Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Village of Eight Million People

Recently I have been riding the shuttle to work. I am the first one picked up in the morning, and the shuttle winds it way through the streets of Chennai, picking up my co-workers, before depositing us all safely at the office. The entire drive takes anywhere between thirty and forty minutes, but the time passes quickly.

There is an argument to be made that while in Washington we had a lot of time to imagine and worry and wonder what India would be like. But I knew it was going to be so foreign and so different that I don’t think I ever had any clear idea of what to expect from India. I could never form a mental image of what India was like. I didn’t know where to begin.

So, it seems silly to say that I am pleasantly surprised by India, because this implied I had some base set of expectations when, in reality, I really didn’t. At the time, I was so focused on the bureaucratic logistics of just transferring from the States that I didn’t have a lot of time and energy left to wonder about the future. As we have written here before, that is one of the wonderful things about kids, too. They keep you in the moment. With three kids five and under constantly running underfoot, we did not have the luxury of thinking ahead. There were too many juice boxes to pry open, dirty diapers to dispose of, and Legos to construct…and disassemble…and re-construct.

I am in no position to comment on India’s socio-political landscape on this blog. Moreover, I don’t think I could write anything that has not already been written or make any particularly interesting comments. This blog isn’t about India. It is about our experiences in India and our perspective of India. Nothing more. So, yes, what you will read here is only a slice, a sliver, of India, but it is our India. It is what we see, what we take pictures of, and the stories it gives us. That’s all. It may seem a little rose-colored at times, and I write this fully acknowledging the social, economic, and environmental challenges India faces, but I think one has to see the beauty in a place to live there well.

I am constantly told that we arrived in the nicest part of the year. The weather is pleasant. It is almost cool in the mornings. Except if it has rained, then the humidity descends upon you with physical force. It is the middle of monsoon season, and though Chennai has experienced light monsoons of late, this one has proven (so far) to be formidable. Yesterday morning, our front lawn was entirely underwater. The mosquitoes are clever and bright, but I am told as summer comes the mosquitoes go. I don’t know where they go. 

Chennai rises late, and as we wind through the city’s streets, we find them relatively quiet. In our neighborhood, Alwarpet, and the neighborhoods around us, Poe’s Garden, Mylapore, and others, the city is completely blanketed in a tree canopy. It’s kind of like living in the Swiss Family Robinson tree ride at Disney World. It is has if the city insinuated itself within the jungle or the jungle insinuated itself into the city. Coconut palms sprout from unlikely places. The roots of gigantic banyan trees intertwine with buildings so you cannot tell where the thing organic stops and thing concrete begins.

The streets are narrow. There are no sidewalks, and woman weaving flowers, bicycles piled with fruits and vegetables, pregnant dogs with their teets dangling beneath them, tea carts, and people sweeping the streets with palm fronds crowd the traffic. It is more like a village, and less like a city, a village of eight million people.

The traffic, regardless of the time of day, is always vocal. Sitting in my office, I can hear it through the cement walls and metal doors, a constant bleating like the largest flock of sheep in the world being herded over a cliff. But, surprisingly, it is not an unpleasant noise. Elise described the beeping as a conversation. The cars and autos and the motorcycles are all talking to each other, alerting each other of their presence. Though seemingly chaotic and cacophonous and without reason, each beep does, in fact, have purpose. As our driver approaches our front gate, a long beep alerts the guard to open the gate to let us in. Then, when the driver sees that the other guard at the far end of the street has already started running toward our front gate to let us in, he makes two short beeps to call off the other guard. Similarly, as we weave through traffic, he beeps constantly, and I have to believe that each beep has a purpose. Or maybe I am just na├»ve. 

The traffic does not follow orderly lines. Cars do not queue up behind one another at traffic signals. They all crowd to the front. One does not line up behind the other, rather they inch forward filling every physical space like drops of water in a river. Like a creek it flows. If there is an opening between two lorries, a scooter will fill it, and then if there is a physical space between that scooter and the lorry, a bicycle will squeeze in between the two. Somehow, pedestrians cross in between them. And so these rivers flow, and in their confluences stand traffic cops in khaki uniforms and officer’s caps waving them in what seems an incredibly futile exercise as the traffic now has a momentum and consciousness all its own.

I have not seen all of our new town, but I have liked what I have seen. I love our neighborhood. I know hotter weather will come…as will additionally hardships. But so far spirits are high despite the traffic and blue smoke sputtering from the straw-thin exhaust tubes on the tuk-tuks.

Not every day is easy. Sam’s adjusting to the long days at school. He is in class until 3:30. Add a forty-five minute commute to each end and you have a boy who welcomes a seven o’clock bedtime with open arms. Days are made longer stuck in traffic, held captive by exhaust.

Monday evening, after his first day at school, we attended a Christmas tree lighting party for his school at a nearby large hotel. The tree was at least thirty feet tall. Everyone had a blast. How do I know? When we returned home, there were three naked toddlers dancing in our room and inserting their naked tizus in between our sheets, giggling maniacally the entire time until all collapsed from sheer exhaustion.

I could tell Sam was still tired the next morning. He was cranky and easy to cry. Not a great way to start the second day of school, but when I turned his attention to the sounds of the birds that surrounded our house, a sound only slightly less ominous then the cackling soundtrack from the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, they gazed at the windows and walls in wonder. The sounds of the jungle seeped into the house.


They do every morning. Just like in Brazil. 

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