Built in the shape of a lotus, Madurai is one of the oldest cities of South India. Home to a million people, it is a dense cultural center, famed for its lofty poetry, heady jasmine, and legendary goddess ruler, Meenakshi. At the heart of Madurai lies the massive complex of the Meenakshi Amman temple, whose origins are believed to trace back as far as 6 BC. The temperamental river Vaigai, which alternates between trickle and monsoon flood, divides the city in two. On one side rise the distant towers of the temple, and on the other is a street that has gradually been taken over by an expanding empire for eye care.

On this spring morning the banana man’s cart, festooned with garlands of his yellow fruit, is parked in ...

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