Two things I find about Chennaiites immensely admirable — the great pride they take in their city, and the never-ending supply of patience they are endowed with.
The pride part is easily understandable. Chennai, after all, is a unique city. Even as it is fast emerging as a throbbing cosmopolitan city (Koreans living here even publish a newsletter locally while the Bengalis have a Facebook page), it refuses to be swept off its feet by anything that is not Madras.
You will hardly come across a family — no matter how Anglicised — that does not zealously guard traditions handed down by ancestors. Coffee will always be served in the humble steel tumbler; the stomach will always have space for some curd (or curd rice) even after a heavy meal; the flower-seller down the road will never complain of poor business; saree shops and jewellery shops will remain as crowded as temples; December will always be the season of music.
These are just some of the characteristics that lend Chennai its unique flavour that remains undiluted through passage of time — indeed a matter of pride. Now coming to the patience part. I could begin with myself —after all, like any Chennaiite, I am also a repository of patience — but columnists should not be seen talking about themselves unless they relish being called pompous and self-indulgent.
So I’ll talk about a colleague whom I occasionally drop home. We have been working together for eight months now, and the very first time I dropped her home, she asked the driver to stop at the mouth of her street and walked all the way to her flat. Reason: the entire street was dug up; and rusty, dangerous-looking iron bars cordoned off rectangular pits that were meant to be stormwater drains under construction.
Eight long months have passed, but some of the pits remain unlevelled — the rusty rods still jutting out of their perimeter. The funny thing is, while this conscientious colleague of mine, since she wields the power of the pen (keyboard, if you please), seeks to set things right outside of her street, she has never written about the immense hardship caused to her or fellow residents by the pits.
Patience — a virtue we have all been forced to develop due to the compulsive and perpetual indifference shown by civic authorities — makes her sidestep the difficulties and dangers posed by the pits with practised ease. She begins to see problems with the world only after she has walked the length of her street and come out on to the main road.
Today, most of Chennai is made up of streets that are either dug up, or in the process of being levelled, or which have just been levelled and therefore are stripped of the tar coat. Chennaiites have learned to live with them: waterlogged streets when it rains; dug-up streets when it does not rain; and worn-out streets throughout the year. Really, when did you last smell tar and walk on a freshly-laid road?
Yet, you see no signs of anger. Voices are rarely raised. No one ever takes to the streets. The city that boasts of some of the best engineers and planners in the world has learned to take such hardships in its stride — quite literally.