I still remember the day I landed in Chennai the first time.
After attending an inter-college culturals in Mumbai, I caught a train to Chennai Central and reached to a warm July afternoon welcome. As I learnt later, any afternoon in Chennai is hot.
My connecting train was in the evening. I had five hours, 30 bucks and a harsh sun.
If it were any other city, I would not have dared venture out with this light a wallet, but this was Chennai.
I took the risk, saw a film in Devi Cinemas for Rs 10, ate four idlis and drank tea for Rs 15, bought a magazine for Rs 5, returned for my onward journey on time. This is Chennai.
That brief stint with the city, which celebrates 375 years on Friday, ended. Years later, I returned.
I had landed a job in a software firm and came in with lot of cash to the same warm welcome.
My company mandated a complete overhaul of my wardrobe. Facing a no jeans policy, I bought sets and sets of professional attire. With a lot of cash, I entered the malls in the city, saw films in Escape Cinemas, ate in Saravana Bhavan.
My balance sheet was in deep red, with a ‘1’ followed by multiple zeros in the debit column of my credit card. This too is Chennai.
Like every city, Chennai has two sides. But the city itself never discriminates. Everything depends on your choice.
You can either enter the malls and buy a T-shirt for Rs 2,000 or go to Anna Salai to buy the same one for quarter the price. Still pricey? Head for those remote shops on Renganathan Street and grab that T-shirt for Rs 200. It’s your choice.
You can either order one masala dosa in the famed T-Nagar hotels for Rs 125 or walk down the road to Nellai Jeyam and wolf down two and still be left with some cash.
If the weight of wallet dictates that hotels are not your scene, order that dosa from a handcart for Rs 15. And, the handcarts are not nameless. You will see a ‘Lord Muruga’ inscribed on top.
There are juice shops in Alwarpet that will fill your pitcher and pour some more after you finish the drink. Then there are the high-end ones in Nungambakkam that will charge you in hundreds for a few drops. Okay, they do give a bit more than that, but I hope you get the drift.
Find your way around
The Besant Nagar beach for relaxed evening walks; the Marina beach for volleyball with friends.
Albert Theatre for the ones who want to whistle and enjoy a Vijay movie and Inox for that English flick.
Enter Triplicane, you will see Muslims walking towards a mosque for evening prayer, take a turn, a huge temple with a crowd busy buying flowers for pujas.
A huge Anna Library for bibliophiles, and Bike and Barrel pub for those looking to hit high notes.
Sowcarpet Mint Street for your sweet tooth and Pudupet for stolen goods (hush hush).
Weekend party? Hit Mamallapuram, in short 'Mahabs'. Money a stretch? Travel a bit more and there is Pondicherry, in short 'Pondy'.
No matter where you go, you will encounter children playing cricket on every street. In the city of Viswanathan Anand, chess crazy youngsters make a beeline for clubs. You find chess clubs everywhere.
Oh so confusing Anna Salai
Anna Salai is everywhere in Chennai. You can’t say you want to go to Anna Salai, it simply doesn’t mean anything.
Filter coffee is available everywhere. But the best can be had in some Mylapore Iyer canteens (the local word is mess).
You can’t drive in Rajiv Gandhi Salai, only foot-push forward a few yards at a time.
A city still stuck with MGR, crazy about Rajinikanth, but willing to celebrate a debutant like ‘Vijay Sethupthi’.
Simply put, Madras is a spirit and it’s for everyone. Probably, it’s the same spirit that took me away from software and into journalism.