How I met Singaravelu (Or: The dilemma of labels, presumptions, and hypocrisy)

I was looking for a place to sleep for the evening. After my evening dip in a pond, in Vedaranyam, I was hanging out at a coffee shop, sipping on it slowly. The lady who served me the coffee was a typical tamil mami, who seemed quite annoyed by my appearance (yes, some people give an allergic pout face when they look at my unkempt features). But when she found out that I had bicycled all the way from Tuticorin, she was impressed. It is nice to feel the change in vibe when temperaments flip in a moment.

I was thinking about the temple in the centre of town, one that was supposed to take care of travelers especially well as it is ‘known for free food services’. A lot of people pointed me towards that direction. I hadn’t decided yet and I’ve already slept in a temple. I wanted something new. I was about to finish the coffee when uncle, who owns the coffee shop, walked by my line of sight. His wife, lady who served me the coffee, immediately briefed him about me and uncle had a solution right away.

“Go to that education office building 100 meters away – it’ll be safe and comfortable for you. Given what you want to do, they might be OK with you staying there.” Whether I am going to get a place to sleep isn’t the driving force because there is always a place to sleep, if you’re tired, in this land. But the proceedings of such a random encounter is always bountiful with improvisation, syncopation, and a sense of adventure.

The building was flowing with people, mostly men, the striped shirts and black/ dark grey trousers, deep brown skin tones, bushy, pokey moustaches, bald heads, hairs growing out of the ear canal and extending out for some heat and light which probably gave it the whiter shade – the epitome of the Tamil school-teacher appearance.

I spoke to a few of them, while struggling to make an explanation of who I was and what I sought. I realized that explaining to anyone that I was simply a traveler on a bicycle provoked no response of any value.They are blank, wondering what is going on: Why? How? Where does money come from? Who benefits? None of the dreamy, sexy explanations would work, although there are some who’d get it immediately like this man in the picture:

Here's a man who works real hard all morning and gets shit-faced by 4 PM every day. He lives with his wife behind a village by the edge of a casuarina jungle, because "those village folk are jealous and full of snobbery." I camped with them a few days watching their daily routine. They live a frugal life. The man denounces wealth. He earns only to drink, he says, which is true. The only things they buy are some rice, and few other necessities. They live off nature hunting rabbits, picking fruits, and fishing. If they didn't catch a hare, it'd just be rice unless they felt like fishing. The day before I was leaving the man fished some because he couldn't trap any rabbits that day. It had to be a grand last dinner he said, because until then they were feeding me only rabbit. He told me countless drunken stories: that he cooked rice for wild elephants and bison in the Nilgiri jungle; his son was a Liberation Tiger; he used to help smuggling grass and he smoked it since he was 9; he lived like Veerappan; he lived in the jungle all by himself for countless months; he used to be real wealthy and then they went through some dark times. He sounds deadly but they were extremely sweet to me because, he said, that I was the free-est person he ever saw and that the wealthiest man couldn't be half as free as me. They told me to watch out for bad people, when I was leaving. #bicycletouring #freedomisonthesaddle #surlybikes #freebird #indiabycycle #worldbybike #biketouring

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Then I begin to jolt them with a parallel, to which they catch on bright-eyed, and almost immediately and effectively – that I am here to ‘spread some awareness about the environment’ – which is legitimate for what it’s worth.

I have spoken to children on the way about cycling, its significance in a polluting city. I met and encouraged several people, shared with them the health benefits of cycling. An uneducated old man, I once met on the road, was euphoric when he heard that his bicycle was keeping him healthy. He had absolutely no idea that a bicycle was playing a  favourable role for his simple lifestyle. All his life, he viewed it at as a vehicle that took him from one place to another. He really seemed to have shaken positively, and relieved. A smile glazed through his eyes when he left the conversation.

Truth is, I have been spreading environmental knowledge throughout my journey but just not in a way that the ‘State’ can recognise it. I had thought of this before beginning my journey – that I would learn about the wildlife, trees, birds and geography of India as I go along. I couldn’t remember it all, and one of the things I learnt growing up is that to remember something difficult, it is good to share or teach the same to someone who doesn’t know it. I am not funded by anybody, I am not doing this for an organisation, I am not under a contract for any project. I am doing this because I want to know.

They find it hard to believe, recognise or digest that I am traveling on a bicycle to learn a bunch of things. At the same time, I hate to ignore their curiosity. That’s how you share, teach, and most importantly, more than the other two – learn.  You never find yourself conversing so often with strangers, catching them in the middle of their daily lives; and you begin to realise there is a world behind every pair of eyes, one that doesn’t have to do with any of those things you may read about in the news, films, media, books or anywhere. But it exists and it is absolutely real.

Of course, I had not conducted any workshops or any such programs during my journey on the environment, but it seemed fair to tell those people at the educational office building that I was indeed spreading environmental awareness, as it was the only thing they could relate to. In a matter of minutes, I managed a place for myself to spend the night in that building itself.

During those conversations, some folks kept dropping the name of a particular school principal. If you knew my history, you would know that my relationship with school principals has not been particularly positive which has led me to stereotype them. Habitually, I kept turning down the opportunity of having to meet this person. Because, apart from having an unappealing image of school principals, I could see that these guys think of me as an ‘environment campaigner’ on a bicycle. I hate that because I am not. But obviously when I mention that I am spreading environmental awareness, it will inevitably lead people to thinking of you as that person that appears in newspapers holding placards for that picture. Whether or not such people actually lead an environmentally conscious lifestyle, no one ever knows or cares; for the moment, I wasn’t really campaigning.

Finally, the principal himself made his appearance. He’d heard about me in those few minutes. I made an effort to explain my journey as a traveler and shared my interest and concern for the environment in general. The level of intellect had shot up at least by a pint, without conscious effort, making the distinction that I was talking to school teachers until then and now it was a school ‘principal’. I wasn’t happy with my snarky shift in judgement based on their position at their workplace.

He bought my hot brag, and suggested I could spend the night in his school as this building won’t even allow a fan to be turned on, and that they were only letting me sleep in the corridor. I still kept turning him down, as it never mattered to me where I slept as long I was feeling secure from hostile strangers. He wasn’t sounding desperate to get me out of there, but he would make me feel like I was missing a very important call. It was beyond just having a place to sleep for the night.

And then it happened – he invited me to talk in his school about my journey and the dreaded environment.

The thing is, technically, I could – given my interest in nature and environmentalism for so many years. And I definitely hold some strong views on the sustainability subject. But was I really leading an environmentally-conscious lifestyle to start talking? At that point, just because I was riding a bicycle, it didn’t give me any superiority anyone to talk about environmental issues. The hypocrisy of it rattled me.

But he persisted and ultimately won. He asked me to speak about anything – like my journey so far, and where I was headed. He convinced me to spend the night at the school and talk to students the next day. I gave up my imaginations of retiring for the night in that corridor, and followed him cycling through the village paths, imagining them to take me to his school. I was enjoying the tiny shortcuts, cruising confidently with all the luggage, as if I had been there and knew the way, while following the principal’s motorbike. We landed at the porch of his home. I knew it.

I was a guest there and it was already dusk; this was the epitome of Tamil panpadu, or so they say –

Would you like coffee or tea?

No thank you, I’m OK.

Are you sure? You must be tired.

No, it’s OK.

Your legs must be hurting.

No, I’m fine.

You cycled a long way.

OK, ‘maybe’ some strong filter coffee

By then I was sure they were going to let me sleep there and not by myself at the school. He didn’t seem like someone who would let a random stranger sleep in his school premises. But again, in situations like these, the willful care doesn’t stop with coffee  because ‘Tamil panpadu’ goes all the way.

During the filter coffee conversations, the principal began slipping into my details. He wasn’t too hot for climate change talks. He was humble and curious about me. Then he told me about a science teacher in his school, who I might be interested to meet. The principal invited the science teacher for dinner and we all had dinner. His name was Singaravelu.

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One thought on “How I met Singaravelu (Or: The dilemma of labels, presumptions, and hypocrisy)

  1. Pingback: A tree that grows – | freedom is on the saddle

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