Indian Summer:


It was some time after midnight and the washing machine in the guest house had drained all over the floor again. I took the sopping clothes out and arranged them on the clothes lines dangling from the ceiling of the balcony. A few feet across from the house people still milled about the new apartment building under construction. Most were laborers and through the scaffolding and iron grates I could see work was still progressing on the second floor. The first floor, where workers and their families slept during the evenings, was quiet now until the eruption of movement that followed sunrise. The children can characteristically be seen playing amongst the timber scaffolding in the early morning as men and women prepared for their daily labor. The guest house is now much quieter. My roommates have returned to Cornell and the two girls from MIT are now gone as well. On the 11th there will only be two of the original eight still staying in Chennai, and that will soon come to a close as well. I woke up on Saturday to the familiar sounds of construction. Metal struck against metal, and a drilling noise, which had been my alarm clock more times than I can remember, carried across the apartment. My clothes were mostly dry now thanks to the searing temperature. I carried two arm loads of back to my room and left the crumpled mess on the bed for me to iron later.

A quick good morning to the two girls remaining in the house, and then I was on my way to the hospital again. Hema was at work entering some survey information, and Mr. James was characteristically working in the lab using a makeshift inoculating loop to streak a sample onto an agar plate. He showed me some slides of the coccidia he had identified which showed clearly under the bright field scope, and then we briefly discussed the laboratory findings so far. As was anticipated a large proportion of people tested positive for cryptosporidium (which can remain viable even in chlorinated water systems which are available in much of Chennai). The five students I had hired to assist in the study rushed through the halls of the laboratory section wearing a light blue half laboratory coat to distinguish them over their tan and brown school uniform. It was wonderful to see everything coming together. My feeling now is that everything will go well with the project in my absence. Despite difficulties in initiating the work, and a few setbacks during the first dozen or so patients, things are running as they should be. I stayed for several hours working with Hema on the Access database to ensure that this part of the project will not go awry. A quick goodbye to the director and I was on my way out into the afternoon sun. I stepped out of the hospital and walked along the paved path toward Tondiarpet High road. The crows were typically voluminous today, shaping twigs in their mouth and fighting over the remains of a large rodent along the edge of the walkway. Two house sparrows broke the monotonous sight of the crows, but quickly flew to a nearby building. I gave a pitiful bird call which did nothing except make a nearby crow cock its head towards me and then go about its business. The walk to the rickshaw stand was fairly short and I think the drivers recognized me. Maybe I had paid one of them too much at some point because they kept asking for unreasonable rates. I walked to the street and after a minute found someone to take me back to TTK road. This trip had become so familiar for me; the fresh sights that I once found intriguing had lost some of their color. When I got back to my street I walked a short way to a Xerox shop. Not wanting to make the same mistake as last time, where the guy double charged me due to a ‘miscommunication’ over two-sided printing, I inquired about the price first and in detail. The old man at the counter started telling me rates for 5 or 10 copies, and I interrupted ‘with what about 6000 pages?’ He quickly mentally calculated some rates and recorded them on a scrap piece of paper on the table. His manner and looks reminded me of my grandfather whose long, thin, spectacled face was prominent in my childhood. An agreement was reached fairly quickly, and I had gotten the best rate yet of a little less than .50 rupees per page (less than a cent). After this small bit of business was concluded I walked the few kilometers to Inseoul and sat down for a final meal there. Everything was amazing as usual, and the ttukbaegi bulgogi came piping hot in the dol sot. As I mixed the stew with my rice and kimchi I glanced up the Korean News Network program about budget travel in Asia. Several locations were mentioned from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. All of these spots sounded like excellent destinations and made me lament that my own travels, although not exactly on the strictest budget, were concluding.

As 7:00 PM came around I was getting ready to settle in for a quiet Saturday evening when I received a call from Neil. He was catching as bus to Pondicherry for a ‘full moon party’ that evening. I didn’t know what a full moon party was, and without asking agreed to tag along. Little did I know that nothing from this trip was planned. Neil and Surya met me in an autorickshaw several minutes after calling, and we asked the driver to drop us off at the bus stop of Pondicherry. On the weekends Pondicherry, the former capital of French India located along the shore near East Coast Road, is a popular destination with locals as well as tourists. However, this weekend was especially so due to a festival whose name eludes me, but there were countless depictions of Lakshmi, Shiva, Ganesh and other gods and goddesses in twenty foot high string light displays along the roads. Every bus was packed and the bus stop required several rounds of police vehicles to squish everyone back into an area that didn’t interrupt traffic. After getting frustrated that there wasn’t any space on the busses we began to entertain other options. An empty truck heading in our direction was flagged down and we hitched a ride. Surya was chattering with the driver about taking us to Pondicherry, and we slowly moved down the road south of the city. A 15-minute ride resulted in us moving only about 10 kilometers and now we were simply further away from our bus stop. Our brief foray into hitchhiking hadn’t gone according to plan, but as we were walking back toward the bus stop a number 803 to Pondicherry showed up. It was going fairly slow so we ran alongside and hopped on. Neil and Surya hopped in the front and I jumped into the back. I had to avoid stepping on a woman and falling out of the bus, and I am happy to say that I accomplished both. The bus had no room to move and people were hanging off the side and in the doorway. I squeezed my way into the aisle, and rested as best I could against a pole (and sadly probably a seated person as well). Neil and I exchanged some words across the bus about what to do next and decided to take this to Mahabalipuram, the halfway point between Chennai and Pondicherry. Ninety minutes later we pull to a stop 5 kilometers outside of Mahabalipuram. The driver was taking a 30-minute rest and the passengers of the bus vacated to stretch, have a cigarette, or use the restroom in the nearby foliage. Not wanting to wait to get to the city we begin our vain attempt to stop somebody to give us a ride. This wasn’t working, but a group auto spotted us along that dark road, illuminated only by the faint incandescence of the bus’s indoor lighting. The group auto already had about seven people, two flanking the driver, three in seats, two on the floor, but we managed to squeeze three more people in and plodded toward the city listening to Hindi music on a surprisingly good sound system.

In Mahabalipuram we decided to get dinner. There, sea food is a must and we stopped by Moonraker’s which is known to have some of the best in town. The three of us took a sea on the second floor in the open air room, and the air was heavy with the smell of fish and spices. Everything on the menu sounded great, but I had to go with the shark steak (I have no idea about what type of shark it was, and I’m pretty sure eating top predators like this is a great way to enjoy the industrial pollutants of water systems due to bioaccumulation). I got the steak masala style and had Surya explain to them that I wanted it as spicy as they could make it. Finally a restaurant complied and I had heaps of chili powder which gave the fish some kick. The three of us needed to meet some friends in Pondicherry quickly so we determined calling in a taxi from Fasttrack was the best course of action. Although taxis charge you an arm and a leg they are a pretty useful way to get around if you need it. Neil and I split a Kingfisher as we waited for the car, and I tried some of Surya’s calamari that she couldn’t finish. Ten minutes later our driver is downstairs and we departed from the restaurant thoroughly satisfied.

The cab ride went by very quickly and we had soon traveled the remaining 100km to our destination. We met up with Surya’s friends, members of a rock band in Chennai, who had just played in a calm, dimly lit outdoor café a kilometer from the beach. This café was closing down so the ten of us piled into two cars and Neil and I got to share the backseat with a bass. A pulsar motorcycle guided us the convoluted path to the place where the party was supposed to take place. The winding road was full of speed bumps that the Chennaikar driver seemed not to see or was enjoyed tormenting us with. Each one seemed to propel us further in the air and the bass would come banging down on my legs. A 20 minute drive out of the way landed us at the place. We were greeted by crowds of people being denied admission, and we shortly joined them. Our friends on the cycle managed to get inside, and after waiting around (and helping push some people’s cars that had gotten stuck in the sandy parking lot free) managed to arrange for our entrance as well. I tucked the paper bracelet given as a sign of admission into my shirt pocket. The place wasn’t what I had pictured at all. I’d envisioned a small get together by the rocky shore, but after following a lighted pathway past the hotel I could make out a stage with several DJs and multiple projection screens and lighting systems illuminating an impromptu dance floor on the sand.

After walking a few more minutes down to the beach (I’m sure the hotel’s property was very beautiful, but I couldn’t make much out aside from the sporadic bungalows with their paper lanterns and a pool with a silent fountain) I took off my sandals and enjoyed the feel of the coarse sand under my feet. The group settled into a place near the stage and bought some food and drinks from the event staff nearby. We spent several hours lying on sand and taking in the electronic music exploding from the speakers. Hours passed quickly while the clouds overhead alternated between obscuring and revealing the brilliant stars and moon. Our friend Sidarth took the stage some time in the middle of the act and his Karnatak style vocals seemed to enliven the crowd. Despite not understanding the meaning of the verses, his guitar accompaniment and the rhythm of the music were a pleasure to listen to. Before the final act a juggle off took place between a man dressed in all black leather who had been tending bar and a paunchy fellow in a white collar shirt and khaki pants. It seemed fairly clear the man in black would be the favored and his large beard added an element of danger to the juggling of flaming bottles. A few bobbles by the man in the white shirt sealed the deal and the crowd cheered the leather-man. This will be a battle sure to go into his bar tending résumé. With the final act of pyrotechnics done eight of us made our way back to our shoes careful to avoid the thorns, which nature has seen fit to shape into perfect caltrops, which littered the beach. The night was nearing its completion and Neil and I had to find a room somewhere in the city. We elected to stay at the same place as our friends in the band which had very reasonable rates, and in any case we were too tired to conduct a more thorough search.

Neil and I started a late morning after our friends had begun the trip home to Chennai. The mid-morning sun baked us as we tried to find a nice place to get some food. In the morning the black rocky shore boarding the Bay of Bengal were stunning, and the waves fiercely pounded into them with a constant rhythm. Signs pointing the direction to the tsunami relief zones were a sobering reality to the dangers of living near such a body of water. Over 30,000 people were displaced from homes toward the end of 2004 here, and the signs of this damage can still be seen in some areas along the shore. We found a restaurant off the coastline to enjoy a nice brunch in and I had a good bit of leafy salad which I had been craving. At some point during our long brunch a mime ventured to our table probably because we had been clapping to the two-person band playing covers of western songs (the largely French clientele were unwilling to clap perhaps because it would disturb the air of ennui). He pantomimed karate chopping me and shooting me which was really not that impressive. After all, I had become a master of pantomime in my time in Chennai; such is the necessity of a traveler whose vocabulary borders on thirty words of Tamil, on the best of days, in a region that is fiercely loyal to its language (the Tamil language comes from Dravidian roots unlike Sanskrit which is the linguistic heritage of most, perhaps all, of the Northern native languages spoken in India’s various states). Stomachs full the two of us ventured off into Pondicherry proper. The old stop portion of the city is very striking and distinct from the rest. Much of colonial French architecture has been preserved, along with the grid system that made the city easy to get around in, and was a beautiful backdrop to the sun and surf. Neil went to look for motorcycles for us to rent, the streets here are amazingly calm and there is even a no honking ordinance in many parts of the old town which is sadly not followed, and I shopped around for a place to free myself from the hair that had been imprisoning my face since my electric razor broke. I stopped a saloon which can give you a straight razor shave after Neil talked up the serve you get (face massage, etc…). Apparently I chose the wrong place because I only got a mist of the water bottle before the razor came out. The feeling of blade on scalp is very familiar to me, but not in someone else’s hands. I spend most of the experience staring at the proprietor’s bulging, hairy belly as he quickly scraped away all of my hair. He did a decent enough job except for cutting me above the larynx.

Feeling very refreshed I took a seat on the uncommonly clean streets of Pondicherry and waited for Neil to get back. A few minute’s later the news was broken that all the bikes were rented, and with that our plans for visiting Auroville, described to me as a hippie commune started in the late 1960s 20km or so north of the city, faded away. We instead elected to go grab a Kingfisher somewhere, and settled on a place called Seagull after not finding the café we had been to the night before. The second floor featured open seating right of off the shore toward the edge of the city and near the port area. As we approached our table I noticed a guy wearing an Indiana University T-shirt, and we struck up a conversation. Surprisingly he worked in the same office as us back in Chennai and we invited him to our larger table to spend some time chatting. We talked of old spots back in Bloomington and our mutual fondness for Upland Brewery’s inferno burgers, but the conversation turned back to work and we discussed informatics topics at some length. The sun began to set and a light turned on near the dilapidated promontory which cast a rippled reflection on the tranquil waves below. We began to make plans for our return trip. Happy to have another companion for the ride home we asked if he would like to share a cab back to Chennai. He declined, but we offered to take him to the bus stop he was heading to. After getting in the cab and discussing a bit with the driver he found that it would be difficult to catch a bus back at this hour. Instead he accompanied us to Auroville along winding streets in the waning light. A short drive later we arrived at our destination, Paradise, a famous pizza place in the area which cooks everything in a large clay, wood-fired oven. The food was amazing, not just because of the quality of the pizza but thanks to the hot sauce available on the table in ample portions. Stuffed once again we made our way along the three hour ride along East Coast road passing countless string light images of deities and fireworks bursting in the road and offering a pall of smoke over the dimly lit roads. The windows of the small Tata four door let in the perfect night air, and the road quickly put the lot of us to sleep. I awoke an hour and a half later as we were passing over a long bridge over water whose striped black and white guard rails passed by hypnotically at 90km an hour. I smiled knowing I’d gotten to the chance to visit another part of Tamil Nadu, and spent the last hour of the ride reflecting on my experiences as my fellow passengers slept.

I still can’t believe that the trip has come to a close. The months I’ve spent here have seemed to slip away, and I am reluctant to leave this place. When I return to Chennai again the faces will be different, but I imagine the city will be much the same. ICTPH is a nascent organization and will experience a lot of transition as it grows. My friends, Soumik, Arjit, and Ravi will all be leaving in the near future, they have been the organization’s vice-presidents for each of three verticals here, along with the countless interns and a few full time employees. I’ll be curious to see who fills those positions as I was impressed with their knowledge in each of their respective fields. Mr. James will be retiring in the near future after working for the Communicable Diseases Hospital for over 33 years. He told me a few days ago that it has always been his dream to conduct a large multi-species study which brought a heart-felt smile to my face knowing his dedication to this hospital over the years. I am exceptionally humbled by the care he has taken in nurturing my study, and it wouldn’t have been possible without his guidance. I will tell him this much and more tomorrow on my last day at the hospital. What have I taken away from this experience? When I first agreed to this project I had understood that Dr. Dworkin would accompany me to Chennai during the first weeks to help set things in motion. I couldn’t imagine the trip if that had happened. By coming here alone, in a place where, by my best guess, %70+ of the people don’t speak English I was forced to confront many challenging situations, and grow from their lessons. The personal experiences, a small part of which I have tried to share with you as faithfully as possible, are the richest souvenir I could take from Chennai. Developing a personal responsibility for movement of the project and establishing connections with new colleagues, many of whom had precious little contact with UIC outside of a single conference or a few e-mails, has been my greatest challenge and pleasure. And yet, what have I really accomplished? I’ve counted a few organisms and asked people questions about their health and behaviors. Those men, women and children in the cholera wards with their gaunt faces and glassy eyes will still be silently lying there. Simply observing things has been, in some sense, unsatisfying. What would things have been like for Dr. Hershow or Dworkin (or any other clinically trained individual) who can bring their training to assist with individual health outcomes? Still, if I wish to make any contribution to the residents of Chennai or Mofusil, the real work will begin now. Cleaning the data, working patiently with SAS and ARCGIS, composing a paper, and sharing the fruits of these experiences with anyone who wants to listen will be encompass a portion of my time for the next several months. The outcomes of these efforts will shape the face of things to come for me both academically and personally. In the end, what can I help to build here in this place? Perhaps it could be anything.



2 Responses to “Indian Summer:”

  1. Mark Dworkin Says:

    Wonderful! Many useful adventures ahead.

  2. Vecera Says:

    Great posts, great blog. Congratulations on a great study!

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