Bhangra and Horlicks

My first batch of photos can be viewed here, and my second here. If you have any trouble, then try again while logged out of Facebook. You can also click on any of the images below to enlarge them.

Chapter I: In Which I Meet the District Collector

If anyone reading this happens to have been watching Tamilnadu state television last Saturday, then yes, that was indeed me on the platform wearing the blue T-shirt, sitting between the District Collector (whatever that means!) and the Dean of Madurai University.

On Saturday, I woke up and was invited, with about ten minutes’ notice, to act as a dignitary in the teacher-training institute’s graduation ceremony. I was hastily introduced to my fellow visiting bigwig the Collector, and to the Dean (and to “his missus”), and we then piled into two cars outside the school admin block, drove 40 paces to the assembled school band, who formed a musical guard of honour to mark the end of our epic journey. We were handed bouquets, plus coloured salts for the ladies and individual roses for the men. The whole entrance area had been decorated, with religious symbols and some traces of cricket markings.

The VIPs were led upstairs, and ceremonially presented with silver plates, each holding some Bombay mix, some nuts, two pieces of marzipan, two digestive biscuits and an Oreo. Before heading back down, those with Indian qualifications donned sparkly silver-edged velvet robes, some blue, some green, and purple for the Principal!

We ascended to the platform and faced the mass of parents, press, ‘VIPs’ (but obviously more lowly VIPs than my esteemed self!) and graduates, who were arranged by discipline, with the highest-scoring candidates having their marks etched onto a permanent roll of honour in the atrium, and being seated in a special row labelled “subject toppers.”

After the entirely-in-Tamil (!) ceremony, the platform party set off on their return car journey, which took even less time than before!, and on arrival, we were shepherded into the school’s trophy room for a special lunch. One of these trophies was the presumably prestigious ‘Best Man of India 2003’ award. Strange!

Chapter II: Barefoot in Trichy; or, The Elephant in the Room

The next day: a 7am start for a day-trip to Trichy’s famous temple. Arrived after about three hours. Upon entering the city, I saw an enormous decorated stepped tower, which looked extremely temple-like. It was, however, merely the first of four gates through which one must pass to get to the temple’s outer edge. Inside, I had to remove and check in my shoes as a sign of religious respect, though the motorbikes and water-pistol vendors within the precincts seemed exempt from this requirement, as did the temple’s own force of traffic police! And talk about money-changers in the temple… how about Vodafone shops?

When properly inside, we entered through a long, dark, smoke-filled corridor, lit only by the glow from an enormous digital clock hanging above a huge and ornate painted icon with a prominent “copy right” notice in one corner. Little stalls sold all kinds of lamps, wax, oil, powders, chalk, pestles and mortars for various ritual uses. In fact, the complex was more like a giant theme-park than a place of worship: there was a large choice of shrines and sanctuaries, a man who would annoint you on request, tiny kittens sunning themselves beside a walled lake and a Hall of One Thousand Pillars. A paving-stone with five finger-holes was some sort of sword-in-the-stone-style sideshow: it is said that whoever lifts the slab will see a painted door in the opposite courtyard open, it otherwise opening only once per year.

A man who had covered his bald head in yellow powder was idly massaging his wife’s feet within sight of what was by far the best attraction: a painted elephant, spectacularly trained so as to tap on the head with his trunk anyone who places coins onto its tip and then pass the earnings to his handler, presumably for tax purposes. On display in a nearby room (“Open Bet Ween 11 and 2”) were the tusks of all his predecessor temple elephants, never forgotten.

One elderly person approached us, had me introduce myself, exclaimed, “It is rare chance to meet Churchill country man,” and then took with philosophical resignation my declining the opportunity to help fund his heart bypass operation.

On our eventual egress from the complex (past signs giving the slightly surreal warning, “Be Were of Thiefs Watching CCTV Cameras!”) I was informed that our day’s expedition had only covered a tenth of the temple’s features!

Chapter III: Bhangra and Horlicks

The following day, I headed out to the school’s other branch to watch an assembly. This began with the kids all standing outside in ranks (though not straight enough ranks to satisfy the Principal!) and the head boy calling out through a PA system, “School, attention,” at which they all came to attention smartly, from the oldest Std.IX students to those in Junior Kindergarten. They then all sang We Shall Overcome in a remarkably strong accent, made the national pledge, followed by the school pledge. At this point, I was invited to raise the Indian flag; the head boy called for, “Flag salute!” and the national anthem (of which I was embarassingly ignorant…), then stood everyone at ease.

In wonderfully Tom Brown’s Schooldays-style English, though still heavily accented, the Head wished us a “good morning one and all.” There were two birthday chilren, who were allowed to come in mufti, and we all sang Happy Birthday followed by a verse of, “A long life to you,” which, since they were both less than 10 years old, seemed thoroughly apt.

A short house-vs-house quiz followed. I was smug in the knowledge that I knew the answer to, “What is the name of the Queen of England’s palace and fortress called?” and was most surprised to find out that it was actually the Tower of London. And imagine my astonishment on discovering that Shakespeare was born in Stanford-on-Ovon!

The kids then dispersed (“I now request the students move to their respective classrooms,”) except for a few who were to showcase work to the Principal and myself. The younger ones proudly recited the alphabet (still using the PA system, at a distance of 2m from their audience of two), or in one case, bawled out a cute yet tuneless rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

The older ones read us samples of their writing; one spoke on the subject of the Indian flag, while another waxed almost lyrical on the topic of time management, urging the listeners to “set gravitational goals” for themselves with a string of management-speak I had travelled all this way to avoid…

We also watched three dance performances set to bhangra music; these were extremely intricate and highly impressive, but still earnt no more than three or four near-silent claps from the Principal.

Headed into the Head’s office for a tiffin; the ‘tea’ looked suspiciously pale so the Principal sipped some and then apologetically explained, “This is actually Horlicks, is a nutritious drink we have here.” I reassured her and began to drink mine, unprepared for the fact that it was highly sugared. Still quite nice though!

Indiaballs: my regular quotes update

  • 10-year-old girl: [examines combination padlock on my bag; without a trace of irony…] It is very beautiful, sir!
  • Assistant Head: When the lesson is finished, it is best if you come and intimate this in the office.
  • Me: In England, people do not eat such healthy food as in India. There was once one lady on the television who said she ate 70 packets of potato-chips in one week! / 14-year-old boy: Only?
  • Rather witty title on blackboard in ‘French Revolution’ history lesson: No pain, no grain!

And Now for Something Completely Different

Phew… so, that was a long ‘un and covering only a few days! My full dairy (yes, mum, that is a deliberate spelling) now stands at almost 40 pages, so be grateful you’ve been spared the ordeal of that! As usual, say nice things in the ‘comments’ box, and I’m sure there’ll be more photos and stories soon!

4 Responses to Bhangra and Horlicks

  1. Olivia says:

    Hahaha that was brilliant!
    Hugely enjoying this whole English dignitary thing you’ve got going on. Everyone sounds bizarrely wonderful.

  2. Robin Moss says:

    Gabriel, I love your blog and it sounds like you are having an amazing time. I assume we will now be bringing daily poetry recitals and salutes of the flag onto LJY-Netzer events?

  3. Jackie Jessop says:

    Just got the link to your blog from your mum, and have chuckled away while reading it. It is all rather bizarre and wonderful, and I love your positive and receptive attitude to all you experience. Carry on writing and carry on having a brilliant time. Take care too, Jackie

  4. Sandra Webber says:

    Love the Charles Dickens reference at the beginning!

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