Once Upon A Madurai

In our last week at Aravind, we woke up at 6:15 am to go to a 7 am walking tour of Madurai. It was called Once Upon a Madurai, and it was organized by a company called StoryTrails, which Miral recommended to us. It was a very different tour experience from what you’d usually find in India, wherein you pay a tour guide outside a monument to walk you through its history. This was, as you’d expect from the name, a tour led by stories. We would stop in narrow streets near the Meenakshi Temple, and learn about the story of the Nayakkar king who moved their capital to Madurai to deal with a runny nose or the story behind referring to Lord Shiva as Sundareshwar or the history of the Jains in Tamil Nadu. 

Despite the extremely early morning and the rain, I loved it!! I have always been one for a good walk, a good tour guide, and a good story. As this summer comes to a close, I find myself returning to some questions I frequent. When you look back at a complicated, (only somewhat!) tumultuous experience, how do you assess whether it’s ‘net good’ or ‘net bad’, and do you need to? Is it okay to have hold onto the big stories, as you slowly forget the details and the daily feelings and the TikToks that sucked up so much empty time? How much of love is memory, and can you love an experience if you forget most of it? I guess they’re questions I return to only because I don’t have the answers (and also they’re pretentious and badly defined, so I often forget what I meant). For now, here is what I think: I don’t know exactly what to say about this summer, but I know there are so many memories, stories, and moments that I want to hold onto tightly. This post is a list of some of those stories. No specific order.

  1. In our first week here, we saw a little puppy outside LAICO. He seemed friendly and was super excited when I pet him! When we tried to walk away, he kept following me, so of course I stopped to play with him. 
  2. I was emboldened by the previous immensely positive dog interaction, and the next day, we decided to go to a different coffee stall than usual. There was an unfamiliar, very smiley stray dog there. I bought him a piece of cake from the store, and when he let me hand be near him and ate the cake, I briefly touched his head. I had misread the signals and I should have waited, and now, I had been bit by a dog. Despite my attempts to downplay what was already a very small injury, Suhaas and Aravind accompanied me on a high stress trip to AR Hospital in KK Nagar. They took selfies in the lobby while I had a rabies shot administered into my butt, and I learned a lot about the Indian healthcare system that day. 
  3. While we are on the theme of coffee stalls, I distinctly remember the days when the stall owners began to recognise me. My order wasn’t the most complicated, I asked for one coffee, and if I was feeling bold, I’d ask for less sugar and more instant coffee. At one point, the anna  behind the counter would see me and tell the tata to start making the coffee (with my customizations!), even before I said anything. It made me feel closer to this city, and like there was something of sweetness I was taking away from this stall, far more than just the coffee.
  4. During the second of my five vaccination pilgrimages to AR Hospital, Aravind accompanied me. On the way back, in the auto, we saw Suhaas crossing the street as he walked back from Spark Fitness, and he did not see us. I’m not sure why in retrospect, but the two of us thought this was remarkable and important and hilarious. We took a bunch of pictures of Suhaas walking. When we finally delivered the joke after letting it simmer for hours, it didn’t land as much as expected. But Aravind and I were still perfectly content being unreasonably silly and overjoyed at seeing our friend on the street, and I’m glad we leaned into the feeling. 
  5. I really loved Miral (a co-intern from Madurai who is studying design at Avantika University), but I may have loved Miral’s house and Miral’s cat Zozo and Miral’s family’s little treehouse even more. I remember writing in my notes app that day, very eloquently: “- The quietness – The sound of birds – Grass and big trees – Hammocks – Cat – Sunlight – Fabindia – Children painting on the wall”. What else is there to say? What else is there to want?
  6. There was a fish tank in the LAICO lobby. It had many black fish and one single, quiet, and significantly smaller white fish. Aravind, Suhaas, Miral, and I were infatuated with this white fish, and we named him Albus Bumblebore after his long whiskers. We visited Albi, as Albus Bumblebore was called by his friends and family, every day as we left LAICO. Eventually, Albi, who was probably quiet and slow because he was sick, died. The others discovered this before me and decided to not tell me, because I was having a rough week. As a result of this, I had to discover Albi’s little body lying on the base of the tank myself. Albi was a good fish, and we miss him every day. 
  7. This isn’t a story exactly, but one time I dropped my very heavy water bottle on the floor of the glaucoma department, dented it heavily, and all the 60+ year old patients in the area turned to look at me. Not the best time! 
  8. My pilot started with a 7:30 am presentation in this unused room in the glaucoma department. I received permission to start the pilot at 4 pm the previous day, so till then, I wasn’t sure if it was even happening. So getting to present a very new slide deck to almost all the glaucoma department medical fellows at a time when I’m usually asleep to kick off a project I care about deeply: it felt surreal in a good way. I went back to my room and napped right after that before returning to work at 9. 
  9. We really had so many excellent meals in Madurai. I particularly enjoyed Phil’s Bistro, an Italian inspired place with a whole range of Phil themed offshoots like Phil’s Juices; the first ever branch of the Murugan Idli Shop with its deservingly famous Ghee Podi Idlis; Zaitoon, with its spicy Middle Eastern food and lovely ambience; Appams and Hoppers, with the kindest staff and really tasty Sri Lankan food; Pizza Hut, less for the food and more for our antics there; and Madurai Bun Parotta Kadai, where we tasted Madurai’s famous bun parottas for the first time.
  10. The weekend that Aravind and Celeste were in Tuticorin, I bought tickets to a theatre production called Erotica, which promised to explore “4 short plays that will explore love, sensuality, and sexuality as experienced by the LGBTQ+ community.” I was really excited — I enjoy queer Indian storytelling, I want to get into live theatre, and I’d never been to anything like this in India. Suhaas was roped in to accompany me on this adventure. It was a bit of a shock when I found out that all 4 plays were more than 90% in Tamil (I called them before to ask! They said an English speaker could follow it! That was untrue!). I pieced together some parts of each story, but it turns out it’s hard to appreciate a dramatic monologue if you don’t speak the language. It was still great.
  11. We walked a lot in the rain. This one time, I really wanted to go to the Madurai Trans Kitchen, which is one of the few fully trans-run restaurants in India. It was raining heavily but it was too late for dinner at Inspiration, so we took the auto. I’m not sure why we decided to get dropped off a full 5 minutes away from the venue, but by the time we found the shop, I had stepped in two puddles and my shoes were soaked. Unfortunately, the shop closes before Maps says they do – they had some parottas for us, but that was all. I don’t regret going, because I actually liked the parottas, because I was so interested in its history, and because it feels so empowering to simply feel curious about something and just go explore it, regardless of how things turn out. 
  12. While walking on the street after a thwarted Jigarthanda run, we saw a sign saying Bombay Kulfi next to a very narrow alley. I was craving kulfi but not enough to explore shady dark alleys, so of course I made Suhaas walk in first. I am pleased to report that we are both still alive and that paan and almond and pistachio are, in fact, excellent kulfi flavours.
  13. Sylvia and I got a spontaneous massage in Pondicherry!! We saw a massage parlour along the street, felt creatively inspired, and then got an hour long Balinese massage. The place we went to was right next to a crowded street where something resembling a wedding procession was happening, which isn’t the ideal massage setting, but it was still so much fun and makes for, in my opinion, a great story. 
  14. Gunjan didi (a PHACO fellow who worked with Celeste) brought us cake on our last day! It was really tasty chocolate cake, and somehow, right before we left, we figured out how to break into the kitchen and keep the cake in the fridge. Everyone else left before me, and I ate a lot of chocolate cake for dinner while missing them on my last Saturday night in Madurai.
  15. Most of my favourite moments this summer were just chilling with Celeste, Aravind, and Suhaas. On my first day here, Celeste and I talked for five hours straight. Aravind, Suhaas, and I would watch Bojack Horseman after work, prompting super personal conversations about ourselves right off the bat. I remember walking to Lassi House with Celeste so she could try mango and badam lassis, and Suhaas and Aravind joining us there after leaving the gym and needlessly flexing right in our faces. Seeing everyone at lunch every single day and checking in about our days and playing Egyptian Rat Slap and photobombing Aravind’s selfies and making silly inside jokes — that was the backbone of my summer, and two weeks out, I miss it much more than I expected to. 

There was a lot to this summer. I am still working through my experiences, condensing the things I learned and want to take into the future. I really enjoyed my work (more on that later) and thought it challenged me to think of myself and of primary healthcare differently. In many ways, working at the Aravind Eye Hospital in the beautiful city of Madurai was exactly what I needed this summer. I can say with confidence that it was definitely a net good time. I intend on holding onto these stories as tightly as I can, because to me, this is what love feels like.

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About Manya Gupta

Hi, I'm Manya! I'm in the College of Arts and Sciences in the Class of 2025. I'm studying Economics and International Development on the pre-med track, and I'm from Jaipur in India. I spent the summer at Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai.