2016, Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India: the unexceptional, Indian bureaucracy, The Ordinary in India, Travel in India, Unromanticized travel

The Brown Paper Man

GOA–

My thousand-rupee note ($15) was torn..

I hadn’t noticed the quarter-inch imperfection at the top of the bill, just left of the declaration in Hindu and English, “Reserve Bank of India,” but the waiter at a dismal Palolem Beach restaurant brought it back, holding it gingerly, as though it had fallen in the toilet.

It was no good. He showed me the tear and made a sad face.

Of course it’s good, I said. It’s all there. Christ…

“Not good.”

I found other rupees enough to pay for the beer and the worst steak I’ve ever had and tucked the torn note back in the zippered big-note compartment of my Hugo Boss wallet.

A couple of days later, on a morning ride south, I parked my scooter next to the trash-strewn verge in Chawdi, just across from the State Bank of India.

State Bank of India, Chawdi

 

 

The manager at the Agonda Beach branch of HFDC Bank had directed me there. Yes, he said, the bill was good. I was correct. Unfortunately, he could not give me untorn money in exchange. State Bank would take it.

Inside State Bank, a large sign in English instructed all newcomers to take a token and wait until that number was called. There were no tokens. The token tube was empty. Each of the tellers had a lighted “20” below their window.

Twenty-five expressionless customers sat shoulder to shoulder on rows of soiled chairs, their backs to the tellers; others milled as though the train were due. It was a solemn group, not a smile in sight. A policeman with a double-barreled shotgun sat on a stool by the front door, already sleepy.

Teller number 4 was loudly officious in a lilac shirt and tie and was nearly free. He finished with the tiny man peering  at him over the counter, waving his hand in dismissal. He continued scowling at his screen when I spoke to him, then sprang to his feet, athletically avoiding an empty computer-paper carton and  consulted with teller number 1, a thin, twitchy man in a white shirt and Buddy Holly glasses all askew.

Teller 2 was absent.

Teller 3 was a fashionably-bloused woman of 30 with penciled eyebrows. She was displeased with her customer and showed him with a tapping purple nail where to sign the long document stretching between them in multiple copies, sighing her exasperation.

In three minutes, my teller came back. I showed him my torn bill. Could I exchange it?

“No brown paper here,” he said.

I didn’t understand.

“We are not having brown paper here,” he repeated loudly, then said it again, “no brown paper.”

“See this man.” He was displeased with my slowness. He pointed to a portly bank man of authority at a crowded desk back toward the front door. The man’s stacks of folders and loose sheets of paper leaned precariously.

I showed him my bank note.

He had been napping and had no work in front of him. He eyed me by peering upward, his head on an unchanging downward tilt. “See her,” he said. He fluttered his hand in a weak diagonal across the bank toward a heavy woman in an orange top.

She saw me coming and made a little face, a your-zipper’s-open-you-idiot moue. Her finger was stiff and humorless. She pointed at a managerial woman in an inner office, conversing heatedly with an elderly man who repeatedly pushed up his slipping and smudged glasses and a dejected village woman in a cheap purple sari.

I sat on the chair outside and waited. My guess was that the old man wanted a loan to marry the much younger village woman.

The woman in the orange top was talking to another bank veteran in a long-sleeved white shirt. His folder and document stacks seemed from his work pace to guarantee years more of work, perhaps all the way to retirement, even with no new papers added. Neither he nor orange woman looked at me.

After five minutes, the woman inside gestured to me, then, when I hestitated, waved me in, frowning.

She was middle-aged, brisk in a linen suit and in command, apparently, of the bureau I needed: Bill Vandalism and Lecherous Loans.

I showed her my bill, feeling a flash of shame at its condition. She frowned at me again, then held it up to the light. She examined the tear carefully, as though looking for evidence of illicit behavior. Then she handed the bill across the desk to the elderly man with the dirty glasses. He, too, I saw now, was dressed as a manager of some sort. He didn’t look at me but pushed his glasses up and began measuring short strips of brown paper.

He was not a petitioner. He was the brown paper man.

I asked the brisk woman if I could have my new bills in hundreds.

“Hundreds?” She was incredulous. First I tear a bill; then I want hundreds?

The paper man had settled on three strips of brown paper, like old-fashoned butcher paper. One went on the serial number. He placed it carefully on the bill to measure, trimmed a bit more with what looked like moustache scissors, then turned it over, gummed it meticulously from a glue pot and patted it down.

I left with my dirty handful of hundreds. The brisk woman said nothing. The village woman had not moved. The papering was unfinished. The brown paper man was holding up his second strip, scrutinizing with a specialist’s eye the tear on my bill, which was not straight, but curved.

 

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2016, Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India and public health, Indian Christians, Indian filth, Indian government incompetence, Indian hospitality, Indian sweetness, Indifferent Indian government, Kohlapur, Maharashtra, Sanitation in India, The poor in India, Travel in India, Travel in Maharashtra, Uncategorized, Unromanticized travel, Western tourists in India

Finding Christ in Kananagar

Kananagar, Kolhapur–Kolhapur, sometimes spelled Colapore, is an ancient city ruled until Independence as a princely state. It’s at the southwest edge of  Maharashtra less than a hundred kilometers from the coast, and this January, at least, the weather has been beautiful: sunny mid-80s during the day, low 60s at night.

Indian cities, sadly, are much alike: noisy and filthy, with few amenities such as sidewalks or–laughable–crosswalks for pedestrians.The main roads are clogged with unregulated traffic. The air is foul.

Kolhapur pedestrian in streetPedestrians walk in the street in Indian cities

But enough of that. I prefer the slums. For one thing, they make me feel rich, a new and pleasant feeling. And no traffic. Life spills into the street. Women wash clothes by dipping them in soapy water and banging them on a flat stone. They get water from the common pump and hear what’s going on, and they stare in groups, not unkindly, as I walk by. They bathe their small children outside from a bucket; the old men sit, and the crones. Workers wash in their underwear  with dippers of water over the head, and children in uniforms make their way to and from school in the neighborhoods where school is affordable.

The little kids look at me with big eyes. Cows and goats, listless dogs, an occasional cat, chickens, all go as they wish. A cow pinned me softly with her huge head today against a dumpster.  I smacked her! Again! Holy Cow, hell! She turned away as indifferently as she’d come.

Washing dishes,The age-old squat of the woman at work, Kananagar, Kolhapur

That was this morning. I’d walked back into Kananagar (“nagar” approximates what we would call a ward). It’s poor, ringed with sewage trenches, and the streets are dirt. I was there last week, just walking, taking pictures and talking as I could.

I met Agnes Francis that trip, and her neighbors. She invited me in for a cup of tea. Pictures of Christ looked down in Hindu array. The room otherwise was nearly bare. I took my sandals off at the door, as one does, and sat on one of two plastic chairs. Eight or 10 neighbors casually came in to get a look at a foreigner. Agnes Francis was quiet, and the others liked her. She touched them with kind pats.

Agnes Francis and neighbors, Kananagar, KolhapurAgnes Francis, left, and two neighbors

The neighbors were curious, but they didn’t gawk, nor did they ask questions. My story is that I’m a journalist traveling around India talking to people, writing about what I see and taking pictures. I use it though I’m writing only for myself. It gives me an excuse for wandering into neighborhoods where tourists never go.

I was drawn at first because Indian slums are spectacles, but they have become familiar. They are a refuge from the trafficky outside, and the people are far more pleasant than elsewhere.

I generalize, but here and in the States and Europe, though not in the Middle East, the poor are nicer than the rich. Here, they are a relief. India head-on is not otherwise a polite or hospitable country.

Today, mid-month, I met a gaggle of teenage boys, all with a hoodlum air–unwashed hair, dirty shirt, sunglasses dangling, a Brando sneer, gaudy watch band. They, too, have become familiar, so I said hello and spoke my little spiel, slowly. One of them told a little boy standing nearby in an orange hoody to go get someone, maybe the gang leader.

The hoodsConfronted by teenage hoods, Kananagar, Kolhapur

It was a small, reserved man who appeared. He eyed me, I thought, as though I were fair game. I looked for a wall to back against. He introduced himself: Pastor Suraj B. Kamble.

He took me to his small house, along with the squad of  hoods, all eyeing my American stuff.  I sat on the bed in the front room and soon a pretty teenage girl brought two cups of tea, one for him and one for me, and a plate of new biscuits from the corner grocery stall. He had a bit more English than the boys, but he had to reach into memory to find the words.

He was concerned I am not a Christian but openly shocked that I am an unbeliever. No proof exists of God, he said, but just as we can’t see the wind yet know it’s there, we must acknowledge God’s existence from the evidence of the natural world visible to us. And Christ taking human form to speak as he did was further evidence of divinity.

Kananagar, 1

Pastor Suraj B. Kamble, Kananagar, Kolhapur

But he didn’t proselytize vigorously. He wanted me just to enjoy my tea and cookies. The boys, it emerged, were his–he smiled–disciples. They had become Christians in the last year and stopped fighting each other and making trouble.

The nagar was mixed: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and one atheist. Everyone got along, he said. No problems.  It was a neighborhood of workers, manual laborers, which is what Agnes Francis told me last week. Day laborers earning $2.50 a day when they can find work. Carrying. Digging. It was difficult at times to make ends meet, Agnes Francis said.

The Indian Express this morning had an article about retirement income. They discovered that Indians currently need about 35,000 rupees a month ($530) for a secure retirement. The workers in Kanan earn about 7,000 rupees a month when they have work, but that’s hit or miss. The money must support the old, too, and the young, and workers wear out early here.

In India, different worlds live next door. Just down the dirt road from Kananagar is GreenField complex–high new apartments behind a guarded gate. The girls walking there all have shoes.

I took some pictures. They took some pictures, and then Pastor and the boys walked me to their church on the southern edge of the cluster of houses, fronted by an open sewage ditch. It was a small, bare and airless room at the end of a much-divided pole barn, rented from a Christian “aunty” we met as we walked to it. He has 40 to 50 parishioners and is raising money to cut a garage-door opening in the end wall for comfort.

I waved goodbye, they waved, and I headed on the lane west toward GreenField, jumping two sewage trenches on the way.

Kananagar, 2

The hoods, Pastor Kamble and me, Kananagar, Kolhapur

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Travel in India

Bombay, Decayed

I came down to Pune by slow train after a dispiriting week in squalid, sad Bombay with its endless maze of tired lanes. The city has decayed noticeably in the last forty years, its resources sucked away by gleefully corrupt officialdom, spring cleaning forgotten.

India is eating itself, as many countries including the U.S. are, but on a grander scale, and shamelessly: no one in the city has clean, municipally-provided water, the sewage is untreated, the streets and bridges are crumbling and choked with blaring, blaring traffic. Every surface, even in the back corridors of the grand hotels, is filthy and coated, for the idea of cleanliness has not taken hold here; the listless sweeping that moves surface trash is performed to village standards by low-caste workers wielding brooms.

Rickshaw drivers still point tourists to the dhobi ghat, the massive thousand-tub laundry that boils sheets for Bombay hotels and shirts and saris and bright cloth from across town brought and returned by long-cart, and it is still guarded by a pimp of an attendant who demands Rs. 200 for entrance, to be distributed to the workers, he says, though the workers I spoke to there 20 years ago spit with contempt and called that claim a lie.

And the drivers still mention the famous Jehangir Art Gallery, a half-hour walk north in Rupee-rich Colaba from the Gateway, but the once-proud gallery, founded in 1952 by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, Second Baronet, has become a slum (as below), its managers’ offices littered with trash, with old signs to non-existent exhibits and nothing on the hand-smudged walls but mall art.

Jehangir Gallery

The tourists go to such places in air-conditioned buses and emerge into pools of professional beggars, whining, touching, holding out stumps for inspection and pinching babies to make them scream.

In the past I stayed at the $4 or $5 Salvation Army Hostel, the Red Shield, just behind the Taj Mahal hotel, where presidents and various satraps stay, but it reeks now, infected by Bombay sloth. In 1976, when I first encountered it, it was commanded by a beefy Salvation Army major from Bristol who inspected surfaces for dirt and dared anyone to disregard her commands to behave as 19th-century methodists. (It was created in the 19th century to lure merchant seamen from the lanes of prostitutes.)

Under the current regime it’s not been cleaned or painted in years, the price for a single has shot up to $30, and I concluded on my last trip that the shower rooms were too dirty to shower in.

More important than the current grime, routine in India, the charming Red Shield mix of stoners and bewildered middle class Indians and humorless Western seekers after religious truth has disappeared from the dining room, leaving just too-familiar, non-talking flick readers peering at their phone.

Bombay, though, for a long walker, is unchanged in essence. It is much dirtier than it was, terribly expensive for the poor, filled now with cars and trucks, the air thick, and morning in the lanes is enlivened less by roosters than by men loudly clearing their throat and spitting. And in the maze of poor streets north from Colaba’s Potemkin shine, where bustees lean against old warehouses and children play in sewage-filled gutters, the people who have nothing remain hospitable and tolerant of a curious visitor.

They were never visitors to Jehangir.

Bombay lane, Kamathipura

And in those lanes, one can still find a thumb-washed glass of hot milk chai for 10 rupees and sit on an abutment and watch the neighborhood come awake.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Kerala travel, Photos from South India, Tenkasi, Tirunelveli, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Uncategorized, Unromanticized travel, Varkala

South Indian images, 2014

Varkala paddy at sunrise

Varkala paddy at sunrise; Photo, John Briggs

Yes?

Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo,  John Briggs

Tenkasi street

Tenkasi street; Photo,  John Briggs

Near the train station, Tiruneveli, Feb. 2014

Near the train station, Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo,  John Briggs

 

Near Vakala, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Near Vakala, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

 

Tiruneveli street

Tirunelveli Street; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi girl

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Magenta woman, Tenkasi

Magenta woman, Tenkasi; Photo, John Briggs

Fishmerman near Varkala

Fishmerman near Varkala; Photo, John Briggs

Conclave in Ft. Kochi

Conclave in Ft. Kochi; Photo, John Briggs

Tiruneveli ditch-digger

Tirunelveli construction worker; Photo, John Briggs

Waiting for a bus

Waiting for a bus, Tirunelveli; Photo, John Briggs

Wary
Stranger, Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi leaf bundler

Tenkasi leaf bundler; Photo, John Briggs

River neighborhood, Tiruneveli

River neighborhood, Tirunelveli; Photo, John Briggs

Tiruneveli fish marketTirunelveli fish market; Photo, John Briggs

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Indian filth, Indifferent Indian government, Lack of toilets, Shitting by the road, Tiruneveli, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu

Shit

Shit.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Indifferent Indian government, Lack of toilets, Tirunelveli, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

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.

Thousands in Tiruneveli use the polluted Thamirabarmai River as their toilet and washroom

Thousands in Tirunelveli use the polluted Thamirabarmai River as their toilet and washroom

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.

Road shit

Road shit

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.

Pissing by a busy street, Tiruneveli

Pissing by a busy street, Tirunelveli

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.

A public road, Tireuneveli

A public road, Tirunelveli

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.

 Tiruneveli

Tirunelveli

Shit

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2013, Cheap Travel in India, Kerala travel, Odayam Beach, Travel in India, Varkala

The Garden

I wrote to someone the other day, as I sat by this placid seaside on Odayam Beach at Varkala–fishermen dragging in their nets and arguing with each other, Western tourists walking by, the air rushing in warm through the palms, “air you can kiss,” Kerouac said when he first reached California in 1947–that the days are an endless caress.

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Sunset at Fisherman’s Art Cafe, Varkala

I was content in the sweet wind and thud of long swells collapsing in celebratory foam, the fresh oranges at every market stall and long hands of tiny bananas, and I’ve made friendly acquaintance with Wahoub Budeen, whom I think of as the stout man in the little market booth south of the bizarrely named Fisherman’s Art Cafe—fishermen don’t go there, there is no art, and the people who run it, all from Darjeeling, lean on their hands most of every day, waiting for just one customer.

Budeen insists with a big hello that I buy biscuits, or oranges, or anything. Whatever the price he gives, I wave my arms and argue it should be five less, or sometimes, to his great amusement, I change direction and go from 40 to 50, having just gotten him down to 40.

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Wahoub Budeen at his market on the Odayam Beach Road, Varkala

And just beyond him on the dirt track, the poor, sad, rarely visited Karnatakan sellers of cloth — one man, two women, two small children who should be in school. One of the woman sells fruit; the other tries to sell their faded cotton cloth; the man sits grinning at me but says nothing. The fruit woman usually has a papaya or two, a pineapple, maybe a melon and three or four oranges or bananas for sale. I’ve not seen another customer stop there. She is hopeful when she sees me.

I bought from her a few days ago then walked on to Wahoub Budeen’s stall. He has many kilos of bananas for sale. No, I didn’t need any, I said, and showed him the three or four bananas I’d bought for 10 rupees.

I’d paid too much, he said. He’d charge half that.

Yeah, I said. I know, but… I tipped my head toward the sad people.

He stopped laughing. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Yes.” And he reached out and touched me on the shoulder.

Then he threw back his head again and laughed his big laugh. I needed biscuits, he said; oranges!

The days are regular. It gets light after six and and 12 hours later it’s dark. The mornings are beautiful and easy and then it heats up toward noon and after, with the hot sun coming straight down, and that’s when the water feels best, cool and soft-handed.

There are irritants. This is weird tourist India after all, where no one works very hard and the restaurant workers have no acquaintance with soap and garbage burning and unburned makes ditches bright and public ways all papery and discard littered.

Mostly, though, because as a visitor you have a few bucks and time to stretch and nothing much to do but luxuriate, unlike the natives, and slowly turn the pages of an Inspector Morse mystery, it is perfect — Dorothy Lamour walking off the black and white screen to lead you by the hand out of your familiar blaring world to a place of fantasy much like this.

Here is relief from collapsing institutions and corporate misanthropy, the political and cultural rot of my birth world. The Indian papers have not heard of fantasy football, and our public haters, slick-haired shouters, have no reach beyond our borders.

Perhaps it’s deserved indolence after decades in harness, I tell myself, but old habits are deeply ingrained and it came to me a week ago that I understood for the first time that ugly old story of  Adam and Eve. Given this, the garden, by a nagging, small-minded creator, they got bored.

To the sickly, dour church they are poster-children of  dejection and inadequacy, slinking away, cast out, rather than walking boldly into uncertainty, but I understood their drumming fingers.

I must move soon, even knowing I will look back.

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