Walking Chennai; Marina Beach; Detour through a slum; In which I commit an act of gross cultural insensitivity

Sheryl and Sujit let me sleep a bit late today since I’d been feeling so rotten the night before. To tell the truth, I’d heard them chatting in the other room and just wasn’t ready to face the world, so went back to sleep for awhile and woke to Sujit’s Tamil housekeeper making breakfast. I realized then that I’m uncomfortable with the idea of service - I don’t mind being waited on in a restaurant, but I don’t think I could grow to accept having someone to cook and clean for me every day. She’s definitely a good cook though.

We went out by midday and walked for hours around Chennai, getting a feel for the city. We started out along Santhome High Road and saw the famous cathedral there, a confection in glowing white stone. We walked all the way to the centre of the city (if Chennai can be said to have a centre, sprawling as it is). The traffic was a seething, honking, thousand-mouthed monster that made our ears ring and our throats raw. Every autorickshaw driver that passed demanded to know what we thought we were doing walking around like that instead of paying for a ride like normal people. We loved it, though. We dodged and weaved through the swirling traffic like we’d been choreographed, and collected lots of half-smiles and double-takes from people surprised by non-Indian faces. The sun was a burning demon above, sucking every molecule of moisture out of our pores and the dust rose up around our ankles as we walked. Chennai has low whitewashed walls everywhere, covered with notices, advertisements and signs all in multicoloured painted letters, and girls on scooters zoomed past with their silk billowing out behind them, lit through by sunlight like lanterns.

Chennai is crazy for malls - they’re everywhere here. We went into one, I admit - we’d been walking all day and the lure of the air-conditioning was too much to resist. And anyway, I wanted to get an Indian phone number for my mobile phone. Since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November it’s not easy, though - they want proof of a local address. One clerk offered to waive that requirement for a special fee of Rs1000, but $25 struck me as too much baksheesh just to get my phone working, so I passed. After an incidental hour at the mall we were more than ready to go back to India for the rest of the day, so we continued onward toward our actual objective, which was a camera shop - Sheryl wanted to replace her camera, which has suffered myriad indignities since we left home. She didn’t get one in the end, not being entirely sure of her requirements, and so we turned around and headed back to Santhome.

We went back by way of Marina Beach, which is a lovely stretch of sand on the eastern edge of the city. Normally it’s crowded with families, but it was dark by this time and a weekday besides, so it wasn’t busy at all. There were a few stands selling food, groups of people here and there, and one man riding a horse up and down the beach. We went down to the water and watched the moon on the waves and let the wind off the Bay of Bengal blow over us.

We made a bad decision about the route to take back to Sujit’s place. There was a road that ran along the shore parallel to the Santhome High Road, and it was quiet (which in Chennai means only a vehicle passes every five or ten seconds). The local fishing fleet had pulled up its boats off to the left, and there were a lot of shacks to the right. People lived there, in the shacks. They’d wired themselves into the electrical power from the streetlights with a typical Indian repurposing of technology, and they sold their catch by the side of the road from buckets and carts. I briefly entertained the idea of bringing a nice fish back to Sujit’s house to cook for dinner, but I hate cleaning fish and I didn’t think I could convince him or Sheryl to do it either. We did buy some sweet little bananas and ate them as we walked. I held the skins in my hand for ages, not wanting to just throw them to the side of the road for the cows along with the rest of the trash, like everyone else obviously had.

The road got poorer and poorer the farther we walked, the shacks giving way to what I can only describe as hovels, and then to tumbledown tenement buildings. People were swarming everywhere. The street was brightly lit under lots of streetlights, and families and children were everywhere. We didn’t belong there - not by a very long shot - but although I didn’t feel welcome or comfortable, I wasn’t worried. The atmosphere wasn’t menacing or threatening, I only got that sense of violated privacy that a community gets when their metaphorical underclothes are seen. We weren’t welcome and were very aware of that. Sheryl and I are always intentionally going places we shouldn’t - some might say that that’s one of our defining qualities, but since this time we’d come accidentally, we felt sorry for it and hurried through to leave the people to themselves as quickly as we could. Only one kid tried the make friends then beg approach, but I was still carrying banana peels and so was apologetically unable to shake his hand. I must remember that tactic for the future. Even in this insular slum community, though, a few people still gave us smiles as we passed. I use the word gave with purpose, since I’ve come to believe through travelling that smiles are the best gifts a stranger can give.

In the end, we did make it back to Sujit’s place, though it was quite late when we did. He took us out to another slick place for dinner, and again insisted on treating us. Really, he’s far more generous than we deserve. Over dinner and later at his house, he and I sat up until very late, having a long, intense conversation that roamed everywhere from IT war-stories to the similarity of comic-book superheroes to the demigods of the great Hindu epics and all the way to the nature of space and time. It’s been ages since I had that kind of intellectual stimulation and I’m grateful for it.

Sheryl was feeling poorly the next day and stayed in, and I walked the city again. South this time, out along the river to the neighbourhood called Adjar. It wasn’t so hot today, and I quickly settled into a distance-eating stroll. I had my music on to block out a bit of the traffic noise, and just drifted wherever my feet took me. I’d meant to try to find Eliot’s Beach, a smaller and more exclusive beach south of the city proper, but I got distracted by Adjar’s shady streets and then by the leafy avenues of the Theosophical Society grounds. People were very friendly, though again very surprised to see me. I didn’t see any other foreigners all day, so I don’t think we have much of a presence in Adjar. I collected lots of double-takes but lots of smiles too. In the afternoon school let out and there was half an hour of schoolgirls giggling and blushing. I impress the hell out of fourteen-year-old girls, it’s a shame it doesn’t work on anyone older than that.

I made two discoveries while walking - first, the magic secret to getting the autorickshaw drivers to leave you alone: walk against the traffic. What can I say, I often miss the blindingly obvious, it’s a weakness of mine. The other was a lovely parade of sorts, with a big float covered in flowers, and a group of men walking along with it and in front of it scattering flower petals on the ground. I took a few pictures - discreetly, as I try to take all my photos involving people. I thought it was very nice, but didn’t have the faintest clue what it was for. Any Tamil readers will already be horrified by this point, and so was I when I mentioned it casually to Sujit later and he told me it had been a funeral. I feel terrible about photographing it now, and I hope no one noticed me.

Sujit, by the way, has invited us to a Holi party in mid-March, if we’re still anywhere near Chennai. Holi is a festival which celebrates the beginning of spring by throwing coloured paint all over anyone and everyone - like a giant paint fight. It looks like a lot of fun, and Sheryl of course is burning to go. I guess we’ll have to play it by ear and see where we are. It could well be worth coming back to Chennai for something like that. I’m getting itchy feet, though, and I want to move on. I want Sheryl to get her camera issues resolved so we can go on to Mahabalipuram and thence to Pondicherry.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

February 26th, 2009

I can visualize every word of your post, your writing is pretty lively :-) I hope you have more memorable experiences from your trip!

PS: Came here via link from Sheryl whose stream I stumbled onto on Flickr..

¬ Ganesh
February 27th, 2009

Thanks for the feedback! I’m happy to hear you’re enjoying the posts. I’ll take good wishes from someone with your username any time! :)

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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