I never thought I had the capacity to perspire much, but I’m in the process of learning otherwise. India, however tenuous its claims to democracy may be in many respects, is equally generous to everyone when it comes to the opportunity to perspire and expire.
Perched on my seat in a war- and weather beaten bus, I therefore have no choice, but to slowly surrender my body to its hot, damp state. Through the open window, gusts of air reach my feverish forehead, creating a fleeting sensation of release from the clinging heat.
Off the beaten tourist track
We’re still in coastal Kerala, but are heading towards Tamil Nadu, according to some, the home of the last living classical civilization. The state is a conglomerate of belief systems and religions that on the whole coexist admiringly peacefully. My tour book confidently promises a fulfilling journey for both browsing travellers and seekers of inner peace.
However, I am soon to discover that most of the places I am going to are far removed from most beaten tourist track. During my first two weeks, the only white person I see is in the mirror, except, that is, for one albino Indian I spot strolling in a remote village.
Beauty and the beast
I look out the open bus window and watch South India go by. The immensely beautiful competes with the unspeakably ugly, and I quickly resolve to observe only, for the moment not making any attempts to reflect upon what I see.
Children, immaculately dressed in school uniforms, English in concept, but Indian in colours and design, negotiate with natural ease an anarchic chaos of buses, cars, scooters and motorbikes, tuk-tuks, bicycles and man- and beast propelled carts and carriages.
Adding to the scene is a multitude of happily roaming dogs, pigs and goats, which like experienced gourmet connoisseurs select delicacies from the oceans of garbage overflowing streets, gutters and sidewalks.
The cows, majestically parading or lazily lounging when everybody else seems to be busy making their livelihood, no matter how small, can’t be bothered to move. They have the best seats in the streets and always have the right of way. Holy cow!
Symphony in yellow
Suddenly, a bright yellow garage catches my eye. A lemon-coloured vehicle is incidentally parked outside, and accompanying the symphony in yellow is the courtyard, carpeted with petals dripping from a tree generously overflowing with blossoms the colour of egg yolks.
In the middle of a field, a garden centre displays a cascade of colours that make me gasp before the appearance amid the flowers of three sari clad women carrying parasols sporting every hue of the rainbow completely takes my breath away.
There’s no time to dwell on what I have seen, as one tableau competes with the next for my attention. Each is revealed in a flash, and then gone, soon invisible to the eye, but forever ingrained in my mind.
A fine balance
What I presume to be a scooter is parked along the road. It is so overloaded that it has lost and probably long forgotten its original shape.
Others of its kind without complaint carry kids, uncles, aunties, a couple of neighbours and the new kitchen sink, all effortlessly keeping their balance, posture and calm through dad’s adept and often ad hoc driving.
Shops catering to all needs vie for business, displaying eye-catching billboards and wares. If not always able to deliver what they boldly promise, they are often closer to the truth than the innumerable hospital hoardings picturing smiling, cherubic babies on their sounder-than-life mothers’ arm, promising health and wealth in this life and seemingly well into the next.
The images contrast starkly with the everywhere visible reality for millions of Indians, but are useful to money-makers and the authorities. The two often being, if not one and the same, at least next of kin.
For the time being, my brain can only process input through one channel at a time. The visual impressions dominate, but after a while I start picking up whiffs of animal dung, human waste, rubbish and roadside cooking. The increasingly insistent odours contribute to an overwhelming feeling of presence, and are as good a proof of me being awake, actually being here, as pinching my arm.
When the bus stops, we make our way through an assortment of zoology and vehicles, to a “hotel”, which in this case, I am to realize, denotes café. The place shows no signs of undue interference from the health authorities, but serves delicious food. I command my guts to receive everything grace- and gratefully, and please to refrain from stirring up any trouble.
A different story
An appeal I repeat to my system many times during the ride to Madurai, and over the next few days. Hardly anything is like it is back home. My guide books which mostly cater to tourists, turn out to be of limited value, as the India they depict seems to be very different from the India I’m just now in the process of being introduced to.