“Our Chennai”

Uma Madhu, II Year B.A. English.

Chennai is not a city that you fall into effortlessly. You don’t fall asleep one day and wake up the next, feeling like you belong. There isn’t a magic moment or a rite of passage, an initiation that tells you, “There. You are a part of us now.” At least, it never came for me. It was a bigger leap of faith than one would have supposed, coming from a village tucked up in the outskirts of Calicut to this city I had never seen before. It would be a lie if I said I nestled into Chennai effortlessly. There were odd mornings where I craved for the sound of parrots chirping, and the dull nights when roommates huddled to our phones, aching for our families, our food, and the sound of our monsoons. There were tired afternoons where we gave up and paid half our money to unreasonable auto drivers, because we were way too tired and there was no way we were walking all the way to the hostel in this scorching heat. There were countless weekends that we spent trying to find our way from one place to another, countless plans gone awry because we were lost and hardly knew a language we could use. Home, home was the only thought on our mind.

Not for too long, though.

Chennai grows on you. Or rather, grows into you. I can never pick the moment when I first felt one with this city. But I can pick quite a few, where I realized that home can mean more than one city. Perhaps it was in the first sight of the expanse of the Marina, (although half of that first visit was spent trying to find my friends who had reached there earlier – “Where are you?” “Near the shop.” “There are shops everywhere!“There’s a crow right next to it.” “Very helpful.”)  Perhaps it was the first movie we watched at Express Avenue (“Wow, these restrooms are fancy.” “Did you see the Starbucks downstairs?”) Perhaps it was the first evening spent at Connemara, flicking through dusty volumes, or perhaps it was the first meal at Sangeetha (“Did you know vegetarian food could be this good?”) Perhaps it was when the people of Chennai worked their way into my heart with ease, with their loud laughter, their warmth, and their sheer tenacity. People who make you feel, with one easy gesture of familiarity, that you belong. And believe me, everyone belongs.

And so it grew on me, and it was a while before I noticed. I noticed last November when Chennai was sinking, and all I could tell my family that I had faith in this city, its spirit was safe in the arms that steadied me as I stumbled haphazardly through drowning roads, in the countless doors that were flung open letting in anyone who hadn’t anywhere else to go. I noticed when Tamil words began to pepper my vocabulary. I noticed when I bargained at T-Nagar for a pair of earrings, when I pointed out routes to cab drivers, realizing with a shock that they were now familiar, when the train pulling away from Central and heading for home brought a slight sense of melancholy.

Nearly two years down the line, I am nowhere close to knowing all of Chennai. There are daily delights and discoveries and the city grows so fast that sometimes I feel I step into a different Chennai every day. But every day, I cherish the city, and the people, who held me, and countless others, so fast and so warm, when we were lost.  Just as I asked another friend who came here from outside, if she’d have chosen any other institution, she laughed and answered “Perhaps, but we’d have missed our Chennai.”

Our Chennai. It came so easily. Just as easily as the dread that once bubbled up when our train halted at Central dissolved into a surge of fondness, as if the sights and sounds and smells of Chennai are greeting us with a steaming glass of filter coffee, saying, “Welcome home.”

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