Anubhuti Krishna recalls how her first-ever visit to Chennai proved to be an eye-opener, completely changing her perspective of its culture and people
Having been born and brought up in the heart of North India (not to be mistaken for Delhi or Punjab), my exposure to the South had always been limited. As a child, all I knew was about a land called Madras, somewhere beyond the horizon, and of people called Madrasis (yes, I am guilty of that crime too). Although we made a trip down South when I was about nine, my memories of it were limited to the food (we had to eat puri-aloo or dosa all the ten days), clothing (I found it strange to see young women in petticoats, which I later learnt was a half sari), and a lot of greenery. My only south Indian connect back then was a Tamil friend, the weekly dinner of dosas in his house and his dadi's nine-yard sari – all this did little to add to my knowledge. A few years later, thanks to the geography books, I learnt that there was more to South India than Madras but that hardly made a difference. It was only after I met my husband that I learnt a little more about the South (having grown up in a cosmopolitan township, he had many south Indian friends and acquaintances). He told me about the food – the tamarind rice and the biryani, the beef curry and the avial, the appam and the parotta; the language – the lilt of Tamil and the rapidly spoken Malayalam; the music – the soothing melodies and the hip-swinging chartbusters; and the movies – complete with entertaining voiceovers.
Although he was a fan of everything south Indian and had many south Indian friends back home, he also shared how the six months he had spent in Chennai had been a complete antithesis of what he had seen all his life. The city and the people, according to him, were not only closed to but also strongly biased against the north Indians.
There were many uncomplimentary stories of him being harassed during his six-month stint in Chennai (all this when he is not even a north Indian, but a Bengali). It was with these stories that I first set foot in the city (the trip was made more out of compulsion than out of choice). But what I saw – and experienced – changed my perception forever.
The city in itself was a revelation, quite a contrast to my mental picture of it. I saw no sign of the polluted and congested metropolis I had thought it to be. On the contrary, I found grand colonial buildings springing up amidst wide, tree-lined avenues, sprawling campuses and impressive offices, huge roundabouts and imposing hotels (among them was also the one my husband had worked for). Some parts of the city reminded me of Calcutta, while the others of Bombay, just that the cramped lanes had been replaced by wide boulevards.
And the people: right from the queue at the prepaid taxi booth where they stood patiently, the booth assistant who spoke courteously, the driver who greeted us with a smile, carried our luggage and helped us locate the guesthouse to the owner of the guesthouse, an elderly man, who took us home and treated us like his personal guests since he could not arrange a room for us (he even picked us up from a lonely dark lane when we were almost lost and dropped us at the airport early next morning); I could see no sign of the hostility I had heard of. I had just begun to savour the city when it was time to say goodbye. But I decided to return – and experience the real Chennai, on my own.
When I disembarked from the flight that morning, two years after my first visit, I was better equipped – and less prejudiced – about the city. Getting to the guesthouse from the airport was a breeze – I spent the entire time talking to the driver – and the guesthouse, set amid lush tropical plants, low slung bungalows and small fountains, was a picture of calm.
I spent the better part of my two days there roaming the streets, walking through the lanes, talking to the cabbies and the infamous auto drivers, experimenting with street food, discovering little nooks and crannies, with breathtakingly beautiful little temples and quaint houses, and doing many things that I cannot do even in my own city.
In the evenings, I explored the colourful and bright markets and huge department stores, waded through dense traffic, walked in the rain and sat on benches when I was tired. All this without a trace of discomfort or hint of hostility that I had heard about. The city – or a certain set of people – might have been unforgiving to my husband once, but to me Chennai had been warm and comforting.
Boarding my flight two days later, I had only one thought on my mind: to come back sooner or later, this time may be for good.
Postscript: As I finish writing this, my husband is in Chennai, savouring a traditional Tamil lunch at a colleague’s house and getting ready for his onward journey into the heart of the city. True, time changes people and their perceptions.