Saturday, November 21, 2009

So near..yet,so far...No More - Part 1!

The Amazing Race.. Chennai Sambar'ed edition... 5 modes of transport... 5 different places... 2 'Phone a friend(s)' on call ...all in 6 hours of sweltering heat! phew! Am proud of the Incredible India(n)! :))

I returned to my friend's place that night and wrote that sentence down,as my Facebook status message.It was my FIRST tryst with..Chennai,the supposed capital of the 'Oh-So-Conservative' South to which I (though I'm French!! mwaahaaa).All life I had lived rather close to it,2 hours South of it, and yet, I had never 'seen' Chennai.I guess I could blame it on the absence of the usual suspects,lack of relatives,while almost everyone I knew seemed to have. I had made fleeting appearances in the city,for purely 'transportation' purposes(think airport,railway station).I used to have one,yes, one relative there..and those visits had dwindled down too.I hadn't 'experienced' the heart of Chennai,public transport.It was to change this time, by a rather weird twist of events(aka Murphy-ed).

Over the next four days, I shuttled between a corner of the city where I stayed,a hospital in the city and a total Tam-Bram neighborhood home at the South end of the city. It was supposed to be cooler in September, but since Murphy was there, it was so comfortable there that even locals complained about the heat. I set out each day,armed with a backpack with essential supplies, energy bars, my metal water-bottle, a towel and yep
.. a deodorant! :)

The big city experience was new to me and after having negotiated only a small part of Delhi,most of Gurgaon and my favorite Bengaluru, I was looking forward to this experience. The days were going to spent shuttling between the hospital and the home but I would never know when I had to be, and where! So the non-peak times were planned to be spent shopping.And public transport would be the way to go. The evenings were to be used to explore the hep side of Chennai before heading to my friend's place to crash for the night.

Chennai's autos are known for being hostile to newcomers as I found out a few years back. But this time was different. I had my sources, my friends on the phone.So one call and a few questions to the people around, I'd figure out the bus/share auto combination I'd need to get from say, the Chennai Trade Centre to Spencers. And since I was always ridiculous at bargaining, I'd start at a real low level, only to be pushed higher, thanks to my only piece of sophistication, my backpack. Anytime an autowallah sees you, he immediately tries to profile you, based on the way you look. And since Diesel tees and Nike shoes are a commonality, at least as their afterlife forms, Deisel and Nika,he looks for minor details.. and that's where a backpack that looks new and has a gazziliion straps comes in handy(or kills you). A 40 buck trip jumps to 100 immediately as he waits for the sophisticated doode to fall for auto, as a shelter from the heat.I was lucky to fall for that trick only once in the entire 4 days.

The auto,share-auto travel also had me witness to some interesting characters.Autowallahs can be sly, or talkative. I was lucky not to find the sly ones, but I guess I attracted the talkat
ive ones(no surprise there)! The second day, I was in a share-auto when the driver picked up one of his relatives for the trip too. The lady and the driver laid threadbare the entire family's politics.At one point, they talked about this particular gentleman, their cousin, who they seemed to mutually hate for the same reason,no reason.He had sent them the invitation to his wedding.. a day before his wedding. They cribbed on how snubbed they felt..while I was itching to jump into the conversation and shout.. 'That is called an Uninvite'!!! :D Jerry Seinfeld would have been a hero in semi-urban India!

But the 'mother-of-all' talka
tive autowallahs was to make an appearance later that day. I was to head to City Centre, a mall, to meet a friend and was running late. I did the mandatory calls.. this time to a cousin, who was familiar with that route.A call to her led to a call to her friend and 5 minutes later I had the estimate, 50 bucks.I stopped the first auto.. the driver looked at me and with a straight face went,150 saar. I unleashed my evil grin on him and asked him to get going with his busy schedule.The next auto pulled over in quick time and quoted 80.. I went for 60.The driver, an old man, laughed and went 'Thambi,Thatha maathri nenachuko pa.. 65'(Son, think of me as your grandaddy,lets make it 65!!). 'Sothhula pangu kudupiya, thatha?' (So, do I get a share of your property,grandaddy?) I quipped.. as both of us laughed and I decided to give in to the sentimental attack . A few minutes into the drive, I asked a question that started it all. 'Hows the day going?'.It was almost as though he was waiting for the question. For the nest 45 minutes it took, I got a glimpse of his entire life.. his Taxi driver days, when he even drove for Late Andhra CM,YSR.. his 30 day hazardous material truck trips from Chennai to Hyderabad... the places he had visited and yes.. his Hindi skills.

Auto drivers in Chennai are the last people you'd expect in Chennai to speak Hindi(Indhi, as they pronounce it), the language that is sooo much more than just a language, thanks to the politics associated.But here he was, our man.. reeling off 'Aap aaj kaise hain?' in typical South Indian accent but fluently nonetheless. It came in handy when bargaining with the North Indians in Chennai, he said.He went on and stated that he was a die-hard Amitabh fan.. having watched a lot of his movies(every one of those in which he was called Vijay!!!).But the killer punch was when he started reeling dialogues from Deewar..Zanjeer.. (freak, i didn't remember them) and yes.. Sholay. The next 3-5 minutes were devoted to Sholay,the dialogues, an introspection of where Gabbar went wrong and .. 'Ye haath mujhe de de Thakur'...'Tere liye pair hi kaafi hain' .He was not only getting the most famous ones right, he was into the Tier-2 dialogues now(was that even a dialogue, I wondered)! :)

I was at the edge of my seat, laughing my ass off. The next half hour went in discussing the reason for his fall to the auto-world.. family issues and some lessons for my life!I listened with attention, even though the man was slurring so much he wouldn't get any points in JAM. ;) We later discussed the auto economics.. his take on the meltdown...and on being asked, some advice from me.The ride finally came to an end, and I walked away,wishing him all the fun at his youngest daughter's wedding in two months, with a smile, and having paid him 70 bucks! A ride to remember! :)

Discussions in Chennai always lead to either politics, public policy or... movies. But over the last few years, with the industries setting up shop,Chennaities are finding a new topic of conversation. As I hung out of the elctric trains, Chennai's metro, train trying to catch
a whiff of fresh evening air,available in limited supply a conversation between two elderly men sitting in the first row caught my attention. It was not Karunanidi vs Jaya,not Rajni vs Kamal or IT vs Manufacturing... it was on Chennai's new brothers-at-arms.. Ford and Hyundai. Both were one of the first to set up facilities in Chennai's and somehow you always see as many Hyundais as Suzukis in Delhi. Ford was the rising star. Hyundai's small cars are better but their big cars were good but weren't marketed well, one of them said. The other disagreed, supporting the Ford range.Ah! This was turning into the Detroit of the South and a battle reminiscent of the GM vs 'Iacocca' Chrysler battle during the 80s was brewing.I have never lived in Chennai,I'm a rank out-of-towner.. but from what I've heard around, it does look like Chennai has found a new love.. Coffee,Carantic music and now.. Cars! :) A cup of strong filter Coffee, with Kadri Gopalnath setting the tone to a Hyundai/Ford hot hatch redline drive wouldn't be too bad either!

(to be contd.)