Tamil Nadu

This week the temperature climbed into the mid 30s here in Pune—in the 90s if you’re counting differently. It’s the end of February and the nights are still comfortable, but the heat is building and we have been thinking about the sea. 


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Last week we finally pulled together our long-planned trip to the south of India. The drive over the Ghats from Pune to Mumbai took about three hours. Most of the time in the car involves making one’s way to the Pune city limits and then threading one’s way into Mumbai. Between these urban centers is the dry plateau and windy mountain road—striking geography, monkeys on the guardrail, and a precipitous drop down through suddenly greener fields to the coastal plain. And then, Mumbai, with streets teeming with people and vehicles, the now familiar stained cement of high rise buildings, and glimpses of the tight and crowded corridors between endless rows of slum tenements.  

We arrive in Chennai in the evening and catch a car down the coast to the village of Mamallapuram, or Mahabalipuram, site of astonishing stone carvings from the seventh and eighth century.

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So before taking up our academic work down the road in Pondicherry we spend three days getting to know Tamil Nadu: relaxing in the sun, swimming in the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal, eating seafood, marveling at ripening papaya and mango, and walking among the stone temples and carvings.

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You really can’t discern the devastation from the 2004 tsunami but for the signs reporting on the government money spent on rehabilitation. But the memories, and stories, are here. I spent one morning talking with a man selling shells who on that morning in December happened to be sitting on the beach. He said that the birds began to go wild, flying in circles. And then the cows all left the beach. So he, too, walked inland toward the town. Minutes later the sea water climbed over the beach and into the town.  We walk the beach in the morning as fishermen, after an early morning out on the water, tend to their nets. We swim. And we spend an evening, south of the shore temple, walking with crowds of people on the Mahabalipuram beach.

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Traveling down the coast to Pondicherry University is mostly rural coast farms—rice paddies, mango groves, and a few cows. Our host, Murali Sivaramakrishnan, a professor of English at the university, and his wife Usha, the director of the Centre for Women’s Studies, meet us at the guest house and take us for a tour of the campus. The University is spread out, and we drive along the wide roads through the warm evening.

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We take dinner down by the beach at a “resort.” It seems, though, that the place has seen better days—or, as is so often the case in India, it may be on the way back, or so suggests a new building going up. We are invited to sit at a table with three graduate students in biochemistry. Their chemistry is somewhat altered—the beer has had its effect. They enjoy the kids, especially, and have many questions for me, the professor from afar. It’s a warm evening and the fish curry and rice and butter nan are just right.  

I’m here to do a lecture series on environmental literature. When I arrive in the morning, I walk into the courtyard and find myself shaking the hand of another Fulbright Scholar, an ecologist who teaches with Rebecca at Antioch, Thomas Webler. While I find my way up to the Department of English, Rebecca arranges to meet Tom and his family—Bridget, Kai, and Forest—for dinner at the Auroville town hall. After meeting with Murali and his colleagues, I do my presentation on “John Muir and the Mountains of California” to about forty students and faculty from the Department of English. The students are, with a little prompting, engaged and interested. I listen carefully, share my views, and sense the enormous significance of these kinds of intercultural dialogues about environmental literature and values. Rebecca, later in the afternoon, gives a talk on law and gender issues for students and faculty at the Centre for Women Studies.

Our evening at the intentional international community of Auroville is fascinating, if not somewhat surreal, given the wild contrast between the life of most Indians and the many Indian and foreign residents of Auroville. A kind of utopian community, Auroville is rooted most broadly in a social vision of human unity. The community, recognized by the Government of India and UNESCO, practices and promotes sustainable living and the cultural, environmental, social and spiritual well-being of mankind. We hire a taxi to take us inland to Auroville, out a red dirt road through green forests to the Town Hall, where we have dinner with Tom and his family, and their friend from Germany, who then shares with us his slide presentation of his visit to the stone caves in Hempe. The following day, I do a morning lecture, “Ecocritical Theories, Multicultural Perspectives,” and then lead an interactive discussion, “Notes on Environmental Criticism.” The kids and Rebecca head into Pondicherry for the day.


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After my talks we head back into the city for dinner at a rooftop restaurant amid French speaking tourists whose penchant for good food is only matched by their passion for smoking.

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After dinner, the kids then begin to feel the effects of eating ice cream from a vendor on the beach earlier in the day. Oh well. Nathaniel is sick through the night. Ellinore then begins what turns out to be a three day episode of vomiting and diarrhea that concludes with a visit the hospital in Chennai. Getting out of Pondicherry, as a result, is less simple than we had planned. But Ellinore is resilient, and we drive into Chennai just in time for Rebecca to give her talk at the Dr. Ambedkar Law University.


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The kids and I settle into the guest house in Triplicane, where we spend the afternoon and evening recovering. I head out into the narrow and crowded streets searching for bananas and our newest staple, Parothas. And, after some time wandering past book stalls and shops, I find my way to a fruit stand and then a place to get the parothas—wrapped in banana leaves—that I bring back to the guest house.    

The next day I hop a rickshaw for an hour ride out to Madras Christian College in Tambaram. The throttle on the rickshaw in which I am traveling breaks when we arrive in Tambaram. Again, no problem, and so I walk the remaining distance to the College where I am greeted by Rayson, the graduate student I met in Hyderabad. The day is full, with lectures to students from English, Botany, and Zoology, an interview for the OSLE Newsletter, and an afternoon talking over tea with professor Nirmal at his home. My morning talk is “A Terrain of Geography and Consciousness: The Watershed and the Bioregion in North American Environmental Literature.” I then give an introductory lecture on the bioregional movement for graduate students in the department of Zoology. Later in the evening, I talk on “John Muir and the Idea of Wilderness” at the Organization for the Study of Literature and the Environment (OSLE) India Study Circle.

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The day ends on the train back into Chennai. Rayson and Susan, two delightful and kind graduate students, travel with me and complete my interview as we roll into the city.  Traveling home to Pune—yes, home for now—feels right. Our car does not come. And so we hire another. No problem. The driver, young and impulsive, is an automotive doppelganger for William Todd the younger. But unlike our beloved quick driving Bill, the driver makes some poor (let’s call them impulsive) decisions when we meet up with traffic; and so we spend more than an hour trying to get out of Mumbai. When we get the expressway, he drives too fast for us. But we arrive home, safely,  in the early evening—tired and grateful to be home.

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