Travels Through India with David Berry

1. Setting Out: The Deep South

My travels through India and some of her close neighbours commenced in the unadvertised backstreet bus shed where Indian Airlines had terminated its services. It was there that the hotel tout in baggy and bespattered apparel had found the intriguing foreigner and taken him in tow.

"You come!" he had urged. "Come Palace, now. Rupees four only. One-two furlong!"

We pushed through a street filled with ox carts, bicycles, scooter taxis and milling humanity. Walk, walk, walk. One-two furlongs, indeed! Never trust anyone in India who says that. In a side alley a leper, cooped up in his own silent hell, ignored our approach. A woman offered a baby and a tin marked Indian Oil.

I clutched my street map of Madras City and the free government pamphlets denying the existence of poverty, and wondered at how different this was from the world before afternoon tea.

"This is Tuesday," explained my companion in white. "Every Tuesday and Friday the beggar people come to this street. That is Anthony Church. You are a Christian: the Christian people are good and the beggar people come to the street every Tuesday and Friday – their special time."

I counted the ‘beggar people’ in rough groups of ten and there were ninety, all in a row. Some were lying, most sitting, some able to walk and going about their business with gusto. A man yapped at out feet in imitation of a dog and then scrambled across the road on all fours, waggling his bottom. That was his special trick and for it he demanded a few paisa. An enterprising leper had made himself a cart from a packing case lid and four discarded castors. The others rocked on their stub feet and held out stump arms to beseech the passerby for any gift.

Toss a coin into my bucket!
Drop a few grains into the sack about my neck!

There were the loafers – fit in body but out of work or burdened with children – and it was to this category that Brahman Pragraj belonged. Brahman Pragraj was the man in his fifties who now blocked our way. He was old for this part of Madras City. Brahman Pragraj wore a rag and nothing else but held out a scrap of paper with his message to the world printed on it, first in Tamil beneath two swastikas and a picture of his favourite gods, and below in English.

Dear Brothers and Sisters

This poor brahmin it Pragraj He with his Seven relative. in Which there is blind mother insame elder brother two sisters and tw o children this brahmin is from a good family bualue to bad luck, he is to come here.

A family is Wholely dependent upon him it is there fore rupeese to help him by 5 paisa Rs.l/OO Rs.2 or 5 or give him old clothes as well as food. An if possible a god may bless a held you.

Now into a new street. The light was poor and the place crammed with people. A stall sold bananas, Gold Spot orange drinks, biscuits, food, incense-sticks, Coca Cola, the lot. We passed an ox cart drawn by a donkey. It had great wheels of wood hooped with iron. Somewhere later our destination proclaimed itself : Palace Hotel – for luxury guests only Fully air-conditioned. All modern conveniences. Lowest tariffs. Obviously the place for the jet-travelling stranger.

The Palace was neither modern nor luxurious. There was no air-conditioning but it was cheap. Two nights for under a dollar!

Inside there were rows of tables arranged as they might be in some behind-the-times school and at them sat a group of men dressed in white, all silently digging into a strange smelling vegetarian meal. I concentrated on accommodation and was quickly ushered along an unlit passageway, passing a succession of green doors above each of which was a plaque bearing a terse description of the room beyond. At the end was a toilet and a shower, both without doors and both leaking. Now up a flight of stairs and along an open verandah until we found room thirty-three. The plaque over the door declared its dimensions to be eight feet by seven by six.

We undid the massive padlock and slid away a heavy galvanised bolt to reveal a green cell, windowless save for the gap over the door which was filled with bars. Inside there was an iron bed, an iron table and an iron chair. Madras is by the sea so they were all rusted. From the ceiling was suspended a three-bladed punkah, also painted green,

‘Good? Full air-conditioning.’ reassured a voice from the verandah, prompting the room’s new occupant to trigger the strange mechanism hanging from the roof into a clanking fury of activity.

‘It is good, yes?’

I nodded and did my best to forget the idyllic life I had been leading along the coral-fringed coasts of Sri Lanka until only a few hours before.

Four days later I had forgiven Madras City for its grim welcome. The immediate problem was whether the wretched metre-gauge choo-choo heading south for the fabled temple city of Madurai would ever clear the M of Madras on the map spread across the first class luggage rack. Could any of the Department of Tourism's brochures be trusted? Certainly, none had even remotely hinted at the possibility of beggars in queues. Their India was that of the Taj Mahal by moonlight of crowded and colourful bazaars, the beat and rhythm of folk dances and the most sublime achievements in art, religion and philosophy. It was one of the government handouts that described this train: On the trunk routes of Indian Railways tourists can travel in noise-free, dust-free, air-conditioned carriages.

Inside our first class car there was plenty of filth and noise to make up for the lack of progress. Despite the gloom there could be discerned three shades of green and a whitewashed roof. Each compartment had once possessed three lights and four fans; none remained. The floor was littered with food scraps and the toilet stank. Across the windows were bars sufficiently rugged to keep the most determined of intruders out. In third class (all the other cars) the bars were there to prevent passengers from sitting where they ought not to.

Next to the luggage rack I had appropriated. was a chain with a turned wooden handle and next to that the most important of the fearsome warnings to be found in this noise-free, dust-free, etc. carriage


The exhortation on the lower level was simpler:


Anyway, I silently assured myself, this was the ‘real India’ and, having found it, I was going to enjoy myself. Really, in the deep south of India, it was I and not the quaintly punctuated threats that was the oddity. The dozen travellers boxed into our tiny compartment did not conceal their amazement,

‘You are coming from?’ I was asked for the first of hundreds of times.

‘Africa,’ I replied again to sighs of disbelief. Had I been from Europe or North America it would have been sufficient: to have a fellow passenger from Africa was almost unbelievable. Fascinated eyes examined my clothing. It was the ski parka that puzzled them most – the hood and the zips in particular.

‘The big one it is two zips?’

‘No, one.’

‘No. It is two!’ I demonstrated my point, explaining what a two-way zip was.

‘It is a two-way zip,’ one told another in hesitant English, marvelling at the new words for a great discovery. Did everyone in my country own clothes like that ?

I told them of that fabulous, faraway part of Africa from which I came. I told of how a great country had gone to ruin and how in my native Durban, where as many people spoke Tamil or Hindi as had English for a home tongue, we would not be permitted by law to sit and chat together. For hours we conversed, telling of ourselves and our lands, and as we concentrated on unfamiliar topics the more immediate facts of filth and overcrowding were forgotten. Indians, I learned, were friendly and talkative. They welcomed strangers, took no umbrage when one inadvertently censured their ways and rarely spoke unkindly of anyone.


At eleven-thirty the seller of quack medicines came on and I was no longer the center of attention. A tall man with a face pitted by smallpox, he wore semi-western dress and sported a new pair of pink plastic sandals.

First pills. They cured everything but didn’t sell. So away with the bottles of brown pills and the pots of dark squelch which had been equally unsuccessful. The white fluid was the Milk of Life and the seller extolled its virtues. No, this one did not cure everything. It was a special medicine and it purified the blood, fixed the liver and was exceptionally good value. In fact, so powerful was the contents that it had to be diluted! It was like buying five bottles for the price of one.

He had already rubbed our foreheads with the sticks of green and now there were to be samples of the tummy fluid. Yes, the taste was good? And this was what made it so special a buy – with the bottle went a plastic cup. Yes, choose from blue or green or yellow. The cup was worth the cost of the medicine alone. Not only that – and he put the bottle inside the cup and the cup inside the hands of the gullible – he was making a special offer to the passengers to Madurai. No, this wasn’t normal. Soon it would be the end of the day and there would be robbers (dishonest people, you know) and they would steal from him.

The white fluid and the blue or the green or the yellow cup came with a, plastic stirring rod. Good value! And extra! Here was a comb and this comb could be bent (Like this!) and it could never break. Now, all that value for the price of a bottle of tummy calmer. He sold twenty sets of white, blue, green and yellow and each at six rupees.

For business mixed with pleasure he turned to the bearded foreigner crouching beneath the LESS LUGGAGE MORE COMFORT : MAKE TRAVEL A PLEASURE sign.

‘You like Shilajit ? Shilajit only from Rishikesh. Very good. for you!’

‘I don’t smoke that stuff.’

All but one roared approval of the jibe.

‘No, good gentleman. You must not joke. Rub it on the affected part or drink Shilajit. You try, don’t buy!’ (A teacup size tub was produced.) ‘Rupees seven. Only rupees seven: small size, three-twelve. Only three rupees, twelve annas! Very smallest size, two rupees. Your price, one eight. Shilajit cure you. You drink.’

The medicine man scooped out a sample with his finger and I observed that Shilajit was a muck-colored paste. The finger went into a grubby yellow tumbler of water and the wonder potion dissolved.

You drink!

I had my shilajit and admitted it wasn’t too bad.

‘Now, tell me what it cures,’ I demanded.


‘You married, Gentleman? We kept our voices low for obviously any man who had reached his mid-twenties without marrying must have many dark deeds to hide. I admitted the worst and he dug out a blue pamphlet secreted away in the medicine bag. As he read the salient portions the crowd that had been expressly excluded from our doings pressed close to marvel at how one of their people was able to decipher the strange script.

According to the science of Hindu medicine this is one of the best medicines in the world. Cures weakness of the semen, Cures night emissions. It checks the emission of the vital fluid at the slightest excitement. It is good for the brain and general debility, kidney disorders, impotency, retention of the urine, calculus, gonnara and a germs destroyer.


With the medicine man came two army officers returning from service in the Indian sector of Kashmir and to prove the finality of their parting with the cold north they had brought with them three huge tin trunks, several suitcases and a bedding roll each. These they spread on what remained of the floor, in the toilet and on my luggage rack. While the salesman delivered his pitch they sat on top of the pile on the floor, quietly waiting their turn to entertain. The ending of the unsuccessful attempt to sell the Shilajit was their cue to shave, brush teeth and change into night attire. Shilajit, tummy-fixer and the two-way zip were mere nothings compared with the novelty of a battery shaver and cleaning one's teeth with toothpaste and a brush instead of a splayed twig.

Two hours later the show-offs were ready to leave. Out came the tin trunks hidden in the toilet and the men changed themselves back into soldiers again. I guessed they’d get off at Cuddalore and from there choose another train on which to perform their tricks. It was far worse. At Cuddalore the car emptied and I had the compartment to, myself - the wooden benches as well as the slats of the luggage rack. And then the bombshell: the train had completed its good deed for the day. Come back tomorrow morning, real early, if you want a bench in first class. Trains that refused to run through the night – I wasn’t quite sure that I believed it!

Cuddalore was not going to have me overnight. I determined to push on by bus. Where was the stop ? Silly question! Wait in the road, I was told. Which road? Any road. Many buses all the time! Buses didn’t run according to timetable: one waited and hoped.

Enquiries continued for half an hour and finally a place was found from which I was not advised to go elsewhere. Someone found the traveller a chair, declared possession and proclaimed the spot the bus halt. Another prophesied a bus at ‘one-thirty’ so that became the appointed time for the arrival of a deliverer. By now it was long past one-thirty. It didn’t really matter.

Too much buses to Madurai,’ my possessor ventured as an introduction to further conversation. We talked of religion and politics, of ‘You are coming from Africa!’ and ‘England is cold area country.’ My new friend was a haberdasher and it was his ambition to go to Madras City and New Delhi and London to become a very rich man. London, he explained to the others, was the place he would reach by travelling ‘first class Indian Railways broad gauge’ to Delhi and there ‘paying out rupees thousands for spending one-two days on Air India jet aeroplane’.

I entertained with the story of how a few months previously (November 1969) a few friends and I had climbed into our Land Rover in London and kept on driving down the road until we reached this very spot. The bit about the vehicle going inside a ship with doors was loved best of all. ‘Very good story, Gentleman. Too much lies, but very funny.’

More yarning and then a bus came, briefly shuddered to a halt and lurched away immediately. The pause allowed time for a transfer of self and possessions. My haberdasher friend and his dreams of jet planes were forever gone.

The vehicle was jammed as full as any bus I had recently travelled on in Istanbul or Colombo – which is to say that it was very full indeed. Within minutes we were in the rice and ragi (millet) lands we had been passing through all day. Here and there were areas of short grass and stands of stunted thorn trees or palmyra palms with their fan-shaped leaves. Peasants threshed the new year harvest by having bullocks and buffaloes drawing stone rollers walk round and round over the grain. The women were winnowing, lifting up grass trays of grain and chaff and allowing the contents to spill freely in the wind.

Although we were not far from the delta of the Kaveri, we saw people raising water from wells. Buffaloes toiled in pairs, hauling on a rope to lift a large leather bucket from the pits. In some fields an Egyptian-type shaduf was operated by a man walking up and down the beam like a child who has found a seesaw in the park and has no-one to balance the far end.

With evening the colors faded and the folk far from their homes of orange mud and brown palm leaf roofs became anxious. Men hurriedly threshed the remaining grain and those who had left the precious crop on the road to have the passing vehicles do the work began sweeping it up. Women were drying saris – the gay lengths of cotton cloth worn throughout the subcontinent – by holding them like streaming banners in the breeze. For the peasants of rural India – eighth of all humankind – the day was closing.

After hours of frantic driving we took our dinner break in a village of filth and litter. Beggars and pariah dogs gathered. A child passenger vomited down the bus’s side and a starving puppy, pink with mange, wagged and licked. Down the road a man defecated.

Indian candy was manufactured in a shack across the road by an old man squatting on a sheet of iron next to his wood fuel stove of baked mud. Alongside was his bowl of bubbling yellow mix with flies swarming in readiness. The old man belched thunderously, wiped his black toes, his hands and his face, and then cast away the filthy rag and got on with his profession. He did grand business with his honey-sweet confectionery until we left.

On then in our bull-nosed Mercedes bus. The doors were clearly labeled IN, OUT and PILOT ONLY. Green and red lights outside; green, red and blue inside. The interior green lights went on with the brakes; all the others with the bell but at night the lot were on and we roared along like an illuminated amusement park.

Many more hours and then journey’s end – Madurai at last. The sky was dark with the stars burning nakedly over the famous Meenakshi Temple. From a wayside booth I bought a drink and a handful of peanuts and then headed for a lodge with a fan, a shower and a bed.

2.The Temples of Madurai