The Fulbright group descended on the city of Madurai today, home to Lady Doak College, a progressive international institute for women. We caught a sleeper train from Chengalpattu, not from from Chennai. How to properly board the train was the subject of much strategizing for our group of 17, building up an air of worriment and tension, which I’m happy to say never spilled over into ardent aggression. The group is strong, experienced, knowledgable. As one member pointed out, if there is any fault with the group, it’s that we have too many chiefs.
This marks the halfway point of the trip, and for the first time our group is divided, physically that is. Eight of us are staying at Lady Doak, while the remaining nine are staying at a hotel that I can’t remember the name of, but I do recall that it has a rooftop patio with a bar, great food, wine–I said WINE–and from what I’ve heard, a great view of the moon rising over Meenakshi Temple in the distance. Those lucky ducklings.
Everyone was so tired after the ordeal of the train that nearly all of us elected to take an afternoon nap after getting oriented to the new surroundings. This was lull in the trip for many of us, a much needed pause, not least of all for me. Before I rested I wanted to see some of the city. I dropped my stuff at Lady Doak and accompanied the rest of the group by bus to the hotel. I insisted on taking a piping hot, freshly poured cup of coffee with me on the bus, which I sipped from a dainty little glass mug, while the rest of the group placed bets as to whether the bumpy ride would send scalding java to my face. Well, Robert thought it might scald something more precious even than that, which caused me to hold the cup off to the side. But alas, the caffeine hit its intended target, and the continuity of my family lineage is still possible.
The lobby of the hotel struck me as ritzy, and through the window I could see a communist party headquarters across the street. I was sure I’d seen a hammer and sickle somewhere in Delhi, too. I know the communist party is active here, especially in Kerala, which is probably the first state I’d like to visit whenever I return to India on my own. Aside from that the street was lined with fruit sellers, provision stores, noisy motorbikes and lots and lots of people. Needless to say, I was already getting jealous of the other group’s good fortune in landing at a hotel with such great amenities and surroundings.
The managerial staff was friendly and struck up a conversation with me. I asked how many people lived in Madurai. “Ten lakh, sir, ten lakh,” said the manager, checking the faces of his staff for conformation. Doing the remedial math in my head I figured that meant about a million. I’m still getting used to the terminology used for large figures, like “lakh” and “crore.” What I had thought was going to be a smaller town was actually a sprawling city with its own slums and hybrid patches of urban/rural landscape.
On the way back to the guesthouse at Lady Doak, I took in the sights: a tribe of goats, whose dexterity is becoming more and more evident to me as they hoist and jockey themselves into unimaginable positions, fishing banana peels from a culvert corroded with discarded slop (more on this later); a rickshaw packed like a clown car with at least seven or eight people crammed into every available cubic inch of space; and, finally, the anomalous sight of three men arguing in the street, gesticulating wildly, laying hands but inflicting no harm. This last one really surprised me. Indians are a pacifistic people in my experience, at least in the public realm. To this point, the most conflict I’ve endured from the locals is a stiff wag of the finger for charging my laptop at a “cell phone charge only” socket in a railway station waiting room. Anyway, the incident on the street got me thinking about people in general, and how we treat each other, stranger to stranger, friend to friend.
Though affection is not commonly expressed between the sexes in India, there is ample evidence of brotherly, sisterly, and all-in-all familial love in each reach of this country. The hospitality I’ve experienced here is truly unrivaled. That’s a difficult statement for me to make considering the soul-charging goodness I felt during my three years as a teacher in Hungary or the royal treatment I experienced while tutoring at summer language camps in Italy, feted like a lazy king for my services and then given time to rest, always treated like a family friend, fondly addressed as one of the ragazzi. I was a distict member of a community, several communities, in those places, and the kind people involved will always have a claim on my heart.
My experience in India is different, more detached, more nomadic as we move from place to place, yet in every situation I am amazed by the sincere and personalized kindness I feel directed at myself and all the other Fulbrighters. Every single NGO, office, classroom, creche or self-help group we’ve visited has pampered us with tea breaks, biscuits and other refreshments, often infusing cultural value into these hospitable exchanges, with the utmost attention to our comfort, with one stark exception: our visit to the American Embassy. I’m not going to use this space to rag on my country, but I’m going to be honest. There, as American citizens, we were given stern, rigid, altogether mirthless treatment by the personnel, i.e. by other Americans. Even the agents we met with for the presentation and discussion, though passably affable, seemed in their lofty positions to keep at a distance from us lowly educators. Never even an offer of water. I have to wonder what that says about my own culture. Perhaps its the plurality of cultures in America, the blending of all into one, that leaves us with no set way to receive strangers, or to treat strangers as friends in a true sense.
The fifth residence so far on this trip, Lady Doak has opened its doors to me and seven others with the greatest compassion. I’m looking forward to exploring the city of Madurai and its unique culture through the Meenakshi Tempe visit tomorrow and the cultural evening planned for Monday at the college. I hope the group bounces back from the rough journey it took to get here. I know we will, and I know we’ll do our best to glean what new knowledge we can from this ten lakh town.