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How to Draw a Kolam January 5, 2013

Posted by newsthatstaysnews in Uncategorized.
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In the morning, in Madurai, I found myself standing on the sidewalk across the street from the ‘Dora Shoppe’, squinting to read the subtitle on the street sign.  ‘Across from the Jesus Saves Tower’.  What?  I whirled around and saw that I indeed stood before the gaze of an architecturally nondescript 3 story lavender building helpfully labeled ‘Jesus Saves Tower’.

An affluent brahmin man in his early thirties with gelled hair and a cultured indifference to his job as a tour guide told us that Saint Thomas landed in Kerala in 52 AD, and that Santhome here in Chennai was not saint-home but san-thom.  And that Christianity had very old roots here, old enough that when the portuguese landed, somebody told them that there’d been a christian buried (and murdered) here some fourteen centuries earlier, they dug up a body, sent it to italy for verification, and kept just a fragment of a knuckle bone (from the right hand which touched the wounds of the resurrected Christ, no less) to build a cathedral around.  In the crypt was the fragment, along with an amplifier for an electric guitar and images of John Paul II’s visit to one of only three basilicas built upon the relic of an apostle (helpfully pointed out by a sign).  This makes me wonder again, at the idea that keeping pieces of history will somehow bring us closer to the forces that shaped it.  There’s a museum in Madurai, which I pointedly did not visit, that has the blood-stained dhoti Ghandi wore on the day he was shot.

Perhaps it is not less reasonable than to believe that we do more than concentrate our own focus when we genuflect, or that we do more than celebrate when we draw a Kolam.  I’ve seen them on the ground in front of the homes between my workplace and the B&B where I stay, every day fresh and curiously symmetrical designs traced out on the dirt in white chalk, though I could hardly fathom how one writes with chalk on humid earth.  I saw them in color, for the first time, in Madurai, after I wandered out onto the road that borders the vaigai river, taking it for another in the absence of any large body of moving water.  In the fields away from the city was a little pond, covered in plants, with flowers in greater and greater density as one’s eyes swept right, until at last they converged on a pile of plastic garbage bags.   And so, my eyes strayed in to the homes I was walking past, and to the ground in front of them, where I saw something like this, for the first time:

a kolam

puttu thoppu main road, december 28

I saw one again in Chidambaram, where a woman splashed a bucket of water out onto the earth with her hand, swept it with a bundle of twigs something like a whisk, and then set to work sprinkling the dust upon the ground.  The whisk, I would see again time after time, in the early morning, the women employed by the city to clean the streets bent over almost ninety degrees to clear the road with them.  Broomhandles, it turns out, are a delicious luxury – one that the metropolitan government has seen fit to economize on.  The Kolam, I would next see with a whole family gathered around it, spelling out ‘Happy New Year’ at 2 am in Pondicherry, as I made my way back to my hostel, no longer speaking in Chinese.  And, again, after a night beneath the full moon on a wicker bench atop my hostel had cleared the last of the Lord & Master from my eyes, as I walked towards the shore, and a half a dozen women wandered out of their homes to draw them.  Among them, I found one middle-aged woman drawing a grid of points, and looking in a small booklet of designs, much like a pattern book for crochet.

Past the fork, where those who live in palm thatched huts turn left, and tourists like me turn right, the street filled with groups of people, waiting for the year’s first sun.  There’s just a nip of cold at 4:30 in the morning in Pondicherry, of the sort that one might dispel a warm thought, if one were backpacking from New England, or a monkey hat (full face woolen mask) if one were commuting to work on a motorcycle.  By 6, though, it’s warm enough for anyone, and the clouds over the Bay of Bengal are rimmed with light, for the first time.  Around me, groups came and went.  A group of kids made their way down the rocks, smashing glass bottles and feeling full of themselves.  I asked a local for a pen (apparently a stereoisomer of a traditional backpacker bugbear), and tried to make sense of the gray scene as the morning star crept gradually into the sky, bringing a golden blue into the waves, and then green, and then white, and then disappearing into the glow about the clouds, as first the cirrus, and then an arch like a discarded crab’s leg, and then the rim of the whole cloud wall lit with red, and the backlit haze sprang up above it, so that when the sun finally stepped out from the wall to scatter gold across the waves, it seemed impossibly to be standing in front of, rather than behind, what was left of the dust and grime and fog.  Then I picked up dos Passos, and carried him off past the train station to Baker Street, confusingly on Rue de Bussy, even more confusingly the same as Lal Bahadur Shastri Road, where a quarter to eight found a steaming fresh baguette in my hand.

This seems like as good a point as any to point out that Pondicherry is the only place I know where a quarter of an hour at the american minimum wage will buy you either a fresh baguette or fresh idly.  And, I know that this is not manna from heaven, but the product of the staggering wage disparity between the US and India.  But, for a moment, for a traveler, it is a nice thing.  As for Baker Street, I eventually came to have opinions on their quiche (good), their tea (good), some odd pastry that turned out to be a ham-and-cheese sandwich with the layers out of order (good), their bathroom (convenient), their location (excellent), their hours (perfect), and their chairs (comfortable).  dos Passos I’m a little more conflicted about.  If anything, he has that gift of writing which is to make it seem like anyone could, if they tried really hard, write something that would be worth reading.  Maybe just a small thing.  Then too, the sailors in the indies, and the useless ivy ambulancemen in the north of Italy, and the outraged labor organizers, and the bored americans making their way through a microcosm of the real paris around them, make good company for a backpacker, as he waits for the train, or whiles away the noontime heat with an imported swiss ginger beer (?) in the shade of “Le Cafe” by the sea.

[pro tip: ¬((∃ b: (b ∈ pondy∧ b ∈ baguettes ∧ b ∈ tasty-things)) ∧ (x ∈ pondy∧ x ∈ baguettes) ⇒ x ∈ tasty-things)]

His women are weak creatures though, unable to get what they want, or say what they believe most of time, possibly unable to pass the Bechdel test.  And yet, like his men, they are weak in so very familiarly human ways that I am tempted to forgive dos Passos, and anyway certain to keep reading.  I have long bus-rides ahead, with little but him and Bhagwati to keep me company.  And yet, I look forward to them.  When the Pondy Express gets into Chennai Egmore, I return to the speleothems of the life I lead, the objects of my striving.  On the road, I stare at the rosetta stone of a bus terminal, trying to memorize தஞ்சாவூர் orசிதம்பரம் so I can recognize them in a bus window.  I stare a the ceiling fan of my little hostel room after an unwise after-dinner chaser of masala chai, and I think without anything around me to draw me away.  I stare at the rail bridge, the boats, and the gorgeous பிச்சாவரம் river on the way into Chidambaram, where a few spots of repair work have narrowed the bridge to one lane, and a single policeman vainly tries to manage traffic across the bridge several hundred meters long.  I stare at the 1/2 a kilometer of backed up traffic waiting to get onto the bridge, awed that traffic can cross the bridge at all without the 2 points of good old-fashioned command and control that I’d have predicted.  Stare at the motorcycles that ignore even what transit directions exist, and roar back and forth down a single sidewalk.  Stare at the Dreamz Inn and the Wheelzs shop, and think ‘my cousin Jeff would love this.’

All the road asks is that you know that the C3, C4, 3 and 3A buses will take you to the new bus stand in Madurai, what you want from the next 15 minutes of your life, and that a 500 rupee note is actually only worth about 450 rupees, ’cause you’ll have to buy something expensive to change it.  In return, all you’ll ever get is a bus ticket, a masala chai, a fresh paratha, and the peace of mind to remember, as you copy a kolam on a sweat-stained notebook page, that it only brings good fortune on the ground before your own home.

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