Travels in India — 8
In the Union Territory and former French colony of Pondicherry, we had the pleasure of breakfast at a patisserie. Happily, the French influence in this town extends beyond the red pill-box hats worn by the policemen and I can confirm that the warm crisp apple danish and the pain au chocolat were superb. Real coffee was also the order of the day, although now I’m beginning to take this for granted and feel grossly insulted if I get served Nes-shité.
Prior to Pondicherry, we were in the busy city of Madurai, 300km south-west as the crow flies and Vishnu-knows how many more by Indian roads.
The main attraction here for us tourists is the Sri Meenakshi temple. This is more a complex than just a temple, and to quote Lonely Planet, is ‘a spectacular pastiche of Dravidian architecture.’ The twelve 45–50m high gopurams (towers) are covered in a mass of carved animals and gods. According to our guide, these figures are repainted every twelve years and I suspect it is something like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge (ie continuous).
Unlike the Northern temples, these Southern versions concentrate the beauty and intricate skill on the outside, as opposed to saving it for the inside; having said that, there were some statues of great beauty inside. I was particularly taken with my main woman Saraswati. She was probably as tall as me, but standing on a two-foot pedestal. The details in this sculpture was amazing: each fingernail just peeped over the edge of its finger; the veins in her hands and feet stood out from the skin; her ribs were clearly visible under her robe; her transparent, finely pleated skirt revealed the detailed leg muscles beneath, and the arm that was crooked to hold and finger the neck of the vena had all the right forearm muscles near the elbow tense and bulging. I suspect she would make a good golfer or barista, this gal. The only detail that didn’t quite convince was her bulging coconut-shaped breasts, but I guess when your hubby is the Creator, you can put in an order for a pre-history boob job (and it would appear that Lakshmi and Parvati didn’t waste any time following suit, as these eye-popping chest helmets are endemic).
The final highlight of our visit was being attended to by the Temple Elephant. For a small donation the elephant will place her trunk on your crown and ‘bless’ you. There was something quite endearing about the way she just flopped that hairy rubbery protuberance out over your head. I walked away feeling doubly blessed however, as my back felt rather wet from a probable open mouth. Someone commented that I also scored some dew in my hair (ie elephant snot). So I felt very special indeed.
Out foraging for breakfast the next morning, I thought I’d take up our guide’s suggestion of trying a coconut dosai. The bossy waiter at the recommended establishment had other ideas though, and was clearly used to getting his own way.
‘Noooo…coconut dosai sweet — you have poora.’
‘Mmm, no; I’d really like a dosai,’ I said firmly. This went back and forth a few times before he moved onto drinks. Here I continued with my deliberate obtuseness and asked for unsweetened coffee.
‘No sugar?!’ he asked. Finally he huffed back to the kitchen to grumble to the cook that these tourists have got it all back to front.
After a frothy Nescafe came out, I was brought a rubbery appam-like pancake with coconut sprinkled over it. I called his nibs over and said, ‘this is not a dosai.’
‘You want dosai?’ he asked, totally incredulous.
When the crispy folded savoury pancake arrived with the sweet filling it was dee-licious. With the bill came profuse apologies over the ‘misunderstanding’ (yarr, tip time seems to have helped him see the light).
But I still had to get some decent coffee, so off I sauntered to the ‘Memorable Coffee’ stand. It was a bit like the typhoid chai stall I frequented in Paharganj, so I was not put off by the less-than-hospital standard cleaning of the glasses. After all, it had a crowd three-deep demanding its wares.
I handed over my six rupees and watched the barista, in his filthy singlet, pour some hot milk into a glass and pour it back and forth to another glass in a miraculous white, near-horizontal streamer, to create the froth. He then held the foaming milk under an urn and with a flick of the wrist released a quick spurt of fresh, strong coffee.
Ahhhhh. Then I felt well and truly blessed.
Excerpt from I Left My Sneakers in Coorg © Alicia Thompson 2008