It is my good fortune to be writing to you from southern India, where I will be stationed for the next two months or more. On the coast of the Bay of Bengal, near the tip of the subcontinent, in the bustling city of Chennai, home to 4.5 million souls, your correspondent will be ensconced in a cabana overlooking a pool and an aggressive flock of pigeons.
Nearly four years ago my lovely fiancee Anjali brought me here to be married in an arya samaj, an abbrevated version of a Brahmin wedding ceremony that cuts out the parts that are irrelevant if the groom is not Brahmin, not Hindu and not Indian. (Even in this shortened form, it lasted a day and a half). Now we’re back. The little lady is taking a break from work and spending some tea time with her relatives, who in this city alone number in the dozens. Meanwhile, my goal is to capture some of crazyquilt India in stories, both here on the personal blog and in publications of greater repute.
India is modernizing so quickly that one can observe the changes on a drive through town. First off, the cows have disappeared. On my first visit, I saw a few staring vacantly at the traffic as they nibbled on piles of trash. Cows are terrible urban dwellers under the best of circumstances, but are especially troublesome here, where, in keeping with Hindu scripture, the sacred cow wanders untethered. If one steps in front of your auto-rickshaw for snack on the median, well, it’s brake lights for you. But now some sort of bovine cleansing has occurred, at least in the daylight hours. During a predawn walk today I saw a total of three, which tells me that the cows aren’t gone, just hidden. But where does one hide a cow?
Another vanished species: Wild-eyed, grey-bearded men in lungis (skirts) pedaling rickshaws. While young cyclists continue to brave the traffic, the old men seem to have retired or died, and in their place are legions of motorbikes, piloted by young men in moustaches. Women appear more confident. It’s common to see a young lady striding along talking into her cellphone, and in the early morning, the older women take fitness walks on CP Ramaswamy Road in their salwar kameezes and Adidas tennis shoes.
The mosquitoes are small and stealthy as ever, though perhaps more dangerous, since their stingers bear not just the threat of malaria but a growing epidemic of dengue fever. They have none of the manners of the American mosquito, which courteously announces its presence by whining in your ear canal. The Chennai mosquito just grabs a drink and leaves me scratching an ankle.
Not everything changes, of course. The same soft breezes off the Bay of Bengal stir the palm trees, and the Adyar river still stinks of sewage. The elevated rail system remains half-finished, with lines ending abruptly, tendrils of rebar extending out into nothing. At the dirt lot across from our apartment block, kids play cricket in the morning and a few musclemen take turns doing bench presses with a rusted old barbell. More observations to come; watch this space.