I hate change. I abhor change. I sometimes think life would be so much better if I could just shoot forth in time, vault over most of life’s minor vicissitudes and be, say, 60 or so, like one of those grouchy old uncles who sit around the corner tables at India Coffee House or Koshy’s and glower at the world in general. Being young is so exhausting, it doesn’t really leave you with time for much else, like, say, glowering at people over coffee.
In any case, the point of that rambling preamble is that my take on Chennai (or rather, this little hamlet that I must call Chennai as some sort of a face-saving measure) two months after being here is going to be less than complimentary, given that I’ve been uprooted after 27 years in one city and thrown to shrivel and die in this little outpost town on the outer fringes of civilization.
Of course, people tell me I generally overthink things, so here’s my completely underthunk take on Chennai after almost two months here (see I didn’t agonize over creating my own word) :
Chennai, on a good day, still isn’t Bangalore.
And so it should be. For what good would a world of identical cities be? Quite like a book with each page identical to the last.
Gaahh!!! I hate trying to be positive. It makes me feel stupid. Almost like I can hear a malicious giggle from somewhere behind my ear, followed by a whisper, “You wish…”
So, to say that again, that’s as it should be, for otherwise, what price the average Bangalorean’s uncontested bragging rights?
Where is the average rural Tamilian going in such a hurry, in his blue checked lungi on his spindly little motorcycle? And why is he so loath to let his left hand stay on the handlebars?
Travelling in a local / suburban train is an eye-opener. Crammed into a boxful of people, every man’s sweat running down the next one’s arm, one idiot’s wild curly oily hair this close to your face; even as you keep thinking that even this will pass, you look around and you see people for whom this will not pass. For whom this was, is and always will be reality.
You float in, in a well-heeled little hermetic bubble, travelling in a local train partly for its novelty, partly out of deference to a streak of self-denial, but only until you can arrange your own transport. But the man sitting there in the corner, in the grubby shirt and saffron cotton bag printed all over in blue-green, that man there will be getting onto this or some other train tomorrow as well. And the day after that, and the day after, ad infinitum.
Hanging from one of the overhead handgrips, I look around. In my extreme discomfort (fast turning into a blind, mute rage) at having to wedge myself into such a tiny space in such close proximity to an unknown human being, its easy to paint my emotions onto the faces of others. I think I see defeat, I think I see dignity wiped out, but in reality its only the acceptance of an unchanging reality. Or something more fundamental than acceptance, coming from not having known any other life.
If there’s anger or sorrow or a sense of degradation of humanity, its only mine.
To be honest, I’m happy I’m different, that I’ve known different lives before this one, that I’m only a temporary visitor, or an infrequent one at best, to their lives. I look on, secure in the invisibility that my ordinariness grants me, and I look into their lives, follow their movements, follow their eyes, curiously and unemotionally, like one does only with those unlike oneself.
The lack of self-consciousness I see everywhere is remarkable, as these people around me pick up fragments of their lives and carry them unhindered onto the trains for the durations of their commutes as the train hurtles along, with them and their fragmented existences (and me and mine too). Bunches of ladies squat in circles on the floor near the door and continue gossiping as the children play around. The old man lies down and sleeps at the feet of the other passengers. One lady nurses her child as the man opposite picks his nose.
And in the midst of this unselfconscious behaviour, almost as a consequence, there shine through the true natures of the people. And the moment you see it, you wish you hadn’t. For the overriding emotion appears to be one of chauvinism. Families travel together, but it looks more like shepherd and sheep as a harried father grunts at his wife and yells at his children.
And this spirit of chauvinism, that passes off in these parts for tradition and culture, is handed down intact from father to idiot son, misogynistic overtones more apparent now than earlier. And so the cycle continues. And I can’t help but get the feeling that for most of these people and for most Indians in fact, marriage isn’t much more than signing on a captive housekeeper for life.
Remember the Friends episode in which Joey, Ross and Chandler build forts?
In the middle of relocating and settling, I’m reminded of this epsiode every time I bring back one little piece of my fort from each Bangalore trip : Motorcycle one weekend, Books on another, Camera and lenses on a third, and so on, till I have myself walled up in a new fort that’s almost identical to the one I had back home.
And now when you go home on holiday, your old fort is mostly in ruins with gaping holes in walls and empty turrets and things just seem different…
Re-reading all my stuff on a Sunday afternoon, I’m sensing a rather marked drop in quality which may or may not have something to do with efforts to stay positive and, more importantly, act normal. Trying to be happy and normal, with all the attendant benefits, is no doubt nice. However, in simple egotistic terms, it hurts to see the apparent dulling of faculties.
And so, if you’ve just stumbled here, and are on a budget in terms of time, may I ask that you hit page 2, and travel back to troubled times and better writing?