February 21, 2011

The Great Southern Trunk Road

Madras to Thiruvannaamalai, 185km

I’ve often said India never calls for me, she mostly shouts. With India, there is no moderation: you either love her, or you hate her to death — she never cares for you, or you can’t get enough of each other. It’s clear which camp I fall into.

I could have been in class, somewhere in Singapore, dying in a statistics lecture on an unbearably hot day. A message would come in from friends in Mumbai — usually about their plans that weekend — and I would not be able to work, talk, study, or function. Not until I booked a ticket to India. I could never explain it, I just had to do it.

It was like that again when I sat at the void deck of my apartment, decked out in my funeral whites, missing my grandfather terribly, not knowing how I would ever stop. Other people need Prozac; India’s yelling, honking and shouting did it for me. It did it for me every time I needed her.

When the horn sounded at flag-off, we left Kodambakkam High Road behind. The gaggle of reporters, photographers, radio personalities, curious onlookers and well-wishers faded into the distance. Our destination: Thiruvannaamalai.

If you looked on a map, the holy southern Indian city is merely 185 kilometres from Madras. If you took a bus, it would take just under five hours. If you travelled by car, perhaps three and a little bit. Since we took an autorickshaw, our estimated travel time was something like eight hours. Or before nightfall; whichever came first.

It takes a while to actually leave Madras. The city is a sprawling mess of neighbourhoods, many of them neat and compact and middle class and manicured — by Indian standards anyway. We passed Thousand Lights, rode on to Cathedral Road, our music thumping in our DIY in-rickshaw entertainment system.

Near Menaka Cards factory on Arcot Road I made us slow down to stare at the ridiculous sign I have always loved on the side of its building: “Marriages are made in heaven. Marriage cards are made in Menaka”. We strode on confidently — empowered with the sort of zeal only people who knowingly embark on insane adventures can have — past Mount Road, on to Saidapet. Guindy. St Thomas Mount. Chennai Airport. And then it was the open road from there, our first “highway” on an autorickshaw.

From then on we were well and truly on our own. We would lose sight of all the other rickshaws in the rally, most of the time, and only run into them when someone broke down, when we ran into another team in a random village, or when we caught up with the rest of them somewhere on the road. It would be up to us to decide which way to go and how to get there.

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Relief

Most mornings we were armed with little else other than the name of our final destination. At our daily morning briefings we were given tasks, and sometimes hints of how we should make our approach, but that did not preclude the fact that we would be waving our arms frantically outside our rickshaw most of the day, shouting at someone who was walking, or riding a bike or rickshaw: “Thambi! Chengalpattu, where? Left-ah? Right-ah?”

We perfected the art of speaking without words. Most times we received instructions with a bob of the head, and we replied and expressed our gratitude in the same way.

Thiruvannaamalai was not a difficult destination to get to. Excited and pumped with adrenalin, we raced our rickshaw through the Great Southern Trunk Road and then the National Highways like champs on three wheels. We stopped when we found the first breakdown of the day, Tim and Gary’s, but otherwise stopped only to refuel, and to drink sugarcane juice. We got there fairly quickly, and without much incident. (Other than when we’d stopped for a train crossing in a small village, and a little girl came up to me to ask, “aunty aunty, what are you, white or Indian?” I said I was yellow, and drove off before she could ask me what a yellow person was.)

Chengalpattu. Tindivanam. Vallam. We stopped outside Gingee Fort to take photos of the fort and of the bulls with painted blue horns. Pennathur.

I have a love-hate relationship with India’s religious, holy cities. I know how my skin colour, and the fact that I was born outside the structures and strictures of traditional Hinduism, means I will never encounter holy life in an Indian holy city the way it was meant to be; I will always be an outsider, always a firingi, in the religious places far more than in most other cities. It also means I see much more of the harassment and the stupidity that their most aggravatingly frustrating touts and pimps and drug dealers subject to foreigners, who believe we all come to India’s holy places to seek darshan with the gods of drugs and sex, without exception, and must thus be given what we want: sex and drugs. In Benares I felt no holiness, only sexual harassment; I did not have high hopes then for Thiruvannaamalai.

<figcaption class="wp-caption-text">Karthik at a rest stop</figcaption>

By the time we found Chengam Road, with some difficulty, it was already dusk. The town’s sacred vibe was apparent: in addition to the numerous temples, priests and sadhus, there were a great many white people in what I call “enlightenment attire”, wandering around town. When we pulled in into the grounds of our first base hotel, a fancy resort along Chengam Road, we were tired, but victorious.

I could not have asked for a better way to end the Rickshaw Challenge, having had such a great first day; but something about Thiruvannaamalai did not sit well with me. The hotel’s staff started off friendly and grovelling, but when they found out my team did not intend to plan to stay the night and spend a ridiculous sum on their “affordable luxury” they quickly turned sour. The cheap hotels we wanted to stay in were sneered at by them — we CANNOT stay in those hotels, they said, because “these hotels allow smoking”, and “they serve alcohol and meat.” I have utmost respect for teetotalers, vegetarians and non-smokers, but it’s this sort of holier-than-thou attitude practised by a small number of you that makes me run in the opposite direction and do those very things you dislike.

So off we went, back onto Chengam Road, back towards the town centre, in search of the Promise Land: a cheap hotel with alcohol and meat.

We were turned away by many budget and mid-range hotels, because I was “gasp a WOMAN!” I was a woman who intended to share a room with a white man and an Indian man, but the idea was inconceivable to many. I was told by several hotels that they were looking out for me by not letting me stay there, to protect my honour or something flaky like that. Others said they were protecting me from the many bachelors who stay in their hotels, as though these bachelors would not know how to deal with the presence of a Chinese woman in a rickshaw wallah uniform. Dejected, exhausted, and still ranting about self-righteous vegetarians, we finally settled for a bright pink hotel with a decent fan room for a handful of rupees.

A shower never felt so good.

I slept on the floor, deciding it was preferable to the hard double bed shared by the boys, and dreamed a long dream about driving down the Great Southern Trunk Road.

Tomorrow, we would conquer Yercaud.