A Tamil-Canadian Woman’s Experience in Chennai: Part 1

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It was hot and muggy. My sweat-infused churidar was plastered against my back as I waited for the 11H bus at a crowded bus stand across from the University of Madras. My sense of relief upon seeing the bus in the horizon was quickly waned by the onset of anxiety when I realized what I would endure – finding a way to squeeze myself through the hordes that had gathered now at the bus stand.

Miraculously, I was somehow swept up with the crowd and into the bus. Success! As the bus got on its way, I stood and bent to peer out the window, trying to distinguish between the streets and buildings and accustom myself with familiar sights. My efforts were to no avail. There was simply too much to take in. There were shops on top of shops and every building was brightly colored, creating a vibrant mosaic that just seemed to repeat itself over and over again. A visual cacophony of colours. I could not discern anything about these streets that would differentiate them from any other part of the city I had seen.

Chennai. Not only is this city still confusing to me after several weeks spent exploring and taking everything in, it also strikes me as a city that is rather confused about itself. I’ve come to see Chennai as a pre-teen adolescent, caught between stages of life and still unsure of who she is.

Chennai is in the midst of a very specific time in its history. Traditionalism is meeting modernity. Although the city is one of India’s biggest – a booming cultural and economic centre – it is still in the slow process of transitioning to a modern cosmopolitan city. And as I struggle to answer the most common question posed by friends and family in the time I’ve been here – whether Chennai is more or less modern than I had expected – I am faced with contradictory experiences that leave me utterly puzzled as to how to answer that question.

“Modern” is a highly subjective term so I will clarify some of the aspects I consider when I think about what it might mean here. Key factors include the influence of Westernization (positive and negative), women’s rights and access, perspectives towards romantic relationships and sexuality, and accepted social norms such as those in fashion. So this will not be a holistic analysis in any sense. Instead, it will consist of my observations with commentary that will relate to my preconceptions and misconceptions.

In some ways, Chennai is far more conservative than I had thought it would be. My preconceptions of Chennai had been skewed by its depiction in the many Tamil movies I have consumed over the years. But it soon became clear that these depictions of a modern, progressive Chennai only accounted for the small percentage of the upper-class experience, and its portrayal of the cleaner, tidied up streets of this massive city.

Yet I was later introduced to other experiences that made me backtrack on this initial impression and revealed just how modern this city can be. And in those moments, I quickly went from feeling stifled by the conservatism of Chennai to being completely awestruck by aspects of its unexpected modernity.

A factor that contributed to my initial impression was that I had not accounted for the challenges of a young girl travelling alone. I had been accustomed to being completely independent and self-reliant after living on my own while attending university in Toronto. Thus, it was difficult to reconcile that it is uncommon for girls of my age to travel alone in Chennai even today. Even in the middle of the day, they are almost exclusively in pairs or travelling in groups.

Other gender-based obstacles seemed as strong as ever. Despite those who had told me that I could walk out and about in Chennai in jeans and a t-shirt, the city’s fashion struck me as quite conservative. Over the course of a day, I would see only a handful of girls in jeans and a t-shirt and a few more in jeans with a kurta top. The rest are clad in traditional sarees and churidars. Thus, any woman who isn’t dressed in traditional wear attracts much unwanted attention, something not so desirable to a girl travelling alone. Admittedly, I’ve only felt comfortable in Chennai when I’m wearing a simple cotton churidar with my hair tied back – the very picture of traditional India.

Now allow me to return to the 11H route bus. There I was standing on the bus, exhausted after trying to adjust to all the differences in lifestyle, language and social norms here and feeling somewhat overwhelmed by Chennai’s conservatism in the two weeks I had been here.

This bus ride was part of my third attempt to buy an iPod. After all, what’s a trip to Chennai without a Tamil movie soundtrack playing in your ears? And thus came the daunting task of finding a shop that carried Apple products. After hours spent walking aimlessly around nameless streets trying to find two particular stores only to find them out of stock, I had resigned to one last attempt that would have me take the 11H bus to another store I found listed on Apple India’s website.

I asked the bus driver to inform me of when I was supposed to disembark. My thoughts were interrupted when he shouted at me from across the bus to get off. I scrambled out of the bus, stumbling down onto the street as it was already beginning to take off. Upon asking a few locals for directions, I finally found myself in front of what looked astonishingly like a mall – shiny, new and huge, and seemingly out of place in the middle of the random jumble of Chennai. I hesitantly went up to the doors, heaved them open and stepped into air-conditioned heaven.

I was speechless. It was like stepping into a portal back to the Western world. It was then that I realized that there was a lot more to Chennai that I hadn’t seen. And it suddenly clicked. This is where all the girls wearing jeans are! And I had a sneaking suspicion that girls here were guilty of the same transgressions of Tamil high school girls in Toronto – go to school and change out of the parental-approved outfit and into a new flashy one. Only in this case, it was happening in the girls’ room at the mall instead of at school. I started to think maybe things here were not all that different after all.

Walking in, the shock and awe continued. They not only had many of the retailers we have in Toronto, they even had the more upscale brands. Burberry. Lacoste. Guess. FCUK, Calvin Klein. Diesel. I stood there with my mouth agape looking around in wonder in my loosely fitted yellow cotton churidar and braided hair glistening with sweat.

Then it slowly dawned on me that that to all of these jeans and t-shirt clad shoppers walking past me slightly bemused, I must have looked like a village girl venturing into the city for the first time. And it was ironic that I – a girl from Canada – was suddenly the one feeling decidedly un-modern and un-Western in this new setting.

– Ramya Janandharan

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Related articles:
Chennai is a City but Madras is an Emotion
2 Weeks a Year: How a Trip to Sri Lanka Changed My Outlook on Life
A Tamil Woman’s Guide to Solo Travel

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10 thoughts on “A Tamil-Canadian Woman’s Experience in Chennai: Part 1

  1. I was in Madras/Chennai last month. Awful place. They’ve filled the town with American interstate-style flyovers and overpasses and other such feats of 20th century civil engineering. Unfortunately the majority of the vehicles using such constructs are bullock carts, “autos”, and bicycles.
    What’s worse are the water problems that everyone’s having now (goes from August to October I’m told) – not even the wealthy Brahmin households were immune from it. And hygiene is such a big concern for *everyone* – including the locals who live there. Certain restaurants to be avoided, etc. Advising people to stick to vegetarian when you eat out in case “something’s wrong with the meat”.
    On the other hand, Colombo, just an hour away by plane, has almost completed its imitation of Singapore. There are supermarkets and malls, Pizza Huts and HSBCs, on every corner. The household I was staying at was getting DSL installed the next week – 2 megabit downstream too, a whole 512kbits faster than me in Toronto!
    While in Madras the “Maruti” reined supreme despite most major global automakers marketing at least one car in India, in Colombo the Corolla is the vehicle of choice. Indeed, you could also find Volvos, Beemers, even a MINI Cooper (!). There were also some Nissan models you don’t find in North America – I suspect those are the ones marketed under the Infiniti label over here. I don’t know where all the wealth is coming from, but its certainly getting there.
    The difference between both towns, both of them large metros, was astounding to me. Statistically, however, it seems that Sri Lanka is just a poor Asian country known primarily for that oft-mentioned terrorist/separatist problem (the media reports make it sound worse than Nepal) while India seems like the place to be these days! Dost mine eyes decieveth me?

  2. It has everything do with it. As population increases, basic social, infrastructure, economic, and “modernization” problems become exponentially harder to solve. There’s a reason why Singapore is Singapore, and China is China.

  3. And both china and singapore are tightly controlled autocracies. Just try getting rid of footpath merchants in Chennai and see what happens.

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