Chennai: Never just a city

I’m that girl that crossed oceans to sustain myself. I live a few hours away but it’s been a while since I’ve been home.

I hear about a possible third wave. I read about carelessness. A city unmasked and unafraid. It scares me all the time – I have parents and in-laws that are old enough for me to be worried. Two dogs I haven’t cuddled my weekend away with in a really long time. A flight to Chennai is almost impossible. And that small chance of maybe? I can’t take it because it all sounds so scary from where I see.

But in the chaos of the news that feels like my worst nightmare, I miss a lot more than just loved ones.

I miss home.

I’ve been talking to my sister about it – What makes us so special? Us adults from Chennai. It’s this tie that we can’t break. In a foreign country, when everything seems different, “Chennai-ah?” is all the connection you need to be best friends.

I miss that home.

That feeling of stepping out of the flight and getting into my mom’s car. The ever-familiar road that leads you away from the airport, “Wow. So much has changed. Traffic alone doesn – epdi poraan paaru.”

You know you’re home when travel is a musical experience – radio or roadside dialogue, to each their own.

The incredible food. Gangotree pani puri, Saravana Bhavan ghee dosa, Ratna Cafe sambar idli, New Woodlands full meals. I’ve never visited without a list. I’ve never left unsatisfied. Street corner akka or Shree Mithai aunty, I miss the friendly banter with total strangers. The extra mile they always go to ensure you enjoy your meal. I often wonder how the aunty and uncle with the delicious channa samosa stall opposite SIET are doing. I wonder if they had enough saved for a rainy day – or year. The bajji akka outside Giri Traders in Mylapore. The chikoo seller outside Ratna Stores in Pondy Bazaar. So many more like them.

The helpers who walk to multiple houses. The tiny arguments our moms always have with them. “Paavam-di ava,” is how the day ends. Have they remained employed? Do you still pay them through the lockdown? There’s so much uncertainty from where I see things.

But one thing remains.

This feeling. If you’re from Chennai, you know what I mean. This particular emotion that makes you play cheesy Madras songs on a cozy Sunday evening. You’re not sad, no. You’re wishful. Longing to be back in those streets. Amongst the colours, the energy, the people.

Unmasked, maybe, but unafraid we are. The news terrifies me, I won’t lie. But I’m hopeful. I’ve seen the Chennai I can’t stop thinking of. The one that saw trouble and didn’t wait for help. The Chennai that wasn’t afraid of flooding water, rising waves or an Earth that shook. The Chennai that rose to the challenge, together. The Chennai that risked themselves to save their neighbours. The Chennai that is proud, brave and resilient.

The Chennai my husband is tired of hearing stories about.

A Chennai we won’t get to be in until – for a change – we distance ourselves and stay indoors.

A Chennai I miss, every day of my life.

I’m that girl that crossed oceans to sustain myself. Years may pass, lives may change and roots may form, but Chennai will always be home.

And the music, the movies and the million keepsakes I can’t throw away will keep me wrapped in warm memories, until I return…

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