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The International Writers Magazine: India

Hack, Slit, Squeal: Immunity in Georgetown, Chennai
• Colin Todhunter
Hack, slit, slice. Butchery in Georgetown. Peeled, pink goat carcases in fly-ridden, one-room shops. Tethered animals wait their fate outside on the street. Some 40 half-alive/half-dead chickens tied upside down by legs hanging from bicycle handlebars have just arrived. Their destinies set as well.


Mend, sew and stitch. Men squat by wooden carts at the roadside repairing old produce sacks for reuse. Their former contents now spread out on the floor, on carts or in doorways. Brightly coloured tomatoes piled high. Stacks of ladyfiner. Rich, green chillies. Red peppers, green peppers, onions, aubergines, pods, peas, carrots and potato. You name it, it’s here. Potpourri of visual delight.

Look, check, haggle. Women with expert eyes and hard, stiff plastic shopping bags eke out the best bargains. Young, newly married daughter-in-laws learn the tricks of the veg-buying trade. Demur, almost sad eyes. They mingle with massive cows with even sadder, more demure eyes, which munch on discarded leaves and produce that didn’t measure up. Even India’s vegetarian stray dogs get in on the act.

Georgetown Proud, crying, still. Huge light-coloured bullocks proudly wait. Wait for men to offload goods from carts these animals hauled through choking, stinking traffic for miles. Massive, upright horns still painted from the recent Pongal festival (harvest celebration), they chew silently on straw with dried, watery teardrop eye residue staining their faces.

Brush, glide, slide. Women float. Veils billow. Smooth, exposed midriffs slide by. Tantalising, half-bare shoulders brush past. Traditional, flesh-revealing sarees tightly wrapped around slim bodies and not so slim bodies. Under wraps in yellow Rajasthani veils and other paraphernalia worn a dozen different ways according to ancestry, community and how things are done in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Bihar or whatever region people came from to settle here in the melting pot of Georgetown.

The urban fashion landscape is being homogenised by kurtas and kameez in India’s big cities. But in the Sowcarpet area of Georgetown, many women from different parts of India are still identified by region according to their clothing.

Nose studs and earrings glisten. Bullock bell horns jangle. Ankle bracelets jingle. Women slide through the crowds of working men, cockerels, cows, cycle rickshaws and dogs.

Black sludge and white. Boys in pristine, white uniforms play. A fee-paying Christian ‘Don Bosco’ school for parents with money. A white school building and spacious, neat yard. Outside, on the street, an ugly mess of one room hutments. Corrugated metal. Thin, hardboard partitions thrown together for walls. Plastic sheeting for roofs tied with rope onto railings. Dusty kids with matted hair. Cow shit and flies. Dog piss and stench. Large, overflowing municipal rubbish bins. Black sludge dredged up from underground sewers by city workers with their rods. Emaciated, grey haired women on lie on floor dressed in rags.

Young hutment-dwelling women yell at their squealing kids. Coarse, hoarse voices. Earthy women with the grit of the land, the soil of the village engrained in their pores. Sitting outside their dwellings packed with bedding, checking friends’ hair for lice, watching the pots and pans boil. Daily rituals. Checking and yelling. Cooking and washing. Threading flowers for sale to adorn hair or garland Hindu effigies.

Pump, lift, carry. A hundred plastic pots of water secured from municipal street stanchions for washing clothes and cooking. Open stoves at the roadside lit with wood. Boiling and stirring. Metal pots and pans. Rice, sambar, veg.

A small, grubby local chai shop across the way. Huge, fading wall pictures of Hindu gods look onto the street. Murals with metaphors.

This world of rags and plastic sheeting. This place of dirt and mud. Chennai’s poorest. Their kids don’t stand a chance. Before leaving the womb, they never did stand a chance. They never will and never shall. It’s heartbreak alley. What use soothing chai-shop effigies? Medicine to dull the pain.

Scrawny husbands pedal cycle rickshaws or obtain sweated labour any which way they can in this area of hauling and carrying, shifting and mending.

The underemployed. The poverty and filth.

Walk on by. A self-conscious fleeting glimpse cast. Humanity crawls on its belly. Then carry on. Move on with your school-day. Your pristine-white, comfortable day. Side by side. No one appears culpable. Immunity and squalour.

Daylight draws to a close. The imperious domes of Victorian-era Madras High Court cast long shadows over the neighbourhood. There’s no justice here.

© Colin Todhunter February 2014

Where Cows & Princesses Glide through Mud - Colin Todhunter
Look up, but certainly look down as well. Just watch your step. There are a million stones to negotiate and a thousand bits of loose concrete.

Postcard from Ghent
Colin Todhunter

Leaving India on a very early morning flight out of Cochin and arriving in Ghent in Belgium later on the same day. From a hot December in South India to zero degrees in Europe in a mere 12 hours.

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