I was in Madurai three days, lodged at the Taj Gateway Hotel atop Pasumalai. Pasu in Tamil means animal; a malai is a hill or even a mountain.
The gate to the hilltop property is right on the busy main street, secured by a weighted crossbar and polite guards who ask you questions and believe your answers. This is a vast expanse, and the animals, having always owned the hill, have their own scheme of entrances and exits. The back of the hill is wild and closed to man. The animals scoot there when humans get on their nerves. Signs on the narrow road up the hill ask you to watch out for mongoose crossings. Over three days, I saw twice from the taxi the low long mammals flit across. I also saw a baby mongoose emerge from and back of the hill and shoot off into the hedge by the swimming pool — while I was working out on a treadmill in the pool-facing fitness centre.
Many mongoose sightings. And yet there wasn't a precautionary signboard regarding snakes.
The peacock is vain.
The hotel keeps peafowl, and a half-dozen or so peacocks flashed their ornamented, fanned-out tails even at male guests. The large birds cry out continually, and sometimes at night they're over you in the tree you're passing beneath, and they let off an alarming cry all together and startle you into paralysis. For a moment, in the darkness, being solitary in the wide spaces in the hotel, you believe ghosts exist.
Powerful nations have the agile eagle with its mean eyes as the national bird. The Americans, for example. And the Germans. What can be said about us, the Indian people, whose national bird is the pretty, but vain peacock?
Over a century ago, the Pasumalai Gateway Hotel was the home of the chief executive of the JB Coats company of the United Kingdom. That officer, white and from Great Britain, of course, wouldn't have had to suffer this sight of the urban sprawl spreading from the foot of Pasumalai. He'd have had a clear view across the jungle to the lone hill that looks like a sphinx on one side of the plains; turning right-about, he'd see a twin set of granite hills, one wooded and the other bare and deep-veined; turning right next, he'd see a whole range of hills on the horizon, soft and hazy and blue. He'd see only greens all the way up to them.
The green hill-range I could see from the oddly named hotel restaurant: GAD, it was called. At another window of GAD, the sphinx-shaped hill was framed. From inside the restaurant, seated, the sprawl of the city wasn't visible, whereas the hills and the clouds looked lovely from it. Every meal I ate in that restaurant was in keeping with the Taj Group's quality and Madurai's culinary reputation — even the pure vegetarian I ordered. Thoughts came to mind that was serene in a sated body, and I scribbled them down in my green-back Moleskine.