Dancing in the Streets and I Don’t Know Why

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From Trivandrum it’s a two-hour drive to Nagercoil, which is just over the border in Tamil Nadu. I was eager to get out of Trivandrum, a clogged and crowded city that’s about 100 degrees every day in March.

At the bus stand buses pulled in to the station and people rushed to get seats. The bus drivers never came to a complete stop, so the crowds ran alongside the buses and hoisted themselves up by the handles outside of the doors.

Whole families traveled this way together: the parents hanging out the bus door holding on with one arm and their young child or children with the other. I waited for some time at the station, watching this scene and waiting for it to calm down. It was dusk so people were taking their evening tea at the small restaurants and chai stalls.


So I traveled to Nagercoil on one of these evening commuter buses. As it got dark, we passed through the smaller villages outside of sprawling Trivandrum. In each village center, there was some form of a parade or celebration in the streets.

Boys with red and silver umbrellas sat on elephants, and there were rows of women holding candles. I asked a few people near me on the bus what it was all about but couldn’t understand their answers, which they gave in Tamil with a few English words thrown in.

In each village people sounded clanging bells; women did prostration prayers in front of shrines on the side of the road; men in lungis (traditional south Indian male attire, a type of sarong) hollered and chanted with painted faces as they stood like bowling pins in the beds of trucks.

Other men were shirtless in the streets playing drums.  Everyone was dancing. I tried again to ask someone but didn’t get anywhere — decent English speakers are harder to find in the south, so I was left just to watch, enough in itself without needing to understand why. (The festival of Holi, celebrated all over India with colored powders and paint, wasn’t on the calendar for another few weeks.)

While my grasp of Indian languages is, to say the least, quite pathetic, I can recognize spoken Hindi and can pick out some common words when I hear them in conversation.

The problem is Hindi is never spoken in south India — here, all of the provincial languages have Dravidian origins instead of Indic roots (Hindi is an Indic-Aryan tongue): Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Kannada is the language of Karnataka, Malayalam the provincial tongue of Kerala, and the state language of Andhra Pradesh is Telugu.

In all, India has close to twenty official languages and thousands of dialects. To travel around all of India and actually be able to speak to the average person you’d need to learn at least half of those twenty official languages. Not surprisingly, my very limited knowledge of Hindi does me absolutely no good in the south.

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