Friday, July 10, 2009

Chennai rocks!

Having lived all over this land of ours, having seen how things work (and don’t work) in the north and south and east and west, I think I am ready, at long last, to take a stand on what the ‘best place to live’ is, at least in my experience. And the winner is……. (drumroll)….. CHENNAI!!!!!

Why? Well, there are a number of things a city must give me before I would call it a good one. People feel thrilled when they hear Mumbai and Pune. Wow! They think. What amazing places. Well, I beg to differ…in spades!! Neither the presence of film stars, nor the overwhelming and “in your face” presence of malls and multiplexes can make a “good” city in my eyes. And as far as Pune is concerned, it has nothing else to offer. No brain food, no cerebral pursuits…NADA. If you are a young, rich person out of your village for the fist time, Pune is heaven. You can go pubbing every weekend with a different boyfriend or girlfriend, you can “hang out” at the malls and plexes, and you can talk up a storm at the cafes.

But if you need a little more from life, if you want something else to do….Pune is a desert. One measly “theatre festival” a year, one “music festival” and you are done. Your dues paid to CULTURE, you can now wallow in all the same shallow, and expensive, pursuits the year round. As for Mumbai, the culture scene is much better, of course. Something happening all the time, music, theatre, languages, film. But there are other issues….and major ones. The stink, the dirt, the sheer press of humanity you may be able to ignore (and most mumbaikars do), but how do you get to where you want to be?

The biggest problem I have with Mumbai is the huge amount of time I have to spend simply getting from place to place. If I have to do everything I want to do in a day, I would have to spend something like three fourths of the day traveling! There just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to live a full and fulfilling life in Mumbai. Add to this the frenetic and unrelenting PACE of the place -- everyone running, running, running, all the time….and I say “thanks a lot but no thanks”. It’s great for people who like to run, or for people who get a kick out of having “gawaar relatives” think that they shop at the same bhajiwala as Shah Rukh Khan. For me… it does nothing.

Dehradun, Nagpur, and the other small towns of my experience are laid back and slow, but are too provincial for my tastes (which are clearly too picky, hmmm). There is ABSOLUTELY nothing to do in places like that. If you are a retiree looking for a quiet place to spend your golden years, they are fabulous (although Dehradun has lost much of its charm and almost all of its natural beauty since becoming the capital of Uttaranchal). If, however, you need to see and do things, not forgetting the occasional trip to a disco balanced finely with the more cerebral and arty pursuits, surrounded by a certain type of people, these places are not for you. To top it all, if you are as “unconventional” and “individualistic” (that’s what I call it, most people call it bad, immoral, black sheep, and so on :D) as I am, the small town mentality, where everyone’s business is everyone’s business, is to be avoided like the plague.

Kolkata is heaven in almost all those mental ways. Short distances, good access, and a simply unbelievable range of things happening (not once a year at some festival but every single day!) Arts, theatre, languages, lectures, films, discussions, or simply adda with stalwarts of the pen and other crafts, all combine to make this city a sheer pleasure for the intellectually inclined. Add the fabulous street food, the ‘ever ready to argue about anything from philosophy and politics to cricket and football’ Bengali, and the huge number of civic spaces and people’s rights organizations, and it seems to be the perfect place to live. Not quite, as I have found, sadly. While cerebral pursuits are ample, even to the extent of surfeit, infrastructure, metropolitan mentality, and most importantly Professionalism are still sadly lacking.

Kolkattans will be up in arms, lambasting me for saying so, for we bongs prefer not to see, hear, or speak evil of our “Eden”, but facts are facts. Everything takes forever to get done, from opening or closing a bank account to something as simple as getting the electrician to come and fix a faulty ceiling fan. Everything works on the “hocche hobe, cholcche cholbe” principle. We are masters of procrastination. While this probably makes for better abilities in the leisure and cultural field (debatable) it does nothing for a stress free lifestyle. It’s improved amazingly, almost unrecognizably, in the last decade, but much, much more needs to change before it becomes an ideal metro.

But Chennai! Ah! Chennai is simply perfect! All the conveniences of a true world class metro, combined with the wonderful cerebral life of an “artists’ village”, combined with the simple lifestyle of a small town, it’s the most well balanced city I have seen in India so far. And its not today, 2009, that I am talking about. I arrived in Chennai in 1986. When most of India had not heard of credit cards, we shopped almost everywhere with plastic in Madras (as it was still called). Six years down the line, in Mumbai (top Indian metro, financial capital of the country, on par with Tokyo and the Big Apple, blah, blah, blah), we had to travel from Lokhandwala Complex, in Andheri, all the way to Hill Road, Bandra, to find an ATM, while in 86, they were easily accessible in Chennai!

People are swooning over multiplexes in metros in 2009, having met the concept barely a decade ago. In 1986, Chennai had multiple cinemas (Sathyam-Santham-Shivam, and sapphire-blue diamond-emerald, he latter of which ran continuous shows!!! A concept still unheard of in big city India!). It had the “drive-in” theatre on the beach (Prathana on the road to VGP) when the only other drive-in in India was in Mumbai, at the Bandra Kurla Complex (which shut down before you could say film). The rest of India still knows drive-ins only from Hollywood films.

When people all over India are just now talking about superstores and malls, Chennai had Vitan, and the Spencer’s Plaza back in ’86, where you could buy everything a person could need, under one roof! It was a concept unheard of at that point in time, anywhere else in India, but in Chennai it was already old enough not to be a novelty to the local populace. The roads were wide and clean (except in the old city which is a dingy narrow maze in any Indian city, and around the world) so that if you kept out of the interiors of places like Mylapore, you could travel fast and happy. While metros are falling over each other today in an attempt to build the most number of flyovers to ease traffic, Chennai already had a good network of flyovers assuring smooth flow of traffic back then.

If you wanted to get closer to nature, all you had to do was to drive into the Guindy National Park or drive around the IIT campus where spotted deer calmly crossed the street while you waited in the car. Unlike in Mumbai, the beaches were clean and not overcrowded (except Marina Beach), and walking or running on the beach was not only possible, it was a downright pleasure! Innovative ideas for theme parks and public entertainment were pioneered by places like VGP Golden Beach, where (back then at least) you bought a ticket to get in, used all the facilities including rides, sights, puppet and magic shows, and parks, and redeemed the ticket price by getting free food costing an equal amount!!! What an incentive to draw in more footfalls!

Culturally the place was amazing! I have seen some of the most memorable concerts of my life at the Music Academy, including stalwarts like Bhimsen Joshi, and an amazing three way concert by Ustad Allah Rakha on the Tabla with his two sons Zakir Hussain and Taufiq Qureshi. Simply scintillating and a regular feature of Chennai cultural life. As for food! Wow….having lived in such foodie heavens as Pune and Mumbai, and regularly visited such destinations of gastronomical delights as Kolkata, I can still say Chennai is probably the best city for food. You want cheap but wholesome (and yummy) south Indian food? Well everything from the nukkad Udipi joint to the nearest Meals Ready eaterie will supply it in copious amounts! International cuisine? Right there too!

Go for a “sunrise” stroll on the beach, and nip into the nearest shack on the way back for steaming hot Idlis with fresh coconut chutney and “gunpowder” (molagapodi). How to find the place? Just follow the delectable scents wafting on the fresh morning breeze! Cheap and extremely tasty, no one could blame you for hogging on these pieces of ambrosia to the bursting point! Lunchtime? Looking for a solid and balanced meal that sits easy on your stomach and on your pocket? Just look around you and find the little blackboard outside a little eatery that says “meals ready”. Walk in for a piping hot, amazingly tasty, and “unlimited” Tamilian meal. Something like 20 items comprise the meal and all repeat helpings are free!

More the international cuisine sort of person? No fear! Even back in ’86, when international food and gourmet cuisine wasn’t much of a concept in urban India, Chennai had some of the best restaurants, in my experience (which is considerable) serving world food. Good Chinese (and I don’t mean janta chines with jeera ka chhaunk, I’m talking about all the subtle flavours and the perfect balance of Cantonese blandness versus Szechuan spice) is something I have never come across in restaurants in that price range anywhere else in India. In Mumbai, Kolkata Delhi, I can get comparable food, but I pay 5-star prices for it. And, surprisingly, Tandoori and Punjabi places were amazing too!

And the infrastructure and services…oh WOW! Service with a smile is something the rest of India (especially the east zone) should learn from Chennai. And efficiency is unparalleled. In five years, we never saw a road being made or repaired! Might seem like an example of inefficiency until you realize there were no badly maintained roads in all that time either! A mystery, until we realized that all making and repairing of roads happened in the dead of the night, after traffic let up, so that you had a magically perfect road in the morning, by the time rush hour took off!! The snarls and hours-long jams caused by “roadworks” that are so common in the rest of India, was something we never experienced in Chennai. Things got fixed immediately, service people, both government and private, came when you called, and did the work required with a minimum of fuss and bother!

Renting or buying a home? Having shifted something like 40 houses in my 33 years, I consider myself a sort of expert at telling a badly designed house from a well designed one. Every time I have had to look for a new house in Mumbai, pune, Nagpur, Dehradun, etc, etc, etc… it was a P A I N. I would have to look at something like twenty houses before I found one that had enough natural light and air, didn’t waste space in unnecessary passages, and had a decent balance of dimensions for rooms versus kitchen and bathrooms. Not so in Chennai. most houses, at least in the “non-old-city” areas, were well designed, airy, with ample natural light, and (unheard of in any other major city!!!) most had inbuilt cupboards and shelves (the only other city I have seen this in is Hyderabad, another city I love….hmmm maybe its not just Chennai, maybe its South India !!!)

All right! This eulogy of Chennai “the only truly international city in India” has probably gone on long enough, and I am probably getting boring now. Suffice it to say (as is quite obvious from all the praise just heaped upon it) that I consider Chennai the BEST city to live in (except maybe Hyderabad) for the modern, thinking, culturally inclined, food loving, efficiency appreciating, global citizen. (And no it has no lack of the more FUN things like pubs and discos, malls and multiplexes, for when the “cerebral” takes a back seat and you just want to let your hair down!) It is possibly the best and most BALANCED city I have had the pleasure of living in, in India.

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