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Chennai Changing?

June 30, 2009

At this point I’m writing the second section of my novel. In this section my main character, Ambika, lives with her boyfriend in a low-income neighborhood in Chennai. On Sunday afternoon I travelled to Chennai to gather impressions of living conditions in such a neighborhood. I’ve occasionally visited one particular neighborhood near Egmore railway station over the past 5 months, but I’ve never seen the neighborhood at any time other than mid-day. So on Sunday I spent the night in a lodge near the neighborhood, giving me an opportunity to observe the neighborhood and its residents in the evening and in the early morning.

I arrived in Egmore at around 8:30 p.m. and found many lodges already full. Finally, I found a single room in the Bachelor Mansion on Kennet Lane. The word mansion might lead visitors to expect some degree of luxury or extravagance, but the rate of $6 per night quickly calibrated my expectations for what was in store. The room was simple and reasonably clean, but in no respect did it resemble a mansion.

Key to the mansion

Key to the mansion

In the first lodge I checked, notices were posted around the lobby and above the reception desk warning customers that washing laundry in the rooms was strictly prohibited and punishable with a Rs. 100 fine. So, upon occupying my room at Bachelor Mansion, I immediately read the house rules, posted on the inside of my door, to find out if I could wash my boxer shorts without violating the rules. Happily, I learned that washing my clothes wasn’t forbidden. Even better, the rules informed me that, “Flood not supplied at your room.” I have to say that I slept well that night after being assured in writing that the room wouldn’t be flooded. However, I was disappointed that room service at Bachelor Mansion didn’t deliver food to the room.

Flood assurance

Flood assurance

I didn’t know it at the time, but I arrived in Chennai on the night of the city’s first gay pride parade. I learned this on Monday when The New Indian Express reported the parade on the newspaper’s front page. Later, friends informed me that there also had been a parade in Bangalore. Across India, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are appealing to the government to rescind an anti-sodomy statute that effectively criminalizes homosexuality. This is just one of many changes underway in India.

Another indication of changing times, tastes and tolerances was a large sign in front of Alsa Mall, advertising Iris, a lingerie boutique located inside the mall. Ten years ago, I doubt that such an ad would have escaped the censor’s black brush for very long in Chennai.

Tempting fate

Tempting fate

Unfortunately, some things aren’t changing very quickly in India. While walking the streets of Chennai, I encountered many homeless people. The plight of the poor became clearer as I stood for a few hours watching the residents of my chosen neighborhood start their day. Families of six or eight people live in single-room homes and shacks that are approximately half as large as one of the closets in the master bedroom of my sister’s house in Connecticut.  With such small homes, life happens largely outdoors. The local residents defecate openly on the sidewalks and streets, only a short distance from where they cook food and wash clothes.

A 45 year old widow, a mother of six children, told me that life was much easier in the village where she lived before moving to Chennai. In Chennai, she said, one always needs a lot of money.

Families sleeping on the sidewalk in Egmore

Families sleeping on the sidewalk in Egmore

Observing life in Chennai reminded me of one of the paradoxes that characterize India: despite considerable, surprising and encouraging changes, India remains in many disturbing respects unchanged.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Arun permalink
    June 30, 2009 1:09 pm

    Somethings change but somethings dont!!! I cannot understand the psyche of people who want to struggle it out in the city when they can lead a better life in the villages ( believe me most village esp in TN have most facilities and the main problem is not unemployment but lack of manpower).
    Pity people sleeping on the sidewalk of a church!!!

    • Brooks permalink*
      July 1, 2009 4:22 am

      Hi Arun,

      Thanks for visiting the site and taking time to comment.

      Rather than wondering why people migrate from villages to cities, you could ask them why they’ve moved. It’s not hard to find such people. This might help you to better understand their motivations, expectations and behavior.

      The scale of rural to urban migration makes it difficult to believe your assertion that opportunities and conditions in most of Tamil Nadu’s villages are better than in towns and cities. I suspect that, if asked, the majority of migrants would say that they move to cities seeking better and steady income. Another reason is likely to be for better schools for their children.

      According to the 2001 census, there are 16,317 villages in Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, the census doesn’t provide data on the number of colonies. Perhaps the number of colonies is equal to the number of villages. Based on documentation work that I’ve done for Unicef in Tamil Nadu, I believe that conditions are not as rosy for villagers as you appear to believe. Many districts are struggling to meet the targets of the Millennium Development Goals. And conditions tend to be even less attractive for Dalits in colonies than for the caste residents of villages. I have the impression that conditions in villages and colonies are quite uneven across the state, due to a wide variety of factors.


      • Arun permalink
        July 3, 2009 12:31 pm

        Hi Brooks,
        I think i sounded very opinionated in my response(a typical indian reaction i guess so)…
        Typically the people whom i know who have moved are educated moving for better work opportunities. Any worthwhile industry is situated in a urban area while there has been little urbanisation of traditional rural areas. Example is the software industry which is very human capital oriented( and which has draws its major manpower from semi urban/rural areas) but which is mostly concentrated in the metros of chennai/banglore…
        What i was pointing is true is basically in the southernmost districts of Tamil Nadu. Maybe this is different in the rural areas of North Tamil Nadu where people mostly migrate to Chennai.
        In these villages that i am talking about you get very good education /very good infrastructure facilites and more importantly steady and stable incomes.
        Its really a fact that the real issue there is not lack of opportunities but lack of manpower. ( If you get a chance you should visit this area ).
        Yes there are and will be discrimations based on caste in India( where every on each step of the caste ladder looks down on the people on below steps..) but economic upliftment has been a great leveller more so in South India.( as compared to North India).
        One more phenomenon that i have noticed that jobs at the bottom rung of local chain is now being filled up by even poorer North Indian labourers. Only reason i surmise this happening is that the local population is finding these occupations degrading ( which is a good thing) but these jobs instead of being more humanised are being filled up by cheaper outside labor( which might not be the best thing).

        After saying all this, i also agree that this might be my limited perspective based on what i have seen.

  2. Sara Rockinger permalink
    June 30, 2009 3:31 pm

    Brooks, tell us more! What was the gay pride parade like? Did you go? Tell us more about morning and evening in the area you stayed.

    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      July 1, 2009 1:07 am


      Thanks for your comment.
      I’m sorry that I missed the pride march. I didn’t know it was happening. I’ll post more about my observations.

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