I have never considered India a travel destination in my life until a fellow dungpicker and friend, Radeeca, invited me to her wedding in Chennai, India.
In my mind, I can only visualise images taken from a Bollywood movie and Slumdog Millionaire.
A dark human flotsam with Tata Steel cars and autos swirling in the dusty, garbage lined streets.
The chugging of smoking diesel engines and tongue twisting exchanges in the various Indian dialects provide a continuous assault to the ears.
Smog and flies blooming in the air as strays and beggars pick at heaps of litter for some scraps.
Water which guarantees a quick and prolonged laxative effect to the foreign stomach.
The state of the public toilets that is too shocking to imagine.
The 4-hour flight on Striped Cat Airways to Chennai was awful.
The seats were cramped with hardly any foot room to speak of.
The varied odours of its passengers made my nostrils cry.
Even my fellow travellers who could sit through 10 hour flights started to swear that this was the worst flight they’ve ever took.
I hardly slept and was eager to get off the plane, even if it lands in Afghanistan.
Thus I was happy to cough up a few extra hundred bucks for my 2nd trip to South India via S.Ingapore Airlines.
Once we stepped out of the airport, the odour of the city never fails to prickle my olfactory nerves.
A pungent mix of turmeric, drainwater and dust.
Shops of all sizes and colours line along the crowded streets and yellow three-wheelers zip through the spaces between larger vehicles like Indian Initial D.
Unlike the retail clones that cover Singapore, India’s shops and stalls are one of a kind. I’ve yet to come across 2 shops which look identical and sell identical stuff.
Gangly indian men were peddling pirated books, decorative accessories, shirts, slippers, household wares, food, toys… anything to lure the ruppee out a tourist’s pocket.
The real temptation for me lies in the marbled walls of saree emporiums such as Pothi’s and Kumaran Silks.
I vowed never to buy a saree as the only time I could ever use it is for racial harmony day.
I yielded to the platimun service (Saree for you Madame?) and luscious silks which the male sales assistants unfurl with no hesitation.
Gee, what am I going to do with 4 sarees? (^p^)
Thanks to my dear friend Radeeca, I had the opportunity witness a Brahmin wedding and to don in a saree for the occassion.
For my 2nd trip to South India, I joined Bavanee and her family to visit the famous temples of Tamil Nadu.
I felt really fortunate to have them smuggle me into the sacred heart of the temple which houses the statue of the residing god. All I had to do was paste a bindi on my forehead, dress in a chudi or saree and call one of Bavanee’s aunts my mother-in-law.
When some local priests started yelling at me and gesturing for me to stay outside (I forgot my bindi), I realised how the blacks must have felt during the apartheid to be ostracised just because of the colour of their skin.
I was a little worried too that I would be spending the rest of the trip staring at the intricate gorpurams outside the temple grounds like a lone tourist.
I did feel a little upset and incredulous that the same bloody priest still refused to shut his trap even after Bavanee’s family told him I’m a Chinese Hindu.
Well, it’s an isolated case.
We did not encounter any similar problems for the next few temples.
The priests blessed us all the same. More blessings in the form of sachets of holy ash and flowers if one offers some ruppees.
Every temple’s interior is lavishly covered in ornate carvings and surrounded by columns of Yali (a mythical creature) or divine figures in a state of dance. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed within the inner sanctum. Perhaps because the cameras would have been crushed to smithereens by the raging human throng as people jostled to pay homage to the deity.
After traversing through rain-soaked rice fields, unkempt towns, damaged roads in this 2nd trip, seeing how the locals could survive the dust-covered faces of poverty and urban chaos, I finally tasted contentment and appreciation for the modern comforts I took for granted such as hygiene, urban planning, clean roads, order.
When in India, expect chaos and the unexpected.
That’s why it enthralls me, the shifting beauty and ugliness of the Indian landscape, the excitement when one consumes his lunch without knowing how the dish was prepared or what was contained inside, the dizzying array of colourful cloths and glittering jewellery waiting to adorn, the heat and smell of steamy garbage piles as dust-colored cows scavenge for morsels of food in the parking lot.
The chaos and disorder invaded my senses, pillaged my lofty expectations and robbed me of my discontent.
All that was left was gratitude in my heart for what I had.
The routine and order of modern life.
The access to India’s sacred temples where the ancient sages carved the secrets of the universe into stone.
Everything, the pains and the joys, that brought me to where I am now.