Two weeks in Chennai

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Leaving the heat and dust of Cairo’s streets about a fortnight ago, it was straight into monsoon season in humid Chennai, where relatives greeted us with the familiar cry of “Oh, you’ve become so dark”. The loss of complexion is a grave matter in these parts. “Once you get back to cold England, you’ll be fair again.” Considering it’ll be a month and a bit in the southern hemisphere after this, there’ll be a few layers of tan to tackle, I said. Let us hope it comes back, they say, worried. The second reception party to welcome us were the seemingly innocuous but most vicious things on the planet – mosquitoes. They hide in dark corners invisible until dark and then attach themselves to every available portion of the netted canopy and swoop in unseen to latch on to the juiciest, softest portions of exposed skin. They’ve wreaked havoc on some members of the family spreading dengue and chikan guniya – against which there is no vaccination – just instant arthritis, taking up to six months to recover. A theory bandied about in certain circles is that this is a massive CIA plot. Each of these pesky flying insects could be agents – a new way of looking at undercover operations! An early scene in the film Interstellar that we watched at the Escape cinema in Express Mall in Chennai has an Indian Air Force drone flying over corn fields in the mid-west of America. If I were a lost drone from the UK hovering over this city of sprouting concrete structures, I could easily believe I’m on a high street in England. Seeing Marks and Spencers, The Body Shop and Hamley’s toy store selling things at UK prices (or more) feels like consumerism gone bonkers. Every advertisement during the interval and before the picture begins is for jewellery – sweet young things wear their weight in gold and diamonds. Necklaces that resemble breast-plates from Trojan times, waist-belts and heavy bling for the head. An army of Aishwarya Rai clones could definitely scare away the fiercest enemy, I believe. A post from Chennai is not complete without my observations of the sea in the morning. In the middle of all the detritus on the sand are lone men facing the rising sun over the frothing ocean, meditating, practicing yoga. Young lovers sit away from full view, under food carts, not touching, looking pained and earnest, burqa clad women have a chat on a bench and the other day, a group of young men performed a dance for the camera – gyrating their hips in synchrony, their seductive moves proficient but their blank faces making it an odd mechanical effort. The water was cool as opposed to its usual warmth and the force of it was enough to push me back. Breakfast at Woodlands with cups of delicious sambar and varieties of chutneys with crispy vadai and uppuma afterwards…

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