Return to Madras …I mean Chennai

[unedited] I arrived in Madras (I must learn to start calling it Chennai – however Chennai Curry just does not have the same ring to it) late in the morning and my friend Joseph picked me up from the airport with his wonderful family.

I was quite excited to see him after two-and-a-half decades that I spent the travel time talking and not taking much note of the city and its changes.

He now lives in Kerala with his wife and eight-year-old daughter but has come up for the week for the reunion.

The one thing that struck me the most about Chennai’s infrastructure is that nothing seems finished. Everything is in progress. Whilst this is understandable for new constructions – it is inexplicable to see almost everything incomplete. Half-finished pavements, bridges that just end mid-way, bitumen that stops abruptly mid-road and so on.

The dense population has resulted in great pollution. Not just from the emissions of the hundreds of thousands of cars, auto-rickshaws, trucks and motorcycles but from litter scattered almost everywhere.

There are far less cycles (push-bikes) on the roads than I ever imagined. Certainly in the areas that I travelled today they were distinctly absent. Instead, motorcycle and scooters zip in and out of everywhere – quite a few riders are women.

Traffic rules do not exist. Lights and signs stand powerless at every intersection merely as suggestions to motorists on what to do next. It is hard to decipher who has right of way – is it the pedestrian, the cyclist, the car or the truck. In fact after my first day it seems it is the one that is the most confident. Whoever moves first with the greatest authority gets priority over the others who have to make way to avoid collision.

Horns are used often in very short beeps to announce presence or in long loud screams to express annoyance.

The central median strip is, again, a mere recommendation. Depending on the traffic flow it bulges to fill more than 50% of the other side of the road and then narrows in waves.

We are staying at a hotel owned by one of my classmates. It’s a short walk from our school and has so far been the meeting place for planning, rehearsals and general reminiscing.

The food here is excellent – Udupi – which is a vegetarian style and it took little time between check in and my first mouthful.

The coffee is exquisite – served with boiled milk, of course, and I understand made the same way for over half a century.

In the evening I had the opportunity to go back to my old school with Bhatta who’s hotel we are staying at. Whilst it was a brief visit and quite late in the day, it was interesting to see how much has changed yet how much has stayed the same – which is, in general, my observation about the city itself.

The principal’s office brought back some memories – few of them fond. Our soccer ground which was undersized to begin with has been replaced by a second outdoor basketball court. Interestingly, in my current phase of life, this is a win for my adopted sport.
In the evening Joseph and I headed to Punisammy for the best biriyani in the city in Royapettah not far from were stayed. The food did not disappoint. It was by far the best I’ve ever eaten and perhaps the most (excluding my mum’s cooking, of course). It was another opportunity to catch up on 25 years of life’s journey with Joseph and also discuss numerous philosophical perspectives. I really enjoyed these conversations at school and it was refreshing to have them again.

We returned to the hotel only to be invited to dinner with Bhatta and his family as well as another good friend Mustaffa and his wife. Having an opportunity to chat over a quiet meal with two old friends and their families was quite enjoyable. It also reminded me of our youth when many of us from different faiths shared an appreciation of each other’s values and beliefs.

[unedited] The delights of the best vegetarian food in Chennai got me down to breakfast without any hesitation. Whilst I love the masala dosai, I decided to have a different dish every day to ensure I make the most of the opportunity. As expected, I was not disappointed.

After breakfast, we were to head over to see Dominic Savio another close friend from school who was over from Bangalore where he currently works. His house is not far from my old family home and the journey there brought back some memories.

We had trouble finding the house but that gave me a chance to walk the streets. I am amazed about the incomplete infrastructure and the pollution yet the resilience and harmony in which people exist.

Domenic’s family, especially his mum, were always hospitable to us and often we would go over to his home after school. His brother Stanley who played soccer with us, came over with his son Andrew. Stanley works at a call centre and does not start work until four in the afternoon each day.

We then decided to shop for a guitar and some musical equipment for Joseph who was to play at the reunion. We returned to the hotel, which I soon realised was the meeting place of all Don Bosco alumni, to find a few more school friends which meant lunch and more reminiscing.

Soon everyone was in my room, guitars out and a quick rehearsal. Then it was off to school for the big event.

[to be continued…]