Though based in Pondicherry, I had the opportunity to get a “taste” of other Indian locales during my time there. I visited Bangalore, Goa, and Chennai for brief interludes. In a surprising twist, I found India’s large cities similar to NYC’s ‘that never sleeps’. Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai are plagued by a constant hustle and bustle, traffic, and all the strife that accompany big cities. These four rank among India’s top 5 most populous cities (Hyderabad is No. 4) comprising of over 38 million people as of the 2011 census (in comparison it requires almost 30 of the largest US cities to come close to this number). Each of these places added memorable experiences to my Indian adventure.
The small village of Thavalakuppam that I spent most of my time boasts a population of fewer than 8,000. Most inhabitants here walk around barefoot and use Nokia flip-phones for communication. The city of Bangalore, in contrast, considered the Silicon Valley of India, has a skyline of tall buildings, people dressed in the latest fashions and using multiple personal devices simultaneously, and has technology heavily incorporated into daily life. The weather in Bangalore is also much more tolerable than in Pondicherry–I actually found myself feeling cold walking around one afternoon! Driving around Bangalore reminded me of rush hour in New York City (Fun fact: Bangalore traffic is absolutely insane: travelling 7 kilometers easily took an hour in an Uber…but only cost Rs. 90 ($1.34)). Unforgettable memory no. 1: I was totally not expecting to participate in strategy-based games with my other Aravind interns at ‘Escape the Room’. I had never played in the US and certainly was not expecting it to be a ‘thing’ in India!
Another extended weekend was spent in Goa. This Indian state was liberated from the Portuguese in 1961. It borders the Arabian Sea on the west and is known for its beaches. This was a true vacation as our group blended sight seeing of historical places with experiencing Goan culture (Goa is the equivalent spring break destination for Indian college students). It was wonderfully refreshing to meet other students and people our age. Activities included a pick-up soccer games on the beach, Salsa Night at a dance club, and getting to know a pop-up kitchen owner. Unforgettable memory no. 2: While visiting a fort on the northern Goan border, we got trapped in the midst of a monsoon downpour. It was one of the coolest experiences any of us had ever experienced. We had climbed up the fort and were taking in the beautiful view when, all of a sudden, winds began to blow our umbrellas inside out, rendering them useless.
The sky effortlessly opened into a torrential deluge and we had to shelter behind the fort wall to shield ourselves from the pellet-like raindrops. We debated waiting out the storm there until it became clear that there were no signs the storm would let up any time soon. Ensuring that all our electronics were turned off, we started the climb back down the fort hill; all the while avoiding slippery rocks (harder than it sounds when you are wearing flip flops), mud puddles, and the current of the impromptu river the rain created. Thoroughly soaked at the descent, our taxi driver only begrudgingly let us back into the car. His anger was replaced by shock when instead of driving us home we asked him to drive us to the beach instead. Everyone warns you about monsoon season, but there is something exhilarating about all that rain.
I had two experiences in Chennai with two different people carrying different attitudes about the excursion. Nimay, my fellow Pondicherry-Aravind intern, had to be dragged along to visit the multitude of temples I desired to see. I’m sure I tested every ounce of his chivalry checking out temples dedicated to the various gods and demigods from ancient folklore. He was put out of his misery when my Mom accompanied me as temple buddy on my second trip. The first excursion was to the beautiful shore temple in Mahabalipuram. There, we saw 15 different monuments and learned about the Pallava Dynasty as well as the architectural history of the structures. The temples in Mahabalipuram are different from other South Indian temples in that they are entirely carved from unpainted rocks or into caves. The monochromic style contrasts the plethora of colors adorning typical granite Dravidian temples. Among others, we visited the Shore Temple, Krishna’s Butterball, and The Pancha Rathas. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the stories of each temple and the gods adorning them. With my mother I visited the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai. Both Mahabalipuram and Kapaleeshwarar are Shiva temples, as he is the prominent Southern deity. The Kapaleeshwarar Temple is more typical in appearance and is an active temple, not just a heritage site. Four large towers mark the entrance gates in each direction. An enormous water tank sits at one end forming a reservoir for temple activities. Shiva, his consort Parvati, sons Ganesh and Murugan (known as Kartik in the North), and vahana Nandi, the bull, adorn the walls and inner chambers. The painted outer scenes tell their stories. The day we visited was dedicated to Shiva as mate, so the temple was filled with women praying for their husbands. Unforgettable memory no. 3: I’m not sure if my dad felt it, but my mother did pray for him – bowing her head and dropping rupees onto open platters at every turn, receiving blessings for him in return as flower petals and vermillion on her forehead.
There are so many more memories etched into my brain; many of them would seem meaningless when recounted, but are so worthwhile to me. Certainly the circumstances carry weight, but it’s really the people who shared them with me that make them so vivid and significant. I doubt I would have been so adventurous, tolerated the heat and torrential rains, or appreciated the culture so deeply if left onto my own. While I narrate my stories, I acknowledge that it is the characters more than the setting that are so meaningful – the setting just let that come forward. For that I will always be thankful to India.