Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Chennai - The Evolving City

Its now close to six years since I am in Chennai - a city that I loathe in many aspects and like in so many others. My early acquaintance with the city was in those days when I was studying at Trichy. For traveling to my hometown in Orissa, I had to change trains at Chennai Central and occasionally had time (while waiting for my connecting train)to visit Spencer Plaza or take a stroll on the Marina Beach. In those days of youthful exuberance, I could never imagine that one day my destiny will lead me to this very city.

When I landed here, at the beginning of my career, my first impression was that of disappointment. The big metropolis, bustling with people, seemed to move at a slow & sedate pace. Much too slow for my taste I guess ! Got cheated by the auto-rickshaw drivers all the time. Faced severe language problem (till date I can barely understand Tamil & can't speak it at all), which I never really came across inside the sanctuary of my college in Trichy. And then, there were stray incidents which opened my eyes to why Chennai is known as a orthodox place. During my initial days of house-hunting (when I could not afford a good rent and still wanted to be in a good locality !), I came across these problems. Met a variety of house-owners. Their conditions for letting out their house was also varied, staring from a restriction on eating non-vegetarian food in the house, to imposing a ban on late returns - things that are quite unheard of in most other parts of India. The restrictions increased many fold, if the prospective tenant had committed the hideous crime of being a bachelor, if at all the land-lord was willing to let out his house to a bachelor in the first place. There was this landlord who asked me questions like "Are you a Hindu ?". "Are you a Brahmin?". "Well sir, I happen to be both but not ready to take your house just because you asked me these questions" - was my response.

Times have changed. Six enduring summers later, I am still in the same city. Except that now I like it more. Not sure if I have got used to it or the city has adapted itself to changing times. I suspect it is a little of both. Friends, who visit Chennai after a long gap, opine that the city has indeed changed.

Being a bachelor does not appear to be a sin in the eyes of the land-lords anymore. Is it because they are more mellow now or I can afford to pay higher rents, is debatable. But I am lucky enough to have an excellent landlord, who has not raised the rent of his house in six years. I have excellent roomies, who are ready to give company in anything I do. In the past six years the place has got a lot of new bars, pubs, lounges, restaurants, coffee-shops & fast food joints. I remember how I used to miss a good watering-hole in the city in my early days. How I forced myself to eat food that I did not like at all, for want of good restaurants in the vicinity. Now I have the option to choose from various pubs, where I can go and unwind after a days work.
Its a different issue that most of the pubs wont allow me inside their premises on weekends, just because I don't have a girl with me. But we will talk about that plight of stag-entry some other time. The city which used to be dead at night, now has shops open till late. Outsiders staying in the city dont have to force themselves to eat south indian food now. All these, according to me are positive changes, essential for a multi-ethnic city.

With the upsurge in IT Companies, the traffic has become worse. But its still way better compared to cities like Bangalore. Take this for example. My house is 10 km from where I work. But even in peak traffic, it never takes me more than 25 mins for commute on my motor bike. New companies are allowed to open their offices here in a phased and planned manner. And most of them open shops outside the city limits, with very little impact on the city traffic. With very wide arterial roads, the traffic problem does not become as bad as it should have otherwise become. We have seen what unplanned and uncontrolled growth has done to a city like Bangalore and I am glad it did not happen to Chennai. Yes, prices are getting higher. But people with high salaries & consequently higher purchase power, don't really care for this. The night life is improving. Its still nowhere near to that of Mumbai or Delhi. But nevertheless, far better than what it used to be six years ago.

All said and done, the city is not such a bad place after all. It was horrible six years ago, but has evolved into a more tolerable place over the years. I guess I can manage here. Not for my whole life of course, as I am kind of tired of living in big cities. But for the moment, this city will do just fine. And when in due course of destiny I leave this city, in some small corner of my heart I would still be a Chennaite (sounds better than Madrasi, doesn't it?). Never mind that I still cant speak a word of Tamil and I am still not used to mixing my rice with Rasam.

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