The Madras Eye

This is part 10 of the story of my trip to India in 2014. You can check out the story index for the whole trip, or go here to start from the beginning.


Since Wednesday is the day Mónica’s maid usually comes to clean, I decide to tag along with her to school again. This way, we can go somewhere for lunch together, and even though I can’t work from her school, I can still figure out our travel plans for this weekend. We want to take a train down to Madurai to visit the Meenakshi Temple if we can.

We get up early to do yoga, as usual, but this morning, Mónica’s eye is still really bothering her from the dirty rickshaw ride home last night. It’s red and irritated and swollen and looks pretty bad. We catch a ride to school with a couple of her co-workers, and as soon as we squeeze into the rickshaw, Azizunnisa says, “Oh Mónica, dear, you have the conjunctivitis”. She’s talking about an eye infection that’s been going around some of the people at school. I remember hearing someone mention it when I was there on Monday. Mónica’s not sure if that’s what it is. She thinks she just got something in it last night.

We get to the school, go through security, say hi to people on the way in, and as soon as we drop our stuff in her room, Mónica goes to see the school nurse. She comes out soon after with a recommendation to see the local eye doctor at lunch and a patch covering her irritated left eye. Halloween is this Friday and the Spanish students have been working on projects for Día de los Muertos, so Mónica has fun telling some of them that she was in the shower this morning and her eye just fell out.

I sit in Mónica’s classroom during her classes and work on figuring out the train system in India. It takes more than an hour to buy tickets to Madurai. The website with the train schedules is separate from the site where you buy tickets, and there’s a third site besides that where you have to create an account with the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation to be eligible to buy tickets at all. This requires you to have an Indian cell phone number, which luckily Mónica has. Otherwise, I’d have to jump through some other hoops to buy tickets, like sending a scan of my passport to the IRCTC. Even after I get it all figured out, we don’t have actual train tickets. We’re on the waitlist for tickets. There are 10 people on the waitlist ahead of us for the tickets down to Madurai Friday night, and 2 people ahead of us for the return trip Saturday night. I think the chances are good that it’ll work out, but we’ll have to see what happens.

As soon as lunch starts, one of the school drivers gives us a ride a few kilometers down the road to Dr. Agarwal’s Eye Hospital. It takes only about 10 minutes for Mónica to see the nurse for triage, have the doctor examine her eyes, pay at the front desk, and pick up antibiotic and anti-inflammatory eye drops at the attached pharmacy on the way out. The diagnosis from the doctor is quick and certain. She has conjunctivitis. Of course, this is just medical jargon for “inflammation of the eye”, so that doesn’t really mean anything. But the doctor further explains that this is what is known in India as “Madras Eye”. (Madras is the old name for Chennai.) The bacterial infection that causes it is both very common here, and extremely contagious. Mónica is instructed not to return to school until it’s healed.

Well, that changes our plans for the day. Mónica lets the school know what’s happened and we take a rickshaw home to decide what we want to do for lunch. Her first thought about what caused the eye irritation to start was the dust from the extremely dirty rickshaw ride home last night that got in her eyes, but now she wonders if it might have been picked up from riding the bus for the first time yesterday. She remembers rubbing her eye then after touching some of the common surfaces on the old and very crowded bus. There’s really no way to know for sure, but this makes us a little hesitant to use either of those modes of transportation again soon if we don’t have to. Instead, to go out for lunch, we decide to try scheduling a real car taxi from Hola Taxi, an app similar to Uber.

Even though this app takes advantage of the GPS and map features in each party’s smartphone to make it easy for the taxi drivers to pick up their passengers, the driver we’ve called has a lot of trouble finding us. We end up standing at the hospital on ECR close to Mónica’s apartment for almost an hour watching the red dot representing the Hola Taxi driver repeatedly go to the wrong places looking for us in between phone calls to try to get it sorted out. Either this guy, like most of the rickshaw drivers, doesn’t know how to read maps, or his phone isn’t working right.

It’s about 13:00 when we finally get in his car, and we’re a little worried about making it to the Amethyst Cafe before lunch hours are over. Once we tell him where we’re going and start the meter on the app, the driver goes less than a kilometer before pulling into a gas station to get fuel. The meter is running and we ask him what he thinks he’s doing, but he just waves us off and says, “two minutes”. This is not very professional. As we wait, I notice a curious sign next to us at the station. I have no idea what it means. Equally inexplicably, I watch the driver pump less than a liter of gas into the car for 90 rupees (about $1.50 US) before we’re on our way again.

"Vehicle Pollution Done Here" Sign
Wait, I thought vehicle pollution could be done anywhere. . . .

Even though the taxi experience is not much better than the rickshaws, at least lunch at Amethyst Cafe turns out to be very nice. The location is lovely, tucked away behind high bamboo walls and lush gardens near a couple of modern bank buildings. We ignore all the Western fare on the menu in favor of the vegetarian Thai Green Curry from the specials, and some Madras Fish Curry to go along with Mónica’s Madras Eye. There’s even some strawberry white chocolate mousse for dessert. The curries are great, but the mousse is too sugary and not quite as smooth and creamy as I would like.

Entrance to Amethyst Cafe, Chennai, India
The entrance to Amethyst Cafe.

Mónica eating green curry at Amethyst Cafe, Chennai, India

Alton at Amethyst Cafe, Chennai, India

After lunch, exhausted from always having to make frustrating transportation decisions and also bummed out by the eye diagnosis, we end up going for a random walk to kill some time and explore. I turn us down some sketchy looking side streets, watching dogs and goats scamper around on the unpaved alleys, until we end up in a place where there are no vehicles, a collection of big water tanks, lots of garbage, and some extremely bare shacks right on the edge of what seems to be a dead-end dirt road. A colorfully-dressed woman is walking towards us, pointing and laughing loudly. Mónica wonders if she’s drunk. She’s talking in Tamil, so we don’t really know what she’s saying, but she’s apparently very entertained by our presence here, like the many other locals we’ve run into in Chennai who act like they’ve never seen a white person before. Mónica pulls out her phone and starts taking selfies with her.


Mónica taking selfies with strangers, Chennai, India

Cute Indian schoolgirls watching Mónica say thank you to our new friends.

The scene is attracting a small crowd of onlookers from within the tiny shacks. A trio of barefoot girls in their school uniforms are following Mónica around curiously but are too shy to say anything. An incredibly skinny grey-haired old man comes up to shake my hand and ask me where I’m from. He then tells me proudly that his son drives the truck that delivers all of the water for this entire street. By the time we’re ready to be on our way, at least 30 people are standing around watching us go. Even though we’re just a couple of blocks from a busy highway in a city of almost 9 million people, it’s as if we just wandered in from the jungle to say hi to a bunch of strangers in an isolated village before turning around and disappearing again. I’m given the impression that some of these people have lived their entire lives on this one street. It makes me wonder how small someone’s world can be.

Flower petals on the street, Chennai, India
Walking the streets of Chennai, it’s not always garbage and sewage that litters your path. Sometimes it can also be flowers.

Our wanderings next take us by the Victoria Technical Institute. Established in the 1880’s, this is an organization that promotes the work of artists and craftsmen of South India. From the outside, it looks like a huge gift shop. Inside, there are stone carvings ranging in size from tiny intricate marble elephant keychains to granite statues of dancing Shivas that are taller than me. There’s just as much variety of wood-work, metal-work, leather, paintings, clothing, and furniture. Buddhas and Hindu deities and sculptures of traditional Indian dancers are everywhere. We kill more than an hour checking everything out in the four-story shop and picking out gifts for friends back in the States. As we explore, we catch glimpses into back rooms where dozens of people are busy carving away at new items.

Handmade rosewood furniture in the Victoria Technical Institute, Chennai, India
The furniture is all handmade from Indian rosewood. One of the workers tells us that it’s meant to last for more than a hundred years, and that they can ship it anywhere in the world.

As it gets closer to dinner time, we start looking online for a restaurant in our area. Masaledaar looks promising, with good reviews and an attractive menu. When we walk there, though, it’s closed. And this time, it’s really closed, not just waiting to open for dinner hours. The restaurant’s space is gutted, with several men inside sanding walls and floor and cutting wood with hand tools. A sign says, “Closed for Renovation. Re-open on 31/10/14.” That’s the day after tomorrow. Looking at the space, I will be impressed if that gets done as planned. Time to pick another restaurant. There’s not much else nearby that looks promising, but one of the highest rated ones is a Thai restaurant called Flower Drum.

Flower Drum is inside a small mall that’s so dark and quiet that I wonder if it’s closed, too. The restaurant turns out to be open, but we are the only customers in the whole place. It looks nice enough, and the menu is lengthy. Everything is not only vegetarian, but strictly vegan. Notes in the menu proudly describe how difficult it is to make Thai curries without the traditional ingredients of fish sauce and shrimp paste, but that this restaurant is 100% committed to the cause. This worries me a bit, and I wonder what synthetic concoctions they might be using instead.

While I read through the massive menu, Mónica is tending to her infected eye, cleaning and applying drops. It looks quite bad, and is clearly uncomfortable. She’s not feeling very well, and asks me to order for her. I get some red curry and some kind of veggie stir fry dish. The curry is awful. It tastes like toothpaste and cough syrup, and is so full of basil and shredded curry leaves that I can barely chew it anyway. The stir fry tastes like something from the food court of any mall in America. It’s loaded with sugar and has a weird chemical aftertaste that I can’t identify. After so many amazing meals in India this past week, this is by far the worst. Don’t go to Flower Drum. The fact that it has 4 stars on just goes to show how useless restaurant review sites usually are.

We head home using one of the car taxi apps again, and again it takes a long time for the driver to find us. There’s just no great system for getting around in this city. There’s a lot more eye care before bed, and we’re both being careful to wash our hands since we know how contagious the Madras Eye infection is. Still, Mónica’s other eye is already starting to show some of the same discharge. It unfortunately looks like it may get worse before it gets better.


In the morning, both of Mónica’s eyes are red and swollen, irritated, and oozing pus. There’s not much to do but wait for it to heal. We take care of it as best we can and relax at home most of the day, only going out for dinner. After the extreme disappointment of Flower Drum last night, the place we try today is thankfully fantastic. Copper Chimney is very close to Mónica’s school, but of course that doesn’t stop our rickshaw driver from taking us all over the place, up and down divided highways in the wrong direction, before he gets us there.

We pick out a couple curries for dinner, and the host recommends we also have some dry starters. Like Sigree, where we ate last Sunday, these are a collection of different spicy kebabs. We end up getting a lot of food, and the host and waiters are all overly attentive. We eat with at least four or five guys standing by watching us the whole time. Whenever one of us starts to reach for something on the table, to serve more into our plate, the waiters frantically run up to do it for us. I wonder if this is what being a celebrity is like. It takes some getting used to, but the host is so genuinely friendly that it’s actually more amusing than annoying. The food is delicious. Rich and spicy, it helps lift our spirits during the drag of having to deal with the eye infection. We leave happy, and decide to walk the 3 km home.

On the way, we venture away from ECR to instead take some of the quieter back streets. It’s dark, and very dirty. Mónica says she probably wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t with her. It’s consistently amazing how much contrast there is in this city. Walking down ECR is like walking through Times Square, but just one block east, we’re on dirt streets with no lights, where the few people and animals all stare at us with blank expressions as we pass.

In the middle of this cautious stroll through questionable surroundings, we suddenly come upon the shockingly bright window of an ice cream shop that’s so modern inside with its bright white surfaces and colorful furniture and designs that it kind of looks like an Apple Store. We’ve just been talking about contrasts, and this Ibaco shop just makes us laugh and shake our heads. We obviously have to try some. The flavor variety is disorienting, and I end up picking out one called Scotch ‘n’ Brownie. It’s a whiskey ice cream filled with brownie pieces and almonds. I’ve certainly had better ice cream, but this is pretty decent – close to Ben & Jerry’s quality, which is a nice common benchmark. While enjoying our snack, we are entertained by three cute kids of a middle-class-looking Indian couple who are running around way too excited to be having ice cream late on a weekday night. (The kids are running around excited, not the parents.) It helps to brighten our day a little more before we turn in for the night.

Getting ready for bed back home, we’re trying to tell if Mónica’s eyes are looking better or not. It’s hard to say, and as I brush my teeth, I can see a small amount of messy discharge in the corner of my left eye. Uh oh. I’m hoping this doesn’t turn into a full infection, too. I’ve been very careful about washing my hands and not touching my eyes, but I guess we’ll have to see. I just have to clean up carefully, go to bed, and hope.

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