'People come to New York for two things - love and labels.'
So said Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.
I would like to say something equally pat about Chennai, but I would be lying. Unless you are a true-blue Madrasi (and I don't mean that blanket word that North Indians use for all of us from 'down under'), then people come to this city with a very mercenary mindset-better paying jobs.
And so did I. After swimming round and round in the stagnated pool that is Kochi for 20 odd years, living off peanuts and hobnobbing with same crowd, I had had enough. It was time for Goldilocks (or would the name Lola Kutty have more recall value?) to venture out of home, taste some porridge, break a few chairs and make some new friends (ok, I draw the line here-I wanted people as friends, not bears). And so I did.
The first city to beckon was namma Chennai. I packed more than clothes for the trip-I had a suitcase full of advice, helpful hints, a few brochures for ACs, fail-safe tips to fend off men (or ensnare them, as the case would warrant) and a couple of jars of pickle to help the omnipresent pongal go down easier. I was armed and ready for anything that the city could throw my way.
How naive I was. I never realised how much a city COULD actually throw at you.
My dreams of independence, my hopes of a grand living and my visions of hair-raising parties with friends over the weekend soon went up in smoke. Poof! Reality was much more real - hunting for somewhere to live, trying to learn the language enough so I could tell auto drivers to off when they tried to charge me Rs 50 to take me to the end of the street, landlords who felt that because no one had made an 'honest' woman out of me, I was in some way dishonest… sigh, the list just went on. The lack of friends was not helping either.
But just as I was giving in and drowning in this maelstrom, the city decided to befriend me. I discovered her two great Ss - Sathyam and Spencer's - and the big C - Citi Centre. To keep them company were a few other alphabets - the double Bs (Besant Nagar Beach and Bike and Barrel) and the lone Z (Zara's). And for me, there began a three year romance with stars, surf, shopping and the occasional swig.
What I love about this city is the fact that I can buy a ticket, walk into a darkened theatre and be as safe as if I were sitting in my own drawing room watching a movie. (Try that in Kochi and you would have too many 'interesting' propositions directed your way to pay any attention to the shenanigans going on on the screen.)
What I love about this city is that when a colleague and I suddenly felt the urge to buy a bottle of beer, we actually walked into a liquor shop (the queuing men parted before us like the Red Sea parted before Moses) and the shopkeeper forsook his other customers to tend to us and send us on our way before any trouble befell us. (It's another story that the next day, my other colleagues blew their tops and threatened us with dismemberment if we ever undertook a similar escapade.)
What I love about this city is that I can walk out in the morning and breakfast on hot idlis and filter coffee, satiate my hunger pangs at lunch time with glorious mushu pork and fried rice (when I am on a break from curd rice and appalam), grab coffee with some scrumptious blueberry muffins and biscotti, and wind things off with pasta, pizza, risotto, sushi or whatever else I have a craving for at that moment.
But this is not to say I have not had a rough time, too. My greatest foes have been two elderly people - delicate, doll-like, with white hair and spectacles. My landlord and his lady. They call me daughter and then devise ways to throw me out of the house. One day it's an empty overhead tank or rusty pipes that issue forth water the colour of chocolate or a drain that refuses to drain anything; on another day it's a point-blank refusal to let me install an AC in my room, though it is 52 degree Celsius indoors.
And when they get bored, they invent new and ever more inventive ploys to plague me-don't go shopping (why - because then you will need shelves to put stuff away in and we won't let you put up any), don't have friends over in the evenings (why - because they will wake us up when they leave at night - even if they are as quiet as dormice), don't bathe too often (why - because then we won't have water to water our plants with). Don't, don't, don't. I AM tired of the litany.
But then being single in the city should have some drawbacks, right? Otherwise how would one appreciate all the other things that work out beautifully for you. Like friends.
I may not have found party-till-they-puke friends, but I found some even better. Those that cook you dinner from scratch because you couldn't go home for Vishu, those that wake up early in the morning just to come and pick you up from the station, those that stay up all night with you when you are pulling an all-nighter just so you don't fall asleep. Chennai has given me all this. And I am very grateful
I may not have found love and I certainly have not found any labels (unless you consider a Westside or a Pantaloons as a label), but I have certainly found people and places that are totally unique. And I plan to be a true Chenaiite all my life-the one that carries the city in one's heart.
The writer is a true-blue Mallu who loves books, food and the movies. Oh! And if you haven't figured it out yet, she loves Chennai, too - other cities may be equally great, but there's something about this one that makes it the first among equals.
Picture courtesy: Chandrachoodan