Last night was the first time I’d found myself alone since I’ve embarked on this journey through India, and I probably needed it. The last two weeks have been so packed with adventure and new discoveries that I needed some time by myself simply to begin processing all of these unique experiences. Earlier in the day, after visiting the sites at Mammalapuram, the Fulbright-Hays group spent the afternoon—our first afternoon of relaxation since the beginning of the trip—at the Ideal Beach Resort. We walked the shoreline, waded in the water, got pounded by the waves and ended up in hammocks for a welcome siesta. Responsibility took over when we reconvened for our planned discussion of the last two weeks. Our program director, Aditi, wanted us to discuss the observable differences between our experiences in North and South India. In the roundtable discussion on the beach it was posited that the visibility of the poor in the south is less than that in the north. I wondered if that was really true. The streets of Delhi offered endless evidence of poverty and hunger, but I wasn’t sure yet about the south, and I felt I needed to know Chennai better before I could make up my mind.
One of the presenters at the NGO’s my group has been visiting had discussed the difference between hunger, as we may know it, and extreme hunger. Going hungry for 12 hours, he’d said, was not exactly “extreme” as it is a reality many Indians are living with today. Since I’ve been in India, I’ve been thoroughly amazed at how people not only survive, but maintain their own personal happiness with so little in the way of resources. While contemplating dinner—it had been a long day of sightseeing and discussion—I began to meditate on hunger.
It’s easy to go out and order food at a restaurant and be served and sated with exotic cuisines, imbibe intoxicating beverages, lose yourself in the pleasures of taste. As any of my friends and family know, I am the ultimate food lover. Wherever I go I seek out the unique, the authentic, the traditional, the groundbreaking in food and drink. As I thought about the poor of India, those who might scrape by with one meal per day, and a meager one at that, I figured I could skip a meal and instead feed on the city street. Like a Jainist, I would not take, but only accept, what sights the night gave me, what smells filled the air, what sounds might enter my ears and cloud my brain for a time, as I walked the streets of Chennai, formerly Madras, to get a better feel for this new place. I would scour the streets on an empty stomach, engorging my soul on whatever lay in my path.
Before you go on thinking what a noble pursuit it is to go without food for a night while contemplating the poor and hungry in a vibrant, populous South Indian port town, let me break that spell—I stopped for ice cream. After leaving my hotel and dodging rickshaws and motorbikes to cross the street, I spotted a little ice cream parlor, lighted and jolly, that I just couldn’t pass up.
When I entered, two girls dressed in jeans and pretty blouses inquired about one of the contents of the ice cream flavors. I told the ice cream baristas that I knew a little Hindi and even littler Tamil. Luckily, everyone seems to understand English, or in any case they are willing to give an encouraging side-to-side shake of the head in response. I scanned the frosty display cases, trying to assess the varieties of ice cream behind the glass. Fig & Honey grabbed my attention, so I ordered a scoop, and momentarily forgetting the whole purpose of my walk into the city night, I ordered another that I just had to try called American Delight.
Using the little red plastic spoon I sampled each flavor, got a handle on the flavors in my usual way. For the curious, the more patriotic scoop contained tiny bits of fruit and chopped nuts, like a fruitcake. As I was enjoying the pleasure of eating, staving off hunger for another span of time as so many Indians are not often able to do, I got the idea that I might walk to the beach to see what I could see. We had passed by the beachfront earlier in the morning, en route to Mammalapuram, and from my aisle seat on the side of the bus opposite the beach, all I could gather was a fishy smell.
I really had no idea where I was in relation to the water. I had no map, no compass. All I carried with me, besides my clothing, was my wallet, a notebook, a pen and an umbrella (rain had been falling earlier that evening, though the clouds retained their water for the rest of the evening, as it turned out.). As per usual on this trip, I also had my camera, which I didn’t really plan on using. From one of the workers at the ice cream parlor I gathered that it was a 3 km walk to the beach if I continued straight down the road. I thought what a nice litmus test it would be to gauge whether the people in the south had it any better than the people in the north by taking a lengthy but not-too-long walk down one road at night, while the city settles to sleep. I’d had the experience in Delhi, and now I could see about Chennai. The helpful ice cream seller told me to go straight down the road until I saw the statue of Gandhi. Then I would find the beach.
I went out to feel the pulse of the city, and Chennai certainly is alive. Leaving the parlor, I thought about all the English I’d heard while nibbling my ice cream. It’s funny, most of the evening I didn’t encounter anyone who I perceived to be non-Indian, yet every snippet of conversation I overheard was conducted in English. A young man in a red polo shirt stood near the doorway, coordinating plans with his friend over the phone; some girls requested all sorts of specialty toppings for their shared sundae; three older men in slacks and dress shirts balked, as I had, when the waiter informed them there was no coffee or tea. All of this in English. I started to wonder whether my chart readings would be accurate, with all the English words wafting through the air. I wondered if Chennai simply had a lot of summer visitors, pilgrims to the sea and sandy beaches.
Surely an anomaly on the streets of Chennai, I wrote as I walked, pocket-sized notebook in hand, the act itself becoming increasingly difficult as the cheap pen I’d acquired at the UNIC repeatedly came apart in my hands. It was around 11:00, the closing time of the ice cream parlor. I made note of what I saw as I walked in the direction of the beach.
A man lay asleep on the flatbed cart attached to his bicycle, without so even a thin sheet to cover him—not that he needed it in the hot night—his dog curled up on the pavement beneath him, in peaceful slumber. Further along, a man in his lungi and maroon shirt rested by the side of the road, his head tucked into his chest facing the low guard wall beside the road. Not half a block further another man lay supine on the ground, his sidewalk bed only steps away from a nighttime security guard attentively watching his building.
I continued to walk, knowing nothing, my mind a blank, fingers furious scribing everything.
Another minute’s walk brought me to a shrine of Ganesha. When I had stepped up onto what I thought was the platform of a bus stop, I noticed the idol framed by a colorful arch above a green-gated compartment stocked with gifts for the deity. Out of respect I kept a distance–frankly, I didn’t feel like removing my shoes–but I would like to have seen whether some passerby had left an assortment of sweets, ladoos, for the god. Interestingly, a tree trunk emerged through the polished floor and exited through the canopy covering the shrine. A yellow bucket of soapy water squatted beside the tree, in place for some kind soul wishing to clear the scuff marks from the marble floor.
Onward I walked. Five friends, rickshaw drivers I assumed, judging by the vehicles parked in sequence along the road, reclined on the sidewalk, shoes removed, sharing quiet conversation and laughter.
At the next cross-section, set in the wall of a corner shop, my eye darted to gold-emblazoned statuary, again a dedication to Shiva’s beloved son, the elephant-headed protector Ganesh. I started to feel like maybe he was watching out for me.
A bus-stop bench served as a bed to yet another homeless denizen of the city. Walking briskly past him, I nearly stumbled on another man situated “Indian-style” on the street corner, very much awake as he held out his hand hopeful for an offering. Was Ganesh watching out for him? Who was really watching out for any of us, I wondered, in that moment feeling my own nervousness reaching a peak, descending deeper into an unknown city through the murky night.
I got to thinking about the human spirit, and the feeling, the need rather, for protection. I didn’t feel like praying to Ganesh, or any deity, although I’ve certainly prayed to God in the past, at many key moments of my life. On this particular trip, and on this particular walk, I’d rather have prayed to Aditi or Bhavani or Jennifer—real people with real hearts—if I felt I needed protection. I know they exist, I know they are near, and most importantly I know they wish me well.
Finally, I made it to the statue of Gandhi. All in all, the walk had taken 15, maybe 20 minutes. It was hard to tell for sure because I don’t wear a watch, and, walking alone, I had time only to get lost in reverie. From the other side of the crosswalk I could see people milling about the shoreline and walking up the beach. Silhouettes evaporated into the bright saris of women out for a night stroll, when traffic passed and a flash of headlights illuminated the scene. Two silhouettes remained blackened, however. Poised on the marbletop parapet surrounding the gardens around Gandhi’s statue, two women in burqas, accompanied by a man in head-to-toe white, sat silently absorbing the night, though their enjoyment could not be seen, only estimated.
I sat down on the opposite side of Gandhi, on the other marbletop parapet surrounding the other garden, so I could be alone with my thoughts. A dog slept close by, curled tightly into itself and twitching whenever flies or other winged creatures collided with his snout. I sat watching him for a few minutes, long enough to see his eyes open slightly, then close again into slumber. Maybe he felt me watching.
I sat and wrote for a bit, while others walked and sat nearby. Two conservatively dressed young men escorted a beautiful girl enwrapped in a pale blue and white sari. For a while I mused as to whether they were school chums, or perhaps an elderly brother was chaperoning a first date, as I’d read in a story recounted in one of my books. A rickshaw driver appeared to alternate between patience and restlessness as he waited, parked in front of the statue, for passengers.
High up in the sky, the moon was covered in clouds that appeared like smoke. It’s important to take time to sit quietly and think. I wanted to make sense of this place.
A stray dog ambled onto the steps leading to the statue and crossed its base as Gandhi looked onward, clutching his staff, a hero. The dog came up to me without a sound, looked sheepishly to me for some morsels, for something…food, warmth. I said nothing, did nothing. He went on to the three seated nearby and they shooed him away–“Bah!”—and back to me for one more try. With no hope of a scrap to eat or a friendly hand to stroke his head, the dog trudged away quickly, further down the street and into the palpable curtain of night.
The tourist in me wasn’t quite satisfied with sitting around. I had to snap a few pictures of Gandhi before I left. Capturing the statue in the dark was difficult, and it took a steady hand to get even remotely crisp images.
Originally, I thought I might stroll down the beach to get a last close-up look at the sea, but I never did reach the water’s edge. As I was finishing up my pictures, an officer—I’d noticed several patrolling the beach—kindly informed me that the area was now closed. It was, after all, past midnight.
I entered the crosswalk hurrying past the gilded statue of who I suppose might have been Nehru, though I didn’t stop to look at the inscription. I walked back using the opposite side of the road from which I’d come. Near the beach is some sort of tributary with a bridge leading over it. I crossed this once again, taking in the full bouquet of odors, an admixture of rotten garbage and human waste, recalling for me the streets of central Pest, of all places. LDC or MDC, shit smells like shit.
The toe of my shoe stubbed against an upturning stone tile on the bridge, startling a black cat who had been sleeping on the rail. This side of the street resembled the other, the homeless making beds in soft patches of dirt, on less pliant plastic benches, or atop still firmer stone slabs. These sights, taken all at once as they unfolded before me, should have made me cry.
I counted one, two, three clustered together, a fourth secluded but still near enough to his compatriots. Men lying on the ground deathly still, pinned to the roadside, perhaps, by hunger and exhaustion.
My nerves left me on the way going back to the hotel. I wasn’t frightened for myself anymore. The last signs of commerce were being broken down for the day. A woman boarded up her freshly scrubbed and sanitized food cart. Some work-worn men loaded the last of their wares into a delivery van humming soothingly beside an electronics shop.
It wouldn’t be particularly good reading to record all of the homeless I saw laying in and around the road. The same image seemed to repeat itself all the way down the street, and this was only 3 km. I tried to imagine what the entire road would look like, if I had the energy or the desire to walk any further than my now-familiar perimeter of newly discovered territory.
In the “land of Kubera,” to borrow someone else’s phrase, we call them bums, beggars, vagrants. Of course it’s known that Kubera measures his wealth by the jewels spit out from his mongoose’s mouth, and in America maybe we measure wealth in the same way. I’m not sure yet what applique to award this land, this India. Most would agree that India is blessed with a spiritual currency, and I hope beyond hope that some of that can be spent to afford these people, these destitute homeless laying in the streets, the help that they clearly need.
We fear the homeless. We fear what deprivation can drive a person to do. Mostly we fear we may one day become them. How would you treat you, if you saw yourself laying in the road with nowhere to go, no food to eat, no one to love or care fore you? It’s something everyone should think about.
Passing shrine after shrine, I think to myself: let’s make a religion out of helping people, and leave it at that. No text, no deity, no godhead is needed. Just human compassion. Just people helping people. People feeling for other people in their hearts. It can’t go wrong.
Heading into the hotel, having stayed out much later than intended, I couldn’t help wondering how the scene might look different during monsoon season. What do the homeless take refuge? What will become of them in the future? Who will watch out for them now? When will the real-life Ganeshas clear the obstacles that stand in the way of relieving the suffering of poor and the hungry in India?
Post-script: The morning after my walk, while the bus was being loaded with our luggage as we prepared to move onward to Konchipuram, I talked with some of my newfound friends, some of the heroes who are fighting to end poverty in this world. I won’t write what silly things I said and did to make everyone laugh at me, but it was enough to make Bhavani recall: “Last night, we saw Craig, notebook in hand, writing and walking, and we were like, ‘What is he doing?'” I hope they read my posts. 🙂