A Christian Martyr and the Russian Occultist in Chennai

Chennai (previously Madras) is an old trading port on the east coast of Tamil Nadu where we’re only staying for a few days to visit friends before heading down the coast to Pondicherry.

Arvind’s parents generously host us in their small but comfortable home. We’d only met them a few times previously, but we’re soon familiar and space is not an issue. The temperature is between 80-85F with high humidity and the mosquitoes are rampant. Once again they’re after Gerard’s sweet blood and choose to leave me mostly ignored – although I do have two bites strategically positioned on the end of my nose. (Two days later, I have as many if not more bites than him.)

In the evening at sunset we visit Marina beach proclaimed as the second longest beach in the world. It seems at least half the inhabitants of Chennai are promenading or sitting in groups on the sand, but swimming has been forbidden since the 2004 tsunami swept people and cars out to sea. Today’s newspaper actually reports someone drowning after trying to swim against the strong rip tide. Along with others, Arvind’s mother and I paddle in the waves close to the shore. She puts her sandals down behind us and tells me to do the same. With uncharacteristic caution, I keep holding them. A few minutes later, a huge wave comes in, soaks her sari and my pants. She turns around and finds only one sandal on the beach – the other has been swept out by the wave. We search the shore which is littered with single sandals, but to no avail.

Discarded shoes are a common sight in India, whether on top of a mountain in the Himalayas, or on a path beside a rice field, or in the gutter of a busy bazaar. A year ago I had a brief idea of making a photographic study of these unpaired shoes for a coffee table book. Worn shoes have always possessed a fascination for me – they seem to absorb the personality of whoever wore them. When I was very young, a favorite possession was a tiny old-fashioned leather boot we found on Dartmoor in England. A woman who truly believed in fairies persuaded me it belonged to a boy captured by moorland fairies. I believed her – the sandal had a decidedly mournful personality.

After the beach, we visit the nearby San Thome Church, supposedly built over the tomb of the Apostle Saint Thomas who came to India in AD 52 and was martyred there ten years later. The legend is that St Thomas at the request of the king pulled away a huge log that had washed ashore and was blocking the narrow mouth of the river and causing floods. None of the king’s army could pull it. St. Thomas prayed and touched his girdle and the men pulled it out with no difficulty. Pleased, the king gave the land to St Thomas to construct a church. The church has been rebuilt over the centuries and is now cathedral size but with simple white plastered walls and an arched wooden ceiling. As we arrived, we could hear music that had no similarity to any church music that I’d ever heard. Inside, a dark-skinned South Indian priest was belting out a catchy syncopated rhythm to the accompaniment of prerecorded choir, beating his hand in time on the lectern as if it were a tabla.

It amazes me how our meeting with Shruti several years ago has drawn us into an intricate fabric of family relationships that continues to evolve. Like an epic Indian novel the size of Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy (I’m currently reading), you need family tree charts to understand the many relationships both vertically and horizontally. Each time we’re here we meet new uncles, aunts, cousins…all offering their friendship and help. And then there are the virtual families branching out from Shruti’s friends we’ve gotten to know in Boston. Vadya’s parents live across town – a forty-minute auto rickshaw ride that would be a sightseeing pleasure if not for the traffic congestion and diesel fumes. They feed us a banquet of south Indian food, quite different from the Punjabi food we eat in most Indian restaurants in the west.

One of the more attractive elements of traveling is the luxury of not being tied to a tight schedule even though the route may be planned. You arrive at a place and stay as long as you want; or move on if you don’t like it. And if you decide to deviate from the planned route you can do that too. But the consequence is you can’t book accommodation too much in advance. It takes us a lot of time to book a guest house for tomorrow for our next stop, Pondicherry. Being told repeatedly, “We’re full till February”…even March, I get panicky. Of course, we eventually find something (though the one we want most and within our budget is on a “first come, first serve basis’, which doesn’t give me huge confidence.) I realize I can’t consider myself a real traveler until I let go. And I have to remind myself why I’ve elected to travel this way. An underlying principle of traveling is the surprise of the unknown. If everything is known where’s the surprise? The more you try to control, the less the spontaneity.

On the third day in Chennai, our hosts take us to the world headquarters of the Theosophical Society. It’s situated in rambling grounds with an abundance of flowering plants and trees. A tranquil respite from the hubbub of Chennai. The air is clear, numerous bird calls…it’s like being in the country. Buried among the trees are a mosque, church, Buddhist shrine, Hindu temple and individual houses where “lifetime” members live. Madame Blavatsky’s French colonial style house has a verandah with high ceiling supported on tall white columns. It’s easy to visualize her sometime in the 1920s sitting there surrounded by tropical plants sipping an ice cold limeade while propounding her views on theosophy. The center now hosts conferences with attendees from all over the world.

From there we move on to a very large Shiva temple, back in the midst of Chennai. Its gateway tower is a mass of carved figures, now painted in rainbow colors, in part to protect the soft sandstone from the elements. Inside the temple’s bustling with activity mostly because it’s one of numerous auspicious days. Why it’s auspicious, no one can explain. A huge statue of Shiva and his wife Parvati is adorned with so many garlands that the figures are nearly obscured. The statue is carried under ceremonial umbrellas in a procession through the temple and out into the adjoining streets with tremendous fanfare and accompanied by music that is a cross between Indian and English marching music.

The day we move on to Pondicherry begins with a bit of excitement on the street. Our hosts live beside a busy exit road from the city and the bus for Pondicherry conveniently leaves from almost outside their house. But it’s a request stop and the traffic is so busy that we are unable to flag it down. Observing our plight, a group of people hail a rickshaw already carrying customers, and tell the driver to take us as well and chase after the bus. Our bags are stuffed on to the rickshaw and we push ourselves in. Five minutes later we catch up with the bus at the next stop, everyone tumbles out with our luggage, we get on the bus and they carry on to wherever they were going before our needs interrupted.

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