Chennai Now

The sky is gray today, but the sun is poking through.  I thought to create a blog would be an experiment in essays.  It’s an indulgence really. Recently, I went to India, after an absence of thirty years.  Everyone as asked, how did I find the changes?  First, Madras is no longer Madras but Chennai.  There are an awful lot of tall buildings.  Crowded storefronts now offer cell phones.  But there are also the same women and men offering young coconuts for sale, with a straw to sip the precious water.  Unlike the North, where I heard report of a young woman sporting a pair of Ugg boots with her selwar kameez, the young women here wear kurtas and jeans, selvars, saris.  The men, dhotis or pants.

Traffic is still noisy, maybe noisier.  Honking is the way to drive. Honk if you are making a turn, honk if you are passing, honk if the guy in front of you honks.  Honk at the cattle who will not get off the road on the way to Auroville.  Honk down the narrow dirt lanes to alert everyone you are coming in a car.

The beach have become trashed, but like everywhere, the further you walk away from the clusters of people, the nicer it gets.  The waves roll out, the shells are revealed, the waves roll in, the shells are hidden.  My niece spent a lot of time collecting shells, and carefully took them home in her own little “I’m on my way to Grandma’s” suitcase.

Mostly, I stayed inside, eating and catching up with family I had not seen in so long.  It was so easy, with no expectations asked of me.  I didn’t have to cook, wash dishes, clean.  I made my bed everyday, walked downstairs where my father, early riser, handed me South Indian coffee in a stainless steel tumbler.  I read the Hindu newspaper, avidly following a disgraceful trial.  After a shower, I had my first breakfast.  This was usually followed by a series of phone calls with which we would plan the day.  Then mid-morning tiffin, a full meal with something special featured: soft idilis, sweet pongols, beans and coconut curry, home food that I craved.

I’d disappear with a book, but never for long, or go visiting in the car, which could take hours. Once we doubled the normal time driving to Bangalore because of traffic.    Evening brought dinner, then tv, maybe a serial, or a concert.

One of my favorite sights:  a swami, that is a holy man in holy vestaments, taking a temple break and smoking a cigarette.

How had India changed?  More cell phones, more cars. TV sets are bigger, but so they are in the US.  Thirty years brought enormous construction, deluxe apartment houses and IT companies.  In Bangalore , I visited the summer palace of the Rajah of Mysore.  How strange it was to be led around the vacant rooms, full of photographs from the past, with shredding upholstery.  The palace itself looked weary.

Chenai is not weary.  It’s vibrant, on the move, fast.

Shopping fever caught me at the end, and I searched for things to bring back home.