Madras is me; I can never leave it!

Last Updated: Wed, Aug 20, 2014 20:57 hrs

For the first 20 years of my life .. I never told people where I was from. Heck! I'd much rather be from any city - anywhere in the world. And then it got worse... they decided to change the one thing I actually liked about the city and call it 'Chennai'!  Yuck! An insipid, passionless name... which sounds like a lethal eye-infection!

And an uninteresting city she is - I mean, Calcutta is known for yummy gol-gappas, Mumbai for Vada-Paav, Delhi for kebabs and butter chicken and what do we get ? Idlis! Dull, boring, uninspired, flavorless and worst of all ... steamed! White idlis, served with white coconut chutney... not pleasing to the eye and definitely no fireworks on the palette.

The lack of fireworks ... so aptly describes my teenage life. With most arts colleges staying single-gender and engineering colleges gender segregating buses, corridors break-hours and everything they can ... college romances and teenage flings were meant for Sweet Valley Books and what we heard about from our cousins who lived in the more exciting cities - Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai.

Actually, I stand corrected ... there were fireworks ... the collective gaggling of kanjeevaram clad-maamis, who always had underhand compliments ready - between my lack of 'bottu', my 'unnecessary' passion for art, my 'unladylike' interest in sports and 'veyi'  and my 'distressing' lack of grace or femininity ... I was the beelzebub of Nungambakkam, the literal 'black sheep' of my family, for reasons other than refusing to use fair and lovely on a regular basis.

Everything about the city made me angry ... the lack of privacy ... the utterly shocking narrow-mindedness of some people ... the shameless male chauvinism. Why was I born in a city with no night-life? Heck! Why was I born in a city with no life! In a city where filter coffee at home was sacred yet a 70 rupee cappuccino in Barista was blasphemous, where boys and girls together meant just one thing ... A city, which was obviously not ready for me ...

So I moved, over the last 5 years I have lived in 5 different cities - Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Bangalore, Washington DC and travelled to at least 3 dozen others ... all to find that one magical place I could call home.

When I was in Boston, walking along the hallowed corridors of Harvard, I remembered the good times I had at IIT Saarang. The moment I first (thought) I feel in love, the endless walks across the campus ... the secret kisses under the canopy of beautiful trees.  Fireworks don't happen in nightclubs under fluorescent lights or bars filled with drunk graduate students ... It was about stolen moments, racing heart-beats, anticipation and aching ... coupled with the cool deliciousness of that ever-so slight smile, which only person could read ... and when our eyes locked ... it didn't matter if we were in Paris or Adyar, if we were surrounded by a thousand people or a few singing angels. And then suddenly ... Boston never lived up ...

Los Angeles taught me that great beaches didn't mean lifeguards who looked like they stepped out of Baywatch, crystal clear blur-green water and Frisbee nets. What did this even mean if I could not rush into the beautiful water ... in a salwar-kameez and bounce around, fat and fully clad ... just because.

Since when did beaches become judgmental and demand 'appropriate attire', since when did ... having fun require the perfect tanned body and since when did that 'perfect body' mean dieting, bulimia and not feeling good about myself. South Beach, Rio, Cancun, Bali and several dozen holiday destinations later ... no beach has and will ever give me what Elliots has ... moments of  undiluted joy ..the time when I first touched a wave with my feet ... the time when I told my father I wanted to get married over 'sutta cholam'.. each time we decided we wanted to go to the beach ... with no agenda, no rules ... just to laugh, talk, smile. That beach was ours ... we could be who we were ...

New York made me miss (GASP!) ... the gaggling maamis ... day after day, night after night, I went back to the same place without knowing who lived next door. I wasn't interrogated on my work life, my love life .. heck .. they didn't even care if I had a life! I missed the unsolicited advice as much as the unsolicited piping hot vadais ... I could go an entire weekend without speaking to another soul ... this in one of the most densely populated cities in the US.

And then I realized ... I didn't want correctly metered taxi cabs ... I enjoyed haggling with auto-drivers, calling them Anna - hoping that they would reduce those extra 10 rupees from the fare.  I could eat in Saravana Bhavan every single day but couldn't stomach more than 2 continuous meals at Mc Donalds. I am thankful for the 10 rupee tickets, which let me watch my 'heroes' up-close at Satyam.  I am thankful for the 365 days of sunshine.. thankful for the narrow streets of Mylapore ... so much in contrast with the large, leafy roads in Nungambakkam… thankful for having the opportunity to live in a 100 year old house… thankful that every street, every house doesn't look the same… but most importantly ... I am thankful for the people… the busybodies, the sages, the preceptors, the boys who lives next door…the girls who taught me about love and life … my friends, my family and the people who make Madras who she is …

Madras is about life… death .. .happiness. . sorrow… disappointment …Madras is about growing up and realizing that no matter where I go … I never leave … because Madras is me … Yes, not Chennai but Madras.

Much like a cantankerous vintage jaguar … she is not meant to be analyzed.. just loved and appreciated for her classic charm and elegance. The city … is much like the wholesome, beautiful idli … which if steamed to perfection with the right accompaniment(s)… this is the food of the Gods… it doesn't take your palatte on a roller-coaster ride like the sometimes sweet-sometimes spicy gol-gappa, it doesn't give you a chilli-high like the spicy vada-paav, it keeps you grounded and simple… and yet remains stunning like the humble idli.

Kaavya Ashok Krishna is a Knowledge and Innovation Specialist with the World Bank Group. She has previously worked in several communications and marketing roles at The United Nations, Warner Bros Media, The New Indian Express, Sify and Ogilvy and Mather.

She holds a bachelors degree in Communications from the University of Madras, A Masters in Technology, Innovation and Education from Harvard University and is a certified 'design thinker' from Stanford University.

She blogs at

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