Goodbye Madurai

Madurai Travel Blog

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I gave sweets today.  Why, because it was my last day at work.  Well really, my last ½ day at work as I left at 12:00pm.  But why sweets?  Because I found out in March of last year that is customary to give everyone a cookie or some candy on your birthday.  Now, this was strange to me.  On my birthday I want to receive gifts, not give them.  Then again, for the last many years, I’ve developed a habit of throwing myself a party.  Not because I want to celebrate me, but because I love it when all my friends come together; that does not happen that often with our busy lives.  The year before last, I rented a suite at the W, invited everyone, bought food and alcohol, and we partied until we were almost kicked out of the hotel.  But that is a wholly different story. 


Cleary, today was not my birthday, but still I bought candy for everyone because that is the custom.  As I drove with the National Director’s wife Cynthia and my Bangladeshi friend/intern Kushru to the airport I began to think about it and the last six months at People’s Watch.  As I went around to each person at PW distributing the 2 Kgs of candy I bought that morning, there were some tears, many smiles, many “Thank Yous” and “all the Bests.”  Quite a few, “Please don’t forget me” and several “I will never forget yous”. 


As I crossed from to room, shaking hands, looking into the dark eyes and brown skin that has become so familiar to me over the last 6 months, I realized that realistically this would be the last time that I would see everyone together, and probably the last time I would see many of them.  So familiar have they all become to me, that I forgot I was white.  These people were my “family” and my friends, though I only knew about 20 of the 80 by name, they all wished me “all the best”.  Distributing the sweets as I said goodbye, I thought it fitting that all goodbyes should be flavored with a taste of pleasantness. 


Of course there were times of frustration and fatigue during the volunteership– when I was working 14-hour days of mind-numbing editing of horrendous cases of police torture; and humor in some in which a black magician is summoned to identify the culprit or a witchdoctor delivers a lemon to the guilty party thereby solving the police investigation.  And maybe that is all part of life (I’m feeling a bit symbolic/metaphoric at the moment – roll with me).  I mean, finding the humor in the mundane.  Finding laughter in fatigue and in monotony.  That is what we did.  Staring at an apparently insurmountable number of fact findings that required editing, we worked as methodically as we could- never really seeing the summit, just a series of short goals and the hope that we would reach the top. 


How can I possibly summarize my work at People’s Watch?  Reflecting back now, at the countless hours, no it’s not countless, I can say I worked 6 days a week, 4 weeks a month, for 6 months, at 10 hours per day, plus many all-nighters and 7-day work weeks – probably a minimum of 1600 hours.  Sitting in the Chennai airport, cross-legged on red checkered airport seats, I cannot get my head around it, or give you specific memories, just a collage of flashpoint images of the people who colored my 6 months at PW.  So, I’ll spare you, and I have a lot of photos that I can share with you for the stories.  


Yesterday, PW gathered at lunch to bid me farewell.  Ananth, Pradeep, Anita, Rada, Cynthia, and Henri spoke on my behalf.  They thanked me for my efforts and complimented my methodical and organized approach.  They thanked me for being a hard worker and I realized, maybe for the first time as my friends spoke, how deep my friendship had grown over the months I was at PW.  I find again that I feel I’m wasting my time trying to write what pictures can better tell, that it would be impossible to recount all the memories from the last 6 months.  I think it is worth mentioning though, that the last week, as I slowly concluded my life in Madurai, trying to piece it together in my head, and say goodbye to this chapter, I found that the things I found meaningful, were the things that were “normal”.  I didn’t rush to the Menakshee Temple, or reflect on the trips to Munnar, Kodaikanal, Rameshwaram, Pondicherry, and Courtallam; though those were fantastic excursions and getting away was very much needed.  Instead, I found myself walking slowly down the dirt road to Yoga Menakshee’s house for yoga, looking at the “Keep Fit” sign, the dust weightlessly dancing behind the yellow auto-rickshaw honking and rattling over the broken ground.  I stopped to photograph the cows tied along the sidewalk, sleeping before their mounds of excrement, or patiently chewing and drooling in the morning.  I said goodbye to the family of goats, born and now living next to the garbage reinforced stream bank.  I saw the overloaded bus, with people squeezed out doors, clinging on unseen handholds as the bus, sharply tipped to the left from the weight of bodies packed into and around its doorways, barreled down the road with smiling faces turned to stare at me walking back to the guesthouse while I read Midnight’s Children.  I bid farewell to the barefoot open-shirted Indian men in the little shack of a restaurant next door – where with bare feet and the occasional sprinting rat, we ate our meals served by a lungi wearing man who, with bare-hands dropped parotta onto my banana leaf plate, always with an indelible smile.  I watched with renewed fascination as the 8-10 year-old dark girl carried firewood atop her head, barefoot, along the sidewalk in the pre-dawn hours of the morning as I walked past her, in shorts with yoga mat over shoulder.  I saw her mother cleaning the charred ashes from before her bucket-stool, as she prepared to bake “muffins” over an open fire.  Of course, I only saw the “muffins” (cause I don’t know what they are called) when I walked back, 3 hours later, at 8:30am, the girl now gone, the mother in her stead selling muffins.  For months I watched them, and only on the last day did I buy one, I had to, for 1 Rupee.  It was good, and sweet. 


In the last weeks, every “hello” at the office felt like I was saying “goodbye”.  I would periodically reach over and grab Anitha’s arm, and look at her, and say “hello”.  I would walk by Uma, hit her chair, and say “hello Uma.”  Mostly, I tried to let each encounter imprint itself within me, in my mind and heart. 


I will miss the simple things.  Annanth was the first man I held hands with in India, as he so casually held my hand on Valentines Day – the end of my first week with PW in Kanakumari.  We hugged goodbye yesterday after my last dinner at Kumar Mess.  Hugs, I miss yous, holding hands, hands on shoulders – now so normal.  Pradeep, our “leader”, wished me goodbye - I think I lost the words to say goodbye.  I didn’t know how.  I smiled, perhaps unable to address the reality that this chapter is ending, or perhaps too lost in the enjoyable feeling of friendship and the excitement for upcoming adventures.  Uma, my “little sister” cried as I climbed into the car for the airport.  Its not that I don’t feel sad, I do.  But I feel loved and that overpowers the feeling of leaving.  But it’s also easier for me as I’m returning home – and now really returning home with only 3 weeks left.  And I’m both excited about it, and not ready to leave India. 


I never had any idea that I would make an impression on anyone’s life here.  I worried whether I would adequately fill the job.  I am reassured I did, and that I assumed the workload for so many people – who already were overworked.  I did it, and for the most part, with a smile. 


I think I have to leave the rest, for now, to photos, and the memories they stir as I look back at myself, as I age and wonder how I did it when I was younger.  The names will fade, the memories will fade, and I probably will lose touch with many as our very different lives take us in very different turns.  The guesthouse room where Dorian, Neville and I sweat for 3 months beneath mosquito nets and the swirl of fans will lose its dinginess and I will forget the feeling of waking in sweat crispy sheets damp from heat of the night and the ineffective two swirling fans.  The cockroaches of my mind will recede back into the drains of time, just as they did in the bathroom, as time blurs reality, illusion and memory. 


However, now I’m filled with love and sentimentality for everyone who made me part of their lives and their family.  And so this goodbye, to me tastes sweet.  Handing out sweets today, remember that is where I started – though I still don’t know the actual reason for this custom- I am glad I left everyone there with something pleasant.  Because, really that is what life is about, isn’t it?  The chance to help for a brief time, whether it’s a moment, a day, 6 months, or how ever long we are so blessed to breathe; to leave an after-taste, a memory, the reminding scent of the best human we can be and a taste friendship… 


Oh, and, perhaps you will appreciate this.  I bought 2 kgs of sweets to hand out this morning.  After distributing them to the entire office (and two people took two each) I looked at my virtually empty box, counted 8 pieces.  “Keith,” I asked, “How many people are in the meeting in Henri’s office?”  “There are 8,” he said.  It was serendipity that guided me to People’s Watch; and it is with serendipity that I say goodbye today- auspiciously on 08.08.08! 

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photo by: Stevie_Wes