CHENNAI, India – Unlike India’s other immense cities Chennai is a world apart. Tamil Nadu’s capital city does not have crowds of beggars trolling intersections like in Delhi. It is not nearly as traffic jammed as Mumbai. Its homes are well cared for, and many of its office buildings are new and Miami white, unlike the sagging and dilapidated built environment that describes Kolkata.
The most distinguishing feature, though, for an American journalist who has visited Indian cities and states across much of the country: Chennai’s tidiness. It’s unusual in a nation where thick blankets of paper and piles of bottles lie in the streets and alongside the highways. Household garbage, shoulder high, blocks alleys. The unkempt big cities and soiled countryside are like a metaphor for the bedlam that is contemporary India, an ambitious and crowded nation of 1.3 billion people.
Chennai is different. Quite a bit different. The city’s Bay of Bengal beaches sport garbage bins that people use. Municipal sanitation workers haul away accumulating refuse. The attention to appearances and street level hygiene is part of an unspoken culture of diligence and confidence that Chennai’s residents, well-to-do and poor, have built for themselves and their city.
Chennai’s residents know India’s fourth largest metropolitan region is on a roll. Jobs are plentiful. Incomes are rising. The city’s capable universities produce graduates that technology companies are anxious to hire.
Chennai’s residents also know they exist in an “at any moment” geography of peril, almost all of it due to ecological torment. In the last two years Chennai has been blasted by a typhoon, drowned in a flood, and challenged by the worst drought in 140 years. People are unnerved, for sure. In January a student protest on Chennai’s main beach grew into a statewide strike and mass demonstration of grievances that attracted millions of participants.
But even during the week of active public dissent Chennai’s residents stayed so centered and cheerful that parents brought their children to protests just to witness how a great city displays its collective discomfort. On Marina Beach, Chennai’s primary locus of protests, volunteers guided cars to available parking spaces. Vendors offered cups of tea at no charge. An army of people, young and old, gathered up all of the bottles and paper and food waste that had been dropped in the sand.
Straightening up after the party, an especially impressive display of public civility, is seen as a civic responsibility. TITN: This is Tamil Nadu.
At the end of each of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S. I collect the various and intriguing threads — people, events , or cultural traits — that strike me as emblematic and distinguishing. They come together in “This Is” essays that I’ve prepared from India, China, Mongolia, Qatar, Panama, Peru, and South Africa. The idea is borrowed from a scene in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s great 2006 movie about diamond mining during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Asked, while having a drink in an African watering hole, about a peculiarly confusing trail of events that made no sense, DiCaprio tells his mate: “TIA. This is Africa.”
In that same spirit, here are other points of interest from my latest trip to India. Continue reading “This Is Tamil Nadu”