In December 2008, I returned to Chennai, India for the first time in 12 years. The minute I felt the thick humidity and sandy dust even in the midst of cool winter, it was like coming home.
But a decade changes any place. Lattice Bridge Road, the main road off the street where I had lived in Thiruvanmiyur, was nearly unrecognizable. If you asked me to give directions to my favorite bookstore Odyssey, which still existed, I could no longer do it. The roads were overflowing with cars, traffic was exponentially worse, and once plentiful bicycles were few and far between. I used to bike to nearby destinations every now and then just for fun – I’d never risk it now.
I think the most startling changes were the ascending of tall glass tower buildings, the kind you see in technology parks, which were almost all call centers, the disappearance of slums (I think they were just hidden or pushed out), and the profusion of cell phones – everyone, rich and poor, seemed to have one. At least at the urban level, there appeared to be some breaking of inter-generational cycles of poverty.
I lived in this chaotic metropolis for three years in the mid 90s. Even then it was a bustling city of four million (the population has since doubled), a drastic contrast from the manicured spaces of suburbia I had inhabited in Georgia. At the time there, the uphill battle had been proving I was American, whereas, in India, I couldn't downplay my U.S. nationality if I tried.
I went to a school that was run by Christians, so we had a daily assembly which ended with the singing of a hymn. I even had a hymn book – in fact, you were thrown out of line if you didn’t have it in your pocket. We were otherwise totally secular and multireligious. The student body was almost evenly split between Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, so we got out for all of the holidays. And instead of snow days, we had rain days during monsoon season, as the streets were sometimes so flooded that I dreamed of kayaking down them.
We had school from 8 a.m. to 1:40 p.m., with only a 15 minute break in-between. I was picked up by our driver and at home by 2 p.m. I would have lunch, breathe, change, and would be out the door again by 3:15 p.m. in order to make it to my 4 p.m. French class downtown at the Alliance Française. The journey took me 45 minutes. It takes well over an hour now. My peers in French class were mostly college kids – sometimes they took me out for ice cream after class. There were of course no cell phones, so I would ask the administrative office for a favor and call home hastily to let my mother know I would be late. I was 12 and 13 years old. Our poor driver was also my ad-hoc chaperon.
In many ways, my social life was far more vibrant and free than the one I had before, and more than the one that would follow later in high school. I had an unprecedented level of mobility. With my school friends, I was always going to houses, lunches, and dinners and parties in malls, recreational clubs, and restaurants in the city centre. I was quite aware I was moving in high circles compared to people living in abject poverty around me. This troubled me – in fact, I think the knowledge of this disparity pervaded so much into my conscious, I would later gravitate towards work in international development.
Even then, I placed a high premium on my freedom and independence. I had a bicycle, a purple Huffy mountain bike, which looked ridiculously out of place on the streets of Chennai, where bicycles were colored neutrally and built for speed and transport, high and with thin wheels. But the bike served me well across the uneven roads. Amidst great protest and total lack of understanding as to why I’d used it for transport when I had access to an air-conditioned car, I would bike to stores, to my math tutor’s house for classes, and on occasion to a friend’s house.
I would bike to vegetable markets and convenience stores to fetch groceries for my mother if no one else was around, picking up a bar of Nestle Crunch or Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut as my prize. Consumer choice was somewhat limited. I think toothpaste choice was generally confined to Colgate. At a time when quality baked goods were rare, I would run all over town to find the best cakes. Though, as the years went by, the presence of international products increased. It was the beginning of trade liberalization, market reforms, and deregulation of television and radio. Now you can get anything and everything you want. No need to smuggle Head & Shoulders shampoo and VCRs through customs, as we used to do.
Could I live here again? Of course. Chennai is modern, yet as my friend who I met with whom I had not seen in 12 years noted, it has managed to maintain its “rustic” quality in comparison to Mumbai. I was sitting outside at a café on Arundel Beach Road in Besant Nagar with her, chatting as we used to chat, enjoying a strawberry milkshake, and I felt completely in place. The only thing that truly bothered me was that with the traffic and lack of sidewalks, the main roads were not very safe to walk on anymore. I nearly got run over by a few auto rickshaws. I hesitated to come back for a decade, and I could take it no longer. I will never let another 12 years pass. My heart currently resides in Atlanta; I left a huge chunk of it in London and go back regularly; but I also think I left a part of it in Chennai.