Monday, December 17, 2018

My Chennai in December

The temperature in Chennai is in the mid twenties, slightly cooler at night and life is idyllic. I wake up to the early morning alarm then set off on my cousin’s two wheeler to the Sivananda Yoga Centre near the Kottivakkam beach. The session starts with a prayer, which is accompanied by the swish of trees from the ocean winds and the chirping of birds. We practise with all the windows open, the green of the trees and the early morning sun a soothing balm for the eyes. The session lasts an hour and a half. The ride back is partly along the ocean shore. We then stop for a tender coconut. Sweet and delicate tasting with liquid that squirts as the vendor chops it’s head off, we get our fill. There is no room left in our bellies for the tender kernel that she scoops out for us after splitting the now empty nut in two. At home a few minutes later, I have filter coffee with my mom and chop vegetables for her to prepare the morning meal. We chat about everything. Then I putter around, give bread crumbs to the crows by her kitchen window, and de-clutter over my mom’s protests. Then a nice shower. We sit down to our morning brunch, this time offering the crows some rice, lentils and ghee before we begin our meal, and leftover rice and yogurt after. Our simple meal consists of rice, vegetable dishes variously stir fried delicately with spices or cooked in coconut sauce with green chillies. We finish the meal with home made yoghurt.

There is a timeless quality about life in Besant Nagar, my mother’s hood. It has the beach within a 5 minute radius by walk. The ocean sand surrounds us and yet the land is fertile and grows coconut palms, papaya, gooseberry, mango, neem, curry leaf and mango trees. Closeby the verdant Theosophical Society compound with huge and ancient banyan trees further adds to this neighbourhood’s allure. There are few mosquitos and critters, the air feels fresh and clean and but for redevelopment of some apartments to slightly higher rises(from three to four floors), it remains quite pristine. Of course, there have been changes. Street vegetable vendors still roll their carts going door to door, though some have been replaced by air conditioned shops; and humble eating places have been replaced by several restaurants of all cuisines. These have jazzed up Besant Nagar’s veneer to make it a “go to” destination. And yet, if you have a rent free place to stay, it is affordable and unspoilt. I can still get clothes altered by the tailor who sits under a tree in front of my mother’s flat and ironed by someone with a cart under yet another tree. As I help amma declutter, I gather all the paper to take to the nearby paper mart from where it goes out to the mill to be pounded to pulp and recycled. The voice of the crier calling out for used paper and goods, is now muted, but not much else has changed. I can still get money in exchange for used paper, Rs.3 per kilo, which I now donate right back.

Besant Nagar is in a city rich with a thriving culture of ancient art forms, Carnatic music and Bharatnatysm dance, to name just 2. Carrying on an age old tradition, Chennai is host to over 3000 classical concerts and other cultural events during the “December” music season that now starts in November and goes well into January. This world is a far cry from the back offices of the world’s largest technology companies to which Chennai is home. I have contacts in this parallel universe as well whom I sometimes meet for business purposes.

Every evening in December, Chennai lights up with concerts of talented musicians and other performing artists. The newspapers devote large sections to concert reviews and several TV stations play excerpts. All talk among the public is about who is going to which concert and who sang or performed what?! Everyone goes dressed in understated finery and has their meals at the canteens located within the concert premises, reviewing the food as they share highlights of their “music season” experiences with each other. It is a charmed life if you have a love for diverse classical art forms!

December is considered the holiest of months in the Hindu calendar. In this holy month of Marghazhi, little children having bathed and dressed in their finest, gather in hordes and walk in raucous excitement, pre-dawn, to the various temples in Besant Nagar where they sing Thiruppavai, attributed to goddess Aandal, in praise of her consort Perumal. The children and other devotees are suitably rewarded with hot pongal as Prasad (offering made to Gods then distributed to devotees), which they eat for breakfast before heading home to start their school day. Yesterday, at the Sivananda Yoga Centre there were prayers to invoke Ganesha to mark the first day of Marghazhi and we were offered tasty pongal after our yoga session.

This December, as an added bonus, I have attended weddings and bonded with family.

It is 4:30 pm, and a gentle ocean breeze has now set in. I have had a delicious cup of coffee and will dress, wear a string of jasmine flowers in my hair and set out continuing my enjoyment of Chennai in December.

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