Chennai is developed, in much the same way as Hiroshima
was developed after the nuclear bomb fell on it. Chennai looks like
someone has, from a great height, dropped an European street plan on
an existing Indian city. Narrow your eyes and you could be in Italy,
but breathe in and smell the shit stink from the 'river' and you remember
where you are. Not that Chennai isn't nice. Well, no. It's not.
The evening I arrived I booked myself into a hotel which (satelite TV
excepted) would have been called inhumane if the rooms had been used
as prison cells in Britain. There were no insects, but only because
any mosquitos would get lost in the twisting passageways and staircases
it was necessary to climb to get to the rooms. I didn't stay long.
The next day I aquired a destitute Sri Lankan man who, for the price
of a cup of chai and a 'loan' of a few pounds, took me on a walk through
the city, to the museum. The musuem costs $5 and is a load of crap.
All the interesting buildings were 'renevation, all closed', and considering
the speed Indians work at I'd be amazed if they opened again this decade.
I had the choice of archaelogy (nice), philology (stamps), botany and
creepy natural history. Most of the museum gives the appearance of having
been constructed by the British seventy years ago, then basically left
that way for future generations. The natural history building was deeply
disturbing, rooms full of pickled and rotting snakes, birds, turtles
and bats. In the dim surroundings really the last thing I wanted to
see was a dissected pregnant cat in formaldehyde. When I was 13, I would
have loved this place, but I think now I've grown out of my interest
in preserved creatures.
After some walking (Chennai boasts the country's most arrogant and expensive
rickshaw drivers, swelling to plague-like numbers on every street),
I managed to find the one thing in Chennai I really did want to see.
The Sangita Vadayala is a government funded [free] collection of Indian
musical instruments, with a disproportionate number of [free] guides
and several instruments which it was possible to play. This made up
for any number of pickled lizards are inflated prices, and I'm considering
going back to Chennai to buy the sitar I'd been planning to get since
I arrived in India.
I checked out of my cell, and headed for the deeply confusing bus system
to Mahabalipuram. Chennai's bus system, like its traffic system, has
been transplanted from Europe and is frankly a load of bollocks. A great
big new terminal has been built in the middle of nowhere, which you
have to take a 4 rupee bus ride (Rs100 by rickshaw) just to get to,
after which you wander through the insanely massive, and mostly empty,
entrance hall until you find the bus stands themselves, which appear
to be exactly the same as those in the center that they were built to
So I left. While any big city is always full of scam artists and touts,
Mahabalipuram (despite being only a small village) has tried very hard
to replicate the same stifling, frustrating atmosphere in the smaller
surroundings, but with a slightly more familiar atmosphere. Getting
off the bus at 4pm, my simple intention was to walk down the road to
the guesthouse where I'd email-booked a room, and there to meet Chanti,
who I'd met in Goa and who was staying in the village for a month. Instantly
I aquired an old bearded man on a moped, followed by a man who was so
obviously trying to take me to a different hotel I just laughed at him.
The man on the moped, after realising I wasn't going to get on it, went
after a while, but my other pet tout followed me to my guesthouse. There,
fortunately, I was met by one of the owners, who managed to persuade
the tout to piss off. Touts are a pain, as if they bring someone to
a hotel or guesthouse, they will insist on commission, which is added
to your bill (usually about Rs50, every single day you stay). I've got
to the stage where I'm just telling them to fuck off the moment they
appear. This seems to work.
Already knowing someone, Chanti, who's been here before (five years
ago, when the place was about 50% quieter), I've already acquired a
circle of acquaintances; Mick, the old brummie surfer who imports Indian
Lambretta-copy scooters; Brice, the Parisian who earns money to live
in India by illegally subletting his apartment and getting his brother
to claim his unemployment benefit for him. While the pressure of touts,
hawkers and beggars is always constant here, I find the people make
up for it, along with the impressive temple architecture, and of course
the nearby picturesque nuclear power plant. Nuclear waste aside, the
fish here is good and profoundly cheap, and comes with the added bonus
of your own fish-head puppet. I amuse myself and scare others by making
mine say "Rickshaw, madam? Sir, you want rickshaw? I give you good
price!". I find this incredibly funny.