Chennai, India - February 6-8, 2008
06.02.2008 - 08.02.2008 96 °F
The next morning I awoke feeling fine. Upon awakening, I had no immediate recollection about anything that had happened the night before, and I didn’t have time to think about it because I had to co-lead the Global Culture and Social Change group’s Academic Field Program on "The Sociology of Caste." I had a glass of water, packed my leader bag (some forms and a super deluxe first aid kit), and then went into the bathroom. The first thing I noticed was my contacts, which were sitting directly on the bathroom counter, not in their cases. If you don’t wear contacts, you don’t know that this is bad. Really bad. That was the first sign to myself that I must have been really drunk the night before. Miraculously, I was able to revive my contacts, but I was lucky on that one.
I put on my korta and went down to breakfast feeling like a fool because I felt so uncomfortable in my Indian get up, but I got lots and lots of complements. Most of the students and faculty had bought some Indian wear since we’re all going to great lengths not to be offend our hosts. Then we loaded up the buses. Schaeffer, the other co-leader, asked if I had the attendance sheets, and I flashed to them sitting on the bed not in my bag. I lied and said yes. She asked if everyone was on the bus. I didn’t look behind me and simply said yes. I didn’t feel very good.
Fortunately the drive to the University of Madras – one of the nation’s three oldest - was very short – about 15 minutes. I planned to head to the back, but Shaeffer grabbed me and pulled me to the front row with the rest of the faculty. As we sat down, my head began to throb, and I instinctively reached for my sunglasses. In the same moment, our Executive Officer, who was seated as one of the speakers on the stage, smiled at me, and I thought better of donning the glasses. We had an introductory welcome by some important person from the university. However, two hours of pomp and circumstance was one hour longer than expected. Two hours was also long enough for me to through every hangover symptom known to humankind. My stomach started doing flip flops, the room spun, I had stars before my eyes, I drooled on myself at one point, my legs started twitching spontaneously. It was bad. I think I had alcohol poisoning. I literally thought I was gonna die. I couldn’t breathe, and I felt so sick. I had menstrual cramps to boot, and though I had the medical kit, I didn’t want to throw anything more at my stomach or liver. I didn’t know whether to walk out and get some air but I was in the front row and the Academic Dean and the Executive Officer were up there. It was hellish. Then I looked up at thought I saw the midget standing in the corner of the room, holding a glass of The Royal Challenge… finally, I didn’t want to die without telling someone, so I leaned down to A., who was on my left, and I whispered, “I’m dying.” She whispered back, “Why?” And I said, “Ask N.” I wanted to pin my death at the lecture on somebody. A. chuckled and said, “Yah, I know already. I saw her this morning, and she doesn’t feel too good either. Musta been quite a night.” I looked back at N. who was two rows back, and she did have a touch of green to her.
The thing that saved me was that after the long speeches, they served us chai. I didn’t think I could drink it, but a few sips cured everything at once! Everything except the fog, which didn’t lift until well into the next day, but all the physical symptoms dissipated, including my cramps.
This was good because during the second part of our day, the groups went off on their own itineraries. Our group went to a place called DakshinaChitra, which is center devoted to preserving the cultural heritage of South India through the arts. The 10-acre complex is comprised of several heritage homes that have been relocated to the site, allowing crafts from each region of South India – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andrah Pradesh and Karnataka - to be housed contextually. So, for example, visitors can walk through an edifice that is typical of the traditional homes built in Tamil Nadu (which is where Chennai is) and look at the type of crafts that are produced there in that setting. Local crafts people are assisted in earning a livelihood giving workshops and selling their wares there. Women are particularly encouraged to participate in the foundation’s programming. Some our group made pottery, and some got henna tattoos.
On Day 2 of our AFP, we traveled to Entre Kerala, which is one of Chennai’s first ecohotels. The place was gorgeous, and there we had a lovely informal roundtable and chat with B. S. Raghavan, a retired Hindi scholar, poet and bureaucrat. During his long career in the India Administrative Service, he served along the likes of Indira Gandhi and Nerhu, among others. At various times, he has been India’s delegate to GATT, UNCTAD, the UN’s Economic and Social Council. He was Chairman of the UN Committee of World Food Security, and he’s revered as big supporter of women’s rights.
What impressed me most about him is that I would have guess him to be in his 60s where as he’s 81. I have never seen such a young octogenarian. He greeted the kids as if they were long lost friends, and we had a very lively, discussion about the history of the caste system, about the challenges of the 21st century, and the importance of this generation in stepping in as leaders. He was very excited about this meeting with young people, a quarter of his age, and they were equally charmed by him.
After an incredibly scrumptious meal – with the best chapatti I’ve had since my mom’s and Aunt Eliza’s – we went to St. Thomas’s Basilica, which is one of the three churches in the world built on the resting place of an apostle. Afterward we went to the orphanage at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charities. What can I say about it except that it was intense. The streets alone are intense, especially given that our ship is berthed in an area that is filled with so-called “untouchables.” One doesn’t have to look far or hard to see people lying in the streets, children shitting in the road, goats and animals drinking from the same filth that the people are drinking from – just hardcore poverty. I think I can only be relatively unaffected by it – which is not to say that it doesn’t affect me at all – because of things I’ve seen in Detroit and San Francisco and on trips to Africa over the years. But I’ve never been this up close to it and I’ve never seen this kind of poverty as pervasive. It is a harsh and bitter reality. That’s all I want to say about it, except that M.’s mention of that image he saw in the 1960s entitled “Overpopulation,” wasn’t so far off the mark.
This was brought home again when we visited the Kapaleeswarar Temple, which is consecrated to Lord Shiva and is exemplary of Dravidian architecture. Unfortunately, once we got there, we discovered that non-Hindus are not allowed inside. That was fine with me, to be quite frank. India has exhausted me – all of us really. There was simply no way any of us could be prepared for this, and it’s a rude awakening after Thailand, where the living was easy, at least for tourists. Here, we are brought down several notches, and though most of us try to keep on a brave, happy face it’s damn difficult! However, this is the reality of many, many people, and I don’t think it’s right to shy away from it, so I’m going to venture out again tonight. And though I threatened to travel alone, this isn’t the place to do it. Not by a long shot. We can’t even cross the streets because we’re so out of sync with the rhythm of the place. And it’s not “India,” as I keep writing, because some people have been to other places and made it back to the ship already, and the one’s who left on Day One and returned to Chennai are just as shocked by it all as those of us who’ve been here. I might try to escape for a bit – head down to Pondicherry which is about two and half hours from here, or maybe Mamalapurim which is even closer. I can’t handle Chennai. There’ve I’ve said it – and I’m not alone.