And winter itself can be a thoroughly depressing time. But we Brits do like to try to escape from it all and have some comforting thoughts by occasionally thinking of a more ideal winter scenario, and that usually consists of romantic images of trees covered in frost and Swiss chalets nestled in the snowy Alps. These days, however, I have a quite different concept of a winter wonderland, and cold, frost or snow have no place in it.
In recent times, I have spent many a warm and humid January in South India. And to someone used to British lettuce fields and cabbage patches blanketed by frost in bleak mid-winter, South India is pure exotica with its coconut trees, paddy fields, banana plantations and rain forests.
But let me state at the outset that I’ve nothing against North India — the Himalayas are fabulous and Rajasthan is amazing, but by and large my impression of the North is one of too much dust, pollution and overcrowding. I can certainly leave the North behind in December, with its chilly evenings and fog. Much too reminiscent of the UK.
Give me the South any time. It’s more relaxed and pleasing on the eye. I love the Western Ghats, Munnar, Kodaikanal and Ooty. Memories of tea estates, wooded hills and the toy train are always just a thought away.
But it’s not just the scenic splendour and the geography that grips me. The North can be quite intrusive, and being a foreigner in India can attract quite a bit of attention. “What’s that in your pocket?”, “Where are you going?”, “What are you carrying in your bag?” Just a few examples of the type of inquisitiveness I encounter in the North. The South is different. I am more or less left alone. The people are definitely a more genteel lot and are quite endearing. The harshness to be found in the North is lacking.
And the food — unlimited vegetarian meals served on banana leaves, and idlis, sambar and dosas. Wow, that’s a pretty exotic list for any foreigner used to the ‘delights’ of bangers and mash in a bleak January. To use an inappropriate and very Western metaphor — South Indian food rocks.
But, in my more cynical moments, with the increasing encroachment of Western style fast food joints — you know the ones, the Macs, the Huts and the Kings — I sometimes see a highly synthetic future where the banana leaf in South Indian restaurants will eventually be replaced by the plastic imitation variety. Outside Central Station in Chennai there is already a plastic coconut tree, which stands out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s a sign of the times; a sign of things to come. The exotic lure of the international world of plastic.
And what about the passion to be found in the South? I never really realised what worship was about until I came to South India. I once visited Trichy at the time of some religious festival. I’d never seen anything like it. The British truly come to life when watching their national sport, football. The passion inside any stadium throughout the country on a Saturday afternoon can be somewhat unnerving to an outsider. But on that day in Trichy, fervour was redefined. It’s quite astounding how religion and temples still dominate many of the towns of the South, which always reminds me of a long lost time in Europe when church, architecture and religion dominated.
So, sitting here in South India and being told of record snowfalls at the moment, back in the UK, which would I choose? An Alpine winter wonderland or the South Indian version? For the time being, I’ll opt for the latter. I think I’ll leave the frostbite, burst water pipes and shivering behind for now.
After all, who could possibly resist steaming, hot coffee at some street stall in the still of a tropical, humid night, with the hustle and bustle of street life all around? Not me.