Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Journal of India: The big leap South to Chennai

Marina Beach

On my first night out in Delhi, I met this guy called Cartak who lived in Chennai and was going down there in a couple of days. Since I still didn't have a trajectory ready to go through India, and since the guy said I should go visit him so that we could go out again (the advantages of my personal charm!), I decided to make it my next stop after coming back from Haridwar. I booked a plane for a massive change in location (from far North-center to far South-East), but first I had things to attend to near Delhi...




I was hoping to make it an early night yesterday in view of my morning flight to Chennai, but it was Callie’s birthday, and we took her and Winnie out to celebrate. Ashwini brought his driver, so we chanced an evening of binge drinking in Gurgaon, a small town outside of Delhi, notable for being highly ‘commercial’, as my friends put it. Essentially this meant that it was full of large office buildings. We went inside some kind of hotel or commercial centre and it felt like being in New York, but with Indians.

On our way home, we dropped Winnie and then Callie, and on this second instance I went to stand by a tree, stuck two fingers into my mouth and vomited whatever alcohol was left in my stomach. I really wanted to sober up quickly: I had decided to go home, pick my bag and go straight for the airport, without pausing for the flimsy single hour of sleep I was going to get. I managed to sleep an hour and a half at the airport and almost three on the plane.

I landed in a lush tropical scenario. Chennai is mightily warmer than Delhi, more verdant and clearer in the air. I took a room in a guest house which had been suggested to me by a friend. 400 rupees a night and a rat-hole of a place which legitimated the cheap expense (cheap in European terms, at least – the one in Haridwar had been free of charge).

I chilled out for a half hour and then walked outside. The beginning was disorienting. We are already in the centre of the city and people seem uncertain as to what’s worth seeing here. As a way of giving myself an objective, I am now seeking a tourist office for some info. I am also seeking a cap and a pair of sandals, as an alternative to being cooked alive by the local sun.



Superficially, Chennai strikes me as the most Christian of the cities I’ve seen in India. Several churches announced the rhetoric of Jesus, which resonated oddly in this place. Apparently one of their central monuments is a cathedral, that of Santhome (which I have not seen). There must have been a different emphasis in terms of colonization, here.

Sleeper class coach, from the inside


Hyderabad Express.

On a train as I write these lines, in what is known as Sleeper Class. The cheapest of them all. There is nothing in these blue carriages other than sleeping benches sticking out of the walls, three tiers per wall, no sheets. It is fine by me. As long as the temperature stays clement, as it is now (much due to the tissues of wind that whip into the coach through the blue metal bars at the windows), I will call myself content. I call in at Hyderabad at 5:45 in the morning, discounting delays, and I’ll need to find myself an hotel.

Yesterday Cartak invited me to his place for lunch – there was a housewarming function and I joined them after the prayers. I sat on the floor by Cartak and a broad leaf was spread on the pavement before me. We sprinkled it with water, rubbed it clean, and food was poured upon it.

I will not deny that it was very trying. Eating with my hands was laborious as the food was more liquid than solid. Mostly it was rice mixed with vegetables and creamy stuff until it became some kind of porridge. The food at Ashwini’s place had been spicy to the event horizon, but it was always good. Here, the taste was unwelcome to my tongue and eating proved more of a chore than it was a pleasure. I finished the meal to avoid insulting my hosts.

One of the local uncles gave me a ride home on his bike, and I subsequently went to Marina Beach, where I sat reading for a few hours. More than a hundred metres of sand, then a green and troubled sea. It felt strangely foreign, as though even these waters spoke a different language than mine, in contrast with the ripples of the Mediterranean, so dear and close to me in memory. Cartak later called and we joined some friends of his cousin’s at the local university hostel. It is superfluous to specify that the conditions were not even remotely comparable to what we get in Europe (though they bear a vague resemblance to what I saw in the Caribbean). We all went on the roof, twelve of us, on a night of few stars. We were all men. The point of the gathering, as I understood it, was that of sitting in a circle and getting drunk together while sharing cigarettes. Not an unfamiliar experience. I wonder to what extent we may speak of contamination from the Western ways, or if instead this is no more than a universal drive towards state-of-consciousness alteration in the young.

Stealing the scene was as easy as it gets. I was aided by the fact that their transgression, as such, was just a case of ‘been there, done that’ for me. Also I had the sexual seniority – I was stunned to find that only two of these eleven kids were not virgin. One of them was Cartak, who was the only one aged 25 rather than 21, the other had fucked a prostitute. After a few hours my friends found me an auto and Cartak and his cousin escorted me home on their bike (rigorously without helmet, and with alcohol in their bodies, as seems to be the custom over here).

It took a while to fall asleep – the room in this guest house becomes an oven in the night, and it’s a good thing I don’t suffer mosquitoes (nonetheless, more than fifteen bites on the right arm alone).

I was allowed to sleep until late hours. The train on which I’m on departed at 16:45, and the guest house was no great distance from the station.

The sun is declining and a fat man is sleeping at my right, his soft hair brushing on my elbow. The Indian countryside, which seems immense, is tranquil and flat. The sight of human settlements, however, is desolating. Images of lacerating poverty, and mountains of garbage with encampments flourishing over them, and polluted rivers with cows and Indian buffalo wading through them, are set against a backdrop of ponderous Industrial development. Everywhere there seem to be factories or cities in construction.

The man on my right has begun to snore. My fellow travelers look rather bristled by the fact, and this gives me the quirky impression that there is a comical side to this situation, one which I can’t identify.

PS. I should add that the bats which soar over the local campus at night are the biggest flying objects I’ve ever seen short of aeroplanes. If it weren’t for the wings, I would have thought I was finally seeing the elephants.

Out in the streets of Chennai!

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