We were in Madras for a few days (as part of the Poetry With Prakriti festival). Though we've visited the city a few times as an adult, this was the the first time since we were twelve or thereabouts that we saw a bit of the place. We lived there between ages six and nine, and a lot of what we remember had had changed, of course.
These are brief notes on the trip.
• No road seems to meet another at right angles: they merge, curving into each other at acute angles, undulating, flowing around obstructions, never seeming to come to a full stop.
• On the streets, near-misses that would have resulted in fist-fights in Bombay or Delhi are dismissed with a shrug, or in the case of the driver of the vehicle that ferried us around, a giggle.
• Vehicles obey signals at 2 a.m. but ignore them during rush hour.
The right side of the road on a two-way street is merely a suggestion, not to be taken seriously.
• Driving in Madras is as distinct a genre of the art as driving in Bombay, or Delhi. Practitioners of each would look down on the others.
• Did we say Madras has no straight roads? Madras has no straight roads. What it does have is a profusion of one-way streets.
• The city wakes up earlier and goes to be earlier than other metros; things like late breakfasts and dinners are regarded with some suspicion.
• A service apartment is not what you think it is. The one I stayed in had beds, electricity, an AC and a small water heater (more than we expected or needed), but no soap or towel, no heating jug, one plastic chair, no hangers in the closet, no storage one could lock, no room cleaning (all of which we could have used).
• On our previous brief visits, we noticed that coffee house franchises weren't as ubiquitous (except for the now defunct Qwiky's) as in other Indian cities. Figures, we said to ourselves: they take their coffee seriously, Tamil folks. This time, we were surprised to see Baristas and Cafe Coffee Days abound.
• In Madras, you understand what sambhar really should be.
And that dosas are not just for vegetarians. Our first meal was egg dosa with chicken curry in a place called Midnight Masala, which was, apparently, the only non-5-star eating option open at 1.30 a.m., when our flight landed.
• When people say they'd like to meet up, they make the effort to do so.
• And, at an event, if you have a low turn-out, it's no point waiting for late-comers; everyone who wants to be there will be there, on time.
• Low-slung, sprawling, set-back-from-the-road type houses still survive, though newer parts of town have their profusion of ugly concrete boxes And in the business districts, glass-walled skyscrapers are sprouting, which seems like a bad idea in a city that is infernally hot most of the year!
• And on Mount Road, we were delighted to see that Indo-Saracenic frontages still survive. We in Bombay are used to Victoria Terminus being used as the ultimate example of the genre. Chandrachoodan tells us that that isn't correct: for one, the school really first took shape in Madras; and VT has a big helping of Gothic in the mix.
• British-era place-names still survive, not just in everyday conversation; they're also there on street signage.
• No one picks on you if you say 'Madras' instead of 'Chennai.'
• Contrary to popular belief, Madras has a winter. And the winter rain is a wondrous thing: a fine spray that keeps dust and the temperature down.
• The only Hindi you hear is from North Indians in restaurants trying to to talk to waiters.
• In Madras, I have an accent.
• They take their movies stars seriously.
• Life does move slower; and there are more courtesies and rituals. A friend says an Open Mic with a time limit for performers, like the one we run in Prithvi, would not work. People would expect to be able to finish their poems no matter how long they last. Remember, she said, this is a place where the alaap of a performance can take an hour.
• And yes, we fell in live with Amethyst (which, we hear, is moving soon, and the lovely mansion in which it is housed may be demolished). Fab food, great ambience, and of course, a beautiful place.
Wethinks we will write about Poetry With Prakriti separately. Soon.