48 Hours in India, Chapter III “Sleepless in South India, featuring Rajinikanth the Tuk Tuk Driver”

Where we did go was back through the main part of Trichy, which we had seen from the cab as we barreled through the town. The more modern part of Trichy had two main streets connecting a large train station and a very active bus depot. They two were about a mile and a half apart and in between them lay what I thought of at the time as ‘Mad Max Flea market’ but is actually just what a lot of streets in the smaller Indian cities look like. The roads were paved but potholed and trash filled. Giant buses roared through small streets lined with stalls selling shoes, phone cases and fruit, everything coated with grime and dust. Rubble and thick black mud lined the streets and the entire walk from end to end smelled like urine and diesel exhaust. The crowd was fast moving and pushy and equally beaten down looking. Not exactly the Taj or downtown Mumbai. With our packs on we wandered up and down this stretch looking for accommodations or a restaurant with wifi. We found plenty of places to eat, a few to stay and absolutely no wifi (we later found one hotel that did have it: it cost eight times what the hotel we were staying did, so no dice). We ended up back at the big roundabout in the middle of town. On one side of the roundabout sits the beehive-esque bus station, across from an ancient five story hotel. At the bus station, full size windowless buses would tear through the roundabout, honking the whole way in one long blatting scream as people jumped on and off without the bus stopping. Smaller vehicles and motorbikes flitter between the gaps of the big buses. The whole affair had the look and feel of a very loud ant colony working at full tilt. We’d done some pricing as we walked and settled on the big old hotel because it seemed safe and was 700 rupee a night for a double room. Again, that seemed surprisingly cheap.

The lady at the front desk was cold and matter of fact. We did the normal exchange, passports, paperwork, payment, etc. and we learned an interesting facet of hotels in India: most rent rooms out in 24 increments, meaning that if you check in at say, 5:15 am because your night train got in two hours early, you’re checking out at 5:15 am the next day. This was going to be our experience at our next hotel, two days from when we checked into our second accommodations in India. But for now we checked in just before dark and had the room until 7:30 the following evening. Plenty of time to figure out our next step.

The 700 rupee room was larger than I expected. It was on the third floor, with a small barred window overlooking the roundabout. Two beds, a small TV and a reasonably comfortably mattresses, which is always a plus. It’s amazing how many different mattresses you sleep on when you travel long term. It gives you a connoisseurs’ snobbery regarding cheap accommodations and I’m 100% certain that you could blindfold me, fly me to Thailand, Cambodia or India, plop me on a mattress in a hostel, hotel or guesthouse costing less than $8 a night and I could identify the country just by the mattress. Interesting and unexpected tidbit: Cambodia has the best cheap mattresses by a wide margin. I’ve slept on a more comfortable mattress in an open air jungle loft with a pallet bed frame and mesquito net in Cambodia than in a relatively fancy hotel in India. One of the many reasons I’ll always love Cambodia. The noise outside our room was a constant cacophony of roaring engines and honks, but we had a door that locked and our own bathroom. It’s difficult to describe how comforting that is when you’re overwhelmed on the road, no matter what the condition of your temporary home is: you have a space in which you are in control.

Each floor of the hotel had a staff person 24/7. I’m not sure what their duties were, but our guy seemed to mostly watch TV in a vacant room while pretending to make up the bed. I decided to give the TV a try– we’d spent a little time during our first place in Thailand flipping through the channels and found it fascinating to see how different cultures consume their news and entertainment. We were in Thailand right after the king passed away and almost all channels (there were about twenty five) were devoted to coverage of religious ceremonies revering the king, biopics, specials about his life, and footage of weeping old folks clutching pictures of the monarch. Indian TV was, not surprisingly, a different animal and much like the country itself, it was vast, loud and different enough culturally to be completely baffling to a foreign eye/ear. There were exactly one hundred channels. About a third were what looked and sounded like an Indian telenovela: soap opera plots, low production value and recurring character types (the evil older general/military man and the meddling grandmother seem especially pervasive). Another third was Bollywood/Kollywood music videos, both current and vintage. These were fascinating and, coupled with what I learned from a late night conversation with some stand up comics in Bangalore about film’s role in Indian culture and politics, have ignited an intense curiosity about Indian film culture and convention. My inner film geek will explore this when I get home. The last third was split between news and movie channels. The movies were mostly heavily censored western films and Kollywood classics. The censorship was fascinating. Every time a character onscreen smokes, the words “smoking kills” are superimposed over whatever they’re smoking. Not even Thorin the dwarf in one of the bloated Hobbit films escaped: while he sat in the Prancing Pony discussing the Lonely Mountain with Gandalf (why on middle-earth was that a scene? Why that many movies out of a simple story? Why run over my childhood and leave it in the middle of the road, Peter Jackson?) the words “smoking kills” hung over his pipe in English and Tamil. There is also considerable censorship regarding any kind of amorous activity: I’m not entirely sure characters can kiss on screen. In all of the Bollywood (and Kollywood) I’ve seen so far, the romantic climax of the film is usually a kiss between our hero (a lower class good guy, probably played by Rajinikanth) and the leading lady (of a higher class than our scruffy but lovable leading man) which is generally not shown on screen but shot from an angle that obscures the lips touching or the kiss is just heavily implied by the circumstance. In the film I watched Rajinikanth played a tuk tuk driver who stood up to the local mafioso who was bullying old shopkeepers and, no joke, little old ladies. Punctuated with the expected but startling dance numbers, Rajinikanth sacrificed himself in place of another tuk tuk driver, was subjected to a smash cut heavy passion of the christ-esque beating in the town square, and some how survived and got the girl. I’m fuzzy on the plot because India is of the opinion that subtitles coddle the viewer. But, Rajinikanth wins the girl, has a sizzling early eighties biker themed dance number and kisses the girl– which we see in a medium shot of Rajinikanth’s face, momentarily obscured by the back of the leading lady’s head, and then he has lipstick on his face and a punch drunk expression. All that’s missing is cartoon hearts circling his head. It’s amazing, and was a welcome change of pace from the chaos of Trichy and our misadventures trying to 1) find food; 2) find lodging; 3) find internet and 4) get the hell out of Dodge.

We checked in around seven pm, puzzled through some bollywood (the Rajinikanth adventure was later) and went to sleep hungry. We’d stopped by the train station during our long walk hoping to buy tickets and had been told we’d have to come back in the morning to buy tickets for the night train, so we went to bed early ready to get to the train station first thing.

Around nine thirty we learned why our room was cheap. The constant horn honking outside showed no sign of sloping off. If anything, it had picked up. By midnight I gave up any hope and resigned myself to the roar of Indian traffic for the night. Sofia put it earplugs, but I’m not comfortable doing that in a place I’m not familiar with– what if you sleep through a fire alarm, or sleep through someone sneaking in and walking off with your bags? These seem paranoid now, but they seem the height of prudence when you’re a little stranded on the wrong side of the tracks in a country you don’t understand. So I watched Tamil soap operas, the Rajinikanth tuk tuk driver epic and a Chinese Jackie Chan film I’d never heard of and drifted in and out of sleep. The horns tapered off slightly between 4 and 5 in the morning and then picked back up with gusto after that.
The next morning we were up bright and early and made the trek through the increasingly familiar streets of Trichy. Every morning, businesses would sprinkle lye powder on the mud in front of their stores, giving the illusion both that it was clean and that it had somehow snowed. The night before there had been a young man with one leg passed out drunk in the street, but he was gone in the morning and I worried about what had happened to him until I saw him again later that afternoon. I couldn’t tell if he looked worse for wear or if that was a normal thing for him. 

We worked our way into the ticket building, ready to buy our tickets and move on as soon as possible. But that’s not what happened, and the small part of Trichy we’d seen was nothing compared to what we’d see in the next eight hours.

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