Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Twenty years ago, when I first visited the industrial town of Sivakasi near Madurai, it was a smelly, fly-infested place known for fireworks, match boxes, and low-quality offset printing. The industries that dominate the town and give its folks their livelihood remain the same, but the town itself has undergone a subtle transformation now. True, it continues to be a hot, dusty place with mounds of garbage piled up on the roadsides, but now, at least, you have proper hotels to stay in and decent restaurants where you can have a meal without risking a massive stomach infection.

Reaching Sivakasi itself was an effort: you had to make an uncomfortable overnight train journey from Chennai by a metre gauge line to Madurai first, from where it was another two-and-a-half hours of bone-shattering ride along a national highway up to Virudhunagar, where you turned left and drove along a small, ill-maintained country road, all the way to Sivakasi. Air-conditioned taxis were unheard of those days, so invariably you got down from the taxi, caked in dust and with aches and pains all over your body.

I will never forget my first visit to Sivakasi.

The hotel itself looks well-maintained from the outside in the early morning light. But I step into a dark, unlit lobby that smell of decay and disrepair; a surly clerk pushes a thick register towards me and gestures that I fill in the details. The ritual completed, he presses a bell when an old man appears from the darkness and tries to take hold of my overnighter. The clerk hands over to the old man the key to the room, a cake of soap, a pillow cover, and a bed sheet. The old man trudges up the staircase and shows me to my room.

I look around the room and my spirits sink to my feet. It is a fairly large room but has not seen a broom or a mop for a long time. There is dust everywhere and while I cover my nose with the handkerchief and try to open the windows, the old man proceeds to put on the cover on the pillow and sheath the dirty and stained mattress with the none too clean bed sheet.

But it is the toilet that destroys me. I take one look at the “Indian” type commode, streaked liberally with shades of brown, yellow, and green and encrusted at the edges with dark matter of indistinguishable origin and I am out of there, screaming. But there are meetings to be held and appointments to be kept. I brush my teeth and take a shower with my eyes shut tight and am out of the place in less than half an hour.

The whole day I survive on a bottle of water (purchased from the station in Chennai), a packet of biscuits and several cups of sweet, milky tea and coffee offered by customers.

But I have chalked out a two-day programme in Sivakasi. What is to be done? Staying in that hell-hole of a hotel is definitely out of the question. A colleague, who has accompanied me on this trip, suggest we take a bus to the town of Tirunelveli, 140 kilometres away, where, he assures me, there are better hotels to spend the night.

And thus we board the evening bus to Tirunelveli, where another adventure awaits us.


Vijay said...

yewww..what a description of the bathroom..good to see "Stepping Sideways" back in action...

harini calamur said...

that's what happens when i travel outside to shoot in and around smaller towns and villages.
the villages aren't too bad - but the small towns have loos out of hell. ugh !

Rada said...

@ Vijay: Thanks! I hope the description did not jar too much on your finer sensibilities!

@ Harini: I know. One of the things I enjoy when travelling abroad is the feeling you can walk into any public loo and be assured of a reasonably clean toilet.

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

LOL, very nicely described - I have stayed in a few of these places myself, and your description really brought it all back to (uncomfortable) life. :-)

Looking forward to the Tirunelveli story.

Maddy said...

yup - some of those loos can be dreadful - I remember one I saw in rajasthan...it was some small town near udaipur..

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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.