The two suitcases, that my grandmom had helped me pack, were old and worthy of the uneasiness with which I carried them. I landed at Room 206 at E-Block, Heber Hall, Madras Christian College, with these and a shopping bag full of odd things. I had a past to forget and a future in journalism to look forward to.
My hallmates were a combination of the rustic and the sophisticated, with me sandwiched somewhere in between. I had visited Chennai a couple of times before, but this time it was for good. MCC is a sanctuary for odd people and I fancied that I was odd and found out during the first week that I would indeed survive.
I saw a bit of Chennai that year. At first I was wide-eyed, gaping at the big building and the wide roads. The eataries, the coffee shops, the girls, the multiplexes - those first few weeks were passed in feverish delirium.
My room at my college was my own sanctuary, where I endlessly read, having nothing else to do. I was quite shy of my classmates and in the first few weeks, my only real friend was a guy who constantly talked of death and depression. We later named him Dr. Death. He just loved depression, and loved to be depressed. I told him so. For once, he laughed uproariously.
These were the days before the mryiad flyovers that have sprung up across the city to accommodate its booming traffic. During those days, the IT revolution was just a promise, a bubble which everyone said was to burst soon. And, well, it did.
For me coming from a small town down south in Tamil Nadu, Chennai was both intimidating and exciting. Satyam Theatre even then - before Sree, Studio 5 and Six Degrees were built - was a multiplex of my dreams. I was in love with Tambaram station - on a busy weekday the crowd that gathered there was probably more than the entire population of my hometown. The efficiency of the suburban trains was a marvel.
The dirty slums, haphazardly built houses, the electric posts, the railway bridges, which were constantly being repaired - the sights that I caught as I took the train to Saidapet or Nungambakkam were strangely fascinating.
My college itself was endlessly fascinating as well. Guys and girls sat on the gutters of the college all day chatting. Some of them were smootching, as I watched with a mixture of shock and obvious envy. The roads within the college, which were thickly surrounded by trees, were pleasant to walk on. On most days, my friends and I would sit for the morning classes - at the most an hour or two - and then hit the canteen or our rooms. Charminar was the brand that MCC smoked. At Rs 3 a packet, it came cheap and towards the end of the month, everyone would give up their more expensive cigarettes to smoke this marvel. If you smoked more than three a day, you are bound to get some special respect from your friends for your amazing lung power. But the girls would shun you, if they already weren't doing that. I took me six months just to learn the language of the college. A girl was hot, a movie was cool, a man was a dude, a slightly goodlooking woman was a babe, a bad looking one was a female. The jargon I had to learn was tough.
I never had thought that the word 'cool' could be used in so many ways. Back home, nobody used it. Not even in the books that I had read. True, some movie characters did say cool, but I never had thought about the sheer versitality of the word. Only the F word, I think, comes close. There was a lot of ins and outs to learn as well. Porn was in, PJs were in, good clothes were out, cutting your hair was out, facial hair was in... this list too was endless. Well, I am surprised that I survived.
I spent hours at used book stores. Some of these were on the pavement. One of the best ones was in Mylapore. A guy with a larger than usual shop, somewhere near Luz, took me to his home to show me his private collection. Hemingway and Kafka were household names at his place. I visited his place twice, but I never had enough money to buy out his collection. Today though, the book fair has made the my affair with book shops less interesting.
Chennai architecture, I think, despite the columns Mr. Muthaih writes for The Hindu, is grossly underestimated. Just have a look at the buildings along Beach Road. They are poorly maintained, no doubt, but that is a part of the charm.
Marina in the mornings is a mayhem of activity. I dislike crowds, but at the beach, I can stand for hours observing the morning exercises and rituals of the people. Particularly, the old. It is so good to see an old man walk. May be it's because this is an indication of his untiring enthusiasm for life.
One of my favourite haunts back then was the Theosophical Society. Apart from the marvelous campus, the building is home to a great library of spiritual books. I quickly discovered that Saravana Bhavan was famous for Idlis just like Ranganathan Street for shopping or Burma Bazaar for cds or Richie street for all things electronic.
The Max Mueller Bhavan on Khader Nawaz Khan Road was also a big hit with me. So much so, I signed up for a German course. Well, I was also hoping that I would meet someone interesting there. Though I never did, one of my German teachers was, indeed, in MCC parlance and otherwise, a babe. And she taught well too. But I don't remember any German now, except Guten Tag. May be I was a bit too distracted.
Chennai, I am afraid, is deeply conservative. The lack of night life, by which I don't just refer to the discos and bars, is appalling. The older crowd always seems to faintly chastising the younger, more on-the-move crowd.
There are more negative points. You can never find your way around the city, if you are new to it. Five people would give you 10 different directions. Sometimes, they are rude too. Traffic is a bitch, particularly on Mount Road, 100-feet Road and Pondy Bazaar. The city also hosts a nightmarish number of signals, none of which anybody can be trusted to follow. But despite all this, and the humid summer that is just arriving, I am a willing victim to the charms of the city, quite seduced by its sounds and smells.