasion, being merely a village before then. They built Fort Saint George, a huge fort to protect their spice trade in the 17th century, now part of the central city.

Foolishly, I booked a bus ride to my hotel, which was truly a great mistake - the driver had some agenda of his own, which pissed me off, as well as some of the other passengers, and it took an unbearably long time to get to my hotel - actually he dropped me off in a side street which led to a dead end. So I am standing there with my big backpack at this deadend full of poverty stricken Indian in filthy hovels, wondering why he let me off here. I asked one man, who pointed to a small side street which led to a train station, which still was confusing. Finally some old man, a porter asked me to carry my bag for 10 rupees (25 US cents). He couldn't have weighed more than 100 pounds, and now my bags, full of gifts, weighed in a 60 pounds. He pointed to me to put it on his head, so I did, and that poor fellow carried my bag up and down several flights of stairs to get to my hotel. I had to wait up for him many times, but he somehow managed to keep that bag steady on his head. When I got to my hotel, he demanded a much bigger sum which I could not avoid giving him.

I booked into the Hotel Imperial, a hotel that costs 6 US dollars for a room, and you get what you pay for. It was a pretty dirty, 'hotel near the bus station' kind of place, but Hardened Indian Traveller can handle this scene now. The sheets were an appoximation of clean, so that was enough. But I think it is trying to be a two star hotel, because there are all sorts of hotel personnel to take care of your needs, like getting mineral water and such. The hotel's best feature is that it's way off the road, away from the noise of Chennai, which isn't as bad as the other big cities, but bad enough.

Arriving in mid-day, I found that the hotel had several travel agencies, a phone and internet cafe, which was nice - I had no impulse to go walking around Chennai. So I selected one agency, booked a taxi tour for the next several cities, and did a day tour of Chennai.

There wasn't a lot to see in Chennai - saw a museum of Fort Saint George, which was mildly interesting - it contained real mortars and mortar shells and huge paintings of British Royalty long since gone. Next stop was a Christian Church which was most interesting. In case you didn't know, South India has a large Christian influence, and one reason lies in the churches of Chennai. It is at one of these churches, San Thome Cathedral, a beautiful church built in 1504, where the remains of St. Thomas were buried (until they were moved to the Vatican). That is St. Thomas, the famed 'doubting Thomas' that put his fingers into Jesus's wounds to prove that he was resurrected. I had no idea that one of the twelve apostles ended up in India to spread the Christian word.

Which brought up an amusing contrast. Here I was, someone who was born a Catholic, but for all intents and purposes, having been in the Hindu sphere for most of my life, looking at Indian Christians praying to Jesus. Does not compute! But the tomb of St. Thomas felt like a special place and I was glad to have stayed there for a while. I didn't notice or feel any extraordinary current, but it was still seemed special nonetheless.

So after the tour was over, I ended up eating fried prawns and chapattis for dinner at an outside cafe which played tinny Indian music way too loud, though it managed to drown out the nearby traffic noise somewhat. At this point, I can no longer stand Indian city traffic, I've crossed some threshold where it is just way off the scale for me.

The Iyer Family

While I was sending the previous posting in a nearby internet cafe, a young fellow happened to walk in and came up to me and struck up a conversation about spirituality. He was a bit preachy at times but nonetheless seemed sincere.

At times, he was annoying but we did establish a connection, and he said that I must stop by before I leave the next day to meet his family. I figured if the guy was weird or a con artist, meeting his family would bear this out.

So Kumar Iyer meets me the next morning to drive to his family home. He tells me that they used to be a middle class family, but the business failed and they are now very poor.

Their 'house' is on a side street, and is basically a 10 by 12 room with brick walls and a stone slab floor. That's it - that's the living quarters, kitchen, sleeping quarters, everything. On one end are some decent kitchen supplies, harkening back to better times, and on another end is a pile of suitcases and a single closet. It is shockingly meager to me, and is far simpler than any home that I've ever been in.

Kumar tells me that much of the time he sleeps on the roof to give more space to the rest of his family of 4, which includes a 17 year old sister. He also tells me that they were really excited to meet an American, and that his sister did some paintings for me as a gift.

His mother is a 55 year old woman with very long gray hair. She seemed very quiet or depressed, I couldn't tell. Kumar tells me that she rarely leaves the house, and basically her life consists of doing the household chores of preparing and cooking for the next meal. For much of the time, she goes through a pile of white rice, cleaning it by hand. This seems like an agonizingly slow approach, but one that puts great care in the quality of food eaten, a welcome break from restaurants.

They offer me breakfast of idli, a rice pancake and dosa, a dipping sauce, as well as several other foods that I cannot remember. Immediately I can taste the pure quality of the food in comparison to what I have been eating, and this makes my stomach very happy. After chai, they ask about every minute if I want more, and I have to refuse, for by now I am stuffed with all sorts of carbohydrates.

The father arrives later, coming home from the temple. He is a brahman, and a beautiful man, wearing not much besides a loincloth. He is a Shavite, a devotee of Lord Shiva, and has horizontal ash markings not only on his forehead but other parts of his body. He is much older than the mother, which is a common occurance in arranged marriages in India, being in his mid 60s. He is a beacon of brightness and joy, and a pleasure to be around. I ask Kumar if he will have an arranged marriage, but he tells me that first his sister must be placed in marriage, which presents a problem, since in many arranged marriages, the family of the bride must pay a dowry, which can be a hefty sum of money.

Communication goes through Kumar's translations, and it really was a joy to meet his family. Such a simple, simple life, worlds apart from life in the west. As I bid them goodbye, I give his sister some German coins and American paper dollars as a present, a hobby of hers. She asks me if I can send her some painting supplies, and the father asks for glasses. I'll certainly do what I can, once a mailing address is established for them. In the meantime, I give Kumar a good sum of money for a job interview in Calcutta, as he has finished his college courses, but hasn't business clothing to wear to an interview. I hope that he's telling me the truth, but I figure the gain from helping far outweighs the loss of my rupees from a lie. I wish the family well, and take several photos of them, which thrills them. Some folks get a real kick out of getting their photos taken. I leave feeling that if I can establish a long distance relationship with the Iyer family, I can make a difference in their lives with contributions. Kumar tells me that the job interview is a mere formality, and that he will pay me back over time. I await his first email from his new job.


Next, A Tour of Tamil Nadu

Page 12.