Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 13

We came into Chidambaram at night, rain coming down hard, our taxi sliding through the muddy streets. In this dark city, images flashed in the glare of headlights like pieces of dreams: running limbs, the startled stare of a cow, bundles balanced on heads, the obscure shapes of goats rooting through garbage. We had been lulled into a false sense of familiarity during our stay in Pondicherry. Now, it seemed, we were in a different world.

Our Rotarian hosts met us at the Hotel Saradaram. All were men, dressed in dhotis – long, white cotton fabric wrapped around their waists like towels – and shirts with long, squared-off tails that ended in the middle of their thighs. Their skin was dark and most had gray ash smeared on their foreheads – evidence of their recent visit to the temple. Their English was rapid and incomprehensible. They divided us and took us away to their homes.

One of the men took me by my wrist and one of my team member's by the other and led us out of the hotel and into an unlit parking area, where we stumbled through ankle-deep muddy puddles. I thought, what a silly idea to be wearing socks.
It was hard to make out anything of Chidambaram from the car at night. I had read in one guidebook that it was a city of about 75,000 people. But a map and publication of the state of Tamil Nadu estimated the population at 200,000. I asked my host, Chinna Annamalai, hunched over the steering wheel and squinting at the crowded road ahead, which figure was correct.
"No one knows," Annamalai answered. We can only guess. We are having too many people here, this is what I know."

I think that's what he said, anyway, because I could understand barely half of his dialect of English. Our ride was punctuated by the jolt of the wheels of his Ambassador sedan falling into deep potholes.
"These roads… disgrace… fools in government… lying bastards!" I understood.
Annamalai's house was so close to the street that we stepped right from the car onto the threshold. As we did so, we were greeted by a trio of fawning servants – young men who had gone goofy at the sight of foreigners. Annamalai jumped from the car and ordered the servants to get the bags and take them upstairs. Then he commanded us through the door and ordered us to sit in chairs in an area of the house separated from the rest of it by folding screens.
"Rest!" he ordered, before flying up the steps to scold the servants for their clumsiness. Then he came flying down the steps. "So. Relax!" he demanded, then proceeded toward the kitchen, where we could hear him barking orders over the clatter of pots and pans and the chattering of female voices.

We sat erect in our chairs. Presently. We heard a commotion in the street: excited children running and laughing, music, the banging of drums and the blaring of horns, distant but coming closer. We stepped out the door and peered down the road. Annamalai appeared behind us and explained: "This is a god… bringing… the street. This is happening only once a year… this night… holy people… pulling a god through all the streets of the town."

Bare-chested priests with painted faces beat skin drums and blew long thin, brass horns, performing what seemed like insane, free-form jazz. Behind them, a pair of bullocks pulled a float, a cart strung with electric bulbs, festooned with flowers and candles, and a great, colorful, gaudy display surrounding a small black idol.
The procession stopped directly in front of us, and a man who looked to be the head priest approached us and placed flower garlands around my neck, all the time wailing some incantation. A crowd had gathered, how large I could not tell. They pushed a jostled, and pressed closer and closer, maneuvering for a closer look at the pale foreigners with their trousers rolled up to their knees, exposing their long feet and legs as white as naked ducks.

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