Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A day in Chennai

Its 5:30 am on what promises to be a warm day. I have just woken up to loud devotional music from a neighboring temple. I curse under my breath remembering that I cannot be too vocal about my opinions. I look around and everyone at home is already involved in one activity or the other. Then I decide to use this opportunity to go for a run.

I tip-toe outside my house not wanting to disturb any sleeping neighbors and from a corner of the eye I see smoke. Then I see an outline of what looks like a stray dog and my neighbor holding on to the leash. That's when I realize that the man is on his morning cigarette. He sees me and offers me a puff. As much as I am moved by the hospitality, dragging nicotine from a wet cigarette bud is not exactly my idea of fun. Anyway, he says something to the effect that the cigarette helps his system get going but I don't care to listen.

Then as I move on to the road, I am almost knocked down by a Bajaj M80. That's when some old lessons come back to me. In Chennai, they basically drive with the intention of hitting you. Its only at the last moment that they sympathise with you and decide to turn away. I just had to remind myself that if I am to expect "Right of way", I may as well stay at home.

Wanting to still hold on to my dear life, I ditch any thoughts of running on the road. So I decide to walk the five minutes to the open track along side the beach. The track on the side of the beach is full of people - mostly older uncles and aunties (some of them in their nighties). Nobody pays me any attention because I am just one of them -- sleepy, shabbily-dressed and grossly out of shape.

The rest of the day goes pretty normally. I take a nap after my morning run. Then I eat lunch. Then I take a nap again. And then shower and go out. Its about 5:30 in the evening now and I hear someone calling out my name. I turn to see my old rickshaw wallah -- the one who used to give me a ride when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade. He recognises me immediately and walks over and starts talking. The overall intent of his message is that since I am doing well in the US, I should hand him 100 or 200 Rs. He is a good man and gets me thinking about how much I should give him. Then in the background, I see a crowded wine shop and realize exactly where this money is going to go. So I make up some excuse and turn away wondering if it isn't too early in the evening to get drunk.

Anyway I go out and haggle with the auto-wallah and the cellphone guy and finally make it back at 10:30. Just when I think that I have had a long day, Baskar my other neighbor who in in 12th grade is parking his bicycle. He is just back after his entrance exams tuition and is rushing to bed to get up in time for his 4:30 board exam tuition.

Well, I know people work hard (to varying degrees) all over the world. But something about Chennai just reminds me of an encroached beehive. There is always a buzz of activity and everyone is serious (both the temple-goers and drunkards alike). There is a place here for everyone and no one is free from the grind of their day-to-day lives. And yet there is a quiet calm about each person as if they believe that if they keep at it, a better tommorow is around the corner. And, in this way, its a purposeful existence that prepares the city for anything from a technology boom to a Tsunami.

P.S. To give a perspective of why and when I am writing this, let me give some background. This is my third trip to India in the 7 years that I have been away. The first time, I was awed by Chennai -- the malls, the bridges, the jobs etc. Everything, to me, had seem changed. The second and third trip, though, I was more subdued. I noticed things that have always remained as part of Chennai and was thankful that the developments weren't just a fad. These patterns and behaviour makes Chennai what it is -- a hardworking city that doesn't sleep, only naps.

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