Chennai is a place I love to hate, but Chennai is also the place that showed me what friendship could mean, what looking out for someone was all about.
It was on a rainy day that I arrived in Chennai with bag, baggage and a smoking bike to join a job there. I got the first sense of the city when I had to haggle with the porters to get my bike safely out of the railway station. Finally after much bargaining and telling that I was only a student I managed to get out with my bike and called up my friend, Manoj who was in the habit of being busy when his help was required. Anyway knowing him well I took directions and with some help from passersby on the streets I reached his office and he took me to the villa that later became my home for almost a year and its inhabitants who were waging a cold war at the time of my arrival became friends whom I would cherish for my life.
The entry was not without hiccups, my friend took me in and I settled down in his room which was shared by another guy, Koshi a colleague of his. There were 2 other people in the next room who didn’t take kindly to this and a war broke out with our landlady being summoned and asked to decide. She fell for my innocent demeanors and passed a verdict in my favour and I officially became their roomie. Later my adversary and myself shared a drink in the evening and buried our bone of discontent. My friends who came back late that night were amused at the transformation and the ceasing of hostilities. I was quite inebriated by the time and pulled their collective legs so much so that they saw the point I was making and that evening saw the end of hostilities and the beginnings of a period of collective fun and camaraderie.
Chennai I found a rather hot, humid and dry place with not much room for amusement. But the presence of these guys made all the difference. Our little trips to buy fish in Marina beach where all of us would jump into the car, troop out in single file along the market with Dennis taking the lead, as he was the biggest fish enthusiast in our midst and claimed to know fresh fish from the long dead ones, provided some funny moments. Since none of us were experts in this fishy business he got his way. The real job began when we brought it home. Division of labour would start, someone had to wash the sliced pieces, another person had to marinate it and the third one had to fry it. It was inevitably during these times that long duration phone calls used to come for one of the chaps who would skip the task and others would be left irritated at this smart ploy.
Apart from these moments of amusement, Chennai was a very expensive and not so fun place to be in. The occasional trips from office to 10D ( an acronym for 10 Downing, without the British Prime minister) provided the bouts of alcoholic bliss. Most of the bars and restaurants served spurious stuff as did the TASMAC (the govt. owned beverages corporation). Koshy, in his liking for beer would buy stuff with queer names like Jawan, Johny and god knows what else. It was during a small party with his friends at Hotel Manhattan that I decided to give up drinking. The contessa rum that we ordered reeked off a smell so similar to hospital corridors that I immediately decided Chennai was not your average alcoholic dream destination. If you wanted to have something decent it often meant shelling out half a months pay at places like 10D. When I decided to give the city’s culinary delights a visit, I caught typhoid and ended up flying to Trivandrum (koshy and Manoj taking all the responsibility till the airport) and getting admitted in the hospital for a few weeks. Later on I stuck to going out once in a while to the expensive restaurants which were cheaper in the long run as they did not dish out typhoid or hepatitis.
Our trips out on weekends often ended up for lunch in Kumarakom owned by some achayans or to a kerala syrian christian restaurant serving one of the best fish curries I have eaten anywhere. The fish used in the curry was often sear fish which made it all the more delightful.
All together, Chennai was hot, humid, a place to catch typhoid, some good but expensive restaurants and a villa which was ancient but commanding modern rents. Whether I like the place? Hard to say. Whether I liked my company? A definite yes.