Darl's adventures in India, part two.

Although the summer is allegedly beginning to wane, temperatures are regularly in excess of 35 degrees. The heat wave hasn't really struck here: it's just unbearably hot. When rain comes, it alleviates the 70% humidity for one day at most, before things revert to normal. Oddanchatram is better situated than most plains towns in Tamil Nadu: there is a ring of hills around the town, which apparently make it cooler. In Chennai, the mercury is regularly over 40 degrees. Small blessings. Because the heat does get so extreme, people flee to hill stations in high summer. The Western Ghat mountains, which seem to run right to the middle of India down here, are sufficiently high to be cold. Perhaps I might amend that to bearably warm.

The weekend before last, I went one such hill station of Tekardi, in neighboring Kerala with many of the other volunteers. It is at somewhere over 1500m in altitude, and thickly wooded. It was a relief to feel cold(er). The other volunteers I met were all very pleasant, although I was asked what school I went to. Sigh. Most people are in the same situation as me, or taking a post university gap year. Usually medics, I think.

There are 35 volunteers in total in Tamil Nadu, of whom about 20 were in Tekardi. Amongst the more seasoned volunteers there is the air of hardened vets, still battling hard against the natives. Everyone has the same tale: they love what they’ve seen of India very dearly, but loathe it. Tekardi has a large wildlife reserve with vast lake, in either of which I entirely failed to see any wildlife at all. Still, the walk was nice. Two people went to hospital, one from gastroenteritis and one from heat stroke. Well, I thought it was cold.

Sometime today my fellow volunteer James Mabey is meant to arrive. I’m looking forward to the company, sure, but had begun to rather enjoy being solitary. Greener grass, etc. It seems to me if nothing else a perverse twist of fate that having fled to an obscure corner of south India, I should be followed by someone I know. Being a Wykehamist begins to remind me of the Hotel California. In Edinburgh, I met them, at university. In March, one cool night, strolling on the Ponte Vecchio, I met them. Now, here in provincial India, I will meet them. I have checked out, to be sure, but I can never leave.

Last weekend I went to another hill station, that of Kodaikanal, the sole American founded outpost, with views looking right across the plains of Tamil Nadu. On a clear day, you can see about 100km. The joy of creature comforts in tourist resorts should not be underestimated. I swear, I had a mushroom omelet. Oh yes. Trying to describe the drama of the view from Kodai would be fruitless. It is just very pretty indeed.

When I got to the Teaching and Projects abroad offices in Sivakasi, I first heard of the volunteers here before me; James and Oliver. ‘They did a very good job,’ said Dr. Rajendran, ‘very good indeed.’ It was the same, verbatim, as I was driven north from Sivakasi to Oddanchatram. ‘They did a very good job. Very good indeed,’ I was told. Again, from Suresh and his family. What on earth they had done to earn such accolades, I could only wonder: I couldn’t help feeling like Marlow venturing into the wild, hearing of Kurtz at every turn. Though I’d expected to find the school surrounded by heads on poles, etc, James and Oliver turned out to have been two nice lads from Kent who shouted ‘Super, man!’ in Indian accents a lot. Nonetheless, as they were so very good, very good indeed at teaching, I’m conscious of being in their shadows here.

James and Oliver go some way toward explaining Suresh’s English, which, whilst very good, has a strange 80s surfer dude lilt. Hey man, he’ll say, what’s going on? You cool? Cool, man. And so on. Surely this is their doing. The worst thing is that I’ve begun to adopt this idiom. I can’t help addressing everyone as ‘man’. It’s depressing.

Whilst perhaps this is a mildly comic corruption of my English, much more serious is that I’m incapable of forming complex sentences anymore. In fact, I have taken my language down to the vary bare bones, the thundering stripped-down chassis of brutal unambiguous speech, loud and clear, slow and patronising. I don’t just do this with Indian people who want to discuss things with me, be it logistics or Kashmir. I do this with native English speakers too. Everyone does it to an extent. ‘Ok,’ we say to each other, ‘Where we go now?’ To alleviate this rapid atrophy of the language I am trying to teach, please send me real, live native English communication. I give big thanks to you.

The food. It’s one of the most tangible reminders of how far you are from home, hence my omelet joy. It’s not bad (quite the contrary), but, but. Anyway.

For breakfast, you usually have dosa, which are essentially thick pancakes, or iddli, which are harder to explain. Iddli are about like fat flying saucers an inch in diameter. They are a mixture of rice and pulses ground up and steamed, with curd and vinegar to hold them together. They’re really very good. With your dosa or iddli you will have sambar, another Tamil staple, consisting of pulses and tomatoes made into a kind of spicy mush. Finally there’s coconut curd, which is cooling, pleasant, and mostly tastes of coconut milk. With the sambar will be rassam, literally pepper water. This is water with coriander, chilli and, er, pepper.

For lunch, you would have iddli or rice with again sambar and rassam, with a kind of mild vegetable curry made mostly from mangetout beans. There will also be pure curd. It’s best not to think about the curd, but just to eat it because most of the food is hot enough to make you sweat, and the curd provides some relief.

These are the absolute staples, the things that you eat like bread or potatoes. More luxurious are iddli contents made into noodles and fried with mushrooms and ginger, with coriander and tumeric. Also there’s a chance of a mushroom or chicken korma. These things make up your dinner or sometimes your lunch. Also there are poori, flash fried discs of dough that go all puffy and gorgeous, parotta, fried thick slabs of dough that are as delicious as they are bad for you, and chapatti, which are the same but thinner.

On special occasions, which number holy festivals, pre monsoon festivals, and taking western people out to eat, accordingly special things are eaten. Mostly this is biryani, with either vegetables, lamb or chicken. This will be served with fresh red onions in curd. When you want your chicken boneless, you have to impart to the waiter your fancy sensibilities, otherwise it will come in chunks, spine and all.

Since I last wrote, more things, great things, have happened on the fruit front. The pineapple. Oh, the pineapple. Now, I’m not a big guy for pineapple myself. Most commonly encountered misplaced on pizza or in curry, here it is, yes, a different beast. The fresh pineapple here tastes of... well. Sort of pineapple, and sort of coconut (yes) and something else too. It’s really very, very, good. The grapes have also followed closely the trend of small but sweeter and tangy and altogether more worthwhile.

Better than all these things, however, is the fruit juice. I can assure you all now that nothing like this has ever passed your lips. There is here, right here in this town, (yes) a juice bar like no other. Drinking a juice from this bar is like nothing so much as the old lemon-wrapped gold brick to the teeth. It leaves you sated as though you’d just had a meal. It comes with a straw, but this is mostly for comedy value as you asses the structural integrity of your 'drink'. As you watch, they skin your fruit of choice, be it mango or lime or apple or pomegranate or one of the fruits you have never heard of and can’t pronounce but try anyway, throw it in a food processor with some ice, sieve and serve.

All food (barring juice) is served on a banana leaf, roughly cut into a largish rectangle, lengthways. This you sprinkle with water from your mug, shake off, and then eat from. If your family is affluent enough to have plates, they will be banana leaf patterned. Having finished, you fold the leaf towards you and then roll it up, a sign that you have finished and found the meal to your satisfaction. Should you find the opposite to be the case, or are at a funeral, the fold the leaf the other way, away from you.

Despite William Faulkner’s injunctions to the contrary, all water is drunk from metal. Now, perhaps this sounds like a very small thing, and perhaps it is, but I am surprised how much it bothers me. It is my only regular dissatisfaction. I can’t understand it. I just really don’t like drinking water from a metal cup. It’s not as though it’s something I have ever done before. Obviously, on the water front, I drink only bottled or boiled. When you ask for boiled water in a restaurant, and it comes boiling, you can’t help but feel that the people are laughing at you. You want it boiled, you have it boiled, they say. Nothing but nothing is less refreshing from the heat of chilli than boiling water.

If any of this is repetition, I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me. Internet cafe staff laughing at me sitting here for so long. Going.