Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Ridiculousness that is Chennai

Everything in this city seems to have its function and its place, as strange as it may seem.  I’ve come to consider nothing, no matter how odd, out of place in Chennai.  There is room for any and all.

Today, as I walked with some new friends from school to lunch, we came across a miserable looking emaciated old man, as dark-skinned as I’ve seen here, pushing a tiny ferris wheel designed for children… or pets.  I don’t really know.  I can’t imagine any parent letting their 3 year old sit in that thing.  It’s not very tall but looks unsteady enough that it would collapse under the weight of even the smallest child.  Every inch of the thing was painted in bright colors, depicting gods and goddesses of one variety or another.  The paint could not completely conceal the dents and rust that the ferris wheel had endured , though.  The whole scene looked like something out of a messed up mythological story… or perhaps a Garcia Marquez novel.

Later on we walked past a posh looking building, and trust me these are rare in this city, with about the most unstable scaffolding I’ve ever seen.  It wasn’t even.  None of it was even.  It was clearly put together with crooked branches, tied loosely together.  It managed to look even more unstable than the children’s ferris wheel.  I’ve passed this thing twice in the last two days and have yet to see a person standing on it. 

Of all the oddities here, the one that’s most prevalent is the auto rickshaws.   They can be seen fighting traffic on pretty much every street.  They are tiny 3-wheeled vehicles that seat a driver and two people in the back but which often carry much more than that.  They are fairly minimalist, with no doors and no frills.  

Along the road to school, there’s an area that boasts a collection of rickshaws in various phases of deterioration and renovation.  It looks like a little factory.  Men are always in the process of taking one apart, welding, or giving one a new paint job.  There are some rickshaws that are simply sitting on the street as forms of storage and others are filled with what I can only imagine is trash.

Of course there’s the cows.  I’m still fascinated every time I see them.  I had read that cows wander the city freely.  They aren’t homeless, I’ve learned.  The cows are actually owned by people, and their wandering is essentially synonymous to ranchers letting their cows out for the day to graze.  Except in Chennai, nobody owns enough land for the cows to graze, so instead they are released into the city to look for food in trash bins.  They vary in size and temperament considerably.  Today I passed a huge cow that had absolutely no interest in me; it was completely engrossed in trying to get to an especially nasty looking heap of trash that was stacked on the sidewalk against a building.  It was stepping gently onto the broken pieces of pavement that had been piled together at the edge of the street.  I could tell it was not going to make it.

On other days I’ve come across cows that are skittish.  They’ll watch me coming and turn to avoid me.  I’ve come to recognize the look they get and to avoid causing them any unnecessary anxiety I usually cross the street to give them their space.  Of the entire population in this city, the cows look to be the most well fed.  But that’s to be expected: cows are treated with a great deal of reverence here.  They are considered holy and, though used for milk, they aren’t killed for meat.  In a city where a good portion of the population is starving, this isn’t a trivial thing. 

But God is everywhere here.  Everpresent, you could say.  Even in the most mundane applications.

As I was walked in traffic today I saw a tiny orange car drive by with the sign “Brahma Driving School” emblazoned on its side.  Brahma is part of the Hindu trinity, signifying creation.  How this relates to a driving school I have no idea.  But it’s everywhere.  Banks and newsstands will be decorated with multiple statues of gods and goddesses… and a cow here and there to make a point.  I wondered what it would be like if we had this approach to life in the U.S.  Christianity doesn’t offer much variety in terms of divine figures but Catholicism has enough saints that we could get pretty close.  And then walking back from lunch today I got a taste of what that would be like.  A colorful bus sat on the side of the road with a picture of Jesus on the back window.

Of course, not everything odd in Chennai is benign.  There are indications everywhere that life here can be merciless.

The street is full of strays, most of which are either mutts or breeds I don’t recognize.  Most dogs are maimed somehow, missing an ear, part of their tail or even a paw.  And all of them are filthy, coated in dust and shit most of the time.  The bare a striking resemblance to the betters, who are often maimed as well.  Their dark skin looks lighter because it’s coated in Chennai’s dust.  They walk barefoot. Some drag themselves because they can’t walk.  I’ve seen one man multiple times now who is constantly moving in an odd squat, his one working leg doing its best to meet the shape and function of his deformed one. 

None of this seems to taint their disposition, though.  A few times I’ve had these same men smile at me and say “Hello” in their best English.  A few days ago, one man, almost completely toothless and with one hand permanently twisted back towards his arm called me over as I walked by him.  He was sitting, back hunched.  I walked up to him as he wore a huge smile, eyes wide and expressive.  He asked me something that I couldn’t understand and I thought initially he was speaking Tamil.  But when I asked him to repeat and he gestured along with his words, I determined he was asking my name.  So I told him.  He nodded, pointed to himself and told me his, then offered me his maimed right hand, which I shook.  He didn’t beg.  So after a moment I smiled and told him I hoped he had a good day, then continued my walk to school.

It’s sad to consider what fate the street people face.  With such little food available, trash everywhere around them, and with the crazy driving, I can’t imagine they last long in the streets.  At least a few times I’ve walked past men lying in the street or on a cart.  I suspect they are sleeping but sometimes the way their bodies are arranged suggests otherwise.  And I can only hope they are faring better than the dogs.  Now and again I’ve passed flat patches of what looks like a furry coat that’s been hammered into the ground with constant pressure from car wheels and I wonder if that used to be an animal.  No one bothers to clean it.  Roadkill here simply becomes part of the road. 

And amidst all this you’ll see an Audi or a Mercedes Benz making its way down the road, honking with the same gusto that the rickshaws do.  They only seem out of place to me, I think. No one else even looks at them. 

That, too, is characteristic of this place.  Nothing seems to be given much regard and all it takes is a dismissive tone to put someone or something that is out of line back into place.  Linda, the yogi I met in my hotel, told me that her friend was attacked while walking to the KYM by a crazy-looking three year old girl.  The child had seen Linda and not paid any attention to her.  But Linda’s friend, blonde and fair skinned, drew her attention.  She immediately picked up a stick and ran straight for her, screaming and swinging.  She never hit her but kept threatening to.  Until Linda quickly turned and yelled at her.  She dropped the stick and ran off.

This place is replete with interactions like this.  The city is one big fat contradiction, juxtaposing rich and poor, quiet and loud, pure and filthy, practical and nonsensical without losing its balance.  Wyatt, my friend Holly’s son, referred to this dance as “the ridiculousness of Chennai” because it goes beyond simply strangeness.  It doesn’t seem to make any sense that a place should function this way, that it should be able to accommodate anyone and anything that comes to it, offering just the right level of opportunity, challenge and inconvenience to let it survive.  But it does.  


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