My home Chennai

After writing about Bombay, I feel compelled to write about my home city Chennai. Home is to do with the heart. You can’t objectively analyse and critically look back on your home. But still, I’m attempting this exercise in honor of what Chennai is and will continue to be for millions of simpletons like me.

While Bombay overpowers you with life, Chennai is a laid back city that just lets you be without having to establish your existence. Chennai is idyllic, reflective and tranquil. There is this incredible sense of liberation. It’s a place where you aren’t judged on your material wealth or display. Here, greatness is in the mind and not in the money you throw around. The rains are characteristic of Bombay, historic structures characterize Delhi. The ocean characterizes Chennai. It’s like the waters of the ocean which is witness to many a tremor but looks calm on the surface. Calm waters run deep, it can’t be truer. Chennai is an unassuming city with no big claim to anything. Our minds are so elevated that we can do without all the useless accessories and ornaments. There is a place for everyone. It’s an incredible macrocosm of so many microcosms, one not competing with the other and sometimes even blissfully unaware of the other.

The pride of Chennai is the preservation of culture. Culture not just in the form of dance and music but the culture of a people and their living. The neighborhoods largely retain the inhabitants from a century. Chennai symbolizes the popular philosophy of Live and Let Live. An orthodox Brahmin women in the typically style of draping a nine yards can easily co-mingle with college students in jeans and tees. Of course, Chennai is not Bombay or Delhi where you can see a good number of girls in skimpy clothes. In spite of being a place which doesn’t know of winters, women are almost fully clad. Classical music is still very popular and the December Music season makes or breaks career in the Arts. People go in such huge numbers that it creates an entire ecosystem of itself complete with itineraries, guide books and travel packages.

Chennai is a metropolitan city, in fact it’s the first city colonised by the British. But it carries the new and modern along with the old and time-tested with not so much of a conflict. We have the Metro but people prefer the Pallavan buses that are the source of quaint charm.

Chennai doesn’t rush to make money but has this enviable gait of leisure and contemplation. That’s what I love, that’s what everybody loves when they walk the sleepy avenues of Adyar or Ashok Nagar on a hot sunny afternoon. Every afternoon is hot and sunny for that matter. It’s truly Home, anyone can feel at Home simply because it is plain essential. It is like the simple dal chawal mom makes at home, unassuming yet most inviting and natural to one’s self. It lacks the flamboyance and precisely for that reason it welcomes you to curl up and snuggle in all your ugly but human elements.

 

Bombay

The moment I land in Bombay I whiff the air for all the aroma, scents and smells so elaborately described in Shantaram. It does seem to be a harmonious blend of many things living and cooking but my not so tuned olfactory sense fails to distill out the constituents. The first thing I notice in Bombay is the clamour for space – cracks are too small for the plants that sprout out from decrepit walls, houses are too small for the families, the city is too small for its population. But it is a harmonious jostle for space. Nothing or no one seems to edge the other out. This embodies the spirit of Bombay for me contrary to the Shiv Sena theory of ‘Sons of the Soil’.

Bombay from air is all blue – the blue not of water but tarpaulin sheets. A city ever ready to welcome the rains. For the very first time did I see auto-rickshaws covered over with tarpaulin sheets. One needs no further evidence of its shanty towns than what one witnesses from the sky. It’s an endless array of tin roofs broken in its monotony by tall spires of buildings here and there. It is one thing to bask in heritage but another to let the grime take over. Almost every building except the ones newly constructed have dirty scars running through its length and breadth. Is it the futility of painting what the evening rains immediately wash over? I can only guess.

The first day was a rude treatment. Coming from Chennai where railway stations have a clear cut layout for entry and exit, I had to go around the Kurla railway station six whole times – once for the ticket and many times for boarding the train and exiting the station. The rain and my dirty wet jeans made it worse. I got out on the wrong side of the city exit which is a little more than a by lane. Plodding along in the hope of getting to some main road I was told there wasn’t one for a long distance further and that I need to climb over the station to the other side to get home. Adding to it was the discomfort of having the backpack on the front as advised by a very thoughtful friend. Maybe that’s why I looked not so much an outsider except when I asked for directions.

People of Bombay are what you can call humanity. Used to the brash treatment of Chennai locals where not a sentence goes by without a vexatious exclaim, I was warmed by the compassion and brotherhood of Bombay. People address you with the familiarity of a neighbour. Help is proffered even before you ask for it. It’s like being lifted on to a boat while drowning at sea. That’s what the peculiar rains of Bombay did to me the first day.

The next day was fresh and mildly sunny. By now it was second nature to flip open the umbrella. Getting out of Dadar railway station I felt like stepping into the garden of Eden, such endless baskets of flowers, flowers I haven’t seen previously in India, flowers I didn’t know were sold in the market and all so fresh and in full bloom. It was literally a feast to the eyes. They were stranded together to form garlands and it was incredible – the finesse of a master craftsman. I was unfortunate to not have a reason to buy them then and there. Nobody I will want to buy it for lived in the city. If flowers are not perishable I should have spent a fortune buying everything my eyes fell on.

Shopping in Dadar and Bandra, my day drew to a close when I couldn’t find an auto to take me to the station. Bombay came to my rescue and two girls pulled me into an auto with them with not a moment’s thought. This happened on another occasion leaving me to wonder at the civic prudence in the act of helping. Voluntary sharing of rides helps manage the larger problem of traffic and congestion. And that without the necessity for a ride sharing service or application on the mobile. A city with compassion needs no enforcement, that’s the biggest takeaway from my three days of Bombay.

I could not leave Bombay without a visit to the famous Yazdani bakery and there again the chai master treated me like I was a regular. A mad man at the table across bought me a biscuit. One cannot escape feeling humbled by the spirit of Bombay. Though I couldn’t go to Colaba and the many places spoken of in Shantaram, I could recognise the Bombay of the book. I can now understand how it’s not so difficult to strike a conversation with a stranger and the very high probability of it maturing into a long lasting relationship. I can feel the pace of the city and how it chokes out any tendency to idle. Bombay is a place where the one rupee coin finds existence and purpose. Though I continue to find Chennai more liveable, Bombay offers a lot many lessons to learn from. The roads retain not more than ankle deep water and that mostly at its margins even when it is incessantly raining. It’s respect and pride in the colonial heritage, the preservation of the buildings and the substantial use they are put to and importantly, it’s people who are human, who are aware of their neighbours on the road, in the train etc, who are human to pause and help even when running between places. The people more than make up for the insufficiency of the city. Bombay, I salute you!

Ladakh -unforgiving beauty

Ladakh – Uninviting, grotesque faces of the never ending mountains to a magical stretch of white sand that seamlessly merges with mounds of snow. Gory land where nothing is as how you know it. Every element totally defies rules of the world. One can’t tell between clouds and fog, snow and white sand. A phantasmagorical land where you can watch clouds form from the floor of snow capped mountains and your senses seem to belie you. It’s a place where one has to unlearn and relearn. The sun beats down hard on the bleached land and the whooping wind is unsparing; you cannot but flit between indoors and outdoors like a fly. You could say it’s not a place for the faint hearted but I say that’s an inappropriate usage. No man can duel with nature in all her rawness;- she’s unmatched, unforgiving and relentless beyond human competence or comprehension. Nature, untamed and unconquered is no Mother, she’s an unfathomable, pitiless force where to think of duelling is suicidal.

Pangong Tso, a body of spectral colours, too beautiful to be real is indeed a devilish fairy. She is kept out of bounds with two contrasting and equally formidable barricades of stifling heat and chilling winds. The blazing sun suffocates if the wind is shut out but out in the winds is not where a tropical frame can hold its own. The night sky is how it would have been on the whole of earth when man had not known of the engine. But you can’t get more than a peek at it. It’s not wind but a tornado raging all around. But that stretch of water with zillions of blues and greens whose equals the computer can’t produce was mesmerizing. The one thought I penned down in that moment was this – The vast world feeds the hunger for ever widening vistas of the ravenous mind that is akin to a famished leach sucking up the very last drop of blood. The more I saw the more impatient was I to see. Numbed fingers but all the more keener mind. It was all consuming but I felt born anew like a Phoenix. “Very many fantasy worlds spun but not one as close to what I’m seeing now.” The intoxication was of a nature I had never known before and so deep and strange to be scary.

I’m not a mountain person. I did not expect to feel at home but the tortured face of the mountains completely sanitized of anything living felt like a dreadful prison hole, only that it’s not a hole and much worse for that. The lone bird you see far far away is pitiable for it is denied communion. How would it feel to be the only representative of a specie and not know what one looks or feels like? But again, habituation makes even captivity feel like home. How is it beauty that which is lifeless? Not to me, it’s strange, magical, a wonder but not beautiful. There’s no certainty. All five elements keep you constantly on tenterhooks. You are always gripping your seat in trepidation. The loose earth portends to give away any time, the rocky mountains threaten to hound you any moment, the sun disappears behind clouds giving full rein to the biting winds, the sky is unpredictable in its precipitation. There’s not one thing dependable, it’s like being on the lurch and hopelessly bracing yourself up.

That was Ladakh to me, the so called paradise land but nothing short of a stricken desert.