Puncher

THE HUMBLE COCONUT plays an important part in Hindu ceremonies because, to put it very simply, it is a very holy item.

 

OOTY BLOG

We had a Hindu wedding in Bangalore (India) in January 1994. A most important part of our more than three-hour long ceremony was to do the ‘feras’, that is walk around a sacred fire seven times. My wife, Lopa, and I were attached together with several garlands that had been draped around us earlier in the proceedings. At the end of the religious activities conducted by two pandits (‘priests’) near to the fire, we walked to my in-law’s small Maruti 800 car, a vehicle hardly larger than a Fiat 500. With some difficulty Lopa and I, still attached together by the garlands, squeezed into the back seat of the car. Then my brother-in-law started the engine and drove us forward over a coconut placed under one of the car’s front wheels. The coconut was broken. Breaking coconuts is very auspicious for Hindus and, therefore, a good thing to do at the start of a marriage.

After the lengthier than expected religious ceremony, the reason for its great length is another story, we had lunch in the lovely garden that surrounded my in-laws’ home. Later that day, we enjoyed a formal reception with a buffet vegetarian dinner at the Bangalore Club. As my wife’s grandmother had requested that there be no alcohol on the day of the wedding ceremony, we complied with her wish. So, just after ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ (to quote the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 15th of August 1947) we cracked open bottles of Marquise de Pompadour, an Indian champagne.

The plan was to leave Bangalore on a driving trip on the day following the ceremonies and festivities already mentioned. However, as Robert Burns famously wrote in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [i.e. The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew]”, so did ours. My in-laws had planned for Lopa and I to go on a driving tour around parts of South India in the Maruti, driven by the family’s driver (chauffeur).  But the driver had other ideas.  On the morning of our departure, we learned that he had quit his employment with the family to take up another post elsewhere. We wondered ‘What to do?’ to use an Indian English set of words that appeals to me.

My wife’s parents made a quick decision. They decided to accompany us as far as Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), a hill station in Tamil Nadu state. From there, we would continue the planned trip using public transport and they would drive the car back home. Maybe, it would not appeal to many just-married couples to take their parents on a honeymoon, but we had no problems with it. Mummy and Daddy packed quickly and had the kitchen staff prepare copious amounts of picnic fare. We all piled into the tiny car with stacks of baggage.

Currently, it takes about eight hours to drive from Bangalore to Ooty without stopping. In 1994, it took longer. We did the journey in two stages, spending a night in the Bandipur nature reserve, currently almost six hours from Bangalore, at the state boundary that separates Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. As I was carrying my International Drivers Permit and I was younger than Lopa’s parents, I volunteered to do the driving. A rash decision, you might be thinking, if you are familiar with driving conditions in today’s India, but it was not. I had already made several driving trips in the crazily crowded central market areas of Bangalore and enjoyed the experience.

We set off and were soon out in the country. Outside Bangalore, there was little traffic on the roads except in the small towns through which we had to pass, there being no by-passes. In 1994, far fewer people had private cars than they do today. So long as one obeyed the informal rule that advised you to give way to cows, who seem oblivious to the dangers of traffic, and to anything larger than one’s own vehicle, there was little that could go wrong.

Well, that is what I thought as we drove along two-lane roads lined with ageing trees with thick trunks and shady foliage and plenty of colourfully dressed pedestrians, many of them carrying loads on their heads. Then, I realised we had had a puncture, or ‘puncher’ as it is often spelled (phonetically) in India. For some reason, we did not resort to using the car’s spare wheel. Instead, we drove a little further and stopped by a wayside ‘puncher’ repairer. This and most others, both then and now, were not what you would expect of a tyre repair station in Western Europe, for example a branch of ATSEuromaster or KwikFit, but something far more modest. Usually located under a tree (for shade), the typical roadside ‘puncher’ repairer consists of a pile of mainly damaged tyres and an assortment of scraps of rubber, once parts of tyres. Despite the unhopeful appearance of these waystations, the people who man them can get you back on the road with a tyre repair within minutes. The only problem, which I discovered soon enough, was that these repairs did not last long. Just in case you are wondering, there were no shops for new tyres along our route back in 1994.

Between Bangalore and our destination at the hill station, we limped along from one ‘puncher’ repairer to another. This problem was a result of the driver having deserted the family. Had he stayed on to drive us, he would have made sure that the vehicle and its tyres were roadworthy before our departure. Apart from the stops for repairing punctures, we arrived at Bandipur safely.

On the following day at Bandipur, we lucky enough to get a ride on a huge elephant. The creature carried us almost noiselessly through the jungle. As it moved, it seemed barely unaware of its passengers. It lumbered along, snacking on tufts of vegetation, which it snatched from the ground with its trunk. The only wildlife I spotted were deer-like creatures, sambars, which were not as exciting as the tigers that we were told lurked in the area. The elephant ride was a complete contrast to the ‘wildlife tour’ we joined at the nature reserve. This consisted of a large single-decker bus with a noisy engine, which was loud enough to frighten even the boldest of wildlife. Our fellow passengers included some boisterous Indian schoolchildren, who were observant enough to spot the occasional monkeys. Apart from them and us, there were some very earnest European tourists armed with costly, sophisticated cameras and telephoto lens. They were very dismayed by the racket being created by the enthusiastic children. At one spot, the bus stopped, and we were all invited to disembark to look at an indistinct footprint in damp mud. This was, we were told, the spoor of a tiger. It did not excite me, but I can still remember it.

We made it to Ooty without mishap. Lopa’s parents stayed in accommodation about a mile from ours. We stayed in an attractive guesthouse built in the British colonial period. Rather inappropriately for a honeymoon suite, it was supplied with the widest bed I have ever seen. Ten people could have slept side-by-side with their arms outstretched without touching each other. Its sheets and blankets must have been made specially for this enormous bed. Maybe, this bed had been constructed with great foresight, with  ‘social distancing’ in mind.

Lopa’s parents stayed on in Ooty after we set off to continue our holiday in Kerala. While they were in Ooty, they had new tyres attached to the Maruti, and then Mummy drove Daddy home.

It is now twenty-six years and a few months since Lopa and I sat in the family Maruti and were driven over the coconut. It is only now as I relate this story that a thought has occurred to me. And that is, I wonder whether one of the tyres was troublesome because it had been damaged by a sharp edge of the shell of the broken coconut.

It began with a bang

First experiences of India

My wife, Lopa, and I flew to Bangalore in India in late December 1993 to celebrate our marriage with a Hindu ceremony. This was the first time that I had ever travelled further east than Cyprus.

COCO 3

We flew from London on a ‘plane operated by the Sri Lankan line, Air Lanka. The flight was memorable because the food served on board was superb. It was not the bland, insufficient fare usually provided when airborne. What we received on our trays in large metal foil containers was delicious Sri Lankan food, which tasted as if it were home-made by a cook who injected his or her love of food into the flavours.

Our first stop was at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. As we descended for landing during the slowly brightening dawn light, I could see acres of palm trees below us.  This was the first time that I had ever seen groves of palms. This exotic sight made me feel that at last I had arrived in Asia.

After disembarking, we had to wait for our next flight for several hours. In those days, we took anti-malaria tablets. That morning, the only liquid we could find to wash them down was tea. Until that moment I had always drunk tea without milk. The tea stall only provided sweetened milky tea. I found it to be sickly and no help for ingesting the evil-tasting tablet. Now, after many visits to India I quite enjoy Indian milky tea.

My wife and I waited in a room along with other passengers, all of them from the sub-continent. Suddenly, one of her eyes began streaming with tears because some foreign body had entered it. Lopa began dabbing her eyes with a tissue. All the people around us glared at me. They thought that I had upset my wife!

On landing in Madras (Chennai) after walking across the tarmac from the ‘plane to the terminal, Lopa became nervous about the Indian customs examination. She told me that the officials could be very awkward. In those days, very little in the way of foreign goods were imported into India. Visitors or returning Indians were often laden with goods that then attracted high import duties at the customs. Smuggling was rife, and the customs’ officials were eagerly on the look-out for hidden treasures such as electronic goods, booze, and so on. We were not carrying anything of dutiable value. Nevertheless, Lopa was anxious.

As we approached the customs’ officials, the gods blessed us in an unusual way. Lopa’s nose suddenly began bleeding profusely. Despite using a handkerchief there was blood all over the place. The custom’s official, whom we were approaching, took one look at the bloodstained woman approaching him, and waved us through the customs barrier without stopping us.

At this point, let me tell you another thing that surprised me during my first visit to India: women police officers dressed in saris, albeit plain khaki saris. Another ‘plane took us from Madras to Bangalore (Bengaluru).

Lopa’s family met us at the airport (this was the old HAL airport east of the city, which has now been replaced by the newer Kempe Gowda Airport north of the city). After fighting our way through a crowd of taxi touts, we scrambled aboard the family’s ageing Maruti van, through its sliding side door.

By now, it was late at night, and dark. When we reached the family’s house, we disembarked, and stood in front of the main entrance. The top of the front door was decorated with leaves attached to a thread, a ‘toran’ (तोरण). Instead of entering, we all stood in front of the door. I wondered whether the front door key had been mislaid.

After a few minutes, there was suddenly a deafening sharp cracking sound, a loud bang. I thought to myself: “Oh no, we’ve been in Bangalore for just over an hour, and someone is shooting at us.” The noise that had startled me was no more than someone cracking open a coconut with an axe. Cracking coconuts is a part of Hindu traditions, especially at weddings. Amongst other things, the coconut is associated with fertility.

COCO 0

Some days later, we began the three-day long series of events connected with our Hindu wedding ceremony.

COCO 1

After the blessings by the priests, Lopa and I, connected together by several flower garlands and scarves, struggled into the back seats of a small Maruti car (not the van!). As soon as we were aboard we were driven a few feet forward. The purpose of this short journey was to drive over and thereby crack a coconut placed beneath one of the car’s front wheels.

COCO 2

I can truly say that my experience of India began with a bang.