I came across a link online, something that was about a 100 Things to Do in Chennai, of the hundred things one can do to stake their claim as a true Chennaivaasi I had only done a measly 15, half of which I would never had done had there not been the corporate culture of "Team Outing". I had never considered myself to be a part of this city, I had scoffed at those images that went online, something that went "Chennai is a city, Madras is an emotion". I found it to be a statement too shallow to my liking.
I was quite proud of my unfamiliarity with Chennai, as I felt it asserted my image of being a social outcast. When I told my friend that I had not even crossed twenty things one could do in Chennai, she chided me saying that I wasn't a true Son of the City, I rather found it to be a compliment.
While people who lived in Chennai or had migrated to from a different place, swear by the sights and sounds that she had to offer, I only cringed every time I had a reason to get out of my home. I would fret and fume whenever I boarded the buses and trains ranting to myself about the population and traffic, bemused at how people find the city to be liveable what with the extorting policemen and hassling autodrivers. Chennai is not a perfect city, why should it be?
Maybe I was irate because I lived two hours away from the city in a once quaint little town that now is slowly being inhabited owing to rising real estate value or maybe because the city is so overpopulated that the masses are looking for new places to occupy, and they've decided to occupy my once quaint little town. That's what they do, occupy, not live.
I had spent a good part of my two decades in this little town, I grew along with my friends in a neighborhood where everybody knew everybody, where I could get a store credit just because my grandmother used to share the town gossip with the local annachi. Now, when I go for a walk in the evenings I feel like I have entered a different place. My neighborhood has changed, my little town is inhabited by strangers, those who had been here for decades have either been buried to the ground or have moved to a different place. It's hard to find a familiar face that I used to see as a child. My friends have gone away, my childhood crush lives here no more. The only place I could connect with, my little town, has transformed. From a ghost town it has now changed into a place that's bursting off the seams. Heck, even my playground now has apartments being built on it.
People associate their love for their city with the places nestled within it, I never could find any place in Chennai that I could connect with emotionally, not its beaches, not its joints, neither its temples nor its malls. I may not reminisce about Chennai thinking of the times I'd spent in the city, I have no emotional investment in any of the monoliths it houses. Even when Landmark in Nungambakkam was being closed down, I mumbled "Look at these people overreacting over a stupid bookstore closing down".
For me, Chennai is beyond the places that define it, for me Chennai is about the people it has gifted in my life. The few places that I would look back on fondly are so because of the people who had made it special for me. From the family I've grown up with to the casual acquaintances I have befriended, to the close friends who are dear to me, to the many loves I had fallen for, they are My Chennai, not the buildings or the beach or the bar. My people have been that piece of puzzle when put together completed my life, that have shaped my principles, that have made me the person, good or bad, that I am today. Chennai was just the large canvas where I was piecing it all together.
And as I spend my last week here, I've realised that my Chennai is about the strangers I have met with whom I have built a strong friendship, the first brick for which was laid with an awkward "hello". My Chennai has to be about the friends I once had who have now drifted away into being strangers, for no fault of theirs, of course. My Chennai has to be about the half-a-dozen times I had my heart broken, my Chennai has to be about those countless times I had fallen for someone on a first glance. My Chennai has to be about unrequited loves, the broken promises, the forgotten dreams, the false hopes. My Chennai has to be about the people who taught me and tormented me, who have forgiven me and who have forgotten me, who have accepted me and who have discarded me.
And if you're reading this and you know it's about you, then you my friend, are my Chennai.