The black Ambassador with a yellow top swerved through a labyrinth of streets from Chennai International Airport to the Kilpauk neighbourhood. Ducking under flyovers and stalling in traffic as yellow rickshaws whooshed past.
“Where in Kilpauk?” the driver asked.
“Tourist Information Centre,” I said, annoyed that my boss at the time christened his hostel with this name for SEO purposes; fortunately had the good sense to rename it months later. I remembered his instructions, and I gave the name of the hospital name on the street corner.
“You don’t give addresses in Chennai, you give landmarks,” he told me before I left Budapest.
Chennai is a city that never seems converge on any specific centre. Its streets burst with walls in secondary colours in hues of turquoise, papaya, mango, with painted Hindu gods staring back from murals on walls beside stuck-on posters sporting the curves of the Tamil abugida script. Shops nest on the ground floor of square, painted apartment blocks topped with a mantle of corrugated iron.
Our hostel, which would become the closest thing to a home over the next couple of months even though I would spend most of that time on the road, was a whitewashed townhouse with a breezy rooftop terrace where we would sit down to generous plates of Thali served up on steel trays.
It wasn’t just the roads that spun into chaos, but the pavements also presented some kind of lawlessness. Even strolling the neighbourhood for my cup of spiced morning chai and a freshly fried onion bhaji served up in yesterday’s crumpled sheets from The Deccan Chronicle posed a challenge. Sidestepping the local cow with huge horns painted red and greeting the man in a checked shirt placing hot coals inside his heavy-set iron, ready to take on your laundry in exchange for a few rupees.
I’ve never struggled with orientating myself in a city, but I found it impossible to keep up with the streets as they flew past me clutching the bar in the back seat of the autorickshaw. In Chennai, some point you’ll hit your destination or Marina Beach, one of the world’s longest beaches. While the golden sands and lapping sea from the Bay of Bengal tempt you into its waters, bathing is prohibited because of the violent undercurrent. Instead, Marina Beach stretches out into social promenade with kids playing football and families strolling through the sand to watch the sun sink into the ocean in the evening rather than sunbathing, swimming, and bikinis.
Chennai is one of India’s largest cities, and with a population of over 8 million people, a diverse one too. You’ll spot its religious diversity through the city’s religious buildings: The white-washed spires of the San Thome Basilica named after St. Thomas who introduced Christianity to the region and the multiple domes of the Thousand Lights Mosque for the Shia Muslim community. Hinduism is Chennai’s native faith, with historic temple towns being fully embedded into the city, like Mylapore, one of the oldest parts of the city.
Mylapore bursts with stalls selling offerings for the Kapaleeshwarar Temple. Garlands of marigolds hang from hooks wrapped in cellophane or spill out of bags as women in cotton saris thread the flowers onto a thread. On the table next to it, facing the temple gate, woven baskets piled with bananas and husk-covered coconuts lay prepared for offerings.
The temple towers rise up with a cast of figures in shades of fuchsia, marine blue, palm-leaf green, and burnt orange, scale the gate to the temple complex. The late afternoon crowds shuffled barefoot over the worn stones; incense perfumed the air wafting out of the shrines. Children played around blue elephants under the colonnades, as women bowed to the painted mandalas on the stone floor.
From the temple, we grabbed a rickshaw to St. George’s Fort, with the sun slowly dying.
“Fort is closed, ma’am,” the driver said. But we paid him and brushed off his comment. Indeed the fort was closed, but we decided to walk around and explore the neighbourhood instead.
We passed the Madras High Court, a towering red building built by the British in Indo-Saracenic Revival style. The walls surrounding it were high with blue, corrugated iron as it was under construction and the smell of urine lingered the air. We took a turning on NSC Bose Road,
dodging traffic to the right and the shanty town piled up with planks of wood and corrugated iron and goats to the left. The sun sank lower and passing by stalls selling samosas and pakoras, we tried to find a rickshaw driver to take us back. No one knew where Kilpauk is, and we tried to explain. A conference of rickshaw drivers argued amongst each other in Tamil until one of the drivers beckoned us to his yellow chariot, eventually finding his way back to our hostel.
But we would return later to this confusing district with my boss.
“I’m going to take you to all the places we used to go to when we were at university,” he said as the car navigated the same streets we wanted to escape the other day, this time in the dark. We parked somewhere around Beach Road, surrounded by courts, magistrates, the Central Telegraph Office, and the post office, but by night it transforms into a pop-up street food fest. The aroma of frying meat and spices dominated the air between banana vendors and chai sellers.
“A lot of a Tamils went out to Burma for a while,” my boss said as we passed the emptier stalls, “when
they came back they bought their food with them. This is the best place in Chennai for street food. But we’re going to the stall over there, always pick the one with the most people.”
People, young and old, and mostly men, jostled for plates of noodles that came topped with a sauce spooned out of a large tin pot that bubbled up at the side stained with turmeric. Although different to the usual South Indian dishes, being noodle-based instead of rice, it still packed a punch of spice with each portion. The street heaved with activity, and even on the main road leading away from the Burmese street food, shops with grilled meat, Muslim vendors cook beef kebabs, licked by the red flame bursting up from the coals. It was late, but Chennai came to life in front of its neon-lit shops.
Chennai may not have the famous sites of Mumbai and Delhi, it’s a city still full of curiosities. You can stroll the grounds of the beautiful Indo-Saracenic Government Museum, packed with ancient sculptures and a collection of bronze Natarajas to preserved snakes and dinosaur bones; explore the curious Valluvar Kottam, a huge temple chariot-like monument dedicated to the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar; or go shopping for saris, bangles and all kinds of curiosities in the lively streets of T. Nagar. But for me, Chennai will always play in my memories as a city for its people, for the life on the streets.