Chennai Entry 16: Death (Almost) Becomes Me

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Hooray for Monday mornings – as, in this case, it means I successfully survived Sunday to write about them. We had planned a day trip to Pondicherry, as one of Margaret’s friends from Delhi was now living there. I must admit, I was more excited about seeing Pondicherry as the initial setting of Life of Pi, before the shipwreck and the tiger and all the rest of it. It was the French seat of government when India was a colony, but considering the French influence is supposed to be flourishing there still, the city hides it well. As we approached it looked to me more like a smaller and scruffier Chennai, which I’m sure was not the French Government’s intention. I must clarify that my negativity at this point had more to do with my ever-present stomach ache, the three hour drive and an urgent desire to use the loo than Pondicherry itself. But this was only the beginning of the day’s woes.

Margaret’s friend was called Kumar – very tall and skinny with a crest of black hair like a cockerel and teeth so randomly arranged that it looked like someone had stuffed them into his mouth by the handful. He was considerate and very polite, but something of a ditherer. So was his friend Priya who joined us. This meant that every new activity, indeed every turn in the road, was preceded by ten minutes of rapid conversation in Tamil about whether we should turn off or carry on, the relative merits of the various things to see in the city, and whether Margaret and I were too hot or tired. It was too hot, but standing still in the noonday sun while they discussed the matter made it considerably worse. We moved from the tomb of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother (a couple of ancient religious philosophers venerated here in Pondicherry), to a gift shop selling quite terrifying photos of The Mother’s eyes, with the baleful stare only an eighty-year-old lady can give, to a temple dedicated to Ganesha, to the Sunday Market, a long, shop-lined street selling the usual hair bobbles and cut price handbags. All the time I was getting hotter, more dehydrated and in increasing pain from my pressured bladder and beleaguered gut. My two attempts to find a usable toilet were unsuccessful – I will spare the details in case anyone is eating while reading this – and, never very adept at preventing my feelings flashing across my face, my frustration was visibly mounting. Unable to snarl at anyone present, I told a purveyor of shabby African drums following me optimistically down the street that he could stop playing them in a would-be tempting fashion, because they were rubbish, and did he really think I came to India to buy a set of moth-eaten, spit-covered bongos? He backed off, looking alarmed, and I felt guilty. Thankfully we went for lunch soon after this, and I found a toilet which was actually a toilet and not an excrement-covered hole in the ground, and drank water and ate and emerged feeling much better.

In the afternoon we took a chugging steamer across a little bay to a spot on the coast, called Paradise Beach. This was probably the day’s highlight: the sun sparkled on the water, the lake was overhung with tangled palm trees, great silver fish flew up into the air, and the beach was clean and beautiful. Upon returning to the harbour I felt both rested and a little sunburnt, and the following walk on the breezy promenade was refreshing.

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We said goodbye to Priya and Kumar next to an outsize statue of Gandhi, and Suriya and Paul turned up soon afterwards. They’d spent the day with a friend of Paul’s, and we soon came to deduce that Paul had had a few too many Indian beers. He was suspiciously jolly, and bought the largest of the African drums available from the nearest hopeful tradesman, on the grounds that he was an expert singer and percussionist, and would entertain us in the car on the way back.

It was, without doubt, one of the oddest and most terrifying car journeys I’ve ever experienced. Darting in and out of traffic is all very well in a city, when you drive at 30mph and the worst that can happen is a scraped bumper. When you’re driving at 80mph on a twisting coastal road, it becomes ludicrously dangerous. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t – we swerved recklessly through tiny spaces, braked hard and jerked on and off the road when necessary. The worst part was the overtaking, which often happened on three or four levels simultaneously: we would overtake a coach, which was overtaking an auto-rickshaw, which was overtaking a motorbike with three people on it. As we undertook a convoy of buses and coaches on a blind corner, with the approaching whine and blinding headlights of a lorry coming the other way, even Death himself looked up from his edition of Coffins Today to whistle “Ooh – steady on mate”.

Adding a level of surrealism to the waves of terror was Paul, most definitely trollied and determined to showcase his musical talents. He worked his way through hymns, Christmas carols and the back catalogue of Lionel Richie, all with enthusiastic drumming interludes. He was always trying to get us to join in, but would go off tune or even onto another song as soon as we did. Whenever we had a near miss with another vehicle (which happened fairly frequently) he effusively praised God, Suriya and the car’s superior braking system, usually in that order, then repeated his thanks at length through the medium of song and percussion. I spent the three hours in a state of advanced nervous tension, sure at any minute we would hurtle off the road into the river below, Paul’s tuneless singing echoing grotesquely in our ears. By the time we arrived back at the hotel I was mildly hysterical, with a killer headache and a very sore neck from all the craning and swerving. But on the plus side (let’s accentuate the positive here), I’m sure I got rid of half my cellulite. I don’t think I unclenched my bottom muscles once from beginning to end.

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