Friday, May 15, 2009

Choolemedhu to Harrington - 15 Minutes

Step by Step

One of the busiest intersections in town (according to me) lies at the four-way crossing near my apartment. During the busiest times of day, the streets are packed full, not unlike a Saravana Bhavan at lunch hour. There is absolutely no room to walk alongside the road, and this isn't an exaggeration. I hop, skip, and jump around moving vehicles that nudge me from behind. I tuck my toes further inside my sandals so as to avoid the speed and crush of the oncoming Enfield motorcycle. I scowl at the man in the car who speeds closer to me just as I'm about to cross the alleyway- would it really kill him to let me pass first? The scowl does me no good, though, as the fond memories of pedestrian right of ways have long since past. Guess I took this New Hampshire courtesy for granted.
The walk signal flashes green at the intersection and I become one with the sari stampede. Myself, and a couple dozen other people cross the road in mass. A brief pilgrimage to the other side. As I near the bridge my senses are awakened. The speakers outside the tea stall are blaring indecipherable propaganda from the latest elections- I can barely hear myself think. Nearing the bridge, an irresistible urge sweeps over me to pause and look around. Despite the oppressive heat and terrible smells from the river below, I can't help but stop to familiarize myself with my new surroundings. From a distance I gaze upon rows of scattered, dilapidated homes- rusty in their condition but still adorned with fresh, pastel paints. One thing I love about this city is the colors- bright turquoises, pinks, yellows and greens. Each hut along the riverbank varies slightly in size and texture. Some have been constructed of brick, others of slabs of mud. Nearly all of them have in common a palm leaf-thatched roof. From where I stand on the bridge, they look like the hats worn by farmers in the sawah, or Indonesian rice fields. Pointed and triangular, they shield the farmer's face from sun, wind, and rain. I suppose these thatched roofs serve a similar purpose.
I regain my steps and continue to cross the bridge, careful not to breathe through my nose. It's no secret what goes into the river here. The embankment is the city's disposal, littered with everything you can think of- plastic bottles, dirty rags, used coffee cups. I spot at least a couple people relieving themselves into the river. The convenience of the river body has replaced any need for Jonny-On-the-Spots. After crossing the bridge, I’m met face to face with Chennai’s slums. Tiny shacks that sit directly between the main road and the river. Entire families can be found outside. Naked children chase each other around the street, the clink-clank of their ankle jewelry echoing behind their footsteps. A half dozen women sit hunched in the shadows of the one remaining tree on the street, desperate to feel cool in the shade. They scrub and pump away, doing all of their laundry by hand in this manner. When their buckets run dry they walk to the corner, where a queue of people has already lined up to pump their own bucket’s worth of water from the well. The air feels humid and my skin sticky.
The median in the middle of the road serves an additional function than that which I’m used to: a community drying rack. Children’s clothes, salwar kameez’ and men’s jeans sprawl across the railing, each piece greedy for the sun’s attention. The area is alive with color and sound and I wonder if this neighborhood is as intrigued by me as I am of it.
A few older women sit on old, plastic chairs alongside the road, staring calmly out into the traffic. Perhaps it is in spite of the pollution in the area that these women stand out like prized statues… beautifully adorned in gold, sequined saris- their hair pinned in tight, gray knots. I take a deep breath and tell myself not to forget these beautiful moments. Further along, a group of men huddle together outside the juice stall, sneaking away time for mid-day chatter and refreshing sweet-lime juice. My mouth starts to water. There’s nothing as tasty as mosambi juice in the middle of a hot, summer day. I’d stop for one but I already feel out of place walking through this neighborhood. I’d rather not stumble into this pack of equally thirsty, Tamil males.
I near the end of the road and find the stairs. As I walk down the stairs, I hear the screeching of the train on the tracks above me. I think to myself that I should take the train more often. It’s quick, affordable, and would be a less muggy way to travel around the city than my default transport: the auto- rickshaw. Immediately after I surface I recognize the drastic change in my surroundings. Gone are the slumdwellers and the stench of polluted river water. Gone are the naked and barefoot children playing in the streets. I look around and am now boxed in with skyscraper like buildings, popping out to my left and right. The apartment buildings could be high-rises in any major city… freshly white-washed with each individual balcony showing off a range of hanging flower baskets and potted plants.
I walk a few more paces down the road and turn right at the gates of my friend’s apartment building. The security guards, dressed in finely-pressed grey suits, look at me and nod. I’ve been approved. Out with the old and in with the new. This building has automatic elevators that greet me in English when I step inside. It’s a part of town with security guards. Protective measures to ensure that this is a gated community. No more airing of dirty laundry or shared public space.
I slip into the elevator and while staring at myself in the mirror, feel a sense of relief and unease. Will I ever really understand this place?

Friday, May 8, 2009