Culture Guides

Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, India By Colin Todhunter

Chapter five from Colin’s book, Chasing Rainbows:

I had been watching satellite TV in my hotel room for far too long. The more I watched, the wearier I became. The advertisements were almost carbon copies of the ones in the West, in terms of the products and the shiny coca-cola lifestyles they promoted. MTV India was populated with VJs (presenters) who talked like Americans, dressed like Americans and probably wanted to be American.

The advertisements and the game-shows that interrupted the commercial breaks were exponents of the kind of self-seeking materialism that now all too often passes for entertainment. They even have Crorepatti!! – India’s equivalent of the British prime timer “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, which in turn was no doubt copied from a similar programme elsewhere. That type of thing is all the rage back home, but watching it in India of all places was just too much. I switched off. I think that the euphemism for all of this stuff is “globalisation” or indeed “westoxification”.

It was almost too depressing to contemplate, but I did, and concluded that we now live in a kind of box that, when opened, contains a model hand which pulls the lid shut to prevent light from entering and scrutiny of what goes on inside. My friend, Roman, was well used to my deliberations and asked “What on earth are you talking about?” I went on to explain that boxes normally contain something that can be looked at. Not this one; it has steel fingers to close the cover. Why be aware of the world’s ills and challenge anything when you can live in the dark, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok and shop ‘til you drop? We live in a consumer paradise where unfettered desire is a virtue and obsession is the faith. The advertising industry oils the hand that closes the box. Welcome to the nightmare – and we are all invited.

“There is much more to it than what we watch on TV – its about the type of world we want to live in”, I told Roman, but he wasn’t impressed. I knew he wouldn’t be. He likes the type of world we live in. He loves “Crorepatti”, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and believes that the type of corporate sponsored globalisation now happening is the best thing since sliced bread – even better, in fact. Anyhow, he left, looking a little downhearted – no doubt to rest his head in some gas oven after listening to me.

I looked out of the window and wondered where on earth do advertising agencies get their sanitised screen images of urban India from. Probably Singapore, with its gleaming skyscrapers, sterile streets, and super deluxe cars. It bore no resemblance to the scene that I was surveying. There were a few dull, grey high rises in the distance; but the street was crammed with disorder – mopeds and auto-rickshaws zig-zagging to avoid one another while being pushed out of the way by big, ugly buses. Where were the super deluxe vehicles? But then I realised that “deluxe” vehicles are everywhere in India. The word “deluxe” is thrown about with carefree exuberance to render its usage almost meaningless.

I have stayed in deluxe and non-deluxe hotels and have travelled in deluxe and non-deluxe buses. In fact, at the lower end of the market deluxe hotels with “homely comforts” are all the rage. Receptions sparkle with cleanliness and cannot fail to impress with smooth marble floors and shiny mirrors. Unfortunately, this façade tends to compensate for rooms that are all too often in varying states of disrepair and decay. Hotel receptions in India never fail to lull me into a false sense of security.

And deluxe vehicles? I have come to conclude that a “super” deluxe bus will most probably get you from A to B with a modicum of comfort; a deluxe vehicle might get you to where you want to be – at least it has a hint of suspension, a semblance of a working engine, and some degree of tread on the tyres; and a non-deluxe one has less tread, no suspension and a spluttering engine which may or may not get you to your destination. And deluxe and non-deluxe hotel rooms – dusty floors and a dodgy water supply – well, the least said the better. Anyway, it’s all a different world from the one purveyed by the advertising industry. The gap between the glossy world of adverts and reality may be big in the West, but in India it’s gargantuan.

Designer labels, lifestyle products and luxury cars? I don’t buy into it. Why should I when I can see goldust sparkling on a floor of black velvet, liquid gold dripping against ebony, and then drift through a purple haze at dusk? What am I talking about? No, I’m not spaced out on LSD. Let me explain.

I always remember my first sight of Chennai (Madras). It was goldust sprinkled on black velvet. The city lights were spread out on the ground beneath, glowing in the dark as my plane flew over. I knew little about the place but it intrigued and inspired. Years later the place still delights and stirs. I walk along and see earrings dripping like liquid gold against the ebony skin of South Indian women; I see a billion stars shimmering over the Bay of Bengal; and down by the seaside I see neon lights and the golden sands of Marina Beach blend into a purple haze as night closes in.

Reality bites, but advertisements suck. In fact, reality lacerates. The sensation cuts deep. It’s real, can be grasped and is free! Advertisements, on the other hand, deal in fantasy and create a thirst that can never be quenched. And for those who crave, it’s an expensive endeavour. Billions are spent on telling us that somewhere at the end of the rainbow there is a pot of gold. But as day fades to night, the rainbow disappears, and illusion gives way to reality – there is no gold.

There is nothing that can make teeth whiter than white, skin smoother than smooth, and hair shinier than shiny. Wearing the appropriate designer label product will not miraculously turn us into bright, young things. And – believe it or not – drinking the right type of cola will not suddenly make us God’s gift to men or women – despite what the happy, smiling faces say. But they want us all to keep on chasing rainbows wherever we live: from Chennai to Chengdu, and from Mumbai to Milan.

I returned to the TV. The advertisements were again in full flow. I was treated to the life-changing wonders of brand named alcohol, coloured fizzy drinks and labelled clothes. Just luxuries that we could do without? No! They are the necessary, must have, must be seen to have, lifestyle products, all because they are endorsed by some beaming cricketer, game show host or Bollywood star. If we do not possess them, then we are failures. If we do possess them, we will feel even bigger failures because by that stage we will have bought into the lie and will be wanting the newer, brighter version of whiter than white toothpaste which we acquired when it was newer and brighter than the previous bright, new version. There is no pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow, just a bag of rotten teeth.

It’s a precarious world we live in, based on hollow myths and promises. But don’t tell anyone; it may shatter if people look too hard. Its a fragile invention and because of that, the label on the outside of the box probably reads “Handle With Care”. Maybe it also reads, “Do Not Disturb”, as people bask in their emptiness and watch global TV with eyes wide shut.

Somewhere over Marina Beach in Chennai there is a rainbow, and somewhere over the rainbow there is a new tomorrow. But it’s just the old yesterday recycled and sold back to us at a profit. If you chase it you will go full circle and will eventually end up back where you started from – standing on Kamarajar Salai (South Beach Road) at dusk wondering what was the point. Then, as a magenta mist descends, a black velvet sky will close in, and gold will glisten on ebony. At that point all will be revealed. The best things in life are free. Well, for the time being at least.

Read Colin’s book, Chasing Rainbows on his website.

Colin Todhunter

Colin Todhunter is an English travel writer whose book Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, was a bestseller in India. He followed up the book with a series of articles for the travel section of the New Sunday Express (the weekend edition of the New Indian Express). His travel articles have also been published in the US based socio-political magazine Newtopia, the Chennai based women’s magazine Eve’s Touch, Fitness First Magazine in the UK, and in the New Indian Express. Before branching into travel writing he wrote on a range of social issues, including disability rights, community development, healthcare and ageism. He has been published in the academic journals Disability and Society, Social Research Update, the Qualitative European Drug Research Journal, and in Clinical Medicine and Health Research. Colin is also a contributing author of the textbook The A to Z of Social Research.