Still in Kathmandu; Letter from Chennai
Yes, it's true, I haven't written in weeks. Din din ne, ek naya samasya aunchhu (every day, another new problem comes).
No sooner did I get rid of the Colonic Critters than a new health problem arose. Lumbar spondylosis with marginal osteophytes means my lower spine is growing crooked and has little bone spurs sprouting from the vertebrae. It also means I have to lie on my back and side a lot. Kind of hard to type upside down.
Since I'm not traveling at the moment, I'm filling space with snippets from friends who are.
My friend G. wrote from Chennai (land of fabulous fluffy Idlis and world-famous Meals Ready and Madras coffee) to tell me about his Calcutta lodging situation, and why he was going to Chennai at an otherwise unlikely time of year.
G. ended up staying at a place called the Howrah Hotel, which he describes as a sort of Calcutta version of the famous Broadlands Lodge of Chennai:
Howrah Hotel is across the road from the station if you come off the bridge you bear a bit to the right where there is a nasty vegetable market and the hotel faces that and a single room is 265 rupees with attached bath. It is dirtier than Broadlands, and of course you are in Howrah. But there are some "higher class" Indian places walking distance away with a/c restaurants and decent food. One the Asoka hotel has a speakeasy bar with a plasma screen tv and very cold beer and thalis and all sorts of food.
Why Chennai/Madras in August?
Why Madras in August. ... the weather is cloudy, rainy, not hot at all, better than muggy Thailand. The train south was a killah; I am just too soft from Thailand where everything is easy. BUT THERE IS NOTHING LIKE THE IDLY WADA AT RATNA CAFE on Triplicane High Rd.!
Turns out there is a rather unique South Indian Music Marathon concert "for world peace." That could only happen in Chennai. (A few years ago the Carnatic musicians congregated to sing nonstop in Amritavarshini raga for some 36 hours in hopes of bringing the rains.)
Indian music tradition holds that various ragas can produce not only various moods, but specific effects. I wonder whether there are specific ragas to produce VishwaShanti (world peace)?
There will commence today a 5 day Carnatic marathon of nonstop concerts with all the available major artists performing one hour segments AND A PRIZE WILL BE GIVEN TO THE RASIKA(fan)WHO LISTENS TO THE MOST SEQUENTIAL NUMBER OF CONCERT HOURS!!!!!!!!!! I wonder if he gets a ghee soaked kiss from Jayalalitha?
G. wrote a few days later to elaborate:
I am attending a few hours of the 100-hour marathon of Carnatic music for world peace. It is in a small temple in Mylapore. NO one knew where it was exactly, so I hopped a bus on Peters Rd which took me to Royapettah/Mylapore crossing and walked from there. All the living big shots were there, each artist playing for one hour. Good stuff.
Oh man, I know that crossing. Royapettah/Mylapore. I can taste the ghee poli now.
Mylapore is The Hood for Carnatic traditionalists. If you go, don't neglect to visit Karpagambal Mess on East Mada Street (I think), and get your card read by the Kili Jyotisham (man with a trained parrot who selects a card for fortune telling) in front of Kapaleeshwar Temple.
(My card was Saraswati. Don't ask me what Jesus is doing on the signboard....the cards were mostly Hindu deities.)
Mylapore is one of the last 'hoods for ultra-traditional South Indian Brahmins (above). While watching them tirelessly prepare for pujas on the ramparts of Kapaleeshwar Temple - bundling durva grass and reading Tamil astrological almanacs for the right tithis -- I always reflect that the men I'm watching may be the last of their kind. Will India's Generation Next find time to do duty for the gods, and do they even know how to wrap a dhoti or vaishti?
G. continues updating me on some old haunts:
I am sure you remember the old in Triplicane. It is under new ownership and called the Suriya. It has been cleaned up, new chairs and staff. The food is good but the service is terrible. It seems they cannot find good staff. What they need is a waiter boss who can shout orders and make them scurry around. They are sleepwalkers now. A good meals hotel has to be in frantic action like Ananda Bhavan, where they slap on the sambar before you run out. Suriya does have a bit of style--the coffee comes with the proper foam on top and the added touch of a crisscross of coffee powder on the foam gives some points.
Then G. describes a less appetizing reality of Indian urban life. I witnessed this in Chennai couple years ago in 2006. If you are eating you should probably stop reading and looking now....
They are cleaning the sewers here so small black men descend into fetid pits of black goo and bucket them out on the sidewalk. Now there are huge piles of black stuff for several blocks. I can now hold my breath at least 3 minutes.
That's right - tiny Dravidian men practically dive into the reeking pits, totally naked save for a tiny loincloth strip. No protective gloves or mask, no disinfectant provided, nothing, and come out dripping in green-brown slime. My photos from 2006 are below.
In 2006 I was on my way to a "nice" restaurant when I saw these scenes just outside. I couldn't eat after going in, so I described it to a man working there. "Oh, the municipality gives them gloves and protective wear," he said, "but they sell it and keep the money." I'll decline to comment on that.