Page 5 of 7
Motel Mamalla, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India by Katie Fallon – Creative Nonfiction Editor
As I climbed the marble stairs, pushed through the large glass doors, and entered the comfortably air-conditioned restaurant, I felt the familiar sensation of being underdressed, messy, and downright plain looking. Our small group of Westerners stood out in Motel Mamalla, a drive-in vegetarian restaurant in the coastal town of Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. My dusty jeans, hiking boots, and simple brown button-down blouse contrasted sharply with the vibrant silk saris that virtually all Indian women wore. Additionally, their faces were decorated with small gold, red, purple, or jeweled bindis between their eyebrows, and their brown eyes were accented with perfectly blended liner, their arms encircled by gold bracelets.
My face was makeup-less, and besides some cheap silver hoops, the only jewelry I wore was a beaded elastic necklace that I’d bought a few minutes earlier from a child on the street; the girl’s skinny right arm had been heavy with necklaces, from her shoulder to her wrist. “Madam,” she’d implored, crowding close to me as I passed through the exit gate of Mahabalipuram’s Shore Temple, “Madam. Madam. Madam. Madam. Look. Madam. Three hundred. Two for three hundred. Madam. Madam.” After only a few days in India, I’d learned to ignore people on the street trying to sell me things. But for some reason I couldn’t ignore this girl. Both sides of her nose were pierced, her dark hair was pulled back into a neat braid, and her bare feet were dirty to the ankles. She wore a dull sari made of cotton, not silk. I’d guess she was eleven or twelve years old. I bought three beaded, handmade necklaces for two hundred rupees, about four US dollars. I walked away grumbling that I’d paid too much and almost immediately felt guilty—I should have paid more; I should have bought more necklaces; hell, I should have just given her money. I should have invited her to come with us to lunch.
After choosing a table and depositing my bag on a chair, I made my way to the restaurant’s hand-washing station, a common feature in South Indian eateries. The locals eat with their hands, specifically their right hands. But it was well known that Westerners chose to use utensils other than their fingers; by the time I arrived back at my table a fork and spoon had been neatly left on my placemat. The sun beamed through Motel Mamalla’s large glass windows, reflecting off the smooth wood tabletops. I pretended to read the menu and glanced around at the other patrons. While most of the customers appeared to be wealthy Indians, another table of Western-looking folks sipped coffee and finished their lunches.
Although fewer than 15,000 people reside in Mahabalipuram, its ancient archeological sites attract tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. The town’s rock-carved monuments, temples, and bas-relief sculptures are incredible to behold, and visitors can touch, climb on, and photograph these sites for a small fee (about 250 rupees per person, per site). I observed schoolchildren thronging around a life-sized carved elephant, a huge stone cow, and a sculpture of a roaring lion. Couples and families meandered through the stone halls of the towering Shore Temple. I commented on how well-preserved these 1,300-year-old structures were and on the absence of graffiti or trash; one member of our group answered, “Well, this is what having respect for your culture looks like.”
In addition to withstanding the tests of time and erosion, Mahabalipuram’s Shore Temple stood strong against another disaster: the December 2004 tsunami that devastated much of the region. Amazingly, when the ocean drew back more than 500 meters from the shore before the huge wave struck, manmade structures—on every other day hidden by the waters of the Bay of Bengal—were briefly visible to tourists and employees. These structures (which are now again underwater) are the focus of ongoing excavations and research by the Indian government.
When the other table of Westerners gathered their belongings, I focused on my menu. I decided on chana masala—a spicy chickpea dish—that I typically order at Indian restaurants in the US. My husband, being more daring, ordered the “South Indian Lunch,” sort of a sampler of the region’s specialties. Served on a large round tray, his meal consisted of nine small bowls of different foods. He also received two kinds of bread: poori, a round, “puffy” bread common in Southern India, and a flatbread. Neither of us knew the names of the foods in the small bowls, but they were all vegetarian and all delicious. My chana masala, too, was flavorful and similar to chana masala in the US—except for the spiciness. After the first bite my eyes began to water, my nose ran, and my throat tightened. For a moment, I actually felt nauseous. Thankfully, this passed, and I enjoyed my spicy, saucy chickpeas and cup of sweetened coffee. Another difference was the price; my chana masala cost 50 rupees and Jesse’s sampler, 70—about $1.50.
Completely sated, slightly sunburned, and heavily jet-lagged, we stumbled to our rented minivan and settled in for the hour-long ride back to the hostel where we were staying in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capitol city, population six million. As the van bumped along the road, I watched wandering cattle foraging in trash bins, unteathered goats lounging in the dust in front of a chai stall, and a woman in a turquoise sari driving a herd of lumbering water buffalo along the road’s shoulder. I rested my forehead against the cool glass of the window, and before I drifted off to sleep, I found myself again wishing that I’d paid more for the necklaces.
ECR, Mahabalipuram 603104, India
ECR, Mahabalipuram 603104, India