The Southern Point

Open the door in front of me

The sun is now shining down on me!
Meet me as soon as you can,
Bring me the money you owe for me.
I’m taking my head out of the sand.

Oh maybe I’ll go see the world!
There’s plenty of places to see,
Voices I never have heard,
Look at the way it ought to be.

Oh I’m all alone, oh I’m all alone,
I know you're still listening to me,
Isn’t a lot as far as I see.
—The Walkmen

I did not do much before we left Kochin. I bought a pair of jeans and leather shoes from a shop, and found on the street market a few weird Indian shirts and a blue Michelin vest with the crest of the Man stitched onto the breast. It had apparently been donated to the needy of India, only to be sold in a street corner. I sent all this stuff home in a package, sewed up in a white sheet and sealed with wax, as per Indian law. I ate Keralan food, spicy beef malabari, and a sort of curry with coconut and pineapple called shahikuruma.

Lola and I left Kochin via a late bus an hour south to Alleppey or Allepuzha . . . O Reader, I confess, I find this business really droll in absence of such main characters or festivals as have previously occurred, and I find it difficult to focus on something so monotonous as spicing and adding subtelty to what are by now everyday occurrences of the road, for Internet consumption. Accept, then, that in this chapter, much will be condensed, and that a lot happened that I will not relate, as a lot happens in our day that we tell no one about or take no notice of.

So we went to Alleppey, which is a sleepy jungle backwater built on two canals, not to be confused with the greater and capitalized Backwaters, that thousand-mile network of lakes, rivers, streams, and man-made canals, plied by fishing boats and houseboats, bolted together with Chinese fishing nets, from Kochin to Kollam, and which was our chief region for being in Alleppey, a gateway to the stream.

Nevertheless we spent two days there before departing, principally at the India Coffee House, a chain of restaurants in Southern South Asia that serves decent coffee and good dhosas, with tomato or beets instead of potato. We lived in a thatch hut on the roof of a guest house that let us use its kitchen to make a lot of fish. We hung out with an old wayfarer from Nashville who long ago, as one of the “long-haired freaky people” mentioned by “the sign,” had driven his Volkswagen Bug down the wrong way on a one-way street in Hayt-Ashbury until encountering a gang of Hell’s Angels, who informed him of his mistake and bodily turned his car around and set it back down on the road.

We took a ferry south through the Backwaters. At first the channels were narrow, lined with houses, plantations, and duck farms, and then we veered into a wide main channel, a half mile across, with houses barely discernible through the thick jungle foliage on the banks. Passing under a bridge we came to a long avenue of Chinese fishing nets, hundreds of them lined up on either side, winding with the river for miles. Their struts, bare of nets, hung over us like claws.

In the afternoon we disembarked at the ashram of Amma the Hugging Mother, a place called Amritapuri, and stayed there for a few days with all the maniacs and crazies lost in the rigors of their idle discipline, the tedium and security of total stasis, who had not accompanied their guru on her touring as apostle-roadies. Amma built the complex in her old town, on top of her parents’ old home, and around the horse stable where they made her perform her first darshan, as for a Hindu girl to hug strangers was and still is considered unacceptable in traditional Kerala. Those high pink buildings and temples are really obscene, standing there in the middle of the jungle villages and waterways, although the views from the top are incredible.

Now every morning at five in the horse stable, while women chanted the Mother’s Thousand Names in the the Temple of Kali, a bearded white man officiated over a strange ceremonial puja, with a weird little man for an understudy. Women sat meditating all around the wall and around a group of we spectators—Morris the Swede, Deepa from Michigan, Lola, and myself, all about to fall asleep, and all of us started when the priest rang a shrill golden bell. He waved his hands about and threw rose petals everywhere and burned a whole lot of things in a fire in front of him (the smoke smelled very good) over an hour and a half. The Indians only showed up for the end, when he distributed a communion of smoke, rose water, and sweets.

It was difficult to reconcile the Amma whose posters were plastered all over the ashram, who said things like, “Recognizing the Divine Mother in you, Amma bows down to her own true self,” and whose followers said things like, “I had to stop meditating at 10:15 and here you are telling me the time. [Turning to the sky] Thank you Amma!” and who has a thirty-foot high Stalinist poster of herself plastered on the rear wall of the massive meeting hall where she delivers her darshan when in residence—to reconcile that Amma with the Amma who with intelligence and practical purpose applied millions of donated dollars to well-crafted charity projects around Kerala and India, for education, health care, housing, and spiritual awakening.

Her own temple in the ashram is bizarre: a shrine to Kali, one of the bloodthirsty and vengeful aspects of the Devi principally worshiped in Bengal, whose Tantric followers make blood sacrifices and drink bodily fluids from the skulls of corpses. An on the second floor of this temple, offices and volunteer stations for folding her magazines and a second-hand shop and the office to sign up for service. I myself sorted garbage for three hours into recyclables, paper, compost, and garbage. For the last of these, we wheeled it off across the ashram to a furnace and burned it.

I enjoyed the hard work and had a very good time of myself at Amritapuri, where I walked around barefooted wearing the orange sarong I’d bought, talking to all the crazies and eating my fill at the free lunches. I made friends with a group of like-minded visitors: the Swedes Morris and Tora, the Bengali girl Deepa, Mara and Jenna from California, Kevin of Seattle, a sports journalist from Calgary named Taylor, Loere of Toulouse, and Sam and Liv, circus performers from Bristol. Morris and Taylor were my roommates in the Amma dorms, which were three mattresses in a room with a view, in a sixteen story building.

At night after dinner we sat in Amma’s great hall playing cards. Fatima the half-wit came and sat at our table. Picking my harmonica off it, she blew wildly in the instrument, then put it back and leaned her hatchet face onto Lola. Deepa observed this enviously and remarked, “I wish I had breasts.” Fatima’s older sister came and asked us to watch her for a while, and we agreed.

Most of us had breakfast together, sometimes putting cinnamon and sugar in our soggy rice and eating it as pudding rather than with curry. Once we went to the Ayerekel beach up the road from the ashram, and in some cases met up again later down the road—and in the other cases, may we do the same, as Amma wills!

Now recall that Amma’s ashram is positioned in the middle of her old village, and understand that this village continued life as usual, disregarding the monstrous pink monastery and the hysteria of its guests, or “inmates” as the signage referred to them, insofar as such a feat of normalcy is possible. The peasants kept at their old jobs, the temples at their old schedules.

One temple in particular, a shrine to Kali on the road by the breakers of the shore, would for a week every year loudly broadcast Malayalam music during all the daylight hours, at a volume vastly disproportionate to the size of the temple. The noise of this echoed across the entire Amritapuri compound and disturbed the meditation of its “inmates,” who put up with it with their characteristic passive-aggressive and non-confrontationalist approach.

One night the little shrine of Kali finished its bombastic broadcast for good, and two priests led a procession up the street. One was a fat mustachioed man in a white dhoti who was always ten paces of and frowning back towards the second, a hardened old man with short white hair in an orange sarong who danced about the place. He was the Pujaree of the puja rite and the locus of the procession.

Ahead of the Pujaree and the other priest marched a pair of drummers and two columns of little girls, lined up from shortest to tallest, carrying oil lamps made from coconuts. To either side, torch bearers held the five-armed trident standard of Kali, a fire on each end. Behind the Pujaree walked a man with an umbrella who did his best to keep the aged dancer covered, even though it was dark and clear-skied and all the stars were out, and a pack of male revelers cheered and shouted at the back as if at a cricket pitch.

Looking up the street, a flame burned in front of each house, set in a sort of pedestal on a table. The residents stood serenely behind these alters as if posing for a daguerreotype or preparing for Communion. As the procession passed, the dancing Pujaree dipped his finger in a wide bowl he was carrying and put white bindis on the heads of the residents.

The procession went slowly and noisily and with a frenzy of light and sound up the road, stopping at each house on the way, and at a clearing it steered around a bamboo shrine and turned back towards a sort of fairgrounds near the ashram, where all the women of the village had found places to lay out the little metal tins of their picnic dinners.

Lola and I stayed at Amritapuri for three nights and then took the ferry further south to Kollam, on a lake near the Backwaters’ end. We stayed at a cheap hotel and ate cheap local food at a place called Friends, where they only had a few things so we had to point at other tables to get vegetable masala, boiled eggs, chapati, dhosa, onion soup, and chai, all for 30 rupees each, or 70 cents.

Lola had read Gandhi’s autobiography and I was in the epilogues of War & Peace, and so with the Mahatma and Pierre Bezukhov as examples, we discussed the relationship between self-denial and freedom as we ate. Does renunciation free the soul or limit it? If simplicity is closer to God, why are all the steeples and minarets and temple gopurams so high? Well anyway, Lola made a solemn vow not to eat after sunset, which is something Gandhi does as part of his diet, and the Jains do to make sure they don’t eat any bug wings in their strictly vegetarian food due to the darkness of the hour.

One morning we took a train to Trivandrum, or Thiruvananthapuram, the Holy Serpent City. There the god Padmanabha has been sleeping for 5000 years on a five-headed cobra in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which is only 260 years old—but when did faith and math have anything to do with one another? Through the hundred-foot high gopuram gateway tower the temple complex spans across acres of lanes and courtyards and structures, into which non-Hindus are barred.

After having breakfast at an Indian Coffee House (It was the strangest shaped restaurant I had ever seen: constructed like a corkscrew, with a single lane swirling up for five stories around a central column, booths on the outside of the curve, and the kitchen and bathrooms set in the middle, so that just to see if a table were available you had to walk all the way to the top and then slide back down—it was not stairs up this corkscrew—around overworked waiters hustling skywards to their patrons; in fact the building was so inefficient I wondered at the disproportion of someone’s influence and common sense, that allowed that person to propose, apparently on a whim, such a horrible idea, and not only see it go un-criticized, but have the entire plan carried out and employed for years!)—after that, we located and circled the temple, visited the wooden halls of the Kerala palace to learn of its strange, matriarchal royalty, and went off on our own for the afternoon.

I spent my time in the Victoria Memorial Library, going through old issues of The Hindu to find an article about our own Barack Obama and his love for fried chicken that I had seen in Kochin but not cut out: "'Something smells good up in here,' said the President, obviously expecting to be served some chicken soon."

That very night we went as far south as we could, through palm forests and past ridged mountains, to Kanyakumari or Cape Comorin at the tip of India, the meeting point, however dubiously, of the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal. There on the same rocky promontory covered with temples, one can watch the sun rise from the sea and set upon the ocean, though one will find it difficult to occupy the intervening hours. We woke early to see the sunrise, along with such a seething mob of Indian tourists that I thought the cape might sink.

In the evening, we went into the Kumari Amman Temple, also visited at some earlier time by one Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. It has changed only a little since then. Kumari, a virginal aspect of the Mother Goddess Devi, was worshiped there. I was delighted to find an old custom prevailing that required men to remove their shirts, because it was very hot outside.

Lola and I, along with two little lesbian yoga students named Ren and Pony, entered the low and many-columned temple and bought vials of oil to dump into the vulva-shaped lamp laid out on the ground so that the virgin would grant our wishes. Carvings of gods and men and dancing girls and strange beasts marked all the walls so that it became a blur. We also bought a few offerings, incense and spices, and waited in a long line to give them to a priest in front of the little shrine. A Hindu in the line explained how it would work, and at the front, the priest took the offerings, heard our names, and told the goddess just who had sent those incense sticks and packets of powder, and that that person deserved a blessing, and then sent us on our way with green leaves full of more powder to rub on ourselves.

The Tamil people are among India’s most devout, and most pagan. They follow their ancient rituals to a tee. They worship Shiva in a multitude of forms, as fire and water aspects, as a local hero, with each town having a legend regarding the principle deity, and by fascinating customs that have not been seen in the West since Greece and Rome. They wave incense about and make strange offerings. For example, you may make a wish of the magic wishing cow, but if it comes true, you must shave off all your hair and donate it to the temple in the north of the region. There was a big scandal a few years ago when the priests were caught selling the hair to a wig-making company, but they have stopped such impious commerce.

From Kanyakumari we traveled north into the heartland of Tamil Nadu, to its exact center at Madurai, and were stuck there for a night on our way up to the cool mountains of the Western Ghats, to Kodaikanal; however Madurai was so nice, in its own way, that we stayed there for an extra day. It was as dirty and noisy and as swarmed with traffic as most Indian metropoli, yet compensated for it with the vast tranquility of its Sri Meenakshi Temple and the quality of its food, which was excellent.

Morris, our Swedish friend from Amritapuri, told us of this when we happened to meet him in the lobby of our hotel. “It’s the same dishes they serve everywhere else,” he said,—“dhosa, idli, sambar—only it’s better. It’s really nice.” Morris and Tora had arrived there the day before from the mountains. We drank rum on the roof and listened as the city quieted itself.

Already I had sampled some mughali biryani from a nearby store, and the next day we dodged tuk-tuks and bicycle rickshaws on our way to a crowded local place around the corner called Sree Sabarees. The sign advertised “memorable coffee,” and it was a fine brew, served in a strange way. The metal cup came in a metal saucepan, and both were half-filled with coffee. The idea was to pour the coffee from cup to saucepan and back again to cool it. The Indians do this at distances that can be measured in yards. The food was also very good: the idli firmer, the sambar soup fuller, and everything on the menu very delicious. They cut up paneer cheese and buttery paratha and served it in a bowl with curry, and made other such delights.

Now I have mentioned Sri Meenakshi Temple, the height of southern Indian architecture, with no fewer than a dozen gopurams, each carved with a painted blur of deities and demons. The residing goddess is an aspect of Parvathi. Unfortunately for Shiva, her third breast fell off when the two met. The thousand-pillared hall runs a circuit around the Hindu-exclusive inner shrine, where the greater mysteries occur. The ceiling is painted with lotus flowers, and the columns decorated with strange composite beasts.

Now Lola and I had been arguing back and forth about the nature of the Hindu idols that inhabit most temples. I opined that these statues of bronze or stone were in fact the actual god. When a pilgrim bowed before that little statue, he was bowing not before a mere representation, but before Shiva himself. To Lola, this did not make any sense. How could Shiva be in a thousand temples at once? How could the Hindus make the same mistake as the Israelites did with their Golden Calf? “So they’re idolaters?” she queried. “I can’t accept that.”

This came to a head in a Madurai bookstore where we consulted several religious manuals and asked a few Hindus present (and where I overburdened my backpack with texts). Lola asked the staff our question, and the manager responded, “We believe that it is a god.” “It is a god, or a representation of the god?” asked Lola, who (I am obliged to note) is applying for law school. The manager replied, in the face of her doubt, “Are you an atheist madame? It is faith!” Lola reluctantly ceded the issue, which meant that she would have to buy me ice cream in Kodaikanal.

Morris also did shopping in Madurai. The Swede had discovered that optics are proportionally cheap in India, and that they sell “retro ugly” frames, the kind of niche style that would cost a hundred dollars in the West, for a pittance. Morris himself got contact lenses and I think five pairs of glasses. Lola bought a few, and I bought a pair with red and gold frames and light brown lenses that make me look like a porn star.

While in Madurai I also visited the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, a noteworthy event only because a Bollywood team was shooting a scene there. The director was showing a beautiful actress whose named, as far as I can tell, was Sneeha, how to spin around delightfully from her throne down the carpet, following the camera on its crane. The famous Sarat Kumar was sitting in the crowd in his crown and royal clothes, looking very serious and focused, as if trying to put himself in a kingly frame of mind or to remember his lines. He was a big, bulky Tamil with a thick beard and began his life as a bodybuilder before becoming an actor, though now he wishes to enter politics—the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Tamil Nadu.

One day in the middle of the month of March we took a bus up into the hills to Kodaikanal, a smaller and reputedly more authentic hill station than Ooty or Munnar, though one Hindu told me, “It is boring there. Only good for honeymoon if you want to make hanky panky.” From the bus station we climbed up the hill and checked into the squalid dormitory at the Greenlands Youth Hostel. Outside the filth of the room, a high terrace overlooking a pine and cedar forest that rolled down to the flat plains below. It was a beautiful sight.

We ate biryani at a street stall in Kodaikanal proper. This would have tragic consequences for our stomachs later on, but at the moment we felt very fine in the clear mountain air. We went down to the Tibetan market no the lake and I bought some yak wool blankets. There were also some very good Tibetan restaurants in town that served noodle soup and momos and beef. Some Israelis recommended that we rent a house in the nearby town of Vadakanal, and we took this suggestion back to the dormitories. James of Edmunton, who has killed two deer with his bow in the wilds of Alberta, liked the idea, and the next day we found more recruits.

We spent the night with James and a Korean girl named Lillie and with an Irishman named Cullum, who was very excited for Saint Patrick’s Day. He cradled a whiskey bottle in his arm and said, “Once I held me son here, but now all I have is me whiskey.” The next day he sat out on the veranda of the dormitories building with his adopted son. “Toast to the saint?” he would ask every passer-by. “It’s not a question, take some damn whiskey. It’s obligatory. There you go. Bad stomach? Come on lad, whiskey cures everything. Ah, it’s alright, he had some earlier, or I wouldn’t let him get away.”

It was not bad whiskey, but I turned down the second offer of the day, for my stomach was starting to roll. Lola had already came down with a bug the night before. Mine began to take to me as James and I walked back from Vadakanal, having discovered and rented a cabin for the following day, a small place with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a view across the hills. That night I became very sick, and the next day sucked in my gut (or what was left of it) and hiked up to the road, took a taxi to Vadakanal, and hiked up the hill to our chalet with the others we had recruited. In addition to Lola, James and myself, there were four girls: Thalia of Canada, Barry of Boston, and the Quebecers Isabella and Cecile.

Sickness had laid hold of me and would not led up easily. I spent five days in that cabin in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, in sickness or recovery, cared for and fed by five North American girls, as James of Edmunton went out to buy food or supplies. One by one they filtered away, and on the sixth day Lola and I took a bus back down onto the plains, to the Kodai Road train station. There we parted (after exchanging some adorable letters), Lola going south to Rameswaram, and I east to the temple towns of Trichy and Tanjore.

I had an last minute ticket, and the train was full. In the unreserved cars, Indians crowded onto the benches and filled the aisles and the doorways so you could not see the floor in most places. I wedged myself in between a family and the wall, expecting a long journey, but everyone was in good spirits. I shared my iPod with some Hindus and showed them how it worked, and eventually got a spot in one of the doorways. This is the best place to sit: cooled by the wind, looking out at the world as its speeds past.

Trichy was a crowded place, a transit center and site of pilgrimage. All the cheap rest houses were full, so I had to stay in a real hotel. In the morning I saw the bigger temples, Sri Ranganathaswamy and Sri Jambukeshwara, and the rock fort high above the city, but as a non-Hindu was not permitted into any of the sanctum sanctorums. It was so hot I drank a gallon of water that day. I almost forgot my porn star glasses in my hotel room, and had to leap off a moving bus as it left the station to go back and get them.

Then I went off to Tanjore and spent two nights there in a monastic cell at the Ashok Lodge. Through the gopuram, it’s menagerie of gods unpainted, there was a pavilion and beyond it a high-towered temple made of a dozen tiers, each intricately carved. Grass surrounded the stone temples, and trees and a few solitary shrines. I was blessed at the Nandi monolith, lit a candle before the statue of Ganesh, received a red bindi at sleeping Vishnu on King Naga, and a smear of flour at the Shiva lingum in the principle temple, through two columned hallways full of offerings: Nandi statues, golden mirrors and displays, and bronze artwork. The temple was sublime and peaceful and open to all.

At night I had dinner with two pretty German girls, and in the morning visited the temple again and went to the palace museum, where there were some famous bronze sculptures I wanted to see. The artistry of Tamil idols, especially from the Chola period, is famous for its detailed movement and sensuous sexuality.

I met Lola at the Tanjore museum, which was strange after we had said goodbye and did not expect to see each other outside North America, but India is smaller than you think. She said she would probably be in Chennai at the same time as me. I went there that afternoon on a confusing number of trains, to try and find a way north.

Chennai, also called Madras, is a large and largely soulless city on the Indian Ocean, once a center of Hindu piety and now a major corporate center. I arrived late and spent two nights at the Salvation Army hostel there as I could not get a train north to Orissa until the next day. I bought a few books for the twenty hour trip, got my beard trimmed, and went to the American Consulate to have more pages sowed into my passport, which was full. Lola arrived that day and we had dinner and looked around a little, but there was not much to see. The next morning I said goodbye to her for the third time and went to catch my train.


Popular posts from this blog

Portraits of the Early Monsoon

Letters from Eastern Europe

Letters from the Melting Pot