Every girl in the world ought to grow up in a city like this,one that doesnt frighten her
For reasons that are not interesting to anyone else,I often pretend that I am from Chennai. That I am of this city,that this city belongs to me. I imagine that I always knew these streets,that they were never new to me. I imagine that Ive never gotten lost,that I always knew where I was going.
I first came to Chennai when it was Madras and I was the youngest 19-year-old in the world. I was young and ridiculous like only a girl from a small town who went to an all-girls school can be. I was hidden away with other young women in a hostel at the back of an old womens college,where we had to be in by 6 pm and where our thoughts would return endlessly to strangers with whom we had made unnecessary,uncomfortably prolonged eye contact .
We slept four girls to a room back then,four wooden cots stuck together so that four heads would dream restlessly under one creaky fan. We called our parents once a week and wrote melodramatic letters home requesting additional funds quite frequently. We didnt quite know how to dress outside of our uniforms and,consequently,many girls travelled the 100 feet between the hostel and their classes in outfits that reaffirmed the fact that we had all been far too influenced by films of the 80s.
I dont know how roommates were decided upon in those days. Perhaps it was the order in which we just turned up or perhaps it was that dark unhappy thing that grew in our wardens heart that made her work so hard to ensure that girls with things in common were never in the same room or even on the same floor. How dark and unhappier still her heart would have grown as the year would pass and the most unlikely of friendships would spring up between roommates.
Between sports girls and science students. Between girls who spent their days shopping as they waited to get married,never going to class or writing their exams and girls who surrounded themselves with motivational posters and who would not stop studying. We all became friends. We laughed together and borrowed each others clothes and would develop a liking for bakery items from each others hometowns.
And together we learned about this city. We walked uncertain,in large groups,ran across Mount Road holding hands,clung to the handrails as we rode the escalator in Spencer Plaza,learned how to keep our faces blank and then laugh about things when we returned to the safety of our dorm rooms. We ate whatever we wanted and never grew fat.
We shopped for cheap cotton prints on Pantheon Road and bought lurid,bright things that we would not use off the pavement in T Nagar . We ended up wearing these similar prints as we lined up for movies and out-hooted the hooting boys that would lurk in the dark of the theatres. Weve fallen in love in these streets and had our hearts broken. Watched the lights on Mount Road tremble and fall,have thought the world was over.
We all have images in our head that only grow sweeter with time. For me,the memory of our first,last and only hostel outing to Marina beach that culminated in all of us getting screamed at by our warden near the MGR memorial,her anger reaching catastrophic levels as small,half-dressed children gathered round,pushed their way to the front and stared at her wide-eyed as they ate warm peanuts wrapped in newspaper.
Today,when I return to Chennai,I am happy in a way that makes no sense. I am happy in traffic jams and happy to see dug-up roads. I hear people speaking Tamil and being rude to each other in a friendly,playful way and I could burst into tears of joy.
I am reminded of the girl I once was and all the things I will never be. I wish every girl in the world could grow up in a city like this,that doesnt frighten her. That makes her feel like all of this,this business of life is something we will get better at.
When you are young in Chennai,the sun is always shining down on you and the sea breeze somehow always finds you. It is not hard to imagine that this is how life will always be. That you will always be with your friends laughing,jam-packed in an auto. That there always will be a cheerful,infectious syncopated beat playing in the background. That any minute,smiling people in colour co-ordinated outfits will start dancing around us. Any minute now.
by Snigdha Manickavel
Snigdha Manickavel is a (sometime) writer who lives in Bangalore