Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Over The Hills And Far Away

Having been born and brought up in the heart of North India (not to be mistaken for Delhi or Punjab), my exposure to the south of India had always been limited. As a child, all I knew was of a land called Madras, somewhere beyond the horizon and of people called Madrasis (yes, I am guilty of that crime too). Although we made a trip down south when I was about nine years old, but my memories of the trip were limited to the food – we had to eat puri aloo or dosa all ten days; clothing – I had found it strange to see young women in petticoats, which I later learnt was a half sari; and a lot of greenery, beyond that I did not remember much. My only South Indian connect back then was a Tamilian friend, and the weekly dinner of dosas in his house – and his dadi's nine-yard sari – did little to add to my knowledge, except reiterating the little I already knew.

A few years later, thanks to the geography books, I learnt that there was more to south of India than Madras but that hardly made a dent in my ignorance levels. It was only after I met my husband that I learnt a little more about the south (having grown up in a cosmopolitan township, he had many south Indian friends and acquaintances). He told me about the food – the tamarind rice and the biryani, the beef curry and the avial, the appam and the parrota; the language – the lilt of Tamil and the high rate of speech of Malyalam; the music – the soothing melodies and the hip swinging chartbusters, and the movies – complete with entertaining voice overs.

Although he was a fan of everything south Indian and had many south Indian friends back home, he had also shared how the six months he had spent in Chennai had been a complete antithesis of what he had seen all his life. The city – and the people – according to him, were not only closed to, but also strongly biased against the north Indians. There were many uncomplimentary stories of him being harassed during his six month long stint in Chennai (all this when he is not even a North Indian, but a Bengali). It was with these stories that I first set foot in the city (the trip was made more out of compulsion than out of choice). But what I saw – and experienced – changed my perception forever. 

The city in itself was a revelation, quite a contrast to my mental picture of it. I saw no sign of the polluted and congested metropolis I had thought it to be. On the contrary, I found grand colonial buildings springing up amidst wide, tree-lined avenues; sprawling campuses and impressive office buildings, huge roundabouts and imposing hotels (among them was also the one husband had worked for). Some parts of the city reminded me of Calcutta while the others of Bombay, just that the cramped lanes had been replaced by wide boulevards.

And the people: right from queue at the prepaid taxi booth, where they stood patiently and the booth assistant spoke courteously; to the driver, who greeted us with a smile, carried our luggage and helped us locate the guesthouse; to the owner of the guesthouse, an elderly man, who took us home and treated us like his personal guests since he could not get a room arranged for us (he even picked us up from a lonely dark lane when we were almost lost, and dropped us to the airport early next morning); I could see no sign of the hostility I had heard of. I had just begun to savour the city when it was time to say goodbye. But I had decided to return – and experience the real Chennai, on my own.

When I deboarded the flight that morning, two years after my first visit, I was better equipped – and less prejudiced – about the city. Getting to the guest house from the airport was a breeze – I spent the entire time talking to the driver – and the guesthouse – set up amidst lush tropical plants, low-rise bungalows and small fountains – was a picture of calm. 

I spent the better part of my two days there by roaming the streets, walking the lanes, talking to the cabbies – and the infamous auto drivers, experimenting with street food, discovering little nooks and crannies – with breathtakingly beautiful little temples and quaint houses, and doing many things that I cannot do even in my own city. In the evenings, I explored the colourful and bright markets and huge departmental stores, waded through thick traffic, walked in the rain and sat down on benches when I was tired. All this without a trace of discomfort or hint of the hostility that I had heard the stories about. The city – or a certain set of people – might have been unforgiving to my husband once, but to me Chennai had been warm and comforting.

While boarding my flight two days later, I had only one thought in my mind: to come back sooner or later, this time may be for good.

Post Script: As I finish writing this, husband is in Chennai, savouring a traditional Tamil lunch at a colleague’s house and getting ready for his onward journey into the heart of the city. True, time changes people and their perceptions. 

This Piece first appeared in The Hindu:

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