Posted in Feature Writing, Memoir, Travel Writing

Mornings in Chennai

When Anand is excited he speaks very quickly. His English is about 50% to begin with, and when he gets animated, each word leads into the next with an exotic cadence and I can no longer follow. I have to ask him to slow down and repeat himself before I can finally decipher his words, only to then declare them like mini-epiphanies.

“OH! Motorbike! I’m sorry, I thought you were saying ‘modernite!’”

“I don’t know ‘modernite’ .”

“I don’t either!”

And we laugh, because laughter, apart from tears, is one of the only sounds that transcends language. When we laugh together, it doesn’t really matter why. It matters that we are sharing something with one another. Something that we both understand to be positive, to be safe, to be indulged in collectively, like the juice of a coconut from a shady roadside stand on a blazing afternoon.

*

On my first morning in Chennai, it was 35 degrees before dawn. I donned white linen culottes for my first day at the newsroom and got my period and diarrhea within the same hour of each other. It was the 4th of July, the high summer holiday back home. And just as I had feared, the magazine company where I would be working for the next 2 weeks published exclusively in Tamil. Every magazine I was to work on was published in a completely different alphabet. Even the keyboards looked like cryptic riddles. I went in the bathroom to have a meltdown, only to notice that each stall had a hose instead of toilet paper. Toilet paper wasn’t even a suggestion. Neither was air conditioning.

How the fuck did I get here?

It was a chain of events that I found myself reviewing as I departed JFK 36 hours prior, fireworks exploding in the skies over New York City, as my Air India flight ascended, due east over the Atlantic. The short answer was, some head honcho at the international media company that employed me realized that the newsroom project in Southern India was due for a follow-up visit, and none of the other consultants—those above my pay grade– had felt captivated enough by the idea of spending two weeks in one of the hottest, most crowded places in the world, to offer themselves up for the assignment. So they sent the only employee under the age of 30, the rosy-cheeked American millennial with tattoos and a penchant for wandering through foreign places until she made new friends or needed rescuing. They sent me.

And naturally, I was unquestioning and grateful to be able to add a new chapter to my conquests as an ‘international newsroom consultant,’ a position that had fallen into my lap through sheer circumstance and Divine intervention. As with each of my preceding assignments, I didn’t question the good fortune that had fallen into my lap, I thought this would be just like my trip to South Africa, or Kenya, or Dubai. Hotel to newsroom and back again, take away dinners and power point slides.

But this was India.

Nothing I had ever seen or known would prepare me for the strangeness of what was to befall me.

And this wasn’t the India I had in mind—the frequently photographed, touristy India. Here, there seemed to be no ‘tourists,’ at least not in the Western sense of the word. No well-monitored gaggles of foreign pensioners in sun hats with cameras around their necks flocking punctually from tour stop to tour stop. Here, I stood a head and shoulders above every single person I encountered, a paper-white, towering daisy in a garden of teak, sandalwood and henna brown. My skin revealed me as the obvious interloper that I was. Unlike my previous travels, I was the only person who looked like me, for as far as the eye could see. And I was not taking boat tours and waiting in queues for historical sites. I was embedded and working in a newsroom where people had deadlines, interviews and appointments, and still had the time to regard me as if I were a mix between Miss America and Glinda the Good Witch. I could not conceal myself from the unwanted attention of ‘otherness.’ I resigned myself to being looked at and dare I say, I even came to enjoy the attention, despite myself.

*

By my second morning in Chennai, I sat in the front seat, next to Anand as he drove me the 3 kilometers (a 30 minute ride) from the hotel to the news/magazine building. It was much easier for me to understand him when I saw his mouth moving, rather than squinting at him through the rear-view mirror. Also, people had gawked while riding past our car on the previous evening’s trip home, apparently quite surprised at seeing a white woman alone in the backseat. Anand tells me the only other person to sit in the front had been John, my mentor who had visited three months prior.

“Now you are a front seat friend, just like him.”

Anand started to ask about the lives of John and myself, about the existences we had planted for ourselves on American soil. I quickly understood that Anand’s impression of America was one in which everyone was universally wealthy. When I tried to explain that you can be an American, and a white person in America and be middle-class, or even poor, it was clear this was something Anand had never considered.

“But they say Americans live in mansions and eat McDonald’s … Is this not?”

“I mean, the McDonald’s part isn’t that far off, but no. Not all Americans live in mansions.”

“And Trump?”

“… What about him?”

“He lives in mansions, yes?”

I sighed, painfully. One maniacal asshole threatens to take the reigns of your homeland and suddenly that’s the first topic anyone wants to discuss upon recognizing your accent.

“He does, yes. But he’s not a real American.”

“No?”

“I mean, he is an American. He was born in America. But he is not normal. He is a celebrity, an exception.”

“Have you met him before?”

“Donald Trump?” I laughed so hard he jumped a bit. “No! Oh God no. I did meet Hillary once, though.”

“You like her?”

“I do. I’m voting for her!”

“Do you want her to win?”

“God, yes! I pray that it will happen every night.”

“Should I pray too?”I chuckled.

“Only if you want to, my friend. I’m sure you have your own worries to pray about.”

“Yes, but with friendship, we share worries, yes?”

“Okay, well what do you pray for?”

“I pray my parents stay alive long enough for me to give grandchildren … I pray I save money to buy my own cars, hire drivers to work for me … I pray I come visit you and John in America. Yes.”

“I’ll pray for that, too, Anand. And then I can drive you around all day. And you can joke about my bad driving.”

We laughed some more.

*

There’s a certain irony about staying in a five star hotel when you have less than $100 in your bank account—an irony that reminds you that you are not really supposed to be there. That, were it not for the magazine company footing your bill, you would most likely be staying in a packed hostel in a very different part of town with no air conditioning or WI-Fi. I rationalized all of this during my first few days in the Residency Towers on Thyagaraya Nagar. I did my best to acquiesce to the snobbery, while still maintaining a middle-class humility, as if to say, “I’m not like everybody else here.”

Earlier that year I had learned the value of bringing my own Tupperware containers to the hotel’s breakfast buffet—a trick that allowed me to use as little of my daily per Diem allowance as possible. The tricky part that required a true finesse was packing my food away into plastic containers and then my work bag, while remaining undetected by the wait staff or other guests. I stopped caring about being discrete, realizing I would probably never see any of these people again so what did it matter really, and that any member of the wait staff would find it far too awkward to approach a seemingly high-paying guest to ask them why they were shamelessly hoarding food.

On previous projects, once I had pillaged and packed my lunch, like a squirrel hoarding chestnuts for winter, I usually walked from my lodging to the project where I was working, even when given the opportunity of a lift from one of the newsroom drivers. It allowed me to acquaint myself to my new-found environs in a way that is impossible to do from the backseat of a news van. But in Chennai, that option was immediately dismissed as absurd and naive.

*

On my fifth morning in Chennai, Radha, Vibi and Anand explained the caste system to me under the umbrella of a Chapati stand on the side of the highway. It was the first explanation that I’ve received other than those from Wikipedia and my European bosses. Vibi told me, defiantly, that she married outside of her caste two years ago and had not spoken to her family since. Radha told me she was to be married the following year, to someone her parents would be selecting for her. I had been told, days prior, the lighter the skin a person had, the higher their caste. Radha’s skin was fairer than Vibi’s, and Anand’s was the darkest of all. He looked embarrassed as Radha told of the dowry her family will earn once she is betrothed.

It was my only day off during my time here and rather than doing what I like to do on my days off in strange places—picking a direction and walking with absolutely no destination, seeing what beauty and trouble I can discover– my entire free day was scheduled and planned by Bhuvana (the head of HR at the magazine conglomerate who was also, apparently, solely responsible for my every waking hour.) Because of our similarity in age, Bhuvana had selected Vibi and Radha to spend their only day off dutifully accompanying me on my packed itinerary of sight-seeing excursions.

The two of them competed to tell me more and more historical information and cultural trivia. Radha was permitted to interrupt Vibi when she was speaking, and frequently did. But, since Radha was higher caste, Vibi could not interrupt her. I felt a palpable tension developing between the two of them throughout the day. Their hospitality and eagerness to explain the entire history of Hinduism, Tamil Nadu, and their society at large touched me in such a way. I still remain friends with both of them to this day.

*

At the cultural village, an old woman and three young girls crept away from an adjacent wedding celebration to creep at me bashfully from across the lobby of the welcome center. They all wore brights saris adorned with gems, the equivalent of their ‘Sunday best.’ The oldest of the three girls asked after a few minutes of peering if I would take a picture with them.

“Of course! I’d be happy to!”

I had to bend down to hear what the little girl was saying as she translated for her Grandmother, who was touching my freckled arms with wonder. She was ancient, her brown skin folding over her bones like wet paper in the sun.

“She says you are the first white woman she has ever seen.”

“Is she your Grandmother?”

“Yes.”

“Would she like to see my Grandmother?”

The little girl translated and then nodded, as if I were offering her a piece of candy.

I pulled the prayer card out of my wallet, the one from her funeral 13 months earlier. I bent down to hand it to their matriarch. The Grandmother’s eyes widened as she peered at my Grandmother’s glamour shot, taken in 1996—permed blonde hair like Dolly Parton and a black feather boa framing her shoulders.

“Is she a famous movie star?” the little girl asked as their heads crowded around the photo.

“No,” I couldn’t help grinning. “But she’d really love that you thought so.”

After a minute, the grandmother mumbled something to her oldest.

“Why do you have brown spots, madam?”

“Sorry?”

“Spots! On your face and your arms! Why are they there?”

She brushed her hand over the outside of my forearm as if reading braille.

“Oh! These?” I said, as I danced my fingers across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.

They all nodded, captivated.
“They’re called ‘freckles.’ Some people– with uh, lighter skin– get them from the sun? Everyone in my family has them.”

“Can my little sister touch them?” the oldest asked, quite warily.

I laughed again, slightly embarrassed, but also proud to be the global ambassador of freckles, a role which I had never imagined playing.

“Of course!” I said with a guffaw, before bending over and putting my face in front of the smallest of the girls, closing my eyes and grinning for her to inspect them up close.

Her miniature fingers ran over my cheeks delicately, as if she were playing the keys of a piano for the very first time. She squealed, before telling her sisters in Tamil to do the same.

*

On my seventh morning in Chennai, I woke before dawn and turn on the only international news channel on the TV in my hotel room. I learned that another unarmed black man had been shot and killed by police back home, during a routine traffic stop. His name was Philando Castile. His three year-old had been strapped into her car seat in the back of his car, and his girlfriend, who had been in the passenger’s seat, had recorded the entire event on Facebook Live. I shuddered upon learning each detail. My bowels wretched. Riots and Black Lives Matter marches were happening in real time, nine hours behind me. I watched the video of Philando’s murder on my iPhone, until breaking news came in over CNN International that five police officers had been killed at a protest in Dallas. I cried for a little bit. And then decided to go for a run.

I’m not one for jogging (I usually loathe the very concept), but the idea of an early morning jog was far more productive and less dangerous than my previous evening’s sojourn. After getting a bit stir crazy in my room after dinner and deciding to take a lap around the block, I ended up being followed by a swarthy-looking, derelict man for a while (gridded square blocks ceased to exist and I got rather turned around). Once I lost him, I almost tripped over someone sleeping in the street. I thought it was a dead body and I screamed, only to wake him into a bellicose, barely-lucid state. The sojourn ended with a dour, Pakistani man following me with his car as I walked on the adjacent sidewalk. He spent six blocks driving alongside me in neutral, imploring me to go to the beach with him, with more and more forcefulness, until my polite declines finally amplified to a righteous incredulity and I stopped walking.

“Do you really expect me to say yes? You think I’m going to get in your car, a complete stranger in a strange land and just…’go to the beach?’” I gestured with air quotes. “Do I look like a fucking idiot?”

He blinked a few times, as he leaned over the passenger’s side with one hand on the wheel.

“Why, yes!” He replied, in a practiced tone. And although I realized his working knowledge of English probably didn’t include the phrase ‘fucking idiot,’ I flipped him off anyway and ran the two blocks down Thyagaraya Nagar to my hotel, in a frenzy.

With the security of daylight, and the traffic of the morning commute, I felt emboldened to try my luck exploring the streets again –only this time in running shoes, and at a slightly faster clip than the previous evening. Perhaps five minutes in to my run, I realized that Chennai was not the most conducive environment for traveling on foot briskly, uninterrupted, or in a straight line. I turned to head back to the hotel but again realized I had lost my way a midst the throngs of the over-stimulating morning bustle.

Illustration 1: The dog with kind eyes. Unfortunately, I never captured a photo of my child saviour.

I sat on a curb, petting a stray dog with kind eyes and listening to Adele until a scrawny child of maybe five approached me in rags. He began asking me questions in Tamil, his sweet voice inflecting upward at the end of each sentence. I figured maybe he could help me, so I showed him my hotel key card, shrugging as if to say “I’m super lost.” He pointed to the logo and nodded before taking my hand and leading me the three blocks back to the Residency Towers. When we arrived at the front entrance, I ask a bell hop to translate for me. “Wait right here. I’ll be back in 5 minutes.” In my hotel room I grabbed forty rupees, a Pepsi and peanuts from the mini-fridge, and another prayer card of my Grandma’s from the stack I kept in my backpack. I found my child saviour right where I’d left him. I After giving him the tokens of my appreciation, I bent down to kiss him on the forehead and to bow to him with my hands folded in prayer, a Tamil message of reverence.

He spoke in pleading Tamil and the nearby bellhop laughed before translating,

“Can I come live here with you?” the little boy asked me over and over, tugging on my sleeve.

*

On my eleventh morning in Chennai, we (Bhuvana my handler, Anand and myself) drove six hours south to the city of Tiruchiripalli. I was informed that we would be meeting with a corps of 40 journalists who worked remotely throughout the region. The purpose for this assembly was me. I would be giving the keynote address to these journalists explaining the ethos and reasoning behind the newsroom restructuring that my company was in the process of indoctrinating.

“None of these journalists speak a lick of English,” I was informed by Bhuvana. “And they are all men.” She went on to tell me that she would be translating on my behalf, and then awaited gracious praise for what seemed,to her, to be a very generous favor.

At the assembly there was a catered lunch to be served following my presentation. I checked my slides in the car and double-checked the phonetic pronunciations of ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ and ‘Thank you for your time and attention,’ that I had written on a post-it note in the pocket of the loose linen trousers that my Mom gifted me for my trip.

The preceding lectures had gone far over schedule and the events schedule was already 45 minutes behind when I began my presentation. Bhuvana translated, but took generous liberties in her translations. I know this because I would speak one or two sentences and she would then go on to translate at length for minutes at a time. If I would speak a paragraph’s length, sometimes Bhuvana would only translate what seemed to be a sentence or two. I quickly caught on to the fact that she was editorializing and expounding on my presentation, but I had absolutely no idea what she was saying. It was also 40 degrees in a crowded hall with no AC and only 2 anemic fans. I had done jumping jacks in the bathroom before my talk began, just to stay awake. Very quickly, around my third or fourth slide, the heads of my audience began to bob as one by one, the journalists dozed off into a heat-induced boredom nap.

Once my talk was finished and lunch was served, the audience formed a queue to meet me and pose for selfies. None of the journalists grasped the concept of a high-five, despite my attempts at pantomiming. Instead, they each met my hand in the air with their own and held it there for an awkward moment, like a miniature hug, until they extended their arms to pose and smile into their smartphones. Though I was dreadfully hot and borderline hangry, I took this unexpected ‘meet & greet’ as a sacred burden of western responsibility. If I was to be the only Caucasian they would ever meet, I could at least be gracious and charming. I hoped, as I dazedly ate my lunch at a table all to myself, that my behaviour would be an exception to any preconceived notions that my audience might have maintained about people who looked like me. I hoped my demeanour had shown them, somehow, that people are just people, and not necessarily better-than based on their skintone, all castes aside. But as I was served post-luncheon tea, on a buffed silver platter with sugar cubes in the grid of an American flag, I wasn’t so sure I had succeeded in my mission of mano-e-mano normalisation.

*

On my last morning in Chennai, Radha held my hand and led me down the street from the office to the shopping mall to buy thank you cards for my hosts. Bhuvana asked me to donate to her church before taking my hands and praying that my travels would be without tribulation. Vibi gifted me with a drawing she had made, and a miniature statue of Kali, my chosen favorite of the Hindu gods she and Radha had painstakingly explained to me the Saturday before.

The entire staff of 200 gathered to bid me farewell as I left the news building, laden with parting gifts, for Anand’s car. Someone had made a coloured chalk mural of my face on the ground of the building’s courtyard.

I felt like Princess Diana. It was all very surreal.

I remembered how twelve months prior, I had been waiting tables in Manhattan and swimming in a deep sea of grief. Every morning I would pace the length of my apartment in Astoria as I listened to public radio and wept. And now? Now I was still the same broken, striving daisy, but against this exotic and utterly foreign background, my imperfect existence was just as exotic and foreign, making me somewhat of an unexpected dignitary from the only world I’d ever known.

Context is everything, isn’t it?

*

When Anand pulls up outside the airport we are both very sullen. His sister has made a garland of jasmine blossoms for me to wear in my hair. He gives me flowers from his parent’s garden and tears well in his eyes as we hug goodbye. He asks if I’d consider coming back whenever he eventually got married, and asked me what it was like to fly on a plane. I give him a strand of mala beads I’d gotten at a music festival in Michigan a few years earlier, a prayer card of my Grandma’s, and my business card, on the back of which I’d crudely scrawled the sequence of Tamil characters that I hoped had spelled ‘thank you.’

“Front seat friends?”

“Sorry, what?”

“Front. Seat. Friends.”

“Of course I will call you on our birthday.”

What?”

“Oh wait, no what did you say?”

“You are funny, you speak so slow.”

“Maybe you just speak too quickly, my friend.”

On my last morning in Chennai, we wipe the tears from our eyes as we laugh together about nothing and everything, for the very last time.

Author:

Stories of travels, of tribulations, and of learning to tell the difference.

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