In which the author describes why this city is like none other
In precisely two weeks, I complete 11 years in Chennai, a city I now call home, and I can't imagine living elsewhere today, the only exception being Kolkata, which I discovered and became fascinated with much later in life. There are a lot of similarities between Chennai and Kolkata: from your bedroom, the palm-fringed skyline looks almost the same; your neighbour could be a VIP, but you wouldn't even realise it most of the time; the women love their saris while the men are content in their simple shirt-pant-chappal combination.
One similarity that suits people such as me is the respect for the written word. If you are a writer or a journalist in Chennai, you enjoy an exalted status in society even though you may be living in a modest house and using public transport and having a zero bank balance. People read what you write and they write back to you. Nowhere else in the country have I seen the byline mattering so much to the reader.
Many years ago, when I lived in Delhi and subscribed to eight newspapers including The Hindu, I once happened to host a friend's friend who had come from Chennai. One morning, sifting through the bunch of newspapers, he instinctively pulled out the copy of The Hindu.
Suddenly, he let out a scream of delight. I thought his name had appeared in the paper. “Wow!” he was grinning from ear to ear, “Mr. X (he mentioned a cricket journalist whose name I forget now) has written the report. I always read what he writes.” The grin disappeared as he got absorbed in the report and soon he was in a trance — the words of the journalist having their desired effect on the faithful reader.
In Delhi, journalists are respected not for the turn in their phrases, but because of their perceived proximity to people in power. From time to time, you are approached by people who want to “get a job done”. No one gives two hoots about the literary value of your writing.
Mumbai, on the other hand, does not give two hoots about anything — it simply doesn't have the time for you. This perhaps explains why I've stayed on in Chennai for 11 years.
But there are other reasons too — one of them being a sequence of events that took place in 2003, which I don't tire of narrating to friends. On the eve of Deepavali that year, I was booked on G.T. Express to New Delhi, from where I was to take the Shatabdi Express to my hometown Kanpur.
On the day of my departure, it suddenly began to rain and I found myself caught in a traffic jam on the way to the railway station. By the time I reached the station and ran to the designated platform, I could see the tail light of the train receding in the rain. Had I arrived even two minutes earlier, I would have been on the train.
Broken-hearted, I went to the ticket counter and got a partial refund. Then, hoping against hope, I asked the clerk: “Can I get a berth in Tamil Nadu Express (which leaves later in the night)?” He looked up his computer and said: “There is a wait-listed seat in second-AC. Waitlist no.2. I think you will get it. In a few hours I should be able to tell you whether your seat is confirmed.”
Taking his word for it, I bought a fresh ticket and went to my office, which was closer to the station than my home. There, I sought to kill time in the arms of Yahoo Messenger. Soon enough, I got a call: it was Hari, the clerk. “Sir, your ticket is confirmed.”
After a memorable week in Delhi and Kanpur, I was back at the New Delhi station to take the Tamil Nadu Express back to Chennai. Just when the train pulled in, I realised my wallet was missing. Even though I had the ticket in my shirt pocket, there was no way I was going to undertake such a long journey without a wallet. Instead, I queued up at the ticket counter for a refund.
After a long wait, when there was just one man ahead of me in the queue, the clerk simply got up from his seat and placed the ‘Next counter please' sign on the window. I quietly tore up my ticket.
This is Delhi, I thought, and that was Chennai.