Everything and Nothing Changes

Every time I’ve gone through Chennai airport I’m always amazed at how much it is changing and how fast it’s changing. When I came in 2006 immigration consisted of a couple of security guards sitting behind some rather old wooden desks and when I returned in 2008 immigration had changed to a big hall with a row of 8 metal cabins.

Currently they are building a new Chennai airport which is a big task in itself but the planners have given themselves the exciting challenge of building the new airport on top of the old one while the old one is still being used. Over the years the departure and arrival locations have been moved about more times than a nomadic tribe and the departure lounge has grown and contracted like a life size accordian.

There is further change still with the manic construction of the new metro rail system that is being built concurrently everywhere in the city above and below ground. Pylons are going up and boreholes are being sunk. The Metro Rail Construction boards that block entire lanes and spring up along the sides, and often the middle, of the road have become the bain of motorists lifes. Main arterial roads have been reduced to little more than side streets, 5 mile detours are a common occurance and residents can wake up one morning and discover their whole street is now blocked off. Still, it’s radical change that is needed and Chennai will have gone from nothing to a substantial metro network within just a few years.

Down to the south of the city you will find more change as Chennai’s IT corridor, the back office and grunt work to thousands of businesses around the world, as mega office complexes are thrown up. Quicker still are the super luxiourous gated townships which are springing up to accomodate the noveou rich IT couples who are working in shifts to programme the Internet banking platform you are using everyday on your computer.

As I left the airport it’s not the number of motorbikes or tuk tuks that you notice anymore, you can’t move for the amount of BMW’s, Mercedes, Jaguars and Range Rovers that are on the road. As you drive from the airport in to Chennai you pass Audi showrooms, Ford showrooms, Jaguar showrooms, Porsche showrooms, there’s even a Harley Davidson showroom here now. Capitalists and those driving being driven in the BMW’s call it progress, the socialists of the world would point staggering gulf between the haves and have nots.

Change is happening so fast, blink and you’ll miss something, come back again next year and the Chennai you remember will be different to the one you remembered.

And yet, amongst all this development; new metro systems, Porsches, steel and glass skyscrapers, the more things change in Chennai the more they still seem to stay the same.

As you step off the plane at Chennai airport there is a distinct smell in the air. I noticed it when I first came and I still notice it now. It’s like the air just hangs around and can be picked up and you have to fight your way through it. It’s air with presence. At the immigration desk the lady was at the end of her patience as she snapped at the couple in front of me because they didn’t go up to her desk quick enough and when it came to my turn she didn’t even look at my paperwork before plonking a stamp in to it. No change there then.

After baggage collection – which if you are ever going to Chennai be prepared for a long, long, long wait for your bags to come, it’s never got quicker in the 6 years I’ve been coming here – I usually book a Government taxi to get back home. The Govt taxi counter is recognizable because it’s the most delapidated counter in the far corner and where other counters advertise their Toyota Cruisers, Mercedes and Honda Accords the Govt counter displays some rather faded pictures of cars your grandad may well have driven when he was young.
To get to the counter you have to fight your way past an army of over eager taxi reps for private firms vying for your business before you reach a guy who couldn’t care less whether you used this Government taxi service or not. I use it because it costs half the price of private cabs and I’m a bit of a cheapskate.

It was actually touch and go this morning whether I would get a taxi or not because I handed over a 500 rupee note and it was promptly handed straight back to me because it had a miniscule tear in the midle and therefore was entirely unacceptable to the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward. No problem. I handed him my bank card, put it on the plastic, I indicated. Ah. The Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward didn’t accept debit cards. I opened my wallet which was bulging with notes but alas together they didn’t reach the amount for the fare, all I had was the brutally mutalated 500 with a tear so small it would challenge even the best electron microscope to measure the length of it. With a deep sigh and a theatrical display to show he was clearly doing me a favour he plucked the note out of my hands and threw some change back at me along with an official Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document, in triplicate.

I had to take this receipt to a man who was waiting outside, but like the other official he couldn’t give a damn if anyone came or not. He took one of the chellan copies of the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and insisted that he push my trolley the 20 metres to the Official Government of India Taxi’s Pick Up Point which was staffed by a man sitting at a desk in the open who in turn was chatting to other men who were sitting on upturned bits and pieces.

The new man behind the desk took another chellan from the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and shouted at a driver to pick up my bags. The person who pushed my trolley 20 metres was still hanging around looking at me imploringly. Tutting to myself I reached in to my wallet and handed over a ten rupee note. A look of total disdain flooded across his wizened old face, and he shook his head “sir, dollars only”.

I’m not sure what I was most shocked and taken aback by; that he wouldn’t accept his own curreny or that he thought I was American!

Once in the car, which is just like the one your grandad used to drive when he was young, we entered in to the crazy and hectic Chennai traffic. “Going to?” the driver asked, “Nungambakkam” I replied, in my best Indian accent which actually sounds more like deformed Welsh person with a speech impediment, “ah, which place?”.

Ambassador Taxi

Directions in Chennai operate on an iterative landmark basis so first you need to focus the mind of the driver on the general area, once they’ve got that then you give a big landmark which may or may not be near the place you want to go but it gives some relativity on where you want to go. A landmark can be a restaurant, hotel, station, major road, temple, college or anything else that is big and well known[1]. In my case I gave the name of a big chain of restaurants called Sangeetha’s, it’s not near me but from that area I can give directions.

“Sangeetha’s, sir?” the driver asked as we weaved in and out of traffic. The fact that he had to ask took my concern senses up to Defcon 3, especially given that with my limited Tamil I’m in no position to explain directions. “Yes, Sangeetha’s restaurant” I replied. “Ok, sir”, we drove a little further in the traffic maelstrom before he looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “sir, Sangeetha’s hotel?”, “Amma, yes” I replied, in India if you want to go out to eat you go to a hotel, if you wanted a room and bed from the hotel you would be very disappointed. A few minutes later my driver was on the phone, my concern senses went to Defcon 2 as I picked up words like “foreigner” which meant he was talking about me, “sangeetha’s” which meant he was asking where it was and finally lots of “ammas” and “seris” which meant he was understanding the directions being given.

Excellent I thought to myself as he hung up the phone, on our merry way. Or not, as we swung on to a petrol station forecourt, although not anywhere near a pump. “Two minutes, sir” the younger driver said to me earnestly via the rearview mirror “petrol”, I looked back to the pump and wondered how…oh, nice, he had a 2 litre plastic bottle, out he got ran over to the pump, filled it up with bright orange petrol and came trotting back to the car. With the bottle of petrol securely wedged under the front passeger seat we were back on our little adventure, but it wasn’t to last.

Since the car was built in two centuries ago the ability to sit idling in traffic for long periods of time in the quickly rising Chennai heat was matched only by myself and before long I was dripping sweat and the car was bellowing smoke. Once again we pulled over and the resourceful driver pulled out another 2 litre bottle of water. “Two minutes, sir” he said through the usual rearview mirror mode of communication and he popped the hood (I know I’m not American but saying pop the hood is just so much cooler than saying “I say old chap, would you mind awfully lifting the bonnet“). Within seconds there was the distinct sound of instantly vapourizing water as it turned to steam the moment it came in contact with the engine. Two litres of cooling water poured over the engine later and we were good to go again.

Chennai taxi

“Rhomba hot” the driver said to me, he wasn’t kidding, it was getting very hot.

As we drew nearer to where I wanted to be the driver suddenly yanked the car down a little side street, a “Whoa, stop!” nearly escaped my lips, but I’ve lived in India long enough to know that drivers tend to know where they are going and if they go a route you’ve never been down before then don’t worry until they stop somewhere that isn’t where you want to be. Nine times out of ten it’s just a short cut.

Alas, this was one of those one out of ten times. Concern senses were now at Defcon 1.

We were stopped outside the most downtrodden building in all of Chennai in a backstreet of goodness knows where. “Hotel Sangeetha” the driver beamed. By coincidence it was also one of those times in India where hotel actually meant the room and bed variety. “Illa!” I cried, which means no, “Amma! Hotel Sangeetha” and he pointed enthusiastically at the broken sign. “Illa!” I tried again and then asked him to go back to the main road, “Sir, Hotel Sangeetha” he tried one last time before finally reversing and thinking I was the most stupidest foreigner he’d ever met – didn’t even know where his bloody hotel was!

Old hotel

Finally I did get home though and the driver wasn’t bashful about asking for a tip, without even getting out of the car to help me lift up my rucksack. “No dollars?” He asked as I gave him 50 rupees. “No dollars” I said, waving him off.

Ah, I was finally home.

I opened the door and the apartment looked very clean and tidy so I gave my past self a pat on the back of a job well done.

First things first though, 16 hours on the road and a very sweaty taxi drive later, I needed a shower so I switched on the hot water and waited for it to heat up.

And then, to prove to me that Chennai hadn’t changed a bit, the power went off.

Ah, Chennai, you have changed so much and you haven’t changed a bit. I love you and I hate you.

[1] Although you couldn’t use Dawn French or Fern Britton

Note: None of the photos are mine, they are stock photos!

3 Comments Everything and Nothing Changes

  1. Priya

    Hi! I was randomly browsing on harley davidson influx into India, particularly Chennai because my article warranted me to write some changes that the city has undergone. Guess what? Your blog showed up and for some reason I proceeded to read it! What a laugh riot?! My tough day at work went up like the smoke that rose out the “bonnet”. I enjoyed every bit of the writing and laughed my arse off (pardon me, but hell I did!)!
    Happy writing!


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