Hill folk, a term that sounds patronising but isn’t meant to, warned me that Madurai would be a cramped sweatbox of ubiquitous fumes, spittle and decrepitude. Or broken English words to that effect. But it gives me huge pleasure to independently and unbiasedly report that the city is nothing of the sort - steeped in Hindu mythology and boasting one of India’s finest temples, Madurai is absolutely a city worth visiting, if only for a couple of nights. The Meenakshi Amman complex is spellbinding, the craft shops aren’t the type owned by your rickshaw driver’s friend or brother, and to my surprise the city wasn’t that busy, at least by Indian standards. But the best thing in Madurai is a magician by the name of Sardar Hussain, whose repertoire of card tricks and making things disappear culminates with him coughing up a kilogram of nine-inch iron nails.
As it happened, I bloody loved Mahabalipuram, whose name was recently changed to Mamallapuram but is often more conveniently referred to as Mahabs. In case you were wondering, which you weren’t. It reminded me of a scaled-down version of Hampi with a fishing village and arguably Tamil Nadu’s best beach thrown in for good measure. After checking into my hotel I took a stroll along the beach and noticed a string of seafood restaurants facing out to sea, the first of which I vaguely recognised. On closer inspection I noticed a sign outside: “BBC TV Telecast by Rick Stein England”. I bloody knew it. My belly rumbling in anticipation, I walked into the restaurant and asked for whatever Rick had wolfed. “White fish and gravy, sir”. “That’ll do squire, that’ll do.” “Sorry sir?” “Yes please, white fish and gravy.” And very nice it tasted too, with the added bonus of me not being confined to bed and writing in agony for 48 hours hence. Little did I know that such a scenario would be waiting for me in Rajasthan a few weeks later.
This wasn’t your classic sob story aimed at rupee-wielding tourists, chiefly because shy, modest Vetri was reluctant to tell me anything about his life, presumably out of modesty and for fear of becoming upset. I told him it was OK and that he could stop, but I was curious to find out more. “You know,” he said, “everything I do, I do it for my mother. But she very sick.” So sick, in fact, that she won’t be around for too much longer - and if the tragedy of impending orphanship wasn’t bad enough, Vetri also has to pay for his mother’s ever-increasing medical bills, because the pair aren’t entitled to any help from the government.
Correctly sensing that my mood had become a little sombre, Vetri changed the subject by introducing “a very interesting story” about how a cigarette saved his life. I was all ears. “I was in Hyderabad a few years back with my best friend and some others,” he explained. “We were entering the Mecca Masjid and I needed a cigarette, so my friends went in before me and I started walking to the shop. Then a big blast happen. My best friend, he died. And the others they die also. But I survived because I wanted cigarette.” But Vetri only just survived: his story explained the presence of a large scar on the left side of his face, while a glance at his bare arms revealed numerous shrapnel wounds.
What this young man has been through, is going through and will have to go through.