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.
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.