Monday, December 17, 2012

Chennai Quirks

It has been 2 years since I started living in Chennai. I speak Tamil (my native tongue) but have never really lived in the city. Several 'adjustments' had to be made... here are some reflections on some of the peculiarities of this city I've been calling home now.

Domestic Staff: I start with this as the help here behave so differently from any of the other cities I've lived in, and I've lived in a few - B'lore, Kolkata, Bombay. The labor class here is pampered by the Govt (Madam or Sir doesn't matter) with freebies like TV, cellphone, laptops and what-have-you. Also thanks to Sun TV and all other channels having significant penetration, the living standards are significantly better than comparable segments in most other cities. Free education coupled with mushrooming colleges all over the state has resulted in the younger generation becoming educated, and pursuing other lines of employment. What's more, the export processing industry in Chennai has resulted in even the uneducated younger generation opting to sew buttons or iron T-shirts the whole day, at really low pays (compared to domestic staff salaries) for the 'prestige' of working for a private 'company' rather than in a house.
Net result = settling for incompetent work, bad professional behavior and high salaries. I guess we have to go through this before a certain modicum of professionalism sets in. I've had reasonably good staff partly due to luck and partly due to 'accepting' the really low standards!

Color me Pink: Please don't get offended, but the fashion sense on the road has to be seen to be believed. Irrespective of skin tone or height or girth or weather, the colors are mind-boggling and sometimes a strain on the eye. Candy pink (mithai pink as it is called here), magenta, neon yellow, fluorescent green, bright violet, leaf green and shiny red are standard fare here :) You gotto give it to the man-on-the-street if he steps out for work in a pink shirt and yellow trousers. Rocking... gangnam style!

Movie mania: Vijay is an actor whose  movies get a super-big opening, also Ajith, and Suriya, and Kamal and Rajini of course... you get the drift. Almost all movies open big, with fanfare, big audio launches, huge garlands and billboards for the opening Friday. I hope Rajini's next releases before I leave the city. I remember watching 'Padaiyappa' on the premiere night before release and my mom almost being mobbed for suggesting that the 125 litres of milk poured on the billboard be donated to an orphanage instead! Living opposite AVM studios gives me a peek of the fan-mania quite often!

Auto'ban': If there is anyone I despise (judgmentally) from the bottom of my heart, its the average Chennai auto driver. No, I don't give them a chance. I yell and begin cursing before they do. Try my best to avoid the auto as much as I can, but if I HAVE to hire one, I cringe and mentally retreat even before they start talking. All the horror stories about Chennai autos are true. Don't use one if you can help it. Fastrack cabs are much better.

Parenting styles: Disclaimer - Observations on parenting are based solely on my interactions with Button's classmates' parents and my neighbours. In general, there is high emphasis in Chennai on learning the native language and on independence. In Bombay, the kids of Button's age I knew could converse in English from the age of 2, knew random facts about many things, were already brand conscious, could distinguish Lifestyle from Shopper's Stop et al. Kids in Chennai on the other hand, are significantly more independent from a younger age - can eat, drink, clean up from the age of 2 upwards and speak fluently in their native tongue. Most watch age inappropriate Tamil movies, and are street smart, much more than the kids I know in Bombay. Also, the parents are heavily into promoting academics. It will be interesting to see how these differences pan out in the coming years.

Eating fads: Its amusing to see how the TV channels promote one eating fad after another - first it was vallaarai juice (a bitter green vile tasting juice) to promote blood circulation, then hibiscus flower juice for improving your heart, then coconut flower for improved digestion! Best place to check out these health fads? In the neighborhood park at 6.30 a.m. post morning walk.

Liquor shops: All liquor shops are TASMAC shops, Govt. controlled. You can only see lungi clad men queuing up evening after evening, with nary a woman at any shop. The ubiquitous 'Chettinad Chicken' and 'Thalappukattu Biriyani' shops can be seen in the vicinity. When Button was being taught the difference between diurnal and nocturnal, he said "Amma, the shop with the kingfisher painted on it at the corner is nocturnal, it only opens in the night. And it is only for uncles. Aunties cannot go there" :) How I crave for a decent Bacardi breezer or wine here. Sigh!

Other general observations include the high-beam lights within the city as if streetlights are invisible, buses that has so many people hanging on the footboards that the entire bus is tilted sideways, a general tendency to mix so many English words in Tamil that the language itself has changed beyond redemption (Ex. Naa veetukku VAAPAS porache ACCIDENT paarthaen. or BORE intha TV CHANNEL. Ellame TIMEPASS SERIALS thaan.  or SORRY MADAM MISTAKE aayi pochu.CELLPHONE NUMBER WRONGs DIAL pannitaen). Gold fetish, mall crawls and general
higher-than-average medical knowledge are some of the other visible differences.

All in all, a quixotic mix, a lovely city albeit a little loud and retaining its quintessential 'tamness' despite becoming significantly more cosmopolitan. Do I like it? Nodding my head 'aamaam' 'Yes I say'!


  1. Its hard getting used to all the quirks of a new place but they also come with so many beautiful moments of self discovery when ur put in that situation

  2. I don't live in Chennai but I'm a frequent visitor and have noted the same quirks with respect to domestic staff, dress sense and movie mania..also observed about the general language of kids and adults..most heavily influenced by the movie language :-0
    Good that you like living there.

  3. Much of this applies to Hyderabad too - especially the crazy focus on academics.

  4. LOL loved the descriptions!!! Autos I have faced in Chennai, used cabs ever since.... :)

  5. BTW off the topic... how is "The Casual Vacancy" Curious!!

  6. So much this seems new to me...its been a long time since I lived in chennai i guess...nigh on 10 years now! If we are talking about dress sense, the dhinchak dress sense in delhi-NCR has to be seen to be believed :)