In the unadorned train compartment where I have my assigned upper berth, I immediately begin brain storming new ways to evade the overwhelming stench coming from the four squatting restrooms nearby, where mixtures of day old piss with excrement from over-spiced samosas happen to drift just to my sleeping spot, and no one else’s.
The obvious way out is to hold my dirty plaid collared shirt upon my nostrils to mollify the smell, but this proves ineffective. I spread deodorant beneath my nose, then mosquito repellent, then a jaw of pure flower extract that I bought for four dollars at a local market. Apparently, four drops of it in a 100ml bottle of alcohol will give you the exact ingredients for Calvin Klein’s Eternity.
But Eternity stands no chance against the toxicity coursing from those four bathrooms. I would rather inhale burning plastic, sniff it into my brain and possibly suffer some permanent loss of memory, than continue to bare that stench. Once the train really picks up speed, the smell weakens a bit, but only to taunt me with an ever more overpowering, odoriferous smell, re-energized by another relieved passenger’s contribution.
As my vision blurs I begin to see men like women, and women like men. Oh wait, it’s just a Hijra! She pats me on the knee in a gainly fashion. I know the drill, they tap you, you’re supposed to hand them at least five rupees, then they kiss the coin and say a namaste.
Just as I pull out a five rupee coin from my pocket, she pounds me on the shoulder, then smacks me on the face.
Am I bleeding? Was I just beat up by a woman or a man? I’ve heard some are eunuchs, that might make a difference.
Still in shock from this utter loss of manhood, I pull out even more change. She must have heard the other coins rattling inside my pocket. She moves to the next sucker and comely holds her hand in a kind namaste. When he refuses to pay her, we all laugh as she kicks him in the stomach.
When we arrive at the station early in the morning, and the other passengers begin infecting each other with their yawns, I squeeze on my dirty contacts and make out the name of the station: Egmore. The hell? I double-check my guidebook, but the station name isn’t there.
–This is the train to Bangalore? I ask a lean dark Indian with a small girl clutched in his left arm. Chennai, he tells me.
The one place every traveler I have met has told me not to go to. Chennai, says the guidebook, boring, skippable, do not waste your time in this shithole.
On the beach I run into a kind Christian Tamil, a young isolated student who attends Madras University, which faces us from across Marine drive. As the other boys throw his sandals into the breaking waves and then toss sticks into his backside, he responds with a meek smile and continues to talk to me as if he’s not in incredible pain. Why not hit back? I ask. He tells me that Christ would not hit back.
We meet two Gujuratis in the construction business.
–Don’t the women swim? I ask them all, referring to the estrogen-absent waters.
–Women can swim too! Look! They point to an old woman with her feet in the water, her arms holding her pink sari just above her knees, the undertoe dragging sand against her shins.
–That’s not swimming.
As with Mumbai, the draw of the slums here isn’t so much in the squalid quarters of its inhabitants, but the close proximity of the slums with symbols of major affluence. Mumbai’s Dharvati slums lie directly across posh apartment complexes thirty stories in the air; Delhi’s slums encroach upon government buildings and great monuments. In Chennai, I visit slums of extreme dearth, located literally across the street from gigantic golf courses.
Of Chennai, the guidebook says “the city still has many slums but is also developing dynamic new-town suburbs, a rash of air-conditioned shopping malls and some of the best restaurants in India.”
Let’s think about this word “but.” Why not because of, due to the fact, or with shocking indifference to these slums, or, at least, giving up any notion of responsibility over its inhabitants, the government of Chennai…etc.
On the bus out of Chennai, a frump in a sari puts her finger on the ipod I’m playing with, touches the side of my cheek with her right hand and rapaciously grabs my thigh with her left, then shoves my face into her cleavage. Though I’m not one to complain about this type of public indecency or promiscuity, I still struggle in her eerily strong arms, as the glass seashell on her necklace is digging into my forehead and it’s difficult to breath under her soppy breasts. She lets me go, laughs, and continues to grab my limbs, shoving my face into different folds of her body until I realize what’s happening and pay her twenty rupees to stop.