Hacktreks - Home is a state of mind
- now twinned with Chennai.
Chennai is intense - from the life of Triplicane to the fume belching
traffic on Anna Salai.
am writing this in Delhi, thinking of Chennai, and by the time it appears
on Hackwriters, I will probably be back in the UK, in either my home
city, Liverpool, or if I'm lucky, in the rolling hills of the beautiful,
tranquil English Lake District. Delhi is not one of my favourite places,
and, despite it being "home" neither is Liverpool.
The saying goes along the lines of - home is where the heart is. I cannot
deny that there will always be a part of Liverpool within me, yet the
heart is a wholesome thing; it can hold so much within. Liverpool -
former Second City of the Empire; seaport city, slave-trade city, and
now post-industrial city attempting to redefine itself in a changing
world. Hitler half flattened the place in the 40s. It then rebuilt itself
only to be stripped of much of its former industry by the whims of late
Twentieth Century capitalism. Now the place continues to search for
a new role and a new economy to base it upon. Like most seaports, it
is a cosmopolitan place, having attracted people from all over the globe
to put down roots there.
Paradoxically, however, it retains a narrow minded parochialism partly
based on a "backs against the wall / the world is against us"
mentality brought on by years of economic decline, trade union bashing
by successive governments, and lost jobs and hope. From the 1960's to
the 80's it was a bastion of left-wing militancy. The place has always
had an edge to it - whether in terms of politics, humour, or religion.
City of The Beatles, Strident Roman Catholicism, fatalism, hard drinking
and tough talking (and too often, tough fighting).
Sometimes you have to leave home in order to appreciate "home".
Maybe. I left Liverpool, travelled all over the world and somehow seem
to appreciate the city less. But "home" is a broad thing.
I have come to appreciate a wider concept of home - my friends, family
and the England of lakes, hills and meadows. Arguably, it is a more
romanticised view of Britain, rather than a hard-bitten urban one. Nevertheless,
it is just as real.
Peter Burger, famous sociologist, once wrote about the "homeless
mind" - the modern state of being whereby our roots our shallower
but more spread out over a greater space (or something like that). Mine
are firmly planted in English soil but are no longer exclusive to England.
1997 I first came to Chennai to rest my bones in crumbling Broadlands
Lodge in Triplicane. And from that time on, something happened.
Tamil Nadu - the heartland of Dravidian culture; a land of the preciously
guarded Tamil language; a land of temple-towns, sacred sites and
fertile soil. Chennai - Tamil Nadu crammed into a space by the sea.
When I enter Tamil Nadu or Chennai from other parts of India, it
always feels like I am entering a different country. It 'feels"
These days Chennai feels even more different. Since I first came,
I have laughed in Chennai, cried in Chennai, been homesick in Chennai,
and have fallen in love in Chennai. In short, I have lived in Chennai.
I didn't just "visit" or pass through. I even got published
in Chennai, and rubbed shoulders with the writers, Muttiah, Ashokimitran
and Theodore Baskaran.
Black velvet skies and bright summer moons are different in Chennai.
Magenta, nightime mists over Marina Beach are more haunting and
the city lights in Chennai are brighter. Delhi doesn't compare,
Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai cannot compare and Liverpool - well that's
a different time, a different place (a different story).
I dream of a girl from Copenhagen when in Chennai - was it her who
captured my heart or the tropical atmosphere of a sultry Chennai
January? When I get homesick in Chennai, I get really homesick.
It hurts just that much more. I stand and look down Triplicane High
Road and feel my alienation in a way I do not experience elsewhere.
On the Road I am surrounded by village India. In the middle of a
metro, families from villages live on the street; they are earthy
characters, smelling of a village life left somewhere behind in
Tamil Nadu. Banana leaves litter restaurant tables, bullock carts
haul produce and dieties from rural India are worshipped at small
shrines in almost every back alley. If all of that does not make
a Westerner feel "alien" to a place, then nothing ever
will; and, in my case, it often does. Chennai is intense - from
the life of Triplicane to the fume belching traffic on Anna Salai.
many, Chennai is always Madras; but not for me. Madras is forever Chennai.
It changed its name in 1997 and that is what it has been called ever
since I have been there. If I had to get published anywhere, where would
I have wanted to be? If I had to fall in love anywhere, where should
it have been? If I had to have lived in a crumbling lodge anywhere,
where could it have been? And if I had to think of anywhere while writing
this in Delhi, where can it be? Only one place. There will be a place
somewhere in my heart that says - forever Chennai.
Postscript June 10th : Further Reflections on being
American singer-songwriter, Paul Simon, wrote about homesickness in
the well-known song, Homeward Bound. He mentioned about each town looking
the same and of every stranger's face instilling a desire to be homeward
bound. He wrote that song while sitting on a bench waiting for a train
in Widnes. Widnes is a small town bordering my birthplace, Liverpool.
Paul was touring the area and I can see why the harsh industrial landscape
in that part of the world would compel anyone to want to go home (and
to never return!). But that part of the world I guess is my home. And
wanting to return to such a place can only be induced by intense feelings
Alas, at times, Chennai is responsible for me wanting to go back. Paul
Simon couldn't wait to leave the area - and I don't really blame him.
I suppose someone's vision of home can often be another's vision of
At times, Chennai is overwhelming; in the sense of it containing six
million strangers' faces. And, at times, each street, area and traffic
choked thoroughfare looks and feels the same. In the middle of May the
place can be unbearable with its high temperatures and humidity. I have
travelled through the heart of the city along Anna Salai countless times
in the back of an autorickshaw during that month. At least when we move,
the hot breeze offers some degree of comfort. It is when we are stationary
that things get bad. And on Annai Salai, caught in the traffic, you
find yourself stationary all too often. Even when in the shade the heat
burns the skin. So to get some relief I blow some breath upwards and
over my face. At that point I come to realise that the air inside my
body is even hotter than "the stuff" outside. I would not
thought it possible. My breath is like a flame-thrower. So then I usually
poke my head out of the side of the rickshaw in order to get some air;
only to take in another mouthful of diesel fumes.
It is then I wish to be where Paul Simon didn't want to be. But I know
that one day I'll be back to that over-crowded spot on the Coromandal
coast. I just need to get away in order to return. Leaving Chennai heralds
the beginning of my return. And when I get pigsick (not homesick) of
Liverpool, the call of Chennai will be too strong to resist. And as
insane as this may sound, when things seem too lifeless and sanitised
in the UK, for a few silly seconds, I will even come to miss travelling
along Anna Salai in May.
© Colin Todhunter
Buy Colin's new book here
RAINBOWS REVIEW by Heather Neale
about India by Colin in Hacktreks
all rights reserved