|Eliot's beach: In all it's glory. And dirt.|
(This is in reply to this post on Indian Express and will make much more sense if you read that post first. )
Disclaimer: This article is meant to be mostly humor and an alternate viewpoint, no offense to the author of the post I am replying to or any Chennai-ite. Also, I used to be a Chennai-ite myself, and am still unable to call any other city "home". I do not mean to say that Chennai is more unsafe than any other city but I disagree with the fact that it is not unsafe. Nor do I mean that Chennai is worse than any other city, just that there is more to it than the surface.
Every girl in the world ought to grow up in a city like this, one that doesn't frighten her anymore, because she is too numb by now.
For a reason that is obvious to anyone who knows me, I often say that I am from Chennai- because though I didn't always live there and wasn't even born there, I am of this city. I often say that this city belongs to me, though of course real estate agents and politicians will tell you otherwise. I imagine that I always knew these streets, that they were never new to me- which is ridiculous because they were indeed new to me when I was 3 or 4. I imagine that I've never gotten lost, that I always knew where I was going- something even more ridiculous considering I usually stumble when an interviewer asks "Where do you see yourself 5 minutes from now?"
I first came to Chennai when it was Madras (and it always shall be, to me) and I was the youngest 6-month old in the world. Of course, 5-month olds were younger than me. I grew to be young and ridiculous like only little girls can be. And young girls. And women. And men. Strike that out. I think most young people ARE ridiculous anyway. I never lived in a hostel in Madras, but you couldn't tell the difference. I was hidden away with my brother at home, where I had to be back from the playground by 7, even though the playground was visible from our balcony. Where I used to wonder why the auto-driver who dropped my friend to school made unnecessary, uncomfortably prolonged eye contact that somehow made my skin crawl, even at 7. Where my mother would panic about her daughter's safety if I returned 15 minutes late from the nearby stationery store. She never told me why, she never told herself why I guess, but Madras was still part of India.
My life was mostly between school and home, and then paatu class and home, of course escorted by someone. The one time I travelled the 500 feet between home and paatu class wearing an imported knee-length skirt that some America-settled cousin had gifted, 2 stranger aunties stopped me to advise. And one old lady actually yelled at me for being a bad girl and not following our culture, a phrase I got to hear far too often in later years. I had been 10 then.
I don't know how your friends were decided upon in those days. If you ask me, I'd say with no rhyme or reason. We played hide-and-seek and lock-and-key and paandi and an obscure game called Fruit's cut with people whose names we would forget the next day. And yet, the most unlikely of friendships would spring up between such playmates. With the intricate politics that I then thought only children are capable of.
Girls like me who were nerds and bookworms, girls who weren't. Girls who were the best pick of Antakshari teams, girls who were great at getting tenth-standard-akka-anna gossip. Boys who would pull our pigtails, boys who wouldn't. Boys who we kicked under the bench when they annoyed us, boys who kicked us back. We all became friends. We laughed together and borrowed each others' pen-pencils and boasted about our latest fancy water-bottles, not knowing that these uninhibited conversations would not last forever.
And together we learned about this city. We walked uncertain, in large groups, ran across L.B.Road not holding hands, clung to the handrails as we took the 29C, learned how to not notice what those annas were saying, though we probably would not have understood if we had listened- we just knew they weren't right. We laughed at the girls who put on Peter-accents, and learned to get scandalized about boys and girls talking. Or standing alone. Or looking at each other. We learned to denounce people who drink, people who did "only" an arts degree instead of engineering, pretty much people. We learned that being a vegetarian made you "pure" and that you must always eat well before you visit a relative, especially if they are richer. We learned the infinite acting that adults do- games against people, games against games, vicious hatred beneath benevolent smiles.
We ate whatever we wanted and some of us grew fat and hated ourselves for it. But not as much as we hated those of us who ate and did not grow fat.
We shopped for Dairy Milk and Lacto King in corner potti-kadais and begged our parents to let us go watch My Dear Kutti Chaathan by ourselves. We ended up going with 2 adults as escorts. And when a group of us decided to go watch King-Kong by the time I was 18, we knew better not to dare look at the hooting boys that would lurk in the dark of the theatres. We had been taught love was a bad thing often enough not to dare fall in love in these streets or have our hearts broken. We watched the Adyar signal's face marred with a fly-over, watched Singapore Shoppe close and thought the world was over.
We all have images in our head that only grow sweeter with time, but some that always send a chill down our spines. For me, it is the memory of my walk to Eliots which I did so often I don't know which day I am thinking of. It is possibly the time I knew I was leaving Madras to go to college. All I wanted that day was to stand at the shore, let the humid air wash over me like the water washed my feet and silently talk to the Bay of Bengal. Silence? Did I say silence? I hadn't known what it was then. Madras is never silent. The memory is still fresh and I can almost see the creepy old man walk by- and though he meant no harm, Madras had taught me to be scared of anything and anyone who was not educated, white-and-white class. He did nothing, said nothing, but the fear still tingled my spine. The chill today is not because of the man, but because of the fear I felt then. The number of times aunties worried about me walking back home after dark, the number of subtle sentences they said about school-van drivers and shopkeepers being dangerous without quite explaining how or why- nothing could frustrate a curious young happy girl more- had all instilled a nameless fear of the new in me. Something I took very long to outgrow.
I also remember the number of neighbours who judged us on wearing jeans instead of frocks or cutting my hair short. I remember the time when we were watching a cartoon movie and my friend's mother walked in during a bad scene (the cartoon bunny was kissing a cartoon girl-bunny), her anger reaching catastrophic levels as we small children cursed ourselves for not changing the channel fast enough.
Today, when I return to Madras in my head, I am happy in a way that makes sense- the city has grown and matured into Chennai. I am happy that the traffic jams are not half as bad as Bangalore or Mumbai, and happy to see the fewer uptight stares at girls in shorts. I hear people speaking Tamil and being nice to each other in their typical friendly, hypocritical way and I could burst into tears of joy. I miss the double standards and undercurrent of things never said, as much as most typical authors miss Idly and filter coffee.
I am reminded of the naive girl I once was and all the things I thankfully will never be, because I got out and saw a little of the world and learned to laugh at myself without taking offence. I wish every girl in the world could grow up in a city like this- that teaches her the complexity of human thought so early in life, that teaches her management-school-level-hypocritical-networking so early it becomes part of her system. A city that doesn't frighten her, because by now she is cautious and numb. That makes her feel like all of this, this business of life is something we will get better at deceiving.
When you are young in Madras, the sun is always shining down on you at 36-42 degrees Celcius and the sea breeze somehow always finds a way to irritate your sticky sweaty skin. It is not hard to imagine that this is how life will always be. That you will always be with your friends laughing, jam-packed in an auto and believing that what you know is the end of the world. That there always will be a cheerful, infectious syncopated beat playing in the background, along with aachaaramana maamis who are offended by their servant maid's daughter accidentally touching them, and who believe that a girl with a period is worse than a human being. That at no point in time do smiling people in colour co-ordinated outfits start dancing around us except in a movie.
That there are different ways to look at the same thing. Always.
Edit 1: After one of my friends mentioned, I realized what was not quite right about my post. I was saying "Chennai" in places where I really meant Madras. Corrected.