Chenai has hidden depths.
Many foreign tourists who visit Chennai (Madras) do not stay long. The crowds, traffic and the India-style chaos that typifies the subcontinent overwhelm and more than a few try to take the first train out. For them, Chennai is a mere dead end journey. This is such a pity as Chennai is one of India’s better cities and possesses a character that can grow on you if you scratch beneath the surface and give it half a chance.
Chennai is a comparatively new city and was Britain’s first major settlement in India. The villages of Mylapore, Triplicane, Adyar and Egmore are part of Chennai, and all have a recorded historical past centuries older than the city itself. Out of all India’s big cities, Chennai seems more connected to its rural hinterland. In fact many observers state that Chennai is indeed a conglomeration of overgrown villages. This may be true given that it lacks a city centre as such, with many different areas competing for attention. The city of today has a population of over 6 million, although when out and about and caught in the crowds you may be forgiven for believing that the total population of India just happens to be on the street you are on.
What continues to strike me about Chennai is its allegiance to ancient traditions, no matter how modernised it has become, and its willingness to spread out further rather than develop into a multi-story concrete jungle like Mumbai. The result is a widespread city still open to the skies; a green, airy city with several vestiges of its rural past; and a city that still retains the charm, values and courtesies of former days.
Chennai is not really a place of outstanding tourist sites, although there are great temples, a magnificent beach, a crocodile park, a snake park and a nature reserve, to name but a few. Not everyone boards the first train out. Some visitors stay long term to study yoga or classical dance and music, while others come for the annual music festival in December. If you have had your fill of temples, yoga or Indian dance and music, then don’t worry. There is still more than enough to occupy the visitor. One of the best things to do in Chennai is to just simply stroll around and soak in the ambience of daily life. In doing so, you will feel alive in a way that you never did before.
Take a walk through the crowded Triplicane area of the city at dusk and become part of the neon-hazed vibrancy. A cacophony of vehicles horns will mingle with voices, overrun by the haunting call to prayers from the city’s largest mosque. Firecrackers seemingly designed to cause maximum damage to the eardrum will explode as a funeral procession goes by. Men will dance in front of the mini bus or cart adorned with flowers and carrying the dead person, whose face is open to the watching world. As you pass by the smell of rice and sight of cooked chicken hanging in restaurant doorways will greet you. Women in colourful saris will sell bright yellow marigolds used to garland pictures of Hindu Gods, and sweet smelling jasmine, with which South Indian women adorn their hair.
Watch boys play cricket in the back streets and children flying kites from rooftops. Look at the intricately drawn kollams (patterns) on the floor drawn by women at the entrance to homes and watch both young and old st! op to offer a prayer at a street side Hindu shrine. Maybe someone will ask “Which country?” as he passes by. In response to your answer he will smile, give a head wobble and continue on his way, content in the knowledge he has “met” a foreign visitor. And you will go on your way, fascinated by the cramped disorder of Chennai life and more than happy to be there.
A couple of kilometers from Triplicane you will find Spencer Plaza on Anna Salai. Spencers is a cathedral to consumerism and is on par with the best that Singapore has to offer in sterile shopping malls. Inside, the place is a monument to cleanliness and order and outside there is chaos and pollution: air-conditioned paradise and pollution-choked hell. Around the corner is the plush, five star Connermara Hotel, the ultimate den of opulence. A stone’s throw away further down the street is a glimpse of shantytown Chennai, with people living next to a stinking river in flimsy, makeshift huts.
The extremities of India are part of its fascination. Eat like a king in an up-market restaurant and minutes later pass a street dweller eating rice and sambar (spicy gravy) from a banana leaf while squatting on the pavement. Call in at the local Internet café and see a young man wearing the latest fashion in jeans and T-shirt. Go back the next day and notice that his head has been shaved after he has visited an auspicious temple. Nothing is ever what it seems. Incongruity is the essence of modern India.
Visit a temple and soak up thousands of years of tradition. Then catch a few seconds of MTV India with an Indian woman presenter who looks like she’s walked straight from a beach in California. Rub shoulders with impeccably dressed computer savvy young men with college degrees and then glance across the road to see generations of the same family living on the street. Notice the subtle shades of the night then gaze upward and be dazzled by garish billboards advertising the latest Tamil film blockbuster.
The contradictions can be too much to handle for many first time visitors. The extreme contrasts and sense of “otherness” can be challenging to those used to the more genteel subtleties of the West. For those who are rooted firmly in their home soil the constant feeling of displacement takes them to a place in mind where they would rather not be. But some are able to move beyond this. Travel writer Pico Iyer summed it up best by saying that we start out by laughing at what we regard as the follies of another culture. Then we move towards bewilderment as we begin to leave parts of our own culture behind. Eventually, we end up somewhere completely different from where we set out. Hopefully, that new state of mind is better than the place we left behind and is much closer to the culture we find ourselves in.
There is a well worn saying “you can’t change India, India changes you.” It is well worn for a reason: too many mock what they see before them and want everything to be the same as it is back home. Call it a symptom of culture shock, intolerance or the inability to embrace difference. For those people, their trip will be a dead end journey and they will take the first train out. For others however things will be different. India will draw them back time and time again. And when it begins to do so, from that moment on, things can never be the same. There’s no looking back. At that stage they will at last be in that better place compared to where they originally were. The journey will be complete. I left the train in Chennai and never got back on.