This day was full of activity and was, by a long shot, a more successful day than our first day in Chennai. After breakfast we drove to a shanty town in Tamil Nadu. A brief history of this place: working class people migrate to the area in search for jobs. Males usually come in groups and settle near a lake or pond. They firstly build a small temple and make a small donation to it. They then publicly display the flag of their political party. Next on their list is to get their ration card and an electricity meter. Everything in Tamil Nadu is subsidized, which means: free education, health care access, free medical necessities such as glasses. After two or three years of work, the men bring their families and permanently settle down in the area.
This is an example of a political society. By making that donation, getting that electricity meter, these workers connect themselves to the political grid and insert themselves into the framework of modern governance.
We were greeted by the women of the community with flowered garlands on our necks and hair. (The problem with having no hair was not getting one on your head.) As this was the second day of the Pongal, we were lucky to see the traditional practice of Kolam, which is form of drawing patterns using rice flour or stone powder. On this day, women make designs in front of their houses to mark the mood of the day. In earlier days, Kolam utilized rice powder in an effort to get good karma. It was thought that by using rice flour, and thus, feeding the birds, people would receive good luck in to their homes.
Another custom on this day is to make the dish of pongal—a combination of lentils, jaggery, turmeric, and rice. The purpose is to make it sweet in order to make life itself sweet. As we stood around watching the women draw colorful designs on the floor, more and more locals of the area came to join our group, attracted by our number and foreignness. It was then that I made conversation with a Kolkata native, who spoke Bengali, and he took me to his house to meet his family. A speaker of now four languages, he explained to me how he moved to this area in search for work, how loving all of his neighbors were, and how tight-knit the community was. The man was truly humble in his manner and his house was compact but his life was one of happiness. Here are some pictures of his adorable sons.
We moved further inside the settlement and into the house of a transgender family. This was a small community of transgender women. The house was open to any and all that sought shelter, food, compassion, and companionship. Anyone was allowed to enter and leave as they wished. Magi, referred to as the mother figure by the group, had been living in the area for ten years and had established this home for everyone else.
In Hindu religious texts, transgender people are considered closer to God than ordinary males or females. In this settlement, this transgender community is respected and sought out for blessings and advice. Yet they are ostracized and unaccepted in the same heartbeat. People easily call on them for help but oppose the idea of considering them as regular part of the community. Thus, these women have created their own space within the larger settlement. Our twenty minute interaction with them was enough for me to see the beautiful, loving relationships they have with each other. They are their own force.
This town really was an experience for me. What might initially seem like a slightly-better-than slum area was actually its own space of life. The homes are well-developed and there exists a great sense of community. Last month the area was hard-hit by a cyclone that blew off rooftops and tree branches. A month later and the community has already reversed the damage as best as they could. The people have collectively established a way of life that agrees with each other and remains tenacious in times of distress. The men go out to the city to work, mostly as cooks, while the women find other ways of economic opportunity while staying at home. There exists here a self-help group of women that handmake their jewelry and put it on the web for sale. Their necklaces were exquisite! I admit I have not personally studied about this place nor experienced it long enough to make a fair, scholarly judgment, but based on the time I spent there and by talking to the locals, I sensed a true state of harmony within this community. I can honestly say these were the nicest, most hospitable people I have ever met thus far.
We then paid a visit to the Cave Temples of Mahabalipuram, which were recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. This place was filled with gorgeous images of Hindu deities carved into its rocks. Our guide explained some history behind the carvings of the gods and goddesses, depicted in various forms and in various acts. Honestly I was listening less and observing more. His voice became a cadence in the background as I marveled at the intricate details on the pillars and walls.
After lunch in the afternoon, we drove to Pondicherry, where we got to spend an amazing fifteen minutes on Rock Beach. (I found a seashell!!!) Pondicherry—also known as Puducherry—is a city-state established by the French. The place should have originally merged with Tamil Nadu because of its large Tamil-speaking population, but remains a Union Territory of India so it enjoys partial statehood.
The city was carefully very thoroughly planned out and has a strong French influence in its architecture. It is built around a grid system and is decorated with quaint houses and pretty, colorful buildings. Literally everything was picturesque. We went on a heritage tour and learned the history behind the buildings in the area but the information’s all mushed up in my head. What I retained was: the people here have a sense of responsibility over their city. Though there is street art here and there, the roads are generally cleared of space, the streetsides are clean, and the trees are well-kept.
After our heritage tour, we had a long, hearty dinner and moved into our hotels for the night. We had successfully hit every item on our itinerary, a strong contrast to the day before. I went to bed that night with a content heart (and still had restless sleep, what???)