Whilst in Madurai, a heaving, working, ancient shouting city of blackish earth streets and slow-moving buffalo in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, we take a rickshaw to Meenakshi Amman Temple. The 30-minute drive lasts for an eternity, and I disembark with a dam of unshed tears. Cycling through the slums, weaving in and out of sloppy wet mud and through rivulets of brown sewage, swerving to avoid mounds of waste and trying not to scrape against corrugate hut walls or bump into clay shacks, shatters my thoughts into shards of painful glass that stab at my chest. The people of India, as Gregory David Roberts says, ‘know how to shout with their eyes.’
The huts lean against each other almost for support; wiggly, uneven and endless rows of miniature homes that share the same sheets of plastic, ripped apart sacks, coarse pieces of tarpaulin and crunchy edges palm leaves for their walls, floors and roofs. Some are box-shaped, others more like tents- triangular and tucked further back from the path. Everyone seems to be crouching, squatting or kneeling, washing in basins or grinding rice on stones. Ladies scrub at clothes in gutter puddles; men pick at bits of iron or fiddle with spokes and wheels and everywhere, from all corners of the slum village, children peek and smile out at us. They race to catch up with our rickshaw, sprinting in the mud as fast as their rubber soles will carry them and then screeching to a halt, extending a soft black hand or simply opening their faces with one ear-splitting grin.
“Hello! Hello! Namaste!” they shout. Their eyes gleam with excitement and they giggle hysterically when we shout our replies. The parents are less forthcoming, preferring to stay where they are rather than speed into our paths, but their smiles are every bit as jubilant and beautiful as their children’s. They wave at us sheepishly, snickering when we wave back and blinking with the sense of occasion. Some encourage their babies to wave too, prodding them forward and pulling them from behind doorframes to come into view.
When we burst into sunlight again, spiralling out of the slum valleys and back onto roads, traffic roars past us; cars, bikes rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, mopeds, motorbikes. The sound is deafening- a relentless attack of horns and bells and slamming brakes. The rickshaw drivers, barefoot and with calves ripping beneath taut brown skin as they carry the weight of the cart behind them, pedal furiously to keep up with the surging vehicles. We cross a bridge, zipping past line after line of sleeping bodies under loincloths. They are dry, at least. Cows eat their way through the growing, swollen piles of sewage on the roadside.
It may be a dirty place, but it's a friendly, loving place. And I love it.