When Mark told me he was going to travel to Chennai to attend a ‘one-day non-official and self-sponsored’ conference, I sensed it was an opportunity for me to visit the place I had never visited before.
We boarded the train to Chennai on a Thursday. Another friend, Joseph, who had arranged for our stay and knew some locals, would join us the next day.
This trip was more about meeting people than visiting places; we met two groups of people, one completely different from the other. But, along the way, we also visited Mahabalipuram, two hours’ drive from Chennai; and Marina beach and an old shopping mall in Chennai, Spencer.
We reached Chennai on Friday morning, and after freshening up Mark went to attend his conference while I decided to check out the places close to the hotel.
I found none that was worth braving the scorching afternoon heat and 15 minutes into the endeavor, I got exhausted and decided to return to the hotel. Although the flyovers, billboards, tall buildings and dust make every big Indian city look the same, each city has its distinct characteristics that it owes to its culture and economy. Chennai lacks the humdrum and outward gloss of Bangalore. Even places that are centrally located are old-world and lack-lusture. But the slow-pace and lack of new-money glitz lend a certain calmness and charm to the city.
The traffic is scantier and vehicles move faster than Bangalore. Traffic rules are enforced stringently; slight violation of rules can attract penalty. The public transport system is sound with buses that are in good condition and sparsely crowded.
The evening wasn’t as disappointing, though. We met a group of Mark’s former colleagues who had come to attend the conference. We went to their hotel to set up an evening soiree.
As two of them got busy receiving calls from home, Mark and I reviewed our plans for the next day. Next day, Joseph would join us in the morning and we would meet his local business contacts who would take us to Mahabalipuram, a city of ancient temples. We would lunch on the way.
As Mark and I were talking, one of Mark’s colleagues, who had ventured out of the room to attend a call, stepped in and announced that we would shortly be joined by Amit; Mark had told me a lot about Amit earlier.
A few minutes later, a short, heavyset and slightly stooped man walked in. It was Amit.
Amit brought fresh energy to our soiree. I found Amit very informed who can hold forth on any topic. Our discussion started veering into multiple directions, from history and science to religion through the medium of books and films Amit had read and seen earlier.
We took up desultory debates on various topics. With Amit spearheading the discussions, questions and views converged on Amit from every direction and Amit, instead of answering or countering them, gave views that were sometimes disconnected and led to a new debate altogether. We reached no conclusion on any of our arguments.
I sensed Amit liked to give his views and not exchange them. While talking, Amit was constantly closing his eyes, looking down and murmuring something as if mumbling a small prayer. I guessed it was a habit.
Joseph arrived at our hotel in the morning. A few hours later, Joseph's local business contacts - Vijay and John - also joined us. Together we were on the way to Mahabalipuram.
We stopped over for lunch at Fisherman’s Cove, a Taj property. Fisherman’s Cove is located on a beach. You have chairs laid out under parasols overseeing the sea. You enjoy your food as your hairs get messy and clothes are held stiff by the strong and pleasant breeze. If you couple your food with drinks, the experience feels more delightful.
The lunch wasn’t good for me, though. Vijay had ordered for a lobster platter and I am allergic to anything coming from the crustacean tribe. I ate a bit of rice with chicken curry, drank beer and munched chips.
Vijay and John are high-end real-estate-deal facilitators, working in a partnership, for last five years. Although they have restricted themselves mainly to the real estate market in and around Chenai, they have made a killing in it.
I found the two very different from the group we had met earlier: not for them the bookish discussions of culture and religion. They are completely philistine.
They frequently travel to various parts of the world but don’t know anything other than 'five-star room' tariffs of the places. John’s interest lies in something else also: erotica.
He told us many things I had never heard of earlier. Some of the details were a little lurid but nonetheless informative. John is also a liquor collector.
By the time we reached Mahabalipuram, dusk was settling down. We managed to see only a few ancient structures, and took photos of some of them.
Although over 1000 years old, the structures in Mahabalipuram (and in South India in general) are in better shape than their Islamic-north-Indian counterparts which, although built barely three to five hundred years ago, appear much more time-worn because of foreign invasions and pillaging they endured over the centuries.
On our way back, while I was arresting a sculpture on the wall of a dilapidated structure, a mendicant leapt before my screen breaking my reverie. His hairs were tied in a tight bun with locks flying apart in defiance; his eyes were glazed and looked as if they would leap out of the sockets and he was flashing his teeth in eternal glee. I froze him in my frame.
Next day, we were invited to John’s place for lunch and then it was time to board our train back to Bangalore.
John and Vijay were great hosts. Check out the photos below.