In which Baddy Riley stars in a Bollywood movie, is poisoned by one or more of the Hindu gods and meets the world's saddest elephant
27.03.2016 - 30.03.2016 35 °C
Pondicherry feels bizarrely clean after Chennai. It also retains a vaguely French feel from its days under French rule.
Even though the city is quite small, there are a fair number of foreigners of the yoga/meditation/ayurveda persuasion . Not having the requisite degree of energy pathways chat, I instead made my way to an old school coffee house that's a bit of a local institution and also happens to be where the opening scenes of Life of Pi take place.
The coffee, as everywhere, is loaded with milk and sugar, which makes it a bit Starbucksy for a connoisseur like me (yeah, I'm lying, sugar is my crack). They also do various tiffin (snack) items including this delightful bit of carb-on-carb action, masala dosa:
Somewhat awkwardly realised I had left all my money at the hotel when I went to pay... Not sure they understood why I was forcing my driving licence on them and miming using an ATM, but they let me leave anyway, and I did eventually go back once I'd found a machine that would give me cash...
Beyond the many, many ashrams, one of the things Pondy is known for is the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar temple. As you enter, you are greeted by what looks like the world's saddest elephant giving people "blessings" by touching them on the head with its trunk . I presumed this would be something most foreign tourists would not be in favour of but I did actually see a few posing for photo ops, so maybe it's just me.
The temple itself follows the classical acid-trip style of all the temples I've seen so far... Lots of carvings, many deities, even more colours.
After Pondy I headed back to Chennai with a vague idea that I might do a day trip to a big pilgrimage site called Tirupati. Having failed to see any key things on my first day in Chennai, I also thought I should probably make an effort to tick off the top sights like a proper tourist... I made it to the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, a southern area of Chennai. It's really interesting just wandering around looking at the carvings and deities and especially the men who seem to function as some sort of priest (in more of an Ancient Greek than Christian way in that they seemed to be mostly occupied with burning things and taking offerings from worshippers to the deity figures).
As I was sitting down trying to figure out how to get to the next place I wanted to see, a woman and her uncle (Uma and something beginning with S) started chatting to me. They ended up offering to take me to another temple they were going to, so we hailed an auto and piled in. It was less flashy but the puritan in me does love a bit of monochrome. If you paid a fee, you could line up in a special area that got you really close to the deity . Uma and S----- gave their garland offerings to the priest to give to the deity. We then went to a separate area where you queued up to have a ladleful of holy water flavoured with spices poured into your hand and a mark of red powder put on your forehead. It somehow didn't occur to me until about a minute later that it might have been a bad idea to drink the water...
Then something which is apparently quite rare happened. A group of men appeared pulling a sort of wheeled structure surrounding the figure of a deity, all in gold. They did a lap of the temple - people have to pay about 5000 rupees to do this, and it's generally performed as a thank you when a big wish has been granted , like having a baby etc.
The excitement over, Uma and S------ Invited me to go and get something to eat with them. I got to try even more carb and ghee based delights including parotta ( like a flakier roti) and puri (deep fried dough, slightly like the base of langos in Hungary) . There was also a dish called something like utappam which is basically exactly the same as Sri Lankan string hoppers (if you haven't been to Hoppers in Soho, go, have the chicken hearts, delicious ). It was slightly confusingly served with a pot of spiced cauliflower sauce and a pot of cardamom flavoured sweet coconut milk, both of which you should pour on the utappam (but not together, I learned after doing that).
On the way back to my part of town we dropped by S---'s House to say hello to his family, most of whom have now decided they are going to join me for the Kerala portion of my trip in the summer. Definitely happening. Eventually got back to hotel quite late, and very quickly realised the holy water had ironically enough been a very bad idea. Spent most of the next day not really moving from a chair on the balcony.
On the plus side, I got chatting to a really fun Aussie from Perth called Anita who had the room next door. We'd been discussing Indian idiosyncrasies for a while (seriously what does the head wobble mean? "Yes/No/maybe/Whatever/I couldn't care less" is our current best guess) when the manager came upstairs saying someone wanted to speak to us on the phone. Slightly confused I took the mobile and discovered that it was someone working in casting for a big film that was shooting some final scenes at a hotel in the city that day. He said they needed some foreigners for some background scenes, that he'd arrange for us to be taken to the hotel and that we'd be paid a thousand rupees each for our masterful acting skills. Given that we guessed this was probably not an elaborate front for an organ-harvesting operation (can you imagine how bad that would have been though? waking up with no kidneys in a bathtub full of ice and not even knowing whether the ice was made with purified water...) and that I was feeling quite a lot better after taking various medicines, we jumped into an auto and drove across the city to a Westin hotel where we proceeded to pretend to chat and then suddenly run down a corridor when someone fired a gun. There was also some sitting in front of a hotel waiting for the arrival of someone who had inconceivably been given a larger role than us. And there was a LOT of down time. The film is apparently set in Malaysia so there were lots of guys wearing Malaysian police uniforms milling around, surrounded by various "international" extras like us, none of whom seemed to have been given the same dress code. The outfits ran the gamut from day at the beach to mid-shift at the brothel via afternoon at the Louvre. We got chatting to an Indian guy, Seena, who was keen to make it as an actor. This was apparently only his second film but he was expecting to really blow up from June onwards. We were lucky enough to see his large collection of photos of him in his previous role, as well as his Facebook like page ("Seena Actor" in case you're wondering) . We oh-so-earnestly promised to add to his existing 112 likes as soon as we had wifi again. Definitely will.
We'd been told we'd be needed until around 4.30am but by 11.30pm we'd decided the glamorous movie star life was not for us and, foregoing our promised riches, sneaked out the back way before someone could start shouting at us about continuity or something similarly crucial to the oeuvre. So if you happen to speak Tamil (or even if you don't) you should probably check out Kabali starring Rajanikanth (appaz a Tamil "superstar") and me, in cinemas nowhere near you from May 2016.