If This Is Sunday, It Must Be Madras

Huddled in an internet cafe, I see the Westerners finally emerging in their tie-dyed palor. Really, I have a hard time telling them apart.

Chennai/Madras is the Bombay of the south in some ways, most importantly in that this city is home to a Tamil-language film industry as big as Bollywood, but without the same level of Western penetration. As I do not undestand a word of Tamil, I can’t really follow the films well, but I gather they are similar in plot and feel to those of the North. Even elements of Western dance are creeping in here, as they have in Bollywood. One strange observation: the women in Tamil film are, like in Bollywood, unbelievably gorgeous. The men, however, are block-faced, hirsute, uni-browed and often sport drooping bellies, even the heroes. This does not reflect the Tamil male norm, as there are many handsome young men about; rather, the film ideal appears to be one in which Ron Jeremy could be a heart throb.

Speaking of throbbing hearts, Valentine’s Day approaches and India has noticed. Today, A. and I came across a crowd watching a fellow from Hutch (a mobile phone company) attempt feats of street entertainment; his entire show appeared to be broadcast on TV. Suddenly, he went into the audience and plucked A. and I into the centre! He explained to me that if I, holding a rose that he provided, were to propose marriage to A., we would win a prize.

Of course, we explained that we are just friends. (Seriously, everyone reading this, to be clear, A. and I have zero interest in each other!) But I gather in the Indian context, men and women are “just friends” until they decide to get married. It’s a source of great confusion. The host asked me how many times I’d done this before. I hammed it up, lied through my teeth and said, “Three times. Never been rejected!”

To which he replied, “Yes, I believe you. I can now see the gray in your hair!” OUCH! BURN!

Anyway, I dropped to my knee with the rose in my mouth, took A’s hand in mine, and said, “A., you are my friend. Would you please…. continue to just be my friend?” This was greeted with much applause from the assembled onlookers. But we weren’t done yet! To win our prize, we had to say the words, “I love hutch” in five languages!

This is the interesting part. In a country where literally hundreds of languages are spoken, it’s commonplace for each person to speak at least 2 and usually 3 languages. The host didn’t think twice about asking us how many languages we both spoke. A. speaks passable Hindi and pretty good Spanish. I speak passable English and pretty good French. (My Japanese in is 13 years old and I don’t know the words for “love.”) To make 5, I made up some words in Italian. He accepted them. Our prize: two nice watches emblazoned with the Hutch logo.

So, in Chennai today, A. and I were briefly TV stars.