Plus ca change; plus c’est la meme chose

Chennai / Madras.

From outside the hotel traffic noise begins to filter into my mind around 6.30am, though I’d known of and had felt people moving through the city all night, sporadically waking and sleeping in time with passing truck horns. It seemed that it took until this time of the morning for the air horns, cycle bells, mendicants cries to reach a critical level of continuous cacophony that would remain at that level until around 11 that night. Some cities are said to never sleep, but Madras does sleep, although never long enough in my humble opinion.

Strangely, the sound of a normal Madras seems much louder than when I was here over last Christmas. Apart from the disturbances around the death of the Tamil Nadu chief minister, the streets were empty apart from the odd police truck loaded with apprehensive but stern looking men with old rifles, batons and twirly moustaches. Normally, of course the constant background hum of traffic punctuated by air horns is the soundscape you get.


Village life, Tamil Nadu, even small children assume responsibility
Village life, Tamil Nadu


Today is a quiet day for me, a tour just finished, passengers already mid-air or even already home after a fascinating, jarring, colourful, enchanting and grating 3 week tour of South India. For myself I’m hoping to head South again, this time to Pondicherry a former French colonial enclave on the coast of Tamil Nadu to stay with a friend there. It’s a place rarely featured on Indian tours, perhaps because there’s not that much accommodation for many tour groups, perhaps because it’s a there and back destination, perhaps because it’s a bit of a niche interest. There are quite a few people go there though, many French looking for vestiges of the past, new agers too, most often to visit Auroville, a sort of spiritual community outside (and definitely apart from) the town.

A schoolboy, satchel over his shoulder, is greeted by a small elephant when passing through a temple courtyard on his way to school
You might not believe this, but an elephant ate my homework

While passing the time of day I try some new selection from the vegetarian menu of the hotel, which is not at all posh, rather tacky in fact but very popular with local small businessmen, and I know that if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me ! A good rule of thumb I always think, on visiting a new restaurant is to try out the dahi (curds), first. Basically, almost all kitchens will make their own, and if they can’t make decent yoghurt (the bacteria do all the work, after all), then they might not be so great at food. It’s good to have a benchmark dish to assess places, and if I was going to rate a new, rather posher hotel for other clients, I’d probably order a club sandwich – a staple, really of an a la carte menu catering for western tourists, requiring little real skill, but following a format, and easy to present as an appetising snack, though to be honest all a bit bland for me.


Today I find an unexpected delight, Navaranas (sometimes Navaratan) korma, a very spicy, but not really hot dish of larger and smaller pieces of tomatoes, carrot, onion, blending beautifully with spikes of sharp pineapple and grape, and formed into a smooth rich platter with a good dash of dahi. The whole is topped with melted paneer – a bit like feta but no taste – which is wrapped in the flimsiest silver foil which I assume you’re supposed to eat. This hotel also serves a wonderful Paneer Jalfarezi in much the same way, but with crunchy vegetables in a rich tomato sauce. Both these are classed as side dishes, and for most lunchtime diners are not even given a passing thought. Food taken at midday by most diners are simply known as ‘meals’, thus ‘Bombay meal’ or ‘Madras meal’, (no, I can’t tell the subtle difference which must be apparent to Indian eaters), but better known to westerners as the Thali.


The first stage in our restaurant is for the diner to nip into the washroom behind a curtain near the entrance, and clear the throat noisily while assiduously washing the right hand in particular, for this is the hand to eat with. Then if you want to be posh, you’d be presented with a large stainless steel tray with compartments, or even bowls for different parts of the meal – the dish itself is the Thali.

If you want to eat more in keeping with the locals, you would wait barely a few moment before a server would  dash up with a clutch of banana leaves and a shiny bucket of clean water, a splash of water to clean the table and then a further splash and wipe over the surface of the leaf, usually the size of an open tabloid newspaper. Next, a couple of papad or papadoms along with a few puffed up puris (chapatti dough rounds that are tossed in hot oil for seconds) are chucked from a basket and perhaps 7 or 8 small bowls placed in front of you containing dal, potato curry, mixed veg curry, coconut chutney, dahi, some sweet item, and lastly a peppery soup called rasam, which should be taken first, though some diners like to have the sweet item first.

Making a dhosa
Making a dhosa

Presented with this theatre, the delighted westerner might still be a bit confused, since the selection clearly requires a set approach – and no, you shouldn’t really mix them all up. So, you have a little taste of each, dipping a scrap of puri into the bowl (no cutlery if you don’t want to seem an ingenue), then as you’re just working out your eating strategy, along comes a waiter with a washing up bowl full of fluffy white rice and proceeds to dump around a kilo on your leaf. South Indians are brought up on rice and would hardly consider a meal worth the name without it, and awesome portions are consumed in public especially, as a subtle (?) indicator of well-being. The technique from here is to spoon a small amount of something out of one of your bowls, use your finger ends to pudge it together with some rice and flip the sticky blob into your mouth. For the westerner, even with some experience of manual eating, rice is a terrible problem. The Indian gets a hand full of grub and pops it into the mouth without ever touching the lips with the hand. Only people of low class would do that, I’m told, but foreigners are usually forgiven for their clumsiness, as they can hardly be expected to know how to behave in company ! (Apropos of which, remember the famous anecdote about Gandhi , when asked what he thought about western civilisation, apparently said he thought it would be a good idea ! Brilliant !)


The Thali, then, is perhaps the meal of India, although a bit less common in the North (where some meat would often feature), than the rice growing and predominantly vegetarian South. Some clear divides exist in India, most of course invisible to us, but one of the most obvious is that any eating place is classed as ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’, making the meat eater the departure from the norm, as it were, exactly the opposite from the west, and in some places, whole towns, even, a would-be meat eater might even be regarded as a lower form of life ! Vegetarians here would not even use an egg, and, even more strictly, adherents of the Jain religion will not eat anything that does not originate above ground, so no creatures may be harmed by tilling the soil.

Hierarchies exhibit themselves in every aspect of Indian society, but changes have been afoot over recent decades. In the past, for example a high caste Brahmin – the priest and teacher caste – would never in the past have considered eating food prepared or served by non-Brahmins, the pressure of living in cities, however, is fast dissolving prejudices which are still prevalent in rural areas. All groups must rub shoulders with anyone on crowded transport for the most obvious change, but some eateries specifically employ Brahmins as cook so that their food is ok to eat for anyone.

Barbers shop at the rail trackside. An older man is shaving a younger, who is reading a book; his face covered in foam. Both are seated, cross legged on a bench, in short skirts called lunghis.
Barbers shop at the rail trackside

A clear hierarchy exists in many hotels and restaurants. In my place in Madras the popular veg restaurant, the few people in charge of issuing bills or collecting money are in everyday clothes, whilst all below are in some form of uniform. Waiters/servers are usually dressed in (once) white suits, but will only take orders and bring food. The removal of dishes, wrapping up the leaves and debris is done by men in tatty looking khaki suits, usually in shorts. It’s odd, to see grown men dressed, in our eyes, as small boys, yet they may be grandfathers themselves. A further group clears up everything else and could be identified in two ways, first the dark blue shirts and shorts of boiler suit material, and second by them carrying a split cane hand brush which is used to redistribute dust and debris.


This hierarchy, despite modernisation, is largely a fixed one, with no envy of the position of others as you may find at home. Here, the washer up might have designs on a waiter’s job for tips, he in turn on the cashiers job, and the upward mobility would be possible too, assuming some initiative and ability were demonstrated. In India, that mobility barely exists at all for the majority of the population; the cleaner will be a cleaner all their life, a waiter a waiter and the boss would never demean the caste and honour of the family by being involved in work beneath them. As a result you may find that a complaint about your room’s cleanliness for example might result in barely discernible change. The boss could not demonstrate to the cleaner how to clean a tiled bathroom, for example, completely overlooking the fact that the cleaner almost certainly has no bathroom, perhaps only ever sees them at work, so has no model to work to; in addition, the cleaner will only be trusted with the most basic of equipment and products for their work.


A story told to me recently by a German businessman illustrates some of these unseen forces at work. He had been based in India for some time and became impressed by the intelligence and diligence of a young man who worked as a cleaner at his apartment. They became friendly after a while and the man told the young man his abilities were wasted and offered to fund the lad in applying to a European college to pursue his dream of studying electrical engineering, which he did with some success. The businessman also helped to find him a job in that field when he qualified.

Village potter; the heavy stone wheel is stirred with a stick to achieve the right spin, a man, barely clad, is fashioning a large clump of clay into air dried pots for dry goods
Village potter – the heavy wheel is stirred with a stick

It was some years before the businessman returned to India and decided to look up his earlier protégé, hoping to find a successful junior executive or some such. In the event, he found to his amazement that he was again working as a cleaner. He had to know what had happened; it transpired that the young man had felt shunned by his new-found work colleagues because he was of low (formerly ‘untouchable’) caste, and also rejected by people in his former life as he had turned his back on them. He was alone, and for one brought up in Indian society, that was enough to break his resolve.


And so, he went back to the people he knew, to the work which he was born to and was again accepted. No-one can live for long without friends.


Plus, ca change, indeed.

Catch yer later

Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant

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