Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rickshaw Ride to RUHSA

I have had a lovely, lovely time staying with Victoria who allowed me to use her house like it was my own (I have filled every inch of it with knick knacks - just kidding). It was geat fun to be with her, we spend loads of time hooting with laughter at various daft things and it's going to be strange without her company now, but I'm coming back to the theatre (v posh) at the weekend, so no need to be too sad. But now, I have finally left for RUHSA on the Brindavan Express, a massive engine dragging 28 carriages from Bangalore to Katpadi and then on to Chennai.

This trip has been strange because it feels normal to be here. There has been no adjustment to a new country like there usually is. I have barely noticed the fact that people around me are wearing saris or lunghis and not thick woolly jumpers and scarves. The traffic noise penetrates my drums by its familiar cacophony, but I walked around Bangalore like a native of the city. It did register that I ought to take care whilst walking on the pavements which are not at all like they are at home. They consist of a series of concrete blocks set in concrete with occasional gaps between them. Through these gaps, in an impenetrable blackness, an occasional gurgle can be heard, as millions of gallons of vile sewage flows under. It is a risky business walking on them, because although they look very solid and well set, every now and then there is a broken slab, often with a man-sized hole where part of it has fallen in. There is no telling what critical mass is required to break these stones, but as I have a considerably higher mass than just about every one else in India, I am not going to test the physics of it by walking on them. Consequently, the lesser of two evils, astonishingly, is to walk in the road, negotiating the lurching, swirling traffic.

Of course the train was a lovely exotic familiarity. I had three seats to myself so I spent half the time lounging against the window, luxuriating in the soft warm winter Indian sun, whilst idly watching the amazing array of hawkers weaving their way through the aisles offering a wider selection of wares than even a 24 hour Tesco.

One thing I noticed is that there is a distinct group characteristic for each of the different sellers. I know this is the country of rigid social structure, but even so it seems extraordinary to have such clear identities associated with each product. There are the official train employees who walk up and down offering food and drink – cut-ell-et; bread om-ell-et; tomato sooooop; ch-ai-ee, ch-ai-ee; sam-o-sas; cheeps, biscuits, etc etc. These are usually young men (with moustaches) and their similarities are exaggerated as they have to wear a uniform. Then there are small, delicate women carrying wide baskets mounded with fragrant rose posies and jasmine flower strings. There are wailers – usually elderly men who have been given bad career advice and, following it to the letter, now try to make a living screeching an unintelligible – from both a lyric and melody point of view – song thing. Then there are the sellers of an extraordinary selection of lurid plastic toys, which one would be disappointed to find in a budget Family Choice cracker - pairs of plastic hands on a stick which, when waved quickly make a clacky-clack sound; lethal-looking flammable dolls in short nurses uniform, with those weird pointy toes and enough nylon hair which to stuff a pillow; puny whistles; cheap Rubik’s cubes in strange colours. None of the items would ever be on anyone’s wish list, surely, these people can’t sell anything, let alone enough to support even the most meagre lifestyle. Certainly, I have never seen anyone buying anything. But the most peculiar aspect is that all these sellers – and they are on every train I have ever been on, varying only in exact variety of crap they sell – every single one is blind. I became concerned today that perhaps there was a wholesaler who sold lots of things, some good, some bad and these poor blind buggers get fobbed off with all the crap left over because they can’t tell what it is. They are probably still selling off the first lot they ever had, desperate to move on and do something more dynamic, but they can’t do until they have shifted this load of plastic dolls and fake mobile phones. Poor things. Maybe I should buy something. Any requests?

On arrival at Katpadi railway station, the nearest to RUHSA, of course I was inundated with rickshaw drivers all eager to take me somewhere for three times the local price. A shortish man wiggled his way to the front and shouted ever-decreasingly outlandish prices vociferously. Another driver leant through the throng, repeating the same prices in a slurred voice. I turned to him in surprise.

“You're drunk,” I accused.

“No, no,” he insisted, through bloodshot eyes.

Misinterpreting my disapprobation for enthusiasm and sensing a gap in the market, another man pushed forward.

“Madam, I’m drunk,” he said proudly. I told him firmly that I wasn’t actually looking for a drunk driver, which luckily cleared up that confusion, otherwise goodness knows what might have happened. Glad to have had a fortunate escape, I finally set a price with the first short man who was wearing a small pair of earmuffs. Keenly he took my bags to his rickshaw, chatting triumphantly to his defeated friends still following closely behind. We got in. He turned on the engine. He got out, gave the headlight a futile thump, shrugged and got back in.

“No light?” I asked.

“No light, madam.”

Ah. The longest and darkest road to be negotiated and no form of illumination. He stopped briefly at a rickshaw parts kiosk to see if changing the bulb improved the situation. It didn’t.
He set off unconcerned, making no concessions in either speed or in enthusiasm for veering onto the wrong side of the road. After a slightly hair-raising encounter with an unlit steam-roller, I decided to find my torch. We must have looked a strange sight- a darkened rickshaw, the driver in earmuffs, and a white arm sticking out of the top shining a torch onto the road as a makeshift headlight. It did help pick out a few invisible cyclists.

So now I am back at RUHSA in my old room, which apart from a snazzy new pair of nylon pink curtains, is otherwise sweetly familiar. The same old ryvita mattress with stripy bed linen, the concrete floor and rush broom to keep it pristine, the capacious cupboard with lime-washed shelves which leave a residue on anything that touches them, the scampering, rubbery gecko lurking by the light and of course the delicious sit-down loo. But there were a couple of notable absences, the Underwear Fairy, devoid of underwear, had obviously had to lay her fairy eggs elsewhere, but most significantly of all, not a single ant. Yet. They obviously have not been informed of my return. I wonder how long the peace will last.

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