The weight of inequality

[ Three months after the India trip, my mind is still on what happened there. ]

The morning after I landed in Bangalore, I went for a haircut. Raja Haircutting Saloon is near a junction in Koramangala, where the quiet lane from my apartment meets a busy thoroughfare, surrounded by a cluster of small stores selling vegetables, hardware, newspapers and magazines, Internet services, stationery, South Indian breakfasts and meals. The saloon had three empty chairs facing a wall-to-wall mirror. An unfamiliar Bollywood song was playing on the radio. On the wall opposite the mirror hung a full-size poster of Priyanka Chopra in a blue chiffon sari, hands on her hips. A dark-skinned and well-built young man in a bright yellow T-shirt appeared from behind a curtain and showed me a chair. His oily hair was combed back, he smelled of Brylcreem, and standing beside Priyanka Chopra he looked like a Hindi movie baddie. I placed my camera on the counter and sat on the reclining swivel chair. The barber spoke in Hindi.

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Spring cleaning in Chennai, or: How the World turned Brown


We landed in Chennai on the night of 31st December. The city was a big party. Streets were crammed with revelers, men and women and children even, all in their best clothes. Policemen too were everywhere. A gang of spirited young men on motorbikes followed our taxi for a while, before veering off toward Besant Nagar. We drove on to Thirvanmiyur, to the beachside apartment we planned to stay in for a week. The beach, hundred meters or so from our balcony, was swarming with people, mostly men. They were screaming, in joy presumably, and we barely heard the waves. A minute before midnight the fireworks began, turning the starless sky into a canopy of dancing lights. This lasted a few minutes, an interval when we heard neither waves nor screams. The fireworks stopped as abruptly as they had begun, and the beach party did not last long. From the street we heard sounds of bikes roaring and people chattering. The new year was here. I turned off the lights and listened to the waves.

Earlier, at the airport, there was the Ambassador episode. The woman at the head of the prepaid-taxi queue named her destination and paid the fare. The man behind the counter handed back a receipt.

“Go to the airport-taxi queue outside – our man there will take care of the rest,” he said.

“What car is it?” she asked, in Tamil. This was, the way she asked it, an important question. I looked at her. Late forties; flashy green salwar-kameez; large leather handbag, camel shade; flat sandals with a black ankle strap; an expensive-looking suitcase, also green.

“We only have Ambassadors, madam.”

“Ambassador! You should have told me that in the beginning! Why did you waste my time?”

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Hotels and Temples


Trichy hotel

[Part 2 of the Trichy diary that began here]

There is something about hotels that is both self-evident and not well understood. Hotels in cities are islands of comfort for the privileged. The city can be harsh, the hotel offers a refuge. Out there it may be hot and dusty and noisy, but inside it is cool and clean and quiet. Out there you are on your own, inside we are at your service. Out there you may be a foreigner, inside you are our guest. Once inside, you are under the illusion of comfort and control, little of which you possessed or expected outside. The traveller sets out into the city, exploring its innards and surveying its underbelly and exposing himself to the elements, but he always returns to the hotel at night. Outside he mixes with sweat-ridden passengers in a crowded bus, inside he expects a clean sheet on his bed and complains about a layer of dust. Outside he visits a slum and mingles with its residents and listens to them with empathy, inside he gets irritated when a hotel worker – who probably lives in that slum – is negligent.

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Trichy diary – part 1


Trichy 196



One of the things I noticed first on the autorickshaw ride from Trichy railway station to our hotel was the absence of tall apartment buildings. Another was the absence of real estate advertisements. The Trichy I knew in my college days in the late 1990s did not have either, but I had just arrived from Bangalore, home to a perpetual property exhibition, and the contrast I saw here led me to conclude that in some Indian cities fifteen years changes nothing. This is not entirely true. Autorickshaw fares have soared; in place of the lively Hot Chips fast-food stall next to the central bus stand there is now a dull office; and the sweet-corn soup at the Sangam hotel restaurant does not have the same tang anymore.

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The marble quarry worker


TrichyBus

At the Trichy central bus stand we boarded No.128 towards Thuvakudi. Wife and I were on our way to the Regional Engineering College, where we had studied together in the 1990s. In a foolhardy attempt to revive the collegiate spirit and relive those days, we decided to do without the comforts of a rental car and chose to travel by public transport. The bus was already full when we boarded – all seats were taken – and soon we were rubbing shoulders (and not only shoulders) with fellow passengers, mostly working class men and women. I sensed some of them staring at me, standing incongruously amidst them in my jeans and kurta, a camera slung over my shoulder.

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Trichy


12-Trichy-day-2 271


We spent a couple of days visiting the temples in Trichy and roaming the marketplace streets next to these temples. It was an intoxicating experience, unlike any other in our trip so far. The photos say it all.

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Planning the India trip



On a Sunday morning not long ago, Wife and I sat together facing the computer, peering at the Excel sheet we had created the day before. A four-week trip to India was looming ahead, and our itinerary was still open. At the workplace this activity might be called Collaborative Vacation Planning. But “Collaborative” conveys an egalitarian spirit; it hints at a balanced, amiable, and constructive atmosphere. The situation at home was different. Wife was the project lead, the chief authority, one who took all decisions; I followed orders, compiled notes, drafted the plan. All accountability, though, was mine. If anything were to go wrong, my head would be on the chopping block.

The first column of the Excel sheet enumerated dates from mid-December to mid-January; other columns contained variations of plans (titled Plan-A, Plan-B, and so on, until F) that listed, for each of those dates, the cities we would be in: Bangalore, Chennai, Trivandrum, Kochi, Trichy, Tanjavur, Mumbai. Wife and I considered the alternatives, spoke to my sister in Bangalore, and a couple of hours later we settled on Plan-B. (Plan-B: right from the start there was something inferior to it, like a compromise you’d settle on when Plan-A doesn’t work. A bad omen.) My sister consented to book our flight and train tickets across this network of cities, and we began to look for accommodation.

This, we soon learned, was the easy part. Next came the task of choosing what to do on which date: whom to call on, whom to invite, what event to cover, which place to visit. So we created another sheet and wrote down all of it: people, places, events. A ‘Priority’ column was added, some items were tagged “Must Do”, others “Important”, and yet others “Nice to do (else Mom will feel bad)”. This last set consisted mostly of visits to all my uncles and aunts in Bangalore, an agonizingly long list of siblings my mother had inherited long ago.

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