The desk assistant at the Krishna Tourist Home, a dark-skinned man with a moustache and a striped shirt, pointed out the window of room 110. “Nature,” he said.
It was mid-afternoon,Texas hot outside, and I was sticky after a long trip to Tenkasi from the Kerala coast. The room looked adequate. The price was 550 rupees, less than ten dollars, and it came with a ceiling fan, a built-in desk, a TV that worked and a bathroom with hot water, which I hadn’t had since Mysore, and then only from 6 to 9. The bed sheet didn’t quite cover the mattress, but for reasons beyond my ken, that is nearly always the case.
Though I’d already decided to stay, I looked over his shoulder at nature. He was pointing past the littered courtyard just below and past a broken wall and maze of power lines to several palms on a nondescript green hill, thinking, apparently, that the concept alone would sway me. He hadn’t noticed the hotel worker standing just outside his tiny hut below my window in his skimpy underwear, pouring water on his head.
Could I have a towel, too?
Yes, I could. He jumped to attention. And a blanket! he said —an extra sheet to cover up with when the night chill crawls in the window.
The sale made, he led me to the end of the corridor to look out at more nature through the grating of the open window at the back of the hotel. The courtyard there had one pit filled with coconut husks and another with empty beer bottles. Outside the wall a rivulet of garbage headed west as though trying to reach the fenced in fields and the thick palm grove at the Hanji North River. Five men stood along the garbage patch, peeing.
In front of the hotel, along Tenkasi’s main street, the electronic shops and an optician and dentist and fruit stands, bakeries, are pressed close together. The street has no sidewalks; it tapers off to the brown urine-dribbled dirt and rubble, ragged and with open unwarned pits, that border all Indian streets. Landscaping hasn’t yet arrived, though billboards with smiling beauties selling perfume or concrete or paint often picture scenes of bright cleanliness as remote to people here as Fred Astaire nightclubs and hotels and dancing blondes in glittery gowns were to pre-war America.
The street bleeds its constant honking traffic to the building fronts, two lanes morphing into many more for opportunistic drivers, buses blaring their horns, the rickshaws theirs, the scooters and motorcycles theirs, and pedestrians walking with scant attention to what’s coming, and the traffic swinging off without a signal into any open space, regardless of direction.
The sewers are narrow concrete trenches on both sides of the streets, emptying into the rivers. The stench of garbage and human waste is strong and constant in the poorer neighborhoods. A street bordering the rail line was lined this Valentine’s Day morning with new piles of soft human excrement. Litter of the crushed bright packaging of snacks and soap and milk powder and everything sold in the tiny markets, ground into the dirt by countless feet, frames the streets with trash. The sweet smell of urine, the constant smell of India, wafts through my hotel room as seductively as funeral home flowers.
A pye dog sniffs at me as I walk by then resumes drinking from the sewage trench.
I walked my first morning behind the hotel toward the river along a dirt track that soon became a foot path. I left the garbage strip behind, though the litter continued. The man walking just in front stopped and without a glance to see who might be close peed into the grass, shook himself, then blew his nose between two fingers, shook his hand, wiped it on his dhoti and walked on.
I came to a fenced-in area where a shepherd boy of 17 or 18 was watching a bull with its horns painted blue. I nodded to him.
“Ehhh?” he said. “Ehhh?” He didn’t smile.
Closer to the river, the fields widened and I came to washed clothes, still dingy, put on the hot grass to dry. A young woman stood there wrapped in a towel, as Brigitte Bardot used to appear from steamy bathrooms. She took no notice of me. Goats rasped from a field somewhere to the north. I took a drink of my Sugapriya bottled water.
Beyond, on the river bank in the shade of the palms, village women banged clothes against the rocks with great soapless swings of the clothes as though chopping wood, and others, men and women, were bathing in the river, midstream, in brown water nearly waist deep, still clothed.
A village man with grey hair, tending two cows, concluded I was lost. He pointed north, up a steep bank, cracked from the heat and past a cluster of hovels. The road was there, he gestured.
He was concerned. He took me gently by the hand and led me. When we reached the road, he took my hand again and led me into a sawmill where the workers looked askance but said nothing. He wanted to show me a new bullock cart with high wheels, but I couldn’t understand why or if it was his. “Bye-bye,” he said.
Tenkasi, pronounced Tenkashi, is friendly. Its wide main streets, the roads leading on to Madurai and Teruneveli, pass neighborhood lanes that lead on to smaller lanes and alleys in a grid but with multiple turns and twists and dead-ends. At night, scarcely lighted, it would be frightening, and one can buy anything in those streets in one house or another. By the light of early morning, it was otherwise.
A small boy saw me coming and ran in fear to his mother. She laughed and kissed him and carried him back to me, reassuring him. A man brushing his teeth out his front door over the sewer called hello to me. A pretty schoolgirl of 11 or 12 wanted to know my name and from where I am and just what I am doing please. A woman filling her jug at the neighborhood pump stopped pumping to nod a greeting. Groups of school boys jumped in front of me so I could take their picture for them to look at. A thin man took a picture of me with his phone and showed it excitedly to his family and then to me. “Welcome,” he said. “Thank you.”
I thanked him and put the phone in my pocket and turned to walk on. That caused even the old woman who had been glaring at me from the stoop next door to laugh.
When I finally turned the corner, steering toward the massive tombstone-like Kasi Vishwanathar Temple which looms over everything and my hotel just beyond, 30 or 40 people, men and women, naked toddlers, school children, teenage ruffians, the ginger man, waved goodby.
“Carry on,” an old man said, wagging his head. “Goodbye.”