Rural Tamil Nadu, part 3 (Wildlife)
Did you know there were mountains and waterfalls here in (near-)tropical South India? Neither did I, but I found out about them on a trip through the southeast part of the Western Ghats, near and in Tamil Nadu's Mundanthurai Tiger Sanctuary. The upside to all the draining and damming is the lovely expanses of lakes in the hills, along with all the waterfalls that come roaring down the cliffs where the rivers come in to feed them. Up in the sanctuary we took a boat ride across one of the biggest lakes, in a very long (15--20 seater) high-prowed wooden launch with a small engine. Believe it or not, the landscape is kind of reminiscent of the Hudson River Valley school (if you ignore a palm tree here and there): thickly wooded hillsides or steep cliffs falling down to the smooth water, waterfalls crashing over the rocks, a medium-high sky with layered clouds and all that soaked afternoon light. (I would think that there must be great rock climbing in some of these spots, too: next adventure tourism hot spot?)
Didn't see any tigers in the sanctuary (one of the rangers said you have to go out on an evening tour for that and stay the night in one of the lodges), but sighted some tiger chow in the form of spotted deer. Also lots of monkeys, especially cadging for handouts at the popular picnic/splashing spots near one of the waterfalls: a little gray monkey jumped right through an open car window and was thrown right out again, protesting. I never really got a clear program briefing on these excursions so it was pretty memsahib-style adventure touring, mincing along in my medium-heel sandals and second-best salwar suit over rocks and into boats and along paddy fields, carrying purse and parasol. It was lots of fun, though, and thank goodness the shoes are comfortable.
In Budapadi, a small town near Erode, the CFCA runs the Cor Jesu Nouet Industrial Training Institute, where boys from all over Tamil Nadu (mostly former CFCA sponsorees, if that's a word) get a sort of vo-tech high school training in auto repair or electronics or welding, etc., along with basic skilled-trade skills like tailoring. They were having their Christmas program/awards ceremony during my visit, and it was quite a show. I was especially interested to read, in the program handed out just before the kickoff, the item "ADDRESS BY DR. KIM PLOFKER", which I hadn't heard about before. Fortunately it was #6 on the agenda so I had time to get a little something ready. (This happened quite a bit during various stops on the tour, and I got pretty used to it: I can now knock out about a five-minute speech with about twenty minutes' advance notice. Fees reasonable. :)
I must say the students were pretty impressive; most of them (including the regional high scorer on some government standardized test) are the first literate ones in their families, and many of them come from some of the poorest kin and occupational groups in India. I thought it was a pretty good achievement that they put on a Christmas talent show at all, doing all the production and stagecraft and costumes and everything themselves, and I was prepared to be very appreciative of whatever they could manage to come up with. Folks, I have news for you: a rural Tamil Nadu ITI talent show makes a Jaipur "ladies' sangeet" look like a first-grade piano recital. (Of course, I haven't been to one of those in a while either: for all I know, nowadays the six-year-olds sail onstage in a wire harness and rhinestone suit and land on the piano stool just as they strike their first chord. Nothing would surprise me now.)
I wouldn't have expected young amateurs to attempt such an ambitious multi-stage, multi-level performance space, but they did pretty well with it overall (although the lighting design was a little heavy on the strobe for my taste, and there were a few noticeable glitches in the light and sound system synchronization, but hey, they're teenagers). Most of the performances were lip-synced song-and-dance numbers of the kind that are very familiar from Indian "masala" movies (a lot of bhangra dancing), but some were clearly more MTV-influenced. I didn't quite get the significance of the dance number that involved onstage arc-welding (nor did I understand why it ended with a guy riding a motorcycle onstage, nor how he got it up the steps), but at least you can tell they're learning something in school.
One of the non-musical skits (well, it was interspersed with dance numbers, for reasons that aren't clear to me) was a courtroom drama; I'm told it was about the famous bandit Veerappan (see previous) and satirized the Indian government's attempts to capture him. It was all in Tamil and I couldn't follow any of it, of course, but I liked the statue of Blind Justice (carrying scales, wearing sunglasses) who snuck sips from the judge's water glass when he wasn't looking and boogied down with the Sikh court officer during the dances. My favorite skit, though, had to be the special surprise show prepared by the Institute staff, which was basically a pantomime (with sound track) involving Santa Claus, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Spiderman. (I swear on a plate of chili peppers I am not making this up. You think I _could_ make this up?) There was some unexpected audience participation when the T-Rex stomped too close to the front rows where the littlest kids were sitting, precipitating a squeaky stampede, but they calmed down when Spidey came back and blew him away with a semiautomatic. (I always feel that nothing says Christmas like Spiderman blowing away a T-Rex with a semiautomatic, don't you?) After the show some of the kids asked me how I liked it, and I told them it was the most amazing school performance I had ever seen. It was, too, and I mean it as a compliment.
—— Kim Plofker
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