Saturday, August 18, 2007

Mr. Cherches Goes to India, Part II (conclusion)

On a restaurant menu in Trivandrum, soups are listed under the heading "From the Turin." This must be a typo, Mr. Cherches thinks. Surely these soups are not from the Detroit of Italy, home of the famous shroud, and of the great writer, holocaust survivor, and eventual suicide, Primo Levi.

* * *

On seeing Mr. Cherches's passport, a hotel clerk volunteers the information that his brother lives in Memphis.

"Do you know what Memphis is famous for?" Mr. Cherches asks the clerk.


"Elvis Presley lived there, and now many people make pilgrimages to his home at Graceland."

"I wouldn't know," the clerk replies.

Mr. Cherches decides not to try his luck with the song by Chuck Berry.

* * *

On the train to Kanyakumari Mr. Cherches is talking with a government employee on holiday. There is a lull in the conversation. Then the man points at Mr. Cherches's head and says, "You have lost your hair!"

* * *

Mr. Cherches phones the only decent hotel in Aleppy to make a reservation and gets a typically Indian commitment: "The room is reserved, but not confirmed." On arrival, Mr. Cherches is told, "We have no rooms left. Only a suit. Only a suit."

* * *

At a bird sanctuary in Kerala Mr. Cherches meets a local named Sebastian (there are many Christians in Kerala). Sebastian, an enthusiastic Kerala booster, is pleased that Mr. Cherches finds his state beautiful. "I welcome you to the land of lakes, latex, and letters," Sebastian says. "Letters because here in Kottayam district we are first to achieve one hundred percent literacy. And latex you know?"

"Condoms," Mr. Cherches replies.

Sebastian giggles. "Yes, condoms. And other things too. So welcome to the land of lakes, latex, and letters! You'll remember that? And my name?"

* * *

"Hello. Where are you coming from? America? Do you have American pen?" Mr. Cherches wonders: why is it that so many Indian boys and young men think that we foreign travelers come with an unlimited supply of pens to give away as souvenirs of our visit to their country?

* * *

Walking down the road in Kumily, Mr. Cherches meets up with three men, one of whom is carrying a boom box. They are listening to "We've Only Just Begun," by the Carpenters. Asians have the worst taste in American music, Mr. Cherches thinks, and remembers how often he heard Kenny G in China, and how he broke a little boy's heart in Shanghai by breaking the news that Karen Carpenter has been dead for years.

"That music is terrible," Mr. Cherches tells the men. "You should listen to James Brown, or Otis Redding."

"But we love the Carpenters. We love American music. We love Michael," one of the guys tells Mr. C. Walking down the road they converse. Two of the men are in their twenties and the other one is forty-five. The older one claims to be the grandson of the Maharaja of Travancore and is very drunk or stoned on drugs. It is 9:30 AM. "We are going to have a beer," one of the guys informs Mr. C. "Will you join us?"

Mr. Cherches doesn't like the odds. Three Indians and me, he thinks, I'll be subjected to a constant grilling, have to answer interminable questions. It's too early in the morning. "Sorry, I never drink beer before 10 AM," he tells them.

* * *

It's the phone system from another planet, Mr. Cherches thinks. There is no logic to the phone system in India. Sometimes the area codes have changed. Sometimes new prefixes have been added to existing phone numbers. But as often phone numbers are just swappedfor instance, a hotel's number is assigned to a private residence and the hotel is given a number that has been taken away from somebody else. Sometimes the new owner of an old number will have the old owner's new number handy, sometimes not. Sometimes a nonworking number will lead to a constant busy signal and no explanatory message, while sometimes you will get a message to "check your number." "Information," or "Phone Inquiry," if and when you can reach it, will as often as not have the old, obsolete number.

Don't visit India if you have a low threshold for frustration, Mr. Cherches advises.

* * *

Whenever Mr. Cherches phones a hotel to make a reservation and begins to spell out his name he is cut off by the voice at the other end. "Yes, I know, Mr. Churchill."

* * *

On the train from Madurai to Tanjore Mr. Cherches wants to discard some banana peels and an empty drink carton. He carries the refuse out of his compartment and walks toward the end of the car. He sees an attendant.

"Is there a place to throw this?" Mr. Cherches asks, pointing at the garbage.

The attendant looks confused, perplexed.

"Trash. Garbage," Mr. Cherches says.

The Attendant, still looking quite baffled, points at the window.

* * *

There are many fascinating temples in Tamil Nadu, both functioning ones and ruins. Mr. Cherches prefers the ruins, as he finds the practice of religion depressing.

* * *

At functioning Hindu temples Mr. Cherches constantly tries to dodge the greedy, relentless priests who follow him in a desperate attempt to impart some information in return for baksheesh. "I don't want to know anything!" Mr. Cherches protests.

* * *

Indians will always refuse torn currency, but they won't hesitate to slip some in your change. Mr. Cherches saves torn bills to give as "tips" for "services" that he never requested in the first place.

* * *

India has a ways to go when it comes to politically correct language, at least as regards things medical, Mr. Cherches concludes, having passed the Hospital for Cripples and seen a bus belonging to the Spastics Society of India.

* * *

Nearly all South Indian men wear mustaches. Many Tamil men are quite dark. Mr. Cherches notices a number of handsome men in Tamil Nadu who bear a striking resemblance to Billy Dee Williams.

* * *

In Madras Mr. Cherches passes a psychiatrist's office. The psychiatrist's name is Dr. Pannicker.

* * *

Indians tend to be a curious, loquacious lot. On countless occasions Mr. Cherches is asked his profession. He usually replies that he is a computer programmer. It's much easier than explaining that he's a writer of short, non-utilitarian texts.

* * *

On a tour bus to the Ellora caves Mr. Cherches sits next to a seventyish gentleman from Calcutta who had been educated under the Raj. When the man asks Mr. Cherches's profession, Mr. C. replies, "I teach English. Writing and Literature."

"You teach Shakespeare?" the man asks.

"No, mostly modern literature."

"Ah, modern literature," says the man from Calcutta. "Somerset Maugham and Pearl Buck?"

* * *

At the Ajanta caves Mr. Cherches is being followed by a relentless postcard hawker. Mr. Cherches is sick of having his space invaded by Indians who won't take no for an answer. Exasperated, Mr. Cherches tells the hawker, "You should be more patriotic. Why don't you bother some Indians instead of foreigners?"

A young Indian man who has come on the same tour bus says to Mr. Cherches: "You don't like India, do you?"

* * *

Mr. Cherches decides that although India is easier, and in many ways more pleasant, the second time around, familiarity has mitigated some of the excitement of a first trip to India. What is missing? Mr. Cherches, rarely at a loss for words, has trouble explaining it, to himself as well as to others.

* * *

Most travelers who have been to India have a love/hate relationship with the place. Whenever Mr. Cherches meets others who have been to India the form of conversation is usually a trading of war stories, a mutual litany of complaints. Neither party has a good word for India, yet both invariably sigh and say, "I can't wait to go back."


Blogger Unknown said...

Peter...this is wonderful stuff, I thoroughly enjoyed all the pieces.
The best to you always, Nanette

6:37 PM  
Blogger vineshkumar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:53 AM  
Blogger charity to GAZA said...

Travel to India, can be the most enriching experience in one’s life. It not only acquaints you with one of the first-born heritage of the globe but is also an eye opener and makes you realize how a country as diverse with inconsistency as huge as India, come together and function cohesively.

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Nira said...

Enjoyed reading your narration! It is a thorough observation. As you said it is truly a foreign country for an American. Being an Indian I feel ashamed of the bureaucracy and certain type of life style. However things have changed over the years.
India is truly a vast country in the sense of cultural diversity. India is second most populated country in the world and the land is so small compare to other countries. There is a challenge, competition and fight for survival since the day one. The ambitious nature of human being leads to the observations you made. People have to learn how to excel and outsmart peers and competition, which leads to loquacity, inquisitiveness, impatience, complex behavior, how to find cheaper and efficient options etc.
However ambiguously, one can say that they are smarter generation as they have to survive thro' the struggle and exigencies. They know minimum of 2 languages. Without offense, I would like to example that how would an American communicate if an Indian would start talking in Hindi!
Mr. C quoted incidence with an old man about literature, it is wonderful itself that an old seventyish man in India knows about those great writers. How many people in western countries know about Great poet and author Kalidas or Ravindranath Tagore or Swami Vivekanand?
There are always two sides of everything. No one should be biased by just one sided, a thorough open mind and eyes are needed to experience everything in the world as it is.
This comment is for the readers, I know Mr. C has open mind and willingness to experience things first hand. I hope you are still willing to experience more of India.

12:12 PM  

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