I fell in love with you and I cried: Chennai Part 4 (Draft chapter for book)
The taxi driver stopped at a garage that was open, he got fuel and we went to the loo. When we got to Chennai diversion signs were up, our driver followed them and ended up at the beach, where buses and cars and scooters and people walking had all descended. There were men waving flags and some of the vehicles had flags on them; we realised it was to do with The Minister. People ahead of us were just parking up and leaving their cars, so it got more and more congested. We had seen police everywhere on the way home, but not a single one trying to organise the traffic jam.
We were obviously in a taxi, and conspicuous as foreigners. Not only that, there were only a very few women and children amongst a big crowd of men. I was nervous, but the atmosphere of the crowd was fine, and aside from the usual few glances at me as a Western woman, we had no extra attention. We realised the road was a dead end and our driver did an almost impossible u turn and we made our way slowly out of the jammed up area.
While we were in the traffic jam I saw on the beach the signs, ‘Live and let live’, ‘Pigeon feeding station,’ ‘Donation station.’ It warmed my heart to see. I thought about how some people in the UK despise pigeons, and even grey squirrels who I used to love feeding in the UK. My friend’s husband used to shoot them in his garden, not even to eat, just piling up the corpses at the bottom of the garden.
Roads were closed and the driver pulled up to ask someone where to go. Everywhere was shuttered and closed, no one was around. I saw a lone flower garland hanging up still and realised we were on the corner near where we went for dinner; everything looked so different with all the shops shuttered up.
An Indian man who had just got out of a taxi told us to walk, he explained that the Minister’s funeral procession would be coming down the road, and that the only way to get to where we wanted to go was walking. It wasn’t that far, so we thanked and paid our driver, put on our backpacks, picked up our bags and walked back to Broadlands.
The manager at Broadlands hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks like a father. It was about five o’clock. He told us to go up and have a sleep and that when we woke up at six thirty, seven, everything would be open again.
We were in the same room as before but people had been in it since us, there was a folding camp bed put up, and glitter on the sheets. It hadn’t been cleaned, probably due to the events of the previous day, perhaps the cleaning staff hadn’t come in. ‘I’m going to assume they (the people) were clean,’ I said, but the truth was, I didn’t really care, I was just so glad to be back.
We woke up later when it was dark and went downstairs. Nothing was open. We saw the Italian woman, she said that the evening before, The Minister’s death was announced then everything shut in ten minutes. She’d only had biscuits and bananas. One of the staff who worked at the hotel appeared, he apologised for our room not being cleaned. He went out to see if there was any food places open. He came back once saying that everything in one direction was closed, then set out again, we and the Italian woman gave him money just in case.
We thought there would be somewhere, Y had told us you can always get food, as there are lots of bachelors in Chennai and they often eat parcel meals (takeaway) from the restaurants. About forty-five minutes later the man returned, with little plastic bags of sambar (curry) and orange sauce and parota bread. We ate on the little table in our room. The little plastic bags that the sambar was in were tied with a twist of fine twine that wasn’t even knotted, just wound around neatly and expertly. The parota was thick and filling and the sambar was hot. It felt so good to eat hot food after an evening and a day of crisps, biscuits and nuts.
The mosque sounded very loud again the first morning, then on the days after we slept through it or half slept through it like we had before.
As usual in India, the caw caw of crows was a near constant noise. One morning very early the crows were especially loud. I mentioned it to my husband. He said, ‘There was one on the ground below the window making loads of noise, and another sitting right on the shutter not making a sound; I said to it, ‘What’s the other one’s problem?!’’
Also as usual, there were barking dogs, a pack of dogs seemed to live on the waste ground below our window. Sometimes the barking and howling of the dogs was so much it made us laugh, like when we were at Osho’s (guesthouse in Kerala) and a dog over the road would start up the most ridiculous sounding howling just as we were going to bed. ‘Dogs in the UK don’t have the freedom just to howl and express themselves like that,’ my husband said.
We saw an Indian squirrel climbing on the outside of the window mesh, all four feet clinging on, upside down and doing acrobatics as if it were in the circus.
On Friday the mosque car park was filled with lots and lots of scooters, a handful of cars and on the waste ground beside the mosque, some rickshaws. There were people praying in the outside part of the mosque, there were so many people that they couldn’t all fit inside.
The mosque car park was a beautifully clean paved area. One day when it was quiet I saw a man and a little boy arrive on a scooter. They fed the pigeons, who arrived and left in great beautiful clouds. When they had finished the man put the boy on the scooter, patted him on head, threw the empty food cup over the wall into the street, and left.
At night the flats on the other side of the mosque car park had their lights on and curtains open; the colour of their walls lit up, one green, one mauve, with the silhouettes of house plants making shadows on the walls.
The mosquito mesh on the windows was bent and folded, gently undulating like a sheet of fine wire mesh. When the light caught it it looked like taffeta, the colour of burnished gold.
Sitting on the bed in my favourite indoors outfit, I caught myself in the mirror: black scoop neck t-shirt, black and grey sarong, colourful tattoos on both arms. The t- shirt had tiny holes in it. The sarong was a bit bobbly close up. Everything was soft and thin and comfortable.
The quest for fresh vegetables led us to a Chinese restaurant where we ate vegetables and noodles, big florets of broccoli and chunky carrots, in a thick and glutinous msg sauce. We sat beside a fish tank full of big fish swimming sadly back and forth.
I brought up some of the things I had been thinking and feeling in Pondicherry. We agreed that being happy can’t be the aim, it’s a pleasure seeking and a Four Winds pain-pleasure trap. That kind of bliss cannot be sustained and anyway it would be boring, people need challenges. We agreed that the spiritual journey is a red herring and that the ‘goal’ has to be to feel overally neutral:
Observe yourself and how you are and what you do like a character in a film. E.g. do you react impulsively? Drop down and forget all this for an evening and reflect afterwards, how did I do? That’s the work. The trick is to try and maintain the clear awareness even when the key breaks in the lock or the Uber is late. If not you’d have nothing to do.
Most people are locked into feeding the pleasure centres; the ‘reward of nothingness’ wouldn’t appeal to them as worth it for a lifetime of searching. Anyway, most people aren’t actually actively looking for enlightenment.
But if you are prepared to accept this peaceful serenity, this above-ness from the senses, so that food isn’t really much of a thing anymore; this distance, beyond love, beyond joy… If you are prepared to accept that, then maybe the reward will be to understand everything. That’s what makes renouncing worldly pleasures, or rather, drifting away from them and letting them fall away, (like when following Buddhism) worthwhile.
The Broadlands manager told us that a film crew was coming to film at the guesthouse; apparently the film had a famous film star. It took a whole day to set up with all kinds of props including chicken coops being brought in. In the UK they would have closed the hotel or at least closed off part of it. There, we were shown different routes to and fro our room, via different staircases and courtyards. When they were shooting in the central courtyard below our room, we just had to peek out. ‘Shooting,’ they’d say, or not. One could be annoyed but aren’t.
Sometimes we had to walk through their chill out area, in between the plastic chairs arranged in a circle for lunch. Huge pots of food were carried in at lunchtime, the pots of food, filled with all different kinds of curries, laid out on trestle tables.
We went down separately to use the internet, the famous actor sat on the sofa going through his lines next to husband then next to me, he turned the fan on to keep cool.
At the end of the filming day they all gathered for a group photograph and there was lots of clapping. I had a cigarette and hung about outside soaking up the atmosphere and watching them pack up.
The Italian woman had complained about the film shoot and told us it would start at six am and go on all night, with flashing lights and loud music. We weren’t concerned; there’s nothing we could do about it and it’s not as if we had anything to get up for or do, we could always sleep during the day. I sympathised with her for getting woken by building work above her though; they were doing some pre season alterations, and she was woken at six am. She asked for a day’s refund but I don’t think she had any luck. The film shoot was over in one day though in the end, it wasn’t noisy and it didn’t start early.
I can see how one could get really stressed, being woken up, building work, dogs, mosque, crows; plus re coping with things being different, food, people, and each other, but we’re ok. I do have the odd thing (hand cream).
There’s things I could get annoyed about of course, if I had a mind to: Many rooms only having one plug socket available so that we have to take turns charging our phones and tablets. The traffic, the pollution, the rubbish. The food all coming at different times. The complicated menus with strict times, this 12-2, this 3-6, this all day, this 12.30-9.30. The occasional restaurant bureaucracy, ‘Can I have a cup of tea or coffee?’ ‘No, only after 4pm,’ ‘Can I have tea or coffee with my breakfast?’ ‘No, juice first, then afterwards we’ll take your order for coffee or tea.’
Not being understood, not understanding things. Some things remaining a complete mystery, others tantalising only half explained… Missing friendships. The poverty. Being sometimes viewed as a walking ATM machine; even after giving the hotel cleaner so much stuff (he’d asked us to give him anything we were shedding), he still came and asked us for money. How sometimes it seems as if almost every conversation invariably turns to money or trying to sell us something. It’s the natural consequence of the actual or perceived disparity of wealth between us as Westerners and people we meet.
But the secret is to accept it all, and not to judge. If my few days in Norwich Travel Lodge in the winter taught me anything, it’s that the UK isn’t perfect. The level of homelessness in affluent Norwich city centre was shocking. And if things are different to what I’m used to, of course that’s to be expected, and that is my issue. And there’s so much beauty all around me that my attention is taken up with that.
I went out feeding cows again, early evening seemed to be the time when more cows were around. A man gave me advice in sign language, don’t bend down, due to the horns? throw on ground, or put on hand and put hand out. I misinterpreted his facial expression as gruffness at first. People sometimes watched and even stared but did not seem unfriendly.
We drank chai tea at a little stall in the backstreets on the corner of Big Street. The first time we sat outside on little stools and smoked cigarettes, the second time we were seated inside amongst the flies and heat.
We saw Indian men feeding street dogs in the evening. Even a very humble looking shop had put out puri on the pavement for the crows.
In the street parallel to Broadlands the houses were painted pretty colours. Just around the corner, at the end of an ordinary street, was an incredibly beautiful temple.
I wished I could show my Grandma the clothes, or describe them to her. She was a dress maker and interested in clothes until the end of her life. In Chennai I saw flouncy dresses, just below the knee, slightly shorter than I’d seen before, with scalloped hem, and lacy lemon or white flowers at the hem and on the bodice. Saree prints in a bold block print making a three dimensional pattern, others in bold flowers, and lots of yellow and orange sarees which matched the colours of the Tamil Nadu rickshaws. In restaurants we saw whole families colour coordinated and wondered if it happens naturally or if the woman picks out the family’s clothes? I’ve maybe seen three outfits ever that I didn’t think worked perfectly.
There were lots of sweet shops and stalls in Chennai, although we managed to resist and just admire them from a distance…
We’d found a little tea shop at the side of the road that did the best coffee, sweet and milky, as well as nice little samosas and melt-in-the-mouth homemade biscuits in jars; it became our favourite place for those last few days in Chennai.
We’d got our photocopying and printing of tickets and so on done at a little copy shop, got glasses for my husband, ticking jobs off the list, and were feeling pleased with ourselves and went to the tea shop afterwards.
We bought cigarettes and offered them to the staff and fellow customer; cigarettes can be a good icebreaker when you don’t share a language. We sat and watched the traffic and the people crossing the road. The smell of traffic fumes, rubbish and occasionally animal or human waste.
We watched two people lifting a big drum onto a scooter. It was common to see scooters loaded with sacks of onions, even sacks of cement, or a family of four riding all together. That is the mode of transport that the family has, they don’t have a car, so scooters are used for everything.
A truck went past laden, absolutely laden with plastic pots, urn shaped but big like garden pots. Instead of being terracotta colour to pretend to be made from clay or green to blend into the garden like they would be in the UK, these were shocking pink, bright leaf green and bright unsubtle primary colours; as if they were saying, were plastic, we’re plastic and we’re proud to be plastic. Not for the first time, we wished we could say to India, don’t do it, don’t let the plastic in, don’t fall in love with and get taken over by plastic. In India not everywhere has formal rubbish disposal and recycling systems in place; the plastic drinking water bottles alone present a huge problem.
A girl, a young woman, came skipping down the road. We made eye contact and she came over and said, ‘Hi,’ skipped off, then came over again, pointed to her cheek and said, ‘Kiss.’ I couldn’t kiss her, I’m British and can’t easily kiss total strangers, but I offered her my hand and we shook hands. She went skipping off again, almost dancing across the road. She dropped her scarf in the road, and picked it up scarily in front of a rickshaw.
When we checked out of Broadlands the manager shook hands with Anthony and hugged me. ‘I love Anthony,’ he said, ‘He has a good heart.’
In the taxi on the way to the airport, the driver said, ‘Look, look,’ said something and pointed. We couldn’t understand him, then just at the last moment, my husband realised, ‘Parrots!’ About fifty small parrots were sat on the electricity wires across the road. ‘That is their house,’ the driver said. ‘1,000 parrots live there. At 6pm every day you see them.’ It was around 4.30pm. We were a bit sad that we hadn’t known about this before, but happy that we had heard it then and seen some of the parrots.
I kept thinking we were going back there, to Broadlands, to Chennai, when we went to Thailand, and had to remind myself that was over and we were going to Kolkatta when we go back to India. I know we were only there for eight days in total but… If it weren’t for the pollution, which the Tarot man in Thailand said wasn’t good for me, although I don’t need him to tell me I don’t suppose, I’d like to live there, at least for part of the year. What would I do? Write, feed cows, put up posters at the bins re tip food waste onto the floor don’t put in plastic bags (the cows eat the plastic bags and can get sick and die); get involved with some kind of rubbish clearing/recycling initiative (my husband’s idea). Learn Tamil, teach English in return. (But Tamil seems so hard! I feel like Hindi would be easier so maybe pick somewhere where the main language is Hindi…) But that’s all dreams, I haven’t seen hardly any of India yet, I may yet fall in love again many times over during the rest of our travels.
Photos of Chennai by Anthony Hill Instagram travelswithanthony
In our third week and third place in Koh Phangan, Thailand. We are in the vegan/yoga area. It’s absolute paradise but we are looking forward to getting moving on proper travelling again. In a few days I go to Tokyo, my husband goes to Cambodia and we meet up back in India on October 1st.
Did this this week, worked on it every day except Saturday. Also scheduled five weeks’ of Throwback Thursday posts which is harder than it looks sometimes with patchy internet. Next up, Thailand.
Thank you very much for reading
See you next week