The Old Boys’ Network

My latest murmuration of photos can be viewed here. If you have any difficulties, try again while logged out of Facebook.

The temple city of Madurai is popularly known as the Athens of the East.

Miscellaneous and completely untruthful guidebook wot my dad has

So the time has come. I’ve left my hovel and started on the multi-star hotel circuit. The March edition of the Madurai Messenger has gone to print, and for those of you who don’t have access to the Tamilnadu public library system, the online edition can be read here. My article about cricket seems to have been erroneously placed in the ‘Sports’ section, for which I can only apologise.

In which I am accused of being Tony Blair

Being one of the very few white people in Madurai for two months makes one rather a part of the local landscape, and plenty of people began to recognise me. And a particularly large number came out of the woodwork on my last weekend in the city, when I was with my parents. One lady who sold silk scarves in the market knew me of old (I was there, for instance, at that truly baffling moment when she set fire to one of her cloths with a match, blew it out, rubbed some of the ash on my finger, made me smell it, and then opined, “See? Very good quality!”) and proudly hailed me as ‘brother’, called my parents ‘mama’ and ‘papa’, gave us a discount, threw in a free magnificent home-made puppet and said that we were always welcome to return, “You have daughter here.”

I was also greeted by the ‘Elizabeth Taylor is the Queen’ man more than once – and declined his invitation to dinner – plus a tailor called Mr Ganesh who was still pathetically convinced that I wanted to visit his shop. After all these introductions, my mum commented, “It’s like being Tony Blair’s mum, everyone recognises you!” Well nobody’s yet tried to ship me off to the Hague…

Visiting the old school, what?

Back to the  Akshaya Viyalaya Matriculation School in Dindigul, after an absence of two months. The security guard and a cleaner waved as we drove in. Ma’am (the Principal still known only as “Ma’am”!) came to the door of her office to greet us and was soon talking philosophy with my parents (“I cannot understand how one person can destroy another… even the animals do not do that,”) – though not before dispatching her servant Kennedy up the road to buy a celebratory bottle of Fanta.

We wandered into the main building to visit the kids at lunch; I received many “Hi, Gabriel!”-s and was able to recall a half-way decent number of names. At this point, Ma’am summoned her car and we drove over to the school’s other branch, Kennedy riding in convoy with our driver to give him directions. On arrival, we were greeted by one of the Assistant Heads who I tend to think of as Mr Toad (currently serving out his notice, having been sacked!) and then Madam Loretta of “I would climb up the hill and say that Ma’am is my angel” fame  materialised and, rather breaking with centuries of Indian cultural practice, hugged me, kissed me, complained that my hair was too long and observed that I was getting thin. She’d make a good Jewish mother!

Ma’am asked if our lunch was ready; Loretta replied, “I am always ready, just so long as I have my Ma’am by my side,” turning to my parents, she explained, “Ma’am is my Archangel Gabriel.” We went over to her office – full of home-made mortar-board caps and embroidered gowns for the forthcoming kindergarten graduation ceremony! – where she served us fruit salad with ice-cream. Ma’am’s attempt at refusal was met with a firm, “No fasting here!” while Kennedy’s protestations were drowned out by Loretta jumping up and down and saying, “Eat!”

At this point, she revealed that she was fasting for Lent, only taking water and home-made juice during the day, “so that the Lord Jesus will see my sacrifice – but I always keep smiling, keep cheerful.” She mentioned that two of her students scored over 90% in their Hindi public exam, entitling them “to be honoured” at a function in a nearby city. She enthusiastically attributed this to Ma’am’s leadership, though Ma’am thought otherwise: “Loretta is a gift to the institution. When she is with kindergarten, she behaves like a kindergarten child [yes this was a compliment!] – when she is with 5th Standard, she is like 5th Standard.”

At this point, a line of particularly tiny children was led in, and – in the guise of ‘Queen of Italy’, ‘Prince of Russia’, ‘Queen of Israel’ etc. – proceeded to welcome us, very sweetly, in the eight different languages they represented. Next, we were led into Toad’s sanctum to watch two superbly intricate dance sequences, after all the performers filed by and introduced themselves immaculately, according to a formula, eg. “Hello. My name is … , I am studying in 6th Standard, B Section. My father name is … , my mother/brother/sister name is … ” Toad got rather impatient during all this and started cutting the poor children off mid-flow. Loretta, meanwhile, refused to sit on the vacant chair, instead perching on a box next to Ma’am, because, “I must sit near you!” Then it was time to make our final goodbyes, Loretta kissed us all on both cheeks and we set off on the six-hour drive to Munnar.

The mother and toddler group

Our route to Munnar took us through a wildlife reserve, and  Bennett the driver got out to talk to the police manning the entry checkpoint. The police demanded a bribe, but when Bennett directed them “to ask client,” they seemed to back down, strangely enough. We chanced upon a whole herd of elephants, maybe 15 in all, crossing a road together. They were of all different sizes, the youngest one being about the size of a child’s bicycle, aged 1 month. Soon after, we came upon a huge assemblage of monkeys, so friendly that we had to close our windows!, almost all of which were carrying tiny babies; it must have been a mother-and-toddler group. They also seemed to understand the concept of posing, which was convenient!


So that’s it for this week. Say pleasant things in the ‘comments’ box, and I guess there’ll be more to report soon!

One Response to The Old Boys’ Network

  1. vince says:

    It’s amazing how you went to India for a holiday and ended up becoming a Schools Inspector, Press Baron, Travelogue Producer, Wildlife Warden, … Truly you can say “Now I am a man” (in Hindi). I’ll keep the fountain pen until you are back in the UK.

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