Feature Story

The eclectic tip of India

Portuguese village sandy street night talk with Tamil Christian neighbours in lungi India
Santhana Mariappan Pillai home village near Tuticorin Tamil Nadu India
Public village library ancient temple stone building Tamil Nadu India
Salt lakes by chemical plant near Thoothukudi Tamil Nadu
Village town sandy beach Indian ocean below gulf of Bengal night shadows Santhanam and me Tuticorin
RC Roman Catholic church in portugese french village in Tuticorin district Tamil Nadu
Mediterranean French style old abandoned house in Portuguese village Thoothukudi Tamil Nadu India
Lord Murugan coastline beachfront temple in Thiruchendur night shot Tuticorin Tamil Nadu India
Saying goodbye 'mindoom sandipom' to friends at village bus stop night tamil nadu India
Lord Shiva Hindu village temple, Soma Sundri, Tamil Nadu, India
Couple  of friends nightly relaxing in lungi on a sandy beach. Muslim village near Tuticorin Tamil

Sometimes it's not only that I meet a new good friend but I meet one "from home". Not only is he full of good intentions but it seems like he knows me.

Since my first meeting with Santhana it was like that. But little wonder, growing up in a rural village in southern Tamil Nadu Santhana had gone to Hindu, Christian and Muslim schools and then worked abroad, in Kuwait, for several years side by side with multinational co-workers from Europe, USA and Egypt.

Today, back at his home town he had built up his own dream, his browsing center.

Visiting daily I notice what a gentle sole he is, especially noticeable with the female students/graduate he employs which can be a touchy issue here. However his generosity and easy going manners are there in every little act of serving clients or handling employees.

He had opened his business across from the Old Bus Stand in the port town of Tuticorin. Everyday at evening he takes a bus back to his home village and childhood house some 20km away, where he lives with his mother and two brothers and their families.

By next month he is about to get married. I got to know about that while we visited his home one afternoon last week. I am happy for his bride too, she is a lucky woman.

We took the govt. bus ride that lasted about an hour running by the salt lakes on the outskirts of Tuticorin (or Thoothukudi, as formerly known, prior to British regime). Santhana pointed out many leveled neighborhoods that used to be artificial evaporation ponds for this industry but were converted into residence and industry lots as real estate prices drove up.

Then we passed his Christian high-school in nearby village, finally arriving to his 'village'. Actually, he names it a village, yet it is more of a small town. Indian towns have a main-street lined up with shops while villages may usually have only a balcony-come-general-shop or a box-on-legs with a drop-down front that is the village kiosk.

His friend, as he mentioned to me earlier, was waiting by the bus stop to lend him his motorcycle so we could drive around the neighboring villages. Such are Indian, I observed many cases, neighbors and friends share their vehicles. They often offer me to drive, a privilege I surrender due to many challenging factors on Indian roads.

His little town, as he recalls, had never had a foreign visitor. In his home his nephew and niece were curious and playful with me, though somewhat normally shy.

I was offered a combination of sweets (Jilabi) and salty (wada) snacks along with a famous cup of Tamil freshly brewed filter coffee. As a rule of thumb, Indian usually nibble on salty snacks while having a hot sweet drink such as Chai or Coffee.

Santhana family belongs to the Saiva Vallar community, or Pillai as otherwise known. Traditionally these people do not eat any animal flesh nor any eggs. Milk is OK however. Usually, being a vegetarian, I am the one to "spoil" a meal made especially for me by a friend's family. Here they had an even purer diet which I welcome and hope to someday adopt too.

We then went on to visit the local temple. Built about 600 years ago by the Pandiya dynasty it stands naturalized and modest looking in the midst of a dirt field nearby simple homes and an old stone water reservoir/pool. We circled the temple's interior, small niches for each god, then along the outer wall. I usually close my eyes and hold my palms together near my forehead feeling the moment of peace. For me it sources in a combination of tradition, religion and today's Indian rural society.

We jumped on the motorcycle and headed to exit the village. As Santhana pointed out the library I immediately asked him to stop by. Working with libraries during the past 2 year of touring California and Arizona with 'My India' program, I now have a soft spot for these places. This library, however, is from another world. An ancient world. Along with the architecture that dates to the temple we just visited, it also had no walls but stone pillars carrying the rock slab roof. This library is a true 'open space'. Despite the dust it holds current books side-by-side with couple-of-hundred-year books. The energy is very pleasant, just a natural meeting place, literally open to the public. Not as sophisticated as printed literature in the west often mandates. Dimmed light and folding chairs. One government-employed librarian and two visitors were sitting and chatting around a fading table lined with the day's newspapers. All in a building that outlived many contemporary ones. If walls could talk it would have been a library story time.

In the next village, home to a majority of Muslim, some women in black were sitting in circles on the beach at night. I was wondering about the winds that brought them to shore some centuries ago over these waves coming for Saudi Arabia just across this ocean.

The next village was a landing ground for Portuguese and French a few centuries ago, the majority here are Christian. A huge European styled and built cathedral sits on the sand that blankets the entire village. I could not hide my smile wondering how this odd bird landed and stayed here. The roads are wide and straight lined with houses that look much Mediterranean. I had a feeling of going back in time to my childhood in an Israeli small town of those days.

Last we visited Thiruchendur. On the city's beachfront the Murugan/Subramanyar temple was already closed. The more acute tide, however, was rising back at my lodge room. An emergency call from the receptionist reminded me that I didn't shut my faucet while waiting for the water feed to resume amidst repairs done earlier that morning. I'll keep that story for another time.

Coming back to his home town-village we had a yummy dinner enhanced by an appetite only sea wind and beach sitting can inspire. His mother and sister in-law invited me to attend Santhana marriage next month, which I would love to, but I also can't tell where will I be by then.

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More about this personal and documentary project on: My India: Where every village is home - Experience !

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