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.