James Lees’ sojourn in Madurai is an act of discovery. Among his many discoveries is the universal presence of mobile phones. Yet the most humbling discovery he makes is to witness an ancient country embrace technological wizardry with its attendant material comforts, comforts that as a 28-year-old Australian, he had taken for granted
Not for the first time in my life do I find myself outside my comfort zone. This time, however, my comfort zone is in my home country of Australia, known for its beaches, kangaroos and wide open spaces. Madurai is known for none of those things, in fact, apart from its love of cricket, large population and the Meenakshi Temple, I arrive in Madurai knowing very little about the place but eager to find out more.
It wasn’t the heat that I noticed first. Nor was it the bright smiles of young children or the shy yet friendly gestures of ‘hello’ I received from people passing by. It wasn’t even the proud husband and wife who invited me into their fabric store to meet their newborn son. All these things provided a welcomed reassurance that perhaps I wasn’t so far away from home. The first thing that struck me as we weaved and honked our way through the traffic from the airport, was the mobile phone. That simple symbol of modern technology which I have always associated with the modern Western world, had reached India and I soon discovered, had a great many friends. Everywhere I looked, people were attached to it; from the school children to the rickshaw drivers and shop owners. I had travelled a long way to escape the umbilical cord of modern Western society, and yet here it was in Madurai, India.
Call it naivety of the inexperienced traveller, but modern technology was not something I expected to find as prevalent as it is in Madurai. Twenty years ago in Australia, we didn’t have internet access and our mobile phones were the size of bricks, yet we had better living conditions than many of those living in Madurai today. And that is my point. Madurai, like a lot of India, appears to be in a constant struggle between yesterday and tomorrow. These beautiful people live in basic housing, many in poverty, and yet there is an abundance of modern technological conveniences. Everyone here is connected to the modern world in some way, yet they cannot take advantage of everything it has to offer.
Within my first week of arriving in Madurai, I decided to hike up Thiruppankundram Mountain with a few other volunteers. The summit offered respite from crowds, traffic and general chaos of the city below and the opportunity to reflect on my first few days in a foreign land. After exploring the Muslim mosque at the summit, we settled on a ledge to view the sunset.
As I gazed at an endless sprawl of people, houses, cars, buses and bikes, I began to realise what drew me to India. This beautiful land bears witness to a people with a long and rich history that is embroiled in a fight to gain all of the benefits and luxuries I have been spoilt with for the last 28 years. It is an exciting yet frantic journey and one that I feel privileged to witness, though only for a short period of time.