Dam-nation! (Tuesday 2nd May)

When Mood Music
2006-05-03 23:00:00 crappy

For Jack Ryan only

I was rudely woken at 6am by a local church calling its faithful to prayer. I know it was already daylight but that’s no excuse for the amount of noise. Suriya brought me some very-welcome ginger/lemon black tea (she’d made this wonderful brew for me several times each day) and told me that what others had done the previous night was an alcohol-induced aberration. I wasn’t completely convinced but I was relieved to hear that we would be leaving this town today, so I didn’t hit my eject-button.

She also told me that Sakya-Raj’s colleague, John, had arranged with his boss to give us a tour of the hydro-electric power-station at the dam which gives this town its name. So we took an autorickshaw to the entrance, crossing the putrid rivers again. Here, I was told to hand in my camera: the TNEB is afraid of espionage leading to sabotage by terrorists such as the Naxalites. I was in a bolshy mood: even without this, I wouldn’t have let the machine that powers my memories out of my sight. So I handed my camera’s batteries to the security guard, and watched him put them safely in his hut before moving on. (The batteries are rechargable AAs: these seem to last a lot longer than normal batteries, even those reputed to last long times.)

We were taken into a huge building which houses the Soviet-designed (and built?) turbines. These date from 1962 and I posed a bit, transliterating the cyrillic plaques. We were taken into a turbine pit that was open for maintenance. It’s huge and very, very impressive. The turbines are about 10 metres in diameter, each blade weighing about 2 tonnes*. Two floors above them, generators produce 11,000 kV and this is then fed out to a transformer field outside the building. The four turbines are fed by a tunnel from the Stanley reservoir – the outflow goes back into the Cauvery river.
* a lot of information was painted on plaques sported by just about everything apart from the janitor’s chai-glass. I was reminded of the labels on all the kit in the batcave (in the 1960s TV series). The KER-POWs, BIFFs and SPLAT would come later.

There was also a impressive, hand-painted, map showing the layout of the whole dam complex, including a vertical section showing how the tunnel came from the reservoir to the power-house. I’m told I wasn’t doing a bad thing when I pointed out the sign-writer has consistently spelled ‘switch’ as ‘swicth’. I think I shouldn’t have got even slightly bothered when asked if I understood hydro-electricity: I haven’t got my science doctorate tattooed on my forehead – yet. Also, it’s a mistake to try to ask about three-phase generators and thermal power-loss via an interpreter who is 14 and hasn’t yet studied much physics. Sincere apologies to Priya!

This power-house, transformer field and tunnel work in addition to the original power-house built in 1934 at the foot of the dam. This houses smaller, but still impressive, British-built turbines and generators, one of which was open for maintenance. We were taken around this power-house too: it’s fantastic to see machinery which was built in in the country where I grew up still in use. For me it’s a lump-in-the-throat tribute to the people who designed and built it. I hope the Soviet kit lasts as long and continues keeping this area of India with the electricity to which it’s become accustomed. (There was evidence later that this is a vain hope.) Unfortunately, this is all Wikipedia has to say about the place. However, I’ve read that there is argument between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu about the mounts of water reaching the dam. Here’s an article from The Hindu which seems vaguely relevant. I can’t find a map of the installation in the time I’m prepared to spend online just now.

I was introduced to the engineers who maintain the transformer field. It was hard to think of anything I could ask or say to them. I was also upset to see that ‘officers’ and ‘workers’ had separate lavatories. While I was in these engineers’ office, more upset related to last night arose. This was where the KER-POWs, BIFFs and SPLAT happened, probably only verbally. I didn’t hear about it until late this evening and we left the place with me in awe of what humans can do when they get their acts together. I like free electricity!

We bussed back to Thermal Quarters, Laxmi leaving us at the bus-station to travel to her home village to register to vote.

Back at Sakya-Raj and Lilly’s flat, John, Lilly and Sariya organised lunch and the girls had fun feeding each other.

"" Lizzie and Selma
"" Priya and Leema(?)
"" you can see why I’m smitten by Lizzie

I think it was about now when someone (I know who but I won’t say here) asked what I did for sex without a wife. My answer amused people but may not have been entirely sensible, given the circumstances.

I was also again asked my wife’s name: I was getting a bit sick of questions about my personal life, especially painful aspects, and so gave a facetious answer which caused a lot of amusement and turned the conversation elsewhere. I think I might owe the butt of my facetiousness an apology: I think she realised it was a joke and wasn’t upset but I can’t be sure.

I was also by now concerned that the madness from last night wasn’t completely over, keen to get away*, quite keen to check what had happened to my bank account this month and anxious to get back to a big town and buy a replacement cellphone and so be able to contact home whenever I wanted or needed. So I asked Suriya to confirm that we would return to Salem that afternoon and to tell me what time we would leave Mettur Dam. Her answer implied that I had time to at least email home so I walked to a cybercafe about half an hour from Thermal Quarters, near the camera-shop that had burnt my photos to CD last night. I managed to email that I was leaving Mettur Dam for Salem that evening before the manager told me to save and shut down – it had started raining.
*especially in case the things that have been excised from “IT GETS CREEPY” in the previous entry recurred. I didn’t believe the events excised from “IT GETS WORSE” would recur.

In fact this was an understatement: the heavens, hell and the deep blue sea were pouring out of the sky, obliterating visibility and turning the road into a luke-warm swimming pool. I have no idea why this should have led to a power-cut: surely to goodness more rain should lead to more hydro-electricity!* I didn’t want to wait for the storm to end – it was only about 45 minutes from when we were due to leave. I couldn’t attract an autorickshaw so I begged a plastic bag from the shop next to the cybercafe, put my most water-vulnerable items in it and then pelted into the rain, screaming curses at Indian weather and people (including me) who put me into bad situations.
*Having seen a week later the sparking and blow-out of mains kit in Ottapalam after a downpour, I begin to understand.

After about half a mile, I hailed a passing autorickshaw and was driven to a road-junction near Thermal Quarters. This was quite a drive – I was soaked through but still getting rained on horizontally and couldn’t see more than 10 metres in any direction. At the road-junction, my sense of direction deserted me and so I ran around in the pouring rain before Rajesh called me from an open-fronted phone centre at the middle of the junction. I sheltered there with him and was given more plastic bags by the manager (bless you sir!) to keep other items dry. We waited for about half an hour before the rain eased enough to let us squelch back to thermal quarters (only a minute away).

Back there my sodden-ness was the cause of much hilarity. I didn’t want to unpack to change and knew that the air temperature would soon dry me. I’m sorry to say I reacted strongly to Suriya mentioning that Sakya-Raj had returned and was asking us to stay. I thought she was suggesting we do so and so didn’t give her time to say that both she and Priya were unhappy with the atmosphere in the house. (She told me this on the bus to Salem.) I said sharply that I’d asked her to confirm what was happening before I went out and had just emailed home to say I was moving on and so I certainly wasn’t staying.

About half an hour later, we did leave: one of the neighbours gave us some samosas and water for the journey. We arrived back at Balaji and Nitya’s house late in the evening: my parents phoned me there but it turned out the phone was in the part of the house that is rented by a businessman and that he had been in bed so I trudged off into the night to call home.

"" the sewer outside Nitya and Balaji’s house. It’s almost as wide as my sandal is long and stinks!

When I returned, probably well after midnight, I was still very upset by the un-bloggable events last night and their consequences: Suriya asked me what was wrong. I burst into tears and told her that I’d been badly affected by it and wanted to know what the hell was happening in Thermal Quarters. She told me a lot of things which I can’t repeat here, more about her and Raju’s history (including how at a time of utter disaster, she’d become a Christian), more about her fears for her, Priya’s, Margaret Mary and Raju’s current situations and other stuff that, again, is confined to my head and private blog entries. The more I heard, the more horrifiedly fascinated I became by the mess of peoples’ lives: as if this mess was headlights and I was a rabbit dazzled by them. Again, nothing was happening that doesn’t happen millions of times over each day on this planet but it’s all very sad and, for me, further proof that we must be the most fucked-up species ever to have existed.

She didn’t ask me for any financial support, even though she had made it plain several times that she was in severe financial difficulty*: all she wanted was my friendship and to give friendship/love back to me. Maybe in a decade’s time when Priya had qualified (as a software engineer!), I could help her find her feet in the UK**. I was still upset with her for leading me into a mad-house, even though I had been totally willing to come to a complete stranger’s wedding in a place I knew nothing about (and so some of the fault has to be mine). However, I told her I wanted to know in advance about anywhere she’d take me in future and that I wouldn’t leave Salem until I had a working cellphone. I think we reached an understanding and we retired to our individual pits.
*earlier she’d shown me her bank-book. I’d seen how little she earned. OK, a cynic might suggest she has other accounts but I refuse to be that cynical yet.
**So what do people currently working in this field advise, please? Priya is again a normal, decent human being.

I should emphasise that no-one tried to scam me or force me to do anything I didn’t want and I don’t think Suriya ever spoke a deliberate untruth to me. There were occasions when a cynic might conclude she had but they could all easily be attributed to simple communication difficulties: Suriya’s english is limited: her sentence-construction is quite idiosyncratic (possibly using Tamil constructions) and she speaks English in a deep, almost gruff, monotone. I don’t fault her for any of this: I don’t speak any Indian languages at all and it’s become very apparent that I was wrong not to do so before I came here.


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