NAGERCOIL, India — At the southern tip of peninsular India, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea meet. Rather than facing off at a sharp point, the meeting spot curves around a lush landscape, where slender wooden fishing boats punctuate the multihued sands texturing the shoreline. True sculptural design lies in the way wind and sand mold flexible contours of land and sea. This is India’s Kanyakumari district, the geographical end of the subcontinent. It was also the point that marked a new beginning for me.
Last summer, I spent two months living in south India. Primarily based in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, I lived among a people who valued their state’s language, Tamil, over the national one, Hindi. I worked with pharmacists in the Dr. Jeyasekharan Hospital for nearly eight weeks. I heard my co-workers speaking Tamil to one another, but the artistic gravity of written Tamil did not take hold of me until one Saturday when I ventured out to Kanyakumari with my friend Gitu, with whom I was staying in Nagercoil. It is one thing to hear a language, and it is an entirely new thing to see it.
Before boarding the boat that would take us out to an island where many make their pilgrammage every year, Gitu and I fitted each other for neon orange life jackets. Mine hung about me loosely, a physical reminder of just how much weight I had lost in the previous 10 days. The severity of my “traveler’s sickness” heralded from a combination of things—new spicy foods, jet lag, lack of sleep and the joyful yet exhausting experience of extreme excitement. But thankfully, I was living with a gastroenterologist who encouraged all of us in the house to openly discuss bowel movements, constipation, diarrhea. Frankly, or maybe ironically, I found this openness quite refreshing. Where else could I speak so honestly about the body?
That morning in Kanyakumari, I let the sultry air whip my hair into a frenzy while the boat rocked against waves tossed by the wind. It felt good to be outdoors. Heck, it felt good to be somewhere other than the bathroom. As the noisy boat carried us off shore to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, I let anticipation build up inside me. Competing with the sound of the boat’s engine, Gitu explained that the memorial commemorated the life of Swami Vivekananda, a wandering monk who practiced austerity on this island we were entering. My mind instantly conjured up an image of a barefooted man meditating in solitary confinement (cross-legged, of course), humming some dull chant over and over. I began to feel sleepy.
In my two months in India, I had seen, heard, and smelled more bare feet than ever before—enough to make feet my least favorite body part. As I stated before, the body and the way it functions or malfunctions had never presented to me a real occasion for disgust. You would know this if you were to overhear some of the comfortable conversations between the gastroenterologist and I. However, India was giving me a reason to develop a distaste for feet.
I should have known that at the entrance of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, I would have to remove my sandals, or “Jesus sandals,” as my co-workers called them. This familiar ritual characterized my experience of the Mysore Palace, cathedrals in Chennai, a rustic summer palace outside Nagercoil. In India, shoes, and to a lesser degree, feet, have unclean associations. I’ve noticed Indians on the train making a simple gesture of apology if they accidentally touch someone with their feet. Shoes must be removed for places of worship or commemoration, when visiting people’s homes and sometimes even in some shops and businesses. Even though I learned about these cultural practices before coming to the subcontinent, I approached the removal act with resistance every time. I became hypersensitized to the sweat, dust and grime beneath my toenails.
At first, as I walked around the memorial barefoot, I crept along on my tip-toes. Then, when that becoming tiring, I walked gingerly on the sides of my feet. I probably looked like a lost, lame duck. As long as only a fraction of my feet were touching the ground, I decided, there was a lesser chance of contracting a deadly foot fungus. Was it an irrational fear? Everyone’s feet shuffled along silently and inobtrusively, so why did I build the fear up in my mind to be larger and louder than it was? I felt a momentary pang of guilt for elevating my fears above the virtuous ground upon which this memorial was established. It was in the waters surrounding this island, during the month of December 1892, that Swami Vivekananda swam daily. On this rock he meditated about India’s past, present and future conditions, struggling with thought as his muscles braved the strong seas. It was here that enlightenment came. Gitu pulled me aside for a photograph before I could reach temporary enlightenment.
“Stand over here, Katy. I’ll get the Thiruvalluvar Statue in the background,” said Gitu.
Gitu snapped the photo seconds after I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, useless because of the way the wind blew strands of hair into my mouth and into my line of vision.
Before boarding the next boat, which would take us from the Vivekananda Memorial to the Thiruvalluvar Statue, Gitu and I put our shoes back on. I made a silent apology to my shoes, which now had to wrap themselves around my disgustingly filthy feet. One thing was for sure: in India, people have the misfortune, or, as some would see it, the luxury, of shared experience in their ability to “trod” common ground. As we neared the next island, the Thiruvalluvar Statue grew into eminence until it pierced the sky. Moments later, the boat inched closer, farther from the Vivekananda Rock and closer to Shripada Parai—the statue’s island. It is an island where the remembered life of India’s most celebrated and recited poets shades into the poetic verse he created.
The curly, eloquent script of the Tamil language adorns the walls marking the entrance to the Thiruvalluvar Statue, which stands at 133 feet, denoting the 133 chapters the Tamil poet authored in the “Thirukkural.” On Jan. 1, 2000, the monument was officially erected, bringing in the new year, a new millenium. Gitu told me that part of her school training was memorizing these classic couplets or aphorisms contained in the “Thirukkural.” These words were meant to inspire wisdom in India’s young, hoping that one day they would rise up to be a generation characterized by virtue and not corruption.
The foot of the monument literally depicts Thiruvalluvar’s larger-than-life feet, large enough for visitors to wrap their arms around a toe and still not reach all the way around. The 38-foot -tall pedestal represents the 38 chapters of “Virtue” contained in the “Thirukkural,” where the 95-foot-tall statue atop the pedestal represents “Pleasures” and “Wealth.” The construction itself contains the idea that wealth and love can only be obtained or laid upon a solid foundation of virtue. The idea was novel to me, as one who considers Biblical love and Christ-centered truth to form the foundation upon which virtue can hold any real meaning. The feet of Thiruvalluvar constructs a foundation of virtue then, while the feet of Christ-followers inspires virtue, as “beautiful feet” represent one who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings good tidings, who proclaims salvation (Isaiah 52:7).
Either way, I determined, feet don’t have to be a negative thing. Never before had I made such an honest connection between feet and beauty, or truth, or virtue. Architecturally and conceptually, the Thiruvalluvar Statue offers up ideas to visitors about not only a life, but a way of life. The “virtuous” feet at the base of the statue gave me a reason to reevaluate my fears and misgivings and to put them beside a discussion of faith. Given my disgust of feet and the conspicuousness of feet in India, I was hesitant to consider possible merits. But the Thiruvalluvar Statue demanded just that. It forced me to consider the things that we lay foundationally—to any situation, idea or life. “What foundation am I laying?” I asked myself.
Ptolemy, an ancient Greek-Roman citizen and scholar of Egypt, designated the Kanyakumari region as a center for pearl fishery. After visiting the Vivekananda Memorial and the Thiruvalluvar Statue, the boat returned us to the subcontinent. Gitu and I were weary from our little journey and were hungering for fresh fish and parotta, a layered flatbread. It took me a couple minutes before I realized Gitu wasn’t walking beside me; she had stopped at a small jewelry stand by the roadside, which looked so small compared to the pink Ghandi memorial behind it. I remained where I was, allowing the gentle breeze to ruffle my kurta.
When Gitu finally caught up with me, I barely noticed the tiny pearl necklace she placed in the palm of my hand. It was so delicate.
“You’re spoiling me,” I told her, pretending to return the gift.
“No, I’m not giving you enough,” she remarked, which was just so “Indian” of her.
The rope of pearls glued to my skin with the humidity, and the grimey sand felt like part of the necklace itself. When Gitu clasped the pearls at the back of my neck, it felt stickier still. Maybe this was just one more example of how something so ideally lovely and rare can also feel uncomfortable. Like feet, I thought. Formed in the dark of mollusk shells, pearls glow with an inner radiance. There is nothing radiant about feet, except when feet represent a commitment to virtue, as in Thiruvalluvar’s case, or in mine—to the proclaiming of good news as a result of an inner conviction; one so alive that it glows.
Kanyakumari is a place where one can witness the sun rise from the sea in the morning and set into the sea come evening. The movement produces a brilliance of color at this convergence. The point where three waters meet, where sun meets water, where water meets land, where Swami Vivekananda met peace, where Thiruvalluvar caused love and wealth to meet virtue. It is also the topographical end of a colorful land, a point where land is no more and where feet cannot tread. The place where waves brush up against more waves as far as the eye can see.