Meet the Neighbors: a Madurai Housing Development

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September 29th 2019
Published: September 29th 2019
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A friend invited me to stay at his house with his mother. It is located about six kilometers from the heart of Madurai, the Meenakshi Temple. I accepted his offer, even though transportation to the city interior can be a challenge, since buses are infrequent and I instead need to call a taxi.

But participating in an Indian family’s household in a neighborhood is worth the inconvenience. Their small apartment is tucked into a row of interlocking, identical units, each with a balcony and a pullout on the first level for parking a scooter, motorcycle, or car. Yesterday a cow had parked himself in one of the pullouts of a nearby house and looked very comfortable munching its cud near the doorstep.

Dogs roam the streets. Most are friendly, but two males took a dislike to me and barked wildly. An adorable dog with one pointy and one floppy ear peeks above the railing from the second story of a house across the street. His eyes follow me around as I walk on the street below. I’m told that the two male dogs who snarled at me did so because of the flop-eared dog in that house. I haven’t quite figured that one out.

In the mornings and evenings I stroll around the neighborhood—a grid of relatively wide streets of both small and large houses sporting weird Roman columns. One man started building the houses in 2002, and he prided himself on creating a neat and orderly development. Mature trees now line some of the streets. Posted signs on houses display the names of the occupants and their station in life: “Advocate High Court,” “Assistant Professor English,” “IT Specialist.”

If I want to meet people I just greet them and practice my Tamil. One morning a man invited me inside his house, where I met his wife of 42 years and learned about his family. I chatted in Tamil with a woman passing by and she proclaimed she was very happy because I spoke with her. There’s Parvati who tends a small stall offering puja items, fresh milk, and various snacks in front of the local temple dedicated to Ganesh. Her husband splits his time between helping her and sitting on a low cement wall nearby with five older men. One of them told me they sit there every evening and exchange “meaningless talk—gossip.”

“I thought only women did that,” I said. He didn’t get my humor and lectured me about the role of women in the home.

While hanging out with Parvati I met the married couple from across the street who had just arrived back from their long day of work at HCL. They acted as if I should know the place.

“What is it?” I asked.

“IT,” they said, and pointed to their name badges hanging from lanyards around their necks. Of course everyone knows IT. Technology, computers, technical stuff. They like the work because they only work five days a week, unlike many Indians who work six days a week for ten-hour days.

Murugan tends the tiny tea stall next to Parvati’s stall, has the most beautiful smile, and insists I sit in his plastic chair while he cleans up for the evening. Sometimes I attract curious people to his stall, and he points at me and smiles. The traffic is light at night, which I like very much, and people seem to have time to talk.

While sitting at his stall the puja bell rang and Parvati rushed out of her stall beckoning me inside the temple. Heavenly-smelling women in saris—heavenly because of the jasmine in their hair—were praying and I joined them. They circled Ganesha, and I followed, taking the red kum-kum and sacred ash, then some prasad—sweet pongal blessed by Ganesha. I thanked Ganesha for bringing me there.

A young man carrying his mom on his motorcycle and his buddies on bicycles boldly stopped and greeted me as I walked, acting appropriately silly. He exercises daily to develop a “six-pack.” Mom kept saying “milk,” and I learned later she’s got five cows and carries a big pail of milk on her head, distributing milk to customers in the neighborhood.

The next day I saw her bearing the pail. ”It’s heavy, yes? Do you have a headache?” She said no, but her head wiggled back and forth balancing the heavy load. I think her neck muscles were very strong.

Her son found me the next day as he tended one of their cows and her calf.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“No name,” he said.

“Her name is Daisy, then,” Very original name. But he liked it. “And the baby is Buddy.” So I’ve named two cows in the neighborhood.

He took me to his house and I called, “Come, Daisy!” to the laughter of everyone on the street. His sweet dog, who also has no name, loved my attention, and planted his cow-poopy paws on my dress for which he was swatted. I scolded the young man and his father for hitting the dog, and told them he was a good boy and didn’t mean to be bad.

As I took photos in the morning a man severely questioned my intentions, suspecting that I was planning a future robbery of the houses. I assured him I was harmless and we’ve since become buds and he’s invited me to his home for morning breakfast. He is a math teacher and his wife is a tailor, and they’ve had a small stall for three years.

He revealed that being married to his wife was like a jail sentence for her. The thali, or the sacred wedding necklace that he tied on her neck at marriage, must never be removed, not until she dies. In a conspiratorial gesture I asked, “Well what if you removed it just for a moment?” I was thinking she could be free of the restraints of marriage briefly if she did so.

A look of horror crossed her face. “No, I wouldn’t. Meenakshi.” I could not understand the full Tamil explanation, but my understanding was that the goddess Meenakshi is behind the marriage and she would not allow a woman to do such a thing, or there would be severe consequences.

Then there are the children. Four of them scampered as I yelled out a greeting. I could see them hiding behind a wall, spying on my movements as I continued walking. I’ll be friends with them on a first-name basis before I leave this place! I thought, how nice it would be if I could be useful in this neighborhood—maybe I can teach these kids to speak English with an American accent.

The “gang” hangs out in the mornings across the street. I spy on them from my balcony. Just some old guys, sitting on some shop steps. They sit and sit and sit. One might have a newspaper, another sips from a cup, another is fully reclined taking a snooze. They don’t interact, they just share the steps. One guy took a special interest in me on my balcony when I laid out my yoga mat to do a few stretches in my black tights and tank top. It wasn’t a good idea—I quickly retreated into my room.

So this is just some of the magic of the neighborhood. Everyone seems to know where I’m staying and who I am, and they know I speak a little Tamil and now people are not so shy about approaching me.

I almost feel like I’m becoming a neighborhood mom, if such a thing is possible. Yes, that sounds right. And there are so many more mom-like happenings yet to cross my experience.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


30th September 2019
Out the Front Door:  cow butt, motorcycle, auto rickshaw .

I love this typical scene...
One of our hotels in India (in Mysore) was in a small local neighborhood, and the houses had a very similar look and feel to this housing development. Even though it was a hike to get anywhere, we really loved and valued the experience of being able to walk around freely and absorb the locality. Hope you can win over the two snarly dogs too :)
30th September 2019
Out the Front Door:  cow butt, motorcycle, auto rickshaw .

So True
Sometimes I think I see a totally different side of India when I live in a place like this for awhile. People emerge as individuals, each with a story, and I appreciate the diversity and sharing that inevitably happens.

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