The Raintree is a high-rise luxury hotel on St. Mary’s Road, just a few dusty streets away from where I stay. From the polished lobby, one boards an extraordinarily quiet elevator and emerges onto a rooftop bar with a swimming pool, dining tables, and a perimeter bar underlit by blue neon and with an airy view of the city. The effect is striking because the bar is sleek and modern, while the street is strewn with piles of rubble.
I was here to meet a new acquaintance, Ben*, an thirty-something American who has been living in Chennai for a year and who took eagerly to my suggestion of the Raintree as a place to meet — a little too eagerly, I thought, considering that I had suggested it only because I knew of nothing else. I figured Ben would know of grottoes and pubs much cooler than a hotel bar.
Ben ordered a mixed drink while I got a tall Kingfisher and we set to talking at the very corner of the bar with a maximum view. I had many questions for Ben and he obligingly answered. Yes, I was right that there are almost no Americans or other white people here, except for a few of the long-haired spiritual seekers outside the Kapaleeshwarar temple; yes, most of his friends are Indian; yes, he has his own apartment and a halftime maid who cleans his house and delivers his lunch every day. My next question: What is the nightlife like in this town?
“Well, there’s Havana down there,” he said, and pointed over the ledge to a little ground-floor hotel outbuilding with jaunty red awnings. “And there’s the Dublin over at the Park Sheraton, and there’s the bar at the Hilton. And then there are the A/C Tasmacs.”
TASMAC, it turns out, stands for Tamil Nadu State Marketing Association, or, in short, where Tamilians go to get their drink on. The state vigorously regulates alcohol and sells it only at state-approved stores. The TASMACs, apparently realizing they have a good thing going, have come to incorporate a bar of sorts where the patron acts as both bartender and customer, serving himself a snort of his newly-acquired whiskey (and of course enjoying the A/C). The fluorescent lights are harsh, Ben said, but it’s more convivial than your own living room. I told Ben he would have to take me to a TASMAC sometime soon, and he agreed.
I expected Ben to enumerate more night spots, but he fell silent.
“So that’s it?” I said. “A city of 4.5 million people, and the only places to party are three hotel bars and the A/C TASMACs?”
We gazed out at the skyline, which was significantly less grand than the bar that framed it. Years of American nightlife, not to mention countless TV shows, have led me to expect certain sights from a rooftop bar: neon bouncing off of highly polished windows, Mercedes and BMWs prowling for parking spaces, chains of streetlights marching in rows off to the horizon. But Chennai doesn’t have a downtown, really, just the occasional tall apartment or office building poking up from a cityscape that rarely rises above four or five stories. And there isn’t enough electricity to maintain a metropolitan fantasy. Instead of a grid of streetlights there is a random scattering of streetlamps, some orangeish, some blueish, and combined with the headlights and lit windows they create just enough illumination for one to see autorickshaws and scooters dodging potholes, and the thick cloud of smog that overlays the street.
During our conversation Ben had been texting someone, and now he informed me that his friend Anisha would be arriving as soon as she ditched her date. And momentarily she did arrive — not alone, but with a young man who introduced himself as Rohan. Anisha was a lovely woman somewhere in her 20s, with long raven hair and a pair of tight jeans and a tank top. Standard evening wear in the West, but here I found myself a little scandalized. It was the most skin I’d seen on a woman in public since arriving in the country.
As they ordered their own drinks, Anisha explained that she and Rohan used to date but now were just friends. Things worked out so much better this way, she said. I was fascinated, not because I am especially voyeuristic about the sex lives of twentysomethings, but because I know from my wife’s family that the concept of “dating” has been soundly rejected in conservative South India. When you socialize you do so with your family, and the drive to marriage is all-pervasive. Indeed, Anisha told me, when she goes out and meets a guy he will often propose marriage within a few minutes of saying hello, because what other option is there?
In Chennai there are no dating websites, but plenty of matrimonial ones.
Anisha has a science degree but is underemployed in a job teaching corporate Indians to speak unaccented English. She has applied for a two-year graduate program in Germany and her longing for it to come to pass — for her escape plan from India to take effect — was as clear and hard as the ice cubes in her drink.
I glanced again at the city skyline and saw that the young and cosmopolitan of Chennai bear a resemblance to the Raintree rooftop bar: rearing up above the ramshackle, darkened city, dressed to flirt, and desperately seeking a Western kind of good time.
* Names of the people in this post have been changed to prevent any party fouls.