Chennai that odd creature which is quick to condemn, slow to forget

Imagine a city that falls asleep before midnight. A city where everyone smiles but no one tells you what they’re smiling about, where men frequently walk the streets holding hands but aren’t necessarily gay, and where regardless of the season, a bit of on-the-spot jogging can engulf you in sweat. Then imagine the second longest coastline in the world — 13 km of biscuit-coloured sand, which runs like a dream along the city. And beside this dream there is an ocean that gleams and patiently breathes, but in those waters, hardly anyone ever swims.

This is Chennai née Madras, the slow, unfashionable seaside city where I was born and came of age. In her many shaded and shady corners I discovered love and fear and contradiction. I learned to not always say what I was thinking, to be kind to strangers, to regard boasting with disapproval, and to stare openly if I found something curious. I also learned to be restless.

It wasn’t always so. My childhood was absurdly halcyon. I went to an avant-garde school, which eventually turned orthodox, but in those years there were no uniforms, the classrooms were made of thatch and bamboo, and everyone shared their tiffin boxes under tamarind trees. Other people called us snobs (the ultimate condemnation in this city), but we were happy, likeable children. Our pleasures were innocent: buns from Adyar Bakery, softies from Aavin, sleepovers and the occasional movie at Blue Diamond. My girlfriends and I lied only once to our parents, to say we were going to study maths when, in fact, we were meeting the boys from our class at Elliot’s Beach in the middle of the afternoon. We sat there, boys and girls both, burning our backsides on the sand, saying little to each other, but feeling a quiet pride of rebellion. Had the city not begun her own quiet rebellion I probably never would have left.

I often envy people who have spent their youth in great cities at great moments. Paris 1968, New York in the decadent 1990s, Bombay’s poetry scene in the 1960s. When these people meet a fellow member of their tribe they talk about where they lived and hung out, who they knew and the crowd they moved with. They become young and indestructible again because their mythologies are forever linked to others of their clan and to the city itself. Not all cities can have great mythologies. If Chennai had such a moment it certainly wasn’t in the late 1980s, where the only place for young, hip people to go was the basement of the Sindoori Hotel, a grimy discotheque called Down Under, where everyone drank beer or rum and coke, and the induction into lust happened under smoky lights to the tune of Roxette’s She’s Got the Look.

We still experienced the full scale of young adult trauma, it was just less heroic because the options were so few and there was so little to pin it against. Our lives, our complications carried on in this sleepy town where everyone was encouraged to know everyone else’s business, and ambition in anything except excellence in studies was considered vulgar. Twenty years later I still bump into those skinny boys from the Sindoori, transformed now, into gouty uncles, and those once pretty girls struggling with new fangled fashions and I know they are judging me as surely as I’m judging them. That’s the law of this town. Quick to condemn, slow to forget.

Still, I miss it. I find myself yearning for that old city with the old name, which I had to abandon because I was struck as most people are, at some point, by what Baudelaire called the horreur du domicile. I had to get the hell out of Dodge, but all the time I was away I dreamed about it — soft, unabashed dreams where the sepia lanes of childhood pressed up against the tangled, technicoloured roads of adulthood. The dreams were always noisy, orchestrated upon the calls of housewives and vendors, cat brawls and crows. And of course, they reeked: of jasmine and bidis, of a fine, heady slick of coconut oil, and the sea.

Why’d you come back? People asked when I returned, as if to escape Chennai meant never returning. As if to live here meant to relinquish the world. I tried explaining how the wonder of this port city of two names and multiple personalities was that it allowed you to be a stranger here even though it was home. I told them I had seen so much of the world, travelled to all seven continents and been enamoured by countless elsewheres, but in truth I had found my most significant romances here, in the streets of this weird and middling city.

I discovered my great love and mentor, Chandralekha, in a house ten minutes away from mine, and even though there was half a century between us we could still talk about everything under the moon on her parapet. I met the man who became my husband here, swept in from a faraway country when I wasn’t even looking. I have my family here, my oldest and newest friends, who are all beset with the most ardent faithfulness. And no matter how much I complain about how this city closes in on me with her salty fingers, or how many of the luminous paddy fields have been turned into cemeteries for plastic bags; no matter how many years of yoga will not keep me calm in a traffic jam, there are still so many remarkable people quietly doing remarkable things in this city’s hidden corners. You just have to seek them out.

Cities can overcome us or underwhelm us, but Chennai is that rare entity that can do both simultaneously. Her whimsical imagination flits continuously in and out of her horizon, and much of the reason why I continue to live and work here is because she always leaves her doors half-open. She may impose her judgement, but never her pace. She still surprises, and very simply, she lets me be.

(In this monthly series, authors chronicle the cities they call home)

Tishani Doshi is a Chennai-born poet, author, journalist and dancer

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 25, 2014)

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