“It is quite possible that India is the real world, and that the white man lives in a madhouse of abstractions. Life in India has not yet withdrawn into the capsule of the head. It is still the whole body that lives. No wonder the European feels dreamlike; the complete life of India is something of which he merely dreams. When you walk with naked feet, how can you ever forget the earth?” Carl Jung, after a trip to India, 1938
If the above quote from Jung makes no sense whatsoever to you, then great; you’ve got a taste of what it’s like to be a newcomer here. Welcome to the India section of the blog! Despite only being 18 kilometres apart, there’s no ferry service between Sri Lanka and India for some bizarre reason, so I’m forced to book a flight to Madurai, in India’s most southern state, Tamil Nadu. The passing scenes on the bus from the airport into the city are like something from a dream. In the gentle evening light I see all the chaos and colour associated with a stereotypical image of India as the bus goes through the dusty streets: ox-drawn carts, women in saris walking with water jugs on their heads, little roadside Hindu shrines with burning incense, snippets of shrill female vocals wafting through the warm air from radios, fruit sellers, sleepy cows wondering through the traffic…it’s like I’ve arrived on a different planet. Coming from Sri Lanka where the forces of globalization are more visible and have appeared to have more of an impact on the country (one example being the widespread use of Western style clothes among women), it’s refreshing to witness such culturally unique surroundings. I get off the bus and find my way through the throng and incessant beep-beeping of motorcycles and tuk-tuks (beeping every 2-5 seconds substitutes for rules of the road) to some overpriced hotels. After a couple of days of being overcharged and recovering from a stomach bug I picked up in Sri Lanka, I find a group of other backpackers from Europe and North America who are also looking for cheaper accommodation. We spend a day lazily searching guesthouses and hotels, while going to local eateries, and I learn the basics of south-Indian cuisine, which is to be my diet for the next month or so. Such things I’ve never seen in Indian restaurants back home, like parotta, idly, dosai, and tali are to become my staple for breakfast lunch and dinner. One thing I can’t get used to is the chai here – it’s 80% milk 10% tea and 10% sugar; after drinking black tea for months in the Middle East, it tastes like a strange type of sugar-milk.
Tamil Country is one of the more traditional, religious states in India and Madurai is an important pilgrimage site for many Hindus, with the impressive towers of Meenakshi Amman Temple dominating the city centre. The cheap hotel we find is right opposite this massive temple complex. Inside is like nothing I’ve ever seen before – endless rows of hand-carved stone pillars displaying a mind-boggling array of creatures (apparently there’s 33,000 such sculptures), leading to cavernous rooms and mini shrines. The diverse pantheon of Hindu gods makes it a religion that’s difficult to grasp for the newcomer – it’s hard to tell what’s going on. It’s not what you’d call a peaceful place but there’s a certain calmness among the hustle and bustle of holy men, pilgrims and tourists.
Acclimatising takes the good part of a week in Madurai. One day, while feeling particularly adventurous, I walk to the Gandhi museum a few kilometers outside the city. I walk through rubbish strewn streets and alleys and past small workshops that seem from a different era. If there was a prominent feeling of a leftover fashion and atmosphere from the 1970s when I was in Iran, here the influential decade seems to be the 1940s when the Brits left. I go past beggars and desperate tuk-tuk drivers, over a long low bridge spanning a dry, wide riverbed with roaming cows scavenging through the endless rubbish. Little fires burn at different points, where the rubbish is piled. I walk along between a dank canal with a smell of sewage and a busy, noisy road which hurries me along as I wonder what Gandhi would’ve made of these scenes and India in general, 65 years after independence.
The museum is an informative display on the history of India, specifically resistance to British rule and the independence movement of which Gandhi was a key part. It includes a display of some of his modest personal items, including basic cooking utensils, sandals, letters and the blood-stained robe he was shot in. At one point near the end, there’s a quote from Albert Einstein, “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” After spending a few hours walking around and being reminded of his philosophy and what he achieved in his life, I can barely believe it myself. His anarcho-communalism and popularity meant it was only a matter of time before someone took him out, but for me the most amazing thing about him is what he has become for the Indian government. For someone who believed in a society based on a confederation of self-reliant, autonomous village communes, his image today has become synonymous with the central power of the nation-state (his face even appears on all bank-notes). When he was killed by a Hindu fundamentalist, his close ally in the National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru (first prime-minister of India), used the death to consolidate his power and set in motion his ideal of a modern, industrialised India. Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi were to dominate Indian politics for the next three decades and their dynasty (Sonia Gandhi being the latest one) continues to hold massive influence within mainstream Indian politics where the neo-liberal consensus is going strong. MK Gandhi’s dream of an egalitarian, harmonious India couldn’t be further from the truth today; rampant capitalism and the widening gap between rich and poor is putting enormous strain on most of its population of nearly one billion.
Tamil Nadu and the Dravidian south in general are a separate kind of India to that of the Indo-Aryan north. Hindi is not spoken or widely understood here and even English is not spoken fluently by most; the nasal tones of Tamil are heard everywhere. After a week in Madurai, I aim to head towards the adjacent state of Kerala to see some more of this part of the country before heading north. On the day before I go, I meet another backpacker who is planning roughly the same route as myself. Mark from Wisconsin,US is an English teacher who’s been travelling and working in Asia and Africa for the past 6 years – we decide to travel together for a while, as neither of us has much clue as to our itinerary or exact plans. We get a packed bus through the mountains to the West to the highland town of Kodaikanal. It’s fair to say the journey is somewhat of a nightmare, as there doesn’t seem to be any limits as to how much people the conductor can cram onto the bus. At one point a fella squeezes his big bag of vegetables between me and the person behind, giving me no leg room and leaving me stuck between it and a pole. Instead of putting it at his own feet, he stands there content with the extra leg space. After about ten minutes of cursing, I let him know, among other things, that if I’d more room to move, the bag’d be going out the window. It takes him a while to grasp this and he eventually moves the bag but the bus speeds on through the winding mountainous roads and by the time we get to Kodaikanal, travel sickness has nearly got the better of me. Both Mark and I are shocked at how disgustingly touristic the town actually is and we struggle to find affordable accommodation while getting hassled by tuk-tuk drivers and touts. We agree that a couple of nights is more than enough time and make it a priority to get out walking into the vast surrounding forests the next day.
After a four hour walk through unspoiled forests, we finally come across a peaceful village in the hills. The stone walls and houses remind me of somewhere in a rustic area of Europe. People smile as we go by and a family invite us to have some rice and coffee, which is a relief as there are no shops. I’ve never tasted coffee so fresh before and it tastes better than anything I’ve had in a café. The contrast between here and Kodaikanal couldn’t be greater; here the people wouldn’t take money for the food they gave us – in Kodaikanal, all anyone seems to be interested in is getting as much cash from you as possible. It’s difficult to leave this tranquil, happy place to go back to the well-trodden, weary road of the tourist trail.