Making sense of Tamil Nadu

March 4, 2015

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Now we’ve left Tamil Nadu, we thought we’d try to sum up how it made us feel.

Smell
Walking down just one street will often take you on a smelling journey from one end of the spectrum to the other. Wander past simple shops and get a waft of local cooking, layered with delicate spices and flavours, that instantly makes you hungry. And then the sweet hit of the chai stand, aerated sugary milk released into the air. The fresh flowers for the temple another entice, jasmine is the most distinct, commonly worn in women’s hair. But breathe in too deeply and you’re more than likely to be greeted by the pungent, all-encompassing stench of that polluted river, full of human, factory and toxic waste. The kind of smell you can taste, it clings to the back of your nose and throat, unwanted.
Engines, fuel, oil and exhaust fumes are an underlying aroma from the constant traffic, intensifying as you pass the mechanics or the tuk tuk stand. And then there’s the cow, with it’s painted horns wandering down the street, adding a faintly farmy essence to the melange.
When they invent smell recording we will send them all across for you to experience. You have been warned what happens when you take a deep breath, so best not to.

Sight
Everywhere you go in Tamil Nadu there are temples; small roadside temples, just 4 ft square, right up to colossal 200ft+ towers that dominate the skyline. Decorated with Hindu figures mid dance with mesmerising eyes staring at you wherever you go. Thousands of figures over all of the temples, painted in vibrant pinks, greens, yellows, greens, blues, the burnt orange of the soil a constant. It is a humid land so most of the buildings have black damp stains on them which only highlights the intensity of the colour.

And the colours are just mad. Contrasting, complimentary, bright, pale, bold statements, delicate applications and somehow it all just moulds together into an epic expression of culture, life and fun.

You simply can’t walk down the road as a Caucasian without being stared at. It’s a fact of life all over Asia but it has been particularly apparent in this Indian state. From what I can make of it Tamil Nadu sits amongst the classical civilisations of the Chola and the Pandian empires, the language is one of the only classical languages to still be spoken today and it dates back as far as 3rd century BC and beyond. When India became independent in 1947, Tamil Nadu’s leading politicians banned Hindu and English from being learnt in schools (except for their children who needed it for politics of course) and thus created a society of inward looking monolingual people, although there are exceptions. The people of this South Eastern area of India treat you with a kind of mystical reverence that I have seen elsewhere in Asia but with an intensity I have not. We’ll see if that will continue throughout the sub-continent.

Taste
Well… Where do you start… Dosai – ghee roast or normal, idly, vada, masala, rice, chappathi, occasional parotha, naan is a treat. A lot of things on the menu aren’t available. Thali with dhal, coconut sambar, tomato and onion. Most things come with those three. Occasional masala potato mix. Biriyanis with red onion raitha. Chicken 65, paneer 65, all forms of 65, no one seems to tell you what 65 means but it’s an incredible spice mix which your vessel of choice is coated with and fried to crispy perfection, served with a lime to squeeze over the top. Pukka.

I don’t think we’ve have a bad meal, and definitely nothing inedible. You couldn’t say that about three weeks in England. One thing that seems to be taught in Tamil Nadu, unfailingly, is how to cook.

Sound
This is undoubtably Pete’s expertise, check out his Soundcheck page to hear them for real, but if I had to summarise the sound in a visual way it would look like this…

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A thousand sounds a second, a dynamic surround sound experience, 360 degree immersion into chaos. Every moment a cacophony is playing out its mechanical overture; separate sounds come from nothing to explosively loud in milliseconds, combining to overwhelm you. Making you jump out of your skin, heart a-flutter, when they use that ship’s blast like bus horn. They wouldn’t have any trouble navigating a thick, soupy fog a hundred miles out to sea with that assault on your ear canal. The bikes swim through the traffic, they swarm at junctions like wasps around an attacked nest, their engine’s staccato clicking, their horn’s nasal cry, their attention seeking child like wail, the constant chatter of people in Tamil, the rise and fall of their voices, people everywhere, the shouts of shop owners, food stall sellers, that bang of their ladels on metal, the haggle of Tuk Tuk drivers, their eyes alight when they see you, their constant questions, the noise combining, creating a relentless melee, a constant attack. It’s been too long on this road, you’re tired of noise, tired of processing things, you dive down a side street.

Calm. Peace. Quiet. It takes on a mystical reverence as if you’d never known tranquility before, the peace hangs in the air as a translucent woven cloth of restorative calm.

Dive into a tea shop and the whirring of the fans is a constant, it’s not irritating, it’s merely a fact. A lot of things contribute to the soundscape; noises in the background that you don’t even notice. Journeys are the screeching of the train’s metal brakes, metal on metal; the honk of bus horns and the chug of their engines; the clicking and popping of a auto rickshaw.

Touch
Well there’s a lot of solid seats for a start, and a few solid beds too. But combine a solid seat with a bumpy, pot-holed road and ancient suspension, the outcome is an unexpected journey round the back of your Tuk Tuk. Humps that make you jump and brace yourself for the next elevation, then you remind yourself that the best plan of action is to imagine you’re a bag of rice, and quite literally, roll with it. Still working on that.

Pavements ebb and flow, sometimes they stop at a pile of rubble and dust. When they disappear you have to navigate any number of obstacles, from rocks to monkeys and cows, with traffic zipping past your shoulder, giving you gusts of dusty fumes and feeling as though they might touch you. There’s definitely a fair amount of dust. Every time you get back inside you’re coated with a fine layer that you didn’t even know was being applied half the time. It clogs up your skin a bit but doesn’t half make a shower worthwhile at the end of the day.

And the weather. It’s pretty hot! Some days it’s totally durable, other days it completely wipes you out and you have to admit defeat. The humidity can be intense, and definitely helps the dust to stick! The wind is amazing, I’ve never quite appreciated a breeze so much, just when you think you’re down and out it gives you a little boost.