March 21-22 2014, MADURAI
I plan my walks from Google Maps. I scrutinize satellite images for narrow lanes, rail lines, a river or sewage canal—the cramped streets where small houses touch.
The better-off in all Indian cities live invisibly behind high walls. In the crowded neighborhoods, doors are open in the morning from small rooms. Life spills into the streets. Roosters crow. Carts rumble. A woman hacks her throat clear. The milk man calls from his bicycle.
It’s a stumbling walk each morning into streets that touch ancestral memory,
Women make their trip to the neighborhood pump with 20-liter plastic jugs in red or purple or white or stripes, men sit on the ledge outside their door and read the newspaper and smoke. A man brushes his teeth on his top step and spits into the sewer gutter. A woman squats to pee by the tracks. Kids in blue/white or red/brown or grey/white school uniforms appear. It is respectable to come out pressed and shiny. In the poorest streets, they are barefoot, and the uniforms are hand-me-downs.
Raw sewage, moving slowly in dirt or concrete channels, is never far away. The air smells of it and of the urine on walls and smoke from wood grills and garbage fires and tea shops and incense a woman is wafting beneath the encrusted tail of a brown cow that has been painted with bright hand prints and devils. The air is never fresh.
Inside a door this morning, a uniformed girl sat on the floor while her grandmother fixed her hair. At another house a sour-looking laborer scrubbed his sudsed, wiggling little boy on a slab by the door and gave him a smack to improve his cooperation. In a deep ditch between two walls, half covered by a plastic trash bag, a white dog was dying, shaking, eyes closed, whimpering to herself like an abused child. Just past a stand of rickshaws, a huge man blocked my path and said in a small voice, “What is your sweet name, please?” Three huge hogs round a house corner just in front of me to root in garbage. A dog runs at me snarling.
India has millions of tiny shops. In the neighborhoods they are little groceries, corner idli and vada shops, tea stands. The grocery stalls have detergent, water, pop, festoons of packaged crunchy snacks, cigarettes sold individually and jars of penny candy. Children run to them on errands.
Women stop to talk. Men buy a tiny cup of steaming tea and eat a quick breakfast for 20 rupees. A cow or two, some goats, are tied nearby or saunter by. Dogs lounge indolently. Rickshaws cluster. The reek of sewage rises from the ditch. Vegetable vendors have their mats spread and the tomatoes and peppers or coconuts displayed. The fruit carts appear. Conversation is everywhere, laughter, the chain-saw tuk-tuk-tuk and horn blare of rickshaws, clucking chickens and a too-loud radio from a doorway.
The vegetables and bright fruits and the saris and the pink and orange walls give color to the shabby steet. Women make the wide-legged peasant bend and draw the day’s rangoli on the lane before the door. Municipal cleaners rake garbage into piles for burning, or to be taken away in carts for burning. A little boy of three defecates in the dirt 10 feet from his doorway, bending his head to watch the progress. Old women and men sit on the pavement or on age-blackened steps, staring at nothing. Escape seems unlikely.
These streets are not much visited by outsiders. I have never seen a Western tourist in them, and official India, including the limp-wristed press, ignores them.
I create a stir as I walk, much as I did snorkeling beyond the reef in the Red Sea, where the fish patterns would dissolve as I approached. It is not hostile, but it is watchful and wary.
I have learned this slowly. The shadow at the door is a woman watching, there an old man, the three men at the tea stand, the woman on the balcony, the man in the grocery stall.
I am closely watched.
They watch, but their first inclination is friendly.
Live in Indian hotels, as I have for months, and it’s difficult not to conclude that most Indians are listless, heedless and unresourceful. Such are India’s middle managers and company reps, those who people the hotel world.
In the neighborhoods, however, people, speaking large, are more generous to a stranger. They have the grace politeness confers; their deference is sincere.
Of India’s many curses of self-indulgence, deference to foreign, deference to rich and deference to white rank high, close to corruption.
It may be that the powerless are deferential, polite with a thin Potemkin politeness, because they have learned their lot is to be subordinate. Yet in these raggedy streets “they” are not uniformly anything. The weasels are easy to spot, as they are anywhere, the clean and the dirty, the quick to smile and the pimps (for here is where you go if you are looking for sex, whatever your awful predeliction), the stalwart and the respected.
Most return my namaskar greeting, the hands together in front of the chest in the Indian equivalent of “salaam alaikem.” Boys of 8 or 9 run up and say, “Hello how are you I am fine.”
My nationality is important because it confirms I’m from away, where conditions are better. I say “USA” or “America,” and they approve, “Ah.” But I have been German and French and Italian and even English, and they said “Ah” in exactly the same way.
No one objects to my presence, and when I stop, seeing a face or texture , I’m quickly hemmed in and pawed by the kids, who call, “Photo, photo,” so I will take their picture. One mother points to another, saying I must take her. Honor her, she says. Grandmothers appear with infants. I shoot, smilingly and pompously dispensing beneficence, as deference insists I must.
My camera has a good view screen. I punch up the shots I just took of the baby, the mother and all the kids, and the kids next door, and I can zoom in on a face and give that person a pat. They crowd in to see under the shade of my hand. No one asks for money.
They look to recognize themselves, and then they smile and thank me, “Super!” I give the little girl who’s pulling too hard on the camera a light smack and say, “Hold on,” for it seems that’s the right thing to do. I give the grandmother’s shoulder a squeeze. Touching seems the right thing to do, for men and women, boys and girls. I shake hands and give half hugs and squeezes and pats. I bask in Tahitian smiles. As I walk on, trailed to lane’s end by 10 or 12 small kids, I’m Pied Piper. One always asks for my pen; all of them are excited. The teenagers we pass are blase.
Celebrity politicians may pass through once every few years in a motorcade, and great seers come to town, but I am the most rare Important Visitor. I take notice. I walk the bustee lanes and speak as I can to individuals and hug pretty little girls and joke with teenage boys and say “Oooh” at babies and shake my finger at a barking dog just as they do, and jump the same streams of sewage.
I speculate, that is, that unfair though it is, I have influence by birth and circumstance somehow to encourage a neighborhood’s prettiest face, as a teacher can lift shy students, as a priest can bless a life.
My presence and photographs of generations of family and neighbors, all the happy kids—dim images on a view screen in bright sunlight—affirm I think that I have noticed and may remember.
Early March, 2014, RAMESHWARUM, Tamil Nadu
It had been a grueling 180 kilometer trip in a horn-tooting auto-rickshaw from Tuticorin to Pambam Island and Rameshwaram. When I arrived in late afternoon the temple town’s slippery lanes were teeming with sober pilgrims to the 12th century Ramanathaswamy Temple. It is a commercialized memorial to Lord Rama’s attempt to rescue his wife Sita from the evil Ravanai.
Sri Lanka lies just a few miles to the east.
The first four hotels I tried were dingy and full. The general manager of the last called me back as I was leaving and with an air of magnanimity made an offer: a “suit” for 3,800 rupees, a staggering $61. It was a suite because it had an unlighted ante-room with a conference table. In the bedroom, two emperor-sized beds had been pushed together, creating mattress space but little roll room for at least eight chaste pilgrims. The bathroom was the normal bathroom for a single room.
I went next door to the Rama Palace, a two-story building set in a well-tended compound with much of the trash and garbage thrown over the wall.
Prabakaran, the 22-year-old co-manager and a graduate of a regional college for hotel administrators, showed me room 105. The sheets were short but looked clean, I would have doors both to the lobby and to the driveway and windows that opened. The uneven curtains were undecided whether to be raw or burnt umber, with decorative swirls. The walls were prison green, and just beyond the foot of the bed finger streaks at about four feet fell toward the floor where a midget had been shot. The shelves had an empty Fanta bottle with dead ants, a newspaper page dating to the previous fall and a bent plastic flower. I saw nothing moving.
The bathroom was across the lobby through an unmarked door: the cold-water shower was in the first stall, an old-style squat toilet was in the second, partially blocked by an overturned plastic bucket and a stiff mop.
“The toilet!” Prabakaran said with a flourish.
It all went for 600.
Prabakaran’s co-manager, a handsome but glum one-legged man I immediately thought of as Golm, sneered, though it made no sense. He swung away with his one crutch to the lobby sofa and stretched out facing the wall.
“What happened to your leg,” I asked him later, when he was sitting up.
“Bad man!” He glared.
I was unsure whether he meant me, for asking, or someone who had cut his leg off for some reason. He seemed healed, but maybe the memories were fresh.
The next morning the ancient city and temple called. I found my knees still worked for the squat toilet, then moved to the dim shower stall. I had the tiny bar of hotel soap, my shampoo, my finger-nail brush and my bath puffy in a plastic bag.
I had walked through the unusually demented traffic of Rameshwarum the evening before in bayou heat but had fallen into bed unwashed except for water from the wall spigot I splashed on my head and feet. I had considered a shower, but the stall was daunting in the twilight, and I was tired. Now, I was sticky. I needed a long, soaking shower without touching the wall.
I stripped, put my glasses in the pocket of my shorts on the door handle, balanced my puffy atop my purple soap dish, placed my green plastic bottle of Reebonn shampoo for dry and damaged hair in a cleanish spot on the dry and damaged floor and reached for the faucet.
The handle seemed to be missing. I squinted close. Yes, there was no handle.
No problem. It had likely fallen off and rolled to a darker corner of the stall or was outside in the larger stall behind one of the plastic buckets or the tipped-over plastic bottles on the shelf or under the wrapper from a bar of soap. Maybe even in the squat room.
I found my glasses, but the handle was gone. I had hopes for the small dark pile of this and that by the old mop. It wasn’t there.
I showered the traditional way, pouring water from the bucket over my head.
“So, the shower?” I said to Prabakaran when he appeared. I hadn’t awakened Golm, who was asleep on the floor. He was the weaker administrator of the two.
Prabakaran frowned, puzzled. Shower?
“Yes, I said. “No handle.” I motioned as though turning on a shower, indicating with fluttering fingers the water falling in the morning light on my dry and damaged head. I pantomimed finding the handle missing. My disappointment and surprise.
He had known the word “shower” yesterday. He had pointed at it and said “shower.”
He was reluctant, but I led him to the toilet room and pointed into the shower cubicle. The faucet handle was still missing.
He cocked his head and looked at me with suspicion. One day, and I had broken his shower. First minutes on the job, and he had to deal with this!
“Yes,” he said, wagging his head. “Plumber. Plumber come.” That meant the problem was solved. He turned to return to his chair by the front door.
“This hotel?” I asked politely, pointing toward the rooms I could see beyond the atrium balcony upstairs. I would appeal to his professionalism. “Pay 600 rupees. Shower broken!” I opened my arms dramatically as though it had exploded. “Want shower! Shower handle.”
“Plumber, “ he repeated. He frowned. Why was I so obstinate?
No, I said, forgoing the measured language of diplomacy. You don’t need a plumber. Give me a pair of pliers. That will suffice. I imitated using pliers on the de-handled shower stub and celebrated the flow of water.
He grimaced, wrinkled his nose and moued at my pliers. He didn’t understand. It was too technical.
I had been too fast and overly poetic. I pinched my fingers on the grooved stub where the handle should be and tried to turn it. It wouldn’t turn. I urged Prabakaran to try. He didn’t want to. I pretended I had a pair of long-handled pliers. I turned the stub. Water fell from the shower head. I made sounds of water.
Prabakaran denied pliers. “Plies?” he said, making a sound like a housefly.
He was getting uncomfortable. He had missed the nuance, but he understood I didn’t like the shower. I had paid 600 rupees, nearly $10, for the room. He had promised a toilet and a shower, and it was becoming clear the shower without water wouldn’t satisfy me. He was unacquainted with pliers, yet he knew my complaint was valid. It was a conundrum.
He made a full pirouette. The solution came to him. I saw it at once in his eyes.
He gestured commandingly and led me to room 107, adjacent to my toilet room. Room 107 was the hotel’s Chief Ministerial room, with two triple-size beds pushed together, a bureau, a tiny TV dating from 1969 and an attached toilet. It was the 1,000 rupee room.
He led me in. The bathroom was unbuffed since the last visitor, with coiled black noodles in the sink drain. The flush toilet’s bottom-cleaning hose was lying on the floor, leaking. The mirror had been sneezed on. There was a small dollop of brown stuff on the floor near the toilet, but the room had a shower with a faucet handle
“Lovely,” I said.
“Use shower,” he said, pointing. A small, soft-looking piece of yellow soap was waiting for me in the soap dish.
I tried the handle. It worked. Water dribbled out through the partially clogged shower head.
“And toilet,” I said, pointing and applauding like Richard Simmons. It needed a brushing, but so did the squat toilet. I tried the bottom-washing hose. It wasn’t good. The water jet was weak, but it would probably work for the brown stuff on the floor. Anyway, I had flip-flops.
“Shower,” he said firmly. He seemed displeased that I might use the deluxe toilet as well as the shower and take advantage of his good nature.
“Yes!” I said. “Good job. Shower toilet. Will use. Plumber come!” I was pleased.
He made the decision. “No problem,” he said.
He resumed his administrator’s chair by the front door. The shower complaint had been resolved in only five minutes. This was how to run a hotel!
Golm, who had gotten up and moved to the couch, didn’t agree. He wiggled unhappily and turned again toward the wall, breathing a long, exasperated sigh. Later, he removed the bar of hotel soap I had thoughtlessly left in the 1,000 rupee soap dish.
March 1, 2014, Tuticorin
The middle-aged man stopped his tiny white car beside me this morning as I was walking along the Buckle Canal just east of Jeyaraj Road in Tuticorin.
India had many beautiful places to see, he said. Why was I taking a picture of “ugly?”
“I ask friendly,” he said, grinning.
It was a reasonable question. I had already shot a pretty, distant steeple over a wall (only spotting the man peeing against the wall during editing) and a picturesque, high-wheeled cart. They, except for the pisser, was what he had in mind as suitable subjects. Would I run slideshows of sewage for the family when I got home? Pull up a shot of Buckle Canal and recall its flowerings on the first day of March?
He asked the question clearly and politely, but I’d been sick and was hacking and spitting like everyone else and wasn’t feeling diplomatic.
“Are you asking because you want to know, or do you just want to give me a lecture?” I said.
He laughed and waggled his head. “I am graduate,” he said, meaning he’d been to college and was a man of the world.
I squinted at him. What the hell did that have to do with the price of tea in China?
I didn’t say that; nor did I say that I was taking pictures of things I encountered on walks, in this case in a high-rent neighborhood, because men of the world like himself weren’t doing it.
“Ugly?” I said. “It’s just an average street. Apparently the government thinks it’s OK.”
He laughed. “You coming German, USA?”
Yup, I said.
“You embarass goverment, good,” he said, “but see universal embarrass country.”
I commended him. He was the first Indian, I told him, to ask me such a question, and it was a good point. I had sent an e-mail with ugly pictures to the Chief Minister, but hadn’t heard back. If I had a prize, I’d give it to him for seeing ugly.
I walked on, getting a lovely shot of small feeder pipes dribbling eight or 10 more gallons a minute into the canal, which drops its load a mile on into Tuticorin Bay near New Beach.
Yes, he surely had a point, and I’d heard it before. My old newspaper in the States took direction from the local Chamber of Commerce, Babbitts to a man or woman. They would use a cholera outbreak as an opportunity to highlight the excellence of local hospitals, or ear-drum-busting war planes as a chance to get funding for the Leahy School for the Deaf. I understood his reservations. Bad news isn’t constructive. Bad news is bad.
But I had walked by the shiny (on the outside) new municipal building here just before I got sick and was so struck by the contrast between it and the street outside that I consciously slowed to clear my throat on its manicured lawn.
I had become tired of namaskaring politicians featured always cutting a ribbon for a crony’s gold mine. Public health, sanitation, water purification, cholera rates, babies’ birth weights and so on are not mentioned publicly here, any more than our slums and poor get covered—i.e. a reporter embedded—by NBC or any of our lickspittle (what a good word!) networks, let alone God’s annointed Times, which waits these days for confirmation from D.C. that what could be news is fit to print.
Beyond annoyance about how the average person here is mistreated by the government, I was still grinding my teeth over the moralistic support from all sides (Congress, BJP, AAP) when the New York consular clerk Devyani Khobragade was charged in December with felonies for lying on visa forms about the pay for her live-in maid. Strip searching an innocent Indian diplomat! The Indian government promptly removed the concrete barriers protecting the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. None of the papers here paid any attention to the maid, who was, after all, just an indentured servant. This was U.S throwing weight! The Fox-equivalent coverage here, which is all coverage, went on for weeks. Poor Devyani. Strip searched. Body cavities. Jailed with criminals!
I’m on the sixth floor of the “luxurious” Raj Hotel in Tuticorin. I just threw open the sash to get a breath of fresh air and promptly closed it. The Canal, 400 meters north, was blowing my way.
Nah. Thousands of people live beside Buckle and thousands more move along it every day on city streets. This is the home neighborhood for that pretty teenager passing on her bike, a handkerchief held to her nose, that little boy, the store clerk who went out her way to be nice and the beggar who touched me softly as I walked by. My questioner probably would consider him ugly. “We having many pretty girl. Super! Why you photo ugly man?”
After I published a reasonable notebook entry in Tirunelveli called “Shit,” I heard from an Indian who told me I shouldn’t have taken a picture of the excrement lining a public street, or the man peeing just off another street, or the garbage lining another street.
I respond that if a friend comes back from India with no photos of sewage and garbage, they haven’t strayed from Potemkin India. Chastise them. Take their progressive card.
The next time you see an Indian diplomat or high official blathering about Ghandi or making any claim at all to the moral high ground about anything, remember that they are doing nothing about Buckle and its millions of counterparts. Only a tiny number of people here, the Devyanis’ ilk, live outside the stench zone.
Sewage is India’s apple pie.