You know you’re in Chennai when the pocket of the passenger in front of you starts blaring “Palaniappa, Swami Palaniappa.” The heavy set gentleman on the seat in front of me could have been straight out of central casting for the role of the villain in a Tamil movie (or hero, in Tollywood you can’t often tell the difference). His wards were a gaggle of elderly ladies, diamonds dripping from noses and ears, though if you had met the bunch on a Chennai street sans their jewelry, you might have compassionately pressed 20-rupee notes into their palms. Hey, I was pretty scruffy too, after 20-odd hours on the plane!
The airport looked very different from my visit a year ago. Apparently a major renovation had happened in the meantime, though already there were cracks in the off-white tiles (seriously, who picks off-white for a highly traveled concourse) and betel stains on the bottom of the steel columns hiding the wiring (at least, I hoped they were betel stains).
The gleaming conveyor belt had not started up when we arrived at the baggage claim and we took our positions right next to the tube which dropped the luggage on to the belt. “Dropped” is a mild word for what our poor suitcases had to go through; the design of the chute is closer to that of a ski slope and the bags came hurtling down to the guardrail. More than once we flinched and reflexively braced for a collision and pitied those poor suckers who had “Fragile” signs on their stuff. Even the address labels painstakingly duct-taped to the suitcases were not spared; many caught the lip of the sharp steel blades of the belt and ripped right off.
Outside, a sea of humanity bubbled and swelled. A bunch of flights with returning Hajj pilgrims had landed just a few minutes ago. Entire families had come to receive the lucky pilgrims, grandmas, kids, all waiting for a glimpse of the now-sanctified members of their brood.
As we maneuvered around the multitudes, I realized that it took very little to rip off the veneer of civilization that had taken me years to acquire in the orderly suburbs of San Francisco. It had taken years of conscious training to curb my tendency to jump in front of queues and jostle to the head of lines (I am a veteran of Mumbai locals) but within minutes of arriving in India I was ready to ignore pesky stop signs and run over troublesome two-wheelers.
For all that Chennai is still a bastion of culture; the last refuge of the bibliophile, theater aficionado, and classical music lover. Within hours of arrival we had attended a book launch; author Roopa Pai read from her fantasy book for kids, Taranauts and the Shyn Emeralds and conducted games for kids. We made tentative plans to see Little Theatre’s production of Shylock, Merchant or Menace and, of course, this is kutcheri (concert) season.
Picture courtesy Julian Limjl under a Creative Commons attribution license.