April 18th – Mad Madurai

The white glare of the late morning sun burned bright in the street as we ordered our third juice of the day from the street-side kiosk. We were huddled up under the thin shade of the canopy with the rest of the midday drinkers. White shirted workers and skinny old men hauling sacks under the hot sun dominated the rest of the pavement while the street honked and roared beyond. We had woken late on a whim and were paying for our laziness with dripping foreheads and a lost agenda, having been too late for the early activity of the temple and hours away from the rejuvenated bustle of the late afternoon.

Another days wandering through Madurai presented a similarly festive atmosphere as was experienced over the previous few days both there and in Kanniyakumari. We had unwittingly appeared not only at the tail end of the festival season in South India, but during Madurai’s Chitrai festival, that spanned almost a week and saw the city swell in numbers. As we had learned from our hotelier, the celebration commemorated Shiva’s marriage to his wife and the various stages of the process, of which her leaving home we had seen last night and her meeting Shiva was to take place the next morning.

We couldn’t work out what today’s rowdiness was in aid of. The central streets presented a very bizarre scene to a pair of westerners attempting to make sense of the situation. The sounds of an Indian street festival were present in deafening abundance- clanging tambourines, Bollywood music spilling from the same dusty speakers, the sounds of entire extended families screaming at each other to stay together, the bleepy whine of the hideous Gameboy-style prayer figurines we saw being sold at the temple.

But the corporate gangbang that is normally associated in the west with Christmas seemed to be every bit as enthusiastic here but with even more brazen gusto. Atop large, logo-clad podiums stood employees of various multinational companies, sporting logo-clad t-shirts and baseball caps of the various big players in Indian telecommunications: OneTel, Verizon, Vodafone, Nokia, Reliance Mobile. From these physical and symbolic vantage points these corporate minions gleefully tossed handfuls of individually-packaged food snacks of various sorts into the crowds, from mini rotis to little milk cakes to boiled sweets. One stand even flung out vacuum-sealed packages of water the size of crisp packets that occasionally fell through outstretched arms, bouncing on the dusty ground and bursting into dramatic explosions of brown on the hot yellow street.

But the most vivid spectacle was the crowd itself, heaving and shoving each other, frantically scratching and scrabbling for the corporate freebies that fell to them, swarming to the podiums like moths to a lantern. Their arms stretched up above and over one-another like some sort of bizarre rock concert of poverty, snatching at the clothes of the overwhelmed employees as they grabbed handfuls and handfuls out of the boxes next to them. Occasionally some would fall through the outstretched arms and tumble away, causing groups to peel off and form little scrabbles on the floor, kicking up dust and scratches and spat words of dispute as one would scurry away, victorious- a little schoolboy this time, his sweaty face scampering past us and eagerly biting the corner of the water packet with a cheeky grin.

This all might have been alluding to the gifts that would have been exchanged at Shiva’s divine marriage or it may have just been India’s colossal corporations embracing the festival spirit and enjoying some seriously cheap marketing. Regardless, it was a bizarre and disconcerting scene in all sorts of ways. The left-leaning cynic in me saw not only the logo-stamped philanthropy with all the globalised significance that could be expected in 2008, but also saw an intensely poignant snapshot of the corporate prerogative in India. 1.1 billion people within a national market would entail a huge potential to even the most tone-deaf of businessmen and the exposure that these and other companies enjoys in this country is immense.

The popular culture in India is, unsurprisingly, one of aspiration, one of consumerism, one of gorgeous, pale-skinned, westernised young Indians feeding each other Wall’s ice-creams off the back of mountain bikes while flicking through each others’ iPods and calling each other “dude”. The god-like film starts of Bollywood enthusiastically endorse products of every stripe during advert breaks and on every billboard that hangs over the muddy, polluted streets. The dreamy eyes and chiselled jaw of Shar Rukh Khan, the handsome – if slightly ageing – golden boy of Bollywood shines forth from almost every other advertisement of any media. He personally owns the Kolkata Knights cricket team and is often beamed out across India during the televised games, smiling and waving from the executive box with his aviators on and daughter riding his knee.

Indeed, not only has the corporate way funded the rise of domestic television and product placement saturated the silver screen, but cricket has also received huge sponsorship input. The sight and significance of our first televised national cricket game in a bar a few days later took on a grand aura after the sight of the Corporate Christmas in Madurai’s streets. While each surface within the stadium and on the screen was as plastered with as many adverts as would be expected in a Premier League or NFL game, the intensity with which Indians of all class love their national game and the potential number of them watching gave the simply-coloured, easily recognisable logos a scary, dizzying edge. With an estimated 300 million middle-class Indians and many more millions more rapidly moving that way, the stakes are huge. It is no error that cell phone providers – the most ubiquitous and affordable corporate product – were almost the entirety of the represented companies on Madurai’s streets and comprised a large bulk of those sponsors blaring out from TV during the game.

Like all corporate activity, India’s multinationals have been canny. Cricket, cinema, food and religion- it looks like all the bases are covered.

***

That evening we enjoyed the tail end of another procession of bobbing effigies and swarming crowds. We made no attempt to decode the meaning of this bout of festivities. My earlier personal revelations about the infiltration of globalised capitalism into Indian festivals left me a touch disillusioned and I decided to simply go with the flow and enjoy the thronged masses that flowed around temple square.

Part of the enjoyment of these occasions that Alec and I had got used to was the bank-holiday style socialising. Entire families would be milling around during the night in larger or smaller groups, stopping for a chat at a Chai stall or taking pictures of each other with camera phones. A trio of daughters would approach, decked out in different coloured sarees, clutching phones that played music and practicing their giggly English on you while they cowered behind one another, jostling and whispering behind henna-tattooed hands. A moustachioed father would gamely stride up as he blew on his teacup, talking loudly and jovially about India and how we liked India and how we liked cricket and England’s cricket while his family stood back. Old men would silently wobble past on bikes, stopping behind us and similarly positioning themselves to observe what we did, as if we somehow were seeing something that he didn’t and he wanted to be let in on the secret. And of, course, small, lone children in grubby, grey, nondescript clothes would silently approach. An expectant, outstretched arm would be held towards us in silent appeal, the child looking blankly at either of us as they occasionally motioned towards their mouths with the slightly grunted ‘lah’ sound, repeated occasionally as we sat in awkward silence pretending to see through them until they shuffled away.

***

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