Hell Bent for Leather

In Mangalore we pile into a white ambassador for a Mr. Toad’s wild ride: the car careens through the city, its frame swimming loosely on the suspension as we overtake slower rickshaws and autos, horn blaring, weave into the right lane to pass larger trucks and busses, and then jerking back into the left lane. We drop down to the river and village on the other side of the city where it is green, green, green-fields and paddies and palms.

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We spend the afternoon at a fancy water park where the kids (and their parents) slip and slide and swim, where a large Muslim family enjoys the water (the women fully clothed), and where a young woman, at the end of the day, runs after a friend and slips and falls and slams her head into the pavement. It becomes apparent that the park employees simply have no idea what to do when someone gets hurt. But thankfully we do. R takes charge of what by all indications is a serious concussion. She clears all the helpless men away and then gets the young woman out of her wet clothes and into a rickshaw for a ride to the hospital.  Then, another late dinner at home, rice noodles and curry, mopping up every drop with our sticky right hands. We spend two days swimming in the river, collecting snail shells with the kids by the pond. One day Babu climbs a coconut tree to harvest green coconuts and we enjoy drinking the sweet milk. In the evening we walk by the old house closer to the river with the chattering of hundreds of huge black bats rousing themselves as the sun dips behind the hills and the valley falls into darkness.

Back on the road-this time our driver, near seventy, piloting a well-loved white ambassador, careening up the coast road overtaking every car and truck and bus in his path. Nathaniel rides in the front and, like many Indians riding in an older car, has no access to a seat belt. While I am grateful when we move him to the back I now find myself in front and realize quickly how tenuous travel is on a road where trucks and cars and buses and two wheelers weave back and forth, narrowly avoiding collisions, speeding up and braking and honking. It is kind of like two running queues moving in opposite directions with everyone trying to get to their destination at the expense of the other person. Except, of course, the stakes are higher out on the open road. Again and again the old car breaks right into the path of an oncoming truck, our driver timing the weave back into the left lane with not a second to spare before we would slam head on into the truck. It is no wonder that every day the newspaper carries stories of traffic deaths on the highways. Drivers in India are willing to take remarkable risks-there is no “lane discipline,” as people say-and out on the open road there is little to no enforcement of traffic. It is not uncommon, in fact, to see charred vehicles in the ditch on the side of the road.

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Two days swimming and bodysurfing in the Arabian sea, eating fish curry on the sand under palm trees and the watchful eyes of crows, boating and swimming in the backwaters on the other side of the coast road. Then back in the well-loved white ambassador with the seventy-year old driver whoh is, one might say, “hell bent for leather”-a phrase used in the US but that seems to have actually originated in India to refer to beating on a leather saddle. (The phrase is used by Rudyard Kipling in “The Story of the Gadsbys.”) Our leather seats are for clutching as we motor into the forest on narrow and curvy one-lane roads, overtaking buses on blind curves-at one point slowing to pass a car that has slammed into the side of a bus (no one is hurt).

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Winding under stunning peaks of the Western Ghats, we arrive with thousands of other pilgrims at the Kukke Subramanya Temple on the banks of the Kumaradhara river in Kollur. The temple here is dedicated to Mookambika and sits on the lower part of Kodachadri peak. We leave our shoes in the car and walk to the entrance gate where a cow stands peacefully among thousands of chappals. Inside the temple, standing in the courtyard shirtless, we pray and sweat with the crowd, heeding the firm and encouraging waves of the priests charged with keeping everyone moving. The spiritual power and peacefulness alongside the utter human chaos of sweaty bodies pushing and shoving in the courtyard mirrors the world outside the temple walls. Our temple hopping day takes us next to the eight century Hattiangady Vinayaka at Hattiyangadi in Kundapur taluk. We are fortunate to arrive precisely at the beginning of an elaborate puja and we all leave with holy water on our heads and little white bags of sweet prasad.

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The following day we travel to the Manjunatha Temple, a Shaivaite center in Dharamasthala, where a friend leads us through the pressing crowds. Cars and trucks drive the gate and they are washed with holy water (for a set rupee fee) and an elephant accepts our coins and caresses or heads with a pink speckled trunk. We then curve back to the coast to join the Shetty family at the Sri Mahalingeshwara temple, the oldest temple in Puttur, where we watch an elaborate puja with priests carrying the idol out of its chambers and setting it in a flower festooned chariot that is carried around the temple courtyard by music and the light of a full moon. Exhausted, after a long day, we gather for a typical late night Indian dinner at our hosts’ home in the village of Puttur.

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