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.
Feb. 25, 2014, TIRUNELVELI
Disgust may be a facile response to small, soft, diarrheic piles of human excrement which line Indian streets in lieu of flowers or neatly painted fences, but that is so because the disgust has no certain target.
I walked this morning north along the Thamirabarami River, the narrow, shallow, filthy stream which flows sluggishly north and separates Tirunelveli from Palayamkottai to the east.
Each morning the families who live in adjoining slums walk sleepily to the riverbanks to bathe and brush their teeth and wash clothes by smacking them, soapless, against river rocks and to shit and piss.
Small boys dive into the water, the women with their wash in plastic buckets that once held paint or solvent stand waist-deep in the water and visit, and a man who has just risen uncleaned from his morning squat beside the river road stops a foreign visitor and urges him to take a photo of his “super” young son. A Westerner’s taught avoidance of social objectivity makes it hard to know whether to recall the man’s toilet habits or his pride in his son.
India’s is a disingenuous squalor. It is pervasive, but it is unseen and unaddressed.
I have been displeased in my hotel because the wifi is unreliable and the staff talk loudly in the hallway outside my door and the guest in the next room shouts on his mobile with the door open and the TV volume raised to a scream. Still, I have a shower, bottled water, sheets which may have been washed with soap, and a flush toilet. I live in relative luxury. It feels petty when I walk out to fault those who live as they must.
Those shitting beside the roads and tracks and river have no alternative. A toilet can be found in the deluxe waiting room at the train station, but it costs 40 rupees. Some expensive restaurants have a washroom with a toilet, but the great majority here can’t afford the entrance price. Otherwise, public toilets are not to be found and the out-houses I recall from my childhood haven’t been invented.
The Tirunelveli municipality, as is true of every municipality in India, has provided no toilets (or much of anything else), and in the months I have been wandering through south India, reading The Hindu or the laughably incoherent Indian Express with my morning coffee, I have seen no mention in the papers or on TV of toilets or shit-lined streets or roadside pissers. It’s also fair to note that if toilets were available, porcelain basins in which to defecate, the waste, given the government’s lack of interest, would simply flow out with a flush into the sewage canals and then into the river.
As I picked my way along the broken asphalt of the river road this morning, I made a prissy mental note that aside from the soft brown piles, litter adds to the unsightliness. The city sends out unsupervised workers with barrows, but they miss most streets and most of the trash, and it has become deep over the years—old paper and plastic bags and cigarette packs, a twisted shoe, discarded building materials, a rusted ambulance with flat tires, a radiator hose, or, yesterday, a dead dog with an expression of amused contempt on its maggot-covered face.
I fault the state, but it is countless individuals who routinely throw their trash in the street, and piss there, and spit and shit there. As one who travels nearly as a mute—I have not met a single person in Tamil Nadu who can hold even a simple conversation in English, though English is the country’s lingua franca—I am unable to raise the subject, and I’m doubtful that if I could speak, my questions would even be understood.
During my weeks on the back roads of Tamil Nadu, I’ve developed a deep contempt for my easy scapegoat, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa. She is a longtime party hack familiarly called “Jaya” by the papers. Her face on peeling posters is ubiquitous. Her government Web page is a chest-thumping list of her accomplishments in winning elections with no mention of toilets.
I presume, maybe wrongly, that if if I made my way through her sycophantic retinue and gained an audience, she would frown at my discourtesy in raising such a stinky subject and tell me that programs are being instituted quite soon now to be dealing with litter and protocol for public health. My guess is she has a toilet in her mansion.
I hear voices from home saying, “So why go there, if you dislike it so much?” I say that at times to myself. I feel, too, that mere complaint is useless, until I step in a pile.
My impulse is to look away from the mire that is India. Disgust is not easily communicable, as our national inclination to go to war demonstrates. Euphemism is the easy resort of the propagandist.
We turn away from the screams and torn bodies of war or from close observation of predatory financiers and dress up the ugliness with medals, Sousa marches and Chamber of Commerce scrolls, making it all sound rather fine.
India shields itself from the grotesque with ad words like “exotic” or “picturesque” and posters of pretty women in pretty saris. It works. The country draws busloads of uncritical tourists.
Even so, bathing in sewage has an effect on real people. Misery deserves notice.
It’s 4 p.m., Feb. 17, and the Tenkasi swelter, Florida in August, is beginning to slip away. I’m at the built-in desk in my room at the Krishna Tourist Home with the lights off and the ceiling fan at its highest speed, scratching.
I’m being bitten, usually by small black things, flea-size, but “soft,” an entomologist might say, and tiny brown ants which are country cousins of those at Kappil. Other things too, I think. My feet begin to burn. I look down. There’s nothing on them! Am I going mad?
It’s much worse at night, even slathered with repellant—a polite American repellant which makes suburban gestures Indian bugs find amusing.
I want something which kills them when they peek over the window sill or crawl up out of the mattress, or in under the door, wherever they come from. BLAM! SPLAT!
As it is, I wake up bleary after a night of scratching lying in pools of my blood…
It’s not my dirt that draws them, I think. I’ve been taking three and four showers a day.
I believe it’s the hotel’s ambience.
Immediately below my window is a blackened concrete space between this building and the next. It seems to be the back door to the hotel’s kitchen or maybe it’s a foundry. I don’t know what it is. I see a heavily-stained iron cauldron and an elephant-sized cistern.
A dark-skinned man with a moustache just emerged, saw me peering down from behind my safety grate and gave me a happy wave. I’ve seen him in the morning, washing up and spitting. Whoever he is, he’s my closest neighbor and far from the worst I’ve had. I don’t like his throat-clearing hacking, but he’s usually quiet and keeps his radio low.
Twice a night, from beyond the courtyard, someone, a punk drummer who’s found what he was looking for, bangs a hammer on resonant metal, as though dislodging crumbs or unmelted metal chunks, loud enough to unman a meditator. It usually accompanies the evening call to prayer. For four or five minutes. Twice.
Men sit in the lobby downstairs reading the newspaper. They don’t talk. They don’t look up.
My bathroom “closet” (that’s the term used here as well for the booth at the cyber cafe) is a long, dark rectangle with a drain in the floor I had to scrape open. The hotel has provided a plastic stool and tub, both blue, with scratches, which have inspired me to alter my shower habit of many years and sit on the stool with my feet in the plastic tub humming old jazz tunes while the water drizzles down.
I need to soak the dirt off my feet, of course, but the foot-soak-sitting-shower has inspired me to breathe deeply, nearly ritualistically, and I feel cleaner inside.
Note: Am I acquiring Eastern habits that will be annoying to easy-going Midwesterners?
And I use the tub for clothes. I haven’t sent anything out for months. Clothes given to the hotel man and by him to some hidden laundry come back beautifully folded and clean-smelling but beaten thin. Doing it myself saves money, is an easy demonstration of sturdy self-reliance, and keeps me independent of the unreliable laundries, which miss deadlines too damn often, freeing me to flee at any moment with all my clothes.
I use a one-rupee packet of Tide. That’s kept my T-shirts and shorts sunshine fresh. I let the clothes soak for a half-hour or so, slosh them for a minute, rinse them two or three times, wring them out well and, in this hotel, hang them on my curtain rod above the courtyard with its deep, wide, dark, mostly-covered cistern. They dry in a few hours. If they are picking up courtyard accents, I haven’t noticed it. But I wouldn’t. A half hour outside, and the shirt is dripping sweat.
Within, on a two-inch pedestral beyond the shower, is a serviceable Western toilet with a handy bottom-cleaner hose nearby instead of toilet paper. That’s as awkward initially as eating with your hand, your right hand, always, because you clean yourself on the toilet with the hose and your left hand, or, if you are without a hose, with water from a plastic cup splashed around with your left hand.
(At such moments, my background at the Kinsey Institute combines with these toilet insights and I understand the widespread condemnation of oral sex and finger food by traditionalists, some even in our own bottom-splashing hinterlands.)
With practice, however, I’ve concluded the hose approach is superior to ours. Paper! Disgusting!
Eating with the right hand only, though, is difficult to remember, like calling that bozo in City Hall Mr. Mayor.
Stretching alongside the hotel and back toward the river is a 30-yard strip of garbage which is a convenient urinal for every man without a toilet within reach, which means most men here.
Krishna Home, as it’s known locally, is buggy and stained, yet despite such blemishes—the smell, the heat, the black cauldrons, the bugs, the peeing public, the rubbery, green lizard four inches long which dropped last night from the ceiling onto the desk just beside my left hand—this hotel is the best I’ve stayed in on this trip.
And cheap. I’ll have spent 6 days here for $53.
Krishna must be experienced in context. It’s relatively clean, the staff are alert, and though no one speaks English, I really haven’t had much to say.
Some hotel restaurants here are dark and unhelpful. The Krishna’s is dark and friendly. The waiter, with just a half menu of English words, having seen me struggle with some entrees, has made thoughtful recommendations.
The restaurant is more expensive than it should be in a town this small, but this is a respectable hotel, and the restaurant, though it has uncovered formica tables and unhappy lights, is as well. My fellow diners are all unwealthy middle-class Indians. They don’t speak with each other, and they’re made a bit uneasy by surroundings more formal than at home, but they’re decorous. The restaurant staff are nice to them and have been helpful to me, trying to understand what I want.
They have labored, for instance, to serve coffee I can drink. Initially, they brought me a large cup of hot milk with about three tablespoons of coffee in a stainless-steel bowl. It was an odd presentation. They thought it odd, I suppose, that I wanted so much milk, but they served it politely.
Then the elderly bus-boy took charge. He understood what I wanted and brought a big cup of coffee and a big cup of milk. I applauded him. He was happy. I was happy.
Yesterday, after several days of coffee ease while reading The Hindu, the bus-boy was reminded of his station, and the waiters took charge again. They brought a big cup of hot water, a big cup of milk and the tiny stainless-steel bowl with its swallow of coffee.
What the hell! I put the coffee in the water, added milk, and it wasn’t bad.
It may be that their coffee is as hashish is to dope—a refined and enhanced brew.
Note: I must be more trusting and open.
But I’ve been content here, bottom line, as the salesman says, because Krishna Home is a good hotel. It approximates a home, shabby in this case, but warm, with many servants, and it tries to provide what I want. Otherwise, they leave me alone.
It’s been a good place for writing and for reading, and whenever I step out, the man at the desk is polite and the guard outside, a wildly combed army veteran, snaps to attention and salutes. He does that for everyone, but for a moment I’m back in NATO’s CENTAG and I return the salute. The years disappear. Paris beckons.
Unusual odors waft in with the evening breeze here. I prefer them to the canned corporate smell of home.
And outside, Tenkasi has been interesting to me, and nice. I’ve walked miles looking into the doorways of tiny side-by-side huts in the early morning, a room occupied by a family. Down alleys and lanes that lead on to more and more, with women at the water pumps filling jugs and bright saris and houses of pink and blue and orange and cows in the street and rangoli house-blessing symbols drawn with rice powder.
Saturday morning, on the east side, I turned down the lane of Ajis Saif. He stopped washing his motorcycle to welcome me to Tenkasi. He insisted I sit down and have a cup of tea, and he introduced his children. He said, I believe, that he wanted my memories to be sweet.
Last night I stopped a man who looked like my late Uncle Bruce and asked for help. He led me to a pharmacy and then insisted on paying for my aspirin and Apollo Soft Tissues. “It is nothing,” he said, and exited stage right cleanly.
This morning, at my cyber shop, Raj Net, the young lady clerk came back to my tiny closet to say hello again with a big smile and ask if I have children and to invite me to her place in Tirunelveli. She had virtually no English, so I may have misunderstood that an attractive 20-year-old was hitting on me, but anyway the phone rang up front and I didn’t see her again. “Women of Tenkasi!” I wrote in my notebook with a smiley face. Such notes become cryptic after a day or two.
It’s been over 90 every day with a heavy sun, the bugs in my room are daunting, the garbage stinks, the sewers are open, the streets are bordered by dust and rubble, I haven’t had a conversation since Varkala, and the traffic is as dangerous here as anywhere I’ve been except Endeva, near Kappil, but I felt sad this afternoon when I decided to move on. Tenkasi has good vibes.
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.”
January 27, at Seawind on Kappil Beach Kerala
Tourist signs declaiming it to be “God’s Country” notwithstanding, sunny Kerala has its perils: riptides, falling coconuts, “tuskers” in the streets, multiple varieties of cobras and other poisonous snakes, thumb-sized cockroaches, tuk-tuk and bus drivers and a long list of venomous spiders, some of which jump and one whose bite, according to an Internet naturalist with no academic credentials listed, causes a victim to “bleed from every orifice” within minutes of being bitten. It’s prudent to look under the bed and shake out the covers before settling in for the night.
I’ve become most familiar with the ants. The ones in my house come in several sizes and colors. The most interesting ones are brown and small: the size of the tiny top and bottom crosshatches on my MacBook’s cursor.
As I write on a sunny January afternoon, a thin stream is moving across the opposite wall, from the window ledge southwest to the baseboard, then due west. It’s a tiny brown ant main highway–mostly four-lane north and south but bubbling out, this being India, to six or eight lanes at times.
A couple of nights ago, having just finished Heart of Darkness and being at loose ends, I could find only a done-in moth at the end of the highway, already stripped of color but being moved for its remaining calories into the ants’ cupboard, so I put a peanut on the window ledge. How long would it take the ants to find it? And what would they do with it?
It took just a minute. One ant left the highway and circled the nut, then another. In a few minutes perhaps 10 or 12 were on it or circling, though the traffic on the highway didn’t slacken. I had expected more. More action, quicker.
I broke a section of a namkeen-spiced Cheetos Puff onto the sill: a bright yellow target made with Real Cheez. That caused a stir. The entire highway veered immediately toward the Puff and the ants covered it. Meanwhile, the select, small crew continued its desultory work on the peanut.
I lost interest and went to bed. In the morning, I remembered. The peanut was gone, but the piece of Cheetos remained. More exactly, something Cheetos-shaped and Cheetos-sized remained, but it was pale. The ants had taken the color and presumably all within that was edible, leaving a husk behind and confirming what mothers have always said: “Cheetos aren’t food!”
But what are they? What is that husk, that inert piece of dry fluff that even these ants won’t eat?
It’s puzzling. They are voracious. Before I learned, I lost a Snickers bar to them. I put it incautiously on the table, and they bored a pinhole through the wrapper in minutes. When I pulled it open, expecting a chocolate treat, I found the bar swarming with chocolate-faced ants.
I bought a new jar of Mellow Peanut Butter, an excellent spread from Trivandrum. The ants got into it before I opened it, beneath the metal cap and through the foil seal inside. I was barely in time. Only eight or ten were actually swimming in the surface oil. I made them leave.
Alerted to the menace, I put a package of unopened crackers in a safe place—an eight-inch wooden spike protruding inexplicably but conveniently from the bedroom wall six feet above my bed. I dropped the unopened crackers in a plastic bag and hung the bag from the spike, making sure it didn’t touch the wall. That fooled them for nearly a full day, yesterday and this morning, but I glanced that way an hour ago and saw a thin trail of the little ants descending from the ceiling, and I could see them on the spike. I looked inside the bag. Thousands. They had eaten through the outer foil packaging of the crackers and then through the inner plastic wrap. I fed the crackers to the pye dog lying in the yard, who ignored the ants.
Though I’ve sprayed (a pleasant-smelling formula called Good Knight), at times I admire my little companions. They are as dedicated as their human bretheren in insurance companies and media conglomerates. They are an incentive to brush up crumbs, and they let nothing go to waste. I found a small triton sea shell the other day washed up, the dead animal inside, and put it by my porch. The ants built a hill over it and stripped out the animal within hours.
They are occasionally a nuisance, as when they eat a Snickers or find crumbs near a bare foot, for though they’re tiny, they bite. I think they must ambush the spiders and moths I see being borne off as in an old safari movie, and I think without exaggeration that if a suspected non-lemming were cheneyed by NSA thugs and strapped to a table, the ants in this house alone would leave nothing but shiny bones behind in a day or two.
I am likely breathing too much the air of India, but as I pondered the hollow Puff on my window sill I was reminded of our Real Cheez capital and the bipedal feeder-ants there—dealers with buffed nails and good creases and fraternity grins. They leave us as window-dressing the inert dry fluff of official Washington.
And we eat it.