Chennai Entry 8: The Museum of Everything

A week in India and, at last count, I have 14 mosquito bites – not bad, considering how many clouds of bugs there are around. Though continuing at the same rate of acquisition for another three weeks should mean the mosquitoes will run out of fresh skin before I leave. This time last week I was sleeping off jetlag.

Today I tried to make my own Sunday, as well as I could. I held a short meeting with an attendance of one (and a half – the cleaner bobbed in and out for some of it) this morning after breakfast, singing along to hymns and reading conference talks and scriptures. In the afternoon I accompanied Margaret to Chennai Art Gallery and Museum. The building was a huge, ornate, crumbling edifice of a sort of reddish stone, and incorporated six galleries. We wandered around looking at some (lovely) contemporary art, stone carvings, frogs and snakes in jars, skeletons wired together in odd positions (the human-grabs-rearing-horse’s-hoof was my favourite) and a large number of stuffed animals, looking like the stuffing in question had occurred back when the British founded the museum in the 1800s and hadn’t been updated since. The curators seemed to have only a hazy idea of animal relations as there were some unusual pairings: in one case, a geriatric hippopotamus shared his plastic scrubland with a lone otter (?!). Another held only plastic scrubland: the legend above the case said ‘Tiger’s Environment’ – a stuffed tiger evidently not available at the time of construction.

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The Children’s Room contained a collection of dolls showing the traditional dress of countries from around the world. The small British display showed, inevitably, a few dolls in Royal Guard costumes, complete with moth-eaten fuzzy hats. Again some curious combinations: the case divided between Yugoslavia and Hawaii was my favourite. The Asian dolls section, meanwhile, was divided into innumerable sub-societies and cultures, many of whom I’d never even heard of. Not for the first time since arriving here, I thought that we understand barely a fraction of the ancient history and culture in these Asian countries – and much of what we think we know is strung together from war reports on the news and received ideas. There is so much beneath the obvious still to appreciate. I’ve expressed that rather badly, but I do think this trip, among other things, has forced me to challenge my own ideas about Asia in general and India in particular.

With that in mind, as we passed the book lady and her wall of books on the way back, I asked her to point me in the direction of some good Indian fiction. She had many suggestions as usual, and after poking through her stacks for a little while we settled on the novels of R. K. Narayan as a beginning. He wrote award-winning novels and short stories about a fictional village in the South of India, and was based here in Madras. Book Lady said I would recognise his characters in the people we see every day in Chennai. Remembering it was Sunday, I asked her to hold the book for me till Tuesday, as I’d rather not spend money if I could avoid it. She told me to take the book with me and bring the money next week when I remembered. Just when I thought I couldn’t love her more!

PS – I forgot to count the two on my face: 16 mosquito bites!

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