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Published: October 12th 2019
I really enjoy “hanging” with an auto rickshaw driver I met last year, Anand. He loves hauling foreigners around Madurai, showing them the least visited places, especially outside the city.
This morning I asked him to take me to the Narasimha Temple nearby, a very old temple with a lion-headed deity. I’ve visited him before, and the deity has always captured my heart when I stare at his black head and powerful eyes.
But it was the journey there and back that gave the surprises.
The early morning light was just right on a nearby temple situated on a bed of granite.
“Stop stop! The light is good!”
We pulled over and I began snapping photos of the buildings. Then I noticed several men moving about in the open area beyond. They were setting up the warp threads for a sari. Not just one sari, but six of them—continuous strands of cotton threads stretching over 36 meters.
The three men said they come every 15 days from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM, from the other side of the Elephant Mountain to this open place to set up the sari threads which would be handwoven later
by weavers. They were cleaning and untangling the threads, and would roll them on a big roller to take back with them. As recently as seven years earlier many people still were setting up for handloom weaving, but since nearly all saris are woven by machines now, hardly anyone does this work.
They are of the Saurastrian caste, known as the traditional weavers in the Madurai area. The group migrated from somewhere in the Gujarat area centuries ago, and settled in the south. They speak their own language that has its origins in the north, but has been influenced by all the languages they encountered along the path of their migration.
Each man knew what to do—how to handle the threads, how to stretch them just so, how to straighten them for the final step of rolling the bundle. For their morning work they would each make about 500 rupees, and would go on to another form of labor afterwards to earn income.
I asked them how to say “goodbye” in Saurastrian, and we parted.
After a brief visit to the temple, on the ride home Anand and I stopped at a tea stall we had
discovered a previous day. I wanted Anand to photograph me sitting among the men who were drinking tea and reading the newspaper outside of the stall.
I engaged in an animated conversation with the man next to me, who was a farmer from outside of town. I asked him what vegetables he grew, and he listed a string of them. He mentioned “ladies fingers” which I translated into the Tamil words for “ladies” and “fingers” which I thought was very clever.
Then I insisted on telling him the English word for the vegetable, “okra.” I repeated it several times, loudly, to make sure he understood it. Anand was snapping photos and chuckling away. A nearby policeman was listening as he sipped tea, and the guy sitting on the other side of me stopped reading his newspaper to listen to me trying to converse in Tamil and teach the farmer how to say “okra.”
After we left, Anand pulled off the road and turned around laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You know that word, okra? That’s a very bad word in Tamil. It means “f***.”
“Oh no, oh no, oh no!” I covered my
mouth and started laughing. The policeman, the guy with the newspaper, that sweet innocent farmer, even the shopkeepers—they all heard me saying “okra” loudly, repeatedly, emphatically.
I‘m sure they will always remember the foreign lady who gleefully chanted the “F” word in the tea shop!
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