Adventures on an Indian Visa (week 11): Charlie Chennai

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Day 71

This morning a took the chunk-a-long, but wonderful train back down to Coimbatore, which was soon follow’d by a pretty hot & tedious train journey to Chennai. It was all a bit wild & busy when I got there, & I just jumped in a rickshaw, said take me to a hotel & pretty much took the first decent looking one & had a quiet night. Charlie gets here tomorrow night, tho, which will be funny. The most significant event in my Indian education concerning my musing upon the land’s weird-to-me body language. A shake of the head means yes; when a rickshaw driver pulls up next to you & I say what I think is no, they take it as yes & follow me down the road until I’m forced to tell him to fuck off. In the West we turn the palm face down for a shoo-off gesture & face up for a come here. Well, our shoo-off is the Indian come here, so when I find myself with several waiters watching me eat, & tell them to shoo-of, they actually come closer. Trust me, it’s mad as fuck having your every spoonful scrutinized by up to 20 sets of eyes.

Day 72

Charlie under the arches at London Bridge

Waking up in Chennai with a few hours to kill before the arrival of Charlie would completely disturb my erudite fen shui, I spent the late morning & afternoon at Madras University & its Marina Campus Library. It is situated right by the stretching golden sands of Chennai Beach, framed by the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal.

While on a wee break & wandering around the Ancient Indian History & Archeology Department of the Madras University, by some crazy chance I met a professor who, to cut a long story short, is up for teaming up with me to produce a new rendition of Tirukural, translating the introduction I composed into various Indian languages – an interesting project & one he says was sent to him by god. He even said I was an Indian in one of my previous lives, which kinda makes sense, & made me pray along to the Vedas with him, which I did awkwardly but silently…

What a contrast, then, when I met Charlie at the airport, clucking on cold turkey off practically every kind of drug, knocking back Valium like sarsaparilla tablets, wash’d down with neat vodka & immediately demanding we go searching for some crack. I soon discover’d the source of his hedonism. Apart from being on the run from the police, his landlord, the CSA & a couple of crack heads, he’s also nursing a broken heart. She was called Ketamine Karen, & had bled him dry, emotionally & financially, & turned him onto smack etc. However, I know the guy’s got a diamond soul, it’s just been buried in a whole heap of shit, so what’s a pal gotta do eh?

So, instead of paying the exorbitant taxi fares into town like an American mug full of dollars, we just caught a train instead, the station being a stone’s throw from the airport. Our tickets were 6 rupees each, about 8p & we were on the train with the vallies kicking in & Charlie staggering about & landing on this woman’s lap & here husband wanting to throw him off the train. I somehow managed to diffuse the situation & get him back to the hotel room, which Charlie said was the worst he’d ever been in. Trust me there’s worse – at least we have a western toilet, shower & TV (for a fiver). Admittedly, the area we are in is right next to a very busy, smoggy main road, & Charlie says its like holidaying in Wolverhampton. Anyway, the vallies soon did their magic & sent him off to sleep, which finally had a respite from Charlie’s tales of Great Harwood Football Club.

Fer fucks sake, I’d forgotten how badly he snores!

Day 73

Charlie was far too jet-lagg’d/vallied-up/clucking for crack to spend any time with today, so while he dozed about the hotel drinking cheap rum, I headed out into Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. The city itself is just one massive heap of concrete lumped on the Tamil plain like a colourful pizza. No hills to break up the urban monotony, & very few parks. Albeit there’s the sea, but even this is manky, fed by the black stinking sewers & even ranker rivers that flow through the city. Still, for my studies it provided a double whammy, for according to popular tradition, one of the city’s suburbs – Mylapore – saw the martydom of St Thomas. How he got there goes like this;

Where the Didascalia (dating from the end of the 3rd century) states, ‘India… received the apostolic ordinances from Judas Thomas, who was a guide and ruler in the church which he built,’ elsewhere, the 7th century patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, records that Thomas preach’d; ‘the gospel of the Lord to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Carmanians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and the Magi. He fell asleep in the city of Calamina of India.’ Calamina is derived from Cholamandalam, which means ‘Realm of the Cholas,’ the rulers of ancient Tamil Nadu. Elsewhere, the apocryphal Acts of Thomas describe his death, burial, & subsequent disappearance of his remains;

And when he had thus prayed he said unto the soldiers: Come hither and accomplish the commandments of him that sent you. And the four came and pierced him with their spears, and he fell down and died. And all the brethren wept; and they brought beautiful robes and much and fair linen, and buried him in a royal sepulchre wherein the former (first) kings were laid.

Now it came to pass after a long time that one of the children of Misdaeus the king was smitten by a devil, and no man could cure him, for the devil was exceeding fierce. And Misdaeus the king took thought and sad: I will go and open the sepulchre, and take a bone of the apostle of God and hang it upon my son and he shall be healed… And he went and opened the sepulchre, but found not the apostle there, for one of the brethren had stolen him away and taken him unto Mesopotamia

For Mesopotamia read Syria, where a certain Ephrem writes in the forty-second of his ‘Carmina Nisibina’ that Thomas was put to death in India, and that his remains were eventually buried in Edessa, Syria.

It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India’s painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Hymns of Saint Ephrem

So much for Saint Thomas. Now the site of his passing, Mylapore, is absolutely fascinating, for it was also the reputed birthplace of Thiruvalluvar himself. My Thiruvalluvar. Now, there’s no such thing as coincidence, the Universal mind doesn’t allow it, so deep down inside my instinctual subconscious I’m like, what is the real connection between Thiruvalluvar & St Thomas, & swore a silent academic oath to find it, especially when one of the first western scholars to describe the poetical wisdom contained in the Kural was RT Temple, who declared it to be;

One of the grandest productions of man’s brain, much of which bears so strange a resemblance in thought to the Sermon on the Mount. It has accordingly been argued ere this, with much show of probability that the teachings of the gospel influenced the nameless weaver of Mayilapur

My rickshaw took me to Mylapore – a quiet enough spot on a hill overlooking the sea, with a monument upon the very spot where Thomas was purportedly slain. Mylapore was also the location in which Saint Thomas erected a church upon an ancient Hindu site called Kapaleeswara. ‘The first Portuguese historians,’ recorded Father Henry Hosten, ‘say that St. Thomas built his ‘house,’ meaning his church, on the site where a Jogi had his temple.’ It is even possible that Hosten’s ‘Jogi’ was Thurivalluvar himself! The idea that one influenced the other leads to an assemblage of sayings known as the Gospel of Thomas. Discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in only in 1945, this obscure Gospel is actually just a Kuralesque, nuggets-of-wisdom collection of 114 brief & wise sayings of Jesus made by a certain ‘Didymus Thomas.’

Jesus said, “He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” (Gospel of Thomas)
Around pleasant, intelligent speakers / People swiftly gather (Thirukural)

Jesus said, “Whoever finds the world and becomes rich. Let him renounce the world.” (Gospel of Thomas)
Prefer destitution’s stark minimalism / Possessions befuddle mind (Thirukural)

Jesus said, “Fortunate is the man who knows where the brigands will enter, so that he may get up, muster his domain, and arm himself before they invade.” (Gospel of Thomas)
Adherence of wise counsel / Frightens our enemies (Thirukural)

On returning to the hotel, Charlie was now wide awake & up for an explore. So, we went for a walk which basically entail’d Charlie having a wee moan about everything from lack of non-sugary condensed milk to the bricklaying skills of the Indians (he’s a brickie himself). While we were struttin’ the streets, me & Charlie kicked off our own version of the East Lancashire cricket league. Apparently, & quite the sportsmen, he played for Read CC, while I used to watch Lowerhouse CC as a bairn. Anyhow, on coming across a couple of kids playing in the streets, we found ourselves using a tree for a wicket, & the kids for fielders. Charlie batted first & got 7 runs before I bowl’d him plumb LBW, much to his cocksure annoyance. However, I only made 5 runs before one of the kids gave me a wicked googly & Charlie gave rather a too triumphant cheer. His smile didn’t last long though – later that night he got himself lost. I think he went off hunting for ketamine while I was in the internet shop studying Saint Thomas in India. An hour after our appointed rendezvous I gave up waiting & went back to the hotel, where three hours later a rather fluster’d Charlie turns up, without any K (thank god), & several hundred rupees of taxi fares down. Apparently he’d driven past the hotel several times – funny as.

It was the perfect time to tell him I was taking him to an Ashram to sort his life out. I don’t think he quite heard, or perhaps understood. This is gonna be funny.

Day 74

This morning we woke to proper Pendle weather, with Chennai like a late autumnal Manchester. Apparently a cyclone is coming in from the Bay of Bengal to devastate fisherman’s lives & all that – which finally gave us the kick up the ass we needed to get out of Dodge. Three hours of train ride later, sitting in front of a baby with massive brown eyes & an even bigger brown splodge of paint between them, held by a guy listening to bangra on his mobile, we came to Tirupathi, a not particularly pleasing town at the foot of a sheer range of hills. If Chennai was Wolverhampton, said Charlie, this is definitely West Bromwich.

Our reason for being there was the temple of Tirumala, up on the hill range. It receives more pilgrims each year than Mecca & Rome put together, with most of the young guys shaving their heads – giving the appearance of a mass rally of the Asian wing of the BNP. We’re gonna join ‘em about dawn tomorrow, when hopefully the weather would have cleared, before travelling a few hundred K to stay a night at this very holy ashram – I can’t wait to see Charlie’s face when we get there & he can’t have a fag.

Day 75

Me & Charlie back in England

Our journey to the ashram began with me attempting to invoke Charlie’s spirituality. We got up early, at 5.30 AM, to try & squeeze in a visit to the world’s most visited temple at Tirumala. Unfortunately, during the night both me & Charlie got a bout of Delhi Belly, & ten minutes into a bumpy ride decided it would be best if we get off & find some bushes, pronto. We did, call’d off the trip to the temple for fear of lack of bushes, & walked back into town, picking up some ‘stabilising’ medicine en route. At 9.30 am we caught the bus west. This was a nine-hour journey across the otherworldy landscape of the Deccan plateaux. It is basically a vast plain, peppered with bouldery hills, whose rocks seem to defy gravity as they balance at strange angles. The journey was broken up by the occasional crazy town & the growing feeling I was yet again in ‘endless India.’ I mean, we travelled about 350 k today, & hardly made a dent on the subcontinental map.

We then hit Puttupathy, passing the Sri Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital as we went in – a gorgeous pink Taj Mahal of a thing. We soon found ourselves in Sai Baba’s ashram called the Prasantha Nilayam, or hill of peace. On the way in there was a security check, & they took Charlie’s fags off him which really upset him, it was hilarious. On the brighter side, we got a bed in a dormitory full of international devotees for only 20 rupees – about 25p. The food was just as cheap, & we finally had a few western birds to check out. There was obviously no chance of getting laid, like, especially with a still brooding Charlie in tow. Outside the ashram we found your typical traveler-world – loads of shops selling jewellery, clothes & sitars, mingling with internet joints, hotels & restaurants, between which roam’d posses of beggars. It is a weird contrast – on one side of the street there’s this big meditation centre, & on the other a great cathedral to capitalism. If you ask me, Sai Baba’s raking it in like a modern-day Idi Amin. We even passed his private air strip as we arrived. Plus, as we ate our food in one of the several halls, this sign looked over us with just his hypnotic eyes staring down, reading;


Trippy shit – there was also this board, which read;

Camera / Video Camera / Calculator
Big Bag / Battery / Binocular
Tobacco / Time piece / Toffeebags / Umbrella
Mobile / Plate / Time Piece / Needles
Blades / Water Bottle /Eatables
Scissors / Cassettes / CDs / Calculator
Knife / Book / Lighter / Cigarettes/ Pen
Flowers /Footwear / Flashlight / Walkman

The whole ashram reminds me of a holiday rehab camp – there’s loads of accommodation – the westerners get bunk beds while the Indians sleep on mats on the hard floor. The night’s sleep reminded me to get some earplugs – Charlie’s bad enough, but nothing to the Russians. I kept moving about the dorm from bed-to-bed avoiding a snorer, but as soon as I’d settled, the guy next to me would start – proper did mi head in. In the end I got an hour’s kip, & with Charlie’s arms bitten to a volcano range by the local mozzys, we left the ashram, passing a mini-darshan on the way. This took place in a great ballroom style area, with chandeliers draping down & a couple of hundred white-clothed devotees sat on a polished silver floor, singing along to this guy at the front chatting through a PA. While I observ’d all this, I penn’d the following sonnet;


Indian & international descends on Puttupathi,
Form the swarming cult of the new Sai Baba swami,
A mark’d contrast to the monstrosity park’d outside,
That cathedral of consumerism, devotion’s grotesque bride,
But safe behind those guarded gates one meditates quite freely
& joins in Dharsan with, oft-times, Sai Baba, tho’ him eighty,
Being the second avatar of a word-wide, tutelary spirit,
That three times only this green planet will grace with a visit;
Upon his death the first foresaw his rebirth after eight years
In obscure Puttupathi, where many years after the prophecy,
The teenager toss’d flour on the floor in the middle of a thrashing,
Spelling out Satay Sai Baba – the boy had always been holy,
& soon the world’s second largest NGO, after the UN of course,
Springs up, a shaft of light providing free health care for all.

Day 76

This morning I said my goodbyes to Charlie & agreed to meet him in a few weeks somewhere near Calcutta. I’m gonna sail back from the Andaman islands via Visakapatnam & head north thro Orissa. He’s fine with it, he knows he needs it & this morning I already noticed a wee change in his demeanour & aura, but he still kept nipping outside the ashram for fahs & a cheeky rum.

While waiting for my train back to Chennai, a very funny few hours began. There was this cute Israeli girl – a 24-year-old called Gal – who I approach’d, as one normally does when surrounded by Indians in a case of ‘I’ll watch your bag if you watch mine.’ I said I’d also ‘protect’ her from any cheezy sleezy men. Anyhow, something happened on that train, a wee spot of Cupid I think, & found her gazing at me with these big, brown, dreamy eyes. The Indians around us thought us man & wife & after a while it actually felt like we were. Changing trains, we were stood on the bridge over the platforms, the sun just setting, & making out like crazy.

Sensual spontaneity at its most romantic, yet I felt a wee bit hypocritical as her protector had ended up hitting on her. We had two more hours together. My train was heading east & hers was heading south. Unfortunately, the railway retiring rooms were closed (we were both up for it) so we just found a bench on a quiet platform & hung out. She was a great kisser by the way.

After one last snog to the sound of engines & cacophonic tooting I left Gal & I got on the Chennai train. There was plenty of food being touted up & down the aisles, from ice cream & samosas, to full meals & packets of sweet cherries, with the beggars not far behind; the blind, the limbless & the decrepit. There were also two ladyboys who did their weekly ‘shopping.’ They turn up with an aggressive hand clap & basically demand money off the men – which they invariably get. Apparently they are only allowed to do it on Fridays & Saturdays – something for the weekend I dare say.

I finally return’d the vast Westernesque sprawl of Chennai (Madras) where tomorrow I intend to get a permit for a visit to the paradisial Andaman Islands. Steve, Kate & Jimmy are due in as well, so it’ll be quite the reunion, one expects. I’m looking forwards to it very much.

Day 77

Spent today sorting out my permit to visit the Andamans. I hired a rickshaw for the day & had an idea of buying a fleet of rickshaws & build track at home so we can all play Rickshaw Races – with a couple of guys hanging out of the windows with baseball bats! For a cheaper price for hiring my drivers, we rocketed around on loads of crazy missions – they get paid for taking westerners into luxury shops -, including a trip to his weed-dealing cousins, the overall net result of which was I get my permit tomorrow morning at 9 AM & there’s no actual guarantee of gettin’ on the ship. Fortunately there’s about twenty others in the same boat (pun intended), including the Goa gang, & we’re all gonna go down en masse waving 500 rupee notes & smilin’ widely. If they don’t let us on, we’re gonna sink the bastard!


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