sirisa clark

the things I do and the words I choose

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Ben’s Guest Blog: India Encounter #4 – “Choose Your Weapon”

The sandy arena below us was bathed in the light of hundreds of ritual candles, and the array of fearsome weaponry along one wall cast menacing, flickery shadows up at the audience. The lithe performers filed in, made a short devotion to the weapons, the gods and their master, and began the show.

Kalari. No, it’s not a coincidence that it sounds like a combination of ‘Kerala’ and ‘Karate’, though ‘Kung Fu’ would be closer. Either way, it’s definitely the South Indian combination of gymnastics, martial arts and all-round badassery, and we were being treated to a demonstration in the cultural centre of Kumily. These guys had some serious moves, and while the martial arts were clearly 100% choreographed, they weren’t holding back, sparks flying from their blades, lances and flails and illuminating the dark arena like lightning. The demonstration lasted an hour, but felt more like ten minutes.

Finally, all the performers trooped back out, took a bow and gave a wave. The lights flickered back on overhead. “Now,” called the master, “Someone come down.” His arm extended towards me and his eyes met mine. With a a sudden pang – part excitement, part anxiety – I rose to my feet, filed down my row of seats to the top of the stairs, removed my shoes and descended to the floor before I could come up with an answer to ‘what’s about to happen here?’ The last piece had been a pretty cool ring-of-fire circus leap – was this some sort of audience participation gig to finish things off?

The master shook my hand with a big friendly grin, completely at odds with the slashing ninja beast who had just entertained us. Our conversation was one I’d had a thousand times in the previous few months.

“Your good name, sir?”
“Ben, and yours?”
“I am Surya. You are from?”
“London, England.”

All pretty standard, and enough to put me back at ease despite the very palpable sensation of every audience member’s gaze fixed on me, the blindingly pale westerner with the crazy hair. But I was wholly unprepared for what was next.

Surya took my arm, turned me towards the wall bristling with offensive metalwork, and said coolly into my ear:

“Choose your weapon.”

The air around me climbed ten degrees, and the ambient noise disappeared. I was in complete silence as my legs, against all notions of common sense and self-preservation, carried me towards the row of spears, swords, shields, flails, pikes, and a whole other bunch of things I didn’t recognise. So this was it. The final act. Choose your weapon.

The thoughts came thick and fast. What afforded me the best chance of survival? Sword and shield? Could I back out now? Maybe just break and run for the stairs? Too late, my hands, clearly in league with those turncoat legs, were reaching for a shortsword and a round metal shield, which a sniggering Kalari flunkie strapped onto my left arm.

Shaking like a leaf, I turned back to the master, resigned to my fate. British man hacked to death in ritual ceremony.Smiling more broadly than ever, Surya put an arm across my shoulder, and turning me towards Rani and Siri up in the gods, said, “Now, photo!” I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, or just hug him. In the end I just held a pose for a moment or two, surrendered my weapons and withdrew as quickly as I could.


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Ponggalo Ponggal!

Happy Pongal y’all!

Kolam on the streets of Pondi

Today Tamil Nadu is celebrating the harvest festival. Outside shops and homes the streets are decorated with kolams, intricate geometric designs drawn by pouring sand with the fingers, and coloured with the most vibrant glittering dyed sands, wow! Up at the temple people are buying lotus flowers to offer to the gods, and dropping rupees in the temple elephant’s trunk to receive a head-tap blessing (did we partake? Why yes we did).

Last night in our hotel I overheard the resident Australian guy (dictionary-definition of an irascible old coot) asking the manager why the Hindus revere and celebrate the cow for Pongal but not the buffalo. It turns out that while the cow is associated with the goddess Lakshmi and wealth and prosperity, the buffalo is associated with the god of Death, and as he put it, nobody wants to invite him into their homes…

In case you’re wondering why we don’t have an awesome harvest festival back in the UK to keep us in touch with the land and its wealth: my friend, it is called Lammas Day and it’s the 1st of August, look it up. Why isn’t this awesome festival being celebrated far and wide? Well why indeed, but I think I’m going to start when I get home, please join me!

Now lest you think that all our time in Mamallapuram was spent in shops, let me assure that we saw the sights. And what sights! I’ll be honest, when we first hit Mam (as it is affectionately known) I thought “okay, nice bit of seaside touristville, not much going on, but a nice place to relax for a couple of days and eat pancakes and buy souvenirs…”

Then we went to explore the local mandapams (temple porches apparently) and my godfathers, the place is stunning. The local landscape is dominated by huge boulders, the most famous of which is known as Krishna’s Butterball, a massive boulder perched on the slope of another boulder that looks like it should roll down any minute. We guestimated it to be maybe 50 to a hundred tonnes, but who knows? In fact it’s stuck there so fast that the British reportedly tried to shift it with a team of elephants back in the day and got nowhere.

As if the natural wonders of the landscape were not enough, in the 7th century the good people of Mam applied their local craft of stonemasonry to the land and carved a series of stunning temples into the scattered rocks and boulders. You can stand inside a porch carved into the rock and admire bas-relief of Shiva reclining. Now god help me this next bit is going to sound like the most irritating traveller toss, but the combination of clambering around on giant boulders and admiring the stonework of ancient civilizations totally reminded me of Great Zimbabwe. There I said it, now kick me in the teeth please.

All that said, the carvings of Mam make for one awesome day’s sightseeing, maybe two if you stretch it out. So after four nights in the town, we were ready to move on to Pondicherry.

Pondi is an ex-French colony, giving it a slightly different flavour from other Indian towns. For one thing the roads have names like “Rue Suffren” and “Rue Victor Simonel”, and they are often lined with very lovely Gallic colonial buildings. The tourist part of town centres on the beachfront, a long stretch of red sand walkway above a rocky shore and huge green-brown waves smashing against it, perfect for se promener or an evening game or petanque.

Some of you may well be thinking “a pretty Gallic town named Cherry, surely this is right up your rue, petite Cerise?” And yes, Pondi is very pretty, but as with so many of the pretty ones in this life, it’s also a little (whisper it) dull. We’ve been here two days now and are fast running out of things to do, having exhausted many of the chic coffee houses as well as the ‘sitting on the shore staring wistfully at the waves’ possibilities.

There are some very pretty Catholic cathedrals in town though, so today we popped in to visit one of those. Beautiful French confection on the outside, garish neon altar decorations and madonnas in plastic princess tiaras on the inside. We spotted one curious statue of the Madonna and as we drew nearer, the conversation took this turn:

Siri: Ben, does uh… does that Madonna have tentacles poking out from under her robes?

Ben: What the…? Yeah, it kinda looks like she does!

Siri: …Well no wonder she was a virgin.

Now on closer inspection it transpired that Our Immaculate Lady was in fact trampling a serpent underfoot (as were other icons of the Madonna around the courtyard). But for anybody who – like us – have been avid watchers of the cartoon Drawn Together in the past, the statue couldn’t help but bring to mind the unfortunate “octopussoir” of Princess Clara:

Our Lady of the Tentacle Feet


The Blessed Virgin

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Ben’s Guest Blog #4: A Glossary of Indian Roads

The Indian road user has a number of quirks and habits setting him or her aside from what a Westerner might expect from a typical motorist. As such, the following glossary, gleaned over the past few months, maybe of use to those planning a visit.

  • Horn: A device for making your car run more efficiently, even when stationary. Remember – the more you press, the further your tank of petrol will go!
  • Lane: Decorative paint markings on wider roads.
  • Motorcycle: A vehicle for transporting up to five people. (Two up front and three in the back.)
  • Pavement: The name given to the three inches of road directly adjoining the buildings on either side. It is, on occasion, considered polite to scan this area for pedestrians, though not if this is likely to impede or slow your journey, mobile phone call, or hair-combing.
  • Pedestrian: Pedestrians are to the motorist as those flexible poles are to downhill slalom skiers. As long as they’re still just about standing after you’ve passed, don’t worry too much.
  • Rickshaw or Tuk-tuk: A thrilling three-wheeled fairground roller-coaster, found in most cities and many towns. A ride costs 20-50 rupees and can last anything up to 15 minutes. Please keep your head and arms inside the vehicle!
  • Roundabout: A chance for normally level-headed motorists to set aside the strictures of highway codes and common sense for a short period and indulge in some relaxed, chaotic road-based fun. Sort of like a free-for-all dodgem ride.
  • Speed Limit: A theoretical upper bound on allowed velocity. Generally irrelevant as before you can reach a speed of more than 30mph, you will have reached the next traffic jam.


mmmm, spendahol

The spendahol continued to flow like wine in Mamallapuram, and we lapped it up like old bums.

Ben was in serious need of a shirt, having packed exclusively heavyweight cotton t-shirts and needing an alternative to stealing mine (which was originally his, but you know, whatever). He really wasn’t feeling the hippy clothes in the tourist ghetto in Mam though, which as the guide puts it “sells Indian clothes no Indian would wear”. So we headed into the more Indian parts of Mam and checked out the shirt shops there, but these shirts were too much like something you’d find in an office, or else lurid cowboy checks. We beat a hasty retreat, and I teased him that he didn’t want the clothes an Indian would wear either.

Finally, the day before we left Mam I was walking past a shop full of dresses that looked suspiciously like Primark-fare (interspersed with the hippy shops and Indian shops are a few selling secondhand western goods it seems). Attracted by a Ganesh t-shirt I nipped inside, and discovered a shirt of the sort I felt was sure to delight Ben. Loose, airy, brightly coloured with a Hawaiian-style hibiscus print. I skipped out of the shop with glee and dragged him back by the hand. This was the shirt. Unfortunately it was a little big, and so was the price of 350 rupees (that’s about five pounds in the old money, but to put it in perspective for you, 25% of our daily budget).

So we set about haggling. We had the guy down to 250 and Ben was pressing for 230, threatening to walk out of the shop and catch a bus to Pondicherry. The desperate shopkeeper said “okay, I call my master to ask if it’s okay”. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to reach him, we said forget it. The poor shopkeeper looked a little stricken, and then suddenly grabbed the shirt and said “okay, I sell it to you for 200, but you must not tell my master. You must not tell anyone! Quick, hide it in your bag! If my master finds out I will lose my job!”

I’ve still no idea whether this was genuine or the most accomplished sales acting I’ve ever seen, but needless to say we stuffed the shirt in our bag and left sharpish.

This little feat was followed by the location of yet another Tom Robbins book we haven’t read (I’m starting to worry a little about Robbins overdose, three more novels winging their way from London with my sister next week).

But the spendahol frenzy reached its zenith (or nadir, depending on your view of conspicuous consumption) as we walked to the 5 rathas monument, on a road lined with stonemasons’ shops. Passing a stunning statue of Shiva, we stopped to admire the artist’s carved marble elephants. We were instantly captivated: an elephant with a back carved into an elaborate lattice, with a smaller elephant carved within it, and a third elephant inside that! After some umming and ahhing about how the hell we would get it home, and the very kind offer from our friend Dan to transport the pachyderms to Bristol (thank you again Dan!), we paid the man 2000 rupees to take home the most stunning souvenir imaginable.

Now it’s beans and rice and a 180 rupee room for a week to try and atone…

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Ben’s Guest Blog: India Encounter #3

Our first view of Chennai – from the deck of the MV Nancowry – wasn’t inspiring. Clearly following the demolition of some dockside edifice, the jetty was strewn with rubble. We navigated our way down the heaving gangplank onto the shore after three days at sea – in bunk class, no less. The 1980s-Beirut surroundings couldn’t dent our good humour – no more ridiculous ferry journeys! Ever!

Indian officialdom swung into action as we reached the jetty, a guy in standard issue dress shirt & porn star ‘tache asking us to ‘please wait here – immigration’. No problem.

But ‘immigration’ wasn’t the official-looking gruff type we were used to; instead up sauntered a young, slim lady no older than us in a fantastic technicolour sari. She introduced herself: “I am immigration.” We handed over our papers.

With a slightly troubled expression, she asked us in her fair-to-middling English, “How many are you?” We exchanged a brief, puzzled expression other. “Er, two?”

The expression dug in. “No, I mean, how many of…”

Ah. I felt a warm flush of realisation. The poor girl was clearly looking for the right term here, and fully aware that she had just entered a huge international minefield of potential offence. I had a bucketload to hand: Foreign nationals? Tourists? Non-Indians? I even knew the answer – the two of us and a very pleasant French couple. But was I rescuing anyone from this wonderful moment? Was I hell. The pause hung in the air for a delicious few seconds, before Ms. Immigration gingerly placed her weight:

“…you people?”

Boom! I couldn’t keep the grin from my face any longer, and I couldn’t keep the laughter out of my voice:

“Us people!?” Ms. Immigration’s eyes flew straight to the floor. I was too ecstatic to sustain any torture here. “Four, here come the others now.”

“Thank you.” She flicked to our Indian Visas and stamps and handed back our papers with a visible flush, but without a trace of eye contact. We slung our rucksacks over our shoulders and headed off for the bus into town, giggling all the way.


A woman of the cloth

I’ve had a bit of a change in attitude to attire since arriving in India. Early on, following the advice of the guidebooks, I was all about discreet respectful dressing, covering myself up from ankle to wrist for modesty in the day and mosquito protection in the night. But you know what? People stare at me no matter what I wear. Dudes stare at me if I’m in my salwar kameez, if I’m in an ankle-length dress, if I wear trousers and a shirt or shorts and a vest. And dude, you’re walking around in a dirty wifebeater and what is essentially a tablecloth you’ve fashioned into a mini-skirt! Now I realise the double standard exists because a flash of your hairy thigh is not going to drive anybody into a dangerous sexual frenzy, but if I have to put up with that, you’re going to have to cope with my bare shoulders and knobbly knees…

Anyway, getting around with essentially a week’s worth of clothing for 6 months is taking its toll on me a little. I miss my wardrobe. This may come as a bit of a surprise to those of you who know me to live in a jeans and t-shirt uniform, but I secretly worship at the altar of fine tailoring (true story: there currently resides a box in my dad’s loft labelled “Siri’s box of impractical dresses”. Because honestly, where is one meant to wear a floor-length blue velvet dress, or a peacock-inspired beaded Donna Karen mini-dress with kimono sleeves, or indeed one’s vintage kimonos?)

Being of roughly similar proportions, Ben and I have taken to swapping clothes from time to time to relieve the monotony (although I have yet to talk him into the Salwar Kameez…) To my chagrin though, he persists in being taller and slimmer than I, and the trousers that cling to my middle like a suffocating needy ex, hang with a cool insouciance from his snake hips. Bitch.

Now, when we first arrived in India, I pretty much sneered at the hippy brigade and their uniform of drop-crotch MC Hammer trousers and Om-symbol t-shirts. I did the hippy-chic thing in the 90s and could give it a miss this time. But, as with all ridiculous fashions (hello skinny jeans! I still hate you!), repeated exposure to the image of beautiful slim tanned goddesses wandering around in these ridiculous pantaloons have worn me down, and established the look in my mind as A Good Idea.

So this is the context in which we arrived in Mamallapuram, tired and stinking after three days on the boat in the same ropey vest top and tatty shorts, to a kaleidoscope of sari-silk blouses, billowing parachute trousers, wraparound dresses in jewel colours, mirrored shoulder bags, silver jewellery, tooled-leather sandals… Reader, my head was turned. Ben took one look at me and said “you know that scene in Terminator where you see everything in the Terminator’s vision, automatically scoping, scanning and analysing everything in sight? That’s what I picture happening in your head right now”.

I am now the proud owner of a new floral sundress (bare shoulders and knees, in your face India!), a Ganesh t-shirt, and big droopy Princess Jasmine trousers (I managed to resist the drop-crotch MC Hammers). I think maybe it’s Ben’s turn for some new clothes…

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Snakes on a beach

So apparently there are snakes in paradise, did you know about this? Not just allegorical ones, but actual venemous ones, that pop up in people’s huts, and curled up under logs 10 feet from you on the beach!

I had a couple of hairy moments of total panic once this fact had made itself apparent to me, but surprisingly I discovered that I couldn’t maintain my terror 24/7, and sometimes the thought of snakes dropped completely out of my head, allowing me to enjoy a very merry Christmas and New Year on the beach with Ben! I hope you all had a lovely festive period too!

We’ve been back to Havelock after a brief but unsatisfying flirtation with Neil Island, and spent the past two weeks descending into a kind of sun-dazed torpor, playing frisbee on the beach in the day and drinking rum in the evenings, making friends with Danes, Dutch, Isrealis and even the occasional Brit! Christmas Eve we had a rave on the beach that was pretty awesome, and spent much of Christmas day just lying around recovering and feeling a little homesick when we spoke to our folks. We played a little game of “things we would do if we were back home”, but I’m not sure if that helped the homesickness or not…

After spending the last day of 2010 getting sunburnt on the beach, we saw the New Year in at another beach party on the other side of the island (we got a lift there in the back of a pick-up truck with 20 other revellers – it’s funny how quickly you can make friends when you’ve got your knees pressed to their chest and you’re clinging onto the back of their shirt for dear life as you speed over potholes in the dark). The highlight of the night was dancing with Ben to Eastern Jam (thank you Lauric, the French dubstep DJ!) on the beach at midnight, as fireworks exploded in front of us. Lowpoint was probably the interminable wait for a bus to take us back to our side of the island…

Now we’re back in Port Blair for the last time (hello comfy beds, solid walls, hot shower and TV!) and catching our boat back to the mainland this afternoon. God knows how long it’s going to take this time, but we’ve bought a bunch of provisions to help get us through. Neither of us are feeling great at the moment, and this time there’s no promise of tropical island paradise at the end of the boat journey to help us along. But truth be told, we’re getting a little bored here, we’re ready for the some mainland action again and new sights! And we’ve got something even better to look forward to: in a couple of weeks my sister is flying out to meet us and travel with us for three weeks! We’ll be hitting up Kerala and Karnataka together, and these are the parts of India I’ve been most looking forward to, but Rani’s visit makes it about 10 times more exciting!

So, probably another week before we can blog again. Keep up the lovely comments and emails please, we love to hear what you’re up to back home. And also please remember that although my phone can’t make calls or send texts, I can totally receive texts! For the past two months the only people who’ve been texting me have been my hairdresser and Virgin mobile 😦 I got majorly excited when my phone rang a couple of weeks ago, only to answer and find out I was paying 1.25 a minute for a sales call from Taste London…