“you are all Gandhis” (2008)

Pongal festivities were in full swing when I arrived in Madurai in January.  India has thousands of festivals and Pongal is an important one in Tamil Nadu.  It is a harvest festival and I read in the paper that it is similar to the American Thanksgiving because it is a time to give thanks and hope for a bountiful coming year.  Wherever I went in Madurai people would wish me “Happy Pongal!”

Just when I thought India had thrown me for a loop this third time around. . .a stolen necklace in Chennai; a four hour bus ride from Thanjavur to Madurai watching cheesy  Tamil videos from the ’70s played full blast, tissue stuffed in my ears all the way; an Indian cop who tried to take my Swiss Army Knife I always carried when I tried to re-enter the Meenakshi Temple on one side when I was allowed to enter with it on the other side…

…something wondrous happened.  That’s  how it always happens to me in India — my best experiences are born from serendipity.

I had hooked up with an autorickshaw driver for my stay in Madurai and we were driving through the slums along the river.  Somehow I always get drivers who know I am not afraid to go off the beaten path into the places where tourists don’t usually go.

We drove past a small school and I saw children in a doorway dressed in their dance clothes.  The little girls were beautiful and I told the driver to turn around for a quick photo.  Of course as soon as they saw me stop about 10 kids ran outside and surrounded me.  Some of the teachers came out to see what the commotion was.  I saw a stage inside and a woman talking into a microphone.  I apologized to the teachers, I said I did not mean to cause such a ruckus and disturb their show by taking a photo.

A male teacher came up to me and said “no problem, madam” and he invited me in to celebrate Pongal with them.  He said they had planned a special celebration and it would be their honor if I came inside.  I tried to beg off because I knew the commotion my presence would cause and I’m not one to have people fuss over me, but the children grabbed me and the teachers insisted.  I planned to sit in back and watch quietly, but I was led to the stage steps.  I stopped and turned around and there had to be at least 100 kids sitting on the floor, all eyes glued to me, big smiles on their faces.  I was stunned and I kept shaking my head no, but the teachers kept pushing and pulling me until I was given the guest of honor seat, between the principal and the head mistress.  I felt like a rock star.

The teachers asked where I was from and what I did.  They introduced me, telling the children that I had come all the way from America for them, then they asked me to get up and say a few words.  I was still in shock so I mumbled something about “stay in school and get a good education” and that got a huge round of applause.

It is Pongal tradition to boil a pot of rice and when the rice boils over the sides, that signifies a fruitful coming year.  As the Pongal pot of rice was boiling the teachers presented me with a Pongal gift — a towel that they draped over my shoulders.  The price tag was still attached and it said 20 rupees which is about 50 cents, but to me it was priceless.

As the children danced on stage the teachers told me that these were slum children, that the school gets money from the government to educate them.  There are about 600 kids in the school and they are taught English, computers, reading, and math, among other subjects. One of the teachers took my camera and took pictures of the dancers for me.  When he returned my camera I took the perfect Pongal picture — a picture of the pot just as the rice started to boil over.  Serendipity.

Finally, the teachers asked me to say some last words to the children.  By this time it was over an hour later and I was composed enough to say something intelligent.  I spoke and it was translated into Tamil….

I told them that I had read in the paper that morning that Pongal is like the American Thanksgiving and I explained a little about what Thanksgiving meant, about giving thanks, having gratitude.  After wishing them Happy Pongal, I told the children that their teachers teach from their hearts and to never take their education for granted.  I told them that they were the future of India and with their education they could change the world, that they could be anything they wanted to be.  I told them, “you are all Gandhis, never forget that.”

When I finished I saw some of the teachers dabbing their eyes and I thought about how some upper caste Indians would look down on these children and down on me for even being with them.   I thought about how so many people in my white bread suburban community have no idea, or worse, don’t want to know, how the rest of the world lives.   Here I was in a slum school half-way around the world and I felt blessed to be with them.   All things happen for a reason, there are no coincidences.

A teacher then told the children how it was their privilege for the American yoga teacher to visit their school today.  I said, no, it was MY privilege to be treated with such graciousness, a total stranger.  The principal took my hand and said I was a gift from God for them…and that’s when I started to cry.

The principal and I walked off the stage as the Pongal lunch was served to the children.  We went into her office and she asked me to write in their guestbook so I wrote what I said at the end of the program, about changing the world.  I was also given the special Pongal lunch, as was my driver, and the principal told me more about the school.  Before I left I gave her a donation and said she should use it for whatever they needed, food, books, anything.  The principal told me she would make sure that each child got a pen, so I bought about 600 pens that day.  You have to travel in india to know the significance of the question “one pen, madam?”, so when she told me she would buy pens I thought it was a very appropriate purchase.

The principal wrote the address of the school for me and told me I am always welcome to return.  I told her that I had a beautiful time with them and that I would always remember them as long as I live.  I left and got into the rickshaw as children and teachers came out to wave goodbye to me.  The driver started his rickshaw and we left, and when I turned around about a block away they were still waving goodbye.

This is the India that cracks open my heart and makes me count the days until I can run back into her arms and lose myself all over again.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad Madurai

The day I left for Madurai I went to a beauty salon to get mehndi on my feet. The salon ladies were fascinated by my tattoos and they were admiring them when the owner walked in. She was a big woman wearing a beautiful hot pink sari and heavy with gold jewelry — her personality matched her appearance. She shoved her way through the crowd saying, “I want to see everything!” She stuck her finger in the air and announced, “I want to learn this!”, as if learning the art of tattooing is the easiest thing in the world.

They caught a glimpse of my shoulder tattoo. I did not plan to take off my clothes but the owner commanded, “Take off top, BE FREE, BE FREE!” I wore a camisole underneath so I removed the top of my salwar kameez. Everyone gushed over the intricate flower vines surrounding a colorful butterfly.

Then they saw the large sun/moon tattoo peeking above the waistband of my salwar and two women began to pull it down. The moon has eyes and a Nepali woman loved it so much that she kissed her fingers and touched my tattoo. “The eyes is talking to me, the eyes is talking to me,” she said as she repeatedly kissed her fingers and touched the eyes of the moon.

Women took pictures of my tattoos, the mehndi was started, and the Nepali woman drew my tattoos in a sketchbook. She told me that she loves tattoos and wants to become a tattoo artist, but there is no place in Chennai to learn. The women asked if I wanted to get my nose pierced and the Nepali woman confided that some Indian women get their nipples pierced. “But only married ladies after one baby,” she said very seriously. I loved that she was so open with me, a westerner whom she would never see again. I was just one of the girls that afternoon.

That night I left on the 9:30 train to Madurai and as I sat alone in my berth two young men in their 20s came in. When they saw me they looked as if I had lifted up my kurta to flash them. Their mouths dropped open in unison and they did not say a word. I thought their reaction strange and I felt like saying, “Hello, boys, you’ve never seen a woman before?” I said hello in Tamil and smiled. They sat across from me and as I sat across from them with a half smile on my face they tried to look anywhere but at me.

I’ve been told that sometimes this is typical male behavior when so close to a woman, especially one as strange as me — western, a tattooed ageless hippie chick, dressed in Indian clothes, and bold enough to look them in the eye. I’ve also been told that some young Indian males are starved for any kind of interaction with the opposite sex — usually there is no premarital sex and there is hardly any communication between boys and girls at school. Growing up like this leaves men clueless as to how to behave and some also believe the misconceptions about western women.

At the last minute an older man sat next to me and I said, “We’re all going to be just cozy now, aren’t we?” The young men again looked like I had not only flashed them but also blew them a kiss. At least the older man had the manners to say hello to me. These boys looked so nervous I felt sorry for them. They finally got their act together, i.e., making sure they never looked at me, and we all settled into our berths for the overnight train ride.

As the train pulled into Madurai in the morning, the older man wished me a nice day and the boys tripped all over themselves in a rush to get out. I was sure that this was the first time they had slept so close to a woman.

After a nine hour train ride I was in no mood for nonsense, but I was instantly accosted by a dozen auto rickshaw drivers, so much so that a station security guard told them to leave me alone. I chose one driver and as we walked through the phalanx of drivers they started to laugh and yell, “here madam, here madam, you want ride, madam?” “That’s it,” I said as I threw down my bag. I spun around and yelled loud enough to make the street dogs run: “ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!” That got everyone’s attention and I never saw a gaggle of drivers shut up so quickly. “No tension, madam, no tension, come with me,” my driver said. That was more like it and when we got to the hotel I paid him more than what we agreed to.

I stayed exactly 90 minutes at the guesthouse that was closest to the great temple. I took the recommendation of a well-known guide book and I decided that the writer must have been hallucinating from too many bhang lassis when he wrote the review.

I don’t mind cheap hotels in India but I draw the line at towels that looked like they were used to wash a car and greasy hair stains on the pillows. The place was disgusting. It looked like a room for serial killers to hold up during their rampage. The guts hung out of the air conditioner in the “deluxe AC room.”

The room was considered “deluxe” because you could walk out onto the roof of the floor below for a fabulous view of the temple. However, the window did not lock so anyone on that roof could crawl into your bed. The room also had a frosted glass door so it was not safe for a solo female traveler. When a man tried to get into my room about a hour after I checked in, I asked for another room but it had the same greasy towels and pillow cases. I got out, losing 500 rupees, and moved to a better hotel. I learned a valuable lesson for future trips to India: always look at the room before you hand over the rupees.

My first day in Madurai and now I knew why some westerners had that glazed “dead man walking” look in their eyes. It’s a defense mechanism – act deaf, dumb, and blind and maybe you’ll be spared from the incessant touts. I met nice old men who told me their life stories, and how America is a great country, and how their brother/uncle/son/cousin/sister’s husband has a clothes/jewelry/art/silver shop with a great roof top view of the temple, “just look, madam, no buy.”

The market across from the temple was filled with stalls of all types of merchandise and a great place to see those dead men walking. I ended up telling shop keepers and touts, “I’m a poor yoga teacher, no money” or “YOU buy ME something?” or “It’s against my religion.” The last story always worked. I also ended up with a screaming migraine headache from the constant harangue of “just look, no buy” and the heat and the closeness. I went back to my room, turned up the AC, put a cold cloth on my head, and didn’t wake up until the evening.

My second day was spent at the Gandhi museum, an inspiring and peaceful place where about 100 schoolgirls were more interested in me than in learning about their own history. The girls were sitting on the floor listening to the curator as I walked in. He immediately stopped talking and all heads turned around at the same time to look at me. I smiled and brought my hands to my chest and bowed. Everyone said hello to me in English, and I responded with a loud vanakkam. They exploded in laughter and with a big smile the curator asked, “What country, madam? America or UK?” “America.” “Ah, America!” Bigger smiles all around. Their teachers had their hands full trying to keep order all because of me.

As I walked around the exhibits I felt the schoolgirls’ eyes on me. I turned around and the girls would giggle. “Shhhh,” I said, putting my finger to my lips. “Read your history, don’t look at me.”, I told them with a wink. Occasionally I would feel a light touch on my back and I would turn around and a hand would cover a mouth, a giggle unsuccessfully suppressed.

My last day in Madurai was spent on a tour bus. An Indian tour bus is usually not decked out with plushy seats, air-conditioning, and a restroom – most of our seats were ripped and frayed but adequately comfortable. Sometimes you have the pleasure of listening to music played full blast through a shabby speaker, driver’s choice of music of course. I settled in and waited for the day’s adventures.

Once again I was the only westerner and I noticed that everyone had the same reaction to the condition of the bus. They walked up the stairs, stopped, looked around at the frayed seats, and either gulped or sneered. Off we went, all windows open to the Madurai heat and dust.

I don’t remember exactly what was on the tour, I just enjoyed riding around with a bus load of Indian tourists. Every time we stopped the driver would announce in Tamil where we were and how long we would be there. At the first stop I asked him how long and he sneered at me and grunted. I was on my own. I knew that if I did not get back in time, I would be left in the street. Finally a man told me in English “20 minutes” and at every stop I would look at him and he would smile and tell me how long we would be.

I loved the vignettes framed by the bus window. I saw a huge ram with massive horns sleeping peacefully in the gutter while a woman carefully swept the street around him; two flower sellers with their carts, talking quietly, engrossed in conversation as only women can be, as a street goat happily munched the flowers from one cart.

It was a lazy day and the only excitement we had was when the driver took a curve too fast and I felt the tires on my side of the bus lift up for about three seconds. People started to scream and the woman next to me flew out of her seat. She would have landed in the aisle had I not caught her sari and pulled her back down. I practiced equanimity — if I die in India so be it. I started to doze as the passengers yelled at the driver.

At one stop we were besieged by begging children, girls and boys. I saw that Indians rarely gave to beggars, so when a beggar sees a feringhi it’s an onslaught of constant cries for money. Trapped on a bus, I was ripe for the picking. I sat next to the rear door and it was the perfect place for a little girl to plant herself on the steps in front of me with her hand out with a constant cry that sounded like “ma” over and over and over again.

You need a thick skin to handle the beggars in India, even if they are children. I was not in the giving mood so I ignored her and stared out the window. Occasionally I would look at her and shake my head and tell her no in Tamil, but she never stopped. Every Indian also ignored her, but I had an idea. I pointed to each person on the bus and told her “ask him” or “ask her” and rubbed my fingers together, the universal sign for money. I said, “They give rupees, I give rupees”. She left me and went over the Indians. That finally got everyone’s attention, and when she started harassing the Indians, a woman said something and she left. The bus finally started and as we left I looked back to see the begging children swarm the next group of tourists, like yellow jackets to fresh meat.

Late at night when everyone was tired, hungry, and complaining we stopped at a Murugan temple, our last stop, and most of the passengers did not get off the bus. The temple would have been the highlight of my day because it is a very important temple, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga, an important Hindu god worshiped in south India. It is huge temple carved into rock, but it was impossible to explore in the time we had, so I had to be satisfied with a quick walk-through. I should have planned my last day more carefully, but I wanted to leave the planning to someone else, even if it was a bus driver who spoke no English. Go with the flow, there will be a next time, and I remembered the words of the Chennai beauty shop owner, “be free, be free.”

We headed back to Madurai, everyone quiet now for the ride home. Despite the heat, the dust, a migraine headache, and the incessant touts that I experienced over the last few days, I again felt at peace here on a bus with strangers in a strange city in a strange land and I almost fell completely asleep.

We were in Madurai and I woke up to people screaming at the driver again. Apparently he wasn’t dropping people at their hotels, he was dropping people off wherever he felt like it. It was late, and the streets were crowded with people walking to the temple so the bus driver had trouble getting through the streets. I watched everything with detachment, watching group dynamics and mentally placing bets on who would win.

Every few blocks he would kick people off the bus, and the people would complain as they flagged down autorickshaws. Finally it was me and an older couple. I got off the bus and the husband started to argue with the driver. There was much hand waving and head wobbling, but the driver won and the husband finally got off. The bus left and the three of us stood in the middle of the street. Suddenly they spoke to me in perfect English, complaining about the bus and the driver. How funny that they never said a word to me all day yet we had sat across the aisle from each other.

I returned to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening in the roof-top restaurant, looking out over the temple complex and thinking about what India had taught me so far – more patience, how to be in the present moment, and detaching from the outcome. Anyone on the yoga path knows that these qualities sink a bit deeper into the consciousness the longer one does the work. But somehow, being in Ma India, my heart could open more fully, just as the lotus opens its petals as it rises out of the mud to reach for the glorious sun.

Goodbye Madurai. OM MURUGA, lead me from the darkness and into the light.