How does Chennai treat a newcomer?
“Akka, sundal?” asked the boy. His voice shook me out of my reverie. I was sitting on the sand, a short distance from the waves. It was my first evening in Chennai and I was spending it at the Marina beach. As someone from a smaller city nowhere near the sea, I found it fascinating. It was comforting to think that I could sit there as long as I wanted — I was not a tourist with an agenda that raced against time. I spent many evenings of my first month in the city by the sea.
The Marina took me into its folds and helped me adjust to life in Chennai. The sundal and tea-selling boys, the woman who sold fried fish, the man who operated a carousel for toddlers, the horse-rider who felt he had the most handsome chestnut horse, the flute-seller who played the instrument impeccably…I met people whose livelihood depended on the sea, each of them taught me something. For one, I learnt that even though they were from different age-groups and engaged in different businesses, they were like family. There was competition and jealousy, but then they looked out for each other.
It’s the same with the DVD sellers at Parry’s Corner. They are all competitors; but if one shop doesn’t have a title you are looking for, the store-owner will generously guide you to the shop in the neighbourhood that is likely to have it.
Chennai is chaotic. The people don’t have time for anybody. Traffic is frenzied. There’s a lot of pollution in the air. Bus-conductors are ill-mannered. Auto-drivers fleece. Initially, I often got lost looking for addresses; rode my bike in circles thanks to unhelpful directions from passers-by. The summer heat was unbearable and I ended up exhausted every evening. I missed the peace and quiet of my hometown. After a few weeks here, I concluded I hated this city. But as days rolled by, Chennai showed itself to me in a different light.
One night, an elderly auto-driver helped me catch a bus to my hometown. I was headed in the wrong direction and hadn’t made reservations — the man ferried me to a reliable bus operator’s office and waited till I got a ticket and was seated inside the bus; a fish vendor at Nochi Kuppam taught me to make excellent prawn curry; a little boy scampered about the beach to collect crabs and fried them himself at a near-by fish-fry stall for me; I made friends with a gypsy girl who sold knick-knacks in the ladies compartment of a suburban train; discovered an excellent place for paruppu and medhu vadais and bondas for just Rs. 2; had delicious ragi koozh at an Amman kovil on a hot afternoon; met fisherfolk who could predict rain by sniffing the air; saw the sea glitter on a full moon night; got my fortune foretold by an elderly soothsayer at Elliot’s; saw a boat being built from scratch at Kasimedu; felt on top of the world when I rode my scooter on Kamarajar Salai minutes before the rain came down… Chennai, I realised, was not so bad after all.