A note: I haven’t posted anything in nearly two months – the last one was a few days before leaving the UK to come to India. Nearly seven weeks in ‘my former home town’ later, I’m about to head back. I’ve decided to post multiple blogs about my experiences here since arriving. These have all been little paragraphs that were started and abandoned. The simple reason being I haven’t been able to sit with my thoughts for any reasonable length of time due to the sheer overload of experience. See what you make of it.
Every time I arrive in Chennai, at dawn, there is an air of a city waking itself up briskly. This time, however, the airport that was a disaster zone till the previous day or so (early December) was a lot more sober. There was not much hustling at the taxi desk – there weren’t many cars for hire. The flight from Heathrow landed on a dry runway and the subsided roads around Meenambakkam airport had been drained of the water that had caused so much havoc.
The driver showed us the railway-bridge just outside, with part of its wall collapsed. He spoke about motorbikes being washed away and the temple at Kotturpuram becoming submerged. Later, I heard stories of Godrej bureaus (the steel cupboards/almirahs) caked with sludge ruining an entire lifetime’s loving collection of precious saris. Newspapers had uplifting and tragic stories – one of an elderly couple unable to reach dry land and giving up trying to survive was very sad to read. And then the tales of everyday kindness from young people and generous volunteers. The rallying spirit seemed to be alive and well – and of course, just in case we didn’t get it, people were eager to tell us how wonderful Chennai was and how well its people rose to the occasion at such times. At this, I feel out of sync, disconnected – I try not to feel guilt for not feeling more. The big question the city was asking itself (on the eve of all the December and January festivities) was whether to mourn or move on.
As always, coming to the city I left 22 years ago, is about slipping back into my previous life – that which appears seamless but really isn’t. It is also mainly about learning to live around parents again. It takes time getting used to the routine here, observing inside vessels, outside vessels and making sure one doesn’t ever mix with the other. There’s so much more that crops up in the ether from unexpected directions and even after all these years of visiting regularly, I’m yet to entirely make sense of it.
It was rather telling that it took many weeks before the tea I love tasted anywhere close to palatable. My taste buds were fine to relish the taste of a crisp dosa during morning tiffin and appreciate the satisfying taste of a home-cooked meal. But they couldn’t adjust to the delicate taste of tea. It could be the fundamental composition of the water which goes through an initial filtration cylinder located in the garden and is then distilled through a ‘reverse osmosis’ process in the kitchen for cooking and drinking. It continued to taste of dishwater. I decided to crush ginger and boil the water with it. Adding the spoonful of tea ‘leaves’ – gritty powdered gravel, that I was beginning to loathe, I wait for it to bubble. The dark decoction that appears mustn’t be allowed to boil too much. I quickly add fresh cold milk and let the whole thing foam and rise and turn the gas off. I then strain it onto a steel tumbler and wait for it to cool. I sit with it in the veranda staring into its murky depths, grimacing and trying not to give up all hope for the long weeks to come.