Saturday In Chennai

Six weeks of intense Hindi classes now cease to have any value, as I enter the cultural capital of South India, Chennai (formerly Madras), a place where Tamil is the language of record. Delicious thoughts of hot Madrasi curry, coconut, sugar cane, hot beaches, beautiful darker skinned people and a more traditional lifestyle fill my head.

Not so long ago, I loved a Tamil woman. Her face, hair, physique, stature, voice and style are everywhere here. It weirds me out, but how can I help but love the place, as a result?

Chennai is a serious, non-touristy, functional city filled with hard workers, simply beautiful people and the sense of ocean nearby. Tonight, we strolled along Marina beach, where the locals all gather to touch their feet to the sea, chase crabs, and buy the standard trinkets from the beachside stalls. It is spectacularly powerful, the waves crashing down upon the shore; thoughts of the 2004 tsunami are hard to avoid. What sells the experience, though, is the sense of so many families gathered here nightly to play, socialize and transact. It is nice to see in an Indian city a complete disregard for the presence or needs of travellers.

Part of this magic comes from travelling with A. We are both racially Indian and appear to outsiders like a couple from Bombay come to spend the weekend in the south. We have the skin-colour passport into the inner life of the city.

We walked toward distant lights and found the state fair in its closing hours. We even had fake pictures taken of us alongside cardboard cut-outs of Tamil film stars. A. was instantly embraced by the local women, who, through a combination of broken Hindi and English, wanted to know all about her education, family and relationship with me. (The whole “only friends” bit was met with a few raised eyebrows.) The best part was that they were convinced we had come from Canada solely to see the state fair!

But Chennai suffers from one thing Bombay seemingly has under control: garbage. The beach is layered with it. While strolling there, I saw a man walk up and dump his entire gabage can right onto my path. This is an example of what Suketu Mehta calls a lack of civic perspective: Indians keep their homes and persons fastidiously clean, but the commons are fair game for spitting, shitting and dumping.

Tomorrow I visit my new Tamil relatives in suburban Chennai. (My sister recently married a man from Chennai, so her in-laws are my new relations.) Kind of cool, no?