INDIA by Raven Garcia
I started writing this earlier this year but have only recently got round to finishing it (One of the perks of having attention defecit disorder), So the rest of this foreword was written back in February or March. This write-up was inspired by my good friend Will, who was off touring the United States West Coast at the time as I sat in my mucky East London flat fighting off a nasty bout of tonsillitis and generally feeling a bit bitter about the fact that I would normally have been in the pub at that time on a Friday. I received two emails from Will detailing his experiences from his trip and enjoyed reading them immensely as they were not only well-written but very entertaining. Therefore, I decided to type up some of my own experiences of travel in foreign lands, beginning with the short time I spent in India in early 2005.
This story, like many great stories, begins in a pub. In this case it is the Ben Crouch Tavern off of Oxford Street, which has now sadly closed down. It is mid September and still fairly warm for that time of year. My friend Adrian and myself are sipping a few pints and awaiting the arrival of our mutual friend Fox, who claims to have an announcement to make. I know Adrian through Fox, who I met at my first ever job, an office junior at London Air Travel. I was 17 and had just spent a year at college, but gained little or nothing from that whole experience. Instead I decided I wanted to earn some money, so I took the job at London Air and went to work Monday to Saturday at their stuffy offices above a betting shop in Margaret Street, just behind Oxford Circus tube station. Fox and I just clicked instantly. We would go to lunch together most days and to a pub called the Old Explorer most nights after work. I was surprised at how much we had in common, particularly as he was nearly a full ten years older than me. After working at London Air for only nine months, Fox left to pursue a career in insurance and a week later I was made redundant. However we kept in touch and still met up for a drink every couple of weeks.
Fox had introduced me to Adrian at around the time we both parted company with London Air. We met up one Saturday afternoon in the basement of a pool club on London’s South Bank. At first he hardly said a word to me and I had trouble trying to pick out where he was from. Obviously I knew he was raised in London because he was Fox’s schoolfriend, but his skin tone can be found on every continent and his facial features gave no clues as to his lineage. It turned out that his Mother was Welsh and his Father was from St. Lucia. As I met Adrian a few more times after this, he started to come out of his shell a little bit more and pretty soon the trinity of Fox, Adrian and myself could be found hopping in and out of bars throughout the West End almost every Friday and Saturday night thereafter.
This particular Friday was one such night. I had arranged to meet Adrian early as Fox had called to say that he was unsure what time he would be able to get there by. So we were having a few pints and waiting for him. When Fox finally arrived and fought his way through the crowds of goths, metalheads, punks and all the pre-drinkers heading off to alternative clubs that I would later discover for myself, I noticed that he was dressed a lot smarter than usual. The people in the pub probably assumed that he’d just got off work. However I knew this was not the case as Fox had just returned from a trip to India with his parents earlier that week, and had the rest of the week off. He was carrying what looked like a portfolio. For a second I thought he was going to come over and try and interest us in a really smashing set of faux velvet curtains.
“What’s with the whistle?” I asked him as we greeted each other with a hug and a grin. Adrian, never having been one for ceremony, blurted out:
”So what’s this big announcement, then?” with his trademark grin spread across his face like a crescent moon.
“Adrian, sit on your hands for a minute!” I exclaimed. “The man’s not even sat down yet.” I turned to Fox and said: “Before you do, Me and Adrian just tossed a coin to see whose round it was, and you lost!”
“Kronenbourg for me” announced Adrian, sipping a pint which was already almost full.
When Fox returned with the drinks, he opened the portfolio and instantly I knew what the announcement was. It was full of well-dressed Indian families with their daughters at the centre of the photographs.
Arranged marriages were something I was a little familiar with; a girl in my year group at school had run away from home halfway through her GCSE’s to avoid being forced into one. A few other girls I had gone to school with had since been married off and I would see them walking around Bethnal Green with their husbands and kids in tow. However those girls were all Muslims and Fox’s parents were Christians from Tamil Nadu. I had previously thought that arranged marriages were a predominantly Muslim tradition, however Fox explained that this practice was a cultural rather than a religious one.
As Fox went over the details of the photographs with Adrian my mind began to wander. How did I feel about this? At 19 years old I’d never had a friend like Fox, someone who I was really close to. Not since primary school, anyway. I became distant for a good few minutes while in my head I went over images of Fox getting married, of similar photographs of well-dressed Indian families, unfamiliar faces and Fox at the centre, forcing a smile for the camera. Would I be losing my friend?
Naïve as I was, I sometimes forgot that Fox was almost a decade older than me. He was due to turn 29 the following April, a few weeks before I would turn 20. Adrian was the same age as Fox, however his mental age seemed to fluctuate between that of a pre-pubescent teenager and somebody on the wrong side of 50. I had now known Fox for two years, which was as long as I’d been in full time employment. Since London Air I’d been temping all around the city and worked in no less than 20 different places, but I’d recently taken a permanent job at Great Ormond Street hospital. However, this way of life was still new to me, the whole routine of working 9 till 5 and looking forward to Friday nights down the pub with my friends. I guess I didn’t see it from Fox’s point of view, I’d assumed his parents were forcing his hand in some way. Later on down the line I was surprised to learn that Fox was actually not opposed to the idea of an arranged marriage and wanted to go through with it to please his parents.
This surprised me simply because Fox was, for the want of a better term, “Westernised”. I’d gone to a school where 50% of the pupils were of Bangladeshi descent, and of those pupils I’d say about two thirds wore Western-style clothes whereas the remainder preferred the traditional Bengali style of dress. This was considerably more apparent in the girls, who wore salwar-kameez and covered thier hair in accordance with the Islamic religion. They referred to the girls who did not as “Westernised” or sometimes offensively as “Coconuts” (Brown on the outside, white on the inside). Fox was born and raised in South London, wore trendy clothes and had all the latest gadgets. He was Westernised in his attitude as well; he liked to drink and chat up girls and go to nightclubs, certainly not the sort of person I’d have imagined to have an arranged marriage out of choice. Over the next few weeks I voiced my concerns to Fox, who re-assured me that things wouldn’t change between us. He played down my doubts about his arranged marriage by comparing his situation to that of his father’s, who had been the same age as him when his own parents had arranged for him to marry his mother. He pointed out that they were happy together to this day.
Looking back I suppose I had taken a selfish view on Fox’s impending marriage. I knew deep down that I’d never lose him as a friend; and over the course of the next few weeks (It was now around the end of October) I began to gradually accept the fact. Fox announced that his marriage to Blessy would take place in the first week of the following February. I decided to spend the next three months making sure the three of us partied as hard as we could during Fox’s “last 3 months of freedom”. However he also pointed out that when he would return to the UK after the wedding, Blessy may have to wait for as long as six months for her visa to come through, so we’d maybe have some time to spend together then. This softened the blow a bit.
Somewhere along the line, either myself or Adrian (My memory is a little fuzzy here but I think it was probably Adrian) bought up the possibility of us travelling out to India to attend Fox’s wedding. My wanderlust kicked in and I stressed how I would love to go to India and see my friend get married. But I had fallen on hard times. I’d lost my job at the hospital that same week and had very little savings to my name, certainly nowhere near the amount I’d need to realistically think about going to India.
However, the more we talked about it, the more I wanted to go. After all Fox was my best friend, and I wasn’t about to miss his wedding. I took a job in a local student bar I used to frequent. The pay wasn’t up to much but the work was actually quite enjoyable and I got to meet a lot of new people. Plus being in the environment it was, my social life never really suffered. We’d go to “Pound nights” at the Hayfield every Tuesday from 8 till 2 and get steaming drunk on less than a tenner. Being a staff member I was eligible to take advantage of the drinks offers normally reserved for students. I bought Fox and Adrian with me most nights, sometimes our mutual friend James from the London Air days would join us as he had just taken a job across the road, and my friend Dean would sometimes tag along as well.
Pound nights were, to say the least, hectic. The Hayfield was a pretty big pub, but when most of the drinks cost a quid, half of Stepney turned up. Some nights I’d arrive to see scores of people being turned away due to overcrowding. Big John, one of the bar staff, was normally on the door. He’d earned that nickname for obvious reasons; being at least 6ft 7 and as broad as the door itself, he was the biggest man I’d ever called my friend. We’d get through the door and fight our way through the heaving mass of bodies; on some nights the sweat dripped from the walls and it was hotter than an Egyptian sauna. If we arrived early enough or were fortunate enough to acquire a sofa, there was a game we liked to play. We’d all grab our coats and belongings and stand up as if we were about to leave, and as people began to notice and make their way over to us in the hope of pinching our seats, we’d all look at each other and sit down again laughing. Tuesday nights were all good.
In the first month I worked at the Hayfield I was able to save about a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty pounds. Suddenly the possibility of me going to India had begun to look more realistic. As Christmas was fast approaching, My mother had asked me what I wanted. I’d told her of my intentions to go to India and asked if, rather than any presents, she could just give me some money towards the tickets. She came up with three hundred pounds, almost half the amount I’d need. Coupled with the money I’d already saved, we worked out that if she booked it then using her credit card, I would have earned enough to pay her back by the time I went out. So she went ahead and booked it: A return ticket to Chennai (Formerly Madras), from Heathrow via Frankfurt. I was going to the other side of the world.
On Christmas Eve, Adrian and I went to the Ben Crouch again and it was there that I met Dani, an Australian barmaid who worked in a pub just around the corner called the Blue Posts. She went on to become my girlfriend for a short while afterwards. Katy, a friend of Dani’s, took a liking to Adrian and they seemed to be getting on pretty well too. Dani was a spirited girl who was always a laugh to be around. I don’t recall what happened the rest of that night but I remember that I was in high spirits in the taxi on the way home, which I had shared with an Albanian guy I’d met at the bus stop who happened to be going the same way as me. Christmas Day that year began with a hangover. The rest of the day was very uneventful.
On Boxing Day, however, the Tsunami struck. 200,000 people lost their lives and over a million people throughout Southern Asia and the East Coast of Africa lost their homes in one of the biggest natural disasters of our time. Over the following weeks the newspapers and TV channels were awash with images of devastation: children separated from their families, tens of thousands of people reported missing, whole towns and villages reduced to ruins. I’d learned that Tamil Nadu had been quite badly hit, including some of Chennai’s coastal areas. I began to wonder what I would encounter when I arrived in India. I would already be stepping into the unknown, now I would be stepping into a strange country which had been turned upside-down.
Throughout January, Adrian and myself spent a lot of time with Dani and Katy. Fox was busy with the wedding preparations and would also be leaving about a week before we did. Adrian had booked his flight just before Christmas and we had arranged our accommodation with a lot of help from Fox – we’d all be staying in the same place along with his parents, a few friends of the family and the pastor who was to deliver the service. Fox managed to find time between the wedding plans to accompany Adrian and myself to India House, at the bottom of Kingsway in the centre of London one afternoon. We lined up outside the embassy to receive our visas granting us entry to India, and then went for a Subway opposite before me and Adrian convinced Fox to join us for a couple of pints in Oxford Street to celebrate.
I can’t remember much about that night but it wasn’t until after we had just parted company and I was on my way to the bus stop that it occurred to me that the next time I would see Fox it would be on the other side of the globe. I reached for my phone in my coat pocket to send him a text reminding him of this fact, and as I fished it out I heard my own message alert tone, coupled with a vibration and flashing light. It was a message from Fox, simply saying “See you in India.”
The Journey Begins
I’ve always been the sort of person who is fascinated by other cultures and distant lands. My Grandmother used to take me to the library from a very early age and the first time she allowed me to take a book out, I chose a flag book. From the age of about 4 or 5 I knew the national flag and capital city of every country in the world and almost all of the currencies. From a very early age I’d always wanted to travel and see the world. My first time abroad was a family holiday to Minorca aged about 11. At that age, just being in another country was a novelty enough. However I was dragged back to the same resort a year later, and a year after that. I rarely saw anything beyond the airport and the various apartments or hotel complexes they’d chosen to stay in.
The first time I travelled without the family was when I was 16 and at college; I took part in a 3-week work experience exchange program in Vienna. Up until then the only other occasion I’d left the UK was in June the previous year when I went to Sweden for a long weekend with Marie, my Swedish ex-girlfriend.
The small taste of travelling I’d had made me feel like a lion after it’s first taste of human flesh; I was hungry for more. But a small part of me was worried that I was about to bite off more than I could chew. On the outside I was prepared; I’d ordered a hundred quid’s worth of rupees (My mother worked at the post office at the time which was handy), I’d booked an appointment with my GP for various vaccinations, and had already started taking malaria tablets (which were like swallowing 2×4 pieces of Lego, only made out of chalk) and I now had an entire page of my passport covered in a piece of paper granting me admission into India. I had loaned “The Rough Guide to India” from my local library and bought myself some suitable clothes for hot weather and everything else I needed for the trip.
But I was stepping into the unknown. What did I actually know about India, and in particular Chennai and Tamil Nadu where I would be visiting? Well, the word “Tamil” had become synonymous with the separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers, which might have put a few people off going there. But as well as Fox, I’d had a few Tamil friends at college and I knew that the vast majority of Tamils were peaceful people. Other than that small snippet of information I quickly realised that I knew next to nothing about my destination. Some people might have rushed straight to the library or gone online to read up about the place they were visiting, but not knowing a great deal only added to my enthusiasm. After all, if you go somewhere with an idea in your head of what that place is going to be like, more often than not it is totally different to what you expect. And that is part of the fun of travelling, because it would be boring if everywhere was exactly like you expected it to be. And I had my Rough Guide to India if things got out of hand.
However, I thought I would ask Fox about his previous trips there, so I would at least know a little bit about what to expect. He told me that Chennai, whilst being predominantly Hindu, also had quite a large Christian community. He told me that the Tamil people love their films, and that Chennai was the capital of the Tamil film industry. He told me that most of the people were vegetarians and were practically teetotal, which I found unsettling. He taught me a few basic Tamil words after I stressed to him that I feel it is important to at least make an effort when travelling to someone else’s country, but after I struggled with them, he did reassure me that English was widely spoken.
The day of our trip finally arrived. I’d gone to Adrian’s flat in Streatham the night before as we were due to take a minicab at around half past 3 the next morning. I’d hoped to get a few hours of sleep in but we ended up watching a very good French film about a taxi driver. Our own minicab driver, an Iranian guy who was a friend of Fox’s family, was waiting downstairs on time and we made our way down with all of our luggage. The journey to Heathrow was uneventful, although I did manage to wake Adrian up in my excitement of seeing a sign to Feltham, the birthplace of my hero Jimmy Page. He was unimpressed. The good news was that we were only minutes away from the airport at this point, and pretty soon we had checked in our luggage and were queuing up to go into the departure lounge.
Our flight was at around seven o clock, so we had about an hour and a half to wait. We went to a pub that was serving food and to my surprise, alcohol at 5.30 in the morning. It was completely empty apart from the solitary member of staff on duty, obviously eagerly awaiting the end of his shift so he wouldn’t have to deal with the weird and sometimes wonderful jetsetters who come at unsavoury hours seeking nourishment. (There are a certain type of people you only ever meet at airports.) Adrian had been asleep the previous evening and also in the car, and ordered a cup of coffee and a Danish pastry to “start his day”. I however, had not slept, as I planned to do so on the plane. I have never been a morning person at the best of times.
Remembering Fox’s advice that the only bars in Chennai were in posh hotels where we would not be going, I decided to start my holiday with a pint of Theakston’s Old Peculiar. Adrian gave me a look as if I’d just urinated into his suitcase. I explained to him that it would be my last chance of a pint for the coming week. He seemed to come round to my way of thinking and suggested that I have some good old British grub to go with it. I scoured the menu for one such option before carefully choosing a chicken tikka masala with pilau rice and naan bread. After all, you can’t get more British than that.
Our journey began with a 2-hour hop over to Frankfurt to catch the connecting flight to Madras. The shuttle was cramped and offered little in the way of legroom. On top of this there was a screaming child a few seats in front of us that just would not shut up. I’m guessing the parents must have been on a separate flight because nothing was done to shut this kid up! Of course it was impossible to tell being that all babies’ screams sound more or less the same, but I like to think that s/he was screaming “Please don’t take me back to Germany!”
I sincerely hoped that we would have a better ride on the 8-and-a-half hour leg of our trip. However we almost never found out. Our flight to Frankfurt had been slightly delayed, so we had to sprint through Frankfurt airport chasing after a flight attendant who claimed to be showing us the way but appeared to be doing his best to get away from us. We eventually made it to the colossal 2-storey Lufthansa jumbo jet that would be our home for the next 8 and a half hours and would take us to the other side of the planet. It was the most luxurious aircraft I’d ever boarded, and the flight went smoothly although we slept through most of it. I was pleased to find out that there was alcohol on board though, and had a few Bailey’s with ice (as it was all free so I wanted to get my money’s worth by ordering the most expensive drink!)
When we finally landed it was about 10pm local time. We followed the hordes of people through a maze of corridors until we came to a big hall with a couple of desks at the centre. After going through all of the necessary checks we finally emerged from the airport building and into the open air of the Indian night. The first thing I noticed was the heat; not an unbearable heat but the kind of cloying heat that sticks to one’s body. We made our way out into an area with barriers on either side of us crammed with scores of people waiting for their friends and relatives. Adrian spotted Fox on the other side of the barrier and we followed it around into a car park filled with old English cars, some of which had ceased production as far back as the 1960’s.
It was so good to see Fox. He had arrived in Madras a few days beforehand having stopped off in Dubai on his way over to pick up his suit for the wedding and also the ring. He took us over to meet his family. I was introduced to his parents for the first time. Fox’s mother, Karla, reminded me of a friend of my mothers who worked in the post office. (Co-incidentally, I later found out that she also worked in a post office.) Fox’s father, Joseph, was a short gentleman with a welcoming aura about him. He also introduced me to a couple named Anthony and Lakshmi, old friends of his parents who now lived in South Africa and had made the journey over for the wedding, and Blessy’s brother Robbie, who was constantly smiling. Our driver was a guy called Edwin, who looked suspiciously like an Indian version of Borat. Fox informed me that Edwin would be with us for most of the week to drive us around town.
He led us to the car, a shiny Toyota Space Cruiser which looked very out of place among the Ambassador taxis and Sherpa vans dotted around it. I was glad to discover that it had air conditioning. I remember little of the drive to the hotel but it took about an hour. It was pitch black outside for most of the journey so it gave me very little clues as to what to expect the following day, but I distinctly remember stopping at some sort of check-point with an army tank parked about three feet away, which was somewhat unnerving. When we arrived at the hotel I was surprised at how remote it seemed. I remember a drive up a steep hill and then getting out of the Space Cruiser and being taken into a church which I found out was part of the hotel. Our room was very basic but was clean and had everything we needed. We discovered that the hotel was in fact a Young Women’s Christian Association and staffed entirely by nuns who lived in a convent on the complex. It was now approaching midnight but I was not yet tired as I had slept for most of the flight, so I pulled out the pack of cards I’d brought with me (Always take a pack of cards wherever you travel), and cracked open the bottle of Absolut vanilla vodka I’d bought at Heathrow. So the three of us played cards then sat up talking about the plans for the upcoming week, downing neat vodka until we eventually grew tired and hit the sack.
The next day we awoke and were summoned to breakfast. As I walked out onto the landing in the light of day, I discovered that the hotel part of the building was a 2-storey square layout built around a courtyard. There were no windows or screens, and the landing overlooked the courtyard below, which contained a small garden. My first concern was insects. I cannot stand insects. I had been made aware of all the dangers of malaria and although I still had these awful tablets, I still wasn’t going to let myself get bitten by one of these things if I could help it. To my horror I noticed an opening at the top of the wall which led directly into our shower room. I told Adrian to make sure the door was closed at all times. I wasn’t taking my chances. I even made Adrian sleep in the bed nearest to the door so with any luck the mozzies would get him first and leave me alone. I even considered smearing him with jam to act as bait.
I found the dining hall which was down some stairs and Fox and his family were already tucking into their breakfast. The food was simple and nourishing, the sort of sustaining food you would expect the nuns to eat before a hard day’s work; Plain rice, curried lentils, flatbreads (called “dosa”), some little pancakes known as “appam”, which were my favourite, and something called “rasom” which I was told by Fox was “pepper-water”, sort of halfway between a sauce and a soup. Oh, and tea, lots of tea. Although anybody who knows me knows that I don’t do tea. Or any hot drinks, for that matter. Terribly un-British of me, I know.
After breakfast, me and the boys went for a walk up St. Thomas’ Mount. This was the road that the YWCA was on and it led right to the top of the “mount”, which was not quite a mountain but definitely more than a hill. I consulted the Rough Guide to India. “Called St. Thomas’ Mount because St. Thomas of India was martyred at the summit, at the very top there is a small chapel built by the Portuguese to commemorate this fact.” We walked along the path which led us past prayer gardens and a Pepsi snack bar which looked as it had not been open for ten years. On reaching the top of the mount, we discovered the Portuguese chapel and saw the view looking out over the city which was quite literally breathtaking. In the distance you could see planes taking off and landing at Chennai airport.
In the grounds of the chapel was a banyan tree. If you’ve never seen a banyan tree before then here are a few things you should know about them:
1. Siddartha Gautama attained enlightenment whilst meditating underneath one.
2. Alexander the Great sheltered his entire army under one.
3. They are my favourite kind of tree. They truly are a fascinating sight; the way their branches and tendrils hang down towards the ground makes them appear almost otherworldly.
At the other side of the chapel were some stone steps leading down the other side of the mount. We decided to go down and see where they brought us out. Some goats roamed freely among the chapel grounds and at one point we encountered a group of them coming the other way up the steps as we descended; at the sight of our presence the leader leaped onto the small sloping wall at the side of the steps and the others followed, undeterred. I was amazed how easily and without fuss they, with four legs, were able to negotiate an obstacle I would have had trouble tackling with just two.
The steps brought us down into a small run-down neighbourhood. On one side there was a huge pile of tyres. On the other side there was a juice stand where the vendor and his son stood idly by and watched this Tamil man in Western clothes and two bewildered foreigners walk by. I caught sight of some fresh limes among his display window and thought of the bottle of Southern Comfort that was in my suitcase back at the YWCA. I’d also heard that citrus fruits such as limes acted as deterrents for mosquitoes and so I attempted to purchase a few to enhance the taste of the whiskey and a few more to cut up and stick on top of the ledge which opened into our shower room. To my surprise I was refused, despite the fact that I could see at least 5 crates of limes stacked behind him! I was bewildered. Perhaps Billie Joel was playing in town that evening and he was going to clean up by going along to the gig and delighting Mr. Joel’s fans with a glass of ice-cold lime juice while they danced away to “We didn’t start the fire”, and make a huge profit in the process. I came to the conclusion that trying to buy whole limes from a juice vendor is a bit like trying to buy dough from Pizza Hut. Thanks a lot Billie Joel.
We made our way back to the YWCA, and the others were waiting for us as they had arranged a trip around town. Edwin was waiting with the Space Cruiser and we drove toward the city centre, enabling me for the first time to get a really good look at Chennai. Unfortunately, one aspect that didn’t make the experience any more pleasant was the smog. People who complain that London is polluted should go to Chennai. Even with the windows closed it came in through the air conditioning and at times was unbearable. At one point we got stuck next to a chicken lorry which stunk to high heaven. These poor birds were cooped up in spaces that were so tight I’d probably get pins and needles if I stuck my hand in for more than a couple of minutes. The birds didn’t look very happy. One or two of them were dead. I could tell that free-range was a concept that Indians hadn’t grasped yet, and reminded myself not to eat any eggs while I was here.
It wasn’t just the chickens that were crammed in tight either. I already knew that India was the second most populated nation on earth after China, but now I’d began to get a glimpse of that. The buses were literally wall-to-wall people and there seemed to be no restrictions on capacity. The general rule seemed to be, if you can get a hand on the handrail, you’re on. How they checked people’s tickets was a mystery to me, if they did it at all. Cars drove past us with seven or eight children at a time falling around the back seat; At one point I saw a family of five on one motorcycle. They’d even fashioned a little seat where the number plate would normally be on an English bike, literally a small piece of wood jutting out from the back of the bike which their youngest son perched upon. If it had been me I would have been in sheer terror, but this lad did not seem overly bothered. In fact if anything, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
The road system itself, or lack thereof, was something to behold as well. In Chennai the only signs are ones to tell you where you are going. Apart from the occasional traffic light, there is no evidence to suggest that any kind of system was ever in place. I mentioned this; and Joseph informed me that there are hardly any road accidents here because everyone is a good driver. In short, it’s organised chaos. Everyone knows the rules of the road so well the government and local councils have stopped wasting money on signs to remind them. Indian drivers tend to over-use their horns as well. A horn can mean anything from “Nice car” to “Get a move on” or “I want to overtake”. Not a minute goes by without a horn being used at some point. Remember the opening scene from the film “Falling Down”? You see what I’m getting at. Being stuck in traffic in India is enough to make you go on a rampage. At one point there were five lines of traffic crammed into a 3-lane motorway. How there are so little accidents will always remain a mystery to me.
We stopped at a traffic light and a bunch of young kids came up to the car and tapped on the windows, trying to sell us some little plush toy keyring type things. Karla told us that this sort of thing happens a lot, and that the children are mostly orphans. I felt sorry for them and wanted to give them some of my rupees. They reached into the driver’s side but Edwin shouted something at them in Tamil and they ran off before I could get the chance. At the side of the road was a massive billboard with a picture of Sachin Tendulkar on it. Throughout the journey I saw several more images of the cricketer and quickly deduced that this guy was Chennai’s answer to David Beckham in terms of his celebrity status, and his image was used to sell all manner of products ranging from orange juice to washing machines, soap powder and insurance policies.
Our first stop was a camera shop because Anthony wanted to buy a camcorder to record some footage of the wedding. From the outside the shop looked like the typical vision I had of India; hand-painted signs leading to small doorways where people try to sell you goods. Stepping inside however, you could have been mistaken for thinking you were in any branch of Dixon’s or Curry’s anywhere in Britain. After much deliberating, Anthony bought himself a camcorder and seemed very happy with his purchase. We then drove around for a while, just doing a bit of general sightseeing which I cannot remember much of apart from crossing the Cooum River. Chennai isn’t a very interesting city – one of it’s main attractions was St. Thomas’s Mount which we’d seen that morning. There was Fort St. David which was a former headquarters for the British Empire in Southern India and former home of Clive of India, but even that was 100 miles south of the city. So we drove back to the YWCA.
Back at the hotel Anthony told me about he and Lakshmi’s house in Durban. It sounded idyllic. Joseph told me a funny story about the only time he’d ever been drunk; when somebody had given him a bottle of “Wine made from Apples”. (Isn’t that Cider?) Shortly before dinner we were introduced to Pastor Benjamin, who was to be conducting Fox’s wedding ceremony. He was a wiry man; his scornful expression told me straight away that he disapproved of my long hair and from the look of his face he had not smiled for so long that he had forgotten the very purpose of smiling. He was one of these overly-religious types to whom the bible was not so much a holy book as an instruction manual. You know when you buy one of those posh diaries or organisers and it has those weird dates on it such as “Septuagesima”, “Epiphany”, “Michaelmas”, “Sixth Wednesday after Pentecost”, etc. Well, this guy not only knows what they mean but I’m sure celebrates them all. Being an Antitheist myself, I started to dislike him pretty much instantly as I soon discovered that it was impossible to have a conversation with him without him somehow referring back to god and the bible.
The next day we drove into town again. This time we visited Spencer Plaza, a huge shopping mall in the centre of town. I was surprised at how much it reminded me of such places back home. They had a Pizza Hut, a Subway, and a Burger King. We ate lunch in Pizza Hut; Myself and Adrian offered to pay as a way of thanking everybody for their hospitality (I still had not spent a single rupee up until this point) however Joseph insisted that was not necessary. The Indian version of Pizza Hut was interesting; tandoori paneer on a pizza is something I never thought could work, but it most certainly does. They also offered lassis on the menu; however Karla advised me and Adrian against these as the milk was apparently “too rich” for our English stomachs. She then went on to give us a talk warning us not to eat any dairy products while we were here. I told her that it was not my own stomach I was worried about. (Remember the hot-dog incident in Newcastle, Adrian!!)
The top floor of Spencer Plaza seemed to be the place where all the young people hung out, and I was extremely surprised to see some alternative kids there, sporting Metallica and Black Sabbath t-shirts among others, along with black alternative trousers similar to my own, while some wore the kind of jeans that skaters used to wear back in the day, those ones that cover the whole front part of the trainer. I guess heavy metal culture really is universal. There was a shop that would have given anywhere in Camden Market a run for its money, plus a shop that called itself an “Australian Cookie House”. (I never knew that Australians were famous for their cookie making skills, but they were damn fine cookies.) I eventually did spend some rupees and bought a pair of silver dolphin earrings for my mum. We spent the rest of the day just driving around Madras and playing cards back in our room in anticipation of the ceremony the next day.
I remember little of the morning of the wedding itself; our hotel was so manic with people running around trying to get everything in order that I hardly had time to speak to Fox. In fact, me and Adrian hardly had time to speak to anyone that morning. I did remember having a brief conversation with some of the nuns that ran the hotel. They were amazingly welcoming people and spoke very good English. They were fascinated with my long hair, I got the impression that long hair on a man just wasn’t done in this part of the world. I explained to them that in London many men had long hair. I complimented them on their English and told them that I thought the Tamil alphabet was beautiful; Earlier while we had been driving I had seen some roadside graffiti which stretched for a good couple of miles down Anna Salai (Mount Road, one of the main roads in Madras). I noticed the intricacy of the lettering and it struck me as being very unique, unlike any other script I’d ever seen. I asked them if they could write down the Tamil word for “Nevermore” for me on a piece of paper; I had been considering getting a tattoo of the same word in another language for a while and I wanted to see what it looked like in Tamil. I still have the piece of paper but never did get round to getting that tattoo.
We were ushered, thousands of us, into a huge church in the centre of town. Before the wedding there was a lot of standing around in anticipation, during which Karla and Anthony handed me and Adrian their camcorders so that we could get some footage of the service. We were seated, and the long ceremony began. And boy was it long!! There were actually four pastors (Pastor Benjamin included) who were conducting the ceremony and they each spoke for about fifteen to twenty minutes before Fox and Blessy entered. It was the first time I’d seen Blessy, she looked amazing in her white dress, but her face looked almost sad. (I later found out that it was the custom for a bride to look sad on her wedding day. Apparently if she smiles it can be interpreted as her being happy to marry a man because of his money.) Fox looked very handsome in his suit if I do say so myself. Joseph came on and made a speech about there being a good woman behind every good man, which I thought was quite moving. Then the vows were exchanged, and a fat man came on to sing a Tamil hymn that went on longer than the live version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”.
After the wedding everybody piled out of the church and into their waiting transport. Fox and Blessy had already been ushered into a limousine and off to the reception, and me and Adrian found ourselves stranded amongst a crowd with no way of knowing where the reception was or how to get there. Luckily we spotted Anthony and Lakshmi as they were getting into a car and they called out to Pastor Benjamin and told him to make sure we got to the reception.
Pastor Benjamin obviously hadn’t accounted for me and Adrian, so he ran round blabbering frantically in Tamil in an attempt to try to pawn us off to one of the other drivers. After about 5 minutes he returned.
“One of you can ride with a motorcycle”. He announced. “Who likes riding with motorcycle?” Me and Adrian looked at each other. Having seen the hazardous conditions of motorcycles on the Indian roads, neither of us felt particularly over the moon at the thought of being on the back of one. Adrian gave me a glance that indicated that he was uneasy about taking the motorbike and thought that I should do it. Not wanting to appear scared (And partially to avoid being left alone with the religious one), I volunteered. I played it cool and even found time to rib Adrian a little bit about not having the guts to go on the motorbike. Of course I didn’t point out the fact that I’d never actually been on a motorbike myself but I through caution to the wind. That was, until I saw my driver…
Pastor Eugene was a frail old man, about 4 feet 6 inches tall. He was well into his sixties and wore glasses so thick that they magnified his eyes to fill the entire lenses so that they looked like two painted eggs attached to his face by a wire frame. I’d seen him earlier as he had helped conduct the service, but never envisioned myself being driven by him on the back of a motorbike. Nevertheless, there were only a few people left in the churchyard at this point, and I didn’t want us to be the last ones to the reception. He led me to an Enfield Bullet, a glorious piece of machinery sadly no longer made anywhere near Enfield, but production was still in full swing in India. They were not only efficient and cheap to make, but they look damn good too. My only concern was the pastor himself. He looked like he lacked the strength to operate a light switch, let alone a motorcycle. On the plus side, he had probably been driving motorcycles around Chennai for years. As I got on to the bike I realised that there were no such thing as crash helmets in India. In my head I started drafting my last will and testament so they could jot it down from my slurred speech later when I lay brain-damaged in a semi-vegetative state in a musty hospital. I waved goodbye to Adrian and hopped on.
As Pastor Eugene started the engine, I found a small handle behind the seat. To reach it I had to lean way back and grip it with both hands. As we started to move, I realised to my horror that my legs were trailing on the ground. I had no option but to raise my feet and point my toes to prevent losing half a pound of flesh on the unforgiving gravel. As we turned out of the church and onto the main road, I think I caught sight of Adrian being loaded into a car with several elderly ladies. At least I’m not the only one who’s in for an uncomfortable ride, I thought, as my heart went out to the elderly ladies. We picked up considerable speed as we joined the main road and I realised that this was going to be difficult. I had my knees and shins raised as far off of the floor as I could go, and the faster we went, the more I knew that the slightest contact with the road surface and I would either lose both my legs or come tumbling off the bike into the onslaught of Indian traffic and lose a lot more. The ache coursing through my legs and up to my lower back was unbearable. I prayed for some kind of respite.
Eventually it came in the form of a traffic light. No sooner had I put my feet on the ground and began to take relief from the pain of bending one’s limbs into shapes one’s limbs aren’t meant to be bent, than the light turned to amber. Frantically I put my legs up in front of me, thinking I would have an easier time this way. It was then that I looked down and saw the two step-like ledges on either side, clearly designed for resting one’s legs on. Now my only concern was staying on the bike. Pastor Eugene drove reasonably well, however it was not him that was the concern. The chorus of relentless horns around us convinced me that this road also led to the Chennai asylum. At one point a car drove so close to us that my leg actually became wedged between the bike and the car in question. We finally came to a stop at a row of wooden stalls by the roadside. I got off the bike to stretch my muscles and looked around. This did not look like a wedding reception. I saw Eugene approach four shady looking men by one of the stalls and take something from his blazer pocket.
Suddenly I had an attack of paranoia. Had I said or done something during the service that had offended the rest of the guests? Maybe the pastors had all had a word and decided that I needed to be ‘disposed of’. Maybe they had had a whip round, Pastor Benjamin phoning ahead to the four horsemen of the roadside, and any second now I would be meeting my maker. I noticed Eugene produce a big wad of rupees and hand it over to one of the four men. Oh well, I thought. I didn’t have a bad run. I may have never got to see Zeppelin live or witness Arsenal crowned champions of Europe. I never got round to climbing Everest or getting that bloody tattoo.
But then, a second glance revealed that a huge wad of money was not the only thing he had handed over. He’d also given them a book of stamps. A book of stamps with a picture of what looked like a radio mast on the cover. He wasn’t handing over blood money to a hitman, he was paying his telephone bill.
However, if getting whacked didn’t frighten me, what he said next certainly did.
“I am not feeling good. You can drive?”
He swapped the words around but used a tone of voice which turned a statement into a question in his broken English. I’d just survived my first experience on a motorcycle as a passenger. Now I was faced with actually driving the bloody thing. I weighed up my options. I’d never driven anything more than a bumper car before, I had no licence, Indian or otherwise, no insurance and no crash helmet. Plus I was responsible for the safety of an elderly pastor and I did not know the way to the reception. But worse of all, I was horribly sober, which is when I make all of the worst decisions in my life.
“Okay” I said.
Pastor Eugene answered my next question before I asked it.
“Just go straight.” He said, pointing to the road in the direction the bike was facing. I revved it, the engine sputtered and the lights came on. I had very briefly driven my friend Grant’s moped around a small section of Victoria Park when I was about thirteen, that had been a rev-and-go and I applied the same principles to this bike. To my surprise I quickly worked out the controls and waited until the traffic had died down enough for me to confidently join the fray.
Driving the motorbike felt so liberating. I made a mental note to myself to do this more often when I got back to blighty. I just went with the flow of traffic, stopping and starting again at each traffic light, and carried on straight as an arrow, just as Pastor Eugene had indicated. After only three or four minutes, he pointed over my shoulder to my right. I shot a glance to the other side of the road and caught sight of a huge illuminated building, with spotlights shining towards the heavens and rows and rows of cars parked outside. Was this the Madras Film Festival, I wondered? Or was Mr. Tendulkar in town? Closer inspection revealed a billboard (itself about twenty feet in height), with the lettering “Blessy weds John”. I had got us to the right place.
It turned out that Pastor Eugene had had a funny turn just after paying his telephone bill. I never realised that telephone rates were so high in India and thanked myself for being with Vodafone pay-as-you-go. I located Adrian, who had found Anthony and Lakshmi, and we went into the building.
The reception was a strange affair. There were rows and rows of seats like a cinema, however on the stage were Blessy and Fox surrounded by gifts and being visited by a long line of well-wishers, family and friends alike. Fox had now changed into his reception outfit; I understand that this was the outfit he had bought in Dubai. It was fantastic!! I have yet to see somebody pull off a suit as brave as the one Fox wore. It had a brown and orange theme which looked really snazzy. I knew next to nothing about wearing a suit but I knew that wearing a patterned tie with a patterned shirt was a no-go. But this suit also had a patterned blazer and trousers, and somehow it worked! Fox looked the business and Blessy had also changed into an equally stunning outfit. There was a huge screen to show people at the back of the auditorium what was happening. There were spotlights shining down on to the stage. There was a microphone and PA system that would put a Motley Crue concert to shame. There were enough lightbulbs to decorate the Kremlin. The whole thing was on a grand scale.
There was another white guy at the reception, who I had not seen at the wedding. I spoke to him after the ceremony on the way up the stairs to the banquet hall. He turned out to be a German, who had lived in Chennai for the last 19 years spreading the word of God. As if Pastor Benjamin wasn’t more than enough for the entire Tamil Nadu state, the monasteries and churches of Central Europe were now opening their doors into this corner of the Indian subcontinent also. I was surprised that many of the reception-goers hadn’t overdosed on religion. The guy looked exactly like Rutger Hauer and I’m not kidding.
We entered a huge banquet hall where we were fed with a thali meal, that is, a huge meal served on a thali which is a banana leaf. A huge mound of rice, chicken curry, lentil curry, vegetable curry, spicy sauce, and two types of bread including the Chennai staple that was appams, followed by a simple dessert of vanilla ice cream served in a plastic cone. It was the best meal I’d eaten in India up until that point. I’d never eaten off of a banana leaf before but it certainly proved to be an effective method of eating!! The thali itself had a slightly waxy texture so that food slid around on top of it just like a plate, rather than being absorbed by it. The thali was huge and took up all of the space in front of us, effectively acting as a placemat, plate and tablecloth all in one, plus when you finished the thali was simply folded up and disposed of! What a unique and brilliant concept.
After dinner it was back down into the hall for more speeches. I managed to get close enough to Fox to be able to compliment him on his suit and finally meet Blessy and give the two of them my best wishes. I can’t help admitting that I felt a little sad too.