After another long bus ride from Trichy, passing some wonderful landscapes and huge rock formations on which the locals had thoughtfully painted adverts for tea bags and soap powder, I arrived in the city of Madurai, home to yet more temples and a bustling bazaar scene. Seeing as I was back on my own again, I decided to pre-empt the loneliness blues by treating myself to a few nights at a mid-range hotel, namely the US$5-a-night Hotel Aarathy. My room had a television that, after a few deft manipulations of the tuning controls, revealed MTV and CNN; it had a hot water shower; it had a balcony; and best of all it had a view over a wonderfully colourful temple across the street.
Unfortunately it was still an Indian hotel. My sheets were fairly grotty (and were never replaced, despite my requests and baksheesh), the fan had a death rattle and the speed control was stuck on gale force, there were millions of little red ants everywhere who delivered a particularly irritating bite, and the hot water was only hot when it felt like it (which wasn't exactly a crisis in the tropical heat, but hey, I wanted my money's worth). And even when you book into a mid-range hotel, you don't get away from Indian intrusions; one of the things that really bugs me about Indian hotels is that you will never get an uninterrupted lie in, because at some stage in the early morning (between 7 and 8.30am usually) there will be a knock at the door, and not your usual discreet knock, more a battering. Sometimes, if you ignore it, it goes away; sometimes it's accompanied by the cry of 'Chai! Kaafi!' and you can yell back a 'No thank you!' for a bit of peace; but my experience in the Hotel Aarathy was fairly unique and not a little confusing, if only because the rooms were equipped with phones which could have been used to call up the services on offer if I had been interested in a morning tea.
My door buzzer went off at 8.30am, which the Indians consider to be halfway through the day (after all, when you don't have a television, bars are taboo and you can hardly afford electricity, what else is there to do at night except turn in early and, maybe, try to increase the population?). I ignored it, and it buzzed again. Realising with a sigh that my slumber was now irreparably shattered, I slipped on my sarong and stuck my head round the door. 'Yes, what?' I asked rather brusquely, hair sticking out like a briar bush.
'This is the laundry man,' said one of the two men standing in the corridor, indicating his companion. 'He's been here since six o'clock,' he continued, obviously assuming that this would clarify matters. I must have looked pretty blank, because he pointed at the man behind him again and said, 'Laundry man.'
Perhaps this was my clean sheet, at last, but I wasn't interested. 'No thanks, no laundry,' I said and closed the door in their faces, infuriated that my relaxing start to the day had been shattered. So I checked out later that day and moved into a place that was less than half the price; it still had a hurricane fan but this time there were no ants. It didn't have MTV either, but one night of Indian pop was enough to cure my TV-blues for some time.
I also bumped into Howard again and checked out Madurai's main temple with him. Sri Meenakshi Temple is pretty huge and has a lot of towers, all painted in a beautiful rainbow of colours; the outer four towers are particularly tall – the largest is 50m high – and they are smothered in literally thousands of sculptures of Hindu deities catching the sunlight; the western gopuram alone has 1134 sculptures covering every surface. Inside, the temple is mostly undercover rather than open plan, with dark, incense-filled rooms, messy stone shrines, elephants blessing devotees and a background smell that's hauntingly familiar. Sri Meenakshi is both beautiful and dingy, and all the more interesting for its inherent contrasts; this is going to be my last temple for a while, as I'm off to the hills for a break from the sweltering heat of the cities, and this is a high note to finish on.
All the while, the election continues to create havoc across the country. A total of 48 people have died in Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu, in various weekend explosions and arrests, and I thank my stars that due to the staggered polling system – implemented so the security forces can travel around the country to police the voting without being too spread out – Madurai isn't voting until next weekend. I may still end up in a voting area, though; I just hope it's a peaceful one.
Return Visit to Madurai
It was pleasant to arrive back in Madurai after rattling down the mountain from Kodaikanal, and having to stay an extra night there owing to a lack of free berths on the overnight train to Kollam was far from a hardship. Where the farmhouse in Kodai had buckets and backyards, Madurai had hot water showers; where Kodai had boring old idly and dosa, Madurai had wonderful butter chicken and nan; where Kodai had weather so cold that my washing never dried, Madurai had enough roasting heat to drive the water from my freshly dipped clothes within two hours. And the same old guest house had the same old rooms above the same old restaurant that played the same old music, creating an atmosphere that would have been like coming home, if it hadn't been for the lack of Howard.
But where Kodai had a dry coolness that only the mountains can provide, Madurai slathered in the humidity of approaching summer. I'd noticed the heat on my previous visit, but it hadn't really hit me because I hadn't yet visited anywhere cold in India (if you discount Calcutta); but after the chills of the hills, I found the steam of the plains disconcerting. It shortened my temper, and when I went for a stroll round a couple of places I hadn't managed to see on my first stopover, the touts whom I'd previously ignored with good grace and gritted teeth managed to touch a raw nerve. One particularly insistent clothes salesman started to follow me round with his promise of cheap clothes and excellent quality, so I turned round abruptly, palms out in front of me as if to push him away, and with my nose a few scant inches from his I said as politely as I could, 'No thank you.' He jumped back a mile, suppressing a stifled yelp; it got him off my case, but I couldn't help feeling a little guilty. After all, he was no worse than the rickshaw-wallahs and drug pushers that I've been shrugging off nonchalantly in every other tourist city, and I felt ashamed that India had finally got to me, even if it was a short, sharp moment that soon passed.