I am sitting on Marina Beach, Chennai on an upturned canoe sometime in 2004. Next to me is a guy – Suresh. I watch the waves recede. Ebb. Flow. Recede. Relentless. Suresh turns to me and breaks the silence. “So, let’s talk about you and me.” I almost fall off the canoe and hurriedly clamber down. That is not what I want to talk about, I am thinking.
Minutes later, I am standing in the water, watching the sun sink. Suresh comes over next to me, and a silence filters in through the sound of the waves. I hear kids yell in the background, but my ears are filled with that silence. Stupidly, I am standing on shifting sand, wearing block heels. A wave rushes over, gleefully. And before I know it, I find myself lifted by the tide. I stumble and grasp Suresh and meanwhile, the wave carries away my shoe. I am left standing there, on one shoe, holding on to a guy I don’t want to talk about you and mes with and a depleting sun of inglorious edges that seems to be mocking my confusion.
Suresh glances at my petrified face. “Don’t worry, it will come back,” he says. “Huh? What do you mean come back?” I ask, typical non-sea girl who doesn’t know the ways of the sea. “It will,” he says confidently. “The sea always gives what it takes.”
I watch as he looks out intently into the horizon. One wave. Another. And then, the third. There it is. I can see something floating. And it is – my poor shoe! “Wait,” Suresh gestures, and he waits until it bobs closer. Then, he wades in and emerges with my shoe in hand, grinning. I grin back. “I told you it would come back,” he smiles. Somewhere, my mind locks this memory up. Because that’s what Chennai has become to me – it’s a city that keeps coming back to me.
I never saw Suresh again, and I don’t know how to find him either. He figured out soon after my visit to Chennai that I would never talk about ‘you and me’ and he drifted away quietly from my life. But the city has stayed.
I have now been to Chennai about 12 times. Or 13. I don’t know. How do I count the ways I love thee, Chennai?
I first went to Chennai, I think, on my way to Pondicherry back in the 1990s. Or was it the other way around? We were to visit Velankanni, where I prayed for a miracle for my fast-disintegrating eyesight. Was I granted that miracle? Yes. Yes. And yes, I am still an atheist. I am with my family, an uncle, and various other assorted relatives, and Chennai barely registers on my mind as an 11-year-old.
The smell of it
I have stronger memories of my second visit to Chennai. Or rather, I remember the stink. Guindy, I think, is where we were staying. An old house. This time the relatives are from the Tamil family that my sister has married into. Why was I here? There’s no faint whisper of a memory. Nothing registers but the smell from a putrefied river. Or drain?
In 2009, I would go to Chennai to get my US visa. There are three of us. We wait for the consulate to open and we stand under the shade of a tree. It’s only 8 AM. In minutes, I am dripping with sweat. My immaculate work clothes, designed to impress the visa officer of the seriousness of the project we want to undertake in Chicago, are soaked. “This is crazy!” I yell at nobody in particular. It was. Chennai in summer? Crazy. But I got the visa no matter my sweat-stained clothes.
And then, we go around to Saravana Bhavan, driven by Coach Sheba in her little car. Later, we visit a beach I can’t remember, and I watch my friends play in the water. But, I don’t go near the sea.
Melas and more
I would visit Chennai again for work in 2012, bringing the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra to play in the city. I meet an online friend, Vishy, for the first time and wait nervously hoping that the flowers arrive on time and that the Bosch CEO would not mess up his speech. He doesn’t even though he does arrive, rather un-German-like, 40 minutes late. I forget my worries as one of the world’s best performing orchestras serenades us with music.
The same year, I am in Chennai again for a Communication Conference, staying in what locals fondly call ‘Mahabs’. I am nervous about making a social media presentation, and I don’t remember much of what I did in the city this time. Yet, by now, Chennai has cleaned itself up – there is no ‘stink’ and everyone praises ‘Amma.’ The roads are way better than Bangalore and the city seems to be on a way ahead rather than the mess I associate with my beloved hometown.
The next year, I am back as the Indo-German Urban Mela comes to Chennai, and I spend a day at the German center in a quaint part of Chennai. I fall in love with the city’s many cafes, and it’s especially easier to fall in love when you have a corporate spending account. Two more visits again for the same Mela and it feels I am now spending more time in Chennai than in Bangalore.
Friends and more
For almost three years, I don’t visit the city. Until 2016 when I finally go there to meet the amazing fitness Coach Sheba on my way to our Sikkim trip. The same year, Hindustan University invites me to speak to their students. Chennai is on its best behavior weather-wise or is it that I have become a Chennaite? I don’t pour buckets of sweat. The beach air seems balmy and the food just as fantastic. Where else but in Chennai would you have got Ethiopian food?
In 2017, my friend came down from Dublin, and of course, we have to drive down to Chennai three days after she arrives. We are that crazy about the city, aren’t we? I discover I love driving in Chennai – 10 times more sane traffic than in Bangalore. We roam around Mylapore in the morning, sipping rose milk. We sit on Elliot’s Beach in the evening with Vishy and watch flickers of fire dance into the night sky and talk until the planes fly home and we drive back to the hotel where my friend witnesses my famous temper in action. There’s a certain receptionist at Hotel Belstead who will never forget me.
The next year, I am back in Chennai again for a meeting and to visit Venkat, a dear friend from the US. We spend hours on Elliot’s Beach (again!) discussing life, loves, and friendship. I run around sampling more of the city’s amazing restaurants – The Velveteen Rabbit, drool. And as I boarded the bus at CMBT Bus Station, I looked back to see my friend waving at me. Just like that, I was reminded of all these years – so many faces waving goodbye to me, a collage quilt of memories from a city I have grown to love just as much as my own. More than 25 years. More than a dozen visits.
It’s been more than a year now that I have been to Chennai. And I know that I have to go again for my US visa. Sometime. I don’t know when. But I am not done with Chennai yet. And this time, I will, just as in 2004, wade into the sea…
Because, the city and its people just keep coming back to me. Like pale suns that rise again. Like planes that light up the sky. Like waves that keep giving you back.
What about you? Is there a place that you keep coming back to?