For the love of Madras

“But why did you go to Chennai again? Do you have family there?” It was the fifth time I was being asked this, or may be the tenth, I don’t quite remember, and like all other times I had no answer.

Cities, like people, often come into your life unannounced. They stay with you until they are meant to and leave you when they are done, whether or not you like it, quite like people again.

Growing up in the heart of hot and dusty small town North India, Chennai, or Madras as it was known then, was not a city I had known, not until I saw it on the map at the age of eight and travelled to it at the age of nine. The encounters however did little to increase my awareness about a land as good as foreign: what else can you call a place that takes two days and two nights to reach?

Perhaps that is why while growing up and dreaming about future, Chennai had no place on the canvas upon which I had painted the picture of my life. Delhi? Yes; Bombay? Perhaps; Calcutta? Never; Bangalore? May be; but Chennai? It did not even occur to me that coming here was an option.

I heard of Chennai first by my to be husband who had experienced the city first hand. Going by what he told me, I had made a mental map of the place; the map, just like his experiences, was sad and dejected, and very, very biased. Forget about liking it, I did not even want to see the city. But then what is life if it does not alter your plans?

So one fine day, just like that, I found myself in the bustling metropolis, famous for being hostile to Hindi speakers and biased against the uncouth North Indian. As I walked alone along its busy streets and sauntered its lazy lanes, spoke with the auto drivers, and chatted with the street-food vendors, sought directions from the cops and help from flower sellers, I kept waiting for the hostility, hatred and bias but could not find any. Instead I found a companion in its streets and lanes, a friend it its people and places, an ally in its temples and mosques.

Since that day, until now, even as I write this with my feet dipped in its blue waters, my skin caressed by its cool breeze, my eyes looking up every now and then to catch a glimpse of its gorgeous sky, I have missed no opportunity to be here, for who knows when the city decides to turn its back on me.

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