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…

My Hometown. My Heroes.

We’re not that city people talk about often. We’re not that city that’s constantly on the news. We’re uneventful. Nothing newsworthy ever happens here. Except, maybe, Rajnikanth’s birthday. We’re a calm bunch that sip our filter coffees and obsess over the neighbour’s daughter’s office hours and new boyfriend. Our lives are calm.

But not today. Not this past week.


Dear Mother Nature,

I get it. You’re feeling hurt. Perhaps, a little betrayed. We’ve become those people we tell the world we hate. We made promises. Big ones. We told you you’re beautiful. We took pictures of you in so many different moments. We told you how much we love you. Promised to protect you. Promised to cherish you.

Some of us did. But it wasn’t enough. Because the majority of us forgot. Not just the promises but we forgot how much we need you. We turned our backs on you. Materialism and comfort caught up to us. We did things knowing it wasn’t the best of decisions for you. We did it anyway. We became selfish. Self-centered. Uncaring.

So you became the crazy ex with a need to kill. And kill you did. I have never feared for my life until the night of 1.12.2015. I saw the water rise and found myself unable to stop it. I was Rapunzel stuck in her tower with no way out and I’ll be the first to admit – It’s not as magical as it sounds. I was terrified. But I’m still here. I’m alive long enough to tell you this. But so many aren’t. And I’ve heard it’s about to get worse.

I’m not ready for worse. My city is not ready for worse. We’re not ready for your fury. We should’ve been. We’re the reason it exists. Maybe if we’d been more careful, more attentive to your needs. Maybe if we’d kept our promises. Maybe you’d have spared us. But I’m asking you today. I’m begging you today. Stop the wrath you insist on shoving upon us. We’re not prepared. I can’t watch one more person die at your hands.

We may not all learn from this. We may not all learn our lesson. Some of us have seen what you can do. We’ll behave. We’ll keep our promises. Not for the fear of you. But for the lives of the others. We’ll protect you. But Mother Nature, forgive the ones who don’t learn their lessons. We’ll make up for it in years to come. Forgive the ones who continue to build houses where the water needs to flow. Forgive the ones who dump plastic when the world insists on cloth bags. Forgive the ones who’ll criticize you from this day forward. Forgive mankind for the flaws we’re born with.

You are called Mother for a reason.

With all my love and promises I intend to keep,

Human Being


I remember waking up on Wednesday morning and demanding coffee to my mother like it was my birth right. I remember mentally complaining about not having an espresso machine. I remember wanting to go buy a few outfits during the weekend.

Then it all changed.

I happened to live in one of the most affected areas and I watched my city drown. I heard screams and cries all through the night as people missed a boat, a chance to get to safety. My neighbour drowned and died in the water while going to check on his brother.

I’m a hydraholic. I love the cold weather. I’ve never been more afraid of the water. I’ve never prayed harder for the sun to shine.

I’ve ranted numerous times about the lack of humanity in this world. This past week, I’ve seen enough humanity to last me a lifetime.

My hometown is filled with unsung heroes.

The night this began, I watched people open their homes to strangers and drain their batteries on their phones to protect the ones they didn’t even know.

Srilakshmi, Sriram, Kavipriya, Sindhu JP, Mahesh, BragadeeshUma, Nandhitha, Prason, Deepak, Sharada and all of The Chennai Bloggers Club – You have brought so much happiness into my life over the past year and the past week, you’ve done the same for so many across this city! I feel blessed to have you in my life.

My jaw dropped at Swarnamalya Ganesh and her mother’s desire to help people who were stranded on our streets – the watchmen, drivers and maids – with food, water, tea and coffee. She walked in 5 – 6 feet deep water to give biscuits and water to a Tribal school.

The other family in her apartment. I hate to bring this up at a time like this, but I have to. For anyone that bullied Islamic people and judged them all by the actions of ten – here’s a newsflash for you. The man walked in neck-deep water to rescue older people stranded on lower floors and gave them a place to stay in his house until the water drained. How’s that for an incredible soul?!

A part of me wants to curl up and cry with trauma every time I’m in my room again. The smallest of sounds make me jump wondering if people are crying for a boat again or if something’s wrong or if someone’s dying.

The other part of me wants to cry with gratitude every time I see a volunteer. Chennaiites have brought this city back to life! I’ve seen a side to my neighbours I’d never known before. My judgements were thrown away as they lugged buckets of water from our terrace so I didn’t have to. Every little help counted.

And for all the nights I’ve complained about the lack of aircon, I spent 4 days without electricity. Books kept me company. Ellen Degeneres’ Seriously.. I’m Kidding made me laugh on a dark evening. I lived with candlelights. Food wasn’t for taste. It was for staying alive. Water wasn’t to waste. It was for necessities.

Today, someone told me that I’ve survived. That I have lived to tell the tale of how I made it through a natural disaster. But the truth is, I haven’t survived. I’ve been lucky. I had a stable roof, decent food, a loving family and the kindest of souls around me to keep me safe. I didn’t have to survive because I was lucky enough to not be in danger

But the rest of my city can’t say the same. And if it wasn’t for every volunteer, every Government worker, every human being that decided to help, we would have not risen in a week.

Thank you aren’t words enough for you.

Today morning I woke up and I asked my mother for coffee. I ensured I added a please. I sat on the swing, looking at the dry road and the shining sun. I was grateful for coffee. I was grateful to have clean clothes again. I was grateful to be alive and breathing fresh air inside the comfort of my house.

And deep within me, I knew normal would never mean the same again.

But we will survive. Because we’ve got each other. Like no city will ever know.



Chennai Isn’t Just A City, Madras Isn’t Just An Emotion


I was sitting in an auto, stuck in traffic in the middle of Mylapore. I looked at my mother and swallowed my tears. “Forget it. It’s fine. I’ll stay here. I can leave another time.” That’s the moment I said goodbye to my life and officially moved back. On another day, in another place, it wouldn’t have been the same. But there, in the place I’d seen and admired for years, it felt like things would be ok.

We often move out of the country to study. We find work and our feet stand still. We find a place to live and eventually, someone to live with. It’s home in all senses of the word. Yet, there’s this moment. This moment when you walk out of Anna International Airport to the sound of taxi and auto annas asking you where you want to go. This moment when you can hear the car honking all the way from the roads. This moment when a particular feeling envelopes you like you never knew it would. A feeling of belonging. A feeling of coming back from a vacation. Sure, you’re coming from home. But this place that you’ve landed at, it’s home.

A friend of mine who moved here for a while asked me, “What’s so special about your city?”

I was silent for minutes. Not because I didn’t know what to say but because I didn’t know where to start.

When I say Mount Road, the guide books will tell you about the never ending traffic, loud noises and the fancy malls. But that’s not it. When you’re driving down that road, look to your right. You’ll find history in every building you pass by. This city wasn’t made with concrete. It was made with art.

When you say food, it’s quite normal for that friend of yours who visited a long time ago to suggest some “decent” restaurant. But that’s not our food. Our food isn’t made by that chef whose name you’ll never know. Our food is the one that akka or anna sitting in a plastic chair carefully places on your plate while they tell you the tales of the city’s past and their predictions of the political future.

When they say socializing, I know you think of parties and business meetings. But that’ll never be it. Socializing in my city is sitting on those steps with other foreign return / aspiring maamis for hours on the end while secretly staring at that cute guy whose mom had probably dragged him to the temple. And have I mentioned that there’s a temple or two in every street with the kind of architecture that the modern man will consider “too time-consuming and almost impossible”?

It’s a bit of art, a bit of delicacies and a lot of smiling, helpful faces.

But that isn’t all that makes this city what it is. It’s more. More than words can ever describe. More than I can ever tell you. More than anyone will ever know. It’s home in a way that a home will never be.

It doesn’t matter if you’re from a different planet, you’ll feel welcomed. It doesn’t matter what your choices in life are, you’ll feel accepted. It doesn’t matter who you choose to be, you’ll find your crowd.

The story of who this city is will be different with every person that lives or visits here. For the ones who come with a dream, it is a helping hand. For the ones who come with tears, it is a shoulder to lean on. For the ones that come giggling, it is a friend to play with. For the ones who’ve lived here forever, it’s the loving arms of a mother that’ll always welcome us back with a smile.

And no matter what I explain, it’ll never do justice to this city.

Because Chennai isn’t just a city.

Madras isn’t just an emotion.

It’s home.

And more.

Happy Madras Day!