As stereotypical as it sounds, you know you’re in Chennai when you’re welcomed by the sonorous echoes of the Nadaswaram as you step outside the airport. I couldn’t recognize the tune but I’m pretty sure it was Hamsadhwani Raagam.
I was in Chennai this weekend – my native town. My father was raised there, so were my grandparents. There are two seasons in Chennai – summer and summer-cum-monsoon. I was expecting the temperature to burn a hole through my skin. But the weather gods were kind to us – it was rather pleasant and very breezy.
My father has a tendency to turn holidays to pilgrimages. Usually, when we visit Chennai, it’s either to attend a wedding, or to visit a relative. (interspersed with visits to various temples, of course) This time, I told my Dad, “Papa, I want to see Chennai as a tourist. Visit fun places, shop, eat and spend a few hours at the beach.” Papa kindly agreed.
My entire childhood I associated Chennai with heat and muck. It used to be terribly dirty, especially in the monsoons. (Dirty meaning dirtier than Mumbai) The city is so much cleaner nowadays. I’m told it’s thanks to several citizen led initiatives. (I am going to keep quiet about Tamil Nadu politics – there is muck and then there is that)
When in Chennai one must meet relatives and visit temples – regardless of what else you have in mind. Those boxes were ticked, yes. In fact I quite loved the Agasthiar temple. Shivji and his better half were gorgeous. And saying hello to Vayu Putra on Saturday was done with much enthusiasm. (The Gods needed to be thanked profusely as they saved my father from a positively terrifying, life-threatening situation the previous week. We took our time)
Shop till you drop. We did that at Naidu Hall. The father was asked to sit in a corner while the mother and I decided to splurge on cheap and colorful lingerie. The father was asked to leave the corner and come back to fore to help mother choose a saree. Which as usual turned out to be sarees. This place even stocks underwear for women who’ve undergone mastectomies or liposuction. Where M&S wins in durability, Naidu Hall takes the cake for affordability. [But I am a snob so I will buy bras at both places] Victoria Secret, you silly little store that is never open to women who actually have breasts, go to hell.
The next day I made the parents get up at 5 in the morning so we could get to Marina Beach by 6 to catch the sunrise. They never complained and the sight was worth it. The sunrise was glorious, the breeze pleasant, the water fierce and stunning. The sand felt cool and lovely against my feet, the water warm and ticklish. It was a beautiful morning. We treated ourselves to some coconut water.
We also rewarded ourselves for having woken up so early on a Sunday by gorging on Pongal for breakfast. Is there a perfect-er start to a day? Methinks not.
We then met more relatives, I spent some time with my cousin and Dad forgot his cellphones in the cab and we struggled to get them back. We then did what was MOST important on our agenda – buying lots of coffee powder. Because that’s the best thing about Chennai – there is no such thing as bad coffee. [Unless you speak of this Vivekananda Coffee Powder – which is basically packaged dirt that gives you the worst headache]
Every city has a unique spirit, and once you find that you build a sense of kinship with it. Geography finds personality. It took me a long time to find that connection with Chennai, which is weird considering it’s technically my place of origin. I’ve grown up away from Chennai but with some of its quintessential elements – I woke up to the music of MS Subbulakshmi for most of my life, my day never ends without some curd rice and pickle and I need my cup of filter coffee early in the morning. And yet, I have come to feel at home in Chennai only recently. I wonder why?
Is it because I decided to actively take interest in the city as a living, thriving space rather than just a place of residence of my relatives? Or because I decided to look up the architectural and cultural history of the city and found it absolutely fascinating? Or because none of the hoardings in the city had any spelling errors? Is it because I came to appreciate the fact that I’ve had so many friends who’ve moved to Chennai not knowing a word of Tamil and yet fallen in love with it? Just the way my father came to Mumbai 3 decades back and fell in love with its all-consuming, undying spirit? Whatever it is, Chennai also feels like home now. It will never be Mumbai but it is still a place I think of with fondness, with the familiarity of an old friend, as a place where I know I will always be welcome.
Lots of love to you, Chennai 🙂
Here are a few pictures: