India: Chennai - An Introduction Like No Other

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January 28th 2008
Published: February 13th 2008
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[youtube=GsWmgu4w_9U]With still fresh and painful memories of the harassment at immigration two days prior (see: Singapore: 4½ ), we entered the same Changi Budget Terminal in Singapore praying that there would be no drama this time 'round. There wasn't. In the slow march from the departure lounge to the waiting Tiger Airways plane, we struck up a brief conversation with a young-ish German man named Michael who'd later prove an asset.

True to form, we had, again, not the foggiest idea of where we'd be staying but soon the sweet bliss of sleep erased our fears. But the gravity of our predicament came rushing back when the landing gear connected with the runway at 10 minutes to midnight and a flight attendant welcomed us to Anna Airport, Chennai, India.

Clearing customs and immigration, we hooked up again with Michael and emerged from the terminal to the withering stares of about 1500 pair of eyes. Weak fluorescent bulbs illuminated the owners of the eyes, a few stray dogs, a dreary parking lot and a small wooden booth marked 'Prepaid Taxi'. Agreeing with Mike to split the INR 300 fare (USD 1 = Indian Rupees 40 but do make allowance for a weakening dollar) for the 16 km taxi ride to the city, we followed the designated driver over to the parking lot while shooing away would-be porters tugging at our backpacks. The car was something straight out of Bedrock - a crusty, black Ambassador Classic complete with a beat-up, cast-iron fare meter hanging on to the hood. We piled in and roared off in a 'yaba-daba-doo'. Michael had been to Chennai before and he knew a decent place in an area called Triplicaine and, just like that, we were no longer 'homeless'.

The land of "The Mahatma" Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and of the famed Taj Mahal, India had always seemed an elusive, impractical 'to-do' item. Vibert's fascination was spawned during his primary school years in Guyana. His school was in Strathspey - a village filled with Indian culture, music and food. Shanna, too, was curious about the culture, religion and cuisine. In St. Maarten, we'd haunt Pride of India or Anand's several times a week to savour the spices in a Goan fish curry or palak paneer or a malai kofta always accompanied by naan and washed down with mango lassi. But more than its food, we were interested in India because of its fantastic history, its vibrancy and contradictions.

The beginnings of modern India could be traced way back to 3500 BC and the Indus Valley where the borders of India and Pakistan now lie. Nomadic farmers and animal rearers worked together and created what came to be known as the Harrapan culture in the excavated mega-cities of Moenjodaro and Harappa in present-day Pakistan and Lothal in Ahmedabad, India. Generations of wars, uprising and invasions would see the decline of the Harrapan culture and the emergence of the many other empires like the Mauryan Empire (321 BC), the Guptas (319 BC), Cholas, Chalukyas and Pallavas. Babur brought in the Mughals from Kabul and he was succeeded by a string of Mughal rulers leading up to Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) who was overthrown and imprisoned by Aurangzeb, the last Mughal ruler and Jahan's own son.

The Portuguese, led by explorer Vasco de Gamma, were the first Europeans to arrive in India. He 'discovered' Kerala on India's south coast in 1498. The British and the French came later and so did the inevitable war for control which the Brits finally won. Tea, coffee, cotton became main exports of the British-sanctioned East India Company and English was imposed as the language of administration. Opposition to British rule was spearheaded by India's Congress Party and its one-time leader, Gandhi, who lead a passive resistance campaign. Meanwhile, religious rivalries between Muslims and Hindus, were hurrying the country to civil war and a British referee was tasked with dividing the territory along religious lines. The Muslim-dominated north and east was called Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively. Jawaharlal Nehru became India's first prime minister after its 1947 independence. He died in 1964 and Indira Gandhi who, contrary to popular opinion is not related to Mahatma Gandhi, took over the reins of power from her deceased father. She was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 after she ordered the removal of Sikh separatists from the Sikh's holiest temple - The Golden Temple of Amritsar. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's son, assumed the PM position but he, too, was assassinated in office. The PM position bounced from Narasimha Rao over to Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998 and then back to another Gandhi in 2004. This time is was Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's Italian wife (she is still alive). But local powers resisted a foreign-born leader and Sonia relinquished the position to the current Prime Minister and former finance minister, Manmohan Singh.

The car was surprisingly fast, speeding along an unlit highway. We passed a Raddison hotel and a few other decent hotels in an OK neighbourhood. Then the car turned right and our spirits turned south. We were driving thru the slums now. Even in the dark we could discern extreme poverty, filth and desperation. People lay fast asleep and exposed to the elements on damp, mud dams. Trash heaps watched over their emaciated bodies. Our stomachs did flip-flops. We hoped our neighbourhood was better. And it was but only marginally so. We hustled our things inside a spacious room with bad plumbing in Paradise Guesthouse and buried our faces in our hands wishing the images away. But those stubborn, wretched images refused to depart even in sleep.

We awoke from a restless sleep. Cold water trickled out of the bath tap into a bucket which also held a bowl. After a chilly scoop-bath we went to the 'roof garden' - an unfinished platform at the top of the guesthouse. What a marvellous sight!! The sun was already up illuminating a massive city that seemed much more cluttered than the drive in had revealed. The morning 'Call to Prayer' from the loudspeakers atop the minarets of some distant mosque rippled across the concrete and rusty zinc rooftops. And although it was a clear morning with a cool breeze, we resisted the urge to breathe deeply. 'Sweet Jesus' was our first thought when we came to street-level. Triplicaine, this part at least, was horrid. The smells of rotting garbage, urine, excrement, exotic spices and foods mixed with the overpowering odour of poverty and created a smell so bad that our eyes watered and noses burned. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Madrasi (black-skinned Indians, since Chennai was once 'Madras'), scurried about on their way to somewhere. Street children, with the cutest faces, thread-bare clothes, no shoes and all the signs of malnourishment, padded up to us with outstretched hands and pleading voices. We were surrounded. They tugged at our clothes, stared into our eyes, begging for a rupee or two. Their voices lent to the deafening cacophony of a million 2-stroke engines of the auto-rickshaws, Bollywood music, ancient buses and other sounds of daily life. We became disoriented. All our senses
Milk Tea WallaMilk Tea WallaMilk Tea Walla

Amazing how fast and high the tea is poured from one cup to the next.
were working overtime and our nerves were frazzled. 'Sensory overload'. We had remembered reading before coming to India but nothing we had read could have ever prepared us for this. Super-cautious about where we placed our feet, we picked our way thru the crowded pavement trying, in vain, to avoid the sweaty porters, foul-smelling beggars, flying spit, persistent street children and the odd, horribly deformed human who was subjected to a life of crawling like a snake atop the filth beneath our feet. Ahead of us was the unmoving figure of a female child lying prone on the damp, dirty sidewalk. People jumped over or walked around her motionless body and dogs sniffed her. It was almost like she wasn't there at all. Like she was a log, or a rock or something without a heart and feelings and blood. Flies buzzed in and out of her opened, cracked and dry mouth. She looked dead. We didn't have the heart to jump over her so we walked around. Ever fibre in our beings was screaming 'Doesn't anybody care? Can't someone help this child?' We wanted to help. Desperately! But our research had said it was a dangerous thing to attempt
So many things going onSo many things going onSo many things going on

Triplicane, Chennai
on the streets of India. If we opened our wallets to offer Rupees, we'd immediately be swamped by thousands, young and old. We were advised to try and help thru establishments like orphanages, schools and churches. We walked away. Broken.

The antics of a chai-wallah (tea seller) caught our attention. He had a steaming vat of tea from which he extracted a cup. After adding a dose of sugar that was enough to induce immediate diabetes, he went about mixing and cooling the tea. His method involved throwing the tea from one cup help high above his head into another at waist-level. The piping hot liquid landed perfectly, every time, all the time. We eyed the bubbling tea and thought that surely all but the most hardcore germs must be dead and so we decided to have a cup. And biscuits. It was an excellent cup of tea and good biscuits except for the sight of two amorous cockroaches running around the lid of the open sugar-tin and for the biscuit Michael played pendulum with holding on to a strand of baked-in hair. Our first idea was to get a train ticket to somewhere else, anywhere else. On the main road, Ana Salai, we had our shot at negotiating with an auto-rickshaw-wallah. Sekar, a short man with a decorated rickshaw approached us. He wanted 300 Rupees to ferry the three of us around for the day. We wanted to go to the train station, a bazaar, and a few temples and have lunch somewhere in between. Back and forth we went wrangling about the price until Sekar mentioned that he would make the trip for 100 Rupees if we'd agree to visit three shops for him. He was forthright. He said that we didn't have to buy anything, just look around and pretend to be interested. He would get gift vouchers from the store for every potential buyer he led thru their doors. Sekar proudly displayed his brand new shirt, the result of three such vouchers. We agreed, squeezed into the chamber designed for two and headed off to the train station.

Ana Salai was a busy boulevard. The grunge of the Triplicaine side street was gone. Shopping malls, boutiques, office buildings and towering movie signboards now dominated. Chennai was a progressive city driven, in recent times, by the IT boom. Fast cars and bikes, high-rises and broad streets somehow contrasted sharply with what we had left a few moments ago. This was a pleasant change. Close to the station was a huge, rectangular billboard with pictures of 5 women in colorful saris. Each sari had a fresh combination of color and the model was perfectly accessorized. Stuck in traffic, Shanna leaned out of the rickshaw to take a picture and then her gaze wandered down from the billboard to the canal below. She gasped! At the foot of the board was the bloated body of dead man, face-down in the black waters of the ultra-polluted trench. We couldn't believe our eyes. People walked along the sidewalk, cars and rickshaws slowly passed by but nobody seemed to notice. Stopping in front of a traffic policeman, we animatedly related our 'discovery'. He ordered us to keep moving (we were holding up traffic, you see) and said that he'd check it out on his break.

Chennai Central was a huge colonial structure. On the 2nd floor we found a dedicated tourist desk and a very friendly lady. She sold us early-morning, next-day tickets on a train called the Shatabdi Express to Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore). The first shop was an over-priced emporium with stunning carvings, chess sets, antiques and fabrics. The salespeople diligently went about displaying and 'selling' the items but we were just pretending. It didn't feel right. Outside we told Sekar to rush thru the other shops but he insisted that we had to spend between 15-20 minutes inside. The other emporium had a dazzling array of gold jewellery fashioned into intricate, delicate designs on tiaras, pendants, chains, bracelets and anklets. The third shop had items similar to first and second and then some precious stones. We bought nothing. Pondy Bazaar was a busy, bargain street chocked full with fabric stores, jewellers, street-side hawkers, restaurants and touts. We weaved our way thru the masses thoroughly enjoying the colors, the energy, and the unbelievable bargains.

After lunch, Sekar said he'd waive his daily charge altogether if we'd visit 2 more shops. He pleaded and we reluctantly agreed. An hour later we returned to Paradise Guesthouse. Michael made arrangements for Sekar to take him to the airport. He was flying, that same afternoon, to Kolkata and then on to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Sekar promised to pick us up early the next morning for the Shatabdi train. It was after 4 pm when we started walking the streets of Triplicaine. The nearby Marina Beach was our destination. More of the same desperation, poverty and hopelessness surrounded us but we knew that this was only day 1 and we had to develop some resistance to what was happening around us. The beach was a riot of color. Hundreds of people flocked to the broad off-white strand. Ladies, still fully clad in bright saris and shalwars, waded in the surf and youngsters dived beneath the waves. On land, numerous food stalls serving fish, sweets and other delights, competed for business. Youngsters played cricket, young acrobats did high-rope tricks, couples canoodled and families picnicked. Makeshift merry-go-rounds, candy floss and homemade ice-cream, laughter and lively music created a festive atmosphere of fun and merriment. We sat in the midst of the carnival reflecting on the activities of the day and marvelling at the uncanny ability of humans to rise above even the toughest of circumstances.

The alarm sounded much too early. Groggily, we saddled up and headed downstairs. It was dark outside. Day 2. 😊

Thanks to:
😊 Michael, safe journey Doc

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13th February 2008

has been a while, but im following you guys. All is well take care Hey dutch girl stay coooool man luu yall

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