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…

Counting Down… Endlessly.

“I’m not alone.”

I say that because it’s what’s kept me sane for so long. As we went through lockdown and phases of reopening, my heart felt okay because I wasn’t alone. If I needed help, if I needed a hug, if I needed nothing but another human body to sit within my line of sight – I had someone.

I told myself every day that it made all the difference. For months, it really did. But as we continue to struggle with a world we didn’t think we’d ever encounter, it’s not working. My reasons, my excuses, my ability to convince myself – they don’t make sense anymore.

To no reflection of the person sitting with me, holding my hand and telling me it’ll be okay, I find myself feeling not okay.

People have different relationships that they’ve been stranded away from. I’m now counting 6 months since I last saw my parents. 6 months since I was home with them. 6 months since I last cuddled my aging dog. It’s the longest I’ve ever been separated from any of them but that’s not the problem.

The 6 months I’ve stayed apart has already passed. I’ve lived through it. Can’t change anything about it. It’s the future.

April 2020 – I told myself I’ll be with them by October. Flights will resume. The world will be healing.

June 2020 – I told myself I’ll be with them by December. It’s slower but everything will be fine.

We’re at the end of July – February 2021 seems almost unrealistic. Like something I can’t plan for because I don’t know if the world will heal – by then, if ever at all. I’ve watched my friends who live alone struggle with the depression that came from the negative news cycles. I encouraged them to remain positive. To not absorb it. I told them when restaurants opened, I’ll be there for a cup of coffee, maybe some cake?

But somehow, it was the opening of things that really made all the difference. When life showed me a glimpse of normal, I felt trapped – it was like dangling a dream in front of me that I couldn’t grasp. I could go out, I could meet people, I could laugh and giggle and have the time of my life – just not with my family.

I can’t get on an impulsive flight over a weekend because I missed my dog too much. I can’t go running to my Mom when my brain was overworked. I can’t be sitting across my Dad in conversation about my understanding of the world.

Before the pandemic, I got through long weeks by counting down days until my next flight home. I can’t do that anymore. For every week that passes, months add on. And that flight… it seems farther and farther away.

Maybe, at almost 28, it sounds ridiculous. Maybe, almost married, it sounds immature. Maybe, my parents are right, how could I be such a baby and cry?

But of all the things that COVID has thrown my way, healing a part of the world and not the rest has been the toughest to deal with.

I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to normal. I don’t know when I’ll get to hold my family – furry and human – close to me again. But I know I’m not the only one stuck like I am.

Do your part in keeping yourself safe and reducing the spread. When you help yourself, you help us all.