When I switched on the wifi on my computer, it didn’t find a single network in the centre of Vellore, a middle-sized town in the hot and dusty plains of Tamil Nadu. Some things in South India do not change, it seems. Women with turmeric-yellow palms and faces, cows roaming the street, men urinating on the the pavement, the scent of sewage and spicy sambar, the leaning piles of paper everywhere in the Ideal Police Station. (And even if new things do arrive, the old stay too.)
I had arrived on a bus with Greg Simmons‘ horde of audio engineers on their annual field recording trip (which, as has become tradition, included an oto.3 recording session). They carried on to Goa, I figured Vellore might be a nice little place to visit, after bypassing it on my motorcycle journey two years ago. We had lunch and Greg’s army boarded their next bus while I walked in the direction of what I thought might be the centre. To my surprise, all hotels were full. Because of the harvest festival pongal, or was it my white face? Contemplating alternatives involving more long-distance bus rides, I stopped checking every hotel, just walked into a few that seemed friendlier. In one of those a solemn white haired man was willing to let me a room provided I’d get a stamp of approval from the police station – so it had been my foreignness indeed. Unfortunately, when I found the place the responsible officer had left for the day. No problem sir, I was assured before I was simply left alone, and indeed, after some convincing and leaving an extra deposit in the form of a large sum of money and my passport, I could move into my room.
My dinner was this trip’s first rava masala dosa, crispy and tasty. Quickly done too, in one of those dimly TL-lit halls, concrete floor and metal crockery banging through the reverb. I had a heavy piece of triple chocolate cake to look forward to whilst battling the mosquitos in my room and going through the results of the recording session, so went looking for some accompanying tea. But alas, it was too late, No tea anywhere, including the stall of the angel-faced chaiwallah next door – matching smile, hairy ork-ears provding counterpoint.
Had a good tea the next day though, at the barbershop, between shave and eyebrow-trim. The barber had sour breath and divided his attention between running a razor over my cheeks and a televised pongal cow ceremony. Water buffalo (one at a time) were set free into a crowd and excited men jumped at them and held on to their humps as long as they could. Anyone who made it for more than two seconds punched the air triumphantly while the cow, unbothered now, disappeared around the corner. The barber and his friends got very excited. The spectacle reminded me of what I’ve heard of Pamplona in Spain – raging bulls chasing the crowds in narrow streets. The much more sedate water buffalo featured in the Indian version seems merely scared and just wants to get away. No one got hurt. There seemed to be different teams in different uniforms, and mysterious people outside the camera frame kept throwing gifts down from a higher platform. The audience, apart from a few smiling tourists, was all male.
Freshly shaved, I took an autorickshaw to the bus station – and found a large, beautifully fortified temple complex just behind the Ideal Police Station, including guards in matching style. Would have been nice to check out. Next time. After this reacquaintance with South India and a nice stop on my way to a few days of relaxation in Bangalore, I got settled in Madras – make new friends at Hotel Broadlands, practice Indian pharans and American rudiments, unpack my ukulele, and enjoy bookshops and espresso at the Express Avenue Mall. I am now ready for our shows with oto.3, starting tonight, at Counterculture in Whitefield, Bangalore. On to the soundcheck now.