Sleepless in Chennai – Part I

[Throwback]

Bengali first-borns are a subject of constant experimentation by their parents.

Take for instance, my mother. She’s not particularly talented when it comes to decorating the house with alpona (a form of milky preparation that is used to draw on the floors of comely Bengali households, on the eve of Saraswati Pujo and the likes) – a trait that I unfortunately inherited. Matters were not helped by the fact that my sister turned out to be a gifted artist on her own. The highest that I managed in school was a C+, especially on days when our art teacher wouldn’t be in a murderous mood. The man failed me once. In his defence, a cardboard box with ugly rectangular and triangular carvings does not a lamp shade make. A very intimate aspect of making alpona was to draw the footsteps of the goddess Saraswati into the living room and up to the study table, in the hope that she would follow them like bread crumbs and bless me with wisdom.

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Unfortunately, the footsteps would resemble those of a waltzing duck. Soon, Goddess Saraswati lost all hope and I began to digress from academics to the beautiful women in my neighbourhood. Or take for instance, the sweaters she would begin to knit with unparalleled gusto and then renounce midway, before my father’s motivational speeches and constant goading would somehow help the sweater see the light of day. They were, for the lack of a better word, abominations. Much of my fear of closed spaces is attributed to the black holes she’d knit for the neck – they’d suck me in, the moment I’d put my head through them.

Eventually, as all my trendy graduation and post grad sweatshirts began to tear and fade, the grisly looking sweaters that my mother had toiled at, helped in staving off the cold.

[The hatred for Idlis]

I have fond memories of our neighbour – a generous Bihari family who’d often appear at our doorstep with the aberrations that they’d cook in their kitchen. Take for instance, my deep seated hatred for idlis – a seemingly harmless UFO shaped diskette, made out of ground rice – notorious in Chennai. Their intent was noble, unfortunately the execution – not so much. You could kill a person with a well-aimed throw of their idlis. My parents, wonderful souls that they are, would swiftly pass them on to my plate – and I’d spend the rest of the day breaking my teeth over those fiendish objects. Or the lifeless dosas that’d resemble dead scum on the ponds at their best. As such, I grew up loathing South Indian cuisine.

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[The Goodbyes and Beginnings]

On the 31st of March, 2016 – Sampriti and I sat pensively at the airport – a very short post-graduation had come to an end and it was time to say our goodbyes, like every other time. We made our promises to fly to each other’s cities every once in a while – a commitment that she’d end up honouring, being as she was – the glue in our relationship. As I made my way through the gates of the airport, I bid farewell to a dewy eyed Sampriti watching me with the longing of a thousand kittens that stare at you when you eat pork in front of them. A few hours later, I landed at Chennai – the land of the exorbitant autos.

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This was the last city I had wanted to set foot in, in India. This was mostly due to the trauma that my parents and my neighbours had put me through during my childhood. I had been amply warned about my upcoming stint in Chennai, which included Asim’s “in-your-face” laughter that lasted a full minute, while I waited for him to make his next comment. The happy go lucky chap that I am, I was not too worried about the heat in Chennai, considering that summers in my hometown had the ability to melt your flesh off your bones. What I was completely unprepared for was the ensuing miscommunication in Chennai, that’d result from a mutual lack of knowledge of languages.

For the next forty five minutes, I realised what it meant to live life on the edge (while being subjected to full blown, unabated Carnatic music) as our cab hurtled through the streets of Chennai. Unlike Calcutta, traffic lights here have no significance, one way signages are for decoration or for highlighting potholes, and traffic policemen merely enjoy their daily view of traffic passing by in the lazy late evenings. Bike riders are unapologetic in their flouting of rules – they have renounced all self-respect, as they try and fit their Triumph® in the small crevice between the ancestral mopeds.

The apartment, where our organisation had generously offered us accommodation – was located in the middle of a posh locality called T. Nagar. The gatekeeper was a tiny hoary man from the early twentieth century. He had a tendency to doze off smack in the middle of conversations, considering he was himself quite close to the gates of hell. I called up Sumanth – my neighbour from post-graduation who was to be my colleague and close friend later. I rang the bell. I heard heavy unsteady footsteps and the door knob turned. The familiar sight of a half asleep man, dressed only in shorts, scratching his hairy belly – greeted me.

[Sumanth, Varun and D Block]

Sumanth stayed opposite my room – in the presence of esteemed neighbours like the Tinder-loving Sattu and his close aide – the God and lizard fearing Arjun. He would spend his days stoned in smoke and haze, seldom stepping foot outside the room. As such, our communication was mostly limited to nods. He would consistently wear grey or blue shorts – a solitary piece of clothing that would just about cover his loins, with clear disdain for the world, largely writ across his face.

I met Varun, during Maxinations – a three day marketing event which would entail heavy drinking, no sleep, brawling batch-mates and stolen study tables. This event would test our creativity, our ability to defy hangovers, our friendships and our relationships. In keeping with D Block’s strict policy of going into the competition, drunk and stoned with absolutely zero preparation and no intention of winning – Bromie (an elderly gentleman much ahead of his time – who was clearly trapped in the wrong era,) Varun and I ended up planning and shooting an advertisement (on the many qualities of tissue paper) that shot us into overnight fame. We had two versions for the advertisements – one which was aired, and the other which wasn’t. I will quickly take you through the synopses of the ads:

[Aired Version]

The protagonist of our advertisement, Akash (a cynical and wiry lad who never said no to an invitation to Shounak’s ashram) would be depicted attempting to clean himself after duly answering nature’s call. His multiple expressions of anguish, rage and dejection on using sundry items were compared with his effervescence on using our promoted tissue paper. This was a low cost production that was met with mostly positive criticism.

[Unaired Version]

The protagonist, Akash again, is portrayed as a simple man who is shown enjoying the pleasures of life derived out of watching educational videos featuring beautiful women (for strictly academic purposes.) Suddenly, his female friend approaches from the wing. Our protagonist has very little time to decide. In a moment of intellectual brilliance, he is shown using the tissue to its maximum potential and throwing it up towards the ceiling. In a single footage we successfully captured the cleaning and adhesive qualities of the tissue, as our protagonist is seen hugging the female friend and walking out of his room nonchalantly, before turning towards the cameraman and winking.

As we were in a very crucial juncture of our careers, and the content was strictly debatable at best – we decided it best not to air the ad, which in hindsight, if aired, may have just won us the competition.

To watch the uncut version of the advertisement, please get in touch with Varun, our erstwhile film editor and creative lead.

[Back to Chennai]

Side note: You will excuse me if I do not mention my current organisation very explicitly. I am one of the lucky few to have survived a year, and I have a massive loan, two hungry mouths (Re: cats) and a very beautiful woman to tend to.

Apart from Varun and Sumanth – there were two others who were housed in the same apartment as ours. Chandu (also called Mama) and Chotu were polar opposites from Trichy and Manipal, respectively – they were separated by more than a feet. While the former loves to abuse his kidneys routinely (imagine me, multiplied a hundred times), the latter is a Liverpool loving heathen on the face of earth. We were joined by three lovely women from the three corners of India. (I once overheard one of my colleagues referring to Nellore and Guntur as North India – so I suppose that makes us Europeans.)

Thus began a long and eventful year – when we were thrown out of our apartment, got into a fight with an Ola cab driver, created a ruckus in a movie hall (some of us still vehemently deny having had anything to do with the 3D glasses) and wandered from street to street, looking for apartments to stick our heads into, and built relationships that went beyond, religion, region and languages.

[Conversations]

I will be honest though – twelve months of being in Chennai has had no effect on my understanding of the language, which is nil; I have still not warmed up to the food (because, leaves are for cows and not for humans – a point that my mother and I debate to death) [What have you done to my Biryani, Chennai?!] and I have not been able to comprehend yet if the nod means a yes or a no. The latter especially, have led to conversations like:

Me: Do you have this deodorant?
Shopkeeper: Hm (nodding his head.)
Me: So no? Who should I go to?
Shopkeeper (nodding his head more vigorously): No!
Me: You don’t want me to go?
Shopkeeper: Yes.
Me: So I will go?
Shopkeeper: Okay.
Me: Is that Okay yes or Okay no?

This went on for a full five minutes, until he placed the deodorant in front of me.

And then I asked him the price. Which was a mistake.

[The Language Barrier]

The disadvantage of not sharing a common language with Chennai, in hindsight, has been a massive regret, to be honest. We keep making fun of their lack of proficiency of Hindi – and granted, it is a big minus for them – however, it’s admirable to see cab drivers, shopkeepers, conductors, and the common man, struggle so hard to speak broken English and help you out in distress. At times, it gets incredibly frustrating – but to be fair, I haven’t seen similar attempts made, or actual fucks given, in other cities. I haven’t seen women or men passing snide remarks when you accidentally bump into them in a packed bus (in Kolkata, such incidents can lead to unending arguments that will eventually loop in politics, religion, your parents and your character.) And I haven’t seen a safer city for women than Chennai. For someone in a serious relationship, it is incredibly irritating and insulting when random men, without an iota of decency or adherence to principles leer at one’s girlfriend, often passing remarks and staring her down, like she were a piece of meat. I am witness to this in Calcutta – a city considered generally safe for women.

So when she’s arriving in a late night flight and she’s worried about her safety, I proudly welcome her with a kiss in the middle of the airport (and there are actually no onlookers or passer-byes) and tell her with a degree of pride, “Honey, this is the safest city in the world. We could take a walk down the street at 1 am in the night and we wouldn’t have anything to care about.” For taking care of my Sampriti, I am thankful to this otherwise, sticky, sour and nodding city.

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Next time, we begin with how my drunk roommate Mama, continued to mistake me for his lover, as his arm would be thrown lovingly across me. And I’d wake up in horror, every single morning.

(contd.)

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