For reasons that are not interesting to anyone else, I often pretend that I am from Chennai. That I am of this city, that this city belongs to me. I imagine that I’ve always known these streets, that they were never new to me. I imagine that I’ve never gotten lost in this city.
I first came to Chennai when it was Madras and I was the youngest 19-year-old in the world. I was young and ridiculous like only a girl from a small town who went to an all-girls school can be. I was hidden away with other young women in a hostel at the back of an old women’s college, where we had to be in by 6 p.m. and where our thoughts would return endlessly to strangers with whom we had made unnecessary, uncomfortably prolonged eye-contact.
‘I was young and ridiculous like only a girl from a small town who went to an all-girls school can be.’ Photograph by Vinoth Chandar.
We slept four girls to a room back then, four wooden cots stuck together so that four heads would dream restlessly under one enormous creaky fan. We called our parents once a week and wrote melodramatic letters home requesting additional funds quite frequently. We didn’t quite know how to dress outside of our uniforms and consequently many girls travelled the 100 feet between the hostel and their classes in outfits that just reaffirmed the fact that we had all been far too influenced by films of the ’80s.
I don’t know how roommates were decided upon in those days. Perhaps it was the order in which we just turned up or perhaps it was that dark, unhappy thing that grew in our warden’s heart that made her work so hard to ensure that girls with things in common were never in the same room or even on the same floor. How dark and unhappier still would her heart have grown as the year would pass and the unlikeliest of friendships would spring up between roommates: between sports girls and science students. Between girls who spent their days shopping as they waited to get married, never going to class or writing their exams, and girls who surrounded themselves with motivational posters and who would not stop studying. Between girls from far corners of the country who never went home for the holidays and girls from the outskirts of Chennai who went home every weekend. Friendships sprang up strong and resilient between the worried and the incredulous, between the foolish and the brave.
We all became friends. We laughed together and borrowed each other’s clothes and would develop a liking for bakery items from each other’s hometowns. Together, we would start to learn about this city. We walked, uncertain, in large groups, ran across Mount Road holding hands, clung to the handrails as we rode the escalator in Spencer Plaza, learned how to keep our faces blank and then laugh about things when we had returned to the safety of our dorm rooms. We spent baffling amounts of time in card shops and consumed enormous quantities of ice-cream very slowly, just to savour the air-conditioning. We ate whatever we wanted and never grew fat.
We shopped for cheap cotton prints on Pantheon Road and bought lurid, bright things that we would never use off the pavement in T-Nagar. We ended up wearing similar prints as we lined up for movies and out-hooted the hooting boys that would lurk in the dark of the theatres. We fell in love in those streets and had our hearts broken; felt that every love song that was ever written was written for us. We watched the lights on Mount Road tremble and fall, and thought the world was over.
We all have images in our head that only grow sweeter with time. For me, one such image is from the memory of our first, last, and only hostel outing to Marina Beach that culminated in all of us getting screamed at by our warden near the M.G.R. memorial, her anger reaching catastrophic levels as more and more small, half-dressed children gathered around, pushed their way to the front and stared at her wide-eyed as they ate warm peanuts wrapped in newspaper.
Today, when I return to Chennai, I am happy in a way that makes no sense. I am happy in traffic jams and happy to see dug-up roads. I hear people speaking Tamil and being rude to each other in a friendly, playful way, and I could burst into tears of joy. When people complain (whine) to me about Chennai—it was so hot, the auto man cheated me, everyone spoke Tamil—I feel sorry for them in a profound way. How weak and floundering is the soul that cannot overcome heat, humidity, and Dravidian languages?
When I am in Chennai, I am reminded of the girl I once was and all the things I will never be. I wish every girl in the world could grow up in a city like this, a city that doesn’t frighten her. That makes her feel like all of this, this business of life, is something she will get better at.
When you are young in Chennai, the sun is always shinning down on you and the sea breeze somehow always finds you. It is not hard to imagine that this is how life will always be—that you will always be with your friends laughing, jam-packed in an auto; that there will always be a cheerful, infectious, syncopated beat playing somewhere in the background; that at a moment’s notice, smiling people in colour-coordinated outfits will start dancing around you. Any minute now.
(A shorter version of this article was published in the Indian Express in September 2013.)