A Day In Chennai

*Yawn* 0430 is just too damn early to start the day. So much for early mornings…it ain’t morning if it still looks like night!!!!! But ah, Chennai is a city that wakes up at ungodly hours and if I have to be there to catch it, I’ve gotta be up and running too.

At least the flight isn’t bad. Not that bad anyway. The absurdly early hour ensures I meet no traffic jams on my way, no long queues at check-in. One gleeful haha moment breezing through security check (since I was the only woman!) while the men trudge through a long line! I think I like airports. I’ve always liked airports.

Everyone is in business suits, toting laptops, black shoulder bags, business newspapers and mobile phones. Of course. This is a rare moment I know I’m with a group of people just like me and am not appalled by what I see. Why? I don’t know. Nothing makes sense at 0530 in the morning.

The man behind me at check-in, ends up sitting next to me, getting up politely to let me in and by way of polite co-traveller conversation asking about my mobile phone. At least none of them were hitting on me (Oh, I’m not boasting….thrice men have tried to pick me up at airports…two of them on the same journey). Apparantly the airline-love/lust hormone doesn’t work at 6 in the morning. During the safety procedure, they mention that seats number 9 to 21 can also be used as safety floats in case of emergency.

Isn’t that a really stupid announcement?

my companion remarks.

Yes and I’m really going to remember that if the cabin is low on oxygen and everyone’s scrambling to jump out of the plane!

I agree. We chuckle quietly, briefly like two naughty kids whispering behind teacher’s back before smoothly transitioning back to our respective ‘we’re strangers so cordial but not over-friendly’ demeanour. We don’t exchange another word.

Then I settle down to a quick nap. I can doze standing in the middle of a crowded Churchgate fast, sleep like a log through earthquakes (yes, I did!), whirring fans and loud religious celebrations…but I have trouble getting to sleep in a comfortable bed in a quiet, dark room. Well search me….a cramped airline seat in a noisy, bumpy craft is probably closer to the first and hence I drop off in approximately 7 seconds. Woken up rudely for breakfast of course. Actualy it wasn’t that bad. Weird since I hate idlis especially those not made at home. And these were drenched in sambhar besides (which in my mind is the South Indian version of torture).

As we start our descent I start to remember why my early airline flights started with glee and ended with tears. My ears are hurting so bad, my eyes are going to start wattering any minute. And what will happen to the person I’m being then? This I’m-so-busy-I’m-so-cool stuff? Mercifully the attendent brings me cotton just in time. Hallelujah! I can’t hear a thing but at least the buzzing ache is gone.

The first thing that hits me in Chennai was not the heat or the noise or the cut-outs of Tam superstars. The very first thing I notice is not the city, but myself. How I had changed. From five years back. From five minutes back.

Let’s track back in time. A quick rewind reveals the hot summer spent trudging across the city with a sales team on my summer project. Hot summer with power cuts. Hot summer with mangoes. Hot summer with multiplication tables and holiday homework. Hot summer with thousands of relatives who were pleased to see me, appalled by my Tamil, indifferent to my Hindi and overall surprised that this Mumbaiker/non-Chennaiite was human-suspicious that I wasn’t. Hot summers in uncomfortable long-sleeved, loose salwar-kameezes (mandatory Chennaiwear by Mum’s dictate). Hot summers trying to be inconspicous and quiet and not get into trouble with the elders. Hot summers spent wistfully thinking of friends who were ‘having fun with cousins at their native places’. Hot summers stealing away to corners to read while the household slept. Hot summers trying to digest idlis and sambar-rice day in and day out, morning-noon-night with no snacks in between. Hot summers trying to understand and vainly be entertained by an onslaught of Tamil on TV, books and family.

No wonder I hated the city. But odd, I don’t feel a speck of that when I watch the flashback in my mind. Its like a movie of someone else’s life running through. That time has passed. That life has gone long ago.

And then the realisation that I’ve smoothly made a transition into Tamil. I find I’m even reading the signboards and hoardings, just like I do in Mumbai. Yes, I can’t actually ‘read’ Tamil but the alphabet is familiar, I can pick out letters….and well…..learning a language has always been more intuitive than logical to me. The driver asks me,

Madam, Bombay lerundu vandirukingo, aana Tamil nalla payasareengo?
(Madam, you’ve come from Bombay but you speak Tamil well?) 

Hahaheehee, Thatha, I hope you heard that wherever you are. I didn’t take those Tamil lessons but twenty years later, I can still fool a taxi driver into thinking that I actually know the language. Hell, I do. I survived the trip without anyone’s assistance-thank-you-very-much, didn’t I? Petty is that, being vindictive towards a long-dead grandparent? Who cares, making peace with the past looks to be a lifelong project.

It is actually a lovely city, I muse. Of course I can afford to say that now. When I can walk into the city alone, sporting my trademark short, windswept hair (oh, it is so me! It got a few stares I have to say), buy lunch for myself and others at the table, blow up handy cash on too many sweets (somehow I end up doing a lot of shopping for other people while travelling, never for myself…possibly the experience is reward enough for me?!) and return as I please. I can dress as I like, travel where I please and I don’t need to think of anyone else!!! Freedom can make any place seem beautiful, after all it makes even dirty, crowded Mumbai my favorite place.

Coming back, I admire the trees and shrubs everywhere. Even the air smells different. I know its in my mind since I’m not passing any eateries but the faintly sambar-scented air is as Chennai as the dust-blowing, carbon-monoxide-fumed odor is Mumbai.

It is a crazy day. And hot. Oh why oh why have I been so disdainful of people who complain of Chennai’s weather? Mumbai is hot and humid too, I sniff….the weather in Chennai is the least of my concerns. So as my sparkling pin-stripes droop in an hour of my touchdown, I eat my words . Also some delicious curd rice for lunch. And coffee….ah, forgive me for I have sinned. After years of abstinence, I’ve downed three cups of steaming, filter kaapi in a few hours.

My head throbbing from heat, fatigue and over-caffeination, I get back to the airport. I’m early so my companion suggests that I try to get onto the earlier flight, the same one he’s on. Yippee, the lady at the counter likes my unruly mop apparantly since she makes the new boarding pass for me. I hear a man after me asking for the same thing and being refused. Oops, after making him wait all this while, I’ve lost my companion. As the doors to the bus shut….I sigh in resignation and ‘hold my chin perpendicular the ground, shoulders squared back’ like Scarlett O’Hara in my book-for-the-trip. The things I think of to amuse myself……good, it keeps my new shirt from creasing too much.

On the bus, I bump (literally) into my co-passanger from morning. Hey, there, good to see you, did you have a good day? I blurt out before biting my tongue, realising he is still a stranger. But he smiles back and replies, complaining of the heat and the traffic, while telling me without words, that’s fine, I didn’t mind, a little friendliness can help you get through this madness. This is getting to be a habit. Or more like the Mumbai local trains now. Travel with the same people up and down. Yes, everyone looks familiar, if not slightly rumpled after the hot day. He’s in the seat just behind mine now and I can see him if I crane my head and lean my seat back. But I don’t. And ah, I’ve ended up sitting in an all-woman arrangement which the other two remark on. Why is it unusual? It isn’t. More of us have joined the ranks after all. And the woman next to me is wearing the exact same white Van Heusen shirt I bought two weeks ago and almost wore today, before changing my mind and settling on the pinstripe instead. I wonder why that doesn’t annoy me but I keep that thought to myself.

Instead I mull over random thoughts. Usually I’m so busy doing things, not enough feeling things, that it feels like I’m recycling emotions. But this like a few other things, brings me a new emotion every second, new thoughts, new impressions and ideas. Its so delicious that later, I fall asleep over my dinner to return to the haze.

We sit in the plane for an hour and a half due to something called ‘radar trouble’!!!! Every 15 minutes the captain thrills us with decription of where in the queue we are. I fall asleep over and over again. Literally, just drop my head and tumble into sleepy-land. Only to wake up with a jerk. It happens several times and I apologise to the Van Heusen lady who smiles with genuine sweetness and says,

I was thinking that you must be really tired if you took the morning flight!

You see, our first conversation includes our respective schedules for the day and some shared agony over how we’ll all get home if the flight is delayed. Yes, three women with similar lifestyles can and will always make conversation.

When we finally do take off, the passangers start clapping. It is subdued….fatigue and the understatement as required by the lives we lead.

The flight doesn’t land on time either. We spend 45 minutes circling over Mumbai since we are now ‘thirteenth in queue but have been marked for special clearance…anytime now!’. I wonder sometimes what to think of the fuel shortage in the world, when airplanes are hovering around aimlessly in the air.

We land. Someone in the rear is staring at me. He was doing that in the bus too. And from across the aisle in the plane. He’s cute but an hour to midnight isn’t my time for flirting, unless I’m at a party. So sorry, no one’s getting picked up this time at the airport either. I walk out, say goodbye to my friendly lady companion, smile another curt ‘Bye’ to the gentleman from morning and step onto the road.

I’m back. I don’t feel restless like the last time I got back from an airport. It is a sudden realisation that I was more at home travelling, in the airport, on board, in the other city and travelling back….than I am, in the city I lie down in, each night. Maybe I’ve lived in Mumbai too long. The roles have reversed. I’m now apprehensive when I return, excited when I leave. I need to get out more often, explore more. Since other places don’t scare me anymore, Mumbai isn’t my refuge anymore either. All it is, is where I am at the moment. Home, that wonderful feeling is when I feel myself – curious, excited, thoughtful, invigorated, enriched. Home is when every minute is delightful discovery. Home is when I’m messy but charming vivacity, not cold,rational and numbed-to-the-point-of-dead. Home is when I am feeling like I have a world still to discover. Home isn’t Mumbai anymore but somewhere out there…I don’t even know if it has a name. It’s a concept, a feeling, not a place anymore. I lost home and I’ve found it again.

That’s my last thought before I settle in for the night.

5 thoughts on “A Day In Chennai

  1. Wonderful and I postponed reading it till end of day so that I can read it all at one go….beautiful…reminds me of all those trips to Chennai and also of morning evening hops where you get to meet the same passengers , almost like the local train schedule!
    Hey Is, let’s catch up sometime…it’s been a while 🙂

  2. Home isn’t Mumbai anymore? That’s sad to hear… You feel “Home is when I am feeling like I have a world still to discover.” – I’m more like “Home is where my heart is, where my friends & family are” – so though I LOVE exploring, traveling & having new adventures, I still long for home & I love homecoming.

    I realized that when I stepped into the hot of hots in Mumbai a little earlier this month. There are a lot of things I dislike about this city, but I love it. It’s home 🙂

    Sorry, apparently I’ve forgotten this isn’t my blog where I’m posting. Good to have you home girl! Hope the boss sends you home early this weekend 🙂

  3. A really good post! I went back to Chennai recently after a very long time; the city has changed dramatically too during the last decade.

    Re: We spend 45 minutes circling over Mumbai… heh, that’s the part I hate along with the 90 mins it takes me to get to the Expressway as I head back to Pune.

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