This is my first time on a conducted tour: eight days in a Tamil Nadu Tourism bus, moving south from Chennai in short hops along the coast to Kanyakumari, and back via Madurai and Trichy. Our tour guide is the industrious Mr P.K. ‘Bonus Point’ Nandakumar, who proves ever willing to provide unscheduled stops at places of religious significance.
Jyothy and I are by far the youngest of the twenty-one tourists on board. The rest are between fifty and sixty-five years old, many just-retired with ‘settled’ children. The bulk of our group is Telugu-speaking; a few couples plus eight or ten members from a single family. They all tend to keep together. The outliers are a Bengali couple and an NRI lady who looks remarkably like—I hope she never realises—Johnny Lever. The men on the tour have worked in banks and PSUs, one has been a headmaster. Most of the women are housewives.
I learn much of this from a ‘self-introduction’ session organised by Mr Nandakumar after we leave Chennai. We step up to the mic at the front of the coach and state—Mr N is always exact in his directions—“name, place, what you are doing and designation”. The men, to a man, speak for their wives. Ms Lever says, “I’ve left my husband and come to tour India.” The other women burst into applause, as eloquent a self-introduction as any. They also proceed to ignore Ms Lever for the rest of the tour.
Mr N has been a tour guide for close to twenty years and he knows his flock eerily well. He’s brought along a stool that acts as a much-needed additional step while boarding the bus. He declares ad hoc restroom breaks that always have grateful takers. He announces a medical shop and there are people who’ve run out of their pills. It had struck me as odd that he would specifically ask us to mention designation while introducing ourselves, but a day into the tour I’m beginning to see how much it matters. The Headmaster is not simply a teacher, the Regional Manager did not just work in a bank. The official persona still lingers about the men and travel takes the aspect of an inspection tour. “How was the food?” one man asks me after lunch. I tell him I enjoyed it. He grimaces and shakes his head: “Not up to the mark.” Every aspect of the tour is up for comparison and assessment over the next week: food, the coach, rooms, the driving, sunsets, temples, even the gods.
I sit at a window near the back. The Regional Manager takes the aisle seat in front of me, reclines his backrest, and asks through the gap, “What do you write about?” I tell him. “Economics is more interesting,” he says and embarks on an epic monologue. I now know, among other things, that the national savings rate is down from twenty-three per cent to twenty-one per cent and that the high point of RM’s professional life was seeing the Allahabad GM pulled up for dozing off in a training session. I make strategic seating choices for the rest of the trip but am cornered in various other places. One morning after breakfast RM comes up to me and points at Jyothy, who is taking pictures in the distance. “I have thought of a poetic name for your friend,” he says. “She is Lens Lass.”
Lens Lass is less than half the age of the next youngest person on the tour (Team OT excepted). On the evening of Day 1, we go boating in the mangroves of Pichavaram. Seven of us in one rowboat, the ride is proving sedate, even somnolent, when the headmaster cries out to the boatman, “Slow! Slow!” LL tells me she is feeling trapped. It doesn’t help that Ms Lever is developing a motherly crush on her. There is even an attempt to create a rift in Team OT. LL is advised to be wary of me: “He appears to be a good person, but in this world you never know.”
Throw a stone in Tamil Nadu and chances are it’s chipped off an old temple. The tour itinerary is accordingly a blur of temples. Mr N also stops at many more along the way with the preamble: “Who wants a bonus point?” For the record, the under-fifty demographic never once raises its hands but the bus stops anyway. In temples, the dutiful LL prefers to take pictures in the outer halls and corridors rather than pay her respects along with the others. This causes Ms Lever no small amount of worry for LL’s soul. She once takes Rs 10 from LL to make a proxy offering. She also starts carrying an empty Tic Tac box that she fills with sacred ash to be applied on LL’s forehead. LL is much taller than Ms Lever and this renders frontal attack impossible. Ms Lever, therefore, chooses ambush and for a week the temples of Tamil Nadu are filled with squeals and clouds of ash that settle to reveal a daubed and distraught LL.
Also having trouble with temples is the Bengali gent. “I am a tourist, not a pilgrim,” is his refrain as he refuses to enter most temples and stands outside like a third dwarapalaka. He is also having trouble with the food. On Day 1, he seems pleased as he calls home and reports in a ringing voice the components of a South Indian breakfast and, later, a South Indian lunch. By breakfast, Day 3, he wants bread and butter, which is not part of the tour’s breakfast menu. The restaurant says they don’t have bread and it is only after the Bengalis leave that the European couple nearby get their toast.
The second day of the tour is ‘national integration day’. It is also the day of health—we visit the Vaitheeswaran temple, a dargah at Nagore and the church at Velankanni, all shrines believed to work wonders for one’s health. Still, the health quotient aboard the coach goes downhill as the tour progresses. Leg pain is endemic. Vomit-streaked windows and unusually unladen plates hint at gastric strife. There are multiple contenders for sleeping on the last seat of the bus while the able-bodied are out. On the penultimate day, in Trichy, Mr N tells us there are 400 steps to the Rockfort temple and most of the groups do not budge from their seats.
There is also an accident on the bus. Some people have shrewdly been buying five-litre containers of water to refill smaller bottles, and one such container falls on someone’s head from the luggage rack. There is blood, a trip to the hospital, stitches, a precautionary scan. For this to happen on pilgrimage, and right after covering multiple bases by going to three shrines of different religions all dealing specifically with bodily well-being, might easily cause one to wonder if anyone up there is listening.
Divine deafness apart, it can be questioned if even the general psycho-spiritual effects of pilgrimage are preserved in what is essentially devotional pub-hopping: roaring between temple towns in a comfortable bus, buying fifty-rupee tickets to beat the queues and paying quick obeisance at a couple of the more important shrines in the temple complex.
RM has strong opinions about religious laxness but seems conflicted in all sorts of ways. He reveals himself to be a radical Hindu nostalgist: “We have lost our culture in India. But the Indians in America are following the Vedas correctly.” It turns out his children live in the US, his grandchild is a US citizen and even as he says, “We must make our nation and our country proud,” he is wearing a neatly pressed ‘New York City’ T-shirt.
We spend every night in a different Hotel Tamil Nadu. The rooms are usually comfortable, but each hotel room has its own idiosyncrasies. The TV remote in Trichy can only change channels backwards and, in what is possibly a life-changing insight, I learn I’m only interested in a channel after it has blinked by. Thanjavur has that rare thing — a palace turned into a budget hotel. The palace part is expressed in bathrooms so large that not just bathroom singing but bathroom dancing and even bathroom middle-distance running present themselves as viable diversions. My own eye-stinging, slip-sliding debut in the latter activities occurs when the shower tap comes off and skitters away while I am soaped from head to toe. The accumulated baggage from different rooms — a mosquito swarm here, a temperamental ceiling-fan there, elsewhere a tap that turns droplessly before becoming a water-cannon — creates a constant hum of mild dread that makes it impossible to be completely at ease even in a perfectly comfortable room.
Mr N is quite the tyrant when it comes to the upkeep of time. This is understandable when it comes to reporting to the bus in the morning, or with instructions of the “be back in twenty minutes” sort, but he also dictates at what time we are to have dinner from the common buffet at the Hotels Tamil Nadu. One evening I’m losing an argument with a shower when there is pandemonium in the room beyond — the bell buzzes, the room phone and then my mobile go off, there is loud banging on the door. I rush out fearing the worst, but it is only Mr N telling me I’m ten minutes late for dinner.
Besides Team OT, the only other slackers are the Bengali couple. But they are hardened veterans of conducted tourism who have seen off many a Mr N. I tell them I’m from Bangalore and they go, “Ah, BangaloreMysoreOoty. We’ve seen it.” They have the air of conquest that habitués of conducted tours seem to acquire: “We’ve done the Northeast. We’ve finished Rajasthan.” Only Himachal seems to have put up any resistance: “It took us two tours to complete HP.”
Kodaikanal, Day 6, is the only day without temples. Mr N has to explain that “we are going to enjoy the climate and atmosphere”. We gaze listlessly from a couple of viewpoints, visit a shopping centre and we have finished Kodaikanal. We must return to the hotel by six lest the cold get to anyone and worsen the health situation. Lens Lass and I cannot take it any more. (My notes for the day read: “Breakdown from sheer boredom.”) We plot a temporary escape. We will go into town in the evening, check email, have a beer and eat at a restaurant that is not Hotel Tamil Nadu. Ms Lever has evidently been eavesdropping. She makes barbed comments about bottles, tells LL in a betrayed tone, “You think I don’t know anything, but I know exactly who you are.” RM has also been tuning in at other times, judging from a few comments he lets slip. (The next morning at breakfast, perhaps in apology, Ms Lever places a marigold next to a speechless LL’s camera.)
That evening, each time we ask for the internet place we’re told “Keep going up”, and the road only seems to get steeper. When we get there, the power goes out and I chat with the owner for a while. It turns out it is mostly the star hotels that have a restaurant with a bar but there’s always the government-run Hotel Tamil Nadu. We’re back where we started. But those couple of hours out in the bracing cold, with no set time to return, with no fixed path to take and not a temple in sight, remain my most pleasant memory of the tour.
The eight-day Tamil Nadu Tour leaves Chennai every Saturday at 7am from the Tamil Nadu Tourism office on Wallajah Road and returns the following Saturday by 6pm. Scheduled stops (N indicates night stay): Pondicherry, Pichavaram, Chidambaram, Vaitheeswaran Koil (N), Nagore, Velankanni, Thanjavur (N), Rameswaram (N), Suchindram, Kanyakumari (N), Madurai (N), Kodaikanal (N), Trichy (N).
Tariff: Rs 6,800 per person (non-AC coach and accommodation; includes two meals a day). AC coaches run in summer and AC rooms can be booked at an additional charge (Rs 11,400). Contact 044-25383333, [email protected]; tamilnadutourism.org; online booking at ttdconline.com.
Several state tourism authorities run similar bus tours in their respective states as well as neighbouring states (gujarattourism.com, karnatakaholidays.net, mptourism.com, etc). If you’re interested specifically in Tamil Nadu Tourism’s, they have a number of other conducted tours and packages, including a rail-cum-road tour (from Rs 10,500 for sleeper, from Rs 15,500 for 2A; ex-Ahmedabad, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata and Mumbai) of the state. There are also tours that start from Tamil Nadu and include other states, like Goa or the other three southern states (like the 14-day South India tour, which covers Tirupati, Mysore, Coimbatore, Guruvayur, Kanyakumari, Rameswaram, Pondicherry and Kanchipuram, and many places in between; from Rs 12,500 for a non-AC coach with non-AC accommodation).