Its a city with an easygoing pride,with fewer people bothered about status
I first came to Chennai by accident. A small,rather disorganised American company had hired a college buddy and me for the summer to help them set up offices in India. We were supposed to travel from Delhi to Hyderabad,and from there to Srikalahasti (Andhra Pradesh) to prepare for a launch. But it turned out that the airline had sold us tickets for a Hyderabad flight that didnt actually run that day. We ended up flying to Madras,where we were supposed to be met at the airport by a driver who would take us to Andhra. But he didnt show up,and we couldnt reach anyone on the phone (this was before everyone had a mobile).
And that was how two 21-year-old American college students got stranded in Madras for four days with a wad of cash and not a word of Tamil.
We had a good time. We spent our first day on Marina Beach,communicating in sign language with some good-humoured locals on the best strategies for catching sand crabs. We ate masala vadai. We went book shopping. We drank yeleneer (coconut water). In what I hope was a discreet and inoffensive way,we looked at women. (I realise most Indians are hung up on the monolithic thin-fair-long-hair beauty standard fed to them relentlessly by the film industry,but in my view the dark,stocky ladies of Chennai are the most beautiful in the world.) We watched the flying foxes fly out at dusk from the Theosophical Society over the Adyar bridge. We drank beer in one of the friendliest bars Ive been in,with a clean sandy floor and a thatched roof and some first-class Kaadai 65,where a stranger taught us to pay an amusing game called Mangaatha.
We enjoyed the laid-back vibe of the city. Most of my experience of India so far had been in Delhi and Mumbai: both of those metros can be tough to navigate when youre young,naïve,and foreign-looking. In contrast,Chennai was hassle-free. Several people approached us to start conversations,but out of genuine curiosity and friendliness,not because they were trying to make a buck off of us. People didnt seem so tripped out on status as they did up north; we didnt hear anyone bluster about how many cars their father owned or which five-star hotel they frequented. There was an easygoing local pride. I marveled at the Ganesha-Jesus-Mecca-Masjid trinity that seemed to be stickered onto every auto-rickshaw dashboard and painted on shop tiles in every neighbourhood.
Some years later,remembering how much I had enjoyed that trip,I applied to the Indian Institute of Technology,Madras for an M. Sc in mathematics course. I was accepted,and more or less ever since then,Chennai has been my home. My wife and I co-founded Blaft,our publishing company here,and it has turned out to be a reasonably good city in which to do business. While Delhi is the centre of the publishing industry,sometimes it seems healthier to keep ones distance from the buzz.
But the city has changed. Globalisation has hit Chennai in strange ways: along with the good jobs and shiny buildings have come a slew of irresponsible housing projects and mediocre chain restaurants.For a moment,when Chennai Sangamam,the annual open-to-all cultural festival,and the Dastkaar Handicrafts Fair were both happening,the city seemed poised to become a vibrant centre for folk arts and performance,but now both events have fallen victim to senseless political squabbling. The class divide sometimes seems more pronounced than it used to. Theres a gargantuan new ITC hotel,built with ten gazillion cubic metres of Italian marble,but the city is still struggling with basics like clean water supply and waste management. I can still enjoy a Rs-7 filter coffee at the pottikadai or shop for basic provisions at my local general store,where every customer is greeted with friendly smiles and a Salaam Alaykum. But as soon as I want something a little bit modern or imported,like a decent loaf of bread or a packet of udon noodles,I need to go to the air-conditioned chain supermarket up the road where nobody ever smiles,and where theyre always playing bad American pop music. The mellow country-style wine shops I remember fondly have been replaced with vomit-splattered Tasmac dens,and the only other option is paying through the nose at a snooty star-hotel bar. More and more people seem to be chasing a vague dream of an ultra-posh lifestyle that they dont really know how to enjoy.
There are still some great things about the city. By and large,its very peaceful: the gun violence rate here is literally tens of thousands times lower than in Oakland,California,the town I used to live in. Nair Mess in Chepauk still serves a fabulous lunch,and theres a farm called The Farm down the Old Mahabalipuram Road that makes the best paneer on the planet. If theres better value for money for a movie ticket anywhere in the world than at Sathyam Cinemas,I havent heard about it.
And of course,its still pretty fun to spend a day at the beach trying to catch sand crabs.
Rakesh Khanna is the co-founder of Blaft Publications