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Hacktreks - Home is a state of mind

Forever Chennai
Colin Todhunter
Liverpool - now twinned with Chennai.
Chennai is intense - from the life of Triplicane to the fume belching traffic on Anna Salai.

I 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.

In 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" different.

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.

For 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 Homeward Bound

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 of homesickness.

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 hell.
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

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