In your very first step out of the train at the busy Chennai Central, you know you are in a different world. The aroma of fresh decoction from the coffee shop nearby is your welcome song. Out into the streets, the brown and beige- bodied TNSTC buses, autos and cabs struck in 8 am traffic compose a cacophony that is, in some twisted way, pleasurable to one’s ears.
We all know the story of this Madraspatnam. The middle school history textbooks were all about temple towns and colonial cities like this one. Starting out as a fishermen’s village, Chennai, formerly Madras, grew under the British with the construction of the Fort George. In the centuries that followed, Chennai expanded and evolved into a city with its unique identity combining tradition and modernity. Curd rice, streets with long Tamil Brahmin names, the AIADMK hoardings and the evening bells from the temple gopurams along with a myriad of other things create what we call the soul of Chennai.
While it seems easy to measure a city in terms of its population and the degree of urbanization, a city cannot be understood and experienced by these parameters alone. If it were so, there would be no difference between all the cities of the world. Cairo would be no different from Moscow. Because ultimately a city owes to its existence the cultural and social elements that provide a strong foothold to it. As for Chennai, the cultural foundation is so strong that, it can’t be called a good breakfast, if you didn’t eat it on a banana leaf! This is perhaps a good reason why the popular adage “Gateway to the South India” is aptly attributed to Chennai.
Any description of this city would be incomplete without the mention of its auto-drivers. These men in khaki roam around the city round the clock in their three-wheeled yellow boxes. Be it a scorching summer afternoon or a cold midnight at Besant Nagar, they will be always there for you. The most important thing is, however, the life lessons they can teach you. They’ll help you master the art of negotiation. For the novices here, always subtract rupees forty from the rate he says. Take for example, if he demands a hundred bucks, say sixty. He’ll reply with “Kattubadi aagathu maa. 80 kodu“. Now use the student argument, “Romba jaasthi, students Anna, 70?” In most cases this works. If you won, enjoy your ride as the moisture filled sea breeze hits your face.
Chennai’s the only city in the world where you eat a coffee instead of drinking it. Kaapi saapteengala? Why do you think they serve it in a tumbler and a bowl? The sight of the hot coffee overflowing from the steel tumbler into the bowl when the waiter thrusts it on to the table is something to behold. Here coffee is like a South Indian joint family; it has a lot of cousins and siblings. Mylapore filter coffee, Kumbakonam degree coffee, Mysore filter coffee and Madras kaapi!
Like most cities in the world, Chennai too has its own vibrant street life. Streets around temples are unique, for suddenly it seems as if you are in the eighteenth century. There are flower stalls, pot vendors, clay-lamp shops and the shops selling pooja-related items. But when it comes to church streets, clay pots and ghee lamps are replaced by candles of many colours: deep violet, dark green, white and bright yellow. Candles are mostly sold by flower selling akkas, who would gift you a rose from the pile of flowers in front of her, if you greet her with a smile. And that’s the best thing about this city. It is a happy city.
“Buy 1 kilo for 30 and 2 kilo for 50”
Interestingly, the market works in weird ways in the streets. Here are some tips to make your way through the streets, be it with fruit vendors or a tired candyfloss seller.
- You don’t ask for half a kilo of something when 1 kilo is rupees 30.
- You get it cheaper if you say “Anna evolum?” in a proper Tamizh accent.
- You might get it even more cheap if you say that you are a student.
- You do not select the fruits if they sell a kilo for 20 Rupees. The vendor will pick your fruits. (Half of which might end up in the dustbin after being worm infested.)
- You give them the exact change, if you want your deserving balance.
The flower sellers are one of my favourite people in this city. As the sun sets these women sit in the dark corners of the streets making strings of flowers. The dexterity with which they make the loop, fill it with couple of jasmine flowers, and close the knot is something which ought to be envied. Even if you have already bought flowers for the day from a different seller, just smile at that woman shouting “Amma, malli poo“. Touch your hair and show them the flowers; it always makes them happy.
Among the many things that create an ethos of the streets are its children. Clad in oversized shirts and faded shorts, these children wander around the less crowded regions, shouting, laughing and occasionally grabbing each other’s necks. And your experiences with them can be cherished forever, especially when they throw stones at you, addressing you as a “sister”, “aunty” or “pichaikkari”, all at the same time.
Here fortune tellers promise you a happy life, even if your life doesn’t seem to go in any particular direction. They give you a reason to smile. However weird their explanations are, they’ll never disappoint you. No matter how many courses you did on Kant’s rationalism, fortune tellers are worth the try. So the next time you meet a kuri solravan, sit beside him/her and hear some good things about yourself.
Chennai is the city where toddlers happily run around you when you stare into the temple panels at Mylapore. It is the city where you and your deranged friend could be the only people on a giant wheel at 11 pm. It is also the place where cab-drivers will be excited to narrate the story of the city and occasionally, their lives too. In Chennai it is possible to share Sunfeast cookies with an old beggar woman on the beach. One can also find sambhar rice and waffles in close proximity. Here you can discover the hundred ways in which peanuts can be eaten: stuffed in cutlets, boiled with vegetables, mixed into rice or roasted with salt. It is also in Chennai that strangers stop from their busy lives and help you pick up the best mangoes. Falling in love with a city is perhaps the happiest feeling in this world. With its charming people, vibrant streets, rich heritage and delicious South Indian cuisine, Chennai has in store for you, millions of little things that’ll invoke the Tamilian in you.