Almost everyone who has grown up in Chennai (formerly Madras) has, at some point in their lives, written or shared That Mandatory Sentimental Post About Chennai, and since it’s not often that I turn into a mushy ball of warm, fuzzy feelings, I’d better make use of this short window to do the same.
The annual rains in Chennai are rife with fond childhood memories of throwing on raincoats and splashing in puddles, of being glued to the local evening news, praying for announcements of ‘rain holidays’ on exam days, of waking up from afternoon naps to the aroma of hot bajjis and other deep-fried goodies wafting from the kitchen, of bringing the blankets out of storage and of watching as people, unable to handle the ‘freezing’ 27 degree temperature (stop laughing, Rest of the World!), walked around wearing bulky sweaters, camouflage-print ear muffs (?!) and ‘monkey caps’ (Okay, you may laugh now). The rains serve as a respite from the scorching, sultry temperatures of the rest of the year, and as inspiration to the amateur poet, the obsessed Instagrammer and the whimsical daydreamer.
The past month, Chennai, and other parts of Tamil Nadu, were ravaged by angry, incessant rains, finally reaching record levels and culminating in severe floods in the city. The pleasant, romantic connotations of the Chennai rains dissipated as the harsh reality struck- people were drowning, families were stranded without food and water, social media was filled with photos and frantic posts about missing people, pregnant women with no access to medical care went into labour, terrified pets were left behind in the hurried evacuations, and to add to the panic, phone lines were down. Chennaiites living away from home, watched heavyhearted as the city seemed to be destroyed; feeling fear, sorrow, and incomprehensible guilt for just being so far away, safe and dry.
The citizens’ response to the disaster could warm the heart of the meanest, most judgmental, cynic. (To the other mean, judgmental cynics out there wondering what ‘heart-warming’ means, no, it’s not like that constricted feeling in your chest due to gas). Social media, man. It’s really as powerful as the kids believe. It’s impossible to deny the role social media played in seeking and offering help, uniting people, harnessing relief efforts, and generally, bringing out the best in people during the time of crisis. What started out with a few posts by a couple of people turned into a movement, with everyone trying to outdo each other in their efforts. The energy levels haven’t died down, with relief work still being actively carried out by tireless volunteers.
Of the viral social media posts and news blurbs that popped up against the backdrop of relief work in the city, some of the most popular were photos of people of different religious faiths helping each other without paying any heed to their ‘differences’. I couldn’t help but be amused by how joyous and vaguely incredulous people sounded while sharing such ‘never-before-seen’ images of a group of humans of diverse religious backgrounds just being.. human.
That’s the thing about Chennai. While the thought of Muslim men casually striding into Hindu temples to help with relief work comes across as an anomaly, a completely mind-boggling scenario to others, religious harmony and unity is pretty much an every day thing to Chennaiites. I think of the times my mother cooked vegetarian Eid biryani (another anomaly) for our neighbours based on their religious dietary preferences, because the thought of leaving them out of the celebrations never crossed her mind, or more recently, the time my father and Random Brahmin Uncle on the train were so outraged by the terrible food quality, that they unitedly yelled at the IRCTC representative, with the Brahmin Uncle being more concerned about my Dad’s strangely-hued chicken curry than his sour thayir sadam. (I realize both my examples of religious harmony revolve around food, so maybe we just stumbled upon the formula for world peace?) The mutual respect Chennaiites have for each others’ religions is something special- as seen in the time my Hindu Physics teacher accused me of lying about my homework and then reprimanded me by saying, “You’re Muslim- you’re supposed to be honest!” (didn’t know this was a thing) or when parents strive to enroll their kids in the nearest school run by Christians because “they do it best”. These random incidents were never something remarkable, never something to be recalled with special emphasis on people’s religions. They only come to mind while watching other parts of the country/world being torn apart by hatred, accompanied by a need to chime in,”Er, guys? You do realize it doesn’t have to be that away? Look over here!”
Chennai pride- it’s not something that can be scaled down to mandatory, ‘nationalistic’ (what is the city equivalent of a nationalist?) pride. It’s legitimate. It’s warranted. It took leaving the country for me to realize it. When you’re bombarded with depressing news from across your homeland, of brutal crimes against women, of systemic, unapologetic attacks on minorities, of politicians spewing hatred and polarizing people, and of the rabid masses lapping it all up and going on murderous rampages, being a Chennaiite gives you the confidence to sadly shake your head, and with a trace of arrogance, declare, “Well, that wouldn’t happen in my city”. Okay, maybe that is way more than a ‘trace’ of arrogance- it looks like my snark-free window is closing.
(If you’d like to donate towards relief efforts in Chennai, go here)