Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving and Chennai

Dear Reader, I don't know if you've given up on visiting this space lately. You had every right to, I've been terribly neglectful. I've been busy and the last few days have been a little hard so I turn back to you again. I realize how selfish I sound and I'm going to try to make it up to you by finally telling you all about Chennai. It's a post I began writing up a while ago, but only today finished. But first, there are several wonderful people I wish I could thank over and over again. I don't know if all of them will even read this blog, but I need to do this anyway, so I never forget how lucky I am to have them in my life. Call it my own little Thanksgiving if you will, which true to form, comes several days late.

So thank you to A, who left everything to be with me and to P for sharing her so unselfishly. To R who called and texted and always said the right thing and to V for being so nice, just like he always is. To G who scolded sense into me time and time again (she never gives up on me) and N who I must state, looks absolutely adorable in a formal skirt and R who always has far more fascinating things than placements to talk about. To A for the promise of black and white cookies and K, whose phone call meant more than I can say. To Amma, Appa and Ken, you folks are my rocks, and since this is creeping into dangerously sentimental territory now, to all of you, too many to name, who are far too good to me. I don't deserve you.
On to Chennai then.

Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems - but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.
-Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Oh Reader, I have so much to tell you! Let me begin at the beginning. I must admit, this time I entered Chennai with a good deal of trepidation, my memories of last time seemed almost too good to be true and I was misanthropically suspicious of them. But it was lovely, lovelier than I remembered. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The beginning.
My flight took off from Mumbai airport, which I reached after a particularly harrowing auto ride. By the time I reached the airport, I was more than glad to leave Mumbai- with its polluted air and choked roads- behind. I watched from the airplane window as the thousands of twinkling yellow lights of Mumbai bled into the night, turning it curiously red. Then as we rose higher and higher, the red faded into black and we were away.
I went home first- Amma and Appa were away at a dinner party when I reached. I was all alone in the big white house. It felt strange. Then Amma came in and hugged me and I felt home again.

The next morning, I went to the Mahaveer Institute of Technology, a name the students abbreviate to 'MIT', which lay in a village 40 kilometres and a dirt road away. I gave the TOEFL at MIT, feeling curiously self conscious when I had to air my views on Mumbai to a dusty looking microphone. On the bumpy ride back, I had a great deal of time for thought and I felt my worries for the future leaving me one by one, bump after bump. The rest of the weekend at least, was mine.

So we took the night train to Chennai. It's been a while since I was on a train and it was fun, the clatter of the rails forms a rhythmic accompaniment to thoughts, investing them with the sort of circularity that makes the airiest of thoughts profound. From the window, I watched glimpses of peoples' lives: children playing, a ceiling fan turning, a woman laying the table, like a movie reel with the rails for background score.

I turned in soon in the middle berth and thought about that ancient Chinese form of torture, where they imprison a person in a room neither wide nor high enough for him to ever stretch out completely. We reached Chennai by eight in the morning and the platform was bustling. I heard loud expletives in Tamil and smelled coffee and sweat and jasmine. Prabhu Anna was there to receive us and he was as entertaining as ever. He's the liveliest of my cousins, guaranteed to have anyone in splits within moments of meeting them.

(Reader, I'm going to change tack slightly now. I just realized that if I give you a blow by blow account of everything I did, this post will take forever, and you, who don't know my cousins, will be bored quite silly. So instead, I'll just give you the highlights, shall I?)

So there was Patti, who seemed happier than ever before, to see me. It came as rather a shock to me that my very presence could make someone so happy. She held my hand and wouldn't let go till I was called away. Then there were my cousins, Krithika Akka (the bride whose engagement I was there to attend), Ambika, Kripa and Aru, who did their best to teach me four Tamil songs in less than an hour and never smiled when I stumbled. There was curd rice and sevai, to be eaten with my fingers, off a banana leaf and godumai halwa and therati pal, childhood treats I've sorely missed in Mumbai. There were glimpses of Chennai, mostly gathered from the window of a car as we drove past: billboards selling kanjeevaram sarees stiff with gold lace, men in veshtis, their foreheads smeared with ash, a bullock cart holding up the traffic on a highway and everywhere, familiarity. Try as I might to deny it (and I have tried, several times) this place is familiar. There's a place for me here, even though I've never really lived here, even though I speak the language stumblingly, at best. I understand now, what Appa told me of the ties of blood. They've withstood all the ill treatment I've given them. So I wore a purple saree and a bindi without being asked, wore jasmine strands in my hair and I was a Tamil girl for a day. No amount of rebellion can stand up to love.

The next day, I scrambled desperately, for more images, more memories, to get my fill and keep me going when I returned to another, far more alien metropolis. I memorised the feel of the sun, burning down in December, and the golden ceiling in Ananda Bhavan, I read the newspaper listings of music concerts longingly and wore the golden earrings that Patti gave me, proudly.

Too soon, it was time to leave and I promised to return soon, very soon. As my flight rose over the city, I pressed my nose to the window and caught my last glimpses of the city: buildings and bullock cards, colonies and parks, then hundreds of toy-like houses with crisscrossing roads. We rose higher and higher and flew through a cloud and Chennai disappeared beneath me in a puff of white smoke. We kept rising, above the clouds that were whipped into fantastical formations like the airiest of egg whites whisked by the wind.

Then, two hours later, we descended and the night turned from black to red as it bled back into thousands of twinkling lights.


  1. Your Anonymous ReaderDecember 7, 2009 at 3:49 AM

    Good to have you back, Charlotte.

    It amazed me how happy I felt reading the new post. I have been really sick for the past week and this was like a fresh breath of life.

    As always, brilliant wordplay. I have never been fond of Chennai as the only experience I have had with the city (a while back) hasnt been that good. Your narrative has made sure I am going to make a second visit.

  2. @Anonymous Reader, thank you. I do hope you're feeling better now. Chennai certainly deserves a second chance, though you do need to be a Tamilian (even one in denial like me) to ever truly appreciate it.

  3. he he he... no matter how much we deny.... we are still south indians by blood i guess :D