Just some of those things that you think you’ve forgot, but they’re some of those things you cannot (after Jimmy Durante), and sung badly by Bob Cranwell !
Legends of Madras, the heat and humidity sits like a weight on my already swimming head, driving me under the cooling blast of the fan day or night. The air is almost liquid, at 98% humidity. A first day in the city brought thoughts of Robert Clive and countless gentlemen officers and their demure ladies; I remember well how I looked in silent astonishment at their tombstones – often erected over them within weeks of arrival. Now, month later, I’ve become acclimatised to most aspects of India, but it still holds surprises.
My hotel room overlooks a couple of small but busy roundabouts on two of the larger roads in downtown Madras. The district is called Egmore, southbound trains leave from the Egmore rail station. In the centre of the roundabout is a not very well executed statue, garlanded with orange and yellow marigolds, which eventually wandering goats or cows will find. The statue, at a guess, as I’ve never actually checked, is probably of Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali pre independence revolutionary who died in 1945, who particularly championed the cause of untouchables in Indian society. A very influential figure, he was blindly determined in his pursuit of independence that he allied his cause to Hitler, a tactic which later harmed his otherwise well received home-spun philosophy.
Late at night, gin and Limca in my hand, I watch the traffic insinuate itself in ever more baffling patterns and original routes around Mr Bose. The flow is disjointed, but never stops completely, and this tempts me to throw a few snippets at you in much the same way as they bombard me. Fast though the mind can work, things change with the speed and complexity of atoms in a cloud chamber, everything I see is instantly history, washed over by the now.
A plane, roaring suddenly from behind my head blinks red dots over me and two steady wingtip lights course their way between stars, to the West, (where my love lies, or more exactly, I suppose she’ll just be back in from school, it’s 5.24pm back home).
A man crosses the two roundabouts against the traffic, carrying his umbrella under his arm, striding barefoot in his rolled up lunghi (a sort of skirt adaptable to lots of uses). I can see from here that he hasn’t shaved in a while. Is he a pilgrim, foregoing grooming until his duty is completed, or just one of millions of Indian men who would shave only once in 3 or 4 days, to prolong blade life ?
A blattering motorbike, an Enfield 350 I think, now negotiates the space in the same way, against and across the traffic. The easy rider style driver leans back, oblivious to how close oblivion came. Most vehicles, of course, carry no lights. Licensed bicycle rickshaws are painted bright yellow, but that hardly helps illuminate the way for night time travel, a distinctly jarring experience,
I was out today for a constitutional and nosey around in the industrial warehouse area, and chuckled at a sign I saw on a wall opposite a corner tea stall. The pungent smell of decades of use probably caused the sign to be painted, but has had no impact that I could discern. It said “URIN STRICKTLY PROHIBITD”. Well, what can I saw, my Tamil is hardly up to scratch. I love the incongruities everywhere – just a few yards further, a moped choked passageway displays invaluable information, ”ST. FRANCIS NURSHING HOME Ambulance service available 24hrs” What ? on a moped ?
The whiff is thick and clinging in this area filled with ruminant cows drains and overloaded vehicles trapped in apparent death throes in narrow lanes. Shop owners sit observing, often on small plinths or boxes at the entrance to wardrobe sized premises, which prove to be cavernous inside with lackeys toiling to move everything into the space available. Men throng over lorries, carrying steel pipes of all sizes, metal bars to engineering works, ceramic squat toilets piled four high on the flat back of a cycle rickshaw. Trucks, and buses too, gun their engines, desperate to get out of the lanes, threading through blithely unaware pedestrians, animals and cyclists. Most drivers, of course have bought their driving license on the strength of earnings to be gained. The test is far too expensive, and anyway, the examiners earn very little as civil servants.
My last taxi driver from the airport had a rearview mirror only, skewed up uselessly at the ceiling. He was a skeletal man, not unusual for the south, with what is clearly a tablecloth, checkered with roses at the corners wrapped on his head. He threw this off in the heat of the 24mph dash into Madras. Most traffic move that quickly anyway, since pretty nearly every vehicle is shagged out in European terms, but Indians are incredible at keeping things going, no matter what. Only the buses really hurtle around town, doing about 40mph with the probable impetus of a European coach at 100mph such is the mass of human freight inside and clinging on by one hand on a bar and half a foot in the stairwell.
At the roundabout, the ‘crippled guy’ who importunes “master” for coins as I pass during the day puts on the shoes he keeps behind him when the night comes. Ordinarily he sits looking very ill and boney, but not downcast, with old and pus-stained bandages on one foot and hand, both very stumpy looking.
An accident occurs, as it had to, though it’s the first real one from billions of near misses. Car clouts cycle while exiting roundabout, cyclist unhurt, amazingly. Driver stops, examines damage then gets back in and drives to roadside where there is a little direct light. As soon as he get there, there are 22 people already there, inspecting and assessing the damage, merits and precedents of the case in hand without saying a thing, but heads wobble languidly in that particularly south Indian way of reacting to things. Both offender and offended joust demonstratively in public as if conducting some dramatic court scene. The economically superior car driver waves the group away, only to see a much larger group gather to see what the first lot were shooed away from. No argument as such develops. Things seem to dissipate into simple mass curiosity at the ways of the world as the group, protagonists included begin to wander, heads down, as if searching for answer on the ground, mirroring students in an exam looking for inspiration in the ceiling.
It carries on for some minutes with some sort of bonding going on in this gathering, but without further ado, bodies peel off and continue on their path. I was as if they were just ambling around, getting themselves used to the idea that it was just one of those things.
By now, I’ve finished the gin, smiling happily as I turn back to lie under the wash of the ceiling fan for sleep. Another day in store.
The Tirupathi Express whistles distantly as it pulls away to the south. I’ll be on that train tomorrow night with my group, a night train adventure. In the meantime, bats swirl and pirouette around feeble streetlamps, munching moths in the night.
Catch yer later !
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant